28 March 2007

Free Speech in High Schools

The Objectivist
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
March 20, 2007

The Supreme Court recently (March 19, 2007) heard Morse v. Frederick, a Supreme Court case about free speech for high school students. The case arose in January 2002, when Coca-Cola and other private sponsors supported a “Winter Olympics Day.” An 18-year-old high school student, Joseph Frederick, didn’t go to school and later attended the rally for the Winter Olympics Torch Relay. Fellow students joined him since the students were released from class that day so that they could watch the Olympic torch pass by. There were fistfights and snowball fights at this “educational” event, but Frederick and his friends did not participate. Instead, they unfurled a 14-foot “BONG HiTS 4 JESUS” banner to get on TV. He took the phrase from a snowboard and viewed it as meaningless. I checked with my brother and he confirmed that this slogan is funny.

There is controversy over whether the students were on a field trip or other supervised event. The students did not have to obtain parental permission slips as would be required for such an event and were permitted to leave the rally. Nonetheless the Juneau school claimed that at the rally the school was in session (they must have done a few hits).

The principal, Deborah Morse, then grabbed and crumpled the banner. She later suspended Frederick for ten days. He says she suspended him for five and then doubled it when he quoted Thomas Jefferson, she denies this. The principal and school conceded that the display did not disrupt nor was expected to disrupt classroom work, but was shut down because it advocated illegal drug use.

Frederick then sued Morse and the school board because, he says, it violated his free-speech rights. He also sued Morse arguing that his rights were so clearly established that Morse was not entitled to legal immunity.

One thing to note about this event is that letting students out of class to attend some meaningless rally for a sporting event (and not even the NFL) was a disgrace. One would hope that school boards would be a little more careful about hiring administrators with so little respect for classroom learning.

The school’s case is weak. First, if this speech was not part of a student event, the case is easy since the school then had no basis for punishing Frederick. The Ninth Circuit held that school was in session, but it’s hard to see what facts support this conclusion.

Second, even if it was a school event, the law clearly favors Frederick. A previous Supreme Court case, Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District established that the school may interfere with interpersonal communication only if it disrupts school learning or invades others’ rights. This has since been narrowed so as to allow schools to ban indecent speech (Bethel School District No. 403 v. Fraser) and control the content of school-paid-for activities, particularly when others might view the expression as being as being endorsed by the school (Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier). Neither exception applies here.

Third, this is a terrible policy. Dahlia Lithwick of Slate points out that the rule the Juneau school board advocated could ban clear and polite expressions of ideas. It could get rid of banners or T-shirts that say “Change the Marijuana Laws.” Murad Hussain of the Yale Law Journal points out that the federal courts are already well down this path having permitted schools to ban Marilyn Manson T-shirts because of their anti-religious content and religiously motivated statements opposing gay sexuality. Other schools have attempted to ban T-shirts with confederate flags. It is worth noting that schools would never ban anti-drug, pro-gay, or pro-Lincoln messages. They are in effect claiming a right to censor some viewpoints. Such censorship allows little room for high school students to engage in a free and open discussion of ideas, which should be one of the hallmarks of an education. This is important both as a way for society to discover the truth and for individuals decide what to believe and why to believe it. The Juneau school’s actions were not an attempt to shut down obscenity, lewdness, fighting words, etc, but rather an attempt to control what students do by controlling what they believe. What could be more un-American?

Entrenched school officials often try to shut down robust debate whether it is over the Vietnam War or race differences in IQ. After all, such discussion calls into question some of the authorities’ policies and many of officials neither can nor want to defend. For example, it’s not easy to defend the criminalization of harmless recreational drugs like alcohol in the past or marijuana today and many drug-prohibitionists and DARE fans know this. It also tends to out zealots (for example, administrators who favor harsh punishment for students caught with marijuana) when they’d prefer to stay in the closet.

Fourth, the Juneau school board’s proposed rule is incredibly vague. Their attorney, Ken Starr (yes, the oral-sex inquisitor) argued that the school may restrict student expression because it has the task of getting students to adopt the “habits and manners of civility” and “values of citizenship.” Furthermore, the interpretation of a particular banner, T-shirt, or other the message must be left to the frontline message interpreter (that is, administrator). This is so unclear as to be no rule at all.

This case is big because of its centrality to free speech in high schools. We can only hope that Morse has to pay through the nose for her Constitutional illiteracy. It’s best to keep the enemies of liberty on the run.

14 March 2007

Moral Responsibility: Part 2

The Objectivist
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
March 11, 2007

The Theist argues that persons are morally responsible for their actions. He thinks that our experience of freedom is enough to show us that they are. I disagree. Let’s revisit my earlier argument, which came in part from philosopher Galen Strawson.

A person is morally responsible for his action only if he chose to do that action and was morally responsible for so choosing. But this is impossible. A human being’s choice is the result of his beliefs, desires, and other mental states (the input) and how he reasons about them (processing). However, a person is responsible for a choice only if he in turn chose what went into making it (that is, the input or how to process it). But this just pushes the question back one step. That is, it raises the issue of whether he was responsible for the earlier choice. In the end, a person can’t be responsible for his choice because he didn’t choose what went into making it or, if he did, he didn’t choose what went into making that earlier choice.

The Theist argues that this is not how we experience the world. We seem to see ourselves as freely able to decide between different paths. We feel free to do something good (for example, donate time at the humane society) or bad (for example, have a torrid fling with a hardbody co-worker). What’s more, we often have emotions that presuppose moral responsibility. Examples include attitudes toward our selves (for example, pride and shame) and others (for example, gratitude and resentment). For example, one can’t meaningfully resent a tree that fell onto one’s car or an alligator that bit one’s mother-in-law because neither the tree nor the alligator is morally responsible for the harm it caused. The Theist’s underlying idea seems to be that unless we have strong evidence to the contrary we should assume that our everyday beliefs about the world are true.

However, I don’t think this is how we experience the world. Our sense of freedom focuses on the lack of coercion or force, rather than radical control over our choices, which is what moral responsibility requires. In ordinary cases, given persons’ preferences and holding their options fixed they will always make the same choices. For example, if you hate anchovy pizza and love sausage pizza and choose which one to buy for yourself, you will always choose the latter. Given what you like, choosing anchovy makes no sense. You are free in the sense that no one is holding a gun to your head, but you always make the same choice in this scenario. Thus, it is not clear that we think of ourselves as having the robust freedom that The Theist has in mind.

The Theist is right about many of our emotions presupposing moral responsibility, but these emotions are mistaken. They’re likely explained by their evolutionary advantages rather than their being true. This explains why they seem to be found in primates and other animals that are clearly not morally responsible for their actions.

The notion that persons have free will in the sense that their future is not already determined by past events is similarly mistaken and in any case fails to support moral responsibility. If human beings are merely their brains, then they are likely determined by their environment and genes. This is because such forces alone shape what goes on in their brain and this determines what they think and how they act. There is a concern here about indeterminacy at the level of sub-atomic particles, but this is irrelevant to moral responsibility.

The Theist denies that a person’s brain is a part of him, but in doing so he has to reject the best explanation for the close connection between mental states and brain states. For example, damage to particular parts of the brain correlates with the loss of various abilities (for example, the ability to recognize faces or speak). In addition, chemical changes in the brain (for example, anesthesia or LSD) produce predictable changes in how we think.

Even if we are ghost-like souls rather than brains, it is hard to accept that our thoughts and actions are not caused by previous events. It seems that if an event is not caused by previous events, then it comes about in a random or arbitrary manner and it is hard to see how a person might be responsible for thoughts and actions that come about in a random and arbitrary manner.

None of this is to say that we shouldn’t give persons incentives to behave one way rather than another and even judge them negatively for their decisions. This is a useful way to get persons to behave in ways that we want. However, saying that praise and blame is useful is a far cry from saying that it is justified. For example, blaming Homer Simpson for donut gluttony or a cat for scratching the couch might produce less donut-eating and couch-scratching, but this doesn’t mean they’re blameworthy.

Human beings are not morally responsible for their actions. This is a troubling conclusion, but a true one nonetheless.


The Theist
Experience and Common Sense Trump Weak Arguments
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
March 12, 2007

Suppose you’re sitting in the back of the classroom of one of those tedious safe driving classes. Seated in the row in front of you is your least-favorite neighbor Buford--the guy with the five big dogs who bark all night. Suddenly, a twenty dollar bill falls out of Buford’s pocket and lands at your feet. No one’s looking. What will you do? Morality tells you to return it to Buford, and your desires tell you to pocket it. (Twenty dollars buys many donuts.) You go back and forth for half and hour, and finally, heart pounding, you steal Buford’s money. But your momma raised you right; you feel guilty shortly thereafter.

My friend The Objectivist holds that at this point, you’re afflicted with an irrational emotion (guilt). He holds that in the above episode, you experienced not freedom, but only a lack of coercion; that is, you were aware that nothing outside you was forcing you to choose take the money. He believes that given the available options, and the motives you had while sitting behind Buford, it was inevitable that you would steal the money.

As best I can tell, the outlook expressed in the previous paragraph has only two things going for it. First, it can seem practically advantageous to cast off the whole moral outlook. (Conscience--who needs it? It only gets in the way, right?) Second, one might think this outlook fits hand in hand with what philosophers call “naturalism.” This view holds that only physical things are real, and that the world, with all its current splendors, came to be from nothing, for no reason, without any intelligent agency involved. Sometimes naturalism goes with what we can call the clockwork universe idea--the view that all that happens is the result of the circumstances plus the laws of nature; every event is part of a tight, chain-like matrix, and so it is not even possible that some persons should control whether or not some event, such as a choice, occurs. Not all naturalists hold to this idea, but some, like The Objectivist, think it fits hand in glove with naturalism.

Some people, then, find the view that humans are never responsible practically and theoretically convenient. Though that’s so, The Objectivist has not given us any good reasons to believe it, nor has he refuted the strong reasons we have to deny it.

When you took Buford’s money, you of course were aware that nothing outside you forced your choice. (No thug threatened you at gunpoint.) But you’re also, aware of two conflicting impulses within you--the moral one pushing you to give the twenty back to Buford, and the non-moral one pushing you to take the money. You feel free; you’re convinced that you could make either choice. When you choose to steal, you as it were feel yourself shouldering aside that voice of morality, and embracing the inner donut glutton. You know that you are in control--that you’re freely choosing, and that you could have made the other choice. You also know that it’s morally wrong to steal. The emotion of guilt you later feel depends on these twin convictions. If you really believed that your theft was inevitable, and/or that stealing is morally permissible, then you simply wouldn’t feel guilty at all. But you do believe those things. The freedom belief is usually a firm one, based on a vivid memory of what it was like to freely choose to steal. You shouldn’t doubt it unless someone gives you strong reason to.

Do we have these beliefs and the accompanying emotion because they did or do confer some survival advantage on our species? Maybe--it doesn’t matter. Our ability to remember what happened yesterday surely contributes to the “fitness” of our species. But that’s no reason to doubt your memory of taking Buford’s money yesterday.

The Objectivist argues that you can be morally responsible for a choice only if you’ve also chosen and are responsible for every belief and desire that was relevant to the choice (e.g. your belief that stealing is wrong, that there’s a twenty dollar bill on the floor, that you like donuts). But why accept that? Maybe my preference for donuts is the product of my genes and my environment, and my belief that the bill lies there for the taking just occurs when my eyes receive certain stimuli--I chose neither the desire nor the belief. It still seems that I can freely choose to steal, and thus, become guilty of wrongdoing.

He further argues that “if an event is not caused by previous events, then it comes about in a random or arbitrary manner,” and thus isn’t something anyone could be morally responsible for. By “caused” he means that the choice was such that given previous events, it had to happen. But that’s the very point at issue. When we believe we’ve chosen freely, we believe that choice could, in those very circumstances, have not occurred. Thus, in the above sense, we hold the free choice to be “uncaused.” However, that doesn’t mean the event has no explanation. The explanation for your choice to steal, is that you desired donuts, knew that twenty bucks could buy a lot, believed that no one was looking, and thought that Buford deserved to lose the money anyway. The choice is “random” in that nothing forced it to happen, but not in the sense of being inexplicable or chancy.

In sum, we should prefer experience and common sense to unproven and implausible theories.

10 March 2007

Is Capitalism a Religion?

This is a somewhat parodic response to The Theist's recent suggestion that environmentalism is a religion. In it, he surveyed three major considerations of religion, which I'll mash up as follows: a religion is constituted by a set of beliefs, actions, and experiences, both personal and corporate, organized around a concept of an Ultimate Reality and offering a diagnosis and a cure with doctrinal, mythic, ethical, ritual, experiential, and social dimensions. So let's see: capitalism seems to fit this bill.

Ultimate Reality is survival, scarcity, and profit, nothing more; the problem is statist attempts to reduce scarcity and produce survival and profit; the cure is the free market; capitalist doctrines are provided by economists, who of course have split into various sects; the shared myth is the Invisible Hand; the ethics include "greed is good," theft is bad (and no, property ain't theft, nosireee Proudhon), and all the other propositions that make up "enlightened self-interest"; rituals abound: the shopping trip, going to the bank, buying a house, meetings with financial advisors, the job interview, the morning commute, opening and closing of stock markets, government release of economic data, Fed deliberations over interest rates, and really any purchase or sale, when you think about what's going on during a transaction; whether any of us have ever experienced "pure capitalism" is open to debate, but we've all felt the impact of some form of capitalism, in one way or another; Smith's discussions of trust (he was a moral philosopher, right?) indicate the social aspects of capitalism, as does the Cold War division between the "free world" and the "evil empire" and the debate over the relation between capitalism and democracy, among others.

Think about the way capitalism combines features of many world religions: the stock market is treated and spoken of as if it were the Oracle at Delphi; the capitalist priesthood of economists, financial analysts, stock traders, members of central banks and transnational institutions like the World Trade Organization and International Monetary Fund is as convoluted a hierarchy as any you'd find in Catholicism; its missionary impulse is as strong as any evangelical Christian church (or Mormon, for that matter); it has its saints and heretics, its saved and its lost, its debates over faith, works, and grace; it calls for a Buddhist detachment to live with the fear/greed overcorrection cycles of the stock market; it has its sacred sites--NY, London, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Las Vegas.... I'm sure our three regular readers and thirty googlers a day can come up with more examples on their own.

Here, following The Theist faithfully, as it were, although not quite as literal-mindedly as this guy, I'm going against the disclaimers of people like this guy, who concedes that a phrase like "market fundamentalism" is nothing more than a useful analogy.

To what end? I'm not sure. If you do a google search on just about any of the many clever phrases you can no doubt come up with on the capitalism=religion theme, you'll see that people have done any number of variations on it. In the interest of bloggy solidarity, I'll say that I am going for whatever The Theist was going for by arguing that environmentalism is a religion--until he clarifies what that is, and then I'll be against it. And against what The Objectivist is for. Because that's how we roll here, baby!

01 March 2007

Moral Responsibility

The Objectivist
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
Sunday, February 25, 2007

A central issue in philosophy and politics is whether human beings are morally responsible for what they do. Persons really are morally responsible only if they really are worthy of praise or blame for what they do. The idea that human beings are morally responsible also lies at the heart of our emotional reaction to bad behavior. For example, our feelings of anger and resentment toward rapists presuppose that they are blameworthy.

To see why human beings are not morally responsible, imagine a computer that is conscious, that is, it has thoughts and emotions. Now all computers have three aspects: input, processing, and output. The input consists of the commands that the user types into it. The processing consists of the way in which the silicon chip converts the electric patterns that are the typed-in commands into electrical firing patterns that are the output. The output is often displayed via words or images on the computer screen. Even if the computer were conscious, it still wouldn’t be morally responsible for its output. This is true even if the computer had the power to re-shape its silicon-chip “brain” since the re-shaping decisions would be merely the result of the previous structure of the silicon chip and the typed-in commands. This wouldn’t stop us from getting angry at the computer, but it would make such anger misplaced.

Now consider an individual human being. By analogy, the input in this case is the environmental forces, the processor is the brain, and the output is the person’s behavior. Like a computer, an individual can change his brain states (and accompanying thoughts) only as a result of previous output, where this output is merely the result of previous brain states and external input. An individual can no more step outside of himself to shape his brain than he can jump out of his own skin. This discussion might be a little hard to follow, but the basic idea is that a person can’t stand outside of himself and decide what sort of person to become because the decision depends on who he already is.

One common objection to this argument is that human beings have free will. That is, given all of an individual’s mental states (for example, what he wants and believes), he still doesn’t have to do one thing rather than another. For example, even if we knew all of a person’s thoughts, he still wouldn’t have to do one action (for example, give chocolate to sick children) rather than another (for example, rob a liquor store). The problem is that if there are factors besides an individual’s preceding mental states that generate his actions, these factors are random or arbitrary. Random or arbitrary factors do not explain why human beings are morally responsible for their actions.

A second objection is that we are immediately aware of our own free will. In deciding what to do, we consider the pros and cons of various options and choose the best one. That is, we know that we are morally responsible because we can observe how we freely make decisions. Since a person knows that he is morally responsible for what he does, there must be something wrong with my argument. The problem with this objection is that our self-awareness doesn’t establish moral responsibility any more than a computer’s self-awareness would make it morally responsible. All we really observe is the translation of our thoughts into action and this doesn’t require free will.

A third objection is that we are morally responsible not because we have free will, but because we don’t have it. The idea is that we are responsible for what we do because our thoughts and actions reflect who we are. This objection is the opposite of the first two because it rests on the denial of free will. This view of responsibility is often held by persons who view the human mind as the brain since it allows them to hold that persons are responsible even though their actions are solely the result of what happens in their brain. The problem here is that if our thoughts and actions are dictated by what affects the brain and if we can’t control what affects the brain (for example, our environment and genes), we aren’t morally responsible for our thoughts and actions. This is analogous to the way in which I’m not responsible for who wins an Oscar because I have no control over it.

The implications of human beings not being morally responsible for their thoughts and actions are striking. First, if correct, this proves that God doesn’t exist. The underlying idea here is that a perfect being like God would tolerate the ocean of evil that has characterized human history only if it is explained by something really good and the only plausible explanation is that evil results from human beings being morally responsible. Since human beings aren’t morally responsible, the widespread existence of evil conflicts with the notion that the world had an all-knowing, all-loving, and all-powerful creator.

Second, without moral responsibility, it’s unclear why human interests (specifically their pleasure and pain) should count more than that of other animals. That is, if human beings are merely another animal, albeit with a wider range of thought and behavior, it’s unclear why their well-being is more important than that of other animals (for example, pigs and chickens). This threatens to undermine the case for our current mistreatment of these animals in factory farming.

The idea that human beings are morally responsible for what they do lies at the heart of many of our beliefs and emotions. Sadly, we just don’t have it.

The Theist
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
Tuesday, 02/27/07

I’m certain that at least one morally responsible being walks the earth, because I know that my own actions are often blameworthy or praiseworthy. Let’s focus on the negative. When I lie, cheat, or treat someone cruelly, I not only believe, but know that I’ve done something blameworthy. But The Objectivist urges us to believe that no human is ever praiseworthy or blameworthy for anything. If he’s right, the entire realm of moral thought is based on a delusion. Do you think a wife-beater deserves punishment, while the man who jumped in front of the oncoming subway to save the seizure victim should be lauded? According to The Objectivist, you’re as mistaken as the astrologer who thinks people’s personality traits and fates are determined by imaginary influences from far-off planets.

Strong claims require strong evidence. If I tell you I had eggs for breakfast, you’ll reasonably just take my word for it. But if I tell you that I saw Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster going for a joy-ride in a UFO driven by Elvis, then you’ll demand somewhat stronger evidence than my mere word. So one would expect The Objectivist to offer us rock-solid evidence for his earth-shattering discovery that no action is ever praiseworthy or blameworthy.

Instead, we get only a flimsy analogy. Here it is: intentional action is to a human being like output is to a computer. The idea is that in both cases, the result (action, or “output”--say, on a screen or on a printer) is wholly determined by the “input”(total environment) together with the automatic “processing” (brain processes, computer chip process). Neither the human nor the computer has any real control over what it does--so my friend The Objectivist would have you believe.

You may be impressed by this analogy because some of our actions--be they thoughts, words, or bodily movements--do seem like that. Thus, if the phone rings, I automatically answer it, and if I suddenly stumble upon a fat man in a Speedo, I automatically let out a shriek and cover my eyes. But other actions do not seem that way--they don’t just automatically issue forth from us. Think about the last time you had to make a really difficult decision, such as whether to take one job or another. You have substantial reasons to accept, and to reject both jobs, but you may only choose one, and the jobs seem about evenly matched. When facing a choice like this, you feel free, that is, able to choose one, or to choose the other. Or suppose that you’re married, but you’re tempted to have an affair with your hottie co-worker. Here, your conscience says “No” but your body says “Yes.” (Your spouse, and his or her lawyer, say “No.”) Who will you listen to? It seems that it’s up to you. You’re like a king with multiple advisers giving him clashing advice. You’re free to take the advice of one or the other. Just because you’re subject to influences, doesn’t mean you have no control over the outcome.

Therefore, here’s a better analogy. A normal human is like a man paddling a canoe in a river. The currents are at various times and places on the river weaker or stronger. Sometimes, they push his little boat where they will. At other times, even though his boat is pushed, he puts the tip of his paddle in the water and steers. Sometimes he’ll move away from one current to another one. And sometimes, he even goes upstream, directly against the current. Sometimes he’s strong, and sometimes he’s weak. Sometimes his canoe has momentum, and sometimes it’s dead in the water. Sometimes he’s asleep at the paddle, and the river takes full control. Though he’s far from omnipotent, he is the pilot, and he does, sometimes and to some degree, control where that canoe goes.

This analogy seems to better fit our experience. We don’t stand aloof from the world; we’re almost always buffeted by influences from within and without. Still, we do sometimes freely decide, and freely act. Sometimes the current is strong, and our control is correspondingly week. But at other times, the river flows so slowly that it’s like paddling on a calm, windless lake.

One aspect our human agency that my analogy doesn’t do justice to, is that over the course of a lifetime, as we make a thousand small decisions, we can shape, as it were, the river’s currents. Think of the most disciplined, mature, and spiritual person you can imagine. Now contrast him or her with the poorest excuse for a human you can imagine--someone who is addicted to pork rinds and porn, thinks “Guess what--chicken butt!” is really witty, and devotes most of his waking hours to watching professional wrestling and kicking his dog. Even if their external circumstances were comparable, we believe that the “river” (the thoughts, emotions, and desires) of the mature person would be “calmer” than that of the undisciplined knucklehead. The latter would be frequently driven by his animal desires and emotions, while the former would be freer to say “Yes” or “No” to them. And we can further suppose that these two people are identical twins, and were raised in the same family, but over the course of their lifetimes, they freely made very different sets of choices.

In conclusion, a question to ponder: if you adopt the view that there’s no such thing as moral responsibility, which of these two people are you probably going to become more like?