Sunday, June 13, 2010

Arrggghh Redux

On further reflection that what annoyed me most about PZ's post was the following line:

That women feel compelled to get their genitals sculpted to fit some inappropriate ideal is criminal (the rest of the article at that link talks about how society discards porn stars).

People change to conform to society's requirements all the time; calling some changes "criminal" while accepting others without question is utterly arbitrary.

I bet you that PZ finds it necessary to be civil to the idiots he has to work with at the university; is he "compelled" to do so by society, and is the resulting state of affairs "criminal"? What's the difference between a porn star getting her labia trimmed and PZ failing to call out some douchenozzle colleague? I'd argue that the long-term societal costs of enabling idiocy far outweigh the social costs of lookism; the latter only thrives because we tolerate idiocy in the first place.

Really I think there's a subtle form of bigotry at play here; the only way that PZ's complaint stands up is if we see the porn star's choice as somehow less valid. We don't believe that anyone would rationally choose to have labiaplasty, therefore the porn star is acting irrationally under the unbearable weight of societal compulsion. However, everyone agrees on the necessity of getting along with colleagues, so putting up with the doofus in the office is a necessary compromise. In order to avoid cognitive dissonance we deny the porn star's ability to make decisions for herself while telling ourselves that we're just being civil. Not cool.

Arrgggghhhhh: Principle of Consent Edition

Quoth PZ:

Labiaplasty is simply another form of female genital mutilation, so I find that repellent. That women feel compelled to get their genitals sculpted to fit some inappropriate ideal is criminal (the rest of the article at that link talks about how society discards porn stars)

Ummm... no. Labiaplasty is female genital surgery. It's done by a doctor... in an operating room... with the consent of the patient. It is most emphatically not the same thing as FGM. To conflate the two a) trivializes the suffering of women who have undergone the latter and b) denies the autonomy of women who choose to have the former.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

So Maybe I'm Not Crazy After All

As time progresses my views on various issues have become increasingly idiosyncratic, a fact which occasionally give me pause. For example, after long reflection I've come to the conclusion that there's no moral justification for reproduction. This position seems completely justifiable to me, but is wildly divergent from the general consensus that kids are a good thing. We can't both be right, so am I especially principled or just getting crazy in my old age?

Turns out that if I'm crazy then at least I'm in decent company. Peter Singer, a man who has some idiosyncratic ideas of his own, recently wrote an opinion piece in the NYT considering that thesis. The piece is thoughtful for the most part, but I can't say that I care much for his conclusion:

... Let’s assume that the choice is between a world like ours and one with no sentient beings in it at all. And assume, too — here we have to get fictitious, as philosophers often do — that if we choose to bring about the world with no sentient beings at all, everyone will agree to do that. No one’s rights will be violated — at least, not the rights of any existing people. Can non-existent people have a right to come into existence?

I do think it would be wrong to choose the non-sentient universe. In my judgment, for most people, life is worth living. Even if that is not yet the case, I am enough of an optimist to believe that, should humans survive for another century or two, we will learn from our past mistakes and bring about a world in which there is far less suffering than there is now.

That's a remarkably squishy answer; I would expect him to do a little better than that. Though, perhaps, the pages of the NYT aren't the place for a rigorous defense of the position. In particular Singer treats the question of whether non-existent people have rights as something of a throw-away, though I think that it's critically important for understanding the discussion at hand.

The question is fundamentally nonsensical; there is no such thing as a "non-existent person". I hold to a functional definition of personhood which, incidentally, was/is strongly influenced by Singer's defense of infanticide. Non-existent entities don't meet the functional criteria for personhood, therefore they are not persons. If you accept that rights accrue only to persons1 it follows from there that these hypothetical, not yet born individuals have none.

Given this result I've arrived at a conclusion which is similar to, though slightly more absolutist, than that of David Benatar as discussed in the article: you cannot harm someone who doesn't exist, but you're inevitably bound to fail to fulfill your obligations to any children which you do have. Thus the correct thing to do is not to breed. QED.

That's a hard conclusion to stomach; people like having kids and the desire to perpetuate the specifies is deeply engrained in every culture. Which is why I suspect Singer gives a squishy answer; to come out and say "having kids is wrong" in a major newspaper is just asking for a whupping. It would no doubt lead to people asking for him to be fired and so on, so it's probably a statement best avoided.

1 Which is certainly open for debate; a lot of people would assert that certain classes of entities (animals, for instance) have rights even though they don't meet the functional requirements for personhood. In this specific case, however, it's hard to think of a justification for assigning positive rights to non-existent entities.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

The Flipside Of Group Identity

Michael Chabon's opinion piece in yesterday's NYT reminded me of an argument I got into when I was part of the froshling orientation program at my alma mater. One of the ideas that we were supposed to discuss with/inculcate in the incoming class was the notion that it was insufficient to merely tolerate a diversity of views. Rather, members of the student body should actively seek to include specifically identified groups whenever there was including to be done. This struck me as a bad idea which caused more problems than it solved, since it rested on the assumption that these groups could be treated as monolithic units that spoke with a single voice. I argued against this practice on the grounds that it was nothing more than group stereotyping dressed up in progressive garb. Needless to say I didn't get many takers for that position; my peers didn't share my enthusiasm for theoretical arguments.

So it was reassuring to hear the same argument coming out of Mr. Chabon's mouth, specifically this bit about Jewish group identity being a two-edged sword:

For we Jews are not, it turns out, entirely comfortable living with the consequences of this myth, as becomes clear from the squirming and throat-clearing that take place among us whenever some non-Jew pipes up with his own observations about how clever and smart we are in our yiddishe kops. These include people like the political scientist Charles Murray, author of an influential essay titled "Jewish Genius," or Kevin B. MacDonald, a psychology professor at California State University at Long Beach who argues that Jews essentially undertook a centuries-long program of self-breeding, selecting for traits of intelligence, guile and skill at calculation, as a kind of evolutionary adaptation to the buffetings of history and exile.

Such claims, in mouths of gentiles, are a disturbing echo of the charges of the pogrom-stokers, the genocidalists, the Father Coughlins, who come to sharpen their knives against the same grindstone of generalization on which we Jews have long polished the magnifying lenses of our self-regard. The man who praises you for your history of accomplishment may someday seek therein the grounds for your destruction.

Absolutely; making categorical assertions in the form "group X is Y" can lead to a world of hurt in the long run even if those assertions are generally regarded as positive. To make such assertions is to engage in a form of essentiallism which, as Michael explains, can come back to bite you in the ass.

This leads to a larger thought about group identity (and its associated politics) which has been kicking around in the back of my head for awhile. It is wholly appropriate for historically marginalized groups (or others working on their behalf) to agitate for an end to discrimination, the protection of their civil rights, and so on, but in doing so they risk running afoul of the hazard which Chabon highlighted. It seems to me that such movements rarely confine themselves to asking for those rights to which they are entitled by virtue of their status as persons. Rather they tend to assert (perhaps as an incidental byproduct of necessary group solidatiry) a collective identity above and beyond that which is strictly necessary to secure such rights. And therein lies the problem; it seems to me any substantive assertion of group identity creates a legitimate basis for discrimination against the group as a whole.

For example, one trope that I've often heard applied to various groups at various times is that they are "family-oriented". Who can object to that? It's right up there with baseball and apple pie. But such seemingly innocuous statements have a pernicious effect for several reasons:

  • They set a bad precedent: If members of the group so identified allow such positive attributions to stand unattested it validates treating the group as a unit rather than as the varigated collection of individuals it probably is.
  • "Positive" is in the eye of the beholder: If we establish that a group has some trait, even a positive one, that trait may then legitimately be utilized when making judgements about the group as a whole1.

So how does this apply in the case of our "family-oriented" group? Let's say that I genuinely dislike people who exibit a family-centric orientation (it's patriarchal, heteronormative, collectivistic... whatever); am I not then perfectly justified in discounting this group as a whole? Or, even worse, what if I'm just looking for a pretext to provide cover for a nefarious agenda? Can't I just say "Look, I'm sure they're great people and all, but... you know... they're family-oriented" even though my real objection might not stand up to scrutiny.

You can see how that might play out; positive sterotyping can boomerang back on you. Moreover, "positive" is open to interpretation; one person's welcomed attribute might be anathema to another.

Anyhow, that's a thought I've been wanting to get down on paper for awhile now. Thank you for your patience.

1 This assumes, of course, that the reason we find group-based discrimination to be objectionable is because it generally relies on unfounded stereotypes. Of course it's also the case that some people object to discrimination of all types, even if such discrimination is fact-based.

Apropos of nothing...

Hyperbole and a Half is awesome.
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