Friday, November 21, 2003

reason, tradition, and my ass

I lied. I won't be writing about my ass.

WARNING: Another long post. (Yes, Mike, chores are mostly done. We pulled it off.)

The Maximum Leader has written a very good reply to my post critiquing Dr. Burgess-Jackson. Please take the time to read it before continuing. Or not: what follows is a point-by-point response to the ML's post, and I've reproduced most of it here. The ML's words are in bold italics.

Insofar as conservatives calling liberals "irrational," "unreasonable," or "blinded by ideology" goes, it is, for the most part, just name calling. And the name calling is as rampant in the liberal to conservative direction as well. Your Maximum Leader seriously doubts that this name calling is indicative of anything except rhetorical bluster in most cases. Admittedly, in some media (like these blogs for example) when one person claims another is "irrational" the accuser generally cites some particular claim.

I wish this were true, but if I revert again to Bill Whittle as an example, I think there are conservatives out there who are seriously arguing that the conservative position is more reasonable, rational, etc. Who, in truth, takes pride in claiming their position is less reasonable/rational? It's more than name-calling.

Unless I misunderstand him, I believe the Big Hominid is saying that the fact that there are bad or even harmful traditions undercuts the implication that traditions are on the whole good. I disagree. I do not believe that Burgess-Jackson is implying that all traditions are good. Indeed, he recognizes that traditions are a record of past experience; the outcome of that experience might still result in what one might consider a bad or harmful tradition.

The ML gets points for affirming this; alas, Burgess-Jackson himself never goes this far. I think it's clear that Burgess-Jackson, as a conservative who (quite naturally) exhibits a conservative bias, is spinning his argument in the direction I've laid out. He places a positive value on tradition (but is it the case that liberals don't?), and though he affirms that conservatives "respect" reason, he seems largely to be assigning it a negative valence, which is, I think, why the ML linked to his post in the first place.

That tradition can be changed or eliminated when society is ready to make the change. Burgess-Jackson is (and I am as well) not arguing that society is static and unchanging, but that serious consideration of past experience as well as logical reasoning need be applied before a change is made.

I found it ridiculous that Burgess-Jackson assigned a specific number of generations as a time frame for societal change. Did I mention legislating meaning? Egads, how about legislating social evolution? Let's hope he wasn't serious... but I think he was.

What I'd like to know is how Burgess-Jackson (and perhaps also the ML) thinks tradition operates. The ML's a historian, so maybe he's better equipped to answer this question than Burgess-Jackson is. Burgess-Jackson offers us a Darwinian dynamic of trial and error and survivability, but unlike the evolution of "lower" forms of life, humanity has often shown itself to be quite conscious of its own evolution-- its own history. Is human social evolution, then, purely a matter of simple trial and error? I think not, but I'd like a historical perspective before I take a firmer stand.

...I think history is replete with examples [of] times when tradition and custom were completely overthrown for the dictatorship of reason. (Communist Russia and the French Revolution under the Directory and the Committee of Public Safety are the first examples to jump to my mind.)

I think these are great examples of where reason plus utopianism can lead. I actually side with conservatives against utopianism-- like Jean-François Revel, I see it as very wrongheaded, leading to proven failure, time and again. China's experiment is yielding more and more to market forces that also transmit, little by little, democratic values (quite a few Chinabloggers argue that China, at present, can be described as Communist in name only). North Korea's Stalinist regime, along with a floundering Cuba, are examples in our time of the massive failures of utopianism. The husk of the Soviet Union stands as perhaps the most monumental failure of utopianism in human history, and Europe's current plunge into the utopian morass of "transnational progressivism" isn't exactly producing healthy fruit. So-- agreed. Utopianism = bad.

However, is advocacy of gay marriage fueled by utopianist thinking? If you've paid any attention to Andrew Sullivan's many posts on the subject, you know this isn't the case, and I think Sullivan is representative of a large swath of the gay populace (I will note, however, that many gays-- I don't presume to know how many-- are satisfied with the notion of civil union). Far from describing a utopian vision, Sullivan and other homosexuals are simply asking for what they consider to be a basic civil right-- "asking only for what's theirs," if you will. This isn't a utopian vision, and it isn't even primarily rationalism; for most gays, this is properly seen as a justice issue, which places it at least partially within the domain of religion (I won't go there in this post) and/or ethics. Religion and ethics are better frames for the debate than the question of rationality's role.

I believe that too many political determinations have been made (or are being made) in our time without proper consideration being given to maintaining the status quo. The very pertinent question of what ELSE could result from a societal change is not often asked, because logically it [is] felt [by] many not to be germane.

I'm sure plenty of hasty decisions are being made that will affect society negatively and/or positively-- but that's not unique to liberals or conservatives or nondualists or middle-of-the-roaders. There's a large debate going on right now about our continued presence in Iraq, for example. That debate, much of which seems (rightly or wrongly) to center on President Bush, is polarizing large sections of the country. My point is that, in the case of Iraq, it's the Bush Administration's policy-- a conservative policy-- that many people (Hominid excepted) now view as "without proper consideration being given to maintaining the status quo." So the ML's statement cuts both ways. It's not just liberals who act precipitously.

This is the crux of the "slippery slope" argument I was making a few months ago in my gay marriage posts. Once you remove the societal barriers to an action, and replace them with only logical barriers, you oftentimes end up with no barriers at all. This is because people can change the definition of terms or set new premises to an argument and thereby achieve a completely new outcome.

I referred to this as the "hell in a handbasket" argument in my post on gay marriage-- seeing a small crack in your house and concluding the whole house is in danger of collapse. There's no reason to move immediately to extremes in the course of discussion, except perhaps to highlight where something might lead.

But even deeper is the issue of whether "societal barriers" are in fact being replaced with "logical barriers." Is the gay marriage debate really being fueled by reason-as-cudgel? I don't think so. I personally see this as a justice issue, on a par with past issues like slavery, racism, sexism, etc. I think this is how most of the gay community in America (and probably other countries) views matters. Liberal thinkers have been quick to note that social conservatism has often stood in the way of social progress: it took brave folks to break through the oppressive paradigms-- fueled by the blind momentum of tradition, I might add-- that held people down for so long.

Again, I think the mainstream commentary from both political parties consists of way too much name calling. Generally when a conservative calls a liberal irrational, it is because a particular idea they are espousing makes no sense in the context of society. But that is not to say that the idea being espoused does not make logical sense in the abstract. In the abstract, "not making enemies" (as Sheryl Crow recently suggested in one of her first foreign policy addresses) is a great idea. But practically it is not viable option in real-world diplomacy.

I'll grant the Sheryl Crow example, but is this really a matter of logic? I think it's more a matter of idealism, and Sheryl Crow doesn't strike me as the kind of person who's going to offer a 20-page systematic apologia for why she believes what she does. Rationality likely plays very little role in her thinking and songwriting, and the same is probably true for most of the people on both sides who are engaged in the big cultural-political debates of the day.

Is the following a reasoned liberal position?

I'm gonna soak up the sun
Gonna tell everyone
To lighten up (I'm gonna tell 'em that)
I've got no one to blame
For every time I feel lame
I'm looking up o I'm gonna soak up the sun
I'm gonna soak up the sun

"I've got no one to blame" actually sounds more like a conservative position to me, though the immediate reversion to sun-soaking makes you wonder whether Ol' Uncle Sheryl's got any wrinkles left in her brain.

I don't think Burgess-Jackson is being dishonest or willfully ignorant. As I read him, he recognizes that traditions change on the one hand (but hopes that it will not change too quickly or without plenty of thought); and on the other point he states that liberals believe that reason applied to any problem will find a solution. If anything Burgess-Jackson should give some examples of this. I contend that he is assuming that examples are taken "as read" by the reader.

Yes, he should have given examples. But Burgess-Jackson was saying, from the get-go, that he was preaching to the choir. Here's the quote:

I assume for the sake of explanation (not argument) that intellectuals are disproportionately liberal. That is to say, the proportion of liberals among intellectuals is greater (I won't say by how much, although I believe it to be significant) than the proportion of liberals among people generally. I believe this to be the case, but I will not adduce evidence for it. What I want to know is why. If you, dear reader, don't think it's the case, then stop reading, for I will be trying to explain something that, in your view, doesn't exist.

It's a claim made "for the sake of explanation (not argument)." He says, "I will not adduce evidence for it." He's relieving himself of the responsibility to provide support for what follows, so maybe I should chalk all this up to just some academic musing (we academics do that a lot, you know). But what immediately follows are claims that, in my opinion, require substantiation if they are to be more than mere preaching to the choir. If, however, Burgess-Jackson is content merely to talk shop with fellow conservative readers by bandying about this still-unproven "liberals exalt reason" meme, then this may be a classic case of incestuous amplification, the definition of which appears on Kevin at IA's site:

A condition in which one only listens to those who are already in lock-step agreement, reinforcing set beliefs and creating a situation ripe for miscalculation.

If this is what I'm seeing, there's little reason to go on. But let's adopt a more hopeful stance and continue to engage.

Quick note: I didn't write everything in the following quoted paragraph--

We are indeed dealing with an institution, but one that has no universally agreed-upon definition, which has been my point since I wrote my gay marriage post... MARRIAGE IS A MULTIFACETED, MULTILAYERED INSTITUTION. IT HAS SEXUAL, SOCIAL, LEGAL, PSYCHOLOGICAL, AND ECONOMIC DIMENSIONS... And nowhere in this post, aside from a vaguely-proposed paradigm of trial-and-error, does Burgess-Jackson deal with the empirically obvious fact that "marriage," like all reality, is a changing, dynamic thing... This debate isn't really about changing the institution: at this point in the game, the change is already occurring. The question is whether and how the change should be acknowledged. This has been my point from the beginning: the people who are legislating meaning are the people unwilling to acknowledge the social changes that have already occurred and are continuing to gain momentum.

(The part in all-caps is Burgess-Jackson's, not mine. Just FYI.)

The ML says:

Here is where I will take issue with the Hominid. While I agree that marriage may have no universally agreed-upon definition, it does, in the context of our Anglo-American/Judeo-Christian society have a commonly agreed-upon definition.

But this is a false premise, because the very loud debate now occurring belies the idea that this definition is "commonly agreed-upon." If it were commonly agreed upon, if it were only the 3-5% "out" gay populace advocating legalized gay marriage in America, then there'd be a lot less noise. But because so many people see this as a justice issue and link it with ethical and/or religious priniciples, the debate is taking place on more than the homosexual front line; plenty of heteros are involved. "Marriage" was, is, and will always be a term describing a reality in constant flux. As the empiricist Hume might note, I've got observation on my side.

Recognizing that in this society a significant number of people have started to change their personal definition of marriage, the fact remains that there is a commonly held definition which up to this point has had the force of law behind it.

The appropriate question to ask is, "Commonly held by whom?" To unpack that question is to unpack the demographics of the current debate. As for force of law: true, gay marriage isn't legally recognized, but it isn't explicitly or universally banned, either. Plenty of gay couples have already gotten married; the legal issues, in America at least, appear to boil down to equal rights and privileges for couples already recognized by their churches (temples, etc.) as existing in some form of sanctified union. Maybe the issue is more complex for gay atheists-- I don't know whether two gay atheists can be married by a nonreligious authority. At a guess, they can't, since that authority would probably be a (state or national) functionary of the government. So if you're gay, nonreligious, and unwilling to be married in a religious context, you're probably screwed right now.

While in the abstract we can debate that marriage might not have a single universal definition, in the world of civil society it does.

It's not in the abstract at all. When I say that "marriage" is a term describing a reality in constant flux, I'm relying on observation, not making an interpretation or engaging in abstract speculation. I consider my stance to be based on empirical evidence, not idealism. The "is," not the "ought."

Yes the reality of the situation is changing, insomuch as this wouldn't have been an issue at all 100, 50, or even 25 years ago. It is an issue now. A significant number of people believe that the common definition of marriage is in need of some change. They are advocating this position in society and asking courts to make determinations. The reason we are having this discussion is that there is change is not generally agreed upon (or I would contend, even agreed upon by a simple majority of people).

So far, so good. I generally agree with the above.

This is where reason and its application come into the equation. The Massachusetts Supreme Court very logically held that if the state constitution prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, then the commonly-held definition of marriage is discriminatory.

It's strange that this "logical" position wasn't officially noticed before now, which makes one wonder whether logic is really playing the important role the ML and Burgess-Jackson are assigning to it. No; logic-- reason-- is a tool. It's value-neutral. It's used when convenient or appropriate to back positions that are, in the end, founded on unprovable postulates. And this is true no matter which side is using reason.

What I believe Burgess-Jackson, and I, have been saying is that this is reason at its most destructive. By looking at this issue purely from an abstract and rational position, the court's decision is a perfectly sound one. But the slippery-slope of reason does start to apply. Why stop with gay marriage? Why not allow brothers and sisters to marry? Boys and Men? How can you determine a logically sound limitation to two willing people getting married? You can't. In the abstract there is no reason. This is the problem with this issue when examining it from another angle.

There's been a lot of talk about things "in the abstract," but this isn't where the debate lies, because (1) this isn't a debate that's analogous to debates about utopianism, and (2) because we're dealing with justice issues, we're automatically dealing with more than principle. Empirical reality plays a huge role in this (something the ML himself suggests when he accuses liberals of divorcing issues from social context).

I think we are both saying that exalting reason to the detriment of tradition and custom (however irrational) is generally bad.

I agree with this.

I think the sub text here is (as I have said before) there is something inherently unsatisfying about saying "We've always done it this way and let's not change." Perhaps an analogy is appropriate. When debating major changes in the way society behaves, change should have the burden of proof. Assume "the way it is" is the accused party in a trial. Those advocating change can apply reason to the circumstances and have the burden to demonstrate clearly that the status quo is not satisfactory.

Then by this analogy, it should be plainly obvious that millions of Americans, even if they don't constitute a simple majority, are extremely dissatisfied with the status quo, which is why it will change (a point already granted, if somewhat grudgingly, by the ML in previous posts and private talks).

This would build consensus that a change should be made. Unfortunately, this is not what most people who want to change the status quo want to do. They present a logically sound argument and become indignant (or resort to name calling) when other[s] don't immediately come around.

As David Hume contended: you can't rationally derive an ethical "ought" from an empirical "is." No ethical argument can be founded on rational principles; the "ought" may appear, but it's not derived from reason. I basically agree with Hume on this, for the same reason I said that reason begins with postulates-- the "ground" of ethical action is a leap of faith, not an an sich rational point of departure. The advocates of gay marriage are aware of this; it isn't reason that motivates them. However, if they have to argue their case in court, or if sympathetic legislators are to present arguments in favor of gay marriage, then it's inevitable that reason will enter the picture. At that point, it's unfair to attack reason for being there. All arguments, almost by definition, employ reason to make their points. Is an incoherent argument even an argument?

Let's make no mistake: in gay marriage, we're dealing with ethical issues. Either side can dress up their position as rational, but as the Air Marshal has also pointed out privately, these things don't boil down to reason.

As for the liberals doing the name-calling, they're being assholes and the ML is right to call them out. That simply lowers the level of the debate and undercuts their own cause. But I'd say the same of conservatives who adopt the same tactics. Or anyone else, for that matter.

Additionally, we live in a society that happens to like change. This is the blessing and curse of being Americans. Change is our tradition. (Unlike many Asian or European societies where the status quo is much more entrenched.) You're poor? Get a job, work hard, change yourself and you could become rich. You don't like your church? Great, change churches. Want start over? Great, move to a new town, reinvent yourself, change your surroundings and bingo - a whole new you.

I believe what Burgess-Jackson and I are saying is that perhaps we should become a little more fond of the status quo (tradition and custom) and a little less fond of reason and change.

I think Burgess-Jackson may be saying that, but I also think the ML's position is harsher and not really espoused by Burgess-Jackson, who, as a philo prof, probably doesn't view reason as inherently destructive. The man's academic career is based on reason, among other things!

America is young, but it's still a couple centuries old. Traditions have formed here, and will continue to form. I imagine we'll be hearing more conservative voices as time goes on and America becomes more venerable. By some standards, America is actually an older country than many: it's been pointed out that we enjoy arguably the longest-lasting continuous democratic (republican?) government-- i.e., one based on the same constitutional principles, with nothing but nonviolent transfers of power-- in history. The ML says "change is our tradition," which is true. But reason is also our tradition: it's what allows us to look at the backward practices of certain other nations and groups and call them backward (PC relativists aside).

Your Maximum Leader stands by his claim that reason (outside of math and science) is a destructive faculty. Outside of math and science what is it used for? Destroying something or another. The outcome of that destruction might end up being judged as a "good" thing. But it is destruction nonetheless.

I'm curious to see this point expanded on, though. So far, there hasn't been a substantive argument in support of this position, which is, to me, one of the strangest contentions I've heard. If the argument is that products/laws/cultural forms arrived at through reason are created at some cost, then yes, of course it's true that reason has a destructive side.

Reasoned analysis, for example, involves parsing. If you're a 19th-century naturalist, you don't get to know what a frog's innards are like until you cut the fucker open. If you want to learn about that frog's biome, you'll have to risk disturbing (or even accidentally destroying) the biome by sitting there, being invasive, and risking skewing your own observations. If you're a factory-builder increasing worker productivity, you may also be the author (as Marx might argue) of worker disaffection and misery and other social ills.

But this is little more than pointing out yin while ignoring yang. I feel there is no yin without yang. Even massively destructive events, like Hiroshima and Nagasaki, can produce constructive results (e.g., a Japan that, at least until recently, has collectively shunned the military option in favor of peaceful solutions to international problems). The story never ends. Suggest a destructive hypothetical outcome, and I'll suggest a constructive possibility to go along with it. Really, this comes down to a queston of optimism or pessimism about the future: will that tiny crack in my wall really lead to my house's collapse? Let's not freak out-- instead, let's do some exploring and act according to what we discover. That's a nondualist's position, not postmodernist malarkey.

And as an aside to the Big Hominid, as a non-dualist, is there anything that can be inherently something?

No, nothing is inherently anything. A fuller explanation of this can be found in several places on my blog:

1. A Buddhist Critique of Islam
2. Right and Wrong: A Nondualist's Perspective
3. Violence, Vegetarianism, and Emptiness

...with special attention to (2) above, where I have so far laid out the (Buddhist) nondualist stance most thoroughly. And to repeat a comment made in that post, it's important not to confuse relativism and relativity. The nondualist sees relativity as a fact of existence; relativism, on the other hand, is an almost nihilistic attitude in which things don't really matter because they all have, a priori, equal value. The nondualist isn't a relativist because he doesn't espouse relativism. He is, however, a firm believer that things exist in processual relationship.

Although he knows better, your Maximum Leader was afraid you were slipping into some sort of Post-modernist trance. He feared that somewhere out there Jacques Derrida or Michel Foucault had a little (perhaps 1/4 scale) Hominid voodoo doll and was casting a spell on you.

Maybe Derrida changed my styrofoam cup into a voodoo doll in 1999.

As for Monsieur Foucault... Monsieur fuck who?

Finally, I have to restate that my own position isn't the liberal one. I'm not an advocate of "equality of outcomes" in the liberal sense, and don't see the gay marriage debate as being about equality of outcomes-- it's about justice, basic civil rights, and decency. This isn't the same as saying everyone deserves a $40,000/year job, or that everyone should automatically have an equal shot at getting into Harvard. We're talking about the basic right to marry the one you love.

Legal status for gay marriage won't magically convert heteros into gays. It won't besmirch or erode the "institution" of marriage (enough heteros do that as things stand, and many of these vermin are on TV), and we won't suddenly see a movement toward marrying children or one's own immediate blood relatives-- trust me on this. To take the alarmist approach is to believe that people are pretty damn stupid and aren't progressing, which goes against the idea that traditions contain tried-and-true elements that are "not to be taken lightly"-- not to mention against the conservative arguments in praise of progress as a value, an argument usually levied against liberal PoMo relativists who deride the notion of progress as yet another poisonous, oppressive Western meme.

An Instapundit quote on the subject of gay marriage:

Perhaps it's a blind spot on my part, but I just don't see how gay marriage threatens heterosexual marriage. It seems to me that it's the opposite, and that gay marriage will strengthen marriage overall. And I do think that the Massachusetts opinion is entirely defensible, as I said yesterday. Indeed, had I been on that Court I might have voted that way -- though I probably would have written the opinion in terms of limitations on governmental power, rather than expansive notions of equality -- had the case been before me.

And here's Dr. Keith Burgess-Jackson on slippery-slope arguments:

The form of a slippery-slope argument is simple. The first premise asserts that there is a slippery slope. Doing X, it is said, will have a particular result, Y. To use the slope metaphor, since the slope is slippery, taking even one step onto it will cause one to slide to the bottom.

The second premise of a slippery-slope argument asserts that the bottom of the slope is a bad place to be. Thus, one should not take even one step onto the slope. It is important to understand that the person making the slippery-slope argument is not saying that the first step is intrinsically bad. It may not be. But it is alleged to have an inevitable bad result.

The problem, of course, is that any given course of action is likely to produce more than a single result, and it's inevitable that, among those results, there will be (what is considered) positive along with (what is considered) negative. So citing a single (or even a small cluster of) bad result(s) isn't enough to be persuasive. One reason why I have a dim view of such arguments.

Further down, Dr. Burgess-Jackson writes:

No political party or ideology has a monopoly on the use of slippery-slope arguments. I hear them from every quarter. Liberals use arguments of this type to argue against restrictions on speech; conservatives use them to argue against regulation of guns. Other names for this argument type are "wedge argument," "camel's-nose-in-the-tent argument," and "foot-in-the-door argument." The idea is the same; only the name differs.

Indeed. (As Satan's Anus might say.)

The slippery-slope argument (which I've been calling "hell in a handbasket") is an immediate move to extremes. There may be cases where such a move is legitimate, but it's crucial to discuss that legitimacy. My contention is that, in the case of gay marriage, it's not.

As for tradition: it's not-good, not-bad. Traditions have beginnings. In modern terms, that means traditions started off as somebody's liberal push. A "new tradition" breaks free of the old paradigm, then coalesces into the new old paradigm. Tradition provides structure and integrity and coherence and stability; these are also not-good, not-bad. I tend to think a balance between the impulses to chaos and order is what makes a society robust; this is why I don't align myself with political liberals or conservatives (though I admit I'm a flaming-- frothing?-- religous liberal). Liberals often are idealistic, and we're certainly witnessing a lot of liberal foaming at the mouth with regard to the sitting president. But idealism gets people off their asses, or at the very least forces them to think and debate. The conservative position does this as well, if a liberal is open-minded enough to see this. So I'm not some mindless advocate of change, change, change. On the metaphysical level, I see change as part of reality, pure and simple. But I also see stability as part of reality, too. I no longer think of right and wrong in absolute terms, but I haven't abandoned the use of those terms, either, because they remain conventionally relevant.

Gay marriage is an issue whose time has come in American society. Maybe it'll flare up into a culture war next year as elections loom. And maybe the "destructiveness" of this culture war will be exactly what we need, just as some forest fires are beneficial because they consume the stifling deadfall. Flowers can spring from dungpiles.

In the name of Cthulu and the Old Ones...

No comments: