Saturday, March 22, 2008

Abstinence-only sex ed

So, there has been quite a little debate that a few of my friends are having about abstinence-only sex ed. One of them, a Catholic seminarian, posted an interesting piece on relativism vs. absolutism and the spiritual harm that promiscuity does to others as justification for the state. He also cited a few articles on how condom distribution has been less-than-effective in Africa. Below is my response (names removed):


Dear _____,

You’ve managed to cast the debate as a dichotomy, a false dichotomy in this case. The question is not whether or not one bases a claim in a notion of philosophical anthropology, or whether a proper ontological perspective is lacking – rather, it is a question of which ontology is the correct one. Similarly, there are not simply two competing ontologies – one “relativistic” and the other “Christian” (although some comments can be taken that way). You implicitly accept this by addressing your comments to both relativism and hedonic utilitarianism at the same time. First and foremost, these are distinct philosophic positions, one holding that there is no truth or goodness, the other holding that the fundamental good is individual happiness which should be maximized (although obviously not made “perfect” or complete because of the limits of this world). Such a view is, at least, based on a conception that there is some similarity between humans regarding what they believe is good, and takes happiness and pleasure to be part of that similarity. There are problems with the view, and it is not one to which I subscribe, but to casually dismiss a valid philosophic position with a history that goes back to Epicurus shows a great deal of hubris (particularly to dismiss it with the same logic as you dismiss relativism).

There are really three questions at play here: (1) what is the ontological view you espouse, (2) how is that view justified, (3) how does the justification of that view apply to the current context (i.e. the regulation of social values and public education in modern society)? I use “modern society” so as to avoid the technical legal debates associated with the US Constitution. The answer to (1) is fairly straightforward, given that you are advocating for the Catholic worldview. Your ethical absolutism comes from the will of an infinitely powerful and wise creator God. That will is expressed and interpreted through the Word and the Spirit (which has expressed itself throughout history, giving rise to Tradition). (2) and (3) are more complicated, and I’ll try to address them in what follows.

With regards to (2), the justification of your ontology can come from two directions. The first is a conclusive proof of the existence of the Christian God and his moral tenets. This has been tried a number of times – Anselm (ontological), Aquinas (cosmological and teleological), and Pascal (pragmatic) are probably the most famous examples of attempted proofs. Each has been refined a number of times, but each has also met with potent objections. Anselm’s proof is most chiefly disputed by Kant and Russell’s arguments that existence is not a property (rather it is a quantifier), and as such cannot be analyzed a priori (propositions concerning existence are a posteriori propositions requiring direct evidence). To my knowledge, this objection has yet to be successfully refuted. Similarly, the cosmological and teleological proofs can, at best, show the existence of an architect or “first cause” of the universe – but cannot speak to the nature of that architect or cause. They may be able to prove the existence of some form of spiritual being, but not the existence of the Christian-specific God (again, see Kant on this). Finally, Pascal’s pragmatic proof makes no ontological claims, but simply argues that it is individually utility-maximizing to believe in God. Why? Because if I don’t believe and God does exist, I go to Hell (whereas if I do, I get Heaven). Similarly, if God does not exist, it makes not one whit of difference if I believe, because I get nothingness at the end either way. Pascal’s argument makes no claims about ontology, and really isn’t a proof in the classical sense. As such, it does not help the current debate.

Without conclusive philosophical proof of the Christian God’s existence, let alone scientific proof, we are left with option two: faith built on a personal relationship with God. While I will be the first to admit of the powerful effect that faith has on the individual, and while I wholly agree that faith can give personal knowledge of a loving God, there is a difficulty with the use of faith as a justification for any given ontology. The very nature of a faith-based experience, of a mystical experience, is that it is epistemically non-transferable (and potentially non-verifiable). Such experiences are personal encounters with the ineffable, and often manifest themselves in radically different ways. I have yet to meet a person who has not experienced such an encounter who can understand what it feels like, what it means. Nor have I met one who accepts that such experience comes from a non-psychological/neurological source. Thus, while such experiences may be powerful divine instruments in leading a person to faith, they are not an objective form of justification.

This brings us to (3): how do these forms of justification apply to regulation or social values in modern society? The only forms of potentially conclusive justification currently available for the existence of the Christian God (upon whom Christian morality depends), are subjective, non-verifiable, and non-transferable. Additionally, the context in which we find ourselves is a pluralistic one – culturally, religiously, and philosophically. In the absence of philosophic justification that is both conclusive and objective for the existence of God, we are left with the observable world and verifiable human similarities as the basis of our morality. It is similarly incumbent upon a representative state to give weight to the difference found within that society, and to limit itself so as not to infringe on our ability to express our opinions – in speech, press, or religion. Indeed, the creation of institutional frameworks to work out social compromises is part and parcel of liberal democratic regimes – with an eye to not only uphold the views of the majority, but also to protect the fundamental rights of the minority.

A liberal democratic state is limited both by purpose and design – and for good reason. Without such limitations and structures to facilitate compromise, the state has often become subject to the whims of those who would seek power for its own sake. While there are justifications to such power, as Augustine and Hobbes would be quick to point out, I think that history has shown authoritarian rule to be inferior to liberal democracy – for all the failings in liberal democracy. At the very least, their institutions allow for gradual change to take place as the social contract and the compromises inherent in such a contract change with the times.

In such a context, social regulations need to be based on verifiable social harm and a healthy skepticism towards what ethical pronouncements we can make. The modern state exists to provide a general framework of order and stability in society, to prevent obvious, egregious, and agreed upon violations of social norms. Given the lack of observable social harm, particularly in the face of the success of universal contraceptive provisioning at alleviating the earthly harms of such practices, the limitation of sexual education to abstinence-only is a decision that is beyond the reach of the modern state – just as requiring private religious schools to promote the use of contraceptives should be beyond the reach of the state (at least for programs that do not receive government funding, other cases may be more complex), and just as requiring that abstinence not be discussed should be beyond the scope of the state.

The promotion and state insurance of maximal-plausible real freedom (political, civil, and social) is not without cost, but we promote state intervention in the moral fabric of society at our own peril, particularly if such intervention flies in the face of proven results. It is not and should not be the place of the state to interfere in cases where morality is epistemologically uncertain. It is the role of the state to act upon what we, as a society, know. It is emphatically not the province of the state to act upon what one portion of its citizens believes. Personal justification may come through faith, but public justification cannot if it is to remain coherent and maintain the social contract (on this note, and on the need to step beyond individual perspective in politics more generally, I would suggest John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice).

Incidentally, on the articles you suggested in your comments regarding AIDS in Africa, I think you’ll find that the majority of scientific and development literature is against their arguments. It’s not that condoms don’t prevent AIDS transmission, nor do programs including their distribution increase the prevalence of HIV/AIDS due to enhanced promiscuity. What they may find is that it takes a while to overcome cultural hurdles towards their use, that high-risk groups are more likely to listen if provided with anti-retroviral treatment, and that it takes a while to scale up distribution programs until they are effective. These are all understandable points and underscore the need to include abstinence in any education program. The best and most proven method is to couple abstinence education with free and universal condom distribution, and anti-retroviral treatment for the disease. Abstinence is the safest way, but people will continue to have sex with a number of partners. Poor African men who move from location to location often cannot afford to move their families with them, and tend to seek companionship where each job is. Similarly, groups that advocate abstinence-only education to prostitutes with no other job skills are merely undermining the efforts of aid workers (although, to their credit, the articles do admit that). Once again, we need to be aware of the plural nature of these contexts and do what works best – which typically means tackling the problem from a number of angles. Development needs to be a holistic process to be done effectively.


Catholic Seminarian Friend said...

Reading the context, I think you misunderstand my position. I was NOT trying to justify the state. I am trying to give a proper understanding of the purpose of religion. That is, religion is a primary worldview. Therefore the notion that many people (especially in the US) hold which states that religion is a private affair that should not dictate how they live their lives, how they conduct their business, how they relate to others, and how they attempt to establish a society is fundamentally flawed. Religion is what binds ones world together. In our country the religion is primarily secularism, not Christianity. Thus in the US we find G.K. Chesterton's statement that "Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried" to be true.

Sean said...

I understand your point. My point was one concerning the epistemic justification of that worldview and how it relates to public policy. In fact, public policy was the point at issue - specifically public sexual education policy. My argument is narrowly construed to address that fact in a non-theocratic, culturally and religiously plural

I specifically left room for your worldview to justify how you live your life and how the church conducts its business - that is, after all, the point of a worldview. I would agree that, in that sense, many people are merely nominally christian (and many are avowedly non-christian). That is not, however, the fault of the state. Nor should the state be expected to correct it - such corrections are left up to the faithful. That is the point of evangelization and discipleship.

Plus, my arguments likewise constraint he state from preventing you from carrying out your mission and they prevent the state from forcing you to promote or provide condoms in schools run/funded by religious orders. This is intentional and based on the same principles of state coherence that prevent interference in others activities - the point is to allow the individual members of the state to live their lives according to their worldview to the greatest extent possible.

no ideas but in things said...

Cool post, Sean. I don't think you needed the clarifications in your most recent post, although I may be biased since I didn't see the post that you were responding to.

I'm probably headed to NYU in the fall and I think I am going to stalk/audit Thomas Nagel.

Hi, this is Monica

Sean said...

Monica, that's absolutely awesome! You know Carlo's son is in the NYU undergrad Philosophy program if you want to set up a tour guide...

On the clarifications in the previous post - they were mostly directed at some concerns sent to me via e-mail by "catholic seminarian friend" that I figured I'd post for any religious friends who might worry.