Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

It Takes More Than Arguments

A post called "10 Reasons Why Homosexuality is Not a Natural Law Issue" from the blog Catholic Authenticity started showing up in my feed over the long weekend, and since that seems a surprising claim, I went and read it. As it turns out, the post is somewhat mis-titled. It does not in fact present any reasons why the moral questions surrounding homosexuality should not be examined in terms of natural law. Rather, it presents a series of claims about how most people in today's society will not understand natural law based argument, and thus will not be persuaded by then. (The ten reasons trope is pretty clumsily applied too, but perhaps that's a stylistic necessity at Patheos.) The opening of the post more or less admits this:

Okay, so someone in a com-box responding to Steel Magnificat’s recent post asked for a serious essay about whether homosexuality is a religious issue, or a natural law issue. Dealing with this in terms of Catholic doctrine, and the way that we understand the natural law, is a fairly complex undertaking.Today, I want to do something altogether simpler.

Rather than defending a particular position vis a vis a traditional natural law analysis of homosexual acts, I’m going to take a step back and look at the situation in terms of discursive strategy. My argument is that trying to argue against homosexuality from a natural law point of view in contemporary discourse is about as prudent and effective as the charge of the Light Brigade – which, for those of you who don’t know either the history of the Crimean war, or the poetry of Alfred Lord Tennyson, was basically a massive military blunder in which some light cavalry were accidentally ordered to make a frontal assault on a well-defended Russian artillery battery. With predictable results.

It then proceeds to list some of the pitfalls of talking about "natural law" with your typical modern secular (or, to be honest, often religious) interlocutor, starting with the confusion over what "natural" means anyway and going on from there. The post wraps up:

10. The Definition of Insanity Is To Keep Doing The Same Thing And Expect Different Result. Christians have been trying this natural law approach for decades. They have been steadily losing ground for decades. Arguing against homosexuality from natural law is demonstrably ineffectual. It produces no converts. It draws no souls to Christ. It doesn’t even convince people to oppose gay marriage. It’s a lame horse. Giving it another run will not alter the results. It has not worked, and it’s not going to work – for all of the reasons given above. It’s time to put this old argument out to pasture, and try a different approach.

The author promised to provide a post on how the question should addressed if not via natural law, and so I read that post too when it appeared: Beyond Nature: 10 Alternatives to Natural Law

Perhaps unsurprisingly given that the first post didn't actually focus on problems with natural law arguments, but rather on how not all people are ready to be convinced by natural law arguments, this post is not actually about alternatives to natural law, but rather about how to get people to be prepared to listen to Church teaching on sexual ethics. For example:

Pro-Good Choice – There’s a great scene in The Walking Dead where one of the characters has been asked to procure abortifacients for a woman who is pregnant during the zombie apocalypse. He does as she asks…but he also brings her prenatal vitamins. In doing so, he gives concrete shape to the possibility of choosing life. Sidewalk counselors and crisis pregnancy centres often use similar approaches to help women in crisis pregnancies make the right decisions. At the moment, when it comes to homosexuality not only are we failing to offer positive realistic alternatives to gay relationships, but anyone who makes an attempt to figure out what those alternatives might look like can expect to do so under heavy fire – not from the LGBTQ community, but from fellow Christians who seem to just want gay people to disappear.

Perhaps I'm unfairly going after the author for awkward framing, but I think the important thing missing here is an understanding of what an argument is for. An argument's purpose is to lay out the truth in a way that can be understood by reason. To achieve this, an argument should be clear and logical. However, the fact that an argument does a good job of achieving its purpose, of laying out the truth in a way which can be understood does not necessarily mean that the person hearing the argument will agree with it.

There are many reasons why someone might not accept an argument. He might disagree with its assumptions. He might not like its implications. He might dislike or distrust the person making the argument. None of these would represent a problem with the argument itself.

As the author perceives, there are a lot of things which are not arguments which will nonetheless make someone far more inclined to listen to your moral beliefs than a clear argument. Rationally or not, people are often much more moved by things like "I like this person" or "this person seems to be happy" than by rational arguments.

Does this mean that we should stop making arguments and focus on being friends with people instead? No. The real answer is, of course, more complicated. We cannot expect arguments, however good, in and of themselves to persuade people right away. Sometimes they may. Some people are actively seeking truth, and when they encounter a good argument, they have the openness and grace to see the truth in it immediately and be changed. Others actively do not want to hear a given truth. No matter how good the argument for a teaching, they will not accept it until grace opens their minds. How does that happen? Many different ways.

Perhaps it's affection for a given person. Lots of real conversions have started with affection for a given person.

Perhaps it's some other area of belief. Someone becomes deeply convinced of one truth -- perhaps that Jesus was God made man, and that He founded a church for our salvation -- and only after accepting that comes around to accepting other areas of Christian teaching which before seemed unbelievable.

We need to understand that the purpose of an argument is to lay out the truth clear, but that simply laying out the truth clearly is not necessarily enough to have it accepted. Making a good argument is worthwhile for its own sake. But it is also not sufficient to cause someone's conversion. And indeed, on the flip side, people often convert without actually being presented with good arguments.


Brandon said...

Very much in agreement with this. The name for the approach to argument that measures it primarily in terms of how well it persuades is 'sophistry'; the purpose of arguments is to clarify and illuminate. And we see exactly the first early warning signs of it in the post: this notion that an argument should be 'put out to pasture' because it's not going to get the right consequences, which have nothing to do with the quality of the argument itself.

That's rather suspiciously like the temptation of people to put an old moral idea out to pasture because it doesn't get desired consequences, which have nothing to do with the quality of the moral idea in itself, in fact.

And it's equally dangerous to start advocating things like Christian charity or preaching of Christ as a means to persuade people. Persuasion is not their purpose, either.

Rob said...

Well I was going to drop in to say, "You are stealing Brandon's schtick," but I see that the Tireless Texan Philosopher beat me to it by a mile.

Guys, get more sleep. Yeesh.

August said...

You are defending good arguments. You are not defending natural law arguments. They aren't very good. The reason we tend to think they are good is that we grew up with them and were agreeable to them.
One of our teachers would say 'suppose' and then spend the next three hours constructing an argument which may be perfectly reasonable, but also may be a fairy castle in the sky. The ultimate appeal that this argument isn't a fairy castle in the sky, but is in fact truth, is that the truth is somehow written in your heart, so your heart is somehow telling you this stuff is true, even if you have some concerns.

This runs contrary to human experience. Most people fall asleep during the portion of their lives where they are being taught how to think in natural law terms- assuming they are taught at all. Additionally, their hearts feel entirely centered around whatever fetish or identity they have.

So all we are left with, after a long argument, (assuming our interlocutor has not escaped) is the conclusion that they are being dishonest for not agreeing with us. That's it. That's what natural law gets you. You get to be the secret winner of an argument that absolutely got no one anywhere because they must be lying because you know their hearts must be telling them you are right.

Brandon said...

One of our teachers would say 'suppose'....

This is an utterly baffling paragraph; nothing in it corresponds to how natural law theory is standardly understood, or to any natural law argument, however sloppily composed, I have ever come across.

August said...

It is what it is, not what you want it to be. It just doesn't fly outside of a cooperative audience. It is a hobby. Probably more insular in nature than sociology or classical economics. A bubble, and a sneaky one at that, walling off reasonably intelligent Catholics into an echo chamber.

August said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
August said...

If you think about trying to have an argument with a homosexual, well, why would you hobble yourself by trying to argue not only against the practice, but for natural law as well? It is obvious he doesn't have a great relationship with natural law. What he does repeatedly have to deal with are the poor outcomes of his decisions.

And then we have a God of the Living, Who wants him to make good decisions and avoid those poor outcomes.

It is a simple argument. Arguing natural law makes it more complicated. Ridicule may actually be more effective than natural law, because, in order for ridicule to work at all, it must contain some truth known to the ridiculed.

Rob said...

"[M]ake good decisions and avoid poor outcomes" is a deft, modern articulation of practical reason. Well done.

Also, that's the first principle of natural law.

August said...

When it is necessary to fire your weapon, fire it. Long orations on the nature of the weapon decreases the likelihood of finding your mark.

Darwin said...

I feel like there is a certain degree of talking at cross purposes here. As I would tend to see it, if we talk at the most basic level possible, there are two different ways that we can say that we know (as Catholics) that something is sinful.

One is as a revealed truth. As a parent, I think of these as being like the semi-arbitrary "house rules" which I might impose. Breaking them is a punishable offense in the family not because such an action must everywhere and always be wrong, but because it is a disobedience to a command I gave in the context of our family. So, for instance, eating meat on a day of fasting and abstinence is a sin not because eating meat is in and of itself wrong, but because we are given a command by the church not to eat meat on those days, and if we intentionally disobey, we win.

The other source is natural law, which addresses things that we might plausibly determine from their nature is wrong. For example: If I steal my neighbor's TV, I've done something which we could make a number of arguments from the action itself and its effect on people (on my neighbor who loses his possession unjustly, on a society in which there is not trust, etc.) that the action is bad in and of itself. That doesn't mean everyone will agree. Some people may have deeply bought into a worldview in which taking a richer neighbor's TV is obviously justified. But we can at least make arguments from the nature of the act and it is wrong, rather than saying, "Look, I know it's wrong because the Church says so."

Darwin said...

That should be "we sin" not "we win" at the end of the second paragraph.

Brandon said...

It is what it is, not what you want it to be.

Exactly, which is why making up poorly informed claims, as you have been doing, is pointless. None of the things you have said about natural law appear to be accurate.

It is obvious he doesn't have a great relationship with natural law.

No, it's not, unless you mean it in the sense that we could say that nobody has a great relationship with natural law. Everyone falls down on thinking through at least some of their moral obligations (which is what natural law theory is a theory of); and everyone has some moral obligations that they are very good at thinking through.

Long orations on the nature of the weapon decreases the likelihood of finding your mark.

Precisely the problem is thinking that moral reasoning is a weapon with which to manipulate people.

Agellius said...

"Someone becomes deeply convinced of one truth ... and only after accepting that comes around to accepting other areas of Christian teaching which before seemed unbelievable."

This is what happened to me when I 'converted' from political liberalism to conservatism. The one truth was that abortion is wrong. After having become convinced of that truth, at some point my mind put two and two together, and I realized that I should vote for a pro-life candidate rather than a pro-choice candidate (Alan Keyes rather than Bill Clinton).

I was still an instinctive liberal at that point. Many tenets of Republicanism were hard for me to swallow. But that one truth was a wedge that enabled my mind to be opened to reconsidering long-held opinions. If the Republicans were right on that, what else might they be right about? And likewise where else might the Democrats be wrong?

August said...

"Precisely the problem is thinking that moral reasoning is a weapon with which to manipulate people."

I do not associate firing a weapon with manipulating people.
I do not associate moral reasoning with manipulating people.

This association is entirely yours.

What I have seen is that natural law arguments- especially natural law arguments that explicitly appeal to the natural law- fail miserably in the wild. The wild in my case being about a decade of the internet, a feed reader, and upwards of 700 feeds.

You may have a variety of arguments you consider natural law arguments. Feel free to use them. What you should not do is talk about natural law. You will usually be wasting your time unless, again, you are with your fellow hobbyists, and engaging in create those warm tribal feels.

The thing to do is to actually talk to the person at hand. Natural law arguments tend to be like katas in karate. Perhaps good in practice, but not good when sparring. (I also don't associate sparring with manipulation) Took to your interlocutor. Look for what he knows.

Darwin said...

This is starting to feel to me a bit like PopeHat's hilarious riff of talking about dog regulations the way we talk about gun control:

imagine we're going through one of our periodic moral panics over dogs and I'm trying to persuade you that there should be restrictions on, say, Rottweilers.

Me: I don't want to take away dog owners' rights. But we need to do something about Rottweilers.
You: So what do you propose?
Me: I just think that there should be some sort of training or restrictions on owning an attack dog.
You: Wait. What's an "attack dog?"
Me: You know what I mean. Like military dogs.
You: Huh? Rottweilers aren't military dogs. In fact "military dogs" isn't a thing. You mean like German Shepherds?
Me: Don't be ridiculous. Nobody's trying to take away your German Shepherds. But civilians shouldn't own fighting dogs.
You: I have no idea what dogs you're talking about now.
Me: You're being both picky and obtuse. You know I mean hounds.
You: What the fuck.
Me: OK, maybe not actually ::air quotes:: hounds ::air quotes::. Maybe I have the terminology wrong. I'm not obsessed with vicious dogs like you. But we can identify kinds of dogs that civilians just don't need to own.
You: Can we?

Darwin said...

Now obviously, there are a lot of people who make bad attempts at natural law arguments, and lots of others who claim to talk about natural law without having a very clear concept of it. With any given tool, there are many people who do it badly. Similarly, I would imagine that in your Karate example, there are many people who do Karate badly, and many others who think they are making practical moves when they are in fact using demonstration tactics which would have little or even counterproductive practical value.

However, given that the author of the original post had claimed to be writing a piece about how natural law is not a good way to argue about homosexuality, and then to present alternate ways of arguing about homosexuality, my expectation had been that she would:

1) Show some knowledge of what natural law arguments actually are at a definitional level. She does obviously have some knowledge of how, practically, such arguments go, but she doesn't seem to actually understand what differentiates natural law arguments from other types of moral arguments. She just has a vague idea that arguments such as "that doesn't happen in nature" or "it's like sticking a carrot in your ear and thinking you're eating" are natural law type arguments.

2) Suggest some other type of argument rather than simply tactics for becoming liked and respected by another person.

Now, it's true that it's important to be liked and respected in order to even get a hearing. And indeed, I think a significantly better post than hers could have been written about how people vastly overplay in their minds the effectiveness of arguments, per se, in changing hearts and minds. Particularly online, many Catholics seem to have the idea that if only they could come up with the right argument, they could immediately convert people to the faith. In fact, even if you can get someone to understand why you think the way that you do (the logic of your argument and the priors from which you start) they still often won't come to agree with you -- they'll just understand you better.

Of course, even getting someone to understand the logic of one's position takes a lot of work in understanding where he's coming from and formulating your explanation in a way which will be explicable to him. But even if you nail that, that doesn't necessarily result in conversion.

Brandon said...

do not associate moral reasoning with manipulating people.

This association is entirely yours.

I find the talk of 'association' amusing. What a claim or argument implies is not a matter of what you "associate" with it. You don't get to magically make up logic as you go along. And that moral reasoning is for manipulation is a direct implication of your claims, whether you like it or not. Arguments are said to be 'effective' when they persuade or at least shift people's views. This is the repeated standard you hold moral reasoning up to. And thus you are treating moral reasoning as means for manipulating people to shift their views.

Perhaps good in practice, but not good when sparring. (I also don't associate sparring with manipulation)

I don't know what you mean by this. Sparring is practice literally by definition. It is also by definition not concerned with effectiveness -- you are deliberately not trying to hit the target, but are just maneuver someone verbally to shift their position. (In matters of the mind, that's called manipulation, by the way.)

The thing to do is to actually talk to the person at hand.

Well, you are good at talking about talking to the person at hand; I see no evidence that you actually know anything about it. Nothing prevents someone from arguing in natural law terms while talking to the person at hand. If they get something from it, great. If not, it doesn't matter as long as the argument is a good argument. What is a good argument? One that fulfills its purpose. The whole purpose of moral argument is to discover, to better understand, and to display truths about moral matters. The quality of an argument is a fact about that argument. It does not depend on whether other people pay attention to it; it does not depend on whether other people like it; it does not depend on whether other people are persuaded by it. It does not depend on complexity or difficulty.

And it is impossible to say whether an argument is good or bad without actually examining that particular argument. Blanket assertions about entire fields of argument, when they cannot be backed up by rigorous analysis, are pompous bombast, and nothing more.

August said...

I suspect the lady would not like ridicule as a tool, but now I see trolls doing better jobs than philosophers. An good insult has truth, and humans act out of unease. Being liked and respected- the curbs on the road to hell.

Yet another way to look at it. Appeal to natural law as epicycle. Not in the sense that the original argument is wrong, but you weren't getting anywhere, so you went for natural law. Maybe the guy was willing to stick around and listen. Eventually you are going back to argument one, and he's going to think you are very manipulative putting him through all that rigmarole.

Having already not agreed with argument one, he is very unlikely to agree with argument two, especially when it becomes apparent that he isn't supposed to be able to agree with argument two while continuing not to agree with argument one.

Joseph Moore said...

On a different tack:

"There are many reasons why someone might not accept an argument. He might disagree with its assumptions. He might not like its implications. He might dislike or distrust the person making the argument. None of these would represent a problem with the argument itself."

One other reason, one that seems very common to me, is that many people have unconsciously accepted Hegel's idea about fundamental truths: that they are simply beyond reason in any classical, logical sense, but are rather a matter of enlightenment. This is "a problem with the argument itself" insofar as it is an argument at all.

Thus, if you are enlightened, you will agree with me; if you disagree with me, it is conclusive proof you are unenlightened. People in the grips of this view can be identified thus: they will tell you, if they deign to respond to your arguments at all, what it is *you* think. What you say you think matters not one drop, because, again, you are unenlightened.

In this particular case, when one attempts to argue against homosexuality, it is simply not allowed that one even has a reasonable case: one is merely a hater, a 'homophobe'. In most cases in my experience, it would be a triumph of reason just to get people to admit you might have reasons at all for failing to approve of homosexuality.

This is all on top of the issues mentioned: that the typical modern educated person cannot follow an argument, even with the equivalent of flashing neon arrows pointing the way. With the possible exception of algebra, which, as taught, almost all students hate, there is no effort to teach the typical student how to argue. Thus, the standard rejoinder: 'that's just your opinion'.

If we are going to argue, we first must argue for argument. Tough spot.