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The Imperative of Democracy For a Just Society

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How important is democracy for realizing a society that is just?  It seems to me that democracy is an important if not vital component of any just society, because any principles of justice that a society seeks to abide by should be established through means that are also fair and just, and thus those principles (or the laws that instantiate them) should be a legislative product resulting from the deliberation and input of every citizen that is to be bound and protected by such standards.  In this post, I’m going to argue for this position by illustrating how reasonable principles of justice are more likely to be realized (if not only realizable) through a democratic form of government over any other system, and by showing how a democratic system for legislation is the most effective way of protecting and improving principles of justice once they are established in a society.  It’s important to note that I am not arguing that all forms of democracy are necessarily capable of achieving a just society, but rather I’m arguing that some form of democracy is necessary to do so.  One major objection to my overall contention is the argument that democracies can lead to a form of majoritarianism that may oppress minorities and restrict their basic rights, thus precluding even any semblance of justice.  This objection is a very serious one that ought to be considered and so I’ll conclude my argument by responding to it accordingly.

Reasonable principles or descriptions of justice as proposed by many philosophers and other important political figures such as Aristotle, Kant, J.S. Mill, Rawls and others, generally encompass a number of different concepts such as: liberty, freedom, fairness, equality, desert, mutual respect and consideration, and moral rightness, among others.1, 2, 3, 4  I tend to agree with Rawls’ views in particular, where principles of justice revolve around some set of equal rights that is maximally extensive, including equal access and opportunity of holding various political offices and positions.  What’s most important to note about Rawls’ views is the concept of fairness and how the principles of justice can be derived from the original position, i.e., from behind a veil of ignorance.4  If we apply this reasoning to determine what is in fact fair from the perspective of a collective of citizens that hold different sets of values, it stands to reason that the best one can do is to try to find some kind of an overlapping moral consensus that is informed by the very same set of citizens.  It seems that the only political system fit to accomplish this task is going to be some form of a democracy, because only in democracies can the citizens take direct action to influence legislation that is compatible with that overlapping consensus.5 No other political system allows their citizens to have this kind of power.  Furthermore, since all people can only have an equal say in some kind of democratic society, it’s hard to imagine how any other system used to establish principles of justice could have a higher level of fairness.

Maintaining and protecting the principles of justice that are implemented by a society is arguably just as important as establishing them in the first place.  Moreover, if the current established principles of justice (or laws) in a society are at any point perceived as being unjust in light of new information or a change in the overlapping moral consensus of the people that comprise it, there needs to be some mechanism to modify them accordingly.  I would argue that democracy is the most effective way to achieve both the protection of, and the capability of modifying or improving, any implemented principles of justice or laws that instantiate those principles.

To illustrate this point, we can simply imagine that there are two societies, one democratic and one non-democratic, and for the sake of argument we can assume that they both have established principles of justice.  Now let’s consider that some new law has been proposed in both societies that, if enacted and implemented, would result in some gross form of injustice.  I think it’s evident that the democratic society has the best chance of maintaining (or restoring) their established principles of justice because a majority of citizens have the greatest chance of influencing future legislation and/or any future political representation in order to block or reverse the legislation that would have led to any injustice.  If the fate of this decision was merely left in the hands of some subset of people in power, even if it could result in a just outcome, it is less likely to for the simple fact that the interests of a small group in power are statistically less likely to result in a mutually desirable outcome for everyone when all else is equal.  Similarly, if we were to imagine that the overlapping moral consensus changed in both societies, once again, I would argue that democracy would prevail as the best system for modifying or improving any laws in place so as to better conform to any modified principles of justice.  This would be the case because the most thorough way to determine which laws or principles of justice should replace the old ones, would be to survey all members of that society through a process of moral deliberation6 — a task best fit for a democracy.

One strong objection to my argument (i.e. in short, that democracies are an important if not necessary component for a just society) is the argument that democracies can lead to a majoritarian populace that may choose to strip minorities of their basic human rights and liberties, and thus enact some form of injustice.  One could take this objection even further and argue that a majoritarian populace could (perhaps unknowingly) enact legislation that strips every citizen of some or all of their basic rights and liberties.7 Now this is certainly a reasonable objection and one that is worth careful consideration.  However, this argument can only be successful if it can be shown that there are only non-democratic forms of government that guarantee (or at least do a better job of) establishing, protecting, and/or improving the principles of justice (or the laws that instantiate them) in a society.  I haven’t yet seen anyone satisfy the burden of proof required to support such a claim (even if it is a reasonable objection).  In addition, this objection must hold up to the most robust form of democracy at our disposal to demonstrate a fortiori that all other forms of democracy are likewise insufficient and that they are all demonstrably worse than at least one non-democratic alternative.

Now I will grant that this objection is particularly applicable to a pure democracy, where there are no protections whatsoever against majority rule oppressing minorities’ rights.  However, most forms of democracy that exist today are some kind of democratic republic or constitutional democracy, whereby a constitution is put into place to protect some set of inalienable rights that majority rule can’t overturn.8  While this solution isn’t fool proof, it is nevertheless an effective safeguard to limit majoritarian tyranny while retaining the aforementioned maximally-just benefits of democracy.  Furthermore, one could employ a deliberative democracy, which stresses the need to justify the laws enacted that would instantiate any sought-after principles of justice.  A deliberative democracy accomplishes this justification and helps to resolve moral disagreements (to the best of our ability) through a process of open and inclusive moral deliberation, helping to encourage citizens to form a more well-rounded perspective on public policy.6  What better way could there be to achieve a just society than to have equal rights to vote on legislation combined with the societal expectation of justifying any proposed laws through open critical discourse and moral deliberation with one another?  What better way could there be to find the overlapping moral consensus that Rawls pointed to, as idealized in his original position?

As such, I believe the majoritarian objection fails not only because there are democratic systems with safeguards in place to help prevent these kinds of majoritarian problems from occurring (such as a constitution), thus limiting tyranny at least as well as any non-democratic government could, but also because even in the absence of these safeguards (which are of course limited in efficacy), deliberative democratic institutions can further reduce the risk of oppressive tyranny of the majority by their having to justify their positions/votes with the other members of society through moral deliberation.  Combining these two institutions — a constitution and moral deliberation — into one democratic framework, would provide a robust rebuttal to such an objection and also provides a good template of democracy that further supports my overall argument.

In conclusion, I’ve argued that democracy is a vital component for just societies because it offers a means of deriving a society’s principles of justice, through the laws that instantiate them, in the most fair and equitable way known, and because of its strength to adapt to societal changes in order to maintain justice in light of a shift in overlapping consensus or as a possible counter-response to unjust legislation enacted.  In addition, it can in principle provide a way of maximizing justice through institutions that encourage (if not mandate) the use of moral deliberation to justify the votes of any and all citizens.  Among other benefits, this latter principle provides a way of helping to sort out and distinguish between political claims that are self-interested from those that are actually in the public’s best interests.  In doing so, it offers a platform of transparency and dialectic that helps to prevent injustices from coming into fruition.

References

  1. Aristotle, trans. Terence Irwin (1999) Nicomachean Ethics, Second Edition.  Indianapolis:  Hacket, pp. 67-74, 76; 1129a-1132b, 1134a
  2. Immanuel Kant, trans. John Ladd (1999) Metaphysical Elements of Justice, Second Edition.  Indianapolis:  Hackett, 1999., pp. 29, 38, 30-31, 37
  3. John Stuart Mill, ed. Mary Warnock (1962) Utilitarianism and Other Writings.  Cleveland:  World Publishing Company, pp. 296-301, 305, 309, 320-321
  4. Rawls, J. A. (1971) A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press
  5. Christiano, T. (2006, July 27). Democracy. Retrieved March 25, 2017, from https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/democracy/
  6. Gutmann & Thompson (2014) Moral Disagreement in a Democracy.  Arguing about Political Philosophy.  Routledge Publishing, NY (pp. 596-601)
  7. Mill, John Stuart (1869) On Liberty. London: Longman, Roberts & Green
  8. No author (n.d.). CONSTITUTIONAL DEMOCRACY. Retrieved March 25, 2017, from http://www.civiced.org/resources/publications/resource-materials/390-constitutional-democracy

Demonization Damning Democracy

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After the 2016 presidential election, I’ve had some more time to reflect on the various causes of what has been aptly dubbed Trumpism, and also to reflect on some strategies that we as a nation need to implement in order to successfully move forward.  I’ll start by saying that I suspect that most people will not like this post because most people sit at the extremes of the political spectrum, and thus will likely feel uncomfortable facing any criticism that they think lends legitimacy to their opponents position.  Regardless of this likelihood, I’ve decided to write this post anyway because the criticisms that this post points out reflect exactly this problem — the diminished capacity for the politically divided to be charitable and intellectually honest in terms of their treatment and representation of their opponents’ positions.

Many would be hard pressed to name another period in American history that has been defined by as much political polarization and animosity that we’ve seen in the last year.  The Civil War that transpired in the mid 19th century is perhaps the closest runner up to match this “great divide” plaguing our nation.  In the interest of moving forward, we need to find quicker and more pragmatic ways of bridging such a divide.  We’re not going to agree on most issues, but there are some things we can do a hell of a lot better.  For starters, I think that we all need to stop talking past one another and acknowledge that there were legitimate reasons to vote for Donald Trump (keep in mind that I thought Clinton was the only sane choice which was why I knew I had to vote for her).  The majority of people on both sides of this debate have been demonizing the other rather than being intellectually honest (let alone charitable) about one another’s position.  Unfortunately the damage has already been done and Trump is now going to be our president (barring some miracle occurring between now and January 20th).

I’m in no way attempting to underplay the moral travesty that a large number of voters are responsible for, and which happened despite the fact that they were outnumbered by almost 3 million Democrat voters in the popular vote (which actually set a record for the highest margin direct-democratic victory for any candidate voted against by the electoral college).  I am however trying to open up a civil discourse between progressive liberals such as myself and those that voted for this inexperienced plutocrat for at least some legitimate reasons.  We may still disagree on the importance of those reasons when weighed against all others under consideration, and we may disagree on how effective Trump would be in actually addressing any one of them (even if they were the most important issues), but we should acknowledge those reasons nevertheless.

Economy, Immigration & Terrorism

Before looking at some of these specific reasons, I think it’s important to note the three main issues that they seem to revolve around, namely terrorism, immigration, and the economy.  It’s also interesting to note that all three of these issues are themselves intimately connected with one another with respect to the impetus that turned the election on its head.  For example, many immigrants and refugees from nations that are predominantly Muslim are getting unfairly lumped into a category of would-be terrorists — largely resulting from anti-Muslim sentiments that have escalated since 9/11, and perhaps climaxing with the formation of other Muslim extremist groups such as ISIS.  And on the economic front, Mexican or other Hispanic immigrants in particular are getting flack in part because of their being largely indistinguishable from illegal immigrants, and some people think that their jobs have been or will be taken from illegal immigrants (or taken from legal immigrants that many simply assume are illegal) that are willing to work for below minimum wage.

Of course the irony here is that conservatives that embrace true free market capitalistic principles are shooting themselves in the foot by rejecting this “free market” consequence, i.e., letting the markets decide what wages are fair with no government intervention.  It’s one thing to argue against illegal immigrants breaking immigration laws (which everyone agrees is a problem, even if they disagree on the degree of the problem), but one can’t employ an economic argument against illegal immigrants or legal immigrants based on sub-par wages or a lack of jobs without also acknowledging the need for government-imposed market regulations.  These market regulations include having a minimum wage that is enforced let alone raised to provide a living wage (which is now at risk with Trump’s newly elected Secretary of Labor Andy Puzder, given his history of screwing his fast food workers while raking in millions of dollars per year).

It goes without saying that the anti-immigrant (even anti-legal-immigrant) mentality was only exacerbated when Trump filled his campaign with hateful “build the wall” rhetoric, combined with Trump calling Mexican immigrants criminals and rapists, despite the fact that immigrants comprise a lower percentage of criminals and rapists compared to non-immigrants in the U.S.  None of this helped to foster any support for embracing these generally decent people that are crossing the border looking for a better life in America.  Most of them are looking for better opportunities, for the same reasons our ancestors immigrated to the U.S. long ago (both legally and illegally).  Having said that, it’s also true that illegal immigration is a problem that needs to be addressed, but lying about the actual impact of undocumented immigrants on the economy (by either denying the fact that they can suppress wages in some industries, or by denying that there are benefits that these people can produce in other work sectors), is only going to detract from our ability to solve the problem effectively and ethically.  Hate mongering certainly isn’t going to accomplish anything other than pissing off liberals and hindering bipartisan immigration reform.

As for Islam, people on the right are justifiably pissed off that most people on the left don’t even acknowledge the fact that Islam has dangerous doctrines that have been exploited to radicalize Muslims into Jihadists and Islamists that have fueled various forms of terrorism.  Saying that ISIS isn’t fundamentally Islamic is ridiculous once one sees that its adherents are in fact motivated by a literal reading of the texts (i.e. the Koran and Hadiths) including a true belief in eternal paradise and glory for martyrs that die on the front lines or by flying a plane into a building.

As a progressive liberal, I’m disappointed when regressive liberals call anybody that points this out a racist or an Islamophobe.  It’s true that many people that make these points (generally on the political right) are also racist and Islamophobic, but many of them are not (including some liberals such as myself) and it actually pushed a number of people toward Trump that would have otherwise stayed away from a clown like Trump. If only the left had done a better job being honest about these facts, then they wouldn’t have scared away a number of people that were sitting on the fence of the election.  A number of people that ran away once they believed that Clinton was being either dishonest or delusional on this point, and who subsequently saw Clinton (albeit erroneously) as someone who was not as likely to handle this terrorist threat effectively. It’s clear to me that she was the most likely to handle it effectively despite this concern given the facts that she was by far the most qualified and experienced candidate, including having valuable and relevant experience in helping to take down Osama Bin Laden as Secretary of State.  This misperception, induced by this bit of dishonesty, gave fuel to a ignorant bigot like Trump who was at least right on this one point, even if for all the wrong reasons, and even if he combined this point with bigotry and bogus xenophobic rhetoric based on his ignorance of Islamic culture and Muslims generally.

So while the Trumpers had some legitimate concern here, they and most others on the right failed to acknowledge that Islamic doctrine isn’t the only motivating factor behind ISIS terrorism as there are a number of geopolitical factors at play here and also some number of radicalizing leaders who simply high-jacked Islamic doctrine to fuel terrorism with the primary goal of meeting those geopolitical goals.   Many Trumpers also failed to realize that most Muslims in the world are peaceful people and are not members of ISIS or any other terrorist group or organization.  Many failed to realize that Trump has absolutely no political experience, let alone specific experience pertaining to national or international security, so he is the last person that should claim to know how to handle such a complicated and multi-faceted international conflict.  Furthermore, Trump’s “I’ll bomb the shit out of them” mentality isn’t going to appease the worries of our Muslim allies nor our non-Muslim allies that are seeking diplomatic resolutions at all costs.

I think one of the biggest oversight of Trumpers is their failing to realize that Trump’s threat to place all Muslims residing in the U.S. into a fascist registry and the effects of his anti-Muslim rhetoric are, if anything, accomplishing exactly what ISIS wants.  ISIS wants all Muslims to reject Western values including democracy, equality, and humanism, and what better way to radicalize more Muslims than having a large number of (mostly) white Americans alienating them through harassment and ostracization.  What better way could there be to lose the trust and cooperation of Muslims already residing within our borders — the very Muslims and Muslim communities that we need to work with to combat radicalization and domestic terrorism?  Trump’s hateful behavior and rudderless tactics are likely to create the ultimate Islamic Trojan horse within our own borders.  So while many on the left need to acknowledge that Islam does in fact have an ideological influence on terrorism, and is thus an influence that needs to be addressed honestly, those on the right also need to appreciate the fact that we need to avoid further alienating and angering Muslims such that they are more compelled to join radical groups, the very radical groups that we all (including most other Muslims) despise.

Multi-culturalism & Assimilation

Another big Trump-voter motivational reason is the ongoing clash between multi-culturalism and traditional American culture or perhaps better described as well-established highly homogeneous cultures in America.  Some people were driven to Trumpism by their feeling culturally threatened by immigrants that fail to assimilate to the already well-established cultures in various communities around the country.  If they’ve lived in a community that is composed of only English speaking, reality-TV-watching, hamburger-eating, football fans (to give an example), and then they start seeing other languages and entirely foreign cultures in schools, on the bus, at their workplace, etc., they feel that their way of life is being encroached upon.  When immigrants fail to assimilate to the predominant culture of an area (including learning the English language), with the natives in these communities pressured to adopt bilingual infrastructure, to suspend cultural norms to make new religious exceptions, etc., people understandably get pissed off because humans have evolved to be highly tribal and most of us fear change.

Some feel like there’s a double-standard at play where natives in a community have to adapt to accommodate the immigrants and their cultures, but without having the immigrants compromise by accommodating the native cultures and norms (or at least not to a large enough degree).  As a result, we often see pockets of foreigners that bud off to form micro-communities and groups that are very much like small versions of their home countries.  Then when there’s an influx of these immigrants in schools and certain workplaces, there is increased animosity toward them because they are that much more likely to be treated as an out-group.  This is no doubt further fueled by racism and xenophobia (with vicious cycles of increasing prejudice against immigrants and subsequent assimilation hurdles), but there needs to be a give-take relationship with better cultural assimilation so that the native communities don’t feel that their own culture is threatened while simultaneously feeling forced to preserve and make way for an entirely foreign one.  Additionally, we need to better educate people to be more accepting of reasonable levels of diversity, even if we place pragmatic limits on how far that diversity can go (while still maintaining solidarity and minimizing tribalism).

If it’s not a two-way street, with effective cultural assimilation, then we can expect a lot of people to run away looking for someone like Trump to throw them a proverbial life preserver with his “I’m the greatest and I can fix it all and make America great again” motto (perhaps disguising the implicit motto “make America WHITE again”) even if it’s really nothing but a bunch of snake oil demagoguery so he can get into power and rob the nation blind with a cabinet full of fellow billionaire plutocrats (including those tied to Big-Oil and Goldman Sachs).  Trump learned fairly quickly how effective demagoguery was, likely aided by his insider knowledge of American TV-junkie culture (including The Apprentice), his knowledge of how bigoted so many people are, how attracted they are to controversy and shock-value (rather than basic common decency) and how he could manipulate so many voters through hatred and fear given such weaknesses.  But none of that would have worked if there weren’t some grains of truth in the seeds Trump was sowing, if Trump wasn’t saying things that many Americans were simply too afraid to say out loud (including that which was largely racist, bigoted, and ignorant).

But rather than most people on the left acknowledging the inherent problems with unlimited multi-culturalism, including it leading us down a path where the population becomes less and less cohesive with less solidarity and common goals, the left largely labeled all people with these legitimate concerns as racists and bigots.  While it’s true that a substantial chunk of Trump supporters are racists and bigots (perhaps half, who really knows), an appreciable chunk of them are not racists or bigots.  Much like those that saw obvious problems with Islamic ideology in the modern age as it pertains to terrorist threats (with race being irrelevant, as can be seen by radicals such as Adam Gadahn), many saw problems with immigration in terms of the pragmatic limitations of multi-culturalism (rather than problems with any particular race).  On the other side however, Trump supporters have to at least acknowledge that even if they themselves are not racist, their support of Trump does in fact validate his racist rhetoric and the racist supporters fueled by that rhetoric (even if Trump himself had no racist intentions, although I think he did).  So they may still think it was worth it to support Trump but they can’t have their cake and eat it too.  They have to own up to what Trump’s rhetoric fuels and take at least some responsibility for it, including any consequences that they do not like or endorse.

Political Correctness, Safe Spaces, & Free Speech

Last but not least there are debates regarding things like political correctness (which play into the multi-culturalism battle), safe spaces, and freedom of speech, that deeply affected this election.  For one, I acknowledge and sympathize with others’ aggravation in terms of political correctness, where sometimes people are just trying to communicate some semantic content and don’t want to be bogged down with ever-changing social conventions on what terms one is and is not allowed to use.  But I also understand that social conventions change as a result of what comprises a society’s “stream of consciousness”, including the ever-changing ethical and moral concerns of the day, issues with social justice, stereotypes, marginalization of one group or another, etc.  People on the right should try not to be completely callous and inconsiderate about social conventions and work harder to understand why others are offended by certain terms, and those on the left need to try harder to understand the intentions of those using possibly offensive terms.  If we each work to give a little leeway to the other and try to put ourselves in their shoes and vice versa, we’ll have better chances of getting along and finding common ground rather than being demonized and never getting anywhere in terms of societal progress.  People on the left should work harder to not to be so thin-skinned that everything offends them (in other words, try harder not to be like Trump), and people on the right should try to show a little more empathy and try not to be inconsiderate jerks.

Safe spaces have become another problem.  While it’s true that some events can be and should be exclusive to certain groups (for example keeping Nazi or KKK members out of a Jewish festival or speech), it is crucial that we don’t fall down a slippery slope that abolishes freedom of speech or that establishes constant safe spaces that exacerbate the polarization plaguing our political sphere.  For example, social platforms like Facebook and the like allow people to block the comments of others, feed their wall with news and articles that fulfill their own cognitive confirmation biases and prevent their ideas from being challenged.  The irony is that while many Trumpers raised legitimate concerns and dismay over the concept of safe spaces as espoused by those on the left, they too were guilty of the safe space methodology on their own Facebook pages, etc.  Even my own sister (a Trump supporter after Cruz lost) blocked me after I pointed out a few flaws in her logic and reasoning with regard to a couple Trump apologetic posts she had shared.  After her husband came in to defend her (she never attempts to defend herself for some reason), I refuted his points as well in a civil way and then she blocked me from her wall.  This is a problem because people on both sides are making their own safe spaces not allowing diversity in the opinions and points they are exposed to.  It only increases the in-group/out-group mentality that is ripping this country apart.

Trump is ironically the worst offender using safe spaces that I’ve seen, with his “Sean Hannity” safe space on the radio, his one-dimensional rallies (filled with supporters to boost his ego and who have been encouraged by Trump himself to punch protesters in the face, with him offering to pay their legal fees like some kind of totalitarian mobster), his disdain for the free press, free speech, and journalism in general — not to mention the libel laws he wants to change so that he can sue news organizations that report on facts he doesn’t want made public.  The chronic safe space mentality has got to go, even if we reserve the right to safe spaces for some places and occasions.  There needs to be a careful balance so people are exposed to diverse ideas (not just what they want to hear) and we need to protect free speech (limiting one group opens the doors to limit them all).

Where to go from here?

While there may have been some other legitimate reasons to vote for Trump (I couldn’t think of any others to be honest), these seemed to be the primary ones I noticed at play.  So what do we do now?  Well, people need to stop talking past one another, and better empathize with the opposition and not simply demonize them.  The sooner everyone can acknowledge that the opposition had at least some legitimacy, the sooner we can have more civil discourses and keep moving forward to heal this great divide.

The WikiLeaks Conundrum

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I’ve been thinking a lot about WikiLeaks over the last year, especially given the relevant consequences that have ensued with respect to the 2016 presidential election.  In particular, I’ve been thinking about the trade-offs that underlie any type of platform that centers around publishing secret or classified information, news leaks, and the like.  I’m torn over the general concept in terms of whether these kinds of platforms provide a net good for society and so I decided to write a blog post about it to outline my concerns through a brief analysis.

Make no mistake that I appreciate the fact that there are people in the world that work hard and are often taking huge risks to their own safety in order to deliver any number of secrets to the general public, whether governmental, political, or corporate.  And this is by no means exclusive to Wikileaks, but also applies to similar organizations and even individual whistle-blowers like Edward Snowden.  In many cases, the information that is leaked to the public is vitally important to inform us about some magnate’s personal corruption, various forms of systemic corruption, or even outright violations of our constitutional rights (such as the NSA violating our right to privacy as outlined in the fourth amendment).

While the public tends to highly value the increased transparency that these kinds of leaks offer, they also open us up to a number of vulnerabilities.  One prominent example that illustrates some of these vulnerabilities is the influence on the 2016 presidential election, resulting from the Clinton email leaks and the leaks pertaining to the DNC.  One might ask how exactly could those leaks have been a bad thing for the public?  After all it just increased transparency and gave the public information that most of us felt we had a right to know.  Unfortunately, it’s much more complicated than that.  Beyond the fact that it can be difficult to know where to draw the line in terms of what should or should not be public knowledge.

To illustrate this point, imagine that you are a foreign or domestic entity that is highly capable of hacking.  Now imagine that you stand to gain an immense amount of land, money, or power if a particular political candidate in a foreign or domestic election is elected, because you know about their current reach of power and their behavioral tendencies, their public or private ties to other magnates, and you know the kinds of policies that they are likely to enact based on their public pronouncements in the media and their advertised campaign platform.  Now if you have the ability to hack into private information from every pertinent candidate and/or political party involved in that election, then you likely have the ability to not only know secrets about the candidate that can benefit you from their winning (including their perspective of you as a foreign or domestic entity, and/or damning things about them that you can use as leverage to bribe them later on after being elected), but you also likely know about damning things that could cripple the opposing candidate’s chances at being elected.

This point illustrates the following conundrum:  while WikiLeaks can deliver important information to the public, it can also be used as a platform for malicious entities to influence our elections, to jeopardize our national or international security, or to cause any number of problems based on “selective” sharing.  That is to say, they may have plenty of information that would be damning to both opposing political parties, but they may only choose to deliver half the story because of an underlying agenda to influence the election outcome.  This creates an obvious problem, not least because the public doesn’t consider the amount of hacked or leaked information that they didn’t get.  Instead they think they’ve just become better informed concerning a political candidate or some policy issue, when in fact their judgment has now been compromised because they’ve just received a hyper-biased leak and one that was given to them intentionally to mislead them, even though the contents of the leak may in fact be true.  But when people aren’t able to put the new information in the proper context or perspective, then new information can actually make them less informed.  That is to say, the new information can become an epistemological liability, because it unknowingly distorts the facts, leading people to behave in ways that they otherwise would not have if they only had a few more pertinent details.

So now we have to ask ourselves, what can we do about this?  Should we just scrap WikiLeaks?  I don’t think that’s necessary, nor do I think it’s feasible to do even if we wanted to since it would likely just be replaced by any number of other entities that would accomplish the same ends (or it would become delocalized and go back to a bunch of disconnected sources).  Should we assume all leaked information has been leaked to serve some malicious agenda?

Well, a good dose of healthy skepticism could be a part of the solution.  We don’t want to be irrationally skeptical of any and all leaks, but it would make sense to have more scrutiny when it’s apparent that the leak could serve a malicious purpose.  This means that we need to be deeply concerned about this unless or until we reach a point in time where hacking is so common that the number of leaks reaches a threshold where it’s no longer pragmatically possible to selectively share them to accomplish these kinds of half-truth driven political agendas.  Until that point is reached, if it’s ever reached, given the arms race between encryption and hacking, we will have to question every seemingly important leak and work hard to make the public at large understand these concerns and to take them seriously.  It’s too easy for the majority to be distracted by the proverbial carrot dangling in front of them, such that they fail to realize that it may be some form of politically motivated bait.  In the mean time, we need to open up the conversation surrounding this issue, and look into possible solutions to help mitigate our concerns.  Perhaps we’ll start seeing organizations that can better vet the sources of these leaks, or that can better analyze their immediate effects on the global economy, elections, etc., before deciding whether or not they should release the information to the public.  This won’t be an easy task.

This brings me to my last point which is to say that I don’t think people have a fundamental right to know every piece of information that’s out there.  If someone found a way to make a nuclear bomb using household ingredients, should that be public information?  Don’t people understand that many pieces of information are kept private or classified because that’s the only way some organizations can function?  Including organizations that strive to maintain or increase national and international security?  Do people want all information to be public even if it comes at the expense of creating humanitarian crises, or the further consolidation of power by select plutocrats?  There’s often debate over the trade-offs between giving up our personal privacy to increase our safety.  Now the time has come to ask whether our giving up some forms of privacy or secrecy on larger scales (whether we like it or not) is actually detracting from our safety or putting our democracy in jeopardy.

Why I Became a Pro-Choice Advocate

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There have been a number of arguments raised over the years concerning whether or not a woman should have the right to choose to have an abortion or not.  I’d like to briefly discuss the primary arguments that I’ve personally found to be the most compelling.  Personally, I hold the view that a woman should indeed have the right to choose whether or not to terminate a pregnancy, and thus I am a pro-choice advocate, though this wasn’t always the case (as a former pro-life/anti-choice atheist, and before that a pro-life/anti-choice Christian).  The primary arguments I’m going to discuss will hopefully illustrate why in fact I hold the pro-choice view that I do, and why I believe it is both rational and reasonable for others to share this view as well.

First, when it comes to determining what individual rights we should or shouldn’t have, we must ask if we want to live in a world where we theoretically begin with no rights at all and then add any desirable rights as needed over time, or where we theoretically begin with every possible right and then remove/restrict rights as desired over time.  It seems obvious to me that the first scenario would be simply absurd and wholly impractical to implement.  Among many other reasons to reject this first scenario, we need only realize that if we began with no rights at all, we wouldn’t even have the right to determine or vote on what rights we should be given at some future point in time.  Furthermore, nobody would have the right to enforce any kind of “no-rights” system put into place.  At the very least, to avoid these absurdities and impracticalities, it is easy to see that the second scenario best describes what any rational person would want.  That is, people want to have as many personal liberties and freedoms as possible with the intention of only excluding certain liberties when they contradict other liberties that are more fundamental.  When it comes to determining which rights should be restricted or excluded in a society (and/or which are most fundamental), people also tend to want to accomplish that decision-making through well-informed democratic processes rather than some particular individual or group making the decision and forcing everyone else to abide by such laws.

Why Have Individual Rights in the First Place?

So what exactly is the primary goal of having and protecting any rights for an individual?  I believe the primary goal that most people (if not all) would agree with is the ultimate intention of creating, maintaining, and living in a society that is conducive to the greatest levels of overall satisfaction and well-being of the lives of every member of that society.  From a libertarian perspective, we could also say that this amounts to a goal of minimizing the magnitude and number of situations in which people are forced into doing something that they don’t want to do.  When we consider the topic of abortion, the primary arguments on either side of the issue tend to pertain to determining and defining which specific individual rights exist (or that arguably should exist) and then we apply these definitions and determinations to the scenario of abortion to see if any rights have in fact been violated.  With regard to this topic, we must also examine the consistency and efficacy of a person’s position on the issue in terms of how well it achieves the aforementioned goal or purpose of having and protecting rights and freedoms in the first place.  It goes without saying that if a person’s position on the issue is such that it’s implementation through any proposed legislation would effectively increase suffering in the world and/or increase the magnitude of people being forced to do things that they don’t want to do, then that person’s position is self-refuting in that it directly contradicts their ultimate reason for wanting to protect individual rights – unless their goal for protecting individual rights substantially differs from the one I’ve stated above, in which case, we would have to evaluate how rational any other stated goal would be in comparison. 

We must also examine the consequences of taking someone’s position on the matter to its logical conclusion, seeing how it would be applied in definitively similar situations, whether or not there would be special exceptions to the rules proposed, and once again whether all of those conceptual elements are consistent with one another.  Ultimately, how we choose to define terms (and their specificity) within this topic of discussion is important for determining the tenability of anybody’s position on the matter.  Let’s take a look at some of the primary arguments that have developed over time while trying to clarify some terminology and definitions along the way.

The Argument for Bodily Autonomy

Perhaps the most primary and fundamental argument in favor of protecting a woman’s right to choose to terminate a pregnancy is the argument for bodily autonomy.  In it’s basic form, it simply asserts that an individual has the right to choose who or what uses their body, for what purpose, and for how long.  The most common (and uncontroversial) examples of applying this very basic principle would be preventing a person from being forced to donate blood, tissue, or organs to another person, even if in doing so, it would potentially save that other person’s life.  If anyone abides by this principle and doesn’t believe that a person should be forced to donate blood, tissue, or organs to another person (to use these common examples) then the same principle would also forbid forcing a woman to donate blood, tissue, or organs to an embryo or fetus, even if in doing so, it would potentially save that embryo or fetus’ life.  During pregnancy, starting from conception, the embryo and later fetus indeed use the woman’s uterus, her blood, her tissue (including for the placenta that eventually forms) and even the woman’s food and oxygen resources. This is arguably the most extreme example of one person using another person’s body. If in fact the embryo or fetus’ use of the woman’s body is against the woman’s consent, then a right to bodily autonomy protects that woman’s right to abort that pregnancy, regardless of whether or not that fetus has no chance of surviving as a result.

Some might object and say, what about the embryo or fetus’ rights? Shouldn’t they have the same rights as every other human being? Well, if we treat all human beings equally and give them all the same rights (which is hardly controversial), then this amounts to giving the embryo or fetus the same rights to bodily autonomy as is afforded to the woman. However, the embryo or fetus doesn’t have any other person who is trying to use their body against the consent of that fetus (nor does that fetus have any consent on the matter one way or the other, although this is irrelevant in any case). Thus, one would have to afford the fetus special rights (a right to use another person’s body against their will), and this is a right that isn’t even granted to children that are already born, since a child’s mother isn’t forced to donate an organ, blood, or tissue to that child, even if it can potentially save that child’s life. Thus, arguments against a woman’s right to choose to terminate a pregnancy are only tenable if one also denies the right of bodily autonomy. Furthermore, if this right was only denied to a woman with respect to a fetus inside her (and not denied to anyone else), and thus is not consistently applied in all other cases, then we have a special right for fetuses that is being argued for, thus arguing against equal rights for all human beings. The only way to reconcile this and make the individual rights equal for all human beings (while attempting to preserve the life of the fetus) would be to completely abandon the right to bodily autonomy which seems like a position that almost nobody would choose to adopt.

On top of this, if one were to grant these same special rights to a less developed human being residing in a pregnant woman, such as a fertilized egg (the first stage of pregnancy), then women would also lose the right to take certain birth control medications. For example, while common birth control medications such as “the pill”, Norplant, or any other chemical birth control medications primarily function by preventing ovulation and impeding sperm, this isn’t 100% effective and so if the chemicals fail to prevent ovulation or fertilization, then they end up preventing implantation of the fertilized egg in the uterine wall, thus aborting the pregnancy. So it must also be kept in mind that if these special rights were granted to any developing human life residing in a woman’s body (whether a fertilized egg, embryo, or fetus), in order to remain consistent with this reasoning, one would also be taking away a woman’s right to use the most common forms of birth control in existence (i.e. chemical/hormonal and IUD methods) since it is well known that they often lead to abortions when they are used.

Defining “Personhood”

Another prominent argument in favor of a woman’s right to choose whether or not to terminate a pregnancy, involves the definition of personhood. In the case of the aforementioned argument for bodily autonomy, it was mentioned that the fetus could indeed be granted the same rights as the woman carrying that fetus, and it still wouldn’t deny the woman the right to abort that pregnancy since it is the woman’s right to bodily autonomy that is being violated in that case. However, it is also worth asking on exactly what grounds are people arguing that the fertilized egg, embryo, or fetus should in fact be granted the same rights as the woman carrying it, or any rights at all for that matter? This comes down to defining what exactly we are granting individual rights to. For example, are we granting rights to a fetus because it is human or has human DNA? A skin cell is also human and has human DNA, but we don’t grant rights to skin cells or the like so there is something else more specific under consideration here. It seems that the primary factor here pertains to defining personhood, for it seems undeniable that it is people that should have these shared individual rights. So what exactly is a person or individual and how do we define that concept?

One might argue that a person is simply a human body, but this can’t be correct, because we don’t grant rights to deceased human bodies. We could further clarify the definition of a person to be a human body that isn’t dead, but what about a brain-dead human body? If my mother became brain-dead but remained on life support (with a beating heart and functional organs), and I was given the option to “pull the plug”, if I chose to do so, would I be killing my mother? One way to determine the answer to this question would be to ask another, namely, who or what is my mother exactly? Would my mother be the brain-dead (though otherwise living) human body that lies before me? It may look like my mother, but I would argue that this body isn’t my mother at all, for my mother is a personality, an identity, a collection of memories, or at the very least a conscious and self-aware being that experiences perceptions and emotions.

Who my mother is exactly is ultimately contingent on the configuration and state of her brain, for it is our brain that manifests our personal identities and any particular self. To prove this, one need only consider the fact that if your brain were swapped with that of another person, you would cease to be you even if the rest of your body was kept original and intact. “You” would now have the personality, memories, thoughts, values, interests, likes and dislikes of that other person. On the other hand, you could swap your arms or legs or various other body parts with another person (or simply get them amputated), and you would still be you (so long as your brain was kept intact).

So to return to my hypothetical scenario involving pulling the plug on a brain-dead mother, because my mother is no longer alive in that case, but rather it is only her body that is alive, my pulling the plug would not in fact be an act of killing my mother. In fact, it wouldn’t even be an act of killing “a person”, because as was just illustrated, a person is contingent on a living brain, and more specifically a living brain with a particular configuration and minimal set of features (such that it has conscious experiences at least some of the time). This just goes to show what we value in a person and why we want people to have protected individual rights in the first place. It isn’t because they are living human bodies, but because we know that “people” are conscious, thinking beings and we value this fact and empathize with them and their experiences. We don’t want people to suffer because we know what it feels like to suffer (to varying degrees), and to consider the contra-positive, we also want to maximize the satisfaction and well being of people. So if a particular human being is not able to experience anything at all (that is, there are no perceptions, and thus no consciousness), then what we value in how we define a person is missing in this case, and thus the ultimate purpose for giving that human being rights is no longer applicable, for that human being is unable to suffer, let alone experience anything at all.

Now if we return to the concept of a fertilized egg, embryo, or fetus, we can apply the same reasoning and ask the same questions. When exactly does the fetus have the requisite brain structures developed such that it can be conscious and experience anything at all (much like my hypothetical mother was before she was brain-dead)? Well, a fetus doesn’t actually become neurologically active until approximately the fifth month of gestation (an event that the medical community refers to as “quickening”). It is at this point that some of the physical hardware (a complex form of the cerebral cortex) is in place for some future capability of consciousness, however the thalamo-cortical complex is integral for consciousness as well and doesn’t begin to materialize until sometime between the 24th and 28th week of gestation. It isn’t until about two months after that (32nd to 36th week), when a synchronous electroencephalographic (EEG) rhythm starts to signal that there is in fact a global neuronal integration taking place – a process that is a fundamental element of consciousness, working memory, etc.

Thus, before the fifth month of pregnancy (the 20th week), the fetus’ brain hasn’t nearly developed enough of the requisite hardware to be conscious (let alone to be self-aware), and thus it is unable to form an individualized personality, and therefore it is not yet a person based on the definition and reasoning given earlier. It doesn’t yet have this personhood status, the very status that we value and thus the very fundamental status that motivates us to ascribe individual rights to a person in the first place. It should also be noted at this time that the majority of elective abortions on record occur before the fourth month of pregnancy, which is several weeks before the fetus is even capable of being conscious, let alone well before it is even capable of beginning to develop any kind of personality or identity, which are necessary attributes in order to be considered a person as defined above.

Are Pro-Life/Anti-Choice Arguments Tenable?

So there are indeed very strong arguments for protecting a woman’s right to choose to terminate a pregnancy including the argument for bodily autonomy and the argument for defining personhood, using reasonable metrics that are based on what we fundamentally value in “people”, and thus why we want people to have protected individual rights in the first place. Arguments against a woman’s right to choose to terminate a pregnancy are likely to be ideologically untenable in that they deny a right to bodily autonomy that I think most people aren’t willing to universally (and thus consistently) argue against. These arguments also tend to rely on defining personhood using criteria or attributes that are either arbitrary, not universally applicable or that are unreasonable because of a fundamental misunderstanding of what we actually value in a person. Furthermore, these arguments are also pragmatically untenable since they also deny women the right to use the most common forms of birth control in order to remain consistent with the basic principles that constitute a pro-life/anti-choice position. For these reasons and more, my position on the issue has changed markedly over time, and after careful consideration of the arguments both for and against a woman’s right to choose, I am happy to say that I finally adopted what I found to be the most reasonable, rational, consistent, and ultimately tenable position on the issue.  Indeed, I support a woman’s right to choose, and I believe that the facts demonstrate this to be the most moral position to have on the matter.

Religious Beliefs & Their Behavioral Consequences

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President Obama made a speech about ISIS (referring to them as ISIL) in response to the horrific murder of journalist James Foley by a British Jihadist back in September (2014):

“ISIL speaks for no religion… and no faith teaches people to massacre innocents. No just God would stand for what they did yesterday and what they do every single day. ISIL has no ideology of any value to human beings. Their ideology is bankrupt…. we will do everything that we can to protect our people and the timeless values that we stand for. May God bless and keep Jim’s memory. And may God bless the United States of America…Now let’s make two things clear: ISIL is not Islamic. No religion condones the killing of innocents, and the vast majority of ISIL’s victims have been Muslim…. ISIL is a terrorist organization, pure and simple. And it has no vision other than the slaughter of all who stand in its way…. May God bless our troops, and may God bless the United States of America. “

Really?  No religion teaches people to massacre innocents?  Perhaps president Obama is right here, if he’s willing to concede to the idea that “innocence” is entirely subjective and in the eye of the religious believer, which I doubt he would concede.  And really?  He thinks (or merely says) that “no just God would stand for what they did yesterday?”  Either Obama is unintentionally making the case that the God of so many believers is in fact unjust, or that the God of these believers simply doesn’t exist.  For I find it incredibly hard to believe that president Obama isn’t familiar with three of the most violent religions in human history: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  The Old Testament of the Christian’s bible, which is also the strictly Jewish contribution to that book, and the Islamic Qu’ran and various Hadiths (i.e. purported prophetic traditions of Mohammed) are riddled with violence and violent commandments including those urging the believer to kill the infidel, that is, the unbeliever (a group that should be included in the innocents that Obama refers to in his speech), and to kill apostates for leaving the faith.  Islam in particular also highly emphasizes the glory of martyrdom with a 72 virgin reward in paradise for believers that have died (only for men though, women get simply one man that will satisfy them), and this of course can fuel other behavior (terrorism and otherwise) that often kills “infidels” and “apostates” in the process of that sought after martyrdom.  The hostility toward unbelievers and apostates within much of Islamic tradition also explains fairly well why most of ISIS’s victims have been Muslims — simply because there are several Islamic sects living near one another and one sect of Islam doesn’t recognize the other sect(s) as being legitimate followers of Islam (thus they are either seen as infidels, or apostates if they converted from one sect to another).

If we look at the common root of all three of these religions, starting with Abraham, we hear the story of a man that is willing to slice the throat of his own child in the name of religious faith.  We find many instances of mass genocide, rape, enslavement, violence, and many other morally reprehensible acts that were condoned or ordained by the God of these faiths.  We find that adulterers and people that decided to work on the Sabbath were stoned to death.  We find cannibalistic threats of punishment for disobedience.  We find homosexuals getting annihilated.  We find a God that inflicts upon all Egyptians ten plagues including the death of all their first born children.  We even find a God that kills just about every land animal and human being on the entire planet by drowning them (except for Noah, his family, and a couple of each land animal as the story goes).  Needless to say, we find countless atrocities of killing innocents by the hand of God or instigated or commanded by this God through his chosen people in these religion’s scriptural texts.  Were those that died considered innocent in the eyes of their God and thus in the eyes of those believers?  Of course not.  Thus, in this sense and this sense only, president Obama was correct to say that “No religion condones the killing of innocents”.  Unfortunately, this just illustrates that what Obama said was utterly meaningless.

Is the president really being serious here?  Could he really be that unfamiliar with all of this basic scriptural and religious background knowledge to make a ridiculous claim like that?  Could he really be that unfamiliar with the countless lives lost over the years in the name of religion, including the Crusades, the Holocaust, or the many conquests of Islam, including the most brutal that took place throughout India (from the 12th to 16th century CE)?  Could he have missed the fact that the U.S. civil war itself was not only a result of the south fighting for state’s rights, but that it was also largely a result of many Christian southerners defending their “rights” to own slaves based on their straightforward interpretation of biblical scripture?  Surely these travesties had multiple causes behind them including geo-political, economic, and other social factors, but to deny the role of religion and specific religious beliefs in motivating much of that behavior would be simply absurd.  Then again, perhaps the president is merely in denial, asserting the delusional view that many people wish was the case, that is, the idea that all religions are equally peaceful, and that violence just comes from other non-religious sources of bad ideas.  However, how could he possibly square this delusion with the particularly liberal recognition that people are products of their environment, and thus, one’s behavior is affected by every environmental influence?  What exactly will have to happen before everyone is willing to accept the fact that all ideas (including religious ideas) lead to behavioral consequences?  In fact, religious ideas (when taken seriously) are probably one of the most powerful, if not the most powerful motivations for a person’s behaviors.  What seems to be most implicit in Obama’s delusional oration is the fear of criticizing religious ideas in particular.

Why are so many people so afraid of or uncomfortable with discussing and criticizing religion or religious beliefs?  In any other domain of our lives, rational inquiry and discourse are required and happily utilized to continue to progress intellectually as individuals and as an increasingly globalized society.  Every day of our lives we demand evidence and/or persuasive reasons for believing what we’re told by others including how to behave (with more extraordinary claims requiring more extraordinary levels of evidence and reasoning).  We discuss and debate issues openly and without disdain largely to find clarity in each others viewpoints, and to determine whether or not, in light of those arguments and evidence, we should change any of those viewpoints (and the behaviors they promote) for the good of our own lives and the lives of others.  It is primarily when the topic shifts to religion, and the various religious beliefs contained within, do many people start to cower away from an open discourse as well as a critical and rational analysis, thus abandoning their everyday moral values and whatever honesty and integrity they may have otherwise.  As a result, religion has now become one of the only (if not the only) existing domains where irrational, illogical, and often downright dangerous ideas can remain out of the reach of public scrutiny and criticism.  This is especially unfortunate since, as I mentioned earlier, religious beliefs in particular are some of the most powerful influences on people’s behavior that exists.  Thus, it is perhaps one of the most important domains to be criticized.

So why are religion and religious ideas so often seen as exempt from criticism?  I think this has likely been largely fueled by the fact that ideas such as cultural and moral relativism and the tolerance of cultural diversity have been used by many in order to condone or equally respect any belief whatsoever, which is obviously ridiculous.  There are certainly some beneficial concepts contained within the cultural or moral relativistic schools of thought, including the idea that there are different ways of looking at the world and living one’s life, that there isn’t only one absolute way that is “correct” or “right”, that there are different ethical frameworks that prioritize different moral goals, and that it is important to examine beliefs and customs both as an outsider and within the cultural context that they are found and implemented.  However, the fact that we shouldn’t try to see the world through some limited, absolutist lens does not imply that all ideas and beliefs are of equal merit, nor that they will all produce the same consequences.  To think that a cultural context can ever save a belief system from any criticism whatsoever or from the behavioral consequences that they produce is simply ludicrous, especially if we are to adopt them with a specific moral or societal goal in mind, such as the goal of increasing our physical and psychological well being.  In order to increase our well being (and for the long term), our ideas must be rooted in reality and must correspond to the world around us, even if that perspective changes over time in light of new scientific discoveries and philosophical discourse.  This allows us to properly examine ideas and beliefs in terms of the consequences they have on our behavior and how that behavior relates to our ultimate goals.  Thus, religious ideology can’t be an exception to this rule or methodology, nor can any other ideology for that matter.  All ideas and beliefs have an effect on our behavior and the sooner people accept that, the sooner we can start accurately assessing the real dangers that we face and discuss how to deal with some of these dangerous ideas, and the people that believe and promote them.  Furthermore, we can then work to abolish those beliefs that are dangerous, and continue to move forward and substantially improve the quality of everyone’s lives in the process.

It certainly hasn’t helped that many liberals have been exacerbating this problem by unjustifiably labeling critics of various religious beliefs as intolerant bigots or racists.  There have been many instances of this defamatory labeling, most recently against some prominent liberals and atheists that have criticized the dangers of Islam and its inherently violent ideologies, and this labeling has been entirely unwarranted, since these critics haven’t been criticizing any particular race of people nor any inert forms of cultural diversity, but rather are criticizing quite obviously bad and dangerous ideas that are prevalent within a particular religious ideology.  These religious beliefs that are being criticized are those that have only served to inhibit the well being of humanity, by inhibiting many important humanistic principles including the push for equality for all races, all sexual orientations, equal rights for women (including women’s reproductive rights), and also the push for democracy, free thought and rational skepticism.

The irony is that liberals have had a long history of advocating many of these noble principles, and the liberals that are being critical of the critics advocating those principles (by those critics pointing out the religious beliefs that conflict with said principles) are basically abandoning their own values — likely because they’re simultaneously employing an irrational interpretation of cultural relativism.  Admittedly, this irrational interpretation or implementation of cultural relativism certainly has many admirable intentions behind it (such as increasing the tolerance for cultural diversity), but promoting a tolerance for diversity can be (and has already been in many cases) accomplished without abandoning the very universal criticism that has been necessary for the humanistic progress we’ve made thus far.  In the case of president Obama and what I heard in his speech, I realize that most of his motivations are political, as he doesn’t want to alienate the large number of religious voters or his approval ratings, and he probably doesn’t want to upset the large number of Muslims that aren’t a direct threat to our safety (not a threat at this time anyway).  It is also likely that his speech reflects his own mistaken beliefs regarding cultural relativism that have been propagating around many liberal circles (unfortunately).

It’s time for everyone to embrace a world where we can speak openly and honestly about any topic, so we can solve many more of the problems we face, rather than simply remain in denial, potentially putting ourselves and many innocent lives in danger.  Not all people have belief systems that are amenable to reason (in fact most religious belief systems aren’t amenable to reason), and so one must face the harsh reality that in some cases the only option is to detain people with certain dangerous beliefs such that they no longer pose a threat to everyone else in society (just as we currently do with violent criminals).  If they can’t be reasoned with nor detained for the protection of the populace, then they may have to be eliminated through other militaristic means.  Personally, I consider myself to be a pacifist, a humanist, and a progressive in many ways.  However, I’m also pragmatic and realistic, and understand that if there are people that can’t be reasoned out of a dangerous ideology, and that are willing to kill everyone around them that stands in their way — those people need to be stopped in one way or another, if everyone else expects to live happily, let alone survive.  I’d always opt for the most peaceful and diplomatic solutions whenever possible, but once those options have been exhausted, then it becomes a matter of humanists fighting for happiness, cooperation, and well being, versus those that couldn’t care less about human happiness, cooperation, or well being.  In that case, I think humanists need to do what is necessary to survive.  For if they fail to survive, then the violent, totalitarian, theocratic ideology will eventually monopolize the ideology of whichever human beings remain.

On the bright side, I’m also hopeful that even if religions don’t disappear altogether, though I think they will eventually based on the current trends of increasing numbers of agnostics and atheists, many dangerous religious ideologies can continue to be reformed as they have been in the past so that violence and aggression in the name of faith can be reduced.  To be sure, reformation of religion can only go so far if one is to continue to take the scriptural texts (especially as a whole) seriously.  In cases where the message coming from religious scriptures is quite clearly dangerous, then the inability to “reinterpret” one’s way out of the moral predicament leaves only two options:  1) change the text, or 2) no longer abide by all the text.  Unfortunately most religious believers have a fundamental ideological barrier that forbids them from changing the text (if only these texts could be amended over time like the U.S. Constitution has been).  That leaves the second option.  In fact, religious “moderates”, including those in the Abrahamic religions have done just that, by ignoring at least some of the commandments and teachings that are heinous.  It’s a good start either way, but it has taken centuries to accomplish with a lot of blood spilled to get there.  In any case, we can’t make these kinds of positive changes very effectively (if at all) until everyone is willing to start talking about them critically.  Let’s do so.

Historical Hypotheticals: Universal Acceptance of Birth Control

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This post is a part of a series I’m writing called: “Historical Hypotheticals”.  My intention in this series is to create various thought experiments related to altering particular variables in history, and analyzing their potential ramifications.  I’m creating this series not only to incite critical thinking by the readers, but also for some pure entertainment value.  Enjoy!

As I mentioned in my previous post within this series, changing one variable in history can have profound consequences, and there is simply no way to know “what would have been” had we changed even one minute variable, let alone complex or compounded variables.  While I acknowledge this, the purpose of this series is to analyze potential gross effects that result from any particular change in the past.  These possible effects should have a reasonable degree of plausibility based on examining some causal relationships.  That is all I’m trying to accomplish here.  Clearly, we can never know for sure “what would have been”, as we simply don’t have enough data, nor enough knowledge of some of these complex relationships between variables.  That said, let’s begin.

Introduction

Various methods of birth control have been utilized for centuries.  The earliest recorded evidence of the use of birth control can be found in the Egyptian Kahun Papyrus from 1850 BCE and shortly thereafter in the Ebers Papyrus in 1550 BCE, where various materials were used as either anti-spermicidal pessaries/suppositories or for cervical obstruction.  There are early Chinese references to coitus reservatus and coitus obstructus dating from the 7th century BCE (although this practice may have been primarily used to preserve the man’s “yang” as opposed to a means for birth control).  We can also find references to coitus interruptus being used as a form of contraception dating from the 6th century BCE within the Book of Genesis.  Centuries later, we find references documenting the use of condoms.  Throughout history, there have also been various documented uses of abortifacients (and other methods to accomplish an abortion or miscarriage), anti-fertility substances, etc.  When no birth control methods were available, infanticide was often used in its place.

The reasons for its use may be universal, but the practice itself is not.  There are a number of cultures that have prohibited the practice in one way or another and these groups’ influences have perpetuated up to this day.  My historical hypothetical will involve altering the history of birth control, specifically its prohibition within these various cultures.  For the purposes of this discussion, I am going to broaden the typical definition of “birth control” to include not only contraceptives, but also any and all means of terminating a pregnancy, as well as infanticide (assuming no birth control methods are available).  What changes might we expect if all cultures had embraced birth control?  To answer this question, I plan to analyze some of these prohibitive groups, and discuss their influence on society over time.

Birth Control Prohibition

There are a range of birth control prohibitions when compared cross-culturally.  Some cultures have banned only particular methods of birth control, where others have banned the practice altogether.  Some may allow certain contraceptive methods (e.g. early withdrawal or “coitus interruptus”), as long as they don’t include any artificial contraceptive device (e.g. condoms, pessaries/suppositories, etc.), while the majority of others may allow any type of contraceptive methods and only restrict their prohibition to that of abortion and/or infanticide.  Which groups had the largest impact on society in terms of birth control prohibition?

Judeo-Christian Religions

Christianity, specifically the Roman Catholic Church, has probably been the largest influence in terms of birth control prohibition.  From the time the proto-orthodox church began to materialize in the 1st century CE, it has maintained that the purpose of sexual intercourse is procreation; therefore contraceptive sex, which deliberately inhibits that purpose, is seen as a violation of natural law.  The story of Onan found in the Book of Genesis (a reference mentioned earlier), mentions his use of the withdrawal technique and the subsequent wrath of God toward Onan (i.e. God killing him), and this story was interpreted by early Christians as a divine declaration of God’s prohibitive view toward contraceptive measures, namely when a man “spills his seed”.

It should be noted that all non-Catholic branches of Christianity had held this same position on birth control until 1930, when the Anglican Communion changed its policy.  After this occurred, it wasn’t long before a few other Christian denominations followed suit by loosening their restrictions on birth control in one way or another.  The Roman Catholic Church, however, has maintained its stance since it began.

As for Judaism, there appears to be quite a range of views on the issue.  It seems that most Jews have agreed (and still agree today) that a man “spilling” his seed is prohibited by God, based on the story of Onan.  After all, The Old Testament’s prohibitive references to birth control were a part of the Jewish Hebrew Bible, the Torah.  Orthodox Jews, being the most strict on the issue, tend to disagree with the use of any birth control accept under certain circumstances such as when a couple already has two children.  However, the passages in the Torah have been interpreted quite literally by some Orthodox and Conservative Jews to only exclude birth control methods such as contraceptive barriers (e.g. condoms), and/or coitus interruptus (i.e. the technique used by Onan), but apparently this does not necessarily exclude the use of hormonal contraceptives.  The Reform branch of Judaism, being the most liberal, has come to accept any use of birth control based on a couple’s own judgement.  Lastly, it should be noted that Jews that follow halakah, based on some Talmudic traditions, will not have sex during the 11 to 14 days after the woman begins her menstrual cycle, thus precluding these Jews from utilizing natural “calendar-based” contraceptive methods.

Islam (a related Abrahamic religion) doesn’t appear to have any universal restrictions on birth control as neither Mohammad nor the Quran explicitly prohibited it.  Some groups of Muslims may disagree with one or more types of birth control, but generally there is little controversy over the issue.  I mention Islam because all of the Abrahamic religions have adhered to the aforementioned adage “be fruitful and multiply” (or a similar adage) and thus they all had an intra-religious benefit in terms of population increase, even if Islam (for example) has never formally prohibited birth control.

To be clear, abortion and infanticide seem to be almost universally prohibited by the Abrahamic religions, and so any instances of accepted forms of birth control within these religions (mentioned above) exclude these two forms of “birth control” (based on my broadened definition given earlier).

Long Term Effects

Population Boost for More Effective Memes

It is important to realize that the birth control ban promoted by Christianity had profound implications, not only for society in general, but also for the fecundity and longevity of the religion itself, since a ban on birth control induces an increase in population.  Followers of the religion would naturally tend to increase in number more than the non-followers whom didn’t heed the church’s instruction.  Now granted, after Constantine converted to Christianity, and the Roman Catholic church grew in terms of size and power shortly thereafter, even non-believers were affected by the church’s orders simply because of the degree to which the church influenced the societal views and law of the land at the time.  While this may be true, followers of the religion over the long run would still be affected, on average, more than non-followers.  This ban on birth control combined with the Old Testament adage “be fruitful and multiply”, meant that over time the proportion of Christians would increase and so would the influence of a birth control ban (as well as other Christian constructs) on the rest of society.

It is likely that the Jewish religion also benefited from any of these intra-religious birth control prohibitions, based on the principle of population increase mentioned above.  It may not have had as much of a population boost benefit when compared to Christianity, due to its wider acceptance of various forms of birth control.  Judaism’s influence on the rest of society (in terms of birth control) was also probably less effective than Christianity‘s, since Christianity has been the dominant religion since the early part of the last millennium (the millennium with the largest growth in world population), once again due in great part to it’s political support by the Roman empire.

The Judeo-Christian religions are not alone in terms of benefiting from this type of prohibition.  Other nations and cultures have benefited (in some ways) from the population boost, especially when they have been trying to overcome or dominate rival nations.  In modern times, there have been numerous efforts and grants offered to countries in the developing world, to decrease the number of those born into poverty, and some of those nations’ leaders have refused this assistance in one way or another.  For example, in the case of Uganda or Nigeria, there have recently been grant funds available from some charitable foundations for starting some family planning programs, but the president of Uganda wants more Ugandans, and Nigeria has been having rivalry between ethnic groups, so there is little chance of them adopting such programs.

Increased Number of Unwanted Children

One of the detriments to society caused by these bans was realized when the number of unwanted children grew, and some parents began to abandon their infants on the churches’ doorsteps.  Eventually this became so common, that many churches were put to use as orphanages to accommodate this new influx.  I also find it likely that an increase in the number of orphans may have provided a net benefit to the church simply because it drove a societal incentive to give the church more money (for the children) and I surmise that a portion of those funds, albeit not all of them, were used to support a growing number of clergy and other expenditures not related to orphan care.

It goes without saying that this influx of unwanted children, regardless of anyone benefiting has resulted in some disastrous secondary consequences for society which I plan to mention in a short while.

Effects of Birth Control Tolerance

Redistribution of Religious Influence

It seems reasonable to assume that had there not been a Judeo-Christian ban on birth control, the success and growth of the religions would have at least been stunted.  This growth stunt may have precipitated a number of changes in history, including a reduction of influence on: religiously justified war, the Christian hurdle placed on scientific progress by the Inquisition et al, the violent cultural intolerance as seen during the conquest of the Americas, the suppression of individualism, the suppression of women’s rights (including the well-known witch hunts; among those “hunted” were midwives possessing knowledge of birth control methods), and many other effects brought on by a dominator-culture.  Now it is certainly true that if the Judeo-Christian influence had been reduced, the world would have also never received any of the benefits of that particular religion, however many of those benefits stemming from the church such as various charitable actions, support groups, community events, etc., have also been provided by many non-religious and humanitarian organizations, and are seen cross-culturally regardless of religion.  In my opinion, the societal drawbacks brought on by Judeo-Christian influence (Christianity in particular) have far outweighed any benefits.

Looking at the population boost principle, we can also surmise that if birth control had been widely accepted in the Judeo-Christian religions, the influence of other historically non-dominant religions may have increased.  Buddhism, Hinduism, Neo-Paganism, and many others have allowed either most or all forms of birth control over time and may have had a much greater following and impact on society had they co-existed with a population of members comparable to that of Christianity.

Less Unwanted Children

If birth control had been widely accepted and used, there would have been a much smaller number of orphans and/or unwanted children, which reduces a number of secondary societal consequences, including one I find quite significant — a substantial decrease in crime.

Less Crime

It’s not at all difficult to see that promoting or allowing reasonable access to birth control methods would lead to a smaller number of unwanted children, and this would thereby reduce the number of would-be criminals.  It is even less difficult to see this relationship in today’s world when we look at the fact that a disproportionate number of these children are products of poor, less educated, single-parents.  Criminologists have long known that childhood poverty and a single-parent household are among the strongest predictors that a child will have a criminal future.  I’m confident that this correlation (between poverty and crime at least) has roughly been the case throughout all of history.

To help quantify this supposed correlation between crime and birth control prohibition, we could look at the time frame approximately 15-25 years after abortion was broadly legalized via Roe v. Wade (back in 1973), as this is when we would have expected a good portion of the “would-be” cohort of children to be entering their criminal prime (had they been born, and if they indeed became criminals).  This time frame would have started in the late 80’s and continued through the 90’s.  Perhaps astonishingly, criminologists have indeed found that during this time frame, crime had substantially dropped to levels not seen since the 1950’s.  In fact, according to several economists, abortion is believed to have accounted for between 30 and 50% of this drop in crime.  It should be noted that these numbers have been calculated using several reliable models of data analysis, after controlling for a number of other crime-reduction factors (e.g. increased number of police, harsher prison sentences, crack market crash, etc.).

While this drop in crime (due to a decrease in unwanted children) was precipitated by abortion, other birth control options presumably had a similar effect on crime rates (unfortunately we don‘t seem to have the data required to test this hypothesis).  That is, had we had a ban on all forms of birth control in 1973 (and the following 25 years), I believe we would have seen a dramatic increase in the crime rate as a result.

Birth Control Efficacy and Cost

Had birth control been widely accepted by all cultures, its efficacy would have also improved much faster over time.  After all, the cultural prohibitions led to a decrease in any and all knowledge pertaining to birth control, and this almost froze any means of progress or improvement.  Even looking back to Roe v. Wade, as the amount of access to abortion increased, the safety and efficacy of the procedure improved over time as a result.  Likewise, the more widely accepted (and thus used) a method of birth control is, the cheaper it becomes over time.

Women’s Rights

I have no doubts that a wide acceptance of birth control starting centuries ago would have changed history for women quite substantially.  Women’s largest role in history has been child-rearing, and if birth control options for women had been widely accepted, women’s roles would have inevitably changed a long time ago.  Not only would women’s rights (over their own bodies) have increased, but women would have increased their opportunities for other roles in society in terms of occupation, involvement in politics, positions of authority, etc., simply because their previous historical “purpose” would have become but one of a number of different purposes, just as we’ve seen in more modern times.  Giving women a longer run in a society with more equal rights between the sexes, would have created a more balanced and peaceful world since partnership societies would have been more likely to exist to counter the patriarchal dominator societies that we’ve seen throughout most of history.

Summary

It seems to me that a widespread acceptance of birth control starting centuries ago would have dramatically altered history.  One could say that some of the most profound effects would have been: a redistribution of religious influence (and potentially an accelerated Scientific Revolution), less crime, and perhaps an increase in partnership societies stemming from an increase in equal rights for women.  Perhaps one of the most ironic truths, summarized by the so-called “Roe effect” is the inevitability that those that are most apt to using and promoting the availability of birth control may eventually disappear from the gene pool, if they also happen to have less children (on average) when compared to those within the more prohibitive groups.  This may happen as a result of a redistribution of parental indoctrination.  To put it another way, in order for this meme to live on, birth control advocates may need to have more children (or more specifically, higher survival rates) than those that prohibit the practice.  If this is not the case in the future, then the sudden shift we’ve had in birth control use and availability in the last few decades may end up becoming a temporary historical anomaly.

Gay Marriage, Sexism, and Simple Algebra

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The social issue of gay marriage gained national importance over this last year.  We heard the reasons behind positions held on both sides of the aisle.  On the one hand, some opponents to gay marriage said that they were interested in keeping marriage “sacred between a man and a woman”.  On the other hand, we had proponents and advocates saying that gay couples should have the same rights as straight couples.  I’d like to address this issue using simple algebra, to show that ultimately allowing gay marriage rights is merely another dissolution of inequality between men and women.  That is, allowing gay marriage to be legalized further illustrates that men and women are equal.  We can say “It’s about gay rights” or “It’s about straight rights”, or even “It’s about religious rights” — but I prefer to say “It’s about equality between men and women”.  Let’s look at the math here:

If a couple is mathematically nothing more than a sum of two variables (we’ll call them A and B, where A represents a female and B represents a male), then marriage can be described by the following:

A + A,   B + B,   or A + B, where the latter is a traditional marriage.

According to gay marriage opponents, neither A + A  nor  B + B can equal A + B, therefore A is not equal to B.

This implies that men and women are not equal.  You will hear a lot less about this issue from a “sexual” discrimination perspective as opposed to a “sexual orientation” discrimination perspective, but clearly opposing gay marriage is also a sexist position.  Just look at the math folks.  The numbers just don’t add up for those opposed to gay marriage, especially if those individuals also claim to promote equality between the sexes (many don’t I’m sure, but I’m also sure that at least some people out there do in fact believe that they are not sexist, yet oppose gay marriage).  I find it surprising that gay marriage rights are still being fought over after we as a society have come as far as we have.  We examine issues like slavery, voting rights, civil rights, etc., and see that the idea of inequality leads to dangerous outcomes.  Haven’t we triumphed over these issues?  Why are we still fighting over rights that seem so obviously inalienable and universal?  Rights that maximize happiness by allowing every unit (be it a single person or a couple) to be treated equally.  Perhaps some people in this country simply need to re-examine their math skills.

Written by Lage

February 4, 2013 at 10:50 pm