Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Specter's Switch

I suppose I should have some thoughts on Senator Specter's switch to the Democrat party, so here are a couple:

It's not a surprise. He's been a very liberal senator most of his career. The Democrat party, by gaining Specter, has not changed its ideological complexion, but the Republican party, by losing Specter, has just grown more conservative. If he was going to do it, though, I wish he hadn't promised just a month or so ago that he wouldn't jump parties.

I do respect him for the courage with which he has battled his cancer and for his stalwart defense of some good Supreme Court nominees. He was an ardent defender of Clarence Thomas against the calumnies of the Left and Anita Hill and was a key player in getting Roberts and Alito through Senate confirmation. Other than that he's been a millstone around the neck of the GOP.

I've never voted for him in the primary and never voted against him in the general election. Now I can.

His move was pure self-interest. He would've lost to Pat Toomey in the GOP primary. I can't imagine aspiring Democrat office-holders not being a little miffed at his horning in on their political ambitions. It'll be interesting to see what kind of a primary challenge he'll face. It'll also be interesting to see what Harry Reid offered him in return for making the switch.

Now that the Democrats have the 60 votes they need for cloture there's no reason not to encourage Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe to follow Specter into the Democrat party.


Repealing the Right to an Attorney

You may recall the efforts of the Bush administration to set aside a law established in the wake of the Supreme Court's Michigan vs. Jackson decision in 1986. This ruling required police to allow a defendant to have a lawyer present for any questioning to which he is compelled by the police to submit.

The Bush Justice Department, arguing that the law was unnecessary and outdated, sought to have it repealed. The sixth amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects the right of criminal suspects to be "represented by counsel", but the administration argued that this merely means the right to have a lawyer present in a criminal trial.

The Justice Department, in a brief signed by the solicitor general, said the 1986 decision "serves no real purpose" and offers only "meager benefits".

The government said that suspects have the right to remain silent, and that officers must respect that decision. But it argued that there is no reason a defendant who wants to speak without a lawyer present should not be able to respond to officers' questions.

No wonder people thought the Bush administration was hostile toward civil rights. Any administration that would attempt to deny prisoners the right to an attorney before being questioned by the police is just one step away from bright lights and rubber truncheons. We can thank the media for their vigilance in calling this surreptitious attempt to roll back civil rights protections to our attention.

What's that you say? You never heard of this case? You don't recall the media outrage over the fascist Bush administration's attempt to turn the U.S. into a police state?

Well, perhaps that's because the case is in fact just now moving through the courts, and the administration that is pushing it is not the Bush bunch but the Obama brigades, and that's doubtless why you haven't heard anything about it from the media. People who would be outraged if Bush had tried something like this, people who would be conjuring up images of jackboots and swastikas if a Republican president sought to overturn Michigan, are perfectly content to let Obama do it.

Is it any wonder that Americans' respect for Big Media is flagging? Is it any wonder that a lot of people are very worried about which of our rights the Obama Justice Department will try to repeal next?

Thanks to Hot Air for the link.


Not Much Hope for Peace

Strategy Page runs a dispiriting analysis of the state of efforts to gain peace between Israel and the Palestinians:

International efforts to get peace talks between Palestinians and Israel going, are failing because of disunity among Palestinians. Not only are Hamas and Fatah not willing to work together (as rival political parties, not rival governments), but many Palestinians are opposed to both Hamas (for its radicalism) and Fatah (for its corruption). The Arab nations are finding it impossible to even get Hamas and Fatah to pretend to unite to negotiate a peace deal with Israel (that would create a Palestinian state.) Hamas is still running its propaganda about eventually destroying Israel and driving all Jews from the Middle East. Hamas appears to be practicing what it is preaching, with preparations continuing for a major attack on Israel.

Violence continues inside Gaza and the West Bank, but a different kind of violence. In Gaza, Hamas is well on its way to establishing a functioning police state. Opponents are being terrorized into inactivity. In the West Bank, Fatah only controls about half the territory. There are many more factions there that have maintained their local power. Some of these groups are terrorists, more interested in carrying out attacks on Israel than in establishing a Palestinian state.

The Israelis cope by continuing their counter-terror operations, seeking out and arresting or killing the more active terrorists in Gaza and the West Bank. This war is largely unreported, because both the terrorists and the counter-terror forces keep their secrets. Since the Israelis figured out how to defeat Palestinian terrorists five years ago, you have few suicide bombs going off in Israel, and any attacks that are carried out are low level and crude. The Israeli operations continue to detect and disrupt terrorist operations, which is how they keep the terrorism out of Israel.

Hamas would like to subvert Fatah control of the West Bank, but appears to see another battle with Israel happening first. Hamas fighters can be seen training, with new weapons smuggled in from Iran, to use new tactics. Hamas hopes the new weapons and tactics will defeat the new Israeli tactics that [allowed them to] so quickly [tear] through Hamas defenses earlier this year.

Meanwhile, the world criticizes Israel for not doing more to bring peace to the region. On one recent Sunday morning talk show a commentator remarked that Obama has to pressure both sides, but especially the Israelis, to negotiate. This is worse than absurd. Israel is in an existential crisis and the American pundit class thinks they should negotiate their right to exist.

What, one wonders, do these people think a compromise would look like with an enemy determined to destroy you? How do you negotiate with people whose whole raison d'etre is your obliteration and that of your children? What, other than an auto de fe, can Israel give the Palestinians that would mollify them and bring peace? At what point do the Israelis realize that there will never be peace with Hamas and simply say, "Let's get this over with?"


Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Torture and Love

In my philosophy class we talk about love, distinguishing the sort of love we have for our fellow man from eros or romantic love. We define the former as treating people with dignity, respect, and kindness.

With that background I was asked the other day by a student how I reconcile the notion that we owe that kind of love to others with my belief that torture is not absolutely wrong.

This is a fair question and deserved an answer. Here's how, had I had the time, I would have replied:

Our obligation to love is a prima facie obligation. By that I mean that we owe respect and kindness to every individual until such time as the obligation to treat one person with love comes in conflict with our obligation to others who also have a claim, perhaps a greater claim, on our love.

When a man threatens the lives of others, particularly those I have a special obligation to protect and for whom I have a special bond of love, then it would be unloving to fail to do everything in my power to stop him. He has nullified my obligation to treat him with respect and kindness and forced me to choose between loving him and loving those he threatens. The moral course in such a circumstance, the course that I believe is demanded by the obligation to love, is to protect the innocent and to stop those who would harm them.

If stopping the guilty entails doing him harm then so be it, but the harm done should, whenever possible, be never greater than what's necessary to remove the threat. Nor should it ever be something one feels good about inflicting. A government which feels compelled to use "torture" (I use quotes because the definition of torture is so broad as to include almost any kind of incivility - a fact which really renders the word almost meaningless) to save the lives of its people is justified in doing so as long as that's the only reason it's used and so long as it's never continued beyond the point where it accomplishes its purpose.

Love is not a warm feeling toward other people, nor is it sentimentality. Sometimes, as in the case of a surgeon operating in a Civil War field hospital without anesthetics, doing the right thing means causing great pain. Sometimes, as in dealing with modern terrorism, doing the right thing for one person entails causing pain to another.

Perhaps you disagree and would argue that "torture" is absolutely wrong, that there's never any justification for it. Before you commit to such a view ask yourself whether you would condemn a man who saved the life of your child by causing her abductor pain in order to coax him to reveal where his accomplices were holding her. Before you say that the man was wrong to do this, imagine looking your child in the eyes after she has been rescued from people who were abusing her and preparing to murder her or sell her into child slavery or the sex trade, and telling her that you would rather she not have been rescued than for her to be rescued by causing pain to the man who kidnapped, molested and planned to kill her.

Perhaps you could say that to your child, but if not, then you agree that torture is not absolutely wrong. If that's your position then the question that needs to be answered is not "should we torture?" but rather, "how should we define torture?" and "under what circumstances is torture justified?" The sooner we have that debate the better off we'll be as a nation.


Ideas Have Consequences

If you wish to defend the notion of free will how might you do it? Well, Logan Gage tells us, there are some ways not to do it, and these were on display at a recent symposium featuring a number of sociologists, philosophers, and journalists (what were they doing on the panel?).

Gage opens with this summary of the discussion:

Essentially, they all argued that we have an innate sense of free will and that findings in genetics and neuroscience have not undermined it because: (1) sure, genes determine behavior, but not 100%; often the environment contributes to our behavior also, and (2) the number of factors determining our behavior are so many, and the human brain so complex, that we will never be able to pinpoint the genetic and other material causes of our behaviors.

To all this Hoff Sommers asked the obvious question: Sure, genes might not determine all our behavior, for the environment may contribute too, but is that really enough to escape determinism? After all, both my genes and my environment are outside of me and my will?

To this, the two giants of modern social science research-Wilson and Murray-had little to say. I don't believe they understood the full weight of the objection. After all, they seemed to think, we are mere material machines and we know we have free will, so this must all work out just fine.

In other words the problem is this: If God doesn't exist then there's no reason to think that we are anything but an unusual collocation of atoms and molecules. Atoms and molecules obey strict physical determinism so if there's no God then it's very hard to see how we can have the kind of liberty of choice required for moral responsibility.

If we don't have such liberty then it's hard to see how there can be any moral obligation, any deserved praise or blame, or any human dignity. No society that realizes that their materialism leads ineluctably to these consequences can for very long keep itself from unraveling without resorting to tyranny.

This is part of the dilemma the materialist has placed himself in. He wants to hold onto these fundamental elements of a healthy society while at the same time denying the existence of God which is the only ground for them. He also wants to say, strangely enough, that despite the incoherence of his position, it's really theists who're epistemically irrational because they believe in a God they can't see.

This is not to say that free will is an easy concept to explicate - it's not - but it is to say that whatever free will is we have it only if we're something more than mere matter. If there is no God then we're only matter and the idea of libertarian free will is an illusion fobbed off on us by some genetic mutation deep in our evolutionary past. This has been so well explained by atheistic thinkers over the past 120 years that it's hard to understand why so many contemporary atheists seem unaware of this dreary consequence of their conviction.

Perhaps they're too busy chuckling at those silly theists to think through the logic of their own position thoroughly enough to bring the abyss to which it leads into full view.


Hey, Let's Ration Health Care

Charles Krauthammer lays out what he sees as Barack Obama's economic strategy. In order to accommodate the enormous spending to which he has committed the country he needs to solve two problems: How to pay for Social Security and how to pay for Medicare/Medicaid.

Krauthammer writes:

Social Security is relatively easy. A bipartisan commission (like the 1983 Alan Greenspan commission) recommends some combination of means testing for richer people, increasing the retirement age, and a technical change in the inflation measure (indexing benefits to prices instead of wages). The proposal is brought to Congress for a no-amendment up-or-down vote. Done.

The hard part is Medicare and Medicaid. In an aging population, how do you keep them from blowing up the budget? There is only one answer: rationing.

Why do you think the stimulus package pours $1.1 billion into medical "comparative effectiveness research"? It is the perfect setup for rationing. Once you establish what is "best practice" for expensive operations, medical tests and aggressive therapies, you've laid the premise for funding some and denying others.

It is estimated that a third to a half of one's lifetime health costs are consumed in the last six months of life. Accordingly, Britain's National Health Service can deny treatments it deems not cost-effective -- and if you're old and infirm, the cost-effectiveness of treating you plummets. In Canada, they ration by queuing. You can wait forever for so-called elective procedures like hip replacements.

Rationing is not quite as alien to America as we think. We already ration kidneys and hearts for transplant according to survivability criteria as well as by queuing. A nationalized health insurance system would ration everything from MRIs to intensive care by a myriad of similar criteria.

The more acute thinkers on the left can see rationing coming, provoking Slate blogger Mickey Kaus to warn of the political danger. "Isn't it an epic mistake to try to sell Democratic health care reform on this basis? Possible sales pitch: 'Our plan will deny you unnecessary treatments!' ... Is that really why the middle class will sign on to a revolutionary multitrillion-dollar shift in spending -- so the government can decide their life or health 'is not worth the price'?"

President Obama may well be intent on taking us down this road, but let's hope not. It's hard to see how anyone, much less the poor, will be helped by making health care harder to obtain. It's also hard to see how any party that supports rationing care could survive the electoral revolt that would occur among the largest voting block in the country - the boomers.


Monday, April 27, 2009

Swine Flu and You

Much of the news reportage on the swine flu has focussed on numbers of infected people and where those people live. It hasn't been very helpful in explaining what exactly this flu is and how serious is the threat that it poses. This Q and A at New Scientist is more useful in that it answers a lot of questions people are starting to ask about this virus. Check it out.


The Fascist Temptation

The other day I commented that everyone should read George Orwell's 1984. The crushing thought control that oppresses the citizens of Oceana in Orwell's depressing vision of a future dystopia is not just a boogeyman of paranoid conservatives, it's a real and present danger, especially in a world in which technology is so far advanced and liberal assumptions are so blithely accepted.

Lest you think I exaggerate please take fifteen minutes to watch this video that appeared at Hot Air, and ask yourself how many universities across the country have similar indoctrination programs for incoming freshmen and how discordant such programs are with the traditional concept of free speech and free minds:

Liberalism in the 19th century was a noble pursuit of individual freedom. Classical liberals prized freedom of thought, speech, and religion. They would have been horrified to see the transmogrification of their views that has taken place in the latter part of the 20th century and into the 21st. Contemporary liberalism stands almost diametrically opposite its predecessor. Today, so far from valuing the rights of the individual, liberalism values the collective and lists toward the totalitarian and tyrannical. It employs coercion, particularly in academia, to enjoin conformity of thought and speech. It resorts to public humiliation of ordinary students and other citizens to ensure they don't stray from the approved point of view. It punishes "thought crime" and seeks to homogenize thinking until everyone holds the same opinions, i.e. those acceptable to the liberal elite. In short, liberalism is gradually morphing into fascism.

This disturbing "orientation" program would still be in place at Delaware were it not for organizations like FIRE, but not even the vigilance of these organizations will be enough to stanch the totalitarian impulse unless more people recognize the oppressive tendencies of contemporary liberalism/progressivism and wean themselves from it.


Pants on Fire

For those of you who may not be aware of who Porter Goss is, he was at one time the Chairman of the House intelligence committee and later served as Director of the CIA under President George W. Bush. He has an article in yesterday's Washington Post in response to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's claim that she knew nothing about detainees being waterboarded:

Goss writes to challenge Pelosi's claim:

A disturbing epidemic of amnesia seems to be plaguing my former colleagues on Capitol Hill. After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, members of the committees charged with overseeing our nation's intelligence services had no higher priority than stopping al-Qaeda. In the fall of 2002, while I was chairman of the House intelligence committee, senior members of Congress were briefed on the CIA's "High Value Terrorist Program," including the development of "enhanced interrogation techniques" and what those techniques were. This was not a one-time briefing but an ongoing subject with lots of back and forth between those members and the briefers.

Today, I am slack-jawed to read that members claim to have not understood that the techniques on which they were briefed were to actually be employed; or that specific techniques such as "waterboarding" were never mentioned. It must be hard for most Americans of common sense to imagine how a member of Congress can forget being told about the interrogations of Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed. In that case, though, perhaps it is not amnesia but political expedience.

Let me be clear. It is my recollection that:

  • The chairs and the ranking minority members of the House and Senate intelligence committees, known as the Gang of Four, were briefed that the CIA was holding and interrogating high-value terrorists.
  • We understood what the CIA was doing.
  • We gave the CIA our bipartisan support.
  • We gave the CIA funding to carry out its activities.
  • On a bipartisan basis, we asked if the CIA needed more support from Congress to carry out its mission against al-Qaeda.
  • I do not recall a single objection from my colleagues. They did not vote to stop authorizing CIA funding. And for those who now reveal filed "memorandums for the record" suggesting concern, real concern should have been expressed immediately -- to the committee chairs, the briefers, the House speaker or minority leader, the CIA director or the president's national security adviser -- and not quietly filed away in case the day came when the political winds shifted. And shifted they have.

The rest of Goss' editorial is worth reading as well. It certainly makes you wonder about the integrity of our political leadership.

On the other hand, it may surprise you to learn that I'm quite prepared to accept the possibility that both Goss and Pelosi are telling the truth in this matter. Having listened to Ms Pelosi speak on numerous occasions on various topics I have to say that I really have no difficulty believing that she sat through every one of those briefings and understood not a word of what was being said.


Saturday, April 25, 2009

Re: Freedom Is Slavery

Sarah responded to the post Freedom is Slavery with the following clever takeoff from George Orwell's 1984. Those who've read 1984 - and everyone should - will appreciate Sarah's parody of the Janet Napolitano Department of Homeland Security:

This is ungood thoughtcrime. It has many oldthink thinks. This is ungood because it is unnice to the government. The government needs to crimestop itself against the doubleplusungood right wing extremists who unbellyfeel the government's think. So the government needs to tell everyone that these people are doubleplusungood so that everyone will goodthink. Blackwhite. Minitrue needs to use the right words when telling this to the people so the people will goodthink. By using "extremist" the people goodthink.

They see facism or communism or people with guns who are doubleplusungood and unnice and unhappy. These people are scary and make everyone want the government to crimestop them. These people unagree with the government. They must be crimestopped. If we all unagreed with the government there would be no government. And if these people were allowed to speak more people might unagree and unbelly with the government and less people would blackwhite. It is better if the government says what to think instead of extremists so everyone thinks what to think and upsubs.

The extremists want to hurt us and the government. The government is doubleplusgood for letting everyone think what to think about these ungood people.

On a different note, Newspeak is supposed to be the only language whose vocabulary gets smaller every year. Though I don't think that is true. I don't exactly have any facts, but it certainly seems like the English language is taking a similar downward spiral. I read books written a hundred years ago and the vocabulary is rich and diverse. Then I use some of those words and no one knows what the heck I am talking about. They ask what shelf it's on, I say the penultimate. No clue what I'm talking about. I say my mother is parsimonious and get blank stares. I throw up my hands and say this is egregious. No idea. There is a dearth of words being circulated throughtout the English language.

I was learning how to write articles for newspapers or magazines a few years ago, and the lecturer said to write like I was writing for a fourth grade audience. I thought this was intolerable. Fourth graders weren't going to be reading this, adults were! If the newspapers and magazines dumb everything down, what hope is there for anyone? Maybe if the newspapers and magazines started employing a plethora of vocabulary things would change. Until then, THIS IS EGREGIOUS!!!!!!

Very well put, Sarah.


Pandora's Box

So, will the Justice Department pursue criminal charges against Bush administration officials for using "torture" against terrorist detainees in the wake of 9/11? I'll be surprised if they do. Right now I imagine President Obama is taking phone calls from everyone from former President Bill Clinton to current Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi asking him what the heck he thinks he's doing. Doesn't he [Obama] realize that any inquiry into Bush administration misdeeds would consume a whole host of former and current Democrat public officials including the aforementioned duo?

Why, after all, stop with alleged mistreatment of detainees by the Bush people? In the 1990's the Clinton administration initiated a program that resulted in far worse treatment to prisoners than anything the CIA did under Bush. In the 90's the Clinton people, in the spirit of outsourcing, practiced what's called extraordinary rendition in which a detainee was sent to countries much less punctilious about human rights than are we. In these hellholes the detainee was "questioned" by methods a description of which would revolt any decent human being.

Then in the wake of 9/11 the Bush CIA briefed several of the ranking congresspersons involved with Intelligence oversight, which included Democrats, which included Nancy Pelosi, on the details of the methods they were using to extract information from captured terrorists. According to the Washington Post nary a one raised any substantive objections. They were all tacitly, if not overtly, on board with the program.

So, if we're going to go after Dick Cheney, George Tenant, Condi Rice, and Don Rumsfeld let's include anyone guilty of breaking the law in order to insure your children's safety. Let's also go after Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Al Gore, Sandy Berger, Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, Tom Daschle, Dick Gephart and a host of other Democrats who were complicit in the use of torture to gain information to save us from another 9/11. If President Obama wants to send a message that torture will not be tolerated in his administration he'll have to haul all of the aforementioned before whatever tribunals the Democrats set up for the purpose. If he doesn't then the only message he's sending is that the only torture that won't be tolerated is that instigated by Republicans.

I don't think the President or congressional Democrats are really interested in pursuing the matter to the point where top Democrats are being indicted. The purpose of pressing an investigation, after all, was probably just to get Dick Cheney's scalp, and perhaps that of a few others of the hated Republicans. If Democratic scalps are going to also be forfeit then, well, let's just forget the whole matter and let bygones be bygones.

When it finally dawns on the Democrats what a Pandora's Box they've opened, I think they'll quickly turn their attention to other matters and let the torture business die from lack of oxygen. If I'm right then we can expect lots of talk in the weeks ahead about looking forward, not backward, etc., etc.



Over the last two weeks two conservative speakers were invited to appear on the University of North Carolina campus at Chapel Hill. At both events the totalitarian enemies of the free exchange of ideas tried to shut the lectures down. The first week they were successful, the second they weren't. A report by Jay Schalin at The American Thinker explains why there was a difference in outcomes. Along the way Schalin gives us a glimpse of the ugly underside of the tactics employed by the American Left.

One thing that's plain, whatever else can be said about Lefties they're not lovers of freedom and other principles upon which this country was founded. People who do not let other points of view be heard are implicitly acknowledging that they have no case and that the only way they can hope to prevail is by stifling and suppressing the opposition. They can't hope to win a debate so they must prevent people from hearing the other side.

This is precisely the rationale of the Darwinist lobby whose mission it is to keep Intelligent Design out of schools so that students cannot hear the case against naturalistic evolution. It's also a tactic used by some on the Right who should know better. Conservative talk radio hosts like Sean Hannity are consistently rude to callers who disagree with them and the better the caller's argument the more Hannity interrupts in order to prevent the listening audience from hearing a case that might make sense to them.

No one, however, is less tolerant of contrary views, especially in public fora, as is the Left. Not even Sean Hannity would deny students the right to listen to a presentation by someone on the opposite end of the political spectrum. The Left's systematic suppression of views contrary to their own is not only rude, loutish and unjust, it's a tacit admission of intellectual impotence and impoverishment.


Friday, April 24, 2009

Raining Men

We've mentioned this before, but it bears repeating in light of our post earlier this week on the Demographics of Depression: China is facing some very serious problems even as it emerges as one of the world's powerhouse economies and militaries. The problems are caused by their peculiar demographic circumstances:

While China may become the largest economy on the planet in the next few generations, it will also suffer from some catastrophic demographic problems. To control population growth over the last four decades, most couples are restricted to only one child. This has been widely enforced, to the point where the average number of children per couple has been 1.7.. But many of those couples aborted a child if it is a female, because much more importance is attached to having a male heir. Thus there are 30 million more males than females, and the number is growing. These surplus males are coming of age, and the competition for wives is causing problems. Women are taking advantage of their scarcity, but men are also going to neighboring countries to buy, or even kidnap, young women to be wives. This is causing ill will with neighbors.

The biggest problem, though, is the growing shortage of workers. As the population ages, all those one child families means there will be more elderly than the economy can effectively support. Currently there are 13 working age Chinese for every retiree. In 40 years, there will only be two for each retiree. At that point, retirees will comprise 30 percent of the population (versus 12 percent now.) Traditionally, children cared for their parents in multi-generation households. That model is dying out, and China is faced with huge pension cost increases at the same time they expect their economy to be the mightiest on the planet. But at that point, the largest single government expense will be the care of the elderly, and this will impose crushing taxes on those of working age. Many working age Chinese are worried about this, for there is no easy solution in sight.

A culture can accommodate a shortage of men by reverting to polygamy, but polyandry is not a viable solution for any society. So what does a dictatorial regime, flush with a strong industrial base, and burdened with a huge surplus of young, fighting age males, do? I'm sure that question is not far from the minds of all of China's neighbors.


Pre-Graduation Reading List

Former Secretary of Education Bill Bennett once put the following question to 325 selected scholars and intellectuals: What books should every high school student have read by the time he/she graduates?

Thirty works were mentioned most frequently. Mr. Bennett commented that any 10 of them "would compare favorably to what is read in many schools," and added that he himself had not read all 30 on the list.

Not surprisingly, no book published in the last 30 years made the list.

Shakespeare's plays, especially Macbeth and Hamlet, were the only works listed by a majority of the participants - 71 percent.

Fifty percent cited such documents of United States history as the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. Next came Huckleberry Finn, the Bible and the following works of literature, philosophy and politics:

  • Homer's Odyssey and Iliad.
  • Dickens's Great Expectations and Tale of Two Cities.
  • Plato's Republic.
  • John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath.
  • Nathaniel Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter.
  • Sophocles' Oedipus.
  • Melville's Moby Dick.
  • Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four.
  • Thoreau's Walden.
  • The poems of Robert Frost.
  • Whitman's Leaves of Grass.
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald's Great Gatsby.
  • Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.
  • Marx's Communist Manifesto.
  • Aristotle's Politics.
  • The poems of Emily Dickinson.
  • Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment.
  • The novels of William Faulkner.
  • J. D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye.
  • De Tocqueville's Democracy in America.
  • Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.
  • The essays and poems of Ralph Waldo Emerson.
  • Machiavelli's Prince.
  • Milton's Paradise Lost.
  • Tolstoy's War and Peace.
  • Virgil's Aeneid.

I don't know many of these you read before you graduated (if you're a graduate) or have read since, but I guess I do know what should be on my reading list this summer - lots of poetry and lots of Faulkner.


Thursday, April 23, 2009

Bleak Conclusion

Barry Arrington at Uncommon Descent offers a succinct discussion on the topic of the possibility ethics without God. I've edited his argument slightly:

In an earlier post I lamented the apparent extinction of what I called "Nietzsche atheists," by which I meant atheists with the courage and honesty to accept the bleak conclusions logically compelled by their premises. Some of our atheist friends seemed to not know what bleak conclusions I was referring to. Here is a comment that sums it up nicely. This post is adapted from a comment to that earlier post.

Make two assumptions:

(1) That atheistic naturalism is true.

(2) One can't infer an "ought" from an "is" [i.e. because things are a certain way doesn't mean that they ought to be that way].

Richard Dawkins and many other atheists should grant both of these assumptions.

Given our second assumption, there is nothing in the natural world from which we can infer an "ought." And given our first assumption, there is nothing that exists over and above the natural world; the natural world is all that there is. It follows logically that, for any action you care to pick, there's nothing in the natural world from which we can infer that one ought to refrain from performing that action.

Add a further uncontroversial assumption: an action is permissible if and only if it's not the case that one ought to refrain from performing that action. This ..... [all simply conforms] to standard principles and rules of logic and we've started out with assumptions that atheists have conceded.

And yet we reach the [following] absurd conclusion:

...therefore, for any action you care to pick, it's permissible to perform that action.

If you'd like, you can take this as the meat behind the slogan "if atheism is true, all things are permitted." For example if atheism is true, every action Hitler performed was permissible. Many atheists don't like this consequence of their worldview, but they cannot escape it and insist that they are being logical at the same time.

So here's the predicament that the atheist finds him or herself in:

If there is no God then there are no morally impermissible acts. But most atheists want to argue that there are morally impermissible acts, thus they are driven to the conclusion by modus tollens that there is a God.

To avoid this conclusion they must either agree that there are no morally impermissible acts and stop irritating the rest of us by indulging their silly penchant for passing baseless moral judgments or they need to show how, in the absence of a transcendent moral authority, there can still be something which is morally impermissible.

Unfortunately for atheists' self-image as paragons of rationality, few of them are willing to do the first and none of them is able to do the second.


Coming Soon to a Community Near You

So you say you want government to take over your health care? The maddening inefficiencies and inadequacies of government health care systems in Europe have been widely publicized, but it's good for us to periodically be reminded of what we're buying into if we go along with proposals to nationalize medical care in this country. Consider, then, this story from the UK Daily Mail Online:

A three-year-old girl waiting for vital heart surgery has had her operation cancelled three times in as many weeks because of a shortage of hospital beds.

Ella Cotterell was due to have an operation to widen her aorta artery in her heart on Monday at Bristol Children's Hospital, but her surgery was cancelled 48 hours before because all 15 beds in the intensive care unit were full.

Ella, of Bradley Stoke, Bristol, had open heart surgery when she was just nine days old and suffered a stroke at 18 months.

Her parents Ian Cotterell, 44, and Rachel Davis, 40, were told in October that she would need the operation within 12 to 18 months.

Her mother Rachel Davis said today she was devastated when the hospital told her the surgery would be cancelled because there were not enough beds. 'My husband and I were in tears,' she said.

Ms Davis, who works part time as an accident and emergency nurse at Bristol's Frenchay Hospital, called on the Government to plough more money into the NHS before a child died on the waiting list.

'This is a national problem, there are not enough resources in the NHS and it is about prioritising.

'Children who need routine grommet operations are seen quickly yet the children who need life-saving surgery are waiting because there are not enough intensive care beds and staff.

'It is a matter of time before a child dies on the waiting list and I don't want it to be Ella.

'If that does happen the Government will have blood on their hands.'

There've been reports that people who need MRIs in Europe must sometimes wait for months to have the procedure done because there aren't enough MRIs or technicians to meet the demand. This is typical in a government run system because, unlike a free market, government is not responsive to customer demand and in a nationalized system there's no profit incentive to be responsive. Take away profit and competition and what you get are too few beds and delays that could last months or years, yet government-run health care is what a lot of people are hoping to soon have in this country.


Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Wrestling with Torture

Damon Linker at The New Republic, unlike so many journalistic commentators on both Left and Right, resists the easy answers and actually wrestles seriously with the ethical questions involved in the use of torture. He writes:

I've pondered for years what to say about the Bush administration's use of torture in the years after 9/11. So far I've remained quiet about the issue because I'm so uneasy about it -- not just about what the United States has done, but also about the reactions of nearly everyone who has commented on it. On one side, the right mocks those concerned with our actions in that insufferably smug, proudly parochial tone that has marked nearly all conservative commentary about foreign affairs for the past seven years. As far as the right is concerned, we haven't tortured anyone, even though the definition of torture accepted by liberal-democratic nations around the globe (including the United States until the day before yesterday) clearly tells us that we did.

Meanwhile, on the other side, critics (often but not always on the left) work themselves into an indignant rage. I share much of their disgust as well as the conviction that torture rarely works as a means of procuring information. At the same time, I find much of their fury -- like their tendency to describe senior members of the Bush administration as war criminals -- much too easy. The United States did not engage in torture because the Vice-President's office and the Justice Department under Bush were populated by sadistic would-be totalitarians. On the contrary, we engaged in torture for reasons deeply rooted in the troubling nature of politics itself.

In the end, the statesman needs to rely on his judgment - on what Aristotle called practical wisdom and President Bush ... called his "gut" - in making the decision about whether and when and for how long and in what ways to deviate from what is normally right in order to "preserve the mere existence or independence of society" against its mortal enemies.

We all know what President Bush and his advisors decided. In the wake of 9/11, they (along with writers such as Charles Krauthammer) judged militant Islam to be an existential threat to the United States. And an existential threat is perhaps the clearest example of a case in which normal justice has to give way to the preservation of the common good at all costs. If we were truly confronting an existential threat -- a perpetual undetected ticking time bomb -- then it would have been immoral for those responsible for defending the common good of the United States not to torture a high-ranking al-Qaeda operative such as Abu Zubaydah in order to extract every last bit of information from him. (Even if torture rarely works, the fact that it sometimes does would be quite enough to justify its use in a genuinely dire situation.) Judging the justice of the Bush administration's policies on torture thus requires answering a single (extremely difficult) question: Was the administration right to believe that militant Islam posed (and perhaps still poses) an existential threat to the United States? If the answer is yes, then its policies may very well have been justified and even demanded by the circumstances. If the answer is no, then its leading officials may well have been guilty of bending or breaking the law for no good reason -- most likely out of a combination of ignorance, fear, and paranoia.

So what's the answer?

Linker confesses that he doesn't know the answer to his question. This is an honest and well-thought out essay by a liberal writer, and I agree with much of what he says. I agree, for instance, with the basic point of his piece that torture is almost always a moral crime, but that it's not absolutely wrong. There are circumstances under which it would not only be right, but would, in fact, be a moral duty, and to decline that duty would itself be morally criminal.

One thing he states about which I have my doubts, though, is his claim that torture rarely works. It may have worked more often than some opponents think and much to our good fortune at that if this article by Marc Thiessen in the Washington Post is correct:

In releasing highly classified documents on the CIA interrogation program last week, President Obama declared that the techniques used to question captured terrorists "did not make us safer." This is patently false.

The proof is in the memos Obama made public -- in sections that have gone virtually unreported in the media. Consider the Justice Department memo of May 30, 2005. It notes that "the CIA believes 'the intelligence acquired from these interrogations has been a key reason why al Qaeda has failed to launch a spectacular attack in the West since 11 September 2001.' . . . In particular, the CIA believes that it would have been unable to obtain critical information from numerous detainees, including [Khalid Sheik Mohammed] and Abu Zubaydah, without these enhanced techniques." The memo continues: "Before the CIA used enhanced techniques . . . KSM resisted giving any answers to questions about future attacks, simply noting, 'Soon you will find out.' " Once the techniques were applied, "interrogations have led to specific, actionable intelligence, as well as a general increase in the amount of intelligence regarding al Qaeda and its affiliates."

Specifically, interrogation with enhanced techniques "led to the discovery of a KSM plot, the 'Second Wave,' 'to use East Asian operatives to crash a hijacked airliner into' a building in Los Angeles." KSM later acknowledged before a military commission at Guantanamo Bay that the target was the Library Tower, the tallest building on the West Coast.

Both of these columns should be read by anyone serious about grasping the moral difficulties surrounding the issue of torture and the arguments that have been flying around in the wake of the recent release of the Bush administration memos.


Unintended Consequences

Prior to the election some well-intentioned folk, like Sojourners editor Jim Wallis, argued that Obama's policies would be better for the poor than would his opponent's, and that therefore the Illinois senator merited the vote of all who care about the underprivileged and destitute. Well, I wonder what Mr. Wallis thinks now after the release of a World Bank report prepared for the G20 summit. First Things (subscription only) reports:

Given the worries expressed in the background paper the World Bank prepared for the March meeting of the G20 finance ministers, there is a plausible case to be made that the huge expansion of the U.S. government is about to suck the globe dry of available credit, leaving the third world stalled for years in the murderous effects of the current financial situation. "Preliminary analysis shows that...infant deaths in developing countries may be 200,000 to 400,000 per year higher on average between 2010 and ...2015 than they would have been in the absence of the crisis," the World Bank reported. "Unless reversed, this corresponds to a total of 1.4 to 2.8 million excess deaths during the period."

Because of the need to borrow to pay the massive debt into which President Obama and Congress have plunged us, there will be very little money available for third world borrowers who need money to buy necessities like food and medicine for their people, and, as usual, the children of those countries will bear the brunt of the financial famine.

There's an irony in this tragedy. People like Wallis made the argument during the campaign that Obama's economic policies would benefit the poor and thus reduce the felt need among poor women for abortions. Obama would thus do more, substantively speaking, to reduce the incidence of abortion than would John McCain who could be expected to only appoint Supreme Court Justices who might overturn Roe v. Wade. This seemed like a peculiar argument at the time, but I wonder what Wallis thinks of it now that those very policies that he was so enthusiastic about may result in the deaths of almost three million born children in a span of only five years.


Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Demographics of Depression

The current issue of First Things (not yet available online) features a most interesting article by new associate editor David Goldman on the current economic crisis. While a lot of blame for our woes is rightly being placed on greedy Wall Streeters and corrupt and/or incompetent politicians Goldman casts his eye elsewhere. He makes a compelling case that our fundamental problem is demographic and that it's not going to be solved by the kinds of remedies Washington is prescribing.

The root of the problem, he notes, is the housing crisis. People borrow money to buy homes. This fuels the economy because the construction, purchase, and maintenance of houses create a multitude of jobs.

Two-parent families with children are the fulcrum of the housing market. They buy bigger, more expensive homes and spend more on their maintenance. Single-parent families tend to be poorer and often live in apartments or smaller houses. Thus, buying power is concentrated in two-parent families with children, but this cohort is in serious decline in the Western world, including the U.S.

Since 1970 our population has risen from 200 to 300 million, but the number of two-parent families is the same as it was in the early 70's - 25 million - while the number of one-parent families with children has tripled.

In 1960 dependent children made up half the population, but today they're only 30%. Meanwhile, the dependent elderly have gone from 15% of the population in 1960 to 30% today. As a result we are getting poorer. There are fewer couples with children to borrow and spend on housing and more and more elderly whose savings are being eaten up by the stock market slide.

According to Goldman, by 2025 households with children will decrease from half of all households to less than a quarter. There will be fewer people with children which means a lower demand for housing. Large lot single-family homes will slump from 56 million today to 34 million by 2025, a 40% reduction.

With a diminished demand for housing the boomers' savings will be sitting in the banks collecting very little interest because no one will be borrowing. The economy will turn to mush. Goldman says that we'll be poorer than we are now for at least a generation. Workers on the tail of the baby boom will work five to ten years longer before retiring and they'll retire with less income than they had planned. Young people will work for less money at duller jobs than did their parents and grandparents.

He argues that we must do what we can to encourage family growth and offers several recommendations toward this end:

  • Cut taxes on families (Obama's Cap and Trade would be devastating since it would raise the cost of energy on families which is the equivalent of imposing a tax. His spending policies have already put future generations in debt to the tune of about $30,000 per person before they've even been born).
  • Shift part of the Social Security burden to the childless by reducing payroll taxes (FICA) on those who have raised children (Those who have raised children have done their part to create the next generation. Those who haven't, haven't. Those, Goldman says, who have made the effort and paid the cost of raising children are seeing their savings erode because too many others have chosen not to. Those who avoid the effort and cost of children should be asked to pay more to fund social security than those who have raised them.)
  • Make child-related expenses deductible.
  • Change immigration laws to let in more highly skilled, productive individuals and fewer poor, uneducated immigrants. What we need right now are people who will generate wealth, not people who will demand services paid for by the already strapped public.

There's much else that Goldman offers in this essay that's worth reading. I would urge anyone, especially those between the ages of 18 and 40, to visit their local library, or any place that sells magazines, and read the entire article.


The UnChurchill

Yesterday marked the second anniversary of one of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's finest, most prescient moments:

Senator Reid hasn't had much to say about the war lately, for which we can be thankful. We can also be grateful that the people responsible for making the strategic decisions about the conflict in Iraq didn't pay any attention to him two years ago.


Monday, April 20, 2009

Romancing the Jihadis

Clifford May remarks on the odd yet fond attraction some Western Leftists have for Islamic jihadists:

Ask those on the Left what values they champion, and they will say equality, tolerance, women's rights, gay rights, workers' rights, and human rights. Militant Islamists oppose all that, not infrequently through the application of lethal force. So how does one explain the burgeoning Left-Islamist alliance?

I know: There are principled individuals on the Left who do not condone terrorism or minimize the Islamist threat. The author Paul Berman, unambiguously and unashamedly a man of the Left, has been more incisive on these issues than just about anyone else. Left-of-center publications such as The New Republic have not been apologists for radical jihadists.

But The Nation has been soft on Islamism for decades. Back in 1979, editorial-board member Richard Falk welcomed the Iranian revolution, saying it "may yet provide us with a desperately-needed model of humane governance for a third-world country." Immediately after Sept. 11, 2001, longtime Nation contributor Robert Fisk complained that "terrorism" is a "racist" term.

It is no exaggeration to call groups such as pro-appeasement. Further left on the political spectrum, the A.N.S.W.E.R. Coalition sympathizes with both Islamists and the Stalinist regime in North Korea - which is in league with Islamist Iran and its client state, Syria. Meanwhile, Hugo Ch�vez, the Bolivarian-socialist Venezuelan strongman, is developing a strategic alliance with Iran's ruling mullahs and with Hezbollah, Iran's terrorist proxy.

In a new book, United in Hate: The Left's Romance with Tyranny and Terror, Jamie Glazov takes a hard look at this unholy alliance. A historian by training, Glazov is the son of dissidents who fled the Soviet Union only to find that, on American campuses, they were not welcomed by the liberal/Left lumpen professoriate.

Glazov's book indicts artists and intellectuals of the Left - e.g. George Bernard Shaw, Bertolt Brecht, and Susan Sontag - for having "venerated mass murderers such as Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Castro, and Ho Chi Minh, habitually excusing their atrocities while blaming Americans and even the victims for their crimes."

Following the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Left spent several years wandering in the wilderness. Many of them, Glazov suggests, looked upon the terrorist attacks of 9/11 less as an atrocity than as an opportunity to revive a moribund revolutionary movement.

Jimmy Carter, Michael Moore, Noam Chomsky, Ramsey Clark, Lynne Stewart, and Stanley Cohen are among the luminaries of the Left Glazov accuses of having found common ground with Islamists.

Glazov concludes that the Left's "romance with Islamism is just a logical continuation of the long leftist tradition of worshipping America's foes. . . . The Left clearly continues to be inspired by its undying Marxist conviction that capitalism is evil and that forces of revolution are rising to overthrow it - and must be supported." On that basis, militant Islamism is regarded as a "valiant form of 'resistance' against American imperialism and oppression."

If such values as equality, tolerance, and human rights are crushed in the process, that's a price many on the Left are willing to pay. Those on the Left who disagree should perhaps speak up more loudly and more often.

There's more to May's essay at the link, but I might mention that another value of the Left that makes their alliance with Islamists even more bizarre is religious freedom. The Left is predominately secular and atheistic and they prize the freedom to remain that way. Surely they must realize, though, that if the Islamists were ever successful in toppling a Western country, the atheists would be the first to be relieved of their heads. Or, being hard Leftists, maybe they don't realize it.



C. J. Chivers describes in the New York Times an army ambush of some 26 Taliban in Afghanistan:

Only the lead insurgents were disciplined as they walked along the ridge. They moved carefully, with weapons ready and at least five yards between each man, the soldiers who surprised them said.

Behind them, a knot of Taliban fighters walked in a denser group, some with rifles slung on their shoulders - "pretty much exactly the way we tell soldiers not to do it," said Specialist Robert Soto, the radio operator for the American patrol.

If these insurgents came close enough, the soldiers knew, the patrol could kill them in a batch.

Fight by fight, the infantryman's war in Afghanistan is often waged on the Taliban's terms. Insurgents ambush convoys and patrols from high ridges or long ranges and slip away as the Americans, weighed down by equipment, return fire and call for air and artillery support. Last week a patrol from the First Infantry Division reversed the routine.

Go to the article to read Chivers' description of the fight. The quick summary is that it was a bad night for the Taliban.


More 'Redistribution'

Here's a piece by Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel prize winner in economics, Ex-Chief Economist of the World Bank, Professor of Columbia University, etc., etc. Among other things, Stiglitz says:

The people who designed the [bailout] plans are "either in the pocket of the banks or they're incompetent."

Perhaps what I find most alarming is that the bad news is no longer coming from only those once considered to be "fringe". Now the news is coming from notable scholars and well-known experts in economics and finance. And it's coming rather frequently.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Dr. Doom

Whenever I see something from Nouriel Roubini, I check it out for several reasons; he's rather brilliant, he's a professor of economics at the Stern Business School at New York University and chairman of Roubini Global Economics, and his background is extremely impressive.

But, perhaps most of all, his ability to foresee the likely outcome of all things economic has been uncanny for at least the last couple of years. Given that he was warning of the economic circumstances we find ourselves in today several years ago, it's no wonder he has earned the nick-name "Dr. Doom", and rightly so.

Having said that, I don't agree with all of what he says regarding his prescription to fix our economic problems because I gather he's of the Keynesian School of Economics but if not, then perhaps he's simply speaking from a perspective that our government will be able to understand. In other words, I believe the Keynesian philosophy of economics is flawed but it's the current economic philosophy our government embraces*. And Roubini speaks in terms they understand.

At any rate, Roubini is refreshing because he tells it like he sees it and he doesn't seem to care if anyone's offended. Here is a recent article from Roubini that shows he doesn't have favorites and, perhaps what I find most encouraging is, he puts much of the responsibility for the present dilemma squarely where it belongs. Advocating that those who are responsible take responsibility is certainly not politically correct these days but I never said Roubini cared about such silliness.

Check out some of his other articles here.

* Note that Keynes's idea's became less influential in the 1970s, after attacks from Milton Friedman and other economists who were less optimistic than Keynes about the potential for interventionist government policy to complement the free market. But in 2008, high level policy makers in the world's modern economies have shown a renewed interest in implementing economic solutions in accordance with the recommendations of Keynesian economics - such as the fiscal stimulus and far-reaching government intervention behind the plans of President Barack Obama and other global leaders to rescue the economy.

Editor's note: So we would solve our current economic crisis that has been caused by excessive borrowing and spending by more borrowing and spending??? If they are wrong, all of this printing of money and spending will end very, very badly.

Murray Rothbard considered Keynes an intellectual lightweight, fixated on simple short-term solutions to complex long-term problems, obsessed with his own ego and influence, and one of the most destructive statist intellectuals of the 20th century.

For a better treatment on John Maynard Keynes, see this link.

Before the Cock Crows Thrice

By now you've probably heard that our President spoke recently at Georgetown - a Catholic university, need I remind you - but not before insisting that the Latin letters IHS on the pediment behind the podium be covered up. The President evidently wished not to give offense to any viewers of the speech who might suffer an attack of the vapors at the sight of the Latin symbol of Christ, which makes me wonder whether the next time he visits a mosque if he'll insist that any symbols of Islam be concealed.

James Schall at The Catholic Thing has similar musings:

What interests me here is this: If this president speaks at a Jewish Synagogue, or a Baptist church, or the Crystal Cathedral, or the Muslim Mosque on Massachusetts Avenue, the Ravens Stadium, the George Washington University, the headquarters of Planned Parenthood, or the hall of the local Atheist Society, will the same policy be followed? Will all signs of what the place actually is and stands for be covered over? If so, it represents equitable treatment, but is it wise? Is the president never to appear in any venue with obvious particular commitments, and why choose religious and not secular signs? Should, say, a university seal be exempted, but a crucifix not?

Will presidents be able to appear anywhere outside government buildings if the rules are really equally applied to both religious and secular? And this raises a real question: Is it American? George Washington once talked before our New North Hall, so did President Clinton. I guess a porch does not need much cover-up. But is the American understanding of state and religion designed to hide any religious or cultural sign whatsoever? If a president is buried at a local church, as President Woodrow Wilson is, must the funeral be covered over so that no signs of a church are seen?

This country does not hide its religious presence. If a president does not want to speak in a given place, fine. Don't ask. But if he does, it should not be on condition of the place's ceasing to present what it historically is.

I don't know which is more disgraceful, that the White House insisted that the Christian symbol be covered up or that a putatively Catholic university acquiesced to the demand. Georgetown's willingness to go along with this repudiation of their identity recalls to mind the story of Peter who, when challenged by the crowd to own up to his friendship with Jesus, chose instead to deny that friendship. It's a story of shame, betrayal and cowardice not unlike the events at Georgetown.

The cock is crowing for Georgetown just as it did for Peter.

At the above link Mary Eberstadt follows Schall's post with an amusing letter to the Vatican from the White house expressing its concerns about Mr. Obama's upcoming visit. It's a hoot.


Financial Oligarchs

Bill caught this outstanding article in The Atlantic, authored by former IMF bigwig Simon Johnson, and passed it on to ruin our day.

Here's The Atlantic's lede:

The [economic] crash has laid bare many unpleasant truths about the United States. One of the most alarming, says a former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund, is that the finance industry has effectively captured our government-a state of affairs that more typically describes emerging markets, and is at the center of many emerging-market crises. If the IMF's staff could speak freely about the U.S., it would tell us what it tells all countries in this situation: recovery will fail unless we break the financial oligarchy that is blocking essential reform. And if we are to prevent a true depression, we're running out of time.

The difficulty is that the people who control the financial empire are so inextricably intertwined with our political class that it's almost impossible to separate them.

The article's a little lengthy, but it's very enlightening. Unfortunately, by the time you're finished reading it you'll probably have become a Marxist.


Friday, April 17, 2009

Courageous Heart

In 2007 we wrote about Irena Sendler, a Polish woman who risked her life to save Jewish children from the Nazis and who was nominated that year for the Nobel Peace Prize. In an unforgiveable spasm of political correctness she was denied the award because the judges thought it should go to Al Gore for his global warming slide show.

Now the rest of the country will soon be marvelling at the sheer boneheadedness of the Nobel committee's decision. CBS is showing a made-for-television movie that tells the story of Sendler's heroism during WWII. The movie will air this Sunday the 19th.

This post at First Things blog explains why this woman was such a great human being - not as great as Al Gore, apparently, but great nonetheless. The movie is titled The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler. Don't miss it.


The End of Philosophy

David Brooks assays the field of ethics in a New York Times column titled The End of Philosophy and quickly finds himself raising questions he doesn't realize he's raising:

Socrates talked. The assumption behind his approach to philosophy, and the approaches of millions of people since, is that moral thinking is mostly a matter of reason and deliberation: Think through moral problems. Find a just principle. Apply it.

One problem with this kind of approach to morality, as Michael Gazzaniga writes in his 2008 book, "Human," is that "it has been hard to find any correlation between moral reasoning and proactive moral behavior, such as helping other people. In fact, in most studies, none has been found."

Today, many psychologists, cognitive scientists and even philosophers embrace a different view of morality. In this view, moral thinking is more like aesthetics. As we look around the world, we are constantly evaluating what we see. Seeing and evaluating are not two separate processes. They are linked and basically simultaneous.

This is interesting. I haven't read Gazzaniga's book, but I suspect that the reason no link has been found between reason and morality is that the kind of behaviors most people think of as moral have no basis in human reason. Reason leads us to the conclusion that we should look out for #1. The only reason we should care about the welfare of others is if we'll somehow benefit from doing so. If we won't benefit or if we don't care about the benefit, then there's no reason to have any consideration for the interests of others at all.

This seems unacceptable to many people because even though our society is becoming increasingly secular we're still living off the moral capital of an earlier, more religious age. Our grandparents believed we should care about others because that was what God desires of us. Several generations of Americans have since been raised without God, but they've still been taught the precept. They no longer can explain why it's right to care about others, they just know intuitively that it is. Of course, as time goes on, more people are going to recognize that their intuitions are hanging in mid-air, like the cartoon character who has run off a cliff but hasn't yet started to fall, and they're going to abandon them as groundless and yield instead to their egoistic impulses.

Brooks continues:

Think of what happens when you put a new food into your mouth. You don't have to decide if it's disgusting. You just know. You don't have to decide if a landscape is beautiful. You just know.

Moral judgments are like that. They are rapid intuitive decisions and involve the emotion-processing parts of the brain. Most of us make snap moral judgments about what feels fair or not, or what feels good or not. We start doing this when we are babies, before we have language. And even as adults, we often can't explain to ourselves why something feels wrong.

Indeed. Brooks here is as much as acknowledging that right and wrong are completely subjective, like our taste in food or art. What's right in a world without God is whatever one feels is right.

In other words, reasoning comes later and is often guided by the emotions that preceded it. Or as Jonathan Haidt of the University of Virginia memorably wrote, "The emotions are, in fact, in charge of the temple of morality, and ... moral reasoning is really just a servant masquerading as a high priest."

Or, put differently, reason is simply a tool we use to try to justify our feelings to our intellect. As such its role in ethics is pretty much secondary.

The question then becomes: What shapes moral emotions in the first place? The answer has long been evolution, but in recent years there's an increasing appreciation that evolution isn't just about competition. It's also about cooperation within groups. Like bees, humans have long lived or died based on their ability to divide labor, help each other and stand together in the face of common threats. Many of our moral emotions and intuitions reflect that history. We don't just care about our individual rights, or even the rights of other individuals. We also care about loyalty, respect, traditions, religions. We are all the descendents of successful cooperators.

But if our moral sense is simply an artifact of evolution, what obligates me to pay any attention to it? The answer, of course, is nothing. If human morality is just the result of a process that shaped us for survival in the stone age what need do we have for it today? It's no more necessary or important than is the hair on our arms.

The first nice thing about this evolutionary approach to morality is that it emphasizes the social nature of moral intuition. People are not discrete units coolly formulating moral arguments. They link themselves together into communities and networks of mutual influence.

The second nice thing is that it entails a warmer view of human nature. Evolution is always about competition, but for humans, as Darwin speculated, competition among groups has turned us into pretty cooperative, empathetic and altruistic creatures - at least within our families, groups and sometimes nations.

Brooks is here begging the question. He assumes that altruism and the rest are moral desiderata and then enthuses about the fortuitous path evolution has taken to produce these very traits. But what makes altruism better or more "moral" than egoism? If Brooks just assumes that it is then he's assuming what he really should be trying to demonstrate.

The rise and now dominance of this emotional approach to morality is an epochal change. It challenges all sorts of traditions. It challenges the bookish way philosophy is conceived by most people. It challenges the Talmudic tradition, with its hyper-rational scrutiny of texts. It challenges the new atheists, who see themselves involved in a war of reason against faith and who have an unwarranted faith in the power of pure reason and in the purity of their own reasoning.

Finally, it should also challenge the very scientists who study morality. They're good at explaining how people make judgments about harm and fairness, but they still struggle to explain the feelings of awe, transcendence, patriotism, joy and self-sacrifice, which are not ancillary to most people's moral experiences, but central. The evolutionary approach also leads many scientists to neglect the concept of individual responsibility and makes it hard for them to appreciate that most people struggle toward goodness, not as a means, but as an end in itself.

But what is goodness? Is it caring for others? Why not think it consists in dominating others? Brooks and the people he's talking about seem to have a whole host of assumptions about what is good, but if the only reason these things are good is because we've evolved the desire for them then we have to say that selfishness, greed, lust, power, violence, etc. are also good because we've certainly evolved the desire for them as well. Why elevate some of the results of evolution to the staus of virtues and not others?

For more on Brooks' essay you can go here and here.


Civil Discourse Among the Lefties

This video of last night's Countdown with Keith Olbermann has to be seen to be believed (and savored). Tens of thousands (at least) of ordinary Americans turn out to protest the reckless spending that is almost sure to bury our children under a mountain of debt and Janeane Garofalo and Keith Olbermann slander them with almost every libel they can think of and then wind up concluding that these concerned citizens are all opposed to Obama's policies because he's black.

For Garofalo and Olbermann anyone who opposes spending our country into oblivion is a stupid, racist, latent mass murderer who's easily manipulated by the evil Fox News. Maybe Ms Garofalo is angling for a job in Janet Napolitano's Department of Homeland Security, or, more likely, this video is simply a glimpse into the fevered fantasy world in which the left lives and moves and has its being. I don't recall either of these luminaries saying anything at all bad about the G-20 protestors, or the anti-war protestors back in Bush's first term - people who have actually destroyed property and harmed, or threatened to harm, other human beings during their protests - but let ordinary folks gather peaceably to display their frustration and displeasure with their political leadership and that's prima facie proof to such as Garofalo and Olbermann that the protestors are a bunch of bigoted Neanderthals a single incendiary word away from reenacting the Holocaust.

Garofalo avers that opponents of the President's policies are suffering from a neurological disorder - perhaps she has a degree in psychiatry, I don't know - but what name should we assign the delusions under which she and Mr. Olbermann labor? These demonstrations weren't funded by the GOP nor were they organized by Fox News. Perhaps when one is consumed with hate and a sense of one's own intellectual superiority, paranoia comes naturally and any who dare dissent from their own point of view is little more than a contemptible "redneck."

Anyway, the good stuff starts about three minutes in:

Don't you wish you were as smart as Ms Garofalo? She knows so much it must be sheer joy to be her. On the other hand, we might pity the woman who, gifted with such a towering intellect - a virtue exceeded in its vastness only by her vanity - finds that nevertheless the only people who care to listen to her are a few members of Keith Olbermann's tiny audience, people who perchance are as hate-filled as is Ms Garofalo.


Thursday, April 16, 2009

Freedom Is Slavery

Janet Napolitano, the Director of Homeland Security and the lady who informed us that we are no longer fighting a global war on terrorism but rather a war on "man-caused disasterism," has released a report to law enforcement agencies that warns of a growing danger in the U.S. from "right-wing extremists." The report has caused quite a stir since it apparently offers no substantiation for its claims and because it defines right-wing extremists in a manner that would include most of the Founding Fathers. The Washington Times column on the DHS report opens with these words:

The Department of Homeland Security is warning law enforcement officials about a rise in "rightwing extremist activity," saying the economic recession, the election of America's first black president and the return of a few disgruntled war veterans could swell the ranks of white-power militias.

A footnote attached to the report by the Homeland Security Office of Intelligence and Analysis defines "rightwing extremism in the United States" as including not just racist or hate groups, but also groups that reject federal authority in favor of state or local authority.

Has no one at the DHS ever read The Federalist Papers? A preference for state and local authority is a principle upon which this country was founded. It is the basis for the much ignored 10th Amendment to the Constitution. Apparently the Obama administration considers people who still harbor the hope that we will one day return to the Constitution to be dangerous rogues who need to be watched.

"It may include groups and individuals that are dedicated to a single-issue, such as opposition to abortion or immigration," the warning says.

According to Ms Napolitano the gentle nuns who pray daily for the repeal of Roe v. Wade and those who are perplexed at our government's failure to secure our borders are also members of this nefarious class of extremists.

There's something peculiar about the fact that Barack Obama's associations with known left-wing extremists who planted bombs and terrorized innocent families was pooh-poohed during the campaign, but now his administration is planning to place opponents of abortion on demand and illegal immigration under the watchful eye of the police.

The report, which was first disclosed to the public by nationally syndicated radio host Roger Hedgecock, makes clear that the Homeland Security Department does not have "specific information that domestic rightwing terrorists are currently planning acts of violence."It warns that fringe organizations are gaining recruits, but it provides no numbers.

The report says extremist groups have used President Obama as a recruiting tool.

"Most statements by rightwing extremists have been rhetorical, expressing concerns about the election of the first African American president, but stopping short of calls for violent action," the report says. "In two instances in the run-up to the election, extremists appeared to be in the early planning stages of some threatening activity targeting the Democratic nominee, but law enforcement interceded."

It would be interesting to see exactly what data the DHS has to support any of these claims. No data appeared in the report. In fact, the report reads like a summary of liberal stereotypes of anybody who disagrees with them on the issues facing the country. Of course, a lot of Americans were concerned about the election results, but who, precisely, was concerned about them because Obama was an African-American? The report doesn't tell us. You just have to take their word for it and accept that you are possibly guilty of thought crime if you express concerns about being led by the most radically left administration in the history of this country.

The Homeland Security assessment goes on to say specifically that "rightwing extremists will attempt to recruit and radicalize returning veterans in order to exploit their skills and knowledge derived from military training and combat."

But in fact:

The FBI report said that from October 2001 through May 2008 "a minuscule" number of veterans, 203 out of 23,000, had joined groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, Aryan Nations, the National Socialist Movement, the Creativity Movement, the National Alliance and some skinhead groups.

Here's an odd nut: Why are the National Socialists considered a right-wing group? National Socialists (neo-Nazis) are socialists; socialism is a phenomenon of the left; ergo neo-Nazis are leftist extremists, they're not "right-wingers."

The DHS report is filled with meaningless claims (meaningless because there's no way to determine their significance). For example:

DHS/I&A notes that prominent civil rights organizations have observed an increase in anti-Hispanic crimes over the past five years.

But who's perpetrating these crimes? Other Hispanics? Hostile blacks? White racists? The report doesn't say. We're just left to ponder why this fact is to be construed as evidence of the rise of right-wing extremism.

Those of you who consider yourselves pro-life, or are returning vets, or have serious qualms about allowing everyone into this country who wants to come in should be on notice that Big Sister Janet is watching you. Perhaps we can expect the Obama administration to soon be placing telescreens in every home and public space.


Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Dealing with Pirates

Strategy Page offers an interesting explanation as to why the world seems slow to do anything about the Somali pirates:

While ten percent of world shipping traffic goes through the Gulf of Aden each year, most of it is in ships too fast for the pirates to catch, and too large for them to easily get aboard. These ships pay higher fuel costs (for the high speed transit), higher insurance premiums, and two days of "danger pay" for their unionized crews, and that's it. This increases the annual operating costs of these ships by a fraction of one percent. But for smaller, and slower, freighters, mostly serving local customers, the pirates remain a problem. These ships tend to be owned by African and Arab companies, and manned by African and Arab crews.

In other words, in financial terms piracy is just not much of a problem. The article goes on to lay out the pros and cons of the various options for ending it:

In dealing with a piracy problem like this, you have three main choices. You can do what is currently being done, which is patrolling the Gulf of Aden and shooting only when you see speedboats full of gunmen threatening a merchant ship. The rule appears to be that you fire lots of warning shots, and rarely fire at the pirates themselves. This approach has saved a few ships from capture, and the more warships you get into the Gulf, the more pirate attacks you can foil. But it won't stop the pirates from capturing ships. Establishing a similar anti-piracy patrol off the east coast of Africa would cost over half a billion dollars a year, at least.

A second approach is to be more aggressive. That is, your ships and helicopters shoot (pirates) on sight and shoot to kill. Naturally, the pirates will hide their weapons (until they are in the act of taking a ship), but it will still be obvious what a speedboat full of "unarmed" men are up to. You could take a chance (of dead civilians and bad publicity) and shoot up any suspicious speedboat. Some of the pirates would probably resort to taking some women and children with them. Using human shields is an old custom, and usually works against Westerners. More pirate attacks will be thwarted with this approach, but the attacks will continue, and NATO will be painted as murderous bullies in the media.

The third option is to go ashore and kill or capture all the pirates, or at least as many as you can identify. Destroy pirate boats and weapons. This is very dangerous, because innocent civilians will be killed or injured, and the property of non-pirates will be damaged. The anti-piracy forces will be condemned in some quarters for committing atrocities. There might even be indictments for war crimes. There will be bad publicity. NATO will most likely avoid this option too. The bottom line is that the pirate attacks, even if they took two or three times as many ships as last year, would not have a meaningful economic impact on world shipping. For example, the international anti-piracy patrol in the Gulf of Aden costs $300 million a year, a fraction of a percent of the defense budgets of the nations involved. Politicians and bureaucrats can stand that kind of pain, and will likely do so and refrain from doing anything bold in Somalia.

It seems to me that the best option is to amend the Law of the Sea treaty to allow shipping companies to employ trained private security contractors, such as we used in Iraq, to fend off attacks. Once word gets out that ships are manned by security teams and that a lot of pirates are going to get killed if they try to hijack a ship, a lot of them would see their enthusiasm for piracy evaporate rather quickly.

Ron Paul offers a somewhat similar plan. He thinks the U.S. should employ bounty hunters.


Three Months In

Today protesters across the country are having "Tea Parties" to demonstrate their dissatisfaction with the economic policies of the current administration. The fear is that the enormous spending undertaken by the Obama administration is going to strap us with debt that will only be paid by inflating the currency or raising taxes, both of which will suffocate the hopes we have for our childrens' future.

But it's not just the government's economic nostrums that have people alarmed.

Just before the election last November we noted that most conservatives and many libertarians opposed Barack Obama because they foresaw an Obama administration, supported and abetted by a Democratic congress, eager to implement a number of measures that would erode our freedoms and be detrimental to our national health. Here's the listwe posted back then:

  1. Remove all restrictions on abortion, including partial birth abortion.
  2. Alter the meaning of marriage so that it's no longer the union of one man and one woman.
  3. Appoint judges and Supreme Court Justices whose decisions will be based on political fashion rather than on the text of the constitution.
  4. Redistribute wealth from the middle and upper classes to the underclass.
  5. Treat terrorism as a police matter rather than as a global war on Western civilization.
  6. Pile onto American business onerous regulations and taxes that will make it impossible to compete in the global market and which will result in higher unemployment and higher costs. (Cap and Trade, minimum wage, capital gains tax, health insurance)
  7. Continue the accelerating secularization of our society.
  8. Open our borders to anyone who wants to take up residence in our country and give illegal aliens the right to a driver's license, health care, and welfare.
  9. Nationalize health care.
  10. Deny to parents any choice in where they send their children to school.
  11. Push fuel costs back up so as to force us to conserve and develop alternative energy sources.
  12. Quell freedom of speech, particularly when it's conservative and/or religious, through vehicles like the Fairness Doctrine or "Localism."
  13. Downgrade our military preparedness and end the program that would enable us to shoot down incoming nuclear missiles.
  14. Take away the right to own or buy most types of firearms or to acquire a license to carry them on one's person.
  15. Strip union workers of the right to a secret ballot in union elections by implementing card check.

We're now three months into the new administration and it's clear that the list above failed to do justice to Democrat ambitions. Already the President, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and their minions in Congress have taken steps toward implementing most, if not all, of the above goals. The Democrats are anxious to fundamentally reshape the contours of our society, and there's very little that can be done to dissuade them until the elections of 2010.

To be sure, there's much about our society that's in need of reshaping, but none of the changes listed above are among them. In my opinion, at least, achieving any of the items on the list would be at best harmful and at worst calamitous.


Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Change We Could Believe in

When people don't pay income taxes they have little stake in the economic health of the nation and a lot of incentive to vote for whatever politicians will keep their tax at zero. In the U.S. approximately half of wage-earners pay no income tax at all, while ten percent of wage-earners account for 70% of tax revenue.

Students of government going all the way back to Plato have pointed out that no polity can sustain itself when people who don't pay taxes are able to vote to tax the wealthier citizens in order to provide them with the amenities of life. When the less wealthy have access to the public purse it won't be long until they clean it out, which is what we've done in this country.

Former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer compares the tax burden in the U.S. to an inverted pyramid with the narrow top 10% supporting the rest of the structure. Such a pyramid poised on the point is inherently unstable and so is our tax structure.

Fleischer argues that everyone who earns anything should be required to pay something and he's right. I have not yet come across a cogent objection to the Flat Tax plan that would assess everyone who has an income a particular percentage (say, 20%) with no deductions and few exceptions.

Another intriguing proposal is the Fair Tax.

Whatever plan is adopted it's clear that the current system is unworkable. If a sizable portion of the president's cabinet selections, including the secretary of the Treasury (Timothy Geithner), plus much of Congress, including the chairman of the committee that writes the tax code (Charley Rangel), can't figure out what they owe then the code needs to be overhauled.

That would be the sort of meaningful change that we could actually believe in.


Salient Details

Every report I've seen or heard about the horrible abduction and murder of 8 year-old Sandra Cantu has mentioned that her killer, Melissa Huckaby, was a Sunday School teacher and pastor's daughter. I'm not sure why the media feels this is a salient detail that the public should be aware of unless they just can't resist an opportunity to stick a thumb in the eye of Christians. After all, how many times are the religious associations, or lack thereof, of any of the mass murderers who've befouled our society from the Columbine killers to the most recent shooting in the immigration office at Binghamton, NY featured on the evening news? Are we ever told how many of these killers are, say, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, or atheists?

Let a putative Christian do something horrific, however, and the person's faith is almost certain to be made an explicit part of the story, as if to impress upon us that Christians are just as bad as everyone else and that Christianity makes no difference in one's moral life.

Perhaps I'm misjudging the media's motives. Perhaps they reported Ms Huckaby's religious background because they thought it an anomaly that someone of her persuasion would do something so terrible. It's possible. It's possible that the media don't report the religious stance of those who commit similar horrors because, well, because most of them have no religious stance and their crimes are really not so surprising given that fact.

Even so, I propose that from now forward every murderer's religious beliefs be made an integral part of the news accounts of his or her atrocities. It'll be interesting to see the results in print, although anyone who thinks about it can predict what they'll be.