Ethics: July 2007 Archives

Eugene Volokh has an excellent post on the use of terms that might be regarded as offensive. Three paragraphs struck me as offering an interesting argument, one I haven't thought through very carefully yet, but one that nonetheless intrigues me:
If handicapped people learn that some people say "disabled" and others say "handicapped," and that neither is evidence of hostility, a few might still bristle at one (or the other); but many will be satisfied by the explanation that decent people use both. But say that everyone is told that "disabled" is the one right term, and some decent people don't go along, whether because of force of habit, strong preference for "handicapped," or just bristling at being told what to say. Then handicapped people who hear the term may well become more offended, because they've been taught that the word is offensive.

People who might even prefer to shrug the term off might feel almost obligated to take it as an insult. If someone calls me "Gene" rather than "Eugene," I'm a little annoyed (that's just not the name I prefer in English), but I assume that it's just because they've fallen into that habit with other Eugenes they know, who do go by Gene in a way that I don't. I assume the speaker's intentions were good, and I think I'm happier for it.

But if someone started a campaign of insisting that calling me Gene is actually rude, perhaps even insulting (because the diminutive implies a diminution of my status), I'd both hear "Gene" a bit less often, and be much more annoyed when I do hear it, precisely because I'll worry that it's a deliberate violation of the New Good Manners Rule and thus a deliberate slight. Those who make the handicapped/disabled issue into a matter of identity politics rather than just a matter of apricot/apricot (or even Gene/Eugene) may thus increase the amount of hurt feelings on both sides.

Baptist Blogger has a very interesting and thought-provoking post on Christianity Sexuality and the Ethic of Pharmaceutical Enhancement. He's not talking about what is now coming to be called "male enhancement" but about such drugs as Viagra. I'd never looked into the actual scientific behind drugs like this (i.e. what they actually do and what their effects are on a level more specific than the popular understanding), never mind thought about the ethical issues they raise, so I learned quite a few things from this post. I'm not sure I agree with everything the post says, but I don't think I'm going to work out a careful view on this anytime soon, so I'm not going to raise any worries now. I did find it an interesting read that raises some good questions worth thinking about by those for whom this is an issue.

In case anyone might want to comment on this post, be aware that comments might more easily be trapped in the spam filter or held for moderation for a post on this subject, due to the presence of certain keywords. If you leave a comment and don't see it within a reasonable amount of time, send me an email, and I'll check to see if it got eaten by the filter.

Update: Ha!

Radical Honesty

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The Boo Guy has a nice critique of a new trend called Radical Honesty. I hadn't heard about this, but it sounds insane. Key paragraph:

I frequently combat the forces of "being real" that pervade 21st Century Christian thought, basically the same idea. The problem is, when you let your "real" thoughts out, they are usually the lesser half of who you'd like to be, the negative thoughts and doubts. I have good and bad thoughts about almost everyone and everything at every moment. I choose to verbalize and act on the ones that take steps toward me becoming who I'd like to become, instead of the ones that will only cause trouble or make me a weak and needy person. "Radical honesty" is bull.

Even if you think lying is always wrong, does it follow that you always ought to say everything that comes to mind? If you consider that some actions amount to lying because you refuse to say something, then I wonder if it does. I already think there are cases when lying is ok. I think this example helps solidify that, because not engaging in radical honesty does amount to lying of a sort, and it would be pretty bad not to lie in those ways.

The next post in my series at Right Reason is up, entitled Augustine on Civil Government: Authority. This post moves a little more into socio-political issues. The next post will be my last on Augustine's own views, finally getting to the main question of Christians and civil government, and then I'll move on to a contemporary focus and how I'd extend the basic Augustinian view to the sitution of an evangelical Christian in the United States today (i.e. my own case).

My second post on Augustine and Civil Government is up at Right Reason. It's entitled Augustine and Civil Government: Two Further Preliminaries, for lack of a better name. It looks at two more background issues, one related to divine governance and the other on the subject of what kind of collection of people counts as "a people", both of which will be relevant for his more concentrated treatment of the primary subject I'm interested in, which is how Christians should relate to civil government. 

My next post in the series on religion and politics is up at Right Reason. It's called Augustine on Civil Government: The Two Cities, and it provides some of the background on Augustine's general views before I launch into his direct treatment of the issues I'm going to focus on.

As I was typing up the post announcing the Christian Carnival that I just posted, it took great effort to refrain from a snarky comment about the July 4 anniversary of U.S. independence. Here is what I was going to say, but I thought it needed to be in a separate post.

I was going to say that the Christian Carnival is up, complete with quotes from the Federalist Papers to celebrate the anniversary of U.S. independence from the oppressive, dictatorial regime rule of the British monarchy that had previously treated the colonists the way Saddam Hussein did the Kurds.

Seriously, I have to wonder at those who yesterday celebrated American independence from the relatively mild discomforts of British rule who yet think those who supported freeing Iraq from Saddam Hussein had no just cause.
Now I admit that that isn't the only reason someone might have opposed the invasion of Iraq, but it is a common enough complaint, and I'm sure some making it nevertheless defend the American Revolution, which in my view was an unjust war. Clearly there have been worse wars in terms of the motivation, but I don't see it as having been one of the better ones either. The key comparison I have in mind is between the kind of oppressive regime in Iraq under Saddam Hussein and the comparatively mild situation that the colonists considered oppressive enough to start a war to eliminate. I do think the oppression of the Afircan slaves of the colonists would have constituted a good case for a just cause, but the colonists were complicit in that while complaining about how they were being treated by the British government.
There are ways to resolve the inconsistency (although I think they involve false premises, e.g. the premise that it's ok to initiate a revolution against your own government but not ok to assist others in overthrowing theirs, which I would say gets it backwards in terms of which is more morally justified). But those who hold both views ought at least to try to resolve the potential inconsistency rather than simply not thinking about the tension between their views on these different issues. So I think it's worth pointing out the potential problem.
I want to say that I consider the U.S. system of government perhaps the best human government the world has seen. The ideal government would be rule by an omniscient, omnipotent, perfectly good dictator, but that's not going to happen until the final resurrection. Until then, (at most) few have come up with a better way to govern over fallen human beings than the U.S. model. My conviction on that matter doesn't mean I think the method of attaining such a system was right. I don't, and it amazes me the ease at which people will approve of it without ever thinking that such approval might even raise questions about their views on the invasion or Iraq.
While I'm at it, I might as well link to my What Should Christians Think About July 4? post from three years ago.

In two previous posts, I first presented an account of deontological ethics in which it is sometimes ok to go against moral principles in order to previous seriously grave consequences. Moral principles are not all absolutes. Many of them have thresholds, and if the consequences are bad enough the principle is no longer in effect. I then argued that this kind of deontological view allows a pro-life voter to vote for a pro-choice candidate who is not as bad (to a pro-lifer) than a more strongly pro-choice candidate (and who is better in the voter's mind on other issues).

Now I want to apply the same kind of reasoning to a situation within the Republican primary. A commenter on this post said the following:

Actually, it is NOT the federal government's purpose to protect our life, liberty, and property. The federal govt's job is much narrower than that, and is spelled out clearly in Article 1, Sec 8, for anyone who can read. If you insist on giving the feds more powers than those granted by the Constitution, you promote lawlessness and open up to the Congress and Executive a boundless field of power, no longer subject to definition.

The Bill of Rights doesn't say, "Congress shall make laws protecting our freedom of speech" (for example.) No, rather it's a negative, "Congress shall make no law..." Congress is prohibited from infringing on our rights. The Constitution should be viewed as a restrictive document, defining and restraining federal power.

The only crimes Congress has a right to punish are piracy, counterfeiting, and treason. Murder, jaywalking, rape, embezzling do not fall under federal jurisdiction, therefore may not be punished by the feds. Abortion is murder. But even if abortion were "healthcare" it would still be without federal jurisdiction, as healthcare is not listed among the enumerated powers.

To insist that the feds must prosecute abortionists is to trash the whole Constitution in letter and spirit. If we amend the Constitution to prohibit abortion (in order to restrain the out of control courts) then we are also putting the nail in the coffin of federalism, and altering the spirit of the Constitution.

Ron Paul is the most principled and consistent opponent of abortion in DC today! He is principled rather than pragmatic; ends do not justify means.

One issue is the original meaning/intent of the Constitution as opposed to all that's been added in how courts have interpreted the Constitution and how the government now functions as a result. The U.S. Constitution does give a very narrow purpose for Congress's role. But two things might be said for rejecting such a narrow view today, and neither involves the idea of a living Constitution that typifies judicial liberalism.

Does the Constitution set up the judiciary branch to interpret the law and the Constitution? The Constitution never speaks of judicial review (although the Federalist Papers do). The Supreme Court is never given any task at all in the Constitution itself, although it is said to have power extending to all cases in law and equity that arise under the Constitution. But power to do what?

A few days ago I posted about the differences between deontological and consequentialist views in ethics. Consequentialists think consequences are all that matters in terms of evaluating the moral status of an action. Deontologists think other factors can sometimes trump consequences, and thus you'll end up with situations when doing the right thing requires doing something that doesn't lead to the best consequences.

My main point in the post was to defend a moderate deontological position in one respect. Absolutists think the moral principles that are more important than consequences are always more important than the consequences. In other words, absolutists hold that deontological moral principles always apply, and consequences are irrelevant. A moderate deontologist in this respect will argue that deontological principles are not always absolute in that sense. Sometimes consequences will be so much more important that the principle doesn't truimp the consequences in that case. These deontological principles will then have a threshold. If the consequences are serious enough that they surpass the threshold, then the principle no longer holds for that action. If they are below that threshold, then they hold.

An example of how this works comes from Plato. It's usually wrong to steal, and if you borrow something it's usually immoral to refuse to return it. But what if you borrow your friend's sword, and your friend returns to you asking for the sword after you've discovered that your friend intends to use it to commit a great evil? Plato argues that it would be wrong to return the sword, even though normally you ought to do so. The moderate deontologist explains this in terms of this particular action being above the threshold for the immorality of stealing (or more precisely of refusing to return borrowed possesions).

In the rest of this post, I'd like to apply this line of thought to the first case I presented at the outset of my previous post. I want to say that in those cases a deontologist can say what I want to say without being a consequentialist. The first case was a pro-life voter who shudders at pulling the lever for someone as pro-choice as Rudy Giuliani, even if the consequence of pro-lifers taking such an attitude is that the even more pro-choice Hillary Clinton would be guaranteed to become the next president. Two things matter here. One is that Rudy Giuliani really is preferable to Hillary Clinton according to pro-life criteria, even if both are much closer to the not preferred end of the spectrum. The second is that the moral principles at stake here are not absolutes, and in certain situations above the threshold the principles no longer apply.

As a fiscal conservative with federalist tendencies, Giuliani doesn't think the federal government is the place to further such an agenda. He didn't even further it at the local level when he was mayor of New York City. He simply retained the status quo. Hillary Clinton would much more militantly pursue a pro-choice regime.



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