Saturday, February 04, 2006

From the comments

I don't mean to single Marc out; at the same time, I think his comment, responding to this Thursday post, mirrors a trend that is gradually spreading:

Marc with a C said...

You know, no offense or anything, but I am very troubled by a tendancy I see in nuns, priests, and other members of the Church hierarchy who have no use for their reproductive rights to crow on about how people should conduct their own affairs sexually. In my mind, permanent virgins (either physical or spiritual) have very little to add to any discussion which is intrinsicly related to human sexuality and issues such as family life. Does that mean you have to be sexually active to have an opinion on contraception and abortion? Of course not. But it does certainly severely restrict one's frame of reference. My two cents.

1:40 PM
See my response here.

It is an increasingly common logical fallacy to disregard what someone has to say simply because of their status in life: "Of course he's in favor of Affirmative Action! He's black!" "Of course he's for the war, he's in the military!" "Who are we to criticize Israel's actions? We don't have to live in fear of Palestinian terrorists!" Similarly, "Celibate priests and nuns can't have much to say about sex and the family or reproductive "rights," since they don't have sex or reproduce!" Never mind that someone's personal experience (or lack thereof) is completely irrelevant when evaluating whether their ideas make sense not.

What is disturbing to me is that a first-year philosophy class would clear this up for people; yet many times it is an educated individual who makes this mistake in argument. I see it on campus at Ohio University. Conservatives do it as often as liberals. It's a convenient and very effective fallacy, drawing the listener and/or reader away from the merits of the argument being presented and instead focusing attention on how unworthy the presenter is to make the argument.

This has gained a lot of traction with the recent upswing in the "personal experience is truth" movement. I could write a whole post (or a whole book) on how the modern rebirth of a shapeless "spirituality" has produced a way of looking at truth that is horribly anti-reason, and submits all reality to each individual's experience of life. Perhaps you have heard this jokingly referred to as the Oprahfication of culture ;) The idea, in other words, is that "You don't know how hard it is to be meeeeee! So you have no right to criticize my actions!"

Perhaps, in reading about controversial issues, you've come across statements like these:

You don't know what it's like, losing a loved one to a disgusting, perverted murderer. I do. So don't you tell me that the death penalty is wrong.

You don't know what it's like to be gay. You have no idea. So don't go saying that homosexual marriage is wrong.

Or, drumroll please...

You've never had sex, or at least you don't have sex anymore. So don't try telling me anything about what's right or wrong with regard to human sexuality.

Besides the logical fallacy bit, the trouble with this mode of thinking is that there is literally no reason for it to not devlove into:

You don't know what it's like to be in love with two women at once. So don't tell me polygamy is wrong.


You don't know what it's like to be attracted to an 11-year-old girl...

You get the idea. "Personal experience" as truth and reality does not produce a pretty picture.


  1. As I specifically stated in my comments, one does not have to have experienced/done something in order to be able to comment on it. I never said or implied otherwise as I am well aware of the logical fallacies of such a statement. However, that being said, it is imperative not to fall into the trap of assuming that all opinions are equally valid and thus equally correct.

    Just because you are planning on being a nun and will probably never engage in sexual activity does not invalidate your views on the matter; on the contrary, you are free to express them in whatever manner you see fit. However, in so doing you automatically declare your inherent limitations with regards to formulating a well-rounded, carefully thought out, balanced opinion.

    If you lived in Renaissance Europe for example and attended a lecture by the local bishop stating that men from Cathay have their heads in the middle of their torsos, the fact that you had never been to Cathay would not invalidate your opinions on the truth of his words. You would be free to speak your opinion on the matter in whatever way you liked and back the bishop's position. But an announced, strong predisposition towards accepting the bishop's views uncritically along with your vested interest in speaking about the Cathayan's heads would automatically place you in the camp of the bishop's partizans and thus call into question the legitimacy of your presupposed position as a neutral observer. Furthermore, while your opnion might well be valid, it would be a dangerous fallacy to presume that your opinion is of equal value and importance to the opinions of those who had actually been to Cathay. Ergo my view that while you are certainly free to say what you want with regards to contraception from a moral and spiritual point of view from your frame of reference, it is imporant to recognize the fact that, once again, having never experienced such things, you will be able to make statements of equal weight with those who have.

    In short, while you are certainly free to talk about why you think contraception is a bad thing and the pill is harmful to women, having never taken the pill and probably never having to take the pill in the future, you cannot simply dismiss your professor's statements on the grounds of liberal bias, feminism, or whatever other justification you should like to use. If she has taken the pill, done advanced studies in the field, conducted interviews, and read and edited peer-reviewed scientific journals (as most professors do), then she is the explorer who has been to Cathay in our previous example. While your views are still valid, you must understand that heres carry more weight than yours.

  2. Maggie, well put.

    Marc, you seem to be confusing two different kinds of statement. Saying that the men of Cathay have their heads in the middle of their torsos is (for want of a better description) a 'scientific' statement. That means that it's subject to proof or disproof based on observation and study. Saying that the pill is medically or psychologically bad for women also counts as a scientific statement. That means that one can come to judgement on this based on interviews, medical trials, scientific studies and so on.
    Saying that taking the contraceptive pill is wrong is a moral statement. Its truth or falsity is not determined on the basis of scientific studies or interviews or so on any more than the truth or falsity of the statement 'murder is wrong' can be proved or disproved by the medical study of cadavers.

  3. How does my taking the pill or having sex affect you? And why do you have any right to pass judgement on me for it?

    And I realize you have no idea who I am and this was not directed at anyone in particular.

    If it is indeed a moral issue, then isn't it for God to decide? Why, just because you believe one thing, do you have any right to judge me for my actions or beliefs? You do not decide where my soul might go for eternity.

    Why do we constantly need to judge others, then try to "save" them from their actions and choices?

  4. Jill, thanks for your comment. Unfortunately I think you make a couple mistakes. Let's take your statements one at a time:

    How does my taking the pill or having sex affect you? And why do you have any right to pass judgement on me for it?

    Please note that the post you commented on is not on the morality or immorality of contraception, but on an argument about the validity of logical constructs. It addresses philosophy, not ethics.

    That being the case, I'll point out that just because an action does not affect any one besides the acting individual, this does not mean that the act is not subject to the evaluation of others. For instance, if an individual wastes his days sitting an apartment drinking vodka, he is technically not hurting anyone but himself. Nevertheless, it's not "wrong" for unaffected observers to find his behavior quite degenerate.

    However, with regard to this blog, I'll note that no one has actually been "judged." I don't recall making any reference to the eternal destination of anyone's soul, let alone contraception-users. Ours is an age of sloppy vocabulary, and perhaps you, like, others, have confused "judged" with "criticized"?

    By "why do you have any right" I assume you mean moral right, since I don't believe the Constitution declares such things off limits. What do you mean, I don't have the right? When did I sign away the moral right to criticize what I believe to be wrong? Isn't one morally obligated to criticize what one believes to be wrong, and not keep quiet about it, or go along with it? Prove to me that there is a whole class of actions that it is somehow ontologically wicked to criticize.

    "What gives you the right?" is a merely a statement of emotional rhetoric, and I suspect you realize this.

    And I realize you have no idea who I am and this was not directed at anyone in particular.

    Correct, I have no clue who you are, except that you link back to Planned Parenthood, which is kind of annoying...

    If it is indeed a moral issue, then isn't it for God to decide?

    If murder is indeed a moral issue, then isn't it for God to decide? Note, I am not comparing the Pill to murder; I just want to point out that classification as a "moral issue" does not just suddenly place an issue beyond human evaluation.

    Why, just because you believe one thing, do you have any right to judge me for my actions or beliefs?

    Again, I think you've confused "judge" with "criticize." And again, I reserve the right to criticize anything and everybody, just as you have the right to criticize me. I'm sorry that not everyone is on board with your own personal ideas and opinions. It's nothing to feel threatened about.

    It is also neccesary to differentiate betweenpersons and acts. I criticize the action of using contraception. Obviously I can not criticize you, personally, because I wouldn't know you from Eve.

    You do not decide where my soul might go for eternity.

    Nope. Never said I did. Again, you need to be less sensitive and more tolerant of ideas contrary to your own. Just because someone tells you that you are wrong does not mean that they think you are damned. Surely you don't think I am Hell-bound, because I appear to you to be committing the moral wrong of... being critical?

    Why do we constantly need to judge others, then try to "save" them from their actions and choices?

    Again, with the "judging" thing! I have to say that the second part, about trying to save people from their choices, makes me suspicious of some libertarian leanings, am I right ;) Anyway, I don't think pointing out the immorality of an act is synonymous with forcing others to be "saved" from their choices. A parent who constantly instructs his children on how wrong it is to take up smoking knows full well that they can choose to start when they grow up - and there's nothing he can do about it. Nobody is suggesting that users of contraception be thrown in prison. But you can't expect people who disagree with you to just shut up and bow down in affirmation of your sacred decision.

    Thanks for your comment, though. Discussions like these help people on both sides clarify their own ideas and further illuminate their positions.

  5. Anonymous, I must say, that has to be the most mature thing I've heard all morning.

  6. Ha ha don't worry Katrina that's one of my insane college friends doing some spamming ;)