Of Belief and Reason

Frequent commenter at this site, the Jewish Atheist recently noted that he’d written an essay on his blog. In this post, he coins two categories of belief, which he coins “load bearing” and “cosmetic”. Roughly speaking, to my reading, load bearing beliefs are those you can support via the epistemic methods to which he ascribes (and perhaps assumes either are our should be universal) and cosmetic ones are those which, knowingly or unknowingly, dishonestly hold as the reason for your belief but which under inspection are not really the reason.

Alasdair MacIntyre has a book (actually several) titled Whose Justice Which Rationality, which offers some interesting perspective on this issue. For much of the time, what you might title “cosmetic”, irrational, or “not the real reason” a person holds a belief, what is really going on is that they are working from different premises. Ethical differences cannot often (or even usually) be resolved by logical analysis. 

Take this offering from JA:

“Abortion is murder,” on the other hand, is a cosmetic argument for most people. If you could convince someone who says this that abortion and murder aren’t exactly the same, they would likely still oppose abortion without ever wavering. That’s because they don’t really believe this argument in the first place — their belief rests on a different argument entirely. (As evidence that they don’t really believe abortion is murder, they would send a woman who killed a baby to jail, but would never send a woman who has an abortion to jail.)

Here’s the thing. Many people who say “abortion is murder” come from a Christian tradition, some of them even come from the Eastern tradition. In the East, the notions of person and what constitutes personhood derive not from Augustine and Boethius like the Western Christian (and I might add the modern Western secular Cartesian one) notion of person as the rational set of consciousness but instead derived from a different theology of the Trinity and how “person” was understood in that context. In the East, a person derives not from attributes of the self, but is relational. Similar to the “a tree falling in the forest with none to listen makes no noise” analysis from Quantum Physics, a person cannot exist but in the context of other persons. It is not “I think therefore I am” for contra Descartes, the East would hold, that without relationships with others, you in fact, “aren’t.” The idea that person=relationship is one developed frequently and in depth by Metropolitan John Zizioulas (Metropolitan is the Eastern Orthodox title for a Bishop of a large city or equivalent region). That theme is one I will be developing in more detail in a later essay (in progress).

This has consequences for legal thinking regarding abortion and end-of-life issues. The killing of an innocent can indeed be murder, but the legal consequence need not necessarily entail sending the woman to jail. Compare the pre-meditated murder of another with abortion. Both are catastrophic failures of the network of relationships in which the victim of the crime is found. In the case of murder, the network failure is found as a failure bound up in a single individual, i.e., the murderer. In the case of abortion, it is a community of people who have failed the child, the mother, the father, and the rest of the community in which they reside. It is our judgement as a people that locating the blame singularly with the mother, whom is often a desperate youth, is not reasonable. That we find that not reasonable does not in any way mean that the act of abortion is not akin to murder, just that isolating a singular criminal is more difficult. [As an aside, you might equally counter to those who, like JA, feel that abortion morally more in line with getting a tattoo, why the phrase “safe, legal, and rare” might be found commonly in those who feel as he does. Why rare if the non-consequential nature of abortion is not ultimately a “cosmetic” or false belief.]

But I digress. The point is there is no logical path to weigh the validity or distinguish between the conclusions made from differing beliefs, in this case that “person” resides in rational capacity vs “person” resides in possessing human relationship(s).  They are both based on differing assumptions and traditions.

There is another problem with attempts to identify cosmetic vs “load bearing” beliefs. Positions people hold can (and should) be regarded valid even if they cannot be rationally defended. That you love your wife, for example, is not a position which needs or even should require rational analysis. I’m not convinced that ethics is any different in this respect. That person “A” cannot muster a cogent argument against cannibalism does not invalidate the correctness of his firmly held position against it. If Mr Able is pressed for a reason which does not stand scrutiny his belief is not invalidated for the requirement of logical defense of your beliefs is not a requirement for holding the same without self-contradiction.

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19 comments

  1. Boonton says:

    How would you analyze the following exchange I had with Joe Carter in relation to gay marriage.

    Joe argued that gays are known for promiscuity and therefore gay marriage would result in establishing infidelity in marriage as a norm which would be harmful to all of society.

    I pointed out the following:

    1. Lesbians tend to be more faithful to partners than either gay men or hetrosexuals.
    2. Some hetrosexual demographic groups have higher rates of infidelity than others.

    Yet he would not permit gay marriage for women only nor would he make marriage more difficult for demographic groups of hetrosexuals known for high rates of infidelity.

    This would seem to make the infidelity issue a cosmetic one. If the entire gay community were to take ten years aside to work on establishing a rate of fidelity to partners equal or better than heterosexuals, Joe wouldn’t then yield and let them marry.

    I would describe the cosmetic category JA comes up with slightly differently, though. I’d say its a ‘throw it against the wall and see if it sticks” style argument. Joe knows he doesn’t want gay marriage, so he will deploy any argument he can find against it with the hopes that at least a few will ‘stick’. But if all fail that doesn’t mean he’ll give up the argument….he’ll just put it on hold until he or someone else can come up with a bucket of new arguments to throw at the wall.

    JA’s example with free will illustrate that. He, his rabbi and his fellow students all wanted and felt that free will was real. Hence any and all arguments in favor were welcome. An excellent argument against, though, was not welcomed.

    This dynamic may be analgous to sports. If the other team throws a fail touchdown you don’t like it but you tolerate it as within the rules. Likewise anything your team does to score you like. But which team you think is the best really has nothing to do with the actual game. Your team may loose every game andyou grumble but still think they are the best and no matter how excellent some other team plays you’ll never give them the mental trophy of ‘best team’.

  2. Roughly speaking, to my reading, load bearing beliefs are those you can support via the epistemic methods to which he ascribes (and perhaps assumes either are our should be universal) and cosmetic ones are those which, knowingly or unknowingly, dishonestly hold as the reason for your belief but which under inspection are not really the reason.

    I’m afraid you have misread it. (Boonton seems to have understood.) First of all, it was about load-bearing vs. cosmetic arguments, not beliefs. Second, it has nothing to do with whether the argument can be supported by epistemic methods, whether I personally approve of them or not. Load-bearing arguments can be completely unsupported or completely supported, or true or false. It’s irrelevant. Third, cosmetic arguments aren’t necessarily dishonest.

    Load-bearing arguments are the arguments that actually, in your mind, underlie your belief. Cosmetic ones are arguments that may support your belief, but are not necessary for you to continue holding that belief.

    Here’s how you tell the difference. Suppose, hypothetically, that you realized out of the blue that the argument is false. If you still believe the conclusion, then it was not load-bearing. If you don’t, then it is. (Again, it’s complicated a little bit by the human bias towards maintaining prior beliefs, so one might make another argument into a load-bearing one rather than abandon the belief.)

    So for your response to the abortion issue, let me just ask you this. Suppose someone could convince you that abortion isn’t technically murder. Would you then support abortion? If not, it’s either a cosmetic argument or can be quickly replaced by another load-bearing argument.

    I’d like to see a response to yesterday’s thread too, please.

  3. (I didn’t really deal with the possibility in my post of multiple load-bearing arguments, but I suppose that’s possible and perhaps common. So maybe my test of removing it and seeing if the belief falls isn’t the best. Hmm.)

  4. Boonton’s example is a great one.

  5. Mark says:

    Boonton,

    I would describe the cosmetic category JA comes up with slightly differently, though. I’d say its a ‘throw it against the wall and see if it sticks” style argument.

    Hmm. That’s exactly my impression on the “rights of corporations” argument used by the left against right to work.

    I think the “throw it up against the wall” methods of argumentation are common in debating in which the object is “to win” the debate.

    This dynamic may be analgous to sports. If the other team throws a fail touchdown you don’t like it but you tolerate it as within the rules. Likewise anything your team does to score you like. But which team you think is the best really has nothing to do with the actual game. Your team may loose every game andyou grumble but still think they are the best and no matter how excellent some other team plays you’ll never give them the mental trophy of ‘best team’.

    I’m not sure this is the dynamic that sports fans follow. I’m a Chicago Bears fan, we lost the NFC championship, but I don’t think the Bears are the “best team” in the NFL regardless of their loss(es). They are my team, but I would not contend that they are my team because they are the best.

    JA,
    You offer the point in your piece about revelation and wonder if a person

    But if (huge if) you could convince them that what they experienced was a hallucination, for example, or that what they took to be God’s influence was really a series of coincidences, then their belief would be rocked.

    And, conversely I suspect, that if you could be convinced that what they experienced was not a hallucination or that multiple sets of fortuitous coincidental events were statistically astronomically unlikely … that you’re non-belief would not be shaken either.

    I used to support abortion. I do not now. It is conceivable that in the future I may again support it. I do not today oppose it on account of it being thought murder or not. The other point is that my non-treatment of women who have abortions as horrible people is not evidence of cosmetic belief in abortion-as-murder either.

    My first point is that the validity of argument depends crucially on premises. You may deem an argument confuted by your counter, but that if it does not interact at all with the premises that ground the argument from the point of view of the other person, then you haven’t countered the argument the way you imagine. You cannot, for example, point to the ability of a fetus to feel or think as relevant to the question for it doesn’t impact the premises on which I base my opposition.

  6. And, conversely I suspect, that if you could be convinced that what they experienced was not a hallucination or that multiple sets of fortuitous coincidental events were statistically astronomically unlikely … that you’re non-belief would not be shaken either.

    “Either?” Did you misread? I said their believe WOULD be rocked. Similarly, if I were convinced that their experience was not a hallucination or etc. then my non-belief WOULD be shaken. I don’t believe because the world makes more sense to me without God than with. If something changed that equation, then my belief would change.

    I do not today oppose it on account of it being thought murder or not.

    Okay, so “abortion is murder” would be a cosmetic argument for you. It doesn’t mean it’s wrong or invalid or whatever, just that it’s not the reason you oppose abortion.

    The other point is that my non-treatment of women who have abortions as horrible people is not evidence of cosmetic belief in abortion-as-murder either.

    This is kind of a tangent, so I’d rather stick to the topic.

    My first point is that the validity of argument depends crucially on premises. You may deem an argument confuted by your counter, but that if it does not interact at all with the premises that ground the argument from the point of view of the other person, then you haven’t countered the argument the way you imagine.

    You’re still talking about validity! Load bearing vs. cosmetic has nothing to do with validity. You seem to be using “premises” similarly to the way I’m using “load-bearing argument.”

  7. Boonton says:

    JA,

    I wrote a longer comment on your blog but lost it since this old browswer I use doesn’t want to work….

    Mark
    In the East, the notions of person and what constitutes personhood derive not from Augustine and Boethius like the Western Christian (and I might add the modern Western secular Cartesian one) notion of person as the rational set of consciousness but instead derived from a different theology of the Trinity and how “person” was understood in that context. In the East, a person derives not from attributes of the self, but is relational. Similar to the “a tree falling in the forest with none to listen makes no noise” analysis from Quantum Physics, a person cannot exist but in the context of other persons.

    I know I can’t be the first to notice a very striking echo of Buddhist ideas of the ego in this idea. I would note, though, that this concept would be foreign to many US pro-lifers who probably have no idea that Eastern Christianity thinks of personhood in this way.

    JA

    I think Mark here, though, does present a conservative influenced counter argument:

    That person “A” cannot muster a cogent argument against cannibalism does not invalidate the correctness of his firmly held position against it. If Mr Able is pressed for a reason which does not stand scrutiny his belief is not invalidated for the requirement of logical defense of your beliefs is not a requirement for holding the same without self-contradiction.

    Let’s recall Burke’s main concept which was the be skeptical of the ability of the individual person to correctly use reason. Hence the anti-cannibal getting entirely trumped in a contest of rational argument by the pro-cannibal is not the last word on the matter. Burke’s argument was (and I don’t think he used Darwinian terms to make it but they work), is that prejudices built up over multiple generations often carry a logic that may not be very obvious to reason…..or more precisely to a reasonable person. (Prejudice here being not a dislike of an ethnic group but a belief that is held without ‘load bearing’ arguments at hand).

    We can illustrate this with a sci-fi example. Consider a planet populated by intelligent aliens. Many ages ago, some of their communities were cannibals, others were aghast at it, and others were in between. Let’s say that cannibalism causes subtle biological problems. It’s not like poisen but over time it causes issues like mental problems, cancers, and other things. All things being equal, the communities that make anti-cannibalism a fetish will have an advantage over the pro-cannibal ones. As time goes by, anti-cannibals become more numerous. Cannibal receipes, cannibal cooks, loose ‘new blood’ as food preparation goes towards exploring non-cannibal dishes.

    We flash forward several thousand years. An Age of Reason has begun and the issue of cannibalism comes up. This society has lost much of its history so its pre-cannibal past has been forgotten. No one remembers any agruments from many generations ago about cannibalism. The issue is opened fresh. The pro cannibal side note that there’s often a lack of food in many areas. That cannibalism could be applied in a humane manner (i.e. people who die naturally would be used). The anti-cannibal side just feels there’s something not right with cannibalism. They start coming up with various arguments. For example, cannibalism might ‘devalue life’ and lead to hunting live people for sport and fun.

    Logically the above is a load baring argument that can be fairly demolished as a ‘slipperly slope fallacy’. But suppose it carries the day and cannibalism is defeated as a proposal. Or suppose it’s accepted in academic corners but society wide it just doesn’t get the votes needed to be passed. The pro-cannibals pat themselves on the back for their excellent use of reason and bemoan that they live in such unenlightened times when prejudices still trump reason……

    But rejecting cannibalism was the right decision for this society. The rational reason, that it would bring with it great medical problems, is unknown by both the pro and anti cannibal forces. But the ‘rule of thumb’ that cannibalism should be avoided has survived in this society because its rational……

    Go back in time again, how would a society that became anti-cannibal encode its message for the far, far future? Verbal statements disappear from memory quickly. Written statements on paper are almost as fleeting (huge amounts of information on the Roman Empire, for example, is literally rotted away). Even massive stone tablets aren’t that reliable for perfromance greater than 1,000 years (Where’s the Ten Commandments? Note how one of the Greatest Empires in the Western world, The Egyptians, had their written language forgotten….only a chance discovery of the Rosetta stone allowed it to be relearned). But non-rational beliefs may be ‘encodable’ to survive through deep time.

    So the “Conservative Bias” argument has merit to it under limited circumstances:

    1. It applies only to normative statements. It’s not about ‘the truth’ but about *shoulds*. The reason the alien society rejects cannibalism is likely untrue. Maybe they are referencing ancient myths. Maybe just gut feelings. Maybe sloppy fallacy ridden reasoning. But the society *should* reject cannibalism and the “Conservative Bias” is useful in that regard.

    A lot of philosophical questions have nothing to do with “should”. You can spend all day with the rabbi talking ’bout whether or not you have free will. Whether you have or don’t, your wife expects you to take the trash out when you get home. Likewise questions about evolution vs creationism are like this.

    2. It only works because arguments survive, not because they are good in the ethical sense. The idea of rule by a king, emperor or some type of absolute tyrant has been the norm for thousands of years. Society can indeed ‘work’ with that. That doesn’t mean survivial leads to ethical or good outcomes.

  8. Boonton:

    I wrote a longer comment on your blog but lost it since this old browswer I use doesn’t want to work….

    I’ve been losing comments on blogs too. I think it might be a blogspot issue.

    I think Mark here, though, does present a conservative influenced counter argument:

    That person “A” cannot muster a cogent argument against cannibalism does not invalidate the correctness of his firmly held position against it. If Mr Able is pressed for a reason which does not stand scrutiny his belief is not invalidated for the requirement of logical defense of your beliefs is not a requirement for holding the same without self-contradiction.

    What is that a counter argument to??? I agree with it and don’t see how it’s relevant to the conversation.

    As for your sci-fi analogy, it hinges on there being a time in the past when people were more knowledgeable. That is not our past. We know more than the people who wrote the Bible did. They were not more wise, either. That’s just a silly noble savage myth. They were racist, homophobic, warlike, superstitious magical thinkers.

  9. Mark says:

    JA,
    I think your misunderstanding my use of the term validity. I think you are suggesting that cosmetic arguments are false, i.e., not the arguments a person uses to hold the beliefs in question. This is, then, I would suggest not a valid argument for that person to use. That is, not valid.

    Let me attempt to restate the problem as I see it with premise and cosmeticity.

    1. Person X states that a reason they are against abortion is that it is murder (of the fetus).
    2. However, they do not treat women who have abortions as murderers.
    3. You suggest that their holding abortion as murder is cosmetic on this basis.
    4. However, if as I suggest, they do not hold the woman at fault (refer to person/network discussion vis a vis murder/abortion above) and/or responsible then your view of the cosmetic nature of this belief (based on their unwillingness to charge the girl with murder) is unwarranted.
    5. Where is the locus of your misunderstanding of this belief as cosmetic vs foundational? It is in your difference premises of what constitutes personhood, which you will not resolve with logic.

  10. Mark says:

    JA,
    One could make similar statements about the cosmetic vs foundational reaction to revelation as hallucination or not. You have premises about what hallucinatory experience represents, i.e., they are false phantasms. A person who does not share this premise is not going to have their beliefs shaken in the way you expect on finding that their vision is hallucinatory (consider for example the film Altered States). The non-shaking of their belief on discovery that their vision was a hallucination is indicative of different premises regarding the nature of hallucination not that their belief is cosmetic.

  11. You’re going off on a tangent by quibbling about my example. It’s irrelevant to the larger point. If they really do believe that abortion is murder, then fine. It can be a load-bearing argument. If they don’t, then it can’t be.

  12. You have premises about what hallucinatory experience represents, i.e., they are false phantasms. A person who does not share this premise is not going to have their beliefs shaken in the way you expect on finding that their vision is hallucinatory (consider for example the film Altered States). The non-shaking of their belief on discovery that their vision was a hallucination is indicative of different premises regarding the nature of hallucination not that their belief is cosmetic.

    I agree with that. My example was assuming that the person would believe that “hallucination” and “true experience” were mutually exclusive. Again, you’re quibbling with details and going off on a tangent.

  13. I will say that what you are doing represents an alternative that I didn’t consider, but should have, given my experience with you. When a load-bearing belief is demolished, I wrote that the believer might substitute it with another. But if it were you, you would quickly try to salvage that belief by redefining all the words in it to mean something different. 🙂 “Murder” no longer implies fault, “hallucination” no longer implies false perception, etc.

  14. So if that’s what your point about premises is getting at, I agree.

    (Sorry for the multiple posts, edit still broken. If you know where the bug is, I can take a look, btw. I know JavaScript well.)

  15. I guess with the hallucination example, you aren’t redefining the word, to be fair. So that really is a different premise.

  16. Boonton says:

    JA

    As for your sci-fi analogy, it hinges on there being a time in the past when people were more knowledgeable.

    Actually it doesn’t. In the past there was a diversity of belief about cannibalism….all of it could have been quite stupid. The cannibalism taboo that came to dominate the population too might have been for quite stupid reasons. Maybe someone wrote some epic story about a love affair that was doomed because of cannibalism….maybe some lunatic convinced people he could speak tot he gods…whatever. The adoption of the right policy for stupid reasons, though, worked and allowed the belief to become dominant.

    The “Conservative Bias” is based less on the our intelligence in the past than skepticism about our intelligence in the present. In the present the arguments against cannibalism don’t seem that good. Does that mean the prejudice against cannibalism should be done away with? It depends, how good do you think present intelligence really is? Note in my sci-fi story I said an ‘Age of Reason’ had begun….the ‘Age of Reason’ if often dated around the 1700’s in Europe. The ‘rational society’ is not necessarily some futeristic Star Trek like world populated by people who know everything. The medical problems that are the real reason cannibalism should be rejected are unknown in the society that is debating it and probably unknowable given their lack of medical knowledge. Yet the prejudice protects them from rushing head long into a harsh lesson….even if they don’t realize that the prejudice ‘works’ for reasons that have nothing to do with their understanding of it.

    Mark,

    I think you’re confusing a person who believes that abortion is wrong but not murder with one who does. Many US pro-lifers do indeed assert that abortion is murder, do not hold an Eastern conception of personhood and often make arguments (such as that the Constitution demands that unborn children be treated as persons under Equal Protection) that would make it almost impossible not to consistently treat abortion as murder.

  17. Boonton says:

    Of course we’re spinning our wheels here because there’s a lot of conclusions and premises we are glossing over.

    It’s not quite as simple as “abortion is murder”…..

    An argument on the pro-life ‘atomic’ level might be more like:

    1. It is murder to kill a person.

    2. A fertilized human egg is a person.

    3. Abortion kills the fetus.

    4. Therefore abortion is murder.

    You confront the pro-lifer with the issue of whether or not the 18 yr old girl who just had an abortion should be tried for murder….the possible answers include:

    1. yes she should (a non-trivial portion of pro-lifers will admit this if you squeeze hard enough).

    2. Not all who commit murder should be tried for murder.

    3. Not all murders are the same.

    4. No she shouldn’t.

    #1 is consistent with the first argument being ‘load bearing’. #2 and #3 are also consistent but they lead to other issues a pro-lifer may not be comfortable with (i.e. few seem to object to an 18 yr old who kills born babies being tried for murder….for example). #4 is not consistent and appears to render the first argument as only ‘cosmetic’.

    But then if the premise is “abortion is a grave wrong” then it doesn’t follow that all cases of abortion should be treated as murder….it may not even follow that *any* case of abortion should be treated as murder!

  18. Boonton:

    Yet the prejudice protects them from rushing head long into a harsh lesson….even if they don’t realize that the prejudice ‘works’ for reasons that have nothing to do with their understanding of it.

    Your example is one where the civilization got lucky that a prejudice happened to be beneficial. But just because of one lucky (fictional!) example, we can’t assume that prejudices are more likely to be helpful than not.

    It’s not like there aren’t abundant examples of prejudices that were harmful. I mean, surely you wouldn’t say that because societies that practice FGM have survived then FGM should be given the benefit of the doubt. I mean let’s say that our society had practiced FGM and we didn’t know of other societies. Should we just keep doing it because who knows what might happen if we stop? Maybe we aren’t intelligent enough to know, after all.

    Re: abortion is murder, I agree with you that we are glossing over things. Maybe I should have picked a simpler example. However, as any argument with Mark will show you, there is no atom in an argument. No matter how far down you drill, there’s always some change that can be made to the atom. For example, let’s say we said forget the “abortion is murder” argument. Let’s talk about “A fertilized human egg is a person.” Well, then we have to start arguing about what a “person” is, which leads to a whole other series of premises.

    I think that implies that no argument that is formulated in language can be load-bearing. The real load-bearing argument is pre-language, even pre-cognition. The load-bearing argument in this case is probably something like a gut feeling that abortion is wrong, or else a gut trust in a religion that says it’s wrong. In that case all the arguing in the world won’t affect the real load-bearing argument if the person who holds it is not the rare kind of person who is: logically precise, linguistically precise, and open-minded. That certainly comports with my experience arguing. I can convince people like that of various things, great and small. Other people I can’t convince of anything, no matter how obvious (e.g. the Earth is greater than 6,000 years old.)

    It also corresponds to the frustrations I feel. I don’t get frustrated when Mark disagrees with me, but it drives me nuts when he’s linguistically imprecise (fetuses are “people” and killing “people” is wrong) or logically imprecise (one liberal opposed a statute that forbids sharia therefore “the left supports FGM.”) It just makes the whole enterprise futile.

  19. Boonton says:

    Your example is one where the civilization got lucky that a prejudice happened to be beneficial. But just because of one lucky (fictional!) example, we can’t assume that prejudices are more likely to be helpful than not.

    Well the dice are slightly rigged in favor of long standing prejudices in that they must ‘work’ to some extent…if only not to be fatal. For a new belief or policy the fact is we just don’t know unless our rationality is so good that we can cover all the basis.

    Let’s play with cannibalism a bit. Just suppose that a prehistoric cannibal society also got into the habit of eating an acorn like fruit as well. Suppose this acorn had medical benefits that exceed the medical harm from cannibalism. The cannibal society would appear healthier and could over time likely overwhelm the non-cannibal societies around them. Flash forward, now some kids in the University Debate Society start to argue that cannibalism should be abolished.

    In this case the outcomes are:

    Best – Cannibalism is ditched but acorn eating is kept. Health improves dramatically.

    Moderate level 1 – No change, health remains what it is.

    Moderate level 2 – Cannibalism is ditched along with the acorns (suppose they are only used in cannibal dishes so no one thinks of just eating them by themselves). Health goes down a bit.

    Worse – Acorns are ditched but not cannibalism, health nosedives (yea no one is proposing that but who knows what can happen?)

    Note that with just picking an option at random you have a 50% chance of making things worse, a 25% chance of staying the same and only a 25% chance of getting better. The “Conservative Bias” does indeed stand as a roadblock to a better policy, but it also lowers the chances of a lot of really bad policies.

    It’s not like there aren’t abundant examples of prejudices that were harmful. I mean, surely you wouldn’t say that because societies that practice FGM have survived then FGM should be given the benefit of the doubt. I mean let’s say that our society had practiced FGM and we didn’t know of other societies.

    Indeed FGM is bad, but I’d suspect like the hypothetical acorns in my example it comes packaged with other beliefs, traditions and norms that have some beneficial purposes. As a result simply stopping it ‘from the top’ by some distant colonal power’s directive is likely to open up a can of worms. That doesn’t mean you just have to live with it, though. Change can be positive but even a change that seems obviously positive is best made by doing the hard work of actually becoming part of the culture you’re changing. (A real life example here might be the Indian custom of women immolating themselves on their husband’s funeral pyres. A tradition challenged by the British bu tthen the British in many ways became part of Indian culture…not that it’s all a happy story).