Monday, September 29, 2008

The Bailout and the Blame

News events today managed to totally overshadow the post that I worked on this morning. I was going to discuss the moral component of some of the elements of the bailout package – expecting fully that it would pass. I was surprised to see that it did not pass.

Then, the stock market tanked, and people began pointing fingers of blame. The people in favor of the proposal started to look at who they could blame for the failure to get a majority of the House of Representatives to vote for this package.

Some people said that it was House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's fault for giving a highly partisan speech condemning the Republicans for this mess just before the vote was taken – causing a number of Republican representatives to bolt. Some people blame Republicans, who are trying to hold the nation's economy hostage until they can get approval for a reduction in the capital gains tax.

(See, New York Times, Transcript of Nancy Pelosi's Speech)

As somebody who argues for direct responsibility, I hold the 228 representatives who voted against this bill morally responsible for their own actions. They acted on their own volition and for their own reasons. Blaming Pelosi for their vote means arguing that those Republicans are mere robots, that they have no volition or will of their own (and thus no moral responsibility).

I might say something to my neighbor that makes him angry. Let's assume that he gets angry, gets in his car, and drives off. Driving angry, he makes an erratic turn and gets in a wreck.

That accident would not be my fault. It is the fault of the person who decided to drive erratically. The actions he took after he left were his choice, and they were his responsibility.

If a group of representatives leave a speech by Pelosi angry, and decide to wreck the economy, Pelosi is no more responsible for that wreck than I would be for the accident that the neighbor caused while driving away from our verbal fight. Those Republicans are morally responsible for their vote. And if they recklessly, or perhaps intentionally, sought to wreck the economy as a result of a patty dispute with Pelosi, than they are morally culpable.

There are Americans who have been treated far worse than those Republican representatives were treated by this country. Yet, when the country called upon them to stand up for its defense, they were there. There were blacks, segregated at home and under a constant threat of lynching, who nonetheless joined the black units that were being formed to fight in World War II. The same is true of Japanese Americans, whose property was taken from them and whose families were locked in concentration camps.

A lot of them did not abandon the country as a result of maltreatment.

Pelosi did not threaten Republicans with lynching or lock their families in concentration camps. She cast blame for the economic crisis. Yet, if the stories are true, some Republicans saw this as good enough reason to abandon the country. What type patriots are these?

As it turns out, we have reason not to believe the story. We have 228 representatives who disagree with that position. They think that voting against the proposal was a good thing. Even after the voting started, and representatives knew that the bill would fail without switching one’s vote, representatives did not change their vote. Whether their reasons were good or bad, they voted down the proposal. At worst, only a small portion of them were willing to destroy the country to satisfy their ego. The rest of them had other reasons for rejecting this bill.

Maybe it was a bad bill. Maybe those who rejected it were right. Maybe it is not a finger of blame that we should be pointing at those who rejected the proposal, but the finger of credit.

As it stands now, the story we are getting through the Press is that 228 representatives hate and are out to destroy America, and "Why didn't this or that leader do something to contain this threat to our country?" Another alternative exists – that those who voted against this legislation were the ones out to protect this country from decisions made in haste that would have been potentially disastrous.

I am not passing judgment one way or the other, because I do not know enough to have a sound opinion on who was right and who was wrong. I have posted a letter from a group of economists who said that we do not have to rush into things – that we have time. Maybe this is what some of those representatives were voting for. They were not voting against the proposal, they were only voting in favor of taking a few more days to think about what its implications are.

The stock market tanked.

This could be a result of the rats abandoning a sinking ship. It could also be the case that Bush's attempt to frighten the nation into giving him what he wanted backfired. Bush went on the air to tell us that our economic days were numbered unless this bill gets passed. He gave a speech that was the economic version of, "We do not want the evidence that Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction to be a mushroom cloud." And, when some people called his bluff, those who were most prone to fear panicked and ran out of the stock market.

Bush's speech to the nation last week seemed designed to create financial panic in the markets if the bill should fail.

More banks could fail, including some in your community. The stock market would drop even more, which would reduce the value of your retirement account. The value of your home could plummet. Foreclosures would rise dramatically. And if you own a business or a farm, you would find it harder and more expensive to get credit. More businesses would close their doors, and millions of Americans could lose their jobs. Even if you have good credit history, it would be more difficult for you to get the loans you need to buy a car or send your children to college. And ultimately, our country could experience a long and painful recession.

Compare this to Franklin Roosevelt’s speech when the country faced the Great Depression.

So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself -- nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life, a leadership of frankness and of vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory. And I am convinced that you will again give that support to leadership in these critical days.

If Bush’s speech was not design to create a panic if the legislation did not pass, it certainly fed that panic, and likely contributed to a drop in market prices (and an excessive degree of anxiety on the part of the people of this country). It is within the realm of possibility that the stock market failure had nothing to do with problems with the economy, but with the direction that the Bush Administration was leading the people – into a state of panic and fear.

I am the first to admit that I do not know enough on this issue to make sound economic policy. However, I can look at some of the arguments being used to address the current situation and the validity of those arguments.

We have a large number of legislators who intentionally voted against this legislation. It is unreasonable to believe that they were the enemy. They obviously thought that not voting for the legislation was the right thing to do. We should not be assuming that the right thing to do was to pass this legislation and any option other than that is unacceptable. We have reason to ask these people why they took the course of action they did, and to see if it makes any sense.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Desire Utilitarianism vs Virtue Theory

A member of the studio audience has asked:

I was hoping that you could write a post explaining the difference between your desire utilitarianism and virtue ethics.

The answer is that desire utilitarianism is related to virtue ethics the way that lions are related to cats. There are a lot of different types of virtue ethics. Of these, one of them is desire utilitarianism.

Virtue Ethics

Virtue ethics, in general, is a theory that holds that the evaluation of character traits is prior to the evaluation of actions. First, we determine what counts as a good or bad trait. When we derive the value of actions from this determination of the value of character traits. A “right action” in this case is the action that a “good person” would perform. A “good person” is a person with good character traits (or an absence of bad character traits).

However, virtue ethics leaves a lot of questions unanswered. We get different types of virtue ethics from the different ways that people attempt to answer this question.

For example, what makes a particular character trait ‘good’?

We can bring the full range of value theories into answering this question. A character trait is good to the degree that it is shared by God. Character traits have intrinsic worth. Evolution has caused us to value certain character traits, and whatever evolution has caused us to value is good. The value of character traits is subjective – different cultures pick different traits as being good or bad and there is no objective difference between them.

Similarly, different theories of virtue ethics give us different ways of knowing what these values are. God told us the difference between good and bad character traits through the lessons in the Bible (e.g., “What Would Jesus Do?”). We can sense the value of particular character traits through our moral intuitions. We recognize the value we place in different character traits the same way we recognize that we like certain foods more than others. We look at the culture we are in and determine what character traits people within a culture tend to value.

These are some examples of different theories of virtue ethics.

Desire Utilitarianism

Desire utilitarianism is a type of virtue ethics in that it provides its own set of answers to these types of questions.

First, we need to know the difference between good and bad. How is it that something can be ‘good’?

Desire utilitarianism holds that value-laden terms such as ‘good’ relate to reasons for action. To call a particular state of affairs ‘good’ is to say that reasons for action exist to pursue that thing. A state is bad if reasons for action exist for avoiding it.

The only reasons for action that exist are desires. Desires are propositional attitudes. That is to say, they can be expressed in the form “A desires that P” where ‘P’ is any proposition. If A desires that P, and P is true in state of affairs S, then S is good for A. That is to say, A has “reason for action” for bringing about state A.

We can apply this system not only to paintings, movies, jobs, states of health, construction tools, and anything else that has value. However, for the purposes of this essay, the one area of potential evaluation that people tend to overlook, is that we can apply this standard to measure the value of desires themselves. A state in which “people desire that P” is good for people generally if people generally have many and strong “reasons for action” for causing people to desire that P. We can evaluate desires themselves by measuring their tendency to fulfill other desires,

So, now we have a way of evaluating character traits (desires). This form of evaluation does not depend on God or intrinsic values. It is not the case that simply because we have evolved a disposition for a particular desires, that this means that it is good (a virtue). Furthermore, the value of a desire is knowable in scientific terms. We simply (and I use the term loosely) determine what reasons for action exist and how the character trait in question (which is, itself, a reason for action) relates to those other reasons for action.

According to the generic concept of a virtue theory, the value of actions is derived from the value of character traits. Desire utilitarianism holds that a right action is an action that a person with good desires would perform. A wrong action is an action that a person with good desires would not perform. In these cases, the evaluation of desires as good or bad is prior to the evaluation of actions, and the evaluation of actions is derived from the prior evaluation of character traits.

More specifically, there are three categories of actions. An action can be obligatory (an act that a person with good desires would perform), permissible (an act that a person with good desires may or may not perform), or prohibited (an act that a person with good desires would not perform). All people will act so as to fulfill the most and strongest of their desires, given their beliefs. A person with good desires is no different.

Here is an example. People generally have reason to promote giving others an aversion to taking property that belongs to others. A person with good desires would have this aversion. Because of this aversion, if given the opportunity to take property that belongs to others . . . even if he is left alone with nobody watching over his shoulder . . . he would be reluctant to take the property that belongs to others. He would have the quality of ‘honesty’.

However, a person with good desires would also have a desire for the well-being of his children. There are circumstances, however rare, when we would expect his obligations to his children to overrule his aversion to taking property. So, if he is out in the forest with his child, his child suffers a bee sting and is having an allergic reaction, and the only way to get him to the hospital is to take a neighbor’s car, then we would expect him to take his neighbor’s car.

We would still expect him to feel bad about what he did. If he had a genuine aversion to taking property belonging to others, this aversion does not simply fade away because it was overruled. It is still there, driving the father to look for other alternatives, and causing feelings of anxiety and guilt even after the child had been safely delivered to the hospital. We will see signs of these aversions in the agent’s behavior. He will apologize for taking the car. He will offer some sort of compensation. He will demonstrate his recognition that taking somebody else’s car without consent is something to which people should have an aversion.

As a virtue theory, desire utilitarianism has some significant advantages over other virtue theories in that it does not require any strange metaphysics to account for value. Virtues are desires – ordinary material-world states that we have been using to explain and predict real world events (intentional behavior) for years. There is no God or intrinsic value, yet these entities (desires) are as real as quarks and black holes (other things we cannot see directly, but which we know about because of their effects).

Friday, September 26, 2008

Post Debate Distortions Watch

There was a Presidential debate tonight. Given that fact, I want to bring forth one of the most morally outrageous events from the last election, so that you will be ready to react if we see examples of it in this election.

In one of his debates against President Bush, Democratic candidate John Kerry said

No president, through all of American history, has ever ceded, and nor would I, the right to preempt in any way necessary to protect the United States of America. But if and when you do it . . . you’ve got to do it in a way that passes the test, that passes the global test, where your countrymen, your people understand fully why you’re doing what you’re doing and you can prove to the world that you did it for legitimate reasons.

See: The First Bush-Kerry Presidential Debate

President Bush and his campaign twisted Kerry's remarks as follows:

According to the Washington Post report

Kerry "said something revealing when he laid out the Kerry Doctrine," Bush said . . . . "He said that America has to pass a global test before we can use American troops to defend ourselves . . . . Senator Kerry's approach to foreign policy would give foreign governments veto power over our national security decisions.

See, Washington Post, Bush Says Kerry Will Allow Foreign Vetoes

This was a flat out lie – a complete misrepresentation of what Kerry had said. Kerry said that we America had to pass a moral test before it used its troops to defend itself – a test that required having legitimate reasons to engage in such an action.

It is the same test that is mentioned in the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence, though that test was applied to revolution rather than self defense. The Declaration of Independents starts out by saying,

W hen in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

See: The Declaration of Independence

The Declaration of Independence then goes on to list to those reasons.

In just the same way in which John Kerry said that we must be able to demonstrate that our reasons for attacking another country are legitimate, the Declaration of Independence states that we have an obligation to mankind to be able to demonstrate that our revolution was legitimate. And so Jefferson then went on to demonstrate that legitimacy by means of rational argument.

If Bush were to be consistent in his principles, we would have to imagine him objecting to the suggestion by Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and others at the Constitutional Convention, that they are anti-American because they dare to declare that the United States declare the causes that impel them to this separation – that such an act itself borders n treason.

We get further support for this view from the Federalist Paper #63

"An attention to the judgment of other nations is important to every government for two reasons: the one is, that, independently of the merits of any particular plan or measure, it is desirable, on various accounts, that it should appear to other nations as the offspring of a wise and honorable policy; the second is, that in doubtful cases, particularly where the national councils may be warped by some strong passion or momentary interest, the presumed or known opinion of the impartial world may be the best guide that can be followed. What has not America lost by her want of character with foreign nations; and how many errors and follies would she not have avoided, if the justice and propriety of her measures had, in every instance, been previously tried by the light in which they would probably appear to the unbiased part of mankind?"

See: The Federalist No. 63

But the Bush Campaign lied. They flat out lied about what Kerry had said, and they lied for the purpose of spinning the election in their favor.

Whenever we reward people who behave in this way, we teach future generations to behave the same way. The Bush Administration not only used these tactics against McCain in 2000. They worked then, and they tried them again in 2004. They worked then, and so McCain has learned this lesson, and has tried to use these same type of tactics in 2008.

Fortunately (and quite remarkably) McCain took a significant hit for his attempt to use these types of tactics after the conventions. His advertisement that Obama sought to teach sex to young children (when, in fact, Obama sought to have schools teach children how to be aware of sexual predators), and that Obama called Sarah Palin a pig (when Obama called McCain’s economic policy a pig) were examples of these types of tactics that met a harsh response.

There is only one way to put an end to these types of tactics. That is to make sure they fail.

There are some who will tell us that these tactics are doomed to failure. They say that we do need to do anything, because the people hate those who put out these types of advertisements and are naturally attracted to truth.

History tells us that those people are not living in the real world. In the real world, negative campaigns (lies) such as these work very well. They will continue to work very well unless and until we take steps to put an end to the fact that they work. They will continue to work until we make a decision to target those who use these tactics and resolve that we will cause their failure.

Their success or failure is in our hands. If we respond with praise and reward, we strengthen the traits that are responsible for these types of deceptions. If we respond with condemnation and punishment (at least punishment in the form of denying such people our political contributions, our volunteer labor, and our endorsement to our friends and neighbors) then we have a chance of putting this type of behavior to an end.

The speed and the volume with which people respond to distortions and lies that come out of a debate, the less effective those tactics will be.

So, please, stand ready The instant that you hear an outrageous interpretation of comments made during the debate. Help to put an end to these types of campaign tactics.

Economists on the Bail-Out

One of the principles that I have often argued for is that people should be willing to admit their own ignorance and trust to experts.

On the matter of legislation to bail out the mortgage industry, a group of nearly (as of this writing) academic economists have signed a letter suggesting that the bail-out plan not be rushed. They say that Congress should take the time to hold proper hearings.

See: Economists' Letter on the Bail Out

Three of these economists have won the Nobel Prize.

I am going to have to say that I have no way grounds to declare that I know more about the economic implications than they do. For me to say that you should trust anything I write on this issue over them would be nonsense.

So, I have to say that we should follow their advice.

I wanted to bring this to your attention.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Suspending the Campaign

I want to start off with some quick points on the issue of "suspending the campaign" to deal with the financial crisis in Washington.

Item 1: Does a person need to suspend a campaign to deal with a crisis in Washington?

There are currently around 400 Representatives and Senators running for re-election in Washington DC, dealing with this crisis. Of this number, how many of them have announced that they are "suspending their campaign" to do so?

Answer: 1 person – Senator John McCain.

The remaining approximately 400 candidates in Washington are dealing with this crisis while they are maintaining perfectly active campaigns. They may not be out giving speeches in their home state, and they may have even cancelled (or warned of the potential need to cancel) campaign events, but none of them have packaged these facts as "suspending the campaign."

Item 2: Did McCain suspend his campaign, or only parts of it?

One of the key components of a political campaign involves raising money. McCain has allegedly suspended his campaign. Yet, I have not seen any evidence that he is refusing to accept any campaign contributions until this financial crisis is resolved. I have not heard a news castor or seen a written article in which the McCain camp has said, "If you want to donate to this campaign, then please wait until after we have passed a financial bailout package. Then, at that time, we will begin once again to accept donations."


This "suspending the campaign" nonsense is a gimmick. It is packaging. It is putting the label "new and improved" on the box when the only thing that is new is the label on the box. McCain is doing what hundreds of other representatives are doing. He is simply putting a different label on it.

What reasons could there be in taking something that is substantially the same product as that being offered by 400 other Senators and Representatives, and giving it a different name.

One hypothesis is that McCain has decided to put his product in a different package with a different name because it gives him the illusion of appearing "presidential" – more of a "leader". Yet, if this was actually a part of a product . . . well, there are 400 Senators and Representatives who, for the past two weeks, have been appearing far more presidential than McCain, because they have been in Washington doing their job a lot longer than McCain. McCain’s new packaging that says that he has more of something that, compared to 400 other Senators and Representatives, he actually has less of.

The message may be that "I have more of this product than Obama." However, he could only say this if he acknowledges that, throughout this campaign, he has showed less of these same qualities than 400 other members of the federal legislature.


There is one step that McCain has taken to distinguish his actions from those of the other 400 people in Washington dealing with this issue while running political campaigns. McCain has suspended some of his advertisements. However, this tactic contains some interesting elements.

Either John McCain's advertisements contained information that the voters should have before they cast their vote in November, or they did not have useful information.

If McCain’s advertisements had useful information, then McCain’s decision to suspend his advertisements is a decision to have voters cast their votes with more ignorance of relevant information than they would have otherwise had.

If McCain's advertisements had information that was not relevant to the election (if they can cast an equally intelligent vote in the absence of this information), when why was the McCain campaign sending out this information with the message, “These are reasons why you should vote for me for President?”

It has long been the case that most political advertisement does not contain information useful in casting a vote. In fact, a great deal of political advertisement contains dis-information. Their purpose is to cause the voters to believe something about one’s opponent that simply is not true (e.g., that Obama called Sara Palin a pig or that he advocated sex education for six-year-olds). In which case, it is a good idea to suspend this type of advertising, because it means that the voters will have less dis-information.

However, politicians usually do not like to admit that they advertising is not relevant to the voter’s decision on who to vote for. McCain’s decision to suspend his advertising must be an admission that his advertising is irrelevant (or harmful).

Either that, or he must admit that he has made a decision to suspend the promulgation of relevant (beneficial) information.

Postponing the Election

One of the greatest gifts that President Lincoln gave this country was the gift of establishing a precedent whereby nothing – not even civil war – will suspend the Democratic Process. Tyrants throughout the ages have used a national crisis as a reason to suspend elections and to hold onto power themselves indefinitely. If there was ever an opportunity in this country to suspend an election until a national crisis was resolved, the congressional elections of 1862 and the presidential election of 1864 was that opportunity. Lincoln stood for re-election, and established a precedent where the only way to suspend an election is to render the election physically impossible.

Barring nuclear war in which America itself has been attacked and there is no possible way to tabulate votes, we will have our election on November 4th.

If you have a project that is due on a particular date, and you suspend working on that project for 3 days, and there is no prospect for moving the deadline, then those 3 days (and the events to be conducted during those three days) had better be irrelevant to what will happen at the deadline. Either that, or the event must be unimportant, so that it is more important to work on “other things”.

If you have a bomb set to go off in a city at 5:00 pm (an unmovable deadline), and you suspend work on finding and disarming that bomb or evacuating the people for 1 hour, then that hour had better be irrelevant to what happens at 5:00.

Here, it is important that we make the right comparison situation. We have two projects going on – the election of a new President, and dealing with the financial meltdown. However, we should not be comparing the relative importance of the financial meltdown to the Presidential Election. We should be comparing the value of McCain’s participation in the financial meltdown project versus McCain’s participation in the election of a new president project.

For this comparison, we need to look at the relative importance of McCain’s participation in each project.

For the financial meltdown project, we already have a President, his cabinet, and the a full set of House and Senate members working on that project. Increasing the number of participants from 550 to 551 is not going to make much of a difference, except in a highly unusual situation. McCain can leave the financial meltdown project, and work will still get done. In fact, mostly the same work would still get done.

On the other hand, McCain is a crucial player in the elect a new President project. Without him, that project comes to a standstill. And he is willing to bring that project to a complete stand still.

This tells us something about McCain’s values. McCain’s behavior suggests that his essential participation in the elect a new President project is less important than being one of 550 or so key people working on the financial meltdown project. This is what McCain is saying by suspending his campaign – that the project of electing a new president is unimportant enough that bringing it to a standstill is insignificant.

This assumes, of course, that McCain, in the “financial meltdown” project, is simply one person among many. If it were the case that there would be no way of reaching an agreement without McCain’s involvement, then we would have a situation where McCain must actually weigh suspending the electing a President project until he has single handedly brought the financial meltdown project to a successful conclusion.

Is there any reason to believe that McCain is really the white night who is going to ride in and save the day where everybody else is doomed to fail? Or is he simply engineering the illusion of being the white night who saves the day? The answer to this question is the same as the answer to the question, “What would have happened if McCain had died in August? Would the legislators have been able to reach an agreement and pass an aid package without him? If the answer is “yes,” then this white knight performance is just a performance – a costume that McCain has decided to put on for the sake of the cameras.

However, he puts on this costume for the sake of the cameras at the same time he tells us that he is suspending his campaign. There is something of an inconsistency here. If the campaign is truly suspended, then why the theatrics? Theatrics are what we expect from people who are actively campaigning, where ‘suspending the campaign’ typically means 'suspending the theatrics'.


There is a lot about McCain's claim that he is suspending his campaign that makes no sense.

Why does he think it is essential to suspend a campaign when 400 legislators who have been in Washington for days working on this project did not think it necessary to suspend their campaigns?

If McCain is truly suspending his campaign, why is he not suspending the fundraising part?

If it is a good idea to suspend advertising, doesn't this imply that McCain's advertising did not contain any information that would be useful to voters? If the information was useful, then why did he suspend giving out that information?

What does it say about McCain's values that he is willing to suspend his essential role in the "electing a President" project for to work on a project in which his participation is not essential? Doesn’t this imply that he views the "electing a President" project to be unimportant?

In the realm of reason and inquiry, if one theory raises more questions than it answers, then we have reason to look around for another theory. We have a second theory as to why McCain "suspended his campaign" in order to fly off to Washington to participate in the financial meltdown project. It was a campaign stunt. It was a way to grab headlines, to put oneself in the spotlight, which is exactly what campaigners are constantly trying to do. McCain never did suspend his campaign. He just changed his campaign calendar – replacing campaign appearances that were on his calendar with a set of campaign appearances in Washington DC.

The claim that he was suspending his campaign was just another ruse – another example of the McCain ethic of using deception and manipulation to accomplish his desired ends.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Reputation in a National Crisis

As we now know, within hours after realizing that the terrorists had attacked the country on 9-11, elements in the Bush Administration were gleefully rubbing their hands whispering to each other, "We can use this."

To give them the benefit of the doubt, they had a noble cause. Their plan was to attack Iraq, be welcomed as liberators, and establish a democracy. Within months Iraq would be a happy and prosperous country. Using it as a role model, a wave of democratic reform would sweep across the Middle East, replacing kingdoms with parliaments. Free-market democracies, as we know, do not attack other free-market democracies (because it is bad for business), so we usher in a new era of peace.

A more sinister view has them using the invasion of Iraq as a way of getting tens (hundreds) of billions of dollars into the bank accounts of prominent Republican supporters through no-bid contracts to rebuild the country of Iraq.

Either way, the Bush Administration betrayed a willingness to exploit a crisis – to see it as an opportunity to exploit a national emergency in order to push through something that they want or that benefits their supporters.

Which makes one wonder.

How are they planning to use the current meltdown in the financial markets?

So far, the Bush Administration's proposal has been quite simple. "Give us $700 billion dollars and the authority to do whatever we want with it." This is quite similar to what the Bush Administration asked for in the wake of 9-11. "Give us the authority to attack whomever we want to attack." In the case of 9-11, the Administration got what it asked for (or, at least, a resolution that it could interpret as giving it that authority). In the case of the financial market meltdown, we have to wonder, what does the Bush Administration really plan to do with the money and the blanket authority to do whatever it pleases that it is asking for?

They tell us, of course, "We must make a decision now! Today! If Congress waits, they are only making the situation worse! It is all the fault of the Democrats!" They want us to rush the decision – because, once we decide, there is no turning back.

Let me apply a little bit of desire utilitarian analysis to this situation.

Because the Bush Administration has engaged in this type of exploitation in the past, we know that it is made up of members who have no aversion to this type of behavior. We know that, in the absence of such an aversion, they are even willing to exploit an emergency such as a terrorist attack in which thousands are killed for the purpose of starting a war against somebody who had nothing at all to do with the attack. This tells us something about their moral character.

We could, perhaps, trust somebody with $700 billion and a blanket authority if they have proved themselves to be trust worthy. However, this Administration has proved that it is not trustworthy – that it has no internal regulation (known as 'moral conscience' or 'an aversion to exploiting a crisis in order to get people to do or approve of something that they would not do if they had the time to think about things carefully') that will prevent them from exploiting the fact that they had been given this money and this authority.

Because they have no aversion to engaging in this type of activity, combined with the fact that people act so as to fulfill their desires given their beliefs, implies that they have nothing to stop them from exploiting this situation the instant that they see a benefit in doing so. Indeed, we can count on them to do so because, given the fact that desires are persistent entities, we can count on them to behave in the present as they have behaved in the past.

It is relevant here to note that there is one area of exploitation that members of the Bush Administration would find particularly beneficial at this time. We are nearing an election in which Republicans are predicted not to do very well. It would certainly benefit the Republican cause if those people who support Republican candidates could suddenly find themselves with a boat load of extra money. It is reasonable to assume that, among the various ways the Treasury Department might spend its $700 billion, that there are a lot of options that will tend to dump money onto the pockets of Republican supporters, which can then go to campaign advertisements and other forms of political support.

Would the members of the Bush Administration do something like this?

This is child's play for people whose moral conscience allows them to exploit a terrorist attack against the United States for the purpose of starting a war. In fact, we would be foolish to think that this Administration lacks any of the moral qualms that might stop somebody from engaging in this type of exploitation. We would be foolish to assume, with so much at stake, that this Administration has undergone some type of moral transformation in recent years – when we have absolutely no evidence to support such a claim.

It may well be that Congress does need to act fast in this situation. It may well be the case that every day we wait implies that the country will fall into a deeper and deeper recession – maybe even a depression. It may well be that this is exactly one of those times where we need to act rather than debate an issue to death.

That means that this is one of those times in which America had been better off if it had voted for an administration that had some measure of moral conscience, and that could actually be trusted to lead the nation in a direction that benefits the nation as a whole. It may be that this is a time where we simply do not need a government of the Republican Party, by the Republican Party, and for the Republican Party.

But that is the government we have, and we cannot ignore this fact merely because we would have been better off if things had been different.

It might be useful, in a given situation, if the only person available to watch your child as you go to a job interview is not a child rapist. But that does not mean that it is wise to act as if the only person available to watch your child is not a child rapist – particularly when he has a history of convictions. You must accept the fact that he is a child rapist and act accordingly.

We must accept the fact that the Bush Administration is an administration that will exploit a national emergency for the purpose of promoting private agendas, and we must act accordingly.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Bail-Out

I suspect that this bail-out of the mortgage industry is going to bail out the wrong people.

I want to start my analysis by explaining the situation in simple and personal terms.

About a year ago, the company that holds the mortgage on my house sent me an offer to refinance my home, substantially lowering my monthly payments. The advertisement showed me exactly how much money I would “save” if I switched to this new type of loan by comparing my existing payments to what my new payments would be.

In fact, the loan did not offer any savings whatsoever. In fact, it increased my interest payment. It decreased the monthly payment by eliminating any payment on the principle of the house. However, the money I pay on the principle of the house is not a “cost” to me in any accounting sense. Since I owned my house I owned all accumulated equity in my home, and money that went to principle is money that built up equity. Then, at some future date, I would have to start paying off principle, meaning that the rates will go up – up far beyond what I was currently paying on my mortgage.

What this company was going to do (if I fell for this plan) was suck interest payments out of me for a couple of years. Then, when the mortgage rates went up and I could not pay the higher rates, they would take the home, in which I had accumulated no equity (except perhaps the increase in the value of the house over those two years). They would then get the house.

The scheme was designed so that, unless I was very careful or very lucky, the mortage company would get my interest payments and my home and I would have nothing.

I was so (morally) outraged at the company for this callous manipulation that I seriously considered transferring my mortgage to another company and telling this one that their morally outrageous behavior was the reason for my decision.

Well, it turns out that the company did not do so well. Housing prices began to fall and, it turned out, the company had lent more money to the original owners than they could now get from the house. So, the company had to take a loss. When enough of these losses got added together, it drove the company into bankruptcy.

It was among the first companies to fall. It was soon followed by others – who were equally deserving.

Yet, now, as those who invested in these practices face the losses that they so richly deserve, the government steps in to bail them out.

There was no government aid for the homeowners who were losing their homes – the average working family who were swindled out of their paychecks and their homes by these companies. As foreclosure upon foreclosure piled up, the government could offer the victims nothing more than a few kind words of sympathy.

But, when the costs started to fall on those with millions and billions of dollars – when they threatened to make mere millionaires of those who were once billionaires – the government suddenly needed to step in and take over.

And what type of bail-out do they propose? They propose buying up the debt from the debt holders. The people who purchased billions of dollars worth of debt get to turn their debt over to the government, who will pay their bills for them. But the family with the outrageous mortgage (and outrageous credit card and medical bill debt to go along with it) do not get to hand their debt over to the federal government. They need to fend for themselves.

The distinction here is between debt holders and debt payers. The government appears to be stepping in to protect those people who hold (bad) debt – the people who hold the paper that other people are making payments on. It is making significantly less effort to protect the debt payers – the people who are paying money (or would be paying money if they had the money to pay) to the debt holders.

Now, what can we say about the demographic characteristics of debt holders versus debt payers. What type of person is (trying to) pay debt, and what type of person is holding the paper that the debt payers are paying? The former, of course, is your average middle class (and lower class) American. The latter are the few who are extremely wealthy – the people with money to lend.

Now, we are all, to some degree, debt holders – more so than we acknowledge. The money in our savings accounts are, effectively, leant to the bank to use in making loans. We are debt holders to the degree that we purchase CDs, treasury bills, bonds, bond mutual funds, or even stock (in a sense). If you have a retirement account, then you are not only a debt payer, but you are also a debt holders. So, it would be wrong to say that only the very rich are debt holders. However, it is still true that if the government helps the debt holder they the proportion of benefit to rich people over benefit to poor people, is significantly higher than it would be if the government had protected debt payers.

We see here where the government’s priorities are.

Independent of the need to provide some way of ending this financial crisis, the principle still stands that the people who do not deserve to benefit – the people who most deserve to lose their money and be driven into poverty – are those who invented and sold these morally outrageous mortgage packages to unsuspecting buyers.

We teach moral responsibility by holding people responsible for their own moral failings. We teach moral irresponsibility when those who do evil are allowed to get away with their moral crimes, or even profit from them. Currently, we have a situation where the government is stepping in to protect a group of people who have committed one of the worst moral outrageous in current American history.

Furthermore, the principles of capitalism hold that people should be held responsible for their decisions. They should be able to profit from their successes and suffer from their losses. If we have a system where individuals can gamble, and keep what they win while they hand the bill off to somebody off when they lose, then we can expect people to do far too much gambling, and to gamble when it is not rational for them to do so. That is to say, we can expect the same irrational and destructive results that we have gotten from the mortgage industry for the past several years, and which we can expect to happen again in the future if losers are able to use the government to force others to cover their losses.

I am not . . . repeat . . . NOT . . . saying that the bail-out should not be done. I consider myself too ill informed to make that decision. It takes somebody far more familiar with the facts of the situation than I am to make that judgment (which is true of a great majority of the people who are offering opinions on this matter). Barak Obama was right on this issue to withhold opinion until the experts among his advisors could fill him in on the facts.

I am saying that, whatever steps we take to bail the economy out, that certain people should not benefit. The government should not be in the businesses of covering the bad loans made by billionaires through which they might well become mere millionaires, when they are not covering the bad debts of average people who made bad choices in barrowing for their homes.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Religion as a Delusion

Today, I would like to address the accusation made against atheists that, "You believe that 95% of the population is suffering from some sort of delusion."

This assertion typically takes the form of an accusation. It is delivered in a tone that says, "How dare you insist that you are better than 95% of the population? Do you even realize how arrogant you are being?"

This moral criticism has some merit. There is a bit of arrogance in believing that 95% of the people in the world are mistaken. However, there are some facts about the way in which 95% of the people can be in error that avoids this accusation of arrogance.

I want to suggest that, if 5% of the population were atheist, that the bulk of the people will be atheists in the same sense that the bulk of the people are Christians, or Hindu, or Muslims today. Children born into such a culture will simply absorb the beliefs that surround them (in this case, atheist beliefs) with the same unquestioned acceptance with which they currently adopt religious beliefs. Once adopted, they will use these cultural beliefs as filter through which they will filter everything else they see, hear, and read as adults.

This is the way the human brain works. The same psychological features that are currently causing people to acquire a belief in God are not going to go away. They will continue to exist, and they will continue to function. The difference is that the system by which a person currently acquires beliefs that one or more god exists will, in that alternate universe, will result in the belief that8 no god exists.

The atheist, in this sense, is not "putting down" 95% of the population. He is admitting that we are talking about human dispositions that govern what all people believe, including a large number of atheists.

Now, this does not imply that atheist and theist beliefs are equal. There is an objective fact of the matter (or, actually, a set of objective facts). Some of those beliefs are true, and others are false. Knowing that people begin their lives unquestionably absorbing the beliefs of those around them, there is a merit to making sure that those beliefs are true.

This is difficult, given that we, as adults, are working on filtered epistemology ourselves. However, acknowledging this difficulty is still consistent with holding that there is an objective truth of the matter and those beliefs are the beliefs that children should unquestionably absorb, given the fact that they must unquestionably absorb some set of beliefs.

It does argue against a certain form of arrogance. I believe that the proposition, "at least one god exists" is almost certainly false. I admit that I may be suffering from some filtered data. As a result, I hold to the cautious modesty that goes with refusing to force that belief on others. I will argue and debate the issue - I will use words and private actions to promote my beliefs. But, given the high possibility of error, I will not use force (even government force).

I wish for those with other beliefs to adopt the same standards.

Even Christians and Muslims have to recognize that there are social forces at work that somehow cause whole populations to adopt widespread beliefs that happen to be false. Christians need only to look at the Muslim culture as an example - and Muslims only need to look at Christian culture for their example. In both sides, the other religion represents the widespread adoption of some form of delusion. Obviously, mechanisms that result in the widespread acceptance of some form of delusion exist.

We certainly must admit that they exist. And we must admit that those mechanisms are not necessarily bypassed when somebody adopts the belief that the proposition, "at least one god exists", is almost certainly false. It will be as much a cause of atheism in some cases as it has been a cause of Christianity or Buddhism (for example).

Would it make the world a better place if people absorbed through their culture the belief that no god (probably) exists?

That depends on what other beliefs that they adopt along with this belief. This belief is consistent with an infinite set of other possible propositions. Some of those sets of propositions would lead to a far worse world than we get from religion.

The mechanisms through which people adopt theistic philosophies also are at work bringing people to adopt non-theistic philosophies. Ayn Rand objectivists, communists, and (I would include) some liberal progressives have adopted non-religious ideologies with as much unquestioned devotion (and selective consideration of evidence) that we find in any religion.

Even the Nazi philosophy is a-theistic in the sense that a person does not need to believe in God to be a Nazi. The belief in a superior race and a right to destroy (and to take from) inferior races is not a belief that one can only acquire from a religious text. Though it is a mistake to blame atheism for the Holocaust, it is not a mistake to think that atheists can commit a Holocaust.

To the degree that we focus too tightly on religion, then to that degree we are at risk of allowing some destructive non-theistic philosophy slip in under the radar. In fact, we are at risk of promoting such a philosophy by allying with it in virtue of our shared opposition to religion and shared belief that no god (probably) exists. It is not always the case that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend." Sometimes, the enemy of your enemy should make you reconsider your alliances.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Moral Absolutes and Moral Arrogance

I read an article today about Republican presidential candidate John McCain's relationship with Georgia President Mikheil Saakashvil. (Newsweek: Why McCain Loves Misha)

It contained the following statement:

[McCain] likes Saakashvili's sense of moral absolutes, says Dimitri Simes, founding president of the realists' home think tank, the Nixon Center: "I understand how someone who takes this posture would appeal to Senator McCain, who also does not tend to see international relations in shades of gray."
The above quote is linked to the following quote in the same article:

Saakashvili's stint as Georgia's justice minister ended abruptly at a cabinet meeting in 2001 when he brandished a dossier of photos showing top ministers' lavish country homes, slapped it on the table and demanded that his colleagues be prosecuted immediately. "We are similar in many ways," Saakashvili says. "We agree that you can't compromise your beliefs."

These two quotes blur a set of important distinctions that I think it is important to keep distinct. The first quote equates the concept of "moral absolutes" with the idea that there are "no shades of gray" in morality. The second quote introduces what can best be described as moral arrogance - the unyielding beliefs that the agent knows what the moral facts are and has no reason to consider other views.

In a sense, I believe that there are moral absolutes. That is to say, I believe that there are moral facts - that a person can make a moral statement that is absolutely true (or absolutely false).

To add to the confusion, the concept of "moral absolutes" is sometimes used to mean "moral rules without exceptions". This would incorporate a view like "it is always wrong to lie," where a person who adopts the rule will refuse to lie regardless of the consequences - even if it was the only way to save the whole human race from destruction. This view of "moral absolutes" is nonsense.

However, it is not inconsistent to hold that there are moral absolutes in another sense - moral absolutes that have exceptions built into them. An example of this type of moral absolute says that it is wrong to kill except to protect an innocent life from an aggressor. This is not an absolute in the sense that the rule has an exception built into it. However, it is (or can be) an absolute in that, taken as the whole, it is a rule that describes (or could describe - it doesn't actually) a moral fact.

A person can hold that there are moral truths of this type, and still have the humility to realize that he or she does not always know what those moral facts are.

Here, we can take science (or even mathematics) as an example. Scientists believe that there are facts about the universe (and that it is their job to find them). In other words, there are physical absolutes to be learned. However, the scientist who believes that there is a fact out there to be discovered can believe at the same time that she does not know what those facts are. He may have a hypothesis, but that hypothesis still needs to be evaluated in the light of evidence that others might bring to the discussion.

The belief that there are moral truths does not imply moral arrogance.

In fact, the belief that there are moral truths gives us a far better grounding for moral humility than relativist moral theories give us.

Moral realism - the idea that there are moral facts - gives us the possibility of moral error (the possibility of being wrong).

Moral subjectivism tells us that our moral opinions cannot be mistaken. We cannot make a mistake in measuring moral value, because there is no objective reality against which our beliefs can be compared. There is no "moral truth" for us to be wrong about.

A person can make morally relevant factual mistakes. A person can believe that it is wrong to take somebody else's luggage at the airport, and yet walk away with somebody else's luggage (because she wrongly believes thatthe luggage is hers). However, moral subjectivism gives us no possibility of being wrong on the moral principles surrounding that fact. For somebody who is morally arrogant - who wants to assert the impossibility of making a moral mistake - moral subjectivism is a dream come true. Moral subjectivism eliminates all possibility of being wrong.

The morally arrogant - whether they are moral objectivists or moral subjectivists - are some of the most dangerous people around, because they act without thinking and do not look for the possibility that others might be right. They act with the unshakable conviction that they are right, and that their righteousness gives them total authority to do whatever they please.

Many of the worst atrocities were committed by people who had an unshakable faith that they could not make a moral mistake - that whatever they want to do they have a right to do, and what they have a right to do they can do without any need to worry about restraints of any type.

Of course, when it comes to moral arrogance, Palin is the worst of the lot. She contains the same type of moral arrogance as Bush, and substantially for the same reasons. They think that their moral opinions - their 'gut feelings' - are messages from God and, as such, come from the best possible authority. In fact, their 'gut feelin' is simply their set of learned prejudices, untainted by any form of reality check. Bush's 'gut feelings' created so many problems because they were not the messages from god that he thought they were. Bush's 'gut feelings' got us into trouble because they were not connected to reality.

And Palin's gut feelings have an even more tenuous connection to reality.

In this case, I simply want people to be a little bit more careful about what they are talking about when they use this type of language. We almost never hear the term 'moral arrogance' used in these types of discussions. They use the phrases that I mentioned above, and others.

Moral arrogance is a serious problem. It is one that we have many and strong reasons to talk about, and it represents something that we have reason to complain about wherever we discuss such issues.

Just, let us not confuse the idea that there are moral facts with the moral arrogance of presupposing that one knows what those facts are without the possibility of error.

Palin, Elitism, and Incompetence

It appears as if secularists are (accidentally) giving a united message on Governor Palin's nomination as Vice President, and it is a message that we need to strengthen.

This morning, I read an online article by Sam Harris in Newsweek explaining not only why Palin is unfit to be President, but why we need to rethink the standards for evaluating political candidates.

(See: Newsweek, When Atheists Attack)

I have an objection to the headline. And I think this headline is worthy of significant protest. Sam Harris is an atheist, not atheists. I have identified this type of inference from a member within a group to the group as a whole to be one of the purest forms of bigotry.

Harris' remarks have nothing to do with being an atheist, and could have been written by a liberal Christian, who sees just as much reason to worry about having a President who gets her instructions from God and believes the end days are here, as an Atheist.

However, putting that objection aside, Harris makes some valuable points about how we go about selecting political leaders - particularly on the charge of "elitism".

We want elite pilots to fly our planes, elite troops to undertake our most critical missions, elite athletes to represent us in competition and elite scientists to devote the most productive years of their lives to curing our diseases. And yet, when it comes time to vest people with even greater responsibilities, we consider it a virtue to shun any and all standards of excellence.

Palin is not unqualified to be President because she lacks experience. She is unqualified because she lacks knowledge.

Is it hypocritical to condemn Palin on these grounds but not to condemn Obama?

Obama taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago from 1992 to 2004. This requires a significant engagement with many of the issues that the President will have to deal with. It meant a requirement to understand both (all) sides of those issues - opinions, concurring opinions, dissenting opinions - on issues ranging from privacy to interstate commerce to the power to declare war.

Another source giving a similar message about Palin that I ran across yesterday was a section of Bill Maher's "Real Time".

Maher: It's about her being not very bright, and not very knowledgeable. Forget inexperience.

(See: PoliGazette, Andrew Sullivan Clashes with Bill Maher over Religion)

One of Maher's guests, Naomi Klein, described the nature of the problem in more detail.

Palin is much closer to four more years of Bush. I mean, you have all of these traits in common. A fear of blinking, for instance . . . a certainty that is completely incommensurate with any knowledge or experience, secrecy and unwillingness to cooperate with inquiries, a belief that foreign policy is dictated by God, I mean, she's basically Bush in drag.

Some of Klein's statements are derogatory and irrelevent in a sense that I would consider worthy of condemnation. But this does not eliminate the part that is relevant for this post.

And Andrew Sullivan was absolutely livid about Palin's nomination.

We have to talk about Palin. . . She is a farce. The nomination of this person to be potentially President of the United States next January . . . is a joke. It is absurd. It is something that should be dismissed out of hand as the most irresponsible act that any candidate has ever made.

Sullivan later clashes with Maher on the issue of criticism of religion. His branding of McCain's act as irresponsible has nothing to do with religion.

And this is a point that needs to be stressed. McCain made this mistake. However, McCain did not make it because he was following scripture or because he even shares Palin's religious views. McCain performed this irresponsible act for purely secular reasons - because he wants to be President and he is willing to put the country at risk to get that title.

McCain is gambling that Palin will help him get elected and then, as President, he can keep Palin silent in the Vice President's office while he runs the country. But, he has to realize that there is a terrible risk that his plan will go terribly wrong. Still, McCain's error is not religious. It is secular.

There are, then, two points that can be stressed with respect to the Palin nomination.

The first message is that competence matters. There is a virtue in knowing what was in talking about. Harris has an excellent example in which Palin addresses her certainty and competence in her ability to perform brain surgery on a child because she is, after all, a mother and because the country wants a change in how neurosurgical decisions are made in this country - a shift from "elite" neurosurgeons to mothers untrained in any medical practice.

The second message is that this is not an atheist objection to Palin. The McCain camp will try to disarm this objection by linking it with atheism. In fact, we can expect that the McCain camp will try to disarm these objections by branding them atheist - because a majority of the population has been taught (by our government) to think that anything an atheist says is worthy only of being dismissed. The point is to counter these objections by claiming how they are insulting to many people who are not atheists, but who still value competence in our political leaders. These critics are the ones who are saying that only atheists can value competence.

These two messages must be delivered in the same package. If they are, they will not only have a positive effect on this election, but on future elections as well.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Palin the Unmentionable

Give the way the Obama campaign is reacting to Palin’s nomination as the Republican vice presidential candidate, their pollsters have told them that it would be political suicide to criticize Palin. They have stumbled all over themselves to make sure that when they speak about Palin, that they say only good things. If there is any criticism to be made, it is to be made against McCain’s policies.

However, one of the biggest criticisms that can be made against McCain is that, in case of his inability to continue to function as President, he is willing to put the country in the hands of Sarah “George Bush” Palin – somebody who shares Bush’s worst qualities such as an unfounded arrogance, scientific illiteracy, and a faith it is okay to be stupid because God is going to tell her what to do.

The issue today is not how disastrous a Palin presidency would be (which I have written about before). We have a legitimate complaint against McCain that his first Presidential decision was to put the country at risk for the sake of his campaign to be President. He may well think that he will survive through the four years of his Presidency and that no harm will come from this move. However, he took the risk. He put America at risk of suffering some very significant harm in the hands of a Sarah “George Bush” Palin presidency.

Here we have a definite risk to the future of the United States, and we are not allowed to talk about it. We are supposed to pretend that it does not exist.

If we are not permitted to mention something, then we are not permitted to avoid it.

When we are talking about the future of the nation (and the future of a good part of the world, anything that threatens to do significant harm or that promises to do significant good should be on the table.

The Constitution prohibits a religious test for public office. This means that the government is place religious restrictions on the voters regarding what people they can decide to put in public office. However, there is no prohibition on the people themselves having a religious test. If a candidate believes that the end times are here and as President she will use the nation’s nuclear weapons against the agents of the devil, the voters have a reason to consider this. If a candidate thinks that blood transfusions are evil and plan to use the power of the Presidency to ban the use of blood transfusions, the people have the right to consider this fact.

To say that the voters are not permitted to do this is absurd.

I am a member of the major religious faction that faces the greatest amount of outright voter bigotry in the polls. Yet, I do not deny that the voters have the right to consider the factors that that keep atheists out of public office.

The problem is not that it is illegitimate to keep a person out of office who has no moral foundation and cannot be trusted to do the right thing. The problem is the bigoted belief that atheists lack a moral foundation and cannot be trusted to do the right thing.

The same applies to other forms of bigotry.

There is no fault for a voter to vote against a perspective terrorist who would use the power of public office to destroy this country. The fault is in believing that the fact that somebody is a Muslim means that he is somebody who would use the power of public office to destroy America.

The fault is not for a voter to vote against somebody who belongs to an economic clique whose sole interest in funneling money into that clique. The fault is in believing that simply because somebody is Jewish, he is a member of a clique whose sole concern is to funnel money to other Jews.

There is an objection to be made against voting for somebody simply because she is Jewish, or Muslim, or Christian, or Atheist, without naming any quality that makes the person unqualified to be President. This is like voting against somebody simply because she is a woman, or black, not because of a belief that women or blacks have some quality that makes them unfit to lead, but because one does not want to see a woman or a black in public office.

However, if a person believes that the Earth is less than 10,000 years old, then she lacks a basic understanding of earth science that is essential to understanding many of the global issues that confront us today. A lot of the evidence with respect to climate change comes from evidence gathered from events hundreds of thousands of years in the past. If there is no “hundreds of thousands of years in the past,” how can one assess this evidence?

Global threats from tsunamis, volcanoes, asteroid impacts, are partially supported from evidence of events far in the Earth’s past, inferred from today’s evidence.

Just like evolution.

Evolution is the foundation of the biological sciences. It is the foundation through which we understand and make further advances in medicine (that is, to save lives and improve the lives we have). It is how we understand the environment – the interaction between elements in nature – by which we protect nature and protect ourselves.

If a person believes that the world will end in the near future, she does not have the incentive to protect us from long-term problems. She is not somebody who it is safe to trust the country to – not if we care about the future we leave our grandchildren.

And if a person believes that God will not allow anything terrible to happen to us, then she also is a threat to future generations. If she is not going to take seriously the harm that we can do to ourselves and our futures, she is not going to have an eye to protecting us (and our grandchildren) from those problems.

We would certainly have reason to object to the candidacy of a President who holds that the Bible not only condones slavery, but declares that God declared that the proper state for blacks was to be the slaves of whites. We have just as much reason to object to the person whose religion tells them that God has declared that the proper form of marriage is between a man and a woman.

If a person believes that there is something sacred about a zygote refuses to use those zygotes to save lives. This person will cost the lives and health of countless Americans – countless humans. Is it not the case that the humans whose lives are at stake have a right and a reason to consider the fact that a candidate might vote for their death? “If she wins, I die (or my child dies, or my best friend dies)” is a perfectly legitimate concern to carry into the voting booth.

The thing to do here is not just to take up the Obama Campaign’s slack in making these criticisms, but to criticize the Obama campaign for its failure to do so itself.

For the Obama campaign to fail to tackle a religious belief that holds that homosexuals are to be treated as second-class citizens is no different than his refusal to tackle a religious belief that holds that blacks are to be held as slaves. It’s refusal to criticize a religious belief that holds that stem cells have ‘spirits’ and, as a result, others shall be condemned to die is no different than refusing to condemn a religious belief that refuses to suffer a witch to live. If the Obama campaign does not criticize religious beliefs that putting our grandchildren at risk – either by assuming there is no future worth protecting us from or that God will do it for us – then Obama himself has decided not to protect future generations.

It is time to criticize, not only Palin for having insanely irrational beliefs, and not only McCain for choosing to put such a person in line to be President, but also the Democratic Party for its refusal to warn the nation of the dangers posed by such a person, and for its refusal to protect us from these threats by ignoring them and refusing to address them.

Even though the protest would likely not effect this particular election, it will put a little bit of grease on the wheel for the next election, and the next.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Types of Regulations

In the midst of this breakdown of several financial companies, there is a debate going on about the merits of regulation.

Democrats are claiming that the current problem is caused by the Republican philosophy of deregulation, allowing the participants in the financial markets to do whatever they please, where what they pleased. What they pleased was the cause of this crisis. And, in the midst of this crisis, they are not the ones who are suffering for their mistakes. Certainly, if they had benefitted, they would have been able to pocket all the profits. But, in the wake of losses, those losses go to us. We get to bail them out.

Think of all of the regular people who have lost a family business who could not appeal to the government for a bailout, or leave with a $50 million “golden parachute” after mismanaging the company to such a degree.

However, there is a case to be made against a culture of regulation. Whenever regulations get written, you can count on there being a group of people who will follow that bill in minute detail, hire lobbyists, make phone calls, and manipulate public opinion so as to manipulate that regulation. If there is some twist of wording in a regulation that will put millions of dollars in somebody’s pocket, or prevent the loss of a million of dollars out of somebody’s pocket, that person will have reason to invest hundreds of thousands and millions of dollars to manipulate that legislation.

However, you and I are not going to gain or lose millions of dollars as a result of some twist of wording. So, while those with a great deal to gain or lose will hire lawyers, lobbyists, and public relations firms to get their desires written into that legislation, most of us will not even know that the legislation is being debated. As a result, the legislation will serve the purpose of putting millions of dollars into the pockets of the very rich, or prevent them from losing millions of dollars.

In fact, as we watch this situation in the financial industry unfold, what do we see? The people in charge – the people with the money, are making millions of dollars. The current state of regulation is one that protects the wealth of the very rich, and with all of this financial turmoil we do not hear of the very rich being put at risk. This is the effect of regulation, and the reason why many Republicans are opposed to the practice (in theory).

On the issue of regulation, I want to get past the idea that all regulation is bad.

Every criminal law is, in a sense, a regulation. For example, the hit-man industry is heavily regulated; virtually regulated out of existence. We could, of course, have an unregulated hit-man industry – one that is regulated by the market. In this system, anybody who has an objection to the fact that a company employs hit-men by simply boycotting their products or . . . well, by supporting businesses that do not use hit-men and boycotting businesses that do. Giving people the liberty to express their opinions through the market means that we do not need any government regulation of the hit-man industry.

Of course, capitalism does not allow for a hit-man industry. Capitalism imposes certain limits on what one person may do to another. Free trade includes, in part, a prohibition on such things as murder, theft, fraud, and the like.

These are regulations

These "rights to life, liberty, and property" are regulations – a set of rules determining who can do what to whom under what circumstances.

So, the question is not whether to have regulations or not. The question is over what set of regulation works best.

This defeats the line we tend to hear from the Republican camp that all regulation must be prohibited because any set of regulations will become corrupted by special-interests. We are going to have a set of regulations. If sets of regulations are bound to be corrupted by special interest, then corruption by special interest is unavoidable. It is not a reason to select one option and reject another. The option to be rejected does not exist. It is, instead, a background condition that we have to live with and find some way to avoid.

We can perhaps make some progress by distinguishing between two types of regulations.

Regulation to Enforce Rights

One type of regulation is the prohibition on doing harm to others. In just the same way that one is prohibited from hiring a hit man to kill a competitor's leading salesman as a way of improving the bottom line, businesses are prohibited from poisoning others to improve the bottom line. However, this includes prohibitions on poisoning the air that others breathe or poisoning their drinking water.

There are regulations that prohibit a person from simply destroying somebody else's property because one wants something that will allow them prohibitions on simply destroying somebody’s property because one can make a profit by doing so. Similarly, we have reason to impose regulations on those industries that contribute to global warming or ozone depletion or other outcomes that have the effect of destroying somebody else's property. It is not a legitimate defense to say that these regulations cut into their profits, because the regulation against bull-dozing somebody’s house at will also might cut into profits.

There are regulations that prohibit fraud or other acts of deception. It would be considered fraud to sell somebody a car that does not run under any circumstances in which the recipient had reason to expect that it would run. It also counts as fraud to sell somebody a mortgage under conditions that the recipient does not understand – where the recipient reasonably expects one outcome while the mortgage contract says something entirely different.

And it is not enough to say that, as a protection against fraud, it is sufficient to put the terms and conditions in the fine print of some disclaimer that the recipient signs. Most of you who are reading this blog have installed software. You have gotten to the page with all of the legaleze describing the terms of use or some other set of concerns. You have signed that you have read and understood (or at least accepted) those terms and conditions without having any idea what they said.

The call for deregulation is all too often a call to remove these types of restrictions. It is a call to allow a business to kill others by poisoning the air and water. It is a call to allow a business to destroy the property of others through the effects (e.g., global warming) of its practices. It is a call to allow businesses to engage in all sorts of fraud to get money from people by selling them things with fine print that no mortal could possibly understand, and with the knowledge that it is not cost-effective (in the face of ignorance) to go over such agreements in detail.

Many of the bad mortgages sold to people in the last several years would count as fraud. People did not understand what they were getting into and the banks knew it. But the banks did not care that their customers had false beliefs about the product they were selling, as long as the bank got the customer’s money.

Regulation that Violates Rights

These forms of regulation – prohibitions on killing others, destroying their property, or defrauding them – are to be contrasted with regulations whose purpose is to redistribute wealth. These are the regulations where a business says, "Tax every household in the country by one dollar. This will be too little for them to pay any attention to. That will generate $125 million in revenue. Keep $25 million for the government, give us $100 million, and we will make sure that there is something in your campaign bank account the next time you run for office." Those campaign contributions are, in effect, kick-backs for the hundred million dollars in benefits the company gets from the new regulation.

These types of regulations, we have many and good reasons to want to stop.

These are the types of regulations that we have good reason to reject to – and good reason to vote for politicians who will eliminate them.

It does not change the fact that there are good regulations – regulations against killing others (even by poisoning the air they breathe and the water they drink), regulations against destroying their property (through the corrosive or destructive effects of one's actions), and regulations against fraud (or business practices that are so deceptive they count as fraud).

Nor does it change the fact that if somebody has found a way to make millions of dollars by acts that kill others, destroy their property, or that require fraud, that they have a tremendous incentive to convince the legislators to allow them to perform those activities.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

When Athiests Attack

There have been a number of items that have come up recently that revolve around the topic of atheist activism - of convincing people to believe that the proposition "at least one god exists" is almost certainly false.

(And I will repeat that the claim that an atheist is one who "lacks a belief in a god" is a nonsense claim completely at odds with the way the word is used among competent users of the English language, and which makes absolutely no useful contribution or improvement to that language.)

This blog is not a blog about promoting atheism. This is a blog about promoting virtue. And I deny that promoting atheism is a way of promoting virtue because:

Atheism has no moral implications. Atheism is as irrelevant to morality as, for example, the chemical composition of methane. We can certainly find areas in which the chemical facts about methane are relevant about deciding what to do in a given case, but it does not provide any moral guidance.

There are those who have taken every act performed by somebody who (claimed to be) religious and turned it into an attack on all religion. From 9/11, to every instance in which somebody who was religious has molested a child or stolen money from a church or viciously assaulted another member of the community, these have all been held up with a sign that says, "See what religion does!"

Now, atheists need to deal with two stories in which the assailant was an (alleged) atheist, attacking others because they believed in God. (Denver Post: "Man threatens two Christians, may lose an eye")

The other concerns an (alleged) atheist in Woodbridge, England who harassed a Christian neighbor. (Suffolk & Essex Online, "Atheist's bizarre bid to convert Christian" .

It may be possible to dispute some of the facts of these stories. For the purposes of this essay, I do not need to have the facts of these cases entirely accurate. I could take the cases as entirely hypothetical cases of what some atheists might do and make the same point.

The point is to take these articles, then take something such as this:

The Church of Jesus Christ, "When Atheists Attack"

Below are two articles on the extreme that atheists will go to - of course they are enlightened and all.

This article then goes on to mention the two stories that I referenced above.

And to point out how similar that article is to articles that many atheists would post if they should find two articles about Christians making attacks against two atheists.

In fact, I would love to write a nice post about the bigotry expressed this article, in light of the fact that it takes the behavior of two nuts such as this and extrapolates it out to include all atheists. It is clearly the case that the author in this case is engaging in hate-mongering and bigotry, trying to promote animosity against a whole group of people by using the behavior of a subset of its members. I could write an excellent argument proving this point.

However, in this case, the article I would be criticizing is too much like many of the postings that I read every day on atheist-activist blogs. Where they take a story of a theist who has committed some crime and used it in a post that says, "See why I hate religious people?"

The rule is to keep the subject tightly focused on those who have committed the actual wrong - not to over-generalize. Taking the crimes of "a theist" and turning it into an article against "theists" is as bigoted as taking an article about "an atheist" and turning it into a piece of hate-mongering bigotry against "atheists".

The only time it is legitimate to make a claim about a whole group of people is when the claim is true about the whole group. It is quite permissible to say that bachelors are unmarried, circles are round, atheists believe that the proposition "at least one god exists" is almost certainly false, or a theist is somebody who believes "at least one god exists" is almost certainly true.

If a group of faith healers kill a child in the process of trying to rid her of demons (that happen, in fact, to be asthma or some form of juvenile diabetes), then the fault rests with those people who made that mistake. It does not rest with all of religion.

If a group of terrorists destroy a couple of sky scrapers, the fault rests with those people and their specific beliefs, not with religion.

If an atheist harrasses and menaces a neighbor for the crime of believing that a God almost certainly exists, the fault rests with that atheist, not with atheists.

I would like readers to keep this example in mind . . . the example of a case in which two articles about some deranged atheists resulted in a story about "the extremes that atheists will go to", and ask whether some of the atheist activist postings one is reading (writing) fit too uncomfortably close to this model.

If they do, then let's see about putting an end to it, or at least reducing the number of incidences that commit this violation.

To the degree that we pride ourselves on reason and truth, let take these examples of "hasty generalization" and commit them to the bin of inappropriate behavior where they belong.

And then go ahead and criticize any theists who violate the same rule.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Aggressive Deception

The Subculture of Aggression and Deception

There is a subculture in America that embraces deception. They value dishonest attacks because they have no aversion to dishonesty, but they have a strong desire for aggression – verbal aggression mostly, but not always.

This subculture of deception and aggression got us into Iraq.

This subculture responded to Jim Wilson's article exposing that there was no evidence that Hussein was trying to buy yellow cake uranium from Niger by attacking Wilson and his wife Valarie Plame – exposing her as an undercover agent in the process.

This subculture of deception and aggression provided the foundation for the Bush Administration’s tactic to respond to its critics with personal attacks, rather than confront the issues – because it fed a subculture that loved aggressive personal attacks and did not care about the issues.

This subculture of deception and aggression spread emails around the country in the early part of this year saying that Obama was a secret Muslim, that he did not say the Pledge of Allegiance (or that he turned his back on the flag during this ritual).

This subculture embraced the deceptive advertisements that the McCain campaign has put out in the past month.

Those emails became so widespread because there is a subculture that spreads them. The problem is not McCain and a few advisors who sit in a room and create and broadcast the advertisements. The problem is that a subculture exists that has critical mass in this country that cares absolutely nothing about truth, and who gets absolutely giddy when they see somebody being attacked (the injustice of the attack being irrelevant), who support these types of messages.

McCain and his crew have the morally outrageous disposition to grow and feed and care for and exploit this subculture for their own ends. Unfortunately, by feeding this subculture they help it grow, and the more this poison grows the worse off America becomes.

Look at what it has cost us for the past four years.

The answer is not to focus on McCain for running a negative campaign.

The answer is to confront the people who make up this subculture of aggression and deception, to challenge it, to make it shrink rather than sit back casually and watch it grow and strangle the truth out of this country.

It means being blatantly impolite to those people who spread this type of garbage – to give them the response that somebody who is poisoning American culture actually deserves.

Does somebody who poisons our culture – that promotes a culture that loves aggression without respect to whether it is true or false, just or unjust, deserve our polite deference? Should be kneel before it and say, "I beg your pardon, your majesty, but I beg your indulgence to report that perhaps you ought to give a little more care for whether the claims you assert are true, and a little more care as to whether the accusations you throw out are just? It's just a suggestion. You're free to ignore me, of course, as you see fit. I remain, as always, your humble servant."

Sorry, no. That type of attitude does not help against this type of problem.

This point has two corollaries that I would like to add.

Corollary 1: Aggressive Deception and Religion

The first is that there appears to be a close relationship between a willingness to engage in aggressive and unjust deception and a tendency towards religious beliefs. At least, the subculture in which we find these practices tend to be highly religious.

To the degree that this relationship can be empirically verified, it may not be all that much of a surprise. After all, it is the nature of many religions that they put a low value on truth and reason – a very high value on accepting claims without regard to (and even with a positive disregard towards) any type of evidence for or against it.

Of course, they do not see themselves as liars. They see themselves as passing along an important truth – a 'truth' that has no foundation and about which a person who looks at the evidence would quickly find the claim to be unfounded at best and false at worse.

In fact, it would be a mistake to view this subculture as a subculture of 'liars' in the traditional sense – as a subculture of people who assert and defend claims that they know to be false. This is a subculture of 'deceivers' in that it is a subculture that embraces claims that are not true – that are not supported by evidence and are embraced as true merely because, if true, they would provide a good reason to engage in behavior harmful to others.

It is a culture whose main crime is not found in the fact that it engages in deliberate deception, but in the fact that it values – wants to believe - that claims that are derogatory of others are true and that this desire alone feeds their acceptance of these types of claims.

We can find very little difference between the willingness (eagerness) to embrace the claim that Obama does not say the Pledge of Allegiance and the claim that homosexuality is a sin. So many things in the Bible are ignored. This one is embraced, not because it is found in the Bible, but because it is one of those unfounded and unjust claims that feeds the person’s hunger to have a reason to hate somebody else.

Corollary 2: Other Distortions

Of course, it is not the case that one has to be of a religious mindset to adopt the value of aggressive distortions. This moral flaw represents a set of desires. A person who acquires a lack of concern for the truth and a fondness towards verbal (and nonverbal) aggression can, at the same time, acquire non-religious beliefs.

I have heard stories of emails and internet messages circulating that list a set of books that Vice Presidential Candidate Palin had tried to have banned from the library when she was governor of Wasilla, Alaska. Reports show that this list is bogus.

Anybody who picked up this list and passed it on without serious consideration of the question, "Is this true?" is somebody who has embraced this culture of aggressive deception. It did not matter to this person that the claim was true or false. What mattered is that it provided an illusion of justification for hating Palin. It was embraced as true without checking it out because it fulfilled a need for verbal aggression against Palin.

This is the type of culture that I am criticizing.

It is a type of culture that should find no refuge in the fact that, "At least the person engaging in these practices are attacking the people that I think should be attacked."

Fighting this culture of deceptive aggression requires some willingness to shift allegiances. It means working with, for example, a religious person who thinks that deception is evil and that we have a moral responsibility to presume that others are innocent unless the evidence compels us to adopt the belief that they are worthy of being condemned. And it means a willingness to take on those who spread unfounded rumor and innuendo even when it targets the people we think deserved to be targeted.

We should sometimes be prepared to say, "I think those people are wrong and are deserving of condemnation, but they should be condemned for what they have done in fact, not for things that you made up or that you accepted willingly without evidence."


The moral of this post remains that we should not focus our criticism for recent deceptions on McCain himself or his campaign. We need to target our criticism on the subculture that feeds off of this type of behavior – on those people who live around us who unthinkingly accept and pass on aggressive deceptions because they find it entertaining. Entertaining, that is, to contribute to a practice that poisons American culture and leaves all of us worse off.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Campaign Tactics as a Campaign Issue

I have read some comments about how the Obama campaign is planning to react to the McCain camp tactics of using lies, malicious deception, and distraction to win the election. They are going to react but putting the emphasis back on the economy, the war in Iraq, the environment, and similar issues.

The Obama campaign seems to be missing an important point.

The use of lies, malicious distortions, and distraction in the pursuit of a political objective is a campaign issue.

The American people face a lot of threats to their well-being . . . to their very lives. These threats include threats to their health (and the high cost of health care), threat to their homes and their ability to pay their mortgages, threats to their lives and their property through terrorist attacks, threats to their retirement from a failing social security system, threats from global warming and the harm it will do to lives and property, threats to their jobs, and the like.

However, one of the threats that they face is the threat of having a political process hijacked by the use of lies, manipulative distortions, and distractions. This problem is, perhaps, one of the most deadly and costly problems facing America today because it stands in the way of us solving any of the other problems.

In fact, the culture of lies, malicious distortions, and distractions has directly cost us nearly $1 trillion, the lives of 4,000 soldiers, the health of more than 30,000 more, and killed nearly 100,000 Iraqis. The willingness of politicians to engage in these practices, and the willingness of the American people to allow it, is exactly how the Bush Administration got us into this mess in Iraq.

They lied. They deliberately misinterpreted the claims of others in order to engage in phony outrage (about insulting the troops or abandoning the troops). They pulled out all sorts of slight of hand and distracted the American people with irrelevant stories. Until, finally, they got what they wanted, and they got over 4,000 of us killed a result.

McCain’s campaign strategy for winning the election is simply a new application of the same playbook that the Bush Administration used for getting us into war with Iraq.

And the same people who are using this playbook for McCain are the people who wrote the playbook for Bush.

Obama thinks that the best thing to do with respect to this threat to the American way of life is to ignore it. We should pretend that this problem does not exist, and we should talk instead about health care, education, social security, and a failing infrastructure.

He is right in that we should talk about these things. He is wrong to think that “political manipulation through lies and distraction” is not or should not also be on that list.

He would not dare suggest that the best way to deal with the health care problem is to limit national debate to a discussion of education, social security, and the failing infrastructure. He would be a fool to say that the failing infrastructure is best dealt with by ignoring it and talking about health care, education, and social security.

So what sense does it make to say that the best way to deal with the problem of lies and manipulation in politics is to ignore it?

Now, we all know that this blog is going to have zero impact on Obama’s campaign strategy. So, let’s not pretend that “if Obama were to only read this post he would change the way he approaches this issue and the world will be a better place.”

He is not going to read this blog. He is not going to change his strategy.

If anything is to be done to make lies and political manipulation a campaign issue, it has to come from us. We have to make it an issue.

And even though we do not have the budget to reach more than a small fraction of potential voters, we can still reach that small corner of potential voters. It does absolutely no good to lament about what we could have done with resources we did not have. The only real-world option is to do what we can with the resources we do have.

What we can do is make lies and political manipulation a campaign issue.

If McCain is going to lie to us now, then he will lie to us a year from now. If he is willing to his political operatives to distract us with trivial concerns to earn the White House now, he is going to put those same political operatives to work to distract us when he is wants to distract us from something we may not approve of next year.

More importantly . . . more important than any of this . . . if we allow a campaign of lies and distraction to win the team that uses it the office of President of the United States today, it will send a message down through the next generation, and the generation after that, that they, too, should grow up to be people who use lies and distractions to reach public office in the years to come.

McCain, by his example, is teaching future generations of politicians the type of person they need to become to get ahead . . . the type of person that they need to be to be President. If McCain becomes President, he would have taught them to lie. He would have taught them to do whatever they can to divert the American people’s attention away from the issues. He would have taught them that they are to claw their way to the top with Machiavellian manipulations and distortions.

However, if McCain fails to win the White House, then his campaign will become a lesson in what NOT to do. McCain’s will serve as an example for countless young people growing up today who will seek a position in politics that it pays to be honest, that it pays to focus on the issues, that that it pays to be a decent, moral person who respects not only truth but who respects the American voters enough to be honest and straight with them.

This should be one of the issues on the table.

We should not only be talking about the threat that future generations face as a result of a national debt that is out of control. We should not only be talking about the threats that they will face as a result of global warming. We should not only be talking about the threats they face as a result of being too poorly educated to be competitive in the global workplace. We should also be concerned about the threats that they face if we leave them a culture of lies and deception. We should be going after the people who contribute to that political culture in the same way that we go after those who feed all of the other threats that we face and that we will leave to our children.

If we want these tactics removed from the political process now and in the future, for the sake of our country today and for the sake of our children and grand children, then we need to make this a campaign issue today, and we need to do what we can to point out to as many voters as we can that people like McCain and those who work for him are a threat to us, to our children, and to the country.

We should point out that, however unfaithful a candidate may be to his wife, to break faith with us by surrounding us with lies and distracting us rather than leveling with us about the important facts of the day is far worse. However difficult it is for a person of the first type to win public office, we consider it far more important to keep people who treat us with as much contempt as the McCain crew out of office. If only for the purpose of teaching our children to adopt better morals than those that the McCain camp appears to have adopted.