I made a video explaining Sari Van Anders’s Sexual Configuration Theory. Most of my students enjoyed it when I teach philosophy of sex and love.
I wrote a piece for the Prindle Post about wearing masks during the COVID-19 pandemic. Here it is:
The COVID-19 pandemic is a worldwide phenomenon that has disrupted people’s lives and the economy. Currently, the United States leads COVID cases in the world and as of this writing, the United States has the largest amount of confirmed deaths, and ranks eighth in deaths per capita due to the virus. There are a number of factors that might explain why the numbers are so high: the United States’ failed leadership in tackling the virus back in December/January, the government’s response to handling the crisis once the virus spread throughout the United States, states’ opening up too early — and too quickly — in May and June, and people’s unwillingness to take the pandemic seriously by not social distancing or wearing face masks. Let us focus on the last point. Why the unseriousness? As soon as the pandemic hit, conspiracy theories regarding the virus spread like — well, like the virus itself. Some are so fully convinced about a conspiracy theory that their beliefs may be incorrigible. Others seem only to doubt mask-wearing as a solution.
Part of the unwillingness to wear face masks is due to the CDC and WHO having changed their positions about wearing masks as a preventative measure. From the beginning, the U.S. Surgeon General claimed that masks were ineffective, but now both the CDC and the WHO recommend wearing them.
Why this reversal? We are facing a novel virus. Science, as an institution, works through confirming and disconfirming hypotheses. Scientists find evidence for a claim and it leads to their hypothesis being correct. As time goes on, scientists gather new evidence disconfirming their original hypothesis. And as time continues further, they gather more information and evidence and were too quick to disconfirm the hypothesis. Because this virus is so new, scientists are working with limited knowledge. There will inevitably be back-and-forth shifts on what works and what doesn’t. Scientists must adapt to new information. Citizens, however, may interpret this as skepticism about wearing masks since the CDC and WHO cannot make up their minds. And so people may think: “perhaps wearing masks does prevent the spread of the virus; perhaps it doesn’t. So if we don’t know, then let’s just live our lives as we did.” Indeed, roughly 14% of Americans state they never wear masks. But what if there was a practical argument that might encourage such skeptics to wear a mask that didn’t directly rely on the evidence that masks do prevent spreading the virus? What if, despite the skepticism, wearing masks could still be shown to be in one’s best interest? Here, I think using Pascal’s wager can be helpful.
To refamiliarize ourselves, Pascal’s wager comes from Blaise Pascal, a 17th-century French mathematician and philosopher, who wagered that it’s best to believe in God without relying on direct evidence that God exists. To put it succinctly, either God exists or He doesn’t. How shall we decide? Well, we either believe God exists or we believe He doesn’t exist. So then, there are four possibilities:
|God exists||God does not exist|
|Belief in God||+∞ (infinite gain)||2. − (finite loss)|
|Disbelief in God||4. −∞ (infinite loss)||3. + (finite gain)|
For 1., God exists and we believe God exists. Here we gain the most since we gain an infinitely happy life. If we win, we win everything. For 2., we’ve only lost a little since we simply believed and lost the truth of the matter. In fact, it’s so minimal (compared to infinite) that we lose nothing. For 3., we have gained a little. While we have the truth, there is not infinite happiness. And compared to infinite, we’ve won nothing. And finally, for 4., we have lost everything since we don’t believe in God and it’s an eternity of divine punishment. By looking at the odds, we should bet on God existing because doing so means you win everything and lose nothing. If God exists and you don’t believe, you lose everything and win nothing. If God doesn’t exist, compared to infinite, the gain or loss is insignificant. So through these odds, believing in God is your best bet since it’s your chance of winning, and not believing is your chance of losing.
There have been criticisms and responses to Pascal’s wager, but I still find this wager useful as an analogy when applied to mask-wearing. Consider:
|Masks Prevent Spreading the Virus||Masks Don’t Prevent Spreading the Virus|
|Belief in Masks Preventing Spreading the Virus||(1) (Big Gain) People’s lives are saved and we can flatten the curve easily.||(2) − (finite loss) We wasted some time wearing a piece of cloth over our face for a few months.|
|Disbelief in Masks Preventing Spreading the Virus||(4) (Big Loss) We continually spread the virus, hospitals are overloaded with COVID cases, and more deaths.||(3) + (finite gain) We got the truth of the matter.|
For (1), we have a major gain. If wearing masks prevents the spread of the virus and we do wear masks, then we help flatten the curve, lessen people contracting the virus, and help prevent any harms or deaths due to COVID-19. (One model predicts that wearing masks can save up to 33,000 American lives.) This is the best outcome. Suppose (2). If masks do nothing or minimally prevent the spread of the virus, yet we continue to wear masks, we have wasted very little. By simply wearing a restriction over our face, it is simply an inconvenience. Studies show that we don’t lose oxygen by wearing a face mask. And leading experts are hopeful that we may get a vaccine sometime next year. There are promising results from clinical phase trials. And so wearing masks, having a small inconvenience in our lives, is not a major loss. After all, we can still function in our lives with face masks. People who wear masks as part of their profession (e.g. doctors, miners, firefighters, military) still carry out their duties. Indeed, their masks help them fulfill their duties. The inconvenience is a minor loss compared to saving lives and preventing the spread of the virus as stated in (1).
Suppose (3). If (3) is the case, then we’ve avoided inconvenience, but this advantage is nothing compared to the cost (4) represents. While we don’t have to wear a mask, celebrating the riddance of inconvenience pales in comparison to losing unnecessary lives and unknowingly spreading the virus. Compared to what we stand to lose in (4), in (3) we’ve won little.
Suppose (4). If we decide (4) is the strategy, we’ve doomed ourselves by making others sicker, we’ve continually spread the virus, and hospitals have had to turn away sick people which leads to more preventable deaths. We’ve lost so many lives and caused the sickness to spread exponentially, all because we didn’t wear a mask.
Note that we haven’t proved that masks work scientifically (although I highly suspect that they do). Rather, we’re doing a rational cost-benefit analysis to determine what the best strategy is. Wearing masks would be in our best interest. If we’re wrong, then it’s a minor inconvenience. But if we’re right, then we’ve prevented contributing to the spread of the COVID-19 virus which has wreaked havoc on many lives all over the globe. Surely, it’s better to bet on wearing masks than not to.
I was interviewed by Queer Majority as part of their Business of Sex series profile. Best part:
The Sex In My Business: I research the philosophy of love, sex, and relationships.
This past week, I went to the AASECT 2018 conference in Denver. AASECT stands for the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists. The conference had a mixture of workshops, plenary speakers, exhibitions of products, and poster exhibitions. Overall, I had a good time. Here are some of the highlights:
- My favorite portion was the poster exhibition. Perhaps it’s the academic in me, but I love learning about new studies and see what sort of insight we can do with that information. Plus, I can talk to the scholars various questions and either produce more questions for further research, or clarify some points that can prove fruitful.
- I got to make some really good friends who are also at the beginning stages of their careers. It’s fun to meet like-minded folks to not only network, but to build lasting relationships where we can learn from each other. I’m assuming I’m the only philosopher there, so it helps me garner some new insight from other perspectives and hopefully they can gather some insight from me.
- Denver, as a city, is fantastic. It has the conveniences of a city, the environment of mountains, and many different places to explore. I also happened to be there during Pride Weekend.
Here’s an electro-wand I tried out.
- One of the plenary speakers was Peggy Orenstein. She wrote a book entitled “Girls and Sex” which is informative on its own right, and has helped inform my dissertation as well.
With the many workshops I’ve attended, I felt there was something missing. I had similar feelings when I attended the National Sex Ed Conference in 2017. I couldn’t quite find the language as to why it felt off. I chalked it up to my philosophical background and how I wasn’t used to these different type of conferences. Philosophy conferences usually present ideas and arguing for those ideas. These sex ed conferences don’t have arguments per se, but they instead present possible ideas that they’ve tried out on their clients or schools. Or they give certain suggestions of what to do. It’s strategies and practical advice from one educator to another, from one therapist to another. All of this is well and good, but still, I found something missing. It wasn’t until the last day of AASECT that it started to click. One of the workshops I attended discussed how sex education is missing theory and why it was important to have theory. The speaker talked about the ontology and epistemology of sex and how this is needed in sex ed. I fully agreed with on this, and as I was thinking about the theoretical aspects of what more could be done in sex ed, I could see what was bothering me about these conferences.
In the sex ed conferences I’ve been to, almost everyone, I’m assuming, has some sort of background in some academic field: sociology, psychology, social work, education, marriage and family therapy. With those disciplines, people could go to these various workshops from others and learn about their discipline. With these conferences, it’s not as if people have to learn from square one; people in those disciplines already have the necessary background. The speaker is just adding more information or bringing forth new insight to further the discipline. But with these sex ed conferences, the workshops I’ve attended were either intuitively obvious, or I was completely lost. The obvious ones felt like the information wasn’t new and it was just a simple application of a theory that I was familiar with. I could see the students or the clients taking the information as a given, but without understanding why, the given could be questioned or not taken seriously. I understand that with sex education, you have to be practical and try to help the students and clients where they’re at. In some of the workshops, in fact, people gave out data and other tidbits of information, but didn’t tie it all up. I felt like saying, “so what?” to some of them because I didn’t understand what made it important. I’m very weary when a speaker presents something and says, “I just found this interesting!” Great, but what can we do with this interesting information? Tell me why this is important. Why did you find it interesting? We need theory! The workshops where I was completely lost relied on various procedures and/or backgrounds that I was not familiar with.
Since everyone is coming from different backgrounds and educational disciplines, everyone is coming to this topic through their own lens and tackling a specific issue. But without a common background, we may be talking past each other, not understand each other, or find the speech intuitively obvious. Sex education has not been disciplined, or not in the same way as other disciplines are. We can make a coherent structure of philosophy, sociology, psychology, social work. We can see within those fields various specialties, sub-divisions, and what sort of questions people in those sub-divisions ask, even if we ourselves are not in that field. But with sex education, it’s a mixture of people from different educational backgrounds giving their two cents on sex education. We have no common background, no common language perhaps, no common…well…discipline. What do I mean by discipline? For starters, imagine if you could major and study sex education. You would have a discipline that would have structure, organization, and help students give the theoretical background to really help those that need sex education.
“But,” you might say, “sex education is tough to make into a discipline because there are so many factors to consider. Sex education is a combination of biology, psychology, sociology, cultural studies, gender studies, and education. Perhaps you need to bring in anthropology, history, and maybe politics in this discipline as well. It just seems to vast.” I understand that, but we have done made an inchoate matter of thought into a structured form. People can major in gender studies, feminism, and the liberal arts for example. There’s a combination of different disciplines coming together to form one structured discipline. Why couldn’t we do that with sex education? Now we could ask whether it’s a subset of education, or if it should be its own discipline. I’m fine with either, but the point is that we shouldn’t rely on sex education having different patches of education. Sex education, as of now, is like a bunch of quilt patches. But there’s no structure, no organization, no form. The theory of sex ed, or disciplining it, threads these patches together. Yes, application is important and we need it. Theory without application is in vain. But application without theory is blind.
This isn’t to point out the fault of sex education falls on one individual or a group of individuals. Because of the political climate, sex education hasn’t been seen as a serious endeavor and so it’s scattered to these disparate disciplines. Many people share the attitude that sex education is important. We have the numbers, but we now need to organize those numbers and start to formulate what we can do together collectively. We all have different ideas of what is the best way to do it, but all disciplines have different ideas, approaches, and theories as to what should be done. Let’s do the same thing with sex education.