Friday, March 28, 2008

Abstinence-only sex ed and personal vs. public justification revisited

Upon rereading my original post on abstinence-only sex education and whether or not it is justifiable as public policy, I realized that I may have seemed a bit muddled on a few things - or at least not crystal clear. So, below are a few clarifications. The original post can be found here.

First clarification: I do not deny anywhere that faith represents a form of knowledge and/or justification. In fact, the second half of part two of my original post addresses that form of knowledge. The argument is that such knowledge is inherently personal, not externally verifiable, and not transferable to a third party. The entire idea of listening with the heart, rather than the ears, seems premised on that fact and most mystic documents (including Christian mystics) confirm the indescribability of such experiences.

Second clarification: My point in part 3 is that there is a fundamental conflict between a freedom-promoting state (including religious protections) and forging a policy based on the beliefs of a portion of its members. Consequently, to argue that the Catholic values must drive state policy is to undermine the very justification of the representative state, and to implicitly argue in favor of a theocracy. You may wish to argue for a theocracy, which is a perfectly valid theological and philosophical position, albeit one that I disagree with - as have many Christians throughout history (Dante and Dino Compangi both spring to mind here). Furthermore, I think you would struggle to find a convincing justification of a theocratic state in the scriptures (although some justification is in Catholic tradition, beginning with Augustine).

Final clarification: Nothing that I outlined in the original e-mail is intended to argue that you or the church should curtail your actions in any way. The state is also philosophically prevented from ordering you to promote (or even provide) condoms in a religious institution/education program. The same should hold for Catholic schools, particularly those that do not receive funding from the state (I think, by and large, there are exceptions written into the laws and the courts have created space for this). Nor do I suggest that you stop trying to convert people - although I doubt that the public chastisement of others is the way most effective way to go about it. The state properly has no role in preventing such a discourse and should encourage such discussions to the greatest extent possible. One of the major, founding points of the modern state is to make it so that giving to Caesar does not conflict (or conflicts as little as possible) with giving to God.

Conclusion: In essence, all I am arguing is that the state is definitionally not Catholic (or Muslim, Protestant, Buddhist, Hindu, etc.). Thus, justification for public, state-run policies requires justification that is objectively verifiable. Faith-experience does not meet this criterion, as many of its own proponents admit. Thus, while it can provide personal justification (i.e. justification for all of my actions), it cannot provide public/state justification (in a non-theocracy). The argument is based on the epistemic sources of justification for both (1) Christian morality and (2) public policy in a pluralist state - and I find an inherent logical conflict/contradiction in merging the two. The consequence of my argument is that for public policy to be based on ANY theology, one must live in a theocracy - either de facto or de jure.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Jeremiah Wright: The Full Story

You know - I find it interesting how the Media consistently spins things out of control, warping one-liners into their worst possible meaning. Below are the full speeches given by Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright, and I think people will see that the story is far more complicated than the media has made it out to be.

"America's chickens are coming home to roost!"

"God Damn America!"

Whether you agree with him or not, the points he makes are valid and deserve to be taken seriously, not to be presented as half-truths. And, whether you agree with Rev. Wright or not, you have to admit that he knows how to give a speech.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Abstinence-only sex ed

So, there has been quite a little debate that a few of my friends are having about abstinence-only sex ed. One of them, a Catholic seminarian, posted an interesting piece on relativism vs. absolutism and the spiritual harm that promiscuity does to others as justification for the state. He also cited a few articles on how condom distribution has been less-than-effective in Africa. Below is my response (names removed):


Dear _____,

You’ve managed to cast the debate as a dichotomy, a false dichotomy in this case. The question is not whether or not one bases a claim in a notion of philosophical anthropology, or whether a proper ontological perspective is lacking – rather, it is a question of which ontology is the correct one. Similarly, there are not simply two competing ontologies – one “relativistic” and the other “Christian” (although some comments can be taken that way). You implicitly accept this by addressing your comments to both relativism and hedonic utilitarianism at the same time. First and foremost, these are distinct philosophic positions, one holding that there is no truth or goodness, the other holding that the fundamental good is individual happiness which should be maximized (although obviously not made “perfect” or complete because of the limits of this world). Such a view is, at least, based on a conception that there is some similarity between humans regarding what they believe is good, and takes happiness and pleasure to be part of that similarity. There are problems with the view, and it is not one to which I subscribe, but to casually dismiss a valid philosophic position with a history that goes back to Epicurus shows a great deal of hubris (particularly to dismiss it with the same logic as you dismiss relativism).

There are really three questions at play here: (1) what is the ontological view you espouse, (2) how is that view justified, (3) how does the justification of that view apply to the current context (i.e. the regulation of social values and public education in modern society)? I use “modern society” so as to avoid the technical legal debates associated with the US Constitution. The answer to (1) is fairly straightforward, given that you are advocating for the Catholic worldview. Your ethical absolutism comes from the will of an infinitely powerful and wise creator God. That will is expressed and interpreted through the Word and the Spirit (which has expressed itself throughout history, giving rise to Tradition). (2) and (3) are more complicated, and I’ll try to address them in what follows.

With regards to (2), the justification of your ontology can come from two directions. The first is a conclusive proof of the existence of the Christian God and his moral tenets. This has been tried a number of times – Anselm (ontological), Aquinas (cosmological and teleological), and Pascal (pragmatic) are probably the most famous examples of attempted proofs. Each has been refined a number of times, but each has also met with potent objections. Anselm’s proof is most chiefly disputed by Kant and Russell’s arguments that existence is not a property (rather it is a quantifier), and as such cannot be analyzed a priori (propositions concerning existence are a posteriori propositions requiring direct evidence). To my knowledge, this objection has yet to be successfully refuted. Similarly, the cosmological and teleological proofs can, at best, show the existence of an architect or “first cause” of the universe – but cannot speak to the nature of that architect or cause. They may be able to prove the existence of some form of spiritual being, but not the existence of the Christian-specific God (again, see Kant on this). Finally, Pascal’s pragmatic proof makes no ontological claims, but simply argues that it is individually utility-maximizing to believe in God. Why? Because if I don’t believe and God does exist, I go to Hell (whereas if I do, I get Heaven). Similarly, if God does not exist, it makes not one whit of difference if I believe, because I get nothingness at the end either way. Pascal’s argument makes no claims about ontology, and really isn’t a proof in the classical sense. As such, it does not help the current debate.

Without conclusive philosophical proof of the Christian God’s existence, let alone scientific proof, we are left with option two: faith built on a personal relationship with God. While I will be the first to admit of the powerful effect that faith has on the individual, and while I wholly agree that faith can give personal knowledge of a loving God, there is a difficulty with the use of faith as a justification for any given ontology. The very nature of a faith-based experience, of a mystical experience, is that it is epistemically non-transferable (and potentially non-verifiable). Such experiences are personal encounters with the ineffable, and often manifest themselves in radically different ways. I have yet to meet a person who has not experienced such an encounter who can understand what it feels like, what it means. Nor have I met one who accepts that such experience comes from a non-psychological/neurological source. Thus, while such experiences may be powerful divine instruments in leading a person to faith, they are not an objective form of justification.

This brings us to (3): how do these forms of justification apply to regulation or social values in modern society? The only forms of potentially conclusive justification currently available for the existence of the Christian God (upon whom Christian morality depends), are subjective, non-verifiable, and non-transferable. Additionally, the context in which we find ourselves is a pluralistic one – culturally, religiously, and philosophically. In the absence of philosophic justification that is both conclusive and objective for the existence of God, we are left with the observable world and verifiable human similarities as the basis of our morality. It is similarly incumbent upon a representative state to give weight to the difference found within that society, and to limit itself so as not to infringe on our ability to express our opinions – in speech, press, or religion. Indeed, the creation of institutional frameworks to work out social compromises is part and parcel of liberal democratic regimes – with an eye to not only uphold the views of the majority, but also to protect the fundamental rights of the minority.

A liberal democratic state is limited both by purpose and design – and for good reason. Without such limitations and structures to facilitate compromise, the state has often become subject to the whims of those who would seek power for its own sake. While there are justifications to such power, as Augustine and Hobbes would be quick to point out, I think that history has shown authoritarian rule to be inferior to liberal democracy – for all the failings in liberal democracy. At the very least, their institutions allow for gradual change to take place as the social contract and the compromises inherent in such a contract change with the times.

In such a context, social regulations need to be based on verifiable social harm and a healthy skepticism towards what ethical pronouncements we can make. The modern state exists to provide a general framework of order and stability in society, to prevent obvious, egregious, and agreed upon violations of social norms. Given the lack of observable social harm, particularly in the face of the success of universal contraceptive provisioning at alleviating the earthly harms of such practices, the limitation of sexual education to abstinence-only is a decision that is beyond the reach of the modern state – just as requiring private religious schools to promote the use of contraceptives should be beyond the reach of the state (at least for programs that do not receive government funding, other cases may be more complex), and just as requiring that abstinence not be discussed should be beyond the scope of the state.

The promotion and state insurance of maximal-plausible real freedom (political, civil, and social) is not without cost, but we promote state intervention in the moral fabric of society at our own peril, particularly if such intervention flies in the face of proven results. It is not and should not be the place of the state to interfere in cases where morality is epistemologically uncertain. It is the role of the state to act upon what we, as a society, know. It is emphatically not the province of the state to act upon what one portion of its citizens believes. Personal justification may come through faith, but public justification cannot if it is to remain coherent and maintain the social contract (on this note, and on the need to step beyond individual perspective in politics more generally, I would suggest John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice).

Incidentally, on the articles you suggested in your comments regarding AIDS in Africa, I think you’ll find that the majority of scientific and development literature is against their arguments. It’s not that condoms don’t prevent AIDS transmission, nor do programs including their distribution increase the prevalence of HIV/AIDS due to enhanced promiscuity. What they may find is that it takes a while to overcome cultural hurdles towards their use, that high-risk groups are more likely to listen if provided with anti-retroviral treatment, and that it takes a while to scale up distribution programs until they are effective. These are all understandable points and underscore the need to include abstinence in any education program. The best and most proven method is to couple abstinence education with free and universal condom distribution, and anti-retroviral treatment for the disease. Abstinence is the safest way, but people will continue to have sex with a number of partners. Poor African men who move from location to location often cannot afford to move their families with them, and tend to seek companionship where each job is. Similarly, groups that advocate abstinence-only education to prostitutes with no other job skills are merely undermining the efforts of aid workers (although, to their credit, the articles do admit that). Once again, we need to be aware of the plural nature of these contexts and do what works best – which typically means tackling the problem from a number of angles. Development needs to be a holistic process to be done effectively.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Obama on Racism

Below is the video of Barack Obama's recent speech on racism and Reverend Wright's comments. I think I will let the video speak for itself.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Chain Letters and Saudi Oil

I always find it amusing when I get a chain letter proposing a wonderful solution to a social or political problem. The current fad seems to be getting off of Middle East and Venezuelan oil supplies. The typical solution basically says "boycott these companies who use middle eastern oil, and you will solve the problem." Unfortunately, boycotting specific companies on an inelastic good like oil won't work, even if we assume that the boycott works to start with. Here's why...

Basic economic logic says that if we all start buying from the companies suggested, they will see a sudden surge in demand leading to skyrocketing prices as they run up against supply constraints. One of two things then happen - either (a) boycotters notice that other companies (Mobil, Shell, etc) have much lower prices because they have seen less demand and switch back to them, or (b) Hess, BP, et al. purchase excess supply of oil from middle eastern sources to maintain enough supply to meet the increased demand. In either scenario, aggregate demand remains the same for oil, and given that the vast majority of oil reserves reside in OPEC countries, we will still be required to purchase from them in similar amounts (particularly since they underproduce to maintain high prices).

Always remember that firms respond to profit-incentives. Just because current suppliers are not from the middle east, doesn't mean that they won't shift to those suppliers if they need to. Investors will continue to demand profits, and corporate directors will continue to strive to provide those profits - even if it means buying Saudi oil. Profit incentives are hard to shake off in a liberal market economy.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Sovereign Wealth Funds and Democracy

A pleasantly moderate article on the Sovereign Wealth Fund issue can be found here:

It is worth noting that this issue is normally polarized along one of two lines: (a) non-transparent foreign wealth funds are evil and out to ruin the US economy or (b) wealth funds finally mean the south is less dependent on northern financial markets, which is a wonderful thing. I would usually tend to fall a little more into the "(b)" camp, but the wealth funds are typically found in OPEC countries and Singapore - not necessarily the most altruistic of governments towards other southern countries. Still, the variety of political agendas of those new significant shareholders could make development finance interesting in the coming years.

Emerging Markets, the Housing Crisis, and Decoupling

The Economist is always a fun source for news, and this article is no exception:

Just a quick note on a potential problem with this analysis: The sampling and examples given are very China and India intensive. While it is true that China and India are home to about 2.5 billion people, and represent substantial emerging markets, the case for "decoupling" may be different in the rest of the developing world (some 120 countries in East Europe, Sub-Saharan Africa, South America, and other parts of Asia). The discussion of emerging economies it typically limited to around 15-20 countries - including China, India, S. Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Taiwan, Indonesia, Thailand, Brazil, Chile, and Turkey - but excluding most of Africa, South America, and East Europe.

What that means is that, on the face of things, those countries in the emerging markets category may be gradually decoupling from the global north, but other countries are still dependent on northern consumer markets for their exports and financial markets to fund their governments. Some of these countries may be indirectly insulated by the decoupling of emerging markets to a certain extent (Chinese aid to Africa is on the rise, and much of South America is pushing for increased regional integration to limit dependence on the US market), but many countries in the global south are still primarily dependent on the US and the EU for their continued growth (Especially East Europe, Central America, Mexico, and most of Africa). Furthermore, much of the "decoupling" tends to occur in resource-extraction industries, rather than agriculture. Consider, for example, that 70% of Indians are still employed in small-scale agriculture and informal rural activities.

Selective Accountability in the Media

Here is an interesting article on AlterNet, courtesy of Mark Weisbrot at CEPR:

While a lot of times the anti-media discussion is spurred on by people with an agenda (and Mr. Weisbrot is no exception, at least on Venezuela), the general point that the mainstream media should be home to a much larger variety of perspectives is well taken. Furthermore, the depth of reporting needs to be improved in many cases, as reporters frequently make statements without substantial evidential support and without presenting the opposing view. It is one thing to have an opinion (e.g. the Economist), it is another thing to implicitly bias an article through word choice and unsubstantiated opinion, especially when the journalist reporting is not an expert in the field (as Mr. Weisbrot points out with Iraq and the Housing Market).

Unfortunately, it seems (to me at least) unlikely that there will be much competition with the mainstream media until the current net-savvy generation is in their middle age (blog searches and net-magazines need to be used on a large scale - and that requires knowledge that they are out there - much more prevalent among the youth today).

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Correa and Chávez toe-to-toe with Úribe

To read most media accounts of the tensions building between Venezuela/Ecuador and Colombia, one would think that Correa and Chávez are vastly overreacting to a perfectly legitimate Colombian strike against an established terrorist organization (the FARC). Most media outlets are providing minimal background information on the unfolding events, and couching their articles in the standard line on Chávez – that Hugo is a bombastic socialist quasi-dictator out to overthrow America, this time through supporting leftist rebels in Colombia. Yet, while mobilizing the troops and sending 10 tank battalions to the Colombian border might be a bit over the top (Chávez is nothing if not emphatic in making a point), this is not a sudden, wholly unexpected event. In fact, tensions between Colombia and Venezuela have been building since November.

The reason for these tensions is not, as the media would suggest, because of Chávez’s support of the FARC, but rather it is due to the collapse of a hostage negotiation, largely the result of unbending militancy on the part of Úribe. A thorough report of the hostage issue and its current effects (from a main-stream media source) can be found here. The basic gist of things is that Úribe asked Chávez to help negotiate a hostage release by FARC. As the deal was almost closed (this past November), Úribe then removed Chávez from his role as mediator and, now that he had located the rebels, proceeded to mobilize forces in the region for an apparent military strike… which understandably drove the FARC contingent into hiding and jeopardized the hostage deal. While FARC did release some hostages in January and February (thanks in part to President Chávez), Venezuela was understandably irked by Colombia’s fickleness during the negotiations. Coupled with their ideological differences and what Correa and Chávez both view as Colombia’s tendency to act as an American “puppet state” in the region, the mobilization may be a bit extreme, but it is at least somewhat understandable.

As a general note, I would suggest the Center for Economic and Policy Research as a good news source for the alternate view on Venezuela (and left-leaning governments in Latin America more generally). This report on the Venezuelan economy is particularly interesting.

Monday, March 3, 2008

First Post/Introduction

Howdy all,

This is my new blog (obviously). Mostly I've created this to give me a place to post my thoughts on politics, philosophy, and maybe even some stuff on food. Hopefully the posts will be thought-provoking, and I will try to include a variety of concerns when I discuss something - to "paint a picture" of what is going on, so to speak. The general idea is that the more people consider and think about what is going on... the more confused they should be, because life is genuinely complicated and there are shades of gray.

I welcome comments, so long as they remain respectful and no one starts any flame-wars. The whole point of blogs is to get a genuine discussion started, after all. In any case, I hope you enjoy.