Saturday, October 29, 2011

Absolute Sexual Equality

Over at Philosophical Disquisitions, John Danaher is discussing the "Polygamy, Incest, Bestiality" (PIB) slippery slope objection to homosexuality. He reviews several attempts to counter this argument by describing how homosexual activity is different from PIB, and (paraphrasing John Corvino) rightly points out that there is logically no need to make such arguments because the people who equate homosexuality to PIB do not provide any argument supporting that position (the only similarity being that they are all "forbidden" or "gross").

Along those lines, the PIB argument really isn't an argument in itself; it seems to be a reductio ad absurdum for some unspecified justification for acceptance of homosexuality. The logic seems to be:

1) You say that we should accept homosexuality because of principle X.
2) Principle X would cause us to accept PIB (or pedophilia) .
3) Therefore, principle X is invalid.

Of course, the force of this argument relies entirely on what "principle X" actually is; if principle X does not apply to PIB, then the PIB-argument is pointless.

So this brings us to my favorite "principle X" : absolute sexual equality.

My principle is that I should not treat a person differently due solely to their biological sex (aside from my own sexual relationships). I realized that this principle applies to homosexuality when I read that some opponents of the sexual Equal Rights Amendment had predicted that the ERA would forbid discrimination against homosexual relationships. Many proponents of the ERA reject this interpretation. I'm not a lawyer, so I can't say anything about that -- but I do agree that the principle of sexual non-discrimination implies acceptance of homosexuality.

Attempts to distinguish homophobia from sexism often rest on the idea of reciprocal equality: that discrimination against homosexuality will limit a man's options just as much as it would limit a woman's options-- both men and women would be limited to sexual relationships with the opposite sex (let's ignore the intersex in this argument).

Superficially, this argument seems reasonable, but for any American it should quickly raise a red-flag, since it is reminiscent of the principle of "separate but equal". Based on history, we know that an arrangement that is superficially egalitarian can act as a cover for severe oppression. Based on logic, we know that when we treat people differently, it is very difficult to perfectly balance the moral worth of those differences; this is especially true in a world where people have different opinions regarding the moral worth of different conditions. In essence, requiring that men marry women and women marry men is the same as requiring that men work outside of the home and women work inside the home. We may believe that we can put aside our personal preferences and assert than marrying a man is objectively just as good as marrying a woman. However, as with a belief that working inside the home is just as good as working outside the home, this is actually a personal preference and not an objective description of reality. Furthermore, we cannot give the benefit of the doubt to these assertions of equal value, because such arrangements are quite easy to manipulate in favor of one group or the other (as we have seen in history).

For the sake of illustration, consider these two ways in which this "reciprocal equality" could lead to clearly non-equal outcomes. These may seem silly on their own, but they are sufficient to demonstrate the inequality implicit in considering sex when judging relationships.

The first inequality arises from the physical and emotional differences between men and women. For instance, men (as a group) are stronger than women (as a group); if we were to forbid a person from choosing a partner from either group, then we clearly would be influencing the likely characteristics of the partner that they eventually find.

The second aspect of inequality is apparent when the population is divided into two "reciprocal" groups that vary drastically in size. Consider splitting the human population into two groups, each of which is forbidden from marrying within its own group. Now imagine that one group constitutes 90% of the population, and the other is 10%; the 10% is clearly the elite group here, having their choice of partners from the other group, whereas most of the members of the larger group will be effectively forbidden from marrying at all (unless the members of the smaller group can take multiple spouses). Normally, the population of males and females is nearly equal, so this isn't a big deal, but this thought experiment does emphasize the fact that men and women are selecting their partners from different groups, competing for attention with a different group of people, and that these group dynamics will influence the likely outcome of their quests to find partners. To bring this back to the real world, some societies have experienced substantial imbalances between the male and female population -- a deficit of males following major wars, and a deficit of females is societies that practice prenatal sex selection.

Now that I've stated my position, let's consider how it compares to the position of others. Many people consider themselves "anti-sexist", yet would balk at taking this position of non-discrimination between homosexual and heterosexual couples. Looking at the marriage issue and their behavior in general, they apparently think that discrimination is quite appropriate; they actually are sexist, they only object to the idea that one sex is superior to the other. They will treat men and women differently in everyday encounters and believe that it is totally just for the law to recognize these categories for issues such as marriage. My objection to such categorization is both moral and empirical. Morally, individuals should be free to structure their lives as they see fit, and pigeonholing a person into a gender role places a fairly arbitrary restriction on their freedom. Empirically, many people lack the stereotypical traits of their gender on which theories of sexual discrimination are based (e.g. many men have less strength than the median strength among women). Trying to force a person into a role based on their genitalia is a simplistic approach that ignores the many ways in which each person deviates from any sexual ideal.

On the other side, there may be people who consider my view of sexual equality to be limited, in that I do consider there to be difference between men and women. These differences are apparent both in how I relate to them sexually (which only applies to my wife now) and that the male and female populations differ in many socially important respects. I won't deny that our sexual preferences and relationships have myriad ramifications in other aspects of society (thereby undermining the idea of sexual non-discrimination); however, by recognizing that the male and female populations are in fact different, I do not automatically assume that any difference in social/economic standing is due to discrimination. There is simply no getting around the fact that people are different from each other, and the details of how these differences arise (e.g. genetic, chemical, social) are not really important. We cannot and should not treat each individual identically, all we can do is make sure that our discrimination is not based on unsound ideology and prejudice.

So to bring this back to the issue of social acceptance of homosexuality and the "PIB objection", I think that it is immediately clear that this principle of equality does not compel us to accept polygamy, pedophilia, or bestiality. A variant of this principle (non-discrimination on the basis of parentage) could be used to argue that incest should not be discouraged. Of course, this would in no way affect the situations where incest could be viewed as rape (whether statutory or forcible). I'm not too concerned by this use of the argument to destigmatize incest,partly because I don't think that cousin marriage needs to be stigmatized, and so this issue is limited to sibling marriage. More importantly, most of these arguments for sexual equality do not apply strongly to incest -- primarily because the the prohibition of incestuous sexual activity does not place a substantial restriction on a person's choice of mates.

The advancement of sexual equality is one of the major struggles of our age, and no attempt to equate it with sexual perversion should distract us from eliminating sexual discrimination from our institutions.

Cousin marriage: science, prejudice, and lifestyle mandates

Reposted from Freedom Democrats, 2009.

A perspective from PLoS Biology by Diane Paul and Hamish Spencer argues that there is no scientific basis for social stigma and laws against marriages of first cousins. The basic argument is that the risk of birth defects from first-cousin mating is negligible, and fear of such defects is the only basis for these attitudes and laws. This issue is interesting to libertarians as an illustration of how lawmakers often pretend that they are implementing the scientific management of society, when in fact their acts are based on nothing more than ignorant prejudice.

This issue is also interesting in how it connects with the evolution of our views towards government:

The laws must also be viewed in the context of a new, post–Civil War acceptance of the need for state oversight of education, commerce, and health and safety, including marriage and the family. Beginning in the 1860s, many states passed anti-miscegenation laws, increased the statutory age of marriage, and adopted or expanded medical and mental-capacity restrictions in marriage law. Thus, laws prohibiting cousin marriage were but one aspect of a more general trend to broaden state authority in areas previously considered private. And unlike the situation in Britain and much of Europe, cousin marriage in the US was associated not with the aristocracy and upper middle class but with much easier targets: immigrants and the rural poor.

One flaw in the argument from Paul and Spencer is that they emphasize the low costs of mating among cousins, but they ignore the low costs of prohibiting cousins from marrying--laws against cousin incest produce a negligible reduction in the pool of prospective spouses (as opposed to laws against same-sex marriage or inter-racial marriage, for example). I'm sure that this issue is terribly important for those few people who are romantically in love with their cousins, but it will never get onto the radar screen of anyone who is considering the total welfare of humanity, or the overall injustice in the world.

Paul and Spencer also largely ignore the social issues around cousin marriages. From modern American perspective, cousin marriages may disrupt the stability of the extended family. Conversely, in some societies, cousin-marriages seem to increase family stability and support--providing the child with benefits that may outweigh the risks of genetic problems (I'll link to the report if I can find it). We could also speculate that frequent cousin marriages may result in a more fragmented society with insular families: at its most extreme, it may facilitate the formation of cult-like social structures. Ultimately, I suspect that day-to-day social concerns play a much more direct role in policy formation than expert-mediated scientific knowledge.

A Google search reveals a fair amount of commentary on this issue. At, William Salaten notes that we will soon be able to genotype everyone to look for couples who carry identical alleles: if we embrace the logic of the prohibition on marriage of cousins, does that mean that genetic testing (a la GATTACA) should be a mandatory part of a marriage application, and the application be rejected if both individuals carry a potentially harmful recessive allele? Of course, as GATTACA illustrates, genetic selection on in vitro embryos is a solution to that problem.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Pirate parties and the new economic power

A few posts back, I ruminated on a potential shift in the nature of economic power and how that could play out in the political realm. The rise of the Pirate parties seems to fit into the process that I was pondering:
the success of the Pirate Party cannot simply be explained away by saying it’s a symptom of social exclusion or ignorance. The supporters of the new party are anything but on the margins – they are highly educated and media savvy. And above all, they are young and in a position to attract like-minded individuals in cities all over the country. To a certain extent, they represent the future elite of Germany. For mainstream-party strategists, realising that they are unable to connect with this section of society must come as a kick in the teeth.
From How Germany’s Pirates might sink the mainstream parties | Matthias Heitmann | spiked

Anyway, this suggests that the "new power" may be centered on the ability to generate large ad-hoc communities around current issues, and motivate these communities to act. So the new power is based on social networking assets (including both old-fashioned "people skills", familiarity with those newfangled devices, and a reputation that encourages others to pay attention), as opposed to the old powers built on land ownership, industrial ownership, and institutional control. The funny thing is that the assets of this new power are pretty much identical to the assets of the financial industry-- the main difference being that these assets are now widely distributed, and the "clients" are not just millionaires and large institutions.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Frankly, they don't deserve our protection

I know that most "realists" will say that the assassination of a diplomat on our soil is a clear casus belli, but I think we have to ask whether we really want to make any sacrifices to protect members of the Saudi government. They are scum. That doesn't meant that we can't talk with them and try to work with them under some circumstances, but it does mean that I have no interest in making any sacrifices to protect them, regardless of the circumstances.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The judicial system: The feeblest branch | The Economist

This is crazy:

A typical lawsuit now goes to trial within a couple of years, says Ms Feinstein, but that could soon stretch to five years. The backlog of traffic infractions is already so daunting that it compromises enforcement (and the deterrence of bad driving). And so on. The Californian constitution guarantees criminal defendants a right to speedy trial, but it does not technically require courts to administer civil law at all, Ms Feinstein says. So, in theory, civil adjudication could stop altogether, as it already has on one judicial circuit in Georgia. That, she says would bring about the “unravelling of society”.
The judicial system: The feeblest branch | The Economist

While pondering whether a smooth transition to anarchy is possible, I had thought of the government dismantling itself by folding up the executive branch-- leaving a court to adjudicate disputes between people, and a (possibly reformed) legislative branch to set the rules for such adjudication. Here we seem to have the opposite: the state continuing to micro-manage the lives of the people, but refusing to settle disputes. It's as if the people in charge are trying really hard to leave behind the minarchist ideal of the "night-watchman state".

Following the invasion of Iraq, I had a nagging feeling that Bush and Co. were trying to liquidate the welfare state -- Bush created large deficits by cutting taxes (retroactively!) on the rich, and then guaranteed a long term drain of the budget by invading Iraq even as we were facing a major nation-building challenge in Afghanistan. Before long, we'd have a debt crisis requiring the gutting of state economic support (ranging from Social Security to education funding), but we'd still have to pay taxes (directly or indirectly) to avoid default and to maintain the armed-forces of the state (both domestic and deployed). Our only interaction with the state would be the police-man's baton.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

The new economic power

Even when I'm trying to focus on my job, I get drawn into thinking about social activism. My most recent distraction comes from two articles by Pieter Hintjens. The main essay is called "A User's Guide to the Digital Revolution", the introduction to a book called Software and Silicon. Hintjens presents recent economic developments as a "digital revolution" on par with the "industrial revolution" of the early 19th century, and predicts similarly radical changes in social organization and political power. In a slapdash theory of class struggle, he makes analogies between then and now:
The new social concentrations of 19th century cities allowed an entrepreneurial middle class to emerge, and quite rapidly their economic power turned into political power, and in 1848 there was political revolution across Europe and the establishment of parliamentary democracy in many countries. Political change follows economic change, which follows social change.
Hintjens posits that the "old money" ruling class attempts to constrain the rising power of the "new money" entrepreneurial class with laws such as the Corn Laws of 19th century Britain, or the Intellectual Property laws of today's global system.

This narrative is all well and good (though it seems simplistic relative to the theories described in my current nightstand-book: a biography of Friedrich Engles), but it got me thinking about how the economic power of the "new money" differs from the "old money" in such a way that it demands radical change to the political system. Today, it seems that new money merges seamlessly into the old money; software entrepreneurs sell their start-ups or they draw salaries and dividends, which they then deposit in banks or stock-market investment funds -- just like everyone else with money. This is not anything like the difference between the landed aristocracy and the industrial bourgeoisie in the 19th century.

For there to be a true conflict between a rising economic class and the establishment, the new power has to be fundamentally different and incompatible with the old power. The aristocratic and bourgeoisie power structures were ideologically incompatible, and functionally non-convertible (though some industrialists were granted titles of nobility). I have to look hard -- and squint -- to see that sort of conflict in existing classes.

Hintjens provides a hint of this new form of power in another essay, called Testing Considered Evil. While this is superficially a technical essay about software design methodology, it is actually part of a manifesto about economic organization and how to motivate workers. Here is where we begin to see a radical form of economic power; Hintjens is focusing on how to get programmers involved (and obsessed) with Open Source Software development. This is economic activity that falls outside of the established channels -- it doesn't generate cash revenues, or any sort of property that can be owned by a corporation. The only economic asset gained by the entrepreneur is organizational: a network of motivated programmers, and a reputation that enables the entrepreneur to call on their services.

When this form of economic organization is viewed alongside the efforts of people such as the "Occupy Wall Street" crowd, I can imagine that something big is happening, and that tomorrow's power will not look like yesterday's.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

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