Saturday, December 21, 2013

Salvation Army Bell-Ringers, Homophobia, and Christmas Plays

It's that time of year again. Salvation Army bell ringers are outside your local Walmart store. In a time of mad consumerism, of rushing around to buy useless junk to stick under the tree or into the stockings of people who have more than they need, the iconic red tripods with their metal buckets have become a symbol of an alternative spirit. Stationed at the door to consumerism's temple, the Salvation Army donation bucket reminds us that giving shouldn't be primarily about finding some useless trinket for everyone on our list. It should be about caring for those with urgent needs, lifting the spirits and feeding the bellies of those who are left out in the cold.

It's that time of year again. At least if you're like me--an advocate for gay rights with many gay and lesbian friends and allies--you've been getting those social media messages and forwarded e-mails reminding you that the Salvation Army is an anti-gay group and that giving to them is a tacit endorsement of bigotry. Some of those messages will quote the views of one of the more homophobic members of the Salvation Army, naming the person's military-style rank within the organization so as to make it seem as if this person is speaking for the Salvation Army in an official capacity. A few of the messages will conclude that the Salvation Army is a hate group.

I wrote about this last year, but this year these messages have become particularly jarring. The reason is the Christmas play I'm in right now: Robert Fulghum's "Uh Oh, Here Comes Christmas." It's basically theatrical storytelling, and one of the stories features the Salvation Army. It's about bell-ringing, about generations of fathers and sons standing outside a local Woolworth store--a tradition that began with a "Great Heathen" who had no use for church but who faithfully rang the bell every year, to his son's great puzzlement. It turns out that when the Great Heathen was a child, his family's house burned to the ground, and the Salvation Army came to the rescue.

After one evening performance, two Salvation Army members--in uniform--came up to the cast and thanked us for our performance. They said it brought tears to their eyes. I shook their hands. I chatted with one of them, a diminutive woman with a warm smile. To call her a member of a hate group struck me as, well, a bit hateful.

Or maybe just confused. The Salvation Army was born out of a commitment to reaching out to the socially marginalized in a spirit of inclusive love. A central part of that mission focuses on meeting tangible human needs. And that's what their Christmas Assistance program is all about. To put it simply, putting money in the Salvation Army bucket helps needy people. The money that goes in the Salvation Army bucket goes directly to locally-administered programs aimed at helping needy families in the community. None of it is used in financial contributions to anti-gay causes.

Westoboro Baptist Church is a hate group. The Salvation Army is not.

Let me be clear: The Salvation Army is a conservative Christian organization. Like other such organizations it persists in endorsing what I take to be a damaging teaching, namely that all homosexual acts are categorically sinful. It continues to endorse the view that it is possible to love our gay and lesbian neighbors while holding that faithful gay couples committed to one another are committed to sin, and that the relationships that give so much meaning to their live ought to be dismantled--the equivalent of holding that it is our moral duty to try to end a loving marriage and force the partners who have forged a life partnership to get a divorce (after all, that's what follows from thinking the relationships are essentially sinful).

I think this view is a serious failure to understand the implications of an ethic of love in relation to our gay and lesbian neighbors. No clear-thinking Christian, upon encountering a happily married couple who add richness and meaning to each others' lives, who love and support each other in good times and in bad, would think that trying to tear their marriage apart would show love for them. But what can it mean to hold that a monogamous life partnership is inherently sinful if that doesn't include the belief that it ought to be brought to an end?

And the Salvation Army, along with every other conservative Christian community, perpetuates this error. The Salvation Army, along with every other conservative Christian community, harbors within its ranks individuals who seize on the doctrinal teachings about homosexuality as an excuse for indulging their bigotry.

But as a community it has, in recent years, wrestled sincerely with the question of how best to express Christian love towards gay and lesbians--wrestled in a way that few other conservative Christian communities wrestling. They still don't get it, as is clear from the comments such as this one, from the Salvation Army's national community relations secretary, George Hood:
If we can all agree that we have a difference of opinion on the lifestyle issue and that's OK, then we start to talk about issues of discrimination and the steps we've taken to see that there is no discrimination.
Any gay or lesbian can tell you that this isn't just about a difference of opinion, and certainly not over a "lifestyle issue." Gays and lesbians want to be able to live the same lifestyle that heterosexuals are free to live without censure--a lifestyle that includes falling in love, standing up and making public vows together with the one they love, and then establishing a home and a family and intimate life partnership with the beloved. Because of their sexual orientation, gays and lesbians can only pursue this "lifestyle" (which heterosexuals take for granted) with someone of the same sex. The "opinion" of the Salvation Army is that gays and lesbians have a moral obligations to deny themselves the "lifestyle" that heterosexuals celebrate--that they have a duty to stand out in the cold while others seek the warmth of loving partnership.

They may not get it...but they're honestly wrestling. And they're sincere in their commitment to nondiscrimination in both employment and in distributing services. These are not characteristic features of a hate group.

They happen to ascribe to conservative teachings, but those teachings stand at the periphery of what they do. And what they do is try, with sincerity of purpose, to meet human needs. As with all organizations, there are bad apples. You can find mean-spirited souls anywhere. And even the best among us get things wrong.


Thursday, December 5, 2013

War on Christmas Naming Contest

With the War on Christmas once again upon us, I know that many brave warriors fighting in defense of this important holiday will be exhausted from their heroic efforts. Bone weary from their attempt to save all that is right and true from the deadly and remorseless assault of the "Happy Holidays" crowd, they may need a bit of a break.

But here's the problem: When you're caught up in a struggle of such magnitude, it can be hard to think about other things. Sometimes the best you can do is address the struggle from a different angle, one which doesn't drain you quite as much as the actual battle in the trenches.

Hence this War on Christmas Naming Contest.

Here's the idea: In recent years, American wars have been given names that reflect the true spirit of the conflict--names such as "Operation Desert Storm" and "Operation Iraqi Freedom" (just to name the ones featuring Saddam Hussein as the bad guy). I think the War on Christmas deserves the same kind of honor.

But what do we call it? My first thought was something like the following: Scattered-attempts-by-protesters-who-don't-matter-to-adjust-the-trajectory-of-the-Christmas-juggernaut-with-nothing-but-styrofoam-peanuts-while-the-season's-heroic-defenders-rage-against-the-audacity-of-it-as-the-peanuts-bounce-off-the-armored-sides-and-the-juggernaut's-wheels-grind-with-a-satisfying-crunch-through-the-keepsakes-that-the-protesters-were-trying-to-protect."


But I decided this was a bit too long. And the acronym was a bit hard to pronounce.

So I thought I'd see if anyone had a better suggestion.

Contest rules:

1. You may enter as many times as you like, unless your entries are boring.
2. While your entry needn't include the words "styrofoam peanuts," you get bonus points for working them in.
3. The contest deadline is whenever I randomly decide to end it. Late entries will be disqualified unless they're really good.
4. All entries must be submitted either as comments on this post or written in glitter glue on your bathroom mirror, photographed, and then sent to the North Pole (Santa has agreed to drop them in my Christmas stocking when he makes his rounds). However, if you submit through the latter mechanism, your entry will be disqualified if I decide to end the contest before Christmas Day. Unless it's really good.
5. Winners will be notified via blog comment. The prize for first place is the honor of being declared the first place winner. Other winners and honorable mentions earn the right to post comments on my blog for free (a right everyone else has, too, but didn't earn).

Monday, December 2, 2013

Those Pesky Protestant Progressives

Apparently, the Church of England's recent approval of a plan to raise women to the episcopate was something of a last straw for at least one Catholic priest.

Fr. Dwight Longenecker, seemingly outraged by the General Synod's resounding vote in favor of women bishops, posted a strident attack on the "insidious, dangerous, and relentless" pursuit of progress within Protestant churches. Labeling Protestant progressives "bullies," Longenecker opines that once the progressive fight for same-sex marriage is won, a fight for "child sex" may be next.

(I hope he has the good sense to apologize for this last bit of rhetorical excess, if for nothing else. Obviously, the pursuit of equality for a minority group that has been systematically marginalized--however misguided he thinks that might be--is not a slippery slope to advocacy for child sexual abuse).

Longenecker's article is heavy on shrill put-downs (Protestant progressives are not merely bullies but "tyrants", "(i)nsecure, immature people with a persecution complex", and "like a teenager with a hissy fit"). Such name-calling is not exactly an invitation to thoughtful discussion about any ideas that might be hidden amid the verbal abuse, suggesting that Longenecker is more interested in attacking Protestant progressives than in discussing his ideas with them. Nevertheless, he may have ideas worth discussing.

So what are his substantive claims? There appear to be three:

1. Protestant progressives are driven to pursue change for the sake of change--regarding the new as good just because it's new, and the old as bad just because it's old. In other words, their pursuit of change is indiscriminate.

2. Protestant progressives' pursuit of "progress" is so relentlessly single-minded that they pay no attention to stability and peace and the welfare of countless people who do not want the changes foisted on them. Thus, their idea of progress is achieved at a high cost in terms of social division and bitterness.

3. This indiscriminate pursuit of "progress" is motivated by the fact that it is through the pursuit of "causes" that progressive Protestants find subjective meaning in their lives. Without a cause to fight for, they "prowl around restlessly", like a teenage rebel without a cause...until they find one.

Let me look more closely at each of these claims.

Claim 1: Protestant progressives are driven to pursue change for the sake of change--regarding the new as good just because it's new, and the old as bad just because it's old.

There are people who pursue change for the sake of change. And there are those who pursue change for the sake of charity and justice. You won't tell them apart by the fact that they keep finding new causes to pursue. Given human finitude, our institutions will always be imperfect--and those moved by a spirit of compassion and justice will always find places where improvements can and should be made. While a restless desire for change for change's sake is surely to be found in some Protestants, it is far from being Protestantism's defining element. And an ongoing commitment to making existing institutions better, more loving, more just, should not be misconstrued as an indiscriminate identification of the new with the good.

Protestantism began with Luther's fiery protest against abuses within the Church, abuses that had real victims who were damaged by them. The spirit of that protest was one of reform. And reform is about love for that which is being reformed. The "new" is sought for the sake of making the beloved "old" thing better.

I belong to one of the denominations Longenecker mentions as being "on the relentless progress train": I'm a Lutheran, and specifically a Lutheran in the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America). We're one of those denominations that recently changed its stance on the ordination of partnered gay and lesbian clergy. We've had women in the ministry for years. And recently, we elected a new Presiding Bishop: a woman.

Did we pursue these things just because they're new, and jettison the old ways just because they're old? No. Lutheran worship is shaped by ancient liturgies. We affirm and recite the ancient creeds of the church. We love old hymns. Lutheran clergy wear the kinds of vestments that have been worn by Christian clergy for centuries. Every week we say the prayer Jesus taught us to pay, and bow at the altar and participate in the sacrament instituted by Jesus some two millenia ago.

Gays and lesbians within the Lutheran communion have not sought access to marriage because they hate the old. Marriage is old. It's really, really old. They value this old thing enough to want it for themselves. Likewise for the priesthood. Likewise for the episcopate. It is love for these old institutions, appreciation for their value, that inspires a desire to make access to them broader than it has been before. You don't fight hard to expand access to something if you don't value it. Anywhere you see the pursuit of broadened access to an old institution, what you are observing is a reform movement in the true sense: A change to the old that is motivated by an appreciation of the old.

And progressive Protestantism has been defined most obviously by such efforts at broadening access to established institutions. Hence, to claim that progressive Protestantism is defined most essentially by the pursuit of change for change's sake, by the indiscriminate love of the new and disdain for the old, is to miss the obvious. Longenecker gets the heart of progressive Protestantism dead-wrong, even if he correctly identifies a worry that all progressive movements should be conscious of and guard against.

Claim 2:  Protestant progressives' pursuit of "progress" is so relentlessly single-minded that they pay no attention to stability and peace and the welfare of countless people who do not want the changes foisted on them. 

Here's the thing about reform: it's routinely resisted, especially by those who benefit from the status quo. And so efforts to reform the imperfections in old institutions for the sake of those who are harmed by them will inevitably generate conflict. Finding the best path through that conflict is hard. Nor is it easy to know when the costs, in terms of stability and social harmony, are worth the conflict...and when they're not.

Progressive Protestants are as imperfect as the institutions they seek to reform, and so are prone to make mistakes. Protest is sometimes done in ways more likely to produce reactionary hostility than transformative introspection. Reformers can get carried away, willing to take actions that needlessly hurt defenders of the status quo.

Insofar as Longenecker's claim serves as an invitation for reformers to reflect on their methods, it has value. Certainly there are those within progressive Protestantism who are guilty as charged, and all of us need to keep in mind the risks of being too goal-oriented to see the damaging ripple effects of our actions.

But I think it is too easy to see one's opponent's methods as relentlessly single-minded (or as "bullying") when in fact they are not.

I believe strongly in the methods of social change advocated by Gandhi and King--relentless nonviolent resistance that begins with efforts at dialogue and strives to rely on methods that never shut down the hope of reconciliation and community. Reform efforts that spring from love for the victims of the status quo--victims of its inevitable imperfections--must also express love for those who are afraid of change or opposed to it because they see things differently.

Loving your opponents is always hard.

Reformers must be conscious of their own fallibility not only in this respect, but with respect to their judgments about what needs reform. Some things need to change, but other things are better off left the way they are. We can make mistakes about which is which. Longenecker apparently believes that progressive Protestants are routinely guilty of this error. I think he and others are guilty of it--but erring the other way.

One of us is wrong. I think it's him. He thinks it's me. I'm pretty sure I'm right, He's pretty sure he is. In other words, one of us is confident he's in the right...when he's wrong. What do we do in a world where that is so often true? Suspending judgment means inaction, which amounts to favoring the status quo. If we let our fallibilism take us there, we have a recipe for unchecked injustice.

Suppose you are convinced, based on experience and sustained reflection, that it is wrong to systematically exclude persons with a homosexual orientation from participation in the bedrock social institution of marriage. Suppose you have heard the suffering of your gay and lesbian neighbors and seen some of them driven to suicide by the alienation and despair created by the status quo.

The mere fact of human fallibility shouldn't be enough to paralyze you into inaction. In all of our human endeavors, there are two ways to go wrong: we can mistake falsehood for truth and act in error; and we can fail to see a truth we need to act on, and so do nothing when action is urgently required. The most strident opponents of reform are often those who are so afraid of the first kind of mistake that they persistently fall headlong into the second. It's important for reformers not to do the same thing in reverse. But it's even more important to act on conscience.

When we do, we should seek dialogue with those who resist the changes we are trying to make. We should seek to understand the human needs and feelings that underlie that resistance. And where there is truth to be found in our opponent's concerns, we should integrate that truth into our reform efforts.

But sometimes resistance is so strident and entrenched that no such dialogue is possible. What then? Do we give up? Do we "wait" until the society is "ready"? Martin Luther King's words about "why we can't wait" resonate with authority for all who stand witness to grave injustice. But so do his words about nonviolence and love, about reliance on methods of pushing for change that do not shut the door to future dialogue, that do not shut out the prospect of the Beloved Community.

King was prepared to use methods that weren't "nice." They were confrontational. They imposed costs on those who opposed the goals of the movement. But they didn't rely on the use or threat of violence. Those who refused to give in found themselves without customers, or with more customers than they could ever hope for (but all from a group they were unwilling to serve). Eventually, they found themselves living in a society whose rules had changed--a society whose rules and leaders no longer officially sanctioned their preferred form of discrimination. But that didn't turn the participants in the civil rights movement into bullies or tyrants.

If you want to discriminate against women and gays, you aren't being bullied if advocates for equality win the day through nonviolent action and moral suasion, such that your community's policies no longer reflect or sanction your discriminatory wishes. And if, committed to your wish to keep excluding some people, you break away from the community to form your own separatist group, it is oversimplified to treat the reformers as so trenchantly focused on their cause that they are willing to tear the community apart in its pursuit.

Longenecker has a legitimate concern if he insists that reformers need to pay attention to community and stability, and hence should seek change only when there are important moral or pragmatic reasons for doing so, and then in ways that seek to preserve community in the midst of disagreement. And there is no doubt that all human efforts at reform reflect this concern imperfectly. But this is not a reason to abandon a commitment to reforming imperfect human institutions, or to stop reforming them after one or two victories. We don't stop--or shouldn't stop--trying to improve ourselves morally after we overcome one or two vices. Moral improvement is a lifelong endeavor. Likewise for our human institutions.

Claim 3:  This indiscriminate pursuit of "progress" is motivated by the fact that it is through the pursuit of such causes that progressive Protestants find subjective meaning in their lives.

This claim is something of an exercise in mind-reading. I can testify, as a self-defined Protestant progressive, that Longenecker has not read my mind accurately. And his sense of what drives Protestant progressives in general has little substantiation in my experience of progressive friends and relatives--suggesting to me that he is projecting his own biases onto his progressive brothers and sisters, rather than discerning what is there.

Admittedly, my evidence is anecdotal--and Longenecker can probably offer his own array of anecdotes that support his assessment. But at the very least, my experience leads me to conclude that his take on what motivates progressive Protestantism is way too sweeping.

My progressive Protestant friends and relatives have rich, meaningful lives apart from their pursuit of social causes. They dance and sing and play sports. They have jobs they love. They find joy in their children or their intimate relationships. When they find themselves standing in a protest line or writing a letter to the editor or joining a social justice movement, it's not because they are empty inside and therefore need to "prowl around restlessly" for some social cause to give them meaning.

Rather, it's because they have seen a suffering neighbor, heard a heart-wrenching cry, witnessed the way that some feature of the status quo has injured or alienated or left people at the margins. And their compassion has not allowed them to stand by and do nothing. At first they may focus merely on binding the wounds of those who have been damaged. But as the existing policies keep grinding out new injuries, they find themselves driven to change the system if they can.

They nail some theses to a church door. When that fails to inspire the reform-from-within they might have hoped for, they find themselves part of a movement to bring about change.

Consider, for example, my cousins: Phil and Randi Reitan. When their son, Jake, came out to them in high school, they were leading a happy, comfortable life in the Midwest. They were financially comfortable. They were active in their church, active raising four bright and talented children. Their lives were good.

But when Jake came out, they struggled to understand what it meant. What it meant for Jake. What it meant for them and their family. And in so doing they became progressively aware of what gays and lesbians go through every day: the peer rejection and abuse, the social marginalization, the prospect of permanent exclusion from participation in the social institution by which new families are established and recognized. Phil and Randi reflected on how their own unconsidered beliefs, formed primarily by the teachings of their church, helped to perpetuate the harms they witnessed. Out of love for their son, they found they had to oppose those teachings--and the bitter fruits they bore.

Their love for their son expanded outward, taking shape as an inclusive advocacy for sexual minorities. They wrote letters. They became active in Soulforce. They participated in civil disobedience. They got arrested. And as the astonishing social changes started to sweep across the country, as one state after another started to embrace marriage equality, they celebrated with their expanded family.

Did their participation in this struggle add meaning to their lives? Absolutely. But it added meaning because it reflected their deep and abiding values. It wasn't some cause they seized upon at random, just because they needed some cause to give purpose to their lives. It was a cause they were compelled to pursue, because the deep values that already gave purpose to their lives required it of them.

These are not "immature, insecure people with a persecution complex" throwing a teenage "hissy fit." These aren't rebels searching for anything they can find to rebel against. These are, rather, people acting with integrity and conviction, refusing to hide from hard changes when their principles demand it.

This is the problem with sweeping generalizations, especially caricatured ones. When we consider what is revealed by any sustained encounter with Phil or Randi or countless others, Longenecker's characterization of progressive Protestant motivations is so far off the mark--so jarringly at odds with the real human beings I know--that it would inspire laughter if it weren't so offensive.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Empathy and Moral Decision-Making

In the discussion thread of a recent post ( the one that picked apart the argument that allowing same-sex marriage is a slippery slope to bestiality), JD asked the following question: "Is the good and the right defined as 'whatever provokes a strong empathetic response'?"

My response in that discussion thread was a simple no.

In fact, the answer is obviously no. When my daughter hits her head and starts crying, I have a strong empathetic response. Does it follow that my daughter's hitting her head is good and right? Obviously not. So, it is quite obvious that the good and the right is not defined as whatever provokes a strong empathetic response.

But, of course, JD was guilty in this case of asking a very poorly formed question. What he should have asked is something more along the following lines: "Are the behaviors that I am inspired to perform based on a strong empathetic response always morally good and right?" Or maybe it should have been this: "Is 'morally good or right' to be defined simply as 'whatever I am immediately inspired to do when I have a strong empathetic response'?"

Again, the answer would be no. But the question would gesture towards a more interesting, open-ended question: "What is the relationship between moral empathy and moral decision-making?"

I think there is a very strong relationship between empathy and moral decision-making. In general, those with a poorly developed sense of empathy, or those in the habit of failing to attend to what their empathic feelings are telling them, routinely make worse moral decisions than those who cultivate their sense of empathy and pay close attention to what it has to say.

Empathy is about experiencing things through the perspective of another person. Such a capacity can be more or less finely-honed. That is, you can be bad at it even when you try. You imagine yourself into another person's shoes, but your imagining is pretty consistently dead wrong. As such, you can have a very strong empathetic response that is, at the same time, deeply out of tune with the experiences and feelings and needs of the person you are responding to.

So, even if one did want to draw a close theoretic connection between morality and empathy, the identification JD gestures towards--equating moral action with the action one's empathetic responses urge--would not do. Accuracy of empathetic response has to factor in to any empathy-based theory of morality.

And here's another important point: I might have a very strong and very accurate empathetic response to one person's situation, and be motivated by that response to do something that I would balk at doing were I to empathize with certain other people who are affected by the act. In addition to being more or less accurate, empathy can be more or less expansive in its scope. I can empathize with only white slave owners and have no empathy at all for their slaves, and thereby find myself forcefully defending slavery based on a strong and accurate empathetic connection to the former alone.

So, if you were going to develop a moral theory rooted in empathy, you'd want to understand morality not in terms of what a given person's empathetic feelings happen to urge them to do. You'd want to imagine someone in an ideal condition with respect to empathy--someone whose empathetic capacities are both  finely honed in terms of accuracy and widely expansive in terms of scope.

But even here we run into problems, since there is at least some reason to suppose that I ought to be more empatheticaly responsive to my children than I am to distant peoples, even if we concede that I should strive to have empathy for distant peoples as well. As soon as you begin to consider seriously the idea that some empathetic responses ought to play a larger role in moral decision-making than others, you have to begin to ask yourself on what basis this prioritization should be made. And while I can imagine a really creative moral philosopher coming up with a way for empathy to serve as that basis, the more natural approach is to suppose that there is some standard other than empathy which needs to be admitted into our moral deliberations.

Thus, while I think that empathy plays a huge role in morality, I do not think the best moral theory is one which defines morality as what empathy urges, or even what an ideally empathetic agent would feel an urge to do. I think empathy is a virtue that plays a profoundly important role in the decision-making of anyone who hopes to be truly moral. But I think there are other moral virtues that aren't reducible to empathy. A sense of fairness is going to interact with the urgings of empathy in interesting and important ways. Likewise for a sense of loyalty to those with whom one has established deep personal ties and commitments.

And when the urgings of empathy conflict with those of loyalty or fairness, how do you decide what to do? There are no easy answers here. Hence, even when I read JD's question charitably and try to get at what he meant to ask, the answer remains no.

But that said, empathy is important to moral decision-making in all sorts of ways.

Let me count them.

First, without empathy we make decisions based wholly on how things look from our own perspective. Empathy allows us to discern how things look from the perspectives of other people. The more widely we empathize, the more multifaceted our picture of things becomes. The truth about our world is best arrived at when we see things through multiple perspectives. And any kind of decision-making is benefited from a deeper insight into the truth.

Second, empathy gives us a better sense of how actions will affect others at the level of their feelings and their needs. And while I don't think morality can be reduced to making people feel good, there is no question that how actions affect people at the level of emotions and needs-fulfillment is crucial information for sound moral decision-making.

Third, I think morality is fundamentally connected with love. It's about loving our neighbors as ourselves.

As ourselves. One thing about my love for myself is this: I experience my emotions, my desires, my needs. They influence me because I feel them. Empathy takes me out of my head in such a way that I can relate to others in something like the same way that I relate to myself: Their needs and emotions come to have (at the ideal) the same kind of immediacy, the same kind of pull, that mine have for me. While empathy may not be all there is to loving my neighbor as myself, it is a huge piece of it.

Until I can experience the world through my neighbor's perspective, I cannot love my neighbor as I love myself. Until their perspective has a pull on my decision-making--the kind of pull that strong empathetic responses produce--I cannot love them as I love myself. Part of loving someone is experiencing their feelings and needs as something that matters for its own sake, as a reason to act--albeit not a decisive one, but a reason nonetheless, to be weighed against other reasons.

Until I care about the way that a decision will affect my neighbor in something like the way I care about the way it affects me, my decision-making is not shaped by love for my neighbor. And empathy is the chief pathway, if not the only pathway, to such care. Hence, if (as Christians certainly should) you think that moral decision-making must be loving, you can't engage in moral decision-making unless you empathize.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

A Final Thought on Slippery Slopes: Sibling Marriage and Hermann Lotze

My recent posts on slippery slope arguments in the same-sex marriage debate inspired James McGrath, over at Exploring Our Matrix, to take up the topic--and there's been an interesting discussion in the comments section of that post which readers here may want to check out.

One of the commenters, "Straw Man," laid out the following argument, after agreeing that opposition to same-sex marriage is based largely on bigotry:

 Consensual relationships between *adults* who happen to be blood relations are generally condemned, but it's impossible where I sit to see a rational reason for condemning it. You can talk about recessive genes all you want--but the same argument applies to unrelated couples who have recessive genes in common, like sickle cell trait. We don't ban them getting married, even if we do endorse some sort of measure to look out for the potential offspring.
I've seen advocates of gay marriage bristle when consensual adult incest is mentioned, but that makes sense for purely tactical reasons: it does invite other "slippery slope" comparisons; and more importantly, it forces one to confront additional types of bigotry, fighting a two-fronted war. I get that. But "eliminating societal restrictions that are based purely on bigotry" is a kind of slippery slope: if we start confronting our bigotries, there are several others that will inevitably come into the crosshairs as well.
There's a part of this comment that I strongly agree with--and a part that I disagree with.

Here's what I agree with: Any time you argue that a particular social taboo should be set aside because it is based on nothing but prejudice or bigotry, you open the door to the question, "What else is based on nothing but prejudice or bigotry?" Chances are, there are more things than what you've targeted.

In the arena of marriage, forms of intimacy that are currently taboo are numerous, and our social policies on marriage reflect these taboos. As one begins to doubt the legitimacy and defensibility of one taboo, this leads inevitably to the question of whether there are other restrictions on marriage that are rooted in nothing but bigoted taboos.

But questions aren't answers. Questioning the justifiability of taboos against, say, sibling intimacy isn't the same as saying there is no good justification for them.

John Kronen, my friend and co-author of God's Final Victory, encouraged me recently to look at what the 19th Century German philosopher, Hermann Lotze, has to say about marriage in his Outlines of Practical Philosophy. What he says is interesting.

Lotze makes the general point that what the state does, in extending legal standing to an intimate partnership, is to recognize the relationship and "protect the rights of what is recognized." And while the state may withhold such recognition from a particular relationship because the relationship does not reflect "the moral spirit which it wishes to maintain in power in its own midst," he insists that "society has no right to execute punishment upon forms of conduct which merely contract its ways of looking at things, and which have not as yet gone so far as to work positive harm to it."

There's an important distinction here between (a) the state letting relationships form without intervention in individual liberty, and (b) officially recognizing and protecting relationships. Civil marriage is about the latter. Lotze's point is that the state can withhold recognition from relationships for reasons that are more modest than those that would be required in order to prohibit those same relationships.

This seems right to me, and it is important to keep this in mind--but with a crucial qualifier. Withholding recognition is withholding a social good. And any time a social good is made legally available, the decision to withhold it in a given case must reflect a robust respect for the principle of equal treatment under the law. Hence, we need to distinguish between two types of cases: (i) cases in which withholding recognition from a certain kind of relationship entails that a class of individuals are systematically deprived of the opportunity to enjoy the sort of social good that civil marriage confers; (ii) cases in which withholding recognition from a certain kind of relationship does not entail such systematic exclusion. The burden of justification is much heavier in cases of type (i) than it would be in cases of type (ii). In fact, I would be inclined to say that in cases of type (i), the justification for withholding recognition must be comparable in weightiness to what would be required in order to legally prohibit a kind of relationship.

In my two posts on slippery slopes, I've argued in effect that same-sex marriage restrictions are of type (i), and that restrictions against group marriage are of type (ii). But what about sibling marriages? These appear to be of type (ii) as well, since it would be pretty preposterous to presume there was a siblings-only sexual orientation (a sexuality such that one can only sustain sexual and romantic intimacy with siblings and is incapable of working up sexual or romantic feelings for anyone who doesn't share 50% of one's DNA).

This means that the state's burden of justification for withholding legal recognition from siblings is going to be considerably more modest than what would be required for withholding legal recognition from same-sex relationships (which effectively bars all gays and lesbians as a class from access to the social good that civil marriage makes available to others). Social bias alone wouldn't be enough to justify it, but is bias the only reason for the state to withhold civil marriage from siblings?

Lotze actually mentions "marriage between brothers and sisters and very near relatives." He thinks the state has can legitimately withhold recognition of such relationships. Why? Here's what he says:
...not because it contradicts any (not demonstrable) "command of nature," but because a correct moral insight condemns the admixture of different moral relations, each of which can unfold its peculiar beauty and worth only when it does so purely for its own sake.
Lotze does not elaborate or explain what he means, but the passage is a pregnant one. The idea seems to be this: There are different ways for human beings to relate to one another, and each of these different species of relationship has its own "peculiar beauty and worth." The sibling relationship has a potential to be a distinctive kind of beautiful and valuable relationship, but only if it is clearly distinguished from relationships of the sexual/romantic variety. Likewise, the idea seems to be as well that the distinctive good that is realized in the best sexual/romantic relationship may be compromised if it is "admixed" with the form of relatedness distinctive of siblings.

To defend this line of thought, one would need to explore more deeply the kinds of virtues that the best sibling relationships embody...and then examine with care whether adding sexual intimacy to a sibling relationship is in danger of compromising these distinctive virtues. Lotze doesn't do this work, but it's a project worth pursuing...and when I reflect on my relationship with my sister, I find Lotze's claim intuitively right. My sister and I couldn't be for each other what we in fact are for each other were we trying to be for each other what spouses are. And there is something really worthwhile in the former.

Now there's also the matter of whether the state has an interest in "protecting" the sibling species of relatedness against things that might compromise its fullest blossoming; and if so, whether this interest is compelling enough to refrain from officially recognizing incestuous sibling couples in the same way that it recognizes non-incestuous couples when it confers civil marriages on them. It might not be compelling enough if withholding such status resulted in legal discrimination against a class of individuals. But that's not the issue here. It probably would not be compelling enough to justify criminally prosecuting incestuous sibling couples. But that's not at issue here, either.

While I think that Hermann Lotze is probably on to something here, it would take more work to turn his concerns about maintaining the distinct virtues of different relationship types into a sufficient justification for prohibiting sibling marriages (I think his line of argument is immediately stronger when we move from siblings to parent-child relations, by the way). But there is another consideration with respect to siblings that has some connection with what Lotze says, and which I think may provide a more obvious and forceful case for a practice of withholding civil marriage from siblings who defy incest taboos.

Consider the following: Siblings typically grow up with unprecedented access to one another. If we'd prefer that sexual expression be limited before a certain level of maturity is reached, we'd have a reason to try to limit sexual opportunities among adolescents (especially at those times when they are newly awakening to their sexual feelings). But to impose external limits on sexual opportunities among siblings growing up in the same home would require draconian measures, measures that would in the same stroke also seriously undermine the kind of close relationship that, for example, my sister and I always enjoyed while growing up. Internal constraints against pursuing such opportunities--such as what results from the sort of visceral disgust and unthinkability that a strong taboo against sibling sex helps to inspire--offer a more promising approach.

Maintaining a strong, deeply ingrained taboo--sufficient to make siblings balk at the very idea of sexual exploration with one another--may be the best thing a society can do to discourage siblings from sexual exploration before they are emotionally ready for sex and its consequences. Such a taboo may be the only thing that can do this work while at the same time enabling siblings to form the close sibling (non-sexual) intimacy that characterizes the best sibling relationships. But can such a strong taboo be established and maintained if the state extends marriage to adult siblings who defy that taboo? The kind of powerful taboo required to produce self-policing among adolescent siblings may break down if the state treats sibling-marriage as equivalent to marriages among non-relatives.

Given the comparatively modest burden that the state must meet when it comes to withhold recognition from (as opposed to outlawing) relationship forms that don't discriminate against a class of individuals, this concern about the social value of maintaining incest taboos strikes me as more than sufficient.

Parallel arguments can be made, I think, about civil marriage among other kinds of relatives.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Interview with the New Covenant Group

About a week ago I was interviewed by my former colleague--John Shook--for an episode of "The Place," a production of the New Covenant Group. The New Covenant Group is interested in fostering productive dialogue between the religious and non-religious, and this episode of The Place (which includes several other people piping in with thoughts and ideas) is a contribution to such dialogue.

For those interested in spending more than an hour listening to me babble, the video is embedded below:

Are Other Slippery Slopes Any More Slippery? Same-Sex Marriage and Polyamory

My last post aimed to systematically dismantle the argument, offered far too frequently, that allowing same-sex marriage is a slippery slope towards letting Farmer Joe marry his goat. My objective there was not merely to call this argument absurd, as is usually done by critics, but to explain why.

Several people commented in response that there are other slippery slopes that opponents of same-sex marriage are worried about, and which my last post failed to address. Some even suggested that it seems clear that the reasons for allowing same-sex marriage, if accepted, really would serve as equally good reasons for allowing various forms of group marriages (marriages involving a husband with several wives, a wife with several husbands, or more egalitarian groups which I'm tempted to call "cluster-nups").

So, I'm going to walk through here the case against there being a slippery slope from same-sex marriage to group marriage.

Again, let me begin with the following point about slippery slope arguments. They're not always unsound. It all hinges on the reasons why you would be taking a certain step. If those reasons work as well as reasons for stepping into the mess that the critic is worried about, then the critic has offered a legitimate slippery slope argument against treating those reasons as good ones for taking the initial step. I should point out, however, that a legitimate slippery slope argument is not always decisive. Sometimes the reasons for taking the first step are so compelling, so powerful, that even if we don't like what follows, we would be well-advised to bite the bullet and accept it.

But I don't think we have to even explore that follow-up question with respect to the various same-sex marriage slippery slopes that have been proposed--because they aren't legitimate slippery slopes at all.

To make this point, let me begin by reminding everyone of Michele Bachmann's bad case for the view that restricting marriage to heterosexual pairings is not discriminatory. What does Bachmann say? Here's how I summarized it in an earlier post:
A law that restricts marriage rights to heterosexual couples is not discriminatory at all, because everyone in society has the same rights with respect to marriage that everyone else in society has, namely to marry someone of the opposite sex. No one is excluded from marriage. It's just that everyone in society faces exactly the same constraint on who they can marry. It must be someone of the opposite sex. So: no discrimination, and hence no need to justify the discrimination by appealing to some consideration that could warrant differential treatment.
And here's how I responded to that argument in the same post:
...the argument is premised on the assumption that everyone has the same sexual orientation. If everyone had a homosexual orientation, then a law restricting marriage to heterosexual couples would require that everyone marry someone they have no attraction to, cannot fall in love with, cannot sustain romantic feelings with, etc. Everyone in society would be equally denied access to a deeply valued social good, namely legal recognition and support for their intimate, romantic loving partnerships. No discrimination there--although we might wonder why the state would systematically deny everyone access to this social good... 
If everyone had a heterosexual orientation, then--once again--a law restricting marriage to heterosexual couples would be unproblematic. It would preclude everyone from doing something no one had any interest in doing in any event... 
And, of course, if everyone had a bisexual orientation, then a law restricting marriage to heterosexual couples would put the same limitation on everyone...We might wonder why this constraint should be imposed, but the constraint would not be discriminatory against any individuals... 
But people don't all have the same sexual orientation. And so, legally limiting civil marriage to heterosexual couples means that heterosexuals are afforded access to a distinctive good (having their intimate romatic partnerships recognized and supported by the state) that is denied to those with a homosexual orientation.
In short, restricting marriage to heterosexual pairings discriminates against persons with a homosexual orientation. Were there nobody whose capacity for establishing and maintaining romantic intimacy were limited to members of the same sex, a law restricting marriage to heterosexual couples would not deny to any individual a social good available to others. Same-sex couples would still be denied marriage, such that if bisexuals of the same sex happened to fall in love they'd face legal discrimination as a couple. But since each member of the couple would still have access to the social good in question--just not with each other--the discrimination against the pairing would be easier to justify for reasons less weighty than would be required in order to systematically exclude a class of people from any access to an important social good available to those who aren't of this marginalized class.

The point here is this: Michele Bachmann's case that no legal discrimination is going on might actually work if there were no such thing as a homosexual orientation.

Whatever the details of our reasons for endorsing marriage equality for gays and lesbians, the wrong of legal discrimination is front and center for all of us. And that legal discrimination arises because there is such a thing as a homosexual orientation. (And there is. Really. Deny it at the peril of being the kid at the playground who doesn't want to hear the facts and so plugs up their ears and shouts "Nya nya!" to cover up what others are saying.)

But is there such a thing as, say, a polyamorous orientation--that is, a fixed and unchosen disposition, resistant to change, such that the person is unable to develop or maintain a satisfying romantic relationship with any other single individual, but is able to develop and maintain a romantic relationship only with two or more? Put one attractive mate in the room with them and...nuthin'. Add a second, and the person's sexual interest suddenly comes alive for the pair as a pair. A desire to cultivate romantic intimacy bursts forth, complete with an interest in long conversations, personal sharing, walks on the beach, bicycle rides together on a brisk fall day...but only with the pair as a pair. Take one of them away and the interest vanishes completely.

Sure, lots of people (most? all?) have a sexuality that isn't limited to one person. But that's not the same as what I'm talking about. It's one thing to be sexually interested in both Mary and Martha. It's something else to be incapable of romantic attraction towards Mary or towards Martha unless both Mary and Martha are there with you in the bedroom. It's one thing to be able to form intimate relationships with both Mary and Martha--and to have a strong temptation to form one with Martha even though you already have one with Mary. It's something else to only be capable of forming an intimate relationship with one only on the condition that you are also forming an intimate relation with the other at the same time.

That is the kind of sexual orientation that would need to exist in order for a law restricting marriage to pairs of people (and excluding triples and quads, etc.) to be a law that discriminates against a class of people.

The fact is, while there is enormously good and compelling reason to believe in the existence of a class of people with a stable homosexual orientation, there is absolutely no good reason at all to believe that there is anything like an analogous polyamorous orientation.

Furthermore, there is good reason to suppose that polyamorous groups wouldn't be able to form the kind of relationship that civil marriage exists to cultivate and support and encourage: intimate, stable, and enduring life partnerships. It's hard enough for couples to manage the complexities of interpersonal dynamics. But--as I've pointed out before on this blog (although I can't find where at the moment)--adding a third person to a relationship multiplies those complexities enormously. When you have two people, A and B, there is one relationship to deal with. Add a third person, C, and you now have six relationships: A's relationship to B, B's relationship to C, C's relationship to A, A's relationship to the B-C pair, B's relationship to the A-C pair, and C's relationship to the A-B pair.

Of course, all of us have multiple relationships in our lives, and hence have a range of complications to face. But a life partnership--a mutual commitment to share the challenges of life together, to support one another, to be in each other's corner through the years, to divide the responsibilities of making a home, to make crucial decisions as a team--that sort of relationship involves distinctive kinds of stresses and conflicts, as well as payoffs. A three-person life-partnership faces challenges that exponentially magnify these stresses and conflicts: potential for jealousy, for playing off one partner against the other in a way that creates a kind of hierarchy and privilege, for two teaming up and browbeating the third, for alliances that disempower, etc., etc.

The kind of intimacy, of sharing oneself with a life partner, that is at the heart of the best marriages is made enormously more difficult (if not impossible given the realities of human finitude), in the face of such magnified complications and potential pitfalls.

So, not only is there no polyamorous orientation such that a class of people will be discriminated against if group marriages are disallowed; there is also good reason to wonder whether a threesome (or larger group) can even form the kind of relationship that a marriage is supposed to be, let alone sustain it in the lifelong way that is the ideal of intimate life partnership which the institution of marriage holds up.

The relationships that two people have with one another tend to be different in kind from the relationships had by groups of three or more. And it's hardly obvious that the marital kind of relationship is the sort that can be had by groups of more than two. In fact, it seems pretty obvious that it isn't--so much so that I would think the burden of proof rests with those who would argue otherwise.

If I'm right about that, then there's a second way in which it is not discriminatory for the state to preclude polyamorous marriages: Groups of more than two simply can't have the marital sort of relationship at all, so denying it to them isn't denying them anything at all.

But suppose I'm wrong about that. Suppose there is only the one reason why it is not discriminatory to rule out polyamorous marriages in the way that it is discriminatory to rule out same-sex ones--namely the first one I mentioned, having to do with sexual orientation. That would be enough by itself--but there's more to be said. Even if groups of more than two can manage to achieve the marital kind of relationship, achieving it for a larger group would be a truly monumental task given our human condition. Maybe it could be sustained for a year or two. But marriage as a life-partnership isn't realized by pulling something off for a couple of years. And failed marriages are a matter of social concern.

Since no individuals are being discriminated against (absent a polyamorous orientation), the state's burden for justifying a restriction on the number of people who can participate in a single marriage is substantially lower than would be the case were individuals being subject to discrimination by the restriction. And the fact that such a restriction promotes the stability of the marriage contracts that the state helps to create is, it seems, a sufficient reason for the state to restrict official, state-sanctioned marriage to pairs.

(I imagine that greater stability could be attainable in group marriages if there were a clear hierarchy--where, in lieu of genuine partnership, what one had was one dictator ruling it over a few subserviant helpmates. But I also take it that equitable and egalitarian relations among human beings, including between the sexes, is a good that we have a social interest in pursuing. Maybe one reason why conservatives tend to see a slippery slope to polygamy is precisely because they secretly idealize male patriarchy in which husbands lord it over their wives--and don't see a substantive difference between a husband lording it over one wife or over several. But in that case, the slippery slope exists even in the absence of the state extending marriage to same-sex couples.)

Marriage is a stabilizing force. The gay community would be stabilized by access to marriage--but far more so if same-sex marriage were restricted to pairs than if it were made available to groups. Likewise for heterosexuals. The state is in the marriage business in part for the sake of achieving that stabilizing effect, and as such has a good reason to choose that form which does the best job of promoting the stabilizing outcome. (And let me point out that I said "in part," since in the last post some people seemed not to notice this and took a passing remark about one of the state's purposes for marriage as if it were the whole thing. If you want a fuller picture of my views on why the state is in the marriage business, see here.)

If the state has good reason to promote the stabilizing outcome that marriage makes possible, the state has both a reason to make marriage available to same-sex couples (thereby extending its stabilizing effects into the gay community) and a reason to preclude group marriages. Obviously, then, this case for same-sex marriage is not a slippery slope to group marriage.

In sum: Unlike in the case of same-sex marriage, precluding group marriage does not discriminate legally against a class of individuals. Furthermore, there is good reason to suppose that, unlike in the case of same-sex marriage, precluding group marriage does not discriminate in the sense of denying marriage to sets of people who are equally capable of creating the marital kind of relationship--because sets larger than two aren't equally capable. Finally, while the state's interest in promoting social stability is served by extending marriage to same-sex couples (and harmed by precluding same-sex marriage), the reverse is true for group marriage. Thus, all the main reasons that I offered in my previous post for extending marriage to same-sex couples are reasons that just aren't reasons for extending marriage to groups.

Hence, there is no slippery slope. Not even close. Rather than a downward oil-slicked glass slide between same-sex marriage to group marriage, what we have is a series of brick walls.

Note: I haven't talked here about incestuous marriage--but I think the last two posts make the reasoning process for assessing the merits of a slippery slope argument clear enough, so that anyone can discern for themselves the absurdity of saying there is a slippery slope from same-sex marriage to parent-child or sibling marriages (or pedophelic marriages, etc.). In these cases, ask if there is a sexual orientation that makes precluding this sort of marriage discriminatory against a class of individuals. If no, then you don't have a slippery slope. And ask, furthermore, whether the kind of relationship that would (or at least could) result is the sort that legal marriage is supporting. If no, then you don't have a slippery slope. And ask, furthermore, whether there is a significant state interest by which same-sex marriage and this other kind of marriage would have to be viewed differently. If yes, then you don't have a slippery slope.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Taking the Slippery Slope Seriously...

...At least seriously enough to show why those who invoke it can't be serious.

The other day a student of mine told me she'd been with a friend to a Young Republicans meeting. Since we'd recently been talking about same-sex marriage in class, when the topic came up at the meeting she asked the speaker about the propriety of invoking religious arguments when the topic is civil marriage.

The speaker responded with the famed slippery slope argument: If we let gays get married, what's to stop Farmer Joe from marrying his goat?

Apparently, he conceded that this wasn't likely to happen "here in Oklahoma." But still, he threw it out there as an "extreme" that legalizing same-sex marriage would open the door to.

My student was a bit astonished, probably because the slippery slope argument was one of the more preposterous challenges to marriage equality that we'd talked about in class. It was an argument I'd picked apart with some care. Once you've actually done that--taken the time to walk through the process of picking apart the logic (or lack thereof) of the slippery slope argument--it's very hard to take seriously anyone who brings it up in all earnestness.

But not everyone has actually walked through the argument in that careful way. It's not surprising. More often than not in public dialogue today, when someone brings up the slippery slope argument critics respond with rolling eyes, ridicule, and one-liners.

I understand the impulse. I do. I even think there's a place for it. But there's also a place for taking the argument seriously enough to demonstrate why it doesn't work--why it's failure is not just a matter of opinion but a fact about the argument.

Most critics don't take the time to show this. Consider the following rebuttal from Bill Maher:

Now he makes a significant point here: As a matter of history, instances of extending rights to people traditionally excluded from them have not, inevitably, led to animals acquiring those same rights.

But there are problems. First of all, there are those (such as Peter Singer) who draw parallels between the pursuit of human equality and the pursuit of animal equality, and attempt to make the case for animal equality on those grounds. They don't support voting rights for dogs--for good reasons. But if you're not thinking clearly about those reasons, you might get caught up in confusions that undercut what Maher is trying to say.

The deeper problem with Bill Maher’s comment here is that some people will say, “Yeah, but same-sex marriage is different from voting rights for women.” They’re wrong about that, but Maher’s comment doesn’t show them why. And until you clearly show why, those who persist in making the slippery slope argument can do so without its unsoundness being plain for all reasonable people to see.

So, consider this post an effort to show why same-sex marriage is no more likely to open the door to inter-species nuptials than women's suffrage was prone to culminate in voting rights for lemurs. If anyone doesn't already see why this is so, feel free to refer them here.

When I talk about the slippery slope argument against same-sex marraige with my intro-level ethics students, I treat it as if it were a serious objection. This affords me the opportunity to make some general points about when slippery-slope arguments are valid and when they're not.

I explain it as follows: A "slippery slope" from one public policy decision to some extreme outcome exists if and only if your reasons for making the policy decision, were they accepted as sufficient, would also have to be regarded as sufficient for allowing the extreme outcome. So, you need to ask about the REASONS why we would make the policy decision in question. If the reasons for extending voting rights to women are also adequate reasons for extending those same rights to hamsters and lemurs and squid, then a slippery slope exists. If the reasons don't extend from women's suffrage to hamster suffrage in this way, then no slippery slope exists.

So: in the case of extending voting rights to women, what was the reason? It was that women have both an interest in democratic participation through voting and a capacity to participate in this way. As such, their disenfranchisement is legal discrimination. Not so for hamsters.

Likewise, gays and lesbian have both an interest in having their intimate life-partnerships legally recognized and supported by the battery of rights that go with civil marriage, and they have the capacity to enter into such legal partnerships. As such, their exclusion from marriage is legal discrimination. Not so for Farmer Joe and his goat.

This is the short version. But a more detailed debunking of the slippery-slope argument is possible...and, for reasons I'll get to at the end, I think it's worth it.

Equality under the law is a crucially important secular value in a liberal democracy. Thus, any unequal treatment under the law requires a compelling justification—of the sort that obtains in the case of, say, denying drivers’ licenses to the blind. The justification cannot be a purely sectarian religious one (such as, “My faith teaches me that women are subordinate to men and should defer to men in important decision-making, and so shouldn't vote”). That would allow one religion, not shared by all in society, to trump a central, shared secular value (namely the desire everyone has to be treated equally under the law). Such religious trumping of secular values would mean the state is adopting for policy purposes a particular religion’s beliefs, and it would involve making all citizens subject to the implications of this one religion’s teachings. As such, it would violate both separation of church and state and freedom of religion.

Put simply, women were given the right to vote because failure to give them this right amounted to discrimination under the law, and we couldn't see any compelling secular justification for such discrimination.

But what about hamsters? Hamsters have no interest at all in democratic participation through voting...and are wholly incapable of it. Give them the vote, and they'll keep running in the hamster wheel and chewing all night long on the bars of their cage. And they will never vote. Ever. Although some hamster owners might see the opportunity for voter fraud by registering their hamsters and "helping" them cast their ballots.

In short, denying voting rights to hamsters does not deny them anything they could actually use. The case for legal discrimination doesn't even get off the ground. You're not the victim of discrimination when the law refuses to give you what the law cannot possibly give you.

The same-sex marriage case is completely parallel to this. In the case of extending civil marriage rights to same-sex couples, what’s the reason? The reason begins with an understanding of what, from the standpoint of the state that confers civil marriages, the marital relationship is. The state sees marriage as an intimate association defined in terms of life-partnership, a partnership usually formed based on love and characterized by mutuality, support in life's activities (which may or may not involve shared responsibility in child-rearing), shared decision-making, help in times of trouble, etc. The range of legal rights conferred on married couples reflect this understanding of the marital contract as an intimate life-partnership.

So here's the problem. Restricting civil marriage to straight couples means that legal recognition of one's intimate, loving life-partnership (and the rights that go with that recognition) is made available to persons with a heterosexual orientation but denied to those with a homosexual one. This is legal discrimination (and if you think Michele Bachmann's rebuttal to this has any force, see here). Legal discrimination must have an adequate justification—which can’t be a sectarian religious one.

The reason why more and more people are arguing for extending civil marriage rights to gays and lesbians is because not doing so is legal discrimination, and because they can't see any compelling secular justification for inequality under the law in this case.

But what about Farmer Joe and his goat? They're not being denied anything by being deprived the right to marry, because they cannot form an intimate life-partnership in any event. A "partnership" in the human sense involves a deliberate mutual decision to share in the challenges and opportunities of life, to make important choices together, to share responsibilities, etc. My friends John and David are fully capable of forming such a partnership (although Rick Santorum seems committed to denying this for reasons that are more than dubious and involve waving napkins around). My friends Pat and Diana have a long-standing partnership that would be a model for married couples everywhere.

Joe and his goat, not so much.

Thus, Joe and his goat aren't being denied legal recognition of an intimate life partnership, because they can't have such a thing in the first place. The case for legal discrimination against Joe and his goat doesn't even get off the ground--and this is clear even if we never even address the fact that homosexuality as an orientation is real, whereas the hypothesis of a hetero-species orientation (such that some people--and goats, I suppose--are only capable of forming and sustaining romantic relationships with animals of species other than their own) is dubious at best.

Even were we to somehow stumble erroneously into the view that it is legal discrimination to deny Joe and his goat a wedding licence, there are obvious secular justifications for such "discrimination" that simply don't come up in the case of the actual discrimination that is really taking place when same-sex couples are denied civil marriage. The state is in the marriage business in part (as Jonathan Rauch has convincingly argued) to help provide "default support persons" for members of society--someone whose job it is to be there to help you through the hard times. That's a key reason why the government happily issues marriage licenses to elderly couples who meet at the church bake sale, even though there is no prospect of children. It's a good reason for the state to issue marriage licenses to gay couples, too.

But the goat isn't going to provide Farmer Joe with any such support. I suppose Joe could eat the goat if he falls on hard times, but a marriage license won't help him do that.

It may seem as if, by taking this argument as seriously as I have, I've been beating a dead horse. Or a dead goat.

And I have. The metaphorical goat is, after all, dead. But apparently some people haven't noticed yet. Maybe they think it's just sleeping or something. In such cases, it may help to wallop the corpse.

And sometimes walloping the corpse makes the situation clear in advance, such that a smooth-talker making the case that the goat is alive won't be persuasive.

"I've seen the goat. It didn't budge when Uncle Roy whacked it. Trust me, it's dead."

UPDATE: In response to comments asking about less "extreme" slippery slopes, I've written a follow-up post that applies the same strategy of thinking to the purported slippery slope from same-sex marriage to group marriages. Check it out here.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Tossing Out Just One More God: Atheism, Theism, and Negative Doctrines

A recent and rather lively exchange on my Facebook page reminded me of the following quip from Richard Dawkins:

“We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.” (from The God Delusion)

It's an interesting quip. On the surface it stakes out common ground between theists and atheists: "Hey, we're not that different after all. I toss out all the gods that you reject--the Greek, Roman, Norse, and Hindu pantheons and the like. I just throw out your god, too."

Of course, contemporary theists likely won't find their hearts warmed by Dawkins' surface appeal to common ground. After all, what Dawkins really means to do is gesture to theistic hypocrisy. His not-so-veiled message is this: Theists ought to know that they have no good reason to believe in God, because their reasons for rejecting Zeus and Odin work equally well as reasons for tossing out Yahweh or any other supernatural character.

Since I've had plenty to say about this underlying message before, I don't want to focus on it in this post. But the Facebook exchange I mentioned above did more than just recall Dawkins' quip. It suggested a different way of thinking about it.

Here's the context: The other day I mentioned on Facebook a delightful conversation I'd had with the New Covenant Group, a group that among other things seeks to foster productive religious-nonreligious dialogue. (The exchange was videotaped; I'll announce of this blog when and where it can be viewed). An atheist friend (whom we'll call M) expressed some concern about one of the topics I'd provocatively referenced in my post: Dawkins' prospects for salvation. (Hint: being a universalist, I think those prospects are pretty good).

Among other things, M was concerned about the loaded nature of the question. Aren't we assuming the theistic perspective when we explore a question like this? And isn't doing that an exercise in the kind of privilege that religious people enjoy in our society? In an exchange meant to foster productive dialogue between the religious and the nonreligious, were the assumptions of those on the religious side framing the questions in a way that alienated the nonreligious in advance?

My sense is that, since I was a featured guest on the segment, my views were on the table for that reason as opposed to being because of any religious privilege at work. But another friend, A, chimed in with a third explanation: What happened in the NCG interview wasn't an exercise in religious privilege. It was just the fact that, in a dialogue of this sort, the participants "would need something to discuss, and since atheism is largely a negative doctrine, it would naturally be a religious concept that would be discussed, such as salvation."

M shot back with the following: "As for atheism being a negative doctrine, it only disbelieves in one extra god than the Abrahamic religions, which disbelieve in hundreds. They must be largely negative too."

Taken as an attempt to argue that Abrahamic religions are largely negative (which is not actually what I think M intended), this adaptation of Dawkins' quip doesn't strike me as having much force. To say my eyes are blue amounts to saying they aren't brown, green, black, red, purple, fuchsia, magenta, or puce. Any positive assertion excludes every assertion incompatible with it. This is as true for monotheistic religions as it is for anything else.

But traditional monotheisms are defined by what they affirm, not what, by implication, they negate. The Abrahamic religions are good at affirming stuff--some might argue too good at affirming stuff (or too quick to affirm with confidence). And the more specific and detailed the affirmation, the more that is rendered incompatible with it. The more one affirms, in terms of precision and detail, the more one by implication negates. If one says the earth has a three-dimensional shape, one has affirmed less--and hence negated less--than would be the case were one to say that the earth is a sphere.

We can think about this in terms of the logic of conjunction. I'm thinking about a dog. Is it yours? Probably not, but bear with me. The dog in question is brown. Some of you--but not all--might now be in a position to say, "Well, that's not my dog." But I'm not done. In addition to being brown, the dog is also female. And 15 years old. And largely blind in both eyes.

As we say more about the dog--as we affirm more and more propositions about the dog--there are fewer and fewer dogs in the world to whom the description applies. Cumulative affirmations leads to cumulative exclusions, until every dog but one is ruled out.

A true agnostic affirms nothing about the ultimate nature of the universe--and, for that very reason, negates nothing. A vague monotheist affirms enough to exclude atheism and polytheism and maybe pantheism, but by virtue of affirming less than, say, a conservative Muslim does, ends up affirming something that is consistent with a diversity of monotheistic faiths. By affirming less, one negates less.

But here is the question: Is it possible to negate a claim about how things are without, by implication, moving us closer to a more precise affirmative picture of how things are?

M's modified quip can be--and perhaps should be--understood as a challenge to the idea that atheism lacks any affirmative content. It is true that atheists (at least insofar as they are atheists) approach their worldview via negation. But just as saying my eyes are blue excludes their being brown or green or puce, saying that they are neither brown nor green nor puce narrows the field of possibilities, moving us in the direction of a precise picture (even if it hasn't yet taken us there). It takes longer to get to the affirmative proposition when you get there by negation--but when you negate enough, you might just get there in the end. And Dawkins claims to negate even more than the monotheists!

If, as Dawkins claims to do, you deny "God, all gods, anything and everything supernatural, wherever and whenever they have been or will be invented," aren't you thereby drawing a boundary around what you take to be real, a boundary that so clearly and completely excludes the presence of anything on the far side of the boundary that you have, in effect, posited an affirmative shape to the real? One commonly dubbed "metaphysical naturalism"?

In short, sometimes we assert an affirmative doctrine and, by implication, negate everything that conflicts with it. And sometimes we stumble into an affirmative doctrine through a series of negations. Just because a doctrine negates a lot, it doesn't follow that it is mostly negative. In fact, the most affirmative doctrines are those that negate the most. And it may well be that in denying "God, all gods, etc.," Dawkins has taken his professed atheism into just such an affirmative realm.

If so, it means that Dawkins and others like him can't say "I'm just denying things and don't have a metaphysical position to defend" as a way to shift all the critical attention onto theistic metaphysics. But it also means that in efforts to pursue meaningful dialogue, one can't just assume that only the theist has an affirmative view worth considering. Productive dialogue between the religious and the nonreligious means giving substantial space for all parties to share what they think, to discover common ground, and to confront the critical perspective of those who disagree.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Some Questions About Congress and the Debt Ceiling

The US is constitutionally required to pay its debts, right?

Doesn't that mean that Congress is constitutionally required to do one or all of the following by Thursday: (a) raise the debt ceiling, (b) raise taxes to pay on the debt, or (c) agree on spending cuts that will cover the cost of paying on the debt?

And if Congress does none of these things by tomorrow, won't that mean that Congress has both jeopardized the global economy and collectively violated their vow to uphold the Constitution?

And since (b) and (c) cannot be accomplished in a day, doesn't it follow that at this point, Congress will have violated their sacred vows and put the global economy in jeopardy unless they raise the debt ceiling?

And if they do violate their vows and their commitment to the public good, who fires them?

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Gay Rights and the Victory of Christian Values

There's been an astonishing cultural shift in the last few years, an amazing and accelerating change in attitudes towards homosexuality. The trajectory is clear: history is moving in the direction of treating gay relationships as warranting the same kind of legal and social recognition afforded heterosexual relationships.

According to the conservative Christian narrative, this trend is a disaster. Conservative Christians typically view America's cultural struggle over gay rights as a conflict between those swept up in the permissiveness and moral laxness of secular culture and those who remain steadfast in their allegiance to Christian values.  An the recent victories for marriage equality are, in this light, a defeat for Christian values.

I think this narrative is dead wrong. Whatever you think of the ethics of homosexuality itself, the cultural shift we are now seeing can only be a victory for core Christian values. Let me say that again, in a slightly different way: Even those Christians who think that homosexuality is morally wrong (which I don't) should see the cultural shift towards inclusion as a victory of Christian values.

I don't mean to say that American society has no problem with permissiveness and moral laxness. We don't help the poor nearly as much as we should. We indulge in meaningless entertainments and luxuries while children are starving. We think the command to love our neighbors as ourselves is satisfied if we take in their garbage cans and bring the new people next door a plate of cookies.

Americans routinely fail to live up to the demanding ethic of Christianity--and even those of us who self-identify as Christian typically shrug off these failures as if they were nothing. Moral laxness and permissiveness are big problems. But they don't explain the cultural shift towards accepting gays and lesbians and their relationships.

They can't. Laxness and permissiveness can account for the gradual bleeding away of standards, but they can't be what motivates an active process of changing our social institutions to include people who have been historically excluded.

I suppose that laxness and permissiveness might, when combined with a sufficiently widespread desire for self-indulgence, motivate people to eliminate barriers to self-indulgence. But gays and lesbians have always been and still remain a small minority of the population. More visible than they used to be, but still a tiny fraction of the US population. And if you aren't gay, none of your self-indulgent motives could conceivably inspire you to work towards eliminating the barriers to same-sex intimacy. Because if you aren't gay, you won't have any desire to indulge in same-sex intimacy.

So even when laxness and permissiveness are combined with a penchant for self-indulgence, we won't get the social energy to motivate the large-scale cultural and legal changes that we've witnessed. There aren't enough gay people out there for that.

More significantly, the vilification of homosexuality has, especially within Christian communities, served as a cover for moral laxness. If homosexuality is the Big Sin, then most of us can avoid the Big Sin without any effort at all, without having to rein in our sinful impulses one whit.

Since most of us aren't gay and have not the slightest desire to sleep with someone of the same sex, a fixation on homosexual acts as exemplars of sin lets us off the moral hook without having to do anything. We can feel good about ourselves even as we buy a new widescreen TV with money that might have saved the lives of starving children. At least we're not gay.

Thus, a deliberate cultural shift towards accepting homosexuality amounts to a deliberate decision to wipe away an easy excuse for moral laxness. Our penchant for moral laxness and permissiveness, our self-indulgent natures, can't explain a shift of that sort.

If we want to explain why homosexuality is coming to be more widely accepted, why gays and lesbians are for the first time in history confronting the prospect of full social inclusion, we need to do it by appeal to the motives of a majority with absolutely zero interest in having gay sex themselves--and who might actually find a convenient mask for their self-indulgent impulses through a continued prohibition.

What could that motive be?

I think it's love. Not romantic love, but the kind of love that Jesus talked about. If there is a reason the straight majority has come to increasingly support a lifting of the historic condemnation of homosexuality, it has to do with our human capacity to identify with and empathize with those who are different from us. It has to do with the fact that not only have gays and lesbians been coming out of the closet to tell their stories, but more and more straight people have been listening with compassionate attention.

Within Christianity itself, there has for some time now been a struggle over the moral status of homosexuality. And there's a common thread to the arguments of those Christians who have stood up for their gay and lesbian neighbors. There's a common theme among those Christians demanding that the meaningful intimate partnerships of gays and lesbians, their loves, be afforded respect rather than treated as an abomination to be torn asunder.

That thread is this: If we listen to our gay and lesbian neighbors, we will learn that a condemnation of their romantic impulses can't be restricted to a condemnation of outward behavior. It cuts to who they are. Sometimes, treating something as a sin is an impediment to love. Conservatives are right to say that you can always love a sinner while hating what really is a sin. But this dictum cuts both ways: if we can't love our gay and lesbian neighbors as we should when we treat their intimate relationships as a sin, we must conclude that homosexuality as such is no sin after all.

If we listen with compassion, rather than stopping up our ears with traditional denunciations, we will hear the serious damage that comes from viewing their love as abomination. If we listen with love, rather than refusing to hear their cries out of fear that they might jar us from our comfortable certainties, we cannot resist the conclusion that condemning homosexuality in a categorical way amounts to a failure to love our gay and lesbian neighbors as ourselves.

That message--which progressive Christians like myself have been voicing in different ways for decades--expresses an approach to the cultural conversation about homosexuality that is rooted in an ethic of love. It is rooted in the ethical seeds planted by a certain carpenter from Nazareth some two thousand years ago. And if anything can explain the seismic shift in cultural attitudes towards homosexuality over the last few years, it is the emergence of this message, not just within the sequestered walls of the church, but within the broader cultural conversation.

We are a far cry from living out an ethic of love faithfully in America or anywhere else, but there are moments when the spirit of love makes itself felt on a national level, when it has the power to tip the scales in favor of hard changes, changes that don't serve the interests of the majority but instead favor a marginalized minority. There are moments when love is strong enough to help us move beyond the deep tribal impulse to preserve the us/them dichotomies, to keep in place ideologies of division that enable us to feel good about ourselves just because we aren't one the them.

If anything can explain the energy for change that has been moving this country on the issue of homosexuality, it is this spirit of compassion, of fairness, of love. You may happen to think (as I do not) that something is amiss in the thinking that has led persons of love and good will to push for marriage equality and gay rights. You may be convinced (as I am not) that genuine love for gays and lesbians is compatible with the continued denunciation of their loving relationships and tender intimacies. Even so, you should not thereby overlook that it is love for gays and lesbians that is fueling the passions of social reformers, motivating straight allies in growing numbers to stand in solidarity with their gay and lesbian neighbors, and shifting the consciences of witnesses.

The fruits of love are here. And even if you continue to believe that homosexuality is a sin even in the context of loving and faithful monogamy, you should not overlook the fact that in the current cultural struggle about homosexuality, a spirit of love is at work among those who are advocating for gay rights, and much of what opposes them is something opposed to love--forces that seek to perpetuate division and scapegoating and easy righteousness.

The fruits of love are here. But they are, as ever, fragile. The darker forces are mustering themselves. They are striking back. The enormous gains, while they put us on a trajectory, do not imply inevitability. Divisiveness and hatred and self-righteousness might still prevail over love.

There is something I beg of my Christian brothers and sisters who are committed to an ethic of love but remain convinced that homosexual acts are uniformly sinful. It is this: In pursuing this belief, don't unwittingly ally yourselves with the dark forces that are striving to silence and marginalize and alienate.

And one of the easiest ways to be drawn into an unwitting complicity with forces opposed to Christian love is to misconstrue the nature of what has happened in the fight for marriage equality. Don't let a confused narrative, one which sees the struggle over homosexuality as being primarily about permissiveness versus Christian values, blind you to the way that the most profound Christian value of all has energized the advocates for equality.

Don't let the battle over homosexuality eclipse the far more important ethical battle: the one between inclusive love and divisive hate.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Universalism and the Argument from God's Love for the Blessed: Considering an Objection

In God’s Final Victory, John Kronen and I put forward a number of initial “prima facie” arguments for universalism as a starting point for our subsequent case that universalism has more going for it than hellism (given Christian starting points). One of those arguments, which we call “An Argument from God’s Love for the Blessed,” runs as follows:

1. Anyone in a state of eternal blessedness possesses both perfect bliss and universal love for all persons.

2. Anyone who possesses universal love for all persons and who is aware that some persons are eternally damned cannot possess perfect bliss.

3. Therefore, anyone who is aware that some persons are eternally damned cannot possess eternal blessedness (1, 2).

4. If anyone is eternally damned, anyone who possesses eternal blessedness would be aware of this.

5. Thus, if anyone is eternally damned, then none possess eternal blessedness (3, 4).

6. God, out of benevolent love for His creatures, confers blessedness at least on those who earnestly repent and seek communion with Him.

7. Therefore, God does not eternally damn anyone (5, 6).

Versions of this argument have been advanced by both Friedrich Schleiermacher and, more recently, Thomas Talbott. Thanks to the blogging efforts of Fr. Aidan Kimel, this argument has received some recent attention in the broader blogosphere.

One blogger, Brandon, raises an objection to it in a recent post on his own blog. I started to respond in a comment, but the comment quickly got so long that I decided it was better to post my reply here.

Brandon’s objection rests on the following key premise (which I will henceforth, with great creativity, refer to as Brandon’s Key Premise):

“The particular complete joy that is intrinsic to heaven itself (which is all that can be meant by perfect bliss in (1)) consists of possession of God as universal and consummate good by love and understanding, or to look at it in the opposite direction, being energized by God as universal good in both understanding and will.”

Based on this premise, Brandon argues that the sufferings of the damned cannot take the perfect bliss of the damned away. Since the bliss flows immediately and essentially from union with God, being in such union is sufficient to guarantee such bliss no matter what else might be going on. As Brandon says, “since by nature it flows directly from God in that union, it is not in the power of the blessed not to have it, regardless of anything else that may happen to them.”

The substance of John Kronen’s and my reply to this line of objection is already articulated in God’s Final Victory (see pp. 81-89). But sometimes it can help to connect the dots in connection with a particular objection. That’s what I mean to do here.

In a nutshell, Brandon’s Key Premise begs the question and relies on a parenthetical claim which is false.

Let me begin with the parenthetical claim. By “perfect bliss” John and I mean unalloyed joy that is fitting to one’s circumstances—in other words, joy that is (a) faultless, in the sense that it is appropriate to feel that level of joy given the state one finds oneself in, and (b) maximal, in the sense that it is the greatest joy of which beings of our nature are capable. Hence, what Brandon takes to be “all that can be meant” is decidedly NOT all that can be meant by “perfect bliss”—and is, in fact, not what we mean.

Now the question is whether the distinctive kind of blessedness of heaven—what the blessed have necessarily by virtue of being in the state of blessedness—includes perfect bliss in the indicated sense. Brandon’s way of putting matters does not allow for this question, which is why I say it begs the question.

Let me approach this another way. While I think Brandon’s Key Premise is problematic, there's a near cousin to it which I think is correct—namely, the premise that results if you swap out “the particular complete joy that is intrinsic to heaven itself” with “ the particular blessedness that is intrinsic to heaven itself,” resulting in the following:

“The particular blessedness that is intrinsic to heaven itself consists of possession of God as universal and consummate good by love and understanding, or to look at it in the opposite direction, being energized by God as universal good in both understanding and will.”

This is, if you will, the non-question-begging variant of Brandon's Key Premise. And the question that isn't begged is whether the blessing of union with God includes perfect bliss. In effect, what John and I (and Schleiermacher and Talbott) argue is that the blessing of union with God includes certain things necessarily—such as moral sanctification and an unfiltered encounter with the divine–but that it cannot contain perfect bliss necessarily unless, necessarily, all are saved.

The reason is because emotional states are about something. A state of perfect joy has a cognitive dimension to it: there is a judgment to the effect that one is in circumstances that warrant perfect joy. One could experience perfect joy that was, in fact, unwarranted only if one were either (i) ignorant of relevant facts about one’s condition, or (ii) morally imperfect (and so had a distorted value system which led one to treat imperfect conditions and perfectly wonderful). But the nature of blessedness—what is essential to union with God—precludes both (i) and (ii) with respect to perfect joy in the face of the eternal damnation of some of God’s beloved children.

Let’s step back and work through the thinking here in a more systematic and complete way. The blessing of salvation, as Brandon notes, involves being “energized by God as universal good in both understanding and will”—which includes moral sanctification. In other words, it includes loving as God loves. (Anyone who was “drugged” into a stupor of self-focused delight by the experience of being united to God, to the exclusion of caring about the fate of others, would not be in a state of blessedness because they would not be perfected in love). The blessing of salvation also involves not being blocked from knowing about what can only be of profound significance to God (since one cannot be united to God through one’s understanding if things that are of utmost significance to God are hidden from one).

The fate of the damned would be of utmost significance to God. That His plan of salvation and desire for the salvation of all were ultimately thwarted—that some of His beloved creatures were mired eternally in the worst conceivable state that a being can endure—could not be anything BUT of utmost significance to God. Thus, anyone who has the distinctive blessedness of heaven would be conscious of the fate of the damned. Anyone perfected in love would be grieved by the fate of the damned. Thus, anyone who has the distinctive blessedness of heaven would, if they knew of it, be grieved by the fate of the damned. Thus, both God and the blessed would be grieved by the fate of the damned.

To be grieved by some aspect of reality is to be in a state that falls short of perfect joy. Put another way, you are not perfectly happy if there are aspects of reality that you can only regard as a profound tragedy to be grieved, and which you actively do grieve—a profound tragedy which never comes to an end, and which you therefore never stop grieving.

Hence, the particular blessedness that is intrinsic to heaven itself—possession of God as universal and consummate good by love and understanding—will result in something substantially less than perfect bliss if reality includes elements that warrant grief as the fitting response (that is, the response exhibited by anyone who is morally sanctified).

To the extent, then, that the traditional doctrine of heaven has included perfect bliss within its conception, heaven will be experienced by anyone only if no one experiences hell.

Now one could (as we note in our book), bite the bullet here and conclude that the blessed in heaven don’t enjoy a state as wonderful as what the tradition has held them to enjoy. But one should reach that conclusion only if one is forced to it by the overwhelming weight of the arguments.

That’s why, in our book, John and I introduce this as an initial “prima facie” argument for universalism—one of four such arguments that we put forward initially as offering a presumptive case that the hellist must overcome by weightier arguments. So: are there weightier arguments for the conclusion that God’s salvific aims are finally and ultimately defeated in the souls of the damned? We think not, and make the case for that at length in God’s Final Victory.