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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019) and AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021).

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Why do bad ideas persist?

In my current article in JME, some of which has previously appeared on the Betterhumans website, I examine the theory of background conditions - the idea that all human cultures assume the existence of basic conditions in the background of human life that are beyond our choice, though they form the context for our choices.

According to the theory, these background conditions to choice are perceived to be timeless truths. Some of them, in fact, are clearly not true (such as the assumption of male superiority), while some others are true only to a limited extent (the relationship between sex and repoduction), or may not be true in the future if it sees the emergence of a radically different technological context (for example, it may no longer be true that human beings are mortal in the same sense as we always have been, or that work is necessary in the same sense as we've experienced historically). When the background conditions, as understood in a culture, are threatened, whether by practices such as gay sex or by new technologies such as IVF or human cloning, at least some people will feel that what is happening is "unnatural", and will themselves feel threatened.

I'm about 90 per cent convinced that this theory is onto something, though it would be nice to devise some ways that it could be empirically tested. Ordinary social observation certainly provides a lot of data that it can make sense of, but it would be good to have more precise data.

If the theory is true, it might show why there is so much essentially irrational resistance to harmless, or even beneficial, practices and technologies that are stigmatised as somehow "against nature". I certainly don't think it provides a basis for legislatures to ban those practices and technologies, or for rational people to give their support to feelings of disapproval. If we come to the conclusion that the theory of background conditions is true, it can (in part?) explain the "yuck factor", and perhaps the persistence of bad ideas about sex and reproduction, but it should not be interpreted as a justification for what it explains.


Anonymous said...

Okay I am a little confused with the example of gay sex. If we are to assume homosexuality is genetic and natural, surely it has existed (to some extent) in society since the dawn of man.

In the same way gay sex would threaten the background condition of 'sex as a means of production', would this not be a hinderence in establishing 'sex as a means of production' as a background truth in the first place?

Blake Stacey said...

From the original post:

I'm about 90 per cent convinced that this theory is onto something, though it would be nice to devise some ways that it could be empirically tested. Ordinary social observation certainly provides a lot of data that it can make sense of, but it would be good to have more precise data.

One problem I have with grand, overarching theories of human behavior and society is that the theorist typically takes all the data they currently know and rolls it into their model. That's fine, but it then becomes difficult to find any observations of human society which were not in some way used in making the model, and we can't verify a model using the same data we used to invent it!

So yes, I second the call for more data. Even if it is not more quantitatively precise than the data collected so far, it can be extremely valuable by virtue of coming from a place we haven't yet seen.

Russell Blackford said...

Blake: Yeah, one would like the theory to make predictions. The full article goes into the reasons why it seems to me to make sense, but it's vague enough to fit almost any obvious outcome.

Btw, my original interest in the theory was when it was used heavily by one bioethicist to justify opposition to human cloning and genetic enginineering. That led me to look at the theory more closely. It seemed to me that the considerations in favour of it being true were quite strong, but I think it actually works the other way - it suggests that we should be very wary of responses that are explicable in terms of the theory but seem to have no basis in evidence.

Stuart: There's no doubt that gay sex is natural in various ways (see the article for some definitions of "natural"). Still, it's a minority taste. That seems to me enough for it to come to be thought of as "unnatural" which it is by the Catholic Church (for example). Of course, the Catholic Church also argues that having sex with no possibility of pregnancy violates natural law because it uses human sex organs in a way contrary to their "proper" function. I think this is all nonsense.

You're right that no one could literally believe something like "It is impossible to have gay sex" or even "Gay sex is a recent innovation". The background belief would have to be something much vsguer like, "Sex and procreation go together". It would then be illogical to interpret this as threatened by gay sex (if the claim was interpreted in such a way that it could be falsified by the existence of gay sex, then surely it could not have been true in the first place).

However, this is a theory about human psychology and about how people think when they are not actually thinking logically. How is it that people are psychologically capable of thinking something apparently irrational such as "homosexuality is unnnatural"? Once again, it seeks to explain but not necessarily to justify.

Brw, leaving aside the theory of background conditions, I'm interested in the more general topic of (as Michael Shermer put it) people believe weird things. There's no doubt in my mind that we are biased psychologically in various ways to come to conclusions that don't have a rational evidentiary basis. E.g. we are primed to anthropomorphise things in our environment, as we do every time we swear at our cars or our computers when they fail us.

Anonymous said...

However, this is a theory about human psychology and about how people think when they are not actually thinking logically.

This reminds me of a statement made by Lewis Fry Richardson, a mathematician who did substantial work both on weather prediction and on the sociology of war. In presenting a mathematical model of human behavior (what a true SF fan would call proto-psychohistory), he said, "The equations are merely a description of what people would do if they did not stop and think."

Russell Blackford said...

I suppose, too, that there's a question of when people's fears actually should be taken into account anyway, even if they are not logical - and it might be said that no fear is logical all the way down: sooner or later you come to a fear that we just do have, perhaps insinctively, such as the fear of pain.

There's a lot to be said about this, but I think that in any realistic circumstances we have good reason to take into account only a limited range of very widespread fears in developing public policy for modern societies. For traditional societies it might get more complicated. That is not to say that I think traditional societies should maintain their traditions at all costs or that we should paternalistically try to insulate them from modernity. I don't think those things, just that we might have some reasons to be careful that don't apply to modern, pluralist societies.

It looks to me as if it will almost never be the case that modern legislatures, etc., should be putting weight on the mere fear that if SOMEONE ELSE is allowed to do X then my worldview will somehow be threatened. It might be more common that someone could say "I should, in fact, be allowed to do X because X-doing is something of enormous importance to me, perhaps because it is part of my religion (even if my religion has no rational foundation that would convince anyone else)." But that's a very different question, and one that relates to justifying certain negative rights rather than justifying prohibitions.

Anonymous said...

Yes, okay, I definitely understand the main point, and think I understand what you mean by background conditions.

PS. I hate foreign keyboards something fierce, and completely blame them for everything.