Thursday, November 30, 2006

Atheist Evangelism and Political Strategy

Before going into tonight's posting, I would like to say that it is quite satisfying coming home at the end of the day and discovering that people have actually come to read my stuff. I thank you.

There is a debate going on over the strategy to be used in the quest to promote science education – specifically, evolution. It is focusing on the claim that Richard Dawkins comes across as dogmatic and uncompromising, which some people assert is the wrong strategy. Critics say that this will serve only to alienate moderates and other potential allies and rallying creationists, ultimately giving them political control over science education. Instead, they say, we should be kinder and gentler atheists, willing to draw moderates into our camp.

Let me start by saying that this is an ethics blog. I care nothing about political strategy, except to ask whether particular elements of various strategies are moral or immoral.

On this ground, the debate does raise some issues.

The Psychological Abuse of Atheists

When I listen to atheists discuss strategy, I tend to think about a group of abused children discussing the best way to avoid a beating. Because of the children’s concern, they quickly turn against any child who dares to do anything that might upset the abusive guardian. History has shown that, once the guardian is riled, all of the children are in danger. So, it becomes important to ‘punish’ those who rile the guardian to promote an aversion to doing so.

However, this question – how do we not rile the guardian – still hides the moral assessment of the guardian’s abusive behavior. If people perceive certain acts as politically risky or strategically unwise, we should also ask whether they would be risky or wise if the guardian – the ‘others’ one is trying not to antagonize – were fair and just people.

I intend this argument to be more than a metaphor. I hold that the atheists are being subject to effects illustrated in Jane Elliott’s ‘blue eyes/brown eyes” exercise – only on a national scale. This exercise divides children into two groups, a ‘blue eyes’ group and a ‘brown eyes’ group. The blue-eyed children are then treated as the superior children, while the ‘brown eyed’ children are treated as inferior. Its psychological effect is to make the 'favored' group proud to the point of arrogance, self-confident, and assertive. It causes the 'inferior' children to become passive and submissive.

In the case of atheists, the Pledge of Allegiance (particularly when it includes an invitation for atheists to sit down and not participate) deliver the message that those who believe in God are the 'superior' group, and those who do not belong in the ‘inferior’ group. As a result, we find ourselves in a country where the President can say that a only those who believe that our rights come from God are qualified to be judges and face no substantive opposition for those remarks. In fact, he is cheered more than he is criticized.

Even those who are theists in school, who should come to consider abandoning their religious beliefs, are made aware of the costs of doing so. They are still likely to feel some of the shame and humiliation that 12 years in a public school tell them is appropriate for those who become atheists.

I hear many who describe attempts to organize atheists as being like “herding cats.” Actually, I would argue that atheists are very easily herded. We simply need to look at the way they have been herded away from political and social activism. Most atheists have well learned the lesson acquired through 12 years of psychological abuse in the school systems and hide their atheism in fear and same – behaving very much like the ‘brown eyes’ students in this exercise. We are not in fact ‘cats’ but ‘sheep,’ and the traits that some describe as attempting to ‘herd cats’ is simply the difficulty in getting sheep to do anything but what the passive, submissive role they have been culturally trained for tells them to do.

Religious Implications of Scientific Truths

On this model, I am not concerned about some atheists standing straight in opposition to what the theists do. I think it is about time – and it is necessary. One of the most important things for atheists to do is to forcefully (though nonviolently) insist that the psychological abuse of atheist students in the schools must come to an end.

This is the perspective that I bring to the issue of whether we should be concerned with offending religious moderates on the issue of teaching scientific truths in the school.

This relates to a question of whether science is compatible with religion. On this issue, I was actually a bit early. I wrote a post last year on “Science and Religion” when the Dover Intelligent Design case was being decided. I wrote then that the claim that science is compatible with religion (and that those who protest that scientific teaching is anti-religious) is nonsense. The fact that some theists are comfortable with evolution does not change the fact that some religions simply cannot handle it. At best, we can say that teaching evolution promotes compatible religions over incompatible religions – and does so in the science classroom.

Of course, teaching the germ theory of disease, the heliocentric theory of the solar system, the brain-disorder theory of mental illness, an d the plate-tectonic theory of earthquakes and tsunamis also promotes certain religious views (those are compatible with these ideas) over others (those that are not compatible).

It is a bare fact that science and history classes must necessarily make claims that some religions handle better than others – and as such promote some religions while demoting others.

Theistic Evolutionists

This calls up the question of whether atheist evolutions may permissibly tolerate or work with theist evolutionists. My arguments above may be thought to argue against this. They do not.

We all make mistakes, and no two of us are in perfect agreement. The person who decides that he cannot accept or work with others who he thinks are mistaken in some way on some issue will find himself a very lonely person. Instead of asking whether or not another person is mistaken on anything, the only relevant question should be whether the other person is mistaken about the subject matter that we are studying. The theist evolutionist is still an evolutionist.

Does he understand evolution? Is he making meaningful discoveries that advance the science? If the answer is ‘yes’ – the fact that he also happens to believe that Bruce Willis stared in the science fiction series Babylon 5, that moral terms refer to evolved (rather than learned) dispositions, that a God exists, or any of an infinite set of false beliefs the agent might have, is simply not reason to condemn his work as an evolutionary biologist.

Verbal Gladiators

Another factor to consider is that Dawkins and Harris have the microphone right now – they have the audience they do – in part because their views are dogmatic and uncompromising. This is what draws their audience.

Cable news networks have realized this a long time ago. This is what generated ‘shout TV’ – the practice of bringing in two talking heads to talk on an issue. The networks do not want people who can engage in calm and rational debate or who are willing to compromise. This would damage their ratings. They want to show their audience rhetorical combat among verbal gladiators skilled at shedding dogmatic blood in the television arena.

I find this practice itself morally objectionable. I have argued that the best way to create a more educated public is to promote a culture that gives the microphone to those who can calmly and intelligently discuss the issues by giving them the ratings that attract advertisers. Until this happens, we live in a world where one will not be heard (with a few rare exceptions) unless one accepts the role of verbal gladiator.

In other words, if Dawkins and Harris tone down their language to be less dogmatic, this would cost them their audience. They would not have a better effect on the public because nobody would hear them. In the mean time, the audience will look for somebody who is willing to take a dogmatic and uncompromising position, and can make their stand with a sharp wit and sharper tongue, to take their place. Either way, the person with the microphone will still be somebody who is dogmatic and uncompromising.

Yes, I have criticized Dawkins and Harris. However, I have not criticized them because I think their words are unkind. I have criticized them where I found their arguments unsound and their conclusions untrue and unjust. Where they have not made any mistakes, I have no objection to the fact that others might find their words harsh.

Then again, as I have said, I tend not to be concerned with strategy.

Those who are familiar with this blog know that I argue that praise and condemnation are essential parts of morality. Reason is applicable to changing people’s beliefs, but it takes praise and condemnation to change their desires. Whereas morality is primarily concerned with promoting good desires and inhibiting bad desires, morality is primarily concerned with how best to use the tools of praise and condemnation. Those who are unwilling to condemn wrongdoers are unwilling to prevent wrongdoing.

Only, those who condemn others do have an obligation to ensure that the condemnation is in fact justified and deserved. Some of the condemnation from Harris and Dawkins fails this test. Here, Harris and Dawkins should change their tune – not because it is bad to condemn others, but because sometimes it is wrong to condemn others, like when one condemns others for wrongs they did not commit.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Responsibility and Belief

Are all ‘Darwinists’ morally responsible for the fact that some people used Darwin’s theory to justify social policies of racism, sexism, and oppression – even the genocide – of ‘inferior’ groups by ‘superior’ groups? Or does the responsibility for those evils rest entirely on those who drew these unsupported conclusions?

This is just one example of a series of questions that one can find in the general topic of holding people responsible for the mistakes of others.

Another example comes from the Bush Administration’s claim that anybody who criticizes the President’s policies is aiding and abetting the terrorists – the idea that “You are either for the President, or you are for the terrorists.” The argument is that, since some people can use this criticism in arguments that ‘justify’ fighting the Americans in Iraq that the criticism itself is immoral and should be silenced.

I am going to defend the latter position. A person is morally responsible only for his own beliefs and the conclusions that logically follow from those beliefs. He is not responsible for the fact that other people use those same beliefs in invalid arguments that claim to ‘justify’ harms and abuses inflicted on others.

In the two examples that I used above, I suspect that many atheists would agree with this position. It is simply wrong to condemn all Darwinists for the excesses of the social Darwinists, or to condemn all critics of the Bush Administration’s policies on Iraq for the implications that the Jihadists make of those criticisms. Instead, moral responsibility can be assigned only to those who make these mistaken inferences. They are the evil ones. They are the ones to be condemned – not Darwinists or Administration critics in general.

Indeed, this is the response that I have often given to those who claim that ‘atheism’ is responsible for the worst atrocities committed in the history of mankind. My claim has always been that I am responsible for my own beliefs and attitudes, and I refuse to accept guilt for somebody else’s wrongs. I find Hitler’s and Stalin’s crimes no less objectionable than others, and I can offer my reasons for doing so (based on the desire utilitarian theories that are the foundation for this blog). Your decision to hold me morally responsible for their crimes is as flawed as saying that all people with mustaches are to be condemned because Hitler and Stalin both wore mustaches.

Yet, many atheists are lending support to exactly the same moral crime – holding all theists morally responsible for the excesses of religious fundamentalists. In this case, many are perfectly willing to embrace the idea that a person who believes that God exists is morally culpable for every act committed by somebody who used the proposition ‘God exists’ in defense of any atrocity committed against other humans. Here, they say that a person can be held morally responsible for somebody else’s inferences and that the condemnation can be legitimately extended to theists in general.

This is wholly hypocritical.

This post is actually an extension of an earlier post where I criticized the views of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris.

I want to make it clear – my position is not that we ought to be nice to theists for the sake of being nice to theists. My position is that Dawkins and Harris are making a logical error with negative moral implications – a discriminatory and prejudicial error of the form, ‘Some X are P; therefore all X are P, where being P is a morally contemptible state.” Some theists use God to support morally objectionable acts (e.g, terrorism, murder, and other forms of abuse). Dawkins and Harris further assert that even religious moderates are to be held morally responsible for these abuses. This inference is invalid.

I also want to make it clear that I agree with part of what Dawkins and Harris defend. There has been a tendency, particularly in recent decades, to assert that it is wrong to criticize another person’s religion. The instant a person refers to God in defense of a act or policy, we are supposed to give that act special protection – even when that act (such as banning same-sex marriage, blocking stem cell research, and barring euthanasia and abortion) are harmful to others – others who do not share that same religion. This is an absurd position, and I fully favor criticizing religious beliefs that are directly harmful to others, to the degree that they are harmful to others. What I object to is criticizing less harmful, harmless, and beneficial religious beliefs as if they are morally equivalent to their more harmful brethren.

This is true in exactly the same sense that I would use to condemn the social Darwinist who uses evolution to defend genocide, slavery, racism, and sexism. The person who draws unsupported conclusions that are directly harmful to others is to be condemned, but that condemnation cannot legitimately be applied to those who do not make that inference.

This is true in exactly the same sense that I would use to condemn the atheist who says, “No God exists, so I may do whatever I please regardless of who might suffer for it,” without condemning all atheists – including those who would never support or endorse such an inference.

All of these are consistent applications of the same moral principle. Furthermore, it is a principle that I have used in other areas. It is the principle of aversion to punishing people for wrongs they did not commit. It is the principle that I have used to criticize Iraqi citizens who blame all members of a whole religious sect (Shiite or Sunni) because some of them commit murderous atrocities. I suggest that the killing in Iraq will not end unless and until the people learn to quit blaming Shiite or Sunni for each atrocity and instead blame (if you can believe the absurdity of it) the people who are making and setting off the blasted bombs! regardless of their religious affiliation.

Judge an individual on what he does or does not believe – and how dangerous he or she is to others as a result. 'Darwinists' are not responsible for the invalid and socially destructive conclusions of those who use Darwin's theories to defend evil actions. The person with honest criticism of the Bush Administration is not responsible for the fact that others are looking for any excuse to do harm. And moderate theists are not morally responsible for the wrongs of extreme fundamentalists, and Shiite and Sunni Muslims who are not involved with or condone bombing are not morally responsible responsible for those who do.

All of this follows the same principle.

Blame the guilty, let the innocent go free.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Free Speech Issues

Since I came back from my vacation, I have seen a lot of issues that relate to the subject of free speech.

(1) Jesse Jackson and other black leaders are calling on the entertainment industry to ban the use of ‘the N-word’ (a.k.a., ‘nigger’). When asked whether this is a violation of free speech, Jackson answered that “It is unprotected.”

(2) Lowell City (Mass.) Councilor Edward Caulfield's is saying that his right to start civic meetings with a prayer is protected by his right to free speech. A letter to the editor says that officials have no right to free speech.

(3) An atheist student is suspended for questioning the beliefs of another student.

I want to address these issues and draw a clearer view of the scope of a right to free speech.

The N-Word

Jackson defends his call to eliminate the N-Word from ‘free speech issues’ by saying that the word is “unprotected.”

He does not understand the moral concept of free speech.

Use of the N-Word is, in fact, protected free speech. This means that it is not permissible (it is worthy of moral condemnation and, perhaps, punishment) to respond to somebody’s use of the N-word with violence - including the violence of criminal penalties. Saying that using the N-word is protected free speech does not imply any restrictions on the private actions that people may take - where to shop, what to buy, what to read, where to visit, and what they ask or attempt to privately pressure others into doing.

No violation of free speech took place when people condemned Michael Richards for using the word ‘nigger’ in his rant. Condemning Mr. Richards and efforts to punish him financially by refusing to buy products that he was involved in are perfectly legitimate acts that will go unpunished in the criminal law – and do not violate Mr. Richard’s right to free speech.

The Case of the Bigoted Councilman

Next, allow me to apply this to the case of Lowell City Councilor Edward Caulfield, who is defending the act of starting each Council meeting with a prayer as an act of free speech. This prompted a letter to the Boston Globe from Dan Caless that carries the headline, “Officials have no right to 'free speech'”

This headline is actually misleading. What Mr. Caless actually wrote was, “But the government most emphatically does not have a right to freedom of speech.” Caless said nothing about government officials.

Actually, as Caless states, nobody is depriving Mr. Caulfield’s right to free speech. Nowhere did Caless write that Mr. Caulfield shall be subject to violence, including legal penalties, for claiming that he thought that council meetings should start with a prayer. What Caless objected to was the prayer itself.

A district attorney has the right to free speech that allows him to advocate, if he thinks it is wise, for a program to round up all of the atheists in his community and lock them up in a concentration camp – in order to protect the children from their corruption. However, until whatever governments have jurisdiction over the area actually pass laws establishing such a program, the DA lacks the authority to actually round up atheists and lock them in concentration camps. More importantly, it makes absolutely no sense to defend such a law on the ground that the DA (and others who would round up atheists and put them in concentration camps) have a ‘right to free speech.’ Once we start talking about legislation we are no longer talking about speech, we are talking about actions.

The right to free speech would protect Mr. Caulfield from violence if he were to stand up himself and say that women were intellectually inferior and should be ignored at council meetings. However, it is a different thing entirely to use freedom of speech to defend a resolution that will have the council read a statement at the start of each session that says, “Women are intellectually inferior to men and that nothing that any woman might say at any Council meeting shall be taken with these facts in mind.”

Furthermore, while the right to free speech condemns any who would react with violence to the councilman’s private words, they permit people from using those words as reasons for their private actions – in particular, the private actions of who to vote for, whose campaign to contribute to, and whose campaign to volunteer for. The councilman has no right to complain if his bigoted statements result in fewer campaign contributions, political endorsements, or votes.

A common response to this would be to say that a meeting that does not mention God is atheistic, and thus represents forcing the atheist ‘religion’ on everybody else. Saying that refusing to mention a position on God is atheistic is nonsense. It is like saying that the person who does not mention the color of his car is saying that his car is colorless.

The opposite of prayer at a public meeting would be a public statement to the effect that, “We assembled here today assert and affirm our belief that no God exists.” Anybody who would object to such a statement, who recognizes the moral relevance of the claim “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” should be able to readily see the morally objectionable aspect of a ceremony that asserts, “We assembled here today assert and affirm our belief that God exists.” Any who would support one of these options who would not support the other is guilty of the moral crime of hypocrisy.

The Case of the Expelled Atheist

The third case that I want to discuss involves a student who is claiming to have been expelled from an art college because he is an atheist – or, more specifically, because he challenged the irrational beliefs of some fellow students.

Actually, I am not going to pass judgment on whether this student was actually expelled for atheism or, as the school officials contend, for a habit of disruptive behavior. I cannot count the number of times I have heard theists shout, “Help! I’m being oppressed!” by claiming that hostility to religion motivated a teacher’s refusal to accept some student’s faith-based project. Often (though not always) the teacher did not reject the project because it was faith-based but because it did not meet the requirements for the project. I find it morally objectionable for theists to automatically assume that the teachers are guilty, and will not engage in that practice myself.

On the other hand, prejudice typically masks itself as ‘other reasons’. The employer who thinks that blondes are stupid will give a blonde woman’s comments an interpretation that will match his assumption that she is stupid. In the face of such a prejudice, the woman has no chance of saying anything that the bigot will give an intelligent interpretation to. Similarly, the teacher who believes that atheists are arrogant, selfish, and immoral will assign an arrogant, selfish, immoral motive to anything the atheist does. There is nothing that the atheist can do that the teacher cannot interpret with a negative spin.

Is this what happened in this case?

I do not know, and I will not speculate.

Bob Averill, the student in question, said that the school administrators approached him with the attitude that discussing religion in school was not permitted.

If true, it would be an absurd position for the school to take. It would mean that they could not discuss such things as geology and the age of the earth, paleontology, ancient history (anything that might conflict with any of hundreds of different religious stories that people might hold), psychology – out of fear of offending the scientologists, blood transfusions, medicine (or the idea that bacteria and viruses – rather than alienation from God) is the cause of disease.

Any assertion to the effect that “God exists” implies “It is not the case that God does not exist,” just as the assertion that “God does not exist” implies “It is not the case that God exists.”

If this were an actual policy, conversation itself would have to be banned.

The principles that I discussed above suggests that the question the school should be asking is whether Averill said or did anything that could reasonably be interpreted as a threat of violence. They need to ask others, “Did Mr Averill threaten you in any way?” If the answer is ‘No’, then it should not matter what opinion he was expressing. He was within his rights to do so.

I should add that one of the principles I have defended is that the right to freedom of speech is not a barrier to private actions. A private school has the right to decide for itself the criteria under which it will interact with others. If it wishes to advertise itself as a school where religious people need not fear having their beliefs challenged, then it would be within its rights to establish a policy that prohibits students from challenging the beliefs of others. I would offer that it would be a very poor school to attend, but it is their private right to create a poor school.


The main principle that I have put to use here is the idea that freedom of speech means a freedom from a violent response to one’s words – whether it takes the form of private violence or government (criminal) penalties. It does not imply a right to be immune from criticism. Nor does it imply a right to compel others to treat those words with respect.

Jesse Jackson does not need to worry about free speech issues in his project to eliminate ‘the N-word’ from entertainment. The right to free speech does not imply any restrictions on his private, non-violent actions. Instead, it prohibits him from calling for violence (including criminal penalties) against those who say what he does not like.

On the other hand, a city council’s resolution that theists are superior to atheists is not an element of free speech, it is an element of government action and one that violates the principle that peaceful citizens of all religions are entitled to equal respect before the law.

And schools, interested in the education of their students, should be happy when its students enter into disagreement and debate. This should not be discouraged – unless and until the disputants actually threaten each other. At that point, the discussion has gone too far, and the school must step in to protect its students from harm.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Moving to Mars

While I was on my vacation, my niece asked me a question. It has little to do with ethics, but it does give me an opportunity to say some things about value. Besides, it was on a topic that I am very much interested in. I did not have a chance to give her a very complete answer, so I wish to do so here.

The question: “Do you think we will some day be forced to live on Mars?”

I did not get a chance to ask her what she meant by ‘forced’. I assumed that she was worried about the Earth becoming uninhabitable and seeing Mars as the next best (only) alternative for the human race.

In that regard, I answered, “It really doesn’t make much sense to live on another planet. I think it is a lot more likely that we will be living in space stations, in space.”

I did not have much of an opportunity to give my reasons for this prediction.

Those reasons rest on a simple principle. If you want to predict and explain human actions, you have to take an honest look at what humans want.

When it comes to spending money on space development, the people of Earth are going to spend more money on those things that will provide them with things that they value. And most people are not sitting around their homes longing to live in a Star Trek type universe where everybody (except a few employees on government outposts) lives on the surface of a planet. What they want are things that will affect their lives here and now.

Two things that space can offer everybody – even those who care nothing about space – are clean energy and raw materials. The sun shines 24/7 in space, and none of its energy is being blocked by ozone layers, atmospheric dust, or clouds. Unlike nuclear power plants and coal-fired power stations on Earth, a station in space does not damage the environment. Even people who care nothing about space will care whether the property that has been in the family for generations and is the source of their livelihood ends up below sea level.

Also, near-earth asteroids promise to be a source of raw materials – particularly iron. On Earth, we have to cut deeper and deeper scars into the environment to get at the raw materials we need. As we use up sources on the land, we have two options. Option 1: Undersea mining (with the corresponding environmental destruction this entails) or space mining (where there is no living ecosystem to damage – except the one we bring with us). Again, people who care nothing about space will care to have those things that can be built out of these raw materials.

This gives us a second way to use power collected in space to benefit the people of Earth. We do not have to ship all of it to Earth. We could be using some of it in space to manufacture goods and services, and ship those manufactured products to Earth. Space-based manufacturing, like space-based mining and energy collection, can also be done without damage to the Earth’s environment.

Of course, we will need people in space to run the machines. Some people also simply would like to live in space. I am one of them. Yet, even here, we can look at what people value to predict the future.

Many (most) will still want to interact with the people of Earth on a real-time basis. They are going to want to phone home to talk to their family and friends. They are going to want to visit from time to time, and to have an opportunity for their friends and family to visit them. On Mars (for example) one-way communication takes between five minutes (when Mars is closest to the Earth, to nearly half an hour (when Mars is furthest from the Earth).

This delay will not only hinder people who want to communicate with their family. More importantly, it will hinder people who wish to engage in business. The person living in space will still have to make a living. People living in near-Earth space can telecommute – engaging in live meetings with the people of Earth using teleconferencing technology. They can run their investment accounts, buy and sell commodities, conduct interviews to sell their new book or movie, transmit architectural plans and get real-time feedback on the improvements that still have to be done.

Near-earth space not only provides an advantage in communication, but it allows for the easy transfer of material from one place to another. For example, an earth-based laboratory can send material into space for a procedure to be done in micro gravity, collect the results, and finish their research in a fully equipped earth-based laboratory. There is no need to transfer all of that machinery into space. There will also be earth-based manufacturing (e.g., computers) that will, for a long time, be best done on Earth and shipped into space. It will be a lot less expensive to ship these materials to near-earth space than to Mars.

Another advantage of near-earth space is its proximity to help in case of a disaster. If something goes wrong in near-Earth space, emergency equipment can be shipped from Earth, and the injured can be shipped to Earth, far more easily than on Mars. This reduced risk will be of interest to a lot of people. I also suspect that a lot of medical care will involve telecommunications – even robotic surgery. Earth-based engineers can look over damage to a space station and offer real-time assessments of the damage and not only offer but direct (through telecommunication) repair efforts.

I know that there are people who would like to colonize Mars. They look at the list of advantages that I have mentioned for near-Earth space and they this does not matter to them. They will note the frontier families of the past who moved far away from the comforts of the big city – the friends and family they left behind, to start a brand new life far away on their own.

Different people value different things – and there are certainly people whose values are such that they would prefer starting over on Mars to living in near-Earth space. However, the rate of growth in the two economies will depend on the number of people who value the lifestyle that each provides, and the amount of investment that it can attract. On this measure, investment in Martian settlement will always be significantly less than investment in near-Earth settlement. Near-Earth space stations will dominate any future space economy.

Would-be Mars settlers argue that Mars has the advantage of having resources nearby. Settlers do not need to import building materials. In near-earth space, settlers will have to import everything – even the air they breathe.

Yet, if proximity to useful resources is the sole criteria for development, then there are a lot of places that beat Mars out. Mountain sides, deep deserts, the surface and the floors of the oceans (and every cubic kilometer of water in between) are all places having far more useful resources than the surface of Mars. Instead, if we look at every city in the country, we see a place where people have imported building materials. When it comes to construction, it often makes far greater economic sense to bring the building materials to where the business opportunities are to be found.

Here, I would like to warn against a common problem in the way that people make evaluations. They obtain a romantic attachment to something and, at that point, they put on a clich├ęd pair of rose-colored glasses. These glasses exaggerate the strengths of their favorite project, and blind them to its weaknesses.

The Bush Administration’s decision to invade Iraq will, for a long time, be my favorite example of this type of foolish thinking – decision making in a world of let’s pretend while ignoring reality.

There is no moral crime in having unreasonable dreams and expectations when one puts one’s own life and property on the line. Reality will then punish only those who ignore her. However, when one invests the property and lives of others – the way Bush invested the lives of nearly 3,000 American soldiers and perhaps hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, and hundred of billions of dollars, then the problem of looking at the world through rose-colored glasses becomes morally problematic.

If would-be Mars settlers were to spend their own money and risk their own lives, then it would be impossible to raise any objections against them. Indeed, I am sure that they are quite willing to risk their own lives and are positively adverse to forcing those risks on others. Still, they are asking for multi-billion dollar government contributions to their romantic future.

If governments are going to spend their people’s money, it seems more reasonable to ask that they spend it on that which promises the greatest benefit to those people. Using space to harvest resources for the benefit of Earth has greater promise of benefit than any activity on Mars.

When my niece left the table, she made the comment, “I wish they would hurry up and get them built.”

I could not agree more with the sentiment. I was pleased to read, when I got home, that Bigelow Aerospace is accelerating its plans to build a private space station, working with Lockheed to create a manned vehicle capable of delivering people to that station.

Where NASA has given us 30 years of greater delays and cost overruns, the private space industry seems to always be cutting its schedules lowering its costs.

It is a good time to be young.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Blaming America (Bush) First

It appears that, while I was in the mountains, things turned particularly violent in Iraq. The string of bombings, followed by revenge killings, continued. Now, according to an article in the Los Angeles Times, Iraqi clerics are blaming the problem on American mistakes.

Ultimately, this is not true. I am not denying that America has made mistakes. In fact, I have written about some of those mistakes. However, when we talk about moral responsibility for an action, the responsibility rests first and foremost with the person who intentionally performed that action.

The people to blame first for a roadside bomb that kills and maims dozens of civilians is the person who set the bomb up to go off, or who set off the bomb. There is the true source of the evil. Blaming somebody else lets this person off the hook. It is as if to say that the person pressing the button or setting the timer had nothing to do with the fatalities. It says that he is not the murderer.

These types of claims are absurd.

People make mistakes around us all of the time. It is up to us to decide how we are going to respond to those mistakes. A person could either view somebody else’s mistake as an opportunity to shine and make things better, or he could view it as an opportunity to kill and maim as many young children as possible. As long that these are intentional acts, then the moral responsibility for those acts rests with the person whose beliefs and desires were the proximate cause of those acts.

Iraq would have been far better off – even in the face of American mistakes – if it were a country of people who had a decent respect for the principles of individual responsibility, a community obligation to protect the innocent (particularly children) from all who would do them harm, and a belief that the only legitimate person to punish for a crime is the person who committed the crime – and not the wife and child of somebody who happened to go to a mosque that shared some beliefs in common with those of the mosque attended by the person who might have (maybe) had something to do with the bomb.

In short, Iraq would be far better off right now if its people had an appreciation for the fundamental principles of justice.

This is the first and largest ‘mistake’ made in Iraq. The mistake is that the Iraqi people themselves decided to embrace injustice, murder, kidnapping, assault, and theft as a way of life. Or, at least, its Sunni and Shiite population has embraced injustice and crime so thoroughly. The Kurdish population seems to have a stronger appreciation for justice and, for that, they seem to be forming a calm and relatively prosperous society – as long as the Shiite and Sunni populations focus on each other and do not think to export their murderous lifestyle to the north.

Yes, the Bush Administration has made mistakes when it decided to invade Iraq. One of the biggest mistakes that the Bush Administration made is that they assumed that the people of Iraq were fundamentally decent and moral people, being held down by an oppressive dictator. He felt that they were just waiting for this barrier to progress to be removed, and then they, with their common sense of decency and justice, in an environment of freedom and justice, would show the rest of the world how much an Arab democracy could accomplish.

This is a mistake for which the Bush Administration should be held morally responsible. Bush should have listened to experts who would have told him that the Iraqi people will prefer slaughter and injustice over peace. He should have based his decisions on the best available evidence. He did not. Instead, he based his decisions on a ‘gut feeling’ – a form of knowledge that has a well deserved reputation for telling a person only what he wants to hear.

That intellectual recklessness is morally contemptible.

However, Bush’s intellectual recklessness does not mitigate the morally contemptible acts of the Iraqi people. Perhaps I should have known that my next door neighbor was a child murderer before I accepted their invitation for me to have my child visit. Yet, this does not change the fact that, as a child murderer, and as the person who murdered my child, my neighbor is still a perfectly contemptible and evil individual.

My intellectual recklessness does not count in my homicidal neighbor’s favor one bit. Bush’s intellectual recklessness does not count in favor of the homicidal behavior of the Iraqi people either.

Another mistake that the Bush Administration pursued in is Iraqi policy – and, in fact, in its overall domestic and foreign policy – was to teach injustice rather than justice. Through the actions of the Bush Administration, America has taught the world that torture is legitimate, suspected opponents may be rounded up and held in prison indefinitely without a trial, an operation need not concern itself too much with separating civilian from military targets – that there was no crime in bombing a house where a family was gathering for a religious dinner as long as the bomber thought that one of the dinner guests might be a suspected ‘terrorists’, that political entities may define terms in whatever way is convenient for them, and that laws and constitutions were to be ignored whenever a leader considers them too much of a burden.

These are the lessons that we have taught the world – and, in particular, to the people of Iraq, who were the victims of much of this injustice.

Yet, even here, the fact that one has not been treated fairly is never an excuse for harming innocent people. The citizen who was abused as a child – thus treated to the worst possible injustice – is still morally responsible for choosing whether to respond to that abuse by helping others, or by harming others.

The Iraqi people could have responded to Bush’s injustice by adopting a national program to prove that they were better than Bush – by insisting on justice (rather than death) in the face of the abuses of the Bush administration. Instead, they decided to prove how much worse they could be. That was their choice – and they were wrong to choose as they did.

Now, Iraqi clerics are calling for the Iraqi people to end the violence.

That should have been the national call 3.5 years ago.

It is tempting to blame America first for the perhaps hundreds of thousands of people killed in Iraq since the invasion. In fact, the first person to blame is always the person who did the killing. In most of the cases, the people who deserve the first blame are the Iraqi people themselves – those who murdered and maimed, and those who celebrated and supported them.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Repeat: The Meaning of Life

I am out of the woods now. I really was cut off. It is going to take a little while for me to catch up. In the mean time, I wanted to repeat this posting for Thanksgiving Day, but was not able to. I'll post it now, and start catching up on my work.

The Meaning of Life

I have once again been asked how an atheist like me could possibly find meaning in life -- if it not to be found in serving God.

Imagine a distant land, occupied by humans, but whose customs differ from our own. In this land, a young girl faces her eighth birthday. On this special day, her parents give her a small paper box that fits in her hand, and they tell her, "This box contains an egg. It is very fragile, and you must take very good care of it. You must keep it with you at all times, but you must always make sure that it never gets too warm. You must keep it from being struck or dropped, because if this happens the egg will surely break."

These egg boxes are made at a temple. There is an elaborate ceremony in which a priest puts a box together according to time-honored rituals. It is sealed shut then, with a prayer, it is said that an egg enters this world from a land beyond space and time. However, if the box is ever opened or the egg is damaged, it will return to the land from which it came.

If the egg survives until death of its owner, the person's essence will enter the egg. When the egg returns to its own land, it will carry that essence with it.

These children are told that they are not to even shake the box a little, even to try to hear the egg inside. Even a mild shaking may destroy the egg.

So, this girl goes to school, where all of her friends are eager to see her box. She shows it to them proudly, but warns them that they cannot open the box to see the egg inside. As a child, she makes mistakes from time to time. Each reprimand brings the child to a renewed determination to treat the box with extra care.

Besides, she is told, this is the most important thing that she can do with her life. There are others, she is told, who have no egg, because they have thrown theirs away or their parents never gave them one. These people have nothing special to do with their lives. Their lives are purposeless, empty, and miserable (though some of them hide their misery very well).

Of course, caring for the egg requires sacrifice. There are many things that one cannot do, because it would threaten the egg. Some of those without eggs spend their lives doing things that those with eggs cannot do. However, it is said that they are not to be envied. The lives of the eggless are purposeless, empty.

Caring for her egg becomes the most important thing in this person's life. She has children of her own and, when they have their eighth birthday, she goes to the temple where she is handed a box. She gives it to her children, and teaches them how to care for it. She raises them to take good care of their egg box. She is a good parent.

Eventually, she grows old, and she dies. She is laid in her casket with the egg box that she has cared for through her entire life.

At the funeral, mourners enter with their own egg boxes. With death a vivid reminder of their own mortality, they are particularly careful with their egg boxes on this day.

Except, one person, Alan, enters the room carrying no egg box. His hands hang uselessly at his side as he makes his way among the crowd. He gets something to drink and he looks around, and finds himself being stared at. Their stares are a mixture of pity, concern, and contempt.

Some parents direct their children to go play outside. They are fearful. What if their children decide to become eggless? Then they will have no vessel to take their essence into the afterlife. The thought is too dreadful for the parent to contemplate. Some want the eggless shut away, for the sake of the children.

Alan understands. He does not like it, but he understands it.

Yet, here, at this occasion, they struggle to be civil. They exchange condolences.

Alan finds his tall, dark-haired cousin in the crowd. "Hello, Patty."

Patty turns around. When they were children, Patty moved in with Alan's family for a year while her parents struggled to find work and make a home. It takes her a moment to recognize him, then she puts her arms around him for a hug, taking care not to jolt her egg box. When she steps back out of the hug, she looks at him and says, "Still no egg box, I see."

Alan leans forward and whispers, "I'm sorry, Patty. I have more important things to do with my life than tend an empty box."

"There is nothing that has importance without the egg," Patty answers. "Without the egg to carry our essence to the next world, everything is temporary."

"Why do you think that temporary things are not important?" Alan asks. "Let me hold a hot iron to the sole of you foot, temporarily, and then you tell me whether or not it is important that I not do this."

"Alan!" Patty protests, but the smile at seeing him did not leave her lips.

"Just making a point," says Alan. "Maybe, in the grand scheme of things, the universe does not care whether you are tortured or not. But you care. I care. James and your mom and your daughter all care. If the universe does not care, screw the universe. Why are you dismissing the concern of your friends and family as unimportant?"

"I doubt if mom cares," Patty says sadly.

"She is still not talking to you?"

Patty nods. "She thinks that if I raise her granddaughter to care for her egg as the Reds do, Jennifer will not make it into the afterlife. Blues like mom think that an egg has to be kept cool until death or it will not work. Reds think that eggs must be kept warm. Mom fears that if I teach Jennifer to keep her egg warm, it will not work to carry her essence to the next life. She thinks that I am destroying her chance for eternal life."

"And you have no way to find out whether an egg is supposed to be kept warm or cool," says Alan. "There is no way to test this, because none of us has ever seen an egg carry an essence to the next world."

Patty shrugs. "It makes sense. Hens must keep an egg warm, or it will not hatch."

"Yet, we keep our eggs in the refrigerator until we are ready to use them," Alan answers. "Every year people introduce another hue or shade, convinced that theirs are the only instructions that will get them to the next world, and insisting that if you accept any other color or none at all, then you are doomed to eternal death. Yet, none can prove that they have the right formulae, because there is no way to test the ideas they come up with. We cannot experiment. Instead, we grasp, taking the same options as our parents, and we can only hope that they were right. Besides, how much have we lost in fighting and factional disputes among the different colors?"

"Don't start."

"I haven't," Alan says, spreading his arms wide to show that he carries no egg box. "You think that my life lacks meaning or purpose. I think that you are wasting your life caring for that box. You could be caring for the people around you instead. That box is empty, Patty. If you spend your life caring for that box, you end your life with one well-cared-for empty box, and that's it."

"And what do you have?" Patty asks.

"I care about things that are real," Alan says. "There is real pain, suffering, and death in the world. These are things that you can see. We know they are real. When there is joy and happiness, that joy and happiness is real, too. I can help reduce the pain, suffering and death, and increase the joy and happiness. These are my eggs. Real people. You care about your imaginary egg in a box. I care about people."

"But your life will end," Patty protests.

"As will yours," says Alan. He sees a burst of pain in her eyes and he flinches. "I'm sorry. The fact is, you will die, just as I will. Only, you will die with a well-cared-for empty box, and I will die having done what I could to bring less pain and suffering, and more happiness and joy, than the world would have had. You care for people, too, Patty. You do it because you care about them."

At that moment, Patty's daughter, Jennifer, comes running up to her and starts pulling on her hand, shouting, "Come see! Come see!"

"Patty," says Alan, gently putting his hand on her arm, speaking too softly for the persistent child to hear. "Tell me, if you left that box behind on this table, would your daughter be any less precious to you? Would you quit caring about her if you were to lose your egg?"

Patty did not answer. Her daughter was pulling at her with growing impatience, and Patty was giving in to her protest.

As Patty moved away, Alan added, "Patty, those boxes are empty. Don't let them come between you and the people around you. Those people are real, and their love is real, and that makes them more important than any invisible egg."

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Animal Rights: The Predator Problem

The vacation continues, so, with Thanksgiving coming up, I thought I would post this article from my website.

This argument addresses the claim that it is wrong for us to kill animals for food.

Against this claim, some point to lions and tigers and bears and other predatory animals and argue, “It is permissible for them to kill other animals for food; why is it wrong for me to do it?”

The question has two common answers.

First, animals are not considered moral agents. You can hardly blame the lion for killing the antelope; the lion knows nothing about duty and obligation. The lion is simply acting the way biology has made the lion act. So, while we can morally condemn a human who performs a particular act. It is nonsense to argue for morally condemning the lion (or any other predator).

Second, animals do a lot of things that it is not permissible for humans to do. Male lions, for example, kill their stepchildren (because the mother will then go into heat and the male lion can then father and raise his own children). There is no argument to be made that “animals do X; therefore it is morally permissible for humans to do X.”

However, neither of these arguments work.

To see this, let us assume that the lions were hunting and eating human children, rather than antelope. In this case, the fact that the lions are not moral agents would be seen as entirely irrelevant. Our duty to protect our children includes not only a duty to protect them from the intentional or negligent harms inflicted by moral agents, but to protect them from the natural harms as well - from disease, from accident, and from predatory lions. The lion’s lack of moral agency does not imply that we are obligated or even permitted to allow the lion to kill and eat our children.

Some people might argue that it would be wrong to kill the lion simply because he kills and eats children. The lion is, after all, just being a lion. We should trap the lion and move it to where it is no longer a threat to our children. However, let us make the concern more immediate. There you are, in the African wilderness, with the means at hand to kill a lion, and you see the lion charge after a young child. Do you let nature take its’ course? Or do you prevent the lion from doing that which lions do?

The predator problem asks whether we, who are moral agents, are obligated or even permitted to allow lions to kill for food - where we have the power to prevent it. It is not a question about the lion’s moral-agency. It is a question about our moral agency - about what we permit and prohibit. Do we have an obligation to protect antelope from predatory lions?

It is important to note that most of the animal rights arguments are built on a utilitarian foundation. Killing and eating animals for food involves suffering. Utilitarians argue that there is no basis for distinguishing animal suffering from human suffering. The species of the sufferer is morally irrelevant. Therefore, it is wrong to treat an animal in any way that it would be wrong to treat a human with similar capacities. If we are going to prevent lions from eating human infants, then we should be preventing lions from killing antelopes who are more developed than the human infant.

Adding Meat to the Predator Problem

Let us take these arguments seriously for a moment. We can save all of the present and future antelope by simply killing off all of the lions (and other predators). Our obligations to prevent the killing of antelopes has been met.

However, we will then likely be faced with a problem of antelope overpopulation. They will breed, eat up their food supply and starve. Being hunted down and killed by a lion is bad enough. Starvation, at least from a utilitarian perspective, can be seen as significantly worse. So, it is better to allow the lions to hunt the antelope, then to subject the antelope to starvation. The predator problem has now been solved.

Not quite. We have a lot more options available to us. The lions are going to kill the antelope in particularly gruesome ways, involving a great deal of suffering - grievous wounds on the part of some who happen to escape, whole herds of antelope being frightened and terrified and chased over the plains. Clearly, there is a more utilitarian way of controlling the antelope population. We should still kill off all of the lions, but then implement some other method for controlling the antelope population. We can go in ourselves and kill off a few antelope from time to time, enough to keep the population in check. We can certainly do the job in ways that involve a lot less suffering on the part of those we do kill.

Now we have this pile of antelope carcasses. What are we going to do with them? Let them rot?

If we are assuming a utilitarian system of ethics, then it would be difficult to argue for letting rot that which can be put to good use. For example, maybe we do not need to kill off all of the lions. We can put them in a place where they cannot hunt antelope. We then feed them the antelope carcasses.

If it is morally permissible for us to kill the antelope and use them to feed the lions, then I can see no reason to object to taking the carcass and feeding it to humans.

In our utilitarian concern for the welfare of the antelope, we have as much reason to be concerned with the suffering caused by illness and injury as by lions and starvation. We could provide the antelope with inoculations against the worst diseases, protect them from parasites, and fence off areas where they could wander where there is a chance of accidental injury. We could also provide them with clean water (particularly in times of drought) and food (in times of scarcity).

This, of course, would cost money. However, we have the carcasses from our annual harvest to keep the herd at an optimum size, and there are people willing to pay money for them.

Overall Consequences

I am not going to try to argue that this line of reasoning can be used to defend all of the practices that are used in a modern ranch. It is unlikely that we can continue this story to the point that we are defending the practices found in factory farming or in many instances of animal testing. However, we also do not end up condemning the personal ranch. It is not automatically and obviously the case that the cattle kept on a range ranch are less well off, from a utilitarian perspective, than they would be if the gates were opened and they were released into the wild.

When faced with the predator problem, it appears that the animal-rights utilitarian is clutching at straws rather than following his premises to their logical conclusion. Wanting to eliminate the use of animals for food by humans, while not wanting to interfere with the hunting of animals for food by other animals, they are drawn to arguments that seem to bring these two conflicting attitudes into agreement.

However, they are being deceived by mere appearances. The predator problem — allowing predators killing for food — does have implications for the prohibition against humans killing for food. The predator may not be a moral agent, but we are — and preventing the predator from hunting for food is within our power. If we are obligated to allow the predator to kill for food, then why are we not obligated to allow humans to kill for food? The prey animals can be made to suffer less at the hands of humans than they do by the tooth and the claw of natural predators, so we cannot defend these policies by saying that it is in the prey animal’s best interest.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Repeat: A Perspective on Scouting

I have learned recently that in the Defense bill that recently passed Congress, there were provisions to require state and local governments to get federal funds to support the Boy Scouts.

For any who do not understand the objections being made against the Boy Scouts, I offer the following story. This may be considered a sequel to "A Perspective on the Pledge" that I posted a couple of weeks ago.

A Perspective on Scouting

When the bell rang, Shawn stayed in his seat, securely holding onto his book and putting his foot through the strap on his backpack as it sat on the floor, waiting for the other students to file out of the room. At his previous school, he had learned valuable lessons against making himself vulnerable to the "accidents" that angry classmates might have.

He hazarded a smile against the thought that those who claimed that the words “one white nation” in the pledge had no significance got violent when others suggested that it expressed bigotry. Who gets angry over the loss of something that has no significance?

He was not the last to leave, however. Jenny, the white girl who was the first to side with him and also sit through the Pledge of Allegiance, stayed back as well and approached him as the class emptied. "I have to say that, if you want to make friends on your first day of school, that was probably not the best option for you to take this morning.”

"I can say the same to you," Shawn answered, while he collected his supplies. "You didn't have to. Honestly, what you did, as a white girl, took more moral courage than I showed today."

"Thank you," Jenny said with a smile.

Shawn walked out of the room with Jenny beside him, making him nervous on a number of different levels.

"What's your next class?" Jenny asked.

"Study hall," he answered. "However, I'm not going there. I've got something to do at the Principal's Office." He had stopped by a school bulletin board and stared at an announcement with the words Join the Youth Scouts written in large letters across the top. With the hallways starting to empty, he reached up and gave the paper a gentile tug, pulling it down.

"I don't think you should be tearing down other peoples' signs," Jenny said.

"I just want to show the Principal what I'm talking about."

"You're a trouble maker," said Jenny, smiling.

"Jenny, if somebody was attacking you, and you decided to defend yourself, say by grabbing a club and hitting him, who is the trouble-maker; you, or the person attacking you?”

"I'll go with you." Jenny said suddenly.

"You shouldn't do that," Shawn responded instantly. "You don't need to get into any trouble. Besides, what would your father say?"

Jenny smiled. "My grandparents were in Alabama in the sixties fighting to give atheists the right to vote. They’ve told me all about the firebombs and the angry men with rifles burning crosses in their yard. They can deal with my dad."

"I don't want you to," said Shawn.

“Sorry. It’s a free country.”

Shawn had to hurry if he was going to make it to the Administration Offices before hall monitors started taking names, and had no time to argue. He hurried down the hall, with Jenny close behind.

He had no appointment to see the Principal, who was busy getting the school organized on its first day. The secretary took his name and Jenny’s, gave them permission slips good until the end of the period, and emailed excused absence to their teachers.

While Shawn waited, having Jenny there added significantly to his anxiety. He had rehearsed this encounter a thousand times in his head, and not once did he imagine anybody standing with him.

Finally, Principal Hadley had a few minutes to spare. He got their names from his secretary and then called them into his office. He had a large office with a big oak desk, but he directed Shawn and Jenny to a chair at a small round table. After closing the door, he took a seat at the table and said, “Shawn, Jenny, what can I do to help you?”

Shawn found himself too nervous to speak, so he simply slid the announcement across the table for Principal Hadley to read.

"I see," said Hadley. He picked up the paper, looked up at Shawn, and stood up from the table. "Should I assume that you are opposed to this group recruiting on school grounds?"

"Yes, sir," said Shawn.

"Shawn, you should know that this school has a policy against discriminating against any group. If white kids want to get together and form their own club where they can enjoy the company of other white kids, I don't think that I should be stopping them."

Shawn sucked in a lung full of air. "It’s not actually the fact this is a group of people with something in common that wants to get together that concerns me, Mr. Hadley. It’s the fact that this group lives by the idea that anybody who is not white is . . . it’s a part of their statement of principles that a person has to be white to be of good moral character. If you read their handbook, it says that no person can be moral who is not white. They come in here and preach to my classmates that I am morally inferior because I am not white. They say that people like me are poor role models – a bad influence – on the other kids, simply because we aren’t white. If somebody comes into the school and denigrates a whole group of students who are required to be here, then I think that you should be stopping them.”

"Well, I’m sorry, Shawn, but I could not stop them even if I wanted to. The federal government just passed a law saying that no institution that gets federal funds – and we get federal funds – can deny access to the Youth Scouts. It's the law; we can't discriminate." He put the paper back down on the table and slid it back in front of Shawn.

"Discrimination is wrong," said Shawn.

"Of course."

“Okay,” said Shawn, pausing to think. “Let me see if I understand. An all-white Senate and an all-white House of Representatives pass a bill. They send that bill to a white President – the very same white President who said that the founding fathers wanted this to be a white nation, and that he would not appoint any judge who did not share that belief. That president signs a law that you cannot ban a group that holds that being white is necessary to being a person of good moral character. And, the reason they did this is because discrimination is wrong.”

"Yes. Exactly,” Principal Hadley said with a smile. “We are not going to discriminate against groups like the Youth Scouts in this school. I know that there are a lot of people out there who want to destroy this group. However, they are a good group. They teach a lot of important skills and values that it would be good for kids like you to learn.”

“Kids like me,” Shawn echoed.

Principal Hadley stammered, “Well, not kids like you, I mean . . . well, a lot of famous people were Scouts, and a lot of them will tell you that their scouting experience helped train them to become leaders in society.”

“Famous people," said Shawn.

"Yes. People such as . . ."

"Famous white people," Shawn interrupted. He pressed his palms down on the table and pushed himself up onto his feet. He then put his palm down on the announcement he had brought. As he closed his fist, he crumpled the paper within it. "I guess that kids who are not white either do not need, or do not deserve, these character-building experiences.”

Principal Hadley reached over to his desk for a note pad and offered it to Shawn. "Leave me your name, and I will look into the issue a little further. I'll let you know what I find out."

Shawn stared at Principal Hadley for a moment, then dropped the crumpled announcement back on the table and took the pad and pencil. He wrote down his name then handed it back. Principal Hadley then offered the pad to Jenny, but Shawn interrupted. “She is not a part of this. She was just curious, so I said she could come along if she wanted.”

Jenny then reached forward, took the pad, and wrote down her name. As she stood up, she told Principal Hadley cheerfully, “I think I would like to introduce you to my grandpa and grandma. I think you would have a wonderful time together.”

“I would be happy to meet them,” Professor Hadley said cautiously. “Now, is there anything else that I can help you with?”

“No, thank you, sir,” said Shawn. “Thank you for your time.” He stepped around Principal Hadley and headed out of the Administrative Center.

Principal Hadley watched them until they were a safe distance down the hall. He then dropped the pad on his secretary’s desk. “I would like to see their files, Ms. Farnsworth. Also, find out who their teachers are. Warn them that these two might be trouble. If they become a problem, I want to nip it in the bud.”

“Oh, not Jenny,” Ms Farnsworth sighed. “She has always been such a proper white child.”

“Well, she is obviously falling in with the wrong crowd,” Hadley answered. “There is a reason why we don’t let people like Shawn into the Youth Scouts. They’re a bad influence. Maybe we can find a way to end this and get Jenny away from him before he has more of a bad influence on her.”

Ms. Farnsworth had Shawn’s record up on her computer before Mr. Hadley was through his door and back in his office.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Repeat: Perspective on the Pledge

While my vacation continues, I am repeating some of my earlier posts. This is one of my story posts on the Pledge that I wrote last December 19th

Shelby Johnson had to admit that she was more than a little nervous as she walked into her first class. She was also a little late. Principal Hadley had kept her a little too long as he gave her a pep talk before she started her first assignment.

One advantage that she saw from this is that the class bell had already rung by the time she reached the classroom. All of the students were inside the room and most had selected a seat. Some were still standing as she entered, but they sat down while she dropped her books on her desk.

She wrote her name on the board, turned to the class, and took a deep breath before saying, “All stand for the Pledge of Allegiance.” She had been told that this ritual was useful in getting the kids’ minds focused on the fact that they were now in school and that the class had started, like the announcement that "all stand" before a judge entered the courtroom.

She paused when she noticed that one boy, near the back of the room, remained slouched down in his chair.

“Excuse me,” Shelby said, looking at the student. She stepped up between the rows to get a little bit closer and to make it clear who she was talking to. “Excuse me. What is your name?”

“Shawn,” the student answered. He scarcely looked up, but remained focused on the pen that he was fiddling with.

“Shawn. I would understand if you do not want to say the Pledge of Allegiance. However, I would like it if you would at least stand while the rest of the class said it, just to show a little respect to the flag.”

The boy sat silently for a second, then shook his head and said, “I don’t think I can do that, ma’am.”

Shelby got a sudden knot in her stomach. The rest of the students were standing and ready to start. She knew that they were all evaluating their new teacher, wondering what they were in for. She had heard stories of classes that would take a young and inexperienced teacher, chew them up, and spit them out again.

She asked Shawn, “Why not?”

Shawn kept his eyes focused on his pen, and slumped in his chair as if he was about to slide underneath his desk. When he spoke, his voice was soft, making it hard for her to hear him. "Ms. Johnson, the words 'with liberty and justice for all' were put into the Pledge in order to make us hate tyranny and injustice, right? I mean, we say the pledge because we are supposed to take a stand against tyranny and injustice. Those are bad things."

Shelby shrugged. This was, after all, supposed to be an Amerycan History class, and they would be talking about these things soon enough. "Yes. This country was founded on the idea that freedom is better than tyranny and justice is better than injustice."

Shawn glanced up, and made eye contact with her only for a second. She noted that he had nothing on his desk but his history book. Otherwise, she would have thought that he was reading something that somebody else had made him say. Shawn continued, "And the part about this country being indivisible. That was because of the Civil War. The guy who invented the Pledge wanted us to swear that we would uphold the Union and not promote rebellion. That's why he put the word 'indivisible' in the Pledge."

"Of course," said Shelby. "That's why you should show respect for the Flag. These are all good things that you should be proud of and that you should want to defend."

"Okay," said Shawn. "Then, 50 years ago, Congress added the word white to the Pledge of Allegiance. We are supposed to be one white nation, indivisible. When we pledge allegiance to one white nation, doesn't this mean that not being white is as bad as being in favor of rebellion or tyranny or injustice?"

"No," Shelby said with a sigh of relief. "No, not at all. Congress added that to reflect our heritage. It simply pays respect to the fact that all of our founding fathers were white, and that they clearly wanted to establish a white nation, and the fact that all of our past Presidents have been white."

"And all future Presidents should be white," Shawn added.

Shelby's smile vanished.

Shawn continued. "That's the real reason why Congress put the word white in the Pledge of Allegiance. It was not so much to show respect for our heritage, but to tell people not to elect a President who was not white. You can’t have a white nation unless all of your politicians are white."

"No," said Shelby hesitantly. "Anybody can grow up to be President. That is another one of the things that makes this country great. We'll be reading about that, too."

"Ms. Johnson. You're telling me that if I were going to run for President, nobody in this country is going to say, 'We are supposed to be one white nation, and that means we are supposed to be voting against anybody who isn't white, just as we are supposed to be voting against any president who supports secession from the union, tyranny, or injustice. Do you mean to tell me that Congress did not add the word white to the Pledge of Allegiance fifty years ago as a way of putting anybody who was not white at a political disadvantage?"

"Now, Shawn, you obviously know that you don't have to say the Pledge if you don't want to. I'm not asking you to say it. I'm just asking you to stand to show some respect for the good things that this country stands for. A lot of people died to buy you the freedoms you enjoy. Don't you think you owe them a little bit of gratitude?"

The boy bit his lip, and Shelby knew that she had struck a nerve with him. Still, he was not ready to give in. "Do you think that just because I don't have to say that this is one white nation that this means that the pledge is not racist?"

"Of course it isn't," Shelby said. "This is a free country. You should show your respect for all the good things this country stands for. You should be proud of those things and show some measure of gratitude to all of those soldiers and citizens that made this a free country."

Shawn looked up again, this time a little longer. "Ms. Johnson, if somebody was about to lead a room full of people in calling you . . . I'm sorry to say this, ma'am but I am just trying to illustrate a point here . . . if he was about to lead a whole room of your fellow teachers in calling you a cheep whore, and somebody said that you should stand and show your respect for what he was doing, would you?"

A couple of the other children snickered and Shelby felt her face grow hot.

"Shawn," she said. He continued to look at his desk. "Shawn! Look at me while I am talking to you."

Shawn showed no signs of moving for a few seconds. Then he let out a long sigh. He put his pen down and sat up straight in his desk. Folding his hands in front of him, he turned toward her and held her gaze. He did not flinch or look away. That did not help, Shelby thought to herself.

One of the other students, sitting on the opposite side of the room, shouted, "You liberals will not be happy until you have removed every sign of the white race from the public square."

Shawn shrugged and answered softly, "I am not saying that white people should be banned from the public square. I want the public square to be neutral on the issue of who is white and who is not. I do not see a problem with that."

"It's a problem if you're white!"

"That's enough!" Shelby shouted. "I have not given anybody else permission to talk!"

Just then, one of the other students – a white girl -- sat down. Shelby turned to her and said, "Jenny, I did not give anybody permission to sit down, either."

The girl remained seated. "It makes sense, Ms. Johnson. The Pledge states that you have to be white to lead this country, and that's not fair."

"Jenny, what do you want me to tell your parents when they ask me about how things are going at school?"

Jenny looked over at Shawn, then back at Shelby. "Tell them that I stood up for a friend. They'll understand. And if they don't; well, it's no big deal to do the right think when it's easy. A person really only shows her character by doing the right thing when it is hard. It's wrong, Ms. Johnson, to say that we have to be a white nation."

Shelby took a step back.

"I'm sorry, Ms. Johnson," Shawn said. "I know that this does not make your job any easier. I promise that I'm not here to cause any trouble. However, don't ask me to stand and show any respect for the idea that this has to be one white nation. I just can't do that. To be honest, I don't think you should be doing that either, but I will leave that up to you. Honest, Ms. Johnson, I’ll just sit here quietly until you’re done."

"Alright," said Shelby. "I'll discuss this with Principle Hadley and I'll let him decide. In the mean time, let's say the Pledge of Allegiance."

While most of the students put their hands on their hearts, two other students sat down. One was white, and the other was not.

The rest of the class followed the teacher's lead.

When they got to the middle of the Pledge, most of the students shouted, "…one WHITE nation…"

Shawn had been ready for it, and did not flinch. They were doing just what the all-white members of the Senate had done a couple of years earlier when a challenge to the Pledge made its way through the courts.

However, the outburst caught Shelby by surprise. She stopped and turned at the students who had shouted the word, and caught them smiling in self-admiration. After they finished, they took their seats, whispering among themselves and looking back at Shawn. Shelby reached into her routine for something comforting. She spoke hesitantly to the class. "Okay, let's start with introductions."

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Repeat: Atheists in Foxholes

The vacation is going well, but I am cut off from the news and do not have much opportunity to write. Therefore, in the brief minute or so that I have access to a computer, I'm going to repreat some of my previous posts that I particularly value.

This post is a repeat of a post that I created for last Veteran's Day.

On Friday, November 11th, there will be a march and ceremony in Washington and elsewhere commemorating the military service of "atheists in foxholes"; atheists who have served in the military.

My father was one of these people. He enlisted into the army in 1946 and served during the occupation of Europe. Then he transferred to the Air Force, served through the Korean War (where he earned a Silver Star), and on for fifteen years.

He left the military with 100% disability due to injuries suffered when the airplane he was riding in crashed in Japan.

I asked him once, just a few years ago, what it was like being an "atheist in foxholes", and he sent back a letter that I posted on my web site.

That letter told of another "atheist in foxholes" -- a fighter pilot by the name of Charlie Fair. Charlie Fair died in the military.

My father died in January of this year -- his life cut short by the injuries he sustained in the military.

Actually, I'm not going to say much about the subject here on this blog entry. If any are interested, I will let my father contribute today's blog entry.

A Letter from my Dad.

Friday, November 17, 2006

International Trade

First, a brief announcement. My posting may be eratic for the next 10 days or so, and I may disappear entirely until the 27th of November. However, at the end of the time I hope to be able to offer some of my writings in a book form, for those who would be interested.

Now for today's posting.

I want to discuss free trade - such as represented by the NAFTA and LAFTA treaties. I am going to argue in principle in defense of these treaties, as long as they contain provisions to protect workers and the environment - the latter being understood as protecting people from indirect harm.

I am very much in favor of free trade. However, this is one area where a lot of people confuse being pro-business and pro-market.

Here is one difference.

Under the treaty, a business fires their high-priced workers in America, goes to another country, hires their people for pennies, builds a factory, produces goods, and pockets huge profits as a result.

Or, alternatively, the business expands its operation into another country, giving people wallowing in filth, sickness, and poverty the only real chance to improve their lot in life, lowering the overall price of goods and services, allowing the average American consumer to buy more with their money, increasing demand, creating new jobs, and creating new opportunity, both at home and beyond.

Both of these descriptions are possibilities. Typically, the real situation will lie somewhere between these extremes. I would argue that the truth is somewhere between these two options, and are made closer to one end or the other, depending on the options we choose.

Let's start off by saying that businesses are not the models of social benevolence. What many business leaders call 'free trade' is actually a liberty to harm others - sometimes to the point of death - in order to improve the bottom line.

The actions of the tobacco industry and the energy industry in this country are perfect examples. I will not tire of mentioning how Exxon-Mobile and other countries muddied the debate on global warming with intention deception because its executives felt that defending their profits was worth risking the destruction of every coastal city on the planet.

Here is an example of the difference between being pro-business and pro-market. A person who is pro-market says that, if the actions of the energy companies cause (or put at risk) the life, health, or property of another, then the energy company pays. If tobacco companies act in ways that make their product more addictive or more deadly, they pay their victims for the harm done, and punitive damages.

On the other hand, being pro-business means that a company can kill and main others to their heart's content. If their actions are profitable, then they are good.

Many of the programs that corporations put under the banner of 'free trade' are actually anti-market, pro-business policies.

So, what we need to ask with respect to these treaties is whether they are pro-market or pro-business.

Who pays for the environmental harm that the business produces? Is the country one that allows businesses to harm the life and health of others (by poisoning them with pollution) with impunity? Or does it have laws that say that those who do harm to others pay for the harm done?

Many free-market economists say that the sweatshops that people work in, however deplorable, are better than the squalor that provides the only alternative for these people. Saving people from the horrors of the sweatshop is actually condemning these people to far worse. If the sweatshops were not actually an improvement in the lives of the people, they would not work in the sweatshops. The worker's lot in life is made better, the company profits, and everybody wins.

It is sad to note that this is sometimes true. Those who are anti-trade do, in fact, condemn others to live in a state that is far worse than the sweatshop. As such, these anti-trade activists inflict unspeakable suffering on real people.

On the other hand, this is true only if the people have genuine options. If the company comes in, goes to the government, and demands legislation that makes it hard for people to change jobs (by making it a bureaucratic nightmare), or legislation to prevent other businesses from entering the same area and hiring the same workers, we have an instance of companies setting up serfdoms, and profiting from their exploitation of the serf.

Another way to keep an employee trapped in a job and to prevent them from seeking alternatives is by refusing to give the employees enough time to acquire new skills. Employees who are working 16-hour days do not have time to go to school or to practice some other skill that might pay better.

Yet another popular move among businesses is to require that workers suffer the costs of any on-the-job injuries. The argument that businesses like to use in this case is, "The employee knew that there were risks, and took the job anyway. Therefore, we are not responsible for the costs." Yet, this is a bit like saying, "The driver knew that there was a chance of getting hit by a drunk driver when he got on the roads. Therefore, he voluntarily assumed those risks, and the drunk driver is not responsible." Yes, we are aware that there are risks. Yet, we also hold that the person who turns a risk of harm into actual harm is the person who should pay the consequences.

The pro-business side will say that businesses would never do this, perhaps by saying that businesses need trained employees and would consider this counter-productive. Well, if the businesses would never do this, then they should not object to the treaty containing provisions that prohibit them from doing that which they will never do. If they are protesting, then we have reason to assume that this is something they would do.

Do our trade treaties provide employees with protection from companies limiting their options for employment in order to keep wages low? If they do not, then they are pro-business, and create a situation closer to the first option described above. If they do protect the workers’ options, we can say they are pro-market, and closer to the second option.

We are unfortunate in that both major parties in the United States have adopted a destructive policy. The Republicans seem to favor a pro-business attitude - one that creates rules that will allow companies to harm and even kill others when it is profitable to do so. The Democrats tend to favor an anti-trade policy, that leaves people wallowing and even dying in poverty with no way out.

The correct position would be to allow trade, so long as businesses are not permitted to do harm to others with impunity in the nations that we trade with.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Political Manipulation

I have a suspicion that some of what the Democrats are attempting to accomplish with the energy bill that I wrote about yesterday, and with some other legislative projects of theirs, are instances of political maneuvering.

And I am not going to simply condemn the Democrats for this. Karl Rove made the type of political maneuvering here a central part of his political strategy. In fact, an argument can be made that the Republicans, on the whole, are better than (read, "more effective" as opposed to "more virtuous" - because I will argue that this trick is far from virtuous) at this game.

Imagine this: A group of politicians want to promote their party and solidify its hold on political power.

They go to the pollsters, who tell them that they can make a particular policy very popular. It also happens to be very destructive. Let us further assume that this policy can easily be expressed in five-second sound bites and bumper-sticker slogans that people will readily accept (because they want to believe it is true). Its destructive nature requires a more in-depth understanding of the subject matter.

We can imagine that this policy is either legislation to force down the price of gasoline at the pumps (with the corresponding harm done to the environment, investment in alternative energy, and greater use of and dependence on foreign oil).

Or we can imagine that this is legislation allowing the President to keep 'suspected terrorists' locked up indefinitely without a trial, with its corresponding effect of telling dictators around the world (including anybody with ambitions of becoming a future American dictator) that they can keep their political enemies imprisoned forever without trials, and can do the same to any American citizen they happen to find in their country, simply by using the term 'enemy combatant'.

Explaining the problems with this policy to the people would be expensive and time consuming - and most people will not listen anyway. They do not have time to listen. They have lives to lead and cannot afford to sit down and spend hours going over the complex economics, physics, psychology, biology, climatology, or whatever other science is involved in explaining why this policy is bad.

Let's be honest. Many (most) people think that they can know everything there is to know about the merits of a law from a one-sentence description of its content.

So, the demagogues in Congress write this policy up into law, and they put it out on the floor for a vote.

Now, you are a Congressman who is interested in serving the people - in making their lives better. You have studied this issue in detail and you know exactly why it is a bad idea. You could vote against it. However, this is exactly what your political opponents are waiting for. They are already preparing their television advertisements, distributing their talking points among sympathetic bloggers and reporters, and producing their advertisements that say, "Candidate X voted against this policy. It is time for a change."

I am assuming that the politician in question knows that this law is destructive. In some cases, the politician in question might be hoping that the other party will veto or defeat the legislation. This way, they get the benefit of being able to run their campaign that says "Candidate X vetoed or voted against this policy." Yet, they do not have to suffer the guilt of having what they know to have been a destructive policy enacted into law.

I am assuming, perhaps rashly, that the Democratic leadership knows of the harms that would come from forcing companies to lower gasoline prices. I am assuming that they know that Bush would veto the bill and that the Republicans in congress would vote against it. I am assuming that they know that they will be able to make a lot of five-second sound bites about how the Republicans are for Big Oil and against the common person wanting to buy gasoline for their car. I am assuming that they do not care about the fundamental moral viciousness of playing this type of game.

I am not so sure that the Republican leadership knows of the evil of telling the dictators of the world that there is no evil in arresting whomever they consider a threat and imprisoning those people for however long the leader wants without any obligation to hold a trial. The most current batch of Republicans seem to be particularly dim-witted enough that they may not be able to think through the consequences of their action. The fact that they lack the capacity to think through the climatological, geological, and biological data to see the overwhelming evidence in favor of global warming, an 4.5 billion year old Earth, and evolution suggests that they lack the ability to understand why civilized people would object to indefinite confinement. Yet, I would still argue that there are at least some Republicans who understand these wrongs, and support such legislation anyway, entirely because it is politically useful.

The harm done by these people not only rests in the fact that they are promoting their own interests through actions that are immoral - that wrongfully harm others. The harm also rests in the fact that their 10-second sound bites, bumper stickers, and headlines promote ignorance over understanding. They weaken the people's ability to recognize and promote good policy by feeding them this propaganda - all for the sake of making the feeders more powerful.

There is non easy answer to this problem. We may well have set up our institutions in such a way that no honest politician can get elected. Then what? Does the morally conscientious politician go along with the system, play the political games, and advocate policies he knows are harmful because he knows that only such a politician would be elected? Or does he play fair and honest, knowing full well that this means he will be defeated (or he will not win in the first place) and allow others who are willing to harvest political power by advocating harmful policies control the reigns of government.

This is a moral dilemma. This is a situation where a good person - a moral person - is not going to like any of the answers.

I am not going saying that the Democratic Party should go ahead and perform these types of political stunts, now that they have control of Congress. In fact, the moral case is clear - these types of stunts are wrong (something that no good person would participate in).

However, there is a second question to ask. Not whether the legislature should or should not participate in these types of tricks, but whether we - those who comment on their actions - should help them, for the sake of mustering votes for the party.

I will not help them. I will continue to point out whether a particular policy is sound or unsound in fact, without regard as to whether exploiting public ignorance on the subject is politically useful. But, then, I have the luxury of being in a position where I don't need people to vote for me in two years.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Energy Policy

The Democrats are signing up to make some significant strides in their first 100 hours after they take control of the House of Representatives.

In those hours they plan to:

(1) Speed up the consumption of fossil fuels

(2) Accelerate environmental degradation.

(3) Promote American dependence on foreign oil

(4) Make significant contributions to global warming

(5) Institute significant barriers to research in alternative energy

That is quite a list of accomplishments, if they succeed.

In order to accomplish all of this as quickly as possible, the Democratic leadership will work efficiently by tying related projects together (e.g., speed up consumption of fossil fuels and accelerate environmental degradation).

The Washington Post reports:

[Pelosi] says Democrats will . . . go after oil companies by enacting tough laws to stop gasoline price gouging, and some Democrats want to impose a windfall profits tax on Big Oil

Okay, one is going to happen when the government forces gasoline prices lower.

(1) The cheeper gasoline becomes, the more gasoline consumption there will be.

(2) More gasoline consumption means greater environmental degradation (caused by more driving, more automobile pollution, and the like).

(3) The types of environmental degradation we get from gasoline consumption includes global warming.

(4) We are going to have to get the oil to make this gasoline from somewhere; namely, from middle-east countries. This means giving money to people, some of whom donate it to the same Islamic jihadists who are killing and wounding American soldiers in Iraq.

(5) If the price of gasoline is held low, this will reduce the incentive for people to invest in alternative energy sources, since they will not be as competitive compared to the artificially low price of gas.

As much as we do not like to pay higher prices for fossil fuel consumption, this is, in fact, the best way to solve many of the problems that we face in the world - including global warming and energy independence

Instead of talking about reducing the price of gasoline through legislation, what the Democrats should be talking about is an externalities tax - a way to force Oil companies to pay for the damage that their products are causing to the global environment. Increasing the price of gasoline through a carbon tax means that alternative energy sources become more competitive, which will mean that they will attract more investment, and more people will switch to using them. It means that people will try to find ways to use less fossil fuels, meaning a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and less global warming, as well as other forms of environmental degradation.

Of course, the Democrats also have plans to spend government money on these problems - providing government incentives for alternative energy and restricting greenhouse gas emissions. Yet, it hardly does any good for the government to do all of this work in fighting problems with its left hand that it is causing with its right. It means that the net result of all of these government efforts is a lot of wasted time and money accomplishing absolutely nothing.

As for a "windfall profits tax" - it makes no sense to tax profits as if making profits is some sort of sin that deserves to be punished. Indeed, it is the quest for a profit that gives us oil and gas in the first place.

In earlier posts I have written a story about a village faced with starvation due to a crop shortage. The stupidest thing for the mayor to do in this type of situation is to enact a law that says that he will punish anybody who goes out and finds food by levying a fine against them. Instead, the smart thing to do would be for the government to offer a bounty - a special incentive - to anybody who can bring in additional food to get the village through these hard times. The Democrats are pursuing the energy equivalent of fining farmers and hunters during a time of famine. That's not going to do the village any good.

Their plan also includes $2.8 billion in tax incentives, mostly for developing local energy sources.

Getting rid of these tax credits would be a good idea.

I never thought that it was particularly wise to try to promote energy independence by using up our local resources as quickly as possible. To me, it sounds a lit like trying to promote financial independence (from an employer) by spending as much money as possible and going into debt. By using up our local resources, we are simply destroying our backup options in case we face another oil embargo or any similar disruption from outside sources.

A person who loses his job, if he is smart, has stored enough money in the bank to hold him and his family until he finds a new job. A nation whose energy imports are disrupted, for whatever reason, if it is smart, has kept its own reserves of energy intact to use in just such an emergency.

If it is profitable for the energy companies to develop these resources, their financial statements suggest that they have the money to pay for the development themselves. Otherwise, we should leave them where they are, so that they are available when we really do need them (which will be at the time that energy companies can harvest these resources at a profit).

Ultimately, these $2.8 billion in tax breaks, is a "return on investment" for energy companies who contributed to the Republican Party in previous elections - a payment that sacrifices the good of the country to promote the good of the Republican Party. The really should be done away with.

Also, the energy companies have been given breaks in environmental regulations. This effectively is the same as going to the energy companies and saying, "Yes, you can poison your neighbors - destroy their property and their health, even kill some of them - if it is profitable to do so." Easing environmental regulations is a way of redistributing the wealth. Those who pay the tax are given a bill that they pay in terms of life and health. Those who benefit from this tax create products that convert the life and health of others into cash. Those who pocket the cash tend to be those who already have a considerable amount of cash.

So here, too, is another area where the Democrats can take aim at "Big Oil" if it wants to.


(1) Legislation to artificially lower the price of gasoline – No

(2) Windfall profits tax – No

(3) Carbon (or externalities) tax – Yes

(4) Repeal of 'tax breaks' and other incentives – Yes

(5) Stricter enforcement of environmental regulations - Yes