February 2008 Archives

New Template

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I'm going to be experimenting for a little bit on the look of this blog. The new installation of Movable Type has been giving me all sorts of problems with comment submission, archives, and failures in spam prevention, because the changes Wink made to the templates when he did the last big site redesign weren't all compatible with the new features of this version of the MT software. I was hoping we could just make some changes in the templates he designed, but that doesn't look possible without more work than he can do on a level of detail beyond my understanding, so I'm just starting new, and if he gets some time he can implement some of those changes again with the new templates. I'll try to do what I can myself, but I'm sure there are limits to that.

It might be a while before the sidebar and features are all set up the way I want them, so if you're looking for something I once had in the sidebar or header, please be patient. I'll try to get the most important stuff done as quickly as I can, but the spam issue is the most important priority, and I want to get the new spam protection features working first. I've also got real life responsibilities, including some meetings at school for the boys this morning and an application to get out this afternoon, so I might not even get to some of the more important stuff until this evening.

Christian Carnival CCXIII

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The 213th Christian Carnival is up at Jevlir Caravansary. Henry had some serious server problems this week and had to host it at one of his other blogs as a result, but he now has it up, and it looks to be a pretty good edition.

The word is out that Senator Barack Obama's judicial advisory team (assuming this report is accurate) takes him to be interested in judicial nominees who come across like John Roberts in person but who would decide cases like Justices Thurgood Marshall and William Brennan. [hat tip: Orin Kerr]

Obviously he doesn't mean they'd come across sounding like a moderate conservative, or it would be hard to get Democrats to support his nominees. He means someone who doesn't have much of a record in terms of ideology but who seems like a well-qualified judge. But he also doesn't mean someone who would be moderated in liberalism the way John Roberts is moderated in his conservatism. Otherwise he wouldn't name Justices Brennan and Marshall, two of the most liberal justices ever on the Supreme Court (by pretty much anyone's standards).

So he wants nominees who are actually extremely liberal but sound moderate. Moderation within judicial liberalism ends up with something like Justice Breyer, the one justice of the four liberals on the Supreme Court who is most likely to vote with the conservatives on constitutional issues of any moment. (Justices Ginsburg and Souter often vote with conservatives on statutory interpretation, but that's only when little of ideological importance is at stake.) Moderation in judicial liberalism does not lead to appointments of judges who will vote the way Justices Marshall and Brennan did.

For political reasons, this strategy does make sense. If you want to replace Justice Stevens, for example, with someone even further to the left, then you better find someone who isn't obviously further to the left, or it would be much harder to confirm them. I'm not going to dispute such a strategy. Both sides in the current environment need nominees who come across the way Roberts did if they want to get anything like a strong confirmation vote. I think McCain would need to be even more conscious of this than a Democratic president would, given the Democratic control of the Senate, but the Senate is still divided enough that the Republicans could present problems for a Democratic nominee if they really want to (and partly because the Gang of 16 was successful, which McCain would then have himself to thank for).

But even if this strategy makes political sense, I think it shows something about Senator Obama. He doesn't say he'd appoint real moderates in order to get them confirmed. He wants real liberals but knows there isn't enough popular support for them to get them through the current Senate. The conservatives I've been reading who are arguing for appointing someone like Roberts in order to get a chance at confirmation are arguing for someone just like Roberts, not someone who sounds like Roberts but actually would vote like Judge Robert Bork. I do worry about whether this counts as deception. But whatever you think about that issues,. this is yet another clear sign that Barack Obama is no moderate, despite the popular view of him. It continues to amaze me how far left of center he is, and yet so many people see him as the sort of person who would be able to break down the gridlock in Congress and get genuine conservatives to work with him on proposals that are anathema to them. I just don't get it.

I had to laugh at the last line of the Emily Bazelon Slate piece I linked to above. The judicial strategy of sounding moderate but turning out to be quite a bit to the left of moderate wouldn't exactly be a new tactic for Senator Obama.

Larry Norman has died. Some called him the grandfather of Christian rock music. He helped develop it before it got all commercialized and processed, and many of the earliest Christian rock musicians (Phil Keaggy, Randy Stonehill, Keith Green, The Second Chapter of Acts) were at least at some time all within his circle. His music was often cheesy but in a fun way, and it clearly challenged the status quo in evangelicalism in many good ways.

It was funny when I walked into my department a number of years ago and heard "Why Don't You Look Into Jesus?" playing very loudly through the hall, expecting that maybe our one evangelical professor had it playing (although he's not the type to play Christian music loudly so the whole department can hear). But it turned out to be a different professor, one who grew up in an evangelical home but is in fact an atheist. He had rediscovered Larry Norman on Napster and downloaded a whole bunch of his albums, and he was playing them loudly to illustrate the excellent music he'd grown up with. He wasn't in the least shy about proclaiming his appreciation for this outspoken evangelical rock musician whose lyrics were quite explicitly evangelistic.

Larry Norman had a hard life in many ways. Despite his significant influence, he never had much commercial success compared with the next generation of Christian rock (e.g. Amy Grant, Petra, Michael W. Smith, White Heart, Steve Taylor). He never became a mainstream artist or even a mainstream CCM artist in many ways, even though most early CCM musicians saw him as an important influence and owed him a great debt for helping get Christian rock going in the first place. He had heart trouble for decades, and to top it all off he had serious relational difficulties with several people close to him, the details of which too often made the rumor rounds in the public domain. His heart problems finally caught up with him on Sunday.

But whatever else is true of Larry Norman, he had a big impact on a lot of people, and I've probably been influenced by him indirectly in ways I don't even know about. I never listened to him much as one of my own favorites, but my brother Joel absolutely loved his stuff, so I have some familiarity with his music, and some of the people I did listen to growing up were directly influenced by him.

Larry was very nice to my brother, and I appreciate that a lot. Joel was in a college band called Mustard Seed that some people thought had all the signs of having a decent chance of becoming a hot new CCM act, just as Jars of Clay had done a few years earlier from the same school. (I won't comment on how Jars of Clay treated Mustard Seed when they had a chance to meet them, however.) My brother had put together a bootleg called We Wish You A Larry Christmas. Many people would have been upset, but Larry thought it was great, and he adopted the bootleg and began to produce it officially himself.

When my brother died in 1997, Larry did a free concert at his college as a tribute and performed one of my brother's own songs (Friendship's End) on a tribute CD some of Joel's college friends made after he died. His version isn't as good as Mustard Seed's, but it was a nice gesture. [I can't sing Larry's praises fully on this score, however. He later put that song on one of his own albums, and I have to think an administrative error took place, because he didn't give Joel any credit for it. Given how he'd previously treated him, this couldn't have been a deliberate attempt to take credit for my brother's work, even if it was disappointing to find out about.]

I've already seen several good tributes to Larry's life by people who know and appreciate a lot more about Larry's music than I can do justice to, so I'll refer you to those:

Charles Norman, Larry's brother
Internet Monk
my friend Gnu at Wildebeest's Wardrobe
Mark Joseph (at, of all places, the Huffington Post)
Steve Camp Jeff Smith posts Randy Stonehill's response
Michael Longinow, journalism professor at Biola University (guest-posting at GetReligion)
Chris Willman has a nice retrospective at Entertainment Weekly
Dennis Hevisi, New York Times
Rupert M. Loydell

I may add more as I discover them.

In a comment on this post, Kenny Pearce directed me to Robert Adams' paper "Christian Liberty", which appears in Philosophy and the Christian Faith, ed. Thomas V. Morris, a book I happen to have. I had been making the claim that a Christian ethical theory that fits with the biblical texts requires us to be perfect, as God is perfect. It thus allows for no actions that are what philosophers call supererogatory. A supererogatory act is supposed to be something that would be a wonderful thing to do but is far beyond what you can be expected to do. As I'd been saying in the post I linked to, I don't think Jesus believed in such acts. The Sermon on the Mount seems to me to preclude such a category. Since I think the Sermon on the Mount accurately captures moral truth, I reject the notion of supererogation.

Adams says that a Christian ethical view needs to allow for supererogation to capture the sense of options in Christian life. There's no other way to account for Paul's insistence that Christians are free in Christ and no longer slaves, that Christians are friends of God and no longer in servitude. I have two responses, one exegetical and the other philosophical.

The exegetical point is that I think he misconstrues Paul's point. Paul isn't saying that we are free from God's command. The freedom is first of all a freedom from sin. It's a freedom to serve God, which is put in slavery language. Christians are no longer enslaved to sin but are instead enslaved to God. This picks up on the language of Exodus. The people of Israel were freedom from slavery to Pharoah to become slaves of God. The Hebrew term in question is often translated as "worship", and so translations often say that Israel is freed from slavery to Pharoah to go worship God. But the verb is the same. It's a movement from slavery to Pharaoh to slavery to God. God is the master. It's just that God is a master who loves his people and wants what's best for them, while Pharaoh is just taking advantage of them.

The parallel language in Paul's epistles about Christians being freed slavery from sin to become enslaved to God should be no surprise given the old covenant antecedent. Freedom in Christ is slavery to God. So I don't see how the movement from slavery to freedom involves moral permissibility to do as we wish provided that we meet some minimal moral threshold. It in fact binds Christians to serve God fully and completely, to surrender any self-directed goal in favor of becoming like God, having a heart that values what God values, having motivations that line up with God's will, and acting in a way that a morally perfect being would act. This is in fact what the Sermon on the Mount enjoins. "Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect", an echo of Leviticus 18, which says "Be holy, as I am holy."

Now this doesn't mean that there aren't options in Christian living. As Adams points out, there are two ways of generating options. One way is supererogation, which allows for the less-than-perfect to be morally permissible. That's what I don't see Jesus allowing for. The other way is what Adams calls indifferent actions. These are things that are equally good, and so we have the option of choosing whichever of the equally good things we will do. If there really are equally good things, all things considered, then I have no problem with those.

I'm not sure they will easily occur, though, and Adams seems to agree. He just says it's because of nuances in ethical importance that may play a role. I can imagine he has in mind things like the fact that two actions might be equally good but that one of them involves going against my natural tendency and thus allows me to develop a trait that I ought to work on. He might have in mind two actions that, other things being equal, are equally good, but one of them involves a better fit with my special obligations to my family. In such cases, it's pretty clear to me that the one that is better, all things considered, is morally obligatory. So these aren't options after all. But there is room for all considerations to work out equally. It just doesn't seem likely that they will be exactly equal. What seems more likely is that they will be so close to equal that I won't be able to discern the moral difference or the balancing out of moral considerations in the right direction. There is always the problem of figuring out what is the best option when various possible courses of action appear in front of me.

This difficulty suggests to me a philosophical distinction that I think lies behind my disagreement with Adams. He wants a moral theory that allows for options in order to explain the difference between legalism and Christian freedom. But he is locating that difference in moral obligation. There can't be moral obligations that I ought to do, or I am not free in some sense. I am not morally free to do what I want. I think this is the wrong place to locate Christian freedom, because I think we do have an obligation to do what is best. It is a moral obligation, not some other kind of constraint. What Christian freedom amounts to is not freedom from moral obligation. Paul even says so. He says there's the law of Christ.

What we don't have are very specific laws that are to be followed absolutely, without room for reflection on whether those laws apply in our case or whether those laws conflict with other laws and what we should then do. Christian freedom, on my view, consists of not being bound by laws to be followed without reflection. It consists of being bound by general moral principles that require careful thought about what we ought to do, what we ought to be motivated by, what attitudes we ought to have, what character traits we ought to be developing, and so on. Adams seems to want freedom from obligation, but I think Christian freedom is rather freedom from rigid rules. Morality isn't about rules. It's about conformity to a standard, a standard who is a person. Christian morality has to do with being conformed to the image of Christ, being transformed to becoming perfect. It is much more complete than simply an ethics of action. There is something morally wrong about us if we are not perfect, and our moral obligation is to pursue perfection. This is the thrust of the ethical teaching of Jesus and Paul both (along with the rest of the Bible, I might add).



The 213th Christian Carnival will be taking place this coming Wednesday at Jevlir Caravansary. The Christian Carnival is a weekly collection of some of the best posts of the Christian blogosphere. It's open to Christians of Protestant, Orthodox, and Roman Catholic convictions. One of the goals of this carnival is to offer our readers to a broad range of Christian thought. This is a great way to make your writing more well known and perhaps pick up some regular readers. For examples of past carnivals, see the not-recently-updated Matt Jones's list of previous Christian Carnivals or the up-to-date but less-informative christiancarnival.com list.
To enter is simple. First, your post should be of a Christian nature, but this does not exclude posts that are about home life, politics, or current events from a Christian point of view. Select only one post dated since the last Christian Carnival (i.e. from the last Wednesday through the coming Tuesday). Then do the following:
Scientists keep discovering the number 10^122 occurring in mathematical relationships in the natural world [hat tip: GeekPress]. The last time this happened, it was when 10^4 kept appearing in both electromagnetic and strong/weak nuclear contexts, and it turns out that it signaled a common relationship between the two. So scientists are concluding that the best explanation is some common, underlying factor that explains why the same ratio keeps coming up.

Now here's what I'm wondering. If we're just one universe among a huge number, and the constants in each universe are different, then we just happen to be the universe with these constants. So why assume some common explanation for why the constants are the ones we've got? Doesn't the multiple universe explanation make the search for a common explanation otiose? At least that's what you'll hear if you try to make an inference to the best explanation when the constants happen to be in the narrow range that allow for the development of life. So what's different about this inference to the best explanation when both arguments involve what cosmological constants we happen to find ourselves with?

Obama and Infanticide

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Barack Obama's opposition as an Illinois State Senator to the Born Alive Infant Protection Act has been making the rounds, with a lot of people overstating their case on both sides. Some conservatives are taking this as a sign that Obama thinks infanticide is morally ok, and some liberals are acting as if his approach is what any supporter of keeping abortion legal before viability should say. I'm not sure either is true, but I'm also not sure this reflects well on Obama.

Here is the law. It says that if a baby is born alive, whether by intended delivery or by failed abortion, it is legally a person, a human being, a child, and an individual. It counts as born alive only if it is completely removed from the mother (ignoring an umbilical cord connection, which does not count as a sufficient connection according to this law). Partial-birth abortion is thus not ruled out, because a partial birth is not a complete removal of the fetus. As long as the birth has not fully taken place, this law threatens no actual abortion rights.

Obama's reason for not supporting this ban is not because he thinks it's ok to kill a born fetus. As far as he's said, he does not actually support infanticide (and he didn't vote against the law; he just voted present, although that in itself was part of a strategy devised by Planned Parenthood of Illinois to protect pro-choice politicians from voters seeing how pro-choice they are). For his actual words, see comment 9 here. What he says is that he worries about the logic. Here is what seems to me to be his argument:

1. The Supreme Court has declared laws banning abortion before viability to be unconstitutional.
2. There is no difference between the moral status of a fetus inside its mother before viability and the moral status of a born baby at the same developmental stage.
3. Therefore, banning the killing of a born baby at this stage is morally tantamount to banning abortion at a pre-viability stage. (from 2)
4. Therefore, the law is unconstitutional. (from 1 and 3)

This argument does not amount to supporting infanticide morally. It is merely an argument based on the constitutional issue. According to Supreme Court precedent, this law is unconstitutional, and thus it's pointless to pass it. He gives no moral argument against the ban, just a pragmatic one. So from this speech alone it's impossible to get any clear support for infanticide.

Nevertheless, I think this is a terrible argument. The first premise is clearly true. I would argue that the second is also true. I see no difference in the intrinsic moral status of the fetus merely because it is contained within someone or is separate. However, I don't think 1 and 3 guarantee 4. There's no legal reason why morally inconsistent laws can't occur. You can ban something that's morally equivalent to something else that's unconstitutional to ban, as long as the first thing isn't unconstitutional to ban. But the real problem I have with the argument is his inference from 2 to 3.

The standard pro-choice argument is not that a mother has a right to kill a fetus growing within her. Only the most extreme abortion-choice proponents hold such a view. The standard view is that a woman's right to control her body is morally more important than whatever rights a fetus might have. That argument allows for a fetus to have some sort of moral status such that killing it would be prima facie wrong, even if the bodily rights of the mother outweigh that. What this means is that the standard pro-choice argument does not accord a mother the right to the death of the fetus. If it survives removal, her rights have been satisfied. That means the moral status of the fetus is what kicks in to determine what you should do in such a case, and this law settles that question. It does not threaten the woman's bodily rights, at least not according to the standard justification of abortion rights.

The Christian Carnival is still taking volunteers to host future carnivals. For more information about the Christian Carnival, you can see this post and the links therein. I'm in the process of scheduling hosts in the weeks beyond what's listed below. If you're interested in hosting, send me an email at the link at the top of the page.

212 Feb 20 The Evangelical Ecologist
213 Feb 27 Jevlir Caravansary
214 Mar 5  Thinking Christian
215 Mar 12 Fish and Cans
216 Mar 19 Crossroads: Where Faith and Inquiry Meet
217 Mar 26 Diary of 1
218 Apr 2   A Kiwi and an Emu
219 Apr 9   Chasing the Wind
220 Apr 16 Imago Dei
221 Apr 23 Everyday Liturgy
222 Apr 30 Brain Cramps for God

Death Penalty and Deterrence

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I've been teaching capital punishment for the last week in my ethics class. There are two main arguments for the death penalty, and I see them as relatively independent of each other. Retributivism is the view that the death penalty is the only just punishment for premeditated murder because it is the only punishment that's proportional to the crime. A life was taken, and that is so serious that no other punishment matches up with what the murderer deserves. This sort of argument rarely occurs in public policy arguments, in my experience, even though it's the argument with much stronger philosophical support historically. I think that's probably because our culture has moved away from liking the idea that we deserve anything bad when we do wrong. Most people do accept a kind of retributivist justice when they get robbed of something they think they've earned. They just don't want to extend retributivist arguments against wrongdoing.

So death penalty advocates have often relied on deterrence claims in recent decades. The only problem is that studies aiming to establish whether capital punishment deters any potential murderers from killing have been fully inconclusive. The ones with the strongest conclusions have tended to be the ones with the least credibility. The weaker the conclusion, the fewer problems critics have been able to find. This is so in both directions, and many people familiar with the literature have concluded that we can't know whether capital punishment deters, and that has left philosophers defending the death penalty trying to establish why we should retain capital punishment even if we can't show that it deters. A couple of those arguments are, I think, quite brilliant. One takes a form of Pascalian-style wagering based on the potential rewards if you bet on deterrence and win vs. if you bet on it and lost, compared with what happens if you bet on non-deterrence and ban capital punishment. There are difficulties with these arguments, but I find it fascinating that people would go to such lengths to defend the deterrence value of capital punishment because studies on deterrence are inconclusive, when the historic justification for the death penalty doesn't assume any deterrence at all.

That was the state of play a few years ago. It's pretty much how all the ethics books dealing with the question leave things. It amazed me, therefore, to see that The New York Times highlighted a dozen studies in the last few years that conclude that the death penalty does deter murders, from as many as 3 to 18 murders per execution. This article was published in November. I only heard about it because Joe Carter linked to it. I didn't save a link to it at the time and had to do some careful Google searching just to located it again. I didn't see other reports of it in that searching.

That surprises me, because this is huge if these studies turn out to be well-founded. It changes the whole debate about the second justification for the death penalty, and apparently it's changed the minds of a number of important figures, including Cass Sunstein, a well-left-of-center law professor who had been completely opposed to the death penalty. I haven't seen these studies, and I'm not sure I'm qualified to evaluate them fully even if I did see them, but I do know some people have criticized them, although that tells us very little. Some people will criticize anything that gives a conclusion they don't like. I'm going to be looking out for further developments on this. I don't think those who support the death penalty should abandon retributivism, but if the death penalty does deter that's worth knowing about, because those who aren't retributivists might be basing their whole evaluation of the death penalty on this one question.

Christian Carnival CCXII

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The 212th Christian Carnival is up a day early at The Evangelical Ecologist. He's still taking submissions and thus adding more posts until midnight EST, so don't expect it to be complete for a couple more hours.

Judith Jarvis Thomson's "A Defense of Abortion" is sometimes said to be the most-reprinted article in philosophy, and I believe it. It's one of the most influential papers in all of applied ethics, and several of the arguments Thomson makes have become standard moves in completely unrelated discussions.

One of Thomson's claims is that it would be morally indecent to have an abortion in the ninth month for fairly trivial concerns but that we shouldn't expect a young teenager in her first trimester, pregnant by means of rape, to go through with a pregnancy. She thinks it would be a wonderful moral decision to choose to go through with it, but it's more than we should expect. Philosophers regularly speak this way. They find a middle ground between what is wrong and what is morally required. That range includes anything that would be morally excellent to do but not morally required. This does fit with a lot of people's moral intuitions. There are sacrifices that would be morally admirable to make, but no one is really obligated to make them. This class of actions is called supererogatory. Thomson is saying that it's supererogatory to go through with a pregnancy in some conditions, but it's morally obligatory to go through with it in other cases.

What struck me as odd as I was reading the paper again this time around while preparing to teach it was her use of Jesus' parable of the Good Samaritan to express this view. She says the ninth-month abortion in the above paragraph wouldn't even be an example of a Minimally Decent Samaritan. We should expect more morally. But going through a pregnancy in the other case would be an example of a Very Good Samaritan, i.e. well beyond the call of duty. I'm not going to dispute the possibility of distinguishing between a range of cases, with some supererogatory and some morally obligatory. It does seem strange to use the Good Samaritan parable to do so, however, since Jesus' point in that parable is that you ought to love your neighbor as yourself, and your neighbor is anyone in need, which means you ought to go way beyond what you thought you were obligated to do, and this is even in cases involving complete strangers whose social position means you wouldn't normally even rub shoulders with the person. In other words, Jesus is at the very least minimizing the category of supererogatory actions. He doesn't explicitly deny that there are such actions, but it's hard to avoid the impression on reading the parable that he thinks most actions philosophers would classify as supererogatory as actually morally required.

That suggests an interesting response to Thomson's argument. What about those who don't hold to a view like Thomson's about supererogatory actions? What we ought to be as good as we can be? What if we ought to do as much good as we can do? Thomson's intent is to assume for the sake of argument that a fetus has full moral status and a right to life, arguing then that there are still reasons to think abortion is morally permissible under certain conditions (and as she goes it becomes clear that those conditions aren't just extreme ones like rape but include any case of failed contraception, provided that the abortion takes place early enough in the pregnancy). There are lots of places people might question her argument, but one place I hadn't thought about was to question her reliance on there being a wide range of supererogatory acts. If not, then you might concede all her other points and still oppose abortion. If you think it's morally better to go through with a pregnancy, as Thomson concedes (and many pro-choice people have since then), then once you deny supererogation you end up with a moral obligation not to have an abortion, and this has nothing to do with fetal rights (Thomson is no longer assuming for the sake of argument that the fetus is a person when she gets into the Good Samaritan stuff).

So Thomson's argument gets turned on its head. She started with an argument defending abortion even if the fetus is a person with full moral rights, and once you deny the supererogation premise you end up with an argument that abortion is often immoral, without assuming anything about the personhood of the fetus. It does involve a pretty controversial premise, but it's an interesting argument nonetheless, and there are lots of people who deny supererogation (or at least should do so given their other commitments).

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The 212th Christian Carnival will be taking place this coming Wednesday at Evangelical Ecologist. The Christian Carnival is a weekly collection of some of the best posts of the Christian blogosphere. It's open to Christians of Protestant, Orthodox, and Roman Catholic convictions. One of the goals of this carnival is to offer our readers to a broad range of Christian thought. This is a great way to make your writing more well known and perhaps pick up some regular readers. For examples of past carnivals, see the not-recently-updated Matt Jones's list of previous Christian Carnivals or the up-to-date but less-informative christiancarnival.com list.
To enter is simple. First, your post should be of a Christian nature, but this does not exclude posts that are about home life, politics, or current events from a Christian point of view. Select only one post dated since the last Christian Carnival (i.e. from the last Wednesday through the coming Tuesday). Then do the following:

Star Trek XI Desiderata

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The eleventh Star Trek film is currently being filmed, and I wanted to express some desires (some perhaps more likely than others) of a few things I want to see in it. I've had three longstanding problems in Star Trek history, and all three of them will be relevant for this film. I've actually wanted to express these in a blog post since I first heard they were doing this (which had to have been at least a year ago), but I never got around to it until now.

1. There are supposed to be Klingons in it, according to rumors. This film takes place between the Star Trek: Enterprise series and the original series. There's always been a problem with the look of the Klingons. In the original series, they look like humans. Then they get those funny foreheads. in the movies It's much cooler, but they needed an explanation of why the look changed. Now until Deep Space Nine came along with their Tribble time travel episode, they might have been able to say that the original series just portrayed them poorly, and they always looked like what we've seen since the first film. But once DS9 revealed that Miles O'Brien didn't recognize the original-series-era Klingons as Klingons, and Worf revealed that something had happened that Klingons don't discuss in public, the franchise had to offer an explanation.

I'm glad to say that the final season of Enterprise did exactly that and did an excellent job with the explanation. Klingon DNA became altered to include human DNA in most of the population, and they projected a time period for how long they'd fix the problem that matches up with how long it took. So that one's taken care of. There is the problem that by the time of the original series the crew believed that no humans had ever seen Klingons. I haven't seen that quite explained yet. If Abrams has Klingons in a film with Kirk and Spock as young officers or cadets, then we'll need some further continuity explanations or some careful avoidance of any contact with the Klingons (which Enterprise was able to pull off a few times with Romulans that the crew never met, or at least never knew they met). We'll see if it works. They claim to be paying close attention to canon so as to avoid any problems.

2. The movie is rumored to contain time travel. I have a huge problem with Star Trek time travel that happens far too often, and I really don't want to see it in this film. Why are there all these episodes that never happened? Most of the time travel episodes end with something changing the past so that the entire episode never happened. Then why did we watch it? Why did they bother filming it? And if it never happened, why did they end up at a place where the events that never happened were able to cause the state things revert to when it becomes true that it never happened?

This, of course, is not something the creators of Star Trek can really do anything about. It's just the result of a really stupid view of time travel. If someone really could come up with a story to explain why all these people keep changing the past and experiencing effects of things that never happened, while retaining a plausible theory of time travel involving a fixed timeline, then I'd be overjoyed. I'm not holding my breath, and I certainly don't think J.J. Abrams is the one to do it. But if he stays away from this problem, I'll be satisfied enough, and if he doesn't do any past-changing at all, which is a metaphysical impossibility, I'll be very happy.

My Most Current Cell Phone

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I received a message today from the college I teach at. In response to the shootings at Northern Illinois, they're implementing a third-party notification system. They give no specifics about this system, but at they end they say this:

This system will be a powerful tool that we will allow us to communicate instantaneously. To maximize effectiveness, however, we will need everyone in the campus community to provide us with their most current cell phone number.

Now keep in mind that this is the institution that pays two-thirds of its adjuncts something like $2175 per course without a Ph.D. and about $500 more to those with one. (They arbitrarily selected some departments to give a raise to at the beginning of this year to equal one-third. Next year they'll pick another few departments to make it two-thirds, and the year after will lead to a raise for the rest.) Keep in mind also that they don't normally allow adjuncts to teach more than two courses per semester (with one in the summer, and those pay based on how many students are enrolled). Remember also that it would be stupid for someone trying to finish a dissertation to try to teach more than that (and I only teach that much to retain half-time work to keep health insurance, which the state, not the college, provides and only to families of at least five at my income level.)

[When the adjuncts at Syracuse University formed a union, the faculty at this college were so embarrassed (because they pay even less) that they passed a resolution urging the president to give immediate raises to their own adjuncts, who get paid about 2/3 as much as the adjuncts at the university. It went nowhere for a year, and then they decided to implement the ridiculous three-stage raise described above, which angered the 2/3 of the adjuncts who were now getting paid less than the people who sit next to them in their office without anyone doing any different work. This attempt to pacify the adjuncts thus led pretty quickly to the very union they were seeking to stave off. Suffice it to say that this is one of clearest cases of white-collar exploitation I've been familiar with.]

So why is it that they're expecting people in this kind of position to have a cell phone? Do they honestly expect people with a family who can't afford to have more than one phone to have that one phone be a cell phone that only one of them can have and that it would happen to be with the one who works for them? I'd much rather have VOIP. It's cheaper, includes the free long-distance, and doesn't bring with it the temptation to leave one's spouse stranded at home with no phone. It also allows multiple physical phones with one connection, so we can charge one while using another or have two people talk at the same time. There are times when I'd like a cell phone with me when I'm out, but it's just not a good idea to expect your employees to have one if these are the working conditions you're going to provide for them. Notice that it doesn't say "everyone who has a cell phone". It says "everyone in the campus community". They really are assuming everyone has a cell phone.

Now I could give them my most current cell phone number. It won't do them much good, though. I'm sure someone else has been using it for over a year. They didn't ask for a current number, though, just the most current one, and I can give them that. I probably shouldn't, though. It wouldn't be nice to whoever has it.

Christian Carnival CCXI

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The 211th Christian Carnival is up at Brain Cramps for God.

Slipping Into Design Talk

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It's amazing how often I find people using the language of design to describe evolutionary explanations. Consider the following account of how chameleons evolved the ability to change colors [hat tip: Geek Press]:

However, the reason why they first evolved this ability to flash bright colours was previously unclear.

Scientists report in the journal Plos Biology that it was to allow them to signal to other chameleons.

Pay attention to how that's worded. They evolved the ability to allow them to do something rather than to allow them to do something else. It doesn't say that they developed the ability by random chance, and the ones who had it survived or reproduced more because the ability benefited them in survival or reproduction. It says that they evolved it so that they would be able to stand out among other chameleons. This looks like a purpose statement to me.

Consider also this similarly-framed explanation:

Scientists think vertebrae evolved to help our ancient predecessors swim more powerfully by stiffening the body so attached muscles could generate more force.

This is the language of design. It makes sense to speak of something evolving to help the species accomplish something only if there was something that guided the evolutionary process with such a purpose in mind.

Scientists talk like this all the time. So do philosophers. I heard Kwame Anthony Appiah on NPR's Talk of the Nation this afternoon, and he slipped into this kind of design talk when giving an evolutionary example.

We are exquisitely designed by, I believe, evolution, but I don't want to get into that argument, to be very sensitive to other people's responses to our behavior and to other people's interests. Little children, tiny children, will respond to pain in those around them by seeking to comfort them, often before they can barely speak. So we're exquisitely attuned to one another....

People complain that it's not science when theists draw the conclusion that such language actually implies. If design has occurred, then someone has intended some result. Such views won't even get the honor of being recognized as versions of the classic philosophical argument that appears in many introductory philosophy books. If it's a philsophical argument, then it can't be the religious dogma that many so people are so heavily invested in pretending it is, so there's no chance the anti-ID political movement will recognize these arguments for what they are.

But then people who have no interest whatsoever in theistic or design explanations will slip into design talk whenever they're trying to explain how some beneficial characteristic evolved. Despite all the effort trying to resist any true design in nature, design talk keeps appearing in evolutionary explanations. It's as if we're subconsciously inclined to find design in things even if we consciously strive to avoid doing so. Given the premises of naturalism, this kind of talk is hopelessly confused. Since I'm no naturalist, I'm happy to accept that there is indeed something that such design talk refers to -- divine purposes. But I don't think those who accept naturalistic explanations of the universe have the intellectual right to speak this way. You can't just help yourself to design talk in science if design is something fundamentally unscientific and undetectable by science.

Commanded Sexual Delight

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There's an ongoing debate between two false views. Some Christians think love is a command (after all the two great commandments are to love God and to love others) and therefore doesn't involve feelings. The other view is that love is obviously a feeling and thus isn't really something we can be responsible for. We can't be commanded to love if it's something that happens to us, as feelings do. On the latter view, those who fall in love are just lucky, and there's no room for choosing to love someone. On the former view, as long as you do the right actions you're loving, and it doesn't matter if you feel the right feelings.

I've resisted both views before. See the comments on my Christian Hedonism post from a few years ago and Wink's Love is not a Choice post from a couple months later. (By the way, I'm not saying Wink commits one of the two errors, His denial of love as a choice isn't to remove ourselves from being responsible for our feelings. Rather, the reverse -- he sees love as involving feelings that we're obligated to feel.)

I've been reading a commentary on Proverbs, and I came to Proverbs 5 last week. It struck me as a particularly nice example of what I said in those comment sections. In this passage, it's even stronger in one sense. It isn't just love that's commanded here. It's utter delight and intoxication, the height of positive emotional responses. It's so clearly a feeling that I don't know how anyone could try to claim otherwise. Yet it's also so obviously a command in context that it would take extracting the passage from its literary surroundings and reading the grammar extremely woodenly to deny that..

Drink water from your own cistern,
flowing water from your own well.
Should your springs be scattered abroad,
streams of water in the streets?
Let them be for yourself alone,
and not for strangers with you.
Let your fountain be blessed,
and rejoice in the wife of your youth,
a lovely deer, a graceful doe.
Let her breasts fill you at all times with delight;
be intoxicated always in her love.
Why should you be intoxicated, my son, with a forbidden woman
and embrace the bosom of an adulteress? [Proverbs 5:15-20, ESV]

It is technically true that some of the verbs are not grammatically commands but are actually blessing formulas (often translated in other translations as "may you be..."), but in context the entire section is contrasted with getting tangled up in adultery, which the father commands the son to avoid. Part of the remedy for the son's temptation toward adultery is to take delight in his wife. It has the force of a command even when it technically invokes a divine blessing to provide this for the son. In other words, it's a lot like many passages throughout the Bible that assume full human participation and moral responsibility in living the righteous life despite the need for God to provide grace to enable the righteous to be righteous.

Definition of 'terrorism'

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Paul Cassell looks at a definition of 'terrorism' that I find problematic. What's central to terrorism, on this account, is causing harm to innocent civilians. That seems pretty far off to me.

First, it can't be just harm. It has to include threatened harm. Someone who threatens to blow up the Empire State Building if you don't fork over $1 billion is clearly engaging in terrorism, even if they never blow it up. Second, it can't be restricted just to harm to civilians. It's terrorism if you plant a bomb in the office of a high-ranking military officer. Third, terrorism doesn't always threaten harm, at least not directly. Eco-terrorism can include things like putting spikes on a road foresters need to use to cut down trees. No one might be directly harmed by this, and yet it's clearly a kind of terrorism.

What makes it terrorism is that the perpetrators intend to cause them to stop using the road by destroying their tires every time they do. Eco-terrorists have been known to cause far more property damage than that without causing direct harm, including blowing up people's houses because they work for a polluting company, choosing to do it when they're not home. That's even more clearly terrorism, and yet it's not about direct harm to civilians. I suppose if you have a sufficiently broad understanding of what counts as harm, then these might not be covered, but it's not intuitively the best way to get at what terrorism is. There are clear cases with no harm anyway, e.g. kidnapping in order to get some money or to get some political goal achieved when there's no intention of harming anyone, although there might be an implied threat of harm.

Haig Khatchadourian's The Morality of Terrorism opens with a very nice discussion of how to define 'terrorism'. He distinguishes between predatory, retaliatory, political, and moral/religious terrorism in terms of the motives, but all have one thing in common: there are immediate victims and a separate real target. There are lots of uses of coercion or force that aren't terrorism. What makes it terrorism is that the intended effect on the primary target is accomplished indirectly by doing something to an immediate victim who isn't the primary target. You do or threaten something to loved ones, civilians, a structure, and so on in order to get someone else to do something. That seems to me to be exactly what's definitive of terrorism.

The relevant section is also reprinted in the first two editions of James E. White's Contemporary Moral Problems: War and Terrorism. (I'm not sure why he removed it from the third edition, but what it does include doesn't strike me as being quite as insightful on this question.)

The 211th Christian Carnival will be taking place this coming Wednesday at Brain Cramps for God. The Christian Carnival is a weekly collection of some of the best posts of the Christian blogosphere. It's open to Christians of Protestant, Orthodox, and Roman Catholic convictions. One of the goals of this carnival is to offer our readers to a broad range of Christian thought. This is a great way to make your writing more well known and perhaps pick up some regular readers. For examples of past carnivals, see the not-recently-updated Matt Jones's list of previous Christian Carnivals or the up-to-date but less-informative christiancarnival.com list.
To enter is simple. First, your post should be of a Christian nature, but this does not exclude posts that are about home life, politics, or current events from a Christian point of view. Select only one post dated since the last Christian Carnival (i.e. from the last Wednesday through the coming Tuesday). Then do the following:

I started the semester off in my applied ethics class with a unit on abortion, so I've been thinking a lot about arguments in the abortion literature that you don't often see at the popular level. I haven't taught this subject since fall 2004, so I'm sort of coming at a lot of this from a fresh perspective and rethinking a lot of the arguments I've been familiar with. Several things have occurred to me that seemed worth blogging about, so you can look for several posts on abortion in the next week or so as I write up my thoughts on some of these things.

One highly-anthologized article on abortion is Don Marquis' "Why Abortion Is Immoral". Marquis sets out to explain why abortion is immoral without assuming the personhood of the fetus. He instead develops an account of why killing in general is wrong. Killing is wrong, says Marquis, not because of some intrinsic property of the thing being killed (e.g. its capacity to feel pain, its consciousness, its ability to plan for the future, its self-concept, and so on), but because of the future it would otherwise have or be likely to have if you don't kill it. The reason it would be wrong to kill me is because of what you're taking away from me if you do so -- my future. The reason it's wrong to kill anything is because of the future you're robbing it of.

Now it follows that you're robbing a fetus of a future, and the future you're robbing it of is one like the future you and I have. You're even robbing it of more of a future, since it won't even get what you and I have already had that's now in our past. So abortion is wrong because it robs a fetus of a future like ours. This is so even if a fetus isn't a person. It has moral status not because of its current properties but because of what you would be taking away from it if you do certain things to it. In other words, its future (or what would otherwise be its future) is what guarantees the wrongness of killing it (and what you might derivatively call its right to life, but this is now being framed in very different terms.

That's the primary argument of Marquis' article. He doesn't spend much time developing it. Most of his effort goes toward motivating his theory of why killing is wrong and explaining why it's superior to person-based accounts. In this post, I'm not going to focus in on whether his theory of killing is correct, but I do want to flag a part of his support for it that strikes me as question-begging or at least as only appealing to a relatively small subset of potential readers.

One of the features he presents for his view on why killing is wrong is that it gives the right results about a number of other issues. Philosophers often give such arguments. They present a theory about something, and then they point out that their theory fits nicely with people's intuitions about other matters, and the alternative theories they're considering conflict with those same intuitions. The problem in Marquis' use of this strategy is that he chooses some controversial intuitions, indeed a pretty strange combination of them.

McCain on Stem Cells

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Several people have asked me where I got the information that John McCain has changed his view on stem cell research. His position used to be the same as that of former Senator Bill Frist, who opposes the creation of new stem cell lines except in cases where the embryo is already going to be destroyed. I have defended this position as consistent with pro-life principles about the full moral status of the fetus (and again here in a slightly different context), but many people who are pro-life do not agree. A lot of people think the issue should largely be defused now, however, since the discovery that embryonic-like stem cells can be developed without destroying embryos at all. I was under the impression that McCain was one of them.

I'm pretty sure one of the political blogs I read that usually has very reliable, up-to-date information about candidates had a mention in the last week or so of this change in McCain's view, but I can't remember where. What it said is that McCain had changed his mind in light of this new research and no longer supports research even on embryos that will already be destroyed, citing the new research as evidence that we probably will no longer need to do that to get enough embryos for the research that he still considers necessary. Since I couldn't find where I saw this, I spent some time looking around for recent statements by McCain on the issue. Here's what I came up with.

Gerald Bradley wrote in the National Review on January 18:

McCain has said -- it is true -- that he approved embryo-destructive research in the limited case of so-called "spares"-- those embryos "left-over" after couples have exhausted their interest in IVF. I disagree with him.In face-to-face conversation with McCain I said not only that such research was wrong, but that it would never be limited to "spares." I said that big biotech needed a far larger supply of research subjects than "spares" could provide. McCain asked to continue that conversation, to hear more. Now he realizes that there is no need to exploit "spare" embryos, in light of recent successes with adult cells. And so he has been telling South Carolinians over the last few days.
According to the Catholic News Agency, this was where he stood about a week later:

When he was asked how he reconciled his otherwise solid pro-life voting record with his support for experimentation on "surplus" embryos, Sen. McCain called his decision to back the research "a very agonizing and tough decision".

He continued, saying, "All I can say to you is that I went back and forth, back and forth on it and I came in on one of the toughest decisions I've ever had, in favor of that research. And one reason being very frankly is those embryos will be either discarded or kept in permanent frozen status." The senator, while standing firm on his decision added, "I understand how divisive this is among the pro-life community."

Referring to the recent break through in stem cell research which allows scientists to use skin cells to create stem cells, McCain said that, "I believe that skin stem cell research has every potential very soon of making that discussion academic.... Sam Brownback and others are very encouraged at this latest advance...."
Now I don't see that as necessarily conflicting with Bradley's first-hand report. All it does is give McCain's justification at the time and then his indication that he thinks it was the right decision. It doesn't say if he still holds it, just that he stands firm in his view that it was the right one and that in the future it will be a non-issue. It says nothing about what he thinks we ought to be doing right now. So I don't see how this is inconsistent with what Bradley reports hearing from McCain in person.

But then there's this:

When a woman asked whether promising new methods of stem cell research
would end McCain's support for embryonic stem cell research, he replied
firmly: "I have not changed my position yet."
So now I'm not sure what to think. He very clearly does not think his initial view was wrong at the time he made it, and he pretty obviously thinks that soon it will not be an issue and that we will not end up needing to use "spares" for this research. Bradley's impression was that he now no longer wants to fund use of "spares". He seems not to have fully made that decision at this point, though, unless he's being misquoted or taken out of context (which I wouldn't put past Dana Milbank but certainly wouldn't assume is true).

Whichever is the case, I don't have a problem with McCain's initial view, although I think it would be good if he backed off in the face of this new research. He does seem to be moving in that direction at the very least under the influence of his close friend Senator Sam Brownback. My suspicion is that he's in a transition at the moment. His website account of his view on stem cell research notably does not treat this particular issue at all:

Stem cell research offers tremendous hope for those suffering from a variety of deadly diseases - hope for both cures and life-extending treatments. However, the compassion to relieve suffering and to cure deadly disease cannot erode moral and ethical principles.

For this reason, John McCain opposes the intentional creation of human embryos for research purposes. To that end, Senator McCain voted to ban the practice of "fetal farming," making it a federal crime for researchers to use cells or fetal tissue from an embryo created for research purposes. Furthermore, he voted to ban attempts to use or obtain human cells gestated in animals. Finally, John McCain strongly opposes human cloning and voted to ban the practice, and any related experimentation, under federal law.

As president, John McCain will strongly support funding for promising research programs, including amniotic fluid and adult stem cell research and other types of scientific study that do not involve the use of human embryos.

Where federal funds are used for stem cell research, Senator McCain believes clear lines should be drawn that reflect a refusal to sacrifice moral values and ethical principles for the sake of scientific progress, and that any such research should be subject to strict federal guidelines.

I don't see anything there about using stem cells from embryos about to be destroyed. He says he hasn't changed his view yet, but I think he's probably at least suspended his view until further notice, even if he has not yet adopted Brownback's (while giving every indication that he probably will at some point).

Christian Carnival CCX

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The 210th Christian Carnival is up at Imago Dei.

Dobson vs. McCain

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James Dobson continues his crusade against the pro-life cause [hat tip: Justin Taylor]. Now that he can't use Rudy Giuliani's actual pro-choice views to prefer a hardcore pro-choicer to a moderate pro-choicer, he's stuck using John McCain's lukewarm but consistently pro-life views as an excuse to prefer a pro-choice president to a pro-life one. It's a strange way to try to pursue the pro-life agenda if you do everything you can to put into office those who will do everything they can to frustrate that agenda.

What's worse is how badly he misrepresents McCain's views. Here is what he gives as his reasons for preferring a radically pro-choice president to John McCain:

McCain "did not support a Constitutional amendment to protect the institution of marriage".

Well, sure. He doesn't think that's what the Constitution is for. Is it better on pro-life principles to prefer Roe v. Wade staying on as the law of the land for decades or to vote for someone whose opposition to gay marriage isn't going to occur at the constitutional amendment level but rather at the level of mere law? This disagreement isn't about McCain not opposing gay marriage. It's about his not opposing it at the level of a constitutional amendment that never had any chance of passing to begin with. If Dobson thinks that's any reason to vote against him, he's gone off the deep end.

McCain "voted for embryonic stem cell research to kill nascent human beings".

That's a lie. What McCain did is vote for embryonic stem cell research that would use the stem cells from embryos that were already going to be killed one way or the other. There are pro-life people who wrongly think such research would violate pro-life principles. I've tried to argue against that claim. But Dobson could at least present his criticism accurately rather than slandering his fellow pro-lifer who happens to think the moral implications of the pro-life assumption go in a different direction on this one issue.

What's even worse is that McCain no longer even holds this position, something Dobson fails to mention. Isn't that a little bit relevant? A vote for McCain wouldn't support a president who advocates the view Dobson disagrees with, since McCain doesn't support that view. He's become convinced that there are now alternative ways of providing enough stem cells for the research he wants funded without relying on embryos, even ones who are already going to be killed. By not mentioning this extremely important fact, Dobson is misleading those who will reasonably be expected to conclude that McCain still holds this view, and deliberate deception is as bad morally as outright lying, even if the statement is literally true (not that it is; see the immediately previous paragraph).

Update: I've treated McCain's current views on this issue more fully here.

McCain "opposed tax cuts that ended the marriage penalty".

First of all, it's important to recognize that many legislative packages are exactly that: packages. Legislators often vote against a package because of something in it, but it doesn't follow that they voted against it because of whatever particular item in it you happen to pick out as important to you. They may actually approve of that item but not of something else in it. So the fact that McCain voted against a packaged that included ending the marriage penalty doesn't mean he opposes ending the marriage penalty. In fact, his initial vote was in favor of this package, so something else must have been added to change his vote before the final version went through. The removal of the marriage penalty was part of the package he voted for. In fact, he supports exactly the sort of thing Dobson is implicating that he opposes. This is an excellent example of a literally true statement that has a clear implicature of something false, which is tantamount to a lie even if it's not technically false.

McCain "has little regard for freedom of speech".

I assume this has to do with campaign finance. To say that McCain has little regard for free speech is pretty low. He certainly opposes a certain use of money in electoral campaigns, and many conservatives see his views as limiting free speech. It's a little misleading to put it this way, though. What he's saying is that McCain has little regard for one particular use of money that should count as free speech. That would be accurate and precise. Since Dobson counts it as free speech, he could say that McCain has little regard for one particular kind of free speech. That would certainly be accurate on Dobson's view (and I agree with him). But the way he said it makes it sound as if it's free speech in general that McCain has little regard for, and that's at best misleading.

McCain "organized the Gang of 14 to preserve filibusters in judicial hearings".

Was the single purpose of the Gang of 14 to preserve filibusters in judicial hearings? Look again at what both sides of the 14 wanted in their compromise. It's true that the Democrats in the Gang of 14 were in it to preserve the chance to filibuster the nominees they saw as extreme, but the point of the compromise from the GOP side was to get a lot of the nominees the rest of the Democrats saw as extreme confirmed. McCain saw a chance to avoid a filibuster of a number of conservative nominees as long as he could keep some Republicans from removing the filibuster for a much smaller group of nominees that the seven Democrats in the Gang of 14 still wanted to oppose.

As is often the case in a narrowly divided legislative body, McCain was willing to compromise on a few more conservative nominees for the sake of a much larger group of pretty conservative nominees. He thought such a compromise would be better than losing the rights of the minority party to filibuster, something the Republicans in the Senate will probably be glad they will be able to use against the next Democratic president that Dobson is doing his best to have elected this year. I can see how someone might prefer to sacrifice that ability if they think it's wrong to use it to begin with (McCain doesn't) or if they shortsightedly think they'll retain the majority forever (which is pretty dumb), but please don't act as if someone who makes the wrong choice on that is a traitor to conservatism for wanting to get more conservative judges appointed than seemed likely. Keep in mind McCain's motivation. Dobson refuses to do so.

McCain "has a legendary temper and often uses foul and obscene language".

True enough. Is that going to count as a serious criterion from a hardcore pro-life, nearly single-issue voter (as evidenced by his refusal to support Giuliani if he had won the nomination)? I can't see how this should count at all when the serious issues Dobson has against Clinton and Obama are at stake. If abortion is morally equivalent to murder, and the top priority of pro-life voters is to stop the tragic allowance of such evil, how relevant is it that the candidate most likely to be able to do anything about it uses foul language and gets angry pretty easily? If Dobson thinks opposing a foul-mouthed, angry presidential candidate is so all-important that it's worth refusing to do what he can (which is a fair amount given his influence) to prevent a president who will blithely dismiss all concerns for preventing the equivalent of the murder of millions of people, then his moral priorities are seriously screwed up. If abortion is indeed equivalent to murder, then a candidate's language shouldn't make the list of important considerations.

I've been taken to task in the past for criticizing Dobson on this (see the comments here). I'll let those comments stand as my justification for my willingness to do this despite recognizing all that he's done that I appreciate. I will note, though, that this instance seems even worse than the one I was criticizing before, because at least Giuliani really is pro-choice. Dobson is well-meaning, but I can't see how his comments serve the pro-life cause. They seem to me rather to be a betrayal of the very goals he wants to achieve, even more so on this occasion than the last time I took him to task over this.

I was struck by the HCSB translation of Matthew 5:

But I tell you, everyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. And whoever says to his brother, 'Fool!' will be subject to the  Sanhedrin. But whoever says, 'You moron!' will be subject to  hellfire.

There's a footnote after "Fool!" that says:

Lit Raca, an Aram term of abuse similar to "airhead"

On the one hand, I don't generally approve of translating words that in the Greek are foreign (in this case Aramaic) into English translations as English. It's not a Greek word, so translating it into English should involve keeping the foreign word as a foreign word, other things being equal. But Matthew's readers would have know the word, or he wouldn't have used it. English-speakers generally don't. So other things might not be equal in this case.

That issue aside, I think the HCSB has it right with "moron" and "airhead". Those words have much more force than the typical "fool" used in this passage. The downside is that Jesus may well have intended a connection with the fool of Proverbs, who usually is called a fool in English translations. But the English "fool" doesn't exactly capture that either. The term "moron" really does capture the anger element Jesus is getting at, and "airhead" isn't bad for "Raca".

It would be fun to ask people where the word "moron" is in the Bible and see what they come up with. It would be interesting seeing how certain people respond to Jesus saying that calling someone a moron is sufficient for deserving to burn in hell (I'm thinking of people who see Jesus as all mercy as a revision from the wrath of God in the Old Testament). All it takes is calling someone a moron. I know the Sermon on the Mount has pretty high standards, but think about that for a little bit.

McCain vs. Romney

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Since I'll be voting in the Super Tuesday primaries today, I thought I'd look at the two leading GOP candidates on the issues, because I think they've both been misrepresented by the pundits. Judging by the SelectSmart information, here is how they compare on the issues. I'll include some comments on Huckabee as I go to indicate why he's not getting as strong consideration. (Anyone who's been reading this blog for more than a week should know why Ron Paul gets zero consideration.)

On Iraq and general war on terrorism issues, I see no difference of substance. They both support the continued efforts in Iraq and have criticized the Bush Administration in pretty much the same ways as each other. (Huckabee's criticism has been stronger, but his forward policies are similar as far as I can tell.) They may well be different on budget/spending/deficit issues, but there's no easy way to measure that, and their rhetoric is pretty similar (whereas Huckabee seems to be at least a little to the left of both of them, but there is a disconnect between his rhetoric and his record, and it's hard to tell how much has to do with Arkansas-specific issues or things he's changed his mind on and how much has to do with general approach).

It's hard to see a difference between them on issues like marijuana legalization and medical marijuana (Huckabee does clearly oppose decriminalize medical marijuana, but the other two are at least toying with decriminalization). Both have at times favored minimum wage increases, but both have opposed them at times too (and Huckabee seems to be a pragmatist on the issue). Both support vouchers in education (and Huckabee does not).

It's also hard to tell how to compare them on environmental issues. McCain is more environment-friendly than most Republicans, but Romney may well be also. He's certainly more open to the reality of global warming than some Republicans have been (although most who resist making huge changes aren't resisting the premise, just insisting that the reality of global warming isn't the issue).

I see no difference in their current views on stem cells. (McCain at one point supported the use of stem cells from embryos who were already going to be killed, a view I don't think pro-lifers should have a problem with but many wrongly do. But given the strong possibilities with other kinds of stem cell research without killing any embryos, McCain has decided that there's no need to such an approach anymore, and he's now insisting on not supporting any funding for stem cell research that involves developing new lines from embryos that haven't yet been killed. So his position is now the same as Romney's. [Update: See here for more details that I've been able to dig up since writing this post. It's not quite as clear as I'd thought, but what I said here is in the direction of the truth.]

On other pro-life issues, Romney and McCain are pretty much in the same spot. Romney used to be pro-choice on the legal question (but never on the moral question), but he's now fully pro-life. McCain has always been pro-life, but I get the impression it's not an issue he
spends a lot of time getting worked up about. McCain does have a misleading statistic because some pro-life groups consider his campaign finance views to be against their desired methods of promoting their cause. But they're being pretty deceptive by pretending his campaign finance votes are pro-choice votes. On actual pro-life/pro-choice issues, he's consistently voted pro-life. So I see no real difference between these two here on the actual issues.

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The 210th Christian Carnival will be taking place this coming Wednesday at Imago Dei. The Christian Carnival is a weekly collection of some of the best posts of the Christian blogosphere. It's open to Christians of Protestant, Orthodox, and Roman Catholic convictions. One of the goals of this carnival is to offer our readers to a broad range of Christian thought. This is a great way to make your writing more well known and perhaps pick up some regular readers. For examples of past carnivals, see the not-recently-updated Matt Jones's list of previous Christian Carnivals or the up-to-date but less-informative christiancarnival.com list.
To enter is simple. First, your post should be of a Christian nature, but this does not exclude posts that are about home life, politics, or current events from a Christian point of view. Select only one post dated since the last Christian Carnival (i.e. from the last Wednesday through the coming Tuesday). Then do the following:

I never agreed with the argument made by James Dobson, Joe Carter, and others that Hillary Clinton would be preferable to Rudy Giuliani on pro-life grounds. The idea wasn't that she would do things as president that pro-lifers would be happy with. That's clearly false. As pro-choice as Giuliani is, she is much more committed to that cause, and he is at best lukewarm about it while retaining a much more conservative view on judicial matters, which would certainly have some impact on the future of Roe v. Wade.

No, the argument was that having a pro-choice president means (1) the party is pro-choice and (2) that there must be a pro-life party for the pro-life movement to succeed. (1) is shown false because no one thinks the Republican party is the party of guest worker programs and Harriet Miers on the Supreme Court just because President Bush wanted both. It's clear that (2) is also problematic given there was no civil rights party in the mid-1960s; significant numbers of members of both parties opposed the Civil Rights Acts of 1964-1965. Also, significant numbers of members of both parties opposed the Bush plan on immigration (albeit for different reasons). Party support doesn't necessarily go to a president on every issue, and often movements span parties while facing serious opposition from many influential members of both parties. I could easily see something like that happening with a pro-choice Republican president (or a pro-life Democrat if that were to happen).

So the argument at least recognized that Giuliani might be better for pro-life concerns in the short term. The claim was that the movement would be killed long-term by not having a pro-life party. I don't think this kind of argument succeeds, but it's at least honest about the relative positions of the candidates. Compare, now, Ann Coulter's completely ridiculous argument against John McCain. She's not focused completely or even mostly on abortion. This is about general conservatism. Otherwise it sounds on the surface to be a similar argument. Her premises are analogous. John McCain would make the Republican party too liberal, and having a too-liberal GOP would mean GOP goals are sacrificed long-term. But there's a key difference. Even aside from the problems with each premise along the lines of the original Giuliani argument, Coulter makes one claim that's just completely ridiculous about the factual basis of this to begin with. She claims that Hillary Clinton is more conservative than John McCain.

How could anyone possibly think such a thing? If we judge foreign policy by the standard view within each party, McCain is to the left of the GOP on a few issues but mostly with them, and Clinton is to the right of the GOP on a few issues but mostly with them. He favors staying in Iraq and trying to stabilize the situation a lot more, citing the success of the so-called surge as evidence that progress can be made. She's insisting that troop withdrawal needs to begin as soon as she takes the presidency. He thinks we need more troops in Iraq. He's an absolutist against torture (and insistent on calling certain techniques torture that other Republicans are hesitant to describe as torture). But certainly that position isn't a liberal-conservative one. An argument can even be made that it's liberal to soften our resistance to such techniques. It's moral conservatism to oppose them, one might argue. He's also consistently voted to renew Patriot Act and similar provisions, and she's sometimes done so and sometimes not.

On social issues, there's no comparison. She's not at this point endorsing gay marriage, but she didn't want it banned on the federal level. She and McCain both want something like civil unions. He's not to the left of her there. There's no question when it comes to abortion. If she were to become a single-issue candidate, abortion would be it. Her view is as extreme as it gets. She's never been willing to allow any restriction on abortion for any reason. He gets almost full support from right-to-life groups except when the issue is campaign finance. On actual abortion issues, he scores almost perfect on his voting record. His one weakness has been stem cell issues, and his view there was the Bill Frist view that using stem cells from embryos that were already going to be killed would be ok, a view I have defended on pro-life grounds. But McCain doesn't even hold this view anymore. He's since been convinced that there are now alternative methods to pursuing stem cell research with non-embryonic cells so that there's no need even to use the cells from destroyed embryos. In other words, his view is basically the standard GOP view on the issue. [Update: This isn't as clear as I'd thought, but he seems to be moving in that direction. See here for more detail.] Hillary Clinton's is the standard view of her party that we ought to manufacture human embryos in order to destroy them.

On immigration, he's certainly to the left of his party but no moreso than the current president, and no one's arguing that he's to the left of Hillary Clinton. The fact is that her view on the matter is no more conservative than his. I'm not convinced that their views are the same. I suspect she's more to the left on the issue than he is. But I don't see any indication that he's left of her. The same is true of any economic issue I'm aware of. He supports vouchers, and she opposes them. He's left of his party in getting 50% ratings by environmentalist groups, but she gets close to 90%. He supported Medicare prescription drug expansion, but so did she. She doesn't support universal health care anymore, but her plan is no more conservative than what he supports. The Chamber of Commerce gives him a 72% rating and her a 35% rating. He's a free-trader, which is usally seen as a conservative issue. She got 50% support from a free trade group one year and 17% the previous year. She opposes any privatizing of social security. He favors partial privatization. She gets 58% on balanced budget issues. He gets 95%.

On other issues, she generally supports the ACLU (ranging from 60% to 80% over three years), and he generally opposes them. She gets a 100% rating from the Brady Campaign and an F from the NRA. He gets 14% from Brady and a C+ from the NRA.You can look at the comparison yourself here. I think it's pretty clear that he's more conservative than she is on most issues, often considerably so, and even when he's not he's no more liberal than she is. This goes not just for all three major areas (economic, social, and foreign policy) but for all the sub-questions within each area. There's no question that Ann Coulter is either completely unwilling to look at the facts or flat-out lying. McCain has certainly not been my favorite candidate throughout this primary, but I can't see how anyone would think he's to the left of Hillary Clinton even on one issue, never mind as a whole. So those who hate McCain can go ahead and try to present the argument against him in the form of the argument above against Giuliani. I'd still dispute it on the same grounds I gave against the Giuliani version. But it's neither hopelessly ignorant nor insidiously malicious, and Coulter's argument is at least one of those.

Now it's a separate question whether conservatives should vote for McCain in their primaries. I hope to treat that question in a future post (and I especially hope to do so before my own primary next Tuesday). I don't ultimately think conservatives should oppose McCain in the general election even with the more substantial argument analogous to the anti-Giuliani argument, but it seems completely silly to me to oppose him in the general election on the ground that he's more liberal than Hillary Clinton. That claim is utterly ridiculous, and if Ann Coulter had not already lost all my respect this would have finished her off.

January License Plates

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Another month has passed, and my license plate records for the last month are ready for posting. Here are all the plates I saw during January.

U.S. States: Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Wisconsin

Other U.S.: District of Columbia, U.S. government

Canada: Manitoba, Ontario

From last month I've lost Alabama, Arizona, Kentucky, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Washington, and West Virginia and gained Idaho, Montana, South Dakota, and Utah.

I haven't seen Alaska, Hawaii, Mississippi, and Wyoming since I started this in October. I've seen all the other U.S. states. I've seen four Canadian provinces (the other two are New Brunswick and Quebec) and two U.S. territories (if D.C. counts).

I thought I saw an interesting plate last night. I even turned around and went back to where it was parked on the road to be sure. It said "Native America". I didn't know there were such plates. The frame surrounding it blocked everything else off. But then I did Google search this morning to see what it was, and it turns out it was just an Oklahoma plate with the state name hidden. I already had Oklahoma. Oh, well.

I did see the Arkansas plate yesterday morning, which was a nice last-minute addition. Usually the ranks fill out in the first week or ten days of the month and then new finds are sparse, but those finds are usually choice.



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