Monday, May 31, 2004

Gay Marriage and Slippery Slopes

A Dahlia Lithwick article posted a couple of weeks ago on Slate was dismissive of the case against gay marriage based upon the metaphor of a "slippery slope". A slippery slope argument tries to show that, in some cases, once a concession is granted to one's opponent there is no logical basis for stopping with just that single concession. Consistency demands that the next point of contention also be conceded, and so on, until one finds oneself slipping helplessly toward an unacceptable endpoint, unable to gain a firm handhold anywhere along the way to stop the slide.

As regards the issue of gay marriage the slippery slope is invoked to argue that once marriage is no longer limited to a man and a woman we have no compelling reason to stop at restricting marriage to just two people of any gender. Pressure would doubtless arise to extend marriage rights to any combination of people who consent to be married, no matter the number, gender, or biological relationship of the intendeds, and the courts would have no basis for opposing the wishes of plaintiffs who would almost certainly challenge laws against such unions.

Lithwick is having none of this sort of reasoning, however. After spending much time ridiculing those who fear that redefining marriage may ultimately lead to state sanction of conjugal relationships between humans and their pets and other such perversities, she addresses the more immediate and plausible concern that marriage rights will eventually be extended to groups of people. Lithwick doesn't see this as a likely consequence of allowing gays to marry. Her reason is that there is a rational basis for states to ban polygamous and polyamorous marriages because historically these have resulted in imbalances of power, coercion (particularly of young girls), and an enormous financial burden to the state.

But these seem to be tenuous grounds for resisting state approval of polygamous unions, since the first two are not necessarily inherent in those unions, and the third, despite Lithwick's denial in her article, would make polygamous unions no different than gay couplings (See here, for example). If the liabilities she mentions were removed or mitigated, what grounds would remain for states to proscribe such relationships? Lithwick's argument seems to entail that if these reasons were to be found unpersuasive by the courts then polygamy would indeed be legally inevitable.

She does mention one additional reason for pooh-poohing the slippery slope argument. She notes that the constitutional right to privacy, which some justices imagined they descried in the Griswold case of 1965 and upon which they based their Roe decision of 1973, is an intimate right, between two consenting partners.The desire of a group of seven people to marry simply does not intuitively fit into that binary sphere of intimacy.

In other words, extending marriage rights to two gays is just not the same as extending similar rights to multiple partners because the latter combination is not intuitively intimate whereas relationships between couples are. Courts may, then, on the basis of intuitive intimacy, refuse to polygamists what they grant to homosexuals. How does Lithwick propose, however, that courts assess the degree of potential intimacy residing in a particular group of would-be spouses? Would the criterion of intuitive intimacy, in the interest of equal treatment under the law, be extended to heterosexual couples who appear to some official to be insufficiently affectionate toward each other? Do we want judges and legislators making decisions about matters of law on the basis of their personal understanding of intimacy?

It seems pretty clear that, pace Lithwick, once gender is no longer relevant to marriage there will be no compelling reason to keep the number of people involved relevant either. Whether this would mean the end of marriage or not and what the long term social effects would be, who can say, but it would certainly be another body blow to an institution that has been severely rocked by liberalized divorce laws, liberalized views on cohabitation, and liberalized sexual mores over the last thirty five years.

Saturday, May 29, 2004

Enemies of Moral Progress

Evidence that intellectual brilliance is no safeguard against appalling silliness:

"I say quite deliberately that the Christian religion, as organized in its Churches, has been and still is the principal enemy of moral progress in the world."
Bertrand Russell in Why I Am Not a Christian.

No doubt this was an effective applause line when the famous philosopher and mathematician gave the speech upon which his book is based in 1927, and variants of it are often heard still today. Nevertheless, it suffers the misfortune of being gratingly out of tune with the facts. In the ancient Greco-Roman world, not to mention other civilizations since, infanticide, child abandonment, abortion, suicide, slavery, human sacrifice, and death sports were all widely practiced and approved. Christian influence, derived from the conviction that human life was sacred, was instrumental in curtailing or ending each of these barbarisms.

Many ancient societies, and some contemporary ones, regarded women as property. Daughters were bought and sold, wives legally beaten, even put to death. Sexual double standards were accepted so that female infidelity could be severely punished, but male philandering was winked at. Female infanticide was common, as were suttee (burning a wife on her husbands funeral pyre) among Hindus, foot binding of girls in the orient, and genital mutilation in Muslim societies in Africa and the Middle East. Wherever Christianity exerted influence these practices were legally proscribed.

As a consequence of the Christianization of Europe mental asylums were created in the 4th century, as were homes for the sick. Poorhouses were started around the same time and homes for the aged and the blind were instituted a century later. Most hospitals of all types were, until modern times, begun by Christians as an expression of their belief that it was their moral duty to care for the sick and the poor. The same has been true of organizations of mercy like the Red Cross and Mother Teresa's ministry in India as well as charitable institutions like The Salvation Army and Habitat for Humanity. If this is how enemies of moral progress behave, the world could do with a lot more such enemies.

I wonder if Russell would think this record of moral accomplishment inferior to that of the state atheisms of the twentieth century (i.e. Communism and National Socialism) which presided over the murders of hundreds of millions of people in the bloodiest one hundred year period in human history. I wonder if he would think the moral legacy of the Christian Church inferior to that of the vast Arab world for whom murder, war, and honor killings are what baseball and bowling are for Americans, mere sport and amusement. Indeed, I wonder if Russell was even thinking at all when he made the claim quoted above. How, for instance, can an atheist, especially a positivist like Russell, even speak in moral terms? But that's a question for another post.

For a much more detailed treatment of the impact of Christianity, both moral and otherwise, throughout the last two millennia see Alvin J. Schmidt's Under the Influence: How Christianity Transformed Civilization. The book can be ordered through our friends at Hearts and Minds Bookstore.

Friday, May 28, 2004

Abu Ghraib

     If you haven't had it up to here with Abu Ghraib I recommend you read this piece by Joel Belz. Belz writes that although the soldiers who performed those perverse, sordid, and terribly stupid acts are not representative of the American military, there's a good chance that they will become more so in the not too distant future. The disgusting photos from Abu Ghraib, Belz suggests, are the predictable spawn of a pornographic culture.

Key quote: We've been building a culture that asserts its right to goof around playfully with the kinds of things that, when seen now in the context of the Iraqi jails, horrify us. The violence, the sexual slavery, the domination, the bizarreall these are the stock in trade of America's music industry, of cable TV, of video stores, of the internet, and of newsstands in grocery stores. We like to kid ourselves into thinking that we're just playing games with all this stuff. But then when a few young but morally rudderless Americans are transported halfway around the world, made to think they are on the side of virtue, and asked suddenly to act responsibly, we're surprised that they can't.

     You'll want to read the whole thing. Thanks to Byron Borger at Hearts and Minds Bookstore for the link.


     Apparently the amazing success of The Passion of the Christ has triggered an epiphany of sorts in Hollywood film studios. Filmmakers and screen writers have perhaps been granted a vision of a land with long skeins of moviegoers eagerly queueing up outside theaters to see any film that might be even remotely Christian. What evidently hasn't been revealed to them, though, is that the films they market should portray Christianity and Christians honestly or else they'll likely play to empty houses.

     Hollywood, however, is not above preferring a wretched cinematic loser that makes religious believers look like characters out of American Beauty rather than proffering an honest portrayal of the truth about Christianity. So this month we're being served something called Saved!. According to reviewer Ted Baehr, Saved! sounds like another in a long list of execrable efforts at discrediting Christian belief and practice going back to Inherit the Wind (1960). Like others of the genre it appears to be filled with phony stereotypes, hypocritical believers, and anti-Christian heroes.

     This isn't exactly the formula Mel Gibson followed to pack 'em in, but an industry that insists upon churning out productions like Dogma believing that such awful fare might appeal to a Christian audience can't be expected to understand the convictions and sensibilities of those who went to see The Passion two or three times.

     Here's a news report on Baehr's review: Hollywood, Calif. - Ted Baehr, world-renowned media scholar and founder of the Christian Film & Television CommissionTM ministry, says the new Hollywood movie, SAVED!, to be released May 28 by MGM, is a sad, bigoted, anti-Christian movie that mocks the Christian faith. He urged other religious leaders, including Jewish and Moslem leaders, to warn their constituents about the "bigoted" movie, which stars Mandy Moore and Macaulay Culkin in a story about self-righteous Christian youths, set in an uptight Christian school. "SAVED! is a hateful, politically correct movie," Dr. Baehr declared. "The movie is being heavily marketed to the community it mocks to lead Christian youth astray and make them hate their faith." "The one character who tries to preach the Gospel in the movie," he noted, "is actually the villain in the movie. The heroine, Mary, played by Jena Malone, is told in a vision by Jesus to fornicate with the school hunk in order to save him from homosexuality." "At the end, Mary learns that her true friends are a rebellious Jewish girl who claims to have been a stripper and the villain's brother, who denies being a Christian and lusts after the so-called stripper." Dr. Baehr asks, "Imagine if this movie were set in a Jewish school with the faithful Jewish children cast as the villains and the Christian as the heroine who exposes their legalism. Or, what if it were set in an Islamic school, with the faithful Muslims cast as the villains and a Jewish girl as the heroine?" "The outcry in the press would be tremendous!"

Thursday, May 27, 2004

The Elite Media: Malevolent, Wicked or Stupid?

     Whether or not we agree that the invasion of Iraq was the right thing to do, it surely goes without saying that every American should be fervently hoping that the post-war reconstruction effort there is a resounding success. We should be rejoicing in the stories of Iraqis living free and prospering, of Americans building schools, clinics, roads, and playgrounds, and we should be eager to hear such accounts. Why, then, does our media and the political left seem to wallow in doom, gloom, and despair? Why do we never hear them extolling the many wonderful things that are happening in that country?

     To hope for anything less than complete and total success in Iraq is morally inexcusable, and yet it seems that that is exactly what many are doing. They seem to be not only hoping for failure but actively doing all they can, whether intentionally or not, to bring it about. See the excellent piece on this by Mort Kondracke here.

     Why would anyone want to see the U.S. fail in Iraq? One reason, of course, might be that if Iraq turns out to be a great success George Bush will get a tremendous amount of credit, and there are no doubt many people who would rather see America abandon its efforts in that tragic land, see the Iraqi people thrust into chaos and civil war, and see America discredited around the world, than to see George Bush get credit for rescuing the Iraqis from tyranny and creating a free and secure democracy in the Middle East. How else can we explain the relentless negativism of the press and network news programs? Every particle of bad news is magnified, examined, scrutinized for weeks and months to wring out of it every possible drop of political advantage for Bush's opponents. Good news from Iraq and Afghanistan, of which there is an abundance (See here, for instance), is either not reported at all or is buried on page 10.

     When some troops act abominably in Abu Ghraib the average American is given to believe that it constitutes the greatest war crime since the holocaust. Abu Ghraib undermines our claim to moral superiority, we are told. Surely the media knows the demoralizing effect this sort of thing has on people here at home, and surely it has crossed their minds that a demoralized, dispirited electorate is more likely to vote the incumbent out. So Abu Ghraib is seared into our consciousness. Yet the far more searing videos of Nicholas Berg's murder and of Saddam's tortures of Iraqi prisoners are scarcely mentioned in the press or the evening news, let alone shown to the American public. Is it a stretch to think that this is because these would doubtless encourage people to believe that our cause in Iraq is just?

     Underplaying the atrocities of the enemy is either a deliberate attempt to minimize one of the main justifications of the war, i.e. the barbarism and savagery of the Baathists, or it is conduct which has the same effect. Overplaying the depravities of a few American troops is either a deliberate attempt to demoralize Americans and weaken support for what Bush is trying to do in Iraq, or it is conduct which has the same effect. Either way it is incredibly irresponsible.

     To the extent that our elite media are deliberately attempting to undermine efforts to create an economically strong, politically stable Iraq and to create pressure to abandon our efforts there, they are malevolent. To the extent that they are also deliberately attempting to weaken the current administration so that the political party of their favor can be returned to power, they are wicked. To the extent that they are achieving these same ends inadvertantly, they are, at best, stupid.

     There simply is, nor can be, any moral justification for subordinating the welfare of the Iraqi people or the war on terror to political ambitions and animosities.

Question of the Day

Am I the only (fairly) conservative guy out here who has trouble listening to Sean Hannity?

E-Mail of the Day

"I was just reading an article on concerning the draft. Click here.

I'm just wondering what you think about it (after reading through the article, of course). I don't think you'd like to see your young philosophy students going off and dying for something they don't support.

Anyway, I'm a little bit nervous and scared of this measure. I really do not want to go off to war, even though I know I wouldn't necessarily have to serve in combat. It's violating my civil rights. Where in the Constitution does it say that I have to put my life on the line for my country? It's ridiculous. And especially for a cause I don't support. It's really no different than if Congress/Bush/whoever forced me to fight a war for Christianity. I absolutely refuse. And college can't even get me out of it! Postponing my education--and my life--to go fight for a war that I don't care about at all? Sure, I'll just make my life secondary to my country. A draft will escalate the war on terrorism (I'm sorry, I meant war for money, power, and to save face), and will alleviate funds from alternative energy sources. Instead of putting billions of dollars into trying to win oil fields, we need funding for alternative energy! But I digress... Canada and Europe are looking better and better to me with every passing day.

I'd like it if you would give your response on your website for all to see. It's a pressing issue and ought to be addressed."

     I agree it ought to be addressed, but I'm not convinced it's a pressing issue. I could easily be mistaken, but I think most politicians would view reviving the draft to be a form of political suicide, and there is no group of people more horrified by suicide than politicians. I also don't know that there is a need for the draft at this time since recruitment levels in all branches of the military are above the goals the services had set.

     Even so, as I understood the article linked to in this e-mail, the draft envisioned by the bills would not be solely a military draft but would require some form of public service which could be either military or non-military. I would suppose that, in the unlikely event such a bill was passed into law, those who have strong objections to military service could opt for an alternative.

     All of this is secondary, however, to what I think are the larger questions raised by this e-mail: What obligation do we have to our country? Are we obliged to fight and perhaps die for a cause in which we do not personally believe? These are very good questions, indeed, and rather than ramble on about them myself, I'd like to know what other readers think. Please send your thoughts via the Speak Up button and they'll be posted on the Feedback page.

The Only Question

There really is only one question voters need to ask themselves before entering the voting booth in November: Who do you think Osama wants to see win the presidential election? Every other question is either secondary or irrelevant.

The Media and the War On Terror

     This is an interesting piece about how the Western media distorts the news coming out of Gaza to the disadvantage of the Israelis. Meir-Levi points out that journalists seem quick to report civilian casualties resulting from Israeli military operations but rarely explain how those casualties came about or why the operations were necessary in the first place.

     It seems that the recent casualties in Rafah resulted from Palestinian gunmen using women and children as human shields. The operation that led to the fight was necessitated by the need to interdict the smuggling of ground to air missiles capable of knocking airliners out of the sky as they landed at Ben-Gurion airport. Evidently none of this made it in to Western news accounts of the fighting.

     A similar report of the tactic of shooting from behind civilians, which seems to be ubiquitous in the Arab world, is related by a Marine in Iraq. The Marine was part of the convoy which Thomas Hammill was taken from in an ambush. His account is worth reading for several reasons, not the least of which is his reaction to being shot by children. It's a considerably different portrait of the American soldier than the one the left often paints. To read it go here and scroll down to Wedding Party 2. The Marine's story begins about halfway to the end, but you might want to read the whole analysis of the wedding party attack in western Iraq while you're there. The Belmont Club is an outstanding source of analysis of what is going on in that tragic country.

Consequences of a Naturalistic Religion

     Greg Graffin is the lead singer for the punk rock band Bad Religion. He's also the owner of a Ph.D in Evolutionary Biology from Cornell University and is currently working on a study of the philosophical beliefs of prominent evolutionists. Graffin believes that philosophical naturalism is a highly satisfying substitute religion. He writes:

     The most important feature of evolutionary biology is its integrated view of humankind's place in nature that easily lends itself to a deeply satisfying metaphysics based entirely on materialist principles. This provision, coupled with the observation that theology has lost so much of its appeal to the average citizen, leads to the controversial conclusion that, in the modern world, Naturalism is a substitute for, and provides all the benefits of, traditional religion. If the naturalists have their day, theism is effectively dead.

     He is surely right that naturalism is a religion, but he is just as surely wrong that it is as metaphysically satisfying as traditional belief, and his claim that it provides all the benefits of traditional religion is incomprehensible. Here's why. If naturalism is true, i.e. God either doesn't exist or is irrelevant to the cosmos, then death is almost certainly the end of personal existence. If that is so, then there can be no ultimate meaning or significance to our lives, there can be no non-arbitrary ground for moral judgment, there can be no basis for human dignity or human rights, there can be no hope that true justice exists, there can be no reason to think that love is anything more than a biochemical epiphenomena, and there can be no answers to life's biggest questions, except that "life is a tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." We live for a moment and then we're gone, and nothing we do will have mattered in any truly significant way. Naturalism, in other words, is the overture to nihilism.

     Graffin states that: Theists do not appreciate hearing the vulgar truth of evolutionary theory, that mankind is no fallen angel, has no immortal soul, nor free will, and was not specially created. This may be the truth, and it is certainly vulgar, but one strives in vain to see the "benefit" in it. If it is true then it is a truth which brings us to the brink of the abyss of absurdity. It inspires nothing but despair. It sucks away all meaningful hope out of the life of anyone who bothers to reflect upon it for more than a few minutes.

     Graffin continues by claiming that: By polling evolutionary biologists on these issues, the project will yield very satisfying results. It will tell us the degree to which evolutionary biologists believe in naturalism, and whether evolutionary biology can form the basis for an ethical system that is devoid of supernatural reasoning. This is a very odd sentence. After having categorically denied that we have free will he seeks an ethical system where ethics is impossible. There is no morally binding ethic to be found in natural selection. Mindless material forces cannot impose an ethic, and neither humans nor animals can be moral agents if their behavior is determined by their genes and their evolutionary history. If we have no free will our moral sense is an illusion, and the attempt to ground an ethics in evolution is a chimera. It inevitably reduces to an egoistic "might makes right" and can give no answer to the question why I should not harm my neighbor if doing so is in my self-interest.

     It will be interesting to see the results of Graffin's study.

Good Quote

This helps to keep things in perspective...

Every instant of time is a pinprick of eternity. All things are petty, easily changed, vanishing away.

Marcus Aurelius --Meditations

War Between Civilizations

Is it possible to establish peace with the Islamic world? Historian Moshe Sharon, professor of Islamic History at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, wrote an article last December which everyone concerned about the future state of the world and of the relations between the West and the Islam should read. Most of us have a very vague understanding of the Islamic worldview, but our ignorance is a luxury we can no longer afford. Our children's future depends on us knowing what, and how, muslims think. Sharon's article is entitled Agenda of Islam-A War Between Civilizations. Here are a couple of key passages:

"Any territory that comes under Islamic rule cannot be de-Islamized. Even if at one time or another, the [non-Moslem] enemy takes over the territory that was under Islamic rule, it is considered to be perpetually Islamic. This is why whenever you hear about the Arab/Israeli conflict, you hear - territory, territory, territory. There are other aspects to the conflict, but territory is highly important.

For Islam, the establishment of the state of Israel was a reverse of Islamic history. First, Islamic territory was taken away from Islam by Jews. You know by now that this can never be accepted, not even one meter. So everyone who thinks Tel Aviv is safe is making a grave mistake. Territory, which at one time was dominated by Islamic rule, now has become non-Moslem. Non-Moslems are independent of Islamic rule; Jews have created their own independent state. It is anathema."

This means, of course, that the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians will never be resolved unless either the Israelis leave the region or destroy the Palestinians or are destroyed by them.

"Peace in Islam can exist only within the Islamic world; peace can only be between Moslem and Moslem. With the non-Moslem world or non-Moslem opponents, there can be only one solution - a cease fire until Moslems can gain more power. It is an eternal war until the end of days. Peace can only come if the Islamic side wins. The two civilizations can only have periods of cease-fires. In Israel, it has taken over 50 years in this country for our people to understand that they cannot speak about [permanent] peace with Moslems. It will take another 50 years for the western world to understand that they have got a state of war with the Islamic civilization that is virile and strong. This should be understood: When we talk about war and peace, we are not talking in Belgium, French, English, or German terms. We are talking about war and peace in Islamic terms."

If true this pretty bleak. I remember visiting a mosque in Lancaster, PA a couple of years ago. I asked the Imam if freedom of religion, or indeed the constitution, would survive in America if muslims were to one day constitute a decisive majority. He hemmed and hawed, smiled genially,and covered his answer with a lot of verbal smoke, but it all distilled to a simple "no". The sort of freedoms and protections contained in our constitution are incompatible with the muslim worldview and Sharia law.

There's a lot more than this in the article. Read the whole thing.

The Polls Don't Tell the Whole Story

       Political prognostications are always risky, especially months before an election and especially when the prognosticator doesn't know what he's talking about. Nevertheless, I will venture one. I think that, despite polls showing a very close race for the presidency, Bush will win in November, perhaps impressively, at least in the electoral college, for the following reason: In order for any Democrat to win he/she has to have a good African-American turnout. In this race, with the numbers so close, it is going to be essential that Kerry gets a big boost from minority voters. Unfortunately for him this demographic often doesn't turn out at the polls unless they are very excited about a candidate. Clinton excited them, but Kerry is as dull and uninspiring as the teacher played by Ben Stein in Ferris Beuhler's Day Off. They may respond to a pollster's query by saying they will vote for Kerry in November, but when it comes time to cast their ballots I doubt that many blue-collar Blacks will bestir themselves to make the trip to the polls to support the highborn Senator from Massachusetts. Throw in a Nader candidacy, and Kerry has a real uphill slog in store for him this Fall.

       A lot can happen between now and then to upset this prediction, of course, but if things continue on their present trajectory, Kerry will find it difficult to energize minority voters and he will lose a lot of the Deaniacs to Nader as he tries to move toward the center on Iraq. About the only voters he can be sure of getting are hard-core Bush-haters since he hasn't given anyone else much of a reason to vote for him. There are a lot of people who despise Bush in the Democrat party, but can there be enough to swing the election for Kerry? I doubt it, but I guess we'll see.