Saturday, September 12, 2015

Privilege Appropriates the Language of Oppression

I used to be one of the many human rights advocates suffering from a condition I like to refer to as 'why-cant-we-all-just-get-along'-itus. By this, I do not mean so much that I was a peacenik who wanted us to all see past our differences and come together to sing kumbaya. Rather, what I mean is that I had a fairly whitewashed view of the cultural and social climate in which we each live. I did not want us to see past our differences because I had grown up being told and believing that we had no real differences. Race, gender, sexuality - these were all constructs of bygone ages, outdated relics we needed to repudiate and reject in order to overcome. And weren't we the lucky ones to live in a time where we knew better, a time where we were overcoming.

A good number of us living in the West tend to have this idea that the social is not real. We construct concepts like currency and make frequent use of them in our societies, yet the things on which we base them do not actually have any such intrinsic value. There is nothing inherent to the dollar that, even in better economic times, has made it count for a certain amount of gold or silver. Nor is there anything inherent to gold or silver that makes it particularly valuable. These things have what we call instrumental value, they are valuable to us only to the extent that they are useful to us. So it may seem to us that these social constructs are illusory in a sense, that they are not real things existing independently in the world.

Because I saw concepts like race, gender and sexuality as social constructs, I saw them as being somewhat similar to other social constructs like currency. They were projections made by people, placed onto other people, and defended by those people because they found them useful. Whether their motivations were to marginalize those of any particular group, or just to generalize for more studious purposes, the concepts themselves were only instrumentally valuable, and therefore had an illusory quality to them. What matters most, I felt, is that we are all human beings. Why get so hung up on illusory things? Those aren't what's real. Our shared humanity is.

This became something to be defended almost as fervently as some would defend the social constructs that mattered most to them. Somewhere in the haze of it all, insistence on these instrumental valuations became, in my eyes, an insistence on division. When someone said women are discriminated against, a deliberate distinction was made between men and women. This always pointed to the simple fact that someone was clinging to an outdated relic, treating women as if they mattered less, but other times it took on the appearance of treating women as if they mattered more. We're all people, and we're all human, aren't we? I thought. Why divide us by acting as if some problems are more important than others?

Lately this thinking seems to be behind certain sentiments expressed in reaction to various claims of oppression throughout our world. The "Black Lives Matter" movement has been met with responses like "All lives matter" and "Cop lives matter." The Men's Rights movement has at times tried to show that some types of discrimination affect men in a parallel way, or greater way, to how they affect women. Allegations of fat-shaming are answered with accusations of skinny-shaming for suggesting there is an unrealistic social standard of beauty. Though I have not cited any here, the examples are numerous, recent, and easily accessible from a Google search.

One of the ideas behind these reactionary sentiments seems to be that focusing on the experience of any one social group minimizes the experience of other groups. However, this assumes a general uniformity of experience across social boundaries, which is the very thing being disputed by most social justice activists. I also think this assumption comes to a degree from the view of social constructs mentioned above. If differences of gender, race, sexuality, and so forth are like illusory projections, are not the experiences people have as a result of those projections equally illusory? This does not follow any more than it follows that the social nature of currency means our experiences with currency are in a sense less real than our experiences with other, objective facts in the world. But I believe the bigger issue lies with the reality we assign to social constructs.

Sociologist Peter Berger notes that there are three elements that constitute an empirically adequate view of how societies are shaped:

Externalization is the ongoing outpouring of human being into the world, both in the physical and the mental activity of men. Objectivation is the attainment by the products of this activity (again both physical and mental) of a reality that confronts its original producers as a facticity external to and other than themselves. Internalization is the reappropriation by men of this same reality, transforming it once again from structures of the objective world into structures of the subjective consciousness. It is through externalization that society is a human product. It is through objectivation that society becomes a reality sui generis. It is through internalization that man is a product of society. [1]

Berger says that society is the result of our putting our selves and our ideas out into the world, of our selves and our ideas taking on a reality in how they affect us and others, and of our adoption of that reality back into our conception of our selves and our ideas. This well explains the way in which we both participate in our societies and yet the societies we belong to also participate in us. It likewise shows that social constructs have a non-illusory reality in that they are indeed made part of the world, able to influence and impact us in ways that are external to us. That is, they will exist and affect us whether we will them to or not. This is true as well for currency, which can affect us in a very real way, especially if we find ourselves unemployed or in great debt.

Social constructs are abstract concepts, and so there may be some controversy over whether they are real in the same sense that particulars are real. Physicists and biologists have not found evidence to suggest that race, gender or sexuality are out there in the material world, existing in space and time like a chair exists in space and time. But there are problems with a strict reductionist materialism just as there may be problems with a Platonist view that sees abstractions as having reality. For starters, time and space have experiential aspects, and they are what Immanuel Kant called the synthetic a priori - they make sense of our experience, but are prior to experience and yet not attained through reason alone. Wherever one falls on the issue of abstract concepts, though, it does seem that they at least have effects in the world that move us in respects that have real consequences.

On Berger's view, we not only see how social constructs can have a reality to them, but we also see how experience is not uniform across social boundaries. Externalization involves an outpouring of selves and ideas into the world that will not be equal, for a variety of reasons too numerous to elaborate here, though not difficult to imagine. Objectivation sees the products of externalization transcending their producers, and they take on a reality capable of affecting others, which will affect different people differently, as the initial outpouring was unequal. Finally, internalization is the absorption of that reality back into individual minds.

Privilege and social advantage often go hand in hand, but both are usually invisible to those that hold them. Social privilege provides something of a luxury in not having to consider anything that is not directly relatable to oneself. The privileged person tends to take the limited view that they do see as the absolute truth or the norm. Psychologist Beverly Greene remarks that we are each of us in a "matrix of categories and contexts, where in some contexts we may be privileged, and in others we may be disadvantaged," [2] and we exist at the nexus of these many categories and group identities.

Externalization takes in these privileges and disadvantages, and some will be more predominant than others. It would be a mistake, however, to think that the privilege of the majority is always a literal privilege in numbers. Power structures and institutions often undergird majority privilege even where there may not be a literal majority. These structures and institutions play significant roles in all three moments of Berger's social process, especially in externalization and internalization (lobbying and advertising would perhaps be the most apparent examples). Privileges and disadvantages become objectivated, and we internalize that reality which we perceive. In a society with lots of people, power structures, and institutions that privilege a particular class, the step of internalization may explain why so many partaking in the predominant privilege seem to be unaware of the fact. What they absorb as the norm, or objective truth, is what they have all put into the social process to begin with.

As I see it, this is all quite relevant to the increase of reactionary sentiments that I mention above. It additionally shows why these sentiments are misguided at best, and are at worst further efforts to marginalize others and defend privilege. Julia Craven writes in an article for The Huffington Post:

Race brings on individual issues for each minority group. Saying "all lives matter" causes erasure of the differing disparities each group faces. Saying "all lives matter" is nothing more than you centering and inserting yourself within a very emotional and personal situation without any empathy or respect. [3]

The purpose of "Black Lives Matter," as she notes earlier in her article, is to draw attention to the fact that our nation has a history of suggesting some lives do matter more than others. Replying that all lives, white lives, or cop lives matter is to miss the point, because even while it is true that all lives should matter, the rejoinders fail to address the central problem: not all lives are understood to matter equally. These responses likewise ignore privilege and the structures in our society that protect it, and so unwittingly call for the status quo, wherein the problem lies. Philosopher Judith Butler explains that "to make that universal formulation concrete, to make that into a living formulation, one that truly extends to all people, we have to foreground those lives that are not mattering now, to mark that exclusion, and militate against it." [4]

Melissa Fabello makes some very similar distinctions in discussing the differences between fat-shaming and skinny-shaming, noting that fat-shaming not only expresses a general fatphobia of Western society, but that "the very structures that hold up our society prioritize the comfort and safety of thin bodies." [5] Later in her post, she comments on how calling out fat-shaming is sometimes treated as being itself an instance of skinny-shaming, like how Black Lives Matter is misunderstood as an exclusionary statement. Again, most of us seem to agree that all bodies should be respected, but this fails to address the actual problem that some bodies are given more respect than others within our society.

None of this is meant to suggest that skinny-shaming is acceptable, or that there are no cases of discrimination against white people, or anything remotely along those lines. But it seems to me that even having to make that qualification says something about the intense sense of entitlement that exists in these responses and that tends to come with privilege. It's an entitlement to always be represented in conversation, to be acknowledged even when it isn't so relevant. It expresses an attitude of suspicion, not willing to give even the benefit of doubt, or to look honestly and nakedly at the stated experience of someone else. Phrased in the dialectic of Hegel, it is the self's attempt to force recognition for itself from the other by negating the other and treating them as an object.

Cultural appropriation has recently become a widely discussed topic in light of celebrities who are alleged to be taking from the cultures of other ethnicities and races in their stylistic choices. In certain contexts, this may be another example of objectifying the other in the struggle for self recognition. I think another way this has been happening in the modern day is in the appropriation of language used by some groups and cultures to describe and respond to their own oppression. This is most notable with the Black Lives movement, whose rallying cry against oppression has been appropriated into an almost antithetical slogan that minimizes the experience of many African Americans.

Another example may be found in the current controversy over the actions of Kentucky's county clerk Kim Davis. Released only days ago, Ms. Davis was jailed for refusing to issue same-sex marriage licenses to couples after the Obergefell ruling. She and her supporters have claimed that issuing the licenses would violate her freedom of religious belief. Rather than resigning, as many county clerks have done because of Obergefell, she chose to refuse to do her duty as a public servant and served jail time as a consequence. Davis' legal support have suggested the whole ordeal could've been prevented by just removing her name from the licenses, however as Zack Ford of Think Progress notes, Kentucky law defines what goes on the licenses, and the only time that has changed was in reaction to the Obergefell ruling. [6]

While using the language of freedom and liberty for herself, Ms. Davis has asked the state law and federal law to change to accommodate her in denying the freedom and liberty of hundreds, if not thousands, of couples who are now legally able to be married. Despite a marriage license being a legal certification and not any statement of moral or religious authority, she feels it is her religious duty to violate her constitutional duty and refuse to provide the licenses. The LGBT movement has pushed for decades against the oppression that has denied them their right to marry, and even though the tide has at last begun to shift in the US, they are still far from being in any position of privilege. Christians, on the other hand, have a long and standing history as a privileged majority in America.

Privilege appropriates the language of oppression to assert itself over and above those it oppresses. It minimizes the experience of others and marginalizes their self expression in order to try and reclaim the recognition of which it feels it is more deserving. The morbid irony is that the privileged rarely ever lose recognition, it's only that they increasingly come to feel like they should have more than is currently there. It's no wonder, then, that its favorite answer when confronted by the oppressed is not a mere reassertion of power, but a grab for further power. The risk of losing recognition - either by a decline in its own influence, or a rise in the influence of the others - is too high a price to pay, even when the scales are already grossly unbalanced.

1. Peter Berger, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (1967, Anchor Books), p. 4.
2. Beverely Greene, in Psychological Perspectives on Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Experiences, ed. Linda Garnets and Douglas Kimmel (2003, Columbia University), p. 391.
3. Julia Craven, Please Stop Telling Me That All Lives Matter, The Huffington Post (Nov 25, 2014).
4. Judith Butler, interviewed by George Yancy in What's Wrong With 'All Lives Matter?', The New York Times (Jan 12, 2015).
5. Melissa A. Fabello, 4 Reasons Why We Need to Stop Thinking of Skinny-Shaming as 'Reverse Discrimination', Everyday Feminism (Oct 21, 2014).
6. Zack Ford, The Kim Davis Saga May Last Until At Least January, If Not Longer, Think Progress (Sept 11, 2015).

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Gary Habermas Shows Why the 'Minimal Facts' of Jesus' Death Can't Establish the Resurrection

Gary Habermas is a New Testament scholar and philosopher of religion at Liberty University who has devoted much of his career to defending a historical case for the resurrection of Jesus. For over 30 years now, Habermas has collected and analyzed scholarly materials published on the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, distilling them down to a core set of trends. His work has been cited by numerous Christian apologists, perhaps most notably in The Case for Christ and the debates and writings of William Lane Craig.

Recently, Dr. Habermas appeared on the Unbelievable radio show and podcast in dialogue with James Crossley on whether the "minimal facts" surrounding Jesus' death support the resurrection. Crossley is an agnostic New Testament scholar at the University of Sheffield and the author of a book called Jesus and the Chaos of History. The minimal facts are intended to be general points of agreement acceptable even to skeptics, and the two criteria Habermas gives are that they be facts with multiple lines of argument supporting them, and they share in a consensus made up of the "vast majority" of New Testament scholars.

Habermas identifies 6 minimal facts in the show, which are as follows:

1. Jesus died by Roman crucifixion.
2. The disciples had experiences they believed to be of the risen Jesus.
3. Some among the disciples died for their belief.
4. James, a skeptic, was converted.
5. Paul, a skeptic and persecutor of Christians, was converted.
6. The earliness of the proclamation of the risen Jesus.

One immediately noteworthy thing missing from this list is the empty tomb. To his credit, Gary concedes that the empty tomb is not a minimal fact because of the many biblical historians who dispute it. As the host, Justin, remarks, this seems contrary to what some apologists, like William Lane Craig, have attempted to cull from Dr. Habermas' work. In his book God? A Debate between a Christian and an Atheist, co-written with Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, Professor Craig writes: "There are at least four facts about the fate of the historical Jesus that are widely accepted by New Testament historians today." (p. 22, italics mine) Dr. Craig then goes on to articulate some of the reasons that "most scholars" accept the empty tomb.

Of course, it could be contended that this is just another way of saying that the majority of scholars favor the empty tomb as a historical fact. However, 1/3 to 1/4 of experts dissenting from a given viewpoint is not a negligible difference. Things get even sketchier when you look at the methodology behind Dr. Habermas' 2005 study and discover how that figure is calculated. The survey is not a comprehensive one of thousands of New Testament scholars, it's a survey of select literature published in German, French and English since 1975. While Gary's work offers important insights, he also has not released his data, despite requests for it, and the closest we get to an idea of how many sources he's surveyed is "more than 1400" in that 2005 study of his. Break that down over 30 years and that's a ballpark average of 46.7 studies examined per year. It's hardly a robust amount of data from which to assess the opinions of New Testament scholarship on the whole.

This methodological problem has implications beyond the empty tomb, too, for all of the six minimal facts mentioned above, as well as any other facts that could be conjured up on the same basis. So whether Dr. Habermas wants to single out 4 facts, 6 facts, 12 facts, or his exceedingly generous 21 facts, the fatal flaw remains present in all cases. Statistical analysis is only as good as your data and the method you use to analyze that data, and a study like the one published by Dr. Habermas in a religious studies journal would not pass in an introductory level Stats class (I say this from experience). Granted, it was probably not Gary's intent to do a rigorous statistical analysis, but the limitations of this research need to be noted when attempts are made at extrapolating certain trends from it. For more on this specific concern, see Richard Carrier's article, Innumeracy: A Fault to Fix.

But what real use is a list of even roughly calculated minimal facts when it requires another list of supplementary philosophical assumptions in order to support the resurrection? Near the end of the discussion on the podcast, Habermas explains that the way he sees of moving from the death of Jesus and the reports of his postmortem appearances to the involvement of the supernatural is by bringing in "worldview aspects." This is, in fact, something he notes early on in the show. Among these assumptions are conclusions about the character and identity of Jesus, and the continuation of life after death, though I would argue there are additional assumptions about the existence and nature of god. In a chapter from The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave, Robert Greg Cavin outlines still more hidden assumptions in the standard resurrection story of Jesus, which is not just revivification, but has to do with Jesus being raised as a living supernatural body sometime after his death.

At one point in the episode, Dr. Habermas refers to the resurrection allegedly supported by the minimal facts as "mundane," saying that the gospels depict the postmortem appearances as if seeing a dead friend at the supermarket, acting as normal. Yet the point by Cavin above reveals this to be naive. A mundane resurrection in that sense would be as easily dismissed as any incident of a grieving loved one hallucinating their dearly departed. There is nothing especially impressive about it. The minimal facts are where many apologists say that the resurrection differs from other allegations of resuscitation or revivification of a corpse. If the transformation of the disciples is a stand out feature of the resurrection story, it would seem to play a part in discounting the mundane nature of events as Habermas portrays it. After all, we're often told, people might see the dead after they're gone, but they generally don't go to be martyred for them. If this famous image of the disciples valiantly accepting death having seen the risen lord is as true as apologists claim it is, then the resurrection simply can't be a mundane occurrence by their own reasoning.

Does this not also say something about the exceptional kind of assumptions that are required to make a minimal facts case for the resurrection function at all? We are not talking about spotting someone in the supermarket, alive and apparently well when they'd been dead the day before. We are talking about something much less "mundane," and it's the reason why the case for the resurrection has been turned into an argument for the existence of god by an apologist like William Lane Craig. There is an element of the supernatural, a "worldview aspect," as Habermas called it. It isn't simply that Jesus appeared again to his followers, like in a daydream, it's that he miraculously rose from the dead, in a way that his followers took as a vindication of their ideas about his teachings and his identity. It meant, for them, that god not only existed, but that he was the god represented by Jesus, and Jesus was the sort of person god not only had the power to raise back to life, but wanted to raise, did raise, and had the power and will to raise into something more than just a reanimated earthly form.
The miracle of the resurrection is the saving grace of many Christians. To Paul it gave hope for a life beyond death and for a righting of the wrongs faced in this life. Entertaining the historicity of the resurrection without the supernatural and metaphysical assumptions behind it is practically unimaginable, not only for atheists and skeptics but for believing Christians, too. This brings us to the awkward position of either asking each other to buy into our philosophical presuppositions, or leaving things at a set of bare minimal facts that is by itself incapable of showing anything except what it already contains. The minimal facts are, one might say, minimally interesting. Even if we put aside the troubling concerns with the methodology that undergirds them, they aren't what's really doing the work in winning minds. Rather than minimizing background assumptions and asking us to buy into some ample facts, the apologetic case for the resurrection minimizes the facts and asks us to buy into some ample assumptions.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Should Bioethics Become Less Religious?

The following post comes from a paper I wrote for a Spring Bioethics class. I figured the material in it would be interesting and relevant enough to be featured here. Enjoy!    -Taylor


In Genesis 2:7, Adam is given life when God breathes into his nostrils. Taking inspiration from this and other passages, some interpreters of Jewish law hold that death occurs only at the moment when breathing stops. Consequently, organ donation can be a touchy subject among certain Jewish communities in cases where breathing continues with the aid of a ventilator even after brain function has ceased. Israel currently has one of the lowest rates of organ donation among developed nations, with a waiting list for kidney transplants that has increased by 40% over the last ten years since laws were enacted limiting the circumstances for donation.[1] Religious belief is in conflict with what medical science has to say about death, as well as with the ethics of refusing organ transplants to those who might die without them.

The focus of bioethics is on how ethical theory ought to inform decisions in medicine.[2] Of significant concern to bioethicists like Gregory Pence is a question such as, “What makes an act right?” Numerous avenues for consideration are available to those who might ask about the rightness of denying organ transplants on religious grounds, or of letting any religious belief inform any medical decision. Beneficence may motivate us to emphasize the medical well-being of a patient, yet respect for autonomy may involve concession to other aspects of a patient's well-being, including their religious views. This picture becomes all the more complicated when religiously-oriented cultural values are permitted to affect the health and well-being of those who may not share such values.

A line must be drawn somewhere, it seems, and recently one bioethicist has suggested that line be drawn at religion itself. It's one thing to show respect for people of different beliefs, but quite another thing to give preferential treatment to their beliefs in medicine. Religion must be 'exorcised' from bioethics, according to this argument, where it currently holds a privileged status it ought not hold, and with it gone the field will be better able to take an unbiased look at health and human welfare. It is my contention, however, that the case for this irreligious bioethics rests on problematic assumptions about religion, ethics, and science. I begin with a discussion of the argument, followed by some considerations in support of it, and end with objections.

Irreligious Bioethics

In his paper, “In Defense of Irreligious Bioethics,” Timothy Murphy argues that the discipline of bioethics should strive to separate itself from, and even offer critiques of, religious views.[3] The article is largely a reaction to arguments like those advanced by Renee Fox and Judith Swazey, who contend that the modern bioethical paradigm, structured as it is on predominantly Western notions of individualism and individual rights, is incompatible with the religiously-grounded traditions and worldviews of many non-Western cultures.[4] In seeming agreement, Murphy proposes that religion be jettisoned from bioethical theory and practice. Though respect is to be shown to those of different beliefs, and understanding the influence of religion upon one's culture is to be regarded as important, all religions, Murphy recommends, must be treated “with a hermeneutic of suspicion.” Such an approach will allegedly offer benefits not afforded by a secular or religious bioethics, including primarily a greater promise of objectivity.

Following on from Fox and Swazey, Murphy defines religion as a focus on “basic and transcendental aspects of the human condition, and enduring problems of meaning, to questions about human origins, identity; the 'whys' of pain and suffering, injustice and evil; the mysteries of life and death; and the wonders and enigmas of hope and endurance, compassion and caring, forgiveness and love.” Against this broad definition, he defines irreligion as “a lack of religious belief or being at variance with religious principles.” The crucial distinction here seems to be that bioethics ought to consider cultural backgrounds, even be able to learn from religion, but what it adopts cannot be adopted on theological grounds, it can only be adopted based on separate moral or logical reasoning. The advantage conferred in doing this, Murphy claims, is that it offers bioethics “a detached vantage point” from which to observe and judge religion in concert with concerns about welfare or medical technologies, for example. One is free to ask a question like 'Does belief in God undermine efforts to protect people from harm?' in a way that religious bioethics presumably cannot ask without falling into bias.

As an illustration of irreligious bioethics in practice, Murphy discusses intercessory prayer. Why don't those praying for others prioritize their prayers according to things like contributory negligence? Why not pray for everyone everywhere, instead of praying as if only certain conditions or certain individual people can be effectively helped by prayer? Why even think God responds to prayer as though the ones not prayed for will be neglected? Murphy cites studies by Herbert Benson and Leanne Roberts casting doubt on the effectiveness of intercessory prayer, leading up to his conclusion that bioethics has no good reason to affirm the value of prayer, and so must proceed irreligiously, framing its concepts and designs without reference to it.

Where religion seems to most conflict with bioethics is, in Murphy's view, that it relies on assumptions that are “unfalsifiable, infinitely mutable in the face of objections, rooted in personal experiences that defy independent analysis, or rooted in the murk of human history.” Just as metallurgy is able to do its work without invoking divinities, deities, revelation, miracles, or theological accounts of human lives, bioethics should be able to proceed without capitulating to religious views, perhaps even be better off. By seeing the immanent world as the only world, Murphy thinks irreligious bioethics can better concentrate on the work to be done here and now.

Imagine No Religion

Something can be said for the incompatibility of the modern bioethical paradigm with religious traditions. Howard Brody and Arlene Macdonald note that contemporary bioethics operates under a rational secular mode of thought, which they connect with John Rawls and liberal philosophical tradition. “To produce an ideally fair outcome,” they explain, “Rawls envisioned a group of choosers who were rational, mutually disinterested, and concerned to advance the interests of themselves and those they cared about most.”[5] On this approach, the public sphere came to embody things like government and public institutions, while religion, family, and voluntary associations were relegated to the private sphere. In the interest of creating a just and orderly society with the greatest amount of assent, comprehensive doctrines are excluded from the public square. Yet these doctrines contain fundamental teachings about virtues and principles that do not always coincide with the kind of individualistic, rational, or secularist values at the forefront of the paradigm on which modern bioethics is based. As Brody and Macdonald note, this favored approach has come under “increasing criticism” in recent years, not just from religious believers, but from feminist circles as well.

Is this really reason to jettison religion from the fold, though? In fact, there is some research to suggest that religious skeptics perform better on analytical tasks than religious believers. Pennycook et al. assigned syllogisms to a group of 91 psychology undergrad students and measured for their ability to determine the validity of a syllogism, as well as their own assessment of the believability of the concluding statements.[6] Even after controlling for variables like sex, socioeconomic status, age, education, and so on, the study found a negative relation between analytic thinking and religious belief. This seems to be part of what Murphy has in mind when he recommends irreligious bioethics as a means of “getting past biases implicit in religious views.” An ability to recognize and correctly evaluate the logic of religious assumptions is indeed important for ethics and for medicine, arguably for religion itself, and this ability being associated more strongly with religious skepticism is a point in favor of a skeptical approach to religion in bioethics.

What about moral reasoning? One's ability with logical syllogisms could have nothing to do with their abilities in forming moral judgments. However, two studies published by Jennifer Wright and Ryan Nichols show that religiosity does influence moral judgments, particularly when it comes to appraising the motivations and moral character of non-believers. Between the two studies, over 500 participants were presented with cases varying in terms of religiosity, action valence (moral/immoral), and action duration. Participants evaluated scenarios where the same action was performed, albeit with variation in whether the agent involved was described as Christian or atheist. Wright and Nichols conclude their paper with a summary of the general opinion found among the religious believers in their studies: “atheists are not only people who feel less bad about their immoral actions, but they are also people from whom immoral behaviors should be expected, given their beliefs and their shared community values.”[7] If we are concerning ourselves with questions about religion's potential interference with ethical choices and medical decisions – the questions Dr. Murphy wants us to ask – studies like these seem to call for more than a cursory glance at the arguments for irreligious bioethics.


It's one thing to note the flaws in human judgment or the biases behind certain ways of thought, and it's quite another thing to propose that these are best resolved by weeding out the influence of religion, as if treating a disease. Exactly how Murphy's bold new vision for bioethics should be applied is a question left largely unanswered, but it raises important concerns, such as how far is too far. How sure can Murphy be that his own solution is not just exchanging one set of doctrines for another? In response, Jennifer Miller observes that we often tend to be overconfident in assessing our own objectivity and abilities, a point amusingly illustrated by reference to polls revealing that 93% of American drivers and 69% of Swedish drivers consider themselves better at driving than the average motorist, despite this being statistically impossible.[8] Indeed, whatever studies may say about the rationality or morality of non-believers, confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance are known to affect us all, regardless of where we align ourselves socially.

In his paper, Murphy concedes, “we all belong somewhere on the continuum of ideology, but,” he continues, “some people are more prone to ideological excess than others, and religious believers can be vulnerable in this regard.” Evidence of this special vulnerability is not provided, yet one still wonders why bioethics specifically should be tasked with the responsibility of stamping out religious explanations. If it's a case against faith Murphy is seeking, analytic philosophy in general has a long and rich history of challenging the claims of religion. William Stempsey, Professor of Philosophy at the College of the Holy Cross, goes so far as to argue that, “bioethics too often takes philosophy so superficially as to fall into outright error, as when autonomy, understood as the freedom to follow one's own desires, is attributed to Immanuel Kant.”[9] If the worry is that bioethics is especially susceptible to poorly reasoned views when under the influence of religion, one can respond, as Miller does, that the interdisciplinary nature of the field – drawing on law, history, psychology, economics, utilitarianism, deontology, and a range of other methodologies – serves as an effective safeguard against any sort of widespread 'corruption.' In fact, a compelling argument can be made that it is this very openness of the discipline that gives it the strength and relevance it has.

There is no “view from nowhere,” as Thomas Nagel once explained. In ethics, as in most of philosophy, one often comes to accept different starting points, priors, or principles that involve as much debate and defense as any application of any one of them may involve. Irreligious bioethics seems to have in mind a way that bioethics should do its normative work, and though the ideas are not made explicit, they are nevertheless open to dispute. Bioethics is not like metallurgy like Murphy supposes; it can be and ought to be informed by science where appropriate, but the ethics component of it distinguishes it in a vital sense. We don't distinguish metallurgy from 'irreligious metallurgy,' because the concepts of metallurgy come from a naturalistic methodology available to the religious and non-religious alike. If there is a distinction between forms of bioethics, it serves to distinguish the field from sciences like metallurgy, and in some important ways.[10] Murphy's example of intercessory prayer is instructive here, for not only do the arguments against its efficacy stem largely from that naturalistic methodology, which has long been part of the sciences, but anything that might be further drawn out of such studies, like whether it's permissible for a nurse to pray for their patient, would simply be outside the realm of empirical science. Normative judgments are not discernible through the scientific method alone.

What is so problematic for bioethics if room is left for theologians to offer their own views on certain bioethical matters? In fact, a number of theologians have critiqued prayer studies like those mentioned by Murphy for failing to understand the purpose of prayer, a point that can just as effectively be used to discourage prayer from being implemented as any sort of clinical medical treatment in place of other, far more effectual treatments.[11] In an ironic twist, then, religion can be useful in countering certain strains of religious reasoning that threaten to encroach upon the territory of bioethics. Why not make use of arguments and ideas from wherever we can? Bioethics itself has religious roots in many of its foundational figures, including Beauchamp and Childress, who articulated the four principles of autonomy, justice, beneficence, and non-maleficence. Religious traditions can and do offer ethical ideas that can be accepted on secular grounds, such as Catholicism and natural law, Judaism and Noahide law, or even the Golden Rule, found among innumerable religious and philosophical teachings. Of course, Murphy says he is not opposed to allowing bioethics to “cannibalize” ideas from pretty much anywhere it can, so long as they can be accepted on non-theological grounds, but this already seems to be how the discipline operates. Irreligious bioethics would seem to prematurely shut the door on anything that even resembles religious thought, when some of their views and arguments could prove quite helpful in doing some of the work that Murphy wants to see done in bioethics, like overcoming archaic notions of health and healing, and moving towards a more robust understanding of medicine. Excluding religion from the playing field will only create division where it need not exist, and may actually evoke a kind of change that not even Murphy wants to see.


Would the situation for organ donations be better in Israel if physicians and bioethicists across the country decided to abandon religious considerations in one fell swoop? It's difficult to imagine how this could be. Even if all medical practitioners complied, a lot of religious patients would suddenly find themselves with fewer options, some probably, to their minds, with no options at all. Although lives would likely be saved, they could well come at a cost. When stark lines are drawn and people feel they are no longer being listened to on matters that concern their well-being and their very deepest convictions, they are often influenced into taking highly polarized sides, and the outcome can indeed be toxic, as may be best illustrated in the controversies and crimes that have occurred over the issue of abortion.

That religion creates problems is something that few religious believers would deny, but to ignore the resolutions it can also inspire is to be guilty of the same biased thinking that irreligious bioethics is supposed to reduce. While organ donation is low in Israel, and the kidney waiting list is long, the circumstances have motivated many in the Jewish community in Israel to step up and promote transplants from living donors, leading to a two-thirds increase in donor registrations, a record number of kidney transplants in 2013, and a large drop in the number of patients going abroad for donations. Perhaps just as importantly, the debate over this issue has presented the opportunity for many Israelis to reassess their own beliefs and reconsider what their religion teaches about life, death, and our ethical obligations to one another. Changes like these seem unlikely to develop on a view like Murphy's, where religion is actively expelled from the public square.

Exactly where the boundaries should be between religion and bioethics is a matter of no small contention. Yet just as we can talk about harms without having an absolute and agreed upon definition of concepts like health and well-being, it seems to me we can discuss and evaluate approaches to doing bioethics without having an absolute and agreed upon notion of the purpose of bioethics, or an all-encompassing idea of the proper roles for certain phenomena within bioethics. As a paradigm, irreligious bioethics would filter out a great deal of things from which the field could stand to gain. Many ethical systems are premised on metaphysical claims at the higher, ontological levels, and Murphy's anti-transcendentalist approach would seem to undermine these. In addition, the paradigm holds itself to a standard that even it arguably cannot meet, claiming to offer criticism of religious views when analytic philosophy is better equipped, and claiming to 'protect' bioethics when the discipline of ethics seems entirely capable of thorough self-examination. Indeed, it appears that quite a leap of faith is required to believe that irreligious bioethics could do anything besides further exacerbate the tensions and problems already present in bioethics.


1. Kevin Sack, “A Clash of Religion and Bioethics Complicates Organ Donation in Israel,” The New York Times (Aug 17, 2014). Available at:
2. Gregory Pence, Medical Ethics: Accounts of Groundbreaking Cases, 6th ed. (2011), p. 339.
3. Timothy Murphy, “In Defense of Irreligious Bioethics,” The American Journal of Bioethics, vol. 12, no. 12 (December 2012): 3-10.
4. Renee Fox and Judith Swazey, “Ignoring the Social and Cultural Context of Bioethics is Unacceptable,” Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics, vol. 19, no. 3 (2010): 278-282.
5. Howard Brody and Arlene Macdonald, “Religion and bioethics: toward an expanded understanding,” Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics, vol. 34, no. 2 (2013): 133-145.
6. Gordon Pennycook, James Allan Cheyne, Derek J. Koehler and Jonathan A. Fuggelsang, “Belief bias during reasoning among religious believers and skeptics,” Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, vol. 20, no. 4 (2013): 806-811.
7. Jennifer Wright and Ryan Nichols, “The Social Cost of Atheism: How Perceived Religiosity Influences Moral Appraisal,” Journal of Cognition and Culture, 14 (2014): 93-115.
8. Jennifer Miller, “Irreligious Bioethics, Nonsense on Stilts?” The American Journal of Bioethics, vol. 12, no. 12 (December 2012): 15-17.
9. William E. Stempsey, “Bioethics Needs Religion,” The American Journal of Bioethics, vol. 12, no. 12 (December 2012): 17-18.
10. D. Gareth Jones and Maja Whitaker, “Reorienting Bioethics by Releasing It From Any Religious Moorings,” The American Journal of Bioethics, vol. 12, no. 12 (December 2012): 24-26.
11. Audrey Chapman, “In Defense of the Role of a Religiously Informed Bioethics,” The American Journal of Bioethics, vol. 12, no. 12 (December 2012): 26-28.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Has Peter Boghossian Disqualified Himself from the Adult Table?

Richard Carrier has written a brilliant article addressing yet another astoundingly ignorant statement made by Peter Boghossian, this time on the issue of gay pride. Last year on Twitter, Boghossian expressed his inability to understand how one can be proud of "something one didn’t work for." As if this weren't evidence enough of the man's right-wing politics, he followed up in response to a wave of criticism directed at his tweet by saying: "Questioning that one can be proud to be gay is a leftist blasphemy."

Boghossian is quite fond of telling others how to think and feel, and denouncing them as not even worthy of being taken seriously when they don't meet his standards. He says in two other recent tweets:

Feminists will be taken seriously when they spend at least as much time criticizing abuses of women in the 3rd world as they do in the 1st. 7/30/14

As long as philosophers like Derrida and Zizek are taken seriously, the discipline of philosophy won't be taken seriously. 3/10/15

Carrier points out in his post that Boghossian has a bad habit of not listening to his critics. As the examples above indicate, he speaks in radically divisive tones, and then either goes silent in the face of objections, or reiterates his views with yet more party-line rhetoric. This is quite unbecoming for a philosopher, especially one who emphasizes critical thinking and doxastic openness, as Carrier seems to agree:

Good naturalism, good philosophy, and thus in fact good atheism, means finding out how reality works first, before declaring notions that reinforce the attitudes and ignorance that perpetuate social injustices like homophobia and anti-gay bigotry. Which means if this kind of failure on Boghossian’s part is typical, then it means professor Boghossian is a really bad philosopher.

This appears to suggest that Boghossian does a lot of opening his mouth before he thinks. He tends to draw the lines and point the finger prior to the actual conversation, certainly before things have been anywhere near as resolved as he takes them to be. Let's look at three other prominent examples of this:

1) In his Manual for Creating Atheists, Boghossian recommends that we, "Stigmatize faith-based claims like racist claims," and, "Treat faith as a public health crisis." He suggests a line of children's comics and TV shows starring Epistemology Knights and Faith Monsters. Notably, his book is devoid of any talk of actual philosophical epistemology, so his advocacy of demonizing religious belief at the outset is problematic for its close resemblance to sheer, uncritical propaganda.

2) In his debate on Unbelievable with Tim McGrew (a distinguished Christian philosopher), Boghossian upheld his definition of faith as "pretending to know what you don't know," against the understanding of Christians familiar with the literature, like McGrew, and against an overwhelming consensus poll taken by the show. Of course, Unbelievable is a Christian podcast, but the poll included atheists as well, and more bothersome is that Boghossian really didn't try to defend his definition at all on the show, aside from broad sweeping generalizations about its use - which the poll quickly put to rest. Interestingly, Peter also shied away from endorsing on the podcast his own characterization of faith as "an unclassified cognitive illness disguised as a moral virtue."

3) Last year, Boghossian came under fire for tweeting the following: "Being published in the philosophy of religion should disqualify one from sitting at the adult table." The fallout from this was fairly significant, as multiple voices (including my own) spoke up to disagree with Peter, who almost entirely neglected to respond to criticisms, save for sharing his general thoughts with his pal and self-professed 'bulldog' John Loftus (one may wonder how eager Loftus will be to defend his friend on these recent remarks).

It's been over a year now since I wrote my review of Boghossian's book, and I've had plenty of time to mull over its aims and arguments. I feel that many of the reservations I had while reading through it have been not only confirmed by Boghossian's subsequent behavior, but have been trumpeted loudly in a manner I wouldn't really have anticipated. The whole project frankly seems to be that of a person who is not interested in dialogue, who cares nothing for critical thinking except where it will bolster his own side, and who clings to his own doxastic closure with pride (which he did not work for) as a means of ridiculing and manipulating others into agreeing with him. Don't get me wrong, Boghossian will say he favors the objective route, but his actions and comments increasingly seem to conflict with his verbal assurances.

This is not the sort of model we should be encouraging in the atheist community. Just as there can be "wolves in sheep's clothing" among the religious - people who talk the talk without walking the walk - there can also be those among the non-religious who speak in a way that sounds appealing to us, yet behave in inconsistent ways that may reveal a lot about a person's character. I do not intend to imply that Boghossian is willfully dishonest or anything of the like, but there is a danger in embracing people as role models based primarily on how they sound to us, the familiar language they use, and so on, especially when atheists are already not the most beloved figures among society. Again, that's not to say we should be striving to win some popularity contest, but there is truth to what Boghossian, Dawkins, and others have said about the need to speak up against problematic voices within one's own community.

John Loftus once said to me, in discussion of Boghossian's controversial tweet over philosophy of religion, that he hates to see division among atheists. In fact, I do too. I hate to see atheists attacking each other for political differences. I hate to see atheists not utilizing the tool sets they've developed in thinking about religion to also think about other things, like sex and gender, race and sexual orientation, culture and history, and much more. I wish we could talk about the variety of diverging ideas among us with civility and respect. But Boghossian is not just polarizing the religious and the non-religious, he is divisive to atheists, and his rhetoric often dispenses with civility and respect. Who is he helping with all his language about "the adult table" and being taken seriously? It certainly isn't causing many believers to take him seriously, and even many atheists are finding it hard to do so.

As Carrier says at the conclusion of his article, "Ending religion will do us no good whatever, if all we do is replace it with an atheism that’s just as bad." Our goal shouldn't be to win at any cost. In retrospect, perhaps the title and intent of Boghossian's book should have given it away that this is his aim. He wants to convert the irrational and make them rational. We have a serious problem, though, when the "irrational" are simply defined as those who Boghossian says are not to be taken seriously. As it turns out, that group includes a lot of people, and is growing more and more to look like it consists merely of all those who disagree with Peter about things that are important to him. A Manual for Creating Atheists is starting to look a lot like A Manual for Creating Egotists.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Craig, Koons, and Divine Command Theory

In a recent episode of the Reasonable Faith podcast, William Lane Craig offers his thoughts on a 2012 paper by Jeremy Koons, Can God's Goodness Save the Divine Command Theory from Euthyphro? Koons' paper is another in a growing number of critiques aimed at the divine command meta-ethics advocated by figures like Craig, Robert Adams, and William Alston. Though a simple sort of divine command theory (DCT) received a devastating blow centuries ago from the famous Euthyphro dilemma put forward in Plato, modern defenders have adapted the DCT to resist the challenge presented by the dilemma. If good actions are merely those in accordance with god's commands, then goodness is arbitrary, since god could command anything and it would be good. However, Alston and others who adopt a modified DCT argue against this arbitrariness on the basis of the perfectly good nature of god. God could no more command infanticide, they say, than he could make a rock too heavy for himself to lift, because it would be in contradiction to his nature as god.

Does this move work? Craig believes it exposes the Euthyphro as a false dilemma, presenting a third option that is not identical to the other two options. Yet adding a third possibility to a dilemma does not necessarily mean the challenge underlying it is broken. It could rather indicate that we actually face a trilemma, which could be just as problematic as the original dilemma. This, I think, is where Professor Koon's paper is of real value. The question behind it is whether or not this move of DCT works any better than the two options typically posed by the Euthyphro. Craig firmly contends that it is better, but his arguments don't seem to warrant such conviction.

One of Craig's main criticisms is that Koons sets up a new dilemma that is just as flawed as the original. He says:

What he will ask now is: are these properties like loving-kindness, impartiality, generosity good because God possesses them or does God possess them because they are good? He imagines this as a dilemma. It seems to me there is no dilemma there at all. The divine command theorist, and Alston in particular, is very clear. These properties are good because God possesses them.

No doubt, this is what theological non-voluntarists like Craig, Adams, and Alston want to assert. But in his paper, Koons provides a puzzling quote from Alston that almost seems to suggest the opposite:

Note that on this view we are not debarred from saying what is supremely good about God. God is not good, qua bare particular or undifferentiated thisness. God is good by virtue of being loving, just, merciful and so on.

Craig seems to interpret the attention Koons gives to this quote as an accusation of contradiction. I don't think is what Koons is getting at, though, especially since he clarifies shortly thereafter that "Alston’s particularism requires that God’s goodness be logically prior to the goodness of the moral virtues. And we will see that this view is incoherent". It looks more like Koons is spelling out where he intends to direct his critique, and he directs it precisely where it should be directed, according to Craig.

All the same, Craig tries to resolve the apparent conflict by reference to the distinction Koons draws between explanations-why and explanations-what. Koons uses the contra-factual example of how even if the electron's negative charge were a brute fact that could not be further explained, it would still be possible to explain what a negative charge is. Thus, explanations-why may run out, but it need not mean there can be no explanation-what. Coming off of this distinction, Craig attempts to argue that this is exactly what divine command theorists like Alston are saying:

When you get to God you've reached the metaphysical and moral ultimate, the explanatory stopping point. But that doesn't mean you can't explain what goodness is or wherein the goodness of God consists. As Alston says, you can still explain to people that God is loving, kind, merciful, generous, and so forth.

You can keep asking why the good is good, but eventually a stopping point must be reached, for theists and atheists alike. But, says Bill, you can continue to talk about what the good is in relation to the characteristics of god. However, this is where Professor Koons really has a bone to pick with DCT.

Koons observes that when the divine command theorist poses this explanation-what - that god is, per Alston, "good by virtue of being loving, just, merciful and so on" - this reverses the order of explanation employed by defenders of DCT that gets them to knowledge of the goodness of god. Usually, one thinks of god's characteristics to derive the conclusion that he is the supreme good. It's because god is loving, just, merciful, and so on that he is perfectly good. Proponents of DCT argue the opposite, that we start by intuiting that god just is all-good, and then derive the goodness of his characteristics from there. The problem with this is that it leaves astoundingly little content to the goodness of god. How do we conclude that god is good before knowing anything about who he is?

Craig proceeds to call for a necessary distinction between moral semantics and moral ontology. DCT, he says, is not a semantic theory or a theory of the meaning of ethical sentences, but is rather about the ontological grounding of moral values. Koons has made a category mistake, Bill asserts, because insisting on the meaninglessness or unintelligibility of the good is not a successful way to refute a theory concerned with moral ontology.

It's well known that Robert Adams once took DCT to be a theory of meaning, but the sharp divide Craig often wishes to draw between moral semantics and moral ontology is something to which not all ethicists commit. Particularly when it comes to theistic meta-ethics, it seems that semantics and ontology are more bound up than modern defenders of DCT will admit. In his 2004 paper, A Semantic Attack on Divine-Command Metaethics, Stephen Maitzen objects strongly to this sharp distinction on both religious tradition and logical grounds:

According to a tradition whose philosophical expression dates at least to Anselm, God exists of metaphysical necessity, i.e., in all possible worlds, and he possesses his intrinsic properties not accidentally but essentially. Moreover, even atheists have acknowledged the good rea­sons for thinking that if God exists then he exists (and possesses the same intrinsic properties) in all possible worlds; indeed, some atheists, such as J.N. Findlay, base their alleged disproofs of God's existence on the plausible assumption that God exists necessarily if he exists at all. If these Ansel­mian assumptions are correct, then all of the following sentences have the same truth-conditions:

(S1) 'God exists.'
(S2) 'God is omniscient.'
(S3) 'God is omnipotent.'
(S4) 'God is morally good. '

Since S4 is an ethical sentence, an attribution of a moral property to an ob ject, it belongs to the domain of sentences DCM [Divine Command Metaethics] needs to explain. If DCM gives only the truth-conditions, and not also the meaning, of S4, then it tells us nothing about S4 that is not just as true of the other three, presumably non-ethical, sentences. What is worse, if DCM gives only the truth-condi­tions of S4, then some entirely non-metaethical theory - a theory, say, giving the truth-conditions for attributions of omniscience - would tell us all that DCM tells us about that ethical sentence, in which case it is hard to see what would make DCM a metaethical theory, at least with respect to the moral attributes of God. So DCM had better concern not just the truth-conditions of ethical sentences but also their meaning.

Here we see more of the vacuousness of god's goodness under DCT. As Koons seems to be driving at, Maitzen argues that divine command meta-ethics can only be trivial in what it accomplishes. If we begin by intuiting the goodness of god, establishing the goodness of any other characteristics of god from that basis looks bleak indeed. The goodness of god would not necessarily mean all god's attributes are good-making. Is immateriality good because god has it? What about timelessness? Omniscience? These attributes seem non-moral, yet it doesn't appear that one has any means for distinguishing between them and the allegedly good-making attributes of god. On DCT, we just are not able to talk sensibly of the good-making properties of god, or of how those properties ground moral values.

To an extent, Craig wants to bite the bullet here. Goodness, he explains in the podcast, "is one of these primitives that really ultimately can't be defined." This is addressed by Koons in his paper, though, when he notes that this view, which comes from G.E. Moore, "merely meant that one could not analytically reduce the Good to other non-normative or non-moral concepts." The good is not absolutely inexplicable, but it cannot be neatly reduced in terms of definition to a non-moral proposition. So, the question remains of how effectively Craig, Alston, and Adams have accounted for the goodness of god in their theory, and whether their account is better than any of the competing accounts.

It's interesting to note how tempting it seems to be for theists to explain the goodness of god in light of god's particular characteristics. Near the end of the podcast, Craig identifies why he thinks god is a plausible explanatory ultimate for a moral theory. God, he says, is "worthy of worship." But why is this anymore indicative of god's perfect goodness than is his immaterial nature, his omnipresence, etc? It would not be far-fetched for one to make the case that worship has a moral component to it, let alone what it means to be worthy of worship. So is it perhaps that Craig and Alston are intuiting the goodness of god from his good-making properties, their denials notwithstanding? It certainly looks like a more sensible way of conceiving of the goodness of god than what modern DCT advocates claim to be doing. The alternative essentially seems to rest entirely on the mere assertion of belief that god is good. Who would fault anyone for needing more than that to devote as intimate an act as worship to another being?

Craig, The Euthyphro Dilemma Once Again, (Jan 4, 2015).
Koons, Can God's Goodness Save the Divine Command Theory from Euthyphro? European Journal for Philosophy of Religion 4/1 (Spring 2012), pp. 177-195.
Maitzen, A Semantic Attack on Divine-Command Metaethics, Sophia Vol. 43, No. 2 (Oct 2004).