Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Conservative Philosophy

In a book that I am reading while I am on vacation, I came across a statement that was meant to summarize a conservative philosophy. I found it a useful statement because, in it, I could clearly identify two problems with that philosophy.

The sentence read, "You need a free, open, and competitive market place, property rights, a relatively stable legal system, minimal regulations, all underlain by a basic morality (religion)."

The quote came from the article, "History and Frontiers -- What Works and What Doesn't,' by Alex Gimere, in RETURN TO THE MOON edited by Rick N. Tumlinson with Erin R. Medlicott (Apogee Books, 2005).

The Role of Religion

The first question that came to my mind as I read this quote is, "What would you get if you simply scratched the phrase, "all underlain by a basic morality (religion)"?

Such a statement would not be anti-morality. Instead, my claim is that what remains of the original statement after eliminating this sentence is a basic morality. It refers to a moral system of free, open, and competitive market place, property rights, a stable legal system, and minimal regulations. It tells people that they ought to behave in a way that establishes or maintains these institutions. That which threatens these institutions is bad; that which establishes or preserves them is good.

Since this part of the statement already gives us a basic morality, we may ask what this trailing phrase actually contributes, if anything? I am particularly interested in the religion aspect, given the claims by so many (which is hinted at in this quote) that "religion" is simply another way to spell "morality" such that those who do not have the former cannot possess the latter.

It allows us to see that morality(religion) can be fit into one of three categories.

(1) Morality(religion) is redundant. Since the first part of the sentence already gives us a basic morality, tacking on the phrase "all underlain by a basic morality (religion)" simply repeats what has already been said. It makes the original phrase similar to saying, "A fruit bowl must contain apples, pears, bananas, grapes, oranges, all underlain by a selection of assorted fruit."

(2) Morality(religion) conflics with the rest of the statement. The second questin that came to my mind in reading the original quote was, "What about the cases where religion contradicts with the rest of the items on the list?" For example, what if the underlaying religions involve two people worshipping different gods where each believes their god gave them ownership of a particular tract of land? We then have a conflict over proprety rights. Similar problems arise if this underlaying morality calls upon its followers to attack and kill (or at least discriminate against) those who do not share their beliefs. Or we could have a religion that asserts that women and blacks are themselves property and that they have no rights of their own. In this case, by tacking on a claim about morality(religion) -- one that is not redundant with what has already been included -- Gimare is setting up a potentially violent contradiction between two incompatible moral systems.

(3) Morality(religion) is superfluous. Here, I am talking about the moral rules associated with a particular religiion that does not have a significant social consequence. it includes such things are religious dietary restrictions (do not eat Pork, do not eat during daylight during Ramadan, eat fish on Fridays) or worship requirements (pray 5 times each day, always keep your head covered, baptism). One set of restrictions are as good as any other, and there is no need for any restrictions at all of this type. It simply is not true that a free society requires people to eat fish on Fridays or keep their head covered. To include some set of superfluous rules as something that a free society needs is simply false.

This, then, describes the three possible relationships between morality and religion. Religion is redundant. Religion contradicts morality. Religion adds socially trivial personal regulations to the social regulations of morality.

Property Rights and Regulation

A second ambiguity in Gimare's original summary of the free market position concerns the relationship between "property rights" and "minimal regulation."

The short objection to including both of these in the same statement is that property rights ARE regulations.

The concept of "property rights" refers to a set of government-backed limits on what individuals may and may not do with their property and the procedures to go through in transferring property from one person to another. It employes a set of definitions and regulations whereby the government distinguishes a legitimate transfer of property (the buying and selling of property by people who have given mutual consent) from theft or robberty (transferring property without consent).

If we look closely, we can see that certain political factions play on a pun beteen these two concepts to argue for a political system where they are free to do harm to the life, health, liberty, and property of others in the name of "minimal reglation", while they restrict others from doing them harm in the name of "property rights"

We can see this in a set of regulations that those who claim to be concerned with property rights often complain about -- environmental regulations. Technically, a system of property rights prohibits individuals from using their property in ways that damage the life, health, liberty, and property of others. Many environmental regulations cover instances in which it is determined that certain uses of one's property damage the life, health, liberty, and property of others. Some activities produce global warming, which exposes others to the threat of heat stress, diseases moving into areas which were once too cold for them, property loss due to sea-level rise and more destructive storms, and crop failure due to climate change. Other forms of regulation seek to reduce the harms caused by acid rain, particulate matter, or chemicals known to cause damage to others.

We can see this pattern as well in the historic issue of slavery. One of the arguments that plantation owners used in defense of slavery was the demand that the government be established to protect property rights and to free individuals from burdensom government regulation. The property rights they sought to protect was their right to own slaves, and they protested any attempt on the part of government to regulate this industry.

Often, where we hear of people protesting regulation, they are not concerned with protecting the live, health, liberty, and property of others. Rather, they are seeking a special license to engage in behavior harmful to others without paying any cost for the harms they inflict. This is quite the opposite of what a concern with property rights would require.

These are simply two examples of the useful pun thta some political factions find useful. Where they want the government to protect them, they use the term "property rights" and argue that the government's duty is to provide them with that protection. The government's job in these cases is to step in and prevent others from doing harm to their lives, health, liberty, or property.

However, if they find it profitable to engage in an activity that is harmful to the lives, health, liberty, or property of others, they reserve the right to use "minimal regulation" as their battle cry against these types of restrictions.

Ultimately, the criteria that distiguishes "protection of property rights" from "minimal government regulation" in these cases is whether others are threatening harm to the person making the statement, or the person making the statement seeks to do something that is harmful to others.


I consider myself to be an economic conservative, and I believe in the power of the free markets. However, there are those who use demagoguery to cloud the issue of what a free market truly requires. It does not require religion -- in fact, no religion that I know of ever used the concept of a free market. It also recognizes the fact that "property rights" is a form of regulation, and that some forms of regulation are good and useful.

Monday, February 27, 2006

The Virtue of Rationality

Even though I was having trouble posting my blog through my blackberry, I still continued to write. So, I have a posting that I wrote for Monday, February 27th. I am posting it today and back-dating it appropriately.

I discovered that there is a UFO convention going on in this hotel where I am staying. This has given me reason to consider this particular activity. i regret to report (and I am serious about the 'regret' part) that I find a bit of viciousness in those who participate in, and particularly those who foster and profit from, this type of activity.

Please note that I am using the word 'vicious' here in its classic moral sense. Where the opposite of 'virtue' is 'vice', the opposite of 'virtuous' is 'vicious'. We tend to reserve this term for those who act, in a sense, like a mean snarly dog. However, it applies to anybody who has an unadmirable character trait.

Desire utilitarianism, the theory that I use as the foundation for my writings, is very much a virtue-based moral theory. Good desires (desires that tend to fulill other desires) are virtues. Bad desires (desires that tend to thwart other desires) are vices. A person who has mostly good desires is virtuous. To the degree that an individual has bad desires (or lacks good desires), to that degree the individual is vicious.

As I have mentioned before, desires are persistent entities. A person with a desire for the truth will pursue the truth even when it may thwart other desires, just as a person with a love of chocolate (or alcohol) will pursue chocolate even when it is not good for him to have it. That is to say, he pursues truth as an end in itself -- one end among many, but still an end. He does not always ask how 'useful' it is; he pursues truth because he likes it.

That is how virtues work in a desire-utilitarian system.

A person who expresses a willingness to accept conclusions based on poor evidence -- who can believe, for example, that crop circles are the result of alien visits even after those who created the crop circles explain when, why, and how they did it -- such a person has not shown the interest in making sure his beliefs are well founded that a virtuous person would have shown.

But is this truly a vice? Is it not the case that believing in alien visits is a harmless pasttime?

If it were in fact harmless, then desire utilitarianism would have nothing to say on the topic. The point is that the character trait -- the desires that make it acceptable to embrace conclusions on poor evidence -- have detrimental effects elsewhere.

Specifically, these people vote. There is reason to worry that the same inability to discover good reason from bad reason on the subject of alien visitations will translate into an inability to determine good policy from bad -- good candidates from bad.

Similarly, when such a person sits on a jury, his duty is to weigh the evidence in order to determine if the accused is guilty or innocent. If he lacks the capacity or the interest in drawing reasonable conclusions from available evidence, then he may not be able to draw reasonable conclusions about the guilt or innocence of the accused given the evidence.

The result is that either an innocent person is punished for a crime he did not commit, or a guilty person is let off even though there was enough evidence for a reasonable person to draw a conclusion. Often it will be the case that both happens. The person who commits the crime goes free while an innocent person takes his place in prison.

I am not arguing that such people should be denied the right to vote or to sit on a jury.,/p>

My argument is that being a member of a democracy -- accepting the power to determine the course of national, state or local policy and the power to name a person guilty or innocent of a crime -- brings with it responsibilities that include responsible decision making by adopting reliable methods for drawing reasonable conclusions from available evidence. Those who do not adopt the techniques of sound reason are abdicating the responsibilities that they have as members of a democracy.

Nor am I arguing against people having some fun. Tomorrow, Lesley and I will be going to the Star Trek Experience here in Las Vegas. It will be fun. However, none of us are pushing the claim that the Star Trek Universe is real. Participating in a fantasy story for entertainment purposes does not prove a diminished ability to draw good conclusions based on available evidence. It does not display the type of viciousness I am concerned about in this essay.

One could try to counter this criticism with a claim such as, "How do you know that Earth has not been visited from outer space?" However, this misses the point. This objection falls in the same category as what I have called the Tea Leaves argument. A person, consulting his tea leaves, says that a plane will crash. I object that he has poor reason to believe the plane will crash.

If he answers, "How do you know that the machine will not crash?" then he does not understand the objection. In criticizing this man's argument, I will not be saying that the plane will not crash -- only at the reader of tea leaves has a poor reason to believe that the plane will crash.

I would like to be able to regard such people as a group having harmless fun and unworthy of a posting in an ethics blog. I would shrug them off if they were truly harvest. However, people who demonstrate an unwillingness or inability to draw reasonable conclusions from the available evidence affects more than beliefs in UFOs. It demonstrates an inability to select sound policy or to reliably determine the guilt or innocence of the accused. It represents a gullability that has the potential of producing some very poor effects.

For these reasons desire utilitarianism must view this as a vice.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Headline News

I originally tried to submit this as a mobile post -- that attempt failed. So, this is a report using more traditional methods.

Being on vacation, I am somewhat out of touch with the daily news. I certainly lack the capacity to research any issue in detail. All I catch are headines and a few seconds of video on a monitor as I walk by.

Let's be honest. When news organizations create a story, they are mostly interested in how many eyeballs they can attract and place on an advertisement. Their interest in truth and accuracy is proportional to the degree that truth and accuracy attract eyeballs.

Newspapers want headlines that scream, "Look at me!" Television news channels want footage that shows dramatic action -- explosions, car chases and crashes, or something that will caue the common channel surfer to stop and look long enough for the station to break to a commercial.

This explains the phenomenon on 24-hour news channels of the "talking heads". The most successful model for television entertainment has been sports. Actually, sports broadcasting was the original "reality television" long before "survivor" and similar shows were such a fad. Indeed, reality television today is really nothing more than a new set of sports programs.

"Talking heads" is the News version of the sports program. Each of two teams is represented by a champion who enters the field of battle. Each contestant is expected to use a sharp whit and tongue to deliver punishing blows to the opponent. The only thing missing is the judge's decsion as to who won and the awarding of the championship cup at the end.

Whereas these partisan champions are often called "attack dogs", television news is really a 21st century version of the "dog fight" -- back when dog fighting was legal.

All of this is to say that whomever claims to understand an issue based on the news they passively receive through traditional outlets is seriously mistaken. Whereas I have not been able to collect nothing but such snippets of news while on vacation, I would be uncomfortable thinking thta I understood such an issue well enough to write on it.

However, I can still write on issues of general concern.

In this case, if one were interested in reforming the press, this could be best accomplished by training eyeballs to react differently to what the press puts out. The internet has given news agencies far more information on what eyeballs do than they have ever had before. Newspapers and news magazines could only measure newsstand sales and subscription rates and loosely connect those numbers to articles. Television news looked at the Nielsen ratings -- and paid a great deal of money even for this information (illustrating its value).

On the other hand, online news readers give these organizations instant and precise information on where their eyeballs are going. Each click on a story gets noted. Rest assured that if a story is collecting a lot of online traffic, that this story will make its way onto the television program associated with that online site (if any).

In light of this, it may be useful to pay attention to what one does while visiting an online news story. Each click is a vote. Each click states to the news organization, "I want you to focus more of your resources on stories of this type." Whereas each story skipped tells the news agency, "As far as I am concerned, you are wasting your effort on stories of this type."

I have been paying attention to my own use of online news outlets recently and noted that I had not, exactly, been "voting for" the types of stories that I would like to see organizations pay more attention to. So now, when I click on a story, I take a second to ask about the social significance of the vote I am about to cast. More people giving more thought like this to what they do online might start to have an influence.

What I would truly like to see is a news organization that is interested in informing its viewers more than entertaining them.

I would like to have a news channel that never invites a partisan attack dog. Instead, if it has a story about potential civil war in Iraq, it invites middle-east scholars on to explain the differences and the history of relations between Shiite and Sunni Muslims. When discussing federal warrantless wiretaps, its guests are legal scholars and editors of prestigious law reviews, rather than Ann Coulder and Michael Moore. Tuning in to a discussion on intelligent design, we would find ourselves listening to the Chairman of the Philosophy Department at some major university explaining, "No, this is no great modern breakthrough in science; it is an argument that has been around for centuries which few professional philosophers find convincing."

The best way to bring traditional news closer to this model is to stop for a moment before clicking a mouse button on a news story and ask, "Am I voting for such a news organization, or against it?"

However you vote, please note, your vote will be counted.

Saturday, February 25, 2006


I am about to leave for Las Vegas on a 7-day vacation.

At this point, I intend to continue to post to my blog during my vacation. My wife has promised me several uninterrupted hours each morning. (I tend to rise early; she likes to sleep in late). However, if I end up disappearing for a week, you now know why.

In the mean time, I thought that this would provide an excuse to talk about what many people consider to be the sin of gambling.


I will not be gambling in Las Vegas, and I recommend against it when given a chance. Gambling is stupid. On average, every bet is an exchange where the customer goes to a casino and says, "I have an idea. I will give you $100, and you will give me $95 dollars back." Each individual exchange has an unknown range. Yet, by the end of the day, this will be the average. If the casino can get people to make $10 billion worth of exchanges such as this, then it can end the day with $500 million more than it started with.

It is important to recognize that this is in fact an exchange of giving $100 and getting $95 back. This allows the gambler to say, "I did well. I almost broke even." This is also per exchange. If he makes 20 of these exchanges, he will have gambled $2,000. He would have made back $1,900. I guess you can call this "almost breaking even."

Ultimately, the more bets one places, the more the Casino likes it. By the end of the day, the Casino would have been involved in hundreds of millions to billions of bets. The more bets there are, the more likely that the Casino will realize income equal to the average payback per bet.

Moral Argument against Gambling

There is a moral argument to be made against gambling -- that society should view gambling as "wrong" and discourage any desire to participate in this type of activity.

Such an argument springs from the fact that humans are poor at rational thought, and tend to base their judgments more on emotion than on reason. Gambling itself has a physiological effect -- creating a felling of pleasure or euphoria as it touches off hopes of a better life in the gambler. This combination of a tendency to base decisions on emotion and the euphoria that gambling creates yields a tendency for some rather foolish decisions.

A society that allows gambling is a society that allows one group of people to prey on this weakness in others.

One might respond to this by saying that people have a right to make foolish decisions, and that this does not justify taking away their freedom to do so. This argument would have merit if an entity known as 'intrinsic badness' exists and it can be shown to adhere in the act of interfering with the gambling acts of another.

However, intrinsic value does not exist. What exist are relationships between states of affairs and desires. We may have reason to believe that the relationship between the outcome of a gambling act and the desires the gambler seeks to fulfill are not what he thinks they are -- that the euphoria associated with gambling clouds his judgment. Bringing these relationships into actual alignment may best be accomplished with a prohibition on gambling.

Supernatural Forces

For example, I consider casino gambling to be proof against any type claim of ESP, prayer, or any type of supernatural force that may benefit the gambler over the casino. If there were such a force, casinos would notice that their take from all of the bets that get placed in their casino would deviate inexplicably from the statistical average. We may expect that such a force will create an unexplained number of winners and, for the house, an inexplicably high payout to customers.

To the best of my knowledge, no such statistical anomaly has ever been found. Casinos can reliably predict their income and it will be a known percentage of bets taken.

I suppose that someone could say that these supernatural forces take from those who deserve punishment and give to those who deserve a reward in such a way that it maintains the balance while promoting cosmic justice. There is no end to the patches one can put on in an effort to save a cherished belief.

Yet, the evidence suggests, and the rational person will believe, that no supernatural force will trip the game in their favor.

The casinos, of course, prey on those who are not rational. People who think that some supernatural entity will guide the game in their favor are those who paid for the casino.

This fact suggests that there is reason to question the moral character of those who promote the idea that these supernatural forces exist. People who do so are promoting a belief system that leaves its victims vulnerable to the predations of businesses such as gambling houses. It leaves them worse off, on average, than they would have otherwise been.

Gambling provides a mechanism through which the rational people can prey on the irrational.

The Bigger Picture

However, there is also an argument that the fault lies not with gambling, but with the decision to embrace irrational beliefs. If the fault lies with the irrational, and it leaves them vulnerable to these predators, then the prey get what they deserve. The decision to become prey was theirs.

Personally, I am not inclined to punish those who gamble. They get punishment enough when they lose.

Rather, gambling itself is a symptom of a society that has not given enough attention to promote rational thought. When I meet people who gamble, I use this as an opportunity to teach lessons in math and statistics. These are lessons that they should have gotten when they were in school.

Yet, they did not learn these lessons in school. This is because we live in a society where there is more interest in outlawing some of the worst symptoms of irrational thought than teaching people to make rational choices. What would happen if we taught students the facts about gambling, and the fact that there is no evidence that there are special forces that will improve their odds above those that the laws of probability predict?

I explain to them how dividing up the day’s gambling into larger numbers of smaller bets benefits the house. It increases the odds that one’s final outcome will be near the average payout for whatever game they play. Every bet brings the average closer to, “I give you $100; you give me back $95” that casinos depend on. The greater the number of bets that its customers place, the more reliably the Casino can predict its income.

I also like to point out to my friends that gamble; “When I tally all of the wins and losses that I have made on my investments, I have made over $50,000. If you tally all of your wins and losses when you gamble, where are you?”

My choice is not to give money to those who traditionally and historically collect far more than they pay out. I prefer to put my money with those who have a history of paying out more than the collect.

No, I am not going to Las Vegas to gamble. I’m going there to enjoy the money that I have because I learned to make rational choices.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Religion in the Public Square

Yesterday, I used events in Iraq to illustrate the importance of three fundamental principles of justice:

(1) Punish the guilty; let the innocent go free.

(2) Presume innocence unless guilt is proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

(3) Prove guilt by presenting evidence to an impartial judge and/or jury.

A society's widespread devotion to these principles -- not just a nodding agreement but a dedication to apply and abide by these principles -- provide a significant defense against civil war and other forms of civil violence.

I also hinted at a fourth principle that I now want to make much more explicit and cover in more detail.

(4) Disqualify anybody who cannot be impartial between different legitimate groups in a dispute, and allow no displays in the courtroom or the public square that suggests that the government favors any ligitimate side in a dispute over any other.

Let us pop back into the imaginary Iraq I created in my last article. We have introduced the three principles of justice. Let us assume that under these principles, the Iraqi government has arrested some people who are thought to be responsible for some of the violence in recent days. Some of the people arrested are Sunni Muslims, while others are Shiite.

We bring a Shiite prisoner into the courtroom, along with the relatives of the Sunni victims of his alleged crimes. Imagine that the prisoner and victims alike find that they have entered a room filled with the religious trappings of the Shiite sect. The Shiites, being in the majority, have picked only Shiites to be judges. Furthermore, they have only selected Shiites who have a proven history of favoring Shiites in their decisions. In this courtroom, a Shiite prisoner now stands accused of a crime with Sunni victims.

What kind of justice can the Sunni victims expect in this type of court? What type of justice could a Sunni accused of harming Shiites expect to find in this kind of court? Is it at all reasonable for the Sunnis to expect such a court to serve as a fair and impartial arbitrator of disputes between Shiites and Sunnis?

If you cannot see the basic unfairness in this of system, perhaps a sports analogy can bring them to light.

Imagine that you are a member of a sports team. You show up the game and you discover that all of the referees and judges are wearing your opponent’s colors. They make no attempt to hide the fact that they are on the opposing team and, in fact, have placed bets that the opposing team will win. They have gotten their position precisely because the leaders of the opposing team selected them. In selecting them, they made it obvious that they were looking for judges and referees who will unflinchingly favor their team in all disputes that may arise. Would you expect this to be a fair game?

This sports analogy is useful because it shows that we know what it is obvious what types of judges and referees we need if we are to have a fair game. We need judges and referees who do not have a personal stake in one side winning over the other. If a judge or referee shows up wearing symbols indicating that he belongs to one of the teams we instantly know that he is not somebody that we would want to have refereeing the game insofar as we are interested in having a fair contest.

These symbols and signs are just an outward expression of a basic and fundamental failure to comprehend fairness and justice. We could tell this judge to remove the symbols indicating his support for his team. However, we would have done nothing to promote fairness and justice. Having the judge remove the symbols displaying his prejudice does not is not the same as removing the prejudice itself.

Fairness and justice requires judges who do not merely appear impartial, but who are impartial in fact. It requires a mindset that says that the judge or jury does not care which team wins, or (by analogy) has no particular preference with whether the Shiite triumphs over the Sunni. Just as the referee’s primary interest should be in promoting a fair game, the judge should be interested in promoting a fair trial concerned only with whether the accused is guilty and cares nothing about religious membership.

The fact that the judge or jury does not allow symbols that show his support for one side over the other does not prove that he is impartial. However, the presence of those symbols proves that he is not impartial. If he insists that he has a right to wear those symbols, then he insists that he does not comprehend even the most basic fundamentals of the principles of fairness and justice. By this act he proves that he is not qualitied to be a referee or judge.

In this country, there are people who claim that they have a right to select the referees in disputes between their sects and other legitimate members of the American community. Rather than selecting judges by their impartiality, they insist that judges be selected that conspicuously endorse their team. They insist that those judges be permitted to wear their team's symbols and colors while arbitrating those disputes. When others protest and insist that such people are not qualified to be judges, these people complain that the rest of society is engaging in a “war against” their team.

Their claims are as false and malicious as those of any Shiite Muslim who claims that insisting that the judges who hear disputes between Shiite and Sunni citizens not wear the symbols that suggest that they favor the Shiites over Sunnis in any dispute they may hear. Insisting that no such symbols be shown is the same as insisting that judges be fair and impartial. The public square decorated in the symbols and trappings of one of these sects can no more be trusted to be fair and impartial than the referee who wears the colors of one of the teams in a sporting event.

On March 27th and 28th, there will be a conference in Washington DC called "The War on Christians and the Values Voter," that follows this pattern. It will be a gathering of people who have abandoned the fundamental principles of fairness and justice. They are people who demand that judges and referees be selected from their team, that those judges not only be allowed to wear their team colors and symbols, but that those who do not wear their team's symbols are not qualified to be judges.

These are people who prove by their words that they do not have any comprehension of what it means to be fair and to promote justice.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Iraq Mosque Attacks and Civil War

A group of people blow up a religious shrine, and suddenly the threat of civil war grows several fold.


Ultimately it is because there are a whole lot of people in a small area who have decided to ignore a basic, fundamental moral principle "Punish the guilty; let the innocent go free."

Because they have forgotten this principle, they attack anybody belonging to the other religious sect. They march to a mosque belonging to the other sect and proceed to destroy it, in revenge for the damage done to their mosque, without a thought given as to whether they are harming those who did them harm, or some innocent substitute for those who did harm.

Accepting and embracing the principle, "Punish the guilty; let the innocent go free," implies taking no action to harm another until one has made sure that they are guilty. This means waiting for an arrest and a trial before an impartial jury. If it can be established beyond a reasonable doubt that the people accused were actually those responsible would the state then seek punishment, then it would be permissible to punish those people, and only those people.

Punish the guilty; let the innocent go free.

As described above, this principle accompanies another principle of, "Presume innocent, unless proved guilty beyond a reasonable doubt."

So, those who belong to one Muslim sect in Iraq who come upon somebody or some structure belonging to the other sect are advised to presume that the person or those who worship in that structure are innocent, and thus not deserving of harm. As a result, there can be no justified attack. The result is peace.

I know that it is sometimes tempting to presume guilt. People tend to be very quick to judge others, jumping to conclusions that would, if true, justify lashing out in anger at others. The problem rests with dealing in the ‘if true’ aspect. Emotion gets in the way of judgment; we cannot deny that people do a poor job of making sense of a situation when they have a stake in the outcome.

This is why, among rational people, the first two principles already given accompany a third principle that, each person be given a hearing before an impartial judge (and jury). He must have an opportunity to tell his side of the story to those who have no stake when it comes to deciding if his story is more accurate than the story told by his accusers.

This illustrates the importance of condemning anybody who seeks to stack the courts with judges that are not impartial. It means that there is no merit in picking and approving judges based primarily on the criteria that they will side with one side or the other on disputes which may come before that judge. Such a judge cannot keep the peace.

In Iraq, a Sunni judge or a Shiite judge with strong religious ties simply cannot be trusted to resolve disputes between Sunni and Shiite factions. Judges in such a situation must be secular, capable of looking for solutions by applying principles that supersede religious differences. They have to be people who are capable of appealing to principles such as “Punish the guilty; let the innocent go free,” and “Presume innocence unless guilt is proven,” and “Prove guilt by presenting the case to those who have no passionate ties to one side of the dispute or the other.”

All of this falls under the generic heading of "Respect for the rule of law." Without this, there can be no peace.

There are some in Iraq who see the wisdom of respect for the rule of law. Over the next few days, we will discover if there are enough people devoted to these principles to keep the peace in that country.

There are some people everywhere who do not like these rules. They consider one who holds and defends them to be 'soft on crime.' They assert thta they have an infallible sense of who is guilty and who is innocent and bristle when others put rules such as these -- designed to make sure that the guilty are punished and the innocent go free -- in the way of exacting a more immediate revenge.

Religion At Work

On a related note, I know that there are atheists out there who look on events in Iraq, shake their head, and say, "This is another fine example of religion at work."

I cannot share this view.

I suspect that if there ever were a community made up entirely of atheists, that they would have their own conflicts. I can easily imagine followers of Ayn Rand's version of capitalism insisting on the right to violent self defense against any who touch what they consider their property entering into a civil war against Marxist atheists who takes from each according to his ability and gives to each according to his need.

Atheists have no magical immunity from civil war.

Societies get their immunity from civil war by promoting respect for the rule of law and the institutions (other than guns and bombs) used to debate and decide what the laws are to be.

This means a state with laws that are worthy of respect. It means a state where the innocent can trust that they can live free, giving them an incentive to live free -- as opposed to a society where innocent people fear being taken off the street, imprisoned, tortured, or killed. The former society has laws worthy of respect; the latter does not.

A group of people who believe that God commands punishing the guilty and letting the innocent go free, creating impartial courts for the purpose of hearing disputes, bringing to those courts only those for whom there is evidence of guilt, and seeing to it that a person suffers as little harm as necessary unless guilt has been proved, should have the same ability to live in peace with his neighbors as the atheist living by these same principles.

Whether a society can live at peace is not determined by whether it is made up of religious people or of atheists. It is determined by whether the society is made up of people who accept and agree to live by the principles mentioned above.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006


Yesterday, I read a news headline that said that the Bush Administration has approved a plan to turn over control of 6 major US ports to an Arab government with ties to terrorism.

As I read it, I thought that not even the Bush Administration could be that stupid.

Last evening I started my research, and discovered that the moral fault this time does not rest with the Bush Administration but those who were promoting the interpretation of the story found in that headline. That interpretation is false.

So far, I have not found a single argument against the sale that identifies some activity or policy of Dubai Ports World as a corporation or any officers or staff within the company that gives us any reason to suspect their concern for security. If we are suspecting them of being a threat to our security, and it is not because of something they did or said, then it must be for some other reason.

Ultimately, the only argument I have been able to identify can only be interpreted as assuming, "The Dubai Ports World is headquartered in an Arab country. ‘Arab’ is so clearly synonymous with evil and untrustworthy that only a seriously incompetent idiot would consider allowing an Arab company to purchase these types of rights."

The moral quality of such an argument is quite poor.

Some people who heard the original interpretation of the story and trusted the authors to represent the case accurately. They, of course, would have reason to be concerned about such a policy. However, the people they trusted to tell them the correct story proved to be untrustworthy.

The Real Story

To the best of my ability to determine, here is what happened:

A British company went looking to make money loading and unloading ships. They bought or leased some piers and some warehouses, set up some boat-loading equipment, hired some local workers from the longshoreman's union, and then told shipping companies, "We will load and unload your boats at the following rates."

They became quite good at it, so they went around the world looking for other ports where they could do the same thing. This includes six ports in America, where they set up their business, hired some members of the Longshoreman's union, and started loading and unloading ships.

There is nothing in this story that is morally any different than that of an American petroleum company going to the United Arab Republic and saying, "We are experts at drilling and shipping oil so we would like to offer you a deal where we will drill for oil in your country and arrange to ship it to your paying customers."

There is nothing in this story that is morally any different than an American company going to Indonesia and saying, "We are experts at building water treatment facilities. Therefore, we would like to offer you a deal where we will build a water treatment facility in your country and collect revenue for the clean water that we sell to your people."

What we are talking about is a standard practice.

The only difference between this case and a large number of other cases is the fact that the company is Arab. Objections only make sense if we accept an assumption of the form that "Arab" is associated with "Evil," and feel their sense of security drain away. It is an emotional response much like driving down the street in a nice shiny Lexis, turning the corner, seeing a group of young black men, and getting an irresistible urge to lock the car door.

The Security Issue

Obviously, if we allow Arabs to run a business loading and unloading ships in our ports, we will immediately have hoards of terrorists loading and unloading weapons of mass destruction right under our very noses, right?

And if we allow the Jews to control the banks they will certainly use this to manipulate the economy, directing vast quantities of wealth to other Jews while leaving the rest of us poor and starving.

Of course, this type of argument is morally suspect.

If this form of reasoning were valid, we could argue that we face an unreasonable security risk when Arab pilots fly passenger and cargo planes into and out of this country. Indeed, there are probably Arab-own airlines flying planes into and out of this country every day. Obviously, by allowing this, we are creating a situation where it is just a matter of time until one of these Arab pilots decides to take out another skyscraper. Why not pass a law that only American citizens can operate airplanes over American airspace -- all in the name of national security?

Think about the Arab airline flying planes into and out of this country every day that I mentioned above. They may even decide to lease out a section of some terminal so that the can handle the passengers and cargo coming in and out. If they are efficient at this, then perhaps they could make some money loading and unloading planes belonging to other airlines at their gates. This type of situation is no different than the situation that would exist with respect to the shipping companies.

One important similarity is that, in both cases, the company doing the work is not the organization that handles security. Customs and inspection are handled by the department of Homeland Security, which imposes rules and regulations on how to handle cargo coming into and out of the country. The employees -- those who actually do the work -- are people who live in this country. In case of the shipping business, they are members of the Longshoreman's Union.

Now, if the Bush Administration were arguing for having some Arab country run the Coast Guard or take over local port authorities, there would be reason for concern. Reading the original headlines, it sounded as if this is what Bush was trying to do, and that certainly would be insane. However, that is not what is happening.

The Wrong Message

The White House is defending the decision to allow this sale to go through in part by saying that canceling it would send the wrong message. In this, they are exactly right. This sends the message that, "It does not matter if you are good or evil, if you have struggled to produce a good work record and are as concerned to prevent terrorists as we are. We do not care about such things. We only care about whether you are an Arab business and, if you are, you are not welcome here."

This is the message that will circulate around the Arab community if this deal gets cancelled -- that Americans do not care what you do as an individual; it only cares about whether you are Arab. And, if you are, then the Americans will look at everything you do with suspicion.

Instead, we should be promoting a standard of individual responsibility. We want to communicate the message that Arabs who seek to live in peace with the rest of society will be accepted into that society. This message is communicated by a policy that determins whether Dubai Ports World gets approval depends solely on the character, and not on the nationality, of its leaders.


I am not saying that the Bush Administration handled this situation with anything more than its customary incompetence. I have not seen any evidence one way or the other on this issue. However, from what I can tell, the people who are complaining about this situation have not seen any evidence either. They are basing their conclusion on nothing more solid than the assumption "Arab = Evil."

For six years the Bush Administration has gotten away with everything from torture to secret executive order suspending the Constitution. It is exasperating to see that the first time others decide to take a shot at the President's policies, it is a shot taken without any careful consideration of what the shooter is aiming at.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

European Hypocrisy in Free Speech

The government of Austria yesterday sentenced British "historian" David Irving to 3 years in prison for the crime of "holocaust denial." In other words, he said and/or wrote things that the government of Austria said may not be said or written. Since 1999, 158 people have been convicted of violating these laws.

When I wrote about the Muslim cartoon riots, I argued that the only legitimate response to words is counter-words. I agree that some of the cartoons provided bigoted impressions of Islam. Those who drew the bigoted cartoons deserve some measure of contempt for their actions.

This principle suggests that counter-words are the only legitimate response to the claims that David Irving made. Responding to his words with violence (including the violence of state-imposed punishment) is no different that Muslims responding to the Mohammed cartoons with violence.

It would be perfectly legitimate to impugn Irving's scholarship. There would be good reason to make statements that somebody who so obviously blinds himself to certain truths is suffering from a defect of character that the emotional satisfaction of certain beliefs has drowned out reason. Yet, words alone do not provide a justification for violence.

The Cost of Censorship

Irving's conviction and sentencing took place in a context that makes it easy to identify some of the problems with censorship. No doubt, other nations are going to use Austria's censorship as justification for imposing other forms of censorship. By asserting to the world that censorship is permissible, Austria is helping to create a world in which more censorship takes place.

For example, some Muslims who are responding to the publication of the Danish cartoons will no doubt argue that it is unfair to protect the Jews from hate-speech inherent in denying the holocaust, while telling Muslims that they do not deserve comparable protection.

We can also expect to hear comparisons from China. Some officials there will no doubt claim that there is little to no difference between Austria's decision to impose sanctions on those who defend a political system it does not like, and China's decision to condemn the Tieneman Square demonstration. There is no difference between Austria censoring Nazi web sites, and China's decision to suppress web sites supporting political views it does not want discussed.

Those who wish to end censorship in other parts of the world will find that their arguments will be taken far more seriously if they were to express disapproval of censorship in their part of the world.

In an earlier blog entry, I wrote about a Nazi political rally in Toledo, Ohio where people responded with violence. I have said the same thing there that I have always said -- that though the Nazis were wrong, it is not permissible to respond to words with violence. It would be quite hypocritical to side with the rioters in Toledo, while standing opposed to the Cartoon rioters in the Middle East and condemning the Chinese Government for the censorship it imposes.

Those who defend censorship anywhere give moral weight to censorship around the globe.

The Benefits of Free Speech

The philosopher John Stuart Mill, in his essay "On Liberty", provided another argument for free speech.

If we make it illegal to say anything against a particular view, then that view would whither and lost the capacity to defend itself. To understand Mill's point, think of a boxer who never goes up against an opponent. He becomes weak and feeble. Eventually, the day will come when he will face that opponent, and he will not be able to do so.

In the case of conflicting ideas, the weakness of a particular truth against opposing ideas would be caused by the fact that people have forgotten to argue in its defense. Because they have not needed to defend a particular view (because opponents were being put in jail), they have lost the ability to do so. Then, when a relevantly similar view comes around, defenders find that they are incapable of standing up against it.

Mill argued that, when it comes to unpopular views, rather than censoring them, if we cannot find anybody who would defend them, it is in our interest to find somebody and set him up to be the Devil's advocate. By keeping the issue alive, and keeping the arguments against the offensive view in the public consciousness, each generation will continue to be informed as to why a particular opposing view is wrong and why no good person would adopt that view.

Actually, because of the Nazi attrocities there is reason to believe that we have less to fear from another Jewish holocaust as we do from sentiments that target some other group -- say, a Muslim or Arab holocaust. In effect, the law as written states that minimizing a holocaust against Jews is of sufficient concern to warrant a law, but a holocaust against some other group that the Nazis did not specifically target is not as important.

Extrapolating on Mill's suggestion, one way to protect all groups is to allow people to engage in holocaust denial if they wish and to meet them with an intense and consistent set of proclamations explaining why it (and any relevantly similar set of policies) are correctly regarded as evil.


It is easy to think of hypocrisy as some minor transgression that is not worthy of serious concern.

The problem with hypocrisy is that those who practice it magnify by several fold the wrongs of their own action. They commit a wrong that others then point to as precedent for similar wrongs. Those who speak of free speech while censoring views they do not want to hear establish a precedent that others then use to censor views that those others do not like.

Those who are not willing to defend and stand by the principle that it is never legitimate to respond to words with violence may some day discover themselves standing face to face with somebody who has learned from them that it is legitimate to respond to his words with violence.

It is the same principle by which people who do not condemn torture and those who support torture help to create a world in which more people end up being tortured. Those who do not demand that care be taken not to imprison and brutalize innocent people create a world where more innocent people are brutalized and imprisoned. Those who do not condemn leaders who start wars on false pretenses because they put themselves in a mindset where they saw in the intelligence reports only what they wanted to see run the risk that they will become the innocent victims of a war launched on false pretenses.

By their ability to magnify the wrongs that they do by several fold, hypocrites truly do a lot more harm than that which can be traced to their individual transgressions.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Buying and Selling Organs

I received an email request to discuss the issue of setting up a market for buying and selling organs as reported in this article.

Two doctors suggested legalizing the buying and selling of organs. According to the article attached to the email, "about 400 people per year die in the UK because they are left waiting for a donor."

I received this email about a week ago, but did not have time to write on the subject right away. Then, today, I saw another related article in which a 16 year old girl died while waiting for a liver.

There is a significant difference between donating a kidney and donating a liver -- a person cannot donate a liver and live. However, establishing a market for livers still might help to reduce the shortage. A substantial cash donation to the estate of those who become organ donors will help to ensure that surviving relatives make sure that the deceaced's wish to have those organs donated are carried out efficiently.

The main argument in favor is that it would save lives -- and that is not a bad thing.

The BBC article suggests that the main argument against is that such a system would exploit the poor.

I do not see any merit to this argument. Apparently, if I get your kidney, and you get nothing, you have not been exploited. If you keep your kidney and get nothing, and I die, apparently that is okay as well. However, if I get your kidney, I live, and you get a substantial amount of money that you can use to improve the quality of your own life, then you have been exploited, and we can't have that.

Like I said, I don't get that.

Now, I do not have any difficulty imagining a science-fiction universe where the poor are used as spare body parts for the rich. I can imagine in my mind a community of individuals -- half blind, with one kidney, with patches of skin missing and scars from a dozen surgeries to remove various types of tissue, who make thier living selling body parts to the rich.

That would not be good.

Yet, there is nothing about setting up a market for organs that would require that we take this particular route. There are a lot of options between a total prohibition on organ sales, and setting up a completely unregulated market for body parts on e-bay.

A moderate position between these two extremes can establish limitations that prevent this type of horrendous scenario. For example, concerning the donation of a kidney, the physicians mention in the BBC article suggested a price of $40,000.

If this seems exploitive, one of the ways we can avoid this is to increase the payment -- make sure that the benefit to the contributor is substantial. We could, for example, make it a payment of $100,000; plus 4 years' free tuition, room, and board at a university or training in some skill. With a high price, there would likely be a surplus of candidates, allowing the government to select contributors according to who it thinks will make the most use of the benefits provided.

Another possible limit would be to allow only the government to purchase organs, and to then distribute them to those who need new organs, rather than to those who have money. In this way, we will not be setting up a system where the poor become organ farms for the rich to harvest and use as replacements.

Finally, we could add the requirement that the person supplying a kidney were to have his sole remaining kidney fail, that he would be entitled to a new one for free.

With these types of safeguards, it would be difficult to argue that the system would be exploitive. It would certainly be less exploitive than the black market that currently exists. Indeed, such a system could drive the black market out of business, since the system will ensure that there is no demand for black-market kidneys.

I can understand the squeamishness that some people may experience when thinking about this issue. Yet, it is quite possible that this squeamishness is like the squeamishness some people feel at the thought of homosexual (or interracial) sex. It is a learned response acquired through social conditioning that actually does more ham than good, and we would be better off being rid of it.

Of course, I could be wrong. I am not averse to allowing some societies to keep things like this illegal for a while, while others that are comfortable with these sorts of changes experimenting, to see if it benefits these people or if it brings about the horror stories that some fear.

A person with a good imagination can probably imagine other horrors that may be associated with paying for organs. Yet, once the individual has put his imagination to work coming up with a problem, I would like to suggest putting that same imagination to work coming up with a way of dealing with the problem other than letting people die.

Ultimately, it saves lives, and with sufficient safeguards, such a system could give both the contributor and the receiver significant better qualities of life than they would have otherwise had. It is not so obviously wrong that I am forced to object to any society giving it a try.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Morality and the Use of Analogy

In these postings I have had a tendency to make heavy use of analogy and what may be construed as appeals to emotion in order to make a moral point.

In “A Perspective on the Pledge” I sought to illustrate the case against having “one nation under God” with a story about a pledge to “one WHITE nation.”

To discuss faith-based initiative, I wrote, “Faith Based Initiatives” where I asked the reader to imagine a club in which the leader takes $1000 each from all of its citizens then splits it up and gives back $1250 to the 80% of the members who sign a religious oath as a condition of employment.

To explain the problems with the Bush Administration’s definition of “good science” I suggest imagining a 13-year-old given a set of random numbers and being told to work the questions in his math book until he comes up with those answers. Then I compare the structural soundness of the building he would design with the policy soundness of Bush science when “good scientists” must come up with answers that match the Bible.

To show the problem with giving the President the authority to suspend the 4th Amendment on a whim, I compared it to an executive order suspending the 4th Amendment right requiring a warrant before conducting a search such as eavesdropping in on conversations in the name of national security and one suspending the 2nd Amendment for the same purpose.

I want to make some comments explaining the use of these types of arguments in moral debate.


As I argued elsewhere, morality is primarily concerned with promoting good desires (desires that tend to fulfill the desires of others) and inhibiting bad desires (desires that thwart the desires of others).

For example, a recent posting discussed the issue of atheists stopping to help somebody by the side of the road. Why would an atheist do such a thing?

Just as an atheist would install a smoke detector in his house or wear a seatbelt while driving (and demand that his children to the same – because he cares about them) or establish a fire department in his community, he has reason to create a society in which people help others when finding those others stranded along side the road. It is an efficient way to make sure that one gets help as a last resort when a person finds himself stranded on the side of the road.

The only way to get other people to provide help is to get them to want to help. To do this, an atheist has reason to use praise and reward to promote a desire to help those on the side of the road, and to use condemnation and punishment to promote an aversion to leaving other people stranded.

These tools are more efficient if he can solicit others to use them as well. So, he solicits his community to praise and reward those who help others, and to condemn and punish those who leave others stranded. Meanwhile, that same community is using those same tools on him, making him into a person who desires to help others and who is averse to leaving others stranded. Thus, when he sees a stranded motorist, he wants to help. Those who drive past feel guilt and shame associated with the aversion to leaving others stranded.

Moral Argument by Analogy

I am not the person who invented this form of moral argument. It is an inherent part of the practice, as preparing food is a part of the practice of cooking.

When a parent scolds a child for misbehaving, he is likely to say something like, “How would you like it if somebody did that to you?” He may also say something like, “What would it be like if everybody did that?” This is simply an analogy that attempts to force the child to realize the benefits of promoting a society in which certain people have particular aversions – namely, promoting an aversion to people “doing things like that to you.”

We see the same things in common moral dictums such as “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” This rule dominates the moral landscape.

For example:

Egyptian Book of the Dead (1580-1350 B.C.): He sought for others the good he desired for himself. Let him pass.

Confucius (about 500BC, where it became known as “The Golden Rule”): What you do not like when done to yourself, do not do unto others.

Buddha ((Siddhartha Gautama, c. 563 - c. 483 B.C.): One should seek for others the happiness one desires for himself.

Isocrates(436-338 B.C.): Do not do to others what angers you if done to you by others.

Indeed, it would be hard to conceive of a system as a moral system if it did not contain this element, any more than it would be possible to conceive of a set of actions as cooking if it did not involve preparing a meal.

Desires as General Persistent Entities

In this quest to promote good desires and inhibit bad desires, we must pay attention to the fact that desires are general, persistent entities.

To say that desires are general means that a person who develops an aversion to something (call it ‘X’) is going to have an aversion to anything that is relevantly similar to X. A person who hates liver is going to hate anything that tastes like liver. A person who enjoys solving logic problems is going to enjoy solving a range of different logic problems. A person who likes to help stranded motorists is going to want to help any stranded motorist.

To say that desires are persistent entities is to say that one cannot turn them on and off like a switch. We would not expect a person who is eating liver to very much enjoy his 1st, 5th, 6th, and 9th bite, while hating his 3rd, 4th, and 7th bite. Some desires to change in intensity over time. There are some desires that become stronger over time, until satisfied, at which time they weaken again, only to grow stronger over time. We call these desires “appetites” – such as desires for food, water, and sex.

This is not to say that reactions to different events cannot differ. A mechanic with a desire to help stranded motorists and a fear for her own safety may experience personal conflict if she comes across a large, muscular unkempt motorist on a dark and seldom-traveled road at night. Wanting to help, and yet also wanting to protect herself, she may drive on and use her cell phone to alert the police. The same mechanic traveling with a companion may stop to help a young couple with children on the side of a well-traveled highway – telling her companion to stay in the car with the motor running just in case.

An aversion to deceiving others (which is generally a good aversion to promote among people who recognize the costs of living in a society of deceivers) may come into conflict with the desire to save innocent lives when the Nazis come looking for the Jews that one has hid in the attic. Yet, where the desire to save innocent life is stronger the home owner will lie to the Nazis.

Nor does this deny that desires cannot disappear entirely over time, or that new desires cannot come into existence. Desires change – it would be senseless to promote good desires and inhibit bad desires if this were not the case. Yet, for the most part, they do not flash on and off like emotional strobe lights. Differences in situations will bring a number of different desires into play. Yet, each of those desires is a general, persistent entity that will come into play at any relevantly similar event in the future.

The Flaw in Action-Based Moral Theories

The problem with action-based moral theories is that they do not give due consideration to the fact that actions are caused by desires, and desires are general and persistent entities.

If we say to a person in a specific situation S1, “Do X”, there is only one way that this is possible. It requires that the agent have those desires that will make him want to do X (or want to do it more than anything else he may want to do). Yet, if he has those desires, and those desires are general and persistent entities, it will have an effect on what he does in other situations.

The desires that are necessary for him to “Do X” in a specific situation S1 will govern his actions as well in situation S2. Situation S2 may be far more common, and “Doing X” may be generally destructive. To rational people, these are reasons against telling the agent to “Do X” in S1. We do not want to encourage people to become the type of people who will tend to “Do X” in the far more common situation S2, where it is destructive.

So, it is extremely relevant in moral discussion to ask whether a person who does X in S1 will behave generally in a way that is helpful or harmful to others. It is extremely relevant to identify other situations that are like S1 and ask, “Are they more common?” and “Would doing X in those situations tend to be constructive or destructive?”


These are the types of analogies that I look for when I write my posts.

I identified the generally destructive sentiments behind a pledge to “one nation under God” by comparing them to the desires that would motivate people to support a pledge to “one white nation”. I also use this analogy to point out that the argument that removing “under God” is anti-Christian is as bigoted as the argument that removing “white” in the analogous case would be anti-Caucasian.

To identify the basic unfairness in faith-based initiatives, I created an analogy that illustrated the basic unfairness of what amounts to a tax on those unwilling to sign a loyalty oath to a church and a subsidy of those who would be willing.

To warn people that faith-based science creates risks that will ultimately get good people killed; I compared it to the effects of using faith-based math in the construction of a building.

Whereas those who tend to favor Bush’s arbitrary suspension of the 4th Amendment tend to be advocates of a strong defense of the 2nd Amendment, I asked them to consider whether they like the idea of a future President having the power to suspend the 2nd Amendment and to collect all private guns in the name of national security.

Elsewhere, I attempted to illustrate the inherent evil to be found in the way the Bush Administration deals with prisoners by asking readers to consider how they would react to those images where the prisoners were American and the guards were Arab.

Moral analogy of the form “Do unto others as you would have them to unto you,” and “What would it be like if everybody behaved in that way,” are two of the most significant tools available for determining if the desires that motivate a particular act, as general and persistent entities, will tend to make our lives better or worse.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

House Report and Senate Testimony on Katrina

Both the House report on Katrina and the Senate hearings showed that the federal government has no capacity to respond to a terrorist attack in the United States.

In addition to obscuring news about the torture and abuse of prisoners under the Bush Administration and Cheney's claimed right to declassify data, Cheney's hunting accident also obscured news about the Katrina catastrophe.

On Wednesday, a house select committee consisting entirely of Republicans (though it still called itself a “bipartisan committee”) investigating the Hurricane Katrina disaster released its report (pdf). This document reported failures all the way up the political chain, from New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, to Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco, to FEMA's former head Michael Brown, to the head of the Department of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff, to President Bush himself.

At the same time, Brown and Chertoff testified before a Senate committee investigating the same event.

President Bush's biggest mistake, according to the report, was that he was slow to step up and assume a leadership position when everybody below him had failed.

The mainstream news media did think that it was significant that an all-Republican house committee would find any fault with a Republican President. However, the Democrats did not leave them any option but to find some minor transgression. They had boycotted the hearings on the grounds that a House committee led by Republicans could not present a fair and balanced assessment of the failures for Hurricane Katrina. Any Republican decision to dissolve the President of all blame would have been met by a Democratic chorus of, "See, what did I tell you? They should have called this the House Select Committee to Whitewash the Katrina Disaster."

The committee did discover that the Administration had received notification that the levees had failed the night of the storm. However, that information did not get to those who needed to know -- those who should have been told, such as the President of the United States.

However, the Report did not touch on the greatest failure that Hurricane Katrina exposed.

Brown testified that one of the causes of the failure was that the Department of Homeland Security was too tightly focused on potential terrorist attacks to deal with a natural disaster.

That line of reasoning makes no sense. What Hurricane Katrina showed us was that the Bush Administration had done absolutely nothing to improve its ability to respond to terrorist threats. If it had done so, responding to Hurricane Katrina would have been relatively effortless.

We can see this most clearly if we imagine a case in which the New Orleans levees failed, not as a result of a hurricane, but as a result of a terrorist attack.

Imagine a scenario where, in the very early hours of the morning -- say, on the morning after Mardi Gras -- terrorists move a couple of boats up to the levee. These boats are loaded with explosives -- comparable to those that blew a hole in the side of the USS Cole in 2000, and they blew apart a section of the levee. While the city of New Orleans slept, the water came rushing in.

Imagine how big of a disaster that would have been.

With Hurricane Katrina, the government had three days' warning. They were able to get a substantial portion of the city evacuated before the storm even hit.

A terrorist attack against the levees would not have allowed for any warning. The entire population would have been asleep.

Now, let us look at what happened in the case of Hurricane Katrina and extrapolated it. From this, we have reason to predict how poorly the government would have responded to a terrorist attack against New Orleans. Indeed, we are given reason to wonder how the government would have responded to a terrorist attack against any major city -- from a dirty bomb going off in Washington DC to a biological warfare attack at the Super Bowl?

To the best of my ability to determine, the report did not even address the question, "If the government cannot respond to a natural disaster where it had three days' warning, how is it going to respond to a surprise terrorist attack against a major city where it has no warning at all?"

Since 9/11, we have heard one horror story after another about how terrorists have the potential and the desire to launch a serious attack against an American city. From detonating a "dirty bomb" (or even a nuclear bomb) in Washington DC, to using a crop duster to deliver a biological weapon to a crowded city event, to releasing chemical weapons in a crowded subway system, we have been warned about these types of attacks.

The Bush Administration had been telling us for four years that its top priority was to make deal with the possibility of a terrorist attack. This included dealing with the aftermath of a potentially successful attack. The reorganization that placed FEMA in the Department of Homeland Security was allegedly to help to provide a better, more coordinated response to a successful attack.

If the Bush Administration lacks the capacity to respond to Hurricane Katrina, then it also lacks the capacity to respond to a potentially successful terrorist attack on any city. This means that one of the things that this Administration had promised to make a top priority since 9/11 has not been done. It has little or no ability to respond to this type of threat. If it had such a capacity, then it would have been able to use it to respond to the Hurricane Katrina disaster.

I cannot imagine why it had not been done. I cannot imagine why nobody is asking the Bush Administration about this most obvious failure. Yet, there can be no doubt that if terrorists had blown the levees around New Orleans, the Bush Administration had nothing in place to respond to this type of a disaster.

If not for the public attention being drawn to the relatively trivial story of a hunting accident, perhaps the people would have noticed that Hurricane Katrina had uncovered evidence that the Bush Administration had not taken the steps to protect their life, health, and property that it had promised to take.

Because if it had the ability to respond to such an attack, then why did it not use that capacity when Hurricane Katrina attacked New Orleans?

Friday, February 17, 2006

Prisoner Abuse and Inspections

The proof that the Bush Administration has lost its sense of right and wrong can be found in the fact that it should be treating its prisoners in ways that it would demand that American prisoners be treated, and insisting on the same inspections of its prisons that it would demand from other countries that may some day hold Americans as prisoners.

This is a second in a series of important news items buried underneath a relatively trivial hunting accident.

This is actually a set of several stories involving Bush's treatment of prisoners. This includes:

(1) The Bush Administration has been forced to release additional images showing the extent of the abuse at Abu Ghraib Prison.

(2) The United Nations released a report declaring that the American prison at Guantanamo Bay is a torture site.

(3) The government of Iraq asked the United States to turn over all Iraqi prisoners to its custody, because the Iraqis are worried about how Americans treat its prisoners.

If you, the reader, have the stomach to look at the pictures, I would invite you to do so after putting yourself in the following frame of mind:

Imagine that the United States launched its attack, only to have been met by a massive Muslim uprising. Not only was our military forced out of Iraq, but Muslim groups swept through other countries picking up American citizens and holding them in makeshift foreign prisons. Imagine that somebody managed to smuggle out some pictures showing how these Americans were being treated. These pictures are identical to the Abu Ghraib photographs, only the pictures showed Arab guards and American prisoners.

Imagine that the Arab leaders had other pictures, but they were refusing to allow anybody to see them. They say that they are worried about the welfare of their soldiers -- that releasing the pictures may fan a wave of protest that would put their soldiers at risk. They claim that the people responsible for the abuses depicted in those photographs have been identified and punished, though (with one exception) the longest penalty was three years in prison. Furthermore, only common soldiers were punished; no senior officer was held accountable for what happened.

Also imagine that, even though the enemy claims that they do not torture, stories like those illustrated by these pictures have come from several of their prisons.

The rest of the world has called for inspectors to check conditions at the other prison. However, the enemy only allows inspections on its terms – and flatly prohibits having anybody talk to the Americans that they are holding.

One issue that may be brought up is that these prisoners are “guilty” of something. Yet, there has been no trial. They have been rounded up and declared guilty. If you wish, add to your imagination the thought that the enemy holding Americans as prisoners insisted that they were all guilty of something. Yet, while they say this, charges have been brought to only a hand full of prisoners, and huge percentages have eventually been released without any charges ever being filed.

With these thoughts in your mind, look at the pictures, if you wish. Remember to imagine that you are looking at American prisoners in an enemy prison.

When you are done, ask yourself how you feel.

The Essence of Morality

The essence of a moral principle is that it is a rule that is supposed to be universal. Morally, it should make no difference whether the prisoners are Americans or Arabs; whether the guards are Arabs or Americans. Whatever it is permissible for Americans to do to Arabs, it is also permissible for Arabs to do to Americans under this fundamental principle of morality.

There is no way, if one is interested in morality, to justify the claim that Americans may do to Arabs things that no Arab may do to Americans.

Now, let us look at a couple of those arguments in more detail.

The Release of the Photos

In your imagination where the pictures are of American prisoners, once again imagine it being the case that there are other photos – other evidence -- that the enemy leaders refuse to make public. They argue that they have a right to keep this information secret because revealing it will put their troops at risk.

Would you raise your voice in protest of the American who demanded that these pictures be released? Would you support those who protested that Americans demanding release of those pictures were violating the rights of a foreign government? Do foreign governments have rights such as this?

Do we have rights such as this?

My guess is that very few people would argue that foreign powers have such rights. The fundamental principle of morality that rights are universal implies that the American government has no such right.

In fact, we would (and we should) react to any country making this type of argument with a deafening rage. We would claim (and we should claim) that they have no right to keep this type of criminal misconduct secret. We would insist (and we should insist) for a full public trial of those responsible. We would insist (and we should insist) that those responsible include people to institute safeguards against this type of brutality.

We would say that these are fundamental human rights that no moral government would violate.

If no moral government would do such a thing, then what does this imply about the American government under President Bush?

United Nations Report

Now, imagine that the United Nations sought to investigate the prisons in which these Americans were being held. However, the government that holds these Americans refuses to allow anybody to speak to the prisoners.

I remember as a child watching episodes of Hogan's Heroes, a comedy about a group of prisoners in a German POW camp. One of the situations they often made reference to was the practice of cleaning up the camp and providing the prisoners with extra comfort when the Red Cross arrived. After the Red Cross left, the situation went back to normal.

We would recognize that it is a waste of time for inspectors to show up at a prison if they cannot talk to the prisoners. Furthermore, we would expect the enemy to threaten those prisoners if they did anything to make their captors look bad. So, the only type of inspection that we could respect is one in which the inspectors could talk to the prisoners in ways that left those prisoners immune from retaliation.

We would not accept anything else.

The only concession that the enemy would have a right to demand is that the inspectors be from a neutral third party, and not people likely to lie or distort what they find.

We would insist that the right that those Americans have to speak to an investigator under conditions where they did not risk retaliation were basic human rights. We would insist that any society that refused to allow this was one that had lost all moral sense.

Yet, under President George Bush and those who work for him (and those who support him in this) we have made us into just that type of society.


Whatever institution a person may follow that says that he may do to others what others are prohibited from doing to him; it cannot be called a moral system. It is something else, and the people who adopt it must abandon morality in order to adopt that system.

Such a society cannot, at the same time, say that it cares about morality – that it devotes itself to promoting that which is right and fighting that which is wrong – if it adopts rules that are morally indefensible.

If we are doing things to prisoners that we would condemn if others were treating our prisoners that way, then we are engaging in acts that are morally indefensible.

That is the type of society that President Bush and his supporters are making into.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Cheney's Right to Declassify Data

Old Business: Cheney was Drunk?

Cheney foes have latched onto the idea that Cheney was drunk at the time of the hunting accident.

So far, the evidence that I have seen in support of the assertion is entirely circumstantial. Some people argue, “I know other people who hunt and who get drunk.” Another popular argument is, “Why did Dick Cheney not go to the hospital to look over his sick friend?” And there is the question, “Why did the local authorities not interview Cheney until 14 hours had passed, if not to allow time for Cheney to sober up?”

I can think of hundreds of alternative explanations for all of this.

First, I know people who drive while under the influence of alcohol. This does not justify the conclusion that everybody who gets in an automobile accident – even everybody who causes an automobile accident is drunk. My Uncle George liked to drink. He also liked to hunt. However, he would have likely shot anybody who insisted on bringing alcohol on a hunting trip. Most people are responsible.

Second, I can think of two reasons for Cheney not to go to the hospital. (A), having the Vice President with all of his secret service and eventually all of the press around the hospital would not have done anybody any good. If I had been Vice President, I would have stayed away from the hospital and allowed the staff to do its work, rather than insist on going and getting in everybody’s way. (B) Cheney might have been a bit embarrassed and did not want to be out in public. If I had ever accidentally shot somebody, I would have been physically ill.

Third, though Cheney should have been interviewed immediately after the incident, I can easily imagine a local sheriff being overwhelmed at the prospect of having to deal with the Vice President of the United States. A local sheriff facing a situation well over his head simply screwed up. He gave the Vice President more latitude than his position demanded.

I am not saying that Cheney was not drunk. Yet, I have heard of no evidence that Cheney has a history of hunting while drunk. In fact, I have heard no stories about Cheney getting drunk even when he was not hunting.

Maybe Cheney was drunk; I cannot prove his innocence. The issue is, nobody has an obligation to prove that they are innocent. Those who make the charge must prove guilt.

What are these people doing?

They are latching onto a conclusion that they want to believe (e.g., Cheney was drunk; Iraq had weapons of mass destruction), then they are fixating on an interpretation of the data (intelligence) that suports their favorite conclusion. They are blinding themselves to other interpretations because of what they want to believe. They are doing exactly that which they condemn in others. They are engaging in exactly the same mental exercise that is responsible for much of the mess that the country now finds itself in. Yet, they tell us that they are "better than" their political opponents.

I accuse Cheney of committing those wrongs for which I have evidence. Accusations cast without evidence is as irresponsible as firing a weapon without knowing what one is aiming at.

New Business

One skill that the Bush Administration excels at is hiding the truth. They are magicians when it comes to distracting public attention with something bright and flashy in one hand while the other hand conceals what the magician does not want its audience to see.

Yesterday, while the press focused on the Cheney's hunting accident the news was filled with other stories that the Administration would hope to have slip underneath the radar.

For example:

Cheney claimed the authority to declassify information.

An Australian television station showed additional photographs of the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, which the Pentagon has kept from the public for two years. Also, the United Nations declared that Guantanamo Bay prison was a torture facility, and the Iraqi government asked the United States to transfer its Iraqi prisoners to its custody.

A group of Republican members of the House of Representatives released a report on the handling of the Katrina disaster that was even critical of the Bush Administration.

I will cover each of these stories in turn over the next three days in the hopes of nudging each of them a little further into the limelight than they would have otherwise been.

New Business: Cheney's Power to Declassify Information

Cheney used the opportunity to discuss his hunting accident with Fox News to also announce that he had the authority to declassify information. He did not say that he had ever used that authority, but he claimed to have that authority. President Bush, of course, did not disagree.

The information is considered relevant to the investigation into who leaked the fact that Valerie Wilson, the wife of former ambassador Jim Wilson, worked for the CIA. Cheney's former Chief of Staff I "Scooter" Libby has been charged with obstruction of justice and lying to a grand jury as a result of this explanation. Libby is now saying that a higher authority told him to leak that information. Libby's boss at the time was Vice President Cheney.

I have read news reports suggesting that this was meant to help Libby. I do not see how this follows. Unless Cheney is also going to claim that he has the power to authorize others to lie under oath and obstruct justice (which would not surprise me), he is not saying anything that would help Libby.

Instead, it seems reasonable to believe that Cheney is out to help himself. If Libby is now willing to finger Cheney as the one who released this information, then it is in Cheney's interest to say that his actions were legal. Cheney is defending himself from potential criminal charges, not Libby.

Ultimately, this blog is concerned with ethics, not with law. Therefore, I am not going to concern myself with Cheney's claim to have the legal authority to release the information is correct. I am only interested in his moral authority.


Readers familiar with this case can skip the next two paragraphs.

Former Ambassador Joe Wilson went to Nigeria to investigate a report that Iraq sought to buy material for manufacturing a nuclear weapon. Wilson reported that the reports were false. Later, he heard the Bush Administration mention the evidence Wilson had discredited to justify its invasion on Iraq. He then went to the press to report that the Administration was defending its war under false pretenses.

To defend the Administration, Cheney and others sought to attack Joe Wilson himself by claiming that he got the assignment as an act of cronyism. They leaked the information that his wife, a CIA employee, got him the assignment. The fact that Valerie Wilson was a CIA employee was classified information, and leaking that information is against the law. Allegedly, Libby sought to obstruct the investigation into this crime, in part, by lying to the grand jury.

The Moral Issue

Moral Objection 1: Cheney declassified this information in order to try to discredit Joe Wilson. In other words, Cheney traded America's security for a chance to attack a political rival. Valerie Wilson was a spy working on securing information on weapons of mass destruction. Even if Cheney has the legal authority to declassify information, he does not have the moral authority to bargain away national security for political power.

Moral Objection 2: The information leaked was not relevant to the facts of the case. Cheney sought to use this information as a part of an argumentum ad hominem attack on Mr. Wilson. An ad hominem attack is a form of rhetoric designed to divert others from paying attention to what another person says by having them pay attention instead to some irrelevant fact about that person.

Using ad hominem arguments is, itself, a morally objectionable act. These types of arguments are only used to create a smokescreen for concealing relevant issues. In this case, the relevant issue was whether the Bush Administration was making claims that it knew or should have known was false to defend its decision to invade another country. Cheney and others used this information to create a smoke screen where people were asking instead whether Valerie Wilson was funneling government work to her husband.


If we combine these two objections, we come up with a case in which Cheney sacrificed national security to launch a personal attack on a private citizen for the purpose of creating a smoke screen to shield the Bush Administration from legitimate questions about its use of material it knew or should have known was false in order to justify an assault on another country.

Or, another way that we can describe this event – Cheney took a cheep political shot at somebody criticizing the Administration and ended up inflicting serious wounds on our national security, because he either did not (care to) determine what else might be standing in his line of fire.

I think that there is good reason to view such behavior as morally objectionable.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Faith-Based Initiatives

Old Business: Cheney's Hunting Accident

Cheney went on the air at Fox news and said that the shooting was his responsibility. He said, "It was not Harry's fault. You can't blame anybody else."

Cheney got this one right. Everybody who tried to defend him by saying that Whettington was responsible for getting shot got this moral question wrong. They need to ask themselves what this says about their own moral character; and it is not good.

Partisan loyalty blinded them to the difference between right and wrong. In a contest between devotion to party and devotion to principle, party won, and moral principles were abandoned.

Once they recognize the fact that they have twisted and distorted moral principle to suit their tastes, perhaps they should ask themselves if members of the Bush Administration have done other things that they, in a moment of calm reflection, would otherwise recognize as being contrary to the demands of morality.

P.S. One should not get the idea that I think only Republicans put party above morality. Yet, it is a poor defense for anybody to argue, "Somebody else did this, so I may do it as well." Imagine a rapist saying, "Other people have committed rape; therefore it is permissible for me to commit rape." This way of thinking is wrong, regardless of the party affiliation of the person who does it.

New Business: Faith Based Initiatives

When President Bush signed the Deficit Reduction Act on February 8th, he signed a measure that significantly increased the amount of federal money going to faith-based institutions from $236 million to $323 million, while tens of billions of dollars in funds from other programs were also made available to organizations with discriminatory hiring programs.

So see what is wrong with this, imagine that you are one of 1,000 people who belong to a particular club. At one of the club's gatherings, the club President demands $1,000 from each person in the room. Everybody must pay; there is no option to decline.

When this is done, the President has collected $1 million.

Then, the President pulls out a small collection of documents. He announces that he will distribute the $1 million among those who will sign one of those documents. All of the documents share one quality; the person signing it swears allegiance to a religious organization that meets with the President's approval.

We do not need to assume that only atheists would refuse to sign one of these forms. Anybody who does not belong to one of the approved faiths would also refuse to sign. Others who have doubts would also be inclined to refuse, as well as those who are torn between two or more groups and does not want to be forced to commit to any one group. Also, we find among those who will not sign those who think that this type of policy is wrong.

By the way, I should mention that this is a club that has a set of guiding principles, and that the first of these bylaws says that the club will not discriminate against members on the basis of religious belief, and that boasts that they have great pride in this principle. It will not use religious affiliation as a reason for charging some members extra dues or for allowing others to obtain extra benefits.

In the end, 800 club members sign one of the documents of religious affiliation. Once the President has the final number, he gives each of these an equal share of $1,250 dollars.

Each non-signer is $1,000 poorer; each signer is $250 richer.


This is how President Bush's faith-based initiative program works.

We all pay taxes.

I have built into this example the assumption that all members pay equal dues, but this element does not match reality. In fact, a club that collects $1,100 from each club member, but which collects nothing from representatives of an approved religion would more accurately represent our nation. Those approved representatives would still have full use of the club facilities, driving up bills with the goods and services that they use for free, which other club members (those which are not representatives of an approved religion) must then pay.

I want to be clear that I am not speaking about the tax breaks that religious institutions get in virtue of the fact that they are non-profit organizations. Any break that applies to non-profit organizations also applies, if we are going to be fair, to non-profit religious organizations. I am talking about breaks that religious institutions (and those who work for them) get in virtue of the fact that they are religious institutions (or work for them).

Yet, even if we ignore these unfair burdens and pretend that the taxation (or payment of dues) is not assigned on the basis of religious affiliation, the problem illustrated in my opening example remains.

The distribution of the money that the government receives is unfair. For all practical purposes, this is a program that takes money from those who will not sign one of the loyalty oaths and gives it to those who will. The effect is no different from that of a program where the government pays people to sign loyalty oaths to a list of government-approved religious organization, while imposing fines on those who do not sign such an oath.

Response 1: Selective Discrimination

One response that somebody might give to this is to claim that while the organizations are allowed to discriminate with respect to who they hire, most of the money goes out to people as charity without regards to the beliefs of the recipient.

This response fails on so many levels to count.

First, there is the imposition of telling anybody who will not sign such an oath that they must go to somebody who will sign such an oath to receive aid. It creates an inherently unjust relationship where oath-takers are given power and authority over those who refuse. Nowhere in this society are oath-takers being put in a position where they must ask those who refuse to take the oath for help.

Second, these faith-based programs are not only discriminating against others in who they hire, but also in who they buy goods and services from. If they bank at an oath-taker’s bank, insist on buying bread from a bakery owned and operated by fellow oath-takers, and insist on renting space only from an oath-taker, then the government is creating a whole economy from which a portion of the nation is excluded. With this multiplier effect, a $100 million government faith-based program can lock those who refuse to take such oaths out of a billion dollars worth of economic opportunities.

Third, these programs give oath-takers opportunities to find work and to network with others who may help their careers that those who refuse to take such oaths do not have. This gives them a competitive edge in other parts of society – in finding work outside the organization, in running for office, in finding customers for whatever small business they decide to create. The “excluded” will simply not have the same level of opportunity as the “included.”

Response 2: Only Some Programs are Faith-Based

Another possible response might make note of the fact that the government spends money on a number of different things, and most of the money spent is not earmarked for faith-based groups.

However, let us modify the original example slightly. The President of the club demands $2,000 from each member. He still takes $1,000 of that and redistributes it among the oath-takers. With regard to the redistribution of money, power, and opportunity from those who refuse to take the oath to the oath-takers, nothing has changed. The same amount of money, power, and opportunity is still being taken from one group and given to the other.


The policy they seek is none other than one where the government says to the people, "Those whose beliefs are on this approved list will shoulder less of the government burden and obtain more benefits; while those whose beliefs are not on the approved list must shoulder more of the burden and expect less benefit."

Faith-based funding is a belief-tax - a fine levelied against those who do not have the right beliefs where the revenue is then used to pay citizens to sign loyalty oaths to government-approved religious organizations.

These people claim to be the model defenders of morality, yet they show no interest in applying simple, basic principles of fairness and justice.