Friday, October 24, 2014

Orientation and action

The case of Gordon College (via) in Massachusetts, which propounds a traditional Christian view of homosexuality with a rather less traditional coda of sympathy, puts into sharp relief the "orientation is not sinful, acts are" position.

The policy of Gordon College is:

The orientation/action distinction has two major problems with it. First, it sets up an utterly unreasonable standard. Homosexuals are not permitted to act upon their erotic desires or to seek intimate companionship. To see how unreasonable this is, consider telling heterosexual people: you cannot have sex with anyone of the opposite sex, but marrying someone of the same sex is just fine.

Clearly, this is a standard that people are (mostly) not going to achieve. When the (predictable) high level of failure to achieve it then occurs, homosexuals are held blameworthy for failing to keep to an utterly unreasonable standard.

This is, of course, very much in the interest of priests and clerics--that a vulnerable minority have this completely unreasonable standard, that they are mostly bound to fail, imposed upon them. (Remembering that queer folk grow up us isolated individuals in overwhelmingly straight families and social milieus.) When you are in the gatekeepers of righteousness business, differentiation, complexity and effortless virtue are very much part of the game. This imposing of an unreasonable standard on a vulnerable minority sells effortless virtue to the overwhelmingly heterosexual majority (imposing a standard that is little or no effort for them, but which they can feel terribly virtuous for keeping and terribly morally superior to those who do not), distinguishes between the "righteous" and the "unrighteous" and establishes a criteria of righteousness that has to be (at least originally) told to folk by said gatekeepers. (Most human societies, at least pre-monotheism, did not find such matters to be of much moral moment. Nowadays, it tends to be a differentiator between the West and much of the Rest, many of whom--outside Islam--were taught that it was of moral moment by European colonial masters. What this piece does not get is that queer folk being a relatively small minority is, and has always been, the point--much like with the Jews, really.)

Devaluing people
Second, the action/orientation distinction wildly devalues the moral fact that there are people--millions and millions of people--with such orientation. In theist terms it amount to "God made a mistake, again and again and again; millions upon millions of times, and God keeps making it". Claims about homosexuals having a "special calling" are nonsense on stilts, as we can see from the (finally now failing) endless efforts to deny homosexuals who act upon their erotic nature access to social goods. (That queer folk grow up as isolated individuals in overwhelmingly straight families and social milieus also means queer folk disproportionately benefit from urbanisation and improved information technology, hence the increased contemporary saliency of queer rights.)

More generally, the action/orientation distinction holds that people (and the moral implications to be drawn from that) are not to defined by how all people are, only by how some people are. I have been reading Pierre Manent's The Metamorphoses of the City: On the Western Dynamic, a book I find alternative frustrating and enlightening. Manent spends considerable time on Augustine's masterwork De Civitae Dei (The City of God), providing a revealing summary of Augustine's views on nature and will:
We have here a fundamental Christian thesis that Augustine more than anyone else contributed to formulate and sharpen: man's nature is good; his will is bad or inclined to evil ... The very definition of a bad will is that it is the perversion of a nature that is good or capable of good. Augustine explains at some length how the human will, naturally attracted by the good, can nonetheless choose evil. The bad will does not have its cause in good nature; it is some way without cause.
Augustine was not an Aristotelian as such, his philosophical roots were in Neoplatonism, but that in itself is very much a philosophy after Aristotle. Moreover, Augustine looked widely for ideas and was a child of Aristotle in the sense that almost all Westerners are (and Muslims are generally not), accepting that there was a moral realm beyond revelation and that the world has an independent existence beyond the habits of God--so Augustine argued that, being the direct creation of God, the created world had greater authority (if they were in contradiction) than Scripture, which was the word of God mediated by fallible humans. (The Quran, by contrast, is the eternal, direct word of God unmediated by anything.)

We can see here the issue with same-sex attraction in this worldview. On the one hand, it is simply perverted will against nature. On the other hand, it is an orientation--people are strongly inclined to such "perversion"; millions of people. Hence formulations such as being "intrinsically disordered". In the words of the then Cardinal Ratzinger:

At the same time the Congregation took note of the distinction commonly drawn between the homosexual condition or tendency and individual homosexual actions. These were described as deprived of their essential and indispensable finality, as being "intrinsically disordered", and able in no case to be approved of (cf. n. 8, $4).
As this author reminds us, Aquinas--the supreme reconciler of Catholicism and Aristotelianism--held that all sexual desire outside marriage was "intrinsically disordered". But there is a difference between heterosexual eros--which can find an approved outlet in marriage--and homosexual eros, which never has any approved expression ever, but must always be denied and sublimated. The latter is "intrinsically disordered" at a much more basic level.

Presumptions selectively natural
We can also see where the muddle comes from, at least in natural law terms. The typical natural law theorist is a heterosexual male, his sexual desires are directed towards women, casual empiricism shows that male and female animals mate to produce offspring. So, easy conclusion--his desires define human nature and mating defines the purpose of sex.

Where, in economics, the representative agent can only be properly modelled if they do not know they are the representative agent, the typical natural law theorist is much more arrogant. He, and folk like him, define human nature and what he has noticed about the natural world defines the nature of sex.

But some men have sex with other men and some women have sex with other women. Well, they are unnatural, they are acting against nature. Then folk even notice that some animals do the same (in the medieval period, hares, hyenas and partridges had that reputation). Well, they are being unnatural too, they are also acting against nature.

And so does the conclusion set the ambit of its premises. People who do not conform to the decreed nature do not count (as evidence toward human nature), observations of nature that do not conform to the decreed purpose of sex also do not count (as evidence about the purpose, function or role of sex).

The entire argument about queer emancipation is, at bottom, literally about whether they count as "real people" or not. Hence conservative monotheists define them out of such, and are outraged at any attempt to include them in. It is literally about defining the human and about whether everyone with a human face is "properly" human.

I (mostly) agree with Andrew Sullivan's plea for genuine liberalism (and Scott Alexander has a helpful post about political tribalism and tolerance which is apposite), especially as Gordon College has a general ban on sexual activity amongst its students. Even more so given the rather repellant "secular commissars" trend identified by Damon Linker:
Contemporary liberals increasingly think and talk like a class of self-satisfied commissars enforcing a comprehensive, uniformly secular vision of the human good. The idea that someone, somewhere might devote her life to an alternative vision of the good — one that clashes in some respects with liberalism's moral creed — is increasingly intolerable.
As someone has said in a related context, no one expects the Secular Inquisition.

And yet, the idea that Gordon College has, in a free society, a right to act upon has a deeply disturbing core. Even with the Christian missionaries in Africa Linker discusses, Christian evangelising has also had repellant consequences, notably in the recent attempts to make homosexuality a capital crime in Uganda. To be fair, it is not heroic doctors but more spin-offs from tele-evangelising (to which effortless virtue is such an attractive sell) that is responsible, but the latter are partly levering off the former.

The position that Gordon College takes has roots deep in Christian tradition and they are, if anything, being much more liberal than that tradition generally was. But the orientation/action distinction used to make that tradition more palatable remains deeply problematic in ways which very much touch on basic moral protections and participation in society.

[Cross-posted at Skepticlawyer.]

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Quantity, physicality, source -- the origins of currency names

The terms we use for units of currency--when they are not named after historical figures, terms for money or items once used as money--often come from one of three origins: quantity (number or, more commonly, weight); physicality (shape or content); or source. That pound (as in pound sterling, the oldest currency still in use) is originally a weight term is obvious--as it still is a weight term (at least, for those still using the old British weights and measures system). But can you tell me which of the three--quantity, physicality or source--the term dollar comes from? (Answer at the end of the post.)

(And if anyone could point me to the derivation of kip, the currency of Laos, that would be appreciated.)

Named after money or items used as money
Sometimes, it is hard to disentangle whether the unit derives from quantity, physicality or source. The dong, the currency of Vietnam, derives from the term for moneyreferring to Chinese bronze coins, with the Chinese terms it is derived from also referring to weight. So, is dong quantity, shape or source derived? The taka, the currency of Bangladesh also just means coin. As does the manat, the currency of Azerbaijan and of Turkmenistan. The Gambia dalasi probably derives from a local name for a 5-franc coin. The Peru sol comes from solidus (solid) a Roman coin but also means sun in Spanish.

The dobra of Sao Tome and Principe, comes from to fold; the connection to money is via doubloon, or in Portugese dobrao.

Currencies named after animals or shells typically have association with money or trade. The lev, the currency of Bulgaria comes from lion, as does the leu, the currencies of Romania and Moldova, as in the Dutch lion dollar or leeuwendaalder. The Croatia kuna means marten, whose pelts were used as trade items in medieval times. The Ghana cedi derives from a local name for cowrie shell, the most common money-item across time and space. The Guatemala quetzal, is named after the national bird, whose feathers were used as currency in Mayan times. The Papua New Guinea kina is named after a shell used in trade.

The Georgia lari derives from a word meaning hoard or property.

Historical figures
The lek of Albania is named after Alexander the Great, whose name is often shortened to Leka in Albanian. The Costa Rico colón is named after Christopher Columbus (Cristóbal Colón in Spanish). The Honduran lempira is named after Lempira, a folk hero who led native resistance against the Spanish. The Nicaragua cordoba is named after the country's notional founder, Francisco Hernández de Córdoba. The Panamana balboa is named after the Spanish explorer, Vasco Numez de Balboa. The Tajikistan somoni is named after Isma'il ibn Ahmad (also known as Ismoil Somoni), regarded as founder of the Tajik nation. The Venezuelan bolivar is named after Simon Bolivar, the Venezuelan general central to the successful Spanish American wars of independence.

Plants, peoples, places
The gourde of Haiti means gourd as in plant. The Tongan pa'anga is named after a vine.

Paraguay's guarani comes from an indigenous people whose language is taught in Paraguay. The loti of Lesotho derives from mountains. The kwacha, the currencies of Malawi and Zambia, means dawn.

The nakfa of Eritrea is named after the town that was at the centre of their independence struggle. The kwanza of Angola is named after a river. The pula of Botswana (also a dry country) means rain.

The oldest currency terms are almost all weight terms; such as shekel and talent. Shekels (sheqel) are still the currency unit of Israel. Some weight terms used in exchange never got beyond being a weight term--notably the Egyptian deben. Sometimes, the currency term just means weight--such as stater and peso. The currencies of Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, and Uruguay are all pesos. The Philippines also uses the peso, or piso. The Macau pataca comes from the Portuguese for peso.

Athenian "owl" after 499BC
A (partial) exception on quantity and antiquity is the drachma, which comes from the verb to grasp, which does imply easy to handle. It is only a partial exception, as a drachma was also a small weight unit. The Athenian "owl" tetradrachm (because it had the owl of Athena on it) was perhaps the earliest trade currency coin. Drachma is the source (via Latin) for dirham, currently the currency of Morocco and the United Arab Emirates, and of dram, the currency of Armenia.

Using weight terms for money has been a continuing historical tendency--such as mark (still used in the currency of Bosnia-Hercegovina), the metical of Mozambique and the baht, the currency of Thailand. While the etymology of the Russian ruble is somewhat unclear, in the medieval period a ruble was a weight, the Russian equivalent to the mark. Belarus also has a ruble as it currency. The ouguiya of Mauritania derives from ounce in Arabic. The tenge of Kazakhstan originally came from (weighing) scales. Apart from pound sterling (and its local derivatives in British territories), there is also the Egyptian pound, the Sudanese pound, the South Sudanese pound (and the former Irish punt).

Livre and lira are both derived from libra, a Roman unit of weight (also the source of the pound sign). The lira is still the currency of Turkey and is the local name for the Lebanese pound and the Syrian pound and colloquially for the Jordanian dinar.
Abbasid dinar 811

The most significant currency term derived from quantity which is a number rather than a weight was denarius (derived from containing ten), the source for the dinar and denaro, the Italian word for money. The currencies of Algeria, Bahrain, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Libya, Serbia and Tunisia are all dinars, while Macedonia uses the (same derivation) denar. The former Iranian currency unit, the toman, also derives from a number.

The shilling, the currencies of KenyaSomalia, SomalilandTanzania and Uganda, derives from an old Anglo-Saxon accounting term

Shape terms generally come from the use of coins. Yen, yuan and won (the currency units of Japan, China and Korea respectively) all mean round or round object. The togrog of Mongolia originally meant circle or circular object.

Rupee derives from the Sanskrit rūpá, meaning beautiful form. The currencies of India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Mauritius, and Seychelles are all rupees. While the Maldives uses the rufiyaa and Indonesia the rupiah (same derivations).

Ringgit (the currency of Malaysia, although it may also be used for the Brunei and Singapore dollars) means jagged, and refers to the jagged edges of the Spanish dollar (aka real de a ocho, aka peso de ocho, aka pieces of eight).

Kyat (the currency of Burma) comes from pulled together and apparently refers to the peacock seal of the original issuing King of Burma on the coin. The escudo, the currency of Cape Verde, comes from shield, referring to the heraldic shield on coins.

Other physicality
The material used could also be the origin of currency units; thus guilder derives from the Dutch or German for golden (gulden) and continued to be applied even when currency was no longer in gold. The Caribbean guilder is due to come into operation, replacing the Netherlands Antilles guilder as the currency of Curacao and Sint Maarten, in the Dutch Caribbean.  The zloty of Poland also means golden. The som, used by the Kyrgyz Republic and Uzbekistan means pure and implies pure gold.
Lübeck gulden 1341

The birr of Ethiopia means silver. The ngultrum, the currency of Bhutan, derives from silver bit.

The hryvania of Ukraine comes from a word meaning mane, but might also have implied something valuable worn around the neck. The word later came to be associated with silver or gold ingots of a certain weight, but that seems to have flowed from its use as a monetary term.

The earliest source term for currency I am aware of is the daric, named by the original issuer after himself. The most immediately obvious current source-derived currency is the euro, which has replaced quite a range of currencies. Names of countries, or contractions thereof, are used by several countries as their currencies. The currency of Afghanistan is the afghani; that of Bolivia the boliviano; that of Lithuania the litas; that of Nigeria is the naira, a contraction of Nigeria; that of Sierra Leone, the leone; that of Vanuatu, the vatu.
Fiorino d'oro 1347

The first post-Roman gold coin minted in commercial quantities in Western Europe was the florin or fiorino d'oro, minted by the city of Florence. The florin is the currency of Aruba. The forint of Hungary is also derived from the fiorino d'oro. The solidus and the hyperpyron (super-refined) of the Eastern Roman Empire was also known as the bezant (Byzantium) after the original name of Constantinople.

Portugese half real C15th
Ducat came from ducal, real means royal, and is still the currency of Brazil as well is the source for riel, the currency of Cambodia, rial, the currencies of Iran, Oman and Yemen; and riyal, the currencies of Qatar and Saudi Arabia. The ariary of Madagascar also derives from riyal. The Swaziland linlangeni means member of the royal family (i.e. royal).

The Czech Republic's koruna means crown, as does Denmark's krone, Iceland' krona, Norway's krone and Sweden's krona.
The original franc 1360

The franc originally meant free (and frank), and became associated with coins from the Rex Francorum (King of Franks) on early coins. The original franc coin celebrated the freedom of Jean II, captured by the English at the Battle of Poitiers (so is apparently a pun). Francs are the currencies of Burundi, Comoros, Democratic Republic of Congo, Djibouti, GuineaRwanda plus Switzerland (and Liechtenstein) and, in the form of the CFA franc, is the currency of France's current overseas territories and of its former African empire; either as the West African CFA franc--the currency of Benin, Burkina Faso, Guinea-BissauIvory Coast, Mali, Niger, Senegal and Togo--or as the Central African CFA franc--the currency of Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea and Gabon.

The rand, the currency of South Africa, comes from the Witwatersrand ("ridge of white waters"), the ridge Johannesburg was built on, and where most of the country's gold deposits lie.

About the dollar
Dollar is most famously the currency of the US. The formerly US-administered territories of the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia and Palau simply stayed on the US$ after independence. While East Timor just went straight onto the US$. Various local jurisdictions use the US$, such as the British Virgin Islands.

Countries sometimes "dollarise" because the local monetary authority proved to be too spectacularly incompetent in managing the preceding local currency. Ecuador, El Salvador and Zimbabwe fall into local mismanagement category (and other countries have also "dollarised" at various times). There are also countries where the US$ are as acceptable, or more acceptable than, the local currency.

Lots of countries have a dollar as their currency, apart from those already mentioned: Australia, Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Bermuda, Brunei, Canada, Cayman Islands, Dominica, Fiji, Guyana, Hong Kong, Jamaica, Kiribati, Liberia, Namibia, New Zealand, Singapore, Solomon Islands, Suriname, Taiwan, Trinidad and Tobago, Tuvalu. Various Caribbean nations share the East Caribbean dollar. The tala of Samoa is dollar in Samoan. Most of these are former territories or protectorates of the British Empire--apparently, dollar is the preferred currency term for "not the pound (anymore)".
Joachminsthaler 1525, the original dollar

Dollar may be the most widely used name for currency units (followed by franc), but it has a remarkably specific origin. In 1520, the Kingdom of Bohemia began to mint coins from silver mined in St Joachim's valley, or Joachminsthal (modern day Jáchymov). The coins became known as Joachminsthalers. Which became shortened to thaler (thing or person from the valley), which became a very widely used coin name. Most famously, in the Maria Theresa thaler. Thaler became the Dutch daaldar and English dollar.

So, the tala of Samoa is actually closer to the original derivation than is the English dollar.

It was also a bit surprising to discover how large Rome and Portugal loomed in Islamic currency names: between lira, dirham, dinar and various derivations from real, the glory that was Rome and the brief Portuguese domination of the Indian Ocean seems to have left quite a monetary mark. Though less surprising given that Rome loomed so large in Islamic history, and the Ottomans had pretensions to being the Islamic successors to Rome, while the current-day users of derivatives of real have a long history of not being keen on the Ottomans.

[Cross-posted at Skepticlawyer.]

Sunday, October 5, 2014

The good people syndrome

I doubt that there is any more corrupting element in contemporary public debate than the good people syndrome: talking heads who say things, not because they have any knowledge or understanding, but because it is what good people say.

There are forms of it on a wide range of issues, and on all sides of politics, but it seems unlikely that the public debate about any issue is as thoroughly corrupted by the good people syndrome as that on Islam. 

Ignorant familiarity
Part of the problem is quite straightforward: Islam is a religion which is omnipresent in the news but absent in the shared experience of the overwhelming majority of Westerners. Furthermore, it is not merely a religion, it is also a civilisation; one with superficial similarities to our own but quite deep differences. Faced with the deadly combination of surface familiarity and deep ignorance, the good people syndrome fills the gap. Especially for modern secular folk, who generally just can't take religious motives seriously. 

To take perhaps the most important difference: we in the West are children of Aristotle and Muslims are mostly not. We are generally not actual Aristotelians (though Aristotelian philosophy is currently enjoying one it recurring resurgences within Western philosophy). But we do accept two basic Aristotelian ideas--that the world has its own inherent existence and structures and the moral realm exists independent of revelation.

These ideas may seem so basic one might wonder how anyone could think otherwise. Well, mainstream Islam thinks otherwise, for it accepts neither idea. A consequence of the defeat of Aristotelian ideas in mainstream Islam, particularly due to the efforts and influence of Abū Ḥāmid Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad al-Ghazālī (1058-1111), the most important figure in mainstream Islam after Muhammad himself. 

For al-Ghazali, and mainstream Islam ever since, causation is merely the habits of God, which He can change at any time, while there is no good outside the realm of revelation. That is, things are good because God wills it, not--as in Christianity and Judaism, especially after Mosheh ben Maimon aka Maimonedes (1138?-1204) and Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274)--God wills them because they are good. "Conversations" between the West and Islam are mostly dialogues of the deaf, because the underlying presumptions are so different.

The golden age of Islamic achievement largely predates al-Ghazali (and that of Arab achievement almost entirely does). Not entirely a coincidence, since causation as the habits of God and revelation as the limits of morality do rather inhibit intellectual effort being put anywhere other than religion. The shock of the Mongol incursions, including the end of the Baghdad Caliphate (1258), reinforced this inward looking tendency, this entrenched atavism. An atavism that Arab journalist Hisham Melhem identifies as central to the contemporary collapse of Arab civilisation but which he studiously fails to identify a source for. 

Islam became a civilisation remarkably uncurious about the outside world, poorly able to mobilise its resources. A civilisation which lacked responsive resilience, and so dealt badly with the challenges of history (as it largely still does, at least in the Middle East--Bengali and Malay Islam does rather better). Thus, Palestinian intellectual Ahmad Y. al-Hassan (1925-2012) can list a whole series of "bad things" which happened to Islam, but entirely fails to ask why Islam so persistently failed to rise to the challenges facing it. For example, Europe learnt far more from its (relatively minor) crusading effort (which al-Hassan paints as far more destructive than than it was) than Islam learnt from its centuries of far greater aggression against Europe and Christendom (which al-Hassan entirely ignores), even after Islam began to fall behind European technology and organisational capacity.

Awkward avoidance
One can understand the dilemma of Arab and Muslim intellectuals. It is not merely that not blaming Islam is what "good people" do, it is that opening up that issue makes any such intellectual a target for the homicidally enraged who are both a symptom and a cause of Middle Eastern Islam's cognitive stagnation and disastrous divisions.

One can understand the dilemma of Western strategists dealing with the jihadis: say that the problem is Islam and that appears to make all Muslims (over a billion of them) the enemy. Yet, say the problem is not Islam, and one is basing one's strategy on untruth and delusion--not a basis for any sort of success. For the jihadis are very much a product of Islam: indeed, they represent the modern iterations of continuing patterns within Islam.

So the problem is within Islam. Not an ideal rhetorical formulation, but one that has the advantage of being true.

The good person pay-off
But neither of these excuses hold for Western talking heads. They are not responsible for Western strategy and a clearly in minimal danger from enraged jihadis. Alas, that not-being-responsible-for-anything is much of the problem: given the lack of any responsibility (except,  clearly somewhat notional one to truth and understanding) aiming to be seen as one of the good people gives by far the best pay-off.

So ignorant nonsense gets spouted because it is established as what good people say.

I was confronted with a particularly egregious example of good people syndrome listening in a waiting room to some talking heads discuss the recent fatal (to the attacker) stabbing at a Melbourne police station. One of the talking heads opined about "disenfranchised youth". The dead attacker (shot dead with a single bullet after stabbing two counter-terrorism officers at Endeavour Hills police station: a somewhat reassuring contrast to police killings in the US--i.e. not an unarmed man, not shot multiple times) fits in with a much larger pattern. The "disenfranchisement" of such homicidal males being that they are not--given their gender (male) and beliefs (Muslim)--master-belief overlords of what they survey, as promised by God through the Quran, the example of the Prophet and Sharia.

When Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu wanted to explain what the jihadis are about in his 29 September 2014 speech to the United Nations General Assembly all he had to do was quote them. Starting with the self-proclaimed Caliph of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi two months previous:
A day will soon come when the Muslim will walk everywhere as a master… The Muslims will cause the world to hear and understand the meaning of terrorism… and destroy the idol of democracy. Now listen to Khaled Meshaal, the leader of Hamas. He proclaims a similar vision of the future: We say this to the West… By Allah you will be defeated. Tomorrow our nation will sit on the throne of the world.
Or, perhaps General Muhammad Ali Jafari, current commander of Iran Revolutionary Guards:

Our Imam did not limit the Islamic Revolution to this country… Our duty is to prepare the way for an Islamic world government…
Or Iran's current Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, in a book written a few years ago:
We have a fundamental problem with the West, and especially with America. This is because we are heirs to a global mission, which is tied to our raison d'etre… A global mission which is tied to our very reason of being.
... How come Malaysia doesn't have similar problems? Because Malaysia is not trying to change the international order.
Changing the international order to a Muslim order, of course. Such an order does not require everyone to be Muslim; just have the Muslims in charge and everyone obeying Sharia, the law of God, sovereign of all.

Such ambitions may seem mad--the master-race Nazis only wanted lebensraum; these ambitions are much more grandiose. But the Companions (Sahabah) of the Prophet overthrew the Sasanian Empire--heir to over a millennia of Zoroastrian empires--and half the Roman Empire in a few short decades. Ascribe the 1989-1991 fall of the Soviet Empire to the mujahideen in Afghanistan and the example of the Companions of the Prophet has powerful contemporary as well as religious resonance.

(As an aside, it is also worth remembering that in 1923 Hitler was a beer hall agitator, leader of a small movement, part of a coalition whose attempt to overthrow a provincial government was put down with almost contemptible ease: 18 years later, his armies had occupied Austria and the Czech lands, had conquered Poland, Denmark, Norway, the Low Countries, France, Yugoslavia, Greece and had reached the outskirts of Moscow.)

Besides, the journey itself is enough: die in the service of creating the Muslim World Order and off to Paradise you go. Not to mention a sense of brotherhood, purpose, masterly killing, plus possible rape and pillage on the way through. Hence Islam's most obvious comparative advantage being in homicidal religious gangsterism.

But, hey, that is not what good people say.  And what they don't know about Islam is almost everything.

[Cross-posted at Skepticlawyer.]

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The eternal now of conservatism (3)

In my previous two posts, I looked at pieces by two conservatives--James Livingstone on gender and soldiering and Justice O'Scannlain on gender and marriage--who both imagine they are basing their reasoning on history and verities of human nature when they are doing nothing of the kind.

Sodom and genocide
In his 2013 lecture, Justice O'Scannlain alludes to the work of Robert George and associates on the nature of marriage, particularly in the context of US Supreme Court decisions such as Lawrence which, in the Judge's words:
struck down a Texas criminal prohibition on homosexual sodomy
The term sodomy, or, as Robert George likes to write, sodomitical, alludes to the natural law interpretation (in fact, perversion) of Genesis 19, the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. The terms invoke killing people for their sexual practices. To use the term sodomy and its cognates is to invoke "the people God wants dead", the people who should be dead--if not literally, at least to any definition of the human.

Ironically, in view of Justice O'Scannlain's hostile invocation of "abstract theory", that is precisely what is wrong with the natural law interpretation of Genesis 19, an interpretation that has since become traditional, at least in Christianity and Islam: the imposition of abstract theory to pervert understanding of the original text. The original rabbinical understanding of Genesis 19, based on oral tradition and close reading of Scripture, was that the sin of the Cities of the Plain was that they were anti-moral: that they actively punished those who looked after the weak and vulnerable. Being struck down by God's wrath for this makes at least some sort of grim sense, especially if Genesis 19 is read as a rape scene attacking that most vulnerable figure--the guest from afar. For a social pattern of stripping the vulnerable of moral and legal protections can go on and on: as the history of the Catholic Church's treatment of Jews and queers demonstrates.

What makes no sense is God destroying entire cities because He thought that butt sex was icky (especially as failure to engage in procreative sex means the "problem" goes away in a generation). But that is where the natural law interpretation of the Sodom story takes us--if only at some violence to the original scriptures. (Attempted rape no more invalidates same-sex activity than it does opposite sex-activity: and God had already decided to destroy the Cities before the apparent attempted rape of His messengers.) It makes entire sense if one's role is to be gatekeepers of righteousness--for then the more bizarre and unexpected the demands of righteousness, the more you need said gatekeepers to tell you what they are.

Thus God "purifies" human society by killing the sexually divergent. As evidenced in the charming Jesus-the-genocidal story in the medieval bestseller compiled by a beatified Archbishop of GenoaThe Golden Legend.  But we really should not be surprised by such a tale being part of Church literature; the terms sodomy and sodomitical explicitly invoke the notion that society is purified by the death of such persons, the "unnatural" committers of treason against the immanent purposes of God's natural order. 

Norman Cohn famously labelled the The Protocols of the Elders of Zion as a Warrant for Genocide. Actually, the original warrant for genocide was the natural law interpretation of Genesis 19: the notion that society is purified by mass murder, by the slaughter of the different-and-vulnerable. Rather than, as in the original rabbinical interpretation, God particularly enjoining moral attention to, and protection of, the vulnerable. Natural law reasoning displaying its dark, and morally impoverishing, side.

Free-floating notions
Robert George and confreres base their arguments on claims about the nature of sex and the nature of marriage. As previously noted, the anthropologically defining aspect of marriage is that it creates in-laws: that is, it broadens kinship connections, it creates wider patterns of social support. That, along with the commitment to pooling effort and resources, is what makes marriage the preferred social mechanism for raising children--hence the anthropologically widespread practice of adoption. But to such natural law theorists, such anthropological evidence does not count. Much of the appeal of natural law theory is precisely the belief that one's immediate apprehension of "the nature" of things is enough of a starting point.

There is also, in such writings, the perennial conflating, via the use of the terms procreation and procreative, of conception with child-raising (the bit marriage is actually useful for); a conflation which becomes bizarre in the significance given to acts of conceptive "form" even when actual conception is impossible. On the other hand, that such acts are in anyway problematised--as George and Bradly implicitly admit in their 1995 paper--is itself a mark of how they make the human dance to a conception of the narrowly physical so that structures of gonads become more important than the purposes of people.

That the approach problematises sexual activity so profoundly comes out when they write of, in said 1995 paper:
acts that might perform on each other's bodies
A bizarre way to express giving another profound psychical and emotional joy. Pleasure, catharsis, bonding, expressing love: these profoundly human things are all imprisoned within the dictatorship of (the form) of conception. An impoverishing of erotic understanding which is also an impoverishing of biological understanding, since animals use sex in nature much more broadly than just conception--and the more cognitively complex the species, the more that tends to be true.

As for the notion that acts non-conceptional in form are an assault on the moral integrity of persons because it is mere instrumental use of oneself and another; that is just another manifestation of th aforementioned impoverished understanding. Not to mention one that would apparently make all soldiering (for example) inherently immoral, as generals regularly use soldiers in a quite instrumental fashion, to the point of expending their lives. The "preserving moral integrity" argument is just an attempt to make more palatable the underlying moral principle that gonads are more important than people. Successful only to the extent that, once again, human experience is ignored--particularly as queer people discover again and again, being open to themselves and others about their sexual nature is the path to psychological (and moral) integrity. 

But, in such natural law reasoning, anything in human psychology, social arrangements or in animal behaviour that contradicts the assertion that the structure of gonads counts more than the purposes, aspirations and experiences of people does not count. It is a particularly striking example of the besetting sin of natural law reasoning--that the conclusion gets to set the ambit of its premises.

Useful for righteousness gatekeeping
Which makes such reasoning very attractive as a mechanism to buttress religious doctrine. As is fairly obvious in George et al talking of an "adequate reason" to have sex, thereby expressing monotheism's perennial problematising of sex that (in monotheism, but not animism or polytheism) separates us from, rather than connects us to, the divine--except via the creative function. Hence the rhetoric about the "unitive" nature of sex that is conceptual in form. 

So, those who fall in love with members of their own sex are not entitled to have sex, except with someone they are not erotically engaged with, but never with someone they are. The structure of human psyches--millions upon millions of them--are subordinated to a pathetically narrow characterisation of a specific organ. Queer folk become just perverted mistakes, natural law theory says so: natural law theory which is allegedly based on the objective facts of human nature and existence, said objective facts excluding the existence of queer folk except as perverted mistakes. Their existence, aspirations, even experience, do not count as evidence.

But, apparently, evidence is not actually required. George et al are very big on the notion of intrinsic value, though they note that not everyone grasps such value:
people who fail to grasp the intrinsic value of such basic human goods ordinarily do not judge them to be valueless. ...
If intrinsic value takes such special understanding to grasp, it seems a very unlikely basis for morality. But a very good basis for justifying the role of gatekeepers of righteousness. But we are not talking of something grounded in anything much:
Intrinsic value cannot, strictly speaking, be demonstrated. Qua basic, the value of intrinsic goods cannot be derived through a middle term. Hence, if the intrinsic value of marriage, knowledge, or any other basic human good is to be affirmed, it must be grasped in noninferential acts of understanding. Such acts require imaginative reflection on data provided by inclination and experience, as well as knowledge of empirical patterns, which underlie possibilities of action and achievement.
Except, as we have seen, great masses of experience and empirical patterns do not count. The conclusion gets to set the ambit of its premises, where experiences and aspirations contrary to those "imaginative reflections" are discounted. Which do not turn out to be very "imaginative" at all, but, in fact, profoundly impoverished.

So narrow as to be not reasonable
It is clear that for Justice O'Scannlain, and for Robert George and his collaborators, by reason is meant what I am aware of and pay attention to.  Since what they say is based on "reason" what they do not know does not count and thy need not enquire into it. So the invocation of reason becomes a commitment to ignorance and to ignoring. Hence being highly selective of whose experience, and whose voices, counts.

Understanding the past requires not imposing our own preconceptions on it. Human nature is that which encompasses all humans, not just a selected subsection thereof. Tradition has to be judged in its context, history is wider than what is congenial or convenient. As is experience. Social arrangements are adaptations to circumstances, not magically grounded in verities of human nature. Merely waving around the words history, experience, tradition, reason, does not mean that you actually understand the first three, or are properly using the last.

And if history is based on a "fixed" human nature, but only some history counts, then those whose history does not count do not get to be part of what defines human nature. They get to be defined as outside the "properly" human.

Robert Livingstone, Justice O'Scannlain, Robert George all mistake historical contingencies for verities of human nature; they all invoke the "eternal now" of conservatism. An invocation far more marked by willful ignorance than understanding.

Given the history and dynamics of monotheism--and natural law reasoning within monotheism--it is not surprising that matters of sex and gender should operate in such a way. (Especially for Catholic conservatives.) But what we want to see can be a very unreliable guide to what isPioneer sociologist Emile Durkheim's explanation of the sexual division of labour was remarkably patronising of women:
According to his theory, among the very primitive (both in the distant past and today) men and women are fairly similar in strength and intelligence. Under these circumstances the sexes are economically independent, and therefore "sexual relations [are] preeminently ephemeral". With the "progress of morality," women became weaker and their brains became smaller. Their dependence on men increased, and division of labor by sex cemented the conjugal bond. Indeed, Durkheim asserts that the Parisienne of his day probably had the smallest human brain on record. Presumably she was able to console herself with the stability of her marriage, which was the direct result of her underendowment and consequent dependence.
Apparently, it took a female anthropologist to put the pieces together.  Contrast the above with the key passage in anthropologist Judith Brown's 1970 note on the division of labour by sex:
Women are most likely to make a substantial contribution when subsistence activities have the following characteristics: the participant is not obliged to be far from home; the tasks are relatively monotonous and do not require rapt attention; and the work is not dangerous, can be formed in spite of interruptions, and is easily resumed once interrupted.
There is no necessary connection between what is congenial and what is true. Hence this is what happens when previously ignored or excluded perspectives get to have their say. We learn things and our understanding is broadened. But not if we invoke history, tradition and reason to block doing so under the delusion that the resultant "eternal now" is clear-eyed justification for anything much, beyond a certain smug, ignorant, self-righteousness.

Broadening moral understanding
Jonathan Haidt has argued that conservatives tend to have a broader range of moral foundations than do progressives (pdf). George and his confreres clearly believe that they have a profounder moral grasp than do supporters of same-sex marriage. But one is much more struck by how impoverished their viewpoint is, not merely in the sense of being factually impoverished (though it is profoundly that) but also morally impoverished in the lack of awareness, or active disregard, for the wider human implications of what they argue for.

It is beyond the capacity of  public policy to change human sexuality, but it can easily punish the vulnerable for being different. Treating people as being outside the "properly" human has dire consequences for family dynamics, for human relationships and human lives generally. Hardly surprising, as the point of morality is to permit us to live together in much richer lives than would otherwise be possible: so naturally, reducing the, or excluding from, moral standing entire categories of people blights lives. But if said categories of people are outside the properly human, their lives and experience do not count; at least not enough to change moral understanding.

Which is precisely why the arguments of George et al are losing. Because, in the words of Ghanaian philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah:
The increasing presence of "openly gay" people in social life and in the media has changed our habits. And over the last 30 years or so, instead of thinking about the private activity of gay sex, many Americans and Europeans started thinking about the public category of gay people.
Or, in other words, that people are more important than gonads. This ongoing shift in opinion may represent a narrowing of what acts are regarded as morally significant, but it represents a broadening of who is accepted as fully human, as a fully legitimate manifestation of the human, as enjoying therefore the full protection of morality and the law. And that is a profound moral advance: not a loss of moral understanding, but an expansion of it.

 [Cross-posted at Skepticlawyer.]