Thursday, December 08, 2005

Is all intercourse sexual? A thought or two about the Vatican on gay priests

In the recent hullaballoo about the admittance of gays to Catholic seminaries, there is one particular part of the Vatican's new policy that I find particularly striking.

As reported by the Catholic News Service, "the document [states] that the Church, while deeply respecting homosexuals, [quoting the document itself] 'cannot admit to seminaries and holy orders those who practice homosexuality, who present deeply rooted homosexual tendencies or who support the so-called gay culture. The above-mentioned persons find themselves, in fact, in a situation that seriously obstructs correct relations with men and women.'"

Now, of course, there are questions about how deeply you can respect a group of people that you think cannot correctly relate with members of either sex. Is the Church's respect for homosexuals then something like the kind of respect we usually feel for those who cannot correctly relate to others, i.e., those with various affective disorders, and thus a mixture of pity and incomprehension? In other words, it appears that there could be no real respect here at all.

And there are some interesting issues that arise from the fact that the document makes exceptions for those for whom homosexual tendencies are only fleeting, while previous Church documents and the most recent Catechism of the Catholic Church have declared that homosexualiy, rather than being a fleeting state is intrinsic (albeit, an intrinsic disorder). Who are these would-be priests who just experimented on their way to the seminary?

What is most striking though is the statement that "the above-mentioned persons find themselves, in fact, in a situation that seriously obstructs correct relations with men and women." Note that these people are not just those who practice homosexuality, nor those who support the so-called gay culture (whatever that may be), but all of those with deep-seated "tendencies". What this is essentially saying, then, is that homosexuals are so ill-formed in terms of their minds, affections and, one wants to say, souls, that they cannot form any proper relationships with any other human beings. This is an amazingly strong statement. What is even more amazing though, is the principle from which this must be drawn.

If I, being a homosexual, cannot thus have any appropriate or correct relations with any men or women, then this must be because all relationships are at their very base sexual. It seems unlikely that this would be because all relationships are for me, qua homosexual, sexual, since after all, there is nothing particularly sexual in my relationships with women. Instead, it must be that all human relationships are essentially sexual.

If this is the case, then Freud has been vindicated (by of all institutions, the Church of Rome). But note, that this means that we must either dilute the notion of a sexual relationship to the point where a relationship is sexual only if there is some notice of the sex of the people involved, in which case there is nothing to the notion; or, we must really believe that all relationships including those one has with his grandparents, his children, people in line at the grocery store are somehow colored by whether or not the others involved with them are of the sex to which he is attracted. It appears that this document of the Church is opting for the latter. And, while to say this is not a refutation of the Church's position, I, for one, will state that this is exceedingly creepy. I'm pretty sure--and I am at least above-average on the self-reflection scale--that I sometimes relate to human beings both of the sex to which I am sexually attracted and to the sex to which I am not sexually attracted in a wholly non-sexual way.

Moreover, if all relationships are, at base, sexual ones, then it would appear that the least plausibly correct human state would be that in which one tries to remove himself from this sex-infused human condition, viz., celibacy. The Church simply cannot have it both ways on this count. Either it's sex all the way down, or one can remove himself from seeing all human beings as falling within or outside of the class of the sexually interesting.

There is another option. The Church might be saying that homosexuals relate to other humans as if they themselves were of the opposite sex. I.e., it might be that gay men relate as if they were women. Perhaps this is the sense in which the relationships are not correct. But this is just still to say that all human relationships are couched in terms of sexual attraction or possible sexual attraction or conceivable sexual attraction. (It's hard to know quite how to put this so that somehow people Donald Rumsfeld or Benedict XVI still fall within the ambit of possible sexual attraction for me--these are good cases of people to whom, though they be male, I feel no sexual attraction and so to whom I think I do not relate sexually--yet the Church seems to be saying that I relate to them in terms of my sexual tendencies or orientation.)

There might be good reasons for keeping practicing gays out of the priesthood, but that's just to say that celibacy is a rule for all priests. If there's a good reason to keep celibate gays out of the priesthood, it cannot be the reason that the Vatican has seen fit to put forward. The reason given is confused in its very conception.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Political terminology: a taxonomy of confusion

In a discussion about paradoxes last week, one of my students asked about the difference between paradoxes and oxymorons. That, combined with recent discussions in the media of various judicial and political ideologies has gotten me thinking about the extremely strange ways in which we use political terms in the modern United States.
"Conservative" is a term that implies that one wishes to maintain the status quo, to conserve the way in which things are done, to respect both tradition and current practice. Yet, conservatives currently wish to dismantle the government as it is and "return" to a version of government that is believed to have obtained earlier. Thus, conservatives are able to be originalists.
"Republican" implies a privileging of the republic, the res publica, the public thing, over the parts, either the people or the states. Yet Republicans now privilege states' rights and libertarian principles over the role of the federal government, at least in their rhetoric. Of course, the rhetoric and the practice don't always match up.
"Federalist" implies a privileging of the federal government over the parts. And, indeed, the original Federalists were those who defended a stronger central government against the Jeffersonians and the advocates of the Articles of Confederation. Yet, now the members of the Federalist Society are precisely those who oppose the federal government's role.
"Democrat" implies a privileging of the people and the states over the central government. And, yet, the Democratic party has become the party least associated with states' rights or libertarian principles, the party least in favor of leaving the people to themselves--except in cases of civil liberties, where the party is actually democratic.
It's not just "compassionate conservatism" that makes no sense as a political term; the American political landscape is rife with misleading and meaningless designations.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

The Perils of intelligent design

Advocates of intelligent design, quite apart from their apparent misunderstanding of the very idea of the physical sciences, are guilty of a pragmatically dangerous theological move. I wouldn’t expect them to realize this, because for the most part, it seems that they are painfully unaware of any currents of intellectual history between the beginning of the second century AD and the rise of fundamentalism in this country in the twentieth.

However, at least as long ago as the waning days of the Renaissance (or the modern period for philosophers) believers and non-believers were extremely exercised about the problem of evil, namely how it could be that an all-good and all-powerful and all-knowing (and all-present) God could have made a world in which there was so much suffering. This, of course, was not a new problem or concern, and thinkers did have recourse to older theodicies relying on the fall of man and the entrance of sin into the world because of human (and angelic) sin.

What is interesting about what happened in this period are the moves that some thinkers were forced to make. For instance, in a move to be much ridiculed by Voltaire, Leibniz (he of the invention of the calculus and after whom those delightful cookies were named) was forced to say that this universe, with all of its suffering was the best of all possible universes. In other words, because of the need to include such things as human freedom, this world was the best that God could do. Of course, he meant by this that this was the best imaginable universe. Now this opens the floor to some interesting questions. For instance, is this universe a better one than a universe identical in all respects but in which one less person is infected with HIV? If so, why is this better? Why couldn’t have God, while maintaining human freedom, have made that universe that was just a little less bad?

This isn’t really where the problem with the intelligent design camp lives though. The real problem is the one pointed out by David Hume in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, a book largely concerned with various arguments apart from revelation, for the existence of God. Through one of his characters, Hume notes that when we see a house, for instance, we know that it has had a builder. (In this he reflects the argument from design for God’s existence.) But if the doorways are out of square, if the roof leaks, if some of the doors don’t shut, if the foundations are weak, we don’t praise the builder or the architect. But this is exactly the situation with the world in which we find ourselves.

Humans have back problems because we have spines better fitted to quadrupedal than bipedal movement; viruses and bacteria continually find newer and better ways to infect and damage their intended victims including killing them; hurricanes destroy large swaths of land, killing humans and innocent animals; earthquakes and other natural disasters do the same; and on it goes. (Notice that evolutionary biology explains the first two of these and meteorology and geology/plate tectonics explain the latter, but intelligent design doesn’t explain any of it.)

In other words, if we are led by observation of nature to believe that their must be a creator and we hope to read off of nature facts about this creator, we are forced to see that the creator is either not very skilled or is less than ideally good. Either the God pointed to by nature couldn’t prevent natural evils or didn’t care to. Either He couldn’t keep the flu virus from mutating and becoming more dangerous, He didn’t care if it did, or He intended it to. The God design points to, then, is either unskilled or if skilled and intelligent, morally suspect.

Am I saying that there is no God? No. Am I saying that there might not be some responses to these roughly Humean worries? No, although most offered responses are unsatisfactory at the end of the day. What I am saying is that if advocates of intelligent design believe that they are doing religious faith a service by demanding that students be presented with questions about evolution, they are creating for themselves a group of theists who will not only believe in God for the wrong reasons, but who will have a faith easily defeated by the very same concerns, i.e., facts about nature, that gave them that faith.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Responsibility, freedom and community

Last week I had the opportunity to help a man I had never met before as he vomited a mixture of bar popcorn and vodka and soda. The interesting thing about the situation is that he wasn't in the bar alone; he had come in with a friend. But as he became intoxicated--or as he became more intoxicated since he only had two drinks and that was enough to put him over the edge--he became an inconvenience to his friend, who was busy getting his groove on. At this point the friend informed me that the drunken man wasn't his responsibility. Now, of course part of the implication of this was that he was somehow my responsibility, since I was helping him.

There is a certain amount of truth in what the friend said: the man was responsible for having gotten himself drunk and sick. In that sense, he was only his own responsibility. But, of course, there's another sense in which the friend's response is unacceptable. When a person cannot take care of himself--and that was this man's situation--who is more responsible for him than his friends? In the absence of a friend or when left alone, of course I was responsible for him. This is part of what it is to be human and to form part of a human community.

What the friend's response makes clear is a deep problem with contemporary society. It might be peculiar to American society; it might be peculiar to modern society; it might even be peculiar to gay society (although this I doubt). The problem is the psychological assumption of a kind of libertarianism. It is an unspoken and unconsidered assumption that we are all responsible for ourselves in a way that means that when we get into trouble we are wholly on our own. Or, that if one is partly or wholly (or even not at all) responsible for a situation in which he finds himself, it is a morally and socially acceptable move to allow him to suffer all of the consequences of the situation. Presumably, the friend thought it would be okay to allow his friend to vomit, to drive home intoxicated or to be mugged on the street; after all, he had gotten himself into it.

This view also underlies the general appeal for a cutting back of government assistance programs, often with an allusion to the early days of the Republic and Tocqueville's account of the early American civic experience. But, of course, in the early days of the American experiment people were deeply involved in numerous networks of social connection: their churches, fraternal organizations, extended families, grange societies, unions, sports teams, etc. This is no longer the case (see, for an analysis of the death of such organizations, Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone). Instead we are more and more isolated (I write as I sit in front of a great isolator, the web-connected computer) and still we feel that each individual is wholly responsible for himself.

In other words, we live in a country that fails to be a nation and in communities that are really no more than collections of individuals. We have fulfilled the claim of Margaret Thatcher that there is no such thing as society. Inasmuch as we are social animals, by nature and of essence, it may just mean that we are ceasing to be human.

As, Aristotle said, the man who lives outside society must become either a god or an animal. I doubt many of us are heading to divinity.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

The Church of the Sexual Animals

The Catholic Church’s recently floated suggestion that all homosexual men be barred from preparation for the priesthood, while not quite as bad as the suggestion the current Pope made as Cardinal Ratzinger that it might actually be impossible for a gay man to be a priest, reflects a trend beginning at least with Paul VI’s decision to bar all contraception over the objection of the best moral theologians of the day. This trend is none other than to see human beings, in all questions of sexual morality, as nothing more than animals.

In barring all faithful Catholics from the use of contraception, the Church opted for the narrowest possible reading of the natural law tradition with respect to sex, seeing intercourse not just as directed to reproduction and the consummation of the conjugal union, but as consummatory only insofar as it was (possibly) reproductive. This is, of course, to remove the human dimension of human sexuality, to say that the primary and essential purpose of sex is the purpose to which other members of the animal kingdom put it, the preservation of the species. It also profoundly misunderstood the very moral tradition that it supposedly drew upon, that of natural law, derived ultimately from the Stoics, which sees morality as based in the human nature implanted in us by God. As essential part of that natural law has always been seen as the way that human activities lead to the formation and continuation of human relationships. Seen in this light, sex has an essential role in the preservation of the marital (and, perhaps, other) relationships, not just as reproductive.

Barring gay men from the priesthood again views gay men as little more than animals in the realm of sex. It assumes that gays cannot possibly control their own sexuality, although presumably heterosexual men can. Now, of course, this move is largely a response to the recent coming to light of the massive pedophilia problem within the Church. This problem itself, much to the chagrin of conservatives, is not a result of their being more self-identified gay men in the priesthood. By and large, the perpetrators identify themselves as straight men and entered the priesthood before the much-derided liberalization of the Church during and following Vatican II. I’ve argued elsewhere that the real problem is men who have no fully human and adult respect for their own sexuality and what to do or not do with it. Treating humans as uncontrolled animals in need of controlling by the institutional Church will not solve the problem; it will only exacerbate the problem.

Benedict is noted for claiming that the Church may need to get smaller in order to stay true to the Faith. I predict that he will get the smaller Church he seems to desire, but it will not be one stronger or closer to the Church, nor will it resemble the medieval Church in its mindset—that was, in many ways, a celebratory and fruitful time for the Church—it will instead resemble a dying sect, more like the Amish than anything else. It will, if more respect for the humanity of its members does not arise, become ever more irrelevant to the world in which it is supposed to be leaven and which it is supposed to evangelize. Christ did not come to save animals nor to convince humans that they were little more than animals. (Nor, for that matter, to oppose the deliverances of science.)

The Truth, Christ said, will set us free. Ingrained, unjustified opinion has no such power.

Monday, September 05, 2005

The hereafter and the here and now

A week ago, I got into an argument as I began my Monday night bartending shift. (There are disadvantages to being disagreeable and having spent a lot of time thinking philosophically, when it comes to working in a service job.) A friend of a coworker was surprised to learn that I taught philosophy and so began to regale me with stories of the philosophy classes she took in college. In particular she wanted to tell me about her philosophy of religion class and how she couldn't understand why they even taught such a class, since it was all just belief anyway.

I went through my normal spiel about how even beliefs, even unprovable and irrefutable beliefs in the realm of religion can be more or less rational. I told her how, for instance, the positing of a material God does less explanatory work than the positing of an immaterial God, if for instance you find the existence of the material world in need of explanation. Positing another member of the material set does nothing to explain the existence of the set. I left aside the problem of using more being to explain why there were beings in the first place.

Then our conversation turned to the overall value of religion. She argued that we need religion to give us morality. I countered that there were religions that had pretty bad moralities, for instance those intent on reestablishing the Caliphate. She replied that those were the bad ones. And then I asked how she knew. Of course because they are immoral. But since this just means that you have an independent grasp of morality from which to evaluate religions, I said, you don't need the religion for morality in the first place.

She moved to the role of religion in providing peace of mind and hope in the hereafter. Being disagreeable, I said I thought that having peace of mind was overrated--for instance, having peace of mind, while the poor are walking through dead bodies in New Orleans is not a good thing; one ought to be outraged, not happy--and I'm suspicious of too much concern with the hereafter. I love and miss my dead relatives and friends and part of me wants to rejoin them, but focussing on this goal to the exclusion of doing something about the situation of those still on the earth has always seemed one of the great failings of certain kinds of religion--the kind evidenced by those "I'm not perfect, just forgiven" or "Saved" bumperstickers and their ilk.

Now, I have my own religious side, as well, and I do sort of hope for something in the afterlife, but it isn't something I worry too much about. I can't live this life as if it were a practice for something else (presumably something very different). This is the game, here and now. And, if it turns out that my performance or luck or grace or whatever gets me into the playoffs, so be it.

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Intelligent design and its discontents

Out of either intellectual dishonesty or sheer lack of acumen--it is not my place to judge which it is--the President has joined the call of the fundamentalist part of his base and Senator Frist for the teaching of intelligent design in the nation's public schools. His, surely disingenuous, rationale for this policy is the need to expose students to varying points of view. Quite apart from the question of whether it is wise or possible to introduce varying viewpoints to elementary student--isn't there a reason why we teach young students as if Newtonian physics were everywhere correct and only later introduce the problems that led to relativity and quantum theory?--it is clear that almost no one in favor of the teaching of intelligent design really wants an intellectual free-for-all on human origins.

No one is proposing that we also talk about various demiurge theories in which the designer is intelligent but flawed, or religious traditions in which there are various factions at play--and opposition--in the creation of humanity and the rest of the "created order". No one thinks we should introduce the Finnish stories of the mother goddess who through a virgin birth and a mysterious egg leads to the creation of the world. Nor are people jonesing for the teaching of the masturbatory creation stories in Japanese and Egyptian mythology. And, absolutely no one in favor of opening up the "debate" thinks that, alongside intelligent design and creationism and evolution we should also introduce students to the well-reasoned arguments of Hume and, much later, Stephen Jay Gould exposing why, if we take there to be a Creator, we must think Him to have been pretty bad at design. There just can be no doubt that the reason for introducing intelligent design is religiously motivated.

I am in favor of teaching something like intelligent design, but not in a science class. Because, after all, it just cannot be thought of as a scientific theory.

It doesn't make predictions. Thought experiment: Does evolutionary theory or intelligent design do a better job of telling us how viruses will change? Evolutionary theory gives us a mechanism according to which they will change. Intelligent design tells us that God will change them according to His inscrutable plan--presumably His inscrutable plan involves killing more people, but never mind that. So it's useless as a predictive scientific theory.

It does absolutely nothing to explain phenomenon. Question: Why do humans have the same spinal structure as quadrupeds? Intelligent design doesn't tell us why, other than that was the way in which God chose to do it, meaning that bipedal humans would suffer back pain after their early adulthood, having given them a spine ill-suited for upright support. (Perhaps God was a friend of chiropractors.) Evolutionary theory explains this through tying our current structure with the structure of beings that came before modern humans and from which modern humans evolved.

It cannot be supported nor falsified by observation. What would the observation be that showed that God planned our present form? It's impossible to say. It's not a bit of science, it's a leap of faith. Or better yet, it is a meta-theory. It doesn't say anything about the way in which beings arose on this earth. It isn't even inconsistent with evolution. For instance, one could believe consistently that God intelligently designed life via evolution.

So, whatever this theory amounts to, it isn't science. And it doesn't belong in a science class. Where then does it belong? In the humanities and what was called social studies when I was a lad in elementary school. Intelligent design is a theory about meaning and ultimate causes and reasons for living. As such it belongs in the same classes in which children read Great Expectations and learn about the caste system in India and about the religious tradition of the West. And it belongs there together with secular, humanistic and downright atheistic theories about meaning and ultimate causes and reasons. But never in the science classroom.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

A Working Vacation?

Today, President Bush has announced that he will cut short his four-week vacation to return to Washington to personally oversee the relief efforts in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Now, of course, I realize that the return to Washington is a symbolic move--and it amounts to little actual shortening of his vacation, as he was due to return in two days anyway. But, the claim that he needs to be in Washington in order to oversee federal efforts belies the claims of the Administration and its supporters that there is no danger in the President--the most-vacationing-president ever!--taking long breaks from his reportedly not-too-stringent work routine in DC. (Not to be confused with his very stringent work-out routines.) The President and his supporters have claimed that the President's presence in Crawford, his long bike-rides, his time spent clearing brush, etc., are insignificant, since of course he can lead the nation and the War on Terror no matter where he is. But, if this is the case, why oh why must he return to DC to lead hurricane cleanup efforts? Must he be in the offices of FEMA? Is his role in disaster relief more central than his role in defense or war or the economy or any of the other executive functions? Or is it just the case that when the President is in Crawford, there is no one in charge of the federal government (or at least not President Bush)? Either being in Washington is essential or it isn't but it can't be both.

Monday, July 11, 2005

The Culture of Eternal Glory

In many of the recent discussions of terrorism and suicide-bombings, talking heads, pundits and politicians have made a good deal of the "culture of death". Militant Islam, in particular, has been identified as a culture of death or sometimes even a death cult.

While this nomenclature might have some rhetorical force, it is both misleading and ultimately misguided in an understanding of what it is exactly that motivates people to sacrifice themselves in actions that take large numbers of other lives to forward what they take to be divinely mandated goals. Of course there have been genuine death cults and cultures of death. One thinks of the Thugee and their often murderous worship of Kali--while not exactly as Steven Spielberg portrayed them in the Temple of Doom, it isn't too far-fetched to characterize them as a cult of death--or the human sacrifices of the Aztecs.

Suicide bombers are a different kind of beast, though. They aren't infatuated with death, they don't worship it, they don't even respect it all that much. Indeed that is the problem. They aren't a cult of death, they are a cult of a particular kind of life beyond death. Theirs is an eschatological motivation. Because they don't take death to be final or even that important--there is, after all, a virgin-filled Paradise awaiting them (unless textual criticism is right in saying it's merely grape-filled)--they have a diminished respect for their own mortality and for the mortality of those who fall in their plans.

In this way, they have more in common ideologically with millennialists and those Christians who take the entire Gospel to be somehow a footnote to the book of Revelation. Witness the great popularity among evangelicals and even some Catholics--although it goes against the considered teachings of Catholicism--of the Left Behind series of books. It is this concern with the great battle to come and the eternal glory awaiting those who take the right side, whether it be against those who oppose Islam, against the Antichrist, against those who forestall the rebuilding of the Temple or against those who do not give Rama his proper worship, that motivates murders in the name of religious extremism and that unites in mindset so many of today's fundamentalists, who might better be termed eschatologists.

This term has the rhetorical punch of resembling "scatological" and, moreover, correctly identifies their motivation in an overweening concern with last things, with final battles and with eternal glory as opposed to earthly co-existence and life. This is the very sort of religion that is most dangerous to world peace and to any vision of a secular society. But it isn't a death cult; it would be better if it had a little more respect for the finality of the grave.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Civic duties and the Republic

I spent most of this past Monday in the jury "lounge" of the Hall of Justice, San Diego's court complex. Quite apart from expecting the Super Friends to arrive at any moment and reflecting on the absurdity of calling any room as uncomfortable as a third-world bus station waiting room a lounge, I gained a little out of the experience.

As it turns out, I wasn't selected for a jury. But this wasn't because of my contrary nature, my argumentativeness, my training in making the weaker argument the better, my belief that the reasonableness of a doubt is both context- and subject-sensitive or even my friendship of one of the County's prosecuting attorneys. After six-and-a-half hours, Jury Services' computer had not selected my name to be sent to a courtroom and the courts' jury needs for the week had already been met.

But, in that period of several hours, after the intelligence-insulting orientation--an hour to explain what could have been read and comprehended in 5 minutes--I was thrown together with a group of people unlike those with whom I normally mix. I was between a middle-aged elementary school teacher, native to California and active in her church and a retiree who's guiding passion is the rational expansion or replacement of San Diego's Lindbergh field.

Now, fortunately or not, neither these two, nor the majority of the several hundred people in the jury lounge that day were much like the sort of people with whom I normally mix. My communities are either gay or academic for the most part. In other words, like many Americans I live in something of a self-selected ghetto. This is no different than living in an ethnic neighborhood or a homogeneous suburb or a small town. It has its advantages. At the same time, it means that I don't spend much time with people outside these self-selected community: I don't understand where they are coming from and most of them probably can't understand why I might have the opinions I do (God knows that most people I know can't figure me out).

Besides helping to guarantee the right to a jury by one's peers, civic duties and responsibilities have another advantage. Like one of the traditional justifications for public schooling, obligatory civic responsibilities force us to spend time with one another, to get some greater feeling for the larger, more inclusive public.

Now, clearly this doesn't mean that we are going to build some kind of strong community. I'm not likely to be spending time with the woman I talked to most of the time I was on jury duty. She seemed as troubled by my being Catholic as she was by the feeling she was getting that I might be gay. I'm pretty sure that if we got to know one another, we wouldn't like each other. Communities are built on closer connections and are necessarily smaller and more emotionally-charged things. But civic responsibilities might create a sense of a (loosely) united public. And such a sense of belonging to a public is necessary for the survival of anything like a republic.

A republic is, literally, a public thing, i.e., a thing that we all share and have an interest in. If we are to keep from becoming just a fractured set of irreconcilable communities, perhaps we all ought to pay more attention to our civic responsibilities.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Meth, morality and the limits of (the gay) community

The gay community--and especially the gay male community--is in the midst of a profoundly adolescent moment. Like an adolescent who has protested against his parents' rules until he is finally free of them, we find that being free of some of society's rules doesn't or shouldn't mean that we don't impose some rules on ourselves. In fact, what we are seeing in the twin crises of meth addiction and barebacking in the gay community is the necessity of rules or normativity or morality or whatever you want to call it, in any mature community.

What we are seeing--and I am going to focus on the responses and counter-responses to the widespread use and abuse (I'm not sure that there's any difference in this case) of methamphetamine among gay men--is a community that has largely been defined in terms of throwing off other conceptions of morality trying to set some rules for acceptable behavior. This, of course, sets up a tension.

The way this tension plays out is evident in the responses those who use meth--or defend its use, since these may not be identical groups--make to those members of the community who point out the ways that meth is destroying individual lives, activities like parties and dancing and the community at large. The standard response from the meth-defender is to claim that his opponent is being moralistic, is taking the same part as those who say homosexuality itself is immoral, that it's simply a matter of choosing the way in which one wants to live one's life, etc.
This is instructive, I think. I should note, for clarity, that I am no friend of meth; I've watched people I care about throw their lives away, seroconvert and slowly (and quickly) die because of its effects, and I've watched parties that I once enjoyed because of their spirit of camaraderie and love turn into aggressive hunts for aggressive meth-fueled unsafe sex. But, I am stung by the accusation that this opposition of mine is necessarily moralistic or of a kind with statements by the American Family Association or Pat Robertson about the morality of homosexuality.
I am stung because this accusation relies on a deep confusion; one between moralism imposed from outside and the adoption of a morality within a community. The gay community, of course, is largely defined in terms of its opposition to the moral pronouncements--at least some of them--of the larger society. Society as a whole has generally thought that sex belonged within marriages or at least between people of opposite sex. Gays (and lesbians) have defined a community in which this rule is profoundly rejected. This is throwing off the moralism of the larger community--and is parallel to an adolescent rejecting the beliefs of his parent.
But, the fact that the community has at its center a rejection of a particular conception of morality is not a justification for thinking that no other conception of morality should take its place within the community. Just as an adolescent who has rejected his parents' belief structure still must replace it with some other set of organizing principles around which to structure his life, the community must decide what rules we are willing or need to apply within our own community.
This process of defining and deciding on rules differs from the moralistic approach of those outside the community, because it relies on debate and discussion and the experiences of those within the community. It differs most strongly in that it is borne from a sense of concern for those within the community--Robertson doesn't care about the gay community in any sense, while my worries about the effects of barebacking and meth-addiction are motivated by just such a community concern (as well as the concern that if we cannot regulate ourselves, we open ourselves to ever more moralistic attack). In this sense it is not moralistic, even if it is moral in some sense.
Rejecting the morality of the wider community as a community is not tantamount to releasing ourselves from all moral consideration. Communities are always and everywhere defined by rules of acceptable and unacceptable behavior--even when these rules are in flux or under debate (consider debates about the value of marriage vs. differently structured relationships in our community). We all, to some degree, realize that within our community there are specific rules. For instance, we don't accept relationships between adults and children, we don't accept non-consensual relationships. In both of these cases, we are concerned about harm, precisely what drives considerations about meth and barebacking.
Rejecting traditional morality is not equivalent to an acceptance of absolutely anything goes. If, as some would say, we really must refrain from any moral considerations in the gay community, lest we be just like those who would condemn us, then there can be no gay community; instead there is just a collection of people with (some of) the same sexual proclivities.
If that is the case, then I think that a great opportunity will have been lost. For one thing the gay and lesbian community has to offer is a different set of ways of organizing a community and caring for its members.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Death, the Pope and evil

The death of John Paul II left me saddened. I am a Catholic--it was preparation for the seminary that led me to philosophy and even now there are days when I wonder whether I shouldn't have entered the monastery--so there was the loss of the head of Catholicism. I was only five years old when Karol Wojtyla was elected pope and became John Paul II, so there was the loss of a figure who, in some sense, defined my childhood and young adulthood and whatever it is that I am in right now (pre-middle-age, mid-adulthood?). He was only two years older than my grandfather and died on what would have been grandfather's 82d birthday; his death made me revisit my grandfather's death, so there was a sort of contact grief in his death. His last years were tortured; demonstrated a noble, dignified suffering, a suffering that wasn't hidden, that witnessed to the heights of human possibility even within the limits imposed by a dying body. Seeing his battle end brought out a happiness mixed with sadness.

But at the same time, I am among those that the pope, particularly in his last years, saw as the vanguard of a new, horrible evil, opposed to Christ and Christianity and the very foundations of civilization. As a gay man, I am hardly among those that the pope would have thought an ally.

Now, of course, there is a certain skewed vision of the papacy filtered through the American media and mindset. What is rarely discussed is the emphasis the pope put on the inadequacies and evils of capitalist societies--while the pope was praised here for his opposition to communism, little is ever made of his vehement condemnations of capitalism. He was an enemy of materialism in all its forms; materialism is, he thought, necessarily opposed to spirituality and humanism. Since capitalism is materialistic, it, too, is inconsistent with authentic Christianity, he thought.

In other words, there were many aspects of his social thought that would have made us natural allies, that would have made him allies with a lot of gays and lesbians, in fact. But, instead he saw us as part of a vast evil movement undermining the very society and community onto which he put so much emphasis.

There are different ways to respond to this. One could just dismiss the pope and the Catholic Church as irrelevant to the modern world. While this might be tempting for a lot of people, particularly those with a secular bent, it ignores the fact that Catholicism is the largest denomination within Christianity, that there are a lot of Catholics out there and, if nothing else, gays and lesbians need to work out a modus vivendi with them. (And, as recently happened here in San Diego, when the bishop initially forbade the funeral of a prominent nightclub owner, the Church can even be made to see the errors of its ways.) Ignoring Catholicism and its response to homosexuality is as dangerous as ignoring the continually growing tide of fundamentalisms of all flavors.

One could simply write the deceased pope as an old man out of tune with the direction of the contemporary and future world. There is also something tempting in this option. Personally, I was able to excuse a lot of the pope's disdain of gays and lesbians by thinking about other people I know of his age. If my grandfather were still alive--and assuming he didn't know about me--what would he have been like? Well, he, too, probably wouldn't have had a lot to say in favor of gay marriage or gay adoption. I'd like to think I'm wrong about this, but he grew up in a different world and, without personal and direct and positive experience of gays, he wouldn't have been swayed to our cause (whatever our cause may be). More on this very point below. However, writing the pope off as just an old man out of step with the world is itself very myopic. It simply is not the case that most of the world sees sexual liberation and the celebration of divergent sexual orientations as ideal. If anything, social liberals in the European and American mode are out of step with the rest of the world. So, while this option might be tempting, it will lot serve our interests for long.

Instead, the right tack to take seems to be to engage Catholicism (and Islam and other religious traditions). But engaging a group doesn't mean (just) protesting their gatherings or meetings or establishments. It means to enter into dialogue with them, try to understand the background for their beliefs and ideas and judgments and present ourselves in a way that is understandable to them--being understandable is not the same as being acceptable. I can understand things I can't accept, but it's hard to imagine how I could accept something I couldn't understand. Engaging also means considering in what ways another's perception of one reflects shortcomings. Now, of course, ideally the Catholic Church and the next pope would want to engage in these ways with gays and lesbians. Rome moves slowly, though. Still, this doesn't mean that gays and lesbians shouldn't engage with Catholics and other religious believers on the ground.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Liberty, Responsibility and the New AIDS Scare

I came out almost 10 years ago, when the major advertisers in gay magazines like Out and The Advocate were becoming Pfizer and other drug companies marketing miracle drugs and combination therapies and the ads of viatical settlement companies--those companies that bought dying men's life insurance policies to give them some financial stability in their last years--were slowly shrinking and almost disappearing. I knew--and know--a lot of people who were positive, but it was a time of hope. The fear that a positive HIV test meant certain and impending doom was shrinking and the possibility that those who were infected might have many fruitful and happy years ahead of them was real.
But it has seemed clear for a long time that that combination of lack of fear and that hopeful possibility was leading us to the place we thought we had left behind, the first days of the AIDS scare. Recent reports from New York point to the arrival of a new, strengthened and exceptionately virulent strand of the virus, itself immune to 39 out of 40 approved anti-retroviral drugs. Of course, it remains to be seen whether there really is such a super-virus already at our doorstep. It may just be that the one case so far found is an exception; the patient may have a peculiarly weakened immune system, allowing him to progress from infection to AIDS in a few months. But whether or not we have the super-virus already, it's on its way.
And, this time, the gay community has no one to blame but itself. In the early 80s, chronicled so well in And the Band Played On, there was a real lack of interest in the health establishment and the government--Reagan never was able to bring himself to talk about HIV or AIDS, even as Hollywood friends of his dropped from the virus. And, even though Bush with his interest in abstinence-only education and his demonization of gays and lesbians, is no ally in the fight against the virus, all of us know how it's passed and what it does to those infected. But, now far too many of us seem not to care.
Although we know the risks, we tell ourselves that they aren't real or that, since people live longer and happier lives, it doesn't much matter whether we become infected or not. Without such obvious markers as KS or the severe wasting we saw in the early days of the pandemic, we don't worry as much as we once did about getting sick. After all, getting sick isn't really being all that sick, we tell ourselves.
As a libertarian, I'm quite happy with people assessing risks and deciding to take them, as long as they are willing to accept responsibility for the outcomes of their decisions and as long as those decisions affect only themselves. If you understand the risks and bareback anyway, it might seem, then that's something extremely stupid that you have done; but something that is affecting primarily yourself. That might seem all right and good, if it weren't for the ways in which the science of infection and viruses belie this argument.
Unfortunately, when people who are being treated for infections of any type treat those infections but allow themselves to become infected by more and different kinds of the same infection, they 'teach' those infections how to beat the treatments. This is part of the reason why flu vaccines need to be changed from year to year. Viruses mutate rather quickly, and mutations that can resist the treatments being used are the ones that survive. This means new flu vaccines are always needed, since the flu virus mutates and is so easily communicable.
HIV mutates as well--its skill at mutation is one of the major hurdles to a vaccine--and new versions arise that are resistant to the treatments we currently have. Luckily, though it is much more difficult to transmit HIV than it is to transmit the flu. So, if we essentially isolate the virus by protecting ourselves and those we have sex with, we prevent the strengthened viruses from getting out and infecting others. When we don't do this, we become complicit in the creation of new versions of the virus, versions for which we don't yet have any treatments, versions that can defeat all the treatments we now have.
This is where the libertarian argument falls apart. Barebacking--whether you are infected or not--isn't just a decision that affects you or the person with who you are then having sex. By participating in an activity that can and will create new and more deadly, you are actively leading to the deaths of many more people in the future. And then, this is no longer a matter of what one does with his own body, it's a matter of what he is doing to the world, not to mention that it opens our community to all the criticisms that the moralizers from the right heap upon us.
It's far past time that members of our community took some responsibility for the predicaments we get ourselves into. I don't mean that we need to all be coupled in monogamous 1950s marriages; that's not a solution for the gay community, either. Nor do I mean that we must stigmatize casual sex. But what we do need to stigmatize or at least talk seriously about, is irresponsible sex, because it affects us all.

Saturday, January 15, 2005

It's just a preference

In conversations in both the real and the cyber worlds, one often comes across people who, while looking for love or a reasonable (and temporary) facsimile thereof, make clear members of which ethnic groups they are uninterested in. My experience in this area is mostly limited to the gay world, where it's not uncommon to read or be told that someone isn't interested in blacks or Asians or Latinos or whatever.

This declaration is almost always followed by the caveat, 'It's just a preference.'
Now, it's not just ethnic groups that are picked out in this way, people often also indicate that they aren't interested in overweight or feminine men, etc. While there are surely problems with this, too, I'm thinking mostly about the racial and ethnic categories for now.

What's interesting, I think, about these declarations is that the idea that it is just a preference is supposed somehow to insulate the preferer from any kind of criticism. I think the thought goes something like this: I'm not attracted to black men or Asian men or half-Albanian, half-Aborigine men, but no one can criticize me for feeling or being attracted in that way because it's a preference of mine and I am in no way morally responsible for my preferences. They are just preferences that I am somehow stuck with.

But it's just false that I have absolutely no control over or responsibility for my preferences. Take one wholly non-erotic example: I used to find the taste of yerba mate utterly disgusting; it turns out that the taste of holly leaves is not immediately appealing to the North American palate. But I wanted to be able to drink it, so I trained myself to enjoy it. I cultivated a taste for it. Although I didn't enjoy drinking it, I wanted to enjoy drinking it, so I practiced until I could.

The same can be said of various other tastes and preferences that I have cultivated and inculcated in my life. To some degree one chooses his preferences and decides how much work he is willing to put into gaining them. And, sometimes I have decided that I am unwilling to put in the necessary effort in order to have a preference that I would like to have. So, I would really like to be the sort of person who enjoys poetry, but although I want to enjoy Rilke, I am not willing to put in the effort that would make me a happy poetry-reader--except for epic poetry, which I am able to enjoy.

So, what I am offering is the following observation. If someone doesn't find himself attracted to, for instance, Asian men, this is not just a fact that he discovers about himself, as if his preferences were handed to him and he himself had no part in them. If he isn't attracted to Asian men, this means both that he has a certain preference and he is not willing to explore what work it might take to overcome that preference. So he both isn't attracted to members of a certain group and he has made a decision not to become a person who is attracted to members of that group.

For what it's worth, I don't think that anything like this is the case in sexual orientation, but that's because I think it's wrong to think of being homosexual or heterosexual as a preference. I don't merely prefer men; that isn't a matter of taste, it's something that is a deeper part of my erotic being. I am not saying, however, that there is necessarily something morally objectionable in not being attracted to members of some particular ethnic groups. I'm not sure whether there is something wrong with this or not. I do know that there is something morally problematic in not thinking that members of certain ethnic groups could be one's friends, but whether this carries over into erotic cases, I don't know.

I do know that there is something a little sad in not being able to imagine that there would be a sexually attractive black man or Hispanic man or Asian man or white man. Just as there is something more than a little sad in fetishizing members of an ethnic group, so that one is only attracted to white men or black men or whatever. But this is sad because it points to a lack of imagination and a diminution of the beauty in the world for that person.

Of course, not every Asian man, for instance, is attractive to me, but this no more means that Asian men as such are unattractive than the fact that most white men are unattractive to me means that I don't like white men. But, whatever my preferences, they are my preferences and inasmuch as they are mine, I am responsible for them. So responsible that saying that they are just preferences doesn't make me immune to criticism.

There may be no disputing matters of taste, but there is criticizing them.

Relativistic worries

This week it was time for the first exam in my intersession ethics class. Exams are good as a lecturer, because an exam day is a day that I don't have to teach. I do really enjoy teaching, but at the same time I become extremely nervous right before teaching. The whole experience is a lot like stagefright--or anyway the sort of stagefright I experienced when I was younger and in college or community theater productions. Most days, I get such a serious nervous cough before I teach that I am on the edge of being sick. No matter how long I do it, I still get the same feeling; but I am also exhilarated when a lecture or a discussion is going well, the students are interested, intrigued and maybe a little entertained.

But on exam days, while the students write their answers, I usually take the classtime to read some philosophical book that doesn't directly apply either to the class or to my normal academic interests. So, they were answering questions about moral skepticism and Immanuel Kant and I was thinking about relativism. In fact, I was thinking about relativism and the danger that classes like mine might lead my students to reject ethical thinking altogether.

The way I have always taught ethics has been in two parts. For a while we talk about various traditional ethical theories. I provide the arguments in their favor, the sorts of ethical answers they provide, the problems and counterintuitive results. Then we move on to the next. After we talk about the theories, we talk about various ethical and social issues; I provide or elicit the various positions that people do or might have on the issues discussed. We talk about the arguments for the views and the strengths and weaknesses of the arguments. What we rarely arrive at is anything like a consensus; and I (almost) never tell them what I think the right answers are on any of the issues, concentrating instead on evaluating arguments, justifications and rationalizations.

Not surprisingly, my worry is that my students might come away from the class thinking that, since there are arguments on either side and these arguments all have strengths and weaknesses, there just are no answers. In other words, I'm worried that I might be turning out a group of moral relativists. That, since we don't arrive at any answers, they might just believe that there's nothing more to morality than what they unreflectively believe in any case; ethical thinking doesn't provide them with answers anyway. But, at the same time, I don't think I'm in any position to provide them with answers.

I know what I think about abortion, I know what I think about same-sex marriage, I know what I think about drug use, I'm pretty sure that I am well-justified in my beliefs about these matters. But I don't have anything like certainty about my beliefs. And a philosophy lecturer teaching an introductory ethics class isn't probably the right person to teach someone how to be moral. Aristotle was undoubtedly wrong about a lot of things, but he was probably right in thinking that moral beliefs and practices are habituated through the way in which one is raised and not learned in the way one learns physics. If I wanted to teach them to be ethical, I would take Alasdair MacIntyre's advice and have them read(Jane Austen) novels.

But then I worry that if I'm not giving them answers but I am showing them difficulties with moral arguments I'm not doing much more than destabilizing them in their moral beliefs. So, what good could I possibly be doing? If teaching ethics the way I do has any positive effect, it must be in teaching them that, if they are going to hold others to their ethical standards, they must be able to defend those very beliefs. And, since other people have different beliefs, they need to be able to do a better job than their epistemic competitors do. Otherwise, they have to admit that they have no very good reason for holding the beliefs they do hold dear. That isn't to say that they must give up their morality if they are unable to defend it, but just that they ought to respect those views they can't refute or outargue.

And, maybe this isn't such a bad goal for an ethics class, these days. After all, one way of thinking about the war that we are currently engaged in, is as a war of ideas. But, all too often, the ideas are presented merely as conclusions without support or any need of it. So, if I get a few students to think that they ought to be able to defend their views--even if their defense is never conclusive--maybe I am doing a service to the world.