Saturday, September 30, 2006

"Do Unto Others..."

In this blog I make heavy use of the concept of “Do unto others….”

For example, to show the immoral nature of the legislation that Bush is obtaining (and getting) from the Republican-led Congress, I ask the reader to. “Think about being pulled from your home, thrown in a prison where you are not allowed to speak to anybody but your interrogator, where you are tortured and abused by people who claim to know that you are involved in some criminal organization, forced to name your accomplices, eventually succumb by naming people that you know, at which point you are released and the people you have named have now ‘disappeared.’ I ask the reader whether he thinks this would be just or unjust treatment. Then I tell the reader to apply the principle, “Do unto others…”

Or, to show the immoral nature of the Christian Supremacy Act, I ask the reader to imagine a case in which he was out on the road with his family when a drunk driver strikes his car. However, he lives in a society where no action is to be taken against any drunk driver unless the victim first provides the District Attorney’s office a sum of money considered sufficient to cover the DA office’s costs for prosecuting the case. Again, I ask the reader to consider whether he would ask others to vote for such a law, then ask the reader to apply the principle, “Do unto others…”

These are just two of the recent examples.

“Do Unto Others…” as a Moral Principle

The question then comes up, as an atheist, how do I justify using this principle of “Do unto others?”

The first question to address is: Am I not borrowing my morality from Christianity?

The answer is: No.

The Bible says that rain falls from the sky. It hardly follows that, as an atheist who believes that the Bible is fiction, I must deny that rain falls from the sky. Even the most fantastic fiction describes a world that has things in common with the real world in which we live. “Rain falls from the sky,” is something that even a primitive fiction writer who is fundamentally ignorant of the laws of physics and the principles of climate change can get right.

“Do unto others…” is another one of those basic principles that even an ancient fiction writer can get write and include in his stories.

The fact is, I do not need to believe in God to know the value of “Do unto others….”, any more than I need to believe in God to know that rain falls from the sky.

Problems with “Do Unto Others…”

The first thing to note about “Do unto others…” is that it is not an absolute moral principle. It is, instead, a rule of thumb – a guideline that will have most people see the right answer to a moral question under normal circumstances most of the time.

Here are some examples where the rule does not work.

(1) Susan is suicidal. She just wishes that somebody would shoot her and put her out of her misery. The principle of “Do unto others…” says that she could permissibly go around shooting others, since she would not mind if somebody else shot her.

(2) Jack’s sister Jill is claustrophobic. When playing around the house, Jack does not at all mind being forced into a dark and confined place – like a closet – and locked in. However, Jill goes into a state of total panic in this type of situation. “Do unto others…” says that Jack, while playing around the house with Jill, can go ahead and lock Jill in the closet. He would not mind this happening to him, so he may do this to Jill.

Of course, we can get around this situation by modifying this somewhat by saying, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you if you were them and they were you.” Or, more precisely, “Do unto others as they want you to do unto them.”

This runs into problems as well.

I want everybody to give me their entire paycheck for the month of November. Does this mean that all of you have an obligation to send me your paycheck? This is, after all, is one of the things that I would have you do.

If you do think that you have an obligation to send me your paycheck for the month of November, I will not argue you out of this. Send me an email and we will make arrangements. However, I have this funny feeling that the only paycheck I will be depositing in November is my own.

This illustrates the second problem with “Do unto others…” It is ambiguous, lending itself to a huge number of different interpretations, each leading to a different suggestion regarding what one should do. As such, it is a very loose rule of thumb indeed.

However, it makes some sense. What we need to do is to specify more precisely what that sense happens to be.

“Do Unto Others…” Desire Utilitarianism Style

“Do unto others…” does not yield absolute moral truth, but it is a useful rule of thumb for desire utilitarians.

Recall, desire utilitarianism is concerned with promoting those desires that tend to fulfill other desires, and inhibiting those desires that tend to thwart other desires. One of the questions that a desire utilitarian will always be asking is, “Does this action represent desires that tend to fulfill, or to thwart, other desires?”

To answer this question, the desire utilitarian says, “Let us look at the desires that are suggested by this action. Then let us imagine that this desire is made universal throughout society. Would this, then, be a society that people would want to live in? That is to say, do people generally have reason to seek a society in which this desire is universal, or to shun such a society?”

“Do unto others . . .” is a way of bringing to the mind the desire-thwarting associated with living in a society governed by certain types of rules – certain types of attitudes.

Recently, I have used the example of how an aversion to doing harm to an innocent person implies a desire to use reliable tests to make sure that a person is not innocent before agreeing to do that person harm. I have suggested that this concern leads a person to support a just society – one with procedural safeguards in place such as a presumption of innocence, a right to a trial, a right to an ‘impartial’ jury, and the like.

I have asked people to imagine living in a society where everybody does what the President and the Republican leadership in Congress advocates with much of its current legislation. To judge if the actions that these Republicans seek to make legal are, in fact, moral and just, I ask the reader to imagine, “You are taken off the street by somebody who has put you on a suspected terrorist list. You are taken off for questioning. Nobody knows where you are – your family, your friends. You just vanish. You are tortured for months or years by people demanding that you give them names of others that you are working with. Claiming your innocence only buys you more abuse. Giving names reduces the abuse. So, you give names – people you know. Then you are released. Once free again, you discover that those whose names you had given have now ‘disappeared.’”

If you would object to people treating this way – if you would consider this form of treatment brutal and unjust -- then I invite you to, “Do unto others…” and protest the Bush Administration and Republican leadership’s decision to make America into a nation of brutality and injustice.

I use stories like the one above to bring up in the mind of the person who reads it the desire-thwarting that a tolerance for this type of behavior makes possible. Hopefully, it will cause the reader to think of the desire-thwarting that is avoided in a society of individuals averse to this type of behavior. Then, the reader can see the value in promoting this type of aversion.

By imagining living in a society with these types of rules - surrounded by people who would perform these types of actions, I hope that the agent will understand the importance of promoting an aversion to performing these types of actions. Desire utilitarianism then says that the next step is to promote this aversion by using our tools of social conditioning - condemning those who would defend such things as torture, arbitrary arrest with indefinite imprisonment, and forcing the victim to pay for the trials that bring wrongdoers to justice. They simply will not stand for these types of policies, and will vote out of office (or refuse to elect) any who would defend them.

Of course, we can never make everybody in a society averse to brutality and injustice. Still, it is something to fight for. Even if we cannot totally succeed, to the degree that we do succeed, to that degree we live in a safer and more secure world.


This, then, is the role that “Do unto others….” has in desire-utilitarian theory. It is, I argue, a legitimate form of argument when it comes to determining, at least approximately, whether a universal desire will tend to fulfill or thwart other desires. It is not perfectly reliable, and it does not take the place of documented results from properly-designed social-science research. However, this does not prevent it from being a useful tool.

“Do unto others…”

If you can imagine being the victim of a drunk driver, and living in a society where the victims of such crimes must first put down a deposit to cover the DA’s costs in prosecuting the case, you would probably protest the society that puts you in this position. If you would protest, then “Do unto others…” and protest the rights of those who the court decides is the victim of a crime to collect damages from those who do them harm – including court costs.

People who do not “Do unto others…” are evil. These are the people who promote injustice, harm the innocent, and make the world worse than it would otherwise have been.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Justice and Desire Utilitarianism

The moral theory posts this weekend will be:

(1) Justice - Desire Utilitarian Style: What is 'Justice' and why are Bush's policies unjust?


(2) "Do Unto Others…": Can this be justified and what does it mean exactly?

This week, President Bush lead the Republicans in a successful battle against the fundamental principles of liberty and justice. It was literally a route, with the defenders of liberty and justice abandoning the field with barely a fight. So, it seems, this weekend would be a good opportunity to discuss the principles of justice. Too many people seem to have forgotten why they are important.

Utilitarianism and Justice

Utilitarians have traditionally had problems with the concept of justice. Utilitarianism seems to suggest that it is permissible to punish a person for a crime he did not commit if doing so would maximize utility. If it will make enough people happy for me to shoot you, then I may (indeed, I must) shoot you, according to traditional utilitarian theiry.

However, this is a problem with act-utilitarian theories, and desire-utilitarianism is not an act-utilitarian theory. Desire-utilitarianism looks at the effects of having particular desires and aversions. In order for me to shoot you, I would have to lack any specific aversion to shooting you. If I had an aversion to shooting people, then I would be inclined not to shoot them even when doing so will maximize utility.

The desire utilitarian then asks, "What is the overall utility of everybody having an aversion to shooting others, compared to the utility of nobody having an aversion to shooting others?" It seems quite clear that we all have reason to promote a universal aversion to shooting others. To the degree that we are capable of establishing this moral principle, to that degree each of us will be safer from the possibility of being shot. So, in place of a rule that says, "Do not shoot others," we promote an aversion to shooting others. We do this using the tools of social conditioning. Specifically, we praise and reward those who show a strong aversion to shooting others, and we condemn and punish those who show that their aversion to shooting others is too week.

The Function of Desires

If a person has an aversion to the pain of having his hand severely burned, this means more than saying he will not put his hand on a plate he knows to be hot. This means that he is going to assess any plate to make sure that it is not hot before he puts his hand on it. He will conduct tests first - tests that are rationally designed to ensure that the plate is not hot. He holds his hand near the plate to make sure that it is not radiating heat. He wets his finger and touches the object quickly. If he can reach assurance, beyond reasonable doubt, that the plate is not hot, then he will touch it.

If a person has an aversion to doing harm to an innocent person, this means more than saying that he will not harm a person he knows to be innocent. This means that he is going to assess any accusation to make sure that the accused is not innocent before he subjects the accused to any serious harm. He will conduct tests first - tests that are rationally designed to ensure that the accused is not innocent. He will hold a trial in which the accused will be allowed to present his side of the story. The trial will be before an impartial jury who does not have any stake in the case. If he can reach assurance, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the accused is not innocent, then he will allow punishment.

We can say of the person who puts his hand on metal plates recklessly (i.e., without taking care to make sure that they are not hot) that he is either (1) an irrational idiot, or (2) he really does not mind pain.

We can say of the person who advocates harm to others recklessly (without taking care to make sure that they are not innocent) that he is either (1) an irrational idiot, or (2) he really does not mind harming innocent people.

One difference between the two cases is that the irrational idiot in the first case only does harm to himself. He will suffer repeated burns to his hand that, hopefully, will teach him some valuable lessons. If he really does not mind the pain, then others have no reason to protest the effects of his actions.

However, the irrational idiot in the second case is a dangerous person who puts the lives and well-being of others at risk. He will repeatedly do harm to innocent people unless he is restrained in some way. One possibility of restraint is to say to such a person, "You must follow these constitutional provisions that were designed to ensure that the accused are not innocent."

If the person in the second case really does not mind if he harms innocent people, then he is even more dangerous. He is, in fact, evil - the precise type of person that rational people in society will condemn in no undcertain terms. Rational people in society want to make an example of him - to teach others in society, "Do not have the callous disregard for harming the innocent that this person shows."

Ensuring Innocence

If a person has an aversion to doing harm to innocent people, then he has reason to support and endorse a series of tests to make sure that the innocent are not harmed. If he fails to endorse those tests, he is either an irrational idiot or he does not mind harming innocent people.

So, what types of tests can we decide to make sure that the accused are not innocent?

Test 1: The Presumption of Innocence

We begin with a presumption of innocence. The person who does not want to risk putting his hand on a hot plate will begin with a presumption that plates are hot and will put the burden of proof on the case that the plate is not hot. The person who does not want to accidentally shoot somebody will begin with the presumption that all guns are loaded and put the burden of proof on the claim that the gun is not loaded (or that the device is not a real gun). The person who does not want to harm an innocent person will begin with the presumption that others are innocent, and will put the burden of proof on those who say that this person is not innocent and, thus, deserving of harm.

Test 2: Warrants and Grand Jury Indictments:

Those who would do harm to another must first subject their reason for doing harm to some preliminary test to make sure that there case is at least initially plausible. We find this written into our system of laws in two major locations. First, there is the requirement that the government obtain a warrant before engaging in any search and seizure. The government must make an initial case to a judge that says, "We are not going to harm this person for no reason; we have good reason to believe that this is not an innocent person we are dealing with."

This principle also makes sense of the requirement for prosecutors to obtain an indictment from a Grand Jury. Again, this is a requirement that those who would do harm first be able to make an initially plausible case that says, "We are not going to harm this person for no reason; we have good reason to believe that this is not an innocent person we are dealing with."

Test 3: A Fair Trial

We must hear both sides of the story. Anybody who has lived a normal life has experienced cases where one person has given an interpretation of events that has proved to be far from the truth. In explaining why a teacher or a fellow student behaved a particular way - why somebody missed a meeting or why a person phrased something a particular way, a person comes up with a theory, that turns out to be a far cry from the truth. We want to make sure that our tests are reliable. If the test says that the plate is not hot, we want this to be a reliable indicator of the fact that the plate is not hot. If the test says that the gun is not loaded, we want this to be a reliable indicator of the fact that the gun is not loaded. If the accused is not innocent, we want this to be a reliable indicator that the accused is not innocent. Any other type of test is foolish. A test of innocence where we do not hear the accused's side of the story is not reliable.

Test 4: Trial by Impartial Judge/Jury

The story must be heard by an impartial jury. If two people are having a dispute over which of them owns a parcel of land, we know that it is stupid to appoint one of the two litigants as judge. That litigant is going to see his own claims as valid, and the claims of the opponent as invalid. I am not talking about a case of corruption, here. I am talking about the simple will to believe. People have an annoying habit of believing that which it is in their advantage to believe. So, we want to make sure that cases are heard by somebody who has no advantage believing that the accused is innocent, or that the accused is guilty.

We speak about a jury being 'impartial' but, in fact, juries are not supposed to be impartial - any more than an agent is supposed to be impartial about whether a plate is hot or a gun is loaded. When we tell the jury to presume that the accused is innocent and that the prosecution must prove guilt, we are not telling them to be impartial. We are telling them to take sides - to start off siding with the accused. The prosecution has the duty to show them enough evidence to pull them away from supporting the accused.

Test 5: Right to Compensation

I mention this test because it is an element of justice that President Bush and the Republican leadership in Congress has ignored. The aversion to doing harm to others argues against having any law that says that the person who commits a crime can get away with it unless his victim can afford to take him to court. The injustice inherent in this type of legislation is like passing a law that says that the government will not take any action against murderers, rapists, or thieves unless a spokesman for the victim first puts up a deposit to cover whatever it cost's the DA's office to prosecute the case.


Again, I run out of room much too quickly.

I want to wrap up by linking a couple of important points. I have said that a person who does not obey the principles of justice shows that they either lack an aversion to doing harm to the innocent, or they have such an aversion but they are insanely irrational when it comes to avoiding those effects. They are like a person who fails to adopt a reliable test to make sure that he does not burn his hand on a hot plate. We must conclude either that he has no aversion to pain, or that he is insanely irrational in his inability to adopt a reliable test to make sure that a plate is not hot.

The other point that I want to bring forth is that the moral failing that makes terrorism possible is the lack of an aversion to doing harm to innocent people. The character trait that makes it easy for a person to throw aside the principles of justice - the lack of an aversion to innocent people being harmed, is the same characteristic that makes it possible to kill innocent people in a terrorist attack.

From this we find that the difference between a terrorist, and a legislator who votes for laws that violate these principles of justice, is not a difference in kind, but a difference in degree. Both have little regard for harm done to innocent person; one simply has less regard than the other.

There is, after all, little moral difference between setting up a bomb that kills or wounds a bunch of innocent people in a restaurant, and rounding up those same people and hauling them off to a secret prison, where they are tortured and abused for months or years without a trial. Either way, innocent people are harmed.

This explains what is truly horrendous with the unjust legislation that President Bush is getting passed this week in Congress, and the legislation his Administration is fighting for. Ultimately, it is ringing endorsement of the idea that the possibility of doing harm to innocent people does not matter that much.

If we wish to see this as a true conflict between different ideologies – as opposed to a conflict between two groups with the same ideology to different degrees, then one of the sides has to take up the principle that risking the well-being of innocent people is a bad thing. One of the sides has to take the position that the principles of justice are worth fighting for. One of the sides has to decide that it will distinguish itself from the other by embracing the idea that people are to be presumed innocent unless proven guilty, have a right to a speedy trial before a fair and impartial jury, has a right to present their side of the story and hear the evidence against him, and that victims have a right to see justice done even when they cannot afford to take those who our victimizing them to court.

One side has to show that they are governed primarily by the moral value that justice is worth fighting for, not against.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Opposing Unjust Laws

Thanks to Beware of the Dogma (through Atheist Blogs Aggregated) , I have been made aware of the fact that the House of Representatives has passed the "Christian Supremacy Act." This is a law that effectively repeals prohibition on governments establishing a religion, by giving them the option of making it too expensive for anybody to protest violations of this right.

I discussed this law a few days ago in the post, "The Moral Case Against the Christian Supremacy Act." (By the way, I stole the name from DailyKos.) That post contains my argument for believing that the law is basically unjust and immoral - that even if it were not unconstitutional to pass such a law, it is still unjust and immoral to do so. Recall that, in this blog, I do not write about what the law does and does not say. I argue about what the law should and should not say.

The purpose of this posting is to discuss the strategy that Beware of the Dogma stated in presenting this news. They state that if this bill should become law (it still has to pass the Senate), the next thing to do is to wait to see if the courts will restore justice by declaring the law unconstitutional.

To be fair, Beware of the Dogma was not writing to discuss strategy. I am arguing against anything they said. I am writing only about a strategy that would be consistent with their postings that, nonetheless, would be a very poor strategy to adopt.

Waiting for the courts to declare the law unconstitutional is one of the most foolish and reckless tendencies practiced among those who claim to be interested in defending the separation of church and state.

Here is what will happen:

There will be a series of trials as the case moves up the court system - a series of trials that will take years to complete.

With each trial, if the judge should render a verdict opposed to the law, unjust religious groups will send out fundraising letters complaining about how 'liberal activists judges' are destroying the rights of believers to practice their faith. Tens to hundreds of millions of people will hear a message that the law is meant only to prevent governments from being intimidated from perfectly legitimate acts by the fear of a costly trial in which they might have to pay court costs.

They will use these mailings to collect hundreds of millions of dollars that they will use to further spread their message to more people. They will also coach those people into voting for candidates who will promise to fill the courts with judges who understand that our rights come from God and that worshipping God in the public square is the only way to protect us from His wrath (hurricanes, terrorist attacks, and the like).

Because of these political maneuverings, we have no reason to believe that the Supreme Court will, in fact, declare the law unconstitutional. In the amount of time it takes the case to make its way through the court, we might have a court filled with people who actually believe that local governments must be protected from the fear of citizens seeking the protection of their First Amendment rights.

Okay, it does not make sense to use that anybody could believe such a thing. Yet, clearly, people who can believe the contradictions and absurdities that are to be found in most religious interpretations are not going to have trouble interpreting the First Amendment as saying, "Atheists shall not be permitted to impose their anti-God hatred on local governments by exploiting fear of expensive lawsuits."

If the Supreme Court does declare the law unconstitutional, then the perpetrators of religious injustice will send out another set of mass mailings, collect a few hundred million dollars, that will be contributed to candidates who will make sure that those 'liberal activist judges' are replaced by people who understand the Constitution's true meaning.

Even if the law is never reversed, society will be seeped in a doctrine that promotes vicious hatred of anybody who dares challenge a government statute that aims to establish a religion. We will live in a society where few citizens will be willing to tolerate the hatred and abuse that will be heaped upon anybody who dares stand up and say that governments shall not become tools for the Church to use as it sees fit.

Detainees and American Values Revisited

The same points can be raised about the bill that made it through the House recently that allows the President to order any person arrested and held in jail indefinitely on his say-so alone. I have read about people who are now talking about waiting for the Supreme Court to assert each person's right to hear the evidence against him and to respond to that evidence, and of the obligation on the part of the accuser to provide proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

Yet, by sitting back and waiting, others have an opportunity to use the years that it will take these cases to go through the courts to assert over and over again how the liberal courts are destroying our security. They will use this as a call for donations which they will use to urge their followers to elect politicians who respect the importance of appointing justices who will back the doctrine of unchecked executive power.

Responding to the Threat

The answer to this problem is not to wait for a court case, but to use the law itself as others would use it against us, as an opportunity to teach others about the basic principles of justice and morality so that they can see the basic injustice written into such a law. We need to create, to whatever degree it is within our power to create, a culture who will cheer the decision that the law is unconstitutional, and who would condemn those who would dare to treat fellow citizens as unjustly as this law says they are to be treated.

In other words, NOW is the time to tell the country - your neighbors, your friends, your co-workers, your family - how the 'religious right', who claim to be paradigm and virtue, do not understand the basic principles of justice. Now is the time to tell them how the 'religious right', who claim to get their morality straight from God, seem to think that this morality means forcing the victims of a crime to pay for the wrongs done against them - like forcing the family of a murdered girl to pay the government to put her killer on trial. This, apparently, is a cornerstone of the right-wing concept of 'justice.'

The goal, then, is - to whatever degree possible - to create a country that will cheer when the verdict comes back that this law is unconstitutional, because the people have been brought to realize that forcing the victim to pay to bring the person who violates his rights to justice is an immoral and unjust law that should never have been written to start with. Then, the effect of all of the fundraising and propaganda that will be certain to pour out once the decision is made will be blunted, as much as possible.

This is not an activity that lends itself either to total success or total failure. Rather, it is a matter of degree. To the degree that one's actions create a culture that hates the injustice represented by this law, to that degree the ability of the religious right to collect money and votes when (if) the courts report that injustice will be thwarted. This is, in fact, an instance when every action one takes will have some benefit. Even if you are unable to convince a single person yourself, you will help to create a culture - an environment - where injustice will have to struggle a little harder to survive.

Final Point

The ultimate point is to convince enough people what justice requires and to train them to act justly, so that the unjust lack power and innocent people will not be made to suffer their crimes. People are not being persuaded as long as good people sit back and say, "I'm not going to say anything. If I speak up, they might yell at me, so I'll just sit here and say nothing and hope that the Courts take care of the issue."

That's not useful.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Detainees and American Moral Values

Congress is enacting the most morally horrendous legislation since the Japanese Internment of the 1940s. It's a part of an election strategy that can be summed up as follows. "If we can get the Democrats on record as being pro-Justice and pro-Constitution, then the American people will keep the Republicans in power."

The legislation is the detainee legislation - which specifies how the government may treat prisoners it apprehends in the "war on terror."

First, if defines these prisoners as "enemy combatants" – if not in fact, then in practice. Everybody arrested is guilty of a crime - 'guilty by definition' based on the mere fact he had been picked up. Consider this: You are asleep in your home. The police come in, arrest you, haul you off to prison, and then assert that everybody it arrests is a murderer. No trial. No evidence. Your guilt is established by the mere fact that you have been arrested. Because you are a murderer, you are a threat to others. Those others have a right to make sure that you stay in prison until they decide it is safe to let you out again. Yet, remember. You have done nothing. This is the "justice" written into the detainee legislation.

Second, it gives the President the sole power to determine what counts as torture, or cruel treatment, and denies any court the power to over-rule him. So, if the President asserts that skinning a person alive in a vat of hot oil does not violate the Geneva Conventions, then it does not violate the Geneva Conventions. We may think that this is absurd, but no Court has the power to force the President to use any other definition.

Third, it denies prisoners the "right of habeas corpus" - the right to demand that captors prove that they have good reason to hold a person in prison. So, after the police pull you out of your bed and throw you in jail with other "murderers" (where "murderer" is defined as "anybody the police hauls out of bed and throws in jail," you will have no right to demand that your captors prove that they did not make a mistake. (Of course, how could they make a mistake since, certainly, everybody they haul out of bed and lock up is a "murderer" under these definitions?)

I have argued in the past as to the moral quality of these actions.

A primary moral argument involves using the practice of imagining yourself being subject to the same rules you apply to others - the 'do unto others' principle. This is why I have used the examples above - of imagining yourself being hauled out of bed and locked up as a 'murderer' - where you are a murderer merely because you have been locked up, and you are not allowed to demand that your captors prove they have locked up a real murderer.

It is because the principle of justice - the principle of morality - says that if you have moral objections to others treating you in this way, then it is immoral (and unjust) for you to treat (or have the government, as your servant) treat others in this way.

This is a moral argument against this type of treatment. One of the defenses that the Bush Administration uses is that "we are only going to do this to foreigners; we will not treat Americans this way" (notwithstanding the fact that American citizens have been arrested and identified as "enemy combatants"). But this is like the Nazis arguing that, "The gas chambers are perfectly acceptable. After all, we are not going to use them on the Arians. We are only going to use them on the Jews." This type of argument is NOT a legitimate defense against the charge that one's policies are immoral and unjust.

Note: This weekend, in the "moral theory" posts, I am going to have to discuss the relevance of "do unto others" in a desire-utilitarian framework.

And if the moral argument is not presuasive, we must consider a practical argument as well. Every bill be pass is a set of principles that we prescribe for the entire world - because it makes no sense to say that we may do things that no other government in the world may do. So, by passing this legislation, we tell the world that they, too, may give their executives arbitrary and unchecked power to torture, arrest people and hold them indefinitely without trial, and deprive them of due process and justice, and we have no objection to this. We, after all, are with them in this. We think that those types of government are model governments that are a beacon to the world, because we are one of them.

However, the important point that I want to bring up now is: Why is the Republican party pushing this legislation now?

The reason is simple.

Republican strategists realize (and, I assume, Democratic strategists have confirmed) that if the Republicans can force the Democrats to go on record as being pro-justice and pro-Constitution (by which I mean 'pro-those-moral-principles-of-justice-written-into-the-Constitution), by voting against this legislation, then the American people will reject the Democratic party and keep power in the hands of the Republicans.

Iti would seem that it should be the other way around. It would seem that the American people should be looking at the vote on the issue and turning out those legislators that are anti-Justice and anti-Constitution. However, both major parties seem to agree that this is not what the American people are about. The American people are not pro-justice, and pro-Constitution. They are anti-Justice and anti-Constitution. The way to win votes - the way to keep political power - is for a candidate to show that he share's America's values of injustice and immorality.

If it were the case that the American people were a just and moral nation, then they would not support this legislation, or the candidates that defend it.

There are many groups in this country that claim to be interested in "moral values" and who moan about the lack of moral values in America today. If these groups were to stand up and announce their opposition to this legislation, it will not pass. Yet, they do not stand up, Instead, they show themselves to be key supporters of injustice standing fully behind any politician willing to put a hard stop to the moral principles written into the Constitution. This provides further evidence that America is no longer a nation of truth and justice, but a nation of lies and injustice.

Some would likely disagree with my claim that the principles that lie at the foundation of this law are immoral. Yet, I am not making a mere assertion. I have given my proof. It is found in the answer to the question, "Would you support others doing to you or those who you love what this legislation says the Bush Administration may do to others?" If the answer is 'no' – if the answer is that you would protest as unjust and immoral being taken from your home, held indefinitely without trial and tortured, then I have proved my case. The principles that this legislation will write into American law are immoral and unjust. If moral and just people would reject this legislation, and the American people accept it, then the American people are immoral and unjust.

This, of course, does not prove that ALL American people are immoral and unjust. We must accept the fact that there is a minority of Americans who are out of touch with mainstream American values. However, this is a minority - people who certainly should not have any say in Government decisions because those people do not represent American values – which apparently means torture, rendition, indefinite imprisonment without charges, and an arbitrary executive power that answers to nobody but itself.

At this point, I cannot tell with much certainty how many Americans fall into each camp. The Republican Party seems to think that America is dominated by unjust individuals who will gladly destroy the Constitution and support those candidates that share those values. Many in the Democratic Party seem to think the same thing, because they are not doing much to stand up to the Republicans. With both parties living on the assumption that America will prefer injustice over justice and building their campaign strategies on this assumption, we are not given much room to hope that this is not the case.

I hope that they are wrong.

Only time will tell.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Condemning Senator Allen of Virginia

A few weeks ago, Republican Senator Allen, seeking re-election inVirginia, used the word 'macaca' when talking about an 'spy' from his opponent's camp attending his event. Some reported that this is a racial slur in some culture, and Allen might have had some familiarity with such a culture.

This caused me to wonder how many words are racial slurs in some culture or other - if a person would be able to talk at all if he had to be mindful of every racist slang term around.

One of the things that I noticed about myself is that I never learned many racial terms. I always thought that this was a good thing. I always felt that such terms were not worth knowing. I never realized, until recently, that I was supposed to dedicate myself to learning every racial slur of every culture so that I could make sure to avoid using them, and being branded a racist.

Today, I saw new charges against Senator Allen. Some people (whose story can never be checked and who can make up whatever they want) assert that he used the word 'nigger' several times when he was in college. Some people who claim to have known him back then say that this is true. Some people claim that it is false.

The whole atmosphere of this particular debate reminds me of the effort to Swift Boat Senator Kerry when he ran for President. In this case, the Republicans took an event in the long past, found people who were willing to make a set of claims that contradicted the official story, and used this tactic to smear Senator Kerry. Again, there was no way to check the official story - to determine who was right and who was wrong. There was simply one group's word against another.

First, I want condemn the hypocrisy of the leftist bloggers who condemned the Swiftboating of John Kerry, but who praise similar tactics when used against a Republican opponent. They show by their words and deeds that they were just feigning moral indignation when they condemned the Republican tactics. They did not actually believe the Republicans were doing anything wrong. They just played the morally offended victim on television, because it made a good show.

If they actually felt that people who use these tactics are contemptible, then they would not give legs to the stories about Senator Allen. Instead, they would work to keep the voters' attention on the real issues.

The issue is even more disconcerting since we are talking about activities that are 30 years old or more, among college athletes. Young people are experimenting with an identity. They make mistakes. They deserve condemnation at the time they make mistakes - this is how we help them to choose the better road (assuming we know what the better road is ourselves). They do not deserve condemnation 30 years later. This is like saying that, because Einstein missed a particular test question when he was studying physics in college, he still did not understand physics 30 years later.

Second, this story is a distraction from the real issues. Instead of focusing on current reasons why Senator Allen should be defeated, they are avoiding the real issues to focus on this diversion. As such, they are feeding the political, economic, and moral ignorance of the people.

It would be better, I would argue, for them to be spending the time educating the public about which set of options we should pursue regarding Iraq, global warming, immigration, torture, warrantless spying, and separation of powers.

Another issue that should be addressed asks why this type of report has legs, but reports about a person's stand on torture, rendition, separation of powers, and checks and balances, do not attract near as much attention. The mere rumor that a person used the word 'nigger' thirty years ago when he was young is enough to sink his political career. The fact that the same person favors making America a nation wedded to torture, injustice, warantless spying, and absolute power collected in the hands of a single leader, are not considered important enough issues to decide an election on..

It is yet another example of twisted priorities.

People tend to blame "the media" when things like this happen. It is "the media's faut" for choosing to follow one story rather than another.

In fact, "the media" is substantially interested in only one thing - eyeballs per minute. This gets converted into cash through advertising revenue. The reason the 'nigger' story gets played is because people are paying attention to the web sites and broadcasts that play this story, and ignoring those who do not find it relevant. We are the ones who choose the nature of the moral debate in this country. If the moral debate is not what we want, we are the ones who have the power to change 0t - or at least nudge it into the right direction.

"But if we nudge it in the right direction, we will lose the election."

I do not write political strategy; that is not the purpose of this blog. I cannot say whether this is true or false. If it is true, it reflects a widespread moral and intellectual failing on the part of the voting public - something that should be addressed and changed. We gain nothing by pandering to, praising, and promoting this type of intellectual lazyness. We gain only by demoting and inhibiting it through condemnation, in the hopes that something better will take its place. In this case, "something better" refers to an interest in real issues to replace this distorted fascination with side shows.

I do not care what Senator Allen was like 30 years ago. I only care about what he is like today.

Finally, there is the supplemental story that Allen killed a dear during hunting season, then asked for the closest mailbox of a black family that he could stuff the head into. The story describes this as a copy-cat of the "horse's head in a bed" scene from The Godfather.

If these are just stories, then they are not worth reporting. Anybody can tell a story.

Let's assume that we go further and discover that there is a police report of a dear head stuffed in a mailbox. Now, we have some supporting evidence. However, we still do not have proof. It is quite possible that the accuser heard the story and is attempting to blame Senator Allen for it. It may be that the accuser himself is the person who stuffed the head in the mailbox.

A person has a right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty, and nothing here yet proves guilt. This is all part of having a desire to make sure that the guilty are punished, but the innocent are free to live their life. People should not be made to suffer for crimes they have not committed.

It is still the case that without some type of proof linking Allen to the crime, a morally concerned individual will dismiss these charges and consider them an irrelevant distraction to the real issues of the day.

I am not defending Senator Allen. This post is not a post saying that “Senator Allen is good and his critics are evil.” In fact, I think that there is sufficient real evidence against Allen to condemn him of bigotry. The Wikipedia article referenced above contains some examples. He has a history of supporting a Confederate culture while giving no indication of wishing to denounce even the most bigoted and racist elements of that culture (though he does not explicitly endorse them either).

This article is mostly concerned with asking the question of why so many people – people are willing to base a judgment on unfounded and unproven allegations, who do not seem to be similarly concerned with hard evidence? Why is this heavily flawed and flimsy case given such weight, and solid arguments based on hard evidence ignored?

This is not a way that a morally and intellectually responsible person would look at evidence.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Gas Prices vs Constitutional Principles

I read over the weekend that gas prices are going down. I have also read some suspicions that this may be a bid on the part of the energy companies to help ensure that the Republicans keep control of the Senate and the House. If true, then it is having its desired effect, as people cite lower gasoline prices as one of the reasons for their shift in attitude.

Accusations of Conspiracy

I'm one of those who believe that accusations require evidence. It is never the job of the accused to prove that he is innocent - it is the job of the accuser to make his case. It is intellectually irresponsible to adopt a belief of guilt in the absence of evidence.

This is not to say that it is wrong to be suspicious. Every criminal investigator knows that you start the investigation with the most likely suspects, even if the only evidence one has a statistical correlation of past cases. When investigating a murder, start the list of suspects with those who knew the victim - friends, family. If somebody reports finding a bomb or a house on fire, that person is likely to be the bomber or the arsonist, looking for an opportunity to be a hero.

A drop in gasoline prices of 24 cents in two weeks? Well, energy companies are being lead by people who desire to keep a Republican majority in both houses of Congress. They believe that if they lower the price of gasoline that Republican candidates will get more votes, increasing the chance that they will retain control of Congress. They have means, motive, and opportunity. It may be time to start an investigation to see if we can find a smoking gun.

We have reason for suspicion. However, those who assert that the verdict is "guilty" based on this evidence are people who either do not understand or who do not care enough to uphold the basic principles of justice.

We also have a history of prior offenses, at least on the part of Exxon-Mobile. This company has heavily funded a campaign to deny global warming. This proves that they have no interest in truth or fiction. They are willing to risk having whole cities destroyed so that the value of their stock goes up. We certainly have no evidence that they would have moral objections that would prevent them from subverting the democratic process for personal gain.

A Question of Priorities

Yet, these data suggest an even more important moral concern than the energy company’s' moral failings. These data suggest that such a strategy, if it were intentional, would work. However, for such a strategy to work, we need a significant portion of the population who would be willing to sell several key provisions of the Constitution of the United States for 25 cents per gallon.

Imagine a gasoline station putting a sign on its window that says, "Special discount; 10% off for those who will renounce key provisions of the Bill of Rights."

Imagine a line of eager customers eagerly waiting for the station to open.

This data suggests that the country is filled with such people. They do not base their vote on whether substantial portions of the Constitution are being defended or undermined. They base their vote on the price of gasoline, with their vote going to those who would undermine the Constitution as long as the price of gasoline has dropped by 25 cents per gallon.

The data do not suggest that this is a huge portion of the population. We are talking, perhaps, three or four people out of every 100. However, they may be the ones who determine who wins and loses in the upcoming election, giving the edge to those whose record is clearly one of undermining the Constitution.

This argument does not depend in any way on whether Exxon-Mobile is subverting the democratic process for political gain. The drop in gasoline prices might be entirely due to market forces. Yet, whatever the cause of this reduction happens to be, the effect is to entice a group of people who are willing to shift their vote. The effect alone (regardless of the cause) tells us that there is a group of people in this country who will sell several important provisions of the Constitution for 25 cents per gallon, and that these types of people find Democratic candidates more attractive than Republican candidates.

Constitutional Principles and Morality

I want to remind the readers that I never defend the Constitution for its own sake. I have never been one who says that, just because something is in the Constitution, this means that it is right and must be defended. Slavery was once written into the Constitution. Yet, it was never right and never worthy of defense.

This time, however, we are talking about constitutional provisions and principles that the founding fathers got right. We are talking about the First, Fourth, Fifth, and Eighth Amendments to the Constitution, as well as the doctrine of separation of powers, which requires one branch (e.g., the Executive) to work with the other branches before it can usurp the rights of the people. These, I argue, are important moral principles that are worthy of our defense.

These are principles that are so important to some people that they not only refuse to sell those principles for 25 cents per gallon, they sacrifice life and limb in defense of those principles. It is tragic, in a sense, for them to die to protect something that those who benefit from their death sell so cheaply.


I am also aware of the fact that many of those who are selling their Constitutional rights for such a low price do not actually see their actions in this light. The do not think of the fact that they are selling their Constitutional rights. They are like the rock collector who sells 'just another rock,' for a few dollars, only to discover that the rock they sold was a rare gem worth millions of dollars - or, in this case, worth hundreds of thousands of lives.

Yet, they are not entirely off the hook for not realizing the value of what they sell. It is something that they ought to know. They are selling not only their own rights but those of their neighbors - those of people who consider these rights worth a whole lot more than 25 cents per gallon. When a person's actions affect others in this way, they have an obligation to consider the effect, and may be held morally responsible for negligence if they do harm to others that they should have realized was harm.


Ultimately, my objection applies to anybody who thinks that the price of gasoline is an election issue. Who are these people who, against a backdrop of war, terror, torture, rendition, arbitrary arrest, indefinite imprisonment without trials, warrantless searches and seizures, put these considerations aside and allow their vote to be decided on what happens to the price of gas over the course of a couple of weeks.

We are not even talking about any type of absolute benefit, but only a relative benefit over the course of a couple of weeks. I am forced to wonder if those who love the Bush Administration because the price of gasoline went up to $3.00 two weeks ago and has now dropped to $2.75, would have found the Bush Administration even more admirable if the price of gas had risen to $3.50 then dropped to $3.00. The values expressed by this particular block of voters suggests that they would have been ecstatic at such news.

I think that people need to let this voting block in on a little secret. They can go ahead and collect any savings on gasoline that exists between now and election day, and still vote to protect and defend the principles written into the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Nobody is tallying up how much money you save with the plan on asking for the money back in November if the public's defense of the Constitution should fail. In this case, you can have your cheep gas prices for a few weeks and your Constitutional rights.

You just need to decide if those rights are worth defending.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Voter Identification Law

Over the weekend, I listened to a clip on concerning voter photo identification laws, "Tova Wang, Century Foundation, & Jason Torchinsky, American Center for Voting Rights" that were passed in the House of Representatives on Wednesday of last week. The law requires a photo identification with proof of citizenship (effectively, it requires a passport) in order to vote.

The discussion had Tova Wang of the Century Foundation arguing that voter photo identification deprived voters of a right to vote by putting costly barriers in front of them. It was a way of disenfranchising the elderly, the poor, and handicapped from voting. Jason Torchinsky of the Center for Voting Rights argued that it would be an effective deterrent to voter fraud. He brought up the fact that 30,000 people non-citizens from Mexico had drivers’ licenses and might be registered to vote even though they are not qualified.

I found that people on both sides used arguments that made no sense.

Right to Vote vs Voter Fraud

For example, let’s look at Tova Wang’s argument that the costs associated with getting a photo identification with proof of citizenship would put a barrier in front of people with of a right to vote. This right to vote itself implied that there should be no obstacles or barriers put in front of a person who wishes to cast a legitimate vote.

The requirement for photo identification with proof of citizenship would put costs in front of people that will keep those with a right to vote from voting in an election. It is true that every hoop that a person must go through to get to a particular destination will act as a filter, keeping a certain number of people from going through the hoop – not just those who the hoop was built to filter out, but others who do not wish to pay the cost.

By the way, in economic terms, cost is not limited to money. “Cost” refers to any expenditure of a valuable resource, such as time. For some people, asking for help from another is a “cost” because they seek to avoid being a burden on others, and are inclined to choose the option that makes them the lesser burden.

When it comes to distorting an election, a legitimate vote not cast because somebody put up barriers that kept qualified voters from casting a vote distorts an election just as much as an illegitimate vote cast in an election. As a way of disenfranchising the voter, barriers to voting and voter fraud are equal.

Therefore, it seems to me that the real question that needs answering in order to determine whether voter identification with proof of citizenship is a requirement would be determined by answering this question; Which is greater; the number of legitimate votes not cast because of the new barriers, or the number of illegitimate votes not cast? If the voter identification law blocks more legitimate than illegitimate votes, then it would be a good idea. If it prevents more legitimate votes than illegitimate votes, then the law itself will distort elections more than the problem it is being used to solve.

It is important to stress the fact that this comparison would have to look explicitly at the types of voter fraud that a national identification card would prevent. For the most part, these are cases where non-citizens register to vote and actually do vote in America’s elections.

Which is Greater?

So, the real question is: Which is the greater problem; legitimate voters being kept away from the poll, or illegitimate voters distorting the election?

In the debate at least, Torchinsky never brought up a single instance of voter fraud – of a person actually being convicted of casting an illegitimate vote. He brought up several cases in which voter fraud was possible, but no actual cases.

This could be the fact that voter fraud would be difficult to prosecute or even to discover under the current system. Indeed, the complaint against the current system is that voter fraud is so easy. This would imply that few fraudsters will get caught. Demanding that Torchinsky have examples of actual voter fraud would be unfair, since Torchinsky would be able to provide this only if voter fraud is easy to prosecute, which Torchinsky is arguing is not the case.

We can, however, obtain indirect evidence of the type of voter fraud we are talking about. One of the things that we could do, for example, is – when capturing illegal aliens – determine how many of them have registered to vote and actually voted in an election. It may also be useful for the government to conduct a study, take an election in a few sample precincts, look at the list of those who claimed to have voted, and verify (after the election) as well as possible whether those people actually voted. In other words, what percentage of the votes are voter fraud?

The Cost

In arguing in favor of the voter ID law, Torchinsky reported that Americans already have to produce photo ID for many types of activities, such as getting a job. Wang correctly answered this by saying that none of these other activities are covered by a right. There is no right to have a job, or a right to vote. One of the main differences between a right and a privilege is that others have more of an obligation not to put barriers before the exercise of a right. Indeed, there must be a compelling interest at stake.

One could argue that preventing voter fraud counts as a compelling interest. Yet, I covered that argument in the previous section. The ‘compelling state interest’ is in accurate elections, and a voter ID card will only protect this interest if it prevents a number of fraudulent votes cast that is greater than the number of legitimate votes not cast because of the additional costs imposed on the voters. Torchinsky provided no evidence that this is the case.

The Bandwagon Argument

In one part of the debate, both participants attempted to argue that the public was on their side. They both cited public opinion polls while asserting that the opinion polls that suggested that their opponent’s position was the most popular suffered from some flawed methodology.

The fact is, public opinion polls are never relevant in a debate over whether we ‘should’ or ‘should not’ have a particular law. The ‘trail of tears’ where President Andrew Jackson relocated 17.000 Cherokees living on the east coast of the United States and forced marched them to land west of the Mississippi. Four thousand Native Americans died in an atrocity comparable to the Battaan Death March in World War II – which the United States considered a war crime. Yet, this was amazingly popular. There was also a time and place where slavery would have won in an opinion poll, and Japanese Internment in World War II was exceptionally popular.

What is ‘popular’ and what is ‘right’ is not the same thing, and a debate over whether the country should or should not have a particular law should never involve an appeal to opinion polls.


A final point that I would like to bring up on this issue is the question of motivation.

If a person has two desires, and there is a state of affairs that will fulfill both desires, then that person is motivated to bring about the state that fulfills both desires (barring more and other desires that would be thwarted by such a state). So, if a person wants to spend time with a significant other, and would really like to see a new movie that just came out, then we can expect him to ask the significant other to go see the movie with him. If he does not ask (and there is no reason to believe the significant other would refuse), we may assume he is not that interested in being with his significant other.

Similarly, the legislature has reason to be interested in preventing voter fraud, and in making sure that no legitimate voters are prevented from voting. To determine if a legislator has both interests we can see if he aims for legislation that reduces voter fraud while mindful (and taking steps to deal with any barriers that legitimate voters might find. If we see legislators who are opposing fraud who show no interest in the effects that their law might have on legitimate voters, then we have reason to believe that they do not really care if legitimate voters are prevented from voting.

In fact, we might be suspicious that they seek to prevent legitimate voters from voting, particularly when the voters who will likely be prevented from voting are those who would vote for a political opponent. If we discover that the law in question will have little or no effect on reducing fraud and a large effect on keeping those who would vote for Democratic candidates out of the polls, we have reason to infer that the Republicans supporting this bill are more interested in preventing legitimate votes (subverting democracy) than fighting fraud. We would gain additional support for this thesis if we discover the Republicans who control the Congress are not pursuing other forms of voter fraud – those that do not have the additional ‘benefit’ to Republicans of subverting democracy in their favor.

I do not have time right not to look at what the provisions of the law actually call for. However, I offer this to the reader as points to keep in mind while discussing the debate and presenting the issue to others. It would be particularly interesting to discover that a the party of a President who went into Iraq to promote democracy is that can be proved to be subverting democracy at home, by defending legislation that will have some minimal effect on voter fraud while having a greater effect of keeping those who support a rival party from voting.

However, as I said, that conclusion will need some research to determine if the premises that I outlined above are true.

I also have to say that the opposite is true - if those who oppose this law are not interested in opposing other ways of protecting against voter fraud that do not have this cost, and do so even in the light of evidence that the law would prevent mnore fraudulent votes than legitimate votes from being cast, then they, too, have proved themselves to be more interested in subverting democracy than protecting it.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Description and Prescription

In response to an earlier posting on “Choosing a Moral Theory,” made the following comment:

I'm not sure that the point here is as clear to uninformed readers as it could be. It should be recognized that Desire Utilitarianism is a *descriptive* statements about the way people *do* make choices, it is not a *prescriptive* theory telling people what they should (not) do and why.

Describing and Prescribing in Desire Utilitarianism

Actually, I deny that there is a sharp break between what is “descriptive” and what is “prescriptive.” I hold that it is possible for some statements to be both, at the same time, “descriptive” in that they report some fact about the world, and “prescriptive” in that they tell people what to do.

If it is true (as a matter of description) that a state of affairs S is such as to fulfill desire D, then it is also true that this state of affairs S is to be prescribed for those people who have desire D. That is to say, people with desire D have a “reason for action” for choosing S (barring the existence of more and stronger desires that would be thwarted by choosing S).

The previous paragraph is purely descriptive. It contains a set of propositions that I am willing to defend as objectively true. Furthermore, these statements describe when it makes sense to prescribe a state of affairs.

Now, if we say of some state of affairs S that, “S is such as to fulfill desire D”, then we are describing S. And, at the same time, with the very same sentence, we are prescribing S for those with desire D.

Looking at the other side of the coin for a moment, when we say to a person with desire D, “You should bring about S,” this statement is true (and objectively true) whenever “S is such as to fulfill desire D” is true (barring the existence of more and stronger desires that would be thwarted by choosing S).

So, we have two types of statements. We have statements that are descriptive only (e.g., “The car is red.”). We have statements that are both, at the same time, descriptive and prescriptive (e.g., “You should get a red car.”). This is a statement that describes a state of affairs of the agent having a red car as a state that would fulfill the more and the stronger of the agent’s desires.

Note: Here, I am talking about ‘should’ in the practical sense, not ‘should’ in the moral sense. Moral ‘should’, as I suggested yesterday, includes a consideration of the desires of people other than the agent. Yesterday, I described some of the elements that go into thinking that moral ‘should’ ultimately has to do with what ‘reasons for action’ (desires) we all should have so that people generally stand a better chance of fulfilling their desires. In this posting on the relationship between description and prescription, the simpler “practical ‘should’” is sufficient.

The Biggest Problem with the Descriptive/Prescriptive Distinction

The biggest problem that I have with the Descriptive/Prescriptive distinction is that it smacks of metaphysical dualism.

The ‘description/prescription’ distinction ties in with the so-called ‘fact/value’ distinction and the ‘is/ought’ distinction. I have the same problem with all of these. However, it is easiest to explain the problem by looking at the ‘is/ought’ distinction.

This distinction says that there are two types of entities; ‘is’ entities, and a completely separate set of ‘ought’ entities. Each set of entities is captured by its own language. We use ‘is’ language to talk about ‘is’ entities, and ‘ought’ language to talk about ‘ought’ entities.

These two types of entities are supposed to be completely separate from one another. We can never use ‘is’ language to talk about ‘ought’ entities.

Yet (and there is where the problem comes in), these two types of entities are supposed to interact. We are told that these ‘ought’ entities have the power to influence the motion of matter in the real world. They can cause a person to tell the truth, to give money to charity, to save a life, or to repay a debt.

This is where I have my problem. In order for something to have an effect in the real world – in order for it to be a part of our understanding of the motion of atoms through space, then it must be a part of the real world.

There is only one distinction worth talking about, and that is the distinction between ‘is’ and ‘is not.’

‘Ought’ either fits into the world of ‘is’, or it fits into the world of ‘is not.’

Ultimately, it does not matter to the structure of the universe whether one categorizes morality as an ‘is’ or an ‘is not’ – any more than it matters to the structure of the universe whether Pluto gets categorized as a ‘planet’ or as a ‘dwarf planet.’ Pluto’s orbit, size, and composition do not change.

Similarly, if somebody wants to define ‘morality’ in such a way that it falls within the category of ‘is not’, it does not affect the structure of the universe. Desires still exist. Desires are still reasons for action. Relationships between states of affairs and desires still exist. Desires still function to motivate people to make or keep true the propositions that are the objects of their desires. It still makes sense to strengthen desires that tend to fulfill the desires of others and inhibit desires that tend to thwart the desires of others. We still have the capacity to modify the desires each other has (to some extent) through praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment. All of these things remain a part of the world that ‘is’, even if somebody wants to claim that morality must be assigned to the category of ‘is not’.

I recommend (and this is just like recommending a definition of ‘planet’ that excludes Pluto) that ‘values’ be understood as a subset of ‘facts’, that ‘ought’ be understood as a subset of ‘is’, and that ‘prescription’ be understood as a subset of ‘description.’

Specifically, a value is a relationship between a state of affairs and a set of desires. ‘Ought’ = ‘is such as to lead to the fulfillment of the desires in question’. Describing a state as being one that fulfills a desire is the same as prescribing that state to those people who have the desire (barring the existence of more and stronger desires that would be thwarted choosing that state).

I do not like dualism. I particularly do not like theories that say that I have to postulate things other than what 'is' - entities that are supposed to have relevance in the world that 'is', even though they are separate and distinct from that world.

Moral Theory

Another atheist ethicist also wrote:

I think from the comments I've read here that readers want reasons to select a prescriptive moral theory.

This is a ‘want’ that can never be fulfilled. There is a difference between a moral theory and a set of moral principles. A moral theory (or, more accurately, a ‘value theory’ which would have to include as one of its parts a theory of moral values), like any scientific theory, is descriptive in nature. Its purpose is to describe the phenomena of prescription. That is to say, “a theory of value” and “a theory of prescription” are two ways of saying the same thing.

Once we have a (descriptive) theory of value – a theory of prescriptivity - we can use it to look at prescriptions themselves, and we can evaluate them as strong or weak, sound or unsound. We can apply it to prescriptions as to which car to buy, which college to go to, what job to accept, and who to marry. We can also apply this theory of prescriptivity to look at prescriptions as to what desires to promote or inhibit in a community. This has important implications on prescriptions for praising or condemning individuals (that is to say, for determining when we should praise them, and when we should condemn them).

Before we can do any of this, we need a theory of prescriptivity. We need a descriptive theory that tells us what ‘reasons for action’ actually exist and how they work.

Friday, September 22, 2006

The Foundations of Ethics

Another weekend, another two posts on moral theory.

This weekend I would like to write about:

(1) The Foundations of Ethics.

(2) Description vs. Prescription.

This is, after all, near the start of a new blogging year. It is also near the start of my new practice of devoting the weekends to theory. I feel that one good choice to make towards the beginning of such a project is a description of the basic elements of the desire utilitarian theory that I use in this blog.

I would like to present six elements – six propositions – that I hold to be objectively true propositions about morality.

Proposition (1): The real world contains a large number of 'reasons for intentional action.'

This is a recap, so some would have read this story before. However, I think it clearly proves that there are, in fact, objective "reasons for action."

When I was thirteen, as my family prepared for a camping trip, I put my hand on a hot plate. It was not red hot. It did not look hot at all. However, it was hot enough to leave second-degree burns on the palm of my hand.

That hurt! My hand immediately sent a message to my brain that could be roughly translated as, “You idiot! Don’t you ever let anything like that happen again!”

This aversion to pain is a "reason for action" – a reason for me to act in ways that will decrease the chance that I will suffer a similar affect in the future. This "reason for action" is a part of the real world, where it can be used to explain and predict real-world events. If I wonder why I shy away from putting my hand on plates that might be hot, this is one of the reasons.

This "reason for action" is more than a "reason for action" that makes it less likely that I will be putting my hand on a hot plate. It is a "reason for action" to avoid being burned in a number of ways. It is a "reason for action" for buying a smoke detector, installing it in my house, and making sure that it works. It is a "reason for action" for making sure that the house is well wired, that I keep flammable materials away from open flames like candles, and that I buy a fire extinguisher and that I know how to use it.

For purposes of this blog, it is also important to note that these "reasons for action" do not depend on believing that there is a God. It is completely absurd to suggest that only those who believe in God actually have a "reason for action" not to put their hand in a hot fire. Anybody who suggests that an atheist can simply shrug off as unimportant the fact that some flame is burning away his flesh is somebody who is so caught up in a bigoted prejudice that he has lost all contact with reality. Even animals have "reasons for action" for avoiding pain, and no animal requires belief in God.

If they want, people can debate whether God created these "reasons for action" that exist, or whether they came about through evolution. This is true in exactly the same sense that they can debate whether God created the trees, or whether they are a product of evolution. Whatever one believes on the origin of trees, atheists and theists can agree that trees exist. They can agree on how tall they are, how they produce energy from sunlight, the way that tree stuff, when burned, generates heat and smoke.

Similarly, when it comes to these "reasons for action" that exist, some of us can say that they came from evolution while others may say that God created them. Yet, these reasons for action do exist. They are a part of the real world. The idea that atheists cannot have "reasons for action" is as absurd as saying that atheists can't see trees.

Proposition (2): We each have a number of different "reasons for action."

Not only do I have "reasons for action" to avoid being burned. I also have "reasons for action" to avoid being drowned, shot, stabbed, lied to, robbed, cheated, enslaved, arbitrarily arrested and imprisoned, tortured, or otherwise abused.

I have "reasons for action" to fulfill appetites such as eating, drinking, and having sex.

Another "reason for action" that I have is concern for my wife. Here, again, people can dispute whether this concern for the welfare of a mate has some origin in our evolution – a way of ensuring our genetic replication. Some may say that this affection for a mate is written into the brain by God, not evolution. For purposes of this debate it does not matter. This affection for a mate exists (at least in most people) and it is yet another "reason for action." In this case, it is a "reason for action" that includes actions that will make it less likely that my wife will be raped or otherwise attacked, fall victim to some illness, or suffer some injury whether it be brought about by humans or nature.

I do not have any children. However, many people I know who have children assert that they find in themselves a "reason for action" to promote the well-being of their children. In fact, their "reason for action" for protecting their children from harm is often stronger than their "reasons for action" for protecting themselves from harm. When this happens, the stronger "reasons for action" for protecting the children will motivate the parent act in ways that shield the child from harm while putting the parent in harm's way.

Some people have "reasons for action" for doing harm to others. We cannot deny this. Nor can we deny that they are just as real as the reasons for action that I have been discussing so far. However, there are other things that are true of these types of "reasons for action" that I will talk about later.

For now, what I have established is that the real world contains a great many different "reasons for action" – real-world entities that recommend for or against bringing about any of the possible states of affairs.

Proposition (3): The actions that these "reasons for action" give us reason to perform includes actions that will bring about certain behaviors on the part of others in our communities.

My aversion to the pain of being burned not only gives me a "reason for action" for installing a smoke detector and making sure my house is well wired. It also gives me a "reason for action" for affecting what others think and do. For example, if there is some action I can perform that will make others less likely to do those things that would get burned, or more likely to do things that would save me from getting burned, then I have a "reason for action" to perform those actions.

For example, the same "reasons for action" for installing a smoke detector are "reasons for action" for creating a fire department. It is a "reason for action" for going to my neighbors and pointing out to them, what happens to be true, that they also have "reasons for action" for establishing a fire department. Together we pool our resources to create a fire department.

But not just any fire department.

We want a 'good' fire department. A good smoke detector is a smoke detector that best fulfills our "reasons for action" for buying a smoke detector. A 'good' fire department is a fire department that has a better chance of bringing about those things that we have "reason for action" for establishing a fire department. We create fire departments primarily because we have "reasons for action" for not getting killed or injured in a fire and not having our property destroyed. These "reasons for action" tell us to create fire departments that will save a higher percentage of lives, reduce the severity of injuries, and save more property.

It would be laughable for a "fire department relativist" to show up and say that there is no 'objective value' when it comes to fire departments and that the fire department that saves few lives and seldom responds to a fire in a timely manner is just as good as a fire department that saves more lives and often responds to alarms within minutes.

Proposition (4): Just as we have a "reasons for action" for creating good fire departments, we have "reasons for action" for creating good fire fighters, and we have the tools to do this.

The same argument that says that we have "reasons for action" for creating a good fire department says that we have "reasons for action" for creating good firefighters. Just as a good fire department is a fire department that best fulfills our "reasons for action" for creating a fire department, a good firefighter is a firefighter that can best fulfill our "reasons for actions" for hiring firefighters.

We have several tools available for influencing how firefighters act when an alarm sounds. These tools are praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment.

We have "reasons for action" for recognizing firefighters who are particularly efficient at responding promptly to alarms, saving lives, and preventing property damage due to fire. We have "reasons for action" for promoting firefighters of this type – giving them actual promotions (because these are the types of people we want running the department), honors, and praise.

We get more of an effect through public recognition. A special reward ceremony in which a firefighter that best fulfills our "reasons for action" for having firefighters not only inspires that firefighter to do better, but also inspires others.

We have "reasons for action" for recognizing firefighters who do things that diminish their effectiveness at bringing about those states we have "reasons for action" for having firefighters do. A firefighter who drinks on the job, shows cowardice, and skips training exercise is a firefighter who is less able to fulfill our "reasons for action" for having firefighters. We have "reasons for action" for subjecting such fighters to reprimand, demotion, and even termination. By making these reprimands public, we not only give the firefighters we reprimand "reason for action" to avoid becoming such a firefighter, we communicate with other firefighters not to become this type of firefighter.

Proposition (5): The same points made with respect to having "reasons for action" for creating a good fire department and good firefighters, apply to creating good communities.

Above, I argued how the aversion to pain (of being burned) counts for a "reason for action" for setting up good fire departments and having good firefighters in those departments – where "good" means "more likely to fulfill the "reasons for action" for which we create fire departments and firefighters.

Our various "reasons for action" are also reasons for creating good communities and for populating those communities with good citizens.

We have "reasons for action" to avoid not only getting burned by others, but also getting shot, stabbed, enslaved, arbitrarily arrested, indefinitely imprisoned without trials, raped, robbed, or lied to by others. That is to say, we have "reasons for action" for creating a community of citizens who are less likely to shoot, stab, enslave, rape, rob, or lie to us.

Proposition (6): We have two ways of making others less likely to do those things that we have "reason for action" not to have them do, like shoot, stab, rape, rob, and lie to us; sanctions, and moral education.

Sanctions involve taking another person's desires as they are and saying, "we will thwart some of those desires if you should perform this action." The potential thwarting of desires gives the person a "reason for action" not to perform the action. It creates deterrence.

Unfortunately, sanctions have two major problems with using sanctions.

First, sanctions require power, and they are not available to the powerless.

Second, sanctions only work against those who are caught. I can threaten to impose sanctions on anybody who takes my property. However, this does not give others a "reason for action" to leave my property alone when they can take it without being caught.

How do we prevent a person from doing things we "have a reason" not to have them do when they have power, and when they cannot be caught.

Well, going back to the first proposition, I can say with near certainty that even a person with power will look for the first opportunity to put his hand in a bed of hot coals. I can also say with near certainty that a person will put his hand in a bed of hot coals the instant he is certain he can do it without getting caught. He will not do this because he has been given a "reason for action" not to do this.

If we can give people a "reason for action" not to shoot, stab, enslave, rape, rob, or lie to people that is like their "reason for action" not to put their hand in a bed of hot coals. A person who hates the idea of taking another person's property without their consent will not take the property of others without their consent even when they have the power to get away with it. Such a person will not take the property of another even when there is no chance that he would get caught. Such a person is just as likely to take the property of another as he is in putting his hand in a bed of hot coals.

I have already mentioned how we go about giving people these aversions. We reprimand and condemn those whose actions suggest that they do not have the aversions to these types of actions. It is best to condemn them in public, to hold them up as examples of what others should want not to do. If there are no 'others' to hold up as examples, we can still describe our reactions hypothetically – showing our contempt for a hypothetical person who does not show the proper aversion to these types of actions.

Earlier, I mentioned how people may have "reasons for action" for committing atrocities against their fellow humans. I also spoke about how a good community is one that fulfills our "reasons for action" for creating a community, and a good citizen is one who fulfills our "reasons for action" for associating with fellow citizens. For example, people with a desire to rape have a "reason for action" to commit rape and a "reason for action" to avoid punishment.

Now, let us shift our focus from rape to the desire to rape. Who among us has a "reason for action" for promoting a desire to rape? There are very many among us who have a "reason for action" for promoting an aversion to rape. This is because, to the degree that everybody has an aversion to rape – to the degree that people hate the idea of committing rape – to that degree people are less likely to be raped. A person with an aversion to rape will not commit rape even when he is in a position of power, and even when he can get away with it – in the same way that a person with an aversion to being burned will not put his hand in a bed of hot coals even when he is powerful enough to get away with it or can do so without being caught.

Moral education has to do with the "reasons for action" that exist for promoting an aversion to rape.


I know that this is a long post. However, I think an explanation as to the foundations of morality requires this type of detail.

I needed to show that reasons for intentional action are real, that we have the capacity to control the reasons for intentional action that other people have, and that this leaves us with a question of what reasons for intentional action we should be promoting or inhibiting. Ultimately, I would argue, that this is the question that morality is most concerned with - the question of what reasons for action it makes sense to promote or demote.

Nobody is obligated to call this question 'morality.' They can call it what they wish. Yet, the question remains, and it remains an important question, regardless of the name we give it.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

A Just God?

Why is it that there appears to be a strong correlation between being a 'values' voter who claims that faith in God gives him or her a deep sense of concern over moral issues, and an overwhelming lack of concern over torture, rendition, arbitrary imprisonment, and injustice?

Is it not the case that this God they are supposed to be worshipping is a just God? Why would worshippers of a just God be so eager to throw out virtually all of the basic principles of justice?

Perhaps the point of this post may count as one of those things that I do not read about often because it is too obvious to mention.

I am talking about the apparent connection between 'faith' and being willing to embrace torture, abuse, and injustice.

President Bush's political base tends to be built on a group of people who identify themselves as faith-based voters for whom 'moral issues' are the most important items on their political agenda. The one thing that they rant and rave about more than any other is the 'decline in morality' that they find in contemporary culture.

These are the same people who embrace and, at some point, even cheer the rise in torture, rendition, physical and mental abuse of people - almost all of whom are later determined to be completely innocent of any wrongdoing and released, arbitrary arrest, and indefinite imprisonment without a trial.

This strikes me as an odd combination.

Now, I have seen no official studies that looked into this connection. I am simply reporting what seems to be the case based on my own observations - and all rational people know how unreliable that form of evidence may be. An actual study of this phenomena may reveal that the faith-based 'values' voters that make up Bush's political base are, in fact, the most vocal opponents of these moral crimes.

Yet, I would be surprised if this is the case.

This is not to say that there are no faith-based 'values' voters who are opposed to torture and the other injustices that I mentioned above. It's only the fact that those faith-based 'values' voters do not make up Bush's political base. These are the faith-based 'values' voters who tend to be strongly opposed to President Bush, in part because Bush has so little respect for the principles of justice.

Furthermore, I am not discounting the possibility of non-faith-based 'values' voters who may might support Bush.

I am not talking about a law-like relationship.

I am only talking about a tendency here - a statistically significant correlation between being a faith-based 'values' Republican and embracing torture, rendition, abuse, and other forms of injustice.

I think that this relationship should not remain one of those things that is too obvious to talk about. I think that it is something that should be brought out in the open.

I would like to see it explicitly mention how the faith-based 'values' voters in this election are people who apparently 'value' torture, rendition, abuse, and injustice. I think that making this a part of the public discussion (however much it is possible to do so) will cause some faith-based 'values' voters to think, "Maybe I should not be a defender of torture, rendition, abuse, and injustice? Maybe, instead, I should be defending justice?"

Of course, this way of thinking will run into the thought - "Those people are terrorists! They do not deserve 'justice'!"

This response will come from people who have forgotten that 'justice' means making sure that somebody is a terrorist before we subject them to all sorts of harsh treatment.

We have a system where over 90% of the people who are arrested, taken from their families, imprisoned without charges or a trial, tortured, abused, and held for months or years, are eventually released without a trial - without any charges being leveled against them.

Tomorrow morning, while you are on your way to work, imagine that somebody throws you in a van, hauls you off to a secret prison then tortures you while they ask you questions like, "Tell me what you know about those who hate the United States." While you are being tortured, you realize that the only way to ease the torture is to start telling your captors what they want to hear. You make up stories, and they let you get some sleep. Those stories name your neighbors. Maybe you start with co-workers and relatives you do not like very much. However, they ask for details. You find it easier to give details when you talk about their friends. But, all you really want is to get some sleep.

After a couple of months, you are dumped on a street corner. You suddenly show up at home and you tell the story to your family - those parts that you are not too ashamed to tell. Of course, when you tell your family and friends what happened, you do not mention the stories that you tell your captors.

You are a bit reluctant to tell them those stories. One of the things that you quickly learn is that the people you named in those stories have 'disappeared'. They are now on the list of suspected terrorists because the Americans have gotten information from somewhere that they, too, are involved in anti-American activities.

Then, think about what reaction will be the next time you hear some faith-based 'values' voter say, "These people are terrorists! They do not deserve justice!"

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Creating Unconstitutional Laws

I have been asked in an email to discuss the proposition that knowingly writing legislation that is unconstitutional is immoral, and whether some sort of sanctions are in order against those who pass a bill later determined to be unconstitutional.

I do not have space in the course of this blog to give a complete account of the moral considerations relevant to constitutional interpretation. However, I think that the issue is complicated, and I hope to give some appreciation for the complications involved.

The Wrong of Unconstitutional Legislation

In a sense, an easy argument can be made that it is. Legislators take an oath to uphold a constitution. If they introduce legislation that violates the constitution, then they are violating their oath. That is a moral offense.

Furthermore, many Constitutional provisions are directed specifically at Congress. For example, the First Amendment reads, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion . . ." If Congress makes a law respecting the establishment of religion, then they have made themselves criminals. However, these prohibitions do not come with punishments. As such, they are as effective as a law against drunk driving would be if the law also refused to punish those who were caught driving while drunk.

Yet, there are some complicating factors.

Breaking Promises/Laws

People are sometimes morally permitted, and even required, to break a promise or even to break the law.

Let us assume that I promise my wife that I will be there for a luncheon in which she will be giving an important speech to her company. She wants my moral support. However, on the way to the convention center I come across an accident - and I am well qualified to offer help to the victims. In this case, I am not only permitted to stop and help these people, I am obligated to do so -- even though doing so means breaking my promise to my wife.

As for violating the law, I have often used the example of a parent out fishing with a child when the child is stung by a bee. The child has an allergic reaction. The parent in order to get the child to the hospital, breaks the speed limit getting back into town. This is a permissible - perhaps obligatory - example of breaking the law.

So, we may argue that legislators may break their promise or break the law when something sufficiently important is at risk - such as the survival of the country, or large numbers of innocent lives. Furthermore, there is going to be disagreement over what counts as a sufficiently important risk.

What is Unconstitutional?

There are questions and even differences of opinion as to whether legislation actually violates the Constitution.

I find it interesting to note that even those who wrote the Constitution could not agree on what it said. Particularly interesting in this regard is the charter of a national bank. James Madison, who wrote the first draft of the Constitution and took meticulous notes during the Constitutional Convention, said that the government had no power to charter a bank and doing so would require a constitutional amendment. Alexander Hamilton and George Washington (the President of the Constitutional Convention) said that that Constitution did grant the government that authority. Hamilton and Washington won, and the United States government chartered a national bank for 20 years.

Twenty years later, when the Bank charter came up for renewal, James Madison - who had earlier argued that the bank was unconstitutional - renewed the charter. He did so, in part, because the bank had become an important part of the American economy and refusing to renew it would come at a heavy economic cost. Weighing economic cost against constitutional principles, Madison went with the economic arguments.

We could, perhaps, interpret the Constitution in such a way that it allows politicians to consider the economic and social effect of their decisions. After all, the Constitution was set up to 'promote the general welfare.' It might then be counted as absurd and irrational to be so devoted to a rule that one never allows it to be bent when the stakes are large enough. Rechartering the bank may be counted as one of those instances where it would have been foolish to follow the rules into economic collapse.

Our country discovered just how disruptive it would have been to withdraw the charter when Andrew Jackson did that very thing the next time the Bank charter came due - after another 20 years later. Jackson (my candidate for the most evil President in this country's history) did not base his arguments on national interest or constitutional issues. He has a personal feud with the President of the Bank and pulled the Charter as an act of personal spite - dumping the country into an economic recession.

This completely ignores the fact that many of the founding fathers held contradictory and hypocritical beliefs, most evident in their position on slavery. If slave owners can assert that “all men are created equal,” then we can only wonder at what other inconsistencies they might find acceptable.

Evolving Standards

Several parts of the Constitution contain rather vague language. For example, the First Amendment holds that the right to freedom of the press shall not be abridged. Yet, this would not include a right to report military secrets to an enemy with which this country is at war. The Constitution does not explicitly mention this exception - it is assumed to be a part of the concept of a 'right'.

The phrase that the right shall not be abridged suggests a theory that the right exists independent of the Constitution, and the Constitution is to be understood as respecting this natural and independent (moral) right. This means that, as we learn more about this natural right, our understanding of what the Constitution allows and prohibits might change over time.

On this interpretation, the Constitution itself is not changing - our understanding of it changes over time just as our understanding of the solar system changes over time. When we add new planets to the solar system, it is not the solar system that changed. It is our knowledge of it that changed. When we extend the right to freedom of the press into new areas, the right to the freedom of the press does not change. Instead, our understanding of its reach and its limits changes.

Other vague phrases can be found - particularly in the Bill of Rights. What counts as 'due process' or 'probable cause' or 'unreasonable searches and seizure' or 'cruel and unusual punishment' and the like?

The Principle of Charity

Another complicating factor here is what those in the Philosophy of Language calls 'the principle of charity.'

For any text, there is an infinite number of possible interpretations. Text, in fact, is merely a bunch of squiggles on some surface - a piece of paper, or a computer screen. It takes a social convention of assigning meaning those squiggles to have a language.

This means the reader has to form a theory of what the writer was trying to say. One of the principles that we must use in assigning meaning to a squiggle is the principle of charity, which says that the squiggles are to be interpreted as communicating as much truth as possible. If we have two competing interpretations - one in which the proposition is true, and another in which the proposition is false - and all else being equal - the principle of charity says to use the true interpretation.

Yet, different people have different ideas as to what is true. The principle of charity makes it inevitable that two people, reading the same document, and having only one meaning, are going to come up with two different interpretations of what that document says. Each person will see the document as supporting the interpreter's own version of 'truth'.

Negotiations between Legislatures and Courts

We must also consider the fact that our system of laws does not permit Congress to negotiate with the Supreme Court. The Legislature cannot hand a proposed law to the Supreme Court and say, "What do you think of this? Will you accept it?" The Supreme Court's answer is, "We only review active cases. Pass your law. Let some citizen challenge its constitutionality. Let it come before this court. Then, and only then, will we render a judgment."

So, the legislature is left to guess as to whether the Supreme Court will agree or disagree with their view. This is something like having a police officer looking over your shoulder. You ask him, "Will you arrest me if I do X?" He then answers, "Do X. Then, let us see if I arrest you or not."

Supreme Court Errors

A final point that I would like to consider is the possibility that the Supreme Court will make a mistake. It is quite clear that the Supreme Court is a political position. One of the powers of the Legislature is to pick Justices whose decision on a case is already pre-determined. Justices get selected because they are likely to vote one way as opposed to another on the various cases that he will judge.

So, a legislature that wishes to abolish the First Amendment can do so by appointing judges who, through their judicial philosophy, are likely to interpret the First Amendment narrowly, so that no law will ever be found in violation of it. We may ask, in this case, where the legislature approves or disapproves of a law, if this has anything at all to do with whether the law is Constitutional or not. It has everything to do with whether a previous legislature wanted a judicial system to claim that the law is Constitutional or not.


This post is simply a long-winded way of saying "I do not know," in answer to the original question. There is clearly some wrong involved in a legislature that passes laws that violate the Constitution. However, there is clearly some wrong in breaking the speed limit and creating a risk to the life and limb of others. Yet, sometimes these wrongs can be outweighed by greater concerns, such as getting one's child to the hospital, or saving the country from economic collapse (or military conquest).

Ultimately, I hold that the final duty to interpret and to defend the Constitution of the United States does not rest with the legislature, or the President, or the Supreme Court. That's our job. If we are not willing to defend the Constitution through our political efforts, then apparently we do not feel it is worth defending. If freedom of speech, freedom of religion, the right to a fair trial, and the right to be secure in our persons and papers from unreasonable searches and seizures disappears, it must be because we decided that these rights are not worth having. If we do not wish to preserve these rights, then there is no sense in saying that the legislature is wrong in taking them from us.

On the other hand, if we do think that the principles in the Constitution are worth defending, then the most important thing for us to do is to make sure that our families, friends co-workers, and countrymen understand why these principles are important, and that they join with us in our efforts to protect and defend these rights.

Which, as it turns out, is one of the principle reasons why I am sitting here writing this blog each and every night.

The job of defending these principles - to the degree that they are worth defending - is ours. We are being derelict in our duties to try to push this job onto others because we are too busy to be bothered.