Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Science, Morality and Public Policy

Recently, Elizabeth Pisani, wrote the following in a recent issue of The Guardian:

For many years now, social policy in the US has been moulded by morality. (Interestingly, commercial policy hasn't. It's illegal for one adult to pay another for sex, but perfectly legal for two adults to be paid to have sex with one another by a third person, who will film the encounter and then sell it as pornography to other adults.)

Morality, which is hard to define let alone to measure, is not a good basis for public policy. Science is a good basis for public policy. Economics, even. But not morality. Look at sex education in the US. The Bush administration promotes abstinence. No information about condoms, nothing about safe sex. The result of this cross-your-legs-and-think-of-God approach, according to official figures released this week, is that a quarter of teenage girls in the US have a sexually transmitted infection. How moral is that?

Though morality demonstrably collapses in the face of reality, the US is committed to exporting this approach. Its taxpayers have been asked to part with an astonishing $65bn to pay for HIV prevention and care in the developing world. To get a penny of that money, organisations have to pledge that they will oppose prostitution. The pledge was brought in by former Aids tsar Randall Tobias, handpicked by George Bush. "Former" because he resigned from public life last April, after his phone number was found on the client list of a Washington escort service. Spitzer is in good company.

A Few Points:

  1. In other words, the US should have been basing public policy upon the principle of a2+b2=c2 (the Pythagorean theorem). The thing about science is that it can tell us what the outcome of an action is, but it can't tell us what to do without experimentation: the scientific method only makes observations of outcomes and propose theories as to what those outcomes might be. If one were posed with the dilemma of whether or not to use another, for whatever reason, that individual would be hard pressed to derive an answer using the scientific method; further, any logician should be quick to point out that even the scientific method cannot be proved using the scientific method. The Scientific method cannot make a moral claim because the scientific method is amoral; yet, science cannot make policy without taking into account morality, for to do so would deny the ineffable mystery of humanity and turn the human person into a mere integer.

  2. The Sex Ed programs that focus on abstinence were ushered in during the Clinton Administration and not the Bush administration -- though the Bush Administration has kept the programs functioning and has allotted more federal money for the promotion of abstinence education. During Bill Clinton's presidency, Congress enacted the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (Welfare Reform) which featured an education program on abstinence (no sex outside of marriage). The purpose of the program is to reduce out-of-wedlock births and sexually transmitted diseases (STD's). This plan is not unique to the Bush Administration.

  3. The STD rate in America has been 1 in 4 for over 10 years: its not just a female issue. I remember sitting in the auditorium at my college orientation and the MC saying, "Turn and look at the person to your left, now to your right, in front of you and behind you. One of them will not be here at the end of the year." She then said, "Now turn again and look at the person to your left, now to your right, in front of you and behind you. Statistically speaking, one of them has an STD." It is not the Bush administration that has cause this 1 in 4 statistic in America, neither did Clinton's administration, and neither will the next president's administration be the cause of the this statistic. The cause is from local, ground level, the average Joe and Jane Schmoe having multiple sex partners at an amount not before seen in years prior. The real question is where did Jane and Joe get the idea that this is the norm of behavior and to act otherwise is unhealthy, prudish, and down right crazy? I have my own ideas. Anyway, exactly how moral is it for certain industries to encourage 'free-love', multiple sex partners, and the any-thing goes lifestyle that puts individuals at a high risk of contracting STDs? Lastly, if condoms and safe-sex are the answers, then why has the STD rates continue to climb despite in increased information about safe-sex and the ease of accessibility to condoms? Saying that condoms and safe-sex programs are the answer seems to beg the question.

  4. What the new report does not tell is how STD rates and out of wed-lock pregnancy has dropped within certain demographics and has risen with others. If the STD rate has risen in the country it is not because abstinence failed but because people have failed to live the abstinence lifestyle till marriage. If the education is not working, it is only because the abstinence life style has been found difficult and in turn is left untried (or in some cases only partially tried).

  5. The fact is that abstinence ed does work for those teens who participate in the local programs. The problem is that it is not supported in the same way as other subject matter is supported in the school system -- I know this because I used to work for the Governor's Program on Abstinence in Louisiana and taught in the school system in Louisiana -- some people are out right hostile towards the idea of abstinence education. In other words, abstinence ed only appears to fail because of the disproportionate emphasis on other less essential things in our culture.

  6. Abstinence ed also has difficulty in being successful because the amount of (or lack of) abstinence ed teens receive. Most abstinence ed clubs might (very strong might) have weekly meetings through the school year. This boils down to roughly 30-40 hours of education on this topic at hand a year. Where as with other subject matter the student receives some 20-30 hours of education in a single subject over the course of a month. Combine it with what the lack of support from school faculty, school staff, health professionals who have the mentality of 'they are going to do it anyway' and with the heavy emphasis on sex in the media, is it any wonder that abstinence ed seems to fail.

  7. Abstinence ed seems to fail because in a public school of 1,000 only 20-30 students might be enrolled in an abstinence organization. Measuring two or three percent against 98 or 97 percent is hardly a fair call in determining if abstinence ed actually works. If you want to know if it works, you need to talk with, interview, and survey those people who are actually receiving the education. Even if the percentage were higher, say 10 percent, the figures would still be skewed.

  8. Lastly, the governmental abstinence programs are not "cross-your-legs-and-think-of-God" programs. The programs are aimed at developing a right (and healthy) relation with those people around you. It is about justice, as justice is the virtue of establishing right relationships between people. All of the governmental programs that focus on abstinence by law must be 'God-free'.
  9. It is not morality that has collapsed in the face of reality, it is humanity that has demonstrably collapsed in the face of the moral reality. To say otherwise is like blaming the existence of a lawful ban on murder for the reason one is thrown in jail for murdering and completely ignoring the agent's own, individual, personal actions which ultimately collapsed in the face of that lawful ban.
  10. Public morality can be legislated (thus morality to some degree can be made public policy) where as private morality cannot.


Michael Ejercito said...

At the heart of abstinence-only sex education is a bunch of pathetic losers who are not getting any, so instead of fixing themselves so they can get some, they tell other people how wonderful it is to be a virgin so that they can make themselves feel better.

But at the end of the day, they are still miserable.

Unknown said...

I was just going to say that I thought that post was class - well said Mr Cat!

Michael, if you don't mind my saying so what you have just said is quite obnoxious and ignorant. Please consider that at the heart of abstinence education is a profound respect for one's own body and of everybody else. It enables one to treat others as ends rather than means. Which most certainly does make it wonderful. It treats the union between man and wife as sacred as it deserves to be, and does not desecrate this with a perverse yearning for many sexual partners.

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