Monday, November 10, 2008

Mucking about with Epistemology

I really should be focusing on my revisions but this letter caught my eye for engaging in one of the most sleight of hand use of equivocation I've seen in some time. And for having drawn the wrong conclusions but I'm sure she would say the same about me.

Sex education: Letter writer was not neutral
by Yeo Su' An (Ms)
Oh wow, that's utterly shocking. But more problematically, she's redefining the meaning of neutral as we understand it. And ironically, she uses the sort of moral relativism that she accuses the letter writer of engaging in when in reality there's a real difference between descriptive moral relativism and prescriptive moral relativism.

I REFER Mr Ho Chi Sam's letter, 'Polycentric approach to sex education'. He argues that 'various institutions and organisations should not teach sex education and pass their brand of education as universal, but be upfront about their subjectivity'. He seems to be implicitly adopting a relativistic framework which posits that all viewpoints are subjective, and to make a claim to correctness and objectivity is undemocratic and unacceptable in a diverse society. However, this framework is arguably unsustainable as, if all viewpoints are inherently subjective, this necessarily includes the very perspective on sex education which he is putting forth. The very fact that he is arguing for polycentric sex education demonstrates that he believes that encouraging youth to have safe sex is normatively better than encouraging abstinence. It thus follows that he himself is not neutral, but instead is taking a position along the moral framework.

In one sense, the moral relativist viewpoint is self-defeating as the writer rightly points out BUT the problem is that descriptive moral relativism is inherently true i.e. all norms are subjectively valid to the adherents of that particular ethos. Making a claim for universalism is actually hard when people don't buy into your subjective norms. There's a reason for the diversity of opinion and political views after all, no one thinks that their views are wrong for that reason.

The problem comes after that part about descriptive moral relativism i.e. what next? One could go from there to prescriptive moral relativism i.e. their ways are not ours, we may not agree with what they believe but there are no more wrong than we are right hence we do nothing. The other way would be to say, fine, but if we're all going to live together, what system do we use to get along with one another. In other words, how do we best "respect" (or at least tolerate) differing worldviews while permitting each their subjectively normative worldview?

The problem with the writer's critique is that it ascribes neutrality (a position) with affirmation which is frankly a little disingenuous because she's trying to draw more of a normative value from the original writer's support of polycentric sex-education than is actually warranted. To claim that "[t]he very fact that he is arguing for polycentric sex education demonstrates that he believes that encouraging youth to have safe sex is normatively better than encouraging abstinence" is accordingly fallacious because a) abstinence is part of a comprehensive sex education policy and b) his "belief" that it is normatively better may have more to do with a normative belief that one should be exposed to as many viewpoints as it may be that abstinence only policies don't actually work.

This point is critical as it is not merely theoretical but has real practical implications. By hiding behind the veil of plurality and neutrality, Mr Ho conveniently sidesteps the controversial nature of the polycentric sex education he advocates. Such 'diversity' sex education, as conducted in schools in Britain and the United States begins even at the primary school level, covering topics such as the use of contraceptives and how to engage in safe sex, diverse types of sex including heterosexual, homosexual and bisexual, and alternative family structures such as cohabitation and same-sex partnerships. The controversial nature of such polycentric sex education is underscored by the heated nature of the recent debates in California, about the approach to be adopted with regard to the content of sex education concerning homosexual family structures. Strong opinions on both sides of the debate demonstrate that it is illusory to speak as if a consensus exists and polycentric sex education is a settled, widely accepted issue.

Oh gee...where have I heard that before? Just click on the tag below to see the same arguments brought up (and dealt with) before.

But separately, maybe it might be the editing but this whole paragraph simply does not make sense even from the internal logic of the writer? One could easily make the argument that it is precisely because it is controversial that one should adopt a comprehensive sex education policy. It's a fact that such family structures exist and it's a fact that some of these structures are no worse (if not actually better) than your so-called traditional family structure.

To understand how this paragraph is a fallacious appeal to emotions, just change the terms to mixed-race couples and you could have a paragraph emerging from the 1960s Civil Rights Movement.

Furthermore, let's be clear about the issue here. We COULD simply be taking about a comprehensive sex education policy focusing not on family structures but on safer sex including the risks involved in other sexual activities not limited to vaginal intercourse.

Lastly, the "debate" is not settled in the US because of the influence of the conservative religious right whose opposition is based on their notion of morality. They are entitled to their moral views, unfortunately, their moral views lead to real harm. The experts i.e. the medical people actually working in the field and doing research have consistently maintained that abstinence-only policies do not work.

Finally, Mr Ho argues that 'our youth should be exposed to this range of sex education, so they can make an informed decision and follow which material they deem to best suit themselves'. With respect, this argument rests on the flawed assumption that children and youth are rational, wise and ever judicious in their decision-making. As philosopher Herbert Hart pointed out in his critique of John Stuart Mill, this assumption cannot stand when viewed in the light of factual reality: Children and youth do not possess relatively stable wants and desires, and are impressionable and open to experimentation. Contrary to Mr Ho's assertion, making children aware of the health risks of promiscuous sex is no mere 'scare fest' to be peremptorily dismissed: It is an objective fact that teenagers who engage in promiscuous sex are at a much higher risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases than teenagers who abstain from sex until marriage. It follows that it would harm, not help, children to hide such scientific realities from them.

Wasn't it Dawkin's who said religious labeling (and possibility education) was akin to child abuse? That's the danger of making this argument, because it gives carte blanc to the people in charge that they are entitled to indocrinate those who simply do not know better. Secondly, gross overgeneralisation much? It's one thing to expose children to objectively erroneous facts (Intelligent Design/Creationism as a scientific theory), another to expose them to different value systems. Recall descriptive moral relativism, unless you can demonstrate that an abstinence-only education is objectively better (by whatever criteria you may choose), then it becomes another viewpoint but now we're pushing it as the numero uno supremo value for problematic reasons.

I think it is precisely for this reason that the writer tries of course to talk about "scientific realities" and the fact she mentions is not wrong, ceteris peribus. The more important point is whether a) abstinence-only education actually reduces sexual promiscuity and b) whether it reduces STDs and unwanted pregnancies. And the answer is simply no, and no, no, no.



At 5:24 AM, Blogger Sam Ho said...

hi, i'm the "not neutral letter-writer".

i think my neutrality is not neutral enough for her. don't hate my plurality and neutrality.

in writing the letter, which was subsequently bashed along with my person, all i wanted was to advocate for more voices to be heard in sex education, including abstinence, drink milk, eat vitamins and say prayer like the hulkster types.

At 3:05 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Shaun Lee,

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I actually have a question about your blog. Would you mind helping us with a linguistic research project? We're compiling data from various Singaporean weblogs. All it requires is checking a few boxes. If you want to take part and/or have more questions, drop me a note ( RE: Question ) so that I can then send you the 'official' project eMail. We'd really appreciate your help.

Thanks very much in advance!
Best regards,
- Fran


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