Category Archives: Sociology
What is the deal with the “Culture Wars”?
Christians often have a confrontational relationship with the culture around them. Some characterize this as Christians being “anti everything” and others just get annoyed by their insistence on things like traditional marriage, abortion, cultural Christian artifacts, and so forth. People rightfully ask why it is that Christians seem to be so angry all the time.
There’s a great older book called Christ and Culture by H. Richard Niebuhr that details the different ways that Christians can interact with culture. You can be against culture, absorbed in culture, above culture, in paradox with it (we have a secular life and a spiritual life that continually intersect and diverge), or you can view Christ and the Christian as the transformer of culture. It’s very common for Christians to take one of the first two stances – at war with it, or just making Christian copies of things and consuming them. Some set themselves aloof with the third option and sort of ignore the world around them, but the author of the book has a respect for the paradox view and encourages the transformer view.
God created people as cultivators of a garden and I think that analogy can have value today. You can’t cultivate a garden by being angry at it, or by embracing the weeds, or by viewing the soil as beneath you and unworthy of attention. You’ve got to take what’s there and work to make it better, caring for it constantly and bringing great things out.
Does this approach minimize the bad things in the world and just accept them? Not at all. I think it’s disingenuous to our own faith to deny that there are things wrong with the world. If the Bible is clear about a certain subject, then Christians ought to be similarly clear. But this doesn’t mean you have to be confrontational about it. You can believe, as I do, that abortion is wrong, and not picket in front of abortion clinics and criticize people who have had abortions. You can maintain both your convictions and your love for others. For example, you could quit yelling about making abortion illegal and start encouraging women to make different decisions.
There’s a lot of yelling in the world today. Our semi-anonymous culture of internet communication and mass media makes it easy. Solomon is wise when he says “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” There’s a time for harsh words, and there’s a time for gentleness. When Christians are known for their harsh words rather than for their love, they’ve missed the point. There is no Christian nation, our USA not even being close, and much of the culture wars come about because Christians think that the USA is one. We have to accept that and be glad for it.
If it’s not a Christian nation, then we can feel free to hold our own beliefs strong and not seek to impose them on the world around us, as if a non-Christian would want to live by Christian beliefs. We can embrace the world, weeds and all, and take an attitude of seeking to leave this world better than we found it through loving cultivation.
Response from Aurelius
Nice perspective. We tackled this prompt in markedly different ways. In those five responses to culture, I see many of today’s Christians taking a combination of the first and third approach: against and above culture, which is why many Christians come off as angry or culturally divisive. The person that I think best exemplifies the transformative approach is Mother Teresa. She viewed the world around her as a garden begging for love and compassion and therefore devoted her life to loving and helping others.
I agree with you that there is too much yelling in the world today. In my view, yelling, protesting, and picketing rarely produce the desired outcome. On the contrary, quiet fortitude can wake people up, just as Rosa Parks exemplified. We all probably know someone with this type of character. The loud voices of the room become noise after a while, but when the quiet person speaks, everyone listens.
I wish more Christians in the U.S. would share your perspective of accepting and even being glad that the country is not a Christian nation and not try to impose Christian beliefs onto others. Imposing your beliefs on others only perpetuates already-divided camps and comes off as foolish to those who believe otherwise, more eloquently stated by one of my favorite British actors, Stephen Fry, on one of my favorite TV shows, QI. “The myth of the Jewish people having manna dropped on their heads, that doesn’t actually matter… That’s like a Greek myth or any other myth. It’s when it gets to telling people how to behave is where we do draw the line.”
We can all agree on your last point. Let’s leave this world better than how we found it.
If you live in the U.S. or keep up with U.S. news you are likely aware of the political atmosphere’s close connection with religious differences. Christian vs. non-Christian. Right-wing fundamentalist Christian vs. moderate Christian. Tea Party vs. moderate Republican. These divides played a huge role in this summer’s same-sex marriage ruling and they are a significant influence in many other cultural and moral issues.
“Culture war” only makes sense within the context of a single group with conflicting cultures, such as a non-homogeneous country. It’s important to note that every country has some unique culture war but in this post we are talking about the U.S. culture wars. The U.S. culture wars are predominantly religious, primarily between Christian and Other.
To understand the current culture wars requires an understanding of their influences and beginnings. I had to educate myself here, so here’s a recap. The culture wars became increasingly religious in the 80s and 90s even through today but they have more secular beginnings in the 60s. Early issues were civil rights, feminism, minority representation, and war vs. peace. Major issues then became abortion, homosexuality, religious discrimination, and again war vs. peace. Today’s media serve to propagate instead of mitigate the culture wars, with Fox News on one side and MSNBC and CNN in the opposing corner.
So, what can we do about the culture wars? How do they benefit and harm society?
The benefit of the culture wars is they can unite a large group of people into action based on beliefs they strongly support. It challenges people to examine their own beliefs to determine which they stand for and how strongly. Having to pick a side also promotes competition, and competition has many proven benefits and is one of the most natural human endeavors.
The major harm in culture wars is the creation and sustainment of the Us vs. Them mentality. We are all the same species and should embrace our humanity and endeavor to improve our collective existence, not highlight our differences. Even though we will naturally associate with one side based on our beliefs and upbringing, allying ourselves with one side makes it easy to dismiss the other side. We must resist the urge to be dismissive and divisive.
With the holiday season now here, instead of bickering with our loved ones, what if each week or two each of us read an opinion piece from the other side or tried to carry a conversation with someone with sharply different beliefs with the sole intent of respecting an opinion contrary to our own and understanding its premise? It’s not a farfetched idea, but we don’t take the time to do it. It would require just a small effort but the ripples would be long lasting. That is the primary intent of this blog because my coauthor and I believe in the power of respectful discourse. It is not hard to do and I can attest that it is remarkably refreshing to have your opinion respected by someone who disagrees with you while you are being enlightened by genuinely listening to their perspective. It’s a beautiful thing that we should all strive for. We don’t have to be divided.
Response from Antipas
You’re right that this issue strikes at the heart of why we started the blog, so of course we’re going to have the same mind on it. There have been times that I have really enjoyed reading some academically-minded Tea Party literature, because sometimes once you get past the vitriol you find some logical arguments. I may find that I disagree with a premise, or think the argument leaves something out, but understanding the argument is key to understanding why I hold my own position.
The same is true of any issue, whether it’s homosexual marriage, allowing refugees and asylum-seekers into the country, or even something silly like red Starbucks cups. Our world would have a lot less yelling if, before anyone brought out their argument, they listened to and understood the logic from the other side. Your suggestion of carrying on conversations with those who disagree is a great one, and I hope more people do it.
Finally, thank you for pointing out the positive aspects of the “culture wars”. I glossed over these, but you make a great point. I may not like the angry and bitter conflicts that Christians sometimes pick, but this energy can also be harnessed for good – mobilizing to action, for example. I also know that I have rarely understood my own position so well as when I was forced to defend it against an onslaught. Let’s go out and manage the culture wars positively!
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What is success in life?
Success is an esoteric subject that could be looked at in all sorts of different ways. When someone is described as a “successful person,” however, there’s a very definite picture that tends to appear in our minds. This is culturally learned. In America we naturally picture a wealthy businessman, with a great family and a nice house. Why can’t success be defined differently? If you’ve read or seen Les Misérables, you know the benevolent bishop who opens up the story by saving Valjean’s life. He excelled at giving everything away, and I’d call him successful.
The Bible talks about success. Proverbs 16:3 says “Commit your work to the Lord, and your plans will be established.” I love this, because it requires submitting to God and doing it for Him, and then God will make His plans yours. It’s subtly not saying “God will bless your plans,” but implying that God’s plans will be blessed through you. God will give you success – not yours, but His. Joshua 1:8 talks about meditating on God’s word so that Joshua will be prosperous and successful. When the Bible talks about prospering, it tends to be more of a holistic wellbeing, not only financial. A commission was given to Joshua, and through trusting God he would achieve it.
I’d call success the achieving of God’s call on our lives. This can relate to any number of separate vocations. I’ve got a vocation as a husband, as an employee, as a friend, and so on. At any given moment, I can be succeeding or failing in each. I’m succeeding if I’m accomplishing what God is looking for me to do. If God wants me to gently correct and teach a friend, but instead I only encourage them, I’m failing. If I’m called to encourage a friend, but I try to teach them instead, I’m failing.
How then do we know what to do? We get close to God and listen to him – not just occasionally, or even daily, but moment by moment. This isn’t some kind of weird constant praying or something, it’s just a general posture of leaning on God for direction. In the moment, we’ll know what we’re supposed to do, and success will come if we follow the direction.
Taking the long view then, what is success in life? It’s the same thing, but applied over the course of life. If we’re called to be a fabulous businessman, then success is being the best businessman possible. If we’re called to invent something world-changing after a lifetime of research and trials, then success is finally inventing it late in life. If we’re called to be an incredible father, then success is raising awesome children. And yes, if we’re called to be a faithful custodian, success is doing the best job cleaning each night. Success is finding whatever we are called to do, both in the short-term and long-term, and getting there with the Lord’s help.
Response from Aurelius
I wouldn’t define success as the achieving of God’s call on our lives because without religion that definition is arbitrary, but we both define success in large part by working hard and treating others well in whatever area makes sense for us. One struggle I had in writing my response was distinguishing achievement from effort. While success by itself requires accomplishment, I think success in life is about effort.
When you talk about God wanting to correct vs encourage behavior, I would interpret that as you upholding a moral standard. If you uphold the standard, either by correcting or encouraging, you are succeeding. For example, if my coworker says privately to me, “Truthfully, she was only hired because she has boobs,” I’m forced into an awkward situation. Most moral standards would concur in rebuking this behavior. If I uphold my moral standard and call him out, I’m succeeding, but if I reluctantly laugh or say nothing, I’m failing. In that situation, which unfortunately actually happened, I failed by merely going quiet and walking away, and I hate that I did that. However, when he said something similar in a different setting later on, I spoke out against that behavior and reported the incident to HR.
My problem with leaning on God to provide this direction and calling is when no direction is provided. How can you be sure that direction is God’s? For me, it came down to a gut instinct with a sprinkle of social pressure. Just be the best person you can be in whatever situation you find yourself. Work hard, be kind to others, and devote yourself to something beyond your own ambition, something that will make the world just a little bit better.
As a new father, I try actively to praise my son’s effort, not his results. I will be disappointed if my son is lazy, but I genuinely don’t care if he follows in my family’s footsteps of becoming an engineer or academic, as long as he tries hard, is kind to others, and is satisfied with how well he’s tried and how well he’s treated others, not with where it’s gotten him. That’s what we want for our kids and the next generation – do your best, be kind, and be happy.
So much of what we in our culture consider success in life is nothing more than luck. A corporate executive is seen as significantly more successful than a hotel janitor, but this perception of success is wrong. Success is working hard regardless of the gained achievement. The executive likely had a lot of parental support, financially and otherwise, to get her a top-tier education and the network along the way to position herself at the base of that corporate ladder with no way but up. Sure, she worked hard, but circumstances could have been different. The hotel janitor had to work through high school to support her family, so she had little or no extracurriculars and her learning suffered. Her parents are both working full time making barely above minimum wage struggling to support their four kids in a land where they were told opportunity was boundless. She can’t afford university, and her community college classes are a struggle because she is still working full time now trying to support a family of her own. The cycle continues. There are exceptions, but social mobility is a huge barrier to what we often call success. Toby Morris’ On a Plate illustrates this misconception poignantly.
Hopefully most in the developed world have a sense of success in life larger than material status and social positioning. When I was a Christian I measured my success with how well I thought I exemplified a Christ-centered life, how my relationship was with God and how I helped others in their spiritual journeys. I still measure my success in part by how I help others through their lives and spiritual journeys, just not with a Christian focus. I love teaching and try to incorporate that into my life, judging my own success in part by how well I am using that skill I have been given and am passionate about.
Mostly these days I measure my success by how good of a husband and father I am. At the end of the day, it’s the little decisions that add up. Did I turn around to kiss my son on the forehead before leaving for work or did I go on my way once I realized I’d forgotten because I was already late? Did I call my wife during my lunch break because I knew she was having a rough morning and I thought I should check in, or did I forgo that because I had a lot on my plate that day? When my coworker seemed a little more down than usual, did I ask how he was doing and offer an ear if needed or did I quietly hope everything was alright? How we treat others is ultimately how I think we should measure success.
My favorite excerpt about success is from Ralph Waldo Emerson in a poem entitled Success.
Response from Antipas
I like how you call to mind themes from Malcolm Gladwell’s famous book, Outliers. It’s a great read about what the makings of “success” are, and you’re absolutely right that it’s largely due to situations outside of the person’s control. Taking this same theme and applying it to what you’re saying about a broader definition of success, you could say that success is doing the best with the hand you’re dealt. I like this view a lot, because it doesn’t try to change one’s situation too much, just make the most of it.
We’ve said some pretty similar things, which I like. How we treat others. Whether or not we work hard. Pulling the definition of success away from results is a great move – can you be successful even in failing to accomplish a goal? Yes, and sometimes life works like this, but sometimes it doesn’t. There are times that hard work doesn’t matter without achieving some sort of goal, and we have to keep this in mind. Sometimes we hear people talk about “succeeding at the wrong thing” and so we have to have the goal clear.
My only concern with your line of reasoning is that I believe it’s imperative to have a standard by which to measure actions. How do we know that it’s important to show love to one’s family, to care for a coworker, to be industrious, and to help guide others? I can draw such moral imperatives from my religion, but you draw them from your life goals and a strong moral compass. Without an absolute like religion, it’s important to make sure that such a moral compass isn’t lost.
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The Senate Intelligence Committee released a report in early Dec. 2014 indicating excessive torture and cover-ups by the CIA after 9/11. Plenty of information has been made public, including the 20 key findings of the report.
Is the CIA Torture Justified?
I’ll just come right out and answer simply: NO. I’ve got two major issues with torture in general.
Firstly, the moral issue. I do not believe that torture is ever justified because I do not believe that the ends justify the means. This is what I heard over and over in the news. Most did not seek to discredit the reports of torture, they sought to claim that the torture yielded valuable information that led to military victories against terrorism. First, I’m not sure that the idea of a “military victory against terrorism” isn’t a prime example of winning the battle and losing the war. Second, this line of reasoning is very troubling.
Ethicists, literary authors, religious leaders, and more have debated the question of whether the ends justify the means for ages. Proponents often go immediately to the extreme: “What if you could save a million people by killing one?” However, there’s an inherent fallacy in making an argument from an extreme example – it assumes that somewhere there’s a line at which point it changes from right to wrong. This is a dangerous way to go about thinking.
Ethicists say that this question divides people into deontologists (the morality of an action depends on its qualities) and consequentialists (the morality of an action depends on its outcomes). Most people, in practice, slide back and forth between the two at will, never worrying about whether their resulting beliefs are incompatible. However, just like people’s philosophical frameworks, the ends and means are a jumbled up mess. There’s no clear distinction where means become ends, and whether or not the ends aren’t just more means on the way to more ends. Without falling into a philosophy discussion, I’ll extricate myself here by saying that I believe this jumbled-up mess and the incompatibility of deontology and consequentialism makes it impossible for me to regularly allow for the ends to justify the means.
My second issue with torture is a Biblical one. One of Jesus’ most famous sayings was to love your enemies. The apostle Paul elaborated to quote Solomon who said that repaying good for evil was like heaping burning coals on your enemy’s head. Radical as this teaching may be, I actually subscribe to it. I do believe that overcoming evil with good is not only possible, but that it may be the best way of resolving conflicts. It’s a common literary theme for the good guy to become evil in his fight against evil, and Jesus was clearly interested in preserving his followers on the right side of righteousness. While “love your enemies” doesn’t preclude the idea of justice for evil, it does make it pretty hard to defend torturing your enemy.
In a broader sense of the Biblical idea, I think that a decent understanding of Scripture shows that all mankind has a certain brotherhood. We are all of different families and different faiths, but the Bible never teaches that those who believe differently are our enemies. A more appropriate analogy would be to say that if this is a war, those who believe differently are the prisoners of war to be fought for, not fought against. Taking this idea beyond the question of religious belief, if we could think of our enemies more as prisoners to be rescued than as the enemy themselves, our wars would look a lot different. And, to touch on that earlier tangent again, I’m not sure that our “war on terror” wouldn’t resolve itself a lot quicker if we stopped making our enemies hate us so much.
Response from Aurelius
Straight to the point. Nice response. We both fall into the roughly 25% of the U.S. population that believe torture or harsh interrogation techniques are never justified. What we label these techniques: torture, harsh interrogation, or enhanced interrogation, matters. We both label these as torture perhaps because we disagree with their use. I think we would share a similar viewpoint with the 18-20% who think torture is rarely justified. However, I would love to hear from the 50-55% of the U.S. population who think these techniques are sometimes or often justified, even given that research shows that harsher techniques positively correlate with faulty information. To support Antipas’ point about overcoming evil with good, the Costanzo research study I linked supported the idea that, “strategically useful information is best obtained from prisoners who are treated humanely.”
You mention that you disagree with “the ends justify the means.” I do too, and I’ll just share a bit about that phrase’s origin to expand on the deontologists vs consequentialists topic. The idea, not the direct quote, is a common theme in Machiavelli’s The Prince. There are many historians and philosophers that believe this work is a satire, as it was written as political advice to the ruling Medici family while Machiavelli was imprisoned by them. In his other works he is a supporter of free republics, not monarchies.
Although I am hyper goal-oriented, the ends cannot always justify the means because the ends cannot reliably be foreseen.
The five-year Senate investigation resulted in a 6,700-page report, 525 of which have been publicly released. Without much searching you can find highlights, key findings, shocking findings, public responses, and endless media coverage. The report and response fell on sharp political lines with all six Republicans on the committee not participating in the investigation and instead they issued a 167-page dissent. One prominent Republican that supported the report’s findings is John McCain, who stated that the interrogation techniques used by the CIA as documented in the report “damaged our security interests, as well as our reputation as a force for good in the world.” McCain has first-hand experience with torture while he was a prisoner of war in Vietnam for over five years. President Obama and other Democrats issued similar statements. The current and former CIA directors issued countering responses, with the current director, John Brennan, stating, “It is our considered view that the detainees who were subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques provided information that was useful and was used in the ultimate operation to go against Bin Laden.” Michael Hayden, a former CIA director, stated more to the point, “I think the conclusions they drew were analytically offensive and almost street-like in their simplistic language and conclusions.”
Like many contemporary American issues, politics muddies up the real concerns. Neither side denied that enhanced interrogation techniques were used on many terrorist detainees. Whether or not these produced actionable intelligence, shouldn’t their use be concerning? As a society, where do we draw the line between enhanced interrogation and torture?
I argue that much of what the CIA classified as enhanced interrogation techniques is in fact torture and should not be practiced by the U.S. regardless of the circumstances. Waterboarding, one of the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques, has its roots in an earlier form used during the 16th century Spanish Inquisition where it was designed as mild torture with its name bearing its intention, tortura del agua. Since then it has been repeatedly classified as torture and was even outlawed by the U.S. during the Vietnam War. If even some of the Senate’s report is true, many techniques used against detainees were far worse than waterboarding.
Even though mild torture or enhanced interrogation may be ethically wrong, it may be valuable if it prevents harm to a greater number of people. To me, that would be a gray area. However, it doesn’t. The techniques are not effective. The severity and length of torture correlate strongly with the likelihood of false confessions. Furthermore, as noted in the previously-cited research paper, perceived torture techniques “generate hatred and desire for vengeance against the perpetrators, radicalizing even ordinary people with no strong political views.” The CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques may have ended, but they damaged the reputation of the U.S. and created enemies where none previously existed. Torture is not justified. We must do better.
Response from Antipas
It’s great to see that we are agreeing on this point. I particularly like how you point out that harsh interrogation correlates with false confessions and wrong information. I hadn’t come across this information, but it doesn’t surprise me. It points out that there is a difference between stern and forceful interrogation that delivers results, and torture which probably doesn’t.
I think that it might be worthwhile to reconsider what kind of “information” is valuable these days. What do we need from prisoners? Names? Take out as many of the enemy as you like, as long as the ideology lives on more will spring up. Locations? Satellite and spy imaging is developing more and more almost daily, and it’s not too far away that we could have a daily-updated photo of every part of the earth’s surface. Plans? Easy to lie about under pressure, and easy for the bad guys to change when they are compromised.
No, your final point is, I think, the most significant. If enhanced interrogation radicalized our enemies against us, and damaged our reputation to create more enemies, then any actionable intelligence created by the torture was worthless compared to the harm done. This is where I have major issues with the foreign policies of both major US parties – if we continue to drive other nations around the world to dislike us, we are only injuring our own future selves. We don’t have to be friends with everyone, but we can’t keep making enemies.
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When is a Closed Mind Appropriate?
It’s hard to describe things in absolutes like “never.” Should we ever have a closed mind? Yeah, of course – I have a closed mind about my wife. She is the only one for me, and I would never consider another nor compare her to another. I see no problem with this.
But I think we’re talking here more about things like beliefs and values. And on that, I think that there is some relevance to my above point. Sometimes, when we’re talking about a belief that is unprovable or an opinion, it might be most helpful to make a commitment and stick to it. Our culture is not good at commitment in general, and some things are better committed to. I believe that nobody is beyond hope, and that’s a commitment that is worth sticking to. I also believe that Bud Light is a terrible beer, and I’m sticking to it.
What about other beliefs? I believe that we normalize things that are so core to us, and so proven to us, that they become part of who we are. We have a closed mind regarding them. My Christianity is so core to my identity, and to me so highly proven, that it’s become part of who I am. I can’t imagine what kind of evidence would ever, for me, disprove my Christian belief. And again, I think there’s an intrinsic value in the kind of commitment that leads to that closed mind. Without it, we can be wishy-washy. If a person has a wide open mind about their most core beliefs, they must not be all that important to them after all.
I believe that we all have things that we have closed minds about. We all have some sort of authority that we assent to, whether it’s a religious book, human reason, or scientific evidence. These authorities, by definition, create a closed mind. A scientist is closed to anything that ignores the evidence. A humanist is closed to anything that is irrational. A religious person is closed to anything that contradicts the religious book. I’m not ready to say that this is wrong, only that we need to be careful about how many things we let into this category.
There are, of course, many things that we need to have open minds about. A new experience, a new acquaintance, or a family member. We ought to have an open mind about our current situations. I like my job and my home, but I ought to have an open mind that I could also like a different job and a different home. We also ought to have an open mind about many of our beliefs. I believe that supply-side economics increases economic inequality, but I am willing to be proven wrong. I focused most of my post on things about which I think it’s good to have a closed mind. Don’t read that to mean that we ought to have a closed mind about most things. In fact, I think we ought to have an open mind about most things.
Response from Aurelius
We approached this question differently, which is great. In matters that are unprovable, we cannot use the scientific method and there is therefore merit in sticking to what we believe to be true, our opinion. I also think there is merit in remaining agnostic depending on the matter. I can’t prove there is no God, but I see no reason to commit to him not existing or commit to him existing. That is, there’s no evidence or experience to compel me to believe, and on the contrary the current ideas of God do not match anything I find to be true. Others feel the exact opposite and that’s ok. If an idea of God were to arise that were supported in my viewpoint, I could be swayed. In that way, I haven’t committed to atheism. When it comes to my wife, I’m committed. I am not open to other possibilities unless a rare situation developed such as unfaithfulness, abuse, or neglect. I’ve heard older couples say that what got them through so many decades together was not primarily enduring love but unwavering commitment.
I like your approach here, and it brings up the subject of values. We should not easily, or perhaps ever, waver in our values. I will always uphold some core values I’ve taken to heart: honesty, reason, love, commitment, education, justice, compassion, and persistence. My mind is closed to violating these values. Other values of mine tend to fluctuate in importance based on life stages, such as ambition, loyalty, obedience, punctuality, boldness, and self-reliance.
Whenever possible I like to approach matters scientifically. From that perspective, closed minds are detrimental. They hinder progress by introducing biases that skew the truth. For instance, if I have nothing indicating to me how our world came to be, I could use the best science of our day to arrive at a universe 13.8 billion years old, expanding, and begun with a Big Bang. Countless findings support these conclusions. It doesn’t mean these are irrefutable, but they are heavily supported and extremely likely. On the other hand, if I have a closed approach to answering this question by adhering to 2000+ year-old religious writings, I could arrive at a 6000-year old Earth created the same calendar week as the universe. This is inconsistent with what science shows, so science must be wrong in this case, causing distrust of corroborated science and hindering further discovery because we already know the answer. A closed mind is harmful to science
Ibn al-Haytham created the scientific method in the 11th century during the Golden Age of Islam. He was interested in finding truth, inviting scholars and obtaining texts from all over the world. In this pursuit he developed and taught the principle to not trust ancient writings at face value but instead to question and critically examine the writings from many perspectives. Submit only to arguments and experiments that hold water, not to oration or unverifiable texts. Further, suspect and question your own ideas to avoid prejudice and careless thought. Truth will then follow (see Cosmos S1E5 for a brief history of al-Haytham’s scientific achievements). In other words, question what you and others take for granted and perform experiments and critical analyses to reveal the truth.
After repeated evidence supports a hypothesis it becomes a scientific theory. At this point it is reasonable to more or less close your mind to the other options, but even trusting in the scientific method can backfire. The cause of peptic ulcer disease (PUD) was up in the air until the 1950s when a single study found that bacteria was not present in biopsies of the stomach, leaving the hyperacidity theory as the only remaining cause. Two Australian scientists kept an open mind, and decades later postulated that PUD might be caused by the bacterium H. pylori since antibiotics seemed to consistently treat PUD patients. Their findings were repeatedly rejected until Marshall, one of the scientists, dangerously consumed the bacteria in a dramatic effort to show that antibiotics cure the symptoms. They received funding, published their findings, and 20 years later were awarded a Nobel Prize. The closed mindedness of this area after the 1950s study delayed this discovery and subsequent treatment of the disease.
Closed minds are generally bad for science, so, how do we keep an open mind?
Derren Brown, a British illusionist and psychological manipulator, states, “Being open minded doesn’t just mean believing everything because you’d like it to be true. Being truly open minded means being prepared to change your beliefs based on the evidence or the lack of evidence.”
Response from Antipas
Great thoughts, Aurelius. Your researched approach is admirable and I really appreciate your example of PUD. I agree that a closed mind seems to be bad in general for science. We tend to close our minds once we accept something as proven. The key question, however, is what do we accept as proof? Even science is getting divided in recent years because of the question of what is accepted as proof. There is a growing body of “pseudo-science”, such as anti-vaccinators, organic and non-GMO proponents, essential oil vendors, and so forth, who are changing the scene quite a bit. I’m no expert on any of these debates, but in them you have people who are mingling science with other values and ideas and coming up with answers that are being hotly debated. Even if science totally disproves that there is any health benefit to eating organic foods, will Whole Foods go out of business? Nope. What we accept as proof is the key question.
I think that we are converged on the matter of values and commitment. I, however, have different values. Whereas you accept the scientific method and evidence as proof, and that is one of your highest values, I value something higher than both. That leads me to have a different worldview and different things I will accept as proof, because I have different aims – rather than knowledge, sometimes my aim is spirituality or theology.
Is higher education for everyone?
This prompt is a follow-on to the post on the value of higher education.
In my previous response, I wanted to separate the idea of “higher education” from the image of formal schooling, arguing that one does not necessarily have to go to college to get a higher education if they have a posture as a life-long learner and the critical thinking skills to teach themselves and learn from others. That being argued, I will now turn to a further response to my colleague’s response, where I wondered if we were merely engaging in an upper-middle class debate.
Here in the States, formal schooling beyond high school is often impossible due to the financial constraints. As my co-writer Aurelius made clear, the cost of college is both unreasonable and unsustainable. Government programs provide need-based financial aid, but as the overall cost continues to rise, even that becomes unsustainable. Fortunately, in a capitalist market like this one, the price ought to find some sort of equilibrium because, as you pointed out, lower-cost service delivery models will enter the market because of the potential for massive profits. This increased competition, when businesses realize that most people are barely using their college degrees at work anyways, will encourage more people to use low-cost online programs.
Regardless of the definite cost of college, the opportunity cost is still great. People who go to college defer their potential earnings for at least 3 years, something that sometimes neither they nor their families can afford. Lower-income families need the earnings immediately and can’t wait. Around the world, in impoverished areas, this hidden cost often makes even going the full first 12 years of formal education impossible. I have met people who were my age and starting high school because they could never do it before then, and teenagers who were in 1st and 2nd grade because their distractions from school were so great.
In this type of world, is higher education (formal schooling) for everyone? Well, it would seem that it’s not simply because it’s not realistic. On the other hand, although I argue in my former post that higher education goes far beyond formal schooling, it still seems apparent that a certain level of formal education is beyond beneficial to the point of being nearly necessary. A plumber with only an 8th grade education may become a great plumber, but he may be trapped in a one-track life with few options beyond crawling under people’s sinks until he’s in his mid-70s. And, can he balance his family’s budget, encourage his kids to read books he has never heard of, or be an informed voter?
I believe that society has an obligation to all people to provide them with a meaningful, practical, critical-thinking, and broadening education in their first 12 years of required formal schooling. I believe that society ought to find ways of ensuring that all people can attain these 12 years. Our society is falling pretty short in both of these areas right now, but I believe we can and should improve. If we can do those things, higher education will not be necessary for all people, because those with only a high school diploma will be able to have a good quality of life.
Response from Aurelius
I really like your approach to this discussion. The bigger picture boils down to opportunity cost, which you do a great job explaining. Those below the middle of the middle class often cannot defer earnings for the time it takes to complete a degree, a point I failed to mention.
While it was possible as recently as 2-3 decades ago to work through college and graduate debt free, that is now a long shot at best. Since 1980, tuition has risen dramatically faster than inflation while minimum wage has stayed flat, under $8/hour in 2012 dollars. My grandfather worked in the summers to pay for college. Today, a summer job will pay for roughly half a semester. Part-time work during semesters does not add enough to make up for the difference. It’s just not doable anymore.
As you say, we will reach an equilibrium as we are destined to do under our capitalistic framework. However, we don’t see signs of slowing, which is worrisome. Regardless of what happens to higher education, I agree with you that it is a society’s obligation to provide 12 years of quality education to all of its citizens. I’d like to see higher education affordable for all as well.
Your last paragraph could be a stirring political speech. Are you sure you don’t want to enter politics? A political life sounds awful, but I’d vote for you after that speech.
Higher education is not for everyone, but it is valuable for most people in developed nations, particularly the U.S, most European countries, and many Asian countries. While in a preceding post I argued for the generally high value of higher education, not all higher education is created equal. I can see four primary situations when higher education is not worth it.
Some degrees are not adequately employable or they offer the same or only little more than what a high school diploma grants. Students should know ahead of time what their career options are with certain degrees. Somehow career options aren’t common knowledge, but once they are then it’s simply the student’s risk to pursue a degree that is hard to employ. Some universities as well, typically for-profit universities, similarly will not grant graduates increased opportunities even though they will be in tremendous debt for years or even decades. I would highly discourage pursuing a higher education from a university with a poor reputation.
In addition to a low-value degree or a disreputable university, the third situation would be if the high school graduate would simply be better off bypassing higher education. For instance, some individuals know before graduating high school that they would like to pursue a career in the military immediately upon graduating. While college graduates can enter the military as an officer, there are many positions in the military that do not require a higher education, and there are military programs that will even pay for the individual to obtain a university degree during or after service depending on the job function. Besides the military, higher education is not necessarily a good fit for those wanting to go into their family business or become a trade worker. There are other training and certification routes available for those paths that are shorter and cheaper than a traditional higher education.
Higher education is also not a good fit for those that don’t excel academically, which is by some measures the majority of high school graduates. If you don’t do well in high school, there’s a good chance you won’t finish college within 4-6 years if you go straight into college, leaving you burdened with debt and no degree. If you want or need a college degree, however, start off at community college to build your study habits before enrolling in a degree program. Minimize risk in order to maximize returns. Otherwise, pursue alternative training and certification routes as mentioned above. This will give an employability and opportunity edge over high school graduates with no such skills.
So, no, higher education is not for everyone. But, if you are in a developed nation and have the opportunity, you should strongly consider it. With a valued degree from a reputable university, your career options will flourish, and the university experience is valuable in many other ways as detailed in the previous post.
Response from Antipas
You’re spot on. While some have the leisure to take undergraduate degree programs that lead nowhere just for their own sake, most do not. What’s happening here, a point we’re dancing around, is the continuum that exists between an esoteric “higher education” that encourages human development and the very practical training directly for employment. Finding this balance is hard and rarely achieved.
For example, there is some debate among seminaries in the training of pastors. Many seminaries require their graduates to be reasonably proficient in Greek and Hebrew. This has almost no practical use for pastors, as almost none of them will ever refer back to it. Nearly any pastor can find nearly anything they need from the original Biblical languages in books that other people have written.
Thus, we find a balancing point that everyone needs to draw for themselves. When I was in college, I had the leisure to take a variety of classes for pure interest while also graduating with a valuable business degree. Other people may need to focus in and only take the bare essentials of what they need, spending most of their time in job fairs and interviews. Still others may skip it altogether, going to a technical college. Our primary & secondary education systems ought to help people draw this balance themselves.
And one last note – if I actually thought that people would vote for me with my straightforward, no-BS, and often “radical” viewpoints, I’d be more than happy to enter politics! Unfortunately, I would be enough of a realist to know that even if I got elected, my colleagues would probably hate my style.
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 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.