Politics, philosophy, religion, and other things

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Gov. Siegelman a Political Prisoner?

Scott Horton points to an article in Raw Story about the awfully suspicious prosecution and conviction of former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman. Horton has done a lot of good work looking into this case, and it is disturbing how blatant the Alabama U.S. Attorney was in coming after Siegelman.

This highlights one of the most disturbing aspects of the U.S. Attorney scandal. We've really only heard about the cases where these Attorneys refused to give in to the Bush Administration's pressure and so were replaced. But what about those who did give in to the pressure, or never needed that pressure in the first place? What have they been doing?

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

More political sex

It looks like another Republican Congressman has been caught with his pants down.

Roll Call:

Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) was arrested in June at a Minnesota airport by a plainclothes police officer investigating lewd conduct complaints in a men’s public restroom, according to an arrest report obtained by Roll Call Monday afternoon.

Craig’s arrest occurred just after noon on June 11 at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. On Aug. 8, he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor disorderly conduct in the Hennepin County District Court. He paid more than $500 in fines and fees, and a 10-day jail sentence was stayed. He also was given one year of probation with the court that began on Aug. 8.

To me these stories are just embarrassing. It is difficult to see what was illegal in Senator Craig's actions (at least from the arrest report), and I am very tired of the private, especially sexual, lives of politicians making so many headlines. Sure, I know that the Republican Party largely deserves these headlines due to their continual hounding of President Clinton, but the same reasons why I think that was wrong hold here as well. I have seen no good reason to think there is a connection between a politician's sex life and his public service and I wish (uselessly I know) that these stories would just stop--or at least relegated to the gossip page where they belong.

Perhaps the least important issue for me is the hypocrisy element (highlighted here by Hilzoy). Yes, Sen. Craig supported DOMA and has a clear record of voting against homosexual rights, but yet seems to be a closeted gay man. I'm not sure why his homosexuality (if true) would make his discriminatory actions towards homosexuals any more appalling than they already are. If he was caught soliciting sex from a woman his support of DOMA would be just as reprehensible. But yet that is often the most scandalous aspect to these spectacles.

I suppose the reasoning is something like this: if Senator Craig is truly homosexual and yet claims that homosexuality is wrong then either a) he should know better because of his own experience b) he is lying about his own views for political gain (i.e. he doesn't believe that homosexuality is wrong).

It seems to me that (a) is irrelevant. Yes, he should know better. However, he would hardly be the first morally conflicted homosexual if he was honest in his condemnation of homosexuality. More importantly, as a Senator, Larry Craig already has this responsibility. I would expect of all Senators that they would all, homosexual or not, have a broad enough range of experience to know better. In other words, any increased responsibility that Larry Craig might have to better understand understand the legal and moral rights of homosexuals due to his own alleged homosexuality is by far trumped by his responsibilities as a Senator to understand these legal and moral rights.

As for (b), it seems to me that most politicians, including almost all of the Democratic candidates for President are already doing this. To my knowledge, none of the major Democratic candidates are willing to support marriage rights for homosexuals (although they will support civil unions, state laws, etc.). I could be wrong here, but I find it difficult to believe that otherwise liberal and progressive politicians such as Edwards and Obama believe that homosexuals shouldn't be allowed to marry. Thus, their refusal to admit this publicly is also a matter of lying about their views for political gain. I am not trying to draw a moral equivalency between Edwards and Obama's "lying" to Craig's posited lying, as Edwards and Obama are not working to limit homosexual rights but to increase them--just pointing out that, again, it is not the lying or hypocrisy about their actual views that matters but what their actions as politicians.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Scopes 2.0

I recently had a heated discussion with an evangelical Christian about the unfairness of teaching evolution, but not creationism, in the public schools. One of his claims was that evolutionists are now in the same position, and doing the same thing to creationists, as creationists were formerly condemned for doing (especially in such famous cases as the Scopes trial) namely, not letting teachers teach what they think it is right to teach. In other words, now it is the scientists and science teachers who are trying to stifle dissent through political means rather than persuasion by evidence.

Now I think this is troubling to many liberals about the case against "teaching the controversy" (as it is coyly termed by modern creationists). After all, isn't freedom of speech a basic human right? And really, who are we to tell people what they should or should not teach their children?

But I think this criticism rests on misunderstandings of the actual cases where school boards have changed the laws and of the claims of the scientists and their Democratic supporters.

First, most of the legislation (and I'm too tired right now to look up links--maybe tomorrow) that has been passed and challenged in the courts has not just said, say whatever you want, but rather, that you have to teach both sides, or present evolution and the creationist criticisms of evolution. So I take it from the beginning that the creationist isn't (or at least shouldn't be) claiming that the scientists are wrong to say that we should have political control over what is taught in public schools. Rather, they are being inconsistent to their own principles of free inquiry, especially as exemplified in the mythology of their free-thinking heroes.

But this is just wrong. Scientists (and I know some scientists disagree, but this is the view of the major scientific organizations) don't claim that people should be allowed to teach whatever they want. If someone is teaching science, then they should be teaching science properly, which crucially means something like the consensus views of most scientific experts on a particular issue. This is why there will be much more uniformity in most scientific textbooks as compared to the textbooks used in the humanities.

To make this point more clearly, the issue in the Scopes trial was not freedom of speech, (after all, teachers have a public duty to teach well, not just however they wish), but rather that scientific education should be ultimately controlled by scientists rather than by politicians, parents, preachers, amateurs, etc. And that control is what is still being challenged by modern-day creationists such as the members of the Kansas School Board, the Discovery Institute, and others. So it would be misleading for the creationists to cast themselves in the position of John Scopes being forced to teach something they think is wrong as that is not the primary issue.

This criticism relates to another mistake made by creationists. They will often point to the few biology-related scientists who criticize some aspects of evolution, generally without proposing a workable alternative--mainly just Michael Behe--as evidence that their is a real controversy on this issue and so it is in fact the scientists who are calling for change. The Discovery Institute has been particularly bad on this issue, repeatedly making strong claims about how the amount of disagreement means that we should change how we teach biology.

But this is making the same mistake as before, albeit in a slightly more sophisticated form. First of all, scientists as individuals have no more right to try to dictate how we should teach science in public schools. So even Einstein in 1915 has no right to say, hey look, Newton was wrong and so you should stop teaching him. Even though Einstein was correct in his claims, and was able to back them up with strong evidence, in order for that to matter to the public school educators it must first enter into the scientific community and be judged by them. If it becomes part of the prevailing paradigm (or replaces that paradigm), then it can be taught. But notice how it is not Einstein, brilliant as he was that legitimates this process. Rather, it is the community of scientists coming to an agreement that does so. Since the community of scientists has come to an agreement about both the scientific status of the idea of evolution and the irrelevance of the arguments offered by its critics, it would be wrong to teach as a matter of science a non-existent controversy here.

So, to me if we are to have a discussion on this issue we should be honest about the terms of the debate. I know that the idea of science is held in very high regard in U.S. culture and so no one likes to argue against science. However, it seems to me that the real issue remains what it was for the Scopes trial: Who should control science education? Those arguing against the teaching of creationism claim it should be scientists and those arguing for the teaching of creationism believe it should be some other group.

I apologize for the laziness of this post, not including links and switching at whim between normative and descriptive claims, but hopefully my point is somewhat clear.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The "real" elections.

Ever since Michael Jordan left the Bulls, the Western Conference has had a disproportionate amount of the better teams. Unfortunately, this means that the finals are sometimes lopsided and not very exciting. This year was one of the more extreme examples, with the Spurs rolling over the Cavaliers in the Finals. It seems likely as well that 3 or 4 other Western teams wouldn't have had much more trouble. This leads to boring championships, and since championships are where you get the marginal fans interested in the game, this is bad for the NBA.

Sportswriters are aware of this and respond by calling the Western Conference finals the "real" Finals. That will be the most the most difficult series that the (likely) eventual champion will have to face. And again, this year's match-up between the Suns and Spurs bore this out.

I suspect there is a similar dynamic in this presidential election. The Democrats are coming off of a convincing victory in the 2006 election and Bush, unlike Clinton after the Republican victory in 1994, has not substantively changed the controversial policies or rhetoric that led to this victory. Thus, any Democratic candidate will go into this election as a strong favorite to win--meaning that the "real" election for president will be in the Democratic primaries.

I suspect this is one of the reasons why the primary season has started so much earlier and the candidates are spending so much more money now. You focus most on your toughest opponents, and this election it looks likely that will be the Democratic primary candidate.

But then why are the Republican candidates also doing the same? I think a lot of the attention focused on the Republican candidates is due to spillover, or equal time considerations. Like an arms race, if the Democrats start earlier, the Republicans must as well. Perhaps this is also why the Republican field seems so muddled right now--they just aren't ready for the media onslaught of the primary season.

Of course, there are other reasons as well for the early primary season. Bush and the Republican Senators have fairly clearly shown that they are unwilling to work with the Democratic Party's policy goals. The Democrats justifiably feel that they will just have to wait until Bush is gone to make substantive changes in foreign and domestic policy. Hence, focusing on putting a Democrat in office is the best way for the Democrats to achieve the goals that led to their victory in 2006.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Does the (future) President have religion?

One of the things I find most interesting about the upcoming elections are the choices facing conservative Christians in the Presidential elections. Conservative Christians generally hold that the religious beliefs of prospective political candidates are relevant to their fitness as American leaders. But this puts them in a bit of a pickle in the upcoming election. While the major Democratic candidates are quite vocal about how their Christianity has affected their political commitments, the major Republican candidates are rather less . McCain has always had a distrustful relationship with the Religious Right. Giuliani disagrees with conservative Christians on most social issues and seldom discusses his religious views. And Romney, who has positioned himself as the most conservative candidate is a Mormon--which many, if not most, conservative Christians would place him outside of Christianity altogether.

Some liberals write fairly scornfully of evangelical Christians. I think some evangelical ideas deserve this. And evangelicals have certainly been at least as scornful and vituperative in writing against liberal ideas. But I am not sure that the liberals are very good at understanding or predicting how Christians will react politically. It is occasionally asserted that Republicans engage in dog-whistle politics--where as long as they say the right buzz-words they will get the Christian vote. I don't know if this is true. After all, this would be effective only as a signalling device--a way to show Christian voters that you are one of them. The reason this worked so well with Bush is that he really did convince evangelical Christians that he was one of them--a born-again Christian with the same religious and spiritual concerns they had. Will this work as well for a Republican candidate that cannot identify religiously with the evangelical community? I don't know, but I suspect not. If the Republicans fail to mobilize the evangelical vote again in this election, will the Bush presidency be anomalous? And if so, can the Democratic party peel off some of these voters by presenting strongly religious candidates?

I am doubtful. While I do think that the failure of the Bush presidency will deservedly tarnish and hamper most efforts to mobilize evangelical Christians, I am unconvinced that these voters will switch parties. It is not enough to just be religious. After all, even the Muslims are religious. What is important is that you be of the proper religion. And frankly, liberal politics has overwhelmingly been identified with liberal Christianity amongst the evangelical community. And evangelical Christians has defined itself in opposition to liberal Christianity.

Furthermore, I think many underestimate how well evangelical Christianity meshes with the current policies of the Bush administration. For instance, why are evangelical Christians so fervently in support of the war in Iraq? Shouldn't they, as Christians, be against war a la Jesus's many sayings on humility and forgiveness? Is is just group identification? Or is it that they've believed the (formerly) cunning lies of the Bush administration? An unjustified assumption is that these Christians wouldn't support the war on the basis of their religious beliefs. After all, evangelical Christians are Christian. That is, they believe that God is on their (the U.S.) side. And with God on their side, how can they lose? Only by a lack of faith--i.e. by giving up because the war looks hopeless. And not only Christian, but evangelical. Their ultimate goal is not peace in the Middle East, but a Christian awakening. Of course they will support the overthrow of governments they view as anti-Christian (i.e. not run by Christians). This would be a policy goal vitally important to them in a way that is almost invisible to secular people.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Dirty Hippies Wearing PJ's In Mom's Basement Eating Cold Cereal

The world would be minutely better if bloggers refrained from signaling sarcasm by capitalizing the first letter of each word in a phrase. I don't need to see another reference to The Very Serious and Respectable Group of Beltway Living, Cocktail-Downing, And Whatever Other Stereotype We Like To Use To Describe The Media Or Party Establishment to realize that the blogger thinks some of these people claim to to be smart, educated, and eloquent and that she disagrees with this claim.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Scandals everywhere

I haven't paid a lot of attention to the Scooter Libby brouha. It seems he is guilty, which evidently has surprised no one. The commutation of his sentence by the president is also the predicatably squalid conclusion to the whole affair. However, I don't really care much whether Scooter Libby is punished. The purpose of Mr. Libby's proposed punishment would be symbolic, a way of telling the country that even the President and his associates are not above the law.

However, send Mr. Libby to prison for life and I, and I suspect most others, would not be convinced. After all, Mr. Bush, Mr. Cheney, and Mr. Gonzalez have themselves repeatedly argued that the President is, in effect, above the law when dealing with U.S. citizens declared, by the President, as unlawful combatants. I'm supposed to believe a President with this attitude won't also use this ability to protect his political power? Or, as attested by the numerous scandals afflicting the spectacularly misnamed Justice Dept., that Mr. Bush will disapprove of the dishonourable and illegal methods used by Mr. Libby to attack Mr. Wilson? This is just more of the same we've come to expect from this administration.

Nor is this, as some have claimed a case of Mr. Bush threatening the foundations of the "rule of law." Sure, we, the jury, and the judge might think that Mr. Libby deserved to be punished for his crimes, but obviously Mr. Bush (and many members of the media establishment as well) did not. Mr. Bush used the legal powers granted him by the Constitution to make sure that Mr. Libby is not punished. So where is the rule of law being disrupted? I don't see it. After all, if the country believes that this was an abuse of power by the president then we can change the law so that future presidents cannot pardon their own associates.

Update: I am not saying that we should ignore these situations. After all, Scooter did commit a crime and should be tried and punished. The crimes he committed were significant enough to be very embarassing to the administration. However, I'm not convinced at this point this further aspect to the scandal means much. If anyone didn't already realize that the Bush administration encourages the unscrupulous, corrupt, and/or incompetent behavior such as that exhibited by Mr. Libby then they will not be further convinced by this pardon.

Corruption and incompetence are problems that can afflict both parties. And every election, both parties run against the other party on this basis (e.g. see Edwards' populism and the refrain of Republican Congresspeople everywhere that they are for small government and are going to go to Washington and protect their constituents against the bureaucrats, etc.). In other words, no one is for corruption. However, some of the people who are going to run in the next election will support scandalous ideas such as the legalization of torture, the stripping of human rights and civil liberties from even U.S. citizens, and even more unprovoked attacks against nations such as Iran. Whatever your views on homosexuality or abortion, I would hope no one in the U.S. would support those ideas by voting for the candidates representing them.

Friday, June 8, 2007

Where I've been

My long national nightmare of grading is finally over--so I can once again use my use my time constructively in the creation of blog posts.

Anyway, it's Friday night and I'm going to go celebrate

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Christians: Are They the Moral Majority?

As I'm sure most people are aware, Jerry Falwell died last week. I only ever knew him as a famous Christian "spokesman" who said some things that people found embarrassing. That, and as the popularizer of the term "Moral Majority." Phil Nugent points out that this term seems oddly inconsistent with the Southern Baptist culture of Falwell, and with slight differences related to their more individualistic and anti-authoritarian attitude also inconsistent with the normal Evangelical culture of the Northwest. He says:

Having grown up in the rural Southern Baptist culture that Falwell came to represent, and having grown up in it during the last few years before it became fully owned and operated by the Republican Party, I've always believed that there was no way anyone who was really of that culture could have come up with the term "Moral Majority." When I was a child, our preachers and Sunday school teachers (and our teachers plain and simple, because in what I suppose was a violation of law, the teachers in my third and fourth grade classes used to lead us in prayer and Biblical-related discussions, for all the good that it did in my case) didn't tell us we were a part of any majority. Quite the opposite; it was always made clear that only a tiny fraction of the people on Earth at any given time would finally prove good enough to make it to Heaven and see God's smiling-Santa face.
I think this illustrates a couple of the oddities of the religious right's political involvement. Christianity has a long history of seeing itself as the "hidden city," as a separate society within society. This derives from the division between the world of spirit and flesh and goes back all the way to Jesus telling the Pharisees to give to Caesar what is his and to God what is God's. Since this is partially understood in terms of moral and spiritual purity, there is always this sense that the world of flesh--of which the state is a, perhaps the most, powerful manifestation is trying to distract and pull us away from true Christianity. This attitude seems to me to encourage a permanent notion of Christianity as the minority view. It doesn't matter what people say, or even what they do. What is fundamentally of importance is your relationship to God. Since this limits you to solely trusting the few people you know personally, or those who know and engage in the essentially religious (and hence exclusionary) markers of this relationship, there is always a limit on the size of the group that will qualify.

But yet, the Christian right is politically mobilized, and politically mobilized as Christians. They constitute one of the most vocal blocs of one of our major parties. What is the political justification provided for trying to make religious ideas binding on people? Here it became necessary to bring in the idea that actually Christianity constitutes in fact a political as well as religious majority. In other words, it is a re-making of religious ideas over into political and moral ideas. But this seems to provoke a serious tension in how we are meant to treat religion.

Take abortion. Why do Christians try so hard to make it illegal? After all, they know that non-Christians are evil and do evil things. So why are they attempting to prevent them from doing this one? Or, in the popular pro-choice refrain, if they don't want abortion, don't have one. Why should they be worried about the morality of those outside their religious communities? In other words, why is this a legal/political rather than a religious issue for religious people?

It seems to me that the simplest answer is that American Christians have largely adopted forms of reasoning more characteristic of Enlightenment liberalism than strictly fundamentalist ideas warrant. Liberalism characteristically tries to universalize their moral principles and so must treat all humans as essentially equal and indistinguishable. But if we are to treat all humans equally, it seems that we (roughly) must treat all religious beliefs as also being equal as the major religions on offer are not universalizable across all people (Liberal Christianity, which was an attempt to sketch out a picture of this universalized religion, is what led to the rise of fundamentalism).

So to argue against abortion, religious people must step outside their religion and use liberal reasoning against it. And I think the rhetoric is consistent with this claim. After all, according to those against abortion a morally significant human life begins at conception and so a properly universal liberal moral reasoning would include their rights as well. Hence the popularity of the "right to life" as an argument against abortion.

But the concept of a right to life is a creation of Enlightenment liberalism. It is not really to be found in the Bible. For instance, the image of the "vengeful God" of the Old Testament is a result of the passages where God commands the Israelite leaders to kill another nation--sometimes absolutely--even those we would normally consider innocent, such as the woman (non-combatants), children, and even their livestock. In fact, in a startling turn-about, King Saul loses the blessing of God because he decides to spare some of the innocent Amalekites. And as for the New Testament--what little political thought is contained there says nothing about protecting the rights of innocents. It is striking in light of the contemporary political scene that as far as we can tell neither Jesus, nor his immediate disciples felt it was necessary to try to effect social change through political means. In fact, while Jesus had much to say about the society he lived in, his invective was primarily reserved for the religious leadership of his own religion--a very different attitude from that of contemporary Christians.

These are difficult questions. Many early Christians, and some of the more libertarian type Christians I knew growing up had the view that Christians should not be involved in government or politics at all--but rather should keep themselves separate from the dirty doings of the world. Other seem to think that religion and politics are both good and necessary things, but should be kept as separate as possible. Others, and this is more characteristic of the religious right, try to combine the two. I am not sure that they are very successful.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Mistaken for Hegel

John Moe's take on the Republican candidates.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Giuliani and terrorism

I sometimes struggle to understand the average Republican perspective on an issue. I can understand the logic behind their denial of reproductive freedom. I can understand why many of them feel it is necessary to claim that homosexuality is sinful or are afraid of losing their cultural identity through immigration. However, I find myself bemused by what seems at times the most common Republican response to Islamic-based terrorism.

I don't think that the average Republican is consciously racist towards Arabs. However, since most racism plays at the unconscious level that tells us little about the reality of their attitudes. In general, if we wish to treat all peoples equally it is necessary to engage in self-examination. I would like to assume that this is not an exclusive characteristic of the liberal mindset. But sometimes Republican rhetoric gives me cause to wonder.

The most recent example of this was in the Republican primary debate last Tuesday. There were two main highlights--the advocacy of torture (albeit by other names) by most of the field, and Giuliani's outrage at Congressman Paul's claim that we should seek to understand the motivations of those who are attacking us.

I will admit that I find it astonishing that we need to argue that torture is immoral as I considered the repudiation of such practices one of the distinguishing marks of Western liberalism. However, I will acknowledge that many countries with authoritarian leanings have felt that the so-called pragmatic benefits make it worthwhile (and we have certainly become more authoritarian since the terrorist attack of 2001). But I honestly do not understand how a responsible public figure arguing that he is best qualified to lead our country can be willing to claim that the reason that we were attacked on 9/11/01 was simply, or only, because they "hate us for our freedoms."

It is perhaps possible that some Saudi Arabs do "hate us for our freedoms." However, to claim that that alone is an adequate motivation for an entire civilization threatening movement is transparently absurd. If they do "hate us for our freedoms," it behooves us to ask us why they resent the fact that we are free. It is true that the citizens of the U.S. have many opportunities that are not open to other people around the world. But why is it that it was in the Middle East that this inspired a movement of people willing to sacrifice their own lives in protest against these freedoms?

Some have suggested that it is because Muslims dislike the idea of freedom in general. Let's suppose this was true. Then why would they resent the U.S.? The U.S. best partner in the Middle East is Saudi Arabia, by no means a free or democratic state, while our greatest enemy has been Iran, which is one of the more democratic (albeit with a strangely theocratic flavor) countries in the Middle East. So shouldn't Al Quaeda be then supporting our attempts to weaken the Iranian government?

However, even more importantly, to seriously claim that Muslims do not desire themselves to be free is to ascribe an attitude to them that even their holding it would defeat the American notions of government. The U.S. Constitution is based on the notion that ALL humans have certain inalienable rights, one of which is liberty. Thus, to claim that these entire groups of humans in fact do desire to live without freedom would be to claim that the U.S. ideals of government should be given up.

No. What must be done is to attempt to understand why it is that some groups have grown to resent the U.S. Acknowledgement or understanding of the causes of resentment is not the same as claiming that this resentment is justified (as any parent should know). And that is why Giuliani's attempt to paint Congressman's Paul remarks as claiming that the U.S. "invited" these attacks is completely false.

This is not that difficult. Osama Bin Laden and Al Quaeda did not just appear out of nowhere in 2001. They had been claiming for years that the U.S. should be punished for having troops in Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, there had been clear resentment because of the bombing of Iraq for the previous ten years (as noted by Paul).

It is occasionally a temptation to treat our political or military opponents minds and attitudes as completely ineffable. This is convenient for us, because it prevents us from having to worry whether we are acting in manners that justify their actions or whether we are doing things that might be viewed as provoking violent responses that, when directed against us, we will immediately condemn. But, giving in to that temptation comes at the price of losing the liberal ideas of human rights and, furthermore, of giving up intellectual respectability for the ideas we replace it with.

Update: Daniel Larison has, as usual, a thoughtful conservative rebuttal to the notion that we were or are attacked because of our freedoms.

Update 2: To be a clearer about one of my points. Western democracy arose from the Enlightenment assumption that all people desire to be free. If you give up this belief, which is what Giuliani seems to do, then we have no justification for any intervention in international affairs (which some conservatives would welcome) and challenge whether the U.S. federal government has the authority to rule over its citizens. Philosopher types can and do argue these points, but I would be, to say the least, disconcerting for one of the major parties to espouse such a rejection of core American ideals.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Why stay in Iraq?

Some war-supporters have suggested that regardless of whether our initial decision to conquer Iraq was justified now that we are there and have created a mess we should stay there. There are usually two justifications given:

1) Iraq is the main "front" of the war on terror, so we should keep our troops fighting there to prevent terrorists from attacking the U.S. Call this the "they'll follow us home" argument.
2) The U.S. military is the only thing preventing Iraq from falling into complete chaos. If we left, full-scale civil war would break out between the warring factions in Iraq, perhaps even leading to genocide.

Okay. I don't view these as being of equal merit. The first argument seems to me fairly silly, and while the second argument raises legitimate worries it seems pretty unlikely that the U.S. military presence in Iraq is actually the proper response to worries about genocide. However, the point I want to make here is that these two arguments are in tension (if not quite explicit contradiction) with each other.

The first argument appeals to traditional American privilege in war--we always fight somewhere else (at least for the last 140 years). This has many effects, but one is that U.S. civilians do not have to bear the brunt of war in the same way other civilians do. Thus, U.S. industry is not bombed, U.S. civilians walking to the store do get killed. Yes, war is still awful, and our soldiers still die every day, but the negative effects are an order of magnitude different from that suffered by the citizens of the country providing the battlefield. The assumption of this privilege is doubtless part of the reason that the WTC Center attacks were so shocking to U.S. citizens.

However, the claim that if we leave Iraq the terrorists will follow us home relies on the notion that these future terrorists are attacking the U.S. not in order to get them to leave Iraq, but as part of some larger "Global War on Terror" (cue Giuliani's tired "they hate us for our freedoms" line.). But that means that the conflict in Iraq is directed against the U.S. and so is not inherently tied to issues around American hegemony in the Middle East. So Iraq in providing a battleground is doing a favor to the U.S. by giving us a country other than our own to tear up in fighting terrorists.

But if that is our motivation for staying in Iraq, it seems disingenuous to also claim that we are staying in Iraq for the Iraqi people's own good. We certainly do not want terrorists to attack the U.S. But if we think that terrorists have to attack something, and so it is better that we provide U.S. targets for them to attack in Iraq, then the second argument would seem to become false. After all, the clear implication of the first argument is that if we left Iraq they would then be able to start attacking the United States directly because they wouldn't be tied down fighting in Iraq. But what then of the claim that if we leave the fighting will get even worse in Iraq? Wouldn't that just mean that the terrorists would be even more tied down in Iraq?

At heart these arguments are based on contradictory motivations. The argument claiming they'll follow us home is claims that it is better that someone else (i.e. the Iraqi's) suffer U.S. citizens. The argument that we should stay in Iraq to protect them from sectarian conflict claims that it is better that the U.S. pay a price (dead soldiers and trillions of dollars) if it will prevent more Iraqi deaths. I am not sure how you can make these compatible.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Quasi-Realism Intro Pt. 1

I've been reading Simon Blackburn on ethics recently. He is primarily interested in questions about the nature of moral claims rather than which moral claims are actually correct. So he isn't so much presenting a moral system as describing how moral systems or theories operate. For instance, people who believe that people act only out of selfishness (not Blackburn's view), are telling us something about the nature of moral claims, but they are not saying of any particular action that it is right or wrong, or that we should or shouldn't do it. On the other hand, a Kantian might tell us that we shouldn't lie because it is an action that is logically inconsistent (or ununiversalizable).

Blackburn is a projectivist, which means that he believes that our moral claims, beliefs, or attitudes are based on our sensibilities rather than any kind of external law or reason. This is a view that is popular with many naturalists because of the difficulty in deriving a moral imperative, an "ought," from some fact about the world alone. For instance, it seems like a morally admirable thing to help support those less well-off. But why? For a naturalist anything that exists can be described (broadly speaking) by science. But it is difficult to see how we can describe a natural fact which necessitates an action without first appealing to some human desire. So it seems that these desires end up being the basis for action. And furthermore, these desires are ultimately things we accept (for what might be good reasons, but still, explanation comes to an end somewhere). We have an innate desire to preserve our own live, and this is not a desire that is particularly amenable to rational reasoning.

One of the major problems with this viewpoint is that it seems to leave truth out of the picture. If our moral claims are ultimately based on our sensibilities, then when I make a moral claim I am not describing some fact about the world, but rather expressing a particular emotion or stance towards life. Thus, if I say that slavery is immoral I am not expressing a belief in a proposition that can be checked for truth against the world, but relating something about my own stance and priorities. However, there ends up being many problems with understanding the meaning, however construed, of moral terms if we cannot talk about them being true or false in a way that connects to our ordinary use of the terms.

Blackburn attempts to solve this problem by proposing a view he calls "quasi-realism." This position marries projectivism with a Wittgenstein-influenced view of language. Wittgenstein claimed that our language is made up of distinct, but interlocking discourses he called "language games." What he meant is that the concepts that we use in a particular language game are understood and make sense only relative to that language game. Thus, science is a language game that talks about some parts of the world in scientific (naturalistic) terms. However, we can talk about the world in other ways as well--for instance, in religious terms, or aesthetic or ethical terms. It would however be a mistake to try to reduce the meaning of religious words to what they would mean when talking in scientific terms. Any attempt to do this would fail because the we only understand the family of religious terms that we use in relation to other religious terms. If you try to interpret them in, for instance, ethical terms you will be making an error--misunderstanding how these words are meant to be used.

Blackburn takes this notion and says that while naturalism is true we can still talk about the truth of ethical and moral terms as well. We just have to be careful to not transport the understanding of truth as scientific truth into the ethics language game. This is the basic notion: if you ask moral questions or make moral statements you are engaged in the moral questions language game. That means that these words have meaning, and can even be said to be true or false (keeping in mind that this is not meant to refer to some object--"goodness"--that we meet in the natural world), and in fact we can do all the things with moral language that we ordinarily do. This has to follow, because if we ordinarily do it, that means there is some kind of meaning when we ordinarily do it, and the only confusion we had was when we thought that it had to refer to something in the world outside of us. But in fact, since, he claims, the way in which we are set up to respond morally to the world is through our emotional and attitudinal responses, those end up being the determining factors on the meaning of these terms.

So, is this an adequate story of what we are talking about when we talk about morality?

Monday, May 14, 2007

Trusting government

Ryan asks me in comments:
As someone who seems to have confidence that his developing views [on politics] are important and matter, how do you maintain the zeal to put forth your argumemts with optimism? do you believe that this system can be saved? And if so, on what basis?
I think Ryan is mainly accurate in describing my current attitude towards political issues. I am more zealous, more enthusiastic, and more optimistic about politics than I've probably ever been in my life. Part of my enthusiasm is simply the result of developing a more coherent political philosophy rather than the hodgepodge of ideas and attitudes I had previously tried to mash together. Also, my zeal is a result of my increasing optimism--it's easier for me to get excited about something in which I think we can make real progress. However, probably the most important element is that the substantive political and moral ideas I now hold demand of me a greater appreciation of the importance of political life.

While I've always been politically involved, I think my earliest influences (primarily from my father) was a Reaganesque distrust of "big government." I took Thoreau as a model, especially such slogans as, "That government governs best, which governs least." Because I had such a strong distrust of government my political ideology was always defensive--always a matter of trying to prevent the government from usurping more of our civil liberties (my involvement in anti-abortion activities was the exception--but still defensible on Millian harm principles). Unfortunately, this defensiveness meant that political involvement could only be somewhat exhausting and easily provoke bitterness.

This began to change when I left Christianity. The form of religion that I had grown up in viewed general human society with great suspicion and so based the reasons for action in the supernatural commands of God rather than the ordinary world that human experience. So I began to realize that I would have to change my attitudes towards towards the communities in which I lived. The result was the development of an ethic explicitly based on human experience and needs rather than divine prerogatives. It was but a short step to the further realization that politics was simply morality in a communal space, i.e. normal human experience, and so just as important as the religious motivations that had previously driven me.

That is probably the biggest reason why I have become more passionate about politics. I began to become more optimistic about politics and the constructive role of government in general as I began to realize how much of my childhood distrust was the result of Republican propaganda and prejudice. I was worried about individual liberties and freedom being constrained by the government and convinced of the inevitable incompetence of any government program.

Two things changed this attitude. One was my growing awareness that the government was only one way in which you could lose your liberties. I began to see that in fact the priorities of the large corporations often run counter to the interests and liberties of their employees or customers. So the government could have a positive role in constraining the power of capital. Furthermore, I began to realize that contrary to what I had previously thought, the government not only could do some jobs better than private industry. For instance, Social Security was and still remains much more effective in achieving the goals of old age security than anything that private industry has achieved on its own. Perhaps even more noteworthy is the comparison between the VA hospital system, which is almost universally regarded as the most successful health care program in the country even though it actually spends less money than most private insurance programs.

So overall I would say that I gained a political viewpoint which grants a positive role for government in American society.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Moving left

Rudy Giuliani's candidacy has always been a bit puzzling to me. On the one hand, he is respected in the conservative community for three things 1) Being tough on crime 2) His earned passion for fighting terrorism because of his personal experience as a leader in New York 3) He stuck it to the liberals in their home territory. But then, he is not a social conservative. He has a fairly consistent record of supporting abortion rights, homosexual rights, and gun control. And I had thought that varying too far from the party platform on any of these issues was enough to prevent you from being the national representative of the Republican party.

Well, it seemed like many people were busy telling this to Giuliani as he began his campaign, so he started to waffle a little--talking about "strict constructionists" on the court and giving the signals to the gatekeepers of social conservatives that he was willing to at least act like a social conservative.

Evidently it was always going to be a matter of too little, too late. Yesterday he gave a speech to a crowd of conservatives at Houston Baptist University where he publicly acknowledged his differences on these issues--saying that while he thought abortion was "morally wrong," he still supported a woman's right to choose.

Many have assumed that this will spell the end of any real chance that Giuliani has of winning the primary. I'm not so sure that's the case.

First, Giuliani's main competition have problems of their own in presenting their conservative credentials and so are not well placed to criticize him on these issues. McCain, while fairly conservative, has been too popular with the press as a "maverick," (which is understood by many conservatives as just meaning "compromiser") to be trusted by conservatives. And Romney, while he's saying all the right things now, as recently as 2002 was bragging about his pro-choice credentials. So Republicans might feel like they have no better alternative than Rudy, and they at least trust him (and he's probably a good guy to have a beer with).

Second, liberals have been bemoaning the fact that for the last few decades conservatives have shifted the political spectrum rightward--so that what we today call a "moderate" would have just been a normal conservative thirty years ago. Well, there's been some pushback against this in the last few years, and spurred on by the deeply unpopular war that the Republican Party has willingly accepted as the barometer for their fortunes, the public has started to move slightly back toward the left.

One result of this shift is that it makes views that are unpopular in your own party seem more plausible, or at least disagreements over these issues just don't as important. For instance, I'm willing to support candidates that have come out in favor of capital punishment (looking at you Clinton), or who don't condemn the war on drugs, or support gun control. I think of all these issues as important issues, but politically speaking I don't envision any of them becoming major policy issues for the next presidential term. Why is this? Largely because the right "won" these debates, which continued to tilt the country more and more towards the right.

I think this leftward shift could benefit Giuliani. The Republicans are going to have to go back to playing defense for a while, even if they do win the presidency (unless they can also retake Congress). And even if the Republican candidate is elected, he is going to have to fight with the U.S. people over foreign policy in the Middle East. At this point, all the major candidates have come out as strong hawks, so it would strange for them to change tack if they are elected. And at this point as least, the war is a losing issue for the Republicans.

Update: BooMan makes some good points along the same lines here.

Graduate student teaching

SteveG makes some interesting points here about the training of graduate students to be teachers. My sister just finished her M.A. in education and we discussed a few times the contrast between our respective programs and the contrasting attitudes towards learning how to teach.

Another factor that SteveG doesn't mention is that graduate school is a very competitive environment, one where you, your colleagues, and the professors are all making judgements about each other's intelligence, knowledge, and creativity. This creates a value system where, especially in academic contexts, the worth of a person is correlated to their competency as a thinker or student. This means that when you leave the rarefied air of the graduate department, where even the worst students are at least still educated and intelligent, to teach intro courses for undergraduate students many of whom can barely read, it becomes difficult to maintain the necessary respect for your students. Perhaps this is not a universal phenomenon, but more characteristic of mid-range and/or underfunded universities, but most of the professors I've spoken to are fairly cynical about teaching. As much as anything, what I've been trained in as a teacher is low expectations.

However, what this does is create another incentive to devote your energies to research rather than teaching. It is not just the objective reward structure of getting tenure that rewards research rather than teaching, but also the competitive nature of graduate programs influence the values of grad students in ways that can be detrimental to their teaching.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Reading Hegel

I am currently reading Hegel's Philosophy of Right and thinking about his critique of certain aspects of the liberal tradition. Needless to say, this is a frustrating experience. I was raised with the weird mashup of libertarian capitalism cheerleading and Christian triumphantalism that makes up most of the religious right in the U.S. As I dropped the Christianity I moved towards a more liberal viewpoint (what I later learned to call Rawlsian political liberalism). However, I've maintained some sympathy for the sense of communal identity represented by the postmillenialist thinking of my childhood. I just am not sure how to combine it with the ideals of freedom and equality that incline me towards liberalism.

Anyway, according to reputation, that is the project that Hegel sets himself--to combine the ideal of freedom that is a necessary part of the modern identity with the Aristotelian notion that human nature is social--that it is a mistake to treat humans as separable from the communities in which they live.

So this should be interesting stuff. But Hegel is a very difficult writer. And, in my experience, still controversial over not just whether his ideas are interesting, but whether he is worth reading at all. This is the problem with esoteric writers--in order to properly read them you must make a significant commitment of time.

This has a number of effects. First, it makes it more likely that if you do make such a commitment that you will think the work important. After all, in difficult works there are more interpretation choices which means that you put more of yourself in your understanding of the text. This also leads to a wider range of interpretations, leading to a larger literature, which further increases the impression that a particular writer is important. Plus, there is the cognitive dissonance element: it is a natural part of the human psyche to find justifications for difficult or painful actions whether or not they exist.

Another result of obscurity is the backlash. I believe it was Plantinga who who said that one of the best ways to become a famous philosopher was to be unclear. Thus, the suspicion arises that famous philosophers who are famously unclear are perhaps simply frauds, famous not because of the appearance rather than the reality of depth in their ideas. Anglo-American style philosophy has a tendency to prize clarity and so has become especially suspicious of vagueness in philosophy (at least the wrong kinds of vagueness and unclarity).

Of course, there is then the backlash backlash. Philosophers accused of obscurity will sometimes (probably the most obvious example being Derrida) develop philosophies that actually predict the difficulty and obscurity of their views, and in fact the inevitability of some significant amount of obscurity in all writing--even of those writers deemed paradigms of clarity and simplicity.

But, while deconstruction might be internally consistent (at least insofar as consistency is possible within a deconstructed discourse), it is still vulnerable to the original accusations of obscurity disguising emptiness. Notice that this claim is not one purporting to show the falsity of the views of the obscure philosopher, but is rather a probabilistic argument: that it is much more likely that the well-known, but obscure philosopher will not reward the time spent studying her. Oddly enough, this is a hermeneutic of suspicion, something more explicitly used to critique texts in the so-called Continental philosophical style.

So: Hegel, is it worth it?

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

So much for a "surge."

Republican grumbling over the unpopular war in Iraq has been growing of late--especially as Bush has remained very unpopular and increasingly irrelevant to the future of their party (no one is going to run as the "next Bush"). While they have continued to maintain an impressive amount of party discipline, even when it has meant political suicide, some have begun to suggest that perhaps we should date our military check to the Iraqi government--even suggesting that if things haven't improved by September or December that we should begin to withdraw our troops.

Too bad it is not working. The Pentagon has just informed another 35,000 troops that they might be deployed to Iraq by December to maintain the current higher level of troops into next year. The article does quote Defense Secretary as saying this is only provisional--that not maintaining the current troop levels is a possible response to the Iraqi government failing to make headway on reconciliation between the Shia and Sunni Arabs of Iraq.
I am doubtful. While it is possible that Gates himself might prefer to start withdrawing troops in September if no progress has been made (as he has never been quite the lockstep cheerleader that some others in the Administration are), it is not clear that he has the influence to actually force such a policy to be enacted. More significantly, the Bush Administration has never been against withdrawing the troops. They've just always wanted to do it "soon." After we achieved certain benchmarks, or made enough political progress, or blah-blah-blah. Since the withdrawal has always been predicated on the success of such goals as we have in Iraq, success which largely hasn't materialized, it seems unlikely that Bush will suddenly reverse course and withdraw troops only if we continue to fail come September.

This has always been the joke about the surge. Rhetorically a "surge" implies something like a wave, a sudden jolt, a coming and going. That is not what is going on here. Calling it a "surge" was just a fancy way for Bush to give the finger to the voting citizens of November 2006 by entangling us even further in an unpopular war by sending more Americans to die in Iraq. There is and was no real indication that the sudden increase of troops was meant to be temporary.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

A movie about Fox before Fox

I finally saw Network yesterday evening, a movie I was spurred on to watch from being a loyal Digby reader. It was a good movie. I quite liked Dunaway's quirky performance, and even though Holden is a bit too annoying in his "crusty, old, but honest reporter" routine (which yes, is I assume on purpose, but still, annoying), overall the performances were superb. It is a movie about a news anchor (Howard Beale) who gets fired, goes insane, gets mad, gets his job back, and stays mad (in both senses) while making gobs of money for the corporate ownership.

Of course, after Rush Limbaugh and Fox News this movie can seem a bit quaint. I mean, Shocking! Some media guy who gets angry! However, it is prescient in describing how even this, even media criticism will become just another product of the media. After all, Beale is only able to have his O'Reilly show because the corporate lackeys at the station realize the commercial possibilities of his anti-corporate message. It really is surprising how many miss this point in their complaints about the liberal slant of the media. After all, isn't Rush Limbaugh part of the media? In fact a very, very influential part of the media? Or Bill O'Reilly? Or the rest of the Fox crowd? So why is that we only count the so-called liberal media as "media"? Well, it is because we want to be angry. We want to blame someone for the problems we see in the world at large or in our own lives. And why not blame the messenger?

A more general point here about satire. For some reason, many people last year, even respectable movie critics became confused and claimed that Borat was both a really good movie and an interesting satire of American society. Both claims are false. It was funny at points, but it had the same faults that almost every movie based on sketch comedy has--there was no real plot. These movies over and over do the same thing: they take some funny character developed on a comedy show (usually SNL), and for two hours put him through a bunch of loosely connected gags. Look, SNL is sometimes funny, but it is of a different kind than a movie. It is not the short story to a movie's novel.

But more importantly, it was not an interesting satire. Network is a satirical movie. It takes a somewhat ordinary situation and by exaggerating certain characteristics highlights some of the absurdities of human society. Dunaway's talking about media shares while having sex is funny and absurd. Beale's reincarnation as a latter-day prophet is absurd and amusing. This is not what Borat did. There is nothing absurd about stupid or drunk frat boys acting like they're stupid and/or drunk frat kids. You say nothing about the state of feminism when feminists are predictably offended by some guy telling them they are naturally stupid. Pretending to not understand the function of a toilet says nothing to us about Southern civility. Don't get me wrong. These things can be amusing to some. But that is all. The comedy comes because we can't quite believe that someone would really do the things Mr. Cohen does. It is basically just another form of reality television.

Which shows us once again how Network is right in its description of television. When Beale finally loses it on the evening news and starts yelling about how angry he is, he tells the audience that they are confused, that they are what is actually real, and that it is the television that is false. But he has to say this because that is what is being sold by the television: an alternate version of reality, a more exciting and structured reality where everything makes sense by the end of the hour. So it is no surprise at all that in their efforts to give their consumers what they want, an even more convincing illusion of reality, that the corporate owners of the television networks have given us the creative nightmare that is reality television.

Monday, May 7, 2007

Bipartisan governing

John Quiggin over at Crooked Timber has an interesting addition to the many reviews* of Jonathan Chait's long article on the liberal netroots. He claims that
the real political news of the last six months is the fact that the US now has a standard two-party system, arguably for the first time in its history. From Reconstruction until the final success of Nixon’s Southern strategy in the late 20th century, the fact that the Democratic Party represented the white establishment in the South made such a thing impossible. Under the primary system the two “parties” were little more than state-sanctioned institutional structures to ensure that voters (outside the South) got a choice of exactly two candidates.
Thus the liberal blogosphere's rise stems not only from the Bush presidency (and its incompetencies), but also more generally from the Democratic Party losing most of the south during the nineties. I find this analysis encouraging as it suggests that the progressive elements of the blogosphere will continue to an important role beyond 2008.

However, I am not completely convinced by Quiggins argument. The U.S. form of government, especially when compared to parliamentary systems, has some innate conservative (in the broad sense) elements that make it difficult to institute major changes. Thus, I suspect that U.S. politicians have more incentive towards bipartisanship, not just from the media, but than the European parties he compares them with. We have gotten very used to split governements (again a reason why Bush came as such a shock to many.

What will be interesting to see is how the highly partisan netroots responds to a Democratically-controlled government. Will they continue to cultivate a combative approach to politics directed at the Republicans or will they shift towards a more positive (although not necessarily better) message about what the government should do. In other words, is the netroots suspicious of politicians or Republicans? I hope it is the latter.

I think my appreciation of partisan politics is as major as any change in my political thinking over the last seven years, and suspect that change is reflective of society at large. In 2000 I voted by drawing up a list of about fifteen things I cared about and then ranking the three candidates in relation to each item. One of the most weighted categories was bi-partisanship, and to admit how really clueless I was, Bush ranked very high in this category, higher than the other two candidates.

Looking back, I realize that the reason I could give Bush such high points for this is that, especially after eight years of Clinton, I expected the Democrats to govern by consensus, and so it meant little for a Democrat candidate to be willing to govern in a bi-partisan manner. My thought was that the Democratic party will of course be willing to compromise, but that the Republican party might remain recalcitrant. Thus, to have the Republican candidate campaign at least partially on his record of non-partisan governership in Texas was a strong positive in my evaluation of Bush.

*I have little to add in response to Chait's article, except to say that I agree with most of his substantive points but find his semi-mocking tone unfair. I also think the response to his article is a good example of one of the positives of the liberal blogosphere. If Chait had written this article about something else back in the eighties, I don't think it would have gotten nearly so much interesting and informative responses that were easily accesible by the public.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Biblical Inerrancy Pt. 3 (sorta)

I've had a more difficult time on this posting than the first two, partly because motivations are more complex than arguments, and partly because positive suggestions require more ingenuity than criticizing the ideas of others. So instead of posting either of the two overly long bad blogs I've halfway-written I will wait to conclude this topic until I can lay out my thoughts more coherently.

Instead I'll just make a couple quick comments. First, as I noted earlier, a major motivation for accepting this doctrine is to preserve doctrinal orthodoxy. But why should the Christian care? It makes sense to worry about doctrinal orthodoxy when you can do something about it. But heresy is just so much more boring than it used to be. In fact, my guess is that most people who begin to believe heretical doctrine leave the evangelical church before they can even be properly excommunicated anyway. After all, why stick around? More than likely there is another church down the block that you will find perfectly congenial to your new "heretical" beliefs. And anyway, acceptance of a heretical doctrine will generally be accompanied by a rejection of the Inerrancy doctrine--again making it seem there is little reason for the Christian to emphasize this issue.

After all, when there is only one or maybe two churches you can attend, or if you live in a society where atheism is not even a live option for even the secular then there are clear negatives to the pronouncements of heresy from the pulpit. But that is not the America that most people live in.

Finally, I find it somewhat ironic that the Inerrancy doctrine is primarily used by its adherents to defend not the theological, but moral and scientific claims of the Bible. After all, the Inerrancy doctrine is rarely useful in resolving long-standing theological disputes such as the Calvinism/Arminianism debate, or eschatological debates. Rather, it is used to argue that evolution is wrong, or that homosexuality is evil, or that women should submit to their husbands. It is within the Evangelical's rights to believe these doctrines, but they do seem removed from the core notions of personal salvation and relationship with God through being born again which forms the core of Evangelical practice and belief. So why is it such a big deal?

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Happy Graduation!

To my two sisters, who both graduated from college with various degrees last weekend--congratulations! I tip my glass back to you both.

Monday, April 30, 2007

Red or green?

I hope New Mexico doesn't lose its chiles (h/t Matt Yglesias). I've never lived anywhere so dedicated to a particular plant. The obsession is strong enough to influence McDonald's corporate culture, which offers (as far as I know only in NM) green chile sauce with its hamburgers. Almost everyone I knew would go on treks in the summer to the chile farms and buy big boxes full of peppers to freeze. And the standard by which every restaurant was judged was the quality of the red and green sauce. I was also interested to finally discover relationship between the chile and the Anaheim pepper. I used to have fierce arguments with NM natives about whether it is possible to buy chiles in the Northwest. I maintained (incorrectly according to the article) that the Anaheim is the same thing, which was a somewhat heretical notion among New Mexico's true believers.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Busy day

I was busy at a conference all day and afterwards went to a concert with an old college friend--so I'll finish up my series on Inerrancy later. It is always fun to catch up with old friends as I get to tell them about all the good music and interesting books I've been reading. Right now that essentially means I rave and rave about my complete and total crush on Lorrie Moore.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Biblical Inerrancy Pt. 2

Yesterday I laid out some of the reasons Christians have accepted the doctrine of Biblical Inerrancy. As I see it, there are two primary reasons motivating this belief:
1) The belief that a perfect God would only "inspire" a perfect book--where perfection is understood to include complete factual accuracy as well as correctness of doctrine.
2) The need for a hermeneutical methodology austere enough to provide authoritative interpretations of the Bible.

These are two different types of motivations. The first presents an argument for the truth of the Inerrancy doctrine, while the second tells us why something like the Inerrancy doctrine is necessary for Christian belief. Today I want to focus on the first reason and see if this is in fact a successful argument.

Initially, this argument might be read like this:
1) God is a perfect being.
2) Anything created by a perfect being is also perfect.
3) The Bible was created by God.
4) Therefore, the Bible is perfect.
5) Anything that is perfect must be without flaw.
6) Errors of any kind (factual, theological, moral, etc.) would constitute a flaw.
7) Therefore, the Bible is without error.
8) The Bible is inerrant.

Obviously, atheists will be unpersuaded by this argument as they do not accept (1). However, as I said initially, my goal is to show why the Inerrantist view is not a likely view even on explicitly Christian grounds. So I take it that we must accept (1) as one of our axioms (yes, I'm aware that some Christians, including even some that are closely tied in with the evangelical community [such as Clark Pinnock], question the traditional understanding of (1), but I take them to be a fairly insignificant minority). However, after that we immediately run into problems. Normal Christian doctrine would have it that everything has been created by God. Thus, God has created many things, such as humans or wormy apples, that are not perfect. So (2) seems to be obviously false. But that doesn't seem fair. Surely something else is meant when we say that God "inspired" the Bible than just ordinary creation. After all, in some senses God has created all books, but yet the Bible is still supposed to be uniquely inspired by God. So how can we fix up (2) to better catch what is meant by the doctrine of Inerrancy?

After she had finished creating the universe back in Genesis 1, God pronounced everything to be good--perhaps a way of saying that it was blameless and perfect. And then, so the story goes, humans messed things up by disobeying God's commands. So perhaps (2) should be replaced with:

(2)* Anything solely created and/or influenced by a perfect being is perfect.

While that would seem more correct, we now run into problems with (3). In order to derive (4) using (2)* we would have to also change (3) to:

(3)* The Bible was solely created and/or influenced by God.

But that seems incorrect. After all, the general doctrine of Biblical Inspiration acknowledges that the Bible was in fact written by humans--it just claims that these humans were divinely influenced when they were writing. But, for instance, it would seem very unlikely to claim that there is nothing at all of Paul in his epistles, especially as they are written in the first person, and given the personal tone at the ending of most of the epistles.

So this argument fails to prove that based solely on the perfection of God the Bible must be perfect. Because the writing of the Bible is uncontroversially mixed with the labor of humans, there is no requirement that the end product, even of a divinely inspired process, be perfect in the way claimed by the Inerrancy Doctrine.

But wait a minute. Can't the Inerrantist still claim that while it is perhaps not necessary that the Bible be perfect, as a matter of fact, God did inspire the Biblical writers to pen a perfect text? Well, that is a possibility. However, the perfection of God does not provide us with a reason to think that he did so. We would need some other reason to think this true, and I am not aware of any respectable arguments beyond the one I have presented.

But okay. Assume that God did in fact create a perfect text. Does that prove that the Bible is inerrant? Well, no, not really. For that conclusion we still need two more premises, and while (5) seems fairly unproblematic, (6) is probably false. Think of it this way. Based on 1-3 anything solely created by God would be perfect. But humans were created solely by God. Does that mean they are/were perfect? Well, yes, in a way it does. However, the creation of some perfectly good things, such as free will, are thought to only be possible by allowing the possibility of imperfection to arise. Thus, it is not possible to create a perfect human being without allowing her to choose to do evil as well as good. Thus, because God in creating human beings desired them to be able to freely choose to obey/worship him allowed them the possibility to not do so. But that doesn't mean that his creation was not a perfect creation.

In the same way, when we evaluate the claim that the Bible is perfect we must evaluate it in terms of the purpose for which it was created. It is not, for instance, a perfect cookbook. Nor is it a perfect mathematics text. But that doesn't take away from any alleged perfection it might hold. It was not written to be a cookbook, thus it takes nothing away from it to say that it doesn't have great recipes.

In the same way, we can say that the Bible is not primarily written as a scientific, or historical, or even as an ethical treatise. Rather, its primary purpose is as a text that brings us closer to God. In that light we cannot make the assumption that either historica, scientific, or even moral correctness are either necessary or even helpful in bringing us closer to God. Suppose as a thought experiment that the theory of evolution is in fact the correct account of the rise of biological diversity. It seems to me entirely possible that a religious text that used this theory as its theory of creation would be unacceptable to most people living two thousand years ago. So if the Bible had included the theory of evolution in Genesis it would have been factually correct, but religiously imperfect. And since it is the the religious goals of the Bible that are its primary goals, that means that in order for it to be a perfect text it would have to include some factual errors (and there are similar arguments about moral truths).

To sum up, the primary motivation for believing the Bible is a perfect text is based on an unsound argument. Furthermore, even if the Bible is a perfect text, that is not enough to show that it is without factual error. God, as a perfect being relating to a world that is imperfect is forced to lower herself to the human level in order to communicate with us in meaningful ways. And really, this should come as no surprise to the Christian. Among the major world religions Christianity is unique in its doctrine of the Incarnation--that God so loved the world that he was willing to lower himself enough to actually become a human being, with all of the frailties incumbent on that state. Why should it be any surprise that he is also willing to use any imperfect human means necessary to communicate his desires and plans for his human followers?

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Biblical Inerrancy Pt. 1

Many people assume that it is not possible, or at least kind of pointless, to discuss theological or "spiritual" issues with someone from a different religious tradition than your own. I think the assumption is that most people's religious beliefs are based on grounds not amenable to rational discussion and so unless you share the assumptions of the believer it is impossible to change her mind.

I find this argument largely unpersuasive. Most religious people I know do not consider themselves to be irrational in their religious beliefs. They often have a different conception of rationality, but there is still an underlying logic to their beliefs. Accepting the underlying compatibility of their beliefs with rationality makes it necessary for them to respond to arguments identifying inconsistencies in their beliefs. Thus, even if you do not accept a particular set of religious presuppositions it is still possible to criticize it for logical consistency. Besides, most theological beliefs are far removed from the sort of core assumptions that are the ones that have to accepted on the basis of faith.

In that spirit I want to ask some questions and make some points about the Christian doctrine of Inerrancy over the next few days. Now for many this might seem to be going after low hanging fruit, but as this doctrine is very common in both the Christian and Muslim religions I think it is important to address. While I am a secular atheist myself, I think that some of our religious traditions are important and influential ways of understanding the world, and as such deserving of respect. However, I also think that some of these traditions, or at least aspects of these traditions, have had and continue to have pernicious effects on modern society. I think the doctrine of Inerrancy is one such (at least in Christianity--I'm not as familiar with how it has influenced Muslim countries--although the fact that it usually accompanies fundamentalism makes me suspect it has had a negative effect there as well), and so will make some criticisms of this doctrine and propose some alternative ways of understanding the the main Christian concerns driving this issue.

I am sometimes surprised that non-Christians don't talk about this issue more than they do. After all, around 30% of all U.S. citizens believe "the Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word." People will often refer to this belief, usually scornfully if they do not hold it, or with great fervor if they do, but rarely address the reasons why someone might accept it.

First, I want to narrow the issue. I am not interested at this point in addressing the general doctrine of the divine inspiration of the Bible. I take that as a core Christian belief that rejecting would largely result in rejecting Christianity generally. Rather, Inerrancy refers to a particular understanding of what it means to say that the Bible is divinely inspired. This understanding interpretes the doctrines of inspiration to involve two distinctive claims:

1) The Bible is completely without error, including on matters of fact about history, science, psychology, ethics, or most pertinently, theology and spirituality.
2) There is a determinate meaning to all Biblical texts that is accessible by an application of a "literal" reading of the text.*

Why would Christians believe these? Well, the first is easy to understand. God is supposed to be a perfect being. The Bible is a divinely inspired (or "god-breathed" from 1 Timothy 3:16) collection of books. Hence, the Bible should also be perfect. Something like, if God wrote a novel, it would be a perfect novel, if he wrote a scientific treatise, it would be completely without error, because anything with error is by definition able to be improved and so not completely perfect. Ostensibly if God is perfect then he should have the ability to inspire a perfect document, and since he loves all humans would be motivated to do so, and that is why we have the Bible. The acceptance of this argument is why believers in Inerrancy often understand attacks on the accuracy of the Bible as implicitly being attacks on the power or authority of God himself.

It is more difficult to understand the reasoning behind the second thesis. However, I think its roots lie in the Protestant doctrine of Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone). When the Protestant Reformers rejected the authority of either the Pope or the church fathers to make authoritative interpretations of Biblical texts they were left in a bit of a bind. On the one hand they were placing Scripture on an even higher pedestal than previously--it was viewed as the only divinely inspired and thus authoritative documents for Christian practice and doctrine. But they still had to restrain their more adventurous members from outlandishly heretical interpretations of Scripture. Since they could no longer appeal to the interpretation of their own church leaders as authoritative, what would be their response to someone who held heretical beliefs based on a different reading of Scripture? How would they adjudicate between differing interpretations?

It seems they could only do so if they could enforce the claim that a particular method of interpreting the Bible was correct, and furthermore a method austere enough that it could rule out alternative interpretations. With these goals in mind the attraction of emphasizing the literal interpretation of texts becomes obvious, as it allows you to cut down on more imaginative or fanciful interpretations as being illegitimate.

My guess, and this is primarily a guess, is that this reasoning is also why evangelical and fundamentalist Christians reject the claim that they represent only a relatively recent movement in Christianity. They see themselves as the continuing in the mainstream of the original Protestant thinkers by continuing to emphasize the unique authority of the Bible and claim that it is in fact the mainline liberal Protestant denominations that have diverged from their heritage.

Tomorrow I'll examine these arguments in greater depth to show why I think, even if you accept the core theological claim of divine inspiration, they are not convincing proofs of Biblical Inerrancy. After that I will present an argument or two demonstrating the superiority of alternative ways of understanding divine inspiration.

*However, the literal reading should be understood as only the default reading. Even the most dedicated Inerrantist acknowledges that the Biblical authors would often use literary devices such as metaphors and parables to make their points. The point is that we should only accept a metaphorical reading when there are textual markers that the author is intending a passage to be understood in a non-literal manner. This is why many Inerrantists prefer talk of the "plain meaning of the text," or the "intended meaning of the author" as being the authoritative hermeneutical method.

Gay rights vs. Abortion Rights

A couple days ago I mentioned the evangelical Christian focus on the issues of abortion and gay rights. I actually think this is changing, especially as even conservatives become more disillusioned with President Bush. We can see evidence for this in the recent rebuke of the National Association of Evangelicals by Dr. Dobson and other evangelical leaders for distracting people's attention from "the great moral issues of our time, notably the sanctity of human life, the integrity of marriage and the teaching of sexual abstinence and morality to our children," by talking about global warming as also being of great importance.

However, I think there is an interesting contrast between these issues. Abortion has been legal for over thirty years in the U.S. (and for many more years in some states). But yet it is as divisive an issue today as it was when Roe v. Wade was ruled on. Unlike with Brown, the court's decision in 1973 did not lead to a consensus among Americans of the morality of legalizing reproductive freedom. There are doubtless many reasons for this, but at least one is the existence of respectable philosophical and political arguments supporting bans on late stage abortions. Thus, philosophers have continued writing important articles and books arguing about abortion whereas segregation is basically a dead issue--you will find no serious politician explicitly supporting old-school segregation.

I think gay rights is different. I'm not familiar with any argument against (for instance) gay marriage that is taken seriously by philosophers or other political thinkers.* Thus, the main impediments to granting equal rights to the gay community are social in nature.** Social attitudes take time to change, but they are also much more susceptible to top-down change--such as through court or legislative decisions. Because these beliefs are not based on political principles, but social prejudice, one of the best ways of convincing people to change their minds is to legitimize the full personhood of homosexuals by allowing them to engage in the normal activities of society--things such as marriage, youth organizations such as the Boy Scouts, disallowing employer discrimination, etc. In the same way that desegregation forces people to interact in normal, everyday ways with the people that were formerly stereotyped or feared, and so generally works to lessen those stereotypes and fears, it would seem that the more political legitimacy homosexuals achieve the less people will be able to maintain the sort of prejudices they currently hold.

*Of course there are a number of arguments made against gay rights on the basis of religious commitments, which might superficially make it appear to be similar to the abortion issue. However, I think people forget that many of the strongest opponents of desegregation, and even more obviously, equal rights for women, came from the clergy or based their views on religious grounds. But these movements were successful in part (at least legislatively) because the philosophical assumptions of both liberals and conservatives assumed equality for all persons, and so made it very difficult to justify the discriminatory practices that the civil rights movement and feminism were fighting against.

Also, I tend to think that people overestimate the direct influence of religion in the abortion debate. The Bible actually has very little to say about the conditions for personhood or at what stage that status is achieved. It is much more clearly misogynistic in ways that most Christians would today reject. It seems to me that the relationship between abortion and religion is very complex, and that while religion is a major reason why many Christians (especially Catholics) view abortion as immoral, the further arguments attempting to also show why we should outlaw it are not necessarily so explicitly religious in nature.

**Of course, if someone does have an argument against gay marriage not explicitly based on religious beliefs, or if they can explain why in a liberal democracy like the U.S. I should pay attention in this way to their religious beliefs, I would be interested in hearing it. And I mean this seriously, as it is distressing that so many people don't believe in something that seems so blindingly obvious to me as gay marriage, and more generally, equal rights for homosexuals.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The Possibility of Insurance

There is a great article by Ezra Klein in the American Prospect describing some of the models of successful health care systems used in other countries--making it clear that the real problem with American health care is political, not economic.

I've been without health insurance for almost my entire life. Except for four years in college, when I had to borrow money to pay for insurance, it's always been out of pocket on the rare occasions I've gone to the doctor. It is sad that with this background it still came as a shock that the U.S. doesn't have a particularly good health care system, let alone the "best in the world."

There is a weird sort of cognitive dissonance common to Young Republicans like I was--we acknowledged that there is a health care crisis, but then just sort of look at it in bemusement, as if it were an act of God--just an inevitable result of the expensive health care needs of modern society.

That is why it was encouraging to discover that it is actually possible to provide both good health service and universal coverage, but discouraging that structural elements of American society (i.e. the insurance companies, Big Pharma, etc.) seem able to prevent us from putting a rational system in place.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Father Judge

For the last several years it seems that most evangelical political leaders have streamlined their social policy demands to two issues: abortion and gay rights. Obviously other issues catch their attention, things like school prayer, abstinence, flag-burning, immigrant deportation, and other vital matters, but most of their political offense, at least rhetorically, has been directed towards changing abortion policy and preventing homosexuals from gaining any more acceptance in society than they already have.

They've been relatively successful in combating abortion in recent years, with their most notable success being the appointment of Roberts and Alito to the Supreme Court, heralding many years of nail-biting split decisions to come. One of the first came down last Wednesday when the Supreme Court voted 5-4 in Gonzales v. Carhart to uphold the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act. This decision was notable for several reasons (as pointed out here), but two in particular are worth pointing out.

1. This isn't the first Partial Birth Abortion Law to come before the court. The last one, Stenberg v. Carhart was struck down (among other reasons) because it did not include an exemption for the health of the mother. Undeterred, Congress sent back another ban, still not including a provision for the mother's health, but the new Supreme Court has now ruled this ban constitutionally valid. The importance of ignoring the health of the mother in making such decisions is that it comes very close to recognizing the rights of the fetus--thus laying the groundwork for even more restrictive abortion laws in the future.

2. The paternalism towards women on display in this decision is striking. It is difficult to understand how Judge Kennedy's reasoning is meant to square with the liberal underpinnings of American democracy. As Judge Ginsberg writes in her dissent (which is worth the read):
Revealing in this regard, the Court invokes an antiabortion shibboleth for which it concededly has no reliable evidence: Women who have abortions come to regret their choices, and consequently suffer from '[s]evere depression and loss of esteem.' Because of women's fragile emotional state and because of the bond of love the mother has for her child,' the Court worries, doctors may withhold information about the nature of the intact D&E procedure. The solution the Court approves, then, is not to require doctors to inform women, accurately and adequately, of the different procedures and their attendant risks. Instead, the Court deprives women of the right to make an autonomous choice, even at the expense of their safety.

This way of thinking reflects ancient notions about women's place in the family and under the Constitution ideas that have long since been discredited. (h/t Feministing)