Monday, March 28, 2022

Testing Controversial Ideas Objectively

The recent Quillette article on the subject of Stephen Kershmar positing a discussion whether any adult-child sexual relationships might be permissible, as a philosophical exercise to examine what our ethics are actually based on, is interesting to me in a narrow way.  I am not much interested in the philosophical discussion. I'm comfortable with a peremptory "After a few minutes thought I can't come up with any realistic ones and I don't see bothering myself with the subject further. Speculations on 'But what if you were on a space colonisation mission' or whatever don't interest me." I can see why people who wrestle with ideas like "what are the foundations of our values about agency and choice" might be interested, but I'm not.

What I do have to add is that I am not surprised at the depth of anger at the response to the issue even coming up. I worked with sex offenders throughout my career, and during some years they were a constant part of my caseload.  I have watched trained professionals become unwired and unable to keep some fairly simple principles in mind that they have no trouble attending to in other areas. It was common to treat with some contempt a patient's legal efforts to show that it was not proven that any crime had even occurred or that he had been the one to commit it.  While it is true that railroading someone is uncommon, however much it is a favorite of movies and advocacy groups, sex offenses and the gruesome forms of violence are more likely to attract this. Prosecutors and even judges can get caught up the idea that "Well someone has to be punished, because this was a really terrible crime. We can't have it just sit empty with no justice for the family." I can only remember one where I came to seriously question whether any crime had actually taken place, and maybe one or two others where I thought there was a good chance our patient was actually innocent, but I remember counting up half a dozen at one point where I felt that ordinary standards of proof had not been met.

In a smaller way, inaccurate beliefs about what occurred and false details about the crime becoming widely believed was actually common. I was at times unpopular for being the spoilsport who kept pointing out that no, we don't know there were other victims that night that just weren't reported, or no, he didn't make his daughter watch, or no, he hadn't stalked his victim for years and tried to set him on fire when they were in high school. At times I wondered if it were almost automatic that false beliefs would attach to those cases. People would regularly assert knowledge of motive without there being evidence for it. Rumors that "he had said to a therapist once..." would spring up with the sex offense and gruesome violence cases more often than others. It seems part of our storymaking automaticity, that we can't leave some spaces blank, saying "We don't know."

Just as an addition:  Cancellation seems to be very much part of the current academic and journalism environments. Many forms of entertainment as well. It was less an issue but still prominent at my hospital.  Are there fields where it is quite a bit less common?


Grim said...

There is actually an important point to be discovered by such an inquiry, namely, what really is at work in driving moral views. Kierkegaard pushed a line of inquiry on the subject of divine command ethics: what if God told you to do it? If God is free to countermand ordinary ethical norms/laws, what then are they rooted upon? That sets up two different kind of morality, both divine in origin: an ordinary divinely rooted morality that comes from reasoning from God's work, i.e. nature; and a special divine command morality reserved for those whom God contacts directly.

This is very relevant for Muslims, especially, regarding Muhammad's younger wives. Should one take his very young wife as God making an exception to fulfil a divine plan and avoid marrying young girls one's self, or should one view him as an exemplar from which to shape one's own lives? Which approach is the right one? Muhammad is ordinarily put forward as an exemplar for life-shaping, but perhaps this is an occasion when reasoning from ordinary nature is more appropriate?

As non-Muslims we are entitled to say "Well, we think Muhammed was acting improperly here, indeed so much so as to call into question the validity of his teachings as a whole -- at least in areas where his teachings are plausibly explained as self-interested." (Another one: near death, Muhammad received a prophetic warning that no one ought to marry any of his wives after he died.) But then we must live in a society with Muslims, and need a way of interacting with them that does not entail insulting their beliefs. Then the source of morality is no longer divine -- neither direct command, nor ordinary reasoning from nature -- but social.

There are other alternatives, and this kind of thing could go on for a while; but that's why it might seem like an interesting question to a philosopher (even one who is firmly rooted on the idea that sex with children is always wrong).

Anonymous said...

I think its a very good reason to throw divinity away. Its a human concept, that has no referent.