Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Open Theism, the Future, and Free Will - Comments on Some Recent Articles Pt. 1

In the Fall 2006 issue and Winter 2007 issues of Faith and Philosophy (which I've just recently received), there are a number of interesting articles, two of them from an open theist perspective. While some of their arguments I could agree with, their arguments in favor of one or another open theist position left something to be desired. I'll tackle these in chronological order in two different posts.

First we have a paper, "Open Theism, Omniscience, and the Nature of the Future", by Alan Rhoda, Greg Boyd (the Evangelical Godfather of open theism), and Thomas Belt. One of things they do is to argue that the future's causal openness (that is, the state of affairs where the future is not causally determined to be a certain way) is incompatible with the denial of semantic openness for associated future-tensed sentences (a sentence is semantically open if it is neither determinately true nor determinately false). They argue for this incompatibilism by arguing that 'will' in normal cases has 'causative force' - when we utter such future-tensed sentences we are indicating that there is some (high, perhaps) causal probability that what we are saying is going to occur. And supposedly that shows that if the future is causally open then such sentences cannot be semantically closed. But if 'will' does have causative force, that to me still doesn't seem to decide the issue in favor of their incompatibilism unless they simply already assume that if 'It will be the case that p' has causative force that must be because it means something like what their semantics says it does and includes that causitive factor already in the way the semantics works. But why think that unless one were already antecedently convinced of something like open theism? Why think the causative force must show up in the semantics? After all, there's a very important distinction between saying and indicating - when I say that p, I am also indicating that I believe that p, but 'p' in my mouth doesn't have anything about me in its semantics. So 'It will be the case that p' may very well indicate something causal without that showing up in the semantics at all. In fact, their whole argument seems to trade on a confusion between evidence or conditions of rational assertibility on the one hand and truth conditions or semantics on the other. Just because the causal probability of p is a condition for its rational assertion doesn't mean its a condition for its truth. All sorts of things show up in the conditions for all sorts of propositions' rational assertibility without them being conditions on truth. Only a verificationist would want to deny this - but this seems to be what the authors need to affirm to get to their conclusion of incompatibilism. So the argument is just awful.

But let's say 'will' does function in the way the authors suggest. This tells us nothing about tenseless sentences that don't use 'will'. So you can still have sentences about the future with determinate truth values so long as you don't use 'will'. Or if that's not kosher, we could decide to use 'will' stripped of its causal significance and so still have sentences about the future with determinate truth values even in the face of causal openness. So who cares, ultimately, about whether 'will' has causative force or not? Maybe it does, but so normally does 'if' and we can perfectly well use that stripped of causal significance as well. So in sum, their argument for incompatibilism doesn't really even begin to get off the ground (unless of course they are already assuming that the future doesn't exist, but that would be a very different argument which they give later - one that I'm quite happy with since I deny the assumption).

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Notes on Self-Formation

Here are some notes for a presentation I gave three or so years ago at a meeting of Davis's Moral and Political Philosophy Group (now defunct). The talk took as a starting point a paper by Bernard Williams called "Moral Incapacity". It's a brief hint of the self-formation view of persons that I've slowly been developing on the side. Here it goes:

Here’s my own quick characterization of moral incapacity: Your moral character can sometimes constrain the set of actions you are able to take in any given circumstance. You are said to have a moral incapacity to do those things outside this restricted set. If the set in some situation is reduced to include only a single action, this is what Williams calls elsewhere a case of practical necessity – ‘I can’t’ might be replaced with an ‘I must’. In this paper, Williams just uses the term ‘moral incapacity’ and leaves practical necessity aside since it is basically just a limiting case of moral incapacity, where there is a moral incapacity to do all actions but one. I will do the same.

Let’s assume there is moral incapacity. If there is, that seems to upset a very natural idea many people have about moral responsibility – the idea that I am responsible for only what I can refrain from. It seems to upset the idea that I can be evaluated morally only in terms of those actions or omissions for which I had the capacity to do otherwise – if I lacked the capacity to do something or omit from doing something then I am not responsible for such an action and am not blameworthy.

In the case of actions or omissions arising from a moral incapacity (call them m-actions), one does not in a sense have a choice over whether to do them or not. What is odd, though, is that such an action is more of a result or expression of one’s character and one’s self than almost any other kind of action. The individual seems very much responsible for such an action, since it is so intimately an expression of his moral self and can be praiseworthy or blameworthy for such actions and the moral incapacities which give rise to them. What I can or cannot do seems directly to bear on how I am to be morally evaluated. And this seems to conflict with the idea that we are responsible only for our free actions and that something’s being freely chosen implies an ability to choose otherwise. So we can have snappy names for everything, I’ll call this the “Incapacity Problem”.

Given his other writings, I am sure Williams would be quite happy with this result. You can see evidence of this in the first footnote of this paper. But I would like to see what kind of headway we can make on this problem. One answer that immediately comes to mind is that we are responsible for our m-actions since we are responsible for our current character and since our character is what gives rise to these m-actions, we are therefore responsible for the m-actions as well. Call this the “Character Response” to the Incapacity Problem. We might think that we are responsible for our character just in case we are responsible maintaining it – if I can change my character or was myself the cause of it, then I am responsible for it and for all actions that come from it. I’m going to spend the rest of my time focusing on this line of thought.

Now consider the following case: John has an incapacity to do a certain action, A, and so omits performing it. John’s character, however, is “fixed” – that is, he is not able through his own choices to change his character in any way. He therefore cannot get rid of his current character or any moral incapacities he has. The question now is whether John can still be held responsible. This could be a problem for the Character Response – call it the “Fixed Character Problem”.

One response is that John really is responsible for his omission. His character presumably was not always fixed, so previous to this fixing it must have been possible for him to influence his own character. Since his character in the past was formed or at least maintained by his own actions up to the point where it became fixed, he is therefore responsible for his current character and so for his m-actions – prior to the fixing of his character, he could have changed his character so that it might be different than it now is.

Before looking at objections to this, let’s look at one of the pictures of responsibility and moral development that this line of thought so far seems to suggest. This picture will be rather speculative and highly idealized, but perhaps helpful nonetheless. I’ll call it the “Self-Formation Picture”.

On this picture, freedom and self-determination go hand in hand and ultimately imply the freedom to shape my own decisions, my character, myself. True freedom involves the ability to build for myself what I will be – I can form for myself a certain moral character. Those who are young can affect the direction of who are they to morally become more easily than those who are older – children go through rapid moral development just as they go through any other kind of development. But as we get older, our character becomes more rigid and less easily changed – we have developed and formed ourselves more and more and what we have made of ourselves becomes less and less reversible.

Take the idealized limit points at either end of the process and pretend for the moment that human beings are actually able to occupy these limit points. At one end, the beginning of life, we have no moral character whatsoever – personality and other traits maybe, but no moral character. The other end of the spectrum is where a person’s character is fixed – they have formed themselves fully and the process is over. Such a person, I’ll say, is fully made.

True freedom or self-determination as it is idealized here, then, involves being able to go through this process of self-formation. At the beginning, freedom expresses itself through the ability to form different characters and take a wide variety of actions. At the end, freedom or responsibility expresses itself through the inability to form a different character or choose from certain actions – the fixed character is itself a result of this freedom. On such a picture, we are entirely responsible for our fixed character and the actions that flow from it. So John really is responsible for his omission of doing A.

Consider two kinds of perfection: perfection as original flawlessness versus perfection as completion. The person at the first limit point is perfect in the first sense – there are no moral flaws since there is no moral character and such a person is utterly blameless. Now consider the other end. At this end, one might be perfect in the second sense by holding a fixed, maximally good moral character. Say Jack is on the road to completion – his character is neither fixed nor yet maximally good.

Since Jack is morally incomplete in this sense, he may choose wrong or not. The complete, however, cannot – they have completed the ethical project. So freedom expresses itself in flawlessness through the possibility of falling into vice while it expresses itself in completion through the impossibility. Our time of making, however, can be ended with ourselves ethically incomplete and so not able to go on to completion.

Say that John has flaws in his moral character. One objection to the picture I just gave would be that, prior to being fully made, John might not have known the full consequences of his actions for his moral character or that they were wrong. And now here he is unable to do anything about who he is now and so unable to refrain from not doing A. How could he be held responsible for his character or m-actions?

I’m not sure how convincing it is, but one reply might be that almost everyone is reasonably expected to find out what is right or wrong well enough to find their way to a morally good character prior to being fully-made. If they fail in this, then they are culpable and so still responsible for whom they end up becoming and the m-actions that come from this.

Another sort of response is that it doesn’t matter whether John is really responsible or not, since there seems no evidence to think that anyone in real life ever really gets to the point where they are fully-made. Both the beginning and end points of moral development were, after all, mere idealizations. Maybe no one ever actually occupies either of those points. They might get closer and closer to the end point as they get older, but perhaps no one ever actually reaches the point where they cannot change their character as a result of their own choices or actions. Perhaps the amount of character fixation at any point in the process of moral development could be analogous to the value for any x on the number line of the function x/x+1 – as the x gets larger, the value of the function increases more and more and gets closer and closer to 1 without ever actually reaching it. So perhaps character is never fixed and even given an infinite lifespan we would never reach that end point though we would get imperceptibly closer and closer. In that case, we would always be able to change, though it might be incredibly difficult. So perhaps we always are responsible for our character and thus our m-actions after all.

The Self-Formation Picture, then, might be able to get the Character Response out of the Fixed Character Problem and thus dissolve the Incapacity Problem as well. But I think all of it would need more spelling out to see whether the Incapacity Problem could really be dissolved in such a manner.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Interesting Discussions

Here are some interesting internet discussions worth checking out:

At Prosblogion, Interpreting Plato and St. Paul Part 1, and Part 2 - these are all about how Scriptural exegesis differs from ordinary exegesis of other texts. Also on that site, The Epistemic Grounding for the Biblical Canon - this is about the question of how we are to justify our choice of what goes in the Bible and what doesn't.

At Leiter Reports, Philosophy Departments That Advertise Through the APA But Violate Its Anti-discrimination Policies - this is about whether Christian colleges and universities violate the anti-discrimination policies of the American Philosophical Association when they require faculty to sign a statement that includes, among other things, a pledge to abstain from gay sex. This one's quite heated. You can see here how just because someone's a philosopher doesn't mean they always think clearly or critically. Lots of anti-evangelical dogmatism (though to be fair there were one or two people last I checked who at least made some attempt at some argumentation on the pro-gay sex side).

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Notes on Romans 1:1-6

Here's some notes I wrote up a while back when the Roaring 20's (the 20s+ group at FBC) was studying the book of Romans. Since FBC as a whole is now doing Romans, fellow FBC-ers may or may not find it interesting:

Here, hopefully, is an interesting way of looking at Romans 1:1-6. It could be interesting because, if it is right, it shows that these first few verses set up the basic themes of the rest of Romans which are to be discussed in a more expanded, detailed and applied manner throughout the remaining chapters. These first few verses set up who Paul is, his role in terms of the gospel, and what that gospel is – it more or less sets up Paul’s agenda for the letter. On the way of looking at these verses I want to consider, the focus is on the following things: Jesus Christ and his Messiahship as leader of the People of God, his vindication and exaltation as that Messiah and the result of that, by which Israel’s Messiah becomes also the Gentile’s Messiah so that both Jew and Gentile can equally participate in the People of God and attain ultimate salvation in the age to come.

First, Paul stresses the Jewishness of Jesus – Jesus is Israel’s Messiah foretold by the prophets in the Scriptures, the Messiah who was to be a descendant of David. Of course, mere descent from David does not by itself make Jesus the Messiah (though it is a prerequisite, of course). It was in his resurrection that Jesus was vindicated and shown to be the true Messiah – his Messiahship was confirmed and he was elevated to a new and glorified stage of this Kingship (note that if it is in fact the case that the words ‘with power’ in v.4 should be linked to the words ‘Son of God’ rather than to ‘declared’ then we have a specification of what that next stage of Messiahship is – the Messiah (or Son of God) with power).

But why say that v.4 concerns Jesus’s Messiahship rather than his divinity alone? Consider the following: ‘God’s son’ or ‘the son of God’ (there is no real difference in the Greek – I don’t think there is any difference in the Hebrew either) was a title that was used both in Scripture and in the Jewish culture of the time to refer to Israel, the People of God (for OT examples see, for instance, the passages beginning with Exodus 4:22, and Hosea 11:1). Since Israel was God’s son, His chosen and beloved one for whom He was their Father (there are even more examples of God being called Israel’s Father), such a title applied all the more to Israel’s king.

In this culture, the king was a representative and leader of his people – a kind of corporate individual who stood for all who followed him. So the title of the people could be applied to its representative and the representative’s name or title could be applied to the people. So if we were Jews and Pastor Glen was our representative and leader, we would say that we were ‘in Glen’ or that we ‘belonged in Glen’ or ‘had a part in Glen’ – in a representative sense, Glen would be FBC and FBC would be Glen. If the group did something, it would be in a representative way an act of Glen and if Glen did something it would be in a representative way an act of the group. So if Israel is God’s son, then its king – its representative – is God’s son – God’s election of Israel as his people receives its focal point in the king as Israel’s representative. But of course, Israel could not fulfill the purpose to which it was called and the kingship failed. The Messiah was to be the ultimate, final representative – the true Israel and Son of God who would do what Israel could not and fulfill Israel’s true purpose through himself. As N. T. Wright says, ‘Israel was the son of YHWH: the king who would come to take her destiny on himself would share this title’ (N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, 486). And it is as this true Messiah – this true leader and head and representative of the People of God – that Jesus shows up in this passage – his resurrection proves who he is and initiates that new stage in his Messiahship where he will reign from heaven in divine power, showing truly that he is both Lord and Messiah (that is, Christ).

More than all this, it has been argued by some commentators that, since the word ‘his’ does not actually show up in the Greek, the proper translation of the end of v.4 should not read ‘by his resurrection from the dead’ but ‘by the resurrection from the dead’. Jesus’ resurrection from the dead was the beginning of the resurrection which will be complete and consummated upon his return – Jesus has brought in the kingdom of God and he is the first to partake in it fully, but its fullness here on earth awaits the Second Coming, when the resurrection will fully come. As the representative of his people, since he has part in the resurrection, his people also thereby have part in that resurrection life – though, again, it will only have its completion when he returns and that eternal life comes in fullness and death is no more.

As representative, Jesus is the true Israel, the true Chosen One, the true Son of God and it is by following him that we become part of his people and therefore also join the chosen people, God’s people, and are thereby sons of God. And since being part of God’s People involves following Christ as the representative of God’s People, being part of that people no longer involves being a Jew or following those laws that mark one out ethnically as a Jew – the gospel is also for the Gentiles, who now are called to take part in God’s People by following Christ (without having to also become Jews). Their obedience to Christ and to God is through faith and no longer needs to involve the ethnic boundary markers of the law. Gentiles and Jews together can equally be part of God’s People through Christ and thereby share in the blessings of the coming kingdom and the resurrection of the dead. And those in the church in Rome are also part of that People – both Jews and Gentiles. That is good news.

These are the sorts of facts Paul uses to show how it is only through faith that one is part of Christ – who is the Jewish Messiah and Lord over all – and that because of this neither Jew nor Gentile should look down on the other. Throughout the book, Paul expands on these themes and applies these new realities proclaimed by the gospel to our lives under that same gospel – how are we, Jews and Gentiles, to live now that we both belong to God’s People, have a foot in the kingdom of God that is both now and not yet, and have Christ as our heavenly representative? It is this gospel the proclamation and explanation of which was Paul’s mission and it is key aspects of this gospel and all of its ramifications for the situation and life of the Jews and Gentiles in the church in Rome that Paul wants to present here.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Philippians 2:5-11 (Spencer Paraphrase Version)

Let your attitude be the same as Messiah Jesus

Who, precisely because he was in his role as God
Did not regard his equality with God as something to be exploited and lorded over others,
But instead put aside his rightful privilege,
Taking on the role of a servant,
Being made into a human likeness.
And being found in his role as a human being,
He humbled himself
And became obedient to the point of death -
Even death on a cross!

Because of all this, God highly exalted him
And gave him God's own personal covenant Name which is over all other names,
So that at this Name which belongs to Jesus
Every Knee should bow,
In heaven and on earth and under the earth,
And every tongue confess
That Jesus Messiah is YHWH/Lord,
To the glory of God the Father.

Identity Politics

I quickly get tired of a lot of what passes under the name "identity politics". Not all of it may be bad, but a lot of it is. This post is dedicated to the bad lot.

When one speaks of identity, one can mean a lot of different things. One can mean, for instance, numerical identity (expressed in logic by '=' - for example, Mark Twain=Sam Clemens), or qualitative identity (the kind of identity that holds between identical twins). Identity politics focuses on something else. This is identity in the sense not of what is essential but of what is central or important to a person - "who I really am". But there isn't a single sort of identity that falls under these sorts of descriptions but many. Here are four versions of identity that might fall under this sort of category (and which people tend not to distinguish often or very well):

1) Cultural identity - one's role or importance as assigned by culture
2) Reflective identity - one's role or importance as chosen or approved of by one's self
3) Deep identity - what is central, evaluation or function aside
4) Normative identity - what is central or important in regards to one's function or telos

Obviously, there are going to be important connections between all of these. All but the normative may, for instance, be partly constructed, whether by society or the self.

Now how does identity politics of the sort I don't like work? Here's the game plan: Defend people with trait or behavior X by claiming that X is part of their identity and hence that X is morally okay and justified and that one has a right to do X and to the protection of it and protection from discrimination on the basis of it. To aid in this process, it helps to actually have or produce an identity in order to advocate protecting it. To this end, the formation or maintenance of organizations, chat rooms, communities, public advocacy or identification, conscious differentiation from others who do not do or have X, the use of identity politics itself to defend X, etc. all help to form or maintain an identity around X so that one may now pursue defending it in the public square. Racial identity and the production of White identity as different from Black or whatever else is one example of a kind of identity that was created in modern times (though here the motivation was more to justify one identity at the expense of others). Homosexual identity is another, and much more recent. Many of these sorts of identity involve a symbiotic relationship of mutual creation and maintenance between cultural and reflective identities.

So once you've got this nifty new identity, so the politics goes, you try to justify X, which the identity is formed around, by referencing the fact that it is part of one's identity. Homosexuality has definitely gone along this path. Individuals will sometimes do the same thing too, of course ("I couldn't stay married to Bobby! It's just not who I am! Jimmy's much better for me..."). But notice that X being part of one's identity does not actually, necessarily make it morally okay or justified or whatever. Just because gay sex is part of one's cultural, reflective, or even deep identity does not make it okay or that it should be protected, etc. (Consider, for instance, the fact that very, very bad stuff can be part of one's identity in any of those three senses)

The only surefire way to get identity to entail goodness or whatever is for it to be normative identity. But opponents of homosexual behavior precisely deny that it is part of anyone's normative identity, so for the homosexual-advocate engaged in identity politics to rest their case on this kind of identity is to beg the question and fails to prove that such behavior is acceptable. So, in sum, there isn't any easy way actually to argue from identity to permissibility, rights, or anything like that. But the players in the identity politics game might not want you to know that - in fact, they need most people to be ignorant of it if their strategies are to work.

(For a very closely related group of confusions, see my posts in my series on naturalness: Naturalness Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3)

Monday, May 7, 2007

Hey Wise Guys!

Here's a test to see how wise you really are! (Not super scientific of course)

Anglican Pit Fight

Here's a recent address given by philosopher Marilyn McCord-Adams to the annual conference of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement in London. I think my respect for her just went down several notches. Though she has some interesting points, she is significantly less than charitable to conservatives in the Anglican communion and persists in calling the conservative view of homosexuality a taboo, oppressive, and other not-so-nice things (without really any argument or actual engagement with the conservative view on its own terms - such as the massive biblical support for it - but then again, that probably wasn't to be expected in an address like this). It was especially grating to see her call the Holy Trinity a "gay man's chorus". Also, I don't think her view of the historic Anglican Church is entirely accurate, but I won't say anything more here about that. For another viewpoint, see here and here. Let me know if there are some other good places for getting points of view on the other side of these issues. Some excerpts from McCord-Adams' address:

Illiberal winds are blowing pernicious policy and polity changes our way. The Communiqué from the Tanzanian Primates’ meeting brought the intentions of those who dictated its content more fully out of the closet. First, it sent the sinister signal that for the forseeable future, full membership in the Anglican communion will require a local church to enforce anti-LGBT taboos: no more episcopal ordinations of coupled gay or lesbian people; no more official or clandestine church blessing of same-sex couples.

The latest wind-tunnel generators have been violations of ancient sex and gender taboos by North American member churches in the US and Canada, and they have added fuel to a well-laid plan by conservatives to take over the North American churches.

The Tanzania Primates’ Communiqué attempts to make homophobia official Anglican policy. In doing so, it only brings out of the closet into the broad daylight, the principles already implicit in Issues, which promulgates a double-standard offering second-class citizenship for coupled gay laypersons but requiring celibacy for gay clergy; in the forced resignation of Jeffrey John from his appointment as bishop of Reading; in the reaffirmation of the celibacy requirement in connection with the recent permission of civil partnerships. Founded rumor has it, misogyny as official Anglican communion policy will not be far behind.

Nowadays, conservatives protest that the use of the terms ‘homophobia’ and ‘misogyny’ is inflammatory, because it suggests pathology, while they regard their positions as conscientious and principled. In a Toronto speech last week, the ABC scolds:

"It’s not just about nice people who want to include gay and lesbian Christians and nasty people who don’t. It’s a question on which there is real principled disagreement. What are the forms of behavior the church has the freedom to bless, and be faithful to Scripture, tradition and reason? That is the question that is tearing us apart at the moment because there are real differences of conviction."

To this protest, I make three replies.

[1] First, the human condition is non-optimal. We can say it in different ways: traditionally, ‘it’s a fallen world’ or ‘before death, human beings are not yet fully sanctified’; or more colloquially, ‘God isn’t finished with us yet’! Whichever way you say it, part of what this means is that ‘pathological versus principled’ is not a forced choice. The same convictions and practices can be both. Our conservative enemies insist that our conscientious convictions are pathological. But since human non-optimality is no respecter of persons, they cannot consistently claim immunity for the bible’s human authors or for themselves.

[2] Second, I do not use ‘misogyny’ and ‘homophobia’ as expletive slurs but terms with a fairly definite descriptive sense. What I mean by ‘misogyny’ is the (often unconscious) belief that women have to appear smaller than they are so that men can feel as big as they are. What I mean by ‘homophobia’ is the (often unconscious) belief/insistence that LGBT be (or at least pretend to be) other than they are so that others can feel comfortable and secure in their sense of who they are.

[3] Third, my point is not psychological but theological: homophobia and misogyny are contrary to the Gospel because they imprison everyone in lies about who we--each and all--are and about who we--each and all--are meant to be! It is not true that anyone has to appear smaller so that someone else can stand up to their full stature in Christ! It is not true that some have to stay in the closet so that others can be true to themselves. God Our Creator knew what God was doing. God calls us each to grow up into our full stature, and God has a way, God is determined to make a way for each and all to do it at once.

The Church’s sex and gender policies have been and are abusive, and that puts LGBT Christians in a double-bind.

Current Church policy and emerging polity seemingly puts LGBT Christians in a ‘no win’ situation, which is where our enemies want us, perhaps need us to be.

Moreover, God our Creator is too big to be an authority figure. God is of consistent purpose: God does not boss us around on the outside without regard for our inward potential and propensities. God works as an enabler on the inside, a live-in Tutor, designing individualized syllabi, trying to evoke our capacities, hoping to win our ever-more conscious collaboration, sparking our imagination together to create fresh ways to express who we really are, teaching us courtesy to make room for God’s other creatures to be what and who they are as well. For God, it is no fun just to squeeze us into a set mold. God does not have one and only one plan for our lives, some eternal idée fixe of who we are. God made us living and active so that we could add human to Divine artistry and invent new ways to be. Who we really are is both gift and task!

How can we survive and grow as Christians, when the Church has become so abusive, so hostile and hurtful, so opposed to the Gospel?

Renouncing society’s right to say who we are and what we mean, frees us for full communion with Our Creator, with that gay men’s chorus, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.

Anti-LGBT taboos oppress and so betray the Church’s Gospel mission to proclaim release to the captives; taboos imprison everyone and keep us all from surfing in the wideness of God’s mercy. Detached engagement makes us ambassadors for Christ bringing the Gospel back to the institution that doesn’t want to hear it, whose leaders are afraid to see, hear, and act on it.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Random Thoughts on Ethics, Society, Welfare, and Human Functioning

So in lecture today the vast majority of students thought doctors should perform amputations for the wannabes mentioned in my previous post, presumably in large part because they thought that having such amputations is morally permissible. Well in line with narrowly Utilitarian or Consequentialist thinking, they seemed to channel the oft-repeated mantras of our culture: "You can do whatever you want with your own body", "It's okay since it makes them happy", "It doesn't hurt anyone", etc. In discussion section tonight, however, I really pressed them and got to think of lots and lots of reasons against such amputations - reasons to think that they are in fact not morally permissible. At the end, the students were no longer so sure that such amputations were really as morally okay as they had initially thought. It's amazing what happens when you stop simply repeating the tired old lines of the overly-simplistic, feel-good pop morality that passes as public ethics these days and actually think about moral issues and moral reasons.

Some good reasons against that people came up with or that I came up with (some are just reiterations or slightly more nuanced versions of others):

It's being ungrateful for the body and abilities you have.
It's a very radical rejection of God's design of you in favor of your own.
It's a denial of the goodness of the whole of the healthy human body.
The benefits are outweighed by the risks.
It is harmful to the patient and reduces functionality.
It's medically unnecessary and doesn't help anyone else.
The desire for this sort of thing is just crazy or irrational.
It implants, encourages, and inflames other people's desires for similar things.
It leads to more of a burden on society's resources.
And so on.

Some of these are also good reasons against purely cosmetic surgery as well, which I'm okay with. I've always been bothered by cosmetic surgery and have long had a feeling that something just isn't right about it. It's not at all as bad (maybe) as voluntary amputation, but still has the feel of the frivolous, the ungrateful, the pseudo-gnostic denial of the goodness of the human body in its wholeness. It seems like a lot of the intuitions in favor of these sorts of things seems to involve the deep cultural influence of a kind of gnostic or extreme dualism. Gnosticism was an ancient heresy that taught that matter was evil and that spirit was good and thought of these are two completely separate, opposed realms. Unfortunately, the influence of this sort of view has survived to the present day.

Substance dualism is the view that there are two irreducibly distinct kinds of entities - material ones and immaterial ones - and the body is of the former kind whereas the mind or soul is of the latter. An extreme form takes it that I am simply my mind, a purely immaterial, nonphysical, spiritual object, and my body is just an instrument or tool that I happen to make use of for the time being. Both these views - gnosticism and extreme substance dualism - denigrate the body and make it somehow other than me and a mere possession to be used or disposed of as I see fit. Our society, I take it, has been profoundly influenced by such views, despite (or indeed sometimes precisely during) many people's protestations to the contrary.

One sees the influence of these sorts of views in many places. It's almost an orthodoxy, for instance, among many philosophers that human welfare is a purely mental affair - pleasure, desire satisfaction, or some other form of mental happy-crap. The body just doesn't matter - or at least it only does so insofar as it affects the mental stuff (which is the stuff, of course, which really matters). This sort of thing is simply a denial of our nature as physical beings - our design by God as living, material organisms. Plants and animals have welfare too, but it is implausible to say of them that their welfare is a purely psychological affair for them. This should be most obvious with plants since they really have no psychology in the first place. With them, our criteria revolve around the sorts of things they are and their abilities to function as designed - it revolves around a kind of health. I think we ought to say the same thing about human wellfare - my being well-off is a matter of my health, both physical and mental, and has to do with the sort of thing I am (a psychological subject yes, but also a living organism).

And of course relativism, overly cautious PC-tolerance of everybody and everything, the breakdown in moral education, and so on haven't helped matters as far as public ethical thought is concerned either. In the past disabled people were stigmatized, pitied, seen as less than human, etc. People thought their lives had to be less rich or full than "normal" people's and indeed less valuable. Most people probably still think that - consider Million Dollar Baby for instance. It could be the poster child for anti-disabled bias - the main character is an up and coming boxer and then becomes a parapalegic who ends her life with the help of her coach. Her life is portrayed as if it just wasn't worthwhile anymore and not valuable or worth keeping.

In response to this, people have, however, swung completely too far in the opposite direction. Disabled activists often won't even admit that the people they represent are disabled in the first place, that they have a hard time with anything, that there is anything whatsoever of disvalue about their condition, or that their functionality is impaired in any sense whatsoever (some among the deaf community are particularly guilty of this). It seems that we shouldn't go to either of these extremes - neither bigotry on the one hand nor blinded PC-fueled dogmatism on the other. Both of these, again, involve a denial in some way of our nature as living organisms. The bigoted side involves a denial that we can lead meaningful, valuable lives even when we are broken - even a broken body is a body designed by God and can be used for his glory. The PC side, on the other hand, involves a denial that we as humans have particular biological capabilities that are designed for us and which it is better for us to have than not. Both sides should be denied and we should break out of the assumption that both have nurtured that they are the only two options.

All of this is why I think it was wrong in the famous case for the two congenitally deaf lesbians to seek to have a congenitally deaf baby together (among other reasons) via genetic selection processes or genetic engineering - it involves a kind of intentional harm to the person so produced (though arguing that you can harm someone by creating them with deficits is a discussion for another day).

So anyways, that was a screenful. I'll stop now. I promise. Really.