Thursday, July 13, 2006

Fisking an ethical imbecile.

I'm doing well on the whole "finding sloppy ethical thinking" bit tonight. See here. Ken Gallinger, also in the July 1, 2006 Star, wrote a little column on ethics, and spake thusly:
Q The controversy about Ryerson University's decision to honour Margaret Somerville confuses me. She's a respected ethicist, strongly opposed to same-sex marriage. Yet other ethicists — you among them — support gay marriages. How can there be such huge differences between people who claim to be authorities on ethics?
This is a common misunderstanding about the nature of authority. It's never absolute and all-encompassing. One can only be a legitimate authority on a particular issue insofar as there is widespread agreement amongst qualified persons on that issue. If there's no such agreement, one can be an expert (by virtue of education, training and experience), but not an irrefutable authority. This applies to science just as well as to ethics. So, since many respectable ethicists genuinely disagree on the issue of gay marriage, it's an issue on which no one can claim authority. Gallinger, of course, doesn't even touch this issue.
A Ethics is easy when there's a clear right and wrong. Stealing a bike is bad, being faithful to your wife is good. Even newspaper columnists can figure those out. It gets tricky when there are competing rights, and one must weigh their relative value. The trickiest situations are those where the rights of individuals conflict with those of the larger community or society.
No shit. Basically, all he's sketching here is the obvious point that sometimes ethics is hard. Again, the same goes for science. It's easy for a physicist to tell you how a body in motion will behave in an abstract world -- if not acted upon by an opposing force, the body will continue to move indefinitely. It's hard for a physicist to tell you how it moves when acted upon by opposing forces, such as the myriad of forces in the actual world. So, the physicist speaks in probabilities and likelihoods, using general laws to draw well-supported but not guaranteed predictions.
Most ethicists, including Somerville, agree that gays and lesbians must be protected against bigotry and hatred. Most would even agree that they have the same right to loving, committed relationships as the rest of society. That's easy.
I don't know who he has in mind who denies that homosexuals have a right to loving, committed relationships. I also don't know who he has in mind who asserts that heterosexuals do have such a "right". It's odd to think that anyone has a claim or deserves a loving relationship. Though such relationships can be great goods, for some people, they are of little to no value; and, indeed, it's an elementary error to claim that everyone deserves great goods. Putting that aside, I can't think of anyone who thinks this right shouldn't be extended to homosexuals -- even the most virulent homophobe would concede that homosexuals have a right to a loving, committed, heterosexual relationship.
The controversy begins when you decide to extend the social institution of marriage, with all its blessings and curses, to individuals in the same-gender community. Somerville argues that the risk to society is too great, particularly as it affects the rights of children. She maintains that the primary purpose of marriage is to protect the right of children to both a father and mother.
Yup. That she does. It's odd, but not totally out of left field. One way of accounting for why marriage exists as a social institution is that it should promote the propagation of the species and the continuity of a culture. This, then, suggests that the best marriages are those which produce offspring. (Of course, there's an error in moving from that to the claim that other marriages aren't worth anything.) Watch Gallinger erect a strawman now:
That's a jolly little concept — but it sounds more like Roman Catholic dogma than ethical principle to me. One has to wonder whether Somerville has been in a school in the last 20 years. Most teachers would tell her, simply by looking at their class lists, that the idea of marriage as society's guarantor of stable, both-sex parenting is, at best, quaint. In a country where 45 per cent of heterosexual marriages end in divorce, it's specious to argue for that institution as the safeguard of stability.
Gallinger should not be throwing around the word "specious" so freely. First, this isn't a concept, it's a conception. (Technical point.) Second, more substantively, calling this "Roman Catholic dogma" is, one, demonstrable of a certain prejudice towards Catholics; two, ignorant of the procreative basis for marriage assigned by most of the world's major religions -- including other Christian sects, Judaism, Hinduism, Islam, etc.; and, three, a cheap way to dismiss the point by building up a strawman ("she's a religious extremist!") rather than dealing with the substance of any arguments Somerville has actually made and published. (Incidentally, I don't recall Ken Gallinger's name being in any major journals of ethics.) Third, the factual point that most marriages are not stable places of child-rearing is irrelevant. Somerville is making a normative claim that marriages which rear children are best. That, in fact, most marriages don't live up to this goal is tragic, but not a counter-argument. Fourth, I don't know where he's pulling this "45%" number from -- I'm guessing his ass. It's really quite difficult to think how one could even calculate a "divorce rate", except by tracking some subset of the marriages in each year until they all came to an end -- either by seperation, divorce or death of one or both partners.
Somerville maintains that the primary purpose of marriage is to protect the "procreative capacity" of the male-female relationship. Surely, then, she would have to deny marriage to male/female couples who either do not intend to conceive, or are unable to do so.
As far as I know, that's exactly what she does do. I've forgotten, as it's been so long since I've seen it: aren't journalists supposed to do some research before shooting their mouths off?
Perhaps a sperm sample could be required before the license is issued?
Another irrelevant point. I know he's trying to be funny, but it just comes off as idiotic. Somerville doesn't say, again as far as I know, that couples can't marry and then rear adopted children, after all. Not to mention, as I pointed out, that one could concede that marriages which produce children are best, while still maintaining there is great good in marriages that do not.
She argues, of course, that's not the same thing, but her arguments are unconvincing.
Note how he doesn't actually give the arguments, leaving us to take his word for it.
Either the purpose of marriage is to validate conception or it isn't. You can't cut it both ways to suit your religious or personal tastes; in this country we call that "discrimination".
"Discrimination" has another meaning as well: it also means to legitimately distinguish between two different things. If Somerville can find some non-ad hoc basis for distinguishing between same-sex and opposite-sex marriages, then she can, with perfect consistency, maintain different ethical principles governing each. (This is just an instance of the formal rule of ethics, that one should treat like cases alike and different cases differently.) Gallinger is making a covert, and cowardly, appeal here to popularity (the ad populum fallacy), that Somerville's ideas are wrong because "we don't think that here". Even if one accepts that "we" indeed "don't think that here", that could just as easily mean that "we" are all wrong, and Somerville must lead us all to truth and righteousness. I mean, I doubt it, but Gallinger's flailings at argument don't do anything to dispell it.
People like me have trouble seeing how extending the rights and obligations of marriage to gays and lesbians affects, in any negative way, the rights of children in our society.
And here he actually begins to say something interesting. Unfortunately, it's a total non sequitur. Somerville isn't talking about "rights" of children. Somerville is talking about which marriages are valuable, and hence which marriages one has a right to become part of. She may indeed be wrong, but simply denying her claim -- by claiming the contradictory, that same-sex marriage has value equivalent to that of opposite-sex marriage -- is no way to prove it.
We've known children in same-sex households who have a perfectly lovely childhood. And we've known kids raised behind white picket fences whose dads beat them and whose moms ignore them.
True, but beside the point again. Somerville is not committed to the claim that all marriages with children work out for the best; she is committed to the claim that what makes a marriage valuable is that it produces, raises and sustains children. Evidently, then, if the marriage is not sustaining the children, then the marriage is not valuable (this is simple contraposition). (Incidentally, this is one way to argue against someone like Somerville: the claim that only opposite-sex marriages can sustain children is not supported: so, if a same-sex marriage accomplishes this goal, then it would follow that that marriage is valuable.)
Somerville goes on to fret about in vitro babies being born into same-sex families, with the resulting loss of their right to parents of both sexes. But IVF babies are being born, including to same-sex folks, and I'd frankly rather they enjoyed whatever shreds of security marriage still offers, rather than be raised in a succession of freelance relationships.
Yet another non sequitur. I'm actually getting a little tired of pointing them out! Gallinger should be talking about the "right" of children to opposite-sexed parents, if he's correctly represented Somerville's positions (which, given his misrepresentations so far, is unlikely). Instead, he's talking about the security afforded by stable vs. transient relationships. Given that Somerville is not talking about children born to opposite-sex parents in a transient relationship, but the dangerous of children born to same-sex stable relationships, it's hard to fathom what the hell Gallinger is going on about. Tilting at strawmen again? Most likely.
Ethics is not a precise science like, for example, anthropology or biology. If it were, we'd all agree on controversial subjects like gay marriage — just as we all agree on truly scientific questions like evolution vs. intelligent design.
I honestly started laughing as soon as he called anthropology as "precise science". Evidentally, he hasn't read a lot of anthropology. (I've read a bit, for my MA thesis.) I continued laughing when he claimed that "precise sciences" generate instant agreement on controversial subjects. The fact is, controversial subjects exist throughout all sciences, even the hardest of hard physics. The salient issue, the issue Gallinger is completely missing is where the controversy is. Evolution vs. intelligent design is a controversy between religious zealots and rational people. Obviously, we should all side with the rational people. Gay marriage is a controversy amongst intelligent, rational, ethically-informed people. There's no obvious side to take, and the issue must continue to be examined and discussed until it becomes clearer. The same applies to the sciences: there are controversies throughout (pick up any science journal and you'll find a good half-dozen), which must be worked through and discussed before becoming clearer. It seems, really, that Gallinger takes "science" to be some sort of magic power to instantly solve any and all disagreements. How unfortunate that this view bears as much resemblance to actual science as his column to good ethical thinking.

(I find, after some careful Googling, that Gallinger "is a minister at Lawrence Park Community Church in Toronto.", and the Lawrence Park Community Church is a member of the United Church of Canada. Is it any wonder his ethical thinking is hopelessly confused -- and that he has a weird hatred for Catholics?)

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