Tomorrow, April 1, being the holiest of holy days for Comedists, I will celebrate by posting the first part of our holy skripture The Comedist Manifesto. Stay tuned...
Friday, March 31, 2006
It's interesting. During the campaign, the right was up in arms about Whoopi Goldberg making the cheap and obvious joke based on the name and colloquial bodily reference connected to the word "Bush." Yet, we've just had a second major governmental figure drop the proverbial f-bomb with significantly less fanfare.
The first, of course, was VP Dick Cheney telling Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy to "Go fuck yourself"on the floor of the United States Senate. (Recall that in the hard hitting interview with Fox News, Cheney did not apologize, but say that he felt much better afterwards. After the recent hunting incident with the VP, Leahy was quoted as saying that he feels much better himself about the run-in on the Senate floor because apparently he got off easy.)
But if the people's hall is not a sacred enough place for you, last week, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scala did him one better. Responding to a Boston Herald reporter's question about possible appearances of impartiality, Scalia repsonded,
"To my critics, I say, 'Vaffanculo,'" punctuating the comment by flicking his right hand out from under his chin, Smith said.The Italian phrase means '(expletive) you.'"This was on Sunday in the Cathedral of the Holy Cross! There is a photo of the Justice in mid-gesture over at No More Mr. Nice Blog with a nice discussion of it.
We hear often about the need to bring back civil discourse. Does profanity have a place in civil discourse? Seems like profanity can be used as a rhetorical tool, as a means to accent something. Yet, the utterance of the syllables is taken as a problematic act in itself. It is their use, not their meaning that seems important. Usually, if I say "the guy over there has herpes" and John is the only guy over there, then I have said that John has a venereral disease. The indexical phrase "the guy over there" and "John" mean the same thing. I can't get out of it by saying, "I didn't say 'John,' I said 'the guy over there'." But if I hit my hand with a hammer and say "fudge!" it is seen as different from saying "fuck" even though everyone knows that fudge is just a stand in for fuck. It seems to point to the original term just as much as "the guy over there" points to John. Yet, the same relation doesn't hold. The same goes for shoot and sugar, darn and dang, frickin and flippin, and a bunch more.
But there is a further and seemingly more important difference between the Whoopie and the Cheney/Scalia cases. True, Whoopi was doing a night club act and trying to get laughs, but the nightclub act was at a campaign sponsored fund-raiser for John Kerry's embarrassing presidential campaign. It was part of a national dialogue about the direction of the country. Perhaps not the most insightful contribution to that dialogue, but part nonetheless. The Cheney and Scalia invocations of naughty words were also part of a national dialogue, but they seem intended to play a very different role. The speaker's intention of the utterances clearly seems designed not to further the debate, but to end it. "Go fuck yourself" does not invite an engaged response. Think of the scene in Life of Brian where Brian tells the crowd to "piss off" and they then ask "How shall we piss off, O Lord?"; the humor comes from the fact that "piss off" is used as a conversation ender. It means I am no longer part of this discussion. That is what Cheney and Scalia clearly seemed to intend. their profanity was designed to stop dialogue, not participate in it.
So does the intent of a curse word make a difference in the acceptability of its use or are the words simply cultural no-no's, period? Is there a place for swearing in civil discourse? Are they just arcane, obsolete leftovers from the tight-assed old days that we have liberated ourselves from or is there something really wrong with using those words? Should we really...aw, fuck it.
Thursday, March 30, 2006
Conservative talk about ethics tends to fall into one of two camps: Divine Command Theory which asserts God's Will as the source of moral rightness and wrongness and Libertariansim which sets maximizing personal freedom as the single goal of an ethical system. Divine Command Theory was discussed here not long ago in the post "Is Domenech a hypocrite for being a plagiarist and a fundamentalist ? No, but..." Here we will look at Libertarianism.
Libertarianism begins from the notion of rights which may possibly be the most influential moral notion in history. Women’s rights, civil rights, gay rights, human rights; all have been the rallying points from which to try to overturn injustice. Exclusion from full humanity and citizenship is the hallmark of an unjust social structure and the most powerful moral weapon in dismantling of barriers put up by the haves to keep the have-nots out has been the notion of rights.One of the reason this tool has been so effective in correcting injustices done to the have-nots is that the notion of rights is also crucial to the haves.
The place where the concept of rights begins is with property rights, with the erection of social protection structures for the stuff of the rich and the ability to enforce contracts so that the rich have a stable business environment. What property rights do is guarantee that nobody can mess with my stuff and that I’ll get paid if I sell it. The powerful are almost always also the rich and in order to keep what they have in terms of both wealth and power, they rely on the inviolability of a structure based on rights.It was then a very small step to extend the notion of rights from keeping my things safe to keeping my body safe, and then we were off and running declaring moral rights to protect our privacy, access to healthcare, and countless other needs. More and more got packed in until we started seeing rights-based language applied to driving an SUV, regardless of how it impacts the environment or other cars in collisions.
But the problem is that we now throw around the term “rights” without having any real sense of what it means. To fix this, we need to keep legal and moral notions distinct because we both use rights-talk in both cases. If a buddy confided in me that he got herpes from his roommate’s girlfriend and I promised to keep it secret, and then I immediately IM it to a mutual friend, I cannot cite the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States in my defense. Breaking confidence while gossiping is not a federal crime, but it does make you a slime bag. Your legal right to free speech means that you cannot be arrested for saying most things, it doesn’t mean that there are no moral responsibilities to watch what you say. Just as in the case of cultural relativism, we had to be careful not to confuse legal with moral, we need to keep legal rights – which again are decided by the whims of a legislative body – distinct in our minds from moral rights.The key to rights-based ethics; in general rights give rise to purely negative duties. Rights don't tell me what I have to do for you, they say what you can’t do to me. For all of the historical heavy-lifting they have done over the last couple of centuries, the moral concept of a right is an extremely weak notion. You can act in a way that doesn’t violate anyone’s rights and still be a complete prick.
Suppose you are taking a walk down the street and you suddenly have what seems at the time to be a great idea. You want to write it down so you don’t forget it, but you don’t have a piece of paper. Suddenly, you realize that you are passing a yard sale and there on the table is an old notebook for a nickel. You buy it and write down your idea. Later, when leafing back through the notebook you come across some strange symbols and a paragraph from the former owner as to their meaning. It turns out that it is the chemical formula for a substance that would be the greatest wonder drug in history. It can cure cancer, AIDS, malaria, sleeping sickness, male-pattern baldness, and erectile dysfunction – every major threat to humanity. You now own this piece of paper because you bought the notebook. In buying that notebook, you acquired the right to use its contents as you see fit. You could turn this piece of paper over to medical science and save the lives and end the suffering of many people. But, if a rights-based ethic were the true moral system, you wouldn’t have to. You can do whatever you want. You could burn it. You could eat it. You could go to oncology wards and wave around the page saying, “I bet you wish you had this.” That page is yours to do with as you please and you don’t have to be a nice guy about it to still be moral according to a rights-based system.
And so Libertarians, who buy into rights-based ethics Locke, stock, and barrel, commit the same sort of error as we saw in the ethical subjectivists, both take a concept that is ethically important and treat it as if it is the only thing that is important. Subjectivists elevate tolerance above all other virtues as libertarians elevate individual freedom above all other moral concerns. Rights are needed to guarantee individual autonomy, and all other things being equal we should defend rights with our very lives if necessary. But life is complex, all other things are never equal. One cannot say enough about how important and wonderful freedom (or tolerance) is. But, as with tolerance, liberty is not the only thing. The notebook example above demonstrates the moral poverty of libertarianism.
While the error is similar, the motivations behind subjectivism and libertarianism are quite different. Subjectivists tend to be folks who want to make sure that everyone, even the least among us is considered equally in our moral deliberation and understand that there is room for moral disagreement. Libertarianism, on the other hand, is generally supported by well-off, well-educated, self-centered white guys who above all else want to make sure that now that they have theirs, a) no one else will take it, and b) they don’t have to feel guilty about not wanting to share it. By focusing exclusively on rights and the resulting freedoms, libertarians free themselves from what we usually think of when we think of morality, that is, being decent, caring, empathetic human beings who actually give a fuck about anyone other than themselves.
This is not to say that everyone who calls him or herself a libertarian is a selfish uncaring clod, but then again, I’m not sure I’d want to marry one either. When the notion of rights is allowed to seep its way into questions of morality around personal relationships, we end up with things like pre-nuptial agreements. The idea of a pre-nup ought to make one feel uneasy. Sure, it clearly sets out who has rights to what should something unfortunate occur within the relationship, but in relationships you do not structure your behavior according to rights. If your sweetie pie receives flowers or chocolates on Valentine’s day because of a perceived right to them or because you see it as fulfilling your end of a contract with your darling, the other clause to be satisfied in a horizontal position, a visit to a couples counselor might be a good thing. Being a good person, being someone living a good moral life, requires more than just avoiding violating the rights of others. It involves actually feeling the pleasure and pain of others, especially those close to you. Morality seems to need to move beyond mere rights to empathy, concern, and care.
It was pointed out to me that the Comedist insistance on a new selection mechanism in evolutionary theory -- survival of the funniest -- needs clarification. Citing the Darwin Award recipients, an early Comedist convert has pointed out that being funny might, in fact, lead to death before acheiving the propagation of one's genetic code. It seems that for our addition to Darwin's theory to work, there must be a biological version of the "laughing with vs. laughing at" distinction on the level of the individual organism and its interaction with its ecosystem. If there are any Comedist biologists out there who want to stop their research on splicing firefly genes into mammals in order to make certain organs glow in the dark and pick up on this problem instead, it would be greatly appreciated.
Wednesday, March 29, 2006
Green Eggs and Ham features two characters, an unnamed narrator and Sam-I-Am. The book begins with the narrator declaring that he does not like that Sam-I-Am. Despite this antagonistic attitude towards him, Sam-I-Am incessantly suggests that the narrator try the green eggs and ham that the narrator repeatedly insists he does not like. Ultimately, he wears down the narrator's defenses and he agrees to try them if Sam agrees to stop nagging. Upon eating the green eggs and ham, the narrator find that he really likes green eggs and ham. The book ends with the narrator offering deep thanks to Sam and the two emerge as friends.
Sam's nagging brought about the best possible consequences. The narrator's life and their relationship are both better as a result of his persistance. We can assume that Sam was acting out of care. Assume he had a reasonable belief that if the narrator would only try the green eggs and ham, everything would turn out for the better. Was the nagging justified?
Philosophers use the word "autonomy" to mean possessing the right to make one's own decisions about one's own life. Paternalism is seen by some philosophers as an assault on what it is to be human. To treat someone authentically is to give them their full freedom. Others say that care is the basis a moral relationship, that one should think about the well-being of the other. If you really care about someone, how far can you go to get them to act in their own self interest? If it really is for their own good, what are the limits of nagging?
Oh, and everyone over 35 who is reading this, if you are female get a baseline mammogram and if you are male get a baseline PSA.
When I teach ethics, the most common view in the room is Ethical Subjectivism, that moral judgments are purely a matter of personal decision. Everyone has his or her own ethical system and the fact that you consider an act morally right means that, for you, the act is morally right. While it comes from a good place, the desire to be tolerant, it is in fact, fatally flawed. Turning tolerance from a virtue into the only virtue undermines all meaningful ethical deliberation and handcuffs those who really think tolerance is important.
Two technical points: (1) the relativity of moral rightness - there is no sense of moral rightness apart from what someone believes; (2) the personal infallibility of moral judgment – it is impossible on this view for anyone to be wrong when they make a moral claim because rightness for them is just what they think it is.
Reasoning about ethics now becomes akin to choosing a favorite flavor of ice cream. No matter how strong of a rational argument I formulate, I could never get you to assert that, “While I thought that chocolate tasted better, I was wrong; and for rational reasons I now assert that vanilla actually tastes better.” If you came upon two people in a violent argument about their favorite ice cream flavors, you'd do well to think the two are idiots. He screams, she screams, but we need not all scream for ice cream because there is nothing that the two disagree about. His favorite is chocolate and her favorite is vanilla. There is no point of contention to debate.
The ethical subjectivist reduces morality to this same level. A radical pro-lifer and a radical pro-choicer have nothing to discuss; they don’t really disagree about anything. It may be that I can’t understand why you don’t find certain things to be yucky like I do, but, hey, some people are turned on by grown people dressed in diapers, some people like Brussels sprouts, and somebody’s buying those Britney Spears albums. There is no accounting for taste.
But that's nothing like ethics. When we disagree about the moral acceptability of an action, we are disagreeing about something. Consider moments of moral doubt. We all find ourselves unsure about the right thing to do from time to time. That horrible knot in the pit of your stomach wouldn’t be there if the choice was just another version of Coke or Pepsi, paper or plastic, ribbed or French tickler. In cases of deep moral doubt, we don’t just feel, we think. Sometimes (and sometimes is all we need to see the problem with ethical subjectivism), we find an ethical argument convincing and we then have a good, rational reason for our choices. But if ethical subjectivism were right, because of the infallibility of moral judgment, moral doubt and good reasons could not exist because which ever way you decided would instantly become morally right.
But while it is fatally flawed, there is a good reason why ethical subjectivism is so ubiquitous, especially on the left. It is a reaction to people we all know who assert that there are two sides to every moral question: their side and the wrong side; people for whom everything is absolute and clear-cut. The technical philosophical term for such people is “asshole,” and ethical subjectivism is often an attempt by good, caring, rational, people to not be assholes.
But while the move to ethical subjectivism is motivated by good intentions, it fails on several counts. First, ethical subjectivism fails to make room for competing views about ethical issues because under ethical subjectivism there are no competing views! Everyone is right. If we were all ethical subjectivists, we would not be living in harmony with people who disagree with us, rather we would each be sequestered in our own little ethical bubble where it doesn’t matter how reasonable or wacko the folks in the surrounding bubbles are. If the idea was to create open-minded ethical discourse this ain’t it.
Secondly, the assholes have figured out that beating ethical subjectivists in moral conversation is easier than finding a white guy at the Republican National Convention. In reaction to the assholes’ lack of tolerance, the ethical subjectivist has elevated tolerance from its rightful place as a virtue and set it up on a pedestal as the virtue. There is no doubt that, all other things being equal, we ought to be tolerant. But all other things are not always equal and this slavish devotion to tolerance has allowed the assholes to sneak in hateful, discriminatory, oppressive views into mainstream public discourse. All they have to say is that by considering their horrendously morally objectionable view to be horrendously morally objectionable you are being intolerant, and, since you say that we always have to be tolerant, you must therefore tolerate the intolerance and injustice that they are advocating. The goodhearted folks who make the move to ethical subjectivism get their asses kicked every single time. Yes, it is good to be tolerant, but in some particular cases other virtues have to come first. Sometimes justice, fairness, and even promotion of tolerance itself require taking actions that do not place tolerance at the forefront. Tolerance is an important thing, but not the only important thing.
Tuesday, March 28, 2006
It was Dr. Seuss' 100th birthday a little while ago, so to celebrate here is the first of several posts on the philosophy of Seuss.
The Cat in the Hat ends with a great question. Remember what happens in the book: on a cold, rainy day, a brother and sister sit bored in the house when the Cat in the Hat comes in and engages in the sorts of behavior that are unacceptable for a middle-class 1950's household. The house is completely trashed as a result of his playing...remember that the brother and sister did not partake in the activities and were shocked and appalled by them. Then as the mother is about to come home, the Cat in the Hat sweeps in and makes the house look exactly as it did before he came. The punchline of the story is that the mother walks in to find the siblings sitting at the window and asks, "What did you do?" The brother, who has been narrating, asks the reader, "What would you do if your mother asked you?"
So what should he do? If he tells the truth, the mother will either think he is lying or be angry at what happened in the house. If he lies, there will be no negative consequences...but it is a lie of convenience. He and his sister had nothing to do with the inappropriate behavior, so they should not be held responsible, yet there is good reason to think they would be. (This is what ethicists call moral luck.) Is it ok to lie to avoid being blamed for something you didn't do, but know you would be blamed for?
In a different direction, knowing what they know at the end of the book -- that the Cat could make all negative consequences dissapear -- would it have been ok to have played along and do things that were against the rules? "You shouldn't fly kites in a house, you should not." Why? Because of "the things they will bump, oh, the things they will hit." But given the Cat's ability, it wouldn't matter what they would bump or hit. The reason for the rule is the likely consequences of the act, but those consequences are no longer a worry. "No harm, no foul? or "A rule is a rule"?
Monday, March 27, 2006
Once upon a time there were two brothers. The older brother was not terribly bright, but had a temper and was quick to resort to physical means of showing his disapproval. The younger brother was a more sensitive sort at heart, but was quite insecure from having to live in the shadow of his older brother's physical prowess and from the beatings he had been subjected to by him over the years. Beatings which only got more severe as the years went on.
Hearing his brother's raucous friends, the younger brother thought he needed to be more like him to be popular. But the truth was that most people preferred the younger brother because of his kind and caring manner. Indeed, his desire to be like his older brother only seemed to alienate those who genuinely liked him for who he was. When his brother would lash out and call him a wimp or, wose yet, gay, he would stare silently, wounded, off into the distance wishing he were more like his brother.
The older brother had a bad habit of slamming heavy objects down upon the floor in anger and as a result, the wooden boards were dented and damaged, the finish worn off in many places. Everyone who saw the floor of their home thought that it was such a shame that a once beautiful hardwood floor had come to this state of disrepair.
The older brother, seeing a nail sticking up from the floor board declared that before such a nail would cut his unsuspecting stocking clad foot, the brothers would take care of the floor. The younger brother thought to himslef that the floor would not be in such poor condition if it were not for the short-sighted belligerance of the older brother, but said nothing lest he risk subjecting himself once more to his rage. He would go along with whatever plan the older brother would devise.
The older brother, not being one to plan, came home with paint that he would use to cover the floor. It would make the problems dissapear in one quick coat he assured everyone. It would be simple to apply and stand up to years of wear.
But it turned out that he had bought the wrong sort of paint. And he had the wrong sort of brushes. And it would not adhere to the treated wood in large areas of the floor. But the younger brother said nothing.
So the brothers painted, and painted, and painted. After three hours, the brothers realized that they had painted themselves into a corner of the room from which they could not move. Looking out over the room, the floor had splotches of paint in some areas, none in others. The gashes in the floor held puddles of paint that refused to dry. The floor no better than before, indeed, some might opine that it looked worse.
The brothers could not continue painting, they were trapped. The younger brother suggested walking out of the room across the wet paint even though he knew that they would have to tred upon their work, destroying the few spots that were evenly covered. The older brother angrily yelled that the younger brother was betraying the family. No one could deny, he argued, that the floor had been in terrible shape before they started. "You want us to go back to that terrible floor?! The floor that posed a threat to our feet? Why do want our children to suffer cuts and possibly infections, gangrene? Do you hate this family this much?"
They could not keep painting; the more they painted, the tighter a corner they were in. They could not leave, it would leave the floor in worse shape yet. They could not just leave it as it is. When the younger brother got angry and said that it was all the fault of older brother. The older brother said that this was no time to play the blame game, that what they really needed was to look forward and determine what to do next. If the younger brother did not have a better idea, the older brother said, then his idea of continuing to paint would have to be the plan.
The younger brother was listening to his heart beat. His stomach felt queazy. He could not stand up to his big brother, yet he knew that continuing on this path would only make things worse. He grabbed his kness and rocked in the corner sobbing quietly.
The always insightful Echidne of the Snakes has a post about the Ben Domenech debacle over at Washington Post.com.
For those who haven't been following the story, after decades of being accused of having a liberal bias, the Washington Post decided to hire a young rising star of the right to provide a hard core right-wing perspective to their web content. It turns out that their new hire, Ben Domenech, a fundamentalist Christian, was also a serial plagiarist.
Echidne accuses Domenech of being a hypocrite for being both a thief and a Biblical literalist.
Stealing is a sin in Christianity, and plagiarism is stealing. Ben Domenech, the Washington Post's new conservative blogger, tells us that he takes pride in his fundamentalist Christianity, including in a literal belief in the Genesis. This makes me think that he would also take pride in following the ten commandments of Christianity which include the command "Thou Shalt Not Steal".
But there is a serious problem with this argument. To consider plagiarism to be theft, and thereby violate the commandament, presupposes that the notion of intellectual property is included in a literal reading of Genesis. If we take literal Biblical interpretation to be something akin to the legal originalism that we see from Justices Scalia and Thomas, then there is a problem. The notion of intellectual property wasn't around at the time of the introduction of Genesis. It does not show up until the mechanization of printing made the mass production and marketing of printed material possible. It isn't until there is a publishing industry that the concept of intellectual property arises. The concept of stealing in the commandment, it seems, could be argued to only include cases like illicitly acquiring your neighbor's goat under the cover of darkness. Indeed, monks acting as scribes have a long history of copying all sorts of books, sacred and secular. There did not seem to be a problem with this copying before copyrights.
As such, it seems that Domenech's Christian fundamentalism is not the source of any hypocricy. Now, I would be willing to bet that Domenech does believe in intellectual property rights, and so he is a hypocrite, but not because he is a Biblical literalist; he is a hypocrite because he is a hypocrite. (I'm a philosopher, I say deep things.) Citing his fundamentalism here is simply ad hominem, although, yes, the irony is quite ironic.
But what we do see here is a great illustration of the problem with the Divine Command theory of ethics, the position that moral rightness and wrongness derive solely and completely from God's desires.
If you speak about ethics with people it is a frequent claim that, “My morals come from my religion.” Many people draw tremendous strength from their spiritual faith. Beside empathy, religious conviction surely stands as the other preeminent sources of moral courage, the ability to actually go through with what one knows one must do. In the aftermath of the South Asian Tsunami, hurricane Katrina, and any number of other disasters, not to mention feeding the hungry and housing the homeless on any given day, religious organizations are often the ones doing the morally admirable work for the neediest among us. Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa, the Dalai Lama, Dorothy Day, and countless other champions of moral justice and in-the-trenches good works explicitly place their spiritual views atop the reasons they did what they did. Religion can be a tremendous power for good and right.
But the Scriptures are written words, and written words may be understood in many different ways. Give me any set of sentences and there will always be multiple possible interpretations of those sentences which will make them all meaningful. (The philosophers Saul Kripke, Donald Davidson, and Hilary Putnam have worked this sort of maneuver out in great technical detail. Philosophers of language call it the inscrutibility of reference.) There is never a unique "literal" meaning of any text, as we see with this case of the simple imperative "Thou shalt not steal," interpretation is always involved.
This is especially true with the Bible and its many allegories, there are not easy, straightforward, unambiguous meanings to most passages. What you are accepting is not the Word itself, but a human interpretation of the words. The question, then, is that if moral rightness derives from the Word, but we only have access to it through a human understanding of the words – and there are several – how could we ever know which is right? How could we ever actually make moral judgments? On every side of every moral issue, you will find authentically religious people who derive the strength of their convictions from their faith. Just as one should worry about anyone who claims to have God’s beeper number, anyone who claims to have the one true interpretation of all of Scripture ought to be viewed with great suspicion.
This issue of having the one true way of understanding the Word of God tends is theologically connected more so to Christians and certain Muslim groups. Jews, on the other hand, while having some literalists in their ranks, tend to avoid this problem for two reasons. First, there is a long and prized Jewish tradition of celebrating multiple, clever Talmudic readings of textual passages. The other reason is that if any Jew ever did claim to have the one true interpretation, oy, would he hear it from his mother. “Oh, so Mr. Smarty Pants has the Bible Code now. Mr. Big Shot. Tell me, if you are so smart, why aren’t you a doctor like your cousin Seth? That’s all I hear from your Aunt Sylvia, ‘My son Morty, you know, the doctor, he does this and he drives that kind of car and he was at a conference in Hawaii…’ You wouldn’t even have to be a specialist, just a plain old internist would be fine. Then you could do something about this phlebitis.”...“Ma, you don’t have phlebitis.”...“Ok, maybe it’s cancer. Like you would know. What are you, now, some kind of doctor?”
Religious faith can be a fine place to start thinking about ethical questions, but it is not the end. You cannot, in fact, know what Jesus would do and if you find yourself next to someone who insists he knows with absolute certainty, put your hand on your wallet and run like hell. Faith can be the thing that leads you to do what you know is right, but it does not relieve you from having to think through the difficult question of what is right in any given situation. Rational ethical deliberation is still needed.
Sunday, March 26, 2006
Saturday, March 25, 2006
Before we talk about ethics, we need to look at the the crap that passes for ethical discourse in the media. To be clear, there is a huge difference between real moral consideration and the politically-infected pseudo-ethics speak that we get bombarded with.
In the run-up to the 2004 presidential election, the media broadly trumpeted the coming of the "values voters." Ethics seemed to be making a comeback in the common consciousness. Perhaps now, many of us thought, we would see in depth, sophisticated, and serious discussions of difficult and important ethical issues.
But the strangest thing happened. The word "morality" was suddenly taken by reporters and pundits to mean nothing more than opposing gay marriage and abortion. To have values meant you were a conservative evangelical Christian; or, if you are Catholic, a self-flagellating member of Opus Dei; or if Jewish, Joe Lieberman. The word “moral” was taken to not only mean religious, but religious in a very particular way with a very particular political agenda. All discussion in the popular media about the serious moral issues facing our society was reduced to nothing more than a question of allegiance to conservative religious organizations and the right-wing policy agenda they are pushing.
So, how did that happen? How did all of ethics get reduced to abortion and gay marriage? Who took the ethics out of ethics? How did our national moral conversation become so incredibly impoverished and politicized in the most shallow way? How the hell did we manage to go from Edward R. Murrow and Martin Luther King, Jr. to Fox News and Pat Robertson?
"Follow the money." Who benefits from this impoverished discourse? Who funded it? Well, let's see...
The first half of the 20th century was not a big boost for the moral credentials of the American right. They were on the wrong side of the fight to give women the vote. They were on the wrong side of helping working people out of the Great Depression. They were on the wrong side of Social Security to keep senior citizens from starving to death. They were on the wrong side of Medicaid to allow needy children access to health care. They were on the wrong side of the civil rights movement and continued to try to block the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. Our most prized moral successes in the 20th century came by defeating the entrenched power and roadblocks thrown up by the American conservative movement.
Then, the whipped cream and cherry came in the mid-1970's from Watergate with its lying, cheating, and stealing in an effort to undermine democracy and guarantee continued Republican power. They used the intelligence apparatus of the U. S. government to spy on political enemies. They planted fake propaganda against political opponents. They covered up, obfuscated, and perjured themselves.
(To be fair, though, this was before perjury became a serious crime. It was only later that our democracy became so fragile that lying under oath, even about issues unrelated to governance -- say, about an extramarital blowjob -- could destroy the foundation of our entire nation and undermine all respect for law and order. At this point, the threat of lying under oath is so great that Arlen Specter, chair of the Judiciary committe, refused to even put attorney general Alberto Gonzales under oath when testifying before the committee, despite pleas from Democratic committee members. If you want to make sure that there's no lying under oath, one way is to make sure there's no oath.)
When the "whole rats' nest of illegal shit" of Watergate was finally uncovered by Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford, the pendulum was in full swing. In the next couple of elections, the Republicans had a big ol' can of moral whoop-ass opened up on them. The "values voters" of the 1970's had spoken. Democrats took power in no small part because of ethics.
So how did they blow it? What happened between 1975 and 2000 to completely invert perception of moral dominance and allow Democrats to be portrayed as traitorous, hateful, immoral defenders of everything evil?
Republicans, when out of power, thought deeply about how to undermine the coalition in the Democrat's big tent. They derived a strategy still firmly in place: when attacking an opponent, don't attack his weaknesses, attack his strengths. If you can muddy the waters on issues where the other side has a clear advantage, a draw is a victory. Let’s say hypothetically that the other candidate is a decorated Viet Nam vet and that your candidate dodged the draft by hiding out in the National Guard and even in that cheesy role, failed to serve honorably. Don’t shy away from the issue, rather make sure that there are continuous attacks upon the veteran's patriotism, service to his country, war record and any medals he might have received. Make swing voters cynical; get them to think, "they are both lying." Then the other side's advantage disappears.
This is what they did to ethics. And the Democrats fell for it each and every time.
There have been five major battlegrounds in the media for the title of "most moral movement": (1) The Southern, turned Evangelical, Strategy, (2) Overplaying the White Guilt Card, (3) ABSCAM, Check Kiting, and Democratic Congressional Corruption, (4) Chicken Little and the Liberals Who Cried Wolf, and (5) The Myth of the Liberal Media. The Democrats went 0 for 5.
We'll need to look at each of these in some detail. More to come...
In a nation that purports to be a democracy (with the possible exception of Florida), little could be more important than serious, passionate, and rational discussion of ethical issues. Virtually every concern of modern life has an inescapably moral dimension and yet, today, it is more polite to fart at the dinner table and exclaim, “Boy, I’m glad I can’t pass on my gonorrhea that way” than to broach discussion about abortion, cloning, or stem cell research. And it is no wonder. Americans are horrible at discussing difficult moral issues. Most dinner-table discussions will quickly devolve into either high horse moralizing or "who's to say" shoulder shrugging, raised voices, insults, Nazi references, hurt feelings, lingering resentment, and on a good night, flying mashed potatoes. The real issues, the hard and intricate ones, rarely receive anything close to an honest treatment. The trenches are dug, our party affiliation determines with complete accuracy what side we are supposed to be on, and the key is to simply be louder than the other side so we need not hear what they are saying.
Not only are there just two choices about which side of any given moral argument you are to support, but there are also only two ways to engage in ethical discussion. One is to believe that there is an absolute right and absolute wrong and anyone who disagrees with you is not only wrong, but evil. Thus you need never listen to anyone else, only try to convert them while speaking in the most obnoxious, arrogant tone possible. Or you could be a subjectivist and just repeat the phrase "who's to say?" until someone punches you in the mouth. You think that if Stalin really thought that mass murder was ok, then it was ok for Stalin. If we want to engage in discourse about pressing ethical issues today, our choice is between being a dogmatic, holier-than-thou jerk or an anything-goes, relativist buffoon.
This sense of uneasiness is only exacerbated by those who are supposed to represent the apex of public discourse, the popular media. Of course, every moral judgment has political ramifications, so our wonderfully thoughtful media outlets invariably take one of three routes in discussing issues of ethical concern: 1) he said/she said reporting where the legitimate and intricate ethical dimensions of complex issues are minimized and treated as if it were nothing more than mere partisan demagoguery that minimizes the ethical dimensions of the complex issues, 2) nothing more than mere partisan demagoguery that minimizes the intricate ethical dimensions of complex issues replete with handy-dandy talking points to be drilled into your head and repeated, and repeated, and repeated, and repeated,..., or 3) "FOODFIGHT!" (Of course, the third option requires finding a liberal willing to fight and a show willing to present a liberal fighting back and therefore is becoming quite rare).
Our personal and public forums for ethical discourse are screwed up beyond belief. Let's be clear. The problem isn't with ethics, the problem is with us. The problem is that we don't know what we are supposed to be arguing about. We argue about the issues, but don't have a real sense of th underlying structure of morality itself. We get worked up which is good, ethics should be a source of passion, but we do it without being clear on how to express this passion in a way that will foster real, authentic, open-minded, good faith discussion. What we need is to understand what we mean by the terms "morally right," "morally permissible," and "morally wrong."
We have a vague sense of what we mean when we say that an action is "immoral" or "morally right" – we know that helping an old lady across the street with her bags is an ethically good thing to do and we know that stealing her groceries by running away with the bags when we reach the other side of the street is ethically wrong. We know that torturing an infant is wrong, but the minute you make even this incredibly obvious claim, someone will inevitably say something like, "Well, but suppose it was the infant of a terrorist who was about to detonate bombs in the obstetrics ward of every hospital in every city, killing every American newborn and torturing his child is the only way to get him to stop." This person will then put on a serious face with that obnoxious "so there" look and you are left with that feeling you get in line at the grocery store reading tabloid headlines about a 300 pound baby discovering that Elvis has been abducted by flying saucers. You know something in that move is bullshit, but you can’t clearly enunciate what it is. That move can be used to undermine all moral claims...maybe we just shouldn't talk about ethics.
But we must talk about ethics. We know this and we keep trying, we just keep failing and keep getting more and more cynical about the whole enterprise. And this is a really, really, REALLY bad thing because the more we surrender our place talking about ethics, the more we let the conversation be completely dominated by people like Ann Coulter who seeks to shut down moral discussion by demonizing those who have different points of view, Bill O'Reilly who yells "Shut Up" at people while alledgedly sexually harrassing those who work under him, and Pat Robertson who preaches while calling for the assassination of foriegn leaders. If we give up talking about ethics, then we let the people who are polluting our ethical discourse own all ethical discourse.
But what we need to do is not to shout louder, that just brings about more cynicism. Look at the way Cindy Sheehan went from an incredibly powerful position, evoking great sympathy across wide expanses of the American public to largely generating rolled eyes. Shouting doesn't work for us. (Can anyone say "Howard Dean"? That one still hurts.) We can't beat them at their own game, the game is rigged. We need to be smart (as well as funny and hopeful). To win, we must understand how moral reasoning really works and give good arguments, arguments that are strong but not oversimplified. We need to see where the complex issues are complex and show that complexity. On the hard issues, most people feel torn -- and they feel that way for good reason. We can't be black and white, but need to say that we fully understand why making this choice is hard and leaves you with a bad taste in your mouth, but nonetheless it is the right choice because the alternative is not acceptable. We need to learn how to discuss moral issues well. It is our only choice.
How do you do it? More to come...
Friday, March 24, 2006
So critical thinking has made the big time. There it was on Yahoo News, an AP story about our very own President using strawman arguments.
For those who aren't familiar with the term: a strawman is (1) an intentionally weak argument that someone constructs and falsely claims his opponent to be advocating, in order to refute and then claim to have defeated the opponent, or (2) Alan Colmes. The idea is that it is easier to beat the stuffing out of a scarecrow than a real person, so instead of assessing the actual argument the other side is putting up, you substitute a stupid argument, attribute it to them and then claim victory by undermining the stupid argument instead of the real, more interesting one.
(It strikes me that Hannity and Colmes are to political discourse what the Harlem Globetrotters and the Washington Generals are to basketball. Rumor has it that George Bush wanted to place the coach of the Washington Generals among the Joint Chiefs of Staff, saying that as a coach, he'd done a heck of a job. )
This fallacy certainly is not the exclusive property of either side of the political aisle, but it is wihtout a doubt true that talk radio has become the megaphone through which certain strawman arguments can be drilled and drilled and drilled into the heads of those under its spell.
So some questions seem in need of discussing. If the AP could bring up example after example of this fallacy being repeatedly committed over the span of Bush's presidency, why are we only hearing about it from them now, six years and two elections in? How did we allow our political discourse to become so polluted? What effect does this have on democracy? What effect does it have on our own politcal, ethical, factual decision making processes? And, most importantly, what the hell can we do about it?
(My answer: teach logic, critical thinking, and write a book -- more on the last one to come). Other suggestions?
While teaching a course in the philosophy of religion at the Naval Academy years ago (oh, the stories I can tell), I came upon two stunning revelations.
First, one of the standard Judeo-Christian arguments for the existence of God has a critical flaw. The argument tries to conclude that God must exist because He/She/Them/It is all-perfect, that is, God has every possible perfection to the greatest possible extent. While there is textual support for the claims of God being all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-loving, one virtue was completely absent from Divine Scripture. Their God was not all-funny. There are no good punchlines anywhere in the standard Scriptures, no zingers, one liners, classic come-backs, not even a knock-knock joke. Theirs could not be the all-perfect divinity they advertised.
Second, I realized that the key to advancement in the religion industry was "get in early." These days if you want to get anywhere in the spirituality field, you need to be Mother Theresa or Pat Robertson and who has the energy to serve the poor in India or build a tv network where you can call for the assassination of world leaders these days? But look at the ones who got in early. Abraham? Took a knife to his schmeckle at age 40 because he heard voices. "Where was God with the ram that day?" ask a whole lot of 8 day old Jewish boys. Yup, if you want to be upwardly mobile in today's faith-based market, you need to get in early.
So from these twin epiphanies I realized that I needed to start my own theological community. And from that thought came the new religion -- Comedism. That which is holy is that which is funny. Our God is funnier than their God.
I'll be posting more on Comedist theology later, but let me first address the obvious question. Do Comedists believe in evolution? Any process that gives us the platypus and the aardvark is just fine by us. We just ask that a new selection mechanism be added to account for their development -- survival of the funniest. Consider the evidence. The human body could expell unnecessary gas in a way that would be efficient and silent, yet we have acquired the ability to belch and fart. Are these noisy abilities advantageous in avoiding those tracking us as prey? Hardly. Are they advantageous in attracting mating partners? Um, no. So why is it that they are a standard part of human life? If you want an answer, just try to watch the beans scene from Blazing Saddles without cracking a smile. "More beans, Mr. Taggart?"..."I'd say you'd had enough." So the next time you have a gaseous expulsion, do not say, "Excuse me"; rather see it as a personal connection to the Divine and proudly proclaim, "Saint Shecky be praised" or at least, "Watch out below."
May your dribble glasses overflow, your buzzers be full of joy, and your cushions always full of whoopie.
Thursday, March 23, 2006
It's not often that philosophers of science get to talk about cases before the Supreme Court, but the high court just heard arguments concerning the scope of patents and medical discoveries that raises interesting questions about the nature of scientific statements.
Metabolife holds a patent on a test for vitamin B deficiency that is based on the fact that the deficiency can be linked to high levels of an amino acid called homocysteine. So far, nothing strange. Enter LabCorp, a competitor who comes up with a different test for vitamin B deficiency. LabCorp's test measures homocysteine levels through a different mechanism and so is a different test, but relies on the same correlation as Metabolife's test, a correlation discovered by Metabolife's researchers. Metabolife is suing LabCorp for infringement, arguing that the correlation is an essential part of the test. Even though LabCorp's test assesses homocysteine levels by a different mechanism, at its heart, the test is the same and therefore violates Metabolife's exclusive rights under its patent.
What is the intellectual property here, the test or the correlation? Is the correlation something to which we ought to grant ownership rights? Intellectual property is the result of creative intellectual activity. We give copyrights to people's writings and we patent new inventions because they involve novel ideas and executions of the ideas, but facts of the world are a different matter. Knowledge belongs to everyone. Is the correlation an invention or a discovery?
Reflections on science:
There are two main traditions in the philosophy of science when it comes to how we look at scientific theories.
One (we call it the syntactic view) holds that theories are collections of sentences that are either true or false. Newton's theory of mechanics is comprised of his three laws of motion and Newton's theory is true just in case an object at rest remains at rest and an object in motion remains in uniform rectilinear motion when subjected to no external forces and a whole lot of other stuff in Latin. We look for true laws of nature and when we think we have them, we look for cases where they don't work and when we find one, we throw them away and look for new ones.
The other (the semantic view) contends that theories are sets of models. Scientists create representations of parts and processes of the world to explain their properties and workings. Crick and Watson's model of DNA was just like a seven-year old building a model car, except they had no excuse for all of the empty tubes of glue laying around. Unlike sentences, models are neither true nor false, they are better or worse. If you looked at model cars made by two children, you could say that one looked more like the car than the other and therefore is a better model; but the better model is not true, just a better representation.
While there is a long history of philosophical discussion between the two camps, let's just look at what difference it seems to make in this case. It seems that if we take the syntactic view seriously, then the correlation is a proposition which is true and that fact of the world is something that is, in principle, independently discoverable by anyone. But if we think of theories as sets of models, then the correlation is part of a model and more like the result of a creative act, an invention. Under this interpretation, the correlation seems to be more like the sorts of things we do grant protection for.
So are scientific regularities discovered facts or created models? Seems like the answer will have some effect on how we view the Supreme Court's eventual decision.
Red rover, Red rover, send some smart, funny people right over.