Friday, February 26, 2010


Okay, I've written in the past about Caster Semenya and how an apparently black and white issue, your sex (male/female), can be anything but clear. In this case there are clearly understood genetic and biologic factors that can make it extremely difficult to determine the sex of an individual and can even lead to the conclusion that a genetically male person is a female.

Now I see a Dr. Oz show that featured a teenager who was born female but has always felt that she was a male. She had a mastectomy and started taking hormone blockers when she started to menstruate. She looks, sounds, and dresses like a boy and psychologically seems to believe quite strongly that she is a he.

They also had a little boy, maybe 4 years old, that has always believed that he is a girl. He is now a bubbling, happy, cute little girl that just happens to have a penis and dress and act like a girl. Her mother talked about all of the psychological problems this child had as he was forced to dress and act like a boy and how all of those problems have resolved now that they allow him to be a girl.

This mismatch between a person's genetic sex and the sex that they believe they are is called being transgendered. I have to admit knowing absolutely nothing about this so I'll be looking into it. But it makes me wonder about the separate issue of gender identity. Is there something biological going on inside the brain or that happened during prenatal development that caused this? Or is this a behavioral things, a mental illness that could be cured through therapy? With something this basic, I'm inclined to think that there is something biological going on.

Of course, if I was still religious this would be pretty easy to dismiss. Mormons in particular insist that gender and sex are one and the same and are an inherent spiritual attribute. Of course, since we can't investigate the spiritual plane, I guess we just have to take their word for that, as trustworthy as that is.


"Going to church, just like going to synagogue, is indoctrination."

I really couldn't have said it any better. This is from the jewish mother who is suing her divorced husband over taking their daughter to catholic mass.

So what's the harm?

"There will be confusion. There will be an abrogation of her identity."

So the custodial parent, whose greatest fear is that her child will grow up not understanding who she is, has the arbitrary right to force a jewish identity on her child while denying the other parent the right to arbitrarily instill a catholic identity.

Given the mother's bald statement that this is a matter of choosing indoctrinations is it just for the courts to decide which form of indoctrination is correct? Given the mother's admission, I'd claim that the child's best interest would be to disallow indoctrination which is so difficult to undo after a lifetime of programming.

However the constitution allows the free exercise of religion so I'd prefer that the child is raised understanding both parent's religions until she is old enough to choose for herself. In the end the cognitive dissonance will probably serve her well.

-- Sent from my Palm Pre

Saturday, January 16, 2010

On Morality

Jonathan Haidt, author of "The Happiness Hypothesis", has a very enlightening essay over on called "Moral Psychology and the Misunderstanding of Religion". One of the first things my wife asked me when I told her I no longer believed in the church was what I'd base my morality on. The question caused me to pause because I'd never really considered it before. What was the basis of my morality? How do I know what is right and wrong? I had a very strong intuition that the church had very little influence on my core morality. In fact, most of the church specific moral values that set it apart were pretty tenuous in value. For example, without the church would you spend any mental bandwidth worrying about the morality of Coke versus non-caffeinated soft drinks? Or would you worry about whether drinking a hot beverage might damn your eternal soul?

The interesting aspect of his essay for me is contrasting the lense that academia looks at morality through with the way that religious people view morality. It is alway refreshing when liberal academics are able to recognize the bias that they bring to a subject and examine it.

A key point he makes is that you really can't trust the reasons that people give for why they think something is moral or immoral. As Haidt says, "People couldn't stop themselves from making up post-hoc explanations for whatever it was they had just done for unconscious reasons." In other words, we subconsciously make a moral judgment and then our conscious brain tries to fit a rational explanation to why we feel the way we do. We may come up with quite convincing reasons and really believe them without realizing that we reached that judgment for quite non-rational reasons. In other words, our morality initially comes from our gut feelings.

Academia has focused on fairness/justice and harm/care as the basis of morality. However these two foundations fail to explain the real world.
Most traditional societies care about a lot more than harm/care and fairness/justice. Why do so many societies care deeply and morally about menstruation, food taboos, sexuality, and respect for elders and the Gods?"
He proposed three additional foundations of morality:

  • ingroup/loyalty
  • authority/respect
  • purity/sanctity
He calls these binding foundations because they bind groups of people together into hierarchical, interdependent social groups that regulate the daily activities of their members. By contrast he calls the first two foundations the individualizing foundations because they protect individuals from each other. People who self-identify as liberals base their morality primarily on the first two individualizing foundations whereas conservatives have morals based on all five foundations. Conservatives care about much more than just individual rights, they also care deeply about loyalty to their group, respect for authority, and purity.

I guess this would only be surprising to a liberal academic, but it does explain why academics and liberals are so tone deaf to the importance of certain beliefs to conservatives. One easy example is sexuality. Liberals want people to stay out of the bedroom. After all, what goes on between consenting adults is no one else's business because it doesn't hurt anyone (harm/care) and they wouldn't like other people intruding into their own personal lives (fairness/justice). The religious right, however, care deeply about other people's sexual practices because those practices are filthy or unnatural (sanctity/purity), violate God's law (authority/respect), and violate societal norms or decency (ingroup/loyalty). 

A classic example comes from the movie "Milk" where Anita Bryant goes on a religious crusade to overturn laws that were passed to protect the civil rights of homosexuals. A more recent example of the same thing was the recent proposition 8 in California which pitted social conservatives against liberal over gay marriage. I find this example example particularly because it pits the individualizing moral foundations against the binding ones. The fact that time and time again the binding foundations seem to win over the individualizing ones is, I think, a clear statement of the relative importance to the human species of group cohesion over individuality. Nothing seems to bring us together more strongly than threats to our group identity.

So the crux of all of this is that morality seems to derive more from evolved gut feelings than from any kind of philosophical musing or rational process. Rationality mainly gets involved to justify those feelings and in some rare cases to override our baser instincts.