Category Archives: Ethics

Craig’s Modal Critique of Harris’s Moral Landscape

In 2011, the University of Notre Dame hosted a debate between Sam Harris and William Lane Craig on whether morality depends on God. I think it’s fair to say Craig won the debate inasmuch as he gave respectable arguments for his position and against Harris’s, and his opponent failed to engage seriously with those arguments. Harris seemed unable to stick to the topic of the debate, and was reduced to railing against the moral beliefs of religious people (as if that were relevant to the metaethical claims under debate).

Anyway, I thought it would be worth highlighting one of the arguments Craig leveled against the position Harris stakes out in his book The Moral Landscape. By way of background, the twofold aim of Harris’s book is to show (1) that morality doesn’t depend on God or anything else supernatural, and (2) that science can provide us with answers to moral questions, at least in principle. The central plank of Harris’s position is that moral goodness — i.e., whatever it is we should be aiming for when we seek to act morally — should be defined in terms of “the well-being of conscious creatures.”1 This claim serves as Harris’s response to G. E. Moore’s “open question argument” against moral naturalism. Moore famously argued that whenever someone tries to define goodness in terms of some natural phenomenon X (e.g., pleasure) it always remains an open question whether X really is good (or, alternatively, whether an act that brings about X really is a good act). If it makes sense to pose such a question, then X can’t be identical to goodness. There must be a logical gap between X and goodness.

Harris writes:

If we define “good” as that which supports well-being, as I will argue we must, the regress initiated by Moore’s “open question argument” really does stop. While I agree with Moore that it is reasonable to ask whether maximizing pleasure in any given instance is “good,” it makes no sense at all to ask whether maximizing well-being is “good.” It seems clear that what we are really asking when we wonder whether a certain state of pleasure is “good,” is whether it is conducive to, or obstructive of, some deeper form of well-being.2

Harris thus wants to identify moral goodness with either the well-being of conscious creatures or whatever “supports” such well-being. (Note that when Harris uses the term “good” in the quote above, he’s speaking about moral goodness. That’s the subject of his book, after all.)

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  1. Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape, Free Press, 2010, pp. 1, 11.
  2. Ibid., p. 12.

LGBs Are Kissing T Goodbye

A few months back I wrote on the incoherence of LGBT where I argued the following:

Either (1) ‘man’ and ‘woman’ are tied to physical form, in which case the concept of sexual orientation (LGB) is intelligible but the ideology of transgenderism (T) is indefensible, or (2) ‘man’ and ‘woman’ are not tied to physical form, in which case the concept of sexual orientation (LGB) is no longer intelligible. […]

So it seems to me that those who embrace the term LGBT face a formidable challenge: provide definitions of L, G, B, and T that both (1) satisfy the demands of transgender ideology and (2) comport with the conventional meanings of L, G, and B.

Daniel Moody drew my attention this week to an article in Quillette by a gay author, Brad Polumbo, suggesting that it’s time for ‘LGB’ and ‘T’ to go their separate ways:

The growing rift between increasingly radicalized transgender-rights activists and the lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) communities has finally come out into the open. This week, Europe’s biggest LGBT-rights organization, the London-based Stonewall charity, was publicly accused of subordinating LGB rights to the group’s increasingly single-minded goal of replacing sex with gender as a marker of identity. As Helen Joyce recently wrote in Standpoint, “Stonewall went all in for gender self-ID. Its online glossary now describes biological sex as ‘assigned at birth’ (presumably by a midwife with a Hogwarts-style Sorting Hat). ‘Gay’ and ‘lesbian’ now mean same-gender, not same-sex, attraction. ‘Transphobia’ is the ‘fear or dislike of someone based on the fact that they are trans, including the denial/refusal to accept their gender identity.’ At a stroke, anyone who declares themselves exclusively attracted to people of the same sex has become a bigot.”

As a gay man who lives in the United States, I have no direct stake in Britain’s intra-LGBT politics. (“LGB/T” might now be a more apt term.) But I am surprised that it has taken this long for such a formal breach to occur. The same pressures have been building everywhere, and it was only a matter of time before someone acted on them.

His argument is very similar to mine (bold added):

Gays, lesbians and bisexuals all have something obvious in common: same-sex attraction. This is an alternative sexual orientation that, to some extent at least, shapes our experiences and alters our life outcomes. We typically identify with our biological sex—and in fact, sometimes have spent many years feeling trapped by it. To be gay is to understand that sex is set at birth. My sexual attraction, likewise, is based on hard-wired factors beyond my control.

Transgenderism is a separate concept. While homosexuality leads to obvious differences in real-life behavior, transgenderism offers a categorial [sic] redefinition of what it means to be a man or a woman. As Joyce describes it, a “gender identity” is a quasi-spiritual concept—almost like a soul—that is “something between an internal essence, knowable only to its possessor, and stereotypically masculine or feminine appearance and behavior.”

(See also Daniel Moody’s much earlier observations about the fundamental incompatibility of LGB and T.)

The British author Douglas Murray — also a gay man — makes essentially the same argument as Polumbo in his new book The Madness of Crowds (surely one of the most important books published this year). Murray contends that “the LGBT community” is mostly a fictional construct, and necessarily so. (In fact, Murray suggests it’s an exaggeration even to speak of an LGB community.) Perhaps we’re witnessing the beginning of the end of the so-called LGBT movement. Certainly we’re going to see this LGB-vs-T argument articulated more frequently as ‘traditionalist’ LGBs try to cut themselves loose from the cultural suicide-bombers of the transgender movement.

To my mind, the interesting question isn’t why LGB and T are initiating divorce proceedings. That’s easily answered. The real puzzle is why they ever got hitched in the first place.

No less perplexing is that fact that some quarters of evangelicalism are caving into LGBT ideology just as it’s beginning to break apart. (The same can be said of those evangelicals who are currently pleading with us to make our peace with Darwinism.) William Ralph Inge surely had it right: “Whoever marries the spirit of this age will find himself a widower in the next.”

Rebutting Objections to the Pro-Life Position

An article I contributed to the August 2019 issue of Tabletalk magazine.

Wen Ya Gotta Go, Ya Gotta Go

A while back I wrote about the collision between feminism and transgenderism on the field of so-called abortion rights. Well, here’s an interesting update. Initial reports suggest that Leana Wen, who was removed this week from her position as president of Planned Parenthood after less than a year in the post, may be one of the high-profile casualties in this clash of progressive ideologies.

According to a BuzzFeed News article (HT: Steve Hays):

Planned Parenthood President Leana Wen, the first physician to head the women’s health care group in 50 years, said she was removed from her position by the organization’s board “at a secret meeting,” capping months of internal concerns over her management style and a perceived shift away from the group’s political work.

Wen attributed her departure to “philosophical differences over the direction and future of Planned Parenthood,” she said in a tweet on Tuesday.

You're Fired!

Various reasons for Wen’s abrupt exit are noted, including the following:

Two sources told BuzzFeed News that Wen also refused to use “trans-inclusive” language, for example saying “people” instead of “women” and telling staff that she believed talking about transgender issues would “isolate people in the Midwest.” For a period of a few months, Wen sometimes went through Planned Parenthood’s press releases and documents, deleting the word “sexual” from the phrase “sexual and reproductive health,” the source said.

I suppose that’s the downside of hiring a physician, trained in human anatomy and physiology, to be the spokeswoman (sorry, spokesperson — or should it now be ‘wokesperson’?) for an organization that wants to ride the LGBTQ wave. The cognitive dissonance can be too much to handle. Even so, Wen must have known what she was getting into. Couldn’t she tell which way the wind was blowing?

The Incoherence of LGBT

The argument I’m going to make here isn’t a new one, but it’s important enough to be restated and recirculated.

I’m not all that old, but I’m still old enough to remember when the acronym was just LGB. From a Christian perspective, the LGB movement was misguided, but at least it was conceptually coherent. Even if you disagreed with LGB advocates, at least you understood what you were disagreeing with. I don’t know when the T became a permanent addition (this Google Ngram suggests the mid-90s), but whenever it was, that was the point the acronym became an unstable compound.

Here’s why. L, G, and B were originally understood in terms of the natural (and normative) sexual categories of male and female. L refers to women who are sexually attracted to women. G refers to men who are sexually attracted to men. B refers to people who are sexually attracted to both men and women. (Remember that ‘bi’ means two; ‘bisexual’ presupposes a binary sexual categorization.) Those definitions are intelligible even to those who hold to traditional sexual norms.

But T subverts all that by demanding that we detach those sexual categories from physical (anatomical) realities. According to transgender ideology, the categories of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ are to be understood in terms of gender identity (which is non-physical) rather than biological sex (which is physical). Yet the moment we do that, the L, G, and B become meaningless.

The Gender Unicorn

By way of illustration, consider the widely-discussed Gender Unicorn developed by an organization known as Trans Student Educational Resources. (The following critique can be just as well applied to the Genderbread Person; I leave that as an exercise for the reader.) The Gender Unicorn is a visual aid that is supposed to help us understand and navigate the complex and pitfall-laden terrain of modern sexuality and gender identity. According to the Unicorn, we need to distinguish five dimensions: (1) gender identity, (2) gender expression, (3) sex assigned at birth, (4) physical attraction, and (5) emotional attraction. Now consider the first and fourth of these. One’s gender identity can be ‘man’ or ‘woman’ (alongside other options) but these have nothing to do with one’s anatomy (note how the rainbow icon appears in a thought bubble; it’s a matter of internal self-perception). At the same time, one’s physical attraction, the Unicorn tells us, can be toward ‘men’ or ‘women’ (again, alongside other options). Yet one can only have a physical attraction toward that which is physical. So the meanings of ‘men’ and ‘women’ on the axis of physical attraction must be defined with reference to anatomy.

Hence the incoherence: T (which is concerned with gender identity) requires us to define ‘man’ and ‘woman’ in non-physical terms, but L, G, and B (which are concerned at least partly with physical attraction) require us to define ‘man’ and ‘woman’ in physical terms.

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When Is a Baby a Baby?

The post-Christian West is woefully confused and conflicted about the status of unborn human beings. Consider a striking illustration provided by two recent articles from the BBC News website (surely no friend of the pro-life cause).

The first article is entitled “What’s going on in the fight over US abortion rights?” and seeks to explain to non-Americans “what’s behind the push … for anti-abortion bills across the US.” (Note the terminology used in the article: “abortion rights,” “anti-abortion bills,” “reproductive health,” etc.) If you read through the article, you’ll find that the human being within the womb is consistently referred to as a ‘foetus’ (the British spelling of ‘fetus’). Nowhere in the article is the word ‘baby’ used.

BBC News Abortion Article

But the word ‘baby’ does appear elsewhere on the webpage — just once, in a link to another article in the ‘Features’ sidebar. This second article uses a paraphrased quote as its title: “They called my baby biowaste – it broke my heart in pieces.” It tells the heart-wrenching story of a woman who suffered nine miscarriages over a five-year period and how she and her husband created nine “spirit houses” in a landscaped garden to commemorate their lost children.

Read the whole thing, but here are some notable quotes from the article (bold added for emphasis):

“I lost Victoria at 21 weeks in 2013,” remembers Debbie.

Five of the babies were lost in the first trimester of pregnancy and four in the second.

What do you do with the remains of a child lost during pregnancy? How do you honour their memory?

[Debbie] visits her nine houses regularly. “I go on their birthdaystheir due dates – and the days that they passed. I go there for Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Easter, Valentine’s Day. My husband and I need to connect with the children we would have otherwise celebrated with,” says Debbie.

Babies. Children. Victoria.

One word conspicuous by its absence, however, is ‘foetus’.

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Grudem’s Christian Ethics and Other Themeliana

My review of Wayne Grudem’s Christian Ethics appears in the latest issue of Themelios. (In case you’re left wondering: yes, I actually used a set of scales.)

The April 2019 issue is quite a treat. Some highlights:

Something for everyone!

The Soft Bigotry of Leftist Exclusions

A splendid article by Nigel Biggar on Cambridge University’s shoddy treatment of Jordan Peterson. Drawing lessons from the Peterson incident and his own experience at the hands of intolerant progressive academics, Biggar argues that the Cambridge administration is guilty of rank hypocrisy.

Excerpt:

When one puts Cambridge University’s serial inaction in the case of Dr Gopal alongside its precipitate action in the case of Professor Peterson, what is revealed is this: the University does in fact discriminate on the unjustifiable grounds of race, gender, and above all morals and politics. If you’re non-white, female, and aggressively ‘woke’, then you’ll be accorded maximal benefit of doubt, given a pass on official norms of civility, let free to spit hatred and contempt on social media, and permitted (probably) to malform and intimidate students. However, if you’re white, male, culturally conservative, and given to expressing reasoned doubt about prevailing mores, you’ll be given no benefit of doubt at all. And, should you do so much as appear to transgress ill-conceived norms of inclusiveness, you’ll be summarily and rudely excluded.

The implications are grim. Students or academics who are thinking of applying to Cambridge for a place on a course, a teaching or research post, or just a visiting fellowship, should either scrub their records clean of anything that might appear transgressive of the reigning orthodoxy, or turn elsewhere. And if they do get to be included, then they should take care to suppress their doubts, bite their critical tongues, and go into Inner Exile.

Read the whole thing.

Sad to see that great British institution heading the way of Trescott University.

Kneel Before Ze/Zir

Kneel Before Zod

For context, see this earlier post.

A report from the Richmond Times-Dispatch:

WEST POINT — A Virginia high school teacher was fired Thursday for refusing to use a transgender student’s new pronouns, a case believed to be the first of its kind in the state.

After a four-hour hearing, the West Point School Board voted 5-0 to terminate Peter Vlaming, a French teacher at West Point High School who resisted administrators’ orders to use male pronouns to refer to a ninth-grade student who had undergone a gender transition. The board met in closed session for nearly an hour before the vote.

[…]

Vlaming, 47, who had taught at the school for almost seven years after spending more than a decade in France, told his superiors his Christian faith prevented him from using male pronouns for a student he saw as female.

The teacher took the approach I recommended here, but it wasn’t enough:

Vlaming agreed to use the student’s new, male name. But he tried to avoid using any pronouns — he or him, and she or her — when referring to the student. The student said that made him feel uncomfortable and singled out.

I imagine Mr. Vlaming now feels uncomfortable and singled out, but apparently that’s a price worth paying.

More:

“I can’t think of a worse way to treat a child than what was happening,” said West Point High Principal Jonathan Hochman, who testified that he told Vlaming to use male pronouns in accordance with the student’s wishes.

Really? The principal of the school can’t think of a worse way to treat a child than not using the child’s preferred pronouns? Frankly, these are not the words of someone who is anchored to reality.

More:

To highlight the pitfalls of strict rules against “misgendering,” Vlaming and his lawyer pointed out that Hochman used the wrong pronoun for the student during his testimony.

As Hochman described his conversation with Vlaming after the incident on Halloween, Hochman said he told Vlaming: “You need to say sorry for that. And refer to her by the male pronoun.

Oops! I guess we’re all tiptoeing through the minefield now.

You can be sure that we’ll being seeing more and more of these cases in the days to come. But transgender activists are doing themselves no favors here. You can’t win people over by bulling them, and eventually reality will bite back.

When Progressive Ideologies Collide

Can a man have an abortion?

I imagine most of my readers will think that question has a very obvious answer, so obvious that the question is merely rhetorical. Even so, it may turn out to be the rock upon which progressivism dashes itself to pieces. Indeed, it could become as troublesome for progressives as the question “Is the pope Catholic?” has now become for Roman Catholics.

Planned Parenthood CampaignersThe central plank of the present-day defense of abortion is that it’s simply a matter of women’s rights. Such is the feminist argument: women should have the same rights and privileges as men when it comes to medical treatments and control over their own bodies. As a representative example, consider this recent opinion piece by Moira Donegan from the US edition of The Guardian. Excerpts, with my emphasis added:

Abortion rights did not fare well in the midterm elections. Alabama voters approved a measure that will grant full legal personhood to fertilized eggs, a move that will massively restrict the rights of pregnant and fertile women and ban all abortions in the state after the fall of Roe v Wade.

Women’s rights groups such as Planned Parenthood and Naral threw their weight behind the effort during the midterm election cycle, choosing candidates committed to ending Hyde for their coveted endorsements.

The argument [for keeping the Hyde amendment] conveniently ignores, too, that women who seek abortions are taxpayers themselves, and the Hyde amendment imposes on them an unequal protection from the state. Since there is no male medical procedure that is banned from federal funding the way that abortion is, men who use Medicaid receive a full range of coverage; women do not. They pay just as much in taxes as their male counterparts, but they do not receive equal benefits.

The argument is simple, even if perverse: the Hyde amendment unjustly discriminates against women because it prevents them from having the same degree of access to tax-funded medical procedures as men. Men receive “a full range of coverage,” but because federal funding for abortions is prohibited, women do not receive “a full range of coverage.”

But note the assumption: only women need abortions. After all, abortion is not a “male medical procedure.”

Is that true? Not if you accept transgenderism, for on that view one’s biological sex is not determinative of one’s gender identity. The fact that you have a uterus and the capacity to bear children doesn’t entail that you are a woman. Consider, for example, this recent story about a “pregnant Kiwi dad-to-be.” (Just do a web search for “pregnant man” — if you dare — for numerous other examples.)

Although the opinion piece above describes Planned Parenthood as a “women’s rights group,” apparently some branches of PP are more ‘woke’ than others:

Some Men Have a Uterus

Think this through. If some men have a uterus, then some men can become pregnant and bear children, in which case some men can have abortions. And if that’s the case — if the core claims of transgenderism are embraced — then abortion can’t be matter of women’s rights after all. Put in the language of the truly woke: the claim that abortion is about women’s rights is cisnormative and thus implicitly transphobic.

One cannot consistently make the feminist argument that abortion rights are fundamentally women’s rights while also conceding the transgender argument that a person’s physiology doesn’t determine whether that person is a man or a woman.

Feminism versus Transgenderism. Who will win?

Hard to say, but it’s going to be a fascinating battle for the rest of us to watch.

Postscript: The fight is turning physical.