Friday, December 30, 2005

Moral Calculus and Tookie Williams

Now that the co-founder of the Crips has gone on to his just reward and public attention has moved to other things, it’s time to evaluate one of the most popular arguments for commuting Williams’ death sentence.

The argument is that he redeemed himself with his children’s books and anti-gang message.

Do those who make this argument really believe it? Consider its implications of this strange moral calculus.

First, the notion is that somehow a wrong done to one person can be “made up” by good acts done to others. I deny that this makes any sense at all. If A does a great harm to B, ruining her/his life, A doesn’t correct this by then doing sufficient good for C. No amount of good done for C absolves A of his responsibility for his harm to B. Perhaps A could absolve himself by doing a great good to B, sufficient to restore B in some sense. But B and C are not interchangeable. More specifically, if Mr. Williams orders Mr. Yen-I Yang to lie on the floor and then happily blows off the back of his head with a shotgun, and then does the same to Mr. Yang’s wife Tsai-Shai Yang and daughter Yee-Chen Lin, no number of nice children’s books can make up the harm done to Mr. Yang and his family. Disagree? Then tell me how many books it takes, how good they have to be, and why any number at all should matter. And tell me how you determined that the terrible and vicious harm done to the Yangs was less than the alleged good done by the kiddies books.

This should be sufficient to sink the strange moral calculus, but there are additional implications. The argument really is that in determining the punishment warranted by a person’s vicious act, we must balance it by also adding in the good acts done by the person. One can redeem onesself with sufficient number of children’s books and other good works. OK…so if A decides that s/he wants very much to murder B, can s/he find out ahead of time what the cost in terms of good works will be? Why not? It makes perfect sense if we buy the moral calculus at all…if you really want to commit a murder and get off with a lighter penalty, then you must agree to do as much (alleged) good as Tookie Williams did, or twice as much, or one hundred times as much, or whatever standard seems appropriate. This is a perfectly sensible if we accept the strange moral calculus of redemption by good works.

And interestingly, no temporal order is implied in this argument. Want to commit a murder and get off scot-free, or with a reduced sentence? Go out and do sufficient good works before hand – purchase for yourself the right to kill B. “Give enough back” to society (people other than B) and B’s life is yours. Well, the moral morons who make this argument don’t have the right to sell the lives of the Yangs, nor Williams other victim, Albert Owen.

I hope no one who made the moral calculus argument for commuting William’s sentence would be happy with these implications (but who knows what such people might be thinking). The moral calculus argument is typical of the empty-headedness of today’s public debate, which largely consists of mindless spouting of sound-bytes (bites?) that sound good on the surface, without even a shred of logical thought for what they mean.

No amount of good done to C can amend for the evil done to B. It’s a particularly objectionable form of utilitarianism that holds otherwise.

(As an aside, I generally oppose the death penalty for a different reason – I don’t want the state to be granted the power to execute the possibly innocent. For a few of my thoughts on this issue see David Friedman's provocative and interesting blog.

Bush's libertarian vigilance

This administration never misses an opportunity. In the wake of the revelations that the president ordered extensive interception and surveillance of Americans’ private communications without the use of warrants, DOJ has begun a criminal investigation…not of those who violated the 4th Amendment, but of those who revealed the existence of the warrantless surveillance. The New York Times in particular is coming under scrutiny.

After all, this is war. The public has no right to know what the government is doing, and particularly not that the government is illegally spying on us, without any sort of oversight or independent checks. And no one has any right to publicly reveal this activity. As the president has made clear, it is outrageous to even ask if there are any legitimate limits to his power.
This is neoconservativism’s finest hour – the defense of unlimited power of the executive. George the Third never dreamed of such power as George the Fourth is wielding. Vigilance for complete liberty…of the king to do as he damn well pleases.

Political theology

The Republican Party in my locality has now decided to endorse a particular theological doctrine, that of intelligent design. It is very strange that an ostensibly secular organization should take on a particular theological position. Of course, they probably think they’ve instead taken a position in biology, but that’s hardly less strange.

What nuttiness next? An official Republican position on infant baptism? Or maybe on superstring theory?

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Are religious doctrines scientific?

While sitting in a Christmas eve church service, I mentally compared the delivery of a sermon to delivery of an economics lecture. There are similarities -- the minister and I must both choose a lesson to cover, obtain appropriate readings and citations, and prepare our presentations. But the differences belie the seeming similarity of our endeavors.

During my lectures, I ask students if they understand the particular points, and strongly encourage them to speak up, and even argue against what I am saying. I also present more than one viewpoint, giving the students competing theories and evidence for each. I offer my own views, but don't ask that anyone accept them. As one student put it to me during a lecture, "I see what you are saying, but I am not convinced." My response: "It's beside the point whether you believe any of my points or not. The goal is that 1) you understand the argument, whether you agree with it or not, and 2) whatever viewpoint you do ultimately accept, you do so intelligently, i.e. you have logic and empirical evidence to support your choice.

How often are the points in a sermon, or a church doctrine, or the bible opened for debate? The difference between religion and a science is just this. Religion is built on supposed revealed "truths" that are not to be challenged, they are simply taken on faith. No argument from logic, and no empirical evidence, can overturn such doctrine for the believer, since the doctrine is simply assumed to be true, i.e. taken on faith.

Science, on the other hand, is built on methods of thinking and inquiry -- rules of logic and starting assumptions that form the basis of theory, and empirical evidence that can be used to confirm the predictions of theories, or to falsify and overturn them. Believers in a particular theoretical viewpoint can be swayed, convinced to re-evaluate the position, if new evidence or a better theoretical argument warrant this. Science is an entirely different endeavor from religion, and to try to pretend that religious doctrine, such as intelligent design, is science, is to ignore this crucial difference.

It has recently been announced that the South Korean researcher who claimed to have cloned human stem cells probably faked his research. As a result, journals that published his work are now publishing retractions, independent researchers are checking his work and Seoul National University has sealed his lab and is doing its own investigations.

Less dramatically, each day peer review in science catches errors and rejects work that can’t be substantiated. And scientific inquiry tests old beliefs and assumptions, and occasionally finds evidence that overturns them.

How often does this happen in theology? When was the last time you heard that it was revealed that a religious doctrine was found to not be based on reason and evidence, but was simply made up by its advocates? Perhaps never, even though all religious doctrines are simply made up.

When was the last time you heard that theological work had been fabricated, or that it contained errors, or couldn’t be substantiated, or has been overturned by new evidence? You haven't heard such stories. There can’t be any news story about theological doctrines being overturned by those who originally accepted them, because theological doctrines aren’t overturned. Theological doctrines are not based on evidence. They aren’t based on research, but are simply opinions that are ultimately accepted on faith. Hence there are no objective tests of these doctrines.

Intelligent design and similar creationist ideas are nothing like science, because at heart these are theological doctrines and not scientific doctrines. There is a fundamental difference between science and theology, and theology does not belong in science classes. It doesn’t belong in human thinking, either, but that's a subject for another post.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Is Intelligent Design a Theory?

Advocates of ID frequently assert that "evolution is a theory, not a fact." The implied distinction between "theory" and "fact" is faulty, since the scientific meaning of "theory" is "a consistent explanation [of some phenomena] that is capable of being tested." A theory's truth status may then be true ("fact"), untrue, or uncertain. (Or for my Bayesian friends, we have varying degrees of confidence in a theory's truth.)

Anit-evolutionists frequently seem to think "theory" means "unproven speculation." But it does not.

A more interesting question is, is intelligent design a theory? The answer is no. One major flaw (hardly the only one) is that ID is based on the notion that "we can't imagine how such and such a thing could have evolved, therefore it must have been created." (This is, in its essence, Michael Behe's "irreducible complexity.")

There are multiple problems with this position. First, it takes our ignorance ("we can't figure out how such and such could have evolved") and treats it as a statement about the phenomenon "such and such" rather than our own knowledge.

Second, the "therefore" isn't warranted. Why does ID become the default? This is simply a preference, or bias.

Third, what is testable about "creationism?" ID advocates are careful not to identify a designer, since to do so would be to admit that this is just thinly disguised creationism. But what sort of theory is it that says "life is too complex to have evolved, therefore it must have been designed by some super-designer?" What designer? How do you propose to test this designer's existence, and how do you propose to test the hypothesis that it actually designed anything? And where the heck did the designer come from?

No answers are forthcoming, and no tests are proposed, because these are beside the point. ID is not theory and not science. It is religion, and very shallow religion at that, pretending to be science.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Does Bush’s Domestic Spying Violate the Law?

Amendment IV to the Constitution of the United States

"The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."

It’s simple. There are no exceptions. No one – not congress nor the president – has the legal power or authority to make exceptions.

The congress cannot grant the president permission to conduct warrantless searches. The president cannot grant himself this power. The president should be impeached, quickly. He is a criminal. He has violated the Constitution, he has violated his oath of office, and he has violated the rights of Americans. It’s time to stop this despot before his ways of doing things become entrenched. If Bush gets away with these crimes, the 4th Amendment will be rendered meaningless, and we will all be subject to search and seizure at any time, with no oversight.

We're also losing the 5th and 6th Amendments (jury trials, due process, speedy public trials, habeus corpus) and the 8th (cruel and unusual punishment). George Bush's legacy will be the institutionalization of a police state in America if he's not stopped.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Libraries: Our Secret Weapon?

Want to know how we could win the "war" on terror? (I'm still waiting for Congress to declare war; until then we are not at war.) (And let's assume for a moment that by "war on terror" we really mean "on terrorists." ...a big stretch, I know.)

The problem with military solutions is that when you kill one terrorist, another arises to take her/his place. Or when you do it the way we do in Iraq (kill a terrorist, plus 5 bystanders, plus shrapnel wounds to another dozen bystanders, plus 3 other bystanders "disappear" and end up at Gitmo w/o charges), you kill one and another dozen take his/her place. This doesn't work very well. The numbers are against us...and eventually most of the world will be, too.

Why do people become terrorists anyway? It is always because of ideas. Bin Laden is a man possessed with an idea, an ideal, in fact -- a vision of re-establishing the Caliphate and re-instituting God's laws on earth. It's a moral vision, although hardly anyone on our side wants to admit this. But that's why it inspires so many to fight to the death.

Now, how can you kill ideas? There's only one way: with counter-ideas. Not propaganda, not disinformation, not politically-corrected dogma, but ideas -- better ones. The only way to beat the doctrines that terrorists use to recruit is to 1. eliminate the injustices that terrorists thrive on by espousing and consistently practicing ethics based first of all on respect for individual rights...everybody's individual rights. 2. Offer ideas that are based on reason and evidence -- the best of the Western tradition of thought. 3. Spread these ideas...not by packaging them with a phoney, sappy, idiotic message about how wonderful we are and how wonderful things are for Muslims in America -- just send books. Build libraries. Let the foreign people enter and see what they can learn. Forget propaganda. Just give them access to ideas, and let them do what they will.

There's no constituency for this, I know, but humanity's problems stem, fundamentally, from how we think and what we believe. We cannot force better thinking. We can't deceive people into better beliefs. WE can only make better ideas available, and let them take root wherever someone begins to understand.

Want to fix problems? Build libraries.

(For an interesting discussion on this see Stalinist Orange Dec 5 and 8 2005 where Brian Radzinsky, Nikolas Gvosdev, and I have been mulling over the roles of NGOs and soft power.)

Monday, December 05, 2005

The Mystery of Alcohol -- Solved!

A newly released study suggests that drinking alcohol in less than excess is correlated with much lower risk of obesity. Moderate drinkers have a much lower rate of obesity than do teetotalers, heavy drinkers, and binge drinkers.

The researchers find this puzzling, especially with respect to teetotalers, since alcohol contains lots of calories. But there's no mystery...the Russians explain it well with the following story:

A group of Englishmen get together -- they go to a pub, drink pints of stout, throw darts, talk a bit, and eventually go home.

A group of Frenchmen get together -- they drink glasses of wine, eat some cheese, and discuss their mistresses. Eventually they go home.

A group of us Russians get together -- we drink vodka, punch each other a few times, pass out and fall under the table, eventually get up and go home.

A group of Arabs get together -- they set off some car bombs, hijack an airplane, and eventually strap dynamite to themselves and blow themselves up in shopping mall.

It just goes to show what a lack of alcohol will do to you.

The same lack of judgement that makes people fanatics with respect to alcohol (whether for or against) is the same lack of judgement that makes them fanatics with respect to food. I wouldn't argue that non-drinkers are necessarily unbalanced...but ceteris paribus, it is pretty suspicious behavior.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Atheism: The Beautiful and Ethical Choice

Penn Jillette explains it beautifully.

The Case for Leaving Iraq, NOW

The most recent lible from the Bush Admin and neocons is to call cowards anyone who suggests it might be reasonable to have a well-defined objective and date for military involvement in Iraq, after which the U.S. leaves. (Even though such was considered mandatory for military operations prior to Bush's invasion of Iraq.) Bush et al. falsely call this "cut and run."

Well, now the former head of the super-secret National Security Agency, retired general William Odum, has argued that "cutting and running" (withdrawal ASAP) is the only sensible option the U.S. has. He makes a strong argument, and you can hear it here

He's not a coward, nor a leftist, nor a friend of terrorists. Listen to what he says.

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