Sunday, March 30, 2014

The scope of moral concern

What Americans call "the culture wars" operate around different presumptions about human nature, social action and the scope of moral concern. Presumptions economist Thomas Sowell divided into conflicting visions; the constrained or tragic vision of human nature versus the unconstrained or utopian vision of human nature. The former sees human nature as a constraint, the latter sees it as an vehicle for social transformation (either because our "true" nature has been suppressed or because it is malleable in controllable ways).

Our nature has innate features in the sense that our minds are organised in advance of experience, not that they are unable to be revised. While common bodily functions and experience also provide shared constraints. None of which denies the reality of human diversity, just that there are ongoing, and recognisable, patterns and structures to human nature and behaviour. After all, if there were not, social action and organisation would become largely impossible since there would be insufficient common levers and expectations to work with.

Steven Pinker has argued very strongly against the "blank slate" view of human nature beloved of those who wish to believe all social ills to be directly tractable to the "correct" application of public policy. Note that accepting the reality of an underlying human nature is very far from an argument for pessimism or fatalism, as Pinker himself demonstrates. His The Better Angels of Our Nature: the Decline of Violence in History and its Causes is very much a good news book. (TED talk here.)

MoralFoundationsListing (1)
Pinker's work does, however, enjoin us to deal with people as they are, not as we would like them to be. As uber-blogger Andrew Sullivan recently noted, it is a great line that liberals believe nothing is genetic but homosexuality, while conservatives believe everything is genetic except homosexuality. For conservatives seem to think that public policy can "stop" homosexuality (and the failure to do so will "spread" it, or at least its baleful influence) while liberals hold that human sexual and gender diversity should just be accepted: something of a reversal of their more usual presumptions about the effective scope of public policy.

That moral conflicts might be something other than just a conflict between "stupid" liberals and "evil" conservatives is the subject of the work of Jonathan Haidt, particularly his The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion. (TED talk here.) His ongoing research into the foundations of human moral perceptions and judgement seeks, in part, to explain why moral perspectives can vary as much as they do. It is a striking feature of contemporary life that, after the collapse of socialism as a plausible alternative to capitalism, the left v. right political conflicts went right on happening. In some ways, at least in the US, seem to get even more intense.

Acts or people?
The conservative presumption of the tractability of human sexuality and gender identity to public policy--or, at least, that they need to be policed--is very much based on particular moral conceptions. In particular, a strong belief in the centrality of acts to moral concern. The opposing view revolves around a strong belief in the centrality of people to moral concern. The former view is fading, and the latter view growing, in public support as people shift from focusing on acts to focusing on people. Philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah captured this nicely in his The Case for Contamination essay:
But if you ask the social scientists what has produced this change, they will rightly not start with a story about reasons. They will give you a historical account that concludes with a sort of perspectival shift. The increasing presence of “openly gay” people in social life and in the media has changed our habits. And over the last 30 years or so, instead of thinking about the private activity of gay sex, many Americans and Europeans started thinking about the public category of gay people.
This difference in whether the focus of moral concern is acts or people fits in with the research of Haidt and others, which finds that Western liberals tend to be largely driven by the care/harm and fairness/cheating moral foundations (plus liberty/oppression, if that is added as a sixth foundation), while conservatives also put emphasis on loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion and sanctity/degradation moral foundations. Homosexual acts are treated as a betrayal of God, a degrading of the body and a perversion of the nature of sex while transgender identities are similarly betrayals of God, a degrading of the body and a perversion of the nature of gender. The opposing view being that queer folk are citizens and entitled to equal protection of the law.

The dynamics of belief
Much of this is simply religiously based--it is wrong because God says so. But, as Mark Lilla sets out in his The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics and the Modern West, religion is a deeply flawed basis for public policy. Even within specific religious traditions, there is bitter dispute about what God does or does not enjoin us to do. The more the authority of God is treated as absolute, the more politics becomes a murderous dispute of entitled monologues. God is not a present-in-public Person who can be questioned, or even definitively commonly heard, after all: so monologues claiming entitlement via God's authority become the natural metier of unavoidable disputes. This without considering the reality that clerics and priests have vested interests in outcasting, in displaying their authority as gatekeepers of righteousness by dividing human society with deep moral gaps. The more vulnerable the group, the better moral exclusion target they make--hence queers and Jews being such perennial targets.

The great trick of the Western Enlightenment was, as Lilla points out, to change the question from the relationship between God and people and turn it into one between people and the world. That was a shift not without its own difficulties, failures and disasters; but we only have to look to contemporary Islam, or back to the Europe of the Wars of Religion, to see the problems of societies which apparently cannot manage that trick. Which remain blighted by murderous disputes of entitled monologues.

Sacred homicide.
Sacred homicide.
Priests and clerics are going to tend to want to keep the moral focus on acts and not people, for that generally better suits their role as gatekeepers of righteousness. Hence regulation of belief acts, clothing acts, food acts, sexual acts, ... Religious taboos are act-based precisely because we have to go to the priest or cleric to negotiate our way through the divinely-ordered moral landscape. Taboos are also ways of signalling religious commitment (thus invoking common loyalty and deference to shared authority).

Notions of sanctity and degradation are thus natural buttresses to priestly and clerical authority, since they are so amenable to very different constructions of what sanctifies and what degrades. To the Aztecs, after all, mass human sacrifice was the highest form of sanctity. The invading Spanish took that as horrifying degradation; but thought that throwing "third gender" cross-dressers to the dogs to be eaten alive was a sanctified and pious act. (We may also notice a divinely sanctioned sense of entitlement operating in both cases.)

When a Christian claims to be "defending Christian tradition" in their opposition to homosexuality, an obvious response is "so you think committers of homosexual acts should be publicly burnt alive, do you?" That is, after all, a very traditional response. In reality, contemporary conservative Christians have partaken in the wider shift from moral focus being on acts to it being on persons. They have simply not gone as far down that shift as others have done.

A rationalising device
The most intellectually sophisticated buttress to moral concern being focused on acts rather than persons is provided by Thomist natural law theory. Over the centuries, any form of outcasting or moral restriction the Catholic Church has wished to engage in--such as against homosexuality, heretics, Jews, denying women control over their fertility (no abortion, contraception, divorce or rape within marriage)--Thomism has found justification for. That St Thomas Aquinas was a Dominican, and the Dominicans tended to run the Inquisition, was a useful conjunction.

More sacred homicide.
More sacred homicide (to punish "morally degraded" heathen drag queens).
One explanation for this ready application to whatever outcasting was required is that Thomism is simply philosophical truth and the Catholic Church just keeps getting it correct. An obvious problem with such a claim is that the Church has shifted its views on many of these issues. With Thomism successfully "keeping up" with the shifts.

An alternative view is that Thomism is actually a very sophisticated way of rationalising whatever conclusions are required, at least within a fairly broad ambit. It does so by two key features. The first is that it focuses on acts rather than persons. While it does claim to ground its moral reasoning in "human flourishing", it turns out that acts deemed to contradict such "human flourishing" are given much more importance than specific persons or classes of person.

This is obvious in the case of homosexual acts, against which  the experience and aspirations of bisexuals and homosexuals have no standing--they do not count as part of "human flourishing". But is hardly less so in the case of Jews, heretics and women. For the last, since procreation is deemed absolutely central to sex and marriage, according to Thomist reasoning (in accord with Catholic doctrine) women cannot have abortions, use contraceptives, get a divorce or deny their husbands sex (no rape within marriage, as they are "one flesh"). The consequences for women of so profoundly denying them control over their own fertility are also not part of "human flourishing".

St Dominic presiding over error having no rights, including any to live.
St Dominic presiding over error having no rights; including any to live.
As "error has no rights", whoever is deemed to be sufficiently in error is outside (positive) moral standing or concern. The morality of acts trumping the morality of persons. Terribly useful in rationalising the role of priests and clerics as gatekeepers of righteousness.

It is a basic principle that the wider the scope of moral concern for acts, the narrower the coverage of moral concern for persons (as the easier it is to lose or lack moral standing). Thus, while freedom of speech and belief can be argued for on truth-discovery grounds--which does not apply if a definitive source of truth is available--such freedom is also about the legitimacy and autonomy of individuals. Conversely, censorship is all about focus on acts trumping such personal legitimacy and autonomy.

A device for dismissing inconvenient evidence
The other feature of Thomism which makes it so useful for outcasting (and supporting religious doctrine generally) is that it uses its conclusions to set the ambit of its premises. For example, that the purpose of sex is procreation so the only legitimate use of sex is for procreation or binding procreators. The notion that, once created, something has a single definitive purpose is not an inference from reality, it is a metaphysical principle imposed on reality which permits contrary evidence to be ignored: that is, the conclusion gets to set the ambit of its premises.

In fact, it is perfectly clear from observation of nature that sex has many functions. Not least because procreation is a lot more complicated than mere conception, and the more complex and social a species is, the more that is true. (A standard trope of conservative mis-reasoning is to conflate conception with child-raising under the term "procreation".)

Sex has a wide range of functions in nature--conception, binding partners, building alliances and networks, diverting aggression, providing catharsis. Humans, like other primates, are capable of broad range of intense sexual pleasure and experiences because, as in other primates, sex has a wide range of functions among humans. Evolution does not just stop, it does not stand still; biological features evolve, and natural selection can alter and expand their uses. Particularly given the importance of culture in human evolution.

Creating culture
Which may help explain how queer people evolved. Precisely because they are less likely to have children of their own, they have more reason and time to invest cultural activities--they have reason to provide cultural services so other people's children will have reason to look after them when they get older.

It is not merely that queer folk are currently, and have historically, been disproportionately involved in cultural activities: it is that human culture itself is wildly disproportionately their creation. The notion that queer folk have less interest in the functioning of society than straight folk because they are less likely to have children is the exact opposite of the truth. Precisely because children are less likely to be their pension plan (i.e. their support and protection in old age), queer folk have more reason to seek to have their society be willing and able to support them and what they provide. They have more reason to invest in the effective functioning of the wider society, not less. It is therefore not surprising that they are disproportionately active in cultural activities and caring professions.

From people to morality
But that is to infer from the fact of the diversity of the human to a conclusion, it is not to use a conclusion to pathologise the diversity of the human. By focusing moral concern on acts rather than people, by using conclusions to set the ambit of premises based on imposing a confining metaphysical principle on a much more complex reality, Thomism is a splendid vehicle for rationalising religious doctrine. Including religious outcasting; the buttressing of the clerical and priestly role as gatekeepers of righteousness given that the more intense the moral focus on acts, the more moral protections can be withdrawn from actual people.

The utility of Thomism as a sophisticated system of rationalising the withdrawal of moral protection is nowhere clearer than in the notion that "the" defining purpose of sex is procreation. Yes, such reasoning does appear in Greek natural law reasoning. But it was not held to have much moral import; it was taken as (falsely) indicating that humans were different from other animals in their sexual diversity, but not much more than that. It is only when monotheist religious taboos were added in, that it became a justification for judicial homicide. And we can see how the trick was done; through the focus on acts rather than persons and using a metaphysical principle that allows contrary evidence to be dismissed: that allows the conclusion to set the ambit of its premises.

It was Philo of Alexandria's application (in On Abraham: XXVI-XXVII and Special Laws III: VII--the former in particular including a strong dose of misogyny) of Greek natural law reasoning to Genesis 19 which, when adopted by early Christian writers, shifted the focus of the Biblical tale from the traditional rabbinical interpretation that the cities of the plain were destroyed because of their withdrawal of moral protection from the vulnerable to one which focused on homosexual acts. Given that the only reference to such acts in the Biblical narrative is an implied threat of group rape, it is a fairly heroic "re-interpretation" of the scriptural narrative--one worthy of post-modernism--to make homosexual acts the focus of the story, but a re-intepretation that natural law theory was up for.

moral foundations.
Philo was a "cultural warrior" in the Jewish-Greek kulturkampf of the time, so using the philosophical tools of the Greeks to damn their degenerate pagan ways no doubt had a certain delicious appeal. Just as St Paul ("Apostle to the Gentiles") and Church fathers sought to use the established philosophical and intellectual language of Greek natural law reasoning to engage in their own culture wars against paganism. A role which still has a certain resonance in Sub-Saharan Africa, for example.

The difference between the ambit of moral concern being persons rather than acts also occurs in other traditions--in modern libertarianism, for example. Jeffrey Tucker's distinction between (vialibertarian humanism, which focuses on freedom of (and for) people versus libertarian brutalism, which focuses on acts of freedom, regardless of consequences for people, is very much the difference between people and acts as focus of moral concern. Hence the latter's natural affinity for conceptions of religious "liberty" which focus on the right to outcast and to impede women having control of their fertility.

One of the great patterns of our times, in some ways the greatest, has been the shift from moral focus being on acts to it being on persons. We are all in this together, after all. Something that a certain religious figure also suggested, did he not, as he urged the shifting of moral concern from acts to persons, concern for whom was central to his teaching.

[Cross-posted at Skepticlawyer.]

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