APA Committee Issues Statement on Swinburne’s SCP Keynote (Updated)
The Committee on the Status of LGBTQ Philosophers in the Profession, one of the committees of the American Philosophical Association, has issued a statement in light of the controversy regarding Richard Swinburne’s keynote address at the 2016 Midwest Society of Christian Philosophers (SCP) meeting.
The statement first emphasizes that Swinburne’s talk was a keynote address:
The APA Committee on the Status of LGBTQ Philosophers in the Profession laments that a keynote speaker at the Midwest meetings of the Society for Christian Philosophers, Professor Richard Swinburne, argued that homosexuals are disabled and have an incurable condition. While the argument betrayed ignorance of both empirical research and humanistic scholarship on homosexuality as well as disability, the fact that this argument was put forward as a keynote address by a prominent philosopher at meetings of a respected philosophical society that regularly holds meetings at the annual meetings of the APA, contributes to the stigmatization and alienation of LGBTQ philosophers and philosophers with disabilities.
It then remarks on the announcements made by officers of the SCP following the talk:
The Committee also applauds the President of the Society for Christian Philosophers, Professor Michael Rea, for issuing a public statement making clear that Professor Swinburne’s views are not that of the SCP and expressing regret for the hurt caused, and Professor Christina Van Dyke, executive Director of SCP, for reiterating that SCP is not committed to any doctrinal views and expressing the desire that the Society be one where any Christian not only is welcome, but feels welcome.
In response to a query of mine, APA Executive Director Amy Ferrer confirmed that this is a statement by the committee, and that it is not thereby a statement from the APA as a whole or the APA’s Board.
I think this raises interesting questions about the relationship between the APA and its committees, as well as those committees and other philosophical societies. Discussion welcome, but please abide by the comments policy.
UPDATE (10/3/16): The text of Swinburne’s talk is here.
Wow I didn’t realize that whether some condition counts as a disability or the truth of modal claims (like incurability) are empirical matters! I’d love to get a hold of the scanning equipment and microscopes that the committee is using!
On a serious note, if you have a technical definition of disability (as Swinburne does), then you cannot asses the substance of the argument in light of ordinary usage. You might make a rhetorical point (“Hey Richard, why not use a different term or phrase?”), but that has nothing to do with the argument. So the issue of empirical research (or humanistic research, whatever the hell that is) is totally irrelevant.Report
Plenty of empirical research in psychology, for example, is done without “scanning equipment and microscopes” — do you discount their claims, too? In psychology, researchers use empirical methods in order to determine, for example, the success of treatment options for depression. (Given our present therapeutic and pharmacological tools, about 10%–30% of cases of depression appear to be treatment resistant, fyi.)Report
Given that the second paragraph begins with “[o]n a serious note,” I don’t know how much of the first paragraph is supposed to be taken seriously.
But, the statement from the Committee on the Status of LGBTQ Philosophers in the Profession does not say, or even suggest, that whether homosexuality counts as a disability is a wholly empirical question. Nor does it say, or even suggest, that the question whether homosexuality is “curable” counts as a wholly empirical question. Rather, it said that Swinburne’s argument betrayed ignorance of relevant empirical research. Quips about microscopes aside, why would you think that empirical research would be irrelevant to the issues Swinburne is addressing?
What is Swinburne’s technical definition of ‘disability’? Does he really introduce it as a technical term? I honestly don’t know because I’m not all that familiar with Swinburne’s work, but I’d be a little surprised. At any rate, I’m unclear about the relationship between the second paragraph and the statement from the Committee. Why would the fact that ‘disability’ is a technical term for Swinburne mean that empirical research is totally irrelevant?Report
If you aren’t familiar with his argument and his definitions, you (and the online philosophical community) should probably refrain from judging it.Report
I sort of agree. At least, I shouldn’t make claims about how his argument goes or how he defines ‘disability.’ So, I haven’t done that. I’m also pretty sure I haven’t “judged” his argument. Can you point me to where I think I have?Report
I think it’s possible to, as the statement says, “contribute… to the stigmatization and alienation of… philosophers with disabilities” even if Swinburne is using a technical, stipulative definition of disability that does not match the general usage of the term among disability scholars.
So for instance if I make an argument that Jews are greedy, but I am careful to stipulate that by “Jews” I don’t mean those of the Jewish faith or those who are culturally Jewish but rather people who have an undue concern with pecuniary concerns, there are a number of ways in which this might contribute to the stigmatization and alienation of Jews, especially if I’m giving a keynote address at a conference for a group of people who adhere to an ideology that in the past has not been particularly great with respect to how it treats Jews and which still has a vast number of current adherents who habitually stigmatize and alienate Jews, or if I’m making my remarks in the context of a society that has marked and longstanding anti-Jewish prejudices that largely go unacknowledged.
It’s true that perhaps my actions would not be as bad as those OTHER people who are actually talking about actual Jewish people when they talk about how Jews are greedy, but I think I would still be subject to some degree of opprobrium more severe than just making what you call the “rhetorical point” that has “nothing to do with the argument.”
To bring the analogy around to the actual case, I think anti-disability prejudice is real and pretty virulent, and that one does not get off the hook by pointing out that by “disabled” one merely meant “something bad that we should try to fix,” especially if one has adopted this stipulative definition in order to show why LGBT people are bad in this way, if one happens to be giving the keynote at a conference of Christian philosophers etc. Ignoring the work disabilities studies has done on whether being disabled is bad in order to adopt a stipulative definition according to which it just IS bad isn’t just bad rhetoric in the context of a world which discriminates against those it labels as disabled.Report
Whether a particular ethnoreligious group is disproportionately greedy, is an empirical question and should be addressed on the basis of evidence, not ideology, prejudice, history or whether or not some group might find the question offensive. Likewise for whether homosexuality is a disability or not.Report
Watch as I prove a modal claim empirically. I observe my fingers touching a keyboard. This observation is evidence for the claim ‘My fingers are touching a keyboard.’ This then by itself straight away implies that it is possible for my fingers to touch a keyboard. Yay!! A modal claim established by empirical investigation. Perhaps you think there is some sophisticated philosophy lurking under the surface of these inferences. You may be right. But I suspect that that same sophisticated philosophy lurks in every empirical investigation ever done, making it difficult to see why empirical investigations can’t establish modal claims.
Maybe when you said ‘like incurable’ you didn’t just mean to point out that claims of incurability were modal claims, but rather you also meant to express skepticism that empirical investigations could establish impossibility claims. So then I wonder whether (1) you haven’t heard of the various conservation laws, or whether (2) you think they have not been shown to be true, or whether (3) you think that they were not shown to be true by empirical means. (1) would be a sad commentary on not just philosophical education but higher education generally, so since I am a person of charitable and hopeful disposition I will assume it is either (2) or (3). On (2) though it is hard to imagine what you think science has shown to be true if it hasn’t shown the conservation laws to be true, and I would hate to think you were a skeptic about science (my charitable nature again). I suspect what is going on here is (3). My guess is that you use the word ’empirical’ in such a way that almost no investigation counts as empirical, and that almost nothing has ever been shown to be true empirically.
I imagine further that you would defend this usage by simply declaring that, like Swinburne, you are just creating a new technical term. Sure it sounds like a word that everyone else already uses and uses differently, but you have a professional right to do so, conventional meanings be damned. Some philosophers take McDowell’s ‘frictionless spinning in a void’ to be some kind of ideal. I worry you are one.Report
I think Swinburne is quite clearly mistaken. I think that the vast majority of philosophers and the majority of Christian philosophers agree that Swinburne is mistaken.
Still, with respect, I wonder where this ends. Shall we publicly lament when a philosopher argues that heterosexual intercourse is rape, that certain handicapped infants should be euthanized, that it is morally wrong to have children, that only the educated should vote, that criminals are not morally responsible for their actions, or that Israel is an apartheid state?Report
If the “majority of Christian philosophers” agree with you that Swinburne is mistaken, that only underlines the massive disconnect between historically recognizable, orthodox Christianity and whatever it is that the left wing “Christians” in academia believe.
Orthodox Christian teaching is now officially subject to professional censure.Report
But if your good ol’ “Orthodox Christian Teaching” prompts you to make statements that are not only disrespectful and offensive to your fellow colleagues in the discipline, but also “[betray] ignorance of both empirical research and humanistic scholarship” *in keynote speeches* at *respected and renowned conferences*, I’d say there’s not enough censure.Report
I agree with Feigl. Whereas Tooley’s argument for the permissibility of infanticide, and similar arguments against the right to life of the severely cognitively disabled, conflict with deeply held intuitions, Rob Hughes makes a very compelling case below that Swinburne’s argument is shoddy beyond the pale according to more widely shared criteria of rational argument. To my mind, what was shared from Swinburne’s book in the “Tale of Two Conferences” thread supports Hughes’ characterization. When a prominent philosopher gives such a shoddy argument at a prominent event, a professional organization is within its rights to repudiate the shoddy argument. So if, at a conference hosted by the main professional climate scientist organization, a keynote speaker offered a howler in defense of anthropogenic global warming denial, the organization would be within its rights to repudiate the argument for PR purposes. (When the argument isn’t shoddy or a howler, such a pursuit of PR would be inappropriate.)Report
” Shall we publicly lament when a philosopher argues that heterosexual intercourse is rape, that certain handicapped infants should be euthanized, that it is morally wrong to have children, that only the educated should vote, that criminals are not morally responsible for their actions, or that Israel is an apartheid state? ”
I would say that the majority of these positions would be inappropriate to put forth in a conference’s keynote speech, as a matter of respect for the people that these addresses would be seen as attacks on.Report
Matt Weiner (10/1 10:12am),
I find your position chilling and anti-philosophical. I see no reason why the keynote speech (bold, caps, italics) is magically significant. What would distinguish the keynote speech such that one shouldn’t offer arguments for such theses during it alone? Are such arguments permitted during departmental colloquia, invited symposia at conferences, in graduate classes, in print in specialist journals, in the NYT, in a public debate?
Quine (10/1 4:24pm) suggests that reflecting on the issue may blur “the supposed boundary between formal professional norms and substantive moral ones” and it seems you would have the moral norm of “respect” simply override philosophical (and moral) norms governing open argument, searching reflection, and the quest for truth.Report
“Still, with respect, I wonder where this ends.” It’s a good question; one effect of reflecting on it is a blurring of the supposed boundary between formal professional norms and substantive moral ones. In particular:
“Shall we publicly lament when a philosopher argues that heterosexual intercourse is rape”? No; while this claim is hyperbolic, it challenges presuppositions that need to be challenged.
“…that certain handicapped infants should be euthanized”? Maybe. At any rate, it would be very understandable for at least some us (for example, those of us who are ourselves handicapped or have close relationships to handicapped people) to do so.
“… that it is morally wrong to have children”? No.
“… that only the educated should vote”? Maybe, depending on how it’s interpreted. The view that the uneducated have strong moral reason not to vote doesn’t merit public lamenting; the view that they shouldn’t have a right to vote is.
” … that criminals are not morally responsible for their actions?” No.
“… or that Israel is an apartheid state?” No.Report
I think something from Eric Reitan ‘ blog post on this matter is relevant to the appropriateness of Rea’s statement:
“Can anything be said for issuing such a “disclaimer”? I’m still not sure what I think of his decision to explicitly distance Swinburne’s views from those of the SCP. Ordinarily, this distance is taken for granted at philosophy conferences, which may lead some readers to suppose that the real message is that those with Swinburne’s views are not welcome to express them at the SCP. But much hinges here on the history of the SCP on this issue and the broader perceptions of the philosophical community. And this distancing is related to something I am sure about, which I turn to now.
Gays and lesbians have a long history of not feeling welcome in Christian communities. And the SCP is a Christian community. Absent any statement by SCP officials to the contrary, it is quite possible, even likely, that at least some gays and lesbians upon hearing second-hand about Swinburne’s keynote address would get the impression that the SCP does not welcome their perspectives, their ideas, or their presence. Even if this impression is inaccurate, it could stifle the diversity that Rea talks about nurturing.
Furthermore, gays and lesbians have lived what for me and other straight Christians can only be an hypothesis–that immersion in communities that teach the categorical condemnation of homosexuality causes harm to gays and lesbians. Other straight Christians may doubt its truth, but many gay and lesbian Christians experience it not as an hypothesis to which they might give intellectual assent but at a painfully inescapable feature of their personal histories. As such, an assurance of welcome that does not include something about the views of the society might be experienced as disingenuous.”
Is the APA–through committees or otherwise–seriously going to start censuring unpopular views? That strikes me as completely crazy. (Yes, that was able-ist language, maybe the APA will put out a statement on it.) If RS’s views are wrong or implausible, then let philosophers get out there and explain why: through publications, keynotes, or whatever. We don’t need the APA trying to effect some sort of mind control over the profession.Report
I’m not taking a position on the Committee Statement; but, I’d be really interested to know why you have used the term ‘crazy,’ despite the fact that you know that the term is ableist, i.e., has harmful social, economic, and other material effects for disabled people, especially people who have been psychiatrized, experience distress, hear voices, etc.
You’ve suggested that if “views are wrong or implausible,” then philosophers should explain why through publications, public speeches, etc. It would seem that you have read and even been convinced by arguments that I or others have advanced (in publications, blog posts and comments here and elsewhere, etc.) according to which ‘crazy’ is ableist; but that doesn’t seem to have had an impact on your rhetorical practices. You’ve flagrantly used the word here for a certain desired effect. I’d like to know why you did that.
Thanks, and looking forward to your response,
If the Committee on the Status of LGBT People in the Profession isn’t supposed to make a statement about a public event hosted by an APA affiliate that might harm the status of LGBT people in the profession, then I guess I’m not sure what role you think the committee should have. Notice that the statement is more about praising the SCP leadership for emphasizing their support for the status of LGBT people and people with disabilities within the profession than it is about criticizing Swinburne’s statements.Report
Swinburne’s argument that gay sex is immoral does indeed rely on an empirical claim (assuming that his SCP argument is substantially the same as the argument he made in the 2007 second edition of his book Revelation and clarified in his 2008 “Reply to my Critics”). The empirical premise is as follows: “It is plausible to suppose that by refraining from sexual acts people help to cure and prevent homosexuality.” (2008, 222). This premise, Swinburne writes, is “crucial” (2008, 223).
To be clear about what Swinburne is saying here: Swinburne is saying that having gay sex in adulthood can influence one’s sexual orientation. This is a crazy thing to think. Many, many gay people have tried to make themselves straight by having sex with people of the opposite sex. It does not work. Though it is unclear what causes homosexuality, there is no evidence that sexual experience in adulthood is one of the causal influences.
What evidence does Swinburne cite for his crucial empirical claim? The appendix to his 2007 book makes his case. Here is his evidence: (1) Twin studies indicating that identical twins do not always have the same sexual orientation. (2) Evidence that homosexuality is more common in men who were the youngest of several brothers. (3) An unsourced assertion that “there is … evidence that child abuse encourages male homosexuality.” (362). (4) One study claiming that children of gay parents are somewhat more likely to be gay themselves. (5) A 2003 study of 200 individuals who reported that they had changed their sexual orientation through “reparative therapy.” The study was widely criticized. Its author, Robert Spitzer, retracted the study in 2012 and said that its methodology had a “fatal flaw.”
None of this evidence provides any support for Swinburne’s claim that sex in adulthood influences sexual orientation. A retracted study is his only evidence that sexual orientation can be changed in adulthood in any way. So unless Swinburne has new evidence, he has no support for his astonishing assertion.
There is a word for believing unsupported empirical assertions about a minority group because they “seem plausible.” That word is “prejudice.”
I believe in both a legal and a social right to freedom of speech. There should be space in philosophy to offer thoughtful arguments for views that others (perhaps rightly) find offensive. That said, an argument is unworthy of serious discussion if it relies on empirical assertions that are rooted in prejudice rather than in evidence.Report
I have *no idea* if this is an
accurate account of Swinburne’s argument at the SCP, but if it is, Swimburne’s suggestion is not that adult homosexuals can become straight but that their behavior can influence (partly) the development of homosexuality in young people.
I think the article is more consistent than it seems with Rob Hughes’s interpretation of Swinburne’s written work. Whether Swinburne’s argument in the talk differed significantly from his published work is another question, and I’m not sure what the answer is, though my default assumption, given all the available info, is that his view hasn’t substantially changed.
So how is the view presented in the article consistent with Rob Hughes’s interpretation? This will take a bit of explaining. In the linked article, Swinburne contrasts “older and incurable” with younger and potentially curable homosexuals. It’s easy to infer from this wording that he thinks older homosexuals are invariably incurable. But that’s not strictly entailed by the wording (compare, ‘older and stubborn men are a pain at thanksgiving’). Moreover, that interpretation is in tension with the view he presents in Revelation, and with the general prohibition of homosexual sex that he’s after: allowing that all adult homosexuals are incurable undermine his argument for the wrongness of homosexual sex between adults *who are discreet*. That is, the argument as stated in the article can at most yield an obligation on the part of homosexuals to be discreet about their sex lives.
So how does Swinburne get the sweeping ban on homosexual sex that he’s after? In Revelation, Swinburne acknowledges that there are reasons for skepticism about “curing” homosexuality in adults. But he also thinks there are reasons for optimism. He says in an appendix that the existing research “supports the view that there is some prospect of therapeutic cure for those who seek it. As with the cure of any other disability or disease, we should be able to do better in this century than in the last century” (362). He is here referring to the research discussed by Rob Hughes.
How do we cure homosexuality, according to Swinburne? “So part of both prevention and cure (where that is now possible) must consist in deterring homosexuals from committing homosexual acts” (306). This is part of prevention and cure because “Practice will inevitably often strengthen desire” (305).
So the crucial distinction is between homosexuals who have had a lot of homosexual sex–and whose homosexuality is thereby deeply entrenched–and homosexuals who have not had much homosexual sex–and who are therefore more “curable”.
Now the practiced, “incurable” homosexuals will be mostly older and the “curable” neophytes mostly younger, let’s grant (in general, amount of sex had is positively correlated with age). But there are plenty of older homosexuals who haven’t had much, or any, homosexual sex. Swinburne must say of such adults that not having homosexual sex may make them heterosexual (since he does not allow for the permissibility of discreet homosexual sex). This seems to me to be an instance of the unsupported empirical thesis that Rob Hughes attributes to Swinburne above.Report
In describing Swinburne’s argument, I assumed that by “homosexual acts” Swinburne meant sex. I also assumed he realizes that there is obviously no causal mechanism whereby gay sex could affect the sexual orientation of anyone other than the participants. Since sex between adults and children is uncontroversially wrong, the ethics of sex between adults is the topic. Thus my gloss on the premise I quoted–Swinburne is asserting that gay sex between adults can influence their sexual orientation.
Following up on Johnny_Thunder’s comment: Maybe Swinburne really means for his argument to be about the ethics of coming out. That isn’t what he wrote in 2007/2008. Were he to formulate an argument that it is wrong to come out as gay, he would face a parallel empirical objection. Lots of people who came of age in social environments with a strong stigma against homosexuality (e.g. the U.S. before the late 1990s) were and are gay nonetheless. This fact places the burden of proof on anyone who wishes to assert that social stigma influences people’s sexual orientation. Of course it is conceivable that stigma effectively influences some people and not others, but Swinburne is not entitled to assert without evidence that stigma in fact influences some people’s sexual orientation.
A relevant recent finding: data from the General Social Survey from 1988 to 2010 indicate that in the U.S., “The percentage of people reporting a pattern of predominantly same-gender sexual behavior has neither increased nor decreased over time.”
Since the stigma against homosexuality decreased greatly during that time, the claim that stigma affects the incidence of homosexuality is looking improbable. (Though people’s sexual orientation can diverge from their pattern of sexual behavior, there is a strong connection.)Report
Robert Hughes and Johnny_Thunder,
Sincere thanks for these careful, informed, and thoughtful remarks. I linked to the Christianity Today piece only because it was the first place where I had seen a bit more detail on the character of Swinburne’s actual argument at the SCP. The brief description in CT seems to indicate, as both of you note, that the argument would, at best, merely support the claim that homosexuals ought to be discreet and not that they ought to forebear from conduct in accordance with their desires. But, partly for the reasons you give, it seems not to support even that conclusion.
Your helpful remarks reinforce my own (less informed) sense that there is no version of Swinburne’s arguments that withstands careful scrutiny. It isn’t clear, however that such a failure distinguishes his arguments from a great many in philosophy. I don’t think we need to see public repudiation (rather than refutation) of every philosophical argument which pretty clearly fails to support its conclusion. Both of you, judging from your remarks above), think Swinburne’s argument is *uniquely* bad in such a way that the SCP should apologize for it. I guess I don’t.Report
Here’s a tentative suggestion:
If your argument
1. concludes that group X is in some way very bad, where group X has been historically oppressed in the community where the argument is delivered
2. is highly shoddy
3. is delivered in a prestigious venue
then it’s permissible for those who administer the venue to repudiate your argument.
So I agree that the badness of Swinburne’s argument isn’t enough to license the repudiation. I think it’s that together with its meeting the other conditions I just laid out. Or at least, that’s a first stab at explaining why it can be repudiated.Report
Here is, apparently, the text of Swinburne’s presentation at the SCP (the case of homosexuality is discussed starting on p. 11):
And a video of the actual talk at the SCP:
Might I ask whether it is part of this committee’s charge to make such statements?
“The committee is charged with assessing and reporting on the status of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and genderqueer (LGBTQ) people in the profession. Its main responsibilities are to identify unfair or discriminatory practices affecting LGBTQ philosophers in their professional work and to apprise the board and members of the association of ways in which such practices may be rectified; to inform LGBTQ philosophers concerning means of overcoming discrimination that they may encounter in the profession; and to make reports and recommendations to the board concerning ways in which full and meaningful equality of opportunity can be provided to all individuals who seek to study, teach, or conduct research in philosophy. The committee is also concerned with teaching and research. It seeks to facilitate an understanding of, and investigation into, issues of sexuality, diversity in affectional preference or orientation, sexual identity, gender identity, gender expression, and the range of positions represented in theories about LGBTQ people.”Report
“assessing and reporting on the status of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and genderqueer (LGBTQ) people in the profession” – it seems to me that a statement by a professional group affirming their inclusion of LGBTQ people in a situation where one might have found it questioned is the sort of thing the committee should be “assessing and reporting on”, according to that mission statement.Report
I think there are at least four issues: 1) Was Swinburne’s talk bad, presenting a bad argument? 2) Was it offensive? 3) Should we care? 4) Should APA committee be issuing statements about it.
1) It seems that there is some agreement that it was though no one is supporting it by careful analysis of quotes from what he said. I have not heard it but, presumably, this could be settled by someone actually posting it or analyzing it.
2) To many people the view is, presumably, offensive. To many others it is not. Is it objectively offensive? I bet it could be argued so, though I am not sure the effort is warranted. It is worth noting, however, that if he is arguing that it is a disability and an incurable condition, then he should argue that society should make efforts to accommodate it by making the world gay friendly. It also makes it not a moral failure and so outside the scope of moral judgment. That is progress for some Christian circles.
3) I think Swinburne and his likes are, at least in the Western world, on their way out. It’s a swan song. But it is part of a larger problem (think Orlando) of modern world clashing with primitive systems of thought whose main concerns center on regulating sexuality (i.e., religions). To that extent, it is something to actively oppose.
4) No. The APA should not be issuing such statements. It should support gay philosophers, promote their rights and equality at workplace and so on but it should not generally be concerned with particular talks and criticisms of ideas, however bad or badly argued. There is a tension here, but that’s just how life goes. Should APA never be concerned with talks – no. Presumably, if Swinburne or anyone else argued that, say, the society should actively interfere in the lives of gay people, then yes (and if he did argue that then the statement is appropriate) since that would be inciting violations of freedom and so on.Report