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.