Jewish Atheism

Coming as no surprise, I identify both as a Jew and an atheist. I’ve written about what it means to me to identify as religious, and how I reconcile the potential contradictions here and here (oh, and here), and I spoke about the Holocaust memorial on the Ohio statehouse on the Camels and Hammers show, which can be found here.

The atheist community seems split on this (I mean, insofar as they are deeply preoccupied with this questions, which is not so much). Dave Silverman, president of American Atheists, says no. Kate Bigam says yes. Many many people say things that I find demonstrate a total ignorance of Judaism and Jewish identity. These comments range from a misunderstanding of what the Jewish star is and represents, to what halacha (Jewish law) and the separation of genders in Orthodox spaces is supposed to do.

My dear friend Miri Mogilevsky and I sought in the most recent FTBCon (full play list here) to explain ourselves and address some of those ideas and misconceptions. Comments and further questions welcome!


Oh, The Hedgehogs You’ll See!

Maybe I was too mean to hedgehogs when I first talked about hedgehogs and foxes and what types of thinking they represent, and then when I described how I’d been only a pupa as a hedgehog, but blossomed out of the chrysalis into a fox.

(Mixed animal metaphors are the crocoducks of writing)

Anyway, while I stand by what I said in that piece, I do want to give a more nuanced account of the roles of hedgehogish and foxish thinking, and how important they both are to the history of thought and to all of our quests to understand our complex world.

Here’s the lineup:

  1. Low level hedgehogs
  2. Low level foxes
  3. High level hedgehogs
  4. High level foxes

1. Low level hedgehogs

Now I’m beating up on the hedgehogs again. But if you’re going to have a Big Governing Principle, it seems like it would be worthwhile to know it well, and to be able to defend it. Any hedgehog who defends their Big Idea badly is a low-level hedgehog. This kind of thinking leads to: totalizing political ideologies which cannot respond effectively to criticism, simplistic religious views which nonetheless encompass someone’s entire worldview, inconsistent ideological approaches which fail to examine their own lack of coherence, and so on and so forth.

A brilliant argument. I’m always thrilled when this gets brought up.

These are the kind of people we tend to call stubborn and closed-minded. While they may provoke some thought in others, it is not the kind of high level inspiration we would hope productive disagreement would create. I am reminded of the sneering, uncharitable, unnuanced Republicans I knew in high school, who I made it my business to prove wrong at every possible turn. I learned a great deal in the process, but I was given none of the understanding of thoughtful and high level conservatism that I gained in college.

2. Low level foxes

These foxes can be thought of analogously to low-level hedgehogs; they attempt to balance many facts and ideologies, and do so clumsily or inconsistently. For one reason or another, they fail to effectively negotiate the complexities of the issues they are engaging with. But in contrast to the low level hedgehogs, they have at least decided that a sole guiding principle is not enough.

Simplistic understandings of progressivism and feminism have always fit in here for me. The focus on choice and everyone being supported in what they want is a valiant attempt to balance the competing desires of moral people (as opposed to the hedgehog, who would generally classify those people more strictly as moral and immoral, based precisely on those desires). When critiqued by hedgehogs, high or low level, they tend to shy away from the attack and claim that their worldview already encompasses the desired elements.

When kink critical feminists criticize liberal feminists on the basis of say, the glorification of violence against women, the low level foxes tend to say only that BDSM is about consent and if everyone is happy, it’s fine. That’s great, and I think it’s true, but it is an ineffective and inadequate response to the critique. Similarly, so-called “choice feminists” tend to ask, “Isn’t feminism about choice?” and expect that their choices always be respected. But as has been pointed out many a time, this is a self-defeating and unhelpful approach.

A beautiful sentiment, but is this really enough of an argument?

Low-level foxes are also frequently overwhelmed by the complexities of the world around them. Many intelligent people I have known have been like this, and I was as well (and often still am); it results in trying to take into account a great number of things, but never coming out the other side with clearer thinking. For instance, such a fox might look at the fact that buying sweatshop goods ensures that sweatshop labor will continue but that not buying them will harm all of the people who work for sweatshops and be flummoxed. Which is fair, it’s a totally flummoxing thing. But that approach means that more information can lead to indecision and frustration rather than clearer understanding, which is what we’d hope more and better data would do.

3.     High level hedgehogs

Now, high level hedgehogs are where things get interesting, They are brilliant thinkers, far more nuanced than their low-level brethren, but still adhere to a single guiding principle to explain the world. And it’s for that reason that their ideas change the world. Marx changed the world by injecting totally new strains of thought into dominant conceptions of society and economics, and he did it because he was a hedgehog, because he fought on the basis of the unique all-encompassingness of his ideas. I cannot imagine he would have had the same effect if he had said, “Well, I have this new idea, but I’m sure it can be accommodated into the existing capitalist framework.” No, the point was that he was a revolutionary thinker, and not just because he wanted a revolution. His clarion and focused demands forced everyone to think differently, especially the foxes, who depend in large part on hedgehogs to give them the raw material that they combine into their complex and nuanced worldviews. He made everyone update what they thought was true and tinker with their understanding of the world to accommodate him.

He definitely looks like a hedgehog

This is the glory and birthright of the high level hedgehogs, even if, in being hedgehogs, they are almost certainly wrong (at least about something ). Plato, Cornel West, Robert Nozick, Yeshayahu Liebowitz , Robert George – I cannot help but find their worldviews totally compelling, because they seem so sure, and because they force me to think differently. I have had to grapple and engage with their writings, because they left me no way out, no comforting caveats or seductive shortcuts. They said, this is the truth, and you’d better figure out why you don’t agree with it.

4.     High level foxes

Then why do I place high level foxes at the top? They certainly aren’t always right; I imagine Obama’s political ideology to be fairly foxish, but not entirely correct. But based on my previous argument, if someone were to be correct, it would almost certainly be a high level fox. These are the people I trust to amass huge amounts of knowledge and then carefully assess the data, ideas and ideologies they’ve found, take out the best parts of each, and assemble them into a novel, consistent whole. People like Nate Silver, Eliezer Yudkowsky and Luke Muelhauser, while perhaps not always exactly right, certainly are right more than they ought to be because they have that capacity. I have a friend who I’ve described as someone who, when asked what his political position on a topic is, will go to Google Scholar and tell you in ten minutes. He has that kind of openness to evidence, that kind of ability to sift through the data to find what’s important, and that kind of clarity of thought.

And a crucial part of doing this intellectual work is examining the thinking of high level hedgehogs, assimilating what is brilliant and true, and discarding what is overreach and folly. If we are not only to seek foxishness, but excellence in foxishness, then we must cultivate a healthy respect for high-level hedgehogs and the novel ideas they have forced us all to reckon with. Dismissing Marx because he was empirically wrong or because Stalin was a mass-murderer might prevent gaining a deeper understanding of honest and incisive critiques of capitalism. Ignoring Robert George because he’s an anti-marriage equality Catholic leaves no opportunity for coming to a clearer opinion on what marriage really is and what it’s for. (And of course, understanding high level thinkers you don’t agree with is an excellent way to have better arguments). Hedgehogish ideas must be among those that foxes should make it their solemn duty to seek out and respond to, so that everyone can learn from these thinkers. If we want to be the best foxes we can be, hedgehogs are too important to ignore.

He’s happy that he’s important

I Need a Better Science/Religion Venn Diagram (my post from Catholic site Strange Notions)

I was very kindly asked a few months ago to publish a piece for the new Catholic discussion site Strange Notions. I was allowed to respond to any piece I liked, so I picked Jimmy Akin’s piece about Creation and scientific explanations for the Big Bang. It is reprinted in full here, and I would love your comments, but it’s also worth checking out the original piece with the same title so that you can see all 419 comments at Strange Notions. There were some very interesting arguments over there :).


Jimmy Akin’s piece warning Catholics not to put too much stock in any given scientific explanation of the Big Bang is very interesting. For most atheists, the first and perhaps only question about religious claims is, “How do you know?” It is a request for evidence only satisfiable within the epistemological framework of modern rationality, which in a case like this means scientific, empirical findings.

Empirical Religion?

Religious people have a number of philosophical responses to such a request. They may claim that they share standards of evidence with their atheist interlocutor, and that the science is simply on the religious side. This is frequently the purview of creationists, who are often very well informed about the intricacies of radioactive dating and the weaknesses of paleontology. That’s a dangerous business, though, since a rationalist epistemological framework demands that one is only as sure of a result as the evidence allows, and that one be willing to change one’s mind if the evidence doesn’t turn out as expected. As far as I have been led to believe, such a way of thinking is not particularly compatible with sincere religious faith.

In addition, this approach comes off to atheists as intellectually dishonest. There is something crass about claiming that there is a religious realm of knowledge entirely distinct from empiricism which truth can be found and yet that all empirical evidence lines up distinctly and without exception in your favor as well. It’s similar to political partisans whose interpretation of the Constitution just happens to line up extraordinarily well with their beliefs about ideal public policy. Mike Adams, in his recent piece on Mormonism, criticizes Mormonism both for its inconsistency with the Holy Bible and for its inconsistency with archeological fact (implying, of course, that his religious beliefs were perfectly consistent with both, and that both are legitimate avenues to truth). To claim both standards of truth at once is mildly suspicious.

Non-Overlapping Magisteria?

But only mildly, because in fact this difficulty is trivially simple to dispose of. Many, many people have thought of the solution before. If you have two standards of truth that you’d like to keep intact, never let them answer the same questions. From here we get Stephen Gould’s Nonoverlapping Magisteria and who knows how many religious folks’ conception of the same idea, and, all within the same intellectual tradition, Jimmy Akin.

If Akin successfully makes his point, and no one thinks that the Bible makes scientific claims, then there’s never any conflict, no double-truth. Science answers the what and religion answers the why, as a common saying goes.

But it can’t be that simple. It can’t be, because Christianity does answer certain empirical questions. For instance: Did Jesus really live? Did he really die and resurrect 3 days later? My understanding is, if the answer to these questions is no, then Christianity is a false religion.

A Hierarchy of Sureness

So what are we to make of Akin’s argument? When Leah Libresco converted from atheism to Catholicism, every atheist I knew seemed to be asking what evidence she had seen that had convinced her. What did she know that we didn’t?

But that was the wrong approach. The reason, as far as I remember, that Leah Libresco converted is that she was more sure of objective moral facts than she was of the empirical evidence against God. That’s the key. She was more sure of her morality than of her epistemology. So she backslid and changed her epistemology. This is rare, but within her system, it makes perfect sense.

Akin is not merely more sure of God and Catholicism than of science. He is infinitely more sure. As he says,

Losing scientific support from the Big Bang would not disprove the existence of God. It wouldn’t even disprove the Kalaam cosmological argument. It would just mean that the premise in question would have to be supported some other way.

If it were to turn out that the Big Bang was not the beginning of the physical universe then this argument in apologetics would have to be revised.

That’s nothing to be ashamed of, though. Apologetics, like the physical sciences, is subject to revision based on the evidence available at the time.”

There is simply no evidence that will change his mind about God.

Given this hierarchy of sureness, this theology, this epistemology, Akin’s piece is exactly right. In fact, what I find most interesting about it is that it resonates in part with the Less Wrong style of looking at the world. Everything adds up to normality, say the rationalists, and everything that is true is already the case, so we must let the evidence push us towards truth and keep ourselves unattached to beliefs we may not want. And so the theists say, everything adds up to God, and God is true, and God is the case. Any scientific truth will lead to God and no scientific finding can overturn God. Thus, theists may be light as a leaf regarding scientific truth, and let the evidence take them where it may. To imbue a model, whether the Big Bang Theory or Creationism, with religious truth, is to chain God’s truth status to that of a changeable fact. This is theologically unacceptable and argumentatively ill-advised.

Perhaps we are now saved from the horns of contradiction. To be that much more sure of religion than of empirical truth makes religion a trump card; any time there’s an overlap between religious epistemology and empirical epistemology, religion wins the trick. Apparent contradictions can be dissolved by a total faith in God and God’s truth.

What would that mean?

If this model is accurate, then I am tempted to say that we should throw our hands up and decide that Wittgenstein was right all along. The world consists perhaps less of people who have different predictions about what the world looks like, and more of people who have different orientations to the world, who take different axiomatic truths as obvious, who orient themselves to the world in different but individually unjustifiable ways. This takes us back, in some ways, to the general tradition that gave us non-overlapping magisteria. People just evaluate truth differently and there’s no objective way to decide which is best, at least from among the most reasonable options. There’s simply no discussion about the fundamental points to be had. The apparent contradiction disappears because the standards of truth are different.

But this just doesn’t hold up. Many religious people I know wouldn’t want the “out” that the first option provides; they are willing to make empirical claims and believe in them wholeheartedly. And Akin, as I argued above, does believe that the Bible requires making the empirical claim that Jesus lived as is recounted in the Gospels, died and was literally, empirically, resurrected. The intersection is inevitable. But no scientific fact will change his mind about the bible or God; his Bayesian priors for both are 1. This gives us the same contradiction and potential for intellectual dishonesty as above. If you agree on science as an epistemology, and you hold empirical facts to be true, you no longer get to retreat to Non-Overlapping Magisteria or anything similar.


The other option religious people and atheists and agnostics have is to agree on standards of truth so that they can engage within the same framework. After all, questions like who the Problem of Evil is more of a problem for, while fascinating, don’t answer the fundamental question; they are no one’s (or almost no one’s) True Rejection to either atheism or Catholicism.

But it is blatantly obvious that Catholics and atheists don’t have the same standards for truth, and to pretend to for the sake of dialogue would be a farce.

So we have a problem.

Atheist argumentation may have its flaws, but it is generally consistent on its epistemology: reason and empiricism. Perhaps the Catholic response is well documented in the literature, and I am simply insufficiently familiar with it. But as I currently see it, the onus is on Catholics to give a more thorough account of exactly how the epistemologies of faith, reason and empiricism interlock, what predictions they make, and which beliefs they feel are fundamental, versus which they would be willing, in the final analysis, to relinquish to the cleansing fire of truth.

I think Akin provides a useful and thought provoking model of how to deal with science and religion. But it is not enough.


It turns out that I may have overstated Mr. Akin’s position. He was saying that the Kalam Cosmological Argument isn’t weakened if the Big Bang Theory turns out to be false, as the universe would likely simply have an earlier (or perhaps later) starting position. That may well be true, and I encourage anyone interested to read through Luke Muelhauser’s excellent and painstaking work on the subject.  But this challenge, of sorts, was not just for Jimmy Akin and the Big Bang, it was and is for all believers in a system that both includes the supernatural and makes empirical claims.

Keep an eye out here and on Strange Notions for my upcoming StrangeNotions piece on whether atheism is a religion!

A Personal Journey to Rationalism

(Reading my last post on hedgehogs and foxes is useful, but not at all required, to understand this post)

When I was younger, I used to be obsessed with the phrase “logically consistent worldview.” I really, really wanted one. It seemed like the kind of thing that good intellectuals needed to have if they were going to properly navigate the world. How could you even begin to respond to an event if you didn’t have a fully integrated ethics, metaphysics and epistemology? Sounds silly, I know, but the wikipedia article on Weltanschauung (worldview) became very important to me. I constantly made lists of what I believed at any given time, and what I was still working out. I even began trying to fill out this set of required building blocks for a worldview:

    1. An explanation of the world
    2. A futurology, answering the question “Where are we heading?”
    3. Values, answers to ethical questions: “What should we do?”
    4. A praxeology, or methodology, or theory of action: “How should we attain our goals?”
    5. An epistemology, or theory of knowledge: “What is true and false?”
    6. An etiology. A constructed world-view should contain an account of its own “building blocks,” its origins and construction.

I actually tried to have an answer for every single one of these. And what I figured out quickly was that it was incredibly hard. I would literally be kept up nights worrying about how I was going to reconcile environmentalism and a progress-appreciative attitude towards human society and civilization, or how I as a feminist was supposed to feel about breast augmentation surgery. “The environment matters!” I would say to myself. “But we can’t take a conservationist attitude,” I would also say.” It’s inherently conservative and stops us from making bigger and more technologically advanced cities! And maybe technology would make things more environmentally-friendly, if given the chance!” And then choice! Feminism is about choice! So women (/transmen, but I wasn’t that sophisticated then) should be able to do what they want with their bodies! But feminism can’t accept all choices, or what would be the point? Shouldn’t stop women from objectifying themselves? How can I support a cosmetic surgery that just makes women more sexually available to men? But also shouldn’t they be able to do that if they want?


It was an all-consuming, constant intellectual project. I would apply my model to new things, and it would work, and then work, and then every so often, not work, and I would watch it crash and burn. Then I would be uncomfortable and agitated until I came upon an epiphany wherein I could bring all of the parts together and once again have a unified model.

What was my problem? I was trying to be a hedgehogTrying very, very hard, in fact. I wanted a perfect, consistent model to explain and respond to the world. I wanted to understand it.

But in being beholden to a fundamental idea like “feminism is about choice”, I was either stuck when I hit things I would really rather not call feminist, or I had to somehow incorporate more than one fundamental idea together, which almost always causes problems.

(For people who know ring theory: It’s like trying to have a principal ideal with two generators. Doesn’t make sense)

If feminism is about choice, it partitions the world into two categories, feminist and not feminist. And if feminism is fundamentally about some other thing as well, we have another partition, which generally doesn’t map perfectly onto the first one (or there would be no point in having two). So now we have things that aren’t feminist in either sense and things that are feminist in both senses. Easy enough. But what about the things that are feminist in one sense but not in another? Either you have to start creating complicated rules about how the rules interact with each other, or you give up the crystalline, rule-based way of looking at things. Then you get to say that, according to your values, this kind of approach is X amount important, and this policy, according to the facts, helps women Y amount, and so on, and then form reasoned opinions about what will work out best, instead of what fits the model best.


What should the venn diagram look like?

And that’s my concern with all hedgehogish systems. Now, maybe I just didn’t alight upon the perfect model, or I didn’t work hard enough. But hedgehogs seem to want dichotomies and trichotomies, things that are in the set or not, ideas and facts that play off each other in rigid, predictable ways. And while I’d love those things too, they haven’t presented themselves to me.

The world, instead, seems to be far better modeled by spectrums, where things are mostly different in degree and not in kind, where ideas can be balanced against each other, where multiple seemingly contradictory facts can be true, if they’re carefully defined and discussed. Instead of irreducible descriptors like “liberal”, “just”, “feminist” and “environmentalist”, switches that are either on or off, I have knobs and sliders, continuous things that can be sort of true, or mostly right, and I am so much more comfortable with that. New things I didn’t know before make me update my position, shifting knobs bit by bit, sliding along continuous functions until I’m just where I want to be, with the full knowledge that I’ll have to move again. Say what you will about it, it’s much more comforting than the worry that one new idea could bring my entire palace crashing down around me as I plummet into the chasm between discrete points.

The right color is somewhere in here….

I’m reminded of something a friend said to me once:

“If Osama bin Laden and I met each other, we would have nothing to say to each other.”

That is, hedgehog systems, totalizing systems that have something to say about everything, can’t interact with each other. They agree on some things, disagree on others, but there aren’t really ways to combine them fruitfully. The best you can hope for is non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA), where each system just stays within its own sphere and no one unbuckles their seatbelts and starts poking their sister.

(If people want to hear my model theory analogy for this, they’ll have to ask for it 🙂 ).

Plug in whatever appropriate for “religion” or “science”

That’s not enough for me. I want all the facts and values to get together and party. I want to knock down the jenga towers of ideology, and make every building block of every belief pay rent. I want to see which ones are true, or better yet, how true each one is.

I guess this is really all to say that I have become much happier and more comfortable in my beliefs since I became a rationalist and a utilitarian. I am now beholden to no specific thought structure or approach. Anything that gets the right answer goes. (Ideally speaking, of course. In reality, I am as flawed in my thinking as anyone else). And that means I’m so much more comfortable changing my mind, since I’ve linked my identity, not to a position, but to the pursuit of the right answer.

What’s especially great is that I don’t feel that I’ve lost anything. All the beliefs I had before, I can have now. Mostly, I have to ensure that they are suitably translated into empirical statements, so that each part of each belief can be examined separately. But their content remains the same. And as it happens, I don’t have any obligation to translate them that way. If the hedgehog form of atheism works for me, if I like it, if it gives me true and correct beliefs about the world, great. It’s mine for the keeping. Hell, I spend a lot of time immersed in religious thinking, and it works for me. But there’s nothing I’ve had to give up in my quest for foxishness, except what was untrue to begin with. And of course:

Some might say that rationalism and utilitarianism might themselves be the kind of Big Idea I claim to be trying to avoid. But I don’t see them that way. They are lenses through which we see things, certainly, but as I’ve just said, they don’t prevent us from seeing things in other ways. For instance, I find that utilitarianism allows me to still acknowledge that I care about fairness, beauty, and other fuzzy values in a way that other moral systems don’t. Furthermore, they don’t bind us to the narrative-based way of looking at things that has struck me as so problematic throughout this and the last post. Accuracy of belief depends on relying on more strategic, more empirical approaches, and that’s what matters to me.

I want the right answers to all the questions about the world: small ones, big ones, ethical ones. And for those, it seems, we follow the fox.

I mean, he seems to know what he’s doing.

The Morality of Emotional Life

I kind of rambled the other day about how emotions matter and so changing them might be important. But I didn’t really address the fundamental question: what is the relationship between morality and emotions?

To clarify an important point from my last post: I did not make (or rather, did not intend to make) any independent moral claims about emotions, for instance some being morally better than others. The case I intended to make was that, if you already believe in morality or moral standards, or have any opinions at all on the morality of certain actions, then it’s reasonable for you to believe in the morality of cultivating certain emotions in yourself and other people. These emotions will not only make the moral activity easier and more likely, but they will also create social approval for the kind of activity that is desired. This analysis applies utterly regardless of what morality is at stake. Christians should (and do, by the way) want people to love God and therefore want to do what God commands of them. Utilitarians should want people to desire the most good, to feel that it’s the right way to think about the right thing to do. Pro-lifers want people to be disgusted by abortion, pro-choicers don’t, even though disgust (or a lack of disgust) isn’t required for being pro-life or pro-choice.

I cannot tell you how many tumblrs there are dedicated entirely to beautifully lit and faded pictures about god, Jesus and Christianity.

(Of course, part of this can be explained by the fact that some moral systems contain within them moral claims about emotions, like loving God or having a Good Will. All that means, as far as I’m concerned, is that other, smarter, people came up with my idea long before I did.)

This applies both to what we might call moral emotions and nonmoral ones. Certainly, moral emotions fit in very strongly here. What we’re attracted to or repulsed by makes up an enormous component of our morality. Murder, for instance, disgusts us, and we are highly disturbed (another moral sentiment) when it does not disgust others. We tend to call those people psychopaths. In fact, I would argue, though this is unrelated to the other claims made in this post, that it is that disgust which forms the basis of most of our morality in the first place. Of course, lots of other things disgust us as well, from vomit to incest, so we have to engage in both intellectual and emotive arguments about whether to feel that way about these things. And if we decide we shouldn’t, then we can work towards making ourselves not feel that way, through a number of methods. As a friend put it,

“For instance, there’s no moral value in being repulsed by a deformed child or a person with severe facial burns. On the contrary, that’s a (natural) impulse that we should try to overcome — and that we can overcome by educating ourselves. The same might pertain to differences in sexual identity or orientation. Educating ourselves, befriending people who differ from ourselves, and appreciating their humanity can go a long way toward overcoming revulsion.”

And we can certainly work on making others not feel that way. Citation:

So while we might object on a number of grounds, to the approach and methods of an organization like, for instance, PETA, I think it’s a matter of intellectual (and emotional) honesty that we acknowledge that videos and pictures meant to engineer disgust for the treatment of animals is an utterly reasonable, nay, obligatory, result of their beliefs. You don’t win public debates without winning hearts and minds, as so many others have noted. But more than that, part of what you want out of winning a public debate is that people feel the way you do. That’s part of what you’re fighting for.

But I also think that the analysis of moral questions applies to nonmoral emotions (if there are such things). If you have a morality already, then perhaps you’d want to be happy to follow it, not reluctant, and you’d want the same from others. You’d want a friend to be thrilled to help you in a time of need, not to seem unhappy or irritated at the prospect of performing an amicable duty. That’s partially because it would make you unhappy, and it might make you question the friendship, and those are nonmoral emotional considerations, but it’s also that case that many would think that it’s part of being a moral person to be happy to help others.

And, then, I think this entire approach is applicable to utterly nonmoral questions, questions that concern themselves only with utility and advisability. There are many reasons why some emotions are better than others, just as there are many reasons why some actions are better than others. It might be a good idea to like cleaning your room, just as it might be a good idea to clean your room on a regular basis. It might therefore also be a good idea to inculcate a love of cleaning into your children and anyone else you have an influence on. In this case, we can call the emotions people would rather have “adaptive”, a word I’m here borrowing from the mental health lexicon.

But just as a final note, I also think we shouldn’t jump too quickly to make the sharp distinction between moral and nonmoral questions. The case of polyamorous relationships clarifies this nicely (primer on polyamory here). Being polyamorous means, generally, having the understanding that your partner may have other partners. It does not, generally, mean that you lack jealousy. Thus, a lot of work often goes into cultivating a lack of (or at least a minimum of) the kind of jealousy that makes your life as a poly person harder to deal with. Now, this is not in and of itself a moral question. Jealousy isn’t necessarily good or bad. It can alert you to a problem in your relationship, which is valuable, or it can take over your life and make you miserable, which isn’t. It’s simply the case that if you’ve already decided to be in a polyamorous relationship, it’s very useful to you to not feel sick and violated every time your partner goes on a date with someone else. It’ll just make your life better. No one would fault you morally if you end up feeling jealous despite your best efforts. That said, since you are in a polyamorous relationship, and your partners, as well as your partner’s partners, are going to be affected by how you feel (from feeling guilty to being sad that you’re sad to being frustrated at not being able to help), it may be part of your obligation to them to work on jealousy, especially if it’s so severe as to be causing problems. All of a sudden, it’s a moral consideration. Our emotions are always going to affect other people, whether through our actions as a result of the emotions or simply the knowledge of those emotions becoming public. Anything that affects others will have a moral component, which means that the forms of analysis I’ve laid out here are not distinct, but rather inextricably intertwined.

Emotions give us our moral intuitions, they cause us to do moral things or immoral things, they can hijack our rational faculties, and as I’ve laid out here, they can themselves be up for moral critique. The question is really just, what kind of moral critique, and how do we make it?

Emotions, Emotional Training and the Right Way to Feel

Some emotions are better than others.

Is that controversial? I’m not sure. I think as a culture, we’re pretty confused about it. On the one hand, we tell ourselves and others that emotions are always legitimate, that we have a right to feel how we do, and that it’s wrong for others to tell us to feel differently. This is how we feel when others tell us to be less angry, or that it’s wrong to be upset or sad about something that makes us feel that way. On the other hand, we know that we shouldn’t be happy if something bad happens to a friend, and that there are things we shouldn’t be upset about. So how do we reconcile these?

I’m sticking to the claim that some emotions are better than others, which is to say that for a given situation, with a given set of facts known, some emotional responses are better to have. Some emotions may be more reasonable than others, an idea expressed, for instance, in accusing someone of overreacting. Some emotional responses may be more comfortable for everyone involved, as anyone who’s been in the same room as a screaming toddler knows. And sometimes certain emotional reactions are more appropriate, such as disgust for immorality or gratitude for favors done.

Now, it’s clear that enforcing this understanding of emotional reactions can be harmful and itself totally inappropriate. Watching people on the internet or in real life criticize the emotional responses of others, telling them they’re too angry about an issue or too sympathetic to an institution, is as cringe-worthy as anything I can think of. For one, emotions are utterly personal; they almost are our person, so criticizing them is a recipe for causing a lot of hurt and frustration. Second, telling people their emotions are wrong is probably one of the least productive ways to get them to change them, not only because you’re almost guaranteed a bad reaction, but also because emotional responses, if they can change at all, take a good long time to do so. And third, of course, these arguments are often incorrect; they criticize emotional engagement when it is neither morally incorrect nor inappropriate, but simply uncomfortable since it brings up difficult issues.

But if we maintain that for a variety of reasons, some emotions are better than others, then it must be the case that there are obligations in certain circumstances to change our emotional responses if they aren’t optimal, and also to change the emotional responses of others, as hard as both of those processes are. What does that look like? I don’t know, but I have a few examples and not totally coherent thoughts.

Becoming a skeptic or rationalist comes to mind as a good example of this. Sure, transitioning from believing things that aren’t true to things that are true is in part about the change of beliefs, but as most everyone would agree with, it’s in larger part about a change of approach. It’s learning to question instead of accept, to notice rhetorical tricks and logical fallacies and to think of the world as naturalistic and comprehensible. And a huge part of that is emotional training. We have to train ourselves to not feel defensive when offered evidence against our position. We have to notice the kinds of ideas to cause us to flinch away, and learn to lean into them. We have to cultivate the desire to investigate further and ask more questions when we notice something’s awry. We have to learn to be happy to be proven wrong. These are not strictly necessary to being a skeptic or rationalist, I suppose, but they make it a great deal easier. Furthermore, anyone who became offended and frustrated upon learning they might be wrong would likely be seen as a very poor kind of rationalist. Affect is part of the intellectual approach.

So it’s reasonable to expend effort on making ourselves better at having the emotional responses that help us become better rationalists. (It’s one of those bizarre habits of self-proclaimed rationalists that they deride the emotional life that might help them become better rationalists). We should work at being less emotionally attached to our beliefs and more happy to change our mind. And furthermore, we should be encouraging others to do the same. We can do this not by telling people that their emotions are wrong, but by modeling the emotional reactions we would like others to have, by extolling the virtue of those emotional reactions and by praising those who have them. This may sound manipulative, but it is no different than the way we encourage people to not get offended by reasonable accusations or to be disgusted by horrific crimes.

This approach makes sense for any ideological or epistemological framework, or really, any opinion at all. Democrats are best served when people are happy about tax increases and sad about gay marriage bans. Being a good Democrat might very well mean getting emotionally on board with that if you aren’t already, and it’s reasonable for Democrats to cultivate those feelings in others through emotionally laden advertising and rhetoric. And if you’re bothered by that, it’s your job to get in the game and convince people to have better emotions.

As an atheist, the community I inhabit tends to have not only strong opinions on the ill effects of religion, but strong feelings, too, feelings that they would prefer I share. As most who know me know, I don’t happen to share all of those sentiments (I like ritual and ceremony and holidays and practice). Now, I think I’m a perfectly good atheist anyway, but other atheists don’t like my approach at all. I think their emotions are wrongheaded and unhelpful, but since they’re trying to dismantle religion as a system, it’s pretty damn reasonable for them to want everyone to be disgusted and incensed by it. Moderate sentiments, like mine, do them no good. Hence the public shaming and the pope song, to get people to have different emotions than they do now. And maybe they’re right, not only on questions of facts but also of feelings.

Is it so wrong that this is the only bread I’m eating this week?

Sort of similarly, there was a recent debate about emotional attitudes towards the verdict in the Steubenville rape case. How should we feel about the victim, Jane Doe? Certainly not the way these people did, with dismissive, disgusting callousness. But then, how are we to feel towards the rapists? With sympathy, like this CNN reporter seemed to? Well, that got a lot of criticism, for exactly the reasons I’m explaining here. People who want to make rape as infrequent as possible (like me, and hopefully all of you), want everyone to be really, thoroughly disgusted with the kind of people who violate the boundaries, agency and autonomy of other people (see what I just did there?). No one gets a free pass on just “feeling how they feel.” Of course, people will feel how they feel, and it’s not their fault, per se, but emotions aren’t morally neutral here. They have an effect on people’s thinking and actions. It is therefore not only reasonable but morally required to try to shift the emotional responses of others. Of course, there are other goals at play, which is why some have tried to cultivate sympathy both for the victim, who obviously deserves our sympathy, but also the rapists, who are still teenage boys going to prison. This tangled question of how to feel is not purely subjective nor unimportant. How people feel matters in terms of their own moral standing, it matters to all of the people who know of their emotional state, and it utterly shapes the public discussion.

The debate about proper emotions is not so different than the debate about proper opinions, and not just because they inform each other so heavily. It’s a debate that is had in public and in private, through argument and through custom and through praise and condemnation, just as with matters of opinion. It also goes without saying that those who win the debate of emotions tend to win the debate of opinion as well. And just as we each individually seek to have opinions that best line up with reality, so too ought we to be cultivating the emotions that are best suited to the circumstances in which we find ourselves and the kind of people we want to be. Our emotions are not incidental to our actions and our opinions. They affect them tremendously. They are matters of ideological consistency, intellectual commitment and moral standing. They matter.

Polyamorous Marriage: Who is it good for?

Ladies, gentlemen, and the dapperest of the nonbinary: the day has come when the liberal agenda has gone too far astray, just as predicted. Now that they feel they have won the day on gay marriage, with 75 prominent Republicans giving their support to the cause, progressives are showing us just how slippery the slope is and asking for polyamorous marriage.

The evidence: A facebook post by one Mike Mei with the above link to the New York Times article about the Republican lawmakers and this commentary,

Okay. This debate is over. Now it’s time to focus on efforts to build a system that can extend the marriage rights structure to more than two people.

Obviously, this is not, in fact, the end of the world, but it is a new debate, and all kinds of new arguments will begin if this ever becomes a discussion of public interest. I imagine they’d be mostly along the lines of:
– we shouldn’t privilege some sexualities over others
– get the government out of marriage
– equal rights for poly folk
– what happened to traditional marriage?
– tax issues!!
– where will it end??
– destruction of marriage and the social norm
– what about childcare?
– etc.

Sound familiar? I bet that a couple fairly knowledgeable people could predict and hash out most of these arguments in advance (I’ve given some of my ideas here), so I’m not terribly interested in the traditional discussion.

But here’s a question that might come up that I do find interesting: “What’s the point? How many poly people are there, really? Not many. So why is it worth overthrowing our entire system of responsibilities and benefits for them?”

As a utilitarian (generally speaking), I think this is an excellent question. Let’s start with the assumption that the government should indeed be part of marriage and making people fill out individual forms for hospital visitation, next of kin, health insurance sharing, joint bank accounts, change of name forms, fifth amendment, guardianship of children, etc. would be unfair and/or unwieldy. There are plenty of arguments against this, but if we grant the assumption, who would it help to have some arrangement in which the benefits of marriage are shared among multiple people? (We’re also ignoring the logistical concerns here).

1. Poly people who want to get married: This is sort of the obvious one, since these are the people the law would ostensibly have been changed to accommodate. People in situations where they are in long term stable relationships that are usually romantic or sexual with multiple people, or are attached to someone who is in partnerships with multiple people, can all get married to each other. Which can mean that someone is married to multiple people or that multiple people are in a single marriage or both, in varying arrangements.

Homework: draw a polycule that encapsulates the whole world, accommodating everyone’s gender preferences.

But it could help other people, too, I think. Like:

2. Poor people: Low-income people are more likely to live in family structures that are multi-generational and that share income and childrearing duties among more than two people. This is especially true as regards single mothers, who are some of those most punished by the restriction of marriage benefits to married couples. It might be incredibly helpful to legalize the distribution of benefits and child guardianship across single mothers, their parents and their friends. Weird, I know, and I don’t know how to deal with the fact that those friends and family members are probably married themselves (or would like to be someday), except that in a world of poly marriage, you can just keep adding people (which has its own problems). All I’m saying is that poor folks might disproportionately benefit from this kind of normalized legal structure, much like they might disproportionately benefit from gay marriage.

3. Anyone involved in surrogacy, sperm donation or the like: This means infertile people, gay people, any situation in which more than two people are involved in the making and caring of a baby. This can include adoptive parents too. Many feel that one of the main points of marriage is to care for children. Sometimes, children are cared for by more than two people, and it may be important that all of them are considered kin, as in an adoptive situation where the birth parents are still in the picture. Furthermore, as you increase the number of potential configurations (two lesbians and a gay sperm donor on a birth certificate? Why not?) the more important it is to have contracts that can be agreed upon beforehand, so tragic misunderstandings don’t take place, as they almost did in the article I linked to. This would also be an excellent opportunity to further regulate the surrogacy industry, which is fascinating and complicated and rife with potential for drastic error.

Any other ideas for who might be helped? Please let me know!

In sum, while I think there’s a lot to ask about the proper role of marriage in society, about whether and how much the government should be involved and how logistically disastrous it would be to have poly marriage, I don’t think these questions can be properly answered until we’ve considered more of the potential implications for a change in the law than are currently in the public discourse. What other changes do you think would happen?