Monday, February 28, 2011

Kentucky atheists in need of smelling salts

A state appeals court heard oral arguments last Thursday in a case involving nervous atheists who object to language in a 2008 Kentucky law that appeals to "dependence on Almighty God as being vital to the security of the Commonwealth."

The language, which was put in a section of the law governing the state's Office of Homeland Security, "invokes God for is ordered to publicize God's benevolent protection in its reports, and it must post a plaque at the entrance to the state Emergency Operations Center with an 88-word statement that begins, 'The safety and security of the Commonwealth cannot be achieved apart from reliance upon Almighty God.'"

The atheists who filed the lawsuit say they "suffer anxiety from the belief that the existence of these unconstitutional laws suggest that their very safety as residents of Kentucky may be in the hands of fanatics, traitors or fools."

It seems that public policy must now take account of the tender feelings of contemporary atheists who, apparently, no longer possess the fortitude of the more stalwart atheists of old.

Something really must be done about this crisis of masculinity among the ranks of the disbelievers. It used to be that you could exchange verbal blows with these people, and, when the final bell rang, both parties retired in mutual respect to lick their wounds. These days you have be careful they don't faint on you.


In any case, one wonders what the problem with such language is, given countless federal and state proclamations over the years honoring the Deity, and the language on our coinage which proclaims "In God we trust."

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Has the Obama admininstration endorsed Big Love?

The barbarians are no longer at the gates: they have entered the city and taken over all of its institutions.

It was reported earlier this week that the Obama administration's Justice Department would no longer defend a key section of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). What are the logical implications of this?

According to Francis Beckwith (a friend and frequent commenter on this blog), if the position is taken to its jurisprudential conclusion it is not only advocates of gay "marriage" who will benefit from the reasoning employed by the Obama administration, but Mormon fundamentalists like Warren Jeffs, who believe you must have at least three wives in order to get to Heaven.

Sec. 3 of DOMA not only addresses the genders requisite for marriage but the requisite number that constitutes it:
There is a number limitation as well. So, if the entirety of sec. 3 violates the 5th amendment and thus does not withstand heightened scrutiny, it would seem to be as unconstitutional to limit marriage to two as it would be to limit it to opposite genders, since there are ”sexual minorities” who would welcome such a judicial discarding of capricious numberism. (The plight of the polyamorous bisexual comes immediately to mind). I don’t know if the Obama people thought this through, but the implication of General Holder’s claim is not only that the constitution requires genderless marriage but it requires that a limitation of marriage to two must withstand heightened scrutiny as well. This means that the 19th century federal statutes that made polygamy illegal in the territories are probably unconstitutional.
So ladies, get yourselves a pastel prairie dress and do your hair up in loose braids. The Obama marriage policy has been unveiled.

Friday, February 25, 2011

The all-white face of the Southern Poverty Law Center

Oh my. Isn't this disturbing news.

It appears as if the Southern Poverty Law Center, the group that goes around lecturing other people about racism, has an all-white leadership and has never, in its 40 year history, had a person of color in its highly paid pantheon of leaders. Apparently they just can't find any African-Americans in Montgomery, Alabama, the birthplace of the civil rights movement:
Some people may find it odd that a civil rights organization, headquartered in Montgomery, Alabama, the very birthplace of the American Civil Rights Movement and home to Rosa Parks, would be run by white millionaires, but that’s nothing compared with the fact that in its entire 40 year long history, the Southern Poverty Law Center has NEVER hired a person of color to a highly paid position of power.
According to the site "Watching the Watchdogs," the group's "do as I say, not as I do" policy has been noticed before:

“Inside [SPLC headquarters], no blacks have held top management positions in the center’s 23-year history, and some former employees say blacks are treated like second-class citizens.” (Montgomery Advertiser, Feb. 16, 1994)

And check out the salaries of these all-white civil rights activists. Mouthing platitudes while ignoring them in your own organization has never been so profitable.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Groups the Southern Poverty Law Center Hates

The Atlantic Wire fell for the left-wing Southern Poverty Law Center's claim that there has been a rise in the number of hate groups. The expansion in the number of hate groups, it turns out, is entirely a function of the expansion of the definition of what the group considers a "hate group."

What is a hate group to the Southern Poverty Law Center? Any group that disagrees with its left wing political beliefs, and it now includes any group that disagrees with the political agenda of gay rights groups.

The number of hate groups is not growing. The only thing that is growing is Southern Poverty Law Center's overactive ideological imagination.

The pejorative labeling the group is engaging in is almost enough to put it in the category of left wing hate groups.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Keith Richard's so-called life

The temptation is to judge the life of Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards for its extravagant excess. But it is not the drug and alcohol addictions, the long sordid parade of nameless sexual liaisons, or the broken hotel furniture that could supply a whole city that makes Richards remarkable. It is something else. And Dan Chiasson, reviewing Keith Richards biography, Life, in The New York Times Review of Books, puts his finger on it:
The temptation for most memoirists is to beef up, at times even to make up, life; for Richards, who has lived one of the most eventful and excessive lives ever, the point is to tamp it down. His is an odd book for many reasons, among them its refusal to impute any meaning to the structure of experience, beyond its basic contingency. The book tells no “story,” presents no overwrought “themes,” proposes no shape to life beyond the amorphous ooze of passing time.
The Stones were never "about" anything other than self-indulgence. But it seems Richard's life isn't even "about" that. At least Solomon, after indulging himself, was able to derive some moral from it: namely, that life was "vanity." That, at least, constituted some kind of lesson about reality, and therefore amounted to a form of wisdom.

But Richards can't even do that.

I think there are people who view Richards as a sort of anti-heroic hero whose very refusal to impart meaning to his experience constitutes his anti-heroism. But I listened to an interview with Richards recently on public radio, which consisted of the reviewer asking questions, Richards coughing, then muttering some jaded, whiskey-induced reminiscence that make little sense, and then hacking some more.

He was clearly incapable of any kind of meaningful reflection. It isn't that Richards doesn't attribute meaning and purpose to his life: it's that he can't. That anyone could impart some sort of intentionality to Richard's ennui is a measure of the meaninglessness of the culture that reveres him.

Read the review here.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Diversity for Thee, but Not for Me: The rising tide of uniformity among the Diversityites

Another fly in the Diversity ointment:

Discrimination is always high on the agenda at the Society for Personality and Social Psychology’s conference, where psychologists discuss their research on racial prejudice, homophobia, sexism, stereotype threat and unconscious bias against minorities. But the most talked-about speech at this year’s meeting, which ended Jan. 30, involved a new “outgroup.”

It was identified by Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at the University of Virginia who studies the intuitive foundations of morality and ideology. He polled his audience at the San Antonio Convention Center, starting by asking how many considered themselves politically liberal. A sea of hands appeared, and Dr. Haidt estimated that liberals made up 80 percent of the 1,000 psychologists in the ballroom. When he asked for centrists and libertarians, he spotted fewer than three dozen hands. And then, when he asked for conservatives, he counted a grand total of three.

“This is a statistically impossible lack of diversity,” Dr. Haidt concluded, noting polls showing that 40 percent of Americans are conservative and 20 percent are liberal. In his speech and in an interview, Dr. Haidt argued that social psychologists are a “tribal-moral community” united by “sacred values” that hinder research and damage their credibility — and blind them to the hostile climate they’ve created for non-liberals.
Commenting on the crisis of Diversity among its advocates, Megan McArdle at the Atlantic points out the dilemma it puts them in:
Conservatives are usually reluctant to agree that women and minorities are still often victims of structural or personal bias--despite numerical underrepresentation and some fairly compelling studies showing that hiring is not race or gender blind. Yet when it comes to conservatives in academia, they suddenly sound like sociologists, discussing hostile work environment, the role of affinity networks in excluding out groups, unconscious bias, and the compelling evidence from statistical underrepresentation.

Meanwhile, liberals, who are usually quick to assume that underrepresentation represents some form of discrimination--structural or personal--suddenly become, as Haidt notes, fierce critics of the notion that numerical representation means anything. Moreover, they start generating explanations for the disparity that sound suspiciously like some old reactionary explaining that blacks don't really want to go into management because they're much happier without all the responsibility. Conservatives are too stupid to become academics; they aren't open new ideas; they're too aggressive and hierarchical; they don't care about ideas, just money. In other words, it's not our fault that they're not worthy.
Read the rest here.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Did Edmund Burke reject natural law?

The NCSE's Rosenau struggles with the issue of natural law. So far, natural law is winning.

In a previous post, I had questioned an assertion by a guest interviewed on NPR, in a discussion on the Egyptian crisis, that Internet access was a "basic human right." Josh Rosenau responded, arguing that all we need do in grounding the ultimate moral foundations of law is to appeal to the United Nations.


When I responded to him, pointing out the intellectual silliness involved in such a claim, and articulating the case for natural law (the idea that there is a metaphysical "law above the law" on the basis of which we can judge all positive, written laws), Rosenau responded again, arguing that a Burkean conservative such as myself who also adheres to natural law was inconsistent, and made the ludicrous claim that Burke, one of the great champions of natural law, actually opposed it.

But first, of course, he had to call me names.

I called in my last post for Rosenau to inject some wit into his vitriol, just to make the reading of his posts a little more bearable. But, alas, my calls went unheeded, and he begins his response with the usual artless invective, charging me with "bigotry" on basically every issue I have addressed, and more, in fact, that I have never even talked about.

I can respect an insult, deftly administered, but these crude attempts at vilification are enough to make you lament the low state of modern discourse. The rhetorical art of vituperation has a noble and storied history, going back to Aristotle's discussion of it in his Rhetoric. But Rosenau clearly is unfamiliar with this.

In fact, let's just consider this an official call for the NCSE to get him some remedial instruction in invective. I'll even help pay for it. The least we should expect of a man is that he be able to competently hurl an insult.

Edmund Burke, he says, was opposed to natural law. In saying this, he simply bulldozes right through several key distinctions that anyone with any knowledge in this area must take for granted:
Of course, the entire objective of Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France was to argue that a written law can only be critiqued from within the history and structure of the existing laws. It is on this basis that he concludes the French are wrong to cast off their existing laws and customs and start a government rooted in a natural rights.
He then quotes this passage in Burke to justify this claim:
... it has been the uniform policy of our constitution to claim and assert our liberties as an entailed inheritance derived to us from our forefathers, and to be transmitted to our posterity — as an estate specially belonging to the people of this kingdom, without any reference whatever to any other more general or prior right. By this means our constitution preserves a unity in so great a diversity of its parts. [emphasis mine]
That isolated quote will certainly sound, to someone unfamiliar with the rest of Burke's writings--or for that matter the rest of Reflections on the Revolution in France from which this is taken--as if Burke rejects natural law. But let's pay attention to the italicized parts as we listen to Rosenau summarizing what he thinks Burke is saying:
Thus, for Burke the external fulcrum is not some metaphysic (which he derides as speculation and abstract theory), but the hard facts of custom and tradition. It hardly bears mentioning that Burke's aversion to rights-based revolution would surely make him (not me, as Cothran would have it) Hosni Mubarak's favorite human rights theorist. [again, emphasis mine]
Rosenau jumps from Burke's assertions that liberties can only be claimed and asserted through tradition and custom to the fact that the fulcrum is not metaphysical. Rosenau completely ignores the distinction between how we know what our rights are and how they may be justified.

Peter Stanlis has pointed out, in his book Edmund Burke and the Natural Law, that Burke not only didn't reject natural law, but was "one of the most eloquent and profound defenders of Natural Law morality and politics in Western civilization.":
In every important political problem he encountered, in American, Irish, Indian, and domestic affairs, in his economic principles, and in the great crisis of the French Revolution, Burke consistently appealed to the Natural Law and made it the basis of his political philosophy ... [A]s an exponent of Natural Law or traditional "natural rights" Burke was in the great classical tradition of Aristotle and Cicero and the Scholastic tradition of St. Thomas Aquinas, Bracton, and Hooker.
Rosenau seems very confused on this point. Will Herberg has noted how easily this question comes up when reading Burke, and he states the perceived problem nicely:
How can a man be an advocate of expediency and an apostle of principle at one and the same time? How can he, for example, excoriate the French Declaration of the Rights of Man as “abstract” and “metaphysical” in almost the same breath that he denounces the French revolutionaries for their crimes against the “eternal immutable law”?
The problem is in the failure to distinguish two very different Natural Law traditions, one of which Burke holds, and the other which he doesn't. What Rosenau does is conflate two, and misunderstand his rejection of one as a rejection of both.

Heinrich Rommen, in his book The Natural Law: A Study in Legal and Social History and Philosophy, explains the difference between the Enlightenment school of Natural Law inaugurated by Hugo Grotius, and extended through the works of Samuel Pufendorf, Thomas Hobbes, and Jean Jacques Roussaeau on the one hand, and the Christian Natural Law tradition of Augustine, the Church fathers, and Aquinas on the other. Rommen calls the first the rationalist view of natural law, and the second the metaphysical view:
One is the idea of a revolutionary and individualistic natural law essentially bound up with the basic doctrine of the state of nature as well as with the arbitrary and artificial, is determined by utility, and is not metaphysically necessary. The other is the idea of a natural law grounded in metaphysics that does not exist in a mythical state of nature before the "laws," but lives and ought to live in them--a natural law which one would fain, though somewhat ineptly, style conservatism. [emphasis mine]
Rosenau sees Burke attacking the former, and, unaware of the distinction, interprets him as attacking even the latter, when, in fact, he is speaking out of the latter tradition. Although Burke would also disagree with the Protestant view of Natural Law prominent after Ockham that denied that there was any access to the Natural Law outside of revelation, the Catholic view--that it can be known by reason (through tradition and custom, not by the articulated rationality of the Jacobins) as well as revelation was most certainly not Burke's target.

Rosenau needs to read the passages in Russell Kirk's The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot dealing with this issue. Kirk is one of the great modern exponents of Burke and he makes short work of the idea that Burke is anything but a classical Natural Law thinker:
Burke declared that men do not make laws: they merely ratify or distort the laws of God. He said that men have no rights to what they please: their natural rights are only what may be directly deduced from their human nature. The Whig reformer, the advocate of enlightened expediency, told England that there was indeed an immutable law, and there are indeed inalienable rights, but they are of origins and character profoundly different from that philosophes and levelers take them for.
In the book that Rosenau characterizes as having as its "entire objective" to argue against natural law, Burke talks about the "permanent reason" and "the steady maxims of faith, justice, and fixed fundamental policy" which are "perfectly intelligible and perfectly binding upon those who exercise any authority, under any name or under any title, in the state."

He repeatedly refers to "original justice," "eternal justice," "natural equity," the "natural order of things," the "natural course of things," the "principles of natural and legal equity," " justice, the common concern of mankind," the "natural sense of right and wrong," and criticizes the Jacobins for their "usurpations of the prerogatives of nature," and their "contempt of this great fundamental part of natural law."

Burke did not deny the natural law; he championed it. What he attacked is the attempted implementation of the natural law based on the articulated rationality so valued by the French Revolutions who, instead of acknowledging reason in is proper place, instead exalted Reason as a goddess. His problem with Robespierre was the conceit that held that men could behold natural law in the abstract:
But I cannot stand forward and give praise or blame to anything which relates to human actions, and human concerns, on a simple view of the object, as it stands stripped of every relation, in all the nakedness and solitude of metaphysical abstraction.
Abstract natural rights "may and do exist in total independence" of human government, but the only means by which to know them, and the only form in which they can be installed is custom and tradition. This is what he means when he says that "their abstract perfection is their practical defect."

As Herberg puts it:
It is in man’s historical experience rather than in any abstract metaphysical scheme that we can hope to catch a glimpse of the underlying Natural Law as well as of the modifications it must undergo if it is to become operative in social life.
You can't approach Burke with the reductionism of scientific abstraction Rosenau seems to want to apply. This is exactly the kind of thing Burke is writing against. Like all great philosophers who are also poets, Burke should be approached with a sense discretion. There are bulls in a china shops more careful and discreet than Rosenau in his attempted analysis of Burke. Not that we were ever under the delusion that Rosenau was a practitioner of discretion.

To say that Burke was opposed to natural law betrays a serious misunderstanding of everything he was about. Rosenau would be better off returning to the subject of the phallic morphology of Philippine rodents, where he actually knows what he's talking about.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Writers Wendell Berry, Silas House at slumber party in KY Governor's office

Agrarian authors Wendell Berry and Silas House are among the protesters having a "slumber party" in the Kentucky Governor's office to protest mountaintop removal in eastern Kentucky, a deviant form of coal mining that basically destroys everything in its general vicinity, polluting

It's the energy equivalent of fishing by throwing a stick of dynamite in the water. Berry and the other protesters said they were going to stay there until they were arrested, but the authorities, realizing what a public relations disaster that would be for the Beshear administration, decided maybe they'd better just leave them alone.

This isn't the first time Berry has tried to get arrested, only to encounter uncooperative authorities. What does a guy have to do to get arrested these days?

Xavier University hosts "Queer Week"

Another Catholic university doing all it can do to undermine the ideas upon which it was founded:
Xavier University, a Catholic and Jesuit institution of higher learning located in Cincinnati, Ohio, hosted what it calls “Queer Week” from March 30 to April 3 in 2009, according to the university’s website.

The university said that the purpose of the event was to “embrace and celebrate the use of queer as an inclusive, unifying socio-political term for people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, straight, transsexual, intersexual, gender queer, or anyone else who supports the equality of all identities and expressions.”

Catholic universities were founded to inform the culture with Catholic values, not to thumb their noses at those same values.

Read more here.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Josh Rosenau lends Hosni Mubarak a hand

Ever since the NCSE's Josh Rosenau made several embarrassing logical blunders in an exchange between this blog and his (see here and here), he has forsaken logical argumentation almost entirely in favor of juvenile insults and the hurling of primitive epithets. It's probably for the best, since his attempts at actual reasoning kept blowing up in his face.

It's probably not a good idea for a reputable science organization to put its credibility at risk by allowing Rosenau to stray far from the office, much less give him an official title, but such, apparently, are the standards now employed by the NCSE (The National Center for Science Education).

My original theory was that one of his parents worked for the NCSE and they took him to work one day and let him play at the desk and Josh started posting on the website, thinking he was a big person now. But, sure enough, when you go to the organization's site and scroll way, way, way down, there it is, a biography of their "Programs and Policy Director," where we are informed that Josh studied the "relationships between Philippine rodent species based on phallic morphology" at the University of Chicago.

Let's hope the Philippine rats he studied are better at operating the particular organ to which Rosenau devoted his undergraduate years than he is at operating a logical syllogism. If not, one could well wonder how the darn things survive at all.

Seriously, you would think Rosenau could at least inject some wit into his invective, but instead all we get this low grade name-calling that no self-respecting elementary school playground bully would be caught dead uttering publicly. Let this just be a lesson to us all: you go studying the male genitalia of Philippine rats as a young college student and the Peter Principle might just kick in early.

One of the epithets that got hurled this way was "logic-impaired." Anyone interested in investigating Rosenau's qualifications to make such judgments should check just several posts down, where he can find this statement: "good logic is only as valid as its premises."

Say whut?

Good logic is only as valid as its premises? Any logic student with a week's worth of instruction in logic could spot the problem in that assertion. Validity applies only to the deductive inference that occurs between the premises and the conclusion. It has precisely NOTHING to do with the premises themselves.

That's just an axiom in the morphology of logic. Even in the Philippines.

In any case, his most recent attack on this blog concerns my previous post on whether Internet access is a "basic human right." I asserted that this kind human rights talk as applied to Internet access was an example of "rhetorical inflation"--one more example of saying something we happen to like is a "right." And I pointed out that there are only two things you could possibly mean by such talk: that it was a part of what philosophers call the positive, written law or of the universal, unwritten (or "natural") law.

The first is civil, and it may or may not be based on the higher natural law. If it is, then it is a civil expression of the second; if it isn't, then it is a mere convention. If the civil law is based on the natural law, then it is a civil expression of real justice; if the civil law is not based on the natural law, then it only expresses a preference we all have and agree to for commanding or prohibiting something.

This simple disjunction, of course, set Rosenau to head-scratching. He just couldn't make anything of it:
First, assuming there is some sort of "inflation" of "rights language" ("rhetorical" or otherwise). Is that so bad? Is the suggestion that people have too many rights?
He then insists it must be metaphysical because it's possible to argue against some laws as conflicting with metaphysically granted rights (whatever that means), and then he doesn't really say how he'd assess that case.
Well, first off, what does "too many" rights have to do with it? The question is what grounds something metaphysically as a right. You don't determine that by going around counting them up. That method may make sense to an expert in the phallic morphology of rodents, but it doesn't constitute a respectable philosophical analysis.
Can we just make everything a right? Then there would be more rights and, under a Rosenauian analysis, that would be all the better. It would also excuse us from having to think hard thoughts, and that would certainly suit Rosenau.

And what does "assessing the case" mean? I asserted that the only ground on which you could criticize a written law is on the basis of a higher law. How else are you going to criticize it? On the basis of another written law? If so, upon what basis do you say the one written law is better than the other?

If you disagree with that, then you are basically saying you don't believe in justice.
Let me say this in the simplest possible way so I can communicate this thought to the NCSE's Program and Policy Director: You can't possibly critique a written law (whether statutory or constitutional) unless you have some perspective outside of the written law itself from which to do it. How do you argue that a written law is wrong unless you have intellectual fulcrum from outside and above the written law?
But perhaps this is too much for Rosenau to intellectually digest all at once, as evidenced by this comment:
I'd start with legal rights, rather than metaphysical ones, because how do you test whether something is a metaphysical right? One of the rights protected in the US's Bill of Rights is a protection of "freedom of the press." The founders thought that was kind of important, and lots of other countries borrowed that concept, sometimes even that phrase, as they created democratic constitutions in the 20th century.
(Yes, I know, this is an exercise in patience). You judge a metaphysical right by a legal right? Now that's a novel idea. You mean all you've got to do to establish a metaphysical right is to write it down and have everyone nod their head?

No. All you've got to is appeal to a group called the "United Nations." As long as the group has this name and it has a lot of countries participating in it (many of which are dictatorships with bad human rights records), their pronouncements are, apparently (in the world of rodent phallus specialists), infallible.
Conveniently for us, the UN crafted a Universal Declaration of Human Rights after World War II, and it was approved without objections by the UN General Assembly in 1948. Egypt voted for it then. The right to a free press is enshrined in it.
Well, I suppose that is convenient for people who don't understand much about natural law and don't apparently want to know much about it. Rosenau is very impressed with the United Nations. It's big. And it has lots of delegates. That gives it more authority than any other organization.

For Josh Rosenau, human rights is a matter of counting heads.

But then comes the real howler:
Though the Declaration is, like the US's Declaration of Independence, not a law itself, it exists to set out the rights that the community of nations agreed to be universal.
What? Is Rosenau saying that the Declaration of Independence simply "sets out rights ... agreed to be universal?" I guess he missed that part about "endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights..." The Declaration doesn't leave off at social contract theory; it proceeds to invoke God in authorizing its "unalienable rights." And any theory that doesn't go that far (like the various U.N. documents Rosenau thinks came down from Sinai) simply begs the question.

If all you need is a bunch of people getting together and agreeing to something to establish the authority of a human rights declaration, what if something is wrong with it? Upon what basis would you judge it good or bad? Do you form the Super Duper United Nations to make an even better one?

And if you simply employ social contract theory, which theorist are you going to go by? John Locke? Rousseau? Or Thomas Hobbes, who advocated authoritarian monarchy? But isn't this just the problem in Egypt? Authoritarian monarchy (remember, he was grooming his son to take his place)?

This is the whole problem with human rights theorists who refuse to recognize a law above the law: they completely relativize the whole concept of human rights. If there are enough Hosni Mubaraks, then they've got just as much claim to the human rights mantle as anyone else.

Josh Rosenau: Hosni Mubarak's favorite human rights theorist.

Someone text this boy's parents and get his hands off the controls of the NCSE. Quick. Before this gets even more embarrassing.

Joe Biden defending Darth Vader on the TV

Vice President Joe Biden recently defended embattled Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak on PBS's Jim Lehrer News Hour, setting off the red light in President Obama's office they have installed to alert them of the frequent occasions in which Biden blurts out something embarrassing so they can call the special crack White House "Biden Damage Control" team so it can put out the political fire before it spreads and immolates the entire administration thereby reminding everyone that maybe Sarah Palin would not have been so bad after all.

In any case, Chase Madar at the London Review of Books reports on Biden's additional meditations on other important figures:
Look, I know Darth fairly well, and Jim, I just want to mention that Darth has overcome asthma, some serious, serious asthma, and it’s just a really inspiring story, he’s written a children’s book about it, I gave a signed copy to my granddaughter for Christmas. Anyway our position is that before Darth blows up the planet Alderaan with his so-called Death Star, which is really just a large weather satellite with a few dual-use components, Darth should, you know, take some of that planet’s concerns into account. He should take their concerns seriously, and it should be a peaceful process. They have a right to protest against their planet getting blown up. But Jim, it’s a two-way street, and Alderaan shouldn’t be vandalising the Death Star’s weapon systems, which, of course, not that they exist. There’s been a concern that some of the more radical elements, you know, the Wookie Street, might try to do this. So no, we don’t think Darth Vader should resign. But if he does – if he does – we can find the recent appointment of Darth Maul as his acolyte Dark Lord of the Sith to be really, really encouraging from a human rights perspective. Just remember, the Empire is a fragile beacon of democracy in a turbulent universe.
Biden's other adulatory remarks on Cruella DeVille, Ozymandias, and Joseph Conrad's Colonel Kurtz are also discussed.

Monday, February 07, 2011

How I just missed Ronald Reagan's birthday party

I was invited to Ronald Reagan's 70th birthday party and didn't even know it until is was over.

There have been a lot of posts celebrating Ronald Reagan's 100th birthday, so it's time to tell my political "how it got away story." I may have mentioned this before on this blog, but it's worth telling again.

When I was at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) back in the early 1980s, I was a conservative newspaper columnist on our college daily (after a brief stint as assistant editorials editor the year before), and was a member of the Students for Reagan. Despite the fact that UCSB was about as left-wing in its campus politics as Berkeley, most students were fairly conservative--as evidenced by the fact that the group was the largest student group on campus.

It was Reagan who inspired me to become a Republican, and he was running for President. I was also a member of the College Republicans, which was sponsored by Brooks Firestone, one of the heirs to the Firestone fortune and a prominent California Republican. He was a frequent visitor to the Reagan Ranch in Santa Inez, which was only about 20 minutes from the UCSB campus.

On one weekend in early February of 1981, I had taken advantage of the proximity of the campus to my home (it was a little less than two hours away) to visit my parents for the weekend. I don't remember what I did that weekend--all I remember is the phone call I got at my Santa Barbara apartment when I got back on Sunday night.

The phone rang and picked it up. "Dude, where were you?" It was the head of the College Republicans.

"What do you mean?"

"Saturday night, man."

"What was going on Saturday night?" I asked.

"We were all invited up to the Reagan Ranch by Brooks Firestone for Ronald Reagan's 70th birthday party! I tried to call your apartment, but I didn't get an answer." I don't think I said anything. "You want to hear about it?"

"No thanks," I said. "I'll call you back later." I hung up the phone. Despondent.

Of course, I've gotten over it. But one thing I haven't gotten over is the high regard for Reagan himself. I usually avoid excessive accolades for politicians. I have been around too many for too many years, and know what most of them are really about. There are certainly exceptions to the rule that very few politicians are true statesmen, but, as a rule, it applies pretty universally.

Reagan was one of the more extraordinary exceptions.

I divide politicians into two groups: Machiavellians and Ciceronians. The Machiavellian politician is exemplified by Bill Clinton. Like Machiavelli himself, these kind of politicians are amoral in their politics. Their chief concern is the acquisition and maintenance of power, and the political positions they take are subordinate to that purpose. Pollsters and focus groups characterize the Machiavellian.

The second kind of politician, the Ciceronian, is exemplified by Reagan. Like Cicero, politics serves these kind of politicians as a mere means to a more substantive end. Unlike the Machiavellian, policy objectives are not means to the end of power; rather, power is the means to the ends of the policy objectives. Principles and substantive policy prescriptions characterize the Ciceronian.

Now there are a couple of things to not about this division. First, like all divisions of human beings, no one fits exclusively into one category. There seems to be a spectrum such that no particular politician will be exclusively one or the other.

Secondly, notice that there is nothing in this division (other than the particular politicians I have chosen as examples) that would allow anyone to identify either one of the types of politicians with any particular party. If you are a Republican, you will probably think that your party is more Ciceronian than the Democrats, and vice-versa. However, you can easily see that this division crosses party lines. Ralph Nader, for example, a Democrat, obviously does not belong among the Machiavellians, while Charlie Crist, who I believe is still a registered Republican, does.

Reagan, as I have said, was clearly a Ciceronian.

I grew up in California, and I not only remember his two terms as governor, but his daily radio addresses on a prominent Los Angeles radio station. From the very beginning, he knew what he was and what he believed in, and he articulated it at every opportunity.

Today's national Republican politicians commonly pay obesience to Reagan, but I sometimes wonder if many of them admire him only for his political success. What sets off many modern Republicans from the Republicans who made the party successful in the 1980s is the willingness to admire and emulate Republicans were were not successful.

The Republican Party owes its own successes over the last 50 years to a small cadre of late 20th century Republicans (Reagan among them) who admired a man who was a political failure: Barry Goldwater. They admired him because he put principle above politics. He said was he thought and let the chips fall where they may.

What separates the conservative men from the Republican boys is whether they would have admired Reagan if he would not have won two national elections.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Is Internet access a human right?

That's what some people seem to think. In what sense is Internet access as a "right"?

I listened to this week to an interview on NPR in which a guest--some expert on the Internet--was telling the NPR interviewer that Internet access is a "right"--not just any right but a "basic human right."

This is just one example of the rhetorical inflation we have seen when it comes to rights language. What does it mean to say that Internet access a right? What is a right? And what is a human right?

It can only mean one of two things to say that something is a right. A right is either legal or metaphysical. If it is legal, then there ought to be some kind basis for it in a written statute or in some kind of case law. If it is a metaphysical right, then it ought to have some kind of rational or revelatory basis.

When you talk about "human rights" about the only thing you can mean is that it is a metaphysical right, since we can criticize written laws themselves for not complying with them.

So the people who say that Internet access is a "human right" are basically saying there is some metaphysical basis for it.

So why it is a human right? Because we like it? Is everything we like a right? Is it because it is good for us? Is everything that is good for us a "right"?

Notice that few of the people who say things like this actually give a reason for saying them, which is a pretty good indication that they don't really have one.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

How Morality "Seems" to Sam Harris: A review of The Moral Landscape

Alisdair MacIntyre points out that the only rational choices when it comes to a philosophy of morality are Aristotle and Neitzsche. Sam Harris, the atheist author of Letters to a Christian Nation, instead chooses Pollyanna.

In his most recent book, The Moral Landscape: How Science Determines Human Values, Harris claims to offer an argument for his position that science can objectively ground morality. While his method of proof is long on earnestness, it is short on argument. In fact, he seems to think that he can establish many of his conclusions by simply willing them.

All throughout the book, we encounter expressions that assure us in the most sincere terms that what follows them is true: terms such as "are bound to," "in my experience," "there simply must be," "cannot be," "it seems inevitable," "surely," "the good life must relate," "will necessarily," "cannot be denied," "science should one day," "most of them are surely wrong," "we must first acknowledge" "change will necessarily depend," "values seem to arise," "it seems to me," "it seems clear," "there is every reason to think," "is bound to be," "of course," "I believe," "there is simply no question," "there must be," "the inescapable fact," "we already have good reason to believe," "I consider," "almost surely," "we can be reasonably confident," "could also," "it seems quite possible," "this certainly appears," "do not seem to," "there is probably," "it is widely believed," "we all know this," "it is only reasonable," "at the very least," "I have no doubt," "I am nearly as sure," "I strongly believe," "it is quite clear to me," "it seems possible," "it is easy to see," "it also seems," "I suspect," "be assured," "apparently," "it seems quite clear," "we can imagine," "we can see," "it now seems," "it is reasonable to wonder," "there is no reason to think," "there is a sense in which," "there can be no doubt," "I cannot conceive," "it is also conceivable," etc., etc., etc.

You get the idea.

Real logical expressions like "for," "since," "because," and "therefore" don't stand a chance against the avalanche of seemses and musts and surelys. In fact, Harris' argument is powered largely by adverbs.

Just several pages in I started to notice this tendency to presume upon the reader's presumption. Then I kept noticing it, and I saw it again, and again, and again. I just started circling them as I encountered them, page after page. There were key components to Harris's "argument" which were just "supposed" to be clear to me: to be "undoubtedly" true, to be "reasonable," to be "probably" be this way, or "inescapably" that.

It is a rhetoric that fits the photograph--a photograph that graces all his books and captures the look of the Randian hero: confident, determined, and free of all doubt.

I finally realized that Harris just thinks that the main steps in his case that science can establish morality are obvious. He wasn't arguing with me, his reader, that his assumptions about these things were true, he was expecting me to simply acquiesce to their self-evident truth on the mere grounds of his confidence in his own assertions.

When you're setting forth a position, it's reasonable to assume what you're readers actually do assume. But when you are overturning 2,500 years of thought on an issue (really only about 400 years worth, since he only really tries to counter Hume--the prior tradition he ignores), it's probably not a good idea to assume what your reader does not actually take for granted.

One of the admirable things about St. Thomas Aquinas is that he always tried to put his opponents' arguments into a rational form, sometimes stating them more logically than they did. Since Harris himself won't do it for us, let's try to cast his argument into some kind of logical form. If we did, his main argument would run something like this:
Questions about well being can be scientifically understood
Moral questions are questions about well being
Therefore moral questions can be scientifically understood
Harris's whole argument hangs on his middle term: "well-being." If it means the same in his major (or first) premise as it does in his minor (or second) premise, then the argument has some plausibility: he can reasonably claim to have connected together the two ideas in his conclusion--morality and science. But if it doesn't, then he has committed the fallacy of equivocation, and the argument falls apart.

And his concept of well-being will have to have more support than Harris's own assertions of "seems" or "appears" or "I strongly believe."

What Harris does--wittingly or unwittingly--is bank on our traditional moral conception of "well-being" in his minor premise and then go on happily defining "well-being" in an entirely scientific and non-ethical way for purposes of his major premise, so that, by the time he gets done, he has two entirely different middle terms on his hands that cease to be able to keep the subject and predicate of his conclusion together. He has, fact, constructed his whole argument on this equivocation--and the term "well-being," being sufficiently vague, suits his purpose nicely.

It's a good try. But no one should be fooled.

Harris starts out by observing what he considers to be the two main schools of moral philosophy: the religious school that considers that moral truth exists because "God has woven it into the very fabric of reality"; and the evolutionary school that believes that moral values are culturally constructed. These are two of the three standard schools of ethics: the first is duty ethics, and the second consequentialism. Both, he says, are mistaken.

But the real bogey throughout the book is David Hume's "fact/value"distinction, a distinction which, given certain presuppositions (one's which Harris and other New Atheists share) prevents you from going from one to the other. Facts are things that are; values are things that should be; and things that are and things that should be are two entirely different kinds of things. To confuse them is commit what philosophers call a "category mistake."

To say that science, the study of what is, can have something to say about what ought to be is like applying the standards of what constitutes good music to determine how to bake a cake, or saying that the standards of good accounting practice can be used to determine the quality of a piece of music.

This distinction is assumed by most advocates of both schools Harris mentions: protestants assume it as much as secular philosophers, although it is largely rejected in Catholic thought. Harris is clearly aware of this problem, and articulates it competently in the introduction. The problem is that, once it is acknowledged, the then proceeds as if he had never heard of it.

Catholics (at least those in the Aristotelian/Thomist tradition) largely form the third school of ethics--virtue ethics, in which you can get around the distinction because of the prior distinction between man as he is and man as he would be if he achieved his telos or purpose. Both of these things are facts--the way man is and the telos which is the fulfillment of his nature, and ethics is simply the best way from one to the other.

But Harris does not believe in an objective telos--or that man has a particular nature to which this telos would correspond. So how does he get around the fact/value distinction? And this leads us to the second main argument of the book.

Harris argues that if factual statements and ethical statements both derive from similar brain processes, then they are the same kind of belief. He doesn't argue for this view, he just asserts it. And he seems to think that his assertion can be transformed into an argument by simply piling on evidence that both derive from similar brain states. But the problem in bridging the gap between the fact that a particular brain process occurs for two different kinds of belief and the conclusion that brain state to kind of belief is no less daunting then bridging the gap between facts and values.

Once again, we are forced to do Harris' work for him. Here is the argument:
Any belief that is produced by a certain brain process is the same kind of belief as any other belief produced by the same brain process
Factual beliefs and moral beliefs are both produced by the same brain process
Therefore, factual beliefs and moral beliefs are the same kind of beliefs
Harris spends all his time proving his minor premise, and simply assumes his major premise. He never attempts to prove it, yet it is precisely the assertion at issue.

"[B]eliefs about facts and beliefs about values seem to arise from similar processes at the level of the brain," he says on p. 11. "The division between facts and values does not make much sense in terms of underlying brain function," he asserts on p. 121.

He has tracked his seemingly divergent quarry and, following the trail to hole in the ground he calls the "medial pre-frontal cortex" (which he invests with the authority of scientific mysticism by crowning it with an acronym: MPFC), he calms the hounds and declares he has proven the objects of his hunt to be the same.

But why should anyone believe that a particular process--or a particular geographical location of the brain--dictates or limits the kind of thought or belief that occurs in it? Why does the nature or meaning of a statement have anything to do with the fact that it derives from a certain "brain process"? It is as if someone were to tell you that beef and milk are essentially the same thing, since they both derive from a cow, or that fried chicken and eggs easy-over were essentially the same kind of food because they are both the product of a chicken.

The same brain produces different kind of beliefs. Why shouldn't the same gland produce them?
He doesn't say. It apparently "seems" that way to him and "no doubt" must "appear" that it is "only reasonable."

If a particular brain process can only produce the same kind of thing, does that mean that if two contradictory statements derive from the same brain process (a contingency not precluded in Harris' account) that truth and falsity are fundamentally the same? Again, it all hangs on whether we are assured by those comforting adverbs.

It is the same old scientific reductionism that we constantly hear being invoked, and seldom hear being rationally justified. It certainly isn't in this book.

And this brings us to our third point concerning Harris' book. The most publicized passage in it truly sums up the book:
Throughout this book I make reference to a hypothetical space that I call "the moral landscape"-- a space of real and potential outcomes whose peaks correspond to the heights of potential well-being and whose valleys represent the deepest possible suffering. Different ways of thinking and behaving--different cultural practices, ethical codes, modes of government, etc.--will translate into movements across this landscape and, therefore, into different degrees of human flourishing.
"Well-being" and "human flourishing" serve interchangeably as equivocal terms in Harris' argument. But this passage highlights another weakness in Harris' rhetoric: he employs metaphors that masquerade as arguments.

His rhetoric of "peaks" and "valleys" is an old weapon in the quiver of those who reject traditional morality, and the defense against it was articulated over 100 years ago. In his 1908 book Orthodoxy, G. K. Chesterton describes the tactic as taking "refuge in material metaphors:
[I]n fact, is the chief mark of vague modern people. Not daring to define their doctrine of what is good, they use physical figures of speech without stint or shame, and, what is worst of all, seem to think these cheap analogies are exquisitely spiritual and superior to the old morality. Thus they think it intellectual to talk about things being "high." It is at least the reverse of intellectual; it is a mere phrase from a steeple or a weathercock. "Tommy was a good boy" is a pure
philosophical statement, worthy of Plato or Aquinas. "Tommy lived the higher life" is a gross metaphor from a ten-foot rule.
Chesterton points to the same tendency in Nietzsche:
Nietzsche always escaped a question by a physical metaphor, like a cheery minor poet. He said, "beyond good and evil," because he had not the courage to say, "more good than good and evil," or, "more evil than good and evil." Had he faced his thought without metaphors, he would have seen that it was nonsense. So, when he describes his hero, he does not dare to say, "the purer man," or "the happier man," or "the sadder man," for all these are ideas; and ideas are alarming. He says "the upper man," or "over man," a physical metaphor from acrobats or alpine climbers.
Harris' "peaks" and "valleys" serve the same role as Nietzshe's "higher" and "lower": they create the illusion of moral substance. He invokes them just like he invokes "well-being" and "human flourishing": as a sort of incantation he thinks will make the real problems with his argument go away. But we are never told exactly how it does this.

And so we are left with two different conceptions of well-being or flourishing, one a truly ethical conception which renders the minor premise of his first argument meaningful, and another a purely emotive or utilitarian conception which serves to establish his major premise. We are left devoid of any rationale for believing that the nature of a brain process dictates anything about the ontological or epistemological character of the judgments it produces.

And we are left with the feeling that, in the final analysis, his "moral landscape" with its "peaks" and "valleys" sounds attractive and plausible, but when you actually investigate it you find it doesn't show anything about how science determines human values, but is little more than the product of Harris' own imagination.

Finally, there is the whole issue of the legitimacy of Harris' project. What, if anything can science say about morality? How can a discipline devoted and designed only to tell us the how say anything the why or the whether? As Alastair MacIntyre has pointed out, the moral project of the Enlightenment has failed. Morality cannot be grounded in any of the things so many modern thinkers have thought it could be: the reason, the will, or the emotions. Kant, Kierkegaard, and Hume all come up short in their attempts to establish in on their respective bases. It defies any such analysis.

The only ethics worthy of the name was abandoned at the Renaissance: the classical conception which incorporates formal and final causality: that everything, including man, has a nature and a purpose, and that the approximation of that nature and the accomplishment of that purpose are what make him more truly what he really is. To say that a man is a "good man" is no fundamentally different than saying that dog is a "good dog" or a tree is a "good tree." Is it being what it really is and is it serving the purpose intrinsic to it? If it is, then it's good. If it's not, then it's not.

That's all you can say.

As to what the nature and purpose of human being is another matter, but it doesn't help in the task of determining these things to say that they don't exist. And those who say that they don't exist have the responsibility, if they want to cling to a notion of right and wrong, to provide an alternative account. So far, all such attempts have failed, and Harris' is not exactly one of the more impressive ones.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Why I follow Jake on Twitter

No sooner had I clicked to follow Jake Payne on Twitter than he posted the fact on his site. So I feel the need to explain how this all came about.

Not knowing much about all this social networking stuff, I discovered this thing called "Twitter." Naturally, not knowing more than I do about such things, I assumed it had something to do with twits, which sounded kind of interesting.

So I checked it out, and there Jake was.

Being a big fan of Jake, I of course don't know why he would be listed in such a place, but there you have it.

Can't beat this Internet thing.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Mor Chikin Trouble: Are gay protesters above criticism?

What is this? Fast food week on this blog? I'm trying to figure out a way to round out the week with controversial comments on Wendy's, MacDonald's, and maybe Arby's. Surely they've all done something wicked in the eyes of the PC Patrol.

In any case, there's quite a rollicking discussion in the comments sections of my post on the gay rights boycott of Chick-fil-A. Many of the commenters criticize my criticism of these efforts.

Of course, one wonders why, if they think I shouldn't criticize these criticisms, they feel as if they should be able to criticize my criticism of these criticisms. All of which puts me in the curious position of having to criticize the criticisms of my criticisms of their criticisms.

Such is the fate of a blogger devoted to defending the obvious.

Now I have combed the comments section of this post and plucked out several arguments that make absolutely no sense to me.

Several of the commenters have squawked that I should have nothing to say about these protests. I still have not figured out the exact argument. One commenter argues that unless there is some kind of physical violence, then people who disagree with the people who disagree with Chick-fil-A should remain mum.

If it's okay for them to criticize Chick-fil-A, then why do the get their hackles up when I criticize them?

One commenter seems to think that unless the protesters have "firebombed" a Chick-fil-A store or "physically threatened" Chick-fil-A employees, that they should be able to engage in their protest without any protest from me.

If actual physical violence is the only thing I'm allowed to criticize, then why isn't it the only thing the protesters are allowed to criticize? As far as I know, no one is even charging that Chick-fil-A physically assaulted anybody.

In fact, why is this commenter criticizing me? Did I do him any physical harm?

I would say that the double standard here is astounding, but I have seen it so many times that it no longer sticks in my gizzard.

If you want to say that it is somehow illegitimate to criticize gay rights protesters, fine. Then don't criticize the people who criticize them.

Politically Incorrect Chicken: Critics of Chick-fil-A should Get-A-life

The Brown Shorts are marching again. Now they're coming after your chicken sandwich:
Chick-fil-A has long-been transparent about its Christian values. They close their stores on Sundays, a practice that has helped the chain garner the nickname "Jesus Chicken," and have even gone so far as to consider a potential employee's marital status and civic and church involvement in their hiring process. But while the company's beliefs come as no surprise, in sponsoring the Art of Marriage Conference, some say the restaurant empire took its evangelizing to a new level.

... The Chick-fil-A outcry, which has sparked boycotts and proposals from college students to remove the restaurant from campuses...
The critics of Chick-fil-A should Get-A-life. I'm trying to find where in the definition of "Tolerance" it requires you to try to shut down the businesses of people who disagree with you.

If gays want to avoid Chick-fil-A, more power to them. But their totalitarian mindset has got to be wearing on the public. If they're looking for an alternative, I suggest Taco Bell.