Monday, March 23, 2009

Mirror of Justice: Harvard's Dr. Green on the Pope, Aids, and Condoms in Africa

Michael Scaperlanda at the Catholic legal theory site Mirror of Justice offers an interesting comment by Dr. Edward Green, Director of of the AIDS Prevention Research Project at the Harvard School of Public Health about condom use and AIDS prevention in Africa (and my extension other parts of the world I suspect).

In response to media criticism of Pope Benedict XVI's comments that condom use not only did not stem the spread of HIV/AIDS but encouraged the spread of the epidemic, Green says this in a recent interview: "I am a liberal on social issues and it's difficult to admit, but the Pope is indeed right. The best evidence we have shows that condoms do not work as an intervention intended to reduce HIV infection rates in Africa." Green went on to say, "[w]hat we see in fact is an association between greater condom use and higher infection rates."

Abstracting from the specific issue of condom use in Africa, from the point of view of philosophical anthology I find the whole safe (or, "safer") sex argument interesting. Essentially the argument being made is this: It is to a person's benefit (in terms of physical health) to allow his or her sexual desires to be shaped and directed by a cultural or societal norm (in this case, that s/he should use a condom). In other words, safe sex proponents are arguing for a rather thin understanding of chastity (i.e., that social norms should guide and shape how we act on our desire).

Where this becomes problematic, both theoretically and practically, is that it runs contrary to the radical, ontological individualism that informs much of the contemporary discussion of not only sexual ethics but any number of other ethical issues. We cannot, it seems to me, have it both ways. Either my personal desires should be guided by objective (in the sense of societal) norms or they shouldn't. If my desires should be shaped by objective norms, then the question is which norms will I follow.

And here it is here, it seems to me, that most contemporary forms of individualism reveal themselves as anthropological deficient. Once we isolate the person from society, we undermine any sense of not only community but even shared practical wisdom. We find ourselves now in a situation in which we have so emphasized the individual over the community, that we have not only eroded community life but also the health of the person, not only physically (in the specific case of AIDS and other health related matters) but also psychologically (see for example the growing rates of depression and personality disorders) socially (since I know can stand as a critic over all social groups, not only picking and choosing among them, but also taking only those of there elements I like and leaving the rest) and spiritually (since we learn to love and live for the Kingdom of God in and through our life in the various, smaller and transitory communities of this life).

A similiar thing happens in the life of the Church. We too easily reward people for their individualism when it is directed at non-Orthodox Christian churches and communities. But we fail to see that the same criticism of, say, Evangelical Christianity of Rome Catholicism, can easily be adapted (and often is) to criticism of the Orthodox Church.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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