Unveiling what may be the most comprehensive guide to socially responsible self-pleasure ever published, a group of leading ethicists released Monday its list of things that are acceptable to masturbate to. The 2011 edition of the Standards and Values in Autoerotic Practices is the first revision in 17 years of the venerable reference used to determine what images and thoughts are appropriate stimuli for bringing oneself to orgasm.Just to avoid any confusion, that story was from The Onion. But as with most of their best satires, the humor is based on calling attention to something that is quite absurd, but that we usually let pass without notice. No, I am not talking about masturbation. Although... ...no, I don't think I can pull off that kind of humor. What I am talking about are committees that form to make a bright-line declaration about something that has no bright lines, sometimes self-appointed and sometimes appointed by officials who also have no particular claim on the matter.
The observation (from Moynihan) that everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts, has gotten quite a lot of play in recent American political debates (Google finds almost 300 hits in blogs from this month). It usually shows up in the context of criticizing right-wing economic plans that not only represent goals that most Americans do not support, but also are based on assumptions that defy both simple facts and economic theory. That is, people who are exercising their right to their opinion about what society's goals should be, generally an opinion that would be unpopular if they admitted to the details and all they imply, try to make up facts that make the implications of their goals more palatable, seem less costly, have miraculous benefits, etc. A rather similar pattern can be found in some politicized areas of health science. The most obvious are claims that public place smoking bans have miraculous health benefits; someone can believe that the bans are justified, but there is no justification for making scientifically nonsense claims (and if they feel those claims are necessary, it means they think that their opinion is not widely supported on its merits).
But the Onion story picks up on a different side of that truism: Matters that are ultimately a matter of opinion cannot be turned into facts by convening a panel that gives us their opinions on the matter. An expert panel certainly can help sort out scientific and technical ethical points, but ultimately their opinions that explicitly or implicitly use the word "should" are not facts. So when a panel convenes to address whether we should maintain an aggressive military posture or whether e-cigarettes should be banned, or what is allowable when masturbating, it is possible that their opinions will be given the force of law, but they will never be facts. (Note that this is separate from the question of whether such panels are good at answering purely scientific questions, which I will not address today.)
The Onion reports, "one of our top priorities this time was to eliminate all bias against homosexual impulses". This might be a subtle reference to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the American Psychiatric Association's pronouncement about what constitutes psychological illness, in which homosexuality was officially considered a mental illness as recently as the 1970s. Was this a fact? Obviously not. Is it a fact now that homosexuality is not a disorder? Well, no, actually. It might be a fact that it is inborn and irreversible in most cases, but the question of whether it is something wrong is a matter of opinion, and is not up to the APA to decide. Unfortunately, when society reaches a rough consensus on such matters the result is sometimes quite disturbing. But that cannot mean that some group of scientists, medics, or philosophers can assume the right to form society's opinion. In the case the DSM and homosexuality, the changing of the official condemnation of homosexuality in 1974 lagged the enlightenment already shown by educated engaged members of society, and even by the government.
If it was at all controversial that,
For the 23rd consecutive edition [of the Standards and Values in Autoerotic Practices], masturbating to a litter of newborn puppies is classified as "wrong, wrong, wrong.",then the declaration of the fictional ethicists would have no merit. What makes the declaration reasonable (and funny) is how obvious it is. However, it would be nice if the experts would offer some explanation as to why it is wrong (which might be the same as "why society thinks it is wrong"). That was missing form the satire just as it is missing from most real Official Pronouncements.
Even ethicists, let alone psychiatrists or other physicians, have no special claim on what is ultimately good and right. What they can offer is some insight into how to sort an analyze opinions. So, to draw on extreme versions of the present example (might as well run with it), there is a tough question about the ethics of getting off from looking at a photograph of something such that (a) it would be unethical to take the photograph or distribute a photograph of (say, a surreptitious photo of someone through her window, though there are much worse example) or cause the event to happen, but (b) the ogler had nothing to do with any of those and just found the photo on the web. This is akin the question of what to do with the medical knowledge the Nazis acquired by basically torturing innocent people to death. There is a similar question about an image that pretends to be something unethical, like a photo of a young-looking 18-year-old woman posing to give the illusion that it is kiddie porn, or even just imagining the unethical with no intention of ever acting on it. The ethicist can aid in sorting out these questions (e.g., to separate consequentialist points from symbolic issues) and there are also questions at the border of science and ethics that might be answerable (e.g., how the decision might create incentives for future behavior). The value of that type of analysis should not be underestimated. Unfortunately, when the panel's opinion is reported in the news, it is simplistic and inappropriate conclusory statements that are reported, not useful analysis.
Consider a case of doing it right: The FDA scientific advisory committee on tobacco formed an opinion about whether menthol in cigarettes causes disease. Notwithstanding the criticisms of the committee for their political biases, they seem to have gotten the answer right. But they annoyed some commentators by not stating their opinion about whether menthol should be banned. However, they get credit for getting that bit right too. After laying out the costs and benefits as best they could, their opinion about what to do would add no further information. Perhaps they are a dozen of the ten thousand people in the world who have done the most intelligent, insightful, and educated thinking about the question, but they are certainly nothing more.
Additionally, the conclusions sections of research papers act quite similarly. Insofar as the conclusions relate to interpreting the results themselves, they have a bit of value. Just a bit though – I have a friend who has done lots of systematic reviews, and he told me he never once paid any attention at all to what the authors concluded that their results meant. The authors' opinion about what we should think about the world, let alone should do, is worth about as much as a Twitter post. An analytic paper that argues or analyzes how to think about a normative question can come to legitimate conclusions about how the world is or what should be done. But adding such a conclusion to the statistical analysis of one dataset provide no more backing or context than a tweet. And yet it is that tweet that is typically featured in the news reports about the study, panel, or whatever.
The Onion story is funny because of all the popular human endeavors, masturbatory fantasies might be the one that is least vulnerable to control by Big Brother. Even people in Saudi, Zimbabwe, or Bhutan can think about puppies if they really want to (though we can still hope that none of them actually do). But the concept of having a panel deciding about allowable fantasies is remarkably similar to a committee deciding whether smoking or addiction is officially a disease, or how many weeks of gestation makes inducing abortion unethical, or whether there is such thing as autism spectrum disorder. These can be legal questions, so some legal rule might be needed for practical purposes, but these are not factual questions, and so the right to have an opinion is not removed due to the pronouncement of an panel. The panel's opinion is no more immune to counter-argument than anyone else's opinion, and obviously should never be cited as anything more than the opinion of a short list of fallible humans.
Finally, to end with a bit of a plot twist, I am going to offer a one paragraph argument that not everyone is really entitled to their own opinion. Everyone gets a vote – that is a practical matter of law. But if there actually is a body of scientific evidence and a careful analysis about how to think about the ethical aspects for some question, then you really should understand those before forming an opinion. Failing that, you are not entitled to the opinion. It is not ok to say "we should ban all public smoking" because you believe that passing exposure to second-hand smoke is substantially harmful (which would be a case of having your facts wrong) and because you have a vague notion that it endorses immoral behavior (though you have no idea what that even means and have never considered a careful analysis of the point). You have the opinion, but it is not worth any more than your opinion about how to build a particle accelerator or the when humans first settled Hawaii, and your "entitlement" is rather shaky. While you may have the legal right to espouse and even promote that opinion, you are on very shaky moral ground in doing so.