Friday, June 30, 2006

Moral Conclusions

The presented the first draft of this post as an answer to an anonymous comment to yesterday’s post. I have since decided that an expanded answer should be given a more prominent place in this blog to help explain how desire utilitarianism works.

So your argument is that it is absurd to suppose, in any given instance, that it can be determined whether one act will fulfill more desires than another…

Actually, my position is that it does not matter whether or not this supposition is absurd. My position is that an agent can do very little with this information regardless of how easy it may be to come by.

People always act so as to fulfill the more and the stronger of their own desires, given their beliefs. They always seek to act to fulfill the more and the stronger of their own desires; however, false or incomplete beliefs may prevent them from accomplishing their goal.

This does not imply that everybody is selfish. A person may well devote his whole life to doing others, and do so because he wants nothing more than to see others safe and happy. The claim that he acts only on his own desires is the claim that only his brain is connected to his muscles in the right way to cause action, and no action can be properly called “his” if it did not originate in his brain, among his desires.

Such a person can have perfect knowledge as to which act will fulfill more desires overall than any other. However, he will still act so as to as to fulfill only the more and the stronger of his own desires. This knowledge is important only to the degree that one of his desires is a desire to do that act that fulfills the most desires. A person can have such a desire, but it will always be only one small desire among many, often outweighed by other concerns.

Now, I take this and I add the principle ‘ought’ implies ‘can.’ By the rules of logic, this implies that ‘cannot’ implies ‘it is not the case that one ought’. This, in turn, proves that the proposition, “A person ought to do that act that fulfills the most desires regardless of whose they are,” is often, if not always, false.

Others often interpret me as claiming that people ought always to maximize desire fulfillment. Here, once again, is my proof (which seems quite solid as far as I can tell) that this proposition is false.

In fact, I hold that this argument is sufficient to defeat all moral theories that focus on actions, rather than desires, as the ultimate object of moral attention, such as the theory that we ought to maximize happiness. No action-based theory can stand up to the fact that people will always act so as to fulfill the more and the stronger of their own desires.

…but that nonetheless humans are blessed with a knowledge of what sorts of things tend to fulfill more desires than others across an indefinite number of cases.


For example, I have an aversion to pain. I think that it is quite reasonable to infer that if everybody else had an aversion to causing pain, that it is far less likely that they will act so as to cause me pain, and my desire to avoid pain will be better fulfilled. At the same time, I think it is quite reasonable to believe that if I was placed in a community of individuals with a particularly strong desire to cause pain, that my desire to avoid pain will likely often be thwarted.

It is not at all uncommon to be able to predict the results of a large number of events where any one event is difficult to predict. For example, I cannot say with much precision where I will be 10 years from now. However, I hold that I can identify what the center of population will be for the United States 10 years from now, and have a 99.9% chance of being right within a very small range. Barring a catastrophe such as a meteor strike, or bringing in a new or allowing the secession of a state (both extremely unlikely), the center of population is not likely to move more than a few kilometers from its current location.

So it is that any particular act of causing pain may bring less pain in the long run, it is still reasonable to trust my desire to avoid pain to a community adverse to causing pain, than a community that is fond of causing pain.

The same is true for my desire to live – and those desires that are best fulfilled by my continuing to live (which is a substantial portion of my strongest desires). I have reason to believe that these desires are better fulfilled in a community of people with an aversion to killing, than in a community of individuals who love to kill.

The question then becomes, “Is there anything I can do to cause others to have a stronger aversion to killing, or to causing pain?”

Yes. Clearly, our desires are molded by our experiences. I have the ability to provide others with experiences whereby they may acquire an aversion to causing pain or killing others. I can do this, in part, by using the tools of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment. Giving experiences of praise and reward to those who refuse to cause pain or to kill, and giving experiences of condemnation and punishment to those who cause pain or kill, will generally promote an aversion to causing pain and killing in others. An individual’s desires can be affected even when he is not the one receiving the praise or the condemnation. The praise or condemnation of one person can serve as an example for others.

Consequently, I have this blog – a medium for creating experiences of praise and condemnation and for advocating reward and punishment in the hopes of promoting desire-fulfilling desires and inhibiting desire-thwarting desires.

Now, if I give the situation a bit of thought, I realize that promoting an aversion to killing may not be the safest society for me to live in. If my neighbors and I all had a complete aversion to killing, we would be at the mercy of any tyrant who has no such aversion. Therefore, promoting an aversion to killing except in self-defense (or an aversion to killing anybody who is not willing to initiate deadly violence against another) would be better than a simple aversion to killing. Consequently, I bring the tools of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment to bear on creating this aversion within society instead.

Just as I have reason to promote an aversion to killing and to causing pain in others, they have reason to promote in me an aversion to killing and to causing pain. So, as I act so as to fulfill the more and the stronger of my own desires, those desires will likely include a growing aversion to killing and to causing pain. This means an aversion to encouraging others to kill and to cause pain, and an even stronger desire to promote in others an aversion to killing and causing pain.

Notice that I have not said anything that contradicts the initial assumption that each person acts so as to fulfill his own desires. Each person’s aversion to pain directly motivates the social customs for creating an aversion to causing pain. Each person’s desires that would be thwarted upon death motivate the social customs for creating a social aversion to killing. Their natural affection for the welfare of their children motivates them to cause in others a particularly strong aversion to causing harm to children and desire to protect children from harm. Their acquired desire not to cause pain or to kill and their desire to protect children from harm further motivates them to increase the strength of these desires in others.

Each Post I Write

So it is that with each post I write (with the exception of ‘theory’ posts such as this one), I seek to apply condemnation to those who have desire-thwarting desires, and praise at those who exhibit desire-fulfilling desires.

I also seek to better determine which is which. It is a matter of objective fact whether a particular desire is desire-thwarting or desire-fulfilling. I put effort into explaining why I put particular desires (such as the affection for a government running under a system of checks and balances) where I do. In doing so, I try to explain to others why they have reason to direct their praise or condemnation at these same targets (e.g., at those who seek to create a government without a system of checks and balances over arbitrary executive authority).

Hopefully, together, we can work to promote a stronger desire for truth and aversion to deception, desire for fair trials and aversion to show trials, desire for a system of government with checks and balances and aversion to arbitrary and unchecked executive power, and similar aversions and desires. We can do this through a system of giving praise and condemnation where it is due, and explaining why it is the case that praise or condemnation is due in these particular circumstances.

So, tomorrow, I think I will explain why certain Supreme Court Justices (the minority in the case of Hamdan v. Rumsfeld) do not have the appropriate aversion to arbitrary executive power, why their claims that their position will provide better for our security are false, and why they, and, in particular, those who cheer and support them, are deserving of condemnation.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Killing an Innocent Child

Today’s post has to do with moral theory. As such, it is a bit longer than most.

In this post, I am going to discuss:

• The permissibility of killing an innocent child

• Preferential treatment (e.g., favoring one’s own children)

• Acts and Omissions

• Moral Weight vs. Moral Exceptions

• Moral Dilemmas

In an earlier post on “Killing/Capturing Terrorists”, I wrote that no person may kill a neighbor's child even to save his own life or the lives of his entire family. For example, if his only method for preventing their deaths is to drain a neighbor child of blood to extract an enzyme that may save his family, he may not do so.

Yet, I have also argued in discussions that it is permissible to kill an innocent child to prevent a nuclear bomb from going off in a distant city. For this, the scenario I use most often is that of a man with a shotgun seeing a child using a vending machine wired to detonate the distant bomb. Assuming that it is too noisy for the child to hear his shouts, he may shoot the child.

A reader, Eneasz, asked, in effect, where this dividing line is. Is it permissible to kill the child to save 1000 people? What about 1,001?

I conclude that the correct answer is that you may kill an innocent child to save 8,983.6 other lives, provided that at least 0.3 percent of them are physicians. If any physician has a theory on how to cure cancer, he will count for 1,253.3 common individuals. Convicted felons count as 0.03 persons.

Okay, clearly this answer is absurd. More importantly, any moral theory that claims to give answers of this type would thereby reduce itself to an absurdity. Morality simply does not work this way.

Basic Desire Utilitarianism

Desire utilitarianism holds that we use praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment to promote good desires and suppress bad desires. "Good desires" and "bad desires" in turn are desires that tend to fulfill or thwart other desires. The common example that I use says that true beliefs are important to desire fulfillment, so an aversion to deception and intellectual recklessness is a "good desire."

On this theory, a good act is that act that a person with good desires would perform. A vicious (evil) act is an act that a person with good desires would not perform. We assess the act of killing the child on whether it evidences good desires (desire that we have reason to use praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment to promote). So, we praise, condemn, reward, or punish the person who kills the child according to whether we seek to promote or discourage the desires evidenced by his action.

Note that a right action does not actually have to be caused by good desires. It simply needs to be that act that a person with good desires would perform. A person can report a child rapist to the authorities, not because he cares anything about children, but because the child rapist is a business competitor and he wants to rid himself of the competition. Yet, reporting the child rapist is still the right act because it is the act that a person with good desires (an interest in the welfare of children) would perform.

Killing an Innocent Child

So, the moral question is: When will a person with good desires kill an innocent child?

One factor that we must consider in answering this question is: How frequently will this come into play? We have good reason to psychologically mold people into performing the best actions in every-day circumstances more than for exotic scenarios that are never going to happen. We have to consider the question, "How many times will an average person face a situation when he will have to kill a child in order to prevent the detonation of a distant nuclear bomb?" If this is expected to never happen, then we do not need to be devoting a lot of energy into molding the person's desires for those types of situations.

How often can a person save the life of somebody in his family by killing a neighbor's child? If we count the possibility of acquiring useful organs, beliefs (though false, at one time widely held) that a human sacrifice could please the gods, using the neighbor's child as an innocent shield against a would-be attacker, or using him as a guinea pig for medical experiments, the question of when one may kill a neighbor's child is, indeed, an everyday question.

Answering this everyday question brings up the issue of, "If you may kill my child to save the life of somebody in your family, then I may kill your child to save the live of somebody in my family. If I may do so, then I may kill you or your child to prevent you from using the death of my child to save somebody in your family." We end up with a situation with a great deal of desire-thwarting going on.

The rational option is to adopt the position, "We are going to use our tools of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment to promote an aversion to killing children. We shall seek to make this aversion strong enough to prevent people from killing their neighbor's children in all every-day situations in which it might be useful to do so. Instead, we will create a society of individuals who can accept the fact that the fates themselves get to decide who lives and who dies."

This aversion to killing children will not affect an agent's desires when it comes to saving children in trouble. Even as we use praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment to promote an aversion to killing other children, we allow parents to have a special affection for their own children. This means that a parent, faced with a choice of rescuing his own child or rescuing his neighbor's, can still have a stronger desire to rescue his own children than he has for rescuing his neighbor's, and favor his own children in these circumstances.

Preferential Treatment

This brings up a related issue. Can desire utilitarianism defend the idea that parents can give preferential treatment to their own children?

There are two avenues that we take here.

First, desire utilitarianism is only concerned with malleable desires -- desires that can be molded through praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment. It makes no sense to call for using these tools where they have no effect. Thus, desire utilitarianism has a built-in place for the principle that 'ought' implies 'can' and 'cannot' implies 'it is not the case that one ought'. If parental affection is a natural (evolved) disposition that is not subject to change, then those who display it cannot be subject to moral condemnation.

Second, assigning 'favorites' is a recognized way of promoting the general welfare. A company will assign a vice-president to each of several regions. For example, there might be a Vice President for the Pacific Northwest. Each individual is expected to favor his own district. This Vice President will not be expected to sacrifice $5 in sales to bring about a $10 increase in some other region. He is expected to maximize sales in his own region. He may be prevented from harming sales in other regions, but he need not have a special affection for promoting sales in other regions.

The model for assigning vice presidents to regions can be used to justify assigning specific children to specific adults. "Your job is to take care of this child. Focus your attention on his welfare. Other adults will focus on the welfare of other children." So, we use our tools of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment to promote this type of favoritism -- this type of special consideration for those things that become the responsibility of the person to whom they are assigned.

A blend of these two considerations is probably closer to the truth. We combine a natural affection that parents have for their own children with the moral benefit of assigning distinct responsibilities to distinct individuals.

On this basis, a President can show a preference for the welfare of the people in his own country. However, this preference comes with moral limits on what he may do to the people of other countries in executing this responsibility -- just as a parent's responsibility for the welfare of his children comes with limits on what he may do to the children of other parents.

Moral Weight and Moral Exceptions

Another set of moral concepts that we will have to take into consideration is the distinction between moral weight and moral exceptions.

An example of moral weight can be found in the case of a father who is out fishing with his child when the kid gets stung by a bee. Imagine the kid having an allergic reaction and the father's car will not start. There is another car nearby. The owner has left his keys in the car. Therefore, the father takes this car to get his kid to the hospital. The father's duty for the welfare of his son outweighs the wrong of taking the car.

An example of a moral exception can be found in the aversion to killing others. In fact, we do not promote a blanket aversion to killing others. Rather, we promote a moral prohibition against killing others except when the person killed is actually threatening significant harm. We are not, in this case, weighing the attacker's right to life against the victim's right to life. Rather, we say that the attacker has sacrificed or given up his own right to life, and may therefore be killed with moral impunity.

In matters of moral weight, the agent is expected to feel regret and remorse over his actions. He is expected to have an attitude comparable to, "I'm sorry, but there was nothing else I could do. If I had not taken your car to get my sick kid to the hospital, he would be dead." However, in the case of moral exception, no apology or residual regret is expected. The person who kills an attacker owes nobody an apology.

To the desire utilitarian, a case of moral weight is one in which two "good" desires come into conflict. A father is expected to have a desire to take care of his child. He is also expected to have an aversion to taking the property of another. In the scenario above, the two desires come into conflict. Desire utilitarianism states that the aversion to borrowing property should be weaker than the desire to save the life of one's child. So, the father may take the car. However, the outweighed aversion still exists -- still should exist, and it leaves an emotional residue. This aversion is the source of the regret and remorse that lingers as a result of his actions.

The case of an exception recognizes the fact that desires can be complex. Desires can be as complex as the propositions that make up their object. As a result, it is possible to promote a desire that, "I not kill anybody who is not aggressively threatening others with immediate harm." This type of desire allows a person to kill in defense of self and others without the slightest twinge of regret or remorse.

Once again, I remind the reader that it makes little sense to design morality for strange and exotic situations. We have enough to do in using praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment to create the desires and aversions that will serve people in average, every-day circumstances. These every-day desires might have strange implications when an agent finds himself in a highly improbable situation. That is simply a fact of life.

Moral Dilemmas

So, let us go back to the case of killing the innocent child to save others.

The principles that I identified above state that we are going to use praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment that will serve people well in average, every-day events. Those desires and aversions will include an aversion to killing others (except when the 'other' is an attacker and the killing is in defense of non-aggressors). The aversion to killing will be stronger than the aversion to letting die. We will expect people, for example, to have a lower aversion to letting their child die than to killing a neighbor's child to save their own.

However, when the number of people that we would be letting die gets exceptionally large, a person with good desires can find himself in a situation where compassion for others outweighs his aversion to killing.

This is certainly a case of weight, not a case of exceptions. The person with good desires who kills an innocent child to prevent a bomb from going off is going to feel absolutely horrible about it. The thwarted aversion to killing a child will cause him to constantly go over the incident and wonder if there was anything else he could have done. The two desires -- the aversion to killing the child and the desire to save lives -- would have tried to find an option that would have fulfilled both desires, and forced a choice only if such an option could not be found.

There is no specific point at which the aversion to letting lots of people die will outweigh the aversion to killing an innocent child. The every-day world in which we live simply does not provide us with an opportunity to fine-tune these considerations. In the everyday world in which we live, we are (or should be) concerned only with promoting an aversion to killing the innocent and promoting a somewhat weaker aversion to letting die that will prevent killing in common everyday circumstances.

Desire utilitarianism holds that moral dilemmas truly exist. They can be found in cases where a person is in a situation where all possible actions will thwart a strong desire that a good agent would have. The parent who has to decide which of her two children she will allow to be killed (otherwise both will be killed), or the person who must kill their own child to save a city from destruction, are instances of moral dilemmas. The good person will be terribly torn over these options. In the case of a true moral dilemma, the conflict will likely be psychologically destructive.

Moral Agony

We can draw one more implication that will further illustrate this system. We have talked about the person who must kill a child to prevent a distant bomb from going off. Let us add the complication that the child he must kill is his own child. Here, we allow that a person should find it easier to kill a stranger's child to prevent the nuclear explosion than to kill his own child. In fact, I suspect that we may even forgive the person who is simply unable to kill his own child. The moral dilemma -- the conflicting desires -- may psychologically destroy him, but he is simply unable to find the will to kill his own child to prevent the detonation of the bomb.

The preference for one's own children will have an effect in the exotic and unlikely circumstances that everyday morality simply does not prepare us to handle. In this case, it means that he must have more lives on the balance to bring himself to kill his own child than it will take to kill a neighbor's child.

Imagine a movie scene where Character1 is in a position where he must kill his own child to prevent a horrible act. He cannot bring himself to do it. However, he is able to stand by and do nothing while Character2 kills his child. He breaks down at the end due to the loss, but he can let this happen.

In the realm of desire utilitarianism, this is a perfectly understandable and moral option. Morality aims at controlling our actions in decisions that we make every day. It yields sometimes extremey unpleasant results in exotic circumstances that we all have reason to hope that we can avoid. There are situations where even the good person -- particularly the good person -- will find it hard to live with the choices he must make.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006


Over at Atheist Revolution they are talking about "secular fundamentalism." Vjack suggested that there is no such thing as secular fundamentalism, and sought to provide reasons why.

I rise in defense of his claim. "Secular fundamentalism" does not exist, because "secularism" is the reasonable middle ground between fundamentalist extremes.

Atheist Fundamentalism

Atheist fundamentalism, or the theocratic equivalent, is a possibility. It is not at all impossible to imagine a cabal of atheists banning all religious practice, prohibiting prayer even in private, shutting all the churches, and banning any organization that strikes its leaders as ‘religious.’ There is nothing that will prohibit such a society from requiring teachers to teach that no God exists, that those who are religious have abandoned their senses and are not to be trusted in positions of power and lack any ‘rational’ sense of right and wrong. There is no violation of the laws of nature in an atheist society adopting a national motto of, “We accept no gods” and coercing children into a ritual where being accepted in the group requires a willingness to pledge allegiance to "one Godless nation."

If there was ever any reason to believe that atheists will not engage in barbaric inquisitions the French Revolution and other atheist regimes will forever serve as evidence to the contrary.

So, let us not start with the fiction that atheists can pretend to any type of innate moral superiority. Whether an atheist is moral is independent of the question of whether he is an atheist.

Yet, this assumption will only serve to prove my point, that secularism is the midpoint between extremes. As such, it is unreasonable to classify secularism itself as an example of extremism.

The Middle Ground

To see the problem with this view, imagine a society in which there are two main factions. There is a faction of Arians who declare that no Jew deserves to live and are arguing that it is within their right to kill them all. Against them, there is a faction that declares that no Jew may be killed and that Arians and Jews shall live in a society of mutual respect. The Arian faction responds to this by claiming that those who do not respect the Arian right to kill all the Jews are “anti-Arian” and engaged in a war against Arianism.

Between these two factions, a group of individuals emerge who call themselves moderates. They condemn the Arians who seek to kill all the Jews. They equally condemn those who insist that no Jews be killed. They call the former view “Arian fundamentalism” and the latter “Jewish fundamentalism.” As true moderates, they propose a compromise – that half of the Jews are to be killed, to keep their population at a reasonable number, and that the rest are to be allowed to live at peace. These “moderates” praise themselves for not surrendering to extremism.

What these so-called moderates fail to recognize is that the opposition position to “all Jews should be killed” is not “No Jews should be killed” but that “All Ayrians should be killed.” The view that there should be no killing is, in fact, the middle ground between the two extremes. Those who pretend to be defending the moderate position have, in fact, allowed themselves to be manipulated by the language of one of the two extreme factions – a faction that has managed to convince unthinking moderates that those who occupy the true middle ground are “extremists”.

Or let us take similar example. Imagine a society in which the whites wish to live in a society where blacks are slaves. They are opposed by a faction that says that there shall be no black slavery. In this society, the white slavers oil the gears of a public relations campaign that spreads the idea that “black slavery” and “no black slavery” are both extremist positions. They fuel the rise of a moderate faction that argues for a compromise position. This would be a view that blacks must serve as slaves to whites for six months out of the year, while living as free men for the other six months. These moderates are proud of their position, since they have avoided the extremism that plagues these warring factions.

Again, the moderates in this case have been seduced by a lie. The opposite of “black slavery” is not what the white slavers claim it to be. It is not “no black slavery” but “white slavery.” In this case, “no slavery” is the middle ground. Those so-called moderates who defend “six months of slavery” are not defending the middle ground. They have, instead, allied themselves with the slavers to defend a system of injustice to those who they claim should, out of fairness, agree to be enslaved for part of the year.

Atheist fundamentalism is a possibility. It is no more true to say that the opposite of “theocracy” is “secularism” then it is to say that the opposite of “kill all the Jews” is “kill no Jews” or that the opposite of “black slavery” is “no black slavery.” The true opposite of a religious theocracy is the type of atheist tyranny that I have described above.


The true opposite of “one nation under God” is “one godless nation.” Secularism, which endorses neither position, is the true middle ground between these two extremes.

The true opposite of ‘in God we trust” is not “e pluribus unum.” It is “We accept no God.” The motto “e pluribus unum” represents the true and moral middle ground between these two extremes.

The true opposite of putting a Christian cross on public land near San Diego is not “no symbol”, but to put an atheist symbol on that land. “No symbol” represents the compromise middle ground between the two extremes.

As Austin Cline at “About Atheism” reported, in the House of Representatives today religious fundamentalists pushed a measure that would have the effect of permitting those who defend Christians to collect legal fees if they should win a lawsuit challenging government actions based on the “free exercise” clause of the First Amendment, but would prohibit those who defend atheists from collecting legal fees if they should win a case grounded on the “establishment” clause of the same amendment. This is a “compromise position” much like that between “kill all the Jews” and “kill no Jews” mentioned above, or “total black slavery” and “no black slavery” also mentioned.

What we have here is evidence that those who claim that their religion gives them particularly keen moral insight are incapable of recognizing and applying basic principles of fairness and justice. If they had that insight, then they would be making this argument instead of me. Instead, we have a case in which faith has blinded some to justice, and once again been the foundation on which a monument to injustice is constructed.

Yet, in spite of this, it remains the case that secularism is the true middle ground – the true moral ground – between these two extremes is to have the same attitude towards a government that declares, “In God We Trust” that one would have to a national motto that ways, “We accept no Gods.” True justice says to view “one nation under God” with the same contempt that one would have for “one Godless nation,” to view a government-sponsored Christian symbol the same way that one would view a government sponsored atheist symbol, and to give Christians and atheists equal protection under the law.

A truly just person would defend secularism.

A truly just God would demand it.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Treason and the New York Times

Those who wish to charge individuals at the New York Times with treason for revealing the fact that Bush is spying on Americans without a warrant prove by their words that they are fonder of tyranny than they are of liberty.

Perhaps they do not realize which cause they are working for. Perhaps they lack the wisdom to realize that the tools Bush is creating are those that tyrants drool over, and that the best way to prevent tyranny is to deny would-be tyrants access to these tools. This is what the founding fathers tried to do in creating the Constitution with its Bill of Rights. Perhaps, those who protest the actions of the New York Times are not particularly adept at understanding the lessons of history.

Or, maybe, they do understand what a tyrant can do with the tools that the Bush Administration is manufacturing for them. Maybe, instead, they are under the delusion that would-be tyrants have some natural reluctant to using these tools to support a reign of tyranny. Maybe they think that tyrants have a conscience.

Or we might be witnessing a third option; hypocrites who think that it is somehow permissible to bind others by rules that do not apply to them. These might be people who are incapable of understanding that a person cannot perform an action that they would call evil if they were done by another person without calling himself evil in the same breath.

The Hypocrisy Option

Of the three, I suspect that a majority of the critics of the New York Times fall into the third option.

This is just a guess, and I am certainly in no position to argue for it. Still, I suspect that many of these critics would be praising the actions of the New York Times as heroic and the model of true patriotism, if they had exposed a Democratic administration of performing these same actions. In fact, I would expect that they would have had Gore up on charges with the Wiretap story, and the current revelations would simply add icing to their political cake.

I would like to suggest to anybody who has this particular mindset that, perhaps, you can come to an understanding as to why these actions are evil by imaging, for a moment, what you would be saying today if the Gore Administration had taken these actions. I suspect that you would agree with the arguments that I will give below as to why the charge of “treason” is more aptly applied to a President who will act to destroy and undermine the principles of liberty that used to be important to the people of this country, than to a newspaper that still works to defend those freedoms.

Future Abuses

What is to prevent a future President from using these tools to spy on their political rivals, to collect "intelligence" on an "enemy" simply because that enemy belongs to the opposite party?

The best setting to imagine in answering this question is at a pub in the late 1700s, at a table where the leaders of a newly created nation has just won its liberty. “How do we secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity?” they ask each other. One way is to make sure that no person acquires tyrannical power. We protect the people by taking political power and dividing it between three branches of government, where one branch looks over the shoulders of another and makes sure that they do their job and that they do not abuse the power they have.

What these people see as “the enemy” is the monarchist – the tyrant who thinks that he alone is “the decider” who can do as he pleases with no legislative or judicial oversight. The people would see this potential tyrant as the true “traitor” to the principles they had fought for. They would see the press that exposes their treachery to these principles as the hero, a social benefactor so worthy of protection that they would write an Amendment to protect those who would expose government attempts to establish the manufacture and put into place the tools of tyranny.

What is to prevent a Karl Rove of the future from taking a list of people who contributed to the campaigns of a political rival, hand that list to the Justice Department (somebody appointed to the position because of his party loyalty and willingness to use these tools to pursue party aims).

He would, of course, be handing these names to a Justice Department lead by a political ally – somebody who thinks that keeping his people in power is his most important job. He would, of course, make sure that his party has access to whatever information it may find useful. He would do this either by putting party loyalists who can keep a secret in charge of accessing this information, or threaten those who are not party loyalists with “treason” if they should expose this abuse.

He would be somebody who thinks that “treason” means “betraying my political party,” as opposed – perhaps – to “betraying the moral foundation on which this country is built.”

Present Abuses

We do not need to look at the potential abuses of some future administration to see that the Bush Administration is the biggest threat to our future security. We need only look at the example that the Bush Administration is setting for current governments around the world.

If these organizations are giving information to the Bush Administration, then what else are they doing with this information? More importantly, if it is morally permissible for the Bush Administration to engage in these types of activities, then the Bush Administration has no moral leg to stand on in protesting the violations of any other country.

What Bush claims the right to do to people, he gives every government in the world today the right to do to people. Perhaps they do not have the technology – yet. But they will. When they do, they can point at Bush while they claim the right to use it. Then, how secure will we be?

The message that the Bush Administration is sending to the leaders of the world is this: “If you have a legislature in your country, feel free to ignore its laws. Simply rewrite those laws to suit your interests using signing statements or whatever tools you can imagine. Do not worry about the courts. Instead, sign executive orders that bypass the courts – that deny them the power to judge your actions. Spy on your people using whatever means are available. Take those who you think threaten you, call them ‘enemy combatants’, and throw them in prison without charges or a trial. Torture them. If your objectives require killing a few innocent civilians – even children – feel free to do so. In fact, you may do so on the mere suspicion that you might also kill somebody who you have decided to call an enemy. In all of this, remember that you never need to answer to anybody but yourself. So, if you end up stepping over the line, simply forgive yourself and continue on. Allow nobody to check or balance your use of absolute power.”

A lot of countries, I am sure, are taking notes.

With this, nobody can reasonably assert that Bush is creating a world in which any sane American can claim to feel safer.

The Argument Against Embarrassing the President

Another argument made against the New York Times for the publication of these articles is that their intent was to embarrass or do harm to President Bush.

This argument is self-defeating. The only way to make this argument is to begin with the assumption that the Bush Administration was doing something that many Americans think its government should not be doing. We are supposed to have a government “of the people.” This means that the government should reflect the peoples’ values. If the government is doing this, then there is nothing that any newspaper can do to “embarrass the President.”

If, on the other hand, a paper’s story is at risk of embarrassing the President, we must then assume that the President is doing something that does not reflect the values and concerns of the American people. If this is the case, then it is a case in which the government has betrayed the people. The paper that reports this betrayal can only be understood as working to serve the people.

It does not matter that the people might not be in agreement on this issue. The people have a right to resolve their differences by debating the issues among themselves. If publication of a government’s wrongs turns a 53 to 47 percent victory into a 47 to 53 percent defeat, then the people have spoken. The people cannot speak on issues they are not allowed to know. The people can only reject a government that does not reflect its values if somebody has the courage to tell them that the government does not reflect its values.

Betraying History

The last issue of treason that I wish to discuss involves betraying past generations.

This argument concerns claims like those that E.D. Hill made on Fox News that the government’s “number 1 job” is to “keep us alive.”

For over 225 years, Americans have taken this bundle of values called “liberty” and handed it from one generation to the next. Each generation has promised to defend it with their lives, and to hand that bundle to the next generation.

Now, in the first decade of the 21st Century, this bundle has been given to a group of people who hold it out and say, “What? Guard it with my life. You must be insane to think that this bundle of liberty is worth as much as that! And those people who have said otherwise for the past two centuries, they were wrong, too. Here, take it. Destroy it. I will not defend it, and I will condemn and insult any who try."

But is this not the way tyranny works? The tyrant says, “Obey and serve me, keep me happy, and I will allow you to live?” Eventually, somebody gets the idea that there are values that good people are willing to secure, even if it means risking their lives.

To give up the values that generations have fought to defend with their lives . . . nothing better fits the concept of betrayal than this.

Monday, June 26, 2006

A Concern over a Philanthropic Superfund

So, I read in the papers that the second richest man in the world has been overtaken by a bout of philanthropy and decided to give his vast fortune away . . . to the richest man in the world. Warren Buffett will be giving away his vast accumulation of wealth by donating it to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Bill Gates, in turn, is retiring from Microsoft so that he can focus on running his Foundation full time -- putting his business skills to work in the private charity sector.

Clearly, this is admirable. It is a bit difficult to maintain the bigotry (and it is, in fact, bigotry) that corporate leaders are inherently evil when the vast majority of their wealth goes into establishing and maintaining services to the poor. (The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is devoting most of its resources to fighting diseases such as AIDS and malaria in third-world countries, particularly Africa, and in promoting high-school education.)

Buffett chose to give his money to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for a reason -- it was the only charity that could handle such a large influx of new wealth. Any other organization would have had growing pains as they grew to handle the new wealth.

Yet, I do think that there are a couple of dangers here.

The first danger comes from having so much power (and wealth is power) in so few hands. Regardless of what I may think about the merit of this Foundation's work, I know that there are a lot of people out there who are just aching to get their hands on nearly $100 billion in wealth. They can well imagine what they can do with that type of wealth, advancing those causes that they think are worthy of advancing.

It is not at all difficult to imagine an organization, filled with zealous devotion to some ideal that they have pledged themselves to accomplish, struggling to take over the wealth of a foundation such as this. We see something much like this in the way the Religious Right has taken over the Republican Party as well as several once-moderate churches. The begin by getting one or two of their members into positions of power, and then they use the leverage that these people have to pull others into powerful positions, until they control the organization. This does not require an elaborate conspiracy theory. This simply requires a group of people with common aims, a lust for power, and an unflinching dedication to getting what they want.

In this case, the power of having control of nearly a hundred billion dollars would provide a lot of motivation. We would be foolish if we did not expect a power struggle for control of this money that is little different from the power struggle we see to control existing governments and churches.

Eventually, that power will end up in the wrong hands. The wrong hands, with that much power, will be able to do tremendous harm.

One way to avoid this danger is to lock the Foundation on a particular course so that power-hungry individuals cannot hijack it. This means that, no matter who takes over the Foundation, they will not have the liberty to do as they please with the money. They can only pursue the original intent of that foundation.

This option suffers from its own problems.

The first risk is that the original intent is not worth the effort. We can imagine, for example, an ante-bellum Southern aristocrat establishing a Foundation for the Promotion and Expansion of the Institution of Negro Slavery. If the foundation is incapable of changing its charter as time goes by, then the funds will continue to be dedicated to this objective long after rational people have identified the objective as unworthy of support.

The second risk does not require that we imagine that the original intention of the Foundation is bad to be able to imagine where poor flexibility leads to bad consequences. Think of a Foundation, for example, strictly concerned with finding a vaccine for Polio. The vaccine has since been found. If the Foundation is fixed on one project in order to prevent it from being hijacked, it may find itself poised to solve problems that do not exist, while new problems are under-funded. On the other hand, the ability to change course leaves the Foundation vulnerable to being hijacked.

In addition to bad objectives, or objectives that become bad as the world situation changes, people simply have an uncanny ability to ignore rules they do not like. The Bush Administration has shown us how easy it is for those in charge to ignore the plain text of a charter or Constitution by simply deciding that they will no longer follow its requirements. Plain-text rules such as "no search or seizure without a warrant" and the invention of "signing statements" that allow the President to rewrite any law he does not like before signing it are tools that can also be put to work against the bylaws of any Foundation.

So, we are stuck between a flexible Foundation that can be hijacked by those who have less than admirable intentions for their use of the money, or an inflexible Foundation whose objectives are bad, or start out good and become outdated, or are ignored by power-hungry individuals who simply decide to ignore the charter.

One way to avoid this dilemma is to simply be aware of the dangers of putting too much power in too few hands. This is the same argument that suggests that rational people adopt a government whose powers are divided among different branches, where each branch has the power to check and balance the powers of the other. In this case, we are talking about a division of wealth so that no self-important person or group can hijack the whole sum for his or her personal project.

I am more than pleased with what Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett have decided to do with their wealth. I hope that others follow suit. However, I sincerely hope that they do not follow suit in a way that puts all too much wealth and power into too few hands. Eventually, that wealth and power is going to end up in hands of somebody who lack good intentions, at which time the wealth and power will be doing more harm than good.

I actually have no idea what type of charter Bill and Melinda Gates have set up. I hope that they were smart enough to realize that, after they had gone, others may divert their great wealth to the interloper's own pet projects. I think we are foolish if we do not anticipate the fact that creating the largest private accumulation of wealth in one foundation will generate a great deal of political conflict over who gets to control that power, and that conflict will inflict its own costs.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

More Bush Spying

The New York Times has exposed another one of Bush's spying programs – another program. This spying program one looks at bank information to find out who is sending money to whom. Allegedly, they are looking at who is sending money to terrorists. I am wondering about whether they are looking at political contributions and corporate transactions as well.

I cannot help but feel sorry for the civil servant who says to himself, "This is wrong. What the government is doing to its people is wrong." I am going to risk my career to let the people know what the government is doing to them." She warns us of some government misdeed, and the society that she has sought to protect shrugs its collective shoulders and says, "So?"

Any one of these revelations should have brought about a scandal. Any one of them should have had the Bush Administration either apologizing profusely for its misdeeds or suffering the consequences. Instead, we get, "So?"

I am also concerned about the fact that the Press keeps describing this programs as, "Spying on suspected terrorists."

How do they know this?

This description makes it sound like those who are concerned about these programs want to give the terrorists an opportunity to hide. This is not the case, and those who claim that this is the motivation behind these revelations is simply being dishonest.

The question that I keep raising each time one of these reports comes out is, "How do we know that the Bush Administration is only spying on suspected terrorists? What is to prevent them (or some future administration) from spying on anybody they want to spy on?"

My concern is that the Bush Administration may be spying only on suspected terrorists the way that it invades only countries supporting those who attacked the United States on 9/11. My concern is with the possibility that Bush Administration officials might have an agenda, with an ulterior motive, that would involve invading a country so they rationalize a way of thinking about this country that makes it seem to them to be worthy of attack.

Similarly, they can have an agenda, with an ulterior motive, that would require looking at somebody’s bank or phone records, so they concoct a way of looking at this person that would then justify looking at the information they have collected.

How do we know that this is not happening? What safeguards do we have against this possibility?

The purpose of judicial review -- the purpose of a system of checks and balances in general -- is not to prevent the government from spying on Al Queida. It is to make sure that the government is spying on Al Queida, and not abusing its powers to help to secure political powers and oppress their opponents. Its purpose is to give us a way of answering the question "How do we know?" -- that answer being "Because a judge reviewed the activity and determined that the Administration is, in fact, using these powers against Al Queida rather than political opponents, personal enemies, or competitors of their big corporate sponsors."

It is still possible that the Administration can find and appoint a judge that will give it a blank check to whatever abuses its members can dream up. To make this a little more difficult, we use multiple judges in a court in some instances, such as the Court of Appeals, the Supreme Court, and FISA Courts. This makes it a little harder for the Administration to find a body of conspirators to help hide its abuse of power.

Instead, the Bush Administration has adopted a policy of self-review. "My actions are legitimate if the person that I have hired/appointed to tell me that it is legitimate says that it is legitimate." This is a bit like saying, "I am intelligent if the person I hire to tell me that I am intelligent says that I am intelligent."

Even if Karl Rove or Vice President Cheney are able to resist the temptation to use the power to spy on the American people to further their political and economic ambitions and aid their corporate allies, sooner or later there will be somebody in government who is not so temperate. Sooner or later, somebody is going to be able to frame their question in such a way that they will be able to rationalize the abuse of these powers, unless there is a check or balance on hand to prevent it.

The movie, "The Talented Mr. Ripley" contains a quote that identifies an extremely important fact about human nature. Tom Ripley states, "Well, whatever you do, however terrible, however hurtful, it all makes sense, doesn't it, in your head. You never meet anybody that thinks they're a bad person." Even Hitler, at the end of his days, thought that he was a good person. People who make themselves dictator and abuse power, somehow, are able to frame the situation in their minds in such a way that they are the hero, and anybody who would challenge them is the villain who is getting in the way of that which is truly good.

So, the President who abuses these powers will almost certainly be one who thinks that he has important work to do, and that his projects warrant doing away with those who criticize him and stand in the way of success. Those short-sighted individuals who nip at his heels and do not see the greatness of his vision simply will have to be dealt with – unless there are checks and balances that prevent him from doing so.

Good people must demand a system of checks and balances because, inevitably, with as much certainty as sunrises and sunsets, autocratic power will end up in the hands of somebody with a warped and twisted idea of what it means to be a "good person." The bad thing about unchecked and unbalanced power is that it attracts these type of people like moths to a fire. They are the ones who are willing to work the hardest to secure this power, and they are the ones who will put it to use once they get it.

When that day comes, those of our children and grand children alive at the time will curse the fact that we turned our back on the wisdom of our founding fathers and abolished the system of checks and balances they created for us.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Killing/Capturing Terrorists

On June 22, American law enforcement officials arrested seven members of a 'terrorist' group who were allegedly planning to blow up the Sears Tower in Chicago and other targets. (Actually, the group had no explosive and had made no plans to blow up any target, but had expressed an interest in doing so to an informant posing as a member of Al Queida.)

What surprises me is that the government sought an indictment by a grand jury and arrested these suspected terrorists without firing a shot. I would have expected the government to have called in an air strike, drop a few laser-guided bombs on the building, then do DNA analysis on the scattered body parts to see who they managed to kill.

Okay, honestly, I am not surprised at the failure to drop bombs on the building rather than arrest the terrorists. However, we do seem to have two methods of dealing with a building suspected of housing terrorist targets. In some cases we use indictments and arrest individuals without loss of life. In other cases, such as Damadola, Ishaqi, and the killing of Al-Zarqawi, we drop bombs on buildings even when children are inside.

The moral question that I want to investigate in today’s blog is: What are the rules that determine when dropping a stick of bombs on a building containing suspected terrorists is appropriate, and when is it inappropriate?

Let’s be honest; this is not an open-and-shut moral case. There are complicating factors.

There is, for example, the issue of dropping bombs on "suspected" terrorists. Read the news papers, and you will encounter a number of incidents where people were not allowed to fly, including young children and Senator Ted Kennedy, because their name matched those found on a government no-fly list. How many bombs have gone off in the homes of "suspected" terrorists who were just family members trying to live a simple life?

Also, the bombs have been dropped on buildings on the suspicion that a terrorist leader might be present, not on the certainty that he is present. I know of no way to determine how many bombs have been dropped where there was no legitimate target, but only a family member in the wrong place.

Another complicating factor involves “grudge informers.” These are people who want to get rid of a relative, neighbor, or business competitor legally by reporting them to the authorities and letting the authorities take care of them. A situation in which people are killing others on the mere suspicion of a terrorist leader in the area, I suspect that that at least one innocent family in Iraq has been blown to bits because a “grudge informer” managed to give a convincing story to the American military.

One way to prevent these types of problems is to establish procedural safeguards such as grand jury indictments, arrests, and trials.

This case calls up what ethicists call the "innocent shield" case. Evil people like to surround themselves with children because they know that good people are not inclined to kill children. This includes actions such as hiding behind a hostage during a standoff with police, chaining captured civilians to tanks before doing battle with partisans, , and using schools and hospitals as ammo storage dumps. When evil people take hostages, particularly children, officials have to consider the fact that the hostages may die when the authorities burst in to end the siege.

There has to be a moral permission for good people to take action against important enemy assets even though evil people have placed innocent shields with those assets. Otherwise, we give evil people an easy way to secure victory.

At the same time, good people should never find it too easy to kill innocent shields. We can tell when a person kills innocent shields too easily by the fact that he fails to use an easy alternative that would not involve killing, or he uses the tactic even when going after enemy assets that have low value.

The good person must even be willing to accept some additional risk or to increase the chance of failure if it means saving innocent lives. After all, what are good people fighting for, if not to protect the innocent from those who would cause them harm? Indifference over the plight of the innocent -- even an innocent shield -- would disqualify an individual from being classified as a ‘good person’.

What, then, are the criteria for killing innocent shields?

I want to get rid of one possible criterion immediately. Being an American is not a morally relevant category. There is no moral rule that states that Americans have a greater right to live than any other human. In fact, morality requires that all people be treated equally – that the wrongness of killing an individual is unaffected by his citizenship. An American child has no more rights than an Iraqi child. Dropping a bomb on a house in Pakistan where a family is sitting down for a holiday meal is no different than dropping a bomb on a house in Kansas on Christmas Eve.

If we are willing to drop a bomb on a house in Pakistan under conditions where we would not drop a bomb in Kansas (or permit a plane from another country to drop a bomb on a house in Kansas) then we are violating the foundational principle of moral equality. If we are not willing to allow others to do to us what we do to them, then we are implying that what we do is evil.

A good person does not consider the nationality of his victims before dropping a bomb. What does he consider?

First, he must begin with a presumption against killing innocent people. Innocent people never need to prove that their life should be spared. Rather, it is up to those who would act in ways that kill innocent people (including innocent shields) to prove that their actions are necessary. The burden of proof is on the killer, not his victims. If there is reason to believe that innocent people could die, the agent must immediately decide against the act, unless compelling reasons force him back onto the “yes” side of the line.

Second, the killer of innocent people must be in a position of weakness. There must be a real chance that evil may win the war and that good institutions are at risk of being destroyed unless the action is taken.

Seriously, if you are killing innocent people it means that you are either too vicious to care about their lives, or too impotent to do anything else.

It is not sufficient that there might be a loss of innocent life if the action is not taken. We are presuming that there will be a loss of innocent life if the action is taken. A parent, who can only rescue one child from a fire, may have a parental right to save his own child. However, he has no right to kill his neighbor’s child to save his own. He would not even have the right to kill his neighbor’s child to save his whole family. In a good person, the aversion to dealing a death blow to an innocent person should be strong enough to prohibit these types of actions.

Killing an innocent person requires that there be something much more important at stake, such as the institutions of a free and just society. In World War II and the Cold War, these conditions were met. Nazi Germany and the Former Soviet Union did not only have the will to destroy free societies, they had the means. The institutions of a free society were clearly at risk.

Are the institutions of a free society at risk in this so-called “war on terror?” The question is: Does Al Queida have a real chance of overthrowing our government and imposing on us against our will a set of rules to their liking?

I do not see how.

Al Queida may have the power to kill people and destroy buildings. However, it does not have the ability to destroy our institutions. At this point, politicians in Washington are the only people who have the power to destroy our institutions. Al Queida is relatively impotent.

This means that we might not have the justification required to take innocent life. We may not be going against people who are powerful enough to warrant these types of actions.

And if we kill innocent people when the institutions of a free and just society are not at risk, then we risk being as bad as those we hunt. At least, we are showing a comparable disregard for the taking of innocent life.

Are we truly fighting from a position of weakness such that we have no choice but to kill children?

Friday, June 23, 2006

Who Is Maligning Whom?

I find it interesting to note that people on the political left and the political right make almost exactly the same claims when it comes to the way their political allies and their political opponents behave regarding individuals on the other side of the political divide.

"You people over there are always insulting and belittling us and our beliefs. You make blatant, over generalized, hurtful statements about us. We, on the other hand, try to be civil. Yes, there are few of us on this side of the divide that sometimes step over the line. However, we, at least, try to police our own members. You, over there, seem to make no attempt to reign in the bigots and hate-mongers on your own side."

So, what's going on here?

I would like to suggest that people on both sides suffer from selective sight and hearing. They blind and deaf to the hate-mongering on their side of the divide. They simply do not see or hear it. On the other hand, they develop an acute sensitivity to the insults and barbs hurled from the other side of the gap, such that those on the other side may respond with accusations of 'cry baby'.


It may come from the fact that insults and barbs hurled at those on the other side of the divide are hurled at 'others'. Therefore, they can be ignored. There is no real risk that the person hurling these insults are going to hit you. They are focused on those on the other side of the political divide. So, you can safely ignore them. On the other hand, the people on the other side of the divide hurling barbs at you and the things that you value. Those barbs sting. They can do real harm (in terms of being desire-thwarting). Consequently, they are much more difficult to ignore.

It is high noon in a town in the old west. You are standing on the street with two notorious gunslingers. One of them is paying attention to somebody you never really liked. The other is looking straight at you. The next day, the sheriff asks you what happened. I suspect that most people in this situation would be able to give a detailed description of what the second gunslinger did, but be able to say very little about the first.

This is human nature. Of course, we are going to pay more attention at those who are attacking us than we are those who are attacking "somebody else" and leaving us alone. However, we should not allow us this to fool us into thinking that one gunslinger is worse than the other. Certainly, the one aiming at you would appear more dangerous to you. However, this is not sufficient to support the conclusion that the gunslinger coming after you is more evil than the gunslinger going after somebody you do not like.

I do not recall ever reading a protest that those on the other side of the isle are more malicious and mean than those on the friendly side use anything other than personal perception or anecdotal evidence to support their claims. I am not saying that they are wrong. I am saying that they have no good reason to be making the claims they make.

Even if they happen to be right, their claims have no moral relevance.

For illustrative purposes, let us assume that somebody who is making this type of accusation is telling the truth. "People on your side of the isle devote more energy to hate-mongering and bigotry than people on our side, and are less likely to police your own members than we are."

My arguments showing the bigotry in Rush Limbaugh's statements are sound. If somebody were to answer back, "There are more people making unfair criticisms of conservatives than there are making unfair criticisms of liberals," my answer would not be, "That is not true."

My answer would be, "I don't care; that is entirely irrelevant."

This objection is a distraction; a diversion. It is irrelevant noise intending to take the listener’s focus on the issue being proved and the soundness of the argument, the bigotry and hate-mongering of the accused.

My criticism was sound. I defined my terms and provided evidence that Rush Limbaugh was guilty of the moral wrongs that I charged him with. The general quality and quantity of criticisms of conservatives versus liberals is irrelevant to the soundness of this specific case.

Imagine a Jew trying to defend himself from the charge of murdering a German claiming in his defense, "I know of Germans who have killed a higher number of Jews than I have killed of Germans." He may have a case against those Germans who murdered Jews. However, his case does not imply that his act is anything other than an act of murder. We should clearly avoid the habit of declaring people to be "not guilty" of a crime simply because he is not the only one who is guilty.

This type of response falls fully in the bin for the "two wrongs make a right" fallacy. It is an illegitimate and irrelevant defense that shows as much of a lack of genuine interest in the moral quality of actions as the original bigot showed.

This type of response utterly fails to deflect the proof that Rush Limbaugh is a bigot and a hate-monger.

It is the case that, just as individuals allow themselves to ignore the bigotry and hate-mongering that comes from the near side of the political canyon, they are also more sensitive to criticism coming from allies than they are to criticism coming from across the divide. Criticism from across the divide is to be expected. Those people over there are nothing but a gaggle of moronic self-interested irrational hate-mongering bigots anyway, so their arguments need not be given any weight.

As a result, if somebody is interested in fighting bigotry and hate-mongering, it would actually be more useful to focus criticism on one's political allies than it is to focus criticism on political opponents.

As I wrote yesterday, the first place to start is with one's own writing. The next place to go in order to try to fight the tendency towards bigoted hate-mongering is to one's co-authors; those who participate in the same writing projects that you participate in. They should be encouraged not to adopt bigoted over-generalized language in their writing.

In this way, we can start to create a better dialogue that focuses on the actual problems we need to solve.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

What Is a Bigot?

Recent events (including yesterday's post) have given me reason to investigate the question, "When can you legitimately call somebody a bigot?"

The basic answer is: "When it is true."

When is it true?

It is true when an individual takes a characteristic and applies it adversely to a group when it is unreasonable to believe that all members of the group have that characteristic.

A paradigm example of bigotry is found in applying the property of ‘criminal’ to those who are black. Another example involves applying the property ‘stupid’ to those who are blonde. We also see bigotry in those who apply the property ‘without morals’ to ‘atheists.’

Yesterday, I called Rush Limbaugh a bigot for claiming that all liberals cheered the murder of two American soldiers in Iraq. In fact, one would be hard pressed to find any liberals cheering this brutal crime. Furthermore, what Limbaugh seems to have wanted to call ‘cheering’ was, in fact, an assertion that Defense Secretary Rumsfeld deserves some moral criticism for this outrage – criticism for putting the victims in harm’s way.

Conservatives are not the only ones prone to bigotry. In fact, the tendency is far too common everywhere. Any time somebody condemns “Republicans” or “conservatives” or “Christians” or “People who voted for Bush” by asserting that they all have a characteristic that they do not share in fact, that person shows himself to be a bigot.

[Note: Taner Edis had a statement on his post at The Secular Outpost that I was going to use as an example of liberal bigotry. However, he has since corrected it – which deserves a note of praise.]

A bigoted generalization does not necessarily have to say something bad about individuals in a group. It simply needs to be applied to them adversely. Saying that a person “has rhythm” is not, in itself, an insult or an accusation. It is, however, a sign of bigotry when it is said of a person merely because he is black.

Why Bigotry is Evil

Bearing False Witness

The first problem with bigotry is that the bigot's claims are false in many instances. That is to say, bigots “bear false witness” against their victims.

Here, I want to point out that there is a distinction between ‘lying’ and ‘bearing false witness,’ and that the second is still a serious moral crime.

To see the distinction, we can look at the difference between ‘murder’ and ‘killing an innocent person.’ Murder is understood as intentionally or knowingly killing an innocent person. However, it is also wrong to kill an innocent person through negligent or reckless actions. Negligent homicide is still considered wrong, and the accused cannot defend himself by claiming that he did not intend to kill his victim.

‘Bearing false witness’ consists not only of intentionally reporting as true something that one knows to be false (a.k.a., ‘lying’). It also includes recklessly or negligently promoting a false belief. In fact, the moral crime of negligence often takes the form of negligent belief. It can be found in the doctor who arrogantly presumed that his diagnosis must be accurate, the ship pilot who presumed that the channel was deep enough for his oil tanker, a rapist’s negligent belief that ‘there is no, no on your lips but yes, yes in your eyes, and a President’s negligent belief that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.

Negligent belief is a moral crime because negligent beliefs cause harm. Where a negligent belief can cause harm, individuals have an obligation to check and double-check their facts.

Bigots hold and promote beliefs that cause harm without checking their facts. Bigots are guilty of the moral crime of ‘bearing false witness.’ Rush Limbaugh was guilty of ‘bearing false witness’ when he reported that liberals are cheering the murder of those soldiers in Iraq.

Accusing the Innocent

The second moral crime inherent in bigotry is that of accusing people of crimes for which they are innocent. Each of us has a right to be assumed innocent unless proven guilty.

If it is permissible to assume guilt, then none of us is safe. I can assume that everyone who reads this post is child rapists, and not a one of you can prove that you are not. The only defense that any of us ever have against the accusation that we have committed a crime is that the accuser cannot provide any evidence that we are guilty. We can never prove our innocence.

So, reasonable people adopt and defend the moral principle that a person is to be presumed innocent until proven guilty.

Along with this, reasonable people recognize that bigotry is a form of injustice. There is no clearer measure of injustice than to condemn and/or punish a person for a crime that he did not commit. By definition, the bigot condemns (at the very least) people for wrongs that they did not commit. Rush Limbaugh was accusing his victims (liberals) of crimes (cheering the murder of soldiers in Iraq) they did not commit.

Anybody who loves justice must certainly hate the bigot; and anybody who cheers bigots clearly must have little or no interest in justice.


Truth and justice. The essence of bigotry is that it is found in those who are the enemy of truth and justice; who are quite comfortable living a life of somebody who 'bears false witness' and promotes injustice.


To avoid the moral crime of bigotry, a person has to follow these two rules:

(1) Make your accusations of specific individuals (e.g., Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter), and not against groups. Any statement that says that "Christians" or "Liberals" or "Republicans" or "Democrats" and the like all share some despicable characteristic are examples of bigotry in action. They are signs of a person who cares more about hate than he does about truth and justice.

(2) Where you can provide proof that a person has committed a moral act worthy of condemnation, you can draw two legitimate conclusions.

(a) Anybody who performs a similar act is similarly guilty.

(b) Those who support or cheer the person who performed the act wear the moral taint of those they cheer or support.

Before I close, I want to draw particular attention to item (2b). We should recognize that bigots and hate-mongers like Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter would have been nothing if not for those who supported and promoted their actions. It is reasonable to believe that society, by rewarding them for their moral lapses, encouraged them to become more and more morally depraved over time.

In other words, Limbaugh and Colter are symptoms of a corrupt society that feeds and nurtures hate and bigotry. Certainly, Limbaugh and Colter are to be condemned for their moral failings; they cannot get off simply by saying, “It’s not my fault; they did this to me!” However, it is a mistake to only condemn Limbaugh and Colter, when their fans at least as guilty as they are.

So, when making an accusation that an individual is a bigot, I would like to make sure that you include a harsh statement for those who make bigotry profitable. As I wrote yesterday, just as those who would cheer the murder of American soldiers in Iraq wear some of the moral taint for that murder, those who make bigotry and hate-mongering profitable in this country wear the moral taint of a bigoted hate-monger themselves. They certainly are doing nothing to make our society better than it would otherwise have been.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Rush Limbaugh's Bearing False Witness

I am trying to figure out whether Rush Limbaugh and his supporters do not believe in the Christian God, or do not care whether such a God exists. They certainly have no qualms against "bearing false witness." This implies that they do not believe that a God who prohibits bearing false witness exists, or they do not care.

Granted, I do not believe that such a God exists. I have an argument for a social prohibition against bearing false witness that does not depend on the existence of such a God. I'll get to that later. For a few paragraphs at least, I want to look at this from Limbaugh's own assumptions.

From “Crooks and Liars,” in a recent radio show, Limbaugh said:

"I got an email here. "(Uh) Rush, (uh) now that two of our own have been tortured and murdered by the terrorists in Iraq, will the Left say that they deserved it? I'm so sick of our cut-and-run liberals. Keep up your great work." Bob C. from Roanoke, Virginia. "PS, I love the way you do the program on the Little Kim (?)" (laughs) I I added that! He didn't, he didn't put that in there. (laughs) You know, it-it's-I-uh...I gotta tell ya, I-I-I perused the liberal, kook blogs today, and they are happy that these two soldiers got tortured. They're saying, "Good riddance. Hope Rumsfeld and whoever sleep well tonight."

Let us grant Limbaugh the benefit of the doubt. Let us assume that he went out onto the internet and found somebody who (1) identified themselves as a 'liberal', and (2) cheered the death of these soldiers.

No, on the other hand, a fundamental principle of justice says that the person who makes these types of accusations deserves no benefit of the doubt. Instead, the benefit of the doubt goes to the accused, who are to be presumed innocent until proven guilty. The accuser has the obligation to provide evidence, which Limbaugh did not do.

This is Limbaugh's first moral transgression.

I also want to make it clear that every one of Limbaugh's transgressions reflect on those who support him. Limbaugh himself suggests that this is a valid moral implication. He uses it when he infers that the moral condemnation of those who murdered these soldiers reflects those who cheer the murderers. He’s right in this. Yet, from this, we get to infer that those who would cheer Limbaugh’s own injustice and immorality are also tainted by his moral transgressions.

However, let us assume that Limbaugh went out and discovered some person or persons who cheered the murder of these soldiers.

There is a clear distinction between cheering the murder of these soldiers, and condemning Rumsfeld for being partially to blame for their deaths. Assume that a man knows that a neighbor up the street is a serial killer. With this in mind, he sends his wife over to the neighbor’s house to borrow some flower. He never sees her again. There is a difference between cheering the death of the woman and condemning the man for causing that death.

Limbaugh’s comment suggests that he is misrepresenting the claims of those he read. This would make him a liar, and this would be his second moral transgression.

So, let us go further and say that he found somebody who actually cheered the death of these soldiers – who claims that killing them was a good thing and well deserved. Limbaugh’s discovery would only justify a conclusion that condemned those who actually cheered these deaths. He would have no justification for expanding those who are guilty – those who are worthy of condemnation – beyond those who actually committed this moral transgression.

Yet, Limbaugh does expand the range of those he says are guilty. Limbaugh does, in fact, condemn the innocent.

His logic is exactly the same as that used by a person who goes out to do some research, finds an example of a black man murdering a cop, then going onto his web show and claiming, "I have perused the internet and discovered that black men are, indeed, cop killers." Or, it would be similar to going out onto the internet, discovering that a Protestant planted a terrorist bomb in north Ireland, and said, "I have gone out onto the internet and discovered that Protestants are terrorists."

This is the type of person Limbaugh is. He is exactly like the person who would make these types of inferences against blacks or Protestants. He is, in short, a bigot, practicing the bigot’s art of applying the wrongs (real or imagined) of a few individuals to those of an entire group.

This is Limbaugh's third moral transgression.

Again, the contemptible moral quality of Limbaugh’s actions reflect on those who cheer and support him, in the same way as the morally contemptible actions of those who murdered those soldiers reflect on those who would cheer the murderers.

Limbaugh’s actions clearly fall under the category of “bearing false witness.”

He “bore false witness” when he misinterpreted the original claims as “cheering that the soldiers were killed.” He bore false witness when he applied the transgressions of a few individuals (if true) to a whole group.

With this evidence clearly in hand, we are forced to conclude that either Limbaugh does not believe in a God who condemns "bearing false witness," or he believes that such a God exists but does not care about His prohibitions.

Those of his followers who would cheer and support his actions must also believe either that no God would condemn them for supporting a campaign of lies, or does not care that such a God exists. These are the only attitudes consistent with their behavior.

Of course, I do not believe that there is a God that prohibits bearing false witness. Yet, I argue that people generally have a reason to promote a culture of aversion to deceit. The fulfillment of desires requires true beliefs, so people generally have reason to promote a culture filled with true beliefs. This means promoting a culture in which people love truth and hate deception. The way to do this is to use the tools of praise and reward on those who love the truth, and to condemn and punish deceivers.

In this case, this argues that Limbaugh and those who support him are deserving of condemnation, because they have proved themselves to have no fondness for truth and an immoral affection for deception (a.k.a. "bearing false witness").

By praising and rewarding liars and hate mongers, they are helping to raise a generation that sees liars and hate mongers as role models, who will be tempted to become liars and hate mongers themselves, with all of the evil that will come from this. The way to teach a generation to respect honesty and kindness is to reverse this trend of rewarding deceitful hate mongers, and praising and rewarding those who are honest and kind instead.

The same argument suggests that we would be wise to create a culture in which people are adverse to harming the innocent. That would be a culture made up of people who welcome individual responsibility where the innocent are allowed to live free and only the guilty are punished. Bringing about such a culture means praising and rewarding those who protect the innocent and who condemn the guilty only with proof of guilt, while condemning those who over generalize guilt as a tool for promoting hate.

I recognize that Limbaugh and his followers do not share these assumptions. Instead, they assert that there exists a God who loves honesty and justice who commands their followers to do the same. Yet, at the same time, Limbaugh bears false witness against others. This only makes sense if we conclude that, deep down, Limbaugh believes that no such God exists or he does not care.

As for his followers and supporters, their support only makes sense under the assumption that they do not believe that a God that condemns bearing false witness exists or they do not care.

Nor do they seem to care for the benefits that reason suggests we would harvest by creating a society of individuals who have affection for honesty over deception, kindness over hate, and justice over injustice. We need a society in which people love honesty, kindness, and justice. Cheering and supporting Limbaugh means cheering and supporting deception, hate, and injustice – with all of the social costs that these evils bring with them.

Limbaugh and his supporters may want to claim that they are innocent. However, we can trust that an all-knowing God would have no trouble seeing past their rationalizations.

I can imagine Limbaugh and his followers being questioned at the Pearly Gates, being challenged by an angel at the gates to heaven saying, “Here, again, you bore false witness against your neighbor. We told you that was not allowed. Yet, time and time again you broke this commandment. You know what we do to people like you, right?”

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Data Brokers

Let's say that you are a police detective. Over the course of your work, you discover that John Smith is a hit man -- somebody who commits murder for hire. What do you think would be the right thing to do in these circumstances? Should you:

(a) Investigate with the intent of arresting and convicting him for his crimes?

(b) Employ him to do away with somebody that has been an annoyance?

Let me add one more item that may make your decision a little easier. Let us assume that, as a police officer, you do not need to pay for any hits that you might ask for. He will kill your victims for free, so long as you allow him to stay in business where he can charge others for his service.

I know, it's a tough question. I'm sorry to make you struggle through these tough moral dilemmas. However, there is a point here somewhere. I promise that I will get to it shortly.

In the mean time, let me change the situation just a little bit. John Smith is not a hit man; he is a car thief. Instead of telling you that he will kill whomever you want for free, he tells you that he will get you whatever car you want for free. All you need to do is name the car -- make, year, color -- and he will get it for you. The only thing you need to do is to turn let him stay in business so that he can continue to provide cars for his other clients, for a fee.

Should you:

(a) Investigate whether John Smith is stealing cars?

(b) Give John Smith an order for a baby blue '57 Chevy in mint condition?

We could make John Smith a drug peddler. In this case, John Smith offers the police a free sample -- or, at least, a discount on its purchases. In exchange, the police agree not to investigate John Smith.

Okay, let's make one last change. John Smith steals data, rather than cars. Stealing data is a lot easier than stealing cars because it is hard for the victim to discover that he has been robbed (provided that the thief only steals a copy of the data.) He steels phone records, bank and credit card statements, and the like and he offers them for sale to whomever will pay for them.

Typically, he gets this information through fraud. He contacts a company that has information on his victim, he pretends to be the victim, and he has the company send him a copy of the data he wants.

Recall, as a police detective, John Smith will give you any information you want free of charge. Of course, he will allow you to pay if you feel guilty about taking these stolen goods. He will take your money. He just wants to keep you happy, so that you can keep him in business.

Should you:

(a) Investigate whether John Smith is engaging in fraud.

(b) Give John Smith an order for whatever data you may want to acquire.

I know, this is a tough question. Some people surprisingly reach the conclusion that John Smith should be investigated with an eye towards arresting him for fraud and other crimes. Some people even go so far as to suggest that those who take this data should be arrested and convicted for taking kickbacks in exchange for turning their back on illegal activity.

Of course, you and I know that this is not how things actually work. It is perfectly acceptable for you, the police detective, to collect these free offers and to leave these individuals alone to continue their business.

Government agencies have paid $30 million for merchandise, and collected an unknown amount of free merchandise, from these data thieves. In exchange, law enforcement officers turn their backs on these fraudsters, allowing them to stay in business and to continue practicing their trade.

Effectively, the law enforcement officers answered questions as to why they do not investigate these data brokers by saying, "If they provide us with free merchandise or high quality merchandise at a price we can afford, then we are not going to investigate them."

One of them compared their activities with the NSA, saying, "

James Bearden, a Texas lawyer who represents four such data brokers, compared the companies' activities to the National Security Agency, which reportedly compiles the phone records of ordinary Americans.

"The government is doing exactly what these people are accused of doing," Bearden saidl "These people are being demonized. These are people who are partners with law enforcement on a regular basis."

The hit man, car thief, and drug dealer -- offering free or discount services to law enforcement agencies -- could also claim to be partners with law enforcement to an extent. This hardly qualifies as a reasonable defense of these activities.

In fact, that is the entire problem. Where criminals and law enforcement agencies form partnerships, it becomes impossible to distinguish one from the other.

Of course, somebody may want to claim that these law enforcement agencies are only collecting information on criminals. They are not collecting information on average citizens -- say, people they want to date, neighbors who annoy them, bosses, employees, or those who may have an interest in paying blackmail.

Sure, these things are not happening.

Remember, "Only those who have something to hide have something to fear."

Monday, June 19, 2006

Crooks and Liars

Acute observers may have noticed that I removed "Crooks and Liars" from my list of links on the right. I did this a couple of weeks ago because I do not believe that the managers of this site have any real interest in promoting honesty over dishonesty. Their interest is in promoting liberalism over conservatism, and that is not the same thing.

For example, the site recently posted an exchange between Dave Sirota and John Stossel on the issue of the minimum wage. The transcript of that debate contained the following exchange:

Mr. SIROTA: Well, listen, John, I would encourage you stop reciting these dishonest talking points and the chatter you're hearing on the cocktail party circuit because the stats don't bear that out in any way at all. And here are the stats that you cannot dispute. In states that have raised the minimum wage, above the federal level, those states have created jobs at a far faster rate than the states that have not. That is because, when you raise the minimum wage, you put money into the pockets of people who will spend it and it spurs the economy. Now, that might not be heard in your book which purports to debunk lies, but those are the facts.

Mr. STOSSEL: Well, if those are the facts, why stop at $7. We should pay everybody 20 bucks, 40 bucks an hour. Then we'll really have buying power. It's just...

Mr. SIROTA: You're changing the subject. You're changing the subject because you know you're wrong.

In addressing this exchange, Crooks and Liars decided to highlight and cheer Sirota’s name-calling an insults, saying nothing about the quality of the arguments that Sirota used.

Those arguments were not very good.

On the charge of “changing the subject” that Sirota made in the exchange quoted above, Sirota was simply wrong. Stossel gave a perfectly valid response to Sirota’s claim.

Sirota began by providing a statistical correlation between higher minimum wage and higher job creation.

On this, I want to take a brief look at his statistical claim, before moving on to a more important criticism of Sirota’s statement.

The Quality of the Statistics

First, I followed the links back to see if Sirota provides any support for these stats that he says are beyond dispute. The chain of links carries me through Sirota’s self-congratulations over his insult and ad-hominem in a public form. Then, back to a posting where he discusses the exchange itself. Here, where he claims that Stossel lied, he provides a link as if to support his thesis, but he is only quoting himself.

Eventually, we get a reference to “a comprehensive 2004 study” from “the nonpartisan Fiscal Policy Institute.” I went through the publications of the Fiscal Policy Institute on the Minimum Wage looking for references to articles from peer-reviewed economics journals. A substantial portion of the Fiscal Policy Institute’s references were to their own publications. Elsewhere, the only peer-reviewed articles they referred to were the results of David Card and Alan B. Kruger. In other words, in an industry where the consensus opinion is that a higher minimum wage does harm, and a few skeptics publish a dissenting view,the Fiscal Policy Institute tell us to go with the skeptics.

This is actually similar to the tactics what global-warming skeptics use against the global warming hypothesis. They look to institutes with academic-sounding names to find a few dissenting publications in the professional literature that they can use to discredit the consensus view held by a majority of professionals in the field. This is in spite of the fact that a majority of professionals are well aware of the claims being made by these skeptics and do not think that they have merit. If Card and Krueger were not able to convince economists generally, then why should we allow them to convince us?

Another reference that Sirota uses as to the Center on Policy and Budget Priorities which references exactly the same Card and Krueger article that the Fiscal Policy Institute referred to.

This has all of the appearance to me of people cherry-picking data to get the conclusion that they want, the same way that President Bush cherry-picked data to support the invasion of Iraq. It is a mark of intellectual irresponsibility that has proved itself to have very costly effects.

The Quality of the Reasoning

However, my main complaint against Crooks and Liars is not that they supported Sirota in spite of making claims with little peer-reviewed academic support. My objection is that they supported Sirota and even cheered him in spite of the use of arguments that were logically invalid and loaded with ad-hominem. Indeed, they cheered Sirota because of his use of ad-hominem and insult in making his point.

As I mentioned above, Sirota began my offering a correlation between a higher minimum wage and higher employment.

Logicians have long recognized that a statistical correlation does not imply causation. My wife feeds our cat about 1 hour before I leave for work each morning. Yet, it would be a mistake to infer from this that my wife feeding my cat causes me to go to work. Making a causal inference out of a statistical correlation commits a logical fallacy that logicians know by the phrase cum hoc ergo proctor hoc.

In order to make a causal claim, Sirota needs not only a theory, but an explanation that links cause to effect. Once we have an explanation, we can examine the further implications of that explanation. Then, we can test that explanation by looking at those further implications.

In this case, Sirota’s explanation is that, "…you put money in the pockets of people who will spend it and that spurs the economy."

Stossel then tests this explanation by looking at its implications. Rephrasing Stossel's argument, he suggests, "If this relationship between raising the minimum wage and increasing jobs actually exists, we would expect an even larger effect if we raise the minimum wage to $20 or $40 per hour. However, we cannot reasonably expect such an effect. Therefore, the causal relationship you suggest does not exist."

To respond to this objection, Sirota either needs to add complexities to his theory, the same way that the followers of Ptolomy had to add epicycles upon epicycles to try to explain how the Earth could be the center of the universe. If Sirota fails this challenge, Stossel would be justified in claiming that Sirota has reported a correlation without causation.

My main point here is that Sirota’s claim that Stossel was “changing the subject:” is flat-out wrong. Even if Stossel’s argument does not work in the end, his response was not ‘changing the subject’. Sirota had an obligation to respond to this objection in an intellectually responsible way. Not only did he fail in this obligation, he compounded his failure with a coating of insults and ad-hominem.

A particularly obnixious implication of Sirota's insults and ad-hominem is that he apparently thinks that anybody who would question the effects of the minimum wage deserves this treatment. He cannot grasp the idea of somebody opposing the minimum wage out of a sincere desire to protect certain workers from economic catastrophy. This is another black mark on Sirota's moral character.

[Digression: Even if an increased minimum wage does correspond with an overall increase in employment, this would still not settle the question. Economic theory suggests that a higher minimum wage will draw workers into the job market who would have otherwise stayed out, such as students, children of middle- and upper-income households, and middle-income workers seeking supplemental income. These people who have options (thus, their earlier decision not to pursue these jobs) will drive others who have no other options out of the job market. Overall employment may go up, but the “wrong people” are getting the jobs and benefiting from the higher wage. In addition, a higher minimum wage lowers the marginal benefit of getting an education, which lowers the incentive people have to complete high school and acquire a college degree.]

Of course, Crooks and Liars decided that Sirota was the hero, and Stossel the villain. It appears quite obvious that they found a clip in which a liberal insulted a conservative, ad thought that this was sufficient to identify the clip as an item of merit that they posted on their web site. They showed no interest in the quality of the arguments, only in the quality of the insults.

This is just one “case study” of an instance where Crooks and Liars showed no genuine interest in honesty over deception. I, on the other hand, have no interest in directing readers to a site ran by people who do not care about the quality of the arguments that they present to their readers.