July 16, 2010

In Defense of Bigotry.

The recent firing of Dr. Kenneth Howell from the University of Illinois-Champaign has created a buzz in the academic blogosphere. Howell was an adjunct faculty member who was affiliated with a Catholic outreach center linked to UIC. He had been teaching a course called “Introduction to Catholicism” for nine years. His contract was not renewed on the basis of a student complaint of “hate speech” in the classroom.

The offending document in this case is an email, sent by the professor to students in preparation for the final exam. The full text of the email is available here, but this is how it starts:

Since there is a question on the final exam about utilitarianism (see the review sheet), I thought I would help with an example. I realized after my lectures on moral theory that even though I talked about the substance of utilitarianism, I did not identify it as such and so you may not have been able to see it.

It turns out that our discussion of homosexuality brings up the issue of utilitarianism. In class, our discussion of the morality of homosexual acts was very incomplete because any moral issue about which people disagree ALWAYS raises a more fundamental issue about criteria. In other words, by what criteria should we judge whether a given act is right or wrong?

According to the brief submitted by the Alliance Defense Fund on Howell’s behalf,  he is attempting to clarify a heated discussion on the topic of homosexuality that had occurred the day before, by distinguishing the teachings of the Catholic–Natural Law Theory–from Utilitarianism. He dovetails this with preparation for the final exam. So, Howell, it seems, is trying to be helpful. Some people who read this email might judge, along with Brian Leiter, that there is plenty of reason for dismissal, simply because of the lack of rigor in the philosophical reasoning displayed.

I imagine any philosopher reading the e-mail can see a legitimate reason for terminating Howell’s contract, namely, that his characterization of utilitarianism and the quality of reasoning and argument are incompetent.  (Really, the kind of reasoning in Howell’s e-mail would be unacceptable in a student paper, it really is a bit shocking to see this being offered as the professor’s “explanation” of the issues.  Even allowing that it’s an e-mail, it is amazingly bad.)

I think Leiter is wrong about this. I’m a philosopher and a full-time professor of philosophy, and I think that the argument presented by Howell is not so obviously wrong as Leiter imagines it is. Let me try to reconstruct the argument charitably. I hope that in so doing I can demonstrate what we lose when we try to silence other people just because we disagree with them.

First, Howell states that utilitarianism is a moral theory that “judges right or wrong by its practical outcomes.” This is perfectly correct. A utilitarian must determine whether an action is morally good or bad based solely on the good or bad outcomes of the action.

So, it makes no difference whether the action is of a certain kind; it only matters what effects it produces. For instance, Howell imagines, someone who is married may consider having an adulterous relationship with another person. On utilitarian moral theory, the nuptial vows hold no moral weight in and of themselves. Of course, there may be lots of good utilitarian reasons for remaining faithful (social stability, legal bills, heartache, etc.), but there is nothing intrinsically wrong with violating a promise, vow, or contract for a utilitarian. So the moral rightness or wrongness of adultery essentially comes down to whether or not it is beneficial or harmful to those involved.

Similarly, there is no principled prohibition against certain kinds of sexual activity, for the utilitarian. Howell has been lampooned for his suggestion that a utilitarian would countenance sex with animals, provided the act were consensual.

But another problem would be where to draw the line between moral and immoral acts using only informed consent. For example, if a dog consents to engage in a sexual act with its human master, such an act would also be moral according to the consent criterion. If this impresses you as far-fetched, the point is not whether it might occur but by what criterion we could say that it is wrong. I don’t think that it would be wrong according to the consent criterion.

That’s absurd, isn’t it! Well, yes and no. Actually, Peter Singer–the rightly famed author of Animal Liberationcommitted vegetarian, and outspoken advocate for alleviating world poverty–argued, in a paper titled “Heavy Petting,” that there could be no strict moral prohibition against bestiality, as long as sexual relations with animals were not harmful to them. He even compares the act of copulating with a hen to harvesting its eggs in a factory farm.

Some men use hens as a sexual object, inserting their penis into the cloaca, an all-purpose channel for wastes and for the passage of the egg. This is usually fatal to the hen, and in some cases she will be deliberately decapitated just before ejaculation in order to intensify the convulsions of its sphincter. This is cruelty, clear and simple. (But is it worse for the hen than living for a year or more crowded with four or five other hens in barren wire cage so small that they can never stretch their wings, and then being stuffed into crates to be taken to the slaughterhouse, strung upside down on a conveyor belt and killed? If not, then it is no worse than what egg producers do to their hens all the time.)

But sex with animals does not always involve cruelty. Who has not been at a social occasion disrupted by the household dog gripping the legs of a visitor and vigorously rubbing its penis against them? The host usually discourages such activities, but in private not everyone objects to being used by her or his dog in this way, and occasionally mutually satisfying activities may develop.

So the author of Animal Liberation seems willing to conclude that it may be more morally acceptable to copulate with barnyard animals than to eat them (or their byproducts) for breakfast, provided that the former is less cruel than the latter.

I suppose that not a few of you are a bit shocked by Singer’s line of argument here. Presumably Howell is too. To contrast, he argues for a natural law theory of morality. According to the natural law theory, right and wrong are built into the nature of the world. Usually, God does the work of “building” morality into nature. But this is not a necessary feature of natural law theory. A natural law theorist could be an atheist who believes that the universe, human beings, and even natural laws were the design of some super-intelligent aliens or ultra-powerful computers. As long as what is right and good is defined according to fulfilling the function and purpose for which the underlying structure of the universe was designed, the alien-ist and the theist could both be natural law theorists.

However, this is where Howell gets himself in trouble. He writes:

But the more significant problem has to do with the fact that the consent criterion is not related in any way to the NATURE of the act itself. This is where Natural Moral Law (NML) objects. NML says that Morality must be a response to REALITY. In other words, sexual acts are only appropriate for people who are complementary, not the same. How do we know this? By looking at REALITY. Men and women are complementary in their anatomy, physiology, and psychology. Men and women are not interchangeable. So, a moral sexual act has to be between persons that are fitted for that act. Consent is important but there is more than consent needed.

According to the Alliance Fund brief, “he taught the belief that homosexual conduct violates the inherent meaning of human sexuality (i.e. to unite husbands and wives), disregards the complementary structure of men and women, and ignores the procreative purpose for sexuality.”

In the email, Howell goes on to suggest–supposedly on the word of a physician he knows–that homosexual acts are “deleterious” to health. I found that interesting, and had heard some rumors along those lines. He’s fully in line with Catholic teaching on this. But it turns out that while anal sex may sometimes be harmful, fellatio has been linked both to reductions in rates of breast cancer and increases in rates of throat cancer. Sounds like this is somewhat of an open question.

Nonetheless, it seems that the very suggestion that there is a naturally “right” way to have sex and a naturally “wrong” way to have sex is what triggered the complaint. From the student email:

It sickens me to know that hard-working Illinoisans are funding the salary of a man who does nothing but try to indoctrinate students and perpetuate stereotypes. Once again, this is a public university and should thus have no religious affiliation. Teaching a student about the tenets of a religion is one thing. Declaring that homosexual acts violate the natural laws of man is another.

Let’s set aside the separation of church and state issue for a moment. Is it obviously wrong to claim that there are natural moral laws? If it were, most of the founding arguments for constitutional and civil rights would have to be discarded. Then, is it obviously wrong that there are natural moral laws that pertain to sexual behavior? I don’t think so. In the context of a course covering the “Introduction to Catholicism” it is certainly not obviously wrong to discuss these issues. In fact, it is quite pertinent. This is exactly what the Catholic church believes.

Now, I am not for a single minute going to defend the Catholic church’s teachings on sexuality. Their failure in that regard–from dealing with AIDS in Africa to sex abuse scandals pretty much everywhere–is obvious. There is no doubt that the Catholic church lost its way in the forest of human sexuality a long time ago. But where, exactly, did it go wrong?

I certainly don’t think it went wrong in suggesting that human beings have a unique nature, with a specific purpose, and that this purpose encompasses sexuality as well. I think there is something deeply true about this. But between the wide open field of utilitarianism or biologism and the cloistered chastity of Catholicism, there is a lot of uncharted territory. Are we going to close ourselves off from exploring that ground because we might offend some people? Are we going to fire University professors because of their willingness to broach such sensitive subjects?

John Stuart Mill wrote a wonderful little essay, “On Liberty,” in which he argued–on utilitarian grounds–that society had no right to restrict the free expression of its members, unless that expression posed a direct threat to the welfare of others. In defense of the freedom of speech, Mill argued that there are three possibilities: either the dissenting opinion is true, partially true, or false. In case it is true–and we can’t rule this out without asserting infallibility–we have to allow people to speak their minds. Otherwise we potentially deprive ourselves of the truth. In case it is partially true–which is likely the case here–we risk depriving ourselves of some measure of truth. But even in the case of views that are patently false, we cannot simply suppress them. The reason for this is that if we suppress dissenting views–even if we are entirely right in doing so–we risk holding onto the truth unthinkingly, as a mere dogma. That, he said, is no way for a rational person to hold the truth.

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