How Would A Patriot Act?

This post is an attempt to pimp the soon-to-be-released How Would a Patriot Act?. Preorder it here now; it releases on May 15 and it's only $7.20. It's also been #1 on Amazon's best seller list since Monday night, and this after only being publicized by word of mouth in the blogosphere.

Glenn Greenwald, the author of this book and this blog, is an exceptional writer, a master of crafting concise, cogent arguments. Unclaimed Territory stands at the top of my blogroll for good reason. Even though he's only been blogging since October, he won the Koufax award for best new blog and has skyrocketed in popularity to become one of the most read on the internet.

Glenn is not exactly a leftist. While he's widely linked to by liberal bloggers, the values he stands for are universally American, the very principles our nation was founded on. This sums up his story nicely:
Glenn Greenwald was not a political man. Not liberal, not conservative. Politicians were all the same and it didn’t matter which party was in power. Extremists on both ends canceled each other out, and the United States would essentially remain forever centrist. Or so he thought.

Then came September 11, 2001. Greenwald’s disinterest in politics was replaced by patriotism, and he supported the war in Afghanistan. He also gave President Bush the benefit of the doubt over his decision to invade Iraq. But, as he saw Americans and others being disappeared, jailed and tortured, without charges or legal representation, he began to worry. And when he learned his president had seized the power to spy on American citizens on American soil, without the oversight required by law, he could stand no more. At the heart of these actions, Greenwald saw unprecedented and extremist theories of presidential power, theories that flout the Constitution and make President Bush accountable to no one, and no law.

How Would a Patriot Act? is one man’s story of being galvanized into action to defend America’s founding principles, and a reasoned argument for what must be done. Greenwald’s penetrating words should inspire a nation to defend the Constitution from a president who secretly bestowed upon himself the powers of a monarch. If we are to remain a constitutional republic, Greenwald writes, we cannot abide radical theories of executive power, which are transforming the very core of our national character, and moving us from democracy toward despotism. This is not hyperbole. This is the crisis all Americans—liberals and conservatives--now face.

In the spirit of the colonists who once mustered the strength to denounce a king, Greenwald invites us to consider: How would a patriot act today?


A lot of digressions to make a relatively minor point...

One of the few programs I watch regularly on television is South Park. Generally speaking, Trey and Matt, the guys behind the show, put together an entertaining program that rightly pokes fun at many who deserve to be mocked.

The fact that they target people on both the left and the right makes them think--or, at least, it makes many of their fans think--that they go after everybody. But any observant regular viewer will soon see they are fairly typical libertarians.

(Perhaps you've heard of "South Park Republicans," the amoral twenty-somethings who can be found attending YAF meetings or going to see Ann "No Nickname Can Adequately Capture My Odiousness" Coulter speak live.)

So just tonight, I watched the end of the great episode about the Mormons, where they tell the story of Joseph Smith (a story Mormons actually know) to appropriate musical accompaniment. It really makes the Mormons out to be the morons that most of them probably are.

But the new episode thereafter featured Al Gore, propounding a ridiculous theory about a "manbearpig" that posed a global threat. Even worse, in his ill-conceived endeavors to stop the manbearpig, Gore almost kills the quartet of youngsters for which the show is known, and then praises himself for saving the world from a terrible threat. Essentially, this is in response to Gore's upcoming film about global warming--which I highly recommend, having seen the live presentation on which it is based.

You know, I don't understand how these two feel perfectly fine making fun of the illogic of religious fanatics, but then turn around and deny something around which I scientific consensus has been established. Penn & Teller did the same thing on their show Bullshit. It threw me for a real loop when I saw that episode at a time when I was not well-versed with the science.

(If this weren't bad enough, Comedy Central has the gall of putting the cesspool that is Mind of Mencia between South Park and The Daily Show.

"Look at me, I'm Carlos Mencia! Der-der-der! I think it's okay to make fun of people based on simplistic stereotypes since I'm not (quite) white! Black people steal things! Yeah, I went there! Gay guys are effeminate! Can you believe how un-PC I am?! Mexicans are lazy! Whoa, I am so outrageous and in your face! Der-der-der!")

Anyway, it's bad enough that these people adopt pro-corporate policies and embrace the myth (recently challenged by a new study) that hard work is all it takes to make it big (and the corollary that poor people are just lazy).

(Really, this last deserves its own post. Something like 80% of Americans believe in this rags-to-riches American dream bullshit and it probably contributes to people's reluctance to fund social programs for the needy. As the article points out, race is also a factor here, if that isn't obvious.)

But why do they feel a need to deny global warming? Is there any reason why a robust economy can't be more ecologically responsible? Isn't there money to be made in alternative energy sources? Why trust oil companies over the scientific community? Why, Matt and Trey? Why, Penn and Teller? Why!?

A number of recent episodes have had similar themes: there was one parodying The Day After Tomorrow, another blasting smug hybrid car owners, and I'm sure others aren't hard to find. Really, though, it's hard to take issue with people like these because you look like you have no sense of humor ("So it's okay to make fun of Mel Gibson, George Bush, and the Mormons, but once they target Al Gore, you're all up in arms! You humorless hypocrite!").

There is no debate here. It may seem closed-minded to say that and global warming talk may sound like the kind of fear-mongering that Bush is condemned for, but there's virtually no disagreement on this by the people who know best: we are in for a world of pain and it's only going to get worse if we ignore it. It may be An Inconvenient Truth, but it's a truth nonetheless.


Attention loyal readers and devoted fans:

Alas and alack, but it's that time of the semester again, in which I am too busy not working on term papers to post very much.

It's quite sad, but perhaps I'll excerpt some of the papers I write in the upcoming weeks for public consumption. I've got some exciting paper topics, so I may just be inclined to share my unmatched insights and incomparable eloquence. Ha!

My hope is that by mid-May I can return to a more regular blogging schedule.

For the record, I just want to say that Carlos Mencia is a tremendous douche.


Class in US Politics

Add another to the small list of Democrats who impress me (e.g., Feingold, Gore, Dean, Conyers, Kucinich, Harkin, Obama): John Edwards.
Edwards told the conferees "When I spoke on the campaign trail about the two Americas, people called it a downer." The former Senator from North Carolina had anchored his 2004 presidential campaign with the "two Americas" theme about the nation's widening economic divide. Once Kerry invited him to join his ticket as his running mate, Edwards had to downplay what some pundits called his "class war" rhetoric, but which he insisted was more about reconciliation and reform.

Now Edwards has not only resurrected the rhetoric, but also has pinned his hopes for the White House on a strategy of connecting to the nation's grassroots activists. Since January 2005, he has visited 34 states and three foreign countries talking about the "two Americas." In key swing states like Ohio, Iowa, Arizona, Michigan, and Nevada - where an increase in voter turnout among working class voters could make a big difference in the outcome of races for Congress, Senator, Governor and President -- Edwards has joined Maud Hurd, president of the activist group ACORN, to promote grassroots campaigns to raise the minimum wage. At each stop Edwards said, "I am strongly committed to moving people out of poverty and into the middle class," and one of most important things we can do is help families earn more money at work."

He has fired up the crowds at union rallies in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago and Boston as part of a campaign to raise wages and benefits for hotel workers. At a union rally in Chicago, he said, "The best anti-poverty strategy is a strong labor movement."
Much like Gore, Edwards has spent his time since losing the election productively and engaged in causes he cares about. I like that his approach to poverty relies on some of elements of conservatism which I think get the issue right (e.g., promoting personal responsibility, reducing teen pregnancies, strengthening families, etc.).

He's also southern and charismatic and stands a decent chance at getting the Democratic nomination in '08. I would gladly vote for him. It means a lot to me when a politician spends his time outside of politics doing something like this, rather than becoming a lobbyist or corporate consultant. It suggests that he actually cares about the issue.

Read the whole thing.


Is Iraq a Just War?

Most of us would see this as an absurd question. The answer is clearly no. Not only is it unjust, but it is immoral, and illegal, and incompetently waged to boot.

However, an esteemed colleague of ours will be trying to argue otherwise this Saturday, as he shares with us his master's thesis. I applaud him for undertaking such a challenging effort and I greatly look forward to hearing it.

Nevertheless, as someone who devotes much time to researching current political events (perhaps moreso than any of my fellow students), I've taken it upon myself to refute him to the best of my ability in the following question and answer session. I'm not sure what argument(s) he will make, but I shall come prepared.

Toward that end, my good friend who goes by the handle "Crypthanatopsis" has undertaken a request of mine to compile some research and present a multi-installment essay on his blog, Prestimentitation, thoroughly refuting the justness of the Iraq War.

He's doing me a great favor here since other duties prevent me from devoting as much time researching this as I'd prefer, and his work is quite good. He's not an academic, but he has more than the requisite level of talent necessary for sound scholarship.

So do check it out.


Intuitions about Criminal Justice

After more conversation with Ben, I've become increasingly convinced that "conservative" attitudes about criminal justice are often more well founded than "liberal" ones. In this post, I'm going to try to elucidate some of the natural sympathies and antipathies we have about this in order to argue for a more "conservative" approach to criminal justice.

(N.B.: I am not using "conservative" and "liberal" in any particularly rigorous sense. I do not mean to suggest that these two are exhaustive, mutually exclusive, or even well-defined categories. This is a sketch, as blog posts almost invariably are.)

I think a lot of our attitudes about crime come about because we empathize with some of the individuals involved more easily than others. I notice in myself, as more or less a liberal, the following kinds of attitudes.

1. General antipathy towards authority figures. Face it, we liberals don't particularly care for police officers, judges, and other individuals who exercise power over others in a very direct way. We don't like being told what to do and we feel that many of the laws that people commonly break are unjust (e.g., drug laws) and that many authorities like to abuse their power. At the same time, we don't like to exercise authority over others if it seems arbitrary.

2. Sympathy with the wrongly accused. There is an overabundance of literary and cultural figures who suffer horrible fates through no fault of their own. Kafka's Trial and the fate of Dmitri in The Brothers Karamazov are two examples that spring to my mind immediately.

3. Anti-racism. Part and parcel with the previous two considerations, liberals tend to focus on examples of blatant racism in the system. Many African American men are wrongly accused and unjustly convicted. We worry both about the plight of these individuals and the racist tendencies of police and other officials.

4. Sympathy for criminals who grow up in impoverished or hostile environments. Even in those cases in which a criminal is justly apprehended, we still tend to want to be lenient on individuals who are often just responding to a harsh upbringing. We think to ourselves that we'd do the same things if we grew up in such awful conditions.

I think all of these are legitimate concerns and should have a place in our moral life. But let's consider some contrasting conservative intuitions which counterbalance them.

5. Sympathy with the victims of crimes. Conservatives are wont to point out how awful it is to be victimized and how justice demands an appropriate response, a punishment that fits the crime. Liberals share these sympathies in selective cases, for instance, rape and sexual assault and hate crimes.

6. Antipathy towards criminals. Conservatives are much less likely to empathize with offenders, particularly in cases of violent crime. We liberals have a distaste for some criminals--white collar embezzlers and exploiters, war criminals and profiteers like Bush & Co., those who commit hate crimes, etc.

7. Safety concerns. All of us have these to some extent, but I think the desire to live in a safe community in which one's loved ones are less at risk is especially strong in conservatives. This leads them to worry about, not the wrongly convicted, but the unjustly acquitted. Conservatives don't want known criminals roaming the streets--and this holds also for those who served time in prison but are unreformed.

8. Trust of authority figures. Conservatives are also more likely to have respect for law enforcement officials. They recognize that these individuals perform a valuable service for communities and often risk their lives to protect citizens.

These lists aren't exhaustive, of course, but I think they give us a basis to work from. I think that we would all, regardless of political ideology, do well to consider the different perspectives involved so that uncritical intuitions don't lead us to make hasty conclusions.

My argument so far advocates a more balanced approach to criminal justice in which no individual sympathy or antipathy skews our reasoning. Now, I hope to point out an additional cluster of liberal intuitions, which, if reconsidered, would tend to support more traditionally conservatives attitudes about criminal justice.

Punishment, restrictions of freedom, and even mere unpleasantness are related phenomena to which many liberals harbor a strong aversion. I think this prejudice comes out particularly in liberal attitudes towards education. Children are increasingly coddled and are led to develop bad habits which harm both them and others, but which could be nipped in the bud by an appropriately applied punishment.

For example, behaviors which have traditionally been stigmatized in schools are increasingly being tolerated. One instance which Ben pointed out to me involves pencil tapping. Some children have a nervous tendency to repeatedly tap their pen or pencil on their desk, making it difficult for others to concentrate.

The most effective approach to dealing with this behavior would probably be a (literal) slap on the wrist, but even if we avoid corporal punishment entirely, it still seems the most reasonable response would be to punish the children in some other way (maybe even just telling them to stop, which puts a social pressure on them).

However, what some teachers have begun doing is giving the students drinking straws to tap instead. The problem is taken as some inflexible given, a natural disorder which requires educators to accommodate students rather than vice-versa. But this is bad for everyone involved. The child is reinforced in a bad behavior that, outside of the protective school environment, could lead to other bad consequences. Meanwhile, we have to take extra time and effort to see to the children's "special needs".

Pencil tapping is obviously a trivial example of this, but more generally there is this strong aversion among liberal educators to any kind of traditional discipline. What we lack if we are guided by this prejudice is a more robust sense of individual well-being and freedom.

Freedom is not simply non-interference. This idea, famously articulated in Mill's harm principle, is simply inappropriate for educational settings. There is also a positive sense of freedom in which the free person is she who develops her talents and skills and has mastery over herself. She is less guided by prejudice and blind habit in her actions.

In educational settings, it is wrong not to interfere with the individual being educated. The right kinds of habits must be established for a child to become a fully competent adult. But the same applies to matters of criminal justice. This is also an educational institution, in a broad sense of the term.

Criminals are individuals who have acquired certain bad habits which we would do well to eliminate (the habits, not the criminals). Crimes come with natural benefits (the stolen car stereo, the relief of anger taken out on another, or any sort of free ride). Punishments are necessary to offset these benefits: if a punishment is certain, swift, and sufficiently severe, it can effectively deter bad behavior (leaving open here the precise meaning of "bad behavior").

It doesn't matter if the individual consciously recognizes this or not. In the case of children, the change is often unconscious. But even among adults, we constantly (and unthinkingly) reward behavior in others that we like and punish those we dislike. And we adjust our own behavior in response to the rewards and punishments meted out by others.

If we want to deter crime, then, we can do so effectively by viewing it as an educational problem that requires cultivation of the proper habits, ones which are pro-social and lead to fuller self-development of individual, i.e., more freedom in a positive sense.

A multipronged approach is appropriate here. Early interventions are the most effective (it's easy to extinguish habits if they don't have time to become entrenched), so we ought both to apply punishments appropriately to children (both misbehaving schoolchildren and juvenile offenders outside of school) and to young adults who are first time offenders.

More certain, swifter, more severe punishments may pose a threat to negative rights, but they promise to increase our freedom in other ways (as Cicero points out, "we are servants of the law in order that we might be free"; this is simply the meaning of autonomy, giving oneself a law).

There's a lot more to be said about this, but hopefully you're beginning to see where I'm going with this. Having sympathy with criminals who had difficult lives is not incompatible with punishing them, even harshly. It may be possible to break some of the bad habits they acquired, which is of benefit to everyone.

This still leaves open problems about racism, abuses of power, and other potential systemic problems. But dealing with these problems does not require acting more leniently toward criminals. Consider one situation, which I know will rub your intuitions the wrong way.

Let's say, for instance, that a punishment is devised which involves regularly administering electric shocks to prisoners over the duration of their sentence. Assume that the punishment is extremely painful, but does not pose a significant threat to physical or psychological health (this is a big assumption, I know, but entertain it for the sake of argument). Now, presumably such an aversive punishment would not require the same amount of time to be effective as would doing time in some sort of plush minimum security prison. Thus, even if there are individuals wrongly accused and convicted, they would lose less time from their lives in undergoing this penalty. In cases where convictions were just, it would cost the state less, reduce the burgeoning prison population, and do more good for the individuals involved.

There are some serious problems with this argument, to be sure, but I'm just trying to make the case for the rationality and appropriate sentiment of an entirely different way of thinking about crime. I'm advocating a more balanced approach to handling criminal justice, which requires rethinking a lot of our common assumptions about behavior and punishment. Please, offer feedback as you see fit.


Why Liberals Misunderstand Conservatives

Jonathan Haidt is one of the most amazing people working in social science today. Along with J.D. Greene, and, in a different way, Antonio Damasio, Haidt has made incredible innovations in understanding the psychological, neurological, and evolutionary origins of human ethical/moral life.

Read this (pdf). (You should also read this [pdf], but it's a bit longer and on a different subject matter.) Here's the abstract:
Researchers in moral psychology and social justice have agreed that morality is about matters of harm, rights, and justice. With this definition of morality, conservative opposition to social justice programs has appeared to be immoral, and has been explained as a product of various non-moral processes, such as system justification or social dominance orientation. In this article we argue that, from an anthropological perspective, the moral domain is usually much broader, encompassing many more aspects of social life and valuing institutions as much or more than individuals. We present theoretical and empirical reasons for believing that there are in fact five psychological systems that provide the foundations for the world's many moralities. The five foundations are psychological preparations for caring about and reacting emotionally to harm, reciprocity (including justice, fairness, and rights), ingroup, hierarchy, and purity. Political liberals have moral intuitions primarily based upon the first two foundations, and therefore misunderstand the moral motivations of political conservatives, who generally rely upon all five foundations.
Brilliant, absolutely brilliant. His five foundations (which, unlike the categories that philosophers will pull out of their asses, are based on the statistical assessment of cross-cultural data) offer a radically novel approach to ethical life.

But, if that weren't a breathtaking enough insight (tears literally came to my eyes when reading this piece [I know, it's a strange tendency I have that when I read about ideas so profound I tear up; I just think it's an indication that I'm in the right business]), he shows how the "impoverished" ethical worldview of political liberals leads us to misunderstand our conservative compatriots, and ascribe motives to them that are just not fair.
When the moral domain is limited by definition to two foundations (harm/welfare/care, and justice/rights/fairness), then social justice is clearly the extension of morality out to the societal level. The programs and laws that social justice activists endorse aim to maximize the welfare and rights of individuals, particularly those whom the activists believe do not receive equal treatment or full justice in their society. If social justice is just morality writ large, it follows that opposition to these programs must be based on concerns other than moral concerns. Social justice research is therefore in part the search for the non-moral motivations ­ such as selfishness, existential fear, or blind prejudice ­ of those who oppose social justice, primarily political conservatives. For example, one of the leading approaches to the study of political attitudes states that political conservatism is a form of motivated social cognition: people embrace conservatism in part "because it serves to reduce fear, anxiety, and uncertainty; to avoid change, disruption, and ambiguity, and to explain, order, and justify inequality among groups and individuals" (Jost et al., 2003, p.340; see also Social Dominance Orientation, Pratto et al., 1994). This view of conservatives is so widespread among justice researchers that it sometimes leads to open expressions of self-righteousness and contempt.
Ben is also a fan of Haidt, and has actually had the opportunity to meet him. He told me that Haidt is the only liberal academic he's encountered who actually seems to understand conservatism. One endorsement, albeit from the most intellectually rigorous conservative I know of, may not suffice to show that he's actually getting the conservative mindset right, but it's a good sign.

Now, if you haven't yet read the whole thing, you should.

His explanation of the culture war is amazing. It's more complex than that, but he certainly has reached a key insight (see his comment about Jon Stewart's interview of Rick Santorum, in particular).

As someone who has worked very hard to understand the conservative mindset--which is so difficult because academics are almost invariably political liberals or, in rare cases, libertarians, which more or less amounts to the same thing (except they seem to reject the whole care/harm ethic and are even more morally impoverished!)--I think this is extremely helpful.

Moreover, it makes me question my own moral beliefs. Now, it seems to me that there is a rational basis for the aspects of morality in which the group is valued over the individual (the hierarchical/traditional and ingroup foundations), but as far as I can tell, purity is based on a mere illusion. If, as Haidt suggests, this last developed as a response to avoiding contaminated meat, it seems that with contemporary understandings of sanitation, disease, and so forth, the purity ethic has been "outgrown".

What disgusts us now is merely an indication of what tended to cause sickness to our ancestors, but now, at best, disgust serves as an intuitive approximation of disease-causing substances. It's interesting that Martha Nussbaum, in her latest book, argues that disgust should have absolutely no place in social policy and law. I tend to agree, since we can now accomplish the function that purity intuitions used to perform through modern medicine and biology.

Now, this does leave untouched the "divine" aspects of the purity ethic, but I'm also inclined to dismiss these as superstitions. Today, there are more rigorous, proven methods of taking care of our bodies and treating it like a "temple": diet, exercise, stress regulation, sanitation, etc. Since the rejection of gay marriage is largely, although not entirely, premised on a disgust of sodomy, I still think there is no sound basis to this, for reasons I just stated.

I won't further explicate Haidt's article or his other body of work (I have other things to do, including responding to people about my last post, which I increasingly feel is inadequate, although I think this stuff sheds a new light on part of what I was trying to get at), but I encourage you to read more of him if you have an interest in ethics (and who doesn't?).


Criminal Justice

This evening I had a phone conversation with Ben. Let me stress once again how vital it is to expose yourself to diverse opinions and arguments. I truly believe that, if not for Ben and his thoughtful conservatism, I would be far less fair and reflective in my thinking.

There are a couple of social issues in particular in which his arguments are especially strong and well supported by evidence. Welfare policies and affirmative action are two such examples, but I'm going to talk about a third one here: the criminal justice system.

My goal is to try to flesh out Ben's arguments somewhat and, since most of my readers are thoughtful liberals and leftists, see how you respond to them, because I really can't find compelling objections. (I apologize, Ben, if I distort your arguments. Feel free to correct me as you see fit.)

One of the key insights of his conservatism is his emphasis on applying psychological research on human behavior to thinking about social issues. This more behavioristic approach is anathema to many liberals--it can be very paternalistic--but even if one accepts Mill's harm principle, it is still compelling (for, we do not exist in isolation; few actions harm the self alone).

The basic idea, as I see it, is that a society should reward good behaviors and punish bad ones. Now, this can be controversial, so let's just apply it to those examples in which almost everyone would agree. For instance, we recognize that violent crimes (murder, assault, rape, etc.) should be punished. Even if there are root causes to violence which we should be addressing, this is no argument against setting up a system that discourages violent behavior.

A good psychologist knows that punishments are most effective if they are swift, certain, and severe. In our current system, this is often not the case with punishments. It's easy, particularly for first-time offenders, to get off with a light sentence or no sentence at all. It would be in our interest (and theirs!), however, to discourage first-time offenders from getting into a habit of committing crimes. If they can get away with it, that serves as an incentive to repeat criminal activities.

If we are interested in deterrence and reform, then the research would support this conclusion about the nature of effective punishment. Swift, certain, severe punishments are more effective deterrents to be sure. Insofar as they deter future acts by appropriately punished criminals, they can also have a reforming effect.

Now, learned helplessness is a possibility with excessively cruel punishments like torture--and there may be negative side effects to any punishment--but these are matters that can be decided empirically. (Since Ben knows the research far better than I, I trust his judgment about the results of experiments, if not always about their normative implications.)

At this point I want to raise a few objections, both theoretical and practical: 1) Our criminal justice system should be... well, just. Punishments should fit the crime and innocent people should not be punished. 2) The tendency to commit crimes is the result of a combination of genetics and developmental conditions, such so that it is unjust to hold people responsible for happening to be born into a bad situation. 3) There are many crimes in which the law is draconian, for instance drug-related offenses. In other words, practically speaking we find numerous violations of the first concern. 4) Racism and other biases are deeply entrenched and ineliminable in our system, so that harsher punishment is, in effect, a racist policy.

In the case of 1, I think there is a serious concern. Our criminal justice system operates with a principle of assumed innocence in which the burden is on the state to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Conservatives note that these safeguards sometimes go too far; in any case, a compelling case can be made that we err too much on one side. More innocent people are let free but so are more guilty ones. It is an empirical question whether this generates positive social utility, but the current evidence seems to be in support of the conservative stance.

This starts to work in the direction of the second objection, to which one might pose the following response. Even if we grant that individuals lack free will and, thus, responsibility for their actions, this does not mean that we shouldn't treat them as if they were in control of their actions. It can be better both for the individual and for the larger community to assign blame and punish wrongful acts.

For the individual, because a stronger punishment is more likely to change behavior (if one jail sentence is so horrific, it will discourage perps from doing things which would send them back to the slammer). For society, because it is able to isolate and contain behaviors that threaten order and stability. (Again, of course, these arguments rely on certain empirically observable conditions.)

But isn't there a tension here between responsibility and policies based on predicting behaviors? Perhaps, but there is a way to look at the role of the state in a way that is more compatible with individual autonomy. Certain actions that individuals might choose will be made to come at a higher cost, so that people will be discouraged from doing those things.

Third, we come to a practical objection. In some cases, there seems to be no significant, demonstrable harms involved; in others, no viable options for individuals except for crime. The two "long wars," on drugs and terror, are excellent examples of government going too far to restrict individual rights.

Yes, it may be the case that some of our laws are unjust, but this is more an argument against such laws rather than an argument against penalizing people who break the law. The principle that the punishment should fit the crime works both ways: in too many cases individuals who have acted in horrific ways have not been adequately penalized.

That fair punishment is difficult to implement does not constitute an argument against its value. Moreover, it does not necessarily limit the ability to challenge unjust laws. Even the act of going to prison can provides a means of protesting injustice (consider MLK's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail").

Finally, we reach the issue of racism. This is an underlying theme in all the social issues I mentioned above. An amazing thing about many otherwise intelligent liberals is that as soon as race (or gender or sexuality) enters into the picture, all self-reflective criticism stops. Their implicit argument runs like this:
1. Anything that is racist (sexist, heterosexist, etc.) is beyond the pale.
2. Any policy (empirical result, standardized test, etc.) which puts blacks (other racial minorities, women, gays and lesbians, etc.) at a disadvantage is racist (etc.).
3. Thus, etc.
This kind of argument is also used to discredit research on IQ and other controversial measures; any study which shows statistically significant group differences is automatically labeled racist. In academia, to be labeled a bigot is a death knell; even if you're tenured, no one will listen to you anymore.

When you try to discuss issues like this in a public forum you get: "Oh, didn't you know that Stephen J. Gould has definitively shown that race is not even a biological category?" "Didn't you get the memo that all gender differences are socially constructed?" "Haven't you heard that there's a gay gene and sexual orientation is not a choice?" I find this kind of thoughtlessness infinitely annoying. In some cases it may happen to be correct, but let's not lie about what the evidence is, even if it hurts our case.

Thus, even if we grant that the criminal justice system is systematically racist, this objection is more an argument against current judicial practice rather than against conservative legal principles. Instead of letting blacks off on crimes for which whites are acquitted, we might just as consistently convict more white lawbreakers.

I don't know that I find all of these responses adequate, but generally speaking this mode of argumentation is one that liberals too easily dismiss, or don't even consider in the first place.

Even in a non-paternalistic state it just makes sense to discourage uncontroversially bad behavior and to encourage people to develop themselves as much as possible. This is certainly not incompatible with social reforms targeting poverty and discrimination or with human rights. Let's keep in mind that people who break the social contract thereby justly lose some of their freedoms.

So, is this case at all compelling? What do y'all think?


Intuition, Reflective Equilibrium, and Utilitarianism

I just finished reading a recent article by Peter Singer discussing the research findings of, among others, 3 very interesting researcher: Jonathan Haidt, J.D. Greene, and, to a lesser extent, Antonio Damasio. The question that these researchers seek to ask is perhaps the central question of moral psychology: Why do we think the way we do about ethics?

[Singer's article is highly, highly worth reading (as is the work of these researchers), and if you'd like a copy of the pdf, let me know and I can send it to you. Or you can look it up yourself: Singer, Peter. "Ethics and Intuition." The Journal of Ethics (2005) 9: 331-352.]

Investigate the details for yourself, but the basic findings have been thus: for most people, ethical judgments based on emotional reactions (i.e., "intuitions") precede the justifications for these judgments, which are usually ad hoc rationalizations. In those people who rely more on rational considerations, they tend to have the same emotional reactions, but don't employ them. Instead, they spend time reasoning--it's been shown that they take longer to produce a judgment--before they articulate a judgment.

So that's step 1 of the argument: moral intuitions play a major role in our ethical lives. So why do we have the intuitions that we do? The short answer is evolution within a social context. For a longer answer, see Singer's article.

Singer, who wisely disparages attempts by people to turn survival of the fittest into a norm, now goes beyond the question of origins, asking a version of Korsgaard's "normative question": why should we trust our intuitions if they developed merely as a response to certain selective pressures that our anecestors faced? In essence, this is a refusal to accept "natural" as a more characteristic--there is no intelligible conception of it that is consistent and, as my colleague Jeff has pointed out, invocation of the word is often an excuse to ignore other people's points of view.

The conclusion that Singer reaches is that we have no reason to trust our intuitions, knowing what we know, no reason to apologize for evolution's "nature red in tooth and claw," the blind, slow and gruesome process of trial and error that allowed us to be the beings we are today only through a great cost of suffering.

An implication of this is that views which appeal to moral intuitions as a basis for ethics, such as Rawls' use of "reflective equilibrium," are extremely questionable. Singer suggests that there is no reason to even factor intuitions into ethical decisions, that they observe absolutely no weight.

This also flies in the face of Bernard Williams' view about avoiding theory in ethics. The justification he provides for this is largely an intuitive one. But why trust those intuitions? They are not merely given, but are open to question. History is full of unquestioned prejudices which could only be dissolved after being put to the test.

That's all I'll say for now. Singer's article includes the beginnings of a response to those who think that we need some intuitions, such as that pain and death are bad, even if we're utilitarians. I think it's more difficult than this, but I find myself tending to side with Singer here. Socrates was constantly going around and getting people to examine their core intuitions.

Should not ethical philosophy, while employing moral psychology for therapeutic purposes (that is, only by recognizing our natural limitations and by training, building new habits, can we become better people), nevertheless be practiced in a similar critical way?