Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Ideology Driving Faith Schools Initiative

On 13th September this year I wrote, with the help of the BHA, to my MP, Jeremy Quin, about the recent announcement on faith schools to abolish the 50% cap on entrance faith requirements:

Dear Jeremy Quin MP,

I am writing to you as a constituent to ask you to oppose the plans to allow new and existing religious free schools to discriminate against all your constituents who happen to fall outside a school's denomination. I have at least 3 objections:

1) Principles of fairness: it cannot be right that my tax money, and that of most taxpayers, goes towards educational establishments that would bar our children and grandchildren. In fact, of course, equity dictates quite the opposite; that the public funding of schools should require that they are open to all, in principle.

2) Integration: we should all know by now that a major challenge to us in the modern world is to effectively integrate our multi-cultural populations. Secularism has proved the best approach to this problem, for the religious and non-religious alike. Gandhi, recognising the challenge that faced the Indian subcontinent, was religious and a secularist, and said that the state should never promote denominational education out of public funds. As I'm sure you know, David Cameron said about the existing 50% rule:

‘It cannot be right…that people can grow up and go to school and hardly ever come into meaningful contact with people from other backgrounds and faiths. That doesn’t foster a sense of shared belonging and understanding – it can drive people apart.’

Well, he was wrong about Brexit, but I hope you’ll agree that on this score he was absolutely right! The evidence tells us that religious selection in schools entrenches religious segregation in the community, and reduces social cohesion.

3) Educational standards: faith schools have a worse record than other schools in teaching anti-science, such as creationism, and promoting views that discriminate against minorities, like the LGBT community. Despite the teaching of creationism being banned, this still didn't prevent Ofsted awarding a status of 'Good' to a school that censored questions on evolution in a science exam and admitted to teaching creationism ( Allowing full selection will increase the dangers of the wholesale indoctrination of children with these retrograde views. Of course, that is exactly why religious groups lobby for full selection!

So I hope you agree that on grounds of fairness, integration and educational standards, the removal of religious selection is what we should be aiming for, not its re-introduction. Thank you.

He replied on 11th October:

Dear Mark Jones 
Thank you for contacting me about faith schools. 

The Prime Minister has made clear that the Government is dedicated to making Britain a true meritocracy and that education lies at the heart of that mission. The Government has recently published a consultation that asks for views on a range of proposals aimed at bolstering the education system's ability to extend opportunity to all. 

While the number of children in a good or outstanding school has risen dramatically in the last few years it remains the case that too many children in this country still do not have access to either. The proposals that have been put forward look to deliver an even more diverse school system that gives all children, whatever their background, the opportunity to achieve their potential. 

Faith schools have a strong record of high pupil attainment and are often very popular with parents. Current rules, however, restrict the ability for more good faith schools to be opened, without succeeding in promoting integration. The proposals would see the current cap on the number of pupils who can be admitted on the basis of faith when the school is oversubscribed removed. 

The Government has stressed that if this rule is implemented it would be complimented [sic] by more effective requirements to ensure faith schools are properly inclusive. I can assure you that the Government will ensure that safeguards are in place to promote diversity and inclusivity in faith schools, so that pupils of all faiths and none are able to play a full part in the life of the school. 

The Government's consultation is asking for views from teachers, children and parents. If you would like to make your views known, you can do so online before 12 December. Visit

Thank you again for taking the time to contact me. 
Jeremy Quin 
MP for Horsham 
House of Commons 
London SW1A 0AA 

As you can see, the response does not engage with the points in my missive except in the most tangential way. How increasing the amount of faith-based discrimination faith schools can engage in will 'deliver an even more diverse school system' I cannot imagine. Unless they simply mean we will have an even more segregated school system, which is the inevitable outcome of such a measure. And I honestly don't know what 'Current rules, however, restrict the ability for more good faith schools to be opened, without succeeding in promoting integration' means!

The suspicion is that members of the Government simply want to see more children subject to faith-based education for their own religious reasons. This suspicion is not allayed by their manipulation of the statistics to serve this agenda - the Department for Education has been ordered to amend ‘misleading’ faith school figures by the UK Statistics Authority following a BHA complaint:
BHA Education Campaigner Jay Harman commented, ‘We’re glad the UK Statistics Authority has taken action on what was a clear attempt by the Government to massage the figures in a way that misleadingly presents the 50% cap as a failure. The idea that allowing schools to admit children from only one particular religion is in any way compatible with promoting integration was counter-intuitive to begin with, and it should come as a surprise to no-one that the figures demonstrate this.’

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Sunday, 20 November 2016

Why Trump won the Presidency

From Pew polling, 16th September 2016
(Warning: you are unlikely to find the reason for Why Trump won the Presidency in this post.)

Have you noticed that there seem to be as many reasons people voted for Trump as minutes in the year? Some of them contradictory. Everyone seems to have their pet theory on why the Donald is now President-Elect. Here are some of those theories, analyses of Trump voters, and some quotes from Trump voters themselves.

From the BBC, 9th November 2016:
...working-class white people, particularly ones without college education - men and women - deserted the party in droves. Rural voters turned out in high numbers, as the Americans who felt overlooked by the establishment and left behind by the coastal elite made their voices heard.
...he was bulletproof.
Mr Trump's pox-on-them-all attitude is likely to have proved his independence and outsider status at a time when much of the American public reviled Washington (although not enough to keep them from re-electing most congressional incumbents running for re-election).
...Mr Trump's sharpest rise in the standings came in the weeks between that first letter and Mr Comey's second, in which he said he had put the investigation back on the shelf.
[He t]rusted his instincts.

From The Independent, 9th November 2016:
The New York tycoon delivered a message of quick-fix solutions that many found appealing.
“We need a businessman,” [a voter] said. “I think a businessman can get things done.”
Toby and Wendy Shaw said they were tired listening to politicians promising to change things. “People are fed up with the lies,” said Mr Shaw. “How many years have we had these politicians? It’s time for someone with a backbone to stand up and do what needs to be done.”
A total of 90 per cent of his supporters listed the economy as being very important to them when it comes to making their choice, according to a recent Pew poll. (!)
Polls have shown that Mr Trump has received strongest support from white male voters without college degrees, and he has targeted communities in states such as Ohio, Iowa, West Virginia and North Carolina. Frequently he has taken his message to former industrial strongholds such as Youngstown, Ohio, that over the past 20 years has witnessed economic devastation and population decline.
“I think he will do the right thing for America,” [a voter] told The Independent. “He is going to knock the hell out of Isis. He says he will build a wall, I believe he will.”
...exit polling from the primaries found that Mr Trump’s voters made about as much as Ted Cruz voters, and significantly more than supporters of either Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders.
Trump support was correlated with higher, not lower, income...
Lonnie Looney, a former miner said he would be voting for Mr Trump as he believed he was the best chance the community had of returning to its glory days of well-paid work. He said: “Hillary Clinton should be in jail.”

Letter to the Denver Post, 17th November 2016:
As the media dumped more and more on Trump while turning a blind eye towards Hillary Clinton and her many follies, people identified with Trump and it made them even madder and more determined to poke a stick into the ruling class’ eye, and they did.  Power to the people.

Per Bernie Sanders, 17th November 2016:
...the democratic party cannot talk to the people from where I came from.
...people didn’t resonate with Hillary because at a deeper level they could feel that she can’t be trusted.

From NPR, 12th November 2016:

[T]he Electoral College picks presidents.
...more voters chose third-party candidates.
Clinton did not fire up the Obama Coalition.
Whites without college degrees have fled to the GOP.
Democrats' cratering with blue-collar white voters.

Per Michael Moore:
Rust Belt Brexit.
The Last Stand of the Angry White Man.
The Hillary Problem.
The Depressed Sanders Vote.
The Jesse Ventura Effect.
From ITV, 9th November 2016:
Appealing to middle America.
A vote against the establishment.
Trump's ability to survive scandal.
Clinton's emails.

From Quartz, 9th November 2016:
Silent Trump vote.
Celebrity beat organization.
A populist revolt against immigration and trade.
Outsiders against insiders.
America, the divided.

From Wired, 15th November 2016:
Facebook Actually Won Trump the Presidency.

From NY Magazine, 9th November 2016: 
Donald Trump Won Because of Facebook.

From YourStory, 11th November 2016:
Majority of Americans identified with him.
He won the hearts of Clinton’s rejects.
He fed the ravenous bellies of male and white supremacy. 
He symbolised the winds of change.
He had what Clinton didn’t – fervent supporters.
He was the ‘scandal-proof’ monk.
The fault in Clinton’s stars.

Per Julia Galef:
...humans IN GENERAL are bad at reasoning and seeing through bullshit, which caused particularly bad consequences this time via Trump fans, who made a choice that (if the human brain were better at reasoning) they would have realized was net bad for their overall goals, which presumably include avoiding nuclear war.

Per Massimo Pigliucci, 14th November 2016:
...a lot of people in the US seem to be affected by amathia, an ancient Greek word best translated as “un-wisdom.”.

Per Keith Parsons, 16th November 2016:
Donald Trump sailed into the White House on an ocean of lies.

Per Bradley Bowen, 9th November 2016:
I still believe that education has the potential to change our species into rational animals, but I fear that so long as the blind are leading the blind in our colleges and universities,  we will continue to face the threat of racist, sexist, bullies and idiots becoming elected to powerful positions where they can continue to shit on all of us.

Per Steven Novella, 17th November 2016:
The American voters essentially said – you can lie to us. You can sell us whatever fiction you think we want to hear, and we will reward you for it. In fact, we will help you spread those lies. They will become our truth.

Surely some of these (maybe even all!) are correct. The most worrying trend for me is perhaps the last one; the cavalier approach to facts and fact-checking rampant in social media suggests a distrust of science and 'experts' that has been fomented by vested interests in politics, business and the media. People discount careful examinations of our world in favour of superficial soundbites that they like the sound of and fit their personal worldviews. UPDATE: Here the New York Times shows how one conclusion-jumping tweet can become a 'fact'.

Perhaps the most unpalatable conclusion is that Trump voters simply are like Trump: racist, misogynist, shallow, bullying, authoritarian, ignorant, selfish and vain. It seems unlikely, however, that close to 50 million are like that (although perhaps we all have these traits to a greater or lesser degree). Some of them will be for sure, as the Ku Klux Klan endorsement showed. But most will have made a calculation that a racist, misogynist, shallow, bullying, authoritarian, ignorant, selfish and vain man represents the best option amongst some very bad options. Hard to believe for some, including me, but the political climate is desperate, even if the economic reality is not so. It is, perhaps, a sign that growing inequality is coming home to roost.

A bit like Brexit, there has been an unholy confluence of factors causing Trump's victory. It shows how fragile our existence and well-being are; we truly are corks bobbing on a sea of determinism, with little to no say in our destinies. Like Candide, however, I still intend to cultivate my garden.

Read more »

Tuesday, 11 October 2016


Richard Swinburne's recent speech to a regional meeting of the Society of Christian Philosophers, and the response to it, highlights how religion can support retrograde beliefs long after the rest of us have jettisoned them. I was surprised to find, for example, that Opposition to Interracial Marriage Lingers Among Evangelicals more than it does among the unaffiliated. Here a Christian continues to argue against mixed race marriage using the Bible:
Throughout the Bible interracial marriage is discouraged.
In the book of Ezra, the Israelites repented of their abandonment of God. As part of this repentance they pledged to end their interracial marriages according to God's will:
“We have been unfaithful to our God by marrying foreign women from the peoples around us. But in spite of this, there is still hope for Israel. Now let us make a covenant before our God to send away all these women and their children, in accordance with the counsel of my lord and of those who fear the commands of our God. Let it be done according to the Law. Rise up; this matter is in your hands. We will support you, so take courage and do it.” (Ezra 10)
A similar experience is recorded in Nehemiah 13:
“Moreover, in those days I saw men of Judah who had married women from Ashdod, Ammon and Moab. Half of their children spoke the language of Ashdod or the language of one of the other peoples, and did not know how to speak the language of Judah. I rebuked them and called curses down on them. I beat some of the men and pulled out their hair. I made them take an oath in God’s name and said: ‘You are not to give your daughters in marriage to their sons, nor are you to take their daughters in marriage for your sons or for yourselves.’”
Other prohibitions against interracial marriage can be found in Exodus 34:12-16, Joshua 23:12, and Deuteronomy 7:3: “Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons...”
...and the supposed problems arising from it:
Research has repeatedly demonstrated that interracial marriages end in divorce more often than same-race marriages. For marriages involving a White female and Black male the divorce rate is 200% higher than if the White female had married a White male.
I'm sure, however, that most Christians would not give any credence to these views and arguments. The views expressed on homosexual sexual acts in Swinburne's talk were discriminatory in the same way, in the sense that Swinburne identifies a group of people by virtue of an attribute that has no intrinsic moral implications (sexual orientation), and treats the group differently because of that attribute (discourages them from acting on that attribute). Swinburne thinks that this discrimination in the treatment of homosexuals is fair, and, in fact, good; I do not. The notes for his speech are here (but note that this link seems to be working at some times but not others), and there is a video here.

How mistaken Christianity is

In the talk he starts by noting how wrong traditional Christian teaching on sexual morals is currently considered:
As we all know, traditional Christian teaching on many moral issues, but in particular on sex, family, and life is regarded by all non-religious and some religious believers as totally and evidently mistaken.
Pretty much every non-religious organisation that comments on such things would confirm that there is nothing wrong with homosexuality per se. The WHO Bluebook says 'Sexual orientation alone is not to be regarded as a disorder', and nowhere does it say that there is anything wrong with homosexual sexual acts per se. A recent WHO policy document, noting the ruling of a previous bluebook, says:
 Although ICD-6 classified homosexuality as a sexual deviation that was presumed to reflect an underlying personality disorder, subsequent research did not support this view. 
...and continued:
Over the last half century, several classification systems, including the ICD, have gradually removed diagnoses that once defined homosexuality per se as a mental disorder. These changes reflect both emerging human rights standards and the lack of empirical evidence supporting the pathologization and medicalization of variations in sexual orientation expression. 
So, to confirm Swinburne's impression: yes, authorities agree there is nothing wrong with same-sex attraction, or same sex sexual acts, contra Christian teaching. You would hope that these rulings should drive the ethics of Christians, particularly a theologian who prides himself on his natural theology.

Homosexual sexual acts are immoral?

To his credit, Swinburne dismisses Catholic 'natural law' arguments based on function:
The Catholic ‘natural law’ tradition has sought to show that [divorce, fornication, homosexual sexual acts, contraception] are 'disordered' or 'unnatural' actions, and for that reason wrong. The best contemporary statement of this tradition known to me is Alexander Pruss’s book One Body. Pruss argues that bodily organs have ‘functions’ and they ‘strive’ or ‘try’ to ‘fulfil’ their functions. For example, Pruss argues, the penis has the function in intercourse of omitting (sic) semen into a vagina which it strives to do; and to prevent it from doing this is unnatural and so wrong. It seems to me that to ‘strive’ or ‘try’ is an intentional action which only intentional agents can do; and that even if I am mistaken about this, it still doesn’t follow that it would be morally wrong to do what is unnatural.
Quite. But he still wants to defend the traditional view that these things are immoral, so he has to make an argument to this effect. For background, he doesn't think that homosexual sexual acts are intrinsically immoral (bad in themselves), but extrinsically immoral. He says:
God, like any other benefactor such as parents or the state, has reasons also to command humans to do actions which would not otherwise be obligatory. These reasons include (A) coordinating imperfectly obligatory actions so as to ensure the realization of a good overall goal. This may involve telling different humans to do different actions...God may tell all Christians to worship together each week on a Sunday rather than on a Thursday, in order to ensure that the Christian community worship together. 
The idea here is, I think, that there are practices that will encourage good outcomes, and, further, that this practice of doing certain things, or refraining from certain things, will encourage actions over and above our normal obligations ('supererogatory'), and that is virtuous.

Homosexual orientation as a disability?

He says:
Having homosexual orientation is a disability – for a homosexual cannot beget children through a loving act with a person to whom they have a unique lifelong commitment.
Without refinement, this looks like a definition of disability that is going to be too wide; that is, it is going to include people who would not normally be considered disabled, such as the infertile, older people, those with a low sex drive, unattractive people, and even Catholic priests and nuns (priests and nuns are people with a clerical leaning, and that leaning means they 'cannot beget children through a loving act with a person to whom they have a unique lifelong commitment'. Should society therefore discourage the young from developing leanings to serve Christ?).

And, of course in actual fact homosexuals 'can beget children through a loving act with a person to whom they have a unique lifelong commitment', and have demonstrated that ability throughout history. And often this has been done in response to Christian teaching on homosexuality. In his response to Martin Pleitz's paper on his homophobia, Swinburne suggest that such people are not 'fully homosexual', and should therefore restrict themselves to heterosexual acts.

This is a naive view of human nature; apart from its binary view of sexual orientation which can be challenged, it reduces sexual orientation to a physical rather than an inner reality. Humans are sophisticated beings with a rich inner life, and are quite capable of divorcing their inner life from their physical reality; we are skilled fantasists, after all. Further, we have many loving relationships, such as with siblings, children and friends, which are not sexual, so 'love' does not entail lust. Therefore, just because a woman with a homosexual orientation, for example, might have loved and married a man, and indulged in a full sex life with him, that does not render her less than 'fully homosexual'. Her sexual orientation is for her to know. Imagine someone blindfolded in a dark room being masturbated, so they cannot see who is doing the act. I suspect that some people of any orientation could be stimulated under such circumstances, and to then declare their sexual orientation based on the gender of the unknown masturbator (the physical reality) is absurd.

Swinburne admits himself that even homosexual couples are able to have children, with the use of surrogates, so no absolute barrier to 'begetting' exists there either. As noted above, by specifying 'loving acts', Swinburne does not restrict the acts to purely sexual ones. A person's orientation clearly does not make them physically unable to have children. The premise he defends in the response to Pleitz is:
P1 Homosexuals are “unable to enter into a loving relationship in which the love is as
such procreative”.
He thinks the words 'as such' are doing a lot of work here, but I confess I don't see it. There is no doubt that homosexuals are quite capable of entering 'into a loving relationship in which the love is as such procreative', since a non-sexual procreative act can be inspired by love, and in any case sexual procreative acts can be performed lovingly without feeling lust for the partner.

The value of having children?

A part of Swinburne's argument is the great value he places on having children. It's not clear to me how this is supposed to cash out. We know that there are many people who don't want to have children; they do not place great value on having children. Pleitz also notes that there is a global problem with the idea that having children is an unalloyed good. This sort of thinking has resulted in large families in the Catholic and Muslim communities, causing endless cycles of poverty and deprivation. China introduced a one-child policy to mitigate the effects of over-population. These factors show that the great value, if that is what it is, of having children is not universal in time and place, so having children cannot be a universal injunction, to follow in all times and all places.

A counter might be that it is not a universal injunction, but having some children is of great value, and there is a golden mean number of children that is good, that benefits humankind; surely no-one would dispute that? Well, some may, but let us grant that for the sake of argument. Evolutionary science shows that having children is a mechanism for persisting genes, and genes drive speciation. So the result of natural selection will be the most successful strategy for the environment in which the species finds itself. We know that homosexuality has persisted in homo sapiens for thousands of years, and that homosexuality persists in other species that are primarily heterosexual. This 4 billion years-long experiment shows, then, that a percentage of homosexuality in the population must, in some way, help the fitness for survival of certain species, including homo sapiens. Consequently, a natural theologian like Swinburne should look at this overwhelming empirical evidence and argue for the goodness of some people being homosexual, since it must be of great value in having the perfect number of children, overall.

Disability = immoral?

Let us allow that having homosexual orientation is a disability, again for the sake of argument. Disability does not equate to immorality, but Swinburne states that '[d]isabilities should be prevented'. This might be true, but prima facie this 'should' is not a moral 'should', but a prudent one. For example, if one can prevent someone from losing an arm, one should, because it's prudent for someone to keep two good arms (one can carry more shopping with two arms); but, there is no moral stain attached to the person for losing the arm.

So what reason does Swinburne give for going further and deciding that homosexuality is immoral, rather than just something that affects one's chances of having children?

Well, he appeals to scripture:
I’m going to assume , despite the effects (sic) of many to show that the Bible and various theologians all meant something different by (what seems to many of us to be) apparent condemnations of such acts, that some such passages as I Corinthians 6:9-10 and Romans 1:24-27 and the continuing weight of subsequent tradition does condemn such acts.
I see no more reason to think that these appeals to scripture have any more value than the appeals to scripture against interracial marriage.

He also appeals to theological authority:
Where, after all, do we ever find before the twentieth century any explicit approval of such acts by any theologian orthodox in other respects?
That, sadly, is more a condemnation of theologian orthodoxy than homosexuality; as a proponent of evidence-based thinking, Swinburne should really recognise that the opinion of the medical establishment outweighs the views of mere theologians. He chooses to demur on the evidence:
And, as I read the much disputed evidence available on line about whether children nurtured by homosexual parents flourish as well as other children, the balance of that evidence seems to me to indicate that children whose nurturing parents are also their male and female biological parents in a happy marriage flourish better than all other children.
Recall that the racist said above:
Research has repeatedly demonstrated that interracial marriages end in divorce more often than same-race marriages. For marriages involving a White female and Black male the divorce rate is 200% higher than if the White female had married a White male.
Even if these assertions were true (and that is very debatable), it would not be a reason to condemn same-sex marriage or mixed race marriages. This sort of evidence is very prone to confounding variables; most obviously with race and sexual orientation, the centuries of prejudice that forms the societal backdrop to mixed race and same sex marriages. But, more importantly, we have been given no more reason to think that we should analyse such statistics by orientation or race than we should analyse them by, say, religious belief. If the statistics showed that the children of protestant evangelicals flourish less than those of Catholics, would that be a reason to conclude that protestant evangelical sexual acts are a bad thing? No, of course not, and likewise for same-sex sexual acts.

Homosexuality is reversible?

Another part of Swinburne's case is that sexual orientation is reversible, since this drives his recommendation to discourage homosexual behaviour; or, at least, to endorse his view that God commands the discouragement of homosexual behaviour (what would be the point of discouragement if it had no effect?). He says:
The evidence seems to me to indicate clearly that genes and environment (nature and nurture) both play a role in determining sexual orientation; and also that this orientation is sometimes to a considerable extent reversible.
Sadly for Swinburne's case, this is unsupported by the evidence. If sexual orientation can be conditioned in some way, then presumably heterosexuality could be conditioned away too? In fact, that's entailed by Swinburne's view that homosexual practice causes homosexuality. Many of us experience orientation differently, however, as something intrinsic to our identity, not a 'here today, gone tomorrow' preference - I can't imagine my heterosexuality being conditioned away, and I suspect those of a homosexual tendency can't imagine their orientation being conditioned away either. Philosopher Rob Hughes points out on the Leiter Report:
Swinburne's assertion is at odds with the evidence that a person's future sexual orientation is determined before school age and possibly much earlier. He provides no evidence for his assertion that sexual experimentation influences orientation, either in his 2007 book Revelation, or in his 2008 reply to critics, or in the text of his recent talk.
He notes the problem with the scant evidence Swinburne cites for his view, and quotes the apology from Alan Chambers after the closure of the 'ex-gay' organisation Exodus International. Hughes says:
After the 2013 closure of the leading "ex-gay" organization, Exodus International, no informed person can seriously entertain the suggestion that "reparative therapy" works.
Hughes concludes:
In 2016, it is intellectually and morally irresponsible to assert without evidence that sexual  experimentation causes homosexuality or that people can change their sexual orientations through "reparative therapy".
The WHO policy document quoted before cites this document on the pointlessness, and bankruptcy, of homosexual 'cures':
Health professionals who offer “reparative therapies” align themselves with social prejudices and reflect a stark ignorance in matters of sexuality and sexual health. Contrary to what many people believe or assume, there is no reason – with the exception of the stigma resulting from those very prejudices – why homosexual persons should be unable to enjoy a full and satisfying life. The task of health professionals is to not cause harm and to offer support to patients to alleviate their complaints and problems, not to make these more severe. A therapist who classifies non-heterosexual patients as “deviant” not only offends them but also contributes to the aggravation of their problems. 
“Reparative” or “conversion therapies” have no medical indication and represent a severe threat to the health and human rights of the affected persons. They constitute unjustifiable practices that should be denounced and subject to adequate sanctions and penalties.
So given this overwhelming consensus among the relevant authorities, why doesn't Swinburne defer to them? In Swinburne's response to Pleitz, he only claims that his view is 'plausible', given the evidence, but it is clear that it is not. He is far too well informed to be ignorant of this literature.


Therefore, I think Pleitz's original conclusion stands:
Swinburne’s argument against homosexuality is a clear-cut case of homophobia (section 4). The criticism of the premises of Swinburne’s argument shows that some premises are wrong and badly argued for and that there is an equivocation which renders the argument invalid (section 2). If Swinburne’s conclusion gained wider acceptance in the contemporary Western societies, this probably would lead to grave consequences for homosexuals (section 3). Thus, there is an extreme imbalance between Swinburne’s brief argument and the great harm that the endorsement of its conclusion would probably lead to. I conclude that Swinburne in his argument against homosexuality has moved beyond the limits of scientific philosophy, and into the realm of homophobia.
Christian response

As with mixed race marriage, research shows there is a similar reluctance amongst Christians to accept homosexuality as something that is not wrong in some way, and the controversy after Swinburne's talk shows that Christians tend to take such arguments more seriously than the non-religious. Not all of them, though, and it is to the credit of Michael Rea (the president of the SCP) that he expressed regret  on Facebook for the hurt caused by it. He paints the SCP as committed to diversity and inclusion (two of the good Christian traits!), so, perhaps understandably, distanced the SCP from Swinburne's views.

But this apparently innocuous paragraph has been cast by some of the more splenetic members of the Christian community as an assault on free speech and academic freedom (see here and here). Even one of the more reasonable Christian thinkers, Randal Rauser (a champion of analytic philosophy and defender of atheists, whilst being a strong critic of atheism), has called out Rea for his Facebook comment:
If Christian philosophers face censure within the Society of Christian Philosophers for articulating a dispassionate philosophical critique of homosexuality, then where can they express those views?
...and many, often thoughtful, commentators agree with him. I think, rather, that if Christian philosophers should expect no censure when discussing their views amongst other Christian philosophers then that discipline would have stagnated, signalling an end to normal debate on such matters among thoughtful Christians. Rea's comment is not the severest censure, in any case, and pales against the censure delivered to homosexuals by Swinburne in his talk. Imagine being a practising gay Christian in the audience listening to the professor blithely describing her having a homosexual orientation as a 'disability', and that she should be 'cured'.

Such censuring talk is surely inevitable when norms are being challenged, and whilst I can imagine it being abused (such as unreasonable claims of Islamophobia in response to criticisms of Islam, unreasonable claims of Christian persecution in response to judgments of secular law, and perhaps even the framing of reasonable moral censure as an attack on academic freedom), there seems little chance that Rea's comment will threaten Swinburne's, or other Christians', academic freedom, given how overly deferential even countries in the enlightened West are to religion. Religious discrimination against homosexuals is a completely appropriate target for opprobrium, just as religious discrimination against non-whites is. It's just part of the cut and thrust that determines the Overton window of what is acceptable in society.

The modern world has figured out that there is nothing wrong with homosexuality, and Christians should accept that they are on the wrong side of history on this one, and that people, hopefully including other Christians, will call out bad arguments against homosexuality as homophobic, even if they are made behind the privileged screen of religion. Unfortunately at the moment anti-homosexual sentiment is normalised in the Christian community to an extent that would be challenged in non-religious public fora. Comments such as Michael Rea's are, therefore, to be welcomed.

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Friday, 30 September 2016

Donald Trump and taxes: did he do anything wrong?

Jerry Coyne asks this question here, regarding Trump's refusal to release his tax returns. He gives a somewhat contradictory response:
The fault lies not in Trump, but in a tax code that allows rich individuals and corporations to get away with paying almost nothing. And that is wrong, for of course all citizens have a duty to share in the burden of running the government, and of funding schools, roads, and other infrastructure.
But if you are outraged at Trump’s zero tax bill, then save your rancor for the government and its tax laws, not at him.
Well, the question was: did Trump do anything wrong? Not: did Trump do anything illegal? So in that respect the answer, in Coyne's own words (since "all citizens have a duty to share in the burden of running the government, and of funding schools, roads, and other infrastructure"), is: yes, Donald Trump did do something wrong if the 'duty' here is moral, not legal, which I take it to be (and if he exploited the tax laws to substantially reduce his tax bill).

Jerry also says:
Everyone tries to minimize their tax burden, including me, using the legal provisions in the tax code. Seriously, how many of you refuse, for instance, to take your legal mortgage-interest or dependent deductions because you want to pay more than you have to to the government? If you do take legal deductions, you have no business criticizing Trump on this account.
I don't think this argument takes into account the sort of arrangements that might be open to the mega-wealthy, like Trump. Of course I will make use of mortgage tax relief and expense deductions where I can, and try to minimise my tax bill, but I'm never likely, at my rate of income, to reduce my percentage tax take to much less than 30-40% overall. The mega-wealthy aren't suspected of making drastic cuts in their tax bills by such run-of-the-mill tax exemptions, but with the use of vehicles like trust funds and overseas schemes. The suggestion is that they can reduce their percentage tax bill to a fraction of 40%, whilst sticking to the letter of the law.

There have been many such schemes drawn up by expensive accountants over the years (at least in the UK) that stick to the letter of the law but not the spirit of the law. Because of this anomaly, the UK has drawn up general anti avoidance legislation to try to mitigate their losses from such practices. Previously schemes were just legal (avoidance) or illegal (evasion); but now, whether or not something is legal has to be argued. The need for such legislation highlights the fact that there is a gap between strict legality and spirit, the exploitation of which opens up some ethical questions.

Now I don't think it's always the case that use of such schemes is immoral, but I do think it's immoral if someone exploits this gap to reduce their tax bill to a fraction of the amount 'normal' taxpayers pay, just because they have the funds to employ expensive accountants.

This is because that person is choosing to freeload on the backs of much poorer people simply to feather their own nest, while still taking full advantage of the very society that those poorer people pay for, such as the "schools, roads, and other infrastructure" that make Western countries tick.

So I think if anyone thinks freeloading is not right, then they should be suspicious of how some mega-wealthy people conduct their tax affairs. If you're OK with freeloading, then, fine; you won't consider it an issue.

In Trump's case, though, there's a further gremlin; he is looking to be head and representative of the very Government that raises those taxes, to be, amongst other things, the guardian of that exchequer. I think it's fair to expect such a person to be fully committed to paying their fair share into the coffers of the country he pretends to be leader of. What would be a fair share for Trump? Well I have my ideas, but everyone should decide for themselves. Except, no, they won't have the opportunity to, because at this moment Trump won't release the details of what he pays, unlike every other modern presidential candidate.

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Sunday, 31 July 2016

Philipse on Theism - Revealed or Natural Theology?

In God in the Age of Science?: A Critique of Religious Reason, Herman Philipse examines what he considers to be the best arguments for God today. As we saw in his preface, he plans to examine Richard Swinburne's arguments for God.

In Chapter 1, though, he wants to establish 'that for religious believers, natural theology has an epistemological priority over a revelation and revelation theology' (p.3). Natural theology is the approach that Swinburne takes.

Philipse draws the common distinction between natural theology and revealed theology. Natural theology can be examined through evidence available to everyone, non-believers included. As the SEP explains, it 'aims to adhere to the same standards of rational investigation as other philosophical and scientific enterprises, and is subject to the same methods of evaluation and critique'. Philipse defines revealed theology as 'the endeavour by believers to interpret and systematize the contents of texts that are considered divine revelations, such as the Bible, the Koran, the Vedas, or the Book of Mormon' (p.3).

Richard Swinburne himself points out that there is another notion that is now considered popular, particularly among Protestants:
Religion, they will tell us, is a matter not of affirming creeds, but of a personal relationship to God. The religious man may tell us that he knows that he at any rate has such a relationship, and that he knows what he means when he says that he has this relationship; on these points he ‘cannot be mistaken’. (The Coherence of Theism, p.6)
Philipse examines perhaps the most well-known defence of this sort of position, Alvin Plantinga's Reformed Objection, in Chapters 3 and 4.

Philipse notes that most believers come to their belief because they are brought up in a religious tradition; the truths of it are a given. But these days we are exposed to scientific knowledge that often contradicts such received opinions, and are also made aware of the full diversity of other received opinions. Consequently, it is necessary to appeal to the arguments of natural theology if one aims to be rational and reasonable.

Establishing the epistemological priority of natural theology is also important so that non-believers can engage on a level playing field with believers; that is, they should both be approaching the subject using the same tools to analyse and justify their beliefs. This is not to exclude the possibility that divine revelation occurs and people may know something about God apart from natural theology. But it is to suggest that when we justify our beliefs in public discourse, we do not need to appeal to that divine revelation, and, in fact, the knowledge derived from natural theology is better in some way than other methods. For example, someone may know that they haven't murdered someone, but if accused of murder they must defend them-self in court by appealing to methods that everyone can access; simply appealing to their inner knowledge that they are innocent will be insufficient.

Philipse gives 6 reasons for thinking that natural theology has epistemological priority over revelation, which I summarise as:

(A) There are contradictions within revealed texts.
(B) Many revelations are shown by science to be untrue.
(C) Many revelations are based on sources and cultures that are not considered divinely inspired, leading to...
(D) Revelations contain nothing that could not have been established without divine assistance.
(E) Revelations contain moral norms which many of us now find unacceptable.
(F) The revelations of other religions provide a potential defeater for a believer in divine revelation.

I would endorse this list, although in my experience (A) is pretty hard to categorically establish. With a narrative like the Bible the language is ambiguous enough to prevent the establishment of a formal contradiction. Just consider Philipse's first example; the supposed contradiction between Paul describing Jesus' resurrection as spiritual rather than corporeal, as maintained by subsequent Christian tradition:
Paul seems to deny that Jesus was resurrected with his earthly or physical body, arguing that he was raised with a new, spiritual and heavenly body (sooma pneumatikon), since ‘flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God’. (p.5)
 Paul's words 'sooma pneumatikon' and 'flesh and blood' allows for multiple interpretations; see this discussion by William Lane Craig, which includes this quote from Robert Gundry:
The soma denotes the physical body, roughly synonymous with 'flesh' in the neutral sense. It forms that part of man in and through which he lives and acts in the world. It becomes the base of operations for sin in the unbeliever, for the Holy Spirit in the believer.
And 'flesh and blood' is considered synonymous with 'frail human nature'! Craig concludes that 'we have seen that Paul's evidence serves to confirm the gospels' narratives of Jesus's bodily resurrection'. So clearly he sees no contradiction here, and one might expect similar analysis from apologists on other claimed contradictions.

Generally, though, I think the accumulation of Philipse's reasons gives us good reason to doubt revelation. To counter this general conclusion, I think I would point to the vital role that testimony plays in our knowledge creation, and that biblical revelation cannot be dismissed any more than can be the many non-biblical revelations that are handed down to us. For example, we have established a sophisticated education system which pre-supposes the validity of handing down common knowledge, mostly documented in textbooks; we don't expect anyone to literally support all these 'revealed' truths.

I think, however, that we should have to justify this knowledge if it turned out that around the world we were teaching different truths from radically different textbooks. The project of science has been to universalise knowledge, so that textbooks converge. If natural theology were any better than revealed theology, one might expect it to achieve a greater convergence too. I think that, in the sense that the conclusions of natural theology are more modest than those of revealed, perhaps it does. A discussion for another time, maybe.

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Monday, 23 May 2016

Craig on Animal Pain *Again*

Mooch and friend

I've written before on William Lane Craig's curious views on animal pain, which amount to a dismissal of it as a phenomenon we need to worry about morally. Here I discussed the views he put forward in a debate with Stephen Law, that suggested that animal pain, following work done by Michael Murray, did not exacerbate the problem of evil for theists, and here I followed up that post with a statement by one of the co-authors of a paper that Murray used to support his findings, philosopher of mind David Rosenthal, who countered Murray and Craig:
Anybody who insists that pain and its attendant effects are not very bad for the creature even when the pain is not conscious pain seems to me to be looking for an excuse not to bother with what is plainly a significant case of suffering.  There is no sound empirical reason nor any or valid theoretical reason to count pain as suffering only if the pain is conscious.  This is simply a matter of defining suffering away by stipulation.
In a new Question of the Week entitled Animal Consciousness Once More, Craig again dismisses animal pain. Joshua, having examined the Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness, is concerned that this puts animals on the same footing (before God) as humans:
If animals do have the same states of consciousness as we do, that animals have the same value and importance, biologically speaking, than us.
The Cambridge Declaration says, amongst other things:
...the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non-human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.
In his reply, Craig says this:
...there is no evidence that animals other than the higher primates have a consciousness of self that enables them to think I myself am in pain. That has huge implications for the problem of animal suffering and so-called natural evil. For even though animals may have an awareness of pain (are conscious), they are not aware that they themselves are in pain (are not self-conscious) and so do not suffer as we do.
He draws the distinction between awareness and self-awareness, which I think is an important distinction, but one that does not mean we can discount awareness. The curious thing about this answer is that Craig concedes that higher primates have a consciousness of self, so presumably he thinks that chimpanzees etc are moral agents, and he already has a significant problem to address.

But, in any case, his 'answer' does not cut the mustard because, as Rosenthal says above, it's the suffering that should be the concern for us as moral agents, not the sense of self. I think it's plausible that a sense of self might change the quality of pain, but it's possible that lacking a sense of self might make awareness of pain worse. For example, lacking self-consciousness one would always be living in the moment - there would be little sense of pain passing, just happening. As self-conscious beings we can often endure periods of pain and comfort ourselves with it passing, or with rewards of future pleasure.

Craig explicitly denies that suffering is morally relevant, instead suggesting that moral obligations simply arise from God's mandate:
Lacking God as a foundation for objective moral values and duties, the naturalist must find something in animals themselves to warrant their ethical treatment. That will be their awareness of pain. ... This naturalistic attempt to ground ethical treatment of animals is doomed to failure, however, since not all animals are sentient--not to speak of rainforests and oceans! A sound environmental ethic, including the ethical treatment of animals, will be grounded in the creation mandate given by God to man to steward the Earth as God’s good gift.
(Note that Craig even bizarrely suggests that rainforests and oceans don't deserve any ethical consideration under naturalism, because naturalists can only ground morality in awareness of pain. Even if they did (and other considerations can be brought in), clearly rainforests (if we're just talking about the wood) and oceans (if we're just talking about the water) wouldn't deserve any ethical consideration per se, but since they are the very environment of many forms of life that can feel pain, they obviously would deserve ethical consideration. Conversely it seems obvious that his morality, if grounded in God's mandate, is arbitrary. If God has imposed a moral duty on us to look after rainforests and oceans as we should look after humans, then will Craig save a tree before a person? Perhaps God has instructed him to protect humans before trees; but is he really committed to a morality that is simply dictated by God? Well, of course, he is!)

The questioner, while confused, is bringing up a significant problem for theists. Why are humans exceptional? Craig's answer seems to be because of self-awareness. But not self-awareness per se, I guess, but self-awareness as evidence that humans have a self or soul that is the object of moral considerations. But even if that's the case, in this quote Craig concedes the problem of animal pain, because he says 'not all animals are sentient'. No naturalist would deny that, but even Craig allows that some animals are sentient, so he has not successfully drawn a distinction between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom, so the problem of animal suffering remains.

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Sunday, 22 May 2016

Philipse on Theism - Preface

In God in the Age of Science?: A Critique of Religious Reason, Herman Philipse examines what he considers to be the best arguments for God today.

In the preface he notes that the arguments produced in analytic philosophy of religion in the last fifty years are worthy of consideration. His reasons for addressing religion are:

  1. The world's population is growing, and the demographics are against the secularist. The non-theist minority is getting smaller and smaller, in global terms.
  2. Globalisation means that cultures are mixing more, and this brings incompatible beliefs together more. The cognitive dissonance this produces causes more religious conflicts than we have seen in the past.

He also sets out his approach; he will be considering beliefs, not rituals; he doesn't want to be accused by believers of not attacking the best cases for theistic belief, so he will consider some of the arguments of D. Z. Phillips and Alvin Plantinga. He will spend most time, however, looking at the arguments for 'bare theism' by Richard Swinburne. This is because:

  1. The monotheism that Swinburne defends is common to the three great Judaeo-Christian religions.
  2. Swinburne's strategy seems the most promising to Philipse, since Swinburne pursues a natural theological approach to the question (compared with, for example, the foundationalist approach of Plantinga). As Philipse puts it, 'If he exists, that god is a divine person with many kinds of causal powers, whose existence can best be argued for on the basis of his alleged empirically detectable doings' (p.xiii).

Swinburne eschews a proof of God, but considers his existence highly probable.

Philipse notes that many religious beliefs have been refuted by modern science, such as origin of Earth stories, which means the 'intellectually responsible believer' cannot rely solely on scripture. For the believer, three interlocking dilemmas, he says, arise:

  1. Between (a) cognitive and (b) non-cognitive interpretations of religious beliefs. For example, does 'God exists' amount to a proposition that can be assessed for truth or falsity, or not? For an interesting discussion of non-cognitive approaches (often called Wittgensteinian), see this post by Stephen Law.
  2. If (a) is chosen, then between (c) evidential/rational support for beliefs, and (d) a non-evidential/rational approach. Under (d), Philipse will consider what he thinks is the most promising approach, offered by Plantinga, of a basic warrant for religious belief.
  3. If (c) is chosen, then between (e) following a method of gathering evidence and reasons that is 'quite unlike the methods used by scientists and scholars when they investigate a factual hypothesis of existence' (p.xv) and (f) following a method like the scientific methodology.
Philipse thinks that Swinburne offers the most sophisticated solution to dilemma 3 above, and, given the title of his book, this seems to be the best place to consider religious belief 'in the age of science'.

Part 1
In Chapter 1 he argues that religious faith can only be grounded by natural theology (that is, on the basis of natural facts).

In Chapter 2  he summarises the history of natural theology.

In Chapters 3 and 4 he addresses Plantinga's 'reformed objection' to natural theology.

In Chapter 5 he investigates the type of rationality in which natural theology should engage.

In Chapter 6 he considers if religious faith can be refuted, or not.

Part 2
Chapter 7 explores the problems that analogical language introduces for the religious believer.

Chapter 8 examines the properties of the putative monotheistic god.

In Chapter 9 considers the predictive power of the god hypothesis.

In Chapter 10, he sees if theism has predictive power, can it avoid being refuted?

Part 3
Chapter 11 examines the problems that face a Bayesian like Swinburne.

Chapters 12 to 14 consider the accumulative probabilistic arguments for theism.

In Chapter 15 he assesses the argument from religious experience.

The Conclusion then attempts, based on what has been discussed, to answer the question 'which view concerning religious matters has the best credentials: theism, agnosticism, some version of atheism, or perhaps a polytheistic creed?' (p.xvi).

What I think is excellent about the book is that, like a bus driver late for his dinner, Philipse relentlessly drives the reader towards a particular destination. This destination is atheistic, of course, as might be expected (he makes no bones about arguing from this viewpoint). This is probably a weakness too, since I'm sure many a theist reader will insist on stopping the bus and heading off down another road. For example, Jim Slegle in his review of the book accuses Philipse of not just adopting an atheistic approach, but a scientistic one, and of 'taking the unreflective, knee-jerk reaction to religious claims, ‘informed’ by the biases and urban myths of contemporary culture'. This seems an uncharitable interpretation to me, especially considering that Philipse is quite open about the project of assessing god based on modern science, which approach surely Swinburne and many theists would concur, to a degree?

More reasonably, Father Andrew Pinsent suggests that in discrediting the methods of theology Philipse is in danger of discrediting the sciences of more complex phenomena, such as biology and zoology, and the humanities in general. Which would include philosophy and presumably Philipse's own book too! Well, perhaps, and I know of a few atheists who would agree that philosophy should be jettisoned too, but I still think that rational analysis of concepts allied with an acknowledgement of the power of science can yield results, even if it struggles to be falsifiable (not the defining criterion of science, in my opinion). 

Pinsent concludes that Philipse attempts too much, and that may be a valid criticism. I found his reasons for the tight focus mostly convincing, so the book should still give theists pause to consider carefully the route they have followed in the past, and the one they follow in the future.

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Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Do People Choose What is Good for Them?

From Blick
Jerry Coyne has a post up titled How Iranian women would dress if the theocracy disappeared. It shows a number of (western) fashionably clad Iranians from the 1970s. It seems obvious that (some) women would dress differently if there were no theocracy in Iran, although there is perhaps an implicit assumption behind the title that the women depicted before the theocracy are free from societal coercion, which seems unlikely; we are all subject to conformation pressures, after all. An apologist for Islam might point out that the extra flesh displayed by the 70s women indicates sexism in the 'western' East just as the covering of flesh indicates sexism in the modern-day Islamic East. As one of the commenters, Heather Hastie, says, "Things are better in the West, but there are still big problems.".

I think a *diversity* of dress is indicative of a free society, but we observe that humans are clubbable animals so they are not making these choices in a vacuum (if they are making choices at all, pace free will debates). Some people might choose to show more flesh, some might choose to show less flesh; the reasons for their choices can range from fashionable to political.

Serious scholars have observed that some women *chose* to don the veil in the 1970s ("In the 1970s, often to the consternation of parents and siblings, certain progressive young Arab women voluntarily donned the veil." - Should we defer to the autonomy of these women in the choices they make? Or should we complain that their choices are somehow malformed? What is to stop the Muslim apologist suggesting that it is women in the West who are slaves to culture?

These questions give me a chance to discuss some philosophy of well-being. Some think that final values (those things we *should* pursue) reside in objective things, like life, knowledge, community, health, wealth and so on; Martha Nussbaum argues for a flavour of this.  Others argue that we should simply satisfy our preferences; Harriet Baber, for example. Simplistically, the problem with the first idea is determining what that list is, if it is objective. One problem with the second idea is: what to do if people 'prefer' to embrace normally 'illiberal' things, like the veil - we should not object because we should let people follow their preferences? An objection to this sort of preferentism is that preferences can be malformed in some way; these so-called 'adaptive' preferences might, therefore, pose a problem for preferentists. They may, for example, cause difficulties if we want to improve the conditions of people in apparently straitened circumstances. I shall examine those difficulties and illuminate them through Nussbaum’s arguments and Baber’s replies.


Preferentism, or ‘preference-satisfaction welfarism’ (Barber, 2014, p.47), is the theory that final value resides in a person’s well-being, and well-being is delivered by satisfying a person’s preferences. By final value I mean what people should rationally direct their efforts to attaining; as Baber says, ‘what’s basic or fundamental, good in and of itself’ (The Open University, 2014a, 0:30). It contrasts with hedonism, which also proposes well-being as the final value, but delivers it with happiness; and with objectivism, which instead suggests there is an objective list of things in which final value resides, such as life, knowledge, community, health and so on. Preferentism benefits over objectivism in avoiding the dangers of an authoritarian imposition of values that are not universally agreed upon, but opens itself up to charges of relativism – perhaps anything could have final value under this theory.

The meaning of adaptive preferences is not altogether clear. Alex Barber says a ‘person’s set of preferences is adaptive if he or she has taken it on in response to limited options’ (Barber, 2014, p.63). But some of these preferences appear unproblematic, such as someone wanting to be a football referee rather than playing, say, because they lack footballing ability. Nussbaum’s conception of the term reflects her theory: she suggests an objective list of capabilities that all humans should have and want. These ‘Central Human Capabilities’ (Nussbaum, 2001, p.154) include things like being able to have good health, being able to laugh and play, and being able to enjoy a life of normal length.

Nussbaum writes:
People’s liberty can indeed be measured, not by the sheer number of unrealizable wants they have, but by the extent to which they want what human beings have a right to have. (p.160)
Presumably the perfectly free, then, will want Nussbaum’s capabilities. So if someone does not want the capabilities that, she suggests, constitute basic human rights that would reflect their lack of liberty. For example, any preference that threatens the ability to have good health reflects a restriction on that person’s freedom to choose, so would be adaptive. And while considering Amartya Sen’s work, Nussbaum mentions ‘life-long habituation’ and says ‘most of the interesting cases do involve life-long socialization and absence of information’ (p.161).

The Problem

Nussbaum thinks that adaptive preferences pose a problem for preferentism because they prevent us from challenging institutions that threaten the capabilities she considers central, because ‘some existing preferences are actually bad bases for social policy’ (p.154). In particular, she is addressing the limited options women have in many societies. Her approach recognises the deeply-ingrained nature of certain power structures so that even the victims of those power structures consider them desirable.

This hints at a wider concern about preferentism: that without some objective standard it’s difficult, if not impossible, to push for change where people express satisfaction with the status quo.


Harriet Baber, following J.C Harsanyi, draws a distinction between a person’s manifest preferences (those they express and reveal by their behaviour) and their true preferences. For a person’s preferences to be true, she says:

1) they must be fully informed, so that those that result from misinformation are deformed;
2) they ‘must be free in the broadest sense’ (Baber, 2007, p.107), so that those that manifest as a result of high passion, for example, are deformed;
3) they cannot derive from moral obligations.

Baber thinks Nussbaum ignores the distinction between manifest and true preference above and also the ‘dispositional nature of preference’ (p.108); that our behaviour sometimes does not reveal our true preferences - for example, many will shop at Claire’s Accessories when they might rather shop at Tiffany’s. Baber says that:
"Adaptation" is irrelevant: if I want something, getting it is good for me regardless of how I came by that desire; if getting what I choose does not benefit me, it is because what I chose is not something that I want. (p.110)
Baber denies that the genesis of a preference matters, whilst also allowing (in the 3 points above) that a preference’s genesis can be flawed – an apparent contradiction.

The quote does reflect preferentism’s ‘apparent ass-backwardness’ (The Open University, 2014a, 10:20), which suggests that what is good is what we prefer, not that we prefer what is good. What follows is that an individual’s true preference does not represent an unjust state of affairs; which further suggests that people’s true preferences define the justice or injustice of institutions.

Adaptive True Preferences?

Baber argues plausibly that we all have a preference ranking, and that to choose, and to express, a sub-optimal preference does not show that the preference is deformed or adaptive; someone may just consider it the choice that achieves the best outcome in the circumstances. People ‘have a certain fundamental character represented by their preference rankings’ (9:55), revealed if someone jumps at an opportunity if given it. She cites evidence from Nussbaum’s work to show that Nussbaum’s subjects (Nussbaum makes a study of women in non-western cultures) do betray a series of preference rankings, since they jump at the chance to exercise political power when given the chance. The extent to which people would jump at such opportunities, Baber says, exposes how unjust a state of affairs is.

So here she presumably agrees with Nussbaum that some preferences are bad bases for social policy. Ultimately, however, Baber is still committed to a final set of preferences that is fundamental, and Nussbaum can target those preferences as adaptive whilst granting that expressed preferences can change according to circumstance. Consider the following diagram:

Pa to Pz is a person’s ordered set of preferences, Pz being the final preference;
Pm to Pz measures the injustice a person suffers, per Baber;
Pz to P? is the putative adaptive preference suggested by Nussbaum, suggesting an additional injustice.

Preference Inception

Baber speculates:
...if [Jayamma] were offered a promotion or a raise she would jump at it, since there is no reason to think that she is any different from most people who prefer more money to less money and would rather not spend their days hauling bricks if other options were available. (Baber, 2007, p.111)
Well, perhaps, but the notion that some people are not driven by money and prefer simpler, more basic, work is not so outlandish that Baber can assume this is not the case for Jayamma. Baber thinks it’s a fundamental preference of her own that she would never like to go shopping for clothes (The Open University, 2014a, 9:40). Presumably she goes shopping for clothes occasionally, but that is just a manifest preference; her true preference is never to go shopping for clothes. It seems likely that the subjects of Nussbaum’s research, like Jayamma, also only occasionally go shopping for clothes. Jayamma may have a manifest preference to occasionally go shopping, because of her limited options; but her true preference may be to go shopping or to not go shopping (like Baber); we don’t know.

But should we believe Baber when she says she doesn’t want to go shopping, and not Jayamma, if that’s what she says? Nussbaum has an account that can answer this, whilst Baber’s seems inadequate.

Either way, manifest or true, Nussbaum can suggest the preference has been habituated, and there is another preference (P?) which the subject is not free to prefer. And she could suggest that Baber’s true preference is habituated too. Maybe her upbringing has prevented her from appreciating the joys of shopping; perhaps she has had an ascetic, academic upbringing that has prevented her from appreciating some of the finer things of life, like beautiful clothes?

Baber says that Nussbaum ‘doesn’t seem to realise how little room to manoeuvre most of us have’ (The Open University, 2014b, 3:30). According to Baber we all have revealed preferences that change according to the room we have to manoeuvre, but we also have true preferences that are, if not cemented in, still our final preferences.

But those final preferences are dispositional and ultimately down to the individual, as Baber concedes when she recounts the story of the Harvard academic who has chosen to spend her time counting blades of grass rather than something more apparently worthwhile, like teaching her students or writing papers. In the end, being a preferentist, she says ‘...De gustibus. Keep counting.’ (The Open University, 2014a, 12:00).

Unjust Institutions

But some true preferences seem to result from institutions that are obviously unjust. Baber struggles with the example of human trafficking and the story of Srey Mom, for instance, ‘rescued’ by Nicholas Christof from a brothel, but who then returned to it. ‘It is not so clear’, she writes, ‘that it would have been better for Srey Mom to go back to her village or get an honest job sewing sneakers’ (Baber, 2007, p.120). This is the same problem I suggested might arise with Jayamma. We just don’t know what someone’s true preference is, and it’s possible Srey Mom’s state of affairs is her truly preferred state of affairs or just a manifest preference.

This presents two problems for the preferentist:

1. While Baber maintains that the difference between manifest preference and true preference is the measure of how much a person would change their circumstances, given the option, (Pm-Pz), we don’t know what that is ahead of time, so it’s difficult to know what actions to take to relieve individual situations.
2. Even if we grant the preferentist account, it is resistant to any objective measurements, such as health indicators and life expectancy. While preferentists must commit to satisfied preferences being the good, there will be no impetus to improve those measures (except insofar as people prefer them).

As a straight matter of fact, then, if one’s goal is to improve those indicators, preferentism has a problem. Baber would reply that our goal should not be to improve those indicators, per se. Even if the preferentist grants some adjustment to people’s revealed preferences for problems in their provenance, ultimately the preferentist is committed to prioritising autonomy, from wherever it springs, over any objective measures of well-being. In the end, a preferentist like Baber must bite the bullet and accept that a human-trafficked prostitute’s situation can be just.


Preferentism would deliver a world where people’s autonomy is observed and a wide range of diverse lifestyles and cultures would be accommodated and respected. However, it presents an epistemic problem when we are confronted with an apparent case of injustice – is it really unjust? And, further, it is plausible that individual autonomy is good, but the notion that what we choose just is good relies on an idealised self rather than the messier self of real life; we are none of us causa sui, and we have all been habituated to a degree.

As a liberal Millian type of character, I want to encourage self-expression, even if it doesn't reflect my values - in fact, *because* it doesn't reflect my values. But simply deferring to agents' autonomous wills does not seem workable without some anchoring in our state of being; some recognition of our human condition must be included in any account of rational action to avoid a rational relativism which can be destructive to human lives. So I'm a little sceptical when folk claim how things would be, given the removal of some obstacle to freedom, even if we agree that the obstacle (like theocracy) should be removed; unadulterated choice is still not available, and something like Nussbaum's 'Central Human Capabilities' is needed if we are to navigate our way toward a healthy society.

Baber, H. E. (2007) ‘Adaptive preference’, Social Theory and Practice, vol. 33, no. 1, pp. 105–26.
Barber, A. (2014) Reason in Action (A333 Book 2), Milton Keynes, The Open University.
Nussbaum, M.C.. (2001) ‘Nussbaum on adaptive preferences and women’s options’ in Barber, A. (ed) (2014) Reason in Action (A333 Book 2), Milton Keynes, The Open University.
The Open University (2014a) ‘Baber on welfarism and adaptive preferences (Part 1)’ [Audio clip], A333: Key questions in philosophy. Available at (Accessed 11 Jan 2015).
The Open University (2014b) ‘Baber on welfarism and adaptive preferences (Part 2)’ [Audio clip], A333: Key questions in philosophy. Available at (Accessed 11 Jan 2015).

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Wednesday, 13 January 2016


Liberalism poster, by Floris van den Berg

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