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Monday, November 23, 2009

From Letters to the Editors of Mirror of Justice

Back when The New Yorker didn't run a Letters to the Editor section, Spy Magazine used to run a feature called "Letters to the Editor of The New Yorker."  Since my good friend Rick's other blog, Mirror of Justice, doesn't have a comment section, for reasons I fully accept, let me use this space to call attention to and respond to a recent post of his at MoJ.  Rick reprints a description of a recent lecture on Catholic voices in the public sphere by Helen Alvare, including the following passage describing the speech:

Alvaré suggested that we hammer home two points that ought to be obvious but aren’t: Most Americans are religious in some fashion, and few people are motivated by purely secular considerations to become . . . well, better people. This is why liberalism’s standard prescriptions for addressing various social problems—especially unwanted pregnancies, births out of wedlock, STDs, and family breakdown—just don’t work.

I have some questions about both of these statements.  On the first score, I'm not sure what it means to say that few people are motivated by "purely secular considerations" to become better.  I suppose it depends on what you mean by "purely secular," but I am not sure that it is true that few non-religious people are motivated by non-transcendent considerations to become better people.  I take it, incidentally, that this is what Alvare means.  If she just means that because most Americans are religious after a fashion, then sheer numbers dictate that few Americans are motivated to become better people by secular considerations, that may be true as a matter of mathematics but also fairly meaningless.  It certainly won't tell us how many non-religious people, as a percentage of the non-religious, are motivated to become better people.  It also does not tell us how many religious people are successfully motivated to become better people by non-secular considerations.  Again, much of the work may actually be being done here at the definitional level, but if we take her comment more seriously than that, then I am not sure she is right.

The other proposition also demands some inquiry, I think.  

To begin with, in fairness one should note that liberalism's "standard prescriptions" for addressing "social problems" are actually quite capacious and varied.  It is not necessarily inconsistent with liberalism, for example, to advocate social norms against sexual promiscuity, a preference for sex within marriage, and so on, although not every liberal would agree with these norms. 

Second, I'm not sure what the words "just don't work" mean here.  Does this mean they don't work at all?  Clearly that can't be so.  Does it mean instead that they don't work well?  I would still question this.  One might argue that they however well they work, they also carry costs that outweigh their benefits; that, for instance, birth control has contributed to women's social emancipation but has also carried many unanticipated costs in terms of STDs, social anomie, and so on.  That may be true, but it will take a lot more heavy lifting to prove this point than this excerpt seems willing to provide.  It is also, of course, a point that can be generalized much more widely.  We could say the same thing about the unintended consequences of, say, advances in electronics and industrial technology, which have been emancipatory but also had countless unintended consequences; but it would seem silly, or at least too hasty, to say that these advances "just don't work" as responses to social conditions.

Finally, if this proposition is going to be meaningful, it seems to imply some kind of comparison.  The question should be, how well do liberalism's "standard prescriptions" work as against some other set of prescriptions?  That strikes me, again, as a complex question.  Some other mechanisms for social amelioration may (or may not) do better than "liberalism's standard prescriptions" at addressing "unwanted pregnancies, births out of wedlock, STDs, and family breakdown."  But fairness dictates that we acknowledge that those non-liberal prescriptions may themselves result in other unanticipated consequences or costs.  It might be that, say, strong non-liberal prescriptions in favor of binding marriages and against non-marital sexual congress will deal well with "births out of wedlock" and "family breakdown."  But is also possible that the same prescriptions could lead to increases in marital and non-marital rape, child abuse, poverty, the subordination of women, job and wage discrimination, and so on.

I am not at all asserting that this is the case.  And, of course, it is clear  that most people who argue for non-liberal "prescriptions" for addressing "social problems" do not want to see any of these side-effects occur.  (I take it by the same coin that Alvare would agree that the vast majority of liberals do not want to see unwanted pregnancies, STDs, family breakdowns, and so on.)  My point is that asserting that the standard liberal prescriptions for social problems "just don't work" strikes me as an unwarranted strong statement.  It is certainly one that cannot be met with a nostalgia for periods in which other mechanisms of dealing with social problems were employed, unless one is willing to fully consider and count the often serious side-effects that accompanied those prescriptions.  Maybe that should make both sides more willing to see both liberal and non-liberal efforts at social reform as an ongoing, evolving, iterative and potentially cooperative process of social learning, instead of a forced, once-and-for-all choice between one or the other mechanism for addressing social concerns. 

Posted by Paul Horwitz on November 23, 2009 at 03:37 PM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink


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The "do liberal prescriptions" work issue is a big one unlikely to be settled on a blog site (although one might be curious about why the author thinks the liberal answers to "unwanted pregnancies" -- e.g., I presume, sex education and the legal right to choose abortion -- "just don't work").

On the other hand, the assertion that "few people are motivated by purely secular considerations to become . . . well, better people" seems flatly wrong to me.

In my experience, people trying to become better people are motivated by a whole host of secular concerns: trying to improve intimate relationships, friendships, career and work life, trying to become healthier and generally happier, etc., etc.

Posted by: Joseph Slater | Nov 23, 2009 4:06:44 PM

I'd agree with Joseph and Paul that, on the second point, it's hard to know what to say given the vague way the claim is stated and the difficulty of the question in general, but on the first point I don't know whether to laugh or cry. I guess that would depend on whether I thought Alvare was a bigot or some combination of fool, stupid, highly sheltered, or something else along those lines. I'd guess it must be one of these if she is serious, as the claim that "few people are motivated by purely secular considerations to become . . . well, better people." is both dumb and obviously false to anyone who thinks for just a few moments. Importantly, it's not only false of the many atheists in the world, but also false for many believers who are, often enough, motivated to become better people in various ways for secular reasons- to be better parents because they love their children, for example, or to treat others fairly because that's how they would like and expect to be treated. In fact, it's such a crazy claim that it seems to me that the only plausible interpretations are either bigotry (a belief that one can only want to be good if one believes in a god, say, and so non-believers can't want to be good in a meaningful way) or else just a foolish slip of the pen that she'd take back if pushed on it. But as there is little commentary on the quote on Mirror of Justice, either, I'd be very pleased to hear from Rick about what he thought was useful about the remark.

Posted by: Matt | Nov 23, 2009 9:51:13 PM

One addendum to this post. On rereading, I think perhaps I overstated the "two points" language in this excerpt, and understated the "this is why" language. I prefer to give the most charitable available reading to a piece of writing I am inclined to disagree with, and focusing on the latter clause rather than treating the two as distinct points might give Alvare a better reading. She may be saying that because, as a matter of numbers (and not, I hope, for other reasons, as I suggest in my post), most Americans rely on religious reasons for self-improvement, this means that secularly oriented social programs are less likely to be successful. This is, I think, a more charitable reading, and one that it's easier to agree with even if you think her points taken separately are wrong. I still have problems with this reading: it depends too much on definitional "tricks" about what constitutes a secular social program, it neglects the possibility that liberalism either can make room for religious social programs or that what Alvare thinks of as "secular" social programs might be seen by another person as having a religious aspect, and it runs into the "compared to what" issue I discussed in my post. But it is a reading that offers a less outright dismissive view of liberal social programs. If Rick is reading this and thinking about supplementing his MoJ post, I think the most important sentence of my post is not the critical stuff, although I stand by that, but the last sentence of my post.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Nov 24, 2009 9:22:48 AM

"Since my good friend Rick's other blog, Mirror of Justice, doesn't have a comment section, . . . "

On that note . . . what is the reason mirrorofjustice doesn't have a moderated comments section?

It has always seemed a bit trite, and gave me reason to lose interest in the blog: "Like if y'all want, you can stand around and listen to us important Catholic "intellectuals" chat with each other."

Posted by: Edward | Nov 24, 2009 1:00:20 PM

"unwanted pregnancies, births out of wedlock, STDs, and family breakdown—just don’t work."

They don't?

Unwanted pregnancies -- near record lows, check.
Teen births out of wedlock -- near record lows, check.
STDS -- Got antibiotics? Got stablized first world AIDS epidemic? Got improved treatments for AIDS? Got HPV vaccine? Check.

Also unwanted pregnancy rates, teen births out of wedlock and STD rates are all higher in more religious populations.

Non-Teen Births Out of Wedlock/Family Breakdown -- Liberals who have done the sociology have a pretty good idea of what is going on, but don't have very good solutions that are acceptable to liberals or moderates, and aren't looking very hard because they aren't as heavily impacted by the issue.

The educated and generally more politically liberal folks are giving birth later and are more likely to be married when giving birth, and are more likely to stay married than the generation before them. The less educated and generally more politically conservatives folks are having more out of wedlock births and more divorces (and conservatives don't mind this nearly as much as liberals do as long as abortions aren't involved, abortions are a record lows, by the way).

The biggest empirical factor in likelihood of getting married and likelihood of getting divorced once married is a a result of a major liberal project -- income equality, although it hasn't played out in the way planned, and neither liberals nor conservatives argue that intentional gender discrimination in compensation is a good solution.

Working class, less educated men saw their wages stagnate (due to offshoring, etc.). Working class, less educated women saw their earning capacity surge as gender limitations on careers collapsed. Middle class, more educated men saw increased wages (information economy, etc.). Middle class, more educated women saw increased opportunities too (for the same reason as working class women) but not nearly on a par with that of their male partners who don't take time out of the workforce for children. Why? It turns out that seniority and experience is much more important for middle class jobs than for working class jobs. So, middle class women pay a much greater economic price for time out of the work force. Add assortive marraige and voila, and there are much greater income earning capacity differences for middle class couples than for working class couples.

So, you have stable middle class marriages with lots of in wedlock births because wives are economically dependent on their spouses, and unstable working class marriages when couples even marry because wives are economically independent. It turns out the family stability was rooted in economics all along.

Nobody, conservative or liberal, has found a very good way to bridge this gap. Japan is the one country that has maintained very low out of wedlock non-teen birth rates and very low divorce rates, while retaining economic opportunities for unmarried women. But, it has done so by having relatively few economic opportunities for married women and at the cost of very high rates of unmarried women who decide to keep their jobs instead of getting married.

Posted by: ohwilleke | Nov 24, 2009 7:59:28 PM

Thanks, Paul, for the letter (and thanks for reading, despite our lack of a comments section!). Edward, I feel badly if the message our no-comments policy is sending is the one it sounds like you are hearing. For what it's worth, the animating idea is not "hey, we're fancy, and aren't you lucky to get to hear what we say!" (that *would* be offensive, I agree). It's more a reflection of our sense (maybe an overblown one), based on experience, that a group-blog dedicated to the kinds of subjects we address, consisting of people with shared fundamental commitments but *very* different ideas about how those play out, can be a fragile enterprise - especially if we are trying to model genuine friendship. Unfortunately, in the "Catholic blogosphere", comments sections sometimes become sites for nasty, unedifying intra-Catholic spats, and we wanted to avoid that. For what it's worth, we discuss often the possibility of moving to comments. And, we're always happy to post correspondence from readers. Thanks for the feedback, though.

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Nov 26, 2009 11:17:11 AM

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