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Proximity and Plausibility
Why do people behave contrary to their beliefs?
Why do self-described pro-life people still get abortions? Freddie Deboer’s recent piece isn’t interested as much in answering this question as simply pointing out the fact that there are, indeed, people who do this. Freddie observes that abortion rights are a “revealed preference,” meaning how people actually behave in the marketplace—i.e., what they consume/buy/obtain for themselves—is a more accurate indicator of who they are than their stated political views.
He’s right about this. Freddie makes this observation in the context of celebrating legal abortion, but the same point is made by Christian professor David Ayers in his recent book After the Revolution: Sex and the Single Evangelical. The entire book is a compendium of research showing how American evangelicals say they believe sex is sacred, meant only for marriage, but behave as if they don’t. In fact, in the introduction, Ayers mentions that when he was teaching at a small fundamentalist school, he was told by the director of a local crisis pregnancy center that several students from the school had recently visited the center but decided to get abortions.
So here’s the question: When people who engage in pro-life activism, sign student covenants, and assent to traditional Christian teachings have premarital sex and get abortions, are they proving that they really don’t believe that? Certainly this is possible. There are lots of reasons why someone would feign certain convictions; pressure to conform, wanting approval from parents, etc. Absolutely, that happens. But I think Freddie’s concept of the “revealed preference” is insightful here. I wonder if in many cases, these people really do believe that abstinence until marriage is best and that unborn babies are human persons. But these convictions are connected to thick plausibility structures which can get suddenly, and forcefully, challenged. And the further away a person finds themselves from that conviction’s plausibility structure, the less likely they are to actually make life harder or less pleasureable for themselves for the sake of it.
Abortion makes this very obvious. As Freddie points out, a pro-life woman who gets an abortion will almost certainly reason that her particular situation is exceptional. She might even admit that it’s wrong. But the alternative to the abortion is so unthinkable, so impossible to contemplate, that she simply absorbs the moral offense. What is that alternative? Having a baby. Thus, for some who ascribe to pro-life worldview, the plausibility structure of their convictions is life without an unprepared-for child. When that structure fades, the conviction doesn’t go away, it just feels much further away.
Same thing with premarital sex. There is obviously a big difference between saying you are waiting for marriage when you live at home, have no car, and little realistic opportunity to sleep with somebody. Thus, the plausibility structure of sexual abstinence could be life without an urgent sense of desire and/or opportunity. In a college dorm, this plausibility structure disappears. Again, it’s not that the person stops believing something, or that they never actually believed it in the first place. It’s that putting conviction up against a hot and heavy moment of desire and opportunity is, for the vast majority of people, an unfair fight. It’s not about what they believe; it’s about what they prefer.
For a couple years now I’ve been fleshing out the idea that proximity creates plausibility. In other words, the place you’re at, the moment you inhabit, the people and words and objects around you—these are all live wires jolting your soul. People are not robots whose convictions are uploaded into their motherboards from age 0 to 18, who then go through life pre-programmed. Rather, human nature is constantly responsive to our situations. We believe, but we also feel, and these feelings are deeply contextual and in turn shape our beliefs. Behaviors can make more sense to us the more we watch them, the more we give our attention to them. Ideas can commend themselves to us the more time we spend contemplating them—actually, the more time we spend around them.
The key text for this idea is Proverbs 7. Have you ever wondered why Solomon goes out of his way to describe in great detail the encounter between a foolish dude and an adulterous woman? It seems at first glance that Solomon takes a long time to tell a very simple story. But I think Solomon belabors the details—the time of day the boy goes by her house, what she’s wearing, and what she says—because he wants us to feel just how powerful this moment is. Every aspect of this interaction builds up a plausibility structure of illicit desire, to the point that not even the boy’s best logic can resist. For Solomon, the lesson is clear. He concludes not with, “Resist her charms” or “counter her lies,” but: “Do not stray into her paths.”
I’m sure many people will read this and think, “Well that’s 15 minutes of my life I can’t get back.” All of this may sound very obvious to you. But let me push back on that for a minute. In the age of the Internet, how obvious is the relationship between proximity and plausibility? How intuitive is it actually? I don’t think it’s intuitive at all. I think the digital age has made this concept deeply counter-intuitive. All of us feel in control of our input. All of us feel in command of our virtual worlds. And yet all of us have instantaneous, un-filtered, completely private access to every single behavior, idea, or identity imaginable. Everything, all of the time. We literally inhabit a digital universe that possesses the power, every second of the day, to conjure up any image, any scenario, any how-to, any bigotry, any kink, any manifesto, any truth-claim…..anything we want. “Desensitized” is too small a word for our imaginations in the computer age. We are constantly on the precipice of human (and nonhuman) imagination, every, single, day.
Let us grant that proximity creates plausibility. Let us also grant that the modern, 5G-connected person is proximate to just about anything, from violent pornography to kinism to “how to make a bomb.” What kind of plausibility structure is arising out of this? Just how far out are the limits of our conscience expanding? And why don’t we seem to talk about this more?
Any framework for Christian witness in the 21st century—much less any framework for political theology or the wielding of power—must account for this. Any framework that doesn’t cannot comprehend the modern situation.