Friday, May 29, 2009

Preventing Future Crimes

Through a series of posts this past week I have argued that a speech on what the American government may do to foreigners should be listened to as a speech on what the speaker thinks a government is morally permitted to do to its own citizens.

In this light, we need to take a look at President Obama’s proposal that people currently being held in Guantanamo Bay prison may he held without a trial indefinitely because there is reason to believe the person may perform a future crime. Which means that Obama believes that the government would not be acting unjustly (perhaps illegally, but laws can be changed) if it were to capture citizens and imprison them indefinitely because of a belief that they might perform a future crime.

Some people are outraged at what they describe as an entirely unwarranted and absurd expansion of power.

Not only do we already imprison people, we even kill people, for the purpose of preventing them from committing a future crimes.

One of the arguments given in favor of capital punishment is that the executed prisoner will not be able to commit another murder in the future.

Three-strikes laws (where the third felony results in a life sentence) are justified on the basis that repeat offenders are more likely to continue to be repeat offenders. Life imprisonment prevents them from committing future crimes.

People argue for longer jail sentences for sex offenders on the grounds that this will prevent them from committing future crimes.

Now, these people are convicted on the basis of past crimes – something that Obama’s proposal rules out. However, this does not change the fact that the reason for punishment - the reason for execution or extended jail time – is to prevent future crimes. The fact that a person has committed a past crime (or a series of past crimes) is simply taken as evidence that the agent is somebody who is likely to commit a future crime. Yet, it is on the basis that the agent is deemed likely to commit a future crime that he is killed or held in prison for life.

But what if we have another form of evidence that an agent is likely to commit a future crime – a form of evidence that is even more reliable than the inference from the fact that the agent committed a past crime? What is it about "having committed a past crime" that this evidence makes it permissible to kill or imprison a person to prevent future crimes, where all other forms of evidence is illegitimate?

At this point, I need to distinguish two issues. One issue is the claim that people would be imprisoned for life to prevent future crimes without a trial. If we have reliable evidence that a person may commit a future crime that is as reliable or more reliable than “having committed a past crime," we may still say that the accused has a right to a trial. We may still say it is the case that the government must present this evidence and demonstrate beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused is likely to commit a future crime. So, we have to separate the "without a trial" issue with the "detention/execution to prevent a future crime" issue.

So, let us assume that we have evidence that an accused individual will likely commit a future crime that is as reliable or more reliable than "having committed a past crime."

Now, it seems we have a dilemma. In order to be consistent, it seems that we either must admit that this type of evidence is good enough to justify imprisoning or even killing the accused.

Or we must hold that our current practice of killing or imprisoning people for the sake of preventing future crimes based on the “having committed a crime” indicator is not, in fact, legitimate and admit that we have treated these people unjustly.

As long as we hold that executing or imprisoning people (e.g., sex offenders) for the purpose of preventing a future crime is, in fact, legitimate, we are not being entirely consistent to hold that imprisoning (or executing) Guantanamo Bay detainees for the sake of committing a future crime, when the evidence is at least as reliable as ‘having committed past crimes,” is a legitimate object of moral outrage.

Actually, though I do not have time to argue for it in this blog, my position would be that such evidence justifies confinement without punishment. Confinement would be for the purpose of preventing the accused from committing the future crime. However, since we have no reason to punish the individual, we have no justification for harming him or her other than to the degree necessary to prevent the future crime. In other words, the accused would still have a right to as much freedom to do what he pleases consistent with preventing a future crime.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Quality of Beliefs

A member of the studio audience (or at least somebody who is listening out in the hallway) has asked me to speak about the possibility of “bad beliefs” in desire utilitarian theory.

In my experience, there are so many times that people think they are doing the right thing, but they do not take the time to verify that they have good information & good beliefs to make the correct decision. Negligence, it would seem, is often the primary cause for moral wrong-doing.

This is true. I have written many times about the moral crime of epistemic negligence.

Now, there is a small problem when it comes to saying that negligence is the cause of something. Negligence (in desire utilitarian terms) is the absence of a sufficiently strong concern for the welfare of others. There is at least some linguistic difficulty in saying that something that does not exist can be a "cause". However, I consider this one of those pedantic concerns that is not worth a great deal of consideration.

It is the case that a person with an insufficiently strong concern for the welfare of others will not take actions to prevent harm to others that a person with a stronger concern would have taken. And people generally have reason to promote a stronger concern for the welfare of others (since they and the people they care about are the 'others' whose welfare is at risk).

However, notice here that the root of the moral problem is a defect in desire. Ultimately, a person is not blameworthy merely for the fact that he had bad beliefs. Rather, he had beliefs that a person who had a sufficiently strong concern for the welfare of others would not have had.

This is because the person with a sufficiently strong concern for the welfare of others will have an aversion to being wrong, where being wrong harms could cause harm to others. This concern with being wrong would have motivated him to double-check his facts and seriously address any reason to believe he was wrong.

The people who promoted the idea that CO2 emissions are not linked to global warming are not moral monsters merely because they believed this nonsense. They are moral monsters because a person who is truly concerned with the welfare of others would have been worried about the harm done if they were wrong. They would have double-checked the facts and the reasoning and would have then taken steps to reduce the risk of harm.

The leading global warming denialists obviously do not care about the people they harm. They do not care enough to take a serious look at the evidence with a decent respect for the fact that a mistake on their part could cost other people their lives and well-being.

I am reading your book, and you do talk about having good beliefs in the BDI model. Why do you then drop that clause from the theory? If Intentions & Actions are the results of Beliefs & Desires, it would seem to me to be imperative that we seek to make both of those things "good".

Yes, I do talk about having good beliefs. But what is a good belief?

All value exists in the form of relationships between states of affairs and desires. Beliefs, like everything else, have value in virtue of its relationship to desires. More specifically, beliefs have moral value according to the relationships that exist between those beliefs and the desires that people generally have reason to promote.

Here, it is relevant to bring up that people act so as to fulfill the most and strongest of their desires given their beliefs, but they seek to fulfill the most and strongest of their desires. What matters are the relationships that exist between states of affairs and desires, not the relationships that people believe in. People who have false beliefs tend to waste a lot of energy failing to fulfill desires that people with true beliefs would have fulfilled.

So, the desires that people generally have reason to promote (whether they believe it or not) include curiosity, intellectual integrity, and honesty. These virtues are virtues precisely because they tend to promote true beliefs, and true beliefs aid in the fulfilling of desires.

True beliefs do not have any sort of intrinsic value. However, because of the usefulness of true beliefs, we have many and strong reasons to promote in others those desires that will tend to lead to true beliefs.

And we have reason to condemn those people whose desires are such that they tend to promote false beliefs.

None of this contradicts the claim that value (including the value of desires that tend to lead to true or false beliefs) exists in the form of relationships between states of affairs and desires.

Torture, Imprisonments, and Moral Universalizability

In recent posts I have argued that every political speech describing what the American government may do to foreign captives should be viewed as a speech on what the speaker would allow foreign governments to do to Americans.

This is nothing less than a straight-forward application of the moral principle of universalizability, as captured in, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," or "Act on that maxim that you can, at the same time, will to e a universal law." Or, in desire-utilitarian terms, "Act as a person whose malleable desires are those that people generally have reason to promote as universal desires would act.”

It should also be viewed as a speech about what the speaker thinks the government may legitimately do to its own citizens.

This, too, is a straight-forward application of the principle of universalizability.

Whatever a politician claims the government may legitimately do to any human being, that politician is claiming that there is no prohibition against doing such a thing to a human being. If there is no moral prohibition against that action, then the government may do the same thing to its own citizens without being subject to moral criticism.

For example, assume that a politician says that a foreigner may be captured and held indefinitely without a trial. If he says such a thing, then he is saying that the arrest and permanent imprisonment of a person without a trial is a morally legitimate action. If it is a morally legitimate action, it is something that a government may permissibly do to its own citizens.

The citizens of a country may adopt a legal prohibition on the government arresting citizens and imprisoning them for life without a trial. However, if they allow the government to do this to foreigners, then they cannot claim that this prohibition is a matter of protecting a moral right against that behavior. What they are saying instead is that this is merely a matter of political convenience – and it can be revoked at any time (also as a matter of political convenience).

So, if it is morally permissible for a government to torture a person for information? Then it is permissible for a government to torture its own citizens for information?

If we may hold suspected terrorists in prison for life without a trial, then what moral prohibition can exist against holding suspected drug dealers or child pornographers indefinitely without a trial?

Note that the purpose of a trial is to distinguish actual terrorists, drug traffickers, and child pornographers from the real thing. This is not an argument against punishing those who have been convicted of these crimes, but an argument against those who are are merely suspected of being guilty – which could be any one of us.

Then we have to ask what safeguards exist against the President rounding up its political rivals – the most powerful and influential leaders of the opposing political parties, declaring that he thinks they are 'dangerous', and imprisoning them indefinitely without a trial. There can be no moral prohibition against such an act if we are willing to do such things to foreign nationals. The only reasons against such an act can be reasons of political expedience.

Which means that the instant it is politically expedient to arrest and imprison political opponents, it is morally legitimate for him to do so.

These are the logical implications to saying that the government is morally permitted to do such things to foreigners. If we reject these implications of that original statement, then we have reason to reject the original statement. It is NOT the case that governments are morally free to treat foreign nationals in this way.

Their right to freedom from abuse, and to a trial where the government must demonstrate that it is punishing people who are actually guilty, is a moral right and, as such, a limitation to what governments may legitimately do to any human being.

So, the next time you hear a political speech in which the speaker talks about what the government may legitimately do to a foreign national, what you are hearing is what that speaker thinks the government may legitimately do to you. With this perspective, you can evaluate whether you agree with that speaker or not.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Vjack's Lessons of Proposition 8

Vjack at Atheist Revolution says that Atheists have an important lesson to learn from the passage of California's Proposition 8. The lesson is that well-financed and organized religious bigots have the power to manipulate the law so as to force everybody else to live in accordance with their religiously-backed falsehoods.

If atheists are not careful, we may find ourselves the next in line to suffer the effects of their religiously motivated bigotry.

(See: Atheist Revolution, Proposition 8 Ruling Implications for Atheists)

I think he has it backwards.

Unopposed and weakly opposed anti-atheist bigotry in California is what has provided the motivation and organization to make things like Proposition 8 possible.

For example, for years not a California organization, ingodwetrust-america.org, has been organized to put the national motto, "If you do not trust in God, you are not one of us" in prominent places in government buildings. These measures have widely passed, in county seats and local referendums, in much the same way that Proposition 8 passed.

It is almost certainly the case that the mailing lists and political contacts that ingodwetrust-america.org had built up were put to use to pass Proposition 8. Its ailing lists were used to solicit donations and to distribute campaign materials. In addition, we must expect that the posting of these signs had some effect on the people who saw it – imprinting the idea that Americans support that which is Godly and oppose that which is ungodly.

Yet, that organization has gone substantially unchallenged in its efforts.

The fact of the matter is that we do not need to fear that the success in attacking homosexuals will lead to attacks against atheists. Rather, past success in attacks against atheists have improved their ability to attack other groups such as homosexuals.

The California "In God We Trust" campaign, in turn, sprang from the political success of getting maing "In God We Trust" the national motto, and getting three generations of school children to pledge to view atheism the same way they view rebellion, tyranny, and injustice for all.

One of the questions that I have asked atheists repeatedly in this blog is how well they like being the tool through which the things they value are attacked. The two measures mentioned above – the national motto and the pledge of allegiance – make a significant contribution to growing an attitude of hostility towards atheists, viewing them as un-American.

This anti-atheist attitude can then be harvested to attack other things that these theocrats want to do away with. In order to promote creationism and to nurture hostility towards evolution they perform the traditional marking trick to something else that people already feel hostile towards – atheism.

They attack the idea of a secular government by a massive flood of publications and broadcasts in which they equate secular government with atheist government. With all of the money they have to finance their campaign they done such a successful job of confusing these definitions that a lot of people actually think that 'secular' means 'atheist'. So, a 'secular government' can then be branded as a government that imposes atheism on its citizens.

One of the questions we should be asking is, "Where were the gay rights organizations during the decades in which theocrats pushed an agenda of hostility towards atheists?" Somebody in those organizations should have been writing articles and posts to the effect of "Pledge of Allegiance and National Motto implications for gay-rights supporters".

There are real-world implications for them to have been concerned about. If theocratic-minded Americans have the power to get "In God We Trust" adopted as the national motto and "under God" added to the pledge of allegiance, then they are a hair’s breath away from having the power to declare any type of 'unGodly' behavior criminal.

Yet, we have to admit the fact that even atheists have, for decades, been unwilling to protect themselves from and to challenge this discrimination. Where they have challenged these laws, they have sought to do so only through the courts – which ultimately will prove to be a foolish strategy guaranteed to fail in the long run.

Because atheists and secularists have not taken their case to the people – because they have been hiding behind judicial robes unwilling to face their neighbors, families, and co-workers, every court decision in favor of the First Amendment has become a propaganda tool to promote hostility towards the First Amendment. Sooner or later, that hostility was going to become powerful enough to simply replace the judicial robes of those the atheists had been hiding behind with those of people who agree with the forces that put them on the bench.

Now, we are one Supreme Court justice away from an interpretation of the First Amendment whereby the only type of law that the Amendment prohibits is actual criminal prosecution for religious beliefs. Everything from state-sponsored churches to sectarian prayers at public events (if the majority supports them) to bible readings and religious instruction in public schools would be permitted – since none of them involve punishing people for disagreeing with the speaker.

Waterboarding, Hypocrisy, and Cheney

In response to my statement (regarding torture) that, "Whatever we do to others, we give others moral permission to do to us," a member of the studio audience responded:

Does this apply both ways? In other words, do we have moral permission to saw heads off of captured non-military (Pearl, Berg, etc.) or military men?

This suggests that something a bit more precise is in order.

More precisely, the proposition that it is morally permissible for me to do A under conditions C implies that it is morally permissible for anybody to do A under conditions C. The proposition that it is morally permissible for America to waterboard its captives implies that it is morally permissible in general to waterboard captives. If it is generally permissible to waterboard captives, then it is morally permissible for those who capture Americans (soldiers or civilians) to waterboard them.

In other words, let us assume that some Somalia pirates capture a ship that has American crew members on board. They decide to waterboard their captives. According to the definitions of torture that the American government adopted, the waterboarding of captives does not count as abusive behavior worthy of condemnation or punishment.

We may charge them with piracy and kidnapping, but, we would be hard pressed to charge them with the abuse of those captives for waterboarding them, since we have declared that waterboarding captives is a legitimate practice.

Or, let us say that some foreign agents attack an American convoy and capture a group of soldiers. They are considering waterboarding those soldiers. According to the Bush Administration, we could not have said, "If you waterboard those American soldiers we will hold you guilty of war crimes and punish you accordingly." Because the Bush Administration had already adopted the policy that torturing soldiers is not a war crime.

In other words, by defending waterboarding, the Bush Administration decided to put the official weight of the U.S. government on the side of those who would waterboard captured Americans, rather than on the side of those Americans who would be waterboarded.

In logic, if A implies B, but B is false, then A is false.

"If the boss was working in his office, then the light in his office would be on. The light in his office is not on. Therefore, the boss is not in his office."

"If it is permissible for Americans to waterboard its captives then it is permissible for others to waterboard captured Americans. It is not permissible for others to waterboard captured Americans. Therefore, it is not permissible for Americans to waterboard its captives."

Former Vice-President Cheney, in defending waterboarding, has two options. He must either admit that it is morally permissible for other agents to waterboard captured Americans, or he must admit that his original position on the permissibility of waterbaroding its captives was mistaken.

Of course, he has the option of asserting a moral contradiction. This is not a limitation on what a person is physically capable of asserting or even of thinking. It is only a limitation on what reason permits.

So, every time Cheney gives a speech on a talk show or before any audience and declares that it is morally permissible for America to wateroard its captives, Cheney is, at the same time, giving a speech that says that it is just as permissible for other agencies to waterboard captive Americans (or any of their other captives for that matter).

That is how his should hear his speeches. We should hear every one of his speeches as a speech about what foreign agencies may and may not do to American captives.

If, in hearing Cheney defend what foreign agencies may legitimately do to captured Americans, we declare find that we have reason to believe that they are false, then comparable claims about what America can permissibly do to its captives must also be false.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Intellectual Integrity and Constitutional Interpretation

Every time a court gives a controversial decision I look in vain for signs of a person with intellectual integrity who says, “This is a bad law that should never have existed, but the court was right to uphold it,” or, “This is essential law that the Constitution should not prohibit, but the Court was right to say that the Constitution does prohibit it.”

When the California Supreme Court upheld a voter-approved initiative to ban gay marriage, many people standing before the court shouted “shame on you.” In other words, they asserted that the Justices did something wrong – something for which they ought to feel shame.

They made this statement even before they read the opinion of the Court. All they knew was the outcome of the decision. They had not looked at any of the reasoning behind it. Yet, still they asserted, in full arrogance, that their interpretation of the law could not possibly be in error and, if the California Supreme Court said something different, we are justified in assuming the mural culpability of its members.

The people who should feel shame are the protestors, not the justices. Their showed the world an amazing amount of arrogance and self-importance – a level that a decent person would never ascribe to.

The decision in this case hinged upon whether the voter-approved initiative was a Constitutional Amendment, or a Revision. Revisions have to go through the legislature, whereas Amendments can be approved by the voters.

So, what determines whether or not a particular change is a Revision or an Amendment?

To most people in California and onlookers around the world, there is a simple test. "If I believe that the legislature is more likely to give the results that I want, then a particular change is a revision and requires legislative approval. If I trust the people to give the decision I like then the proposed change must be an amendment."

This is absurd on its face. Yet, the vast majority of Californians appear to embrace this absurdity. At least, they find an amazing degree of similarity between what the law actually says and what they want the law to say. This amazing degree of overlap is best explained by saying that people are using what they want the law to say as their measure of which interpretation is correct.

The degree to which people are basing their interpretations of the law according to what they want the law to say is simply too obvious to ignore. We would be foolish to think that the correlation between those who WANT the decision to come out a particular way and those who think that the law actually supports that decision is merely a coincidence.

This is what the Bush Administration did in order to justify its invasion of Iraq and the torture of prisoners. It went to the Justice Department and said, “This is what I want the law to say, so you job is to find an interpretation consistent with that desire.” Gay marriage proponents acted just like Bush did. They want the law to say something in specific, so they insist that the interpretation that fits their desires must be the correct interpretation.

Yet, in the manner befitting of hypocrites, they condemn the Bush Administration for doing just that – for interpreting the law only to their own desires. In fact, many of these gay rights activists insist that Bush Administration officials who interpreted the law to fit their desires should be prosecuted as war criminals.

Yet, they prove themselves to be the same types of people – those who determine what the law says by looking first at what they want the law to say.

As for me, I am going to do something radical and unheard of. I am going to reserve judgment until after I have read the decision. In reading the decision, I am not going to judge the results by whether or not they give the answer I like. I am going to judge the results according to whether or not the premises are true and the argument is valid.

Knowing that, as a human being, I am susceptible to interpreting the Constitution to fit my desires alone, I will be on the lookout for those tendencies.

In fact, it may be wise to begin with the assumption that the Constitution will come down on the 'wrong side' of a given law. This way, one can then look for evidence that overrides this presumption. By doing so, he or she might actually live up to their intellectual responsibilities.

Unspoken Facts about Waterboarding

There is a video circulating that covers a radio talk-show host who underwent waterboarding in order to claim that he had done it and that it was not that bad. He ended up declaring that waterboarding is torture.

(See: NBCChicago, Mancow Waterboarded, Admits It's Torture)

There are a couple of points that I want to mention about this.

First, I have heard quite a few people claim that the horror of waterboarding depends a lot on what a person thinks. If the victim believes he is not going to be killed, then waterboarding is not so bad.

This does not stand in the face of evidence. Waterboarding is not bad because of what the victim thinks. Waterboarding is bad because of how it feels.

In this respect it is much like having salt poured into an open wound, or having electrodes fastened to one's genitals and the current turned on. It does not matter what the victim thinks with respect to whether his captors are going to kill him. What matters is how it feels. Quite obviously, it feels pretty bad.

Second, journalists who have themselves waterboarded are able to stop the experiment at a moment's notice. They say that this is torture, but they have not actually experienced what the victims of waterboarding actually experience. The victims of waterboarding are not given a plastic cow to drop or any way to signal his captors to stop. The captors do not stop.

A victim of waterboarding may not last any longer than Mancow did. However, the captor would have simply ignored that fact and kept pouring water down Mancow's throat regardless of anything he did. He would have been kept in that state up to the point when the captors decided to release him – when the captors deemed that there was now a risk of death. (And, sometimes, the captors can miscalculate.)

Finally, I would like to close with a claim that I have made before when I have written on this subject – the moral claim that I think deserves to be mentioned.

The President or talk show host or commentator who says that waterboarding is permissible and those who engage in it should not be prosecuted are implying by this statement that they would not demand that any charges be filed against foreign agents who waterboard American soldiers. If they are saying that this is an acceptable way to treat captives, then they are saying that this is an acceptable way to treat Americans who are captured.

Whatever we do to others, we give others moral permission to do to us. I, for one, do not give others moral permission to waterboard Americans they have captured.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Calm, Reasoned Insults

A member of the studio audience paid me what I think was a compliment today. I even think that the author intended it to be a compliment. I’m not entirely sure.

Emu Sam wrote:

It causes a lot of mental turmoil for me to read your calm and reasoned insults, but unmistakably very strong insults. I wince in embarrassment and breathe a sigh of relief and feel guilty for not doing as much all at once. I can’t recall a time when someone could accuse you of ad hominem, when taking all your writings together, because you make it so clear what the insult means and that you intend it exactly as you say it. It makes me want to learn how to be less polite. Maybe sometimes not so calm.

This accurately describes at least what I aspire to in those blog postings that have to do with moral claims.

Moral claims are insults – at least an important class of moral claims are insults. You are accusing somebody of doing something immoral. There is no neutral way to accuse somebody of a moral crime. If you say that he performed a moral crime then you are saying he has a bad person – he has a character flaw – he deserves to be ridiculed, condemned, laughed at, or even intentionally harmed.

There is no nice way to say that somebody is immoral.

The statement, "What you did was wrong but you are still a really great guy – a saint, in fact, who nobody can say anything against," is a flat-out contradiction. If a person is guilty is doing something wrong, this necessarily implies that statements as to his virtue need at least some qualification.

The model that I use is that of a court of law. If I am accusing somebody of wrongdoing then I take the role of prosecuting attorney. First, I identify the charge. The individual is a bigot, a liar, a hypocrite, a sophist, a self-serving demagogue, is intellectually reckless, arrogant, condescending, a bully, or guilty of any of the other moral crimes I may charge him with.

This is no different than saying that the accused is a murderer, a rapist, an embezzler, a thief, or a drunk driver. These are insults. But in a court of law, and in an ethics blog, leveling accusations is the name of the game.

As the prosecuting attorney, my next job is to specify the criteria that somebody for the specific moral crime. A liar is a person who makes knowingly false statements as a means of manipulating the behavior of others into serving his interests rather than those of the agent. A bigot is somebody who makes invalid inferences from the character flaws of a member of a group (real or imagined) to members of the whole group, or who simply asserts without any evidence that the whole group has such a flaw.

This is no different than telling a jury what is required for the prosecutor to prove that the accused is guilty of breaking the law.

In order for something to qualify as a moral crime it must be the case that people generally have reason to condemn, criticize, ridicule, laugh at, or even punish people who have that trait. I could accuse somebody of being two meters tall. However, this accusation has no weight unless there is a sense that the accused could have prevented being six inches tall, and people have good reason to promote (using condemnation) the desire to be two meters tall.

We can have unjust law (laws that good people cannot support), but we cannot have unjust morality. If a policy is unjust, it is immoral by definition.

The next task is to muster the evidence that shows that the accused meet the criteria specified in the moral accusation. "The accused said X. The accused believed X to be false. Let me present some evidence that shows that accused believed X to be false. The accused asserted X because he sought to obtain Y. We have evidence that the accused valued Y, and nothing better explains and predicts the accused’s behavior other than this desire for Y. The accused had no right to Y and could only acquire Y through from the victim’s consent. He used these knowingly false statements to engineer that consent. For these reasons we may conclude that the accused is, in fact, a liar."

Then I rest my case, asserting that I have demonstrated that I have given the readers proof beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused is guilty of the moral charges.

The accused has a right to a presumption of innocence. It is the duty of the accuser to prove his case. However, what the accuser is trying to prove in such a case in that a particular insult is legitimate – that the accused is deserving of condemnation, ridicule, and perhaps even punishment.

If the accused is shown to be a bigot then it is time to treat him as bigots should be treated. Otherwise you are allowing bigotry to go unchallenged – and that is not fair to the bigot’s victims. This is true in the same way that if he is a rapist then it is time to treat him as rapists should be treated. Otherwise you are allowing rape to go unchallenged.

If you decide to be polite to those who have been proved guilty of a moral crime, then you have decided to turn your back on those that people like the accused make worse off.

Obama vs. Cheney on Torture

President Obama and former Vice-President Cheney gave competing speeches on torture yesterday. In it, Cheney continued to offer the defense that torture saved lived. The idea is that through torture the CIA learned information that allowed them to spoil an attack that would have killed Americans.

However, his claim that torture saved lives is false.

First, by condoning and using torture, Cheney helped to remove the psychological barriers against torture. In exactly the same way that an administration that condoned and even encouraged the practice of having sex with children would increase the incidents of sex with children worldwide, an administration that condoned and encouraged the use of torture will lead to an increase in the number of tortures worldwide. Some of those tortures will result in death, and those deaths are deaths that Cheney and his friends caused.

Before we go further, we must also confront the claim that waterboarding and other 'harsh interrogation techniques' were not torture. Cheney's claim that Americans did not engage in torture has a lot in common with former president Bill Clinton’s claim that, "I did not have sex with that woman." Clinton, decided to redefine 'sex' to mean 'intercourse' and so his claim was true because he did not have intercourse with that woman (that we know of). Republicans rightfully ridiculed that defense (as did a lot of Democrats). However, Cheney is doing exactly the same thing when he asserts, "We did not torture those prisoners."

Actually, Cheney, yes, you did.

Here is a question I want somebody to ask Cheney at one of his speeches. "Mr. Vice-President. If a foreign government had captured American soldiers and waterboarded him repeatedly for information, would your Administration have been prepared to argue that those enemy agents are not guilty of torturing prisoners and consequently cannot be prosecuted for war crimes?"

Why does nobody ask these types of questions?

Another way that Cheney and the Bush Administration cost lives is by promoting an overall culture of abuse of prisoners. Torture is only possible in an institution that lowers the aversion to mistreating prisoners. The type of person who is capable of torturing prisoners or of standing by and doing nothing while others torture prisoners is the type of person who is more likely to abuse and mistreat prisoners himself. This need to weaken the aversion to mistreating prisoners then makes incidents such as Abu Graib more likely.

We have it on good authority that some abused prisoners died in American custody. It would be absurd to hold that all of them were guilty. These are lives that Cheney and his administration did not save.

Once again, we have to consider the effect of promoting a tolerance for the abuse of prisoners had outside of the American military. It no doubt encouraged and promoted the abuse of prisoners worldwide. We do not have any way to determine how many lives that will cost.

One of the effects of Abu Graib in specific, and news of the American maltreatment of prisoners in general, is to promote an overall hostility towards Americans. There can be little doubt that Abu Graib was a useful recruiting tool for those interested in doing harm to America. As a result of this scandal, we almost certainly had more people signing up to do harm to Americans, and firmed up the resolve of those who had already signed up.

We can reasonably expect that some of these people not only tried but succeeded in killing American soldiers. Those soldiers who were killed because Cheney made it easier for the enemy to recruit soldiers are lives that Cheney did not save. In fact, there are soldiers who would be alive today if not for Cheney’s culture of mistreating prisoners.

In this case, a Vice President more concerned with preventing the mistreatment of prisoners would have saved lives and would have helped to bring the war to a more successful conclusion more quickly.

This culture of prisoner mistreatment that Cheney promoted not only promoted enemy recruitment, it also cost America potential allies. In just the same way that it encouraged some to take up arms against America, it almost certainly pushed others from neutrality to hostility. Perhaps they contributed money to the opposition, or they encouraged (or at least became less likely to speak out against) anti-American actions they knew about. It likely pushed some people from alliance to neutrality, simply convincing them not to get involved whereas they would have otherwise cooperated with Americans.

In all of this, Cheney still continues to insist that the benefit came from the fact that the Administration learned some piece of information that prevented an attack. Yet, in all of this he neglects to consider the possibility that he promoted such hatred and hostility that there can well be a new attack being planned by people who otherwise would not have been motivated to attack America. Or the possibility that a person who learns of the attack will remain silent because they have lost sympathy for America and gained sympathy for the terrorists.

Cheney's actions only appear justified to the most myopic analysis – to the person who cannot look even a fraction of an inch beyond the most immediate links in the chains of cause of effect.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

10 Commandments Display in Oklahoma

There is a particular irony in proposals such as that recently passed in Oklahoma to display a 10 Commandments monument on capital grounds.

(See: The Oklahoman: Oklahoma state Capitol to display Ten Commandments)

Even though the monument declares that one should not bear false witness, and its proponents claim that it is important to teach this moral value to children, the plan itself is built on a foundation of lies, half-truth, and distortions.

I have heard the defense that the prohibition against bearing false witness merely says that perjury is wrong. However, are the proponents of this law actually going to retreat to the defense that lies and deception are acceptable when they are not made under oath? Or are they willing to admit to the moral truth that lies and deceptive manipulation of the truth is wrong at other times as well?

If they admit that bearing false witness generally is wrong, then they are going to have to come up with some way to square their behavior with this prohibition.

They tell us that the purpose of the monument is to "simply acknowledge" that "many of current laws can be traced to the 10 Commandments."

Yet, there is a very long list of things that many of current laws can be traced to – from the Code of Hammurabi to the principles of the pagan goddess Justitia to European monarchies. There has to be a reason why they selected this item among all of them, and that cannot be because it "simply" acknowledges our heritage, because that is not what makes the 10 Commandments different from the others.

The truth that the supporters of this legislation wish never to speak out loud is they want to put a billboard advertising their religion on the Capitol grounds. They want to have the government declare that, "Those who belong to this religion, more than any other, are Oklahoma’s truest and most noble citizens."

Anybody with a breath of honesty in their lungs knows this to be true. They know that the claim that this is "simply" to "acknowledge that heritage" is false. They know that these people bear this false testimony in order to get away with something that is both illegal and unethical.

It is no more legitimate for the legislature to put up a billboard for any particular religion on the public square than it would be for the government to put up a billboard for Wal-Mart or Exxon-Mobile. If they do choose to lease or to give away billboard space on government property, then the government’s duty to be impartial (because people have a right to EQUAL treatment under the law) gives them no right to accept one billboard and to refuse all others.

If the government does put up a billboard for Wal-Mart on the grounds of the Capitol, it has a duty to be prepared to offer as much and as good of an advertising space to competitors such as K-Mart and Target as well. If it wants to put up a billboard for the Judeo-Christian religions, it had better be prepared to put up billboards for the Muslims, Hindu, Wiccans, and Atheists as well.

When it comes to teaching the difference between right and wrong to our children, we have far more potent teaching tools available than the writings on walls. Our best tool is the force of our example.

Just as the rest of us know that the 10 Commandments is not being posted "simply" to "acknowledge that heritage", and that there are ulterior motives involved, children know this as well. Because they know it, they learn a valuable lesson in hypocrisy. They know that, in fact, the people who put the words there only want others to refrain from bearing false witness. Bearing false witness is an activity that the supporters of this legislation wish to reserve for themselves.

It is a lesson that we can fully expect these children to learn – that true virtue can be found in the manipulation and distortion of the truth whenever to get what one wants.

Or we can teach them that we respect truth and honesty, by admitting that this legislation in fact is not meant "simply" to "acknowledge that heritage" but is meant to put a religious billboard on government property and to imply that the official government position is that those who accept the religion advertised by the state are better than all other citizens.

This is what the advocates of this legislation want. And they are willing to distort and manipulate the truth on order to get it. And they are more than willing to have the next generation learn from their example.

Catholics and Abuse in Ireland

I would like you to pretend, for a moment, that you are an atheist.

Furthermore, I want you to pretend that a large atheist organization in another country . . . say, Ireland . . . had long ago set up a system of schools and orphanages. Then, imagine that a report has just come out saying that the people who ran those schools and orphanages engaged in a large amount of child abuse.

Now, I would like you to go to Planet Atheism and find blog postings that address a current report on a similar scandal involving Catholic schools and orphanages in Ireland. Imagine that they were, instead, written by theists in response to a report on the abuses found at these hypothetical atheist schools and orphanages.

I would like you to ask yourself how an intellectually respectable theist should cover news of such a report.

I would suggest that one of the rules the theist should follow is to make it clear that the abuses that these atheists may have engaged in imply nothing about the existence or non-existence of God. Nor does it allow anybody to infer anything about the moral character of those atheists who did not participate in this abuse.

It is perfectly compatible with the fact that these abuses occurred that there are other atheists in the world who abhor those abuses and are working to establish a different set of institutions where those types of abuses do not exist. You may want to assert that it is important that the people who created this report were also atheists for the most part trying to expose and end these abuses and reforming the organization that was responsible for them

It is a simple application of the maxim that one should do unto others as they would have others do unto them. The atheist should cover a report of this type of abuses in a religious institution (or of crimes committed by people who believe in God) in exactly the same way that they would have theists cover a similar report of crimes perpetrated by a group of atheists.

If you can cross out all references to religion, and substitute similar terms that would be applicable if the report was about atheists, and still be satisfied with the results, then one has engaged in a morally permissible form of reporting or blogging on this type of issue. However, if this substitution would result in a blog entry that would have been a morally outrageous slam against atheists, then we have reason to hold that the actual blog entry was a morally outrageous slam against theists.

One question we should seriously be asking at this point is, Why is it the case that we do not have reports of abuses at atheist schools and orphanages? Does this not show that atheists schools and orphanages are run by morally responsible individuals who simply do not engage in this type of behavior?

No. It is because there are no (or too few to mention) atheist schools and orphanages for abuses to take place in. Atheists do not even make the attempt to provide children with an education or to care for children who have lost their parents. Atheists leave these social tasks to the theists. They then complain when the theists engage in abuse, but they are not concerned enough to offer any kind of alternative.

The previous paragraph is not entirely fair. Atheists do support the education of children and care for those without parents (or whose parents were not fit to raise children). It does so mostly through the mechanism of the state, rather than setting up private charities.

Where atheists support private charities, they tend not to care whether those charities have an atheist logo. That is to say, they tend not to see helping others as a means of selling atheism. There is reason to wonder how much religious charity is motivated by genuine concern for others and how much is motivated by a desire to advertise to others – how much charity there would be if the charity was not also being used as a billboard for promoting the church.

Yet, this does not change the fact that there are very few free-thought orphanages and schools. There are very few schools that a parent can choose from where the teachers can freely discuss the philosophical arguments for and against the existence of God without state intervention. Where they can freely criticize creationism. Where they can promote skepticism about astrology, tarot cards, faith healing, and dozens of other superstitions. Where the students are not required to look at posters on the wall that say, "If you do not trust in God then you are not one of us," or have classmates daily pledge to view those who do not support "a nation under God" the way they pledge to view those who do not support rebellion union, liberty, and justice for all.

Why don’t such schools exist in numbers befitting the size of the free-thinking population?

If such schools were to come into existence, we can rest assured that those who would abuse children would likely seek to exploit those opportunities. Some schools will do a better job than others of protecting children, and news reports would start to surface of how abuse became rampant in some of those schools.

How would we want people to handle When those reports surfaced? What should theists say about this or that atheist school in which abuse and neglect became widespread? This tells us what atheists should be saying about theist schools in which abuse and neglect became widespread.

In the mean time, it is very easy to criticize where others try and fail when one does not try and thus has no opportunity to fail.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

More On Liberty

I am trying to suggest how to talk (or write) like a conservative without being either a half-wit or a self-serving demagogue.

The basic argument for liberty that John Stuart Mill put forth 150 years ago still stands.

One of the ways to best fulfill desires is to put decision-making in the hands of the person who has the most information the least possibility of corruption when it comes to fulfilling those desires. In my case, the most knowledgeable and least corruptible agent for making decisions as to what direction my life should go is me.

Every person acts so as to fulfill the most and strongest of their desires, given their beliefs.

If my life is given over to somebody else to make decisions for me, I can be assured that the agent is somebody who will act to fulfill the most and strongest of his desires, given his beliefs. It may be the case that he desires that which also tends to fulfill my desires. He may actually desire that which tends to fulfill my desires. However, that is not likely.

This agent – be he a government regulator or a politician, he is going to act so as to fulfill the most and strongest of his desires, given his beliefs. He is going to have his own desires – for sex, for particular past times, for foods, for social status. And he is going to act so as to fulfill the most and strongest of his desires given his beliefs. This means that he is going to direct my money and direct my living efforts to doing that which fulfills his desires, not my own – at least where his desires are the most and strongest.

Even if he were ideally concerned about my own welfare, he is not nearly as well informed about what those desires are as I am. He is going to make mistakes that I am far less likely to make. When it comes to deciding which movie to go to, I am willing to bet that nobody can do a better job than I at picking movies that I would like and avoiding movies that I would not like. When it comes to deciding what to eat, what to watch on television, and what to do in my spare time generally, I am the expert, and I am the one who should have the authority to make those decisions.

This does not mean that I do not need protection from those who would fulfill their own desires by doing me harm. However, it is perfectly consistent with a conservative ideology to be quite harsh on those who obtain benefits for themselves by doing harm to others. And I should be prohibited in my attempts to fulfill my own desires from doing so in ways that bring harm to others.

One of the ironies of the current political system is that the Republican Party, which ideologically has been thought of as part devoted to strict preservation of rights and stern responses to those who violate the rights of others, In reality, it has become the political front for those who are eager to gain power and wealth precisely by doing harm to others.

It should be the case that putting poison into the food and water of others is viewed as a crime in all conservative circles. Republicans seeking to avoid the charge of hypocrisy should be taking an extremely stern stand against those who use poison for economic or political gain.

Yet, the fact of the matter is that they have used their political power to remove barriers to using poison for personal or economic gain. They have fought against, rather than for, those laws that have said that poisoning others through air and water pollution is a crime. It has, in effect, fought to make poisoning others a legitimate business practice.

Philosophically, Republicans should be at the forefront of attacking companies that seek profits from poisoning others. It should have the same, harsh, ‘throw the book at them’ attitude towards those who poison for profit as it has towards murderers in general.

The fact that Republicans are not taking a stand against those who poison for profit shows the effects of the Republicans becoming the party of half-wits and self-serving demagogues. The principles that the Republican Party are supposed to stand for have become merely a smoke screen – the smoke and mirrors behind which people do the opposite of what they say should be done and hides their hypocrisy in pure rhetoric

The two major arguments on liberty are still valid 150 years after JS Mill proposed them. Each of us is the most knowledgable person to ask regarding what serves our interests. Each of us is the least corruptible agent when it comes to actually doing what fulfills the most and strongest of our own desires.

There is still good reason to argue for governments that are structured in such a way that its primary function is to allow individuals to apply their superior knowledge and superior incorruptibility to living their own lives.

When governments run lives, there are definite problems to consider.

Government: Problem or Solution

I should name this series, "How to be a conservative without being a half-wit or self-serving demagogue?"

Once upon a time, conservatives had a set of legitimate concerns about the nature of government and of individual moral responsibility. Then, it became overrun by a group of people for whom 'evidence' is a four-letter word. It handed its party microphone over to those who were better at rationalization (embracing fallacies and fiction that supported a desired conclusion) over reason.

But it is still possible to express legitimate concerns in the realm that was once called 'conservative'.

One member of the studio audience wrote to say:

You can find the seeds of the GOP's destruction with Ronald Reagan, and his proclamation in the 1981 Inaugural Address: Government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem.

Yet, there is reason to hold that this view is not without merit.

It sounds like a great idea to have a government drug prescription program. However, in the real world, is it really possible to have a drug prescription program that is not written by the drug companies? What starts out in theory as a way to help people who cannot well afford it get the prescription drugs they need ultimately (and inevitably) becomes a program to transfer wealth from society at large to the drug companies – with a little bit going to those in need for the sake of maintaining appearances.

Is it possible to have an energy bill without having it written by the energy companies? In theory, the Department of Energy exists to help to form and implement an energy policy. However, an energy company executive will immediately note that it has the power (and the incentive) to manipulate these policies to channel money from the public at large into its pocket. Again, it needs to produce enough apparent benefit to give the appearance of doing something useful. Every once in a while it needs to publicly slap an oil company’s hand. However, one public hand-slapping can cover hundreds of ‘regulations’ written by oil companies to make its executives wealthier at our expense.

There is an economic problem known as the problem of concentrated benefits and diverse costs.

Let us say that there is a policy proposal that will take $1 from each person in the country, and give $150 million to one person. None of us has any incentive to grumble about this proposal. It’s not even going to make the news. You and I are never going to hear about it.

However, the person who stands to gain $150 million from the proposal will hear about it. In hearing about it, he has an incentive to invest a significant amount of effort into making sure that this proposal is adopted.

He can hire a couple of lobbyists – people who are friends of those responsible for deciding these regulations. People listen to your friends so, if I can get your friends on my side, I have a good chance of influencing you to do what I want.

He can give a few million dollars to a PR firm to design a PR campaign that will help feed the proposal. Again, that PR campaign will not be directed at the general public. It will be designed at getting favorable articles into the professional publications read by those who will have input on these regulations. It will be used to get speakers to the relevant conferences and advertisements into the relevant periodicals and web sites.

If our investor puts $50 million into this campaign, he ends up with a $100 million profit.

Government regulations and departmental budgets are filled with these types of programs – wealth transfer programs that cost each of us a few dimes or a few dollars, that get in 'under the radar', that transfer tens to hundreds of millions of dollars to those who do not need the money. It’s ‘welfare for the rich’, carefully crafted and carefully concealed by people who can afford to hire experts in the game of carful crafting and concealment.

We cannot defend ourselves from every little theft. We simply do not have the resources to tackle these wealth transfer schemes one at a time. The most effective way to do this is to battle these schemes on a wide front – to adopt policies and principles that block huge numbers of these schemes at once. The best way to fight this encroachment is to simply not give government agencies (or legislators) the power to pass these projects. Then, it will not pay these individuals to lobby for them, and we will not suffer the wealth transfer involved in schemes designed to take from the poor and middle class and give to the rich.

The government is not our friend.

The government is the friend of those who have the resources to manipulate and distort its function to their benefit. The better they are at manipulating the government to serve their interests, the wealthier and more powerful they become. The wealthier and more powerful they become, the more resources they have to manipulate the government to their benefit, the wealthier and more powerful they become.

The likelihood that the government will work for you rather than be worked by somebody else for them and against you is proportional to the amount of resources that you have available (and are willing to spend) in manipulating the government.

Yes, it is worthwhile to help the poor and the needy, to provide medical care for the ill and a decent living for the elderly. However, to think that the government can perform these functions efficiently – without its powers being exploited to channel money to those with the power to manipulate the system (with mere symbolic trickles going to those for whom the help was intended) is na├»ve.

So you think it is possible to have a financial bailout program that is NOT written by the financial industry? Look at the list of people who kept their jobs, kept their homes, and kept sufficient money in savings to live comfortably on. Compare that list to the list of people who lost their jobs, lost their homes, and lost their retirement.

Then compare both lists to the lists of those who manipulated us into this mess by manipulating the regulatory process to their advantage, and the list of those made worse off by that same manipulation of the regulatory process.

There is still a good case to be made that the government (and the ability of those with wealth and power to manipulate the nuances of legislation and regulation) is more of a cause of our problems than a solution.

My wish, at this point, is that we had a group of people capable of debating these points who were not half-wits and self-serving demagogues – people of academic and intellectual integrity with a serious interest in looking at these issues with an eye to how to make people generally better off than they would otherwise be. The types of people who appear no longer to be welcome inside the Republican Party.

In fact, and quite ironically, the Republican Party with its devotion to the principles of rationalization, dishonesty, and self-serving manipulation, ultimately allowed itself to become the principle agent for these types of manipulations.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Cancer and Conservative Sexual Morality

Cancer is a sexually transmitted disease.

Well, not entirely, but much, and perhaps most cancer, it seems, is a symptom of sexually transmitted disease.

We know this is true of cervical cancer. We even have a vaccine against the virus that leads to (the vast majority of cases) of cervical cancer.

But not just cervical cancer. The same virus that causes cervical cancer is also suspect to being responsible for many cases of throat and stomach cancer (through oral sex), and some cases of breast cancer.

What happens is that a virus enters a healthy cell. This is a virus that has found a way to divide by causing the cell it infects to divide and to then divide with the host cell. It does this by altering the genes of the cell it infects to create a string of mutations that lead to unrestrained cell division – thus, to cancer.

I learned about these facts in watching an episode of a series of lectures from Stanford University on Darwin's Legacy. (See: Darwin's Legacy: Lecture 8.

One of the speakers was Dr. Paul Ewald. He argued in his presentation that 20% of known cancers are caused by sexually transmitted viruses. Much (most? all?) of the remaining 80% are also caused by viruses – we simply do not know yet. We have no better explanation as to how a cell can undergo the specific set of changes responsible for becoming a cancer without undergoing other changes that would be fatal (though lung cancer from cigarette cancer and radiation-induced cancers suggest it is possible).

Still, we have reason to believe that many if not most people who get cancer has acquired a sexually transmitted disease that has the capacity to mutate cells to bring about unrestrained replication.

I wrote in my last post that it is possible to make a conservative argument without being either a half-wit or a self-serving demagogue. This fact about cancer (added to facts about other sexually transmitted diseases) suggests a line of reasoning that can be used to defend a conservative position on issues of sexual morality.

One of the ways to prevent the spread of a disease is to cause people to have an aversion to those activities that lead to the spread of the disease. We use our tools of praise and condemnation to get people to wash their hands and to take other precautions to prevent the spread of the disease. If there are activities going on in society that lead to the spread of those diseases, the government steps in. It closes schools and mass transit systems, closes the bath houses in San Francisco. It requires that certain health standards be met and closes down any business that is conducted in a way that contributes to the spread of the disease.

The worse the disease, the stronger the steps that are taken, both in terms of government action and in terms of moral condemnation, to inhibit behavior that leads to the spread of the disease.

One class of behavior that contributes to the spread of some of worst diseases is sexual behavior. The cancer research above tells us that it contributes to the spread of even more and more dangerous diseases than we thought. So, it follows that there is legitimate reason to use moral condemnation and legal sanction against activities that tend to promote the spread of disease. This would include prostitution, pornography, adultery, and promiscuity.

The sexual drive is a primal drive – there is no chance that we can eliminate it. However, we can mold it by encasing it in a larger web of desires that can affect how people act on their sexual desires. If we hold monogamous lifelong relationships up to be the ideal – praising those who enter into those relationships and condemning those who do not – then one effect of this will be to do a better job of containing the spread of sexually transmitted diseases including cancer.

On this matter, it is possible to criticize liberal views and the types of activities that liberals tend to allow for sending a mixed message to children. If children heard a consistent message of condemnation of prostitution, pornography, adultery, and promiscuity, then they would adopt stronger aversions to it. Every time a child encounters a message of moral acceptance for these activities, he acquires less of an aversion. This means a greater chance of engaging in these types of activities and a greater chance of contributing to the health problems that arise from these activities.

I do not know how far it is possible to carry this argument. However, it is not relevant to the point that I make here. I would like to hear competent and honest conservatives advance this argument as a way of contributing to the public debate. There is a position here that ought not to be ignored. Even if it is wrong, it is not obviously wrong. It is not a view of half-wits and self-promoting demagogues.

However, modern-day Republicans have shown such a massive disregard for truth, honest, and intellectual integrity that they have simply destroyed their credibility. They no longer have the ability to carry these arguments very far because their tolerance of everything from outright deception to torture shows that they do not have enough moral character to be trusted.

The result is that we are not debating issues that actually deserve some serious social debate.

The Decline of the Republican Party

I am not opposed to a two-party system. In fact, I consider rule by a single party – without an ‘honorable opposition’ to be extremely dangerous. Scientists have a peer-review process to review submissions. Courts have their own adversarial system. Even the Catholic Church knew the value of a ‘devil’s advocate’.

The American people would be well served to have the policies proposed by those in power given a careful review by a group of intelligent and well-meaning individuals who happen not to share the particular prejudices of those in power. These reviewers can perform the service of having those in power give some second thoughts to the policies they enact.

But this service is best performed by what I called intelligent and well-meaning people.

The Republican Party has turned itself into a haven for half-wits, liars, and sophists. It is made up of Republicans like George Bush who is simply too stupid to understand the world in which he lived and who stumbled around the White House like a two-year-old in an exhibit of priceless Chinese artifacts. And it is made up of Republicans like Rush Limbaugh who has absolutely no respect for truth or intellectual integrity, or former Vice President Dick Cheney, who appears to have no moral conscience whatsoever.

Ultimately, the blame rests on the rank-and-file Republicans who have made these people the spokesmen for their party.

There have been a number of news stories recently about Republican attempts to rebuild the party. One faction in this dispute are named ‘big tent’ Republicans who think that Republicans need to broaden their appeal and bring in more people that dogmatic Republicans tend to alienate. It means softening their stand on certain core principles.

These are opposed by the Republican Purists who think that the problem with the Republican Party is that it lost its way. Even though they are party of small government and individual responsibility, they ended up supporting a vast increase in government power and government expenditure.

As I see it, neither option reflects the true problem with the Republican Party. This is the fact that its members have no respect for truth or intellectual integrity.

We can start with the issues of evolution and global warming. We are talking hard science, here, and the scientific facts are in. People who want to deny these facts have to accept greater and greater absurdities. They have to shut their mind to evidence about what the real world is like. To the degree that they are desperate to blind themselves to truths they do not want to see, to that degree they make themselves poor guides of a free people into whatever future is before us.

A leader – or a leading party - must have a respect for the evidence and be willing to follow where the evidence leads.

The main reason why the Bush Administration was such a spectacular failure is because it had absolutely no respect for evidence. Instead of looking at the evidence and drawing the best conclusions, they first adopted a set of conclusions and looked for the evidence to support it. Even if they had to torture people to get them to ‘confess’ to what the Administration knew to be true, the way Inquisitors in the medieval times would get witches and heretics to ‘confess’ to whatever the Inquisitor wanted to hear.

It even went so far as to rewrite scientific publications and manipulate scientific research based on the philosophy that, “If I believe X, then the research must show that X is true.”

The Republicans need to find new leaders. It needs leaders who are honest and who demands honesty from others, even their supporters. It needs leaders who have respect for the evidence and who will adopt a position because the evidence suggests that it is true, rather than adopting evidence because it supports a belief he has already adopted.

Such a leader will have to be somebody who accepts that the earth is round and not flat, that mental illness is a disease and not a sign of demonic possession, that human sacrifice will do nothing to appease the god of volcanoes, earthquakes, hurricanes, or terrorist attacks. It will have to be a leader who can accept the simple scientific fact that the Earth is 4.5 billion years old, that over that time life evolved from simple organisms to what we see today. It will have to be a leader who can understand the simple scientific fact that CO2 is transparent to visible light and opaque to infrared radiation and will warm the planet to the degree that we add CO2 to the atmosphere.

If a leader is willing to entertain fantasies when it comes to the hard sciences, we have absolutely no reason to respect his knowledge and understanding of the softer sciences such a economics or moral philosophy. If he is willing to ignore and disregard the hard data where hard data is available, and lie (and torture ‘confessions’ out of people) when it serves a political end, then he is not going to have tight enough grasp of reality to pilot a nation through real-world dangers.

I want to write a series of articles written from a conservative perspective that show that a person does not need to be either a half-wit or a self-serving demagogue to express legitimate conservative concerns. In doing so, I am not going to say anything that I do not believe has merit. There are real issues out there that should be debated. As long as the Republican party is the party of half-wits and self-serving demagogues, there are serious concerns that have no respectable voice to defend them.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Final Frontier 10: The Virtue of Exploration

There is no project that a person can devote themselves to that is as important to the actual survival of the human race – and, with it, the fulfillment of a great many human desires – than the development and settlement of space resources.

In this series of posts I argued that it would be useful to give people an idea of what that future might actually be like, and to explain some of the differences between what people might expect and what will actually happen. I have written that the asteroids contain enough material to build 600 billion space cities, each with a surface area of 25 square kilometers (5 kilometers by 5 kilometers)

The day will come when none of our descendents will be alive except those who have gotten off of this rock and moved into a community in space. If there are not enough people living in space at that time to sustain the human race, then we will have become yet another extinct race.

It is quite likely that the universe is filled with communities that failed to move fast enough. at that will bet is quite likely that some civilizations that have existed waited too long. Their existence is now only marked by whatever relics survive them – probes that have gone out into space themselves, while the forces of nature destroyed what left of the that civilization built on the planet.

We may discover some relics of such a civilization some day – a planet with a set of communication satellites still in orbit and a few probes littering the surface of the nearest neighbors in its solar system. Or some other race of beings may discover such relics here.

Preventing human extinction qualifies as a public good. Assume Person A and Person B both have a desire that the human race continue to exist. Creating a universe in those desires are fulfilled will require, let us say, 10 units of effort. However, both A and B have reason to hope that the other puts in the effort so that they can have that desire fulfilled and yet also save their effort to fulfill other desires.

We end up with human beings playing a game of chicken with the survival of the human race, each holding off acting, hoping that others act first, with the constant risk that nobody will act until it is too late for their actions to do any good.

Public goods problems are best solved by community action – by supporting a policy in which people agree for everybody to put some effort into this common good. It is an area where there is good reason to argue for government policies that move humanity in the right direction. By helping to ensure that each person contributes a reasonable share, it helps to make sure that these projects are not underfunded.

Of course, this requires a public that knows and understands what the right direction is.

People who think that we live in a universe where a benevolent God is watching out for us and has no intention of seeing humanity harms, or another type of God who plans to destroy the world so that there is no long-term future to protect, put the future of humanity at risk. They are people who will discover too late that they were wrong.

‘Too late’ in this context has some very bad implications.

There is good reason to bring the social forces of condemnation and criticism to bear against these people. We have a great deal to lose if we do not.

Allow me to add that it is not 'intolerance' to criticize views that one disagrees with. 'Intolerance' in its morally significant sense means bringing violence to bear against those who present ideas that one disagrees with. It does not apply to bringing facts or reason to bear against those ideas. Those who wield the label of 'intolerant' against those who use words instead of guns to argue their position are typically people desperate to protect ideas that truth and reason cannot defend.

Finally, and what is particularly relevant to this blog, is the value of establishing and maintaining a spirit of exploration and adventure. Curiosity and the desire to explore (and build) strange new worlds are qualities that deserve our praise. We have reason to teach our children to view explorers as heroes – at least insofar as they were explorers (without pretending that any other character flaws they might have had were not flaws).

We have reason to honor the explorers and to hold them up as role models for our children. In the end, our very survival depends on their courage, curiosity, and willingness to challenge themselves.

Final Frontier 9: Asteroids vs. The Moon

There are over 600 known asteroids that are closer to the Earth than the Moon is.

Admittedly, that statement depends on a play on words. In terms of physical distance (kilometers), that statement is false.

However, there is another measure of distance in space known as "delta-v". It’sliteral meaning is "change in velocity" – the amount of speed that one must either add to or take away from one object in space in order to get it to rendezvous with another object in space. It represents how long and how hard (and how much fuel must be used) in order to get two things to meet up.

What we are interested in here is the delta-v between a clump of material that can be used for building and the construction site in Earth orbit. I have written about building three industrial sites in geosynchronous orbit. However, I have not said anything about how we are going to get the material to these places in order to do the constructing.

We certainly are not going to be using local materials. Local materials in geosynchronous orbit are relatively scarce. We are going to have to import our material from someplace else.

Importing building materials is no great threat to construction. With very few exceptions, every building that you see as you look around was made from materials that were imported from someplace else – wood from a distant forest, concrete and stone from a quarry, and aluminum and copper from mines. Importing material to a point in space so that it can be used in construction is, in itself, a rather common idea.

It is still the case that we will want to keep construction costs down. So, there is an economic incentive to look for the cheapest material to transport.

The Moon has two disadvantages.

First, it is at the bottom of a gravity well. This is reflected by the delta-v that is required to get something from the moon into space. Even at one-sixth gravity, it requires a lot of heavy lifting.

On the other hand, lifting material from an asteroid would involve very little lifting at all. Just a slight nudge, and it will start to drift away from the asteroid. Simply build some spring-loaded legs that will cause the miner to leap away from the asteroid when it is full of material, and the bucket ship will drift away. Toss some of the material it collected back at the asteroid at a high enough velocity and it will start to drift into an orbit where it will rendezvous with earth.

Another advantage that asteroids have is that many of them are not even solid. These asteroids are made up of piles of sand and gravel all embraced in a group hug – like pouring a bag full of pellets into a bowl. Mining the asteroid consists only of picking up some of this gravel and sand and putting it in a bucket. When ready, the bucket will head on back to Earth to deliver its load at the refining station in geosynchronous orbit.

I mentioned that geosynchronous orbit could become the location for industry in space. Recall that three stations could handle all of the work being done by communication and earth monitoring satellites that currently exist. Also recall that geosynchronous orbit will not require as much expense to keep the satellite’s orbit from decaying. It would be a good place for a solar power station, which means a good place with enough energy to melt and refine the materials that come from the asteroids.

That material then can go into building the power plant, building the refining station, and eventually building larger space stations capable of holding hundreds, then thousands, then tens of thousands of people.

Another issue that will likely turn out to be significant is that, in space, people can 'choose their gravity level'. I have spoken about a rotating baton in space. It has a module on each end and a tube connecting it, and it twirls in space like a baton.

The length of the tunnel, the distance from the center, and the speed of rotation all determine the level of gravity being approximated. The inhabitants can effectively 'dial up' the level of gravity that suits their needs the best. They can even make individual choices to live or work at 'levels' between the tube and the modules at the ends of these twirling batons.

On the moon (and on Mars) an inhabitant only has the gravity that nature provides – 1/6th or 1/3rd Earth gravity respectively. If there are health risks or other costs associated with this level of gravity, the inhabitants are still stuck with it, just as we on Earth are stuck with living at normal Earth gravity.

So, there is reason to suspect that our attention should not be so solidly fixed on the moon. We should, instead, be looking at the 600+ asteroids that are “closer” than the moon – in terms of delta-v. These bodies are so small we can set a space baton next to it and give the miners all of the luxuries of dial-up simulated gravity, while scooping up the material that can then be turned into space cities.

Each asteroid itself would become its own city. It would take centuries to harvest the material in even one asteroid with a radius of 1 kilometer. This is more than enough time to build a space city right next to the asteroid, made largely out of asteroid materials. Hopefully, its founders will have the insight to ask the question, “What do we do when the rock is gone?” But even here, as on Earth, there are countless possibilities. The future, in space, is wide open.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Final Frontier 8: Geosynchronous Orbit

With the Hubble Repair Mission flying this week, the Kepler Observatory beginning its data collection to find earth-like planets around other stars, and the rebirth of Star Trek, I am spending the week discussing my own vision of the future – a future that will require the development of space.

I have described transportation to low-earth orbit, some of the concerns of both physics and economics that will govern what that low-earth station is like, and some of the physics of space flight that are at odds with our earth-based intuitions. Next, I move out to geosynchronous orbit.

Four crewed communications centers in geosynchronous orbit can do all of the work currently being done by all of the communication and earth-monitoring (e.g., weather) satellites currently in Earth orbit. Well, actually, it can be done with three, but four makes things a little easier.

This would have a number of economic advantages. The first of these is that the equipment can be monitored, maintained, and upgraded. There currently is no way to maintain, repair, or upgrade a current communications satellite. Once it launches it is on its own. If it breaks, it is broken. If new technology comes along that would upgrade performance, the only option is to launch another satellite.

There are a number of forces acting on a satellite that push and pull it out of position. Satellites require fuel for station-keeping. Once the fuel runs out, the satellite starts to drift out of geosynchronous orbit.

These problems cease to exist if the communications equipment is placed on a station in geosynchronous orbit, with a crew who can maintain, repair, and upgrade that equipment.

There is a problem in that the closer two receiving antennae are, the more important it is that different broadcast antennae use different frequencies. It may be necessary to move some communications equipment away from the station – either ahead of the station or behind it in the same geosynchronous orbit. Yet, even here, there would be an improved ability to bring the satellite into the crewed station for repair and refit.

This might also be the best place to build solar-power satellites – huge stations for capturing the sun’s power and converting it into energy (which, itself, can be beamed to other stations or down to Earth). These would be massive constructions, with acres upon acres of sunlight-collecting potential.

Each geosynchronous station will need to have its own space baton – a long tunnel with a module at each end that spins in space like a twirling baton. People will be able to (required to) work and exercise on the modules at the end of the baton to prevent muscle and bone decay in an environment that simulates Earth's gravity.

However, there would be no need to worry about major (and expensive) maneuvers to re-boost the station back to a higher orbit. The station will drift over time, but this drift can be taken care of with less significant efforts.

On the other hand, the inhabitants of this station will need something that people in low earth orbit would not need – a massive shelter to protect its citizens from the radiation of a solar flare. The earth's magnetic field protects its inhabitants (us) from the harmful effects of intense radiation of a solar flare. Anything in low earth orbit is close enough to share in that protection. However, it would not protect anything in geosynchronous orbit.

Whenever a solar flare releases its energy in the direction of the Earth, the inhabitants of space stations far away from earth will need to get behind some heavy shielding. There will not be a mad scramble to do this – there will be plenty of warning. But it will have to be done, meaning that the massive shelter must be ready for them to occupy.

If this massive shelter is built at the end of a space baton (giving the occupants both simulated gravity and radiation protection), its mass will want to pull the baton apart. Try twirling a bowling ball at the end of a rope around your head. Consequently, the shelter may be built in a weightless zone. The occupants can have simulated gravity or radiation protection but not both at the same time.

Because these orbits are economically useful, and because objects in geosynchronous orbit do not suffer nearly as much decay as objects in lower orbits, this may well be where much of the heavy space construction takes place. Whereas the low-earth-orbit station serves as the port for our growing space civilization, geosynchronous orbit may well be the place for heavy industry.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Final Frontier 7: Space Flight

I am writing a series of posts on the virtue of moving into the final frontier. To call this a virtue, in desire utilitarian terms, means that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote a love of developing space. This, in turn, means that such a sentiment would tend to fulfill many and strong desires. A lot of those desires are built into the survival of humanity – the desire for the well-being of one’s descendents, a type of immorality by being a member of a community that lives on, etc.

I have also sought to describe this community. It is different from what we tend to see in science fiction. Teaching children to love the exploration an development of space should begin with a healthy respect for the facts regarding what that life would be back.

I got an imaginary character from the ground in Los Angeles to a space station in low earth orbit. However, our character has a job further up in space, managing a satellite repair business for satellites that are in geosynchronous orbit.

There is another economic reason why we build our “port station” on an equatorial orbit. All geosynchronous satellites are in equal orbits. A craft carrying people from the low earth orbit station to the satellite maintenance station will not have to spend fuel changing directions.

It takes a lot of energy to change directions in space. This is one of the odd things that people in space would have to get used to and which we never see depicted in movies and television.

You are travelling at 17,500 miles per hour in space. How much energy does it take to make a 90 degree turn?

Answer: It takes twice as much energy as it would have taken to go from a dead stop to 17,500 miles per hour – or approximately twice as much energy as it took to launch the object into orbit to start with.

Why?

Well, first, in order to turn 90 degrees to the right you have to stop going forward. Going from 17,500 miles per hour to a dead stop takes just as much energy as going from a dead stop to 17,500 miles per hour.

Now, to move at 17,500 to the right you have to go from a dead stop to 17,500 miles per hour.

Combined, these two maneuvers take twice as much energy as it took to get to 17,500 miles per hour to start with.

These movie and television scenes that you see of space ships fighting like atmospheric fighters – that will not happen in space. It takes way too much energy.

It works in the atmosphere because the air itself creates forces on the airplane other than the thrust of the engines. Air flowing over the wings creates lift – a force that is perpendicular to the direction of travel. The air itself provides friction – which provides drag. These two factors combined help to slow down a craft and to change the direction of travel. Space ships do not have lift or friction. They only have the thrust of their engines (and their maneuvering engines).

The most common mode of travel in space If you keep your foot on the accelerator, you will continue to accelerate. Once you reach the speed you like you must then take your foot off of the accelerator and coast. If you want to stop, taking your foot off of the accelerator is not good enough. You have to put as much energy into stopping as you put into going.

Space movies like to show a spaceship’s engines burning constantly in order to maintain velocity. This is what we are familiar with on earth where friction and drag work to constantly slow things unless energy is provided to overcome these forces. Space travel is different. In space, you fire the engines for a few minutes until you are heading in the right direction at the right speed. The rest of the time is spent simply coasting – until you need to slow down. Then the engines are fired in the opposite direction to slow down.

Another difference between space travel and earth travel is that earth travel is all done against the mass of the earth. When you jump into the air, you move away from the earth at a particular velocity and direction. Your action produces an equal and opposite reaction in the earth. However, given the differences in mass, there is no perceptible (or even measurable) change in the velocity of the earth.

In space, all of your actions are conducted against entities that have significantly less mess, and will have a measurable effect that must constantly be considered.

I have already mentioned how a space station’s orbit will decay and that it will need an occasional boost. We can also expect that, from time to time, ships will depart the station in order to return to Earth. It is possible to engineer a system that accomplishes both of these ends at the same time without expending any fuel (or mass) in the process.

You put the ship that will be returning to Earth on a long catapult – like the type that launches jets from an aircraft carrier only longer and less brutal. Then, you throw the earth return vehicle out of the back end of the space station. The effect will be to give the earth return vehicle a slower velocity (relative to the earth), causing it to fall to the earth and enter the atmosphere. At the same time, this will produce an equal and opposite reaction of pushing the station itself to a higher orbit.

This is a constructive use of these principles of physics. However, these points come with a word of warning as well. Every ship that docks or leaves, every movement of people and objects inside the station, has an effect on the whole station. It would be risky to forget this fact and to think that things will work in space as they worked on earth. People will need to change their expectations. In some cases, their very survival will depend on this.

Final Frontier 6: Low Earth Orbit Economics

I am arguing this week that human survival requires the development of space, and that a love of adventure in and exploration of are virtues that we have many and strong reasons to promote. Without them, the human race itself is at risk.

As a part of this, I am offering some descriptions of what life in space will be like. We already know that it will be different than what most people imagine. It makes little sense to inspire a younger generation to reach for the stars if we do not give them a somewhat accurate idea of what they are reaching for. In fact, false expectations could well be counter-productive, leading to disappointment and disillusionment.

In the last two posts I have gotten a character into space and onto an orbiting space station. I have offered some description on what the laws of physics will demand from us in building this station. However, the laws of economics will be just as important as the laws of physics. Businesses will become concerned with costs.

Space farers will soon adopt the policy that, "What goes up must stay up." It takes a lot of energy to accelerate a given unit of mass to speeds above 17,000 miles per hour. And heat shields and rockets have a lot of mass. Once you have put all that energy into getting this material on the 'top shelf' (in orbit) there is good reason to want to keep it there.

For example, one of the things our main character will likely see is that the ship that brought her into space is not going back to Earth. It was built to stay in space, where one of three things will happen to it.

1. It will become a passenger craft for ferrying people around in space. Our low-earth-orbit station may be the only facility in its general area, but it will not be the only facility in space. After all, our main character still needs to get to her final destination – a station in low earth orbit.

2. It will become a module on an existing space station - living space or storage space or a new laboratory. These ships will be designed to be easily converted by removing the seats and installing equipment relevant to its new use.

3. It will become mothballed and stored in high orbit, It will stay there (indefinitely) until used.

We cannot leave things in orbit now because residual fuels become unstable and explode, contributing to the already dangerous cloud of orbiting space junk Our low-orbiting space station will have a crew that will enable us to stop that wasteful practice.

The biggest demand for return trips will come from tourists. Naturally, people who pay to come to the station for a week of rest and relaxation will want to return home when the week is done. There will still be a demand for return trips. However, this does not change the fact that, wherever possible, three are good economic reasons to kaap what has been sent into space in space.

Our station will almost certainly have a couple of pods devoted to agriculture – the growing of fresh fruits and vegetables. These can be raised in controlled environment free of pests and with permanent access to sunshine so that a plot of land can be used year-round. A couple of these pods devoted to farming will produce a lot of food all year round.

Agriculture will be part of a recycling process whereby the pod produces food which is used to feed the people, whose waste products are returned to the agricultural pod to grow the next crop of vegetables. It will also turn exhaled carbon dioxide into oxygen, and be used as a part of the process for recycling water.

One thing that we already know about a space society is that it will not be a “disposable” society. There will be a huge economic incentive for recycling technology. That technology, used and developed in space, could be of tremendous value to the people living on earth as well.

The cheapest commodity to import to and export from a space station is, of course, information – little bits of data that can be packaged up and sent either up or down with very little energy. This will give data streams a significant comparative advantage over material goods. There will be no difficulty importing music, broadcast entertainment, software, or instructions into orbit.

As a result, people who can make a living on the manipulation of data can live in space. Writers, stock brokers, lawyers, graphic artists, game designers and programmers, many business executives, can all find a home in space and stay there, making money the whole time. Data-manipulators will likely be a disproportionately large percentage of the community, and are the types of people who can make a permanent home for themselves in space.

Another commodity that the space station can provide is a safer way to research communicable diseases. Currently, we store batches of some of the most potentially fatal diseases on Earth to study. There are a number of safeguards to prevent these diseases from escaping into the population. A few more safeguards would not hurt. An isolated station in space may provide just such a safeguard.

Of course, there will be the engineers and maintenance crews, the ‘farmers’ and others who will work to keep the place functioning smoothly and growing the station.