Category Archives: General discussion

Anything else.

The banana nightmare again

The comments on the previous post were to interesting. What sparked my question about the meaning of “faith” and its distinction from belief was the following (again from the Washington Post religion discussion).

>Too Soon For Genuine Believer-Atheist Dialogue?

>When I became an atheist during my first year of college (thanks to my leftover high school obsession with Ayn Rand, and subsequent introduction to Sartre and Camus), I talked about the utter absurdity of believing in a divinity to anyone who cared to listen, and to a number of others (including my Catholic mother) who did not.

>I was as zealous in my atheism as a new convert in her chosen faith.

>Atheism is a belief system like any other—a religion of sorts in its own right. Dialogue between different believers is possible only when each person (or group) is not only ready to leave their unbridled enthusiasm for personal convictions aside, at least for a time and for the purposes of conversation, but also when each party concludes that a dialogue has value.

>Dialogue between atheists and believers is no different than dialogue between members of two different faith traditions. If both parties come to the table, as scholar Sandra Schneiders suggests, “as onto a field of battle,” with one’s “tradition as shield against heresy or paganism or, worse yet, as a sword with which to vanquish the other,” then open, productive conversation is impossible. If each party enters “undefended,” however—not altogether without their belief system, but with the conviction that conversation is not to destroy or even best the other’s thinking and rather to find common ground and exchange what is of consequence—then true, productive dialogue has a solid foundation.

>In the initial fervor of my atheism, I entered all conversation about faith with swords blazing—in much the same (and unfortunate) style of The O’Reilly Factor,where people come to the table not for dialogue, but for war. It was a good while before the fires of my atheism died down enough for me to a) be willing to truly listen to another side of the conversation, and b) desire the dialogue itself because it might be important to engage it.

>The perception that atheism is enjoying a kind of “vogue” at the moment comes only from the fact that Sam Harris’s The End of Faith and most recently Letter to a Christian Nation, coupled with Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion, each have enjoyed a healthy stay on the bestseller list. But good atheist reads have long been widely available and are wildly popular in the classroom—anything by Sartre or Ayn Rand will do—and many a college student boasts a well-worn copy of some classic atheistic text or other (The Fountainhead is my personal favorite).

>Harris’s Letter to a Christian Nation implies a desire for dialogue in its very format. A letter is an address, an attempt to grasp the attention of another party. In this case it appears as a plea for Christians to attend a worldview distinct from their own. Whether or not Mr. Harris has garnered the attention of this intended audience, and in a way that’s productive, not condescending, is another question. Most people I know who are purchasing Harris’s books (and Dawkins’ for that matter) are devout atheists themselves, excited to finally see their belief system get some popular press.

>Whether we, as a country, are not only ready but desirous of this sort of “inter-religious” conversation, as true dialogue and not as a standoff between two irreconcilable parties, remains to be seen.

Let’s assume this was posted as a comment to the previous discussion–comments anyone? Again, Happy New Year.

No comment

Here’s one from Jonah Goldberg that speaks for itself:

>Pinochet’s abuses helped create a civil society. Once the initial bloodshed subsided, Chile was no prison. Pinochet built up democratic institutions and infrastructure. And by implementing free-market reforms, he lifted the Chilean people out of poverty. In 1988 he held a referendum and stepped down when the people voted him out. Yes, he feathered his nest from the treasury and took measures to protect himself from his enemies. His list of sins–both venal and moral–is long. But today Chile is a thriving, healthy democracy. Its economy is the envy of Latin America, and its literacy and infant mortality rates are impressive.

By the way, I’m a big believer in competence and expertise in matters of war and peace. So here’s a little bet that Goldberg made in February 2005 with Juan Cole:

>Anyway, I do think my judgment is superior to his when it comes to the big picture. So, I have an idea: Since he doesn’t want to debate anything except his own brilliance, let’s make a bet. I predict that Iraq won’t have a civil war, that it will have a viable constitution, and that a majority of Iraqis and Americans will, in two years time, agree that the war was worth it. I’ll bet $1,000 (which I can hardly spare right now). This way neither of us can hide behind clever word play or CV reading. If there’s another reasonable wager Cole wants to offer which would measure our judgment, I’m all ears. Money where your mouth is, doc. One caveat: Because I don’t think it’s right to bet on such serious matters for personal gain, if I win, I’ll donate the money to the USO. He can give it to the al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade or whatever his favorite charity is.

It’s been almost two years.

So, a Straw Man walks into a bar

We have frequently pointed out how the desire to be funny is often at odds with the desire for logical rigor. This is nicely illustrated in Michael Kinsley’s opinion piece today in the Washington Post. Kinsley claims that there has been a tendency towards wishful thinking in dealing with the conflict created by the double-dealing Balfour Agreement.

>This tradition continues in the Iraq Study Group report, which declared: “There must be a renewed and sustained commitment by the United States to a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace on all fronts” as a small warm-up for tackling the problem of Iraq.

Rather than critique this proposal directly, Kinsely makes little of it with humor:

>What a good idea! And then we’ll cure cancer, to pave the way for health care reform. Why, of course all of humanity should put down its weapons and learn to live together in harmony and siblinghood — most especially in the Holy Land, birthplace of three great religions (so far). In fact it is downright inexplicable that peace and goodwill have not broken out spontaneously in the Middle East, even though this has never happened anywhere else either.

Of course, if we read the ISG’s sentence they merely claim that the U.S. should make a sustained commitment to this peace. But such an idea is absurd to Kinsley, so he foregoes any attempt to deal with it seriously.

The remainder of Kinsley’s piece involves a somewhat bizarre and forced attempt to deny President Carter’s suggestion that there is an analogy between South Africa’s Apartheid and certain Israeli policies on the basis of technical differences.

If we were to turn Kinsley’s tactic upon him, we might cast his argument as claiming that “Israel and South Africa had different tax codes so how could they be similar?”

See, it’s easy when you don’t think you need to treat the other’s argument seriously.

Civil distortion

Eliding can be economical, but it can also be distortion. When it is, it’s wrong. Take this from the master of civility himself, George Will:

>Wednesday’s Post reported that at a White House reception for newly elected members of Congress, Webb “tried to avoid President Bush,” refusing to pass through the reception line or have his picture taken with the president. When Bush asked Webb, whose son is a Marine in Iraq, “How’s your boy?” Webb replied, “I’d like to get them [sic] out of Iraq.” When the president again asked “How’s your boy?” Webb replied, “That’s between me and my boy.”

He says this in order to demonstrate Webb’s incivility.

>Webb certainly has conveyed what he is: a boor. Never mind the patent disrespect for the presidency. Webb’s more gross offense was calculated rudeness toward another human being — one who, disregarding many hard things Webb had said about him during the campaign, asked a civil and caring question, as one parent to another.

But the incivility here is Will’s, since he distorts the Post article he refers to as evidence of Webb’s rudeness:

>At a recent White House reception for freshman members of Congress, Virginia’s newest senator tried to avoid President Bush. Democrat James Webb declined to stand in a presidential receiving line or to have his picture taken with the man he had often criticized on the stump this fall. But it wasn’t long before Bush found him.

>”How’s your boy?” Bush asked, referring to Webb’s son, a Marine serving in Iraq.

>”I’d like to get them out of Iraq, Mr. President,” Webb responded, echoing a campaign theme.

>“That’s not what I asked you,” Bush said. “How’s your boy?”

>”That’s between me and my boy, Mr. President,” Webb said coldly, ending the conversation on the State Floor of the East Wing of the White House.

The emphasized portion is missing from Will’s account (even though his op-ed links to it). The boor, in this account, is Bush, not Webb. Webb’s response makes it obvious how his boy–and many other boys and girls–is doing: not very well, wanting to leave, wanting to come home.

A more tactful President could have said simply, “so do I.”


So often I hear people admit that while the argument in some op-ed is wrong, "the point" is somehow still good. To some extent, such an attitude is due to the principle of charity. Too much charity, in my book, because the point of the op-ed is an admitted failure. To this end, Simon Maloy of makes an indispensable, um, point:

Here's a quick lesson for Poe on the relationship between "facts" and "points": When making a "point," one must rely on "facts." When one's "facts" turn out to be false, one no longer has a "point." The "facts" Theodoracopoulos used in his article turned out to be false — a "fact" Poe acknowledged — which means Theodoracopoulos ceased to have a "point."

We would say the same thing. We would also add, when one's argument turns out to be weak, one ceases also then to have a point.

Relativism at the heart of Reason

Arguments from cultural relativism sometimes strike me as acts of desperation: Unable to argue against a position, one argues that taking any position is irresponsible because others disagree with it. From a certain context-free perspective everything can appear to be arbitrary and unjustifiable. Jacob Sullum exploits this sort of argument in a column in Reason. His dudgeon is raised by the passage in the House of H.R. 503, a bill to “amend the Horse Protection Act to prohibit. . . the slaughter of Horses for human consumption and other purposes.”

>Horses are nice. Killing them for food is mean. This is the gist of the argument for the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act.

Or so claims Sullum.

>Congress is on the verge of passing a law aimed at stopping Americans from catering to foreigners’ taste for horse meat. I generally avoid the phrase cultural imperialism, since it’s often used by people who object to the voluntary consumption of American products by non-Americans. But when Americans want to forcibly impose their culinary preferences on people in other countries, it fits pretty well.

Avoiding the phrase “cultural imperialism” seems to have resulted in not understanding it. If not providing for another culture’s culinary preferences is somehow “forcibly imposing culinary preference on people in other countries,” then the notion of “cultural imperialism” seems to collapse into sheer meaninglessness.

>Perhaps they can enlighten me as well: What is the legally relevant distinction between a horse and a cow? Is it aesthetic? Lambs are awfully cute. Is the issue intelligence? Pigs are pretty smart.

This is a very good question that Sullum has almost stumbled upon. In this case, however, the legally significant distinction is that one species has been legally designated as sellable for food for human consumption and the other has not in many States (I believe this to be true. The sale of horse meat was made legal during WWII in some states and made illegal again after the war. Texas and California I believe have made the sale of horse meat illegal). Presumably Sullum would disagree that this distinction is justified, but the question in his text needs to be answered first by some acquaintance with the relevant laws concerning animals. And whether Sullum agrees or not our legal codes regularly distinguish between species and the protections that they are afforded: For example, animals used for agricultural purposes are explicitly excluded from most anti-cruelty legislation.

What Sullum needs to ask is what is the “morally significant distinction” between a horse and a cow? But, if we ask that, we might discover that the “lever” of arbitrariness does not expand the exclusions from animal protection laws, but works in the other direction. If Sullum’s rejection of the arbitrariness of the banning of slaughtering horses for food is generalized, he would be arguing that since some animals can be made to suffer for purposes of medical knowledge and food, all animals can be made to suffer for such purposes. To the contrary, if one holds that some cruelty laws are justified, then there should be no arbitrary exclusions from them—they should cover all animals.

But to return to horses: Sullum’s claim that the protection of horses from slaughter is arbitrary in a country that slaughters other species for food is hard to dispute. But, at the same time it is not particularly telling as an argument against the Horse Slaughter Prevention Act, even if provides an easy opportunity to ridicule the bills supporters. That some animals have special places in human lives and so receive special protections from exploitation is in part a compromise we make with our intuitive sense that animals are not mere things. It is undoubtedly arbitrary but in the same way that our preference for the interests of our friends and family over strangers is arbitrary.

If nothing else, proponents will argue, passage of this bill will lessen (in however small a way) the suffering of some animals—and that by itself would make this a good law–which does not seem to be the same thing as arguing:

>Horses are nice. Killing them for food is mean. This is the gist of the argument for the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act.

Cut a few

Courtesy of Thinkprogress, Bush has diagnosed the problem:

>In other words, we just didn’t talk about philosophy — there’s too many philosophers in Washington — we acted. We got the job done. We cut the taxes on everybody who pays income taxes. We doubled the child tax credit. We reduced the marriage penalty. We cut taxes on small businesses. We cut taxes on capital gains and dividends to promote investment and jobs. And to reward family businesses and farmers for a lifetime of hard work and savings, we put the death tax on the road to extinction. (Applause.)

If he thinks it’s bad now, he should just wait for the December meeting of the American Philosophical Association.

Open season

Anyone care to identify this?

>But since the Bush tax cuts went into effect in 2003, the economy’s growth rate (3.5 percent) has been better than the average for the 1980s (3.1) and 1990s (3.3). Today’s unemployment rate (4.6 percent) is lower than the average for the 1990s (5.8) — lower, in fact, than the average for the past 40 years (6.0).

After you identify and defend your identification, we’ll adjust the categories–and perhaps post your explanation. So have at it.

Another source of income for Wal-Mart: Peace (Prize)

Over at the NYT, John Tierney asks us to consider whether Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank really deserve the Nobel Peace Prize. Although Tierney applauds the limited benefits of Yunus’ micro-loans for alleviating poverty, he asks us.

> Has any organization in the world lifted more people out of poverty than Wal-Mart?

Tierney approvingly quotes Michael Strong, who argues that instead of receiving micro-loans to start businesses in their village:

>The best way for third world villagers to tap “the vast pipeline of wealth from the developed world,” he argued in a recent article, is to sell their products to the world’s largest retailer, Wal-Mart.

If wages are the only metric in evaluating “anti-poverty” program’s contributions to peace, then the argument on the surface seems plausible. Strong and Tierney argue that rural Chinese workers who migrate to the urban areas make more money manufacturing goods for Wal-Mart than those who remain at home (Responsible for 23 billion of China’s exports out of 713 billion in 2005). Wal-Mart they argue is responsible for bringing

>Wal-Mart might well be single-handedly responsible for bringing about 38,000 people out of poverty in China each month, about 460,000 per year. (Strong)

>Most “sweatshop” jobs — even ones paying just $2 per day — provide enough to lift a worker above the poverty level, and often far above it, according to a study of 10 Asian and Latin American countries by Benjamin Powell and David Skarbek. In Honduras, the economists note, the average apparel worker makes $13 a day, while nearly half the population makes less than $2 a day. (Tierney)

>Urban workers earn about 2.5 times as much as rural workers.[8] Even after counting the higher cost of living in urban areas, urban workers make about twice as much. (Strong)

Seems to be a compelling argument. So why wouldn’t the CEO who contribute the greatest amount of economic growth to the world economy receive the Nobel Peace prize?

Perhaps Tierney and Strong are making too much of the claim that Yunus received the prize for his successes in combatting entrenched poverty. This is, of course, how the prize has been reported in the press.

Here is the press release from the Nobel Prize Committee:

>for their efforts to create economic and social development from below. Lasting peace can not be achieved unless large population groups find ways in which to break out of poverty. Micro-credit is one such means. Development from below also serves to advance democracy and human rights.

> Micro-credit has proved to be an important liberating force in societies where women in particular have to struggle against repressive social and economic conditions. Economic growth and political democracy can not achieve their full potential unless the female half of humanity participates on an equal footing with the male.

It seems clear that the committee was considering more than the contribution to wages in awarding the prize. Peace is not a matter of wages alone, but the transformation of the social conditions in which poverty is entrenched. This is not to deny that Wal-Mart also transforms social conditions and even on a much larger scale and with a faster tempo. But the judgement of the committee would seem to rest on the claim that economic and social development from below is an important component of achieving lasting peace.

The question Tierney should be asking is does Wal-Mart increase the likelihood of lasting peace? Or, is it along with a volatile globalized economy a threat to stability, human rights, the enviroment, and long term development–and therefore peace?

But even if we grant Tierney and Strong the assumption that it is likely that economic growth is a direct measure of a contribution to lasting peace, motivation is surely relevant in awarding these prizes. For Tierney and Strong effects seem to be all that matter. It is not enough for an organization to lift people out of poverty, it must presumably also be motivated by that goal to deserve the Peace Prize. A quick reading of Kant’s Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals would explain why.

Shorts: Shifting the Burden of Argument and Ad Hominem

Blitzer: Well you don’t have any evidence though, right?

Rep. McHenry: Well look at the fact points…four weeks out from a national election…

Blitzer: Yes or no: do you have any evidence? Do you have any evidence Congressman?

Rep. McHenry: Do you have any evidence that says they weren’t involved?

Blitzer: I’m just asking if you’re just throwing out an accusation or if you have any hard evidence.

Rep. McHenry: No, it’s a question Wolf. The question remains, were they involved? And if they were not involved they need to say clearly, and it’s a question, it’s not an accusation.

Blitzer: Well, they are denying that they had anything to do with this. source

Sort of like an Appeal to Ignorance. Maybe better described as an illegitimate shift of the burden of argument.

I know the speaker didn’t go over a bridge and leave a young person in the water, and then have a press conference the next day,” said Shays, R-4th District, referring to the 1969 incident in which the Massachusetts Democrat drove a car that plunged into the water and a young campaign worker died.

Dennis Hastert didn’t kill anybody,” he added. source

Nice little ad hominem. Maybe even a form of the tu quoque?