A Philosopher's Blog

Kim Davis & Rule of Law

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on September 14, 2015

Those critical of Kim Davis, the county clerk who refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples and was jailed for being in contempt of court, often appeal to a rule of law principle. The main principle used seems to be that individual belief cannot be used to trump the law.

Some of those who support Davis have made the point that some state and local governments are ignoring federal laws in regards to drugs and immigration. To be more specific, it is pointed out that some states have legalized (or decriminalized) marijuana despite the fact that federal law still defines it as a controlled substance. It is also pointed out that some local governments are ignoring federal immigration law and acting on their own—such as issuing identification to illegal immigrants and providing services.

Some of Davis’ supporters even note that some of the same people who insist that Davis follow the law tolerate or even support state and local governments ignoring the federal drug an immigration laws.

One way to respond to the assertions is to claim that Davis’ defenders are committing the red herring fallacy. This is a fallacy in which an irrelevant topic is presented in order to divert attention from the original issue. The basic idea is to “win” an argument by leading attention away from the argument and to another topic. If the issue is whether or not Davis should follow the law, the failure of some states and local governments to enforce federal law is irrelevant. This is like a speeder who has been pulled over and argues that she should not get a ticket because another officer did not ticket someone else for speeding. What some other officer did or did not do to some other speeder is clearly not relevant in this case. As such, this approach would fail to defend Davis.

In regards to the people who say Davis should follow the law, yet are seemingly fine with the federal drug and immigration laws being ignored, to assert that they are wrong about Davis because of what they think about the other laws would be to commit the tu quoque ad hominem. This fallacy is committed when it is concluded that a person’s claim is false because it is inconsistent with something else a person has said. Since fallacies are arguments whose premises fail to logically support the conclusion, this tactic would not logically defend Davis.

Those who wish to defend Davis can, however, make an appeal to consistency and fairness: if it is acceptable for the states and local governments to ignore federal laws without punishment, then it would thus seem acceptable for Kim Davis to also ignore these laws without being punished. Those not interested in defending Davis could also make the point that consistency does require that if Davis is compelled to obey the law regarding same-sex marriage, then the same principle must be applied in regards to the drug and immigration laws. As such, the states and local governments that are not enforcing these laws should be compelled to enforce them and failure to do so should result in legal action against the state officials who fail to do their jobs.

This line of reasoning is certainly plausible, but it can be countered by attempting to show a relevant difference (or differences) between the laws in question. In practice most people do not use this approach—rather, they have the “principle” that the laws they like should be enforced and the laws they oppose should not be enforced. This is, obviously enough, not a legitimate legal or moral principle.  This applies to those who like same-sex marriage (and think the law should be obeyed) and those who dislike it (and think the law should be ignored). It also applies to those who like marijuana (and think the laws should be ignored) and those who dislike it (and think the laws should be obeyed).

In terms of making the relevant difference argument, there are many possible approaches depending on which difference is regarded as relevant. Those who wish to defend Davis might argue that her resistance to the law is based on her religious views and hence her disobedience can be justified on the grounds of religious liberty. Of course, there are those who oppose the immigration laws on religious grounds and even some who oppose the laws against drugs on theological grounds. As such, if the religious liberty argument is used in one case, it can also be applied to the others.

Those who want Davis to follow the law but who oppose the enforcement of certain drug and immigration laws could contend that Davis’ is violating the constitutional rights of citizens and that this is a sufficient difference to justify a difference in enforcement. The challenge is, obviously enough, working out why this difference justifies not enforcing the drug and immigration laws in question.

Another option is to argue that the violation of moral rights suffices to warrant not enforcing a law and protecting rights warrants enforcing a law. The challenge is showing that the rights of the same-sex couples override Davis’ claim to a right to religious liberty and also showing the moral right to use certain drugs and to immigrate even when it is illegal to do so. These things can be done, but go beyond the scope of this essay.

My own view is that consistency requires the enforcement of laws. If the laws are such that they should not be enforced, then they need to be removed from the books. I do, however, recognize the legitimacy of civil disobedience in the face of laws that a person of informed conscience regards as unjust. But, as those who developed the theory of civil disobedience were well aware, there are consequences to such disobedience.


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Homosexuality, Choice & Engineering

Posted in Ethics, Metaphysics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on February 14, 2014
English: Venn diagram depicting the relationsh...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In my previous essay I rambled a bit about homosexuality and choice. The main point of this was to set up this essay, which focuses on the ethics of engineering people to be straight.

In general terms, sexual orientation is either a choice or it is not (though choice can be a matter of degree). Currently, many of the people who are against homosexuality take the view that it is a matter of choice. This allows them to condemn homosexuality and to push for methods aimed at motivating people to choose to be straight. Many of those who are at least tolerant of homosexuality contend that sexual orientation is not a matter of choice. They are, of course, careful to take the view that being homosexual is more like being left-handed than having an inherited disease. This view is taken as justification for at least tolerating homosexuality and as a reason to not allow attempts to push homosexuals in an impossible effort to get them to choose to be straight.

For the sake of this essay, let it be assumed that homosexuality is not a matter of choice—a person is either born with her orientation or it develops in a way that is beyond her choice. To blame or condemn the person would be on par with blaming a person for being born with blue eyes or to condemn a person for being left-handed. As such, if homosexuality is not a choice, then it would be unjust to condemn or blame a person for her sexual orientation. This seems reasonable.

Ironically, this line of reasoning might make it morally permissible to change a person’s orientation from gay to straight. The argument for this is as follows.

As has been supposed, a person’s sexual orientation is not a matter of choice: she is either born that way or becomes that way without being able to effect the result. The person is thus a “victim” of whatever forces made her that way. If these forces had been different in certain ways, then she would have had a different sexual orientation—either by chance or by the inexorable machinery of determinism. Given that the person is not making a choice either way, it would seem to be morally acceptable for these factors to be altered to ensure a specific orientation. To use an analogy, I did not choose my eye color and it would not matter, it would seem, whether this was due to a natural process or due to an intentional intervention on the part of others (by modifying me genetically). After all, the choice is not mine either way.

It could be replied that other people would not have the right to make the choice—that it should be left to blind chance (or blind determinism). This does have some merit—whatever they do to change a person, they would be morally accountable for. However, from the standpoint of the person, there would seem to be no difference: they do not get a choice either way. I ended up with blue eyes by chance, but if I was engineered to have green eyes, then the result would be the same: my eye color would not be my choice. I ended a heterosexual, but if I had been engineered to be a homosexual, I would have had no more or less choice.

Thus, robbing a person of choice would not be a moral concern here: if a person does not get a choice, she cannot be robbed of that choice. What is, however, of moral concern is the ethics of the choice being made to change (or not change) the person. If the change is beneficial, such as changing a person so that her heart develops properly rather than failing before she is born, then it would seem to be the right thing to do. If the change is harmful, such as altering the person’s brain so that he suffers from paranoia and psychosis, then it would seem to be the wrong thing to do.

In the matter at hand, the key concern would be whether making a person a heterosexual or a homosexual would be good or bad. As noted above, since it is assumed that sexual orientation is not a choice, engineering a person to be straight or gay would not be robbing them of a choice. Also, the change of orientation can be assumed to be thorough so that a person would be equally happy either way. In this case, the right choice would seem to be a matter of consequences: would a person be more or less likely to be happy straight or not? Given the hostility that still exists towards homosexuals, it would seem that engineering people to be straight would be the right choice.

This might strike some as horrifying and a form of orientation genocide (oriocide?) in which homosexuals are eliminated. Or, more accurately, homosexuality is eliminated. After all, the people who would have been homosexual (by change or by the mechanisms of determinism) would instead be straight, but they would still presumably be the same people they would be if they were gay (unless sexual orientation is an essential quality in Aristotle’s sense of the term). If orientation is not a choice, it would seem that this would not matter: no one is robbed of a choice because one cannot be robbed of what one never possessed.

A rather interesting question remains: if sexual orientation is not a choice, what harm would be done if everyone where engineered to be straight? Or gay?

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Why Demonize the Poor?

Posted in Ethics by Michael LaBossiere on January 20, 2014

Poverty (Photo credit: Teo’s photo)

Certain pundits of the American right have continued the tradition of demonizing the poor. For example, Fox News seems to delight in the narrative of the wicked poor who are destroying America. It is certainly worth considering why the poor are demonized.

One ironic foundation for this is religion. While “classic” Christianity regards the poor as blessed and warns of the dangers of idolatry, there is a strain of Christianity that regards poverty as a sign of damnation and wealth as an indicator of salvation. As Pope Francis has been pointing out, this view is a perversion of Christianity. Not surprisingly, Pope Francis has been criticized by certain pundits for actually taking Jesus seriously.

Another reason for this is that demonizing the poor allows the pundits to redirect anger so that the have-less are angry at the have-nots, rather than those who have almost everything. This is, of course, classic scapegoating: the wicked poor are blamed for many of the woes besetting America. The irony is, of course, that the poor and powerless are cast as a threat to the rich and powerful.

The approach taken in regards to the poor follows the classic model used throughout history. This model involves presenting two distinct narratives about the group that is to be hated. The first is to create a narrative which casts the members of the group as subhuman, wicked, inferior and defective. In the case of the poor, the stock narrative is that the poor are stupid, lazy, drug-users, criminals, frauds, moochers and so on. This narrative is used to create contempt and hatred of the poor in order to dehumanize them. This makes it much easier to get people to accept that it is morally permissible (even laudable) to treat the poor poorly.

The second narrative is to cast the poor as incredibly dangerous. While they have been cast as subhuman by the first narrative, the second narrative presents them as a dire threat to everyone else. The stock narrative is that the poor are destroying America by being “takers” from the “makers.” One obvious problem is crafting a narrative in which the poor and seemingly powerless are able to destroy the rich and powerful. The interesting solution to this problem is to cast Obama and some Democrats as being both very powerful (thus able to destroy America) yet someone in service to the poor (thus making the poor the true masters of destruction).

On the face of it, a little reflection should expose the narrative as absurd. The poor are obviously poor and lack power. After all, if they had power they would hardly remain poor. As such, the idea that the poor and powerless have the power to destroy America seems to be absurd. True, the poor could rise up in arms and engage in class warfare in the literal sense of the term—but that is not likely to happen.

At this point, it is natural to bring up the idea of “bread and circuses”—the idea that the poor destroyed the Roman Empire by forcing the rulers to provide them with bread and circuses until the empire fell apart.

There are two obvious replies to this. The first is that even if Rome was wrecked by spending on bread and circuses, it was the leaders who decided to use that approach to appease the masses. That is, the wealthy and powerful decided to bankrupt the state in order to stay in power. Second, the poor who wanted bread and circuses were a symptom rather than the disease. That is, the cause of the decline of the empire also resulted in larger numbers of poor people. As such, it was not so much that the poor were destroying the empire, it was that the destruction of the empire that was resulting in an increase in the poor.

The same could be said about the United States: while the income gap in the United States is extreme and poverty is relatively high, it is not the poor that that are causing the decline of America. Rather, the poverty is the result of the decline. As such, demonizing the poor and blaming them for the woes is rather like blaming the fever for the disease.

Ironically, the insistence in demonizing and blaming the poor serves to distract people away from the real causes of our woes, such as the deranged financial system, systematic inequality, a rigged market and a political system that is beholden to the 1%.

It is, however, a testament to the power of rhetoric that so many people buy the absurd idea that the poor and powerless are somehow the victimizers rather than the victims.

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Review: The Myth of Persecution

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on March 6, 2013

The_Myth_of_PersecutionThe Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom
Candida Moss (WebsiteFacebook page, and Twitter account. )
$25.99 Hardcover
308 pages

In her book, The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom, Candida Moss argues for her claim that the early Christians created a myth whose legacy still impacts the world today.

She begins the book with the story of the December 31, 2010 murder of Mariam Fekry and this sets the stage for the discussion that follows. Mariam, a Coptic Christian, was cast by some as a martyr and the bombing that killed her was presented as an attack on Christianity itself.  This attack, some claimed, warranted divinely sanctioned retribution. Moss contends that this way of thinking is grounded in the myth of persecution and she spends the remainder of this book examining this subject.

Moss’ main claim is that the commonly held view that “Christians huddled in catacombs out of fear, meeting in secret to avoid arrest and mercilessly thrown to lions merely for their religious beliefs” is simply untrue. She spends much of the book endeavoring to support her claim.

She starts her argument by considering martyrdom before Christianity and tracing its likely influence on the Christian views of martyrdom.  Naturally, she notes that there was no ancient word for “martyr” but makes an excellent case that the concept was well understood even in the ancient world.

As a philosopher, I found her analysis of the deaths of the philosophers (most notable Socrates) interesting. I Candida_Mossdid, however, find her assessment of the death of Socrates problematic in some ways (such as her claims about his philosophical views). On the whole, however, Moss does a reasonably good job tracing the likely influences on the Christian concept of martyrdom from the ancient world. This is, of course, not new—philosophers have noted the connection between Socrates (and Plato) and Christianity for quite some time (some thinkers referred to them as being “Christians before Christ”). However, Moss does a good job focusing on the specific connection as it relates to martyrdom (rather than, for example, metaphysics).

Moss then shifts to examining the pagan and Jewish martyrdom traditions and connects the dots between the pre-Christian martyrs and the Christian martyrs. Her approach is quite sensible: she looks for relevant similarities between the stories of the non-Christian martyrs and the stories of the Christian martyrs and uses these similarities to support her claim that Christians borrowed heavily in creating their stories of martyrdom. While this sort of approach does have its weakness, she does a reasonably good job making her case. After all, if the Christian stories significantly replicate the tales of the earlier non-Christian martyrs, then this suggests a clear influence. It also provides evidence that the Christian stories are, at the very least, embellished with details from the older stories.

After considering the non-Christian influences, Moss then turns to making a direct case that persecution is a myth. She does this by considering the available evidence and takes it to show that the Christians were not, as a matter of fact, persecuted in the manner that has become the received view. She notes that from the death of Jesus to the time of Constantine Christians were only sporadically subject to the attention of the Roman authorities and that this attention was not consistent in terms of its harshness or lack thereof. That is, the Roman Empire did not engage in what would legitimately count as persecution of Christians.

Moss then focuses on the six allegedly “authentic accounts” of the first Christian martyrs, such as Polycarp and Felicity.  One of her methods in assessing the plausibility of these accounts is to look for anachronisms such as attacks on heresies that post-dated the story or references to traditions that did not exist at the time when the story allegedly took place.  Another method she employs is to look for errors in the stories in regards to what we now know about Roman society (or details that are inconsistent with likely behavior). While these methods do not provide complete support for her case (after all, such inconsistencies could be explained away), they do lend credence to her claims.

Another important method she employs is what can be regarded as an argument by definition. That is, she considers what would actually count as persecution and examines the available evidence to see if the treatment of Christians would count as persecution rather than prosecution.  She carefully makes the case that although some Christians were sometimes subject to brutal punishments this does not entail that they were persecuted. A key part of making this case is arguing that the Christians who were prosecuted were treated in such a manner not because of a campaign of persecution against Christians as Christians. Rather, it was because the specific Christians in question acted in ways that were punishable under general Roman law (like refusing to accept the authority of the Roman officials).

Obviously enough, this approach is only as good as the historical data used to make the case. As such, a potential weak point lies in the fact that our information about this time is far from complete. Of course, this is also a problem for those who would claim that Christians were persecuted—they, too, have to draw on limited resources and engage in speculation. However, the weight of the evidence (at least as presented by Moss) seems to favor the view put forth in the book.

Moss heads into the end section of the book by arguing that the notion of Christianity as a persecuted faith was manufactured almost entirely in the fourth century and later. Interestingly enough, this was when the faith was doing quite well. Moss claims that the reasons for the development of the myth included the desire to have a rhetorical tool against heretics (having a martyr praise the orthodox and condemn the heretic was the equivalent of a celebrity endorsement and condemnation) as well as to provide the equivalent of a horror story to entertain the faithful.

While the majority of the book makes a reasonable strong case for Moss’ thesis, the end of the book is somewhat disappointing. In fact, it almost feels as if it were hastily tacked on in an attempt to make the book more relevant to today and to appeal to a more diverse audience.

Disappointingly, Moss moves rather too quickly through her short examination of the legacy of this myth. While she does briefly note some of its harms (such as how it enables powerful Christians to claim that they are being victimized and thus feel justified in refusing to tolerate their critics), this section is more of a lost opportunity than a significant success.

While I do agree with her assessment of the matter, her case is not particularly strong. She spends a significant portion of the last section involves a personal anecdote about overhearing two students condemning a nine year old girl who received an abortion after being raped by her stepfather.  While I do understand the rhetorical power of an anecdote, such an appeal to anecdotal evidence is at best logically weak. It is not for nothing that the appeal to anecdotal evidence is a classic fallacy.

If the anecdote had been backed up by more significant evidence of the effect in question, then her case would have been considerably stronger—after all, this is an academic work rather than a discussion of her personal experiences. It also has the unfortunate potential of creating the impression that she is relying so strongly on an anecdote because she lacks solid evidence.

Moss ends on an optimistic note that revealing the myth as a myth will help undo its legacy. Somewhat ironically, she makes a strong case against her optimism in the preceding chapters by noting how eager some people are to embrace and employ the myth.  Perhaps the greatest irony is, of course, that those who give her case due consideration are already reasonable people while those who most need to be “cured” will probably just regard the book as a work aimed at persecuting Christians.

Overall, I found the book informative, well-reasoned and approachable. I would certainly recommend the tlc_tour_hostbook to anyone who would like to consider a rational case aimed at exposing the myth of persecution.

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Are Christian’s Persecuted in America?

Posted in Philosophy, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on February 11, 2013
English: Persecution of the Christians

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m currently reading Candida Moss’ The Myth of Persecution, which will be available March 5th. I’ll be posting a review of the book on March 6th. This book has, not surprisingly, got me thinking once more about the idea that Christians are persecuted in America.

I invite the readers of this blog to present their answers to the following questions:

  1.  What is persecution (in this context)?
  2.  Are Christians persecuted in America?
  3.  What evidence is there for your view?

Naturally, I’ll present my views on this matter.

Persecution, in this context, would involve the widespread, active, systematic and persistent mistreat of Christians merely because they are Christians. Persecution, by its very nature, seems to require that the persecuted be victims of a more powerful group or groups.

Given this general definition, it would seem clear that Christians are not persecuted in the United States. While Christian groups might not always get what they want (such as a ban on same-sex marriages), this hardly counts as persecution.

In terms of the alleged evidence for persecution, proponents of this view claim that Christians are denied the right to pray, that states forbid the display of Christian symbols on state property (like the nativity scene), that there is a war on Christmas and so on. However, these claims are often unfounded (such as is the case with the alleged war on Christmas) or exaggerated. In any case, this is a factual matter and can be settled by empirical research.

In terms of the evidence against persecution, the majority of Americans claim to be Christians and the nation that is awash in churches. If Christians were persecuted it would seem odd that so many people would profess to a persecuted faith. Even more strange would be the claim that  a minority of non-Christians would be able to persecute all the Christians. Of course, it is not impossible. After all, South Africa’s majority black population was cruelly oppressed by the minority white population. However, we do not see a powerless Christian majority in America that is being subdued by a powerful minority of non-Christians. Powerful and influential leaders, from the President on down, claim to be Christians. Churches with great wealth and influence abound. Christian business people, academics, scientists, lawyers, police, soldiers and other professionals abound. It is especially odd to see powerful Republican politicians and pundits speak of being persecuted for being Christians, given the fact that they are powerful and influential and thus exactly the sort of people who are not being persecuted.  If all these Christians are being persecuted, they do not seem to show signs of this persecution and to allow it to happen in the face of their power, influence and wealth would show an amazing ineptitude on their part. There is also the obvious question of the identity of the persecutors. That is, who has the power to persecute the Christian majority of the United States? No one, it surely seems.

As such, there seems to be no evidence of widespread, active, systematic and persistent mistreatment of Christians in the United States. The fact is that Christianity is the dominant faith. There is also no war on Christmas.

This is not to say that some Christians do not feel persecuted. However, this often seems to be caused by a distorted perception of reality (like the war on Christmas) or by the belief that a failure to get what they want (such as prayer in schools) is a form of persecution. That is, they are mistaking frustration for persecution.

There are, of course, places in the world were Christians really are persecuted. However these places do not include the United States.

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Marriage Amendments

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Relationships/Dating by Michael LaBossiere on May 9, 2012
Same Sex Marriage

Same Sex Marriage (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While some States in the United States have passed laws allowing same-sex marriage, other states have passed laws to ban it. Some states have even taken an extra step by amending the state constitutions to define marriage as being between one man and one woman. On May 8th, 2012 North Carolina voters went to the polls to decide whether or not their state constitution would be amended to “defend” marriage. While this matter is interesting from a legal perspective, my main interest is from a philosophical perspective, mainly regarding the quality of the arguments in favor of such restrictions on marriage as well as their ethics.

As I have done in other essays on the subject of same-sex marriage, I will quickly run through the stock fallacious arguments given for such laws. The first stock argument is that marriage between a single man and woman is a matter of tradition. This is, obviously enough, a fallacious appeal to tradition. The mere fact that something is a tradition hardly shows that it is right or correct. To use the usual counterexample, slavery was (and is in some places) a well-established tradition, yet this hardly serves to justify it.

A second fallacious argument is that marriage between a man and a women is what most people do, thus it is correct. In other words, it is a common practice and thus is right. Obviously enough, this is merely a fallacious appeal to common practice. There are, obviously enough, many bad practices that are quite common (like lying), but their being common does not make them good.

A third common fallacious argument is that most people believe that marriage should be between a man and woman. Even if it is assumed that this is true, this would still seem to be a fallacious appeal to belief. After all, the mere fact that most people believe something (like the earth being believed to be the center of the solar system) does not prove that it is true.

Now that the easy to dismiss fallacious arguments are out of the way,  I can look at some of the other arguments that have been presented in support of such laws.

One stock argument is essentially an appeal to religion, specifically Christianity (at least the versions that forbid polygamy). The argument typically goes that since God married Adam to Eve, this defines marriage in the biblical sense. Those with clever wits often put it more rhetorically by saying that it was “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.” Since marriage is defined by the Christian faith as between one man and one woman, that is what the law should be. As might be imagined, there are many problems with this.

One obvious legal problem is that to the degree the proponents of such laws claim that it is based on a specific faith, they are in danger of violating the first amendment of the United State constitution, namely the bit that “congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” While I am not a constitutional lawyer, I would suspect that a plausible case could be made that creating a law explicitly based on a religion does involve the establishment of a religion. In addition to the obvious legal problems, there is also the moral concern regarding the imposition of a specific faith’s values upon the population as a whole. This would seem to be a clear and direct violate of religious liberty and thus would seem to be morally unacceptable.

A second obvious problem is that basing the law on a religious view would seem to require that this view be established as correct. After all, if it is claimed that marriage is such that it can only between a man and a woman because of what God wants, then it needs to be established that God exists and that this is what God, in fact, wants. Otherwise, the law would have no established foundation and would be as sensible as basing a law on a myth or fictional tale. Naturally, if it can be shown that marriage is between one man and one woman as a matter of metaphysical necessity, then that would nicely establish the foundation of the law. In fact, it would show that no such law would really be needed since no one else could, in fact, be married. To use analogy, we do not need laws that ban people from driving their cars faster than the speed of light-they simply cannot do this because of the nature of reality.

There are, of course, non-religious arguments for these laws. A rather common argument is that the laws are needed to protect the sanctity of marriage. The idea seems to be that allowing same-sex marriage would be harmful to marriage (and presumably the married) and thus, on the principle of preventing harm, same-sex marriage should be outlawed by a constitutional amendment.

One obvious point of concern is whether or not allowing same sex-marriage harms marriage and heterosexual couples. While, of course, it might upset them that people are doing something they do not like (getting married), that is obviously not sufficient justification. What would be needed would be objective evidence that same sex-marriage would do enough harm to marriage and married couples to warrant forbidding same sex-marriage. The evidence for this seems to be, obviously enough, sorely lacking and the burden of proof rests on those who would make an imposition on the liberty of others to show that such an imposition is warranted.

Intuitively, same-sex marriage would not harm marriage or married couples. After all, it is difficult to imagine what sort of damage would be inflicted. Would married couples love each other less? Would there be more cases of domestic violence or adultery? Would married parents be suddenly more inclined to abuse their children? None of this seems even remotely likely.

But, suppose it is assumed that marriage must be protected. If this is taken seriously, then it would certainly seem to follow that it would need to be legally protected from whatever might damage its sanctity. To use an analogy, laws to protect people from murder are not just limited to, for example, making it illegal to murder someone with aluminum baseball bat. Rather, it is the murdering that matters. The same should apply to marriage: if marriage must be protected by making it between one man and one woman, then surely it must also be protected against whatever would damage its sanctity. As such, it would seem equally reasonable to ban marriages involving any sort of person whose actions or nature might do damage to the sanctity of a marriage.

Intuitively, allowing immoral people to marry would seem to damage its sanctity. As such, people would need to establish their moral goodness before marriage and presumably any straying from the path of virtue (such as by having an affair or otherwise failing in their vows) would result in the marriage being suspended or even nullified. Naturally enough, people who intend to get married in the hopes of financial gain, from lust, or for any reason that would sully the sanctity of marriage would need to be prevented from getting married. Given all these dire threats to the sanctity of marriage, it would seem that if the matter is serious enough to warrant a constitutional amendment it would also warrant the creation of a full government agency to regulate and protect the sanctity of marriage. After all, if the defenders of the sanctity of marriage were content to merely prevent same-sex marriage, one might suspect that they were acting from mere prejudice against same sex couples rather than by a sincere desire to protect marriage. While this might seem as big government violating liberty, those supporting such laws will surely see that there is little difference between same-sex couples that they cannot marry because marriage must be protected and telling anyone who would violate the sanctity of marriage that they cannot marry. As such, more general restrictions on who can get married (such as people who are not morally good or who are not marrying purely from love) would seem no more (or less) unjust that preventing same sex marriage.

Naturally, being a person with a social conscience and a professional ethicist, I would be willing to accept the position of Marriage Czar and head up the Sanctity Defense Agency to ensure that marriage remains eternally pure and unsullied. No doubt I would have to spend most of my time dissolving existing pseudo-marriages, but I am sure people will thank me for this in the end.


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Athletes & God

Posted in Ethics, Metaphysics, Philosophy, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on January 9, 2012
English: This cross-country race course in Sea...

Did God knock those guys down?

While professional athletes get the most attention when they thank God for their successes and victories, athletes thanking God is not that uncommon. It is also not uncommon for this sort of thing to attract both negative and positive attention. As should come as no surprise, there are some matters of philosophical interest here.

I will begin in a somewhat non-philosophical vein by noting that I have no problems with people expressing their faith in the context of sports. When I ran in college,I  noticed that quite a few of my fellow runners were religious-I distinctly remember seeing people praying before the start of a cross country race (on some courses, divine protection was something well worth having and flipping their crosses from the front to the back (also a good idea-racing downhill can result in a cross to the face). I was, at that time, an atheist. But, as a runner, I have a respect for devotion and faith. Plus, most of these people proved to be decent human beings and I certainly respect that.

When I race now, some races I compete in are put on my churches or have religious race directors. As such, I participate in races that often have a prayer before the start. While I am not known for my faith, I am generally fine with the prayers-they tend to be ones that express gratitude for the opportunity to be healthy and express the hope that the runners will be watched over and come to no harm. I agree with both sentiments. What I find to be a matter of potential concern is, of course, when athletes credit God with their successes and wins.

On the one hand, if someone does believe in God it does make sense to give God a general thanks. After all, if God did create the world and all that, then we would all owe him thanks for existing and having a universe in which we can compete in sports. There is also the fact that such thanks can be seen as being the sort of thing one does-just as one thanks the little people for one’s success in the movies or politics one should thank the Big Guy for His role in literally making it all possible.

On the other hand, an athlete thanking God for his or her specific success over others does raise some matters of philosophical interest that I will now explore.

One point of concern that is commonly raised is that it seems rather odd that God would intervene to, for example, help a pro-football player score a touchdown while He is allowing untold amounts of suffering to occur. If He can help push a ball into the hands of a quarterback why could he not deflect, just a bit, a bullet fired by a murderer? Why could He not just tweak a virus a bit so that it does not cause AIDS? The idea that God is so active in sports and so inactive in things that really matter would certainly raise questions about God’s benevolence and priorities.

Another point of concern is that to thank God for a victory is to indicate that God  wanted the other side or other athletes to be defeated. While this would make sense if one was, for example, doing a marathon against demons or on the field against a team of devils, it seems less reasonable when one is just playing a game or running a race. When I beat people in a race, there seems to generally be no evidence that they are more wicked than I or any less morally or theologically deserving in the eyes of God (with some notable exceptions-you know who you are).  It seems odd to think that God regards some teams or some athletes as His foes that must be defeated by His champions (I will, of course, make the obvious exception for the damn Yankees).  So, if I beat you and I thank God for the victory, I would seem to be saying that God wanted you to lose. That would, of course, raise questions about why that would be the case. It seems to make more sense to say that I won because I ran faster rather than because God did something to bless me on the course or smite you.

The notion that God did something also raises an important moral point. A key part of athletic ethics is competing fairly without things like illegal performance enhancing drugs or outside intervention. If I win a race because I was blood doping and had people tackling other runners in the woods, then I would be a cheater and not a winner. If God steps into athletic events and starts intervening for one side or person, then God is cheating. Given that God is supposed to be God, surely He surely would not cheat and would thus allow the better team or athlete to win. He might, of course, act to offset or prevent cheating and be morally just. However, while  Jesus turned water to wine,God generally does not seem to turn steroids into saline.

As a final point, there is also the rather broad matter of freedom. If our athletic victories are due to God (and also our losses-but no one praises God for those on TV), then it would seem that our agency is lacking in these contests. God would be like a child playing with action figures (“zoom, Mike surges ahead or the win!” or “zap, Jeremy blasts past the Kenyans to win the NYC marathon!”) and the athletes would no more deserve the credit or the blame than the action figures. After all, the agency of both is simply lacking and all agency lies with the one moving the figures about. As would be imagined, this lack of agency would seem to extend throughout life-if God is responsible for my 5K time, then He would also seem responsible for my publications and whether I stab someone in the face or not. This is, of course, a classic problem-only now in the context of sports. Naturally (or supernaturally), the universe could in fact work this way. Of course, this would also mean that the athletes who praise God would be like sock puppets worn by a puppeteer who is praising himself or herself.

Now, if God does actually intervene in sports, I would like to make a modest request: God, could you see fit to shave two minutes off my 5K time this coming year? Oh, and as always, smite the Yankees. The Gators, too.

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God & Punishment

Posted in Ethics, Law, Metaphysics, Philosophy, Politics, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on January 4, 2012
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A while back I saw Rick Perry receive thunderous applause for the number of executions in the state of Texas. More recently I saw his video in which he claims that he is not ashamed to admit he is  a Christian. Thanks to Rick, I started thinking about God and punishment.

On many conceptions of God, God punishes and rewards people for their deeds and misdeeds when they reach the afterlife. This afterlife might be in Heaven or Hell. It might also be a post first life Resurrection in the flesh followed by judgement and reward or punishment. In any case, those who believe in God generally also believe in a system of divine rewards and punishments that are granted or inflicted post death.

Interestingly, people who believe in such a divine system generally also accept a system of punishment here on earth. Some, like Perry, strongly support capital punishment here on earth while also professing to be of the Christian faith (and thus believing in divine punishment).

The stock justifications for punishment (like executions) include retribution, reparation, and deterrence. In the case of retribution, the idea is that a misdeed warrants a comparable punishment as a just response. In the case of reparation, the idea is that the wrongdoer should be compelled to  provide compensation for the damage done by his/her misdeeds. Deterrence, obviously enough, aims at motivating the wrongdoer to not do wrong again and to motivate others not to do wrong.

When it comes to punishment, it seems reasonable to accept certain moral limits. At the very least, the severity and quantity of punishment would need to be justified. At the very least, the punishment should be on par with the crime in terms if its severity and quantity (otherwise it merely creates more wrong). Punishment without adequate moral justification would seem to be morally unacceptable and would seem to be wrongdoing under the name of punishment rather than justice.

Getting back to God, suppose that God exists and does inflict divine punishments for misdeeds. If this is the case, then it would seem to be unreasonable, perhaps even immoral, for human courts to inflict punishment for crimes that God also punishes.

First, if God punishes people for their misdeeds, then there is no need to seek retribution for crimes here on earth. After all, if someone believes in divine justice, they would also need to believe that mortal retribution is unnecessary-after all, whether we punish the wrongdoer or not, just retribution shall occur after the wrongdoer dies. If we do punish a wrongdoer, then God would presumably need to subtract out our punishment from the punishment he inflicts-otherwise He would be overdoing it. As such, mortal retribution is simply a waste of time-unless, of course, it takes some of the load of an allegedly omnipotent being.

Second, if God rewards good deeds and punishes misdeeds, then there would seem to be no need for reparations here on earth. After all, if someone steals my laptop, then God will see to it that s/he gets what s/he deserves and so will I. That is, all the books will be balanced after death. As such, if someone believes in divine justice, then there seems to be little sense in worrying about reparation here on earth. After all, if we will just be here for a very little while then what will my laptop matter in the scope of eternity? Not a bit, I assure you.

Third, if God inflicts divine punishments and hands out divine rewards, it would seem absurd to try to deter people with mortal punishments. If someone believes that murderers are not deterred by the threat of Hell (or the hope of Heaven), then they surely would not think that the mere threat of bodily death would have deterrent value. To use an analogy, if I knew that a friend of mine would shoot anyone who tried to hurt me, it would be odd of me to tell someone who threatened to harm me that I would poke them with a toothpick. After all, if the threat of being shot would not deter them, the threat of a poke with a toothpick surely would not work.

It might be argued that we need to punish people here because not everyone believes in God. To use an analogy, if I told people that I am protected by  a sniper armed with a .50 caliber rifle, they might still make a go at me if they did not believe in the sniper. As such, I would want to show them my pistol to deter them. Likewise, to deter non-believers we would want to have jails and lethal injections to scare them away from misdeeds. After all, while some people might not believe in God, everyone believes in prison.

Of course, the fact that we rely on prisons and other punishments for deterrence does seem to indicate that we regard God’s divine justice as having very little deterrence value-unless, of course, it is claimed that criminals are atheists or agnostics.

There is also the usually concern that God does not seem particularly concerned with deterring misdeeds. After all, while religious texts present various threats of divine punishment, there is no evidence that God actually punishes the wicked and this certainly cuts into the deterrence value of His punishments. To use an analogy, imagine if I told my students that cheating in my class would be punished by the Chair of Student Punishments for Philosophy Classes and the punishment would take place after graduation. Imagine that a student turned in a plagiarized paper and cheated like mad on the tests, yet I did nothing and simply entered in grades as if everything was fine and nothing happened.  Imagine that the students never see the alleged chair and the only evidence they have for her existence is the fact that she is listed on my syllabus and a little sign I put up on an empty office. As might be imagined, the students would not deterred from cheating.

If there really was a Chair of Student Punishment for Philosophy Classes, she would make an appearance in the class and administer punishments as soon as she was aware of the violations. The same would seem to be true of God. Crudely put, if He does exist and metes out justice, then we would not need to punish (at least in the case of the misdeeds that concern Him). If we do need to punish, then it would seem that either He does not exist or He does not dispense divine justice.

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A Modest Challenge

Posted in Politics, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on December 1, 2011
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Republicans tend to make a point of claiming that they are people of faith-typically Christians. However, they often seem to take positions that directly contradict key parts of Christianity.

As an intellectual exercise reconcile Exodus 22:21( “Do not mistreat an alien or oppress him, for you were aliens in Egypt”) with the views of most of the Republican party.

Bonus points for reconciling Herman Cain’s view of the poor with Luke 6:20: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.”

Additional points for reconciling  Exodus 22:25 (“If you lend money to one of my people among you who is needy, do not be like a moneylender; charge him no interest”) with the capitalist banking system.

Even more bonus points if you can explain why the media folks seem to never raise the point that there appears to be a serious inconsistency between certain espoused Republican values and actual Christianity.

Since Democrats are supposed to godless atheists, they get a pass on this one. 🙂


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Is Mormonism a Cult?

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on October 11, 2011
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Robert Jeffress, a Texas pastor, handed the media another controversy by his remarks about Romney and Mormonism. Jeffress noted that while Romney is a moral man, he does not regard Romney as being a Christian and sees Mormonism as a cult. He did add that he would prefer Romney over Obama.

Hearing Jeffress compare Romney and Perry, I was struck by the fact that Jeffress refereed to Romney as being moral in a way that made it sound derogatory. Jeffress noted that he would prefer a Christian to a moral and good person. This could, of course, be taken as indicating that Jeffrress thinks that Christians would do things that a good and moral person would not, but presumably he thinks that being a Christian someone makes a person better than someone who is merely moral and good. It is, of course, not entirely clear what this would be in terms of doing what is right. In any case, I will now turn to the main focus of this post, the matter of Mormonism.

Some years back I had the opportunity to discuss the matter of cults with a colleague in religion. His considered view was that the term “cult” was merely a derogatory term and that there seemed to be no principled way to distinguish between a religion and a cult (other than the fact that “cult” is a dysphemism for “religion”). I, perhaps because of many years of writing Call of Cthulhu adventures, was inclined to contend that “cult” did have some use as a term of classification-if only in terms of popular usage. However, the claim that “cult” is a mere insult with no real intellectual heft behind it does have some appeal.

That said, cults are generally taken to be distinguished from religions on the basis of size and doctrine. In terms of size, cults are supposed to be relatively small. However, the size factor does not seem to be the most significant. After all, there are small religions and it seems reasonable to think that cult could get rather big and still be a cult. Unless, of course, a cult must be (by definition) small. Mormonism is, obviously enough, not small and hence would not be a cult if a necessary condition for cult status is being small. Of course, “small” is a vague term, so perhaps it could be considered small given the right sort of definition of the term.

In terms of doctrines, cults are supposed to have strange, sinister, threatening or pernicious tenets. To use a fictional context, the cults in Call of Cthulhu worship alien beings (like Cthulhu and Hastur) and often intend to bring about terrible things, such as mass destruction or the fall of man. To use a real world example, Heaven’s Gate members held that the earth would be recycled and that they could escape via a UFO by committing suicide. There do seem to be some important and practical distinctions between these cults (real and fictional) and, for example, Episcopalians. If so, the question then becomes whether or not Mormonism is more like Heaven’s Gate (or a Cthulhu cult) or the Episcopalian church.

Mormonism does, of course, have what strike many as odd tenets and beliefs. For example, Joseph Smith claimed to have translated an ancient book through God’s power and he also claimed to have visions. While using magic to translate texts is standard fare in D&D (the spell comprehend languages does it quite nicely), it does seem like an odd thing. Mormons also practiced polygamy (and some sects still accept it) and there are various secrets that are supposed to be held by the church (including what some folks call “magic underwear”).

Of course, if Mormonism is compared with other religions (or cults, if your prefer) it does not seem to be unusual in such matters. After all, the bible is full of tales of the supernatural (burning bushes, parting seas, healing of the sick and raising from the dead). Also, some folks see accepted religions such as Catholicism as being full of secrets and having sinister and pernicious doctrines. As such, there seems to be nothing about Mormonism that would single it out for cult status that would also not include other faiths that are typically not regarded as cults. As such, my considered view is that Mormonism is no more (or less) a cult than Catholicism or any evangelical variety of Christianity.

As far as Mormons not being Christian, that would seem to depend on whether Jesus is really the Christ or not. While the Mormons have some different doctrines relative to Christian sects, they do seem to have the main tenet in that they accept Jesus as their savior and so on. So it seems likely that he would accept them as Christians. Of course, Jesus seems to often be rather more loving and tolerant than some of his followers.

If Jesus was just some guy, then there seem to be two main possibilities. The first is that Christianity is thus a mere fiction and asking whether they are Christians or not is a bit like asking whether people are really Sith or Jedi or not. The second possibility is that Christianity is some sort of social construct that does, in fact, matter in some way. In this case, the question would be one of who gets to define what it is to be a Christian (much like the question of who gets to define what it is to be a liberal or conservative).

My considered view is that the Mormons are, in general, just as much Christians as the other folks who profess to be Christians.  In fact, it would be rather un-Christian for a professed Christian to reject them as mere cultists. But, of course, this is not up to me-God gets the deciding (and only) vote.

As far as how this will impact the general election, I suspect that conservative evangelicals would back the cultist Romney over Obama and that most other non-Mormon Americans would probably not hold Romney being a Mormon as a mark against him. There would be, no doubt, some vocal exceptions.


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