Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Why Public Sex Bans are Wrong

Steve Zara has posted a thought-provoking article, entitled Why Burqa bans are wrong, discussing bans recently introduced by the French government and some other parts of Europe. I confess to being not completely convinced of the ban's rightness or wrongness, although I lean towards it being right. Many good points are made by him and other anti-banners, citing civil liberties, impracticality, discrimination and silliness. I agree with them!

But that's not to say that these points make a ban wrong, just that any ban must be justified. Societies do ban things, so a knee-jerk libertarian response is not appropriate, though there are civil liberty concerns to weigh. Steve also notes that the real problem of wearing the burqa is that it is '...ill-mannered and disrespectful to others in society'. This is a good observation, but not the *most* problematic thing about it, in my opinion, when it is a cultural *imposition*. So I thought I would compare burqa wearing with public sex, after spotting this story about a cargo cult in Papua New Guinea, who decided that sex would deliver more bananas (I don't scour the web for stories about sex cults, and anyone who says I do is a liar!). A few quotes:
The Banana Cult is headed by a man from Yamine village.
The man and his followers have been engaged in illicit public sex for the past four months and have forced other villagers under threat of violence to participate.
According to Mr Namusa (village elder), the villagers resorted to cult activities, claiming the government had forgotten them. Mr Namusa said the cultists believed that their banana fruit would multiply 10-fold every time they had sex in public.
Mr Namusa confirmed the cult movement and said young men and women including married couples were walking around naked and having sex in public places
without being ashamed of themselves.
So to paraphrase Steve's first paragraphs:
Doesn't seeing people having sex in public make you feel uneasy? It makes me feel uneasy. It makes very many people feel uneasy, so uneasy that in several places in Europe there are laws against public sex either on the books or being planned. Such laws are dangerous, and unnecessary.
What is the problem with such sex?
I'm sure the analogy doesn't work completely, but, remember; no doubt some of the people indulging in public sex were freely indulging - it's their lifestyle choice. Should we restrict their freedom? On the other hand, many members of the community were cowed by the group dynamic, and some were too young to know any different. Should they be protected?

Don't be silly, one might say, public sex is much more harmful than a mere fashion choice. Perhaps, perhaps not; I just don't know the damage that burqa wearing *actually* causes (nor indeed public sex).

Banning burqa-wearing in public may have the effect of imprisoning women in those cultures. But, likewise, a banana cultist would feel obliged to spend a lot more time shut up inside having sex to ensure their banana deliveries.

There's only a few women who wear the burqa, so it's hardly a widespread problem. But would one allow just a few tens of people having public sex to ensure their banana delivery? I can't see it.

The point is that legislation against practices, such as public sex and public burqa wearing, are not bad per se, and have to be considered on the merits of each case. If the effects of burqa wearing are sufficiently abusive one would *have* to consider introducing such legislation against that abuse.

Now I don't *think* that burqa wearing is as unwelcome as public sex, although I'm not too sure what harm to society *either* brings! As I say, *I just don't know*. But there is, at the very least, a clear case of potential abuse with 'extreme' clothing that should be assessed, to avoid harbouring a community of abused women. And I don't see that a ban, any ban, can be dismissed out of hand, if it could help to lift the abuse.

Mind you, it would be a good test for Harris's science of morality. If all studies showed communities and women *flourishing* wherever the burqa is worn (I doubt very much that would be the case), what should be the scientific response? Perhaps there might be a need to resort to some Rawlsian primary social goods; or acceptance that we shouldn't be so prescriptive about what is good for people.

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Moral Inscrutability

Russell Blackford has written a good blog post summarising the philosophically-minded objections to Sam Harris's is-ought pseudo-dismissal. I'm basically in agreement with Harris, although note the (valid) objections of a number of philos about the meta-ethics - I just don't think they matter *that* much! But Russell makes a good point when he summarises Harris's argument comparing his putative moral science to medical science:
Unfortunately, we are nowhere near to having the sort of general agreement as to the goals of, well, moralising, if you will, that we do with practising medicine or science. So it's no use arguing:

P1. The ultimate goals of medicine and science are contestable
P2. We can practice medicine and science with no terrible difficulty.
C. We can, with no terrible difficulty, practice anything whose ultimate goals are contestable.
Hence, we can, with no terrible difficulty, practice a "science of morality".

The correct conclusion, at "C.", is that we can, with no terrible difficulty, practice some things whose ultimate goals are contestable. As far as this argument goes, whether morality is one of those things is left as an open question. It really depends on just how much debate there is about a practice's ultimate goals, and how this pans out in practice. Unfortunately, the ultimate goals of morality are so controversial, and so disputed at such a deep level, that it's not surprising when much of what goes on in moral philosophy relates to trying to get agreement on the ultimate goals.
I think this is right, at a foundational level. However, Russell agrees that applying ethics is something that can be done:
But Harris doesn't actually need to make an unheralded breakthrough in metaethics to establish his main point about the possibility and desirability of criticising moral systems. If those moral systems are harmful to human wellbeing ... then criticise them for it! I think hammers exist to drive nails and that it's approximately correct to say that moral systems exist to conduce to human wellbeing and, to some extent, the wellbeing of other sentient creatures.
And of course each society establishes a way of living that announces their conception of the best morality - it would be disingenuous to suggest otherwise.

The meta-ethical problems arise, it seems to me, from the inscrutable origins of our morality. Because we have evolved in the environment according to events that are impossible to retrodict, let alone predict, we find it very difficult to determine the cause of every animal's every trait. The morality we have (signs of which appear in other mammals) has been a necessary development for our survival, or is a consequence of another feature that was necessary for our survival. But it's still just a *feeling*, so consequently isn't an *infallible* guide to what is right for us. It's not a bad starting point, but because many think they have nothing else to go on, they trust their 'gut' feeling over all else.

The religious turn morality's *fallibility* (observed empirically) and turn it into *arbitrariness*. To bolster their flagging confidence in 'what is right', they invest a God with good and call it absolute and objective. Much analysis down the years has yet to show that this approach is tenable or, indeed, plausible. One would think that a good-invested God might have an effect substantially different from an evil-invested God, but it's difficult to see how either could result in the universe we have.

The rationalist can accept that we have a sense of what is good without it being absolute, so tempers it with a good dose of reason and evidence; like everything else in life.

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Monday, 17 May 2010

Catholic Post-modernism

A useful post, by Simon Rowney of Cathnews, as an example of the sort of witless rambling that the intertubes facilitates. I'm of the opinion that the more free speech and transparency for ideas in the public sphere the better, and the internet supplies that in spades. So, the theory goes, idiocy will be exposed, and the human project will progress *more* rationally. Hopefully. It's possible, however, that it allows foolishness to be spread as quick if not quicker than before, so the theory may be wrong. Consider this nonsense:
Modern people believe philosophy is a private and personal encounter with truth. Ever since the publication of Descartes' Meditations each person has been forced to answer the fundamental questions alone. This paradox holds true, despite the fact that Science, much like Christianity, is very public and has a definite creed.
I'm not too sure what this means; perhaps he's commenting on the inevitable problem we humans have as prisoners of our own perceptions; certainly Descartes' cogito ergo sum points us in that direction. But one can easily fall into solipsism, which hardly gets the Catholic anywhere. If one isn't solipsistic, then, by definition, one isn't *forced* to answer the fundamental questions alone. No, one has fellow travellers, and tools to help. (And of course, science does not have a *creed* but a methodology.)
Because of this, in the modern world it is considered a grave error to question another person's rationality. By all means we are invited to proclaim truth and critically appraise the validity of arguments. However we cannot, under any circumstances, question another's rationality.
This is so laughable one is attempted to call Poe. What would be the point of not pointing out someone's irrationality? Or is he saying no-one's really irrational?Are we really expected never to question someone's rationality? Where does that leave the courts, who have to decide on the competence of defendants? Are we not expected to call Harold Shipman and Christie mad? This really is the height of stupidity, let alone irrationality. It's clear to me that what the writer is talking about is not modernism, but post-modernism.
Dawkins assumes that all educated people will reach the same conclusions!
No. He's well aware that educated people reach different conclusions. That evidence is all around us. Why is science such an important methodology? Because it acknowledges this truth and counters it.
In the modern world proclaiming public and definite truths has special difficulties. Dawkins and many spokespeople for science are not even aware these difficulties exist. They move forward in blissful ignorance of their fundamental myopia.
On the contrary, in my experience they are well aware of the problems that proclamations of definite truths can be. Truth in science, as opposed to logic for example, is always contingent. In this it stands in stark opposition to the bold absolute assertions of the dogmatically religious.
The Church, on the other hand, is acutely aware of the modern challenge. She is equally aware that personal philosophy can strengthen Faith and create opportunities for evangelization. In large part the Church's view has been the happy result of Cardinal Newman's influence. Through the life and writings of this thoroughly modern man, the Church has come to understand and embrace the extraordinary interplay between a personal philosophy and a public creed.
It's ironic indeed that the Catholics are beatifying Newman, who appears to have been a very devout man whose very nature is denied as natural by his Church, and was buried with his lifelong partner Ambrose St. John. Interesting indeed to consider how the personal and the public 'interplayed' for him. But however pious and wise is a person does not make them right in all matters, and for that reason, personal philosophy is nothing more than a useful contribution to the human project. The root of much evil in the world is to reify one's own personal philosophy and present it as fact. This could be the definition of the religious.

Rowney wants to discredit science through a post-modern dismissal of all rational analysis, which allows him to maintain his foul prejudices (and of course everyone else theirs). So we begin to see a coalition of forces in defence of irrationality, made up of the devout and the credulous, demanding an unthinking *respect* for any crackpot idea. That way, they can get a free pass for their favourite crackpot idea.

Now the danger here is that many people have rather *disreputable* crackpot ideas, which they are keen to impose in the public sphere, to satisfy their own prejudices and benefit themselves. Rowney's argument is the perfect justification for *any* ideology. By his own logic a church set up with a mission statement to eliminate all Roman Catholics could not be condemned as irrational. Well, unlike him, I *would* question the rationality of such people, and would defend everyone's right to question it. More than that, it's vital for the healthy development of our society that we shouldn't stand idly by when we see irrational behaviour, but should condemn it for what it is.

Therefore I question Rowney's rationality, despite not being able to, apparently.

For an example of the irrationality of Catholic dogma, try this.

And a tragic example of the irrationality of another sect here.

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