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Over at the NY Time's "Opinionator," Seyla Benhabib took on Obama's decision not to deport a certaion groups of undocumented immigrants. It's really quite interesting.

To lay my cards on the table, I happen to believe that most of our laws on immigration are unjust laws. While a country certainly has a right to keep accurate tabs on who comes into a country and even to limit who comes in, either individually or as groups if there's a legitimate reason to do that, I think our laws often go too far. ("This man is a known narcotics trafficker" would be one such reason, as would "This group is too large or too poor for our society to reasonably support them." I'd even say many countries could give a third type of reason, "We cannot absorb them into our culture without losing our own identity," though I wouldn't put a melting-pot-based society like America in that group.)

My real beef with American immigration policy is that we depend on the illegal immigrants out of one side of the mouth and label them as criminals in who they are, not what they do out of the other. As this article points out, California agriculture depends on cheap labor. So do any other number of other businesses. These jobs are typically sub-minimum wage and paid under the table (so no taxes paid by the business). I'd argue we all rely on cheap labor that's denied legal recourse for whatever bad things are done to them. It basically sets up two classes of citizens (and I do consider immigrants – people who permanently join a society, legally or otherwise – to be citizens in the philosophical sense if not the legal one), and I'm not crazy about living in a society built on that. Not that any other society is really any better here, and not that there's a whole lot I can do about it, but it does make me feel complicit in something I don't like.

So I'm predisposed to be in favor of this argument. My main qualm with Obama's DREAM-like action is that it affects so few immigrants, and siphons off the most sympathetic immigrants from the larger community. But still, I find Dr. Benhabib's argument confused. She seems to be drawing on two different philosophical traditions and acting like they're compatible. Since I'm going to be teaching these two approaches to justice with my students in just a few hours, I thought it might be interesting and useful to lay them out here, and apply them to this particular argument.

(By the way, this discussion of communitarianism vs. voluntarism is taken more or less from Ch. 9 of Michael Sandel's book Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do; I highly recommend it.)

Dr. Benhabib appeals to Kant's "duty of hospitality." She writes:

If conditions in a person's native country so endanger his life and well-being and he becomes willing to risk illegality in order to survive, his right to survival, from a moral point of view, carries as much weight as does the new country's claim to control borders against migrants Immanuel Kant, therefore, called the moral claim to seek refuge or respite in the lands of another, a "universal right of hospitality," provided that the intentions of the foreigner upon arriving on foreign lands were peaceful. Such a right, he argued, belonged to each human being placed on this planet who had to share the earth with others.

I've never heard of this particular bit of Kant's philosophy, but it does sound like him. I've proved over the last several weeks how hard it is for me to speak authoritatively about Kant's moral philosophy, so here I'll rely on Sandel's summary of the relationship between Kant's account of freedom and communal obligations:

To be free is to be autonomous, and to be autonomous, is to be governed by a law I give myself. Kantian autonomy is more demanding than consent. When I will the moral law, I don't simply choose according to my contingent desires or allegiances. Instead, I step back from my particular interests and attachments, and will as a participant in pure practical reason. […] Kant's idea of an autonomous will and Rawls's idea of a hypothetical agreement behind a veil of ignorance have this in common: both conceive the moral agent as independent of his or her particular aims and attachments. When we will the moral law (Kant) or choose the principles of justice (Rawls), we do so without reference to the roles and identities that situate us in the world and make us the particular people we are. (Sandel pp. 213-214)

What Sandel's getting at here is that we are only Americans or Britons or whatever, by virtue of a historical accident. There's no reason I had to be born in the American South, with all that carries with it as far as the way I view the world and my moral obligations. So while I may think I have a duty to put other Americans first – "buy American," monitor the border, care more about the lives of American deaths than Afghani deaths or however you want to put it – I don't really have any obligation here. And it may make sense to have communities and develop them, at a practical level. But I think Kant would be hard-pressed to explain why those communities are morally relevant, certainly to the point that they outweigh someone's right to preserve their life. (Someone who's a better Kant scholar than I am, could perhaps offer an explanation of why communal obligations are morally relevant and not just based on a hypothetical imperative, perhaps, but I can't see it based on what I understand of him.)

Anyway, so far Dr. Benhabib's on solid footing as far as I can tell. The trouble is she then makes a very un-Kantian move. She writes:

We do have special obligations to our neighbors, as opposed to moral obligations to humanity at large, if, for example, our economy has devastated theirs; if our industrial output has led to environmental harm or if our drug dependency had encouraged the formation of transnational drug cartels.

These claims of interdependence require a third moral principle – in addition to the right of universal hospitality and the right to self-government – to be brought into consideration: associative obligations among peoples arising through historical factors.

This sounds very much to me like the communitarian approach to ethics that Sandel outlines. Kant (according to Sandel) basically thought we only have two kinds of obligations: natural duties, that we owe to everyone just because they're human, and voluntary obligations, things we agreed to ourselves. So there's really no sense in talking about making up for what your ancestors had done, or feeling proud of it. As Sandel explains:

If, in thinking about justice, we just abstract from our particular duties, it is hard to make the case that present-day Germans bear a special responsibility to make recompense for the Holocaust, or that Americans of this generation have a special responsibility to remedy the injustice of slavery and segregation. Why? Because once I set aside my identity as a german or an American and conceive myself as a free and independent self, there is no basis for saying my obligation to remedy these historic injustices is greater than anyone else's. (Sandel p. 214).

The thing is, the way I understand these points, they can't both be true – at least not for the reasons pointed to. If I have a Kantian duty to hospitality because it's a Kantian duty, can I also have special obligations to those living near me? Particularly since I wasn't alive when America enacted the drug policies that encouraged the cartel (so any special obligation I have to help these peoples because I'm an American is distinctly non-Kantian). Unless I'm missing something about Kant?

I've really enjoyed teaching Kant's and Aristotle's accounts of freedom and justice, and I find the whole contemporary debate utterly fascinating. But the way I read things, the two sides aren't really compatible; if you're a communitarian, you seem to be rejecting some pretty crucial claims made by Kant, and vice versa. That Dr. Benhabib tries to draw from both sides is a bit frustrating, because I think a lot of what she's saying individually works pretty well but put together it just undercuts itself. It's actually a problem I see a lot in student papers, where they will just take bits from different theories, without worrying about whether the foundations for those ideas make sense together. Given that this is a full professor writing this, and given that I'm really and truly not a Kant expert, I'm hoping I'm missing something in Kant's thoughts that makes this move possible.

Regardless, it's good to see professional philosophers working on this issue. Personally, I tend to think if an immigrant is willing to throw his lot in with a society, said society needs a damned good reason to exclude him – particularly in a society built on immigration, as is the case with America (and really, if you go back far enough, is the case anywhere). But that's probably coming more out of my own Christian tradition more than anything you'll find in philosophy. You know, Abraham keeping his tent open on all four sides and all that.

(P.S., I started this before class this morning and only finished it now, nearly twelve hours later. So any odd wording, seeming obsession with certain books, etc. may be explained by that.)

(Originally posted at LJ.)

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FaceBook has been abuzz these last few days over a drive to boycott Chick-fil-A. There are several memes and links getting passed around, apparently inspired by the fact that Chick-fil-A's owners donated to an anti-gay marriage group.

To be completely honest I was a bit bored by the whole thing. The idea that the Cathies would donate to such a group was hardly news; I've heard of them doing things like that at least as far back as my high school years (so more than a decade). They also donate to other causes; back in 20080 they won some kind of award where it was announced they'd given away over $100 million, including to foster homes, camps that give inner-city kids a retreat, and scholarships for their employees. They also had a reputation, at least when I still lived in the South where Chick-Fil-A's were more common (this would have been as late as 2006) of working with smaller poultry-raisers with less ethical problems. I'm no fool; I know fast food always has its problems. But Chick-Fil-A always struck me as better than most, even taking the anti-LGBT thing into account.

To put it more generally: they always struck me as a business with a conscience. I didn't always agree with their values, but I liked the fact that they had them. McDonalds always seemed to be about making money, and I'll take a principled company (or in this case owner) whose principles I disagree with over one whose only principle is mammon, any day of the week. I'm also not a big fan of tempting people to hide their agendas. That's just how I am, and I don't expect everyone to agree. None of that excuses Chick-Fil-A's donations, btw. It always made me a bit uncomfortable; I just had always thought having a country that cared about morals and doing the right thing and genuinely felt like a place that respected its employees was worth supporting.

Not so much anymore. In the fall-out from all of that, Jim Henson pulled Muppets toys from Chick-Fil-A. That's every bit their right and privilege as Chick-fil-A's opposing gay marriage is their founders. He also donated the check from Chick-Fil-A to GLAAD; again, their right. (Incidentally: This is how the marketplace of ideas (so much as there is such a thing) is supposed to work: different people advocating for their beliefs and using what resources they have at their disposal to support said beliefs and principles.) Here was Chick-Fil-A's response:

Having principles is good, but it only earns you sympathy in my book if you actually act on them. I don't know if there were problems with the timing of this pull stinks to high-heavens. And blaming your bad press on someone else is not cool (or particularly Christian, for that matter).

I may eat Chick-Fil-A the next time I'm in the South. Maybe. But it will be a mixed joy at best. As for now, here's the only poultry I'm enjoying thinking about just now:

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(Originally posted to LJ.)
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Yesterday I posted about a meme I saw over at Facebook, and I suggested that one major difference between liberals and conservatives is that liberals think the government needs to protect citizens not just from foreign threats but also from domestic ones that are either too powerful or just too complex for people to confront on their own. I gave the example of healthcare, though I could have given others.

Gwynnyd and roh_wyn had a fascinating conversation which I mostly sat out of (and Brian made some thought-provoking comments over at FB). I'll admit I got a bit intimidated (and on my own blog!) – I'm still feeling a bit gunshy around conflict after having too much of it the last few days, and also the conversation really unrolled while I was away – too much to address to do an adequate job with any of it, unfortunately, by the time I got back to my computer. But it was fascinating. I encourage people to read it.

The exchange did remind me of a scene in The Handmaid's Tale. The book is dystopian fantasy, set in a world where many women can't reproduce and those that can are basically kept in sexual slavery as "handmaids." Think the Biblical story of Sarah, who gave her handmaid Hagar to Abraham so she might bear children on Sarah's behalf. Fertility problems aside, the situation also is a reaction to women's lib, from a society dying of choice (in the book's words). The scene I was reminded of is about one of those handmaids, comparing her old situation where she earned a paycheck like most unmarried women do today, with her life after the revolution that made it illegal for her to work or earn money.

The sidewalks here are cement. Like a child, I avoid stepping on the cracks. I'm remembering my feet on these sidewalks, in the time before, and what I used to wear on them. Sometimes it was shoes for running, with cushioned soles and breathing holes, and stars of fluorescent fabric that reflected light in the darkness. Though I never ran at night; and in the daytime, only beside well-frequented roads.

Women were not protected then.

I remember the rules, rules that were never spelled out but that every woman knew: Don't open your door to a stranger, even if he says he is the police. Make him slide his ID under the door. Don't stop on the road to help a motorist pretending to be in trouble. Keep the locks on and keep going. If anyone whistles, don't turn to look around. Don't go into a laundromat, by yourself, at night.

I think about laundromats. What I wore to them: shorts, jeans, jogging pants. What I put into them: shorts, jeans, jogging pants. What I put into them: my own clothes, my own soap, my own money, money I had earned myself. I think about having such control.

Now we walk along the same street, in red pairs, and no man shouts obscenities at us, speaks to us, touches us. No one whistles.

There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don't underrate it.

It feels a bit odd to cite the Handmaid's Tale in the same breath as I'm advocating more of a role for the government, but I think this distinction is useful. It also serves as a warning in red letters six feet high about one major pitfall of relying on government. But I think that concern really relies on a certain way of thinking aboput what the government is.

Over at FB, Brian gave an analogy. We all know the saying "you'll follow my rules as long as you live under my roof. He's concerned about a similar thing happening with government: as long as people are relying on the government for things. Basically, the idea that people rely on the government means they aren't truly mature and the government can tell them what to do. If you think of the government as something above and beyond individual people, I can see how that makes sense. It's an other, an outside force that can exercise power over you – and that can be infantilizing.

I think I see government in a fundamentally different way. Government isn't something that oppresses us but that uplifts us. It forces people with a lot of power (or groups of the same, as in corporations) to play by certain rules so they don't run over the rest of us. It also provides a structure for those of us who don't have enough money or power to influence society all by our lonesome, to organize so our opinions have a role play in deciding what direction our society goes in. I think our democracy is more or less broken these days (and I blame our modern news culture for this at least as much as Citizens United). The realist in me doesn't really expect governments to act in the average citizen's best interests.

But I think we need to keep in mind that government is supposed to be by and for the people. It isn't dad keeping you from doing the cool stuff you want to because he still pays the bills; in many ways it's us, the collective us, and in others it's the big brother who makes sure that kids who have several years on us don't mess with us around the playground. Of course I'd love for the government to be unnecessary, but that's not because I think it's bad or oppressive; it's simply inefficient, and if the government did a good enough job giving opportunities to everyone that we had a decent distribution of wealth, I'd be happy to leave it up to everyone to satisfy their basic needs as best they can.

The thing is, though, so far the market hasn't obliged. I'm thoroughly middle class and there are times when I worry majorly about how I'll pay for health care. Sometimes how I'll pay for food, in the summer. And if I hadn't had family to live with after I graduated undergrad I'm not sure what I would have done. I looked long and hard but I was either overqualified (to the point of being unhireable), or the only work available was temp or part-time. (I actually had very few college loans, so that wasn't a huge issue.) And others are so much worse off than I am.

In light of that reality I don't really view dependence on the government as such a bad thing. Even if we look at things as more than just a practical matter. This is more about the sick needing treatment, the hungry needing food, etc. Rather I see it as empowering that there is a way the poor can go toe to toe with the rich. The government ought to be allowing everyone and not just the uber-rich to stand up and be counted. The fact that it doesn't is a great failure of democracy. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't imagine what it would be like if the government actually fulfilled this basic function, and try to make that wishful thinking into a reality.

All of which brings me back to the Handmaid's Tale quote. The irony's not lost on me! I mean, really, using a post-apocryphal story about the ravages of an all-invasive government to encouraging more government? And the story illustrates the ways government can go bad (and I'm as aware of that as anyone, and am all for vigilance against abuses of power). But this distinction between freedom-to and freedom-from has always struck me as profound. Aunt Lydia was perhaps being ironic, or being presented as absurd, but in other circumstances – ours, for instance – I think she's actually on to something. There's the freedom to not have other people make you do things you don't want to (freedom-from), but then there's also having the freedom and ability to do those things you want to do. And freedom is meaningless without the power to exercise it. Freedom-from is important, but freedom-to is crucial, too. That's worth remembering.

I know others won't see government this way. I'm actually not trying to convince people – just lay out more where I'm coming from. Life is still hectic just now and I am still answering MEFA emails, so I don't know if I'll reply to every comment. But do let me know what you think, whether you agree with this vision of government or see things in a different way. I'm definitely reading everything said.

Now off to grade papers. I have a hundred-odd pages of student attempts to evaluate the Euthyphro Dilemma or Russell's free-man's worship that need reading + marking over the next few days. Ah, summer school!

(Originally posted at LJ.)
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Over at FB, a friend posted the following meme:

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This fascinated me, so much so that two days later I'm still thinking about it. It's a Reagan quote, which makes me think that this is supposed to be some kind of conservative ideal or something to show that conservatives are right. Here's the thing, though: I suspect most liberals would agree with Reagan's idea here, perhaps with just a small tweak.

All things being equal, I'm hard-pressed to imagine anyone who would want the government to run her life. It's big, it's blundering, and it's generally not very forgiving. Republicans are famous for this, and while American conservatism today usually doesn't live up to that ideal very well, the idea that Republicans want the government as small and unobtrusive as possible. The way I walways thought about it, Republicans want government to get out of the way as much as possible. Depending on the Republican, they might make exceptions for the national defense or the definition of marriage, but that's the basic idea.

Here's the thing, though: in my experience Democrats also don't want government to interfere more than it needs to. The difference is that Democrats think companies and non-profits and simply an unequal distribution of resources are just as much a danger that needs fighting as anything al-Qaeda has pulled off. If we'd worked out a way to give everyone the money necessary to meet their basic needs (food, shelter, healthcare, education, etc.) I'd be more than willing to shrink the government down so all it did was keep the borders secure and make sure the interstate highways were in working order, and maybe a few other extremely basic things like that. I'm actually not a fan of big government.

But Utopia's just a small town upstate, not any good description of how things actually work. Companies exist to make a profit, not help people or even treat them fairly. People have their own biases and will put their own family and friends' comfort over the basic needs of a complete stranger. And everyone comes with their own biases and ideologies, and will tend to act in a way that lives out those ideologies. This is just human nature and I don't know that it's particularly immoral that people act this way. (Not particularly saintly, either, but certainly not heinous.)

In light of this, I think a lot of the things Republicans consider "interfering" is protecting. Let's take one example: the insurance mandate and the blow-up over whether religious groups needed to pay for insurance covering procedures that went against the group's beliefs. I believe access to health care is a right, perhaps not legally but definitely philosophically. I also believe that each individual (not her employer) ought to be the one deciding which medical procedures she'll actually have. The medical system is expensive but also complicated, and so I don't think it's reasonable to ask any individual to navigate it on her own; it needs systemic reform, and it needs to be providing universal access. Both of those are big enough problems that you need a group action, organizing and implementing a system that makes at least basic health care affordable for every one. And this implementation needs to respect individual dignity and autonomy. That means that if I'm poor and I'm sick, I shouldn't have to rely on some charity that might have special requirements. I also shouldn't have to face special requirements to access government care that middle- or upper-class people don't face. (I'm thinking of people on Medicare who have to prove they were raped in order to get an abortion, or where the government says they can't buy certain kinds of food, or requires them to pass a drug test before they get tax dollars.

This all falls under the rubric of protecting people. The threat here isn't a terrorist cell but a company or individual or church or other institution imposing its ideology on other people. As I said, I can't imagine anything more natural in the world than a church using its resources to advance its agenda. Ditto for a company or civic group or even a wealthy individual. The way the government protects us, and in particular "the least of these," is by putting limits on what those groups can actually do.

This meme clarified for me a basic difference between conservatives and liberals. Conservatives seem to think the best way to get at liberty is by leaving people to their own devices. Liberals, I think, see threats other than national security threats that people need protecting from (or at least an organized, collective way to protect themselves), and they recognize that the best road to liberty often involves laying down some ground rules establishing just how much of public resources any one individual can claim. If society was equal enough that no one could take away what his neighbor truly needed, I'd be all for shrinking government down to the size of a breadbox. But, reality being what it is, I don't see that happening any time soon.

(Originally posted at LJ.)
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Apparently Anderson Cooper came out as homosexual recently.

I usually get my news through blogs and the Daily Show and don't even own a TV, so most of the time what I hear about Mr. Cooper or any mainstream newsman is secondhand. Occasionally I've caught a piece by him when I'm on vacation somewhere or in a public place like a waiting room or airport. So while I'm not that familiar with him, he and Brian Williams have always struck me as some of the more dependable and interesting TV journalists out there. And the most reliable.

This coming out doesn't change that. I'm a straight, white woman rounding thirty. If I were lesbian, I'd still be a white woman rounding thirty. I'd still be, you know, me - and I'm sure my experiences and so my personality would change if I was part of that minority, but that would only change some things. Not everything.

The article I linked to above gave some details but also looks at whether this will change his reporting. And here's where it gets interesting.

The title is Does coming out change Anderson Cooper’s reporting?, but the first line asks Do you feel differently now about Anderson Cooper’s reporting? At first glance, these are two very different things, and they are, but when I stopped and thought about it the distinction got a bit muddier. It reminded me of a line I read somewhere a few weeks ago, about how in the sciences belief changes nothing (the sun still sits in the sky even if I believe it doesn't) but in the social sciences it can change quite a lot. People who believe they are free act free-er, and ditto for other perceptions.

Mad About you illustrate this really well. In this clip Paul and Jamie are on retreat at a resort, where they tell too many tall tales. Jamie explains the situation with another lie: that Paul is really mentally ill (without letting Paul in on the fib). Hilarity ensues:

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Since a journalist needs to be perceived as unbiased to be effective in that role, the mere fact that he's perceived as biased in some area (like sexual politics) will affect the kind of stories he's able to tell and have really heard. I know in situations where some part of my identity isn't known by the person I'm talking to, I can push the envelope a bit more than I would otherwise (I can actually be more philosophical because I won't be written off with "of course she'd say that, she's a philosopher." And sub in Southerner, Christian, academic, liberal, Trekkie, whatever you like.)

This is a sad thing because he's the same man he was before this news, and no one had any reason to doubt his objectivity then. Kind of reminds me of the reaction to the news that Dumbledore was gay, which we only learned after the books were published. The sad thing is that I am, like I said, a straight white rounding-thirty woman and all of those things carry biases I have to try to overcome. No one calls me on that or shapes their impressions unless those biases aren't overcome in a rather radical way, because my biases are the norm. (As far as I can tell, so are Mr. Cooper's.) That fact strikes me as unjust.

In any event, I'm really proud of one of my favorite mainstream journalists for having integrity here. It's hard to put yourslef out there sometimes and I think his courage should be commended.

(Originally posted at LJ.)
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1. I think I've had this cat in my philosophy class:

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2. A funny pic from the annals of FaceBook:

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And yes, it is that hot. I wish I had a ceiling fan... The highlight of my day was definitely going to the grocery store to pick up one little thing (frozen green beans to use as an ice pack for the fingers I broke a few days ago). Central air is deliciously delicious.

Also, the internet has been busy with the recent Supreme Court case on Obamacare. My favorites:

3. Because the internet is tubes full of cats:

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4. In which photoshoppers are historically knowledgeable and really funny:

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(Originally posted at LJ; please comment there.)
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Jon Stewart meets Lord of the Rings - what's not to love?

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(Originally posted at LJ; please comment there.)
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I wrote a few weeks back about the by-now infamous bioethics journal article comparing late-term abortions to infanticide. (My initial thoughts and a later reaction.) Now Andrew Brown over at The Guardian is weighing in:

Infanticide is repellent. Feeling that way doesn't make you Glenn Beck.

According to Mr. Brown:

In any case, the piece was picked up by the website of the immensely popular rightwing American Mormon, Glenn Beck. The commentators there – who probably already believe that there is no difference between abortion and infanticide, or believe that they believe this – erupted in predictable fury.

Savulescu [the journal editor] claims that he and the authors have received death threats. In his blogpost he wrote:

"What is disturbing is not the arguments in this paper nor its publication in an ethics journal. It is the hostile, abusive, threatening responses that it has elicited. More than ever, proper academic discussion and freedom are under threat from fanatics opposed to the very values of a liberal society."

Mr. Brown goes on to argue that this is ridiculous, concluding, "If "the very values of a liberal society" include killing inconvenient babies, or discussing their killing as if this was something reasonable and morally competent human beings might choose to do, then liberalism really would be the monster that American conservatives pretend it is."

Now, Mr. Brown is a well-respected journalist, the section editor of a major paper, and I have no reason to doubt his intelligence. But here's the thing: that's such a simplistic reaction to the issues at play here, that I'm struggling a bit to see how to reply. Whatever I think of the article (and I still haven't had time to read it, so can't comment on it directly - I know, shame on me), I would still find it deeply upsetting to think that a professional philosopher should get freaking death threats for anything he wrote in an academic journal. I found it astounding when a legislator got a brick through his campaign headquarter's window after he signed Obama's healthcare legislation, and politicians have in a certain sense signed on to be in the limelight.

Not so with academics. If we've gotten to the point where private citizens can't testify before a Congressional committee and be called "slut" for their efforts, where a university professor publishing in an academic journal could have his life threatened - well as someone whose academic interests touch on that powderkeg that is religious practice, I do have a dog in that particular fight. And yes, that is a key value of liberalism: that people are free to express ideas. And yes, you are free to disagree with my ideas. But you don't get to intimidate me from having or expressing them.

Mr. Brown also takes aim at the article itself. He seems to think it's advocating infanticide, and asks what we would think about sex-selective infanticide. And as I said, I've not read the original article, but I have read several different summaries of it by people both friendly and not-so. I've also read the other articles the journal editor cites as originating the arguments these bioethicists are building on, and I'd be very surprised if they were actually advocating infanticide. (If they are, I'd say that's a big mistake on their parts, but that their basic point can survive without that claim.)

More likely, I'd expect Giubilini and Minerva to argue for something more subtle. If a fetus one day before birth and a child one day after are as similar in their features as (say) a one-day and three-day old child, then you'd expect there to be similar standards for how we treat them. Namely, if it's wrong to kill a newly-born child in certain circumstances, then it should also be wrong to kill an about-to-be-born fetus in those same circumstances. And vice versa; if abortion is permissible in circumstance X one day before birth, then infanticide should also be morally permissible in circumstance X one day after birth.

That's actually a perfectly reasonable position, at least when we're talking about morality. (The law doesn't always have to coincide with morality precisely, though it should try to minimize the effects of bad behavior on other people so ethics is obviously a part of what makes a good or bad law.) But nothing about this means infanticide will always be okay. Mr. Brown gets this precisely when he says:

The equation of abortion with infanticide is central to the rhetoric of many anti-abortionists. It is something that most pro-choicers emphatically reject. For them, the moral justification of abortion lies in the fact that an embryo is not a human being, whereas a newborn baby is. The moral status of a foetus changes over time in the womb, and while there will always be arguments about when the change should be recognised, there is wide agreement that a time limit on abortion is morally significant.

Yes, precisely. So if an abortion is immoral one day before birth - as almost all of them would be - it's just as immoral a day later. From the snatches of the article I've read, it seems like Giubilini and Minerva go too far in this category, proposing that neo-infanticide is morally permissible if the family's financial circumstance changes. I think it's really reprehensible to kill a one-day old child because you can't afford to raise it. But that's not because it's a born human, but because it's much further along its path toward acquiring personhood than a fetus a few weeks after conception is. It would be equally horrendous to abort a fetus in the last day of pregnancy, and even if the law didn't call that murder, and even if I don't consider it morally murder (since the fetus/infant isn't fully human yet), it's still a seriously wrong act. In either case.

This answers Mr. Brown's concern about sex-selective infanticide. Of course it's immoral to kill a newly-born baby because you'd like a son rather than a daughter. But that has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that said daughter is now born. In fact, I'd go so far to say this kind of abortion is never permissible unless we're talking about a cultural situation where a daughter's life really will be miserable. In that case, maybe you could make a lesser of two evils argument. But even then, at the time the fetus/child distinction becomes an issue you've known (or could have known) the fetus was a girl for months. I can't think of a reason in the world why this claim, that gender-driven abortions should be permissible even in the latter stages of pregnancy.

My basic approach is that personhood doesn't fully attach until some time after birth, when the child can start making its own choices. But that it's also not an either/or situation, and the child and late-term fetus has some degree of personhood all along, always increasing, so the longer the pregnancy has gone on, the better a reason you need for an abortion to be moral. There are other factors involved, too, like whether the fetus has to take over someone else's body to continue living and whether other people will think of the fetus as a person even if it isn't one. (Killing a born child that others can see looks like a mini-person has to effect whether we think it's okay to kill other full persons, so there's a higher bar to meet there.)

It's a complicated issue, to be sure. But that's precisely why we need experts to think and talk about this issue. Just like we need Georgetown law students to be able to testify about sex and how our policies re: contraceptives impact their lives is necessary, if we're going to work out whether a certain law is just or not. Calling for a philosopher's death because they wrote a challenging article does make you like Glenn Beck, and not in a good way. With all respect to Mr. Brown, it just does. That's a line you just don't cross.

(Originally posted at LJ; please comment there.)
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 I actually saw this one coming a mile away:

What the 'After-Birth Abortion' and 'Personhood' Debates Have in Common

A few weeks back I wrote about a journal article proposing that infanticides just after birth should have the same legal status as abortions just before. Meaning that they should be legal if the mother's welfare was at risk, and not even called infanticides. I find this claim preposterous, and I tried my best to explain why. Basically, I think there's a big distinction between legal status and moral status.

ChristianityToday, a major online and print magazine in the evangelical (not necessarily conservative, not necessarily fundamentalist, but just evangelical) publishing world made the above post in one of their associated blogs. Basically, the argument goes, this whole debate over infanticide comes from the recognition that there's no recognizable distinction between a fetus and an infant, meaning we should give  all the rights of an infant to a fetus. Think the personhood bills you've seen put out in U.S. states like Mississippi and Colorado.

The problem here is that the concepts of "fetus" and "born human" (to say nothing of human and person generally) are really not so simple, and we're using them like they are. I tend to think the whole abortion debate would be much, much easier if we thought about what we meant by a fetus. I'll grant that a fetus a minute before birth has more in common with an infant one minute after birth, than it does with a fetus one minute after conception. I'll even grant that some of the ways these three things are similar and different are morally relevant. All that proves, though, is that a fetus is a distinction where the members in it don't all have the same moral status.

There are a lot of big philosophical words floating around in there, so let me try to make this simpler. I'll give you that it's morally wrong to kill a fetus one minute before it's born. (Allowing the usual exceptions for self-defense, etc.) That doesn't mean it should be morally wrong to kill any fetus. And, just for the record, it doesn't actually mean it should be illegal to kill a fetus one minute before birth. The law's a blunt instrument and may not be up to the task of splitting that moral hair. It just means that not all fetuses are in the same position, morally speaking.

While we're on the concept of distinctions, it's worth looking at one more: human vs. person. On one definition, it's quite obvious that a newly-fertilized zygote is human. So is an amputated leg or fingernail clippings. Human here just means "has human DNA" or "has human cellular structure." But a doctor who amputates a leg to save the patient doesn't have to go through a hospital board inquiry, and I didn't have to explain to the police why I cut my nails last night. There's another definition of "human," which philosophers both prefer to call "person" to avoid speciesism and to avoid the confusion of using human in more than two ways. Persons are members of the moral community, things that have rights and responsibilities. Some philosophers use  the ability to feel pain; more common is the sentience idea, or the ability to act on something other than just instinct. But when a scientist or a bioethicist talks about a fetus being human, they don't usually mean it in the personhood case.

So to sum up:

  1. Yes, fetuses are (genetically) human.
  2. No, not all fetuses are humans/persons in the moral sense.
  3. The solution is not to call a zygote a person – it is to recognize that fetuses exist along a continuum, and while some may reasonably be called a person, not all can.
  4. So: drop this drive to call a zygote a person. It's not helping.

I am actually as dismayed by this journal article's claim as anyone else. The solution, though, isn't to double down and insist all fetuses are people. It's to recognize the very real difference between a zygote smaller than the period at the end of this sentence, and an eight-month old human baby that could survive on its own outside the womb.

It also wouldn't hurt to distinguish between a late-term fetus's right to life, and the mother of a late-term fetus's obligation to preserve that life. She may have such an obligation based on her past actions of not terminating the pregnancy, not using appropriate birth control, etc. (depending on the situation – this is a big if), but it's not all about a "right to life." There are other concerns that play out here, and the dueling claims in this situation are complicated. You don't do anyone any good by pretending this is a simple issue.

(Originally posted at LJ; please comment there.)
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Whatever else the recent blowup over the ACA contraception mandate might have shown, it's that Americans need a better epistemology. The news story has interested me on many levels and will probably pop up in blog posts from time to time. But one philosophical idea kept seeming to float to the forefront, at least in my mind as I read the different news stories. Namely, that the people participating in this debate seemed to be using concepts in very different ways. They weren't even consistent within the different sides.

This becomes clearer if you think about different groups. There was a lot of talk in left-leaning circles about "the 98%" – a statistic that 98% of sexually active Catholic women had used contraception at least once, and that a high number (I think in the neighborhood of 70-80%) used it regularly or were currently using it. The implication was that this meant Catholicism no longer had a major problem with birth control. I previously argued that religious institutions like the RCC don't operate like unions or PACs, where all you need for a position change is a new consensus view. The RCC, like all religious institutions represents its tradition, not the current view of all its members; and the members get to vote by agreeing to be a part of it or not.

So it's in the church's best interest to make its positions relevant to its members, through education and dialogue. I may not agree with the position (in point of fact I don't), but it's not my opinion – or any Catholic parishioner (which I'm not), or the majority opinion of those parishioners – that decides here. Here, what it means to be a Catholic is controlled by those people charged with interpreting and guarding Catholic tradition. The bishops and the rest of the Catholic hierarchy.

The liberals have it wrong here. I say this as a liberal! But on this particular point, they're off base.

Interestingly, they're also wrong on a related issue but for exactly the opposite reason. This one came up in the context of hearings on this same mandate. There was a bit of a brouhaha over the fact that there weren't any women on the first panel that appeared before the committee, and specifically that one witness who had been denied contraception by her Catholic employer that she needed for non-reproductive reasons wasn't allowed to testify. The charge of "Where were the women?" was pronounced immediately by Nancy Pelosi and soon went viral. I wasn't convinced even at first, because this particular hearing was over whether the mandate posed a challenge to religious freedom, and the woman they wanted to testify didn't have any comment on that particular issue. Do I wish the various religious groups had highlighted some of their female leaders (which do exist)? Yes, if only to drive home the point that religion is not all male-dominated, and that the lashback was tempered by an awareness of the reality women live. But the proposed witness was none of these things, and so I didn't feel excluded on those grounds.

It's what came next where things got really interesting. See, as it turns out there was a woman on the second panel that testified before the hearing (two in fact), but they didn't testify in favor of the mandate. So the idea that no women had testified was revamped a bit to say no women had testified for women. This irked me in the same way that the line that anti-abortion access laws are somehow a war against women. I don't like those laws, I find them insulting in their insinuation that women's decisions couldn't possibly be well-reasoned and I think some of them (like the recent narrow miss down in Virginia) are awful assaults on women and turn the doctor-patient relation on its head.

But I don't think attacks on them are a war on women, because lots of women do resent having reproduction labeled as an illness. Women tend to be among the most ardent pro-lifers, and they probably see abortion as an assault not only on a child but also on their way of life. I don't agree with them, but it is disenfranchising to them to suggest that unless you hold a certain view, you are not speaking for women or you're not a real women. Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachmann are women, and as much as I hate what they stand for on nearly every issue, they represent the viewpoints of many women.

The difference here is that "women" are not an institution like a church is. So here, you can't say you are protecting the institution of womanhood. If you were talking about a specific institution organized along gender lines (NOW, for instance) then, yes, we have a right to say that such-and-such a legislation is anti-NOW or against the interests of NOW. But the larger issue that a legislation is anti-woman? That only makes sense if you think of women as a monolithic group. We aren't that, and again the Democratic party is on the wrong end of it to suggest we are.

I've made my feelings on this mandate clear in recent posts, but that doesn't mean I can't recognize sloppy sentiments when I see them. Ironically, the left-leaning blogosphere is contradicting itself when saying on the one hand the RCC must take every member's position into account with no regard for history when determining the RCC's position, and then on the other hand that "women's issues" should only be decided by the "right" kind of women. Ironic that they get it wrong in both cases, really.

(Originally posted at LJ; please comment there.)
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This is disgusting:

Not the article but the phenomenon. Basically, in a small town in Minnesota (Sen. Bachmann's district actually), they've had a collection of I think nine suicides by high school and middle school kids. Many but not all were LGBT, and it started around the same time the school board barred teachers from promoting homosexuality through the sex ed curriculum. (That included presenting homosexuality as an acceptable "lifestyle.") Because the curriculum was so unclear, teachers were afraid to admit they were homosexual or teach about the role LGBT people had played in history. Or, you know, stop the students who taunted their perceived-as-LGBT classmates, chasing them down the hall and calling them faggot or dyke. I find those words offensive to type; imagine being thirteen an having your peers call you that in full view of a teacher, who does nothing.

There is a real sense of the-inmates-have-taken-over-the-asylum here. Some parts of the story don't quite track for me, like why teachers waited so long to take a stand. Or why the board met with an LGBT activist without having their story straight, if they needed a story. Or why the students were simultaneously traumatized by the deaths but simultaneously went on teasing them until yet more died. But I think denial can explain a lot, as can the inherently messy and illogical nature of all suicides, especially where it's kids we're talking about.

What really shook me (aside from the physical details of the suicide; they're not excessively graphic, but definitely triggery for someone with my history) was the reaction of the local "family values" advocates:

Asked on a radio program whether the anti-gay agenda of her ilk bore any responsibility for the bullying and suicides, Barb Anderson, co-author of the original "No Homo Promo," held fast to her principles, blaming pro-gay groups for the tragedies. She explained that such "child corruption" agencies allow "quote-unquote gay kids" to wrongly feel legitimized. "And then these kids are locked into a lifestyle with their choices limited, and many times this can be disastrous to them as they get into the behavior which leads to disease and death," Anderson said.

Let's assume just for the moment that she's right, that homosexuality actually does lead to a shorter lifespan. Say there's a higher prevalence of AIDS and other diseases, that social pressures lead to self-destructive behaviors. I don't believe that, but let's just say for arguments. In these cases it wasn't AIDS or "limited choices" or anything else that killed these kids.

It was hate.

And that hate can be traced back to the bullying and alienation that the policy not to mention LGBT issues and individuals in the curriculum pointed back to. Some of the suicidees were thirteen. I can't imagine Samantha had even heard of ACTUP, the GLF, or whatever their modern analogs are. But she knew the hate she dealt with every day. If the person who put this policy in place cannot feel empathy for her and thinks the only proper response is to blame her "kind," then Ms. Anderson is missing something big about being a human. Kids are dead. I'm not so naive to think it's all her fault because, as I said, suicide is complicated. But teachers who stood by while this harassing happened time and again and district policies that made it difficult to do anything else had more of a role in this dynamic than any "gay agenda."

Honestly, stuff like this makes me ashamed to be a Christian. I've read enough of my Bible to know these folks aren't practicing the real deal, and I've known enough Christians to know they're not all this. But if I was a high school kid in Anoka, MN, I think I could be forgiven from praying the bumper-sticker's prayer: Lord, save us from your followers.



Originally posted at LJ; please comment there.
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I've been following the debate over health care mandates, freedom of conscience, and religious exemptions pretty closely. It's really very interesting and (for me at least) very personal.

For those of you who aren't American or, you know, have lives to live that don't involve watching the news, the new health care bill basically requires everyone to carry insurance. If you can't afford it, you get a tax-paid subsidy to help out; if you refuse, you pay a penalty to cover the cost of health care if you get sick. The problem is that many companies only offer very minimal coverage – either really high deductibles (the amount you have to pay before insurance kicks in) or low caps (after which you're responsible for the bills). So to help with that problem, Congress said that each eligible plan – meaning, the plans that will let you avoid the penalty – have to provide a certain level of coverage in several defined areas.

And one of those areas was reproductive health for women. Anyone familiar with American politics and the *erm* heightened interest anything to do with sex seems to draw.

Even before the law passed, it was on record that no taxpayer money could go to fund abortions. I wasn't crazy about that decision, but at the time I accepted as the price of doing business. Personally the thought of people with money deciding what medically-necessary health procedures I should have access to (yes, even if they're footing the bill) really bothers me. This is basically because I recognize that yes, capitalism is great at encouraging innovation and hard work and all that, but it really and truly sucks at distributing resources in a fair way. I think that middle- and upper-class people are generally overpaid, meaning that we should give up our money to fill the actual needs of the poor. I see this as a moral duty, and I don't think I should get to say how that money is actually used. So I don't think I should be able to tell a poor woman she can't have an abortion or buy a soda out of their food stamp money (another personal bugabear, brought to you courtesy of Mayor Bloomberg) or whatever, any more than I should be able to tell a rich or middle-class person. But whatever. As I said, with the abortion provision, I do think the ends justified the means there, even if I wasn't totally comfortable with it.

Now the government is trying to work out just what insurances should have to cover. One of those areas, as I mentioned above, is reproductive health. Basically, the government wants to force all health insurance plans to cover health insurance – including plans paid for in part by employers who have traditionally opposed birth control, like the Roman Catholic Church. There are conscience clause exceptions, which basically let people whose jobs are suitably religious in nature (think pastors and priests) buy insurance plans that don't cover birth control. Sometimes the groups oppose birth control on principle, like the Catholics whose natural law ethics condemn any ejaculation that doesn't have the goal of procreation. Other times there's a concern that the some of the birth controls can act as abortifacients, opening up a back door to taxpayer-funded abortions. Still others, usually conservative Protestants, point to the connection between birth control and extramarital sex and don't want to subsidize promiscuity.

But whatever the reason, these groups don't want to limit the conscience clause to clergy and church employees. The conscience exception wouldn't apply to people whose work wasn't devoted to religious ends. Like social workers and nurses employed by Catholic charities, for instance. And plans for students at religious universities would have to cover birth control.

This is where it gets personal for me, because I am a graduate student on stipend at attend a Jesuit (Catholic) university, and I was very much surprised to discover that my health insurance (purchased through my school) doesn't cover birth control or really anything reproduction-related besides OB-GYN exams. I'm not a member of the Roman Catholic Church, nor do I think I accepted a "Catholic" ethic because I decided to study and teach here. Jesuits just happen to produce the best scholars in my corner of philosophy. As it happens, I don't need birth control because I'm not sexually active, and I actually think most premarital sex is immoral for various reason. But that's my decision, based on my moral choice. And for the majority of the culture that disagrees with me, that's there moral choice, too. To be perfectly honest, I really resent the idea that some group I never joined up with should decide what kind of health choices I'm able to access.

(To be clear: this "joined up" idea can be hard to nail down. If you were born into a church and your whole family belonged, staying on the church rosters could just be inertia at work. Or maybe you joined because you agreed with most of the beliefs but not this one. Or maybe you took a job at a Catholic hospital or teaching Spanish at an evangelical high school because it was the only or best opening in your area. None of these should take away your access to medical procedures. But this is doubly so for college students, given how little emphasis students put on the school's ideology when choosing to go there.)

This, right here, is why the whole idea of relying on charity for basic needs doesn't work. The Catholic Church (and the other groups taking similar stances) are saying it's an affront to their freedom of conscience if they have to pay for my birth control (if I decided I wanted it). I would maybe be okay with that (maybe) if not for the refrain I keep hearing in politics. We're told that government is inefficient, that it's wrong to make people give up their money to support people who didn't earn it. That Americans are the most generous nation and to just let people hold on to their money so they can donate it willingly. But many, many charities have religious ideologies. Those that don't tend to have their own ideologies, and many attach requirements to people using their money. That doesn't sit right with me.

Think about an analogy. Say someone proposes we slash the budget for Section 8 housing. [for Non-Americans: government $$$ paid to private landlords, to provide lower-income housing for the poor] This is in exchange for a taxcut, with the assumption people will turn around and donate that money to private charities working in their local area. Only those charities have their own ideology, as most do. Say a certain charity has a strong ideological position against smoking. (Perhaps it's Mormon-backed, whose church considers tobacco use a sin; perhaps the group's founder just lost a favorite uncle to emphysema and hates smoking.) I can't help thinking low-income people would be less free under this system than the current one.

I guess it all comes down to this for me: you can only use those rights you have the power to exercise. I'm all for personal responsibility and saying that if you have enough money to meet your needs if you were smart about it and you squander it, that you're responsible for. Maybe those people need to suffer, or maybe there's room for honest-to-goodness charity there. But if someone isn't making enough to have a basic standard of living, if they're trying to find a job and can't or if the jobs available pay too little, that's not what charity's for. They need public funds – yes, taken from my tax $$$ – and it's really not up to me how they spend it. That's justice.

Your thoughts?

Originally posted at LJ; please comment there.
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The Atlantic has a piece up looking at the difference between policing and soldiering. The basic case is that soldiers (and I used that word as shorthand for all military forces) shouldn't be expected to do the kind of work that Counter-Insurgency strategies require. They've been trained to use lethal support in defense of American interests, and so asking them to play the world's policemen is work they're just not prepared for. Arguably, it's the kind of work you can't be parepared for - asking for both regular killing and measured judgment may be too much for the human spirit to bear up under.

So far, I agree with that. I've said it before that if you want nation-building you shouldn't send people that are recruited and trained to do something radically different.

But that's about where Dr. Rizer loses me. He quotes several military proverbs, such as the one that's the subject of this post and also the "One shot, one kill" mantra that drill sergeants yell during training. Soldiers, Dr. Rizer argues, have it literally drilled into them that they must shoot the enemy and shoot them dead. they are therefore unprepared to make the kind of judgments we expect of police officers.

The problem is, "one shoot, one kill" requires a level of certainty that you just don't have in today's conflicts. Maybe when we were fighting in trenches or shooting at lines of soldiers in bright-colored uniforms. But today, when you have either terrorist groups or internal civil wars (like the situations in Egypt, Syria, and Libya), that level of certainty just doesn't exist. How do you know for certain whether someone is Taliban, an Afghani soldier fighting the Taliban, or just some ordinary guy who saw soldiers with guns sweeping through his town and decided to run so he wouldn't be nearby? How do you do it quickly, when the guy is running away and may soon have slipped through your fingers if you don't act, as the story in this article tells us?

The article I linked to above tells the story of a US soldier who was convicted of involuntary manslaughter because he fatally shot an Iraqi man. That was during a sweep of a town where they were trying to find terrorists, and the Iraqi man fled the town. They got the Iraqi man into handcuffs (with no small amount of resistance), and the American soldier who was convicted had been told by his CO to shoot him if he tried anything more. Then the Iraqi man tripped (which apparently was read at the time like jumping at one of the U.S. soldiers), and so they shot him.

I have some sympathy for the U.S. soldier who has to live with killing this man, and who now has a three-year prison term and a dishonorable discharge and all the rest. I have even more pity for a man who - whether he was a terrorist or not, whether he was leaping to kill a soldier or not - had already been detained, was in restraints and (one assumes) had been searched for weapons, and was still shot dead. But I have no sympathy for a military that trained people to shoot first, ask questions later, and that told them to shoot to kill - then put them in a situation where judgment was needed. This isn't my grandfather's war (if any war ever was), and this sort of indiscriminate killing is just too damned risky for the situation.

Dr. Rizer says that disasters happen because you expect kids to play policemen when they've been trained to kill. I agree. But those situations where judgment is necessary aren't going away any time soon. The solution isn't to give the soldier carte blanche to fire away; it's to make sure they actually have the skills they need to deal with the situations they're likely to face.


Originally posted at LJ; please comment there.
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Over at his blog, my friend Dan Fincke posted a link to an editorial by the inimitable Ta-Nehisi Coates. I agree with Dan: the whole editorial is a must-read for people wo like thinking about these things.

Short version of the Coates piece: many people discussing the Civil War consider the war itself a tragedy because of the loss of life; Mr. Coates wonders whether we shouldn't be celebrating it along the same lines of the Revolutionary War or World War II: a lot of suffering that was necessary for some greater good. As Dan frames it in the title of his post, "Should We Celebrate The Civil War With Hot Dogs and Fireworks?"

I feel quite strongly that we shouldn't. Of course, I've always felt pretty strongly that we shouldn't be celebrating any war (and, as Dan's commenter James Sweet rightly points out, we celebrate the Declaration of Independence rather than the Revolutionary War). But I think there's a deeper point to be made here, too. Even if the Civil War was necessary for a greater good, we should still not be celebratory. The thought of thousands dying beneath Antietam's sun should invoke a kind of horror.

Over the holidays I saw a Law and Order: SVU episode, "Harm," for the first time. The reviews online are pretty low, and I'll grant that it has almost nothing to do with sex and at times came off as being propagandish. But the plot did make me think. In it, there's this medical doctor who was engaged as a scientist to devise "torture light" - pressure poses, psychological tactics, and other things that would make people easier to break during interrogation. An ex-detainee had been murdered by a military contractor gone rogue, but said contractor had fled the jurisdiction. The doctor he worked with was left behind, and they wanted to try the doctor for setting in motion the torture that led to a detainee's death.

The doctor was more than a bit mystified by how what she had done could be considered murder, or even immoral. She was saving lives, she wasn't torturing them or even aiding anything as extreme as what the Taliban was probably doing to Americans. And she wasn't the detainees' doctor, she was a consulting scientist. But she was using her knowledge of the human body - gained so she could alleviate suffering - to cause pain and bodily harm. She knew just how much stress a person could go through in a certain position so they wouldn't be able to choose what to say any more, and she taught men with guns how to do it.

By the end of the episode, I was a bit horrified at the good doctor. Not because of what she had done but because she had no remorse. I'm thinking about something David Hume wrote - that reasons guide our emotions but that our emotions are what actually drives us to act or not to act in a certain way. We should be horrified when we have to kill someone or harm them in other ways. Even if that harm ends up being for the greater good. Because without the revulsion we won't think things through and we'll do evil too easily. War should be hard.

I have no problem with people celebrating the Declaration of Independence, or for that matter the emancipation of slavery. But there's something repugnant about thinking someone would want to celebrate Antietam. When that kind of thing happens, I think we've really started lose perspective.


Originally posted at LJ; please comment there.


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