Saturday, December 13, 2014

Is morality objective, or subjective? A lengthy debate within the context of the abortion question

My friend Andrew posted the following image on his Facebook wall the other day, and it showed up in my timeline:

The following debate ensued in the comments section.

Andrew Doris This is a load of shit Andrew. Even if you are pro-life, and think that's the most important issue of all, how does that make any of those other issues less serious? How does believing we are a corrupt and immoral country because of abortion preclude parallel corruption and immorality in other areas? If abortion were illegal, as you like, would everything else resolve itself and be just peachy?

Torture is a problem. Unchecked unilateral wars are a problem. Police abuse is a problem. Dishonesty and blanket surveillance are problems. These problems have many complex causes, and no easy solution. Prohibiting abortion, whatever its merits, will not solve those problems. It's one thing to passionately disagree with someone about issue X, but it's quite another to object to the discussion of any issue besides X.

Andrew Doris Sorry for the aggressive tone. I'm just salty about Andy Harris' douchebaggery

Andrew Guernsey It's total hypocrisy to say "all lives matter" and then discard the lives of millions of children in the womb with abortion on demand. If someone is out getting mad about a black young man getting killed in an altercation with police but then silent when black babies are killed in the womb we've truly missed something. Think about it, if the government allowed the systematic and targeted killing of old people deemed unfit for society---this would surely dwarf our other injustices in society. You could not be consistent in opposing torture of terrorists and allow torture and killing of the sick and elderly. Yet abortion on demand is little different than this example except that the preborn cannot speak up for themselves.

Siobhan Fagan I think that the root of all of the other offenses stem from the same as abortion: a lack of respect for human life. That's why, to me, if we can recognize the dignity of the most innocent of lives, that will translate into a respect for the lives and dignity of terrorists, a just approach to war, and a decrease in abuses between all people. I think that you can't just outlaw abortion, but you have to change people's attitudes towards it before you can affect change. Everyone is outraged when a person is tortured, but a person is tortured because someone's life is valued more than theirs. When we come to recognize that everyone has equal dignity, these problems will lessen substantially. So I suppose I disagree with your assessment that there are complex causes to these problems. There's really one root problem at issue here.

Andrew Guernsey I'm with President Obama on this one, if you take his words on Sandy Hooke seriously--we will be judged as a society primarily based on how what we do to protect our most vulnerable children from harm. (see the video) It is my firm conviction that Frederick Douglass' Fourth of July speech rings even more true today with abortion than it did in 1852 with slavery: "There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour. "

Noor Khalil The problem is whether or not unborn fetuses are really "human life". Obviously, you consider them innocent lives, but other people may differ on that. However, there is much less debate on whether black people or terror suspects should count as human life.

Andrew Guernsey Any amount of debate can't change the scientific facts--namely-- that human life begins at the moment of fertilization---and every act of abortion kills a genetically unique member of our human species. There was a time when the slavery question was considered "legitimate debate"---but that didn't change the fundamental evil and injustice of the practice. Based on that logic, how many people in disagreement in society does it take before your rights as a human being cease to exist? 50%? 30%? 15%?

Siobhan Fagan I mean, scientifically speaking unborn fetuses are human life from the moment of conception. That's not a debatable fact. What is debated is the level of dignity to which people think they are deserving and the level to which human life actually exists--for example, while they are human, at what point are they 'real' humans/babies. Similarly with terror suspects and blacks, it is my perception that while people don't disagree as to whether or not they are human, it is the level of dignity they accord that is in question. In the past, blacks were defined as three fifths of a person and treated as such. Terrorists are being tortured because their life and dignity is deemed less worthy than those they would kill.

Siobhan Fagan Whoops, sorry to be redundant upon Andrew's point.

Noor Khalil I didn't say that they weren't human, I was just explaining where the debate lied. However, at fertilization, embryos cannot feel pain or emotion, unlike full grown humans, which complicates things.

Andrew Doris Andrew: It's only hypocritical if they agree with you on that other issue though, which makes it a completely uninteresting comparison. Black people are only analogous to fetuses if you're pro-life. Old people are only analogous to fetuses if you're pro-life. Torturing terrorists is only the same as "torturing" fetuses if you're pro-life. To anyone who isn't already pro-life, there are obvious and morally relevant distinctions between those things, so you're not probing anyone or contributing anything to the discussion that might make people view things in a different way. All the post does is say "I really think I'm right about abortion guys!" which, trust us, we know.

Andrew Doris Also my original point still stands. Even if it is hypocritical, that doesn't mean it's wrong. If people protesting Eric Garner, torture, and unjust war are hypocrites for not also opposing abortion, fine - but they're still right about Eric Garner, torture, and unjust war, so alleging that these things don't also make us immoral and corrupt is still nonsense.

Andrew Doris Hi Siobhan, nice to make your acquaintance. FYI, I'm Andrew's roommate and familiar sparring partner, so don't misinterpret my rhetoric as animus

In response to your first comment, I get the social conservative mantra that each digression from ____(insert subjective religious belief here)____ represents a cultural perversion that explains everything else that's wrong with society. Maybe I won't successfully tease that illogic out of you over Facebook. But empirically, just on this case alone, is what you're saying really plausible? That it all comes back to abortion? Abortion was illegal for a long time in this country and others. During that time, torture, unjust war, racism and police abuse were much MORE common, if anything, than they are today. If respect for the equal dignity of human life is a precondition for both decreasing those things, and also for prohibiting abortion, why have those trends gone in opposite directions? Does society value human life more or less today than it used to?

Secondly, nobody really disagrees that everyone has equal rights. The disagreement lies in who counts amongst "everyone." Presuming you're not a strict vegan, you believe animals are not included - I agree. Declining to afford animals the right to life does not lessen our belief in equal dignity for all, it just narrows our belief about who "all" includes. But some people disagree with us - PETA, maybe. How convincing would it be for them to lament that all of society's ills stem from our lack of respect for other living things? To me, not very. Yes, technically both animals and terrorists fall in in the category of "living things," but since we see relevant moral distinctions between humans and animals, that strikes us as a ridiculous diagnosis for society's problems with foreign policy or law enforcement.

Andrew Guernsey It's a question of priorities. Not killing innocent human beings is the first prerequisite of a moral society imho, right before not enslaving them, torturing them, denying them equal justice under the law, racially discriminating, depriving of wages etc. You're right, this post is essentially me venting frustration about the comparative apathy around the fact that the first thing that this country does when new human life begins is for nine months to deprive him or her of legal protection from intentional (and often painful) killing . I'm making claims about objective reality, not subjectivity or preferences like favorite foods. Even religious claims are not subjective. God either exists or he doesn't---there is no mushy middle. But that's a topic for another time.

Siobhan Fagan Hi, nice to meet you as well.
What I'm saying is that abortion is one of the strongest symptoms--today at least--of the cause: the lack of respect for human dignity. With abortion, I think that the easiest place to begin recognizing human dignity is with prenatal infants because they are the most innocent, though its also easiest to deny the existence of humanity in this case. It's far easier to rationalize away torturing a terrorist to save normal people from death than it is to rationalize away killing a child. I think society over time has alternated a lot between whose lives are valuable and worthy of dignity. As society values human life more than it used to, the offenses are seen as far more egregious.

I think that Thomas Aquinas answers your second point best, but I'll try. While all creatures deserve respect, only rational creatures have dignity. This is why we object to references to persons as something other than people; a man called a beast/demon/animal. Respect of all life--animal, vegetation, human--is essential as the rational man's responsibility is the keeping and care taking of the world. Needless injury and destruction of animal and nature isn't in accord with this. In fact, animal abuse has been linked to abuse of humans as well, which is why many states aggressively prosecute animal abuse or have mandatory reporting of animal abuse so as to prevent this. The root of abuses of animals and nature is a lack of respect of the dignity of life. So I suppose I partially agree and disagree and if this is incoherent, it's 4am and I'm sorry.

Noor Khalil But are embryos/fetuses rational creatures?

Siobhan Fagan Is a mentally handicapped person a rational creature? Would you call a 2-year-old a rational creature (especially if you've had any dealings with one)? If the accepted age of reason is 7 or 8, is that when a human person becomes a rational creature? What about a person with Down's syndrome? When do they become rational creatures? A human person at any stage of development or mental capabilities is a rational creature by virtue of they are, in a healthily developed and grown state, capable of rational thought.

like I said to Andrew last night, I cannot explain this as well as Aquinas did in the Summa.

Andrew Doris "Not killing innocent human beings" has much greater force as a first moral priority when we agree on who counts as human beings. Waving that sentence around without first ensuring a shared understanding of its terms is to knowingly conflate two things, so you can claim to be the defender of grand principles that have a nice ring to them. We're going in circles. I'm not going to convince you to be pro-choice and that was never my intent. I just want you to openly concede that you can be both pro-choice and anti-torture, anti-police abuse, or anti-war in an internally consistent way.

Andrew Doris You write:

"I'm making claims about objective reality, not subjectivity or preferences like favorite foods. Even religious claims are not subjective. God either exists or he doesn't---there is no mushy middle." Far from being a "topic for another time," this is really the heart of what I objected to in your initial post. (I'll leave aside for now the God question, though I note in passing that subjectivity doesn't require a mushy middle).

There's a whole school of libertarians who think libertarianism is the only rational ideology. Stefan Molyneux is one of these people - very popular libertarian philosopher and radio host. He insists there's such thing as an objective, rational, secular, scientific and comprehensive ethical system - and that it proves libertarianism right! He wrote a whole book about it, which you can see here: I've read his book. It's nonsense.

Many liberals do the same thing: Somewhere between evolution and climate change, the left convinced itself that all their beliefs (not merely the scientific ones) were objectively true. They wave away liberal bias in higher education with the glib assumption that this is to be expected, since professors and deans are just more knowledgeable and worldly. They convince themselves that theirs is the party of objectivity; that progress as they define it is desirable by some absolute norm; that the difference between the parties is not one of values, but one of knowledge and reason; that any who disagree with them must just be ignorant or uninformed or unintelligent. It's how they try to silence your voice as not merely wrong, but "hate speech." It's nonsense for them too.

The root problem with all three of those viewpoints (yours included) is that they try to stretch moral universalism much further than it can go, all to avoid the unsettling reality that their most passionately held convictions are nothing but contestable opinion. It's one thing to have your beliefs, and to defend them passionately. It's another to say not only am I right, I'm objectively right; the 50% or more of the world that disagrees is not merely wrong, but factually incorrect. We're all guilty of it from time to time, but what it amounts to is getting too caught up in our own bullshit.

Abortion's rightness or wrongness is not a fact. It's not something the rest of the world is just too stupid to see clearly. You cannot prove it right or wrong the way you prove a math problem. It is the textbook definition of an opinion.

Andrew Guernsey On the contrary, if people don't argue ethics on the basis of reason, objectivity and shared moral principles, then no public discourse or public action is possible to remedy injustice or violations of life or liberty. If you think human rights begin at birth, 3 months, 4 months, whatever, by all means argue for it and justify your claims, but you can't claim it's "just your opinion," unless you want to argue for moral relativism. You are right that different political matters have different amounts of certainty---but the retreat to the subjective epistemology as an excuse for inaction in the face of injustice is inconsistent with other hallmarks of moral progress we rightly pride ourselves on such as abolishing slavery, female oppression, religious killings, human sacrifice, etc. Indeed, "there is nothing so absurd that some philosopher has not already said it" but the point of moral disputation is to sort out which opinions are wrong and which are right--and protecting people's rights to express their beliefs, however wrong-headed, I believe, is important to helping us identify the truth--making our opinions correspond objective reality--since no one has a monopoly on truth "a priori". As far as libertarianism and abortion goes, where do you draw the line--- do you go as far a Rothbard? This libertarian wrote a good piece on the matter, showing that even atheists and Christians can come to the some of the same conclusions about abortion from different angles.

Siobhan Fagan If a fetus is not a human being from the moment of conception, when does it become a human being? You can be pro-choice and anti-torture, but it doesn't make rational sense. It involves the same misnderstanding of human dignity that people who are pro life and pro abortion fall into. When lives and dignity are weighted against each other to find whose life is worth more, we are faling to recognize that all life is precious and all life ought to be protected. I know that this may seem circular, but if you can pinpoint the place where a fetus becomes a human being, please do. Then I may be able to understand how someone who is intelligent and well educated might be anti torture and pro abortion.

Noor Khalil Here's a simple argument: a fetus cannot feel pain until some period. Aborting a fetus before that period causes no pain to it, while torture by definition causes pain.

Siobhan Fagan There are certain conditions where a grown adult cannot feel pain. Is it right to do things to that adult that would cause pain to a person who could feel it?

Andrew Doris I can talk with Guernsey any time, so I'll ignore his comments for now and answer Siobhan's question.

I have no firm opinion on precisely when a fetus acquires its natural right to life: there's a point where it clearly has it, a point where I'm confident it doesn't, and an iffy area in between. Legally, I advocate the end of the second trimester as the moment it obtains legal protection only because, as a libertarian, I am not confident wielding government force to coerce other people's behavior unless I am really frickin' sure the ends justify the means. Up until the final trimester, I'm not.

Human reproduction is a long and gradual process involving a series of incremental biological changes. Taken independently, none of these changes provide the organism with all of the traits which I (and many other people) deem prerequisites for ensoulment or moral person-hood. I cannot with any certainty specify one event in that process as THE MOMENT when everything changes.

What I can say is that neither of the events at the extreme ends of this process - birth nor conception - make sense to me as a division point. Just as I see no morally relevant difference between killing a baby the hour before it's born and the hour after, I see no morally relevant difference between killing a sperm and killing a recently fertilized egg. Yes, there are biological differences regarding chromosomes and whatnot, but I don't find those scientific differences to be morally relevant. When I see or hear that a fertilized egg dies, I feel no remorse. It does not tug on my heartstrings the way it does when an infant is killed after birth. The little voice in the back of my head that helps me sort right from wrong does not detect an injustice. It's a cluster of cells that I hold in equal regard to skin cells or bacterium, and when it dies, my conscience does not object.

Perhaps yours does, and there's nothing wrong with believing that the moment of conception is the most sensible distinction. But I think it's silly to pretend that distinction is morally obvious or objectively provable. There is no scientific answer to the question of which organisms have rights and which do not. It is a dicey moral question, not a scientific one. It is subjective, and there is no hypocrisy in disagreeing with you.
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Siobhan Fagan First two paragraphs, I completely understand what you're saying and that makes sense to me why you feel/believe what you do.

The problem with the sperm/fertilized egg distinction is that a sperm is lacking some necessary second component to produce human life, where as the fertilized egg, in the womb (even in a petri dish at the start, and I think now artificial wombs? but that's a different topic), has everything necessary to grow into a fully developed human person. Emotionally, I'm with you. Little squiggly things under a microscope versus the emotional (and very strong tug) of "Ohmygosh a baby!" (at least that's my reaction). The little squiggly things would mean nothing to me except I know by science that they have everything necessary to be a human person in the earliest stage of development. If someone threatened to drop a baby or a tray of fertilized eggs, I know I would save the baby because of that emotional tug of recognition. Yet the fertilized egg is the beginning of life, and therefore I know logically that when fertilized eggs are experimented upon or discarded, they ought to be mourned. It may not invoke an emotional response, but logic doesn't have to be emotional. Scientifically, a fertilized egg is the start of human life and that human life has a potentiality so great that when it is not achieved it ought to be, and often is, mourned, as in the case of miscarriages. Unlike skin cells or bacteria, that fertilized egg in the womb contains in itself the essence of a human person as it (well it's actually a he or she from the moment of fertilization) grows into what you and I are now.

I completely get that your conscience does not object because you don't see the point of conception as the start of a human's right to life or the start of person hood. It is not obvious to you and that's fine. But I must disagree that morals are subjective. The truth is not subjective so there cannot be a movable moral point for each person to decide for themselves. I'm sorry, I wish I could agree on you on your last point but I really can't. Don't you hate it when you can't reach a satisfying conclusion for both parties?

If you're looking for a book to read over Christmas break, my professor's late wife was a Harvard atheist philosopher, not originally pro life but became a pro life speaker. She has a much better explanation than I can. She was a philosophy student who was so talented and brilliant she was asked to TA after her freshman year. It's a really interesting perspective. It's called The Appalling Strangeness of the Mercy of God by Dr. Michael Pakaluk. Totally not a "gotta convert everyone I talk to" deal, but from you're pretty enjoyable to debate and since Ruth Pakaluk's points are really wonderfully perfect for a debate, I think you might enjoy it, at least from that perspective. It's like $13 on Amazon.
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Siobhan Fagan ps thanks for giving me a distraction from studying that is intellectually stimulating

Andrew Doris "The little squiggly things would mean nothing to me except I know by science that they have everything necessary to be a human person in the earliest stage of development."

So what? I know that by science too, and I already conceded it - why does it matter? What law is written into the fabric of the universe that tells us having what's necessary to grow into a human person MAKES one a human person, and entitles one to rights? What "logic" demands we overrule our shared "emotional" distinction between an infant and an egg for moral purposes?

Andrew Doris We've circled around to just where Andrew and I were in our debate about the subjectivity of morals. My earlier comment to him applies. Outside a very small subsection beliefs so universal they can be assumed for all practical purposes, morals are not a matter of truth. They are a matter of opinion, of personal taste. If I say "Mint is the best flavor of ice cream," is that true? Is it false? Or is it neither - a subjective claim, the veracity of which depends entirely on the unique preferences and variable perspectives of the person who's evaluating it?

So it is with morality. Each person's moral beliefs are formed and influenced by a combination of their upbringing, cultural environment, and genetic predisposition. That contributes to an enormous, beautiful, awe-inspiring diversity of human thought, which we are remiss to confuse as deviation from some absolute truth of the matter. Logic comes into play, but it doesn't give us all the answers - at least not with our limited faculties.

I suspect you agree that at least SOME moral beliefs are subjective. People make normative claims about things like a "just wage", or the fairness of various levels of income inequality. Regardless of your personal opinions on those topics, surely you can't think the right answer is objectively provable, can you? Is there really anything that makes a $9/hr wage rationally superior/inferior to a $7/hr one? Is there some % of overall wealth which the top ___% of the overall income distribution cannot surpass, lest some universal moral tenet be violated? Or might different people with different sensitivities come to separate beliefs on those matters, neither of which is any more or less rational than the other?

As a Christian, there's a certain liberating humility in conceding that we humans are just as flawed intellectually as we are in sin. Our capacity for truth-seeking has boundaries - there are limits to what we can know for certain. A huge portion of the world's moral debates fall beyond those limits. The Bible does not provide all the answers, and the reasoning capacity our brains are endowed with is an inadequate tool to uncover them. That's okay! We are freed from the need for perfect moral virtue. We should embrace the idea that outside those few occasions when God is powerfully speaking to you through that little voice or conscience or whatever you call it, you're not expected to know all the answers. You're not expected to have it all figured out. There may not be a truth, and if there is you're not expected to know it.

The point of ethics and moral philosophy is not to compare our moral intuitions against the truth of the matter to determine whether those intuitions are factually accurate. Facts usually have little to do with it. A much more useful ambition is for philosophers to use our moral intuitions as a starting point, and then propose explanatory rules for why we feel as we do. It's not helpful to investigate whether murder is wrong - we somehow know that it is deep down inside us - but it is helpful to identify and articulate why we feel it's wrong, under what conditions. What separates murder from those sorts of killing we deem appropriate (war, self defense, hunting, etc.)? What are the parameters or contours of our instincts which explain why we feel morally outraged in some situations, but not others? Sometimes philosophers get it wrong, such that the rules they propose come into conflict with what our consciences tell us is right. When that happens, it isn't our conscience which we should overrule. Far from silencing our emotions, we should use them as a guide in the process.

All of which is an extremely roundabout way of saying "Don't get too caught up in your own bullshit." Trust your instincts. If you don't feel anything is wrong with killing the little squiggly things, there probably isn't, so don't convince yourself science has anything to say on the subject.

Siobhan Fagan The law written into the fabric of the universe is the natural law.

Squiggly things are already a human in the earliest stage of development. We both agree. For me, human --> human person --> human person has personhood.

As for logic overriding our emotions, that is the purpose of the will over the passions. Our logic and reason is SUPPOSED to override our emotional response to things, ESPECIALLY in moral purposed (the caps ought to be italics). Our emotions inform our will, but in a properly formed person the will is meant to rule.

Andrew Doris By all means respond, but be aware I must refrain from replying for the remainder of this weekend. I've spent hours on this already - none of them wasted, but also none spent doing homework! - and I really must transition into the sort of essays that are actually graded's been fun

Saturday, November 29, 2014

13 cold, harsh truths most people are unwilling to accept

I mostly compiled this list from various Reddit comments, but I did write a few of the entries myself.

  1. Just because it’s not your fault doesn't mean it’s not your responsibility.
  2. There is no promise that the person you love will ever love you back, nor that the person who loves you now will always love you.
  3. There is not someone for everyone.
  4. Having a serious disease or disability does not make someone a good person, entitle them to perpetual sympathy, or render them immune from criticism.
  5. Not every soldier, veteran, policeman, or fireman is a hero.
  6. Not all of you are special, and half of you are below average.
  7. You are not able to do anything you want with your life. There are some things you can't do, even if you put your mind to it. The sky is not the limit. Your personal limit is directly proportional to your intelligence, drive, charisma, ability to network, genes, environment, and a variety of other factors which may or may not be under your control.
  8. Accordingly, you should not always follow your dreams.
  9. Not all body types are beautiful. That’s okay.
  10. America is not a democracy. That’s good.
  11. Sometimes, it’s the size of the dog in the fight.
  12. Nuclear is the safest, cleanest and most efficient way of generating electricity.
  13. Some truths make you feel badly, but it’s still important to seek, know, and say them.

Are white people morally obligated to "say something" about Ferguson?

First, read this article. Next, read my response letter below.

Dear “Race ya” blogger,

I agreed wholeheartedly with the first 75% of your post, and want to commend you for spreading insightful truths about such an important topic. That said, the last bit about Ferguson did not follow from the observations you made in the majority of the post. As a fellow white person, you asked me to consider an awful lot in that section that I’d already considered, without satisfactorily explaining how those considerations led to your conclusion. I’m now returning the favor with the same rhetorical device – not under the illusion that I’m introducing you to ideas you’ve not yet encountered, but with the intent to prompt a respectful and productive exchange of ideas from which participants and observers alike can benefit.

I’m asking you to consider how racism exists in degrees, not absolute binaries, such that pointing out how “America is a racist place to live,” without specifying just how racist of a place it is, is somewhat meaningless. Furthermore, I’m asking you to consider the possibility that, just as some white people may unknowingly underestimate the extent of that racism due to their privilege, other people may unknowingly exaggerate it, for a variety of complex social, psychological and political reasons. I’m asking you to consider whether constant suspicion of racism can lead people to attribute normal, everyday events that happen to people of all races – like being unsuccessful in their attempts to hail a cab – as proof of something that was not actually in play.

I’m asking you to consider that the existence of a degree of racism pervasive enough to warrant our attention and concern does not preclude people from simultaneously “playing the race card” in certain situations. While it’s absolutely true that “just because you don’t see it doesn’t mean it is not there,” it is not always there in all cases. I agree that racism exists in many places where it is especially difficult for white people to detect, and that this is the most important message to spread; but, I’m asking you to admit that it is not “everywhere.”

I’m asking you consider the socioeconomic and cultural disparities which underlie statistics like “schools suspend black students at triple the rate of their white peers,” and, based on those disparities, consider how likely it is that black and white students commit equally many offenses worthy of suspension.

I’m asking you to consider that many defenders of Officer Wilson, and supporters of the decision not to indict him, truly sympathize with the justifiable anger bubbling over in Ferguson and elsewhere. And then I’m asking you to consider how even people with good cause to be angry can misdirect that anger towards innocent people. I’m asking you to consider that being unarmed does not render you incapable of doing serious damage to another person, especially when you are 6’5” and 290 pounds. Consequently, I’m asking you to consider whether killing an unarmed black teenager is truly incompatible with a claim of self-defense. I’m asking everyone involved to research the actual facts of the case before passing judgment about who is guilty of what, so that the due process rights in our constitution are not overruled by mob anger.

I’m asking you to consider whether all words can have racist and not-racist applications, including the word “thug”. I’m asking you to remember that very many people use that word and others to decry the violence and destruction at sports riots or rallies – especially for the particularly thuggish fans of Philadelphia sports teams.

I too am angry, upset, and striving to understand. I too consider myself an ally, and seek to be compassionate and empathetic. But I’m asking you to consider whether empathy requires you to put your life on hold for every racial saga that makes the nightly news; whether compassion is really incompatible with concurrent excitement over a great sale, or frustration at FedEx, or disseminating weight loss advice, or Instagramming photos of other topics.

I’m asking you to consider how there is more injustice in the world than any one individual can possibly pause to reflect upon, and how productive it is to mire oneself in perpetual woe because of this. I’m asking you to remember that at any given time, many parts of the world face injustices which exceed those faced by the residents of Ferguson, Missouri, making them at least as worthy of our attention, but that going about our own lives is not ordinarily seen as an indication that we don’t care about those places.

I’m asking you to question just how “particularly concerned” I would be over an incident of questionable police violence even if the bodies in the street did look like mine – as they often do. I’m asking you to consider whether terrorist attacks killing thousands of people are perhaps more of a “national fucking tragedy,” than the death of one kid in Missouri, especially when it is entirely possible that kid had it coming. I wonder whether the deaths of 4,000 civilians on 9/11 are perhaps more worthy of commemoration for reasons that have more to do with absolute death tolls than they do with racial bias. I wonder if the particular thing we ought never to forget is that the criminal justice system in this country is biased against blacks, not the murky circumstances of this particular story.

I’m asking you to realize that very often, our voice is NOT welcome in the conversation. I’m asking you to acknowledge that people can disagree with you without being immoral or afraid.

I am sad that such hatred and tension as Ferguson showcased exists in the world. I am sorry that Michael Brown is dead. I am not grieving, because I didn’t know the kid, but the people of Ferguson are in my thoughts. I am thinking about what all this means, grappling with challenging issues, and often unsure what to think.

But I feel no obligation to say any of that publicly, because the particular anecdote around which these people are rallying is not noteworthy enough of an injustice to require comment. Because if I want people to listen to me when I speak, I have to reserve my words for occasions that warrant it. Because I pick my battles, and when it comes to calling out people for the timing of their OK Cupid posts, you should consider doing the same.

(PS – 1030 of my 1278 Facebook friends are white, for a rate of 80.6%. I don’t think that matters, but to the extent that we do not see things alike, it’s not because my “number is closer to 99% than 91%.”)

List of recent police killings – caught on tape – that warrant more outrage than the killing of Michael Brown

(Bear in mind that this list is woefully incomplete, as it includes only those questionable shooting videos I happen to have stumbled upon during my online browsing, and is by no means a comprehensive database of such incidents).
  • January 1st, 2009 – Police officer shoots an apprehended black man lying on his stomach in the back from point blank range at a bus station. The officer was convicted of involuntary manslaughter, but acquitted of second degree murder. Full video, with audio, can be seen here:
  • May 16th, 2010 – Police shoot a 7 year old black girl in the head, killing her instantly, within the first 6 seconds of a no-knock raid on the wrong house, without a warrant. They then tie up her father and make him lie in his daughter’s blood until they finish the raid. Two mistrials later, nobody has been convicted of any wrongdoing. The timing and audio of the shot was caught on video for the reality TV show “The First 48,” (there’s suspicion the raid only took place so that they could have some cool action footage for the show), so you can watch it here:
  • September 16th, 2010 – Police shoot and kill a drug addict armed with a golf club in the early seconds of a nighttime no-knock raid. The Weber County Attorney’s Office found no wrongdoing. You can decide for yourself here:
  • July 5th, 2011 – Policemen beat, taser and strangle a homeless man to death after a brief physical altercation, while he lies helpless on the ground screaming “I’m sorry,” “I can’t breathe,” “Help me!” and finally “Dad!”. Moments before the altercation began, a policeman is caught on tape saying “you see my fists? They’re getting ready to fuck you up,” before which time the homeless man had given the cop some attitude but showed no signs of aggression. The policemen then began beating the man with batons, causing a struggle that lasts about 25 seconds until the subdued man can be heard yelling “okay, I’m sorry!” and stops struggling. Over the next four minutes, the policemen taser him 4 times, beat his face with the front of the taser, strike him with their fists, and perform a variety of body-weight choke holds, eventually inducing a fatal coma due to “mechanical suppression of the thorax.” The video defies description, and you can watch it in its entirety here (physical altercation begins at about 15 minutes): A picture of his face in the hospital, days before his parents decided to pull the plug on his life support, can be seen here (though it’s not for the faint of heart). The officers were found not guilty on all charges this January.
  • July 1st, 2012 – 8 policemen standing in a ring shoot 45 bullets into a mentally handicapped black man armed with only a pen knife. The shooting is caught on dash-cam video, which shows that the officers had time to deescalate the situation, and that the man never comes within 3 meters of an officer. No charges are filed against any of the officers. You can watch it here:
  • September 14th, 2013 – Police shoot into a crowd, trying to hit an unarmed and mentally disturbed man who was throwing himself in front of traffic in Times Square. They hit two bystanders. Assault charges are filed…against the unarmed man, for supposedly causing the situation in the first place. The policemen face civil lawsuits but no criminal charges.
  • April, 2014 – Police break up a house party, and when a 19 year old girl tries to drive away with three other people in the car, an officer jumps on the hood of the car and shoots her 4 times. He claims it was self-defense because she was going to run him over, but multiple witnesses say he jumped on the car trying to get it to stop. The seconds immediately preceding the shooting are caught on dash-cam, in such a way that it’s pretty easy to see what must have happened. The Grand Jury decided not to indict just a few weeks ago.
  • July 17th, 2014 – Police put an asthmatic, obese black man, whose only crime was being peacefully uncooperative, in a chokehold until he yells “I can’t breathe!,” goes into cardiac arrest, and dies. The entire incident is caught on video. The grand jury will release its decision of whether to indict in a few days.
  • August 5th, 2014 – Police shoot and kill an unarmed black man in a Walmart when they, following a tip from a concerned bystander, mistake the BB gun he was attempting to purchase as a gift for his son for an actual rifle. The man committed no crime. Surveillance video catches the entire incident on tape, and appears to refute the officer’s claims that the man – who was talking on the phone at the time he was shot – knowingly defied Officer’s orders to drop the weapon. Nevertheless, a grand jury declined to indict the officers after a month-long investigation. You can watch the whole incident here:
  • November 22nd, 2014 – Police shoot black 12 year old Tamir Rice while he was holding a toy gun they mistook for a real gun. Surveillance video shows they shot him immediately after leaving their patrol car, and shows no indication Rice directed the toy towards them. You can watch that video here:
Each of these incidents were met with local outrage, and some received brief national publicity, but nothing like the sort of extended media drama unfolding in Ferguson. Further examples of unjust police shootings in recent years that lack video proof can be found here, here, here, herehere and here. The last one happened 2 days ago on Thanksgiving, when an innocent, unarmed black man was shot in a stairwell for no apparent reason. Overall, policemen kill 10 times as many American residents as vice-versa.

I have only two pieces of commentary to add to this list. The first is a question for those protesting the recent developments in Ferguson, Missouri: don’t each of these videotaped incidents offer a much clearer example of unjustified and unnecessary police killing – often with racial overtones – than the murky circumstances surrounding the death of Michael Brown? And as such, might it have been a more productive expenditure of our awareness-raising efforts to focus on one of these injustices instead? If we're going to go "all-in" on just one of many examples, shouldn't we choose that anecdote pretty carefully to ensure it's actually an instance of the injustice we seek to highlight?

The second is a question for those lamenting the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, and getting defensive about accusations of broad, systemic bias in the criminal justice system, on the basis that it's plausible Michael Brown had it coming: might you be missing the point? Does the possible or even probable innocence of Officer Darren Wilson really permit our society to sidestep the uncomfortable but necessary discussions about racial bias in the criminal justice system? And even apart from race, don't incidents like the ones above occur entirely too often, with the culprits far too rarely being held accountable?

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

A libertarian response to the traditionalist response to the libertarian objection to state-codified marriage

My pal Guernsey just posted a link to this website, which attempts to defend traditional marriage from a variety of critiques without (openly) employing religious arguments. At first, I hesitated to respond. From a policy perspective, the debate about whether we should have selective government recognition of straight marriage is pretty much over for most Americans, and no impartial observer expects it will ever revert to old policies once gay marriage becomes legal in all 50 states.

However, it is my hope that the debate about whether we need the state to recognize marriage at all has just begun, and it turns out Guernsey’s site offered a valiant effort at answering that critique. I admire the site’s valiant attempt to put an argument in libertarian terms, so I thought I’d gently go through it line by line.

They write:

 “Marriage — whether it is officiated by a priest or a judge, has always had civil implications, whether or not a civil magistrate requires prior permission.”

Maybe so, but who cares? What has always been need not, and often ought not, continually be.

“Marriage simply puts the government on notice that the married partners are now a family unit, and that they lay claim to the natural duties and privileges that accompany procreative relationships.”

This quote uses marriage interchangeably with “procreative relationships.” But they are not interchangeable: not all procreative relationships are marriages, and not all marriages are procreative. I also look forward to an outline of just what those “natural duties and privileges” allegedly are.

“it’s true that requiring a “government permission slip” (issued by a magistrate or judge) prior to marriage is a modern phenomenon that has been used to oppressive ends. However, this doesn’t mean that prior to marriage licensure, married partners incurred no legally enforceable moral duties to each other”

I’m glad they seem to agree that government’s should merely “recognize”, as opposed to “permit,” marriage. But again, they have yet to specify which “legally enforceable moral duties to each other” marriage allegedly entails. Perhaps that’s because there are none which they could state openly on libertarian terms.

“Consider a state-of-nature exercise: Does a father have any inherent obligations to his children and their mother, irrespective of any prior to any contract or agreement he’s made?”

That was sneaky – not the state of nature exercise itself (which I heartily applaud), but sneaking in “to his children” and “their mother” into the same question. They are different questions. A father does have inherent obligations to his children – namely, to provide them with basic food, shelter and care – but he does not have any to the mother barring additional agreements. Having sex with someone does not carry with it any “duties”or “obligations” to that person beyond the act itself (and certainly not any that are legally enforceable!) whether or not the sex results in childbirth. I suspect the website’s authors would disagree, but stating why would require them to use polarizing and subjective religious arguments.

“Does a mother have a legitimate claim upon the father of her children, irrespective of and prior to any contractual agreement or civil legislation?”

No. What does that even mean, to have a “legitimate claim” to another person? Does it imply ownership? I’ve heard of having “legitimate claims” to the throne, or to the heavyweight boxing title, but never to another human being.

“Do parents have a natural right to raise their children together according to their own discretion (absent severe abuse or neglect), regardless of whether civil governments respect that right?”

Yes. They in no way need the government to do that.

“If the answer to each of these questions is yes, then procreative intercourse gives rise to obligations (as well as rights and privileges) that spouses have with regards to each other and their children. Civil marriage is simply the process by which courts minimally acknowledge, respect, and on rare occasions enforce or defend these obligations and rights, just like it acknowledges, respects, and defends property rights (by providing recourse in a court of law when they are violated).”

The first sentence again uses “procreative intercourse” interchangeably with “spouses.” They are by no means interchangeable, as I’ve already explained. But the bigger problem here is that they’re building off a foundation their libertarian audience has not yet accepted. The answer to those questions was not always yes. Many of the obligations they very vaguely alluded to with rhetorical questions do not exist. Civil marriage is therefore not the process by which courts “acknowledge” those obligations, but the process by which they invent and impose those obligations.

“Courts typically acknowledge marital rights and duties by promoting permanence, treating marriage and family as an autonomous legal unit, and enforcing the ongoing duties of material care and support (such as alimony, child-support, etc.) when the relationship otherwise breaks down.”

Finally we get some specifics here, but they’re not ones libertarians would support. Lifelong permanence is not a duty of having sex. It cannot, I suspect, be called a duty of having sex without venturing into quasi-religious waters which the vast majority of people no longer support. As such, promoting permanence is not “acknowledging” anything we libertarians already agree exists, it’s just pontificating about the highly subjective desirability of extending a relationship long term.

The courts are justified in enforcing child-support, but that is a parental obligation, not a marital one. Courts can and do enforce child-support even among families that were never married. And alimony is a pure fiction of the state that certainly does not exist as an inherent or natural obligation in the state of nature. Of course, the state of nature does permit consenting adults to agree on terms of separation amongst themselves. And under a libertarian state, if they write the terms of this agreement down in a contract, they can enlist the help of courts to enforce them. But none of this involves “acknowledging” anything inherent in the natural order of things, and none of it requires marriage.

“When a woman approaches a judge with a claim that her husband has violated his marital duties (for example, that he has neglected to materially care for and support the family)…”

Once again they use “the family” instead of “the children” so they can pretend it’s obvious there’s not a difference. Fathers and mothers have a responsibility to materially care for their children, but not for each other. Declining to give money to that person with which you had or have sex is not “neglect.”

Stella Morabito explains “When a couple enters into a civil marriage, they are not inviting the government into their relationship, but rather putting the government on notice that they are a family unit,”

But marriage is not necessary to put the government on notice that you are a family unit: unmarried families notify the government of this every day. Inversely, putting the government on notice that you are a family unit is not necessary to get married. Or at least, it shouldn’t be, which is what libertarians are fighting for.

“Isn’t marriage just a contract like any other?
Some think so, but we don’t. We think that when a man and a woman get together and engage in procreative intercourse, they obligate themselves — in legally enforceable ways — regardless of whether they signed a contract or not….By engaging procreative intercourse, men and women step into a web of duties that they cannot blithely ignore without consequence to innocent third parties. Civil marriage is simply a legal mechanism by which the obligations that spouses have towards each other and their children have been minimally recognized by state authorities.”

This hits upon the crux of the matter. The best rebuttal I can give is that they’re simply wrong. Procreative intercourse does NOT step into a web of duties. It steps into one duty: if you happen to make a kid, and the mother decides to keep it within her beyond the point when it develops into a living human being, you both have to help keep it alive until it’s old enough to do that for itself. No other consequences are imposed on third parties by the behavior of having sex, and certainly not consequences so immoral as to justify state interference.

“Consider: does a man only have obligations to his children if he signed a contract agreeing to those obligations? If not, then why would his obligations to their mother be different?”

For the very good reason that there are no obligations to the mother! At least, not beyond those which all individuals have to one another (respect their rights, don’t kill or steal from them, honor your promises, etc). I concede the obligation to the child preexists any contract, because the child has a right to life which it cannot possibly sustain itself, and so the only two people who bear responsibility for the need to keep it alive are the parents. But mothers can sustain themselves! There are very real distinctions between the many types of obligations this article loosely alludes to, and libertarians will not be convinced by vaguely glossing over them.


In addition to responding to it line by line on this blog, I wrote the following comment to the authors of the blog (which has some redundant overlap with the above, but functions more as a summary):

As a libertarian, I found your argument unconvincing. That said, I also found it polite and fun to read, and appreciate the attempt to reach out and make a case on libertarian terms. In the interest of advancing the debate, I thought I’d help you improve your argument by pointing out where it falls short from the libertarian vantage point.

The main problem is that you are building off a foundation that most libertarians have not yet accepted: the notion that all procreative relationships carry inherent moral duties and obligations in a state of nature, and furthermore that we all agree on precisely what they are. You provide a full list of what these duties and obligations allegedly are (merely alluding to them with rhetorical questions in the “state of nature exercise”) but throughout the article you mention material provision for mutual spawn, material provision for one another, union into a single political and economic unit, fidelity, and permanence. I agree with only the first item on that list. Since we do not need civil marriage to enforce child support, that doesn’t convince me.

From that point forward, the rest of your argument falls without this foundation. If the obligations do not exist, civil marriage is not the process by which they are acknowledged, but the process by which they are invented and imposed. Libertarians believe the state should not impose subjective moral judgments on its subjects. And without the need to enforce or defend those pre-existing obligations, civil marriage serves no purpose which voluntarily consenting adults cannot serve just as well or better with contracts and the like.

Perhaps the reason you did not specify those duties and obligations is that justifying them individually would require wading into highly subjective, quasi-religious waters. The closest you get comes in the “Isn’t marriage just a contract?” section, in which you ask why a father’s obligations to the mother are “any different” from those to his children. Seriously? Well for one, mothers can feed themselves and live on their own, just as they presumably did before intercourse took place. You get the point I’m making here: there are very real distinctions between the many types of obligations this article loosely alludes to, and libertarians will not be convinced they come as a bundle by vaguely glossing over those distinctions. I suspect you will have a difficult time persuading libertarians that having sex carries with it legally enforceable or promotable moral duties to remain in permanent, sexually exclusive lifelong relationships “irrespective of and prior to any contractual agreement or civil legislation,” though I do hope you’ll at least advance the debate by taking on the endeavor at greater length.