Ethics: January 2007 Archives

Jews Making Oaths to Christ

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One way to be inconsistent is to hold two views that are inconsistent with each other. Another is to do something that, whether you realize it or not, is inconsistent with your official view. I'm regularly complaining that people confuse these two things. Only the latter can ever accurately be called hypocrisy, and only then if it's done regularly with the full knowledge of the person doing it. A slip here or there is not hypocrisy. It's just humanity.

But pragmatic inconsistencies are still worth pointing out, because people who engage in them ought to change their view or seek to change their behavior. Arnold Zwicky at Language Log has an example that seems to me to be exactly the kind of inadvertent pragmatic inconsistency that I wouldn't call hypocrisy but do think ought to lead to some revision of belief or practice. Jennifer Gilmore reports on the behavior of her Jewish parents:

My father, who is 100 percent Jewish, has always been obsessed with Christmas. He grew up in Minneapolis, in an unobservant household, and he considers it part of his childhood. "I remember the lights, the trees," he used to say to my little sister and me. "It was magical." He decorates the mantel with Christmas cards and tapes mistletoe to the doorways, and one year he even tried to get my mother, also Jewish, with a much more observant upbringing, to allow an evergreen wreath on our front door. ''I can't live with that,'' she said. "I just can't. Nothing on the outside of this house. We're Jews, for Christ's sake."

Now there's a separate issue of the inconsistency of allowing it on the inside but not the outside. That seems to me to be a deliberate allowance of the behavior in private but not in public, which is outright hypocrisy of a very crude sort. It's ok for us to do this, as long as no one knows about it. If it's ok for you to do, then you should be able to do it without embarrassment, and if it's not then you shouldn't be doing it anywhere.

But even aside from that, I think there's a much more interesting kind of inconsistency going on here. There seems to be a tremendous resistance to being seen as doing anything related to Christmas. The reason is because they're Jewish. This is a line that I've heard often enough from Jewish friends, despite the fact that Christmas trees are a non-religious symbol of a secularized holiday. Some Christians might choose to endow Christmas trees with some religious meaning, but as most Americans practice Christmas there is no symbol to the tree that has anything particular to do with Christianity.

Embryo Banks

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Suppose you had a whole bunch of children whose parents didn't want them, and they left these children frozen in a laboratory somewhere. After a while, it would be impossible to recover these children, but no one could do anything about it due to the parents' rights over what happened to them. This was perfectly legal. The only thing people could do would be to try to reason with these parents to get them to give up these children for adoption, to reason with the companies that allowed parents to do this, or to wait until the Supreme Court changed enough due to moral outrage from those who saw this as wrong, so they could overturn their precedent on the issue and allow Congress to pass laws against the practice.

Then someone comes along with a way to minimize the loss of all these children. Short of changing the laws, they argue, the best we can do to help these children is to allow people to pay the parents for them so they can adopt them. So they decide to set up a clinic that allows people to take a look at these children to see if there are any there they want to adopt. Some conservative groups complain that it cheapens life to allow parents to do this, calling it eugenics and designer children, since they can pick and choose the characteristics of which child they want to adopt. However, ordinary adoption methods also have that element, do they not? This method just helps save those children who would otherwise be left for dead. Doesn't it seem like a good policy to save these children who would otherwise have no life?

Oh, and these children are all still in their embryonic state, and the people opposing this notably pro-life development are supposedly pro-life. You do the math.

Laurence Thomas has an excellent post Are There Gay Animals? On Justifying Gay Behavior in Humans. [If you have trouble accessing the post, see the comments below for how to get it to load properly.] Laurence doesn't think there's anything at all wrong with being gay, but he points out some severe flaws with one argument for the opposite conclusion. Some people, in order to support the view that Laurence holds, point out same-sex sexual interaction in non-human animals. I've observed such behavior myself, so I know it's out there. Several things are wrong with this argument, but I'll summarize two of his points here, and you can read his post for a fuller treatment.

One is that lots of things animals do could be wrong for humans to do. Laurence gives the example of promiscuity. Just because animals don't settle down with long-term partners doesn't mean we shouldn't. There are in fact good reasons for thinking that we should have long-term partners, and these have nothing to do with religion but arise simply from thinking about the nature of human sexuality and psychology.

Another problem with the argument is that it would be thoroughly inaccurate to describe animals as being gay. Being gay is not engaging in certain behavior. It's all wrapped up in having a sexual identity defined in terms of sexual or romantic relations with someone of the same sex. Animals don't do that. They have nothing like the kind of developed sexual identity that humans have (and Laurence gives several examples having nothing to do with gay to show the level of difference between animals and humans in terms of sexual identity).

See also his previous post Gay Marriage and the Argument from Consenting Adults for a criticism of another bad argument on a related issue. Laurence's position on record on gay marriage is the same as mine, i.e. that the government shouldn't be endorsing any marriage but leaving it to religion, while allowing same-sex couples to have inheritance, hospital visitation, health insurance, and other couple benefits. But the mere fact that couples consent to gay sex doesn't at all justify it.

Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney has been trying to place himself as the conservative alternative to more moderate presidential candidates, most notably former Mayor Rudy Giuliani of New York City and Senator John McCain of Arizona. He's been doing much worse in the very early polling in early primary states, much to the surprise of pundits who have been predicting him to be a close third to the two early leaders. One reason for this seems to be that the religious right is refusing to get behind him (see, for example, here; ht: DaveG), claiming that he isn't conservative enough. He may not be conservative enough for some people, but he seems to me to be the most conservative candidate in the arena right now who would have a chance of winning the election. Maybe another governor will pull forward a bit, e.g. Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin (who also has federal government experience as Secretary of Health and Human Services) or Frank Keating of Oklahoma (who hadn't been in office very long before the Oklahoma City bombing incident). Kathryn Jean Lopez has been defending him, and I thought I should do the same.

As I just said, I think at this point Romney has the most chance of the more conservative people in the arena. Even so, all that is really my fallback argument for why I would support him. I actually think the social conservatives who are criticizing him are doing so extremely unfairly. I don't have much problem with the various combinations of positions he's taken on gay rights issues, and I think he's offered a plausible explanation of the change in his positions on abortion.



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