He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. - Aeschylus

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Backwards Thinking, Forward Lookers

For many months now, I've been observing a trend among the more politically aware and trying to find an apt label for it.  I ultimately decided to call it backwards thinking, and a recent example of it compelled me to write a response.

Backwards thinking is the imposition of one's less abstract conclusions upon one's more abstract moral framework.  I call it backwards thinking because it defies the sequence in which our worldviews should unfold.

Our worldviews grow like the kernel of an operating system or like the seed of a plant.  The seed is our core values, and our core values bound our moral views in the same way that axioms bound the results of the inferences made from them.  Those moral views bound our political views in the same way that the inferences from the axioms bound further inferences made from them.  Our political views are a special case of applied moral values; we have to apply our moral values while taking into account that the political framework has a specific purpose not shared by the individual moral actor and that this political framework needs to serve people who do not share our values.

One example of a helpful application of our moral values to a political framework is egalitarianism, which flows from our moral value of fairness.  In order to serve the needs of everyone effectively, the polity must not be as discriminating as an individual can be in their own personal decisions.  This is why egalitarianism is so useful in the context of the body politic (e.g. public services and agencies).  This becomes a problem when we think backwards and try to apply egalitarian ideas to other kinds of institutions.  Should we try to force hospitals to hire approximately as many male nurses as female nurses and female doctors as male doctors?  Should we try to force the KKK to accept African-American members?  Should we make American Atheists accept Hindu members?

Some people would respond in the affirmative.  Others would be very uncomfortable with the idea.  For both groups, the issue rest on the question: how do we decide?  What is the standard we apply to reach a conclusion about when applying egalitarian principles is appropriate and when it is not?  One easy way of demarcating between the two is to reserve egalitarian principles for the public sphere and leave the private sphere free to leave egalitarian principles out of their decision-making.  The difficulty with this in the context of the legal system of the United States is that the private sphere is no longer completely free to eschew egalitarianism.  For example, private companies would be sued (successfully) in civil courts for refusing service to certain ethnic groups.  The cultural value of fairness was expressed as egalitarianism in the context of the law, and then that specific expression of fairness was imposed back onto the culture from which it came in the form of law with the force of law.

As someone who believes strongly in the usefulness of egalitarianism as applied to public agencies, it would be tempting for me to say that we ought to apply it to everything.  But I recognize that not every organization functions well with egalitarian structures.  Expert associations, trade associations, private businesses, religious institutions, and the military would have very serious problems if they were to embrace the strong sort of egalitarian ideals I embrace with regard to public agencies.  Expert associations can't just admit anyone as a member, or the entire purpose of their association is defeated, and the same would apply to trade associations.  Private businesses rise or fall on the competence and ability to navigate company culture of their employees, and so making seemingly fuzzy decisions about who best fits into that culture is actually very useful for them, which can become unpopular when cultural differences break up along ethnic lines.  Religious groups are usually concerned with fulfilling whatever the mission of their group is, and they may have a legitimate reason to decide not to associate with people of other religions or to serve only certain groups of people in accord with that mission.  The military would fall apart completely without a well-defined system of rank and continuity of command.

Consistently applying principles we apply in a political context to other contexts might be appealing because we feel strongly about them, but we need to seriously consider the consequences of this backwards thinking before engaging in it and avoid the error of thinking that egalitarian principles work in every context despite the evidence that they really do not.

Related:  Can women be priests in the Catholic Church?

As an example of how this backwards thinking can work, one of my friends proposed that the next Pope of the Catholic Church should be a woman.  He wanted to impose the egalitarian ideals of his political philosophy onto the source of his moral thought, the Catholic Church.  Given the requirement that the person elected Pope be an ordained priest first, the answer to the question of whether or not the Catholic Church can have a woman as Pope rests on the question of whether or not women can be ordained as priests.

At this point, my erstwhile egalitarian friend might point out that there was a woman who was Pope, and her name is Pope Joan.  Unfortunately, that is likely a factual inaccuracy, as even our well-read atheist friends agree that Pope Joan probably didn't exist.  And the contemporary group Roman Catholic Womenpriests is not recognized by the Church as having valid orders.

Lacking a historical precedent to suggest an answer in the affirmative, let's consider what our current Pope (known for his statements about better treatment of women by the Church) has to say about the notion of women priests.  One of the things that he mentions is clericalism, which in this case refers to the view on the part of some Catholics that a cleric has a power which makes them more equal and more worthy than their brothers and sisters in Christ.  Pope Francis (like many other Church authorities) rejects this view of the relationship between the clergy and laity.

This is probably why the egalitarian arguments don't ultimately prevail for him; only if we assume that priests are truly more equal or more worthy than other people does it even make sense to suggest that there is an inequality worth ending via the application of egalitarian principles.  Because the Pope and the Church do not think that this is the meaning of priesthood, they cannot make sense of the claim that women would need to be priests in the interest of equality.  Those who argue in favor of women in the priesthood are ultimately proposing an inequality that doesn't exist and then insisting that we abolish it.

To give a simple example of why this sort of vision of inequality doesn't make sense, let's consider a restaurant which only hires women as servers and has only ever hired women as servers since the woman who started the business first hired a server.  Does the fact that they would refuse to hire me as a man make me unequal to women?  I don't think so.  In fact, I would give the benefit of the doubt to the restaurant and surmise that they are holding fast to the wishes of the original owner and that they probably have legitimate reasons for their policy.

While many of us who have egalitarian ideals consider ourselves forward-looking or forward-thinking in proposing these kinds of egalitarian reforms, some of us are actually becoming quite practiced in a backwards thinking quite at odds with the evidence-based worldview we purport to favor.

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