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Dec 12 2012

If we cannot have moral feelings against blueberries

Scalia’s a funny guy, as any fule kno. On Monday he was talking at Princeton (which is in Princeton, which is where I grew up, or at least where I spent the years from 0 to 17) and he explained about why same-sex sex is a no-no.

A gay student named Duncan Hosie got up and asked Scalia about his avid support for bans on “sodomy,” i.e. same-sex couples doing it, and Scalia answered with this:

“It’s a form of argument that I thought you would have known, which is called the ‘reduction to the absurd,’” Scalia told Hosie of San Francisco during the question-and-answer period. “If we cannot have moral feelings against homosexuality, can we have it against murder? Can we have it against other things?”

Scalia said he is not equating sodomy with murder but drawing a parallel between the bans on both.

That’s a reductio ad absurdum? To say that if we can’t have “moral feelings against homosexuality” then we also can’t have moral feelings against murder? Talk about random. He might as well say if we can’t have moral feelings against jelly babies we can’t have moral feelings against murder.

But maybe it’s witch-hunty of me to criticize what he said. Maybe I should email him and ask him what he meant, first.

30 comments

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  1. 1
    Valde

    Ophelia, whatever you do, don’t be a shrill woman!! :P

  2. 2
    composer99

    But maybe it’s witch-hunty of me to criticize what he said. Maybe I should email him and ask him what he meant, first.

    Ba-dum-bing.

  3. 3
    briane

    I think the reductio is this.
    P1. It is not permitted to have moral feelings about X.
    P2. I have moral feelings about homosexuality.
    C. Contradiction, which is absurd. Ergo, we can have moral feelings about anything…..

    I don’t give a rat’s smelly bum about what he has moral feelings about. I am only concerned when he tries to legislate his moral feelings. He’s free to find homosexuality distateful, or morally bad, and wish it outlawed, but not make the rest follow in lockstep with the law.

  4. 4
    rrede

    Well, turn about is fair play!

    “Nothin’ wrong with witchfinding. I’d like to be a witchfinder. It’s just, well, you’ve got to take it in turns. Today we’ll go outwitchfinding, an’ tomorrow we could hide, an it’s be the witches’ turn to find US. . .”

    Good Omens Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman

    http://dl.dropbox.com/u/33965638/Wednesday%20Adams%20lighting%20a%20match%20for%20Thanksgiving.jpg

  5. 5
    Francisco Bacopa

    Scalia does not even understand the terms he is using here. A reductio is when you introduce as an assumption the opposite of of what you are trying to prove and show that in the context of already accepted premises, that assumption leads to an explicit contradiction. He’s not even using terms from logic correctly.

    But still, it does make sense considering Where Scalia is coming from. Most of us reading this accept that it is good to reduce harm and promote thriving. But each individual has different ideas about what is will be good fro him or her and individuals have a kind of special access to how things are fro themselves. Therefore, thriving is likely to be maximized when individuals can engage in whatever consensual interactions with others, with few restrictions. And the burden of proof is upon those who would use coercion to deter and punish any interaction. Consent is a good guideline. Why is rape, non consensual sex, wrong? Because we understand that the best judges of whether a sexual interaction is likely to be beneficial for them is the set of all the parties involved, and that if one party doesn’t or can’t actively consent, net harm is the likely outcome.

    But Scalia is not so sophisticated. Things are wrong if the the person saying the thing is wrong can physically coerce the other into compliance. Authority equals asskicking. Scalia’s God is the ultimate asskicker. He can torture us in Hell forever if we disobey. He does not believe in a morality based on benefit and harm, with its huge respect for consent. In other words, we cannot reason with him as a moral agent.

    This just proves my point that some religious people are so morally degenerate that they cannot be reasoned with. They are simply the enemy. We can never be free until we have the numbers, influence, and control over the coercive instruments of state power to make them bend to our wills.

    BTW, I do have a great deal of respect for a few religious people. Ray Hill, host of Execution Watch, and former host of The Prison Show on KPFT. I have met him twice and each time I came away feeling like I met the most kind and gracious man who ever lived. Jesus has got nothing on Ray Hill.

  6. 6
    sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d

    Actually, Scalia’s own example- apart from what it reveals about the way he thinks about sodomy and other things- shows a logical fault. We cannot have ‘moral feelings against murder’. Murder is already defined morally or legally. It is not the act of killing someone that is murder, but the act of killing someone for morally or legally unjustifiable reasons. Killing someone is only murder if we have justifiable moral feelings against it and we go to a great deal oif trouble and expense to decide if we- as a society- do have justifiable feelings against specific acts., in which case they are murder.
    Killing someone may or may not be murder. Sodomy is just sodomy. It’s the same act, whatever our views about its morality.

  7. 7
    F [is for failure to emerge]

    No, reductio ad absurdum goes like this: Some people have “moral feelings” contra teh ghey, therefore teh ghey should be illegal. That’s fucking absurd.

  8. 8
    otrame

    How much I wish someone there could have thought fast enough to say, loudly, “my God, he thinks that’s an argument? It doesn’t even make any sense!”

  9. 9
    Aratina Cage

    “Can we have it against other things?”

    Other things like Americans, Whites, Catholics, and men, of course.

  10. 10
    timberwoof

    According to Chief Justice Roberts, federal law requires judges to disqualify themselves from a case when their impartiality might reasonably be questioned. I think we can reasonably question Clarence Thomas’ impartiality with regard to gay marriage: his voting record and public stance on gay issues speaks for itself. Thomas should recuse himself from the gay marriage cases.

  11. 11
  12. 12
    emily isalwaysright

    Perhaps Scalia is taking a positivist view of morality, i.e. morality as an expression of personal preference. This makes sense, especially as he refers to “moral FEELING.” What he means is that if you can say boo to blueberries, I can say boo to sodomy. To say “blueberries are wrong” is to say “I don’t like blueberries.” It sounds crazy, but food taboos aren’t that uncommon.

  13. 13
    John Morales

    briane,

    I think the reductio is this.
    P1. It is not permitted to have moral feelings about X.
    P2. I have moral feelings about homosexuality.
    C. Contradiction, which is absurd.

    The quotation is: If we cannot have moral feelings against homosexuality, can we have it [sic] against murder? Can we have it against other things?

    It’s not even an argument (I think you are too generous by trying to shoehorn it into a syllogism) — it is but a rhetorical question, and a stupid one at that, since the answer is obviously ‘yes’ unless one’s morality is predicated on a particular interpretation of Biblical morality where denying any one tenet implies hypocrisy.

    (The implied rhetorical propositional gotcha is of the form ∀x:¬M(x)→¬M(¬x) — that is, if one cannot have moral feelings against something, one cannot have moral feelings against anything)

  14. 14
    aziraphale

    What worries me is Scalia’s unstated principle that if “we” have moral feelings against something, it is right to ban it.

    On second thoughts….

    Significant numbers of people have moral feelings against war, torture and the banking system. Shall we start by banning them?

  15. 15
    jose

    Actually that form of argument is called slippery slope and it’s taught in every high school here as part of the phylosophy course. Or it used to before the crisis ate half the country’s teachers.

  16. 16
    Prairie Bob

    Blueberries are an abomination.

    …unless they be used in an act of sodomy!

  17. 17
    sailor1031

    Well Scalia, as he often does, has at least managed to reduce his argument to the absurb. The real problem with this however, is that a supreme court justice is effectively announcing what his decision willl be in an upcoming case and basing that decision not on Law but on an irrational dogma dictated by a foreign-based religion and his own sense that same-sex sex is just icky. As a canadian prime minister (himself a product of jesuit education) famously said “the state has no business in the bedrooms of the nation”. It seems it’s going to be a long time before this simple principle is accepted in the USA – what with six fucking catholics on a court of nine so-called “justices”….

  18. 18
    Sili

    It’s good for hear from the horse’s mouth that I’m entirely justified in my anti-papism.

  19. 19
    harrysanborn

    Morality isn’t defined by feelings. If that’s all you have … moral feelings, then you don’t have a very good case for making a moral argument. Lots of people had “moral feelings” about other races, or slavery. Other than their personally held, and completely unsupported “moral feelings” they didn’t have a leg to stand on.

  20. 20
    NitricAcid

    If we can ban murder and homosexuality based on moral feelings, then clearly we can also ban the consumption of beer, pornography, the printing and selling of bibles, and sex between any woman and any man who isn’t me.

    I wish I had been there to ask the obvious follow-up question, “Are you stupid?”

  21. 21
    jenny6833a

    #3 Briane says, I don’t give a rat’s smelly bum about what he has moral feelings about. I am only concerned when he tries to legislate his moral feelings. He’s free to find homosexuality distateful, or morally bad, and wish it outlawed, but not make the rest follow in lockstep with the law.

    We agree. But if moral feelings aren’t enough, what’s the test?

    If we only banned actions or states of being that, for example, cause tangible harm to others, we’d have to repeal a large number of laws — including many that you almost certainly support.

  22. 22
    Ophelia Benson

    There is no one test. It’s ad hoc, messy, contested, all that. But it is supposed to have reasons of some kind – not just “eww” intuitions. (Leon Kass would disagree, but then I disagree with Leon Kass.) Scalia seems to be saying it is just an “eww” intuition and that’s ok.

    It’s not true that he’s not sophisticated though (cf Francisco). He’s smart as hell, and sophisticated. He must have been playing silly buggers here.

  23. 23
    sailor1031

    But if moral feelings aren’t enough, what’s the test?

    For a judge the test is the law. Sure there’s good laws and bad laws and weird laws and inane laws but it is the judge’s function simply to apply them not to make them – especially based on his/her feeling about what is icky or not.

    As for the ick factor – I find the idea of Scalia having sex to be very icky; but I don’t insist he not be allowed to – if he can find a willing partner.

  24. 24
    latsot

    I sometimes wonder whether the obsession some people have with sodomy as an automatically bad thing can be used against them.

    Who *hasn’t* either committed sodomy or been sodomised or both? I’ve certainly done both and I’m willing to talk about it in endless, lurid, frenzied detail. It would be great if everyone just went right ahead and described in public their positive experiences of sodomy. It’s not like it’s anything to be ashamed of. It’s not like it takes more than a rainy afternoon to give serious thought to trying it out, right?

    Maybe if we keep talking about it gleefully, we’ll eventually stop freaking people out about this entirely natural and obvious act. And thereby perhaps people will find fewer reasons to object to homosexuality, equal marriage and so on.

    And the worst case scenario is that we actually do keep freaking idiots out. Win win.

  25. 25
    latsot

    BTW the new site design has some serious accessibility issues.

  26. 26
    Ron Sullivan

    What exactly is a “moral feeling”?

  27. 27
    rnilsson

    Quoth Ophelia @22:

    Scalia seems to be saying it is just an “eww” intuition and that’s ok.

    It’s not true that he’s not sophisticated though (cf Francisco). He’s smart as hell, and sophisticated. He must have been playing silly buggers here.

    He shouldn’t play with what he wants to ban, it seems to me. That would indeed be silly.

  28. 28
    chrislawson

    A reductio ad absurdum is a rhetorical technique whereby you demonstrate that an opponent’s argument yields absurd results when applied more generally. The use of reductio ad absurdum goes back to some of the mathematical proofs in ancient Greek trigonometry, and arguably Godel’s Theorem is a reductio ad absurdum.

    But…the technique has developed a bad name because it is frequently abused. So many people think they’ve created a reductio ad absurdum when all they’ve really done is (i) misrepresented the opposing argument, i.e. straw manning, (ii) extended the original argument erroneously, i.e. made claims that do not follow from the argument, or (iii) decided the outcome is absurd based entirely on personal prejudice, i.e. “if homosexuality is not immoral then neither is murder”.

    Scalia, being the sack of smug egocentrism he is, has drawn on the power of a reductio ad absurdum without doing any of the hard work to prove his case.

  29. 29
    Francisco Bacopa

    There is no one test. It’s ad hoc, messy, contested, all that. But it is supposed to have reasons of some kind – not just “eww” intuitions. (Leon Kass would disagree, but then I disagree with Leon Kass.) Scalia seems to be saying it is just an “eww” intuition and that’s ok.

    Leon Kass is a moral degenerate of the first order. I read two thirds of one of his books. I could not stand his “The Wisdom of Repugnance” principle. Humans can be conditioned to find almost anything repugnant. There is no wisdom there. Moral wisdom lies in a consistent picture of what human thriving is, and reducing harm and promoting benefit according to that picture. Such a picture recognizes the importance of consent and even implies the use of force against those who do not respect consent.

    Scalia is not a sophisticated thinker. I suspect he has no “epistemic interior”. There is no way inside of himself the world is for him. He is empty. He is a little child who says whatever got grandma to give him a cookie. He has built up a list of correct answers and replaced grandma with God and memorized a bunch of law stuff and got cookies from all his superiors until he got on the the SCOTUS. He has an incredible brain, but there is no inside to him.

    I developed my hypothesis that some people have no epistemic interior when I TA’d a couple of logic classes and now privately tutor people taking logic at UH, Rice, and HCC. Some of my clients simply cannot imagine what things are like when a sentence is true or false. They have no epistemic interior. They look harder and harder at things looking at the sentence looking for the cookie code. And yes, with the basic stuff there kinda is a cookie code. But let’s look at something with some relations and quantifiers. You have to use your imagination to figure this out:

    ” Mother cats lick only their own kittens” (Cx = x is a cat. Kx = x is a kitten, Mxy = x is the mother of y, Lxy = x licks y)

    Totally simple if you use your imagination. So there’s a cat and a kitten, if the cat licks the kitten the cat is the mother of the kitten.

    ∀x∀y[(Cx & Ky) → (Lxy → Mxy)]

    My client just barely gets it and she is a high achieving student at Rice. She is an incredibly adept cookie getter, but logic class is not about cookies.

  30. 30
    OlliP

    We had a similar incident in Finland two years ago after a christian youth group parallelled murder and homosexuality in their ad campaign (the quote was “if a murderer can repent, why not a homosexual”). The campaign received major publicity as the group was funded by Finland’s state church. In a live TV debate prominent church leaders supported the youth group, which eventually led to a +100% spike in people who left the church that year (compared to other years).

    The debate was so effective that the amount of people that left the church as a result of the controversy was about 10 % of the amount of the live debate’s viewers (though the controversy was more widely noted). So keep it up Scalia, you will make millions more abandon religion in the USA.

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