Sunday, August 04, 2019

People Vs Principles

I noticed in a recent gay marriage discussion - a special context, as our small and tight-knit denomination decided to remove a church from the rolls for the first time in 134 years over the issue, and our congregation was discussing this in a formal meeting - that the people who were against the measure argued from people, while those in support argued from principle. This applied even to the people who were of divided mind and ambivalent about it, as the statements they shared were from principle when they were acknowledging the separation arguments and about people when they were contemplating the remaining unified options.

This was not 100% the case.  There was some appeal to the principles of loving others as Jesus said and being welcoming, yet that still seems strongly in the "people" camp. The idea that we were misreading the scriptures was also offered, noting that homosexuality at the time the NT was being written was a matter of unequal power, of powerful older men having relationships with young men, and this was what Paul was reacting badly against. That is even more an argument from principle, of not adding burdens that the Bible does not require.  I have thought about this possibility since I first heard it years ago and ultimately find it unpersuasive and may discuss that at some point.  Yet it does qualify as a principle, not as a special pleading for an individual.

I have noticed a similar divide when people discuss abortion, extramarital sex, drug use, and some social sins such as rudeness or anger, which will sometimes be excused because the person "really has a good heart once you know her." It does not extend to other sins that people think are really wrong.  No one says "Yes, she's greedy and manipulative but she's such a dear once you get to know her."  No one says "Okay, he molests little girls, but he's otherwise a prince of a fellow."  We only say this when we think the sin in question is not really, really all that wrong.  I will qualify that by noting that we may have come to be more approving of those behaviors because of family or friends.

Carol Gilligan asserted decades ago that this was a difference between male and female morality, that men argued from principle, while women paid more attention to how an abortion or divorce would affect the network around the person.  That is the stereotype and a lot of people will claim this Network vs Abstract is indeed a female/male difference, but I don't know it to be true.  Gilligan refused to reveal her data, bizarrely citing confidentiality, and I don't believe her results have been replicated by others.  I have certainly heard women appeal to principle in the face of loved ones being hurt, and heard men pretty clearly being swayed by the fact that they were talking about a friend or family member.  At most, I will grant that a tendency might be there. It is not universal.

My tone and presentation likely telegraph that I am very much on the side of those who choose their morality according to principle, but I want the other lesson to emerge as well.  Our principles might have changed if it were our sibling, our friend, or most especially, our child who we were talking about. It's my usual both-sides-now argument:  if your principles changed because it was a friend who you considered a "nice person" who was under discussion, perhaps you should not have changed.  If you reason from principle but have never been tempted by seeing the conflict play out on the head of your own child, perhaps you should not be so confident you would remain firm in other circumstances. Deep affection tests principles.

Yes, this is background to the issue of disgust as a moral axis.


Aggie said...

I think that arguments that derive from a foundation of principle must be naturally constructive to be effective. I don’t find that discussions of principle that result in a negative finding are particularly helpful. Logically, a principle is a crystallized idea that correctly concludes something that is true and may be used in turn to build upon – this is certainly the case in mathematics, engineering, and the sciences, but also in a softer way, in society. In the first context, principles are the things that lead to discoveries that improve our lives or enable some achievement that changes the course of human history. In the second context, the Golden Rule is a great guiding principle, one that is found across cultures and religions and would likely have a sound basis in statistically large population samples. Emotions don’t do that – but they do provide the framework for the individual to navigate the world of principles. But on balance I think it’s principle that can guide through an uncharted and uncertain time or event, not emotion.

Regarding your gay marriage debate. I think this has a lot of similarities to the abortion debate, the range of everybody's views is sufficiently diverse whereby consensus is impossible. I’ve been friends with many gay people throughout my life, some of which were quite close relationships. I don’t have any hang-ups with gay people or issues, in other words – but our society has been inundated in recent memory with arguments to treat it as something ‘normal’. It has become a very specific campaign: No instance of treating homosexuality as anything but completely normal can be tolerated. It follows that there is no end of condemnation for those who object to this re-labeling and dare to suggest that homosexuality is unnatural, which of course it is, from the perspective of biological purpose. Yes, it is found in nature across species, but in numbers that statistically place it distinctly into category of an abnormal minority. And where it is found, there are no statistically-significant cases of this minority adopting all of the attributes of normal sexuality, notably rearing of the young - at least that I am aware of. But just try expressing that thinking that out loud in a public setting, you’ll be hung as a witch by the Puritan mob, even though many if not most of the people there are probably in agreement, privately. Because nowadays it’s: In Your Face! 24/7!

This is a great example of the limited role of using principle in debate. Principle would suggest that one does not allow a statistically abnormal minority to unduly influence what societal norms should be for the entire population. I think that most of us don’t care a rap about someone’s sexuality, and would probably prefer they keep it to themselves, whatever it is. It’s a good illustration of how emotional arguments can be quite effective in the face of reality, in this Age of Modern Media, especially for desensitizing disgust reactions. Think of the common reactions to In-Your-Face homosexuality 50 years ago, as compared to today's sensibilities. For good or bad, that's a sea change. And I guess that’s how I view it: Principles allow us to create a civilization. Emotions allow us to retain our humanity and grow spiritually while doing it.

Grim said...

You're right. I am a devotee of arguing from principles, and it puts me on the wrong side of those who argue from people every time. I have not repented, nor shall I; but I do notice that the difference ultimately comes down to whether you care about principled arguments about The Right, or The Truth; or whether you care about how living people feel and suffer.

Maybe I'm a bad person because I care more about ideas than people's feelings. That's possible; I admit the possibility. If so, though, I'm wrong constitutionally rather than accidentally, and I can't repent because I can't be otherwise. Pray for me.

Christopher B said...

People vs Principle is also a variation on our reaction to the distribution of benefits and costs. It is easy to identify the potential benefit of recognizing gay marriage to particular individuals but the potential cost of such a change in the definition of marriage is going to be diffused across a much larger population.