Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Democratic Hypocrites

A hypocrite is a person who accuses somebody else of doing something that the accuser would readily do himself if given a chance -- much like we find in the Democratic leadership of the House of Representatives.

On October 7th, the House of Representative took a vote on a new Energy Bill to expand refinery capacity in the United States, reduce clean air provisions, and protect energy companies from lawsuits.

The vote was scheduled to last for five minutes. However, at the end of those five minutes, the Republican leadership was behind by two votes. Therefore, instead of gaveling the vote closed when the five minutes were up, they held the vote open. During this time, Republican leaders met with members of their party to cajole and coerce them into switching their vote in favor of the law.

It took that Republican leadership 40 minutes to round up the necessary votes. As soon as they acquired enough votes, the closed the vote and declared a victory. Immediately after doing so, the Democrats shouted from their side of the isle, “Shame! Shame! Shame!”

After the vote, the Democratic Leadership held a press conference where they condemned the Republican leadership in harsh terms. (See http://www.c-span.org: “Democratic Representatives on Energy Bill Vote, 10/05/2005)

The Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi (D - CA) called the act, “A shameless display of the culture of corruption that the Republicans have brought to the House of Representatives,” and “A sad day for democracy.”

House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (D - MD) called the Republican action a corrupt act.

Hypocrisy

However, in defending his use of the term, Mr. Hoyer cited Vice President Dick Cheney’s remarks when the Democratic leadership used the same tactic a few years earlier. According to Hoyer, “Corruption is a tough word to use. It was the word that Vice President Cheney used when Jim Wright, on a Budget bill, on an economic policy for our country, held the vote open for 28 minutes. Mr. Chaney called it the most corrupt action he had seen on the floor of the House of Representatives.”

In this sentence, Hoyer admits to hypocrisy in all but name. He admits to the fact that Democrats have used the House rules to hold votes open to gather additional votes. He appears to endorse Cheney’s words in calling this an instance of “corruption” yet, at the same time, does not offer a word of contrition or an inkling of a suggestion that the Democrats would not do the same thing again if the opportunity came up.

Hoyer’s words make clear that he has one set of standards that apply when the Democrats are in power, and a different set of standards that apply when Republicans are in power.

If his claims about Vice President Cheney are correct, then Cheney also holds to this double standard. He calls an act “corrupt” when carried out by Democrats that he accepts as “policy” when committed by Republicans.

Demagoguery and the Fillibuster

In fact, the House rule allowing the leadership to hold a vote open long enough to shift the burden of a tie in its favor is no different morally than the Senate rules that allow for a filibuster. It is a procedure built into the rules that either side is willing to take advantage of when it benefits them to do so. It makes no sense to call “fowl” when the other side does the same thing.

Also, like the filibuster, if the House of Representatives dislikes the rule that allows the majority party to hold a vote open long enough to get a bill passed, then the House can vote to change the rules. These are the rules that they adopted, and these are the rules that they are playing by. Protesting acts that the rules allow would be like a football team protesting as corrupt an opposing team’s decision to go for a 2-point conversion instead of an extra-point kick.

Rhetoric and Demagoguery

One problem with protesting these make-believe wrongs is that it weakens moral language when it is to be used against actions that actually deserve condemnation. This is the story of the boy who cried wolf, with a twist. In this case, it is the story of the politician who cried fowl. Because he cries fowl at make-believe wrongs with, perhaps, the aim to rally the people, the people learn not to trust him even when he detects a genuine wrong. He cries fowl then genuine injustice has been done, and the people or click to the next web page, because they have heard these false cries too often.

From lying under oath, to “ad hominem” defenses, to bribery and cronyism, there are a great many things that deserve condemnation. There is no need to make up wrongs in order to find a reason for moral condemnation. Opportunities for legitimate moral condemnation occur every day. When the moral message is diluted by using it in obviously hypocritical accusations, it simply makes all of the other wrongs much easier to get away with, and much more common as a result.

With this in mind, it would be useful if at least one reporter would have the wits and foresight to see these cases when they occur. The next time a politician stands up to condemn an action by the other party that his party would readily use when given the chance, this reporter can ask one simple question. “Excuse me, sir. Can I report that your party has adopted a policy that you will never use these tactics, and will brand as corrupt anybody in your own party that would use them?”

After this happens a few times, perhaps we will see the end of politicians making phony charges of wrongdoing.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Plame Case: Rule by Intimidation and Fear

While others are concerned with whether key members of the Bush Administration, and Karl Rove in particular, broke the law in revealing the identity of a CIA operative or answering questions afterwards, I wish to look at the moral issue.

A Theory

A plausible interpretation of the moral story goes like this:

Key members of the Bush Administration wanted the United States to attack Iraq, alone if necessary, long before they became key members of the Bush Administration. Whether it was a just (justified) war or an unjust war did not matter, as long as Iraq fell into friendly hands.

No doubt, these people thought that such an attack was the right thing to do. Yet, people generally find it very easy to convince themselves that they are doing good deeds, even when they are not. In fact, it is difficult to find anybody, from a common thief to genocidal tyrant, who does not assert with conviction that their acts served a greater good.

To buy support for this war, the Administration needed to manufacture a supply of fear and inject it into the body politic. People are afraid of nuclear weapons, so this is a very powerful ingredient to put into this potion of fear.

It makes sense to think that Vice President Dick Cheney would be pleased to hear rumors that Iraq was trying to buy uranium in Niger. If it could be proved, this would make the case for war irrefutable. Cheney asked the CIA to check the story out.

When the report came back that these rumors were unfounded, Cheney and his associates were probably disappointed.

However, manufacturing fear does not require evidence, only belief. Therefore, the administration continued to use the rumor that Iraq had tried to buy uranium. In doing so, they sought to manufacture fear and, with this, to manipulate American voters into supporting aggression against another country.

I actually think that these Administration officials probably believed that Saddam Hussein was trying to create nuclear weapons. The absence of proof was the fault of the investigators; any competent person doing their job would have found the evidence, they thought.

However, suspicion that somebody might perhaps be a threat at some time in the indefinite future is a poor excuse for a war. If our standard for going to war is, ‘the other country might, perhaps, be up to something, even though we have no evidence that they are,” then any country may justifiably invade any other country at any time.

There is no foundation for peace – there is no national security -- unless war requires at least something more solid than suspicion without evidence.

Exposure and Retribution

Then, Joe Wilson, who went to Africa to investigate the original rumor, wrote an article for the New York Times saying that he had investigated the rumors, found them to be unfounded, and reported this to the Administration. Admitting that his findings could have been in error, he publicly asked whether his findings had been outweighed by other evidence or selectively ignored.

(Note: Recent developments suggest that the Bush Administration was looking for ways to damage Wilson earlier than originally thought, when news articles citing an unnamed source disputing the Niger claims appeared in the New York Times on May 6 and the Washington Post on June 12th, 2003)

Accused of manufacturing fear, Administration officials did not answer the challenge to provide outweighing evidence. Instead, they decided to attack their attacker. To attack Joe Wilson, they asserted that he was a crony recommended for the job by Wilson's wife, formerly Valerie Plame; now, Valerie Wilson.

Somehow, the Administration believed that there was something wrong with hiring close friends and supporters to perform important government functions, and wanted to argue that this cronyism justified questioning Wilson's qualifications and competence.

The moral story ends here.

Well, the first chapter ends here. We still have the issue of being careless with national security information. This carelessness told agents and potential contacts throughout the world that American government officials would sell them out if it could buy them a few political points. However, that is not the moral story I am concerned with here.

Moral Considerations

Here, I am talking about deceptively manipulating the American people into approving an act of aggression against another country that they would not have supported if they had known the truth. I am talking about a government that injected unjustified fear into American lives in order to make them submissive and pliable. I am talking about attacks made against those who questioned their tactics.

Under different circumstances, the Bush Administration might have found ways to attack Joe Wilson in ways that were perfectly legal. This would not have changed the first part of this moral story. This would have had no effect on what I am writing about here.

In seeking answers to the Judy Plame issue, we have quit demanding answers to a question that is at least as important; did the Bush Administration deceptively manipulate the American People into supporting an attack that, if they had known the truth, they would have considered immoral?

The Moral of the Story

The lesson that these government officials want the American People to learn is clear. "Even if you have evidence that we have done wrong, do not dare to mention it, or you will suffer. We insist that you remain silent when you have evidence of our transgressions. Those who do not do so will be made to suffer."

This is the type of America that these people are trying to create -- one in which government officials routinely employ a tool of intimidating potential critics into silence.

If we reward this type of behavior -- if we allow those who use these tactics of misdirection, ad hominem, and accusing the accusers, to profit from them, then we teach important lessons that the next generation of politicians will no doubt learn and put into practice. We make intimidation an attractive practice.

To the degree that we put these types of people on the social 'protected species' list, coddle and protect them, to that degree we can expect them to thrive, and to raise more who are just like them.

Regardless of how any other part of this story turns out, the American people are well advised to consider how much they value leadership by intimidation and fear.

Appendix: Just War

Note: I want to add a point of clarification. One cannot consistently be opposed to immoral actions and be tolerant of tyranny. Turning a blind eye to the suffering caused by tyrants is its own moral crime.

On moral grounds, the first Persian Gulf War was right because the world needs to stand up to countries that invade their neighbors, just as the community needs to band together against those who will invade one of their houses.

Clinton's actions in the Balkans was nothing other than the defense of innocent people from murderers and butchers.

The war in Afghanistan was a war against people who spread death and destruction across the entire face of the globe.

I could have been talked into defending the invasion of Iraq if it had been grounded on a decent respect for the principles of a just war. However, a unilateral attack grounded on manufactured fear deprived this war of its moral footing. That, more than anything, has contributed to the high price we have had to pay, and that we will continue to pay.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Dobson's Acknowledgement of Immorality

On Tuesday, October 4, James Dobson, the founder and leader of the religious conservative organization Focus on the Family, said on his radio program, "When you know some of the things that I know, that I probably shouldn't know, that take me in this direction, you will understand why I have said with fear and trepidation, why I have said that I believe that Harriet Miers will be a good justice.”

There is no way to understand the terms "shouldn’t" in this case to refer to anything other than a moral claim. Dobson is saying nothing less than that, "I learned something that I would not have learned if everybody else had done their moral duty."

This has a number of further implications that we will get to shortly.

The speculation is that the person who gave Dobson the information he probably should not know was Senior White House Advisor Karl Rove, though this is speculative. He was talking about being pressured to discuss conversations with Rove when he made the comment about “things that I know that I probably shouldn’t know.”

Dobson certainly knows of at least one immoral act that took place. He said so.

Furthermore, he senses that it was wrong for him to have this information. Again, he said so when he said that this information was probably something he should not know.

Furthermore, Dobson does not seem even a little bit upset that somebody did something that they ought not to do. He does not seem to be concerned that a wrong had been committed. In fact, he seems almost happy at the fact, and certainly shows no interest in correcting these wrongs by seeing that the wrong-doers get punished.

From this, we can infer that Dobson's moral character is that of a person who does not care if an immoral act is committed as long as it advances a project of his. In this, he certainly is not presenting himself as a paradigm of moral virtue he claims to uphold.

So, now, we have strong reason to suspect that somebody in the Bush administration (perhaps Rove) has been giving out information that they probably should not be giving out, and that Dobson knows about this, and is aware that it is probably wrong.

We need to ask about the nature of what Dobson knows.

We know that some of what Dobson probably should not know leads him to believe that Harriet Miers would probably be a ‘good justice,’ using Dobson’s concept of a ‘good justice’. This means somebody who will put the 10 Commandments above the 10 Amendments, and the Bible above the Constitution.

We have no reason to believe that Dobson learned that, "Harriet Miers is a fair and impartial lawyer who will judge each case on its merits and not try to legislate from the bench." This is not the type of information that Dobson ought not to know.

In fact, we can be relatively confident that, whatever Dobson was told, he was not given an argument that aims to prove that Miers was the best qualified in terms of credentials and impartial personality to be a member of the Supreme Court. There is simply no reason to keep this type of information secret.

We also know that the-fact-that-should-not-be-known turned Dobson into a supporter of Harriet Miers. What type of fact-that-should-not-be-known could have had this type of effect? The most reasonable option is that Dobson learned that his own social agenda can be advanced further and faster with Miers on the Supreme Court than with any other candidate. He knows that with Meirs on the Supreme Court, he is that much closer to claiming victory in establishing his political agenda. This seems the only cause that could have had this particular effect.

So, we have reason to believe that a wrong has been done. Dobson knows that a what was done was probably wrong, and that he does not care because the wrong will likely advance his political agenda. We know that this probable wrong concerns Harriet Miers, and that as a result of this wrong Dobson is more confident that Miers will not be far and impartial in hearing cases that come before her, but instead will be partial towards supporting Dobson and his political agenda.

Either that or he is lying (which also does not say anything favorable about Dobson’s moral character).

If we have reason to believe that Harriet Meirs' approval will complete some immoral activity -- even if we do not know what that activity is, then we have reason to oppose the nomination of Harriet Miers on moral grounds. We have reason to see to it that immoral activities not reach a successful conclusion -- particularly immoral activities that as one of their objectives the placement of a particular person in a position as powerful as Supreme Court Judge.

This is not a trial. This is not a case where we must assume that a person is innocent unless proved guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. In this case, we do not have to go beyond reasonable doubt; reason to doubt alone is good enough.

Speaking politically, I do not think that Harriet Miers’ withdrawal will do any good. Evangelicals want Bush to nominate a judge with bona fide conservative credentials – somebody who is on the record as saying the things that they want to hear. They want Bush to nominate a candidate that the Democrats cannot support. They want to force a battle, because they think that they can win and defeat the battered forces of liberalism, giving them even fuller control over America.

This is likely what will happen if Harriet Miers is defeated.

Yet, politics is not my realm of expertise. I am concerned with ethics. In that realm, Dobson has proved that he is a person of poor moral character, willing to support and participate in actions he knows to be wrong in order to promote his agenda. A wrong action is, by definition, an action that a person of good moral character would not support, yet Dobson supports them.

There is one additional fact regarding Miers’ nomination that should be defeated. Since Bush started to be attacked on the right for naming Miers to the court, he and the rest of the administration has sought to defend his choice. However, they have not done so by showing Miers’ excellent legal qualifications to do the job. Rather, the evidence they have offered as proof that Miers should have the job primarily concerns her religious stand. Miers’ should be a Supreme Court Judge because she is a born-again Christian, as if this is a requirement for office.

In short, when an American citizen stands before a Bush-appointed judge, he should plan his case with less reliance on statute and the Constitution, and more reliance on the bible, in proving his actions right or wrong. Because the judges he appoints are not expected to know the law and the Constitution as much as they are expected to know (Bush’s interpretation of) scripture.

Knowledge of scripture seems to have become the only criterion to look at in determining whether an individual is qualified to be named as a judge.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Two Victories for Morality

In the past week there were a couple of positive developments in the morality realm to report.

(1) Israel's Supreme Court prohibited the practice of using innocent shields in arrests.

When the Israeli army went after suspected Palestinian terrorists, they would sometimes take an innocent neighbor from his house and require that he be the first to approach the suspect residence.

The army defended this practice by saying that the suspects would be less inclined to shoot at a neighbor than at an Israeli soldier, thus reducing the chance of a gun-battle.

In one such instance the innocent shield was 19-year-old Nidel Daraghmeh. He died in the gun battle that followed. In other incidents, innocent shields were wounded.

It is important to note that the people forced to act as innocent shields were not, themselves, suspects. It would be as if the police came to your house, told you that they thought that there were armed murderers a few houses down from yours, pulled you out of your house and forced you to go first into the suspects’ house. The police, of course, would be wearing their helmets and body armor. You would have on a T-shirt and pair of jeans.

I remember hearing of the concept of innocent shields brought up in my ethics class in school. The professor (I do not recall which one) would describe incidents during World War II where the Nazi army would fasten innocent shields taken from a village to their tanks when they went out to fight the partisans. The partisans could not attack the tanks without risking death or injury to the innocent shield.

It is not a tactic that we would expect from people of good moral character. In fact, using this tactic assumes that the enemy, in this case, has a better moral character than the protectors – that the suspect is less willing to risk the lives of innocent people than those who would use the innocent shield.

Here is a test for somebody who thinks that it is okay to take a stranger from his house and use them in that type of situation. Have the person who thinks that this is moral take somebody from his own family along to play the role of innocent shield, or to suffer the same fate. If the innocent shield should die, the family member also dies. If the innocent shield is wounded, the family member suffers the same wound.

Would the person employing innocent shields be willing to agree to this?

Morality is concerned with universal principles -- principles that apply equally to anybody. Failure to apply this concept equally leads to charges of hypocrisy and the infamous "double standard."

We tell the person of good character from those who are not because the person of good character lives by rules that he or she is willing to apply to everybody. If he is not willing to allow his own family to suffer the fate of the innocent shield, then he will not force that fate on others, then he is a hypocrite and certainly not a person of good moral character.

(2) Senator John McCain (R-Arizona) got the U.S. Senate to pass an amendment to the military spending bill that provides that “no individual in the custody or under the physical control of the United States government, regardless of nationality or location, shall be subject to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”

The law is in response to reports that have frequently come out of US controlled prisons of prisoner maltreatment. The Bush Administration has answered these challenges by saying that those who actually torture prisoners and treat them inhumanely are being dealt with, but that its interrogation techniques count neither as torture or inhumane.

It is an attempt to make these acts legal by changing the definition of the words used in the law. It would be like arguing that the 20-year-old caught drinking did not break the law by asserting that 20 is greater than 21, and thus his acts are not illegal.

McCain, who was a prisoner during the Vietnamese War and tortured by his captors, stated that one of the firm beliefs he and his fellow prisoners had that helped them through this time was the belief that we were better than they were. McCain proposed this amendment as a way of preserving the moral high ground – a high ground that says that we are not only stronger than our enemies, but that we are better than them as well.

The Bush Administration argues that these techniques are necessary to save lives. However, we must also ask what it is that makes a life worth saving. The standard should be that the life saved belongs to somebody who holds to certain minimum standards regarding how others are treated.

The murder facing a death sentence that wounds a police officer in the course of his escape can honestly say that he is trying to save lives – in this case, his own. However, he is not saving a life that deserves saving, so his actions do not grant him the moral high ground.

Every day, the moral person gives up some personal advantage for the sake of what is right. He sees property he could take, but does not do so, because it is wrong. He sees a way to gain an advantage by lying, but foregoes the advantage, because lying is wrong. It is Machiavellian, at best, to argue that gaining some advantage is all that is needed to justify certain actions.

Others see this as well. In deciding who to support and how much support they deserve, they are wise to do so by looking at which side is the most deserving. It is reasonable to expect that those who look at the actions and policies of the Bush Administration find in them a team that is not worthy of as much support as they would otherwise be willing to give.

Some, perhaps, do not see much difference between us and our enemies. McCain’s Amendment, on the other hand, forces the recognition that ours is the morally superior side in this conflict. We recognize standards of human rights and decency that our opponents seek to ignore.

Nor can I ignore the fact that I, at least, cannot say who is being tortured. I have not heard of any trial taking place to determine who the victims will be. For all I know, the military picks up a group of citizens, tortures them for information, and keeps those who provide something useful. However, the guilty and innocent alike may be subject to torture.

I am not saying that this is taking place. However, the moral character of those who are responsible for these activities tells me that I cannot be sure that they are not taking place.

The next step for this law is a conference between the House and the Senate to iron out differences in the two versions of the bill. There is still a chance that this amendment may die in conference, giving Senators a chance to say that they voted against torture (by an overwhelming margin), while still allowing the practice of torture to go unchallenged. However, for this to happen, McCain would have to allow his amendment to die a quiet death.

I hope that this does not happen. I hope that we can prove that we are better than that.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Physician Assisted Suicide

States need the freedom to experiment with different ways of balancing the interests of those who have no reason to continue living with those who have an interest in avoiding a premature death.

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments regarding Oregon’s law allowing patients with a terminal illness having less than 6 months to live to obtain a doctor’s assistance in ending their own lives. The patient must meet a set of requirements that includes two oral requests made at least 15 days apart and a written request with two witnesses. The doctor’s assistance, in this case, consists in writing a prescription for a lethal dose of barbiturates, which the patient administers to himself or herself.

John Ashcroft, when he was Attorney General of the United States, attempted to use the Controlled Substances Act – a law empowering the federal government to fight the recreational abuse of drugs – against doctors who prescribe a lethal dose of drugs.

Again, I want to say that I am not going to write about what the Constitution may or may not say on this issue. I am interested in the question of what the law should say, not on what the law actually says.

There are two issues under consideration here. The first issue whether patients ought or ought not to be allowed to seek medical help in ending their lives. The second issue is whether the Federal Government should interfere with a State’s decision to allow this practice.

With respect to the first issue, I am not going to limit myself to cases of patients who are conscious, of sound mind, capable of asking for assistance in ending their own lives, and capable of administering their own lethal dose of drugs, which the Oregon law requires. I am interested in a more general set of cases that include euthanasia, where a doctor administers the lethal dose because the patient is not able to.

The Right To Die

I can imagine myself, some time in a future, laying in a hospital bed, unable to do the things that mattered to me in life. For me, this means lacking the ability to log onto a computer, read what others have written, comprehend their words, and write a lucid and meaningful response that would be useful to others; and with no reasonable chance of ever regaining that ability. (Let’s leave aside the question of whether I can do these things even today.)

I have spent my life attempting to save a fairly substantial portion of my earnings so that I can leave something behind when I die – something that I can offer as a donation to a project for making the world better. One of my worries is that this money gets wasted caring for my body when it is of no further use to me. Somebody has to pay for this. While the doctors keep my body alive, they would be draining my savings and destroying that which gave my live meaning.

In that case, I regard this body as just so much wasted protoplasm, and I see no particularly good reason to keep this body alive.

Furthermore, I want that death to be done right. When my body and mind become no longer useful to me, I may not be able to take my own life. If I could, I would still be reading and writing. If I can no longer read and write, I am not likely going to be able to take my own life.

There are some who say that assisting me in my death would violate the doctor’s obligation to care for his patient. This begs the question. Caring for the patient means doing what is in the best interests of the patient. Harming a patient means acting against the patient’s interests. The case I described above is one where the patient’s interests are better served by death than by life. Other cases would have to consider the patient’s interest in avoiding pain. In these cases, the greater harm is done by keeping the patient alive.

Two Concerns

In spite of the arguments given above, I have a number of concerns. Two of the biggest concerns are the possibility that those who pay for medical care may go into the business of marketing death, and the effects of weakening the aversion to killing.

Insurance Incentives

One problem is that a patient’s doctor often works for the patient’s insurance company. The insurance company is interested in keeping costs down. Permitting such a ‘right’ will create situations where an insurance company is collecting, let us say, $500 per month of health insurance, but paying out $5,000 per month in treatment. To improve the bottom line, it would be profitable for the insurance company to market death as an alternative treatment.

I am not talking about some callous insurance executive working diligently to promote early death, gleefully marking progress on a graph that shows an ever increasing use of early death options and money saved (though this might happen).

I am more concerned with the subtle ways in which a person’s interests taint the way he interprets data. Personal interest sits in the background, causing people to give extra weight to evidence that supports a desired conclusion, while creating a dismissive uneasiness over evidence that contradicts the desired conclusion. These insurance companies would be convinced that they are promoting early death because it is the right thing to do without consideration of profits. Only, their sense of ‘right thing to do’ is tainted by a subconscious background consideration of profits.

They will market early death options under this mindset. Many patients, in turn, will probably respond to the insurance company’s marketing efforts.

Respect for Life

Another potential concern would be the effects of weakening respect for life.

I think it is possible that regions with no capital punishment tend to have lower murder rates is because they teach their children to have a stronger aversion to killing. Children growing up in a society opposed to capital punishment learn, “Killing is so bad that you should not even kill those who murder and are captured.” Because they have a stronger aversion to killing, the idea to killing is less likely to enter their minds when they get angry or desperate.

If it is true, then we also need to worry about the effect of saying that early death options are permissible. This, too, may lower an aversion to death that makes other types of death easier to contemplate.

This is not a ‘slippery slope’ argument saying that if we allow these options we will end up killing anybody who we find unattractive or unpleasant in any way. I’m certain that people are intelligent enough to draw these distinctions. These arguments are used as scare tactics by people who are unwilling to look at the situation more rationally and objectively.

However, there is room for a lot of wrongful death well before we get to the point where we are executing anybody who displeases us.

States Rights

With respect to both of these concerns, it may be possible to arrange things to harvest the true benefit of early-death options in those cases where it applies, while avoiding the harmful effects. In order to find out what the answers are, we need data.

In a country such as the United States, we can get some of this data by allowing each state to seek its own way on this issue. We should let each state experiment with systems that, to them, seem most likely to secure their safety and happiness. As the results of those state-level experiments come in, other states can use that information to improve upon their own system.

This is part of the value of freedom. Each of us allows our neighbors to live their lives as they see fit (within certain constraints), allowing them to experiment and, perhaps, to fail in what they seek to accomplish in their lives. We learn from them, as they learn from us, which (hopefully) will generate more success than failure. ‘States Rights’ harvests this value of freedom at the state level.

What this means for the case that is before the Supreme Court is that the morally best option (though, perhaps, constitutionally prohibited) is for the federal government to leave this issue in the hands of the separate states and their citizens. Even if the Attorney General has the power to categorize lethal doses of medicine as drug abuse, he should not have this power.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Ethics Without God II

A religion that tells its follows to attack their neighbors, or take over the government and use it against the interests of his neighbors, cannot foster morality, because attacking a neighbor is the very essence of immorality.

Note: I spent my day preparing for my appearance on the Infidel Guy show, so I had my head filled with thoughts about the relationship between God and ethics. I would like to address some of the issues that came up.

(1) There can be no objective values without God. Objective values exist. Therefore, God exists.

First, the standards of 'good neighborliness' that I discussed in yesterday's blog entry say that objective values can exist without God. It would be difficult to classify a rapist as a 'good neighbor' in the context that I described yesterday.

Second, the people who make this argument also believe that humans could not exist without God. They argue, "There can be no humans without a designer (God). Humans exist. Therefore, God exists."

Even if we assume that atheists (incorrectly) believe that the human body was not created by a God, this does not imply that he cannot study medicine and become a good doctor. In fact, atheists make very good doctors in spite of the fact that they do not believe in God. This is because questions about how the body came about -- by design, by evolution, or by guided evolution -- it functions the same way. Anybody can study it, learn how it works, and how to repair it.

Similarly, the first argument does not prove that somebody has to believe in God to be a good ethicist. Regardless of how morality got to be the way it is, the atheist can study it and learn how it works.

In a sense, this argues that ethics can be treated like science. There are many religious scientists. As they study and uncover the laws under which the universe works, they think of themselves as uncovering God's laws. God made the world this way, they think. That knowledge does not hinder their ability to study the universe, create theories to describe its working, and even apply those theories in engineering projects. Just as science says nothing about the existence or nonexistence of a God, neither does ethics.

(2) The reward of heaven and the fear of hell are good ways to encourage people to do good deeds and avoid evil. Atheists gain no reward of heaven and fear no hell, so they are less inclined to do good and avoid evil.

First, even if this is true, it does not prove the existence of a heaven and a hell. A snake oil salesman can get people to buy more snake oil if he can convince them that it cures baldness, but this doesn't mean that snake oil cures baldness.

Second, actually, empirical evidence does not support this claim. Atheists are less likely to commit crimes than theists. Countries in which atheists make up the largest portion of the population have lower murder rates, divorce rates, and teenage pregnancy rates than countries with more religious populations.

Now, I want to make an important statement about how these statements are not to be used. They disprove the statement that hell is a good way to motivate people against doing evil. The evidence suggests it does not work.

This evidence is not to be used to argue that atheists are morally superior to theists. Each individual has a right to be judged on his or her own record, not on his statistical association with some group. Evaluating individuals on the basis of group statistics is the very essence of bigotry and prejudice.

Third, whether the fear of hell and promise of heaven actually motivates a person to do good deeds depends on what that person has to do to avoid hell or get into heaven.

If he is encouraged to crash airplanes into skyscrapers, he is not being motivated to be moral.

If he is encouraged to hunt down and kill (i.e., burn at the stake) those who assert such things as the Earth is at the center of the solar system, he is not being motivated to be moral.

If he is encouraged to attack a neighboring town or country, killing its civilians, in some cases slaughtering every man, woman, and child, then he is not being motivated to be moral.

If he is encouraged to carry bombs onto busses and trains and into restaurants and shopping malls to kill as many innocent people as possible, then he is not being motivated to be moral.

If he is encouraged to take slaves, or to see nothing wrong when his neighbor takes slaves, then he is not being motivated to be moral.

If he is encouraged to stand in the way of important medical advances such as surgery, immunization (because preventing plagues will thwart God's will), or stem cell research, then he is not being motivated to be moral.

If he is encouraged to interfere with his homosexual neighbors' desires to live together in peace, then he is not being motivated to be moral.

If he is encouraged to stand in the way of women getting an education, or enjoying basic liberties such as driving or walking about in the fresh air, or the right to deny consent to the use of her body by another person, then he is not being motivated to be moral.

If he is encouraged to stand in the way of students getting a quality education in basic scientific principles such as evolution -- the foundation for advances in ecology, agriculture, and medicine -- then he is not being motivated to be moral.

In short, if a religion commands a follower to live in peace with his neighbor it may have some positive effect. However, if a religion commands followers to attack their neighbors -- perhaps directly, or by supporting laws that attack the interests of certain neighbors favor followers over non-followers, and the promise of heaven and fear of hell encourages these attacks against another’s wellbeing and happiness, then these forces are promoting evil deeds, not good deeds.

Whether a religion promotes that which is good depends on how good the religion is to start with.

Conclusion

Anybody reading through these blogs should be able to see them as applying the rules of good neighborliness.

A good neighbor does not prohibit his neighbor from getting the same government aid that other nonprofit organizations can get merely because his neighbor's nonprofit facility is a religious facility. Government Help Rebuilding Religious Facilities

A good neighbor does not support a Pledge of Allegiance that counts his peaceful neighbor's beliefs (a neighbor that does no harm) in the same category is as rebellion, tyranny, and injustice.The Moral Argument Against 'under God'

A good neighbor supports a search for the truth and institutions that best expose the truth. The Davis Committee

A good neighbor uses the Justice Department to target those who do wrong, rather than use it to target political opponents. Departmentof Injustice: Targeting Political Opponents

A good neighbor is at least as concerned with ending terrorism as he is with ending war. Anti-War/Anti-Terrorism

A good neighbor does pays his own bills, and does not pass those bills along (with interest) to his neighbor's children. National Debt

A good neighbor supports social policies that ensure that society does not suddenly find itself running out of resources that are vital to its health and wellbeing. Energy Prices and the Folly of Price Controls

These are all part of what it means to live at peace with one's neighbor and not attack him. There will be more examples to come.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Ethics Without God

I am going to be appearing on the Infidel Guy show at 8:00 Eastern Time on Friday, October 7th.

The topic of that discussion will be Theistic moral claims and why they fail.

In this regard, I assume that one of the questions that people may have over the possibility of this site is that "The Atheist Ethicist" is a contradiction in terms -- like "The Round Square". Since you cannot have ethics without religion, you cannot have an ethicist who does not believe in God.

Ethics Without God

Actually, you can, quite simply. Let me explain how by laying out the foundation for an ethics without God.

When I was a young teenager, I put my hand on a piece of hot metal -- my whole hand, palm-down, on a piece of metal that had just cooled to the point that it no longer glowed. I snapped my hand back immediately, but the metal still blistered the palm of my hand with 2nd degree burns.

I do not need to believe in God to know that I do not want anything like that to happen again. A person does not have to believe in God to have likes and dislikes, and to dislike some things (e.g., 2nd degree burns) very much.

I don't need to believe in God to have a reason to take action to prevent those things from happening. If we talk more generally about "being burned", I do not need to believe in God to have smoke alarms installed in my house, make sure the house is well wired, and have a fire department established and staffed with people who will rush over and rescue me and my family.

The same is true of my neighbors. They, also, do not need to believe in God to take precautions against the possibility of fire or the creation of a fire department to fight a fire if one should start.

Also, my neighbors and I have reason to hold electricians and fire-department staff to certain standards. We want our houses wired so that they do not catch fire. If they do catch fire, we want the fire-fighters there promptly and sufficiently trained to do the work assigned to them.

It's also not the case that just any old standards would do. We cannot draw a set of random standards out of a hat and say, "These will be our standards for a good electrician, or a good firefighter." Some electricians will be better than others.

Not only do we have reason to set standards for electricians and firefighters, but we also have reason to set standards for neighbors. Again, it is not the case that just any old standards will do. We have reason to seek neighbors that will help in times of need, and refrain from doing harm at all other times.

Furthermore, we have tools available to help us establish these standards. Those tools are praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment. The individual teaching others the standards for being a good neighbor praises those who are kind and helpful, and condemns those who do harm. The technique is particularly powerful when it is applied to children; they pick up these standards much more easily. However, it also works on adults.

The standards that I use when I write these essays are the standards of good neighborliness.

If There Is No God

"Alonzo, if there is no God, than what is to keep you from doing evil things?"

Answer: Because I do not want to.

Assume that I have an opportunity to walk off with something that belongs to somebody else -- some money that they have left sitting around, or something else of value. I know that there is nobody watching, no hidden cameras, no way to tell that I took the money.

The question, "Why don't I take the money?" is like the question, "Why don't you stick your hand on a hot metal plate?" Because of my aversion to being burned, you can trust that I will not stick my hand on a hot metal plate (on purpose), even if you were to leave me alone in a room with nobody to watch over me. I do not need to be told of a God who will punish me if I put my hand on that plate. I can be trusted not to do this even if there is no God.

The same is true with taking other people's money. I do not take it because I am adverse to taking things that belong to other people. Even when there is nobody looking over my shoulder, I am no more inclined to take the money than I am to touch the hot metal plate.

In the previous section, I discussed how we teach the standards for being a good neighbor through praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment. This is what we are teaching. We are trying to create people who are so averse to taking things that do not belong to them, that they will not take money even when there is nobody looking over their shoulder.

We do so by praising honesty and condemning dishonesty to the degree that each of us approaches the possibility of taking money belonging to somebody else the way we view sticking our hand on a hot metal plate. We will not do it, even when we are alone.

Similarly, we are trying to create people who like to help others to the degree that they will volunteer to do so even when there is no reward in it, just like those who do not ask, "What is in it for me?" before they will eat a donut. The answer of the question, "What is in it for me?" is, for the good person, the simple fulfillment of the desire to help others.

The Meaning of Life

On a broader scale, there is the question, "How can your life have meaning if you do not believe in God?"

Answer: There is no God. Spending one's life in service to an entity that does not exist is a waste. It is like spending one's life digging a hole to bury something that does not exist, or holding up a wall that has no chance of falling. If a person remains ignorant that his life served no purpose, he may die thinking that he has lived this fulfilled life. In fact, tragically, his life was wasted.

I choose to help entities that are real. I choose to help people who are a part of the real world, who feel real pain and suffering, and who know real joy and sorrow.

Furthermore, the beings that I choose to help lack perfect wisdom and omnipotence, so they could use my help. Even if there is a God, He does not need me and there is nothing that I can do for Him that He cannot do for himself. If a neighbor at risk of suffering some harm or injustice exists or will exist, I might be able to offer real help. I might be able to help him avoid suffering he might not have been able to avoid himself.

I choose to help real people who could use my help, rather than an imaginary being who would not need my help even if it actually did exist. Comparing the two options, it is easy to decide which has the most meaning.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Government Help Rebuilding Religious Facilities

The American Atheist organization is opposing S 1765 on the basis that it contains a provision for rebuilding churches and other religious facilities damaged by Hurricane Katrina. The organization thinks that it is wrong for the government to pay for the construction of churches -- that it violates the Constitutional separation between church and state.

Before I get into this discussion, I want to insert my usual disclaimer. This blog is concerned with ethics, not Constitutional law. Any Constitution can allow immoral and unjust laws -- such as slavery before 1865.

There is a moral argument for the separation of church and state that transcends any constitutional argument. This means, even if the constitutional prohibition against blending the two, there is a moral objection.

The moral principle at stake here is that no citizen should be required to fund a church that he does not belong to and does not support. Each religion should stand depend solely on the support of those who voluntarily elect to support it, and no church should be permitted to step outside that circle and compel support from those who are not members.

Each church, or each religion, may certainly attempt to persuade others to become members. If a religion cannot gain enough voluntary followers to do what it wants, it has no right to turn to the Government and say, "Make him pay!"

Accordingly, the moral principle of separation of church and state says that I shall not prohibit you from building a temple on your property if you wish to do so; you shall not require me to pay for its construction.

Katrina Damage

So, why is it that repairing damage done by Hurricane Katrina does not violate this principle?

The provision of S 1765 under consideration says this:

SEC. 204. DISASTER RELIEF EQUITY: Notwithstanding any other provision of law, the religious status of a private nonprofit facility located in an area in which a major disaster relating to Hurricane Katrina was declared by the President under section 401 of the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency 12 Assistance Act (42 U.S.C. 5170), or of the owner or operator of such a facility, shall not preclude the facility from being eligible to receive Federal assistance for use in repairing, restoring, reconstructing, or replacing the facility following damage or destruction of the facility as a result of Hurricane Katrina.

The relevant part of Title 42 mentioned above allows the President to make contributions “(2) to a person who owns or operates a private nonprofit facility damaged or destroyed by a major disaster for the repair, restoration, reconstruction, or replacement of such facility and for associated expenses incurred by such person.”

This provision does not set aside money specifically for the purpose of aiding religious organizations. Rather, it says that religious organizations, as nonprofit organizations, should obtain exactly the same benefits available to other nonprofit organizations -- no more and no less.

Flood Insurance

Flood insurance is issued by the federal government. People do not buy flood insurance for their homes primarily from private businesses; they buy it from the federal government. In case of a flood -- a serious flood such as when a river overflows its banks -- the federal government pays the costs.

We do not prohibit religious facilities from purchasing flood insurance. In spite of the fact that the money comes from the federal government and goes to a religious institution, this does not violate the separation of church and state – as long as the religious institution is treated like any other customer.

In fact, the moral requirement to separate church and state would be violated if the federal government were compelled to deny flood insurance for a facility that would otherwise qualify, if it were not a religious institution. This type of restriction puts religious institutions at an unfair disadvantage.

We have to ask the same question of those who suffered damage from Hurricane Katrina. Why put that special advantage whereby they cannot obtain the benefits that every other nonprofit organization may obtain? The only answer is, "Because they are religious," as if that provides a legitimate ground for exclusion.

Equal Consideration

Equal consideration, in this case, means that religious institutions have to fulfill the same limits and criteria as non-religious non-profit organizations.

They cannot use the money to construct a new church. This would violate the principle that "You may freely build a temple on your property if you wish; but you may not compel me to pay for it." They may restore what the natural disaster has taken from them to the same degree that any other nonprofit may do so, but they may not go beyond that and build things they did not have before using my money.

Abuse

The one legitimate concern that this issue raises is that of abuse. A President could easily decide to make significantly greater contributions to religious institutions than he makes to nonreligious nonprofit institutions. In fact, a President lacking the virtue of fairness may spend all public money on repairing only the facilities of religious institutions and leaving others to suffer.

Yet, the abuse could also go the other direction, with religious nonprofit institutions getting none of the funds available to other nonreligious institutions.

The possibility that an individual may act in prejudicial and discriminatory manner in executing the duties of his office is not an argument against giving him those duties. It is an argument for making sure that the people who are put in that office have a sense of fairness and justice, and for holding accountable those who do not.

Conclusion

I have a sense that the American Atheists may have jumped on this issue simply by looking at the fact that it is a government issue that puts money into the pockets of those who believe in God.

This, itself, is not a moral crime. It is simplistic at best to look at an issue merely according to whether money goes from the public treasury to a religious institution to determine if a person has been treated unfairly. It is just as unfair to put an institution under a special disadvantage relative to others.

Some may question what this implies about faith-based initiatives. Would I argue that religious institutions have an equal right to participate in these funds?

Here, I would argue that they had an equal right before Bush’s faith-based initiative began. Religious institutions had every right to set up a secular organization that could qualify for government assistance to help those in need. The separate function helped to guarantee that no individual ended up supporting a religion that he did not belong to. The “Faith-Based Initiative” did not correct an underlying unfairness in obtaining government benefits.

S1746, on the other hand, simply states that religious facilities are not to be placed at an unfair disadvantage in obtaining government assistance. It is a fair and just proposal.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Contempt for the Average American

A number of Republicans and Republican supporters are claiming that we the people of the United States cannot be trusted to competently perform the duties entrusted to us when we sit on Grand Juries.

Former Majority Leader of the House of Representatives, Tom Delay (R- Tex), and other Republicans, are insisting that the Grand Jury system does not work. The reason it does not work is because the people who sit on Grand Juries -- average American citizens like you and me -- are too incompetent to do the job entrusted to us.

The Plot

DeLay is protesting that his recent indictment on charges of illegally funneling $155,000 in corporate contributions to Republican candidates in Texas is the product of a Democratic district attorney out for “political retribution”.

He claims that Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle was aiming to use House rule that a party leader must resign that leadership position if indicted. According to DeLay and his defenders, Earle is not really seeking to convict DeLay, only force him from power in the House.

However, District Attorneys are not empowered to indict people. They have to present their evidence to a Grand Jury. The Grand Jury has to decide whether there is enough evidence for a trial.

So, if DeLay is correct in saying that the indictment was concocted for political reasons, he must either think that the Grand Jury is a part of this conspiracy, or that its members are not competent to do the job that Grand Juries are supposed to do – which is to protect us from overzealous government officials.

Actually, DeLay has to say that two separate Grand Juries were incompetent. One grand jury handed down the first indictment on September 28th, while a second grand jury handed down separate indictments on October 4th.

This causes me to ask the question of whether DeLay and his defenders believe that it is even possible to have a competent Grand Jury capable of doing the job assigned to it.

The Purpose of Grand Juries

The purpose of Grand Juries is to prevent the government from harassing citizens with frequent, unfounded, criminal accusations. They did not want a state where government officials can arrest a person week after week on a different trumped-up criminal charge, playing havoc with the life of a citizen who could not fight back.

To prevent this abuse, the Founding Fathers enacted the 5th Amendment that “No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury.” Several state constitutions follow the same rules.

In principle, the Grand Jury allows us, as free citizens, to live without the fear of arbitrary government arrest and imprisonment. The government cannot take us whenever it wants. It must, instead, present its evidence to a collection of fellow citizens and prove to those citizens that it has enough reason to demand our arrest.

Therefore, the people who sit on Grand Juries have a duty. They are not rubber stamps for the District Attorney’s office. If all we wanted was a rubber stamp, we could buy one that was a lot less expensive and inconvenient than a Grand Jury. Instead, a Grand Jury is a quality-control department for the criminal justice system. Their job is to review the District Attorney's work and make sure that it is up to standards, and pass only that work that meets or exceeds those standards.

Just to be clear; the people on a Grand Jury do not decide guilt or innocence. Their job is to make sure that the prosecutor has good reason to go after a fellow citizen -- to prevent the harassment and social disruption of a arbitrary arrests and trials. Their job is to prevent bad trials from taking place.

In light of this, whenever DeLay and his defenders say that these indictments represent a politically motivated attack by a partisan Democrat against a powerful Republican, they also have to be saying that the Grand Juries that handed down these indictments did not do their job. These Republicans have to be understood as saying that common people are not to be trusted in doing the job entrusted to them by the Constitution of the United States.

In fact, anybody who protests an indictment is saying that the Grand Jury that handed down the indictment was incompetent.

It is one thing to say, "Okay, now that I have been indicted, once you hear my side of the story, you will know that I am innocent." It is something else to say, "Even before you heard my side of the story, you should have known that there was no good reason to doubt my innocence."

The first comment says that the Grand Jury did its duty. The second comment accuses the Grand Jury of incompetence.

DeLay's Chorus

DeLay is not the only one making statements that implies that American citizens cannot perform the duties of manning Grand Juries competently. Robert Novak, in his nationally syndicated column, wrote that, “Democrats were . . . determined to use the criminal process to remove from power so formidable an antagonist.”

This is exactly the types of abuse that Grand Juries are supposed to prevent. Therefore, if the Democrats are seeking to use this strategy, then Grand Juries cannot be trusted to do their duty when these types of situations arise.

Representative Christopher Shays (R – Conn) bluntly stated that prosecutors can persuade a grand jury to “indict a tomato”. That is to say that prosecutors can convince us – you and me – to indict a tomato.

Maybe he is right. Maybe it is only vanity and ego that prevents me from seeing how easily I can be convinced to indict a tomato. Maybe Shays is identifying one of those ugly truths that people just do not want to hear.

Clearly, Tom Delay, Robert Novak, and Christopher Shays have contempt for our ability to deal intelligently and competently with the responsibilities handed to us when we sit on Grand Juries.

The question that remains unanswered is whether their contempt for our abilities is justified or unjustified.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Energy Prices and the Folly of Price Controls

As a vital commodity becomes scarce, it is foolish to insist on acting as if it is just as pleantiful. This foolish game will bring a shortage on harder and faster than simply facing reality.

I have a concern that I did not express adequately in my previous blog on price gouging.

My concern is that people will demand that the government keep energy prices artificially low. They will demand such things as price caps, suspended gasoline taxes, and access to the strategic petroleum reserves, all to help lower the price of gasoline.

This may make life more comfortable for the present, but will set us up to have a truly disastrous future.

These measures only deal with the symptoms. Artificially low prices will speed up the rate at which we use these resources. This accelerated consumption means that a future shortage will strike faster and harder than it would have been if we left the price alone.

This is not an anti-capitalist “the sky is falling” rant. This is an argument about what happens when governments mess with the market place and try to fix the price of a commodity for political reasons. The society will suffer. In this case, society risks a great deal of suffering.

Imagine a group of people stranded in the desert, saying "Let's use water as if it were as plentiful as it was in Cairo when we took off.”

These people are going to die. This will be the payment for foolishness.

People demand that we keep energy prices low for the same reason. They want to pretend that these resources are still as common as they were in ‘the good ol’ days.” Ignoring reality has some harsh consequences. Those consequences could include suffering and death.

Consider how much energy is used in planting, harvesting, and shipping food to people who need to eat. Consider what will happen if that energy is not available.

The Effects of Price Controls

A higher price invites people to change their lifestyle so that they use less energy. They buy more fuel-efficient cars. They use more public transportation. They telecommute rather than travel to the office. They buy energy-efficient appliances. They switch to alternative methods to heat their homes.

There is a certain amount of inertia involved in keeping an old lifestyle. The individual who is accustomed to driving his SUV to work each day may have to feel a real pinch before he will take the bus. Existing appliances will have to break down before they get replaced. Improvements in public transportation will have to be built before they can be used. Businesses will have to invest in the infrastructure to allow for more telecommuting before more employees can telecommute.

In the mean time, people will continue to use energy at the high price. However, these high prices are necessary to give incentives for the types of changes that are needed. Price controls prevent all of these changes from taking place.

Even the threat of price controls is enough to slow the steps that people and industry take to avoid future energy problems. The energy company considering an investment in wind-power plants has to consider the possibility that governments will put price controls on oil and natural gas. The mere possibility of price controls is computed as risk in the company’s benefits-cost analysis. It makes these projects less likely.

Problems

I am well aware that high prices create problems. In an earlier blog, I criticized John Stossel for ignoring them. I will agree that steps need to be taken to address these problems. However, price controls would be a foolish step to take. It will only make the problem worse.

Rationing

Rationing is an option. However, rationing comes with its own costs. Rationing is probably the best option for a group of people caught in the desert where the resource can be watched. The larger and more complex a society gets, the less effective rationing will be. Instead, rationing will threaten to make crime more profitable, more tempting, and more common.

Another problem with rationing is that it does not respond to changes quickly enough. When does the rationing end? How much rationing is best? With the market, every piece of news instantly changes the price, instantly changing the incentives to conserve and to search for alternative energy sources. In the political arena, changes take months at best, years at most, with a cloud of lobbyists obscuring the facts in an attempt to produce political advantages for their clients.

Windfall Profits Tax

The problem with a windfall profits tax is that it punishes those people who are in the best position to solve the problem. Assume that you were the leader of an isolated village that has lost its crop due to an early freeze, or blight. You have hunters who could bring in extra meat. Would you set up a system to reward them for a successful hunt? Or would you punish them? Which option stands the greatest chance of more people doing more hunting and bringing in more food?

The windfall profit tax is similar to a law punishing hunters in times of famine, rather than rewarding those who bring in extra meat after blight has destroyed the crops. It is not rational.

Consumption Tax

On the other hand, a consumption tax will serve to enhance the benefits that I mentioned above. With a consumption (sales) tax on that commodity, people will then put even more work into finding alternatives or going without in order to avoid the still higher costs of the commodity.

A consumption tax also will invite illegal black-market activity. However, the criminals' benefit is only the value of the tax. As the black-market price approaches the taxed price of energy, the black market offers no advantage, yet still provides all of the disadvantages of being against the law. Criminal profits are less, which means that people get to live their lives with less organized crime and political corruption.

The Uses of a Consumption Tax

The purpose of such a tax would be to help the poor who may suffer greatly from higher prices. It can be used to fund energy assistance programs, gasoline coupons for those working minimum-wage jobs, and subsidies for low-income households to buy fuel-efficient vehicles and appliances or to subsidize the cost of their use of public transportation.

In the mean time, the higher price will continue to discourage consumption and feed the drive to discover and expand alternative energy sources.

Conclusion

My fear, as I said, is that society will demand that politicians keep the price of oil (and gasoline) artificially low. This is as irrational as a group of people getting caught in the desert with a limited supply of water demanding that each person still be allowed to drink as much as they want. It is an irrational course of action that is going to cause a lot of innocent people (in the future) to suffer significantly.

The price has to be allowed to rise to give society an incentive to conserve and to invest in alternatives.

However, this rising price is certainly going to harm the poor. The rich have the power to purchase a good for trivial purposes that others need to survive. The market does not care who gets it, only that the person getting the good is able to pay for it.

To prevent this, a consumption tax which will be used to assist the poor is in order. Rationing and price controls will only make the situation worse. These are not the options that a morally responsible person could pursue.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Defending Bennett

Bennett was responding to an argument that said, "Abortion should be legal because it would help lower the crime rate." He attempted to provide a counter example -- a case where "X should be legal because it would help lower the crime rate" was obviously false. The example about aborting black babies certainly qualifies as a counter-example to the argument he was objecting to.

Former Education Secretary William Bennett has been taking some heat recently for making the statement, “[I]f you wanted to reduce crime, you could abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down"

Liberals pounced on this as an example of blatant racism. Bennett is a well-known conservative who has written several books on morality, such as The Book of Virtues and The Moral Compass. He strongly insists that conservatives have the correct view of morality. The quote cited above gives liberals a chance to catch him making a statement that no moral person would utter.

Bennett’s defense is that he was merely making a Socratic point. He was not advocating the abortion of black babies as a way of fighting crime. He said in his very next sentence that such an option was morally reprehensible. Instead, he was attempting to show that a specific argument offered in defense of abortion in the book Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner was flawed.

I cannot report whether the argument that Bennett was targeting actually appears in Freakonomics. However, for the purposes of this essay, our interest is in the argument that Bennett wanted to refute, regardless of whether he attributed that argument correctly.

The Historical Record

Here is what actually happened.

Bill Bennett was doing his radio show “Bill Bennett’s Morning in America”, when he raised the argument he attributes to Freakonomics. Bennett said, “[Y]ou know, one of the arguments in this book Freakonomics that they make is that the declining crime rate, you know, they deal with this hypothesis, that one of the reasons crime is down is that abortion is up.”

Bennett then seeks to defeat this argument, saying, “I do know that it's true that if you wanted to reduce crime, you could -- if that were your sole purpose, you could abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down. That would be an impossible, ridiculous, and morally reprehensible thing to do, but your crime rate would go down. So these far-out, these far-reaching, extensive extrapolations are, I think, tricky.”

The Social Benefits Argument

First, I want to note that the argument Bennett was criticizing deserves to be criticized. At best, it begs the question of whether the fetus is a person with a right to life such that aborting the fetus counts as unjustifiably killing an innocent person – in other words, murder.

The problem with this argument can be illustrated using a counter-example much like the one Bennett actually used.

Let us say that we can identify a group of people who are statistically more likely than average to become a criminal. None of these individuals have actually committed a crime. However, we can show that they are statistically more likely to commit a crime than others. From this, it follows that, if we kill all of those people -- even though they are not guilty of any wrongdoing (yet) -- we could lower the crime rate. That is, the crime rate would be lower as long as we do not count killing these innocent people as crimes.

Here, I am not talking about aborting fetuses. Let us talk, instead, of 12-year-old boys who are getting poor grades in school. Let us assume that they are more likely to commit crimes in the future. If we permit parents to kill off such children, we can expect the crime rate to be lower than it would be if we protect the 12-year-old’s right to life. Still, morality demands that we protect that right. Allowing parents to choose to kill off such children would be a “morally reprehensible thing to do”.

Similarly, one can argue that the social benefits argument, that high abortion rates may reduce crime rates, may be true, but it still leaves abortion a “morally reprehensible thing to do” – assuming, of course, that fetuses have the same right to life as 12-year-old boys who are getting poor grades in school.

Of course, this assumption is the very thing the two sides are arguing about. Somebody using the social benefits argument has to assume that the fetus does not have a right to life before he can even start his argument. As a result, it would be question-begging for him to try to use this argument to prove that the fetus does not have a right to life.

It is a bad argument.

Allies

I want it known that I think that women have a right to an abortion early in their pregnancy. I am not writing in defense of a “right to life” for a clump of cells that have no beliefs, desires, or interests of any kind. However, a bad argument is a bad argument. The fact that the Freakonomics argument supports the same general position I support does not keep it from being a bad argument in defense of that position.

To be fair, Bennett showed the same capacity to criticize an ally’s bad argument at the time he made his the statements that got him into trouble. A caller called in to say that one of the adverse effects of abortion is that it reduced the labor force that would have otherwise been contributing to Social Security, thus helping to make Social Security insolvent.

Bennett, though he disapproves of abortion, recognized that this was a bad reason to disapprove of abortion, because it assumed too many things that were unknown. The aborted fetuses would have otherwise had to grow up to be productive members of society, as opposed to criminals and other drains on productivity. People who tend to have abortions are those whose children require a lot of state support – aid to dependent children, welfare – and who do not grow up in the best environments. So, it is not necessarily the case that the Social Security system would have been better off.

Bennett responded to this caller by saying, “Maybe, maybe, but we don't know what the costs would be, too. I think as -- abortion disproportionately occurs among single women? No. . . I just don't know. I would not argue for the pro-life position based on this, because you don't know.”

This is a very responsible position to take. Plus, Bennett is criticizing an ally. He is being very responsible in that he is evaluating arguments based on their merit, rather than their ability to support a desired conclusion.

It is the same trait that I hope that I exhibit in criticizing the social benefits argument above.

Subtext

So, now, let us look at the statement that got Bennett’s into trouble. “If you . . . abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down.”

Is this true or false?

Let us assume that we held all of our other social policies constant. Let us assume that the racism, poverty, quality of inner-city schools, were all held constant and we focused only on lowering crime rates. Is Bennett’s statement true or false?

It is not so clear to me that it is obviously false. This is not “linking crime to race” in any way other than to report a statistical correlation. Logicians know that correlation does not imply causation. The relationship may be entirely coincidental, or it could be the result of other factors (in this case, racism or poverty). However, Bennett does not need to care about these things. The statistical correlation is enough for him to prove his point.

If this statistical relationship is true, does this imply that it is permissible to call for a policy of aborting black babies?

Obviously, it does not. Such a move, Bennett correctly says, would be “morally reprehensible.” Even if the statistical relationship were true, the policy would be “morally reprehensible”.

Bennett also claims that he knows that the statistical relationship is true. I have no reason to assume that he does not, in fact, know this.

There is nothing structurally wrong with Bennett’s response to this social-welfare argument.

Now, Bennett’s counter-example has one potential area of confusion. Aborting all black babies would have to be a requirement, not a permission. My 12-year-old boy counter-example is a closer parallel because I speak about a permission to kill, not an obligation to kill. Still, Bennett was answering a phone call, and I am writing an article. I have had more time to consider my answer than he did. No doubt, he would choose a different counter-example if he had the opportunity that I did to give the matter further consideration.

The Response

There are, however, morally questionable aspects to the response to Bennett’s statement. Those who jumped on this statement are exhibiting are misrepresenting the point that Bennett was trying to make, reading things into his statement that he did not put there, and then criticizing Bennett for the fabrications of those who heard or read the statement and made no attempt to understand it.

The response has been, at best, intellectually reckless and, in some cases, intentionally deceptive, for the purpose of scoring political points.

Personally, I can think of better ways to lower the crime rate, beginning with better care and better education for children being raised in poverty – a population that, because of the effects of racism, happens (statistically) to be disproportionately black.

Yet, the fact that I can think of a better way is no criticism against Bennett. Bennett explicitly stated that he was not going to look for a better way, but was only going to look at reducing crime and the effectiveness of aborting all black children on that objective. He did not deny that there was a better way. However, he had to assume that a better way existed as well, because the abortion option was “morally reprehensible”.

Conclusion

Another problem with this response is that it exhibits an immoral level of political opportunism and hypocrisy. Elsewhere, we have a Pledge of Allegiance that actually does link non-theism (not under-God) with rebellion, tyranny, and injustice. There are no complaints against this. Yet, a quote that has to be taken outside of its original intent to be made into a statement linking race with crime gets all sorts of press.

It would be nice if people would at least pretend to aim for some level of consistency in what they praise and what they condemn.

I can find a number of things that Bennett is wrong about. I do not need to go through the effort of making something up.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

The Davis Committee

It makes no sense to trust the defense of truth and justice to those who cannot even recognize what it is they are supposed to be defending.

America is supposed to be a nation whose citizens value justice.

If this is true, then why are so many Americans tolerant of the corruption of the principles of justice represented by the Davis Committee?

The Davis Committee, which is 'investigating' the events following Hurricane Katrina, is something that no nation that actually prides itself on justice would tolerate. Indeed, in a nation that truly values justice, even proposing such a committee would be seen as irrefutable proof that the individual does not know what 'justice' is. If he cannot know justice when he sees it, then he is a poor person to trust with its defense.

The history of the Davis Committee is that, in the politically charged atmosphere following Hurricane Katrina, key House Republicans got together behind closed doors to work out a plan.

A plan to accomplish what?

We are left in the dark about that -- the meeting was held behind closed doors. However, whatever it is these people decided to accomplish, they sought to do so by forming a Republican-controlled committee. They would invite Democrats to participate. In doing so, they would call this the House Select Bipartisan Committee to Investigate the Preparation and Response to Hurricane Katrina. However, the committee will still be owned and operated by Republicans.

In fact, giving the committee this name is a lie. It is as much of a lie as former President Clinton saying, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” It shows just as much contempt for truth and honesty, and shows just as poor a moral character.

We return to the question of what this committee is supposed to accomplish -- what those who met behind closed doors wanted most to accomplish. What end can be best accomplished through a committee that is owned and operated by the Republican Party? What goal cannot be better accomplished by an independent commission?

Truth and Impartiality

Scientists have long recognized that, even with the best of intentions, researchers and investigators will introduce bias into any experiment. They have an overwhelming tendency to interpret the data to support their desired conclusions, rather than base their conclusions on the desired results.

Recognizing this human failing, researchers put safeguards into place to eliminate bias.

Where possible, they prefer blind or double-blind experiments so that the person making observations cannot know how those observations will affect the final results. When testing medicine, neither the doctor handing out the medicine or checking the patients, nor the patients themselves, know which samples are real and which are placebo, so that this knowledge will not taint their observations.

In an investigation into events surrounding the effects of Hurricane Katrina, it would be difficult to set up any blind or double-blind research. However, the lengths to which scientists go to eliminate bias even in an objective study of the effects of a medicine suggests how little justice we can find in a partisan investigation into the effects of Katrina.

People will see what they want to see, and hear what they want to hear.

It points out that we have no reason to do anything but look with either derisive laughter or embarrassed shame at a partisan investigation into these events.

Why It Is Important?

Scientists employ all sorts of safeguards to get to the truth because error can be extremely costly. Scientists need to know the effects of certain drugs with as much precision as possible. Careful data measurements are not enough to secure these results. Control groups and double-blind observations to reduce bias are essential. Failure to obtain objective results will lead to errors. Those errors, particularly in fields such as medicine, cost lives and suffering. Those errors are to be avoided.

Errors in the investigation into the effects of Hurricane Katrina are also going to cost lives and well-being. If we blame the wrong people, or we fail to actually see what went wrong, then we will not fix the real problems. If we do not fix the real problems, then we can expect more death and suffering in the future.

A society that does not value truth and justice will suffer for their sins -- they will pay with the loss of lives and property that a society that values truth and justice would have avoided.

A society that supports an 'investigation' that promises to hide more truth than it reveals, and which is more likely to use a criteria of political expedience to attach blame rather than actual responsibility, will also contribute to future death, destruction, and suffering.

I want to repeat, the Committee leaders do not need to consciously intend to misplace blame and hide the truth for this to happen. Again, medical researchers know that researchers easily misinterpret results in spite of their best intentions whenever they have a stake in the outcome. If the best objective scientists cannot be trusted to yield impartial observations, then partisan politicians certainly have no hope of avoiding political expedience in their investigations.

Who Is Responsible?

I am not a political strategist, so I cannot comment on the political wisdom of going along with a bad idea. The role of a politician is filled with choices where both options are wrong. Sometimes, a politician has to support a bad policy in order to get a good policy enacted elsewhere.

It is the leadership of the majority party in the House of Representatives hold primary responsibility for this injustice. They are the ones that decided that advantage to the party is more important than truth. They are the ones that decided that American lives, property, and well-being.

What does this say about the moral character of these people?

One of these people is House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), recently released from his duties as Majority Leader pending an investigation into criminal acts in Texas. Those crimes –funneling illegal contributions to Republican candidates in Texas, exhibit a similar moral character. If DeLay himself is not guilty of any wrongdoing, the acts under investigation exhibit the same character and culture evident in the formation of the Davis Committee. It shows a culture dominated by an attitude that puts the love of party advantage and power above the love of justice, truth, and the rule of law.

Conclusion

It is one thing when politicians hide the seedier aspects of their profession behind closed doors. Deals made in back rooms and campaign contributions offered in exchange for votes are things that exist largely out of sight. Even though they shame us to know that we have a system in which these things take place, they are at least kept out of public sight.

The Davis Committee is a shame and a sham that is sitting right out in public.

Because of this, it not only reflects on the poor moral character of those who created it, and those who named it. It reflects on the poor moral character of all American citizens who tolerate it. They cannot say, “I did not know that this was going on.” The government has put their contempt for truth, justice, and fairness right out in the open for the whole world to see. As a result, there is no way to refuse to see this as a test as to whether Americans actually do value truth, justice, and fairness.

If we do not, then people will die.

Friday, September 30, 2005

Moral Theory

Some things are so wrong that even God cannot make them right.

I did not have time to research any specific issue for today’s posting, so I thought I would quickly present a bit of theory.

Goodness and God

Many people – too many – state that we can only know about moral truth through God and whoever does not worship God cannot know the difference between right and wrong.

First, I need to point out the bigotry of this statement. Consider, for example, the difference between Christians and Jews. Some could argue that you can only know moral truth by looking at the teachings of Jesus Christ, and any who ignore his teachings cannot know right and wrong. This leaves all Jews as being immoral. Or, we could say that knowing the difference between good and evil requires understanding the word of the prophet Mohammed, and all who do not know his teachings are immoral.

Branding all atheists as immoral is bigotry – pure and simple. It is the same brand of bigotry that once branded all Jews as contemptible, or promoted violent bigotry between Christians and Muslims for a few centuries.

The theist will say that God is required for a tree to exist – no tree could exist without God. Yet, the atheist has no trouble seeing the tree. He simply denies that it comes from God. A theist will say that the wrongness of rape comes from God – rape could not be wrong without a God saying that it is wrong. Similarly, the atheist who knows that rape is wrong simply denies that this wrongness comes from God.

If God were to say, “I now make rape perfectly moral – go ahead and rape whomever you like,” this would not make rape moral. This would make God evil.

Plato presented this argument forcefully 2,500 years ago through his description of the words of Socrates (based on a historical figure). The argument can be found in his book Euthyphro.

Rape, murder, slavery, infanticide, genocide, the use of biological warfare (plague) to accomplish a political objective (“let my people go”) are all so very much wrong that they cannot be made right even by God. Those who forgive a God who does these things forgives evil. Those who worship a God who does and commands these things worship evil.

In short, there is a moral truth that even God cannot violate if God is good. Even God cannot torture a child for the purse enjoyment of listening to him scream and remain good.

So, if there is a goodness that exists without God – a goodness that even God must obey -- the next quest is to find it.

Desire Utilitarianism

The moral theory that I think holds the most promise in identifying moral truth is ‘desire utilitarianism’. Simply put, desire utilitarianism states that the tools of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment are tools. We use these tools to promote desires that tend to fulfill other desires (aversion to killing, a love of the truth, a love of reason, a thirst for knowledge, an aversion to non-consent, a passion for liberty, an unwillingness to do harm).

Our desires are malleable. Like our beliefs, our desires are molded in part by our interaction with others. The institution of morality promotes these good desires (desires to help others) and inhibits bad desires (desires to harm others).

This practice does not need a God. If one wants to say that God created desires and the relationships that exist between them, and the ability to use praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment to mold those desires, one may do so; just as one can say that God created trees. However, the desires that exist, the ability to mold them, and the relationships between them exist today. They are not invisible to the person who does not believe in God.

This practice also does not need to postulate intrinsic or absolute values. Within the context of this theory, we will only speak about beliefs, desires, states of affairs, and the relationships between them. There is some debate on the nature, or even the existence, of beliefs and desires. However, until the people working in this field of study actually come up with an alternative, I do not think that anybody can blame us for working with the concepts that make up the most widespread and easily understood theory of the day.

This practice is not compatible with common moral relativism – or, more accurately, agent- or assessor- subjectivism. What each individual feels is right or wrong has no bearing on what is right or wrong in fact. Subjectivism is like a moral test, where everybody gets to grade their own paper. Of course, this means that everybody is going to give themselves a perfect score, because the ‘right answer’ is whatever answer the person taking the test put down. I think that this is what makes these forms of subjectivism so popular – the fact that it allows each person to claim moral perfection. I think this is also what makes subjectivism as a theory so dangerous – the fact that any answer is the right answer as long as the individual believes it is right.

This practice also does not allow for any type of evolutionary explanation for ethics. It is true that evolution has molded our desires. It has given us an aversion to pain, a desire for sex, desires for food and drink, some level of concern for our children and close kin, and even some measure of compassion for strangers. However, desire utilitarianism is only concerned with desires that can be changed through the application of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment. If evolution fixes a desire, then morality simply takes that as a non-moral background fact like gravity and the laws of thermodynamics. Eating is not a duty, it is just something that people do.

What this practice would allow is a way for people generally to better fulfill the more and the stronger of their desires, by using praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment, to promote desire-fulfilling desires and inhibit desire-thwarting desires.

Moral Language

While each person is promoting desire-fulfilling desires in others, those others are promoting desire-fulfilling desires in them. This will create a feedback loop, Person A seeks to fulfill his desires by promoting desire-fulfilling desires in B. Person B will do the same to A. However, now Person B is using these tools to fulfill desires that have been molded to become desire-fulfilling desires. These are the desires that he is molding A to fulfill. To the degree that their mutual projects are successful, each will be using the tools of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment to fulfill ever-strengthening desire-fulfilling desires, and ever-weakening desire-thwarting desires.

I recognize that there are those who would argue that I am hijacking moral language when I express this view in those terms. I, in turn, accuse those who advocate divine-command theories of ethics, intrinsic value theories, subjectivism, and evolution-based theories of hijacking moral language.

Yet, which of us is hijacking moral language really is not a very interesting question. When I speak against other theories, I do not consider the charge of ‘hijacking moral language’ to be very significant. I have more serious charges to level against them.

God-based and intrinsic-value based theories both make use of entities that do not exist. Subjectivism is an incoherent doctrine that says at the same time that each person is both morally perfect and significantly flawed depending on whose perspective one is using at the moment. Evolutionary claims, like physics and chemistry, are merely descriptions and tell us nothing about what ought or ought not to be done.

When somebody says that they wish to call one of these other things 'morality', I prefer to give a two-part answer; (1) it makes no sense to call that 'morality', and (2) if you feel strongly enough about it, then go ahead -- what you now call 'morality' is one in which all moral claims are false, incoherent, or irrelevant to the question of how best to use the tools of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment.

Another Word about God

Anybody who says that those who believe in God are inherently better than those who do not, or that whose who do not are inherently better than those who do, are exhibiting overt signs of bigotry.

Belief in God isn’t a problem, except when a person thinks that God commands him to harm other people – to blow them up, kill them, destroy their temples, force them into the status of second-class citizens, force them to pay more in taxes or deprive them of equal consideration before the law in terms of both justice and benefits. The people who believe that God commands His followers to harm others are the ones we need to watch out for.

Belief that there is no God isn’t a problem. However, a person who does not believe in God can still believe that he has a right to harm other people – to blow them up, kill them, destroy their temples, force them into the status of second-class citizens, force them to pay more in taxes or deprive them of equal consideration before the law in terms of both justice and benefits. These are people we need to watch out for.

Belief in God, or belief that there is no God, is not the issue. The issue is their ability to live in peace with their neighbors.