I recently saw a news story on CNN on radar and camera towers being built on the Arizona border. According to the story, these high tech towers have advanced camera and radar systems designed to detect people crossing the border between the United States and Mexico.
From a tactical standpoint, such detection towers make sense. If I was defending a border against an enemy, I would also see to it that such watch towers were set up. After years of computer gaming, I’d probably also ensure that they were equipped with automated weapons. After all, there is little sense in seeing intruders without also having the ability to put some lead into them.
From a practical standpoint, there is one serious problem with the towers-they are not working. The government paid Boeing $70 million for the tower system and it has run into problems with glitches. This is no surprise-I’ve been reading about highly defective high tech government purchases since the Reagan era. This is also typical of the Bush administration which has been long on rhetoric, free with cash (for the rich and corporations) and not very concerned that things actually work well (like the under-equipped army that was sent into Iraq). Given the conservative ideals that the Bush administration pushes, this is yet another nice bit of inconsistency.
From a moral standpoint the towers raise some serious concerns. First, there is the fact that they are being placed on a presumably friendly border. Mexico is supposed to be an ally of America and Americans and Mexicans are supposed to be friends. Spying on friends and allies could be seen as being practical and a reasonable case could be made for this. After all, friendships between countries are very tenuous things that could end at anytime.
Second, there is the fact that the towers also spy on Americans. Apparently the cameras used are powerful enough to see, in great detail, what Americans are doing in and around their homes. For a democratic, non-totalitarian state that has explicit moral and legal protections of privacy, this is a morally questionable action (at best).
Yes, a nation must secure its borders. But spying on its own citizens, spending millions of dollars on defective technology, and acting in ways that seem paranoid are not the ways to do this.
“All along the watchtower, princes kept the view
While all the women came and went, barefoot servants, too.”
Michael Moore was a guest on The Daily Show last night and he mentioned that his time on the Larry King Show had been pre-empted by Paris Hilton. Apparently, he expected a full show to himself, but Paris Hilton’s release from jail proved to be more newsworthy.
While I think Michael Moore is annoying and self-righterous, he does create movies that address important issues such as gun violence and health care. While his movies sometimes over-dramatize matters, they do provide an interesting case in favor of his views as well as a much needed different perspective on such matters. Thus, Moore seems worthy of news coverage.
It actually pains me to even write about Paris Hilton-by doing so I am actually feeding her publicity mosnter a few tiny crumbs. But, I do have to mention her to address the matter at hand.
Paris Hilton gets an alarming amount of news coverage-not only in the tabloids and trash TV, but on “real” news shows and channels like CNN. While Paris Hilton is annoying, she is not self-righteous like Michael Moore. But, she also does not do anything worthy of news coverage.
She is rich, but she is not rich because she does anything important or useful. In any case, someone being rich is not really news. There are many rich people and there is no real reason to give them news time because they are rich.
She does have sex, but so do most people. Unlike most people, she does film her activities and they get onto the internet-but that does not make someone newsworthy.
She does commit crimes, she has been sent to prison, she does act badly and sometimes goes without underwear. But other people do that and don’t get the coverage she does.
So, there seems to be no compelling reason to have her on the news-aside from the fact that people seem obsessed with her and hence doing so generates ratings.
Perhaps she does provide a public service-by filling up news time she takes away from the coverage of events and facts that would be disturbing to Americans. After all, every second of Paris Hilton coverage is a second we do not have to hear about deaths in Iraq, the poor state of American health care, what congress is up to, and what horrible misdeeds the Bush administration is currently inflicting on America and the world. Thank you Paris for keeping our eyes on the fluff and away from things that might bother us.
When the Coalition forces invaded Iraq, the justification was that Saddam had WMDs. From a moral standpoint, if the invasion of Iraq was justified because Iraq was believed to have WMDs, then attacks on the United States would also be justified-after all, everyone knows that we have WMDs.
When it turned out that Iraq did not have WMDs, the justification switched to terrorism. That turned out to be mistaken at the time, but is true now. Thanks to the invasion, Iraq is now a hotbed of terrorist activity. There is a great deal of irony in creating exactly the situation that was used to justify the war. This almost seems like picking a fight and then saying that it was justified because the other person started swinging back.
After the terrorism justification came the “Saddam is a bad man” line. It is true that he was a bad man. He employed secret police and used brutality and fear to rule the populace. Torture and imprisonment were regularly used by the state. Ironically, after the United States invaded, the torture and imprisonment continued. This time, however, it was Americans who were imprisoning and torturing people. In the United States, Bush continued to use fear and secret police tactics (domestic spying, etc.). So, the irony is that if we were justified in taking Saddam out for being a bad man, then if someone took out our government, they would be justified on the same moral grounds.
There is a terrible moral irony in the fact that the moral justifications for the Iraq war would also seem to morally justify attacks on the United States.
One classic debate in ethics is whether moral decisions are grounded in reason (Kant is the paradigm of this) or in the emotions (David Hume is an excellent example here).
The March 22 issue of Nature has added some interesting information to this debate. Researchers lead by Antonio Damasio (University of Southern California) posed moral problems to a group of test subjects. As with a standard study, the subjects were divided into those with the factor to be tested (experimental group) and those without (control group). In this case, the experimental group consisted of people with damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VPC) and the control group consisted of undamaged people.
Those in the study were exposed to the usual ethical scenarios raised in college ethics classes. These scenarios involve choices regarding causing or permitting one death in order to prevent more people dying. For example, a person is offered a choice between causing one death or five in a case involving a runaway train.
From a consequentialist standpoint, the right choice is the choice that results in fewer deaths. This is the same moral view that underlies the principle of triage. On this view, a doctor should treat patients in the order that saves the most lives. Naturally, this can result in some patients dying. This view also has intuitive appeal-it just seems to make sense to do what results in fewer deaths.
Of course, people’s intuitions change a bit when they are asked to actually cause a death to save more people. For example, the runaway train case used in the study involved making a choice between pushing one person in front of the train in order to save five other people. Another, rather disturbing case, offered the person a choice between smothering one baby to save five or letting the five die.
Interestingly, people with damage to their VPC chose to kill one person to save five from the train at a rate three times that of undamaged people. In the baby case, those with VPC damage said they would smother the infant at rate five times that of undamaged people.
It is tempting to conclude that damage to the VPC leads a person to make immoral or at least amoral choices. However, that does not seem to be the case. The study seems to indicate that the people with VPC damage were still using moral reasoning. The difference appears to be that their moral decisions were less affected by emotional factors than people without such damage. This does make sense.
From an emotional standpoint, there is a huge difference between killing one person to save five people and letting one person die to save five people. This is nicely shown by my informal research conducted in my ethics classes. In my classes, I present the students with two scenarios.
In the first, the student imagines she is the only doctor available to treat six survivors from a plane crash. She knows that if she tries to treat the most wounded person, she can save him, but 3-4 other people will probably die. If she treats the other five first, she is sure she can save them, but the most injured person will die. Everyone always says that they would treat the five people and let the one person die.
In the second, the student is placed in the same basic scenario, but with a slight twist. In this crash, five people are badly wounded and need transplants right away to survive. The sixth passenger is unhurt and, through the magic of a philosophy example, is a compatible donor for the other five. Naturally, being a donor will kill him. When the students are asked what they would do, they always say they would let the five people die.
When asked about the difference, the students generally point out the difference between actively killing someone and letting someone die. While important moral distinctions can be drawn between killing and letting die, the end result is still the same. If results are what matter, morally, then there would actually be little moral difference between killing and letting someone die. In the examples, the sixth person would be just as dead whether he is allowed to die or is actively killed. One way to explain the difference is, as noted above, the emotional difference between killing a person and simply allowing them to perish.
This nicely matches the findings in the study. Those involved, it can be argued, were making the most rational choice in terms of consequences. After all, having five people live and only one die certainly seems to be a better result (other factors being the same) than having five deaths and one survivor.
Of course, there is still that nagging concern-there does seem to still be an important difference between killing someone to save five other people and allowing one person to die to save five. Perhaps the difference is just squeamishness. Perhaps it is something more significant. In any case, that is definitely something well worth looking into.
I read an article in the June 2007 issue of Scientific America that discussed the traveler’s dilemma. The dilemma is sort of like the famous prisoner’s dilemma and is another decision theory model. One important thing to keep in mind about these models: the people who make them and run them always insist that it is unsporting to bring in real world factors or to act in anyway outside of the rules of their cleverly constructed scenarios. In any case, here is the scenario (roughly put):
Bill and Jane bought the same sort of antique while on a trip and both items are damaged during the flight. Ted, the person in charge of making restitution for the broken item has no idea of its value (and presumably both lost their receipts and there is no mention of the item’s value anywhere else in the world). But, being part of a decision theory scenario, he will make a deal. Bill and Jane will write down the value of the item, from $2 to $100. If one value is lower than the other, then Ted will take that as the actual value of the item and pay Bill and Jane that amount. There is, however, one major catch. The person who puts the lower amount will be rewarded for honesty and given $2 extra while the person who puts down the higher number will be punished with a $2 penalty. If both numbers are the same, there is no reward or penalty.
Obviously this does not happen in the actual world, but here is how it plays out in the land of decision theory. If Bill and Jane are both rational (yet not smart enough to contact Ted’s supervisor and report his obvious insanity) they will reason as follows: If I write down $100 and the other person writes down $99, they will get $101 and I’ll get $98. Similarly, if I write down $99 and they write down $98, they will get $100 and I’ll get $97. So, if I write down X and they write down X-1, then I’ll end up with $2 less and they will end up with $2 more. Laying aside honestly writing down the value of the item, the allegedly most rational strategy is to write down the lowest amount, namely $2. If the other person writes down a higher number, then s/he will get nothing and I will get $4. Naturally, the other person realizes this as well, so s/he will write down $2 also. So, Ted ends up giving Bill and Jane $2 each.
This is a very good deal for Ted-he just hands over $4 instead of having to pay up to $200. This shows that it is smart to get people like Bill and Jane into this sort of dilemma.
But, is it smart for Bill and Jane to play this way? Given the reasoning above, the initial answer would seem to be that $2 is their best option. However, this seems intuitively incorrect. This is because they could both walk away with $100. If Bill and Jane see getting more money as better than getting less money, then the $2 option is inferior to the one that yields $100.
If Bill and Jane could communicate (presumably Ted has the power to prevent any interaction, even knowing winks, nods or lip reading between the two) the best strategy would be for them to both write down $100. Each of them goes home with $100 and that is a lot more than $2.
Of course, if Bill and Jane are smart, they would know that this is a better outcome for them-better by $98 each. But, of course, they need to worry that the other person will write down $99 instead of $100 and thus get the extra $2-which takes them back to the situation described above.
In a slightly more realistic world, Bill and Jane would no doubt look at each other and think “is this person such a tool that s/he would throw away $98 just to try to come out $2 ahead of me?” They might also think: “Ted is trying to screw us over with this decision theory crap. If we both play the game the ‘rational’ way, we both get screwed and Ted wins. But, if we both put down $100, we both win and that fruit bat Ted is out $200.” The game becomes more interesting when Bill and Jane see themselves as playing against Ted and not playing against each other.
If Bill and Jane are clever, they will both write down $100, take the money and beat Ted at his silly game. After all, while $101 is better than $100, $100 is much, much better than $2.
If Bill and Jane are vindictive and motivated to simply making sure that the other person does not get more, then the $2 is the best choice for them. And, for being vindictive weasels, they deserve to go home with $2 and not $100.
If I was in this scenario with Jane, I’d put down the actual price of the item. I generally value honesty more than money. But, if Ted insists on being a fruit bat and forcing this game, then I’d put down $100 to try to beat him. If Jane put down $100, I’d high five her and we’d mock Ted for being a loser. If Jane put down $2, I’d happen to mention to airport security that Jane seemed to be muttering something about “death to America” the whole flight and that she was having trouble sitting still, no doubt because she has a bomb hidden in her butt. Sure, having her subjected to a cavity search might be morally questionable, but those are the breaks in the land of decision theory. Naturally, I’d donate my $2 to charity to offset this. But wait, I couldn’t because I’d have to pay the penalty and I’d be walking away with…nothing. Enjoy the cavity search, Jane.
While trying to avoid paying attention to the Paris Hilton jail incident, I heard a short news story on pay jail. The idea is as follows.
For a fee of between $75 and $127 per day certain convicts can upgrade the nature of their incarceration. The perks for this upgrade include being allowed to have an MP3 player or computer in the cell and being allowed to leave jail during the day when on a work furlough.
Another major advantage is that the people who pay for jail are kept at a distance from violent offenders and are effectively isolated from some of the more unpleasant aspects of prison (such as gang violence).
In response to an obvious concern, the defenders of such jails point out that they are only for non-violent offenders. The practice itself is justified by the fact that it generates revenue. These jails tend to be run by private companies, but perhaps some of the income goes to the relevant government agency.
On one hand, such jails seem to have the virtue of being honest about how the legal system actually works. Those with money and power are convicted less often and when convicted received punishments that are far less harsh. Pay jail simply illustrates the ancient truism- life is a crap sandwich: the more bread you have, the less crap you have to eat.
On the other hand, pay jails seem to grossly violate a more elevated concept of justice. From a moral standpoint, the wealth of a wrongdoer does not seem to be a relevant factor in assessing the wrongness of their actions and hence the extent to which they should be punished. Intuitively, it would be odd to have to check the bank accounts of two wrongdoers in order to see which had committed the worse crime. Pay jails permit those with more wealth to be punished less not because they deserve less punishment but because they can afford to buy less punishment. This hardly seems like true justice.
It can be argued that assessing the justice of a punishment involves taking into account other factors beyond the deed itself, such as the character of the person committing the deed, her motivation, and the circumstances. Wealth, it could be argued, is a relevant factor. After all, as noted above, wealth already plays a factor in life in general and the legal system in particular. Why then should we not get this fact right out in the open and put justice where it should be-up for sale?
The debate over immigration is a hot topic once again. Those who are familiar with the history of America know that this is a recurring theme. Every new wave of immigrants is generally met with hostility and racism. Once the wave gets settled in, then they can join in and be hostile towards the next wave.
One somewhat new phenomenon is the desire to build massive walls along the US-Mexican border to help block the tide of people coming across the border. Of course, the idea of building walls to block movement is nothing new. The ancient Chinese built a Great Wall (or rather lots of walls), the Romans built Hadrian’s Wall, and the Russians built the Berlin Wall.
From a practical perspective, walls are not terribly effective. People generally find a way to go through, over, under or around them. In the situation at hand, building a wall between Mexico and the United States seems rather impractical in terms of the cost and the likely effectiveness of the project. Rather ironically, there have already been incidents of contractors hiring illegal immigrants to build walls.
From a symbolic perspective, these walls are presumably intended to show that America is serious about border defense and keeping the rule of law in place. In actuality, walls send a rather different message. Border walls are symbols, but in this case they are symbols of fear and defeat.
These walls symbolize the fear some Americans have of outsiders, differences, and change. This fear is nothing new. As mentioned above, each new wave of immigrants has generally been met with fear. In each case the fears were not realized-each wave became a part of America and the people made (and still make) great contributions to America. While immigration does pose problems, meeting a problem with fear leads to poor decision making and this leads to actions that history tends to reveal as sadly mistaken.
These walls also serve as symbols of defeat. By putting up such walls, we are sending the message that we cannot handle the situation-we have been beaten and have to hide behind walls. This is not the right message to send.
This is not to say that the borders should be left wide open and that immigration should be unregulated. However, open borders are very important to a country that claims moral goodness, democracy and freedom as values.
Open borders show that the country is strong and unafraid. It shows that we do not fear our neighbors and that we are strong enough to handle threats that might arise. Yes, we should be vigilant, but we should not cower behind walls.
Open borders show that we value democracy and freedom, that we believe people should be free to chose where to live and that we do not create iron curtains between us and the rest of the world. We are, after all, supposed to be a democracy and not a totalitarian state. Yes, there are some people that should not be allowed into the country, such as violent criminals. We do, after all, have plenty of our own already. But, we should not wall people out because some people think they are the wrong color or speak the wrong language.
Open borders show that we are morally good in that we are willing to take in those seeking a better life and that we are a hospitable people and willing to be friends with our neighbors. The great religions and moral thinkers tell us repeatedly that it is important to love our neighbors and care for others. Building walls is not the way to do this.
A while ago I read an article about how some religious conservatives are vehemently opposed to the idea that sexual orientation might be affected or even determined by factors other than voluntary choice. Their concern stems from two factors. First, their belief that homosexuality is a sin and hence wrong. Second is their likely acceptance of the view that only voluntary actions and choices can be considered right or wrong. This view is rather plausible and is nicely supported by our moral intuitions. If, for example, I get angry and plow my truck into a crowd of innocent people, then I have done something wrong. If I round the corner in my truck at a reasonable speed, hit a patch of oil before I can react and spin into a crowd, then it was a terrible accident but not an evil action. The difference is, of course, between choice and chance.
Given the distinction just made, if sexual orientation is not a matter of choice, then it would certainly seem that homosexuals cannot be regarded as immoral. People could, of course, regard their lifestyles as unfortunate accidents. Some social conservatives do take this stance. Consistent with this view, they often propose ways of treating homosexuals in order to make them heterosexual. Naturally, this assumes that the heterosexual way of life is a preferable lifestyle. This can, some might argue, be done without imposing a moral judgment. After all, when a doctor gives me antibiotics for a sinus infection he is not making a moral judgment but a medical judgment. Of course, the distinction between health and illness is something that does not seem to clearly apply in the case of heterosexual and homosexual orientations. But, let us lay aside this problem and move along.
Is sexual orientation a matter of choice? The evidence does generally seem to point against it. In addition to the infamous studies of gay sheep, there is also the intuition test. When I think about my own sexual orientation (very, very straight) I do not recall making a conscious choice in the matter. I simply find women attractive and men not…and this just seems to be the way I am. I suspect it is analogous to my taste in food. I rather like pie and I don’t like broccoli. I didn’t consciously make that decision-it is just the way I am. Of course, I’m not an expert in the biological and social sciences, so my opinion is not worth all that much here, at least not beyond the logic of the argument itself.
Getting back to the main matter of concern, let us assume that sexual orientation is not a matter of choice. Given this assumption, can homosexuality be considered immoral on religious grounds? The answer is “yes”, but this requires some rather controversial assumptions.
The first assumption is that God actually forbids homosexuality. Leviticus does list homosexuality among the many things that God allegedly considers to be abominable. The list also includes sea food, so we can also infer that God is not a big fan of Red Lobster.
The second assumption is that what God forbids is morally wrong. What he forbids could be wrong because He forbids it (this is Divine Command Theory) or He could forbid it because it is wrong. Either way, let us assume it is wrong and not take a side trip into the Euthyphro Problem.
The third assumption is that something can be immoral even when it is not a matter of choice. In other words, the moral intuition that an action has to be freely chosen in order to be good or evil must be rejected.
As argued above, our moral intuitions tend towards the view that an action is evil only when it is freely chosen. However, this intuition can be argued against on theological grounds in two ways.
First, most varieties of Christian thought accept the notion of original sin. The basic idea is that Adam and Eve disobeyed God and this action taints all humans through all time. Obviously, only Adam and Eve committed the immoral action and all other humans had no choice in the matter. Yet, all humans are tainted with evil because of this action.
Now, if original sin can taint all humans and thus make them sinners, then it follows that sin need not be a matter of choice. So, a person could have no choice in their sexual orientation and yet, if they happened to be homosexual, be sinners and hence evil. They would be tainted with homosexuality in addition to the original sin taint.
Of course, on this view all people are sinners. So, those who heed the words of Jesus would not cast literal or metaphorical stones at homosexuals. After all, none of us would be without sin. That is a nice bit of irony.
Further, if we are all sinners, then there seems to be no grounds to be especially condemning of homosexuality or any other sin. The fact that everyone is evil has the rather interesting effect of making moral judgments rather problematic, yet so very easy. Yes, homosexuals would be evil…but so would everyone else. This result seems a bit problematic, so perhaps there is another approach that will work better.
As a second attempt, consider that some varieties of Christian thought accept the notion of pre-destination. The idea is that your ultimate fate (Heaven or Hell) is determined in advance. You have no choice in the matter and your life unfolds in accord with God’s will.
Those who accept this view believe that those condemned to Hell deserve their fate because they have sinned against God. Naturally, the standard view is that everyone is a sinner because of original sin. Those who get to go to Heaven are arbitrarily spared by God. It must be arbitrary because everyone is a sinner and no one deserves Heaven. This is nicely spelled out in Jonathan Edwards classic “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”
On this view, homosexuals are pre-destined to be homosexuals and have no choice in the matter. They are sinners and will be cast into Hell (or perhaps not-since God is arbitrary in whom He saves, perhaps He will save some homosexuals). So, being homosexual would not be a matter of choice, yet it would still be evil. Of course, on this view everyone is evil and deserves Hell. This leads us back to the exact same problem caused by original sin without predestination.
So, it would seem that homosexuality need not be a matter of choice to be immoral. The only problem is that getting to that conclusion seems to also lead to the conclusion that everyone is an evil sinner.