I thought I’d go ahead and share two papers I wrote recently. This first paper is from one of my sociology classes, Definitions of Normality. I referenced a few posts back. Although I had to resort to some hyperbole to make my point and I had to gloss over some really huge stuff to cram it into six pages, I like how it turned out.
The purpose of the paper was to write a time in which I’d “passed”. We recently read a book detailing the lives of various people that had pretended to be people they weren’t – black for white, gay for straight, etc.. I asked her if I could take an alternative approach, and she approved it.
If passing is defined as an attempt to circumvent unjust exclusion, I cannot confess to having done such in any meaningful way. I cannot recall a time in which I chose to hide important realities about my history or identity for the sake of attaining personal social equality. That is not to say that I have always loved who I am without reservation, nor do I suggest that I have never faced situations in which I wanted desperately to fit in – at any cost. My response to those feelings and circumstances, however, has not been to pass, but to consider the worthiness of the challenge, and change myself accordingly, all the way from appearance and mannerisms to my core values and beliefs.
This story starts in Mississippi, where my father was the vice president of a prominent theological seminary in Jackson, while my mother managed a large campus ministry. I lived there for ten years, until my father left his position to pastor a Presbyterian church in Ithaca. Until we moved, I had never once been challenged on or had any reason to question the religion of my parents, and I thought little of it until I was thrust into a new culture that did not embrace my father’s ideals. With this move, I continued to fit in marvelously with my peers at church, but I did not fare well in my elementary school experience. At the suggestion of my homeschooling friends, I spent most of my time in junior high homeschooling, a choice which radicalized my religious and political views. I began to read my Bible daily, prayed for God to take away my lustful thoughts (he never did), and I cheered as Bush took office.
Throughout this, however, I was tremendously unsatisfied with myself. From elementary school onward, I had a piercing desire for one thing: a girlfriend. I talked often of my loneliness to my mentors at church, and I trusted them when they assured me that God had a plan for me, and that I need only wait until God decides I should have one, if ever. They stressed that secular relationships would not afford me any happiness, and that I should seek to attract a holy woman by earnestly seeking God. The idea of adapting to modern romantic standards was repulsive; dating was a flawed and selfish system, devoid of any redemptive qualities. I should not seek to be ‘cool’, either, because ‘cool’ was not the measure by which men served God. So I ignored the conventions my few secular peers followed, even as I entered high school, and I took pride in being different.
I had but one friend (from church) as I entered my first day of high school, and he invited me to come to a gaming party at his friend Ben’s house – eager to see what exactly I’d been missing for fourteen years, I arrived without any notion of what to expect. Descending into a pitch-black basement, I entered a room whose walls and ceiling were covered with soft-core pornography, while half a dozen adolescents cursed furiously and compared everything to boobs and penises. I had no clue what to do, so I threw myself at an Xbox and tried not to look away. I managed to inquire why the walls were covered with tits, and Ben matter-of-factly explained that this was his sister’s room, and that she was a lesbian. I decided to save my shock for after I won the current round of Halo.
I quickly realized that this reality was at complete odds with what I’d been living for years before. I walked into church a day later with nothing but compunction and confusion. My father’s sermons told me that there was something fundamentally wrong with what I witnessed; they did not go to church, they were lustful and vulgar, they were sinners. My training told me that because they did not know Jesus, they were missing something from their lives and had no true purpose – but the more I came to know Ben (I went to every party he had thereafter), the less this conviction revealed itself to be true. Ben was an intelligent, caring, and hilarious person whose day-to-day problems did not find their solution in religion. He had something I wanted – even beyond a girlfriend – he seemed to have no need for the God I deemed so necessary.
I could have chosen to live a dual life. I could have easily maintained the facade of a proper church boy while participating in the godless hedonism of my peers, but I chose, instead, to integrate the two. I played both sides of the fence. I engaged my friends at school in much religious discussion, attempting to convert them to Christianity, while I did the reverse to my peers at church, playing the devil’s advocate, borrowing from many of the arguments my friends from school offered. I did it as a means towards figuring out which path contained more truth. At times, I resonated far more with one side than the other. But I never pretended that I was someone that I was not. I sought first and foremost to accrue knowledge, that I might make more informed decisions on my future.
I began to part from Christianity. A slow realization started, wherein I saw that the relationships around me – particularly the romantic relationships – operated on a set of rules that I was not properly following. My religious background had taught me to ignore these rules, but as Professor Baker noted, rules are what bind us together, they help make sense of the world. I realized that these rules existed for a reason, and that I must understand them if I wished to be a part this society around me.
So I changed. I decided to pursue and conform to these rules as best as I could. I started running and working out nearly every night. I started observing the fashions around me, I noted which colors went best together, how they wore their clothes, they way they walked and the way they talked. I watched movies, and I examined the men that my female friends considered so dreamy, and what made them so attractive. Cooley would be proud, no doubt; I shamelessly sought to emulate the best of what secular society had to offer. I wanted to be awesome. This wasn’t a new pursuit; I’d always wanted to be awesome. I was redefining what awesome meant to myself, and rethinking what awesome meant to others.
Quite simply, I was repeating the process of socialization. Baker describes this as the means by which people learn to be members of their social group. I was altering my primary social group to include a wider variety of people, who operated by a very different set of folkways. Prior to this, I had seen popular culture as being devoid of meaningful rules, but in fact, its folkways formed a network at least as complex as what was within the church. It wasn’t simply that I was adopting new folkways to achieve a goal, nor that I was abandoning old folkways; I was altering my core values in such a way that adopting these new folkways would be completely natural.
Over the following two years, I left Christianity completely, even after spending four months at a Christian study center in England. I got a large tattoo of a phoenix on my chest. I started smoking. I went through my first serious relationship, with all the accompanying highs and lows. My musical tastes expanded from almost exclusively listening to techno, to chamber pop, death metal, and trip-hop.
Goffman says that we are forever performing for one another, projecting an identity to those around us. Not everything I’ve done and all I’ve changed has been a grand projection for the entertainment of others, but the lifestyle changes I made feature an important common factor: they are, for me, parts of my life that I share with practically all of my peers. In changing my body, my religion, my music, these were expressions to those around me (as well as to myself) that I’ve changed, and that I’m no longer the person that I once was.
The path that these changes have taken me on has not been easy in any regard. The distance between the old church culture and myself grows ever wider as I lose common ground with their values and I decline more of their folkways. I am still close with many of my church friends, but a tension lingers over every conversation, composed of unspoken challenges and questions. I still yearn for what the faith purported to offer; the idea of an intimate and involved God is both beautiful and powerful. The community was also open, caring, and supportive, and the norms of my chosen social group do not lend themselves to such entities.
Although change is a difficult and frustrating process, I feel strongly that it’s a superior alternative to passing. Many people have “successfully” managed two separate lives, one for religion, and one for everything else – but such duality is ultimately destructive, as well as deeply disingenuous to both cultures. Passing, in this matter, seems unacceptable, a choice made out of weakness, an inability to choose between two competing societies that offer different realities and promise radically different futures. I have devoted my identity – the only identity I have – to one world, rather than diluting it, and I’ve changed it as has become necessary with society’s evolving norms. I take pride in having avoided passing thus far, and I hope that I can continue to do so for as long as possible.
This next paper is a little more obscure. I wrote it for my ethics class. The goal of the paper was to utilize Aristotle’s virtue ethics in approaching abortion. It’s a little meta, but I love me some meta, so I really enjoyed this one.
The realities surrounding an issue such as abortion are inexorably grim. At the core of the matter lie millions of unwanted and unplanned pregnancies, for which abortion offers a permanent solution. This solution is not without its concerns, and it holds a number of grave reflections upon the virtues we hold dear as individuals, as well as a society. What virtues are at stake when considering abortion? Does abortion lead us towards those virtues, or does it send us astray? Although Aristotle would have had no concept of abortion as we know it today, his ideas can form a powerful basis for considering what is worthwhile in this debate.
To determine the virtues relevant to abortion, we must consider the consequences of an abortion. An abortion is not just about ending a nine-month pregnancy, but about preventing the birth of a child that will exist for years to come, and the burdens that are involved with raising that child. An abortion is also a matter of desire; excluding cases in which the pregnancy threatens the mother’s life, abortion is being considered because the child is not desired, whether due to a lack of financial or emotional readiness, or a simple absence of motive to become a parent. Finally, abortion also holds serious consequences for the physical well-being of the mother, particularly when contrasted with the alternative outcomes involved with childbirth.
All of this is largely a matter of looking forward. How will the mother’s life change with the presence of this child? In what ways will society be altered? What can the child look forward to? Although a multitude of virtues are weaved throughout the nuances of these questions, a few can be considered of greatest importance. These are questions of prudence. Is it wise to birth a child into an environment that is not prepared for her arrival? It is likely that such a child will be afforded far fewer opportunities – educational, financial, and social – than a child brought up inside a ready home. Likewise, an unprepared mother will certainly suffer stresses and anxieties that other mothers might not. When a child’s home cannot provide for all of his needs, it is left to society as a whole to provide support, a pressure which becomes quite serious with each unexpected child.
Aristotle would look to the importance of prudence as a matter of balance, an approach which works surprisingly well in this regard. Too much prudence might involve aborting every unexpected pregnancy, regardless of the mother’s wishes, for fear of the burden these children bring upon their mothers ans society at large. Too little would see abortion struck out as an option entirely, with mothers foolishly embracing the potential of new children without any consideration for their practical ability to care for these children.
Abortion is also an issue of fairness. If a woman does not desire her pregnancy, is it fair – to the mother and to the child – to bring the pregnancy to term despite this? Is it fair to bring a child into the world only to send them to an orphanage or foster home? By the same token, is it fair to place such an expectation on society to support the child? Is it fair for a woman to undergo the rigors of a nine-month pregnancy and risk childbirth against her will? If the unborn possess full human rights, is it fair to end their life despite these concerns? Is it fair to abort a pregnancy simply because its future is not the same as others?
Aristotle’s approach proves less effective in this regard. The median of fairness is highly nebulous; how may a woman be too fair as she ponders an abortion? Can society truly be too fair, too considerate of all relevant interests? To further complicate the matter, fairness is a more subjective virtue. If one values the life of an unborn child very highly, it becomes more fair to ensure the pregnancy comes to term, regardless of what outcome that child faces on the other side of the womb. Conversely, if one values a woman’s ability to control the future of her body as greater than her pregnancy, the fair choice is already made. Indeed, the answers to questions of fairness seem almost independent of the virtue itself, being predetermined by our attitudes on independence and the nature of human life.
Another direction to be taken with fairness is the simple answer that nothing about an undesired pregnancy, aborted or not, is fair. It is ultimately unfair that we are forced to make these choices, and as Aristotle himself acknowledges, the point from which we start our lives is hardly fair, regardless of how prudently we plan ahead. That being said, this route opens up a better question: are there cases in which it is more fair to abort, than to bring to term, and what are they? In this way, the virtue of fairness is still the goal, but it is less about achieving an objective status of equality, so much as choosing the fairer of two imparities, and we may still honor the importance of fairness in morality.
This brings us to the third, and perhaps most important virtue, conscientiousness. While it might first seem but a synonym of prudence, the conscientious person is driven by a conscience that is satisfied only by a wide awareness of what is it hand and a cautious examination of available evidence. Prudence and fairness without conscience are lifeless, as the goal in ethics is to make decisions that are moral, not just reasonable, for what is strictly reasonable is not always moral. The virtue of conscientiousness drives us to use our prudence and our pursuit of fairness to achieve a most moral end.
Conscientiousness is a virtue whose mean can be found in relation to prudence and fairness. While it may sound odd to be too conscientious, giving too much weight to our conscience would be to defy reason, to follow our gut without consideration for the practical realities and consequences of the situation. Too little conscience would, as mentioned before, result in purely mechanical decision-making, holding no regard for the sanctity of life and happiness, stripping us from what makes these matters important in the first place.
There is a potent example within Rachels’ book, The Elements of Moral Philosophy. He describes the infanticide that was once common in Eskimo society. The Eskimos lived in a harsh environment with very scarce resources, and families could only grow as large as the hunters were able to provide. As such, families were simply incapable of supporting more children; thus, they enabled society to survive by limiting how many children they raised; raising them was simply not a feasible option. Their choice was prudent – they looked to the long-term future of their community, and saw that they could not support more dependents. Their choice was fair – how could the life of a child outweigh the survival of their entire society? Their choice was also conscientious – they did not do this on a whim, but as was grimly necessary.
Considering the importance of these characteristics helps to reveal which choices are truly moral ones. If we thoroughly ponder each virtue, we can uncover a multitude of important questions – questions of prudence and fairness, questions that challenge our conscience. If we follow these questions to their end, it seems that the ethics of virtue may hold a multitude of answers, even if it does not yield them easily.