Saturday, September 26, 2015

All conspiracy theories great and small

In this post I'm going to talk about something I don't usually discuss--namely, conspiracy theories including the set of theories surrounding what is known as the "manosphere." If you, dear Reader, don't know what the latter is about, please, please feel free to skip this post. Really. You are probably better off not knowing. If, on the other hand, some un-dear reader reads this who is sympathetic to that vile, creepy, insane approach to the world, I'm not setting out to convince you, so you are also invited to skip this post. (And I have full moderation turned on and usually delete comments from manospherians, because I think they have been mind-poisoned, and I refuse to be drawn into their world even far enough to debate them.)

It may therefore be asked why I'm publishing this at all. Good question. Partly because I wrote it up in private correspondence for someone who asked what in the world leads people to be drawn into those ideas, and then it occurred to me that it was in essence a blog post. But partly also because I do think that in general we conservatives have our own dangers of being led into the darker recesses of the blogosphere, and I want to continue to issue a warning. I've issued such warnings before. Such darker recesses also include anti-semitism, Holocaust denial, and 9/11 conspiracy theories. (A couple of these attract a strange mix of extremists on the Right and on the Left, which is an odd sociological phenomenon in itself.) David French issues an important similar warning here.

The other thing I want to bring up, which you can read by itself if you scroll to the last few paragraphs, is the fact that we occasionally become like that which we try to answer. Hence, one finds missionaries "going native," to use a politically incorrect phrase. I once heard of some missionaries to Muslims who ended up keeping Ramadan and whose women started wearing hijab. There is no doubt in my mind that the Muslims thought they were converting the missionaries rather than vice versa. In Internet discussion, something similar happens when one becomes fascinated with trying to reach a particular interest group and starts casting one's arguments in terms that will be congenial to that interest group. When the target group in question hold really, really messed-up ideas, this effect is highly problematic, which is why it can be a bad idea to try to change the minds of kooks. Insensibly, one starts to accept (or at least appear to accept) ideas that are, say, a 5 out of ten on the craziness scale because one is trying to talk people out of ideas that are at 10. That's not a good thing. So some readers may be interested in that rhetorical problem and want to discuss it even if they are uninterested in the particular example. Jesus mythicism would be another area where the problem could come up.

So, with all that introduction, here is an edited version of the mini-essay I wrote originally for some friends.

People are attracted to the manosphere because of roughly the same types of causes that attract some people to hard-line feminism or to wild conspiracy theories such as anti-semitism. That is to say, people see real problems and injustices in the world, and this purports to be a Theory of Everything that explains and unifies all that they see, giving them the True Explanation behind it all.

Human beings are hard-wired to prefer theories that explain a lot over theories that explain piecemeal. In science, and especially in physics, this can be a good thing, driving mankind to seek explanations that do well both at what the old explanations did but that go farther still. It's right to desire explanations that cope with a wide variety of evidence. Conspiracy theories are the pathological manifestation of this hard-wiring in humans. They bring that drive for simplicity in theory-making to the complexities of human society. The conspiracy theorist then succumbs to the temptation to flatten out the complexities of the real world and of the evidence to fit the theory. The conspiracy theorist is chasing the high of feeling that he has explained it all and has achieved true enlightenment.

Ironically, the very claims made for the Red Pill ought to raise warning flags. But on the contrary. Those inclined in that direction don't seem to say, "This sounds like it tries to explain too much, too simply; therefore, it's probably a lot of baloney." Instead, they are exhilarated by the promises.

Confirmation bias then locks in the new convert. Just as the convinced, man-hating feminist "sees" only beaten wives, and "sees" only men who "deserve what they get," the manospherian "sees" only mistreated men and women who "brought it on themselves" when a man dumps them, uses p*rn, cheats, etc. These biased ways of interpreting the evidence are reinforced by hanging around people who have the same blind spots. And of course the bias is reinforced by the fact that there are real instances of what one is seeing. There are real beaten wives. There are real frivolously dumped husbands.

Social feedback is a huge factor, which is why the Internet has been the breeding ground for explosions in conspiracy theories, from the manosphere to Jesus mythicism. Once a person hangs out at these sites, he insensibly starts to talk like the people he is "with" electronically, to respond to their statements in ways intended to convince or sit well with them, and to accept their shibboleths. If everybody around you is saying, "Women rather than men are the cause of widespread frivolous divorce in America," then it comes to seem like it's probably true. One doesn't bother to ask on what this generalization is based. (See here and following.)

I've seen this social feedback at a [particular blog], where [a blogger] is sometimes trying to woo the so-called "Christian" manosphere rather than (the healthier attitude) not caring tuppence what such creepily messed-up people think. This attempt to reach out to them has, in my opinion, influenced the blogger. He has repeatedly stated, for example, that women usually get to decide whether men marry them or not, which is a very dubious thesis.

So even the second-level of association with conspiracy theorists tends to warp the one who associates. If I spent a lot of time trying to reach out to Jesus mythers or anti-semites or Holocaust deniers, using arguments that they would find persuasive, it would warp my own writing and perhaps even my own view of reality. 

This is an interesting and difficult point, because well-intentioned people often do feel that they need to know about and answer even the craziest theories and ideas, and in the blogosphere this can lead you literally anywhere. The point goes beyond the concern that one gives dignity to an idea by responding to it, though that is related. It goes beyond the concern that one has to walk a fine line between, "I am responding to x" and "X is an empirically and/or morally respectable idea," where one might wish to do the former but not imply the latter. The point here, beyond either of those, is that one may imply concretely false ideas about the topic at issue in the course of trying to reach out to people in a particular camp. In answering Jesus mythers, for example, one might want merely to say that even a liberal New Testament scholar like Bart Ehrman thinks they are crazy. That's a legitimate point. But when one gets into the nitty-gritty of the arguments, what if one ends up conceding some particular point that Ehrman makes, such as his repeated implication that the gospels are extremely unreliable as to the details of Jesus' life? Of course it is true to say that, even if the gospels are extremely unreliable about those details, they could still constitute strong evidence that Jesus existed. But one would want to be careful not to start actually believing or imply to one's audience that the gospels are unreliable or even that it doesn't matter globally whether they are reliable or unreliable. The more "out there" one's intended audience is, I suggest, the more of a danger there will be that one will concede too much ground in the course of trying to reach that audience.

Besides problems with arguments, there is simply the effect of spending time in the company of those who hold crazy ideas and regarding those people as friends or intellectual equals. If one does that, it becomes increasingly difficult to remember that their ideas are utterly crazy, that they have jumped the shark, that you should completely reject their warped perspective. One gets insensibly drawn in to at least some extent: "Well, so-and-so goes too far, but it really does seem like the Jews control our government." "Outright Jesus mythicism is too extreme, but all my atheist friends keep talking about the fictional developments in the character of Jesus in the gospels, so maybe there's something to that." "Some of these guys go too far, and I'm not into that immoral Game stuff, but I think women really do cause a lot more trouble in human relationships than men. I mean, look at all these anecdotes my friends at such-and-such a site are bringing up. Terrible stories!"

While there is no simple answer to this problem, no simple algorithm for deciding when to answer something and when to ignore it, I would say that one should beware of conspiracy theories, including the ones I have listed, to such an extent that one seriously considers not trying to get into the nitty-gritty of answering them. Beyond that, one should beware of them to such an extent that one should not deliberately develop a relationship with people at sites or in groups that promote such theories. If your favorite uncle turns out to be a rampaging misogynist, that's a different matter. He was already your favorite uncle, and you now have to negotiate that relationship. But don't deliberately cultivate close relationships with people or sites that promote misogyny (or 9/11 truther ideas, or Jesus mythicism, or...)

Bad company corrupts good manners, and we all have a stake in not corrupting good manners.

Monday, September 14, 2015

When joy alights

When joy alights like a bird on a fence post
arrested in fragile flight
do not frighten her away.

When she comes in the clutch of the heart
at the scent of the evening air
instinct with life and memory,
in the grey-blue of the sky at twilight,
in the sweep of the pine tree to the sky,

Do not say,
There are depths to be plumbed,
There are knots to be worried at.
I have no time for this.

Nor listen to the more insidious voice that lectures,
Death and disease roam the streets.
Pitiless murder with bloody sword unsheathed stalks all the ways of the world,
and beauty and innocence fall before him.
What right have I to be happy?

Rather stand still,
And say,

It is a gift.

Friday, September 11, 2015

I was a teenage demarcationist

It's been a while since I stirred the pot on the issue of intelligent design theory.

And yes, I know that it's 9/11, but at the moment, I have nothing new or special to say about 9/11, so I won't. I sure wish our leaders would get wise about Islam, but I'm not looking for flying pigs anytime soon, and in the absence of learning concrete lessons about jihad and our enemies, talking movingly about 9/11 just begins to sound more and more like a yearly self-indulgence of pointless sentiment.

So I'm going to write about demarcationism instead.

Demarcationism is the idea in the philosophy of science that there are clearcut and interesting criteria that distinguish those activities and theories that constitute science (or learning about science) from those that don't. It sounds like demarcationism should be true until one sets out actually to try to set up such criteria. We might agree, for example, that to be science, some activity should involve statements about the physical world. But nobody thinks that that constitutes a sufficient condition. If I say that rain is caused by fairies, that intuitively doesn't seem to be a scientific theory, but it is a theory about the physical world. Similarly, it doesn't do to say that some theory is not scientific if it's a stupid theory. That's not very clear-cut, for one thing. And for another thing, what looks stupid in hindsight might not have been stupid when it was proposed. Or the other way around. What sounds stupid at first may come to look reasonable later when the world is better understood.

Karl Popper suggested that it is a necessary condition for true scientific endeavor that one's theory be falsifiable and that unfalsifiable theories are not science but pseudo-science. This is attractive. We all have known people who insist that some bromide cures many ills and who are always willing to explain away contrary evidence. The combination of cherry-picked anecdotes of the wonders of the bromide with refusal to acknowledge counter-evidence certainly seems like what one would call an unscientific attitude.

But at that point the problem arises that it is not the theory that Bromide X cures all ills that is unscientific but rather the advocates of Bromide X who are being unscientific in their approach to investigating the theory. In this context, it seems that words like "scientific" and "unscientific" are rough stand-ins for "rational" and "irrational" in the realm of investigating theories about the physical world. But that wasn't what we were originally looking for. Rather, the original search was for a demarcation criterion that would apply to theories and to the investigation of those theories, not primarily to people. In fact, it would be perfectly possible to investigate the alleged healing properties of Bromide X in a rigorous fashion and to draw a conclusion from it--probably a negative conclusion--and no one would contest that that was not a scientific endeavor.

Some cousin of the notion of falsifiability--suitably upgraded with more nuanced probabilistic interpretation--might well be a useful way of giving the honorific "scientific" to people who are approaching physical theories rationally, with a willingness to examine evidence on both sides and admit disconfirmation. And it could provide a reason for criticizing those who are doing otherwise. In that way we might dismiss Freudian psychology or horoscope reading as "unscientific" not only or even chiefly because the theories behind them appear, on consideration, to be egregiously false but also because their practitioners appear unwilling to admit contrary evidence concerning the accuracy and effectiveness of the methods and theories involved. That's progress in some kind of demarcation, but it isn't what the demarcationists actually wanted. For one thing, an unscientific attitude could bedevil people engaging in the areas of investigation that we generally think of as science. It would be possible to be dogmatic and closed to contrary evidence if one were a credentialed geologist or epidemiologist, for example.

This has been a big debate in the philosophy of science for a long time, and the truth is that demarcation criteria to distinguish science from non-science have proven surprisingly elusive.

Nevertheless, there was a time when I was a demarcationist. This was probably partly because of a Popperian influence. But it was also because I was not thinking clearly. In particular, I wasn't thinking clearly enough about the contentious issue of evolution. The demarcationist controversy has been especially important in the creation/evolution debate, with expert witnesses using a pretense that the issue is settled in the philosophy of science in order to get the teaching of intelligent design ruled "religion" and hence "unconstitutional." (By what logic it was supposed to follow that intelligent design theories are automatically religious, much less an "establishment of religion" if taught in public schools, even if they are not scientific, I never understood. But logic is not the hallmark of the anti-ID crowd, including the judges.)

Some twenty-odd-ish years ago, I wasn't at all opposed to the teaching of intelligent design in schools, but largely because I'm a constitutional originalist and knew that the entire imposition of "no creation in public schools" as a matter of constitutional interpretation was baloney. In fact, though, I did tend to think that, even if a conclusion of intelligent design is sometimes justified in the biological realm, it definitely wasn't a scientific conclusion. So whatever else we should say, we should say that this isn't science. And I thought that mattered somehow. To something. Clarity of thought, perhaps?

But it was exactly the opposite. As a dualist about the human person, I should have known this. After all, I myself am (in part) immaterial, yet the investigation of my actions can't be designated clearly as non-science. So let's even suppose that someone draws a conclusion that God himself was the designer of some biological entity. How does it follow that investigation in that vicinity is "not science"? It doesn't follow from the fact that God is immaterial.

Well, but I'm an embodied being. Maybe it follows from the fact that God, in the creation of biological entities, was not incarnate. But that isn't right, either. Consider: If you were present on the day of Pentecost with the right equipment, you could have decided whether the sound waves coming from the apostles' mouths formed words in other languages or whether they were just one language, while the hearers reported hearing different languages. In one sense, this would count as scientific investigation of an act of God! Similarly, if you'd been in the right place at the right time with the right tools, it would have been possible in principle to discover something of the mechanism behind the fall of the wall of Jericho. Did the lower levels of the wall disintegrate, disappear, crack, or what? Was the sound of the trumpet sufficiently sharp to be causal, or did the fall just happen on the occasion thereof?

It may be objected that these are all investigations of the physical events in the world but not of the mind of God. True enough, but that much is true of us as well, despite our embodied nature. You can trace neural firings up to the brain, but there comes a point at which mechanism fails. The human mind itself is measurable, detectable, and investigable only indirectly. Yet, once again, we don't therefore make heavy weather out of saying that it is "impossible to investigate human action scientifically." Of course it's possible to investigate human action scientifically, in at least one straightforward sense. You can see the bridges we build, read the books we write, and hear the words we speak. And you can also see God's causal acts in the world.

For the most part, the barriers to investigating God's miraculous and creative acts in a manner that would normally be called "scientific" are sheerly practical. The events happened long ago. Nobody happened to be hanging around with precise instruments. We'll probably never know many details, and so forth. Some details would be practically impossible to gather. (Did God create a sperm cell for the virgin conception or did he just create such DNA as could have come from a sperm cell? There's a fact of the matter, and it's a scientific fact, but there would have been no practical way to know, even if you were there.)

There is, moreover, an extremely good reason not to make dogmatic pronouncements that a design theory of biological origins "shouldn't be taught in science class." Let's just entertain for a moment the hypothesis that the whole neo-Darwinian shebang, and the abiogenesis origin of life theory, are utterly false. Suppose that, in fact, all of these things were kicked off via various interventions (the bogyman word) by an intelligent being whom Christians and Jews call God. In that case, everybody who is putzing around with speculative theories of how the first cell came into being by purely natural processes or how sexual reproduction evolved or any of these other things is engaging in a pure waste of time with theories that are all totally false. And not just a little bit false but wildly false. Completely off-base. Yet those theories are being taught as "the best theories scientists have today" or even just "the truth, according to science" about where these things came from. They are being taught that way in science class, with the prestige of Science (capital S) behind them, even though they are ludicrously false. While, if this scenario is correct, the true theory of where these things came from is relegated to the speculative, allegedly subjective realms of religion. And that would be pretty silly.

Look at it this way: If the question, "Where did the first cell on earth come from?" is to be regarded as properly a scientific question, and if one hypothesis that purports to answer it is to be regarded as a scientific answer, then a different hypothesis that purports to answer it isn't just automatically "non-science" and hence to be taught in a completely different venue, simply because it mentions a designer or even (gasp!) God. That's totally artificial. If they are both theories that purport to answer the same allegedly scientific question, then why not teach about them both in the same class, that being a science class?

Now, of course one answer from the anti-ID people will be, "Because it's stupid" or "Because it's crazy" or "Because it has no good evidence for it." That may or may not be true (I happen to think it's not true), but that isn't the same thing as, "Because qua theory it cannot, by definition, be science."

Don't get me wrong: I wouldn't be thrilled to have some rabidly anti-ID high school science teacher teaching a caricatured version of ID theory, ridiculing it to the students, and then saying to the parents, "There, are you satisfied? I discussed design theory." That isn't desirable at all, from my perspective. But suppose there were a well-read high school science teacher who didn't think that and who was willing to give an even-handed presentation of the evidence on both sides. Why should he be fired or hounded, like Roger DeHart, for doing so?

See, at that point it's a lot easier for the anti-ID crowd to say, not, "Because Roger DeHart is an idiot and knows nothing about biology" (though I'm sure many of the more loudmouthed among them would say that) but rather, "Because ID isn't science, so we don't need to discuss whether Roger DeHart is an idiot and doesn't know his biology." It's a dodge. It's a ruse. (Pun intended.)

And that's why I'm sorry that I was a teenage (actually, older than teenage) demarcationist. Because I fell for it. For a while, I thought there was something to be gained by stating that a design conclusion in biology is, by definition, not science. Maybe (I strained and stretched) ID could just say that no natural explanation can be found for some phenomenon. Maybe that would be okay. But the positive conclusion couldn't be science. Because it's God, and because reasons.

I changed my mind long ago on that. For over a decade I've subscribed to Michael Behe's broad and non-demarcationist definition of science as "a vigorous attempt to make true statements about the world." Even if we beef it up slightly to "a vigorous and intellectually rigorous attempt to make true and significant statements about the physical world," ID can certainly be in there, since origins statements are statements about the physical world, and ID research can be carried out vigorously and rigorously. In fact, if anybody nowadays is acting like Popper's unscientific theorist who refuses to let his theory be responsive to negative data, it's the neo-Darwinian.

We haven't seen the last of the politicized demarcationists. In recent years they have even tried to ban the discussion of design theories in physics, where they are usually considered less of a threat than in biology, and at the university level, where a widespread notion of academic freedom for professors has previously permitted greater latitude in discussing a variety of theories.

Christians of a philosophical bent, in particular, should refuse to be put into a demarcationist strait-jacket. We can think more clearly than that about science, design, and God, and we should.

Saturday, September 05, 2015

Kim Davis, metaphysics, and the public square

I don't need to link to them. You can find them everywhere--in the blogosphere, among the pundits, on your Facebook feed. Some friends you are surprised at, too. Even people who said that Obergefell was a disastrously wrong decision, even people who oppose homosexual "marriage" (some of them). Now Kim Davis, Kentucky county clerk, has actually acted on the premise that Obergefell was a lawless, made-up, unconstitutional farce, that marriage literally cannot exist between two men or two women, and these people are shocked, shocked to find a person who stands on principle against a court order. Now she has allegedly placed herself against "the rule of law," as though Obergefell had anything whatsoever to do with the rule of law. As though the postmodern, lawless bloviatings of Justice Kennedy were not as far as possible from the rule of law. And then the smug talk: If she won't "do her job" she should resign. Should, mind you. Not just could resign. Not, "resigning would be an option." No, according to these people, she should resign. It's her duty. She must make way for others who will issue licenses to two men to carry out their ersatz unions and give them the name of marriage.

What is all of this? Is it not clear that Kim Davis is being consistent--legally, morally, and metaphysically? If Obergefell is a lawless farce, then Kentucky's marriage protection amendment is the law, and Kim Davis, unlike the Supreme Court, is actually upholding the rule of law. If homosexual unions are not only immoral but also metaphysically unable to be marriages--yes, even civil marriages--then to refuse to give them the name of marriage, as an official of the state of Kentucky, is simply to refuse to lie about reality. It is faithfully to carry out the duties of a clerk whose job it is to give out real marriage licenses.

At this point, it seems that no reductio will do, since homosexual "marriage" is already a reductio. But think: Would it make sense to say that she must resign if she were ordered to call a union between a man and a sheep a marriage and refused? Would it make sense to say that she must resign if she were ordered to call a union between a woman and a tree a marriage and refused?

What it comes to is that such simple-minded thunderings against Kim Davis are nominalist to their core, and in two ways. First, those who say such things are being nominalists about marriage, and by extension, about everything on which the positive law touches. Apparently, if the Supreme Court (whom they absurdly claim to be capable of making law) or some legislature were to declare that the value of pi is three, then everyone would be obliged, in all legal transactions, to treat the value of pi as three, whatever the consequences. If SCOTUS or a legislature (and SCOTUS wins if it disagrees with a legislature, just so you know the rules) were to declare an amoeba to be a person, entitled to all the legal protections of the 14th amendment, then all public officials would be in duty bound to treat it as such--to make out adoption papers for amoebae, to consider their best interests in legal proceedings, to consider an amoeba equal in value to a child, or to quit if they won't "do their job" and help those amoebae to their personhood rights.

And here's an interesting thought experiment: Suppose that SCOTUS were to declare that parents have a 14th amendment right to have their children up to one year old post-birth killed, that such children are not persons, does it then become the case that they are not persons? Must the police and other officials all cease to prosecute those who kill children under one year, or else resign in favor of those who will cease to prosecute? Must the police hold back any person who attempts to rescue an 11-month-old as his father prepares to throw him off a bridge? After all, SCOTUS has spoken on a matter of metaphysics, and it is now the LAW OF THE LAND that an 11-month-old is not a person. If not prepared to abide by the LAW OF THE LAND, the police must all quit their jobs. They must move aside and make way for those who will protect the killers of these new non-persons rather than protecting the (supposed) non-persons.

You see, society cannot afford radical nominalism in practice. Sure, there are some perfectly legitimate legal fictions. One can even say that in a sense adoption is a legal fiction. Those adopting are declared to be the child's parents when they have no biological connection to him. And there are some rules that are arbitrary matters of prudence and even aesthetics. How far back from the street must buildings be constructed in the downtown area? But we cannot run a society if everything, every matter of fact, every truth and falsehood, every matter of nature, is treated as if it is subject to the whims of positive law or court order. Nature will have her revenge. If you declare pi equal to three and act accordingly, you're going to have some funny-shaped train wheels.

Once we admit that you cannot create reality in all areas by judicial or legislative fiat, the question arises whether marriage, civil marriage, is one of the things that is just a matter of legal fiat. Is it just like the driving or voting age--last year it was one thing, this year it's another? Or is it more like the value of pi? Or like personhood? Well, it won't surprise my readers that I think civil marriage has an essence, a real nature, and that male-male and female-female relationships don't fall within that nature, any more than human-animal relationships fall within it. (And frankly, I don't give a plug nickel if someone says, "Gasp!" [Swoon, faint!] "Lydia McGrew made some kind of comparison between homosexuality and bestiality! How insensitive!" Yep. Very. Moving on...)

The point is that some things really do have natures, and marriage is one of them. To say that homosexual marriage ("marriage") is now THE LAW OF THE LAND is to assume without argument that civil marriage is so malleable that SCOTUS can just wave its magic wand, abracadabra, and now two men or two women really can be married to one another, and therefore Kim Davis needs to get with the program or move aside for someone else who will. If one disagrees with that metaphysical assessment, one will have a different assessment of Kim Davis. Kim Davis was being told by a judge to lie about the reality of marriage, which wasn't part of the job description she was elected to fulfill. Therefore, she isn't required either to lie about marriage or resign.

There is a second way in which the condemnation of Kim Davis, the smirking or pompous insistence that she must "do her job or resign," is nominalist, and that concerns the nature of jobs. Is there nothing like at least a quasi-essence of being a doctor, a policeman, or even a county clerk? Let's go back to the example of the 11-month-old declared by a court to be a non-person. What does it mean to be a policeman? All the more so if you signed up to be a policeman before this court order came down, the nature of the job as both you and society understood it involved protecting babies from being thrown off of bridges by their parents, not facilitating the baby-throwing. So if the police force decides to ignore the court's evil and insane redefinition of the child as a non-person and stop the baby-thrower, those police are not only doing the right thing but also, to coin a word, the policeman-y thing. Suppose that SCOTUS declares it to be a violation of 14th amendment rights to refuse to let registered sex offenders adopt. (I owe this example to David Bradshaw.) If an adoption officer nonetheless refuses to issue adoption papers to a registered sex offender, he's doing his job. It's utterly backwards to say that he's not doing his job. His job includes protecting children and seeking their best interests, not turning them over to sex offenders. If a doctor refuses to refer someone for an abortion or refuses to administer a lethal injection, he's being a real doctor. Will the people who condemn Kim Davis say the same about doctors in Australia who refuse to be complicit in abortion? Because now being complicit in abortion "is their job"? The medical association of Canada appears poised to require all doctors there to administer lethal injections for suicide or refer to those who will. Will that then become "part of their job"? Whence comes this idea that there is nothing that it means to fill a particular role in society? And how far could this be taken? If one fine year the Canadian Medical Association (or the American Medical Association) requires all doctors, as a condition of licensing, to have sex with their patients as therapy, will that also become part of the job? To torture some patients at the behest of others who are deemed to own them? To run about naked in the streets as a symbol of something or other? Can absolutely anything be made "part of the job"--part of any job, anywhere, any time?

One might think that the position of county clerk is not a good candidate for a job with an essence. But, given that it involves certifying civil marriages, which do have an essence, the possibility arises that the job of county clerk itself is more than just a sheer creature of positive law.

See, here's the thing: In order for society to function--at all, much less well--we need good people doing a good job at good jobs. If all or even most of the important jobs in society, the jobs that keep things running, are deeply corrupted, literally defined in such a way that to fill them you are required to be complicit in grave evil, and if it is literally a duty to quit all such jobs if you refuse to be complicit in grave evil, then society is going to collapse. Slowly or quickly, though the speed seems to be picking up. Do we really want all our doctors to be murderers, our teachers to be corrupters of the youth, and our minor public officials to be liars about the nature of reality? Keep on telling all the good people, all the people with a noble conception of their jobs, that they have a duty either to do evil or to quit and that's exactly what you'll get.

Since most of these jobs, when society was functioning better, were not defined in such a horrible way but were understood to be jobs one could take pride in, jobs that a good person could fill with a good conscience, it is therefore an honorable act, an attempt to hold back the collapse of human civilization, to continue to fulfill those roles in their honorable senses rather than either quit or be complicit in grave evil. It remains a prudential question whether that is the best course to take for any particular person in any particular situations. One can imagine situations where one might be able to spend one's energy better in some other way. But to say that one must always resign when one has conscientious objections to the newly declared "duties" of one's job is to say that we have to give up all of the important roles in society to people who are willing to do evil. I see no such principle anywhere--not in Scripture, not in tradition, not in reason. In fact, if there were enough people willing to refuse the corruption of their professions (see my above example about a unified police force), a lot of good could be done. In this case, if we had enough Kim Davises, enough staunch state governors, and enough deputies who refused to put any of them in prison, then we'd have a lot fewer lies told about sodomite simulacra of marriage and maybe even an outpouring of honorable self-government in America, all of which would be a good thing.

The idea of staying in a job and trying to carry it out according to the earlier, nobler conception of it on the basis of which you entered the profession has its difficulties. It is particularly difficult in the case of a position like that of federal judge. On an originalist understanding, the job of a federal judge is to "say what the law means" and apply it to concrete cases in accordance with that original meaning. I don't mean to introduce a huge philosophy of law debate, but it should be clear that, on that understanding of the job (which is not new), there might simply be an evil, unjust statutory law, duly passed by the relevant legislative body, which one would be called upon to apply to some concrete case. When that is the job and always has been--saying what the law means and applying it--there is far less room for remaining in the job while refusing to abet evil, if the people making some positive law one is called upon to interpret and apply become bound and determined to do evil. One might, however, be able to recuse oneself merely from particular cases, in that case, while staying on the job to prevent interpretive liars on the other side from striking down good laws. But there are a great many important jobs that aren't in any way limited to expounding other people's laws. Even a family law judge, for example, usually has as his mandate to do what is "in the best interests of the child," which obviously has much wider ramifications.

I've argued that the claim that Kim Davis has a duty either to issue homosexual "marriage" licenses or to resign is nominalist in two ways--as regards the nature of the institution of marriage and as regards the nature of her job. A resistance to this sort of nominalism is applicable in a variety of legal contexts. In Kim Davis's case, it is not (in my view) actually true to say that she is breaking the law (for the reasons mentioned above concerning the lawlessness of Obergefell and the most recent relevant law in Kentucky), though she is committing civil disobedience in the sense that she is defying a court order.

But the recognition that both things and jobs have essences may in other scenarios lead a person in a private or public job actually to ignore or disobey a positive law, passed by the legislature or other civil authority. A legislature could enact homosexual "marriage" or any of the absurd and wicked things mentioned above--adoption rights for sex offenders, a requirement for doctors to perform or refer for abortion, and so forth. In this latter case an interesting question arises concerning public civil servants: When are they carrying out their jobs within the legal system in which they originally took office, and when do they cross over into using their position in a more or less revolutionary or subversive way to undermine or counteract a corrupt system that has emerged subsequently? Imagine, for example, a railroad official who altered documents somehow in Nazi Germany so that trains would go somewhere other than Auschwitz and so that the prisoners might be rescued. I have no idea whether such a thing would even have been possible, but there is an obvious sense in which such a person is working against "the system" as it has come to be, secretly using his authority within the system. On the other hand, if we imagine the "rebellious" local police force pictured above that thumbs its collective nose at the courts and goes on stopping parents who wish to fling their children off of cliffs, that does not seem to me like even a remotely subversive act. Nor does it seem like a revolutionary behavior for a doctor quietly to go on taking out tonsils and treating pneumonia while saying, "No," when asked to perform or refer for abortion. Where precisely the difference lies (does it have anything to do with forging papers in one case but not in the others?) I'm not entirely prepared to say. My point here is merely that opposition to an attempt to twist one's job to the service of evil may take a variety of forms, and legal geeks may have fun (rather grim fun) sorting them out from one another.

Anyone who cares about truth and reality should care about Kim Davis's case. Anyone who cares about the fundamental nature of government and the polis has that much more reason to care about her case. And anyone who thinks that no one sane will be called to suffer in the culture war that is now upon us should look at her case and wake up before it is too late and he finds that he has moved, almost without realizing he was moving, to the wrong side.

I close with some well-chosen words from my Internet friend Jeff Culbreath, who wrote them on Facebook and gave me permission to use them:

There are well-intentioned people who oppose same-sex "marriage", and who recognize that Obergefell was lawless and unconstitutional, but who nevertheless hold that Kim Davis should submit and issue faux marriage licenses anyway because the SCOTUS ruling is now "the law of the land." 
In Catholic moral theology, it is not enough to avoid committing a specific sin - let's say, the sin of entering into a pretend marriage to gain public acceptance for one's immoral acts. One must also avoid being an "accessory to another's sin". To be an accessory to another's sin is to commit a sin. Traditionally, there are nine ways to be an accessory to another's sin:
 I. By counsel
II. By command
III. By consent
IV. By provocation
V. By praise or flattery
VI. By concealment
VII. By partaking
VIII. By silence
IX. By defense of the ill done
 If Kim Davis were to issue same-sex "marriage" licenses, she would become an accessory by counsel, command, and consent. Therefore it is unjust for any employer -- particularly a government employer -- to demand this of her or of any employee. She has every right to resist this injustice in precisely the way she has. 

There is another reason for her not to resign, and that is simply to prevent her office from being complicit in evil acts to the best of her ability. In so doing she is doing what we are all obliged to do: advance and preserve the goodness in the world. 

A final reason for her not to resign is to bring attention to the appalling consequences of Obergefell: Christians who are willing to live by their traditional beliefs are now excluded from government employment in this capacity. This realization should have the effect of shocking Americans out of their complacency.