May 14, 2015

Philosophical black holes: Internet memes

By Hendrik van der Breggen
The Carillon, May 14, 2015

Philosophical black holes: Internet memes

The internet is a breeding ground for memes (a meme is a saying or image that spreads rapidly over the internet as internet users re-post the saying or image). Some memes promote what I call Philosophical Black Holes, i.e., philosophical ideas that, if not carefully considered, suck unsuspecting readers into intellectual darkness.

Let's take a critical look at three popular memes.

Meme 1. Your beliefs don't make you a better person. Your behaviour does.

Pause and think: for these claims to make moral sense depends on what one believes “a better person” is. It also depends on what one believes is good behaviour or what a better person ought to do.

Didn't serial killer Ted Bundy believe that “a better person” was one who is daring and willing to rape and murder? He did.

Surely, then, we should seek out and believe what's right, true, excellent, and good. Not any behaviour will do. In other words, ideas have consequences, so the idea—i.e., what is believed—matters.

We should of course concede that beliefs not acted upon don't amount to much. Nevertheless, for behaviour to amount to something good requires accurate beliefs about what is the good. To paraphrase the Apostle James (and adding a dash of Immanuel Kant): belief without behaviour is dead, but behaviour without belief is blind.

Beliefs do make you a better person, if you believe—and subsequently act upon—whatever is right, true, excellent, and good.

Meme 2. “It matters not who you love, where you love, why you love, when you love, or how you love, it matters only that you love.

Here's a criticism that cuts to the chase: “I love you,” said the cannibal to his dinner. “I love you,” said the pedophile to the child. “I love you,” said the Marquis de Sade to his torture victims.

Clearly, love has moral boundaries. Love isn't mere subjectivity/ feeling, contrary to what popular culture tells us. Love—true love—has a defining moral structure.

Meme 3 is a doozey: “We live in a society where people can't survive if they're not judging the next person. If you're proud of who you are and don't give two [cents] what anyone thinks, share [this post].”

This meme seemingly presents an attitude against judging others.

But look carefully at the last sentence.

The last sentence makes the implied judgment—yes, judgment—that if I don't share this post, then either (a) I am not proud of who I am or (b) I give two cents about what others think (or both). So, if I don't share the post, I have a problem.

On the other hand, if I do share the post, then I have a different problem. Contrary to what I'm agreeing to in the post, I obviously do care what people think.

How so? By sharing the post, which claims I don't give two cents about what people think, I show that I do give two cents: I obviously want people to think I don't give two cents about what they think! Also (if I'm honest), I probably won't be proud of myself for pretending not to give two cents when in fact I am giving two cents.

So if I don't share the post, there's something wrong with me; and if I do share the post, there's something wrong with me.

In other words, under the pretense of encouraging people not to judge others, the author of this meme is encouraging people to judge others—as are those who re-post it!

Overall lessons: To avoid letting memes suck you into Philosophical Black Holes, read carefully. And, to help others not get sucked into such holes, read carefully before you re-post.

(Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD, is associate professor of philosophy at Providence University College.)

April 30, 2015

Questioning same-sex marriage

Photo credit: Atlanta Journal-Constitution Newspaper
By Hendrik van der Breggen
The Carillon, April 30, 2015

Questioning same-sex marriage

Same-sex marriage has had legal status in Canada for a decade and is (at time of writing) being debated in the U.S. supreme court. My question is this: Is granting legal status to same-sex marriage wise?

It seems to me that further thought is needed.

Granting legal status to same-sex marriage is not merely a personal matter between those of the same sex who wish to wed. It is, rather, a public policy matter that affects others in multiple ways.

For example, granting legal status to same-sex marriage changes the public's understanding of the minimal requirement of marriage from (a) the union of a man and woman who can (at least in principle) reproduce sexually via their union and nurture their biological children to (b) a union of two adults regardless of their sexual noncomplementarity, requiring new reproductive methods and new family structures.

According to political philosopher Ryan T. Anderson, co-author of What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense (2012), this change centers marriage on "consenting adult romance" instead of what's best for children. How? By emphasizing adult wants so much so that men and women, mothers and fathers, are made interchangeable when they're not.

Significantly, Anderson argues, reliable studies from the social sciences strongly suggest parenting by married biological parents—i.e., biological mother and biological father—is ideal for the well-being of children.

But same-sex marriage (along with divorce and single parenting) takes society another step away from this ideal.

Also, McGill University ethicist Margaret Somerville points out that same-sex marriage abolishes the child's biologically-based moral right to know and be raised by both biological parents.

Significantly, according to Robert Oscar Lopez, president of the International Children's Rights Institute, there are many adults who were raised by gay/ lesbian parents now expressing discontent and concern over same-sex marriage. Lopez and others defend this thesis in Lopez's recent book Jephthah's Daughters: Innocent Casualties in the War for Family 'Equality' (2015).

Moreover, according to Somerville, same-sex marriage may normalize In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) and thereby exacerbate IVF's problems. IVF creates leftover frozen human embryos, i.e., human beings; often requires "selective termination," i.e., abortion of unwanted implantations/ fetuses; exploits women as surrogates and egg suppliers; plus threatens to turn children into commodities.

Also, same-sex marriage is conceptually wed to a non-fallacious slippery slope. According to Anderson, once we redefine marriage broadly as committed adult intimacy instead of the union of a heterosexual couple, why not accept a "throuple" (rhymes with "couple" but involves three or more)?

The rationale for "couple" derives from the one-man-one-woman sexual union requirement—but this requirement has been abandoned. So why stop at two? Why not polyamorous or polygamous relationships?

If loving commitment is a sufficient condition for marriage, and if one man and one woman are no longer a necessary condition, then if you love X, you should be able to marry X. But X is a placeholder.

Finally, religious liberty is affected. For deeply held religious/ moral reasons many citizens believe same-sex sexual relations are wrong.

But with same-sex marriage enshrined in law, public institutions must embrace same-sex marriage as a good that's equivalent to heterosexual marriage. As a result, many public school children are taught what their parents believe is immoral. Is this fair?

Problems also result for businesses and private schools that disapprove of same-sex marriage, as wedding florists, bakers, photographers, and Trinity Western University Law School will attest.

Is same-sex marriage wise? Are we being foolish in not thinking this matter through carefully (as some of our grandparents were foolish in not thinking through, say, Canadian Indian residential schools)?

Surely, there are enough reasons at least to question the wisdom of same-sex marriage and thus encourage careful, truth-seeking thought on the matter.

Surely too—whether we end up favouring same-sex marriage or not—we can do this while showing respect to those with whom we disagree.

(Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD, teaches philosophy at Providence University College.)

For further thought: 

April 16, 2015

Controversial cakes

Jack Phillips, owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop (Lakewood, Colorado),
  was sued by a gay couple for refusing to bake them a cake
 celebrating their same-sex wedding.
By Hendrik van der Breggen
The Carillon, April 16, 2015

Controversial cakes

You can't have your cake and eat it too. Or so the saying goes. Apparently, in view of the hoopla over gay wedding cakes, some persons not only want to have and eat their cake but also wish to force others to bake it for them.

I've heard (at least) two popular but poor arguments in favour of legally coercing Christian bakers to bake wedding cakes for same-sex weddings, and I'd like to show why I think those arguments are poor.

Argument 1. Because these bakers refuse to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple, the bakers are discriminating against gays.

Assessment: Well, yes and no.

Yes, the bakers discriminate against gays by refusing to bake cakes for gay weddings, but, no, the bakers are not discriminating against gays in general. The bakers serve gays in day-to-day business by serving pastries, cupcakes, birthday cakes, etc. But the bakers refuse to participate in what seems to them as contributing to the celebration of an event—i.e., a same-sex marriage ceremony—which goes against their moral conscience or religious view.

In other words, gays are here not being discriminated against as a class as, say, blacks have been discriminated against as a class. Rather, a particular type of event—a same-sex wedding—is not being serviced and celebrated by some—a few—bakers. Significantly, there's no shortage of other bakers who are ready and willing to bake the desired cakes.

Surely, in a tolerant and pluralist society, a few bakers should be free to refuse some business on moral or religious grounds.

Think about it. A Muslim baker should be free not to bake cakes celebrating pornographic images for a stag party. A Jewish baker should be free not to bake a cake celebrating the pork industry. A black baker should be free to refuse baking a cake to celebrate white supremacy. A gay baker should be free to refuse baking a cake for Westboro Baptist Church (of "God hates fags" notoriety).

Argument 2. But because they're Christian bakers, if they're asked to bake a gay wedding cake, they should walk the "extra mile" and bake two cakes—even if they think same-sex marriage is sin. After all, Jesus says that if a Roman soldier asks you to carry his pack one mile you should carry it two miles.

In reply, notice that carrying the soldier's pack isn't a case of celebrating the Roman occupation, but creating a wedding cake is a significant part of the marriage celebration.

So, if one believes, as the Christian bakers (in the news) believe, that same-sex marriage is immoral (and deemed as such by Jesus), then the appeal to the "extra mile" principle runs amok. To be consistent one would have to agree to encourage other sins.

Think of it this way. If you're a Christian baker and you think incestuous marriage is wrong, you'd have to (according to argument 2) agree to bake two cakes to celebrate incest if you're asked to bake one.

If you're a Christian videographer and you think pornography is wrong, you'd have to agree to offer to make two porn films if someone asks for one.

In business in general you'd have to agree to two unscrupulous deals if someone asks for one.

In other words, before the "extra mile" principle is applied, the circumstance to which it's applied should be determined to be moral or immoral. That should be settled first. Those who apply the "extra mile" principle to the bakers assume that the moral issue has been settled—but this is unfair to those whose conscience and moral reasoning say otherwise.

Folks, life in a tolerant and pluralist society won't always be easy. Let's not force people to violate their moral or religious conscience when there are many other, less oppressive ways to get a cake.

Phone ahead—this way nobody will have to walk an extra block, let alone an extra mile.

(Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD, teaches philosophy at Providence University College.)