Wednesday, June 30, 2010
An article about breast feeding, interesting in its own right, brings up an issue that has puzzled me several times in the past, but which I think I am beginning to understand. I'll state at the outset that breast-feeding is a topic I have not thought about a great deal, although I will volunteer that think that breast feeding is better for babies than formula. How long? I really don't know, and I probably won't get to that question for a while.
That said, my focus here isn't on the merits of breast feeding or on how long it ought to last. Rather, I am looking at how emotionally charged a debate can become, even among people presumably making an honest effort to do what is best for themselves and their children.
No topic is liable to prompt a fist fight among mothers so rapidly as breast-feeding. Foot soldiers for the breast versus bottle debate line up like Roundheads against Cavaliers. Women who bottle-feed are often accused of lacking maternal instinct, while those who dare lactate beyond the three-year mark are viewed as hessian-clad feminists, only one short step away from running a lesbian commune in a yurt.I have seen (and have occasionally experienced, first-hand) similarly heated debates among Objectivists. (And no, to be completely clear, I am not talking here about the ongoing on-line debate about Episode 118 of the Leonard Peikoff Show, of which I just became aware yesterday, although it is possible that what I have to say on this issue might conceivably pertain to it.)
The last time I wrote on the topic, saying in the mildest terms that while I subscribed to the view that breast was best it was counter-productive to bully women on the topic, I received a torrent of abusive mail...
But this is nothing to the vitriolic missives received by friends who have written thoughtful articles on why they decided to breast-feed their offspring beyond three years of age. From the tone and volume of the correspondence, you might have believed they were slipping their children heroin. One was told she was a work-shy man-hater who had clearly driven away her husband -- which all came as something of a surprise to that happily married, hard-working mum.
Specifically, I am speaking not of fundamental disagreements about philosophical premises, but about issues pertaining to the application of proper philosophical principles to one area or another of one's life, and which may require specialized knowledge. Whether and how long to breast feed a baby is an excellent example of just such an issue for any potential parent or specialist in infant care.
Note two things from the passage quoted above. First, there is a tendency by some in each of the opposed camps to view the opposite camp in caricature. Second, there is a haste by some of these to condemn those in the other camp in line with such a caricature, be it in terms of implying stupidity, immorality, or both.
How can this happen between two sides sincerely interested in unearthing the truth, living by it, and getting the word out about it? Remember, we are assuming for the sake of argument that both sides are acting on proper premises and are being honest, if passionate. (And let's set aside the issue of the moral import of failing to control oneself while in the midst of strong emotions.) Can such anger exist between two people who disagree on a non-philosophical matter, and, if so, why?
I would say that it can, and that the reason for this is related to the fact that when one considers a complex issue in depth, it can be very easy to forget any number of related issues: (1) Not everyone else has done the same amount of work or has reached the point that they even see the need to consider the issue in question, or at least to think about it as deeply. (I've been accused of being "willfully ignorant" about such an issue, only to later learn more about it, and conclude that there had, in fact, been no need for me to pursue it, given my circumstances and intellectual context at the earlier time.) (2) Some people have done a similar amount of work and see the issue as important, but have not reached the same conclusion. (This happens all the time in new areas of science.) (3) Other people have done more work on the issue, and disagree. (This can hold whether one or both people are wrong.) (4) Other people have different value hierarchies. (A cut-and dried example is needed here: Some people derive enough pleasure from smoking, that they decide to do so, and accept the health risks. If you know that someone smokes, but not that he has thought about this, you could reasonably wonder whether he is immoral or ignorant.) (5) The state of knowledge in the non-philosophical subject may be such that both "extreme" views in the debate of the day are wholly or partially wrong.
As I see it, problems like the above stem from the following facts pertaining to human cognition: (1) Induction is a knowledge- and value-driven process. One must reach a critical mass of believable data and find an issue personally relevant enough to spend a great deal of time on a complex induction, particularly one requiring lots of specialized knowledge. Or, as I believe I have heard it put before as advice on figuring out where to start inducing a philosophical principle: "What would I have to know for this principle to even be an issue?" (2) We can't read other people's minds. Given that, it can be hard sometimes to imagine why someone else might not study a topic one is passionate about. Ignorance and immorality on the part of the other party can be easy conclusions to jump to. (3) We aren't infallible. (4) Proper application of philosophical principles has to be done by each individual, taking into account any special circumstances he faces as an individual, including any optional values.
Aside from possibly avoiding unnecessary fights with friends, of what further use is the above knowledge? Right off the bat, I can think of a couple. First, it can help one to get past one's own anger at being "bullied" about deciding whether to entertain poorly-presented arguments that happen to have some merit. Second, it can help one present one's own ideas more effectively, so as not to alienate people by coming across as a bully. In short, people are more receptive to arguments that are made when they respect their cognitive requirements, which means: when an argument connects with preexisting knowledge and provides objective motivation for further study.
This is a very interesting topic to me, and I think it is very important. I am eager to hear what you think.