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Sometimes the comics are more about profound truth than humor.

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(Originally posted at LJ.)
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I disagree with pretty much all of the points made, of course. But as far as pastiches go, it was actually pretty good. Why can't all political ads actually be clever like this?

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(Originally posted at LJ; please comment there.)
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Over at FB a friend posted a link:

We all remember conscience clauses for a while ago; basically there's a new law in Kansas that sets up something similar for doctors and pharmacists. They can refuse to write or fill a prescription that "they 'reasonably believe' might result in the termination of a pregnancy."

Last night I got a call from my doctor, saying to call immediately - at home if necessary. Now, I'm fine. A biopsy of a cyst I had removed showed an infection, and the doc was out of the office the next day. He just needed me to start a special antibiotic. But for the hour it took me to get in touch with him, I was convinced it was something serious. Think cancer. And I knew I had dinky student insurance, so if it was something serious I wasn't sure if I would have to pay for it myself. I'm still shaken up from the whole experience emotionally, even though I'm fine physically and much better than I was yesterday. The thing is, I get how scary it is to not have control over your medical care. To have to trust in someone else's help to get the treatment you feel like you need - I don't know that it matters whether we're talking about your back or your uterus.

So I feel really bad that I'm not more empathetic here. I should be. I think I'm just worn out with all the talk over contraception coverage and access lately; it all seems unreal and remote, somehow. So what really got me was the "reasonable belief" thing. If we read that literally, it seems like it could actually help the situation, because - going by the dictionary definition of reason - you'd need a fact for why such-and-such a drug is likely to actually terminate a pregnancy. Now, maybe we can split hairs over whether a pregnancy just means having a conceived fetus inside you or whether it also requires that fetus is part of you (i.e. it's implanted). And maybe you can say that some emergency contraception prevents implantation (so a conceived fetus is essentially killed, or at least denied what it needs to live).

But there are many other pills that don't work that way. As you guys have explained to me on this very blog, there's some BC you can take after sex that prevents fertilization. That keeps the pregnancy from ever happening in the first place, even if you want to say pregnant means "there's a fertilized egg inside me."

But is that what the lawmakers mean? From past conversations I know this isn't how many people will read "reasonable." (I'm speaking generally, about students and fellow adults I've seen use the word time and time again - not necessarily the Kansas lawmakers.) The word reasonable literally means having evidence, having facts; but I suspect for a lot of people this will be read as "having followers." So if a certain % thinks the morning-after pill terminates a pregnancy, then that pill can be denied to women who want it. Facts be damned.

Which is a scary state of affairs, indeed.
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My last exam is graded (well, except for the one student who has to make up the exam next week), and while I still have some research due for my advisor, I can breathe a bit at last. So I want to go back to a point I just mentioned at the end of my last post. Namely: if you vote against gay marriage, does that mean you're just a homophobe? The story-line is pretty standard: Gay marriage won't destroy straight marriage since straight men aren't going to suddenly leave their wives or anything; the only impact it has is letting homosexuals marry; so if you're against gay marriage you must be homophobic. Is it really that simple?

I don't think so. Now, I'm actually in favor of the state having one status (civil unions, marriage, whatever – I'm not picky about the label) open to both homosexuals and heterosexuals. As a Christian, I actually think Christian churches should open up the marriage sacrament to gay couples as well, but that's a totally different topic. But I also get why some people think of marriage is for straight couples only. And it has next to nothing to do with homosexuality, let alone homophobia.

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I was going to leave well-enough alone over the North Carolina amendment. It was really hard to think of "my" state doing this, and like many people I felt a bit of shock and almost mourning over the law's passage. For a day or two I'd see talk of organizing boycotts against NC and graphics painting Tarheels as uneducated and rednecks. But then President Obama made his announcement and the focus shifted away from NC (sort of), so as I said, I was just going to back away from this topic.

I still see wisps of NC-bashing every now and then, though. Case in point is Leonard Pitts's latest column, where he referred to NC's amendment as "one state's atavistic backwardness" and "the stubborn intransigence of those who desperately need to wake up and smell the 21st century." So maybe it's best to write another post on the topic. Because, really, I'm not sure NC did too badly here.

To be clear: I'm not defending the constitutional amendment. I think it's a badly-written amendment and a bad policy position, and also that it's needlessly hateful toward homosexuals since gay marriage was already illegal in the state. But I also think that, first, the bill didn't pass as solidly as it seems like at first glance, and second, that people might have a first-flush opposition to gay marriage in NC without that meaning they hate gays. I'll explain why in a minute. This wasn't NC's finest hour, but I don't think it's nearly as bad as some people seem to be implying it is. So let me take some of the various charges I've seen floating around one by one and try to explain why.

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Tonight North Carolina voted to make it not only illegal but also unconstitutional for two adults to build a legally-recognized family unit, simply because those adults are the same gender. It's a bit odd - I haven't lived in NC since 2006, but I still feel like a Tarheel at heart, and NC news tends to hit me harder than NY news does. For me, this amendment isn't academic, it isn't general - it is a slap in the face to all affected, no matter the remove.

I have my own history with a good friend from my undergrad days who happened to be gay. And I remember the way he was impacted by homophobia he experienced. It breaks my heart to think of the gay, lesbian, whatever kid who's sitting in his college dorm room hearing that his state doesn't think whatever love he might find should be protected by law. The one consolation I have is that this kid, if he's been following the news all along, might have seen that many people in his state didn't feel this way. But I know how news media works. All those clergymen who signed the petition saying they opposed the amendment are dwarfed by that shameful Billy Graham ad )

This amendment process is offensive and insensitive to a minority group. It's also harmful to families with heterosexual parents but that aren't bound by parents. As has been pointed out many times, it makes it harder to deal with domestic violence, child welfare and any other range of things that affect stable but unmarried couples. But things like this are really and truly discouraging because they point to how little value we place on rational argument in this society. The bottom line is, in an amendment ratification process like this the best argument doesn't become law. Direct democracy like this doesn't give any weight to how well-considered your reasoning is. Are you voting because you have thought things through and one way or the other decided on a position, or are you voting out of fear or on a whim? The votes add up the same.

Also, it should not need to be said, but in case it does: not everything is up for a vote. I can't speak to legal rights - I heard somewhere that some Supreme Court marriage is a right, but I don't recall the details - but philosophically, the ability to form a family unit and receive legal protection of the same is a right. Sometimes the state has a good reason to keep two people from marrying, like with incest or pedophilia where consent is iffy, but there's just not a reason here. (As a side note, it actually amused me to no end that if we're looking for a biblical definition of marriage, polygamy probably comes closer to the mark than the one man, one woman formula. But that's neither here nor there.)

I know I've quoted this passage here before, but on nights like this, I have to go back to Dr. King. He wrote in the Birmingham letter:

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Laws like this are a kind of segregation. And they make me sick.

One other thing: I know a lot of people will say that this is an instance of religion needing to stay out of politics. One thing I have seen over these last few weeks, though, is that religious people have been among the most active in challenging stereotypes and unchallenged beliefs some people have. The backward pastors encouraging parents to beat their limp-wristed children get all the attention, of course, but then you also have pastors like this guy:

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I'm not convinced that this had much to do with religion, and to the extent it did, I'd suspect it was more religion used as a crutch for hatred and us-vs-them mentality.

Enough of that, though. And enough of these high-brow words. Tonight, I just wanted anyone hurt by this amendment (in any way) to know how sorry I am. It's not right, it's not just, and you don't deserve that pain.

(Originally posted at LJ; please comment there.)
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Is this really such a surprise?

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Also, this may explain while I'll be staying home in November, and why I find international politics more interesting than domestic ones.

My politics can be a bit complicated sometimes. On social justice/economics issues I tend to be liberal and value social justice over private charity. That means I have my doubts about the free market's ability to solve things, and given a choice between private charities and mandatory govt. spending that's actually efficiently done I'll choose the latter. That's because I believe very firmly that we only have those rights we have the ability to exercise, and capitalism as it's practiced today means that the wealthy - often not because they're better people, but because they're lucky - have more of the good things of life than the rest of us.

But I also recognize that governments often aren't all that efficient, that they tend to impose a one-size-fits-all approach, and that it's good for people to actually help each other voluntarily. Meaning that while in general I recognize a strong state that can redistribute the wealth as necessary (only when the market doesn't do a good enough job at that to meet peoples' basic needs), I also don't think it's the cause for every social ill.

On moral issues I recently described myself as a traditionalist, and that's true. With some important quantifications, of course; I think homophobia, racism, and misogyny is deeply immoral and I know people a few centuries ago weren't that enlightened. But I think that various traditions (religious or otherwise) are significant and inform our values in important ways - as it should be, IMO. That makes for some rather odd results like my disapproving more of casual sex than gay sex full stop. In any event, whatever I think about sexuality, family values, drug + alcohol, and the like, I tend to think government should be as neutral on those things as possible. It's the government's job to make sure that I (and each of us) can live according to our values as much as possible. People as individuals should then work out what those values are, individually and socially but not through fear of govt. compulsion. So my "culture wars" issues really don't affect my politics all that much...

The truly interesting thing is that I often took the questions differently than I think it was meant. For example, one question stated: It's a sad reflection on our society that something as basic as drinking water is now a bottled, branded consumer product. I disagreed with that, not because I think that would be sad if it was what was happening but I don't. Wherever bottled water is available there's almost always decent tap water as well, virtually for free, so people who buy bottled water are buying something other than water. (Status? Convenience?) It's not the commodification of basic resources so much as the commodification of status symbols, which isn't any great surprise. But I'm sure selecting that gave the computer quite the wrong impression. Sometimes I think about these things too much, honestly.

just for fun - Lehrer's  )

H/t Dan Fincke. (He has a really interesting discussions of various limits on the quiz going on in the comment section.) You can take the quiz here.
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Yesterday I mentioned that even back in high school I was a fledgling pacifist. That reminded me of a story I meant to share a while ago, which is only tangentially connected to pacifism. I thought of it when birth control first became a political issue but wanted to check with my friend (who the story concerns) before relating it. Then once she got back to me I forgot about it and never quite got around to relating it.

Anyway. When I was an undergrad at UNC-Greensboro, I had a flatmate who I'll call P. (at her request), who was raised by her grandmother. P.'s grandmother was by all accounts a good guardian but was also Catholic in a rather traditional way. P.'s health insurance was of course through her grandmother, so P. couldn't get any kind of hormonal birth control without her grandmother's consent. Somewhere along the line, P. had also picked up the idea that condoms weren't very effective even when you used them correctly. She had a long-term boyfriend and didn't particularly want to be a virgin but was very scared of getting pregnant.

Around that time, P. was diagnosed with ovarian cysts and was given a prescription for birth control pills. However, P.'s grandmother insists they call them "hormonal therapy" and that she keep the pills in an old standard prescription-pill bottle rather than the distinctive birth control container. Rather than feeling like she was sick, P. treated this diagnosis as great news: she now had the green light to have sex safely. Her grandmother eventually found out, but relying on something her priest had told her decades earlier during the Vietnam War was actually okay with it. I'm talking about the principle of double-effect; essentially, if you predict an action will have two consequences and you're only doing it because of the first result, the second consequence doesn't really count against you. (This is the theory that lets you drop a bomb on a terrorist, even though you know the schoolchildren who are also inside will likely be killed.)

Something about this amused me to no end. Not the sex per se; at that point in time I believed that pretty much all sex outside of marriage was immoral. (I was a bit prudish at the time.) But the mental contortions both P. and her grandmother went through over all this. Ah, theology!

(For the record, both P., her boyfriend, and her grandmother are perfectly nice people. The first two ended up getting married, as it happens, but not until after college and pregnancy had nothing to do with that decision. They are expecting their first child in August, though. Thanks to her for letting me share this story, and I wish them all the happiness in the world.)

(Originally posted to 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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 When I read something that takes what I believe and carries it to its natural conclusion (or what seems like that), I find it very upsetting – almost violent. That happened today, when I saw a moderate-conservative friend on FB commenting on an article:

Ethicists Argue in Favor of 'After-Birth Abortions' as Newborns 'Are Not Persons'

Now, there are lots of things that made me skeptical about the post. When I loaded the article it had an ad for Goldline and Glenn Beck TV. An issue that seemed mostly secular ethics was listed under "Faith." The first two columnists listed on their contributors page are Glenn Beck and Rick Santorum. And so on. But the article certainly isn't raving. If anything, it seemed remarkably matter-of-fact given the subject matter. Apparently some university-affiliated ethicists down in Australia are advocating for a legal right to what they call "after-abortion," and what the rest of us (including me) call infanticide or just plain old murder.

The thing is, there's a lot in that basic argument that's similar to some things I've argued in the past. I don't believe a zygote produced from a human sperm and a human egg is a full-fledged person. And I don't think the fetus magically acquires the traits that make us human in one fell swoop when its head passes out of the mother's womb. Its moral status the moment before it is born is more or less its status just after it's birth. But I stop way before we get to the point suggested this article suggests those Aussie ethicists take it to, so I thought I'd try to work through why. This may only end up being interesting to me. :-)

First, the false start: that a law outlawing infanticide doesn't actually say you should kill your children, but just that it should be an individual choice. I know pro-choice people (myself included) tend to talk about giving people the right to choose an abortion even when we believe it's the wrong choice. I think there's something to be said for letting people make their own choice – and making everything illegal takes away possibilities of doing the right thing for the right reason. But as Michael Sandel put it in his very well-done book Justice, this in itself is a moral position and rests on the assumption that people can reasonably disagree over whether the fetus is a person. I would never say e.g. that people should have the right to decide whether to kill their eight-year-old child. Or even their one-minute-old child.

But I do think there's a legitimate difference the Blaze author is skipping past. There are real moral differences between a newly-fertilized ovum and a fetus about to be born. I can't necessarily point to a specific day when it is a person and before it wasn't. This is one of the things that drive me crazy about the abortion debate: as if just because I can't point to a hard dividing point, that means there's no difference between the extremes. (Evolution tells us there are all kinds of intermediate states between a chimpanzee and homo sapiens, so perhaps in some case you would struggle to know whether one of the linking individuals between the two groups, but no one would mistake one for the other.)

I am willing to accept the very real possibility that a fetus is sentient or even rational at some point in its development, and so would be a person. This was actually portrayed very well in the last Twilight movie, where Edward senses Renesme's thoughts before she is born and suddenly she seems real to him and worthy of moral consideration. As it happens, I think the law is ill-equipped to handle that distinction, but I'm thinking about the issue more from a morality standpoint anyway. Even before then, there can be reasons – good reasons – why it's wrong to kill a non-human animal. It's just not murder.

There's also another distinction that the Aussie ethicists totally overlooked if they're being fairly reported. I have no hard evidence that the Blaze is taking them out of context, but do consider the source. Also, this is so basic that if they're university-affiliated philosophers I'd be very surprised, since this is a rather significant and well-known distinction. It's that simply because you have a moral right to an abortion, it doesn't mean you have a moral right to kill the fetus. You have a right to keep it from using your body, and it may be a scientific fact that without those nutrients it will die, but that doesn't give you the right to cut its throat or shoot it if somehow it survived being separated from your body. So the mother could maybe say she didn't want to care for the child after giving birth to it, and she could surrender it to the state or someone else.

I find that a bit iffy, actually, given that the mother's had nine months to decide whether she wants the child, but I can see a few exceptions – like if she had carried it to term with the express intent of giving the child up for adoption, or if there were some new circumstances she hadn't planned on (like a birth defect where she wasn't prepared to raise the child). But this idea that it might be cruel to the mother for her to know her child is out there somewhere doesn't hold up for me. Lots of things are cruel, and we usually accept that as long as they aren't intentionally cruel. Life just stinks sometimes, whether as a consequence of our own choice or something done to us. Society can do what it can to mitigate the suffering (perhaps keeping the mother's identity a secret from the child if that's what she wants, or placing the child with parents in a different part of the country to minimize the chances mother and child will meet up.

But only up to a point. Certainly not up to the point of killing another person. I don't know enough about obstetrics or early pediatrics to say for sure this child is rational or for sure this child is sentient from the very second it leaves the womb. But it's well on its way, and it at least has the potential for those traits – a nervous system, for instance. The mother never had the right to kill the fetus, but even if she did, I'd say she had less and less of a claim to that right as the fetus/child approached personhood.

By the way, National Catholic Register, when you wrote:

The second we allow ourselves to become the arbiters of who is human and who isn't, this is the calamitous yet inevitable end. Once you say all human life is not sacred, the rest is just drawing random lines in the sand.

You're breaking your own standard in the space of two sentences. If you're saying anything with human genetic material is a human, that is a definition of human. And when you're excluding acts like biopsying (living, genetically human) cancerous cells from your definition of murder, you're also excluding some genetically-human, living organisms from the classification of humanity. We all do philosophy; some of us are just more explicit about this fact than others.

All said, I think those ethicists are either misreported or went too far (and how). That doesn't make my position that life doesn't begin at conception wrong, though.

(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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The good news is: today's undulating wave Google Doodle is beautiful in its simplicity. Something about the undulating wave (honoring Heinrich Hertz, the German physicist who was the first to transmit and receive radio waves) really struck my romantic fancy. Think of how many ways the radio-wave has influenced us all, and how easy it maks it to reach out to other humans and be connected across distances.

The bad news: after Dr. Graham's recent remarks, I really needed the inspiration. He was asked in a recent interview whether he thought various presidential candidates (and current presidents) were Christian, and as usual his answer was just... *blech*. Honestly, the only thought going through my mind when reading his comments was something along the lines of "Christianity: you're doing it rong." I don't make a habit of speculating about the state of other peoples' salvation, so I'm not going to make the same move Dr. Graham did, but when it comes to the practice of Christianity, comments like this are so wrong they're physically painful for me.

Basically, Dr. Graham said that he couldn't be sure Obama was a Christian. That's an honest enough answer according to Christianity, actually. We're not supposed to be judging people in that regard, and it's not the kind of thing you can easily judge anyway. The problem is that Franklin then turns around and says he's sure that both Santorum and Gingrich are Christians.

Gingrich, the serial adulterer.

And Santorum, whose views on morality, authority, and rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar's are frankly some of the most unbiblical I've ever seen. To say nothing of the utter disregard for imago dei on show when you compare gay sex to bestiality.


Aside from the lack of Christian charity evident in many of the GOP contenders' position, one thing that interested me is how sure Dr. Graham is that a Catholic is a Christian. This is by no means a settled question in this particular quarter of Christian, and again by Dr. Graham's test of someone who grew up in a church family vs. someone who actively sought it out, Obama's biography makes it more likely he's a genuine Christian than does Santorum's.

That's all bad enough, but unfortunately it gets worse. Speaking of Muslims, he says, "All I know is under Obama, President Obama, the Muslims of the world, he seems to be more concerned about them than the Christians that are being murdered in the Muslim countries." The context in other accounts of the interview make it seem like Dr. Graham is actually suggesting that maybe the president is a Muslim, because he's looking out more for Muslims than he does for Christians. I don't agree with the statement that Muslims have gotten an easy go of it under Obama (look at how lukewarm his reaction has been to supporting Arab Spring protesters, for example; and it was George W. Bush who explicitly said he was not at war with Islam), but even if that had been the case, I'm more than a bit flabbergasted by Dr. Graham's position. Has he honestly forgotten the Biblical command to love our neighbors and even our enemy? Where there is suffering, my Christianity commands me to do what I can to ease it.

Look, I'm almost certainly not voting for Obama come November. I have no interest in the question of whether he's a Christian or not, first because in his speech and actions I see as much a reflection of Christian social justice and good works without parading about it that I see in any of the major politicians, and second because I don't need the president to share my religion. Give me a Muslim or an atheist or whatever president who respects the rule of law, who inspires and unifies America and has the courage to get things done - he'll have my vote. I prefer a president who is either active in some faith-community or its nonreligious equivalent, because I think being president is taxing emotionally and you need somewhere to turn for support as you bear up under it. But I don't need my president to go to the "right" church or say the right words.

What I do need is a bit of Christian charity when it comes to people whose faith doesn't take the exact form yours does. And a recognition that being a good Christian is about so much more than being good to Christians. On that count, Dr. Graham has failed miserably.

All of which makes me think that "doing it rong" thought wasn't too far off, anyway.

(Originally posted at LJ; please comment there.)
fidesquaerens: (Default)

I've been following the controversy over birth control coverage for some time. It touches on an experience I had several months back, when I discovered that my student health insurance (I'm a graduate student at a private Catholic university). I was either misinformed or else the policy changed, because I recently learned that I could get birth control if I saw a private doctor and the insurance would pay for it. But I remember how upset I was when I thought I was being forced to live by someone else's morality – and do bear in mind I don't actually need or use birth control! – so I have a lot of empathy for the women whose health care choices are being forced into the public square.

Read more... )

(Originally posted at LJ; please comment there.)
fidesquaerens: (Default)
I'm teaching an Aristotle reading tomorrow where he talks about what it means to be a good human. Before he can do that, though, he thinks he has to work through what a human is. I'll spare you the details, but asically Aristotle says that what sets us apart is that we can look at a situation and choose to go one way or the other; unlike Buridan's ass, we can move beyond our impulses. The important thing is that Aristotle defines humanity in terms of some characteristic that we actually have – not that we might have, not that we'll someday develop, not that we'll one day develop. And certainly not that we have human DNA as opposed to orangutan DNA.

This question has some obvious connections to the whole abortion debate, because a zygote or even a six-week-old fetus has very few qualities. If a human is a choosing thing, can a young fetus do this. Can a newborn baby, for that matter? Aristotle's account of humanity seems to say that a fetus's (or for that matter, a small child's) status as human depends on what it can do. If it can decide whether it wants to play with the red ball or the blue ball, then it's a human and killing it is murder; if not, then it is still alive (and so can be killed), but maybe that killing doesn't rise to the level of murder.

Preparing for class, I wanted to prepare several arguments Aristotle could give for why abortion is wrong without calling it murder, at least in some circumstances. I don't necessarily agree with them, but I thought it might be fun to discuss them anyway.

1. Potential vs. Actual Traits: Aristotle distinguishes between traits we have right now and traits we have the ability to develop. So while a fetus isn't human (since it can't make choices at this point), it has the ability to develop. Aristotle says it's important that we develop character virtues, which he sees as potential traits we should develop. (So basically, the Adrian Monks of the world should build up their courage, so they can face new and challenging situations, but they're not courageous until they've done that.) I think a story could be told here that people who have a duty to protect a particular child have a duty not to squander that potential.

(Caveats: I'm almost certain Aristotle would say actual trumps potential, so a mother has a duty to have an abortion if her life is in danger. You could also ask whether certain parents have a duty to a particular fetus. You might argue that until you accept responsibility for it, its not really your responsibility to nurture a fetus just because it's taken up residence inside you.)

2. The Duty to Care: Aristotle defines humans not just as a rational animal but also as a social animal. We develop our virtue in a community, and friendships – good kinds of friendships built on a love of virtue – are definitely to be sought after. Treating a fetus as just something getting in the way of our desires objectifies us. And to the extent that we think of it as a human or a potential human, it makes it that much harder to form genuine human relationships. This probably is more true of very young children who weren't yet able to choose, or fetuses that were old enough they were known to resemble very young humans – the concern is that by treating fetuses/infants that remind you of mature humans as things, you train yourself to think of real humans the wrong way.

(Caveats: Aristotle's perfectly clear that not only can't you have a friendship with a non-human, you can't have a true friendship unless it's between equals – knocking out the parent/child relationship even once the child is born. So this only addresses the way that treating a potential human as a thing damages the mother's ability to foster future friendships with fully-mature humans.)

3. The Practical Harm of Abortion: Aristotle doesn't define right and wrong in terms of how much pleasure or pain they generate, but he does recognize its importance. Any abortion will involve physical pain, either from surgery or from cramps and discomfort as the zygote/fetus passes. There's also the psychological pain, if a woman feels like she has had to kill a human or a potential human; the lost money that went to the abortion; and the social stigma.

(Caveats: The pain a woman suffers through an abortion may be less than the pain she'd suffer by going through a pregnancy, to say nothing of either adoption or motherhood. And Aristotle's not totally averse to some suffering, if it leads you to develop character; he seems to be more against pointless or excessive pain. I'm also not sure how an Aristotelian would count the pain the fetus went through as it died. Since it's not surviving it can't have a bad impact on the fetus's future character.)

So… three ways that an Aristotelian could say abortion is not murder but it's still wrong in most circumstances. Thinking about this, I'm reminded of Bella's pregnancy in Breaking Dawn. It seems to me that an Aristotelian would almost certainly disagree with Bella's initial decision to have a pregnancy that put her life in very real danger (she's told in no uncertain terms that this child is killing her) – but once Edward senses the child's thoughts, I think at that point an Aristotelian would have a harder time insisting on an abortion. The child is increasingly human (I'd say having actual thoughts, certainly actual desires, is a key marker of being human), and at that point the parents had formed a special attachment to it, so killing Renesme then would lead to the problems I pointed out in #2.

What do you guys think. If you think abortion is wrong, would these ideas let you condemn it strongly enough without calling abortion murder? Do these ideas put enough value on the mother's right not to have a fetus take over her body for nine months, maybe even kill her? I'd be interested in peoples' reactions.

(Originally posted at LJ; please comment there.)
fidesquaerens: (Default)

I’ve been following two news stories fairly closely these last few weeks. These are the kinds of things that you probably wouldn’t hear about unless you followed news and political opinion sites, though I think they do have health impacts, in this case on women’s health.

First, Komen for the Cure pledged to stop funding mammograms through Planned Parenthood because PP was under active investigation and because PP only did breast exams and referred people out for mammograms. There is much about Komen’s actions that seemed fishy to me, especially the being-under-investigation thing, since Komen has donated to other organizations similarly under investigation since imposing the rule, and has only stopped funding PP. And it was frustrating, as always, to see so much misinformation about PP out there.

But those topics are being hashed out elsewhere, I’m sure. What really piqued my interest was an aspect almost no one was talking about: In the short time Komen cut its ties with PP, lots of evangelicals donated to Komen and said they just couldn’t bring themselves to donate to them while they were PP-allied.  One example – and I’ve seen several these last few days – is Lifeway’s refusal to sale Breast Caner-awareness Bibles in their store. Lifeway is a Christian publishing-house operated by the Southern Baptist Church, and they had printed and pledged to sell a pink-covered Bible. They had planned to donate at least $25,000 and $1 per Bible sold (so whichever was higher), and they do seem to be living with their pledge to donate the $25,000 to PP.

But they also had never distributed the Bibles to stores. As Lifeway’s President explains it: “There’s nothing wrong with the Bibles. We just have no business being in even a perceived relationship with Planned Parenthood.” So donating to a group that donates to a group that does abortions is so wrong, you’d rather not stand by that group publicly. Because $1 per Bible is small potatoes, really. (And I have majorly mixed feelings about letting people “give” in ways that donates the company more than the charity.) But the exposure, the statement that we will stand beside you, is an important one. And the fact that evangelical organizations – and individual evangelicals – are willing to donate to Komen but only if it’s not two or three steps removed from abortions is pretty frustrating, actually.

Let me put it simply. I respect Christians’ right to oppose abortions. In some case I think it’s morally wrong; in other cases not, mostly depending on the development of the fetus. I also respect the Christian’s right to do with her charity $$$ what she wants. (So long as it really is charity; it’s different if we’re talking about something everyone should have access to, and I’d put cancer screenings in that category.) But we need a little consistency here. Back during the Bush years, evangelicals were happy to take other peoples’ tax $$$ through faith-based initiatives and funnel them to distinctly ideological groups. The test was, is the work being paid for a legitimate government function? Poverty relief, social services, disaster services, etc. Even medical research. Here many Christians are balking to the idea that their $$$ should go to a group whose ideology they disagree with, but that performs a service they’ve shown they would support if not for the ideology. It’s only fair.

I’ve already blogged about news story #2. Basically the RCC doesn’t want to pay for health insurance that covers contraception, because this would force the Church to either not offer medical insurance or else pay for something they didn’t approve of morally. Interestingly, it’s not a stance that the majority of Catholics actually hold. Back in April 2011, a survey found that about 98% of Catholic Americans used contraception at some point, and 70% used it currently. I suppose you could make a somewhat-reasonable point that if Catholics didn’t use birth control as a group it didn’t make sense to lump them in with people that did use birth control – essentially forcing them to buy something they didn’t need. It’s only semi-reasonable because insurance should force people to buy what they don’t need yet, since that’s how risk pools work – otherwise you’d just have the sick people in the group, and you wouldn’t have much of an insurance policy against illnesses you can’t afford.

But that’s not even what’s going on here. The Catholic hierarchy – single men all – are deciding based on ideology what women and families should do to manage their reproduction. It isn’t that Catholics don’t want insurance; it’s that the Catholic Church disagrees with it and is opposed to paying for it. And really, the RCC is no more a person than corporations are.

That’s the similarity I see between these stories, and that’s the detail that’s stuck in my throat. In both cases, you have women with a real need and because of a group affiliation, people stop from filling that need when either they would like to help if not for what it says about their group identity (“I’m an abortion-enabler, not an Evangelical”) or else they should provide it (because it’s the company’s right to provide health insurance and the individual’s right to make decisions on how to use that insurance).

That seems twisted to me. Whatever other lessons we should learn from these stories, I'd say rejecting that mentality should be at the top of the list.

fidesquaerens: (Default)
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.
fidesquaerens: (religion)
Over at FaceBook, my friend Edward and I were discussing an article he had posted about the abortion of the disabled. I happened to mention in passing that while I tended to think abortion was immoral in most cases --pro-choice doesn't always mean pro-abortion-- I also didn't think early-term abortions were murder because I didn't think early-term fetuses were human.

Edward asked me a perfectly reasonable question, probably the most common question I get when I talk about my views on abortion: how could a fetus conceived by two humans not be human? My answer got a bit long for a comment, so I thought I'd make it a post. Besides, I thought some people might find it interesting.

I have no problem saying a fetus is genetically human - that it has the genetic code of a human. If that's all it takes to be a human, then I suppose in that sense Edward is right and the offspring of two humans has to be a human. But my understanding of life science --and any scientists, please correct me!-- is that species aren't just determined by their genetic code. Organisms have a structure, an arrangement of cells. After all, I got my hair cut yesterday and shed nary a tear over the mass genocide of split ends. And we don't drag doctors before the review board when they excise a cancer and those human cells die, because cells aren't humans.

That's an intuition I think we all have - that a human involves not just a certain DNA but also a certain structure and (dare I say) a certain set of capabilities. A zygote in the earliest weeks of a pregnancy is a clump of cells. There's no structure, let alone no characteristic functions of being human. So that clump of cells isn't a human, though it may have human DNA.

Our language supports this conclusion. An acorn is not an oak tree, though it comes from an oak tree and will grow into one. Neither is a tadpole a frog in any obvious sense. It lacks critical abilities like the capacity to breathe air rather than air, the existence of legs for jumping, and the like. With humans we tend to use the same word for all stages of development, but I think this is a bit of a misnomer. Or at least it lends itself to misuse.

Here's where things get tricky. When people say abortion is murder, they usually have an argument in mind along the lines of:

1. It's always wrong to kill a human (setting aside self-defense, accidents, etc.)
2. A fetus is a human.
3. So it's always wrong to kill a fetus (setting aside self-defense, accidents, etc.)

Problem is, people are using the word "human" in very different ways here. I'll grant that (1) is true if we're talking about an adult human who's able to think and evaluate the situation - a rational animal, in Aristotle's terminology. I'm even willing to extend that to small children who aren't yet fully rational but are on their way, and to older fetuses that can react to their environments and show signs of self-awareness, decision-making, etc. But a blastocyst can't think.

On the other hand, it's only obvious that (2) is true if we're talking about a genetic human. Young fetuses --before consciousness-- are only human if we understand human in a very different way here than we did in statement (1). Ergo: equivocation. To avoid that, I have trained myself to only use the term "human" in the first sense (a self-aware being, mainly).

Now, Christians (myself included) may want to talk about the soul as well. One definition of human is something that has a soul. That is wonderfully unhelpful to my philosopher's mind because you haven't explained what a soul is, and what reason you have for thinking that humans have one or that only humans have one (making the killing of a human worse than the killing of an ox). But I'll set aside those issues for the moment. What evidence do we have that the soul enters the body at conception, or implantation, or whenever? I have a vague memory of one of the Catholic saints who said that the soul joined the body at quickening - Innocent III, maybe? I remember Gregory VI (1500s) issued a bull clarifying that abortion was only post-quickening, and that that changed the position of an earlier pope who said abortion was at any point in the pregnancy. The idea that death pre-quickening was an abortion was a bit of an aberration at that point, IIRC. So if the soul doesn't enter in right away, then until that happens the fetus is only a potential human, not a full human - even though it has human DNA.

Anyway, those are my thoughts. And yours? Feel free to discuss in the comments.


Originally posted at LJ; please comment there.
fidesquaerens: (Default)
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.
fidesquaerens: (politics)
The Tennessee state legislature is currently considering a bill defining just what counts as bullying. I’m far from a legal scholar, but as best I can read the summary (linked above), the bill would say that if someone causes harm to a student or his property; sets up a situation where it is reasonably likely he will suffer that same kind of harm; or creates a hostile environment, that’s bullying.

I’m not crazy about the formulation because it leaves out the psychological component (would we be content to tell an adult abuse survivor that he needed bruises and broken bones or it wasn’t really abuse?), and also because it doesn’t really spell out what it means to reasonably put someone in harm (does bullying someone to the point of suicide, if you knew he was psychologically at risk, count?). But those issues aside, it’s not a bill that I would get particularly upset about. At least it’s addressing this as an issue, which is a good thing.

This bill is not new. (It was first introduced back last February.) But in the wake of gay TN teen Jacob Rogers’ suicide, it’s getting a lot of press. The summary of the bill explains that ”creating a hostile educational environment” would not include discomfort or unpleasantness that can accompany the expression of a viewpoint or belief that is unpopular”, and furthermore that committees trying to address school bullying ”may not include materials or training that explicitly or implicitly promote a political agenda”. These two points together has several liberals – not just in Tennessee but in the blogosphere generally – quite upset.

Wendy Kaminer shot back, essentially arguing that liberals should be for “loop holes” that allow people to express unpopular ideas, which is how she reads this bill. She admits that she has problems with the second bit quoted above, but that she thinks the wholesale condemnation goes too far. Because, you know, expressing any opinion is a good thing, and it’s the kind of thing First Amendment advocates (which most liberals are) should be all for.

As I said above, I’m not a legal scholar. I can’t talk about what exactly the First Amendment protects legally. But this whole exchange got me thinking about the meaning of speech, why it’s good and whether bullying falls under that rubric. It really doesn’t, for a simple reason: Free Speech is supposed to be about the exchange of ideas, even unpopular ones. As hard as it to swallow something like Westboro Baptist’s shenanigans, Americans as a society have decided we’re best served knowing that all of those crazy ideas are out in the open for anyone to see and judge for themselves whether they’re crazy or not.

When confronted with the aforementioned “church,” I sometimes am not so sure about that decision(!), but it doesn’t really matter here. Because bullying is not an exchange of ideas. It’s more akin to abuse, either emotional (if no assault is involved) or physical. And yes, sometimes it’s based on an idea like homosexuality is wrong, but it’s played out as a persistent set of insults and degredations intended not to convey information but to beat the kid down.

Moreover, these are kids that are legally required to be at some school, and if their parents aren’t any more supportive of their homosexuality than their classmates are (which, you know, isn’t outside the realm of possibility given the region of the country this law affects), it’s unlikely they’re willing to homeschool or shell out the dollars/commute for a more supportive school. If someone has to go somewhere then he is not consenting to a conversation anyway. Even if there were ideas being traded, he doesn’t want to trade ideas back. And so the value enshrined in the First Amendment – that the free trade of ideas is a good thing – just doesn’t apply here.

Sometimes I wish people would keep this distinction in mind when talking about free speech. Legally, it may not be possible to distinguish the two types of speech, but morally, philosophically, we can. Ideas are good, and we shouldn’t try to keep them from being shared. But bullying, verbal abuse of an adult, and other such activities just aren’t that kind of speech.


Originally posted at LJ; please comment there.
fidesquaerens: (Default)
In the second book of the Republic, Plato imagines a conversation between his teacher Socrates and his brother Glaucon where the two Athenians try to nail down just what justice is. As part of that dialogue, Glaucon tells a version of an old myth. In the original story, a Greek shepherd named Gyges stumbles upon a cave containing a corpse wearing a golden ring, which Gyges pockets. He later discovers that when he wears the ring, no one can see him.

Glaucon tweaked this story a bit to make his point. He says,

Suppose now that there were two such magic rings, and the just [man] put on one of thema nd the unjust the other; no man can be imagined to be of such an iron nature that he would stand fast in justice. No man would keep his hands off what was not his own when he could safely take what he liked out of the market, or go into houses and lie with any one at his pleasure, or kill or release from prison whom he would, and in all respects be like a god among men.

Then the actions of the just would be as the actions of the unjust; they would both come at last to the same point. And this we may truly affirm to be a great proof that a man is just, not willingly or because he thinks that justice is any good to him individually, but of necessity, for wherever any one thinks that he can safely be unjust, there he is unjust. (360b-d)

(Tolkien fans may recognize the basic storyline here. Yes, it is similar to Gollum's finding of the Ring. But unlike with Sauron's Ring, the Ring of Gyges isn't inherently evil. It just lets you get away with whatever you want.)

Glaucon's building off an argument he gave earlier. The truly strong man, he says, takes what he wants without fear of reprisal. If my university's president were so inclined he could march into my department's breakroom and commandeer my soda in the fridge, because there's such a power-difference between us that there's really no way I could hurt him back. (Not that our president actually would… feel free to substitute Dr. Joe Sixpack or whomever else you like.) That's power, according to Glaucon.

Now, in most circumstances it is to our advantage not to act like that, because people might strike back. If I was to take Chris's coffee mug without asking he would be quite rightly ticked off and might retaliate by eating my candy bar. It's to all of our advantage to have a kitchenette where we can leave stuff, and it's also to our advantage not to have our own stuff messed with. After all, you lose more when someone takes from you than you gain when you take from someone else, because when you lose something you also feel violated. This is where laws come from. Glaucon thinks we agree to follow laws because we will be better off if most people follows the laws, rather than no one doing that. But if there's really no chance of blowback, it doesn't really make any sense to obey the law.

Glaucon fairs better than many of Socrates's interlocutors (many of their arguments are famously bad), but I still find myself disagreeing with him. First, there's Socrates point that even Gyges is affected by his actions. Glaucon seems to assume the only consequences worth messing with are what other people can do to you, but Socrates recognizes that's just the flea on the dog. The real trick is living with yourself, and Socrates thinks acting unjustly does affect us.

But I want to go one further than Socrates here. I think that the best things in life are relational. Aristotle was right when he said man is a social animal; it is how we learn and exercise our virtues, and with perhaps some very rare exceptions, life isn't as full as it could be if you only care about yourself. Caring about others is not optional. Oddly enough, this is the kind of thing Glaucon should be all over because he recognized there was a difference between short-term and long-term good (so perhaps we should act one way because it will help us in the long run, even if it's kind of a drag just this minute).

Why am I bringing all this up right now? Yesterday, I wrote an open letter to President Obama about the National Defense Authorization Act. Basically this is the law that funds the U.S. military, but there's an amendment attached to it that will authorize President Obama to imprison American citizens indefinitely, without trial. Alex rightly asked why I was so upset about Americans being imprisoned. The truth of the matter, though, my anger here has very little to do with indefinite detention. I am a pacifist and have protested the abuses of war just about every way I know how, from Occupy-style protests to writing letters to a hunger protest. So I really don't need the reminder that indefinite detention is wrong on that level.

But there's something else going on here. I don't know whether it's actually worse than the other stuff, but it's new, and it's poignant. Obama's decision not to veto the NDAA is a slap in the face to one of the motivating factors behind democracy. Not only does might not make right, but just being able to doesn't mean you have the right to take away someone else's right. We are all alike in dignity, and if someone doesn't have the power to stand up to the very powerful, that is where the laws are supposed to come in. But Obama initially said he would veto It because there were some limits on what the law said the president could do – to paraphrase John Stewart, the Congress was giving him virtually unfettered and he threatened to balk if they didn't give him absolute power.

As awful as the imprisonment of non-Americans is, it is Americans who have entered into a contract with this particular government. (The same can be said for people in whatever government they live under, if it's a legitimate one. There's no way to mess around with that and not tick me off. This is worse than not getting some law or other through. No amount of health care reform, Osama-busting, or whatever can make up for it in my mind, because the president showed he thinks the law shouldn't apply to him. I honestly can't see that as anything other than an attempt to bring us back to Glaucon's view of justice. And since I think he was wrong, that we have to look out for more than just ourselves I find that… disturbing. A vote for me is a moral thing, and if I can't vote for either side in good confidence, I don't see any way to keep my honor but to abstain.

All of that is in addition to the humiliation and injustice of indefinite arrest. You get no argument from me there. But my issue here is really about the brazen way Obama said this was all about power. His own power. Not the rule of law.


Originally posted at LJ; please comment there.


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August 2012

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