Thursday, February 16, 2012

Not Really, Really Wrong

There’s a nice article at the Chronicle of Higher Educationon Jonathan Haidt.  (HT: The amazing hbdchick, whose site is currently full - again - of stuff you won't get elsewhere.)  Not much that is new to those who have read about him before, but it does include some things I hadn’t known and is a nice summary.  I will mention again my major objection to this portion of his work, that liberals also have their “sacralised objects” and deference to authority*, it is just expressed differently, in ways that were not captured by his tests because of his own blind spots.  I would agree that liberals rely on those axes of morality less, but it is there, somewhat diffuse and disguised.

I would also like to have a go at a couple of his critics, such as psychology Professor Jost blithely asserting that there is a consensus among philosophers that the two categories of morality that liberals acknowledge are the right ones, the others extraneous.  I’m running lists in my head…Spinoza, Kant?  Wittgenstein, Nietzsche?  Bertrand Russell or TH Green? Kipke? Hobbes? Rousseau? Mill?  Maybe he means Plato, Socrates – nah, they’d be against him.  I’m not seeing this consensus.  Maybe Russell.  I cynically suspect that Jost means “people like us who think about philosophical stuff and are smart, not those yahoos over at Fox News.” I did think some criticisms were valid, BTW, but I find myself rooting for Haidt against others.

All that by way of introduction to two current moral discussions, same-sex marriage and forcing Catholics (and others) to pay for contraception and even abortifacients.  I won’t be arguing, particularly, just observing the arguments.  But my sympathies will no doubt show, and that’s the point.  We pretend to be objective, even try to be, but outsiders can usually tell where our sympathies lie.  It becomes especially messy when issues have become polarised and folks conclude that you don’t really agree with them at all unless you put things just that special way, with proper obeisance to key concepts.

One way this shows up is telegraphing that you because you don’t think something is really wrong, it isn’t really wrong, and all this accommodating the differing moral ideas of others is (ultimately) artificial nonsense.  We say that we respect other people’s moral choices, that we hear them and understand, but we just don’t.  We may want to, and have even convinced ourselves that we do, but our phrasing gives us away. Most people don’t think that contraception is really wrong, so they don’t get that lots of Catholics really do. In their imaginations, it becomes an idea that Catholics don’t prefer it – that they find it distasteful or something, but not Really, Really Wrong – because it’s not wrong, so they couldn’t really.

OTOH, making women have babies, or expecting them to have babies, or looking at them as if they should be having babies – that’s Really Really Wrong. That’s like saying it’s all they are good for, or even like rape, and we have to nip in the pre-budding stage any thought like that.  The actual practical difficulties of a woman getting contraception are not the issue, the symbolism is.  Someone is hinting she shouldn’t have it, and that cannot stand.

The freedom of conscience issue quickly reveals itself as a which-system-shall-rule question.  Certain religious people are saying “I can’t stop this in the world, but you can’t make me participate.  You can’t make me touch it.”  The government is very clearly saying “Oh yes we can make you touch it.  You will touch it and you will like it.  We can make you eat it if we want.”  This is couched in language that says “We wanted you to do this voluntarily.  We didn’t want any fuss, we aren’t mean people, we are nice people who want good for all.  But you wouldn’t do it the easy way, so now you’re getting it the hard way.”

If that sounds unnecessarily accusing of the government, it was an intentional set-up on my part.  When religious groups have held the whip hand, they have done the same thing. And as vicious as I have made personified “government” in this instance, they did exactly that “We can too make you touch it” routine when it came to integration.  And most of us now think it is a good thing that they did. Had to be done.  Folks wouldn’t do it, or not fast enough, voluntarily.  Lot of excuses and whining.  Had to make ‘em.

More mildly, some defenders of the government insistence (even the compromise carries an insistence) take the view that any opposition imperils the whole, so people should swallow their objections and pipe down.  Getting that health care out to those starving babies is a good thing and you don’t want to jeopardise that, do you?  Don’t make waves.  Powerful Forces are against us, and you don’t want to help Them.

Here’s the thing.  I don’t think it’s because government people hate religion, or hate anyone, especially.  Systems naturally expand, and begin to act like human beings.  It’s uncanny, sometimes.  This particular powerful system is encountering resistance to its growth and wants the resistance to go away.  It would prefer it go away peacefully, co-operatively, with minor cost or inconvenience.  But the system itself wants the resistance to go away, and will switch to Plan B – the hard way – if necessary, unless the cost is too high for the system in general. All systems believe that any opposition is bad, and could turn into Powerful Forces if not eliminated or neutralised.

Obama is a person who believes deeply that the government system should rule the others.  He’s hardly the only one, and I don’t think you can claim liberals are even the main offenders.  Systems do this.  It is their nature to expand.  “Churches” as a generic category used to be a powerful system of their own in this country – much less so now, and they resent it. Even in its own category it has been replaced by “religion,” or even “freedom of religion,” much vaguer and less unified ideas.

Over at Volokh, 50% of the discussions seem to be about same-sex marriage at present.  The libertarian writers there are unanimously in favor of it, in case you didn’t know.  It is interesting to note how they treat opposing arguments.  Ilya Somin, who I very much like to read, is trying to answer the objection from tradition.  In his own mind, I suspect he thinks he is bending over backwards to be fair to the argument, giving it its due.  Yet because I am one who assigns a good deal more weight to that argument than he does, I see quite rapidly that he can’t give it its due, not quite.  He wants to and tries to, because he wishes to be an honest broker and a logical person.  Yet ultimately, because he doesn’t think that SSM is wrong, and that trying to prevent it is wrong – is in fact Really, Really Wrong – that leaks out.  He notes, for example, that other moral ideas from tradition have been discarded, and those are good things.  He cites a variety of rights for women – certainly likely to get a lot of assent in modern America.  But it’s a variety, a list, of lessened rights for women in other times and places.  None of them is universal throughout history. It is generally, almost unanimously true across time and space that women have had fewer rights than men in society.  But the specifics vary widely, so its not quite the same thing as the universal prohibition against SSM until recently.  It’s related.  It’s interesting.  But it’s still an apples-to-pears argument, if not quite an apples-to-oranges one.

I don’ think Ilya means in the least to be unfair to the argument.  And in fairness, those arguing with him haven’t stressed this enough to force his attention.  He naturally roots for one side, he sees things a certain way.  At root, he sees all objections to SSM as essentially artificial, and can’t stand outside that belief.  Neither can any of us, or not very well or for any length of time.

In any area where people are claiming a freedom of conscience, we like to think we are evaluating such claims according to fair, objective criteria.  Check yourself.  You may find that at root, you are against the freedom because it’s not Really, Really Wrong and some other effect of the refusal Really, Really Is.  Sad but true.  It’s who we are, sumus quod sumus.  But we can at least try to do better, or we are reduced to the insanity of Whoopi Goldberg saying “But it’s not rape rape” about nonviolent child molestation by talented artists, but anti-abortion policies are “like rape.”

*See 1) environmental or regulatory positions that are more aesthetic than measurable or more about symbolic rather than actual purity/pollution, 2) underdog or minority images/photos/expressions, and 3) social-science “authority” encroachment into scientific areas. Concrete, individual authorities, such as policemen or churches are resisted; social, understood, informal authority is expected to be obeyed.  It is a cultural difference in approach, but still authority.


karrde said...

I have avoided discussions of same-sex marriage.

Mainly because there doesn't seem to be a place to hash out the assumptions that drive the different conclusions.

It's two different visions of how people derive their sense of identity from their sexual life, and how that life interacts with the broader tribe.

A fair bit of blame can be placed on religion, but I think the real culprits are biology and cultural tradition.

After all, while marriage has not always been one-man-and-one-woman, most non-Judaic cultures had marriage as male-and-female. Even the randy Greeks, who had poets praising the love of men for boys, had a legal and cultural framework around heterosexual marriage.

Anyway, on the broader concept of tribal thinking...I can't escape the fact that it explains most of the nuttiness of consevatives vs. liberals. Or global-warming-skeptics vs. climate-change-catastrophists.

Or even Protestant-vs-Catholic.

It's a powerful concept; but it is also a humbling concept.

Dubbahdee said...

I could be wrong --- but I'm not.

terri said...

I'm not sure there is any way out of the conundrum.

Eventually we have to make choices to either do something, or do nothing, and those choices will have consequences. I think most well-meaning people try to figure out which choice they perceive will have the least negative consequences for the majority and then go with that choice.

I have gone back and forth on this whole birth control issue. On the one hand, no religious person should be forced to actively do something that is a violation of their conscience.

On the other hand, the Catholic Church operates many entities that could very easily be considered businesses. I'm thinking of two very large, Catholic-affiliated hospitals in my area that employ thousands of people. Does that mean that all of the people working there have health insurance policies that don't cover contraception, which would also include contraceptive procedures like vasectomies and tubal ligations, from doctors all the way down to the custodians?

Although, I do remember knowing a few years back that many health insurance companies, as a matter of practice, weren't covering birth control....and this was seen as a women's issue that needed correcting.

The Catholic Church has the upper hand in claiming a conscience-based exemption.

The government had a point in viewing these large entities as operating mostly as businesses.

At what point does a church/charity become a business? I don't know. Could the Catholic Church make a choice to only hire Catholics at its hospitals? No.

Could it make the choice to only hire Catholics for its Catholic Schools? I think so.


Is there a difference in requiring a hospital to provide coverage for its employees , rather than an actual church/seminary/ministry to provide coverage for its employees.

I think the Obama administration was right to rescind the requirement, but I don't think the general thrust was completely off-base.

That's the danger in trying to pass any universal, national standard. Somebody is not going to be happy.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I agree with the odd divide of Catholic hospitals. I will note that the Church doesn't seem to be putting in any effort to protect conscience for Catholic dentists, or contractors, or anyone else who employs others and provides insurance for them.

I also note that everyone saw this coming and pretended it wasn't there. The Catholic bishops wanted to be closer to universal health care, which they believed was a moral right, and so went along with the Obama administration, saying repeatedly "but you won't make us touch this, right?" The administration knew years ago that Catholics would object to this but went ahead anyway.

And BTW, contrary to their statements, have offered no compromise after all. The bill went forward today, unamended, with only vague promises that it would be looked at in the future.

I would like to be sympathetic to the Catholics that they have been lied to and snookered. But they begged to be lied to - every step of the way in the run-up to the vote, they were repeatedly thrown under the bus. It didn't stop them, so Obama had every right to believe that they didn't really mean it and it was all for show. In the absence of any real moral stand by them, he took his own, asserting that the women's issue was the more important morality - rather predictably for a liberal.

Wind. Whirlwind. I'll bet they still fall for it next time, though. The simple belief "well, but they want to give things to people who don't have them so they must be nice, well-meaning, and honest people" seems to trump all sophisticated theology.

One of the things I have liked about Catholics is that they often do have sophisticated moral theology, rather than bromides. But if those are all just for show, and they fall for politicians' lies (left and right) throughout history, what good is it?

james said...

"What good is it?" Did you read Carl Trueman? Sometimes there seems to be a major disconnect between the pews and altar. Not just in Catholicism.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Excellent, excellent article. It goes in somewhat different directions than my little thought, but does indeed capture some of the contrast.

CS Lewis spoke about this contrast - mostly as a positive, but I have always thought the reservations he expressed he himself underplayed.

terri said...

I don't know the specifics of if and when Catholic leadership had talks with the Obama administration about nationalized health care and birth control. I would be surprised if they did in any specific way.

My intuitive guess would not be that Catholics begged to be lied to, but that they didn't foresee this particular incarnation of health care coming down the pike. They probably assumed that whatever the Obama administration came up with would be a government-based, universal health care system, in which case whether the government covered birth control as a matter of course would be largely out of their hands and not require any sort of action or statement on their part.

However, that's not what happened. Instead the Obama administration came up with its current plan which gives everyone the worst of both worlds and still requires individuals and corporations to purchase health care from insurance companies. Companies go into very long, detailed negotiations with insurance companies to choose the benefits packages that they offer to employees, and they have the ability to exert some influence on what insurance companies offer, though that influence is extremely limited.

Because this new health plan still requires some choice and input by companies/corporations choosing their health insurance, it leaves the Catholic Church the impression that it still has a stake in the game and a responsibility to be anti-birth control in whatever capacity it can until the whole responsibility for health insurance coverage is no longer under their purview.

I don't think the Catholic Church would have said anything about birth control if Obama had passed nationalized health care.

Texan99 said...

I wonder if the discomfort over same-sex marriage has to do with how thoroughly we've disconnected sex and fertility over the last 50 years. Many of us knew that Catholics felt this was a dangerous and unacceptable decoupling, but we were sure they were over-reacting. Now we find ourselves unable to articulate what's so wrong with loving, stable homosexual unions that doesn't also indict our many forms of childless heterosexual practice.