Hozier – Take Me To Church
A Response to a Noteworthy Song
My lover’s got humour
She’s the giggle at a funeral
Knows everybody’s disapproval
I should’ve worshipped her sooner
If the Heavens ever did speak
She’s the last true mouthpiece
Every Sunday’s getting more bleak
A fresh poison each week
‘We were born sick,’ you heard them say it
My church offers no absolutes
She tells me ‘worship in the bedroom’
The only heaven I’ll be sent to
Is when I’m alone with you
I was born sick, but I love it
Command me to be well
Amen. Amen. Amen
Take me to church
I’ll worship like a dog at the shrine of your lies
I’ll tell you my sins and you can sharpen your knife
Offer me that deathless death
Good God, let me give you my life
If I’m a pagan of the good times
My lover’s the sunlight
To keep the Goddess on my side
She demands a sacrifice
To drain the whole sea
Get something shiny
Something meaty for the main course
That’s a fine looking high horse
What you got in the stable?
We’ve a lot of starving faithful
That looks tasty
That looks plenty
This is hungry work
Take me to church
I’ll worship like a dog at the shrine of your lies
I’ll tell you my sins so you can sharpen your knife
Offer me my deathless death
Good God, let me give you my life
No masters or kings when the ritual begins
There is no sweeter innocence than our gentle sin
In the madness and soil of that sad earthly scene
Only then I am human
Only then I am clean
Amen. Amen. Amen
Take me to church
I’ll worship like a dog at the shrine of your lies
I’ll tell you my sins so you can sharpen your knife
Offer me that deathless death
Good God, let me give you my life
We are trying something new here, responding to a noteworthy song. There is no prompt. Just the song, video, and lyrics.
I hadn’t heard this song before Aurelius pointed it out to me (yes, I live under a musical bridge). It’s hard to tell exactly what the song is about on the surface. It’s interesting, because the first time I listened to the song I didn’t watch the video, only read the lyrics. I couldn’t tell what it was about. Watching the video made it clear that it’s about homosexuality.
In the video about the song, he says it has to do with institutions that work against people’s humanity. That’s an interesting statement, because it takes as a given a certain definition of humanity. Elsewhere he seems like he’s focusing on sexuality as a very natural element of humanity, of course meaning to say that homosexuality is thoroughly natural. Moreover, I still have some confusion about the message. For example, is his lover and his Goddess one and the same? Hozier has written some very poetic lyrics, which I’ll applaud him for – thank you for not writing meaningless babble or another banal love song.
Anyways, I am both sympathetic toward his song and a bit critical. I am, of course, sympathetic toward the plight of homosexuals who feel persecuted and judged by Christians, or anyone. Nobody deserves to be mistreated and bullied. Everyone is a human being and deserves respect. The Church, and Christians, have been very guilty of this over the years, and not just toward homosexuals. For this, I’m ashamed.
However, I also feel like he (and others) can fall into the trap of stereotyping, which is the same thing they tend to be critical of the church for. For example, in his “story behind” video, he talks about how it’s been a very bad year and few hundred years for the Church. This is a bit one-sided. Of course the Church is guilty of plenty, but then again the negative news makes headlines more than the positive news. It’s rarely reported how many of the doctors in west Africa fighting Ebola are Christians doing it because they feel compelled by their faith to serve on the front lines of a dangerous fight. A small article appeared in the Dallas newspaper recently talking about what a remarkable work a local church had done during the Ebola situation there, welcoming and loving the family of the man who died. It’s been a bad year for the Church if you read the negative headlines. I think it’s sad that all the good that the Church does often gets ignored and overlooked.
As for the issue of homosexual rights, we’ll deal with this more in-depth in a future post, but I’ll go back to my earlier statement: nobody deserves the bullying that the video portrays, regardless of who they are. You treat people with respect, whether they are your friends, your enemies, or a hardened criminal. A big part of my moral compass consists of approaching people as people separate from their actions, so even if I disagree with someone’s actions (such as a homosexual couple), they are still deserving of my brotherly respect. I reserve the right to disagree with their lifestyle choice while still valuing them and honoring their rights.
Response from Aurelius
I had the same confusion you did about the song’s meaning and had to watch the music video and interviews with the author to better understand it. Some lines are still lost to me, e.g., “No masters or kings when the ritual begins…”
Good on NBC for reporting about Samaritan’s Purse’s response to and efforts in the Ebola outbreak. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that most mainstream media often shy away from religious topics in an unachievable effort to appear unbiased, and that’s a shame because there are a lot of newsworthy religious topics to report. The media tend to focus on negative events, which Jimmy Fallon humorously counters with his series, I’ve Got Good News and Good News.
To your last paragraph, I don’t think people can be wholly separated from their actions as you suggest, although I think this could easily spawn another prompt. Most actions are primarily driven by intentional thought, but there are some actions that are more driven by our instinct or personality. An alcoholic’s thoughts sometimes cannot drive him to the correct action of not drinking excessively. Alcoholism is a disease that is hereditary in part (also environmental and psychological), similar to our current understanding of homosexuality in that way. Fortunately, alcoholism can be treated with a moderate success rate, but the treatment can be drastic, involving rehab and detox programs. You cannot say the same about homosexuality. It is not treatable even with drastic treatment programs as I reference in my response. Today’s science shows that it is a part of who that person is just as my heterosexuality is part of who I am. I cannot choose to be gay or be treated into becoming gay.
Regarding sin, we won’t be able to converge on that point. Sin is a religious construct, but I do have a moral compass that differentiates right and wrong and contains a whole lot of gray area. With it, I see absolutely no problem with homosexuality. It’s not natural to me, but I have no doubt it is natural to others. For some context, a century ago American Christians argued that women voting was biblically wrong, and before that the bible was used to justify slavery. Times have changed, and they’re changing again.
This song is incredible. I first heard it on the radio and found it musically intriguing. The singer is clearly passionate and the instruments are unobtrusive yet powerful. After listening to the lyrics I grew from liking to loving the song. I’m admittedly a sucker for deep lyrical songs, and this is now one of my favorites. I’ll start this response with thoughts from the artist then draw some conclusions.
From the Artist: There are a lot of interpretations available, many valid, but I prefer interviews with the artist. Hozier told New York magazine that the song is about sex and humanity, a “tongue-in-cheek attack at organizations that… would undermine humanity by successfully teaching shame about sexual orientation – that it is sinful, or that it offends God. The song is about asserting yourself and reclaiming your humanity through an act of love… choosing to worship and love something that is tangible and real. But it’s not an attack on faith.” The video is a specific example of this message, painfully portraying the state-allowed homophobic attacks in Russia. In the same interview, Hozier discusses his inspiration to write the song. “You grow up and recognize that in any educated secular society, there’s no excuse for ignorance. You have to recognize in yourself, and challenge yourself, that if you see racism or homophobia or misogyny in a secular society, as a member of that society, you should challenge it. You owe it to the betterment of society.”
Implications: Those who attend church have probably heard the saying, “Love the sinner, hate the sin,” which sounds sweet but forces faithful people to feel ashamed and lesser. Macklemore addresses this cultural discrimination of homosexuality in his song Same Love. The first verse of Hozier’s piece juxtaposes two figures. The female lover of the female narrator is introduced as “my lover,” a love that is real but shamed by the second figure, the church, introduced as “my church,” denying entry into Heaven because of homosexual sin. Homosexuals attending church often feel this way, but there are many homosexual Christians that have found accepting churches and communities. We need more of those communities.
Fear-based church is losing popularity as the public loses its belief in hell. Some church leaders are intentionally trying to rebrand hell. I’m not sure what will come of it, but the relevance here is that Hozier is calling out those who would shame others for their sexuality, not just the church, but the church is a big culprit here, oftentimes subtly but sometimes harshly. This is not love. Even saying homosexuals are inherently sinful but accepted in our communities is not love. Love is instead not differentiating or treating homosexuals any different than heterosexuals, believing the years of evidence that sexuality cannot be altered. There is still a lot of research to be done to determine how sexuality is determined and the public is still at odds on whether homosexuality is innate or acquired. Treating homosexuals different in any way does no good. In fact, as Hozier illustrates, it harms.
Response from Antipas
Like I mentioned on the other side, there’s a line that needs to be walked. I do agree with Hozier saying that if you see racism, homophobia, or misogyny in society, it’s the right thing to do to stand against it. I don’t need a religious argument to know that I’m against those things. People are people, and whether homosexuality is innate or acquired (I tend to think it could be either, depending on the person), it’s still not something to discriminate against.
However, I’m concerned about where you say that “love the sinner, hate the sin” is not real love. Or that calling homosexuality a sin while welcoming them in church is not love. That’s concerning to me, as a Christian, because it doesn’t even give us a chance. Our set of beliefs, and the book we believe to be God-breathed, is unambiguous about homosexuality being a sin. If we’re not allowed to love people without loving everything they do, then it’s impossible for a sincere Christian to be a member of society.
Furthermore, why can’t real love condemn the actions of a person? If a husband cheats on a wife, and she loves him and forgives him and he works to restore himself, was it not real love on her part, even though she surely hated his actions? If a child steals something at the grocery store, isn’t the parent’s love even more true if the parent condemns the action and makes the child return the shoplifted goods? If I believe that homosexuality is a sin before God, why can’t I still love that person? If love is a self-sacrificial desire for the best for another, I’d argue that it’d actually be less loving to overlook an action that you believe to be wrong.
In the end, I’d be disingenuous to my religion not to believe that homosexuality is a sin. But this isn’t a finger-pointing exercise. The Bible is clear that that all people are sinners, and equally separated from God. The Bible is judgmental toward things that I’m plenty guilty of, such as looking lustfully at a woman (says I’m an adulterer), hating someone (says I’m a murderer), and gluttony (says poverty is coming). Rather than finger-pointing at one particular sin, can’t we be clear that there are a variety of sins, of which we are all rather guilty? It’s a shame that homosexuality has gotten such attention, at the expense of other things I believe are wrong.
What messages from the Bible are most important for non-Christians?
One of my English teachers in school told the class on more than one occasion that it would be impossible to fully grasp a great deal of literature without a thorough understanding of the Bible. So much of literature, culture, and language, particularly in the Western world, has been informed by Biblical concepts and terminology. Whether it’s Shakespearean references to the Bible, “Good Samaritan” laws, or names of places and people, the Bible is full of source material for the world.
However, beyond the cultural importance of having at least some fluency in Biblical stories and terminology, there are Biblical themes that are very important for life, regardless of one’s belief system. As a Christian, I’d of course be the first to say that all people ought to read the Bible. I do believe that the Bible is divinely inspired (“God-breathed” is the term the Bible uses for itself), so to me the themes found in its pages take on an even more paramount significance. Yet I still believe that even if you disagree with that conclusion, anyone can still agree with much of what is written in the book.
For starters, there is the “wisdom” literature of the Bible. This commonly includes Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job. Psalms and Song of Songs are sometimes also included in that category though they are musical/lyrical. The “apocryphal” (not considered divinely inspired and thus not included in most versions of the Bible) books of Wisdom of Solomon and Sirach are also wisdom literature. These books, though thoroughly seasoned with divine imagery and themes, are also full of philosophy, advice, and ways of viewing and understanding the world.
However, even the overarching stories and themes of the rest of the Bible can serve as beautiful imagery for anyone, including non-Christians. The Bible has a theme of describing God’s relationship to His people like a man and his wife. The image goes both ways to inform our understanding of marriage and also to illuminate our relationship with God. Themes that work this way are valuable to non-Christians. God’s relentless pursuit of his people like a man of his bride, regardless of his bride’s detours with prostitution and unrequited love, is a beautiful picture of love.
Time would exhaust us to look at all the themes and sayings that are wise for all people. However, I have to footnote my own response to say that I do believe that belief and full understanding of the Bible comes from the Holy Spirit. One has to be a Christian to have God’s spirit illuminating the Bible fully to him. So while I do believe that everyone has something to gain from reading the Bible, I also believe that reading it will lead someone to a split in the road: either the Bible becomes a book full of nonsense and unintelligible stories, or it becomes a divinely-inspired account of God and man that guides one in faith.
Response from Aurelius
Great post. I like that you explained motifs and themes, while I took an alternate route of highlighting verses that capture biblical ideas I find universally applicable.
Sounds like you had a good English teacher. I often think I would have appreciated literature earlier if I had better English teachers. She’s right that so much of the Western world today is shaped by biblical principles. For better or worse, an understanding of the bible can help explain the world in which we live.
When I was a particularly devout Christian, one of my favorite songs to listen to and perform was Wedding Dress by Derek Webb. To me, these lyrics perfectly captured the struggling reality of the groom and bride metaphor that the bible, as you say, often uses in reference to God and his people. An understanding of this metaphor can also help non-Christian Westerners partially understand why the political right wants to preserve traditional man-woman marriage.
I think it’s worth pointing out that not all Christians reject the apocrypha. While the word literally translates to non-canonical, the books in that category are considered divine by Catholics today and weren’t removed from most versions of the bible until the Protestant reformation in the 16th century. The history of the bible is fascinating given its current prominence.
While no longer a Christian, there are many bible passages I respect and try to follow. Here are a few of them under the English Standard Version.
James 1:19 “…Be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.” This is of course not just a biblical principle. Breathe and count to 10. Think before you speak. Don’t act out of anger. These are all part of the same message to listen to others, think, then act. Anger is good when used sparingly, but it must be used wisely.
Philippians 2:3-4 “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” This passage is really hard, but I believe in the philosophy that we should value others and avoid conceit. Where it is hard is in valuing others above me. This goes beyond just loving your neighbor as yourself, doing unto them as you would do unto yourself. I primarily look after myself and my family, which I don’t think is always bad. However, the philosophy of elevating the value of others above the value of oneself makes me rethink how I treat others, what I say, how I say it, what I do, and how I spend my time. It’s a great passage to dwell on during moments of self-reflection.
Proverbs 25:21 and Matthew 5:44 “If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat, and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink… Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” If you have an unforgiving personality, this message is extremely hard. It’s hard regardless, but it’s good practice to feel sympathy for those that might hate you and help them when possible. Hopefully all of our mothers taught us that two wrongs don’t make a right.
Proverbs 4:5 “Get wisdom, get understanding.” I’m a firm believer in being a lifelong learner. Never stop learning and being curious. This covers understanding because knowledge and understanding go hand in hand, but wisdom is on a separate plane. However, it can be obtained and sharpened through decision-making, reflection and analysis on oneself and others, and listening to those with age and experience. I would much rather follow a wise man than an erudite.
There are a lot more, but I hope you enjoyed these. To those that haven’t read the bible, firstly I hope you’re not Christian. If you’re a Christian and haven’t read the bible, those books are your holy scriptures in which you should be basking regularly. Christianity is an all-or-nothing religion if you actually believe what Jesus said. If you’re not a Christian, there is a lot of great stuff in the bible. There’s a lot of crazy stuff as well, but it’s worth reading for the gems.
Response from Antipas
I love your conclusion – Christianity is an all-or-nothing religion. Such a true statement, and sometimes I think that it takes non-Christians to recognize that. Sometimes we Christians get way too complacent. Reading the whole Bible is quite the time commitment, but then again so is everything worth doing.
I like your quick picks of valuable Bible verses. You’ve got relationships with others and wisdom in there, two topics on which the Bible has a lot to say. The wisdom of the Bible is valuable for all people, as I wrote, but for the Christian there is a second level. Not just are there some great verses for life, but there are underlying truths behind them. Why do we value others, love our enemies, and practice being slow to anger? Because we are all created in the image of God. Thus, we are all equal, and further, we ought to be like God. These are God’s attributes, so we ought to emulate them.
It’s great that these Bible passages are approachable for anyone, and valuable for anyone. However, I believe that they point us to something deeper – a reason for these sorts of ideals. They’re not simple nuggets of wisdom and advice. They are reflections of God’s personality and love, and hold together as part of an overarching worldview with God at the center.
What is the value of higher education?
A century or so ago, getting the equivalent of a high school education was nice but not absolutely necessary. You simply didn’t need such an education for your average manual labor or factory job. Today high school is pretty necessary and college education has taken its place as nice but not absolutely necessary. Some feel like college is going the same direction to become more and more necessary. Maybe it’s profit-motivated: schools make more money by having more students, so convincing people that they need college is good for business.
Are they right? Mike Rowe has been a big proponent of the idea that people need to “work smart and hard,” not simply pursuing higher education for its own sake but thinking about what kind of education various careers require. There are tons of great jobs out there that require technical school, rather than college. There are many college grads who are only qualified for one career, and if they ever change their mind or get downsized, they’ll be in a really tough spot. I agree with him that college isn’t for everyone. In some cases, going to college may even damage your life by leaving you unskilled and in debt.
I’d like to look deeper at this question, however, get to the “heart of the matter” if you will. Let’s separate the idea of higher education from formal schooling. I have a college degree and a post-graduate degree. Those are elements of higher education, but my education did not end when I hung them on the wall. I’m a big proponent of lifelong learning. Further, the world is changing, and rapidly. Many fields are so complicated already that they can’t be understood without intense training. Even what goes on under the hood of a car is highly computerized. You need “higher education” to be qualified in these fields, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you need more degrees. You need to learn from others and be a disciplined lifelong learner. It’s a valuable informal higher education just to never stop learning and improving yourself.
I’d also like to consider higher education as that which does not simply emphasize learning knowledge. Knowledge is essential, but critical reasoning, problem solving, character, and leadership are just as important – in any field. Whatever level of education is able to impart such things, that education will be valuable.
Finally, broad-based education is also important in many fields. I believe that many trades are becoming more intertwined with other unrelated things, such as my earlier example of engine mechanics and computer science. More and more workers in the 21st century and beyond will need at least basic skills in a wide variety of fields to be successful. To be innovative and groundbreaking, I believe that proficiency in varying fields will be essential. Tomorrow’s discoveries will come from the intersections of previously-unconnected concepts, mixed with healthy doses of critical reasoning and problem solving. In this way, “higher education” that provides a broader base of proficiency to go along with an area of specialization will become more and more valuable for all people.
Response from Aurelius
Great post. We took this one in different directions, which is great because otherwise this blog would be painfully redundant.
I like your point that college is becoming more and more necessary just like the high school education of the past. A broad education gives you valuable breadth to many ideas but makes you less employable due to your lack of specialization, while a specialization can be harmful if your skill is not in demand. Studying electrical engineering, my professors encouraged us all to at least get an MS because the BS was no longer specialized enough for many jobs.
You also raise a good point that higher education is much more than knowledge, even beyond critical thinking as I mentioned in my post. Character and leadership are vital. My previous manager, prepping me to be a manager, told me to focus on leadership, not management. It’s a bit cliché nowadays, but the point is important. Knowledge and critical thinking will not advance society or the individual without strong character and the ability to lead.
You’re absolutely right that innovation will come, and often does come, through the intersection of seemingly unconnected fields. I forget the details, but I think it was Hughes Aircraft Company in the mid 20th century that started putting two people from different functions in the same office. This encouraged cross-functional collaboration, fostering innovation to give them a competitive edge. Major advances occur when people question the fundamentals from new perspectives, which is aided by a higher education strong in both breadth and depth.
Even though I suggested this prompt, the question is a bit silly. Of course higher education is valuable. It benefits the individual in many ways and even society at large. So, let’s discuss just how valuable higher education is.
In general, the value of higher education is more than what it costs.
Education enriches the mind, allowing the student to see everything in a more revealing, critical light. Ignorance is not bliss. It is darkness of the mind.
Today’s required education ends near the age of 18 and includes an introductory understanding of the world as we know it. While students can choose to enroll in advanced courses, they do not have a specialty or finely tuned critical thinking skills. Critical thinking is the true value of a higher education to the individual, while obtaining a specialty increases employability, unless perhaps you majored in philosophy. An unfortunate friend of mine worked at a liquor store with a PhD in philosophy, but his mind was rich I suppose. Critical thinking, however, is sometimes incorrectly placed aside in order to promote barely-mind-stretching workforce skills. UT Austin’s president from 1979-1985 and 1997-1998, Peter Flawn, recently said, “There seems to be a political move, and it’s not just in Texas, away from the classical mission of the university – cultivation of the mind and pursuit of knowledge – to a concept of a public university as sort of a job corps or a trade school.”
The only debatable aspect of this discussion is the monetary value of higher education. My son will be 18 in 2032, and I’ve projected the total cost of an in-state 4-year public education, including room and board, to be about $250,000 that year. That’s absurd. The current cost of just under $100,000 is drastically outpacing inflation, so while the cost is worth it today, it will not be in the near future without a major disruption. I personally believe this disruption will take the form of highly ranked online degrees beginning to dominate and drive down the cost through increased competition.
This response would not be complete without mentioning the societal benefits of an educated individual and an educated public. John Green feels very passionately about public education, and I feel similarly about a college education. It is in society’s best interest to educate its public. Education leads to technological advancements, a more active populace, and a stronger economy. College graduates have a voting rate 1.7 times that of high school graduates in the young to middle age adult range. College graduates also pay more in taxes, have better health, are incarcerated less, and rely less on government social programs. As John Green put it, “It is useful to have an educated population… I don’t like living in a country with a bunch of stupid people.”
Response from Antipas
Great thoughts, my friend. Again we have taken this prompt in some different ways, but again I find very little to disagree with you on here. Your final paragraph is very telling – there are huge benefits to both the individual and society to have a highly-education population. It was like playing SimCity years ago and investing in schools, colleges, libraries and museums. There’s a societal cost to building and maintaining such structures, but the benefits far outweigh them.
My only question would be to push against your basic premise just a bit. I’ll agree with you that the point of higher education is to enrich the mind, but is that valuable for all people? Of course we would love to have a highly-educated population, but are we engaging in just an upper-middle class debate while ignoring the way that a poor family might face this topic?
From the perspective of a lower-income family, there might not be much value in enriching the mind. Can the family business be carried on with a high school diploma? Probably! Our society needs these simply family businesses and there is no shame in simple lives with straightforward work. Those of us who are constantly called upon for deep thinking at work may even sometimes envy the simple work that you leave at 5pm. So higher education is valuable, yes, but is it something we should encourage for all people?
Should You Legislate Morality?
You can, you must, and you do. Morality is simply considering what is right and wrong in a public sense. Laws forbidding things like indecent exposure, public intoxication, and child pornography are legislating morality – they’re just morals that nobody has questioned (yet). The question is really which morals should be legislated, and which shouldn’t. We usually meet this with things that people wish to have legislated for religious reasons. If someone has a religious objection to homosexuality, they might like it to be made illegal on the basis of immorality. It’s essential to this discussion to realize that there is no inherent difference between making homosexuality illegal, making marijuana illegal, or making child pornography illegal. The only difference is that some moral issues are up for debate right now, while others aren’t.
So which morals should be legislated, and which shouldn’t? Many say that laws should be designed to prevent harm. Preventing harm to another person is obvious. It is, and should be, illegal to shoot someone at a four-way stop. Laws that prevent harm to society are a bit more ambiguous, but often still valuable. It’s harmful to society to run a four-way stop even if there’s nobody else around. What about laws that prevent harm to yourself? At our little four-way stop, it’s illegal to not wear a seatbelt. The only person you’d be harming is yourself. Other than that, there aren’t a lot of these types of laws. Drivers have to maintain insurance, but only so far as to cover the damage to other vehicles. You don’t have to cover yourself.
So now how do we consider the typical “legislating morality” issues that people talk about? I believe that an honest look at many issues will reveal that harm is being done. I don’t believe there is any such thing as a victimless crime. In this I am arguing that we need to expand Mill’s “harm principle” ethics. We need to think more broadly about harm, and what kind of good and virtuous society we need to create. Some will argue that if we have so many forbidden things, freedom is lost. Freedom is lost if the legislature has to process many details of daily life, indeed, so let me consider an alternative path that leaves the freedom with the people.
I wonder which is more important – freedom, or a virtuous society? Or is freedom merely one virtue among others? Democracy is meant for a virtuous society. If society becomes corrupt and decrepit and loses its sense of right and wrong, I question whether pure representative democracy would even be the best form of government. This is part of why Plato didn’t think democracy would work – he figured the people would be too dishonest to vote for what was in the best interests of society, but would only vote for what was in their own self-interest. Thus, I would like to argue, finally, that more important than legislating morality is for the government to work intentionally at encouraging a virtuous society. This is self-preservation for the government, because otherwise the nation will either slip toward an unethical society or a tyrannical government.
Response from Aurelius
You raise a good point that the question is not whether or not we should legislate morals but which morals. To take it a step further, I would argue we cannot determine which morals until we establish a basis for those morals (e.g., a set of rights, a historic religious text, a list of principles, etc.). Morals need a basis, something upon which they can rely, otherwise there are gray areas inviting division.
Your point about a virtuous society is noble but not clearly defined. In particular, a virtuous society is one that upholds a set of virtues. This set of virtues, however, is based on morals, since virtues are defined as qualities that are morally good or promote individual or collective moral greatness. We still have the same logical problem. We still need a basis for the set of virtues that make up a virtuous society.
To be a little more practical, maybe division isn’t so bad and might be one of the reasons that democracy sort of works. Different people value and prioritize morals differently, and democracy, in theory, allows the people to adjust the rules to fit the views of the time and the majority. True democracy means we don’t require a precedence or basis for our moral decisions. Instead, the people decide what is right through elections, legislation, and the judicial process.
I’m glad we decided to tackle this question because I’ve learned a lot through the discussion. We came up with similar concepts and reasoning, which is always neat. As a society, we need to understand that morals are very rarely absolutes. What we value may not be valued by others, and we must respect what others value. In our society at least, another’s opinion and vote counts just as much as our own.
I had a hard time with this response, rewriting it completely, which I don’t often do. There are two issues at stake here: understanding morality and determining whether or not it has a place in law. Both are highly philosophical, so it’s perfectly reasonable to have different viewpoints.
With that preface, let’s first discuss morality. It’s denotatively black and white, but in practice is highly dependent on a variety of factors. What I mean is that by definition morality differentiates right and wrong, good and bad, but in practice there are gray areas. We don’t all agree on what’s right and wrong. Descriptive morality is formed primarily by culture, religion, and experience. For instance, while we may agree that killing is generally wrong without strong justification, we may not agree on the moral and legal issues of abortion or capital punishment. Normative morality, on the other hand, is universally applicable. To be exact, it is a “universal code of conduct that all rational persons, under plausible specified conditions, would put forward for governing the behavior of all moral agents” [Stanford Philosophy Encyclopedia]. But what does that really mean in practice? Well, it generally deals exclusively with preventing harm to oneself or others. It does not apply to the juicy gray areas we see in descriptive morality.
Legislating morality, the second issue at stake, is truly a slippery slope. What is right for one person is not necessarily right for others, and vice versa. But, if we don’t legislate based on morality, then on what should legislation be based?
Morality provides rules of conduct, while the purpose of the law is to enforce a set of rules. In the U.S., we base our laws on a constitution, which mostly just shows how our country should be governed, but it also includes amendments that delineate certain rights. The authors and judges used morality and ethics to construct these rights, which have evolved over time, for example abolishing slavery and giving voting rights to women. Those seem like no brainers today but were considered moral and legal gray areas at the time.
To answer the question, my view is that only normative morality should be legislated, i.e., if the law reasonably prevents harm to oneself or others. This is why we have seatbelt laws (self harm) in addition to speed limits (harm to others). It’s simple and logical. Any laws related to descriptive morality may not stand the test of time and may have sometimes severe consequences, for example banning homosexual marriage or the Three-Fifths Compromise. You may not see those two as similar, but I’m not trying to equate them, just pointing out that both do not prevent harm to oneself or others and clearly do harm a group of people, either by dehumanizing slaves or by limiting significant rights of gay people.
My view is incomplete, however, since it doesn’t detail if or how to form laws that do not relate to harm to oneself or others. Luckily, legislation is not my job.
Interesting follow-up sources:
Response from Antipas
I love how we write independently, yet come up with such similar concepts, my friend. We’ve both landed on the familiar ethical question of harm, but you’re right in noting that it’s incomplete. I’m broadening the principle to include harm to society, and arguing that a lot more harm is done than we realize. But you surely can’t make everything illegal that causes harm. Thus my interest in a virtuous society, which goes beyond legislation to things like encouraging higher education, civil society, community, and so forth. I’d of course also add that religion and spirituality, rightly applied, can be great sources of virtue.
In the end, if we followed the path of looking at descriptive vs. normative morality, we’d find a lot more differences between us. What goes in which category? One person might say, “It’s wrong for me to practice polygamy, but maybe it’s right for others.” I’d say that it’s universally wrong to practice polygamy. How do we decide which category it goes in? Is murder universally wrong or just situationally wrong? How about stealing? How about jaywalking? You’re right to say it’s a slippery slope, and not one I’m interested in treading.
I’m with you in being glad that I’m not a legislator.
Do preconceived notions lead to prejudice and discrimination?
Preconceived notions are two things right from the start: 1) impossible to avoid, and 2) often based on the truth. First, it is critical to note that they are often how we make sense of the world. They form our worldviews as we categorize things. Second, they arise from previous life experience. If you are an employer who has a preconceived notion that poorly dressed and uneducated job applicants are not likely to be the best candidates for a job, your preconceived notion is not necessarily incorrect. We could call this preconceived notion a first impression, or even “judging a book by its cover.” In a world where sometimes decisions need to be made quickly, few would disagree with this preconceived notion or fault anyone for carrying it. Malcolm Gladwell makes some similar suggestions in his book, Blink. It might be helpful to free the term “prejudice” from some of its pejorative connotations and think of it more in terms of applying one’s life experience to a situation in which one doesn’t know all of the facts.
Preconceived notions become a problem when we incorrectly believe that they are based on the truth, because preconceived notions also have a third critical attribute: they can easily become self-fulfilling prophecies. For example, a preconceived notion that black people are criminals is not based on truth. A preconceived notion that a higher proportion of black people than white people are criminals only has a resemblance to the truth because it has become a self-fulfilling prejudice. Prisons are filled with black people, it’s true, but it’s not because black people are inherently destined to be criminals. It’s because the above preconceived notion leads people to discrimination. Unfortunately, some such preconceived notions have become so pervasive that they are very difficult to break free of. Even if we know intellectually that they are not based in reality, our subconscious has a stubborn way of hanging on to them. This is the danger, where preconceived notions do lead to discrimination.
This is where we have to get down deep into ourselves, into our worldview and even our subconscious. We need deep reprogramming of our minds and hearts. The Bible offers us a worldview where we are all equally broken, and equally living in a broken world. Contrary to some who teach a Christian worldview of “triumph” – that living a spiritual life is one of victory over temptation, life’s struggles, and so forth – the Bible teaches a path of pain, challenge, imperfection, and even defeat. If we are serious about building this teaching into the base of our worldview and programming it deeply into our subconscious, two changes will occur in our response to preconceived notions. First, we will allow everyone the opportunity to prove us wrong. Second, rather than allowing preconceived notions to push us into a judgment of superiority, we will see ourselves on a level playing field with those we are judging. Though we pre-judge a person, we will accept them for who they are as no better or worse than we are.
Response from Aurelius
We approached the prompt quite similarly, and interestingly we both identified the dangerous self-fulfilling aspect of preconceived notions. You took it a step further by providing takeaways in the final paragraph linked to a Christian worldview, with which I have to partially disagree. Although the takeaways are valuable, I don’t believe that a Christian worldview is necessary to form them.
In my personal worldview, we all make mistakes and we all have imperfect knowledge. That is, we don’t know everything. We are inherently finite. Therefore, to your first point, we should always approach situations knowing that someone else may know better, that we might be wrong. An open mind should accompany us always.
I am hesitant to respond to the second point, because I do in fact categorize some people as better or worse. However, it is not based on preconceived notions. I categorize others based on their use of opportunity. We are not all born with equal opportunity, but we must make the best of it, maximizing the outcome from that opportunity. Preconceived notions may lead us to look poorly or judgmentally on those in less desirable circumstances, but they may have had little choice, less opportunity. On the contrary, those with tremendous opportunity that make little of it would be categorized as worse in my view due to the wasted potential.
By and large, though, we agree that preconceived notions have a slippery slope into prejudice and discrimination.
This topic piqued my interest after hearing two separate radio stories. One story was about favoritism, the lesser, more acceptable form of prejudice. A Yale professor cut her hand severely while doing the dishes and promptly sought help at the hospital. After telling the ER doctor she was an avid quilter, the doctor started to stitch up her cut. However, someone in the ER recognized her, addressed her as “professor,” and all of the sudden the ER doctor devised an alternate course of action. They brought in a whole team of doctors, including a famous hand specialist in order to give her the best possible treatment. The ER doctor treated a quilter much differently than he did a Yale professor.
We all analyze people through first impressions, heavily weighting factors we consider to be superior. Well-dressed, groomed, fit, good looking, smiling, warm mannerisms, speech, accent, associations, etc. From an evolutionary perspective this allows us to quickly ascertain how to react to a situation, but it can cause us to treat people differently in subtly harmful ways. Sometimes not so subtly, crossing the line from prejudice to discrimination. Favoritism reveals that our less-than-best treatment of those we do not believe are familiar or worthy is a form of discrimination. Treating those in our own networks preferably inadvertently treats others unfairly.
The second story focuses on white teachers in predominantly black districts that realized they were not completely colorblind. Teachers are more likely to let minority students get away with slang and incorrect grammar, and will even discipline them more frequently and severely.
It is all a matter of expectations. We expect certain behaviors from people based on our preconceived notions, and we are not always aware that our expectations influence behavior.
The Pygmalion effect describes this behavior, as evidenced by the famous Rosenthal-Jacobsen study and more recently in an Israel Defense Forces replication. Four instructors were told that certain students in their training groups had high, low, or unknown potential. After a week of training the instructors rated the potential of their students, and the students were also separately tested and questioned. Those with originally high potential scored 15 percentage points better on performance tests than the low potential students, and the high potential students gave more favorable ratings of the course and instructors. However, the original high, low, and unknown potentials given to the instructors were completely random. The instructors expected more of the randomly selected high potential students. Leadership and expectations influence behavior more than we know.
Response from Antipas
You’ve come at this topic from a somewhat different angle, but we ultimately agree. Preconceived notions are dangerous self-fulfilling prophecies. I’m curious though about the inevitability of them. I feel like it’s nearly impossible to really avoid them. Your question of favoritism makes me want to take it to the extreme…what if it’s an extremely specialized pediatric heart surgeon who needs her hands to save lives? What if it’s the UN Secretary General? Would favoritism be avoidable…or even should it be avoided?
Your thoughts on expectations are well-put. But it’s also a matter of analyzing worth. The teachers are expecting less from the minority students, just as the ER doctor is calculating the worth of a professor differently than an avid quilter. I thoroughly agree with your conclusions, but I would like to take it a bit further to emphasize that it’s not just the prejudice and discrimination that are wrong. The reason that prejudice and discrimination are wrong is because it’s ultimately wrong to calculate the worth of a human being. I strongly believe that we are all equally valuable, from the wealthiest to the poorest, from the most qualified to the most inept, from the mentally handicapped to the most brilliant.
This doesn’t preclude us from exercising some judgment against people, but not of their inherent worth. We can judge people’s actions, and criticize them, and blame them, but we’ve got to find a way to separate the judgment of people’s actions from the judgment of people.