Obama Against “Mental” Exceptions to Late-Term Abortion Bans

July 4, 2008

Obama’s stance on abortion is pretty much in the mainstream of the Democratic Party, but with one critical difference when it comes to late-term abortions (i.e. abortions post fetal viability). And, luckily, for him, it’s precisely the exception I would make. Obama doesn’t think that “mental distress” should qualify as an exception to bans on late term abortions. This position puts him at odds with pro-abortion rights groups and members of his own party.

Still, I think it’s the right one. Anti-abortion groups have a legitimate fear that sufficiently vague “mental” health exceptions could undermine the point of the ban entirely: any person can develop “tremendous emotional toll” even from a normal pregnancy. But that really doesn’t fall under the same situation as health exceptions in general, and in practice, this exception can basically serve as an end-run around the ban. Groups like NARAL, of course, paint things differently:

The official position of NARAL Pro-Choice America, the abortion rights group that endorsed Obama in May, states: “A health exception must also account for the mental health problems that may occur in pregnancy. Severe fetal anomalies, for example, can exact a tremendous emotional toll on a pregnant woman and her family.”

This is yet another situation in which I wish people on both sides of the abortion divide would just express what they actually mean: what specific conditions is NARAL talking about? Conditions like anencephaly, where the brain essentially has not formed properly, and the baby has no higher brain function and no chance of survival beyond a few weeks? (I’m in favor of allowing abortion in such cases) Or does it mean Down’s Syndrome, a missing arm, or a partially malformed gut? All of the latter could be called “severe anomalies,” but such babies are essentially normal in terms of their capacity to feel and suffer. (I’m against abortion in such cases) The details matter.

In any case, while he’s sure to take fire from liberals on this, Obama has about as much chance of getting any honest credit for his stance as the New York Mets do of winning the Superbowl. Anti-abortion groups are, of course, having none of it:

David N. O’Steen, the executive director of National Right to Life, said Obama’s remarks to the magazine “are either quite disingenuous or they reflect that Obama does not know what he is talking about.”

“You cannot believe that abortion should not be allowed for mental health reasons and support Roe v Wade,” O’Steen said.

O’Steen is technically right here: a companion case to Roe was Doe v. Bolton, which defined “health” exceptions very broadly, including considerations of “emotional, psychological, familial” factors. But O’Steen is still essentially dissembling: the definition, while broad, is also vague enough that someone like Obama could reasonably believe that those other factors could almost never, on their own, justify an exception.

O’Steen, of course, has no reason to be charitable and honest in how he portrays Obama. Even if Obama really is closer to his own stance on this issue (which he already has a decent reason to doubt), Obama’s party taking power in the White House is far far more important to his chosen issue (outlawing abortion) than giving him credit for a minor agreement and risking rank-n-file anti-abortion voters potentially seeing Obama more favorably.


Medved Can’t Stand Up to Rauch On Gay Marriage

June 30, 2008

I’ve made no secret that I’m a big fan of libertarian Jonathan Rauch. His book “The Kindly Inquisitors” is one of the best defenses of free speech and free inquiry in the modern era. And he made what is probably the best conservative case for gay marriage in his 2004 book, “Gay Marriage: Why it is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America.” Most recently, he had an essay published in the Wall Street Journal, recounting that latter argument in brief: “Gay Marriage is Good for America

Well, talk-show roustabout Michael Medved isn’t impressed by Rauch’s argument. But, as you’d expect from a fellow of the Discovery Institute, bad ideas ensue.

Read the rest of this entry »


More Sex Meant Safer Sex in Thailand: Counterintuitive Economic Theory

June 19, 2008

Steven Landsburg has to be one of my favorite authors: contrarian in all the right ways, ruggedly skeptical, utterly unafraid to buck conventional wisdom. There’s never guarantee that you’ll agree with what he argues (at least at first), but you will be entertained, engaged, and forced think of issues from entirely new angles.

His most recent book (sadly not that recent) was More Sex Is Safer Sex: The Unconventional Wisdom of Economics, in which he argued (among many other things) that there were social situations in which increased promiscuity amongst the sexually prude could actually reduce the transmission of disease. Indeed, he argued that prudishness was, in some cases, as much a socially harmful vice as sleeping around.

His argument was essentially theoretical, but it wasn’t entirely out of the blue: it was based on research by another economist, Michael Kremer and some pretty solid models of sexual behavior and disease transmission.

And now, it seems like it’s no longer even just hypothetical.

That’s because, according to Marginal Revolution blogger Alex Tabarrok, the recent history of Thailand provides a real world example of more total sex leading to a reduction in disease transmission. A drastic, culturally driven increase in normally chaste women engaging in premarital sex coupled with a (not causally unconnected) drop in the number of men going to prostitutes cratered the rates of HIV transmission: even in sex workers.

And to top it all off, the place where Alex Tabarrok discovered this little gem? Elizabeth Pisani’s new book called “The Wisdom of Whores.” It’s all enough to make social conservatives scream.

Of course, in all seriousness, those conservatives have plenty of worthwhile concerns. And just as a disclaimer before you run out and lose your virginity in the service of public safety: the particular effect here relies on a particular sort of sexual situation that may or may not have any relevance to your society. And in any case, it still unavoidably involves the former prudes taking on more risk to their own health in order improve the lives of others. So, please, read the books instead of rushing out to do anything foolish and frisky just on my word.

Elizabeth Pisani explains it all herself here:

Isn’t counter-intuitiveness grand?


In Defense of Pornography, In Revulsion of Jesus’ Redefinition of Adultery, In Minor Defense of Douthat

June 19, 2008

Here’s how it starts:

A Fox News sexpert declares that many spouses view “using porn, at least beyond a magazine like Playboy, [as] the equivalent of having an actual affair.”

Reason journalist Julian Sanchez can’t quite wrap his head around this comment:

This is tossed off as though it ought to be obvious to the ordinary reader. It strikes me as obviously insane. I can think of any number of valid concerns one might have about what sort of porn one’s partner is consuming, or the extent of it. But the proposition that one of them is any similarity between porn viewing and “having an actual affair” would not have occurred to me. Is this view held by any significant number of sane people?

But over at Atlantic Monthly, the often laudably contrarian conservative blogger Ross Douthat points out that, well, yes, plenty of spouses do see things that way:

Then consider: Is there any similarity between having sex with a prostitute while you’re married and paying to watch a prostitute perform sexual acts for your voyeuristic gratification? Again, I think a lot of people would say yes: There’s a distinction, obviously, but I don’t think all that many spouses would be inclined to forgive their husbands (or wives) if they explained that they only liked to watch the prostitute they’d hired. And hard-core porn, in turn, is nothing more than an indirect way of paying someone to fulfill the same sort of voyeuristic fantasies: It’s prostitution in all but name, filtered through middlemen, magazine editors, and high-speed internet connections. Is it as grave a betrayal as cheating on your spouse with a co-worker? Not at all. But is it on a moral continuum with adultery? I don’t think it’s insane to say yes.

(Heck, even Dan Dan Savage, sex-adviser extraordinaire, agrees with Ross that “porn as cheating” is quite a common idea.)

Next, quite a lot of Douthat’s commenters seem to lose track of the discussion entirely: they think that Douthat is trying to make an argument that pornography really is perfectly equivalent to having an extra-marital affair, when in fact he’s only trying to illustrate that there are reasonable similarities that might lead some quite sane spouses to consider porn a form of cheating. Much confusion ensues.

Finally, the discussion turns to the issue of the morality of pornography in general. Some people raise the issue of Jesus’ famous pronouncement that to look upon a woman with lust is to commit adultery in your heart. And then, Douthat regular Hector, who seems to believe that pornography is immoral by its “essential nature,” pops in to say that he’s “not sure what any of you would maintain are the good things that porn brings into this world.”

Well, allow me to re-introduce myself.

What’s good about porn? It’s hard to even know where to start: it’s the question an alien visitor the the earth might ask, like “what good is baseball?” It’s a question that must seem obvious to some, utterly bizarre to others.

Read the rest of this entry »


How People Get Here: Bible Quotes and Virginity Edition

June 11, 2008

WordPress rather conveniently allows me to see what sort of search queries bring people to my website: you Google, get a result, click on a link to my blog, and I know all about it. Instantly.

One inquisitive Googler happened to reach my website by asking:

“Are there bible quotes in the constitution”

I don’t think I’ve ever blogged specifically about this question, so allow me to answer it clearly and concisely:

No. There aren’t.

Thanks for your interest!

Sadly, there is a downside to my vast powers of perception. WordPress only shows me a certain, limited length of the original search query. Given that I’ve recently posted about “sex advice from a virgin” (the pope) and Muslim women seeking to regain their virginity, I also get a lot of highly disturbing searches that contain the word “virgin” in them, all leading people to my blog (hopefully, to their profound disappointment).

Anyway, this is all to say that I’m very grateful that, thanks to the wordpress length limit, I’ll never get to see the rest of the following search query:

“how long does it take for a virgin to ha…”

Phew. I think we all dodged a bullet there.


Muslim Women Surgically Pose as Virgins to Avoid Disgrace and Death

June 11, 2008

When I first heard about Hymenorrhaphy (a form of plastic surgery on the to restore the appearance of an intact hymen) I wasn’t quite sure what to think. When it was first developed and promoted, the procedure was billed as a benefit to the healing process of some rape survivors, who felt they needed a physical healing to coincide with the rest of their recovery. Fair enough.

But however you feel about that purpose, articles like this, detailing the rise of hymenorrhaphy as a means to deal with a culture clash, surely put a far more disturbing spin on things.

“If you’re a Muslim woman growing up in more open societies in Europe, you can easily end up having sex before marriage,” said Hicham Mouallem, a doctor in London who performs the surgery. “So if you’re looking to marry a Muslim and don’t want to have problems, you’ll try to recapture your virginity.”

The essential point of the surgery, when you think about it, is grotesque: to install a flap of skin whose sole purpose is to be painfully torn apart in later intercourse… all to give a man the satisfaction of a bloody first coupling. In some cases, even to give him evidence of blood to show to his waiting friends and family. Never mind that hymens can be broken for all sorts of other reasons other than sex (medical problems, physical activity, injury): many men and their families are now demanding an official “certificate of virginity” from gynecologists before they’ll even consider taking a marital “test-drive.”

The article highlights one such case in particular: a woman whose hymen was torn from horseback riding as a child who had to take out a loan to even afford the surgery.

“In my culture, not to be a virgin is to be dirt,” said the student, perched on a hospital bed as she awaited surgery Thursday. “Right now, virginity is more important to me than life.”

Unfortunately, for far too many women, virginity and life are often the same thing: the specter of so-called “honor killings” awaits woman that stray beyond the approved sexual traditions of various cultures in the Middle East and Africa.

One of the most gruesome cases in recent memory involved an Iraqi girl who befriended (without any evidence of actual physical romance) a British soldier… and had her throat crushed underfoot and body stabbed and mutilated by her own father. The father was arrested, but then let free.

At the police station where the father was held Sergeant Ali Jabbar told The Observer last week: ‘Not much can be done when we have an “honour killing” case. You are in a Muslim society and women should live under religious laws.

The young woman’s mother, a distraught witness to the crime, eventually fled the family… only to be gunned down in the street. Sadly, this story is far from an isolated incident (as the refusal of Iraqi authorities to prosecute a confessed killer might have already indicated). And it is not only men at fault. This “tradition” has even seen mothers restrain and slit the wrists of their own struggling daughters… for the crime of failing to commit suicide after being raped by their own brothers.

Given these sorts of bloodbaths as a backdrop, it’s hard to fault women for seeking the surgery.

But there’s little room for cultural relativism here. The cultural demands driving women to go under the knife, to fear for their lives and safety, or simply to hate and fear sex and their sexual pasts in general, are not quaint little cultural differences. They are backward and morally vile. They are a practice and an attitude that needs to be opposed, denigrated, and ended. It’s defenders should ultimately come to feel shame and remorse. It’s executioners should end up with the same punishments as any murderers or abusers.

Our own culture is hardly free from pernicious influences on women: including even those that lead women to breast implants and other cosmetic surgery. But there’s a world of difference between the stressful notions of physical attractiveness and the idea that women are “dirt,” fit to be beaten, humiliated, or even killed if they have had sex (or have even been raped) outside of marriage.

Let’s hope that more members of the relevant cultures and religious traditions at least take the attitude of this guy (reacting to a French case in which a recently man humiliated and dumped his wife on her family’s doorstep, accusing her of being impure, and then demanded an immediate annulment):

“The man is the biggest of all the donkeys,” said Abdelkibir Errami, [the Islamic Center of Roubaix's] vice president. “Even if the woman was no longer a virgin, he had no right to expose her honor. This is not what Islam teaches. It teaches forgiveness.”


Woman Marries the Berlin Wall, Then Cheats on It With Garden Fence

June 8, 2008

We can debate gay marriage: the moral merits, the social benefits, the alleged costs. But it’s time we all, everyone of us took a stand against this woman and her licentious wallism.

And lest anyone tries to blame this on gay marriage, notice that she pulled this stunt 29 years ago, in secret, and without trying to claim any civil benefit or responsibility for the union.

Is the whole story an elaborate hoax or prank played on the local media? I don’t know, but honestly, in my opinion, stuff like this is too positively insane to be a joke:

“The Great Wall of China’s attractive, but he’s too thick – my husband is sexier.”

HT: The Agitator


New Study: “Abstinence Only” Education Fails Again? Or Not.

June 8, 2008

Ed Brayton is making the case that a new study of high school students provides even more evidence that abstinence-only education has failed in its primary purpose: the reduction or delay in teen sex and disease transmission. The study, which looks to be quite good in terms of dataset and design, basically shows that the steady decline in teen sexual activity and the steady increase in condom use have both leveled off, and both changes came during the time in which abstinence-only education came into its heyday (the early and mid 2000s).

I’m no fan of abstinence-only policies, which are essentially a “pro-ignorance” approach to education. But I’m not so sure we really can take any clear policy conclusions away from this data.

The main reason is that, in the social sciences, we’d expect just about ANY trend to level off naturally whether there were other policy effects or not. Whatever the cause for the decline in teen sex since 1991, there’s only so much you can reduce teenage sexual activity in the first place before diminishing returns set in. The more you reduce teenage sexual experimentation, the harder and harder further decreases become.

This especially makes sense in terms of teens and sex. If we imagine that there is a sort of standard cohort of teens with a natural range of character traits and attitudes towards sex in each generation, then any external effect (like the AIDS scare) which reduces sexual activity is going to be more effective on some students, less effective on others. As this effect increases its influence on each cohort of kids, you’ll effect all the low hanging fruit first (the kids most scared of disease and ambivalent about sex to begin with), and the trend will be fairly large. But as you proceed, you’ve already dropped the sexual activity of many of the prudes down to 0 (and can’t go any further with them), and now what you have left to work on are the kids that are amongst the hardest to convince not to have sex in the first place. Even if the original effect increases dramatically (i.e. AIDS gets more and more scary), it still might not be enough to effect enough of the horniest kids fast enough to keep up the overall trend, year after year.

For all we know, this could be what’s going on here: major social changes in the early 1990s (AIDS, widespread contraception knowledge and availability) spent a decade spreading through the population, and now they’ve pretty much done as much as they can do. Buried underneath these larger trends, abstinence education could have had a positive effect, negative effect, or no effect at all.

All we really can say for certain, from this data, is that abstinence-only education hasn’t sparked any sort of dramatic or obvious revolution in teen prudishness. Other studies, which more directly compare the effects of abstinence-only education to other programs or no program at all, are far more relevant to the debate than this one.


Gay Marriage Today: Why Not Polygamy Tommorow? …Here’s Why

May 20, 2008

Advocates of gay marriage are often far too glib about their institutional goals. Myself included. We dismiss all sorts of slippery-slope and social fears as simply being based on bigotry (and perhaps we luck out there, because we often turn out to be right, even if it was just a knee-jerk accusation). But many of those fears do make logical sense, particularly when social changes are made by judicial rulings based on distressingly broad and unmoderated principles.

One of the most legitimate of these fears has always been that judicial rulings about gay marriage that are based on bare notions of equality and fairness would carve a path towards the legal recognition of, well, polygamy. And with a polygamist cult controversy still driving news cycles, and HBO’s Big Love back for another season, polygamy can no longer be casually dismissed as an esoteric issue.

That doesn’t mean, that it can’t be dismissed though. It just means that it’s going to take a lot of serious work and argument to do it.

And so, over at Volokh Conspiracy, Dale Carpenter has penned a must-read “Cliff’s Notes” version of some of the best arguments against the “gay marriage/polygamy” connection. Personally, I find them convincing. I’d appreciate any arguments concerning why I should not.

As to the recent California gay-marriage decision itself, I’m of two minds. It should come as no surprise that I like the result. But I also have very strong sympathies with the view that the judges in this case (most of whom were Republicans, by the way) are using methods that overstep important boundaries in our system of government.

On the other hand (again!), I have slightly less sympathy given the fact that people often write constitutional and legal language that claims to be based on lofty moral principles and language… but then whine when someone actually goes and takes those principles seriously, rather than merely conventionally. If you don’t want constitutions to be treated any differently than literal regulations and craven contracts of social convention, then don’t write them as if they were shining beacons of truth and justice.

For all the gay couples who will finally be able to codify their partnerships in the law of our society, there’s little to offer aside from congratulations.

Update: Over at Dean’s World, Dean links to law prof John Witte Jr. and his take on the issue. Among other things, though, Witte notes that one of the traditional reasons that polygamy has been verbotten in the West is that is “routinizes patriarchy.” I’m no women’s studies stooge, but that particular reason strikes me as a little implausible except as a very, very recent development.


Fail? Critics Respond to Pinker’s Essay on “Dignity” as Ethically Worthless

May 17, 2008

In response to Stephen Pinker’s essay bemoaning the vacuity of “dignity” as a concept in bioethics, let’s highlight some critical responses from other thinkers: Yuval Levin, Ross Douthat, and Alan Jacobs.

Let’s accept every single one of their criticisms about Pinker’s tone, his paranoia, and his obviously less than impartial personal opinions about people like Leon Kass. Nevertheless, Pinker does very clearly and very directly raise a lot of serious, and possibly fundamental, problems with the concept of “dignity” in bioethics. And none of these writers seem interested in responding to that particular challenge. Which is too bad, because that’s really the only interesting part of the whole debate in the first place.

As one commenter said:

I’m not convinced Pinker has all the answers, but he seems to be taking the dignity argument more seriously than Jacobs, Douthat, or Levin. I tend to expect better of all three of those names. If Pinker was only 20% substance, that’s a higher percentage than any of the rest of us have achieved today.

Just to be a little provocative myself, let me say that I suspect the high regard that conservative scholars have for “dignity” lies in the fact that it, unlike the concepts of liberty and personal autonomy mediated by due process which have served us quite well so far, “dignity” is malleable enough that it allows the otherwise absurd idea that a random citizen sitting on their front porch is violating their own dignity by behaving in a way those scholars find distasteful (like licking an ice cream cone, or holding the hand of their gay lover). This also alleviates the often distressing inability to directly justify their dislikes as being immoral or harmful in any sensible, non-theological fashion.

“Dignity” also has the amazing power to declare morally important actions and objects that have no “personal” capacity in and of themselves: such as nerveless, intention-less cells that happen to have certain proteins active (i.e. fertilized eggs), but lack any objective capacity that anyone can tie to an ethical interest. If you can’t explain why breaking apart an embryo is morally wrong in any sensibly direct fashion, well then you can always argue that doing so is a sort of bitter voodoo-doll assault on humanity’s dignity, by proxy!

As is often the case, I’m being a little glib here myself. But I don’t think I’m entirely without merit either. It’s true that personal autonomy has it’s own gray areas and problems, but it at least makes sense on some concrete level, especially as a principle value in a diverse and contentious society, and that provides a far more promising foundation than a concept that seems to mean everything and nothing. Furthermore, many of its problems can be redressed far more easily than the critics I referenced above allow. Even under a personal autonomy framework, we can, for instance, still understand why respecting the wishes of someone when they are not actively awake or unconscious would be important.

In that spirit, here’s a much more intriguing and substantive response to the Pinker article, from another writer at the American Scene, Noah Millman.


Human Dignity: An Ethically Useless Concept

May 12, 2008

Last year Steven Pinker wrote a fantastic article on bioethics that somehow had escaped my notice until a commenter recently brought it to my attention: The Stupidity of Dignity.

The point of his essay is not, as one might fear, that human beings lack an inherent dignity or moral importance. It’s that the term “dignity” has been so constantly abused that it has become almost worthless in moral debates. It’s incoherently defined, capable of having nearly any property, even contradictory ones. And it’s all too often used simply as a proxy for the philosopher’s or theologian’s subjective dislike of some behavior or idea.

Here’s the key point of the article:

The problem is that “dignity” is a squishy, subjective notion, hardly up to the heavyweight moral demands assigned to it. The bioethicist Ruth Macklin, who had been fed up with loose talk about dignity intended to squelch research and therapy, threw down the gauntlet in a 2003 editorial, “Dignity Is a Useless Concept.” Macklin argued that bioethics has done just fine with the principle of personal autonomy–the idea that, because all humans have the same minimum capacity to suffer, prosper, reason, and choose, no human has the right to impinge on the life, body, or freedom of another. This is why informed consent serves as the bedrock of ethical research and practice, and it clearly rules out the kinds of abuses that led to the birth of bioethics in the first place, such as Mengele’s sadistic pseudoexperiments in Nazi Germany and the withholding of treatment to indigent black patients in the infamous Tuskegee syphilis study. Once you recognize the principle of autonomy, Macklin argued, “dignity” adds nothing.

The rest of Pinker’s article basically argues that despite an entire volume full of responses to Macklin’s challenge, the mostly conservative and religious Presidential Council on Bioethics have failed to answer it. In some cases, as with the notorious Leon Kass, they did worse than fail, exposing bizarre theocratic preoccupations that celebrate death and bemoan liberty in life.

A tour de force. Anyone know of any good responses to, or critiques of, this piece from conservative critics?


More Advice on Sex From a Virgin

May 11, 2008

Pope Benedict is back in the news for one of those sparse AP religious news pieces. He’s been praising a 1968 encyclical called Human Vitae which, among other things, definitively reaffirmed the Catholic Church’s ban on the use of artificial contraception. (It also happily makes up for the rather glaring omission of rape from the Bible’s otherwise absurdly comprehensive list of things God hates except when he’s busy ordering them). It would be nice to have the full speech, but it’s yet to appear in the usual places. But the snippets quoted by the AP are bad enough for a little fisking:

“What was true yesterday remains true even today. The truth expressed in ‘Humane vitae’ doesn’t change; on the contrary, in the light of new scientific discoveries it is ever more up to date,” the pope added.

And which scientific discoveries are those? That there is, after all, no “moment” of conception when a magical homunculus pops into being? That even a non-fertilized egg, or potentially any cell in the human body, can be induced to grow into a new human being? That the creation of a human person is a long complex process resulting, eventually, not instantaneously, in specific functional capacities?

The mark of the human search for truth, you see, is that it does change: it updates itself in light of new evidence, apologizes for error. This is doubly true in the case of moral understanding: better knowledge helps us make better decisions, alerts us to moral consequences we may have missed.

Now, I understand that Popes claim to be relying on insights supposedly proscribed by a higher power, and I suppose this is where we must differ. I don’t see any evidence of such insight. In fact, the contrary. What I see are doctrines formed in (perfectly understandable!) ignorance of human biology and social experience, now (less understandably) grasping at straws and cherry picking in an attempt to remain relevant, all the while resisting any re-examination.

And while Popes couch their declarations as sincere defenses of moral sense and human dignity, it’s hard to take them as seriously as they intend it. Perhaps mainly due to the nature of the institution they find themselves wedded to, there is very little room in which to confront the possibility of error. And when it comes down to admitting doctrinal error or real human dignity, which does history tell us is likely to bend to which?

“No mechanical technique can substitute the act of love that two married people exchange as a sign of a greater mystery,” Benedict said in his speech.

I quite agree that sex, as with all human experience, can be part of a greater mystery. But the Pope is sorely abusing the word here: appealing to positive connotations he has earned no right to. Indeed, his entire purpose is to routinize that mystery into the very specific form he believes the universe favors, all in service of a doctrine that is itself no mystery (except in the sense that it’s often philosophically unintelligible).

Benedict expressed concern that human life risks losing its value in today’s culture, and worried that sex could “transform itself into a drug” that one partner had to have even against the will of the other.

“What must be defended is not only the true concept of life, but above all the dignity of the very person,” the pope added.

You know what makes human life lose value and dignity? Cloudy, impenetrably confused moral thinking.

Like the sort that compares a experiencing, feeling human being to a nerveless embryo, and thus mangles any sense whatsoever of what makes human life, in particular, morally important.

Or the sort that stands in opposition to the distribution or even the education of poor people about contraceptive methods to prevent the spread of deadly disease. The one that treats knowledge as a temptation, and ignorance a blessing… if by blessing, you mean infecting your wife with AIDS because your priest declares that condoms are not permitted even within a marriage, even for that grave purpose.

Of course, voice these sorts of criticism within earshot of excitable apologists, and you’re bound to hear one or two responses.

The first is to loudly bemoan the supposed scientism-sans-conscience of Catholicism’s critics. This response is mere subterfuge. Us “moderns,” secular or no, are not nihilists: what we have are different values than the ones promoted by pontiffs, different ideas about where to draw the line on, for instance, stem cells. What we’re due in response is debate, not glib dismissals about our supposed moral blindness or vacuity.

The second response is that critics of Catholic doctrine are ultimately just narcissists: heedless pleasure seekers. Oh how they love this endlessly self-aggrandizing accusation! But the character of this sort of argument is both slanderous and baseless. Half the time it doesn’t even make sense, as when critics like myself are largely arguing on behalf of the liberty of others (such as homosexual rights that I myself have no need of).

The other half of the time, it’s just a backhanded way to justify injustices or restrictions that stand accused of causing harm themselves. It’s easy to frame any argument for progress as “selfishly” promoting pleasure and reducing suffering (how dare we desire to treat malaria, hedonists we!). Easy, but rarely helpful or sensible as a criticism of those ideas or improvements.

And worse, these declarations against demands for human happiness are insincere. For apologists often appeal to the idea that they know, better than everyone else, what best leads to happiest: they merely insist that they have a bead on the deepest sorts of human happiness. That anything other than their path leads to misery and ruin, not merely in an imagined afterlife, but here on earth. Very well: but others make the same claims about their own contrary paths and philosophies. Thus there is room for legitimate debate.

But, I suppose, such fair debates risk the unacceptable possibility of rational defeat. Simply accusing your critics of hedonistic animality is all the simpler and less dangerous.


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