Thursday, January 13, 2011

Didn't Take Long

The President himself hit all the right notes in his speech at Tucson last night, but apparently his call to refrain from using the tragedy as an opportunity to seek partisan advantage has gone unheeded by members of his own party. Within hours of the President's address at the memorial service for the slain and wounded, an address in which he wisely admonished us to make sure that our discussions and debates about this tragedy not be "on the usual plane of politics and point scoring and pettiness that drifts away with the next news cycle", Democrats were criticizing Republican House Speaker John Boehner for not making the trip to Arizona.

Oh, well. The comity was nice while it lasted.

What's Wrong with this Article?

Princeton philosopher Peter Singer writes a compelling piece at The Philosopher's Magazine urging us all to do more to save suffering children in the third world. There's just one problem.

Before we get to the problem, though, read Singer's lede and his conclusion:
Imagine you come across a small child who has fallen into a pond and is in danger of drowning. You know that you can easily and safely rescue him, but you are wearing an expensive pair of shoes that will be ruined if you do. It would be wrong – monstrous, in fact – to walk on past the pond, leaving the child to drown, because you don’t want to have to buy a new pair of shoes. You can’t compare a child’s life with a pair of shoes!

Yet while we all say that it would be wrong to walk past the child there are other children whose lives we could save just as easily – and yet we don’t. UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund, estimates that nearly 9 million children under 5 die each year from causes related to poverty. That’s 24,000 a day – a football stadium full of young children, dying every day (along with thousands of older children and adults who die from poverty every day as well). Some die because they don’t have enough to eat or clean water to drink. More die from measles, malaria, diarrhea and pneumonia – diseases that don’t exist in developed nations, or if they do, are easily cured and rarely fatal....

As people with more than enough, we have a moral obligation to help those who, through no fault of their own, are living in extreme poverty. It’s not hard to do.
Do you see anything wrong with what Singer's arguing here? Here's a hint, Singer is an atheist.

On what conceivable grounds does Singer base his assertion that it would be "monstrous" to ignore the drowning child? On what grounds does he insist that we have a moral obligation to help those living in poverty?

What Singer and other atheists often do is piggyback on the Christian belief that a duty is imposed upon us by God to help the poor. He appeals to that sense of duty, tries to reinforce it and get us to live up to it, but at the same time he rejects the existence of the only being which can be a source of the duty - God.

For thinkers like Singer, allowing the child to drown offends his own personal value system (which is a little odd inasmuch as the man is famous for advocating infanticide), but his value system is an arbitrary set of preferences that apply to no one else unless they, too, choose to have the same preferences. When he says that it's monstrous to allow the child to drown all he's saying is that he doesn't like such decisions and he wishes people wouldn't make them. What he can't say is that the decision is objectively wrong.

When he speaks of a moral obligation we all have to help the poor he's talking nonsense - rather like saying we all have a moral obligation to like blue more than green. If moral values are merely matters of personal taste how could one man's preference possibly be obligatory for another man?

Atheists are somewhat like con-artists. They talk about objective moral values and duties and hope that no one will ever ask them to explain how there can be such things in a world in which there is no transcendent moral authority. Then, having hung these values in mid-air, so to speak, they turn around and chide Christians for believing that moral values are rooted in the Creator of the cosmos.

A famous example of the irrationality of this is the story of atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell who had been expounding his view that there are no objectively binding moral values. Then, mere minutes later, he was fiercely denouncing to his listeners a man he described as a "scoundrel".

It's sheer nonsense to claim that in a world without God anything at all could be morally "monstrous" or that we have an obligation to help people we don't even know. It's disingenuous for a non-theist to employ moral language that only a theist can rationally use. Even so, despite the irrationality of it all, atheists are fond of cloaking themselves in the mantle of reason while lecturing the rest of us on our moral obligations. We shouldn't let them get away with it.

Saving Our Cities

During the 60s and 70s many of our cities devolved into cauldrons of crime, poverty, and terror. Heather MacDonald at City Journal argues, in a column that everyone concerned about the poor and the condition of our cities simply must read, that the decay of our communities and the demoralization of our people were not accidents. They were the result of the adoption by policy-makers of a nest of liberal assumptions about human nature and sociology that the experience of three decades of urban life have amply demonstrated to be manifestly false.

MacDonald opens her column with this:
Conservative ideas are responsible for the two great urban-policy successes of the last quarter-century: the breathtaking drops in crime and in welfare dependency since the early 1990s. You’d never know it from members of the opinion elite, however, who have rarely recognized these successes, much less their provenance.

So let’s recapitulate an epic battle about the foundations of social order, a battle that had not just a clear winner but also a clear loser: the liberal policy prescriptions for cities that many opinion makers and politicians still embrace. New York has been at the center of this battle because so many of the bad ideas that wreaked havoc on cities hatched there. Fortunately, so did many of the antidotes.
What were those bad ideas? MacDonald elaborates:
Liberal urban policy was based on several core assumptions. Number One: multigenerational poverty was the result of structural forces—above all, of rapacious capitalism and racism. It could never be the result of bad decision-making or a deficit of personal responsibility. Number Two: though men were still, alas, required for conceiving a child, they were purely optional for raising one. (Corollary: the role of illegitimacy in creating and perpetuating poverty could never be acknowledged.) Number Three: low-wage work was demeaning and pointless. It was better to receive a monthly welfare check than to labor at an entry-level job. Number Four: crime was an understandable and inevitable reaction to economic injustice and discrimination. (Corollary: the police could not lower crime; only government social programs and wealth-redistribution schemes could.)

Together, these four conceits composed the most dangerous idea of all: that the bourgeois values of order, self-discipline, and respect for the law were decorative afterthoughts to prosperity, rather than its very precondition.
In the balance of the essay, which I would love to post in its entirety if only it wouldn't violate blog etiquette, MacDonald talks about how city governments finally realized that ideas that sounded good in college classrooms had failed in the crucible of real life. After billions of dollars were wasted and thousands of lives lost, liberalism was shown to be an utter disaster.

Whatever you had planned for the next five minutes put it on hold, go to the link, and read MacDonald's article. Nothing could better illustrate why conservatives believe liberal nostrums should be avoided like they were carrying HIV.