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January 16, 2013

Confirmation Bias in Action

This Dan Slater piece on the "science" of evo-psych made us laugh:

A COUPLE of evolutionary psychologists recently published a book about human sexual behavior in prehistory called “Sex at Dawn.” Upon hearing of the project, one colleague, dubious that a modern scholar could hope to know anything about that period, asked them, “So what do you do, close your eyes and dream?”

Actually, it’s a little more involved. Evolutionary psychologists who study mating behavior often begin with a hypothesis about how modern humans mate: say, that men think about sex more than women do. Then they gather evidence — from studies, statistics and surveys — to support that assumption. Finally, and here’s where the leap occurs, they construct an evolutionary theory to explain why men think about sex more than women, where that gender difference came from, what adaptive purpose it served in antiquity, and why we’re stuck with the consequences today.

...Of course, no fossilized record can really tell us how people behaved or thought back then, much less why they behaved or thought as they did. Nonetheless, something funny happens when social scientists claim that a behavior is rooted in our evolutionary past. Assumptions about that behavior take on the immutability of a physical trait — they come to seem as biologically rooted as opposable thumbs or ejaculation.

The Editorial Staff suspect we might have written about this a time or twelve. A few years ago, we noted the presence of a WEIRD sampling bias that casts considerable doubt on the majority of social science studies produced by unimpeachable "experts":

Who are the people studied in behavioral science research? A recent analysis of the top journals in six sub‐disciplines of Psychology from 2003‐2007 revealed that 68% of subjects came from the US, and a full 96% of subjects were from Western industrialized countries, specifically North America, Europe, Australia, and Israel (Arnett 2008). The make‐up of these samples appears to largely reflect the country of residence of the authors, as 73% of first authors were at American universities, and 99% were at universities in Western countries. This means that 96% of psychological samples come from countries with only 12% of the world’s population.

Even within the West, however, the typical sampling method for psychological studies is far from representative...67% of the American samples (and 80% of the samples from other countries) were composed solely of undergraduates in psychology courses (Arnett 2008).

Having volunteered to participate in several such studies during her freshman year in college, the blog princess came away less than impressed with the rigor of many of these studies. When an 18 year old who has never taken a Psych course can spot holes big enough to drive a truck through in a study, it's a fair bet that more than one factor is not being controlled for:

Everyone has always assumed — and early research had shown — that women desired fewer sexual partners over a lifetime than men. But in 2003, two behavioral psychologists, Michele G. Alexander and Terri D. Fisher, published the results of a study that used a “bogus pipeline” — a fake lie detector. When asked about actual sexual partners, rather than just theoretical desires, the participants who were not attached to the fake lie detector displayed typical gender differences. Men reported having had more sexual partners than women. But when participants believed that lies about their sexual history would be revealed by the fake lie detector, gender differences in reported sexual partners vanished. In fact, women reported slightly more sexual partners (a mean of 4.4) than did men (a mean of 4.0).

In 2009, another long-assumed gender difference in mating — that women are choosier than men — also came under siege. In speed dating, as in life, the social norm instructs women to sit in one place, waiting to be approached, while the men rotate tables. But in one study of speed-dating behavior, the evolutionary psychologists Eli J. Finkel and Paul W. Eastwick switched the “rotator” role. The men remained seated and the women rotated. By manipulating this component of the gender script, the researchers discovered that women became less selective — they behaved more like stereotypical men — while men were more selective and behaved more like stereotypical women. The mere act of physically approaching a potential romantic partner, they argued, engendered more favorable assessments of that person.

Recently, a third pillar appeared to fall. To back up the assumption that an enormous gap exists between men’s and women’s attitudes toward casual sex, evolutionary psychologists typically cite a classic study published in 1989. Men and women on a college campus were approached in public and propositioned with offers of casual sex by “confederates” who worked for the study. The confederate would say: “I have been noticing you around campus and I find you to be very attractive.” The confederate would then ask one of three questions: (1) “Would you go out with me tonight?” (2) “Would you come over to my apartment tonight?” or (3) “Would you go to bed with me tonight?”

Roughly equal numbers of men and women agreed to the date. But women were much less likely to agree to go to the confederate’s apartment. As for going to bed with the confederate, zero women said yes, while about 70 percent of males agreed.

Those results seemed definitive — until a few years ago, when Terri D. Conley, a psychologist at the University of Michigan, set out to re-examine what she calls “one of the largest documented sexuality gender differences,” that men have a greater interest in casual sex than women.

Ms. Conley found the methodology of the 1989 paper to be less than ideal. “No one really comes up to you in the middle of the quad and asks, ‘Will you have sex with me?’ ” she told me recently. “So there needs to be a context for it. If you ask people what they would do in a specific situation, that’s a far more accurate way of getting responses.” In her study, when men and women considered offers of casual sex from famous people, or offers from close friends whom they were told were good in bed, the gender differences in acceptance of casual-sex proposals evaporated nearly to zero.

IN light of this new research, will Darwinians consider revising their theories to reflect the possibility that our mating behavior is less hard-wired than they had believed?

Probably not.

Scientists, like every other profession composed of fallible human beings, has been plagued by its fair share of stupidity, dishonesty, and outright fraud. This isn't a knock on scientists. It's a reflection of the fact that we're not always as rational as we claim to be.

Which only underscores our skepticism of people who want government to be guided by the latest "science". In an era where religion and centuries of human experience are largely discredited, Science has replaced both as the ultimate appeal to authority. We're not supposed to question it, say the enlightened folks who drive around with "Question authority" bumper stickers on their cars.

Posted by Cassandra at January 16, 2013 08:30 AM

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begin with a hypothesis ... Then they gather evidence ... to support that assumption. Finally, ... the leap occurs

Wait. Start with a hypothesis, fit data to that hypothesis and then the leap is made?

The New Scientific Method:
Step 1) Assume your conclusion
Step 2) Do a bunch of sciency stuff so that people overlook Step 1.

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano Official Member of the Oink Cadre™ at January 16, 2013 09:09 AM

My favorite part was the one about men and women giving different answers when they think they're hooked up to a lie detector.

This is a well known phenomenon - several studies have used a variant where they put people alone in a room when answering the questionnaire and - who knew? - they give more honest answers, especially if they're assured their responses will be anonymous :p

Controlling for social pressures/ego isn't exactly rocket science (nor is the unstartling observation that women have far more to fear - and less to gain - from having sex with random strangers than men do).

Incroyable...

Posted by: Cass - Confirmation Bigot-in-Training at January 16, 2013 09:28 AM

One wonders if not taking those things into account is something the researches honestly didn't think mattered, or if they were purposefully ignored so as to "prove" their assumed conclusion.

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at January 16, 2013 09:40 AM

Wait. Start with a hypothesis, fit data to that hypothesis and then the leap is made?

I'm with Yu. If this is what they think the Scientific Method is, then no wonder they believe all manner of foolishness in academia.

Posted by: MikeD at January 16, 2013 11:27 AM

Something funny (and depressing) happens when speculations, inferences, desires, rationalizations, and schemes claim to be science. Are we to conclude from "Sex At Dawn" that Homo erectus had it all over Homo sapien?

Posted by: George Pal at January 16, 2013 12:03 PM

Social "science" is very weak, to the point that I'm really not sure it's possible to learn anything valuable from any part of it. Every time I look at any study on anything at all from any of the social sciences -- this is a very broad claim, but an accurate one -- there's a huge hole in the methodology. It's common enough that I wonder if it's even possible to study "social" things in anything like a scientific way.

For a long time history thought of itself as a kind-of social sciences, and there are places where it is still so considered. But of course you can't replicate anything in history, and if results can't be replicated, you're not doing science. There's also no possible appeal to the null hypothesis in history.

In theory some of the social sciences are supposed to overcome at least one of those problems, but it's really depressing to consider how weak the field is. It's enough to make you question whether we've learned anything of value about humanity in a generation or two: or if, instead, we've satisfied ourselves of so many things that aren't true via this "science" that human knowledge has actually regressed.

Posted by: Grim at January 16, 2013 12:28 PM

I can kind of go either way on the validity of social science, Grim.

I agree that it is never going to settle questions about human nature for all time. That makes sense, b/c people have an interest in various outcomes (we're biased, IOW) and also have a hard time being truly objective.

On the other hand, I don't believe that conventional wisdom (aka, the answers society has agreed upon at any point in time) is much better. It's definitely subject to all the same problems of bias, and there's not even really any attempt to test various theories, as opposed to science, which tests them poorly at times.

I do think we benefit from asking questions. When I think of all the things I was absolutely convinced were true when I started blogging, and have since learned aren't really supported by the facts, I have to say that asking questions is a good idea. That's the virtue of the scientific method - it provides a framework for testing our beliefs and assumptions and theories. That it fails doesn't mean it's a bad method - only that the very human tendencies it proposes to remedy don't have easy answers.

At the risk of being accused of being a radical feminist once again (!), our notions of how women and men are wired are a pretty good example of this. I don't think we've regressed at all in our understanding, but I do think the culture has regressed significantly.

This is where I tend to agree with George's 'home erectus' vs 'home sapiens' comparison. Evo-psych would have us all acting like Bonobos b/c "that's nature". Well, a lot of things are natural but that doesn't make them compatible with civilization, stable societies and families, or human happiness.

I think we might be able to say, for instance, that women actually want and need sex without creating a culture where we all aspire to be Carrie Bradshaw from Sex in the City. After all, we've known for centuries that men want and need sex and we used to have rules that helped people control and channel their desires rather than being controlled by them.

Posted by: Cass at January 16, 2013 02:55 PM

You might get very different results depending on how "pre-screened" the potential partner pool is, too. When I was young, I moved in a circle of people whom I didn't know well, but they were all loosely members of a group I had some basic assumptions about. In that context I was pretty casual about whom I'd accept as a partner on short notice. But it's always struck me as strange that guys would consider sex with a woman they'd encountered in an unfamiliar setting, about whom they knew practically nothing, because that would actually make me very nervous quite apart from any moral considerations (of which I had practically none back then). As Cass says, women seem to see more risk in the situation than men do. We're not likely to react well to a guy who propositions us in an alley on the other side of town.

Among my social group, I never gave an instant's thought to the possibility of danger from a sexual partner. I imagine most guys never give an instant's thought to it with any woman, and that they often approach the situation much as I did in my peer group in youth.

Posted by: Texan99 at January 16, 2013 03:56 PM

I suspect that traditional understandings are often superior, myself. Of course, since there are several of them -- the traditional Chinese understanding, for example, is different from the traditional Islamic understanding -- they can't all be right. But they probably do each have some valuable insight to be brought to bear, developed across generations of working out conflicts that come up between real people.

Or to put it another way: if I want useful insight into a problem, I find it's more helpful to ask a respected elder than to read up on what social science has to say. The elder's approach isn't scientific either, but it is at least as empirical, and usually much better-founded.

Posted by: Grim at January 16, 2013 05:56 PM

I suspect that traditional understandings are often superior, myself...to put it another way: if I want useful insight into a problem, I find it's more helpful to ask a respected elder than to read up on what social science has to say. The elder's approach isn't scientific either, but it is at least as empirical, and usually much better-founded.

For most of human history (and even today in a great many parts of the world) the traditional understanding of a woman's role holds that women are inferior to men in intellect and character. The traditional understanding holds that women's lives are worth less than men's. The Chinese abort female children because they're not male.

In India, women are burned alive.

In Africa female children are mutilated, supposedly to keep their raging sex drives under control.

In many Arab nations, women are hidden away - not allowed to go where they please. If they are raped, *they* are punished for having dared to tempt a man by merely existing.

In America as recently as the 1800s, women could not own property in their own right and had no rights to their own children whatsoever. Men have never, ever experienced ANYTHING like that kind of unjust treatment in the family court system. There's a big difference between laws that explicitly deny women any parental legal rights, laws that set a standard of presuming that the mother should get custody based - not on *her* rights, but on what was considered best for the children, and laws that create a rebuttable presumption that custody ought to go to the parent who has performed most of the child rearing (again, based not on parents' rights, but on the best interest of children). It is that last which is the law in most states... and is supposedly an intolerable injustice because it results in unequal outcomes.

One can find exceptions to these brutal general rules but they are just that: exceptions, and not the norm. Chivalry never extended to most women; nor was it practiced by most men.

So with all its flaws, I think that questioning the traditional understanding of women's natures and capabilities and a woman's place in human affairs has done more than a fair amount of good and I would not wish to live in a world where such questioning did not exist or was not encouraged. You'll have to forgive me if I don't find any view of women that sees us as inferior as "at least as empirical and usually much better founded".

Posted by: Cass - Confirmation Bigot-in-Training at January 17, 2013 07:47 AM

I dissent from that approach to understanding tradition. For one thing, it tends to give the pseudo-scientific approach credit it doesn't deserve.

Pseudo-science, and sometimes even real science, is as big a threat to women (and everyone else) as misguided tradition. Eugenics was allegedly based on science: and in fact, some of its basis is actual biology. It was used to sterilize 'unfit' women. Abortion is a medical procedure of a sort, one that kills millions more girls worldwide. Women often supported the allegedly-scientific Marxist revolutions in many traditional countries because of its insistence on gender equity; but that insistence tended to vanish once the revolution was over, and plain politics was the order of the day. The Marxist one-child policy falls especially heavily on women, who may be forced to abort children they want. This is also for pseudo-scientific reasons associated with 'good government' and 'rational population control.'

And that leaves out the horrors suffered equally by everyone, excepting the powerful, under such regimes. War, famine, genocide, democide, these things haunt human attempts to think ourselves superior to the wisdom of our ancestors and rapidly remake a traditional society.

You've just finished demonstrating that these allegedly-scientific understandings of women are just as insulting as the traditional understandings. If they appear to lead to less violent results, it's because we're at a less-violent period for unrelated reasons of having long-established (if rapidly decaying) forms of order.

I see no reason to believe that a Darwinist understanding of women is inherently less likely to provoke violence than a religious one: after all, Darwinism devalues the individual who cannot "survive" on the assumption that the fittest do survive. Religion usually insists on a value for every individual.

If we get to the point that order has decayed, I don't see any reason to think that these modes will lead to better treatment for people, male or female, compared with traditional structures. There's no reason to think it should: the individual, especially if that individual is unfit under whatever happens to be the prevailing model of fitness, is disposable under such schemes. Whole classes are disposable. Women may not be entirely disposable, 'at least until artificial wombs are available,' but I notice that the most hateful language that I ever see pointed at women is couched in terms of evolutionary biology.

Posted by: Grim at January 17, 2013 08:36 AM

Grim, I think you are cherry picking the evidence. Here's one example:

Abortion is a medical procedure of a sort, one that kills millions more girls worldwide.

Abortion (and infanticide) have existed since the dawn of human history. We've just gotten better at it with better technology (something we can hardly blame social science for). Girl children were exposed or sold into slavery far more frequently than boy children because your traditional understandings placed little value on female life.

Here's another:

...I notice that the most hateful language that I ever see pointed at women is couched in terms of evolutionary biology

Again, you're simply ignoring Islam (not noted for its reliance on social science) and all the human and profoundly traditional societies that treat women like chattel. I haven't noticed any of the evo-psych folks arguing that when a woman is raped, it's her fault or passing laws that support such a stance.

If you reframe my argument to say that social science has produced nothing but good (which I never said or even suggested, by the way) then you are not addressing what I *did* say, which is that I think women are broadly better off in societies that question your traditional understandings.

If you wish to make the case otherwise (IOW, that in some weird way, it's "better" for women to live in India, where police rape rape victims who come to them for help, or to live in countries where they are mutilated at birth because the "traditional understanding" holds that women's raging sexual desires must be curbed before they kill us all), I'll be happy to listen.

Why are women better off in such societies? Were we better off when we had few (and in some areas, no) legal rights here in this country? Why were we better off?

I never argued that science is infallible. In fact, the point of this very post is that science is vulnerable to the same human foibles that plague all human endeavors.

The difference is that the scientific method explicitly promotes criticism and skepticism and empirical evidence over goofy exercises in confirmation bias. The problem with the studies cited is that they *weren't* conducted properly... and other scientists challenged that.

"Traditional understandings" include no such mechanism, nor have they really shown all that much progress over time... except in countries where questions are not only allowed but encouraged.

Posted by: Cass - Confirmation Bigot-in-Training at January 17, 2013 09:15 AM

I think I'm objecting to you on the same grounds that you think you're objecting to me (i.e., cherry picking). The problem with the structure of the argument you're forwarding is that it cherry picks the bad instead of the good: it reduces human history to the instances of oppression, setting aside as less- or un-important the fact that the vast majority of families in each of these cultures have led more-or-less successful and happy lives within the structure of the traditions they inherited.

I also dissent from the claim that 'traditional cultures' have no means to question traditions; that claim makes no sense empirically, as every tradition includes a mechanism for applying general rules to specific cases. This includes making exceptions where exceptions are needed.

A clear example lies within Islam itself, which you single out for special excoriation. The philosopher Ibn Rushd was also an Islamic law judge, and he wrote both commentaries on politics that suggested women should enjoy a fully equal place in society insofar as the individual woman was able to sustain the duties, and also issued rulings in sha'riah to the effect of establishing women in those rights. It proves to be the case that he stood at the end of his particular tradition within Islam; the mode he represented was replaced by a Sufi mysticism that was less interested in the conditions of political justice than in direct mystical experience, and the schools that had taught the old mode of falasifiyah were captured by the Spanish or burned by the Mongols. Still, his example makes it very difficult to argue that such traditions did not exist.

You will find a different strain in Christian thought with the same effect. The Church's traditional subordination of women (following St. Paul and the Roman example in particular) was constantly being questioned by an array of saints, such as St. Martin of Tours, St. Theresa, and St. Thomas Aquinas (whose remarks on matrimony are worth reading for an understanding of just how close to equality-in-marriage the medieval Church really comes). Likewise poets, and not just late poets like Chaucer or Christine de Pisan, but early poets who assign women roles in imagination that society was not yet ready for them to enjoy in practice -- yet the women who came after did enjoy them in practice, because people had learned how to imagine and approve of it from the poets. Likewise thinkers such as Meister Eckhart and Nicholas of Cusa, who though not saints were important theologians who fought for the spiritual equality of women and an equal respect for their souls -- an important precondition for their political equality, and one that arose precisely from this traditional culture.

It wasn't psychology that gave us the success of the movement for women's suffrage, after all, but its alliance with Christianity. It wasn't physics, that is, but metaphysics that paved the way. The problem isn't that traditional culture has no mechanisms for questioning itself, but that we haven't taken the time or the trouble to really understand the traditions we have been blessed to inherit. That's a failure of ours, not our ancestors'.

Posted by: Grim at January 17, 2013 09:52 AM

The problem with the structure of the argument you're forwarding is that it cherry picks the bad instead of the good: it reduces human history to the instances of oppression, setting aside as less- or un-important the fact that the vast majority of families in each of these cultures have led more-or-less successful and happy lives within the structure of the traditions they inherited.

So in other words, you do in fact think women are better off in countries where they have no legal rights? As for this:

The philosopher Ibn Rushd was also an Islamic law judge, and he wrote both commentaries on politics that suggested women should enjoy a fully equal place in society insofar as the individual woman was able to sustain the duties, and also issued rulings in sha'riah to the effect of establishing women in those rights.

Show me the Arab countries where your ancient philosopher's ideal is actually practiced and perhaps I'll give it more weight.

Would you accept living in a country where you had no (or very few) rights? Or is it only women who are expected to do something you would never accept because you say that the majority of families are perfectly happy living under such systems?

Posted by: Cass at January 17, 2013 10:01 AM

Where on earth are you getting that from what I'm writing? I just offered you a whole list of people who have used the traditional mechanisms to lay the groundwork for women to enjoy the freedoms they have today. I pointed out that the 'social sciences' aren't the source of women's liberation, but this same traditional culture -- that it was Christianity and poetry, not psychology, that underlay the movement's success.

Your response is that I must obviously want women to have no freedoms. I'm really unsure how to take that argument.

It would be different if the claim was true that 'social science' was the root of women's liberation; especially if it were the sole and only root. It seems to me to be the case, rather, that women's liberation is a natural outgrowth of a long, traditional culture that has evolved in the West. If we hadn't hit upon science at all, we were already on the way there all along: the whole history arcs in that direction.

If I were going to give advice to women in Islam (or China, or India, or anywhere else) as to how they could improve their lot, it would be to look for similar structures. Ibn Rushd's rulings are not in force anywhere in the Islamic world today, but they are rulings in sha'riah law, which purports to be eternal and universal. As such, his rulings are just as available to them today as they were in his own era. An appeal to them will get them a lot farther than an appeal to 'social science,' which is just as useful a tool to justify oppressive assumptions as for any other purpose.

Abandoning the benefits of being rooted in a tradition would be a high price to pay for any good. It's a very high price to pay for the illusion of a good. The good you want isn't a product of the so-called 'social sciences' at all. The roots lie elsewhere.

Posted by: Grim at January 17, 2013 10:42 AM

I don't really understand how giving more weight to actual real world outcomes than abstract philosophical debates (most of which the average person has never read) that didn't measurably affect today's real world outcomes can be called "cherry picking". I never argued that no one has EVER challenged the conventional wisdom about women's roles.

Just that in traditional societies, those arguments didn't have much effect. I also argued that in societies where questions and debate about your "traditional understandings" is accepted or even encouraged, women are treated far better. I don't see how that can possibly be called "cherry picking".

Abandoning the benefits of being rooted in a tradition would be a high price to pay for any good. It's a very high price to pay for the illusion of a good.

Had I ever argued for anything even remotely resembling this, that would be a great rebuttal. Unfortunately, I didn't so I'm not sure why it is pertinent to the discussion we're having? One more time - I have not claimed that social science is the source of women's liberation. Here is what I DID say:

If you reframe my argument to say that social science has produced nothing but good (which I never said or even suggested, by the way) then you are not addressing what I *did* say, which is that I think women are broadly better off in societies that question your traditional understandings.

If I were going to give advice to women in Islam (or China, or India, or anywhere else) as to how they could improve their lot, it would be to look for similar structures. Ibn Rushd's rulings are not in force anywhere in the Islamic world today, but they are rulings in sha'riah law, which purports to be eternal and universal. As such, his rulings are just as available to them today as they were in his own era. An appeal to them will get them a lot farther than an appeal to 'social science,' which is just as useful a tool to justify oppressive assumptions as for any other purpose.

This is an opinion, but more importantly it responds (again) to an argument I did not make.

You asserted that social science was inferior to traditional understandings here:

if I want useful insight into a problem, I find it's more helpful to ask a respected elder than to read up on what social science has to say. The elder's approach isn't scientific either, but it is at least as empirical, and usually much better-founded.

I pointed out that mainstream traditional understandings of women's roles over most of the world are brutal and repressive.

You countered by naming a few philosophers who challenged traditional understandings of their day. Notably, their challenges did not result in noticeable improvements in the way women were viewed. If we all want to wait 8 or 10 centuries in the hopes that someday, appealing to some long ago wise man might change hearts and minds, I guess we could do that.

But the fact of the matter is that for most of the world, "traditional understandings" have not been terribly kind to women. As to Thomas Acquinas, perhaps you can explain to me why I should believe this sort of thing to be either helpful or beneficial to women.

There is always danger in plucking excerpts from longer works one has not read, but there's really no way I can respond to your assertions that traditional understandings are superior and contained their own mechanisms (based on opinions, essentially) for challenging the CW. What I see here represents an improvement from the view of women as chattel but it's still pretty disturbing to modern ears (or at least to the ears of human beings who are being described as inferior to men, and who ought to meekly submit to our superiors "for our own good":

Reply to Objection 1: As regards the individual nature, woman is defective and misbegotten, for the active force in the male seed tends to the production of a perfect likeness in the masculine sex; while the production of woman comes from defect in the active force or from some material indisposition, or even from some external influence; such as that of a south wind, which is moist, as the Philosopher observes (De Gener. Animal. iv, 2). On the other hand, as regards human nature in general, woman is not misbegotten, but is included in nature's intention as directed to the work of generation. Now the general intention of nature depends on God, Who is the universal Author of nature. Therefore, in producing nature, God formed not only the male but also the female.

Reply to Objection 2: Subjection is twofold. One is servile, by virtue of which a superior makes use of a subject for his own benefit; and this kind of subjection began after sin. There is another kind of subjection which is called economic or civil, whereby the superior makes use of his subjects for their own benefit and good; and this kind of subjection existed even before sin. For good order would have been wanting in the human family if some were not governed by others wiser than themselves. So by such a kind of subjection woman is naturally subject to man, because in man the discretion of reason predominates. Nor is inequality among men excluded by the state of innocence, as we shall prove

Posted by: Cass at January 17, 2013 11:30 AM

Rather than have another round on abstract questions, let's do stick with the quotes from Aquinas. It's actually a very helpful example you've chosen.

"The Philosopher" mentioned here is Aristotle. His view here represents a very traditional, and highly influential, part of the tradition -- indeed, that particular work to which Aquinas is responding is crucial for the scientific tradition as well as the traditional culture of the West. It's essentially a work of empirical biology (the name means "On the Generation of Animals").

Now, this is the reply to an objection. The objection raised is that God should not have made women as part of the initial creation, on the grounds that women are defective and nothing made directly by God should be defective. Aristotle's empirical theory -- it's proto-scientific, an early example of trying to sort out the world based on the facts observable -- is cited in evidence of the imperfection of women.

Now the important thing about this, for our current debate, is that this represents the best scientific understanding of the day. The question has to do with how a male and a female animal generate a new animal. Aristotle had engaged in a great deal of observation and dissection, and his theory was that the male seed transfers the form to the female, and somehow the matter for the animal comes from the womb (which is why the seed only grows in that particular environment). This makes the female passive, acted-upon, and (for reasons I will skip unless you are especially interested in ancient biology) the active is thought to be superior to the acted-upon.

So that's what comes from scientific inquiry, as far as it was available to them at the time. Lest we scoff, remember our own remarks about how weak our own 'science' is in social matters! The danger of relying on a momentary understanding of science to inform morality is just what we're after here.

What you've cited here is Aquinas finding reasons to question that traditional understanding in the light of Christian theology. While he lacks the ability to undermine the scientific thesis -- this was, again, the best science of the day -- he finds a reason in the tradition to affirm the equality of women in another way. When he writes that "as regards human nature in general, woman is not misbegotten, but is included in nature's intention as directed to the work of generation," he's saying just what we would say: 'Well, active/passive aside, you can't get a child without the woman too. Thus, women are equal partners, at least from a certain point of view.'

The second reply is to an objection that women should not have been made because they were inferior, as proven by Eve being subject to sin. Again, this is a very long-standing part of the tradition: and here Aquinas is finding ways within the tradition to question it. He's pointing out that even some men are inferior to others, for example, and thus more rightly led by other men; but that does not imply that they are miscreated, or that God is in error to have made them. He's pointing out that there is a natural order to the family, by which children are led by their elders, but that does not make children miscreated.

In other words, what you've got here is a very good example of a questioning of the tradition in a way aimed at bolstering the position of women. Aquinas is striving to assert that God was right to make women as well as men, that they are an important and even an essential part of the creation. He's taking arguments to the contrary from the tradition, and questioning them on the tradition's own terms.

It may have been a slow process, but it was the process that worked. Again, it wasn't psychology or science that affirmed the dignity of women -- it was people like Aquinas. That is just what he's doing here.

Posted by: Grim at January 17, 2013 12:07 PM

You elided right past the part I have a problem with here:

He's pointing out that there is a natural order to the family, by which children are led by their elders...

...and women are governed (led) by men:

...good order would have been wanting in the human family if some were not governed by others wiser than themselves. So by such a kind of subjection woman is naturally subject to man, because in man the discretion of reason predominates.

IOW, women are naturally governed by men because men are wiser and more reasonable than women.

Posted by: Cass at January 17, 2013 12:56 PM

In general the tradition holds that the more rational should rule over the less. That, though, was the very road taken by others in the tradition to demonstrate that in cases where women are the more rational, it is right they should lead. That's not a scientific argument either; it's an argument based within the ground of the tradition.

Notice also in the article on the rib:

I answer that, It was right for the woman to be made from a rib of man. First, to signify the social union of man and woman, for the woman should neither "use authority over man," and so she was not made from his head; nor was it right for her to be subject to man's contempt as his slave, and so she was not made from his feet.

Here he is responding to practical objections ("a rib is too small to make a woman") and also a rational objection. The rational objection is the more interesting: God wouldn't have made Adam with an extra rib, because then God would have made something superfluous. Aquinas' answer amounts to, 'Of course God didn't make anything superfluous. He made Adam with that rib precisely so he could make woman.' Women, as he asserts also in Article 4, were always part of God's plan.

Posted by: Grim at January 17, 2013 01:03 PM

I don't think Aquinas had all that much to do with women getting the vote in America. That didn't happen until women demonstrated (as you have held time and time again) that they were willing to take a stand and fight for their rights.

I understand your point about him challenging Aristotle (the current CW) but even there you run into a problem. The view that women were intellectually inferior to men has yielded to a lot of influences, among them the scientific measurement of women's actual intellectual performance on IQ tests and in academia.

The "traditional understanding" when I was a girl is that women didn't need college. My mother is incredibly smart and desperately wanted to attend college. She was told by her counselors that women "don't need" college and it would be a waste of time and resources.

She regretted not fighting that for the rest of her life.

I work in a tech industry. In the 1970s, I was discouraged from taking advanced math and science classes. Again, because "girls don't need those courses". As it turned out, I outscored most of our senior class on the math portion of the SAT despite being a good 2 years behind on math coursework.

That was the wise, traditional understanding. And no one at my high school questioned it until they saw my test scores, at which point they smacked their foreheads and exclaimed, "Why didn't we put you in advanced classes?"

Good question.

Posted by: Cass at January 17, 2013 01:12 PM

What you probably are not aware of is that women benefited from increasing access to education in and after Aquinas' time. His near-contemporary Meister Eckhart in particular was a champion of, and for a time in charge of, the education of women. One reason for this was similar to the Rosy the Riveter phenomenon of WWII: the Crusades had diminished the number of men available for jobs requiring an education. Thus, there were substantial numbers of unmarried women around, many of whom were quite capable of the kind of clerical work that was becoming more and more important in the High and Late Middle Ages.

It's actually only because of one of these lay orders of women that we have Eckhart's German-language sermons. His Latin works were preserved by the Church (even the ones the Pope eventually condemned -- not over the issue of women, but on theological issues about creation and God), but the popular-language works come to us only because of the women he made a point of talking with, teaching, and helping to structure their new orders.

Posted by: Grim at January 17, 2013 01:22 PM

Now, you might ask, "So what changed?" I think the answer is partially that demographic questions come and go, but the real answer is that technology made women's education obsolete.

The invention of the printing press greatly diminished the opportunities for formal education, even as it made much easier self-education. The number of people who needed to be highly skilled at reading, writing, copying, remembering and teaching were far fewer after Gutenberg; but for those who could read, the world opened up in new ways.

And so the need for anyone to be formally educated decreased on both sides: there was less demand, and less benefit to the individual of pursuing it on their own (vice learning just enough to become literate, and then pursuing self-education through books).

There was also a significant backlash against women in the late 1400s, which I've written about -- it was right at the end of the Middle Ages, with the coming of the upsets of the early Renaissance, that society seems to have turned hard against the feminine. And of course this was also the time of a resurgence of attention to ancient Greek and Roman works, both of whom were much more anti-female than the Medieval Christian tradition would support.

Posted by: Grim at January 17, 2013 01:28 PM

In general the tradition holds that the more rational should rule over the less. That, though, was the very road taken by others in the tradition to demonstrate that in cases where women are the more rational, it is right they should lead.

But the tradition was not based on any empirical measurement of women's reasoning capabilities, but rather on people's (mostly men's) opinions. Now maybe you are willing to have questions this basic of what men will be allowed to do or who ought to govern them rest on women's subjective opinions of your capabilities.

I would prefer to be measured against something a bit more substantive and objective than the opinion of someone who is not exactly a disinterested party.

Aristotle's "science" is very close to what the evo-psych folks did. He performed some dissections and observations. Then he applied a bunch of subjective value judgments (the active is superior to the passive, etc) with his explanation (based on his values) to arrive at the conclusion that women were defective and inferior to men. Oh, and God didn't make us.

Opinions, thinly cloaked in "science". No empirical measurement or attempt to assess the intelligence of women or control for any of the many factors that might influence such. Science, though imperfect (precisely because it is practiced by imperfect and biased humans) offers a way to test traditional understandings. It's not perfect either, as I have pointed out over and over and over again, because people aren't perfect.

But it gives us a reproducible way to test real world phenomena. We were never going to get antibiotics or open heart surgery from philosophers because opinions about how bacteria reproduce or the human heart functions can't complete with repeated tests using a method designed to make it easy for others to review and critique and improve upon a scientist's work.

People used to think blacks were intellectually inferior to whites. Some folks still think that.
Competing opinions will never do as much to establish the truth of that question as sustained and repeated measurement and comparison of the actual mental ability of blacks will. And I'm guessing most black folks - like most women - would rather be measured by some fairly objective process rather than by the opinions of people who - if their methods fail to confirm what they already think - will have to share power with people they view as mentally inferior.

Science and traditional understandings both have their place and both are subject to human frailties.

But if you assert that traditional understandings are "superior" and that we have taken a step backwards, you should be easily able to show me how my life would be better without science, or social science. Or the rigorous challenging of traditional understandings.

There are objective truths that exist independently of our opinions. I prefer a world in which people ask questions and test their opinions from a variety of standpoints.

Posted by: Cass at January 17, 2013 02:49 PM

Well, I'm testing your opinion from my standpoint. :) I think if you read Chaucer's "Wife of Bath's prologue," which scholars often take to be largely a restatement (in poetic form) of arguments actually made to him by a particular female friend of his, you'll see a vigorous challenge to the idea that women aren't rigorous or rational. Likewise if you pursue the writings of the women Eckhart worked with, or some of the others I've mentioned (perhaps especially Christine de Pisan's objection to the treatment of women in the supplement to the Romance of the Rose), it will become clear that there was much more questioning going on than you've been led to believe.

In any case, I think we agree on not taking 'the science' as an article of faith, whether Aristotelian or evo-psych, but testing it against reason and experience. My point is that the tradition provides a ground for testing conclusions.

A problem that arises is: if you set up science as the only road to anything like objective truth, how seriously can you investigate it except by the scientific method? If that is your standard, though, you can only point to errors in the methodology: you can't do more than demonstrate that a given study, or a whole body of studies, doesn't succeed at proving what it has taken itself to prove. That doesn't advance the ball, it just defends the ground of ignorance: you're back with 'we don't really know that women are hypergamous.'

A deeply rooted tradition offers a ground for a follow-on assertion. 'Not only is it not proven by the science that women are hypergamous, but St. Theresa shows that some women achieve extraordinary things without relying on men at all.' Or, 'Not only is it not proven that women are inferior in reason, but Christine de Pisan's arguments in her debate were especially strong compared to many of the men she was arguing against.'

This is the machinery you need for a better claim.

Posted by: Grim at January 17, 2013 04:24 PM

...if you pursue the writings of the women Eckhart worked with, or some of the others I've mentioned (perhaps especially Christine de Pisan's objection to the treatment of women in the supplement to the Romance of the Rose), it will become clear that there was much more questioning going on than you've been led to believe.

But I've never said there wasn't *any* questioning, though. When it takes 10 (or 20) centuries for the questioning to have enough effect that people and societies are willing to consider the alarmingly novel idea that women just might be real people whose thoughts and aspirations ought to matter as much as men's do, (and that we don't exist only to reproduce, just as men don't exist only to reproduce), then I don't think I'm being unreasonable to question the efficacy of a closed system.

A problem that arises is: if you set up science as the only road to anything like objective truth, how seriously can you investigate it except by the scientific method?

I don't think I did anything of the sort, though. Over and over again I've said that I think neither method is sufficient on its own. People who want to throw out all tradition and rely only on science are just as dumb as the brain trust in the GOP who keep making ignorant, uninformed assertions about rape. Neither one is open to being questioned - they know all the answers.

I never said science was superior to traditional understanding. You are the one who argued that traditional understanding was superior to science. All I have done is point out the advantages of a scientific approach (without once claiming it was superior).

If that is your standard, though, you can only point to errors in the methodology: you can't do more than demonstrate that a given study, or a whole body of studies, doesn't succeed at proving what it has taken itself to prove. That doesn't advance the ball, it just defends the ground of ignorance: you're back with 'we don't really know that women are hypergamous.'

That's not true. When you point out that a purportedly scientific study violates the scientific method, you discredit that study. Opinion doesn't settle any of these questions either. People construct all sorts of elegant arguments for dumb theories all the time. The way to try to discredit them is to apply the techniques of logic to them, just as the way to discredit bad science is to show that the method and experiments don't conform to the scientific standard.

You keep trying to push me into a corner I am not willing to defend - one that mirrors your own position that one is clearly superior to the other.

But that's not my argument at all.

Posted by: Cass at January 17, 2013 05:44 PM

...when it takes 10 (or 20) centuries for the questioning to have enough effect that people and societies are willing to consider the alarmingly novel idea that women just might be real people whose thoughts and aspirations ought to matter as much as men's do, (and that we don't exist only to reproduce, just as men don't exist only to reproduce), then I don't think I'm being unreasonable to question the efficacy of a closed system.

I'm not sure I agree. It seems to me that what we have is a cyclical rise and fall, rather than a line: Mohammed himself seems to have had a high opinion of women, but his followers did not. Ibn Rushd (about five hundred years after Mohammed) marks a high point in which an Islamic law judge said that women should be granted equal status if they (as individuals) could hold it, but then the culture turned against his philosophical mode of investigating their society. The new mode of inquiry, which was mystical and individual, turned sharply against women as well.

The Medievals I've been citing to you seem to me to have moved from the Roman position (women were under the dominion of the husband, to the point that they could be killed by the head of the household, as were children) to the position I've been describing to you really beginning around the early 1000s. The position flourished by 1300, was in its last hour in the early 1400s, and was replaced by a rising tided of anti-feminine sentiment by the late 1400s that led to a craze of witch-burning and a new rise of female disabilities under the law. This was also backed by the new mode of inquiry: the old Roman learning resurgent, and the weakening of the Church's philosophical approach to inquiry.

I mentioned the Rosie the Riveter aspect of Aquinas' time, and Eckhart's, but also the collapse of access to higher education following the rise of the printing press. Now in our own time we have had a similar rise, coming out of a revitalized Christian tradition (witness how closely tied the early suffrage movement was to a revitalized evangelism), and with its own Rosie the Riveter movement in WWII.

Now we seem to be seeing the discrediting of Christianity in Western society, coupled with another technological change regarding education similar to the change facing people in Gutenberg's time. The rise of the cost of higher education, coupled with new technologies for self-education, may well produce a similar collapse. With this comes a new antagonism between men and women backed (as always before) by the new method of inquiry.

In other words, I don't think we're talking about a ramp of progress that took ten or twenty centuries to climb. We're talking about an assumption about the nature of women that is located in religion coupled with philosophy, cyclically undermined by a rejection of philosophy and a form of religion that has come to embrace it. The evolutionary biology / psychology movement rejects all the old claims, and justifies all its (older, far older) assumptions.

I never said science was superior to traditional understanding. You are the one who argued that traditional understanding was superior to science.

I said it was superior to what is called 'social science,' which is really not science properly speaking (as I argued at the beginning, regarding the null hypothesis and so forth). And it is. To rely on the strength of the machinery of the old tradition, though, requires being engaged in it. If you don't know who Christine de Pisan was, you can't cite her as an example. Yet she is a good example: but not one a social science can use, because she can't be replicated. A study can only study the people it has to hand (mostly undergraduates, as you mentioned).

Yet she is empirical evidence. The person who knows her to cite her is being at least as empirical, and is working from a better foundation than the social scientist's study of undergrads. That is the claim I made, and I maintain that it's right.

Posted by: Grim at January 17, 2013 06:28 PM

With this comes a new antagonism between men and women ...

But is it new? I don't believe that. The term 'battle of the sexes' has been around for eons. There are references to it throughout history, just as there are copious references to antagonism and rivalry and power struggles between men and women.

You can certainly frame a narrow argument that a small group of philosophers that few people have ever heard of challenged the traditional understandings of their day.

But the efficacy and impact of those challenges is less than impressive. They did not result in those ideas being widely adopted, nor were they reflected in changes to the law or to the prevailing culture. They are "evidence" only that people have questioned the status quo ineffectively.

I'll grant that there's a built in mechanism for challenging traditional understandings but by any yardstick that makes sense, it took 10 or 20 centuries for that mechanism to have any real effect (even if we proceed from the overly generous assumption that it was in fact philosophy that led to the changes in the way women are treated under law and not a variety of other factors).

"Better" is a value judgment and your values are different than mine. You, for some reason I will never understand, maintain we were all better off with traditional understandings.

I don't think it's "better" for women to have few or no rights. I don't think it's "better" for women to live in societies where they can be killed or raped and the law does nothing (or worse, punishes the victim).

I don't think it's "better" for women, or even for society at large, when fully one half of humanity is treated differently under the law; where regardless of ability or merit, women are told that they "don't need" to be educated and shouldn't be allowed to work/drive/go out of the house without wrapping themselves in yards of material lest they cause their uber-rational overlords to lose control of themselves.

None of these things are "better" for women, and it's particularly insulting for someone who would be up in arms, were he to be subjected to that kind of treatment, to say to women who live in those societies that they are "better off" with the old ways. Nor is it helpful to assure them that you can point to a handful of philosophers who think they're being treated unjustly.

Posted by: Cass at January 18, 2013 08:39 AM

It's possible I'd have been better off under a traditional system of roles for women, but it would be terribly hard to prove it to me.

I'm always going to opt for making my choices for myself. I rarely see the value in being limited in my choices for my own good.

This is much the way I feel about monopolies. If they're doing such a great job, how come they couldn't survive in a context of choice?

Posted by: Texan99 at January 18, 2013 10:39 AM

Cass:

Once again, you're off somewhere protesting something, but I'm really not sure what. We started off talking about what kinds of understanding of human nature was better, social science or the ones developed over centuries. I said that I thought traditional understandings were better than what social science's flawed methodology was producing, though they could not all be right (insofar as Chinese and Islamic readings, for example, differ). You'll find more wisdom in traditional Jewish law's approach to problem solving between men and women than in social science, I think; or in the way that the Catholic priest will help a married couple work through their problems. Such things are based on tradition, and they seem to work. Social science is based on, well, not very much; and its claims about our nature are highly dubious.

Somehow this claim about epistemology settled in your mind as a defense of oppressing women, which understanding whose flag you are now waving in particularly fine form. I especially like the part where my defense of the tradition, citing centuries of people who have worked for the betterment of women, for their respect and against their belittlement, is "particularly insulting."

Sometimes feminist philosophers complain that men don't listen to them, or don't take them seriously. I suspect that one factor is that the men who are on your side get tired of the abuse. You end up slamming your friends even harder than the ones who are against you, if only because your friends spend more time with you.

A feminism that could engage the tradition with the respect it deserves might also garner more respect for itself. I suspect you will recognize the truth of this proposition if I phrase it in another form. When a young man, in his teenage years, goes out into the world what he wants more than anything else from the men already established in that world is respect. How does he gain their respect? One of the best ways is to begin by showing respect for them. Too many, instead, decide they know vastly more than their elders and have nothing to learn. They dismiss what is offered to them, and instead hold that no value is to be found in the older ways. Those who follow this path gain little respect, and whatever wisdom they learn comes from hard knocks.

Feminism is a young philosophy. It has antecedents, but it apparently does not know them; it has friends, but it apparently does not respect them. Naturally it finds the road hard.

Posted by: Grim at January 18, 2013 11:14 AM

Now I do agree with this point:

But is it new? I don't believe that.

I should have said "renewed." The philosophy mitigates against human nature, but it doesn't alter it. That's what a good philosophy is for, in part, as you often say yourself.

Consider the example of witch burning, via the link I provided above. This seems to have been an old Saxon custom (German Saxon, not Anglo-Saxon). It was suppressed successfully for seven hundred years by the Catholic Church, which banned not just witch-burning but even treating people as if they might be witches (indeed, it banned belief in witches). This lasted until the period when the Great Schism was weakening Church authority, and these new sciences (and Gutenberg's press) were undermining the old mode of understanding.

Then it resurfaced, and we entered into a period of extreme suspicion of the feminine and destruction of those suspected to be witches. It was an older thing, kept down for hundreds of years. Still, if you want to ask what substantial improvements philosophy has to show in the condition of women, seven centuries of women unburned by a culture that was traditionally inclined to burn them is not a bad place to begin.

Posted by: Grim at January 18, 2013 11:35 AM

I think you need to go back and read over these comments, Grim.

I can't disagree with you, it seems, without being accused of abusing you personally. If I don't agree that traditional understandings of the role or value of women are superior, somehow I am accusing you of supporting the burning of women. Or saying that traditional understandings don't deserve respect, or have no value.

Where did I do that?

Pointing out that under traditional understandings, women have had no or few rights is not a personal attack. Explaining why I disagree with your arguments is not the same as abusing you personally.
And finally, my statements about whether *I* think women are better off under traditional understandings does not impute to you positions I haven't heard you ever support.

You can choose to interpret all of these things that way, but that doesn't make it so.

I haven't slammed you. I have tried to argue my side of the issue, outlined all the reasons I don't think traditional understandings are superior or sufficient. If that's a personal attack or "abuse", then the bar would appear to have been lowered to the point where any disagreement can be construed as either disrespect or an ad hominem attack. It is grossly unfair to equate "yes, some philosophers have said X, but their views did not gain currency (and therefore one could argue that they were ineffective)" with "I reject those philosophers" or "I don't respect them". You can choose to interpret it that way, but it requires a real stretch to interpret what I really said about the practical effect of their inquiry as criticism of its content.

They are two different things.

Disagreement is not abuse, and if it is interpreted that way then debate becomes impossible. If we can't disagree without you deciding that you have been disrespected, then we can't discuss anything unless I promise to agree with you. Anything else, it would seem, will be seen as abuse and disrespect.

Respect is a two way street, Grim. I went out of my way to acknowledge that you were making a narrower argument and I conceded its validity before going on to try to explain why I don't view your narrow argument as proving that traditional understandings are superior, at least as far as women are concerned.

You win. And I give up. I can't defend myself against things I never said and never meant.

Posted by: Cass at January 18, 2013 11:44 AM

And in other news today, Dear Abby has passed away after a long battle with Alzheimer's.
RIP, dear, dear Abby.

Posted by: DL Sly at January 18, 2013 01:27 PM

Tradition has its place, but it sure as hell isn't the only source of knowledge or wisdom, nor should it be. If I were facing a traditional problem such as being beaten by my husband, and went to my traditional elders, and received their traditional advice based on folk wisdom of "Your husband is beating you because you are a bad wife. Be more submissive and it will stop," or "All men beat their wives, it's just something women have to endure. Look at it this way, at least he's not cheating on you," I would be very thankful that I could drop-kick their traditional wisdom into the traditional wastebasket, pick up the phone, and call a domestic violence hotline where I could get real help in leaving and keeping myself safe as I was doing so.

Posted by: colagirl at January 18, 2013 01:41 PM

Cass:

I interpreted your comment that something was "particularly insulting for someone who would be up in arms" as personally directed at me. It's certainly true that I would be up in arms, literally, over many affronts to my rights -- indeed, my theory of rights is that they come to exist only because people are willing to take up arms to defend them.

If I over-reacted to what I took to be a charge of having insulted you, which struck me as unfair given that I wished only to defend men and women I greatly admire from slander (to whit, the poets, philosophers, and other good members of these traditions who have done so much for our common benefit), then I apologize.

I do not apologize for the vigor of my defense of those men and women, however, as I believe in my heart that they are due the greatest honor and respect. The traditions that mattered so much to them, and of which they are part, deserve respect both for having produced such men and women, and because of the ennobling effect of their contributions.

But for myself, if I have misunderstood or been too bold, I am glad to apologize.

Posted by: Grim at January 18, 2013 02:46 PM

First of all, thank you for the apology. It was not needed, but is gracious nonetheless.

re: If I over-reacted to what I took to be a charge of having insulted you, which struck me as unfair given that I wished only to defend men and women I greatly admire from slander (to whit, the poets, philosophers, and other good members of these traditions who have done so much for our common benefit), then I apologize.

I didn't say you had insulted me. I said that claiming that traditional understandings are superior is insulting to women who live in societies where the traditional understanding is protected from challenges and questions.

Once again, I don't think anything I said could reasonably be construed as slander. So I don't understand what or whom you thought you were defending these thinkers from?

Slander is the act of making false or damaging statements that harm a person's reputation. I don't think I said anything that was false. My points wrt to the philosophers you named was that:

1. The vast majority of people have not read their works, and in the case of Christine de Pisan, Meister Eckhart, Nicholas of Cusa, St. Martin of Tours, St. Theresa, and Ibn Rushd, have never even heard of them.

I don't think that's a false statement. Nor is it damaging to their reputations. It's just a fact. Most people have heard of Thomas Aquinas and Chaucer, but if you were to ask them what either thought of women I don't think you'd get too many coherent answers. If the vast majority of people are completely ignorant of the existent or content of an argument, it can't fairly be said to be representative of their "traditional understandings". Likewise, if their arguments conflict with the laws or mores of the day, they can't be said to represent mainstream traditional understandings.

I've already stipulated that these men and women questioned the mainstream understanding. My point was that their questioning didn't shift the traditional understanding. Honestly, I can't understand how you can't see why telling women who are living under a repressive system where they have fewer legal rights than a dog has in America that "traditional understandings are better" isn't upsetting? In America, raping a dog is a crime, and we don't blame the dog for having tempted its rapist or stone the dog for having the temerity to be raped by a human being. But the traditional understanding in a very large part of the world blames women for being raped under law.

I can't get how this entirely factual observation amounts to my slandering philosophers who have defended women?

2. Their questioning of traditional understandings of women in their day were not what I'd call "in the mainstream". That doesn't mean they had no value, but the fact is that they did not convince the societies of the day that women should be treated anything like equality under the law.

So once again, I did not say anything false or damaging about any of these thinkers. Why would I, when they had the courage to buck the prevailing sentiment that women were chattel and inferior to men?

I do not apologize for the vigor of my defense of those men and women, however, as I believe in my heart that they are due the greatest honor and respect. The traditions that mattered so much to them, and of which they are part, deserve respect both for having produced such men and women, and because of the ennobling effect of their contributions.

Again, I have not asked you to apologize, either to me or for defending them. I have only asked that you not impute to me things I never said or even thought. When you say you are defending them against slander, that's saying that I slandered them: that I said things that were false and defamatory.

I don't think I did that, nor did I ever mean to imply or think that you were defending the barbarous treatment of women in much of the world. If some incautious wording of mine gave that impression, I am sorry. I have had the flu all week and have been sicker than a dog. I don't argue with people I don't respect, but I am beginning to believe that nothing I say or do will ever make that clear.

When I don't respect someone, I go easy on them.

I can't deal with it when arguments get personal. I accept responsibility for bringing up subjects that upset people so.

That's on me, and I don't think I should do it any more. That's sad, because I'm not really interested in writing about things I don't think are important and many of the things I think are important are also pretty upsetting.

I'm going to go lie down for a few hours. Again, I"m sorry if I failed to word my arguments more carefully and caused offense.


Posted by: Cass at January 18, 2013 04:52 PM

Cass:

As for point (1), I disagree with your assessment. The purpose for which Aquinas' Summa Theologiae was composed was not academic, but rather as a training manual for priests and other pastoral counselors. At the time it was written, it was extremely influential, because it was used to train priests who went forth to every corner of Europe to carry that doctrine.

So, yes, few enough would have read the Summa. But the reason it's built around objections is that the objections were commonly voiced by the laity; and this provides priests with training (and a handy reference) for responding to the charges. Thus, when the (apparently common) claim comes up that 'Women can't really be a direct creation of God, because God wouldn't make something so flawed,' priests were both directed to respond counter to that position, and provided with the tools to do it. This was as influential a work, in its day, as has ever been written.

Nicholas of Cusa was a Cardinal in the Church, also quite influential on the development of doctrine (and the digestion of early parts of the scientific revolution, like Copernicus, whose work he found quite exciting). I could go through the list, but hopefully you get the point: these figures had a significant impact on the tradition, and the culture (the Catholic ones especially before the Reformation).

If the tradition didn't do everything you might have wanted in the 12th century (or even as late as the 15th, when Cusa lived), it's because no culture ever did until lately (if indeed we have done it yet). But what is worth remembering is that the figures who did eventually achieve it came out of this same tradition, and stepped on stones laid by these earlier figures. Yes, it took a long time; and for that matter, it may not last. I suspect that it won't last; that much of it will crumble with America's influence, worldwide, and that even here it won't survive the destruction of our traditional, American culture.

But these were the ones who made it possible. To say that they weren't adequate, because it didn't all happen in their lifetime, is to miss that this is the only culture in which it has ever happened at all. Their contributions in shaping our traditions are not to be dismissed.

As for point (2), it's a point I can't answer universally. Aquinas, Eckhart and Cusa can't be excluded from the mainstream because of their central positions in the church; many of the poets I'm thinking of had the support and influence of royalty or high nobility. That may not be the mainstream in a democratic sense, but this isn't a democratic period -- what it meant to be in the mainstream of the culture in 1275 or 1405 was different than it is today.

Ibn Rushd was a judge and an important figure at court at times; although his influence waned toward the end of his life, and Islam turned away from the mode of inquiry he represented. So in his case, it may be that he was not in the mainstream; it may also be that he was more influential on our tradition than on his own. He is very often cited by Christian Medievals, especially for his commentaries on Aristotle and Plato, and is still commonly read in American and European schools of philosophy, but he has no school in Islam today.

That is their loss, I think.

Posted by: Grim at January 18, 2013 07:19 PM

Being "in the mainstream" is not the same as "having some influence or authority". Once again, being in the mainstream means that an idea represents "the principal or dominant course, tendency, or trend".

...these were the ones who made it possible. To say that they weren't adequate, because it didn't all happen in their lifetime, is to miss that this is the only culture in which it has ever happened at all. Their contributions in shaping our traditions are not to be dismissed.

You haven't shown this to be the case (other than having asserted it repeatedly). Assertions are not arguments. Your argument in this case seems to be:

1. "They argued for something that isn't the same as what happened, but is related" (none of these folks argued for female equality or suffrage that I am aware of).

2. "Eventually, after 10 or 20 centuries, women were treated better"

3. "This only happened in our culture"

4. "Therefore, they were the ones who made it possible"

You can only get there by ignoring every other factor (birth control, which has been huge, or scientific study of the differences and capabilities of the sexes, or the Enlightenment, or technology - which made physical strength far less important, or two World wars in which women had to step into formerly male jobs, or a whole host of other factors).

You keep insisting that I am "dismissing" their contributions. I have not done so. But I'm not willing to say that they were the ones that made the equal treatment of women under the law possible unless you present a lot more evidence than mere assertions.

Posted by: Cass at January 19, 2013 08:59 AM

I see it more simply than you two do. You can argue that the traditional role for women was better for men, or that it was better for the human race in general, or that it was more virtuous in the abstract -- but it's hard to argue that it was better for women, because it took force to impose it on women. Maybe the force was justified. Maybe the force was inevitable because men in most ages were stronger in all the ways that were important in their societies. But a system that has to be imposed by force is not "better" for the people it's imposed on.

Posted by: Texan99 at January 19, 2013 10:44 AM

It's possible I'd have been better off under a traditional system of roles for women, but it would be terribly hard to prove it to me. I'm always going to opt for making my choices for myself. I rarely see the value in being limited in my choices for my own good. This is much the way I feel about monopolies. If they're doing such a great job, how come they couldn't survive in a context of choice?

...and...

Tradition has its place, but it sure as hell isn't the only source of knowledge or wisdom, nor should it be.

Tex and Colagirl, I'm sorry I'm just now getting around to responding to both of you. There was so much I wanted to say about your comments, but I wasn't feeling well enough to marshal my thoughts.

What upsets me so much about this whole conversation is that I wrote a post that concluded with the observation that *any* appeal to authority (religion, or science, or whatever) can be abused because people are biased and their biases are reflected in their interpretations of what "the authority", be it God or Science or whatever, decrees.

Grim responded by saying that he doesn't think social science has done anything to improve our understanding of human nature. I could not disagree more deeply with this assertion.

Social science has helped me understand a great many things about human nature. It has also, because there are the same debates and divisions within social science that exist in philosophy and religion, asserted some pretty stupid and offensive and destructive things. But that was the point of my post: all human attempts to understand human nature are flawed. Some perhaps more than others, but none are perfect.

Social science has made my marriage better because it has taught me things I didn't know about how men perceive the world and I have confirmed these observations in practice and by asking my husband if they seemed right to him. It has caused me to change my behavior in ways that have made an already strong marriage even stronger. We can talk about things we weren't able to talk about before because now I have a better understanding of how he sees the world.

It has made me more sympathetic to perceptions of the world that are hard for me to understand because they lie outside my own experience of the world. That's a good thing, any way you look at it. I know more than I did, and social science has brought that about.

So I completely and utterly reject Grim's assertion that social science has done NOTHING to improve our understanding of human nature. That's an extreme statement that disrespectfully dismisses an entire discipline based on no real evidence. Ironically, that's what I stand accused of doing with his philosophers.

Except I don't think I did that. I never claimed traditional understandings had added NOTHING to our understanding of human nature (and in fact had made it worse). As I said before, respect is a two way street - if you begin by completely dismissing an entire line of inquiry, you shouldn't be surprised if you get some push back.

The real irony here is that the very point of this post was that NONE of these disciplines should go unquestioned because they are ALL practiced by imperfect people who often have a vested interest in steering the search for the truth in a direction that profits them personally.

The Church has done a tremendous amount of good in human history. But church authority has also been responsible for a lot of evil because churches are human institutions composed of people who are a mixed bag. Some are good and honorable, others are malevolent or simply stupid and selfish.

I'm so tired of all this broad brush nonsense. Nothing is all good or all bad. Demonizing the church or traditional understandings is dumb, but so is glossing over the very real problems that occur in human history when any human institution goes unchallenged and gains too much power.

Conservatives used to understand that absolute power corrupts absolutely. We want so very badly to believe in something - some authority - that will make all our problems go away. But that's not how the world works - we need to use ALL our faculties - faith, reason, scientific inquiry - to deepen our understanding of the world and our role in it. We NEED to ask questions. Even faith allows for that, as it has no meaning without the presence of doubt.

We hear a lot of impassioned talk of fidelity to the Constitution on the right. Well, as much wisdom as the Catholic Church may have to offer, it cannot, by the very Constitution we claim to revere and hold faith with be the only litmus test by which we decide matters of public policy.

It must have a seat at the table, but I'm an Episcopalian. My faith matters, too. As do the faith traditions of Baptists and Jews and a whole host of other denominations, none of whom agree on everything. Others are atheists and they are American citizens, too. If you want your traditions to be respected, try respecting the efforts of others to get to the bottom of questions that have plagued humans for as long as we've walked the earth.

When I created VC, I wanted it to be a place where we could discuss important questions without the vitriol and personal attacks that characterize most online discourse.

It is entirely possible that I am completely blind and I have been abusing my friends in ways I still don't understand. I understand that a lot of conservatives feel their ideas and values are under attack, but they are not under attack from me.

I have never been someone who sees things in black and white. Testing ideas is why I started VC, and I continue to have faith that conservative ideas can withstand logical scrutiny. People are not all wise or all knowing - even conservative people. We struggle to see things clearly and we make mistakes because we are human.

If we can't tolerate any view of the world that doesn't see us or our ideas as clearly superior, if we see every question as a threat or as disrespectful (and yet see no problem dismissing other people's attempts to grapple with the same questions without seriously considering them) then I think we have become part of the problem instead of part of the solution.

I don't trust ANY human institution - the GOP, or conservatives, or the Church - to decide what my options in life should be or arbitrarily decide my worth as a human being. So, Tex and colagirl, I thank you for your comments. I was beginning to think that I was alone.

I don't know that I can do this anymore. If I'm honest about what I think, I'm told that I'm abusing my friends or that I've slammed the people who are my side harder than the ones on the other side. Over the years I think I've slammed the other side pretty hard.

My faith in conservative ideas is still strong, but it doesn't require perfection. Only God is perfect, and we see him through all too human eyes. Many things have been done in the name of organized religion that must make God shudder in revulsion. And many things have been done in the name of science that are likewise revolting.

All I'm pleading for is for us to show the same respect to others that we demand for our own ideas. Don't categorically dismiss them out of hand, and don't only listen to arguments that make you feel good about your own side.

I think that's a lost cause, and consequently that the way I see things isn't helpful and isn't persuasive to anyone, really.

Posted by: Cass at January 19, 2013 11:43 AM

Tex:

I understand that argument is a kind of distillation of the Libertarian position, but it needs much closer examination. Many people prefer a system by which they can help themselves to things that they'd like to have, as for example by dropping by your house while you're at work and walking off with anything not locked down.

Now, you can argue that they're the ones initiating force, but that's not really true in this example: they're just walking freely over the face of the earth, taking things that people aren't actively guarding. There's no violence inherent in that -- if they were walking over unclaimed land and picking up, say, nuggets of gold that were unclaimed. What makes it "violent" is that we define it as such in cases where the property is claimed. But they aren't actually physically harming anyone, or breaking anything. They're just picking stuff up that nobody is currently using or protecting.

There's a whole set of arguments that I won't bother to retrace, because you're aware of them and do not contest them, about why property rights are better for everyone. But they have to be imposed and defended via force on people who dissent.

Now, a strong temptation here rhetorically will be to elide what I just said with the issue we were just discussing, a la 'You're asserting that women's liberty is the same as theft!' or something similar. I'm not doing that, though. I'm simply pointing out that the argument you put forward is inadequate to the principles you hold. You'll need to refine it before we can discuss its application to this case.

Posted by: Grim at January 19, 2013 11:48 AM

Actually, Cass, my claim is even more extreme than you make it. I didn't just say that they have done nothing to improve our understanding: I said that their false appeal to scientific authority has often actively harmed our understanding, given that their methodology does not admit of genuinely scientific proof in terms of replicability or the null hypothesis.

That is to say, I think many of the things we have come to believe via social science are things we wanted to believe; and, given these weaknesses, it's impossible to know which. So we end up believing the part that we like and dismissing the part we don't (which is easy to do, because we can readily point to methodological errors actually present in any such study).

So in this case, at least, you have given my thoughts a more moderate construction than was intended. :)

In any case, I wasn't attempting to suggest that anything should be unquestionable. I was suggesting that you'll get farther questioning the tradition within the tradition than from outside of it. There are a host of reasons why that is true, including the fact that people for whom the tradition is important will more readily listen to an ally than an enemy. The most important, though, may be that you can't really criticize it until you've understood it.

I've done enough social science, in the field of history, to know the problem I'm describing. It's a critique that I think is valid. When I've discussed it with sociologists or psychologists, they've admitted to its validity -- in a non-competitive environment of private conversation. It's more of an open secret than a radical charge.

Posted by: Grim at January 19, 2013 11:56 AM

Now, to respond to your comments criticizing my position, I'd like to point out that I haven't said any of the things you've put in full quotes. Point 2 in particular is your position, which I've rebutted several times. I think that people who worked to improve women's condition and access to society and education have been successful repeatedly in the West, but for limited periods of time. If 'suffrage' is the standard, well, it took longer because nobody had suffrage in the Middle Ages. If 'full equality' is the standard, we may not be there yet.

Nevertheless, whenever people have argued for women to share in society rather than being limited to particular roles, the argument has followed the form developed by Plato in the Republic. This form is based on access to rationality, and the capacity for virtue.

It's not merely that these people have been doing stuff sort-of similar, in other words. It's that they have been upholding a traditional position, developing and furthering it. Ibn Rushd is explicitly doing so by commenting on the Republic, and then working it into his Islamic law rulings. Aquinas is adapting the arguments without citation (a common practice of his, actually; he regularly cites Aristotle and Ibn Rushd, as well as saints, but tends not to cite by name Jewish or pagan philosophers other than Aristotle and Cicero).

The suffrage movement of the 19th century drew on this Platonic Christian trend. They did this even when the authors, like J. S. Mill, didn't think that an appeal to God necessarily reached an actual divine authority. Nevertheless, if you read his writings on the liberation of women, you'll recognize the same arguments: many women are capable of performing as guardians of a just and moral society if given the chance, we need such guardians, and thus we ought to allow women to assume such a role if they can handle it. In claiming that the reason women only seem capable of childrearing is that we only let them do that, and deny them education, he is almost quoting Ibn Rushd verbatim.

Does birth control play a necessary role in women's liberation? I have no idea. I suspect not; I think that many women have managed to liberate themselves without using it. I don't know that for certain, however, and I'm not sure how you'd test it. For one thing you'd have to have a standard of what it meant to be liberated that we could all agree upon, which so far has not been produced to my knowledge. Then you'd have to show that it either was or was not (or was not usually) achievable without the medication.

The role of technology I will gladly stipulate, but technology can be put to good uses and bad. The question of why it was used to liberate women, and not otherwise, depends on the question of what people take to be valuable. That's a question of philosophy.

Posted by: Grim at January 19, 2013 12:16 PM

I think many of the things we have come to believe via social science are things we wanted to believe; and, given these weaknesses, it's impossible to know which.

A criticism that can just as easily be applied to your "traditional understandings". The very fact that these questions continue to be debated and have been for centuries without any resolution is a pretty good indication that they're not proving anything conclusively either.

Posted by: Cass at January 19, 2013 12:17 PM

Yes, and yet at the same time also no. (This is the real problem with philosophy -- not that it doesn't prove anything, but that it often proves different things at the same time, but in different ways.)

On the one hand, it's true that every generation re-engages the questions on their own terms. And it would be sad if this were not the case, because an important part of life (for Socrates, the most important part) is trying to understand. If we ever gave up on that, we would no longer be human in an important sense. That process is essential to human nature.

On the other hand, there are questions that each generation ends up answering in the same way. If we ask (as Socrates does in Plato's Laches) what courage is, we get different answers. But if we ask if courage (whatever it is!) is a virtue, we find that we get the same answer.

Having gotten that answer, every generation is free to point out that women as well as men can be courageous. Some generations do that, and some don't, but both the agreement on the virtue of courage and the examples of courageous women from history continue to exist.

Posted by: Grim at January 19, 2013 12:39 PM

Part of this, it seems to me, is the differences in truth that a friend pointed out to me long ago. He was a lawyer, and had a hard time transitioning to engineering. "I thought that truth was what I could get the witness or jury to agree with; and I always had a hard time with witnesses who were engineers and scientists. Now that I've had Physics Lab 101 (and flunked it) I understand that they have a different kind of Truth. It's how they think the world will answer their questions, and they can ask the questions repeatedly. The world does not lie or evade or equivocate; the world says 34.9º +- errors. Their Truth is not persuadable, my understanding of truth is."


Much (not all or even most, perhaps) of social science seems to be truth, not Truth. There's a low-grade edit war going on now at Wikipedia on the Neuro Linguistic Programming page. There are some who insist that NLP is a discredited ineffective pseudo-science (others, including me, disagree, citing the founders' claims that NLP is not scientific at all, being a magical process that can sometimes be effective; they made no attempt to claim any scientific basis for their discovery.) Truth vs. truth.


I didn't used to think of being harmed by dating partners until I ran into a stalker, and then I thought of that possibility for decades. Still do, sometimes, going to meet real-life strangers. The crazy people are sometimes only intermittently crazy.

Posted by: htom at January 20, 2013 09:15 PM

"I understand that argument is a kind of distillation of the Libertarian position, but it needs much closer examination. Many people prefer a system by which they can help themselves to things that they'd like to have, as for example by dropping by your house while you're at work and walking off with anything not locked down."

Yes, this is why I said it was possible to argue that keeping women constrained might be justifiable by an appeal to the good of people other than women, or to an abstract code of justice. It's just that it's not easily justifiable by appealing to a sense of what's best for women. Women themselves won't reliably choose it unless they're forced. At least of the women, surely, are not comparable to thieves who can be restrained only by force from taking what doesn't belong to them?

Posted by: Texan99 at January 21, 2013 09:00 AM

htom:

Very interesting. Thank you.

Tex:

Well, it's the whole concept of "doesn't belong to them" that needs a separate justification. That's the part that your principle is running up against.

There are lots of people who think they would be better off if they could help themselves to what other people regard as their private wealth and property. (Lately they've been using the government to do just that, so it's even legal in many cases.) You can explain to them why they should not in terms of why it is good for other people, but why should they respect private property rights if it is not good for them? Perhaps they aren't all that smart, and thus have a limited capacity for useful learning or skills.

The concept that you are floating is that a rule should be able to prove itself via free choice. Well, their free choice is not to obey the rule of respecting private property (especially not if you 'have too much'). They won't freely respect that rule. Do you abandon it, or do you alter the principle of 'rules must be viable in an environment of free choice' to account for why private property is an exception? What other exceptions turn up if you do?

At least of the women, surely, are not comparable to thieves who can be restrained only by force from taking what doesn't belong to them?

Yes, I want to avoid this pitfall. As above: "A strong temptation here rhetorically will be to elide what I just said with the issue we were just discussing, a la 'You're asserting that women's liberty is the same as theft!' or something similar. I'm not doing that, though. I'm simply pointing out that the argument you put forward is inadequate to the principles you hold. You'll need to refine it before we can discuss its application to this case."

So before we can talk about how this principle applies to this case, we need to make sure that the principle has been refined enough to account for all the rules you'd like defended by force.

Posted by: Grim at January 21, 2013 11:06 AM

It's not a question whether the rule should be defended by force. It's a question of whether it makes sense to justify force by asserting that the victims of the force are really benefiting from its exercise against them -- though they may (from ignorance or depravity) deny it. There ought to be a better justification than that for force, because the argument that "I'm doing this to you for your own good" necessarily contains a strong element of contempt. Contempt may be earned, but we should be careful of assuming the condition has been met.

When you have to use force, you've conceded the loss of the argument. It's no longer an idea that can stand on its own by persuasion. Now the task is to prove that the unpersuadable targets of force were incapable for some reason of judging correctly for themselves, like slaves on the plantation, who inexplicably didn't acknowledge how good they had it. It requires an explanation why the wielders of force had a right to assume a position of superiority over their victims. Over thieves? Not too difficult. Over women (or slaves) who want to vote, own property, and obtain an education? Trickier.

Posted by: Texan99 at January 21, 2013 11:33 AM

Sometimes you have to use force not because you've lost the argument, but because your opponent is acting in bad faith. The revolt of the barons against King John wasn't a result of them being in the wrong in terms of the arguments they were making; it was just the only road forward. I think many (arguably all) actual political rights are achieved at least initially by force: either by being a party to the force that enabled the creation of the state, or by resistance against those using the state in ways you think violate what your rights should be.

But that's a point to the side. The real point at issue is that theft -- insofar as it doesn't involve violence -- is less violent than violence to stop theft. If the issue is that no one should normally be forced to obey rules they wouldn't consent to obey, which was the principle you began with, then thieves are merely non-consenting to the claim that property rights should be considered sacrosanct.

It's worth remembering that such non-consent is widely popular (I mentioned that it is often done legally, through the government; but it is also the case that we have a huge population of prisoners who have non-consented to these and other laws). Many people are unpersuaded that you should have anything like an absolute right to your property, or that their interests are best served by a state that enforces property rights. Many want a state that actively works against property rights via redistribution.

So the principle of non-consent needs development to explain why non-consenting to the idea of property rights is not acceptable. I don't think either of us disagree with the idea that property rights should be protected; but I think your principle as presented doesn't explain why the limit should be there.

(There's a general problem here about competing interests, actually, which at the moment I'm leaving latent. But consider the case of a society in which a majority does not consent to respect the rights of a minority. The principle of non-consent says that they ought not to force the minority to do anything it doesn't want to do; but the majority does not consent to be bound by the principle respecting the minority. What gives the principle the stature to compel consent from the majority, in order to protect the minority's right not to have consent compelled from it? It can't be consent, because the majority doesn't consent. So it must be rooted elsewhere: the usual candidates for 'elsewhere' are God's will, or long tradition, or the stature of the principle as a Law of Reason or Natural Law.)

Posted by: Grim at January 21, 2013 05:07 PM

I agree that sometimes force is necessary when one's opponent is not acting in good faith. In fact, almost my whole point is that, if you resort to force rather than persuasion, you're essentially admitting either that your argument is no good or that you consider your opponent to be acting in bad faith (or at the very least out of incompetence). Hence my conclusion that to try to argue that the longstanding traditional subjugation of women was for their own good is to treat the unconsenting women with contempt.

Posted by: Texan99 at January 21, 2013 10:22 PM

This is good, but it still doesn't solve the problem. Let's say that your opponent is one of these who doesn't consent to our idea of property rights, but is quite clear and honest about it. Let's say he's someone who voted to elect a government that will take from the rich and give to the poor. This is a principle he holds for what he takes to be honorable reasons (e.g., helping the poor), and he simply does not consent to agree to your argument (with which I do agree) about the importance of property.

Now, I don't think the argument for property is bad; and, in this example, there's nothing like bad faith going on. Does that make resistance to having your property seized (including, perhaps, force) an act of contempt? If it is, then either we are wrong to be contemptuous in defending property; or, alternatively, it is contemptible to refuse to consent to our principle that property is a valuable right.

That latter seems to be where we are going to fall, but this brings us around again to the question of what it is that gives property that stature. The Founders considered it a natural right (as did Locke); and its status as a pre-political, natural right is why it can override the consent principle in this way. (One cannot lawfully consent, on Locke's model and the Founder's alike, to government based on a violation of natural rights.)

However, what if they also do not buy the concept of natural rights (or have a different concept of them, such that the poor have a natural right to be provided with food, housing, education, health care, or even to be raised out of poverty at the public expense)? Or do you prefer to secure property with a different guard?

Posted by: Grim at January 22, 2013 12:05 AM

I would use force against anyone who tried to rob me in the name of a beneficent belief in propertylessness. I would then have no trouble admitting that either I hadn't done a good enough job persuading him of the merits of the property system, or that I held his beliefs in enough contempt to be willing to use force against him to keep him from practicing them on me.

I would not try to claim that I respected him and his beliefs a great deal, but was willing to impose my superior beliefs on him out of a conviction that I was acting for his own good -- if only he were sensible enough to realize it.

Posted by: Texan99 at January 22, 2013 09:31 AM

So let's return to the question with which we began, then. Your initial claim was that "a system that has to be imposed by force is not 'better' for the people it's imposed on." Here you are imposing a system on someone by force, against his ideals and in favor of your own.

What is it that makes doing so legitimate? Is it merely that you are more successful at applying force than he is, i.e., would it be just as legitimate for him to force you to comply with his ideals if he won? Or is there something that gives property rights a greater standing?

I mentioned the natural law claims of Locke and the Founders, but there's another obvious claim to which you could appeal: not stealing and not coveting are in the Ten Commandments. Now our Constitutional system won't let you make that appeal except as part of your persuasion, so it may no longer be a claim with any force, except in the manner described by Kipling in "The Gods of the Copybook Headings," in which societies that abandon those principles fall into ruin and barbarism.

Yet it sounds like we may be close to that, thus the question of my first paragraph. Is there anything beyond might that is left to make right?

Posted by: Grim at January 22, 2013 10:16 AM

What gives me the right to defend myself by force? I may not be able to explain that to your satisfaction, but I can assure you that my justification is not that I'm acting in the best interests of my assailant. I don't expect him to be grateful.

I'm more ready to resort to force to defend myself than to impose my views of a proper and happy life on someone else. So I wouldn't prevent men from voting, owning property, or obtaining an education even if I happened to have the power to do so and guessed that it might improve their happiness. I would, however, happily use whatever force I had handy to break down any barriers a man tried to put in the way of my own franchise, ownership, or education -- even if he was acting entirely without malice and in the genuine conviction that he was doing me a favor.

It requires a good deal of condescension to expect the targets of force to agree that your plans for them are superior to what their own conscience and judgment would lead them to choose for themselves. The condescension may be entirely appropriate, if the targets are minors, incompetents, or domestic animals. If they are adult human souls, they will very reasonably resent it.

Posted by: Texan99 at January 22, 2013 02:28 PM

I'm not trying to get you to explain it to my satisfaction, as you are entirely free to disagree with me (a point Cass reminds me of often, although I've never asserted that anyone was unfree to do so). Indeed, I haven't actually proposed a standard; I'm just exploring yours with you.

So you're answering a question with a question: what gives you a right to self-defense? Again, there are traditional answers to that question. In fact the sources are the same sources, and the answers are the same answers. Locke holds that a right to self defense is pre-political (see the early part of the Second Treatise on Government), a right you have from nature (and therefore which, like property, no state can legitimately violate). The Founders held with him on the point; so did traditional British law. So does the Bible (see e.g. Luke 22:36).

But notice that here as elsewhere, consent is not an issue. It doesn't matter if the members of the state, or the other parties to the social contract, consent to respect this right. In fact not only can they not consent to deprive you of it, you cannot consent to yield it. Violence may force you to put it aside, but it cannot strip you of the right (this is what was meant by "inalienable rights").

That's the old view. It is what justifies contempt for those who won't respect (say) property, or your right to self-defense. It's what strips them of the power to consent either to respect or not to respect those rights of yours: indeed it strips you of that power. It puts the question beyond human hands, into the hands of 'the Laws of Nature and Nature's God.'

You can see how this tends to undercut the idea that persuasion is the foundation of a just society. Persuasion builds on that foundation, but it is not itself permitted within the foundation. Persuasion belongs within the sphere of what a state can either do or not do: but fundamental rights are not subject to it. Consent does not matter. These are questions where humans are not free to consent or not to consent.

The limits of persuasion and force are thus easy to identify on the old view. What I'm wondering about is whether you share and endorse this tradition, or if you are proposing something else -- and if it is something else, just how it is founded.

Posted by: Grim at January 22, 2013 03:26 PM

I don't generally justify to others my right to self-defense, I simply assert it to the limits of my ability. If it's a question of getting others to strike deals with me so that we can structure a mutually beneficial society together, I point to the success of societies that emphasize consent over coercion, thereby trying to engage my opponent's self-interest in support of a shared goal.

But I have not been arguing that persuasion alone can sustain a society. I have been objecting to the kind of condescension that tells a forcefully subjugated person that his oppressor is acting out of altruism. I bow to superior force whenever I must, but I don't readily accept an appeal to my consent on the ground that my oppressor knows what's best for me. Sometimes my oppressors will just have to do without my consent, and they'll have to work out for themselves whether they're comfortable (or safe) proceeding without it. No recourse to tradition will wring consent from me if I can't see the good in it. That's where persuasion comes in, for me, on this topic.

Posted by: Texan99 at January 23, 2013 12:23 PM

As I understood you, you were arguing that it was condescending to try to persuade you that it was in your interests -- thus, you're being condescended to on this model whether or not your oppressor tries to persuade you. In the case that she does, she is condescending by pretending to be helping you while forcing you to do things you don't want; if she does not, she is condescending by not treating you with due respect for your rights.

The question, though, remains: if you have a right to self-defense (or defense of property) that is morally just, what justifies it? I'm pressing you on this point because you said you had a simpler way of thinking about it. I'm not at all sure it's really simpler; I think you've assumed in all the things from the traditional model (though I'm still unclear as to whether your assumptions are based on Locke's, or the Founders', or the older tradition of British common law, or the Christian tradition).

If that's the case, then any appeal to tradition by your opponent will be met by an appeal to tradition from you. It may not be self- conscious, but the rights you are asserting have their basis in these traditions. In other words, it turns out that the tradition justifies your resistance at least as much as it justifies their attempt at oppression.

If you are coming into conflict with an oppressor who is not appealing to tradition, but to some new progressive reading of natural law ("People have a right to free health care"), then you are the one appealing to tradition.

Rather than being somehow allied with the forces of oppression (of women, or in general), the tradition proves in either case to be the root of the liberty you want to assert. Someone within the tradition may try to use it for another purpose; but they are not more properly traditional than you are in asserting these rights.

Posted by: Grim at January 23, 2013 02:47 PM

I'm not appealing to tradition in expecting my oppressor to agree with me, because I'm not asking him to agree with me. If I were asking him to agree with me, I would restrict myself to the use of persuasion, not force. Force and consent are a contradiction in terms.

As far as my right to resist subjugation goes, I make no attempt to justify it. I simply decline to deal with people who can't or won't grasp it, and do my best to keep them on the periphery of my life. If they don't mind staying out there, we don't have a problem. If they want to get closer, we're either going to have a fight or we're going to come to some kind of consensual arrangement. I find this works for me, perhaps because my needs for autonomy are relatively modest in the context of my culture.

By "simpler approach," I meant only this: I don't have to agonize over whether the traditional treatment of women as something subhuman was or was not good for women in the abstract. All I need to know is that women rejected it as soon as they had the power to do so. From there, unless I assume that men know better what's good for women than women know for themselves, I have the answer I need.

I have no evidence that men have a peculiar ability to divine what's best for women, especially in the context of a subjugated status of which they have no firsthand knowledge. I have considerable evidence that people in a position of privilege are vulnerable to the error of assuming that the non-privileged people around them really are getting a pretty good deal and don't mind all that much -- as long as they never have to try to live that way themselves.

Posted by: Texan99 at January 23, 2013 06:54 PM

I have no evidence that men understand women at all, so divining what is best for them is surely right out. However, I do think that you are appealing to tradition more than you realize. These propositions are appeals to a whole set of traditions that exist for you to appeal to because other have fought to put them in place.

They don't exist elsewhere; and thus, while here you can appeal to force in certain cases without feeling you have to justify yourself (and indeed, if you were called before a court, you would not have to testify to provide a justification, though you would be free to do so), you might well be found to be justified. In other places without these traditions, that might well be impossible.

Posted by: Grim at January 23, 2013 09:13 PM

A good example of this comes from the UK, which used to share our traditions on this point (self defense, and defense of property) and has now abandoned them. The famous example is the fellow who, after several burglaries and in a rural area, shot one of the intruders with a shotgun on a subsequent burglary attempt. Naturally the homeowner went to prison, and the burglar received free health care.

Locke would have praised the homeowner as a paragon, but Locke's descendants held him a felon.

Posted by: Grim at January 23, 2013 09:33 PM

Cass: I think that's a lost cause, and consequently that the way I see things isn't helpful and isn't persuasive to anyone, really.

I wanted to respond to this point, and the general reason for starting and maintaining VC that you mentioned.

I have learned a great deal from you, whether I've agreed with you or not. I don't comment much these days, but I do read, and your ideas are always worth reading and considering. Even when I haven't come around to your point of view, thinking about yours has often caused me to modify my own.

I also learn a lot from your commenters; you must be doing something right to gather such a wise group to your work. I suspect many of them feel similarly or they wouldn't come back and hash things out with you.

Just thought I'd chime in on that.

Posted by: Tom at January 24, 2013 12:13 AM

Grim, I'm not sure I understand your definition of science. Would Darwin have been a scientist? After all, in his day evolution could not be replicated. What about astronomy and geology as applied to understanding the past?

Posted by: Tom at January 24, 2013 01:03 AM

I laid out two tests for what you might call a hard science: it needs to produce results or predicted results that others can replicate; and a hard science needs to be built on theories that can really be proven wrong if it is wrong (this is what I mean by the 'null hypothesis').

Most of astronomy is not hard to replicate: if I have a theory about the movement of planets, I can test it against measurements of the position of planets that go back a long way (and from multiple sources). If I think it holds up, I can publish it and you can check the math. So in terms of results that can be replicated, astronomy is a very good candidate (almost as good as geometry, really, except for sudden changes like supernovas: but even in the case of such sudden events there are ways of testing a hypothesis that one happened).

So a laboratory is not necessary, though of course it is often desirable. Darwin's theories have actually had a pretty good run in generating predictions that can be tested and replicated.

As for the null hypothesis, contrast a theory of astronomy with one of psychology. There's a theory in astronomy that the reason orbits of planets appear to follow an elliptical path is that the orbited body is also orbiting, and thus in motion. If that is right, then the effect of gravity in space is not different from the effect of it here on earth, i.e., the smaller body is always 'falling' toward the larger one (actually, they are 'falling' towards each other in a proportional way, but the larger one is also 'falling' toward another, even larger object: the moon falls into the earth, but the earth is falling away because it is also falling toward the sun, which is falling away from the earth at the same time, etc.).

Now it would be possible to demonstrate that this weren't true. If orbits were really better predicted as circles, this theory would be readily proven false by observation (or even by comparison with past observations).

On the other hand, take Freud's theory that every man has an Oedipal complex. "Well, no," you say, "I know someone who doesn't have one. He shows no signs of it at all. There's simply nothing in his behavior, expressed thoughts, or way of life that suggests that he has any such complex."

"Aha," says the good doctor. "Let me then introduce you to my theory of repression." And so he maintains that the original theory hasn't been disproven at all.

You see this all the time once you learn to look for it. 'Why didn't the President's stimulus work as designed? Does this not prove that his economic theory is flawed?' 'No! Of course the theory was right. It would have worked, too, but we needed more of it.'

This isn't science. There are places where it may be the only way to proceed, because replicability and the null hypothesis are impossible, but it is always dangerous to grant such things the name of science. It convinces people (say, voters) that the findings of these 'sciences' have something like the same authority as Darwin or astronomy. That often leads to bad decisions about law, policy, or the way we structure society or social institutions.

Posted by: Grim at January 24, 2013 02:22 AM

"divining what is best for them is surely right out" -- what I been sayin'.

I think you'd like me to express gratitude for some good traditions that achieved justice through might. But I thought we were discussing oppression? How did the tradition of denying me property rights, voting rights, and access to education lead inexorably to my present enviable freedom? The traditions to which I'm grateful are the ones that led to the overthrow of those restrictions, not to their nostalgic support. Some traditions turned out to be fine things, while others were abominable.

It's true that I'm always pleased when someone has the power to do horrible things to me, and instead exercises enough self-control to refrain. But I'm grateful to his self-control rather than to his initial impulse, even though both have their roots in tradition.

Posted by: Texan99 at January 24, 2013 10:55 AM

Gratitude is a wonderful thing. However, I'll be quite satisfied if you'll just not read the whole tradition as hateful of women -- it included some very wonderful people of whom I'm quite fond, to whom it was tremendously important, whose character and honor I'm trying to defend. The tradition is theirs at least as much as it belongs to anyone else, and thus deserves to be seen as ennobled by them.

How did the tradition of denying me property rights, voting rights, and access to education lead inexorably to my present enviable freedom?

One thing I'd like to make clear is that 'the tradition' doesn't do that: there have been times and places that have, but even a thousand years ago there were times and places that didn't. (In Medieval France, for example, widows inherited in their own right; in England, daughters did. In Spain, sometimes women inherited on equal terms and sometimes not, depending on time and place.)

There were times and places when men had no voting rights (indeed, mostly they haven't had them) or access to education as a general thing (again, mostly). For the most part class has been more important than sex.

You would have had much greater access to education as a woman of the nobility and its neighbor classes in 800 or 1000 or 1200 AD than any man except those who were of your class. You may wish to say, "But even then, the men of that class had greater access." Yet that is not necessarily true either: often second and younger sons entered the clergy or the religious life, where education was most available, but women of any birth order were able to do so for the most part.

So it's not as simple. You can't even quite say that women suffer disabilities compared with men ceteris paribus, because there were modes of appeal at law available only to women (e.g., in Germany a woman could still appeal to trial by combat, but the man had to fight standing in a pit and with only a club; or she could, as he could not unless a member of the clergy, seek a champion who was a professional warrior to further her dispute).

Your female ancestors were probably not less capable or combative than you are yourself; indeed I can think of many of whom you can be proud. Just as women in the late 19th century often opposed female suffrage, though it seems odd to us now, women in earlier times often wanted different things. It's important, if you want to understand the history, to look to see what it was that women were fighting for, and whether or not they got it. Like the women of Meister Eckhart's time, who were forming lay societies with teachings the Church sometime opposed and sometimes supported (as Eckhart did), I find that most of the time where I see women demanding some good, they generally get it.

But insofar as you can speak of a tradition of denying women access to these goods, the way in which it underlies your present liberty is how it was justified. It was justified in terms of access to reason (following Aristotle), and it was justified in terms of religious doctrine (following the early Roman church). Both allowed avenues of argument and appeal, as well as practical demonstrations of capacity.

Contrast that with, say, the Confucian approach (which is baldly based on a naturalistic reading of family structure, with the male being the head of the family -- very similar to the Roman idea, really). There isn't a possibility of appeal there; you can't demonstrate that you're really male. But you can demonstrate that you're really rational, and you can demonstrate that the Bible can be read in ways quite friendly to women.

That's just what was done. It's why this tradition is better than others; but the original question was whether tradition, in general, is better than social science at producing real insight into human relationships. That's an empirical question of a different sort, from which we've come quite far.

Still, I think that a couple that resolves conflicts within their marriage with the help of a priest or rabbi with whom they have a good relationship will be successful more often than one that makes the same attempt with a psychologist brimming with all the latest theories. That's what my original remarks were intended to assert, and I genuinely do believe that. The traditions have lots more experience sorting these things out, and the insight so gained is deeper, richer, and less troubled by what Reagan called 'things they know which just aren't so.'

Posted by: Grim at January 24, 2013 12:08 PM

There were isolated bright spots that served to bring into contrast the dominant background, which was that only a very few lucky women had access to ordinary human attainments and dignity that were commonplace for their male peers. That a rich woman could do better than a poor man demonstrates that there were other unsavory traditions of repression competing for our execration. So the traditional treatment of women, like the curate's bad egg, was not entirely unsavory: "parts of it were excellent." Here and there, someone fought back and did the right thing, in the teeth of dominant public opinion. What's more, many people, out of pity or mercy or love, were quite nice to the women caught in this system, just as people today minister to the sick and to prisoners, which speaks better of the ministers than of either the illnesses or the prisons.

Similarly, my bout with the flu last year was not entirely disastrous. My heart still pumped; I didn't actually die. My body retained the ability to repair itself and regain health. But it's my body's immune system I'm grateful to, not the flu virus.

I agree completely that the Western tradition has been surpassed in foulness to women by any number of Asian ones, past and present. Surely I never suggested that things couldn't have been worse than they were?

Posted by: Texan99 at January 24, 2013 12:51 PM

Thank you for the kind words, Tom. They mean a lot to me.

That probably sounds a bit trite, but it is nonetheless true :)

Posted by: Cass at January 24, 2013 12:57 PM

"...the dominant background, which was that only a very few lucky women had access to ordinary human attainments and dignity..."

This is just what I contest. I don't think any part of that sentence is a good reflection of the reality of the Middle Ages.

In fact, of the phrase "ordinary human attainment," only the word "human" has any obvious application to the facts of the case. At a time when most people (male or female) were engaged in subsistence agriculture, there was nothing ordinary about any sort of attainment.

Among those who were born into the classes in which attainment was possible, women were about as common as men. Within that class, they enjoyed rights that are different from those men enjoyed, but they tend to be the ones the women themselves wanted and fought to achieve.

If you want to excoriate something, you can excoriate the poverty that really was the ordinary human condition. But it was the education produced by the religious class sustained by the feudal poverty that eventually lifted the whole out of it: under conditions of greater equality, no monasteries would have developed new technologies for water mills, nor had spare fields to experiment with new agricultural techniques like rotation. Condemning their moral character on this point condemns them to the mud, and us as well being their descendants.

Posted by: Grim at January 24, 2013 01:05 PM

And this is really, of course, the root of why I am defending this point so staunchly. There is a reflexive disrespect practiced by our generation against our ancestors. In the midst of this poverty they found a way to assert the spiritual dignity of the individual soul, and to defend and further it often even against their own material interests -- as in the case of men advancing the cause of women -- though the pressure of those interests must have been far greater upon them than upon us.

Our contemporaries reflexively assume that we are morally superior, but really we are just richer: and in fact, in most cases, we are morally worse. We are less brave, less disciplined, less physically strong, less concerned with others, and just as ready to punish the powerless for our own benefit. This is most evident and remarked-upon in the case of Americans spending vast sums now, with the intent that our grandchildren should pay the bills; but it is just as true where we insist on posing as the moral superiors of our ancestors, who gave us everything we have.

If we want to say something nice about one of them, we paint them as a victim, because victims are what we love best of all. These were not victims. They were victors. They made something beautiful out of worse conditions than we have ever known, and we cheerfully scorn them for not being as good as us.

Posted by: Grim at January 24, 2013 02:12 PM

I think it's time to back down from this conversation a bit.

When we get to the point of broad brush condemnation of an entire age ("in most cases, we are morally worse. We are less brave, less disciplined, less physically strong, less concerned with others, and just as ready to punish the powerless for our own benefit."), I think that perhaps temper is gaining undue sway.

Past ages were full of all sorts of absolutely barbaric practices, and one can only get to such a statement by ignoring them and focusing only on the good. That's not a balanced outlook.

Exposing unwanted infants to wild animals is not morally good, but it was quite common (just as abortion is today). Fathers being able to kill their own children legally or refuse to feed them is likewise not what I'd call an enlightened practice. Nor is it morally superior to own slaves, or use them sexually, or torture and maim petty thieves for public entertainment.

All ages have their tradeoffs. Governments in past ages often extorted taxes at will from unwilling subjects who in many cases were starving, only to spend the money on fripperies. History books are full of these sad tales of outrages committed by the folks you claim are our moral betters. We commit our own outrages, being human as they are and were.

I have been too ill to monitor the comments as I should have done, but this is not the standard I wish set here. Nothing Tex has said leads me to believe that she is ignorant. I suspect she may even have read a history book or two in her life.

Nor have I seen her claim that we are morally superior to all previous generations.

I don't understand why defending long dead people against arguments no one is making is so important that it would lead you to some of the statements you've made, but it needs to stop. You can defend them without abusing those alive now (many of whom have been your friends).

Please stop this.

Posted by: Cass at January 24, 2013 03:12 PM

Of course I shall stop, since you ask. I am sorry to hear of your illness. A virus is an entirely unpleasant thing.

Posted by: Grim at January 24, 2013 05:13 PM

Thank you, Grim.

I don't think I've ever been this sick, and my ability to deal with upsetting things is at a very low ebb.

I don't wish to shut off all conversation but this has already gotten personal once. We have all been friends for a long time, and I don't wish to see things said that do damage to those friendships. If I have overstepped, please attribute it to the fever. I'm more than a bit out of it.

Posted by: Cass at January 24, 2013 05:45 PM

Get well soon, Cass.

Posted by: htom at January 24, 2013 10:08 PM

Cass, I'm sorry to hear you're down with a virus. The nasty flu that's going around, I assume?

Like you, when I'm ill, I can hardly bear any contentiousness. It just seems exhausting. I apologize for adding to your burden at a time when you don't feel well. Grim and I can just as easily throw darts at each other over at his place! -- But please don't think I feel he's insulted me. I think I understand where he's coming from, and why my comments strike him so differently from the way I mean them, or the way I should mean them.

I would never, never claim that we are morally superior as a society today. On some questions, of course, I much prefer the present system, but each age tends to its own errors and none ever gets everything right. I think we ought to be able to look with clear eyes at mistakes of the past without concluding that everything was 100% evil then. Conversely, we can admire the good parts of the past without whitewashing the errors. I should try not to sound like one of those people who think the Constitution should be ditched because the Founding Fathers countenanced slavery. The Constitution was moving us in the direction that eventually got us to abolish slavery, so it was imperfect but on the whole a tremendous accomplishment. Ditto the Western tradition of respect for individuals, even, eventually, female ones.

Posted by: Texan99 at January 25, 2013 02:09 PM

I had the flu last week (first time, ever). This week I have a nasty case of bronchitis. The flu was a cakewalk by comparison, and I thought that was pretty awful when I had it!

Neither of you owes me an apology. Please forgive my fears. As you said, I was so sick that things just seemed worse than they probably were.

I understand where Grim is coming from, but it does bother me when people defend one thing by insulting another.

I happen to think we have a lot of things better nowadays. It never seems to occur to anyone that maybe one reason we're more prosperous is that a lot of the evils our parents and grandparents had to deal with are largely diminished. Racial prejudice, for one. I don't think we were better off with Jim Crow. Yes, some bad things came with the civil rights movement (all this race baiting, for one) but let's not forget that race baiting happened back then, too.

It's just that it was one sided the other way.

Posted by: Cass at January 25, 2013 02:48 PM

Abraham Lincoln is supposed to have said, "As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy." It's really a restatement of the Golden Rule. Empathy can teach us not to impose things on people we wouldn't want to suffer for ourselves, as long as we can really imagine ourselves in their shoes. The danger comes when we say, "Those other people are different; they don't feel things the way I do. A treatment I couldn't bear isn't so terrible for them." Of course that may be true, but it's dangerous to imagine it without convincing confirmation from those other people. It leads people to swallow something like Jim Crow when they'd otherwise have known better on general principles.

Posted by: Texan99 at January 27, 2013 01:19 AM

The danger comes when we say, "Those other people are different; they don't feel things the way I do. A treatment I couldn't bear isn't so terrible for them." Of course that may be true, but it's dangerous to imagine it without convincing confirmation from those other people.

Amen, Tex.

Amen.

Posted by: Cass at January 27, 2013 02:46 PM

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