Saturday, December 03, 2011

Gaita & the ground of philosophy

Raimond Gaita has written a column for The Age in favour of homosexual marriage. It's a more thoughtful argument than is usual for this debate.

Gaita believes that there are people who oppose homosexual marriage because they find gay sex disgusting or immoral or because they believe it will have damaging social consequences. But he sees these objections as being relatively superficial.

The most radical source of opposition to homosexual marriage, he argues, is that many people don't believe that there is depth in homosexuality: that it is not deep enough to be integrated into the meaning of marriage. That leaves the term "homosexual marriage" as an oxymoron and, if true, it would mean that if homosexual marriage were legalised the concept of marriage would be degraded:

From this perspective, even if the law were to permit gay marriages, these would be marriages in inverted commas only. The state cannot do what is, so to speak, conceptually impossible. If it were to try, this thought continues, it would degrade the concept of marriage. After a time, even heterosexual married couples would no longer understand what it means to be married.

But Gaita is strongly opposed to this view of homosexuality; he believes that society should recognise the "depth and dignity" of the "sexual being" of homosexuals as,

Our sense of a common humanity is premised on seeing in all human beings their capacity to make meaning that we respect of the big facts that define the human condition - our mortality, our vulnerability to misfortune and, of course, our sexuality. To be blind to that in others is to be partially blind to their humanity.

That's a significant quote. He is arguing that our common humanity rests on our capacity to make our own meaning of who we are. Therefore, runs the argument, if we don't respect how others make meaning we are denying them human status. Homosexuals are just doing the human thing, claims Gaita, of defining their own being in ways that are meaningful to them, so not to recognise what they decide to be would be a denial of their full humanity:

Laws premised on blindness to the full humanity of our fellow citizens wrong them more profoundly than can be conveyed by the complaint that they deny them access to goods and opportunities.

Gaita's position is not original. It's another way of putting the orthodox liberal view. And it is not obviously true. Why should we accept that it is our capacity to self-define our place in the world and our being which is the measure of our humanity?

There was an older view in Western philosophy that our being flowed from our essence, which in turn then provided our "telos" (the end toward which we are rightly oriented).

I'm not sure the ancients adequately defined this essence, but even so it strikes me as a more promising philosophical framework than the modernist liberal one.

A core problem with the modern view is that we are supposed to accept that meaning is something we make for ourselves - which leaves meaning as something subjective and therefore not very meaningful. It doesn't really seem to matter in the liberal view what specifically men choose to do or be, as there is not thought to be a masculine essence which helps to define our ideal being and the fulfilment of who we are.

And so liberal moderns have no basis for preferring one concept of being and self to another, as their concept of being doesn't connect to anything beyond the individual self. It doesn't matter, in this view, whether I choose to be a self-sacrificing father, a juggalo or a brony. These are all the same, and must be treated the same, as they are all instances of individuals defining their own being in ways that are meaningful to them. If anything, it is the fatherhood option which might be ranked lower by liberal moderns, as it might be thought to have been accepted for reasons of tradition rather than as something individually self-defined.

If it's true, as liberal moderns claim, that what matters (what makes us fully human) is our capacity to make meaning for ourselves of our own being, then value will shift away from what we specifically choose to do or be, and flow instead to the idea that we must accept as equal each individual's self-made being - as to judge differently would mean denying to some individuals what makes them human.

And so value for liberal moderns resides in "equality", "tolerance", "respect", "non-judgementalism", "diversity" "non-discrimination" and so on. But these values circle round an emptiness - they exist to uphold the idea that there is no being except the one we make for ourselves, that there are no real standards of what we choose to do to be, that there are no given qualities to who we are which place us naturally within families or communities or larger human traditions, and that meaning is ultimately subjective and, therefore, not very meaningful.

28 comments:

  1. You say:
    ..."that meaning is ultimately subjective and, therefore, not very meaningful."

    Part B doesn't follow from Part A. There are quite a few folks like myself who would say this claim rests on a category error/stolen concept fallacy.

    "Meaning" is a term with an original value...meaning TO SOMEONE. To one of us...the idea that "meaning" can be used without referencing the other half of the idea is as crazy as making a sentence like "punched John". Surely you're just leaving out WHOSE subjective meaning we are talking about...or who is doing the punching.

    Very simply..."meaning" without an indirect object (which person's meaning) is un-parseable.

    Now we grant that for many humans, the social aspect of a project (participating with others) dominates all other aspects of any given project, and thus large-group projects have greater felt "meaningfulness". OTOH, that does not appear to be true for all of us.

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  2. I suspect that Mark believes that there is an objective transcendent meaning to our lives defined by a creator God, and that this meaning precludes homosexual relationships.

    If Mark does not believe this, I know there are others who do. I think it is what he is getting at when he refers to teleology. In any case, it's a belief that scares me. If such a God exists, our knowledge of God is necessarily mediated by human beings -- the writers of the Bible and the Koran, and the leaders of religious institutions. They claim to know better than we ourselves do what our purpose is and even, at times, to define for us what happiness entails. And they want to enshrine it in the law by making same-sex marriage illegal. It is hard for me to imagine anything more totalitarian than telling someone else what her purpose in life is, and basing the law on it.

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  3. i always love how in these discussions someone inevitably claims that conservatives are trying to make gay marriage illegal, as though it's currently allowed

    technical point maybe, but still.

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  4. i mean, unlike anti-miscegenation laws there is nothing that says such-and-such is explicitly banned. the point of the argument is that the definition of marriage until recently has never been thought to include homosexual relationships by its nature. obviously the same isn't true of interracial relationships in the past, otherwise governments wouldn't have legally banned them.

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  5. It is hard for me to imagine anything more totalitarian than telling someone else what her purpose in life is, and basing the law on it.

    a) The liberal "solution" is to deny that there is a purpose to life (more accurately: the only purpose is the act of arbitrarily making up a subjective purpose). Sorry if I don't find that an appealing alternative.

    b) The liberal "solution" rules out most purposes involving a communal setting. For instance, liberalism can cope with anything that can be chosen individually (a career), but not with any vision of a morally ordered community or an ongoing ethnic tradition.

    Liberal academics are open about this. They admit that their desire to impose liberalism globally will mean the loss of other ways of life.

    So in this sense it is in our own times liberalism which tells people what their purpose in life may or may not be.

    c) Traditional societies were mostly less intrusive than liberal ones when it came to purpose.

    In part that's because liberalism sees our human status as being contingent rather than as something invested in us.

    So categories like justice and freedom come fully-loaded in the liberal world view. If there is any infringement on equal autonomy it is thought to be a gross violation of people's very status as humans, therefore requiring a state response.

    Most traditional societies were more relaxed. If I developed myself well according to a masculine essence I might be admired; if I didn't I might be less well-regarded. But it wasn't a matter for the state to radically intervene.

    d) Your comment assumes that it is not possible for communities to discriminate between higher and lower expressions of human life (too scary you think). That then rules out the achievement of a high level of human culture within a community.

    The liberal view is, in this sense, decivilising - as it has proved in practice to be.

    There is no future in it. It has been tried and it has failed.

    Rather than being "scared" in girly way, we need to have the courage to assert a vision of community that is viable and that successfully harmonises the different orders of existence.

    What if we get it wrong? Then that community will decline over time.

    What if we're too scared to ever attempt such a thing? Then our society will decline over time.

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  6. This is the crux of the modern dilemma. Are we blank slates or do we indeed have an essence which we cannot choose, which stems from the sex we are born with? If we have no essence, and we are indeed blank slates, then it logically follows that we are not fully human until we have self-designed. We can gerrymander our gender roles in ways which flatter us, and it won't appear to be a selfish act.

    If we do have an essence which stems from the fact that we are born either biologically male or biologically female, then deviation from this is, well...deviant.

    I'm glad we live in a society, however, which recognizes gay marriage. It became law in Canada a few years ago and the way in which it was enacted was brilliant. Gays can marry but they cannot force churches which do not believe in gay marriage to marry them. Basically all sides are happy with this.

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  7. VRWC wrote,

    "the point of the argument is that the definition of marriage until recently has never been thought to include homosexual relationships by its nature. obviously the same isn't true of interracial relationships in the past, otherwise governments wouldn't have legally banned them."

    Maybe this is a minor point, but the reason that societies (not just governments) have frowned upon interracial marriage is not because so many marriages used to be interracial, but precisely because there had never been opportunity for them to be common.

    For millenia, different nations lived apart from one another, and most people knew of other races largely through myth and legend. Once a population came into close contact with another race, some sort of anti-miscegenation code usually followed. It was just self-preservation.

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  8. Tim wrote,
    "I'm glad we live in a society, however, which recognizes gay marriage. It became law in Canada a few years ago and the way in which it was enacted was brilliant. Gays can marry but they cannot force churches which do not believe in gay marriage to marry them. Basically all sides are happy with this."

    This seems a little short-sighted. It's not that gays care so much about getting married. If they were that into monogamy, then the gay hook-up culture wouldn't be so notorious.

    Gays want everyone to accept their decision as to whom they have sex with. It has to do with the liberal autonomy theory that Mr. Richardson has so painstakingly and carefully explained (we are human to the extent that we are self-determined and recognized by others as the thing we self-determine, etc.).

    As long as there is even one church that doesn't accept their gayness, i.e. their decision with whom they sleep, then they will claim that there is intolerance and bigotry and they will work to stamp it out. They will do things like public awareness campaigns. They will pressure/harass the church and its members to change their beliefs, and they will celebrate and encourage the decision of that church's young people to leave and adopt a more liberal worldview.

    There is no coexistence with liberalism. It must be thoroughly and completely defeated. And liberals, for the most part, think pretty much the same about us.

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  9. If state marriage represents a social contract in which homosexuals are legal parties to the contract then it is time conservatives no longer availed themselves of this contract.

    Maybe its time conservatives flipped the script and rather than being the dominant culture it should be become the agent provocateur, much like muslims.

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  10. Whats happened to Australia? Its truly embarrassing to be a westerner.
    Today I felt a change in the way I think about being an Australian. I no longer consider myself "western"
    if this is what the west is about:

    http://resources0.news.com.au/images/2011/12/02/1226212/562356-alp.jpg


    http://www.news.com.au/national/gay-marriage-free-vote-a-pot-of-gold-at-end-of-labor-deal/story-e6frfkvr-1226212487275

    "Hobsons Bay could get the state's first intersex mayor"

    Read more: http://www.news.com.au/national/mayor-race-is-history-in-the-making/story-e6frfkvr-1226212155119#ixzz1fRwkZ6Ph

    "Wife's AIDS lie 'doesn't violate marriage consent' "
    http://www.news.com.au/national/wifes-sick-betrayal/story-e6frfkvr-1226212823123

    "Crackdown on hate crimes towards Muslims "

    "Muslim victims of abuse are encouraged to save evidence, take photos and report any incident to police and their local mosque or Islamic organisation."

    "Police are being asked to develop databases on crime motivated by race or religion, so that offenders can be prosecuted."

    http://www.news.com.au/national/new-clamp-on-muslim-haters/story-e6frfkvr-1226212776642

    http://www.news.com.au/top-stories/can-cheating-keep-the-love-alive/story-e6frfkp9-1226206415783

    and so on.

    I think now as a formely western male im more of a free agent. Its definately time to emmigrate. Especially if the most important topic the Government has on its agenda is wether two fags want to marry and not the economy, security, defense, homelessness, childrens starving(within australia) etc.
    Truly pathetic.

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  11. Anon,

    The important thing is to break decisively with the political orthodoxy. This includes giving up on any wishful thinking that the official institutions of society are going to put things right.

    We cannot see ourselves as individuals who are passively acted on by society. We have to return to the idea that a fully developed man is someone who leads in his community.

    That might at first seem annoying, but it is what we are meant to be anyway.

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  12. And so value for liberal moderns resides in "equality", "tolerance", "respect", "non-judgementalism", "diversity" "non-discrimination" and so on

    Liberals just say this. It doesn't do exactly what it says on the tin...

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  13. I think you strike out on this one Mark. It appears to be because of your zeal to fit it into the "liberal/tabula rasa" criticism that is usually made here.

    The columnist doesn't actually say that all self-made meaning is equally valid.

    She says "our sense of a common humanity" should cause us to accept those who "make meaning that we respect."

    The most important idea is the "we respect" bit. She is not saying that all self-created meaning is morally acceptable. A value judgment is implied. And it is not utilitarian (i.e. for example, we can't accept the psychopath's moral universe because it would cause crime).

    It also seems that by "common humanity" she means our shared ability to make moral judgments (and note again she does not invoke utilitarian reason or self-interest).

    It is not clear what she ultimately bases the capacity for moral judgment on, or if her basis for morality could stand up to scrutiny. However, it is certainly there.

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  14. @Anonymous from above

    "It is not clear what she ultimately bases the capacity for moral judgment on, or if her basis for morality could stand up to scrutiny. However, it is certainly there."

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jonathan_Haidt#Moral_Foundations_Theoryhttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jonathan_Haidt#Moral_Foundations_Theory

    "Moral Foundations Theory

    His Moral Foundations Theory looks at the way morality varies between cultures and identifies five fundamental moral values shared to a greater or lesser degree by different societies and individuals.[2] These are:

    Care for others, protecting them from harm. (He also referred to this dimension as Harm.)
    Fairness, Justice, treating others equally.
    Loyalty to your group, family, nation. (He also referred to this dimension as Ingroup.)
    Respect for tradition and legitimate authority. (He also referred to this dimension as Authority.)
    Purity, avoiding disgusting things, foods, actions.

    Haidt found that Americans who identified as liberals tend to value care and fairness considerably higher than loyalty, respect, and purity. Self-identified conservative Americans value all five values more equally, though at a lower level across the five than the liberal concern for care and fairness. Both groups gave care the highest over-all weighting, but conservatives valued fairness the lowest, whereas liberals valued purity the lowest. Similar results were found across the political spectrum in other countries.[3]"

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  15. Rereading the article, it is even clearer the author is not a liberal. She actually criticizes this position by name:

    "Anyone who is a classical liberal can support laws that permit something they find immoral and even disgusting. But they cannot support laws that celebrate it."

    She is clearly against this when she says that if gay marriage would be granted in such circumstances, it would be in inverted commas. That is, for the fullness of marriage to be realized, she says, it must be recognized positively by others (instead of just allowed in the negative sense).

    In other words, she is in agreement with a major theme in this blog: that man does not determine his own value in an autonomous shell. Instead, his meaning, and the meaning of his relationships, depends on the moral judgments of others.

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  16. off-topic i guess, but what do people here think of gay adoption? ban it altogether, allow it but put it some kind of preference for married straights, don't worry about it?

    i ask cuz i'm curious what the current Australian laws on it are...here in the U.S. early this year Arizona mandated a marital preference in all adoptions, along with other factors to be considered. i'm wondering if anything similar exists in Australia, and if so if it's really made it too difficult for gay couples to adopt/limited their choices to "undesirable" troubled kids they don't want or just amounts to a soft preference.

    i've also read self-proclaimed "conservative cases for gay marriage" over here that talk about favoring two-parent families in adoption/IVF in a post-SSM environment but i don't know if even that'll be constitutionally possible in the future given that a claimed right to gay marriage essentially declares procreation not necessarily a part of marriage, and by extension, raising kids -- i'd predict our courts saying, how can you restrict the types of families for kids when marriage and childbearing/rearing don't have to be connected.

    all of this is pretty hypothetical "what if" though as most states have a pretty much open adoption/IVF system to my knowledge.

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  17. I guess I think the human most worthy of respect is he or she who can choose freely - and then makes the *right* decision!

    So the best of men is the man who freely chooses to be a good husband, and father to his several children.

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  18. Some meaning is made, some is discovered. Making meaning is also described as "making up" something, be it an excuse or a story. It is a fiction, a fantasy, a lie. It is, as the children say, "just pretending." In the existentialist world that this article (and many of the commenters) presume, all meaning is a fiction. We're just pretending, like children in a cardboard box pretending it is a fire engine.

    But there are in this world real fire engines. In fact all fictions, all pretending, mimics that real world. If I make up an excuse and say I am late because my car wouldn't start, it only works because there really are cars that don't start.

    As an aside, I think people who speak of "deep" meanings are mostly phonies. That one person loves another may be important, and so, therefore, may be expressions of that love, but I cannot see how the meaning of a kiss is "deeper" than the meaning of a stop sign.

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  19. Bartholomew wrote...

    Gays want everyone to accept their decision as to whom they have sex with.

    That's the crux of the matter. Gays have never been the slightest bit interested in getting married. What they want is for society not to tolerate their lifestyle, but to applaud it and embrace it.

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  20. Therefore, runs the argument, if we don't respect how others make meaning we are denying them human status.

    The problem with that is that if we accept the way gays make meaning of their lives then there is no justification for denying that acceptance to any other group. So logically we must then legalise polygamous marriages, and every other form of marriage that it is possible to imagine.

    If we accept homosexual relationships as being the equal in very way of traditional heterosexual marriage then we must accord the same respect to sado-masochistic relationships, to inter-species relationships, to every bizarre sexual kink in fact. That is of course what leftists want because their agenda is to undermine marriage. I find it hilarious to hear leftists who have always been contemptuous of marriage now telling us how very very important it is to them.

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  21. I think you strike out on this one Mark

    Anon, having read a little bit of Gaita I would agree that he doesn't discuss moral issues generally from the viewpoint of an orthodox liberalism.

    But nonetheless he chooses to resolve this particular issue with an argument that is very close to the standard liberal one.

    Gaita might even provide some clues as to how we got lumbered with liberalism in the first place.

    Just as the early liberals were preoccupied with the question of "how do protect myself as an individual from others", so too is Gaita concerned with "how do we prevent the infliction of harm on people".

    So I don't think his focus is even on the issue of "Is homosexuality moral? Is it an ordered expression of human sexuality?"

    I don't think he is interested in this. His moral reasoning starts from the idea of "what matters is that people are regarded in such a way that precludes the infliction of harm".

    Unfortunately, this leads him to a liberal position. He wants us to recognise the common humanity of homosexuals - which he falsely and damagingly believes involves us "seeing in all human beings their capacity to make meaning that we respect of the big facts that define the human condition".

    As I tried to explain in the post, this emphasises the idea that our human status depends on our capacity to make meaning for ourselves that is accorded equal treatment and respect by others - which is the sense in which I mean it has to be considered "equally valid".

    This then leads to an emphasis on non-discrimination, diversity, equality, non-judgementalism etc.

    What is wrong with Gaita's approach?

    a) It organises society in a distorted way around one concern: a fear of mistreatment.

    b) There are other ways to encourage the idea of a common humanity. In Christianity it was the idea of all people being God's children, of man being made in God's image, of being invested with a soul etc.

    c) The modernist approach does not, in the end, rule out mistreatment anyway - as the history of the last century suggests.

    There are various reasons for this:

    i) Modernism is unsettling to the stability of human communities. It dissolves natural bonds and leads to an alienating individualism. Some individuals will no longer be enculturated within a civilising community.

    ii) There is no objective moral law at the heart of modernism which might restrain the purposes of some individuals.

    iii) Modernism tells people that they are not accorded a fully humans status until there is a just society of equal treatment.

    Inequality and injustice are therefore thought to be unnatural conditions created by an oppressor class motivated by privilege or prejudice.

    This oppressor class comes to be thought of as an impediment to the proper ends of human society - and therefore sometimes as a cosmic enemy of humanity whose destruction might move along the cause of progress.

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  22. Lovely post Mark.

    I like how all the concepts you have discussed previously come together.

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  23. Anon wrote,

    "Lovely post Mark.

    I like how all the concepts you have discussed previously come together."


    Agreed. Your writings are gelling into an ever more coherent Weltanschauung.

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  24. That's the crux of the matter. Gays have never been the slightest bit interested in getting married. What they want is for society not to tolerate their lifestyle, but to applaud it and embrace it.

    Agreed 100%.

    Rereading the article, it is even clearer the author is not a liberal. She actually criticizes this position by name:

    Anyone who is a classical liberal can support laws that permit something they find immoral and even disgusting. But they cannot support laws that celebrate it.


    The idea that permission is not celebration is contradictory. If one supports a law that permits immorality then by definition one celebrates it. If one says permits anonymous sperm donation to occur then one supports it. If one permits the trafficking of drugs to circulate then one supports it. Humans are not isolated islands, we are social beings.

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  25. dfordoom said,

    "The problem with that is that if we accept the way gays make meaning of their lives then there is no justification for denying that acceptance to any other group. So logically we must then legalise polygamous marriages, and every other form of marriage that it is possible to imagine."

    I can't think of any argument based on liberalism that you could use to reject polygamous marriage.

    Mark said,

    "Modernism tells people that they are not accorded a fully humans status until there is a just society of equal treatment."

    Also going along with comments made by others we know that gays and leftists want marriage rights not because they value marriage, which they don’t really, but because it is denied them and therefore view it as a symptom of oppression. However, having said that, isn't the desire to achieve acceptance in society an understandable and legitimate aim? Aren't people drawn to throw off the things that would keep them in an inferior status? You can't change your sexual preference, or your race, (unless you see this in a liberal fairly blank slate type of way or see homosexuality as a form of mental disorder), as opposed to for instance your economic situation to a degree. So what should gays do,? all migrate to San Francisco, before they'll feel acceptance? Should we say that gays are different and shouldn't be accepted?

    Should the conservative position be, you're degenerates go away or change? Should it merely be, be happy with civil unions but stay off marriage because that's something special? Aside from the references in the Bible, its still the case that marriage is a secular contract as well as a sacrament, and many white anglo saxon people don't accept that second aspect of marriage in their lives and don’t adopt church weddings.

    We know I would suggest as a fact that most of society finds gays, ie gay sex, to be repulsive and on this basis would not be in favor the granting them various rights. Should this alone though be a sufficient justification for denying them formal social acceptance? I believe that its reasonable that such questions should be asked.

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  26. Jesse_7 wrote:

    You can't change your sexual preference

    In fact in many cases people can and do just that. I've known quite a few lesbians who have turned straight. Of course many lesbians are only lesbians for political reasons anyway.

    The idea that sexual preference is something you're born with is part of the prevailing liberal/leftist dogma that most people are too scared to challenge.

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