Tuesday, December 30, 2003

Non-Secular News of the Day

Queer Savior for the Straight Religion?

I admit to not being an expert on religion, but wouldn't it be just as blasphemous to talk about Jesus as being heterosexual?

Monday, December 29, 2003

Richard Posner's Wedding Bell Blues, a book review of Evan Gerstmann's book on Same-Sex Marriage is well worth reading, although I personally disagree with much of it. But the article itself is not what I want to right about (I have said enough about same-sex marriage recently). What interested me, rather, was the following paragraph, that touches on the issue of how and whether "Strength of Opinion" should be considered in a democracy.

The supporters of marriage, after all, are mainly heterosexuals--of the 40 percent of the population that according to the recent poll endorse homosexual marriage, the vast majority must be heterosexuals, since as I say homosexuals appear to be at most 3 percent of the population; and the only basis of their support, for most of them--an exception may be family members of homosexuals--is that homosexual marriage does not bother them. They do not feel passionate about the issue; it does not affect them. But many of the opponents are passionate in their opposition because they feel deeply threatened by the proposed change in the concept of marriage. And in a democratic society, powerful currents of public opinion deserve recognition even by the Supreme Court, at least in cases to which neither the Constitution nor any other authoritative legal text speaks with clarity.

The question is not obvious, as it sets the notions of basic democracy against utilitarian principles. If 10 people are vaguely against it, but don't care much one way or the other, and 3 people are strongly in favor, should the strength of opinion matter? Opponents of utilitarianism raise the spectre of the "Utility Monster", who loves hurting people SO MUCH that his increase in utility outweighs the harm to others. We do not need to go there, however, to come up with realistic, rational elements that a democratic utilitarian needs to address.

Most people are vaguely against steel tariffs because it increases the cost of steel by a few cents per steel item purchased. Workers in the steel industry are strongly in favor, since imports may cost them their jobs.

Most vaguely support cutting funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, but a few artists and art lovers strongly oppose it.

What should a democratic utilitarian do? Is it undemocratic to take the strength of sentiment into account?

First of all, the fact that the country is a Republic rather than a pure Democracy is a great way to stealthily include a Strength factor. Assuming that candidates for office have random views on issues*, the fact that I have to choose a candidate with some shared views over another candidate with other shared views forces me to look at my preferences, both quantitatively and qualitatively.

My father-in-law was Conservative in most of his viewpoints, but was very active in his Union. He thought Ronald Reagan was one of America's greatest presidents, but never voted for him. He alway voted straight Democrat because of his strong Union loyalties. My Great-Aunt is very liberal, but strongly pro-life. She believes abortion is murder and would never vote for a pro-choice candidate. As a result, she votes for many Republicans, many of whose views she does not share.

There are many One Issue Voters, for whom their views on abortion, guns, tax policy, gay rights, or whatever cause them to vote for the candidate who supports their issue of primary concern over a larger number of issues that are of secondary concern. There are many other Short List voters, who weigh views on a short number of issues more heavily, and will vote for one candidate even if, quantitatively, they will support the opposing candidate more often.

The end result, then, is that often the candidates elected will have views on "secondary" issues that are not shared by a majority of the electorate. People who oppose affirmative action vote for the Democrat because he is pro-Union. People who oppose tax cuts for the rich vote for the Republican because he is pro-gun. And maybe this for the best. Allowing representatives to vote on our behalf forces us to rank our preferences in a way that "pure" democracy simply can't.

But, then, we get opinion polls. And, sometimes, opinion polls turn into referenda. A single-issue referendum also has a "How much do I care" element. That is, do I care enough to vote? Over that threshold, however, there is no distinction between people who care a lot (e.g., single issue voters) and those who hardly care at all (e.g., those who support the issue, but always vote for candidates who oppose it because they agree with them on more important issues.) But why should I value your opinion on the issue if you don't even care enough about it to vote for representatives who agree with you?

In my view, "Utilitarian Democracy" (one vote for "utile") plays well in normal times. I am generally opposed to referenda primarily because they force you to Care, even if you may not, or even if its not worth it to you to find out which side you agree with.

When it comes to Constitutional Amendments, however, I would side with the double-check Democratic theory. You need a solid majority both numerically, and in terms of strength of feeling. The super-majority requirements are a good way to prevent a vocal minority from forcing through Constitutional amendments the same say they can normal legislation. (I am concerned, though, that a vocal half or so could force through the Federal Marriage Amendment.)

*Of course, views are not random. They generally fall into the Democratic and Republican party platforms, with individual variation only around the edges. From the perspective of a moderate, or a libertarian, or some other person who has viewpoints that are firmly entrenched but don't match any party's platform of policies exactly, the variation from one's own viewpoint of the Good will seem, essentially, random.

Thursday, December 25, 2003

TWoO, Take Three

As it is December 25, the few left working and blogging are the devoutly secular and the Jews (as well as Buddhist, Shinto, and Hindus, based solely upon the selection of restaurants that are available for carry out tonight.)

So, it was no surprise that the one reply I received appears to have originated in Israel. My correspondent wrote:

I don't know if you have ever studied any literary theory, but the basic requirement for any story is that the protoganist go through some
transformative experience. For Dorothy, in order to be able to truly 'see' her back yard, first she had to run away and help others 'see' what they already had (scarecrow - brains, tinman - heart).

It reminds me of a allegoric tale I heard from Hebrew University
Professor Avi Ravitzky:

Shmuel, a devout Jew, has a dream three nights running of a treasure
buried under a bridge he knew that was three days travel from his home.
The dream was so vivid, that Shmuel decides to go and see if the
treasure is indeed buried there. After three days of travel, he arrives at the bridge and meets Joe, a Gentile. They start talking, and Joe asks Shmuel what he is doing there. Shmuel tells Joe about his dream. Joe says "that's strange, I have been having a weird dream as well" and goes on to describe a house with a treasure buried under the hearth.

Shmuel recognizes his own home from Joe's description, says farewell
and rushes home to find the treasure, which is indeed exactly where Joe
described it.

A simplistic take on this tale is "don't go looking for 'treasure' by
others, look in your own home first", i.e. a cultural isolationism.
But a closer look shows that the message is "you have treasure in your
own home, but you will only be able to see it through the eyes of the

While illuminating, I'm not sure it gets us all the way there. Or, at least, if this correctly describes why Dorothy learned what she did, is this the right lesson?

My response follows:

Interesting perspective. The only problem with it is, if Dorothy hadn't gone any further than her own backyard, the scarecrow would still be on his pole, and the tinman would still be rusted!

Just as in your midrash, the answer was back at home, but it may not have been possible to get there without first going on the quest. I.e., the fact that the quest was circular does not mean it was unnecessary.

So, Dorothy's lesson is not to only look in your own backyard next time. It is that it may be necessary to go all the way to Oz again, no matter how close the answer may be.

Wednesday, December 24, 2003


I am personally opposed to the death penalty, but I believe that there is a moral obligation to pick your battles wisely and morally. Therefore, you will not hear me arguing loudly that the government debases itself even when it kills a person as hideous as John Muhammad.

What I am here to talk about is personal responsibility and degrees of guilt. Some argue that those who have been subject to mental controls -- like Lee Malvo, Muhammad's young accomplice -- are not morally responsible for their actions. I wrote the following on a comment thread of Crooked Timber regarding how much moral blame to attribute to Arabs who live under a dictatorship:

In the old days, upon seeing a convict led to the gallows, it was common to state, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”

That was not just a cliche, but a belief that anyone, given difficult conditions, would become a criminal.

This “moral luck”, however, was never seen to remove the blame from the perpetrators. It is in no way inconsistent to say I am moral, you are immoral, but if we had been switched at birth I would be immoral, too.

Look at the boy in Virginia who was convicted for the sniper killings. Does anyone doubt that he was “made bad” by his accomplice? No. Neither is there any doubt (among the jurors, at least), that the boy, having been made bad, should be punished for his badness.

Context may be important for mitigation, but not for overall moral direction. A person speaking out against Inter-racial Marriage will seem like a big Racist today, but only as a mainstream racist, suitable for public office, 40 years ago. The same goes for opponents of gay rights today compared to those same opponents 40 years from now.

I have no problems morally condemning opponents of gay rights today, even as I understand that their opposition stems from being steeped in American society.

Similarly, we can recognize that Arabs are human and subject to moral condemnation when, for example, they cheer the deaths of innocent Americans, while understanding that, but for the grace of God, I’d be cheering right along side of them. Their conditions may potentially mitigate their warped worldview, but never eliminate it.

Subsequent to this post, Malvo, who had already been convicted of murder, was sentenced to life imprisonment rather than death. This seems entirely reasonable to me, putting aside my opposition to the death penalty. We morally condemn, and then adjust the punishment accordingly. Special conditions should always apply to the sentencing portion, not to the overall guilt or innocence of a person knowingly taken certain actions.

Tuesday, December 23, 2003

An Even Bigger Conundrum from The Wizard of Oz

Okay, so maybe I'm being dense here. At the end of the movie, the Wizard floats off without her, but Dorothy is about to be rescued by Glinda, who asks her what she has learned. The lesson, and I might be paraphrasing here, is, "When I lose something, I know not to look any further than my own backyard, because if it isn't there, I never really lost it to begin with."

Glinda nods. The scarecrow says, "But that's so easy, I should have thought of it for you!" The tin woodsman says, "I should have felt it in my heart!"

"She wouldn't have believe it," Glinda says, "She had to figure it out for herself."

I, on the other hand, was left thinking, "How the heck was that the lesson of the movie?" I mean, she runs away, gets bonked on the head, and gets carried away in a cyclone. The "Don't Run Away" lesson was pretty quickly learned once she woke up and saw a chicken coop float by her window. Shouldn't the lesson have something to do with "friendship" or "cooperation" or even "good will defeat evil"? How the heck is the lesson of the 2 hour movie, "Just stay at home"?

Is the whole movie just a giant shaggy dog joke?

Monday, December 22, 2003

Scholarships for Scholars? Not at Sarah Lawrence.

Bizarre article in the New York Times today about Washington University in St. Louis, which for the first time cracked the U.S. News Top Ten Universities.

How did they do it? Well, they raised their endowment with an aggressive fundraising campaign, and they improved the academic quality of their student body by providing scholarships.

Seems sensible to me. How could one possibly improve a school? Improve the teachers (which is very subjective), improve the facilities (which takes money), or improve the students. Now, improving the students could mean one of two things: either improving their academic qualities, or by diversifying (meaning whatever you want that to mean.)

Where I went to college, we promoted "diversity" by constantly referring to the fact that we had students from "All 50 states and over 100 countries." And, in fact, I did know people from all over.

One way to promote diversity, of course, is to increase the numbers of financially needy people. And the best way to do that is to give "need-based" financial aid. Almost all schools, both individually and through federal and state programs, give financial aid. Among top schools, however, very few give scholarships. That, of course, is their right. But I found odd this quotation.

Washington University is hardly the only highly ranked university to give merit aid to top students who may not need help to pay for school — Vanderbilt, Rice and Emory all devote a greater share of their financial aid budgets to the same end — but the issue has become a volatile one among elite institutions.

Many of them scorn merit aid as a not-so-subtle means of buying a better class, sometimes at the expense of lower-income students who need financial assistance.

"It's very frightening," said Heather McDonnell, director of financial aid at Sarah Lawrence College, referring to those few top institutions, like Wash U., that spend at least 15 percent of their financial aid budgets on merit aid. "If we were at a meeting together, I'd be growling at them."

It is "frightening", according to Heather McDonnell, that a school chooses to give at least 15% of their financial aid to the best students? Helping the poor is very important, and helping the poor get a quality education is even more important. But how can "only" giving 85% of your financial aid based on need possibly be frightening?

Meanwhile, Sarah Lawrence's annual cost (tuition plus room and board) is almost $5000 higher than Washington University's. That means that the poor will be more likely to be able to afford Washington University without needing financial aid.

The appropriate mix of need-based and merit-based financial aid should be a private decision of each University. I find it improper for one University to criticize the reasonable decisions of others.
Scientific Accuracy in Movie Death Exclamations

Okay, so maybe this is just me. I'm watching The Wizard of Oz. The Scarecrow catches fire, and Dorothy throws a strategically placed bucket of water to douse the flame, accidentally splashing the Wicked Witch full in the face. We all know what she says as she falls to the floor: "I'm Melting! I'm Melting!"

Well, I've heard her say that about a million times, but I just realized: She's not melting. She's dissolving. Melting involves the application of heat. Dissolving involves being doused in water.

I expect more from my movie classics.

Friday, December 19, 2003


Nice to see that Amish Tech Support, while immoral, at least has a sense of humor. I will wipe the floor with the immoral participants who vote for those they want to see dead. My rules are as follows:

1. Do not vote for people I respect, so that the news of their passing will not be meant with anything but pure sadness. Therefore, such oldsters as Simon Wiesenthal and Rosa Parks were immediately dismissed.

2. Research. This is both the find old sick people, and to make sure I hadn't misjudged them. Julia Child seemed a safe pick, being overweight and elderly, but did you know that she fought in the French resistance in World War II? I hadn't either. Same with heavyweight champion Max Schmeling, a German held up by Hitler as the Aryan ideal, who secretly hid Jews during WWII. Certainly can't pick them.

3. Don't pick people you hate. It is immoral to wish anyone dead, even your enemy.

4. Stick to entertainers, sports figures, and business people in industries of which I have no particular moral viewpoint.

5. Do not pick young people. The young may be worth more points, but it is immoral to pick someone who has not lived a full live. All of my picks are over 80 years old.

Consider these rules like the rules of Socially Responsible investing. And I WILL win.


Maybe I'm alone in this, but it seems obvious to me that those who oppose equal rights for homosexuals to marry today will be considered just as evil in 50 years as those who opposed integration 50 years ago. I consider them just as evil now, but I'm apparently not in an overwhelming majority on that point yet. Nonetheless, when Jennifer Roback Morse published this article in National Review, I am befuddled that editors or publishers or whomever could consider what she was doing "argument." This article, I can certainly confirm, is made up of words. And those words are strung together into grammatically correct sentences. What these individual sentences mean, let alone how they go together into a logical argument, is anyone's guess. Let's take a look.

The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts has opined that "government creates marriage." Therefore, government can recreate marriage, if it so chooses, or if the Supreme Court orders the other branches of government to do so. But surely, even the Massachusetts high court would not be so bold as to claim that government invents sex. And the meaning of human sexuality is really at the heart of the conflict over the judicial attempt to recreate marriage in its own image.

Translation: Massachusetts believes that marriage is marriage. But marriage isn't really marriage. Marriage is sex. Therefore, when Massachusetts talks about marriage, they are really talking about sex. This is a problem because sex is not really marriage (ha ha!). And marriage can't look like the Supreme Court because the Supreme Court wears robes, and when you get married and have sex, you have to disrobe.

So, what is the meaning of human sexuality anyhow? Sexual activity has two natural, organic purposes: procreation and spousal unity. Babies are the most basic and natural consequences of sexual activity. "Spousal unity" means simply that sex builds attachments between husband and wife.

Now, what we have to understand here, is that by "meaning" and "purpose", Morse actually means "results". Babies and unity can result from having sex. This is true. Gay sex cannot result in babies, but they can result in unity. So, since 99% of the time, people don't get pregnant following sex, it would seem that gay sex could be at least as "purposeful" as married sex when the wife is already pregnant.

Spousal unity is the feature of human sexuality that makes it distinct from purely animal sexuality. As far as I know, humans are the only animals that copulate face to face. Shakespeare described the sexual act as "making the two-backed beast." Both the Hebrew and the Christian Bible describe the sexual act as uniting the spouses in the most literal sense: "the two become one flesh." Two people become, if only for a short while, one flesh.

Now, by "spousal unity", one might think that Morse is talking about spiritual harmony and growing closer together as people. In fact, as now is clear, she is in fact referring to "unity" in the sense that "the two people are physically in the same location." So, for example, if my spouse and I are jammed face to face on the #42 bus because it's rush hour and there are no seats, this would meet the "spousal unity" definition as used here. Sitting in a movie theatre holding hands would not, because that is only making the "beast with one double-wide back and two breast on the same side of the front."

Evolutionary psychology observes the survival value to spousal cooperation. Males and females who attach themselves to each other, have a better chance of seeing their offspring survive long enough to produce grandchildren. Science can now tell us how the hormones released during sex help to create emotional bonds between the partners.

Once again, while written in spiritual language, but while she refers to "cooperation" Morse is clearly using "attach" in the physical sense of "screwing in the missionary position". Alternate methods of sexual interaction will apparently lead to dead children. That is why animals that use other means of coitus are now all extinct.

Both of these organic purposes, procreation and spousal unity, have something in common: They build up the community of the family. Procreation literally builds the community by adding new members to the family. Spousal unity builds up the community of the family because it contributes to the stability of the marriage relationship.

Therefore, we have built a direct correlation between child-bearing and missionary-position sex. Since homosexuals can't do either, they are clearly not acting "organic"ly. Morse does not address the fact that numerous homosexuals (and heterosexuals) have adopted children and have a family community that is wholly unrelated to their sexual relationship. Her logic is of the form: A is one path to B; X did not take A; therefore X will never get to B. It is, obviously, logically incoherent.

But for many people in modern America, sex has little or nothing to do with building community of any kind. Sex is a purely private matter, in the narrowest sense of private. Sex is a recreational activity, and a consumer good. My consumption of this good, my enjoyment of this activity, is a completely private matter that should be viewed analogously with other goods and activities.

Now, this is where things go from merely wrong to completely weird. Apparently, some people improperly consider sex to be "fun" and "none of her damn business." Morse only has sex to have kids and bond with her husband, but some people have the nerve to have sex for other reasons. These people need not be homosexuals. They may, however, be prostitutes. What, one might now be wondering, those this have to do with gay marriage. Let us skip down to find out.

A significant subset of heterosexuals share with homosexuals a common view of the meaning of human sexuality. . . We are going to have trouble understanding marriage, much less defending it, until we reopen this question of what human sexuality is all about. Is human sexuality an engine of sociability that calls us out of our self-centeredness? Or is it one more arena for the exercise of our self-centeredness? And if it is the latter, are there any automatic correction mechanisms that check our excesses the way market competition directs our self-interest into socially responsible channels?

Here we have our answer. The problem with gay marriage is that it would be EXACTLY THE SAME AS HETEROSEXUAL MARRIAGE! But heterosexual marriage is bad! So we should BAN heterosexual marriage. Right? Well, no. We should re-define heterosexual marriage so that it means something that homosexuals can't do. Then, we'll have a reason to keep them from marrying.

But meanwhile, is this a moral argument or an economic argument Morse is making? Is she saying that within marriage, you can have sex however and whenever you want, but outside of marriage, you are limited by how much you can afford to pay the prostitute, and the prostitute will charge more for "socially irreponsible"? extras? The mind reels.

We are more likely to be satisfied with the outcome, if we work with our biology rather than against it.

One might think this is common sense advise: If it hurts, try something else. Apparently, however, this sentence has something to do with opposition to gay marriage. Or, rather, she seems to not have anything against gay marriage. Instead, as far as I can tell, she merely objects to the gays (individually and collectively) who might want to get married, and probably wouldn't be happy with them trying to get into a heterosexual marriage either, because they'd just screw that up, too.

We will be happier if we face reality on its own terms

Yet it is unclear who, other than the author, is actually unhappy here. And on whose terms are we mistakenly facing reality at present?

And finally, consider two sentences that manage the exquisite feat of being both individually false and mutually contradictory.

Sexual activity and childrearing take place inside the private spaces of the home, far outside the reach of the public-enforcement power of the state.

Written as an eternal truism, mere months after sodomy was finally legalized. And then:

The law of marriage is not the only social structure that creates the context for socially acceptable sexual behavior. But the law does play a key part.

So state power DOES reach to sexual activity. The law tells us what is acceptable, but we can't legalize gay marriage because it is unacceptable, but it would become acceptable if we legalized, but we can't . . .

One wishes that opponents of gay marriage would just fall back on what they really mean: Gay sex is gross and the Bible says No.

It may be a bad argument, but at least it's an argument that is internally coherent!

Anyway, the Editors promise that this article is Part One of Two. I can hardly wait.

Thursday, December 18, 2003

Racial Slurs and the Use/ Mention Distinction

Perhaps this isn't being taught in schools anymore.

If I say, "That was a funny joke", I was Used the word "joke."

If I say, "The word 'joke' has four letters," I have not Used the word 'joke', I have merely mentioned it.

Today, people are calling for the head of a "Philadelphia principal who used the N-word in an eighth-grade class last month". Except that she didn't "use" the N-Word, she simply "mentioned" it.

[Mary Rita] Sheldon said she was admonishing a group of students about teasing a classmate who is visually impaired. She compared the N-word to the taunt used against the boy - "one-eyed jack" - and stressed that neither word should be used.

Essentially, Sheldon said "Do not use the N-Word." But she said the N-Word. That is a "mention," not a "use."


SCHOOL REFORM Commissioner Sandra Dungee Glenn yesterday, appearing visibly upset, said the white Philadelphia principal who used the N-word in an eighth-grade class last month should be forced out of her school, the Overbrook Educational Center.
. . .
"People of African descent were enslaved, brutalized, murdered and disrespected in this country because we were considered, not human beings, but...niggers," she said. "Nigger is the most derogatory racial epithet to be used against African-Americans. It has no place in our society, and it definitely has no place in our schools."

Note that Glenn, in her tirade against Sheldon, also mentions the N-word. It is unclear why her mention does not warrant the same disciplinary action as Sheldon's mention. Meanwhile, the Philadelphia Daily News (and this blog) have quoted Glenn, which apparently makes us third- and fourth-removed guilty of the same offense.

Using a slur should certainly be cause for concern. Merely mentioning a slur, however, should never be. As a firm believer in free speech, I believe that Sheldon should not be disciplined at all (or ever morally condemned) for the substance of her comments.

Tuesday, December 16, 2003

The Perils of Intra-Racial Dating

So, the other day, I was talking to a friend of mine. We'll call him "Chris."

Chris is a second generation Chinese America. He talks without "accent." He is six feet tall, which makes him average height for an American (and well above average for an Asian American). Chris is a college graduate with an advanced degree. He is considered attractive. His tastes are very mainstream American. He would, objectively, be considered a "catch."

And until recently, he had never dated an Asian-American female.

Chris has told me, at a time when he had was not dating Asian women, and I have no reason to doubt him, that in his experience Asian girls tend to prefer white guys. In fact, it is a fact that about half of all Asian American married women are in inter-racial marriages. For as long as we were friends, he was almost always dating some girl or other. That girl, however, was never Asian. Chris claimed he had no racial preferences in who he dated. The Asian girls he has asked out, it seems, uniformly rejected him.

Recently, however, Chris's luck has changed. Chris now tells me that the Asian American girls of the type who had previously rejected him are now actively pursuing him.

Why the change? Perhaps he's just meeting different types of girls now than he was before?

No, that's not it, Chris tells me. Often, after a date he will accompany the woman home, and will look through any nearby photo albums. The albums will often show the woman with previous boyfriends, all of whom are blond. For each of these girls, Chris has confirmed, he is uniformly their first Asian-American boyfriend.

The difference, it seems, is that now Chris is of an age and social position (i.e., out of school with a good job) where he is not just boyfriend material, but potential-husband material. And Asian girls who had never before dated Asian men are now looking for men who are not only attractive personally, but also who can be brought home to mom and dad. That is, someone who is Asian.

Now, as I said, Chris does not particularly associate much with Asian culture. He is a burgers-and-fries, beer-and-football, Fox-reality-show kind of guy. He is, however, proud to be of Chinese ancestry, and is uncomfortable with the fact that the Asian girls who are dating him are dating him not because he is an Asian-American, but because he is the least Asian-American Asian-American they could find.

In other words, Chris feels like these girls would prefer to be dating white guys, but that he's an acceptable second best since he looks Asian, but acts White. And that makes him uncomfortable.

It is an interesting question: Is Chris the victim of prejudice by women of his own race? It doesn't seem like racism, but is seems likesomething. I'm not sure there's a word yet for what Chris is experiencing, but I can empathize with his discomfort.

Monday, December 15, 2003

On the one hand, everyone's views are very nuanced, and it is unlikely that anyone agrees with anyone else on every matter.

On the other hand, polls are fun.

Therefore, I took the "Ethical Philosophy Selector" Quiz at Select Smart (which has previously told me that my belief system most closely matches Presidential candidate John Edwards.)

According to the test, I am a pure Utilitarian, matching 100% with Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill.

This makes sense, since I believe that the basis of my belief structure is Utilitarian. I do, however, take seriously the deontological critiques of utilitarianism, and while I think utilitarianism will answer about 3/4 of moral conflict, my personal views on "close" issues, or issues that involves extremely large gains that just bearly outweigh extremely large losses, are more often swayed by deontological concerns.

Just so the readers know where I'm coming from, and can count their utiles at the door before entering.

Friday, December 12, 2003

Secular Government v. Governmentally Enforced Secularism

An article in today's New York Times reports from France:

A report delivered to President Jacques Chirac on Thursday called for a new law banning the wearing of "conspicuous" religious symbols in French public schools — large crosses for Christians, head scarves for Muslim girls, or skullcaps for Jewish boys.

The recommendation was the most striking in an official reassessment of how to preserve the principle of the separation of religion and state in France in light of such developments as the rise of a large Muslim population and a new wave of anti-Semitism.

A confirmed secularist (see the blog title), I cannot see how there can be anything LESS secular than banning the religious from practicing the requirements of their religion.

The commission said that a 1905 law codifying the separation of church and state was no longer adequate given the cultural and religious composition of present-day France. It said that organized groups were testing the secular state by demands on public services in the name of religion and pressuring Muslims to identify first with their faith and then with their French citizenship.

The question really, is why France needs a ranking of preferences. Do Americans think, "I am an American first and a Christian/Jew/Muslim/Hindu Second"? No. 99% of the time it never comes up. One is perfectly free to be an American AND a Jew equally. And why is that? It's because the American doesn't tell the Jew that he cannot wear his yamulke to school.

What this requirement would do, essentially, is to make the French choose. Are you French, or are you a member of your religion? We will not let you be both.

While Americans should never have to face this choice (except in rare circumstances), the theme is one that is currently being debated, primarily in the area of school vouchers. Should tax money be diverted to private schools in a school voucher program? I can see the reasons on both sides (although I believe they weigh a little more heavily on the pro-voucher side). If school vouchers are allowed, should they be permitted to both religious and secular private schools?

Here's where the "separation of church and state" people fall into the same trap the French commission did.

#1 Permitting money to flow only to religious schools (or making it easier for religious schools to meet the requirements for funding) is a violation of the separation of church and state, and violates the principal of secular government.

#2 Permitting money to flow to any private school -- religious or secular -- if the schools meet the conditions under the program, is religion-neutral.

#3 Permitting money to flow only to secular schools is anti-religious in the same way that the French commission's recommendation is.

Those who favor the separation of church and state seem to set up a dichotomy between #2 and #3, setting #2 as constitutionally prohibited. In fact, we should be looking at the law not as a Kantian but as an Aristotelian. The question is not Yes (#2) versus No (#3), but a question of finding the "golden mean" wherein religion is treating equally with secularism. Aristotle would be the first to tell you that #2 is the golden mean between the forcing of pro-religion (#1) and anti-religion (#3).

It is too often assumed that to be Secular, you must fight the Religious. That is not true. To be Secular, all you must do to the Religious is ignore it.

Thursday, December 11, 2003

Where's That Independent Variable When You Need It Most

Through Marginal Revolutions we learn from New Scientist that men lose the ability to think rationally when presented with pictures of beautiful women, but women do not lose the ability when presented with pictures of beautiful men.

That is exactly as I wound expect, but not because women are less distracted by sexuality than men are. Rather, I would expect that women would evoke a similar (if not as strong) response to the men's when presented with the same pictures of beautiful women.

If nothing else, it is clear to me that women have vastly different opinions of what constitutes an attractive man. Some go for the skinny hair-band-looking types, some go for the distinguished professional look. Very few go for Fabio. The lack of a consistent definition of "hotness" is enough to confound the study.

More importantly, though, women DO have consistent views about the "hotness" of women to a much greater extent than (heterosexual) men do about the hotness of men. And also, their views largely overlap with the views of men on the issue. (Although the overlap is not exact. See, e.g., Sarah Jessica Parker, who every woman I know thinks is gorgeous, but no man I know does.)

This scientific study, for example, provides evidence that heterosexual women have the same sexual response to "gay porn" that lesbians do. Men, however, have sexual responses that are "orientation specific."

If you are going to study this issue and come to any sort of reasonable conclusions, you have to at least show both groups the same pictures!

The Duty to Act

“quid leges sine moribus vanae proficiunt?"

“what good are empty laws without good morals?”

--Horace’s Third Ode.

The opposite question is being debated at Crooked Timber, where there is general bemusement that in the American common law there is no affirmative requirement that a person save a stranger, even if he could do so with little or no effort. What good, the contrapositive Horaces ask, is a clear moral obligation without a legal framework to back it up? We all understand a moral obligation to save a drowning baby – so why won’t the law punish us for failing to do so?

In the case of Pope v. State of Maryland (1979), Joyce Pope invites in an acquaintance named Melissa and Melissa’s baby son to stay in her house because they have nowhere else to go. Melissa is clearly delusional, and alternates between being herself and thinking she is God. Pope witnesses Melissa, in her delusional state, perform an “exorcism” that involves great violence to the baby. She does nothing to either prevent the “exorcism” or to call for help. The three then go to church, where the Reverend discovers that the baby that Melissa is holding is dead and immediately calls ambulance.
Pope is convicted of child abuse, for not doing anything to prevent the harm to the baby in her house. The trial judge believes that she has taken responsibility for the baby by allowing them into her house. The Appeals Court reverses the conviction, however, saying:

“Pope’s conduct, during and after the acts of abuse, must be evaluated with regard for the rule that although she may have had a strong moral obligation to help the child, she was under no legal obligation to do so unless she then had responsibility for the supervision of the child as contemplated by the child abuse statute. She may not be punished as a felon under our system of justice for failing to fulfill a moral obligation, and the short of it is that she was under no legal obligation.”

The fact that she allowed them into her house, essentially “rescuing” them from the elements, did not place upon her the additional responsibility of protecting the baby from her mother once they were inside the house.

To the legally trained, this is the obvious result. To the rest, in may seem absurd. Why is it that in this particularity, the law fails to track morality? Or has Joyce Pope acted immorally at all?

The answer, as explained by judges and legal philosophers, has primarily to do with the fact that the law only punishes Actions. Inaction, absent the rare obligation to act, cannot be punished. In general, obligations are not imposed without are consent. So, we have obligations to our children, but not to the children of others.

While this is the response generally given, I do not think it is entirely correct. As a first pass, I think the rule can be tied intimately with what has been broadly seen as a right to privacy. As Justice Louis Brandeis once said, “"The makers of the Constitution conferred the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by all civilized men—the right to be let alone.” Justice William Douglas added, "The right to be let alone is indeed the beginning of all freedom." When we require action, we are infringing on the basic American right to just not get involved.

Further, selfless action seems a lot less selfless when it is not compelled by law. The 99 out of 100 people who would save the drowning baby deserve recognition for doing what was right, not merely for complying with Cons. Stat. § 345.678(j)(2).

Wednesday, December 10, 2003

Four data points in the news:

1. Penn and Yale Law Schools are challenging the Solomon Amendment, which requires law schools to permit on campus recruiting by the military in exchange for receiving federal financial funding.

2. International donors, whom Palestinians hope to convince to provide 60% of their budget ($1.2 billion), are frustrated by the failure to move toward peace.

3. The Boy Scouts have permitted the Philadelphia chapter to enact a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy so that the city doesn’t take back the land they originally provided the Boy Scouts, as they threatened to do due to the Boy Scout’s non-gays policy. This also allows the Boy Scouts to get money from the United Way. [no link. Source, WHYY local news on Morning Edition]

4. Of course, the Supreme Court today permitted limitations on campaign contributions to candidates and political parties.

What do these four stories all have in common? They all involve using Other People’s Money to change how we act.

The Solomon Amendment and Boy Scout stories are actually the same issue from opposite sides. Governmental agency threatens to pull funding unless the group changes the way they “associate” with homosexuals.

The Palestinian issue is somewhat different, from the perspective of the donors: namely, at what point do you remove the incentive to change, as opposed to continuing to provide funding in hopes that the money will make a difference.

Finally, the campaign finance issue is different because we’re talking about private money, rather than government money, but is rooted in the same belief that funding will affect viewpoints. A candidate may vote for laws that large donors want, rather than the laws that his constituents want.

The over-arching question here is what to do when the financial recipients have different values than the financial donors. Is it different when it is the government “imposing” its viewpoints? I think it is. Both the Solomon Amendments and the Philadelphia Boy Scout resolution, while legal, are, I would argue, abuses of the government’s spending powers. When we allow the government to become the primary funder of a private organization, we permit it to control -- to some degree – the practices of the funded. It is simply not practical for Yale and Penn to give up government funds. Those funds are used for scholarships, and would put those schools at an extreme disadvantage to give up. There is a conformity imposed on recipients of the same funds that numbs those who value diversity.

With the Boy Scouts, the question should be, why is the government giving land in the first place? My philosophical problems with the United Way are an unrelated issue.

It is something to remember the next time you want the government to support your pet project – government funds always come with strings attached, and even if you like the present puppeteer, you might not like the next one.

Test Post for Secular Sermons.

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