Category Archives: In the News - Page 2

The Chemical Weapon Deal

Chemical warfare

Chemical warfare (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In an interesting bit of accidental politics, the Russians and Syrians leaped on Secretary of State John Kerry’s off the cuff remarks about what would keep the United States from attacking Syria. To be specific, Kerry called for all Syria’s chemical weapons to be turned over and destroyed. Much to his surprise, the Russians grabbed the idea and ran with it, scoring what some pundits regard as a political touchdown against the United States. In any case, this matter is rather interesting.

On the face of it, if the Russians and Syrians are able to do what has been promised, the United States would lose its stated justification for attacking Syria. After all, while we have condemned the slaughter of civilians, we did not threaten action until the “red line” of chemical weapon use was allegedly crossed by the Syrian state. If Syria hands over its chemical weapons, then there will not be any chemical weapons for it to use and also none that the United States should target. As such, attacking Syria to prevent future use of these weapons would be out.

The United States could, of course, still claim that Syria should be attacked because of the alleged previous use of chemical weapons. After all, if a person commits a mass murder and then promises to hand over some of his guns, this hardly gives him a free pass on the past murders. In this case, the justification for the attack would be to punish the regime for that specific infraction. However, such an attack would seem to involve Kerry going back on what he seems to have hastily promised and it would certainly interfere with the proposed deal.

On the one hand, this deal does seem to be a morally superior option to an attack by the United States. After all, it would achieve a key stated goal of the attack (to deter future use of chemical weapons) without anyone being killed or injured in a military operation.

On the other hand, this deal would seem to be a deal with the devil. After all, if the United States goes along with the deal, we would be making it clear that the Syrian regime is free to keep killing provided that it does not kill people with chemical weapons. Going back to the previous analogy, this would be like a mass murderer agreeing to hand over the poison he used to kill some people in return for being allowed to get back to killing, but limited to murdering with his shotgun and machete.

As a final point, it is worth noting the deal could be a morally correct option on the grounds that it would remove the chemical weapons from Syria. In the event that Syria falls into chaos or is taken over by more extreme extremists, they would at least be denied access to chemical weapons. There would, no doubt, be rather bad consequences if such weapons fell into “wronger” hands and were made available to terrorists.

 

 

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Chemical Weapons & Ethics

English: British Vickers machine gun crew wear...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While the Syrian government has been condemned for killing people with conventional weapons, the “red line’ drawn by President Obama was the use of weapons of mass destruction, specifically chemical weapons. Those more cynical than I might suggest that this amounted to saying “we do not like that you are slaughtering people, but as long as you use conventional weapons…well, we will not do much beyond condemning you.”

While the Syrian government seemed content with conventional weapons, it has been claimed that government forces used chemical weapons. Fortunately, Secretary of State John Kerry did not use the phrase “slam dunk” when describing the matter.  As this is being written, President Obama has stated that he wants to launch an attack on Syria, but he has decided to let congress make the decision. While this raises some interesting issues, I will focus on the question of whether chemical weapons change the ethics of the situation. In more general terms, the issue is whether or not chemical weapons are morally worse than conventional weapons.

In terms of general perception, chemical weapons are often regarded with more fear and disgust than conventional weapons. Part of this is historical in nature. World War I one saw the first large scale deployment of chemical weapons (primarily gas launched via artillery shells). While conventional artillery and machine guns did the bulk of the killing, gas attacks were regarded with a special horror. One reason was that the effects of gas tended to be rather awful, even compared to the wounds that could be inflicted by conventional weapons. This history of chemical weapons still seems to influence us today.

Another historically based reason, I suspect, is the ancient view that the use of poison is inherently evil or at least cowardly. In both history and literature, poisoners are rarely praised and are typically cast as villains. Even in games, such as Dungeons & Dragons, the use of poison is regarded as an inherently evil act. In contrast, killing someone with a sword or gun can be acceptable (and even heroic).

A third historically based reason is, of course, the use of poison gas by the Nazis in their attempt to implement their final solution. This would obviously provide the use of poison gas with a rather evil connection.

Of course, these historical explanations are just that—explanations. They provide reasons as to why people psychologically regard such weapons as worse than conventional weapons. What is needed is evidence for one side or the other.

Another part of this is that chemical weapons (as mentioned above) often have awful effects. That is, they do not merely kill—they inflict terrible suffering. This, then, does provide an actual reason as to why chemical weapons might be morally worse than conventional weapons. The gist of the reasoning is that while killing is generally bad, the method of killing does matter. As such, the greater suffering inflicted by chemical weapons makes them morally worse than conventional weapons.

There are three obvious replies to this. The first is that conventional weapons, such as bombs and artillery, can inflict horrific wounds that can rival the suffering inflicted by chemical weapons. The second is that chemical weapons can be designed so that they kill quickly and with minimal suffering. If the moral distinction is based on the suffering of the targets, then such chemical weapons would be morally superior to conventional weapons. However, it is worth noting that horrific chemical weapons would thus be worse than less horrific conventional (or chemical) weapons.

The third is that wrongfully killing and wounding people with conventional weapons would still be evil. Even if it is assumed that chemical weapons are somewhat worse in the suffering they inflict, it would seem that the moral red line should be the killing of people rather than killing them with chemical weapons. After all, the distinction between not killing people and killing them seems far greater than the distinction between killing people with conventional weapons and killing them with chemical weapons. For example, having soldiers machine gun everyone in a village seems to be morally as bad as having soldiers fire gas shells onto the village until everyone is dead. After all, the results are the same.

Another aspect of chemical weapons that supposedly makes them worse than conventional weapons is that they are claimed to be indiscriminate. For example, a chemical weapon is typically deployed as a gas and the gas can drift and spread into areas outside of the desired target. As another example, some chemical agents are persistent—they remain dangerous for some time after the initial attack and thus can harm and kill those who were not the intended targets. This factor certainly seems morally relevant.

The obvious reply is that conventional weapons can also be indiscriminate in this way. Bombs and shells can fall outside of the intended target area to kill and maim people. Unexploded ordinance can lie about until triggered by someone. As such, chemical weapons do not seem to necessarily worse than conventional weapons—rather it is the discrimination and persistence of the weapon that seem more important than the composition. For example, landmines certainly give chemical weapons strong competition in regards to being indiscriminate and persistent.

Thus, while a specific chemical weapon could be morally worse than a specific conventional weapon, chemical weapons are not inherently morally worse than conventional weapons.

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Syria

Syria

Syria (Photo credit: ewixx)

As I write this, the United States and our allies are contemplating military action against Syria. While the Syrian government has been busy killing its people for quite some time, it is now claimed that it has crossed the red line by using chemical weapons. Thus, there is apparently a need for a military response.

The United Kingdom, which has often been the Tonto to America’s Lone Ranger, has expressed reluctance to leap into battle. Even the American congress, which rushed to authorize our attack on Iraq, has expressed opposition to Obama taking executive military action. As others have said, memories of the “slam dunk” that led up to the Iraq war are playing a significant role in these responses. Interestingly, the leadership United Kingdom seems mainly concerned with how quickly the attacks will begin as opposed to being concerned about attacking Syria. In the United States congress’s main worry seems to be that the President will rush ahead on his own and deny them what they see as their right to get us into war.

Despite the fact that the people of the United States and the United Kingdom seem opposed to attacking Syria, it seems likely that there will be an attack soon. One obvious reason is that Obama played the red line game (which, on the face of it, said to Syria that they could keep killing as long as they did not use weapons of mass destruction). If he fails to make good on his red line talk, the United States will lose credibility. From a moral standpoint, it could be claimed that the United States and the West have already lost some moral credibility by their ineffectual condemnation of the slaughter in Syria.

Assuming that we will be attacking Syria, there is the obvious question of what we should be endeavoring to accomplish and what plan we have for what will follow the attack. Iraq and Afghanistan stand as examples of what happens when we go to war without properly considering the matter and setting clear, attainable and worthwhile objectives.

One approach is a limited, punitive strike. That is, to attack Syrian targets in order to punish the government for its alleged use of chemical weapons. In this case, the obvious questions are whether or not the Syria government actually used chemical weapons and whether or not such a punishment strike would achieve its goal(s). The goal might be simple punishment: they use chemical weapons, then we blow some things up to pay them back for their misdeed. Or the goal might be deterrence via punishment: they use chemical weapons, we blow some things up. And we will keep doing it until they stop.

Morally, the Syrian government has certainly earned punishment and it would be a good thing to deter them from engaging in more killing—or to even deter them from killing with chemical weapons. However, there is the question of whether or not our attacks will be just punishment or adequate deterrence.  If the goal is deterrence, then there is the question of how long we will engage in deterrence attack and what sort of escalation we should engage in should the initial attack fail to deter.

Another approach is to strike in support of the opposition. That is, to attack Syrian targets with the primary goal of improving the opposition’s relative position. This could, of course, also be a punishment attack as well. In this case, the questions would be whether or not such intervention would be effective and whether or not the results would be desirable for the United States.

One obvious concern about the conflict in Syria is that it is not an oppressive government against plucky, freedom-loving rebels. If that was the case, then the matter would be rather easier.  Rather, it is a battle between an oppressive government and a bewildering array of opposition groups (including an Al Qaeda franchise). There are also outside forces involved, such as Iran, Russia and China.

Because of the fragmentary and problematic nature of the opposition, it is important to consider the consequences of attacking in support of the opposition (or, more accurately, the oppositions). While the Syrian government is a morally bad government and an enemy of America, it has imposed order on the state and is, obviously enough, not the worst option. If, for example, the Syrian government were to topple and the area fell into almost complete chaos, that would be worse than the current situation. Even worse for the United States and most other people would be a takeover of the state by radical forces and extremists.

It is also rather important to take into account the possible and likely reactions of the other powers that are involved in the conflict. Iran, China and Russia have a significant stake in the matter and they might actually react to an American attack. Russia, for example, is sending warships to the area. While Russia or Iran most likely would not engage American forces in the region to defend Syria, this is not an impossibility. For example, the conflict could escalate from an accident.

Unfortunately, I do not have a great deal of confidence in any of the leaders involved in this matter. After all, there are rather different skill sets involved in being a politician who wins office and being able to make effective policy and military decisions. That is, playing the political game is rather different than war. That said, I do hope that wise decisions are made. But, no matter what, many more people are going to be killed—it is mainly a question of how many and with what weapons.

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Man(ning) & Woman

A TransGender-Symbol Plain3

A TransGender-Symbol Plain3 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In a somewhat unusual turn of events, Private Bradley Manning claims that he identifies himself (or herself) as a woman named Chelsea Manning.  He has also expressed the desire to undergo gender re-assignment, beginning with hormone therapy. Given that I hold to a rather broad conception of liberty, I believe that Manning has the right to change his gender and that this is morally acceptable. In fact, if physically being a man is problematic for him, then he certainly should take steps to make his physicality match his conception of his identity. His body, his choice.

One rather obvious obstacle that Manning faces is a lengthy prison term for his role in leaking secrets to WikiLeaks. Being in prison, he most likely will lack the funds needed to pay for hormone therapy. Even if he had the funds, there is also the matter of whether or not the Army would provide such services. As it stands, the Army apparently does not provide such services.

Manning’s attorney, David Coombs, has asserted that if the state fails to provide Manning with the therapy, then he will try to force it to do so. Interestingly, Manning’s case is not unique. In Virginia, a prison refused to allow a prisoner to undergo gender reassignment surgery. In Massachusetts, a federal judge ordered the state to pay for a convicted murder’s sex change operation. These matters obviously raise some philosophical concerns.

As noted above, I believe that an individual should be free to change his or her sex. I base this on the principle that what concerns only the person is a matter in which the individual should have complete authority. So, if Manning wishes to change his sex to match his claimed gender, he should be allowed to do so. This is something I see as a negative liberty—that is, no one has the right to prevent Manning from exercising his liberty in this matter. However, I do not see this a positive liberty—that is, no one else has an obligation to provide Manning with the means of exercising this freedom. As such, if Manning has the funds to pay for the process, then the Army should allow him to do so. The same would also apply to civilian prisoners.

One obvious concern is that prisons are sex-segregated. As such a person who has a sex change would complicate matters. Obviously, a person with a sex change should not be kept locked up with those of his or her previous sex. However, there might be legitimate concerns about locking up the person with members of his/her new sex in terms of safety. However, it seems likely that such matters could be addressed with minimal problems. As such, as long as the prisoner can pay for her own operation, then this should be allowed.

The next point of concern is the matter of whether or not the state should pay for hormone therapy and sex-change operations. On the face of it, the answer would seem to be an obvious “no.” However, it does seem worth considering the matter a bit further.

In general, prisoners tend to lack financial resources to pay for their own medical treatment. After all, a typical prisoner will not have a significant source of legal income nor adequate savings to cover major medical expenses. Since letting a prisoner suffer or die simply because she lacks the means to pay for treatment would be wrong (the state has responsibility for those it incarcerates), it certainly seems acceptable for the state to pay for legitimate medical care for prisoners. As such, if a prisoner needs an appendix removed, it seems right for the state to take care of this rather than let the prisoner die. However, if a prisoner is displayed with her breast size and wants implants, then this is hardly a legitimate medical need and hence the state would not be obligated to pay for such surgery—even if the person’s self-image involved large breasts and the person was very upset about not having said breasts. Thus, the general principle would be that the state should provide legitimate and necessary medical care but is not obligated to provide all medical services that prisoners might want.

Assuming that the above is acceptable, the remaining question is whether or not hormone therapy and sex-change surgery are medically necessary procedures (on par with removing an infected appendix) or if they are not (on par with breast implants).

On the face of it, a person who believes that his gender does not match his physical sex is not in a dangerous medical situation. Being a man or a woman is not, it would certainly seem, a life or health threatening situation. Using the example of Private Manning, he will not become ill or die if he remains a man. As such, the state would seem to have no obligation to foot the bill for sex-change operations any more than it is obligated to pay for breast implants or tummy tucks. After all, one’s body not matching one’s self-image is not a serious medical condition.

However, it can be argued that such a situation is a legitimate and serious medical condition. That is, the person’s mental health depends on a sex-change as much as a person’s physical health might depend on having an infected appendix removed. As such, the state should pay for such procedures.

The obvious counter is that if the state is obligated to ensure that prisoners are not suffering from factors that would negatively impact their mental health, then it would seem to follow that the prisoners should not be in prison. After all, prison is intended to be a place of punishment and that is supposed to cause mental duress.

Another obvious counter is that a person who believes their gender does not match her physical sex might be suffering some duress, but it seems odd to claim that this suffering creates a medically necessary situation. That is, that the person must have her sex changed in order to be in good enough health to serve her punishment sentence in prison.

I will freely admit that I do not know the extent of the suffering a person who believes that her sex does not match her gender might experience. If it is the case that this is a medically serious situation that creates a medical necessity on par with other conditions that the state treats, then the state should treat that condition. However, this does not seem to be the case. Thus, while a person has every right to change his sex, there seems to be no legitimate reason why the state should pay the bill for a prisoner to get a sex-change.

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Why you are, categorically, racist (or sexist)

Given the discussion surrounding the Zimmerman verdict, and the recent controversy over Colin McGinn’s resignation due to sexual harassment charges, I thought I would make a brief comment on the larger issue these cases exemplify. In both of these cases, there are arguments to be made on specific incidents and those who defend the men involved do not think they are being racist or sexist—they’re just concerned about details. The problem is that people generally tend to be less concerned about those details when the incidents affect white men, or male students.

If you’re not sure that’s true, watch this ABC experiment which shows a white male, a black male, and a white female all performing the same action of stealing a bike in broad daylight. The results are both not all that surprising and a very solid reminder that small prejudices add up and have enormous impact. The white man is more or less left alone to his business. Some people are curious about what he is doing, but no one really actively interferes. The black man is immediately questioned and people call authorities very quickly. The white woman is approached by men, and they go out of their way to help, even with full knowledge that she is trying to steal the bike.

Obviously it sounds worst for the black man, and it is easy to shrug off the reaction for the woman as really more of a benefit – even when trying to do something illegal, she can get help from strangers. But does she want help? And do these sudden assistants expect anything in return? Even if it is no more than a friendly smile and flirtatious banter, the key to these stories is always how single interactions can add up. If a black man deals with just slightly more suspicion, but deals with it constantly, his life is radically different from the white man’s. Likewise, if a woman faces prurient interest, even if it is meant in fun, and not intended to lead to a sexual relationship, if she faces it from every direction it changes the world she lives in.

These effects are due to a common way that human beings think. It is a claim often made by philosophers that people think in categories — in fact according to some philosophers it is what makes the human mind human. I would argue that things are more complex, and that our ability to conceptualize is a skill and a habit that we develop. It makes it easier for us to hold multiple thoughts together at one time, but at the cost of detail and fine distinction. However, that fine-tuned capacity is still available; it just has to be brought into focus.

But categorical thinking is not the only way that humans parse the world, nor is it unique to human beings. Animals understand categories, just to less complex degrees, when they respond to “fetch” and “trot” and “cracker.” Dogs learn tricks, horses understand a series of different movements, birds and chimps can even communicate with people to a limited extent using words that people invented. More importantly, concepts are not stagnant—they can be altered through imagination, and are not absolutes but, to be meta about it, simply another concept we have come up with to explain the way we organize our reactions and ideas.

And the human mind responds to the world in non-categorical ways as well. For example, when responding to music, people generally do not think in categories, and yet they can make extremely complicated patterns and connections. It is a form of thought probably more complex in humanity than in animals although not unique to our species. Many other examples could be suggested but I’ll save that for another time.

More key here is the idea of recognition of individuals. Though we may at times reduce people to a concept of themselves, we still recognize something unique by a personal name. Such referencing applies to buildings, places, monuments, dates, royal babies and countless other aspects of life as well. The claim of certain schools of thought, like the language philosophers associated with post-Hegelian, Sellarsian, or Wittgensteinian thinkers, is that it is impossible for a human being to think without thinking in concepts: any time a word is used, it refers to a group or type of thing, as well as the unique referent. This is what it means to make a concept, and from Plato through Kant has been touted as monumental in human achievement.

While it is an important aspect of how we organize and stack our thinking, it is central to remember the unique component as much as the categorical. If we think in terms of the individual, it becomes clear that the conceptual aspects are choices we make to significant degrees. Levinas speaks of the importance of the recognition of “the face of the other” in an ethical interaction, and I think it is possible to apply this to our broader interaction with the world. Everything experienced is unique. It may be comparable to other substances or moments, but it is only in laziness, and, after industrialization a strong habituation, that we equate distinct things. We still experience the individual.

Our conceptualizing tendencies overall should be recognized as tools that can both help and harm our understanding. This is undeniable when applied to human beings. The fact that we can make faster decisions by applying broad categories, but that it can result in gross misunderstandings is true of smaller parts of life as well. Being more patient, more nuanced and more observant of the individual case allows a kind of knowledge with fewer assumptions, even if it may allow for less immediate utility.

Some will push for the division between people and other cases (Sartre would argue a free consciousness changes everything, for instance) but even if we were to grant this the problem of thinking in categories remains. The very idea that individuals of any kind can be “exact expressions of one soul” paves the way for a certain habit of thinking. Because we use the same word, we assume the same essence, and come to understand an equivalence as soon as something has been identified. A black man in a hoodie, or a young blonde woman, can face certain presumptions just by belonging to a category, and in time these attitudes can affect the way they understand themselves and behave as well, encouraging the stereotypes.

But if we are able to understand categories as just tentative judgments that help us clarify the world, though sometimes at the cost of complexity, our thought can be more developed. A reflective interplay of incomplete categorization and non-categorical consideration can allow for creativity, originality, and a better chance at reaching something like truth. On the other hand, if we think categories simply reveal essential natures, and we understand races and genders as categories that define people, it becomes a social norm to call the cops on certain bike thieves, leave some alone, and try to flirt with others.

Splitting Marriage: Theological Union

U.S Postage Stamp, 1957

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In my short book on same-sex marriage I make the suggestion that marriage be split up into different types. I thought it would be  worthwhile to write a bit more on this subject. While this suggestion might be regarded as satire (a rather inferior modest proposal) and I do tend to be a bit sarcastic, this is actually a serious proposal that I believe would solve some of the problems associated with the marriage issues.

While the acceptance of same-sex marriage has become mainstream in some Western countries, there are still those who strongly oppose it. While it is tempting to simply dismiss such people as mere bigots, it does seem worth considering that their values should be tolerated. Of course, even if a set of values should be tolerated on the grounds of the freedom of thought and belief it does not follow that those who have such values have the right to impose these values on others. In the case of those who oppose same-sex marriage, the fact that they consider it against their values does not entail that they have the right to make their values the law of the land.

Since nearly all (or all) of the resistance to same-sex marriage is based on religious beliefs, it is also worth considering the importance of the freedom of religion. While this is a sub-freedom of the more general freedom of thought and belief, it does seem worth considering religious freedom separately,  if only for historic reasons. Interestingly, some who oppose same-sex marriage contend that making same-sex marriage legal imposes on their religious freedoms. However, this is obviously not the case. Making same-sex marriage legal does not, by itself,  infringe on a person’s religious freedom. After all, the legality of same sex-marriage does not require that people get gay-married against their will (which would be a violation of  freedom).

It could be contended that the legality of same-sex marriage could violate a person’s religious freedom in that a person opposed to same-sex marriage who had some sort of official capacity involving marriage in some way might thus be required to recognize the legality of same-sex marriage. For example, a justice of the peace in a state where same-sex marriage is legal would be required to recognize the legality of same-sex marriage. As another example, the clerk who handles marriage licenses in a state where same sex-marriage is legal would also be required to recognize its legality. This is, of course, not unique to same-sex marriage. In the United States, officials refused (and sometimes still refuse) to accept marriage between people of different ethnic groups (typically a black person marrying a white person).

On the one hand, cases such as these can be seen as violation of a person’s religious freedom. Using the justice of the peace example, if Sally’s religious belief is that same-sex marriage is an abomination in the eyes of God, then compelling her to marry Jane and Denise would thus seem to violate her religious freedom. After all, she would be compelled to act contrary to her religious beliefs.

On the other hand, these cases can be seen as not violating a person’s religious freedom. After all, having religious freedom is rather distinct from having the right to impose one’s religious beliefs on other people. In the example, Sally would be imposing her religious view on Jane and Denise rather than exercising her freedom of religion. By not marrying another woman and by regarding such marriages as abominations, Sally would be exercising her freedom of religion.

This can be countered by insisting that Sally’s religious freedom is being violated. After all, as a justice of the peace she is required to act contrary to her faith and she should have the freedom to refuse to do so.

The obvious reply is that she does have the freedom to do so. She can quit her job as justice of the peace on the grounds of her faith. To use an analogy, suppose that Velma believes that eating pork is a abomination on religious grounds. If Velma works at Betty’s BBQ Pit, it is not a violation of her religious freedom for Betty to expect her to serve barbecued pork to the customers. Betty can exercise her freedom by quitting her job and getting one at Paul’s Porkless BBQ Pit.

A counter to this could be based on the argument that a person who regards something a seriously violating their religious views would be wrong to simply walk away. Rather, they should refuse to allow it to occur. Going back to the analogy, suppose that a law was passed allowing human slavery again. If Velma was working at Betty’s Slave Auction and she opposes slavery on religious grounds, it would seem rather problematic to claim that Velma should simply quit. Rather, she should surely try to get the law changed. To avoid any confusion, my point here is not to draw a moral comparison between same-sex marriage and slavery. Rather, the point of using slavery is to use something that should be seen as obviously wrong and that should not be tolerated. To those who oppose same-sex marriage, same-sex marriage is regarded as being something that is obviously wrong and that should not be tolerated.

The sensible reply here is to contend that same-sex marriage is not wrong. That is, that the religious people who oppose it on religious grounds are in error. Interestingly, the same reply has been given by the defenders of slavery, namely that it is not wrong.  Thus, a key part of the matter would involve sorting out the morality of same-sex marriage.

The easy and obvious way out is to note that legalizing same-sex marriage does not inflict any meaningful involuntary harm. In contrast, something like slavery obviously does inflict harm on people. As such, while a person would be right to prevent others from engaging in the practice of something like slavery, the same does not hold in the case of same-sex marriage. Even if same-sex marriage were wrong, the fact that it generates no harm to others would seem to entail that those who oppose same-sex marriage have no grounds on which to claim an obligation to prevent others from engaging in the activity. While saying “I have a moral right to stop you from practicing slavery because you are harming others” seems right, saying “I have a right to stop you from  marrying someone of the same-sex because it is against my religion” seems mistaken.

Thus, those who oppose same-sex marriage on religious grounds do not seem to have adequate justification to deny others legal marriage (that is, the legal relationship recognized by the state). However, the appeal to religious freedom might still be able to provide legitimate grounds for religious groups denying others a certain type of marriage. The key concerns are, of course, what sort of marriage this might be and what might warrant religious discrimination.

Obviously enough, a religious group does not have a legitimate right to deny other people the legal right to marry because the marriage is against their religion. However, voluntary religious groups (like other voluntary associations) do have the right to set certain rules for their members. For example, a tabletop gaming group can set rules about what expansion books are allowed in the game. As another example, a track club might define the rules for their grand prix. As a fourth example, a couple that is “going steady” might set rules about their relationship, such as it being monogamous. These rules are based on the beliefs of the members and typically have no legal status. For example, if Sam is “going steady” with Ted, Sam cannot have Ted arrested simply because he went on a date with Sally. Such rules are often used to help define the identity of the group and set what is regarded as acceptable and unacceptable behavior (such as playing a dragon as a character). Provided that such rules are voluntarily accepted and not harmful, there is certainly nothing wrong with groups having such rules.

Turning back to the main issue of marriage, it seems reasonable to allow voluntary religious associations to have their own rules for marriage, just as it is reasonable to allow gaming groups to determine whether they require their members to dress in character (as an elf wizard, for example). However, just as gaming groups do not have a right to impose their views on others (making everyone dress up as fantasy characters, for example) neither do religious groups. As such, the marriage rules of a religious group cannot have legal status. However, they can be voluntarily accepted by the members of the group.

This, as I have said before, could be called a “theological union.” It would be a religious marriage as defined by the religious group in question and could have all the rules and requirements that the group wishes to accept (subject to the law, of course). However, the marriage would have no legal status at all-that is, it would grant no legal rights nor impose any legal obligations.  So, for example, one church could forbid same sex theological unions while another could embrace them. People who do not agree with the theological unions of a group would be free to leave the group to join or create another that suits their values. Just as people can do so in other theological matters, such as whether or not women can be priests. Naturally, a couple that gets a theological union can also get a legal marriage (a civil union) that would give them all the legal rights and obligations as defined by the law.

Since these unions would have no legal status, there would be no discrimination in the legal sense and thus the specific rules of a religious group would not generally be a matter of concern for the state. This would respect religious freedom by allowing people to define their theological union rules as they see fit, without interference from the state. It would also respect the freedom from religion-that is, the right not to have other folks’ religion imposed on you. So, religious people who oppose same-sex marriage can say “if you are part of our religion that rejects same-sex unions, you cannot get same-sex theological unioned” but they cannot justly say “same-sex marriage is against my religion, so you can’t get a civil union that provides legally defined obligations and rights.”

This approach seems quite sensible, since it respects religious freedom while also protecting people from religious based impositions on freedom.

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DOMA Down

Same Sex Marriage

Same Sex Marriage (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The United States Supreme Court ruled 5-4 against an important part of DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act), specifically  the part of the law that denied benefits to same-sex married couples. The court also ruled 5-4 that the supporters of California’s Proposition 8 (that bans same-sex marriage) did not have the standing to appeal the existing ruling against the proposition. Thus, the court left intact a ruling by a lower court that the proposition is unconstitutional. The court did not, however, make any ruling about the proposition itself.

In the case of DOMA, the court ruled against Section 3, which is the section that defined marriage as being between a man and a woman. The legal basis for this ruling is that this definition is a violation of the the Constitutional right to equal protection under the law.  Justice Kennedy, who cast the decisive vote for the 5-4 ruling, noted that “the federal statute is invalid, for no legitimate purpose overcomes the purpose and effect to disparage and to injure those whom the state, by its marriage laws, sought to protect in personhood and dignity.” He also added that the law imposed  “a stigma upon all who enter into same-sex marriages made lawful by the unquestioned authority of the states.”

While this ruling is being lauded by advocates of same-sex marriage, it is important to note that it obviously does not make same-sex marriage legal throughout the states. However, it does certainly provide a foundation for legal arguments in favor of same-sex marriage. After all, Kennedy makes it clear that the statute disparages and injures those it targets and the same principle can, obviously, be applied to other such laws.

That said, it is important to note another key aspect of Kennedy’s claims. While he clearly notes the pernicious nature of the statute, he does so in the context of how the statute is an attack on the authority of the states which legalized same-sex marriage. As such, he is putting forth a principle with two key components. The first is focused on the personhood and dignity of the people in same-sex married couples. The second is focused on states’ rights, specifically their authority to pass laws regarding marriage.

In the case of DOMA, the two principles are in harmony: DOMA violated the legal authority of the states that had passed laws permitting same-sex marriage and this law certainly seems to have been aimed at disparaging and injuring citizens. However, there is the question of which principle should be given priority when they are in conflict. That is, would the authority of a state override the equal protection clause in this case or would the equal protection clause hold?

The ruling on Proposition 8 sheds some light on this, given that the decision apparently allows each state to set its own marriage policy. This would seem to indicate that the states have the authority to pass laws that would ban same-sex marriage. However, these laws would certainly seem to run afoul of the equal protection clause and would seem to be inconsistent with Kennedy’s reasoning in the first principle attributed to him. One way to reconcile the two would be for states to have the right to pass laws that allow same-sex marriage but lack the right to pass laws that would deny same-sex couples equal protection and rights under the law. This, obviously enough, would seem to imply that same-sex marriage should be legal in all the states. However, this discussion is rather speculative and can, no doubt, be easily countered.

As might be imagined, these rulings were not met with joy by all Americans and there is still opposition to same sex marriage. For example, Austin Nimocks, who is a lawyer with the rather ironically named Alliance Defending Freedom, said that “marriage – the union of husband and wife – will remain timeless, universal and special, particularly because children need mothers and fathers.”

Nimocks seems to be wrong on almost all counts. Marriage is rather obviously neither timeless nor universal. It could be special, but that all depends on what is meant by the term “special.” While children certainly do need parents, there is no necessary connection between children having parents and the sort of “traditional” marriage being put forth by Nimocks.

While my own view of same-sex marriage is extensively developed in  in my book For Better or Worse Reasoning, I will say a bit about the matter here.

Not surprisingly, I agree with the striking down of DOMA and agree with Kennedy’s view that the law disparages and injures citizens. I also agree that the law was a violation the authority of the states. As such, I regarded DOMA as a violation of both individual and collective rights.

I will add, however, that I think that much of our trouble with marriage stems from the fact that we have clumped together various relationships under the term “marriage” and we fail to properly consider that these relationships are quite distinct. In my book, I argue that marriage should be split into at least three categories, namely the legal marriage, the theological union (religious marriage), and the loving marriage. The concern of the state and the laws would be limited to the legal marriage, which is defined by all the various legal and economic aspects of current marriage (such as divorce, insurance, inheritance and so on). The legal marriage is just that, a legal contract, and would be open to consenting adults.

Those who value the religious aspects of marriage and see it is a matter involving God (or whatever) can have their theological unions that are handled by the appropriate religious authorities. This union would have no legal status and, as such, would allow for as much discrimination as desired. This would allow people to protect what they regard as the sanctity of marriage while also preventing them from denying other people their rights.

Those who see marriage as a matter of love would have their love unions that would also have no legal status whatsoever. They could, of course, involve personal promises and all sorts of romance. Naturally, a person could engage in all three marriages (perhaps with the same person in each case).

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Prism & Privacy

The revelations about the once secret Prism program of the National Security Agency

The seal of the U.S. National Security Agency....

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

have revitalized the old debates about liberty versus security and the individual versus the state. Obviously enough, there are many legal and ethical issues here.

On the face of it, Prism was quite legal-at least in the United States. That is, the program went through all of the legally established procedures for such a program. It remains, however, to see if it is actually constitutional. While questions of legality and constitutionality are interesting, I’ll focus on some of the ethical concerns.

Not surprisingly, the main moral defense of Prism and other programs is based in utilitarianism: any (alleged) wrongs done by intruding into privacy are morally offset by the greater good done by increasing security. The Obama administration has made vague claims that the program has prevented attacks and there is the claim that it will prevent attacks in the future. However, as I have noted before, these claims are coming from the administration who hid the program behind lies. These past deceits and the fact that they are prejudiced clearly makes the administration a dubious source for claims about the efficacy of Prism. However, I do agree that Prism can potentially be morally justified on these grounds and this would be contingent on it doing more good than harm.

The alleged good of such a program can be assessed in terms of the attacks prevented and estimates of the damage that would have been done if such attacks had succeeded. Naturally, the importance of Prism is such prevention must also be considered. After all, if other means  would have prevented the attack anyways, then Prism’s credit should be adjusted appropriately.

There are various ways to argue that Prism and similar programs are wrong. One option is to use the same method as can be used to defend it, namely an assessment of the consequences of the program. In order to show that the program is wrong, what would be needed would be  reasons to believe that the harms inflicted by the program exceed the benefits. As noted above, the alleged benefits involve increased security. However, the only evidence I have for the effectiveness of the program is the claims made by the people who are endeavoring to defend it. In regards to the harms done, there seem to be a variety of actual and potential harms.

I know that my view that programs like Prism are wrong stems from purely emotional causes. First, I was quite the WWII buff as a kid and I was taught that only organizations like the Gestapo engaged in such broad spying on the citizens of the state. Second, I grew up during the Cold War and well remember being told that the communist countries were bad because they spied on the citizens, something we would not do in the West. That sort of thing was for the secret police of dictatorships, not democratic states. These are, of course, naive views and based in emotions rather than logic. However, there seems to something to the notion that a difference between good guys and bad guys does involve the willingness to gather intelligence about citizens.

One harm is that the secrecy and nature of the program seems to have increased the distrust of the citizens for the United States government. It has also damaged the United State’s image around the world. Of course, this sort of damage can be considered relatively minor and it can be claimed that the fickle focus of public attention will shift, especially if some celebrity scandal or  drama catches the public eye.

Another category of harms arises from the invasion of privacy itself. These harms could include psychological harms regarding the violation of privacy and fears about what the state might do with the information. As was evident in the debate over gun control, people can be quite agitated and dismayed by even the rumor that the state might track firearm purchases. While the Prism program does not (directly) track guns (as far as we know) it certainly gathers a vast amount of information about people.

A third category of harms involves the potential harms. One obvious worry is that even if the information is being used for only legitimate purposes now, there is the possibility that the information could be misused in the future. Or is being misused now. Some people were quite upset by the IRS asking certain groups for more information and with the Department of Justice gathering information about reporters. Obviously, whatever harms occurred in those cases would be vastly multiplied. After all, Prism is getting into everyone’s business.

There are, of course, other harms that can be considered.

A second option is to go with a rights based approach to the matter. If there is a moral right to privacy, then Prism would certainly seem to intrude on that right (if not violate it). Naturally, rights can be limited on moral grounds. The usual example is, of course, that the freedom of speech does not allow anyone to say anything at anytime-the right is limited by concerns about harms. Likewise for the right to privacy (if there is such a right).

The obvious challenge with an appeal to a right is to argue that there is such a right. In the case of legal rights, this is easy enough-one can just point to the relevant laws that specify the legal rights. When it comes to moral rights, it is a bit trickier.  Classic rights theorists like John Locke argued for rights to life, liberty and property. A case can be made that certain privacy rights fall under the right to property. For example, it can be contended that my communications belong to me and if the state intercepts and stores them, the state is stealing my property. A case can also be made to put certain privacy rights under the right to liberty. For example, I should have the liberty of communication without the state restricting it by creating the fear that my communications can be intercepted and copied without the justification of legitimate suspicion of wrongdoing on my part.

In any case, it would be interesting to see a full development of privacy rights or at least a clear presentation of what is lost when privacy is intruded upon by programs like prism.

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Leaking

National Security Agency seal

Information about the United States’ Prism program was leaked by Edward Snowden  to the Washington Post and the Guardian. Some people are casting Snowden as a traitor while others are lauding him as a hero. Some are presenting him as motivated by pure narcissism.

People have a tendency to present their actions in the most favorable light, so it is hardly surprising that Snowden claims that his  motivation was ethical in nature:

The N.S.A. has built an infrastructure that allows it to intercept almost everything. With this capability, the vast majority of human communications are automatically ingested without targeting. If I wanted to see your e-mails or your wife’s phone, all I have to do is use intercepts. I can get your e-mails, passwords, phone records, credit cards.

I don’t want to live in a society that does these sort of things… I do not want to live in a world where everything I do and say is recorded. That is not something I am willing to support or live under.

If Snowden is being honest about his motivation, then a case can be made that he acted rightly. That is, he acted in accord with his moral conscience. While he might have been in error, it is unreasonable to fault a person who acts in this manner-at least if the person’s moral conscience is properly informed. While ignorance can be an excuse, willful ignorance or unwarranted ignorance do not provide a moral excuse.

In the case of Snowden, it would be unreasonable to claim that he was ignorant of the general business of the NSA. It is a matter of general knowledge that the NSA is in the business of gathering information domestically. It is also a matter of general knowledge that since 9/11 domestic spying has been a rather flexible sort of matter. As such, Snowden should have not been morally shocked that the NSA engaged in such activities.

It could be replied that while Snowden should have been aware of the general business of the NSA, he was initially unaware of the extent of Prism. This does have considerable  plausibility-the Prism program was (before the leak) top secret and hence Snowden would almost certainly not have known the details about it prior to his employment. As such, Snowden could plausible claim ignorance in this matter. It could also be replied that Snowden changed his mind over time.

Even if Snowden acted from a moral motivation, there is still the question of whether or not his actions were well considered. After all, a person could act from his conscience, but the actions could be poorly considered. In the case of Snowden and the NSA, Snowden elected to expose a program that he knew was legal and this certainly complicates matters. After all, it is one thing to leak information about illegal activities and quite another to leak information about legal activities.

The obvious reply to this is that what is legal is not the same as what is ethical (except for those who accept legalism). As such, the legal Prism program could be unethical. Assuming that a citizen should expose the moral misdeeds of the state, if the Prism program is immoral, then Snowden could have acted rightly in exposing the secrets.

Obviously enough, a rather important matter is whether or not Snowden had good grounds on which to believe that Prism is an immoral program. But this is a matter for another time.

Getting back to the main issue, the Guardian and the Post did not publish most of the information that Snowden leaked to them-they decided that it should not be made public. A case could be made that Snowden’s leak was somewhat irresponsible in that he leaked far more than was needed to expose misdeeds and this excessive leaking could thus be regarded as unethical. It could also be taken as evidence that he was not motivated by moral reasons but by some other factors. Then again, it could be argued that he just engaged in poor decision making in this regard.

It is also worth considering that Snowden apparently went straight to leaking rather than attempting to address his concerns through legal and proper channels. After all, there are mechanisms in place for such matters. However, it could be replied that Snowden believed that this was not a viable option. The Obama administration, despite is professed support for whistleblowers and transparency, has been rather non-transparent and has established a reputation as being rather harsh on whistleblowers. There is also the question of who Snowden could have gone to in order to address his concerns-as noted above, everything being done was legal and had the blessing of all the relevant authorities. So, if he believed that all the folks in the government were involved in this and accepted it as legal, he could hardly be expected to take his concerns to them.

It is also worth noting that Snowden fled the United States to Hong Kong. When asked about this, he said that “they have a spirited commitment to free speech and the right of political dissent.” Given that Hong Kong is now controlled by China (which certainly does not have a commitment to free speech and the right of political dissent), this raises some concerns. It could be the case that Snowden really believes that Hong Kong is a bastion of free speech and will protect him from the United States or perhaps he is acting pragmatically and seeking protection from a power that can stand up to the United States. In any case, there is the obvious concern that China now has easy access to Snowden and the secrets he stole from the NSA. It is also worth considering that Snowden’s motivations were not ethical but practical, namely that he was motivated from gain. His future actions will help address this matter.

In general terms, Snowden does bring up the old issue of the conflict of the conscience of the individual with the orders of the state. Assuming, of course, that Snowden truly acted from his conscience. I do not, obviously enough, know the answer to this. However, I do believe that the Prism program is morally dubious (at best) and while it went through all the secret legal processes, I do think a good case can be made that the program violated constitutional rights. But, I will leave this issue to the constitutional lawyers.

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Prism

The seal of the U.S. National Security Agency....

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Revelations of the United States government’s Prism Program have brought the matter  of privacy into the spotlight. While it should be no surprise that the United State’s government is scooping up vast quantities of information from communication systems ranging from phones to the internet, the scope and nature of the collection has disturbed many people.

Not surprisingly, the Obama administration has defended Prism on two main grounds. The first is that the program is legal. That is, it went through all the proper secret processes in the dark places of the government. But, of course, mere legality does not make something right. There is also the legitimate worry that this legal program actually violates Constitutional rights.

I do no have any doubts that the program is legal-I am confident that it was properly guided through the dark caverns under the public government and legally set loose upon the world. As far as the Constitutionality, I am not fully re-assured by the assurances that the data scooped up by Prism is being used in strict accordance to the Constitution.

The second is the usual line that it is necessary for national security. The idea is that certain rights need to be infringed upon in order to make us safer. This approach does have its appeal. This is because the limitation of rights can, in fact, make us safer. For example, limiting the right of people to sell contaminated food does make us safer. As another example, limiting the right to own certain weapons (like chemical weapons and grenades) does make us safer. As such, I do not reject the “it makes us safer” argument out of hand.

When considering this justification, there are two main concerns. The first is whether or not the limitation of the rights in question actually makes us safer. After all, while limiting a right can make us safer, this is not always the case. It would, of course, be a bad idea to restrict a right when doing so has no benefit. In the case of Prism, what would be needed would be proof that the program actually made us safer. This might include evidence of foiled plots and arrests of terrorists that resulted specifically from Prism. Naturally, I do not really expect such information to be forthcoming since the effectiveness of the program is no doubt a matter of national security and thus secret. However, I will consider the possibility that Prism did yield some positive results that could be used to justify what are claimed to be privacy violations.

The second concern is whether or not the safety gained is worth the cost resulting from the limitation (or violation of) the right in question. For example, we would be safer if each person had a tracking chip implanted into his body. If a person knows that her location is always known, then she would be less likely to engage in misdeeds and far easier to catch if she chose to act badly anyways. However, such implantation and tracking would seem to be an excessive violation of the right to privacy and hence would not seem to be worth the cost. In the case of Prism, a key question is whether or not the (alleged) gain in security is worth the cost paid in terms of the limitation or violation of rights.

The Obama administration has been quick to claim that the data gathered does not violate the right to privacy of the people that matter. If this is true, then perhaps the security gained is worth the price. However, there is the reasonable concern that this is not the case and it is certainly worrisome when the state engages in such massive data scooping.

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