Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Vicious Smear Campaigns

This is bizarre. Van Jones, President Obama's recently-resigned Green Jobs czar, claims that health care reform opponents are responsible for his resignation:

"On the eve of historic fights for health care and clean energy, opponents of reform have mounted a vicious smear campaign against me," Jones wrote. "They are using lies and distortions to distract and divide."

Lies and distortions? All anyone did was show his signature on a 9/11 "truther" petition, quote his own words about being a Leninist revolutionary and black nationalist, and play the audio tapes of him insulting whites and Republicans. Apparently, for lefties like Jones telling people what he actually believes is a "vicious smear campaign," and quoting him is to "lie and distort." Pretty funny.

Now it would be nice to engage in a similar "vicious smear campaign" to get rid of a couple of other "czars" starting with John Holdren and Hugo Chavez booster Mark Lloyd. All that needs to be done is to show the American people, honestly, fairly, and without rancor, what these guys stand for and let the people give voice to whether they want such individuals working at taxpayers' expense, accountable to no one, in the White House.


The Evolution of Morality

Robert Wright is an atheist who argues that there is a moral law that somehow pervades the universe and which obligates us to do "right." P.Z. Myers is an atheist who sees things, at least this thing, much differently. Here's Myers:

Nope, says I. First, there is no moral law: the universe is a nasty, heartless place where most things wouldn't mind killing you if you let them. No one is compelled to be nice; you or anyone could go on a murder spree, and all that is stopping you is your self-interest (it is very destructive to your personal bliss to knock down your social support system) and the self-interest of others, who would try to stop you. There is nothing 'out there' that imposes morality on you, other than local, temporary conditions, a lot of social enculturation, and probably a bit of genetic hardwiring that you've inherited from ancestors who lived under similar conditions.

Other than changing the word "compelled" to "obligated" I agree with what Myers writes. Given his atheism he's absolutely correct to conclude that there is no moral law. There's no right or wrong, there's no moral obligation, there are just things that people do. An atheist, as Myers implies, has absolutely no grounds for believing in moral obligation or for making moral judgments.

Wright thinks otherwise:

[E]volutionary psychologists have developed a plausible account of the moral sense. They say it is in large part natural selection's way of equipping people to play non-zero-sum games - games that can be win-win if the players cooperate or lose-lose if they don't.

So, for example, feelings of guilt over betraying a friend are with us because during evolution sustaining friendships brought benefits through the non-zero-sum logic of one hand washing the other ("reciprocal altruism"). Friendless people tend not to thrive.

Be this as it may, it does nothing to explain why we're doing something wrong if we choose not to cooperate with others. Even if evolution has given us a moral sense, so what? That's hardly a reason why we should adhere to it. Evolution has given us wisdom teeth, too, but that doesn't mean that we need them.

Wright continues:

Well, a moral sense seems to emerge when you take a smart, articulate species and throw in reciprocal altruism. And evolution has proved creative enough to harness the logic of reciprocal altruism again and again.

Vampire bats share blood with one another, and dolphins swap favors, and so do monkeys. Is it all that unlikely that, even if humans had been wiped out a few million years ago, eventually a species with reciprocal altruism would reach an intellectual and linguistic level at which reciprocal altruism fostered moral intuitions and moral discourse?

This is all pretty interesting, but, even so, it's not at all clear to me that people are naturally altruistic. They seem much more obviously to be naturally egoistic. If we are what we are through evolution then evolution has shaped us to be self-centered and selfish.

But even if we grant Wright's argument that we've evolved to be altruistic how is this an argument for moral obligation? If people don't cooperate with others all that we can conclude is that they don't carry the genes for it. We can't conclude that they're doing anything wrong. Nor can we say that because blind, impersonal forces have caused us to tend toward mutual cooperation that therefore we're obligated to cooperate with others. That's as ridiculous as saying that because nature has given us facial hair we're obligated not to shave it off.

Evolution (maybe) can explain why humans behave the way they do, but it cannot "demand" that we ought or ought not to behave that way. It cannot provide a ground for saying that some choices are right and others wrong. Nor can it provide a ground for saying that people are morally obligated to do what helps others. Only God can impose moral obligation, and if there is no God then P.Z. Myers is right.


Why People Think There'll Be Death Panels

On FOX News Sunday DNC Chairman Howard Dean repeated the charge that opponents of Democratic health care reform proposals are fabricating the idea of "death panels," and that there are no such entities in the Democrats' proposals.

The problem with this is that it's certain that if those proposals pass there will be rationing of care and that the rationing will impact medicare recipients especially hard. In other words, the government agency given the authority to decide who gets care and who doesn't and on what basis will function pretty much as a panel which will make life or deazth decisions for people. Just because the words "death panel" don't appear in any of the bills doesn't mean that, for all practical purposes, such entities will exist if the bills become law.

Jennifer Rubin at PajamasMedia explains that despite the outrage of liberal pundits over Sarah Palin's reference to "death panels" a lot of President Obama's supporters are letting the cat out of the bag as the discussion on health care has proceeded through the month of August. She writes:

As for Obama, a candid Mickey Kaus observes: "I can't help but feel that the reason the president doesn't effectively rebut the 'rationing' argument is that he kind of believes we have to move toward rationing. But couldn't he fake it?" Well, Obama would have to fake it and muzzle a great number of his own advisors who seem to think there's nothing wrong with limiting care for all of us and, specifically, pulling the plug on the grandmas and grandpas who account for a disproportionate amount of health care spending.

It's interesting that Kaus, an Obama supporter, seems to think that Obama should essentially lie about his intentions, but never mind that. Rubin continues:

Obama, for example, would have to hush up Rahm Emanuel's brother Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, one of the president's health care advisors. He too is all in favor of cutting off care to those whose days are limited and whose medical expenses are high. The Wall Street Journal reported on Dr. Emanuel:

True reform, he argues, must include redefining doctors' ethical obligations. In the June 18, 2008, issue of JAMA, Dr. Emanuel blames the Hippocratic Oath for the "overuse" of medical care: "Medical school education and post-graduate education emphasize thoroughness," he writes. "This culture is further reinforced by a unique understanding of professional obligations, specifically the Hippocratic Oath's admonition to 'use my power to help the sick to the best of my ability and judgment' as an imperative to do everything for the patient regardless of cost or effect on others."

Dr. Emanuel thinks we need to stop all this chatter about the worth of the individual. Instead we should focus on communal needs. And he has just the scheme for allocating scare resources. Dr. Emanuel describes his ghoulishly named "complete lives" system:

"When implemented, the complete lives system produces a priority curve on which individuals aged roughly 15 and 40 years get the most substantial chance, whereas the youngest and oldest people get chances that are attenuated." ... Dr. Emanuel concedes that his plan appears to discriminate against older people, but he explains: "Unlike allocation by sex or race, allocation by age is not invidious discrimination. ... Treating 65-year-olds differently because of stereotypes or falsehoods would be ageist; treating them differently because they have already had more life-years is not."

If Mr. Obama wants to end concerns about "death panels" he should stop surrounding himself with people who favor doing exactly what "death panels" would do - ration care to the elderly based on actuarial tables.

My own octogenarian mother needed to have a heart valve replaced and medicare picked up the tab. Given that she was in her eighties it's doubtful that people who share Ezekiel Emanuel's views would have approved such a procedure, at least if medicare would be paying for it. My mother's operation was five years ago, and she's still going strong, walking several miles each day. If she hadn't had it she'd be dead. Any bureaucrats who make the decision as to whether medicare will pay for an operation that makes the difference between life and death would indeed constitute a "death panel," and for Howard Dean, or anyone else, to obfuscate this is simply deceitful.