Surface    |    Backfill    |    About    |    Contact


Bad Arguments Against Libertarianism

I'm not a libertarian. I think there are good reasons not to agree with the libertarian claim that if you oppose government regulation with respect to "personal" issues like sexuality then you ought to also oppose government regulation of the market. But this argument by John Quiggin is not one of those reasons. Quiggin claims that he can show that personal freedom requires economic regulation:

Suppose A rents a house from B, who requires, as a condition that no-one in class C (wrong race, religion, or gender) should share the bedroom with A. Suppose that A signs the lease, but decides that this contractual condition is an unreasonable violation of personal freedom, and decides to ignore it. B discovers this, and seeks the assistance (or at least the acquiesence) of the state in evicting A. On a [libertarian] view, B is in the right, and is entitle to call in the state into the bedroom in question.

I think Quiggin's confusion here results from treating libertarianism as a species of utilitarianism. Quiggin's argument is an effective one for utilitarians (of which I am one, and IIRC he is as well). Utilitarianism is all about balancing the levels of utility (happiness or satisfaction) to be gained from different policies and social arrangements. On one side of the ledger, you have the utility gained by preserving the freedom to invite others of one's choice into one's bedroom, and the danger that allowing such restrictive lease contracts will lead to no non-restrictive leases being available for people who want them. On the other side, you have the loss of utility suffered by those who would like to be able to enter into an enforceable bedroom-activity-restricting contract. On any reasonable interpretation, I think the former utility is greater and thus utilitarianism inclines us to accept some economic regulation in defense of personal freedom. A "utilitarianism of liberty" view, in which we're maximizing liberty itself (rather than maximizing happiness or satisfaction which are often derived from liberty) would come to the similar conclusion.

But Quiggin's argument is not meant to be against "utilitarians of liberty," it's meant to be against propertarian or contractualist libertarianism. This is a deontological view, concerned with not violating someone's rights. The basic right that concerns these libertarians is the right not to be coerced by someone else, and in particular not to have society as a whole gang up to coerce you through the state. To a contractualist libertarian, there's nothing contradictory about the landlord calling in the state to enforce a contract that the tenant freely entered into. In this case, the state is not imposing a definition of proper bedroom behavior on the tenant, the state is merely enforcing an agreement that the tenant consented to. There is no more contradiction here than there would be for a libertarian to expect the state to enforce a contract between an auto manufacturer and its parts supplier, or between a polluter and people who have agreed to allow only a certain amount of waste to be dumped in their stream.


Genuine, Authentic Desire

Holly Pervocracy and Clarisse Thorn have fired the latest salvo in the war between radical feminists and sex-positive feminists, provoking interesting responses by Mandolin and saurus, and leading me ultimately back to the locus classicus of this debate's blogospheric manifestation, Twisty Faster's infamous "funk-filled bratwurst" post. Below is my attempt to sort through some of the issues involved. I'm focusing on the question of fellatio since that was Twisty's example, but I think the principles at work apply mutatis mutandis to dressing in a conventionally sexy way, changing one's last name, and various other issues that get debated in a choice-vs-structure framework. I'll refer to the pro-fellatio arguments and their supporters as "sex-pos," and the anti-fellatio arguments and their supporters as "radfem," while recognizing that the views in both camps are actually more diverse than that.

The basic question posed by Twisty is whether any women every really like giving fellatio to a man*. I think we can separate this into two questions: is a woman's desire to give fellatio to a man ever genuine, and if it's genuine is it ever authentic. A genuine desire, as I'm using the term here, means one that is experienced as subjectively real by the desirer -- it really runs through the desire circuits of her brain. On the one hand, un-genuine desire to give fellatio to a man is common -- many women report being pressured, by individual lovers or by societal norms, to give fellatio that they don't really enjoy. On the other hand, though a few people who have embraced a very crude form of radical feminism and irresponsibly universalized their own experience may deny it, widespread genuine desire to fellate men does in fact exist. It's impossible to explain away the large amount of testimonial evidence from women who do experience real, direct pleasure from the act.

Unfortunately, a lot of sex-pos people stop with the establishment of the genuineness of desire, while radfems want to probe the authenticity of desire -- leading to a lot of talking past one another. An authentic desire is one that is "really yours," not a result of social conditioning. The usual way of describing this is to ask whether you'd still desire something if there were no patriarchy. An inauthentic desire can still be perfectly genuine -- patriarchy (or whatever social conditioning system) has the ability to make you actually like doing the things it wants you to do, not just to externally coerce you into doing them. I think there are problems with this model of people having real pre-social desires with cultural conditioning layered on top of them. But we can reformulate it in a way that preserves the essence of the radfem concern while recognizing that all desires are created in a social context. The question of authenticity is the question of the origin of a genuine desire -- is it produced by a force that we can approve of, or is it produced by a force we would like to do away with? I'll keep the somewhat unsatisfactory label "authentic" for desires resulting from approvable forces. Understanding the origins of one's desires in this way can be helpful in deciding whether and how how to reform one's own desires, or one's participation in desire-creating forces, with the ultimate goal of producing more consistently satisfiable desire packages.

So where does the desire to give fellatio to men arise from? We can see the radfems and sex-pos as each giving a plausible hypothesis. The radfem hypothesis is that the desire for fellatio is cultivated by patriarchal socio-cultural systems as a way to get women to serve men's pleasure and mark their own submission. This hypothesis has a great deal of face validity. We can document the cultural messages and direct compulsion along these lines in both women's and men's magazines, in the statements of many men to their buddies and their lovers, and in porn. This hypothesis clearly accounts for the prevalence of non-genuine desire to give fellatio, so it's hardly a stretch to imagine it cultivating genuine desires as well -- though many sex-pos people tend to conflate genuineness with authenticity, assuming that the authenticity of a desire can be validated by their own subjective feelings.

But the sex-pos side has a good hypothesis as well. There are a variety of authentic reasons one might desire to give fellatio to a man, such as the pure physical pleasure of mouth-to-genital contact or the enjoyment of having him in a vulnerable position (think of the damage teeth could do) and directing his experience. Many radfems are so fixated on the patriarchal pro-fellatio narrative that they dismiss alternative narratives as necessarily rationalizations. But in fact they are quite plausible, internally consistent, and not at odds with any objective facts about the act (after all, these reasons apply just as well in the case of cunnilingus, where there's no patriarchal pro-cunnilingus forces that we might just be rationalizing).

We must also flip things around and do a parallel analysis of the desire not to give fellatio to men. Here, radfems are quick to point to plenty of reasons why one might not be keen to give fellatio -- the taste, discomfort from performing the action, etc. (hence, of course, the term "funk-filled bratwurst"). The sex-pos side will happily recognize these reasons, and defend the right of any woman to refuse to give fellatio on this basis. Unfortunately, some radfems are quick to universalize these reasons -- fellatio is objectively disgusting to anyone, therefore authentic reasons for doing it must not exist, therefore only inauthentic reasons could explain the existence of genuine desire to give fellatio. But there are also plenty of inauthentic reasons one might not want to give fellatio to a man. For example, the strength of the "receiving fellatio as an act of domination" discourse can poison the whole act for someone.

So both the radfem and sex-pos side have hypotheses with strong face validity. Moreover, I don't think we can give the automatic burden of proof to one side or the other -- we don't have to disprove all authentic hypotheses before we can entertain an inauthentic one, or vice-versa. This leaves us the difficult task of sorting out, for any individual person or for women as a whole what the balance between the two causes is (and therefore what proportion of fellatio desire is authentic). Unfortunately, nobody in this debate seems to have a very good idea of what kind of evidence would settle this question.

* The question of giving fellatio to a trans woman or non-binary person is largely ignored in the debate, mostly because most radfems don't accept the validity of these people's existence.


Natural Bodies For Natural Societies

I tend to be suspicious of lines of thinking that traffic in the idea of "naturalness" -- even when the word "natural" isn't used. Visions of a pure social-environmental harmony, especially when positioned in a past that oppressive modern systems have twisted us away from, often encode problematic assumptions about human diversity. Consider, for example, the following short passage by indigenous leader Saul Paau Maaz, describing his people's traditional approach to family planning:

The Maya Q'eqchi' also practiced a traditional form of family planning, based on the phases of the moon. The seven-day period which starts on the first day of a woman's menstruation was understood as a time when sexual relations are permitted. After those seven days, there is a fertile period which lasts from the eighth day until the 19th day. From 19th day until the next menstruation, partners can have sexual relations with little risk of becoming pregnant. Because of this traditional wisdom, there are elders today who have only had three or four children during their entire reproductive life, though they have never used any Western contraception.

Though Maaz doesn't use the term "natural," we have here all of the usual elements of a naturalness discourse -- the idea that modern innovations were unnecessary in an ideal past state, when respect for the world's cycles enabled the maintenance of a harmonious balance.

What struck me, though, was the assumption about the sorts of bodies that are necessary within this traditional form of family planning. Menstruation is assumed to operate on a very regular, predictable cycle, such that by counting days one can easily determine when pregnancy is possible. But of course many people's menstrual cycles are not so predictable and regular (nor are they necessarily coordinated with the cycles of the moon). Maaz's vision of an ideal harmonious society is built on an assumption of ideal harmonious bodies.

Someone might reply that such irregular menstruation is itself a product of the social and ecological dislocations that have unraveled the practice of traditional family planning and created the Maya population explosion that Maaz is concerned to address. But this response has an air of assuming one's own conclusion*. It resembles Evo Morales's claim that homosexuality is a result of eating factory-farmed chicken, or radical feminist claims that after the revolution nobody will need to be trans. It's an attempt to deal with uncomfortable or inconvenient forms of diversity by saying they were caused by the oppressive system at issue (colonialism for Maaz and Morales, patriarchy for the radical feminists).

Maaz's next paragraph invokes the idea of sacredness -- another common component of naturalness discourse -- while further establishing a narrow norm of sexuality:

Sex is sacred to indigenous people; sexual activity should not be had every day. The right nawal, or the right day for fertilization, has to be considered carefully by both the mother and father. If the series of fertile days are not in harmony with the energies for fertilization, birth, and destiny of a new life, sexual relations should not take place.

Here, "sex" clearly refers only to PIV intercourse. Oral sex, for example, hardly needs to be planned around periods of fertility. So couples who can't or won't engage in PIV disappear from Maaz's conception of sex, while couples who can and will engage in PIV find their sexuality defined by its relationship to procreation. Saying "sex is sacred" sounds profound and full of ancient wisdom, but I think one could just as easily make the argument that de-sacralizing sex is a good way to reduce population growth. By seeing sex as something that's about having fun and connecting with another person, we open the door to a greater diversity of people, practices, and pairings, most of which come with a low risk of pregnancy. The world this creates is a lot messier than Maaz's vision of traditional Maya society, but it's also a world doesn't require its people to be normalized in order to maintain the harmony of the system.

*The logical fallacy formerly known as "begging the question"


Defending and questioning animism

It's common for environmental philosophers to praise, and even advocate, an animistic view of nature. Broadly defined, animism is the view that all things in nature -- including animals, plants, rocks, and landforms -- are agents capable of conscious thought, emotion, communication, and free will. Animism is usually contrasted with a hegemonic "Western" view of nature as consisting of dead matter and purely mechanical action. There are basically two arguments: the compliment argument and the noble lie argument.

The compliment argument says that we should view nature as conscious because doing so is a compliment to nature. As environmentalists, we love nature, and so we should accept viewpoints that make nature sound better. But I'm not convinced that animism necessarily is a compliment to nature. Certainly I like being conscious -- but liking or disliking is a thing you can only do if you already are conscious! Dead, mechanical nature is by definition unable to care if we think it's conscious.

The noble lie argument claims that we should believe nature is conscious because doing so will lead us to treat it better.

I notice, though, that among the arguments for animism we rarely see anyone ask "well, is a river conscious? Does a deer actually choose to give itself up to a hunter? Can a stone really hear what we say about it?" Such questions arise from a basically positivist outlook. "Nature is conscious" is a factual claim about the universe, and we should investigate whether it's true in order to decide whether to accept it. This would require establishing a clear definition of consciousness and then devising a test to see if various things in nature met it. This is basically the approach taken in the more limited realm of animal rights, where we have amassed a pretty substantial body of evidence about the degree to which animals can think, feel, understand, plan, etc. (We're still far from any sort of proof or disproof of animal rights because of continued dispute and slipperiness -- and, frankly, goalpost-moving and circular definition -- with respect to deciding which empirically-detectable characteristics qualify a being for possessing rights.)


The Illness Narrative

My friend Jocelyn has posted a nice rant about the "illness narrative", which is the way of thinking about disease that says it can be fought by sheer willpower and that people who seem to be doing well are "inspirational."


In Partial Defense of Sarah Grunfeld

Last month, there was a flurry of attention to a York University student named Sarah Grunfeld who seemed to have difficulty with the use-mention distinction. Grunfeld was in a class taught by Cameron Johnson, who was explaining the boundaries of acceptable discussion in his classroom, and gave as an example the fact that he would not accept it as legitimate debate if a student said something outrageous like "all Jews should be sterilized." Grunfeld promptly left the room and issued a public statement condemning Johnson as anti-Semitic. She was widely ridiculed, since Johnson clearly did not believe that Jews should be sterilized -- indeed, his whole point was just the opposite. But Grunfeld doubled down, telling the media she stood behind her accusation of anti-Semitism because "The words, 'Jews should be sterilized' still came out of his mouth, so regardless of the context I still think that's pretty serious."

Grunfeld's follow-up was widely taken as evidence of her continued failure to understand the use/mention distinction. And I agree. Let me say that again, so that everyone is clear that this post is only a partial defense of Grunfeld: the idea that Johnson did something anti-Semitic is absurd and Grunfeld's attempts to seek redress should be laughed out of court.

But I do balk at the idea that the use/mention distinction is a foolproof barrier against giving offense. There are at least two cases in which mere mention of an objectionable opinion can still be harmful: triggering and rumor-mongering. In either such case, it would not be inherently absurd to insist that "the words still came out of his mouth."

We'll start with triggering. Some ideas can be extremely painful to contemplate, even if the person bringing them up is not advocating them. Merely being asked to bring certain things to mind can be hurtful, especially to a person who has experienced a trauma connected to those ideas. This is the reason that feminist blogs put "trigger warnings" on links to posts and articles that discuss rape in any detail, even when those posts and articles are condemning rape and discussing strategies for ending rape. Someone who is a survivor of rape may find being confronted with information about rape to bring up too many painful memories of their own experiences. I find it dubious in the extreme that "all Jews should be sterilized" is triggering, as I've seen no examples of other Jews stepping forward to say that Johnson's statement was triggering (in fact, I was reminded to post about this when the above link was posted to Facebook by a Jewish friend). But triggering is still a thing that happens, and to negligently mention an idea you should know has good potential to be triggering is a form of bias against the people who would be triggered.

The second way that the use/mention distinction may not be a defense is in the case of rumor-mongering. Here, someone wants to put some idea out there, but doesn't want to take responsibility for agreeing with it. So you just mention it. Some people say that Barack Obama killed a thousand puppies with his bare hands. I'm not saying he did -- in fact, I think it's silly -- but I'm just telling you that other people are saying it. This kind of transparent laundering of objectionable ideas through mentioning them instead of using them is condemned by the Associated Press Stylebook, and for good reason. It puts the ideas out there as something to be considered just as much as actually stating them as your own opinion would. Johnson's statement was highly unlikely to put the idea of sterilizing Jews into the public consciousness and make it a topic of debate (and post hoc we can clearly see that it did not in fact inspire such effects), so this line of defense wouldn't be available to Grunfeld. But it is a type of case in which saying "the words came out of his mouth" could be a legitimate response.


Last Names Are Obsolete

The last name debate is one of the most popular yet least productive debates in feminism. The latest round, at Feministe, is entirely predictable -- but reading it prompted me to think about whether our whole custom of last names is obsolete.

In US and similar cultures, last names are family names. Traditionally one shares one's last name with the family they live with, whether they're a child or a parent in that family. Last names are handed down to one's descendants (hence the traditional exception to the wife-changes-her-name rule when doing so would cause her maiden name to go extinct). Your last name functions to designate you as a member of a certain genealogical grouping -- I'm Stentor, of the Danielson family. The custom of a wife changing her last name was really a custom of a woman leaving her birth family and joining her husband's family.

But that's hardly the only way that a surname can be established. Over the summer I did some amateur genealogy. The English segments of my ancestry followed the last-name-as-family-name pattern, such that you could safely predict that each person's father would have the same last name as them, maintaining the names generation after generation. But as soon as any line crossed back to Sweden (mostly in the late 1800s), last names suddenly became true patronymics. Sven Persson would name his son Arvid Svensson, not Arvid Persson -- and his daughter would be Linnea Svensdotter. (At one point I ran across a long string of alternating generations of Bengt Martensson and Marten Bengtsson.) Here, last names indicate your position within a family tree, but don't designate you as part of a specific family group. This makes sense given that the Swedes in question were largely peasants, and so there was no great family patrimony or inheritance to be handed down within the family. These patronymics were then frozen into family names at Ellis Island, such that my last name is literally "Daniel's son" even though my father is named Rodger.

Looking at the origins of other common family names reveals additional ways of establishing last names. You could look to the person's occupation (Smith), or to some notable characteristic they have (Schwarz, meaning "dark"), or to their hometown (Wiener, meaning "from Vienna").

In the modern US, there is no longer much need to designate someone's membership in a family lineage. It's a convenience to have the same last name as one's immediate nuclear family (albeit a convenience it's easy to do without). But when we go beyond that, our notions of relatedness are resolutely bilateral, not patrilineal -- I consider myself equally related to my counsins who are Eberls, Pearsons, Johnsons, and Derrs as I am to those who are also Danielsons. Moreover, nothing of legal importance turns on sharing a last name, or sharing the patrilineage that the name (if inherited by traditional rules) implies. So the notion that last names must be in some way inherited is senseless in our cultural context.

It's unlikely we'll do away with the idea that people should have two names, since it's so deeply embedded in our bureaucracy and computer systems. But there's no reason that we have to stick to the family-name model when confronting the perennial question "but what will you name the kids?" If my wife and I were to have kids, there's no reason we shouldn't name them Billy Stentorsson, Susie Browneyes, and Alex Pittsburgher.

The Garden of Eden Did Not Have a Latitude and Longitude

Michael Trinklein is quite fond of a recent theory that the real location of the Garden of Eden lies sunken beneath the Persian Gulf. Hydrologist Ward Sanford argues that the mysterious Pishon and Gihon rivers that the Bible associates with Eden are now-dry streambeds in the Arabian Peninsula. During the last ice age, he believes, the Persian Gulf was dry land, and the Pishon and Gihon would have met the Tigris and Euphrates in this region, thus making it the site of the garden.

I don't know enough about geology to evaluate the dry-Persian-Gulf theory, but I think on purely textual evidence the theory falls down. Genesis 2:10 states "A river watering the garden flowed from Eden; from there it was separated into four headwaters." This pretty clearly places the garden near the source of the four rivers, not near their downstream confluence. The mountains of eastern Turkey thus seem a more likely setting for the garden of Eden, since that's where the headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates are.

As an atheist, I don't believe there was a garden of Eden -- or even necessarily any specific real-world place whose legend got embellished into our garden of Eden story. But we can certainly ask where the authors of Genesis thought they were placing the garden. Trinklein's search for the garden of Eden goes astray, however, by imposing a very modern conception of "where" onto the Bible's authors.

Trinklein says in the linked video that the fact that real rivers are used to give the garden's location is good evidence that it was real, since that would allow people to go and check to see if the story is true. And therefore, we can use the coordinates given by the Bible to locate the garden for ourselves. This line of thinking makes two mistaken assumptions.

The first mistaken assumption is that the clash between belief and skepticism would have made sense to the authors of Genesis. Trinklein certainly approaches questions of Biblical interpretation from the mindset that there are nonbelievers out there, against whom the Bible's claims must be defended. But that would not have been the approach of the authors of Genesis. In their world, belief in one myth or another was taken as given -- evidence-based skepticism is a modern invention. Indeed, Genesis itself does not present clashes between God's people and followers of other gods as clashes between two alternate theories of the divine, only one of which can be accurate. Rather, the other gods do actually exist -- they're just not as powerful or worship-worthy as the God of the Bible. There was no fear of a 5th century BCE Richard Dawkins heading out to explore the headwaters of the Tigris and disprove the existence of the garden of Eden. Moreover, even if a skeptic had wished to seek out the garden of Eden, it would have been an arduous journey. Few people in the ancient world would have the means to carry out such an expedition.

The second mistaken assumption is that the authors of Genesis and their ancient audiences would have thought about geography in the same way as we do. I recall voraciously reading Genesis as a kid, carefully comparing the events in the story to several maps that were included in my Bible, as is standard for modern editions. (Indeed, I recall being particularly annoyed that I could not locate the Pishon and Gihon on these or any other maps!) Packaging these maps along with the Bible implies that we should view Bible geography the same way we view modern geography -- as a matter of events taking place in defined locations on a roughly-spherical Earth, which can be viewed from an "objective" bird's-eye view. But this way of looking at the world, and the proliferation of spatially-accurate maps that accompanies it, is really a product of the modern era (albeit with significant ancient Greek antecedents). The few ancient maps that we have show clear signs of being conceptual cosmological diagrams, with little concern for fidelity to latitude and longitude. This was not merely a reflection of poor data sources and mapping techniques. It was a reflection of the way people actually thought about a wider world that they would likely have little reason to ever travel through. The world around them was organized into a symbolic system, inferring the existence of features like an encircling sea, Mountains of the Moon at the source of the Nile, or other entities that nobody had ever actually seen.

Let's apply this idea of geography as symbolic cosmology to the garden of Eden. The idea of a single central source for the world's rivers, paralleling the single ultimate destination, is a common one, giving a simple organization to our understanding of hydrology. The garden is placed at this source to remove it from the mundane nearby world. Moreover, there is a clear symbolic link between the idea of the garden as the origin place of humanity, and the garden's location at the headwaters of four life-giving rivers. These symbolic cosmological ideas would have been far more important to the writers and readers of Genesis than any concern to send out an ancient Lewis and Clark to map out the true location of the Pishon's source. Thus Trinklein's spatially-accurate maps -- which show the four rivers having origins far from each other but flowing together on the bed of the dry Persian Gulf -- misleads us into using spatial logic to seek the location of the garden. We may not be able to find a latitude and longitude for the garden because its coordinates are given not in degrees but in conceptual connections.