Friday, March 31, 2006

200th Post: Correction on Global Warming

This is my 200th post.

Unfortunately, it is the first milestone at which I can no longer say that I have written 1 post per day without fail. I took a 2-day break, and missed a 3rd day while my wife was in the hospital.

For those who did not catch other updates to that story, my wife is now back to normal -- approaching 100% recovery.

Also, at this milestone, I must fess up to the fact that Dean caught me in an act of negligence in, of all places, an article on intellectual recklessness. I thought I had an understanding of the most recent scientific research on global warming. Dave has provided proof that I confused the findings of two different studies and reported results that did not match either.

My claim was that that current research suggests the possibility of a 7-meter sea-level rise by 2100.

In following up on Dave's objections, the actual situation turns out to be:

• There is a possibility that the Greenland ice cap will melt in between 500 to 1000 years, resulting in a 7-meter rise in sea level.

• By 2100, temperatures will be at a level that has, in the past, been associated with a sea-level rise of 6 meters or more. This does not say that sea level will rise to 6 meters by 2100; but that we are moving towards the preconditions for a 6-meter rise. Furthermore, in the second half of this century, the situation will be irreversible.

This evidence proves that I was not as careful in checking those facts as I should have been. I morally ought to have given these claims another look. I will remember this and try that much harder not to avoid similar mistakes in the future.

Still, I hold that this does not affect the moral arguments that I made in that original post.

My point was that those who claimed, "We do not know what is going to happen; therefore, we have nothing to worry about," were morally reckless (orders of magnitude more so than I was). Those who claimed that they will not order the cruise ship to go any slower unless and until the alarmists can actually point to an iceberg dead ahead with absolute proof the ship will otherwise hit it are morally responsible. If a person wishes to recklessly risk his own live and his own ship, that is their right. Those who command a ship of state, however, need to consider those passengers who will have a great deal to lose in such a collision with reality.

As a part of this argument, Dave's proof that the icebergs are not as big nor as common as I had claimed does not change the fact that there are dangers up ahead worth slowing down to avoid.

Dave argued that, given the technological advances of the past, we will almost certainly discover some technological solution to the problem of sea-level rise in 500 years.

I have three points that I would like to make in response to this.

(1a) Not necessarily. Technology is not the same as magic. There are limits to what we can accomplish with it. Technology works only within the laws of physics and cannot violate those laws. Consequently, we will almost certainly discover that some of the things that we may want to do simply cannot be done.

(1b) Not necessarily cheep. Even if we find a technological solution, how much will it cost?

For this item, consider the finding that in the year 2100 we may have established the pre-conditions for a 6-meter rise in sea level. Think of the situation as being like having an oven where one has set the temperature for 450 degrees. The oven temperature has not yet reached this setting, but it is set to do so.

Once we are in this situation, we may discover a technology that will eliminate our need to set the thermostat even higher (quit increasing the concentration of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere). Yet, if we have established the conditions for a 6-meter rise in sea level, we are still going to suffer those costs.

In order to avoid those costs we need to do something to turn the thermostat back down somehow. How much will it cost to reverse the effects of all of the activity that went to setting the thermostat to a 6-meter rise to start with? We are no longer asking how long it will cost to quit turning the thermostat yet higher. We are looking at the cost of actually turning the thermostat down – reversing the effect of all of that activity that turned the thermostat up to start with.

There is no reason to believe that this will be cheap. At the same time, there is no reason to believe that a 6-meter rise in temperature will be cheep either. Either way, we would e heading towards a situation that will be very expensive.

(2) Combined Effects: The conditions that would cause the Greenland ice sheet to melt in 500 years will also have other effects. If the Greenland ice sheet melts entirely, we can also expect the Antarctic ice sheet to melt, at least partially. If Antarctica loses 10% of its land ice at the same time that Greenland loses 100% of its ice, then sea-level rise will be 13 meters (43 feet) instead of 27. This is almost enough to make Baton Rouge, Louisiana a seaside resort. If the Antarctic ice sheet melts entirely, then we will have a 230-foot increase in sea level.

Even a 1-meter rise in sea level, on a world scale, threatens to be far more destructive than a terrorist nuclear weapon. Fifteen percent of the nation of Bangladesh -- the homes of 13 million people -- will be put underwater. Consider how many lives and how many trillions of dollars are we willing to invest in an attempt to prevent the nuclear weapon from going off. We are even willing to risk some very costly mistakes -- spending hundreds of billions of dollars and thousands of American lives (not counting the costs inflicted on innocent people in other countries) on a program that ultimately has nothing to do with fighting terrorism.

If we look at the destruction inherent in a 6-meter rise in sea level, we see global warming as a weapon of mass destruction – a weapon yielded by those countries that are the largest consumers of fossil fuels, that would be a terrorist’s wet dream.

The moral lesson of this essay remains; if the captain of a ship does not know what is ahead, but has reason to believe that there are significant dangers, then the moral and responsible thing to do is to slow down so as to better navigate those dangers. If he were alone, and sought only to risk his own life, then this can only be considered practical advice. However, if the welfare of others – such as children – are in his hands, then practical advice becomes a moral demand.

The moral thing to do would also be to pour some money into research so that we can actually learn what is out there and how to deal with it. I have also written how the Bush Administration has sabotaged these efforts.

Bush's new NASA budget contains significant cuts in earth-monitoring research, which is exactly the type of research we need in order to find out what dangers lurk ahead of us in the murky future. This can be compared to the captain of an ocean liner sailing through water where there are reports of icebergs also cutting down on the number of spotters he has on watch.

Bush is also having his staff rewrite the scientific research that the scientists are doing. As the ocean liner of the United States sails through the night into the future, Bush has told his bridge officers to translate any reports from the observation crew of "Iceberg, dead ahead!" to "Reports of icebergs are too tenuous to be used in affecting our decisions on course and speed."

This describes the moral quality of the captain who is guiding our current ship of state. It may well be that the Bush Administration could make it into history's list of top five most destructive world leaders.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

The War on Islam Christianity

It looks like the religious fundamentalists in Afghanistan will not get the opportunity to execute Abdul Rahman. Rahman was on trial for the crime of converting to Christianity. In Afghanistan, the punishment for apostasy (converting from Islam) is death. Consequently, many religious conservatives in Afghanistan were hoping for an execution.

However, after declaring Rahman possibly insane (for certainly anybody who converts from Islam must be mad), the Afghan government released him from jail. At that point, the Italians arranged to smuggle him out of the country before some well-meaning Muslim evangelical dedicated to performing God's will on earth had a chance to kill him.

While Rahman was being spirited away, the Afghan parliament, dominated by religious conservatives were demanded that he not be allowed to leave the country. They simply were not going to accept the idea that they be deprived of their rightful and righteous execution. If their demands were not met, they promised to lead the good (execution-living) people of Iraq in a political revolution against those secular, anti-Muslim liberals responsible for allowing Rahman's escape, and replace it with one more devoted to the principles of Islam.

In America, this would be called a "wedge issue." It is one of those issues, like gay marriage or the pledge of allegiance, that religious conservatives can use to rally their religious followers into a political force to take over the government.

This point -- that Rahman's execution seems to be the will of the people -- deserves some attention. People in Afghanistan are not marching or protesting that an unfair and unjust government was trying to execute an innocent man. They were protesting the fact that the government was willing to let Rahman live. They are protesting what they see as an Afghan version of a liberal "attack on Islam."

It is easy to imagine such people protesting that in no way should the properly religious and devout majority allow an impious minority to dictate such things. Simply by being a majority, if 85% of the people favor the execution of apostates then by God those apostates have a duty to stand by and be executed. The last thing this majority should tolerate is a pack of liberal "activist judges" telling them that they may not kill those people that their God tells them to kill. Instead, the minority -- those who support these "activist" liberal judges, should accept the fact that they are a minority, which means that they should just sit down and shut up.

In this specific case, the government's ad-hoc solution saved Rahman's life. However, it left every other Christian convert or future convert under religious oppression. It left the doctrine or the policy of executing converts intact. Thus, their solution still means that converts from Islam must still stay in the closet -- pretending to be Muslim and living their lives as a hypocrite if they are to save their lives. Those with the integrity and moral fortitude not to live a lie are punished for this crime -- the crime of being honest.

Now, we wait to see what the decision to save Rahman’s life (and no others) will have on the Afghanistan government. We wait to see of the religious conservatives will be able to rally the people into voting them into power and getting rid of the secular liberal government that let Rahman live.

We get to see how well the religious conservatives in Afghanistan can spread the word that the liberals there are engaged in a "war on Islam." We get to see how those religious conservatives can get their message out -- a message that says, "We need to make this country safe for Islam. We need to take a stand against those who would attack our religion by allowing apostates such as Rahman to go on living. We are not going to let them get away with saying that Islam is a hate crime simply because we insist on executing people like Rahman who attack our religion."

There is almost no religious freedom in Afghanistan today, and the religious conservative promise that there will be less religious freedom in the future.

It is particularly interesting to note the type of language that these religious conservatives are using in their quest to control the government.

“This is an attack on Islam.”

To help establish religious conservative rule in Afghanistan, religious conservatives are standing before the people claiming that the decision to allow Rahman to live, rather than execute him as their religious teachings require, is an “attack on Islam.” Their own actions, they claim, is merely an attempt to defend Islam from these types of attacks.

This is quite like what religious conservatives are doing to try to institute religious rule in America. The specifics are different, but the tactics are the same. Ironically, at the same time this was going on, there was a meeting in Washington DC to discuss "the War on Christians and the Values Voters of 2006" -- values that, though not identical, are very similar to the values expressed by the voters in Afghanistan.

Apparently, Christianity is under attack in America. However, the nature of this attack is not really much different than the nature of Abdul Rahman’s attack on Islam. There are a group of people in this country who do not wish to be forced to subscribe to the majority religion. They have found other options that make more sense to them. However, religious conservatives view any dissent from their religion as an attack. Any wish to say something other than “Merry Christmas” during the holidays is an attack on Christianity. A wish to send their children to religiously neutral schools rather than schools that seek to coerce children into accepting their religious views is an attack on Christianity. Any desire to attend government meetings without first publicly supporting their church is an attack on their church.

If we look at what these religious conservatives are trying to do in the schools, we can see a plan to turn them into taxpayer-funded churches which all children (with few exceptions) must attend. They insist on filling the halls and rooms with the trappings of their religion to make the school indistinguishable from one of their churches. This includes the 10 Commandments and religious slogans such as “in God we trust” as well as any form of art or symbol that portrays their religion.

Once church-school begins, the children are coerced into pledging allegiance to the state-God. The school day starts with a lesson by which children are told to stand and say out loud that they will view any who are not “under God” (and we all know which God they are talking about) as being as anti-American as rebels, tyrants, and criminals. Following this, there is a prayer to the state-God.

If students are permitted to sit out these rituals (though a mandatory pledge is certainly what the religious conservatives seek to require), this will only serve to identify dissenters as plainly if they were required to wear a yellow Star of David on their clothes. This way, all “good Americans” (because the ceremony does in fact teach that only those who pledge allegiance to the state-God are good Americans) will know who the bad Americans are.

You cannot have students stand up day after day and repeat the ritual that only those who accept the state-God can be “good Americans” without it having an effect. The effect of these rituals can be found, for example, in a study done by the Pew Research Center, and another recent study from the University of Minnesota. These studies show that atheists are the least trusted and viewed as the least American group in the country. How can it be otherwise in a country where children pledge each school day to view those not "under God" as anti-American, criminal-like beings?

This effect can also be found in a UCLA law article that shows how courts routinely deny atheists custody of their own children for no reason other than religious differences.

Note: Thanks to and The Secular Outpost for making me aware of these articles.

In this type of environment, it is wholly unreasonable to expect that an atheist student in a public school will get a fair evaluation from the average teacher. If a teacher accepts and even indoctrinates others in the prejudice that those who are not “under God” are “bad Americans”, then he is also going to tend to see them as “bad students,” and will evaluate their school work accordingly.

If somebody protests a ritual that brands them as a “bad American” then they are guilty of attacking Christianity.

We can also see those religious conservatives working to create a situation where participating in a government function requires that one first attend the appropriate religious ritual. They do this by putting the ritual at the start of the government ceremony, where only those who attend the ceremony are in place to participate in government. Once again, those who conspicuously refuse to participate in the ceremony are easily recognized – again, as easily recognized as if they were forced to war a large yellow star on their clothes. This way, the government can easily spot who they should listen to and who they may openly ignore or even mock..

Once again, those who protest – those who protest are said to be guilty of attacking Christianity.

If protesting a ritual that calls one a “bad American” in schools and at government functions is an intolerable attack on Christianity, then converting from Islam is an attack on Islam that good Muslim people must not tolerate.

The mentality, and the moral character, of Christian conservatives in America and Muslim conservatives in Afghanistan are quite similar. Both seek to take control of the government by convincing the people that anything that even hints at a rejection of their religion is an attack that good Muslims/Christians must respond to in kind. Both groups seek the same type of state – one which unites church and state and sees to the alienation and denigrate at best, and death at worst, of those who do not accept their rule.

There is one final injustice in this propaganda campaign claiming a so-called "war on Christians." Just like the "attack on Islam" that Rahman allegedly launched, it makes the mistake of claiming that Christianity (or Islam) is defined by this oppressive intolerance of others. These Muslims are not saying that this is an attack of one narrow-minded and hate-filled subtype of Islam. They say that this is an attack on all of Islam. Similarly, religious conservatives in America do not describe these protests as rejection of a narrow-minded, hate-filled brand of Christianity, but an attack on all of Christianity. In doing so, they do an injustice to Muslims and Christians who are more tolerant than they are. Nobody is attacking the Muslim who refuses to execute those who convert from their religion, just as nobody is attacking the Christian who refuses to support attempts to alienate, denigrate those who do not share their religion.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Homosexual Adoption

One of my readers sent me an email concerning a dispute in Massachusetts over whether a Catholic adoption agency should be allowed to consider homosexual couples. Governor Romney (R) of Massachusetts is seeking legislation that will allow Catholic adoption agencies to exclude homosexual couples after anti-discrimination legislation made such exclusions a crime. The Catholic Church has said that it would rather end its 103-year adoption services than be forced to place children with homosexual couples.

Of course, I think that refusing to consider homosexuals as potential adopters is bigoted, and bigotry in the name of God is no more justifiable than any act of violence done in the name of God. However, when it comes to granting licenses, I would say that the government should continue to license this agency.

With a slight change, I can make this argument personal. If I allow Catholics to discriminate against homosexuals, then it seems that I should also allow them to discriminate against atheist parents. Against such a standard, such an agency would certainly reject any application that my wife and I may file. Yet, I would still argue that the state should provide a license to such an institution.

Two Arguments

I have routinely offered two arguments in defense of this type of liberty.

The first argument is arrogance. It is one thing to say, "I believe X". It is another to claim, "You must act as if you believe X as well." The second assertion requires a much stronger defense. On these issues, we should start with the presumption that others may act on their own beliefs unless we have evidence beyond a reasonable doubt that their actions are harmful to others.

We must recognize that discrimination is not always evil. In fact, adoption agencies have a duty to discriminate. They have an obligation to determine if a couple will provide a child with a safe and secure home, whether the adopting couple can cover any medical emergencies that might arise, and the like. The issue here is not whether discrimination itself is good or bad, but whether discrimination on the basis of certain characteristics are good or bad.

The second argument is the same that I used in defense of (name's) decision to built a Catholic village. Society as a whole benefits by allowing people to try out a large range of model communities. If a model community fails, then the rest of the world learns something from their failure. If the model society succeeds, then that success generates a standard that others can try to follow. The knowledge of their successes and failures will help others make an informed decision.

Both of these points argue in favor of allowing a Catholic adoption agency to use its own standards in placing children for adoption. The freedom implied by both humility and a desire for information (data) on which to make future decisions suggest that this institution be allowed to act in accordance with its own beliefs.

Types of Support

There are a number of ways in which the State of Massachusetts may interact with such an agency. For some of them, I would agree that it would be wrong for the State to provide any support.

First, the State must determine if it will give money to such an agency. I would argue that it is not entitled to any state funds. Those state funds are provided, in part, by homosexuals. It would be unfair to demand that homosexuals pay tax money that, in turn, gets used to promote the idea that homosexuals are contemptible embodiments of evil. The State should not fund that message.

Second, the State often takes custody of children and determines that those children be put up for adoption. When it does so, it should not use an agency that inappropriately discriminates against homosexuals. Those children should be placed only with agencies that agree to use the State's standards regarding who may or may not adopt a child.

However, the Massachusetts law does not concern funding or placement. It concerns licensing -- or permitting -- an activity. Clearly, the set of activities that the government should permit is massively larger than the set of activities that it should fund or that it should participate in. The state may have an obligation to permit a KKK rally in downtown Boston, but it has no obligation to either fund or participate in such a rally.

My analogy here, in saying that the state should treat freedom of religion the same way it treats freedom of speech, is no accident. Indeed, the state should license religions that holds values it does not agree with, just as it should license speech that it does not agree with.

We can well imagine a pregnant Catholic teenager wanting to put her child up for adoption, while still insisting that the child be brought up as Catholic. Whereas it is perfectly acceptable for her to raise the child as a Catholic if she keeps the child, I see no reason to object if she should insist that the child be placed with a practicing Catholic couple if she should put it up for adoption. An agency that specializes in placing children with Catholic parents would suit her interests.

Such a right passes the "do unto others" test, because would it not be fair to give the teenage atheist who wants to give her child up for adoption the liberty to insist that the child be placed in a home of reason and enlightenment, if one can be found?

When it comes to licensing, the State's standards should be limited to asking whether the agency places its children in safe and secure homes. If it can meet this criteria, the state's interest in the welfare of the child has been satisfied.


There are some issues that people should be allowed to fight over without dragging the government into their dispute. These issues should not be brought onto the legislative floor or the judge's chambers, but should be confined to the street where advocates on both sides engage in public debate. The state should become involved only when that public debate becomes violent.

As a participant in this public debate, I would yield condemnation and scorn on those who condemn homosexuals and atheists as inherently unfit parents with as much fight as I could muster. Such individuals are instituting bigotry and hatred and deserve the harshest condemnation. Yet, as with the KKK planning a rally, the government should not use its power to license in order to silence them. The criticism has to come from the public, and it has to come on the streets.

The license should be granted. Then, the battle goes on to shaming those who would actually want to use the services of those who market in hatred and bigotry.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Secular vs Non-Secular Acceptance of Torture

A reader has called my attention to an article in the National Catholic Reporter that reports on the fact that "Americans, Especially Catholics, Approve of Torture."

I suspect that it may have been difficult for some Catholics to accept the results of this survey. The Church’s official position is that torture is never justified. Yet, this survey says that many Catholics have strayed from Church doctrine, embracing that which the Church condemns as evil. Indeed, they may even be embarrassed by the suggestion that non-Catholics make better Catholics than the Catholics themselves do on this issue.

On this matter, the author of the story, Tom Carney, deserves a note of praise. Typically, people condemn surveys that yield results that they do not like, preferring to attack the messenger with ad hominems and magnifying every little fault and imperfection they might find in the study. They do nothing but look for an excuse to ignore the findings and pretend the world is not the way that the survey describes it.

Mr. Carney showed no evidence of this. He accepted the survey and used it as his starting point. It is quite refreshing to read a writer who has that much intellectual integrity.


I have read other blogs in which writers have used this survey to assert that secular individuals are more moral than sectarian individuals.

This is actually a poor argument. It begs the question. Such a claim requires the assumption that the answer secular people are more likely to give is the right answer. However, if we assume this, then we are assuming that the secular answer is better than the sectarian answer. From this assumption we cannot legitimately infer that secular people are more moral than sectarian people without begging the question.

The argument is like having two people looking at a long column of numbers. The first person comes up with a total of 547,984,983. The other comes up with a total of 547,984,984 and asserts, "Ha, this proves that I can do math better than you." Whether the person's claim is true depends on what the real sum of numbers happens to be -- which is something that the story does not tell us.


Another problem with the poll concerns its ambiguity. What exactly qualifies as a "suspected terrorist"? Tell these people a story about a military unit that draws the name of a village out of a hat, sends in troops to round up all of the citizens, and locks them up as “suspected terrorists”. They plan on torturing every one of these citizens. Ask them if they would support the torture of these prisoners? Compare this to the person who interprets a "suspected terrorist" as somebody for whom the evidence of terrorism is overwhelming. To this person, nobody becomes a "suspected terrorist" until there is overwhelming evidence against them. He thinks he is being asked about the torture of such a person.

Given these possibilities, it is quite possible for the former person to say that torture is almost never justified (given the way people are indiscriminately rounded up), while the other says that torture is often justified (since we are talking about somebody has almost certainly just planted a bomb in a highly populated area that will otherwise soon take a huge number of innocent lives).

Perhaps the differences in numbers have more to do with how different groups tend to interpret the question than in any differences in moral beliefs. This makes it difficult to know what differences actually exist.

In Opposition to Torture

Putting these problems aside, I can give an argument to show that ‘never’ or ‘rarely’ are the correct answers.

Using desire utilitarianism, if you do not want to be tortured, and do not want those that you care about to be tortured, then the best thing to do is to promote an aversion to torture. The way to promote a universal aversion to torture is to stand ready to condemn and to punish those who would torture -- to react with harsh anger and criminal sanctions in the worst cases, and to encourage others to do the same. The more strongly torture is condemned, the less of it there should be.

In contrast, the Bush Administration, by its actions, is weakening the social aversion to torture. They do this by telling the world that torture is acceptable.

Using the principle of "do unto others", Bush and his friends are telling the rest of the world, “you may do unto us Americans that which we do unto you.” If any who support Bush should discover that he has been kidnapped and hauled off to a foreign prison, where he is tortured and brutalized without a lawyer or a trial, only to be released a year later when his captors finally believe he knew nothing; they would not be able to protest that they were treated unjustly without making themselves hypocrites. They have told the world, “This is okay.” Morality does not allow an individual to suddenly jump to a different principle when they are the recipient.

Those who want less torture, and think that they have a right to protest if they or those they love should be brutalized in this way, have reason to condemn torture. In addition, they have reason to show their contempt and anger for those who support the institution of torture.

Sure, I can come up with scenarios in which torturing somebody -- even torturing an innocent person -- may come out as a good thing. If I were abducted by aliens who assured me that they will destroy the Earth unless I torture some innocent child, I would probably torture the innocent child.

However, I can honestly say that I do not expect to ever find myself in a situation where torture would be acceptable. As a matter of philosophical reflection, I may say that torture is ‘rarely’ permissible because of the stories I can imagine where torture may be necessary. On the other hand, to the degree that I think of morality as a practical part of the real world, I recognize that there will almost certainly be no real-world situation where torture is a good thing. That is to say, torture in the real world is never justified.

I suspect that many who answer “never” see torture in this light. They fear that if they say ‘rarely,’ that others will assume that they have found one of those rare instances where they have not. It is better . . . safer . . . to say “never”. No innocent person will ever be tortured by somebody who believes that torture is never permissible. His torturer will always be somebody from one of the other groups. His torturer will more likely be somebody who thinks torture is “often” permissible than one who thinks it is “rarely” permissible.

If you never torture, then you will never risk torturing somebody who does not deserve it. This is true in just the same way that if you never kill anybody, you will never kill an innocent person.


Given all of this, the correct answer as to whether torture is permissible is "never" or "rarely". Since more secular people give the right answer, it would follow that secular people have a better understanding of morality than non-secular people. Those who seek to cast secular people as those who have divorced themselves from morality would have some explaining to do.

However, in order to reach this conclusion, one has to do more than point to the essay and say, “Here, I told you so!” One does have an obligation to say something as to why the answers that secular people are more likely to give are, in fact, the right answer. Without this, the argument that “more secular people say torture is rarely or ever permissible; therefore, secular people are more moral on average than non-secular people,” is circular. Yet, even this conclusion, when it is proved, has dangerous implications. It still remains the case that it is wrong to judge all Catholics by statistics. Any particular Catholic can still answer that torture is rarely or never permissible. It is the official doctrine of the Catholic Church that torture is never permissible. Such a person ought not to be judged immoral because he is Catholic and Catholics tend to favor torture more than others. This would be as immoral as saying that a particular man is a criminal because he is blacks and a larger portion of blacks are criminals than of whites. This is bigotry, and it has no place in the life of a morally good person.

A Catholic such as this ought to be judged moral because he holds that torture is rarely or never justified, which is the right answer. This is what matters.

A Catholic who opposes torture is not an enemy because he is Catholic. He is an allie because he is lending his voice to the battle to oppose torture.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Intellectual Recklessness and Sea Level Rise

Time Magazine is devoting a substantial amount of space in its current issue to global warming, under a title page that says, "Be Worried. Be Very Worried."

To a certain extent, that does not mean much. News outlets like sensational headlines because they help sales. Still, every once (as with the weeks after 9/11) it is possible to have sensational headlines that actually reflect something of the real world.

When I left college, I became particularly interested in global warming (a.k.a. "climate change"). This is in part because my first serious job after college involved working for an environmental consulting firm, and papers on climate change crossed my desk every day.

One of the arguments that climate change critics constantly used -- one that the Bush Administration still uses -- is that the climate change is complex. We really do not know what is happening; therefore, we have no reason to take any action against it.

Now, imagine that you are a passenger on a cruise ship. Those who study the north Atlantic have warned that there may well be icebergs in the water up ahead. However, the head of the company that owns the ocean liner says that it would be bad for business if the ocean liner did not make the trip to America in record time. Therefore, he orders the ship to travel at full speed.

Then, they see the iceberg. Because of the speed at which the ocean liner was traveling, it simply cannot slow down or turn fast enough to avoid a collision.

With other lives at stake -- particularly the lives of children at stake -- this type of decision is not just another innocent miscalculation. This is recklessness. At best, this is a moral crime. At best, this is a crime as bad as the mass murder of, let us say, 1,500 passengers who died as a result of the chain of events that this decision set off.

On the issue of global warming, the morally responsible course to have taken when evidence of trouble ahead started to come in would have been to slow down -- to give us a better chance to maneuver around any climate obstacles that may have shown up ahead of us. Instead, our CEO ordered "full speed ahead," because anything less would have economic costs.

As if running into an iceberg would not have economic costs.

The argument, "we do not know what is up ahead; therefore, we have nothing to worry about," is an example of the informal fallacy, "argument from ignorance." Any use of an informal fallacy is an example of intellectual recklessness. When an informal fallacy is used in conjunction with a policy that puts lives and well-being at risk (particularly the lives and well-being of children), we have a moral fault.

Throughout the 1990s, scientists we claiming that the sea levels could rise from 0.5 to 1.0 meters as a result of global warming. This mostly had to do with the fact that water expands as it gets warm, and that expansion would raise sea level.

Global warming skeptics made their argument that climate science is uncertain, and they could easily be wrong. Because they were wrong, we have nothing to worry about.

A morally responsible person would have recognize that if there is a possibility of error, then that possibility could go both ways. If scientists are wrong, it is just as possible that they had underestimated the rise in sea level as it is that they over-estimated sea-level rise. But the skeptics did not wish to consider this possibility. They continued to argue, "we know nothing; therefore, we have nothing to worry about."

Current research shows that scientists might have actually made a mistake about sea-level rise. Current data suggests that the ice sheets in Antarctica and Greenland are melting. Instead of a 1 meter rise in sea-level, we are now looking at a 7-meter (about 23 feet) rise in sea-level.

So, if you are inclined, go onto the internet and look at some nice coastal pictures. Imagine a two-story building sitting right on the shore at the high-tide mark. Next, imagine that sea-level is now at a height equal to the roof of that house. Then, trace that sea-level inland and look at what will be lost.

Imagine that for every coast on every continent.

What we are about to lose is going to cost us a lot more than an ocean liner with 2,300 people on board (of which only the wealthy will be able to get into the available lifeboats). The cost, this time, is going to be global.

Intellectual recklessness such as this is one of the most violent and destructive of all moral crimes. Murderers destroy lives and can devastate a community, but the intellectually reckless now have the capacity to sew destruction on a planetary scale.

The magnitude of the destruction that they cause means that the intellectually reckless or orders of magnitude more morally corrupt than the serial killer or serial rapist.

It is well past the appropriate time to get appropriately angry at those who engage in and promote the moral crime of intellectual recklessness. If we, ourselves, turn out to be among those people, it is time to feel an appropriate level of shame and to resolve to do a better job in the future.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Civil Rights and Death

Some days, I wish that I could draw.

Some political points are best illustrated in a straight forward deductive argument. Some are best illustrated in a story.

Yet, there are times when I read a story and the argument that comes into my mind is a picture – a political cartoon.

As shown on Crooks and Liars, Senator Pat Roberts (R - Kansas), the Republican head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, was discussing Bush’s illegal wiretaps on “Late Edition” today. In the interview, he said, “You don't have civil liberties if you're dead."

So, what immediately came to my mind is this:

A picture (political cartoon) set in the American Revolutionary war. The British are lining up on one side with guns and cannons, while George Washington on his horse is lining up the American soldiers. Then, in the cartoon, one American soldier throws down his gun and bolts for the rear, crying, “You don’t have civil rights if you’re dead.”

If anybody wants to draw up this cartoon for me, I will try to figure out how to append it to this post. If I get more than one cartoon, I will use the ones that I like the best.

I could add more words to this blog entry, but I do not see a reason to.

That cartoon would say everything that I would want to say in response to Senator Roberts’ remarks.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

The Limits of Religious Tolerance

It looks as if the government of Afghanistan is going to dismiss the charge of converting to Christianity against Abdur Rahman. The crime of conversion is considered an attack on Islam and is punishable by death. The government decided that they do not have enough evidence to convict him.

According to The Guardian:

Rahman, who begged his jailers for a bible, insists he is of sound mind and willing to die for his faith. "I am serene and have full awareness ... If I must die, I will die," he told the Italian daily La Repubblica, which sent questions through a human rights worker.

How much more evidence do they need?

Of course, I am not arguing for a conviction. It’s just that nobody is being fooled here. Any claim that the government lacks evidence is a clear lie. Politically, this clear lie may be the best way to prevent a murder. Morally, a just society is one in which a government does not have to lie, and the people do not have to pretend to believe a lie, in order to prevent such a murder.

Another moral flaw with this decision is that it guarantees no safety for the next convert. It is not as if the people can trust that the government will pretend lack of evidence with every convert they hear about. All other converts have to accept the possibility of being murdered at the hands of the government, if not the people. There is religious oppression in such a society. There is injustice . . . immorality . . . in such a society.

Religious Tolerance

Those who are defending the right to murder Rahman are making claims that the doctrine of religious tolerance we had an obligation not to interfere with their religious way of life.

I suggest that religious tolerance has a clearly defined limit. I have an obligation not to interfere with the religious practice of others, up to the point where they pick up knives or guns or bombs or airplanes and start killing people in the name of God. There is one type of religion which we cannot tolerate, and that is a religion whose God tells its follows to kill, maim, or otherwise harm their peaceful neighbors.

It is simple nonsense to say, “In the name of religious tolerance, if a mob comes after you and demands that you be burned at the stake, then you have a moral obligation to surrender to them and accept the punishment. Refusing to be burned at the stake is to be considered an insult to their religion, and that is something we cannot permit.”

It is simple nonsense to say that, in the name of religious tolerance, an individual must accept violence motivated by the intolerant commandments written into another person’s religion.

If it is an insult or an attack on another person’s religion to say, “You may not do violence to me and invoking the name of your God as the authority for doing violence is no defense,” then one is speaking of a religion that very much deserves insult and attack.

A Taste of One’s Own Medicine

While Christians are complaining about the of their own being threatened with murder because somebody else’s religion demands that he be murdered, I do see this is as an opportunity to say to at least some evangelical Christians, “Perhaps this taste of your own medicine will teach you a little about the real difference between right and wrong.”

There are Christians who use their Bible to advocate violence against others. Like the Muslim’s in Afghanistan, they seek to use the courts and the system of law as the instruments for inflicting this violence, but it is unjust violence just the same.

There is no moral difference between the harm that the Muslim conservatives in Afghanistan wish to use the law to inflict on apostates, and the harm that Christian conservatives seek to use the law to inflict on homosexuals. In both cases, violence is equally defended according to the religious commandments of a God that the advocates of violence say is the source of all that is good and right.

There is no moral difference between the status of homosexuals in America, and Christian apostates in Afghanistan. Both groups can equally be described as victims of religious oppression – of violence that one group seeks to impose on others in the name of God.

One may argue that homosexuals in this country are not being killed (except by thugs who take their religion to unjustified extremes). Yet, there are religious conservatives in this country who do argue for death.

More importantly, those Christian conservatives who are saying, “We are not killing homosexuals so we do not wrong,” would need to assert – if they are not going to be hypocrites – that there would be nothing wrong with Muslims in Afghanistan denying Christians the right to marry, or to hold jobs as teachers in the public schools, or express themselves in public, or adopt children, or may be subject to have their children taken away from them on the basis that Christians, by definition, cannot provide children with a fit home environment.

If they are willing to allow that Muslim laws to this affect would not count as religious persecution of Christians in Afghanistan, then they would at least be free of the charge of hypocrisy for claiming that they do no wrong to homosexuals in arguing for similar laws here based on their religion.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Death to Christians

Some moral issues are so obvious that it is difficult to justify using up a whole pack of electrons to discuss them.

In Afghanistan, Abdur Rahman is being tried for the crime of converting to Christianity. This is considered to be an attack on Islam and is punishable by death.

Now, here comes the moral judgment:


There is not a lot of room for ambiguity here, and we are not dealing with shades of gray. Killing people who convert to another religion is evil. It is wrong; immoral; a really, really bad thing to do.

A Chance for Peace

If there is going to be any chance for peace in the world, then there must be a morality that transcends religion. There must be a morality that discusses how those of one religion should treat those of a different religion. It cannot be a system of "anything does". It certainly cannot be a system of "let us kill each other until all of the members of one of these religions is dead."

The only option that fits the bill is, "let us not make it a crime to become a member of another religion."

I have argued that this is the essence of morality. Morality concerns the use of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment to promote a fondness for those things that it is good for people to like, and an aversion to those things that it is good for people to hate.

"Good to like" and "good to hate" in turn are understood in terms of what would fulfill other desires, regardless of whose they are.

World peace requires, among other things, a universal aversion to killing converts or those belonging to other religions. Morality, then, dictates that we condemn and, if necessary, punish those who would kill somebody who converts to another religion, and praise those who would not do so or act to prevent such a killing.

On the basis of this, we can conclude that those who would kill . . . let us use a more accurate word here, murder . . . Rahman deserve the harshest condemnation.

The following quotes identify two people who are among those who deserve the same contempt that we would show to any murderer.

Mawlawi Ghulam Haider, 75, a mullah in a Kabul mosque, said: "If somebody becomes a Christian or converts to any other religion than Islam, he must be given a chance over three days to think and return to Islam. If he returns to Islam, he can live happily ever after. But if he doesn't turn back … he will be punished by death."

From the Washington Post: “Rahman had "committed the greatest sin" by converting to Christianity and deserved to be killed, cleric Abdul Raoulf said in a sermon Friday at Herati Mosque.”

A Way Out

It is said that there are some Afghan government officials looking for a way out of this pickle -- a way of seeing to it that Rahman is not murdered because of his beliefs. As it turns out, many who are working on discovering an option are not doing it because of their contempt for Rahman’s murder. They are doing it for money; because the western world has been giving the government of Afghanistan a lot of money. They will not act to save an innocent life, but will do so for money.

However, we can still say that they are doing the right thing, even if they are doing it for the wrong reason.

One of the proposals that they are examining involves declaring Rahman to be not guilty by reason of insanity. It is wrong to kill an insane individual.

Apparently, being a convert to Christianity is something worse than being insane, because converts to Christianity can be legitimately killed, whereas the insane must be allowed to live.

So, I would like to know how this can be made into an overall plan to secure the lives of all future converts. Are they going to assert that all converts are insane, or just this one? Can the next convert rest comfortably that the Afghan government will not murder him? If the government of Afghanistan says that Rahman is insane, it appears that they will still end up eventually murdering somebody. Perhaps they hope that they can get away with it next time, because next time the rest of the world will not be looking.

There is one morally correct way out of this trap.

"We will not kill Rahman because killing people for converting to another religion is wrong, and we will not do that which is wrong."

The People of Afghanistan

The lieutenants in the army of evil advocating Rahman’s murder have said that, if the Afghan government does not murder Rahman, then they will tell their followers to do so. And those followers would likely obey.

From the Washington Post, “Senior clerics in the Afghan capital have voiced strong support for prosecuting Rahman and again warned Friday they would incite people to kill him unless he reverted to Islam.”

Plus, those same religous leaders have warned that they will lead the people in an uprising to overthrow the existing government and replace it with a pack of murderers, if the existing government does not murder Rahman. We have seen this happen elsewhere in the Middle East, where the people have elected murders into power.

Informal polls conducted of the Afghan people support this threat. Reporters have said that they have gone onto the street and could scarcely find anybody who was not in favor of Rahman’s murder.

If this is true, then this society is morally corrupt, and it has been made that way by its religious leaders. This is a group of people whose religion has made them incapable of telling the difference between good and evil, who will commit murder while shouting "God is great."

I am not saying that all Muslims are evil. Only those who would advocate Rahman’s murder are evil. Muslims who recognize that conversion does not justify killing do not fit this description.


Here is another bit of hypocrisy. Many Muslims become a riotous and murderous mob at news that people had drawn cartoons of Mohammed. They considered it an insult to Islam. Yet, they expect the Christian world to sit back and accept the murder of a Christian for becoming a Christian, and they do not recognize that this is an insult to Christianity.

Let's see; drawing a cartoon of a Muslim as a terrorist versus killing a living, breathing human being. Does it make any sense at all to condemn the former while praising the latter? If it does, I cannot see it.


There has been a lot of talk since 9/11 about the distinction between peaceful Muslims and the fundamentalist, terrorist Muslims. Here's one way that we can tell which camp a particular person actually belongs to. Do they advocate the murder of converts, or are they willing to allow converts to live out their lives in peace?

The former are evil. There is no ambiguity at this point.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Are These Your Moral Values?

Do you believe that government should reflect your moral values?

I do, in a sense. A good government is, by definition, a just and moral government.

I also believe in an objective right and wrong, and that I am not the master of all wisdom. Therefore, I can make mistakes. If I am wrong about the morality of something, I hope that the government ignores me and reflects what is right, rather than what I (falsely) think is right. This is still consistent with the claim that a good government must be a just and moral government.

If you agree with this, then I have a question. What moral value do you place on lies and deceit and other forms of "bearing false witness", and on breaking the law? Do people who engage in or defend these things reflect your moral values?

I ask this because the Republican National Committee has released a new radio advertisement that only those who value deceit in defense of criminal acts could embrace.

This advertisement claims that the Democrats are attempting to censure President Bush for fighting terrorism.

This is a lie. This is "bearing false witness."

The truth is that some Democrats are attempting to censure President Bush for breaking the law and acting in ways that are destructive of the Constitution. The Bush Administration and the Republican National Committee are not even trying to defend themselves against these charges (because they are so clearly guilty). Instead, they lie. They claim that they are being charged with 'something else' that they can defend themselves against, and thus try to hide what they have done behind a smokescreen of deceit.

A Crime in New York

Imagine this scenario:

On the streets of New York, Sergeant George Bush of the NYPD is running after a purse-snatcher. The purse-snatcher runs into a subway station and onto a crowded subway car. Officer Bush, knowing that he cannot make it onto the subway before the doors close and the train starts to move, takes out a grenade and throws it into the car. The resulting explosion kills the purse-snatcher and 12 other passengers, and wounds 36 others.

Later, back at the police station, Sergeant Russ Feingold suggests that Sergeant Bush should be reprimanded for excessive use of force. In fact, Sergeant Feingold and others believe that Sergeant Bush's actions constitute murder -- a criminal act. However, for some reason (which I fail to understand and cannot explain) Feingold is suggesting a reprimand rather than formal criminal charges.

As an asside, I would insist on formal criminal charges in such a case and condemn Sergeant Feingold for codling and even sanctioning murder. However, that is not the way the story went.

As it turns out, Sergeant Bush has powerful friends who have decided that they are going to defend him no matter what he does. Sergeant Bush could have thrown the grenade for the pleasure of watching people die, and many of these "Friends of Sergeant Bush" would have still rushed to his defense. In this case, they take out advertisements in the New York newspapers and on its radio and television stations that say, "Sergeant Feingold is attempting to reprimand Sergeant Bush for stopping a purse-snatcher."


Those "Friends of Sergeant Bush" would be liars.

It would be absolutely and categorically false to say that Sergeant Feingold is attempting to reprimand Sergeant Bush "for stopping a purse-snatcher." There are countless ways in which Sergeant Bush could have stopped a purse-snatcher that would not have resulted in a reprimand. Sergeant Feingold's reprimand is for the wantonly destructive way in which Sergeant Bush pursued his goal - the fact that by throwing the grenade he did something far worse than the purse-snatcher could have done. His "end justifies the means" morality made him a far more dangerous to others than the purse-snatcher was.

Those "Friends of Sergeant Bush" who would pay for such a campaign are people who have decided to lie in defense of a criminal act. Not only are they liars, not only are they defending a criminal act, but they are also saying that the wonton murder of innocent people in a New York subway does not even deserve an official reprimand.

Would you say that these "Friends of Sergeant Bush" represent your moral values?

If anybody misses the analogy, let me be explicit. Sergeant Bush's wonton destruction of life in stopping a purse-snatcher is comparable to President Bush's wonton destruction of the Constitution. If we were to get into a debate over which is worse, I would like to remind the reader that there are a great many people who have given their lives to defend the Constitution, and others who have already given their limbs and their well-being in a number of ways. Of the two options, there are many who would volunteer to be in the subway and take the blast if doing so would save the Constitution.

A terrorist cannot destroy our Constitution. He does not have that power. Only our elected representatives can do that. In this regard, they are far more dangerous than any terrorist.

Terrorism Equals Purse Snatching

I can count on at least one person complaining that in this essay I am somehow comparing a purse-snatcher to a terrorist. That also would be a lie or, at best, intellectually reckless. I am illustrating the fact that the RNC is lying with its claim that Democrats are seeking to censure Bush for fighting terrorism by showing that it would be a lie for the Friends of Sergeant Bush to say that Sergeant Feingold is attempting to reprimand Bush for stopping a purse-snatcher. Lies are lies.

There is nothing in this argument that depends on the claim, "terrorism equals purse snatching". The person who says otherwise would be making false claims and, themselves, be guilty of embracing fiction in defense of criminal acts.

A Pattern of Abusing the Truth

This is only the most recent example in which the Bush Administration and the Republican National Committee embrace deception as if honesty has no moral value and "bearing false witness" is not immoral.

President Bush repeatedly said that his administration would not spy on Americans without a warrant, while at the same time he was repeatedly renewing a secret executive order authorizing the NSA to spy on American citizens without a warrant.

President Bush has his advisors rewrite papers produced by government scientists, turning those documents in a pack of lies then using those lies to defend administration policies.

President Bush said that nobody could have foreseen the destruction to New Orleans just days after he was told to expect the possibility that Hurricane Katrina would flood New Orleans.

These are not "gray areas" that are open to interpretation. Saying that he will always get a court order before spying on Americans while he has staff members spying on Americans without a court order is a flat-out lie. Taking a scientific paper that says "A = B" and rewriting it to say, "A might not equal B" is a lie. Saying that he was not told of the potential flooding of New Orleans when video tapes show him being told of the potential for flooding is a lie.

Not only is Bush lying, but he is doing so with the full knowledge and support, and even the assistance, of the Republican National Committee, which has decided to back up Bush's lies with its own lies.

Not only do the members of the Bush Administration and the Republican National Committee lie, they seem to do so with no conscience whatsoever. Sometimes they tell the truth. Yet, this never appears to be motivated by a sense of right and wrong. It is motivated entirely by a sense of convenience. If these people tell the truth, it is because, this time, they happen to find the truth to be useful.

These people have no respect for truth and honesty. It is completely absent. They have no respect for the law. They assert the right to break the law whenever it is convenient for them to do so.

The question remains: Do those who lie so freely and flaunt the law so openly actually reflect your moral values?

Lives vs. The Constitution

Before I close, I would like to expand on a point that I made above.

Above, I wrote that, if you compare Sergeant Bush's destruction of lives to the President Bush's destruction of the Constitution, that destroying the Constitution is the greater evil. The mere fact that there are so many people who would risk their lives to protect the Constitution is evidence of their relative value.

Apparently, President Bush and the Republican members of Congress do not believe that the Constitution is nearly as important as this. While they run the Constitution through the shredder, the argument they give over and over again is that shredding the Constitution is necessary to save lives.

Hundreds of thousands of Americans have died to protect that Constitution. This claim that we must shred the Constitution to save lives tells those who gave their lives to defend the Constitution that they were wrong – even foolish.

The Bush Administration has weighed lives against preserving the Constitution and found lives to be more important. Generations of soldiers have weighed their lives against defending (the principles embodied within) the Constitution and found the Constitution and its principles to be more important.

Who is right?

When you answer this question, ask yourself if the Bush Administration and its defenders represent your moral values?

Other Wrongs.

While you are at it, remind yourself of the other moral values that this administration represents.

Wars under false pretenses



Imprisonment without trial

The destruction of the life, liberty, and property of others through environmental damage for profit.

The criminalization of protest by confining protesters to ‘free speech zones’ where they will not be heard or seen.

These are also values that this Administration and the Republican National Committee have decided to promote and defend. These are values that can be added to the value it places on lying and deceit, criminal acts, and destroying the Constitution.

Now, let me ask one last time:

Are these really your moral values?

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Merit Pay Based on Test Scores

In Florida, Governor Jeb Bush is pushing a proposal to relate teacher's pay to student's test scores. Teachers will get a bonus according to the degree to which students that they are teaching are able to improve their standardized test scores over the course of the school year.

Imagine that you were creating a new basketball team. Unlike the other teams, you decide to pay players solely on the basis of the highest grade they obtained while they were in school and the number of years they have spent on your team.

I guarantee that this would be a recipe for a basketball team guaranteed to sit at or near the bottom of the standings for eternity. Indeed, those games that other teams play against such a team would simply be considered scrimmage games – an opportunity to practice. In the same way, American schools that follow this model, when compared to schools that make an effort to distinguish good from poor teachers and provide an incentive for teachers to improve the quality of their work, are also going to find themselves hovering at or near the bottom of their standings.

If you want to create a good team -- a winning team -- then you will need to find some way to measure the quality of different players, then make sure that you bring the best players into the positions that they are best suited to play. The sports pages are riddled with statistics, all of which are used to determine the 'merit pay' of players.

Now, the merit pay system used in basketball is not perfect. There are intangibles such as teamwork and entertainment value (the ability of a particular player to draw fans because he makes the game more entertaining) that are difficult to measure and figure into a player’s statistics. Yet, they are important to distinguishing the quality of the player. Yet, a coach would have to be mighty foolish to take this as an argument against looking at the statistics and using that information, in part, to determine how much an individual player is worth to the team.

Yet, the argument used against merit pay for teachers tend to follow the lines of, “The system is not perfect; therefore, it should not be used.” The standard argument falls along the lines of coming up with some list of shortcomings for a merit pay proposal, and using those shortcomings to argue against merit pay.

If this line of reasoning were valid, it would be as applicable to merit pay for basketball players as it is for teachers – because the system for determining merit pay for basketball players is not perfect either.

The proper way to evaluate a proposal is not to measure whether it is perfect. No proposal will ever be able to pass such a test. The proper form of evaluation is to compare a proposal to alternative proposals and see which is the least imperfect. The alternative proposal in this case is a proposal to base a teacher’s pay entirely on how many years the teacher has been working, and to condemn any attempt to even try to measure the quality of that teacher’s work.

Problem: Inaccurate Tests

There certainly are some problems with merit pay based on test scores. One of the issues that we would need to keep an eye on is the quality of the tests.

Imagine a school system that bases merit pay on tests scores. Then, the voters select a school board that insists that the local tests include the following question:

(97) "Intelligent Design" is an example of a scientific theory.

Plus, they insist that the correct answer is, ‘TRUE.’

In a system that gives merit pay for test scores, such a system would be giving merit pay to teachers who actually make their students stupider. Those students who think that ‘TRUE’ really is the right answer to this question demonstrate that they either have no idea of what constitutes a scientific theory, or no idea what ‘intelligent design’ says. Either way, they have some flaw in their education.

However, the proper conclusion to draw in these types of cases is not to abandon the concept of merit pay. It is to accept that we also have a responsibility to fight to make sure that the tests themselves are good tests.

If we use this as a reason to oppose merit pay, then we are in fact arguing, “Because the current system is producing so many people who do not understand issues such as this, we should preserve the current system.” It is a rather poor argument.

Problem: Cultural Bias

In addition to the possibility of an undereducated society putting wrong answers on the test, there is a problem with test writers putting cultural bias into their tests.

For example, boys tend to be substantially more knowledgeable about sports than girls. To the degree that questions in a standardized test make use of this background of sports knowledge, to that degree boys will have an advantage over girls. Similar problems exist for students who belong to ethnic cultures that differ from the culture of those who created the tests. Teachers whose students do not share the same cultural assumptions as those who created the tests will be punished relative to those teachers whose students share the same cultural knowledge as the test makers.

However, this is not an argument against merit pay. This is an argument for putting more effort to eliminating cultural biases in tests. Our reasons for doing this extend far beyond the benefit of allowing merit pay based on test scores to work more efficiently. Even if we do not base merit pay on these tests scores, cultural bias still is harmful to certain students. It affects the student’s comparative standing among other college graduates and affects the ability to get scholarships. It also has a psychological affect on a student’s self-esteem.

Saying that cultural bias is an argument against merit pay is like saying that the discovery of a rotten apple in an apple barrel gives reason to toss out the perfectly good apple sitting next to it. The proper response to this type of problem is to throw out the rotten apple. In this case, cultural bias in standardized testing is the rotten apple.

Problem: Relativism

Standardized testing plays havoc with the philosophy of relativism because standardized testing works on the assumption that there are right answers. Creating test questions that actually count certain answers wrong goes against the doctrine that no answers are actually right or wrong – that any answer a particular student likes for a question is ‘true for him’ and deserves just as much respect and consideration as any other answer.

However, the problem here is not to be found in the standardized tests. It is to be found in the doctrine of relativism. There is nothing at all wrong with claiming that there are right and wrong answers, and it is possible for students to get some answers wrong. Furthermore, it is the job of those who opt to be teachers to do the best job they can in helping the students to accurately identify and distinguish (objectively) true propositions from those that are (objectively) false.

Problems: Unmeasured Qualities

A system that bases merit pay on improvements on test scores do not measure all of the qualities that make a teacher a good teacher. There are other qualities that must be considered as well.

(1) Character development. If we want our children to grow up in a society in which they can live safe and secure lives, then we are going to want him to grow up in a society where their neighbors have been caused to acquire a solid moral character -- honestly, kindness, integrity, and the like. Standardized tests do not measure a teacher's ability to promote these qualities. As a result, there are aspects to being a good teacher -- a teacher very much deserving of merit pay -- that these tests do not cover.

(2) Concern for students. Teachers are in a good position to determine the state of a child's emotional and physical health as well as the quality of the student's life outside of school. He can detect signs of abuse, illness, and injury that might otherwise go unnoticed. A good teacher may be able to get help for a student who is abusing drugs or alcohol or engaging in other forms of risky behavior, or who may have become depressed or even suicidal. There is a significant difference in quality between the teacher who is concerned about the well-being of his students and one who could not care less.

These are just two examples of other qualities that we would like to look at in determining whether an individual is or is not a good teacher.

This is quite similar to the problem that being a good basketball player is determined by more than the number of points an individual player scores. Teamwork and entertainment value are also important, but are difficult to measure.

The answer to this problem is, again, not to abolish the practice of determining pay based on qualities that can be measured. It is an argument for combining this with other systems that consider these intangible qualities. There is nothing inconsistent with arguing for a system that will give a teacher a bonus of $N for bringing about an increase in her student’s test scores of I over the course of a school year – plus give that teacher merit pay (or not) depending on other criteria.

Assuming that test scores must either be the sole criteria for merit or it should not be used at all is to construct a straw man – to defeat a position that no rational person has in fact sought to defend.


Yes, I agree that there are a lot of issues associated with the subject of merit pay. The proposal is not perfect. Yet, the lack of perfection is not an argument against the system. If it were, then all systems must be abolished because none of them are perfect.

The problem with most critics of merit pay is that they do not offer an alternative proposal. If they did, then the two proposals can be compared to determine which has the fewest imperfections. Instead, their arguments are entirely destructive. “Your merit pay system has these problems; thus, it is a bad idea.”

It is only a “bad idea” if it has more problems than an alternative system.

The alternative system, which says, “Pay all teachers the same regardless of their individual skills and talents in the area of actually making their students smarter,” has far more problems than this merit pay system. It is a system that tells teachers that they do those who care nothing about the quality of their work are just as important and deserve just as much praise and reward as those who care a great deal.

It is a recipe for mediocrity. It is a recipe that creates a society of individuals who are less well educated than they actually need to be.

Furthermore, there is nothing to prevent us from adoping a system now, aware of its problems, and then go to work making adjustments to deal with those shortcomings. Indeed, we would need to start somewhere, and then start collecting the data that would be necessary to improve the system. Critics of such a system must not only say that 'there are problems'. They must assert 'we cannot make sufficient improvements as we see the results of our proposal.'

Besides, we are not talking about a system where a teacher's entire pay is determined by these measures. We are talking about adding a few hundred to a few thousand dollars of merit pay. Most of the existing, "pay the person regardless of the quality of his work" system will remain intact.

As I have argued earlier; when we die or suffer any catastrophe in our lives, in almost all cases we are made to suffer substantially because of our ignorance – because we did not know something that would have otherwise saved us from this danger. Poor education makes all of us worse off than we would otherwise be.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Turning Research Into Lies

I can tell you exactly when I quit watching the “West Wing.” It was an episode in which somebody handed then White House Chief of Staff Leo McGarry (John Spencer) ordered revisions to a report (I think it had something to do with coal) to have it reflect administration policy.

For four years, I considered “West Wing” to be the best television series ever. It’s not that I agreed with everything they said. Rather, when I disagreed, the writers did a good job of showing me how a person of good moral character could have come to a different conclusion. This series-ending event took place in the fifth season, after series creator Aaron Sorkin left the series and the new writers showed no concern with portraying the Bartlett Administration of trying to be the good guys.

Rather than offering a quick and telling argument explaining why it was right or good for the Administration to rewrite reports, McGarry simply dictated that this was how things were going to be done.

Of course, they could not come up with a way to morally defend such an act. It is entirely indefensible.

Imagine that you are a passenger in a car in which the driver asks for directions. The person asked says, “You should turn left at the second light.” The driver then thanks the man, then asserts, “He said that I should turn right at the third light.” Then, he blames the man who gave him directions when he ends up getting lost.

These rewritten reports are lies. They are flat out, unmitigated, uncompromising pamphlets of deceit that you and I, the taxpayers of America, are being forced to finance.

To get a hint of what the Bush Administration is doing, I would like to direct your attention to the transcript of a recent “60 Minutes” episode called “Rewriting the Science.” (Note: “Crooks and Liars” has the (almost) complete video of the segment.)

This episode demonstrates how the Bush Administration is rewriting scientific reports on climate change, changing what the original authors have said, and banning government scientists from speaking at all.


Much of the episode concerned the efforts of James Hansen, director of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies. After establishing James Hansen’s credentials as the top scientist in the field of climate change, 60 minutes detailed how the government is preventing him from speaking on the topic of climate change. The Bush Administration allowed 60 minutes to have one interview with Hansen with an Administration official present to tape the interview. Once they discovered that Hansen actually gave his opinion to the 60 minutes reporter, they prohibited all further interviews.

Scientists who dare to protest are silenced and censored by whatever means the Bush Administration has available. With few exceptions, the only government scientists willing to give honest reports of their findings to the Bush Administration are those who are preparing to resign or retire. They are those who do not have a career to worry about, or who do not wish to preserve a career or lying to people about things that affect their health and well-being.


60 Minutes also provided examples of edits that the Bush Administration officials made to scientific reports on climate change. Lobbyists and lawyers, such as Phil Cooney; former lobbyist for the American Petroleum Institute who became Bush’s appointed Chief of Staff of the Council on Environmental Quality," who later quit the Bush Administration to take a job at Exxon Mobile.

60 Minutes reported oil industry lobbyist would make edits like the following:

• “earth is under going change” changed to “earth may be undergoing change”

• “uncertainty” becomes “significant remaining uncertainty”

• A sentence that says, “energy production contributes to warming” is deleted

• Sentences that discuss the adverse health effects – our health; the quality of the life you and I will live – are deleted. We are not supposed to find out that the government policies might kill us and make us sick.

• Cooney adds a statement that says, “the uncertainties remain so great as to preclude meaningfully informed decision making.”

Ultimately, Bush’s science policy is to spend a wad of taxpayer money to generate a report, then give that report to an industry lobbyist, who then rewrites the report into a a pack of political lies supporting that industry’s political objectives, after which the Bush Administration presents the report to Congress and the American people.

If the Bush Administration actually had an interest in using taxpayer money efficiently, it would save the expense of actually creating a scientific report that it will later turn in to a pack of lies. If they are going to create a piece of science fiction, they should just write it, and forget the expensive step of creating a scientific report and altering it. Except, they want the legitimate scientific report to rewrite as a type of smokescreen -- so that they can provide their pack of lies with a smoke screen – an illusion of legitimacy – that every pack of lies desperately needs.

A Larger Pattern

This is, of course, a part of a larger pattern. There is little reason to doubt that the Bush Administration followed the same policy regarding information about Saddam Hussein having weapons of mass destruction or aiding Al Queda – passing those reports through a government filter that created the fiction on which Bush Administration policy is built.

The legitimate avenue for review for scientific findings would be the peer review used in scientific journals and other presentations. The purpose of peer review is to make sure that the research conforms to available evidence. However, peer review means that people who know and understand science review the product to make sure it conforms to those standards.

There are many people who report that when they think of George Bush, the word that comes first to their mind is 'honest.' These rewrites of scientific reports are not the work of an honest man. An honest man would be furious if he found out that these lies -- lies that threaten the lives, health, and property of the American people -- were being propagated in his name. In light of this, the person who associates Bush with the word 'honest' is showing the same mental capacity of the person who associates a baseball with the word 'cube.'


Having a lawyer and industry lobbyist review a scientific journal and alter its findings is like having an insurance company accountant review a patient’s medical files and altering the diagnosis – or a general rewriting military intelligence to fit his battle plan, rather than rewriting the battle plan in light of available intelligence.

It is a short road to (yet another) very tragic result. Ultimately, the people who would do this type of thing are people who do not care about the lives and health of the people they put at risk for the purpose of putting money in their own pockets.

Monday, March 20, 2006

France: The First Employment Contract Protests

I have not yet decided if the French are merely stupid, or if there is some moral taint to be attached to their particular brand of stupidity.

I am not speaking about all French, of course. I am only speaking of those who are opposed to the proposed to changes in its First Employment Contract Law and have taken to the streets to engage in arson, vandalism, mayhem, and all of the other typical trappings of a riot.

[Except killing. I must compliment the French for having adopted such an aversion to killing and maiming others that their riots, though destructive to property, tend not to kill and wound people. Seriously, this is a commendable cultural trait.]

Do not get me wrong; the arson, vandalism, and mayhem are clearly crimes. However, I have written enough about these wrong in the context of promoting the rule of law as a way of ensuring that only the guilty are punished and the innocent are allowed to live in liberty and security. I do not feel compelled to cover that subject again in detail.

Here, I question is the moral quality of the stupidity upon which the criticism of the proposed changes are built.


Assume that you were wanted to lease a car. You are in a country where leasing contracts typically start at a particular rate and go up as time goes by. Furthermore, these are lifetime leases. Once you sign a lease, you must continue to pay for that car (or to arrange for somebody else to pay the lease) until you die, or the car dies.

Regardless of what happens in your life -- you go blind, you get married and have a huge family that needs a larger car, the government passes a law requiring that all cars use an environmentally better type of fuel, the type of fuel your car uses runs out -- no matter what happens, you must continue to pay the lease on this car.

You can cancel the lease if the car is destroyed, but intentionally destroying a car is considered the moral equivalent of murder.

How many cars would you buy? How long would you rely on public transportation before you buy a car?

The French First Job Contract law is much like this. When an employer hires an employee, he agrees to pay for that employee until that employee quits or dies. Yet, intentionally killing employees in order to get out of his First Job Contract is considered a moral faux pas in many circles.

French youth are faced with a staggeringly high 25% unemployment rate -- double the national unemployment rate. Those who are most badly in need of jobs face unemployment rates approaching 60%.

Businesses are reluctant to create new jobs in France where they have to sign these legally required employment contracts. They would rather create jobs in countries that have more flexible labor rules -- such as India, China, and the United States.

To deal with this problem, the French government proposes a change in the law. A company can hire an employee under 26 years of age for up to 2 years without being obligated to provide salary for life. If the employee makes it through two years, the lifetime guaranteed employment option kicks in. The hope is that this flexibility will allow France to attract a few more jobs (and tax revenue that can then be used to provide medical care and education to the citizens of France).

French youth -- those same people who have no jobs -- are rioting over this change. They want to keep the promise of employment for life. Only, what they are defending in fact is widespread unemployment.


Imagine that you own a car that has qualified to enter a major race. Before the race begins, you are required to program your car with the specific instructions determining all of the car's changes in course and speed before the race even begins. Everybody else in the race uses a driver with the authority to change course and speed as the racing conditions change. However, you are prohibited from using this method.

I am not talking about using some sort of artificial intelligence that will read such things as road conditions, the position of the other cars, and available fuel in deciding what to do. I am talking about a computer in which you write in every all changes in course and speed, and the car must follow those instructions no matter what happens during the race.

If the pre-programmed car does not crash outright, it will almost certainly be lapped time and time again by all of the other cars in the race -- ones that have drivers given the liberty to make decisions and change course as conditions change.

The French law guaranteeing employment has the same effect on the French economy as this computer that locks in course and speed changes. Because it cannot change with changing conditions, more flexible economies are going to leave it in their economic dust. Businesses are going to send their jobs to countries like India, China, Taiwan, and South Korea, leaving the French worker sitting at home with nothing to do.

I can easily imagine this leading to a case where France ends up begging nations like China and India for economic development assistance. Those countries would see no reason to make such a poor investment. Without economic reforms, they would see little sense in investing in the French economy. They would require that it become a bit more flexible first.


On the issue of employment assurance, I would prefer to see something like national job-training campuses. Those who cannot find jobs would be permitted to move their families into these campuses where they would be given shelter, medical care at the campus clinic, and nourishing food in the campus cafeteria, so long as they make satisfactory progress learning new job skills. The campus would also have placement specialists that would help its residents find employment.

How would I pay for these campuses? Well, by taxing the rich, of course. The idea that nature is infused with some sort of “property right” that makes it permissible for a guy with a truck full of water that is his property to dump it into the sand while others nearby die of thirst is simply absurd. Nature has no such property. It is perfectly legitimate to redistribute the water wealth from those who have what they do not need to those who need what they do not have.

This does not argue that there is no argument for private property or free markets. Indeed, this posting itself defends having a free market because a free economy is a flexible economy, and a flexible economy can perform better than one that is made rigid through legislation such as the First Employment Contract law.

Only, there are limits. Where free markets have people pouring what they do not need into the sand while those who need that thing to thrive are left to suffer, it has stepped beyond its moral limits.

Job training campuses, when compared to the lifetime employment requirement, support a society’s flexibility rather than hinder it. Through these campuses, a society react even more quickly and efficiently to changing conditions – making it a country that can win the economic race for its people.

Finally, a couple of words need to be written as to why this economic growth is important. For one thing, the 60% of the people in French ghettos who cannot find a job cannot afford medical insurance or the quality of education that can get them out of that trap. In order to pay for social services such as medical care and education, the economy needs a surplus. In order to have a surplus, it needs to be efficient. In order to be efficient, it needs a set of rules that allow flexibility and a people who are economically free.

Without this, the availability of social services such as public housing, health care, and education are themselves less than they would otherwise be.

The Desire Utilitarianism Link

I have described desire utilitarianism as a moral system where people are encouraged (through praise and reward) to adopt attitudes that are generally beneficial (desire-fulfilling), and discouraged (through condemnation and punishment) from adopting attitudes that are generally harmful.

Flexibility and freedom are positive values; something that people have reason to promote a fondness for through their tools of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment. So, I write this blog entry in condemnation of those in France who show insufficient love of freedom and an excessive love of rigid rules that prevent a country from changing.

The French government is in an unenviable position that results when an irrational population makes contradictory demands. Late last year, there was rioting that was largely attributed to the frustrations of youth who could not find work or opportunity in France. The revisions to the First Employment Contract would make jobs and opportunities available -- yet it draws riots as well.

If these people were harming only themselves, one may be tempted to say, “Let them be and let them be the source of their own suffering.” However, they affect others. Their actions this year will determine if their younger brothers, sisters, nieces, and nephews will grow into a situation where they can hope to find work in a robust French economy, or if they live in economic hopelessness surrounded by stagnation.

When one’s actions involve others – and in particular when those actions harm others who are not able to defend their own interests – it is appropriate to conclude that there is a moral dimension to the subject.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Three Years of War


I am pleased to announce that the host of the current Carnival of the Godless has named my blog entry as the best entry in the Carnival.

Iraq War: 3 Years and Counting

As the third anniversary of the start of the Iraq War came and went, the news was filled with stories that largely related to a subject I had covered months ago.

On October 17th, I posted an article on “Military vs. Civilian Choices”. The main point of that posting was to point out that there is a major difference between military choices and civilian choices in the pains that one goes through to ensure that only the guilty are punished and the innocent are able to go about their lives. The military calls the loss of civilian life and property “collateral damage” and go about their business. Civilian law enforcement in a just society call such actions “gross negligence”, fire the individuals involved, and offer compensation to the victims (or their surviving relatives).

In a post on February 23rd called “Iraq Mosque Attacks and Civil War,” I argued that the risk of civil war in Iraq was specifically tied to their lack of respect for the principle, “Punish the guilty: let the innocent go free.” Strengthening a society’s respect for this principle is the best way to strengthen civil order in a society. People then come to realize that being innocent will help to ensure their safety.

In January, 2006, I read news reports of an Allied air strike on a village in northern Pakistan that killed 18 people, including 5 children. American officials believed that there were 4 or 5 Al Queda operatives there at the time. They also knew about the presence of the children, but considered the strike to be important enough to justify this collateral damage.

This stands both to illustrate the difference between martial versus civil authority. It also clearly violates the principle of “Punish the guilty, let the innocent go free.”

Yet, clearly, there are instances in which it is permissible to take action, even to kill an innocent person. The example that I always use is that of a cop, looking down from a balcony as a kid puts money into a vending machine wired to detonate a nuclear weapon in another city. The area is crowded and noisy, and there is no way to stop the child but to shoot him. If I was the cop, I would shoot. I would hate myself. I would probably need loads of counseling to get over it. I might not even be able to live with myself. However, I would kill the kid.

At the same time, it is not legitimate to throw a hand-grenade into a crowd in order to stop a purse snatcher. Similarly, it would not have been legitimate for the FBI to take out John Dillinger when he was Number 1 on the FBI 10-most-wanted list by blowing up the theater where he had gone to watch a movie. At some point, we are going to say that we are going to use civil methods for dealing with these people, rather than military methods.

One of the results of this air strike was a massive surge in anti-American sentiment in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and other Muslim countries. Even if the United States killed four or five Al-Queda members, it is quite reasonable to expect that this act – its violation of the principle “Punish the guilty, let the innocent go free,” will mean more than enough recruits to make up for the shortfall.

The damage is not only to the number of recruits, but the attitudes of those who were on the fence. The damage is reflected in the number of people who might have reported something they may have discovered about Al Queda, but who now keep that information secret. The damage comes from those who would have said, “I do not want to be a part of it”, who will now give some minor assistance -- a little bit of money, a meal, the use of one’s vehicle – to Al Queda.

Recently, in Iraq, the U.S. military reported another air strike that killed another 11 civilians – some children.

I have wondered, from time to time, if certain religious doctrines might make it a bit easier to kill civilians ... even children. Doesn't God himself release a plague that kills children as a way of convincing the Pharaoh of Egypt to "let my people go"? Were there no children in Soddom and Gammorah?

During the Albigensian Crusade in southern France -- a crusade by Christians against other Christians -Abbot Arnaud-Amaury faced a situation where he had a group of prisoners and no way to sort the right type of Christian from the wrong type of Christian. His answer was to say, "Slay them all! God will know his own." It's a way of saying that we do not need to worry about sorting the guilty from the innocent -- that we may kill guilty and innocent alike and leave the sorting to God. I wonder if this might not be the way President Bush can sleep at night after hearing about another group of children killed because of the choices he made.

Let us make no mistake – the enemy in this war also kills civilians. They target civilians. That is unforgivable, allowing no argument to be made that they are the good guys and we are the bad guys. Yet, there is still room to claim, “the lesser evil is still evil.” The best way to communicate the message that we are the good guys and that we deserve to win – and that the citizens of Iraq should side with us – is by actually being the good guys. This means insisting that the institution of civil law with its determined effort to separate the guilty from the innocent be used.

To mark the 3rd Anniversary of the start of the war, the military decided to launch a military campaign against insurgents north of Baghdad. According to Time Magazine, it seems to have been a publicity ploy – lots of noise for the news to report to make the people think Bush is doing something, when there really was not much behind it.

One of the results was netting, according to the report, 48 suspected insurgents – 17 of which had been released by the time the story got reported. The practice seems to have been to sweep through an area, round up everybody who looks guilty, then release those who can convince their captors that they are innocent. The rest are hauled off to some detention center where they can expect to be kept indefinitely, where evidence suggests that they can expect to be subject to quite brutal treatment unless they confess their crimes – confessions that may well be lies told in an effort to avoid further torture.

In three years of conflict, we have yet to make a determined attempt to institute the rule of law in Iraq.

It seems strange to argue that we are there to establish a system that those Americans who are there refuse to use. In fact, what we seem to be telling the people of Iraq and the world that those things that America claims to believe -- things about human rights to be presumed innocent until proven guilty and not to be deprived of life, liberty, and property without due process of law -- those things are things we do not really believe.

We say them a lot. Yet, I am seeing all sorts of evidence that the American people do not actually believe in these principles -- at least not any more. We certainly do not believe in them enough to insist on practicing them.