Thursday, November 11, 2004

The Democrats' Dilemma

An article on the Democrats' "religion predicament" by Jonah Goldberg is worth calling to our readers' attention. He writes that:

In the final presidential debate, John Kerry, a Catholic, did his level-best to talk about his faith. It is, he explained, "why I fight against poverty. That's why I fight to clean up the environment and protect this Earth. That's why I fight for equality and justice. All of those things come out of that fundamental teaching and belief of faith."

But, at the same time, Kerry said he could not "transfer" his faith onto other people by legislating it. This struck many as a political and theological dodge. Why is it OK to brag about imposing the minimum wage and affirmative action - issues his faith is largely silent on - based on God's will, but it's wrong to do the same thing on abortion when his church's views there are clear and ironclad? Kerry wanted it both ways: to claim he was guided by faith on the easy stuff but that he couldn't impose his religion when it wasn't politically advantageous.

The larger problem for the Democrats is that liberalism itself, or what we erroneously call liberalism today, is in a crisis. It recognizes that politics must have an underlying morality to it, but it is antagonistic to traditional morality. This is foolish since our greatest political movements - abolitionism, civil rights, etc. - were religious before they were political. Moreover, attempts to construct new, secular, moralities have been failures, even at the seminar level. At the national level (think feminism, Hillary Clinton's "Politics of Meaning," socialism, etc.), they've been non-starters.

Goldberg puts his finger on something very important in the penultimate sentence. Liberal secular Democrats scorn "traditional morality" largely because they disdain the religion through which it comes and ultimately the God upon which it is based. In their rebellion against God they insist that they can create their own morality based upon reason, but such attempts are chronic failures. Reason, by itself, cannot invent an ethics. It can only help us to see where our ethics leads us given a particular starting point. Unfortunately for the Democrats, if we start from a position of secularism or naturalism then, if we follow our reason, we must end up as either subjectivists, egoists, or nihilists, or some combination thereof, and none of these are conducive to a healthy polity.

Subjectivism says that right and wrong are a matter of one's own individual preferences and tastes. We prefer some behaviors for the same reason we prefer some flavors or colors - we just like them. Subjectivists recognize that if right and wrong are matters of taste then no one's morality is any better than anyone else's and we should not pass moral judgment upon others (which is, by the way, a self-contradictory claim since it itself implies a moral judgment on others). We need to be tolerant of others' values, the subjectivist insists, unless, of course, the values in question are abhorrent to the subjectivist, like racism or homophobia, etc.

In discussions about morality subjectivists can be depended upon to utter inanities like "that's just your opinion" or "who's to say what's right or wrong", or "If it's right for him then it's right". Each of these statements assumes that moral disagreements are simply disputes about matters of taste, but this is a pretty shallow assumption when one thinks about it. Most subjectivists, for example, would be reluctant to say of Adolf Hitler that if killing millions of Jews was right for him, then it was right.

A subjectivist outlook leads inexorably to egoism, the conviction that we should put our own interests ahead of the interests of others. If this life is all there is then I might as well make the most of it, and if whatever I feel is right is right, then there's no good reason why I shouldn't seek to maximize my own good regardless of the effect that conduct has on others.

Whatever other ethic men might try to live by, whether the utilitarianism of John Stuart Mill or the duty-based ethics of the Kantians, or any other, there is no satisfactory answer to the question why one should adopt that particular system. Why should I seek the greatest good for the greatest number, as the utilitarians propose, rather than seek the greatest good for me? Why should I accept the idea of acting in a way that I could want everyone to act, as the Kantians teach, rather than acting in a way that benefits me regardless of its effects on others? Once we step away from the idea that there is a transcendent moral authority we no longer have any satisfactory answer to the question of why I shouldn't just live for myself.

Some will reply to the previous assertion by saying that I shouldn't live egoistically because people get hurt when we only look out for ourselves, but why should I care if people get hurt as long as I don't? The response to that is often that I wouldn't want people to do things that hurt me, and that's true, of course, but that's not a reason why I shouldn't do something that hurts others if it benefits me, and if I can get away with it.

The third possibility, not really very different from the first two, actually, is to simply acknowledge that in a world without God moral right and wrong don't even exist. People just do what they do and there is no moral dimension to it, anymore than there's a moral dimension to a cat's torturing a mouse. Where, after all, does something like moral obligation come from if not from God? Can nature impose moral obligation? Can evolution impose it? Can society impose it? Reason tells us that in the absence of God moral right and wrong are empty concepts. Man is his own creator of values (subjectivism) as Nietzsche wrote, and there is no wrong in choosing to live for oneself (egoism). This is nihilism and it is where our reason eventually brings us if we start from a position of atheism and follow it all the way to its logical conclusion.

Secular man often makes his starting point the principle that we should not harm others and employs his reason to arrive at the best way to implement that principle in his life. But it's his starting point which is in question. If his first principle is challenged he has no satisfactory answer. He cannot give a compelling explanation of why harming others is wrong. To many people, of course, it just seems self-evident. It's wrong to harm others, they believe, because, well, because anyone can see that harming others is wrong. In fact, the starting point is not self-evident at all. It is an arbitrary assumption, and it is quite indefensible.

This is the liberals' dilemma. They wish to secularize society, to construct a secular value system based upon our shared humanity and the harm principle, but the whole enterprise is an exercise in walking on water. By declaring religious reasons to be illegitimate in the realm of public discourse they have neutered all ethical defenses of any public policy proposals. State secularism gives us no foundation for moral obligation or moral judgment. Every time a secular ethic is tried it collapses, as it has in communist countries around the globe.

The Democrats wish to push Christianity out of the public square and yet hold on to the concept of morality, but that's like trying to remove the foundation from a building without having the building collapse. It can't be done in the moral world any more than it can be done in the physical world, and a lot of people just aren't going to trust the Democrats to run the country as long as they keep trying it.

Cognitive Dissonance

Joe Carter at Evangelical Outpost calls our attention to this rather bizarre result of a compilation of surveys of atheists done by the Barna Group.

1 out of every 2 atheists and agnostics say that every person has a soul.

1 out of every 2 atheists believes that Heaven and Hell exist.

1 out of every 2 atheists believes that there is life after death.

1 out of every 3 atheists and agnostics talks about faith-related matters during a typical week.

1 out of every 3 atheists prayed to God, in past 7 days.

1 out of every 3 atheists want 'creationism" taught in the public schools.

1 out of every 8 atheists and agnostics believe that accepting Jesus Christ as savior probably makes life after death possible.

1 out of every 10 atheists believes that absolute moral truth exist.

1 out of every 12 atheists read from the Bible, other than while at church, in past 7 days.

1 out of every 25 atheists attended a church service, other than a special event such as a wedding or funeral, in past 7 days.

Yikes! And atheists criticize and scoff at Christians for not practicing what they profess to believe!

Buy Generic

Andrew Sullivan directs our attention to an article by Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker on prescription drug costs. The essay, which is ostensibly a book review, actually does an excellent job of explaining how prices get set and what factors influence them.

Most people tend to believe that pharmaceutical companies bear the entire responsibility for high prices, but, in fact, according to Gladwell there are plenty of guilty parties. Not just manufacturers but the FDA, insurance companies, doctors, and even consumers all share much of the responsibility for driving prices up.

Nexium provides us with an example of how the pharmaceutical manufacturers manage to boost the price and increase their profits. The story is fascinating so we'll copy a portion of it here:

Ten years ago, the multinational pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca launched what was known inside the company as the Shark Fin Project. The team for the project was composed of lawyers, marketers, and scientists, and its focus was a prescription drug known as Prilosec, a heartburn medication that, in one five-year stretch of its extraordinary history, earned AstraZeneca twenty-six billion dollars. The patent on the drug was due to expire in April of 2001. The name Shark Fin was a reference to what Prilosec sales-and AstraZeneca's profits-would look like if nothing was done to fend off the ensuing low-priced generic competition.

The Shark Fin team drew up a list of fifty options. One idea was to devise a Prilosec 2.0-a version that worked faster or longer, or was more effective. Another idea was to combine it with a different heartburn remedy, or to change the formulation, so that it came in a liquid gel or in an extended-release form. In the end, AstraZeneca decided on a subtle piece of chemical re�ngineering. Prilosec, like many drugs, is composed of two "isomers"-a left-hand and a right-hand version of the molecule. In some cases, removing one of the isomers can reduce side effects or make a drug work a little bit better, and in all cases the Patent Office recognizes something with one isomer as a separate invention from something with two. So AstraZeneca cut Prilosec in half.

AstraZeneca then had to prove that the single-isomer version of the drug was better than regular Prilosec. It chose as its target something called erosive esophagitis, a condition in which stomach acid begins to bubble up and harm the lining of the esophagus. In one study, half the patients took Prilosec, and half took Son of Prilosec. After one month, the two drugs were dead even. But after two months, to the delight of the Shark Fin team, the single-isomer version edged ahead-with a ninety-per-cent healing rate versus Prilosec's eighty-seven per cent. The new drug was called Nexium. A patent was filed, the F.D.A. gave its blessing, and, in March of 2001, Nexium hit the pharmacy shelves priced at a hundred and twenty dollars for a month's worth of pills. To keep cheaper generics at bay, and persuade patients and doctors to think of Nexium as state of the art, AstraZeneca spent half a billion dollars in marketing and advertising in the year following the launch. It is now one of the half-dozen top-selling drugs in America.

In the political uproar over prescription-drug costs, Nexium has become a symbol of everything that is wrong with the pharmaceutical industry. The big drug companies justify the high prices they charge-and the extraordinary profits they enjoy-by arguing that the search for innovative, life-saving medicines is risky and expensive. But Nexium is little more than a repackaged version of an old medicine. And the hundred and twenty dollars a month that AstraZeneca charges isn't to recoup the costs of risky research and development; the costs were for a series of clinical trials that told us nothing we needed to know, and a half-billion-dollar marketing campaign selling the solution to a problem we'd already solved. "The Prilosec pattern, repeated across the pharmaceutical industry, goes a long way to explain why the nation's prescription drug bill is rising an estimated 17 % a year even as general inflation is quiescent," the Wall Street Journal concluded, in a front-page article that first revealed the Shark Fin Project.

Gladwell goes on to explain how consumers almost always have cheaper options but often doctors don't inform them of those choices. The over-the-counter Prilosec is almost identical to prescription Nexium and virtually as effective, and it only costs twenty dollars a month, one sixth the cost of Nexium.

There is much else of interest in this article. Gladwell points out, for instance, that it is a myth that the U.S. has the highest drug costs in the world. In fact, our overall costs are just about the cheapest if one excludes name brands and calculates costs on the basis of generic equivalents. Moreover, patents on many widely-used name brands are scheduled to soon expire, which will open the market to generics and cause overall costs to drop even more. Good news, indeed.