“Social Justice” in Skepticism

Last week I wrote a post entitled An Open Question to Those Who Think Skepticism Should Embrace “Social Justice” which to my surprise got some traction and audience. Most of the responses I received were positive, but there were a few negative responses as well. Because I was writing for my normal audience of forty people, I left out a lot of context, and maybe I could have been clearer. I did update the post with a blurb in the very beginning explaining, though.

First, the post was more about people than movements. It was driven by my own observations and the idea that when people want more social justice in skepticism, it could simply mean they’re bored with skepticism or moved on. Secondly, I put “social justice” in quotes on purpose, because the what a lot of people mean by “social justice” is through the lens of American progressive politics, not social justice in the broadest sense. Lastly, no one could really come up with anything to show that I was way out of left field with this.

With all that out of the way, I thought I would expand on the little blurb by talking about a few social justice issues that I think show how applied skepticism doesn’t always give the same results for everyone.

Veganism

Becoming a vegan for me was not a sudden decision. Becoming a vegetarian was. I was flying home from Kansas City to Rochester, NY, after a night of eating KC barbecue. I didn’t remember eating making me feel so slow and heavy before. I decided right there on the plane, that I wanted to try vegetarianism. My girlfriend Kelly (now my wife) was a vegetarian, and because of a milk allergy was close to vegan already.

My wife encouraged me to read more about animal suffering and the meat industry, and I really, really became extremely sympathetic towards animals. Somewhere along the way, Kelly decided we weren’t going to allow dairy products in the house and we would go vegan. Truthfully, I don’t really remember how that went down, and I take this to mean that giving up dairy was a non-issue for me. I was convinced veganism was a more ethical way to go.

I still has to square this all with my analytical brain, though. I was already learning about skepticism and felt that I needed some more to really accept veganism. So I looked into the source of values that leads people to think of animals as property to be exploited. Time again, I’d find the source of those values came from religion, especially the Great Chain of Being concept. I’m an atheist and religions themselves carry very little weight with me.

I looked into the real differences between humans and other animals from a biological sense. We’re not the only intelligent life to have lived on the Earth, and I don’t mean aliens. Neanderthals, from the evidence I’ve seen, were another intelligent hominid species we briefly shared time with. I’ve found recently, I have 2.6% Neanderthal DNA myself.

I constructed thought experiments to figure out why we treat a human being in a vegetative state with respect, while a chimp that can do sign language is used in medical experiments without much in the way of ethical qualms. The far ends of the human intelligence range overlap with other species in extreme cases, so why are we better? I could not find one reason that we are “better” than animals, or rational explanation as to why we treat them like property.

I applied skepticism to the reasons society treats animals the way they do, and I came to fully embrace veganism. Veganism is a value, not part of skepticism, but as the result of applied skepticism.

Gay Marriage

Gay marriage might sound like an easy value for the skepticism movement to embrace. In fact, I don’t know of anyone in the skepticism movement who supports banning gay marriage. So, why is this value a no go for the skepticism movement?

The most obvious intersection of skepticism and gay marriage in an example of applied skepticism is debunking all the claims that anti-gay marriage folks use to be against gay marriage. The reasons are almost always seeped in religion, misconceptions about gay relationships, and invariably, a fear that their church will be force by the government to marry gay people. Then there is always the “man-goat” marriage argument that is somehow supposed to the inevitable result of legalized gay marriage.

The issue with adopting gay marriage as an issue, is really, that it assume that marriage should be a value of skepticism. Does skepticism naturally lead to the idea of government sanction of relationships? I’m skeptical that it does. The benefits of marriage are clear, but there are benefits to exercising every day too. I don’t see exercise becoming a skeptic value any time soon.

The politics involved make it too messy to be a real skeptic value. I personally believe there should be nothing called marriage in the legal code, and government should out of it entirely. However, I recognize from a pragmatic point of view, that there are gay people here and now that deserve the right of marriage. So I strongly support gay marriage now while at the same time wanting all marriage to go away.

Politics

I have made no secret than I’m a libertarian. This places me in a really small minority in the country politically speaking (not asking for sympathy), but within skepticism, the percentage of libertarians actually rises above the margin of error. This should make the discussions over the role of government amongst skeptics quite interesting, and in fact, I have had good conversations in the Del Mar Lounge in Las Vegas.

There is often the misconception about libertarians that they don’t care about the poor and that they support corporatism. These misconceptions are popular in the media, and I hate to say it, but the Colbert Show might be the worse offender. There are all sorts of libertarian ideas about how to help the poor that few would consider even libertarian, including negative tax rates and single payer health care.

Applying skepticism to the common wisdom of politics has lead me to become a libertarian at the expense of the two major parties. I’m skeptical that Republicans and Democrats really different that much on most issues. I’m skeptical that either party really cares about privacy. I’m skeptical that either party is really for peace. I could write lots and lot about each issue I support, but I think it’s more useful to look at issues that an American progressive would support, that show how skepticism and politics don’t mix at the values level.

Science and inquiry has shown the American Disabilities Act has probably lowered employment for the disabled by 8%. Should skeptics still support the law? It has had benefits, but unintended consequences. The assault weapons ban that George Bush let lapse has never been shown to reduce crime or death. Should skeptics support it still? When George Bush lowered capital gains tax rates, revenue doubled. Since those rates amounted to a lower rate for richer people, should skeptics support the cuts that brought more revenue or not? Globalization has definitely made it harder for poor and middle class people to find jobs. Should skeptics support protectionist policies? Technology marches on eliminating jobs that poor and middle class people use to have. Should skeptics support protecting jobs from technology?

These are just a handful of thorny, sticky issues, that not everyone is going to agree on. There may not even be a “right” way, and if there is, we may never even know. I think we should be able to have these discussions, considering all the evidence, and then not assume that everyone comes to the same conclusion. That’s why I so strongly disagree when some American progressives in the skeptic movement want to insert their political values as skeptic values. They’re not.

Conclusion

I have this idea for a presentation for TAM. I would get up and present evidence and reasons why the skeptic movement should also be a vegan, libertarian movement. I would put up slides to show critical thinking on the issues leaves only one conclusion. I would pretend to finish early, and then take some questions. I assume people hate the speech and start taking me to task for being so obviously wrong. I then take the the last five minutes to tell everyone they’d been had, that the speech was a fake to show how mixing ones personal values as skepticism is such a bad idea.

Practically speaking, though, we do need to admit, talking about skepticism without application inspires few. That’s why I highly support conferences showcasing applied skepticism. Show how skepticism helps feminism, the fights against racism, and how people apply it to help the poor. Show people that skepticism is a tool that everyone can use to help their friends, families and neighbors. Just make it clear that these conclusions and results may be different for everyone.

Skepticism sits as one of the pillars of social justice movements. Challenging assumptions and stereotypes is necessary. Consumer protection, especially in medicine, saves money and lives. Fighting religious impression around the world requires rational free thought.

When I say “Social Justice” isn’t part of skepticism, I’m not saying “screw you”. I’m saying skepticism is part of your social justice, and I want to help you.

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