Monday, July 27, 2009

Atheist theology.

Sam Harris, who attacks religion for a living, has an Op-ed in this morning’s New York Times in which he worries about the appointment of Dr. Francis Collins to be the next director of the National Institutes of Health. Dr. Collins is a religious man, and Mr. Harris has offered some slides from a recent presentation by Dr. Collins as evidence of the latter’s views that Harris finds troubling.

One of these slides, according to Harris, reads:

Slide 5: “If the moral law is just a side effect of evolution, then there is no such thing as good or evil. It’s all an illusion. We’ve been hoodwinked. Are any of us, especially the strong atheists, really prepared to live our lives within that worldview?”

Versions of this argument abound, but they always seem to boil down to one thing: there must be a god, because if there were no god, that would really suck. In other words, there must be a god because I want there to be a god. I call that argument the “wantological proof” of god’s existence, a nod toward the equally bemusing, if ages older, ontological proof. What these proofs prove is not that god exists, but that Voltaire was right about our need to invent god if he didn’t.

But whatever I may think of the proofs of god’s existence, I am not a fan of the efforts by Mr. Harris – or his noisy co-anti-religionists, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Bill Maher – to take down religion. I do enjoy these guys’ work in their day jobs (except Maher, who makes mean-spirited jokes and then invokes the Eichmann defense that he’s getting paid to do so). But on religion, they don’t seem to understand much about how things get done here in the sublunary realm.

My problem with these guys is that their logic is no better than the logic they attack. Their illogic proceeds on two levels. First, it is impossible to disprove the existence of god. He could just be that smart. Swatting away silly proofs of god’s existence isn’t proof of his non existence. Second, and more important, even if one brings substantial doubt to the questions of god’s existence, none of that demonstrates the net negative impact of organized religion. There does not have to be a god for worship of god to be a good thing.

My favorite metaphor for religiosity is spot bowling. Imagine that you are an accomplished spot bowler, and someone hides the pins so that you cannot see them and cannot know how many you knock down on each roll (we’re playing a simplified game with one ball per frame). At the same time, it is revealed to you that if you do knock down enough pins, you will go to heaven and good things will happen to you in this life. Under those circumstances, wouldn’t the soundest strategy be to keep rolling and to keep hitting the same spots you were hitting before the pins were hidden?

Suppose further that good things do in fact happen on this earth to people who “hit their spots.” Not because they are knocking down their pins (they have no way of knowing if there even are any pins - although they believe there are) but because it just turns out that something in the process of rolling the ball over the appropriate spots creates both prosperity and tranquility as none of the believers tries to knock over anyone else’s pins.

Under these assumptions, it does not matter whether there still are any pins or if there is an afterlife to be affected by our earthly pin count. All that matters is that people are hitting their spots, and good things are happening on earth on account of it. Certainly, arguments against the existence of god will undermine the practice of religion, but if that results in our not hitting our spots and not enjoying the material benefits of doing so, why is that a good thing?

Harris et al. claim that undermining religion would be a good thing because that would prevent all the bad things that have been done in the name of god. And yet they seem not to grasp how religion teaches not only the doing of good things, but, perhaps more important, the not doing of bad things.

Harris has written:

People of faith often claim that the crimes of Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot were the inevitable product of unbelief. The problem with fascism and communism, however, is not that they are too critical of religion; the problem is that they are too much like religions. Such regimes are dogmatic to the core and generally give rise to personality cults that are indistinguishable from cults of religious hero worship. Auschwitz, the gulag and the killing fields were not examples of what happens when human beings reject religious dogma; they are examples of political, racial and nationalistic dogma run amok. There is no society in human history that ever suffered because its people became too reasonable.

This is rather typical of anti-religionist illogic. First comes the straw man who is said to argue that atheistic villains were the “inevitable product of unbelief.” Atheism is not an inevitable cause; it is a but for cause. By arguing (however apodictically and unpersuasively) against inevitability, Harris tries to slip the more reasonable claim that those monsters would not have emerged but for the atheism of their people – and more to the point, the impotence of their people’s churches. Harris is right that the human need for religion often coalesces with atheism in the worship of someone real. But that’s one of theology’s best functions: it can direct the religious urge to an object less likely to kill everyone who owns a plot of ground or a pair of eyeglasses.

Here, from the source linked above, is Harris on the good that religion does:

Those who emphasize the good effects of religion never seem to realize that such effects fail to demonstrate the truth of any religious doctrine. This is why we have terms such as “wishful thinking” and “self-deception.” There is a profound distinction between a consoling delusion and the truth.

In any case, the good effects of religion can surely be disputed. In most cases, it seems that religion gives people bad reasons to behave well, when good reasons are actually available. Ask yourself, which is more moral, helping the poor out of concern for their suffering, or doing so because you think the creator of the universe wants you to do it, will reward you for doing it or will punish you for not doing it?

His first paragraph is a total non sequitur. The argument that religion is good even if there is no god can hardly be rebutted by the claim that religion’s good works do not prove the existence of god. The thing Harris says we “never seem to realize” are precisely the things we realize don’t matter.

Then Harris gets serious, giving the elitist’s defense of rational morality: one doesn’t need to believe in a non-existent god to behave well. But just as an “inevitable cause” isn’t the same as a “but for cause,” “available” isn’t the same as “usable.” Cherry-picking the good deed of charity, Harris cites “concern for their suffering” as a “reason” for helping the poor. But where does that concern come from? Why should I give a rat’s patoot about someone else’s suffering? Oh, I can build elaborate Kantian and Dawkinsian defenses of altruism, but only because I have the resources to go that route if I choose. But some people have only the time and talent to go with “because god commands it.” We’re a subtle species, and we soon enough internalize god’s commandments regarding charity into genuine unmediated compassion. Still, for many of us, knowing – believing – what Jesus would do is a very useful shortcut.

At the end of the day, the contest is between the good that religion has in fact done, regardless of whether one might speculate on alternative routes to the same outcome, vs. the harm that it has done, and maybe more important, between the good and harm religion may yet do. And there’s the big philosophical rub. A few fundamentalist WMDs can very quickly change the balance. But even there, what is the alternative? Would a world of atheists states, safe from fundamentalist nukes, therefore be safe from nukes? Even if religion does us in, we won’t really know that irreligion would have saved us. Well, Sam Harris will know. But what does he know?

Friday, July 24, 2009


Some incremental changes to the existing system:

  1. Instead of a tax deduction for employer plans, a tax credit equal to 90% of the first $5,000 per employee plus 80% of the next $2,500, and a deduction for the rest.  Employees would pay no tax on the benefit, if only because there is no easy way to calculate the value of an individual’s benefits.  
  2. Give the same deal to individuals (including the self-employed) whose employers do not provide health insurance.
  3. Create a Federal pre-existing condition reinsurance company that will pick up the cost of insuring whatever pre-existing conditions the Government wants to mandate be covered.  The reinsurance would be free, so the cost of covering pre-existing conditions can be ignored by private insurers in setting premium rates.  That will reduce those rates even further.
  4. Increase corporate and personal income taxes to cover the cost of these subsidies.  In other words, move the cost from customers to taxpayers.  They’re the same people, but the opportunity to avoid the cost by buying foreign goods will disappear.

See? How hard was that?

Obama’s Prejudices

Over the past months, we’ve started to see that with President Obama, the personal is very much the political. For example, we know the President has stories to tell about how health insurance companies treated his mother, and he has shown a studied ignorance of how insurance actually works, saying that health insurers (all of them, apparently) “cherry pick” risks and use pre-existing condition clauses to “get out of” paying benefits.

One wonders whether Mr. Obama has similarly negative prejudices about Wall Street executives or urban police. He was “outraged” by retention payments at AIG FP, even though those bonuses were clearly appropriate. And now he says that the Cambridge police “behaved stupidly,” after saying (i) that he was a friend of Prof. Gates, (ii) that he didn’t know the facts, and (iii) at an earlier presser, that he likes to know what he’s talking about before speaking. Despite the President's low opinion of corporate executives, he was willing to pretend to think about the AIG case before feigning disgust at their alleged rapacity. The Cambridge police got no such consideration. The guy must really hate cops.

My guess is that Mr. Obama has alienated an important constituency with his “stupidly” comment. And he seems to agree, as he has started to walk the comment back as the newsies like to say. We’re down from “The Cambridge Police acted stupidly” to “cooler heads should have prevailed,” which is true, only it seems to have been Prof. Gates who had the hot head. I think Gates and Obama simply messed with the wrong cop – a respected sergeant with a reputation for professionalism and decorum – not the “rogue” Gates thought it made sense to call him so as not to be attacking all cops generally, which would not be so good a strategy.

The whole thing smells. Gates is almost certainly lying about how things went down, and he is rapidly becoming Al Sharpton and Tawana Brawley all wrapped into one. (I’m still trying to get my brain around his “denial” of disorderly conduct on CNN: “Do I look disorderly?”) Only the liberal media and those, like Sharpton, who are black for a living take him seriously.

I used to have a high opinion of Gates. I thought he was more serious than buffoons like Cornell West and Michael Eric Dyson, who act as if glibness were wisdom. But apparently, he’s just another guy whose livelihood is threatened by the waning of racism as an issue, whether or not as a fact.

Still, Skip Gates is not my concern. My concern is the mounting evidence that our post-everything President not only puts his pants on one leg at a time, but that those legs terminate in very ordinary feet of clay.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Healthcare as a “fundamental right.”

The last episode of “Seinfeld” ends with the four self-absorbed protagonists imprisoned together indefinitely – l’enfer c’est les autres – for failing to rescue a woman in need. The “duty to rescue” is a controversial subject in worldwide jurisprudence. Generally, common law jurisdictions reject any such notions. Civil law jurisdictions, i.e., Europe and elsewhere, typically have such a duty, sometimes under the civil code, sometimes under the criminal law. Here is an article on the subject for the curious. (Click on the “Download” link at the top of the linked page to see the full text of the article.)

It’s interesting that the Seinfeld episode relies on a Massachusetts law, because it is Massachusetts’s senior senator, Ted Kennedy, who is pushing hardest the idea that healthcare is a “fundamental right.” The tie-in to the duty to rescue is close: not only is healthcare a form of rescue, but the provision of the Quebec Charter of Rights that imposes such a duty states that “Every human being whose life is in peril has a right to assistance….” (So says Wikipedia, anyway.) For, as all lawyers know, there is no such thing as a duty without a correlative right; where there is no right, there is nothing for the rest of us to have a duty not to infringe.

Now Senator Kennedy wants to make healthcare a fundamental right, whatever that is. And that’s my problem with the idea: it doesn’t actually mean anything. What Kennedy wants is for healthcare to be an entitlement, and lacking any real philosophical basis for such an entitlement, he has made one up by ipse dixit, adding healthcare to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as things with which all men are endowed by their creator. But Americans don’t pay for each other’s life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We merely don’t empower our government to interfere with them. We no not recognize a God-given right to be rescued.

What about healthcare makes it any more “fundamental” than a house, or food? These things are, as any good Marxist will tell you, precisely the “freedoms” that communist states offer: freedom from hunger, from homelessness, and from doctorlessness. Our “freedoms” of speech and political association are, by contrast, “bourgeois” freedoms, self-indulgent luxuries of the rich, taken at the expense of the poor.

So what about food and shelter? The problem with healthcare as a fundamental right is not that it puts us on a slippery slope, but that it necessarily implies that equally essential material goods – the aforementioned food and shelter – are, a fortiori fundamental rights, too. How could they not be? But how much food, and how much shelter, and how much medicine are we entitled to as a “fundamental right”?

The outer edges of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are not clearly defined either, but the issues are qualitative, not quantitative. I am not made to surrender the fruits of my labor in proportion to others’ entitlement to liberty. The duty to rescue, the duty of the haves to feed, house, and care for the less fortunate, is a moral obligation, a matter of personal freedom and judgment, a part of the liberty that actually is a fundamental right. It is largesse, and as such it is something the people vote themselves at the greatest peril to democracy itself.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Madame Justice Sotomayor

I get the impression that Judge Sotomayor will not be a notable member of the court.  She has to this point shown no commitment to an agenda that should scare conservatives or hearten liberals nor any evidence of the firepower necessary to take on the guys to her right.

Judge Sotomayor appears to be bright and hard-working, but not brilliant.  I don’t say this after reading all of her work, but rather from the surrounding silence about her philosophical musings.  She is known for her ill-considered “wise Latina” trope – a “rhetorical flourish” she calls it – which, however revealing, would not be as important as her more carefully expressed views on personal history and judicial action if there were any such more carefully expressed views. 

I admit that this is conjecture.  Her answers during the Judiciary Committee’s desultory charade have been typically and acceptably evasive given the nature of the questions themselves.  But how hard would it have been for someone to ask the judge what she thought of the several opinions in Griswold v. Connecticut?  Senators Kohl and Cardin did ask about privacy, including the holding in Griswold, and Judge Sotomayor clearly knows what the relevant cases are and what they hold. But there was no discussion of the subtly different legal reasoning in the several opinions in Griswold, which is an excellent way for a lawyer to show some real jurisprudential chops.  I suspect there is no interest there because there is no there there.

I can understand why the Democrats don’t ask.  But why not the Republicans?  Granted, neither Orrin Hatch nor Arlen Spector has shown the ability to swim at the appropriate depth, but neither of them is above faking it.  And I still believe that if Judge Sotomayor had this particular piece in her repertoire, she would have been asked to play it.

I guess we’ll see…