Ethics: May 2008 Archives

Eugene Volokh points out a problem in the way some people are arguing for brute parental control rather than looking at serious studies to determine whether abstinence-only sex education has the effects it's supposed to have. He's right about that.

I do have a quibble, though, and I wonder if it shows a deep disagreement between many of the people on the two sides of this issue. The way he frames his criticism seems to me to assume something that many on the abstinence-only side will not grant. He says:

But if you're going to talk about what's actually "best for ... children" -- which is to say what's actually effective in preventing harmful behavior -- then don't claim that parents have some sort of innate insight into a process that they've never systematically studied, and as to which they have at best a couple of observations (and far from perfect ones, since they may not know that much about their children's sex lives). It's not that parents are less inherently "elite" than public health Ph.D.s. It's just that, on the question of what sorts of educational programs work in this area, only people who have indeed studied the subject in a systematic way are likely to have a trustworthy opinion on what will actually work.

That's probably right if we can all agree on what counts as what's best for children and then figure out how to measure that. But he's given a very explicit account of what's best for children, and it's not one that I think many people on the abstinence-only side would accept. He equates what's best for them (i.e. well-being) with preventing harmful behavior. Doesn't that assume that the only thing that can make their lives worse is their own and others' harmful behavior rather than simply not living up to high standards?

I wonder if this reveals a key difference in assumptions lying behind disputes about this issue. People who favor more comprehensive sex education are simply trying to prevent teen pregnancy and the spread of STDs. People who favor abstinence-only education are trying to promote a much broader kind of excellence than merely not running into those two very narrow problems compared to all the other ways people can fall short of the ideal sexually. (They have other differences too, including differences in what counts as the sexual ideal, but I think this issue is an important part of the puzzle.)

Now some people do agree with the Volokh view of self-interest, thinking of well-being just as lack of harm. But some people have a higher notion of excellence, and I wonder if that assumption leads many people to avoid the studies he wants them to pay attention to. If the studies assume something about what's best for kids, and it's not the most important thing about what's best for them in the minds of these parents, then it's no surprise that they don't care what the study shows. The study relies on assumptions they disagree with. It's thus irrelevant to them. Most of the people I'm talking about probably don't think explicitly in these terms, but I think it's part of what's going on. If I'm right, then they're not being quite as anti-intellectual as Volokh thinks.

Ilya Somin points to a recent discussion of what life would be like if we have virtual reality machines that we could spend most of our life in. He's right to mention that this isn't a new debate based on the technology we now have but goes back (in the technological form) at least to the 70s, with Robert Nozick's experience machine.

There may have been other forms of the discussion. In fact, I'd be surprised if it never came up with the Epicureans, although I know of know extant document raising a similar puzzle for them. But it strikes me as odd that the Stoics or some other group wouldn't have raised the possibility of someone being misled about reality but experiencing pleasure, which seriously separates the two views of what counts as a good life. Epicureans would have to find some contingent reason why it would be bad to get in the machine, e.g. it may break down and then you'll miss it later, which constitutes pain (Epicurus' reason for never eating gourmet food) or someone might program in bad experiences while you're in it, and you'll never be able to get out to change the program back to what you wanted (which is similar to the Epicureans' response to the problem raised by an invisibility ring allowing you to get away with whatever you wanted). On the other hand, most people's reasons for not replacing your real experiences with machine-generated ones (at least as a permanent lifestyle) is because it's not real. That's just a bad life.

Somin's post indicates that he's unsure whether people would turn their life over to such a machine. His reason is that there are lots of people with lots of difference preferences. I think he's right about there being variation of preferences, but I think we all have the same basic preferences based on what's really and truly good. We just make mistakes about what will get us those, and those mistakes might lead some people to get into the machine.

I'm a lot less sure than he is that there would be very high numbers of such people, though, at least if my students are any indication. I present this issue in pretty much every ethics class and every ancient philosophy class I teach. That's been somewhere from 30-60 students every semester for the last several years. Once in a while I get a student who says they'd get in the machine. It's never been more than 2-3 in any given class, and more often than not no one thinks they'd get in. Maybe this is weighted in a certain direction because they're college students or something, but I really have a hard time believing a large number of people would turn their whole lives over to a virtual reality just because it's possible to do so.

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