Thursday, September 03, 2015

The narrative of victimhood: transsexuality

Fallon Fox, born a man, competes against women in
Mixed Marshall Arts, and does pretty well...
I've just noted on my other blog that living as a transsexual has been categorised by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith as incompatible with the Faith. This is about the argument in favour of tolerating or promoting this lifestyle.

The transsexual phenomenon is not entirely new, but it is taking on a new form and become a cause celebre with astonishing speed. From a common-sense point of view it seems sheer lunacy: people can now simply claim to be the sex opposite to that indicated by their biology, and have this assertion officially recognised, with or without any medical diagnosis or intervention (not that either would make any real difference).

The radicals who have promoted the social acceptance of transsexuality in this sense have followed the strategy used in a number of other successful campaigns to change attitudes. In the cases of contraception, abortion, IVF, euthanasia, and drug use the appeal is made to a victim group disadvantaged by a old law or attitude, and opponents of change are accused of lacking compassion. Drug users are perhaps the least sympathetic of the proposed victim groups, which is why the legalisation of drugs has been a harder struggle, but the efforts by the liberal media to portray them as charming and harmless are all the more evident.

The other obstacle to the success of the strategy is the existence of a rival group of victims. These are most obviously identifiable in the case of abortion, which is why liberals can't stand depictions of the 'clumps of cells' removed in abortion as they really are: looking like babies. The narrative of people being victimised by an archaic law or attitude is thrown into doubt when it turns out that the proposed new practise simply victimises another set of people. The debate then has to focus on which set of victims has priority.

I'm focusing here on the structure of the arguments, not on their soundness. In the real world, there are real victims and real oppressors. Presenting people as such, however, does not make them so.

Considering this victim/ oppressor narrative is a very crude way of looking at the debates. In reality pro-lifers, for example, argue that women who are pressured into abortion, or who are hoodwinked into thinking of it as having no psychological consequences, are also victims. But the media like dealing with these simple narratives, and their opponents, to be successful, have to find a way to derail the narrative decisively. They need to be able to show, with a simple word or image or heart-felt example, that the victim vs. heartless oppressor story is the wrong way around. That Robin Hood is robbing the poor to keep himself rich, say. Pro-lifers haven't managed this yet, though attitude trends suggest they may be making progress.

The most spectacular example of a derailment, of a victim/ oppressor story being turned around, is is with paedophilia: or, as some of its proponents like to call it, 'intergenerational sex'. Right into the 1990s attempts were being made to establish it as a story about harmless paedophiles being oppressed by outmoded laws and attitudes. The most harmful thing to do to children was to tell them (or agree with them) that sexual contact with adults was wrong, we were told. It was the children's stories which turned it around. It was impossible, in the end, to brush aside their testimony.

A good example of a contested narrative is prostitution. Are those who use prostitutes victims or oppressors? Amnesty International has decided that they are victims: they should be able to exploit the desperation of women forced into prostitution to their heart's content. Most feminists take the opposite view: men who pay for consensual sex with professional sex workers should be hounded. I've been surprised at the strength of the pro-prostitution narrative, which has led to a degree of civil war among progressives, but I don't think it can last. The awfulness of the reality of decriminalised prostitution in Germany throws a bucket of cold water over the idea that clients are (when subjected to penalties) the victims.

The lack of a rival group of victims makes IVF and contraception particularly hard to oppose. On the other hand, the establishment of the disabled as a rival victim group in the case of euthanasia has seriously complicated efforts to promote it.

In the case of the debate about transsexualism, the liberal promoters of the idea naturally depict the transsexuals as victims and anyone not playing along with it as heartless oppressors. The victimisation consists of not allowing the transsexuals to do what they want to do. The problem the liberals face in this case is a ready-made rival group of victims: women, many of whom have no desire to share their changing facilities, loos, and competitive sports with people who are biologically male. Liberals have found themselves attacking these women in most extreme terms, but these victims are not going to go away, and unlike unborn babies, they can speak for themselves.

We live in interesting times, as the saying is. I wouldn't like to bet on it, but it may be that the liberals have bitten off more than they can chew with this one. Screaming 'bigot', at seventeen-year-old girls who don't want to shower in front of a biological male, is only going to get you so far.

(For a taste of the debate about what Americans so charminly call 'rest rooms', search for 'lila perry' on Twitter. To see the gloves really come off, search for 'terf'. It stands for 'trans excluding radical feminist'.)

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Conference on Human Nature

Conference on Saturday 3rd May

Human Nature: Biology, Ethics and Theology

With Rev Prof Nicanor Austriaco OP
Associate Professor, Molecular Biology and Genetics, Providence College
Visiting Research Fellow, Anscombe Bioethics Centre

Fr Austriaco will present two papers on recovering natural inclinations and disinclinations in biological and ethical discourse, looking at how biological dis/inclinations relate to the Virtues, Natural Law and Original Sin.

Dr Joost Banneke (Clinical Psychology) 
Rev Dr Robert Gay OP (Biology, Bioethics)
Dr Simon Kolstoe (Biomedical Chemistry, Research Ethics)
Rev Dr Richard Conrad OP (Chemistry, Dogmatic Theology)

10.30-4pm, at Blackfriars Hall OX1 3LY

Please register online HERE.
Or via / 01865 610212

Registration is £10 (includes lunch)

Thursday, October 03, 2013

A paradox of Utilitarian thinking: the uselessness of terror bombing

It is a fact that, in principle, Utilitarianism cannot be self-defeating. Since it does not specify a particular strategy or set of means to achieve its goal (the greatest possible good), any strategy or set of means which failed would be rejected.

In practice, Utilitarian agents are self-defeating with depressing regularity. The most powerful and ruthless people who seek some good regardless of the constraints of common-sense morality seem almost always to end up creating far more harm than good - even in their own terms. No one could be more calculating and unimpeded in pursuit of a goal than the great dictators of the last couple of centuries, but, despite the oceans of blood they spilt, their imperial or ideological projects came, in the end, to nothing. In some cases they had thoroughly misguided goals; in others, their disregard for conventional morality created a reaction which eventually defeated them. Both show the dangers of Utilitarianism in practice: it encourages the idea they you can dream up your own vision of the good and then promote it with complete disregard for the collateral damage - having worked out first, to your own satisfaction, that this damage will be less than the good you will bring about. Such calculations are invitations to self-delusion, not to say megalomania.

One enduring debate among historians is the value, or lack of it, of one of the greatest crimes committed by the Allies in the 2nd World War, of conventional area bombing. I was interested to see a new book on the subject, which concludes that the huge resources devoted to this would have been better used elsewhere, from the point of view of winning the war as quickly as possible: that is to say, even leaving aside the horrendous carnage it created of non-combatants.

The case of the nuclear bombing of Japan is even more controversial as to its effectiveness, though even more straightforwardly criminal in its targeting of civilians.

Here are some quotations from the Economist's review.

The Bombing War: Europe 1939-1945. By Richard Overy. Allen Lane; 852 pages; £30.

The failure of Germany’s first big bombing campaign against Britain, following the allies’ unexpectedly sudden collapse in France in 1940, was in some ways typical of what came later in confused ends and inadequate means. Two things above all ensured that all the early attempts at strategic bombing (whether by the Germans, the British or the hopelessly ill-equipped Italians) were far less effective than anyone had expected.

The first was the near impossibility, given the technology then available, of landing a meaningful concentration of bombs near any target other than a large city; in 1941 only one in ten Royal Air Force (RAF) bombers got within five miles of their targets in the Ruhr valley. The second was the unforeseen resilience of well-organised societies to withstand bombing without suffering either moral or economic collapse. Shelter was found for people who had lost their homes, repairs to infrastructure were quickly made and industrial production temporarily shifted if necessary. Although more than 40,000 people died during the eight months of the Blitz and in London about 1m homes were damaged or destroyed, there were no riots and war production increased steadily. People suffered, but the majority got used to it.

Despite this experience, Britain’s Bomber Command under the brutally single- minded Arthur Harris, never doubted that “area bombing”, a euphemism for attacking cities indiscriminately. And he never lost his belief that if you killed enough German workers you would win the war. Yet even when the RAF in 1942, closely followed by the US Army Air Force, began to put together the famous “thousand bomber” raids that were supposed to “knock Germany out of the war”, German war production continued to ramp up and the Nazi regime never came remotely close to losing political control.


Mr Overy’s final verdict, however, is damning. He argues that “strategic bombing proved in the end to be inadequate in its own terms for carrying out its principle assignments and was morally compromised by deliberate escalation against civilian populations.” Nor has it left any real legacy. It was rapidly rendered redundant by the overwhelming but (since 1945 at least) unusable destructive power of nuclear weapons. More recently, bombing has come full circle. Precision-guided munitions now allow Western air forces to hit military targets while leaving even nearby civilians often largely unscathed—the precise opposite of what prevailed during the second world war.

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Carts and Horses in John Haldane

The Philosophical Quarterly has just published my review of John Haldane's Reasonable Faith; they kindly inform me that I can make it available to all on-line if I pay them £3,000. Thanks, but no thanks.

Here, nevertheless, is a teaser quote.

Haldane notes the description of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ in St Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, as suggesting that we should look again at notions of personal identity and post-mortem survival which allow temporal gaps in existence (p7). Haldane goes on to explore these issues in Chapter 11 (pp145-159). What is puzzling is the suggestion that we take as a starting point in philosophy a datum—if it is a datum—of Revelation. The standard Thomist approach is that philosophy deals with matters of Natural Reason, leaving Revelation to Theology: Philosophy is by definition the exercise of reason without the explicit aid of Revelation, and its role is to establish the conceptual ‘Nature’ which is perfected by Grace. Christian Philosophers have the task of showing the coherence of Christian beliefs without appeal to their supernatural origins, for the benefit of critics who do not accept those origins, and in areas such as Metaphysics and Mind it engages at ground level with non-Christian thought. Thomists might add further that the correct understanding of Scripture requires a complete theological education and the supernatural virtue of Faith. From this perspective, the argument that, since in contemporary philosophy more or less anything can spark a philosophically fruitful debate, we might as well raid the pages of the Christian Scriptures, is not altogether flattering, and may be imprudent. For those who take the Christian contribution to Philosophy seriously, Scripture is not just one more possible source of interesting ideas, along with Dostoyevsky or the study of the neurology of autism.

"Reasonable Faith. By JOHN HALDANE. (Abingdon: Routledge, 2010. Ppx + 197. Price £25.99.)"
Philosophical Quarterly, Vol 63, Issue 253, start page 830 

Friday, March 02, 2012

Infanticide: coming to a hospital near you

The Bones has a good post about the way the eugenicists float 'shocking' ideas, wait for the fuss to die down, and then impose the reality. They get people used to the idea of contraception, abortion, screening for the disabled, euthanasia, by endless debate, and their chums in the media are always on hand to keep the defenders of the status quo on the back foot. The matter is never settled until they get their way; when that happens, suddenly it is very settled indeed, one might think it was handed down from the Almighty, the fuss they make about 'attacks on abortion rights' and so on.

This procedure is aided enormously if the response of Catholics is not to oppose the evil with arguments from Natural Law, but to beg to be allowed to shelter Catholic institutions and Catholic medics from having anything to do with it. The progressives are always willing to make this concession to win the main issue, after which they can remove our precious protections at their leisure. This has happened so often now it would be tedious to list the cases, but it started with Cardinal Heenan reining in opponents of abortion in exchange for a 'conscience clause' which in the long term has proved totally worthless.

There is another aspect of the progressive strategy which is worth highlighting. The Catholic Medical Quarterly has just published a short paper of mine, which the editor commissioned, on the widely used medical textbook by Beauchamp & Childress. This was first published in 1979, and is now in its fifth edition. It is a truly appalling book, a disgrace to academia, deriving not from serious moral philosophers but a self-regarding group of 'applied ethics' people who find it very easy to get grants and sell books without actually thinking anything through clearly.

The Catholic Medical Quarterly very decently lets people download pds of articles, and you can read mine here. One very striking thing about the Beauchamp and Childress approach is that they encourage medics to view every decision as a matter of balancing considerations. Not, as you might imagine, medical pros and cons to a proposed treatment, or anything as sensible as that, but 'on the one hand, Kantian ethics would suggest option (a); on the other, the patient wants (b); and then again my feeling is that we should go for (c).' This describes what may indeed be the reasoning of a medic with absolutely no ethical formation; Beauchamp and Childress want to keep medics that way, even after they've done a course in 'medical ethics'. Instead of making a decision on the basis of a coherent account of ethics which is itself subject to rigorous debate, they want medics to balance innumerable such accounts against each other and against inchoate feelings and even social pressure.

The genius of this account is that it can disguise the victory of materialism and utilitarianism indefinitely. One of the most powerful arguments against these theories is that they have extreme implications which are completely implausible. Murder five innocent people to save six? Cause great pain to one to save a large number from pin pricks? Give extra food to an indolent epicure while ignoring the needs of contented paupers? Instead of confronting these cases and concluding that Utilitarianism is simply wrong, Beauchamp and Childress say: keep it in the background, just balance it against your intuitions. So as time goes on, and healthy moral intuitions are undermined by relentless Utilitarian propaganda, not least in medical ethics courses, it can continue its relentless advance. The unthinkability of contraception, abortion, IVF, screening, euthanasia, and infanticide disappear one after the other because it hasn't been made sufficiently clear that the only reason to ignore these traditional moral prohibitions is a moral theory, Utilitarianism, which no sane  person would actually adopt, without massive and arbitrary conditions, in real life.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Non-Directive Counselling: what I have learnt

Last evening I presented one of two papers on NDC at a seminar on the subject organised by the Anscombe Centre, and took part in the discussion. I'm not going to give a blow-by-blow account of proceedings, or reveal the identities of anyone (I don't know if they'd mind or not), but I will sumarise what I think I learnt from a very interesting evening.

As the seminar was attended by a number of people from counselling organisations (or organisations which do counselling inter alia), as well as a number of moral philosophers, we were able to try in a sustained way to get to grips with each others' angles on the subject. The counsellors (as I might call them for convenience) were naturally not used to the kinds of questions we raised; nor were the philosophers especially well-informed about counselling. The first thing which emerged was that, as far as I could see, the existence of moral problems of the type we were raising had not occurred to the counsellors as a group before (or: before the thing blew up in the Catholic press a few months ago). Handling a counselling session to minimise cooperation with evil, or consent by silence to evil, was not part of their training. As Catholics they naturally had some instincts on these matters, but these things had never been formalised, and although they went into counselling with considerable professional training, ethics from a Catholic point of view did not form part of that. In this, of course, they are in the same boat as doctors, though one might have hoped for something better from organisations with strong links to the Church.

They were able to clarify for us some of the protocols they use and how these relate to the kinds of moral problem which I outlined. The answers to the question 'Can an NDC counsellor volunteer information?' and the question 'Can an NDC counsellor answer a question about his own moral view?' were both a clear 'no': nor would any of the counsellors present allow themselves to break the rules of NDC in an emergency situation.

On the other hand, some of them did say that they would aim to steer the conversation in particular directions, that they looked out for 'pro-life clues' and so on. If some kind of information would make a difference, in the counsellor's judgement, he would steer the client into asking for it.

This might look as though the rules of NDC were being kept in letter but not in spirit, but it also emerged that other organisations, including pro-abortion organisations, would regard the provision of information as not infringing NDC at all. Their approach would be to make sure that the client had a full set of options to consider. The pro-life counsellors would not set out options unasked: one reason for this which was discussed is that if you give pro-life options, it would seem that you had to give options involving abortion as well. Something a bit like a Socratic questioning method, of getting the client to see for herself, and to ask for herself the necessary questions, is used instead.

In addition to this, one counsellor pointed out that it would be impossible for a counsellor not to convey a certain amount about his own preferences by tone of voice, body language and so on. (Thinking about this afterwards, it occurred to me that this was much less the case with counselling over the phone.)

My argument in my paper was to the effect: NDC may well work in some cases, and indeed be the best approach in some cases, or for some of the time in a case, but a counsellor must be ready either to switch into a more interventionist mode of operating, or refer the client on to a more interventionist type of counselling, if the counsellor judges that a good outcome depends upon it. I pointed out in my paper that such a procedure was perfectly normal in ordinary counselling. However, the counsellors present were very resistant to this suggestion, and it is clearly not a way of doing things they are used to.

They used two arguments against it. One was that becoming more interventionist would undermine the rapport with the client. If this were true then it would never bring about a better outcome; but equally if it were true then other counselling organisations, who tell their counsellors to switch into a more interventionist mode when the client is suicidal, would have noticed. And indeed if being interventionist never worked then all the other kinds of therapy, other than NDC, would never work, and that seems rather an extravagant claim.

The other is that any deviation from NDC would be found out and referrals from GPs and the like would dry up. In the case of one counselling group represented at the meeting at least, the organisation's business model depends on strict adherence to the rules for this reason. Against this it should be pointed out that there are other business models: you can advertise and get your clients that way, and non-NDC pro-life counselling groups do just that. More fundamentally, this argument does not look to me like a justification for close material cooperation in a grave evil.

My preliminary conclusion from the discussion is this. One the one hand, despite saying they would never break the NDC rules, and their reluctance to move the client on to other forms of counselling, pro-life NDC counsellors can find ways of getting the client to ask for necessary information, can steer the conversation in a pro-life direction, and so on: so there are more resources for ensuring a good outcome (and avoiding cooperation in evil) than might appear at first.

On the other hand, when push comes to shove, and in the admittedly unlikely case when a word in season would make all the difference, pro-life NDC counsellors will stick to a strict interpretation of the rules and remain silent. I have yet to see a sufficient moral justification for that, but no doubt the debate will continue.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Why I was wrong about Triple Effect

Frances Kamm has proposed something called 'Triple Effect', in which an agent can bring about a desired effect, which is essential for his overall plan, without intending it. She says this shows we can use something as a means which we do not intend. I agreed with her analysis, though I said it should not be called a means of the agent.

Kamm's examples. The party: I will only throw a party if I don't expect there to be a lot of clearing up. I think my guests will do the clearing up for me, so I throw the party on that basis. But I don't intend that they clear up.

Looping Trolley: I can direct a trolley away from one set of people tied to the track only the basis that lives will be saved overall. In fact there are even more people tied to the alternative track. But luckily (?) there is a very fat man tied to the track as well, who will stop the trolley before it gets to these latter people. I can direct the trolley in that direction without intending the squashing of the fat man.

These have some plausibility, particularly the party example (or so it seemed to me), but I have realised that this approach is subject to powerful counterexamples, like this one.

The wicked uncle. My uncle is very rich and very wicked; a whole community is suffering under his exploitative sway. I fancy scratching my finger on the trigger of a loaded gun I am pointing at him, which will obviously go off and kill him. Normally such finger-scratching would be wrong, because the unintended effect of killing an innocent (non-aggressor) would outweigh the good of relieving my itch in this way. But in this case the good consequences of his death far outweigh the badness of the death in itself. So the balance of non-intended consequences is actually positive.

Now this seems absurd, and if we allow this then any action with overall good consequences which violates a deontic constraint (a common-sense moral prohibition like 'don't kill the innocent) could be done with a little morally irrelevant posturing. So the moral structure of deontic constraints would effectively collapse into Consequentialism.

The case is indeed absurd because when I say that the good consequences of the action make it morally possible to do, I am taking cognizance of them in a way which implies that I intend them. One intends things which motivate one to act as one does. The good consequences of the death are motivating me, in part, and I would nit act without them; thus I must be intending the death of the uncle as well, as a means to my intended end.

What I failed to see was that on Kamm's examples the agent must be intending the good foreseen results because they are essential to his plan. If he did not expect them then he'd have to call it off, and he'd better make sure they happen, by adapting the plan if necessary. They are indeed his means, but by the same token they are intended.

This admission also effect another example I came up with: the railway enthusiast. He is so keen on railways that he wants to build one really as an end in itself. Someone points out that railways are dangerous things and people are bound to be killed in accidents in the years after it is built. This seems to rule out the project. Then someone else points out that railways are safer than roads and by shifting traffic away from roads it will have an overall positive effect on the number of accidental deaths. I DID say that the enthusiast can proceed with the building with no intentions about accidental deaths, happy in the knowledge that the balance of unintended consequences is positive. I NOW say that since the improved overall safety is essential to the moral viability of the project he must intend it, if only as a means to the end of building a railway.

Changing my position in this way brings underlines the principle found in many discussions of the Principle of Double Effect, that the good consequences of an action must not flow causally from the bad foreseen side effects. At least, if the bad side effects are such that it would be wrong to intend them, one cannot justify the action on the basis of further, good, effects which flow from them, for to do this is to bring them, and the bad cause of them into one's intentions.

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