Genocide and Divine Command Theory

Brandon Watson is giving me grief for neglecting to address the arguments put forth by William Lane Craig in support of his literal reading of God’s command to Israel to slaughter the Canaanites. Such an engagement was not the objective of my previous post, which was intentionally more assertion than argument. However, Craig has a considered and finely executed argument for his interpretation, and so it seems only fair that I address it after (in this case) I’ve dismissed his conclusion.

Craig argues that one can read the offending passages in question as accurately depicting real events and real divine commands without endangering 1) the moral argument for God existence, 2) the deity of Christ, or 3) the conception of God as holy and loving. According to Craig, there’s no moral problem in saying that a good, holy, and loving God commanded his Chosen People to wipe out another people, including children and infants. To say such a command didn’t really happen is to reject biblical inerrancy: “the problem, it seems to me, is that if God could not have issued such a command, then the biblical stories must be false. Either the incidents never really happened but are just Israeli folklore; or else, if they did, then Israel, carried away in a fit of nationalistic fervor, thinking that God was on their side, claimed that God had commanded them to commit these atrocities, when in fact He had not.”

His argument centers on a version of divine command ethics in which God’s holy and loving nature determines what he commands. It is on this ethics that I wish to dwell. Craig writes:
I think that a good start at this problem is to enunciate our ethical theory that underlies our moral judgements. According to the version of divine command ethics which I’ve defended, our moral duties are constituted by the commands of a holy and loving God. Since God doesn’t issue commands to Himself, He has no moral duties to fulfill. He is certainly not subject to the same moral obligations and prohibitions that we are. For example, I have no right to take an innocent life. For me to do so would be murder. But God has no such prohibition. He can give and take life as He chooses. We all recognize this when we accuse some authority who presumes to take life as “playing God.” Human authorities arrogate to themselves rights which belong only to God. God is under no obligation whatsoever to extend my life for another second. If He wanted to strike me dead right now, that’s His prerogative.

What that implies is that God has the right to take the lives of the Canaanites when He sees fit. How long they live and when they die is up to Him.

So the problem isn’t that God ended the Canaanites’ lives. The problem is that He commanded the Israeli soldiers to end them. Isn’t that like commanding someone to commit murder? No, it’s not. Rather, since our moral duties are determined by God’s commands, it is commanding someone to do something which, in the absence of a divine command, would have been murder. The act was morally obligatory for the Israeli soldiers in virtue of God’s command, even though, had they undertaken it on their own initiative, it would have been wrong.

On divine command theory, then, God has the right to command an act, which, in the absence of a divine command, would have been sin, but which is now morally obligatory in virtue of that command.
It is important to note that Craig does not espouse voluntarism; he rejects a divine command theory in which God arbitrarily decides what is good and evil. Instead, says Craig, “our moral duties are constituted by the commands of a holy and loving God.” It is God’s commanding that obligates us, but the actions to which we are obligated because of his commands correspond to the standard of his holiness and love. Craig furthermore theorizes that God can command us to perform acts that would be sinful if we performed them without his command, but are not sinful if he commands them because a) his commands constitute our moral duties, b) God himself is not prohibited from doing them or commanding them, and c) commanding such actions is not contrary to God’s nature. According to Craig, the genocide committed by Israel in obedience to God’s order was such an act.

While Craig does not profess belief in a morally arbitrary deity, his theory, in practice, opens the city gates to the same practical consequences that result from voluntarism. To speak of God commanding X or Y is to refer to an act occurring beyond human experience. Assuming such commands actually occur, we only know about them because someone claiming to speak for God tells us what they are. Moses claimed to have been given the Ten Commandments. Jesus claimed that he and the Father were one. Paul claimed to speak in the name of Christ. The popes have claimed magisterial teaching authority guided by the Holy Spirit. We’re typically not directly present to divine commands, but rather to self-described religious authorities and religious texts through which, we’re told, God speaks.

Now maybe God actually has spoken through some select human beings, but Craig’s ethical theory doesn’t provide us with the tools to recognize the legitimate representatives from the phonies. Instead, his theory makes this discernment more difficult. By placing the origin of moral obligation in divine commands, he has in effect placed it in the words of people his faith tells him are the real deal. And how does his faith speak to him? Why, through people who claim to be religious authorities who have authored religious texts. People of other religious professions or merely of other interpretations of his own who likewise approach the source of morality through divine command theorizing will undoubtedly arrive at different conclusions about what God commands or what an alleged commandment from God means.

In practice, divine command theory, even one which depicts God as holy and loving, deprives us of a knowable objective moral standard. We’re presented with as many divine commands as there are alleged mouthpieces for the divine. Saying that God is holy and loving doesn’t settle the matter of what the terms mean when applied to God. To insist on a singular meaning for each term requires a step away from the proclamations of alleged religious authorities toward a standard by which even they can be judged; but if we subject them to such a standard, then we move away from the position from which we hear the ethical standard arising from their lips. We walk away from the practice of a divine command ethics.

Craig makes matters worse by opening the door to the justification of all manner of evils. Suppose a couple comes to believe that God has commanded them to suffocate their young children because the kids are destined to grow away from their faith when they become adults. According to Craig’s theory, God could conceivably command this horror, and if he did, the parents would be morally obligated to obey the command. What would we tell such parents? That God wouldn’t command such a terrible thing? That to carry out this command would be a sin? The parents could simply respond, “God has the right to command an act, which, in the absence of a divine command, would have been sin, but which is now morally obligatory in virtue of that command.” Maybe we’d bring up advanced theological ideas about dispensations to differentiate our world from the world of the Old Testament, and therefore the situation of the ancient Israelites from that of these parents, but such recourse would be more than a little odd. Should an ethical theory really need to reference the theological concept of divine dispensation in order to have a footing on which to persuade a couple not to murder their children?

Craig’s ethical theory may enable him to explain why the ancient Israelites were on solid moral ground when killing the children of their enemy, but it also, in practice, results in an authoritarian ethics, and ethics in which the basis of right and wrong is communicated to us by a self-described religious-moral authority and which therefore gives us no ground, solid or otherwise, to judge the moral truth of what the authority claims to communicate. If we assess the moral thinking of such an authority without simply taking the word of another such authority, then we’ve looked elsewhere for a basis of right and wrong. (VN)

When Theologians Defend Genocide and Infanticide

Greta Christina is right to be aghast at theologian William Lane Craig's moral defense of divinely commanded infanticide, but wrong to see his defense as a reason why religion is so messed up.  It's messed up, of course, but not because a theologian tries to get God off the hook for ordering the slaughter of newborns.

As I've argued here and elsewhere, the religious narrative that interprets God as actually having ordered genocide and infanticide doesn't simply clash with Christianity's meta-narrative of salvation history; if incorporated into it, the Christian story is fundamentally rewritten.  Salvation becomes not merely dependent on God’s suffering of violence freely and sinfully chosen by human beings, but on humankind’s obedience to the role of annihilator, a role that purifies the way for Mary’s “Yes” and the Incarnation, Life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

This revision grants the infliction of genocidal violence a sanctifying and salvific role—a necessary divinely-intended part to play in salvation history. Purifying violence committed by human beings becomes a prerequisite for God's redemptive suffering, and as a result, a new gospel that marries violence and salvation is written.

Religious defenses of mass murder result not from religion itself, but from religious thinking divorced from sound moral reasoning.  I'm a religious believer, but when someone insists that a horrendous evil was or is morally permissible because God apparently gave it a thumbs up, I lower my thumb to this conception of God. (VN)

On the Seas of Uncertainty

James K, the League’s newest contributor, hits on part my reasoning for subscribing to two subversive philosophies—deconstruction and pluralism. In the realm of the social sciences, we haven’t got the answers. This is especially true with respect to the big policy issues. James attributes the elusiveness of answers to the problematic epistemology of the social sciences and to the influences of political ideologies that blind the overly self-assured problem solvers to realities in front of their noses and information that undermines their ideological worldview.

For us deconstructionists, the answers we seek and on which we attempt to construct philosophies, policies, programs, and institutions remain always and everywhere ahead of us. We never reach them. We never set foot upon the shores of the just society or the democratic republic or the socialist heaven, but that doesn’t stop policy-makers from acting as though they’ve stood atop the mountains of the Promised Land and need only guide to land the rest of us poor uncertain saps who remain trapped on dilapidated rafts semi-floating on tumultuous seas.

The truth is that no one has set foot on this solid ground. We’re all rocking back and forth on poorly-made rafts, although admittedly some of us have better transportation than others and can better see the signs of land in the dark and the distance. We’re not hopelessly lost, but nor do we have a map made by one who has all the answers. Our best bet is to proceed with caution, listening to those with knowledge and experience but not assuming for those advantages that they definitely know what they’re talking about. Like the rest of us, the experts are making it up as they go along, and what they come up with may move us closer to land or it may send us swiftly into a pulverizing maelstrom.

Participation and Political Imagination

This country’s deep systemic problems cannot be solved with robust welfare programs alone. Not if those programs are still to be administered by the few, with no meaningful input from the many.

What this country then needs must be a significant rebalancing in the distribution of political power. I see no evidence that this can be achieved through what have become the conventional means for creating change. So if we’re going to expand democratic participation to a far broader swath of the citizenry, we need to first redefine what it means to participate. Surely, in an enlightened democratic republic, it is not sufficient simply to vote and mouth off from time to time.

What we need are broad-based coalitions that can provide a serious counterweight to centralized power. And I believe unions are the best model we have of how that would work.

- Ned Resnikoff
If memory serves, Freddie deBoer has expressed a similar call to action, and I couldn't agree more.  As very recent congressional votes make clear, the programs administered by the few have only the endurance that the few politically strong decide to give them.  Their supportive roots don't stand a chance against the plows and bulldozers of the powers that be when the powerful join together to uproot them. 

Unions may be the best current model for providing a more equal distribution of power, but, as Resnikoff remarks, the very meaning of participation needs rethinking and re-imagining.  The mere presence of unions and other associations doesn't translate into a just distribution of power. Nor do the vote and political representation.  To give the disadvantaged social and political advantage demands much more than and truly something otherwise than the giving of the few to the many.  For if the few are they who give, the few can take away.  Participation must come to mean an end to the political dichotomy of the few and the many such as it is today.

The Skill of Sitting Still

“Teach us to care and not to care / Teach us to sit still.”

- T.S. Eliot
Kathleen Sebelius of Health and Human Services recently opined that children in kindergarten won’t likely do well if they can’t sit still, to which E.D. Kain responds: “Why should five-year-olds sit still in class? That’s not how we’re programmed and it’s certainly not how children are programmed. If you want kids to sit still, first you have to make sure they’ve run out of energy. If you haven’t noticed, kids have tons of energy, and asking them or expecting them to simply stay put is downright archaic.”

At the risk of being downright archaic, I’m going to side with Sebelius on this one, but with some clarifications. It would be unreasonable and unhealthy to force children to sit still for long periods of time or to treat sitting still as if it’s the most important lesson a five-year-old can get. It would also be a mistake to approach sitting still as an end in itself or as a means of giving a teacher a moment’s peace and quiet. That being said, it is something even a five-year-old can be taught to do somewhat well, and the skill has its benefits, academic and otherwise. Stillness better positions one to listen and focus.

On the other hand, so does dancing. I agree with E.D. that children’s energy needs to be harnessed and they need regular physical exercise and activity. The virtues aren’t limited to the moral and intellectual spheres, after all. But being able to sit still is a physical virtue, one that needs time for instruction and growth. The stillness we expect from a five-year-old shouldn’t equal what we expect for a ten-year-old, but if we expect children to develop that virtue, they need to begin learning it when they begin learning in general. Or shortly thereafter at the latest. So, yes, I support teaching young children to sit still, but I also support teaching them to dance.

A Tumblr That Should Feature Me

Awesome People Hanging Out Together.  Here's Chaplin and Einstein:


H/T: Sully

Just a Bunch of Feathers

While departing from work the other day, I noticed a large bird lying upon the grass. Flies scattered from the corpse as I came close, and returned hungrily after I’d passed. I didn’t think much on this ghastly image until the next morning when I arrived at work and saw the mowers tending to the lawn. Instantly I thought of the bird and wondered if the mowers had disposed of the carcass. They hadn’t. Garbled feathers scattered the lawn where the bird had been. The body seemed to have vanished, and I thought to myself, it’s just a bunch of feathers; but upon closer inspection of the blades of grass I saw innards and other slimy remains of a life that once soared.

I was reminded of this scene upon reading this article by Thomas Sowell on poverty in America. His version of reality depicts the struggles of the poor as just a bunch of feathers and misses the blood and guts buried not even below the surface. The poor, you see, really don’t need government assistance with food, housing, and heath care because many of them have cars, cell phones, and—gasp!—color televisions. Low income people are more overweight than other Americas, a sure sign that they’ve plenty to eat, right? The elderly are the wealthiest segment of the population, so obviously they can pay for their health care if other segments can. That just about every one of them has a pre-existing condition couldn’t possibly present a problem, could it?

Look, Sowell thinks government entitlement programs are economically and politically ruinous, and I can respect that position even if I don’t conclude the same. But, for the sake of reality, can we at least recognize that government programs such as Medicaid and Medicare help real people with really serious needs and that cutting or eliminating these programs will hurt people who lack the sufficient means to care for themselves and their families? You want to argue there’s a better way to help the impoverished? Fine. Do that. But don’t cover your ears to the cries of the poor because some of them have a few material possessions you think they ought not to have if they’re reaching out for public assistance.

As for Sowell’s unsubstantiated claim that politicians propose entitlement programs and funding for the goal of creating vote-delivering dependencies, I’m sure he won’t mind if I throw evidence to the wind assume that politicians propose military operations and funding with the sole aim of generating irrational fear so they can play the saviors and stay in power. (VN)

My Girl Mirielle



A charmingly beautiful baby, ain't she?  You can credit her mom with that.

Gender Discovery and the Raising of Gender-free Children

My sister-in-law sent me a story about a couple who have decided to hide their newest child’s sex from family, friends, and even from the child! They don’t want their child Storm knowing about the social norms and meanings associated with his or her biological organs. Why? So Storm can be free to discover who he/she is without the constraints of these social constructs related to gender, some of which are pretty arbitrary. Typical clothing color, for example.

Even if we assume that there’s a difference between sex (a biological fact) and gender (a social construct), and even if we assume there’s absolutely no necessary or deterministic connection between the two, this couple’s plan for Storm’s uninformed self-discovery just isn’t the way to go. Any and every pursuit of knowledge, whether it is knowledge of oneself or of something else, is situated in time and place and, yes, a body. No knowledge is ever discovered disembodied in a timeless vacuum located nowhere. Storm’s parents are attempting to start their child’s journey of self-discovery at a point that doesn’t exist and cannot even be imagined.

They’d do better trying to teach Storm the difference between having and being, though even this path would present them insurmountable obstacles as what they want for little Storm (free, detached, body-bracketed self-discovery) isn’t attainable.

The Progression and Regression of Ideas

Dominic Holtz, O.P. and Darwin rightly shine a light on the difficulties and dangers of analyzing the development of ideas in a way that assumes the superiority of their early stages and the initial motivations behind their primitive formulations. So, for example, that the conceptions of matrimony or communal life or just war theory began upon specific presuppositions and for specific reasons does not make those specifics superior to later developments and new motivations. The history of ideas involves both progression and regression, evolution and de-evolution, development and corruption. And sometimes simply value-neutral change. In either case, the origins of an idea may have something beneficial to say to fuller developments of that same idea, especially if those developments have moved away from or forgotten its origin. Or they may not.

In the case of just war tradition of the Catholic Church, I sense a movement away from the traditional formulation. On the one hand, you have Catholics such as Michael Novak arguing that just war theory has to be rethought in light of the threat of terrorism and non-State actors. On the other hand you have the Vatican in Gaudium et Spes calling for all war to be outlawed by international consent, Pope John XXIII in Pacem in Terris remarking that, in our age of indiscriminate warfare, war is no longer a suitable means of restoring rights which have been violated, and Pope John Paul II in Centesimus Annus crying out, “No, never again war, which destroys the lives of innocent people, teaches how to kill, throws into upheaval even the lives of those who do the killing and leaves behind a trail of resentment and hatred, thus making it all the more difficult to find a just solution of the very problems which provoked the war.”

Where this movement will take the Church’s ideas about war is anyone’s guess. A lot may depend on whether the Church can provide a reasonable and practical alternative to war when the lives of people are threatened by coordinated violence. By saying that all war (not just the traditionally “unjust” ones) should be abolished and outlawed and never again waged, the Church seems to assume a workable alternative, but this alternative is still in need of development, and this development, so to speak, may well see progression and regression before a new conception is formulated.

And, of course, the debates about its idea will still continue. (VN)

Once More unto the Breach

One more thought on violence and the Christian ethos, one that I hope illustrates the distinction I'm making between a worldly response and a Christian response to evil. The debate in this country over how to respond adequately to the threat of terrorism has featured two positions.  The first sees terrorism as a problem for law enforcement; the second as a problem for the military.  Putting aside which response is more effective, both are what I would call worldly in that both treat the evil of terrorism as solvable by human power and means, specifically the means of violence.  The Christian perspective, however, sees the evil of terrorism as arising from souls enslaved to sin, souls that cry out not for destruction, but for salvation, a salvation that no human power can offer and only the redemptive, salvific and loving sacrifice of Christ can bring.  If a Christian considers the evil of terrorism only as a problem for either the military or law enforcement (or other human response), then he or she is not thinking as a Christian.  Such a consideration and disposition toward evil frames evil as a material problem with a material solution.  The Christian, however, understands evil primarily as a spiritual problem with a spiritual solution, a solution that calls for the power of grace and humanity's participation in God's plan of salvation.

Osborn on the Origins of Just War Tradition

Writing in Commonweal, Ronald Osborn argues that Christians should approach war mindful of the historical context in which just war tradition emerged.  Not being a medieval historian or a scholar of Augustine, I cannot vouch for the veracity of Osborn's narrative, but, if accurate, his picture speaks a thousand plus words to our contemporary thinking about the justification of war.  He begins:
During the Middle Ages—the historical context for the rise of what would come to be known as the “just war” tradition—violence under any circumstance was deemed a great evil by the church. In official Catholic teaching, combat was accepted as legitimate only when it prevented still greater evils and led to an otherwise unobtainable peace. The common ecclesiastical opinion, though, was that virtually all wars by the feudal nobility were waged from libido dominandi, lacked just cause, and resulted in far greater harm than good.

The rules of “just war” were not developed in courts by religious advisers keen to justify war. Rather, the tradition took shape largely in the setting of the confessional. It was codified in canon law by priests who wanted to limit the brutality of war and who were responding to a very practical question: Should knights returning from the battlefield be allowed to partake of the Eucharist? “Just war” precepts were applied to determine what sorts of penance soldiers should be made to perform before being fully readmitted to the Body of Christ.

There was no place, then, for triumphal displays in the aftermath of wars or violence, even when a conflict was seen as a tragic necessity or manifestation of God’s providential punishment of the wicked by the sword of the magistrate. The authorities who served as the agents of God’s wrath might themselves reap the violence they sowed. The moral legitimacy of taking any human life made in the imago Dei was always at best a regrettable concession to the violent realities of the “city of man” still in defiance of the City of God. In all cases, the attitude of believers toward wars and killing was to be one of somber soul-searching and even mourning for their enemies.
Osborn concludes with a practical refection on what it means for a Christian to mourn the death of bin Laden: "I feel no love for Osama bin Laden. But Christian mourning for bin Laden requires not a feeling of grief at his passing, nor simply refraining from cheering in the streets. What it demands now is that we refuse to script his death into any myth of redemptive violence, into any nationalistic narrative of the regenerative power of blood sacrifice, whether of fallen soldiers or of those who would do us harm."

For the Christian, it is not the violence of humanity but the graceful power of God that redeems, sanctifies, and saves. (VN)

Pacifism and Christianity

Darwin Catholic isn't impressed with my previous post and presses back.  For the record, I do not ask that non-pacifist Christians cease calling themselves followers of Christ and find a new name for themselves.  I may have given the impression to the contrary.  I maintain that violence is not a Christian response to evil and that to engage in it is to act in a way that bypasses, if not always runs counter, to the law of love proclaimed by Christ. A Christian may engage in violence or war without moral fault, but doing so is not a Christian act, so to speak.  To respond to evil with violence may be a sensible and justified act, but it is an act of one of the world, not one of the Kingdom of God; a worldly act, not a holy act, though holiness may accompany violence.  There are worse ways of being than being worldly, being of the world; but there are also greater ways, ways that take us beyond sorrowful human affairs to a glorious participation in the divine.

Auditing Christianity

Bill Maher isn’t my favorite atheist (or comedian), but I admit he’s got a good point here. Christians who willfully and consistently ignore the teachings of Christ should find a new name for themselves. In other words, saying you’re a Christian should mean something. A radically distinguishing something. Maher says, “If you ignore every single thing Jesus commanded you to do, you’re not a Christian – you’re just auditing. You’re not Christ’s followers; you’re just fans.”

Andrew Hackman would like to see Maher’s commentary preached from the pulpit by pastors and ministers. The celebrity’s crude language would undoubtedly prevent this from happening, although I suspect that were some pastor to brave the risk and read what Maher said, it wouldn’t be the f-bomb causing the most offense. Andrew writes:

Let's face it, pretty much everyone outside of Christian circles thinks Christians are ass-hats. I think most Christians are ass-hats, and I am one of them (sort-of, kind-of, maybe). Why is that? I think it is because of what Bill hits on here. If we lived these core teachings, we would really be Christian. However, we have turned Christianity into a club where I am in and you are out. Instead of spreading Jesus' teachings - that the Kingdom of God means you love your enemy and bless those who curse you - we encourage people to join our church or get them to do an "accept Jesus" prayer. Then, with our blessed assurance in tow, we go on to live just as self-absorbed as our darkest corners dictate.

Like the Kingdom of God, the ethos preached by Jesus Christ turns the world on its head. The first are last, the last are first. Love your enemies. Do good to those who hurt you. Turn the other cheek. The Beatitudes truly are not of this world. The early Christians, especially the martyrs, took this ethos to heart and to their graves (metaphorically). They worried less about their own safety than for the souls of their enemies. They weren’t constructing “get out of hell free” cards so they could feel spiritually safe when rising up against the Romans. They accepted martyrdom not only for the sake of their Lord and Savior, but also with the hope that their witness would speak of Christ’s love to the very people murdering them. They knew that if the Beatitudes didn’t apply when feeling from a lion’s maw or while hanging from a cross, they were not worth the salt in their outpouring blood.

Let’s face it, if the ethos of Jesus Christ doesn’t apply in the real world, with all its nuances and morally messy difficulties, then it’s bubcus. If it doesn’t apply when Christians are faced with the annihilation of their families or their country, then it’s a crap system. An ethos is only worth something if it applies in the worse situations imaginable.

Maher is more or less right when he says, “…nonviolence was kind of Jesus’ trademark. Kind of his big thing. To not follow that part of it is like joining Greenpeace and hating whales. There’s interpreting, and then there’s just ignoring. It’s just ignoring if you’re for torture – as are more evangelical Christians than any other religion. You’re supposed to look at that figure of Christ on the cross and think, ‘How could a man suffer like that and forgive?’ Not, ‘Romans are pussies, he still has his eyes.’” You can’t say you’re a follower of Jesus when you rejoice in revenge, torture, and war.

If Christians respond to their enemies the same way that others do, then there’s something really big missing in the practice of their religion. I won’t go so far as to say that Christians can never legitimately engage in violence, but I must conclude that to do so means, for a moment, to put the Beatitudes aside. In What Would Jesus Deconstruct?, John Caputo puts it this way, and I think he’s about right:

The doctrine of just war, formulated four centuries after the death of Jesus, was the result of sitting down to table with the powers of this world. War looks different from the thrones of power than it does from the galleys of the persecuted. Just-war doctrine makes sense, but it weakens and attenuates what St. Paul called the folly (moria) of the cross. It adopts the views not of Jesus but of Cicero, not of the kingdom of God but of the Roman Empire. […] If the theory is meant to keep one eye on Jesus, a very squinting eye indeed since Jesus called for unconditional peace, it keeps another and much larger wide-open eye on the motto of the Roman general, si vis pacem, para bellum (if you want peace, get ready for war).

[…]

Just-war doctrine is already a failure of faith, treating unconditional peace and forgiveness as simply impossible, even while repeating the words of Jesus that with God all things are possible.

The Archbishop's Letter

Sarah Posner of Religion Dispatches says that Archbishop Dolan, the USCCB's president, gave his blessing to the budget proposal of Paul Ryan that's been less than popular among leftist Catholics.  Well, not exactly.  Rep. Ryan had written correspondence to the archbishop regarding the budget, and Dolan did respond to Ryan's correspondence by commending Ryan on his attention to the concerns of Catholic Social Doctrine.  However, the attention the archbishop referenced was the attention paid in Ryan's letter, not the budget itself.  The letter from Dolan doesn't specificially state his opinion as to whether the GOP's budget rises to the demands of social justice.  He may believe it does so, he may not, or he may not even have an informed judgment on the matter. 

A Hospital Visit and Some Ethical Questions

Suppose a man arrives at a hospital with severe chest pain, and upon examination, the medical professionals discover that he has a life-threatening but treatable illness that will require both immediate and long-term care. The man has no family, is uninsured and unemployed, and has no money to pay for the costly treatment. First set of questions:
  1. Does the hospital (or some other medical provider) have a moral responsibility to provide short-term and/or long-term medical care even though the patient is unable to pay?
  2. Should the hospital be required by the force of law to provide the immediate and/or long-term care even though the patient is unable to pay?
If we answer “No” to both questions in any and all possible circumstances, then we take the position that there’s no moral failure and shouldn’t be any illegality if treatment is refused and the man dies as a result. His death may be unfortunate, but no one is to blame because there is no obligation or responsibility to provide care. Health care services are no more a right than a wide-screen television.

If we answer “Yes” to first question, but “No” to the second, we may judge the refusal of care to be a moral failure, but we wouldn’t take legal steps to require the hospital professionals to do otherwise. Their incentive to provide care would be entirely altruistic. The man in this scenario might receive care, but there’d be no guarantee of it, and the likelihood that he’d receive it wouldn’t be very high.

If we answer “Yes” to both questions, or at least to the second, then we’re faced with an additional question. Who should pay as the patient obviously can’t? Two possibilities come to mind.
  1. The costs are eaten by the hospital itself and/or the professionals offering care.
  2. A third party pays.
If we say the hospital itself and/or the providers should provide the medical services without cost, and we’re requiring them to provide care by the force of law, then in effect we’re legally requiring them to provide free services. The likely consequence of such a policy would be an increase in that hospital’s health care costs, as the costs of the “free” services would be transferred to every other patient who has the means to pay.

If we say a third party, then we have to ask what that third party should be.
  1. A private charity of some kind.
  2. The taxpayers.
The reliance on a private charity doesn’t work here if the hospital is legally required to provide the services. Even if the charity always had the extra funds to cover such costs, which is doubtful, they would have to be legally bound to provide coverage if the hospital itself is legally required to provide the services with the guarantee of payment from the third party. Otherwise, we’re back to the hospital eating the costs. The alternative is taxpayer funding, which would of course require some kind of government program to provide and administer the payments.

Forgive me if I’m bulldozing over important nuances. Economics ain’t my forte. My interest here is the ethics rather than the economics of health care social policy.

What say you?

Memo to the Candidates

When you are running for president of the United States, you don't get to complain about "set up" questions. For you, there are no "set up" questions.

Santorum’s and Thiessen’s False Gospel

Two public Catholics, power-seeker Rick Santorum and power-apologist Marc Thiessen, are out in the square gallantly defending coercive interrogation techniques (what sane and sensible people call torture) and the dehumanizing effects such techniques have upon the personal core of those subjected to them. Both men make plain that the purpose of these techniques is to break the prisoners so they become cooperative and compliant. Their aim is to break a person as a person—to deprive human beings of their powers of reason and will.

This depravity, designed perhaps to unearth secrets buried deep in the soul, severs the one interrogated from the pursuit of goodness. Once broken, the tortured person no longer acts will moral culpability; he becomes a slave to the interrogator’s will. His mind and will are not his own, so he cannot act with either true viciousness or true virtue.

As the primary goal of the State is the good of all people and of the whole person, torture by State officials undermines the very reason for the State’s existence. Unsurprisingly, the religion which Santorum and Thiessen profess doesn’t mince words about inflicting torments on the mind and body or attempts to coerce the will itself, calling these actions “infamies” that “poison society,” do “supreme dishonor to the Creator,” and “do more harm to those who practice them than to those who suffer from the injury.” Whatever deposit of faith Santorum and Thiessen are advancing here, it ain’t the one entrusted to their Church. (VN)

What Would a Free Market in Health Care Look Like?

Hint: not like what we currently have--even without the Affordable Care Act.  Matthew Yglesias draws a sketch:
...if you want to assess the merits of “socialized medicine” it’s important to to recognize that a true free market in health care would look extremely different from what’s happening now. For one thing, in the absence of federal subsidies (most notably the exclusion of employer-provided health insurance from taxation) and regulation (things like continuity of coverage rules) private health insurance would be largely unavailable. But beyond that, the actual provision of health care services is one of the most government-dominated spheres of the economy.
If Yglesias's conclusion is accurate, then a workable healthcare insurance system necessitates government involvement and the recent efforts to expand the government's role in the field aren't taking us into radically new territory.  At the moment, I'm philosophically disposed toward a single-payer system with an apparatus of insurance companies to provide coverage for services and procedures not covered by taxpayer funds, so you could say I'm open to climbing a few fences.  Not being a policy wonk, I'm uncertain that such a plan is politically viable, economically efficient, or socially prudent, but there it is.

Hypocrisy and Voluntarily Paying Higher Taxes

Are wealthy taxpayers who say they'd be fine with paying more in taxes being hypocrites if they don't voluntarily give more money to the federal government than what they are legally required to pay?  Darwin Catholic argues that they are not being hypocritical, but are rather being reasonable.    

Credit Where It's Due

John McCain's words and deeds too much disgust me, but he can also be a voice and champion for justice and decency, as he was recently on the Senate floor, stating emphatically his opposition to torture and other degradations of the human person:
[There has been a] debate over whether the so-called, ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ of enemy prisoners, including waterboarding, were instrumental in locating bin Laden, and whether they are necessary and justifiable means for securing valuable information that might help prevent future terrorist attacks against us and our allies and lead to the capture or killing of those who would perpetrate them. Or are they, and should they be, prohibited by our conscience and laws as torture or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.

I believe some of these practices – especially waterboarding, which is a mock execution, and thus to me, indisputably torture – are and should be prohibited in a nation that is exceptional in its defense and advocacy of human rights. I believe they are a violation of the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005, the Military Commissions Act of 2006, and Common Article Three of the Geneva Conventions, all of which forbid cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of all captured combatants, whether they wear the uniform of a country or are essentially stateless.
To distinguish between approved and unapproved interrogation techniques, my friend Stephen wants a concrete, objective list, and not just a subjective definition.  Fine.  The Army Field Manual provides such a list, and also prohibits a number of techniques, including sensory deprivation, forced nudity, water-boarding and others.  McCain needn't use the expressions "to me" and "I believe." We have clarity on what's allowed and what isn't. Our problem is that some of us, especially moral relativists like Dick Cheney, want to utilize prohibited techniques that have been historically considered torture by the U.S. and the international community.

Marcotte on Assumed Feminism

Amanda Marcotte muses:
The great paradox of social justice movements is that they exist to eradicate themselves. Think, for instance, of the abolitionist movement. Once the goal of ending slavery was achieved, there was no more abolitionist movement. This is what we all want for our movements.

Feminism, in particular, exists for one specific reason: to overturn the patriarchy. Should we achieve that goal, there is no more need for feminism. Feminism---the belief that men and women are equal and that we shouldn't be constrained by stifling gender roles---will simply be accepted as fact. In little ways, we're achieving this bit. The belief that women should have the vote used to be radical feminism, and now it's probably not generally considered a "feminist" belief, but just a mainstream idea. That's the goal. I'm not talking about "post-feminism", which is a word that basically has come to mean shoving questions about women's equality into the closet and simply accepting our half-baked patriarchy as it is. Our goal is a post-patriarchy, where feminism isn't needed anymore.
She sees progress toward this goal in the world of rock music:
What I find so enthralling and invigorating about a lot of rock music now is that there's a creeping feeling that all this fighting and fussing has started to, well, work. At least in indie rock, we're beginning to see women who get up on stage and do their thing with distinctly less grappling with what it means to be a Woman on Stage. It hasn't gone away, but it's muted. Feminism has become less a weapon for women to assert themselves and more a fact. Women don't have to apologize for themselves in their stage presence or music, nor do they have to scream at The Man in order to earn the right, nor do they have to downplay their femininity or ramp it up in a comical way. I'm just seeing a lot more women simply be themselves in a way that was always something men got to do without question.

Unreasonable Hope for 2012

I didn’t vote for Barack Obama in 2008, although in some ways I preferred his election to the alternative. I can unequivocally say that I will not be supporting him in 2012, despite his efforts to improve the U.S. healthcare system. And while I’m not typically a one-issue voter, I refuse to support him for one decision he made: the targeting of American-born, U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaki for assassination.

I hasten to add that this decision to murder al-Awlaki, without a shred of due process and potentially far from any battlefield, is no more or less immoral for al-Awlaki’s citizenship. It reveals, however, that President Obama and other government officials are willing to cut down every law – the Constitution itself – to get after someone they have neither charged nor convicted but who they say is the devil himself. This decision and its recent failed execution reveal, in the most gruesome manner, that the president, however well intentioned, has no respect or care for the law or the oath he took to defend it. It pains me to say it, but the president has undermined the authority behind every action he has taken or will take as president, and he has established yet another dreadful precedent of violent, raw, unchecked power.

Do I see hope in any of the campaigning Republican candidates? Alas, no. I could conceivably support a Republican for president in 2012, provided that he or she possessed a bare minimum of qualifications, including the explicit intentions and the reasonable, well-considered, executable plans to do the following: 1) significantly reduce the presence of the U.S. military in the world (including bringing an end to our involvement in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya); 2) further move us toward a system of universal healthcare, either by expanding on the Affordable Care Act or though alternative means; 3) reduce the debt in ways that bring minimal harm to the poor (e.g., see that effective alternatives are in place before cutting Medicaid); and 4) clean, nurture, and protect the environment.

By no stretch of the imagination am I describing my ideal candidate. I could, however, settle for someone of this sort. (VN)

A Pause to Listen: Dancing Mad



I totally dig the guitar, organ, and choir combo at the end. Kefka would be proud, if dancing madly.

Blogger's Technical Difficulties

You must may have noticed the removal of a couple recent posts. Blogger malfunctioned during maintenance, causing disappearing posts, the inability to publish, momentary sanity among politicians, and other anomalies.  I'm able to publish again, but some posts have yet to return to this dimension.  With luck, I'll soon be able to return to my regular haphazard posting schedule.  Peace.

The Religious Right and the Republican Coalition

Michael Brendan Dougherty dissents from conventional wisdom about the limited role of religious conservatives in the Republican coalition, arguing instead that they form the base of fiscal conservatives, natural security conservatives, and social conservatives. His conclusion:
For all the ideological examination that neoconservatives and the Tea Party have received, neither would have the clout to add a jot or tittle to America’s policy debates without the manpower, enthusiasm, and the leadership of the religious right. Christian conservatives haven’t abandoned their social issues—they’ve enfolded foreign and fiscal policy into their ongoing culture war. Their worldview has as much to say about war, healthcare reform, and tax rates as it does about unborn children and homeschooling. And everyone is listening now.
I'm not well-versed in the ways of evangelicals, but this analysis pretty well captures my sense of the conservative Catholic blogosphere. My friends at The American Catholic, for example, tend to defend fiscal conservatism and strong military power along with conservative policies on social issues. Speaking of which, I see Crisis Magazine is back with, well, pretty much what you'd expect them to offer.

I'm Pro-Slavery. Wait...What?

Aptly named Senator Rand Paul had this to say at a committee meeting:
With regard to the idea of whether you have a right to health care, you have realize what that implies. It’s not an abstraction. I’m a physician. That means you have a right to come to my house and conscript me. It means you believe in slavery. It means that you’re going to enslave not only me, but the janitor at my hospital, the person who cleans my office, the assistants who work in my office, the nurses. ... You have a right to beat down my door with the police, escort me away and force me to take care of you? That’s ultimately what the right to free health care would be.
No, it doesn't. No, really, it doesn't, and Paul's imaginative depiction of the right to healthcare would be silly if he weren't a U.S. Senator.  Say what you want about the usefulness of rights language, a right to health care doesn't imply a system of slavery.  It doesn't call for a conscription.  It means simply that an obligation to respond to people's health care needs beckons us to the extent that we are able and have means available.  It doesn't empower the one in need to makes slaves of doctors, care providers, and their staff.  It doesn't entail broken doors or police escorts.

Admittedly, it may involve taxes and political power.  Within the political sphere, the right to health care means, in the words of Pope Benedict, that "justice in health care should be a priority of governments and international institutions" and that we are called to establish "a true distributive justice that guarantees to all, on the basis of objective needs, adequate care."

What Kind of Good is Health Care?

Until we as a society come to some consensus on what category of good health care falls under, we probably won’t settle on a permanent system for paying for it. The question we have to answer is whether we should treat health care as a private good, a public good, or something of both. Our contemporary debate over health care costs rests on this question.

At present, we envision health care mostly as a private good, though we have mechanisms in place to decrease the number of people excluded from access to the good because of their inability to pay for insurance coverage or the health care services themselves. The Affordance Care Act was designed to further decrease the number of people without access.

The call for universal healthcare, especially for a single-payer system that covers the costs for everyone, is a call to treat health care more as a public good—as a good that is non-rival and non-excludable. Of course, even in such a system, health care services would retain properties of a private good: an individual provider has only so much time in the day and can see only so many patients. The ethical core of universal healthcare, however, is the principle that we as a society have the obligation to make health care universally available and to take efficient measures to ensure that no one is excluded from receiving health care services.

To speak perhaps simplistically, it is an economic mistake to consider heath care simply as a public good, but a moral error to treat it simply as a private good. While justice demands that we approach health care as a public good and strive to make it universal, economics insists that we remember that it retains some properties of a private good, even in the most just of all systems.

Oh My

On my way home from work yesterday, I passed by a fancy car with the license plate that said "OUR BABY."  I about wanted to hurl, but that sensation may have been due to my peddling uphill against 30 mph gusts on a scorching afternoon of over 90 degrees.  Whatever the feeling's cause, if this gray metal baby's owners have photo albums on Facebook devoted to showing off their little dearest darling, I don't want to know about it. 

Oddly enough, I do wonder if they gave their baby a name.

Nothing You Can Say


A family member not typically one to lob bombs let fly a doozy over the fence when he made a comment about religion directed at his siblings on Facebook. The ensuing conversation could have quickly turned ugly, but it remained a civil and cordial expression of differing opinions.  One comment in particular caught my eye: one of said family member's brothers asserted in a matter-of-fact tone that their differences could never be resolved because he had made an "educated, carefully considered, researched, thoughtful and heartfelt decision" regarding religion and nothing anyone could say would lead him (or his brother) to change his mind or convince him that his viewpoint was wrong.

As a matter of what one could reasonably expect from the interlocutors in their discussion, he was almost assuredly correct.  No participant or silent reader would be making a decision for or against religion because of remarks made on a Facebook thread.  However, as an intellectual disposition, the closing of oneself off to the possibility that one is in error, that one has not heard or understood all that could possibly be said, troubles me more than anyone's decision to embrace or forsake religious belief.

Perhaps my passionate, messy and sometimes sordid love affair with uncertainty has clouded my mind and rendered me incapable of lasting conviction, but, be that as it may, to my way of thinking, making a decision against ever changing one's mind isn't conviction; it's fundamentalism.  It's not the attainment and surety of truth, but the abandonment of its pursuit.  If you can say nothing to me that could make me rethink my positions or beliefs, then I've ceased to have any openness to or even interest in the truth.  Fundamentalism is just another form of relativism, really.

A Pause to Listen: Creep

(Not suitable for little ears.)



Two more renditions after the jump.

My Stinky Opinion on the Ethics of Voting

With the chatter about yesterday’s first Republican presidential debate continuing to fill the room – some of it like a whiff of coffee or the scent of fine wine, but most of it resembling overbearing cologne or flatulent stink – now seems an opportune time to reiterate my distaste for an issues-centered approach to the ethics of voting, an approach used by your garden-variety voter guide.

Yes, the State’s policies regarding war, interrogation, health-care, the economy, reproduction, climate and so forth cry for the attention of the citizenry, and we typically vote for candidates based on their positions on these polices and their related issues, but, when we vote for the president or other public servants, we ain’t voting on the issues. We vote for people 1) with intentions regarding the means by which they plan to address these issues and 2) who will have limited, if any, power once elected to act as they intend due to the checks and balances of power and other contingencies within the political arena.

So while issues of nascent life and reproductive policy may morally outweigh matters of coercive interrogation, the president, for one, has little sway over the former, but a whole heck of a lot of say about the latter. Do the boundaries of presidential power make torture a more important moral issue than abortion? Not necessarily, but they do establish varying limits upon the effectivity of my vote. The moral gravity of the various moral issues facing our country do not line up equally with what I or my preferred candidates can do about each of them.

This is why I don’t like voter guides that establish criteria for morally sound voting based solely on an abstract weighing and measuring of the issues. If I were voting on the issues directly, or if the candidates could address them with unhindered force equal to their moral gravity, then an issues-based calculus would make sense. It doesn’t in a representative democracy.

Oh, and to readers who take this post to be a thinly-veiled argument for supporting the reelection of Barack Obama, I note that the president’s ownership of the government’s treatment of Bradley Manning rules out the president being an anti-torture candidate. The administering of pain doesn’t cross into torture when the pain reaches a certain level, but when the will of the one interrogated ceases to be motivated and becomes coerced and undermined. I won’t be supporting President Obama in 2012, for a number of reasons, but I can’t say the GOP is providing me with a worthy alternative. Maybe they’ll surprise me, but I doubt it. I have as much hope for that as I do for Obama sincerely transforming into a peacenik or Mounier-styled socialist by November of 2012.

The National Popular Vote

Here's a provocative discussion between Robert Wright and Hendrik Hertzberg on the latter's proposal for doing away with the Electoral College and switching the U.S. mechanism for electing the president to a national popular vote. I'm intrigued by the idea of spreading the presidential campaigning and spending of money beyond the swing states, but I'm curious how you'd avoid giving too little representation to sparsely populated parts of the country.  Would this new mechanism not favor the urban over the rural? Or would there be new political calculations, such as appealing to the mentioned "farm vote," that would help equalize the playing field? 

Good Question

"What does a milestone mean on a road that is endless?"

- Michael Brendan Dougherty
If dispensing death is my solution to evil, then I will never triumph over death or evil. And I will never know the hope found in the victory of the cross.  The killing of bin Laden brought us a loss, a sorrow, and failure. God only knows what it brought him.  I can find no joy in his deserved death, for truly I deserve a doom worse than he received at the hands of man. A joyful road is open to me only because the way was made mercifully and generously and not with what I deserved in mind.