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?