Thursday, March 31, 2005

Pictures from an (Anarchists') Exhibition

So I'm always spouting off around this joint, but in this case I'd appreciate it if some of you folks would comment on this.

[I know that the current Blogger comments set-up sucks. I'll try to fix it as soon as I can. For now, the best way to read comments is to hit the 'post a comment' link and read them there.]

Sunday, March 27, 2005

David Brooks on Relativism, Liberalism, and Terri Schiavo

[1] Brooks’s Central Claims
In today’s [oops. Now yesterday’s. Sorry. Too lazy to finish this yesterday.] NYT,
David Brooks incorrectly suggests that the position of most liberals on the Terri Schiavo case commits them to moral relativism. In this post I’ll explain what Brooks gets wrong, as well as note something important that he gets right.

Brooks writes:

“The central weakness of the liberal case is that it is morally thin. Once you say that it is up to individuals or families to draw their own lines separating life from existence, and reasonable peoplewill differ, then you are taking a fundamental issue out of the realm of morality and into the realm of relativism and mere taste.You are saying, as liberals do say, that society should be neutral and allow people to make their own choices. You are saying, as liberals do say, that we should be tolerant and nonjudgmental toward people who make different choices.

What begins as an appealing notion - that life and death are joined by a continuum - becomes vapid mush, because we are all invited to punt when it comes time to do the hard job of standing up for common principles, arguing right and wrong, and judging those who make bad decisions.”

There’s something right and something wrong in what Brooks writes here.

What he’s right about is this: liberals have at least some weak tendency to slide into some incoherent mish-mash of moral relativism and moral nihilism. (Conservatives do, too, actually, but that’s a different story for a different time.)

He’s wrong, however, to say that this is an inevitable consequence of liberalism, or of the common liberal position on the Schiavo affair. This is more complicated, and has to do with messy details about reason, justification, complexity, borderline cases, and the nature of moral relativism and moral nihilism. These questions are difficult, and I don’t think we should blame people for getting confused about them, or for skimming over details when they are writing at the op-ed level. (That courtesy should be extended not only to Brooks, but to me as well, since it is almost inevitable that there will be some confusions and simplifications in what I’m about to write.)

First, some background.

[2] Objectivism, Relativism, Nihilism
Roughly, moral objectivism is the view that there are at least some objectively right and at least some objectively wrong answers to moral questions. (No, this is not a proper definition, but we’re operating at the op-ed level here. If we’re going to get anything done, we can’t worry about the really nice niceties.) Roughly, moral nihilism is the view that there are no right or wrong answers to moral questions. Objectivism and nihilism are fairly easy to get at least a rough, intuitive grasp of.

Moral relativism is a far, far weirder position, and consequently much harder to get even a rough, intuitive grasp of. Roughly, moral relativism seems to be the view that there are right and wrong answers to moral questions, but these are relatively right and relatively wrong. Paradigmatically, their rightness or wrongness depends on individual belief or cultural tradition. This cannot be the view that nothing is really right, but that we call things right if we like them or if they are approved by our culture; that view is moral nihilism. Moral relativism is probably incoherent, and it would take more time than I have and more patience than you have to articulate a position that might legitimately be called relativistic—a position that does not ultimately degenerate either into covert objectivism or covert nihilism. So I won’t even try to do that here.

Fortunately, we don’t have to try to understand what moral relativism really is, since almost everyone—Brooks included—who talks about “relativism” probably really intends to be talking about nihilism. This becomes clear when we look carefully at Brooks’s central claim. Again, it is:
“Once you say that it is up to individuals or families to draw their own lines separating life from existence, and reasonable people will differ, then you are taking a fundamental issue out of the realm of morality and into the realm of relativism and mere taste.”
Now, when someone says that some issue is a matter of “mere taste,” what they usually mean is that there are no truly right answers concerning that issue. To the question “which is better, chocolate or vanilla?” the answer is supposed to be: neither is better, it’s purely—and merely—a matter of taste. No right answers, no wrong answers. Nothing but preferences.

So, though Brooks identifies this as “relativism,” it’s apparently really nihilism he has in mind.

Correcting for this little problem and putting his principle in its appropriately general form we get:
(B) If we admit that there are decisions that ought to be left up to the
most-affected parties, then we must admit that moral nihilism is true.
There are two important claims at issue here, forming the antecedent and consequent of this conditional:
(A) In at least some cases, decisions ought to be left up to those
who are closest to/most profoundly affected by the decision.
(N) Moral nihilism is true: no answers to moral questions are either
right or wrong.
Brooks’s central claim, (B), is equivalent to the following:
(B’) If (A) is true, then (N) must be true.
That is to say, Brooks’s central claim is that, if we think that Schiavo-type decisions should be left up to the relevant family-members, then we are committed to moral nihilism. In the next section we will see that this is false.

[3] Objectivity, Indeterminacy and Complexity
Once we have the clarified version of Brook’s claim, (B’), in front of us it is, in fact, fairly obvious that it is false. There are at least two (and, in fact, more) reasons why one might leave a decision up to the most-affected parties.

First, one might be a nihilist. I suppose that reasoning goes something like this:
(1) Since there are no right or wrong answers about the case in question, there is no way to criticize any decision anyone might make, hence no reason to impose a decision on anyone.
However—and this is the crucial case--one might be an objectivist but recognize that the case in question is complex and difficult. This reasoning goes something like this:
(2) Although many moral issues are perfectly objective and determinate, there are at least some problem cases—borderline cases, or cases in which principles conflict, or cases of genuine indeterminacy, or cases which are just too complex for us to figure out. In such cases, reasonable people can disagree without obvious error. Since the most-affected people are most intimately acquainted with the facts in the case, and since they will be the ones who will have to live most closely with the consequences of the decision, they are the ones who should make it.
Since liberals may be (and usually are) reasoning as in (2), Brooks’s central claim, (B)/(B') is false. Thus (A) does not commit us to nihilism (or, for that matter, relativism).

Tolerance Etc.
Once we clear up this confusion, it’s easy to understand Brooks’s related worries about tolerance and suspension of judgment. If you accept (A), he writes:
“You are saying, as liberals do say, that society should be neutral and allow people to make their own choices. You are saying, as liberals do say, that we should be tolerant and nonjudgmental toward people who make different choices.
What begins as an appealing notion - that life and death are joined by a continuum - becomes vapid mush, because we are all invited to punt when it comes time to do the hard job of standing up for common principles, arguing right and wrong, and judging those who make bad decisions.”
Although philosophically astute liberals are saying that society must allow people (or families) to make their own choices, we are saying this not because saying so (or thinking so) makes it so (relativism), nor because there are no right or wrong answers (nihilism), but, rather, because the relevant (and perfectly objective) facts and principles do not unequivocally and uniquely determine a conclusion in the relevant cases.

In the Schaivo case in particular, it is that fact that (as Brooks admits) life and death are joined by a continuum that makes the application of the relevant principles difficult or possibly even indeterminate. In a case in which A and B lie on a continuum, there simply will be no clear line between the two, and decisions under such conditions are inevitably hard.

But cases in which reason underdetermines the choice between two incompatible options are common and in no way entail relativism or nihilism. Think, for example, of cases in which doctors offer their patients a choice between two treatments because neither treatment is clearly better. For example, one treatment might be more effective than another but have much more serious side-effects. In some such cases neither decision will be obviously superior. Reasonable people can disagree here, not because there are no facts of the matter independent of our choices, but, rather, because the two treatments are--objectively speaking-- approximately equally good. Reason is not impotent or relative in such cases—it rules out, e.g., eating dirt or going to a witch doctor or taking neither treatment or standing on your head. In fact, it will rule out almost all possibilities, narrowing things down to a very narrow range of rationally permissible actions. But to expect reason somehow to magically distinguish between two equally good courses of action is to expect reason to be unreasonable—to make an arbitrary ruling when the evidence indicates that the options are equally well-supported. Having narrowed things down to a small set of approximately equally reasonable courses of action, however, there is nothing left for reason to do but stand back and say “you are permitted to do any of these things.” Note that no one thinks that oncologists are relativists or nihilists simply because they often offer their patients choices between aggressive, taxing treatments and more conservative, less taxing ones.

The claim that hard cases should be decided by those most closely affected is, in fact, a claim which forms a central part of at least some justifications of democracy. The Constitution sets down certain principles that are taken to be more-or-less beyond dispute (e.g. that we have rights to free speech and press, due process, etc.), and leaves the rest to us to decide. It’s not because the Founders were relativists, nor that they were nihilists who thought that there were no facts of the matter about e.g. whether theft should be a crime or what marriage should be like. It is, rather, at least in part that they recognized that as questions become more detailed and less clear, it is reasonable to leave the requisite judgment calls up to those who are most affected—i.e. the electorate. So if Brooks were right, our very commitment to democracy might commit us to relativism or nihilism.

The Schiavo Case as a Toss-Up
In the case of Ms. Schiavo, I think we have to admit that either keeping her body alive or allowing it to die is rationally defensible in this case. I actually believe that the latter course of action is notably more reasonable, but it’s a close enough call that I can understand how rational people of good will could believe otherwise. In cases where so much is at stake, such disjunctive conclusions are, unfortunately, difficult for some people to accept. As a result, people often end up arguing passionately for one course of action over another which is, objectively speaking, approximately equally well-supported. This is a blueprint for disaster when emotions run high.

[6] What Liberals Can Learn From Brooks
In Brooks’s defense, however, I think he is right that many philosophically unreflective liberals do tacitly presuppose the truth of nihilism or say things that seem to commit them to it. Brooks’s essay would have been stronger and more helpful if he’d have focused on this more modest and important point, warning liberals against the possibility of unconsciously sliding into indefensible meta-ethical positions. Instead, he mistakenly thinks that this slide is inevitable.

Friday, March 25, 2005

The Academic Freedom Bill of Rights and Left-Wing Bias in the Classroom.

By now you've probably heard about the Academic Freedom Bill of Rights proposed by Florida Republicans. (I can't get the link to the whole bill to work, so I've only read second-hand accounts of it so far.)

I don't suppose that I'll need to convince you that the bill is damned dangerous. What worries me more than the bill itself, however, is that the right’s complaints about left-wing bias in higher education might have some merit.

I’ve never seen any helpful data on the problem (if you know of any, please let me know about it), so all I have to go on is my own experience. This is particularly bad because philosophy strikes me as an atypical discipline (even more atypical than most of the other ones, if you see my point). Politically, philosophy seems to me to be closer to the sciences and to political science and econ than to sociology and anthropology and the non-philosophy humanities. We tend to be liberals around these parts, but we don’t have so much of that flaky lefty fringe that seems so common in english, lit crit, soc and anth. Anyway, though I also had history and poli sci majors undergrad, I don’t have the kind of experience with those disciplines that I have with philosophy.

For what it’s worth, here’s some of the (pathetically scanty) evidence available to me:

The vast majority of professors that I know are liberals. A large percentage of the remaining folks are leftier-than-liberal leftists. There are some Republicans around (two in my own department!), though they don’t seem to be too terribly conservative. I’m fairly certain that the full-time members of my department would never push their politics in the classroom. They are all strongly committed to the ideal of objectivity (something, note, that hardcore lefties tend to disparage).

However, I’ve heard horror stories about 1-year people doing so. One student told me that one of our 1-years told her class on the first day: “If you love your country or believe in God, this is not the class for you.” Hard as that is to believe, I do believe the student; she strikes me as extremely honest, and she only gave up the story when I pressed her for it. Furthermore, I've heard similar stories about that instructor from other students.

Furthermore, given the things I’ve heard some people from other departments (mostly humanities and social sciences) say, if I had to bet my life on the matter, I’d bet that they do get out of line in the classroom at least some times. But, again, that’s little more than a guess.

Curious about this subject, I put the question to my two Phil 101 classes yesterday. “Do your instructors ever push their politics in class?” I asked.

Results in the first class (a class of 30 students): An almost immediate and almost overwhelming collective “YES!” Yikes! They just grin and bear it, they said. Who wants to risk your grade by angering the professor, they said. As you might well imagine, I was not happy about this result at all.

Results in the second class (an Honors class of about 18): A longish pause for thought. Then about 1/3-1/2 answered more-or-less in the affirmative, about 1/3 didn’t seem to have an opinion, about 1/3 answered in the negative. A couple of student said that it was worse in their high schools.

Obviously this indicates that there's prima facie cause for concern. That means we've got to collect real data.

Then there’s
my very own experience in undergrad bio class, when the prof literally screamed at me because he (incorrectly) thought that I was going to question evolution. This tale is fascinatingly recounted at Crooked Timber. This obviously isn’t about politics, but it’s in the spirit of what the right is worried about.

Incidentally, the prof's name was Hinni (or Hini?). Kind of an asshole, but a decent teacher as I recall.

This is a tougher case given that it is so painfully obvious that some form of evolution did occur. Still, I think the screaming part is a little out of line.

Also, of course, this one isn't about politics--the the proponents of the AFBR seem to have evolution in their sights, too.

My tentative conclusion: there is clear cause for concern, but insufficient data to warrant either panic or the AFBR. That is, it would be irresponsible of us to either ignore the putative problem or accept something like the AFBR at this point. If professors—of whatever political stripe—really are pushing political (and related) views on their students (who, remember, do constitute what is basically a captive audience), then our own liberal principles demand that we do something about this.

In fact, in my book, what separates real liberals from pseudo-liberals is this: ardent liberals think that liberal bias is no better than conservative bias. Bias is bias, and the true liberal wants nothing to do with it.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

A Query Re: Politics and the Philosophy of Religion

So, many people (but probably not Dostoyevski) mistakenly think the following:
If God does not exist then everything is permitted.

That is--roughly--they think that unless God exists moral obligations cannot be real (rational, genuinely binding). They also think that it follows from this that it is permissible--nay, manditory--to weaken the wall of separation between church and state. I'm not going to worry about the details of this philosophical position right now. What I'm interested in, rather, is a political question:

How should we fight this position?

The two most salient options seem to be these:

(a) Ignore the real issue, muddy the waters, and try to confuse 'em

(b) Be honest and take the issue on in a straight-forward way.

Be advised: although the right-wing theists are wrong on this one--God doesn't help out morality in the least--the arguments that demonstrate this are almost certainly slightly too complicated to win out in a public debate. (b) is, politically speaking, probably a losing strategy. On the other hand, if we take the (a) route, we'll be dealing with this problem forever (or close to it), and we'll constantly have to employ despicable rhetorical strategies of obfuscation (etc.).

So: be honest, go for broke, and probably lose the political debate with a clear conscience, or muddle along muddying the waters ad infinitum?

Waddaya think?
Insane Greeks Threaten to Imprison Cartoonist for "Blasphemy"

Yup, now it's official. The Greeks are nuts. I've been there twice now, and I rather suspected that several of those folks weren't quite right. And this proves it. Laws against blasphemy have got to rank up there with laws against same-sex marriage in the pantheon of all-time retarded legislation. Hell, I'm thinking of writing something "blasphemous" (n.b. "scare" quotes to indicate that this is not a legitimate category) just so I can publish it in Greece and piss them off.
Mind-Body Dualism in the Terri Schiavo Case?

O.k., I can't believe I've gotten sucked into writing about this case so much, but it's like a horrific traffic accident, from which I am unable to avert my mental gaze...

So, to most of us the Christian right's position on this case seems inexplicable. But one thing that would explain it is their belief in mind-body dualism. For those of us (Aristotelians and their kin in this regard) who think that minds come embodied or they don't come at all, finding out that her cerebral cortex is basically liquified is sufficient for concluding that Ms. Schiavo is dead, her body a mindless husk.

However, someone convinced of the truth of substance dualism might not be convinced by the same evidence. If one thinks that Ms. Schiavo is essentially a non-physical substance with only a tenuous connection to her physical body, then the destruction of her cortex would seem less significant. On such a view it would be possible for Ms. Schiavo to be fully conscious even though her brain is destroyed. (Of course, problems about mind-body interaction would be particularly acute in that case.)

This seems to be the best explanation for what many of those on the right are saying. They seem to think that Ms. Schiavo is "in there" somewhere, looking out on the proceedings, fully conscious, panicked, her fully-functioning mind frantically trying to get her malfunctioning body to signal to us that it is alive. Or, alternatively, her non-physical mind is dormant, yet still in there somewhere, essentially undamaged by the destruction of her cortex, patiently awaiting some treatment that will again give it control of her body.

As many have pointed out before, apparent cases of moral conflict are very often actually disagreements about non-moral matters. In this case, as in the controversy about abortion, much of the disagreement may hinge on a non-moral, metaphysical disagreement.

Hey. Well, in a sleep-deprived stupor, I cut the Haloscan code out of my template and switched to Blogger comments. This wiped out all previous comments on the blog. Sorry to those who worked hard on their comments, but it had to happen sooner or later. And I read them all and appreciated them. Older comments were disappearing from Haloscan pretty quickly anyway. The Blogger comments are, apparently, basically permanent.

If you detect any problems with the new system, please to let humble self know.
My Country, Then and Now

Maybe it's just because it's just those it's-3:30-a.m.-and-here-I-am-back-in-the-office blues talkin', but this op-ed by Brother Tom, about our current treatment of prisoners in the War on Terra as compared to George Washington's treatment of prisoners during the Revolution, really got to me. Or maybe it's because of the overwhelming feeling I've been having of late that the country I fell in love with as a kid may be rapidly disappearing. Anybody who doesn't worry that we have become the Bad Guys isn't paying attention. It's easy, see, to become the Bad Guys when you are fighting the Worse Guys.

I saw this pattern before during the Cold War (with regard to our actions in Central America in particular): we find ourselves fighting a really bad lot. We come to think that extraordinary measures are permissible to defeat them. So we end up doing things that any even halfway sensible person can see are wrong. Then the worst among us argue that what we're doing is permitted on account of how terrible our enemies are. Consequently, our (terrible) enemies in effect set the standards by which we judge the rightness of our actions. But of course (a) they are terrible in combination with (b) anything we do is permissible so long as it is better than what they do leads to moral disaster.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Questioning the Central Dogma of Genetics

From Big Monkey, Helpy Chalk. Man, I've been skeptical of the Central Dogma for years now (though, rather embarrassingly, I didn't know that's what it was called). Whenever I find myself in conversations with biologists I bring this up, causing them to start treating me like I'm some kind of creationist wacko or something. This is really exciting stuff. Gots to find out more!
Appalling (If True)

Or, for that matter, if false... Two tales of sub-optimal political actions. One involves an adult's loathsome use of a minor to do something she was too chicken to do herself (and which she shouldn't have been doing anyway); the other involves the kind of thing that I suppose we should be coming to expect from this administration and its penumbra of operatives.

Um, has anybody seen my country? I learned about it in school, but I can't seem to locate it...

Via GNN.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Bush's Ministry of Truth

I haven't been able to control my temper long enough to write anything about the latest revelations about administration propaganda, but don't think I'm not stewing about it.

With the old Soviet Union, at least everybody knew what they were getting in Pravda. Me, somehow I'm so dense that I continue to at least half-believe the stuff that they say.

Anyway, this is just a promisory post. I can't think of anything non-profane to write yet.
Bush, Erring on the Side of Life

Yesterday President Bush asserted the following about the Terry Schiavo case:

" extraordinary circumstances like this, it is wise to always err on the side of life."

For ease of reference, let’s call this principle “L”.

First, we should note that what the President seems to mean is that we should err on the side of preserving life. Second, ad more importantly, we should note that the qualifier (“in extraordinary circumstances”) is neither necessary nor justified. Life is no more valuable under extraordinary circumstances than under ordinary ones. So we must consider the fully general version of the principle rather than the President’s narrower version.

It seems unlikely to me that the President would actually accept the consequences of L. For example, L seems to indicate that we are rarely justified in executing criminals. Given the background of the Schiavo case, L seems to commit the President to the proposition that we are not justified in executing a convict unless we are more sure that this convict is guilty than we are than Ms. Schiavo is non-conscious. I know virtually nothing about brains and about the same amount about the legal system, but the doctors closest to the case seem to have concluded that it is extraordinarily unlikely that Ms. Schiavo is conscious. If I understand things aright here, her doctors have concluded that there is no reasonable doubt about her condition. If their evidence is insufficiently strong, then it is likely that our evidence for conviction in death penalty cases is often insufficiently strong.

Let me note here that I am strongly in favor of the death penalty in principle, but favor a (possibly temporary) ban on it until the system can be thoroughly evaluated for fairness and accuracy. L seems to commit President Bush at least to such a ban and, perhaps, to outright prohibition of the penalty. On the President’s construal of L, my guess is that we will rarely have evidence strong enough to justify execution.

L also seems to entail that our invasion of Iraq was unwarranted. Given that it was clear that many lives would be lost in the war, only extremely strong evidence could support such action. The evidence for the presence of WMDs and links to al Qaeda was, however, very weak—far too weak, at any rate, to meet the burden of proof suggested by L.

If L is true, then we may be obligated to intervene in Darfur. Of course our military is stretched thin in Iraq, and intervention in Darfur would be expensive and inconvenient, but if L means anything it means that expense and inconvenience cannot stand in the way of saving lives. Such intervention would require raising taxes and raising more troops, of course; but if L is true those are the prices we are obligated to pay.

Another consequence of L seems to be that we should take global warming very seriously, since the loss of life that would result from catastrophic climate change is almost unimaginable. Higher gasoline prices and more stringent CAFE standards are small prices to pay to avoid the possibility of loss of life on such a massive scale.

The point is this: the President’s principle tells us that we must be extremely risk-averse when a life is at stake. I am not sure that this principle is false, but if it is true it seems to have important implications for other policies.

But even the most ardent advocate of L must recognize its limits. When someone is e.g. lost at sea, at some point we discontinue the search because we recognize that the probability that they are still alive—though not zero—is too small to warrant further searching.

Such cases are partially disanalogous, of course, in that we are not merely worried about wasting resources that could better be used otherwise in Ms. Schiavo’s case. It is Ms. Schiavo herself that we must primarily be concerned with, and a proper regard for her and her wishes seems to demand that we allow her body to follow her mind in death. But those are deeper issues for a different time.

I am not entirely convinced by much of the above, 4-6 in particular. As always, however, this is intended to a first word, not the last word, in a discussion of the issues.

[Reconstructed after my blog ate my post]
Blog Weirdness...

Um, unless I'm going nuts, I published a post yesterday called "Erring on the Side of Life." It evaporated the first time I tried to publish it. I reconstructed it and published again. But it seems to have just disappeared from the blog. This time I'm fairly sure it was there because--again, unless I'm really going nuts--wmr and tvd both commented on it. The post before it is still there, and the post after it is still there, but not the post in question. I'm too disgusted with this whole thing to reconstruct it. It didn't even suck, but I'm not interested enough to reconstruct it a third time.
Climate Change Inevitable in the 21st Century

Says the National Science Foundation. (Via Science Daily)

Monday, March 21, 2005

DeLay Endorses Universal Medial Coverage?

Commenting on this story in the WaPo, Statisticasaurus Rex sends this thought:

Here's a quote the Dems have to keep tacked up on the virtual bulletin
board for a long time to come:

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) said, "It
won't take a miracle to help Terri Schiavo. It will only take the medical care
and therapy that all patients deserve."

Glad to see that DeLay has finally come around to universal medical coverage.

Wow. Big development! Intellectually honest guy like DeLay, I'm sure he'll stick to this position next time legislation about universal medical coverage comes before the House.
Baffled About Terry Schiavo

I don't have anything interesting to say about the Schiavo case, but I would like to express my bafflement at how this issue has seemingly become politicized. I wouldn't have guessed that people would have lined up along liberal-conservative lines on this one.

I'm not even sure whether those who oppose removing her feeding tube do so because they think that human life should be preserved even in cases in which there is no mental activity or because they think that Ms. Schiavo is still mentally alive. That is, I don't know whether this is a disagreement about the moral principle or about the non-moral facts of the matter.

Since it seems preposterous to think that it is obligatory (e.g.) to keep someone's body alive even after their brain has been removed, my guess is that those who opposed the removal of the tube do so because they think that she is still mentally alive. That is, that this is a disagreement about the neurological facts of the matter rather than about moral principle.

But I doubt that most of us actually know enough about Ms. Shiavo's condition, or about PVSs to make such a judgment. So is this yet another case in which we have to leave the determination of the facts up to the experts? Well, hesitant as I am to trust doctors about anything very conceptually complex, I'm inclined to think it is.

[Semi-footnote: a friend of mine is in his first year of med school and is on a panel that considers bioethical issues. Recently, explaining how bad most doctors' moral reasoning is, he said "I'll be happy if I hear just one valid argument before the year is out. I've given up hoping for soundness. I'll settle for validity."]

But it's probably worth noting that it is likely that consciousness is a vague property--that is, a property that one can possess in degrees. Much of what I read on the subject seems to presuppose that Ms. Schiavo is either conscious or she isn't, though it seems like the real question might be to what extent is she conscious? Of course, the answer might be to no degree whatsoever; on the other hand, it might be to some slight degree. Perhaps she is, say, as conscious as a dog. Would it be wrong to end her life in that case? Or maybe she's rather less so, perhaps to the same degree as a cat. What then? A mouse?

What a horrific thing. What a horrific decision to have to make.

But, back to the original point, why on Earth would conservatives and liberals line up on different sides of this one? If they are disagreeing about the neurological facts of the matter, then--since those issues are orthogonal to political issues--one would expect pro- and anti-tube-removal people to be distributed evenly across the two political camps.

So what's going on? A (pretty obvious?) conjecture: this is a disagreement about what to do in a case in which it is possible but very unlikely that someone is conscious to a significant degree. For some reason a segment of the religious right (though I've read somewhere that it's not a majority of folks on the right) think that the right thing to do is keep the putative person alive, whereas most others think it isn't. At least this is consistent with analogous conclusions with regard to the very similar abortion question, another case in which we can't tell to what degree the creature in question might be conscious.

It's still not clear, however, why people would line up in this way.

Um...more later?
Why We are Doomed
Episode MMCV

Because folks who reason like this vote...


You know, more Americans believe that ESP is real than believe that evolutionary theory is true, despite the overwhelming amount of evidence against the former and in support of the latter.

On thing that might help people think more clearly about evil turtles, Jesuses-in-tortillas and related phenomena would be a very short course on pareidolia. So here it is.

I mean, if people can't think clearly about cases this easy, how can they have any hope of understanding e.g. issues about Social Security? Am I overreacting again?

(P.s., I don't consider myself an ally of scientistic "skeptics" (nor of real skeptics, for that matter), but they do get many things right.)

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Intentions in the Ten Commandments Case

First, is the appropriate test in the TC case the Lemon test? (Even though it isn't legislation that we're talking about.) If so, isn't it an open-and-shut case?

Does anyone really think that anyone who advocates the installation of the TC in courtrooms has a secular purpose? They say they do, of course, pointing to the obviously ridiculous story about the TC representing law as such, or providing some kind of source or foundation of our laws. But saying so doesn't make it so, and it must be painfully obvious to everyone that this is a ruse.

This kind of dishonesty really burns me up. Reminds me of people who claim to have religious reasons for smoking weed. Now, there is no doubt in my mind that marijuana should be legal, and that marijuana prohibition is immoral. But that doesn't mean it's o.k. to lie about your reasons in order to promote your goals. If you want to smoke weed because you like it, then be up-front about your reasons...but don't fabricate First Amendment problems that don't really exist. Same for TC advocates. Don't lie and claim that you have a secular purpose--be honest about your intentions and let the case be decided on those grounds.

At any rate, there is no reason for us to worry about whether we should allow the TC to be posted for secular reasons when no one has or ever will advocate this for such reasons. The reasons are clearly and indisputably religious.

If the Lemon test or something like it is the appropriate test, then the case is open-and-shut on other grounds as well, since posting the TC in courtrooms would clearly have the effect of advancing religion.

So I conclude that either the Lemon test is not the relevant test, or this is an open-and-shut case.

Anybody know which it is?
Arms and Influence

At wmr's suggestion, I checked out Arms and Influence. I recommend that you stop reading this blog and go read that one.

Alongside the serious posts the host, Kingdaddy, notes that the IDF is denying high security-clearance ratings to those who play D&D, and that Russell Crowe thinks he might be kidnapped by al Qaeda in order to culturally destabilize the U.S...

Philosoraptor sez check it out...
Still More Lies

From the WaPo:

In an effort to increase pressure on North Korea, the Bush administration
told its Asian allies in briefings earlier this year that Pyongyang had exported
nuclear material to Libya. That was a significant new charge, the first
allegation that North Korea was helping to create a new nuclear weapons

But--surprise--this turned out to be false.

So, I guess the administration has decided that it's o.k. to lie to us, and it's o.k. to lie to our allies, and it's o.k. to lie to the U.N.... (Well, maybe it is o.k. to lie to the U.N....) I guess truth-telling is one of those hang-ups of the reality-based community...

The U.S. has become so dishonorable under this administration that even I'm starting to not like us anymore.
Still in Denial

I was wondering the other day whether anyone out there still really believed that the administration didn't cook the evidence about WMDs. Then I ran across this, an alleged refutation of my latest thing on Krauthammer. That post of mine isn't very good, incidentally--in case you haven't noticed--but the Cuanas post doesn't demonstrate that. It's a rubber arrow. Anyway, my favorite parts:

1. The suggestion that there's something funny about thinking about international affairs over Spring break. (Hmm...maybe that is kinda funny, come to think of it...)


2. The suggestion that the following two propositions are incompatible:

(a) The Administration cooked the evidence about WMDs
(b) France and Germany thought that Saddam had WMDs.

Egad, even France and Germany thought so?!?!?!?! For the record, I thought that Saddam had WMDs, and still recognized that the administration was cooking the evidence... In fact, I remember saying to one of my colleagues "There is no doubt in my mind that he's got 'em, and I still think they [i.e. members of the administration] are lying [about the evidence]."


Saturday, March 19, 2005

Did The Invasion of Iraq Make Us Safer?
How Do We Answer Such Questions?
Deferring to Authorities, Again.

Bush says 'yes', of course, but (a) politicians can't really be trusted to give objective answers to such questions, since they usually have at least one eye on politics and (b) Bush does not even seem to be a particularly honest politician.

The real question here is: how do we answer such questions? They're hard, and folks like you and me usually don't know enough to have valuable opinions about them. So we tend to fall back on our antecedently-held beliefs about the actors or policies. Since I think that Bush is a bad person and a bad president, and since I know virtually nothing about the Middle East, my natural inclination is to doubt and deny that Bush's policies have been responsible for the seemingly positive changes there. Since I in particular think that the case for war was deceptive I am loath to conclude that the war has had good effects. Where I should admit that I don't know, I rather tend to render a negative judgment.

The problem with such a strategy seems to be, however, that it makes early judgments disproportionately influential. Since I followed the election of 2000 with extraordinary care and understand the issues involved fairly well, I can say with some confidence that Bush & co. exhibited a willingness to in effect steal that election, and that it is unlikely that Bush was, in fact the winner. This, of course, leads me to take an extremely dim view of the Bush administration.

My ignorance of Middle East politics then creates a kind of epistemic vacuum--I'm not qualified to judge whether Bush's policies have been effective there or not. But my low opinion of the administration and its policies and tactics in general make me disinclined to give them credit or view their actions favorably. So I find myself leaning toward a conclusion I'm really not in a position to make--that Bush is not really responsible for positive developments in the Middle East.

So what I really need is a general epistemic policy that will help me to settle such questions in a rational manner, rather than allowing myself to incline unconsciously toward judgments I'm not qualified to make. I can't think of any way other than identifying some relatively objective and non-partisan experts and accepting their opinions on the matter--in this case, on whether the invasion of Iraq has, in fact, lead to positive developments in the ME.

Any suggestions?

Friday, March 18, 2005

True SUV tales of Action Adventure

As I left for Chapel Hill for Spring break last week, it started to snow. I thought that accumulation was out of the question, but 20 minutes out there was a significant accumulation of slush even on the interstate. There were identifiable ruts in the slush, and driving wasn't dangerous if you kept your speed reasonable and didn't drive like an idiot. Although there were a couple of sliding incidents before the snow gave out, I saw the remnants of but a single accident, a lone SUV sitting nose-down in a steep part of the median, stuck, its driver sitting behind the wheel, smoking.

How many times do we have to say it? Four wheel drive does not keep you from sliding off the road...
The End--Nigh?

Well that's just great.

Like many other folks I'm inclined to think that the lead hypothesis for explaining the absence of detectable signals from intelligent species elsewhere in the universe is a technological one. There are optimistic versions--e.g. that there are communicative technologies completely different from radio and t.v. which are typically invented very soon after radio and t.v. are invented. (Never heard anybody else suggest that, but it seems plausible to me.) And there are well-known pessimistic versions--intelligence is actually maladaptive, and intelligent species tend to destroy themselves before or soon after they develop radio and t.v.

Anyway, the link above puts me in mind of those who thought that atomic weapons might ignite the atmosphere, but who went on with the development and testing of those weapons anyway.

Seems unlikely that we'll get away with stuff like this for more than a couple of hundred years...
Shame on Krauthammer

It's hard to know what to say about Krauthammer's latest screed in the WaPo. I've actually been doing a lot of reflecting on W and his role in recent events, trying to look at it all from different angles, trying to see whether there's any rational way to grant him credit for recent developments. Irrational partisan drivel like Krauthammer's piece is not making my attempts at objectivity any easier, I've got to say.

I came back from Spring break with the intention of asking us all to consider the following: most of us seem to give credit to FDR for pulling the U.S. toward involvement in WWII against its will. Well, I do, anyway. Fighting Hitler was morally obligatory but most Americans didn't realize that. Consequently, FDR was forced to act anti-democratically, in ways designed (at least in part) to entangle us in affairs most of us had no desire to become entangled in. Although Pearl Harbor came along and decided the matter, that doesn't change anything.

So, if these actions redound to FDR's credit, then it seems that the following general principle must be true: a (in particular, democratic) leader acts rightly if he convinces his country to do the right thing, even if this requires deceiving the electorate.

But if that principle is true, then George W. Bush deserves credit for getting us to oust Saddam, even though he had to deceive us in order to do it. Considerations of consistency seem to prevent us from judging FDR one way and W another.

The difference, however, is that democratizing the Middle East was, so far as anyone can tell, never the real goal of W's invasion of Iraq. We still don't know what the real goal was, and may never know. As I've noted several times, the hypothesis that the goal was finding WMDs seems strongest, though that hypothesis faces obvious problems: in particular, that the evidence was so flimsy and so obviously "cooked." It was rather surprising to me that anyone outside the administration took the evidence seriously, so it's extraordinarily difficult to believe that any of those involved in cooking it really took it seriously. One might respond that they all clearly believed the conclusion ahead of time, and that's why they cooked the data, and that's a strong response. On the other hand, it just pushes the question back a step: whence their certainty?

The other obvious hypothesis is that they acted on humanitarian grounds. This is the hypothesis that Krathammer tacitly assumes to be true. But it is unlikely to be. The GOP has spent most of my lifetime scoffing at every Democratic proposal to use our military for humantarian purposes. We could not, as their battle-cry went, be the world's policeman. W himself repeated the "no nation-building" mantra over and over again during the 2000 campaign. Humanitarian rationalizations of the invasion were only used to bolster the national defense/WMD case in the lead-up to the war, and this rationalization became the primary "justification" only after it became clear that Clinton had destroyed the remnants of Saddam's WMDs years earlier.

So, how do we answer the question Krauthammer so relishes, was George W. Bush right? Well, there were no WMDs in Iraq, so he wasn't right about that. And he didn't undertake the war in order to establish democracy in the Middle East, so he wasn't right about that, either. What happened is that he drug us into an ill-conceived war at the worst possible time, leaving al Qaeda untouched (except insofar as it was strengthened)--but this disastrously foolish course of action has had some strikingly good results in the region. If only Bush had really been aiming at those results when he went on his quest for the Fountain of Sarin, he would deserve a good bit of praise. But he wasn't, so he doesn't. The administration started talking about humanitarian goals and democratization when WMDs turned out to be the phantom menace.

One thing Krauthammer gets right is that there is a segment of the left that is so foolishly anti-Bush and anti-war that they refuse to admit that anything good could ever come from a war, let alone a war started by W. They are fools, and Krauthammer is right to ridicule them, but they represent only a part of the left. That segment of the left recognizes that Bush is bad, but seems to think that his badness is inextricably linked with the failure of his policies. This is one thing that the mindlessly anti-Bush left and the mindlessly pro-Bush right have in common. The former think that Bush is bad, so his policies must have no good results; the latter see that Bush's policies are having some good results, so they conclude that Bush must be good. But mere results are irrelevant when we are asking about a person's moral character. What matter are intentions. Bush might succeed in democratizing the entire Middle East, and that would be one of the greatest things of all time. But if that's not what he intended to do, it's merely a happy consequence of the bad actions of a man who is--at best--not terribly good.

It is, in fact, liberals who should be happy about recent events in the Middle East. The administration's own miscalculations have forced it to pose as liberal interventionists. And to make this pose at all plausible, they will have to take at least some actions consistent with the pose. Liberals should take advantage of this, allying themselves with the administration and forcing them to take real action to spread democracy and human rights in the Middle East--and elsewhere. Instead, many liberals have chosen to whine about "spreading democracy at the point of a gun." Conservatives are politically savvy enough to realize that posing as liberals is preferable to admitting error on such a grand scale. Unfortunately liberals are not politically savvy enough to take advantage of this pose. Instead of siezing on any opportunity to achieve their justifiable goals, they have become sulky and surly, seemingly resentful of the fact that liberal reforms now seem like a real possibility in the Middle East.

Perhaps liberals are worried--as am I--that a man who stole an American election might go down in history as a champion of democracy. But if so, they they need to emphasize the points I've made above about Bush's motives rather than rooting for the failure of liberalism in the Arab world.

Saturday, March 05, 2005

Iraq War Helps to Recruit Terrorists

This, from the WaPo, is a couple of weeks old, but I keep meaning to link to it.

I'm not a member of the "keep whining about the war and hope it ends in disaster" set. But I am one of the (many, many) folks who insisted that we not undertake the war without admitting to ourselves that (a) it would not hurt al Qaeda and (b) it would, in fact, help al Qaeda. Boy, I sure do hate being right so often...

Note that this does not constitute a decisive reason against going to war, but it does constitute a potent reason. Although I've advocated military action to eliminate Saddam since Gulf War Episode I, I also thought that this action should not be taken after 9/11 until we'd dealt with al Qaeda. Squash al Qaeda first, I thought, then take out Saddam on humanitarian grounds. The one thing we didn't want to do, I thought, was take out Saddam (and on false pretenses to boot!), leaving al Qaeda to (a) grow in power and (b) use our action in Iraq as a recruitment/training tool. That'd all be bass ackwards as we used to say back in the Show-Me State... Sadly, that's just what we did.

Friday, March 04, 2005

Tricky Wording in the Ten Commandments Case

Been meaning to comment on this for days, but been too busy:

From the NYT:

At the same event, Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the American Center for Law and
Justice, a law firm established by the Rev. Pat Robertson that litigates for
evangelicals and other religious communities, offered a different perspective.
The Ten Commandments have acquired secular as well as religious meaning, he
said, and have come to be "uniquely symbolic of law."

I’m sure what I’m about to write has already been noticed by others, but it’ll make me feel better to write it.

Mr. Sekulow’s claim is a very complex one, problematic in the extreme. It could probably not be more confusing if it had been specifically constructed to confuse.

Let’s consider the claim in a bit of detail. The core of the claim is:

(TC) The Ten Commandments are uniquely symbolic of law

First, (TC) is multiply ambiguous. It might mean any of the following:

(TC1) The Ten Commandments are unique in symbolizing law.
(i.e., only the Ten Commandments symbolize law; nothing else does.)

(TC2) The Ten Commandments function uniquely to symbolize law.
(i.e. they do nothing but symbolize law)

(TC3) The Ten Commandments are unique among things that symbolize law.
(i.e., nothing else symbolizes law like the Ten Commandments do)

(TC3) is a bit of a stretch, but perhaps not too much of one.

Which of the above claims is true?

Clearly (TC1) is false, because there are many other representations of law. The word ‘law,’ for example, represents law. Perhaps Mr. Sekulow is thinking of iconic representations—pictures and suchlike. In that case, we might note that statues of “Blind Justice” also represent law (and justice), as do scales. In fact, such representations of law are reasonably plentiful--one of the maidens in Raphael’s “Vision of Knight,” for example, is such a representation.

But we should also note that Mr. Sekulow and company cannot insist on (roughly) iconic representations, since that would rule out the Ten Commandments itself, which are, after all, primarily verbal/symbolic representations. Making a statue out of them doesn’t change that fact. And if we allow THOSE kinds of symbols of law, then we might as well use the Code of Hammurabi, the Code of Justinian, or the Magna Carta.

So the Ten Commandments are not the only thing that symbolizes law, so (TC1) is false.

(TC2) is obviously false. If the Ten Commandments symbolize law at all (something I will deny below), then they do far more than merely symbolize law. They are alleged to constitute the Abrahamic God’s moral commandments to humans. So, what they symbolize primarily (if anything) is not law as such, and not legal codes, but, rather, the commands of the Abrahamic God. If they represent any such thing at all, they also represent the Abrahamic faiths, Christianity, and the Old Testament. They are also perhaps in some sense representative of theistic ethics and divine command theories of morality. And they rather clearly represent all of these things far more strongly and clearly than they represent law (as such).

So the Ten Commandments do not symbolize only law, but symbolize (if anything) Christianity (and the other Abrahamic faiths) and/or their conception of law. So (TC2) is false.

(TC3) is a harder case because the claim is far vaguer, and expresses a judgment concerning something that’s a matter of degree. How is it, exactly (or even approximately) that the Ten Commandments are superior to other representations of law? Certainly the Ten Commandments do not represent law per se any more clearly or any more strongly than, say, the American Constitution or the Magna Carta. Nor more clearly or strongly than a statue of Blind Justice, or a representation of scales. In fact, as a representation of law per se they are notably inferior to these other representations because the other putative symbols of law are do not specifically represent divine commands to man, such commands being a very peculiar and unusual type of law to say the least.

If the Ten Commandments represent law per se at all, then they are clearly unique in at least one respect: they represent a certain Christian conception of law and the authority of law. But, of course, it is exactly being unique in this way that makes the Ten Commandments--to borrow Mr. Sekulow's word--uniquely unacceptable as a representation of law to be displayed in American courts.

More important than any of the above, however, is that (TC) (and all it’s disambiguated forms) has an extremely important presupposition, specifically:

(TC*) The Ten Commandments represent law

It is telling that Sekulow’s claim merely presupposes this and does not say it outright. It never ceases to amaze me how little misdirection is required to preserve crucial claims from scrutiny. But the fact of the matter is that (TC*) is at best not obviously true and at worst simply false. While it is true that representations of the Ten Commandments represent (one particular set of) laws (specifically, the Ten Commandments), it is not true that they represent law at all. To represent law per se rather than one very particular and peculiar set of (putative) laws is quite different than representing some particular body of laws, just as representing ideas per se is very different from representing some particular set of ideas. My copy of Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics represents a certain set of ideas--some of those of Aristotle about ethics--but it in no way represents ideas in general or books in general.

I have to say that, despite being raised in a mostly Christian environment, I have never, ever--not even once in my entire life--thought of the Ten Commandments or representations thereof as a representation of law per se. The Ten Commandments are a very specific set of laws, not law in general. In fact, I very much doubt that anyone—Christian or non-Christian—has ever actually thought of the Ten Commandments as a representation of law per se. It is simply not true that the Ten Commandments have any such representative function.

So, it does not seem that the Ten Commandments represent law per se at all. If they do so, however, there are other equally apt representations, and ones that do not in any way threaten to violate the separation of church and state. Consequently it is those other alleged represenations of law that should be used in American courtrooms if any are. If the Ten Commandments represent law at all, they also represent Christianity and Christian concepts of law and the authority of law, and, consequently, they are uniquely unsuited to represent law per se in American courthouses.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Tips on Thinking: Be The Red Team

Here's some advice about thinking I give my students, and employ myself all the time: be the Red Team.

The Red Team, as you know is the team of (putative) good guys designated to pretend to be the (putative) bad guys. Many people tend to think that good reasoning is primarily a matter of technical expertise--being adept in logic or statistics or scientific method. It's good to be good at those things, but it may be even more important to inquire honestly. However, once you've become convinced that a position is true, it becomes increasingly difficult to get yourself to probe for its weaknesses. It's easy to fall into the role of unrelenting advocate for the position.

So, it can help quite a bit to step back and consciously take up the role of the Red Team, thinking yourself into the role of critic. The key question to ask yourself is "what criticisms would I raise if I wanted to reveal the weaknesses of this position?" This is, roughly: what criticisms would I raise if I were convinced that the position is false? This may seem like a trivial exercise, especially for those of us who are already inclined to be reflective about our beliefs, but I do find that it helps, especially if you engage in the exercise over a relatively long period of time, a period of hours or days.

Try it. I predict you'll agree.

If there is some position to which you are genuinely committed you should not only not fear this kind of criticism, you should welcome it. If you're afraid to engage in this exercise, then you probably have no right to be sure about the position in question. And discovering this is valuable in and of itself.