Thursday, January 24, 2008

Role Models

The recent issue on smoking has brought up a related issue – the idea that a person may be morally condemned for failure to be positive role model for other people’s children. Many public people – sports and entertainment celebrities, for example – face the question of whether their being a ‘bad influence’ on children is something that can and should be held against them.

Yes, it can.

When they are, in fact, a bad influence.

There are a lot of cases in which people are condemned for being a ‘bad influence’ when this is not true. And there are many cases in which people who are being a bad influence on children are not condemned because society has decided to ignore their transgressions. So, I am not saying that every instance in which a celebrity – or even a neighbor or family member – is condemned for being a bad influence is justified. I am saying that, when they are a bad influence in fact, then condemnation can be justified in fact.

So, when is it the case that a person is, in fact, a bad influence on others?

This happens when a person exhibits qualities that people generally have reason to have children not pick up, or when a person fails to exhibit qualities that people generally have reason to have children acquire. The rock superstar that trashes a hotel room shows qualities that none of us want to see in our neighbor or anybody who might visit our own property. The superstar diva who is condescending and who denigrates everybody around her exhibits traits that people generally have no reason to want to experience. The sports star whose poor sportsmanship leads to violence on and off the court. All of these people may be condemned for the powers they may have as ‘role models’ to influence a new generation.

Whereas a positive role model – a Bill Gates who resigns from his company to spend his billions of dollars helping others, or an Al Gore who devotes his energies to trying to prevent the present generation from destroying the lives of future generations – may be praised not only for the good that they do, but for being a positive role-model for others.

The standard response to this that we hear – particularly from the celebrities – are that, “It is your job to raise your children, not mine. I am here to give a concert or make a movie or play a game. I’m not here to be a role model.”

The response misses the point.

Let’s begin with the fact that there is no such thing as intrinsic value. Nobody can argue that it is intrinsically wrong to condemn such a person for failure to be a good role model, because there is no such thing as intrinsic wrongness. The only way that it can be wrong to condemn such a person is if there are no ‘good reasons for action that exist’ for condemning such a person.

As it turns out, we are surrounded by ‘good reasons for action that exist’ for condemning such people. The ‘good reasons for action that exist’ are the reasons for action that parents have to create an environment in which their children are healthy, happy, and safe. To the degree that these celebrities create in one’s children attitudes that put those children at risk, either of harming themselves or of being harmed by others – to that degree parents have ‘a reason for action that exists’ to remove that harmful influence.

The sports star who says, “My only purpose is to play the game,” makes the mistake of assuming that watching the game is the only relevant desire that the members of the audience may have. However, members of the audience have, and should have, a great many concerns other than watching the game, and they have reason to require that the players respond to all of those concerns as much as possible.

One of the problems with this, of course, is that a lot of people say that others are a ‘poor role model’ when, in fact, they are not. And there are a lot of poor role models out there who are not recognized as such.

The Boy Scouts ban homosexuals and atheists because they say that these people are poor role models for children. One standard response is to say that this is discriminatory – that the fact that these leaders think homosexuals and atheists are poor role models does not give them the right to bar such people from their organization. They should not be seeking to impose their morality, or their religion, on others.

That’s the wrong response.

People can and do have good reason to keep those who are poor role models away from positions where they may influence one’s children. They are wrong to think that homosexuals or atheists are poor role models. The bigotry for which this policy can be condemned is not the bigotry of ostracizing people who one thinks are bad. The bigotry for which the policy can be condemned is the unfounded hate-mongering behind the conclusion that homosexuals and atheists are ‘bad people’.

The reasons that people give for holding these attitudes are so poor that it is unreasonable to assert that, ‘We are driven to the conclusion that these are bad people by the available evidence.’ There is no evidence. The ‘reason’ for condemning these as bad people are no better than the reasons once given for enslaving blacks, nearly exterminating the native Americans, interning Japanese Americans during WWII, or trying to wipe out homosexuals and Jews in Europe. It is unfounded culturally-learned hate passed down from one generation to the next as a matter of tradition.

These people – the people who pass down a culture of hate from one generation to the next – are, unfortunately, the ones who are seeking to have unrestricted access to children through organizations such as the Boy Scouts. This is a case in which society has taken a group of people that there are many and strong reasons to keep away from children (because of their bad influence) and given them unrestricted and virtually unmonitored access to children in order to exert their bad influence.

The problem is not that it is wrong to keep people who are a bad influence away from children. The problem is with society’s failure to accurately judge who is, in fact, a bad influence on children – keeping children away from many who could be a good influence, and giving moral degenerates unrestricted opportunity to teach unreasoned hate to yet another generation.

This is not to say that all homosexuals or atheists would be a good influence. This is not to say that everybody else is necessarily a bad influence. It is to say that whether one is a good or bad role model for children has nothing to do with whether one is a homosexual or atheist – it depends on other factors. It depends, for example, on whether one is consumed by unreasoned hate and is likely to infect impressionable young minds with the same moral malfunction.

Here’s another example. A good role model for children is a person who is willing to ask, “What if I am wrong?” If the consequence of being wrong is that others are likely to be harmed for no good reason, the intellectually responsible person asks, “Am I wrong? How do I know that I am not wrong?” Somebody who does not ask these questions is not concerned about the harm his actions might cause others, and may well be condemned for being a poor role model for children.

We see a lot of people on the religious side of the spectrum who are ‘poor role models’ in this sense. For example, we have Danish D’Souza, who shows absolutely no intellectual responsibility as he asserts one false claim or invalid inference after another in support of his desired conclusions. He gets so many things wrong that it is absurd to suggest that he has that he exhibits the moral trait of intellectual responsibility. Children and others who look to him as an example see an example of a dishonest propagandist unconcerned with the harm that innocent people might be caused to suffer by his actions.

We also find an example in the sponsors and co-sponsors of House Resolution 888. This is a resolution that seeks to make the first week in May a week devoted to teaching their favorite American myths as facts. People who put these fictions into this resolution, and who support getting it passed, are clearly people who have no interest in truth or facts. The children and others who look up to them as an example see a model for using lies as political propaganda, not defenders of truth.

The question is not one of whether to have role models or not – of whether we have reason to demand that others be good examples for the next generation to follow. We do. This is true by definition, since ‘good examples’ or ‘positive role models’ are, by definition, examples that we have reason to encourage people to become (and to condemn those who fall short).

The question is, “Who counts as a good role model for children?”

The hate-filled, superstitious, intellectually lazy and irresponsible, lying, sophist, bigot is not qualified to care for children. He is the type of person that good parents (or anybody concerned with the moral character and education of children) will point to and say, “Do not be like him. Here, he lies. There, he uses sophistry to manipulate others into doing harm to innocent people. And there, he is being intellectually reckless, scarcely concerned about the fact that the beliefs he adopts for no good reason will bring suffering to millions of innocent people.” To whatever degree children can be taught not to follow in the footsteps of the liars, sophists, intellectually reckless bigots, to that degree future generations will have a better world than it would have otherwise been.


Anonymous said...

The Boy Scouts ban homosexuals and atheists because they say that these people are poor role models for children.

An FYI you might already be aware of: The Boy Scouts of Some of America ban homosexuals from leadership positions because they hold that homosexuality is contrary to being 'morally straight.' They ban atheists and agnostics from any membership at all because they cannot be good enough citizens.

Boy Scouts of America believes that no member can grow into the best kind of citizen without recognizing an obligation to God. Accordingly, youth members and adult volunteer leaders of Boy Scouts of America obligate themselves to do their duty to God and be reverent as embodied in the Scout Oath and the Scout Law...Because of Scouting’s methods and beliefs, Scouting does not accept atheists and agnostics as members or adult volunteer leaders.

Anonymous said...

Ben -
I'm not sure I follow you. That's exactly what Alonzo said. Or was that just supporting evidence, in case anyone questioned Alonzo's statement?

Alonzo -
I am suffering some confusion as to when it's acceptable to believe something and when it isn't. As you've said, this sort of bigotry is obviously exposed as bigotry because there's no good reason to believe that atheists/jews/etc are bad, there's no evidence of that. "It is unfounded culturally-learned hate passed down from one generation to the next as a matter of tradition"

But... you've also mentioned before that no one has enough time and energy to inspect every belief he may hold, or to reason through to every conclusion he may come to. That a common, and legitimate, form of gaining knowledge is to simply absorb the viewpoints of everyone around you. If 90% of the people you know strongly believe X, it is not irrational to accept X as true, since most of the time they will be right.

What I'm wondering is where the line between culturally-inherited bigotry and culturally-learned beliefs is? Is it more a matter of being responsible enough to re-evaluate commonly held beliefs in light of available evidence if you are shown that the commonly held beliefs are harming others?

Alonzo Fyfe said...

The principle is that, when a person makes a mistakes, we can often use that mistake to determine what the agent desires - what he wants to believe. Given the quality of those desires (whether they are desires that tend to thwart or fulfill other desires), we can then make a moral judgment about an individual.

The Representative who has written lies into House Resolution 888 has plenty of opportunity to ask (and to answer) the question, "Is this true?" Apparently, he doesn't care. On the other hand, Aunt Emma, who is a legal secretary who forwards these claims to you in an email, need not be held to the same standards. She can be forgiven for merely passing along what a lot of people around her claim to be true.

Danish D'Souza writes a column. He has an obligation to ask himself, "Am I providing my readers with accurate information?" So much of the information he passes along is so blatantly false, it is reasonable to conclude that he never asks this question. The theory that best explains his behavior is that he is somebody who thinks, "I do not care if this is true or false. My readers will take my word for it, and think that this proves my conclusion, so I will use it."

Those readers who actually trust him and who repeat his lies are less culpable than he is. They do not have time to verify everything they read, and have reason to assume that the author is morally responsible enough not to lie. It is not their fault that D'Souza does not meet this qualification.

It is also possible to be sexist or racist without moral culpability. The founding fathers, for example, questioned the issue of slavery, but it apparently did not even occur to them that women should be given political rights. Sexism, in this case, so permeated their culture that nobody was capable of questioning it. This makes their sexism far less culpable than their racism, where it clearly was possible for them to conceive of the possibility of being wrong.

Ultimately, the question to ask is, "What desires are responsible for this mistake?" and "Does this answer show the presence of desires we have reason to inhibit, or the absence of desires we have reason to promote?" If there are, then we have reason to morally condemn the individual. Because of different responsibilities for people in different positions, we can condemn the person who claims to be an authority for the same act that we can let pass when performed by somebody who does not pretend to be an authority.

Anonymous said...

Samuel Skinner
I think you have an obligation to examine your beliefs whenever you act on them and someone objects on the grounds that you are wrong. You don't need to search out through your mind to cull it out- now with the internet we can check up on our beliefs at any time and see if our beliefs are substantiated. I know the internet isn't super reliable, but it does provide "both sides" of the arguement (for the nutty to the more reasonable)

Anonymous said...

My point was that the ban against atheists & agnostics goes beyond not being a positive role model. A seven year old agnostic trying to be a Cub Scout is a role model to no one and is in no leadership position, yet the Boy Scouts of Some of America won't let him in.

Uber Miguel said...

By the way, it's Dinesh, not Danish. But he deserves to have his name misspelled... sophistry-slinging swine. :P

Anonymous said...

RE: D'Souza.

Alonzo, I remember you making a similar claim about him not long ago. Could you take the time, maybe in a seperate posting dedicated to just this, to give examples? He's debating everyone, and you'd be doing a good service by providing such examples. You also should do it because you keep saying this without examples. I believe you are probably right, but it's not like you to make unsupported accusations repeatedly.