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Tuesday
May062014

What to think about how "How You Say It" — an empirical study of aporetic judicial reasoning

D. Evans, atop "Aporia," before this year's Kentucky Derby

A "CCP journal club!" report from D. Evans:

"Aporia" is a mode of reasoning that shows the author comprehends “an issue’s intractable complexity.” 

Too often, judicial opinions addressing complex value questions are anything but aporetic. While the public is deeply divided over the issue, judicial opinions often “effect a posture of unqualified, untroubled confidence” in the outcome. This “[h]yperbolic certitude” might undermine the legitimacy of the opinion with the losing side, making it seem as though the decisionmaker was biased or unwilling to recognize the strength of arguments supporting the losing side’s position.

In addressing how courts can assure citizens of the law's neutrality, my CCP colleagues and I have conjectured that judicial decisions might reduce cultural polarization and garner acceptance from the losing side by abandoning the norm of reasoning as if the answer is obvious, indisputable, and certain.

Instead, if a court were to recognize (a) the difficulty (even intractability) of the problem, and (b) the strength of the losing side’s case, perhaps the losers would be more likely to perceive the opinion as a legitimate one; one that took their concerns and arguments deeply into account. If the losing side sees its concerns and arguments were thoroughly considered in the decision, it might also be more open to accepting the arguments that prevailed in the outcome. I have long thought about testing this hypothesis that aporetic reasoning would reduce cultural polarization over a controversial ruling.

So I was really excited to read Rob Robinson’s empirical study on exactly this point: It’s How You Say It – Ameliorating Cultural Cognition of Judicial Rulings Through Aporetic Reasoning.

Robinson's study follows a few others with promising implications for the aporia hypothesis: Tom Tyler's research, described here, finds that public views about the legitimacy of legal authority are influenced by the procedural justice and by the distributive justice of the outcomes, but less affected by the favorability of the outcome. Dan Simon and Nicholas Scurich, Lay Judgmentsof Judicial Decision-Making, have found that people tend to agree more with decisions recognizing good reasons support either side of the case than decisions that only recognize the value of one side's position. They also find that an opinion giving no reasons is more persuasive than one including a single, curt reason. (Simon and Schurich's findings rebuffed a preexisting hypothesis called ‘placebic reasoning’ – that people are more likely to credit decisions or actions when backed by reasons, even if those reasons are entirely redundant (i.e., asking to cut in line for a copy machine was less credible than asking to cut in line for a copy machine and providing a redundant reason, “because I have to make copies.”)).

While these studies support the aporia hypothesis, Robinson is the first (to my knowledge) to frame his testing in terms of aporia, specifically.

Robinson conducted an experiment designed to test how members of the public would react to more and less aporetic versions of a judicial decision contrary to their own position on gay marriage.

The study subjects, 619 individuals representing a mix of university students Amazon’s MTurk workers, were assigned to one of three mirror-image conditions. 

In the “control” condition, subjects read a newspaper article describing a judicial decision that examined whether homosexuality should be recognized as an “immutable” (i.e., unchosen, and unalterable) trait. The story reported the court’s conclusion—either “no,” if subjects said they supported gay marriage; or  “yes,” if they said they did—and nothing more.

In the “monolithic” condition, the article includes a quote from the court’s opinion in which the court defends its reasoning by remarking that that an “objective reading of the evidence leads to no other conclusion.”  The court explains that it is obliged to reject the position supported by the study subject—either that homosexuality  is “ immutable,” in the version of the article shown to gay-marriage supporters; or that it is not, in the version shown to gay-marriage opponents—on the ground that there is “no clear scientific consensus” in favor of that view.

In the “aporetic” condition,  the news story quotes language from the opinion evincing a more nuanced stance.  The quoted language chides one side or the other—either  “those who believe homosexuality is a choice” for “often ignor[ing] evidence [to the contrary]” or  “those who argue sexual orientation is fixed or unchanging” for “often overstat[ing] their case.”  The court nevertheless justifies a ruling in favor of the scolded side on the ground that a court is powerless to deem matters otherwise in the face of uncertain evidence.

Robinson reports that subjects found the court’s reasoning more persuasive in both the “monolithic” and “aporetic” conditions  than in the control. In other words, the subjects were least disappointed by the decision when they were told the court had given an explanation for rejecting their position. 

In the view of the subjects who oppose gay marriage, the aporetic opinion was even more persuasive than the monolithic one.

But for those who support gay marriage, the persuasiveness of the decision did not differ significantly among those assigned to “aporetic” and “monolithic” conditions, respectively.

The mean opponents of same-sex marriage rated their disagreement with three forms of the pro-same-sex marriage decision on a scale of 1 ("extremely agree") to 6 ("extremely disagree"): Control 4.16; Monolothic 4.10; Aporetic 3.53. For opponents of same sex marriage, the monolithic opinion was about .06 less disagreeable than the control, the aporetic one was .6 less disagreeable. The mean supporters of same-sex marriage rated their three forms of the anti-same-sex marriage decision follows: Control 4.58; Monolithic  4.46; Aporetic 4.36. Among supporters of same-sex marriage, the monolithic opinion was about .02 less disagreeable than the control, and the aporetic one was .12 less disagreeable than the control. 

This is a super valuable study!

I particularly liked the way in which Robinson distilled the aporetic reasoning into a few quotes set within the framework of a newspaper article. There is much innovative about his deisgn, and his study makes me eager to design a follow up study along these lines. In thinking about how to do so, I have been pondering several questions about the design of this study:

  • One puzzling aspect of his findings is that supporters of same-sex marriage were overall more negative about all three forms of the opinion ruling against it, and they found the aporetic version only slightly less disagreeable. While the aporetic opinion significantly reduced the extent that opponents of same-sex marriage disagreed with a pro-same-sex marriage decision. (The effect of the aporetic treatment on anti-same sex marriage group's disagreement was -0.592, while the effect of the aporetic treatment on pro-same-sex marriage group's disagreement was only -0.150.)

    Why were supporters of same-sex marriage overall more resistant to crediting the contrary opinion, and why was their disagreement less mitigated by aporia? Robinson states this might be caused by the sample of those who favor same-sex marriage being larger (N pro-same-sex marriage=496, N anti-same-sex= 161). (But the larger sample should supply the more significant result if the phenomenon exists, not the less significant one.) He also posits that the difference in reaction may result from "those who favor gay marriage simply having a stronger reaction to empirical claims regarding immutability than those who are opposed." P. 18.

    It could be the case that supporters of same-sex marriage are categorically more rigid in their position, and less willing to credit a contrary ruling regardless of its reasoning.

    But I'd posit another possible explanation. Perhaps the pro-same-sex marriage group's rigid disagreement relates to their views on the relevance of whether homosexuality is immutable, as opposed to an extra-strong belief that same-sex marriage should be allowed. It seems that there may be many egalitarian individuals like me who think that same-sex marriage should be allowed regardless of whether it is immutable. I think any constitutionally protected individual liberty should be an impermissible basis for discrimination, regardless of whether it is immutable. (Indeed I'm offended by the notion that protection is limited to traits that are predetermined rather than chosen pursuant to constitutionally guaranteed autonomy.). I would be much more persuaded to support regulation of same-sex relationships if it were shown that they caused harm to public welfare: the stability of marriage or childrearing.

    Hence, I wonder whether the extra-strong disagreement with the opinion finding homosexuals are not a protected class may represent disdain of the idea that immutability determines the degree of constitutional protection. This is frustration with the legal standard as opposed to ideology-based cognitive rigidity. For this reason, one of my overarching questions about Robinson's study is whether immutability is the best empirical issue for measuring cultural effects in the same sex marriage debate. I would be inclined to focus on welfare-related empirical questions, such as how same-sex marriage impacts childrearing, a question on which strong cultural effects have been observed.

    Furthermore, because these welfare concerns seem to be more often cited in the public debate as a reason for prohibiting same sex marriage, it seems cultural identity may be more strongly tied to one’s beliefs about these questions than one’s belief about immutability. (While certainly part of the debate about the morality of homosexuality, immutability seems to be cited less often as the public reason for prohibiting same sex marriage.) It seems some might oppose same sex marriage for purported public welfare consequences, regardless of whether sexual orientation is immutable. And as I have described above, some proponents of same-sex marriage might be particularly resentful of a decision based on immutability, as they do not believe this should be a relevant factor. This group might also, while cognitively motivated to support a pro-same-sex marriage ruling, be disinclined to support a ruling that homosexuality is immutable.

My other questions pertain to specific elements of the study's design:

  • Asking for views about same-sex marriage: I wonder whether first asking subjects about their stance on same-sex marriage makes them less susceptible to being persuaded by the aporetic reasoning we are testing. Because people don’t want to be inconsistent—either internally or be perceived as such by those conducting the survey—they might resist crediting the ruling after reporting disagreement with its conclusion at the outset of the study, regardless of whether the find the aporetic or monolithic reasoning persuasive. It seems the cultural measures provide enough information to predict a subject’s likely orientation on same-sex marriage, and it is unnecessary to ask subjects about the issue being studied.        
  • Assignment to conditions with which subjects are inclined to disagree: I also question the decision to only show subjects opinions with which they are inclined to disagree. It seems to me that a study of this nature should measure the reasoning’s persuasiveness to both those inclined to disagree with it and those inclined to agree with it. It may be that an aporetic opinion is more persuasive to those inclined to disagree, it is less persuasive to those inclined to agree. It seems this, too, would be a noteworthy finding. The question should be whether opposing cultural groups converge on the persuasiveness of an aporetic opinion more than they do on a monolithic one.        
  • Focus on whether the opinion is persuasive rather than correct: I would not focus on asking subjects whether the court’s conclusion is correct or accurately reflects scientific findings, but whether they find the opinion persuasive. Subjects might agree with the court’s conclusion or believe that it accurately states scientific research, but find its reasoning unpersuasive. Or to the contrary, they might disagree with the court’s scientific conclusion, but find the reasoning persuasive.        
  • More detailed reasoning: I might consider including a few more sentences so that the court’s reasoning more clearly pronounces three elements that I associate with aporia: (a) noting that this is a difficult, perhaps intractable, question, on which there may be no correct answer; (b) saying the evidence is unclear, and presents the strongest points in favor of each side; and (c) gives reasons for crediting one side’s position despite this empirical uncertainty. (I think this last point is the most contentious aspect of aporia – a court must justify its conclusion after admitting that it is uncertain as to the evidence – and it would be particularly interesting to test.). The monolithic condition would do the opposite--e.g., (a) state that the question is simple with a clear right answer; (b) say the evidence is clear or unequivocal; and (c) hold that there's no way one could reach a different result based on the evidence before the court.         
  • Singling out one side: The aporetic versions in Robinson's study single out one side (The unprotected class version begins: “Those who believe homosexuality is a choice often ignore evidence [to the contrary]”; and protected class begins: “Those who argue sexual orientation is fixed or unchanging often overstate their case.”). In contrast, the monolithic condition does not single out one side in this way, but states: “There is no scientific consensus. . . .” I wonder whether statements that the winning parties “overstate” their case or “ignore” evidence are necessary to the aporetic reasoning. It seems that, for the sake of maintaining the highest degree of similarity between conditions, the aporetic opinion should simply say “The evidence is uncertain as to whether. . . .” Aside from uniformity, I am concerned is that these words might be read as accusing the prevailing side of being disingenuous. One party overstating its case has nothing to do with the court’s aporetic reasoning, but it could heighten the losing side’s suspicion for the winning side’s claims.  
  • Explaining what’s at stake before the aporia manipulation: The prompt in this survey tells subjects that immutability determines the degree of constitutional protection afforded same-sex couples, but it does not explicitly say that the degree of constitutional protection determines whether laws prohibiting same-sex marriage are constitutional. It seems this connection—immutability effectively determines the constitutionality of laws prohibiting same-sex marriage—should be made explicit before the aporetic statement about immutability. It seems that priming readers with the cultural significance of the court’s reasoning about immutability would enhance the tendency to engage in motivated reasoning, and this would increase the effects we’d expect to see.        

In raising these questions, I do not mean to undermine the value of Robinson’s study. To the contrary, I find it very valuable. Not only is it encouraging in that it suggests this question is worth studying further, it also supplies an inspiring baseline for designing another study on this subject.

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Reader Comments (16)

Very interesting. Thanks for this post.

May 12, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterEric Fairfield

Danieli,

Thanks for the excellent critiques, particularly in regards to providing alternate explanations for the discrepancy in in reactions as well as suggesting potential improvements for the study design. The latter will be particularly helpful in future iterations, given that this is my first foray into survey experiments.

Rob Robinson

May 12, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRob Robinson

Dan -

--> "And as I have described above, some proponents of same-sex marriage might be particularly resentful of a decision based on immutability, as they do not believe this should be a relevant factor. "

While that may be the case for some, I'd think that for others an almost opposite mechanism might be at play. A certain % of the pro gay marriage subjects were likely homosexuals themselves, and believe that their sexual preference is immutable. Hence, there's no way that they could accept a finding that homosexuality is just a "lifestyle" choice - because they are quite convinced from their own experiences that such a finding would have to be wrong. Of course, an anti-gay marriage subject may quite convinced that homosexuality is not possible except as a "lifestyle choice," because god doesn't want people to be homosexuals and god is infallible (but humans have free choice), but I think such a position is one that is reached from an intellectual process of reasoning - and isn't as foundational to one's identity as would be the knowledge of being a homosexual from birth. I would even extend that logic in the sense that I'd guess it is likely that someone who is pro- gay marriage, even if not a homosexual, is more likely to have a close relationship with homosexuals, and thus has real world experience that runs against any finding that homosexuality is not immutable. How would an anti-gay marriage subject know from a deep personal experience (as opposed to a belief built through an intellectual process of interpreting religious doctrine) that homosexuality is not immutable?

Thus, I could conjecture that rather than

--> "...it seems cultural identity may be more strongly tied to one’s beliefs about these questions than one’s belief about immutability. "

the opposite would be true: One's belief about immutability is more strongly tied to one's identity among pro-gay marriage subjects than among anti-gay marriage subjects. Do you have some evidence to conclude that the subjects from the two groups would have the same strength of identification to the question of immutability?

May 12, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

Of course, some % of the anti-gay marriage subjects would likely be homosexuals also but I would guess the prevalence would be less (as would be the prevalence of anti-gay marriage subjects who have close personal contact with "out" homosexuals).

And of course, I'm assuming that the study didn't control for homosexuality and close relationships with homosexuals in it's sampling. I can't imagine how such a sampling could be validated, and doing such a sampling control, it seems to me, would introduce a whole host of sampling biases.

May 12, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

"And as I have described above, some proponents of same-sex marriage might be particularly resentful of a decision based on immutability, as they do not believe this should be a relevant factor."

Agreed. Different people will approve/oppose same-sex marriage for different reasons. Only those for who the immutability argument is critical will be persuaded by evidence regarding immutability. The obvious thing to do is to not only ask people whether they approve or disapprove, but to categorise their reasons for doing so.

Note that there are two separate questions here: the morality of same-sex sex, and the morality of same-sex marriage. Some oppose the former on the grounds of Biblical injunctions (usually inaccurately, as I understand it), some on feelings of personal disgust (which arguably are equally immutable), some on utilitarian grounds of its effect on civil society.

Opposition to same-sex marriage may be on the grounds that it normalises same-sex sex, but more commonly in my experience it is on the grounds that 'marriage' is regarded as a specifically Christian religious ceremony, and it is not for the state to go telling religions what those ceremonies mean or under what circumstances they should be performed. It would be like the state redefining 'halal' to include the eating of pork because otherwise you discriminate against the trade of pork butchers.

(A similar argument applies even to the non-religious - does the State have the right to legislate the meanings of words? If I want to use a word in a particular non-standard sense, should the State be able to throw me in jail for doing so?)

Thus, the argument is not necessarily about the biological science of whether homosexuality is immutable, but may be about the conflict between the rights of homosexuals to be treated analogously in all ways to heterosexuals (or indeed that of any other subgroup, legally "protected" or not, so long as there is no utilitarian reason not to) versus the rights of religious groups to define their religious ceremonies and categories as they choose. It's hard to see how the question of immutability would have any impact on the views of someone thinking in those terms.

So any asymmetry in response may be due simply to there being different arguments and criteria extant on either side of the debate.

"It seems that there may be many egalitarian individuals like me who think that same-sex marriage should be allowed regardless of whether it is immutable. I think any constitutionally protected individual liberty should be an impermissible basis for discrimination, regardless of whether it is immutable."

I've certainly come across many of that view, and not just egalitarians. It's a common enough debate in libertarian circles, where it's seen as a powerful test case. OK, let's say you allow same-sex marriage. What about other categories? Adults marrying children is a common example, designed to raise the moral hackles, as is humans marrying animals. (And both those forms of paraphilia are likely immutable, too.) No reason to limit it to the living, either - how about a person marrying a corporation? Companies are classified as legal persons, and there are probably tax advantages. A spouse has certain additional legal rights regarding property, inheritance, giving consent, being 'next of kin', and so on - so there may be all sorts of legal advantages to marrying a parent or rich relative, a friend, business partner, doctor, landlord, etc. Can you marry the dead, or imaginary beings? Computer programs and robots? Just how far can you go?

And of course you have a similar problem with regard to the right for people to disagree, (so long as there are no utilitarian grounds not to). Homophobes cannot help the way they feel, any more than homosexuals. Is it any less wrong to discriminate against them? To tell them what they can and cannot do, what they can and cannot say, who they can and cannot trade with, or associate with? Why is one side protected and the other not, when the two sides appear to be objectively similar?

It's this sort of logical difficulty that is the reason anti-discrimination law is restricted to a few politically-favoured categories. The rules are not consistent, because they can't be. A strictly logical standpoint leads to all sorts of startling implications that civil society is simply not ready for, so you get a messy mish-mash of arbitrary legal categories and criteria, to satisfy the noisiest pressure groups.

May 12, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

--> "Opposition to same-sex marriage may be on the grounds that it normalises same-sex sex, but more commonly in my experience it is on the grounds that 'marriage' is regarded as a specifically Christian religious ceremony, and it is not for the state to go telling religions what those ceremonies mean or under what circumstances they should be performed."

That's interesting, because I usually find that the objection (when it isn't based on religious doctrine) is that people of the same sex marrying will "destroy the institution of marriage and cause a deterioration at the very core of our society.

Those who I run into who argue about the religious nature of the ceremony are more likely to argue that the state has no business in any level of involvement in marriage, and thus they do not seem to be particularly in favor of the state dictating that only heterosexuals should be able to marry legally.

--> "Homophobes cannot help the way they feel, any more than homosexuals. "

Really? So you think that being repulsed by gay sex is an innate characteristic, just as one's sexual preference is? Interesting.

May 12, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

"That's interesting, because I usually find that the objection (when it isn't based on religious doctrine) is that people of the same sex marrying will "destroy the institution of marriage and cause a deterioration at the very core of our society.""

What do they regard the "institution of marriage" to be? And how does it cause a deterioration?

"Really? So you think that being repulsed by gay sex is an innate characteristic, just as one's sexual preference is? Interesting."

I don't think anyone sits down and decides one day to be repulsed. Why would they do that?

It's just the reflected form of the sexual preference itself. A heterosexual commonly finds the idea of sex with the opposite sex attractive, and that of sex with the same sex repulsive. Icky. Those feelings are projected to other people doing it - the same way that people disgusted by the idea of themselves eating giant insects can feel ill watching somebody else doing it, even if they know intellectually that the other person doesn't have the same food taboos and thinks they're tasty.

How you feel and what you do about it are two separate things.

May 12, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

NiV -

--> "What do they regard the "institution of marriage" to be? And how does it cause a deterioration?"

I would imagine that the definitions vary, but however they define it, I often run into the argument from libertarians (the smaller subset) that government should have nothing to do with it. While not being explicitly against gay marriage, they argue that pro-gay marriage activism is misplaced because marriage should not be regulated by the state and gays shouldn't be looking to the state to legalize their marriages. I can't really describe the reasoning of those who think that gay marriage will destroy the institution (and continue society on its current downward trend). The reasoning seems incoherent to me - I just know that I hear the argument quite often.

--> "I don't think anyone sits down and decides one day to be repulsed. Why would they do that?"

That's basically a non-sequitur.

I didn't suggest that they sit down one day and decide to be repulsed by gay sex. Why did you offer that opinion?

My point was that repulsion to gay sex is a learned attitude from social conditioning, not an innate characteristic, as is sexual preference (at least for most).

--> "A heterosexual commonly finds ... sex with the same sex repulsive. Icky. "

Not innately - which is different from sexuality. The parallel that you drew (in the comment I excerpted) is a false parallel.

May 12, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

"I can't really describe the reasoning of those who think that gay marriage will destroy the institution (and continue society on its current downward trend). The reasoning seems incoherent to me - I just know that I hear the argument quite often."

It sounds like the 'moral traditionalist' argument. The theory is that the cohesiveness of society relies on everybody following the same agreed moral bounds and standards, which people learn from traditional practice - which is commonly based/founded on religious tradition. Eroding respect for those traditions has unintended consequences, also weakening the acceptance of/obedience to other moral rules and triggering crime, social and family breakdowns, and generalised 'moral degeneracy'. It's most commonly an argument of older people, who were brought up with a particular set of rules, having been taught the need to obey them on those grounds, and find it disturbing to see the rules change. But I sometimes see younger people take the position, too.

I was asking the question because my understanding of this argument is that marriage is seen as a particular traditionally/religiously defined 'institution' or ritual, and the form of 'deterioration' they most commonly predict is that of the erosion of boundaries regarding acceptable sexual behaviour. In other words, I'd understand it as an example of what I was saying. But knowing how that would likely irritate you, I was trying to get you to expand on it and possibly see that yourself. (Or describe an alternative motivation to prove my glib simplification wrong, which is always a possibility.)

"I didn't suggest that they sit down one day and decide to be repulsed by gay sex. Why did you offer that opinion?"

I said "Homophobes cannot help the way they feel, any more than homosexuals." You disagreed, which implies homophobes can help how they feel, which implies they must have an input into the decision.

"My point was that repulsion to gay sex is a learned attitude from social conditioning, not an innate characteristic, as is sexual preference (at least for most)."

Indeed. But my point was that the repulsion is an instance of sexual preference in action. It's a different perspective on the same thing, not a different thing.

As with most things biological, attraction/repulsion is usually part nature, part nurture, the two interacting in a complicated and non-linear way. Sexual preference is partly social - it's well known that homosexuality and homosexual behaviour increases in enforced single-sex institutions like prisons and boarding schools. At the same time, I don't think sex, mechanically speaking, is something that would occur to many people without a biological drive to motivate it. It's rather too convenient that people like to do precisely those things that produce babies to be explained away as coincidence - an arbitrary social ritual. Our common likes and dislikes are not accidental. But they can be complicated.

Similarly, the particular selection of foods that we find attractive or repulsive is influenced by our social environment, but the fact that we do have such likes and dislikes is inbuilt. Some people like eating insects, some people like eating cheeseburgers. But we all have foods we like and hate, and we have those instincts precisely so that we'll eat and not starve to death, or poison ourselves eating the wrong things.

And if you have such a disgust reaction to something, you can no more help feeling it than you can help feeling disgusted by the idea of eating bugs. Eating bugs is very definitely a socially-acquired phobia - as shown by the fact some cultures don't have it - but that doesn't mean somebody with it can just 'switch it off'. Homophobes cannot help the way they feel, any more than homosexuals. Or paedophiles. Or necrophiliacs. It's all the same sort of thing.

But I didn't particularly want to argue the ins and outs of particular sexual behaviours and the reasons for them. My point was simply that homophobes and homosexuals are essentially symmetrical, (in this regard at least) - they're both groups defined by particular likes and dislikes. In the past, homophobes got their way, and homosexuals were persecuted. Today, it is the other way around. Personally, I'd prefer it if neither was allowed to persecute the other, and everyone just minded their own business, let other people do their own thing, and didn't go around telling others what they're 'allowed' to say, think, or do. But then that's just my preference, in opposition to the authoritarian-inclined people who think we all should. Symmetries are everywhere.

May 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

NiV

==:> " But my point was that the repulsion is an instance of sexual preference in action. "

Sorry, but that's bullshit. There are plenty of heteros who don't find gay sex "icky." Many heterosexuals have shifted in their perspective on the "ickiness" of gay sex. It isn't "sexual preference" in action. There is no causal relationship between sexual preference an attitudes toward gay sex. What is causal are the learned social attitudes.

Attitudes towards gay sex are entirely mutable. Some people simply choose to not have their views changed. I, personally, have changed in my views. It is entirely different than and not a function of sexual preference - which is (for the most part at least) innate. There is no parallel.

In other words, this is also bullshit:

==> ""Homophobes cannot help the way they feel, any more than homosexuals." "

Homophobes can certainly "help" the way the feel, as can racists, or sexists, or if you prefer statists and socialists.

==> "Similarly, the particular selection of foods that we find attractive or repulsive is influenced by our social environment, but the fact that we do have such likes and dislikes is inbuilt. "

This is a bogus analogy, as there are specific physiological components that are associated, mechanistically with taste preferences. There are no such specific physiological components associated with how heteros feel about gay sex. I am a hetero. I don't find gay sex "icky." That is not because of an (innate) physiological difference playing a mechanistic and causal role. Of course, preferences stimulate a chain reaction of physiological responses - but heteros who find gay sex "icky" don't do so because they are physiologically disposed to do so.

==> "And if you have such a disgust reaction to something, you can no more help feeling it than you can help feeling disgusted by the idea of eating bugs."

This is bullshit for the same reason. There is nothing innate about a "disgust" reaction to gay sex, where there is something innate about a "disgust" reaction to smells or tastes (the fact that those innate attributes can lead to different responses in different people).

==> " My point was simply that homophobes and homosexuals are essentially symmetrical, (in this regard at least) - they're both groups defined by particular likes and dislikes."

Again, this is pure bullshit. It isn't parallel for the same reason I keep stating. Homosexuals are not "defined by particular likes and dislikes." They are defined by an innate characteristic.

I think we should drop this here. I can usually see some benefit in exchanging views with you, but on this one I think that your argument is flat out bullshit. Have I said that?

May 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

Oh, and NiV -

==> "It sounds like the 'moral traditionalist' argument. The theory is that the cohesiveness of society relies on everybody following the same agreed moral bounds and standards, which people learn from traditional practice - which is commonly based/founded on religious tradition. Eroding respect for those traditions has unintended consequences, also weakening the acceptance of/obedience to other moral rules and triggering crime, social and family breakdowns, and generalised 'moral degeneracy'. "

It's not like I haven't heard the argument before, but like I said, I find the argument incoherent. To hold such a belief, you'd have to think that traditions like slavery or Jim Crow or preventing interracial marriage or women voting or freaking burning witches on the cross would need to be maintained in order to prevent "moral degeneracy." Maybe that seems like a coherent argument to you. It doesn't to me.

May 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

Errr. Burning witches at the stake, hanging heretics on a cross. Both of which fit your description:

==> "The theory is that the cohesiveness of society relies on everybody following the same agreed moral bounds and standards, which people learn from traditional practice - which is commonly based/founded on religious tradition. " <==

Hooray for religious traditions that keep society cohesive and to prevent moral degeneracy, eh?

May 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

"Sorry, but that's bullshit. There are plenty of heteros who don't find gay sex "icky." Many heterosexuals have shifted in their perspective on the "ickiness" of gay sex. It isn't "sexual preference" in action. There is no causal relationship between sexual preference an attitudes toward gay sex. What is causal are the learned social attitudes..."

OK. Let's see your data.

"To hold such a belief, you'd have to think that traditions like slavery or Jim Crow or preventing interracial marriage or women voting or freaking burning witches on the cross would need to be maintained in order to prevent "moral degeneracy." Maybe that seems like a coherent argument to you. It doesn't to me."

Yes, and people have argued in favour of retaining slavery and burning witches on precisely those grounds.

I'm not sure if you really mean "incoherent" or merely "I disagree with this in the strongest possible terms". You haven't explained why such an implication would render the argument incoherent. (Or indeed, why it would necessarily be implied. This argument would only apply to people who had an existing tradition of witch-burning and slavery that someone was proposing to overturn.)

In every age people believe their own morality to be absolute, and that all right-thinking people must necessarily agree on it. And in every age, people are constantly starting wars with the people who, to their surprise and utter incomprehension, do not. Hatred and intolerance are practised in the main by those most firmly convinced of their own morality in doing so.

May 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

D. Evans:
Fantastic post! It gives me a lot to think about.

Joshua:
I admire your argument and am likely your ally on this topic, so let me share my probably-odd view. I may be an outlier on these issues*, and I don't know what NiV's views are, but while

(a) I support allowing same-sex marriages**, oppose homophobia, and support a society that embraces the diversity of hetero-, homo-, and queer-sex between consenting adults,

(b) I'm also rather unsure of—as I've not looked very far into the scientific research—and don't particularly care about the degree to which sexual orientation OR same-sex sex-disgust (as a possible precursor to homophobia) are explained by 'nature' or 'nurture'.

Homosexuality would be no more objectionable were it 100% a matter of choice. Bigotries (homophobia, sexism, racism, classism, etc), and the policies on which they are based, would be no less objectionable even if they were immutable. Our society's objections to, e.g., pedophilia and sociopathy—two 'attitudes' that are likely strongly immutable, whatever their causes in 'nature' or 'nurture'—are not grounded in choice, but in our evaluation of their harms. Basically, sometimes choice has nothing to do with it. We recognize no right to "be oneself" if one is a predatory monster; for monsters we reserve the rights of ostracism and imprisonment. The value of Harm rightly dominates that of Choice. So it is with bigotries, I contend.

Finally, I suspect that—again, without any non-anecdotal evidence—while both sexual orientation and same-sex sex-disgust are both determined by 'nature' and 'nurture', to some degree immutable though not absolutely, the latter is likely much less immutable than the former. I have quite a few childhood friends who have moved from "same-sex sex is gross!" to "doesn't bother me anymore", but I've only known one or two people who've experienced a modification in orientation. (I moved from "I am 100% heterosexual" to "I usually prefer heterosexual sex, but I also appreciate the occasional homosexual or queer encounter.")

(Please forgive my long-windedness and the unnatural presentation of my attitudes into groups (a) and (b). I'd bet many on the left who enthusiastically support (a) would not likewise sign on to the uncertainty and indifference expressed in (b), though I'd love to be wrong and I'd love for Evans's original post to be evidence for that.)

*Likely I am in this domain, as in that of economics/politics, where I consider myself a socialist who is growing more sympathetic to the illiberal (though not anti-intellectual) left each day. The specter of "choice" and the arid formalism of "rights" aren't what they're cracked up to be.

**I actually support removing the church(es) from the domain of marriage-as-a-legal-matter entirely. Let a thousand religious ceremonies bloom, but let none of them have significance in matters of state (property, hospital visitation, child custody, and other legal issues). But I support marriage equality first, and marriage non-religiosity second. To paraphrase a left-libertarian blogger: when the government is in the business of breaking legs and handing out crutches, make sure it continues the latter until it stops the former.

May 16, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterprotoplasm

proto -

Yes, I think that your position is reasonable, and probably more practical. The nature/nurture dichotomy is almost always a false one, IMO. In the end, arguing to determine which pole of that spectrum is correct, if it would be that one is correct to the exclusion to the other, is less important than the more general reflection that can arise from your reconciliation of the two polar positions. The important question to ask is whether it would it make a difference?

May 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

FYI.
We are planning to use aporetic reasoning and cultural cognition very extensively to tackle some big questions. The first set of these questions involve the interaction of faith/spirituality and modern scientific results. We will have a number of people from age 18 to 80 trying to tackle these questions both on line and once a week in person over the summer. Come and check it out if you want to. Make suggestions about how to do it better.
http://scienceatlanl.blogspot.com/

May 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterEric Fairfield

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