19 July 2007

National Service

The Objectivist
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
Monday, June 25, 2007

Democratic presidential candidate and Senator Christopher Dodd (D-CT) recently called for mandatory community service for all high school students. Senator and Republican Presidential Candidate John McCain (R-AZ) has called for a mandatory draft of young adults for a similar purpose. The emphasis on service can also be seen in John F. Kennedy widely quoted claim that you should “ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country” and in the notion that the successful should give back to their community. It’s time to ask whether we have a duty of service and whether government-enforced servitude satisfies it.

I doubt persons have a duty to be charitable. Consider a rich person who lives in Connecticut and the poor in Sudan. It’s hard to see how poor Sudanese can have a moral claim to the rich Yankee’s money given that the latter isn’t related to them by blood or friendship and didn’t cause their plight. Nor is it clear why the situation changes when the poor live in Detroit or Los Angeles rather than Sudan. However, in what follows let’s ignore this doubt.

It’s hard to see why those with higher incomes haven’t already satisfied the duty. According to 2004 IRS data, the top 5% of income earners paid 57% of the income taxes. The same is likely true of corporate income taxes since the upper class owns a large portion of corporate stock. Income and corporate taxes comprise more than half of the federal government’s total revenue (56% in 2005) and so, like overworked oxen, the upper class does far more than it’s share in pulling the government wagon. They probably pay more than 40% of their income to the different levels of government and most of that gets paid out in welfare (goods and services for others rather than public goods like defense) to groups such as the poor, elderly, and farmers. In a sane world, when one group is forced to work at least two days a week for others (40% of a five-day workweek), this is enough giving. The notion that the upper class doesn’t give enough is as distasteful as if Scrooge were forced to work two days every week for Tiny Tim and Bob Cratchit then stomped into his office and angrily demanded that he give more.

Even if the weighty tax burden didn’t satisfy the duty of charity, economist Walter Williams notes that it’s hard to see why anyone would think that it’s the upper class who should have to “give back” to the community. After all, they are less likely to hit up the taxpayers for public school costs (roughly $15,000 per pupil in Fredonia and Dunkirk) and to need them to pick up their family’s medical and prison costs. More specifically, the Tax Foundation reports that the bottom 60% of households receive more in government spending than they pay in taxes. If anyone should have to give something back to the community, it should be those who sucked long and hard on the government teat.

In addition, does anyone seriously think that mandatory service for the youth is an efficient way to help the poor? Given the usual government efficiency, it’s clear that if the goal is to actually help the downtrodden, and not a new age goal like Sen. Dodd’s “shared experiences,” then we should use taxpayer dollars to hire firms that specialize in providing needed goods and services. Rebuilding New Orleans will go a lot slower if we grab students still hung over from Spring Break rather than hiring veteran construction workers.

A peacetime draft also doesn’t save money. Consider the analogous case of the military draft. If the country wants to put more men and women in arms, there are two ways it can do it. It can pay what is necessary to induce them to join or it can force them to join. The second doesn’t eliminate the costs (lost income and frustrated preferences) but merely hides them from public view. The costs are now borne by those unfortunate enough to be dragooned into the military. More specifically, their losses are at least as great as the minimum amount of money necessary to induce them to serve.

A draft is morally noxious since we have in effect instituted enslavement, albeit for a limited time. Even if supreme emergencies like war warrant doing so, and I doubt it, only a liberty-hating politician would propose that this should be done for poorly defined and politically correct goals like those McCain and Dodd cite.

The mistaken weight given to service can also be seen in the claims that we should be eternally grateful to members of the police and military and that working for the government is a higher calling. It’s hard to see what supports these claims. The individuals who took police and military jobs judged the package of benefits (including pay, prestige, and excitement) and costs (risk of death and injury) to be better than their other alternatives. Sometimes when you take a risk you lose and in the case of police officers they lose their lives less frequently than do such commonplace jobs as farmer, construction worker, and truck driver. Roughly 12 per 100,000 of police officers die on the job compared to 33 farmers, 28 construction workers, and 28 truck drivers per 100,000 (2000 figure) – and these weren’t even the most dangerous jobs. In some cases the financial benefits can be significant. New York state troopers, for example, make $65,357 after one year and can retire after 20 years. I would never ask persons to take jobs that they don’t want to do and I doubt my neighbors would either. Given this, it’s hard to see why they are owed gratitude for doing a job they willingly took. It’s even harder to see what other than wishful thinking justifies the closely related claim that working for the government is a higher calling than working in the private sector.

Instead of all of this Kennedyesque mumbo-jumbo, we should ask of our country the following, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but merely that it not trample you.” Hmmm, maybe my slogan needs some tweaking.

11 July 2007

Abortion #4: The Infanticide Argument for Pro-Life

The Theist
Abortion and Barn Burning
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
July 2, 2007

My colleague The Objectivist is an expert on the morality and legality of abortion, and people would do well to follow his arguments closely. His main point is really this: it is the moral status of abortions which is the fundamental issue. People are prone to operating solely on emotions: pity for the mother with the unwanted pregnancy, anger at men for meanly and unreasonably insisting that women let their fetuses develop and emerge. Around this issue has developed a cult of female autonomy. How dare anyone even think of interfering in such a personal choice? The mother getting what she wants is all-important, and her feelings are sacred. The father’s wishes and feelings, possible effects on society, and any other seemingly relevant concerns are angrily – and thoughtlessly - pushed aside. Foremost among these seemingly relevant issues is this: in destroying this little organism in the womb, are we doing anything morally wrong? Moral concerns should trump practical and political concerns, if we’re moral beings at all.

We are moral beings. It is impossible for us to ignore moral concerns, in how we deal with each other, with non-human animals, and with the environment. So The Objectivist is right; forget about culture wars, legal creativity, and politics - the most important issue is, in aborting, are we doing anything morally wrong, or not? Or perhaps, in some circumstances abortion is morally permissible and in others not. The Objectivist has a consistent perspective on this, but most people, and above all abortion moderates do not. They go with feelings, with what their peers say, and with anything but clearheaded moral reasoning.

What’s his view? He holds that only “persons” - beings with the kind of complex mental life that a normal human adult has - have moral rights. For other things, at least if no one else owns them, we can do with them whatever we please. If you decide you don’t want your kitten any more, in his view, you may simply crush it with a brick – you do nothing morally wrong thereby. If you don’t want your new-born infant – perhaps you wanted a boy, not a girl – you may re-use that same bloody brick, without doing anything morally wrong. Fetuses are no different – they are not “persons” any more than newborns or kittens, so you may abort at will, for any time or reason. You’re not violating anyone’s rights any more than when you cut into the apple in your lunch box. He has a backup argument: granting that the fetus is a human, a person, and whatever else you like, he argues that it has no rights at all to be in its mother. It’s like a little invader or trespasser, and may be ejected at will, even if the ejection kills the fetus.

What’s that you say? That theory is crazy? Yes, I agree. But it’s consistent and principled. The question is: what do you say? Do you hold that infanticide is morally wrong? Yes? And that many or all abortions are not wrong? OK. Now what is the morally relevant difference between a fetus and a newborn?

While you’re pondering that, I’ll briefly give you my take on this issue. Consider why we all (but The Objectivist) think infanticide is morally wrong. What precisely is wrong with disposing of unwanted infants? Lot of societies have done it. But it seems that if we did that, we’d be doing great harm to the little victim. We’d be depriving her of the rest of her life – of a vast, unimaginably valuable treasure-house of potentials. As she sits there, she has potentials to be (suppose) a great artist, a best friend, heroic rescuer of endangered species, a mother of six, or a prime minister of a great nation. But we decide, perhaps for what we think are good reasons, to deprive her of these innumerable potentials. That seems wrong, for the potential lives we’re ripping away from her have immense value.

Now consider the full term fetus, still inside her mother. All the same considerations apply to her. The only difference is that she’s still inside and hooked up to her biological mom. Now how far back does her life go? That is, when did this thing of amazing potential come into existence? I don’t know, and I’ll bet you don’t either. Some believe that she comes into being at conception, or at two weeks, or just somewhere within the first trimester, or maybe the second. Well, the moral thing to do seems to be assume that she begins to exist at the earliest possible date – at conception.

Suppose you have a farmer friend named Will, who owns a crusty, rusty old barn. You visit him one day, and he tells you that he’s sick of looking at that old barn, and he’s going to burn the thing down. You ask him if he’s sure it’s unoccupied. Maybe it’s full of baby bunnies, or raccoons, or maybe even the neighborhood children are playing in it, or a homeless person is taking shelter in it. Will says “You shut up. This barn bothers me, and you’ll never understand how much, ‘cause you ain’t me. You can’t tell me what to do. I want it down, dadgummit.” Will then torches it. What does Will later find in the ashes – human bones, or just charred wood? It doesn’t matter. He’s done something morally wrong. He ought not torch it when he can’t rule out that children (etc.) are in the barn.

We all believe that we used to be babies. Did you also used to be a fetus? How old a fetus? You don’t know? Me either. But since we don’t know how far back we existed, the moral thing to do is to not abort at all, except in self-defense (when the pregnancy is likely to kill both mother and child). That is a consistent and principled way of thinking about abortion, and it’s far more plausible than The Objectivist's.

Suppose human bones turn up in the barn’s ashes. Will we charge Will with first-degree murder? Of course not. He’ll be charged with involuntary homicide. So The Objectivist is simply wrong in holding that if abortion is morally wrong, aborting mothers and abortion providers will all be charged with first-degree murder. We’d blame Will for acting irresponsibly, but more than that, we’d pity him because he would have unwittingly inflicted such great harm. We’ll grieve with Will. We wouldn’t look on him as we do on cold-blooded killers, or even hot-blooded (i.e. crime of passion) killers. He’d be a fool, by the way, to use The Objectivist's defense – that he has right to kill any trespassers on his property. As to the abortion industry, they’re not like Nazi gassers, but more like workers at a negligent chemical company, whose products wrought great harm on health and environment, because they were sold in ignorance of their inherent dangers. Blameable and legally liable yes, but not murderers – at least not most of them. And the abortion-doctor killers? They’re more like environmental terrorists who gun down the chemical company executives in the parking lot.

08 July 2007

Abortion #3: Moderates on Abortion

The Objectivist
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
Friday, June 22, 2007

Moderates on abortion don’t support the state always criminalizing abortion (the pro-life position) or always allowing it (the pro-choice position). Instead moderates assert that the state should sometimes permit abortion and sometimes not, depending on factors such as fetal development, the reason for an abortion, or the method by which an abortion is performed. Despite its popularity, this position makes about as much sense as driving in the middle of the road.

Some moderates think that abortion should be permitted only up to a certain point in fetal development. Despite the fact that the Constitution doesn’t mention viability (the point at which the fetus can survive outside the woman), the Supreme Court has repeatedly held that the Constitution protects a woman’s right to an abortion until viability, which occurs somewhere between 20-29 weeks. However, it is unclear why the fetus’s ability to survive outside the woman’s body with the help of sophisticated medical technology makes the fetus suddenly become important or abruptly gain the right to be inside a woman’s body. Viability is simply a political compromise that Court members wrote into the Constitution.

Other development points that are sometimes cited are when the embryo can no longer split into twins (2 weeks), when various organs appear (for example, the heart appears at 2 weeks and lungs at 5 weeks), the onset of brain waves (8 weeks), and when the woman can first feel the fetus move (18 weeks). None of these are relevant. The onset of brain waves, movement, and organs is not relevant because they don’t signal the creation of the individual in question. The body and the life it contains begin sometime after fertilization. The capacity to twin is relevant from a religious perspective because only after that point is there a specific soul that enters the human body. But this capacity is beside the point. Imagine that persons reproduced not by the sperm-and-egg method but by amoeba-like splitting. It would still be wrong to shoot a person who might have split on the basis that we wouldn’t know which of the resulting two persons she would have become.

Other moderates think that abortion should be permitted only for some types of pregnancies. These moderates usually say that abortion should be permitted only in cases in which the pregnancy resulted from rape or incest, involves a defective fetus (for example, it will develop into a neurologically impaired or retarded child), or threatens the woman’s life. This moderate position is seen in the widely held view that abortion should not be used as birth control.

The issue is whether the fetus has a right to be inside the woman. If the fetus has this right, then abortion is wrong, at least in those cases in which it doesn’t threaten a woman’s life or health. If the fetus does not have this right, then the woman is free to forcibly remove it just as she may forcibly remove a trespasser. Usually, we think that someone has a right to be in a woman’s body only if she was invited in (by analogy, consider when a male has a right to be inside a woman). In many cases of pregnancy, the fetus was not invited in. For example, when pregnancy results from failed contraception, the fetus was no more invited into the body than was a burglar who breaks into a woman’s house through a defective lock.

Some sloppy thinkers respond that the woman took the risk of the fetus coming in by having sex, but taking a risk that something will happen does not mean that a person consents to it. Anyone jogging at midnight in Detroit risks getting beaten up or worse, but the jogger surely has not consented to it.

In addition, that a fetus is defective is relevant only if you think that mildly retarded or neurologically impaired human beings have less demanding rights than the rest of us.

A third type of moderate focuses on the abortion method. On this account, methods in which the physicians kill the fetus are wrong, whereas methods in which the physicians merely remove the fetus and allow it to die are permissible. Killing would include methods like D&C and D&E whereby physicians cut up or tear apart fetuses; letting die might include RU-486 (the abortion pill) whereby the embryo is detached from the woman. Again, it’s hard to see how this is relevant. If abortion removes a fetus that has no right to be inside the woman and that inevitably results in the fetus’s death, the method by which this is done seems beside the point.

There are then only two respectable positions on abortion: the state should always permit it or should always ban it (perhaps with an exception for when the fetus endangers the woman’s life). It’s worth noting that the latter position has some startling implications.

First, if the pro-life position is correct, then the law should be changed so that women who pay for abortions and physicians who perform them should be charged with first-degree murder. After all, they purposely killed an innocent human being and lack any standard defense (for example, they weren’t insane and didn’t act defensively). Physicians who currently perform abortions might be guilty of crimes against humanity and the fact that they thought what they were doing was right and were following the law is no more a defense than were similar claims by Nazi defendants at Nuremberg. With 1.3 million abortions a year, roughly 20% of pregnancies being aborted, and 2% of women 15-44 having had an abortion (2000 and 2002 figures), the pro-life position sees the U.S. as awash in murderers.

Second, the pro-life position entails that persons like James Kopp who assassinate abortion-doctors are heroes. After all, they took out those who were making a living killing innocent human lives. On the pro-life account, such assassins are similar to World War II resistance members who shot Nazi executioners who made a living slaughtering Jews and others in death camps like Auschwitz.

If you think these implications are absurd, then you’re pro-choice.