Monday, May 15, 2006

Form, not strength of conviction

In another post in an interesting series, Andrew Sullivan attempts to differentiate Christianism from garden-variety ethics by the intensity of the belief. So, while a Kantian atheist really believes that “X is wrong,” a Christianist really, really believes that “X is wrong,” and correspondingly tries to assert those beliefs through the political process more strongly. There’s more “oomph” to the religious belief, if you will.

As I understand Sullivan to say, this added oomph derives from the non-provisional nature of the religious conviction. The flipside to this is that non-religious worldviews are provisional and subject to change; in turn, more political leeway is granted those that disagree with us. The obvious counter, of course, is that I hold many beliefs as non-provisional. I hold that murder is wrong, and this belief is absolutely non-provisional and non-negotiable. It doesn’t seem, though, that our imposition of this belief through politics is any sense theocratic, or similar to the logic of Christianism.

On many of the moral propositions on which there’s broad agreement, then, Sullivan’s distinction is simply untenable. Just because I believe something non-provisionally doesn’t mean it’s of a kind with Christianist politics.

So where do we locate the difference between capital-L Liberal politics and Christianist ones? Let’s start with some of the hallmarks of Christianist political activity: pornography, decency (cursing and the like), and homosexuality*. All of these things have in common a “thick” conception of the self toward which all people ought to tend. In short, the Christianist position on all of these is one of eudaimonia. There is an ideal, thick conception of the self, and the law ought to be used to encourage movement toward that ideal. You should be straight, virtuous, chaste, etc., regardless of your good intentions or the consequences of your actions. That’s the Christianist position, and it is distinctly eudaimonian. By contrast, Liberal conceptions of the political sphere (notably Rawls’s, to whom this post is obvious indebted) begin from the presupposition that these thick conceptions of the self (the Rawlsian “comprehensive doctrine”) should not be enforced through political coercion. The politically Liberal notion of politics is a space in which people can pursue happiness so long as others aren’t harmed; the Christianist notion tries to shrink the boundaries of that space to coincide perfectly with the Christianist notion of the virtuous self.

* Bracketing abortion for the sake of simplicity

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Genetics and Sexual Identity

Apparently, some study has come out noting a difference in brain chemistry between lesbians and straight women. Kevin Nelstead at The Earth is Not flat, writes:

While genetics is important, it is a poor foundation for ethics.

It's still ethically relevant, though. To the extent a trait is immutable, the ethical calculus changes. In that case, the Christianist has to resort solely to the notion that homosexual acts are wrong while homosexuality itself isn't (much as in the alcoholism analogy).

In the long term, that's a loser distinction for Christianists. Most people rightly feel that sexuality is deeply tied to identity in a way that the decision to drink or not isn't. Given that deep tie between identity and sexual identification, the distinction between actor and activity becomes pretty hard to make, if not downright incoherent.

Here's Kevin again:

This kind of reasoning is easy to counter: if chimpanzees eat each other (yes, chimps in the wild have been observed to be cannibalistic), than it should be okay for humans to do the same.

Kevin is right that genetic disposition is insufficient for the morality of a given action. Genetics doesn't determine the moral calculus; it needs to be supplemented by a moral proposition. I'd suggest that a principle of non-harm is sufficient to transform genetic disposition into a morally neutral activity or state. In other words, if the behavior or state doesn't unreasonably do harm to another, and it's genetically predisposed, it's morally acceptable. That seems to track my intuition: if ya can't help it, and it's not hurting anybody, what's the fuss about? The principle of non-harm crisply differentiates being gay from both alcoholism* and cannibalism.

* The rejoinder: what if an alcoholic doesn't know anybody - say the alcoholic lives on his own island with no human contact, such that his alcoholism doesn't run afoul of the principle of non-harm. This is an appeal to eudaimonia: he's not hurting anyone else, yet he clearly isn't thriving or living up to his potential. That's an argument that could certainly be made. Suffice to say for the moment that I don't find it too compelling: while his actions couldn't be said to be good, I don't know if one can go so far as to call them unethical. I tend to see thriving as supererogatory icing on the ethical cake, if you will.