29 April 2015

Do Passover and Easter Make Sense?

Stephen Kershnar
How to View Religious Holidays
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
April 26, 2015

The religious holidays earlier this month, Passover and Easter, raise interesting issues: Do the holidays’ central stories make sense and, if they do not, then how should we view them?

Consider Passover. Passover is an Exodus-inspired holiday in which Jewish people celebrate God’s having liberated them from slavery in Ancient Egypt. In the Passover story, God freed Jews from slavery by inflicting ten plagues on ancient Egyptians before their leader, the pharaoh, agreed to let the Israelites go. The tenth plague involved the angel of death (or, perhaps, God himself) killing the Egyptians’ first-born sons. The Israelites avoided having their sons killed by putting the blood of a slaughtered lamb on their doors so that the angel of death knew to pass over their houses. During the plagues, the pharaoh would have relented and freed the Israelites, so God hardened the pharaoh’s heart so that he wouldn’t relent. God did this to show his immense power. Even after the plagues, the pharaoh’s army pursued the Israelites. God parted the Red Sea and after the Israelites passed through he then closed it, drowning the Egyptian Army.

The story makes no sense, at least if God is all-good, all-knowing, and all-powerful. First, consider God’s hardening of pharaoh’s heart. Why would he do that? It led to immense suffering. Surely, he might have communicated his greatness in ways that didn’t involve bringing widespread suffering and death to the Egyptian people. Given that God allowed himself to manipulate pharaoh’s mind, he could have just as easily given the pharaoh a love of freedom or the Israelites and thus created a beautiful path by which Israelites escaped bondage.

Second, why would God kill the Egyptian’s first-born sons? They were innocents and it is a standard principle of morality that it is wrong to kill innocent people. This is especially true when the innocents are women and children. It is odd to see Jews joyously celebrating the death of Egyptian children, albeit as a means to their freedom.

Third, God if insisted on killing (see the tenth plague), he could have killed the Egyptian soldiers rather than first-born sons. The soldiers were going to die anyway and the angel of death was already in the Egyptians’ homes. There was nothing to be gained by adding to the carnage. 

Fourth, God could have made the Egyptian soldiers and their horses lame rather than drowning them. This would have ended their pursuit without horrible drownings.  

Easter also makes little sense. It celebrates Jesus Christ’s resurrection from the dead. According the Bible, the Romans crucified him and he lay dead and buried for two days. On the third day, God raised him from the dead. Many Christians celebrate Easter by receiving the Eucharist. Some denominations (for example, Catholicism) hold that the Eucharist is literally the body and blood of Christ. Other Christian denominations hold that it is merely symbolic.

Atonement, closely related to the resurrection, lies at the heart of Christianity. Atonement theory asserts that the suffering and death of Jesus explains why God forgives or pardons people for their sins. The Bible repeatedly asserts this. Yet atonement is a bizarre notion. A standard principle of morality is that it is wrong to punish one person for what another did. Yet Christian doctrine holds that people are forgiven by their sins because Jesus was punished. This is like punishing a mother of a rapist for what her son did and, after doing so, deciding that the rapist need not be punished.

The Eucharist makes even less sense as all of something - Jesus’ body - cannot be in two different locations (for example, Dunkirk and Hartford). 

Little noticed about the holidays is that Judaism and Christianity contradict one another. The former holds that the messiah has not yet come and that God is a unified individual. It also forbids people to be worshiped as it considered idolatry. Thus, Jews hold that Jesus is a false messiah and, hence, Christianity is false.            

If the Passover or Easter story is literally true, then it is clear that our understanding of God and morality is seriously flawed. That is, if it is okay for God to harden a leader’s heart in order to more completely crush his people, kill innocent boys, and allow one person to be tortured so that billions of other people don’t get the punishment they deserve, then our understanding of morality or God is so inadequate as to be worthless. If, instead, the stories make no sense, this is likely because the Passover and Easter stories have symbolic value, but are not literally true. 

If the Passover and Easter stories are merely symbolically valuable, then you might wonder why we should take them seriously. A lot of symbolic events have emotional meaning to us and are part of our identities, but it doesn’t follow that they should guide our daily actions or that people who master them (for example, rabbis and priests) have any expertise in moral issues such as marriage, divorce, in vitro fertilization, abortion, premarital sex, and so on. Like historians who are experts on Roman mythology, their symbolic and historical insight is valuable, but therein ends their expertise.

Also, one might wonder what else is symbolic. For example, one might wonder whether the Ten Commandments and Jesus’ instructions are merely shared symbols of an imagined past.  

Still, the holidays are wonderful times, filled with family, warmth, and a lot of good food. One might wonder what’s to be gained by calling into question the symbolic stories at the center of these joyous holidays even if they make no sense. Perhaps we have to trade off truth and rationality for emotionally meaningful symbolism. Perhaps. 

15 April 2015

Out-of-Control Police Violence and Government Overreach

Stephen Kershnar
Walter Scott, Traffic Tickets, and Government Overreach
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
April 12, 2015

The recent spate of videotaped incidents highlights intertwined problems: out-of-control police violence and constant government overreach.

By now everyone has seen the recent video of the shooting of Walter Scott in  South Carolina. Scott was stopped for a broken taillight. After he fled from Officer Michael Slager, the cop shot him eight times from behind and then appears to drop a Taser near Scott’s body. Slager gave the line that almost always protects cops: a struggle ensued, the suspect reached for my weapon and I feared for my life. After the video emerged, Slager was charged with murder. Without the cell-phone video, he’d be free as the wind.

In 2013, an individual who was being investigated in a case of mistaken identity complained that Slager tased him for no good reason and when his hands up in the air. The North Charleston police cleared Slager, although the alleged victim and several witnesses claimed they were not even interviewed about the incident.

The videotaped shooting comes shortly after the videotaped chokehold of Eric Garner in Staten Island that led to his death. Two journalists, Reuben Fischer-Baum and Al Johri, estimate that the police shoot and kill around 1,000 people each year, that is, three a day.

Most, recently, a video captures a horse thief in Southern California who was stunned with a Taser by a sheriff’s deputy and fell to the ground with his arms outstretched. Writing for NBC, Joseph Kandel and Tony Shin claim that a group of 11 sheriff’s deputies then kicked him 17 times, kneed him to the groin, punched him 37 times, and struck him with batons 4 times. 13 blows appeared to be to the head. Following the attack, the man did not appear to move from his position on the ground for more than 45 minutes and did not appear to receive medical attention while deputies stood around him.

The issue that arises is whether the above cases and ones like them are the exception or whether there is a real problem with police violence. Often the police’s defenders claim there’s no problem here. They note that there are bad cops, but no more so than bad teachers, nurses, and bus drivers. Other defenders argue that the high-profile cases are isolated instances and not a systemic failure.

Others, such as Slate’s Jamelle Bouie, rebut the isolated-instances claim. He argues that role of cameras in reducing police violence suggests that they can and do use far less violence when monitored and, hence, far too much police violence is unnecessary and wrong.

A study by Police Chief William Farrar found that in Rialto, California when police used body cameras, complaints against them dropped 88%. Furthermore, Farrar noted that this reduction in complaints was due to a reduction in force because (1) police shifts with cameras had half as many use-of-force incidents as those with cameras and (2) officers without cameras were more likely to use force without having been physically threatened.

Arizona State University criminologist Michael White notes that a study of police officers in Mesa, Arizona found that police officers had 60% fewer complaints after they wore body cameras and 65% fewer complaints than those officers who did not wear cameras. A reduction in complaints was also found in Great Britain when officers wore cameras.

It is possible that this decline in complaints and use of force is largely due to citizens behaving differently in response to the cameras, but this doesn’t fit well with the evidence. The Rialto study found that the police were more disciplined about only using force in response to a threat to them when they were on camera than when they are not. Also, a citizen already faces a serious chance of injury and conviction when fighting with the police and it is unlikely that the camera adds much of a further deterrent.  

Police involvement in citizens’ lives is also at a disturbing level. Sociologists Charles R. Epp and fellow researchers studied traffic stops and found that nationwide 12% of all drivers are stopped by the police each year. Based on data about the Kansas City metropolitan area, they found that more than a third of young black men are stopped two or more times a year for investigatory stops. An investigatory stop is one based on a minor matter (for example, driving too slowly, malfunctioning lights, or failure to signal) and is often used as a pretext for investigations of the driver and the vehicle. Epp and company found that 44% of young black men who drive an older luxury car were subject to investigatory stops. Regardless of the race issue, far too many people are being pulled over and the courts and legislature deserve a lot of the blame here.    

Nor is it just traffic stops. Tickets are now used to bleed revenue out of cowed citizens. A 2006 Federal Reserve Bank study found states sharply increasing the number of traffic tickets given out to compensate for loss of revenue elsewhere. Some states have had had to limit the percentage of a town’s revenue that can get from tickets to 30% for state roads and 35% to state highways as some towns started to use police and courts as moneymaking schemes. These percentages are outrageous.

The results of using tickets as taxation are ugly. Timothy Williams writing in The New York Times notes that in 2013, an astounding 17% of Californians had their licenses suspended for failure to pay fines or appear in court. This is unsurprising given a 2012 state analysis that found that a $500 traffic ticket, even when paid on time, cost $1,953. It also found a $100 ticket for failure to have proof of insurance actually cost $490 and this increases to $815 if the motorist didn’t pay on time.

Police violence, police stopping far too many motorists for minor traffic matters, and towns using traffic tickets as their newest and most favorite form of taxation are a bad combination. The three are related in that the demand for more government revenue leads to more traffic stops, which leads to more friction, and so on. The system needs reform. 

03 April 2015

Are men doing better than women?

Stephen Kershnar
Hillary Clinton’s coming feminist campaign
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
March 29, 2015

Hillary Clinton will soon be running for the presidency again, this time on women’s issues. Writing in Bloomberg Politics, Lisa Lerer and Jennifer Epstein point out that she is pushing issues such as equal pay, family leave, and government subsidized child care. She attended a number of events focused on women’s issues, brags about how as secretary of state she did a lot for women and girls, and sprinkles her speeches with comments on becoming a grandmother.

Aside from yet another crass reinvention of herself just in time for the next election, the odd feature of a feminist campaign is that in the U.S. women are doing better than men.

Consider what makes a life go well. On one theory, how well someone’s life goes depends on how happy she is and how long she lives. On another theory, how well someone’s life goes depends in part on how happy she is but also on whether it is meaningful.

In the U.S., women are happier than men. University of Pennsylvania economists Betsy Stevenson and Justin Wolfers have found that over the last few decades (1972-2006), women are on average happier than men, although the gap between them is closing. Studies that focus on people in the European Union and studies of even larger blocs of countries also find women are happier. In addition, women live longer than men. A recent study by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development found that, on average, American women live 5 more years (7% longer).

Hence, on average, women are happier and they live longer. If how well one’s life goes depends on, and only on, how happy she is, then women currently have better lives than men.  

If, instead, how well someone’s life goes depends in part on how meaningful her life is, women’s lives again go better. On a standard account, how meaningful one’s life is depends on the degree to which one has family and friends, knowledge, and dignity.

Consider family and friends. Women have more family in the sense that they are more likely to live with their children than do men. While the studies vary, it also appears that on average women have more friends than do men, particularly friends who are related to them (kin).    

Consider knowledge. When it comes for formal learning, women are more knowledgeable as evidenced by the fact that across all grades and academic subjects (including the sciences), women get better grades. They are also considerably more likely to attend and graduate from college.

Consider dignity. Large swaths of men lose dignity when they are caught up in the soul-crushing indignities of the criminal justice system. Also, men’s lives appear to more frequently lack dignity in that men commit suicide far more often than women. It should be mentioned that women more often attempt suicide and think about it. 

The interesting question is whether there is something wrong about a political candidate focusing on a better-off group. If the political marketplace is similar to the economic marketplace, then it is hard to see why there is anything wrong when a politician targets better-off voters just as there is nothing wrong when a business targets better-off consumers. A Lexus dealer doesn’t try to sell cars to the middle class and, morally, this is just fine. If Clinton doesn’t try to sell her candidacy to white men and, perhaps, even to married white women, this seems to be fine for the same reason. 

Still, there is something odd about trying to benefit a group already doing well, especially if the candidate is a member of it. Consider if Chuck Schumer (D-NY) were to focus his next senatorial campaign on benefitting Jews. The reason this would be odd is that Jews are the wealthiest religious group in America and it is not obvious that they need or deserve a larger piece of the pie. A 2008 Pew Forum study found 46% of Jews make more than $100,000 (more than double the rate of other Americans) and they are overrepresented in Wall Street, Silicon Valley, Hollywood, medicine, and so on. There does seem to be something strange about focusing on better-off groups, although it is hard to see why it is wrong. Women, like Jews, are a better-off group.

If one views politicians as subject to moral considerations that limit which voters they can appeal to and how they can appeal to them, then Clinton’s feminist campaign is problematic. After all, she is promising benefits to a better-off group and, if successful, it is hard to see how this will improve any of the things we value: liberty, equality, efficiency, or desert.

A Clinton apologist might claim that her proposed programs (for example, subsidized childcare, equal pay, and family leave) are the right thing to do anyway because they will make the country more equal. The feminist packaging is just a way of selling desirable policies.

The problem is that parenting is already so heavily subsidized in this country that it is hard to believe that the apologist can defend subsidized childcare with a straight face. The smorgasbord of free education, child-based tax credits and deductions, welfare programs, Head Start programs, and assorted other goodies make it hard to believe that yet another welfare program for parents should be created and lavishly funded. Equal pay is already mandated by law and likely already characterizes the U.S. workplace. And even proponents of family leave seem to have a hard time explaining why businesses, especially small- and medium-sized one, should be forced to pay workers who don’t go to work for months on end, albeit for emergencies outside of their control.

Even if these ideas weren’t terrible, they are hardly the most important issues Americans face.