A Philosopher's Blog

Corporate Taxes, Again

Posted in Business, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on February 29, 2012
Tax

Tax (Photo credit: 401K)

One common theme pushed by folks on the right is that corporations are taxed too much. When making a case for this, people point to the fact (and it is a fact) that the corporate tax rate is 35%.  From a sensible view point, that does seem rather high. After all, having the state skim 35% off the top would make it much harder for business to hire people, re-invest and do all those other things that are rather important to keeping the balloon of capitalism expanding. As such, the call to cut corporate taxes often has significant appeal. However, there is on rather obvious problem with the argument: some corporations pay no taxes and the average is around 12%.

This lower actual rate is due to the fact that corporations are able to take advantage of various tax laws (often created at their behest or via heavily lobbied deals). This laws allow corporations to use loop holes and other means to lower their taxes significantly. Lest I be accused of ignoring the obvious, the tax laws also allow individuals to also lower their taxes through various deductions and exemptions.

One reason why the facts are important in this situation is that much of the rhetoric and (limited) arguments for lowering  corporates taxes are not based on what corporations actually pay. To use the obvious example, when someone rails against the high corporate tax rate, they do not say that the average tax rate for American corporations is 12.1% and they most certainly do not mention that some companies (most infamously GE) are able to avoid having any tax obligations. After all, a 12% tax on what are often massive profits would not strike most people (especially those of us who work for a living) as particularly onerous. In fact, given the significant benefits enjoyed by corporations (corporate subsidies, use of infrastructure, military and diplomatic operations on their behalf and so on), this seems like an excellent deal.

Another reason why the facts are important is that they are rather important to having a rational discussion of what corporate tax rates should be. As noted above, the stock line is that corporations are being harshly taxed and these taxes need to be lowered. When the tax percentage is presented as 35%, that does seem rather harsh and lowering it seems reasonable. However, this claim has the obvious problem of not being what corporations actually pay. The average is, as noted above, 12.1% and this seems like a rather low figure already relative to corporate earnings. Also, if someone where to argue that the tax rate for corporations should be 15% (the cap for capital gains taxes), then the obvious response is that corporations already pay a smaller percentage, thus eliminating the need for such a reduction.

But perhaps the people who point to the 35% and call for lower taxes do not mean that they think that 35% is too high. Perhaps they are well aware of the real percentage but merely use 35% as a rhetorical trick because they think that the percentage that corporations pay on profits should be even lower than 12.1%. Of course, that would seem to be rather low, given what wage earners pay in terms of a percentage of their income. After all, corporations already tend to pay a lower % than many folks who work for a living. This might, of course, mean that the taxes on the working people are too high as well.

But, if they are, then we must explain the deficit entirely in terms of needless overspending. After all, if the state is taking in too much money, then the most plausible explanation for a deficit would be that we are spending too much on needless programs. This could very well be the case and should be duly considered. Of course, the key word here is “needless”-if we actually do need to spend tax dollars, then the tax rates should be devised so that they enable us to meet our legitimate expenses. The challenge, which is a very serious one, is sorting out the needless spending from what we should be spending. Naturally, everyone tends to hold that what the think benefits them is essential and what they think does not benefit them is needless. Unfortunately, there seems to be little tendency to address this matter in a rational way and the “discussion” seems to be based mainly on rhetoric, partisan ideology and unrestrained emotion.

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Delusions of Self-Reliance

Posted in Epistemology, Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on February 27, 2012

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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Monied Corporations

Posted in Business, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on February 25, 2012

Who said the following?

I hope we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations which dare already to challenge our government to a trial by strength, and bid defiance to the laws of our country.

 

 

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Virginia’s Ultrasound Law

Posted in Ethics, Law, Medicine/Health, Philosophy, Science by Michael LaBossiere on February 24, 2012
English: The state seal of Virginia. Српски / ...

Image via Wikipedia

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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“Shovel Ready”

Posted in Humor, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on February 23, 2012
Spade

Image via Wikipedia

I’ve heard “shovel ready” thrown around for a few years and finally decided to determine the best meaning for the phrase. Here are my contenders:

1. “Ready to be hit by a shovel.” For example, “that guy is such an ass that he is totally shovel ready.”

2. “Ready to be buried by a shovel, perhaps after being hit by a shovel.” For example, “that guy I hit with the shovel is now shovel ready.”

Feel free to add your own definitions. Winner might get a shovel. Or not. It depends on how ready the shovel is.

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AeroShot

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Medicine/Health, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on February 22, 2012
English: A photo of a cup of coffee. Esperanto...

Why drink this when you can inhale it?

In our society people tend to stay up later and sleep less than in the past.  As historians have noted, part of this is due to electricity. Of course, there are other factors that have caused people to sleep even less these days. One likely factor is the increase in work (at least for Americans-though we are often cast as lazy, we work more than other Westerners and take less vacation time). Children also are apparently sleeping less, perhaps due to the impact of electronic gadgets and the internet.

Because of the lack of sleep, it is hardly a shock that people have been increasingly turning to energy drinks. While coffee has been around for a long time, recent years have seen the proliferation of high energy drinks. Some of these were combined with alcohol, thus allowing sleepy folks to party all night (and drink themselves into the hospital). Apparently consuming a drink now takes too much time and a new product, AeroShot, is available.

AeroShot is more or less a small plastic tube loaded with caffeine powder. The user inhales it and gets the equivalent of a large cup of coffee in one huff, nicely avoiding all that tedious drinking. Currently it is available in the US and France.

In the United States  the AeroShot was able to bypass FDA testing because it was classified as a dietary supplement. Some critics see this as a dangerous loophole that allows products to get on the market without testing. Others see it as a legitimate category that allows companies to get products on the market without onerous government testing.

In the light of Four Loko (or “blackout in a can” as people called it) it is hardly surprising that Senator Schumer pushed the FDA to review the product. His concern is that kids will abuse the product by taking hit after hit while partying. As might be imagined, this raises the usual moral concerns about testing and limiting products.

On the one hand, the state does have a legitimate moral role in testing products so as to protect citizens from harm. After all, protecting citizens from harm is one of the basic functions of the state-whether that harm comes from foreign invaders, domestic criminals or dangerous products.

If AeroShot does present a health risk, then it would seem to be morally correct for the state to take action, based on the state’s obligation to protect citizens. Naturally, a utilitarian argument can also be made that the state should act in this way to protect the citizens so as to avoid said harms.

On the other hand, caffeine is already an established and accepted (legally and morally) product. As such, concerns about AeroShot’s ingredient would thus seem to also extend to all forms of caffeine. Thus, if it is morally acceptable for people to have access to coffee, then the same would seem to hold true of AeroShot. After all, if the kids want to stay up all night partying, they can legally buy all the coffee they might care to consume and this would seem to make any attempts to limit AeroShots pointless.

One reply is, of course, that the AeroShot makes it easy to rapidly dose oneself with caffeine. As noted above, a quick huff of AeroShot is like drinking a large cup of coffee. In the case of a large cup of coffee, the time to consume it will be longer and there is also the rather important fact that the coffee will fill up the drinker’s stomach, thus limiting the dosage.  Thus, the concern about AeroShot is not so much that it contains a lot of caffeine but that it provides a very rapid and efficient means of delivering caffeine.

The obvious counter to this is that kids can go to the grocery store and buy a bottle of caffeine tablets quite legally. These tablets have 200 mg of caffeine (twice that of the dose in the AeroShot) and usually sell for $5-1o per 100 tablets (AeroShot sells for $2.99 a dose). Taking a tablet is far quicker than drinking a cup of coffee and tablets are rather small relative to the volume of a cup of coffee. As such, these tablets would seem to be as dangerous as AeroShot (if not more so, since they are cheaper and have more caffeine per dose). As such, if these tablets are morally and legally acceptable, than AeroShot would seem to be just as acceptable.

One final counter is that perhaps AeroShot poses a special threat because it is “cool.” That is, kids will be more inclined to overuse AeroShots because of the novelty of inhaling caffeine relative to drinking it or taking a tablet. While this is a point of concern, there is the obvious worry that restricting such a product on the basis of its “coolness” rather than its contents would be rather problematic. After all, how would labs test for “coolness” and how would such a standard be established in a principled way?

People more cynical than I might suspect that the “attack” on AeroShot was motivated by some factors other than concern for the youth, such as the desire to get media attention or to get the makers of AeroShot to cough up lobbying money to ensure that they can keep selling their product (that is, a political shakedown). But, of course, I am not that cynical.

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Food Ethics: Subsidies

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Medicine/Health, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on February 20, 2012

The United States and other countries face the rather odd problem of having a significant portion of the population both overweight and malnourished. One factor that contributes to this is that calorie dense and nutritionally empty foods are cheap and accessible while foods that are nutritionally rich tend to be more expensive and less accessible.

To anticipate a likely response, a person’s diet is also obviously also a matter of choice-people are not forced to down Twinkies, burgers, chips and cola at gun point. However, a person’s choices are obviously impacted by factors like cost and accessibility (as well as marketing). As such, it is hardly surprising that people tend to choose the food that is cheaper are more readily accessible over the food that is more expensive and takes more effort to acquire.

While calorie dense and nutritionally lacking food tends to be cheaper than more nutritionally rich food for a variety of reasons, one reason for price differences lies in differences in state subsidies. In an interesting irony, the federal nutrition recommendations are a reverse of the federal food subsides. This is nicely illustrated by the following pyramids:

 

This, as might be imagined, raises some interesting moral concerns in the area of food ethics. The most obvious concern is that the United States government’s subsidies impacts the pricing of food in a way that food that we should (by the government’s own recommendations) eat less of will tend to be cheaper than the food that we should be eating more off. As such, as the heading says, a salad will tend to be more expensive than a fast food burger, despite the fact that the salad is better for a person nutritionally.

To focus directly on the ethics, by making less healthy food cheaper through subsidies, the state is making it more likely that people will make harmful dietary choices. That is, that they will pick the calories rich and nutritionally lacking foods (such as fast food and junk food) over the nutritionally rich food. In short, the folks who make these decisions are contributing to harming people, which certainly seems to be wrong (if only on utilitarian grounds).

If the state is going to subsidize foods, then the rational and ethical approach would be to subsidize foods based on legitimate scientific recommendations. That is, the food that is better for people should be subsidized and food that tends to not be good for people (or is actually harmful) should either not be subsidized or should be subsidized proportional to its nutritional value.

The reality is, of course, that subsidies are not based on concerns of health or food ethics, but rather based on political influence. As such, the subsidies help create a situation in which unhealthy food is cheap and hence tends to be consumed more than healthy foods. This in turn contributes to health problems (obesity, for example) which costs us even more. Thus, we are paying to eat poorly and then paying again for the effects of these poor diets. This seems to be something we should not be doing, both from a practical and a moral standpoint.

 

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Tax Rates

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on February 17, 2012

The Tea Party made a lot of noise about our being Taxed Enough Already. While I am sometimes cast as a liberal, I am actually a fiscal conservative and I agree that many of us are taxed enough-if not too much. However, I also contend that some of us are under-taxed in a way that causes the rest of us to be over-taxed, which is probably one reason I get branded as a liberal.

A typical person, say a teacher, who makes $50,000 a year gets taxed at an effective rate of 17.2%. Mitt Romney gets taxed a bit under 15%, mainly because he and his lobbyist cohorts saw to it that the tax laws benefit his sort of people rather than the folks who earn a paycheck. Of course, even Mitt is paying a modest piece of his income compared to some others.

According to the IRS and Citizens for Tax Justice certain industries have managed to get rather desirable tax rates. Aerospace and defense companies are doing very well, having an average tax rate of 1.6%. The telecommunication folks are worse off at 7.5% and the often vilified folks in petroleum and pipelines are taxed at an effective rate of 13.1%. Above that are the utilities who are hit hardest at 14.4%. Of course, some clever folks at the top companies have worked out the means of paying no taxes (most famously GE).

Tax

Tax (Photo credit: 401K)

A rational, objective look at the numbers shows that the claim that companies are overtaxed seems to be untrue. After all, they are taxed at a rate less than a person who earns $50,000 by working. Of course, it could be contended that everyone is being overtaxed and that the people who work for a living and do not have armies of well paid lobbyists and lawyers are being brutally overtaxed. If so, it would seem that the focus should be shifted from trying to rescue the corporations from the cruelty of their relatively low effective tax rate to rescuing the working people from their much higher tax rates. After all, corporations have been enjoying record profits and CEO compensation is most excellent while the middle class is generally struggling or sinking into the lower class.

Naturally, there has been some talk about helping out the middle class. However, while politicians have bent over backwards after being slathered with cash from the corporate lobbyists, little has been done for the middle class. Given that the middle class lacks the unified cash to hire lobbyists and lawyers, this is hardly a surprise. However, the pain of the middle class can be cleverly exploited. After all, if we feel hurt by our taxes, it is usually easy to get some of us to shed tears for the corporations on the assumption that if we are being cruelly taxed, then so are they. Of course, this is not true-they are doing quite well.

As far as what to do, the usual call from conservatives has been to lower spending to address the problem of deficits. While that is a reasonable idea, there is the obvious question of whether or not these cuts will be best for the country. After all, we could also address the deficit by increasing the taxes paid by the very wealthy to match those paid by the middle class in terms of percentages. That is, if folks like Buffet were taxed at the same rate as their secretaries, then there would be considerably more revenue while the rich would still remain rich.

It might be objected that taxing the rich at this rate would be harmful. However, the obvious reply is that if someone who makes $50,000 a year can manage to survive while being taxed at 17.2%, someone who makes $ 50 million a year can also survive at that tax rate or even higher.

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The Church & The State II: Discrimination

Posted in Ethics, Law, Metaphysics, Philosophy, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on February 15, 2012
English: Schopfheim: Catholic Church Deutsch: ...

Image via Wikipedia

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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Church & State: Immaculate Contraception

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on February 13, 2012
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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