Monday, December 31, 2012

What I Hope for in the New Year

Some things I hope for myself in the coming year:

1. I hope that when I speak or write, I will have the courage to say what I think is true, rather than what I think I should think, or what others (whose opinions matter to me) think I should think.

2. I hope when I do say what I think, it will be with the humility to know I could be wrong. And I hope that it will be with enough self-trust and integrity not to abandon what seems apparent to me just because I could be wrong. Instead, I hope it will only be when I have been offered reasons or evidence that sincerely move me.

3. I hope I will seek out the good even when I see much darkness, that I will have the courage to recognize the darkness, not hide from it, but also not let it blind me to the stars. I hope that I will recognize the light that I can nurture, and see how best to nurture it, and so help forge an honest pathway to greater joy. 

3. I hope that I will live more fully in each moment, taking in the smells and sounds and sights around me. I hope that when my daughter clings to my neck and presses her cheek against my own, I will let every other concern slip away, even if just for that moment, so I can fully savor the smell of her hair.

4. I hope I will not lose my anger--and the energy for action that it provides. But I also hope that the anger will always give way before compassion, before empathy, before the will to understand. I hope that my anger will never drive me towards recklessness, and that my wisdom will tell me when my anger is misplaced.

5. I hope I will spend more time laughing and making music--both literal and figurative music--with the people I love.

What are your hopes for the coming year?

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Gun Control Conversation: Things Not to Say

I think there may be hope for a serious conversation about enacting sensible gun regulations in this country. But there is also a real danger of that conversation being quickly derailed. If the former is going to happen and the latter avoided, there are certain things people tend to say in these discussion that it would really be better to avoid. This is true of people on both sides.

I already talked, in an earlier post, about one such unhelpful remark: The accusation that gun control advocates are "politicizing a tragedy." Here are a few other remarks that it is better to leave behind:

1. "Our children are more important than your guns."

This statement is clearly true. Children are more important than guns. The problem is not with the truth of this statement. The problem, perversely, is that the statement is so obviously true...but is put forward as if this were what opponents of stricter gun regulations disagreed with.

Imagine that you enjoy tennis, and some child in your town was murdered with a tennis racket. Then imagine that a small group of people started arguing for restricting access to tennis rackets. You start to argue that tennis rackets aren't the problem and your opponents suddenly shout you down with "Our children are more important than your tennis rackets!" How would you feel?

I offer this example not because I think guns are comparable to tennis rackets. They're not. Many guns are specifically designed for the express purpose of efficiently ending the lives of human beings. Tennis rackets are designed to hit tennis balls. I offer this example to highlight how stating the obvious as if it were a matter of contention--in effect accusing your opponent of disagreeing with you on something about which no decent human being would disagree--doesn't settle the argument. It just gets your opponent more angry and less willing to engage in a serious conversation.

We all need to focus our attention where the disagreement actually lies. In the case of the safety of our children, the disagreement is not over whether their lives are more valuable than guns. So where does it lie? A big part of the debate is about whether stricter gun regulations will keep our children safer--and if so, what sorts of gun regulations will optimize their safety and what sorts will needlessly restrict gun owners to no good effect.

Much of the debate also turns on an ideological disagreement about the extent to which public safety should be secured by government institutions (police, military) and policies (such as various airport security regulations) and the extent to which it should be secured by extending to individuals the right to secure their own safety by the means they judge best. When it comes to such things as locks and security systems, we all agree that full autonomy should lie with the individual. When it comes to guns the debate becomes complicated because guns both pose a threat to the public safety (when in the wrong hands) and can be used by individuals to defend themselves and those they love from such threats. The conflict here is a case study in broader ideological disagreements about the right balance between individual liberty and communal action for the common good.

2. "In such and such a case of gun violence, greater gun control failed to stop the killer/ ready access to guns by private individuals failed to stop the killer/ ready access to guns by a private individual prevented the gun violence from being worse."

Here's one example of what I have in mind:


I've been trying to track down another one I saw--this one from the other side of the issue--but can't find it. I remember the gist of it well enough, though. It features an image of Nidal Hasan--the shooter who killed 13 people and wounded 29 others at the Fort Hood military base in 2009. It cites the number of people killed and injured and notes that this occurred on a military base, where presumably there were lots of armed people about with lots of training in how to use their weapons...and then it draws the conclusion that arming people more heavily won't stop mass shootings.

A facebook post by a philosophy colleague at another university called my attention to the extent to which specific anecdotes like these are being invoked on both sides as if they settled anything. They don't. The question is whether a particular policy or other will save lives--not whether it will bring an end to all gun-related deaths, all mass killings, etc. No matter what policy we adopt, there will be people who get hold of guns and succeed in taking human lives. We don't live in a perfect world, but we might be able to achieve a better one.

Anecdotes have a powerful impact on our imagination and can shape our thinking, but there is a reason why "anecdotal" evidence is treated with suspicion. And one needs to be careful about the anecdotes one chooses, since it may be a matter of debate whether they make the point you want. For example, according to a Mother Jones article, the Pearl shooting was apparently over by the time the vice principal got his gun. What he managed to do was hold the shooter at gunpoint in the shooter's car until the police arrived.

Of course, it may also be that the shooter was heading off to another location to shoot up some more people. The point is that now you're in a debate about what happened and what would have happened in a particular case when, in fact, the anecdote doesn't really speak to the broader issue. The substantive conversation about what policies are best both in terms of outcomes and in terms of other ethical considerations has been derailed.

3. "If guns are outlawed, only outlaws will lave guns."

This statement assumes that the subject of discussion is nothing but whether a sweeping ban on private gun ownership is the best policy. But it is precisely this sort of all-or-nothing thinking that polarizes discussions and makes more nuanced conversations about sensible policies so difficult.

What we have to ask is not what the effects of a total ban would be, but what the effects of the more nuanced and realistic policy proposals on the table would be. We have to say, for a range of policy proposals, "If this proposal were enacted, then what?" And we have to decide which of these various proposals--proposals which regulate gun ownership in various ways as opposed to outlawing them--is the best policy given the social realities of our country, its history, the evidence of various policy effects on violence, the legitimate moral claims of individuals, and fidelity to our constitution (which requires a serious discussion of what a right to bear arms for the sake of well-regulated militias actually means for us today).

Besides which, even those who propose a ban on guns don't mean for that ban to extend to law enforcement and the military--so it's simply false that only outlaws would have guns.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Mental Health Care Reform

Yesterday, I read this post from a mother of a boy with a mental illness--a boy she loves, a boy who frightens her, a boy who might one day do the kind of thing that causes a nation to weep. For now it is the mother who weeps. If you haven't read it yet, do so. Now. Don't even finish this post. It will change how you think.

I said in an earlier post that we need a serious national conversation about easy access to guns in this country. We also need a serious conversation about how to improve access to and quality of mental health care for those who suffer.

The gun lobby has this slogan: "Guns don't kill people. People kill people." The obvious response is that people kill people with guns. And guns make it so much easier to kill. The more powerful the gun and the more ammunition it holds, the easier it is.

The person with suicidal thoughts is so much more likely to act on those thoughts if there's a gun in easy reach. A person in a jealous rage is so much more likely to kill if there is a gun right there.

If a tornado rips through a school, children's lives are at risk. But there are people with tornados in their heads. Whether they become as dangerous as actual tornados depends on what weapons they have available.

But there is something right about the gun lobby's slogan. A gun, without a human at the trigger, is inert. When death happens it is because something human has been added to the mix: negligence or malevolence, hate or jealousy, fear or desperation. Or madness. In a perfect world, a wold purged of all sickness and sin--that is, in a world that we will never see this side of death--guns would pose no danger to anyone.

Because a perfect world is impossible, we need to talk about sensible ways to make it harder for guns to fall into the hands of those who would use them to harm the innocent. But because we can do better even if we can't purge all the forces that drive people to murder, we need to talk seriously about doing what we can to reduce impulses to violence--not only to nurture a more nonviolent spirit among those of us who are of sound mind, but to extend desperately needed help to those of us who are not.

This is a dimension of health care reform that must be explored seriously by everyone. The invocation of mental illness and mental health care reform cannot and must not be reduced to a diversion tactic by opponents of greater gun regulations--a way of turning attention away from one of the issues we need to wrestle with. It must be something that all of us regard as a high priority. And those of us who favor greater gun regulations cannot ignore the cry of the mother who finds herself struggling to help a beloved child who terrifies her. We cannot think that all has been solved by making sure her child can't get hold of an assault weapon. We cannot leave that mother out to dry.

In a world where the mental health care of children depends on the benefits package that the parents might or might not receive through their employer, our world will have more people growing up with tornados in their heads than there have to be. We can do better. We must do better for the sake of children like those slain at Sandy Hook, for the sake of those mothers who find themselves responsible for children who seem like ticking time bombs. For the sake of those children who don't know what to do with the tornado in their heads, and who sometimes imagine it will all be better if they just let it loose in the world.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Let Us Come Together

Let us talk together.

Let us talk about how we can get help to the mentally ill before it is too late. Let us talk about better ways to keep guns out of the hands of those who shouldn't have them. Let us talk about the forces in our culture that increase rage, belligerence, and despair. Let us talk about ways to keep our children safer while also preserving the joys of childhood, without allowing a single extreme event to define their world in stifling ways.

Let us act together.

Let us reach out to the families who have lost their precious children, to do what we can as a nation to provide comfort in the midst of horror. Let us live out lives in that infectious spirit of love, that spirit of grace and care and mercy that is, in the end, the surest antidote to the spirit of violence that gives rise to horror. Let us listen and talk with those who disagree with us, but in the end let us act on conscience--letting our government representatives know where we stand, engaging in nonviolent direct action when we feel called to do so, working to make the changes in our local communities that we believe in.

Let us dream together.

Let us dream of a better world, and let our dreams shape our conversations and our actions. Let us dream, but while we dream let us remember that no matter what changes we make, no matter how much real progress we make, the world will always be a place where horror can and will strike. When it does, let us not fall into despair or apathy or a loss of purpose. Let us instead hold hands in the face of horror and remind each other of our dreams.

Let us reach beyond ourselves.

Let us turn our hope towards a power which can do more than we can ever do. Let us light candles and say prayers and reach for that elusive good which has the power to transform us from within, and so transform our world one living soul at a time. Let us keep talking, acting, and dreaming of something greater than we can ever realize alone, something whose intimations are to be found in that spirit that we feel among us when we come together in compassion and patience and good will.

No matter our differences and disagreements, our passions and our fears, let us now, in this moment, come together.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Guns and Tragedy

When a mentally ill man, armed to the teeth, walked into a movie theater in Aurora, CO and started shooting, I thought to myself: We need a national conversation about gun regulations.

I thought it. Others said it aloud and were shouted down for "politicizing a tragedy." And I thought, "Maybe now isn't the right time. We should grieve, honor the dead, get over this. Then we need to talk."

A few weeks later, when a hateful ideologue gunned down people in a Sikh temple, I thought to myself: We need a conversation about gun regulations.

I thought it. Others said it aloud and were shouted down. And I wondered if now wasn't the right time.

Not long after that, here in Stillwater, an adolescent walked into the local junior high school, pulled out a gun he'd gotten from somewhere, and killed himself in front of his peers. And I thought about this boy who, for some reason, needed to scream, to scream as loudly as he could, and who found a lethal way to do it.

I wrote about that tragedy, and I brushed against the issue of guns--but I hesitated to make it the focus. I didn't want to "politicize" the tragedy.

And now. Now after listening to horror while my wife and two children--my whole heart--were all together in the nearby elementary school; now as we confront the bloody aftermath of madness; now as the nation faces the corpses of babies, killed so easily; now, after I come home and hug my children and my wife and imagine some mentally unbalanced kid somewhere out there, here in Oklahoma where anyone may privately sell their gun to anyone else without background checks or waiting periods, where the tools for mass murder can so easily fall into the hands of those who are contemplating mass murder; now when it hits my heart, when I imagine my own children cowering in a classroom, my little girl who is so effortlessly and exuberantly affectionate, my son who is so endlessly creative; now, again, I find myself thinking that we need a national conversation, a serious and sober one, about what we can do, if anything, to make it harder for the lunatics to acquire the weapons that make unthinkable horror so easy to do.

It needs to be thoughtful and informed and realistic. It needs to take into account the reality of the gun culture in America, the fact that the guns are out there in large numbers already, the fact that most gun owners are responsible citizens, and the fact that there are legitimate reasons ordinary citizens have for wanting guns.

But it also needs to take into account the fact that it is painfully easy in this country for persons who are homicidally insane to get their hands on weapons that enable them to efficiently murder classrooms full of children.

It needs to be a conversation that takes seriously the middle ground, a conversation that's not a shouting match between the forces of total prohibition and the forces that treat every proposed regulation--even something as simple as a background check--as a fundamental assault on human liberty. It needs to be a practical conversation that integrates the interests of gun owners, the social and historical and cultural realities of contemporary America, and the desire to keep our children safe.

Such a conversation is both possible and necessary. But if it is going to be an intelligent conversation, there are things we need to stop saying. One of them is this:

You’re politicizing a national tragedy.


When our nation confronts tragedies like today's massacre of children in Newtown, CT, or the massacre of movie-goers in Aurora, CO, we are shocked. And we mourn for the lost. And we try to find ways to honor the dead, to lift up the heroes who died protecting others, to tell the stories, to weave some semblance of meaning out of the horror.

But something else we do is think about how to stop tragedies like it from happening again. This is not "politicizing a tragedy." It's responding to a tragedy in a natural and normal human way: We ask ourselves, "How do we stop this sort of thing from happening again?"

It is precisely with respect to this question that there is such a great divide in America. There are those who think we can reduce the frequency and severity of such tragedies by making it harder for madmen and hate-filled ideologues to get their hands on guns. And there are those who think that if more decent citizens have guns in their possession, the bad guys would be more quickly stopped.

More gun control will solve it. Less gun control will solve it. I suspect these alternatives oversimplify a more complex reality and create a this-or-that perspective on solutions that leaves out the range of creative alternatives that integrate concerns and insights from both directions. We need to think about these complexities.

National tragedies can and should be catalysts for that—events that move us to think about what we could do differently to reduce the frequency or severity of such tragedies in the future, and to act accordingly.

I suppose there are those who see tragedies as opportunities to further their own political career or score wins for their political party, because they see that the tragedy plays into their political platform. But that is not what is going on when a father hugs his child, thinking that it could have been his little girl or little boy, and then asks what can be done before the next time, the time when that's exactly who it might be.

To be moved by a spate of mass shootings to ask serious questions about what can be done about it isn’t politicizing a tragedy. It's confronting the reality of tragedy in one of the most pragmatic, useful, forward-looking ways that one can. Americans are historically pragmatic. We're problem solvers. The death of our children is a problem, and like it or not, ready access to guns is implicated in that problem.

And we affirm a principle of democratic government, in which civil discourse about our problems, public conversations about the issues that matter, are encouraged as a way to help produce wiser public policy.

To seek to silence willy-nilly those who raise these concerns by accusing them of politicizing a tragedy seems an attempt to shut down conversation--the conversation that needs to happen--perhaps out fear of where that conversation might lead.

If you have legitimate interests that you want protected, then participate vigorously in the much-needed conversations that tragedies can help to catalyze. Don’t try to shut down their catalyzing power by mislabeling the motives of people who are as horrified and grieved by the tragedies as everyone else.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Sam Harris on Torture

Although Sam Harris's PhD is in neuroscience, he never left his undergraduate philosophy degree (from Stanford in 2000) far behind him. This has been clear from the time of his first major bestseller, The End of Faith. In that book--the first of the so-called "new atheist" bestsellers--Harris devotes a chapter to ethics, previewing what he later attempts (and, in my view, fails) to do in The Moral Landscape.

In that ethics chapter from The End of Faith, Harris even does a bit of applied ethics (by which I mean the discipline of thinking about particular moral issues and dilemmas in a rigorous way in the attempt to provide reasoned guidance in decision-making). Specifically, he focuses on the moral status of two controversial questions: the ethics of torture and the ethics of pacifism (spoiler: he thinks torture can be justified while pacifism is "flagrantly immoral").

This past semester I had my introductory ethics students read what Harris has to say on torture. I wasn't surprised to find some students convinced (at least initially) by what Harris says. In a manner characteristic of the new atheist writers, Harris tackles the ethics of torture with the kind of confident authority and eloquence that so effectively obscures the serious defects in his argument. This is not to say that Harris has nothing of value to say about torture. He makes some interesting and important points in the course of developing his unsound argument. But the main argument is nevertheless unsound on several levels.

It struck me as a useful exercise in critical thinking to assess with my students a piece of writing of this sort: writing in which word choices create false equivalences and authorial confidence masks a deep ignorance of relevant literature. And it also seemed that Harris's essay--and a consideration of what he overlooks--could serve as a useful springboard for deeper reflection on the issue of torture and the broader ethical issues it brings to light.

For the very same reasons, it seems worth addressing on this blog. But doing so adequately--especially in a way that affords us a deeper look at torture and surrounding issues with an eye towards broader ethical insights--would take more than a single post. In this post, then, I want to content myself with offering an overview of Harris's core argument and, as I go along, quickly identifying his main oversights. A deeper look into these oversights and their significance will have wait for later.

So, what is Harris's main argument? Harris focuses on the issue of torturing suspected terrorists for the sake of acquiring life-saving information (such as the location of a hidden bomb that will take untold innocent lives unless found and disarmed in time). This way of framing the issue--in terms of the so-called "ticking bomb" case popularized in recent years by Alan Dershowitz--may itself be problematic. David Luban has argued precisely that in the Virgina Law Review, because it treats a highly unusual scenario as if the moral status of torture in that scenario could be considered on its own, isolated from a consideration of the ethics of our broader policy (either secret or open) with respect to torture. Luban offers some quite interesting and useful remarks about the difficulty with such isolated consideration of the extreme-and-rare case. Harris seems utterly oblivious to any such difficulties. If he's aware of them, he ignores them utterly.

Moving on: Having focused in on the ticking bomb scenario, Harris begins his argument with the assumption--which he takes to be rather self-evident--that if the prospective torture victim is known to be guilty (and, presumably, to possess the needed information), torture is clearly justified.

This starting assumption is hardly as uncontroversial as Harris takes it to be. First of all, there are those who will balk at its consequentialist character--taking there to be something intrinsically wrong about the deliberate infliction of pain when such infliction is not merely foreseen as a side-effect of something one is doing but is an intended aim of one's action (even if it is intended not for its own sake but as a means to some more ultimate objective).

Second, there is the whole question of the relative efficacy of torture as compared to other forms of interrogation. If one is sufficiently consequentialist about these matters, what the ticking bomb scenario would do is justify that means of extracting the needed information that is most likely to produce the desired result. When, if ever, is it reasonable for us to suppose that torture is that most-effective means and so act accordingly? Harris doesn't even take up the question. He does concede that the probability of successfully extracting reliable information through torture may be low, but he fails to consider that this may mean there are other interrogation techniques with a higher track record of success (or with which trained interrogators have more training and experience, and so are better equipped to use effectively).

Of course, in order to explore such comparative issues, he'd need to conceptually distinguish between torture and interrogation. Harris never even attempts to do this.

In any event, Harris assumes that torture is justified if you've got a known terrorist in your clutches who has the information you need in order to save countless lives but who refuses to divulge it. The moral problem, for Harris, arises when we suspect but don't know for sure that the person in our custody is indeed a terrorist with knowledge of the whereabouts of the hidden bomb. In that case, Harris says that the moral problem is that we risk torturing an innocent person by mistake.

In fact, Harris's next error is in arguing as if this--the risk of torturing an innocent--is the only risk. He doesn't explore the risk of torturing someone who is indeed guilty of terrorism and involved in the bombing plot, but who lacks the relevant information. Torturing someone to extract information they don't possess is, in the ticking bomb case, not just a dangerous waste of time. The problem runs deeper. What lies behind the idea that torture can be justified in these cases is the assumption that increasing someone's suffering is more likely to break down their resistance to doing what you want. If they don't talk, you move from interrogation to thumb screws. If they still don't talk, you tighten the thumb screws. Follow this pattern with someone who doesn't have the information you want, and you are inflicting ever increasing amounts of suffering to no good effect. Continued escalation can lead to false information or death, but not to anything useful.

But all of this is preliminary. Harris's real argument begins only once he has swept a host of philosophical and practical problems under the rug in order to get to this premise: The main moral problem with torturing a suspected terrorist in order to gain life saving information is that the suspect might be innocent. His aim, then, becomes to challenge the view that "uncertainty about a person's guilt will generally preclude the use of torture." He challenges this view, interestingly enough, by arguing that "such restraint in the use of torture cannot be reconciled with our willingness to wage war in the first place."

Here it is important to pause long enough to remind the reader that Harris's discussion of torture is immediately followed up by an attack on pacifism. Harris's immediate conclusion with respect to torture is this: Either we give up on war, or we accept torture. By making it clear that we should not give up on war (that it would be "flagrantly immoral" to refuse to go to war in the right cases), Harris drives home his own broader conclusion, namely, that torturing people--even those who might be innocent--can be morally justified.

That, then, is his broader argument. But in his focused discussion on torture his aim is the more narrow one of arguing that if we think war can be permissible, then we have to hold that torturing potentially innocent people can be permissible too. And why is that? Because war inevitably brings with it "collateral damage"--the deaths of innocents who are in the wrong place when the military installation is blown up, who end up in the crossfire when enemy soldiers are targeted, etc. Here's how Harris puts the point:

What, after all, is "collateral damage" but the inadvertent torture of innocent men, women, and children? Whenever we consent to drop bombs, we do so with the knowledge that some number of children will be blinded, disemboweled, paralyzed, orphaned, and killed by them. It is curious that while the torture of Osama bin Laden himself could be expected to provoke convulsions of conscience among our leaders, the unintended (though perfectly foreseeable, and therefore accepted) slaughter of children does not.
In other words, Harris's argument for torture purportedly piggy-backs on the justification for allowing collateral damage. If collateral damage is morally justified (given a certain probability of achieving a sufficiently good result), then torture will be justified (assuming a comparable probability of achieving a similarly good result).

But if Harris wants to piggy-back his case for torture on the case for collateral damage, it would make sense to look at how and when collateral damage has, historically, been taken to be justified. It would make sense, in other words, to try to show that the reasons why people have historically justified collateral damage are also reason that would, likewise, justify torture. There is, after all, an enormous body of literature on the ethics of war. There is, in fact, a "just war tradition" that has given rise to the so-called "just war theory," which has through the years served as the basis for much of our national and international policy-making and deliberations with respect to war. And, as a matter of fact, the just war theory has explicit things to say about collateral damage. There is, if you will, a conventional understanding of the conditions under which so-called collateral damage can be justified.

Sam Harris presumably never encountered this just war tradition and the body of literature surrounding it during his years as an undergraduate philosophy major. I say this because he makes no mention of it. None. He argues that torture is justified if collateral damage is, but at no point does he actually take up the classical justifications of collateral damage to see if, in fact, they transfer to torture.

As a matter of fact, they don't. Let me say that again: According to the classical just war conditions for the justifiability of allowing collateral damage, there is no parity between causing collateral damage in the pursuit of military aims and torturing a suspected terrorist to extract information. The conditions that are classically invoked to justify the former DO NOT justify the latter. So Harris' oversight here is a serious one.

It is made even more serious by the fact that Harris goes through the motions of looking for some relevant difference between torture and collateral damage that might be invoked to challenge the moral parity he attributes to them. He considers and nimbly refutes some very poor reasons for denying this moral parity. Perhaps he thinks that the standard just war position on collateral damage--which, if accepted, would undermine the purported moral parity with torture--is just as bad a basis for denying the moral parity as the bases he considers. But if so, he fails to say why. He fails to even take up the question.

In short, he says that A is like B--but fails to consider the standard account of B, which if accepted would render A unlike B. And he fails to consider this standard account, which would refute his thesis if it worked, even though he pretends to go through the motions of looking for considerations that might refute his claim that A is like B.

But if anything should be taken up in a philosophically serious attempt to show that A and B are morally equivant, it would presumably be the standard understanding of B, at least if, according that standard understanding, A and B are not equivalent at all. Failing to do this is either a serious philosophical failing in its own right (completely ignoring the clearest and most historically important basis for objecting to your thesis) or evidence of a profound ignorance of the scholarly knowledge that anyone making Harris's argument ought to have.

I should note that, even though I think the standard just war view here would, if acceptable, undermine Harris's purported equivalence between collateral damage and torture, I'm not at all committed to the standard just war position. I think it may very well be one we shouldn't accept. And if we don't accept it, the equivance between torture and collateral damage that Harris asserts would be restored--but for reasons that, I suspect, would make it much harder for Harris to make the case that war is justified even when it produces collateral damage. In other words, I think the strongest basis for challenging the just war tradition on this point is more likely to establish an equivance that tips the scales against BOTH collateral damage and torture than one that tips the scales in favor of both. But that is an issue for another time.

For now, I want to say this: In this post I've boldly asserted that Harris's claimed equivalence between collateral damage and torture would be undermined if we accepted the standard just war position on collateral damage. I have yet to explain why this is so. A full explanation will have to wait for a later post, but a brief account is warranted here. In brief, then, the just war tradition works out, in relation to collateral damage, the implications of something called the doctrine of double effect. This is a doctrine that lays out precise conditions under which it can be morally permissible to pursue an action that has both a good effect and a bad one. Among other things, the bad effect cannot be a means to the good effect (another crucial requirement is that the good effect outweigh the bad). In other words, the bad effect has to be an unintended, if foreseen, side-effect--that is, an effect the elimination of which would not prevent the good effect from being achieved.

This is what distinguishes bomb attacks with "collateral damage" from bomb attacks that directly target civilians in order to terrorize the population and thus weaken their resolve to continue the war. The latter is strictly ruled out on traditional just war grounds because the bad effect is in this case intended as a means to the good. Fire bombing of Dresden? Ruled out by traditional just war theory. Nazi bombing raids over London? Ruled out. Atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Ruled out.

What characterizes a legitimate case of "collateral damage," on just war theory, is this: If the innocent civilians could be evacuated from the site of a bomb attack on a military target, it would still be possible to perform the very same bomb attack for the sake of achieving the very same end result (taking out the military target). You don't need the suffering and death of the civilians in order for the bomb attack to achieve the military objective it is intended to achieve. The same cannot be said of the suffering of a torture victim that is pursued for the sake of extracting information. You can't torture information out of someone without causing them pain. Put bluntly, if you give them enough sedatives that the torture doesn't hurt them, it's not torture and the whole method of pursuing the goal has been abandoned. In the case of torture, you are pursuing the bad effect in order to achieve the good one.

You might think this distinction makes no moral difference. In other words, you might disagree with the weight of the tradition and the majority of scholars in the just war tradition. But if so, it is not a sign of impeccable scholarship to refuse to say why--to refuse to even acknowledge that there is such a basis for rejecting your thesis.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Salvation Army, Homosexuality, and Gestures of Charity

One of the things many of us associate with the Christmas season is the appearance of "bell ringers" outside retail stores and other public venues--sometimes dressed as Santa, more often not. They have a little collection bucket next to them. As people pass by they fish in their pockets for loose change to drop into the bucket. A simple act of charity at a time of year that's supposed to be about love, but which too often becomes about supporting a consumerist culture.

A few years back when my son was three-and-a-half, he'd been collecting change for awhile in a homemade piggy-bank. Suddenly at Christmas time he decided that he wanted to "give it to the bell ringers." He brought all his life savings to the front door of our local Walmart and dumped it all into the red bucket with a noisy clanging.

For my son it was a gesture of giving. He wanted to help people who didn't have enough food--and the bell ringers were, for him, the most visible symbol in his small world of living in a spirit of generous love. When it came to what he should do with his money, he could think of nothing better than to align himself with such a spirit--with the clamorous noise of a year's worth of collected change filling up a red metal bucket.

Or are things really that simple? Most of these bell ringers--certainly all of them here in Stillwater, OK--belong to the Salvation Army. The change that goes into the red kettles goes to support the Salvation Army's Christmas ministries, which focus on providing tangible material aid to "needy families, seniors, and the homeless, in keeping with the spirit of the season" so that "the real meaning of the season is not forgotten."

But the Salvation Army also happens to be an evangelical Christian movement that ascribes to a conservative theology and a conservative view of Scripture. In a sense, the Salvation Army is a Christian movement born among outcasts--the fruits of the unconventional evangelism of William Booth, who reached out to the most impoverished, to prostitutes, to alcoholics, to those who weren't welcomed into the establishment churches of England in the 19th Century. But because of its theory about the Bible's authority and its interpretation of the relevant texts, the Salvation Army today perpetuates what I take to be a damaging teaching about sexual minorities, a teaching that contributes to their social marginalization.

And because I have so many friends and relatives who, like me, are working hard to end discrimination against gays and lesbians and other sexual minorities, I hear a lot about the Salvation Army at this time of year. Some of my friends would, I think, be scandalized that I let my son, as a wide-eyed three-year-old wanting to do good, pour his savings into a Salvation Army bucket.

Primarily their message is this: Don't give them your loose change. Don't support them, no matter how innocent those bell ringers might look and how good it might make you feel to drop your loose change into that little red kettle. It shouldn't make you feel good, because not only does the Salvation Army discriminate against sexual minorities within its own ranks, but it supports broader policies of social marginalization.

Sometimes, however, the message I hear is more strident: The Salvation Army is a hate group.

Sometimes its hard to be clear on all the facts amidst the rhetoric. Among other things, it seems pretty clear that the Salvation Army is attempting to pursue non-discrimination practices with respect to those it serves and its employees (at least those who aren't clergy). They've made a concerted effort in recent years to stress that they are not anti-gay.

That's how they see things, at least. But it is also clear that the Salvation Army endorses the traditional Christian view on homosexuality--namely that same-sex sexual activity is sinful. And as with so many other conservative Christian communities on this topic, it seems clear that the Salvation Army doesn't see a substantive difference between calling homosexual acts sinful and calling, say, drunkenness or prostitution sinful. You can still reach out to alcoholics, love them, care for them, if you condemn their drinking. In fact, that's part of how you show love for them.Why isn't condemning homosexuality the same thing?

In fact, it isn't the same thing at all, for reasons I've addressed at length elsewhere and so won't explore at length in this post. Let's just say that there's a big difference between putting the "sin" label on something that damages the lives and welfare of everyone affected by it including the person doing it, and putting the "sin" label on something that cuts to a person's very identity and prospects for fulfillment and love--essentially telling them that if they express who they are with integrity in loving and caring ways, building a relationship that is life-enriching and deeply meaningful, they are committing themselves to sin, and the resultant relationships really ought to be ended forthwith.

The message my gay and lesbian neighbors hear is this: "You should never form an intimate relationship with someone you are able to love romantically; and if you do it is bad, no matter how virtuous and committed and faithful and otherwise beautiful it seems. It should be ended, even if were the same relationship observed in a hererosexually married couple we would view the dissolution of it as a tragedy to be resisted."

But groups like the Salvation Army don't see this. Perhaps, with enough relationship-building and open communication, with more opportunities for "soldiers" in the Salvation Army to build relationships with openly gay and lesbian neighbors, all of that will change. But for now, they see homosexuality as a sinful life choice that is contrary to God's good plan--something that, as with alcoholism, can be opposed while still loving those who are "afflicted" by it.

If you think they are dead wrong about this, should you boycott their fundraising efforts--efforts that go primarily towards serving the needy? Should you refuse to drop that coin in the bucket...and then hopefully remember to give it to some other charity that doesn't ascribe to the harmful teaching? Should I have pulled my son aside and told him not to give his money to the bell ringers, and then tried to explain to a three-year-old why not? Should I have shattered his illusions about the bell ringers and their good intentions, and then gone through the symbolically less meaningful ritual of taking his money to the bank and writing a check for that amount to Oxfam?

If the Salvation Army were a hate group, then the answer to this question would be clear. I don't support hate groups. If there'd been men in white sheets and pointy white caps raising money for white hurricane victims, and my son had wanted to give, I wouldn't have hesitated in shattering his illusions. But even if the Salvation Army is wrong about homosexuality, that doesn't make it an anti-gay hate group.

My own direct experience with the Salvation Army is quite limited. The only real person-to-person connection comes from my own childhood, and it is bathed in a warm glow of fond memory. I was six years old and living in Norway. My parents were away for a weekend, and my sister and I were left in the care of a woman who was a friend of my grandparents. She was also a soldier in the Salvation Army. She wore her uniform proudly. I remember that she had a dog, a standard-sized poodle. It was a beautiful dog, gentle and smart. When we attended Sunday services the dog came with us. It rose when we rose, sat when we sat.

When I think of the Salvation Army, I think fondly of that dog. I also remember a weekend characterized by kindness.

But one nice dog, and a kind a babysitter, doesn't refute the "hate group" charge. Here's what does: A hate group is a hate group because its mission is fundamentally shaped by an ideology of hate. The group exists, at least in part, to oppose a targeting class of people, to oppress or marginalize or destroy them. Even a cursory look at the history of the Salvation Army reveals that this is not what it's about. The Salvation Army is a nonviolent movement aimed at spreading the gospel as they understanding it. It's about "saving souls." Think what you will of the theological beliefs underlying such a mission. You may find them thoroughly distasteful and unworthy of your support. But such a mission isn't one of hate--even if certain misguided beliefs lead to practices that do harm.

When you hear that bell and see that familiar red bucket--as you think about whether to fish in your pocket for loose change--a key question has to be whether the unambiguous good they will do with that money is outweighed by the harms that might flow from their errors.

And if your son wants to give, there are other questions, too--such as whether a principled refusal to support groups that perpetuate anti-gay teachings is worth derailing a small child's desire to align himself with the clearest symbol of generosity his young mind has found...whether it's worth destroying that symbol and introducing the specter of cynicism at a formative moment in his development.

More broadly, we live in a world where nothing is perfect--no individual, no organization, no movement. But we also live in a world with symbolic acts that stand for our better natures and our higher aspirations. For better or worse, the Salvation Army's bell ringers, their red buckets, have become a symbol during the Christmas season. We are urged to make a small gesture towards the reality of human need--fishing into a pocket--as we rush in and out of the big retail stores buying useless stocking stuffers for people who have more than they need. We remember, for a moment, that there are those who don't have enough in our world of excess. We are encouraged to give.

Those who stand behind that symbolism are flawed people with a sense of connection to the divine and a sense of mission. It is not a mission of hate--not a mission to marginalize and oppress those whose sexuality doesn't fit the norm. But they do have beliefs which happen to contribute to such marginalization. Does this fact mean they do not deserve to carry the symbolic weight of charity during the holidays that they have come to carry?

For me, there is no easy answer. I will say that I haven't thrown spare change into a Salvation Army bucket this season because I'm conflicted about what their views on homosexuality mean, or should mean, for me. But I am also deeply hesitant about encouraging a boycott, or about trying to destroy the symbol that evoked one of my son's earliest and most earnest gestures towards a spirit of charity. There's a sense in which the "bell ringers," by standing out there every December, have helped shape my son's moral development, making him, arguably, a better person than he might otherwise have been--a better person than he would have been had I talked him out of emptying his piggy-bank into that bucket.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Insulting Narratives, Civic Virtue, and the Truth about Democrats and Republicans

In the election aftermath there has been extensive analysis, by both Democrats and Republicans, over how and why Romney's bid failed so decisively to unseat an incumbent that everyone acknowledged was vulnerable. Much of this analysis, from both sides of the aisle, has been spot-on, I think.

But there is one particularly popular narrative that is not. It is a narrative that favors divisiveness over accuracy, and it revamps tropes used to attack Obama and the Democrats. Ed Whelan offers a good example of it when he says the following: "As the Framers understood, self-government depends on a virtuous citizenry. Instead, we have a growing mass of citizens seemingly wedded to dependency on big-government spending."

I'm not sure if Whelan means to include a vibrant system of public education under the rubric of "big government"--because if he does, then big government and what it hands out (in this case a basic standard of education for all citizens) is integral to creating the kind of citizenry who can meaningfully participate in deliberative democracy. So I'll assume he doesn't mean this. Rather, he's playing to the notion, not of a government that provides people with the resources to achieve success if they're willing to work for it, but of a government that provides handout to those who are unwilling to care for themselves.

If this is what he and others making similar comments are talking about, their analysis of the election amounts to this: Obama won by securing the vote of government moochers, who are supposedly such a large part of the American electorate that they could outvote those who work for a living.

Let's just be clear about this. This is not a substantive analysis of why Romney lost. More than 50% of Americans are slackers and moochers who don't want to lose their government handouts? Really?

If so, I haven't met any of this 50% of the American electorate. And if it's 50% of the electorate, it's gotta be a higher percentage among Democrats, right? Funny, then, that of all my Democratic-voting friends, not a single one fits this moocher label. Instead, they look like this:

A woman who works as a freelance journalist, whose husband is an engineer, and who does not rely on government assistance.

An assistant pastor of a large church who drives an hour every day to teach multiple college courses at a university in a neighboring town.

A college professor who spends a bit too much time at work because he's over-committed himself to too many professional projects at once.

A hard-working librarian married to a church secretary, raising three children on limited resources, and not pursuing government handouts--but grateful that Obamacare ensures that health insurance companies will no longer be able to deny coverage for their daughter with juvenile arthritis based on her "preexisting condition."

A hard-working psychologist and loving father who, among other things, treats veterans struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder.

A special ed teacher at an elementary school who loves working with the kids but is frustrated by the bureaucratic regulations and mandated testing that sometimes get in the way of doing her best for her students.

An honors student at a public university who is constantly busy with student organizations, serving as an officer in several of them, and who is thinking of going to law school.

I could go on. But the point should clear enough. The "moocher" story may make some of those who dislike the outcome of the election feel better, but it does so at the expense of all the hard-working people who are inaccurately slapped with the moocher label. And the moocher story won't help the Republican party move into the future. To the extent that it takes hold, it will only succeed in magnifying animosity across party lines, further polarizing our electorate.

Ed Whelan is right that self-government depends on a virtuous citizenry. But among the virtues essential for self-government are those that call for a fair and honest assessment of our political rivals, an appreciation of their strengths as well as of their weaknesses, and a willingness to accept the results of the democratic process and work productively within them--perhaps as a voice of loyal opposition--even if one is disappointed by those results.

Civility--especially across party lines--is a crucial virtue for a people who hope to practice "government of the people, by the people, and for the people." To that end, I want to say something about those I know who voted against Obama. Here's what some of them look like:

A painter who struggled for years just scraping by, never giving up, until his remarkable talent finally began to be recognized and he was able to go on to be highly successful.

A young woman raising two children by herself, not relying on government handouts, and maintaining good humor and kindness during even the most trying periods.

A special ed teacher who works tirelessly with some of the most emotionally disturbed students and who volunteers every summer to help build homes for the needy.

An insurance salesman who is one of the warmest, most devoted fathers I have seen.

A Vietnam veteran who, in his retirement, is a devoted grandfather and an equally devoted parent to a pair of happy dogs, and who works tirelessly to maintain a meticulous home and property.

A neurologist fighting the last stages of cancer, who always has a laugh and a warm smile for his friends.

A retired high school principal with a big laugh and a big heart, who loves his kids and grandkids, and who openly wept when his father-in-law died.

When I wrote Is God a Delusion? I did so in part to challenge the idea that the divide between theists and atheists is somehow a divide between decent human beings and defective ones. I wanted to make the case--both in the face of the New Atheist vilification of religion and (to a lesser extent in that book) the fundamentalist vilification of non-believers--that reasonableness and moral decency are not the sole province of atheists or theists. There are human beings on either side of that divide who display all of the characteristic strengths and weaknesses of which human beings are capable.

Likewise for the divide between Democrats and Republicans, between the political right and the political left. And keeping that truth clearly in our minds--even as we vigorously disagree with one another, even as we criticize each other's policies and practices--is one of the most central virtues of any society which hopes to practice self-government.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Secular vs. Religious Values: Reflecting on the Meaning of the Election

In her recent reflection on the results of Tuesday's election, writer and blogger Greta Christina touted the outcome as a "Victory of Secular Values."

To support this perspective she focused on several outcomes in particular: The success of marriage equality initiatives--and the defeat or an anti-same-sex marriage amendent in Minnesota; the election of the first openly gay or lesbian senator; the success of marijuana-legalization initiatives; the sound trumping of misogynistic rape-apologizing candidates; the defeat of a Florida amendment that would have allowed taxpayer money to support churches; and the failure of the Republican effort to win votes by demonizing birth control (and hence sex-for-pleasure).

As Greta Christina sees it, "the Republican Party tried to win, in large part, through religious fear-mongering about gays and drugs and sex and abortion and women who don’t know their place," and the effort failed big-time. Thus, she concludes, "This election was, to a great extent, a referendum on secular values versus the values of the theocratic religious right — and secular values won."

Now in casting the outcome of the election in these terms, Christina is in danger of playing into the very same narrative that is fueling the religious right in this country. The narrative, in short, is that our nation and the world confronts a conflict between the forces of faith and the forces of secularism, and any victory for the latter is a defeat for the people of God. We find elements of this narrative starkly displayed in Todd Akin's concession speech, when he says "that life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness come from almighty God not almighty government." We find it in those persistent religious-right warnings of the dire consequences of rejecting "God's values" (which, surprisingly, seem to be largely about sex and gender relationships) in favor of the secular ones touted by political liberals.

Now it's not uncommon to find that some of the more polarized atheists have the same basic assumptions about the relationship between the secular and the sacred that are rampant among those in the religious right. Dawkins and Ken Hamm agree that science and religion are fundamentally opposed--what they disagree about is which needs to go. But it is just this sort of polarization, this either/or division, that I think warrants serious critical scrutiny.

To be fair, Greta Christina frames her view as a victory of secular values over those of the "theocratic religious right," not over religion in more general terms. What was defeated was "religious fear-mongering." But she makes no mention of any other form of religion--a religion not rooted in fear--that might also declare victory in Tuesday's election. And this means some important points get missed. Two in particular are in danger of being overlooked, I think, unless they're made explicit.

First, and most obviously, this week's election was not merely a victory (on many fronts, at least) for secular values over the values of the religious right. It was also, on many fronts, a victory of progressive religious values over the values of the religious right. When I reflect on the states that voted for marriage equality, and on the evidence of the waning power of the prejudices that would have prevented an openly lesbian woman from gaining a senate seat, what I see are trends in America fully harmonious with the love ethic I and other religious progressives discover in the life and ministry of Jesus--an ethic that stands with the marginalized and oppressed and against the sort of legalism that's invoked to exclude, to create in-groups and out-groups, us and them.

Within Christianity today there is a struggle among rival ethical understandings, and homosexuality has become a central battleground. Any quick gloss on the nature of this struggle would oversimplify it, but one thing is clear: While many on the religious right want very much to paint progressive Christian opponents of the traditional condemnation of homosexuality as sell-outs to secular culture, the effort to do so fails to acknowledge how consistently Christian progressives root their case in terms of the most central Christian value of all: neighbor-love. Conservatives would like it to be otherwise--their case within the Christian community would be stronger if their opponents were simply buckling to secular forces. But this is not what is going on--it is a false characterization that impedes real dialogue.

It is important that secular voices not only remember this, but that they not reinforce--wittingly or unwittingly--this false characterization.

The other point that gets lost when we represent this week's election as the triumph of secular over religious values is this: There are some serious questions that need to be asked, not only about what should properly be called "secular," but also about what deserves the label "religious." On the former question, I think there really are such things as secular values--and I think they are best understood in something like the terms laid out by John Rawls, as found in this shared set of principles of fairness that everyone, regardless of their sectarian values, would embrace if they didn't know what position and privileges they and their sectarian community would enjoy within the social structure. And it may well be the case that the values Greta Christina highlights as having triumphed on Tuesday fall within this class.

But if so, that doesn't preclude them from also being religious values. On the contrary, the idea that you should abide by principles that you would like to live under even if you are not the one in power, even if you are not positioned as you are--this idea is the essential heart of the Golden Rule. Freedom of religion--including freedom from being subject to the mandates of a religion whose contestable sectarian doctrines you don't embrace--is arguably an expression of the Golden Rule, a rule enunciated with clarity by Jesus and repeatedly endorsed in Christian history as a way of living out the ethic of love. And it is a striking fact that the Golden Rule finds recurring expression in diverse religious traditions, so much so that it almost qualifies as ubiquitous. If this is right, than the core perspective that gives rise to "secular" values is also a deeply held religion one. Theocracy violates the Golden Rule--and hence violates religious values.

More significantly, I think there is a real problem with uncritically attaching the term "religious" to the values that Greta Christina takes to have been defeated on Tuesday. In other places I've argued that the religious right, to the extent that it relies on fear-mongering (and it isn't defined wholly by fear-mongering), puts itself outside the boundaries of any sort of religion or faith that is intellectually defensible, morally benign, and attuned to the transformative religious experiences that are the continuing wellspring of the human impulse to connect with the transcendent.

My own inclination, following the division I adopted from Plutarch in Is God a Delusion?, is to refer to the sort of fear-mongering that we saw among many far-right Republicans as superstitious fear-mongering. Religious faith professes to be about trust and love of God--and these things are not only different from but exclude anything that smacks of appeasement. If the divine is defined as a transcendent good worthy of our worship, as opposed to a powerful tyrannical force that demands our fawning subservience on pain of retaliatory strikes, then fear-mongering by its very nature is divorced from the divine. And if religion is about connecting with the divine, then "religious fear-mongering" becomes a nonsequitur.

Triumph over fear-mongering is, on this view of things, triumph over something that is by its very essence in opposition to the religious. And so, if secular values did triumph over fear-mongering this week, then those secular values have done religion a service. They have, if you will, cleared away one of those forces that prevents religion from blossoming in the world.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

A First Communion Prayer for the Election Aftermath

On Sunday my son, who is nine, had his first communion. This is a significant milestone in the life of a member of the Lutheran church, as it is in a number of denominations. In the weeks leading up to this event, my son met with our pastor to talk about the meaning of holy communion, he helped to make the communion bread which was served that day, he made a banner that was hung on the Church wall during worship, and he composed a prayer that was read aloud during the part of the service devoted to the prayers of the people.

In composing that prayer, he was told simply to say what was in his heart. And so he prayed for three things. Or rather, I should say that all of us in worship on Sunday prayed together the three petitions that were in my son's heart.

The first was for wisdom as we confront global warming and the increasingly severe storms and other problems that it helps to fuel.

The second was for those who have been affected by Hurricane Sandy, for those who have suffered losses and those who are working to respond to its aftermath.

The third petition was that God should be with the people who would be upset by the results of Tuesday's national election.

My son didn't know who would win or lose the election, but he knew that whatever the result there would be those who were deeply unhappy. And he wanted God to be with them in that time of disappointment and distress.

In the immediate wake of the election results last night, my facebook newsfeed gave me an immediate sense of just how upset some people were. As someone who believes that Obama has done a number of good things for this country, and who thinks that our economy is on the road to recovery in part because of the policies and choices that Obama made early in his first term, I wasn't personally upset by the result last night. But I know what it feels like. I remember in the past the disappointment and the worry that can come when someone you don't think is the best choice for the country is elected.

But what I glimpsed last night, through social media, was not just disappointment and worry. There was a level of fear and outrage that sobered me. And I know enough to know that had the election gone the other way, there would have been similarly sobering expressions of outrage and fear.

And I know this: Deep and widespread fear, outrage, and polarization is far more dangerous to a country's health than any Democratic or Republican policy agenda. We don't elimiate such fear and outrage and polarization by electing the right person. We do it by turning our eyes to something that transcends our divisions, that rains down love and grace, that stands opposed to hatred and fear and offers in its place the hope of reconciliation and redemption.

And so, with my son, this is what I pray for today. For all of us today, and especially for those who look at the election results with fear for the future, may the God of grace and love be felt within each of us as a source of comfort and hope. May the peace that surpasses understanding fill us and help us to move forward, seeking ways to build cooperation, to overcome division, to carve out pathways for mutual understanding and healthy compromise in the face of enduring disagreement. Let us remember that last night's election was not the triumph of good over evil or of evil over good. It was the victory of one well-meaning man over another. And while good people can disagree over the best path to take, good people can also work together in the face of disagreements to find a path that works, and to work together when--as inevitably happens on any human path we choose to take--we stumble or fall.

Let us remember that what divides us is dwarfed by what unites us, that our value differences seem so sharp in part because of how vivid they appear against the backdrop of our common values. We all love our children. We all want a world in which each of us can make a living by making a meaningful contribution, where no one is a freeloader but where everyone gets the help they desperately need to lift themselves up again when hardship strikes them down. We all want safety and good health and economic prosperity, methods of responding to natural disasters that are effective, education systems that prepare the next generation for success, infrastructure that can sustain our lives and our welfare. We all want to find ways to meet current needs that don't compromise the ability of the next generation to meet theirs. We all want the sense of rootedness that comes from having traditions and culture and communities with a shared history. We all want to love and be loved.

Be with us, God of grace, this day and every day, as we strive afresh to rehearse the Kingdom of God with our neighbors and our communities, that we may reach for the beloved community here and now even amidst our differences and disappointments and fears.


Tuesday, November 6, 2012

To Vote, to Pray

I just posted the following on facebook, and thought it should go here as well. It may be the shorted blog post you will ever find on this blog.

When I voted this morning, the "high" tables with the privacy shields were all full, so I knelt at a low coffee table to fill out my ballot. When I was finished and walked up to put my ballot in the machine, the man standing there commented, "I wasn't sure whether you were voting or praying."
This struck me as oddly appropriate. In a world where some are politically silenced, in a country where people have had to struggle for the right to vote because they were the wrong sex or their skin was the wrong color, casting a ballot has an almost sacred significance. To have a vote is to have a voice, however small and seemingly insignificant, that can help shape history. As in prayer, we lift up our voices. What we ask for and hope for may not happen, but saying what we have to say matters still.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Rape and Bad Theology Once More

In light of the recent remarks by Indiana Senate candidate Richard Mourdock, it seems timely and appropriate to repost an earlier piece, "Theology and Rape Blessings," which I composed a couple of months back in response to some of the more disturbing "defenses" of Todd Akin's "legitimate rape" remarks.

But I need to do so with a brief introductory correction to my earlier comments on this subject. In the piece reposted here, I say that I don't think defenders of Todd Akin's remarks "believe that every act of sin and wickedness is part of God’s plan, every rape predestined by God to serve God’s glory."

Apparently I was wrong about this. I don't see how else to read Mourdock's comments other than as saying something along these lines. If so, his theology is even more troubling than the rape theology I examine in this post. 

Also--as I note in the post below--this sort of theology is not even coherent as a basis for opposing abortion in rape cases. If God is so sovereign that every rape pregnancy is part of God's plan, then wouldn't it follow that God is so sovereign that every abortion of a rape pregnancy is part of God's plan too? Wouldn't it follow that Roe v Wade was part of God's plan? Mourdock's comments not only seem to make God into an accessory to rape, but they do so in a way that fundamentally undermines the very purpose for which Mourdock and others like him make these claims.

But, given how marginally coherent Mourdock's remarks seem to be if interpreted in the most obvious way, maybe we should take him as having misspoken or spoken loosely. In that case, it seems the best we can do is interpret him as saying something along the lines of the (somewhat) more nuanced theology I've charitably attributed to Todd Akin's defenders. If so, what I said before about that theology bears repeating in the light of Mourdock's comments. 

So here it is, this time with subheadings:  

Todd Akin's Defenders

Attention to the GOP convention has helped to eclipse the furor over GOP Senate contender Todd Akin’s remarks suggesting women have a built-in birth control mechanism to prevent pregnancy due to “legitimate rape.” So perhaps now is the time to reflect more soberly on an underappreciated dimension of that controversy, a dimension that I suspect will unfortunately stay with us long after Akin loses his election and is forgotten.

I'm not thinking about Akins' dubious views about women's biology, nor the implicit suggestion that some significant number of purported rapes are as illegitimate as babies born out of wedlock (although that's a serious matter). The idea I want to consider is the notion that pregnancies resulting from rape are a blessing from God.

Several conservative voices have gestured towards just this idea. Shortly after the Akin story broke, Mike Huckabee remarked during a radio interview with Akin that “even from those horrible, horrible tragedies of rape, which are inexcusable and indefensible, life has come and sometimes, you know, those people are able to do extraordinary things.”

Now Huckabee is surely right that being a child of rape doesn’t determine your future character or talents or contributions to society (a point that VP candidate Paul Ryan recently made in terms that outraged some pundits). A child of rape can grow up to be a fine human being. A child of consensual sex can grow up to be a serial killer. I’m sure most pregnant rape victims know this (although they may question their ability to guide the child towards the former and away from the latter).

The question is why Huckabee points this out during a soft-serve interview with Akin. I suspect it was a gesture towards a notion quite common in the conservative Christian circles in which Akin and Huckabee travel--namely, the notion that rape-induced pregnancies are a divine way of bringing good out of evil. That is, they're a blessing from God. If so, Huckabee was politically astute enough merely to gesture. Missouri GOP central committee member Sharon Barnes did more than that. In coming to Akin's defense, Barnes maintained that while few rapes result in pregnancy, when they do then “at that point, if God has chosen to bless this person with a life, you don’t kill it.”

Let’s be clear about what victims are likely to hear in Barnes’ words: “The rapist may have been bad, but you want to murder an innocent baby that God planted in your womb as a blessing to make it all better.”

Curses into Blessings

Now I want to say two things here. The first is brief but important: In a society committed to freedom of religion and church/state separation, public policy should not rest on how you answer the question of what’s a blessing from God and what isn’t.

The second thing is more involved. It’s about the theology implicit in Barnes’ claim, a theology according to which God works even through the horrors perpetrated by sinners, using them to serve His providential plan.

Let me be clear about something: I don't think Barnes and those like her necessarily believe that every act of sin and wickedness is part of God’s plan, every rape predestined by God to serve God’s glory. There are some theologies which say this, but if rapists were predestined to rape then, presumably, rape victims who abort were predestined to abort and the society that allows them to abort was predestined to allow it. I doubt that’s Barnes’ view.

Rather, I think it’s more plausible to take her as asserting a theology of the following sort: God allows humans to exercise unrestricted free choice, and while desiring that they make loving and just choices and condemning them when they don’t, God is so resourceful that (put simply) He can turn every lemon that sinners throw at Him into lemonade.

In other words, God turns every curse into a blessing, and it’s up to us to see how God makes use of tragedy and villainy to make the world a better place. If a rape victim becomes pregnant due to rape, it’s because God chose this way to transform curse into blessing. The rapist shouldn’t have committed the offense, but God can redeem even the most terrible acts.

This theology is part of a broad class of theologies--what I'll call redemptive theologies--which share the idea that God cares about the evils of the world and is acting to redeem them. Since my own theology is a theology of redemption, I obviously don't think the redemptive aspect of Barnes' theology is where the trouble lies.

But not all theologies of redemption are created equal. Barnes' theology makes God into a micromanager of sin, redeeming sins one by one, turning each in turn into another cool refreshing sip of spiritual lemonade. God is sovereign over every outcome, stepping in at every instance of wickedness to miraculously turn it to the good of those who trust in Him (sometimes by making babies out of rapes, sometimes in other ways). If we don't see this happening in our lives, then presumably it's our own fault: a failure of faith, perhaps, or simply a failure to polish up our Pollyanna glasses. Or maybe the miraculous good that will spring from these hard lumps is yet to come, if we only wait faithfully for it (but of course that wouldn't be the case with a rape pregnancy, since the miracle of new life is right there for everyone to see, hard on the heels of the violation).

Alternative Theologies of Redemption

Not every redemptive theology is like this. In fact, the core redemptive theology of Christianity isn't like this. Traditional Christian thought has it that God redeemed a broken world through a singular intervention in history. On this view, God redeems the evils of the world, not by turning them one by one into lemonade, but by building a broader cosmic context around them that erases their nihilistic power.

I should note that a redemptive theology is not quite the same as a theodicy (a response to the argument from evil). A theodicy attempts to explain why God would allow the evils of this world to exist in the first place. A redemptive theology begins where a theodicy leaves off, granting that God cannot or morally may not prevent the evils from occurring, and offering an account of how God redeems evil so that evil doesn't have the final world in creation (or, we might hope, in any part of it).

Based on this distinction, Marilyn McCord Adams' theological work on horror is best classified as a redemptive theology. Adams proposes that God defeats the horrors of the world by participating in horror on the cross. By choosing to be most truly present in the world at the very place of dire affliction and forsakenness, God thereby ensures that our worst moments cannot strip our lives of ultimate meaning.

I don't want to go into a detailed account of Adams' redemptive theology here, but I do want to contrast it with Barnes' micromanager theology. For Barnes, when a rape victim becomes pregnant it's because God has decided to redeem the horror of rape by making it the vehicle for producing a precious baby. For Adams, God redeems it by choosing to inhabit the world most fully at the very place of affliction where the rapist thrusts his victim. In so doing, in standing with the victims, being classed among them, enduring what they endure, their humiliation and degradation is transformed. The rapist means to turn his victim into a mere thing. But if she's a mere thing for being pushed into this forsaken place, then the very creator of the universe is a mere thing for choosing this forsaken place to be where the creator most fully inhabits the creation. Or put another way: when the rapist seeks to turn his victim into a thing, he succeeds instead in turning her into an image of God.

This is not to say that she feels or should feel uniquely blessed by her violation, or anything so obscene. It is, rather, to say that in that moment of being uniquely cursed, God is being cursed with her, screaming every outraged scream, weeping every hopeless tear. And in standing with the victims in their moment of greatest degradation, because it is the very source of all being and worth and meaning that is standing with them, their degradation cannot turn them to nothing, cannot erase their worth, cannot strip all meaning from their lives.

Now Adams’ theology may have problems, but there are good reasons to think that something along these lines fits far better with Christianity and the realities of the world than does the micromanaging God who squeezes each sin-lemon as it comes along into a sip of blessed lemonade. But Barnes’ claim about pregnancies due to rape presupposes the micromanager-theology. And one reason I find this theology so troubling is precisely because of its implications in cases like rape.

The Theology of Rape Blessings vs. The Theology of Love

It's one thing for the victim of rape to decide, perhaps after herculean struggle, to embrace the child that springs from horror and treat is as a blessing—and for others to view such embrace as an astonishing, wondrous response to violation and trauma. It is something else to say that whenever life springs from rape, it’s because God has seen fit to transform a horror into a blessing—and if you don’t view it in those terms, if you somehow don’t succeed in separating what is growing inside you from the violation that invaded your flesh, tore into you, and left this blessing behind—if you aren’t able to pull off this astonishing, wondrous response, if instead you find yourself clawing at your gut and raging for someone to get it out of you, get it out of you for God's sake...then you’re at odds with God Himself.

To respond to the victims of rape in this way—with mandates, with the specter of cosmic condemnation for failing to see the fruits of victimization as a blessing—seems a fundamental failure of empathy. But empathy is at the heart of love. A theology which affirms that God is love must be a theology of divine empathy. And that means a God who dwells with us in that harrowing place—who so identifies with Her creation that every time someone is raped She goes to that place afresh, violated and degraded and left clawing at Her gut and raging for someone to get it out of Her, get it out of Her for God's sake.

If Barnes and those like her want rape victims to view their pregnancy as a blessing, they’re asking for a miracle. And if they want to see that miracle occur they’d be well advised to change their theology. Because the God who’s most likely to pull off a miracle like that is the God who’s down there in the pit of horror with the victims, screaming every scream.

ADDENDUM: It appears that Mourdock has explicitly come out and clarified his earlier remarks--stressing that he meant by them exactly what I took Akin's defenders to mean in this post. Hence, this post can be taken as directly addressing Mourdock's view.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Misrepresenting Climate Science

The question of whether human activities contribute to global climate change is not a political question. It's not an ethical question.

It's a scientific question.

The question of what we should do about it is primarily an ethical question. But if it calls for anything, it calls for collective action and public policy changes, and so becomes a political question as well. Communities need to wrestle with alternative public policy responses, hopefully through public discourse shaped by a shared commitment to the welfare of society, an awareness and respect for diverse interests and worldviews and ways of life, an appreciation of what is feasible for the society to do given its resources and its history...and an understanding of the relevant science.

The political question about public policy comes after the scientific one, in the sense that we need to know what the science tells us about what's going on before we can make informed decisions about what to do about what's going on. To invert this order can be quite dangerous.

Some scientific conclusions call for public policies that are, to put it simply, painful and hard--sometimes hard for everyone, sometimes hard for a particular constituency. Nobody likes being called to do what is painful and hard. Hence, if we let political questions come before scientific ones, we are in danger of rejecting scientific discoveries because they're unpleasant. And so we don't do the hard thing that needs doing. The result is even greater pain and hardship in the long run.

This is what it means for a scientific question to become "politicized": Sometimes a proposed public policy is found by someone to be undesirable--maybe because it would force you to make life changes you don't want to make, or stop business practices that have proven quite profitable. But sometimes that same public policy would be clearly the right one to implement if a particular answer to a scientific question were correct. And so, in order to avoid facing an undesirable public policy, you try to convince yourself and others that the unpleasant answer to the scientific question is incorrect, and the more congenial answer is right...regardless of whether or not that's the direction in which the scientific research points. It's one thing when an individual does this, something else again when a political party does it on behalf of its constituency, marshalling resources to ensure that scientists won't say the "wrong" things or, if they do, will be discredited or go unheard.

You can bet that something like this is going on any time that public views about a scientific question are divided along party lines, and the political debate about the question is far more contentious than what one actually finds within the community of scientists. When something like that is going on, its a clear sign that one political party or both are letting the policies they find most attractive dictate their take on what the science says.

This is clearly going on with climate science. And we all know this. And neither political party denies it. What they deny is that they are the party guilty of doing the politicizing. Instead, each side accuses the other of being the one that has politicized climate science. When this happens, it seems as if the media gravitates towards giving each political view equal time in an effort to remain fair and balanced. Not wanting to appear biased, mainstream media outlets will do something they simply don't do with respect to scientific questions that haven't become politicized: They given equal time to dissenters from the scientific consensus, without much regard to whether the dissenters have comparable scientific credentials or have been hired by those with a vested interest in one answer being the right one.

Of course, there are those media outlets that buck this trend. Unfortunately, some buck the trend because they care about accurate scientific reporting, whereas others buck it because they really are biased.

In short, there are media outlets the bend over backwards not to appear as if they are politicizing an issue, even at the risk of misrepresenting science; there are media outlets that really have become politicized, both on the left and on the right; and there are media outlets that want to convey a clear and accurate understanding of our scientific knowledge to the public. But how is the typical citizen, who knows very little about science and has little time to devote to the matter, supposed to tell which is which?

A good chunk of the American population believes that most media outlets are biased towards the political left and that the only trustworthy source of news out there is FOX. Another chunk believes most media outlets are pretty centrist, and that FOX is a right-wing propaganda machine posing as a news organization. These respective views reflect political party affiliations pretty closely--and they also determine where people are inclined to look to get their views on scientific questions.

So: Climate science has become politicized. Each side claims the other side is doing the politicizing. To decide who is doing the politicizing and who isn't, we need to see what the science is. To do this we turn to the media. But the media has become politicized as well--and our views about which media outlets to trust are typically informed by our politics.

Recently, a group of socially engaged scientists sought to cut through this impasse by turning their scientific eye to the media's communication of climate science. Specifically, the Union of Concerned Scientists recently investigated News Corporation (which owns FOX News and the Wall Street Journal), and concluded that there is enormous misrepresentation on FOX News generally and on the Wall Street Journal opinion pages. The following video represents UCS's attempt to communicate its conclusions in an accessible way to the general public:

But, of course, the Union of Concerned Scientists is surely going to be represented as just another left-wing interest group spinning the facts to suit their politics. After all, was there a comparable effort to study the frequency of misrepresentation on CNN? In the New York Times opinion pages? Isn't this just another politicized interest group?

In short, how is the lay person going to decide whether the Union of Concerned Scientists actually represents the scientific community's attempt to cut through thepolitics and media noise? Who do you trust as an honest voice expressing non-politicized scientific consensus, and who do you dismiss as peddling politicized misrepresentations? I suppose you could do your own journalistic investigation of the scientific community--seek to understand not only what most scientists think but also why they think it, and how the methodologies of science work to keep politicization from systematically contaminating the findings.

But not everyone has the skills needed to pursue such an investigation effectively, let alone the time. While I think research could be done by the lay person well enough to conclude that most scientists are convinced that human-induced global warming is real, I'm not sure that most lay people have the resources to be able to determine for themselves whether this is because (as some on the right will argue) the scientific community has been compromised by politicization, but for a few heroic dissenters who have the science on their side; or whether, on the contrary, the few dissenters are the ones who have been compromised by the influence of those with a political agenda.

So let me offer a suggestion. Science tends to get misrepresented when the policy implications of accepting the science are going to be costly. It is not nearly as plausible to suppose that someone sees the policy implications of the best science, discovers that these implications are unproblematic and easy to implement without demanding sacrifices...and so decides to misrepresent the science so as to make it seem as if it places costly demands on all of us when really it doesn't.

This isn't a foolproof technique for deciding who to trust. There may be reasons why someone would want to convey the false impression that we need to buckle down and make very hard, long-term social and economic changes that are going to be deeply unpopular. Under the right conditions, telling people that the country and the world have to make substantial sacrifices and radical life-changes may be a winning political strategy, a way to get people flocking to vote for you on election day.

But generally not. And when it is to your advantage to convey such a message--as a way of getting people to vote for you out of fear, perhaps, that the other guy is leading us to the brink of ruin--the advantage typically evaporates once you're in power. The political incentive to use your power to demand needless and painful sacrifices of your constituents isn't all that great when you risk getting voted out of office.

So, following this strategy, chances are that those who are telling you that human induced global warming is bunk have more incentive to politicize than those who are telling you that human induced global warming is a real problem that we have to come to grips with. After all, those who say the latter are offering an unpleasant and unpopular notion: Our transportation industry, our energy grid, our way of life is contributing to a problem of potentially dire significance. There's enrmous reason for people to want this notion to be false even if it's true. The auto industry and energy industry don't want it to be true that their businesses depend on and perpetuate practices that threaten the integrity of our ecosystems and the future prospects of humanity. Ordinary citizens don't want to be told that their way of life--their cars and electric lights and air conditioners and on and on--is threatening future generations.

There's ample reason for people to want to deny human-induced global warming even if it's true. Is there comparable reason to suppose that those who support global warming science would have strong motivation to systematically fabricate sustained warnings that call for massive changes and world-wide sacrifice, even if there is no good reason to think such warnings are warranted?

There are reasons why scientists who are convinced of global warming science might downplay findings that would be jumped on by politicized opponents, out of fear that these findings would be misrepresented and used to mislead the public who don't understand their significance. Doing so would be a bad idea--and if you were caught doing it, it would actually hurt your cause. But that's not the same as having a motive to systematically mislead the public about conclusions that the science doesn't support.

Of course, there are those who argue that global warming science has become a kind of cottage industry, and that scientists who make their living in this cottage industry would lose out if it proved that human activities aren't contributing to global climate change. But on this issue we need to consider how and why such a cottage industry would develop in the first place. Where did the idea come from, if not from the conclusions reached by legitimate science?

But let's grant that the science initially pointed to human-induced global warming. One might suppose that the egos of those scientists who first introduced the global warming thesis would be invested in it not being disproved. I suppose one might think that ego is t force here that is keeping the scientific community from seeing that the initial evidence has been overturned.

But there are egos everywhere in every field of science, and science has been very good at devising a methodology and a community in which fidelity to scientific findings does more to shape the consensus in the long run than the egos on one side rather than the other. Looking at the trend in the scientific community, it hasn't been one of egotistical defenders of global warming science one by one bowing to the weight of contrary evidence. It's been the reverse.

Let's put it another way: Who do you think is more likely to have their views on science compromised by politics: Politicians who as a whole care primarily about political questions, or scientists who as a community care deeply about the integrity of science, and who work within a system designed to maintain the integrity of science?

I suppose that modern Luddites--opponents of technology--would have an incentive to misrepresent science in favor of a dire threat cause by our technological way of life. If scientists were largely Luddites, there might be a problem here. But scientists are not, in general, Luddites. It's not just that they make use of cutting edge technology in their work. It's also that the public support for the work they do rests to a great extent in the technological innovations that scientific research and discovery makes possible. There's at least a sense in which technology just is scientific findings put to use to solve human problems.

In short, there is a presumptive reason to suppose that those who deny global warming science are more likely than defenders to be engaged in politicization. And there is little reason to suppose that this presumption is defeated in the particular case at hand. And so, if you're wondering who to trust amidst all the media clutter and political grandstanding, I'd bet on the majority of climate scientists who say that, in fact, human activity is contributing to a serious problem of global climate change.

Of course, that doesn't tell us what we should do about it. Maybe if politicians were to stop debating the science, they could get to work on debating that.