Saturday, February 25, 2012

Church 'does not own marriage' - - - BBC News

Added: Sat, 25 Feb 2012 10:28:21 UTC

The Church does not "own" marriage nor have the exclusive right to say who can marry, a government minister has said.

alt text
The Government says legalising gay marriage would be change for the better

Equalities minister Lynne Featherstone said the government was entitled to introduce same-sex marriages, which she says would be a "change for the better".

Her comments come as ministers prepare to launch a public consultation on legalising gay marriage next month.

Traditionalists want the law on marriage to remain unchanged.

Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Ms Featherstone said: "Some believe the government has no right to change it (marriage) at all; they want to leave tradition alone.

'Reflect society'
"I want to challenge that view - it is the government's fundamental job to reflect society and to shape the future, not stay silent where it has the power to act and change things for the better."

Ms Featherstone, a Liberal Democrat minister, responded to comments made by Lord Carey, a former Archbishop of Canterbury, who said that "not even the Church" owns marriage.

She said: "(Marriage) is owned by neither the state nor the Church, as the former Archbishop Lord Carey rightly said.

"It is owned by the people."

Ms Featherstone also appealed to people not to "polarise" the debate about same-sex marriages.

"This is not a battle between gay rights and religious beliefs," she said.

"This is about the underlying principles of family, society and personal freedoms."

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Thursday, February 23, 2012

End of Life Autonomy


In this post, I will discuss Policy 6 of Sean Faircloth’s new atheist strategy. This policy calls for autonomy in end-of-life decisions.

Specifically, this relates to questions of euthanasia - whether a person facing a life of extreme and prolonged suffering or a state in which the person effectively ceases to exist and only the body remains, should be permitted to choose death.

At this point, I want to warn against taking a list of ten policy objectives to be the equivalent of ten commandments - proposals that every true non-believer or believing secularist must accept as true or be branded a heretic. We must not follow the course if the political right and hold these up as a litmus test where acceptance, regardless of reasons, is a requirement for membership - and where debate and disagreement is deemed intolerable.

Nor should we adopt the attitude of the contrarian - that, if religious people are against it, we must be for it, and visa versa.

Rather, we need to constantly return to these policies with a critical eye in the light of new knowledge and fresh realizations and be willing to alter or to abandon them as the evidence suggests.

I bring this up here because I have two concerns about this policy.

I do not deny that as an abstract policy divorced from real-world considerations, it sounds wonderful. Nor do i deny that there are some real-world considerations that speak in its favor. The only value that exists is that which exists between states if affairs and desires, and there are clearly situations in which continued life will thwart more and stronger desires than death. These include situations where an agent is in excruciating pain or unable to act or think so as to realize these desires.

I abhor the thought that some day my money will go to somebody changing the diapers on this body that I now occupy, rather than having that money go to something I truly value - promoting understanding and appreciation of the real world. I would rather have my savings go to a museum than to a nursing home.

Finally, I want to stress that when it comes to forcing somebody to endure 6 months of agony they could otherwise avoid, the argument, "My god would be unhappy if you did not endure 6 months of agony" is not a good argument for forcing somebody to endure 6 months of agony.

However, I have two wholly secular objections against such a policy.

One of them is that insurance companies and family members will come to pressure people to end their lives for wholly selfish reasons.

Insurance companies will be able to significantly improve their bottom line by finding ways of encouraging patients to choose the less costly (to them) option of death over more costly forms of treatment. Using the power of their marketing departments, they will likely find ways to get their customers to choose what is, for the company, the least expensive form of care. Every company does this – from the hotel chain trying to get customers to purchase amenities to the restaurant trying to sell coffee and dessert the chocolate factory trying to find more ways to get more people to buy more chocolate at a higher price. This is an inherent and important part of doing business.

Where death is an option, the instant an insurance company realizes that – given the limited prospect for the patient paying future premiums and the cost of various treatment options - death is the least expensive option for the company, then this is the option they will market to the customer. The company that finds the most efficient way of identifying when death is the more profitable option and successfully gets patients to choose that option is the company that will have the best balance sheet and will draw the most investment. This, in turn, will force other companies to follow suit.

They will do this in the same way a restaurant tries to find ways to get customers to order the most profitable items on the menu.

A part of this marketing strategy will almost certainly involve getting the family involved in supporting the option. Their encouragement would likely be very helpful in successfully selling this option to the patient.

Now, I am not necessarily talking about people maliciously conspiring against the patient. As humans, we are subject to motivations we do not consciously acknowledge. It will just feel like the right thing to do, and people will find it easy to convince even themselves that it is in the best interest if the patient. Assert that they were motivated by money and convenience, and they will be genuinely upset - because they do not want to admit the truth even to themselves.

The second problem with end-of-life autonomy is that, in practice, it will require that we lower our aversion to killing. Where we lower the aversion to killing, other forms of killing may become psychologically easier for more people - and those consequences may be worth avoiding.

This is the same type of argument that I used against incest in my previous blog post. People act to fulfill the most and strongest of their desires, given their beliefs. One of those desires that most people have is an aversion to killing. There are almost certainly cases in which this aversion to killing is what tips the balance – preventing a person who otherwise has a reason or a desire to kill from doing so. If we lower the aversion to killing to allow for end-of-life autonomy, we may find that we have more killing than is good for us.

This "aversion to killing" argument might sound to some a lot like the "sanctity of life" argument we get from certain right-wing, mostly religious sources.

Well, it is a lot like that argument. Yet, where is it written that somebody on the political or religious right must be 100 percent wrong about all things at all times?

There are a couple of differences between my use of the "aversion to killing" argument and the claims we get from the political right. I apply this argument consistently to the issue of capital punishment. I argue against capital punishment that society may be better off with a general aversion to killing so strong that is averse even to killing its worse criminals. Furthermore, I argue that killing in this sense applies to beings with interests, that a fetus without brain development has no desires, and thus no interests to consider in this respect. Nor do I argue for a moral absolute allowing for no exceptions. We have reason to promote an aversion to killing - but we have reason to promote a lot of other desires and aversions as well that may, in certain circumstances, outweigh the aversion to killing.

There is nothing in this argument that requires a god or intrinsic values or categorical imperatives or any of the various mythologies that plague moral philosophy. This argument only looks at the desire-fulfilling qualities of using social forces such as moral praise and condemnation to promote an overall aversion to killing.

Psychological and sociological research may well find ways around these objections. Perhaps we can avoid some of these problems by requiring an independent review board to determine that end-of-life choices are truly the unmanipulated will of the patient. Perhaps we can effectively promote an aversion to killing except as an act of mercy. In this latter case, please note that the question is not whether philosophers can make an intellectual distinction in some abstract sense, but whether we can effectively engineer our social institutions to bring about this effect in the real world of everyday action.

With these considerations added on, I tend to argue for a system of state’s rights on the question of end-of-life autonomy. Let different states establish their own practices and let us see what the results are. Let some practice an absolute prohibition, while others attempt to show mercy to those patients who are suffering by providing end of life options, and let us look at the effects of these different practices in different states.

With this evidence, we can then make an informed decision as to whether to require end-of-life autonomy. At this point, I do not think we have sufficient evidence to demand end-of-life autonomy. There are too many valid reasons to worry. Instead, we should call for giving states the liberty to choose for themselves, while insisting that, "My god demands that you spend the next six months in anguish" is NOT a good reason to require that a person spend the next six months in anguish.

Speaking more generally, we should not commit ourselves to any particular set of conclusions independent of an examination of these types of concerns. Nor should we commit ourselves to finding something wrong with every argument and piece of evidence or consideration merely because the political right thinks that it has merit. Sometimes, they actually do have merit.

We should be willing to take an honest look at legitimate concerns (where "my god wants you to suffer" is not a legitimate concern) and be ready to change or drop any policy objective based on the available evidence. Otherwise, we risk becoming the secular equivalent of the deaf and blind religious or political dogmatist.

Legalizing Incestuous and Polygamous Marriage


In this post, I am continuing to look at the fifth policy objective in Sean Faircloth's new atheist strategy - marriage equality.

One of the arguments we hear against gay marriage goes like this:

If we accept these arguments in favor of gay marriage as valid, we must also permit incestuous and polygamous marriages that involve consenting adults. Obviously, legalized incestuous and polygamous marriage is unacceptable, so gay marriage must also be unacceptable. You must vote against gay marriage or find yourself surrounded by incestuous and polygamous marriage.

Now, I can interpret thus argument in one of two ways.

Interpretation 1: So, you are telling me that you believe legalized incestuous and polygamous marriage will significantly improve the quality of some lives and do no harm to anybody. Yet, we must prohibit it nonetheless and eagerly do violence to those who would practice it.

Why? This sounds like a policy of harming others simply because one has a gotten into the habit of or developed a fondness for that which harms others.

Interpretation 2: If we legalize gay marriage, we must legalize incestuous and polygamous marriage. However, these others come with all sorts if harms we must avoid. Therefore, we must not legalize gay marriage.

Against this, the question is: Why not use these harms as reasons to keep incestuous and polygamous marriages illegal? Nobody claims that the fact that homosexual marriage involves consenting adults is a sufficient reason to permit such marriage, only that it provides a relevant difference between gay marriage and marriage between adults and children or adults and animals.

On the issue of polygamous marriage, perhaps this should be legal. They have one significant advantage over the "traditional family."

With a traditional family - one breadwinner, one caregiver, and children (or elderly parents, or those for whom care is needed) - if anything happens to either the breadwinner or the caregiver the results are much likely to be catastrophic. If we increase the number of breadwinners and caregivers, we can reduce the chance of a catastrophic result. There is always a "backup" to fall back on.

On the other hand, managing so many personalities may well be impossible. It may require an unhealthy level of submission to a ruling patriarch that robs the other members if their personality and autonomy, or disintegrate into factions. I will have to leave it up to experts to answer those questions.

On the issue of incestuous marriage, I would argue that we do have good reason for a prohibition - a reason that does not apply to gay marriage.

Before I go into this objection, I want to discuss two objections to incestuous marriage between consenting adults that fail.

The first is the genetic argument. This argument claims that a prohibition against incest is justified because it reduces the chance of genetically deformed or defective children. Incestuous reproduction increases the possibility if realizing recessive genetic traits. These are most often harmful. This is because it is more likely that a sibling shares one's recessive trait than a member of the population at large.

The problem is that we no longer need to rely on a prohibition on incest to reach this objective. We now have much more effective ways to determine if couples risk producing offspring with genetic defects. If this is a valid argument, we should now give up the crude "incest" test and use more scientific genetic tests. We can require that couples undergo genetic screening, and prohibit sex between those who are judged genetically incompatible. Where these genetic tests determine that siblings share no recessive traits, then they can be allowed to marry. Whereas non-siblings that share recessive traits can be prohibited from marriage (or sex).

Furthermore, the genetic argument provides no objection to incestuous gay marriage or incestuous marriage among sterile family members.

The other failed argument against incestuous marriage says that evolution has given us a disposition to avoid incest that manifests itself culturally as an incest taboo - social and legal prohibitions on incest.

However, an evolved disposition to avoid something is not an evolved disposition to do violence to those who do not avoid it. And an evolved disposition to do violence to those who do not avoid something is not a justification for doing violence to them. The inference from, "I have evolved a disposition to do violence to people like you," to "You deserve to be treated violently" is wholly invalid - even if the first part happens to be true. In the case of an incest taboo, the first part itself has not been demonstrated, even if we have a natural aversion to incest.

So, these common objections to incest do not work.

However, there is an argument that does work.

Promoting a society-wide aversion to incest is almost certainly an effective tool for preventing the sexual abuse of children.

People act so as to fulfill the most and strongest of their desires, given their beliefs. We know that manifestations of human desires cause a certain amount of childhood sexual abuse - we have observed physical evidence that this is the case. Now, take our current set of human desires and remove from it the aversion to incest - holding all other desires constant.

A very likely result - in fact, I would say a certain result - of this would be an increase in incidents of child sexual abuse. Given our current manifestation of desires, the aversion to incest is preventing some incidents of child sexual abuse that would otherwise take place in its absence. A great deal of sexual abuse is perpetrated by family members, and a great deal of sexual abuse that does not occur may be attributed to an aversion to incest.

Our interest in preventing childhood sexual abuse gives us reason to promote an aversion to incest. In this respect, evolution may have given us the raw tools to work with, but evolution does not justify its use. Nor does eugenics. It is the prevention of childhood sexual abuse that justifies its use.

One of the social tools for promoting this aversion - as well as one of its effects - is a social intolerance of incestuous marriage. Permitting these marriages would require reducing the social aversion to incest - telling community members that it is okay and nothing to feel bad about. Whereas a prohibition communicates to society at large that it is something to feel bad about, which promotes this aversion, and reduces incidents of childhood sexual abuse.

This objection does not apply to gay marriage because the relationship between gay sex and the sexual abuse of children is exactly the same as the relationship between heterosexual sex and the sexual abuse of children. There is no relevant difference between the two - and, thus, no moral difference stemming from this objection to incestuous relationships.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Gay Marriage and The Bigot's Proof


In my examination of Sean Faircloth's new political strategy for atheists, I have reached the fifth of his policy objectives, which he stated as "no bias in marriage law." It is a call for legalized gay marriage.

The argument is, "If your religion has objections to gay marriage, then don't enter into a marriage with somebody of the same gender. But your religious prejudices are your business and have no business becoming law. Some people have religious objections to eating pork, or having blood transfusions, or working on the Sabbath. That's fine - they can obey those restrictions to the point that they do not endanger others. But those religious prohibitions do not provide an argument for laws against eating of pork, getting a blood transfusion, or working on the Sabbath. Nor should we restrict homosexual marriage."

Looking at some of the arguments we have been seeing to justify imposing religious restrictions on everybody, we really should outlaw the whole pork industry. No doubt, those people who think that God prohibits pork are offended when they enter a restaurant and see "pork chops" or "bacon cheeseburger" on the menu. Having the butcher put pork ribs on display is nothing but a slap in the face of all those who adhere to a religion that condemns such activity. One might as well post a sign saying, "These pork-prohibiting religions are nonsense."

What is the difference, really, between selling hot dogs at a ball game or drawings of Mohammed on a web site? Both are prohibited by certain religions. Don't they both call for violence against the infidels that would offend the religion by these practices?

Or, perhaps we should form the judgment that neither of them justifies legal entanglements.

The same line of reasoning applies to gay marriage. A person’s prohibitions are their own business. We will not force somebody to violate their religious prohibition on marrying somebody of the same gender. The freedom of religion requires this – as does common human decency. However, such a person has no more of a right to call on a prohibition against others marrying somebody of the same gender than he has a right to call for a universal prohibition on the manufacture and sale of pork. Not without a good, solid, secular argument.

Unfortunately, one of the realities we must admit to and not sweep under any rugs is the fact that people with religious prejudices are great at coming up with fantastic secular arguments to defend their religious prejudices. Where they are not permitted to use religious arguments to condemn gay marriage, they invent secular arguments to take their place. They will tell us, for example, that all of civilization will start crumbling down if we allow a person to marry somebody of the same gender. Or we are told that there is no rational defense of gay marriage that does not also allow one to marry children or animals.

There is no evidence for the first claim other than the fact that people with certain religious prejudices like to imagine that it is true.

The "children or animals" argument assumes that there are no secular objections to be raised against these marriages. However, the counter-argument is really quite simple. Marriages represent a contract, and no person may be permitted to enter into a valid marriage that cannot enter into a valid contract. A child's lack of judgment disqualifies the child from entering into most contracts. In the United States, even young adults cannot enter into a valid contract to purchase alcohol. We can use the same secular arguments to prohibit children from entering into a marriage contract. They are just too young to make a wise decision on such matters.

With this in mind, our next question is, "Why do people embrace unfounded absurdities such as these?"

The problem that we are faced with is what I have called, "The Bigot's 'Proof'". It involves embracing a secular argument that is as fantastic and unreasonable as any religious claim merely because it appears to support a prejudice.

Bigotry strives to justify itself. It does so through a system of rationalizations. Bigots are masters at cherry-picking evidence, seeing only the things that conform to and confirm their bigotry, while dismissing any counter-evidence as "an anomaly". They are also masters at filtering what they see through the lens of their prejudice. A young black male trying to break into a car is a thief. A blonde female is stupid. A white male is having a bad day.

An era in history that always comes to my mind when I think about the bigot's proof is the way some Americans defended slavery in the early 1800s. They told us that the child-like mind of the Negros made them unfit for adult freedoms. Instead, they were to be cared for under the benevolent watch of a paternalistic "owner" who cared for the Negro like a child. Of course, even children were obligated to do some chores around the farm - those chores that were appropriate to the child's abilities.

Where did these nonsense ideas come from?

They came from the human disposition to embrace unreasoned fantasies that support a valued prejudice.

Jim Crow laws, "Separate but Equal," treating women as the property of their husbands or closest male relative, the Holocaust, all can find "justification" in secular arguments that are no less fantasy-driven than their religious justifications.

Furthermore, fantasy secular arguments and religious arguments go hand-in-hand. With many religious claims, we are already looking at a population inclined to believe fantastic claims without the least bit of evidence in a culture that shuns reason-based thinking and logic and holds "faith" (evidence-free belief) to be a paradigm virtue. This is a culture that is primed to accept not only religious claims, but fantastic and unfounded secular claims as well.

Furthermore, we must not underestimate the power of these prejudices. Look at the volumes of hard scientific evidence we have that supports evolution, that the Earth is more than 6000 years old, or that humans are contributing to global warming. Yet, these volumes of hard physical evidence - much stronger than anybody could provide in a court of law, for example - are swatted aside and dismissed by those who embrace a conclusion this evidence does not support.

People who can ignore so much hard evidence on matters such as these are going to prove completely immune to evidence on matters such as gay marriage. We are being foolish if we think that merely providing them with the reasoned evidence that they are wrong will have much of an effect.

Where does this leave us?

We need to recognize that "The Bigot's 'Proof'" is not just an intellectual failing.

It is a moral failing.

On issues where we are talking about denying freedom to others and doing harm to their interests, there is a moral obligation to begin with a presumption of innocence – a presumption of freedom. It is only when confronted with evidence beyond a reasonable doubt that freedom must be curtailed that we may act against that liberty.

For example, we may give this presumption of liberty to the child molester. However, we clearly have evidence beyond a reasonable doubt that such relationships pose unreasonable risks and, thus, any presumption is quickly overridden.

In the case of the homosexual adult seeking a committed relationship with another homosexual adult, no such evidence presents itself, we have no such evidence. More to the point, those who embrace unreasoned and unfounded arguments for doing harm demonstrate that they are neglecting their moral obligation to begin with a presumption of freedom. They are, instead, beginning with the presumption that harm is justified, and clutching at every straw within reach to try to keep the appearance that it is justified.

Before I close, I need to warn my readers that this is not only a problem for the religious. In fact, saying that this problem is limited to those who believe in God would be an example of the very type of Bigot's 'Proof' that I am warning against.

The disposition to embrace an argument because it supports a prejudice is a human failing. It is not a religious failing. It is a failing that both causes people to write their prejudices into their religion, and to accept fantasy secular arguments in defense of those same prejudices. Remember, religion did not come from God. It comes from the human mind - and reflects the moral failings of its authors. We cannot consistently say that no God exists, and then blame God, and not humans, for the moral failings we find in scripture – as if these moral failings would not exist if not for the instructions some god provided.

There is a very real possibility - I would call it a certainty - that many atheists will adopt a bigot's 'proof' on the harms and dangers of religion itself. They will embrace claims, not because those claims are founded on reason and evidence, but because they support a valued prejudice.

One must be watchful. One must take the time - even formally - to ask whether evidence and reason actually supports one's conclusions, or whether one simply sees it as doing so because one wants to. And the presumption should always be that we are being fooled by our own human nature. We should always give the benefit of the doubt to others.