Friday, 7 October 2016

Estranged Notions: Getting Morality Wrong

Yesterday's post (after 3 weeks of silence):

Getting Morality Wrong

In which Joe Heschmeyer seems more concerned with the headline than the content:

Gail Dines

Heschmeyer is criticizing a WaPo article by anti-pornography crusader Gail Dines, who is claiming (against the evidence) that porn is a “public health crisis”, and that the “science is in” (the sub-headline goes further and says “beyond dispute”, though this may be a WaPo editorial choice) on the supposed harms—a claim supported only by cherry-picking studies whose outcomes she likes and completely ignoring the large number of studies that contradict them. (At least, perhaps to avoid incurring the wrath of WaPo fact-checkers, Dines omits in this article the majority of the bullshit statistics found on her own websites.)

But Heschmeyer, as we'll see, isn't actually concerned with the facts of the issue at all; his dispute is purely with the use of the term ‘morality’.

Headline vs. content

The headline of Dines' article:

Is porn immoral? That doesn’t matter: It’s a public health crisis.

The only other references in the article to ‘morality’ are, first near the start:

The liberal backlash criticized the measure as an antiquated bit of conservative moralizing, …

and again right at the end:

As the research shows, porn is not merely a moral nuisance and subject for culture-war debates. It’s a threat to our public health.

Dines doesn't seem to care about how the reader chooses to interpret ‘moral’ in the context of her article; her argument is specifically and explicitly about the factual consequences.

Heschmeyer actually seems to agree with this. He rejects the position that morality is arbitrarily opposed to happiness (conceding that this position is nevertheless commonly held by Christians); his view of morality in this article is that firstly, the ‘moral law’ is determined by facts of nature, and secondly, that following the ‘moral law’ is the “key to happiness” (his exact words).

Natural Law vs. Hedonic Ethical Naturalism

Heschmeyer doesn't, however, mention teleology in this context. That may simply be an oversight; in other writing he seems to assume the usual Catholic ‘Natural Law’ position (which relies on arguments about what an action is directed toward rather than what it results in). But he doesn't seem to recognize the hole that leaves in his argument. If “pornography is immoral BECAUSE it hurts us”, as he claims, that means that if we found that in fact it isn't harmful, then that implies it isn't immoral. But somehow I doubt that Heschmeyer would actually accept that conclusion given that evidence.

(Other flaws in his argument are apparent too. “It’s not just that the afterlife is better for the Saint; it is frequently the case that this life is better for the Saint as well.” I wonder how many saints this is actually true for; certainly the canonized ones are more likely to be known for the exact opposite.)

The kind of morality that one gets from accepting that teleology is nonsense, but nevertheless also accepting that morality is in some sense about human well-being, and is grounded in nature, turns out to be quite different to what the ‘Natural Law’ thinkers of the Catholic church come up with—especially when it comes to matters of sex.

And so while Heschmeyer's position in this article is something an ethical naturalist might agree with, I don't really think it's the position that he actually holds.