New Podcast Episode: Margaret Sanger in the San Francisco Bay Area, California

Scottish Rite Temple mosaic, above the doorway of what’s now the Regency Center, San Francisco

Listen to this podcast episode here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

Fairly early on in my research for my history of ideas series on Margaret Sanger in New York City, I discover that she delivered one of her more famous addresses here in Oakland. Practically just around the corner from where I live, in fact!

So I’ve long had the idea of doing a follow-up Sanger project here in the San Francisco Bay Area, certain I’d find she’s been here more than once. That turns out to be the case. And not only do I discover that she visited here several times, I find that the excellent library at the University of California at Berkeley has some great resources for filling in some gaps in my information about Sanger in NYC. So, this story will have two parts: the first part is about sites associated with Sanger here, and the second part is about some discoveries I make in U.C. Berkeley’s archives following up on two NYC sites… Read the written version here

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Margaret Sanger in the San Francisco Bay Area, California

Scottish Rite Masonic Temple mosaic, above the doorway of what’s now the Regency Center, San Francisco

Fairly early on in my research for my history of ideas series on Margaret Sanger in New York City, I discover that she delivered one of her more famous addresses here in Oakland. Practically just around the corner from where I live, in fact!

So I’ve long had the idea of doing a follow-up Sanger project here in the San Francisco Bay Area, certain I’d find she’s been here more than once. That turns out to be the case. And not only do I discover that she visited here several times, I find that the excellent library at the University of California at Berkeley has some great resources for filling in some gaps in my information about Sanger in NYC. So, this story will have two parts: the first part is about sites associated with Sanger here, and the second part is about some discoveries I make in U.C. Berkeley’s archives following up on two NYC sites.

Scottish Rite Masonic Temple, now the Regency Center, at Sutter and Van Ness in San Francisco, CA

Stairway and elevator at the Regency Center, formerly the Scottish Rite Temple at Sutter and Van Ness, San Francisco

I: Sanger in Oakland and San Francisco

Friday, March 31st, 2017

I head first to San Francisco, a quick and easy trip on BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit System, our subway/ell) across the Bay, and take a pleasant walk on this spring day from Montgomery Street station east, first along Post through Union Square, then on Sutter. December 16th, 1928, Sanger spoke at the Scottish Rite Hall in San Francisco, at Sutter and Van Ness. The Scottish Rite Masonic Temple moved into its new quarters in the early 1960’s, and this building became the Regency Center, a multi-purpose venue. In fact, I was here just a few years ago when I saw John Cale, one of my very favorite musical artists of all time, perform in the ballroom, but Sanger likely spoke in the Social Hall. It’s also likely she delivered more or less the same speech she delivered at Oakland Civic Auditorium three days later, the story of that speech will follow below. Perhaps the speeches and corrections she scribbled onto the speech, which I link to here, constitute the differences between her addresses at the San Francisco and Oakland venues.

Small upper room in the Scottish Rite Temple, now the Regency Center, San Francisco

I write to people who manage and organize events at the Regency Center but am unable to line up a day to meet soon that will work with all of our schedules.

But since I have this free afternoon on a glorious spring day, I head over anyway, in case I luck out and end up there at a good time. Turns out, the very helpful man I find here, who’s in charge of setting up events, regretfully tells me there’s just too much going on for me to head upstairs and poke around to the rooms where she may have spoken; various contemporary sources designate the venue as the Scottish Rite ‘Hall’ and ‘Auditorium’, so the exact site is unclear. So I take photos in the places he allows me to wander: the hallway, the main stairway, and a meeting room just off the main landing now converted into a small bar.

About 22 years earlier, in August of 1916, Sanger wrote to her friends Charles and Bessie Drysdale, ‘In San Francisco [on a birth control lecture tour] I had a collapse, and was three days in bed under medical care, but recovered sufficiently to hold six meetings.’ As you may recall, Sanger suffered from recurrent tubercular infections, and from time to time they made her quite ill and exhausted. I have yet to find a record of specific locations she visited or stayed in San Francisco on that trip. Sanger didn’t mention her time in Oakland in this letter, though she may have meant to include the greater Bay Area when she said ‘San Francisco’, as visitors often do. Since she delivered her Oakland speech only three days after this San Francisco tour, this may have been one of the six meetings she spoke of.

So I return to Oakland to follow in Sanger’s footsteps there.

Margaret Sanger Hotel Oakland appearance, Oakland Tribune, Thu Jun 15, 1916, evening edition, front page. For the full article, click here. The drawing looks nothing like Sanger, and what’s up with the silhouette of celery? Yes, I know it’s meant to be a vase…

Hotel Oakland Ballroom, vintage postcard via Hotel Oakland Village website

On June 15, 1916, Sanger gave a speech in the ballroom of the Hotel Oakland at 270 13th St. I don’t find a transcript of this speech, but I do find a newspaper article about this event, which includes a summary of its main points as well as a review. The speech was well received by the audience, according to Gene Baker, writing for the Oakland Tribune. He compared Sanger favorably to Emma Goldman, Sanger’s one-time friend and ally from whom, truth be told, Sanger co-opted the mantle of birth control advocate-in-chief. As Baker commented in his article, Sanger was much more traditionally ‘feminine’ than Goldman in appearance, ‘slight’ and prettily dressed. Sanger was both a committed sex-positivist and a straight woman and saw no contradictions between her feminist convictions and in making herself attractive to men. Baker also described Sanger as speaking with intensity (which indicates she was feeling better since her collapse in San Francisco) and with scientific coldness. Perhaps she did convey a sense of scientific detachment, given her habit of buttressing her calls for action with a barrage of facts and statistics, or perhaps he perceived her keen grasp of the issues and her memory for detail as unfeminine and therefore ‘cold.’

Baker also wrote of her outspoken opposition to Theodore Roosevelt’s beliefs about childbearing in this speech; she frequently published rebukes and rebuttals to the President’s public stances against birth control and in favor of large families. (Baker mentioned that she spoke out against Roosevelt in San Francisco as well.) Both Sanger and Roosevelt were eugenicists but of different types: Sanger believed in negative eugenics, in curing human ills through having less children, especially if the parents were ill, disabled, or too poor to bring up well-nourished, well-educated, and well-housed children, and Roosevelt believed in positive eugenics, improving the human race through intelligent and hardworking people having as many children as possible.

Hotel Oakland, now Hotel Oakland Village senior citizen community

 

Hotel Oakland Village main lounge, Oakland, CA

Hotel Oakland, vintage postcard via Hotel Oakland Village website

Hotel Oakland Historical Plaque, Oakland, CA

The Hotel Oakland, which opened as a luxury hotel on December 23rd, 1912, is now a senior community residence. Its grand edifice is little changed, but its garden is no longer so sumptuous and much of its interior is much plainer, having been stripped of its chandeliers and fancy furniture and painted plain white, though the lounge ceiling is painted a lovely antique-gold color. I sign in at the desk and walk around the first floor, greeting each person I see with a hello, a smile, and a nod, everyone is friendly and welcoming, and no one questions my presence. I take photos freely on the ground floor except in the large back room converted into an activity and physical therapy area, which, it so happens, appears to be the former ballroom I seek. I ask the person who works there if I may take pictures; she’s a Spanish speaker, and I ask in that language (unforgivably clumsily, given that I’m a California native and I should be more adept) if I may take pictures. She explains that the person that could authorize this won’t be back in until Monday, so I depart. As much as I am historically nosy, I make it my practice never to infringe on the territory of working people. They have enough to worry about without wondering if they could get in trouble on my behalf.

I do, however, take photos of the front lobby, in full view of everyone there who appears not the least concerned with my presence except to return my smile when they happen to catch my eye. Most of the residents are Chinese. This is no surprise since the Hotel Oakland Village, as it’s now named, borders Chinatown, and like the neighborhood in general, it is family-oriented, with visitors of all ages coming and going, often taking the elderly residents for local outings, such infirmities as they have lovingly supported by wheelchairs, walkers, arms, and hands. The parks in this neighborhood often contain large groups, sometimes very large, of older people going through the graceful, slow, deliberate movements of Tai Chi. It’s likely they include many of the residents of this hotel. The sight of these people, something like colorful wildflowers waving in the wind, something like windmills if windmills were endowed with personalities, intention, and rich history and could move deliberately to music, warms my heart on my morning walks.

Oakland’s Chinatown at the time of the Hotel Oakland’s heyday; many of these old houses stand today. This photo is on the wall of the Oakland Hotel Village main hallway

Margaret Sanger Speeches, Announcement for Oakland and S.F, in the Oakland Tribune, Sun Dec 16, 1928

Margaret Sanger Speeches, Announcement for Oakland and S.F, in the Oakland Tribune, Sun Dec 16, 1928

Next, I visit the Oakland Civic Auditorium, later called the Kaiser Convention Center, also just a few blocks from my house, near Lake Merritt. On December 19th, 1928, Sanger delivered the speech ‘The Necessity for Birth Control‘ here. It was a least as dedicated to eugenics-based arguments about the ill effects of ‘feeble-minded’, ill, disabled, and poor people having children to whom they passed down these traits and which they could not care for properly, as it was about preventing suffering.

The eugenics arguments and opinions she used in this speech are hard to take now, just as they were for many then. Yet to be fair to Sanger, we must remember that her arguments were informed by her experiences working as a visiting nurse in the slums where the poorest of the working poor lived in NYC, where the best efforts of public charities often seemed to hardly make a dent in relieving suffering, especially when, as Sanger believed, so much of it was preventable:

In her speech, Sanger said:

To define Birth Control, we say it is the conscious control of the birth-rate by scientific means that prevent the conception of human life. Prevent, remember. Prevent does not mean to interfere. It does not mean to destroy. There is no more interference with life through birth control than there is to remain unmarried or to live a celibate life. We also say “to control.” Control does not mean that you limit. When you control your furnace you do not have to put the fire out. When you control your motor you do not necessarily stop your car. To control the birth rate means that there shall be the same right for those who do not wish to have children as for those who do wish to have them. There are no objections to those who wish to increase the size of their families, but on the other side there seems to be a great deal of question and controversy as to the right of those who wish to limit or control the number of their children. ~ Margaret Sanger, ‘The Necessity for Birth Control’

Booklet for the Oakland Civic Auditorium and Opera House, now Kaiser Convention Center, Oakland Public Library

Oakland Civic Auditorium as it appears today

The Oakland Civic Auditorium had stood for 14 years when Sanger spoke here in 1928 and she had become very well known indeed in the dozen intervening years since she spoke at the Hotel Oakland. The Auditorium is a huge venue, as we can see in historical photos: it held Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and the Barnum and Bailey circus, symphony orchestras, and other large-scale entertainments. The history of this place is wonderful, with so many other amazing activists, artists, speakers, and performers appearing here over the years: Isadora Duncan, Duke Ellington, Marian Anderson, Paul Robeson, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Martin Luther King, Jr, the Grateful Dead… It’s no longer in use, standing empty since just before the turn of this century, but I hope this beautiful Beaux-Arts edifice is reclaimed, restored, and put to as good a use as it once was.

Buffalo Bill Wild West Show at the Oakland Civic Auditorium, photo from booklet at Oakland Public Library

II: More About Sanger in NYC at U.C. Berkeley’s Doe Memorial Library

Research & photos: gathered on various dates from November 2016 to March 2017

And now, here’s my follow-up on two sites associated with Sanger in NYC:

Margaret Sanger Letter to Noah Slee on Barclay Hotel Stationery, excerpt, from the Sophia Smith Microfilm Collection

From Day 1, Part 3‘I track down a listing in the Margaret Sanger Papers Microfilm Edition: Smith College Collection Series catalog for a microfilm of a letter Sanger received from the Barclay hotel, but I don’t have access to it at the moment. It’s not available online and I’ve not yet had a chance to visit the library at the University of California at Berkeley, which has a copy’

I finally get around to tracking down the microfilm collection, stored deep in the archives at the Doe Memorial Library at U.C. Berkeley, with the assistance of the ever- kind and helpful Nancy Oanh Tran. In looking through the microfilms of documents dated around the time of Sanger’s stay at the Barclay Hotel, I find a phone message for Sanger and many chatty letters to her husband Noah Slee written on Barclay Hotel stationery. The letters discussed visits to and from friends, a visit from her son Grant, how much less pleasant it was to drive a car in New York City than in Tucson, how disorganized she was, and so on. Most of the contents of these letters are of little interest to anyone outside of their relationship, their circle of friends, and of course, dedicated historians, except, I think, for one thing: she begs him not to join her in New York City, and not to ask her to leave her work there yet. In her second marriage, she demanded the freedom she wanted that she did not find enough of in her first, and she got it through endearments, compliments, even sappiness, so that Noah would feel loved and not abandoned; through cajoling; through explanations and arguments about the importance of her work and her need to do it unimpeded; and even through what reads to me like a guilt trip.

o I American Eugenics Society journal, Doe Memorial Library at U.C. Berkeley

From Day 2, Part 2: ‘According to Robin Pokorski’s Mapping Margaret Sanger, ‘The Hotel Astor was the site of the National Birth Control Conference of November 19 and 20, 1929. The conference was sponsored by the American Birth Control League.’ I find few contemporary references online to the talks and attendees of this conference other than a few remarks in some contemporary newspapers and a brief excerpt from Eugenics: A Journal of Race Betterment, Volumes 3-4, 1930, published by the American Eugenics Society. An article from The Capital Times of Madison, Wisconsin outlines some of the topics of discussion, such as the Comstock laws and the current science of reproduction, and lists some of the headliners of the conference, which include ‘famous educators, doctors, and pastors.’ ‘

In doing further research, I find there’s a copy of the American Eugenics Society journal also in the collections of U.C. Berkeley’s Doe Memorial Library.

Mary Louise Inman, who wrote an account of and commentary on the meeting for the Eugenics Journal, wrote:

‘Most of our adult generation can remember when [the birth control movement] was chiefly characterized by determined looking ladies selling The Birth Control Review on metropolitan street corners, Margaret Sanger being held up for her propaganda, and a general feeling in the lay breast that the whole thing was not quite respectable.

Here we see before our eyes the evolution of an idea. That the movement has undergone a decided moral, social, and intellectual transformation is evidenced by the presence on the speaker’s platform of some of our foremost religious leaders, together with eminent writers, physicians, educators and scientists, as well as other professional and non-professional men and women of the highest social standing.’ ~ Inman, Eugenics, Jan 3oth ed, p 12

As I read further, I take notes. They go:

National Birth Control article for Eugenics journal by Mary Inman, 1930

‘In his speech, one Dr. E. Bord Barrett, a former Jesuit and still a practicing Catholic, held out hope that the Church would be flexible and adaptable on the birth control issue. He was a believer in the social benefits of birth control, and based his hope on the fact that so many Catholics used birth control, that Church-mandated celibacy for priests and others indicated that the Church recognized it was not always in the best interests of individuals and communities for everyone to have children, and that the Church blessed marriages of couples who could not have children.

Dr. Hannah Stone, director of the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau and Sanger’s long-time colleague who was arrested in the raids on the W. 15th Street clinic, was among the speakers, but her talk was not recorded or described in Inman’s article.

Ministers and rabbis voiced their support for birth control on humanitarian and personal responsibility grounds.

The second day of the conference was dedicated to issues related to eugenics. They discussed the questions of whether it was desirable to ‘breed geniuses at will’, if it could be done at all; who would be qualified to decide what are ‘desirable’ human traits and types beyond those which impart health and the ability to take care of ones’ self; whether ‘spiritual values’ should be brought to bear on the issues, and much more.

Albert Edward Wiggam, worried that birth control might exacerbate a differential birth rate between those who are prudent, far-sighted, intelligent and self-controlled enough to be more likely to use birth control, and those who conceive and bear children thoughtlessly. He believed these traits were largely transmissible, predicting the likely behavior of the next generation. To counteract this problem, Wiggam believed that birth control needed to be universally and readily available as well as easy to use.’

Margaret Sanger, from Eugenics journal, Doe Memorial Library at U.C. Berkeley

The article ends by noting that Margaret Sanger could not attend the conference, which surprises me! Instead, she sent a telegram which was read to the attendees since her attendance was sorely missed given her role as a founder of the movement and the most important activist of her time for women’s rights, since the suffragists. Inman predicted that birth control would become as readily accepted in society as women’s right to vote, however controversial its past. She was mostly right. Though many Americans are uncomfortable with publicly funding birth control since we believe so firmly in the right to religious dissent, most Americans actually do use birth control, at least at some point in their lives. And as Sanger hoped, it has become readily available, easy to use, mostly every cheap, and all very safe. And she played a very significant role in bringing this about.

Thank you, Margaret Sanger.

Listen to the podcast version here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

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Sources and Inspiration:

Duchsherer, Aimee. ‘Better Babies or More Babies?: Theodore Roosevelt, Margaret Sanger, and the Birth Control Movement‘. July 16, 2015, Theodore Roosevelt Center at Dickenson State University blog.

The Hotel Oakland Village website: ‘History: Grand Hotel‘ and ‘Historical Photos

Inman, Mary Louise. ‘The National Birth Control Conference’ from Eugenics: A Journal of Race Betterment, Volumes 3-4, January 1930, pp 12-17.

Kaiser Convention Center‘. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

The Margaret Sanger Papers Electronic Edition: Margaret Sanger and The Woman Rebel, 1914-1916, eds. Esther Katz, Cathy Moran Hajo and Peter Engelman (Columbia, S.C.: Model Editions Partnership, 1999)

The Margaret Sanger Papers Microfilm Edition: Smith College Collection, eds. Esther Katz, Cathy Moran Hajo, Peter Engelman, and Anke Vass Hubbard, 1996. #Microfilm 77685 , S15:0042. Reel S15: May 1938 – Nov 1938

Brochure for the Kaiser Center, one the old Oakland Civic Auditorium, Oakland Library collection

 

‘The Regency Ballroom: About‘, from their website

The Regency Center‘. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

Regency Center: Venue Overview: History‘, from their website

Sanger, Margaret. ‘A “Birth Control” Lecture Tour‘, Aug 9, 1916. Published article: Malthusian, Sept. 1916, 83-84. (Sanger’s letter to Charles and Bessie Drysdale published as an article)

Sanger, Margaret. ‘The Necessity for Birth Control,’ Dec 19, 1928. Typed Draft Speech. Source: Margaret Sanger Papers, Library of Congress, Library of Congress Microfilm 130:0226

Social Hall SF: Venue Info‘, from their website (part of the Regency Center)

Tillmany, Jack. ‘Regency I: 1320 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94109‘. Cinema Treasures website

Margaret Sanger NYC Sites, Day 3 Part 1

Margaret Sanger with Fania Mindell inside Brownsville clinic, forerunner of Palanned Parenthood, Oct. 1916, public domain via Library of Congress

Margaret Sanger with Fania Mindell inside Brownsville clinic, forerunner of Planned Parenthood, Oct. 1916

Thursday, October 20th, 2016

I get out in decent time to start the day’s explorations, just after eight, but it’s not long before I realize I’m tired and hence, a little cranky. My friends and I watched the third Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump debate last night and some of the commentary which followed, then finally went to sleep very late after we talked about what we just watched, and other things. I’m mostly on New York time now, but not quite.

The abortion issue came up almost immediately in the debate since the first question from the moderator was about the Supreme Court and the appointment of justices. Trump pledged to nominate only strongly anti-abortion candidates. Clinton was adamant that Roe v. Wade and laws protecting women’s access to birth control and abortion (with appropriate limitations) be upheld. Clinton also strongly endorsed Planned Parenthood, praising the services it provides and criticizing all efforts to defund it. I, for one, am grateful to Planned Parenthood, the organization that Margaret Sanger founded. Like the women Sanger made it her mission to help, I needed health care that I could not yet afford when I was still in my late teens and early twenties. I found it at Planned Parenthood. I’m grateful to the warm and caring providers there, and I simply did not find what many of the organization’s opponents describe: a ruthlessly pro-abortion, anti-life organization. Instead, I met women who gave me wise and medically-correct advice on all aspects of women’s health, including ways to prevent the need for abortion. That’s entirely in keeping with Sanger’s mission. She was, in fact, anti-abortion, with certain qualifications.

201 and 207 E 57th St, Manhattan NYC, former site of Bandbox Theater, 2016 Amy Cools

201 and 207 E 57th St, Manhattan NYC, former site of the Bandbox Theatre

Adolph Phillip's Fifty-Seventh Street Theater, later the Bandbox Theater, courtesy of Schubert Archives

Adolph Phillip’s Fifty-Seventh Street Theater, later the Bandbox Theater, courtesy of Schubert Archives

I plan to head all the way to White Plains today, but as I’m preparing to buy the ticket at Grand Central Station, I pause to reconsider my day’s plans. In the end, I decide to put the trip on hold: it wouldn’t put my funds and time to best use since I was unable to discover the White Plains site location I sought at the New York Public Library yesterday. I’ll see if I’m more successful when I do more research tonight and perhaps go tomorrow. Instead, I decide to cover the northernmost Manhattan sites on my list after I hit up a few near the southwest end of Central Park that I didn’t get to yesterday.

I walk north towards Central Park and then east, and stop first at 205 E. 57th St near 3rd Ave where the Bandbox Theatre used to stand. Originally named Adolf Philipp’s Fifty-Seventh Street Theatre, the theater that became the Bandbox was built in 1912, closed in 1926, and demolished in 1969. Now there’s a Design Within Reach store and a high rise apartment building here.

On Feb 20th, 1916, Sanger and her supporters held a victory celebration at the Bandbox Theatre. The court had just dismissed the obscenity charges against her for publishing The Woman Rebel that had caused her to flee to Europe the year beforeWhile she was away, many papers had begun to discuss birth control and sex a little more openly, and as you may remember, her daughter had just died suddenly the previous November, soon after Sanger’s return from Europe. Public opinion was swinging to Sanger’s side, and the court no longer had the appetite to pursue a case against her. What had once seemed a public defense against immorality would more likely be perceived as an attack on free speech and emerging modern, scientific attitudes about human sexuality. Even without the court case, however, the arrest and indictments proved an enormous boost to Sanger’s cause. She was portrayed, by herself as well as others, as a sort of free speech and humanitarian martyr, a persecuted champion of the cause of women, especially the poorest and most downtrodden.

14 E 60th Street, with the green awning, NYC, photo 2016 Amy Cools.JPG

14 E. 60th Street, Manhattan, New York City

Then I head northwest to 14 E. 60th St between 5th and Madison Aves. It’s a 13-floor building erected in 1903. Two restaurants, Rotisserie Georgette and Avra Madison Estiatorio, occupy the ground floor, and apartments above. Sanger had been staying at the Ambassador Hotel but moved to one of the apartments at this address on December 17, 1936. Her move here followed on the heels of the birth control movement’s victory in the Dec 7th decision in the One Package case, and not long before Sanger attended the Conference on Contraceptive Research and Clinical Practice that met at the Roosevelt Hotel which, as you may remember, I visited on my first day following Sanger here in New York City.

1935 and 1936 were busy years for Sanger. In addition to the One Package trial, she toured India, speaking to women’s groups and conferences and debating Gandhi there in December of 1935. She continued on to Hong King, then Japan. In Japan, she visited Tokyo’s fledgling birth control clinic founded by her Japanese counterpart Shidzue Ishimoto, and reviewed birth control methods that had been developed in that country since her 1922 visit. While the birth control movement was also beleaguered in that country by law and custom, many Japanese health care professionals were working on new and effective methods of birth control in that island nation where population growth was a constant and pressing concern. In 1932, she had met a Japanese physician at a birth control conference who had developed a new type of diaphragm. He had sent her that package which was intercepted in customs and led to the One Package case finally litigated three years later. She planned to continue her travels in China and Malaysia but had to cut her trip short due to recurring gallbladder trouble, then a broken arm. She stopped for a short visit in Hawaii, then returned to mainland U.S. to rest and recuperate.

The Plaza Hotel, Manhattan, New York City, photo 2016 by Amy Cools

The Plaza Hotel, Manhattan, New York City

I head west towards Central Park then veer south towards its southeast corner to 768 Fifth Ave at 59th St. Three occasions bring me here to the grand Plaza Hotel.

On March 15th, 1917, the National Birth Control League held a luncheon for her here in celebration of her release from Queens County Penitentiary. She had been imprisoned there for 30 days, convicted of violating anti-obscenity laws while operating her birth control clinic in Brownsville, Brooklyn.

Then from November 11th – 13th, 1921, the First American Birth Control Conference, organized by Sanger, was held here. The conference was widely attended by medical professionals, social scientists, humanitarians, authors, suffragists, socialists, and socialites. Its list of sponsors was likewise distinguished, including famed Parliamentarian and future Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Sanger gave the opening address, in which she called on the medical profession to join social workers and birth control activists in addressing the sexual dimensions of problems of hunger, poverty, and overpopulation. As she often pointed out, there were plenty of people working hard to alleviate poverty and disease, but there were very few paying attention to their primary root causes: the human need for love and sex. This was the conference which launched the future Planned Parenthood and concluded with the Town Hall event which turned into a police raid. Between the conference and the publicity following the raid, Sanger was firmly placed as the United States’, and indeed the world’s, preeminent birth control activist and spokesperson.

An interior view of the beautiful Plaza Hotel, Manhattan, NYC, 2016 Amy Cools

An interior view of the beautiful Plaza Hotel, Manhattan, NYC

Several years later, on February 26th, 1929, Sanger presided over a dinner promoting the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau. In her opening speech, Sanger outlined the history of her own birth control activism and the struggles and legal battles of the birth control movement in the United States from 1915 until that day. She also credited John Stuart Mill and Francis Place as founders of the modern birth control movement, about a century before her own activism began. Like Sanger, Mill was moved to support birth control by personal horror at the worst effects of children conceived in poverty: at age 17, he came across the corpse of a strangled infant discarded in a park. And like Sanger, Mill believed that when the poor had more children to help make money for the family, wages were inevitably driven down by the glut of laborers seeking employment, leading to a downward spiral of impoverishment and immiseration. So in 1823, young Mill and a friend distributed birth control pamphlets written by his father’s friend and social reformer Francis Place, and were arrested and imprisoned for their trouble.

The Park Lane Hotel and adjoining buildings, Manhattan, New York City, 2016 Amy Cools

The Park Lane Hotel (with the blue flags) and adjoining buildings

I walk a little ways west along the southern end of Central Park to 36 Central Park South, a.k.a. 59th St. Here at the Park Lane Hotel, Sanger delivered her speech ‘My Way to Peace’ to the New History Society on January 17, 1932. In my view, it’s a nasty speech. While Sanger generally insisted that birth control be entirely voluntary, the result of education and the right of women to have control over their own bodies, in this speech she called for coercive sterilization of ‘the unfit’. As Nazism was developed and implemented in the years to come, Sanger opposed it staunchly, sharply criticizing its racial doctrines and opposing its coercive practices. Though she justified it on the grounds of improving public health and decreasing mortality rates, to my mind she was never able to sufficiently explain how her earlier call in ‘My Way to Peace’ for coercive sterilization of ‘mental defectives’, people with certain diseases, and convicted criminals was morally superior to Hitler’s fascist system when it came to these unfortunate and marginalized groups.

New York Tribune Fri Nov 18 1921, Park Theater Cox Speech

New York Tribune, Fri Nov 18 1921, Announcement of Park Theater Margaret Sanger and Harold Cox appearance

One place I miss on this trip is the former site of the nearby Park Theater, near the southwest corner of Central Park, where Harold Cox delivered the Sanger speech he was prevented from making at the Town Hall five days earlier. A New York Tribune announcement describes the location as ‘Columbus Circle near 59th and B’way’ (Broadway). As I consult the 1923 Bromley atlas I’ve been consulting for much of this series, I don’t find the Park Theater. Later, I search through an earlier edition of the Bromley Atlas and this time, I’m in luck. The Park Theater, renamed the Cosmopolitan Theater by 1923, was on 58th St, the second address to the west of Eighth Ave, its northeast corner at Columbus Circle at the southwest edge of Central Park. It stood where the Time Warner Center now faces onto 58th St, about where Google Maps identifies 322 W. 58th St.

In 1944, Sanger reminisced:

‘…Birth control, fifteen, twenty years ago was a lurid and sensational topic… The very term was one not mentioned in polite society, thanks to Anthony Comstock who had Congress classify it with “obscene, and filthy literature”… Our struggles lacked the dignity they have today. Back in 1921, Harold Cox, brilliant member of the English Parliament and Editor of the Edinburgh Review was to speak with me at that early forum of free speech, Town Hall. Our subject was “Birth Control: Is it Moral?”

Entrance of the Park Theater, formerly the Majestic, Columbus Circle, 59th St, NY, courtesy of MCNY

Entrance of the Park Theater, formerly the Majestic, at Columbus Circle, photo courtesy of MCNY

With astonishing directness Roman Catholic Archbishop Patrick J. Hayes, through his emissary Monsignor Joseph P. Dineen, closed the meeting before it even opened. We had grown accustomed to opposition, from the combination of the Comstock group …with the Roman Catholic hierarchy, but never had the interference been so brutally direct before. Time and again theatres, ballrooms where I was to speak were ordered closed before the meeting could be held. In city after city this occurred during the years 1916, ‘17 and ‘18, but the climax was the now famous Town Hall incident which raised the issue throughout the country. Can one in public office use the power of that office to further his personal religious beliefs?

Mr. Cox and I were met at the steps of the Town Hall that evening by policemen, barred from entering and told, “There ain’t gonna be no meeting. That’s all I know…

We had the hierarchy to thank for so publicizing our meeting that the second held shortly after, at the big Park Theatre in Columbus Circle was packed fifteen minutes after a single door was opened. Two thousand people, many of whom had never heard of birth control before Cardinal Hayes gave it nation-wide publicity, stood outside clamoring to get in…”

I descend into the subway station at Columbus Circle and take the A train north, almost to the top of Manhattan Island. There are many sites on my list from Inglewood all the way back down to the southern end of Central Park, so I decide to visit them from north to south…

To be continued….

*Listen to the podcast version here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

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Sources and inspiration: 

14 East 60th Street‘, from 42Floors website

About Sanger: Biographical Sketch‘, from The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at New York University.

Another Look at Margaret Sanger and Race‘, Feb 23, 2012. From The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at NYU

Bandbox Theatre: East 57th Street near Third Avenue, New York, NY‘, International Broadway Database

Blake, Aaron. ‘The Final Trump-Clinton Debate Transcript, Annotated.’ Oct 19, 2016, The Washington Post: The Fix

Bromley, G.W. and Co. Atlas of the Borough of Manhattan, City of New York. Desk and Library edition, 1916, Plate 87 . Retrieved from Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division Digital Collection, The New York Public Library.

Bromley, G.W. and Co. Atlas of the City of New York, 1921 – 1923, Plate 82 and Plate 87. Retrieved from Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division Digital Collection, The New York Public Library.

Chesler, Ellen. Woman of Valor: Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992

Eig, Jonathan. The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2014.

Gopnik, Adam. ‘Right Again: The Passions of John Stuart Mill‘. Oct 6 2008, The New Yorker

Grimaldi, Jill. ‘The First American Birth Control Conference‘, Nov 12, 2010. The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at NYU

Guillin, Vincent. Auguste Comte and John Stuart Mill on Sexual Equality. Brill: Boston, 2009.

International Theatre: 5 Columbus Circle (W. 58th & 59th), New York, NY‘, International Broadway Database

Mrs. Sanger Glad She Was Indicted‘, New York Tribune, Feb. 21, 1916, p. 2, via The Margaret Sanger Papers Project, NYU

New-York Tribune, two selections from Nov 18, 1921, page 11: ‘Birth Control Appeal Fails to Move Enright‘ and ‘You Are Invited to Hear Margaret Sanger… New York, New York. Via Newspapers.com

On the Road with Birth Control‘, Newsletter #21 (Spring 1999) of The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at NYU

Pokorski, Robin. ‘Mapping Margaret Sanger‘ from The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at NYU

Regan, Margaret. ‘Margaret Sanger: Tucson’s Irish Rebel.Tucson Weekly, Mar 11, 2004.

Sanger, Margaret. ‘Birth Control: Then and Now,’ 1944, Typed Article. Source: Margaret Sanger Papers, Sophia Smith Collection

Sanger, Margaret. ‘Gandhi and Mrs. Sanger Debate Birth Control,’ Recorded by Florence Rose, published in Asia magazine, Vol. 26, no. 11, Nov. 1936, pp. 698-702

Sanger, Margaret. ‘My Way to Peace,’ Jan. 17 1932. From The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at NYU

Sanger, Margaret. Margaret Sanger, an Autobiography. Cooper Square Press: New York 1999, originally published by W.W. Norton & Co: New York, 1938

Sanger, Margaret. ‘Opening Address for Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau Dinner‘, Feb 26, 1929. Source: Margaret Sanger Papers, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, Margaret Sanger Microfilm S71:153.

Sanger, Margaret. The Pivot of Civilization, 1922. Free online version courtesy of Project Gutenberg, 2008, 2013

Sanger, Margaret. Woman and the New Race, 1920. Free online version courtesy of W. W. Norton & Company

New Podcast Episode: Why So Much Hatred for Margaret Sanger?

Margaret Sanger, photo probably taken Jan 30th 1917, photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

Margaret Sanger, photo probably taken Jan 30th 1917, photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

Listen to this podcast episode here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

There’s been a widespread and concerted effort to vilify Margaret Sanger and remove her name from the public roll of great contributors to human rights history. In my research for the Sanger project I’m working on, I find scores of examples of this effort every single time I do an internet search using her name.

Last year, for example, Ted Cruz and other conservative senators called for her portrait to be removed from the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC, where her portrait bust is included in the Struggle for Justice exhibition. In justification of his campaign, Cruz used part of a quote lifted from its original context and presented it as saying something nearly opposite of what it was originally meant to say. In a letter to a friend, Sanger expressed her worry that her birth control clinic project in the South might be misperceived and misrepresented as racist; Cruz lifted a few words from this letter to ‘prove’ that it was. He may have borrowed this idea from Michael Steele, former chairman of the Republican Party, and Ben Carson and Herman Cain, one-time Republican presidential hopefuls. These three influential conservative men, in turn, received this bit of distorted wisdom from Angela Davis and some others in the black power movement who, concerned that the reproductive justice movement might have ill effects in the long run on the empowerment of black people, (mis)represented Sanger’s words, works, and character in the worst possible light…

….So let’s first consider Margaret Sanger’s [actual] beliefs and whether they justify her inclusion among the great freedom leaders. Then, let’s consider her beliefs in the light of her own time and whether they deserve admiration today, on the whole, or are at least understandable given the circumstances of her time…. Read the written version here:

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

New Podcast Episode: To New York City I Go, in Search of Margaret Sanger

margaret-sanger

Listen to this podcast episode here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

Hello, friends of Ordinary Philosophy!

From time to time, I take a trip to some corner of the globe, to explore the lives and ideas of great thinkers in the places where they lived and worked. For this series, I follow in the footsteps of thinkers who are no longer alive, since those who are still telling their own stories. But those who are no longer alive in the body live on in the ideas that they pass on, and in the examples they provide for us to follow.

I’m pleased and excited to announce my sixth philosophical-historical themed adventure, a rather impromptu trip to New York City to follow in the footsteps of Margaret Sanger.

Though the timing was spur of the moment, I’ve read and thought about Sanger quite a bit over the years and have some of the research done already for this long-planned trip. So when this little window of time opened up in my schedule, I happily seized the opportunity! As central to the history of women’s rights, free speech rights, and rights to sexual self-determination and privacy as she is, Sanger’s also the most problematic figure in the history of ideas I’ve followed so far for this series, with the possible exception of the brilliant but slave-owning Thomas Jefferson. She’s certainly the first that sparked immediate controversy when I casually mentioned my plans for following her on social media…. Read the written version here:

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Happy Birthday, Margaret Sanger!

margaret-sangerMargaret Higgins Sanger was born on September 14, 1879 into a large Catholic family with 11 surviving children. Her mother died at about age 50 from tuberculosis. As young Margaret saw it, her mother was worn out from her 18 pregnancies, and would cite this as one of the many reasons she so passionately advocated for the right of women to control their own bodies and their own fertility.

She went on to become a nurse who worked with poor women in New York City in the 19-‘teens and twenties. As she saw these women struggle with the toll that uncontrolled pregnancies took on their families’ finances and their own health, Sanger became convinced that ‘birth control’, a term she invented, was essential if these women hoped to escape poverty and oppression. She opened America’s first birth control clinic and despite numerous arrests and fines, she continued her fight for reproductive rights. She founded the American Birth Control League in 1921, which became the Birth Control Federation of America in 1939 after merging with another organization, which in turn became Planned Parenthood in 1942. She continued her activism right up to her death in 1966. Sanger was instrumental in the creation of the first birth control pill Enovid, first available to the public in 1957. She also lived to see the Supreme Court validate her beliefs in the basic human rights to openly talk about sex and to control their own fertility in the Griswold v. Connecticut decision of June 7, 1965.

Sanger remains a controversial figure today. An ardent feminist, human rights activist, and advocate of sex-positivity, Sanger was also a eugenicist, believing that birth control was at least as important a tool for limiting the production of ‘the unfit’ (her words) as it was for women’s liberation. Sanger agreed with many leading scientists and progressives of her day in ascribing to so-called Social Darwinism (a problematic term since it doesn’t reflect Darwin’s own views as he expressed them), which applied the principles of natural selection to human social practice.  She did not, however, support any kind of compulsory or coercive forms of birth or population control, such as that practiced by the Nazis and even by the United States government, who forcibly sterilized thousands of so-called ‘feebleminded’ women. Instead, Sanger was an ardent advocate of self-determination, free speech, open discussions of sex and sexuality, and education, education, education. It was up to informed and thoughtful people, Sanger believed, to take responsibility for their own sexual choices and to convince others to do the same.

Unlike many other eugenicists, however, Sanger was not a racist. She worked closely with many leading black civil rights figures, believing, as they did, that birth control would have the same liberating effect on the black community as would for women generally. By limiting the number of children according to how many they could afford to raise and when, parents could more readily pursue an education, start a business, or otherwise devote their time, energy, and health to improving their standard of living which, in turn, they could pass down to their children.

Aside from her human rights activism, I find Sanger’s beliefs about human sexuality and its important role in spiritual and mental health most fascinating. I’ve chosen her as one the topics of an upcoming History of Ideas Travel Series as soon as I can make it happen, stay tuned! In the meantime, please follow the links in this article above and below to learn more about this important, fascinating, and troubling woman, and I highly recommend Jonathon Eig’s The Birth of the Pill, in which he recounts much of her personal history as well as her role in the Pill’s creation.

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

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Sources and Inspiration:

Margaret Sanger Papers Project ~ Research Annex. Accompanying blog to The Sanger Papers Project by New York University.

The Pill, People & Events: Margaret Sanger (1879-1966)‘. From the American Experience website by PBS.

Sanger, Margaret. The Pivot of Civilization, 1922. Free online version by Project Gutenberg, 2008, 2013.

Tong, Ng Suat. Which Margaret Sanger?The Hooded Utilitarian blog, April 14, 2014.

Science and Philosophy, a Beautiful Friendship: A Response to Michael Shermer

There’s been some very public dig-taking between the science and philosophy camps lately. Lawrence KraussNeil DeGrasse TysonStephen Hawking, and other scientists are saying philosophy’s become irrelevant, little more than an esoteric old boy’s club. On the other hand, philosophers, theologians, politicians, and others criticize ‘scientism‘, the conviction that science, and only science, can and should be the ultimate source for all human knowledge; that all truth claims, that all ethical, metaphysical, and political beliefs, should not only be informed by or founded on, but entirely determined by, empirical evidence.

Michael Shermer’s article ‘A Moral Starting Point: How Science Can Inform Ethics‘ (Scientific American, February 2015) doesn’t dismiss philosophy so directly. He includes philosophy in a list of three other arenas of human thought, with religion and political theory, as those to which most people turn for answers in matters of right and wrong, good and evil. Science can, Shermer says, provide those answers, and goes on to explain why he believes ethics has no better source for them. The history of the human race is rife with slavery, torture, theft, and discrimination, yet all diminish human flourishing. Much of this harmful behavior consists of the group abusing certain of its members for the sake of others. But since it’s individual beings that ‘perceive, emote, respond, love, feel, and suffer’, Shermer says, it’s individual beings that are the ‘fundamental units’ of nature (evidenced by the fact they’re what natural selection targets). The primary purpose of ethics, then, is to promote the flourishing of individual beings, and to denounce all that doesn’t.

Yet as I read Shermer’s article several times, satisfied as I am that he places high value on the importance of empirical evidence, I find I have some objections. He doesn’t discuss how easy it is to jump to conclusions, inferring the ‘ought’ too quickly from the ‘is’. David Hume is the philosopher most famous for describing how tricky it really is to derive the ‘is’ directly from the ‘ought’, or in other words, the problems with assuming that just because something is a certain way, that means it should be that way. For example, how do we go about deciding that one fact, or one ‘is’, is more important than another fact when determining what ought’ to be done?

I also worry his argument helps perpetuate a certain myth, widely maintained by those who feel the need to erect walls around their respective fields of inquiry. In some cases, like Krauss’s, this whole debate appears to devolve into some sort of intellectual pissing contest. The myth is the claim that there’s a sharp dividing line between each field of inquiry, just as the committed political libertarian perceives the divide between the one and the many, the individual and the group. When Shermer includes philosophy in the list of alternate sources for ethics, and, implicitly, dismisses it as the best candidate, I think that he hints, wrongly, that philosophy is in competition with science generally.

A famous example of leaping too quickly from the ‘is’ to the ‘ought’, or in other words, deriving an ethical system too quickly from a scientific discovery, is eugenics. Many were so enthusiastic about the thrilling new scientific theory of natural selection, derived from observations in nature, that they thought it could be applied to all explanatory theories. Just as it is a fact that nature selects against certain individuals based on the ability to thrive in its environment, so it is that human beings should emulate nature and act as rational arbiters of fitness. In other words, we should select select against those individuals we think ‘degrade’ society by their existence and by their capacity to pass on their ‘undesirable’ qualities.
Scientists widely thought, from the late nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth, that the human species could be more efficiently ‘perfected’ through the judicious selection of traits to pass on to future generations.

Here, philosophy and science (and yes, even religion) could have done a much better job at working together: arguably, these eugenic ethicists could have used a lot more Hume, philosopher, and a little less Cesare Lombroso, physician and criminologist who thought all bad human traits were physically inherited. It’s not that the physical sciences should not contribute to ethics, not in the least. It’s that more checks and balances between fields of inquiry could have kept so many over-eager scientists from over-applying their discoveries where there are good arguments to show they did not belong. If eugenicist scientists had paid more heed to Hume’s warning that we can’t so readily derive the ‘ought’ (what we should do) from the ‘is’ (the actual state of affairs in the world), perhaps they may have more carefully considered all of the evidence, including human moral instinct and logical arguments in favor of human equality, done a better job of including all available scientific data in their social theories, and restrained themselves from unleashing such a destructive ideology on the world.

 
But shouldn’t ethics be informed by facts about the world? If it isn’t, doesn’t that make ethics too arbitrary, or too abstract, to be applied to the lives of actual, living human beings, as members of a society as well as individuals? I agree with Shermer that it should. But I also think that facts about the world aren’t enough, on their own, to fully determine what we ought to do. In fact, these facts can’t be enough, all on their own. That’s because, for one thing, there are so many ‘is’s’ to consider, many of which indicate an opposite course of action would be best. To return to one of the many problems with eugenics: its promoters considered the ‘is’ of natural selection against ‘unfit’ members as the most important fact to consider in deciding which lives society ‘ought’ to consider worth living. After all, it’s selection against weak and ecologically ‘unfit’ individuals which made their surviving descendants ‘superior’. But there are other ‘is’s’: human beings are naturally disposed to empathize with those who are suffering to help them out, even if they are sickly, disabled, or otherwise more susceptible to an early death. This disposition, this instinct, is itself an evolved trait. It’s also a fact that the same cooperative set of instincts that compel us help the ‘unfit’ survive is the same that drives us, as a species, to help each other live happier, healthier, wealthier, and therefore ‘fitter’ lives in the long run, as individuals as well as members of society.
 
Shermer considers the well-being of individuals the primary goal of ethics, and for scientific reasons. He explains: ‘The singular and separate organism is to biology and society what the atom is to physics—a fundamental unit of nature. The first principle of the survival and flourishing of sentient beings is grounded in the biological fact that it is the discrete organism that is the main target of natural selection and social evolution, not the group. We are a social species, but we are first and foremost individuals within social groups and therefore ought not to be subservient to the collective.’ It’s clear that he, like all rational, well informed thinkers, doesn’t ascribe to the principles of eugenics, now considered not science, but pseudoscience. But it’s not so clear how he’s justified, based on scientifically confirmed facts alone, in saying that because natural selection works on the individual, it’s the individual whose interests should be protected first, and society second. After all, natural selection also works against individuals, culling some for the benefit of the group. So, one could just as well argue that the evidence shows it’s better for individuals, as well as for society, if those who are sickly or more likely to pass on disease and disability to others, should at least be allowed to die off as nature, without our intervention, would have it. Shermer needs more than just an array of facts to show why some, and not others, should inform ethics.
It’s true that, historically, far too much death and destruction have been wrought on individuals when they are perceived as ‘subservient’ to the group. In this, Shermer has much evidence on his side. But it’s also true that much harm results from placing too much emphasis on the rights of individuals over the wellbeing of society. Lax gun regulations make it easy on gun enthusiasts to enjoy their hobby while also making it easy for the murderously criminal and mentally ill to obtain guns too; lax labor laws make is easy for employers to exploit and abuse their workers to the point of disabling injury and death; lax financial regulation allow a few speculators plunge economies into ruin and populations into a state of want; ‘personal belief’ exemptions allow parents not to vaccinate their children, resulting in epidemics of disease and even death; the list goes on and on. Great harm, generally, comes from the attempt to separate individuals and society into two competing camps, or to, as Margaret Thatcher would have it, from acting on the belief that the group, or ‘society’, doesn’t really exist at all.

In our intensely social, emotive, thinking human species, the incredible degree of individualness that individuals can achieve is due at least as much to the contributions of the group, over time, as to the individual’s own efforts. Human beings make art, tell stories, travel, enjoy romance and friendship, build buildings and erect monuments, and create such rich and complex products of thought as history, myth, religion, politics, literature, science, and to my mind the greatest, philosophy (since it overarches and unifies all other systems of thought), precisely because of the level of sociability we have evolved. The rugged, self-reliant individual of American mythology, for example, is precisely that: a myth. No human being could get very far if they didn’t have a society, to help feed, clothe, and equip them with the tools and technology they need to perform their wonderful individual feats, and to restore them to health and pass on their story afterwards. Humans flourish when individuals efforts are promoted and when they’re not allowed to infringe too much on the interests of the group.

The human species, as a whole, flourishes so well because of this two-way dependence between the individual and the group: you can’t have one without the other. The incredible diversity of its individual members should be encouraged and protected because they make our species among the most adaptable, and therefore among the most resilient on earth. When we oppress individuals, when we seek to crush expression of personality, or system of belief, or ability to pursue personal goals and professions, we wrong both the individual and the human species, by undermining individual potential while making the species that much less diverse and therefore, less adaptable. When we undermine the flourishing of society by allowing individuals to pursue purely self-interested whims and goals to the detriment of all, we wrong the individual too. Short-sighted, self-centric market choices leading to mass pollution and climate change, widespread cell phone use while driving, ideologues who keep their children out of the public schools to indoctrinate them in one world view, and one only… when the individual is allowed, by the group, to pursue their own myopic interests to the detriment of all, individuals suffer too.

In all other areas of biological science, it’s essential to understand a species as a whole if you want to fully understand any individual. When you look at an individual being, you see a set of characteristics that could just as well be quirks as traits; when you look at the species as a whole, you recognize which of those characteristics all have in common, and which are necessary for all members of a given species to survive and flourish. Even when it comes to solitary animals, most cats, for example, we consider each one as members of the species cat as well as a particular furry, comfort-loving, furniture-ravaging, mouse-chasing, charmingly mischievous, producer-of-the-cutest-offspring-on-earth-namely-kittens animal. If we didn’t perceive them dualistically in this way, we wouldn’t understand much about any one cat, let alone all cats. If we were to encounter an individual animal with all those traits, and had never encountered or learned about others, we wouldn’t know what to feed them, how we might need to protect the furniture, or why we should keep a video camera handy when they’re around. If we need this dualistic perception of cat as one furry animal and one of many cats in order to understand it, how much more so for a highly social species, such as humans, whose interests and fates are so intertwined. I see no reason, scientific or otherwise, to look at the human species any differently in this regard.
 
This cat example might seem so illustrate such an obvious point as to be silly, but I think we need to remind ourselves of it every time an intellectual tries to divorce fields of inquiry from one another in the general human project of truth-seeking, or an ethicist, politician, or anyone else tries to completely separate the interests of the individual from that of the group. I think both are mistakes that Shermer comes too close to making in this article.
This whole discussion of how easy it is to draw wrong conclusions from scientific evidence can also serve to buttress Shermer’s initial point about ethics, even if it doesn’t support his overemphasis on the divide between the individual and the group. I agree that scientifically verifiable facts about human beings should inform our ethics; the best system of ethics, to my mind, is a naturalistic system. Here’s where we arrive at what Shermer mostly gets right. Looking outwards at the world provides the raw material for any system of thought, as his title ‘A Moral Starting Point’ more than suggests. After all, all knowledge begins with the information we receive through our senses, as Aristotle, Hume, and the other empiricist philosophers point out. There is no reason to think we could think at all if we have never heard, seen, felt, tasted, or smelled anything to think about. And it’s thinking that gets us to do more than just sensing the world as a microbe, a plant, or a clam does, reacting without reflection. Philosophy is the human species’ way of taking the art of thinking as far as it can go: we examine what the information we receive might mean in a larger context. We question, we look for answers restlessly not only because we want to solve problems: we love to do so. Philosophy, after all, literally means ‘love of knowledge/wisdom’, translated from the Greek. And as we ask and as we look, in the interplay between the input of our senses and the organization of information through thought, science affords reality the opportunity ‘to answer us back’, as Rebecca Newberger Goldstein so puts it so well (Plato, p. 34).Philosophy not only provides the impetus and the direction for the inquiry of science: once we find out the facts, it helps us figure out what to make of them. In every step of the way, the formulation of scientific theories relies heavily on philosophy, from the application of the rules of logic to the justification of why we should value or emphasize one set of facts over another. In fact, until very recently, science was a branch of philosophy (natural philosophy) until that general branch of inquiry about the natural world became so large it specialized and branched off, then branched off again into physics, biology, chemistry, and so forth. Those areas of philosophy that didn’t branch off into the sciences and into theology, came to be identified with the arcane varieties of metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and so on, pursued largely behind the walls of academia today.

But philosophy is not limited to an arcane, highly abstract field of inquiry, as fascinating and valuable as that can be. It’s that approach to life as a perceiving, emoting, responding, loving, feeling, suffering, and thinking being, that every person partakes in, to one level or another. Philosophy, from its very beginnings, originates in the public square. It’s welcoming into ones’ self the whole world of things to sense and to imagine with a curious, critical, and interdisciplinary approach, and engaging in that way of thinking with others. I want to know why, and how, and who, and so on, and not only to know what is, but why I care about it and why others should too. Science is a big part of this. Yet philosophy is prior to, and necessary for, the former. In fact, it was my love of philosophy that led to my fascination with science, to question and replace some of the ideas I was taught in my youth (creationism, the doctrine of original sin, the sacralization of virginity, and so on) with a more naturalist system of inquiry. To separate philosophy from science is as unhelpful as divorcing the individual from the species: one does not function without the other.When it comes to understanding the universe, in fact, there is no such thing as ‘nonoverlapping magisteria’ of thought (as Steven Jay Gould put it when he tries, to my mind unsuccessfully, to justify the separation of theology and science). I think it’s a mistake to engage in the kind of intellectual turf war that science, philosophy, and other fields of inquiry are sometimes engaged in, not only because it sets up mental road blocks to incorporating the full range of evidence and ideas available, it sets a bad example for critical thinking. Shermer does well to remind philosophers, many of whom are sadly remiss in this, that they need science to keep them honest, so that subtle errors in logic, mistakes in self-justification, or over-weddedness to a particular tradition of thought can’t lead them too far astray.

But ‘philosophy-jeerers’, as Newberger Goldstein calls them, make a mistake when forgetting how much science owes philosophy, and how heavily they actually depend on it. For example, at the beginning of the article, Shermer refers to rights theory in philosophy as a popular source of ethics, as a contrast to a scientific view. Yet later on in the same piece, he refers to ‘natural rights’ as a scientific ethical principle. Yet rights theory has always been derived, even if indirectly at times, from the application of reason to observed facts about human beings: that they are rational and feeling creatures, that they are capable of autonomous will, that they seek to live ‘the good life’, and so on. To intimate that rights theory is, or has ever been, an alternative to an empirical view of ethics is either to ignore or to misunderstand what rights theory is and always has been.
Darwin's Ghost be Rebecca Stott, Photo Credit: Goodreads
Remember Aristotle, philosopher extraordinaire, one of the earliest and most famous founders of two (among many) of the most influential fields of philosophy: ethics and natural philosophy (better known today as science). As so delightfully described in Rebecca Stott’s Darwin’s Ghosts, Aristotle didn’t remain in his armchair (did they have armchairs in ancient Greece?), spinning abstract theories straight out of his head, arguing tedious points of logic with his fellow philosophers. He looked to the world to provide the raw material with which to craft his theories on the origins and nature of life, diving for specimens of sea flora and fauna, following animals around and recording their behavior. It was his philosophical mind that drove him to ask the questions and look for answers, and it was nature that provided the predicates, the subjects, of his reasoning.

In the words of Humphrey Bogart, we can see, from accounts of her birth, ‘the beginning of a beautiful friendship’ between Science and her parent, Philosophy. The most intimate kind of friendship, where the dialogue is open and honest and each supports the other, guiding one another away from the pitfalls and wrong turns the other doesn’t see.

So from the very beginning, philosophy has always been there to keep science honest, supplying the discipline of logic and helping it avoid methodological errors. It makes it clear to why there are relatively few direct or easy links from the ‘is’ to the ‘ought’ when formulating principles of ethics. It shows science that finding out how things work doesn’t readily indicate how we should apply that information in our daily lives, that even the best scientist is prone to bias, misunderstanding, and underestimation of that which we don’t yet know, and how science can be used to help and not harm.

There is no honest philosophy without science, and there is no science at all without philosophy.

*Listen to the podcast version here or on iTunes
* A version of this piece is published in Philosophy Now
*Also published in Darrow
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Sources and inspiration:

Anderson, Ross. ‘Has Physics Made Philosophy and Religion Obsolete?’ The Atlantic. Apr 23, 2012
http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/04/has-physics-made-philosophy-and-religion

Burnett, Thomas. ‘What is Scientism?’ American Association for the Advancement of Science website.
http://www.aaas.org/page/what-scientism

‘Cesare Lombroso.’ In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cesare_Lombroso

Fagan, Andrew. ‘Human Rights’. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
http://www.iep.utm.edu/hum-rts/#H2

Gould, Stephen Jay. “Nonoverlapping Magisteria,” Natural History 106 (March 1997): 16-22
http://www.colorado.edu/physics/phys3000/phys3000_fa11/StevenJGoulldNOMA.pdf

Hume, David. A Treatise of Human Nature, Book III: Of Morals. 1739.

http://www.earlymoderntexts.com/pdfs/hume1740book3.pdf
Nerdist Podcast: ‘Neil Degrasse Tyson Returns Again’. March 17th, 2014
http://www.nerdist.com/pepisode/nerdist-podcast-neil-degrasse-tyson-returns-again/

Newberger Goldstein, Rebecca: Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away. 
New York, 2014 http://www.rebeccagoldstein.com/publications/plato-googleplex-why-philosophy-

 
Shermer, Michael: ‘A Moral Starting Point: How Science Can Inform Ethics.’ Scientific American, 
February 2015.  http://www.scientificamerican.com/Stott, Rebecca. Darwin’s Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution. Random House, New York 2012.
https://books.google.com/books?id=5Lt_MXhNJEoC&pg=PP5&dq=darwin%27s+ghost

Thatcher, Margaret. Quote from interview with Women’s Own magazine, Oct 31st 1987.
http://briandeer.com/social/thatcher-society.htm

Warman, Matt. ‘Stephen Hawking Tells Google “Philosophy is Dead”‘. The Telegraph, May 17th, 2011
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/google/8520033/Stephen-Hawking-tells-Google-philosophy