Saturday, December 21, 2013

Poultry Wars: Moral Misunderstandings in the Duck Dynasty/Chick-Fil-A Controversies

The culture wars in this country have become downright surreal the last couple of years. Most notably, two of the biggest flair-ups between red state and blue state types have revolved around, of all things, poultry. First there was the great Chick-Fil-A pie fight of 2012, which broke out after president Dan Cathy expressed opposition to same-sex marriage, saying, among other things:
"I think we are inviting God's judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at Him and say, 'We know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage'. I pray God's mercy on our generation that has such a prideful, arrogant attitude to think that we have the audacity to define what marriage is about."
That one blew up on the social media sites, led to protests, counterprotests, boycotts, and widespead de-friending and hurt feelings. The main issues in that debate were gay rights and free speech for people who don't support those rights. It got surprisingly nasty.

The other free speech/gay rights/poultry bomb went off a few days ago, when the country's most famous duck hunter, Phil Robertson, was interviewed in GQ (pretty surreal in itself). When he started talking about how sinful modern society is, the reporter asked him what he considered sinful. He responded:
“Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men,” he says. Then he paraphrases Corinthians: “Don’t be deceived. Neither the adulterers, the idolaters, the male prostitutes, the homosexual offenders, the greedy, the drunkards, the slanderers, the swindlers—they won’t inherit the kingdom of God. Don’t deceive yourself. It’s not right.”
You probably know the rest of the story. It's been a kerfuffle of tremendous proportions. Some people think the controversy has been overblown, and that it's silly to spend this much time on it when there are people starving and dying in other parts of the world. It's true that it isn't that important, and it's undeniably ridiculous that this debate centers around a TV show about a family of rich, bearded duckhunters, but still, the issues are real. Free speech and gay rights are both very important. As for free speech, while I found Robertson's comments repulsive, I'm not sure I want to live in a society where people with those kind of views--which are held by a whole lot of people in this country, after all--are censored on mainstream channels. Honestly, I would rather know what people think than see those opinions driven underground, and be surprised by them later. But I see points on the other side, too. It's tricky.

Gay rights are also an important and tricky topic. Gays are one of the last groups still explicitly discriminated against in this country, in laws that are still on the books. In many states it's still legal to deny service to gays in restaurants, fire them for being gay, arrest them for having sex, and deny couples the same legal rights that straight couples have. Attitudes are changing, but still deeply divided, so gay rights are one of the defining civil rights issues of our time. It's also a very important issue to me, as people who read this blog will know, because many of my good friends are gay. I've seen what they go through--coming to terms with their sexuality, finding the tremendous courage required to come out to family and friends who may reject them for it, wondering whether they can kiss or hold hands in public without being accosted or even assaulted...they don't have an easy time of it, especially in conservative areas. Seeing the things they go through makes me very angry, mess with my friends, you mess with me.

So, in spite of the beards and the ducks and the essential goofiness of reality TV, this squabble is over real issues. It's also been interesting to me because of the light it casts on public debate and ethical thinking in this country.

First, public debate. As usual, there's been a lot of misunderstanding, simplistic thinking, and sweeping generalizations on both sides. On the conservative Christian side, I've seen several people say things like, "A & E is trying to suppress the Christian viewpoint." Well, it's not the Christian viewpoint--it's the viewpoint of one subset of Christians. Not all Christians have a problem with homosexuality, and conservative Christians need to realize they don't speak for all Christians. Not by a long shot.

But something else I've seen conservative Christians say points out a common misconception on the liberal side. I keep hearing people say, "Just because we don't agree with homosexuality doesn't mean we hate homosexuals." While there is some real hatred out there, I do believe these people. Hate is not their motivation. Here I'm in danger of getting in hot water with my fellow liberals for defending the anti-gay crowd, but it's not so much that I'm defending them as trying to accurately see what's going on in their heads. To say they are all driven by hatred or fear of people unlike them is simply inaccurate, and there's no point in unnecessarily demonizing people or misconstruing their motives. Let's try to see people as they really are, instead of as we want to paint them.

This brings us to ethics. People on either side of this issue are thinking about morality and ethics in completely different ways; basing their ethical codes on almost totally different foundations.

We can get some insight into the conservative Christian way of looking at morality by looking at a statement Phil Robertson released in the wake of the controversy:
"I myself am a product of the 60s; I centered my life around sex, drugs and rock and roll until I hit rock bottom and accepted Jesus as my Savior. My mission today is to go forth and tell people about why I follow Christ and also what the Bible teaches, and part of that teaching is that women and men are meant to be together. However, I would never treat anyone with disrespect just because they are different from me. We are all created by the Almighty and like Him, I love all of humanity. We would all be better off if we loved God and loved each other."
Now, in his case I'm not sure I believe him. A video has since come out that shows him saying things about gays that seem awfully disrespectful and not at all loving. But when it comes to many other conservative Christians (though certainly not all), I think the statement above describes their outlook pretty accurately. When Christians talk about the sins of others, what secular types like me tend to miss is that a central part of their view is that they are sinners themselves. Sin is seen as an essential feature of humankind. The only thing that can redeem people is God's grace, which lets Christians escape the hell they feel they deserve by accepting Jesus as their savior. So, the fact that they're saying someone is a sinner doesn't mean they hate them. They think they're sinners themselves, and may actually be trying their best to love all the other sinners--i.e. all of humanity. After all, many conservative Christians agree with more liberal Christians that the essence of Christian ethics is captured in Matthew 22:36-40. In these verses, Jesus is asked by a Pharisee what commandment in the law is the greatest. He replies:
37 He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
You often hear Christians paraphrasing St. Augustine's phrase, "Cum dilectione hominum et odio vitiorum" as "Love the sinner, hate the sin." Lots of them really mean that (though you wouldn't know it listening to some religious right politicians).

OK, but why do they see homosexuality as a sin? Because several verses in the Bible say it is, and conservative Christians tend to take the Bible literally. Someone who believes the earth was literally created in six days is not likely to write off the verses about homosexuality as the antiquated views of an ancient culture, as many liberal Christians and secularists do. They're going to look at those verses, and the ones about Adam and Eve (not, as the bumper stickers say, Adam and Steve) and conclude that God created men and women to be together; not men and men or women and women. That's what liberals need to realize--if we believed those premises, we would probably draw similar conclusions. It's not so much the logic we disagree with as the axioms it's based on.

In the more technical terms of ethical philosophy, conservative Christians base their ethics on a blend of Divine Command and Natural Law theory. Divine command is the idea that what's right is what God says is right, and natural law is the idea that what is right is determined by what is natural (many liberals also engage in natural law thinking, but in different ways, and not usually about sexuality). Since Christians believe natural laws were created by God, the divine command and natural law views blend together. Of course, most people don't know these labels, but their thought processes tend to follow those theories anyway. Ask a Christian who believes homosexuality is a sin why they think that, and you'll probably hear something like, "It's not natural" or "It's against God's law."

Professional philosophers, including Christian ones, know there are serious problems with both of these ideas; the Euthyphro Dilemma in the case of Divine Command theory, and the Appeal to Nature and Naturalistic Fallacies in the case of Natural Law. But many Christian philosophers still believe in natural law (divine command less often, as far as I can tell), and make quite sophisticated arguments in its favor. Thomas Aquinas, for example, was well aware of the Euthyphro Dilemma, and accounted for it in his natural law theories.

As psychologists like Jonathan Haidt have shown, conservatives are more likely than liberals to see ethics in terms of respect for tradition and notions of sanctity and degradation; points of view that philosophers have mostly overlooked. Conservatives are more sensitive to the perceived purity or sacredness of things than liberals are. Maybe that's why morality for them is so bound up with sex (I'm guessing here, since I'm a secular liberal who finds it hard to think in those terms). Whoever first used the word "dirty" to describe sex was probably not by nature liberal.

Many conservatives think liberals are unconcerned with morality. But that's not true. We just base morality on completely different foundations. While a conservative may see outlawing gay marriage as the moral thing to do, liberals see it as immoral, because it gives gays fewer rights than straights, and makes them unhappy. When liberals set out to determine whether something is moral or not, the main questions they tend to ask are "Is it fair?" and "Does it hurt anyone?" They tend to subscribe to an ethic based on harm and happiness. Ask them if an unusual sex act is OK, and they'll probably say, "Well, are they consenting adults, and does it it hurt anybody?" If the answers are "yes" and "no" respectively, then they probably think it's OK (though perhaps not for them). In other words, there's more emphasis on the consequences of an action in terms of human happiness, not whether it conforms with some divine or natural law.

Of course, both conservatives and liberals can talk about consequences. When it comes to homosexuality, conservatives often maintain that homosexuality has negative effects. For example, they'll start talking about how if it becomes too common, the human race won't be able to reproduce itself (this kind of "what if everybody did it" argument is related to Kant's duty-based ethics as much as consequentialism, but let's not get into all that). Notice this argument is predicated on the belief that being gay is a choice. That's the only way more and more of the population could decide to be gay over time. The choice issue is an interesting gulf between conservative Christian and liberal views of homosexuality--the conservatives almost always think it's a choice. Liberals (and every gay person I've ever asked) think they had no more choice in being gay than straight people had in being straight.

So why do conservatives think it's a choice? One line of reasoning I've heard is that if being gay is against God's law, yet some people are born gay, that would imply that God makes mistakes. So it being must be a choice, because God doesn't make mistakes. I suspect that another reason anti-gay Christians want to think people choose to be gay is that if they are born gay, then it wouldn't be very nice to blame them for something they have no control over. It would be like blaming people for their eye color. Therefore, being gay must be a choice. That's not a valid argument, of course, but I really do think it's how many people are reasoning, at least implicitly.

Those who think being gay is not a choice, on the other hand, will still admit that we can't have everyone be gay. But then, you can't have everyone be a firefighter, either, yet that doesn't mean nobody should be. Anyway, most liberals think a certain percentage of people simply turn out gay, and that percentage is probably more or less constant. That's why there's no reason to worry that everyone will turn gay. I've hung around gay folks most of my adult life, and never had the slightest urge to switch teams. That's not how it works, at least for me. People who think you can just choose to be gay must find that choice easier to imagine than I do.

Another gulf in moral reasoning is that moderates and liberals are far more likely than conservatives to accept the idea that humans evolved by natural selection, instead of being created in one fell swoop--man and woman--by God. That means they see more arbitrariness in the human condition. It could have turned out differently if you rewound everything and started again. That lends less credence to the idea that there are laws of ethics somehow written across the sky. Consequently, they tend to see ethics as coming from the fact that humans are conscious beings capable of pleasure, pain, and preferences. It's about how people should live together without hurting or exploiting each other.

Of course, people think about ethics in all kinds of different ways, and I've just talked about some broad outlines that characterize conservative Christians, on the one hand, and moderate/liberal Christians and secularists on the other (as I see it). It's still too simplistic, and I'm probably wrong in significant ways. But my point is that in order to get through the impasse our country has arrived at on these issues, both sides need to try to understand each other better, instead of relying on simplistic caricatures and demonization. I think most people are basically decent, and want to know and do what is right. They just have completely different ways of figuring out what that is.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

For the Bible Tells Me So

Castle of the Pyrenees. Rene Magritte
The other day I came home to find a pamphlet the Jehovah's Witnesses had tucked into my door frame. It's entitled Can the Dead Really Live Again?, and it's answer is a resounding yes. I normally just throw those pamphlets away, but I've kept this one because of an interesting argument it uses to defend its position on life after death. It starts with a rhetorical question: "Can we really believe what the Bible says?" Then it answers, "Yes, for at least three reasons." And here's the striking thing: all three reasons are supported solely with Bible verses.

Now, I'm no logician, but I'm pretty sure that's circular reasoning. It's basically saying, "We can believe what the Bible says because of what the Bible says." In other words, it tries to support its conclusion with statements that assume the conclusion is true. The argument hovers in midair. What's needed to connect it to the firmament of credibility is firm, verifiable evidence that the Bible is true, beyond what the Bible itself says. But no such evidence is offered.

My point here isn't to debate whether there's life afer death or to bash Jehovah's Witnesses. I've known many of them, and they're usually very nice people. Nor do I want to stomp on an easy target like a cheaply-printed pamphlet. I know there are lots of Christians out there far more logically sophisticated than whoever wrote that. What I'm trying to do is point out this kind of circular reasoning, and the real harm it can do.

I don't just see such reasoning in throwaway pamphlets. I see it used all the time by certain conservative Christians to justify attitudes and laws that hurt real people in real ways. The clearest examples these days are assertions that homosexuality is immoral and that gay marriage should be illegal (or remain illegal). This country is full of people who think it's fully justified to tell two consenting adults they shouldn't be able to love or marry each other. They're willing to deny them what most people consider one of the main sources of happiness and meaning in life, and they justify this attitude, and those laws, by citing Bible verses.

That's a pretty serious stance to take. So when I hear people taking it, I always try to ask, as nicely as possible, "OK, but how do you know the Bible is right?" Responses vary, but one I've heard several times is, "Because it's the word of God." So then I ask, "But how do you know that?" Once again, responses vary, but I've actually heard people say, "Because it says so in the Bible."

So we're back to circular reasoning; to arguments built on floating boulders instead of bedrock evidence. And that's just not good enough, especially if those arguments are being used to dictate how people can live their lives. Unless there's clear and undeniable proof that: 1. There is a God. 2. God is the ultimate judge of what is right. 3. God dictated those Bible verses; then pointing to them doesn't count for much. If there isn't clear evidence for number 3 in particular, the simpler explanation for those verses is that they were written by plain old human beings...people just like you and me, except that they lived in a far more violent, sexist, ignorant, and superstitious time. If they were written by such people, without divine inspiration, why should we listen to them? Haven't we made some intellectual and moral progress since then? After all, it's no longer considered acceptable to massacre whole cities, to stone people to death for adultery, or to attribute mental illness to a legion of demons. Why should we put stock in ancient opinions about other things?

Of course, the ancients were probably right about some things. "Thou shalt not kill" seems like a pretty good moral maxim (even if it's widely ignored.) So, I'm not necessarily saying they weren't right. I'm just saying that if they were, you can't prove it by saying, "It's written in this book." Anybody can write a book. If you add, "and God wrote or inspired that book" that would certainly add more weight to the argument, but only if it's true. And if someone says it's true, then they should be able to tell me how they know that. "Because the Bible says so" is not an acceptable answer, because it just takes us back where we started. What's the evidence that takes us outside the logical circle? If you ask an astronomer why she thinks the universe began in a Big Bang, she'll start citing measurable, independently verifiable evidence: leftover radiation predicted before it was discovered, galaxies flying away from each other, predictions from general relativity and particle physics, Hubble observations of young galaxies, and so on. If she couldn't offer any such evidence, we would have no reason to take her seriously. Why should it be any different for someone quoting the Bible?

Another assertion that can't stand on its own is, "God says this is wrong." If someone says that, then surely it's fair to ask: Why? Why does God say it's wrong? Does it cause harm? If so, what? If not, then what else is his reason? Surely God doesn't disapprove of things for no reason? If someone can explain why something is wrong--by saying what harm it does, for example--then they're actually giving me a reason to consider their argument. Alternatively, if they say, "I don't exactly know why God says it's wrong, but I know he says so," then we're back where we were before, and  they should be able tell me how they know he actually says that.

If people can offer evidence for those things, then they're making an actual argument. It's not necessarily a valid one, if the evidence is unconvincing or doesn't logically support their conclusions. But at least its an honest effort. What isn't a real argument is saying, "it says it in the Bible," or "God says it's wrong." Such statements might possibly begin a convincing argument, but they certainly can't end one, despite what the bumper stickers say. By themselves, they just hover in mid-air, resting on nothing.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Newton's Weird World

If you go to a bookstore and look through the popular science section, the books on physics will mostly be about the most mind-bending modern theories: quantum mechanics, relativity, big bang cosmology, black holes, and so on. You won't find many books about the basic classical physics you learn in school. Newton's laws of motion, prisms and rainbows, magnets and electric motors--these things don't seem to strike the popular imagination. I think that's because modern physics seems so exotic (and because reading about it makes you look smart). Space and time bend and meld, single particles go through two holes at the same time (unless you try to catch them at it), black holes slow time, capture light, and may even lead to other universes...that is freaky stuff.

Lately, though, I've been realizing how freaky and counter-intuitive the old-school physics of Newton and Galileo can be. People have an intuitive understanding of physics, and it's good enough to let us navigate the surface of this particular planet most of the time, but in the grand scheme of things, it's wrong. Sometimes dramatically wrong. Most of the people who ever lived went to their graves thinking the earth is flat. They were wrong about the shape of the surface they lived on every day of their life. I would too, if I hadn't been taught differently. It's a humbling thought. 

People also assumed for thousands of years that heavy rocks fall faster than light rocks. After all, doesn't a feather fall more slowly than a boulder? It's just common sense. But Galileo thought he would test the idea anyway, and it turned out common sense was wrong. Light things may fall more slowly on Earth because of air resistance, but the deeper law of nature is that in a vacuum, feathers fall just as fast as boulders. That's well known these days, of course, so we don't really feel how surprising it is. But for people living at the time, it was earth-shattering.

It's shocking to discover that natural law runs counter to our intuition, even for things we see every day. When you start thinking about all the ways that's true, dusty old textbook physics starts to gleam a little more. Here are some examples I like:*

When I go for one of my brief, agonizing runs, I always think about how strongly the earth is pulling down on me. But I never consider how I'm pulling up on it with the same amount of force. Every object with mass creates a gravitational field, and I assuredly have mass. And every force comes in pairs--nature is symmetrical that way. I tug on the Earth just as hard as it tugs on me. It's just that the earth is so much more massive that it accelerates me a lot more than I accelerate it.

I just said the earth is pulling "down" on me. That's because I go around thinking there's a real up and a real down. But of course there isn't. And north certainly isn't up, no matter how hard it is to think otherwise. "North is up" is just a convention, and early cartographers often drew maps "upside down" before that convention was established, as in this map of Europe and North Africa from 1459. I can look at that map and tell myself it's just as valid as "right side up" ones, but it's still looks wrong. It's not, though. I am.

The most basic rules of motion can be totally surprising. For example, if you hold a rifle five feet above the ground, and I hold a bullet in my hand at the same height, and I drop it at the same moment you shoot, the two bullets will hit the ground at the same time (disregarding air resistance, etc). The high-velocity bullet falls just as fast as the low-velocity bullet. You would think the lateral motion of the bullet from the gun would somehow interfere with its downward motion ("downward" I should say) but it doesn't. The two motions do combine to create a curved path, but their magnitudes are independent.

Speaking of falling objects, the moon is falling. It's dropping like the giant rock it is. It's just that its lateral motion is balanced with its "downward" motion in such a way that it falls around the earth instead of into it. It's been plummeting for billions of years, but it's never managed to land. We've been plummeting into the sun all that time, too. It makes me a little queasy thinking about it.

Another illusion I have is that when I throw a rock, I always feel like I'm giving it a certain amount of energy. I imagine this energy fades as the rock progresses, so it finally slows down and lands. But that's not what's happening at all. When the rock leaves my hand, it's going at a particular velocity, and it would keep going at the same velocity indefinitely in the absence of other forces. As Newton taught us, objects in motion tend to stay in motion. The rock slows and falls because air resistance exerts a force that decelerates it, while gravity works to return it toward the earth. Energy is always conserved, so the energy I give to the rock doesn't fade away. Some of it is transformed into heating the air that slows down the rock, but none of it disappears.

As for heat, it's funny, counterintuitive stuff, too. In fact, it's not even stuff. It's molecular motion, and it behaves in unexpected ways. When I step out of the shower and put one foot on the tile floor and the other on a bath mat, I could swear the bath mat is warmer than the floor. But it can't be--they're both at the same temperature as the rest of the room. It's just that the tile conducts heat better than the fibers in the mat, so it sucks heat away from that foot more efficiently. That's why it feels colder, even though it isn't.

Of course, I'm speaking metaphorically when I say the tile "sucks heat", even though I may not realize it. It's not really what happens. In fact, the idea of suction is an illusion. If I take a drink through a straw, I'm not exerting a "force of suction". I'm lowering the air pressure in the straw, and that allows the pressure of the atmosphere (a surprisingly high 14.7 pounds per square inch) to push the drink into the straw. It doesn't sound right, does it? It goes against common sense.

And that's the problem with common sense.


* You probably know these things as well as I do. My point isn't to say "Did you know that....", but to say, "We both know this; let's stop and think about how amazing it really is." That's how most of my posts are intended, actually.