Posts tagged ‘Philosophy’

Fairness Over Family

Family ValuesHow important is it to be fair?

This is the question that Adam Swift, professor of political theory at the University of Warwick, and Harry Brighouse, professor of philosophy at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, wrestle with in their book, Family Values: The Ethics of Parent-Child Relationships.[1] For Brighouse and Swift, the answer to the question of fairness is evident, even if it is admittedly difficult. Being fair is of preeminent importance. Indeed, being fair is so important to these professors that they are willing to severely inhibit one of society’s most cherished institutions in order to achieve their vision of equality: the family.

In their introduction, the authors explain that the family “poses two challenges to any theory of social justice.” One is the liberal challenge, which questions whether it is best to have a child’s parents “determine what [a] child eats or drinks, where she sleeps, what television programs she watches, what school she attends.” Liberals see it as “one of the state’s tasks to protect its citizens, and its prospective citizens, from undue interference by others, including their parents.” Though not advocating for the abolition of the family altogether, these authors do look at the family with a fair amount of skepticism.

The other challenge the family poses to social justice is the egalitarian challenge, which:

… focuses on the distribution of goods and opportunities between children born into different families … Economists tend to focus on expected income over the life-course; sociologists investigate chances of social mobility; philosophers typically think in more abstract terms such as resources or opportunities for well-being. But however we frame or measure the inequality, it is clear that children born into different families face unequal prospects.

For Swift and Brighouse, these “unequal prospects” between families just won’t do. Indeed, in an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Swift offers an example of an unequal prospect that particularly troubles him:

The evidence shows that the difference between those who get bedtime stories and those who don’t – the difference in their life chances – is bigger than the difference between those who get elite private schooling and those that don’t.[2]

How does one deal with the challenge of unequal prospects between families who do and do not read to their children before they go to bed? Swift answers:

I don’t think parents reading their children bedtime stories should constantly have in their minds the way that they are unfairly disadvantaging other people’s children, but I think they should have that thought occasionally.

Swift and Brighouse stretch their apologetic for equality as far it can go. Even if a parent won’t stop reading bedtime stories to their children, the fact that there may be other children out there who don’t get read bedtime stories should at least make that parent feel occasionally guilty for “unfairly disadvantaging” those other children.

This line of reasoning is very strange to me. Although I would agree that equality is important in its appropriate context, I would not consider it to be of highest importance as Swift and Brighouse do. Here’s why.

As a Christian, I know – and can empirically verify – that sin has en inevitably entropic effect on society. Thus, to seek equality by trying not to “unfairly disadvantage” others rather than by pursuing what is advantageous for others will only create an equality of increasing pain, suffering, and wickedness, which, interestingly enough, is precisely what the Bible affirms as the only way in which, left to our own devices, we are all truly equal: “There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:22-23). It is hard for me to understand why Swift and Brighouse would advocate guilt over a good thing for the sake of equality with a bad thing.

As I think about Swift and Brighouse’s near deification of equality, I can’t help but think back to an era before 1954 and Brown v. Board of Education when “separate but equal” schools for black and white kids were commonplace in our educational system. Part of the offense of “separate but equal” schools was, of course, that they were not, in fact, equal! But for the sake of argument, let’s say we were able to create schools that were truly separate but equal. Let’s say they had equal funding, equal caliber teachers, and even equal outcomes. My guess – and my hope, quite frankly – is that we would still be indignant at such an arrangement. Why? Because even if such an arrangement could keep in tact the value of fairness, it would break the law of love. After all, it’s hard to love someone when you intentionally separate yourself from someone for no other reason than the color of his skin.

This is the danger in Swift and Brighouse’s proposal. In their efforts to orchestrate fairness between families, they undermine families themselves. They advocate limiting the ways in which parents can love their children, thereby breaking the law of love, for the sake of a disadvantageously normed equality. But families who struggle do not need families who are in better shape to be equal to them out of misplaced pity, they need families who are in better shape to serve them, mentor them, sacrifice for them, and, ultimately, love them. They need these families to be a family to them. Such an arrangement will not create perfect equality. But, then again, though Swift and Brighouse may be loath to admit it, perfect equality is not possible. Beautiful love, however, is. This is why we should strive for love – even over fairness. And where can love grow best? The family.

Maybe we should keep it around.

_________________________________

[1] Harry Brighouse & Adam Swift, Family Values: The Ethics of Parent-Child Relationships (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014).

[2] Joe Gelonesi, “Is having a loving family an unfair advantage?” abc.net.au (5.1.2015).

May 11, 2015 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Why “No” and “Yes” Won’t Cut It: Turning the Tide of Sexual Assault

College CampusIn the wake of a horrifying barrage of sexual assaults on college campuses, university administrators – and now whole state governments – are scrambling to turn the tide. The California legislature passed a law at the end of August requiring what is referred to as “affirmative consent.” The measure requires not only that a person not say “no” to a sexual encounter, but also that he or she offer “an affirmative, conscious and voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity.”[1] In other words, a person must say “yes” to a sexual encounter. Interestingly, according to the legislation, this “yes” need not be verbal. It can also be communicated through actions. Or, if you prefer, it can even be communicated electronically.  Just like everything else in our high tech world, if you want to make sure you’re having consensual sex, there’s an app for that.  Of course, trying to discern what constitutes affirmative consent, even when you have an app, is no easy task. Emma Goldberg, a member Students Against Sexual Violence at Yale, admits: “It’s obviously quite difficult for administrators to adjudicate affirmative consent, and there is always room for improvement in enforcement of these policies.”[2]

Ultimately, the problem with affirmative consent laws such as the one California lawmakers have passed is not that it is too strong, but too weak. Feeble legislative attempts that require mere consent will not and cannot address the deep moral realities of human sexuality.

Robert Reilly, a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council, recently published a book dealing with modern sexual ethics. In the introduction, he insightfully notes that differing views on sex are rooted in different conceptions of reality:

There are two fundamental views of reality. One is that things have a Nature that is teleologically ordered to ends that inhere in their essence and make them what they are. In other words, things have inbuilt purposes. The other is that things do not have a Nature with ends: things are nothing in themselves, but are only what we make them to be according to our wills and desires. Therefore, we can make everything, including ourselves, anything that we wish and that we have the power to do.[3]

This is a stunning analysis of the worldview that permeates and shapes our sexual ethics. In a myriad of ways, we have worked to separate sex from its natural – what Reilly would call “real” – ends. We defy sex’s procreative reality with abortion. We fight against sex’s emotionally intimate reality with our hookup culture. We have placed sex and its moral entailments squarely in the confines our wills. If we want to have sex, sex is moral. If we don’t want to have sex, sex is immoral.

The fact of the matter is this: our wills cannot provide an adequate moral framework and reality for human sexuality. The contrail of shattered families, wrecked finances, and broken hearts that our sexual wills have left strewn in our societal sky is proof positive of this. Furthermore, teleological reality has a funny way of continually smacking us squarely in the face, no matter how stridently we may try to escape it. Through sex, babies will continue to be conceived. Because of fleeting trysts, people will continue to be riddled by regret. Sex will continue to impress its reality on us, whether or not we want it to. Perhaps we ought to start living in that reality rather than seeking to escape it.

In a society where we pretend that our mere wills can determine the morality of sexuality, states and universities can do no better than to legislate a “yes” before sex, no matter how insufficient, impotent, and fraught with adjudicative hair splitting such legislation may be. But as Christians, we can affirm that God had purposes in mind when He created sex. Therefore, as the Church, we can call for sexual ethics to be in line with these purposes and not just with our desires. So for those on college campuses, I ask, for the sake of God’s will and your wellbeing, to consider waiting not just for someone to say “yes” before you have sex, but to say “I do.”

It’ll work out a lot better.

_____________________________

[1] Aaron Mendelson, “California passes ‘yes-means-yes’ campus sexual assault bill,” Reuters (8.29.2014).

[2] Richard Pérez-Peña and Ian Lovett, “California Law on Sexual Consent Pleases Many but Leaves Some Doubters,” The New York Times (9.29.2014).

[3] Robert R. Reilly, Making Gay Okay: How Rationalizing Homosexual Behavior Is Changing Everything (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2014), xi-xii.

October 6, 2014 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Is Christianity Dumb?

Benedict Spinoza Credit: Wikipedia

Benedict Spinoza
Credit: Wikipedia

It’s really the Enlightenment’s fault.  Ever since René Descartes decided the best catalyst for rational inquiry was skepticism, the skepticism supposedly necessary to reason and the faith integral to religion have been regularly presented as at odds with each other, or, at the very least, best quarantined from each other.  Consider this from Descartes devotee and Old Testament critic, Benedict Spinoza:

Those who do not know how to distinguish philosophy from theology dispute as to whether Scripture should be subject to reason or whether, on the contrary, reason should be the servant of Scripture:  that is to say, whether the sense of Scripture should be accommodated to reason or whether reason should be subordinated to Scripture … It is obvious that both are absolutely wrong.  For whichever position we adopt, we would have to distort either reason or Scripture since we have demonstrated that the Bible does not teach philosophical matters but only piety, and everything in Scripture is adapted to the understanding and preconceptions of the common people.[1]

Spinoza passionately contends that reason and religion must be kept in two separate spheres.  If they are not, he warns, Scripture will distort reason and reason will distort Scripture.  But key to understanding Spinoza’s argument for the separation of Scripture and reason is why these two entities distort each other.  “Scripture,” Spinoza explains, “is adapted to the understanding and preconceptions of the common people.”  Spinoza assumes that the biblical characters of antiquity did not have the intellectual faculties necessary to imbibe the great rational truths of the Enlightenment.  Spinoza elsewhere explains:

God adapted His revelations to the understanding and opinions of the prophets [and other biblical authors as well], and that the prophets could be ignorant of matters of purely philosophical reason that are not concerned with charity and how to live; and indeed they really were ignorant in this respect and held contradictory views.  Hence knowledge about natural and spiritual matters is by no means to be sought from them.[2]

Isn’t that nice.  God would have revealed matters of rational, philosophical reason to the biblical writers, but because they were not smart enough to understand them, God had to stick with giving them moral platitudes about “charity and how to live.”  Thankfully, Spinoza does understand the truths of rational philosophy and can explain them to us full-throatedly.

Unfortunately, Spinoza’s parings of reason with intelligence and religion with ignorance are still assumed in and normative to the thinking of our day.  Consider this from the Huffington Post:

Are religious people less intelligent than atheists?

That’s the provocative conclusion of a new review of 63 studies of intelligence and religion that span the past century. The meta-analysis showed that in 53 of the studies, conducted between 1928 to 2012, there was an inverse relation between religiosity – having religious beliefs, or performing religious rituals – and intelligence. That is, on average, non-believers scored higher than religious people on intelligence tests.

What might explain the effect?

Scientists behind studies included in the review most often suggested that “religious beliefs are irrational, not anchored in science, not testable and, therefore, unappealing to intelligent people who ‘know better.’”[3]

Now, the rules of rational and, for that matter, statistical inquiry remind us that correlation does not equal causation.  So, to surmise that religious beliefs decrease IQ from a study that happens to show some people with religious beliefs have lower IQ’s than those without religious beliefs is suspect at best.  Indeed, Jordan Silberman, a co-author of the study, admitted as much to the Huffington Post:

I’m sure there are intelligent religious people and unintelligent atheists out there … The findings pertain to the average intelligence of religious and non-religious people, but they don’t necessarily apply to any single person.  Knowing that a person is religious would not lead me to bet any money on whether or not the person is intelligent.

Silberman concedes that there are many anomalies that counter his correlation between religious belief and lower IQ’s, which speaks forcefully against any kind of causation.  Thus, this study gives us no real insight into to whether or not religion and rationality are truly at odds with each other.

So why do I bring all of this up?  Because, regardless of whether or not it is true, firmly ingrained into our society’s zeitgeist is the narrative that religion and reason are irreconcilable.  I, however, believe this to be false.  Christians can make full use of their rational faculties without having to sell their faith to the strictures of a seventeenth century movement and its incorrigible assumptions concerning the incompatibility of reason and religion.  Regardless of any assumptions bequeathed to us by the Enlightenment, we know that we have far more than just reason or just religion, “we have the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:16).  And His mind bridges both reason and religion.  After all, His command created both reason and religion.


[1] Benedict Spinoza, Theological-Political Treatise, Michael Silverthorne & Jonathan Israel, trans. (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2007), 186.

[2] Spinoza, Theological-Political Treatise, 40.

[3] Macrina Cooper-White, “Religious People Branded As Less Intelligent Than Atheists In Provocative New Study,” The Huffington Post (8.14.2013).

October 28, 2013 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Cosmology and Philosophy

Your philosophy is an inextricable concomitant of your cosmology.  Charles Darwin knew this all too well.  Most people are at least passingly familiar with Darwin’s seminal work, The Origin of Species.  In it, he proffers a framework for understanding the origins of human life – and all life – using his mechanism of evolution by natural selection.  In his own words, here is Darwin’s theory in a nutshell:

As many more individuals of each species are born than can possibly survive, and as, consequently, there is a frequently recurring struggle for existence, it follows that any being, if it vary however slightly in any manner profitable to itself, under the complex and sometimes varying conditions of life, will have a better chance of surviving, and thus be naturally selected.  From the strong principle of inheritance, any selected variety will tend to propagate its new and modified form. (Origin of Species, p. 29)

Darwin begins with the assumption that life, at its root, is a struggle for survival.  He then concludes that those who win the struggle for survival carry on while those who lose the struggle do not.  This is natural selection.  Moreover, those who win the struggle for survival propagate more of their kind and develop “modified” characteristics which further benefit them in their struggle.  This is evolution.  Over time – indeed, over lots and lots of time – these beneficial characteristics continue to evolve so radically that whole new species arise from common ancestors while other, weaker species die out.  This, then, is the origin of species.  This is the origin of our species.  We are the product of the cold hand of evolution by natural selection.  This is Darwin’s cosmology, that is, his view of the laws of the world and, by extension, the cosmos.

But how you view things cosmologically inevitably informs how you view things philosophically.  That is why, after publishing The Origin of Species, Darwin published The Descent of Man, a philosophical take on his cosmological theory.  Thus, Darwin lamented according to the presuppositions of his cosmological theory of evolution:

We civilized men do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick; we institute poor-laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of every one to the last moment.  There is reason to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands, who from a weak constitution would formerly have succumbed to small-pox.  Thus, the weak members of civilized societies propagate their kind.  No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man.  It is surprising how soon a want of care, or care wrongly directed, leads to the degeneration of a domestic race; but excepting in the case of man himself, hardly any one so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed. (Descent of Man, p. 168)

Darwin laments that humans work against evolutionary progress through wrongheaded ignorant attempts to save and care for those which natural selection would eliminate.  If evolution by natural selection is the incontrovertible law of the forward progress of life, then to work against it by tending to the weak and sick is to take life backwards rather than forwards.

Most people, of course, are not nearly so bold connecting cosmological evolution to philosophical evolution as was Darwin.  Allowing our sick and maimed to die in the name of natural selection would appall the vast majority us.  And yet, Darwin is simply teasing out the philosophical inevitabilities of his cosmological presuppositions.  He is being perfectly consistent.  Why aren’t we?

The fact of the matter is, the way one views the universe informs and, finally, dictates the morals and ethics one holds.  Darwinian evolution, if it is perceived to be the engine behind the improvement of life, cannot be meddled with by the likes of so-called “do-gooders” who are not really doing good at all.  For such people are slowing evolution’s forward march by caring for the lesser evolved among us.

Christianity, of course, has a very different view of humanity’s place and value.  According to Christianity, human beings are not merely the products of an inexorable evolutionary march, eventually to be displaced as the kings of the cosmos by a better and higher form of life thanks to natural selection.  Rather, we are specially created by God “in His own image” (Genesis 1:27) to be the caretakers of His creation (cf. Genesis 1:28-31).  Thus, we can, and are even bound, not by some unfathomably lengthy evolutionary progress, but by the intentions of our Creator.  And one of His intentions for us is “to love mercy” (Micah 6:8).  So, we are merciful to each other.  We care for those who cannot care for themselves.

Your philosophy is an inextricable concomitant of your cosmology.  So what is your cosmology?  One that is driven by evolution by natural selection?  Or one that rejoices in the merciful, creative hand of our God?  How you answer that question makes all the difference in how you view your life…and the lives of others.

December 8, 2010 at 3:19 pm Leave a comment


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