Audience Participation

April 30, 2006

Two somewhat related requests:

  1. Despite my relative certainty about the things I’ve discussed so far—the value and necessity of human reason, above all else—there are quite a few issues about which I don’t have ironclad opinions. In that vein, if there are any topics, specific or general, about which you would like me to post, please feel free to leave a comment here to that effect (or email me). I’ve got no scarcity of things to write about (he says, adding a twelfth post to his queue), but I’m genuinely curious about what sorts of things you’d like to see me write about, if you have any particular preference.
  2. Speaking of issues on which I haven’t come to a decisive conclusion, I’d like to get a bit of conversation going about the concept of hate crime legislation. The ‘sensible’ position, at least in the circles in which I run, is that such laws would by definition be thought legislation, in that they place an additional criminal burden on anti-[group] thoughts above and beyond already-prohibited violent actions, thus violating the principle of freedom of conscience. The suggestion of this argument is that hate crime legislation would be on principle no different from a legal prohibition against bigoted thoughts—the only difference being that bigotry would be a secondary violation, so to speak. The obvious rebuttal here is that intent and mental state are already considered in the law in quite a few places, most notably in the various distinctions between degrees of murder/manslaughter. This seems to be more a matter of the absence or presence of intent than about the content of that intent, I suppose, but hate crimes could be represented similarly–the absence or presence of anti-[group] intent in the committing of a violent crime.

    My instincts here run in two different directions. On the one hand, I am very receptive to the hesitance to regulate thought in any way, and to the theoretical dangers of encoding a sort of prohibition of certain beliefs, even if those beliefs are idiotic and hateful. I recognize that the burden rests on those doing the regulating, and that rights are assumed to exist unless otherwise specified. On the other hand, the “hate crime legislation -> thought crime” argument seems to me somewhat misleading; I’m not entirely ready to say that enforcing hate crime legislation would be the same in principle as enforcing a prohibition on bigoted thoughts. It should be noted that the desire to kill someone because of their sexual orientation/gender/race/etc. can and should be distinguished from the belief that someone is inferior because of those characteristics, though obviously they are fundamentally linked. The question there, I guess, would be whether there is something to the willingness to commit a hate crime besides the belief in the inferiority of the victim’s group and a willingness to kill in general, and I’m not really sure how to answer that. Society has a definite interest in decreasing the number of violent crimes committed, and this is one of the main functions of the legal prohibition on violent crime: to create a state where the cost of committing a certain crime (imprisonment, etc.) is greater than the perceived benefit of committing that crime (material gain, emotional satisfaction, etc.). Hate crime legislation would seem to act to create such a state of affairs by targeting one of the potential impulses towards violent crime. The other function of law is protection in a more direct sense, i.e. removing dangerously violent people from the general population so that they won’t kill people, and it seems to me that the thought crime argument is more relevant to this dimension of law. As a deterrent, though (see desire utilitarianism), it doesn’t seem to me entirely out of the question.

What say you, dear readers, on either of these counts?


Look Back in Anger

April 27, 2006

I’ve been for the most part avoiding link/quote posts, as they’re not really why I started writing here—I prefer essaying to commentary, generally. In this case, however, I must point to Alonzo Fyfe‘s words on the ‘angry atheist’ phenomenon. I hope to get into atheism soon here, as it’s probably the concept about which I am most passionate and with which I am most engaged right now, but for now, I’ll merely nudge you (forcefully) in the direction of Alonzo’s post. You ought to read the whole thing—it’s not especially long, and Alonzo is always very readable—especially if you’ve ever been at all confused as to why many atheists seem to be angry (short answer: we have reason to be), but here’s a tidbit, emphasis mine:

The article [ed: here] also states:
To be called to a level of goodness and sacrifice so constantly and so patiently by a loving but demanding God may seem like a naive demand to achieve what is only a remove human possibility. However, such a vision need not be seen as a red flag to those who believe nothing.

First, the author says that atheists see a call to “goodness and sacrifice” is a red flag. So, atheists are not good, and we do not engage in sacrifice. In fact, our rejection of religion, I assume, is because we, like spoiled children, simply do not want to do anything for other people. No, the ‘red flag’ is being called evil and selfish. I find my calling to goodness and sacrifice in a different source — from the fact that my fellow humans are capable of feeling pain and suffering and I do not want bad things to happen to them. Instead, I want them to be safe and happy. Period. End of story. No God involved.

Anyone who has trouble recognizing this as a legitimate source of good and moral behavior needs to take a long, hard look at their own morality.


The More Things Change . .

April 19, 2006

I’ve generally avoided overtly political commentary, preferring instead to discuss more fundamental philosophical issues, but I want to comment briefly on today’s news that Scott McClellan is resigning and Karl Rove is “[giving] up his portfolio as senior policy coordinator to concentrate more on politics and November’s midterm Congressional elections.” I’m less interested in the latter than I am in the former, given that even when Rove was supervising policy, it was almost exclusively a matter of political strategy (as opposed to a more honest, less self-interested motivation behind policy implementation), so I don’t think much is really changing there. Still, I suppose the point that I want to make probably holds true in both cases.

Point being this: people and ideas are not interchangeable. In a situation like the recent so-called shakeup of White House staff, the suggestion, from a political/PR standpoint, is that by removing a prominent figure, the administration is somehow taking responsibility for and/or remedying the policies and concepts with which that person has been involved. In this case, the figure is pretty much just a mouthpiece, making the contrast between person and principle all the more clear. Taking responsibility for bad leadership or insufficient performance of a given job is one thing, but it shouldn’t be confused with changes in ideology, policy, or principle, especially given how exceedingly rare it seems to be for a policy idea to be conceived of and authored by just one person (and certainly not by press secretaries). The man or woman in a position of governmental authority often comes to symbolize in part the actions and words of the government as a whole, such that people see a “shakeup” in personnel as a real change, by the logic that the person carries with him or her the ideas of the administration, or at least some subset of those ideas. In most cases, though, these shakeups are merely a matter of finding scapegoats, dumping them to the curb, and pretending that more substantive things have changed so as to maintain an illusion of progress where there usually is none. I don’t doubt that there is at least some difference in leadership styles between Andy Card and Josh Bolten, but that transition is being very deliberately made out to be a change in more than personnel. If there are genuine differences in ideology between the old staff and the new, then fine, that’s something, but I have seen no particular evidence to suggest that there is—and there has been a near-constant (and unabashedly manipulative) attempt to trumpet these changes as a real shift in direction.

One of the many noteworthy (if not entirely original) themes tossed around in V for Vendetta is that of the symbolic relationship between man and idea. Vendetta explores the traditional wisdom that the idea is greater than the man, more powerful, far more difficult to extinguish—indeed, expressions of this idea bookend the film. The relationship, both within the film’s reality and in our reality, is more complicated than that, however; the idea is conceived, voiced, expressed, and enacted by the man, or by other men (I assume I need not clarify every use of ‘man’ by saying I’m using it gender-neutrally). I don’t mean to suggest that Scott McClellan or Andy Card are trivial, or that they don’t bear any relation to the ideas behind the administration, but typically our government is organized in such a way that with very few exceptions, the man is a slave to the idea. A very small minority within the administration crafts policy, and outside of this minority, everyone is subordinate to the enacting of the decided-on policy. This situation is not unique to the Bush administration, but they have certainly elevated it to an art form with their increasingly insular decision-making process and their unceasing refusal to listen to fact or opinion not already within the scope of the decided-on policies.

A true change of course would necessitate a change not only in the policies that have been so resolutely decided upon, but also in the decision-making process as a whole. A changed Bush administration would in theory be one that listened to its critics rather than dismissing them out of hand, one that embraced policy debate instead of claiming an unsubstantiated point of view as definitive truth, one that acknowledged the significance of objective reality rather than ignoring it. Until/unless that happens, we ought not accept the assertions that a staff shakeup is interchangeable with (or a satisfactory substitute for) a policy/idea shakeup. The symbology of leadership is not ironclad; we ought not confuse the symbol and the symbolized, the man and the principle. Eliminating the former does not eliminate the latter—rarely are ideas, even bad ones, so easily extinguished.


Edit: Alonzo Fyfe expresses a similar point (emphasis mine):

We have already been told that this shakeup does not include Rumsfeld. Instead, today, we hear that Press Secretary Scott McClellan is stepping down. This has all of the sense of a speaker, proposing poorly considered ideas based on fantasy and wishful thinking can make those ideas sound better if they switch to a different microphone. They have not yet recognized that the problem is with the message, not with the quality of the equipment used to tell it.

On the purpose of copyright

April 13, 2006

Discussions of copyright and patent law have been coming into the sights of internet news sites with greater frequency of late. The DRM copy protection schemes supported by the RIAA and MPAA, the changing of copyright terms, and the questionable enforcement of the DMCA affect all of us as consumers and as free citizens.

The first thing I'll ask you to understand is that public domain is the natural state for information and ideas to be in; things are said to 'fall into' the public domain, which certainly does make it sound like a default state. In the interim between an idea's or work's conception and its becoming truly 'free,' legal restrictions can be placed on its distribution and use.

One important thing to note about these restrictions is that they are temporary. There is no such thing as permanent intellectual property. Both copyrights and patents expire after a set span of years. This changed with the passing of the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, a piece of legislation bought and paid for in campaign donations from Disney. Here's a good article on the subject by Chris Sprigman of Findlaw.

Perhaps the most important thing everyone involved needs to recognize is the purpose of copyright is advancement itself. This point is well made by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, so I'll borrow her words:

"The primary objective of copyright is not to reward the labor of authors, but ‘[t]o promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts.' To this end, copyright assures authors the right to their original expression, but encourages others to build freely upon the ideas and information conveyed by a work. This result is neither unfair nor unfortunate. It is the means by which copyright advances the progress of science and art."

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor

Feist Publications, Inc. v. Rural Telephone Service Co.

499 US 340, 349(1991)

The law ultimately places the public good over the compensation of the individual. A challenge to the CTEA made the argument that the statute infringed on the First Amendment because it "placed a limitation on free speech without advancing any important governmental interest." (Sprigman)

Further reading:

  • A lot of these points draw from Sprigman's article from Findlaw, which is certainly better written than this post.
  • Paul Graham's interesting entry on software patents, a phrase that is synonymous with litigious nonsense to the Slashdot crowd.

Moral Reasoning vs. Moral Behavior

April 12, 2006

For a variety of reasons, I’ve spent quite a bit of time on issues of morality thus far in my blogging. Part of it is the sheer necessity of moral decision-making in a world in which one’s actions can so easily have an impact on other people. Part of it is my general interest in the ethical component of philosophy. Most of it, I suspect, is the fact that morality has become so tarnished as a concept, so twisted and misinterpreted and wrongheaded, that most of us shudder when anyone mentions “moral values,” because we recognize that as (typically) shorthand for the stubborn, arrogant imposition of one set of prejudices on an entire society. In this post, I’d like to address an important division in thinking about morality: the division between moral reasoning (process) and moral behavior (end).

(Side note: I should probably also make it clear that I’m using ‘morality’ and ‘ethics’ pretty much interchangeably in these posts. This is perhaps not the best of ideas, and maybe in future posts I’ll be more precise in using ‘ethics’ to denote the philosophical inquiry into the nature of right and wrong, and ‘morality’ to denote the social/cultural systems generated thereof. For now, though, just pretend they’re identical.)

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Unholy Alliances and the Monolith

April 11, 2006

Edit: Hello hello, visitors from Pharyngula! Take your shoes off, make yourselves comfortable, take a look around. We just vacuumed, so try not to spill.

A significant chunk of the recent debate among Democrats (or, more accurately, among non-Republicans) has been about how exactly we should be dealing with religion—specifically evangelical Christianity—from a political standpoint, which is to say from a public relations standpoint. With midterm elections rapidly approaching and campaigning for 2008 off to an early start, questions of policy and principle are, as is usually the case, taking a back seat to political maneuvering to satisfy the religious majority. Amy Sullivan’s Washington Monthly article a while ago about the interaction between evangelicals and the Democratic party was the catalyst for the most recent round of debates on this subject. Professor Myers and others came down hard on Sullivan (justifiably so) for what they saw as her willingness to abandon the principles of secular government for strategic purposes that almost completely miss the point. In particular, Sullivan and others have left the impression that atheists and agnostics ought to sit down and shut up for the sake of the team, a suggestion to which a number of us don’t take kindly. With little to no concern for self-preservation, I’d like to dive into this little debate.

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