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The “Princeton Mom” & Sexual Assault

Princeton University

Princeton University (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Susan Patton, better known as the “Princeton Mom”, has been making the rounds of the talk and news shows promoting her Marry Smart: Advice for Finding THE ONE book. This book presents the 18th century view that a woman should focus primarily on finding a husband and do so quickly—fertility diminishes with time.

Patton attracted more attention with her March 11, 2014 interview with the Daily Princetonian. In a letter to the editor written about a year before the interview, she had make a rather provocative remark: “Please spare me your ‘blaming the victim’ outrage” and claimed that a woman who is drunk and provocatively dressed “must bear accountability for what may happen.” When asked why the woman is responsible in the case of rape or sexual assault, she had the following to say:


 The reason is, she is the one most likely to be harmed, so she is the one that needs to take control of the situation. She is that one that needs to take responsibility for herself and for her own safety, and simply not allow herself to come to a point where she is no longer capable of protecting her physical self. The analogy that I would give you is: If you cross the street without looking both ways and a car jumps the light or isn’t paying attention, and you get hit by a car — as a woman or as anybody — and you say, ‘Well I had a green light,’ well yes you did have a green light but that wasn’t enough. So in the same way, a woman who is going to say, ‘Well the man should have recognized that I was drunk and not pushed me beyond the level at which I was happy to engage with him,’ well, you didn’t look both ways. I mean yes, you’re right, a man should act better, men should be more respectful of women, but in the absence of that, and regardless of whether they are or are not, women must take care of themselves.


As might be imagined, this view has generated some backlash from faculty at Princeton and other people. Given the old saying that there is no such thing as bad publicity and such controversy can help sell books, it is not clear that the view expressed is one that Patton truly holds. However, when discussing the ethics of the content of her claims, her actual belief does not matter. As such, I will take her expressed view at face value.

Patton’s first claim is that since the woman is most likely to be harmed, she needs to be responsible for her safety. There are at least two ways to view this claim. One is the very reasonable claim that a person needs to be responsible for her own safety—that is, a person has an obligation to herself to make sure that she is not needlessly in danger. This view that self-preservation is rational and obligatory is nicely defended by thinkers like Hobbes and Locke. Another way to view the claim, which is that apparently taken by her critics, is that the burden falls completely on the woman. While this is certainly a prudent view, it does run afoul of the notion that the person who wrongfully inflicts harm on another should bear the majority of the responsibility for the harm inflicted (if not all of it).

Patton’s second claim is that a woman has an obligation to not allow herself to be incapable of self-defense. Presumably Patton means that a woman has an obligation to not become some drunk that she cannot defend herself from a man who means to assault or rape her. In defense of this claim, Patton offers her analogy: a woman who gets assaulted or raped when she is too drunk to defend herself is like someone who gets hit by a car because they did not look both ways before crossing the street—even though she had the light.

The analogy does have some merit—while drivers are obligated to take care not to hit people, a person should take due precautions to avoid being hit. To do otherwise is clearly foolish. However, there is a distinction between what is prudent and what is morally obligatory. While it makes perfect sense that a woman should not impair herself when she has reason to believe that she will be vulnerable to assault or rape, this is a different matter than her having a moral obligation to herself to avoid being vulnerable in this way. There is also a third matter, namely who is responsible when a drunk woman is raped or assaulted.

In regards to the second matter, this is essentially a question of whether there is a moral obligation for self-defense. It is generally accepted that people have a moral right to self-defense and for the sake of the discussion that will be assumed. This right gives a person the liberty to protect herself. If it is only a liberty, then the person has the right to not act in self-defense and thus be an easy victim. However, if there is an obligation of self-defense, then failing to act on this obligation would seem to be a moral failing. The obvious challenge is to show that there is such an obligation.

On the face of it, it would seem that self-defense is merely a liberty. However, some consideration of the matter will suggest that this is not so obvious.  In the Leviathan, Hobbes presents what he takes to be the Law of Nature (lex naturalis): “a precept or general rule, found by reason, that forbids a man to do what is destructive of his life or takes away the means of preserving it and to omit that by which he thinks it may be best preserved.” Hobbes goes on to note that “right consists in liberty to do or to forbear” and “law determines and binds.” If Hobbes is correct, then people would seem to have both a right and an obligation to self-defense.

John Locke and Thomas Aquinas also contend that life is to be preserved and if they are right, then this would seem to impose an obligation of self-defense. Of course, this notion could be countered by contending that all it requires is for a person to seek protection from possible threats and doing so could involve relying on the protection or restraint of others rather than one’s self. However, there are arguments against this.

I will start with a practical argument. While the modern Western state projects its coercive force and spying eyes into society, the state’s agents cannot (yet) observe all that occurs nor can they always be close at hand in times of danger. As such, relying solely on the state would seem to put a person at risk—after all, he would be helpless in the face of danger. If a person relies on other individuals, then unless she is guarded at all times, then she also faces the real risk of being a helpless victim. This would, at the very least, seem imprudent.

This argument can be used as the basis for a moral argument. If a person is morally obligated to preserve life (including his own) and others cannot be reliably depended on, then it would seem that she would have an obligation of self-defense and this would include not intentionally making herself vulnerable to well-known threats. These threats would, sadly, include those presented by bad men. As such, a woman would have a moral obligation to avoid being vulnerable. This seems reasonable.

The third matter is the question of moral responsibility when a drunk woman is assaulted or raped by a man who takes advantage of her vulnerability.  In the abstract, it could be argued that the woman does bear some of the responsibility—if a woman has an obligation to defend herself, she would have failed in her obligation by becoming vulnerable in this way. As with her analogy, someone who crosses the road without looking and gets hit has failed in a clear duty to herself. However, even if this point is granted, there is still the matter of who bears the majority of the responsibility.

On the face of it, it seems evident that the man who assaulted or raped the woman bears the overwhelming moral responsibility. After all, even if the woman should have avoided being vulnerable, the man has a far greater moral obligation to not harm her. There is also the matter of reasonable expectations. To be specific, while a person is obligated to protect herself, this does not obligate her to be hyper-vigilant against all possible dangers. To use an analogy, if woman does not buy body armor to wear on campus (after all, there have been campus shooting) and she is shot by a gunman, it would be absurd to blame her for her injury or death. The blame rests on the shooter—his obligation to not shoot her vastly outweighs the extent of her obligation to be prepared.

In the case of rape and sexual assault, while a woman should be prudent for the sake of self-protection, the overwhelming moral responsibility is on the man. That the woman makes herself vulnerable to rape or assault no more lessens the rapist’s responsibility than the fact that the woman was not wearing body armor lessens the responsibility of the shooter. The principle here is that vulnerability does not mitigate moral responsibility. This is intuitively plausible: just because a victimizer has an easier time with his victim, it hardly makes his misdeeds less bad.

Patton does acknowledge that men should act better, but she does insist that a woman must take care of herself. This could be seen as sensible advice: a woman should not count on the goodwill of others, but be on guard against reasonably foreseeable harm. This advice is, of course, consistent with the view that the rapist is the one truly responsible for the rape.



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A Latina Takes on the “Philosopher King-Maker”

Professor Linda Martín Alcoff stared wide-eyed at the computer screen.* It was the end of July 2011, and she had recently been elected vice-president of the American Philosophical Association’s eastern division, which is the largest and arguably most influential of the three divisions. Barring any catastrophe, she would automatically assume the presidency next summer. Of the 102 presidents in the division’s history, only 11 have been women. She would be the first Latina. A friend had emailed her a link. She clicked. Up on the screen was a poll asking whether Alcoff should be disqualified from becoming the president. It was posted on the blog of Brian Leiter, a professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago who is considered by many to be one of the most powerful political players in the field. Leiter thought Alcoff should be ousted. The blogosphere lit up. As she sat at the computer, Alcoff read the streams of comments. “It was getting to be a feeding frenzy,” she says. “It was hard to watch,” recalls her friend and collaborator William Wilkerson of the University of Alabama in Huntsville. A couple of weeks earlier, Alcoff, who teaches at the CUNY Graduate Center of Philosophy, Wilkerson and another philosophy professor Paul Taylor at Penn State University, had published the Pluralist’s Guide to Philosophy Programs, an online rating of Ph.D. programs in philosophy. Since the mid-1990s, one ranking system for philosophy graduate programs has dominated the field: the Philosophical Gourmet Report, which was founded by Brian Leiter. It began in 1989 with an informal list Leiter circulated while a graduate student at the University of Michigan. Now, with an advisory board of over 50 philosophers, over 300 philosophers who participate in the annual survey, and Leiter at its helm as editor, the Gourmet Report’s influence is difficult to underestimate. Graduate students use it to decide which departments are worth applying to, and deans use it to decide whether to make hires and to invest more money into current programs. Philosophy departments have risen and fallen on the basis of its rankings. Leiter has been called the “philosopher king-maker.” The Gourmet Report brought transparency to a field where a program’s reputation had been based primarily on word of mouth. Every year, he collects the opinions of philosophers in college and university departments throughout the nation, and then quantifies programs on the basis of such variables as department size and publishing output. Until the Gourmet Report came along, the University of Berkeley was considered by many to be the best program. Today it is tied at 14th with four other schools, and New York University is number one. Not everyone thinks the Gourmet Report is fair. Critics argue it favors departments that focus on the philosophy of mind, and that it does not give much weight to programs that emphasize a plurality of views, such as those held by scholars in feminist philosophy, Africana philosophy, critical race theory, and Latin American philosophy. “It attracts a Cartesian person, where one is disembodied from history, where one’s gender, sex, race, and sex identity are not considered as constitutive,” says George Yancy, a full professor of philosophy at Duquesne University, about the Gourmet Report. Leiter disagrees. In his view, there is only good philosophy and bad philosophy, and most pluralist programs recognized in the Pluralist’s Guide are “generally inferior,” he wrote in an email in October 2012. “This is a judgment on the merits of work, a judgment based on considerations like argumentative and dialectical sophistication and perspicuousness, historical and cultural erudition, and knowledge of the history of philosophy.” He also does not agree that the Pluralist’s Guide is really pluralist, “the guide is just a survey of teachers of philosophers who belong to two organizations, SPEP and SAAP.  I think it’s a great idea for the philosophy teachers in SPEP and SAAP to present their view of the fields they are interested in.  Prospective students need to be aware, of course, that they are getting a minority viewpoint, and that the programs recommended will limit their job prospects,” he stated in an email in April 2012. Leiter’s guide sets the tone for departments throughout the English-speaking world, and it has become a kind of gatekeeper for what matters in philosophy. The Pluralist’s Guide is intended to be a corrective to Leiter’s report. Where The Gourmet Report restricts what counts as philosophy, Alcoff, Taylor and Wilkerson see themselves as broadening it. Leiter’s report, says Taylor, “tends not to register the breadth of opinion in philosophical circles about what counts as good philosophy.” Alcoff, Taylor, and Wilkerson also see the Pluralist’s Guide as more inclusive because it evaluates subfields that Leiter’s report does not, including Latin American Philosophy and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Philosophy. “Let us not give assistance to the border control,” Alcoff writes on the Pluralist’s Guide website in reference to individuals who limit what counts as good philosophical discourse. Alcoff thinks that by showcasing the intellectual diversity of philosophy programs, the Pluralist’s Guide will help diversify philosophers. “People of color and white women do all sorts of philosophy but if you look at who is doing feminist philosophy or critical race theory, it is mostly women doing the former and people of color doing the latter,” she says. Philosophy is not a diverse field. Only 21 percent of professional philosophers are women, just ahead of physics (12 percent) and astronomy (17 percent). Minorities fare worse in this field. Of all professional philosophers, only 1.2 percent are Hispanic, 1.1 percent are black, and 0.1 percent are Native American. Lionel McPherson, a prominent black philosopher at Tufts University who attended Princeton and Harvard for his undergraduate and graduate training, declared on Leiter’s blog in June 2011 that he would dissuade any black undergraduate from pursuing philosophy. He explained that he had simply experienced too much discrimination in his own career to recommend it to his black students. “So what does that say about philosophy, half a century after the civil rights movement, decades after we’ve seen progress in other disciplines?” asks Professor Charles Mills of Northwestern University, another prominent black philosopher. The Gourmet Report rankings provide further evidence that philosophy is a field of white men. Of the faculty at the top 50 programs in the Gourmet Report, only 18.5 percent are women. Generally, the higher the program is ranked, the fewer women faculty there are. Only nine of the top 20 ranked programs in the Gourmet Report have a black faculty member. The story of the controversies that arose around Alcoff and the Pluralist’s Guide is, in a way, a story about a power struggle over the nature of philosophical inquiry. Is thought pure, or does it have a gender, race and historical location? Have women and minorities largely not participated in this field because the questions that interest them or the ways they ask questions are considered unacceptable to mainstream philosophers who are mostly white and male? Whatever the answers may be, one thing is certain: when the Pluralist’s Guide made its debut in the beginning of June 2011, Leiter and his allies in top philosophy departments were not happy with it. “Linda is the best known of the three of us,” says Taylor, “and so she was the lightning rod that attracted most of the vituperation.”


Alcoff, 54, who has an easy smile and good sense of humor, has learned to overcome opposition. She was born in 1955 in Panama City to a Panamanian father and an American mother. Her parents were children of sharecroppers and mechanics who valued higher education. Her mother got an office job to support herself through school, and her father studied at the London School of Economics and became a professor at the University of Panama. At age 3, her parents divorced, and Alcoff immigrated to the United States with her mother and sister. She says that compared to her sister, she had an easier time adjusting because English came easily to her and her skin was lighter. Her mother remarried, but the family was poor. Despite their economic challenges, Alcoff’s mother still encouraged her to aspire to something greater. “Girls can be anything,” Alcoff says her mother repeatedly told her. Alcoff did well in high school and became president of the student association. But then things changed for the worse. Two weeks after she turned seventeen, she got married and then dropped out of school. She describes the marriage as “pretty rocky,” and it lasted for 4 years. Still, she went on to get her GED and then to Florida State University. She majored in philosophy, but by senior year her marriage was crumbling and philosophy was losing its appeal. She was more inspired by the civil rights movement and its efforts to end discrimination. She found it hard to focus on theory, she says, “when the world was burning.” She dropped out of school and moved to Atlanta where she knocked on the doors in the rural south to speak out against the Ku Klux Klan. At age 22, she remarried and soon after had a baby. To make ends meet, she worked in a factory sewing shirt collars. She was paid for how many collars she made, and so she worked fast. As she threaded needles and mindlessly followed patterns, she found herself daydreaming about Sartre. She decided she wanted to return to philosophy. In 1980 she earned her B.A. in philosophy from Georgia State, and then a couple of years later earned her master’s there, too. She enrolled at Brown University as a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy. By the time she arrived at Brown, she had two children and her husband supported them by working at a local factory where he punched holes in the metal interior of dryers. He worked 10 hour days six days a week. Fortunately, she made some good friends in the philosophy program who made spaghetti dinners for her family. At one point during her doctorate work, her sons contracted chicken pox, one after the other. She was out of school for two weeks, and could not complete all of her work on time. An adviser encouraged her to lie about why she was out for so long. She says, “I asked for an incomplete and was instructed to lie on the form or risk not getting further support in the program, because some faculty doubted a mother’s ability to stay in grad school.” When it came time to picking a dissertation topic, she knew she needed to steer clear of her true passion. “I knew that feminist philosophy would hinder my opportunities to get a job,” she says. She was probably right. Sally Haslanger, a professor of philosophy at MIT, found in 2008 that 2.36 percent of content in top philosophy journals was devoted to feminist topics. Haslanger found roughly the same percentage of space was devoted to issues of race. Alcoff had broad interests, and so instead wrote her dissertation on epistemology. In 1987, Alcoff landed a job right out of graduate school at Kalamazoo College, a small Midwestern college atop rolling hills. She was the first woman ever hired by the department. She left the following year and got a job at Syracuse University. Alcoff and another person were the first women hired in more than 20 years. She says the early years at Syracuse were sometimes rough, because she and the other woman in the department were often the subject of ridicule. She recalls one incident when she was checking her mail in the department. There were a few secretaries and graduate students around. In walked a male colleague who noticed her “Yale” sweatshirt she had picked up at a yard sale. George H.W. Bush was president at the time. The colleague said to her, “Oh look, another bush from Yale.” “That level of stuff happened all the time,” she says.


It’s hard to say when the original idea for the Pluralist’s Guide first came about. Alcoff and Taylor believe that it was something already in the air in the field at large. But they do remember the moment their ideas became concrete. It was October 1, 2008, and they were seated by a window in an Ethiopian restaurant in Pittsburgh, awaiting their entrees. Alcoff remembers Taylor saying “Let’s do this!” They were a diverse crew. A Latina (Alcoff), an African American (Taylor) and a gay man (Wilkerson, who joined them later). Rather than providing an overall ranking, as the Gourmet Report does, they decided to rate only subfields. They each picked a specialty area to oversee, Alcoff took feminist philosophy and Latin American philosophy; Taylor critical race, American Philosophy, and Africana Philosophy; and Wilkerson, LGBT philosophy. Then came the question of how to rank the programs. “I wanted our method to make it difficult to fetishize  numbers,” says Taylor. The Gourmet Report quantifies all departments numerically, which Taylor said felt too arbitrary. The Pluralist’s Guide ranks programs on a scale of one to five with five being the best. Rather than ranking them on their raw score, where a school that scored 4.8 would be better than one that received 4.7, they chose what Taylor called a “Consumer Reports model.” Those departments that received a score between 4 to 5 were “strongly recommended,” and those that earned 3.5 to 4 were “recommended.” All others went unranked. In the next few years, they recruited board members to oversee each subfield, and found a Web designer. By July 2011, they were ready to publish the first batch of ratings. The results showed a trend: programs that the Pluralist’s Guide tended to rank highly were not ranked as highly by the Gourmet Report, and vice versa. For feminist philosophy, the Pluralist’s Guide strongly recommends the University of Kansas and De Paul University, but the Gourmet Report puts the University of Kansas in the bottom tier, and does not even list DePaul as a contender. Princeton University, which is listed by the Gourmet Report as one of the two top schools to practice the philosophy of race, is only “recommended” by the Pluralist’s Guide. But it was not the results of these ratings that enraged the philosophical community. The Pluralist’s Guide also set out to rate programs on their quality of life for women and minorities in philosophy graduate programs. Alcoff and her colleagues sent surveys to faculty members throughout the nation. They were unable to derive enough statistically significant data on minorities or members of the LGBT community, but they did get enough on women. The survey on the Climate for Women in Philosophy included questions about the number of women in the department and more serious questions about the presence of sexual harassment. What they found was shocking. The programs that fared well in the climate survey tended to be programs that did not make the top 50 programs in the Gourmet Report: Penn State, Duquesne, the New School, and the University of Hawaii. But there were some programs that did very poorly. Alcoff decided to create a new category for these schools called “need improvement.” There were only three schools to make the list, and they happened to be the top three overall departments according to the Gourmet Report: New York University, Rutgers University, and Princeton University. Women graduate students at Rutgers were quick to respond. “My department’s bad reputation may have been deserved a while ago, but it’s not now,” said Lisa Miracchi, 24, a graduate student at Rutgers University. She calls herself “a feminist and a philosopher, but not someone who happens to do feminist philosophy.” She and many of her female colleagues were stunned when they got news that their department needed to improve its climate for women. Days after the Pluralist’s Guide’s publication of the Climate for Women in philosophy survey, Miracchi collected opinions from the women in the philosophy program at Rutgers, and at the end of July 2011 drafted a statement that is now posted on both Leiter’s blog and the Pluralist’s Guide. “In numbers we are still the minority,” she wrote, “although it does not feel that way.” The letter closed with a request to remove Rutgers from the “needs improvement” list. Alcoff chose to keep Rutgers on. Meanwhile, another controversy arose. An anonymous student informed Leiter of a serial sexual harasser in the philosophy department at the University of Oregon, and said that a feminist faculty member was suppressing the information. The Pluralist’s Guide rates the University of Oregon “strongly recommended” as a women-friendly department. Professors at the University of Oregon stated that the accusations were a result of a misunderstanding. Alcoff chose to keep Oregon on the list of recommended programs. Leiter and others found Alcoff’s refusal to take Rutgers off the list but to keep University of Oregon on to be irresponsible. At the end of July, Leiter raised the question of whether Alcoff should be deposed as president of the eastern division of the APA. The poll was taken down a few weeks after it went up, but Leiter stated recently this spring 2012 that she is not suited for the job. “My own opinion is that she should be removed from office, given that she can’t possibly represent the departments in the Eastern Division that her Guide defamed,” he wrote recently in an email. No president has been removed from office in the history of the APA, and there are no bylaws explaining how one would do it. Deborah Achtenberg of the University of Nevada-Reno says that the desire to remove Alcoff from office is political. “I think it is interesting that there is a poll to exclude a Latina philosopher. Just when the APA is more inclusive, there seems to be an effort to undercut it,” she says. Alcoff defends her decisions. She says there was a lot of conflicting information about the scandal at the University of Oregon, and she believes that there are enough supportive faculty members at the University of Oregon for a woman to do good work there. With respect to Rutgers, she says that faculty members and students at Rutgers told her in confidence that there were recently problems there. To remove Rutgers from the list, she believes, would be irresponsible. “I felt an obligation to share the information,” says Alcoff. Despite the controversies, Alcoff became president this July and will address the entire eastern division at a conference this December. Although the Pluralist’s Guide is no longer administering Climate Surveys, it offers suggestions on its website for how departments can do their own. After it’s rough start, the Pluralist’s Guide has had a positive impact, some philosophers say. Gaile Pohlhaus, assistant professor of philosophy at Miami University, says her masters students find the guide very useful. “I have seen more talk about the degree to which philosophy marginalizes certain topics and certain persons,” she says, “and about what we can do to make it better.” Rutgers University now has a webpage devoted to the climate for women in their department, and Miracchi and a few female faculty members are devising ways to ensure that the working environment remains favorable to women. She credits the Pluralist’s Guide for it. “I think the Pluralist’s Guide spurred a renewed enthusiasm for climate issues,” she says. The Gourmet Report has added a critical race section since the Pluralist’s Guide was published. On the West coast, at a conference on race in February 2012, Alcoff was approached after her talk by a black woman, Alisa Bierra, 38, who is a graduate student in philosophy at Stanford University and also associate director for race and gender at the University of California, Berkeley. Bierra thanked Alcoff for the Pluralist’s Guide. Bierra says she did so because the Guide’s focus on typically overlooked areas in philosophy is like a “breath of fresh air.” Alcoff says comments like Bierra’s are what keep her going. “That’s why,” she says, “we’re never stopping.”

*A note to the reader: the reporting for this story ends in October 2012, and so some statements or facts may now be obsolete.

Fifty Genders of Facebook

Sexuality confusion

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Facebook now offers its members to select from among 50 genders. These include the old school heterosexual genders as well as the presumably Spinoza inspired pangender. Since I am awesome gendered, I believe that Facebook should offer that as choice 51, but only for me. However, I suspect I will need to endure the pain of being limited to a mere 50 options.

Upon learning of these fifty options, I was slightly surprised because I was not aware that there were fifty options. However, my colleagues who specialize in gender matters assure me that there is an infinite number of genders. If this is the case, that Facebook is still rather limited in its options.

While mocking Facebook can be amusing, the subject of gender identity is an interesting subject and it is a sign of the progress of our society that this can be a matter of legitimate concern. For folks like me who are comfortable existing within an old school gender identity (in my case, awesome straight male), these fifty options might seem to be of little or no importance. Honesty compels me to admit that I initially laughed at the 50 genders of Facebook—in fact, I thought it was something cooked up by the Onion. However, a little reflection on the matter made me realize that it is actually of some importance.

For those who are dedicated to the traditional genders, these options might seem to be signs of the moral decay of the West.  As such folks might see it, having Facebook offer 50 gender options shows that traditional gender roles are being damaged (if not destroyed) by the media and Facebook. Given that some states have legalized same-sex marriage, the idea that Facebook has embraced gender diversity must be terrifying indeed.

However, the world (and Facebook) does not (as Leibniz noted in one of his replies to the problem of evil) exist just for me. Or for you. It exists for everyone and we are not all the same.

As such, to those who do not neatly fit into the two traditional genders, this change could be quite significant. Although this is just Facebook, having these gender identities recognized by the largest social network on earth is a mark of acceptance and is likely to have some influence in other areas.

As I noted above, I comfortably occupy a traditional gender type. I’ve never questioned my sexuality nor felt that I was anything other than a straight male. This might be due to biology or perhaps I merely conformed perfectly to the social norms. Or some other factor—I do not know for sure why I am this way.

Since I teach critical thinking, I am well aware of the cognitive biases and fallacies that can lead a person to believe that what is true of herself is also true of everyone else. As such, I do not assume that everyone else is the same as me. As part of this, I also do not assume that the people who see themselves as belonging to one of the non-traditional genders are doing this simply because they want attention, want to rebel, are mentally unbalanced or some such similar negative reason. I also do not assume that they are just “faking it.” I also recognize that a person might feel just as natural and comfortable being transgender as I do being a straight male. As such, I should have no more problem with that person’s identification than that person has with mine. After all, the universe is not for me alone.

Because of this, I hold that people should be free to hold to their gender identities without being mocked, abused or harmed. While I have obviously not been mocked for being straight, I am quite familiar with being called a fag or accused of being gay or like a woman—after all, those are stock insults in our society that are thrown out for the most absurd reasons, such as not doing perfectly in a video game and not acting like the meatheads. As such, I have some small notion of how such attitudes can hurt people and I favor steps to change what underlies the idea that genders can be used as insults. Expanding the range of gender identities can, perhaps, help with this a little bit. Then again, I am sure that some folks will looking at the list of fifty for new terms to use in their hateful comments.

As a final point, one obvious reason why I think that a broader range of gender identities is fine is that another person’s gender identity is not my business—unless that identity causes legitimate harm to others. And no, being offended or disgusted are not legitimate harms. As such, if having a broader range of choices is meaningful to some people, then that is a good thing. It does no one else any harm and does some good—as such, it seems quite morally acceptable.

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Defining Our Gods

The theologian Alvin Plantinga was interviewed for The Stone this weekend, making the claim that Atheism is Irrational. His conclusion, however, seems to allow that agnosticism is pretty reasonable, and his thought process is based mostly on the absurdity of the universe and the hope that some kind of God will provide an explanation for whatever we cannot make sense of. These attitudes seem to me to require that we clarify a few things.

There are a variety of different intended meanings behind the word “atheist” as well as the word “God”. I generally make the point that I am atheistic when it comes to personal or specific gods like Zeus, Jehovah, Jesus, Odin, Allah, and so on, but agnostic if we’re talking about deism, that is, when it comes to an unnamed, unknowable, impersonal, original or universal intelligence or source of some kind. If this second force or being were to be referred to as “god” or even spoken of through more specific stories in an attempt to poetically understand some greater meaning, I would have no trouble calling myself agnostic as Plantinga suggests. But if the stories or expectations for afterlife or instructions for communications are meant to be considered as concrete as everyday reality, then I simply think they are as unlikely as Bigfoot or a faked moon landing – in other words, I am atheistic.

There are atheists who like to point out that atheism is ultimately a lack of belief, and therefore as long as you don’t have belief, you are atheistic – basically, those who have traditionally been called agnostics are just as much atheists. The purpose of this seems to be to expand the group of people who will identify more strongly as non-believers, and to avoid nuance – or what might be seen as hesitation – in self-description.

However, this allows for confusion and unnecessary disagreement at times. I think in fact that there are a fair number of people who are atheistic when it comes to very literal gods, like the one Ken Ham was espousing in his debate with Bill Nye. Some people believe, as Ken Ham does, that without a literal creation, the whole idea of God doesn’t make sense, and so believe in creationism because they believe in God. Some share this starting point, but are convinced by science and conclude there is no god. But others reject the premise and don’t connect their religious positions with their understandings of science. It’s a popular jab among atheists that “everyone is atheistic when it comes to someone else’s gods”, but it’s also a useful description of reality. We do all choose to not believe certain things, even if we would not claim absolute certainty.

Plenty of us would concede that only math or closed systems can be certain, so it’s technically possible that any conspiracy theory or mythology at issue is actually true – but still in general it can be considered reasonable not to believe conspiracy theories or mythologies. And if one includes mainstream religious mythologies with the smaller, less popular, less currently practiced ones, being atheistic about Jesus (as a literal, supernatural persona) is not that surprising from standard philosophical perspectives. The key here is that the stories are being looked at from a materialistic point of view – as Hegel pointed out, once spirituality is asked to compete in an empirical domain, it has no chance. It came about to provide insight, meaning, love and hope – not facts, proof, and evidence.

The more deeply debatable issue would be a broadly construed and non-specific deistic entity responsible for life, intelligence or being. An argument can be made that a force of this kind provides a kind of unity to existence that helps to make sense of it. It does seem rather absurd that the universe simply happened, although I am somewhat inclined to the notion that the universe is just absurd. On the other hand, perhaps there is a greater order that is not always evident. I would happily use the word agnostic to describe my opinion about this, and the philosophical discussion regarding whether there is an originating source or natural intelligence to being seems a useful one. However, it should not be considered to be relevant to one’s opinion about supernatural personas who talk to earthlings and interfere in their lives.

There are people who identify as believers who really could be categorized as atheistic in the same way I am about the literal versions of their gods. They understand the stories of their religions as pathways to a closer understanding of a great unspecified deity, but take them no more literally than Platonists take the story of the Cave, which is to say, the stories are meant to be meaningful and the concrete fact-based aspect is basically irrelevant. It’s not a question of history or science: it’s metaphysics. Let’s not pretend any of us know the answer to this one.

Is the NSA a Fascist Tyranny?

Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini in Munich, G...

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As anyone who follows the news knows, the NSA has been engaged in a massive spying program that seems to involve activities that are both immoral and illegal. However, it is interesting to consider whether or not the NSA is more than just a violator of the law and ethics. As such, I will endeavor to address the question of whether or not the NSA is a fascist tyranny.

While the term “fascism” gets thrown around loosely by both the left and the right in America, it seems best to defer to one of the experts on fascism, specifically Benito Mussolini. Mussolini claims that “fascism denies that the majority, by the simple fact that it is a majority, can direct human society; it denies that numbers alone can govern by means of a periodical consultation…” The NSA nicely fits into this model—it has operated without the approval or even the knowledge of the majority of the citizens of the United States.

It can be objected that the approval of certain elected officials and secret courts suffices to preserve the core democratic values of majority rule and consultation of the governed.  After all, there are many activities that are handled by representatives without the citizens directly voting.

This reply does have some merit: the United States is primarily a representative democracy and the will of the citizens is, in theory, enacted by elected officials. However, the NSA certainly seems to be operating largely outside of the domain of public decision and informed agreement. The extent of its intrusion into the lives of the citizens and the scope of its power certainly seems to demand that the NSA be subject to the open channels of democracy rather than allowing decisions to be made and implemented in the shadows.

One key aspect of fascism, at least according to Mussolini is that the “Fascist State organizes the nation, but leaves a sufficient margin of liberty to the individual; the latter is deprived of all useless and possibly harmful freedom, but retains what is essential; the deciding power in this question cannot be the individual, but the State alone….”

The NSA seems to, sadly enough, fit this concept of fascism. The NSA is literally organizing the nation and it is clearly denying citizens key liberties by its intrusions. Fittingly enough, these grotesque violations are defended in terms that Mussolini would appreciate: no important liberties are being infringed on…but it they were, it would be to protect the state from harm.

Rather importantly, the way the NSA has been operating shows that the deciding power has been the State (that is, secret courts and officials in the shadows of secrecy) and not the citizens.

Thus, it would seem that the NSA is fascist in nature. This is hardly a surprise given that this sort of police state surveillance system is a hallmark and stereotype of the oppressive fascist state. What remains to be seen is whether or not the NSA is tyrannical in nature.

As with “fascism”, people on the left and right throw around the term “tyranny” without much respect for the actual meaning of the term. To ensure that I am using it properly, I will go back to John Locke and make use of his account of tyranny. Given his influence in political philosophy and the American political system, he seems like a reasonable go-to person for this matter.

Locke defines “tyranny” as follows:

Tyranny is the exercise of power beyond right, which nobody can have a right to.  And this is making use of the power any one has in his hands, not for the good of those who are under it, but for his own private separate advantage.  When the governor, however entitled, makes not the law, but his will, the rule; and his commands and actions are not directed to the preservation of the properties of his people, but the satisfaction of his own ambition, revenge, covetousness, or any other irregular passion.

While the extent of the wrongdoing by the people at the NSA might never be known, it is clear that the power handed to them has generally not been used not for the good of the people. Those in charge have made their will and not the law their rule—despite being basically let off the legal leash by compliant courts and public officials, the NSA still engaged in illegal activity and thus acted tyrannically.

Some folks at the NSA even abused their power on the basis of “irregular passion.” One rather pathetic example is that some NSA personnel used the resources of their employer to spy on those they were romantically involved with or interested in.

As such, it would seem evident that the NSA is tyrannical—or at least a tool of tyranny. What remains is to consider the proper response to tyranny. Locke, not surprisingly, had a clear answer:

Where-ever law ends, tyranny begins, if the law be transgressed to another’s harm; and whosoever in authority exceeds the power given him by the law, and makes use of the force he has under his command, to compass that upon the subject, which the law allows not, ceases in that to be a magistrate; and, acting without authority, may be opposed, as any other man, who by force invades the right of another.

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Researchers Discover Backwards Causation Particles

English: Matt Smith at the 2011 Comic Con in S...

Dr. Smith answers questions about F-ons and D-ons. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While time travel has long been the stuff of science fiction, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have found proof of backwards causation. In the normal course of events, a cause must occur before the effect. In backwards causation, the reverse happens: the cause occurs after the effect.

The head researcher, Dr. Juanita Ocheloco said that hearing anecdotes from fellow faculty members put her on the track that led to the discovery. “At the end of every semester, I would hear stories about students who earned F and D grades experiencing retroactive problems. For example, one student who failed a statistics course lost his grandmother to backwards causation caused by his F grade. Another student who earned a D, was retroactively injured in a car accident. Although he had seemed fine all semester, his D caused him to have an accident two months before the end of the semester.”

At first the researchers considered the obvious hypothesis: students were just making up stories to play on professors’ sympathy and to try to avoid the F and D grades. However, Dr. Albert Ninestein’s research revealed that D and F grades shed D-on (pronounced “Deon”, as in “Deon Sanders”) and F-ons (pronounced “ef-ons”, not to be confused with FU-ons) respectively.

Dr. Ninestein said, ‘it was really a matter of luck—I happened to be testing out my theoretical particle detector at the end of the semester and caught all these particle flows. I traced them back to the university’s servers and got the IT folks involved. We pinpointed the emissions to the servers used for grades. A deeper analysis showed that the D and F grades were shedding these particles like mad.”

Additional investigation revealed that D-ons and F-ons, like tachyons, travel backwards in time. Unlike tachyons, D-ons and F-ons exhibit considerable malicious intent: they have been shown to kill the relatives of students, cause mysterious and unprovable illnesses and injuries, and do other bad things. Said researcher Dr. Matt Smith, “Those particles are right bastards.”

Dr. Smith added that the particles seem to travel via the internet and that they attack through smartphones, tablets and laptops. “At our request, the university has issued a warning to all students and relatives about the danger to their health and well-being posed by these particles. We are working round the clock to develop shielding to stop the particles from travelling back in time to do their damage. Until then, the university has adopted a policy of not issuing any D or F grades. This has proven to be a success: the number of retroactive cases of illness and injury has dropped to zero.”

When asked about her next project, Dr. Ocheloco said that she was working on finding the particle that “makes journalists write about whatever damn thing passes as research these days” and also a doomsday weapon made from squirrels.

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Death of Norman Geras

I’m sad to hear from various sources of the death of Norman Geras, whom I knew for his excellent and provocative normblog – which now includes an announcement of his death by his daughter, Jenny Geras. She indicates that the blog and all its archives will remain online.

The Day After

Official photographic portrait of US President...

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According to the Republicans, the initial motivation for the shutdown came from their desire to prevent the damage they alleged will be inflicted by Obamacare. It is thus rather ironic that their shutdown, as a matter of fact, cost the United States about $24 billion and slowed growth. It also harmed the government employees who were furloughed and the other Americans who were impacted directly by the shutdown. Naturally, it also impacted how we are perceived by the rest of the world. As such, the Republican strategy to protect America seems to have the exact opposite effect. Thus it is no wonder that while the majority of the public disapproves of the way the situation was handled, the Republicans are bearing the brunt of this disapproval.

One counter is to endeavor to lay the blame on the Democrats. Fox, for example, did its best to spin the story so that the Democrats were morally accountable for the shutdown. This does raise an interesting question about responsibility (and perceived responsibility).

In terms of the facts, the Republicans initially insisted that, on the pain of putting the government on the path to shutdown, Obamacare be delayed or defunded. Obama and the Democrats noted that Obamacare is a law and that it had been ruled constitutional by the Supreme Court. As such, they refused to negotiate the matter. Given that Obama had yielded in the past, the Republicans probably expected that he would yield once more. However, he did not and the shutdown went on until the brink of the default.

The facts would seem to show that the Republicans bear the moral blame for the shutdown. After all, the law was passed and upheld in accord with the constitutional process. That is, it was done by the proper rules. The Republicans partially shut down the government and threatened to take the country into default if they did not get what they wanted. Obviously enough, this sort of thing is not in accord with constitutional process. That is, the Republicans were not acting in accord with the proper rules and the Democrats refused to give in to them.

To use an analogy I have used before, this is like having the Red Sox beat the Yankees in a legitimate game and then having the Yankees threaten to burn down the stadium if the Red Sox refuse to negotiate the outcome of the game. If the Yankees then set the stadium on fire, it is not the fault of the Red Sox-they are under no obligation to yield to the unwarranted demands of the Yankees. The Yankees bear full blame for the burning of the stadium. As such, the Republicans bear the blame for the shutdown and the damage it caused. As a general rule, if someone threatens to do harm to others if he does not get what he wants, then the responsibility for the harm he inflicts rests on him and not on those who refuse to give him what he has no right to demand by means of a threat.

It could be countered that Obamacare is so bad, “the worst thing in our country since slavery”, that the Republicans were in the right to inflict such harms in order to try to stop it. It could even be argued that by passing such a wicked and destructive law the Democrats are to blame-the Republicans had to take such extreme measures in order to try to save America.

This, obviously enough, rests on establishing that the law is so wicked and destructive that such extreme measures are warranted. It would also involve showing that the damage done by the Republican strategy is outweighed by the harms that the strategy was supposed to prevent. This would most likely involve a utilitarian assessment of the harms and benefits.

The damage done by the Republican strategy is known: $24 billion in 16 days. Obamacare would certainly have to deal some serious damage in order to match that, but perhaps it can be shown that this will be the case. As it stands, there are only guesses about what the impact of Obamacare will be. There is plenty of rhetoric and hyperbole, but little in the way of disinterested, rational analysis. However, it does seem reasonable to believe that Obamacare will not be the worst thing since slavery (let alone as bad as slavery) and that it will not destroy America. After all, its main impacts will be that people without insurance will need to get some (or pay a small fine) and that large employers will need to provide insurance (or pay a small fine) or evade the law by cutting employee hours. Even if the worst case scenario is considered, it will hardly match the hyperbole. As such, Obamacare does not seem bad enough to warrant the Republican strategy.

To be fair, the Republicans might honestly believe that Obamacare is as bad as they claim. That is, they believe their own hyperbole and rhetoric. If this is true, they could be morally excused to the degree that they followed their informed consciences. However, if they are operating from willful ignorance or do not really believe their own hyperbole, then they would have behaved wrongly—both in their hyperbole and their actions based on this.

In any case, most Americans do blame the Republicans and this is one of the political impacts of the shutdown. Whether this has an effect on the upcoming elections remains to be seen—as many pundits have noted, voters often have a short memory. As with the alleged damage of Obamacare, we will have to wait and see.

As a final point, one ironic effect of the shutdown is that it gave the Democrats an amazing distraction from the real problems with the implementation of Obamacare. One legitimate concern is the fact that employers get a one year delay in implementing Obamacare while individuals have been denied this same option. This, on the face of it, is unfair and the main “defense” of this has been the use of the red herring and smokescreen, as I noted in an earlier essay. While the Republicans did initially want to delay Obamacare for a year, they handled this poorly and instead decided to go with hyperbole and a shutdown. What could have been a potential win for them turned into what seems to be a major loss. A second legitimate concern is the problems plaguing the sign up and implementation of Obamacare. While there were some attempts to raise criticism about these serious problems, the shutdown dominated the center ring of the political circus. Thus, what could have been a reasonable criticism of Obamacare was drowned out by the Republicans themselves. In the Game of Obamacare, you win or you die. The Republicans did not win.

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The End Time & Government

Michele Bachmann

Michele Bachmann (Photo credit: Gage Skidmore)

Michelle Bachmann seems to have claimed that Obama’s support of the Syrian rebels is a sign of the End Times:

“[President Barack Obama’s support of Syrian rebels] happened and as of today the United States is willingly, knowingly, intentionally sending arms to terrorists, now what this says to me, I’m a believer in Jesus Christ, as I look at the End Times scripture, this says to me that the leaf is on the fig tree and we are to understand the signs of the times, which is your ministry, we are to understand where we are in God’s end times history. […] And so when we see up is down and right is called wrong, when this is happening, we were told this; that these days would be as the days of Noah. We are seeing that in our time. Yes it gives us fear in some respects because we want the retirement that our parents enjoyed. Well they will, if they know Jesus Christ.”

While Bachmann’s political star seems to be falling, she is apparently still an influential figure and popular with many Tea Party members. As such, it seems worthwhile to address her claims.

Her first claim is a factual matter about the mundane world: she asserts that Obama is “willingly, knowingly, intentionally sending arms to terrorists.” This claim is easy enough to disprove. Despite some pressure (including some from Republicans) to arm the rebels, the administration has taken a very limited approach: rebels that have been determined to not be terrorists will be supported with defensive aid rather than provided with offensive weaponry. Thus, Bachmann (who is occasionally has problems with facts) is wrong on two counts. First, Obama is not sending arms (taken as offensive weapons). Second, he is not sending anything to terrorists.

Now, it could be objected that means of defense are arms, under a broad definition of “arms.” Interestingly, as I learned in the 1980s when the debate topic for a year was arms sales, “arms” can be defined very broadly indeed. If Bachmann defines “arms” broadly enough to include defensive aid, then Obama would be sending arms. However, this is rather a different matter than if Obama were sending offensive weapons, such as the Stinger missiles we provided to the mujahedeen when they were fighting the Russians.

It could also be objected that Obama is sending arms to terrorists. This could be done by claiming that he knows that what he sends to Syria could end up being taken from the intended recipients by terrorists. This is a reasonable point of concern, but it seems clear from her words that she does not mean this.

It could also be done by claiming that Obama is lying and he is, in fact, sending the aid to actual terrorists. Alternatively, it could be claimed that he is sending the aid to non-terrorists, but intends for the terrorists to take it.  While this is possible (Presidents have lied about supplying arms in the past), actual proof would be needed to show that he is doing this with will, knowledge and intent. That is, it would have to be established that Obama knows the people who he is sending the aid to are terrorists and/or that he intends for terrorists to receive these arms. Given the seriousness of the claim, this would require equally serious report. Bachmann does not seem to provide any actual evidence for her accusation, hence there is little reason to place confidence in her claim.

While politicians tend to have a “special” relationship with the truth, Bachmann seems to have an extra-special relationship.

Her second claim is a factual matter about the supernatural world: she seems to be claiming that Obama’s alleged funding of terrorists is a sign of the End Times. While I am not a scholar of the end of the world (despite authoring a fictional version of the End Time), what she is claiming does not seem to be accurate. That is, there seems to be no reference to something adequately similar to Obama funding terrorists as a sign of the End Time. But perhaps Bachmann has access to some special information that has been denied to others.

While predictions that the End Time is near are common, it does seem to be bad theology to make such predictions in the context of Christianity. After all,  the official epistemic line seems to be that no one but God knows when this time will come: “But of that day and that hour knows no man, no, not the angels which are in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father.” As such, any speculation that something is or is not a sign of the End Time would be rather problematic. If the bible is correct about this, Bachmann should not make such a claim–she cannot possibly know that something is a sign of the End Times or not, since no one can know (other than God) when it will occur.

It could be replied that the bible is wrong about this matter and Bachman can know that she has seen a sign and that the End Times are thus approaching. The obvious reply is that if the bible is wrong about this, then it could be wrong about other things–such as there being an End Time at all.

Interestingly, her view of the coming End Time might help explain her positive view of the government shut down. When asked about the shutdown, she said “It’s exactly what we wanted, and we got it.” While Bachmann has not (as of this writing) claimed that this is also a sign of the End Times, her view that the End Times are approaching would certainly provide an explanation for her lack of concern. After all, if the End Time is fast approaching, then the time of government here on earth is fast approaching its end. Bachmann does seem to think it is on its way.

Weirdly, she also seems to think that Jesus will handle our retirement–which is presumably a reason we will not need the government. She says, “Yes it gives us fear in some respects because we want the retirement that our parents enjoyed. Well they will, if they know Jesus Christ.” This seems to be saying that people who believe the End Time is coming, such as herself, will worry that they will not be able to enjoy their retirement. This seems oddly reasonable: after all, the End Time would certainly clash with the sort of non-end-of-the-world retirement our parents enjoyed. But, oddly enough, she thinks that people who know Jesus will be able to have that retirement, apparently with Jesus providing the benefits rather than the state.

As might be imagined, the fact that Bachmann is an influential figure who apparently has some influence on politics is terrifying enough to itself be a sign of the End Time.

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John Corvino on same sex marriage

You might have heard that Providence College, a Roman Catholic institution in Rhode Island, recently cancelled a talk defending same sex marriage by John Corvino, head of philosophy at Wayne State University.  Here’s a bit from New York Times on the matter (the whole article is here).

Providence College, a Roman Catholic school in Rhode Island, has canceled a lecture in support of same-sex marriage on Thursday by a gay philosophy professor, citing a church document that says that “Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles.”

The college apparently re-invited him, following loud objections, and Corvino’s reply is here.

The current issue of The Philosophers’ Magazine features a piece by Corvino on same sex marriage, and as his views are muffled elsewhere, it might be good for us to consider them here.  Here’s the article.  Please do say what you think.

What’s wrong with gay marriage?

The gay-marriage movement has lately made dizzying progress. In the UK, which currently allows ‘civil partnerships’, the British and Scottish parliaments are close to recognising same-sex marriage. Last November, voters in three US states (Maine, Maryland, and Washington) extended marriage rights to same-sex couples; this year, legislators in Rhode Island, Delaware, and Minnesota have done the same, while those in Illinois, Nevada, and New Mexico have taken steps in that direction. Uruguay, New Zealand and France now allow same-sex couples to marry. Even staunch opponents of homosexuality concede that the tide is mounting against them – and yet they continue to put up a vigorous fight.

Where are the philosophers amidst this clash? Perhaps surprisingly, they have remained largely silent. Many believe that the right of same-sex couples to marry is so obvious as to be unworthy of serious debate. On the opposing side, a small but prominent group of socially conservative academics contend that the first group is simply blind to objective moral reality. According to their view, same-sex ‘marriage’ isn’t just bad policy: it’s a conceptual confusion, fashionable only because the sexual revolution has so badly distorted the proper understanding of sex and marriage.

This objection is best expressed by self-styled ‘new natural lawyers’ such as John Finnis at Oxford and Notre Dame, Robert P George at Princeton, and others, although one can find shades of their position in common-variety conservative arguments as well. Indeed, their view can be understood as a sophisticated defence of the familiar slogan ‘Marriage = One Man + One Woman’, sometimes rendered in religious garb as ‘It’s Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve’.

The argument finds its fullest elaboration in a recent book by Sherif Girgis, Robert P George, and Ryan Anderson – What is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense – and the basic idea is as follows. In order to decide whether same-sex couples should be allowed to marry, one must first ask What is marriage? But (the argument continues) the correct answer to that question shows that marriage is, by its very nature, a male-female union. So whatever it is that same-sex couples are asking for, it isn’t marriage. ‘Same-sex marriage’ is thus an oxymoron, like ‘married bachelor’ or ‘four-sided triangle’ or ‘deconstructionist theory’. Call this the Definitional Objection to same-sex marriage.

Examples of the Definitional Objection abound. Former US Senator Rick Santorum used it on the campaign trail in his 2012 Republican presidential primary bid. Waving a napkin in the air, he announced, ‘Marriage existed before governments existed. This is a napkin. I can call this napkin a paper towel. But it is a napkin. Why? Because it is what it is. Right? You can call it whatever you want, but it doesn’t change the character of what it is.’

In a similar vein, Dr John Sentamu, Archbishop of York and the second most senior cleric in the Church of England, argues that ‘Marriage is a relationship between a man and a woman. I don’t think it is the role of the state to define what marriage is. It is set in tradition and history and you can’t just [change it] overnight, no matter how powerful you are.’ He went on to compare the push for same-sex ‘marriage’ with the behaviour of dictators.

In a law review article, Alliance Defense Fund attorney Jeffery Ventrella contends that ‘to advocate same-sex “marriage” is logically equivalent to seeking to draw a “square circle”: One may passionately and sincerely persist in pining about square circles, but the fact of the matter is, one will never be able to actually draw one.’

There is something profoundly unsatisfying about the Definitional Objection, although it’s initially hard to put one’s finger on what. One might worry that it involves a kind of verbal trick. After all, same-sex relationships – unlike square circles – surely do exist, and some jurisdictions legally recognise them as marriages. So the dispute seems to be less about whether something exists and more about what to call it.

But this way of putting it actually misses the Definitional Objection’s underlying concern: What we call things – and in particular, how the law treats them – can have a profound effect. If we group items together under the same legal name, people may conclude that there are no important differences between them. Conversely, if we maintain a verbal and legal distinction, people may better notice any underlying ‘natural’ distinctions.

An example will help to illustrate this point. Suppose Kate and William are arguing about whether to serve champagne at their anniversary party: Kate says yes; William says no. Kate relents: ‘Fine, you handle the beverages!’

On the day of the party, Kate is delighted to see waiters passing out crystal flutes filled with bubbly liquid. ‘I thought we weren’t serving champagne,’ she says to William.

‘We’re not,’ he responds: ‘That’s prosecco.’

But Kate doesn’t normally distinguish between champagne – which technically must originate in the Champagne region of France – and other kinds of sparkling wine; to her it’s all just ‘champagne’.

So far, it appears that Kate and William had a mere verbal dispute: they meant different things by the word ‘champagne’, and their initial argument consisted in miscommunication.

But now (at the risk of spoiling their party) let us imagine the argument going further: ‘Silly William,’ Kate says, ‘”champagne”’ is a perfectly fine term for any sparkling wine.’

‘No, no, no!’ William retorts. ‘They’re very different! And if you start calling them all by the same name, people won’t appreciate that difference.’

Proponents of the Definitional Objection have a worry similar to William’s. (You could say that they’re the wine snobs of the marriage debate.) Heterosexual marriage and committed same-sex relationships are fundamentally different, they argue, and using the term ‘marriage’ for both confuses people not only about marriage’s distinctive nature, but also about its value – a moral good which (all sides agree) is far more important than the pleasures of wine.

But what is marriage’s distinctive nature, and why does it exclude same-sex couples? The new natural lawyers answer that marriage is a comprehensive union: a union of both mind and body, exclusive and lifelong. As a comprehensive union, marriage must include bodily union. But the only way human beings achieve bodily union is in procreative-type acts – that is, in coitus: penis-in-vagina sex. Obviously, same-sex couples cannot perform coitus. Therefore, they cannot marry.

The usual response here invokes permanently infertile heterosexual couples: Why are they permitted to marry whereas same-sex couples are not? The new natural lawyers answer that the sterile heterosexual couple’s sex can still be ‘of the procreative type’. But this answer just stretches the meaning of words (ironic, for those offering a Definitional Objection): Sex in which procreation is known to be impossible seems to be precisely not of the ‘procreative type’.

Perhaps there is some looser sense in which coitus – even for permanently infertile couples – is ‘of the procreative type’ in a way that, say, oral or anal sex is not: It shares certain formal features with typical procreative sex. The real question is, what’s so special about that? More specifically, why is a necessary condition for marriage?

Girgis, George, and Anderson’s answer hearkens back to the notion of comprehensive union, which requires bodily union, which requires coitus: ‘In coitus, and there alone, a man and woman’s bodies participate by virtue of their sexual complementarity in a coordination that has the biological purpose of reproduction – a function that neither can perform alone.’ In effect, the two become one – indeed, elsewhere George has claimed that the act makes them ‘literally, not metaphorically, one organism.’

Put aside the biological strangeness of the ‘one organism’ claim. Suppose we accept, purely for the sake of argument, that marriage requires bodily union and that only coitus can achieve such union. Then the proper counterexample for the view is not infertile heterosexuals, but rather those who cannot achieve coitus.

Consider a hypothetical couple I’ll call Bob and Jane. Bob and Jane were high school sweethearts. Eventually, Bob proposed marriage, and Jane accepted. But prior to their wedding, tragedy struck: Bob was in a terrible car accident which paralyzed him from the waist down. As a result, he would never be capable of coitus. Bob offered to cancel the engagement, but Jane would have none of it: ‘You are the same person I have always loved,’ she declared. ‘We will make this work.’ So Bob and Jane legally wed, spent many years together, and eventually raised several adopted children. Although coitus was impossible, they engaged in other acts of sexual affection, which enhanced the special intimacy between them. For decades, until parted by death, they enjoyed each other and the happily family they jointly created.

Question: Were Bob and Jane married? They were certainly legally married, and also according to virtually everyone’s common-sense understanding of marriage. But not according to the new natural law view. On that view, Bob and Jane’s inability to engage in coitus prevented the bodily union necessary for the comprehensive union of marriage.

I’ve raised this objection to Girgis, George, and Anderson before, and they have responded – in an endnote buried in the next-to-last page of their book. (See what you miss by not reading endnotes?) There they bite the bullet and concede that the ‘strong’ version of their view entails that Bob and Jane were not really married. They quickly add that good marriage policy would continue recognising such marriages legally, however, since inquiring into their true status would be invasive. (Why it would be more invasive than, say, a blood test – required for marriage in many jurisdictions – they never explain.)

They also gesture at a ‘softer’ version of the view in which Bob and Jane’s relationship could be marital as long as coitus were possible ‘in principle’. It is not clear how this softer version gets off the ground, however. Any random male-female pair could engage in coitus in principle, But marriage does not consist in what people might do if the world were different; it consists in what they actually do. Suppose Bob were kidnapped before the wedding and never returned to Jane. In that case, they would (sadly) never marry, even though they could marry ‘in principle’ and even though their failure to do is fully involuntary.

The upshot is that the new natural law view avoids the infertile-couples objection only to get stuck with something worse: the paraplegic counterexample. By making coitus a necessary condition for marriage, the new natural lawyers must conclude that Bob and Jane’s ‘marriage’ is a counterfeit.

How did we end up in such a spot? Part of the problem is that ‘comprehensive union’ is a rather vague and slippery notion: suitable for greeting-card poetry, perhaps, but not the sort of thing on which to build a marriage theory. It is clear that comprehensive union doesn’t mean that spouses must do everything together: they may have independent friendships, professional collaborations, tennis partners and so on. It is also clear that sex is part of our usual understanding of marriage. But is it strictly necessary? And must it be coital?

Girgis, George and Anderson answer yes to both questions, because ‘your body is an essential part of you, not a vehicle driven by the real “you”, your mind; nor a mere costume you must don … Because of that embodiedness, an union of two people must include bodily union to be comprehensive. If it did not, it would leave out – it would fail to be extended along – a basic part of each person’s being.’

This is the sort of explanation that not only fails to make the case; it actually contradicts the point it’s intending to serve. Insofar as our bodies are an integral part of us, it follows that any union between two people must include bodily union. Disembodied minds do not form friendships, collaborate on professional projects, play tennis, and so forth. It thus remains unclear why ‘comprehensive union’ requires coitus any more than it requires professional collaboration. (This is not to deny that sex is an important feature of marriage – only that it doesn’t fall out of ‘comprehensive union’ in any clear and unproblematic way.)

So what’s the alternative? Proponents of the Definitional Objection, including Girgis, George, and Anderson, often complain that ‘revisionists’ like me offer no clear definition of marriage. They’re right if they mean that I don’t have a simple phrase like ‘comprehensive union’ which purportedly captures the necessary and sufficient conditions for marriage – conditions that all and only marriages will satisfy. But that’s because marriage, as a complex social institution, doesn’t lend itself to that sort of pithy definition. It’s not definable in the same way that, say, ‘bachelor’ or ‘triangle’ is. As Martha Nussbaum puts it, marriage ‘is plural in both content and meaning’ – involving a diverse cluster of goods and defining elements.

The best anyone can offer is a rough and qualified definition. Here’s mine: ‘Marriage is the social institution recognising committed adult unions which are presumptively sexual, exclusive, and lifelong; and which typically involve shared domestic life, mutual care and concern, and the begetting and rearing of children.’ The ‘presumptively’ and ‘typically’ are crucial: there will be exceptions, as well as ‘grey areas’. (Are ‘temporary marriages’ marriages? What about ‘marriages of convenience’?) Notice however, that loose edges are typical in definitions of social institutions. (Does secular humanism count as a religion? Do tribal councils count as governments?)

Bob and Jane exhibit enough of marriage’s defining features to count as married, even without coitus. But once we abandon the idea that coitus is strictly necessary for marriage, we eliminate the new natural lawyers’ bar to recognising same-sex unions as marriages – and thus the most powerful available version of the Definitional Objection.

Having argued that the new natural lawyers give the wrong answer to ‘What is marriage?’ I’d now like to argue that they’re asking the wrong question.

To see why, consider what I like to call the Marriage/Schmarriage Maneuver. Suppose I were wrong about what marriage is. And suppose that, realising my error, I approached the new natural lawyers and said:

‘You know what? You’re right! This thing I’ve been advocating isn’t marriage at all. It’s something else – let’s call it schmarriage. But schmarriage is better than marriage: it’s more inclusive, it helps gay people without harming straight people, etcetera. We’d all be better off if we replaced marriage with schmarriage. Now, it’s unlikely that the word “schmarriage” will catch on – and besides, it’s harder to say than “marriage”. So from now on, let’s have schmarriage – which includes both heterosexual and homosexual unions – but let’s just call it by the homonym “marriage”, as people currently do in Canada, Spain, Uruguay, South Africa and elsewhere. Okay?’

Their answer would surely be ‘Not okay!’ – but why? The reason is that they reject the idea that schmarriage is better than marriage. They maintain that marriage, traditionally understood, has a distinctive value, and they don’t want that value to get lost in a new, more inclusive terminology.

But if that’s the crux of the issue – marriage’s distinctive value – why not focus on that? After all, the marriage debate is primarily a moral debate, not a conceptual or metaphysical one. So instead of asking ‘What is marriage?’, shouldn’t we be asking why it’s morally important to maintain an exclusively heterosexual institution for recognising committed relationships?

Of course, many have asked the latter question, and the answers have been unsatisfying. For example, some argue that an exclusively heterosexual marital institution is important because children do best when raised by their own (biological) mothers and fathers. The problem with this argument – aside from its resting on dubious interpretations of existing data – is that it requires a blatant non-sequitur. Even if one grants that children do best with their own (biological) mother and father, it does not follow that same-sex marriage (or ‘schmarriage’) should be prohibited, because there is no reason to think that prohibiting it will result in more children getting their own (biological) mothers and fathers.

In fact, paradoxically, same-sex marriage may have the result that fewer same-sex couples raise children. Currently, the majority of same-sex couples with children have them not via adoption or artificial insemination, but rather through prior heterosexual relationships. In a world where same-sex relationships were more accepted – where gays and lesbians could aspire to ‘happily ever after’ in marriage just like their heterosexual counterparts – fewer would feel pressure to enter heterosexual relationships for which they are not suited, and thus fewer children would experience the breakup of such marriages. From the standpoint of child welfare, fewer divorces is surely a good thing.

Let me be clear: I fully grant that marriage, institutionally and individually, is important for child welfare. But it is also important for adults, including those who don’t want or can’t have children. Relationships are good for people in myriad ways. They are good not only for those in them, but also for those around them, because happy, stable partners make happy, stable neighbours, co-workers, family members and so on. At the same time, long-term romantic relationships are challenging, and they benefit from public commitment, legal protection, and social support – the very things that marriage provides. All of these reasons apply to gay people as well as heterosexual ones.

If the Definitional Objection appears unsatisfying, that is partly because it seeks to impose a tidy definition where such definitions are inapt. But it is mainly because appealing to definitions is generally unhelpful in this context. The marriage debate occurs precisely because of conflicting intuitions about what marriage is, or can become. Clever rhetoric about square circles gets us no further toward reconciling those intuitions; worse yet, it distracts us from the urgent moral question of how to treat gay and lesbian individuals, couples, and their families.

John Corvino is chair of the philosophy department at Wayne State University, the author of What’s Wrong with Homosexuality?, and the co-author (with Maggie Gallagher) of Debating Same-Sex Marriage. Read more at