Monday, 4 May 2015

Things to bear in mind about Bruce Jenner

Bruce Jenner’s public coming out as transgendered serves as a particularly dramatic event in the growing public awareness of trans issues, which began in the wake of the death of the trans teenager, Leelah Alcorn in December, 2014. The popular response to his interview with Diane Sawyer has been overwhelming, flooding social media and sparking movements of solidarity as far away as Australia.
However, while its high-profile nature makes Jenner’s coming out so powerful for raising awareness, it also comes with an attendant problem: Jenner is fast becoming emblematic of the US trans community in general, and by extension, that of the rest of the Western world. In light of this, there are a number of important features about Jenner’s case which need to be born in mind.

The first of these is something not immediately evident to people who are not trans (‘cisgendered’). There is a common narrative which our society uses to understand transgenderism: that of a person of gender x stuck inside a body associated with gender y. This was the narrative that Jenner used to explain his situation in his interview, and is a narrative that is employed by a lot of other trans people too. However, there is also lot of variation between trans individuals with regards to how they think about their relationship to gender. Some even oppose Jenner’s narrative, based on the idea that it tries to turn trans individuals into ‘broken’ cis individuals, and obscures the inherent problems with the notion of gender itself which trans people present. This is not to say that the ‘trapped in the wrong body’ narrative is wrong in all cases – merely that many people feel that it does not adequately capture their situation. Gender is a very complex and varied phenomenon, and we need to accept a reflective complexity and variety in our accounts of it.

The high-profile nature of Jenner’s case means that the average person, who has never had to think that much about gender in a systematic way, will draw their understanding of transgender phenomena primarily from it. Consequently, Jenner’s narrative becomes framed as the only one in the public mind. This makes it difficult for trans people who are less certain about its adequacy. More dangerously, it also reinforces the popular view that this is the only proper narrative, which is then used to restrict people’s access to vital medical treatment. We need to bear in mind that Jenner is just an individual accounting for their situation in one way, and while that way may be adequate for him, it is not universally adequate.

Secondly, Jenner's problems only represent a small subset of the issues faced by trans people in the US - and the easiest subset at that. For example, he is rich enough to be able to afford the medical treatment he requires. He has never had to do sex work, with the dangers and stigmas this presents - or been arrested for it and condemned to rape and worse in a male prison. He is not subject to daily violence, and the chance that he is going to be murdered is far lower than for trans women of colour... I could go on.

Consequently, the fact that Jenner’s case is so influential in defining how the public think about trans issues is troubling. In defining the situation of trans people in the US in terms of the interior, emotional issues of a person like Jenner, we lose sight of the wider, more serious, material and political problems faced by the majority. These are rooted in other issues such as race and wealth, which have always traditionally been ignored in favour of the limited problems faced by rich white people. It is really important not to let the situation of a group become defined by the situation of its most privileged members – particularly when this obscures the responsibility a society has to reform itself.

Society works by presenting the diverse experiences of groups of people like the trans community as homogenous. This makes it easier to account for these groups in popular narratives. The good effect of this that it allows for a society in which people have some sense of understanding one another, facilitating greater empathy within that society. However, part of this process necessarily involves erasing certain aspects of these identities. When taken as paradigmatic of trans experience, the aspects which Jenner’s case erase are some of the most fundamental and important ones.

*note: I have used male pronouns when referring to Jenner throughout this article, in line with his request during his interview. I don't know if this was because he just didn't want to have to deal with the media constantly fumbling with the proper one or not, but just take me in good faith.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Whipping Up Controversy

Recently, the 2003 Communications Act was amended to ban the depiction of a number of more *ahem* exotic practices in pornography produced in the UK. Online pornography in the UK must now follow the same guidelines as DVD porn, which rules out a variety of sex acts, from female ejaculation to caning.

The inclusion of many sado-masochist practices (not to be confused with “maso-sadist”, which I am informed is a school of left-wing economics) is one of the most striking parts of the amendment (forgive the pun). From briefly scanning social media, the responses to this seem to fall it two main categories: Firstly, “boo, the Puritans are after my civil liberties”. Secondly, “hurrah, sexualised [male] violence [against women] shouldn’t be consumed as a product”. However, this dichotomy is a gross oversimplification. I would like to highlight some further considerations based upon considerations of power and virtue, and explore how they shape this debate.

The last response is one that I have a lot of sympathy for. However, it is predicated on a major assumption that needs unpicking: that violence in an S&M context holds some sort of either identity or causal relation to sexual violence in wider society. I am not a sociologist, and I will leave that last question to others. However, I do have a passing interest in ethics, and the first question is very interesting.

Prima facie, S&M seems bad insofar as it involves one person hurting another. This is redeemed somewhat when you introduce the element of consent:  these things are precisely worked out in terms of who can do what to whom, and where the boundaries lie, with structures in place to ensure the safety of participants. This is not the case, the S&M apologist might argue, in cases of ‘authentic’ sexual violence. Thus they are not identical.

I think that the consent issue here is central, because I think the comparison is most meaningful when reduced to exercise of power. The purpose of violence outside of an S&M context is to exert power on another, coercing them into a subordinate position. Conversely, in S&M, there is a two-way exchange of power: the sub willingly sigs away power to the dom. However, the dom is constrained entirely by what the sub wishes to legitimise. Thus even though the sub gives power to the dom, the dom is always-already returning it in sticking to the rules established by the sub, who is always-already returning it in being the sub... What you have is a kind of mutual kenosis, where each participant gives their power entirely to the other. It is not so much a radical sexual practice under this reading as a distillation of the essence of the most traditionally conservative context for sexuality: mutual self-giving in marriage. The S&M apologist would point out here the complete difference between this and coercive violence, which is all about one party stealing power from another.

I think that this is a fair argument: in its perfect form, S&M violence is not the same as normal violence. To add to the distinction, we might note that S&M violence takes place in a variety of gendered contexts (women as dom over a male sub, same-sex relationships etc.), whereas sexual violence tends to be perpetrated by males upon female.

However, there is an added dimension to this debate brought up by the fact that it is people, with all our flaws and concupiscence, who take part in S&M relationships. It does not seem unlikely that some doms actively delight not in the kenotic aspect of their relationships, but in the infliction of harm or the having of power over someone - that is, they are truly sadists. Equally, some subs may actively enjoy humiliation for its own sake. Masochism seems in some respects to be like a kind of self-directed sadism, where the masochist takes a kind of second-order pleasure in their own suffering. This might seem wrong insofar as were we to have such a moral attitude towards another subject, it would clearly be wrong. There is obviously more room for debate here, bringing in to play concepts such as self-ownership, autonomy, and first versus second order preferences. However, it seems like a defensible take on the situation that subs can enjoy their position unvirtuously. We might ask whether it is right to produce media that endorses the indulging of such vices. This provides us with a broader variation on the second criticism.

An S&M apologist might respond that a particular piece of pornography is not intended to be consumed in such a way. This brings to light another dimension in terms of the alienation of the artist from the consumer. When a person watched pornography, just as when any other media is consumed, the artist’s intentions can never be communicated with 100% fidelity. It is thus perfectly reasonable to suppose that a decent proportion of consumers of S&M porn are doing so in a way that takes sadistic delight in the activities being shown, regardless of how virtuously kenotic the activity is supposed to be. The question now is whether, knowing this, it is responsible to try and cater for virtuous S&M enthusiasts whilst foreseeing vicious enjoyment of the product. Of course, it is practically impossible to cover all possibilities here. As the internet has shown us, for any object or state of affairs in the world, there exists a person who will get off on it. The question is thus how far does any one person's responsibility extend on this front, and what conditions affect it?

We then come to a development of the first response: given our conclusion on the above considerations, does the state have a right to prevent the production of such media? This will obviously vary depending on your views on civil liberties and market autonomy. The sort of person making our second response would probably be the sort of person in favour of government intervention in the name of the public good. However, one might ask whether the public good includes the moral status of its members – particularly given that it is hard to enforce a universal morality without in some ways damaging the good that is individual autonomy. This is compounded by the issue that, historically speaking, most people have been wrong in many of their moral intuitions, and perhaps this situation invites an element of humility incompatible with imposing one's views on others in such a way. If not, one might then ask whether there is an explicit enough causal link between violent pornography and sexual violence in order to fulfil the ‘public good’ condition. For this, we must turn back to our friends, the sociologists. Furthermore, there is a variation on our pragmatic question above: should we censor something based on the fact that it can be viciously taken in ways other than the intended? In a world in which even doorknobs can become the focal objects of ambiguously sexual pictures of women dressed up as schoolgirls, I imagine that such a policy would cover most of human cultural production.

There are other considerations that I have not taken into account here: ones such as variations within violent pornography (for example, whipping may be easier to reconcile within a consensual framework than simulated rape, which mimics something that in its very nature defies consent). However, simple reflection shows that there is more to this debate than a simple conflict of liberty to consume versus public interest.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Inviting Men to be Feminists

As you have all probably heard by now, the actress EmmaWatson recently gave a speech at the United Nations testifying to the importance of feminism, and calling upon men around the world to support the cause. The content of the speech itself is nothing particularly controversial or ground-breaking with regards to what popular feminism has been saying over the past years, but being invited to present it at the UN is a welcome gesture of support on the part of the organisation – even if, as things are wont to in international politics, it may never be more than this. To summarise in the most general way possible, its aim is to persuade men to work towards gender equality by making them feel as though they have a stake in the movement by detailing how gender roles harm men, whilst at the same time presenting an apology for feminism against criticisms of been exclusionary towards males, and highlighting the issues women face around the world.

Her speech, I think, should generally be welcomed by feminists: it is at least useful if‘men’ (acknowledging, but setting aside for brevity’s sake the complex issues at play here, I am concerned here with those who broadly ‘identify’ with a selection of the standard traits which society associates with biological maleness) are motivated to help further the feminist cause, given that they are the demographic predominantly in possession of the power required to initiate lasting social and institutional reform (indeed, if they were not, there would be no need for feminism).  However, I must admit to being made slightly uncomfortable by the appeasing tone of the message: it is, after all, men who are the problem - and as such we are confronted with a moral duty to assist in realising the goals of feminism quite apart from any other personal investment we may or may not have in the movement. In light of this, Watson’s approach smacks a bit of a pragmatic pandering to the sense of entitlement of the problematic privileged group at best, and a kind of timidity in making the moral demands that women have a right to make at worst.

Perhaps the most obvious instance of this is Watson’s “invitation” to men to participate in feminism. This raises the obvious question of just whether men should be ‘invited’ in such a manner – a question that many internet commentators have been considering over the past few days. I think that this issue is one that benefits from distinguishing between two notions of the term ‘participation’ which arise in this context. These are: ‘participation’ in the sense of identifying with, and intending to further, feminism conceived as the activity of the pursuit of a set of objectives; and ‘participation’ in the sense of identifying with and participating in feminism as conceived as a community or social movement defined by the collective activity of pursuing those objectives. In making this distinction, we can reflect on the relationship that we feminism-supporting (or potentially feminism-supporting) men, hold towards feminism in general.

With regards to the first sense of the word, men occupy positions of power in society – socially if always not institutionally - such that they are often capable of challenging structural and attitudinal misogyny where they encounter it. To this end, they could identify with cause and work to ‘make things better for women’ (leaving this intentionally undefined on my part) without even identifying with any sort of movement or group at all. As such, there need be no invitation here at all, as there is nothing to which you, as a man, need be invited: you can just ‘get on with it’ if you recognise your power, and the need, to do so.

The second sense involves slightly more complex considerations. Feminism as a movement operates through group activities, such as discussion, socialising and direct action, in which individuals can support each other in the cause through morale-boosting displays of solidarity, creating a forum for the activity, or just making being a feminist fun. In short, feminism as movement has a social base. Participation in feminism can thus be taken in the sense of participation in a social group. This social group has its own internal power structures, which must be negotiated by participants and prospective participants.  These structures are female-dominated. Consequently, power achieved by men within it must be granted to them by women. In this light, invitations are necessary: an invitation is a speech act which grants social power to participate, in the form of the recognised authority to do so.

There are a number of reasons why feminists might want to grant men such power. Firstly, feminism requires the power held by the privileged in order to secure the change that will provide the conditions to realise those aims. Thus, if it is to achieve its aims without actively wresting power from the hands of men, needs to be evangelical. However, people don’t just spontaneously acquire motivations in a vacuum. Relationships with individuals and groups is a catalyst for adopting new points of view, and becoming emotionally invested in certain truth claims (about society, ethics etc.). Seeming welcoming to men is instrumental in achieving the participation will persuade people of the issues and to have the motivation to right wrongs, and thereby securing for the movement the power that it requires to be successful.

There is also a danger in men ‘participating’ in feminism in the first sense without the second. Without the insight that comes from associating with a group, or the adoption of specific intellectual positions required in order to participate in the group (‘being orthodox’), outsiders will often lack the insight and dispositions to truly act in the interests of the people they need to help. Instead, all they can do is impose their own analyses and value judgements on the situation in a way that almost inevitably disregards the experiences (where the problems are made explicit) of the parties they seek to help. This approach may lead to the kind of naiive, ‘imperialistic’ aid that, while well-meaning, entails an imposition of the viewpoint of the privileged upon the experiences of the underprivileged. This is intrinsically counter-productive both in terms of realising the autonomy of the disempowered, and also often in terms of formulating policies which actually address the problems they face. That is not to say that such an approach cannot result in productive action, or even that it a priori precludes attaining sufficient insight. However, it does make such things much harder.

An assumption one might make here is that granting men the power to participate will establish power dynamics which will prevent feminism from functioning. This isn’t necessarily the case. For example, one issue which leaps to the fore here is that of women leadership: if women do not occupy a protected position of privilege within the feminist movement itself, then the status quo external to the movement will eventually establish itself within the movement, thereby vitiating it as a challenge to that status quo.

However, participation in a group does not entail any particular level of authority within it other than the minimum level of authority required to participate in a just and meaningful way. ‘Meaningful’ may set the bar for authority pretty low – for example, a Private enjoys very little authority within the army, and yet is no less a soldier for it. ‘Just’ may actively entail a non-equal position in movement that is about one particular demographic, if the position which it refers to is one for a person who is not a member of that demographic. Obviously, the notion of justice here is vague, and intentionally so, being hotly contested. Similarly, the notion of single gender ‘safe-spaces’ may seem threatened. However, participation does not entail participation in all activities, presence in all places, or having voice on all platforms or in all contexts. The ends and principles of a movement can justify different forms, contexts and modes of participation. In this case, we might argue that safe spaces are instrumental for allowing women to participate in feminism meaningfully themselves. This is a strong argument which seeks to justify restriction of male participation to non-female exclusive contexts. The important point here is that mere participation in a group doesn’t entail any given position for men within that group except for in the most general sense.

There is good reason then, as I see it, for actively inviting men to participate in feminism - at least in our second sense of the word. However, as I have also argued, men do not need an invitation before the responsibility falls on them to work to further the goals of feminism. Indeed, if you are a man who is actively concerned with questions of justice, and appreciate the feminist analysis of society, there is really no excuse to not at least consider trying to help - even if you feel excluded from participation in the second sense. Admittedly there are problems with solely participating in feminism in the first sense. However, you can still do your best to help the cause, and with some research it is not hard to inform your approach. Sometimes, you may decide that you lack enough information to participate constructively. However, if you have good reason to think that a certain action would be helpful, then perhaps it might be argued that you have a duty to press ahead despite potential limitations in your knowledge: patriarchy demands a response insofar as it places men in a position of unjust power. It is unjust to allow oneself to remain in such a position. Insofar as a moral action might be defined as on that aims to, and is predicted to (to the best of one’s ability), bring about a good end, we might argue that a well-meaning and well-considered, but ultimately misinformed, response is at least morally justified, and potentially better than no response at all. Either way, a disposition of willingness and readiness to help if the opportunity arises is clearly required as an extension of the same disposition towards fighting injustice in general.

Indeed, if you find that absence of an active invitation to participate in feminism is enough to dispose you towards not participating, you’re possibly putting your own vanity and desires before the cause itself - in which case, you lack the disposition to be an ally in the first place, and thus there is no reason to ‘welcome’ you.

Friday, 19 September 2014

Strange Notions of Contingency

I recently read an article on Strange Notions by philosopher and theologian, Dr. Peter Kreeft about what he calls “the contingency argument” (CA). It runs as follows:
Many consider the argument for God from contingency to be one of the strongest. The basic form is simple: 
1.  If something exists, there must exist what it takes for that thing to exist. 
2.  The universe—the collection of beings in space and time—exists.  
3. Therefore, there must exist what it takes for the universe to exist. 
4. What it takes for the universe to exist cannot exist within the universe or be bounded by space and time. 
 5. Therefore, what it takes for the universe to exist must transcend both space and time. 
Suppose you deny the first premise. Then if X exists, there need not exist what it takes for X to exist. But "what it takes for X to exist" means the immediate condition(s) for X's existence. You mean that X exists only if Y. Without Y, there can be no X. So the denial of premise 1 amounts to this: X exists; X can only exist if Y exists; and Y does not exist. This is absurd. So there must exist what it takes for the universe to exist.”

He then goes on to argue that this mysterious “what” is God.

Ignoring the latter half of his argument, which treats this final leap of identification, I think that there is an obvious problem that Dr. Kreeft ignores – specifically the fact that the notion of “what it takes” for something to exist is quite complicated. In this article, I shall explain where Dr. Kreeft slips up, and then attempt to indicate the way towards solving the problem.

Before we start, let’s clarify a few terms I use. Firstly, when I say “world”, I mean “the sum total of all states of affairs in an exhaustive set of states of affairs that could exist together”. “Actual world”, refers to the set of actual states of affairs. This is to be distinguished from the term “universe”, which I use to indicate the set of states of affairs that is the existence of the all the stuff that isn’t ‘God’ under the Christian conception (i.e. that which stands in relation to God in such a way that Dr. Kreeft believes demonstrates the existence of God Himself).

Now for the argument.

States of affairs can be either necessary or possible. Necessary states of affairs are the case in all possible worlds, and cannot not exist in any possible world. Possible states of affairs are the case in at least one possible world.

Suppose a state of affairs (e.g. the existence of X) is intrinsically ontologically necessary: to say that its existence presupposes 'what it takes for it to exist' is merely to say that its existence presupposes its being what it is. This means that, if the existence of the universe is necessary, there need not be some kind of 'outside' condition upon which its existence is contingent.

This is the first point where Dr. Kreeft falls down. Prima facie, the existence of the universe is neither clearly necessary, nor clearly contingent. Dr. Kreeft, however, implicitly assumes that the universe is contingent when he assumes that the “the immediate condition(s)” for its existence must be distinct from itself.

However, even if we grant Dr. Kreeft his assumption of contingency (which, as we shall see later, we might have good reason to do), there are still problems.

I will assume (and this is a generally uncontroversial assumption) that a state of affairs which is neither necessary nor impossible is contingent. It can be so in two ways: a) it can be contingent upon either some other condition (‘dependent’ contingency), or b) it can be a brute contingency (that is, its non-existence is possible in any given possible world, but there is no other condition upon which its existence is dependent). If (b) is the case, (1) is just false with regards to it. Indeed, it is only if (a) is true of the actual world that the argument might work.

As we have just shown, there is no reason to assume premise (1) in such a way that the CA leads us to a picture of the actual world in which God exists. There are too many other possibilities for the modal status of the universe. That said, we can possibly argue down the number of these possibilities.

Firstly, we might be willing to reject the notion of the universe as necessary as counter-intuitive. If the universe as it is in the actual world is necessary, then the states of affairs contingent upon it (i.e. the stuff that happens ‘in’ the universe) are effectively necessary too. This is because a necessary universe would underpin the same set of contingent states of affairs in any possible world. As such, the set of existing states of affairs contingent upon the universe in general would be the same in any possible world. This level of ontological determinism seems odd at the least.

We can extend this to construct a plausible argument as to why (a) should be wrong. Let us suppose that (a) is the case. In which case, the existence of the actual universe implies the existence of some condition upon which its existence is determinate. The existence of this condition can either be necessary or contingent. If this condition is necessary, then it is true in all possible worlds. Thus the existence of the actual universe, the existence of which its existence entails, would also be true in all possible worlds. In which case, the actual universe is necessary – which seems counter-intuitive.

If the condition is a brute contingency, then the CA doesn’t face a problem on the fronts mentioned in this piece. However, we might ask why we would think this. Suppose in any given world a contingent object has the possibility of being a brute contingency (as opposed to a mere contingency) of 50% (there are two options, with no reason I can suppose for one option, prima facie, to be the case over another). This means that any contingent universe has a 50% possibility of being a brute contingency, and an equal chance of being a dependent contingency. Given that we have rejected the notion of a necessary universe as counter-intuitive, this means that there is a 50% chance of the actual world being such that the CA might work.

What this means is that the CA could plausibly be a successful argument. However, more ontological groundwork is needed in order to establish this. I have attempted to cover some of this groundwork, although a supporter of the CA would still need to demonstrate the dependent contingency of the universe.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Being Justified

A common argument in popular apologetics premises the truth of Christianity upon the plausibility of the resurrection. Such arguments draw from various writers such as Gary Habermas (not to be confused with the Habermas you’ve probably heard of), C.S. Lewis, and the omnipresent William Lain Craig. They generally make the case that, due to historical factors [x, y, z], there is no better explanation for the ‘resurrection’ than the one provided by the mainstream Christian tradition (sorry, Schillerbeeckx). In this post, I am going to present an argument drawn from Hume and Ahmed against such approaches. I am then going to indicate the possibility for an alternative approach: a more sophisticated argument along the lines that we might be justified in such a belief in spite of this. I will develop this into something more concrete in a later post.

Central to considerations of arguments of this sort is the issue of the epistemic component in the justifiedness of holding a belief, which I shall (for the purposes of this article, and in full consciousness of the other uses of this term) call warrant. In any case of belief, there are two factors: the belief in a truth claim itself (that is, the assent to that truth claim on the part of the ‘knower’), and warrant.

In the case of abductive arguments (such as that in question), warrant comes from ‘evidence’. We say that there is evidence for a proposition (taking the general form “X is the case”) when a set of conditions Y arise which can be explained by X. We make the leap from evidence to warrant based upon two factors: firstly, is X the best explanation out of all the possible explanations for Y? Secondly, is X a sufficient explanation for Y – after all, our only option could be a completely inadequate explanation. In this case, we still would not be warranted in believing X, even in the absence of alternatives.

Both of these conditions (best and sufficient) rely on being able to distinguish between the qualities of explanations. This is where Bayesian probability comes in. To briefly summarise the relevant aspect of this, Bayesean probability dictates that an event is more likely to have arisen from a set of conditions the more times it has occurred in the past as a result of those conditions. This means that better explanations are ones that have explained similar events before. Warrant, as presupposed by Habermas et al., is derived from probability.

There are multiple ways this can play out with regards to the question of biblical evidence. At a basic level, no one has been resurrected before. However, there has historically been a lot of deception and mistakenness (including on the part of historians), and people will rationalize events and believe absolutely in their accounts. To this end, it is more likely that one of these explains the gospel accounts of the resurrection, rather than an actual resurrection occurring. Indeed, by this logic, we are even more warranted in believing that there is a better explanation that we have just not thought of than to attribute the ‘inspiration’ of the gospel accounts to the actual resurrection of a human body.

We can intensify this and say that belief in the resurrection can never be warranted. This is an argument most famously used by David Hume against miracles (defined as an event which goes against the established ‘laws’ of the universe) of any sort – the probability of a miracle is always less than an event which works within the bounds of those ‘laws’. This argument can be said to cut both ways, and there is some ambiguity in Hume as to whether he is not, in fact, arguing against the idea of natural laws. However, if we wish to keep our understanding of a consistent universe with immutable tendencies, we cannot accept this second reading. I offered this argument to a very friendly and eloquent evangelist with whom I spent several enjoyable hours discussing religion over coffee. His response, which is the standard response to Hume’s argument, is that it is a bad test because it automatically rules out the possibility of the resurrection. Here is an analogy: imagine you have bought a Bayesean fire alarm which, realising that in the vast majority of cases there is no fire in your kitchen, infers that it should not go off in any instance of possible fire. In the vast majority of instances, it would be correct - check your kitchen now: it’s probably not in flames. However, it would still be a pretty useless alarm precisely because we want to acknowledge the possibility of there being a fire. If we are going to take the possibility of the resurrection seriously, then, we cannot employ Hume’s argument.

We might respond that, assuming the coherence of Hume’s argument, what the argument shows is precisely that the resurrection should not be taken seriously in the first place. The believer might still respond that this is essentially begging the question. This may or may not be fair (the Bayesean might argue that it’s just a case of sticking with the best epistemic standards we’ve got). Alternatively, against such responses, Cambridge Philosopher Arif Ahmed develops a variation on Hume’s argument which demonstrates that we can, a priori, rule out miracles without neglecting the question of whether they should be entertained seriously. This gets round the objection that we are not taking the issue seriously because it undermines the justification for raising this objection in the first place. He asks us to imagine a continuum of possible worlds. At one end of the continuum is a world governed by rigid natural laws that never permit miracles. We will call this a ‘maximally lawful’ world. At the other is a world in which there are no natural laws, such that every event is essentially a miracle. We will call this a ‘chaotic’ world. Eliminating the possibility that we live in a chaotic world which appears lawful by chance due to its sheer improbability, when we look at our world, we realise that it is predominantly lawful. Every instance of lawful behaviour increases the probability that we live in a maximally lawful world. Given enough of these instances, the probability of our world being maximally lawful will outweigh all other possibilities such that we are warranted only to posit that the world is maximally lawful. Thus we would have no reason to take a claim for the resurrection (or indeed any other miracle) seriously, although we theoretically could have. Given that we have yet to observe a definite miracle (the Resurrection cannot be considered one without question begging) we are lead to this conclusion.

Note that these arguments do not imply that Christianity is false. Rather, they imply that if we wish to prove the truth of Christianity, we cannot rely so easily upon abductive arguments based on biblical accounts and ‘commonsense’ historical standards. The wider issue here is that there are a host of epistemological issues which must be engaged with if we are to draw any sort of rigorous conclusion. Moreover, as Ahmed shows, they present a particular problem for belief.

This problem, however, can possibly circumvented by taking stock of our notion of warrant. There are two considerations here, which are not entirely divorced from one another: firstly, just what are the conditions for warrant and why are they so; and secondly, when can we be morally justified in holding a belief in general? The first question is one for epistemologists, which I am not. The pertinent issue here, however, is that warrant has an ethical relevance. As such, the first question takes place against the backdrop of the second.

When we make a claim about the warrantedness of a belief, we are generally implicitly claiming something along these lines:

That there is some property, ‘warrant’, which is distinct from truth, that links a belief to truth in such a way that holding it is permitted (or possibly even obligated) according to some distinct ethics of belief which requires the knower to maximise the number of true beliefs, or at least minimise the number of false ones, in the set of beliefs which they hold, and that this property is a necessary condition for such an ethical status.

Note that this notion does not presuppose anything about the nature of the conditions for the possession of warrant, the objectivity of the property or ethics in general, nor about realism with regards to either of these things.

We might want to ask whether warrant itself has an ethical or normative component: is warrant derived from the normative framework which guides us to hold warranted beliefs over unwarranted beliefs? We might want to also question the necessary condition clause. That is, we might want to ask: are we ever justified in belief where we are not warranted?

The answer to the first question is not particularly obvious: on the one hand, we might instinctively want a notion of warrant which ‘stands on its own’. Such a notion of warrant could serve as a condition for justified belief which allows us to avoid wider ethical and meta-ethical complications. However, take, for example, the ethical maxim conveyed by the popular phrase, “Science: it works, bitches”. This exhorts us to adopt a particular kind of empiricist standard of warrant in response to its effectiveness in attaining particular goals. This is ethically driven, rather than purely epistemological, as it is explicitly motivated by ends.

I do not think that the answer to the second question is particularly obvious either. Indeed I think that there are some fairly obvious, plausible arguments to the contrary: e.g. a hedonist might say that a person in no position of intellectual authority (say, a shopkeeper) might be justified in believing in Russell’s teapot (you can see where this is going).

The openness of both of these questions leaves open the possibility for justified belief where warrant is not a necessary condition thereof. This opens possibilities for the apologist: the first question opens the possibility of adopting an ethics under which belief is warranted in the resurrection in spite of objections such as those raised by Hume and Ahmed. The second question raises the possibility of circumventing the question of warrant, dissolving their objections.

In development of the above point, I would like to note that this does not mean that the question of warrant can be circumvented entirely. For example, a scientist, philosopher or theologian might, as a result of their authority, have a duty to hold to a higher valuation of warrant than our shopkeeper. Equally, it may just be virtuous to value warrant. Indeed, it is quite possible that, while not a necessary condition for justified belief in a maximal form, a measure of warrant is still necessary for some or all beliefs to be justified in all cases. In fact, I believe that this is intuitively true (whether I am justified in this or not...)

This is where we might turn back to Habermas et al. Retaining their probabilistic notion of warrant, perhaps, given their arguments, we might say that the resurrection is plausible enough that belief is either warranted by virtue of some higher end to which warrant is subordinate, or justified because it fulfils a condition of warrant that is lower given other ethically-relevant factors. Both of these seem to me to be easier positions for the apologist to defend.

The obvious point to make here is that I have yet to actually produce anything concrete: under what ethical conditions might we suppose that this is the case? And could an actively persuasive case be constructed based on these conditions? I will explore these questions in a later article. Watch this space. 

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Why #AmericaIsn'tBeautiful

Coca-Cola have caused a stir with their Superbowl advert – a video showing a variety of people from various ethnic groups going about their lives to the soundtrack of ‘America the Beautiful’, sung in a variety of languages. It’s simple, kitsch, and optimistic. However, despite its hip DIY aesthetic and instagram-filter charm, it has proved controversial. Conservatives have been outraged at this display of liberal diversity, particularly the singing of the national anthem in languages other than English.

On the face of it, I’m sure that we can all applaud the apparent message – despite its saccharine delivery, the vision of society immediately presented seems to be a good one. I particularly appreciate their inclusion of Arabic as one of the languages featured – a deliberately provocative move that challenges standard post-9/11 ‘us and them’ narratives that has wound up the American Right wonderfully.

But this is where the irony lies. On closer inspection, the message of the advert is a fundamentally conservative one. If this advert could vote, it would vote Republican.

The vision of society it presents is one of unity of a number of disparate groups of people – disparate because they are never shown side by side. This unity is comprised of two things: firstly, the anthem – a common song sung in a plurality of languages. This speaks to the idea that the nation itself unites in difference its constituent groups. However, we must also note the omnipresence of Coke. Throughout the video, we are shown subtle reminders of the product - Children play football in front of a wall bedecked with the logo, a family settles down to a meal and a nice glass of coke, a group of friends dance while a Coca-Cola coolbox lurks in the background. Thus the second unifying factor of Coke’s multicultural society is the enjoyment of the product itself. The utopian unity we see is the unity of consumers, participating in the market together in a way that transcends all cultural boundaries.

There are a number of problematic aspects to this vision. The first of these lies in the way capitalism deals with difference. A common post-Liberal critique runs thus: the market is not actually a neutral space in which multiple societies can operate. Its fundamental narrative is one that reduces value to the nominal monetary values ascribed by trade. As such, there is no space for the competing systems of absolute value which actually define cultural difference – it is only by denying these absolutes that the market can function. Thus it denies authentic difference.

This gives a different spin to the vision in the advert. Although we see all these different groups of people, they are really a homogenous group of consumers. Indeed, aside from the archetypal cultural markers (hijabs, kippahs, hip-hop), there is really very little of the people in the adverts presented at all – they are skin-deep representations of cultural groups, and it is precisely the depth so effectively obscured by the advert in which the authentic difference denied by the market lies. The advert is thus fundamentally dishonest – the supposed attempt to present the liberal utopian vision of diversity is really a front for total cultural homogenisation.

We are then called to ask what this communicates about American society as a whole – which leads to the second implication. The vision presented in the advert is an ideal version of America (i.e. without the vast disparities in wealth, literacy and crime along race lines that currently define US cosmopolitanism). But now that we are aware of the true structure of society presented, we can see that it actually communicates a strongly imperialist message: come to America (so long as you are prepared to submit to the market)! Enjoy liberty to be yourself (so long as that self is a consumer)! We are all one (in our mutual consumption of Coca-Cola)! In short, what is presented is an America in which Western liberal (non)values rule supreme, and all other systems of value are erased.

The final reason to dislike this advert lies in the way that the advert appropriates the identity of America itself: Throughout the advert, we are exposed to archetypal ‘American’ images such as cowboys, mountains and deserts. The ending features the slogan “#AmericaIsBeautiful”. The entire thing is underpinned by one of the great patriotic songs of American nationalism. This juxtaposes the Coke brand and the American identity. Furthermore, as we have seen, the unity that comes from being a member of the US as a country is underpinned by the unity of common enjoyment of Coca-Cola. This is not, therefore, America in itself that we are seeing – we are seeing the Coke vision of America. National identity is thus entirely mediated through the Coke brand. It is transformed from a political identity to a commodity – a collection of qualities tied by association to a product. Drinking Coke and being American thus not only becomes synonymous, but the distinction between the two collapses entirely: when you are a member of this glorious vision of the US, you are part of the Coke brand – a loyal consumer, sipping the sugary nectar of the Coke ideology.

The US is founded on a narrative of revolution in pursuit of universal principles – Liberty and Justice. Coke subordinates this to their brand identity, which both trivialises it, and ultimately resists the narrative itself. Who needs to pursue this ideal America? It is here already, presented for your passive consumption on the large screen, and in your cup. The fundamentally radical American identity is thus transformed into one of passivity.

This commodification of social and political identities is nothing new to Coca-Cola. The recent “Share a Coke with X” campaign run in Britain similarly attempted to mediate non-market social relations – ‘meeting up with a friend’ became ‘meeting up with a friend over a nice bottle of Coke’. The principled conservative may find something worthwhile to be outrage about here - if there is anything which undermines the traditional values of family, patriotism and social responsibility, then this attempt to commodify natural human relationships is it.

It is thus right that this advert should be controversial. However, it is the Left who should be up in arms. It is a Trojan horse – concealed within its fluffy multicultural shell are the remorseless forces of conservative neoliberalism. Our passive consumption of this sort of thing merely serves to dissolve the core values that underpin authentic social visions, like teeth in acid.

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Being Born This Way

On Thursday last week, Anglican Mainstream, a conservative group within the Anglican communion (although perhaps it is more of a ‘compromise’ at the moment, what with issues like GAFCON and the controversy over women bishops) published an article on their website arguing against Stonewall’s role in Church of England schools in tackling homophobic bullying. As much as I love Stonewall (they are an incredibly powerful advocate for LGBTQ interests, and the community owes much to them), I think that AM have a point on (possibly only) one front: Stonewall has widely differing views from the orthodox Anglican position, and the issue is controversial both on both ecclesiological and ecumenical fronts. However, I would like to ignore this issue - I’m sure it will get its fair share of much more erudite and informed coverage elsewhere - and instead look at a different aspect of their complaint.

The aspect I would like to look at is that which comes under the heading of “unscientific stonewall”:

Of course we agree that in today’s society people should be free to identify themselves as gay if they so wish, without fear of harassment. Stonewall’s campaign is based on an assumption that being “gay” is something innate which people are born with, like a racial characteristic. However, repeated research efforts have failed to demonstrate any biological or genetic cause of homosexual orientation. Many youngsters who self-identified as gay in their teens shed the label and the identity later on. Institutionalizing Stonewall’s views will inhibit this process.

It gets interesting when you read the response produced by Changing Attitude, and Anglican LGBTQ advocacy group, which viciously contests the idea that homosexuality may not be innate. Here are some pertinent accusations of theirs:
  •  They believe that repeated research efforts have failed to demonstrate any biological or genetic cause of homosexual orientation – that’s homophobic.
  •  They accuse Stonewall of being unscientific because the leaders of Anglican Mainstream don’t believe that being gay is something innate which people are born with – that’s a homophobic attitude.
  • They believe that many youngsters who self-identified as gay in their teens shed the label and the identity later on. Describing lesbian and gay identity as a label is homophobic.

This shifts the debate onto an old and common battlefield: the genetics/socialisation dilemma. In denouncing as homophobic any claim that homosexuality isn’t innate, they imply that there is a link between innateness and the legitimacy of homosexuality. In claiming that if you believe homosexuality is anything other than innate, you are being homophobic, they imply that innateness is a necessary condition for moral legitimacy. Correspondingly, many anti-homosexual groups reject the idea that homosexuality can be innate, arguing instead that it is the result of socialisation or a (particularly bizarre and irrational in a society in which these groups exist) choice.

There are two problems with this type of reasoning. Firstly, as far as I am aware, the issue has yet to be conclusively settled either way, and in fact the settling of the issue is muddied by the fact that ideological groups have taken up as banners two alternative answers to the question, so that any scientist offering a response is now making a political statement. Furthermore, the fact that science is a human activity and so is as flawed and corrupt as anything else we do means that research in this area is inextricably linked in to ideologies as held both by the researchers and those who fund them. As such, it is far too easy for either side to call the other out as biased, and it is plausible for them to do so. To make any claims to either option is thus not only dishonest, but a purely ideological hi-jacking of what should be a strictly empirical question.  

To add to this, there is the issue of the dualism that both sides seem to assume, which underpins the either/or nature of the controversy. However, the idea that sexuality can either be a matter of genetics or socialisation seems odd. I am not a geneticist or a psychologist, but it seems plausible that the levels of each contributing to sexual orientation could vary between individuals. The fact that a social/genetic dualism has become emblematic of ideological concerns means that everybody seems to be searching for a dualistic answer, which probably doesn’t help in light of this. Perhaps the alleged inconclusive studies alternatively deployed or rejected by either side in order to invalidate their opponents or validate their own positions are all we will ever get, and yet they will never be acknowledge as people keep searching for someone to prove them right.

Secondly, there is a more fundamental problem with this line of reasoning, and that is that innateness has absolutely nothing to do with morality. The common assumption seems to be that if homosexuality is innate, it must be accepted as ‘natural’ and therefore morally acceptable. If it is, in fact, a matter of socialisation, then it is a choice, or at least reversible and therefore it is not unreasonable to hold it as wrong. It is worth pointing out here that if determinism (taken outside of potential reversibility) does, in fact, justify behaviour, then socialisation would justify homosexuality as much as genetic disposition would. Furthermore, if reversibility is the criterion for justification, then this could still be the case so long as the socialisation is not undoable – which, if we are to look at some of the studies around the success of supposed ‘ex-gay’ therapies, we might be lead to believe.

We still, however, have the consideration of innateness left. The thing is, Christianity has always acknowledged that things can be both innate and wrong: from the weak flesh of Matt. 26:41 to at least six out of the seven deadly sins (Sloth may arguably be a learned behaviour), the workings of grace have always been to allow Christians to overcome not their actions but the dispositions which lead to those actions. For Aristotle, the virtuous person is the person who acts virtuously as a natural expression of their character, not through concerted efforts of will. Christianity seems to have inherited a similar notion of virtue, which is why St. Augustine prays for “continence” (albeit not yet), and not merely “not to do sins”. Salvation is about redemption of character, not God just stopping bad acts. That’s why “all who hate a brother or sister are murderers” (1 John 3:15, NRSV) . To this end, the Church is more than capable of condemning homosexual behaviour even if it is, in fact, genetic. Equally, there are many innate things which people are that are arguably bad even from a non-Abrahamic perspective – for example, people are disposed to violence as a reaction to fear or anger. They cannot necessarily help this, and yet we argue that they should do their best to resist these dispositions, so it cannot be claimed even from a non-Abrahamic perspective that innateness functions as a moral get-out-of-jail-free card.

On the other side, there are many things that I do which are not direct expressions of genetic disposition – for example, playing the guitar, writing a blog, or making coffee - which are no worse for that fact. If I wish to justify such behaviour on theological grounds, I can attempt to do so. Homosexuality is, of course, a little harder to defend in this way than making coffee – but its being innate or not is by-the-by.

Having exploded the notion that innateness means justification, we must ask just how this entirely unnecessary situation has arisen. I think that the reason why the two positions have been adopted by their respective camps is that there is the belief on both sides of the argument that acknowledging homosexuality as both innate and wrong would throw up insurmountable theodical issues. Such an acknowledgement would entail incoherent a loving God creating (either directly or indirectly) people who are innately disposed towards sin. The most obvious reaction to this is to reject either the notion of a “loving” God (supposed by the anti-gay lobby), or the rejection of homosexuality’s sinfulness. However, we need not adopt either of these theses. Christianity has a whole host of theodical issues already, and yet seems to function fine none-the-less. The last time I checked, no-one had produced a universally-acknowledged-as-watertight response to the many problems of evil, and yet people find reason to keep the faith. As such, neither side has any reason to either embrace or anathematise such a conclusion.