Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Cause-Cure Fallacy

In a recent e-mail exchange with my best friend, I had occasion to talk about what I call the "cause-cure fallacy." I think I've touched on it before on this blog, but it's worth revisiting.

The fallacy, in a nutshell, arises when some controversial practice--like the exclusion of some people from access to social goods made available to others--is justified by appeal to social problems that the practice may actually help to cause. The controversial practice is touted as the solution--or at least the most fitting thing to do given the problem. But any kind of thoughtful investigation will show that there is good reason to think this proposed "cure" is actually making the problem worse.

Consider, as an example, some of the ideas on education espoused by the namesake of the building I'm in right now. Murray Hall, home of the Oklahoma State University Philosophy Department and several other departments in the College of Arts and Sciences, is named after Alfalfa Bill Murray--who presided over Oklahoma's Constitutional Convention, served as Oklahoma's first Speaker of the House, and was governor during the Great Depression.

Murray, like many white politicians in his day, was a racist. In Murray's case, he wasn't just a racist in private. He spearheaded efforts to make sure Oklahoma was a Jim Crow state. And at one point during a speech at Oklahoma's Constitutional Convention, he argued forcefully against providing higher education to blacks.

On what basis did he make his case for excluding blacks from higher ed? Here's a snippet of what he said:
He must be taught in the line of his own sphere, as porters, bootblacks and barbers and many lines of agriculture, horticulture and mechanics in which he is an adept, but it is an entirely false notion that the negro can rise to the equal of a white man in the professions or become an equal citizen to grapple with public questions…
Murray's claim that this is "an entirely false notion" is, of course, an entirely false notion. But he got away with asserting this falsehood. I'm sure most of privileged white people in his audience nodded the heads in blithe agreement--and would happily point to the rarity of accomplished black professionals, the relatively fewer displays of high academic achievement, etc., as evidence that what Murray said was true.

But, of course, we all know that intellectual excellence is cultivated through education. If you systematically provide fewer educational opportunities to a class of people, they're likely to show less aptitude for law and medicine and scholarly research, and more aptitude as "porters, bootblacks and barbers." If you use this fact--which we know to be an effect of being denied educational access--as a justification for denying it, you are guilty of the cause-cure fallacy.

I should point out that in this case we know that Murray was dead wrong. We know that when afforded the same educational opportunities, blacks and whites are equally capable of achieving intellectual excellence.

Did Murray know this, too? Was he just in denial about it? I can't say. But that's not the problem with Murray's thinking. Or, perhaps better: His thinking would be problematic whether or not he knew. The problem with Murray's thinking is that anyone who reflects on the matter can see that such an exclusionary educational policy could be the cause of the difference in intellectual achievement that's observed. And because the exclusionary policy could be the cause of the difference, you can't appeal to the difference as a justification for the exclusionary policy.

Put more broadly, you commit the cause-cure fallacy any time you justify a controversial practice based on considerations that, reasonably, could be caused by that practice.

Consider the following example, which has some relevance to the recent conflicts in Ferguson, MO. Suppose you want to justify a militarized style of policing, in which outsiders to a community patrol its streets in military gear, maintain their distance from the community they patrol, are quick to draw their weapons as a way of enforcing their authority, and routinely shoot to kill when they feel threatened. And suppose you justify this approach on the grounds that the people in the community show little respect for the law.

Here's the problem: If a community finds itself in an antagonistic relationship with law enforcement, that tends to generate an attitude of hostility towards the agents of the law. Respect for the law predictably erodes under such conditions. Militarized policing by outsiders without deep community ties thus could be an important contributing cause of eroded respect for the law. As such, such eroded respect can't be invoked as a reason for militarized policing tactics. To do so is to fall prey to the cause-cure fallacy.

Or here's another example. Conservative opponents of same-sex marriage like to point to the promiscuity of the gay community. They talk about the "gay lifestyle" as if acting on same-sex attraction were essentially bound up with a kind of sexual free-for-all which disdains sexual constraints. Many conservatives point to this "licentiousness" as a reason why same-sex relationships should continue to be stigmatized and same-sex marriage withheld.

The problem, again, is that being systematically stigmatized and denied access to marriage could readily explain why there is so much more promiscuity and impermanence in the gay community. Denied access to society’s primary tool for encouraging and supporting monogamy, the gay subculture is understandably less monogamous. Furthermore, since society has historically declared that homosexual intimacy is sinful regardless of how it is expressed, conservative norms entail that a faithfully monogamous gay relationship is just as much a “sin” as promiscuity and casual sex. Since lesbians and gays see no place for themselves within a society ruled by such norms (those norms lay out no legitimate expression of their sexuality), they predictably end up adrift in a marginalized space outside the scope of those norms--a situation that can readily lead to a collapse of sexual restraints.

Add to that the depression and sense of uprootedness that comes with social rejection, and the way in which superficial and self-destructive pleasure-seeking often follows on the heels of such depression, and you can see why it is reasonable to suppose that stigmatization of gay sex and exclusion from the chief social model of responsible sexuality (marriage) could be major causes for the promiscuity and "licentiousness" of the gay community. To justify such stigmatization and exclusion based on these phenomena is therefore fallacious.

As these examples hopefully indicate, the cause-cure fallacy is a real issue. It's a pattern of thinking that rears its head again and again--and it seems to function especially in contexts where privileged groups seek to preserve their privilege and justify the continued marginalization of others. They point to the effects of marginalization as if they were some essential problem with marginalized people, and invoke those effects as a justification for continuing to marginalize.

Insofar as this sort of thinking obscures and even seeks to vindicate social injustice, it's important to call it out. The first step to defusing its power is to become aware of it, and to pass that awareness on.

Monday, September 8, 2014

What Victoria Osteen Got Right

Victoria Osteen, wife of mega-church prosperity-gospel preacher Joel Osteen, got some attention recently for a poorly-worded bit of theology, delivered (with a benign smile and a cheerleader attitude) to a stadium-sized church and countless television viewers.

Her words were spliced onto a brief clip from the Cosby Show to generate a video meme that went the rounds of social media, garnering a couple of million views. In case you haven't seen it, here it is:

When I saw the video, I chuckled and moved on. But then, yesterday, I read a piece by Dwight Welch, a progressive pastor here in Oklahoma, that inspired me to stop and reflect a bit on the content of Victoria Osteen's words. Here, again, is what she said:
I just want to encourage everyone of us to realize when we obey God, we’re not doing it for God – I mean, that’s one way to look at it – we’re doing it for ourselves, because God takes pleasure when we’re happy.So I want you to know this morning: Just do good for your own self. Do good because God wants you to be happy. When you come to church, when you worship Him, you’re not doing it for God really. You’re doing it for yourself, because that’s what makes God happy. Amen?
Dwight Welch rightly notes that many of Victoria Osteen's critics seem to be operating with a view of happiness that--contrary to Aristotle's view--severs happiness from morality, the "good life" from the life of goodness. He asks, "If God is not to be found in the good of life, then how is it salvific that we relate to such a reality?" In articulating what he appreciates about Victoria Osteen's claim, he puts the point as follows:
She connects God and humanity and the good together.  Instead of  doing something for God’s sake, as if God is a wrathful parent, demanding obedience, we are being told that in doing and engaging the good, worship, in all that we do which furthers human well being and flourishing, we are in fact honoring God.
Now, from a broadly Christian perspective, there clearly is room to criticize what Victoria Osteen has to say. By putting the focus squarely on our own happiness--by framing good works and worship as a means to personal happiness--her words suggest that we should prioritize ourselves. Doing good is relegated to an instrumental strategy for self-gratification. Worshiping God sounds like it's to be valued in the way we value a decadent meal.

But Dwight Welch's invocation of Aristotle suggests an alternative way of understanding her words--a way that may or may not be what she had in mind, but which deserves a response more thoughtful that dismissal-by-Cosby-clip.

For Aristotle, virtue is the essence of happiness. That's not to say that you can be happy while you're starving, so long as you're a good person. Aristotle thinks we need to have basic needs met as a precondition for happiness. But once those conditions are met, the path to happiness isn't found through self-indulgence or accumulating wealth. It's found through self-actualization. It's found by becoming a good example of a human being. And for him, virtues such as generosity and temperance and courage and wisdom are all parts of that process of becoming a fully actualized human being. The truly happy people are those who, by cultivating their character, come to find pleasure in what is genuinely good.

Within a Christian context, true happiness is found when you love God with all your heart and soul and mind, and you love your neighbor as yourself. Rather than there being a division between personal fulfillment and being a good person, the two are intimately bound together. The greedy business tycoon who steps all over others might experience ephemeral pleasures, but not true life satisfaction--not true happiness. That is reserved for those who live a life of love made possible by giving themselves over to the loving source of life.

Here's what I think Victoria Osteen gets right: When you worship and obey God, you aren't doing it for God. Doing it for God's sake makes no sense, because the infinite creator of the universe doesn't need anything from us in order to be fulfilled. God doesn't need to be glorified by us, as if God is somehow diminished by failing to be properly fawned over. If there is a need here, it's our need. We can't be fully actualized human beings if our priorities are wrong. And to get our priorities right, we need to recognize the inherent value in things, and then let our priorities be shaped by that.

If Christian theology is even remotely true, then this means we should value God above all other things--not because God is a wrathful parent or a vain megalomaniac demanding sycophantic obedience, but because we cannot love anything in proportion to its inherent worth if we do not first love that which is the infinite source of all inherent worth. And if Christian theology is true, this also means that our capacity to love has its origins in God and is nurtured to the extent that we open ourselves up to God and make ourselves into instruments through which God's love can work in the world.

If worship is about anything, it is about such orienting of the self towards the ultimate good and the source of all goodness--so that we become better people and more fulfilled people, more full of love and more full of joy. In that sense, glorifying God has merely instrumental value: it's purpose is not to make God feel better about Himself, but to transform us and lift us up. Worshiping God is essential to getting our priorities in order.

I am not saying here, by the way, that atheists are therefore incapable of having their priorities in order. Many atheists orient themselves towards the good, the inherently valuable, in a way that amounts to what theists are doing when they orient their lives around God. And I've seen theists who claim to put God above all things but whose understanding of God is shaped by their own prejudices in such a way that they have lifted up an idol of their own making and made it into the supreme object of their devotion. If there is a God--as I believe--then I've met atheists who worship God but don't call it that, and theists who don't worship God even though they claim to. On this front, the debate over God's existence is not so much a debate over what a life lived well looks like, but a debate over how to understand such a life and unpack the metaphysics behind it.

On Christian metaphysics, Victoria Osteen is exactly right when she says we don't worship and glorify God for God's sake. We do it for our own. God needs nothing from us, least of all our worship. But if we think God is worthy of worship, then failing to worship God displays a disorder in our value system that will compromise our ability to love others and find joy in life. And if God is the infinite source of value, then connecting with God in worship becomes a way of communing with the good, of letting it enter into us, in a self-actualizing way.

What Victoria Osteen gets wrong is this: It is one thing to recognize that our self-actualization--our moral character and happiness--depend upon putting God first. It is something else to put our own self-actualization first. When we do that, we are likely to get confused about what will really fulfill us--and we might walk away with the confused notion that life is about material comfort and security, or something equally superficial.