Archive for May, 2011

It’s Tufts!

May 25, 2011

We interrupt this wonky blog for a personal announcement: my daughter, Elizabeth, will be entering Tufts University this fall.

Of course, Elizabeth had built up an exemplary academic record (she is graduating as valedictorian from Albany Academy for Girls). Tufts had also invited applicants to submit optional videos. Elizabeth did one about her photography. Here’s a link to view it. I think it’s a great little video, showcasing some really excellent photographic work.

Elizabeth got into Tufts not only because of the foregoing, but because of her outstanding human qualities. I (and my wife) would like to take credit for all this. But that would be wrong. The fact is that Elizabeth, at 18, is very much a self-made person.

A couple of years ago, I knocked on her door late one night and found her sitting up reading Great Speeches in American History. She explained that she’d bought it in the Supreme Court bookshop during a Washington DC leadership conference. And when I took her to a bookstore to pick up some non-school summer reading, what she picked out was Faulkner, Thomas Mann, Hemingway, and even Dante. Elizabeth has a powerful intellectual curiosity, a desire to know and understand the world; she recognizes that it did not begin yesterday, and she has a deep desire to take her own place in the great human enterprise.

No doubt it’s helped to have a supportive home and school environment. But some years ago, Elizabeth took charge of her own life, in full existential recognition that her fate is in her own hands.

It is individuals like this who make the world. And make me an optimist about humanity.

Left behind wannabe

May 21, 2011

Well, today’s the day. All the good Christians with Jesus in their hearts will be raptured up to Heaven, and everybody else will be “left behind.”

I, for one, devoutly hope it’s true: that all those people will be off the planet for good, we won’t have to listen to their foolishness any more, and the rest of us will be left behind to get on with it.

I hope enough of them will be raptured away that we’ll no longer have to listen to “overpopulation” Cassandras either. And just think of all the worldly goods that will be left behind for us. My neighbor has a really cool car. Please, Jesus, take him! Maybe enough lucre will be left behind that we can solve the national fiscal problem, and put a dent in world poverty too.

(We’re told Jesus loved the poor — but not enough to take them to Heaven, I guess, because too bad most of them aren’t Christians.)

Personally, I could name a few people who should roast in Hell. But to believe that great swathes of humanity deserve eternal torture because they don’t have the “right” religion is, frankly, disgusting. I hope instead for a world in which everyone can flourish. Yep, I’m no Christian, so leave me behind — please.

Is punishment just?

May 18, 2011

The extensive comments on my last post call for a more considered response to the basic question of why punishment is just. The utilitarian answer is obvious enough, and valid. But it’s also obvious that the many Americans (me included) who cheered bin Laden’s killing were not moved by a cold utilitarian calculus but rather a deeper conceptualization of justice. And, as the comments brought out, this is a tricky issue.

(Here’s a link to one discussion I found on the topic; for all the philosophical ornamentation, it too ultimately makes a utilitarian argument.)

I had sought to distinguish between justice and retribution, which has a bad odor of primitivism. But, on further reflection, if justice is to have more than a utilitarian foundation, then retribution is part of it, which I’m willing to endorse.

Philosophers from Hume to Ayer have maintained that a statement like “murder is wrong” is a mere statement of feeling, unverifiable by any objective process. And it’s true that there’s no “1+1=2” morality “out there” for us to discover. But that does not lead us to the nihilistic conclusion that morality and justice are meaningless. They have the meaning we elect to embrace.

My starting premises are that (1) the only thing that matters in the Universe are the feelings of beings capable of feelings; and hence (2) bad feelings are bad; and (3) causing them (unnecessarily) is wrong.

Some maintain that free will is an illusion because all our thoughts and actions have antecedent causes, as though we are like computers running programs. I consider that too simplistic, and maintain that we do have a meaningful form of autonomy (an extended argument on this can be found in my book, The Case for Rational Optimism). Suffice it to say here that humans are able to make choices, and do make choices. No matter what powerful determinative causes may operate, a human being still has the ability to disobey them. Smokers, for example, can quit.

So some deeds are wrong, and they arise from wrongful intentions.

 Now, what do we mean by “justice”? It’s significant that the figure of Justice is always depicted holding scales, that are balanced – balancing is the essence of justice. This clearly underlies the commenters’ advocacy of reparative justice – “make whole” is the term of art – so if I steal your TV, justice requires giving it back, or paying equivalent value. Fair enough. But what if (as so often) the harm is pain – mental and physical? (A semi-aside: people who have not been crime victims tend to grossly underestimate the psychological pain.) That can be compensated, but the victim cannot really be made whole, i.e., cannot have the suffering expunged (especially if he’s dead). So here comes retribution – again, a balancing – if I made you suffer, then I should suffer. (Notice that the figure of Justice also wields a sword!)

No, retribution does not undo the victim’s pain either. But it does balance it. (Take a look at this link – a literal case of an eye for an eye.)

The commenters who resist this idea seem to conceive of retributive justice as though it’s arbitrary, needlessly adding to the sum

total of human suffering. That would certainly apply to “collective punishment,” as per my prior posting. But not where the punishment is deserved. Then it’s not an unnecessary addition to human suffering; it’s necessitated by the action of the wrongdoer, to restore the balance of justice among people. And I emphasize that word deserved because if you reject this idea, then I think you are rejecting the whole concept of desert and, with it, the idea of justice itself. Because if justice is divorced from what people deserve, then what have we got?

People are responsible for their actions; and when people act wrongfully, and cause harm, they deserve punishment.

(The issue of who administers that punishment is a “whole ‘nother” subject, distinct from the basic question of whether punishment is morally justifiable.)

Moral confusion over bin Laden’s death

May 11, 2011

The Left is often morally confused when it comes to issues of violence and death. A textbook example of such mixed-up thinking was an opinion column in a local newspaper by Jo Page (a sometime Lutheran pastor), concerning reactions to bin Laden’s killing. (Here’s a link to it.)

Page writes of “reprisal and revenge” which “perpetuate a cycle of violence.” This would apply where some grievance is avenged not upon actual perpetrators but innocent people who happen to be members of the same “tribe.” Such “collective punishment” is unfortunately all too common in the world, and does perpetuate violence. But Americans in general have outgrown that primitive mentality. We know it’s wrong.

In contrast, where a culprit himself is punished, the proper terminology is not “reprisal and revenge” but “justice.” This is the concept the Left often has trouble with, confusing justice with revenge, and hence in turn with unjustified reprisal.

But humans evolved with powerful instincts for justice and fairness, and hence seeing a transgressor punished evokes strong – and appropriate – positive emotions. Consequently, punishment of crime is a key pillar of organized society, and it’s also integral to society’s key purpose of protecting its members. That’s what celebrations of bin Laden’s death mainly reflected. Americans were glad that a measure of justice had been achieved, and a threat removed.

This doesn’t, as Page says, “[reveal] a dehumanizing contempt for life.” To the contrary, it was precisely because Americans value life so highly that we felt so wounded by 9/11. It was to honor the human lives lost that we pursued justice through punishing their killer. And to those who say Osama was a human being too, after all, I would answer that his crimes removed him from the reverence we normally accord to human life. While one does have a fundamental human right not to be killed, a person who violates that right of others forfeits his own right to enjoy life.

We thusly have no qualms about depriving criminals of their enjoyment of life by locking them up; for a heinous killer to lose his right to life altogether is not so great a further step. No, that does not bring back the dead victims; but neither does imprisoning the murder. Why is it right to punish crimes at all?

 Because there is no justice to be had in some imagined future life; the only justice we can achieve is what we accomplish here on Earth. And the definition of justice is people getting what they deserve – whether it be rewards for virtue or punishment for evil.

Page, true to form, simulates moral sophistication by mocking the notion of a “dualistic world” wherein some persons are seen as embodying evil. Such aversion to black-and-white, and viewing everything only as shades of grey, is symptomatic of the postmodernist denial that anything means anything. It’s a way of simply shirking the human responsibility to make moral judgments. Yet contradictorily, Page herself says “[e]vil remains very much with us,” and “we must be committed to stand” against it.” Surely that applied to bin Laden. And, when a victory in that battle against evil is won, why might it be considered somehow wrong to rejoice?

Page also, like many, draws a parallel between that rejoicing and some Muslims “dancing in the streets” to celebrate 9/11. But 9/11 involved the murder of innocent people, and celebrating it was sick. Bin Laden was not innocent, and his death was just punishment for his horrific crimes. There is no analogy. It’s bizarre that liberals who are so into nuance and complexity can be blind to such non-subtle distinctions.

Oddly, Page herself writes that “we are our better selves when we acknowledge the distinction between enacting justice and celebrating violence.” Which is exactly what she fails to do.

Hubris, greed, denial: We poor silly humans

May 3, 2011

In a March op-ed piece, Harold Meyerson says recent disasters – the financial crisis, the Gulf spill, and Japan’s nuclear mess – should weaken one of our “deeply rooted faiths – in our own infallibility.” We were assured, he says, that the financial system “could not possibly come tumbling down.” Oil drilling “could not possibly result in a cataclysmic spill.” Nuclear plants were safe “against the oh-so-remote possibilities of meltdowns.”

“At long last,” Meyerson writes with a sneer, “humankind had triumphed over risk.” But, he says, “what all these wizards” overlooked was the human factor: “greed, denial and hubris.”

Oh, please.

The implication is that nothing should ever be undertaken unless some “wizards” – genuine ones, I suppose – can indeed guarantee zero risk. If we had applied that rule from the get-go, we’d still be living in caves and wearing animal skins. Though, come to think of it, that sort of life had its risks too.

Everything in life has risks. The wish for total safety is a fool’s errand. I wonder if Mr. Meyerson drives a car — and thinks he’s guaranteed safe from accidents. But life itself is inherently unsafe, with a 100% guarantee of dying.

Look, nobody in the financial system ever claimed it was immune from crashes. Obviously, we’d had them before. Same for oil drilling. Same for nuclear power, and all other aspects of our technological existence. Only a fool could have had the kind of deranged confidence Meyerson mocks.

All these things entail risks, and we do understand and accept those risks, because a financial system (at least more or less like what we’ve got) is necessary to operate our complex economy, and oil drilling and power plants are necessary to meet our energy needs. If we’re not to live in caves wearing animal skins.

Just as we accept the risks every time we drive. Because we reckon they’re outweighed by the benefits, even though the highway death toll (over 30,000 Americans annually) vastly exceeds that caused by oil drilling or nuclear power (very few). The cost of U.S. auto accidents is estimated at over $150 billion a year. Worldwide, the yearly automobile death toll exceeds a million. If we’re willing to drive, despite those huge risks and costs, surely we should be willing to drill for oil, and build nuclear plants, and so forth.

This isn’t hubris. It isn’t denial, or greed, or delusions of infallibility. It’s human beings using all our brainpower and creative energies, making prodigious efforts, doing the best we can to wrestle with nature to make the best lives possible, and, yes, to combat and curtail our risks. And when we fail – we are fallible – we learn from it, and do better. That’s how progress happens.

There are no free lunches; nothing is given to us without cost or risk. And the risks afflicting a human being in the raw natural world are vastly more frightening than those created by the life-improving technologies that pundits like Mr. Meyerson so glibly denigrate. From time immemorial, every such advance has met with the same kind of fear syndrome. When railroads were invented, people worried their speed would cause organ damage.

Gas hydrofracking is the local cause du jour. Yes, there are risks. But again, there is a complete lack of perspective regarding these risks vis-à-vis others, such as driving. (And fracking supporters, like geologist Dr. Taury Smith, encounter a witch-hunt mentality, as though their stance is criminal.) We need the energy, and there is no utopian clean risk-free way to get it. All technologies entail risks.

 Nuclear power in particular stokes irrational fears reverberating from Hiroshima and the Cold War. The “100% safe” crowd says a nuclear accident could kill thousands. Hasn’t happened for a quarter century – not even in Japan’s immense natural disaster – while 440 nuclear plants operate without incident in 30 countries. But meantime, air pollution from fossil fuel power plants is estimated to kill 20,000 to 30,000 Americans, and hundreds of thousands worldwide, every single year. Not to mention deaths in coal mining. Or the global warming effect. This, realistically, is the chief alternative to nuclear power. (Fukushima Dai-ichi produced more electricity than all the solar power in the world.)

And where, in the end, does Harold Meyerson think we should put our faith? In “active, disinterested governmental regulation,” rooted “in a sober, conservative assessment of the human capacity for mistake and self-delusion, not to mention avarice and chicanery.”

Talk about delusion. As if governments are peopled and their policies molded by disinterested angels, rather than the same species of fallible human beings who run financial and energy industries, with their own self-serving agendas and capacity for mistakes, disingenuousness and self-delusion.

 Nobody holds the sort of blind unskeptical faith in technology or private enterprise that Meyerson depicts. But some, like him, do seem to hold exactly that kind of blind unskeptical faith in government. Given the vast power of government – after all, it makes laws even corporations must obey – that’s at least as big a problem.


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