Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Political Liberalism and California's Affirmative Consent Law

I recently read an LA Times piece by Jonah Goldberg about California's "affirmative consent law," a strategy for attempting to grapple with the problem of rape on college campuses. In that piece, Goldberg sees liberal support for this law as evidence that political liberals are inconsistent or disingenuous when it comes to their views on government intrusion into private sexual behavior. While they cry "theocracy" every time conservatives try to legislate what's allowed in the bedroom, they are here supporting just such sexual legislation themselves. Is Goldberg right?

He opens his piece with this general rant about political liberals:
 You see, for years I've been railing and ranting about the ridiculous myth that liberalism is socially libertarian; that liberals are "live and let live" types simply defending themselves against judgmental conservatives, the real aggressors in the culture war.
That thinking runs counter to most everything liberals justifiably take pride in, as liberals. You can't be "agents for change," "forces for progress," or whatever the current phrase, and claim that you're not the aggressors in the culture war. Liberals have redefined a millenniums-old understanding of marriage while talking as if it were conservatives who wanted to "impose" their values on the nation...
...Liberals, meanwhile, are quite open about their desire to use the state to impose their morality on others. Many conservatives want to do likewise, of course. The difference is that when conservatives try to do it, liberals are quick to charge "theocracy!" and decry the Orwellian horror.
Goldberg then uses this rant as a springboard for claiming that liberal defenders of the affirmative consent law are doing the same kind of thing that conservatives are accused of doing when, say, they endorse sodomy laws. They're trying to regulate private consensual sex.

But there's much that's wrong with Goldberg's opening rant. First of all, it's hardly true that all (or even most) liberals and social progressives try to represent themselves as socially libertarian--although much hinges here on what the qualifier, "socially," is supposed to mean. Liberals certainly see a place for government in remedying social problems, such as systemic discrimination and the exploitation of laborers.

Nor would most liberals claim that they are "simply defending themselves against judgmental conservatives." Liberals and progressives see a world that is not perfect, a world in which social injustice is always a reality and is often entrenched in long-standing systems, And they think people have a responsibility to identify social injustices and work for change. The civil rights movement--which combined nonviolent grass roots activism with lobbying for legal remedies--offers a model for the approach to promoting social justice that liberals and progressives typically endorse. And while "aggressors in the culture war" is not even remotely apt as a description of what the civil rights movement was about, neither is it right to say that civil rights activists were "simply defending themselves against judgmental conservatives."

But beyond the mischaracterization of liberals, there is a deeper misconstrual of the nature of liberalism itself. A hallmark of political liberalism as a philosophy is that it draws a distinction between two things: (a) public principles of justice and (b) the values (both personal and communal) that define a holistic way of life--what the political philosopher John Rawls called "a comprehensive conception of the good life." Political liberals believe in a conception of public justice arrived at by attempting to answer the following question: What kinds of public principles would reasonable people, with different comprehensive value systems, agree to when no one had distinct bargaining advantages?

The principles which emerge from answering that question are ones that, in principle, every reasonable person should accept, regardless of what their holistic value system looks like. When a government shapes public policies in the light of these principles of justice, they are doing so without having to side with one sectarian worldview over another. These rational principles are supposed to provide a framework that allows everyone to live out their own comprehensive conceptions of the good life--usually in community with others--in a manner consistent with everyone having a comparable chance to do the same.

If you look at what Goldberg says, it's as if he isn't even conscious of this structural feature of political liberalism. The distinction between public justice and private values plays a crucial role in the arguments of liberals on topics such as same-sex marriage--but it's entirely missing from Goldberg's rant.

On the issue of same-sex marriage, the political liberal argues that equality under the law is one of those public principles of justice that everyone can reasonably accept (assuming they can step out of their sectarian commitments long enough to ask themselves what principles are needed in order for everyone--regardless of their sectarian principles--to have a comparable chance to live together peaceably as they try to live out their values). Political liberals argue that discrimination under the law is therefore impermissible unless there's a sufficiently powerful justification for it. But such a justification has to itself be based on principles that every reasonable person can accept, regardless of their particular worldview--for example, the concerns about public safety that would justify treating the blind differently under the law when it comes to issuing driver's licenses.

Most notably, political liberals cannot accept a justification for discrimination that appeals to sectarian religious ideas not shared by everyone. If the state did that, it would be adopting the values of that religious sect in a way that compromised its capacity to serve the mediating role it's supposed to serve--the role that's supposed to enable everyone to live out their comprehensive conception of the good life in a manner consistent with everyone else having a comparable chance to do the same.

When liberals cry "theocracy," it's because they fear that social forces are trying to push the state to adopt a particular sectarian value system, rather that operate from neutral principles of justice. And when liberals want the state to legalize same-sex marriage, they don't see themselves as asking the state to impose "their" values on everyone. Rather, they see this as demanded by a neutral principle of justice.

One could, of course, argue that there are no neutral principles of justice, that the distinction political liberals make is a false one, and that their purportedly "public" principles of justice don't spring from objective reason but rather from the liberals' own preferred private value system.

This is not an uncommon criticism, and there may be some truth to it. But if Goldberg wants to make that criticism, he needs to make that criticism. In other words, he needs to acknowledge that liberals perceive this distinction and rely on it in making their case...and then show why he thinks the distinction is illusory. Goldberg does no such thing. He simply assumes that there is no such distinction and interprets liberal politics through the lens of that assumption.

But this amounts to assuming that political liberalism is false and then criticizing it based on that assumption. That's called question-begging.

So what does all of this have to do with California's affirmative consent law? It's worth asking whether the philosophy of political liberalism could justify the kind of sexual regulations at issue in this law. In other words, its worth asking whether there is a relevant difference between California's new approach to regulating sex and the approach on offer in the old sodomy laws that political liberals condemn. But we don't answer this by doing what Goldberg does: mischaracterize the law itself, make sweeping claims about its overreach, and then without argument throw it in the same category as conservative efforts to legislate what happens in the bedroom.

So how do we answer it?

At the heart of political liberalism is the ideal of a society comprised of free and equal citizens with the opportunity to live out their vision of the good life on an equal footing with others. And control over one's body--what is done with it and to it--seems central to anyone's capacity to live in accord with their values. Thus, any reasonable person, regardless of their value system, could endorse a public principle according to which the state uses its power to protect such bodily autonomy. This is presumably why nobody complains about laws against kidnapping, assault, and rape.

In a broad sense, the California affirmative consent law has been passed in order to protect the bodily autonomy of women on college campuses. Hence, in terms of its intent, the law falls within the scope of what political liberals would see as a legitimate exercise of state power. But intentions don't always match with reality. Does the new law, as some critics argue, micro-manage private sexual activity in a way that amounts to an excessive imposition on individual autonomy?

To answer this question, we need to look at the substance of the law.

First of all, we need to be clear that the new law is not defining rape for purposes of criminal law, nor is it about standards of evidence in a court of law or elsewhere. It does nothing to answer the difficult questions of how we determine what really happened in an encounter where the parties are telling competing stories--or when such disputes engender "reasonable doubt."

Rather, the new law is about how to define consent in sexual encounters. It isn't defining consent for the sake of criminal rape cases. It's defining consent for the sake of shaping more useful rape prevention and response programs on college campuses. Specifically, the law ties state financial aid moneys to the implementation of college rape prevention and response programs that adopt an affirmative understanding of consent.

The idea behind affirmative consent is this: Consent is not the absence of a no but, rather, the presence of a yes--verbal or nonverbal. Goldberg is just wrong when he says that the new law "will require a verbal 'yes' at every stage of amorous activity on college campuses." I've read the bill, and it makes no such requirement. He's either deliberately lying in order to make the law an easier target, or he hasn't bothered to read the law carefully before writing an op ed piece against it for a major newspaper. Advocates of affirmative consent consistently insist that there are many ways to convey affirmative consent, both verbal and nonverbal, and the law says nothing that contradicts this widespread understanding.

If it did, then the complaint that the law is engaged in micro-managing bedroom behavior, requiring specific moves of a specific kind at various places, would be legitimate. And such micromanagement would, I think, be hard to justify on political liberal grounds.

So, if affirmative consent doesn't specifically demand a verbal "yes" to every escalation in a sexual encounter, what does it require? The main thing it does is reject the idea that consent is implied in the absence of overt verbal refusal or physical resistance. You can't assume, just because your partner didn't say "no" or fight you off, that she was consenting.

On an affirmative consent model, your failure to actively refuse is not the same as consent and shouldn't be treated as consent. There may be reasons why you fail to say "no" explicitly or forcefully--reasons having to do, for example, with fearing the consequences of such overt refusal. But silently lying there like a stiff log while someone starts using your body isn't the same as consenting to sex. Consent is a positive thing, as opposed to the absence of overt refusal.

There's enormous confusion about this, some of it (I think) willful. But think of it this way. Suppose Joe enters his son's bedroom in order to take money from his son's piggy bank to use for beer. Suppose Joe is carrying a switch with him--a switch that he's used in the past to beat the boy. Suppose the boy watches sulkily from the corner, not saying a word, while Joe takes $40 out of his worldly savings. Has the boy consented to Joe taking his money? Of course not. The boy has uttered no word of refusal and has engaged in not a single act of resistance. But he hasn't consented. Who would assume that he has?

The problem is that, for too long, that's exactly what we've been assuming in the sexual arena.

Understanding consent in affirmative terms doesn't require couples to kill the mood or shut down the rhythm of passion in order to whip out a consent form. If the rhythm of passion is really there--for both parties--then that fact by itself amounts to obvious, in-your-face affirmation of consent.

Let me say that again: If you're in the midst of a sexual encounter and you and your partner are passionately kissing each other, mutually ripping off each others' garments, and eagerly grabbing for each other, you both have very strong evidence of affirmative consent--and no reason to stop to make sure the other person is really into it. When everything your partner is doing is literally screaming out a "Yes! Yes! Yes!," you don't need to stop to ask for a verbal yes.

But if your partner is hesitating, crossing her arms across her chest, pulling away, not returning your kisses, or freezing up as you begin to unbutton her blouse, it's a different story. In that case, pausing to ask whether this is welcome isn't "killing the mood," because there is no mood to kill. At least not for her. And if the worry is that pausing to ask if she really wants this is killing the mood for you--and her moods be damned--then you're acting like a rapist.

Let me say that again: If you don't care about whether she wants to have sex with you or not, and so you charge ahead with your plan to have sex with her no matter how mixed the signals are, because you are indifferent to what she wants, you are acting like a rapist.

The affirmative consent approach is focused on how to treat ambiguity and mixed signals. For too long, people have adopted the idea that if one partner (usually the woman) is giving mixed or ambiguous signals or no signals at all, then she hasn't said "no"--and so the guy should just feel free to assume "yes" and take what he wants. And if it turns out later that her wooden silence happened because his aggressive advances triggered memories of childhood abuse, and she retreated into that same psychological hiding place that she went to when her abuser came into the room...well, how was he supposed to know? After all, she was just lying there like a corpse. Isn't that what people do when they're into having sex with you? Lie there like corpses and stare off into space?

In what other context of human life do we treat such absence-of-active-refusal as default consent? When it comes to something as central to living out our values as control over our own bodies, do we really want to adopt an understanding of consent that is as weak as "If you didn't vigorously refuse, that's as good as saying yes."

Part of the problem here is that, more often than not in cases like this, the woman did actively refuse, did actively say no, and her partner kept pressuring her, often in intimidating ways. And because she saw the trajectory of the evening, because she saw his indifference to her expressed preferences, because she was afraid, she decided it was safest just to stop actively resisting. If he was that indifferent to her wishes, what would happen if she refused more forcefully? Would that just lead to a more forceful response from him? Would it lead to a violent rape? Better, perhaps, under these conditions, to just become a log.

And for too long, when this sort of thing happened, the guy has congratulated himself for his masterful seduction skills: She started out saying no, but--hey!--she stopped saying no! I've won her over!

No. You've worn her out.

The affirmative consent perspective says that becoming a log isn't consent. In other words, this perspective says that something which obviously isn't consent...isn't consent.

Of course, ambiguous signals and silence don't necessarily mean refusal--but they do generate an obligation to check in. And if you don't check in--if you just plow ahead--then you are displaying indifference to your partner's will in the matter. What the affirmative consent approach demands isn't that you kill the mood, but that you check in if your partner doesn't seem to be in the mood. It demands that you not be willfully indifferent to what your partner wants when it comes to the use of her body.

In terms of implications for disciplinary action in response to rape allegations, adopting an affirmative understanding of consent won't resolve any of the "he said/she said" uncertainties that plague these cases. The affirmative understanding of consent will impact disciplinary actions only when the defendant's defense against the charge is that the alleged victim really consented. And what the affirmative understanding will mean in such cases is that we won't be able to evaluate this defense by determining whether the alleged victim was sufficiently diligent in screaming out her refusal. Instead, we will need to assess whether he really had good reasons to think that she wanted to have sex (as opposed to conveniently imposing this assumption on an unclear situation).

To adopt such an understanding of consent, far from being "beyond idiotic" as Goldberg contends, amounts to adopting an understanding of consent that reflects what consent actually is. Consent is more than just not refusing. Consent is affirmative. And adopting such a standard seems eminently reasonable if our goal is to advance individual bodily autonomy.

The California law does not seek to do this by writing such an understanding of consent into the criminal definition of rape. It's unclear how doing so would impact rape prosecutions, given the reasonable doubt standard that applies to criminal cases. It may be that, for the purposes of establishing reasonable doubt, there's little difference between the kind of evidence that could lead to reasonably doubting that the alleged victim refused and the kind of evidence that could lead to reasonably doubting that the alleged victim never consented.

But this law brings the affirmative consent standard to bear in a context where it clearly can make a difference: College policies, including prevention policies that educate the student body about conditions of consent and the difference between saying yes and not saying no.

Political liberalism maintains that certain principles are ones that everyone, regardless of their comprehensive value system, should adopt. A principle of respecting bodily autonomy is one such principle. Such respect is better served by an affirmative understanding of consent than by a negative one. So for me, the only question at issue here has to do with the specific way in which the State of California is acting to promote bodily autonomy--by tying state financial aid money to college rape education, prevention, and institutional disciplinary approaches that reflect the affirmative understanding of consent.

Such a policy has very little in common with laws that seek to criminalize "sodomy"--laws that say it is a criminal offense to insert body part A into body part B even if everyone involved is an eager participant. While the conservative champions of these sodomy laws would be hard pressed to invoke a non-sectarian principle of justice to warrant criminalizing what they want to criminalize, the affirmative consent law can readily point to such a principle: respect for bodily autonomy.

But this is not the same as saying that the way the law expresses this principle fits with the broader constraints of public principles of justice. To show that, we'd need to dig deeper.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Marriage Equality Denialism: The Case of Matt Walsh

You've probably heard of global warming denialism and evolution denialism. And of course there's Jesus mythicism, which denies the existence of an historic Jesus. But have you heard about marriage equality denialism?

I'm not talking here about the people who recognize, quite rightly, that marriage equality is not yet a reality in the world. I'm talking about those who deny that marriage equality is even a possibility. I should probably call it "the-possibility-of-marriage-equality denialism," or IPOME denialism...but, well, no.

The other day, the Supreme Court refused to consider appeals of lower court rulings, rulings which overturned same-sex marriage bans in several states. This opened the door for same-sex marriages in Oklahoma and elsewhere. In the wake of this, blogger Matt Walsh--who is good at constructing arguments that include a few true premises--came out as a marriage equality denier. Here's how he puts it in his post, "There Is No Such Thing as Marriage Equality":

I have no problem with marriage equality — except that it doesn’t exist. It can’t exist. It never has existed. It never will exist. ‘Marriage equality’ — that is, the idea that the union between a man and a man can achieve equality with the union between a man and a woman — is nonsense. 
How would I oppose that which cannot be? That’s like trying to pass a law to deny Santa Claus his voting rights.

On one level, Matt's claim here is silly in the way that willful pig-headedness tends to be silly. When people talk about marriage equality, they typically have in mind granting to same-sex couples equal access to the distinct bundle of legal rights that come with civil marriage, rights which are presently available to heterosexual couples.

Is this possible? Of course it is. The proof is in the pudding: There are states which have extended this bundle of legal rights to same-sex couples. Same sex couples in these states have been able to make use of them.

In this straightforward sense of "marriage equality"--the sense that most people actually intend--marriage equality is clearly possible. So what's going on with Matt Walsh's strange assertion? Well, what's going on is that Walsh is deliberately using the term "marriage equality" in a sense different from the one that people today actually have in mind when they discuss marriage equality. This is the willful pig-headedness that I mentioned.

More precisely, what Walsh is doing in this essay is adopting an understanding of what marriage is that's especially popular among Roman Catholic theologians (although, interestingly, is rather different from what one would expect were one to use Roman Catholic marriage vows as one's standard for defining marriage). Walsh then takes "marriage equality" to mean a same-sex relationship "achieving" the same thing that a heterosexual relationship achieves when it becomes a "marriage" in this distinctive sense. And since, in this distinctive sense, a marriage is essentially a procreative union--and since a same-sex couple can't be a procreative union (although they can make babies with third-party help and raise them as a couple)--he denies that same-sex couples can have a marriage. If they can't have one, then marriage equality for them is impossible.

Given that this is what Walsh means, it turns out that his marriage equality denialism denies none of the following:

(1) The legal recognition and rights bestowed through civil marriage can be equally extended to heterosexual and same-sex couples. (They can, even if same-sex couples can't make babies.)

(2) Same-sex couples are just as capable as heterosexual couples of forming a loving, intimate, monogamous relationship. (That's true, too, even if same-sex couples can't make babies.)

(3) Same-sex couples are just as capable as heterosexual couples of making lifelong commitments of fidelity and mutual support. (Yup. True--even if same-sex couples can't make babies.)

(4) Same-sex couples are just as capable as heterosexual couples of forming life-partnerships in which they join their personal, material, and emotional resources together and jointly face the challenges and opportunities of life. (Can be done, even absent baby-making powers.)

(5) Same-sex couples are just as capable of promising "to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and health, until death do us part." (No promise to make babies is included on this list, so there's nothing keeping same-sex couples--and infertile straight ones--from making these vows.)

(6) Same-sex couples are just as capable of keeping those promises. (And just as capable of breaking them. Baby-making involves a different skill-set than what's required for faithful monogamy.)

(7) The chance to publicly make these promises before a religious community--and be held accountable to them by that community--can be equally extended to heterosexual and same-sex couples. (Yup. Communities and societies can do it, even if the couple lacks baby-making powers.)

In other words, when Walsh says marriage equality is impossible, he's using the term "marriage equality" in such a narrow sense that his claim does not rule out...well, marriage equality--at least when that term is used in the ways that most of the people fighting for marriage equality have in mind.

Or let's put it this way: There are all kinds of ways in which same-sex couples are just as capable as heterosexual ones of doing what married couples do. Some of these things are really central to what it means to be married--so central that they are expressed in the traditional marriage vows, something that can't be said of what Walsh treats as essential. 

Furthermore, it's clearly possible for both the state and religious communities to extend to straight and gay couples alike the same opportunity to publicly vow to do these things. It is clearly possible to equally support them in their efforts to live up to these vows. It is clearly possible to hold them equally accountable when they fall short.

All of this means that Walsh's claim that same-sex marriages can't possibly exist amounts to little more than an oddity of language--"If you happen to ascribe to this particular definition of 'marriage,' then same-sex marriages are impossible"--unless Walsh can give compelling reasons why marriage must or ought to be defined in terms of procreative potential instead of in terms of all the other things that characterize marriage as we understand it. And he needs to make this case even though what he treats as definitive isn't even mentioned in the traditional marriage vows.

This is an important point, because it is widely held that marriage vows are performative, in the sense that the act of making those vows before witnesses and appropriate authorities establishes a marriage. If that is true, and if the things that one vows to do are things that same-sex couples can do as readily as heterosexual ones, then it is indeed possible for same-sex couples to be wed, whether or not we think they should be.

It's as if Matt Walsh wants same-sex marriage to be impossible so that he doesn't need to defend his controversial claim that it's wrong.

To be fair, however, Walsh recognizes that his argument won't go very far unless he can make the case that his preferred definition of marriage is the one society must (morally?) adopt. His strategy for making this case is fairly conventional. In recent years, Margaret Somerville and Jean Bethke Elshtain have made essentially the same argument Walsh makes, but at greater length and without Walsh's Wonder Twins simile.

Yeah. The Wonder Twins. Remember those guys? They had super powers, but they had to touch each other to activate them. Walsh likens the human reproductive power to them. You see, most of our powers as human beings--the power to walk and talk and digest potatoes, for example--are powers that we have in the way that Superman has his powers. He's got them all by himself. But our reproductive power is activated only when a man and woman come together and have sex. Which is kind of like the Wonder Twins, except that they don't have sex (I think).

So, this unique and important power requires that a man and a woman get together. Neither has the power alone. And that's pretty special. It is. It's pretty amazing that the power to make a baby requires collaboration between two people, one from each side of what is probably the most visible and significant divide in the human species. It's also pretty amazing that the same collaborative act which makes babies can be an expression of love and intimacy of a uniquely powerful kind (although it can also be an act of violation, an act of mutual recreational use of another's body, a chore, etc.)

But what do we do with these facts? Do we use them as an excuse to marginalize people who are different? Do we make second-class citizens of those whose capacities for sexual intimacy are disconnected from their reproductive powers (disconnected because they are capable of genuine romantic intimacy only in sexual relationships with persons of the same sex)? Do we deny their intimate partnerships the legal standing of civil marriage?

Walsh thinks so. But this isn't a matter of "It's impossible to include them." It's a matter of "I think it's wrong to include them." The language of impossibility is simply operating as a smokescreen in his argument, perhaps because it seems less discriminatory, less deliberately marginalizing, if what you're doing is just describing the cold hard facts.

Walsh wants to avoid the appearance of deliberately trying to exclude same-sex couples from the social and legal goods of marriage, and so instead of taking a stand for discrimination and trying to show why he finds it justified, he says the following: "Marriage is essentially a procreative unit. Your partnership isn't a procreative unit. Hence, it's a sad but inescapable fact that you can't have a marriage. No one's denying it to you. It's just not possible for you to have it."

What's funny is that he recognizes that such a message would be seriously troubling to many (maybe even to himself) if its target were an infertile couple rather than a same-sex one. And so he flails mightily--with rhetorically empty rhetorical questions--to cast the illusion that he has made an argument that somehow immunizes infertile couples from the marginalizing message.

But let's be clear here. Infertile couples are, by virtue of their infertility, non-procreative. They don't make babies. Marriage, by Walsh's definition, is reserved for procreative pairs. So doesn't it follow that in addition to excluding same-sex couples from marriage, we should also exclude couples known to be infertile prior to marriage, including elderly couples who fall in love at the Bingo table?

Walsh tries to say no. He makes the point that infertility is like deafness in humans. Humans have ears--the natural structures whose function is to transfer auditory stimuli to the brain in a useful form. But in some people these structures are broken somewhere. They have a disability. What Walsh notes is that while the non-procreative character of infertile couples springs from a kind of disability like deafness, the non-procreative character of a same-sex couple springs from the fact that their kind of couplehood is incapable by nature of making babies.

This is a difference, but is it a relevant one? I think I mentioned early on that Matt Walsh is one of those bloggers who can be relied upon to use some true premises in his arguments. But more is required of an argument before we call it a good one. Even if all the premises are true, the argument is bad if the conclusion doesn't follow.

So let's explore Walsh's deafness analogy just a bit further. Imagine there's a species of persons in the world who lack ears. Unlike humans, they have no sense of hearing. In their case, their inability to hear isn't a disability. They just aren't designed to have hearing. And suppose that these persons are systematically denied jobs as music critics because they lacked the power to hear. They aren't being denied it because of a disability. They're just members of a species without hearing. But if their inability to hear is the reason we withhold music critic jobs from them, then consistency demands that, for the very same reason, we withhold music critic jobs from the deaf--even though, in their case, the lack of hearing is a disability. If it's just not possible to be a music critic without the power to hear, then it makes no difference whether the lack of hearing is "natural" to your kind or a disability.

Likewise, if our reason for withholding marriage from same-sex couples is that they don't form a procreative unit, then we should also withhold marriage from infertile couples for the same reason. And if we don't withhold marriage from infertile couples, it's because we think that it is perfectly possible for non-procreative couples to have marriages that are fulfilling and meaningful.

In other words, we don't think that lack of procreative capacity is to marriage what deafness is to music criticism. Instead, we think that marriage is the sort of thing that people can enter into for a range of interconnected reasons. People do it for the sake of having a partner in life, for the sake of establishing a crucible of monogamous commitment in which they can better learn how to love in the face of challenges, for the sake of support and nurture and the joy of companionship in life's ups and downs.

While we tend to think marriage provides the best context for child-rearing, it doesn't follow that child-rearing is a necessary part of marriage. While we encourage amorous pairs to limit potentially reproductive sex to marital contexts (for the good of the children that may result), it doesn't follow that we must limit marriage to amorous pairs who engage in potentially reproductive sex.

Of course, there's more to be said. But we can't even begin to explore our moral disagreements about what marriage should be about, and which policies best serve our interests and responsibilities, if we hide behind a smokescreen of impossibility.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Same-Sex Marriage in Oklahoma (!!!)...and Gov. Mary Fallin's Response




Yesterday, the United States Supreme Court refused to take up an appeal of a lower-court ruling that declared Oklahoma's same-sex marriage ban unconstitutional. This paved the way for same-sex marriage here in Oklahoma. It was a joyful day for many couples, including a number of friends of mine, who suddenly had a right they'd been denied their entire lives: the right to marry the person they love in their home state.

In other words, for the first time in their lives, gay and lesbian Oklahomans found themselves free from the systemic legal discrimination that Oklahoma has enforced for its entire history (even writing it into its constitution in 2004).

And while friends of mine cheered and cried in joy, while many rushed off to get their marriage licenses and lined up in churches and courthouses to finally receive the legal recognition they'd always been denied, the Governor of our state, Mary Fallin, issued a public statement condemning the decision and its implications.

Earlier today, one of my friends said how grateful he is that his belief system doesn't force him "to stand against love and commitment." Apparently, Mary Fallin's belief system does. For this, I pity her. Consider how hard it must be to be forced by your beliefs to utter words of outrage and condemnation in the face of the joy and tears and hugs of people who love one another, who finally are free to express their love and commitment in the public way that the state has always made available--for everyone but them.

How sad it must be, to feel obligated to throw wet towels on love and laughter.

Here is the wet towel she threw:

"The people of Oklahoma have the right to determine how marriage is defined. In 2004, Oklahomans exercised that right, voting by a margin of 3-1 to define marriage as the union of one man and one woman.

"The will of the people has now been overridden by unelected federal justices, accountable to no one. That is both undemocratic and a violation of states' rights. Rather than allowing states to make their own policies that reflect the values and views of their residents, federal judges have inserted themselves into a state issue to pursue their own agendas.

"Today's decision has been cast by the media as a victory for gay rights. What has been ignored, however, is the right of Oklahomans – and Americans in every state – to write their own laws and govern themselves as they see fit. Those rights have once again been trampled by an arrogant, out-of -control federal government that wants to substitute Oklahoma values with Washington, D.C. values."

Fortunately, as wet towels go, this statement wasn't very wet--and it didn't have much effect on the celebrants.

Let's briefly consider the details of Mary Fallin's claims. As she sees it, Oklahoma should be free to continue to practice marriage discrimination against its gay and lesbian citizens, in defiance of the court ruling that doing so violates the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment of the US Constitution.

She thinks it is the right of the people of Oklahoma, if the majority so chooses, to systematically exclude a portion of its population from access to the social goods of marriage. For her, this is a matter of "state's rights" and "democracy." Put simply, she thinks it is the right of the majority of the state to exclude select minorities from equal access to legally-conferred social goods, if that so happens to be in line with the majority's values.

But we live in a republic where democratic rule is not absolute. It is not absolute because the founders of this country recognized the importance of protecting individuals and minority groups from a distinct danger: the tyranny of the majority. What the majority of a state has the right to do is and has always been constrained by considerations of individual rights and the obligation of the government to preserve equality and liberty in the face of majorities that sometimes don't care about these things.

The question, then, is this: Does the majority in Oklahoma have the right to systematically exclude persons with a homosexual orientation from access to a valuable social good that the state provides to persons with a heterosexual orientation--namely, marital recognition for their intimate partnerships (and the attendant legal rights and protections).

Put another way, do the people of Oklahoma have the right to legally discriminate against gays and lesbians when it comes to marriage? (For those who are under the impression that there is no legal discrimination going on, see here).

This amounts to a question of justification. Legal discrimination can, in some cases, be justified. For example, the state can justifiably exclude the blind from access to driver's licenses. But legal discrimination is the kind of thing that requires justification. Absent a compelling state interest, legal discrimination violates both the political philosophy on which this country was built and the founding documents that express that philosophy.

The federal courts ruled, in effect, that the State of Oklahoma failed to meet this burden when it comes to its same-sex marriage ban. Hence, the ban was declared an unconstitutional infringement on the rights of persons to receive equal treatment under the law.

In the face of this, does Mary Fallin explain what she thinks is wrong with the federal court rulings? Does she build the case that legal discrimination is justified in this case?

She mentions the values of the people of Oklahoma, as if this were a sufficient basis for justifying the ban. But "majority values" in a state are precisely the sorts of things that cannot, by themselves, justify discriminatory treatment under the law. "Majority values" supported Jim Crow laws in most southern states. The majority can be wrong, its values unjust. If laws are discriminatory, then majority values have to give way. The alternative is to open the door to the untrammeled tyranny of the majority.

If the federal courts made a mistake, then we need to look at where the mistake lies, by looking at the substance of the court arguments. Does Fallin do this?

No. Instead, she throws a red herring. She asserts that the federal judges in question here--who were duly appointed according to the procedures written into federal law--are "unelected" and "accountable to no one." This sounds like she disapproves of the federal judicial system in this country, and thinks it should be radically restructured.

But even if she's right--even if there are good reasons to be unhappy with the design of our federal judicial system--why is that relevant in this case? Does she think the purported flaws in the federal judicial system have compromised the soundness of the ruling against Oklahoma's same-sex marriage ban? If so, she needs to show that this is so. Simply calling the federal judges "arrogant" and "out-of-control" shows us nothing--except that Mary Fallin can fling put-downs.

If you want to show that a flaw in the federal judicial system has compromised one of its rulings, you show this by, first of all, showing that the ruling is unsound. She makes no effort whatsoever to do that. Hence, her vague unhappiness with the way that federal judges get their positions is nothing but irrelevant distraction.

Think of it this way: Our judicial system is at the front lines of our nation's founding commitment to ensure that legal discrimination is not taking place, or when it is, that there is a sufficiently compelling reason for it. Given this fact, Oklahoma's same-sex marriage ban is clearly suspect. A court ruling against it sounds quite reasonable. If Fallin thinks that, despite this, the ruling is wrong, she needs to dig into the substance of the arguments and identify the flaws. Vague complaints and put-downs simply won't do.

What we have here is a fallacy taught in most freshman-level critical thinking classes: the ad hominem fallacy, which is roughly the mistake of attacking a person instead of their views and arguments. Instead of speaking to the substance of the federal rulings, Mary Fallin calls the judges names while vaguely deriding the system that put them in office.

We deserve better than freshman-level logical fallacies from out governor. Really, we do. Until we get it, those who are enjoying their new-found freedom to marry should treat Mary Fallin's statement for what it is: not so much a wet towel as a dirty dishrag.

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.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Some Thoughts on Ferguson

I've been wondering for awhile what I can add to the public discussion that has been generated by the recent events in Ferguson, MO: the police shooting of unarmed black teen Michael Brown, and the subsequent community protests. What light can I shed, a white man sitting comfortably here in Stillwater, OK?

And then I remembered something my daughter said earlier this summer. We were driving, and we passed a police vehicle. From her car seat in the back, my daughter waved to the police officer. I know this not because I saw her do it (I was watching the road), but because she promptly announced, "I waved to the police officer. I like to wave to the police. They're nice."

They're nice.

That is my daughter's experience of the police, and I'm not surprised. We have a relative, Uncle Rob, who's a police officer. I'm sure she thinks of him as a warm, intelligent, and charming gentleman--because he is all those things. For a few years, a police officer lived across the street from us. He and his family were good neighbors. We had them to our house for dinner. His wife helped my daughter acquire Charlotte, her American Girl doll. My daughter knew that if she ever needed to run to a neighbor for help, she should go to them.

The point is this: Police officers are members of my daughter's community. They're neighbors, like the teachers who live down the street, and the nurse around the corner, and the professor. They're family members. They have a job, and their job is to keep people safe and make sure everyone follows the law. It's an important job. It's good that some members of the community are doing it.

That's who the police are to my little girl. They're nice.

The job of a police officer is best served, I think, to the extent that they are what my daughter takes them to be: Members of the community that they serve, neighbors and friends and family members who identify with the people they meet on the street, who see their job as serving and protecting their own community.

Similarly, the job of a police officer is compromised to the extent that the line between officers and the community in which they work is a dividing line between us and them, between community members and strangers who enter it with power and authority. There is a fundamental difference between an occupying force--even one that sees its mission as keeping the peace--and the police. To the extent that this distinction evaporates, something has gone tragically wrong.

The police have a hard job, and as I learned a few years back from police officers at conference on criminal justice ethics, they operate day-to-day with a complex combination of enormous individual discretion and sometimes byzantine hierarchical oversight. On the beat, they have to make quick decisions with significant consequences largely on their own; but there is also a a world of procedure and regulation that they are responsible to. They are, as one officer put it, the only 24-hour social service agency. That is, they are expected to solve human problems in their community when others (whose official job it is) aren't available to do it--and at the same time, as their official job, they are to enforce the law and keep the peace.

In a world where guns are everywhere, they face significant danger to their very lives--because those who intend to break the laws will see the police as their enemy, as a threat to their aims, and they may be armed.

None of this can be easy. Given that rules need to be applied fairly and without favoritism, a police officer won't always be seen as "nice." But a police officer's job is so much better to the extent that neighborhood children think of the officer in positive terms. When there is a widespread sense of mutual belonging--when the officer thinks, "This is my community," and the citizen thinks, "That officer is my neighbor with an important and difficult job"--the work of the police officer becomes meaningful and appreciated in a way that can reduce some of the challenges and make other challenges worth it.

And the community is more likely to have the kind of relationship with local law enforcement that contributes to their quality of life. There is a world of difference between entrusting your safety to members of your community who have been carefully trained to protect and to serve--and living in the shadow of an occupying force.

Unfortunately, there are a range of forces that can push the relationship between police and the community in the direction of the latter.

Some arise from the inherent psychological pressures of the job. When your job leads you to seek out those who are likely to view you as an enemy--and who therefore pose a threat to you--the antagonistic us/them frame of thinking has the potential to bleed out across your psyche. Furthermore, the need to exercise authority in the enforcement of rules can make you hesitant to get too friendly. Your job calls for a kind of impartiality that may push you towards a degree of psychological distance from the community you serve.

A certain amount of suspicion and distance are probably essential to doing a police officer's job. But too much, and the police are no longer members of the community. Suspicion breeds suspicion. Distance breeds distance. In the worst cases, the police become a kind of occupying force.

In poor and socially marginalized communities, the risk of this is magnified by numerous additional factors. First, poverty and social marginalization breed crime, and this increases the psychological pressure in police to be increasingly suspicious and distant from the members of the community they serve. Second, police officers have jobs that pay well relative to the incomes of those in poor and marginalized communities, a fact which creates a kind of economic distance. It can also create physical distance: police officers are more likely to live in middle class neighborhoods. And because the job carries with it an important and recognized social role--one that you're unlikely to choose or manage to get if you are yourself too marginalized and disaffected--officers may have trouble identifying with the depth of marginalization that many in their community feel; and the most socially marginalized may, in turn, have trouble identifying with the police. The result is an increased risk of us/them thinking, a sense of disconnect that pushes policing in the direction of quasi-military occupation.

And I haven't even mentioned race.

Racial divisions can obviously play into the us/them thinking, especially if the demographic profile of the police force is too unlike that of the community population. But I think there is another issue related to race that may go under-appreciated, on linked to racial profiling. The issue is this: The natural desire of the police to form some sense of belonging within the community they serve is in tension with the suspicion and distance that the job sometimes brings. But if there are some members of the community who can be easily identified as "safe"--as non-threatening and law-abiding--the need for suspicion and distance can be loosened with respect to them. You can let down your guard enough, at least with those you can quickly identify as safe, to form the sense of kinship and connection that makes the job more meaningful.

There is therefore something seductive about the idea that profiling based on visible cues can pick out those who are likely to be dangerous law-breakers, marking them off from those one can form a sense of connection with. Race is one of the most visible cues of all. Combine that with a cultural history of racial stereotyping, and a demographic disconnect between the police force and the community--not to mention the fact that legacies of injustice have resulted in disproportionate numbers of blacks living in poverty and feeling marginalized--and what do you get?

You get Ferguson.

The community response we've been seeing in Ferguson does not arise from a single incident, no matter how tragic or terrible. It is the effect of a cumulative and long-standing problem, a disconnect between a community and the police so severe that mutual fear and opposition have largely displaced any sort of identification. In Ferguson, I doubt that little black girls see a police car and think, "You're nice." Too many of their brothers have come home indignant about being profiled, being treated as guilty until proven innocent...or, sometimes, not come home at all.

The question is how such alienation can be repaired.

Part of the answer may be demographic--seeking to encourage a police force that more closely resembles the community it serves. Part of the answer may be prioritizing the hiring of officers with deep personal ties to the community. But much of the answer may lie in deliberate programs designed to build bridges of understanding between the police and the community: opportunities for members of the community to share with the police their feelings and needs and experiences, and for police officers to do the same--facilitated to minimize accusation and blame and maximize mutual listening and understanding.

Give law enforcement officers the chance to gather with community members to share together what they fear, what they hope, what they need. Find ways to give each side a safe space to express their anger, their frustration, their hurt--and experience what it is like to be heard.

The people of Ferguson are in a better position to know what kinds of activities and programs will help the most. What I can say with confidence is this: The question of what will help overcome the alienation between police and community is intimately linked to a question of central importance to those in Ferguson who have taken to the streets, who are chanting "Hands up! Don't shoot!"

The question is this: What should they be asking for?

The most successful campaigns of the civil rights movement were organized around very concrete goals. Martin Luther King, Jr., insisted that when community action was taken to protest segregation practices, they be clear about what, specifically, they wanted from their opponents.

In Ferguson today, there is energy for change. Anger is energy, and it's spilling into the streets. If the people of Ferguson want to harness that energy in a way that has a chance of making a positive difference in their lives, they need unity and organization, and they need nonviolent direct action strategies that will call attention to the problems and the reasons for their outrage. But they also need a clear purpose. They need to ask for something--something specific that the police department is actually able to give.

Justice for Michael Brown is one goal, but it lies beyond the power of the police alone to give. The police can commit to approaching the Michael Brown shooting with transparency and integrity--but the outrage in Ferguson arises from a problem that runs much deeper than the shooting of one person. The anger in Ferguson is fueled by more than a single shooting, no matter how tragic. It is about a relationship between the community and the police that has broken down. Michael Brown's shooting and the response are symptoms of something deeper.

Here, then, is something the activists in Ferguson might ask for, which cuts to the heart of the deeper issue: They could ask for a concrete commitment by the police department and the local government, complete with action steps, to devise and implement a community program to overcome the alienation, the us/them ideology, that has overtaken the relationship between the Ferguson police and the community. Perhaps the result could serve as a model plan for building positive community connections with law enforcement in other communities across the country.

It isn't just community members who would prefer to live in a world where their young daughters see a police officer and, rather than feel a rush of fear, smile and wave. The police would much rather live in such a world, too. As such, the problem in Ferguson is a shared problem. And a demand for addressing the schism between community and police is a demand for something that everyone has motive to pursue.

The energy in Ferguson is more than just a powder keg. It is an opportunity--a moment when, if the forces can be aligned in the right way, significant positive change can happen. Let's pray that, in this moment in history, anger and wisdom can come together and move Ferguson--and maybe the rest of us with it--in the direction of something brighter.

Monday, August 25, 2014

From the Archives: The Paradox of the Stone and the Challenge of Defining "God"

Since I'm talking about the challenge of defining "God" in my philosophy of religion class this week, I thought I'd reprint this post, from an earlier occasion when I covered the same material.

This week in my philosophy of religion class we are talking about the concept of God. Since I have already expressed my views on how "God" should be defined in Is God a Delusion?, I don't intend to simply repeat myself here. But I do want to say a few words about some common challenges to the coherence of the traditional Western theological understanding of God--which, in the language I use in my book, is a "substantive definition" (one that defines God in terms of a set of properties) as opposed to an ostensive definition (which would define God by metaphorically "pointing," as Schleiermacher does when he defines God as the "Whence" of our feeling of absolute dependence) or a formal one (which sets out a procedure for arriving at divine properties, as Anselm does) or a functional one (which is what I tend to favor).

As I worded it in class, the dominant substantive definition of God in Western theology takes God to be "the omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent creator of the world who is transcendent, eternal, and self-existent."

One common challenge to God thus conceived targets the property of omnipotence, arguing that it is incoherent to attribute this property to anything. Another challenges the co-possibility of divine omniscience and creaturely freedom. Of course, the most historically important objection to theism is the argument from evil, which in some of its forms challenges the possibility of there existing a being characterized by omnipotence and omnibenevolence in a world with the amount and kind of evil we find in this one (I won't consider this challenge here, since I will be devoting considerable attention to it later in the semester).

The main thing I want to consider here is what significance such challenges have for the devoted religious believer. For this purpose, let me focus on the challenge to divine omnipotence. In its most common form, this challenge starts with the so-called Paradox of the Stone, which asks, "Can God create a stone so heavy that God cannot lift it?" The argument, roughly, is that however one answers this question one must reject divine omnipotence. Either God can create such a stone, in which case there is something He cannot do, namely lift said stone; or God cannot create such a stone, in which case there is again something God cannot do.

The traditional response to this argument is to define omnipotence in terms of the capacity to do whatever is logically possible--and then to note that it is not logically possible to create a stone so heavy that it cannot be lifted by a being that has the power to lift every possible stone. As such, on the assumption that God is omnipotent, God creating a stone God cannot lift is logically impossible--and since omnipotence is defined as the ability to do whatever is logically possible, the inability for God to create said stone is no restriction on God's omnipotence. It would be like saying that God cannot create a round square or make it true that two plus two equals seventeen.

Of course, if we define omnipotence as the capacity to do even what is logically impossible, then the paradox of the stone is a non-starter. If logical consistency is of no consequence to God, then God could do the logically impossible thing of creating a stone so heavy God could not lift it...and then lifting it (while it remaining true that God could not do so).

But while this solution to the Paradox of the Stone strikes me as sound insofar as it goes, it obscures what I find to be a deeper and more profound question raised by the paradox: Can an omnipotent being limit its power so that it ceases to be omnipotent? And if it can, would a God who did so thereby cease to be God?

How one answers these questions has some very interesting implications. First of all, it has implications for what one thinks about about the idea of "kenosis" that has been proposed (and vigorously debated) by some Christian theologians. "Kenosis" refers to a kind of divine "emptying" that some theologians invoked to help to make sense of the Christian doctrine of incarnation. The question at issue has to do with how Jesus' humanity is to be understood in relation to His divinity. If God is all-knowing, and if Jesus is God, does that mean the baby Jesus was born with a full knowledge of 21st Century string theory and could have explained it at three weeks of age to anyone who might have understood what He was saying?

Some theologians have thought that to answer "yes" to questions of this kind is to strip Jesus of his humanity. To be human involves living a human life--and to be born possessing all the infinite knowledge of the universe pretty much precludes that. Such a being would be a divine being wearing human skin, not a human being at all. But Jesus is supposed to be both fully human and fully God. Is there a way to make sense of this?

Some theologians, inspired in part by Phillipians 2:6-8, suggested that the solution was to suppose that in order to be truly human, the incarnate God "emptied" Himself of at least some divine attributes--in effect becoming limited in knowledge and power, etc. That is, in order to authentically share in the human condition and live in solidarity with God's finite creatures, God didn't just pretend to be a finite creature alongside us but actually took on real finitude.

This idea of kinosis took on different forms among its advocates. Some thought it involved a total abandonment of the divine nature while others distinguished among divine properties--distinguishing God's moral attributes from God's "physical" ones (such things as omnipotence, omniscience, and timelessness) and arguing that the incarnate God preserved the former while abandoning the latter.

What is important to note for my purposes here is that this kenotic theory has implications for how we are to understand divinity. Marilyn McCord Adams, in Christ and Horrors, puts the point in these terms:

If partial absolute kenosis (the theory that Jesus is emptied of God's "physical" attributes but not the moral ones) retains the traditional claim that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit could not exist without being God, it insists that not all the perfections formerly thought to be essential to Godhead were genuinely necessary to It. So-called physical attributes are allegedly the permanent but contingent possession of the Father and the Holy Spirit, and are contingently had, then abandoned, then repossessed by the Son. Thus, it seems, with respect to some perfections, Godhead essentially includes a capacity for them but not their actuality. (Italics in original)
Here we have a theology which, metaphorically speaking, maintains that God can create a stone so heavy that God cannot lift it--that, in other words, it is in the power of God to impose real limits on God's capacity to exercise power (as well as on God's knowledge, eternity, immunity from harm, etc.) but that the God so limited remains God.

Another variant of kenosis can be and has been posited apart from the uniquely Christian concern with making sense of the incarnation. Specifically, some have argued that the very act of creation is an act of the divine imposing limits on itself--that a divine withdrawal and abdication of power is essential for establishing the "otherness" of the created world, thus preserving its status as a reality distinct from God that can evolve on its own terms and eventually acquire (in accord with its own rules) the capacity to autonomously enter into a self-other relationship with God. This is an idea articulated, for example, in the kabbalistic notion of Tzimtzum, and it is also expressed in the writing of Simone Weil. Put simply, the idea is that the existence of a universe that isn't simply swallowed up into God requires the establishment of a kind of boundary or demarcation between God and the created world, one which implies limits on what God can do in relation to that world. On this view, in effect, the act of creating the universe is an act of creating a stone that God cannot lift.

The question then becomes, does God remain God after creation if the act of creation necessitates divine limitation? Or, perhaps better, do those who ascribe to theological views like Tzimtzum have to give up calling the object of their religious devotion God? I don't think so, but if not it makes little sense to insist that "God" just means what is expressed in the traditional substantive definition above. The fact is that people who believe in God can disagree about just how essential the various properties ascribed to God in this definition really are.

And someone who thinks God in fact possesses all of the properties identified in the traditional definition may well agree that these properties do not define God. For example, you might well think that my eyes are a particular shade of blue. But suppose someone demonstrated to you that it was physiologically impossible for human eyes to possess that specific shade, given the manner in which eye color arises. Would you conclude that I don't exist? Surely not--because, although you thought I possessed this specific property, it was never a property that you took to be definitive of me.

Likewise, there is presumably room to accept that a certain property you had formerly attributed to God is one you must give up on, without thereby being forced to give up on the claim that there is a God. But this raises in a new way the question of what, precisely, a theist is asserting when they assert that God exists. If someone ceases to be a theist--what, specifically, are they denying that they had once believed? And why is it that some undergo radical reconceptions in their beliefs while still professing to be theists? What is it that they still believe that warrants holding onto the "theist" label?

This is what I think a functional definition--a definition in terms of the role or function God fills in the life of the devoted theist--is helpful for. In class the other day, a student defined God, roughly, as that in which he could place his hope in times that otherwise would call for despair. This is a functional definition. Given this understanding of God, the believer might radically change their idea of God--but so long as God, thus characterized, could be a source of hope in the midst of despair for those who believed in it, it would still qualify as "God."

Monday, August 18, 2014

Fair People: A Confession

A bit over a week ago, while visiting my relatives in Buffalo, I took a trip to the Erie County fair. After eating some unhealthy food (and bypassing some really unhealthy food, such as deep fried Oreos and fried dough), we headed to one of the display buildings to see my sister's award-winning flower displays.

Unfortunately, food and drink weren't allowed in the building, and my kids weren't ready to relinquish their lemonades--so my wife and I took turns guarding the lemonades outside while the others took in the floral arrangements and used the restrooms.

That's how I found myself standing there, waiting, a sweating lemonade in each hand. And I did the only thing that made sense under the circumstances: I started people-watching.

I saw tattooed people who (apparently) were trying to expose every fold and flap of skin on which a favorite work of art had been inked.

I saw walking skeletons in Wrangler jeans and blue eye shadow.

I saw men of enormous girth whose mouths were greasy with the oils from the fried-whatever-on-a-stick they were clutching in their fists.

And I thought to myself, "Dear Lord, I may actually be one of the pretty people."

It was something of a jolting thought, and it made me laugh. You see, the week before that, my wife and I were in Boulder, CO, getting ready for her bid to complete a second Iron-distance triathlon (her bid was sadly derailed when she got swimming-induced pulmonary edema the moment she hit the water--but that's another story). While there, I spent a lot of time standing around waiting--and people-watching--while my wife got registered and otherwise ready for the race.

Waiting around in an Ironman Village, while triathletes trot by on every side, is a rather humbling experience. Even vigorously healthy people can start to feel, well, kind of dumpy.

But people-watching at the fair was a decidedly different experience. Glancing at my reflection in the glass doors, I found myself tempted to preen, cock my head, and say, "Hey there, me. You look mighty fine."

Well, not really. But you get the idea.

When I got home, I scrolled through my Facebook newsfeed to discover that a friend had posted a link to an article, "Deep-Fried America on a Stick." It featured portraits of some rather interesting fair-goers and an interview with the photographer, Bruce Gilden. Here's one of his portraits (click the link to see them all):



I stared at the photos. And then I promptly commented on my friend's post with the same glib thought that had entered my head as I was standing there guarding lemonade: I may actually be one of the pretty people.

Then I went to bed. But a day or so later, I found myself remembering something from Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land. I don't recall much about the book (I read it a long time ago), but this bit stuck with me.

Valentine Michael Smith, the protagonist of the novel, was raised on Mars by Martians--and one of the more engaging features of the book is Smith's outsider view of human culture. Something that perplexes him is the human concept of beauty. Those that we find beautiful strike Smith as simply boring. In contrast, he is drawn to interesting faces: weathered, wrinkled ones, faces that say something about the character of the person within.

And as that tidbit from the novel drifted to the surface, I felt ashamed. Ashamed of how I'd been looking at the people at the fair.

I returned to the Deep-Fried America article. I looked anew at Bruce Gilden's portraits. I looked at them as Valentine Michael Smith might have looked at them. Or at least in a way that was nudged by his fictional spirit. And I imagined that Bruce Gilden, in his choice of models, was nudged by that spirit as well.

I saw interesting faces, faces full of personality. Most of all, they were faces that told stories.

I wondered what stories I would have seen walking past me at the fair if I hadn't been possessed by my glib little thought. I wondered why we are so prone to see beauty in the superficial way that so puzzled Valentine Smith. I wondered just how much we miss.

When I look at faces like the ones Bruce Gilden photographed and I laugh at them (even if only to myself), these other human beings becomes nothing but a way for me to see myself--a kind of foil. I'm not looking at them. I'm blind to the stories in their faces. Delight, empathy, and fascination are sacrificed to a moment of smug superficiality.

Fortunately, I have a chance to redeem myself. The Oklahoma State Fair is coming up in about a month. I plan to be there, and to do some people-watching. But when I do, I'll be thinking about Valentine Smith.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

From the Archives: The Choice is Yours

For some reason--probably because I'm getting ready to head out on a family road trip soon--I was reminded of this post from a few years back. Because its wisdom is timeless and transformative, I decided it was worth sharing again. Enjoy!

While on vacation, I passed a billboard somewhere in rural Ohio that read, “The Choice is Yours: Heaven or Hell.” A toll free number was provided for those who wanted to learn more.

Fortunately (?) the idea for a crank call didn’t occur to me until it was too late to jot down the number. That didn’t stop me, however, from fantasizing about it for much of the remaining six hours on the road. Since I didn’t get around to any of the promised “lighter fare” on this blog while I was vacationing, I share with you now my crank call fantasies.

I should warn you that, in some circles, even having these fantasies would be viewed as grounds for damnation—and the same fate is most likely attributed to those who read them with a chuckle. So it’s probably best to remain grimly sober as you proceed.

(Note to readers: I manifestly do not think that every species of Christianity adopts all the views and ideas expressed by “Them,” especially as articulated in Fantasy 3. But some do. My aim in Fantasies 2 and 3 is not to offer any kind of serious philosophical critique of doctrines of hell, but to playfully gesture towards the absurdities of some of the less thought-out versions. Fantasy 1 is just what comes into your head when you’ve been driving a car for days on end.)

Fantasy 1: Probably Not What Carrie Underwood Intended.

Them: “Amazing Holiness Bible Church of the Redeemer, World Outreach and Evangelical Ministries Center. How may I help you?
Me: “Well, actually, I was hoping Jesus could help me. Is Jesus there?”
Them: “Jesus is always with you. All you need to do is turn your heart to Him and repent your sins.”
Me: “Yeah, well, I was looking for more, you know, practical help.”
Them: “Sorry? I’m afraid I don’t understand.”
Me: “Well, I saw your billboard, and it made me think of that song. You know, the one by that American Idol winner.”
Them: “Jesus Take the Wheel?”
Me: “Yeah! Well, you see, I was wondering if He could do that for me.”
Them: “Of course. Jesus is just waiting for you to open your heart, so that He may become the Lord of your life.”
Me: “Um, yeah, well, what about the Lord of my car?”
Them: “Excuse me?”
Me: “I’ve been driving for days and I’m getting pretty tired of it. I could use a break.”
Them: “Uh, Jesus doesn’t drive cars.”
Me: “Why not?”
Them: “Well...”
Me: “I mean, he was bodily resurrected, right?”
Them: “Yes...”
Me: “So He has arms to steer with, a foot for the gas pedal and brake, all of that. And surely He know how to drive, being omniscient and all.”
Them: “Of course. But that doesn’t mean he’s going to climb into your car and take over the driving.”
Me: “Why not?”
Them: “Well, for one thing, Jesus has more important work to do than to drive people around in their cars.”
Me: “But if He’s omnipotent, doesn’t that mean He can do that greater work and drive my car for me?”
Them: “He wants us to live our own lives. He’s not going to live it for us.”
Me: “Then what’s this ‘Jesus take the wheel’ stuff about? Anyway, I’m not asking Him to live my life for me. Just drive my car for an hour.”
Them: “What do you think Jesus is? He’s the Lord of Life, not your servant!”
Me: “Um, well...I don’t mean to contradict you or anything. I’m sure you know this Jesus guy better than I do and all...but, well, doesn’t the Bible say He is a servant? The suffering servant, or something like that?”
Them: “He served us by dying for our sins, not by doing our chores for us.”
Me: “Oh, wait. I think I get it. He doesn’t have a license, does He?”

Fantasy 2: Choices, choices

Them: “Grace for Life Bible Ministries, Center for Global Evangelism. How may I help you?”
Me: “I saw your billboard, the one about the choice being mine, and I had some questions.”
Them: “There is no more important question than your eternal destiny. God has led you to make this call.”
Me: “Yes, well, I was hoping you could tell me a little more about this heaven and hell, so that I know exactly what I’m choosing between.”
Them: “Of course. Heaven is the most wonderful and—”
Me: “You’ve been there?”
Them: “Well, no, but...”
Me: “So this is just hearsay, is that it?”
Them: “No. God has revealed to us—”
Me: “Can we just cut to the chase?”
Them: “What?”
Me: “I’m a masochist. You know what that means?”
Them: “Um...”
Me: “I get off on pain. Actually, what I like best is when an older woman beats me with a riding crop. So I’m wondering where I’m more likely to experience something like that.”
Them: “This is sick.”
Me: “Would I get to have that in heaven? Leather, manacles, bullwhips?”
Them: “Absolutely not!”
Me: “So, I guess my best bet is to go with hell, then?”
Them: “No! What you need is to invite Jesus into your life so that he may cure you of these perverse desires.”
Me: “So, my masochism is a bad thing?”
Them: “It is sick and evil! You must be cured of it!”
Me: “What if I’m not?”
Them: “Then you will roast forever in the unquenchable fires of hell!”
Me: “Mmm. Sounds nice.”
Them: “You don’t understand. It’s utter misery and suffering.”
Me: “But I already told you that I get off on—”
Them: “Not in hell, you won’t! Hell is a place of unmitigated suffering. It is existence stripped of anything that might redeem it. Even if you find pleasure in pain now, you won’t when you get to hell. It will be all and only pain, and you won’t even remotely enjoy any of it.”
Me: “So you're telling me, basically, that if God sends me to hell He’ll first cure me of my masochism so that I won’t enjoy any of it when the demons flog me?”
Them: “That’s right.”
Me: “And being cured of my masochism is a good thing, right? So hell isn’t all bad.”

Fantasy 3: Getting Serious

Them: “Church of Absolute and Indubitable Truth, Such That Any Who Doubt Are Obviously Delusional and Deserve What They Get. How may I help you?”
Me: “Can I get serious?”
Them: “About what?”
Me: “Do you really mean it when you say it’s my choice, heaven or hell?”
Them: “Oh. That. You saw our billboard. Yes, we mean it.”
Me: “Okay, then. Let’s see...heaven is eternal bliss and all that’s good, while hell is undying misery stripped of anything even remotely valuable. Have I got that right?
Them: “That’s about right, but there’s more to it. Demons with implements of torture are—”
Me: “Okay, okay. I don’t need the gory details. I choose heaven.”
Them: “Wonderful! Pray with me.”
Me: “Why?”
Them: “Why? Well, if you want to go to heaven you have to accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior. Usually that’s done in a prayer.”
Me: “Oh. Well…to be honest, I really don’t know what to think about all this Jesus business. I mean, people have different ideas about who he was and what he said and did and what it all meant. So, I’ll take the heaven stuff, since it sounds pretty nice, but let’s leave Jesus out of it.”
Them: “That’s not possible. You won’t go to heaven unless you accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior.”
Me: “But I thought the choice was mine. If I choose heaven, I get heaven, right? So I choose heaven.”
Them: “It doesn’t work that way.”
Me: “Okay, so what you’re telling me is that even if I choose heaven, I’ll get hell unless I make the right choice about Jesus. That doesn’t sound like the choice about heaven or hell is mine at all.
Them: “It's your choice whether you welcome Jesus into your life or not.”
Me: “But since that choice is framed by a set of beliefs about who Jesus was and what he did, I first need to adopt the right framing beliefs. So, what you’re really telling me is that, from all the world’s religions, I have to decide that Christianity’s got it right. Only then can I enjoy heaven.”
Them: “What I’m telling you is that you need to accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior if you want to get into heaven.”
Me: “So, if I’m really convinced that, say, Islam is true, and so become a faithful Muslim, I won’t get into heaven?”
Them: “That’s right. The only path to salvation is Jesus.”
Me: “So say you. But there are others I’ve talked to who have a really different view about this stuff. So I’m not sure what to believe. But wait…Oh, I think I get it. If salvation depends on getting my beliefs right, and since the truth isn't obvious in this life, then God’ll make the truth obvious after I die. Right? So I can make a fully informed choice then.”
Them: “No.”
Me: “No?”
Them: “You have to decide before you die. If you do not accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior before death, you will go to hell.”
Me: “Well, if that’s true, then God is pretty mean.”
Them: “God is not mean. He became human so that He might suffer and die for the salvation of the world. He’s love.”
Me: “But you’re telling me that if I sincerely try to figure out the truth about reality in this life and get it wrong, God slam-dunks me down into hell?
Them: “The truth has been made manifest to all, so that no one has any excuse. Says so in Romans.”
Me: “Well, it’s not manifest to me! The ultimate truth about reality seems to be one of the most mysterious and not obvious things of all. All the evidence indicates that sincere people who care about truth arrive at very different conclusions about the ultimate nature of reality, and so about religion. If guessing wrong about religion means that one is cast into hell, then the choice isn’t really up to me at all. I can choose heaven all day, but if I guess wrong about the nature of reality, it won’t matter. Isn’t that what you’re saying?”
Them: “It’s not a matter of guessing. The Truth is obvious to anyone with eyes to see.”
Me: “So, you’re telling me I’m blind?”
Them: “If you do not see that Jesus is the Way, then yes. You are blind.”
Me: “And because I’m blind I’m doomed to hell even if I choose heaven?”
Them: “I suppose you could say that.”
Me: “Well, then, I hate to tell you this, but…well, you guys may be in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. I’m afraid I’m going to have to report you.”