Piers Benn

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Narratives of religious de-conversion – some thoughts

Piers Benn

I have been following with considerable interest some of the material on faith, de-conversion and the psychology of belief that have been appearing on various blogs. This is partly because religion has always fascinated me, partly because I find my general lack of commitment either decisively for or against any religious system to be a source of anxiety and frustration, and partly because I find myself increasingly absorbed in matters to do with the psychology of faith, belief, doubt and especially sudden transformations.

Religious traditions are awash with ‘conversion literature’ – accounts of how people reached faith after periods of doubt, a great sense of facing a momentous existential choice, and not infrequently a sense of sin. These periods of acute conflict and anxiety are reputedly resolved by conversion experiences, which take different forms according to differences in individual psychology and surrounding religious culture. Furthermore, many who recount such experiences…

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Narratives of religious de-conversion – some thoughts

I have been following with considerable interest some of the material on faith, de-conversion and the psychology of belief that have been appearing on various blogs. This is partly because religion has always fascinated me, partly because I find my general lack of commitment either decisively for or against any religious system to be a source of anxiety and frustration, and partly because I find myself increasingly absorbed in matters to do with the psychology of faith, belief, doubt and especially sudden transformations.

Religious traditions are awash with ‘conversion literature’ – accounts of how people reached faith after periods of doubt, a great sense of facing a momentous existential choice, and not infrequently a sense of sin. These periods of acute conflict and anxiety are reputedly resolved by conversion experiences, which take different forms according to differences in individual psychology and surrounding religious culture. Furthermore, many who recount such experiences interpret their past conflicts as conforming to a certain religious narrative: ‘when I doubted such and such, this was God showing me this important thing about myself’; ‘when I made such and such a sinful choice, this was God’s chance to demonstrate to me the true nature of this choice’; ‘when I thought I asked God for enlightenment but never received it, God was slowly but relentlessly showing me the futility of insincere requests for “cheap grace” ‘. And so on. These narratives often have an irresistibly persuasive force for those who tell them – their past experience now ‘fits’ the new story they tell of the providentially guided spiritual progress they have made.

But in this age of renewed confidence in unbelief, partly spurred by the publicity given to ‘New Atheism’ and the prolific use of social media and the blogosphere by religious sceptics and apostates, a new phenomenon is emerging. This is the ‘de-conversion’ narrative, the stories people tell of their past religious commitment, the growth of their doubts, their failure to find any satisfactory answers from (for example) churches and mosques and their final embracing of overt, confident unbelief. And there is some similarity of pattern to that of the conversion narratives – periods of fervent commitment, followed by conflict (and perhaps reprimands from ‘religious peers’), followed by increasingly confident observation of things that disconfirm religious claims, followed by an almost epiphanic release into the world of non-belief.

Other kinds of conversions, such as political ones, may have the same pattern. But religious ones seem to be different: what one decides about religion could have eternal consequences and shapes one’s whole orientation towards the world and other people. For sensitive people, agnosticism is painful. It might seem the only intellectually honest or reasonable option. But from a practical point of view, the choice is ‘forced’: from many theological perspectives, agnosticism is no better than outright disbelief. So it is not surprising that both conversion, and de-conversion, can result from the desperate need to escape from agnosticism.

For ‘de-converts’, especially from doctrinally strict systems of belief, the rejection of agnosticism is especially well-motivated. It is much easier to scorn a belief system that condemns all non-believers to hell, if you think the likelihood of that system being true is close to zero. But if you think it has some serious chance of being true, but not a very great chance, then things are more uncomfortable. And once the agnosticism is banished (at least temporarily) the rejection of the system easily generates anger: ‘How dare these bigoted fools keep me in subjection! I’ve now seen right through their idiotic, paranoid delusions!’

There’s quite a lot of this on the ex-Muslim blogs, in particular. And just as converts construct plausible narratives of their journey to faith, in terms of (as it were) the behind-the-scenes grace of God, so de-converts offer stories with similar structures. For example, a fascinating collection edited by Louise Antony (Philosophers without God (OUP 2007) contains autobiographical accounts of how several philosophically inclined people lost or rejected their faith. Their stories often are about growing up in a fervently religious environment, realizing that their philosophizing and empirical observations increasingly failed to fit what they had been taught, followed by a final embrace of the atheistic ‘truth’: ‘At last, I can be honest! I don’t have to keep subverting my reason. This stuff is false. I need no longer feel guilt about suspecting as much. My suspicions were right!’ And with this may come another thought: ‘When I told myself to avoid self-deception in embracing unbelief (after all, I was warned that there are many reasons to prefer religion to be false, such as the desire to avoid divine judgement) I was actually engaging in self-deception then. My upbringing had always warned me about one kind of self-deception, and all the while it was the opposite self-deception operating. What a liberation to see that, at last!’

I am trying to make sense of this, and in a way my quest is quite personal. My career to date has been as an academic philosopher/medical ‘ethicist’ in the UK, and I have taught introductory courses on philosophy of religion. But there is an ‘academic style’ to contemporary philosophizing about religion that I want to feel free to eschew, when it seems helpful to do so. That is not to say I reject that style and the analytical approach – I do not, and they have their place. I have a reasonable, though far from perfect grasp of what is going in philosophy of religion and my default position has always been to accept the importance of good reasoning and the Socratic Method. But that can be constraining. For me, talking informally with philosophers about their interests is often more enlightening than reading their writings. Something comes alive in informal, often humorous discussion. They are more confident about certain things, or at least more outspoken, than their writings suggest. Yet they can also be less confident, and more aware than apparent in their writings of the highly personal circumstances that led to what they put in print.

The personal stories behind the religious convictions, or lack of them, among philosophers are sometimes fascinating and revealing. What they seem to show is that intelligence (which I have no wish to define here) has little or nothing to do with whether they are believers or not. I can think of philosophers whose intelligence and breadth of knowledge are way beyond my own, and who are convinced believers. They appear to understand everything an intelligent opponent would say, yet still believe. The same, of course, is true of non-believers. What explains the disagreement? Is it that, although each side is exceptionally sharp and well-informed, there is something, at a very high level of abstraction, that one side has understood and the other not? When it comes to disagreement about particular details, that is likely to be true, as it is in any other area of high-level dispute. But that is not a likely explanation of religious dispute in general, any more than it is of political disagreement. More often, informal probing reveals a particular passion, easily concealed behind the analytical style of writing; a personal quirk, or a story of something that happened to them that clinched the issue for them, one way or another.

There is a noted analytical philosopher of religion whose balanced and careful treatment of issues always impressed me, and who made the move from a fairly robust skepticism to Christianity. It is highly unlikely that his abilities as a thinker changed during his conversion. But a semi-autobiographical piece contains one possibly revealing detail: his son was killed in an accident. I speculate, of course, and it is possible that this terrible event was not instrumental to his change. But I wonder. Did it provide a new piece of information about the world, that he had not known before? Obviously not. We all know that terrible things happen to people, all the time; that they happen to us has no evidential relevance whatsoever. Yet few of us think or feel according to that truth. Such tragedies can force us to re-think our own positions, and more importantly our feelings, about great existential questions to do with meaning, suffering and purpose. Sometimes, personal tragedies lead people away from faith, for the usual reasons (how could a good God let this happen?) yet sometimes these tragedies lead people to embrace faith (how could this terrible thing be meaningless?). What explains why some people move in one direction, and others in another? Is it only a matter of psychology, or does it raise some difficult questions in epistemology as well?

Of course, the psychology is fascinating. And it comes to the fore when people who produce analytical writings for a living start talking in a more personal way. The revelation is a little like when you meet someone in the flesh for the first time, having thought you knew them through their writings, and you think ‘so this is what she looks like, what she wears, how she talks!’. And it sometimes comes as a surprise: this person has this kind of dress sense, or this sort of humour, or is kind and sympathetic (or arrogant and berating) in a way you would not have guessed. One thing that might strike us when we separate the person from the writer is that, when it comes to religious positions and attitudes, some people are gripped by the great existential questions, whereas others, by temperament, are not. They simply are not. It has nothing to do with intellect or even conviction. That is true of writers, as it is of people in general. Some people are temperamentally impelled to ask such questions as ‘why is there something rather than nothing?’ whereas others are not – or, if they do ask them, are happy to conclude that because there *could* be no answer, it is a waste of time to worry about them. Similarly, most of us have people we love, but only some of us worry about whether such love needs a special kind of grounding in objective reality, if it is not to be misplaced. (Can I make sense of my love for him or her, if that person is simply evanescent and insignificant ‘from the point of view of the universe?)

The problem of ‘peer disagreement’ about religion (as it has come to be known) is not only about psychology, though. There is also a hard issue about our justification for claiming certainty, if we know that our ‘epistemic peers’ disagree. I’m not yet sure what to say about this. On the one hand, it seems odd that we should have to suspend judgment about something controversial, just because we know that well-informed people disagree. After all, can’t we find out whether they have good arguments, and if they don’t, then just carry on disagreeing? Perhaps. But then we have the problem of whether we can be justified in dismissing their arguments.  Couldn’t we be failing to see something that the other person sees?

Of course, most of us do carry on holding the positions we have. Constant enquiry is exhausting, and life is short. Besides, the impetus behind conviction is often emotional – especially with social or political stances – and we can’t easily switch off our emotions. But with that said, in moments of reflection we might be troubled. I’m only one of billions of people, and there is nothing special about me. Why should my views be right? It would be astonishing if they all were!

I’m presently writing an academic paper about all this. I may return when I have sorted it out – to my, and I hope, to everyone else’s satisfaction.


On being ‘pro-choice’: abortion, voluntary euthanasia and assisted suicide

On being ‘pro-choice’: abortion, voluntary euthanasia and assisted suicide

Sometimes it is possible to predict, with a reasonable chance of being right, what a person’s views are on one matter, simply by knowing what their views are on another. This may not be because there is any logical connection between holding the one view and holding the other as well. Indeed, because few or none of us are consistent all the time, we may falsely predict a person’s opinion on an issue simply because we wrongly assume they have logical minds. Often, the reason why we are accurate is that we have noticed similarities between those who hold a particular view on one matter, and those who hold a particular view on another.  Hence, if we know that someone is a feminist, we may think it more likely than not that they have a tolerant view of mass immigration. If we know that someone supports the death penalty, we may think it more likely than not that they support enhanced stop and search powers for the police.

Sometimes, however, we find unexpected combinations of opinions in people. Such people are difficult to ‘pigeon-hole’. We might be surprised to find a feminist who supports stronger immigration controls, or a death penalty advocate who wants to curb the powers of the police. The surprise arises, not because there is any logical connection between (say) opinions about feminism and opinions about immigration, but because both views tend to be informed by more general principles – about the value of individual freedom, say. So when we find someone with an initially surprising mixture of views, we wonder whether they are simply confused, or whether – on the contrary – they have an above-average logical acumen, that enables them to see that that there are, in fact, no logical connections between two views, even though it is generally thought that there are.

There are two ‘bread and butter’ controversies in medical ethics – abortion and voluntary euthanasia – that often bring this issue to my mind. Quite often, one can predict what a person’s views are about the one issue, from knowing their views on the other. Thus ‘pro-life’ advocates concerning abortion also tend to be anti-euthanasia, and ‘pro-choice’ advocates of abortion rights also tend to support the legalization of voluntary euthanasia. It is clear what the underlying thinking usually is, for both cases. If the sanctity – or at least, the supreme value – of human life is seen as fundamental to a decent system of values, then assuming that both abortion and euthanasia are the deliberate taking of human life, both are thought, by some people, to be wrong. On the other hand, if respecting individual choice about whether to be a mother, or whether to go on living is seen as fundamentally important, then we can expect those who hold this view to say that the law should allow both, subject (no doubt) to appropriate regulation.

What particularly interests me, however, is that there are some thinkers who take an unyielding line against voluntary euthanasia, even though they are staunch supporters of a ‘woman’s right to choose’ abortion. Many of them describe themselves as libertarian, and some have written on either or both subjects for the online magazine spiked (www.spiked-online.com). I recommend readers to have a look at some of the pieces. Indeed, they are pretty absolutist when it comes to abortion: in their view, neither consequences nor circumstances should count against a woman’s right to have an abortion, at any stage of pregnancy, if she so chooses. Her reasons do not have to be ‘good’ ones – such as gross fetal abnormality or any threat the continuation of pregnancy might pose to the woman. It is sufficient simply that she makes this choice. In other words, on this view abortion should be available on demand.

Why then, I often ask myself, do some such people oppose voluntary euthanasia? It is, on the face of it, remarkable that they do. Are there deep inconsistencies in their thinking, or are there subtle ways in which these two opinions may be reconciled?

In general, if two views seem to be inconsistent with each other, we cannot decide whether or not they really are unless we know what general principle(s) each is derived from. For example, people often say it is inconsistent to oppose abortion but favour the death penalty: if you are against abortion because it is killing, then you should be against the death penalty because it, too, is killing. This observation is commonly used to show how stupid ‘pro-life’ supporters of capital punishment are. But it is pertinent only if the major premise is that all taking of human life is wrong. Reasonably intelligent death penalty advocates do not actually say this; what they usually say is that it is always wrong to take innocent human life deliberately. Human fetuses are innocent; murderers are not. So although some people might find this combined stance repellent, those holding to it may not be guilty of any inconsistency.

Correspondingly, there may be no inconsistency between supporting abortion rights, but opposing the ‘right to die’. What is crucial is the grounds offered for each judgement. If you support abortion rights but not the ‘right to die’, on the ground that overall human welfare is likely to be advanced by the first, but not by the second, you are not guilty of any inconsistency: the principle you start from is, roughly, that laws should be passed if they promote net human welfare, but not otherwise. Hence, the dispute then concerns whether or not liberal laws on abortion or euthanasia really do this. However, many of those who support a ‘woman’s right’ to abortion do not base their view on this alone. They say there should be a right to abortion. And rights operate as a protective fence against other considerations, such as those of consequences or circumstances. Hence, even if the fetus/baby/unborn child  (or whatever it should be called) has good prospects of a satisfying life, and even if the pregnant woman is unlikely to suffer any serious harm from giving birth or rearing the child, she should still be granted the right to abortion. For such a right reflects the paramount importance of allowing women to decide what happens in and to their own bodies. For many people, this is just fundamental and self-evident.

Of course, this is a relatively strong formulation of the ‘pro-choice’ position. Other more moderate views are possible, as well as different arguments in its support. But I shall concentrate on this simple version, because it points to an interesting parallel with the case for the ‘right to die’ – i.e. to voluntary euthanasia, or to assisted suicide. If there is at least one sound argument for an absolute (or at least, nearly absolute) right to abortion, does such an argument also support the ‘right to die’?

Those who combine a pro-choice view about abortion with opposition to voluntary euthanasia often defend their views on euthanasia with some fairly well-known objections to it. For example, we are familiar with the worry that legalizing voluntary euthanasia or assisted suicide could lead us down a slippery slope, with non-voluntary euthanasia and ‘encouraged’ suicide lying at the bottom. We are also told that such changes in the law would be harmful to palliative care provision. These considerations do have weight, although the empirical predictions are hard to assess from the armchair. But for those who argue for the ‘right to die’ – which should really be re-phrased as the view that there should be no law against euthanasia or assisted suicide if a patient genuinely and competently desires it – the important consideration is that this ‘right’ should be granted, even if bad consequences follow. That is the point of having a right – it is a claim that has free-standing moral force. Exercising one’s rights may, of course, be imprudent or have undesirable consequences for others. Sometimes it can even be morally wrong to exercise one’s rights – as when I mean-spiritedly refuse to lend someone a book that they need for urgent exam revision. But the right, if it is accepted as such, retains its moral force. It cannot simply be weighed up against the bad consequences of exercising it.

I am not saying here that there is, or should be, such a right. I am trying to ask whether, if we grant women a right to abortion, and regard this right as trumping all or almost all other considerations that may be brought against abortion, we should also grant those desiring euthanasia or assisted suicide a right to those things. Why might we believe in the right to abortion? A powerful and frequently used argument is that a woman’s body is her own, and she should not be forced to allow a fetus to live off her body, if she does not want to. (I do not say this is a decisive argument – that is another question). But if we accept this view, then we face a challenge: why not use a parallel argument to support the ‘right to die’? If it is wrong legally to deny a woman an abortion if she is unwillingly pregnant, why is it not also wrong legally to deny someone euthanasia or assistance in committing suicide, if that is what they have competently chosen?

Thus my point should be seen as a question rather than a conclusion. As it happens, I think the arguments around both abortion and assisted dying are highly complex. I often wonder whether both disputes are intractable. But the question, for the moment, is simple: if we should grant women an absolute (or perhaps nearly absolute) right to abortion, on grounds of a right to bodily self-determination, why should the same consideration – that my living body is my own, and not for others to determine its fate – not ground a ‘right to die’?

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Gay marriage – afterthoughts

(This article is due to be published in Think – philosophy for everyone, in 2013 or 2014).

In February 2013, a UK parliamentary Bill to legalise same-sex marriage was approved by the House of Commons. There will be stronger resistance to the Bill in the House of Lords, but there is little doubt it will be approved there as well. Although some commentaries on the issue were insightful, there was a fair amount of huffing and puffing on both sides.

There are many – like the gay Tory columnist Matthew Parris – who think that once same-sex weddings have taken place, people will look back and wonder what the fuss had been about. He compares them with MPs who once opposed the 1967 Act that legalised male homosexual acts, but couldn’t see the problem once it had been passed and generally accepted. Like most of us, they had conformist tendencies. And perhaps because of this, they followed the liberalising trends and became embarrassed about their earlier attitude, once the challengers of the earlier status quo reached a critical mass.

The same thing is happening with attitudes to same-sex marriage. However, conformity operates in more than one direction. It is too early to know whether the forces of conformity will eventually lead people to change their attitudes yet again, if enough others do so too. In that case, some people will wonder why they had ever accepted gay marriage; why they had gone with the tide so readily.

But what are the best arguments for and against same-sex marriage?

The most frequently aired argument on the ‘pro’ side appeals to a familiar conception of fairness. Fairness is thought to entail equality of treatment for heterosexuals and homosexuals. So if straight people can marry, it is unfair to gay people if they cannot do the same. But although this is enough for many people, it won’t quite do – or not yet. For fairness may be more precisely understood as requiring equal treatment of equals, and unequal treatment of those who are not equals. So the obvious question is whether gay relationships are, or can be, equal to straight ones, in a way that is relevant to the case for same-sex marriage.

Opponents of the Bill deny this. They usually appeal to what (in their view) marriage essentially is, and what it is for. In their view there can be no same-sex marriage, because marriage is – essentially – a sexual union between a man and a woman, founded on a mutual vow of permanence and sexual exclusivity. And though it may serve many purposes, central among them is to provide an optimal environment for bringing up children.

Advocates of same-sex marriage (or ‘marriage’) challenge this traditional account, in predictable ways. Why, they ask, can marriage exist only between a man and a woman? The obvious way to create same-sex marriage is to legislate for it. And why should a true account of what it is for, exclude same-sex marriage? Opponents, just as predictably, say this misses the point. Parliament can pass whatever laws it likes – it can legislate for men to ‘marry’ their mothers, if it chooses – but human laws cannot turn such relationships into real marriages. But again, one wants to ask: why not? On what basis can anyone pronounce on what constitutes a real marriage?

Much of the opposition comes from religious organisations, and any attempt to force them to conduct same-sex weddings would complicate things. In many cultures, weddings are religious ceremonies in which the blessing of God is sought for the union. You are married only if God sanctions this union, even if there are no outwardly discernible differences between the lives led by married and unmarried couples. And according to a traditional Christian account, the nature and purposes of marriage are ordained by God. Procreation is foremost in this account, even in Churches that have no objection to contraception. Moreover, the institution of marriage is held to be obviously good for society, in providing an ideal environment for the raising of children, among other things. So in view of the significance mainstream religions give to marriage, there is the problem of whether religious institutions should be obliged by law to conduct same-sex marriages, even though this goes against their core doctrines. This would be a particularly difficult problem for the Church of England, given its peculiar position as an established Church.

In my view, it would be wrong to try to force religious institutions to marry people of the same sex. It would be wrong for the clergy to conduct services against their own conscience, and it would therefore be wrong for the State to require them to do so. The Church of England is fiercely split on the issue, and is already in an awkward enough position with regard to many ordinary heterosexual marriages, with some clergymen wincing when they conduct weddings for people who clearly have no Christian belief or commitment. Many clergy say that they cannot marry a gay couple, because there can be no such thing as a gay marriage – the ‘wedding’ would be meaningless at best, sacrilegious at worst. They might also point out that same-sex couples would still be able to marry (or ‘marry’) in a civil ceremony, if the law is changed to allow this, just as heterosexual couples can. So the debate needs to focus on whether there should be civil marriage ceremonies for homosexual couples, as there are for heterosexual couples. This brings us back to the question of the nature and purpose of marriage.

Some people will shrug their shoulders and ask why it should matter whether or not there is a legal ceremony of marriage for gay couples: if it makes people happy and harms no one, then we should by all means let it go ahead. On this view –
to put it somewhat crudely – to see a couple as married is no more than to see them as having a certificate saying they are married. If that certificate means a lot to them, by all means let them have it.

But if this is all it is, it is hard to see why people want it so much. Many people want it, of course, because they think it is more than this piece of paper. So we now have the question of what this additional element can be. Suppose that a gay couple in a civil partnership want their relationship ‘upgraded’ to marriage. What would this ‘upgrade’ amount to? What is the difference between their current status, and their desired status? After all, they may have lived together in a faithful sexual relationship for years; they may have been recognised as a couple by everyone they knew, and so on. So neither the observable nature of their relationship, nor its social recognition, would be changed by civil marriage. Why then would they desire it?

Here is a possible answer, that has always applied to heterosexual marriages: a marriage is not a mere living arrangement, or the mere existence of a certificate, but is founded in vows that are witnessed and ratified by a recognised authority. A civil marriage is thus, in some sense, endorsed by the State. To be meaningful at all, it has to be an officially recognised transition – an objective change in status. And this helps to understand why social conservatives regard the co-existence, with marriage, of other living arrangements that mimic it, as undermining the institution of marriage. Hence, to the question posed by many social liberals: what is the point of marriage, if people can have relationships with the same quality and purposes without it? comes the logically equivalent ‘conservative’ question: how can these other relationships be regarded as equal to marriage – or even legitimate at all – if marriage does indeed have a point? Moreover, in view of the centrality of a sexual relationship in traditional understandings of marriage, there comes the question – which may be uncomfortable for those who take it seriously – of what, if anything, is the proper place of sexual relationships apart from marriage? This too is relevant, for it is clear that at the root of many people’s objection to gay marriage is a moral objection to homosexual activity. To put it harshly: if gay sex per se is bad enough, a solemnly declared intention to carry on with it in a particular relationship is, in an important way, worse.

These days, concerns like this will mostly be raised by people with a traditional religious commitment. However, since this discussion is about civil marriage for gay people, it leads back to the question of what the point is of civil marriage in general. Some people, of course, deny that it has any good or useful function at all. Gay people who hold this view may not want to campaign for gay marriage. At the other end of the spectrum of moral attitudes, I recently heard a well-known Catholic philosopher suggest that the State should get out of marriage altogether and leave it to religious institutions, since only such institutions – especially the Catholic Church – have a true understanding of what marriage is. In his view, there should be civil partnerships for straight and gay people alike, with marriage the preserve of religious bodies.

Whatever should be said about this, marriage is widely regarded as beneficial for society. All societies observed by anthropologists have some form of marriage, and there must a reason for this. The most obvious benefits to societies that accrue from marriage are practical, somewhat unromantic things: to provide a stable and loving environment for children (for example, without a succession of stepfathers or boyfriends intruding into the lives of a mother’s existing children), to secure the transmission of property down the generations, to maximise loving mutual support for spouses, to secure an environment for (one hopes) a fulfilling sex life and to provide a safeguard against sexual jealousy – which can be a lethally destructive emotion. Of course, we all know that many marriages are not like this. But this obvious fact does not show that the institution does not provide net benefit to society. It is also clear that many relationships of cohabitation that were never formalised by a state official in a marriage ceremony are, in effect, ‘quasi-marriages’, providing at least many of the benefits of marriage. So if marriage is of net benefit to society, for the reasons above, then quasi-marriage is likely to be as well.

The relative benefits of marriage and quasi-marriage lead us to an interesting, and surprisingly difficult, question in their own right. The benefits of stability and loving home environments for children can come from both arrangements alike. They lead us back to the question of what the ‘upgrade’ from faithful cohabitation (or civil partnerships) to marriage, can really be. This – in passing – leads to another question (at least, for those who like the minutiae of philosophical detail): what is a religious officiator or civil registrar doing when he or she pronounces that a couple is now man and wife? Is this an announcement of an existing fact, or is it a ‘performative utterance’ (like ‘I promise’) which creates the fact it announces? It seems to me more like a performative utterance. To that extent, it has some similarities with a legal ceremony conferring citizenship upon someone who is already resident in his chosen country. The couple was not married before the ceremony, and is married after it. And the ceremony signifies the State’s endorsement of a couple’s living in a particular kind of relationship, which society recognises as constituting a marriage.

Assume that there is a purpose to this state endorsement, at least for heterosexuals. The couple’s relationship is not thereby made more loving or harmonious. But it is officially recognised, and indeed in past times was widely seen as morally necessary in order that a man and woman live together as man and wife. To return, then, to the main question. Should there be state ceremonies of that kind, for same-sex couples who desire it?

The difficult issues about the relative merits of cohabitation (or quasi-marriage) and marriage, and of the value of marriage to society, arise with respect to marriage in general, and not only to the proposed same-sex marriages. But those who object to same-sex marriage often take the potentially procreative nature of heterosexual marriage to be the major defining difference. Society has, on this view, an interest in the stability of the institution in a way it seemingly does not for gay marriage. This will probably emerge when the first gay divorces come to court: why should the State require any criteria to be satisfied for divorce, other than the desire of at least one party to end the relationship? This is indeed a difficult matter, but again, it is one that already arises concerning existing divorce. The question arises largely because there is far less social expectation nowadays that people who wish to live together and perhaps raise a family, should actually be married – i.e. should have gone through a legal and/or religious ceremony. Nevertheless, marriage persists and most people consider it to have some importance. They still want an official ‘stamp’ on their relationships. Is there any good reason to deny this to those same-sex couples who want it?

When all is said and done, I don’t think there is a good reason to deny marriage to gay people. It is true that, if same-sex couples can no more be truly married – in some metaphysical or theological sense – than sons can be married to their mothers, then that fact cannot be altered by any legal rite. But then again, human laws should not be expected to settle such questions. Human societies decide what kinds of social arrangements they want, and they often do decide upon arrangements that substantial minorities reject as illegitimate. Divorce is a case in point, which the Roman Catholic Church does not recognise in principle, and which gives rise to some internal disagreement within other churches. But it is clear that there is an increasing acceptance within society of same-sex marriage. There is, admittedly, an interesting and slightly maverick view (put forward, for example, by Brendan O’Neill, of the webzine spiked-online) that gay marriage is being foisted upon the ‘masses’ by a liberal elite that wants to lecture ordinary people on which institutions they should accept. The fact is, however, that ordinary people have come round to the idea in large numbers.

What about the argument concerning procreation? We could counter this by pointing out that many married couples either cannot, or choose not to, have children, and that increasing numbers of gay couples, especially lesbians, do raise children together. But this is perhaps too obvious. There is a deeper worry that is worth addressing, which is that the solemnity of traditional marriage vows has always been reinforced by a sense of the great responsibilities involved in raising a family, and of the sacrifices that present generations must make for future ones. The thought is that by granting equal status to relationships that are less likely to be rooted in this commitment to the future, the perceived significance of all marital vows will be subtly altered; that they will become less like vows and more like contracts, or that a romanticised idea of love will occupy a more central place than it should have. But it is, of course, clear that this is happening anyway – that married couples are splitting up because romantic expectations are no longer being satisfied, or because one party falls for someone else. When this happens, it is usually bad for children. Would allowing same-sex marriage make this any worse? We cannot be certain. But two things should be said – first, that only a minority of marriages will be gay ones, and second, that when gay people actually want to make vows in public, that suggests a seriousness that is probably lacking in many heterosexual commitments. It is even possible that a public perception of gay couples as seriously committed – something for which gay men, at least, do not currently have a great reputation – will actually enhance the seriousness with which marriage is taken in general.

This leads to a final point. There are many gay people who recoil from the hedonism and promiscuity with which the ‘gay lifestyle’ is popularly associated (mostly among men). They are, like many of us, bourgeois at heart. There is nothing wrong with that. And they long for an ‘official’ recognition that their love has the same precious worth as that of heterosexuals. This is where considerations of equality do quite properly count. The mantra ‘It’s not fair, because it isn’t equal’ is uttered prematurely in many contexts. It can easily be used as a substitute for dispassionate argument. But once these arguments have been had, we can sometimes see why equality does matter, after all.

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Some misunderstandings about ‘genetic determinism’

Many people who oppose unjust discrimination against particular groups in society – who want to oppose sexism, for example – are angered when they hear that unequal treatment of different groups is justified by genetics or neuroscience. For example, many feminists react scornfully to claims that there are genetic underpinnings to psychological differences between the sexes. Science that tells us this, they say, must be bad or biased science, because it leads to conclusions that they regard as sexist.

Similar outrage is provoked by the idea that sexual orientation has genetic roots – by which is meant: not that there is a ‘gene’ for being straight, gay or bisexual, but that one’s sexual orientation is partly shaped ‘from the beginning’, apart from culture or individual choice. For example, many people think that if being gay is significantly shaped by a genetic predisposition, then there is no choice about whether or not to behave accordingly. Some gay people, of course, welcome such claims, saying they show that being gay is just as ‘natural’ as being straight, and that no one can be blamed for it – or, indeed, for acting on it. Many moral conservatives, on the other hand, hate these claims, because they think it would entail exactly that, and would go against their view that that being gay is an immoral choice.

When it comes to neuroscience, many people are concerned about the implications that this rapidly developing field might have for human freedom and responsibility. Such worry is understandable, for we do indeed find enthusiastic attempts to debunk our pretensions to free will, on the basis of neuroscience. It is claimed, for example, that choice is an illusion, because the subjective experience of choice is preceded, by a split second, by events in the brain that are supposed to be the real determinants of action. Many people are deeply worried about this seeming threat to freedom and responsibility, and conclude that  any neuroscience research that purports to prove such things must be flawed. They may even say that neuroscience is sinister per se, rather like ‘race science’.

The problem with all these reactions is that people whose hearts are in the right place – who oppose some kinds of discrimination, and who believe in moral responsibility – are pretty confused about both ‘genetic determinism’, and the proper scope of neuroscience. With ‘genetic determinism’ (there is a reason for the scare quotes) there is, first, a misunderstanding of what it is, and second, a mistaken view of what it implies.

At its most plausible, ‘genetic determinism’ is not strictly determinism at all, but rather the claim that we have various dispositions whose causes have a significantly genetic component. Some of these dispositions are emotional – such as fear of attack, or affection for one’s children – and have clear survival advantages for us or our descendants. They also incline us towards certain sorts of behaviour. For example, if men are (on average) more promiscuous than women, there is a partly genetic cause of this. One familiar story tells us that for maximum reproductive success, a male needs as many female partners as possible, whereas a female needs no more than one or a few male partners. We can therefore expect that millions of years of Darwinian evolution would have selected in favour of relative male promiscuity. It has given males a greater average disposition towards promiscuity.

However, if this genetic story is correct, it does not imply that males are literally compelled to be promiscuous. We can see the disadvantages as well as the advantages of this genetic disposition, and are able to act to curtail it. Nor do genetics or biology exclude culture and socialisation as causes of behavioural dispositions, for genetic causes are one kind of cause among many others. Nor, finally, does it morally justify greater male promiscuity, or a moral double standard for judging men and women’s behaviour. You can’t appeal to genetically explained biological factors to justify such moral claims – or at least, not in any straightforward way.

Furthermore, when it comes to appealing to genetic or biological factors to justify certain practices like sex discrimination, any such story can only be a statistical one. Statements like ‘men are more competitive than women’, even if true, are only statistically true. They are like saying that ‘men are taller than women’. This is an everyday way of stating a statistical truth, and only a pedant would object to it by pointing out that some women are taller than some men. We all know what is meant by saying ‘men are taller than women’; there is no need to qualify it by adding ‘on average, men are taller than  women’. The same should go for competitiveness, promiscuity, aggressiveness, or any other characteristic that men are said to possess more of than women.

A likely reason why debates about ‘nature versus nurture’ tend to become so heated is that adherents of a more ‘social scientific’ model tend to see in genetic explanations a sinister agenda, which seeks to justify all kinds of false and harmful claims. And there can be no doubt that some such claims have been justified by appeal to genetics. But once we see why the truth of some genetic explanations for human behaviour does not have these implications, we are in a position to evaluate them in a more objective way. This is a good thing, for the ability to reach conclusions according to where the evidence leads, rather than according to where we would like it to lead, is an important mark of intellectual integrity.