When the truth is right before your eyes…

These are two blurbs from consecutive articles in my Google Reader program. I had to laugh.

In response to increasing worldwide criticism of the Catholic church over the pedophile scandal, the Vatican has blamed just about everyone outside the church, from the liberal media to powerful atheist cabals. But I did not realize just how far outside and just how strong these forces were. Here is just one of the many tribulations the Vatican is facing:

Noted Italian exorcist Father Gabriele Amorth, commented this week that the recent defamatory reporting on Pope Benedict XVI, especially by the New York Times, was “prompted by the devil.”

This quote brings many questions to mind, some of which are not very nice, like, “How can anyone take this seriously?” and “Why do we allow this group to lecture us in the area of morality?” (Bonus fun time activity is to read the comments that follow the article.)

But then the answer was right before me in the next Reader blurb.

Scientists have discovered the part of the brain that makes people gullible, it was claimed today.

Please note the date of the Discover Magazine article. Don’t worry, though, they will find that part of the brain someday.

Sadly, the first link is true.


They are either crazy or idiots…

There is an old joke that says that everyone who drives faster than me is crazy and everyone who drives slower is an idiot. In a previous post, I took Andrew Sullivan to task over his belief that people of “true” religion are less political and full of love. Apparently, those who are not of “true” faith are more likely either to be missing something, or to be fanatics.

How does Sullivan distinguish true from false faith?

He would say (and has said) that he has confirmed his beliefs because he directly communes with God and has felt a warm glow and wishes to reflect that glow as love to others. He would probably acknowledge that this feeling is subjective. Consequently, it is impossible to confirm that he is experiencing God and not just basking in his own beliefs and desires. What he is not doing is coming to his values purely by reading the Bible. Like most moderates, (Andrew is a gay Catholic, which pretty much forces him to be moderate) he is selective in his Biblical readings. He is moved (as am I) by the many passages in the Bible that talk about love, redemption, and forgiveness. He glosses over (although he may use different words) the parts that are not so nice. That is where the trouble starts.

Moderate religious adherents are subject to a simple criticism of the literalist. The literalist argues that the moderate has no way to know which biblical passages to reject and which to follow.  Because the moderate is simply picking and choosing, literalists argue, they impose their own subjective biases on the Bible.

Exactly. But so what? Subjectivism here does not imply arbitrariness. We are all the children of the enlightenment. Much of what passes for moderate religion is simply the result of how churches dealt with the real threat that the enlightenment posed for them coming out of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. We reject slavery, overt racism, support feminism, free speech, and the concept of human rights not because theologians discovered that God liked these values, but because these were the inevitable outcome of the enlightenment. Churches could join the march to the modern world, be dragged kicking and screaming, or get left behind. Some Churches did recognize that enlightenment values were consistent with parts of the Bible, but they also knew that they were not consistent with others. As the enlightenment values became more pervasive with the development of democracy, more and more people took them for granted and some churches followed suit. This required the development of the modern moderate church to handle the inconsistencies.

Several years ago, I read a book by a Disciple of Christ minister who argued that Paul was an early feminist and that his letters give theological cover for women who wish to serve as preachers in churches. I thought it was great. Here we were in the UMC churches and we had theological backing from the king of apostles to continue allowing women in the pulpit.

But the more I thought about it the more troubled I became. Why in the world do I need Paul (or more precisely, this modern minister’s generous interpretation of Paul’s letters) to accept women in the pulpit? Of course there should be women in the pulpit. Women should be able to do anything. Likewise, why would I need to find some liberal theologian to explain why homosexuality is sort of OK despite the few (but clear) statements condemning it in the Bible? I don’t need some theologian to tell me that homosexuality is none of anyone’s business.

I believe that moderates struggle with how to deal with fanatics because they try to walk a tightrope between what they know is right and what the words in the Bible too often say. We eliminated slavery, not with an army of Christian soldiers marching against the forces of evil. We were one army fighting a different army, both filled with men of faith, convinced that their side was right and the other evil, both ignoring parts of the Bible and focusing on others. In the end, Lincoln did not stand strong because he gleaned the secret desires of God. Lincoln was a child of the enlightenment. Because of this, he held to certain values that led him to accept the notion that slavery was wrong.(1) Lincoln did not allow the fact that many of the supporters of slavery in the South were men of genuinely deep faith to mitigate that fact.

(1) It is true that most people and nations accepted slavery for many years during the enlightenment. The enlightenment did not so much dictate specific values as it imparted a way of thinking, of reasoning, of questioning authority (including the church) which led at least some to embrace the notion that all people were fundamentally equal. It still took a war to end the question once and for all.

The Dark Side of Mitigating the Prisoner’s Dilemma

Individuals and groups have dealt with the problem of defection (reneging on agreements) in several ways. When people enter into agreements where there is no inherent trust, both sides typically make the transaction more transparent (at least to the parties involved.) The PD requires that the parties not know what the other will choose. Transparency removes this obstacle. Another, is of course, to raise children to highly value cooperation and to apply some legal coercion for those who tend to defect anyway. But this leads to a dark side. The study of the prisoners dilemma tells us that while defection often leads to a “bad” situation, it is not due to irrationality or evil; it is an inevitable and rational part of our interactions in society. We live in a society, but act individually. The prisoner’s dilemma tells us that we can act in our truly best interest and still hurt ourselves collectively.

It is much more efficient for a nation’s leaders to get citizens to cooperate out of habit than it is to convince them to do so out of reason or logic. It is easier for us too when we can do it out of habit. To an extent, this is the only way to get cooperation. If defecting gives a person more than cooperating, many won’t cooperate no matter how reasonable the argument is. To get a large proportion of our society to cooperate with minimal coercion, we need to instill in people the notion that the act of cooperation is always a value. We need citizens to do it without much thinking. But when cooperation is done as a blind habit, we lose something that is necessary for a strong democracy. We also lose sight of the fact that not all defections are part of a prisoner’s dilemma scenario. Some defections not only provide the individual greater benefit, but also the group.

I think criticism of Bush’s war in Iraq was a proper defection. It is not a PD scenario despite what Bush and Cheney argued. (1)  If we would have all defected (or enough to defeat Bush in 2000,) we would be much better off. On the other hand, I think in the case of health care we do face a prisoner’s dilemma on a nationwide scale. I think the desire to defect that many people have is rational in that it is better for them in some sense. But I think the hurt we face collectively because we lack a national health care system outweighs the minimal inconvenience individuals might face. But Obama is not God (and despite what some conservatives think, no liberal thinks he is). I think criticism of the president is fine. That is part of what our nation is all about. I do not want people to blindly follow Obama or any person. My one concern is that many of the leaders advocating that we defect against Obama (mostly metaphorically speaking) are simultaneously calling for their own obedience (cooperation). They want to return to a “pristine” America where we mindlessly cooperated with the will of our religious and political leaders before we had the messy chaos of civil rights, feminism, labor movement, or collective social services.

(1) Bush and Cheney did not of course analyze the war in PD terms. But they did sometimes sound like they believed that our natural tendency to defect and not support a war when we are not immediately threatened would inevitably lead to less security for the US. This is true to an extent, but there were other relevant factors involved that mitigated the supposed benefit of invading Iraq that keeps it from being a true PD scenario.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma and Batman

In the movie The Dark Knight the Joker sets up a nasty ethical dilemma for two ferry boatloads of people. He places a bomb on both ferries, disables their engines, and provides one detonator for each boat. Each detonator, however, only affects the explosives on the other ferry. The Joker tells both groups, over an intercom system, that they have until midnight to use their detonator. If neither ferry detonates the explosives on the other, the Joker will detonate the explosives on both.  As midnight approaches, both groups debate the pros and cons of killing the people on the other boat in order to save themselves. Finally, after some tension each boat allows the midnight hour to pass without setting either detonators.

This scene is close to what philosophers call the Prisoner’s Dilemma (PD). Basically, the prisoner’s dilemma occurs when two people are given an option to either cooperate in order to gain some mutual benefit or they can defect (renege on some promise or contract). Neither knows or has any control over what the other chooses. In the PD, the greatest collective benefit happens when both cooperate, the greatest collective harm happens when both defect. However, an individual receives the greatest individual benefit if he or she defects and the other cooperates. In the original example

Two suspects are arrested by the police. The police have insufficient evidence for a conviction, and, having separated both prisoners, visit each of them to offer the same deal. If one testifies (defects from the other) for the prosecution against the other and the other remains silent (cooperates with the other), the betrayer goes free and the silent accomplice receives the full 10-year sentence. If both remain silent, both prisoners are sentenced to only six months in jail for a minor charge. If each betrays the other, each receives a five-year sentence. Each prisoner must choose to betray the other or to remain silent. Each one is assured that the other would not know about the betrayal before the end of the investigation. How should the prisoners act?

The greatest collective benefit happens when the prisoners cooperate (total of one year in prison.) The collective harm for both defecting is a total of twenty years in prison. If one defects and the other cooperates, one gets no jail time and the other 10 years.

It might seem that it is in both’s interest to cooperate. Certainly, from the perspective of most ethical systems, you should cooperate. But it is not that simple. You do not know what your partner will do. If he cooperates, you gain the most by defecting. If he defects, you gain the most (or lose the least) if you also defect. Since you do not know what your partner will do (or he, you) you should, according to this analysis, defect. But, maybe you are not interested only in your gain or lose. In that case, you convince yourself to cooperate. But he does not know what you will do. He has to be nervous about your intention. If he cooperates and you defect, he loses a lot. Can he take this chance?

Ethics does not really have an answer for this per se. This is because the PD is not really just another moral quandary–it permeates ethics. In one sense, all ethical systems exist as an attempt to mitigate the pervasive nature of the PD. If the basis of all ethics (or the need for ethics) is the normal conflicts that occur between people and groups over things we all desire, then the formal set of moral rules and principles that make up the world of ethics are designed to insure that we do not constantly defect in our agreements.

Let’s say you want your plumbing fixed. You find a plumber that will fix it for 200 dollars, which you think is fair. Obviously you both gain something you desire if you cooperate–if he fixes your plumbing and you pay him. But he would gain the most (200 dollars with no work) if he defects and you cooperate. You would gain fixed plumbing at no cost if you defect and he cooperates. There is a natural tendency for both, therefore, to defect, simply because you fear that you will pay 200 dollars for nothing or that he fears he will work for no pay. If you both defect, then you lose nothing, but you also gain nothing. But it is obvious that society could not function like this. It is in all of our interest (measured in how well we individually and collectively gain what we desire) if we somehow agree to cooperate. We do this on one level through our tort system. That is unfortunately for some people the only incentive. But it is expensive for a society to have to use coercion or the threat of coercion to force cooperation. It is much cheaper to use the power of our culture to instill a desire to cooperate–in essence to raise our children to feel that cooperation is “good”. When people value cooperation even over personal gain, ultimately we all gain.

But there is a dark side to this, which I will cover in my next post.

Sexual orientation discrimination

A Minnesota school district has settled out in court with a student over accusations that two of his award winning teachers openly harassed him about his sexual orientation. Read the article for the whole story. Disgusting.

This is sad. I have taught in several schools and although I have not witnessed teachers harassing children in the classroom over this issue, I have listened to teachers say rough things about children whom they think are gay. I have heard several discussions in the teachers lounge where one teacher will call a student  with supposedly effeminate  behaviors a punk, which is code for being homosexual. But it is more than just code. It is not relatively benign like the word gay is; it is a derisive in the most bigoted way possible. No one can call a person a “punk” and still treat that person as anything but inferior. For a teacher to do that to a child, even in the relative privacy of the teachers lounge, is unprofessional and outright unethical. What these two teachers did to this young man in the article (they went well beyond just calling him a punk) makes them unfit to teach.

But this brings up a more general related problem. Teachers tend to be too judgmental about students. Even when teachers try to discuss negatives about a student only in the privacy of team meetings (or general gossip around the building) it is still far too easy to let these summaries of a student become our whole attitude towards that student. When a student becomes, in our mind, nothing more than a list of annoyances we conveniently remove any reason for us to positively work with the student. This alienates us from the child and the child from his education.

When we do this to a child because of sexual orientation it alienates the child not only from the adults in the building but from his or her peers. Many children respect peers who are disruptive in the class, so a teacher’s disdain is not always socially devastating (at least not in the short run). But many of our children come to school already fearing and hating the idea of homosexuality. Teachers who express even the mildest bigotry can exacerbate this and can ruin a child’s life.

I mentioned the concept of subjective ethics in an earlier post. What this tells us about this issue is that there is no objective property of bigotry that makes it wrong, per se. If you hate gays there is not much I can do to logically convince you are wrong. There is no fact about the objective world that will necessarily sway you. I must affect your values. It took centuries for the majority of us to begin to see people of color as worthwhile; but it was not logic, per se, that turned the tide–it was the brilliant rhetoric of Lincoln, MLK, and others and the the images of degradation and brutality that filtered out through the press that turned the tide. Once we began to experience an empathetic connection with people different from us, there was no logical reason not to provide equal rights. Of course, we still have to employ the coercive power of the state to restrict some of our fellow citizens’ less seemly desires.

This is what must happen with gays rights. Support for gay rights is at its highest historical level. But there is still a long road to follow. There are too many who openly fear and hate gays. All of us who support gay rights must stand up to our colleagues and friends who express bigoted and hateful attitudes towards people they perceive as gay–not because of potential legal actions, but because it is the right thing to do.

h/t Greg Laden

Homework and subjective ethics

We are having a debate in our AVID program at school concerning homework.  AVID takes the position that homework is important but leaves it up to the individual site teams to work out their own policy.

But it seems to me that before we can adequately develop or assess a particular homework policy, we have to clarify what we mean by the proposition “homework is important.”  The question of importance is normative. Importance is not an objective property of homework; importance is a property of us.  We assess homework as important because it is a means to some end that we value. Is homework important because it correlates with good grades? Is it important because students who routinely do HW in middle school will do it routinely in HS and later in college?  Is it important because it requires students to develop a habits of character that we value? Maybe you see homework as important but over emphasized, which is shorthand for thinking that giving too much HW is incompatible with other valuable things (such as a student having a life). Maybe HW is valuable because it helps students get used to learning away from the room–the first step towards being life long learners. Maybe you and a colleague agree that homework is important, but disagree on how much HW to give.  But this too would reduce to some subjective value.

I am amazed at how often debates over HW (or other school policy) plays out without anyone demanding or expecting that we clarify our underlying value systems.

For my part, I do accept that HW is necessary and a valuable tool if it is done properly. I try only to give out HW that I am reasonable sure students can work; I do ask students to use higher level thinking skills such as predictions and evaluations but I am primarily interested that the student make a strong effort. I emphasize high quality work and will ask students to redo work to some pre-determined standard.

What I do not like, though, are the “No Tolerance for Late Work” HW policy or the trend to increase HW levels even for younger kids.  Too many teachers assign excessive levels of HW (often due to curriculum pressures) and refuse to give partial credit or any chance to make up late work. The trouble is that many of our AP programs have this psychotically strict HW policy, which inevitably forces the same policy on Pre-AP programs and often on regular HS and MS classes.  We are seeing schools require HW from pre-school and kindergarden students while simultaneously reducing recess time. These are not my values. Children should play. There is plenty of time for kids to learn that school is drudgery best done sitting on their butts watching the world go by. We do not have these policies because they are good for the child, but because they help improve standardized test scores or make our HS or college teachers happy (what teacher would not want every student who comes to class willing to do hours of HW and turn it in on time every day?). It is too often the scores we value, not the child. This sounds unfair. Most teachers do love their students and are frustrated just like me. We are trapped and forced down a path we don’t like. But we should never compromise and pretend that something that is done to primarily serve test scores, or the sensibilities of some high school or college teachers, automatically also serves children’s needs today.

There is no evidence that these strict “No Tolerance” or “Increase HW levels” policies leads to better learning (which I value), greater love of learning (which I also value) or to better character (however we define that.) It is true that students who do well in class tend to do more HW (well, obviously, if a child does assignments you grade, they will score higher.) But a correlation is not causation. If we could force students to work four hours per night on HW they might learn more.  Why not five hours? Why not beat kids for late work? It might increase the chance work will come in on time.  But at what cost? We have to have some standard, of course, but we could just as easily (and I think more fruitfully) set the standard at no tolerance for shoddy or incomplete work. We would do better asking students to redo work to higher standards rather than just focusing on getting something turned in, but on time, damn it.

Whatever problems we have in school, sending more work home does nothing to fix it. Piling on more HW and being more draconian in our policies does not fix it and may distract us. It is easy to believe that we have higher standards because we give more HW and are stricter in grading. But we will only fix our students when we can get inside their head. This we cannot do at their house. We can do it only in the room, in their presence. And they have to want us there.

Subjectivism, Objectivism, and ethics

There are two broad ways to look at ethics. Normative ethics references what is specifically right and wrong, praise or blame worthy, what we ought or ought not to do. Meta-Ethics references how we know what is right or wrong, etc.

Normatively, I am a humanist. Fundamentally, a humanist takes as a given that we decide right and wrong and that people have an an inherent dignity (1). A humanist takes that the concept of right and wrong is meaningless outside of human needs and desires. We are capable of rationally developing coherent ethical principles because we are capable of rationally understanding the world around us and our place in that world (2).

Meta-Ethically, I am a subjectivist. I take that all ethical propositions fundamentally reduce to our desires. I am not, however, normatively a subjectivist.  A normative subjectivist might argue that people should never judge what others think are right and wrong because we have no objective way of judging. But this is an incoherent position, philosophically (which is why there are few true normative subjectivists.) Normative propositions are not truth-apt, per se, in that right and wrong, good or bad, better or worse, are not properties of the real world. Normative propositions reflect subjectively developed standards. The proposition “people should not judge” is normative and hence it cannot be objectively true of all people. It can be subjectively held and “suggested” for everyone else. But no one has to hold that “people should not judge” is somehow required.

I have no problem judging. I can objectively judge and use objective facts about the world but my judgement is still based on subjective standards. For example, we can objectively and rationally decide how to provide  good education for all students or objectively and rationally provide quality health care to every member of our society. But for either, we have to first assert that there are certain goods (health and education) that we should provide to all members of society–but this is a subjectively held value. Until we can get some social agreement on what we value (and we can change what we subjectively value) we cannot begin to objectively make what we value a part of our world.

A radical libertarian or Randian and I can agree to all objective facts about the world around us and still come to different ideas about what we ought or ought not to do in society. A libertarian or Randian values free enterprise to such an extent that they will accept some (or many) people not having access to universal health care or education. While I may value free-enterprise to an extent, I also value universal quality health care and education to a far greater extent. Until we subjectively value the same things, we will not agree on what is right and wrong.

I cannot prove that Humanism is correct. I can only outline what I value and why.

(1) Inherent is a tricky concept here. A religious humanist would say that this dignity is given to people by God and therefore is an objective property of people. A secularist would say that inherent is used here metaphorically. A secular humanist would not claim that people have an objective dignity, per se, but that he or she merely asserts as a personal preference to act in specific ways towards all people (as if they did have inherent dignity.)

(2)  Rational here does not refer to being Mr. Spock at all moments. Rational simply means there is a reason (even if implicit) to what we do. It is rational to avoid pain, to seek fun and enjoyment, to be silly at times, to love, laugh, and enjoy life.