25 December 2006

Debating the Death Penalty

The Objectivist
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
December 20, 2006

In the United States, murderers are rarely executed. In 2003, 14,493 persons were murdered while only 65 murderers were executed. In thinking about whether to abolish the death penalty, we should begin by distinguishing the two main justifications of punishment. On a retributivist account, criminals should be punished because justice demands it. On a consequence-based account, criminals should be punished because doing so makes the world a better place.

Retributivists usually assert that punishment should be proportional to the crime. On this theory, then, murderers and rapists should receive punishments that are roughly as severe as the harm they caused. For example, few think that murderers or rapists should be given probation or a sentence of only a few months in prison. The idea behind this justification is that persons are morally responsible agents and as a result they can and sometimes do forfeit their right against punishment, whether it takes the form of a fine, incarceration, or execution.

One problem with retributivism is that it also supports torture. Consider persons who commit a rape-murder or multiple murders. Retributivists claim that we should punish them in a way that is as severe as the harm they caused, or at least get as close as possible to doing so. On retributivist grounds, executing these bad boys isn't enough, we should torture them first. This doesn't require high tech solutions; we could use many of ingenious means that despots have used over the years, including bone breaking and other forms of mutilation, dog rape, and electrical shocks to private parts.

Some retributivists, such as 18th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant, claim that torture is unjust because it fails to respect the murderer's dignity. His idea was probably that torture removes, albeit temporarily, the murderer's ability to lead a self-shaping life by removing his rationality (ability to reason) and free will (ability to act on his reasoning). However, execution does the same thing. You can just see retributivists saying, courtesy of Homer Simpson, "D'oh." A few retributivists think that torture is an excellent idea precisely because murderers forfeit their rights. However, most people don't think that that we respect a prisoner if we repeatedly shock him when he is cowering in his own urine and feces.

In addition, we don't normally think that we have a duty to give persons what they deserve. For example, we think that employers may hire the best person for a job even if he isn't the most deserving. For example, a NFL team doesn't wrong anyone when it replaces a hard-working veteran who plays through pain with a flashy trash-talking rookie. Desert is also irrelevant to a range of state policies, including education, inheritance, and welfare.

On the second account, punishment is justified because it makes the world a better place. The way usually it does this is to make persons' lives go better and one of the best ways to measure this is to look at the costs and benefits of various options. On this cost-benefit analysis the death penalty is probably a loser. The costs of the death penalty are substantial in large part due to pricey trials and subsequent appeals. In 1992, the Dallas Morning News estimated that it costs Texas $2.3 million per death penalty case, which is about three times the cost of lifetime imprisonment in the highest security cell. In 1988, the Miami Herald estimated that the death penalty costs Florida $3.2 million per execution. In 1993, Philip Cook and Donna Slawson estimated that each execution costs North Carolina $2.16 million more than a life imprisonment. These are costs that only a school board could love.

The benefits aren't as clear. One purported benefit is deterrence. The problem is that the studies on the deterrent effect of the death penalty are mixed and controversial.

A second purported benefit is the psychological benefit to citizens. However, this benefit is probably not weighty enough. The likelihood of being murdered is very low. For example, in 2003 only about 1 in 20,000 persons in the U.S. was murdered. When a murder does occur, the chance of a murderer being executed is also low. In 2003, there was roughly 1 execution for every 223 murders. The average taxpayer would probably not to pay too much to ensure that if murdered, his murderer will have a 1 in 223 chance of being executed rather than a 0 in 223 chance. Also, the aggregate costs of the death penalty are significant. In 2000, the Palm Beach Post found that the state of Florida spends $51 million per year for the death penalty above and beyond what's needed for life imprisonment (note this figure is higher than the Miami Herald's estimate). Between 1977 and 2004, Texas executed 336 persons. If the cost were $2.3 million per execution, that's $773 million. It’s hard to believe that even when we put a thumb on the scale for psychological benefits, the benefits outweigh these costs. Until the death-penalty process is streamlined, it's probably too expensive.


The Theist
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
December 20, 2006

Not all killings are the same. Accidental killings, or those due to negligence, aren't in the same moral category as murders. And even among murders--intentional, morally wrong killings--there are differences. Some murders are the result of a drunken fight or a domestic quarrel which got out of hand. Others are pre-planned, what we call "cold-blooded." We might reserve the death penalty for these latter murders. Killing another human being is obviously a very serious matter. Why, then, do so many societies decide to employ the executioner?

Human life is a very precious thing. When someone steps so far out of line as to intentionally kill another, outside the context of any war or police context, society declares the value of human life by taking the killer's life as retribution for his crime. Some killers, it seems, just deserve to die--that they should go on living, even in a prison, seems unfitting. This is a fundamental moral intuition which probably most people have, at least at some point, although it can be extinguished by various ethical and religious beliefs. Perhaps the best way to highlight it, is to consider some objections to it.

"Killing the killer won't bring the victim back." What an irrelevant point, as no one ever fantasized that it would.

"Killing the killer makes us just like him." No, it doesn't. Executions and murders both involve killing a human, but they are not morally equivalent. The murderer does so for his own non-rational reasons--hate, lust, jealousy, vengeance, the desire for a thrill. The executioner carefully carries out the will of the government, which is acting with a view towards what is just. He acts as a legitimate instrument of that government, just as a soldier in a just war does.

"Studies show that enacting the death penalty doesn't deter future murderers." Let's grant for sake of argument that it doesn't. This is a relevant objection only if our main or only reason for employing the death penalty is that it prevents future harm. I don't think that that is the main reason why most people are for it. If someone, say, carjacked my wife's car and killed her, I just think he ought to die. I don't care whether it would prevent future murders or not. It'd be nice if it did, but that doesn't affect the fittingness of such a cold-blooded killer being executed by the state for his crime. I say this--that he ought to die--not in the grip of the searing pain of losing a spouse, but in a sober and reasonable state. I'd say the same about any such killing. Indeed, were I to become a cold-blooded killer, I think I would deserve to die.

"But we know that all killing is wrong. People are God's creatures." Sorry, but it is not a reasonable position to hold that all killing of humans is wrong. If some murderous thugs invaded your home, and were going to kill your children, you not only are permitted to use lethal violence, it seems that in some situations you'd be obligated to kill, to protect the innocent. "But I'd shoot 'em in the knee. Or just call 911." Sure, in some cases, that'd be the best policy. But there would be other scenarios where those responses would be impossible or unreasonable, and in some of those, the only reasonable and moral response would be to kill. That shows that it's false that all killing is morally wrong. Thus, no argument against the death penalty should rely on the claim that all killing is morally wrong. As to people being God's creatures, maybe you should read what you (the religious objector) hold to be God's book. According to it, God personally endorsed death penalty policies, at least for ancient Israel. If that's so, then such policies can't be morally wrong (a perfectly good being can't and won't endorse a policy which is morally wrong), although one might object to them on practical grounds.

"OK, I'll let go of the God-talk. I just think it's barbarous for the government to be involved in killing. I don't really want to go back to that ancient eye for an eye stuff." Some death penalty procedures surely are barbarous, but others, to most people, don't seem so. Now the "eye for an eye" comment raises an interesting point. I believe the point of that part of the Mosiac law was to prevent out of proportion penalties--where the aggressor would be punished with something much worse than he inflicted (e.g. a hand cut off for stealing a pear). The idea is that the criminal should lose at most what he took from the victim, not that he should suffer at least that much, or exactly as much. I think The Objectivist is mistaken in holding that if we endorse the death penalty for killers, then we'll also have to torture those killers who torture their victims. The killer should lose his own life. Justice doesn't also demand that the state also inflict on the killer the same sorts of horrors he inflicted on his victim(s).

"But killing people costs so darned much. And the benefits, such as peace of mind for the victims' families or various other members of the public, aren't worth that cost." This sounds like an argument for reforming our current system--keeping it fair while reducing the costs, probably by speeding up the appeals processes. It's hard to put a price on justice, and the better course seems to be to keep the justice, and reduce wasteful factors that run up costs.

10 December 2006

Recreational Sex

The Objectivist
NOT in the Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
December 4, 2006

Recreational sex is sex that is outside of marriage or a committed loving relationship. It sometimes is part of a promiscuous stage in which a person has recreational sex with several people in a short period of time. It’s not for everyone, but that’s a matter of taste not morality. This is no different than many other activities, such as golf, eating McDonald’s fries, and sex with the obese.

An act is wrong only when it wrongs someone or causes great harm. One person wrongs a second only if he violates the second person’s right or exploits her. If a couple has recreational sex no one’s right is violated because both participants voluntarily consent. Nor does it involve exploitation. Exploitation occurs when one person uses his superior position to get another person to agree to a terrible deal. For example, if during a winter storm tow truck operators charged $1,000 per tow to desperate and freezing motorists, the operators would exploit the motorists. Nothing like that is true of recreational sex. And ordinarily recreational sex doesn’t cause great harm. In fact, I’ve been told that it’s a lot more fun than reading my columns.

Religious critics of recreational sex often say that God wants people to engage in other recreational activities (e.g., cooking and book clubs) rather than recreational sex. They often invoke the divine command theory. This theory says that some acts are morally obligatory because God commands that we do them; others are wrong because he forbids them. This is silly. If it were true, then God would have no reason for forbidding certain acts (e.g., rape and battery) rather requiring them. If God has an independent reason for forbidding such acts, then it must be because they are wrong independent of what he commands. Hence, God isn’t much help here.

Others claim that such sex is wrong because it’s unnatural. This is usually followed up with the claim that sex is natural only if it’s for the purpose of reproduction in the context of marriage. Now this obviously takes away the fun away from infertile couples or couples in which the wife is already pregnant. This is absurd.

Furthermore, when we ask what makes an act natural, we shouldn’t be surprised if the opponents sweat as much as the ladies in Richard Simmons’s videos. By “natural,” they can’t mean what’s morally right since this is what’s at issue. Nor do they likely mean acts that are statistically common since activities such as anal sex are common (by age 24, one in three American women has had anal sex) and probably not on the natural-sex crowd’s list of favorites. By “natural,” they probably don’t mean under conditions in which human beings evolved since there is a good chance that human evolution took place in the context of polygamy. Opponents of recreational sex likely would reject any view that is opposed to monogamy. The opponents might think that natural acts are ones that are in line with human beings’ purpose, although they then have the daunting task of identifying what that purpose is. If you think that human beings came about via evolution, and you should, they don’t have a purpose.

It’s not even clear why unnatural activities are wrong. It’s not clear to me that doing chemistry experiments, running ultra-marathons (some are 50 or 100 miles long), or performing ballet is natural. We certainly didn’t evolve to do them, nor are they closely tied to our special purpose.

An opponent of recreational sex might claim that it’s wrong because it’s bad for the participants. He might claim that it leads to sexually transmitted diseases or makes participants less eligible for marriage and parenthood. Now it’s not obvious that acts that hinder the agent’s interest are wrong. Tailgating and watching the Bills might also make a person less eligible for marriage in so far as it makes him fat and bitter, but that doesn’t make it wrong.

Even if acts that make a person’s life go poorly are wrong, the opponent must provide data in support of the claim that recreational-sex makes lives go poorly. He might try to show that participants who use contraception and are reasonably careful in their choice of partners run a significant chance of getting a STD or not getting a desirable spouse. I doubt he has data in support of these claims. On average, more educated women have had more sex partners and tried more sexual things (e.g., anal sex and active and passive oral sex) than their less educated sisters, yet are more likely to get college-educated husbands. This doesn’t show that recreational sex doesn’t hurt a person’s chance of getting a desirable spouse, but does show that the breezy claim to the contrary needs support.

In short, it’s a mistake to count a matter of taste as a matter of morality. Sushi, recreational sex, and opera appeal to some tastes and not others. That’s all there is to it.


The Theist
NOT in the Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
December 4, 2006

An infertile or “expecting” married couple can’t engage in “recreational” sex as we’re defining it, for although their sex may in some sense be “recreational,” it also occurs in the context of a committed relationship which is intended to be permanent. In this context, sex is not simply desire-satisfaction. It’s about mutual giving, vulnerability, faithful devotion, the smoothing over of relational tensions, even self-sacrifice. It is, in biblical terms, about two people becoming “one flesh,” in some sense one organic living unit, not two. Such a lover is acting for the physical, emotional, and spiritual benefit of the beloved.

The Objectivist argues that actions are morally wrong only if they cause great harm, violate someone’s rights, or exploit someone. Recreational sex, he argues, doesn’t always involve those. Now when recreational sex leads to the spreading of STDs, to abortions, or to women bearing the heavy burden of single parenthood and children growing up fatherless, then great harm has indeed been done. As to rights violations, casual sex in which one of the indulgers is married to someone else does involve the violation of that person’s spouse’s rights. As to exploitation, in casual sex by definition arguably both participants are using each other, as the great philosopher Kant says, “merely as a means” to the end of pleasure. That is, they’re using them in the way that one would use a tool, without concern for their good.

It may be harmless rutting to you, but to your co-rutter, what you’re now doing may be something which, after settling down into marriage, he or she will permanently regret. Sex is odd this way; our sexual activities are deeply imprinted in our memories, and shape all our future sexual thinking and acting. Further, sex is strongly habit-forming. A habit of casual sex, then, gives rise to an appetite for casual sex, and for sex with a variety of partners. And these things wreak havoc on our ability to get and permanently stay in a marriage, or in any relationship much resembling a marriage.

Why can’t we just sexually behave like bonobos, alley cats, or hippies circa 1968? It seems incompatible with human nature; sexual intimacy has a unique value, and we only want to “spend” it where it counts--that is, in the context of a unique and lasting intimate friendship. When humans are sexually intimate, they feel “bonded” in a unique way--each has “known” the other in a way that most of their acquaintances never will. This is why after a casual “hook-up,” both parties feel embarrassment. (“What was your name, again?”) When the lust has diminished, that bonding just seems out of place, given the lack of relationship.

My purpose in this debate isn’t to shame those who’ve engaged in recreational sex. Nor am I interested in outlawing promiscuity. My aim is only to persuade you that this sort of activity is unfitting--even when it doesn’t violate anyone’s rights or cause great harm. If you believe in God, of course, it is very plausible that God would not want us to treat each other as mere masturbatory tools for our own pleasure. Hence, belief in God tends to strengthen one’s aversion to recreational sex. But I emphasize that all ethically sensitive people, believers or not, find this practice to be unfitting.

Speaking of God, let me address believers and those who’ll admit they don’t know there’s no God. The over-arching purpose for the human race, according to Judaism and Christianity, is that there should be a vast and diverse community of people each of whom loves God and loves her neighbor as herself. Recreational sex is unnatural because it is incompatible with a lifestyle of loving one’s neighbor. Loving someone is defined as acting so as to promote their overall well-being. In casual sex, one doesn’t necessarily mean one’s sexual partner ill. Rather, one just doesn’t care what is good for him or her, beyond their immediate pleasure. The other person is just a body, a mere treat to be greedily consumed. What is “unnatural” is what is not specified by the design plan of the human race, and yes, not all such activities are wrong (e.g. balancing a spoon on the end of one’s nose). The ones that are morally wrong are the ones which tend to prevent us from living up to our natural function, activities which prevent us from being the sort of people we were intended to be. Casual sex leads to a desire for more.

Having a propensity towards engaging in casual sex means that you’re the sort of person who habitually ignores the well-being of others. I suggest that this sort of callousness extends beyond the sexual realm to how we treat people generally. If that’s so, this sort of condition is even more tragic than it first appears.

25 November 2006

New Look

Yes, you're in the right spot, folks! Here's what we used to look like:

The Theist has now (finally) been added as a contributor here, and he's gone and abused his administrator priviledge by changing the look and feel to something he thought was more readable. Is the new look an improvement?

The Theist is busy with his family, professoring, miscellaneous geeking, and his other online gig. But he'll jump into the discussion here now and again as time permits.

24 November 2006

Faith, Self-Interest, and Belief in God

The Objectivist
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
November 21, 2006

Many theists claim to rest their belief in God on faith. A person believes something on the basis of faith when he believes in it on the basis of what he knows to be inadequate evidence.

But consider how we normally react to the unsupported belief. Imagine you are in a bar and a biker sitting near you tells you that he is a white supremacist. You ask why and he explains that he while he doesn’t have a good argument for his views, but he nonetheless believes it strongly. In fact, he says, he takes it as a matter of faith. You would consider him to be sad and not just because his beliefs are destructive. Arguably, the opposition of some Catholic groups to free markets and birth control is similarly destructive. Rather your contempt will be based in part on the fact that the biker firmly holds beliefs that he can’t defend. Consistency requires that you take the same view of faith-based religious belief.

Recognizing this failure creates the logical space for Blaise Pascal’s wager. In the 17th century, Pascal argued that it is a good bet to believe in God. His argument makes three assumptions. First, Pascal asserts that while reason can’t tell us whether God exists, we know that he either does or doesn’t exist. Second, Pascal assumes that if God exists, he will send believers to heaven (an eternity of happiness) and will either annihilate non-believers or send them to hell (an eternity of suffering). Third, Pascal assumes that we can decide whether to believe in God and act accordingly.

Pascal argues that if we believe in God, we risk losing out on a few earthly pleasures but gain the chance of gaining an infinite reward. Okay, we’ll lose out on our chance to enjoy mushrooms while watching Martin Scorsese films and the occasional threesome, but these are small losses in the grand scheme of things. If we don’t believe in God then we can sleep late on Sundays and enjoy our sinful ways, but we risk being annihilated or, worse, eternal damnation. Pascal argues that it is irrational to risk an infinite loss just to secure a small gain. This is analogous to the way in which it is irrational to avoid other minor precautions (for example, wearing a seatbelt) that protect against catastrophic loss.

Pascal’s argument survives the usual criticisms that are leveled against it. Some critics argue that God wouldn’t reward someone who merely hedges his bet for self-interested reasons. However, Pascal would likely argue that he is talking about persons having a real commitment to God, which can occur even if the initial motivation to do so was a cynical appeal to self-interest. Other critics argue that the evidence against God’s existence is overwhelming and we are running the risk of shaping our life around a falsity. Even so, Pascal would likely respond, we can’t be sure that God doesn’t exist, any more than we can be certain about other arguments in math and science, and we can’t take the chance of a catastrophic outcome even when it is unlikely to occur. Still other critics argue that a just and loving being like God wouldn’t, and perhaps can’t, annihilate non-believers or send them to hell. Again, while this is likely true since reason suggests as much, the question remains whether we can afford to take this risk. We can’t.

The real reason this argument fails is that it doesn’t take into account all the outcomes that we can’t rule out with certainty. As mentioned above, these outcomes include scenarios where God exists and ones where neither God nor a similar being exists. However, they also include the case where an anti-Christian (or, perhaps, anti-theist) all-powerful god exists. This god hates believers since they annoy him with their constant prayers the way the paparazzi used to infuriate Sean Penn. This god sends believers to hell and all others to heaven. After all, what does he care? It doesn’t cost him anything to send someone to heaven and non-believers haven’t annoyed him. If this is correct, then believing in God poses a tremendous risk. The logic (and underlying mathematical calculation of self-interest) is identical and cancels out the risk one takes by not believing in God.

Pascal’s wager sinks and drags down with it the best case for faith-based religious belief. Faith and self-interest don’t shield believers from the onslaught of science and philosophy. And when we add beliefs about angels, the devil, magical spectacles, and bread being changed into the body of Christ, the need for faith intensifies and we’re moving in the wrong direction.


The Theist
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
November 21, 2006

Seventeenth century French genius Blaise Pascal assumed that in religious matters, nothing at all can be known. Still, in a passage now referred to as “Pascal’s Wager” he argued that one ought to believe in God--not because there is adequate evidence that God exists, but rather because it is prudent, that is, in one’s best interest.

Why? There are four possibilities, and in the absence of evidence, I must hold them to be equally likely. These are: (1) mistaken theism, (2) correct theism, (3) mistaken atheism, and (4) correct atheism. If I believe in God, I either lose little (1), or win infinite gain (2). If I disbelieve, I risk infinite loss (3), or a not-too-significant loss (4). How to bet? Clearly, believing in God is the safer bet; Pascal’s logic seems impeccable.

Despite the fact that Pascal was a mathematical genius, his logic is not impeccable. In fact, The Objectivist kicks a big hole in it. The problem is that if we know nothing at all in matters of religion, then how can we say that there are precisely four options (the numbered ones above)? We can’t. As The Objectivist points out, we’d have to consider anything which is conceivable, such as the scenario of the god who punishes only religious believers. We wouldn’t even be able to use his method of reasoning to decide what’s in our interest to believe, as the options would be infinite, and no human could go through such an endless train of reasoning.

What now? We can, like The Objectivist, reject Pascal’s way of reasoning altogether. But I’ll argue that the right response is to question his assumption that we know nothing in matters of religion. To the contrary, we do know that some religious claims are false, and moreover, everyone should agree that not all religions are equally plausible.

Some founders of religions (big and small) appear clearly in the historical record as power-, sex-, and money-hungry manipulators, and it is rational to trust them much less than founders who come off like genuine friends of God and humankind. Scientology was founded by a science fiction writer as a shameless money-making operation. This religion puts its adherents through a long, expensive, pseudo-scientific therapy, only after many years revealing to them L. Ron Hubbard’s ridiculous story of what’s wrong with the human race. (Search online for the word “Xenu” for this.) Other religions, such as some kinds of Advaita Vedanta Hinduism, cut strongly against common sense, holding that the world we (seem to) see around us in an illusion, there really being just one indescribable thing (“Brahman”). Other religions, such as the “Ghost Dance” religion which swept through certain Native American tribes in the late 19th century, make predictions which turn out to be false. Tragically, one such prediction was that magical garments (“Ghost Shirts”) would repel even the white man’s bullets. You can guess how that claim was refuted. Similarly, there’s an endless parade of Christian sects which (sometimes repeatedly) unsuccessfully forecast the Second Coming of Christ.

Is it hard to grade some religions as more likely to be true than others? Sometimes. Is it rude? It can be. Will it spoil your Thanksgiving dinner if you bring this up? Probably. But if you’re interested in having true beliefs about religion, you have to think about these things. Pascal is too skeptical. There’s a boatload of testimonial evidence from sane, sober, and smart people, in favor of religions such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. There’s no evidence of any kind for belief in the believer-hating god.

There are two “world views” which predominate right now. First, there’s what I’d call Abrahamic theism--belief in the one God of Abraham (see Genesis 12-25). Second, there’s the world view which is currently dominant around the world, at least in the more educated segment of societies--what philosophers call “naturalism” (roughly: atheism plus the view that all there is is the realm investigated by empirical science). For most thoughtful people nowadays (though by no means all), these are by far the top two contenders for belief--not the only conceivable options, but the only two ones we can imagine actually believing. If you’re in that category, then you’re deciding between naturalism and belief in one perfect personal God, who treats us seriously enough to allow us to reject him completely and permanently (he refuses to force himself on us).

If you’re such a person, it turns out you really should take a cue from Pascal, because you face the four numbered options above. The prudent bet? Believe in God. Pascal himself realized that one can’t simply "believe on command," even when one judges belief to be in one’s best interest. His advice? Take practical steps, such as associating with believers, sending up hope-fueled prayers, and participating in religious rituals. Such a lifestyle will probably, over time, incline one to actually believe.

09 November 2006

A Debate Over Hell

The Objectivist
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
November 6, 2006

Some religious doctrines are competitors in the absurdity sweepstakes. Among the contenders is the doctrine of the trinity, which asserts that there are three divine persons each of whom appears to have a separate mind and yet they are still one in some mysterious sense. However, the leader is probably the notion that God sends persons to hell or annihilates them. Hell is an eternity of suffering that God imposes on persons, usually because they are evil or didn’t believe in him.

Hell is just only if persons deserve an infinite punishment. But finite beings, like human beings, can’t deserve infinite punishments. We often think that a person deserves to be punished in a way that is proportional to his wrongdoing. For example, a thief doesn’t deserve ten years in prison for stealing Paris Hilton’s lunch. In general, human beings can’t do acts that are infinitely wrong because they can’t cause infinite harm to others. At most, via torture and killing they can cause significant but finite harm. They might cause infinite harm if they send or help to send a person to hell, but this creates a bootstrap problem since it requires that hell already exist. That is, God would need a reason independent of human desert to create hell.

Because God is invulnerable, he can be at most indirectly harmed. We normally don’t think that punishment is deserved for indirect harm. For example, we punish murderers and rapists for what they did to their victims, not for what they did to the victim’s families and friends. For example, a man who rapes a homeless teenager who lacks family and friends should be punished as severely as someone who rapes a mother of three or a CEO on whom shareholders depend.

The notion that failure to believe in God justifies an eternity in hell is silly. First, the evidence for God’s existence is anything but clear and it is cruel to punish persons for drawing reasonable conclusions from the evidence before them. Second, a person shouldn’t be punished merely for having false beliefs. The feminists can breathe easy on this one. Third, severely punishing persons for not believing in you is something we would expect of very insecure persons. That is, on this view of God he is remarkably similar to Donald Trump, minus the bad hair.

Even if persons deserve to suffer based on having an evil character rather than having done evil, this still doesn’t establish that anyone’s character is bad enough to deserve hell. Persons simply don’t have enough evil thoughts or thoughts of sufficient intensity to warrant infinite suffering. In fact, it’s an odd view to think that persons deserve to suffer for their thoughts. This is good news for the sea of persons who have meaningful lives but who regularly enjoy violent movies and internet porn. To paraphrase Homer Simpson, “internet porn, mmm....”

In fact, it’s hard to see why God even has the right to punish others. We usually think that victims have a right to punish their victimizers and that the state gains this right because citizens contract it out to the state (that is, they outsource it). If this weren’t the case, then the state would be like a vigilante. In many cases, individuals haven’t transferred their right to punish to God. I haven’t done so and neither has the Rock.

Even annihilating persons is just plain mean-spirited. We normally think that if one individual can give a benefit to a second without any cost or inconvenience to himself and doesn’t do so, then he is rotten. For example, imagine I’m sitting at a train station with three Hostess cupcakes that I can’t eat because I’m allergic to the chocolate. I can give them to nearby starving children or throw them away. Even though the children don’t have a right to the cupcakes, there’s something wrong with me if I toss them. God can give people an eternal life of ecstasy as easy as I can give out the cupcakes. If you believe that he doesn’t do so, you don’t think much of him. Given his overreaction to not believing in him, this strikes as more dangerous than being near a Kennedy behind the wheel.

The notion of hell also has ridiculous implications. For example, if it were true, abortion and infanticide would be loving acts since they would guarantee that one’s infant doesn’t go to hell. Like going without insurance, this is not a risk that a loving parent would ever take.

In the end, the notion of hell and annihilation makes about as much sense as a meth-using gay preacher who spends his time fighting for traditional values.


The Theist
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
November 6, 2006

It’s popular to assume that the notion of hell can be dismissed as an implausible and morally perverse fantasy of hate-mongers. But by far the person most responsible for promoting the idea of Hell was Jesus, the most admired man in the history of the world, beloved far beyond the bounds of Christianity. This alone should give scoffers pause.

Consider the “logic” of hell. Suppose that God exists, and that he’ll eventually prevail, so that in contrast to the present, his will will be regularly done in all the earth. Suppose also that he wants people to freely cooperate with him. And add that he takes our freedom so seriously that he’ll allow us to permanently reject him. It follows that God needs some kind of “trash dump"--some place to put those who refuse his love--people for whom he no longer has any use.

Jesus calls the place were God sends his enemies “Gehenna,” which was in his day a smoldering trash dump outside the walls of Jerusalem. Some current thinkers hold that hell is primarily a place of retribution, wherein the wicked get what they deserve. Others hold what they call a “natural consequence” model of hell, where people, given their moral character, are put in the only place suitable for them--a place away from the presence of God and God’s friends. Such people, on this view, simply couldn’t be happy in heaven.

Again, some current thinkers hold that hell is (as the majority tradition in Christianity holds) an infinitely long existence characterized by conscious suffering. In contrast, annihilationists (a minority view within Christianity) hold that either immediately after death, or after some finite period of suffering, God literally destroys the wicked, so that they no longer exist. On any of these options, hell is a permanent, undesirable sentence.

One may object that as we live finite lives, it’s impossible for us to deserve an infinite punishment (either infinitely long suffering or annihilation). This objection may look impressive, but on further reflection, we don’t know that we can’t accrue infinite guilt. Suppose a sexual predator kidnaps, rapes, and murders a fifteen year old young woman. From a human perspective, he causes massive but perhaps finite harm: his victim suffers pain, and then loses of the rest of her natural life. He also deprives her community and family of her presence and love. Now add God into the equation. He loves the victim more than her parents. Being omnipresent and all-knowing, he’s more vividly aware of a murderer’s dastardly acts than any human eyewitness could be, and what’s more, he can’t forget a single gruesome detail. Further, he knows in perfect detail exactly how much human potential was squandered that day--her “line” has been permanently cut off. She might, like Abraham, have been the ancestor of a unique “nation” or people-group, some important “branch” on the tree of humanity--a branch continuing into the infinite future. How long does God bear these “scars”? Infinitely long. Endless suffering or annihilation start to look fair rather than excessive.

But, you may object, didn’t this kind murderer do his victim the service of sending her straight to heaven? In reply, he may have sent her there, but in so doing he prematurely took her from this realm of choice. She’d prefer the risk of hell to having her autonomy cut so short. We all would. That’s why it’s asinine to suggest that belief in heaven and hell legitimizes any homicide whatsoever. (“Just sending ‘em to heaven, Lord!”)

How could God send people to hell simply for not believing in him? He doesn’t. Rather, he sends them there because they deserve it, and/or because he doesn’t want to annihilate them but there’s nowhere else to put them. Would a hell-threatening God be insecure? Hardly--he takes the extreme risk of making people with the freedom to accept or reject him, and takes the latter seriously enough to let them have what they’ve chosen--a head-on collision with an omnipotent and just judge.

In sum, the question to ask isn’t “How could God send anyone to hell?” Rather, each should ask: “Why shouldn’t God send me there, what with my plethora of evil and destructive habits, my systematic rejection of God’s advances, and my ungrateful squandering of billions of his blessings, big and small?” Can I rule out that I’ve inflicted infinite losses on God many times over? If not, what can I do to avoid hell? I’d recommend consulting Jesus on that one.

The Theist: The Haggard Scandal

The Theist
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer

Some of us are old enough to remember the sleezy boom days of televangelism in this country--Jim and Tammy Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, Robert Tilton. How many sordid books were written and 15-minutes-of-fame careers were launched from the sordid tales of sexual and financial exploitation? If you're too young to remember, or old enough to have forgotten, count yourself blessed. For some of us, memories of those days were kindled by headlines last week about the fall of “evangelist” Ted Haggard. I wonder if some headline writers just assumed that any fallen Christian leader must be an “evangelist”; last time I checked, he wasn't an evangelist (i.e. a traveling, Billy Graham style harvester of souls), and has never been a televangelist, but rather a pastor, conference speaker, and head of the National Association of Evangelicals.

Before the scandal I'd seen Haggard a few times on television. First, I saw him interviewed by (the great theologian) Barbara Walters in an ABC special on the concept of heaven. Later, I saw him in a BBC series called The Root of All Evil, being interviewed (really, confronted) by famous biologist, author, and anti-religion campaigner Richard Dawkins. Both times, I was put off by Haggard--to Walters' questions, he seemed to duck and dodge, rather than giving a straight answer. And he ended up giving his assailant Dawkins a ridiculous lecture about the dangers of arrogance, before running him off his church's property. Haggard struck me as the opposite of a straight-shooter--someone always carefully managing the image he presents and who always thinks he can charm his way past tough questions, wielding that forced smile. He's not someone I'd like to see as a spokesman for Christianity, whatever his merits are as a preacher or pastor.

Haggard's weaselly nature manifested again when the accusations hit the news. In one carefully calculated statement, he said that he had never“had a gay relationship.” Well, that may be so, but the accusation was about repeatedly paying a gay prostitute for sex. In another, he tried to get away with admitting only paying for a massage, and offered a Clintonian claim that he'd bought meth but never used it. When I saw these statements, I thought, “he still thinks he can talk and manipulate his way out of this!” To no one's surprise, it didn't work.

There have been some ugly reactions from those happy to see Haggard go down. Some callously see the episode as no more than a benefit to progressive political efforts, or as simply a welcome humiliation for those evil, power-hungry, sanctimonious, Bush-voting religious conservatives. All I can say about such reactions is: look at what our nasty political culture has done to you.

More interesting is the widespread reaction that Haggard is a vile hypocrite, who enjoys gay sex while “bashing” gays from the pulpit. Better that he should have been “true to himself” and simply led a gay or bisexual lifestyle. In my view, there are several things wrong with this reaction. First, it isn't “gay-bashing” or homophobic to believe, and to publicly say, that gay sex is morally wrong. This moral claim is an entrenched part of nearly all the world's great religions (yes, even cool ones such as Tibetan Buddhism) and it must be distinguished clearly from various political positions about the legal status of gays and gay sex, as well as from hatred for gays.

Further, this moral belief is plainly compatible with loving and valuing one's gay neighbors as oneself. I'm not aware that Haggard has ever publicly expressed any sort of hatred for homosexuals, or cast them as sub-human, or played any of the cards of the true bigot. He's even spoken out in favor of civil union legislation. In general, I've found that evangelical Christians are less prone to the evils of anti-gay bigotry than the general populace. We should remember that respect, tolerance, and kindness don't require that people agree with all our moral judgments, or approve of all of our behavior.

Haggard admits that he has struggled all of his adult life with desires incompatible with married life. Does this mean that he's really gay, or bisexual, and that he ought to just play the part? Hardly. For one thing, the man is married with five children. Even if he should have chosen a different course before, from a moral standpoint that is irrelevant, given his current obligations to his wife. Further, just because I have a desire for X, doesn't mean that I must act on the desire for X or else be a hypocrite or a phony. Most men, at one time or another, with varying frequency, experience sexual desires for other men, for women other than their wives, and for various other people they ought not have sex with (e.g. stepdaughters, employees). It's one thing to say that it's permissible to follow any desire you may have, at least in cases where no one is obviously hurt by your action, but it's ridiculous to assert that anyone is obligated, on pain of being a phony, to act on a desire just because they have it, even when it is a strong and recurring desire. To the contrary, moral behavior is all about only acting on some, but not on other desires!

Is Haggard a hypocrite? Not exactly. He's someone (just like the rest of us) who had a habit of doing something he believed to be morally wrong, and then hiding it. In his own words, he's “a deceiver and a liar.” This seems a more fundamental and serious moral problem than his formerly hidden sexual practices. What's even more interesting is his remarkably thorough, excuse-free, abject, face in the mud repentance in his statement read to his (former) congregation on November 5. It's worth finding that online and reading it in full. How many of us are willing to adopt that posture, when appropriate?

The only proper response to the story is sadness--at a man, probably isolated and under pressure from many quarters, who failed to live up to his own beliefs about right and wrong, who gave into meaningless, immoral sex with a prostitute, and fell into a pattern of systematic deception of his wife and coreligionists. Anyone who's been addicted to any sort of bad behavior should feel their pain. Should he have adopted different beliefs? Should he have made better choices? However you answer, there's no cause for joy in this news.

27 October 2006

God and the Meaning of Life

The Objectivist
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
October 25, 2006

The Theist argues that if atheism is true then life is meaningless. I think he's wrong. The question of what constitutes a meaningful life is ambiguous. The question might be asking what makes a person's life go well for him. Alternatively, it might be asking what about a person's life makes the world a better place (that is, what makes it morally good). Let's focus on the first question.

There are two general types of theory about what makes someone's life go better. The internalist theory says that how well someone's life goes depends solely on what goes on in our head. Usually these theories focus on pleasure. The externalist theory says that how well someone's life goes depends in part on things outside of our head. Usually, this involves things like meaningful relationships, true beliefs, etc. On this second theory, a life consisting of laughter, Hostess products, and sex with Paris Hilton is not a great one, even if it is very pleasurable. Now let us ask ourselves whether on either theory the existence of God would make our lives great. That is, would the presence of God lead to greater pleasure, more loving relationships, or true beliefs? No. God might cause these things to happen but his mere presence doesn't bring them about.

Even the notion that God causes these things to come about is doubtful. After all, how happy someone appears to be is a result of how healthy he is, how well his relationships with his family and friends go, whether he is free from violence, and so on. Unless one thinks that God constantly intervenes in our lives, it is hard to see why someone would think that God affects these factors. Even on the usual theist account, persons' relationship with God is so plagued by guesswork, unfamiliarity, and faith that it is hard to see how it could have much affect on how well persons' lives go. For example, whether Princess Diana had children and got divorced had a much bigger effect on her happiness during her lifetime than her personal relationship with God.

If we instead focus on what about a person's life makes the world a better place, it is still hard to see how God's existence affects this issue. We often think that persons whose lives go well make the world a better place, whereas suffering ones do the opposite. This idea might have to be tweaked a little bit to take into account what people deserve. For example, it might be better if bad guys like Joseph Stalin and Adolph Hitler suffer rather than flourish. With regard to the living, it is again hard to see how God comes into play here. Unless he is, like Santa Claus, constantly handing out pleasure to good boys and pain to bad ones, he doesn't seem to affect these factors. And if he did frequently intervene, then he would be making a mockery out of the notion that we should live with the consequences of our freely chosen actions, a notion that lies at the heart of contemporary theism.

A theist might object that a meaningful life depends on God because it is God who decides what is meaningful. However, this doctrine generates the absurd consequence that God has no reason to make some things meaningful (for example, love and knowledge) and other things not (for example, prison rape and Spam). He could have just as easily decreed the opposite since there is no answer to what is meaningful before he laid down standards. Since no theist wants to sign on to such absurdity, this objection isn't helpful.

Other objections based on flaky views of what makes the world a better place don't help the theist's case. For example, on Christopher Hitchens's interpretation, Mother Teresa viewed suffering as something that is good for the world because it is an expression of affiliation with Jesus Christ and his ordeal on the cross. Others view lives lived in fellowship with God as the only way that persons make the world a better place. Such views are less helpful than an anvil is to Wiley E. Coyote.

The theist's best response here is to acknowledge the above arguments but claim that a meaningful life is closely tied to immortality and it is only through God's efforts that persons live eternally. If this claim were plausible, then the theist would be in a strong position. But why think that a meaningful life is closely tied to immortality? A finite life (for example, Ronald Reagan's life) can include love, laughter, and knowledge that make it a successful one. Also, such a life seems to make the world a better place. For example, we would prefer world-creators who bring about more of these lives and fewer lives that are nasty, brutish, and short. Certainly, an ecstatic life that is infinite is better than a finite one, but the latter is still good.

In short, atheism doesn't result in life being meaningless. Luckily for the theist, he need not sign on to such a claim. However, like the Egyptian Pharaoh, the theist is still subject to plagues, in this case the plague of having a contradictory and unscientific world view.


The Theist
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
October 25, 2006

Many theists say that a life without God is meaningless, or that if atheism were true, human life would have no meaning. In a sense, these claims are true, but we must be clear about what we're saying and what we're not saying--"meaning" is a very ambiguous term.

Even if atheism were true, life might still have "meaning" in several senses. First, if a "meaningful" life is a morally good one, then yes, even if God doesn't exist, people's lives can be more or less meaningful. One who raises responsible children lives better than one who becomes a serial rapist. Second, if a "meaningful" life is one filled with activities which you desire or value, then sure, even if God doesn't exist, your life may have meaning. You may, if you're lucky, mostly get what you want. Of course, you may place a high value on, say, stealing, rather than on something obviously good, such as loving personal relationships. But either way, yes, your life may have meaning, in this sense, even if God exists but you ignore him, and even if God is simply a fiction. Third, when some people talk about a "meaningful" life they mean one which significantly benefits others. Again, even if God doesn't exist, your life may benefit others; for example, without God you may relieve suffering, help to mend broken relationships, and promote tolerance and kindness. So in any of these three senses of "meaning," if someone says "If there's no God, then life is meaningless," she speaks a falsehood.

It would be highly premature, though, to stop here, declaring that God's existence isn't relevant to the meaningfulness of our lives. If God exists, then he has a purpose for creation as a whole, for the human race, and for your life. Let's focus on this last one. If God exists, then there is a purpose for your life--one which neither you nor any other human created, and one which you can't just will to go away. And this isn't just any purpose--it was picked by a perfectly good, all-knowing being, who is in charge of history. Your life was meant to fit in with his project in history, with his aims--what the Bible calls his "Kingdom." Moreover, this purpose is a perfect fit for you, as it takes into account all those things which together make you unique; an all-knowing being doesn't try to cram square pegs into round holes.

Further, you might think that a "meaningful" life can't be one which has always been doomed to utter loss. But if atheism is true, then you, your family, the human race, and every cause you've ever worked for, is ultimately doomed--all of these things will cease to exist, and the universe won't miss them as it reverts to a lifeless state. Not so, for the theist--she looks forward to life everlasting.

Even our concessions in the second paragraph need qualifying. Theists (especially Christians) hold that there's a deep, consistent, self-sacrificing kind of moral goodness which is out of people's reach unless they deliberately accept divine help ("grace"). If they're right about this, then in an atheistic universe, or a theistic one in which you're a mistaken non-theist, there's a kind of beyond-the-norm goodness which is beyond your reach. Further, theism is an enormous help to moral motivation. If I believe that God is always watching, and will some day hold me to account, I'll be motivated to behave even when no one else is looking.

Even more importantly, if God exists, there can't be a conflict between my self-interest (what is beneficial to me) and what morality requires. If I get into a situation where only I can jump on the hand grenade, saving five other lives, I'll be fully motivated to jump on it--it is moral, and it'll be a net gain for me as well, thanks to God. Of course, atheists are capable of such heroic goodness as well, but it seems to them that self-interest and moral duty frequently conflict, which tends to reduce their motivation to do what is right.

Second, how do we know which things are worthy of being valued by us? Some projects are futile (e.g. the Walter Mondale campaign), and others, if they succeed, prove to be disastrous, despite the noble intentions of their promoters (e.g. the so-called Cultural Revolution in China). Others are simply a waste of time (e.g. completing your collection of “Family Guy” paraphernalia). But a person who actually cooperates with God promotes a project (God's Kingdom) which is guaranteed to succeed, and which will be supremely and purely good when it does. This project is the assembling of a group of people, from all corners of human society, who above all love God and their neighbor. These people freely cooperate with God, and by his grace become increasingly like him.

No--we're not talking about electing more Republicans, people. Or Democrats. We're talking about something which works by love, friendship, and rational persuasion, not coercion of any kind, and so transcends politics, and accomplishes more than merely political means ever could--which is inviting people to become God- and other-centered, and then (here’s the kicker) actually making that possible.

Is this the only way to make the world a better place? No. But it's the only way which has no significant downside and which is destined to succeed long-term.

12 October 2006

Is God Possible?

The Objectivist
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer

The best arguments for God presuppose that he is perfect. Some theists (persons who believe in God) argue that God exists because he alone can explain where the universe comes from. The underlying idea is the Stevie Wonder principle that you can't get something from nothing. The theist then argues that since the universe couldn't have come from nothing, God must have created it. The theists then note that because God is perfect he has to exist and hence was not created by something else.

Consider what a perfect being is like. He must be all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-good. The absence of one of these features would be a flaw and perfect beings don't have flaws. Unfortunately for theists, no being can have all three features.

Consider whether there can be a person who is both all-powerful and all-good. Many readers enjoy malicious pleasures. These are pleasures that accompany evildoing. For example, many of Stanley Kubrick's fans enjoy watching out-of-control criminals and abusive drill instructors wreaking havoc (for example, Clockwork Orange and Full Metal Jacket). Males who went to high school often snicker at the time-honored tradition of senior athletes giving wedgies to freshmen (pulling the top of someone's underwear until it hurts). An all-good person can't enjoy such pleasures and hence doesn't know something, namely what these pleasures are like.

A similar thing is true with regard to being all-powerful and all-knowing. An all-powerful person can't be harmed. If such a person had great knowledge, then he would know that he can't be harmed and hence can't feel fear. As a result, there would be something that an all-powerful person can't know.

A person also can't be all-good and all-powerful. For example, an all-powerful being can do evil. For example, he can kill and eat the weak just for the fun of it. An all-good being can't this because he can do something only if he can be motivated to do it and an all-good being can't be motivated to do such monstrous acts. Worse yet, given the importance that the theist assigns to free will--he needs it to account for evil--he has a problem in explaining why God has free will. A being that freely does good has the option of doing evil. However, since an all-good being can't do evil, he doesn't have that option, and lacks free will. Hence, an all-good being can't be all-powerful or have free will.

These results drive a stake into the heart of theism. The best arguments for God's existence depend on his being perfect and yet a perfect being is impossible. At this point, the theist has at three options: he can deny that God is subject to logic, he can deny that God is perfect, or he can claim that a perfect being need not have the above features.

The notion that God is not subject to logic reduces most religious doctrines to hash. For example, when persons say God is great, they mean to rule out that God tortures puppies for fun or has a temperament nearly identical to Roseanne. When they say they believe in God, they mean to rule out his not existing. However, if God is not subject to logic then neither thing follows. In fact, were this notion true, then human beings would not be able to reason correctly about God.

The theist might deny that God is perfect, perhaps by saying that perfection is no more possible than is a largest number. The problem with this move is that it undermines the best arguments for God's existence. For example, it undermines the argument that attempts to show that the existence of God explains why there is a universe.

The theist's best bet is to deny that a perfect being is all-knowing, all-good, all-powerful, and has free will. The problem with this is that the theist will then have to specify which features God has. For example, does the theist concede that God is a little bit evil or does he deny that God has free will? The problem with this escape route is that the choice of which features God has and doesn't have is arbitrary and his perfection can't rest on arbitrary things. If it did, then God's perfection would depend on chance or external causes and such dependence is a flaw.

Bad news for God, he doesn't exist. However, this doesn't prevent us from having great families, leading moral lives, and laughing at the politicians the devil has placed in Washington and Albany.


Defining God Out of Existence
The Theist
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer

Atheists make poor theologians. Still, we find them telling everyone about how God would have to be, if there was one (but of course, there isn't). What is going on? They're searching for a simple, knock-down argument against belief in God. Let me explain.

If some claim is inconsistent with itself, it is false. Further, once we understand it to be contradictory, we all know it is false. If I tell you that I've got a brother who is five feet tall, and who is also (at the same time) six foot three, you don't need to go asking my family whether or not I have such a brother. As soon as you understand my claim to be inconsistent, you know it's false. And if I tell you that there's exactly one god, and that there's also exactly fourteen (using the word "god" in the same sense both times), I'm propounding a contradictory religion--one which couldn't possibly be true, and must be false. Now some claims may at first appear to be self consistent, but upon inspection, they turn out to be contradictory, such as "There's a square circle" or "I drew a right triangle with an interior angle larger than ninety degrees."

The atheist is tempted to argue that "God exists" is a claim of this sort. Wouldn't that be convenient? If that were true, the atheist could ignore what feels like the voice of God calling out to him through the glories of the natural world, and the testimony of millions of apparently sane and sober people who have experienced God’s reality--his love, his presence, even his voice. The atheist could also skip a serious, thoughtful look at the reported careers and teachings of people such as Moses and Jesus. What a time-saver! How does it work? Simply define the divine attributes so as to be inconsistent with one another, making the very idea of God a contradictory one. Presto! It will follow that there couldn't be a God, so defined. So, for example, if he's all-powerful, that means he can do anything at all, but that conflicts with his being perfectly good.

The problem with this sort of argument is that only a chump of a theist would accept the proposed definitions of the divine attributes. God is traditionally thought to be a bodiless being, the Source of the cosmos, with in some sense limitless power. But pretty much no theologian has wanted to say that God can do anything we can name. For instance, God can't lie, can't commit suicide, can't make square circles, and can't steal children's Halloween Candy just because he likes to hear them cry. Similarly, God is supposed to have unlimited knowledge, as he's in control of history, is present everywhere, upholds all things in existence, and is eternal. But, one may object, if he can't do evil, he therefore can't know certain things, such as, what it's like to rob a bank. This is a lame objection--as if God would have no imagination whatsoever, no ability to vividly imagine, in perfect detail, what it is like to rob a bank.

Divine freedom is a more difficult issue. The claim that a being which is free to do good must also be free to do evil is false. If I were perfectly good, I might be able to give a certain panhandler one dollar or five dollars, even though I'd be unable to insult him and push him down. And whether I gave one or five, I would still be deserving of thanks. Still, one might think that an important kind of freedom is freedom to form one's own character for good or evil, through a series of free choices, over the course of time. All of us believe that we have this sort of freedom, but does God have it as well? The traditional answer is "no"--a being who knows everything and has no pressing needs can't even be tempted to do evil, much less go through with it. I don't see anything wrong with this answer.

In sum, this atheist attempt at a home run is just a big swing and miss. Theists should call atheists' bluff on this sort of argument, and not take refuge in the easy out of disparaging "human logic." This is a silly reply, because there's nothing specifically human about the fact that contradictions can't be true. The idea may be that, given our finite minds, when we start thinking about something as far beyond us as God, we'll run into paradoxes. Maybe so, but that's no excuse to accept contradictions only when they provide easy escapes from atheistic objections. In the rest of life, as in religion, we all eschew inconsistent claims, because we want to get true beliefs and to avoid false ones. Our human minds are the most amazing thing in God's creation, and he expects us to use them well.

28 September 2006

Objectivist: An Ugly Choice--The Problem of Evil

Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer

The existence of evil is obvious. All one has to do is read about Auschwitz, watch shows about rebels cutting off of arms in Sierra-Leone, or listen to calls on a rape crisis hotline. Evil presents a real problem for theists (those who believe that God exists). They often believe that God is all-good, all-knowing, and all-powerful, but it is hard to see how this fits with widespread evil. If God allows evil to occur, then it appears that he is uncaring and thus not all-good. If God doesn't allow it, but instead is powerless to do anything about it, then it seems that he is unable do something or doesn't know how to do it. As a result, he would not be all-powerful and all-knowing.

There are several evil-related problems that The Theist might consider. He might want to explain why there is any evil, why there is so much evil, and why evil plagues innocent creatures like infants and cute furry animals. The theist might assert that good can't exist without evil and hence evil is a means by which God makes the world a better place. The idea might be that only in the context of human suffering can persons can exhibit sympathy, courage, and kindness and that these virtues are the best features of the world. Hence, widespread suffering is necessary for human beings to shine and make the world a better place.

If this response involves the notion that good can exist only in the context of evil, then it is unconvincing. It is certainly possible for God to create a world without suffering. For example, he might have created a planet in which ET (the extra-terrestrial) and Barney the Dinosaur spend their time hugging, exchanging gifts, and giggling. This is a nauseating scenario, but nonetheless one in which there is good in the absence of evil. Even if this response were convincing, the theist still wouldn't have explained why there is moral evil. For example, he still wouldn't have explained the cruelty and malice that have characterized so much of human history and that regularly appears on the Jerry Springer show.

The Theist's best bet would probably be to argue instead that both natural evil (for example, disease-related suffering) and moral evil (for example, cruelty) are explained by the value of having creatures who have free will. The argument would be that the world is a better place when it has free beings who choose to do good but who can do evil, rather than robots that are mechanically designed to do good. Since God wants to create a really good world, he has chosen to create a world populated with free beings. On this account, then, the value of beings with free will in part explains why there is evil.

There are a couple of problems with the notion that human beings have free will, at least in the radical way that theists think they do. First, a human being is best thought of as similar to a really complex computer. Both have a processing unit (silicon chips in a computer and neural circuitry in the brain) and input (typed in commands or mouse clicks in the computer and environment influences in a person). On this account, a person's thoughts and actions are determined by the combination of circuitry and the input just as is the output of any other complex machine. Like other complex machines, persons cannot reshape the processing unit or input any more than they can jump out of their skin. That is, an individual's decision to reshape his brain or environment would itself have to be the result of what happened in the processor or the environment.

Second, on The Theist's account, a person has free will because he is a spiritual entity that is distinct from his brain and thus not at all like a complex computer. However, this position is so unscientific it hurts. There is a mountain of evidence that consciousness occurs in the brain. For example, different types of abilities (for example, speech and face recognition) have been found to correlate with activity in specific parts of the brain. Various changes in the brain (for example, the neural degeneration of Alzheimer's or the introduction of alcohol or LSD) produce changes in thought patterns. In addition, there is no evidence I'm aware of that persons exist after their brains have been destroyed. Also, the similar brain structure of human beings and other primates reflects their similar evolutionary past and the theist's ghost-in-the-machine account is at odds with evolution.

Given the problem of evil, the theist can retain his belief in God only by adopting philosophically indefensible and thoroughly unscientific views of human beings. What an ugly choice.

The Theist: Evil--A Poor Excuse for Atheism

Evil: A Poor Excuse for Atheism
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer

Atheists have long depended on one sort of argument: if God existed, there wouldn't be any evil (or this much evil, or certain kinds of evil), but this evil is real, therefore God doesn't exist. Some believers try to escape the argument by denying that evil exists. If you meet such a person, you can educate him by calling him a moron and kicking him in the shins, thus acquainting him personally with the evils of verbal abuse and shin-pain. Then, inform him that denying evil is no way to defend belief in God, for the major theistic religions all strongly assert the reality of evil. How, then, to respond to Steve's atheistic argument?

First, theistic philosophers have made great progress on this topic in the last 40 years. For a summary, see the chapter by Daniel Howard-Snyder in the book Reason for the Hope Within (Eerdmans, 1998).

Here I'll give two replies. First, we humans don't know enough for The Objectivist's objection to work. The Objectivist is like a kid who stumbles upon the early stages of a construction project, seeing only a messy, bulldozered field. This know-it-all kid refuses to believe that any master builder is involved. "It is self-evident, ain't it, that no building is going up here. Surely, a real builder would just be putting up a building already, so there ain't no builder." Just as with our imaginary little know-it-all, the atheist's judgment is premature, and he also refuses to see the purposes which are already evident in this early stage of God's building project. Both overestimate their own understanding--in the one case of how to erect a skyscraper, in the atheist's case, of how best to run the world. In sum, The Objectivist has no good reason to hold that "if God existed, there wouldn't be (any, or certain kinds of) evil."

Second, for many particular kinds of evils, we can think of reasons why God would justifiably allow them. This is not to say that believers know exactly why particular evils are allowed--such as the death of your relative, or the Super Bowl record of the Buffalo Bills. Rather, we know some kinds of goods such that God bringing them about logically implies that he also makes possible or actual certain kinds of evils. For example, if God is going to make me free to live well or badly, he can't also be constantly preventing me from messing up my life and others' lives. Thus, by giving me freedom, he opens the door to both wrongdoing and suffering.

Further, suppose that God wants people to be free to believe in his existence or not. This entails making a universe in which there is evidence of his existence, but it is evidence which can be systematically ignored by the obstinate. Again, if God wants us to freely control our bodily actions, and not just our choices, that requires him to make the world run by natural laws which are almost never "broken." This implies that miracles are rare, and so people are going to end up getting hurt whenever these natural forces are misused. Now all of this needs developing, but for more, check out Howard-Snyder, cited above.

The Objectivist makes the mind-boggling claim that there's no such thing as free will. To the contrary, we all know that we sometimes act freely, and that we (and others) freely shape our moral character over time. We are often palpably aware that we can choose more than one option in a situation. Just think of standing in line at your favorite fast food restaurant--so many good, greasy choices available--how torn you are! Further, since moral responsibility requires that we choose freely, why doesn't The Objectivist go all the way, and deny that anyone is responsible for anything he or she does?

The Objectivist thinks we can choose freely only if we have souls, and he thinks science has demonstrated that there is no soul. About the first, he hasn't shown why a purely physical entity, when highly organized, can't have the power of free choice. As to the second, Steve thinks science has demonstrated that "consciousness occurs in the brain." There are a number of well-known believers in souls, though, who know more of the brain science than Steve does. Why? Because the evidence shows only that certain kinds of consciousness depend on certain parts of the brain functioning properly. As long as people have believed in souls, they've been aware of the phenomenon of drunkenness, and that a blow to a certain part of the head can hurt one's memory, etc. As to evolution: if consciousness can suddenly appear in the world, why not souls as well?

Like countless other atheists, The Objectivist rejects belief in souls not because of the scientific evidence, but rather simply because it conflicts with his philosophical commitment to a purely physical cosmos. But denying human freedom and moral responsibility, and asserting "If I were a perfect creator of the universe, I wouldn't allow such and such"--these show far more intellectual hubris than postulating a soul as the subject of consciousness which uses and depends on the brain. In any case, whether or not there are souls, evil is a poor excuse for atheism.

21 September 2006

The Dalai Lama’s Nuggets of... Wisdom?

The Dalai Lama's Nuggets of... Wisdom?
The Theist
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer

I just can't seem to join in with the latest round of lamamania. Don't get me wrong--I like this little monk with the silly giggle. Who doesn't like people who smile that much? Further, his intentions are manifestly good, and he seems to be a lover of humanity. He says agreeable things about tolerance, peace, understanding, sympathy, and self-control. He’s a living symbol of resilience and strength in the face of communist brutality and oppression. What's not to like?

Let's review some recent statements by His Holiness. "My religion is very simple. My religion is kindness." Now, since we’re all big fans of kindness, I guess we're all coreligionists with the Dalai Lama. Hey, wait a second--he's a Tibetan Buddhist. And most of us don't believe, like Tibetan Buddhists, in reincarnation, the efficacy of prayer wheels, or the Five Celestial Buddhas. So what he said wasn't true. At best, it was a fancy way of saying "I endorse the general policy of kindness." Well, who doesn't?

Recently he's been saying that "war is outdated." This is not something that anyone actually believes, including the Dalai Lama. Sounds good, though. In a similar vein, he preaches "non-violence," but when pressed about it, he'll concede that actually, he thinks that sometimes violence is warranted, at least in cases of self-defense. So he's totally against violence and war... except in special circumstances, when they're really necessary. In other words, he's a just war theorist, like St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, Hugo Grotius, and countless more recent western thinkers. But he calls it "non-violence," and he isn't too precise about exactly what conditions warrant war.

Then, there's this old chestnut: "Destruction of your neighbor is actually destruction of yourself." Interpreting this literally doesn't yield something believable, unless you hold, with traditional Hinduism or certain strands of Buddhism, that all our bodies are inhabited by one divine Self (Hindus call this "atman", Buddhists call it "the Buddha nature"). Even then, it probably doesn't make sense, as this one universal Self is supposed to be everlasting and indestructible. If his point is people in one country have a collective interest in people in other countries living and thriving, that is of course true and uncontroversial. No one wants to go around killing willy-nilly, as these people we've never met may directly or indirectly benefit us in countless ways; they are, after all, valuable human beings. But suppose, during wartime, that a soldier kills an opposing soldier on the battlefield. Or suppose that a CIA agent manages to assassinate Osama Bin Laden. Has either man thereby "destroyed himself"? It's hard to see how.

Now why go and spoil all the fun--why analyze or critically evaluate the Dalai Lama's statements? Here are two good reasons: we all want to believe what is true, and avoid believing what is false. The important thing to see is that often, His Holiness isn’t even trying to say something true, but only to create certain effects in his hearers. The assumption is that this particular kind of positive talking will actually help to bring about world peace. I wish it were so! When we see a cancer patient throw away her medicine, declaring it "outdated," we all hope that this move actually helps her to get better. But we fear, with good reason, that she's probably thereby hurting her chances of recovery. Just willing to be healthy is one strategy, but in general it seems better to base one's efforts on the all the facts one can obtain, soberly considered. Everyone, Klingons excepted, wants peace; the question is how to obtain it, and what sort of violence this does or doesn’t require.

Senior philosopher Harry Frankfurt, of Princeton University, has written a short book dealing with this phenomenon of speaking merely for effect, the title of which can't be printed here, but it has to do with bovine excrement. Let's call someone who speaks in the way Frankfurt discusses a "bs-er." A bs-er is one who makes assertions to achieve some goal, all the while not caring whether or not those assertions are true. Frankfurt makes the important point that, oddly enough, this practice harms the cause of truth more than intentional lying does.

"Both in lying and in telling the truth people are guided by their beliefs concerning the way things are. These guide them as they endeavor either to describe the world correctly or to describe it deceitfully. For this reason, telling lies does not tend to unfit a person for telling the truth in the same way that [bs-ing] tends to. ...The [bs-er] ignores these demands altogether. He does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, [bs] is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are."

Recent commentators have gleefully discussed examples of this in statements from the Bush administration. Although the Dalai Lama is a seasoned practitioner of this art, unlike Bush and his crew, he hasn't been publicly called out for such talk. Why? Probably because Bush's intentions are seen as bad, while his are seen as good. But whatever one's intentions, bs-ing is what it is--both a symptom and a cause of lack of concern for the truth. For now, it seems a harmless indulgence for the Dalai Lama to say "war is outdated," and for us to nod in agreement, congratulating ourselves on how very peace-loving and compassionate we are. But some day, we'll probably look back on this as an embarrassing lapse of reason.

14 September 2006

Down With Unions

Unions are bad for this country. Unions use government power to gain a monopoly on the right to bargain on behalf of employees over wages, hours, and working conditions. The government forcibly prevents employers and non-union employees from arriving at separate agreements and prevents employers from favoring non-union workers. As with most disruptions with the free market, this results in inefficiency and the use of government to bleed the taxpayers for private gain.

Backed by government power, unions are a drag on the economy. George Reisman and other economists argue that unions ratchet up wages above the market rate. This reduces employment in industries forced to employ union workers. The background idea here is that if the price of something increases, buyers purchase less of it.

Union wages and benefits also decrease the competitiveness of the economic sectors they inhabit. The American car, steel, and textile companies are sinking in part due to union-fueled costs. They seek tariff-protections that hose the taxpayer. The destructive effects of unions on competitive industries explain their decline in the private work force and growth in the public one, which is less subject to competitive pressures. The percentage of unionized workers in the U.S. civilian workforce has dropped from 33% in 1955 to 13% today. During this period, the percentage of the union members that work for the government went from about 2% to about 38%. The anti-competitive effects also explain the faster economic growth in the right-to-work states, that is, states where employers are barred from firing workers who refuse to pay union dues or fees.

My guess is that unionization in part explains why federal civilian workers do better than workers in the private sector. According to Chris Edwards of the CATO Institute who used Bureau of Economic Analysis numbers, in 2005 the average compensation (wages plus benefits) of the federal workers was twice that of private workers ($106,579 vs. $53,289) and recently the latter have been growing more than twice as fast (38% vs. 14% increase over the last five years). The private jobs are also far less secure with layoffs and firings being four times more frequent in the private sector. The compensation and security are good for the persons with the federal spots, but bad for the taxpayer and the economy. In addition, unionized government workers form a powerful constituency for even higher taxes and more spending.

Unions are also in bed with the Democratic Party. This should grate on those who don’t like really high taxes and those who are offended by the use of union dues for political causes. For example, the members of the National Education Association (NEA) members comprise around a quarter of the delegates at the Democratic National Convention. In spending, they heavily favor Democratic candidates. For example, journalist Peter Brimelow asserts that historically as much as 98% of the NEA’s money has gone to the Democrats. In addition, to being the Democratic Party’s ATM, unions also are directly involved in politics. For example, they recently poured in $100 million against a California initiative that would have made it more difficult for the state to raise taxes.

One of the places where union activity is particularly destructive is in K-12 education. Neal McCluskey also of the CATO Institute notes that between 1965 and 2003, U.S. per-pupil spending, adjusted for inflation, nearly tripled while academic achievement stagnated. Internationally, the United States spends more per capita on education than any other country and produces mediocre results compared to peer countries. Teacher unions such as the NEA and the American Federation of Teachers (the union for Dunkirk and Fredonia teachers) are a major cause of this poor performance. These powerhouses have over 3 million members, $1 billion in annual revenues, and as of 2003 represented almost all of the teachers in the 34 states that require school boards to bargain collectively with the teachers. These unions fight educational reforms such as charter schools, vouchers, and removal of incompetent teachers, reforms that would save the taxpayer money and increase student learning. Instead, unions focus on increasing their revenues by increasing the number of teachers and the pay rate per teacher. This is hardly surprising. As Albert Shanker, the former president of the AFT said, “I’ll start representing kids when kids start paying union dues.”

Now I should mention that in my work at Fredonia, I’d had the chance to work the local leaders of the United University Professions and specialists at the New York State United Teachers. Without exception, the persons I’ve dealt with were principled, bright, pleasant, and caring. That said, the fact remains that unions, at least as currently propped up via government power, harm the citizens of this country.

09 September 2006

Debating Abortion

We're back! Due to my inability to read katakana, I accidentally deleted the blog--right before Labor Day weekend, of course, so it took Blogger a little while to restore it for us. My apologies to all. The Objectivist has scared up a Fredonia Philosophy colleague to pinch-hit for a column or three while I'm in Japan, so without further ado, let me introduce The Theist.

--The Constructivist


The Objectivist
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
The Standard Abortion Argument

On March 7, 2006, South Dakota's government enacted a law (HB 1215) that criminalized abortion except where it is necessary to save the woman's life. The law makes no exceptions for rape and incest. In November, South Dakota voters will face a referendum on the law. About 800 abortions a year occur within South Dakota and the state only has one abortion clinic, which is operated by Planned Parenthood. In 2000, according to the Guttmacher Institute, 8% of the pregnancies in South Dakota were aborted. This is low compared to the rest of the country where 21% of pregnancies were aborted (1.3 million abortions). At current rates, the Institute estimates that one third of American women will have had an abortion by the time they reach 45. Given the referendum, it's worth looking at the standard pro-choice argument.

In 1971, Judith Jarvis Thomson of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology famously argued that women have a right to an abortion, by which she meant that no one may forcibly prevent her from having one. Her main idea was that in abortion-related cases, a fetus (that is, human life between conception and birth) does not have a right to be in the woman's body.

In some cases, Thomson noted, the fetus never had the right to be in the woman. In the case of rape or failed contraception, Thomson asserted, the woman did not consent to the fetus entering her body. Even in the case of intercourse without contraception, she says, the woman did not give the fetus permission to enter the woman. Critics responded that the woman took the risk by having intercourse under conditions that posed a substantial risk of pregnancy. But merely having taken a risk that someone will come into your body or property, even a negligent one, does not constitute permission. For example, imagine that I live in the worst part of Detroit and I leave my house unlocked. As a result, a homeless man enters it and proceeds to eat my Cool Ranch Doritos, I haven't given him permission to do so even if the threat of such break-ins is well-known and easily avoided.

In the case where the woman purposely became pregnant and then changed her mind, Thomson notes, the fetus had but then lost the right to remain inside the woman. This is similar to the way in which a woman having intercourse may withdraw her consent if it becomes painful. This is especially true if her partner prefers to continue for another hour.

The rest of the pro-choice argument is straightforward. On this account, the fetus has no right to be in the woman's body and may thus be forcibly removed. On this line of argument, since forcible removal can only be accomplished through killing the invading fetus and since the invasion is a very serious one, the woman is permitted to kill the fetus. Abortion is a killing since the most common methods involve the physician dismembering the fetus (for example, via suction tubes with sharp cutting edges and other methods involve poisoning the fetus).

Some pro-lifers concede that a woman may use lethal force against a rapist but assert that a fetus is nothing like a rapist. After all, they claim, fetuses are innocents and rapists are bad guys. However, this is to equate being an aggressor and moral guilt and they are not the same. An individual can be an aggressor even if he is not blameworthy. Consider the Staten Island Slasher, Juan Gonzalez. He was a schizophrenic who killed two and wounded nine with a sword. On some accounts, Gonzalez was morally innocent and in fact was called "a model patient" and "extremely well-mannered" in the psychiatric facility in which he lived. A woman endangered by Gonzalez may kill him regardless of whether Gonzalez knew what he was doing.

As far as I can tell, Thomson's argument is convincing. Compare it to the arguments that are sometimes used to oppose abortion. It is sometimes argued that abortion is wrong because all human beings have a right to life. The U.S. Catholic Bishops, for example, make this argument. This argument is plainly unsound. Last week I argued that it is persons and not human beings that have rights. Even if this conclusion were not true, human beings who attack or invade others temporarily forfeit their right to life. This explains why killing in self-defense and wartime is permissible. Some Christians argue that fetuses can't be killed because they have souls or because they have the potential to become persons. Of course neither claim establishes that the fetus has a right to be inside the woman when she doesn't want it there.

Pro-choice groups don't help things when they make silly arguments about avoiding back-alley abortions or allowing each woman to decide for herself when life begins. Nevertheless their position is correct and South Dakota is embarrassing itself by stepping on women's rights.


The Theist
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
Why Most Abortions Are Wrong

Why would it be wrong for me to kill you? If I did that, I'd be depriving you of something of great value, namely, the rest of your natural life. (I'd be depriving countless others as well, but the harm to you is usually enough to make the killing wrong.) Now in certain circumstances, say, if you're threatening to shoot me, or if you're a soldier in an opposing army, arguably, I'd do no wrong in killing you. But in most circumstances, it would be very wrong for someone to kill you.

You used to be a baby. If I'd killed you back then because I didn't like the smell of your diaper, I'd have done something very wrong. Before you were a baby, you were a fetus. If I had kicked your nine-months pregnant mother in her big stomach, resulting in your death, I would have done something very wrong. In general, fetus killing is morally wrong for the same reasons that most homicides are wrong--the victim is thereby deprived of the rest of its natural life. Now what if your mom had wanted to abort you in the ninth month? Most of us, again following common sense (and I note, even most professing "pro-choicers") would say that this would be wrong. Just as infanticide is wrong, for the same reasons, late-term abortions are wrong.

How far back in time does your life go? You didn't pop into existence at birth, or at the ninth month of pregnancy, or even at the point of "viability." The science of biology presents us with a picture of a single, continuously developing thing. There's no reason to think that you existed before a certain conception within your mother. But were you formerly a zygote? Perhaps--no one knows for sure. But that's a reason not to seek a very early term abortion. If I don't know whether or not killing the zygote is depriving a being of a future life containing the joys of music, sex, and NFL football, then I ought not kill that zygote. If I can't see whether or not any children are hiding in a large tree, then I ought not chop it down.

I'm glad I wasn't aborted, and I'll bet you are as well. Argue all you want about whether or not unborn members of homo sapiens are "humans," "persons," or endowed with souls. In any case, it seems that killing these things is generally wrong for the same reasons that killing adult humans is generally wrong. If we're going to deprive something of a massively valuable future life, we need to have a very good reason to do so, such as self-defense. Sorry, but "I really don't want to have a baby right now" doesn't seem to be a strong enough reason to make the killing morally permissible, any more than "I'm really tired of this marriage and don't have time for a divorce" would make it permissible for a man to kill his wife.

If like me you believe in God, you probably have additional reasons for thinking that most abortions are wrong. But note that none of the preceding depends on religious considerations. Careful reasoning can lead to a wide consensus on this, as it has on issues such as infanticide, slavery, and female genital mutilation, if people are willing to lay down their culture-wars mentality and carefully reason through the issue.

What The Objectivist calls "the standard pro-choice argument" is standard only among a small class of intellectuals. This argument is almost never heard at the popular level of discourse; it grants that the unborn are human persons, and argues that even so, at least if the couple used birth control which failed, the woman does no wrong in aborting, even in the ninth month. (Ever heard a "pro-choice politician or activist argue that way?) The deepest problem with the argument is its assumption that morality is fundamentally based on contracts. The idea is that as long as the woman didn't enter in to a contract with the fetus, or with society to support the fetus's life, she has no moral obligation not to kill the fetus. This assumption is false. She has obligations to the fetus in virtue of that fact that the pathetic little thing, a thing of great potential and value, needs help which only she can give, and has much to lose, and also the fact that she is its biological mother.

How would The Objectivist reply to my anti-abortion argument? Although he agrees that he was once a baby (fetus, embryo) he thinks that back then he had no moral rights at all. He holds that only "persons" (defined as beings with highly developed mental abilities) have moral rights. This claim pretty well refutes itself. Let it suffice to say that if this were true, then non-persons such as babies, advanced Alzheimer patients, and the mentally handicapped have no moral rights. So if you killed one just for fun, in The Objectivist's view, you wouldn't have done anything morally wrong (unless you thereby violated the rights of someone other than the victim). Yeah, sure.

17 August 2006

Stem Cell Follies

The Objectivist
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer

On July 19, 2006, President George W. Bush vetoed a bill that permitted the federal government to fund research on embryonic stem cells from embryos that were left over from in vitro fertilization procedures. This is consistent with his earlier decision in 2001 that made federal funds available for research concerning currently existing stem cell lines, but not new ones. Bush’s stated reason for vetoing the bill was that it would support the taking of human life. He stated that, "Each of these human embryos is a unique human life with inherent dignity and matchless value."

Despite the overblown rhetoric, his argument here probably rests on the notion that embryos have a right (that is, are owed a moral duty) not to be used in research aimed at generating treatments for cancer, spinal cord injury, heart damage, and other maladies. But do embryos have such a right?

An embryo is a human being in the sense that is alive (it metabolizes nutrients, grows, etc.) and is human (rather than, say, a frog). However, those who think it is okay to eat are meat likely reject the notion that all living things have a right against being killed. Ducks are alive and tasty.

In general, whether something is a human being is not relevant to whether it has rights. If there were intelligent alien beings (for example, ET or Barney) who had lives like ours, they would have the same rights that we do and for the same reasons. This tells us that it is not a biological category that determines who has rights. Rather, it has to do with whether something is a person. The exact conditions of personhood are controversial, but they are related to quality of thought or emotion. Specifically, persons have rationality, self-consciousness, complex emotions, or something along these lines.

The stem-cell opponents' best response here is to argue that embryos have rights against others because if left alone, they will naturally develop into persons. The proponents argue that this is analogous to newborn infants who are thought to have rights despite not yet being persons.

One problem with this natural-future theory is that it doesn't result in all embryos having rights against being killed. Some embryos have genetic defects that ensure that they won’t develop into persons. For example, some embryos have genetic defects that will cause them to be severely retarded or not live more than a year or two. However, some opponents might accept this conclusion.

A second problem is that a being's natural future is irrelevant. Consider a newborn with a bowel obstruction who will die unless a surgeon operates on him. In some areas such a newborn will likely receive the surgery (e.g., Dunkirk) and in some areas he won't. Focusing on a newborn’s natural future makes its status depend on things such as whether it will develop without medical care (natural as pre-technological) or its likely future (natural as the statistically likely outcome). Clearly both are irrelevant in explaining whether a newborn has a right not to be killed. A newborn's moral status doesn't depend on whether surgeons live nearby. This shows that the natural-future argument is mistaken.

This result is unsurprising. Theories that focus on whether something is natural have a history of failing. Theologians and philosophers who argue that only natural sex is permissible invariably fail to explain why this is the case.

Embryos aren't persons and don't have a right not to be killed. Hence, they are fair game for stem cell experiments. The obvious objection is that my argument would support the claim that newborns also lack rights and this is a jaw-dropping absurdity. But why is this conclusion absurd? Attributes like the newborn's pre-technological future and statistically likely future are irrelevant. The parents’ relation to the newborn might suggest that there is a right in the parents, but not the newborn. For example, a person might love his dog but that doesn't result in his dog having rights that an unloved dog doesn't.

It might also be objected that stem-cell research will bring about a general lack of respect for human life that will coarsen our society. For example, the 2004 President’s Council on Bioethics raised this concern. Opponents then claim that such coarsening will then bring about suicide, murder, indifference to others’ suffering, etc. I haven't seen any evidence for this claim, so it looks like mere guesswork to me. In addition, even if such an effect were to be present, the costs of this effect would have to be weighed against benefits in fighting other maladies like cancer and heart failure. In short, President Bush's argument against funding stem-cell research is unconvincing.