A Moral and Political Critique of the Democratic Primary Debates of 2015, Part 1

This is the second installment of my examination of the arguments presented by presidential primary candidates of both major parties. I began the series with selections from the second Republican debate (I decided to skip the first mostly because there are so many debates to consider, I thought I’d wait until the polls had settled in, so to speak, indicating the field of candidates more likely to succeed), and I continue here with the first Democratic one.

As with the first, the debate transcript selections are in red, and my own remarks in black. I leave out introductions, banter, moderator comments, lines which indicate audience response, some purely empirical claims, and other parts that don’t directly pertain to the political and moral ideas considered here. The parts I leave out are indicated, as usual, by ellipses.

From the CNN Democratic presidential primary debate, October 14th 2015

The source of the debate transcript which follows is the New York Times, at nytimes.com
Participants: former Governor Lincoln Chafee, former Governor Martin O’Malley, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Senator Bernie Sanders, and former Senator Jim Webb
Moderators: Anderson Cooper, Dana Bash, Juan Carlos Lopez, and Don Lemon

COOPER: Welcome. I’m Anderson Cooper. Thanks for joining us….

WEBB: …You know, people are disgusted with the way that money has corrupted our political process, intimidating incumbents and empowering Wall Street every day, the turnstile government that we see, and also the power of the financial sector in both parties. They’re looking for a leader who understands how the system works, who has not been co-opted by it, and also has a proven record of accomplishing different things....

As you many remember from Huckabee’s comments in the first Republican debate examined here, mainstream Republican politicians are joining Democrats in denunciation of the corrupting influence of vast amounts of money flooding into the political system from a relatively few special interests and extremely wealthy individuals, and of the revolving-door relationships between our political institutions, lobbyist groups, and the finance industry. Many say that just because individuals and businesses freely decide to donate money, and that ex-politicians are routinely offered lucrative jobs by the same firms that lobbied them and donated to their campaigns, that doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily corrupted, guided by the will of their donors and potential employers instead of their constituents and their own best judgment.

But even if it’s true that most politicians are not purposefully corrupt, it’s already a well researched, well documented fact that gifts and donations have much more influence over one’s decisions than one might realize, even if one’s honestly trying not to let it happen. A few years ago, I read up on various studies of the ways that funding, gifts, and personal visits from sales representatives of pharmaceutical companies influence what physicians are more likely to prescribe and even worse, influence the outcome of clinical drug trials. And while the studies generally failed to find direct evidence that most researchers or physicians purposefully tailored their decisions or research to the financial interests of the funders, donors, or sales reps, the influence was clearly indicated, likely based on the unconscious desire to reciprocate real or perceive goodwill, and / or the bias in favor of perceived expertise. If you have a large amount of money to invest, or a team of sales reps with a convincing story to tell on your payroll, you have to know what you’re doing, right?

Human psychology being remarkably consistent, it’s nearly certain that politicians are subject to the same psychological phenomena. Lobbyists can be considered the political analogues of the sales reps, and donors the analogues of the research funders and pharmaceutical company gift-givers. And while the sales reps, lobbyists, funders, and donors may have good arguments, may be in the possession of good information, or may be driven by entirely noble motives, it’s still the case that their influence can crowd out other arguments, other evidence, and other interests which should have equal consideration.

COOPER: …Secretary Clinton …plenty of politicians evolve on issues, but even some Democrats believe you change your positions based on political expediency. You were against same-sex marriage. Now you’re for it. You defended President Obama’s immigration policies. Now you say they’re too harsh. You supported his trade deal dozen of times. You even called it the “gold standard”. Now, suddenly, last week, you’re against it. Will you say anything to get elected?

CLINTON: Well, actually, I have been very consistent. Over the course of my entire life, I have always fought for the same values and principles, but, like most human beings — including those of us who run for office — I do absorb new information. I do look at what’s happening in the world….

Clinton is right to point out that politicians, like all human beings, should remain ready and willing to learn, be open to new evidence, consider new and better arguments as they are presented, and be able to change their minds as warranted. Charges of ‘flip-flopping’ are often hurled at political candidates to portray their changes of mind as signs of dishonest maneuvering and weakness of will. But this isn’t always the case. A famous examples of a politician changing their mind on an important issue is Abraham Lincoln, who originally thought that preserving the political Union between the states took priority over the abolition of slavery. Another is Barack Obama, who originally thought that legal marriage should exclusively remain heterosexual, with civil union being an acceptable separate but equal institution for gay couples.

This being as it may, when a politician changes their mind, just like anyone else, it should be for very good reasons. And because they represent the people, they need to explain these changes of mind, to be open and honest to their constituents, especially when the change of mind might affect the voters’ choice of representative.

COOPER: Secretary Clinton, though, with all due respect, the question is really about political expediency. Just in July, New Hampshire, you told the crowd you’d, quote, “take a back seat to no one when it comes to progressive values.” Last month in Ohio, you said you plead guilty to, quote, “being kind of moderate and center.” Do you change your political identity based on who you’re talking to? 

CLINTON: No. I think that, like most people that I know, I have a range of views, but they are rooted in my values and my experience…

COOPER: Just for the record, are you a progressive, or are you a moderate?

CLINTON: I’m a progressive. But I’m a progressive who likes to get things done.

Clinton is not only representing herself as a practical politician, she’s making a larger point: while it’s important to be idealistic and to remain committed to one’s values, it’s also important to remember that if you can’t compromise when necessary, those ideals and those values will do no practical good because they’ll never be realized in public policy.

While I’m more than halfway with her on this, I still think we need a president, a Congress, and a Supreme Court who demonstrate a stronger commitment to a nobler political vision. With the notable exception of legalizing gay marriage, it’s been too long since our elected leaders exuded the moral strength necessary to lead us in accomplishing spectacular things like ending slavery, giving women the vote, establishing worker’s rights, instituting a New Deal, building a comprehensive and cutting-edge infrastructure, taking us to the moon. We’ve become cynical, expecting our politicians to squabble and block one another’s efforts at every turn while our infrastructure crumbles, healthcare costs soar, our middle-class dwindles, gun violence runs rampant, the earth warms as we continue to generate energy with old polluting technology, our education system becomes ever less effective, special interests take over our political system with enticements of massive amounts of money and cushy job offers, costly American military interventions take out bad leaders only to have worse ones rush in to fill the power gap, the war on drugs continues to fail while encouraging the rampant growth of violent cartels here and abroad, and more Americans are incarcerated than in any other nation.

As a result of this cynicism, too many of us have become hopeless and apathetic, staying away from the polls, content with venting our discontent and disillusion on social media. I’m not totally with those who hold a bleak view of the loss of civic engagement in our country: young people volunteer and donate at encouragingly high rates, and are vocal about their opposition to social ills such as racism, sexism, greed, violence, rampant incarceration, and so on. Still, if we care about doing the most good systematically and in the long run, I think it more important to begin with taking our political system back. A lot of the volunteering and donating is needed precisely because our political system is failing so many people.

COOPER: …Senator Sanders. A Gallup poll says half the country would not put a socialist in the White House. You call yourself a democratic socialist. How can any kind of socialist win a general election in the United States?

SANDERS: Well, we’re gonna win because first, we’re gonna explain what democratic socialism is. And what democratic socialism is about is saying that it is immoral and wrong that the top one-tenth of 1 percent in this country own almost …as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent. That it is wrong, today, in a rigged economy, that 57 percent of all new income is going to the top 1 percent…

COOPER: …You don’t consider yourself a capitalist, though?

SANDERS: Do I consider myself part of the casino capitalist process by which so few have so much and so many have so little by which Wall Street’s greed and recklessness wrecked this economy? No, I don’t. I believe in a society where all people do well. Not just a handful of billionaires….

For all Sander’s optimism on this point, socialism remains a hated word in the United States, and not for bad reasons. The largest socialist states of the 20th century did not act in the interests of their people as much as they acted in the interest of their leaders and their political ideology, with some exceptions. Yes, the Cuban health care system did and does better by their people, as a whole, than that of the United States: more people have access to good affordable health care, more people live healthier lives, and less people are financially ruined by a diagnosis of a serious disease. Yet the political rights of those in most socialist states are severely restricted if existent at all, and the average citizen remains relatively poor as their economies stagnate and the wealth and power are concentrated in the hands of a few. We can say the same historically of most modern socialist states, past and present: Cuba, the Soviet Union, China, East Germany, and so on.

However, here’s the key point about democratic socialism as Sanders describes it: all of those oppressive socialist states lack the ‘democracy’ element, even though it’s often part of the government’s official name. In those states, most people have no political voice or representation whatsoever, and their nations’ social, political, and economic systems are organized strictly along ‘top-down’ lines. A few political elites impose their will on the people unopposed, and any opposition is quashed with the justification that it was motivated by disloyalty ‘to the people’ or to the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat.’ Those that wield the power may describe lofty goals and proclaim that everything they do is according to the abstracted will of the people, but the actual people themselves are not allowed to participate in their own governance.

Democratic socialism is very different in principle and practice than socialism as commonly understood, if carried out as Sanders describes. Its public institutions are required to remain accountable to the people and its elected leaders subject to voter recall. It’s not a top-down system in the way authoritarian socialist regimes are for two reasons: there’s many points of view and sources of information that are brought to bear, not just the ideology of a single person or small political elite, and its policies and projects are implemented, constrained, and carried out by elected representatives and/or more directly by voters. Ostensibly, the democratic republican system we already have is this sort of government, but democratic socialists disagree because of the outsize influence of a few wealthy, powerful private interests. The reason why Sander’s party emphasizes ‘socialism’ in their name is because, they say, political systems dedicated more to individual liberty than to the well-being of its people inevitably fail in both.

In a market system, according to this view, the individual pursuit of profit will inevitably often work to the public’s detriment, whether or not individual capitalists have good or bad motives, because of the inherent incentives. Keeping an eye always on the bottom line keeps them off the plight of others, including that of the underpaid worker, or of the community’s lands being polluted, or those who can’t afford a necessary good or service (such as healthcare) because of price fixing, or the citizen who’s not being represented because of the money and influence that rigged the political system in the capitalist’s favor. Throughout history, both before and after regulations were put in place to protect the rights, health, and safety of citizens and the environment, there have always been a large percentage of capitalists who are greedy, who don’t care how the way they do business affects others, and they will always ruin it for everyone else, overrunning the system in their ruthlessness and making bad practice par for the course: exploiting those who need jobs but can’t find good ones, setting up grossly polluting factories wherever they’re not prevented from doing so, colluding with other businesses to fix prices and wages, forming monopolies, co-opting government to make laws in their favor, gambling in financial markets until they crash, and so on. And because these bad actors take over the system, other businesses must adopt these same bad practices in order to remain competitive and survive. That’s why, democratic socialists say, we need certain key goods and services to be controlled by public institutions that are accountable to the people, not just to the balance sheet, to investors, or the conscience (or lack thereof) of one individual.

Whether or not a well-run, truly democratic socialist state as would be more successful than a market-driven one remains to be seen. There are encouraging results in nations with mixed economies, such as the Scandinavian countries that Sanders hold up as his models, but the United States presents two important challenges these countries don’t face: it’s way more ideologically and ethnically diverse, and it’s way, way bigger. There are other much larger and more diverse countries who’ve nationalized a few but very important goods and services such as healthcare, like Canada and most modern European states, with very good results. Of course, they have their problems too, but that’s true of every system that has ever been devised. So the question’s not whether which system is perfect, it’s which one is better, and which one comes with a set of problems we find more tolerable to live with.

COOPER: We’re going to have a lot more on these issues. But I do want to just quickly get everybody in on the question of electability. Governor Chafee, you’ve been everything but a socialist. When you were senator from Rhode Island, you were a Republican. When you were elected governor, you were an independent. You’ve only been a Democrat for little more than two years. Why should Democratic voters trust you won’t change again?

CHAFEE: …I have not changed on the issues. I was a liberal Republican, then I was an independent, and now I’m a proud Democrat. But I have not changed on the issues…

COOPER: ….Senator Webb, in 2006, you called affirmative action “state-sponsored racism.” In 2010, you wrote an op/ed saying it discriminates against whites. Given that nearly half the Democratic Party is non-white, aren’t you out of step with where the Democratic Party is now?

WEBB: No, actually I believe that I am where the Democratic Party traditionally has been. The Democratic Party, and the reason I’ve decided to run as a Democrat, has been the party that gives people who otherwise have no voice in the corridors of power a voice….

I’ve been hearing the argument a lot: the Republican party is moving ever farther right, so the Democratic party feels compelled to keep moving more to the center in order to appear the moderate, reasonable choice. Clinton’s platform is the model of this, and it looks like Chafee and Webb agree. Sanders appears to be the one candidate who’s an unapologetic, leftist liberal.

COOPER: Senator Webb, thank you very much. Let’s move on to some of the most pressing issues facing our country right now…. We’re going to start with guns. The shooting in Oregon earlier this month, once again it brought the issue of guns into the national conversation. …Senator Sanders, you voted against the Brady bill that mandated background checks and a waiting period. You also supported allowing riders to bring guns in checked bags on Amtrak trains. For a decade, you said that holding gun manufacturers legally responsible for mass shootings is a bad idea. Now, you say you’re reconsidering that. Which is it: shield the gun companies from lawsuits or not?

SANDERS: …Let’s also understand that back in 1988 when I first ran for the United States Congress …I told the gun owners of the state of Vermont…, a state which has virtually no gun control, that I supported a ban on assault weapons. And over the years, I have strongly avoided [supported?] instant background checks, doing away with this terrible gun show loophole. And I think we’ve got to move aggressively at the federal level in dealing with the straw man purchasers. Also I believe, and I’ve fought for, to understand that there are thousands of people in this country today who are suicidal, who are homicidal, but can’t get the healthcare that they need, the mental healthcare, because they don’t have insurance or they’re too poor. I believe that everybody in this country who has a mental crisis has got to get mental health counseling immediately. 

Sanders is making the same argument here as most Republican candidates are now making, that when it comes to dealing with certain categories of gun violence, we should turn our focus to mental health and economic issues and away from gun control. While it’s true that there’s a lot of gun violence associated with mental illness and poverty, I think it’s a distraction. In fact, I don’t believe that Sanders and the Republicans would make this argument if they didn’t feel politically compelled to concoct some ad hoc justification for gun-friendly policies they ascribe to for other reasons. Even for people who believe in expansive rights to gun ownership, the fact that there’s far more gun violence in the United States than in all other first-world countries demands a more comprehensive explanation to be convincing.

So why don’t I buy the argument blaming lack of mental health care? For one thing, many or even most of the people known to have some kind of mental issue before the shootings were receiving treatment, or had access to it they were not availing themselves of, so far as I could tell from the news reports. In other cases, others only discover that people are violently mentally ill after they’ve shot up a theater or killed themselves. I agree wholeheartedly that everyone should have access to mental healthcare and to decent-paying jobs, and that it’s likely that gun violence would be somewhat mitigated if that were the case: some people’s mental illnesses would be discovered and hopefully successfully treated before resorting to violence, and others would be able to live in safer neighborhoods and stay out of the illicit drug trade, for example.

But all the free mental healthcare and jobs in the world will not solve the one problem that we all face when in comes to gun violence: when people have easy access to guns when they’re under the sway of some emotion, be it insanity, greed, anger, fear, excitement, zealotry, vengefulness, territorialism, or just carried away by the fun they’re having at the time, they are easily able to wreak death and destruction with the simple squeeze of a trigger, especially in a culture where guns are regarded as the best and only solution to so many problems. And other times, these deaths arise out of nothing more than sheer carelessness, ignorance, or bad luck while a gun was in hand. The trick is to mitigate the harm we can do each other out of the excesses of our variable human nature by limiting access to guns, and by changing our cultural attitudes to them. The former may very well lead to the latter.

COOPER: Do you want to shield gun companies from lawsuits?

SANDERS: Of course not. This was a large and complicated bill. There were provisions in it that I think made sense. For example, do I think that a gun shop in the state of Vermont that sells legally a gun to somebody, and that somebody goes out and does something crazy, that that gun shop owner should be held responsible? I don’t. On the other hand, where you have manufacturers and where you have gun shops knowingly giving guns to criminals or aiding and abetting that, of course we should take action.

COOPER: Secretary Clinton, is Bernie Sanders tough enough on guns?

CLINTON: No, not at all. I think that we have to look at the fact that we lose 90 people a day from gun violence. This has gone on too long and it’s time the entire country stood up against the NRA. The majority of our country supports background checks, and even the majority of gun owners do. Senator Sanders did vote … for this immunity provision. I voted against it. …It wasn’t that complicated to me. It was pretty straightforward to me that he was going to give immunity to the only industry in America. Everybody else has to be accountable, but not the gun manufacturers….

O’MALLEY: … here tonight in our audience are two people that make this issue very, very real. Sandy and Lonnie Phillips’… daughter, Jessie, was one of those who lost their lives in that awful mass shooting in Aurora. …A man had sold 4,000 rounds of military ammunition to this — this person that killed their daughter, riddled her body with five bullets, and he didn’t even ask where it was going. And not only did their case get thrown out of court, they were slapped with $200,000 in court fees because of the way that the NRA gets its way in our Congress…

While I laud the principle of personal responsibility of individual gun purchasers that seemingly informs the argument against increased liability for gun companies, it also has a serious practical downside: it removes one extra layer of protection for the public when gun manufacturers and sellers are not sufficiently motivated to ensure they operate reliably and have enough safety features, and to choose not to sell guns to people they have reason to believe won’t be a responsible sellers or owners. And, of course, it fails to apply the principle of personal responsibility to the gun manufacturers and sellers. Perhaps if everyone, not just the gun owners, but everyone involved was faced with the prospect of having to take responsibility for their part in contributing to gun violence, it would be substantially reduced.

I’ve offered a suggestion before that may sound oddly anachronistic, based as it is on the actual wording of and history behind the Second Amendment, but hear me out. The text of the Second Amendment reads: ‘A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.’ When we read this, we tend to mentally cast aside the militia part, since originally the Second Amendment was informed by the infant United States’ aversion to the institution of a standing army, relying on state militias instead, which is no longer the American system of defense. However, if the right to gun ownership was contingent on belonging to a militia, or to modern equivalents such as the military, its reserves, and police forces, than all lawful gun owners would be, if the institution was well-regulated as it should be, publicly accountable and suitably trained. Maybe, then, a literal reading of the actual wording of the Constitution can offer a solution to our dilemma. As written, the phrase ‘the right of the people to keep and bear Arms’ is a subordinate clause to ‘A well regulated Militia’. So maybe we should likewise subordinate the right to keep and bear arms to whether one does belong to a modern equivalent of a militia.

SANDERS: …We can raise our voices, but I come from a rural state, and the views on gun control in rural states are different than in urban states…

O’MALLEY: …Senator, it is not about rural — Senator, it was not about rural and urban …We were able to pass this [in Maryland] and still respect the hunting traditions of people who live in our rural areas….

WEBB: …We need to keep the people who should not have guns away from them. But we have to respect the tradition in this country of people who want to defend themselves and their family from violence…

The right to self-protection is emphasized the most, on both sides, in arguments about gun rights, with the possible exception of deterrence, emphasized by many conservatives. I have serious doubts about both of these, mostly based on lack of evidence in its favor. We have higher gun ownership rates than most countries in the world, yet we have higher levels of gun violence. Even controlling for cultural attitudes (such as in Canada, which also has a high level of gun ownership rates but much lower levels of gun violence), we should see a general, consistent correlation over time and place between high levels of gun ownership and low levels of violence. Yet when we compare the United States with other countries, and we compare states with each other, we find that higher levels of gun ownership almost always correlate with higher levels of gun violence. There are a few exceptions, such as Germany and South Dakota, but when these are the exception rather than the rule, the explanation is almost certainly to be found elsewhere.

So, if protection of the life of citizens is the goal, it is not accomplished by instituting policies which usually lead to more deaths. I think, again, the real reasons so many Americans cling to the right to own guns have entirely to do with cultural and historically based norms.

I’ll go ahead and end this first critique of the Democratic debates here. In the next installment, I’ll skip the foreign policy part of this debate since it’s covered more thoroughly in a later one, and pick back up where the discussion turns to civil rights issues and the Black Lives Matter movement.

To be continued….

* Listen to the podcast reading of this piece here or on iTunes

A Moral and Political Critique of the Republican Primary Debates of 2015, Part 1

As have many Americans, no doubt, I put on the Presidential primary debates of both parties mostly as background entertainment while I was doing chores, at least at first listen. Yet it occurred to me that it might be fruitful to sit down and take some time to really consider the arguments. Yes, we’re all a bit cynical these days, it seems, and it’s easy to wonder: why bother? Aren’t all of these presidential hopefuls just corporate shills and lapdog ideologues of the powers that be anyway?

Be that as it may (and I doubt that’s the case for all or most of them, at least not fully, though I agree that the financial incentives in the current political structure are corruptive to say the least), many of these arguments win over or enrage a lot of people, and it seems important to understand why and how. After all, we’re still, ostensibly, a democracy, and we all still have to live together in this country. Why not make the effort to better understand the strengths and weaknesses of the arguments that pit citizens against one another, uniting people within factions while dividing the nation as a whole?

So here’s a critique of arguments offered in recent Republican primary debates; I’ll do the same with the Democratic debate(s) soon as well. The debate transcript selections are in red, and my own remarks in black. I leave out introductions, banter, moderator comments, lines which indicate audience response, some purely empirical claims, and other parts that don’t directly pertain to the political and moral ideas considered here. The parts I leave out are indicated, as usual, by a series of ellipses.

From the Fox News / Facebook Republican presidential primary debate, August 6th 2015

The source of the debate transcript which follows is Time.com
Participants: Donald Trump, Governor Jeb Bush, Governor Scott Walker, Senator Marco Rubio, Governor Chris Christie, Dr. Ben Carson, Senator Rand Paul, Senator Ted Cruz, and Governor John Kasich.
Moderators: Fox News anchors Bret Baier, Megyn Kelly and Chris Wallace.

KELLY: It is nine p.m. on the East Coast, and the moment of truth has arrived….

Great, truth, let’s hear it!

…Mr. Trump, one of the things people love about you is you speak your mind and you don’t use a politician’s filter. However, that is not without its downsides, in particular, when it comes to women.

You’ve called women you don’t like “fat pigs, dogs, slobs, and disgusting animals.” …. You once told a contestant on Celebrity Apprentice it would be a pretty picture to see her on her knees. Does that sound to you like the temperament of a man we should elect as president…?

TRUMP: I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct. …I’ve been challenged by so many people, and I don’t frankly have time for total political correctness…

I agree with Trump on one thing: political correctness can be a problem in public and political discourse, and I think our ‘outrage culture’ has gone too far in sanitizing what we could and should be able to say, both publicly and privately, and especially in education. Some of the outrage and sensitivity comes from a good place, the concern that, through offensive speech, we can harm one another, act as bad influences on one another, and perpetuate our own bad habits of thought. These are true. But it’s also true that speech is necessary for confronting and addressing ideas honestly, whether they be good or bad. For example, sexuality and gender issues, like all else, are all part of the human story that can and should be told, and humor, banter, and in-your-face crudeness are some of the valid ways in which we address them. Trump may consider himself a harmless participant in all that.

But we can and should consider what people say when we make judgments about people, especially when we’re choosing our representatives in government. In a free society, we all decide if someone who regularly makes remarks that disparages women as thinking beings and gauges their worth based on sexual attractiveness to men is the sort of person we think best represents the American people and their core values. And as we’ve already considered, the words we use, and especially that influential people use, can go a long way in determining how a society thinks and acts. Besides, do we really want to elect a person who makes such nasty remarks about the daughters, sisters, wives, and mothers of other people, which we wouldn’t tolerate directed to our own, to the highest office in the land?

So let Trump freely say what he wants to say. If Trump sounds like an asshole when he talks about women or anything else, that’s very useful information he’s providing. In the end, the people will decide if what he reveals about himself shows he’s worthy and capable of representing the rest of us on the national and international stage.

…WALLACE: Governor Huckabee, like Governor Walker, you have staked out strong positions on social issues. …You favor a constitutional amendment banning abortions, except for the life of the mother. …

HUCKABEE: Chris, I disagree with the idea that the real issue is a constitutional amendment. …I think it’s time to do something even more bold. I think the next president ought to invoke the Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the constitution now that we clearly know that that baby inside the mother’s womb is a person at the moment of conception. The reason we know that it is is because of the DNA schedule that we now have clear scientific evidence on. And, this notion that we just continue to ignore the personhood of the individual is a violation of that unborn child’s Fifth and 14th Amendment rights for due process and equal protection under the law

The glaring assumption in this argument, of course, is that possessing a unique sequence of human DNA is equal to personhood. But so far as I know, neither American law nor its parent British law has ever established such a thing. Historically, legal personhood has been linked to the assignation of roles and responsibilities, and in modern times rights, to independently living, breathing human beings. Most spiritual and religious traditions have also equated breath and life throughout history, including the scriptures of Judaism and Christianity. It may very well be the case, with the advances we’ve made in medical science, that it’s time to reevaluate the concept of legal personhood. People who can no longer breathe on their own or otherwise survive naturally can be kept alive through extraordinary means, sometimes with their cognitive abilities intact or capable of restoration, and fetuses in the later stages of development are now usually viable and possess most or all of the mental capacities of newly born, healthy infants.

But linking personhood to DNA is a very recent and I would say extreme innovation, and as yet no federal court has recognized this linkage, to my relief. The science of human reproduction reveals that it’s a complex process, rife with false starts (it’s widely estimated that well over half of all human conceptions fail to result in healthy live births). To assign personhood to every human conception would overturn centuries of very good legal precedent which does not concern itself too much with assigning rights and responsibilities to human organisms in the earliest and not yet determinate stages of development. Instead, it does and should concern itself first with the protection of the rights and responsibilities of individual human beings who we know already possess the attributes traditionally assigned to legal persons: viability without radical intervention and/or evidence of consciousness. Recent attempts to enforce laws based on DNA-based personhood have reduced pregnant and potentially pregnant women too close to the legal status of mere incubators.

…KELLY: Governor Kasich, You chose to expand Medicaid in your state …[and] defended your Medicaid expansion by invoking God, saying to skeptics that when they arrive in heaven, Saint Peter isn’t going to ask them how small they’ve kept government, but what they have done for the poor.

KASICH: …we’re treating [drug addicts] and getting them on their feet. And …the working poor, instead of them having come into the emergency rooms where it costs more, where they’re sicker and we end up paying, we brought a program in here to make sure that people could get on their feet. And do you know what? Everybody has a right to their God-given purpose….

It’s a relief from time to time to hear an American politician on the Christian right who remembers, if only occasionally, what the Christian religion was originally all about, and what it’s still all about at its best: eschewing greed and helping others. The Ayn-Rand, Gordon-Gecko brand of ‘nothing personal, it’s just business’ ethics, equating selfishness and relentless personal enrichment with ‘personal responsibility’, is not traditional; it’s another very recent innovation, though not so recent as the unique human DNA = personhood one. The early Christians were the original socialists, though their government was not linked to the civic one, and the only enforcer of their laws was, according to the New Testament, God himself. The Acts of the Apostles tells the story of Ananias and Sapphira, who hid some of their wealth from their Christian community which required the sharing of all resources. When Paul calls them out on their deception, God strikes them dead.

If I heard more conservative Christian politicians declare publicly that while they don’t believe the government should interfere, it’s still a grave sin for people to spend their money on lavish lifestyles for themselves when their employees are underpaid and so many others go without healthcare and other basic necessities, I’d be inspired. If I heard their voices crying in the wilderness of this self-centered, hyper-materialistic society we’re creating that it’s wrong to hoard money in tax shelters, depriving their fellow citizens, including the military and its veterans, of lawful tax revenue, I’d listen and admire. What would the God of the Acts of the Apostles think of such deception? But it still appears clear that those who benefit most from tax loopholes are the ones funding most of these ‘pro-business’ politicians and giving them lucrative private sector jobs when they’re done. In such an environment, these politicians rarely proclaim that they believe Business, just like everyone else, should conduct itself according to principles that the biblical Jesus spent most of his time talking about.

….WALLACE: Gentlemen, we’re turning to …the issue of immigration. Governor Bush, …I want to ask you about a statement that you made last year about illegal immigrants. And here’s what you said. “They broke the law, but it’s not a felony, it’s an act of love. It’s an act of commitment to your family.” Do you stand by that statement and do you stand by your support for earned legal status?

BUSH: I do. I believe that the great majority of people coming here illegally have no other option. They want to provide for their family But we need to control our border… We need to be much more strategic on how we deal with border enforcement, border security. We need to eliminate the sanctuary cities in this country. It is ridiculous and tragic that people are dying because of the fact that — that local governments are not following the federal law. …I hope to be that president — will fix this once and for all so that we can turn this into a driver for high sustained economic growth. And there should be a path to earned legal status…

Sadly, this is not the first time people have been driven to our borders as political and economic refugees. In times past, we turned them away, and as they had no opportunity to enter illegally, their ships were forced to return, and they died in the Holocaust. In that case, I believe those fleeing to our country would have been justified in breaking the law, as their right to sustain their own lives trumped all. As Bush pointed out, the situation is not that different for many illegal immigrants. Our policies help perpetuate the drug war ravaging so many of the countries south of our border and our own citizens are the eager customers of the murderous cartels, and while we might point out that it’s their governments’ responsibility to protect them, not ours, that makes no difference when it comes time to choose, to try and make a safe and decent life for themselves and their children.

But Bush is not correct in claiming that people are dying specifically because sanctuary cities are not targeting illegal immigrants for arrest. The relatively few people who are the victims of crime at the hands of illegal immigrants are suffering because some people do wrong, whatever their citizenship status. Later in this debate, in remarks I leave out for the sake of space, Trump, Cruz, and Carson offer anecdotes of conversations had with Border Patrol agents and other officials as ‘proof’ that illegal immigrants are bringing unprecedented waves of crime with them, a very poor type of evidence compared with the official arrest and crime records which contradict their claims. If Bush, Trump, Cruz, Carson, and others want to make the argument that ‘sanctuary cities’ should do more to arrest illegal immigrants as a crime prevention measure, than for consistency’s sake they would need to argue in favor of also rounding up American citizens too, since they’re the ones committing violent crimes at higher rates.

It seems that we would do more to reduce crime and violent deaths across the board by reducing the incentives and opportunities which lead to them. We should change our drug policies, decriminalizing many drugs, replacing our prohibition system with sensible regulation and treatment options. And we should stop allowing guns to flood our country, making it all too easy for the depraved, the violent, the angry, the untrained, the mentally ill, the depressed, the clumsy, and the just plain unlucky to kill each other and themselves.

KELLY: Alright, gentlemen, we’re gonna switch topics now and talk a bit about terror and national security. Governor Christie. You’ve said that Senator Paul’s opposition to the NSA’s collection of phone records has made the United States weaker and more vulnerable….

CHRISTIE: When you actually have to be responsible for [prosecuting, investigated, and jailing] terrorists, you can do it, and we did it, for seven years in my office, respecting civil liberties and protecting the homeland….

PAUL: …I want to collect more records from terrorists, but less records from innocent Americans. The Fourth Amendment was what we fought the Revolution over! John Adams said it was the spark that led to our war for independence, and I’m proud of standing for the Bill of Rights…

CHRISTIE: …You know, that’s a completely ridiculous answer. “I want to collect more records from terrorists, but less records from other people.” How are you supposed to know, Megyn?

PAUL: Use the Fourth Amendment! …Get a warrant! …Here’s the problem, governor. You fundamentally misunderstand the Bill of Rights. Every time you did a case, you got a warrant from a judge. I’m talking about searches without warrants …indiscriminately, of all Americans’ records….

It’s always interesting to me when people who describe themselves as proponents of ‘small government’ become ardent defenders of big, intrusive government when it comes to certain pet causes. I agree with Paul here: one of the strengths of our system is that there are mechanisms built into our laws, at least ostensibly, to keep government accountable to its people. Obtaining a warrant before gathering information on citizens is one great way to accomplish this, and to show the world that we actually mean it when we claim to believe in a government of laws that’s accountable to its free citizens. And let’s not forget: amassing one massive, centralized database of the communication of private citizens provides an irresistible target for those who would want to hack into and steal such a gold mine of information, be it for political power, business, or terror.

… KELLY: Senator Cruz …you asked the chairman of the joint chiefs a question: “What would it take to destroy ISIS in 90 days?” He told you “ISIS will only be truly destroyed once they are rejected by the populations in which they hide.” …

CRUZ: Megyn, we need a commander in chief that speaks the truth. We will not defeat radical Islamic terrorism so long as we have a president unwilling to utter the words, “radical Islamic terrorism”. …When I asked General Dempsey, the chairman of the joint chiefs, what would be required militarily to destroy ISIS, he said there is no military solution. We need to change the conditions on the ground so that young men are not in poverty and susceptible to radicalization. That, with all due respect, is nonsense.

KELLY: You don’t see it as…an ideological problem — an ideological problem in addition to a military one?

CRUZ: Megyn, of course it’s an ideological problem …Let me contrast President Obama, who at the prayer breakfast, essentially acted as an apologist. He said, “Well, gosh, the crusades, the inquisitions–” ….

Cruz is right insofar as it’s an ideological problem, but not necessarily in the way he means. People are prone to be inspired and radicalized by ideology, and right now, there’s an influential brand of Islam that inspires its followers to do violence in its name. But waging war, especially in the opponent’s territory, doesn’t solve this problem; it doesn’t tend to make one’s ideological enemies wave the white flag right off the bat. It tends to do the opposite, to inflame patriotism on all sides, especially for citizens and sympathizers of the country that’s been ‘defiled’ by ‘outsiders’ breaching its borders. Young men, especially single and without families, have always been most susceptible to this. And a cause like ISIS, which promises salvation through glorious martyrdom, is an irresistible draw to people of certain temperaments and beliefs, and especially to those who have not made their own lives meaningful to themselves in some other way. History is rife with examples of this, the original Muslim conquests, the Inquisition, and the Crusades all included.

A policy which encourages a backlash of more martyrdom-seeking looks like the strategy of defeating the mythical Lernaean Hydra by cutting off heads as fast as you can, knowing all the while this causes twice as many to grow in their place. We would probably do better by other means, such as helping other Muslims defeat them, or by capturing their leaders and putting them on trial, showcasing them as criminals and murderers and not noble defenders of a worthy cause. While Obama may err sometimes on the side of political correctness, it’s clear from the context that his goals (and they are worthy ones) are to avoid stirring up more religiously-motivated hatred, and to reduce the use of religious- and ideologically-charged rhetoric that self-proclaimed holy warriors can use as recruitment tools.

…  KELLY: Dr. Carson, in one of his first acts as commander in chief, President Obama signed an executive order banning enhanced interrogation techniques in fighting terror. As president, would you bring back water boarding?

….CARSON: Alright. You know, what we do in order to get the information that we need is our business, and I wouldn’t necessarily be broadcasting what we’re going to do

This is a silly remark in the information age we live in. If government agents torture people, we all find out at some point, and not only does it undermines our credibility when we do it in secret, we cede the moral high ground. We’ve made the moral decision, along with most of the civilized world, that we no longer believe in using tactics that are so brutal and corrosive to respect for human dignity. How can we hold ourselves up as an example to the world while resorting to tactics we’ve declared wrong to use on our own people when it suits our purposes? And, of course, our willingness to resort to torture is yet another recruitment tool for ‘holy warriors’ and provides them with the justification they want to torture captured Americans.

CARSON: We’ve gotten into this — this mindset of fighting politically correct wars. There is no such thing as a politically correct war. …And I’ve talked to a lot of the generals, a lot of our advanced people. And believe me, if we gave them the mission, which is what the commander-in-chief does, they would be able to carry it out. And if we don’t tie their hands behind their back, they will do it extremely effectively…

If he means that torture is more effective than other means of extracting information, than he’s just empirically wrong. It’s been shown time and time again that people being tortured, just like people under other kinds of duress, will tell you whatever they think you want to hear. Look at the history of torture and how often torturers got people to confess to the most ridiculous and unbelievable things, such as trafficking with the Devil and casting spells to kill neighbors’ cattle. Not to mention the huge amount of data we have on coercive interrogation techniques in law enforcement, which we’ve come to discover has led to unacceptably high rates of false convictions.

BAIER: …Now, broadly, ..the size of government is a big concern … But year after year, decade after decade, there are promises from Republicans to shrink government. But year after year, decade after decade, it doesn’t happen. In fact, it gets bigger, even under Republican politicians. …Is the government simply too big for any one person, even a Republican, to shrink?

HUCKABEE: It’s not too big to shrink. But the problem is we have a Wall Street-to-Washington access of power that has controlled the political climate. The donor class feeds the political class who does the dance that the donor class wants. And the result is federal government keeps getting bigger.

True, Huckabee, that’s true of the revolving door, of the tendency of many of the wealthiest to co-opt the power of the federal government to promote their special interests. If Republicans were generally even a little less willing than Democrats to keep money flooding into politics from special interests, equating dollars with speech, I might believe he’s on the right stage. As of yet, it’s only been a relatively few libertarian-leaning candidates, and John McCain, who’s consistently, openly criticized the Republican party and called for its reform on this account.

…. HUCKABEE: And I’m still one who says that we can get rid of the Internal Revenue Service if we would pass the Fair Tax, which is a tax on consumption rather than a tax on people’s income, and move power back where the founders believed it should have been all along.

The so-called Fair Tax system is an interesting idea overall: it has a built-in system of basic welfare, which delivers on the claim that we value equal opportunity; it taxes consumption, which might significantly curb the environmental effects of industry; the code itself is simpler, increasing transparency and making the ordinary citizen more or less as able as the wealthy to navigate it without the help of professionals; and it’s progressive in one sense, in that people with less money, up to a point, end up paying less. It has some big problems as its currently formulated, such as: the excess money of the wealthiest people, who couldn’t spend most of it even if they tried, would not be taxed and would therefore fail to generate much-needed public revenue; it would be more difficult to enforce, especially when it comes to services; capital gains would not be taxed, encouraging investment in what Joseph Stieglitz calls ‘rent-seeking’ over innovation and the creation of useful goods and services; and its doesn’t have any disincentives that I could find for the kinds of financial speculation that so often brings down our economy. If the Fair Tax system underwent some pretty thorough reforms to solve some of these problems, I might become a proponent myself.

…BAIER: Dr. Carson, do you agree with that?

CARSON: What I agree with is that we need a significantly changed taxation system. And the one that I’ve advocated is based on tithing, because I think God is a pretty fair guy. And he said, you know, if you give me a tithe, it doesn’t matter how much you make

Carson, by contrast, advocates a flat tax, which is a deeply unfair system if there ever was one. $1 out of every $10 is a crushing burden to a poor person, but can have little to no impact on the quality of life of a wealthy person. And even if he wanted his Christian beliefs to inform our tax laws, there’s no evidence that the Judeo-Christian God would advocate a flat tax anyway. While tithing was a common charitable religious practice for the Jews as it was for other traditions, two remarks of the biblical Jesus express a different view of what the just person should contribute. In one parable, he dismisses the large charitable donations of the rich while praising an old women who gave only a tiny amount, because it was nearly everything she had. In another place, he said, ‘For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required’. Instead of proportionality, he valued the contribution according to the generous spirit with which it was given, and how much was given compared to how much one received in life. In this sense, Jesus could be considered a critic and advocate of reform of the old practice of tithing, just as he was of many other practices of his time.

KELLY: The subject of gay marriage and religious liberty. Governor Kasich, if you had a son or daughter who was gay or lesbian, how would you explain to them your opposition to same-sex marriage?

KASICH: Well, look, I’m an old-fashioned person here, and I happen to believe in traditional marriage. But I’ve also said the court has ruled … And guess what, I just went to a wedding of a friend of mine who happens to be gay. Because somebody doesn’t think the way I do, doesn’t mean that I can’t care about them or can’t love them. …I think the simple fact of the matter is …we need to give everybody a chance, treat everybody with respect, and let them share in this great American dream that we have….

Well said, a succinct and plain-spoken defense of the American value of pluralism and of the rule of law, the latter of which can be extended to protect people who had previously, and unjustly, been denied its protection.

…BAIER: Governor Huckabee, the culture of the American military is definitely changing. Women are moving into combat roles. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell has obviously been dropped. And now Defense Secretary Ashton Carter recently directed the military to prepare for a moment when it is welcoming transgender persons to serve openly. As commander in chief, how would you handle that?

HUCKABEE: The military is not a social experiment. The purpose of the military is kill people and break things. It’s not to transform the culture by trying out some ideas that some people think would make us a different country and more diverse. The purpose is to protect America

The American military has been de-segregated and liberalized many times over the centuries, to it and the nation’s benefit. While its primary purpose to to fight wars and defend the homeland, its also a powerful symbol of how we conduct ourselves among the nations of the world. For example, when black soldiers were treated shamefully in the barracks, on the battlefield, and at home despite their heroism, the injustice of the differential treatment really sank in for the American people, and the civil rights movement first gained its real traction as a result. But the military is not only a symbol, it’s our national defense, and as such, should represent who we are as a people. And whether some individuals like it or not, we are, as a people, men, women, black, white, brown, straight, gay, and transgender.

KELLY: …In our final moments here together, we’re going to allow the candidates to offer their final thoughts. But first, we want to ask them an interesting closing question from Chase Norton on Facebook, who wants to know this of the candidates: “I want to know if any of them have received a word from God on what they should do and take care of first.”

….KASICH: …You know, today the country is divided. …We’ve got to unite our country again, because we’re stronger when we are united and we are weaker when we are divided. And we’ve got to listen to other people’s voices, respect them …because of how we respect human rights, because that we are a good force in the world, [the Lord] wants America to be strong. …And nothing is more important to me than my family, my faith, and my friends.

Again from Kasich, he is honest about his beliefs, but succinct: he places the focus of his answer on solving the political matter at hand, and expresses a commitment to the law and to human decency, which all Americans can unite behind, regardless of whether his religious beliefs cause him to disagree personally on specific matters. This is the right tone to take when you run for the presidency of a pluralistic society dedicated to freedom of belief. Carson took the same tone in answer to this question. The rest of the candidates made comments that mostly sounded religiously divisive to me, more like preachers and less like public officials.

….KELLY: Thank you all very much, and that will do it for the first Republican primary night of the 2016 presidential race. Our thanks to the candidates, who will now be joined by their families on stage.

To be continued….

* Listen to the podcast reading of this piece here or on iTunes
* A nearly identical version is also published as a guest post at The Moderate Voice.

Investing in People

I’ve been hearing this refrain for what seems like forever now: ‘We need to invest in our [insert demographic group here]!’ Pick some class of people (but not just any, as we shall see), plug that into that opening phrase, and do an internet search. We need to invest in our children, in our women, in our entrepreneurs, in our African-Americans, in our veterans, and in our students, political leaders and the media proclaim. This phrase has been enthusiastically adopted by liberals and progressives, despite its strong capitalist, and thus ostensibly conservative, overtones. Because the phrase is so often coupled with the name of some group we’d all like to help succeed, it sounds so nice, doesn’t it? Shouldn’t we put more of our resources into helping others do well in life?

Of course we should. But remember what investment means: it’s putting resources into some venture in the hopes that it will pay off, and especially, that it will pay off for you. That, in itself, is not a bad thing. Investment, like capitalism generally, can lead to to all kinds of wonderful things: goods, technology, infrastructure, the arts, and other stuff which make other people’s lives better as well as your own, and more money with which fund more worthy projects. But think of the implication when it comes to investing in people. First, a good investment is one which has good results; so far, so good. But here’s what it also implies: putting our resources into bettering people’s lives is only worth doing if there’s something in it for someone else, and especially, for you. And that’s why I find the expression ‘investing in people’ irksome.

Of course, I realize that such expressions as ‘We need to invest in people’ are often shorthand for entirely benign sentiments such as ‘We need to invest in the projects and infrastructure that will provide opportunities and improve the lives of people because we care about their well-being’. Investment has become a buzzword that’s taken on more shades of meaning than it originally had, and political speeches and rallying cries are most effective when they’re short, punchy, catchy, and heavy on the use of buzzwords; I get it.  But I would be a more convinced of the humanitarian sense of purpose that investment rhetoric inspires if market interests were routinely subjugated to considerations of human rights and dignity and the health of our planet than the other way around. If it was used at least as often in the context of publicly supporting our elderly, our disabled, our homeless, our mentally ill, our artists, musicians, poets, volunteers, and others who don’t produce much of market value, it might not bother me much, and this essay wouldn’t exist.

As philosopher Michael Sandel worries, rightly to my mind, we seem to be transitioning from a market
economy to a market society, to the detriment of many. The rhetoric of investing in people is an emblem of a transition too far from from a humanistic, rights-based value system, and towards an acquisitive, incentive-based value system.

While personal gain has always figured heavily in market decisions, it seems to me that our behavior reveals less concern than ever about how our values should influence these choices. Despite what we find out about the low pay and awful working conditions of employees here and abroad compared to the wages of the company’s higher-ups, we keep gobbling their products up as fast as they’re churned out, and CEO’s continue to accept ever more lavish salaries without qualm. We know that children as well as adults are forced into labor mining rare earths, and that massive dumps of discarded electronics are rendering massive swaths of land and water in developing countries toxic, but we continue to invent, create, and gobble up new electronics without a murmur, and so on and so on. These are only two of the myriad ways in which we’re exhibiting a general loss of commitment to higher values in our market choices, and the noble working-class protests, strikes, and boycotts of the last century have disappeared and given way to complacent consumerism. We occasionally complain on the internet that higher-ups shouldn’t make quite so much when their workers are underpaid, and we sign petitions calling for a hike in the minimum wage, but we don’t do anything about it if our daily lives are made slightly less comfortable by doing so. As we can see from rising economic inequality, the plight of millions of unprotected workers who suffer and even die to produce cheap and plentiful goods, and the rate at which we’re causing mass extinctions, pollution (especially in poor countries), and climate change, they promise to undermine social cohesion and destroy our ability to sustain ourselves if we don’t start to seriously re-examine our behavior, re-commit to our values, and change our hyper-consumerist habits.

None of this is to say that we do wrong when we take into account how sharing our resources will impact our own lives. It’s actually quite an important consideration, especially given the fact that our own wellbeing is connected to the wellbeing of others, often closely. To clarify: I’m not a believer in so-called pure altruism. For example, I don’t believe, as did the great Immanuel Kant (at least according to some interpretations of his ethics) and as do some other philosophical and theological traditions, that an action is only fully morally praiseworthy if you don’t benefit from it in any way, even if only by feeling good about it. Kant thought that all actions that benefit the doer even a little are less morally good than they could be, because it means such actions are at least partly selfish. Only actions done purely out of duty, that are difficult or come at a cost to the doer, in this view, can be considered truly good.

But this extreme view of selfishness, which holds that doing anything that benefit’s one’s self is less than fully good, has a fatal flaw. It implies that there’s at least one human being in that’s less deserving of care than others, namely yourself.  So if you believe that all human beings have equal moral worth, or at least should be treated as if they do, then acting without concern for one’s own wellbeing offends justice just as much as acting without concern for others. The extreme view of selfishness also implies that human beings are atomistic, that the wellbeing of one is disconnected from the wellbeing of others, which we can easily recognize is untrue. It’s a demonstrable fact that the lives and fates of human beings are intimately intertwined in a way that’s unique among living creatures, due to our human nature as hypersocial creatures with highly developed, complex skills of communication. From the moment we’re born, we need human connection and human assistance to sustain life and enjoy happiness. As we saw earlier, the most pressing problems we face today, just as it’s been throughout history, concern the wider impact of individual human behavior and thought. I challenge the reader to think of any action or idea that doesn’t have consequences of any sort outside the life of an individual. Our own private thoughts habituate and instigate us to act in one way and not another, thereby manifesting themselves in the wider world. Even withdrawing ourselves from the human community, which gave us our being in the first place, is depriving it of our help and our participation, and therefore affecting it.

This all means that there’s no such thing as pure altruism or pure selflessness for human beings since, as we’ve seen, what we do affects others as well as ourselves as a matter of course. Concern for ourselves is bound up in everything we do and think. We’re all aware of this: human beings generally behave in a cooperative and even generous way because we know, by instinct, reason, and observation, that if we behave badly, it’s likely to come back and hurt us. When we behave badly, we seek ways to minimize the harm to ourselves, knowing it’s an expected result. When we consume too much, pollute too much, are greedy with our money when so many others are in want, and so on, we undermine the human community that sustains us (yet, this even includes those far away). We don’t trust bad actors, we are prone to respond in kind, and we aren’t as willing to cooperate and share with them. But when humans routinely do good, everyone benefits, ourselves included.

Even actions that are generally classified as selfless, such as self-immolation or martyrdom, are not really selfless. When we choose to sacrifice at least some portion of our well-being for other people or for an idea, we are satisfying some need of our own, such as the satisfaction of being fully committed to a cause, or of believing we’re saving our own souls, often at a cost to the wellbeing of others, such as that of the friends and family we leave behind. (I have some serious problems with the idea of martyrdom too, which I’ll explore more fully in another piece.)

In sum, pure altruism and the extreme view of selfishness and pure altruism are useless concepts, the first because it’s impossible in a hypersocial species such as ourselves, and the second since it would apply to every thought we have and everything we do, and thereby rendered meaningless.

If I seem to digress, I do this for a good reason: this discussion of altruism and selfishness directly relates to an objection that may seem to undermine the project of this essay, which is to demonstrate why it’s important we don’t restrict sharing our resources only to those situations where we can recognize and identify the potential payoff. Returning from the consideration of altruism and selfishness back to the idea of investing in people, it seems that my critique of the first two undermines my critique of the latter. Since the wellbeing of everyone is linked, and everything that goes around comes around, doesn’t that indicate that we should only want to spend our resources in ways that might benefit ourselves as well as others?

Well, for one thing, the term investment doesn’t generally apply where the returns might be to indirect or too spread out to be readily identifiable as benefiting the investor. It also doesn’t generally apply where non-monetary or at least non-material returns are irrelevant, if we wish the term investment to include expectations of more noble returns, such as decreasing suffering or protecting the rights of others. But even if we extend the meaning of the term to include these, I still think that using the rhetoric of investment is not only unhelpful, it can instill a bad habit of thinking. In a democratic society that ostensibly protects the rights of all of its members equally, a rhetoric that originates with the monetary concerns of the the most wealthy, or at least only those with material wealth to invest, is a very poor fit with the more broadly humanitarian aims of the public endeavor it refers to. At best, it implies that we should apply a market mentality of only spending money in hopes of personal reward to situations where human rights and dignity should be of primary concern. At worst, it ends up crowding out the habit of thinking we would do better to instill in one another, that human beings are worth sharing our resources with for their own sake, and that anything we can do to make it more likely that human rights are protected is a worthy goal in and of itself.

Returning to Kant, investing in people sounds like a violation of his great categorical imperative, that every person should be treated as if they’re an end in themselves, never as if they’re just a means to an end. Human beings, in his view and in the context of a humanitarian, rights-based value system, are worthy of respect and of support for their own sake.

You may object, who cares what it sounds like? We should only care about what we really mean by ‘investing in people’. Well, in case this whole discussion leaves you wondering if this is really all just a case of nitpicking about verbiage, that I would do better just making a case for why we should do more for those who need our help, well, I think that words really can matter. While the theory that language itself influences our thoughts is controversial, what’s not controversial is the knowledge that the words we choose both directly convey and imply our ideas and our values. When we choose the language of investment rather than the language of virtue or of human rights and dignity to talk to each other about why we should share our resources, I think we imply that we place a higher value on the return than on the persons being helped. And when our political leaders and the media flood the internet and the airwaves with this rhetoric, I think they do a disservice by making people too comfortable with that implied idea through repetition. After all, the American people (though not alone, by any means) are bombarded right and left with the message that to be a happy person and a good citizen we should work tirelessly to get ahead, and that the measure of our success is to be as well-dressed, well-housed, well-fed, and possessed of as much money in the bank and as much stuff as possible, whatever the wider ramifications.

I think that it would be an excellent thing if our political rhetoric more regularly emphasized the idea that the human community, and the world that makes its possible, is worth our respect and our support for their own sake. ‘Investment in people’, to my mind, does nothing to emphasize that point. While it’s true that a public commitment to sharing our resources where needed does benefit ourselves as well as others, that’s the gravy. The meat is the commitment to protecting human rights and to making lives comfortable and happy as befits their human dignity, and to preserving the wonderful world we are so fortunate to find ourselves in and which makes our lives possible, just because we know it’s the right and the beautiful thing to do.


Sources and inspiration:

Rohlf, Michael, “Immanuel Kant”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2014/entries/kant/>

Sandel, Michael. What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012. https://books.google.com/books?id=06-54FCTQ9AC&printsec=frontcover&dq=

O.P. Recommends: Alison Gopnik’s ‘David Hume and the Buddha’

I just read a delightful piece in The Atlantic‘s October 2015 issue which combines three of my favorite things: history of ideas, a detective story, and David Hume. In her article ‘David Hume and the Buddha’, psychology researcher, philosopher, and author Alison Gopnik tells the tale of how she detected elements of Buddhist philosophy in Hume’s A Treatise on Human Nature, and how she set out to discover if he had indeed been influenced by it.

In Hume’s time, mid-1700’s, there was very little access to Buddhist philosophy in Europe, at least in part due to church suppression of its public dissemination. There was, however, some accounts of it buried in private libraries here and there, especially among the Jesuits, travelers, missionaries, and scholars as they were (and are). As Gopnik read up on Buddhist philosophy and European first encounters with it, she stumbled upon more than an ideological link with Hume: a possible way he could have discovered as a young scholar.

Like the 23-year-old Hume, Gopnik had fallen into a depression, but in her case, it was brought on by the changes that so often occur in mid-life: the children have grown up and left home, her marriage had broken up, she moved, and the stress of it all left her unable to work for a time. Hume’s depression was likely brought on by too many years of intense study, too much time spent indoors all alone. His Letter to a Physician of 1734 is a clear and detailed account of what it’s like to suffer a severe bout of depression, and he recognized it, clear-headed naturalist that he was, as an ailment of the physical body, and just as amenable to a cure if only the right one could be found.

Hume found the cure for depression in regular exercise and in enjoying the company of other people; Gopnik found in in a new love and renewed enthusiasm for her favorite pursuits, but first she found it in Hume. After finishing Gopnik’s story, I find myself even more impatient for my next traveling philosophy adventure in the history of ideas. Until then, I’ll continue to be inspired by Hume’s, Gopnik’s, the Buddha’s, and other great thinkers’ work, and heed Thomas Jefferson’s advice: if you keep yourself busy and your mind occupied, depression will be hard pressed to find its way in.

Gopnik, Alison. ‘David Hume and the Buddha’. The Atlantic, October 2015 issue.
Published online as ‘How an 18th-Century Philosopher Helped Solve My Midlife Crisis:

David Hume, the Buddha, and a search for the Eastern roots of the Western Enlightenment’.

To Paris, France I Go, In Search of Revolution-Era Thomas Paine, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Thomas Jefferson

Hello, friends of Ordinary Philosophy!

From time to time, I take a trip to some corner of the globe, to explore the lives and ideas of great thinkers in the places where they lived and worked. For this series, I follow in the footsteps of thinkers who are no longer alive, since those who are still telling their own stories. But those who are no longer alive in the body live on in the ideas that they pass on, and in the example they provide for us to follow.

I’m pleased and excited to announce my fourth philosophical-historical themed adventure, this time in Paris, France to follow in the footsteps of Thomas Paine, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Thomas Jefferson at the time of the French Revolution.

The French Revolution, following on the heels of the American Revolution, inspired and horrified many. The financial crisis, caused by over-expenditures in recent wars (including assistance to the Americans) and food shortages, caused by a series of crop failures, led to an uprising mostly of professionals and merchants, joined later by members of the laboring classes. The movement for reform called for disestablishment of the monarchy, who entangled the nation in wars and continued to spend lavishly in times of want, and for ending the special privileges of the aristocracy and clergy, whose tax exemptions often placed the heaviest financial burden on those who could least afford it.

Thomas Paine, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Thomas Jefferson were three Enlightenment thinkers whose work is central in the intellectual legacy of modern human rights movements, and who were heavily influenced by the French Revolution. Paine, a British-born corset-maker who became involved in local politics and reform movements in his native country, in America, and in France, set down his political theory and freethought philosophy in Common Sense, The Rights of Man, and The Age of Reason. Mary Wollstonecraft, who was also born in England and also moved to Paris to take part in the revolutionary activism taking place there, followed Paine’s The Rights of Man with her Vindication of the Rights of Woman, now considered the founding work of the modern feminist movement. Thomas Jefferson, founding father of the United States and eventual President, was an American statesman living in Paris as the events leading up to the French Revolution unfolded, and continued to defend its core democratic values, if not all its tactics, even as it devolved to the bloody Terror.

So off to the Paris I go! There, from August 9th through the 21st, I’ll visit landmarks associated with their lives at this time, and see how the events that occurred at that time in the places where they lived, worked, died, thought, wrote, studied, rested, and played contributed to their thought during and after the Revolution.

~ Thank you, Ronnie Ruedrich and Mark Sloan, for your generous support

Here’s the story of the trip and related essays about these three thinkers and their ideas:

On Today’s Supreme Court Ruling Striking Down State Bans on Gay Marriage

Congratulations to all of my fellow Americans in love who, until today, have been denied the equal protection that’s their Constitutional and moral right. This so happens to be the week I celebrate eight years of happy marriage with the love of my own heart, and I’m so glad that that our society is affirming the love and commitment of so many more people. Here’s to all you lovers out there!

In Defense of the Introverts

I just listened to this podcast episode from Australia’s Radio International series Big Ideas, and let me tell you, it was a breath of fresh air. It’s called ‘Extrovert bias: it’s all around us’, and it’s a rebroadcast from a 2012 recording of Susan Cain’s discussion of her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking at the RSA, or the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce.
The book had slipped under my radar, but I’m glad to have encountered her ideas in this talk. In her book (which I plan to read), Cain discusses the personal and social value of introversion, and she worries that extroversion has come to be valued in school, the workplace, and in the arts sometimes to the near-exclusion of all else. While she agrees that both introversive and extroversive personality traits are valuable, she thinks we would all benefit from renewed appreciation of the great creative and intellectual accomplishments introversion can help us attain.
As was abundantly clear from audience questions and from Cain’s summaries of her readers’ emails, many find her insights helpful and validating. There are just so many introverted people out there navigating a society which often seems structured to exclude them. It seems that you can hardly get a job, get a promotion, or get your inventions, your work, and your ideas taken seriously without running the rigorous gauntlet of ‘putting yourself out there’: schmoozing, gathering contacts, selling yourself, and otherwise being a go-getter. For an extrovert, this process is generally lots of fun; for an introvert, it can often be awkward, embarrassing, tedious, terrifying, or just plain miserable.
Sometimes I feel that way because I’m an introvert too… I think. Or at least partly so. As Cain points out, introversion and extroversion are not really manifested in people as a simple dichotomy. Extroverts are not 100% extroverted all the time, it’s just that people consider themselves or others extroverts because, on balance, they tend to exhibit extrovert traits. Same goes for introverts. So how do we know whether we are extroverts, introverts, or that diplomatically conceived third category, ambiverts (people who exhibit both types of personality traits more or less equally)?

And anyway, why should we care? 
Let’s address both questions by exploring what people generally mean by introversion and extroversion, and see if we can find anything useful by exploring the distinction.
Here’s how the Myers and Briggs Foundation website (after Isabel Briggs Myers and Katharine Briggs, creators of the famous Myers-Briggs Type Indicator personality test derived from Carl Jung’s theories) briefly summarizes the difference between the two: ‘Do you prefer to focus on the outer world or on your own inner world? This is called Extraversion (E) or Introversion (I).’
To find out more, let’s take the introvert / extrovert Myers-Briggs test to see what happens. Now, I, for one, don’t place much stock in the results of personality tests like these nor do I plan any part of my life around them. However, job applicant tests, marriage counseling, workplace policies, and so on are often crafted around these tests, so as a practical matter, it’s important to know if they’re useful, useless, or even downright harmful. So how about we give them a little trial run?
Well, I didn’t end up taking the Myers-Briggs MBTI test on the official(?) website since I’m too frugal (cheap?) to spend the $50 they’re charging, but I took several other similar free tests based on their work, and I get the same result every time: INTP. Let’s all take one and see what happens.
Here’s how one site described my results: ‘The INTP personality type is fairly rare, making up only three percent of the population, which is definitely a good thing for them, as there’s nothing they’d be more unhappy about than being “common”. INTPs pride themselves on their inventiveness and creativity, their unique perspective and vigorous intellect. Usually known as the philosopher, the architect, or the dreamy professor, INTPs have been responsible for many scientific discoveries throughout history.’
Now for a person with my interests, I find the results pleasing and even flattering, and find much to identify with in this description. I also feel quite certain that these personality type descriptions are written to pander and seem applicable to just about everyone who reads them, like horoscopes, so that their satisfied audience keeps coming back for more.

So are the terms introvert and extrovert (and ambivert) useless, a load of BS, little more than psychobabble? Perhaps they are. Or, perhaps they may have been originally, but have come to refer to more useful and interesting concepts since they entered into common discourse. The way Cain uses the terms in her talk seem more to have to do with common sense, day to day observations of people by other people. Maybe they’re closer in meaning to everyday terms like ‘shy’, ‘reserved’, or ‘outgoing’: less technical and categorical, with more shades of meaning. Thinking of the terms this way, I like them better already.

We can also test the introversion/extroversion hypothesis another way: we can look at how we go about our to day to day lives and self-sort our habits of personality into the introverted, having to do with the time we spend alone, in our own heads, and at a distance from other people, and the extroverted, having to do with the time we spend with other people and feeling connected to them, and see which term might fit our overall personalities best. Or, we can run this test with others, by giving others a list of our behaviors and having our friends sort them. Think of those general behaviors that mostly make up how you spend your day, and see what you come up with. Here are some of mine, self-sorted:
I spend quite a bit of time alone, love to have lots of projects and tasks to work on, and tend to most enjoy those which can just as well or even better alone. I love to write, but never end up going to writer’s circles, workshops, or reading clubs though I constantly tell myself I should. I spend months apiece making art quilts that rarely make it onto a wall, because I can’t bring myself to go to galleries and ‘sell’ my work by trying to convince people I’m a ‘real’ artist who deserves to have my work shown. I’m uncomfortable with cliques and generally avoid them, and the moment I feel pressured to adopt the interests, attitudes, and tastes of a group of people, I flee. I’m very interested in many social, political, and intellectual movements and follow theme closely, but I never feel like going to marches and protests even if I support the cause, and I’ve spent many miserable hours at the socializing portions of such otherwise interesting events as Skepti-Cal and Meet a Scientist because I can’t bring myself to jump in on others’ conversations, so then I feel out of place, and then, remembering the uncomfortable awkwardness, I don’t go back. Same goes for Meetup groups organized around interests I share. I generally spend at least the first half of my first day off my day job alone, and often the whole day, even if I had been telling myself all week I really, really need to get out more. So, with all this alone time I like to spend, and with my awkwardness and shyness in so many social situations, I must be an introvert.
And yet… I have many friends, because in addition to enjoying the security and peace of lots of alone time, I love people. I find them fascinating and I crave companionship, and can’t go more than a few days without socializing before I start to feel lonely and depressed. I love hanging out with friends, of course, especially one on one and in small groups. I also love going to small to medium size parties so long as good friends are there, and/or as long as there are hosts that are solicitous of guests, spotting those who are bashfully hanging out in the corner, inviting and facilitating but not forcing them to take part in conversation. I really love meeting interesting strangers. I love to travel, and almost always pick large cities as my destination, spending almost the whole day every day out and about exploring. And most of all, I love getting deeply into conversation, and enjoy it much more than small talk; in fact, I find the latter boring. As long as all parties involve share a real interest in the subjects under discussion and so long as they’re being genuine, I’m the first to show up and the last to leave. So… I must be an extrovert too.
How would you sort these traits? Would you sort them as I do here? And do you think that, given these list of traits, I would fall more on one side of the divide than the other?
Or, am I an ambivert?

Perhaps. But I’m willing to bet that most of you who took the self-test easily found a substantial list of introverted and extroverted traits manifested in your own life, and probably wouldn’t class yourself as mostly one or the other. Besides, separating these personality traits into two categories may be a mistake in the first place, since many traits generally considered introversive contain both self-contained and social aspects (after all, isn’t reading a book alone also intimately getting to know what another person thinks and feels, and doesn’t that make it a social activity? Isn’t that also true for preferring to stay home and write pieces for others to read instead of public speaking, or donating to worthy causes instead of personally appearing at protests, and so on?) and vice versa. It’s probably true that most people consider themselves a combination of introvert and extrovert, although there have been many studies on introversion, extroversion, and related traits that seem to indicate there are real phenomena of personality that these concepts usefully point to, originating from the way our brains are structured and probably influenced quite a bit by personal experience.

So what to do with all this often nebulous, often contradictory information? Despite the problems of talking about introversion and extroversion as distinct things, I think Cain is on to something, both in what she says specifically and what I think she hints at. Even if we can’t neatly divide the world into introverts and extroverts (and even ambiverts, which I get the impression she doesn’t think is as useful as the the other two categories), we can look at how different personality traits can offer something of value to the individual as well as to the rest of us. Categorizing personality traits can simply be a useful way of exploring how we can integrate seemingly disparate ways of being ourselves in the interests of personal growth, in becoming the people we want to be, even if the categories seem clunky or artificial.

Cain suggests we look a little closer and see what introversion has to offer both for the individual and to society. She offers, among many, many others, the famous example of Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs, super-duo of the tech world. Jobs, with his outgoing and outsized personality, made Apple become one of the most successfully marketed products ever made. Wozniak, with his intense powers of concentration and habit of undistracted bouts of problem-solving, came up with the basic concept and design to begin with in the countless hours he spent alone in his personal space. And it’s not just amazing new gadgets that can be the products of introversion; they can be as grand as new discoveries in science and physics or as humble yet delightful and enriching to the mind as any lovely, clever, and insightful little poem by the ultra-introvert Emily Dickinson.

Cain’s insights can help us stop taking it for granted that having a quiet and reserved personality means a person is antisocial, or is ‘no fun’, or doesn’t care about others or can’t work with them, or any other negative stereotype often assigned to the non-extrovert. That’s because exploring the differences between personality traits can reveal how interconnected they are even as we recognize and explain how they fulfill different needs and perform different roles in our psyches.
Yet, I find there’s even more to be gleaned from what she has to say. She hints that even if introversion has no instrumental value, valuable only insofar as it facilitates or creates something else, it’s just as valid a way of being as is any other way of being. The marvelously rich variety of human nature, from introversion to extroversion and what’s in between, can all be reveled in and enjoyed for its own sake. There’s no need for the introvert to feel left out, to feel excluded, to feel ‘lacking’ in an extroverted world: there are great riches to be discovered and explored within ourselves too, which we all would do much better not to forget and neglect.


Sources and inspiration:

Cain, Susan. ‘Extrovert Bias- It’s All Around Us’, RSA discussion on Big Ideas podcast, Radio National Australia  http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/bigideas/susan-cain/6495096

‘Extraversion or Introversion’, Myers and Briggs Foundation website, 1997.

‘Study Sheds Light on What Makes People Shy’, Live Science Staff, April 06, 2010

On the Josh Duggar Controversy, Part 2

My recent piece on the Josh Duggar controversy was an especially controversial one for many of my readers, as I expected it would be, and here’s a response in answer to the many objections and questions I received in response to it.

To begin with, what do I mean by ‘child’ anyway? Fifteen-year-olds aren’t children, are they? I mean, it’s not like they’re little kids any more! C’mon, they know what they’re doing!

Well, yes and no, They know what they’re doing much more than younger children; but, like younger children, they’re encountering new and often staggering challenges which their not yet fully developed brains are still learning how to handle, especially when it comes to integrating their newfound sexual needs and urges into socially responsible behavior.

When it comes to nailing down an exact age or age range for the category child, I would leave it to relevant experts to decide this as it relates to policy. I consider a child a person who has not yet reached a stage of development in experience and physical maturity (including and especially of the brain) generally capable of practicing reason, forward-thinking, and self-control to the level that mature persons are generally capable of. I expect this age to be somewhere in the range of 17 – 19, though of course this differs from person to person. This might be better determined by a mental health professional when deciding if an offender should be directed to medical treatment or juvenile court or to the adult justice system.

Disgust is also playing a big role in public reactions to this case. Many are uncomfortable with the fact that children often act on their new sexual urges at all, let alone in ways that don’t respect the rights of others, since they lack the relevant social experience and their immature brains lack the structures that adults rely on for self-control. I was recently listening to a talk by the great Martha Nussbaum on how disgust often leads us to act unjustly towards one another; I think that this is happening here in Josh’s case. We all need to remember that sex is just as much a natural part of life as any other, and that to help them get through their life changes, we must react constructively and help children learn how to deal with it all. There are plenty of childhood misbehaviors that infringe on others’ rights: bullying, stealing, selfish refusal to help or share, and so on and so on. It makes no more sense to react hysterically to one than the other.

To single out sexuality in children as an instinct or set of behaviors to be disgusted at or feared more than others is to my mind not only unreasonable but superstitious, since it’s anti-scientific and anti-naturalistic, even inhumane. And to lump all sexual misbehavior in children together as ‘molestation’ and ‘assault’ is not only inappropriate, it’s absolutely wrong. Not only does it cause the public to treat the person slapped with these labels unjustly, it minimizes the injury of those who suffered real assaults or suffered substantial harm. In this case, people are referring to Josh’s unwanted groping or petting in the same terms that people are referring to the rape of children by clergy, for example: they are all being lumped together as ‘child molesters’. There is no moral justification for equating the forcible rape of a younger person by an older person with unwanted groping of one child by another, yet so many people are getting away with doing this very thing in the public debate right now by referring to them all in the same terms.

And it doesn’t make sense to react to the suffering of one child, the target of the undesirable behavior, by treating the misbehaving child unjustly. Whether or not we like it, the process of growing into our mature sexual nature is uncomfortable, complicated, and riddled with mistakes. Sometimes we need to give sexually misbehaving children a talking-to, sometimes we need to punish them, and sometimes we need to separate violent or dangerous children from others until they’ve learned their lesson. But we need to stop trying to sanitize childhood and adolescence, both on the right side of the ideological spectrum and on the left. Conservatives need to stop screeching about the horrors of teens having sex, the dire consequences of sex-ed, and how making contraceptives and the HPV vaccine available to youngsters will cause them all to be sex-addled reprobates. Liberals need to stop self-righteously acting as if children are simultaneously passive receptacles of adult virtues and perfect little angels whose misbehaviors are products of a corrupt society rather than immaturity, that children who cause discomfort or suffering in others must be ruthlessly tried, convicted, and sentenced in public opinion, and most of all, they need to stop promoting a culture of perpetual victimhood. Like I said before, we all need to grow up!

Even in the cases of extreme misbehavior, the future of the offending child should not be ruined by exposing them to a lifetime of media scrutiny, or placing them on a publicly accessible criminal registry for life, or otherwise lynching their reputation. The situation is never helped by heaping injustice upon suffering. And imagine what a society would look like, what a huge and oppressed underclass we would create, if we were to actually punish all children who were caught misbehaving in ways that caused other children suffering, or infringed on others’ rights, by publicizing their misdeeds for life. Today, I’m finding it quite funny (not ‘ha-ha’ funny) how many of the same people who’ve jumped on the ‘Josh Duggar is a child molester’ bandwagon are upset, as they absolutely should be, by Kalief Browder’s unjust punishment for allegedly stealing a backpack as a child of 16. Yet they’re treating Josh as a pariah since he ‘should have known better’ and Kalief as a tragedy because ‘he was just a kid’. Of course, Kalief’s treatment was far more unfair, and had far more dire consequences, than Josh’s. But many lives are ruined forever because of how society sometimes unjustly punishes people for life for offenses they commit as children, by the courts and in the media, and many people are driven to despair and even suicide because of it. And as Human Rights Watch and many other criminal justice reform organizations have found, people treated as Josh is being treated now are often driven to the same desperate lengths as Kalief.

Another thing: it doesn’t matter a tiny bit what Josh Duggar believes as an adult, what his religious or political opinions are, and especially, what his parents’ beliefs are, when it comes to how he misbehaved as a child and how we treat him because of it. I don’t like Josh’s religion, I don’t like the indoctrination brand of homeschooling his family promotes (which I experienced myself, to the detriment of my early education), and I don’t agree with the Duggar clan’s message overall. None of that matters. Neither I nor anyone else has license to do the wrong thing just because we don’t agree with someone’s opinions, even if we think they are being hypocritical. In Josh’s case, if he now promotes Christian moral values and believes we should deal with sexual misbehavior harshly, it has nothing to do with whether he failed to live up to those principles before he was old enough to maturely formulate them. An adult can oppose bullying (rightly!) even if they themselves bullied others as a child, or promote stricter laws against theft even if they stole things as a child. The one has nothing to do with the other when it comes to one’s beliefs; every single one of us have convictions that our childhood behavior doesn’t reflect. We should criticize Josh’s beliefs on their own merits, and not on anything else.

In fact, we all learn right from wrong precisely because we’ve made mistakes: we do the wrong thing constantly as we grow up, and learn not to do it again because of the consequences. Sometimes it’s because we’re corrected or punished by an authority figure, sometimes it’s because we hurt others and feel ashamed, or because our peers strike back or shun us, and so on. It’s not until we’ve had ample opportunity to learn these lessons, and for our brains to develop enough to process and implement them, that we should begin to be held fully responsible for our actions.

One more thing: I would ask my fellow liberals and progressives who are jumping on the ‘Josh Duggar is a child molester’ bandwagon to consider this: would you accept this brand of character assassination based on childhood misdeeds from people on the other side of the ideological divide?

Let’s imagine ourselves in a counterfactual (make-believe or what-might-have-been) world in which Peter Singer, influential philosopher and founder of the modern animal rights movement, was suddenly embroiled in controversy. Suppose an angry neighbor convinced the local police to publish a report revealing that Singer has thrown rocks at the neighbors’ cats when he was fourteen or fifteen, sometimes injuring them a little or causing them fear and distress; sometimes, the rocks missed and the cats didn’t even notice what happened since they were asleep at the time. Then suppose conservatives who oppose animal rights’ legislation started splashing this story all over the press, saying things like: ‘Look what a hypocrite Peter Singer is, that animal abuser!’ and ‘See, I told you so-called liberal values are no good, look how Peter Singer behaves, that just shows what all those animal-rights bleeding-heart liberals who support him are really like!’ If you were not outraged at that injustice, and amazed at the unconscionable behavior of conservatives who reacted to the story this way, I would be just as appalled at the lack of critical thinking, and the willingness to betray ones’ principles to score political points, as I am with the ‘Josh Duggar is a child molester’ crowd. Peter Singer’s principles and beliefs he espouses as an adult has nothing to do with whether or not he misbehaved as a child in that counterfactual world.

In sum: we all need to deal justly with one another, and not stoop to assassinating one another’s characters for bad reasons just because we disagree. If we really believe in truth, justice, tolerance, and the rightness of our cause, we should hold ourselves to the discipline of never taking the moral low ground, because, ultimately, we all lose by doing so.


Sources nad Inspiration:

Nussbaum, Martha. ‘Same-Sex Marriage and Constitutional Law: Beyond the Politics of Disgust’
Talk at Cornell Law School, Nov 11, 2009 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dybhnOZvCvw

Schwirtz, Michael & Michael Winerip. ‘Kalief Browder, Held at Rikers Island for 3 Years Without Trial, Commits Suicide’. New York Times, June 8, 2015 http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/09/nyregi

Singer, Peter. Animal Liberation. Random House, New York, 1975

‘US: More Harm Than Good: Exempt Youth Sex Offenders From Registration Laws’. Human Rights Watch, May 1, 2013. http://www.hrw.org/news/2013/05/01/us-more-harm-good

Fury Road, by Christina Bellon

Max:  Here, everyone is broken.
Furiosa: Out here, everything hurts.

~ Mad Max: Fury Road

I couldn’t wait to see this movie. And then I couldn’t wait to see it again. The first viewing was cathartic in all the right ways, but it was a sensory assault. In 3-D it was almost abusive. The second time allowed me to attend to the story, the characters, the art and imagery, the dance of bodies in fight and vehicles in chase. Those Pole Cats are terrifyingly beautiful swinging through the air at high speed (all done live). Now I could enjoy the artistry of this post-apocalyptic adventure. Fury Road has everything the genre demands, explosions, fights, minimal dialogue. But, there’s more.

This is a fractured world, bodily and psychically. We find two competing philosophies, that understanding of reality by which we make sense of our world. There is the dualism of Joe’s warrior-cult, expressed best in the War Boy creed, “I live. I die. I live again.” There’s the witnessing of a warrior’s meritorious death in battle, being taken to the gates of Valhalla (by Joe, himself, for those not “mediocre”), and of being reborn, “shiny and chrome.”

There’s also the non-dualism of Furiosa’s unsentimental realism, her willingness to risk everything to return home, to find redemption in this life for the unstated horrors she has committed, and of the Free Women’s matrilineal earth-centered pragmatism, where the value of living is in being with others, clean water, fertile soil, and where the dead are held close in name and memory. There is no next life. The film doesn’t decide this ultimate question for us, though. Even as Joe’s mythology shatters in the wreckage of flesh and steel, one of the freed women is praying, “to anyone who’s listening.”

Commentators have claimed this is a feminist film, or that it should really be called Furiosa rather than Mad Max. The feminist in me (well, it’s really all of me) agrees. But most of these commentators are selling it short. This is a real feminist movie, and they don’t seem to know why.

If all it takes for a film to be feminist these days is for there to be a woman lead who can throw a punch and drive a truck, who isn’t a mere plot device, or isn’t there to fall in love or in bed with the leading man, then, yawn, ok, this is a feminist movie. But that’s not saying much. A genuinely feminist movie is more than not demeaning or minimizing. It is one that takes women seriously – with our strengths and weaknesses, as equals, complex, capable and vulnerable (as we all are), as worth knowing, trusting, and joining. And that’s what Fury Road does so brilliantly. Here we see women, portrayed complexly, richly, and honestly. It’s still so rare. It’s as refreshing as it is riveting.

Here, everyone has a price, a place, a function, and with it a value. Absent these, you’re rabble fighting for drops of precious water. In this post-apocalyptic hell, where every life-giving resource is either scarce, toxic, or gone, the human body becomes the principal resource: as meat, as breeders, as perpetually pregnant women milked for “mother’s milk,” as those caged and tapped as living blood bags, and as those War Boys who are “cannon fodder.” It’s not just the women in this movie who have no bodily autonomy, without means for bodily integrity, who are exploited and abused. Everyone is. Even Joe is trapped by the mythology he creates, as his body literally rots from nuclear contamination and as he fails repeatedly to produce “perfect” sons.

There is a deeply humanist principle on offer in this movie. It’s in all the great stories and in any of the laws worth preserving. It justifies their escape. It’s what they each would die in pursuit of. It’s in our dread they will fail and our weeping for those who don’t make it. This principle reminds us that each and every one of us is valuable to her- and himself, and that we must treat each other accordingly. It tells us that people are not only not food, they are not property. This is a humanist message. It is a message which is carried by the women, and adopted by the men who help them. It’s written on the walls of their captivity, demonstrated by their willingness to share what little they have, to risk themselves for the vulnerable and like-minded, and in their rejection of war. It’s in the satchel of seeds, “heirlooms, the real thing,” which Giddy Mary protects like her life, their lives – our lives – depend on it.

We want their vision of the world to replace the one they flee, we need them to succeed and Joe to fail, because we fucked it up for them… “Who killed the world?” they ask several times. Well, we did, clearly. Whether accidentally, negligently, or intentionally, we killed it. Our misdeeds gave birth to the world where one’s choices are Gas Town, Bullet Farm, or Citadel… or being feral in the wild. We created their hell. We need that humanist message to get through, for those carrying it to be successful, for them not to falter, or die along the way. We fucked up.

There’s so much this film makes us ask:
Why does Furiosa seek redemption? We know what haunts Max, but have few clues about what haunts her. Likely, it’s bad. She’s the only woman, an Imperator, in Joe’s hyper-masculinized war machine. That achievement would have been costly.
What was “The Green Place”? How did it last so long, and then disappear?
Why are there so many War Pups but no girls… anywhere?
… and, so much it asks of us:
What is the moral cost of our sources of milk and meat?

Is it inevitable that we send our young to war?

Why are we not terrified at the loss of our green places?
What value do we place on others – on those who grow and produce our food, teach our children… keep our gas flowing?


Christina Bellon is Professor and Chair of the Department of Philosophy at Sacramento State University, California. This piece was originally published on June 8 at the excellent blog The Dance of Reason: the Sac State Department of Philosophy’s virtual hallway, which I highly recommend, and re-published here with the author’s permission.

Josh Duggar and Public Hysteria Over the ‘Sex Crimes’ of Children

Sick of hearing about Josh Duggar yet?

I sure am. But it’s not the volume of reporting and public gossip on the story that’s making me sick. It’s the way we simultaneously fear and drool over stories that reveal that children have sexual instincts too. It’s the way our laws and the media punish children, often for the rest of their lives, for this very fact. And it’s the way that far too many of my fellow freethinkers, supposedly enlightened and sex-positive, have jumped on the bandwagon in their zeal to ‘get at’ the Duggars.

In case you haven’t heard, Josh is the 27 year old son of celebrity parents Michelle and Jim Bob Duggar, a conservative Christian couple whose practice of rampant childbearing (19 at this point) made them the subject of a popular reality television show.

It turns out that Josh was a kid like many other kids: as a young teen, he touched other children, some far younger than himself, in a sexual manner. Most of it was light petting, or touching of the genital area through clothing. I couldn’t find evidence that there was any violence or physical coercion involved. At some point Josh went to his parents and confessed, and over time, law enforcement was called in, and all those involved received counseling.

It started out with gossip, then somehow, someone got Arkansas authorities to release the police report, which was splashed all over the news by trashy celebrity-gossip publication InTouch Weekly. While names and pronouns were redacted, it became clear that the report was about Josh, and he and his family ‘fessed up. At the request of one of the recipients of the unwelcome touching, the record was destroyed.

Even my fellow freethinkers and sex-positivists have joined in the fray. While giving half-hearted disclaimers to their spreading Josh Duggar ‘molestation’ tales (a strong term for the type of non-violent, secret petting described) even though he was a child at the time, they’re so eager to get at Michelle and Jim Bob that their scruples have fled them.

Deeply disappointing. While it’s right that children taught to respect the bodily integrity of others and the importance of consent, it’s also true that children are insatiably curious, with immature brains that lack the structures adults rely on for self-control. C’mon, people. Don’t you have any memory at all of what it’s like to be a little bag of hormones lacking a developed prefrontal cortex? Don’t you remember the storms of emotion and urges, which we could hardly make sense of or control, that raged through us and seemed to take over our minds and bodies? Yes, children have bodies with parts, and sometimes they explore their budding sexuality by touching each other on these parts. We need to get over it and grow up, if we are to be the wise and just helpers children need as they grow up.

Whether or not their intentions were protective or self-serving, the Duggar parents did the right thing by shielding their child from the media circus. They probably did the right thing by privately turning to law enforcement to help teach their recalcitrant young son that actions have consequences and that there are personal boundaries that must be respected. They definitely did the right thing by seeking counseling, even if the counseling could have been of better quality. This is not a story, as many are portraying it, that echoes the clergy child abuse scandals of the last few decades. Those were real sexual crimes perpetuated on children by adults who are far more capable of self-control, and who wield a sort of power that children, as Josh was at the time, do not possess.

Correct children for their mistakes, punish them appropriately to discourage unacceptable behavior, but do not pillory them in the media and do not punish them for the rest of their lives for their childhood wrongdoing. This is true even if the person is now an adult. We do not hold adults to account for what they did as children because we believe in accountability and personal responsibility. To gossip about the mistakes and misdemeanors of children now grown is disgusting and morally reprehensible, because it teaches people that it’s no use to try and become a better person if society will always punish you no matter how you better yourself in the future. Shame on you, Rachel Ford of Friendly Atheist, usually such a good forum for critical thinking. Shame on you, Ana Kasparian and company on the Young Turks, for waiting till near the end of your video commentary to make a halfhearted disclaimer that kids’ disciplinary records shouldn’t be made public, after you passed along this gossip in such an unbalanced and salacious manner. And shame on all of you who joined in this witch hunt.

There’s yet another story that I recently heard about a man who was put on a sex offender registry because he, as a child, had sexual contact with another child. The young man in the story did wrong, but he reformed. Yet he and his family are still suffering the consequences, as are thousands just like him (often for offenses as minor as showing a photo of a body part to another minor, consensually or not), and may be suffering for the rest of his life. There’s nothing so cruel as a simultaneously sex-obsessed and sex-fearing society toward a registered ‘sex offender’, regardless of how they got the label. Think of that young man, of Josh, and of how every single one of our lives could be destroyed if our childhood mistakes were held over our heads in perpetuity.

If people want to criticize the Duggar parents for making a circus of their family and exposing their small children to the stress and danger of life in the limelight (think of the Jackson family and how celebrity affected those kids), well and good. But LEAVE THE KIDS OUT OF IT.


Bryan, Miles. For Juvenile Sex Offenders, State Registries Create Lifetime of Problems’. All Things Considered, NPR. May 28th, 2015. http://www.npr.org/2015/05/28/410251735/for-juvenile-sex…

Ember, Sydney. ‘Josh Duggar Molested Four of His Sisters, His Parents Tell Fox News’, New York Times, June 4th 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/04/business/media/josh-duggar-molested…

Ford, Rachel. ‘What the Rush to Defend Josh Duggar Tells Us About Conservative Christian Morality’, Friendly Atheist blog. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/2015/05/27/what-…

‘Josh Duggar Chilling Molestation Confession In New Police Report’, InTouch Weekly, June 3 2015

‘Josh Duggar’s Child Molestation History Revealed’, The Young Turks, May 22nd 2015.