Thursday, April 27, 2017

Dubious Heritage

Quick question: If you had to name the political party in the U.S. which has historically been home to supporters of forced sterilization and other eugenicist schemes would you pick A. Republican or B. Democrat? If you answered B. give yourself an attaboy.

From The Federalist:
Most people close their eyes to unpleasantness in their past. Political movements do the same thing on a grander scale. Nowhere is this truer than in the willful blindness of twenty-first-century progressives to their early twentieth-century counterparts’ embrace of eugenics.

Eugenics, the theory that social policies must be enacted to cull the “bad genes” from society, was popular among progressives across the developed world, including the United States. What constituted “bad genes” was, according to its proponents, a matter of scientific consensus. Today we would call it racism and classism.

After seeing the end result of such ideas in the Holocaust, progressives naturally sought to bury their connection to this genocidal concept, and succeeded in doing so, at least when they can discredit conservatives who persist in mentioning it. That problem bubbled to the surface last week when Bloomberg’s economist and writer Noah Smith tweeted, “Apparently some people believe that eugenics was the scientific consensus 100 years ago. Sounds like a total myth to me.”

That historical denialism did not go unnoticed. The editors of The New Atlantis, among others, pointed out the dangerous historical ignorance at work in that statement. Indeed, they went further than Smith and cracked a book or two to back up their points.
So what did the New Atlantis come up with?
Citing from Edwin Black’s 2003 book, “War Against the Weak,” they described the scientific consensus on eugenics, with eugenicists “firmly entrenched in the biology, zoology, social science, psychology and anthropology departments of the nation’s leading institutions of higher learning.” The belief trickled down to high schools. A 1914 biology textbook, “A Civic Biology,” written by George William Hunter and issued by the nation’s largest book publisher, held that:
When people marry, there are certain things that the individual as well as the race should demand. The most important of these is freedom from germ diseases which might be handed down to the offspring. […] epilepsy and feeble-mindedness are handicaps which it is not only unfair but criminal to hand down to posterity. The science of being well-born is called eugenics.
In case it is not clear what the author means, he goes on to describe what should be done about families that are not practitioners of “the science of being well-born.”
Hundreds of families such as those described above exist to-day, spreading disease, immorality, and crime to all parts of this country. The cost to society of such families is very severe. Just as certain animals or plants become parasitic on other plants or animals, these families have become parasitic on society. They not only do harm to others by corrupting, stealing, or spreading disease, but they are actually protected and cared for by the state out of public money…. They take from society, but they give nothing in return. They are true parasites.

If such people were lower animals, we would probably kill them off to prevent them from spreading. Humanity will not allow this, but we do have the remedy of separating the sexes in asylums or other places and in various ways preventing intermarriage and the possibilities of perpetuating such a low and degenerate race. Remedies of this sort have been tried successfully in Europe, and are now meeting with success in this country.
There's much else in the Federalist article in this vein. The subtext, usually tacit rather than explicit, is that the people most in need of sterilization were minorities, and the people who held these views were the ideological grandparents of today's progressive left. It's not a heritage in which one can take much pride.

The article concludes with this:
Planned Parenthood’s founder, Margaret Sanger, was a leading eugenicist. In 1921, she wrote that “the unbalance between the birth rate of the ‘unfit’ and the ‘fit’ [is] admittedly the greatest present menace to civilization” and that “the most urgent problem today is how to limit and discourage the over-fertility of the mentally and physically defective.” Time magazine sought to put this fact in context in a 2016 article, noting that in “the 1920s and 1930s, eugenics enjoyed widespread support from mainstream doctors, scientists and the general public.” Yes, yes it did.

Everything about 1910s and ‘20s progressives echoes in their modern intellectual descendants a century later. Absolute trust in government to do what is right. Certitude in their own scientific correctness, despite having seen “settled science” become unsettled with each generation. Knowing what is best for their fellow citizens, and the willingness to use force to overrule doubt and dissent....But most of all, there is the repeated theme, the fervent belief that some people are not people, not really, not in any way that would make them deserve rights and liberty.
The left is not only currently threatening free speech on university campuses, it has historically been the strongest advocate of racist eugenics ideas. Put those two together and it's easier to understand why people talk about liberal fascism.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

The Templeton Prize

It has recently been announced that philosopher Alvin Plantinga has been awarded the prestigious Templeton Prize for 2017. The prize is valued at about $1.4 million, is one of the world's largest annual awards given to an individual and honors a living person who has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works.

Plantinga is certainly worthy of the award and indeed, some of his fellow philosophers have thought it was long overdue. One of his more recent accomplishments has been his argument that there is a serious conflict between naturalism and evolution, but that theism actually supports evolution or is compatible with it.

The article at the link offers a brief summary of Plantinga's argument:
In contrast to the common claim that evolution is incompatible with theism, the EAAN (Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism) asserts that evolution is incompatible with naturalism. In standard evolutionary theory, traits of organisms are selected for because they facilitate survival and reproduction.

Plantinga shows that belief forming capacities can be perfectly adaptive even when the beliefs that they generate are false. As a result, if the only explanation for the formation of our belief forming capacities are random trait variation and natural selection, then it is unlikely that belief forming capacities are truth conducive (since there are many more ways to have false-but-adaptive beliefs than there are true beliefs). But it is incoherent to affirm that one’s beliefs are most likely false. As a result, it is incoherent to affirm evolution and naturalism and thus one must surrender one of these beliefs.

In his 2011 book, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism, he challenged the militant atheism and materialism that he found in the sciences. He argued that the real conflict is not between science and religion but between theism and naturalism – theism supports science while naturalism undermines it.
Plantinga is probably most famous for the revolution he wrought in philosophical epistemology with his trilogy of books defending the proposition that belief in God is rational and justified apart from evidence. It is, in other words, a properly basic belief, like one's belief that other people have minds, that one has free will, or that one is experiencing the color red. One is justified in holding these beliefs until confronted with a compelling defeater for them. In the same way, one is rationally justified in believing in God, if one does, in lieu of a compelling defeater for that belief. If no such defeater can be adduced one's theistic belief is perfectly rational.

This may not seem like such an extraordinary argument (although it took three books to establish it), but it was ground-breaking back in the 1970s and 80s when many philosophers simply assumed that theistic belief was irrational.

There's much more at the link on Plantinga, his life, work, and the Templeton prize.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The Decline of the West

David Brooks at The New York Times offers some thoughtful opinions on the vigor and viability of Western civilization. Much of what he writes is insightful, but unfortunately some of it, I think, misses the mark. 

Let's look at what I think he gets right first. He begins by describing the traditional narrative of Western civilization:
This narrative was confidently progressive. There were certain great figures, like Socrates, Erasmus, Montesquieu and Rousseau, who helped fitfully propel the nations to higher reaches of the humanistic ideal.

This Western civ narrative came with certain values — about the importance of reasoned discourse, the importance of property rights, the need for a public square that was religiously informed but not theocratically dominated. It set a standard for what great statesmanship looked like. It gave diverse people a sense of shared mission and a common vocabulary, set a framework within which political argument could happen and most importantly provided a set of common goals.

Starting decades ago, many people, especially in the universities, lost faith in the Western civilization narrative. They stopped teaching it, and the great cultural transmission belt broke. Now many students, if they encounter it, are taught that Western civilization is a history of oppression.
This neglect has had far-reaching effects:
The first consequence has been the rise of the illiberals, authoritarians who not only don’t believe in the democratic values of the Western civilization narrative, but don’t even pretend to believe in them....
Brooks focusses on authoritarians on the global stage, but then notes that the authoritarian spirit pervades much of the discourse on our modern campuses as well:
Finally, there has been the collapse of liberal values at home. On American campuses, fragile thugs who call themselves students shout down and abuse speakers on a weekly basis. To read Heather MacDonald’s account of being pilloried at Claremont McKenna College is to enter a world of chilling intolerance.

In America, the basic fabric of civic self-government seems to be eroding following the loss of faith in democratic ideals. According to a study published in The Journal of Democracy, the share of young Americans who say it is absolutely important to live in a democratic country has dropped from 91 percent in the 1930s to 57 percent today. The faith in the West collapsed from within. It’s amazing how slow people have been to rise to defend it....liberalism has been docile in defense of itself.
Perhaps the docility to which he refers is due to the fact that so many liberals seem to have lost confidence in their ability to make value judgments. For many liberal/progressives it's at best impolite and at worst culturally imperialistic to assert that some ways of life are better than others, that some systems of governance are superior to others, that a culture that produces Mozart, Bach and modern medicine is superior to a culture that produces nothing but increasingly innovative ways to murder people. 

Claims such as these are deemed hubristic by many moderns. They constitute an offense against the spirit of multiculturalism. Even so, they're still true for all that, even if many contemporary liberals, unlike their ideological forefathers, no longer have the heart to assert and defend them.

Brooks closes with this admonition:
These days, the whole idea of Western civ is assumed to be reactionary and oppressive. All I can say is, if you think that was reactionary and oppressive, wait until you get a load of the world that comes after it.
On all of that I think Brooks is largely correct. I think he veers off track a bit, though, in two places in his column. In one of these he says the following:
While running for office, Donald Trump violated every norm of statesmanship built up over these many centuries, and it turned out many people didn’t notice or didn’t care.
Well, this may be partly true, but it seems to imply that Trump won mostly because people who voted for him didn't care that he was boorish and crude.

I don't think this is quite right. People voted for him despite his manifest shortcomings because they deemed him a much better choice than Mrs. Clinton who was in any case just as crude, boorish and corrupt as Trump, if not moreso. Bernie Sanders was correct when he said recently that Trump didn't win so much as Hillary lost.

If Trump was a sexual predator Hillary Clinton defended sexual predators, including her husband, smearing her husband's accusers in the process. If Trump was a liar Hillary was just as bad, if not worse, lying to the American public about why their fellow Americans lost their lives in Benghazi, for example. For most people, though, the critical difference was that Hillary would have continued President Obama's slide toward socialism, open borders, and the arrant political correctness that so many Americans find objectionable. Mr. Trump, his juvenile behavior and ugly outbursts notwithstanding, at least offered those voters hope that that slide would be arrested and reversed.

Brooks also implies that Trump is an authoritarian leader like "Putin, Erdogan, el-Sisi, Xi Jinping, Kim Jong-un." For reasons I wrote about here, I disagree. Trump can be criticized for many things, but so far, at least, he hasn't shown many signs of being an authoritarian, and certainly not an authoritarian like the men Brooks lists him with.

An authoritarian seeks to arrogate power to himself and his government. Trump has done the opposite, seeking to devolve more power to the states. His appointment of a strict constitutional constructionist to the Supreme Court is telling evidence that he's not striving to concentrate power in his office but is chiefly concerned with re-establishing the rule of law and the separation of powers.

In any case, Brooks' column is worth perusing and I urge readers to check it out at the link.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Stop Digging

Democrats (and everybody else, probably) are doubtless stunned by the news that a recent WaPo/ABC poll shows that if there was a do-over election today Donald Trump would still beat Hillary Clinton by a 43-40 margin. In fact, he'd not only win the electoral college but he'd also win the popular vote:
Despite the public’s skepticism of Trump’s first 100 days, the survey finds little evidence voters would render a different verdict from last November, when Trump won key states needed to secure victory in the electoral college despite Clinton winning more votes nationwide.

The new survey finds 46 percent saying they [originally] voted for Clinton and 43 percent for Trump, similar to her two-point national vote margin. Asked how they would vote if the election were held today, 43 say they would support Trump and 40 percent say Clinton.
Add to this dispiriting news the finding in the same poll, a poll weighted toward Democrats (31% - D, 24% - R, 36% - I), that 67% of respondents feel that the Democratic party is out of touch with them (Republicans didn't fare much better with 62% saying that the GOP is out of touch) and things must be pretty gloomy at DNC headquarters.

Nevertheless, DNC chair Tom Perez has chosen to deepen the melancholy and put his party even further out of touch by announcing that there's no room in the Democratic party for pro-life candidates. Here's an excerpt from a story in the HuffPo:
Democratic National Committee chairman Tom Perez became the first head of the party to demand ideological purity on abortion rights, promising Friday to support only Democratic candidates who back a woman’s right to choose.

“Every Democrat, like every American, should support a woman’s right to make her own choices about her body and her health,” Perez said in a statement. “That is not negotiable and should not change city by city or state by state.”

“At a time when women’s rights are under assault from the White House, the Republican Congress, and in states across the country,” he added, “we must speak up for this principle as loudly as ever and with one voice.”
To be sure, this declaration will certainly please the party elites on both coasts, but what effect will it have on rank and file pro-life African-Americans and Hispanics whose support for the Democratic party is already teetering? Twenty eight percent of Democrats are pro-life. How many of them will decide that maybe it's time for a divorce from a party that doesn't really represent their convictions on a matter of deep importance to many of them?

I also wonder whether the DNC will make an exception for elected officials like Pennsylvania senator Bob Casey who is ostensibly a pro-life Catholic, but who is also a reliable Democratic vote in the senate. I suspect Casey has already been on the phone to Perez asking him what in the world he thinks he's doing by alienating these voters and making life difficult for politicians like himself.

The first rule when your party is digging itself into a hole is to stop digging. Apparently Mr. Perez isn't yet ready to put down the shovel.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Naturalism and Ethics

VJ Torley at Uncommon Descent comments on a passage from Thomas Huxley's essay Evolution and Ethics (1893) in which Huxley, otherwise known as "Darwin's bulldog," puts his finger on one of the chief difficulties with trying to establish a naturalistic basis for ethics. One popular candidate for such a ground is the evolution of our species, but Huxley, his arrant fealty to Darwinian evolution notwithstanding, illuminates the hopelessness of this strategy:
The propounders of what are called the “ethics of evolution,” when the ‘evolution of ethics’ would usually better express the object of their speculations, adduce a number of more or less interesting facts and more or less sound arguments in favour of the origin of the moral sentiments, in the same way as other natural phenomena, by a process of evolution.

I have little doubt, for my own part, that they are on the right track; but as the immoral sentiments have no less been evolved, there is, so far, as much natural sanction for the one as the other. The thief and the murderer follow nature just as much as the philanthropist.

Cosmic evolution may teach us how the good and the evil tendencies of man may have come about; but, in itself, it is incompetent to furnish any better reason why what we call good is preferable to what we call evil than we had before.
Huxley's right, of course. If the inclination to be kind and tolerant has evolved in the human species then so has the inclination to be selfish, violent, and cruel. So if evolution is to serve as our "moral dictionary" what grounds do we have for privileging kindness over cruelty? Both are equally sanctioned by our evolutionary history and thus we can't say that either is better or more right than the other.

Huxley goes on to dispense with the notion that the evolutionary development of our ethical sensibility can provide us with some sort of guide to our behavior.
There is another fallacy which appears to me to pervade the so-called “ethics of evolution.” It is the notion that because, on the whole, animals and plants have advanced in perfection of organization by means of the struggle for existence and the consequent ‘survival of the fittest’; therefore men in society, men as ethical beings, must look to the same process to help them towards perfection.
The problem is that, for naturalists, the processes of nature are the only thing they can look to for moral guidance. Having rejected the notion that there exists a transcendent, personal, moral authority, the naturalist, if he's to avoid nihilism, is left trying to derive ethics from what he sees in nature, which leads to what I regard as the most serious problem with any naturalistic ethics: There's simply no warrant for thinking that a blind, impersonal process like evolution or a blind, impersonal substance like matter, can impose a moral duty on conscious beings.

Moral obligations, if they exist, can only be imposed by conscious, intelligent, moral authorities. Evolution can no more impose such an obligation than can gravity. Thus, naturalists (atheists) are confronted with a stark choice: Either give up their atheism or embrace moral nihilism. Unwilling to do what is for them unthinkable and accept the first alternative, many of them are reluctantly embracing the second.

Consider these three passages from three twentieth century philosophers:
I had been laboring under an unexamined assumption, namely that there is such a thing as right and wrong. I now believe there isn’t…The long and short of it is that I became convinced that atheism implies amorality; and since I am an atheist, I must therefore embrace amorality….

I experienced a shocking epiphany that religious believers are correct; without God there is no morality. But they are incorrect, I still believe, about there being a God. Hence, I believe, there is no morality….

Even though words like “sinful” and “evil” come naturally to the tongue as, say, a description of child molesting, they do not describe any actual properties of anything. There are no literal sins in the world because there is no literal God…nothing is literally right or wrong because there is no Morality. Joel Marks, An Amoral Manifesto


The world, according to this new picture [i.e. the picture produced by a scientific outlook], is purposeless, senseless, meaningless. Nature is nothing but matter in motion. The motions of matter are governed, not by any purpose, but by blind forces and laws….[But] if the scheme of things is purposeless and meaningless, then the life of man is purposeless and meaningless too. Everything is futile, all effort is in the end worthless. A man may, of course, still pursue disconnected ends, money fame, art, science, and may gain pleasure from them. But his life is hollow at the center. Hence, the dissatisfied, disillusioned, restless spirit of modern man….

Along with the ruin of the religious vision there went the ruin of moral principles and indeed of all values….If our moral rules do not proceed from something outside us in the nature of the universe - whether we say it is God or simply the universe itself - then they must be our own inventions. Thus it came to be believed that moral rules must be merely an expression of our own likes and dislikes. But likes and dislikes are notoriously variable. What pleases one man, people, or culture, displeases another. Therefore, morals are wholly relative. W.T. Stace, The Atlantic Monthly, 1948


We have not been able to show that reason requires the moral point of view, or that all really rational persons, unhoodwinked by myth or ideology, need not be individual egoists or amoralists….Reason doesn't decide here….The picture I have painted is not a pleasant one. Reflection on it depresses me….Pure reason will not take you to morality. Kai Nielson (1984)
What these thinkers and dozens like them are saying is that the project of trying to find some solid, naturalistic foundation upon which to build an ethics is like trying to find a mermaid. The object of the search simply doesn't exist, nor could it.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Nuclear Weapons

With things heating up on the Korean peninsula and the North Koreans threatening to "turn the US to ashes with a super-mighty preemptive strike" with their nuclear weapons it might be helpful to explain exactly what nuclear weapons are.

What, for example, is the difference between an atomic bomb and a hydrogen, or a thermonuclear, bomb?

Atomic bombs utilize nuclear fission to generate energy. Hydrogen bombs, also called thermonuclear bombs, utilize nuclear fusion. In fission, a nucleus of an atom of uranium or plutonium absorbs a stray neutron, becomes unstable, and splits apart, releasing energy and three more neutrons. These neutrons are absorbed by more nuclei causing more splitting (or fissioning) releasing more energy and more neutrons and within a fraction of a second there's a chain reaction in which all the atoms of the fuel are split. A mass of plutonium the size of grapefruit can produce the energy equivalent of 13,000 tons (13 kilotons) of TNT. This was the approximate yield of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.

Hydrogen bombs are even more powerful. The average hydrogen bomb has a yield of about 1 million tons (one megaton) of TNT, but some can produce as much as 50 megatons. This is about 4000 times more powerful than the Hiroshima blast.

These weapons rely on the energy released in the process of nuclear fusion. When hydrogen nuclei are forced together under great pressure they fuse and convert a small amount of mass into energy according to the equation E=MC^2. The pressure is generated by first producing a fission explosion. This generates enormous heat which in turn generates enormous pressure which forces the hydrogen nuclei together producing a fusion explosion. Thus, a hydrogen bomb is actually a combination of a fission and a fusion explosion. Because these weapons are triggered by the intense heat produced in a fission chain reaction they're called "thermonuclear" weapons.

This is video of a 1954 test of a 15 megaton weapon:
It's not clear whether the North Koreans have thermonuclear weapons or only fission weapons (which are bad enough). What most nuclear nations do is mount these weapons on missiles (called nuclear missile warheads) as well as drop them from planes as bombs, and this capability is what both North Korea and Iran are trying to achieve. If they're successful it'll have a seriously destabilizing effect on the world as all of their neighbors seek to develop their own arsenals to counter those of Iran and North Korea.

The enormous blast power of a single one megaton warhead can destroy an entire city. The radioactive fallout from the blast could kill tens of thousands more downwind from the blast. Such weapons in the hands of fanatics and madmen is a frightening prospect which is why so much of the world insists that neither Iran nor North Korea must be allowed to develop the capability to mount these weapons on missiles.

Unfortunately, it may take war to prevent them from obtaining those nuclear missiles.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Another Missile Strike?

According to the occasionally reliable DEBKAfile another American missile strike is imminent, but not, as one might expect, against the North Koreans. Here are some excerpts from their report:
The US Mediterranean fleet is moving into position ready for a decision to launch Tomahawk cruise missiles for a crushing assault on the Islamic State’s mountain strongholds in central Sinai, DEBKAfile’s military and counterterrorism sources report.

The prospective American missile attack in Sinai ...would have been discussed during the Egyptian President Abdul-Fatteh El-Sisi’s visit to the White House on April 3. He explained to his host, President Donald Trump, the immense difficulty of overcoming the Islamic State’s affiliate when its headquarters were dug into an interconnected web of tunnels and caves in the central Jabal (Mount) Halal of the peninsula.

Nicknamed the “Tora Bora of Sinai,” approach roads to this mountain fastness are few and far between....

The last Egyptian assault on ISIS’ towering mountain stronghold took place on April 2, shortly before El-Sisi traveled to Washington. The Egyptian military announced that 31 terrorists had been killed and a number of caves holding arms and ammunition destroyed.

But the damage was not devastating enough to disrupt the Islamist terrorists’ operations, DEBKAfile’s military sources report. Most of the terrorists escaped with the help of allied Bedouin tribesmen who, familiar with every nook and cranny in the desert peninsula, guided them to safety in new caves in Jabal Halal that were even more inaccessible to Egyptian troops.

Their new headquarters can only be destroyed by cruise missiles capable of exploding underground.
There's more at the link. The report also claims that a final decision to go ahead with a US missile assault on central Sinai rests with Defense Secretary James Mattis who arrived in Cairo yesterday, April 19.

I suppose we'll know soon enough what the results of Mattis' consultations with the Egyptians are.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Information Enigma

The skeptical philosopher David Hume, in arguing against the reasonableness of belief in miracles, famously declared that,
A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; and as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined....There must, therefore, be a uniform experience against every miraculous event otherwise the event would not merit that appellation. And as a uniform experience amounts to a proof, there is here a direct and full proof, from the nature of the fact, against the existence of any miracle....
Hume's definition of a miracle as a violation of the laws of nature is deeply problematic, but let that go for now (see here for a discussion of some of the problems with that definition). Hume goes on to say that,
The maxim, by which we commonly conduct ourselves in our reasonings, is that the objects of which we have no experience, resemble those of which we have; that what we have found to be most usual is always most probable; and that where there is an opposition of arguments, we ought to give the preference to such as are founded on the greatest number of past observations.
Hume would doubtless be aghast at the implications of this maxim (or rule) for the contemporary controversy over intelligent design. He employed the rule against belief in miracles, arguing that because we have an overwhelming experience against violations of the laws of nature we should reject any report that a "violation" occurred. If we grant Hume his rule (which I don't - the rule only entails skepticism of the report of a miracle, it doesn't warrant outright rejection of it) there's no reason not to apply it to the discovery over the last fifty years that the universe and life are both information-rich.

Couple that discovery with the fact that we have a uniform experience of information, whether in a library, on a hard drive, or wherever, being produced by intelligent minds, and it would seem that Hume would have to grant that we should believe that the information contained in biological cells and organisms must be the product of an intelligent mind. We have no experience, after all, of information being produced by random, impersonal processes and forces. Indeed, we have a uniform experience of random action degrades information and generates disorder.

Philosopher of science Stephen Meyer discusses the problem biological information poses for naturalistic evolution in this video:
Meyer also offers a critique of Hume's definition that a miracle is a violation of the laws of nature in this video:

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The New Moral Absolutism

The Atlantic's Jonathan Merritt argues that our culture's fling with moral relativism, a fling that's persisted for at least sixty years, is over. Borrowing from a column by the New York Times' David Brooks, Merritt maintains that, at least among Millenials, we're seeing what may be described as a New Absolutism. He may be right, but I think the absolutism he sees having descended upon us like a smog is not really an absolutism at all, but rather an emotivist power play.

I'll explain shortly, but first some excerpts from Merritt's column:
In The New York Times last week, David Brooks argued that while American college campuses were “awash in moral relativism” as late as the 1980s, a “shame culture” has now taken its place. The subjective morality of yesterday has been replaced by an ethical code that, if violated, results in unmerciful moral crusades on social media.

A culture of shame cannot be a culture of total relativism. One must have some moral criteria [by] which to decide if someone is worth shaming.

“Some sort of moral system is coming into place,” Brooks says. “Some new criteria now exist, which people use to define correct and incorrect action.”

America’s new moral code is much different than it was prior to the cultural revolution of the 1960s and 70s. Instead of being centered on gender roles, family values, respect for institutions and religious piety, it orbits around values like tolerance and inclusion. (This new code has created a paradoxical moment in which all is tolerated except the intolerant and all included except the exclusive.)

Although this new code is moral, it is not always designated as such. As Brooks said, “Talk of good and bad has to defer to talk about respect and recognition.”
To be sure, there's a new wave of moral absolutism sweeping academia which sees things like racism, sexism, support for Israel, and reservations about gay marriage and global warming as absolutely wrong, but to simply point this out and then conclude that relativism (actually a more accurate term here would be "moral subjectivism") is dead is to miss the fatal weakness lurking in the moral passion to which Merritt alludes.

That weakness lies in the fact that the moral fervor with which the above positions are often held on campus and in the media today has no ground in any objective moral referent. These positions are based on nothing more than the ardent feelings of those who hold them. As such they may be regarded as absolutes by those convinced of their rightness, but, if so, they are arbitrarily chosen absolutes, which is to say they're not really absolutes at all.

For any moral principle to be absolute it has to be objectively grounded in something which transcends one's own feelings, indeed which transcends humanity altogether. Otherwise, how do we adjudicate between the passionate feelings of one person and the passionate feelings of another? We can't, of course, unless we have some standard to which we can compare those disparate passions. Lacking such a standard, when we say something is wrong all we're saying is that it offends my personal preferences, to which someone might well ask, "Why should your preferences be the standard of right and wrong for everyone else?"

The new moral absolutism to which Merritt and Brooks advert is not absolutism at all. It's simply a form of narcissistic subjectivism, or egoism, which presumes that anything which transgresses my personal moral preferences is wrong for everyone and anyone to do.

You, let's say, think it's right to help the poor. I, let's say, think we should adopt social Darwinism and let the poor fend for themselves. You insist I'm wrong. I ask why am I wrong? You say because I'm being selfish and greedy. I ask why selfishness and greed are wrong. You say because they hurt people. I ask why it's wrong to hurt people. You reply that I wouldn't want people to hurt me. I respond that that's true but it's not a reason why I should care about hurting others. You give up on me, judging me hopelessly immoral, but what you haven't succeeded in doing is explaining why it's wrong to let the poor suffer. You've simply given expression to your own subjective feelings about the matter.

For there to be any objective moral duties there has to be a transcendent moral authority from which (or whom) all moral goodness is derived. Take away that authority, as our secular society seems eager to do, and all we're left with is emotivism - people insisting that their emotional reactions to events are "right" and contrary reactions are "wrong," but lacking any non-arbitrary basis for making such judgments.

This is not to say that if one believes in a transcendent authority, a God, that one will know what's right. Nor is it to say that even if one knows what's right one will do what's right. What it is to say is that unless there is a God, or something very much like God, there simply is no objective right or wrong, and certainly no absolute moral duties.

As any meaningful belief in God fades from our social and cultural landscape belief in good and evil, right and wrong, will also fade until it's as insubstantial as the grin of the Cheshire cat in Alice in Wonderland:

Monday, April 17, 2017


No doubt there are good reasons to be wary of President Trump. There were good reasons, indeed, to be wary of President Obama and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, but this level of viciousness and vitriol should have no place in our community, especially coming from a university professor:
A history professor at California State University, Fresno, appears to have advocated for the death of President Donald Trump on Twitter.

Tweets from an account purportedly operated by Professor Lars Maischak call for Trump to “hang” in order to “save American democracy,” and say the only “cure” for racist people is a bullet to their head. The account is not verified, although the bio and interactions between the user and other Twitter users indicate it belongs to the professor.

“To save American democracy, Trump must hang,” Professor Lars Maischak appears to have tweeted in February. “The sooner and the higher, the better. #TheResistance #DeathToFascism.”

“Has anyone started soliciting money and design drafts for a monument honoring the Trump assassin, yet?” the user wrote in another tweet a few days later, along with the hashtag “TheResistance.”

And in another: “#TheResistance #ethniccleansing Justice = The execution of two Republicans for each deported immigrant.”

The user has also said “mercy towards racists” is a “fatal weakness” of Americans.

“#TheResistance Mercy towards racists was always the fatal weakness of good Americans,” he tweeted. “1865, 1965, they left too many of them alive.”
There's more in this vein from the good professor at the link. It would be amusing were it not so pathetic that one of the biggest criticisms of President Trump by his opponents is that he is "a hater" yet so much of the protest against his administration has been characterized by much more hatred than Mr. Trump has ever displayed.

I'm sure there are individuals who despise President Obama and the Democrats, and I'm sure some of them issued disgusting tweets, but I can't imagine that had a prominent intellectual, a university educator, tweeted something this obscene about Mr. Obama or his supporters he'd be permitted to keep his job. Nor should he have been.

Vengeful rhetoric which encourages murder and violence should be condemned by all decent people on the left and on the right, and those who employ such language in our politics should be marginalized as mentally disturbed cranks, even as we pity them for allowing the corrosive acid of hatred to eat away at their hearts.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Resurrections and Other Miracles

The Christian world celebrates tomorrow what much of the rest of the Western world finds literally incredible, the revivification of a man 2000 years ago who had been dead for several days. Modernity finds such an account simply unbelievable. It would be a miracle if such a thing happened, moderns tell us, and in a scientific age everyone knows that miracles don't happen.

If pressed to explain how, exactly, science has made belief in miracles obsolete and how the modern person knows that miracles don't happen, the skeptic will often fall back on an argument first articulated by the Scottish philosopher David Hume (d.1776). Hume wrote that miracles are a violation of the laws of nature and as a firm and unalterable experience tells us that there has never been a violation of the laws of nature it follows that any report of a miracle is most likely to be false. Thus, since we should always believe what is most probable, and since any natural explanation of an alleged miracle is more probable than that a law of nature was broken, we are never justified in believing that a miracle occurred.

It has often been pointed out that Hume's argument suffers from the circularity of basing the claim that reports of miracles are not reliable upon the belief that there's never been a reliable report of one. However, we can only conclude that there's never been a reliable report of one if we know a priori that all historical reports are false, and we can only know that if we know that miracles are impossible. But we can only know they're impossible if we know that all reports of miracles are unreliable.

But set that dizzying circularity aside. Set aside, too, the fact that one can say that miracles don't happen only if one can say with certainty that there is no God.

Let's look instead at the claim that miracles are prohibitively improbable because they violate the laws of nature.

A law of nature is simply a description of how nature operates whenever we observe it. The laws are often statistical. I.e. if molecules of hot water are added to a pot of molecules of cold water the molecules will tend to eventually distribute themselves evenly throughout the container so that the water achieves a uniform temperature. It would be extraordinarily improbable, though not impossible, nor a violation of any law, for the hot molecules on one occasion to segregate themselves all on one side of the pot.

Similarly, miracles may not violate the natural order at all. Rather they may be highly improbable phenomena that would never be expected to happen in the regular course of events except for the intervention of Divine will. Like the segregation of warm water into hot and cold portions, the reversal of the process of bodily decomposition is astronomically improbable, but it's not impossible, and if it happened it wouldn't be a violation of any law.

The ironic thing about the skeptics' attitude toward the miracle of the resurrection of Christ is that they refuse to admit that there's good evidence for it because a miracle runs counter to their experience and understanding of the world. Yet they have no trouble believing other things that also run counter to their experience.

For example, modern skeptics have no trouble believing that living things arose from non-living chemicals, that the information-rich properties of life emerged by random chaos and chance, or that our extraordinarily improbable, highly-precise universe exists by fortuitous accident. They ground their belief in these things on the supposition that there could be an infinite number of different universes, none of which is observable, and in an infinite number of worlds even extremely highly improbable events are bound to happen.

Richard Dawkins, for example, rules out miracles because they are highly improbable, and then in the very next breath tells us that the naturalistic origin of life, which is at least just as improbable, is almost inevitable, given the vastness of time and space.

Unlimited time and/or the existence of an infinite number of worlds make the improbable inevitable, he and others argue. There's no evidence of other worlds, unfortunately, but part of the faith commitment of the modern skeptic is to hold that these innumerable worlds must exist. The skeptic clings to this conviction because if these things aren't so then life and the universe we inhabit must have a personal, rather than a mechanistic, explanation and that admission would deal a considerable metaphysical shock to his psyche.

Nevertheless, if infinite time and infinite worlds can be invoked to explain life and the cosmos, why can't they also be invoked to explain "miracles" as well? If there are a near-infinite series of universes, as has been proposed in order to avoid the problem of cosmic fine-tuning, then surely in all the zillions of universes of the multiverse landscape there has to be at least one in which a man capable of working miracles is born and himself rises from the dead. We just happen to be in the world in which it happens. Why should the multiverse hypothesis be able to explain the spectacularly improbable fine-tuning of the cosmos and the otherwise impossible origin of life but not a man rising from the dead?

For the person who relies on the multiverse explanation to account for the incomprehensible precision of the cosmic parameters and constants and for the origin of life from mere chemicals, the resurrection of a dead man should be no problem. Given enough worlds and enough time it's a cinch to happen.

No one who's willing to believe in a multiverse should be a skeptic about miracles. Indeed, no one who's willing to believe in the multiverse can think that anything at all is improbable. Given the multiverse everything that is not logically impossible must be inevitable.

Of course, the skeptic's real problem is not that a man rose from the dead but rather with the claim that God deliberately raised this particular man from the dead. That's what they find repugnant, but they can't admit that because in order to justify their rejection of the miracle of the Resurrection they'd have to be able to prove that there is no God, or that God's existence is at least improbable, and that sort of proof is beyond anyone's ability to accomplish.

If, though, one is willing to assume the existence of an infinite number of universes in order to explain the properties of our universe, why would he have trouble accepting that there's a Mind out there that's responsible for raising Jesus from the dead? After all, there's a lot more evidence for the latter than there is for the former.

Friday, April 14, 2017

A Parable for Good Friday

Some time ago I did a post based on a remark made by a woman named Tanya at another blog. I thought that Good Friday might be a good time to run the post again, slightly edited.

Tanya's comment was provoked by an atheist at the other blog who had issued a mild rebuke to his fellow non-believers for their attempts to use the occasion of Christian holidays to deride Christian belief. In so doing, he exemplified the sort of attitude toward those with whom he disagrees that one might wish all people, atheists and Christians alike, would adopt. Unfortunately, Tanya spoiled the mellow, can't-we-all-just-get-along, mood by manifesting a petulant asperity toward, and an unfortunate ignorance of, the traditional Christian understanding of the atonement.

She wrote:
I've lived my life in a more holy way than most Christians I know. If it turns out I'm wrong, and some pissy little whiner god wants to send me away just because I didn't worship him, even though I lived a clean, decent life, he can bite me. I wouldn't want to live in that kind of "heaven" anyway. So sorry.
Tanya evidently thinks that "heaven" is, or should be, all about living a "clean, decent life." Perhaps the following tale will illustrate the shallowness of her misconception:
Once upon a time there was a handsome prince who was deeply in love with a young woman. We'll call her Tanya. The prince wanted Tanya to come and live with him in the wonderful city his father, the king, had built, but Tanya wasn't interested in either the prince or the city. The city was beautiful and wondrous, to be sure, but the inhabitants weren't particularly fun to be around, and she wanted to stay out in the countryside where the wild things grow.

Even though the prince wooed Tanya with every gift he could think of, it was all to no avail. She wasn't smitten at all by the "pissy little whiner" prince. She obeyed the laws of the kingdom and paid her taxes and was convinced that that should be good enough to satisfy the king's demands.

Out beyond the countryside, however, dwelt dreadful, Orc-like creatures who hated the king and wanted nothing more than to be rid of him and his heirs. One day they learned of the prince's love for Tanya and set upon a plan. They snuck into her village, kidnapped Tanya, and sent a note to the king telling him that they would be willing to exchange her for the prince, but if their offer was refused they would kill Tanya.

The king, distraught beyond words, related the horrible news to the prince.

Despite all the rejections the prince had experienced from Tanya, he still loved her deeply, and his heart broke at the thought of her peril. With tears he resolved that he would do the Orcs' bidding. The father wept bitterly because the prince was his only son, but he knew that his love for Tanya would not allow him to let her suffer the torment to which the ugly people would surely subject her. The prince asked only that his father try his best to persuade Tanya to live safely in the beautiful city once she was ransomed.

And so the day came for the exchange, and the prince rode bravely and proudly bestride his mount out of the beautiful city to meet the ugly creatures. As he crossed an expansive meadow toward the camp of his mortal enemy he stopped to make sure they released Tanya. He waited until she was out of the camp, fleeing toward the safety of the king's city, oblivious in her near-panic that it was the prince himself she was running past as she hurried to the safety of the city walls. He could easily turn back now that Tanya was safe, but he had given his word that he would do the exchange, and the ugly people knew he would never go back on his word.

The prince continued stoically and resolutely into their midst, giving himself for Tanya as he had promised. Surrounding him, they pulled him from his steed, stripped him of his princely raiment, and tortured him for three days in the most excruciating manner. Not once did any sound louder than a moan pass his lips. His courage and determination to endure whatever agonies to which he was subjected were strengthened by the assurance that he was doing it for Tanya and that because of his sacrifice she was safe.

Finally, wearying of their sport, they cut off his head and threw his body onto a garbage heap.

Meanwhile, the grief-stricken king, his heart melting like ice within his breast, called Tanya into his court. He told her nothing of what his son had done, his pride in the prince not permitting him to use his son's heroic sacrifice as a bribe. Even so, he pleaded with Tanya, as he had promised the prince he would, to remain with him within the walls of the wondrous and beautiful city where she'd be safe forevermore.

Tanya considered the offer, but decided that she liked life on the outside far too much, even if it was risky, and besides, she really didn't want to be in too close proximity to the prince. "By the way," she wondered to herself, "where is that pissy little whiner son of his anyway?"
Have a meaningful Good Friday. You, too, Tanya.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Who Designed the Designer?

Philosopher of science Jay Richards is a proponent of intelligent design, i.e. the view that the universe and life show evidence (lots of it) of having been intelligently engineered. Richards asserts that one of the most frequent objections he encounters, one raised in fact by Richard Dawkins in his best-selling book The God Delusion is, "If the universe and life are designed then who designed the designer?"

Laypeople can be forgiven for asking the question because it seems common-sensical, but someone of Dawkins' stature should know better and he took a lot of heat from philosophers, even philosophers sympathetic to his metaphysical naturalism, for his evident lack of philosophical sophistication.

Here's a short video in which Richards addresses the question:
It's worth noting, I think, that the attempt to use this question as an indictment of the intelligent design hypothesis is misguided for other reasons besides those Richards gives.

Let's look at the first part of the question: "If the universe and life are designed...." implies a willingness to accept for the sake of argument that the universe is designed, but as soon as he's granted that the naturalist has gotten himself into trouble.

Once it's conceded by the naturalist, even if only hypothetically, that the universe is designed then whether there's just one designer or an indefinite number doesn't much matter. Naturalism would stand refuted since naturalism holds that the universe is self-existent.

Moreover, to posit more designers than what's necessary to explain the universe is a violation of the principle that our explanations should contain the minimum number of entities necessary to explain what we're trying to explain - in this case, the universe. So the simplest, and therefore the best, explanation is that there's only a single designer of the universe. There's no warrant for thinking that anyone who believes there's a designer of the universe must allow for an infinite regress of designers.

We might also point out that the universe is the sum of all contingent entities. Thus, whatever designed the universe cannot itself be contingent lest it be itself part of the universe. Now contingent entities require a necessary being as their ultimate cause and a necessary being is, by definition, not itself dependent upon anything else for its existence. So, if the universe was designed by a non-contingent being then it makes no sense to ask what designed it. Nothing designed it. If it were designed it would be contingent and thus part of the universe.

Finally, it should be noted that if there is an intelligent designer it must not only be a necessary being, but it must also transcend space and time because these are aspects of the universe. Therefore, the designer must be non-spatial and non-temporal. It must also be very intelligent and very powerful. In other words, it must be something very much like God.

Given all this, the naturalist would be better off resisting the temptation to ask "who designed the designer." It's a question which carries far less polemical punch than they think it does.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

A Utilitarian's Dilemma

Peter Singer is a philosopher at Princeton who has gained substantial notoriety for invoking his utilitarian ethical principles to justify infanticide and animal rights. In a piece at The Journal of Practical Ethics the editors interview Singer and question whether utilitarians can, or do, live consistently with their own ethical philosophy.

Here's part of the interview:
Editors: Frances Kamm once said...that utilitarians who believe in very demanding duties to aid and that not aiding is the same as harming, but nevertheless don’t live up to these demands, don’t really believe their own arguments....She concludes that ‘either something is wrong with that theory, or there is something wrong with its proponents’. What do you think about this argument? Why haven’t you given a kidney to someone who needs it now? You have two and you only need one. They have none that are working – it would make a huge difference to their life at very little cost to you.

Peter Singer: I’m not sure that the cost to me of donating a kidney would be “very little” but I agree that it would harm me much less than it would benefit someone who is on dialysis. I also agree that for that reason my failure to donate a kidney is not ethically defensible.... Donating a kidney does involve a small risk of serious complications. Zell Kravinsky suggests that the risk is 1 in 4000. I don’t think I’m weak-willed, but I do give greater weight to my own interests, and to those of my family and others close to me, than I should. Most people do that, in fact they do it to a greater extent than I do (because they do not give as much money to good causes as I do). That fact makes me feel less bad about my failure to give a kidney than I otherwise would. But I know that I am not doing what I ought to do.
This response raises several questions, but I'll focus on just one. Singer believes it's wrong not to give the kidney and he feels bad, he feels guilty, about not doing so, yet why should he? In what sense is his violation of utilitarian principles morally wrong? Indeed, why is utilitarianism morally superior to the egoism to which he admits to succumbing?

To put it differently, if Singer chooses to be a utilitarian and donate the kidney while someone else chooses to be an egoist and keep his kidneys, why is either one right or wrong? Given Singer's naturalism, what does it even mean to say that someone is morally wrong anyway? On naturalism there's no moral authority except one's own convictions and no accountability so in what way is keeping one's kidneys an offense to morality?

Elsewhere in the interview, Singer notes that his ethical thinking is based on the work of the great 19th century ethicist and utilitarian Henry Sidgwick and mentions that,
Sidgwick himself remained deeply troubled by his inability to demonstrate that egoism is irrational. That led him to speak of a “dualism of practical reason”—two opposing viewpoints, utilitarianism and egoism, seemed both to be rational.
In other words, the choice between them is an arbitrary exercise of personal preference, although Singer doesn't agree with this because he believes evolution affords grounds for rejecting egoism. It's hard to see how this could be the case, however, since blind impersonal processes cannot impose moral duties. Nor is it easy to see how acting against the trend of those processes can be morally wrong. How is one doing anything wrong if he chooses to act contrary to the way mutation and natural selection have shaped the human species. Why should he accept the ethical results of evolutionary history any more than we accept the physical limitations imposed on us by gravity when we go aloft in an airplane or hot air balloon?

The only reason we have for not putting our own interests ahead of the interests of others - as in the example of the kidney - and the only rational reason we would have for feeling guilt over our failure to consider the needs of others is if we believe that such failures are a transgression of an obligation imposed upon us by a transcendent personal moral authority. Singer lacks such a belief and can thus give no compelling reason why one should be a utilitarian rather than an egoist.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Lessons in Intellectual Humility

Here are a couple of videos that contain a very salutary lesson for all of us: We don't always know what we think we know and should therefore strive to be humble when we assert what we believe to be true. Arrogant, dogmatic pronouncements, particularly when embedded in thick layers of sarcasm and ridicule, have a way of boomeranging on the one indulging in them, and making them look very foolish:
This second video has some of the same material as the first, but some different material as well:
People may be deeply disappointed in the outcome of the last election. That's understandable, but what's not understandable is the complete absence on the part of some of the people in these videos of any inkling that they could be wrong. They were certain that a Trump win was as impossible as a square circle. They hooted and laughed at the very notion that he could win. And they ended up not only looking profoundly foolish, but also making it very difficult ever to lend any credibility to anything they ever say again.

Whether we're talking about politics, religion, a critical social issue, or any important topic, humility is far more appealing and appropriate than arrogant certitude and ridicule. Arrogance just sets folks up to be objects of derision when they turn out to be totally and utterly wrong, as these folks did.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Mob Tactics

It seems that on at least some American campuses giving one's political or ideological opponents the courtesy of a respectful hearing is an obsolete virtue. Free speech and respect for others is evidently passé.

The rule today seems to be that when the other fellow has facts and you don't, or your facts aren't very convincing, then you should scream louder than the other guy and drown him out so that others can't hear that his position is stronger than your own or that your own position is intellectually vacuous. Another useful tactic to hide the weakness of your own position from others is to demonize your opponent so that people are apriori disinclined to give him a hearing.

At any rate that seems to be the strategy being adopted by leftists on campuses across the country from Berkeley to Middlebury to, lately, Claremont McKenna.

One amusing aspect of the Claremont affair is that the protestors probably don't even know who the woman whose speech they were protesting is and almost certainly never read her book. They just know that they can't allow an intelligent, articulate and accomplished woman whose work undermines some of their most cherished beliefs to be allowed to expose her audience to facts. Facts, after all, are dangerous things which may actually influence the people who hear them.

Here are some of the details of what happened at Claremont from an article at HeatStreet:
An “angry mob” of protesters effective shut down a speech by a pro-law enforcement scholar at Claremont McKenna College on Friday, surrounding the building, screaming obscenities and banging on windows. Manhattan Institute fellow Heather Mac Donald, who is promoting a book called The War on Cops about the Black Lives Matter movement, was forced to give her speech on livestream – to a largely empty room — and then to flee the University building under the protection of campus security when things got really scary.

Black Lives Matter activists had planned the protest ahead of time, posting on Facebook that they intended to shut down the “anti-black” “fascist” Mac Donald. Their event called Mac Donald’s work “fascist ideologies and blatant anti-Blackness and white supremacy,” and claimed that “together, we can hold CMC accountable and prevent Mac Donald from spewing her racist, anti-Black, capitalist, imperialist, fascist agenda.”

Mac Donald’s book, released amidst heightened tensions between the black community and the police, argues that better community policing, and familiarity with neighborhoods could reduce crime. She suggests that law enforcement officials actually believe that “black lives matter” more than activists do, and that the narrative that police are “racist” is making minority communities less safe.

The nuances of her argument, however, fell on deaf ears at liberal Claremont McKenna college, and when the time came for Mac Donald to give her speech, protesters (who included what appear to be middle aged activists alongside college students) ringed the building, chanting a range of slogans including, “From Oakland to Greece, f– the police” and “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.”

Mac Donald then moved her speech to a livestream, but when the chants turned into threats, and protesters began banging on the windows, campus police had to escort Mac Donald out of the building, escaping through a kitchen and into an unmarked police van outside.

Student journalists covering the event told Campus Reform that they, too, were under attack, particularly one writer who tried to interview protesters about Mac Donald’s book. When it became clear they weren’t familiar with her work, the mob got violent.

“Protesters tried to prevent me from conducting interviews by pushing me, grabbing me, and blocking my camera. Several protesters followed me around for almost an hour and formed a wall around me,” the student said.
It's a pretty good rule of thumb that when a group tries to shout down ideas they don't like, when people resort to attacking the speaker with slurs and name-calling rather than addressing the speaker's ideas, it's because they know that they don't have reason and logic on their side. They realize, if only intuitively, that their opponent's arguments are stronger than their own and to mask their own inadequacies they must prevent those arguments from being heard.

This is the sort of behavior that arises in an environment in which truth is no longer considered to be an objective reality but is instead thought to be nothing more than a strongly held set of beliefs or prejudices. Students who opt for the tactics of the mob can't defend their "truth", apparently, but they're fervently convinced that they're right and that anyone who disagrees must be wrong. And when you're right why allow false views to spread and contaminate others? Such is the reasoning of mobs and of ignorant fanatics.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Honor Killing

We've talked in class about ethical relativism and the practice of honor killing. To help explain what honor killing is and how it's viewed in some Islamic cultures I found this article, in a post from the archive. It discusses the practice of honor killings and the social pressures placed on families to carry them out. It sounds, quite frankly, pretty depraved. Here's part of it:

The murder of women to salvage their family's honor results in good part from the social and psychological pressure felt by the killers, as they explain in their confessions. Murderers repeatedly testify that their immediate social circle, family, clan, village, or others expected them and encouraged them to commit the murder. From society's perspective, refraining from killing the woman debases her relatives. Here are five examples:

A Jordanian murdered his sister who was raped by another brother. The family tried initially to save its honor by marrying the victim to an old man, but this new husband turned her into a prostitute and she escaped from him. The murderer confessed that if he had to go through it all again he would not kill her, but rather would kill his father, mother, uncles, and all the relatives that pressured him to murder and led him to jail. Instead of killing his sister and going to jail, he said he should have "tied her with a rope like a goat and let her spend her life like that until she dies."

An Egyptian who strangled his unmarried pregnant daughter to death and then cut her corpse in eight pieces and threw them in the toilet: "Shame kept following me wherever I went [before the murder]. The village's people had no mercy on me. They were making jokes and mocking me. I couldn't bear it and decided to put an end to this shame."

A 25-year-old Palestinian who hanged his sister with a rope: "I did not kill her, but rather helped her to commit suicide and to carry out the death penalty she sentenced herself to. I did it to wash with her blood the family honor that was violated because of her and in response to the will of society that would not have had any mercy on me if I didn't... Society taught us from childhood that blood is the only solution to wash the honor."

A young Palestinian who murdered his sister who had been sexually assaulted: "Before the incident, I drank tea and it tasted bitter because my honor was violated. After the killing I felt much better... I don't wish anybody the mental state I was in. I was under tremendous mental pressure."

Another Palestinian who murdered his sister: "I had to kill her because I was the oldest [male] member of the family. My only motive to kill her was [my desire] to get rid of what people were saying. They were blaming me that I was encouraging her to fornicate... I let her choose the way I would get rid of her: slitting her throat or poisoning her. She chose the poison."

These testimonies are in line with the analysis of 'Izzat Muhaysin, a psychiatrist at the Gaza Program for Mental Health, who says that the culture of the society perceives one who refrains from "washing shame with blood" as "a coward who is not worthy of living." Many times, he adds, such a person is described as less than a man.

In some cases, the decision to commit the murder has a quality of being deputized. In the case of Kifaya Husayn opening this article, the victim's uncles actually appointed her brother to commit the crime on behalf of the family. The murderer in the fifth case cited above felt obliged to commit the crime as the eldest male of the family.

Murder has its intended social effect, permitting the family to regain its original social status. The murderer in the fourth case cited above went on to tell how almost ten thousand people attended his sister's funeral; once she was dead, society again embraced the family.

There are those who say that what's wrong for us is not necessarily wrong for people living in other cultures and that we shouldn't judge other cultural practices. I wonder if they'd say that after reading the above. Some ways of life are better than others and some cultural and moral values are better than others. Any culture which encourages, or even condones, the slaughter of young rape victims or, for that matter, the killing of any young girl for any imaginable reason, is sick. It's a culture of death.

Friday, April 7, 2017

White Privilege

I once received a lovely e-mail, from a student who expressed her desire to give back to those who have so little something of the abundance with which she is blessed. Her wish to help others is wonderful, and I am deeply impressed with this young woman's commitment to the poor and the marginalized.

There was one thing she said in her missive, however, which is evidently a common sentiment on her campus and one which I asked her to reconsider. She felt, or at least seemed to have felt, that part of her obligation to help the poor arises from the fact that she's "a white, middle class, educated female with a tremendous amount of undeserved privilege."

I know students are sometimes encouraged by their professors to think that one's race or gender confer upon one a large measure of undeserved privilege, but to tell the truth I think they're just wrong about this. The idea of white privilege is a shibboleth that is too often used to evoke in whites a sense of racial guilt. In my response to this young woman I tried to explain why I think the guilt she seemed to feel is actually a derogation of the choices and sacrifices made by her grandparents, parents, and herself.

Here's what I wrote to her:

Dear S_,

Yours is a lovely e-mail, and I think it's wonderful that you want to give of yourself to those who subsist on the margins of society. I wish you well and pray God's richest blessing on your efforts.

I do want to urge you, though, to consider something. Maybe I'm reading a little too much into what you say, but you seem to suggest that your status in society is somehow an undeserved privilege. If that is what you're saying I don't think you should see it that way.

You are what you are and have what you have for a couple of reasons, neither of which you should feel guilty about. First, your parents and/or your grandparents worked very hard, sometimes twelve or more hours a day, I'll bet, to provide you with an opportunity to get an education.

Your status is largely the fruit of their toil, as well as dozens of other important and wise choices they made in life, and it's not something you should feel guilty about. Indeed, I think it diminishes their efforts to think of your status as a consequence of your race. So far from feeling that your privilege is undeserved I think you should be proud of the people who made it possible and grateful for their sacrifices and the choices they made.

The second reason you enjoy the status you do is because, once given the opportunities your parents and grandparents worked so hard for, you had the moral character to make the most of them. You took advantage of the opportunity to get an education, you held yourself to high standards through your teen years, and you had the wisdom to not squander the opportunities you were given.

None of this is a result of your race. I know that some of your instructors think that being white somehow confers an unfair advantage over others in society, but I think that's mistaken. It was doubtless true historically, but it hasn't been the case in the U.S. for a long time. No one has been legally denied opportunity in this country simply by virtue of his or her race for well over fifty years. If people in this country - white, black or brown - languish in poverty it's often because of the choices both they and their parents have made, not the color of their skin.

The fact is that there are lots of African and Asian-Americans who are successful in this society, but no one talks about their "privilege." Instead they talk, as they should, about how hard their parents worked and the ordeals their parents endured in order to give their children a chance to make it in the world. Contrarily, there are whites, blacks and Asians who enjoy historically unprecedented opportunities to make a positive mark in life but fail to do so because they lack the character it takes to make something of themselves.

In other words, you enjoy the status you do, S_, not because you're privileged by your race but because you're privileged to have the parents and virtues you do. It's wonderful to want to "give back" but don't let anyone imply that you should do so out of guilt over your race or class. Your motivation should be your love for God and the conviction that he wants you to be an instrument to help others become what you are.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

War in Syria

Since the recent chemical attack on Syrian civilians, ostensibly carried out by President Assad's military, war drums have been beating on the American left, right and center. President Trump has responded with tough words and there's mounting pressure on him to back up his rhetoric with decisive action.

For my part I don't know what those calling for a tough response want the United States to do, exactly. Any military action we take runs a serious risk of bringing us into direct conflict with Russia, and I don't think anyone wants that. Even if that didn't happen what good would come of bombing some airfields when the Russians would quickly repair and resupply the Syrian losses?

Sean Davis, co-founder of The Federalist, has a list of fourteen questions he says need to be answered before we make any military moves that would lead us into another war like those in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. He writes:
These calls [to do something to depose Assad] are understandable given the magnitude of death and destruction wreaked by Assad. But what proponents of military action to depose Assad have not explained is what our clear national security interest is there, what political victory looks like, what our main risks are, and what costs we will be required to pay in order to achieve that victory.

To avoid what happened in Iraq — a swift initial military victory followed by costly guerrilla warfare, political instability, premature U.S. withdrawal, and eventual political defeat leading to a less stable and more dangerous situation than before we invaded — I desperately want solid, well-researched answers to the following questions about our ultimate goals in Syria, how we as a nation plan to achieve them, and what costs we are ultimately willing to bear.

Unfortunately, I don’t have the answers. And I don’t intend for these questions to be perceived as unfair or leading in any way. I’m not attempting to make a statement or promote a point of view in asking them. If our nation is going to wage war, and if we are going to pay a price in dollars and in American lives as a result of that decision, we are owed answers to questions that were never adequately answered before we went into Iraq.

We owe it to the American men and women whose blood was shed in Iraq, and their families, to not repeat the same mistakes we made there in Syria. We owe it to the men and women who would be deployed overseas to have a clear understanding of our political goals in Syria, what military resources will be required to achieve them, and what risks we face, both militarily and politically, as a result of approving military action to remove Assad.
Here are Davis' questions:
  1. What national security interest, rather than pure humanitarian interest, is served by the use of American military power to depose Assad’s regime?
  2. How will deposing Assad make America safer?
  3. What does final political victory in Syria look like (be specific), and how long will it take for that political victory to be achieved? Do you consider victory to be destabilization of Assad, the removal of Assad, the creation of a stable government that can protect itself and its people without additional assistance from the United States, etc.?
  4. What other countries will join the United States in deposing Assad, in terms of military, monetary, or diplomatic resources?
  5. Should explicit congressional authorization for the use of military force in Syria be required, or should the president take action without congressional approval?
  6. What is the risk of wider conflict with Russia, given that nation’s presence and stake in Syria, if the United States chooses to invade and depose Assad, a key Russian ally in the Middle East?
  7. What military resources (e.g., ground troops), diplomatic resources, and financial resources will be required to achieve this political victory?
  8. How long will it take to achieve political victory?
  9. If U.S. intervention in Syria does spark a larger war with Russia, what does political victory in that scenario look like, and what costs will it entail?
  10. Given that Assad has already demonstrated a willingness to use chemical weapons, how should the United States respond if the Assad regime deploys chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons against the United States?
  11. Assuming the Assad regime is successfully removed from power, what type of government structure will be used to replace Assad, who will select that government, and how will that government establish and maintain stability going forward?
  12. Given that a change in political power in the United States radically altered the American position in Iraq in 2009, how will you mitigate or address the risk of a similar political dynamic upending your preferred strategy in Syria, either in 2018, 2020, or beyond?
  13. What lessons did you learn from America’s failure to achieve and maintain political victory following the removal of governments in Iraq and Libya, and how will you apply those lessons to a potential war in Syria?
  14. What costs, in terms of lives (both military and civilian), dollars, and forgone options elsewhere as a result of resource deployment in Syria, will be required to achieve political victory?
Good questions. I supported Bush's invasion of Iraq, but that war was waged amidst a much different set of circumstances. Saddam Hussein, you may recall, was believed by every intelligence service among our allies to have had weapons of mass destruction and was thought by those same experts to be planning to use them. He was also politically isolated and lacked allies, and there were at the time of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003 no other factions in Iraq to confuse the battlefield. Syria is not like Iraq in any of these respects.

Moreover, the chaos and casualties that followed our eventual drawdown from Iraq would probably be much worse after a war in Syria.

President Obama is widely thought to have blundered by drawing a "red line" and warning Syria that the use of chemical weapons would cross that line. He also evidently blundered when he declared that Syria had rid itself of chemical weapons. Having drawn the "red line" he lost credibility with every tyrant in the world when he refused to do anything when Assad did cross it. Now it may be too late to do anything militarily to help the Syrian people in their suffering.

I doubt that there are any good answers to Davis' questions, but there is something you can do to help the victims of Assad and ISIS, and it may be more effective in the long term than guns and bombs. This video is a plea for help from Jeremy Courtney, the founder of an organization called Preemptive Love that seeks to bring aid to victims of both ISIS and Bashar Assad:
If you'd like to help you can do so here.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

The Dehumanization of Women

Opening the newspaper we're often confronted with what seems to be an epidemic of mistreatment of women in our culture. Stories of a campus rape culture, spousal abuse, and other examples of terrible violence perpetrated against women seem to abound, but the question this all raises is "why?". Why do more men today, more than in previous generations, seem to hold women in such low esteem? Why are women so much more likely to be objectified today than in our grandparents day?

I think a strong case can be made for the claim that the problem is a result of the moral revolution that took place in the 1960s and 70s concerning our attitudes toward sex and violence.

During those decades pornography was mainstreamed and with the advent of the internet it became easily accessible to adolescents. Three generations of young men have thus been raised on ubiquitous pornographic images. This has likely had several undesirable effects. First, it has desensitized men to sexual stimuli. A hundred years ago a glimpse of a woman's lower leg was stimulating. It no longer is because now there's much more to be seen anywhere one looks than merely a shapely ankle.

Consequently, men require stronger and stronger stimuli in order to achieve the same level of arousal as someone who's not exposed to the constant barrage of sexual images. Because of this need for ever more erotic stimuli many men want their women to be like the women they encounter in movies, magazines, and online - they want their women to be sexually voracious playthings, and that desire often has a dehumanizing effect on women. A lot of women simply don't feel comfortable in that role, and that incompatibility can create tension in their relationships. The man feels cheated, the woman feels cheapened and trouble results.

At the same time that pornography exploded, sex was disconnected from marriage and commitment. Many women were perfectly willing to live with men and give them all the benefits of marriage without demanding of them any kind of permanent commitment. This suited many men just fine. When men could have sex without having to bond themselves to a woman, women were more likely to be objectified and used by men who reasoned that there was no sense in buying a cow as long as the milk was free. People who give us what we want may be popular as long as the benefits keep coming, but they're not respected. Respect may be feigned, of course, as long as the benefit is imminent but when the benefit no longer seems all that novel or exciting a diminution of respect often follows and results in the woman being treated accordingly.

Men are naturally promiscuous, they have to be taught to subordinate their natural impulses and to value hearth and family, but our entire culture has conspired in the last forty years to minimize and deride that lesson. So, when many a modern man, unfettered by any profound commitment to a particular woman and children, grows accustomed to the woman he's with she'll begin to bore him and it won't be long before his eye is cast elsewhere in search of another potential source of sexual excitement.

Along with the decline of traditional sexual morality in the 60s and 70s was the emergence of a radical feminism that castigated the old Victorian habits of gentlemanly behavior. It became quaint, even insulting, for a man to give a woman his seat on a bus or to open a door for her. Men who had been raised to put women on a pedestal - to care for them, provide for them, and nurture them - were told they were no longer necessary for a woman's happiness. In Gloria Steinem's famous phrase "a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle."

The more vocal feminists also made it clear that women no longer appreciated being treated differently than men. Thus our entertainment culture began depicting women in movies as just as raunchy, coarse, and proficient at killing and mayhem as men, and the idea of a woman being an object of special respect and courtesy because she needed male protection and care became risible. This, too, dehumanized women by eroding the esteem in which their gender had formerly been held among men.

As with sex so with violence. The inclination to violence in the male population follows a Bell curve distribution. At some point along the tail there is a line to the left of which lies the segment of the population which represents men who are violent. Most men sublimate and control their natural inclination to violence, but when they are exposed to it over and over as young men, when they amuse themselves with violent movies and video games, when they immerse themselves in violent imagery and themes, they become desensitized to it and tolerant of it. When they're no longer horrified by violence the population of males undergoes a shift toward that line, spilling many more men onto the other side of the line than would have been there otherwise.

This affects women as much as men, if not moreso, because women are often the victims of male violence. As men become more inclined to violence, as they lose respect for women, as our culture portrays women as sexually insatiable playthings, women become increasingly the victims of male lust, anger and aggression.

It would be well for any young woman who is beginning to get serious about a young man to find out how much of his time he spends on violent movies and computer games and what he thinks about pornography. She'll learn a lot of very valuable information about him if she does.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

The Friend Zone

Hans Feine, writing at The Federalist, sees a very serious social problem looming on the near horizon and his solution is going to strike some readers as odd, though he nevertheless makes an interesting point. It's a point also made by the famous writer C.S. Lewis.

First, the problem:
The latest numbers on American birth rates are in, and they yield only one reasonable conclusion: All of us need to start having more babies or else the upcoming demographic tsunami will consume our nation, cripple our social programs, and leave us with a future so bleak that our only source of joy will be the moment we’re chosen to receive the sweet, fatal kiss of the Obamacare Death Panels, the Trumpcare Firing Squads, or the OprahCare Hemlock Squadrons.

Perhaps I’m overstating the danger a bit, but the point remains: Americans need to raise our sagging birth rates. One of the best ways we can do so is by reversing the trend of Americans waiting longer to get married. So, apart from tearing down America’s institutions of higher education, which tend to slow down the recitation of wedding vows, how do we do that? It’s quite simple. We tear down the Friend Zone.
So, what does Feine mean by the "Friend Zone"?
Every year, countless young men find themselves trapped in the Friend Zone, a prison where women place any man they deem worthy of their time but not their hearts, men they’d love to have dinner with but, for whatever reason, don’t want to kiss goodnight.

Being caught in the Friend Zone is an inarguable drag on fertility rates, as a man who spends several years pledging his heart to a woman who will never have his children is also a man who most likely won’t procreate with anyone else during that time of incarceration. Free him to find a woman who actually wants to marry him, however, and he’ll have several more years to sire children who will laugh, create, sing, fill the world with love and, most importantly, pay into Social Security.
Feine then delivers himself of a claim that's going to strike many female readers as absurd although I think a lot of male readers will secretly agree with his defense of it:
Quite simply, for the sake of our future, the Friend Zone must be destroyed. For the Friend Zone to be destroyed, women must accept the following truths: you don’t have any guy friends and, in fact, you can’t have any guy friends.
Here's what he means by a "friend":
By “friends,” I don’t mean acquaintances or chummy colleagues you only see at work, or friends of friends that you don’t get together with outside of a group setting, or what I call buffer-zone friends—people of the opposite sex you can be friends with because there is a significant other in between to take the romantic element out of the equation. Rather, by “friend” I mean someone you deliberately choose to spend one-on-one time with.
His argument is that guys who spend time with girls really, deep down inside, don't want to be "just friends." They want to date. Read the rest and see if you agree or disagree with Feine. C.S. Lewis wrote in his book The Four Loves that men and women can't be friends without the relationship devolving (or evolving) into something more. He asserts that,
When the two people who thus discover that they are on the same secret road are of different sexes, the friendship which arises between them will very easily pass - may pass in the first half hour - into erotic love. Indeed, unless they are physically repulsive to each other, or unless one or both already loves elsewhere, it is almost certain to do so sooner or later.
If you're interested in reading more about what Lewis says about friendship, some of which might sound painfully archaic to modern ears, see the series of VP posts from the archive dated 2/22/10, 2/23/10, and 2/25/10.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Trump/Russia for Beginners

If you're like me you're bewildered by the swirl of charges and countercharges of possible collusion by Trump associates with the Russians to sway the election as well as allegations that individuals in our intelligence community are illegally leaking information to embarrass the Trump administration. It all seems like total confusion and our partisan media is apparently unable or unwilling to present a simple, unbiased explanation of the fiasco so as to help the American public comprehend it.

Don't throw up your hands in despair of ever understanding it, however, until you've read David French's piece at NRO titled A Beginner's Guide to the Trump/Russia Controversy. French does a fine job of presenting straightforward, unbiased answers to all of the questions you probably have about this political trainwreck.

Here's a list of the questions he tackles:
  • Did Russia actually “hack” the 2016 presidential election?
  • If the Russians didn’t “hack” the election, what did they do?
  • Did the Russians actually help Trump win the election?
  • What does Russian interference with our politics have to do with the Trump campaign?
  • Why do some people still think Trump will be impeached?
  • Is there anything to the claims that the “deep state” is launching a “soft coup” against the duly-elected president? Isn’t that the real scandal?
  • We keep hearing about wiretaps, surveillance, and “unmasking.” Who’s bugging whom?
  • We hear that intelligence officials are spreading allegations against Trump’s team throughout the government. Isn’t that clearly wrong?
  • Why is the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee under fire?
  • Michael Flynn has said he's willing to testify to the FBI and to the congressional intelligence committees in exchange for immunity from prosecution. Won’t that blow this whole thing open?
The last question French addresses is this:
Are you [French] saying after more than 2,300 words that we know Russia tried to interfere with the election, but we don’t know if Trump officials helped or colluded in any way, if Trump himself was involved in any way, if Obama officials have improperly unmasked or surveilled Trump’s team, or who any unlawful leakers were? Isn't this the least-helpful Q & A ever written?
To which the answer to each part except the last is "yes." Despite the fact that there's still so much we don't know and that it's hard to give definitive answers to some of these questions, but French's essay nonetheless explains a lot about the current state of affairs and would be extremely helpful for anyone who wants to get up to speed on a controversy that has thrown our national politics into turmoil.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

The Amazing Hummer

If you live in the Western hemisphere, perhaps this summer you'll see hummingbirds flitting about in a garden or at a feeder. You have to be in the Western hemisphere to see hummingbirds, at least in the wild, because they only occur in this part of the world.

Hummingbirds are among the most beautiful and amazing creatures on earth. They're the smallest birds and the only birds which can fly backwards.

Another fascinating thing about these tiny creatures is how they feed. You can't really see it with the naked eye because it happens so fast and their beaks are buried deep in a flower when they feed, but their tongues are amazingly engineered to take up nectar.

This short video clip illustrates how they do it:
If you see a hummingbird feeding this spring or summer remember what's going on inside that little bird's beak and tongue. You'll likely come away with a much deeper appreciation for these diminutive gems.

This BBC clip gives lovely close-ups of the amazing phenomenon of hummingbird flight. Note how the hummingbird can fly both backwards and sideways. They can also fly upside down, and are the only kind of bird in the world that can do all this. Their wings beat an astonishing 70 times a second in normal flight and they weigh about as much as a penny.
Some additional interesting facts about these birds include the following:
  • The bright radiant color on hummingbirds comes from iridescent coloring like on a soap bubble or prism.
  • They're very smart and they can remember every flower they have visited and how long it will take a flower to refill.
  • They have little to no sense of smell.
  • They have very weak feet and can barely walk. They prefer to fly.
  • They do not mate for life.
  • They have an average life span of about 5 years but can live for more than 10 years.
  • A hummingbird will visit an average of 1,000 flowers per day for nectar.
  • They eat small soft bugs for protein.
  • A hummingbird will lap up nectar at a rate of about 13 licks per second.
  • There are more than 300 types or species of hummingbirds. Most of which are found in South America.
  • There are more than fifteen (15) types or species of hummingbirds that breed in the United States.
  • Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds, the only species which breeds in the eastern U.S., have been known to travel 500 miles over the Gulf of Mexico to breeding grounds, a 20 hour non-stop trip.
You can find more facts about hummingbirds at the link.