About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Michael’s Picks

by Michael De Dora
* For the first time in Gallup’s tracking of same-sex marriage, the polling organization has found a majority of Americans (53 percent) support marriage equality.
* Miranda Celeste Hale has examined the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ recent report on priest sex abuse, and found a host of flaws with its methodology, data, and conclusions. 
* A recent poll shows many Americans (49 percent) identify themselves largely as pro-choice — yet in the same poll, 51 percent said they believe abortion is morally wrong. 
* Freakonomics author Steven Levitt says “the primary determinant of where I stand with respect to government interference in activities comes down to the answer to a simple question: How would I feel if my daughter were engaged in that activity?”
* Kevin Drum correctly notes that Levitt’s argument isn’t very good, but argues that “the daughter test” is the way most people think about morality. 
* Wisconsin State Superintendent Tony Evers told Gov. Scott Walker this week that Walker’s plan to expand the state’s voucher program is “morally wrong.”
* The Vatican is holding a conference this weekend on the morality and effectiveness of using condoms to prevent HIV/AIDS.  
* The Economist discusses Sen. Chuck Grassley’s (R-Iowa) report that finds “The Constitution does not require the government to exempt churches from federal income taxation or from filing tax and information returns.”


  1. "[M]any Americans (49 percent) identify themselves largely as pro-choice — yet in the same poll, 51 percent said they believe abortion is morally wrong."

    I can identify with this 2% overlap. I feel strongly that abortion is *generally* immoral (although I'm careful to qualify that I cannot boil every case down to *only* the factor of the fetus). However I also feel strongly that from a civil liberties standpoint I must not assume 1) that my morality is the only possible morality, 2) that I am automatically right, 3) that I have properly and fully considered (or even known) all of the factors an individual used in their choice, or 4) that morality is a sufficient criterion on its own for secular law.

  2. "How would I feel if my daughter were engaged in that activity?” - different from if it were my son?

  3. Apologies for the anecdotal evidence.

    Of the pro-choice people I know, three, maybe four believe in a woman's right to terminate a pregnancy at any and all times. Of the pro-life people I know, roughly the same amount applies to restricting that right to zero occurrences.

    Why mainstream cultural discourse hasn't reached the fact of two conflicting beliefs (the fetus' humanity and the woman's status as privileged) within many people about abortion is beyond me.

  4. Presumably, Levitt doesn't have a son, which is kinda his point (shared by Drum) that most of us reason morally from within our own shoes. As the father of two daughters, my personal experience affirms that intuition.

    And Levitt's hardly the first intellectual to link morality and politics with one's familiar parenting model. For example, cognitive scientist/linguist George Lakoff often draws analogies between Strict Father vs. Nurturing Parent models of parenting and conservative vs. progressive models of morality & politics - even though these models reside within "the cognitive unconscious", rooted chiefly in the sensory-motor experiences of the developmental years. (Philosophers are no exception in this regard.)

    But Levitt also appears to be working with a model of rational choice/self-interest that is particularly characteristic of economists (at least in the neoclassical mold). What I think is mainly lacking in his argument (which Drum suggests) is, not so much rationality (as he would likely understand that concept) as a normal (perhaps even economically "irrational") sense of empathy for real people, for whom the temptations and risks from a particular vice may be quite different than they are for his own daughter.

    That said, we (in our capacities as parents and/or citizens) may agree to ban certain vices, if (for no other reason) to express our disapproval of them. But I think the real debate concerns how we plan for and respond to violation. Do we respond as strict fathers, by meting out harsh punishments for disobedience, or as nurturing parents, by planning methods of prevention and treatment that emphasize respect, compassion, and protection?

  5. Thanks for mentioning my post, Michael- I appreciate it a lot

  6. That recent poll tells me that Americans (or people in general) have attitudes about the world that they haven't really thought through.

    Regarding same sex marriage: it fits the generaly trend that people become more socially liberal as they age, but the bigger impact comes from each generation being more socially liberal than the last (on average).

    "...rooted chiefly in the sensory-motor experiences of the developmental years."

    This is far from being established, and is likely too simplistic even assuming that the dichotomy he describes is an accurate/ reasonable model.

  7. In addition to what Drum says (that there are alot of things we wouldnt want our daughters to do, but would not want illegal), another problem with what Levitt suggests is that it assumes that the government intervention has a positive effect. It assumes that the type of intervention that the government has on activities such as drug use, grambling, prostitution, etc results in less of that activity.

    The problem occurs with these activities, because there is no reasonable expectation that these behaviors can really be controlled in any meaningful way. It appears that the more these activities are suppressed, the uglier the outcome for people who do those activities.

  8. The problem occurs with these activities, because there is no reasonable expectation that these behaviors can really be controlled in any meaningful way.

    I would agree insofar as that no intervention program - be it government-sponsored or otherwise - is guaranteed to work. But, when and where it does, and the conditions are appropriate for government involvement (e.g. when an individual lacks "a decent support network", to quote Drum), then we have a typical "last resort" scenario. The trick is to get the policy right, which admittedly doesn't always happen. But a "tossed out baby w/bathwater" scenario can be even worse, overall.

  9. @jcm
    I didnt mean to imply that the government should not get involved at all, but I meant that the typical ways in which government gets involved in these matters fail. This is because the intervention usually involves determining what is lawful, then punishing behavior that is not. Providing social support and a harm reduction approach is too often overlooked.

  10. Providing social support and a harm reduction approach is too often overlooked.


  11. Wow, Michael. Drum's moral and sociological snootiness sure does a lot (NOT!) for advancing his point of view. Better were it that you had just written a blog post about Levitt yourself rather than using his "look down on the masses" (presumably neolib inspired) drivel.

  12. a majority of Americans (53 percent) support marriage equality.

    The most remarkable thing about this is the speed with which opinion has changed. Ten years ago homosexuality was still illegal in over a dozen states, and gay marriage was an almost unimaginable concept. Now it's reached majority acceptance. In a few more years it will probably be legal across the country, and conservatives will be claiming they never objected to it.

    As for abortion, it's hardly surprising that a lot of people can believe something is immoral yet still not want to see that view enforced by legal prohibition.

  13. To a couple of you: I've written about the connection between morality and law here before, but I'm not entirely happy with my effort, and there's since been a ton of discussion of the matter, so I might take another stab.

    @Cavall, good question! I think we typically have stronger emotional reactions to harm inflicted on women than harm inflicted on men, which probably explains why Levitt used the "daughter" test instead of the "son" test. But that does not *defend* his stance, it only explains it.

    @Miranda, of course. A job well done.

  14. Infidel,

    Re: "As for abortion, it's hardly surprising that a lot of people can believe something is immoral yet still not want to see that view enforced by legal prohibition."

    No, you are correct: In and of itself it is hardly surprising that many people view an action immoral yet would rather not have the action legislated against.

    What *is* surprising (or, better yet, what is troublesome) is that many people hold non-life threatening abortion immoral because it is the unjustified killing of another human being *and* yet still would rather not have abortion legislated against. In light of other beliefs (e.g. the immorality and illegality of murder), such a view strikes me as blatantly inconsistent.

  15. By the way, there is a link between two discussions being had here. I have heard liberals use the "daughter" argument (one convo) in debates with those who oppose abortion (the other convo) in all cases by asking, "What would you do if your daughter was raped?"

  16. @Gadfly, Drum is right. If he sounds snooty, it is because the universe actually does dole out qualities such as impulse control and intelligence via a birth/upbringing lottery. That fact really sucks, but take it up with the universe, not with Drum.

  17. @Paraconsistent

    Why? It merely points to moral externalism being true.

    Many people (including philosophers) think that the murdering of animals in factory farms is TERRIBLE. They think that is just plain immoral for thousands of animals to suffer everyday. Yet they don't campaign to shut down these facilities, nevermind refrain from eating meat.

    They think that this activity is immoral, but they don't have the desire to act morally. The suffering of the animals isn't a salient feature of their everyday lives, and thus their other desires (pleasure, for example)steer their motivation for action.

    Another example, is a utilitarian perfectly agreeing with Singer's argument in "famine, affluence and morality," yet not having the motivation to donate to foreign countries. There are thousands and thousands of suffering people in foreign countries that should be of prime importance to utilitarians, but their suffering is largely forgotten in day to day activities.

    It is pretty much the same for abortion. People think it is immoral, but don't have the desire to act morally, all things considered.

    All things considered, most people think putting criminals in jail is both the moral and pragmatic thing to do.

    Nothing inconsistent there (if moral externalism is true). On the other hand, if moral internalism is true ( I don't think that it is ) than many of the people surveyed were either lying, or they didn't KNOW that abortion was immoral. They merely thought so; they weren't certain on the issue.

  18. Paraconsistent - there is nothing inconsistent about their responses, provided moral externalism is true ( I think that it is).

    From wikipedia: "In contemporary moral philosophy, motivational internalism (or moral internalism) is the view that moral convictions (which are not necessarily beliefs, e.g. feelings of moral approval or disapproval) are intrinsically motivating. That is, the motivational internalist believes that there is an internal, necessary connection between one's conviction that X ought to be done and one's motivation to do X. Conversely, the motivational externalist (or moral externalist) claims that there is no necessary, internal connection between moral convictions and moral motives. That is, there is no necessary connection between the conviction that X is wrong and the motivational drive not to do X. (The use of these terms has roots in W.D. Falk's (1947) paper "Ought" and Motivation). "

    Thus, all desires considered, the person would not vote for a candidate that wanted to make abortion illegal. They consider their other desires to be more important. Given that this issue doesn't affect their day to lives, it is not surprising that they don't have the desire to act morally.

    Another analogous example- a utilitarian firmly believes that he or she is acting immorally, by donating such a small portion of his salary to starving children in Africa, despite the availability of charities like Oxfam. However, all things considered, her other desires pull her motivation elsewhere.

    The example of murder isn't really analogous to the above situations. Most people do think that most instances of murder are immoral. However, people are motivated to make it illegal, because all desires considered, they think it is worthwhile to do so. It is not the belief that the act holds the property of wrongness, that motivates people to make it illegal. Murder is a very salient feature in our everyday life unlike starving kids in Africa or dieing babies. Hence, people don't have the desire to be moral and not amoral in the case of locking up psychopaths.

    Hopefully that was clear ;) It's 6:30 am here and I haven't slept a wink.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.