Monthly Archives: February 2012

Delusions of Self-Reliance

When the Tea Party movement was in the upswing, comedic critics of the movement loved to point to the wonderfully inconsistent command to “keep your government hands off my Medicare.” While it is easy enough to dismiss this remark as being an aberration, it actually seems to represent a relatively common ignorance regarding government assistance.

Paul Krugman notes that some of the people who are very vocal in their opposition to government assistance and who often support politicians who promise to eliminate such assistance are themselves recipients of that assistance. This is based on the research of Suzanne Mettler:

Percentage of Program Beneficiaries Who Report They “Have Not Used a Government Social Program”
Program “No, Have Not Used a Government Social Program”
529 or Coverdell 64.3
Home Mortgage Interest Deduction 60.0
Hope or Lifetime Learning Tax Credit 59.6
Student Loans 53.3
Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit 51.7
Earned Income Tax Credit 47.1
Social Security—Retirement & Survivors 44.1
Pell Grants 43.1
Unemployment Insurance 43.0
Veterans Benefits (other than G.I. Bill) 41.7
G.I. Bill 40.3
Medicare 39.8
Head Start 37.2
Social Security Disability 28.7
Supplemental Security Income 28.2
Medicaid 27.8
Welfare/Public Assistance 27.4
Government Subsidized Housing 27.4
Food Stamps 25.4

Since all of the above are government social programs, 100% of the people using them have, in fact, used government social programs.

Tea Party

Tea Party (Photo credit: nmfbihop)

In some cases, such as the tax deductions or tax credits, people might believe that these are not government social programs. After all, when most people think of a government social program they think of the government handing out food stamps, cheese, health care or money. However, these programs are government social programs. While people no doubt think that they have earned the credit or deduction, they are actually getting a financial benefit from the government at the expense of the taxpayer. For example, in the case of mortgage deductions this means that the taxpayers are subsidizing the home owner’s mortgage by allowing him or her to pay less taxes because s/he owns a house. While this is not as obviously a social program as getting food stamps, it is essentially the same. Naturally, it can be seen as a negative program (paying less) rather than a positive program (getting something) but the results are the same-either way, the person gains from a government social program.

As noted above, people who are opposed to government social programs seem to often be unaware that they themselves are beneficiaries of such programs and they are, as in the quote above, often inclined to want to keep these programs. As Paul Krugman contends, these folks can hold to inconsistent views because they simply do not realize that the programs they wish to keep benefiting from are the programs that they also think they wish to eliminate. That is, they are operating under a delusion of self-reliance when they are, in fact, benefiting from the very thing they profess to loath. This creates an interesting epistemic and ethical problem. That is, they do not know they are doing wrong by their own principles.

To be fair, there are obviously people who are well aware of that these programs are government social programs and they oppose them. Perhaps some of these people even refuse to avail themselves of such programs and live in a manner consistent with the principle that the state should not provide assistance to people.

Even if there are not such people, the arguments against such programs can still have merit. After all, the mere fact that many (or some) people who are against  government social programs in principle also use such programs does not prove that the arguments against such programs are flawed.  To think otherwise would be to fall into a classic ad homimen fallacy (ad hominem tu quoque). They might, in fact, be excellent arguments.

That said, the fact that people avail themselves of these programs in seeming ignorance of their true nature is rather interesting. It does suggest that at least some of the people who are critical of said programs are critical from ignorance and that perhaps they would modify their views if they were aware  that they benefited from what they have been attacking. At the very least informing these people would allow them to act consistently with their principles by refusing to avail themselves of such programs. They could simply refuse to claim the deductions and credits, mail back any checks they receive from the state, and refuse to use Medicare. After all, while not practicing what one preaches does not show that the preaching is incorrect, one should (morally) follow one’s own sermons or at least have the decency to remain silent and thus avoid compounding one’s sin with hypocrisy.

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Virginia’s Ultrasound Law

English: The state seal of Virginia. Српски / ...

Is that an ultrasound probe?

The Virginia state legislature is on track to pass a law requiring women to have a transvaginal ultrasound before being permitted to have an abortion. As might be imagined, there is considerable opposition to this law. Some critics have  even argued that forcing women to undergo an invasive procedure could actually be a sex crime under Virginia law. As might be imagined, this matter raises numerous moral concerns.

One point of concern is that, as presented in comedic fashion on the 2/21/2012 Daily Show, some of the folks supporting the bill seem to be directly violating their own professed principles regarding the appropriate role of the state. For example, the woman who put forth the bill previously argued against “Obamacare” on the grounds that the state should not make such an imposition on liberty. As another example, the governor of the state was critical of the TSA “pat downs” as being too invasive. He has, however, expressed his intent to sign the bill into law.

As might be imagined, forcing women to undergo such an invasive procedure seems to be rather inconsistent with the past arguments by these folks regarding individual liberty and the appropriate role of the state. After all, if it is unacceptable for the state to force people to buy health insurance because it violates their liberty, forcing a woman to undergo penetration against her will seems to be even more unacceptable.

Naturally, I am not claiming that these people are wrong now because their current view seems to be inconsistent with their past views. After all, doing this would be a fallacy (ad hominem tu quoque). However, it is fair to simply take the reasons they presented against forcing people to buy health insurance and apply them to their own view on the forced ultrasounds. As such, if they were right then, then they would seem to be rather wrong now. Naturally, people tend to not be very big on consistency-as Mill noted in his discussion of liberty, people generally take the view that the state should do what they want and do not base this on a consistent principle regarding what is fit and unfit for the state to do (or not do).

The most important point of concern is, obviously enough, whether or not it is right for the state to mandate such a procedure. While, as noted above, proponents of this bill seem to have railed against state imposition in other matters,I will accept that  there are cases in which the state can justly impose. The question then is whether or not this is such a case.

The most common basis for justifying state imposition is the prevention of harm. To use an obvious example, the state justly forbids people from stealing. In the case of the ultrasound, the assumption seems to be that this law will help reduce the number of abortions and this will, as some folks see it, combat a harm. However, the evidence seems to be that this will not be the case. Dr. Jen Gunter has a rather thoughtful analysis of this matter that addresses this point. As she notes, sex education,access to medical care and  contraception have the greatest impact on reducing abortion rates. These are, oddly enough, often opposed by the same folks who are vehemently opposed to abortion. As such, the law makes no sense as an abortion reducer even if it is assumed that the state has the right to make impositions with the goal of reducing abortions. In light of this, it would seem clear that the law is morally unjustified.

Even if the law would, contrary to fact, reduce the number of abortions, there is still the question of whether or not the state has the right to make such an imposition. After all, there are appealing arguments for individual liberty and keeping the government out of peoples’ business-often made by the very same people who back this particular intrusion into liberty (as noted above). My general principle is that the burden of proof rests on those who would make such impositions into law. That is, they have to provide a sufficient reason to warrant impinging on personal liberty and choice. As its stands, the proponents of this law have not made such a case. After all, it will not even achieve its apparent goal of reducing the number of abortions. There are also no legitimate medical reasons for making such an imposition and, as such, it seems to be an unwarranted and  needless attempt to legalize the violation of the rights and bodies of women.







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Church & State II: Discrimination

English: Schopfheim: Catholic Church Deutsch: ...

In the United States, the American’s with Disabilities Act makes it illegal to discriminate against people based on their disabilities. Unless, apparently, the institution doing the discrimination is a church.

A disabled woman who was teaching at a religious school was fired and filed a claim under this act. The rather clever reply by the lawyers was to rely on the ministerial exception clause.

This clause was originally intended to grant religious groups the liberty to discriminate in their hiring (and firing) practices so as to allow them to act in accord with the doctrines of their faith.  To use the obvious example, the Catholic Church is allowed an exemption to practice gender discrimination based on its doctrine that only men can be priests.

On the face of it, it seems blindingly obvious that this exception was not intended to allow religious groups to simply fire people with impunity in regards to the anti-discrimination laws. While the application of the law is certainly a matter of interest, what I find more interesting is the exception itself.

On the one hand, this exception does have a certain appeal. After all, history shows that laws can be used to oppress or otherwise mistreat religious groups and one way to afford protection for religious freedom is to provide such “escape mechanisms” in laws that might be misused. Given that freedom of belief and freedom from oppression seem to be legitimate and worthwhile freedoms, this sort of exception has some merit.

On the other hand, there is the obvious concern that the mere fact that something is a religious belief should not be grounds for allowing an exception to the general law. In the case of this specific law, if churches can simply apply the exception when they fire people, churches would be effectively immune to anti-discrimination laws. This would allow them the freedom to engage in actions that seem to clearly be immoral (such as firing people on the basis of age, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity or any other quality) and otherwise illegal merely because they are religious groups.

It might be countered that religious groups must have the liberty to hire and fire as they wish, otherwise religious freedom is in danger.  However, handing religious groups a license to discriminate hardly seems to be a necessary step in preserving religious liberty and, as such, this sort of broad exception seems to be morally unjustified.

There is also the obvious concern that while the right to religious freedom is worth considering, there are other rights as well. In the case of hiring and firing, it would seem that people have the moral (and legal) right not to be discriminated against and it does not seem obvious that the right to religious freedom should simply trump other rights.

For example, suppose a devout group of Thugee established a church of Kali in the United States and argued that religious freedom gave them the right to be exempt from the laws forbidding murder and theft. This, obviously enough, would be regarded as absurd. After all, the right not to be robbed and murdered outweighs the right of religious freedom.

As another example, suppose that a religious group that practiced polygamy claimed an exception based on religious views. This would, obviously enough, be denied. In fact, polygamy is illegal (although apparently sometimes tolerated). As such, religious freedom would once again not trump the law.

As a third example, suppose that a religious group wanted to hire or fire people in ways that violated  anti-discrimination laws. This, oddly enough, seems to be okay. However, the obvious question must be asked: why should religious groups be given an exception here? The answer seems to be that they should not, unless we wish to allow them the other exceptions.

Another point of concern is, obviously enough, why religious groups should get such exceptions. After all, there are other groups that hold discriminatory views (racist groups, for example) and it would seem to be, well, discrimination not to allow these groups to discriminate based on their beliefs. After all, these people are no doubt as sincere and devoted in their beliefs as religious folk and it seems rather difficult to prove that their is a magical something about religious beliefs that entitle religious groups to special exemptions that are denied to other groups.

Of course, if a religious group could prove that they have got it right when it comes to their desired exemptions, then that would be another matter. For example, if Catholics could prove that just as only women can biologically be mothers only men can be metaphysically priests, then they would be justly exempt from the law regarding gender discrimination in the case of priests.

Doing this should be easy enough. When a religious group claims a special exemption, all that needs to be done is for their deity to show up and sign the appropriate form after establishing his/her/its divine identity. For the religious groups who have the true view, this should present no problem. Naturally, groups whose deity fails to make an appearance (or that fails to send a suitably divine or infernal non-human agent, such as an angel) must be regarded as having gotten things wrong and thus would not be entitled to an exception. After all, a group that cannot prove that its  exemption from the law is justified should not be allowed that exemption. Obviously, referring to made up beliefs does not count as justification.

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Religious freedom and religious privilege

I enjoyed reading Mike LaBossiere’s post entitled “Church & State: Immaculate Contraception”, but I can’t resist the impulse to add a post of my own – perhaps because I lack free will in the matter, but mainly because I devote an entire chapter of Freedom of Religion and the Secular State to this sort of issue (so it is kind of on my mind), and certainly because it has become even more topical than usual.

In setting the scene, Professor LaBossiere describes a provision that the Roman Catholic Church is currently objecting to in the United State: “This law requires that health insurance plans offer free birth control. Since this would include Catholic affiliated hospitals and schools, the Catholic Church has been pushing back against the law.” He adds: “Not surprisingly, this is being portrayed as an attack on religious liberty and the values of Catholicism. However, it is rather important to note that the law does not apply to churches, but rather only to institutions, such as hospitals and schools, that serve a large number of non-Catholics and also receive federal money.”

He raises an interesting point – can we really say that “birth control”, i.e. the use of contraceptive technologies, is against Catholic doctrine if (as is the case) most Catholics, at least in the relevant jurisdiction, are not morally opposed to it? I’ll leave that issue to him, though let me say in passing that, for now, and into the foreseeable future, birth control is most certainly against official Catholic doctrine. In particular, the encyclical letter Humanae Vitae is still binding in the sense of being the Church’s official and unmodified statement on the matter.

However, if for some reason you’re not convinced that Humanae Vitae and all that it represents really is valid Catholic doctrine, I’ll ask you to put that issue aside and deal with the problem as if it were the valid doctrine. Okay? In that case you can immediately see the problem with requiring Catholic employers to provide their employees with insurance schemes that in turn cover the cost of birth control. Or is there really a problem after all?

My starting point is that there is not necessarily a problem. The employers concerned have not been singled out for persecution on the ground that the US government believes that Roman Catholicism is a false or dangerous religion. In fact, they have not been singled out at all … and the intent of the law is not to persecute Catholics. An easy way to see that is to ask whether this law would have been made if the Roman Catholic Church didn’t even exist. It is, I suggest, plain that it would have been. The purposes behind the law are not in any sense to persecute a religion or group of religions, or to favour others. The law was made for ordinary religion-blind purposes relating to the health and worldly welfare of women. Whether or not it is a good law, whether or not it is a law that I would vote for (I probably would have, but even if I wouldn’t have), it has not been made out of a wish to persecute certain religions or to favour others. In that legal (but not terribly difficult) sense, the law is neutral.

The law is also one of general application. It is not as if the employers concerned find themselves objectively singled out. Rather, they find themselves merely having to do what every other employer has to do.

Alas, you’ll need to read my book to get the full argument for this, but I take the view (which was also the view of John Locke, and is also the view of the US Supreme Court, and most notably that good Catholic Justice Scalia) that there is no breach of the fundamental concept of freedom of religion if a law has been enacted for some kind of understandable worldly (or “secular”) purpose (such as the health and welfare of women), and is a neutral law of general application. It might or might not be a good law, but it is not a law that is contrary to the idea of religious liberty or freedom of religion.

If anything, it is contrary to freedom of religion if some people (or corporations or whatever) are exempted from a law because of religious sensitivities. That is not religious freedom; it is religious privilege. It is giving the religious people (etc.) a privilege that the rest of society does not have, as, after all, we are talking about a law of general application.

However, I won’t go quite that far. In some circumstances it might be okay to privilege people by exempting them from certain laws, where obeying those laws would be against their consciences. As so often pointed out, we allow for conscientious objection in some circumstances. I don’t rule this out, as long as we understand that it is a privilege we are granting, and that it is not an automatic right. In this case, the Catholic employers would have to argue why their acceptance of official Roman Catholic canons of conduct – i.e. a standard that specifies that using contraceptives is a sin – should give them the privilege of not being compelled by the same law that compels everyone else.

Yes, reluctance to force conscience, with the kind of mental suffering that it might entail, sometimes might be a reason to grant an exemption. It is a compassionate reason. There may be other reasons as well, including just plain practical ones, e.g. because there is no point in putting a rifle in the hands of a committed pacifist (but one reason that the government should never use to explain its actions is that such-and-such a religion is actually the true one).

However, granting the privilege of an exemption from the law will usually place more burden on someone else (in this case, employees who do not receive the same advantages as other employees in the work force). That is a good reason for being reluctant to grant religious privileges – and if we are going to grant them from time to time, it is a good reason to make the exemptions narrow, applying only where the case for them is at its strongest.

Restrictions on the Church as an employer of people – such as priests – who are necessary for its very survival will have a different effect from restrictions on the employment practices of commercial enterprises that might happen to be owned by the Church. There are obviously situations in between. In cases like this, there will be many considerations that need to be weighed up, and there is nothing wrong with a degree of political compromise in trying to take into account the interests of everyone affected. In the end, the processes of political deliberation will determine just what exemptions should be granted, but if they are going to be granted at all they should generally be narrow and carefully crafted.

As far as I can see, the Obama administration was well within its rights to impose this neutral law of general application on Catholic employers, with only relatively narrow exemptions. I see no issue here of anyone’s religious freedom coming under attack. What I do see is some special accommodation of religious sensibilities – which, again, is a privilege granted by the law-makers – that has been kept within appropriately narrow bounds, developed throught the political process.

People who see this action by the Obama administration as an attack on religious freedom should go back and read John Locke, even if they don’t want to read my book. In fact, they could just go back and read Antonin Scalia.

Church & State: Immaculate Contraception


Margaret Sanger Deutsch: Margaret Sanger (* 1879)

Image via Wikipedia


Back in 1914 Margaret Sanger included information about birth control in the June issue of her magazine, The Woman Rebel. She was arrested under the Comstock Law and her ally, the anarchist Emma Goldman, was soon after arrested for the same crime. Fast forward to 2012 and another battle  over birth control is brewing (or, rather, being brewed).

Rick Santorum has made it clear that he is against contraception and Obama and the Catholic Church recently locked horns over one aspect of the health reform law. This law requires that health insurance plans offer free birth control. Since this would include Catholic affiliated hospitals and schools, the Catholic Church has been pushing back against the law.

Not surprisingly, this is being portrayed as an attack on religious liberty and the values of Catholicism. However, it is rather important to note that the law does not apply to churches, but rather only to institutions, such as hospitals and schools, that serve a large number of non-Catholics and also receive federal money.

As such, it is rather tempting to say that this is actually a manufactured issue. After all, the law simply requires that these institutions follow the same laws as everyone else and these institutions can presumably elect to refuse the federal money an thus avoid the requirement they regard as onerous. Also, churches are exempt from this and there is no requirement that they change their religious doctrines.

It might be replied that this requirement still violates the ethical views of the church by requiring institutions affiliated with the church to provide services and products the church rejects. One obvious reply is that if churches are entitled to be exempt from such laws based on their doctrines, then they could, for example, adopt the view that medical care is against God’s will and thus not be required to provide any medical insurance coverage at all. This, obviously enough, seems rather absurd.

The obvious reply is that the Catholic doctrine is well-established and hence they are opposed to this requirement on established moral grounds rather than merely trying to weasel out of paying for some service. This raises two questions.

The first is whether or not churches (or any groups) should be granted exemption from laws based on their moral beliefs. The second is whether or not the rejection of contraception is, in fact, a Catholic moral position.

In regards to the first question, there are good reasons for allowing said exemptions and others against it. In terms of allowing such exemptions, it does seem correct for the state to endeavor to avoid imposing on the conscience of people when possible. For example, conscientious objectors have been recognized during the time of war. Allowing the Catholic Church a contraception exception would thus seem to fall within this realm of legitimacy.

That said, there are clearly cases in which such exemptions would be absurd. For example, a group that regarded murder as morally correct would not thus be granted a murder exemption. As such, there is the challenge of determining what sort of exemptions would be acceptable, which would not and which would be absurd.

One standard (among many) that seems reasonable would be to require that the group in question actually holds to the principle and is not, for example, merely trying to get an exemption to avoid paying for legally a required service or to simply to get away with something. After all, to grant an exemption on moral grounds to a group that does not actually hold to that moral principle would seem rather unwarranted. This, of course, does raise the question about who determines the moral principles of the group. This takes me to the matter of birth control and Catholicism.

In my own experience, most Catholics have been fine with using birth control (or letting their partner use it). While my own observations over the years could be unusual, this is completely consistent with the polls showing that 98% of Catholics use some form of birth control. This certainly suggests that Obama’s view is in line with 98% of Catholics. Assuming that the Catholics do not regard their actions as immoral, it would seem that Obama’s view is thus consistent with the moral view of the majority of the Catholics and the folks who oppose this law on the basis of an alleged moral concern are the ones that are in the wrong.

It can, of course, be replied that these birth control using Catholics are immoral and that the true morality of Catholicism is against birth control. If so, the Catholic church needs to get its flocks back into the right pasture and off birth control. The obvious reply to this is that it seems to make little sense for a tiny minority of a group to define the values of the group against the beliefs and actions of the majority.

This does not, of course, address the issue of whether or not birth control is immoral. If it is, then a case could certainly be made against it. This would, of course, require arguments that address such moral concerns as the fact that the use of birth control lowers the number of abortions, the fact that its availability allows women greater control over reproduction, the fact that its availability can provide protection against disease and so on. Presumably this could be done.

Of course, God does not seem to have much of a problem with birth control. While it does fail sometimes, He could easily make it fail 100% of the time. If it was that big of a deal to Him, surely He would do things like smite holes into all condoms.


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Mediums & Muses

Hypnotic seance

Image via Wikipedia

As I do every spring, I am teaching  my Aesthetics class. As might be expected, one of the subjects I address is the nature of artistic creativity and the creation of the arts. Putting things rather simply (perhaps too simply) one classic issue is whether or not artistic creativity is predominantly a product of reason (the head) or emotion (the heart). As also might be expected, I make use of Plato’s classic Ion and Edgar Allan Poe’s essay “The Philosophy of Composition” to provide a foundation for the discussion.

Since I teach this class every spring, I am always looking at new ways to present the material-both to improve the class and to fend off the dullness that can come from the seemingly eternal recurrence of teaching the same class. This year I was fortunate to find an interesting addition to the discussion albeit one from the past. To be specific, I ran across the story of Patience Worth in the Smithsonian magazine.

Patience Worth was an author who was very active between 1913 and 1937. She wrote books, such as The Sorry Tale,  and poetry.  She was lauded during her time. Or, to be more accurate, about three centuries after her time. After all, Miss Worth apparently died in an Indian raid  on Nantucket Island in the 1600s.  Worth apparently managed to pull of this remarkable literary feat by  communicating through Pearl Curran, a seemingly otherwise normal St. Louis housewife. While Miss Worth was remarkably successful, having the dead speaking through the living was not all that uncommon during the early 1900s: spiritualism was all the rage and mediums could check up on the dead almost as easily as people check their friends’ Facebook statuses today. What was unusual about Miss Worth is, of course, her success as an author.

While many people took the spiritual explanation at face value, some people were more critical and sought alternative explanations for this (alleged) phenomena. One explanation put forth was the idea of multiple personalities, namely that Patience Worth was merely one of Curran’s personalities and that this personality possessed the creative imagination that Curran alleged lacked.

Interestingly, this explanation fits rather nicely with what Plato says in the Ion:

When you produce the greatest effect upon the audience in the recitation of some striking passage, such as the apparition of Odysseus leaping forth on the floor, recognized by the suitors and casting his arrows at his feet, or the description of Achilles rushing at Hector, or the sorrows of Andromache, Hecuba, or Priam,- are you in your right mind? Are you not carried out of yourself, and does not your soul in an ecstasy seem to be among the persons or places of which you are speaking, whether they are in Ithaca or in Troy or whatever may be the scene of the poem.

While Plato does not explicitly claim that Ion has multiple personality disorder, what he describes does seem somewhat similar (perhaps with some past life regression thrown in for good measure). Given that authors routinely create different sorts of characters in their works, the idea that they are tapping into multiple personalities in their own mind is not wildly implausible and it seems even more plausible when actors take on such roles (as Aristotle argued, actors do seem to be out of their right minds).

Of course, the multiple personality hypothesis does have some weak points as theory of creativity. After all, having numerous personalities does not explain why any one of them would be creative and the basic question of the origin of creativity would seem unanswered.

Interestingly enough, the noted critic Walter Prince (who, like Harry Houdini, often exposed fake mediums) concluded that Curran lacked the knowledge and ability to produce the works in question and concluded, after a lengthy investigation, that “some cause” had to be operating through Curran.

Assuming that Prince had not been duped, his basic approach seems reasonable: if Curran lacked the ability to produce the writing she was producing, then there had to be some other cause. While the idea that a dead woman was speaking through Curran seems to be, to say the least, far-fetched, it is no crazier than the explanation put forth by Plato in the Ion: “And every poet has some Muse from whom he is suspended, and by whom he is said to be possessed, which is nearly the same thing; for he is taken hold of. ” As Plato saw it, it is the muses who speak through the poets and their artistic creativity is not actually their own, but rather that of the gods. This is a bit more dramatic than channeling a dead human, but the idea that there is a supernatural cause behind artistic creativity is common to both.

It is, as an aside, interesting to note that Plato did not ascribe philosophical creativity or ability to such divine possessions. Of course, he did seem to hold that philosophical understanding was acquired by somehow communing with the forms while one is between lives (that is, dead). As such, Plato does consistently ascribe supernatural foundations to both artistry and philosophy. Not surprisingly, he does regard the philosophic as vastly superior (as he argues in Book X of the Republic).

Getting back to the main issue, the medium hypothesis for creativity (and Plato’s Muse hypothesis) mainly serves to push the question back. After all, if ordinary Curran’s creativity is explained in terms of Worth’s creativity (or a poet’s creativity is explained in terms of the Muses), then the foundation of Worth’s creativity (and the Muses’ creativity) would still be in need of explanation. This, supernaturally enough, creates the threat of an infinite regress in which any agent of creativity must in turn have its creativity explained. While such a regress can be stopped, it must be stopped in a principled manner-that is, a plausible and adequately defended foundation of creativity must be reached. In the case of the Worth hypothesis, Curran’sc creativity is accounted for, but not Worth’s.  As such, the medium and Muse hypotheses seem to be incomplete. I do not, unfortunately, have the completion on hand.

Perhaps the most plausible explanation for Patience Worth is that Curran simply made her up. After all, this explanation fits rather nicely with Hume’s discussion of miracles and it seems much more probably that Curran was fabricating rather than channeling. After all, it is well established that people fabricate and not well established that the dead continue to exist and can be channeled to write books. This explanation does not, however, help at all to explain creativity-but it does give an excellent example of double creativity: an author who creates another author to create her works.

Perhaps I will solve this problem next year. Or next life.

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White House Portrait of

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I am working on a book on rhetoric and, as might be imagined, this year’s American political season has been a goldmine. Recently Mitch Daniels said “We do not accept that ours will ever be a nation of haves and have nots; we must always be a nation of haves and soon to haves.”

The phrase “soon to haves” is an excellent example of a euphemism (a more pleasant or appealing phrase or word substituted for one that is negative or likely to be offensive to the audience).  While euphemisms are a stock tool in politics, it is always fair to critically examine their usage to see what sort of reality they might be employed to hide or soften. As such, I will take a short look at this phrase.

Daniels, obviously enough, makes it quite clear that his euphemism is a substitute for “have-nots” (which can itself be seen as something of a euphemism for the term “poor”). “Soon to haves” is clearly a more pleasant phrase than “have nots.” After all, the have-nots are lacking and there is no implication of hope. In fact, the usual way of things is that “whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him.” In the case of “soon to haves” this not only makes it clear that these folks will be haves but that this having shall come soon. One rather obvious point of concern is whether or not this euphemism matches the reality it is alleged to describe.

On the one hand, the United States (and other countries of the world) does have upward mobility. I am better off than my grandparents on my father’s side (they both had to quit school before the ninth grade in order to take jobs).  People can, obviously enough, become haves even with a start as a have not. As such, the United States (and all countries) is a land of haves and soon-to-haves.

To use an analogy, in running there are people who win races or place and those that do not. As in general life, the winners are haves and those who do not are have nots. Of course, some people who do not place in this race or that race go on to place in another race. Thus, runners could also be seen as haves and soon-to-haves rather than haves and have nots. Except, of course, the people who might never place. Fortunately, in the case of running, most runners can actually find some race in which to place in. After all, there are lots of races and with some effort and luck one can find such a race. Of course, the running analogy breaks down pretty quickly. After all, while there are plenty of races and running competition is basically fair, the same is not true of the economy. Overall, there is just one race that is going on all the time. Also, the economic race is rather clearly an unfair one. Which brings me to the other hand.

On this other hand, it is rather obvious that even though there are soon-to-haves there are also many people who are and will continue to be have-nots. True, some of these people have not because of their own decisions, choices and actions. However, many of them are in that situation due to factors beyond their power to reasonably control. For example, a leading cause of bankruptcy in America is medical debt incurred by people who find themselves unable to pay those bills (such as when their insurance coverage is exhausted). Other people find themselves in that boat when their employer goes overseas, goes out of business, or gets taken over and gutted for a profit. Some folks find themselves to be have nots when their retirement vanishes due to corporate mismanagement or clever financial manipulation.

It might be replied that even these folks can be considered soon-to-haves. After all, they do have more than nothing and will no doubt get more of something soon. Hence, they are soon-to-haves if not haves.

The obvious reply is that having more than nothing hardly is what is meant by being a have. It is also obvious that being a have is not just a matter of doing okay. After all, being a have is generally taken to mean doing very well-that is, being wealthy or even rich (which are also vague terms). The obvious reality is that the United States and most other countries have very extreme class disparities between the real haves (the top wealthy) and everyone else (the middle class on down). While there is some mobility between the classes, the transition into the dominion of the true haves is very rare indeed. After all, the true haves make up that vaunted 1%, which means that 99% of the people are not haves in that sense.

It might be objected that I have set the bar for being a have too high. What is meant is not that the soon-to-haves will be haves in the sense of being the top haves, but rather that the soon-to-haves will move from less to more (that is, upward mobility). Of course, as noted above, this would require more than going from nothing to something and even more than going from (for example) abject poverty to merely being poor.

Upward mobility does seem to be a real possibility. However, there is an obvious point of concern: if the United States is a nation of haves and soon-to-haves, how is it that there are still soon-to-haves? After all, those soon-to-haves should have become haves…well, soon. Perhaps the soon-to-haves are all new immigrants-having just arrived, they are not haves but are just a short time from being haves. Of course, this does not match the reality: there are plenty of people and families who have been here a long time and are still poor.

Perhaps some of the soon-to-haves are people who were haves. That is, there is a cycle of having and then being a soon to have. Of course, there are plenty of folks and families that were never haves.

Perhaps the soon-to-haves are kids. After all, kids are not haves but they will grow up soon and perhaps they will be the haves. However, many kids grow up in poverty, live in poverty and die in poverty.

As such, it does seem that while there are soon-to-haves, there are still plenty of have-nots.

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Is Education a Public Good?

Seal of the United States Department of Education

While higher education is generally regarded as a good (mainly because folks with college degrees make more than folks who lack such degrees), there has been considerable debate in the United States as to whether or not higher education is a public good.

The United States, like other Western democracies, subsidizes higher education through such means as grants and student loans. There are also numerous state schools that receive their funding primarily from public sources. This public support of education has generally been regarded as a legitimate function of the state (typically based on the view that higher education is a public good), but this has been called into question.

One stock objection against public funding of higher education is that some (or perhaps many) of the taxpayers will either not attend a public college or avail themselves of public funds for education. As such, their tax dollars are being spent in a way that does not benefit them and hence they have the right to insist that public funds not be used to support higher education.

This objection, a version of which was advanced quite some time ago by Thoreau in his discussion of taxes, does have some merit. After all, if the state is taking my money and spending it in ways that do not benefit me (or in ways that I do not approve of) then I would surely have the right to insist that this stop and that my money be spent in ways that benefit me (or that I pay less in taxes).

It might be replied that although my tax dollars might be spent on things that do not directly benefit me, as a citizen I have a duty to contribute to the general good. As a man, I will never get uterine cancer. As an adult, I will never have a birth defect.  However, it would seem odd of me to insist that the state stop spending public money in such areas merely because such spending will not benefit me directly. This can also be expanded beyond specific medical research to all those things that benefit other people but do not directly benefit me. This, as might be imagined, would include many things that those other people would regard as legitimate venues for public funding. As such, the fact that some folks do not pursue higher education at public institutes or making use of public funds hardly seems to justify not providing such funding.

It might be countered that higher education is a purely private good. After all, it could be argued, it would be as unreasonable to expect the state to subsidize my education as it would be for the state to subsidize my business, my crops or my hobbies. The advantages of my education are accrued solely by me and provide no public good-hence the state should not fund higher education on the basis of it being a public good.

One  reply to this is that funding higher education can be seen as purely self interested investing. People with college degrees generally have higher incomes than folks who do not and hence they contribute more tax revenues, thus paying back that investment many times over. Those who do not avail themselves of the public support for higher education gain directly by the fact that these other folks are contributing more in taxes than they would otherwise.

A second reply is that the people who do not avail themselves of public support for higher education benefit from the folks who do. After all, these people will need doctors, lawyers, engineers, accountants, teachers, and other educated people. Many of these educated folks will have been supported, to a degree, by public money (either directly or indirectly). As such, higher education does seem to be a definite public good.

A third reply is that publicly funded higher education contributes significantly to science, technology, medicine and other very practical and beneficial areas. As such, even the folks who do not avail themselves of public support for higher education gain direct advantages from the public spending in this area.

A fourth reply is that publicly funded higher education contributes to the education of citizens and provides a means by which those of lesser financial  means can achieve success, thus making this a public good.

One final objection is that while such funding might have some good results, why should “Joe the plumber” be forced to pay the bill for “Ashley the anthropologist” or “Arthur the art historian”? Or, even worse, why should “Joe” be forced to pay the bill for folks who never graduate or who never get a job?

This objection does have some bite. After all, the budget cuts caused by the meltdown and the currently dominant ideology (which seems to be “punish everyone else for the sins of the financial folks”) mean that less money is being allocated for higher education and it would make sense to ensure that this money is well spent. As might be imagined, the same concern can be raised regarding the billions spent on defense, business subsidies, special interests and so on. In fact, it might be argued that it seems odd to be  really worried that Ashley might get a small Pell grant to study anthropology when vast sums of public money have literally been lost elsewhere.

In reply, while it is reasonable to be concerned about money being wasted, the fact that some people might pursue degrees that some people look down on and the fact that some people might not complete school or get a job do not suffice to show that education should not be supported by public money. To use the obvious analogy, the fact that all investments do not yield a profit is not reason to stop investing. To use another analogy, the fact that all efforts do not succeed is not an argument to stop trying.

Looked at in purely “practical” terms, higher education certainly repays the public good for the investment made in this area.  Obviously, not every investment pays off-but that is hardly to be expected.

Naturally, there are also the other benefits of higher education that are often seen as “intangible”, but a strong enough case has been made for public support that the addition of these reasons would  be more cake piled on a well frosted cake.


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Towers of Ivory, Towers of Gold

English: Governor Mitt Romney of MA

Image via Wikipedia

Academics in general and philosophers in particular are often accused of dwelling in ivory towers that lift them out of the “real world” (which is, presumably, everything outside of academics). Being a philosophy professor, I do have some sympathy to this notion. After all, I do know professors who match the stereotypes of the ivory tower dwellers point for point.  I also am quite well aware that it is very easy to let a clever thought lead one far from the surly bounds of earth and out into the stratosphere and perhaps to infinity and beyond.

In some cases, speaking of academics as ivory tower dwellers is a harmless bit of commentary on their eccentric ways. However, it can also be a fairly serious charge-that academics in general and philosophers in particular are operating in isolation from the real world and engaged in practices that have no use or merit beyond the confines of these towers. In the case of philosophers, a review of the professional journals and conference subjects will tend to lend credence to that view.

In addition to, as Socrates might say, the usual attacks on philosophers, there is also a strong current of anti-intellectualism in the West-most especially in the United States. Here in the States we have a rather influential political movement that regularly attacks experts, intellectuals and education. These folks often put forth the odd notion that experts are not to be trusted specifically because they are experts and that education somehow makes a person less capable in regards to “getting it.” Going along with this is also an anti-science current that embraces such things as paranoia about vaccines (that has, bizarrely enough, led parents to swap infectious lollipops by mail).

While on my morning run, I was thinking about these matters and also about the Republican primary in my state of Florida. Specifically, I was thinking about the charges against Mitt Romney that he is “out of touch.” For those not familiar with Mitt, he wants to be the Republican nominee for president. In terms of his being out of touch, folks have pointed to his passionate (well, passionate for him) claim that corporations are people, his offer to make a $10,000 bet with Rick Perry during a debate, the fact that he makes about $57,000 per day from capital gains, and his remark that he did not make very much from speaker fees (he made about $374,000). Romney has also been bashed a bit because he knows French.

As I ran, I thought about how often I have been accused about being “out of touch” in my “ivory tower.” However, it struck me that the towers of gold provide far more isolation than the towers of ivory. After all, while I am a philosophy professor, my ivory tower is more of a small ivory shack behind my very non-ivory townhouse.  True, I do go out into that shack and think about odd things. But when I am not engaged in philosophy, I live a rather down to earth life: I drive myself to work in a 2001 Toyota, I cook my own meals, clean my own toilets, paint my own house (with help from my friend), do my own laundry, and so on. By way of contrast, thanks to the budget cuts in education, my yearly salary as a tenured full professor is less than what Romney makes per day. As such, I seem to be very much in touch with the “real world” of bills, taxes, grocery shopping and toilet cleaning. Based on my own experience, many professors tend to be in the same situation (there are, of course, exceptions involving the academic stars).

By way on contrast, consider the politicians who claim to be “in touch.” In the States, our higher end politicians tend to be millionaires. As noted above, Romney makes about $57,000 a day from his investments. His main foe, Newt Gingrich, is a millionaire insider. President Obama is also a millionaire. As such, the idea that such people are “in touch” seems a bit odd-especially given that I am so often accused of automatically being “out of touch” in my “ivory tower.”

It might, of course, be argued that a person who is a millionaire and who owns multiple houses (as is so often the case with the higher end politicians) can still be “in touch” and “get it.” However, if such folks can gaze down from their gold towers and see the plight of the common folks, then those of us who are supposed to hang out in towers of ivory should also be able to do this. Unless, of course, the towers of gold provide a better view.



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Corruption, Gravity & Litter

English: Littering in Stockholm

The Daily Show recently featured an interesting interview with Yale Law School professor Jonathan Macey. One part of the interview that I found especially interesting was Macey’s “defense” of capital firms like Bain in terms of what seemed to be the necessity (in the logical sense) of corruption. Macey made the fascinating claim that social scientists regard corruption as on par with gravity-something that they simply must include in their analysis and something to be presumably treated as a natural force.

While I was on my morning run, I mulled over this idea in the context of my own classes and wondered about a key question: is corruption like gravity in this regard? Further reflection led me to consider what I take to be a better analogy, namely Thoreau’s analogy to the friction of a machine.

Thoreau notes that “all machines have their friction-possibly it does enough good to balance the evil. ” In this case, Thoreau’s machine is the government and the friction is the inefficiency and corruption of this government. As such, this seems to nicely match the point being made by Macey, namely that corruption seems to be a constant presence.

Both Thoreau and Macey seem to be correct: it seems  as difficult to imagine a large political and economic system free of corruption as it is to conceive of a frictionless machine. That said, there is still a rather interesting matter to address, namely whether or not the analogy truly holds.

It is rather tempting to simply accept that corruption is unavoidable, mainly because that seems to be the case. As I ran and thought about this matter, I saw litter on the streets, sidewalks and even the running trails (I picked up as much as I could carry). As might be imagined, I made the obvious comparison between corruption and litter: both seem to always be present and unavoidable. That said, there is still the matter of the nature of this alleged inevitability.

In the case of a literal machine, fiction seems to be unavoidable because of the nature of matter and motion. As such, a machine cannot help but have friction (unless, of course, truly frictionless machines are possible). After all, its friction is not a matter of its choice or decisions on its part. This might not, however, hold true in the case of corruption.

If the corruption of the political and economic system is comparable to the friction of a machine, then it would seem that being critical of the corruption and even blaming people for it would be as absurd as blaming an engineer because the engine she designed is not frictionless. The corruption, it would seem, would be something we must simply accept. The same would thus be true of litter-it is simply something that must be there.

As might be suspected, my comparison between litter and corruption is quite intentional. Litter is, obviously enough, the result of decisions on the part of the folks who littered. It is not the case that litter just appears or that people are compelled to engage in littering by the laws of litter. While some people will, it seems, always decide to litter it does make sense to say that they could, in fact, have chosen to do otherwise.  For example, I saw someone open his window and throw a fast food bag onto the side of the road. He was, presumably, not compelled to do this by some sort of litter law that ensures that the correct percentage of litter is on the ground. In contrast, the friction that slowed and stopped the bag was under the dominion of the relevant physical laws-the bag had no choice. As such, there could actually be a world without litter-if everyone decided not not litter, then there would be no (intentional) litter. This is unlikely, but it is not because it cannot be done-rather it will not happen because people will elect not to make it happen.

The same would seem to be true of corruption. The corruption in politics and economics exists because of what people elect to do (or not do). As such, there could be a system without corruption-if people decided to not act in corrupt ways. This, like a litter free world, is incredibly unlikely. But this is not because it cannot be done. It is unlikely because people will chose not to create such a system.

It might be replied that the system is beyond the control of people. After all, the political and economic systems involve millions (billions worldwide) and trying to fight corruption would  fighting a force of nature, like a tsunami. As such, corruption is a necessary part of the system.

Thoreau has an interesting reply to this sort of reasoning. He notes that he “has relations to the millions as men, and not mere brute or inanimate things, so appeal is possible.” It is also the case that although these systems are vast and complicated, they are created by people. As such,  any corruption (or litter) must be put there by people-the corruption (like litter) does not just appear it must be intentionally placed. If humans are capable of free choice, then they would presumably be capable of choosing not to have corruption-just as they would presumably be capable of choosing not to litter.

I suspect that people tolerate litter and corruption on a similar basis, namely the mistaken belief that it is inevitable and beyond our control. However, just as each bit of litter is the result of some person’s choice, each bit of corruption is also the result of choice. As such, the defense that corruption is part of the system is no better a defense for corruption that claiming that litter is just part of the system.

However, even if it is accepted that the machine of society  must have  the friction of corruption, then Thoreau’s words would still seem to apply: “when the friction has its machine, and oppression and robbery are organized, let us not have the machine. ” As such, while we might no more be able to be rid of corruption than litter, this is not a reason to tolerate it or to allow it to dominate. Just as I can refuse to litter I can refuse to be corrupt. Just as I can fight the filthy messes of litter created by the lazy and immoral, I can also fight the corruption of the wicked. At the very least, I should not contribute or tolerate the misdeeds of either.

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