January 02, 2014

Ducks, Hate, and Logic (part 1)

By Hendrik van der Breggen
The Carillon, January 9, 2014

Ducks, Hate, and Logic (part 1)

Much has been written about duck-hunter Phil Robertson, the patriarch of Duck Dynasty (an extremely popular A&E television show), and his alleged "anti-gay" comments in Gentleman's Quarterly (GQ magazine). Robertson stated publicly, albeit bluntly and explicitly, that the Bible says same-sex sex is morally wrong—i.e., it's a sin, among other sins, including bestiality, heterosexual fornication and promiscuity, greed, drunkenness, slandering, and swindling.

While acknowledging that Robertson is not the most polished and sensitive communicator (his words are sometimes coarse, though, it seems to me, not as coarse as some of the GQ interviewer's words), and while risking the appearance of flogging a dead horse (an apt expression, from what I can gather about Duck Dynasty culture), I would like to address the objection that Robertson equated or compared same-sex sex to bestiality. As one gay commentator complained, Robertson is equating the commentator's sexual partner to a dog, and thus Robertson diminishes the humanity of persons who engage in gay sex—and thereby Robertson incites hatred toward gays.

With much help from philosopher of law Robert P. George, I will argue that the objection is false.

Before I begin, let's consider the following as context to help us interpret Phil Robertson's remarks charitably as well as accurately.

Robertson, who describes himself as a "Bible-thumping" Christian, is clearly aware of the Bible's contents relating to same-sex sex. Also, Robertson issued this statement of clarification, which echoes his comments in GQ and nicely summarizes Jesus' teachings on love: "I would never treat anyone with disrespect just because they are different from me. We are all created by the Almighty and like Him, I love all of humanity. We would all be better off if we loved God and loved each other."

Also, in his discussion with the GQ correspondent about humanity's turn away from God and America's need for repentance, Robertson says this: "Everything is blurred on what's right and what's wrong… Sin becomes fine."

The GQ correspondent then asks: "What, in your mind, is sinful?" To which Robertson answers: "Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men."

(Note: Robertson's phrase "morph out from there" is not wholly clear, but, given the context, which will become clearer below, it's reasonable to think that it means something along the lines of changing/ transforming/ moving/ expanding/ extrapolating in accordance with what's relevantly similar. What is relevantly similar will become clearer below, too.)

Robertson immediately adds (paraphrasing 1 Corinthians 6:9-10): "Don't be deceived. Neither the adulterers, the idolaters, the male prostitutes, the homosexual offenders, the greedy, the drunkards, the slanderers, the swindlers—they won't inherit the kingdom of God. Don't deceive yourself. It's not right."

Is it true, then, that Robertson equates or compares same-sex sex with bestiality? I think the answer is No.

Yes, Robertson puts homosexual sex in a list of sins which includes bestiality. But, we should notice, to include an item in a list is not to equate the members of that list. Also, to set out a list is not necessarily to liken the members of that list in all major respects. All members of the list may be sins, but it doesn't follow that all are wholly equal or equally grievous.

What, then, is the significance of Robertson's list? It is reasonable to interpret Robertson's list to be merely a part of a reductio ad absurdum argument.

(In a reductio ad absurdum argument, one teases out logical implications from a position, implications that are false or absurd, and these count against the truth of the position under examination.)

Princeton University professor of jurisprudence Robert P. George explains:

"If I've understood [the] argument about [Phil Robertson] 'comparing' homosexual conduct with bestiality, I don't think I can agree with it. I myself, like most philosophers working in moral and political philosophy, often challenge claims to the moral legitimacy of X (which an interlocutor is defending) by arguing that if one accepts X then there is no ground of principle for rejecting Y, which one's interlocutor would not want to accept. It's in the form of the reductio ad absurdum, and has never, so far as I am aware, been regarded as an invalid or illegitimate (much less unethical) form of argumentation.

"[I]t sounded to me as though [Robertson] was saying that once you embrace the basic liberal (which he regards as relativistic) position on sexual ethics (where the only norms distinguishing morally acceptable from unacceptable conduct are those forbidding coercion and deception) just about anything goes: same-sex conduct, sex with animals, promiscuous sex, and so on.

"In his own rough way, I suspect that he is pointing out that Christian teaching [e.g., as found in Corinthians and in Leviticus] does not accept the reduction of sexual morality solely to norms against coercion and deception. Even consensual sexual activity, when it is intrinsically or de facto non-marital, is contrary to scripture … and sinful. I myself don't see anything disrespectful or illegitimate about this." (Robert P. George, Facebook discussion, December 19, 2013.)

(Not so incidentally, the Apostle Paul, the author of the Corinthians passage Robertson paraphrases, uses other forms of the reductio ad absurdum argument elsewhere in Corinthians, and so the reductio ad absurdum interpretation is strengthened even further. See the entry "Reductio Ad Absurdum" in New Dictionary of Christian Apologetics, edited by W. C. Campbell-Jack and Gavin McGrath [InterVarsity Press 2006], 602-603.)

Again: Contrary to what some critics allege, it's reasonable to think that Robertson did NOT equate or compare same-sex sex with bestiality. To think that he did suggests that these critics are not aware of the logic at hand.

All this to say, to paraphrase C. S. Lewis's wise old professor in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe: "Logic! Why don't they teach logic in schools these days?!"

May 2014 be a year in which there is less hate and more love—and more logic.

(Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD, is associate professor of philosophy at Providence University College.)

For further thought:

● Philosopher Jerry Walls, "Duck Dynasty, Bestiality, and Ultimate Reality" (article in School of Christian Thought, Houston Baptist University)
● Bible scholar Michael Brown on Piers Morgan Live (15 minute video)
● Author and debate moderator Larry Taunton, "The Genuine Conflict Being Ignored in the Duck Dynasty Debate" (article in The Atlantic)
● Phil Robertson interview on I Am Second (26 minute video)


Hendrik van der Breggen said...

[NOTE: The following comment first appeared on Facebook and is copied here with the author's permission. The author, Rob Horsley, is a friend and former student whom I greatly respect. I have added the comment (and my replies) because Rob's comment is intelligent, respectful, and helpfully forces me to achieve clarity. Thanks Rob!]

Robert Horsley wrote (Facebook, January 3, 2014):

I'm confused. You seem to be using the words "compare" and "equate" interchangeably, which I don't feel is appropriate in this case. One can compare any number of things without necessarily equating them. Apples and oranges are not the same, but they are similar—we know this THROUGH comparison. Jaywalking and murder can be accurately compared as acts of law-breaking, but they obviously are not of equal importance or worthy of equal punishment.

One dictionary definition of compare is to "note the similarity or dissimilarity between." A list is something that gathers several similar things (in this case, several 'sinful' things) for the purpose of identifying and even comparing a common element. So while I'd agree that Robertson does not necessarily "equate" homosexuality with bestiality, it's not UN-reasonable to suggest that his inclusion of homosexuality is an exercise in comparison, if only to other similarly sinful things as listed by Scripture.

Which is all to say, I don't think you're wrong, I just don't agree with your choice of words. Which is exactly the same thing I'd say to Phil Robertson.

Although in his case, he did clarify his position quite well in the far-less-quoted "I would never treat anyone with disrespect" paragraph. So I'd be willing to concede that he had some good words to go along with his rougher ones.

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

Rob, perhaps this will alleviate some confusion: My choice of the words "compare" and "equate" arises from Robertson's critics. The words are the critics' words, not mine. One critic whom I saw on a video used the word "compare" and another critic whom I saw on another video used the word "equate" (the first critic can be found on the Piers Morgan video the link for which is at the bottom of my column; the second critic is on another video the link for which I'm trying to find, though I remember him well). So the problem is not with MY choice of words—the problem is with the CRITICS' choice of words.

Is it true that Robertson is comparing or equating? As I've argued, by setting out Robertson's comments and their contexts, I think that the preponderance of evidence points to the answer No.

I think that we're in agreement that Robertson doesn't equate homosexual sex with bestiality. But is it, as you say, "not UN-reasonable to suggest that his inclusion of homosexuality is an exercise in comparison, if only to other similarly sinful things as listed by Scripture"?

The comparison interpretation can be placed onto Robertson's comments, to be sure, and to do so would be reasonable, but I quickly add: it would be a reasonable mistake (intelligent people can make reasonable mistakes). It seems to me that HOW Robertson's list is formed is crucial here. Again, as I've argued, I think that the preponderance of evidence shows it's false to say that Robertson compares same-sex sex with bestiality. The comparison thesis doesn't handle the full range of data: i.e., Robertson's actual GQ comments, his clarification, the biblical context, the logical structure of a reductio ad absurdum. Rather, the full range of data best supports the reductio ad absurdum argument as the generator of the list. What especially persuades me (when coupled with the larger context) is Robertson's sentence immediately prior to his "morph out from there" sentences. Describing humanity's turn from God and America's need for repentance, Robertson says, "Everything is blurred on what's right and what's wrong… Sin becomes fine." This is to say, to use Robert George's words, that Robertson is setting out the "anything goes" view. Here is what George and I take to be Robertson's reasoning: This "anything goes" view is under consideration; but if "anything goes" is true, then same-sex sex, sex with animals, sex with multiple partners/ promiscuity should be fine; but (which Robertson takes as obvious) these are not fine; so (it is implied) the "anything goes" view is mistaken. This is the logic of a reductio ad absurdum, not the logic of a mere comparison.

This is NOT to say that there is absolutely NO comparison involved in any of this (the items on the list from Corinthians have a similar or common element, i.e., they're all sins, so in that sense they're comparable), but it IS to say that the comparison view doesn't get to the central bit of logic of what's going on.

I'll close with this: I think that the most important clarification to be made concerning Phil Robertson's words, coarse or not, is that by pointing out that homosexual sex is sin, sex with animals is sin, and promiscuous sex is sin, etc., Robertson (and Christians who agree with Robertson) is not saying that gay sexual partners are or are like animals, just as he is not saying that those persons who engage in promiscuous sex are or are like animals. Rather, as Robertson has clarified, he considers them to be full human persons deserving of respect as God's image bearers, even though Robertson also understands them to be engaging in a morally wrong act.

I hope what I've written is helpful. Best regards to you, Rob.

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

P.S. I think that I've become sensitive to (and troubled by) the comparison argument because it has been leveled at my own work on a couple of occasions. Consider this occasion. In my Apologia column "Lady Gaga and Moral Reasoning" (September 5, 2013), I argued that if we take the view that we should accept and affirm as true and good all people's behaviours which result from their dispositions and urges to behave in various ways (i.e., we accept "born this way" is a sufficient moral justification for behaviour), then unsavory and obviously false consequences arise—such as the approval of the behaviour of serial rapist and murderer Ted Bundy, who may have been born with his peculiar sexual propensities and urges. I also argued that other behaviours that arise from propensities and urges would have to be accepted and affirmed, other behaviours such as those arising from predispositions toward pedophilia, alcoholism, temper tantrums, lying, thievery, greed, gossip, gluttony, etc. About this argument, a critic said the following (dismissively): VDB is comparing gays to Ted Bundy. About this argument, which I also set out in a different venue, another critic said (angrily): VDB is comparing gays to pedophiles, which she also found "insulting." Significantly, however, these critics failed to notice that the argument is NOT making a comparison. Rather, the argument is setting out a reductio ad absurdum whose logic generates the list of consequences which, if false or morally repugnant, count against the truth of the position that generates the list.

I see this mistake occurring more and more often in the public discourse surrounding the moral question of homosexual sex, so much so that perhaps a new and popular fallacy is emerging, one that may need a name of its own and be added to the fallacy lists in logic textbooks. I'm thinking of the following as a possible name: Reducktio gag absurdum. Okay, the label needs some work. The fallacy, though, is very real.

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

Rob, I still can't find the video of the gay commentator who accuses Phil Robertson of "equating" his (the gay commentator's) sexual partner to a dog. But I'll keep looking. In the meantime, to back up my claim that some critics are in fact accusing Robertson of "equating" same-sex sex to bestiality (not merely "comparing"), see the December 18, 2013, NY Daily News article "'Duck Dynasty' star Phil Robertson suspended from show after EQUATING homosexuality with bestiality" (my capitals). A link to this article can be found in the last sentence of the third paragraph in Larry Taunton's piece for The Atlantic, to which I provide a link at the end of my Apologia article. (As I argue in my Apologia column, however, it's not true that Robertson is equating same-sex sex with bestiality. To think that he is, is to misunderstand the logic at hand.)

I don't mean to flog the point about critics charging Robertson with "equating," but I just want to be sure that I support my claims with evidence. I am confident that you, the journalist and careful thinker that you are, appreciate this. (I also like to think that your keen critical thinking skills were helped by some of those fun philosophy courses you took a few years ago.) :-)

Best regards to you and Courtney!

[End of Facebook comments.]