De vera religione

Michael Gerson, the evangelical Christian whose sparkling oratory sent soldiers off to a pointless war knows all about true religion:

>Obama’s criticism of the religious right for baptizing the agenda of economic conservatism — making tax cuts their highest legislative priority — had some justified sting. But then he proceeded, in the typical manner of the religious left, to give a variety of more liberal causes a similar kind of full-immersion baptism: passing a “universal health care bill,” withdrawing quickly from Iraq, approving comprehensive immigration reform. Agree with these proposals or not, none is a test of true religion.

>The whole enterprise — there are examples on the right and left — of asking “What Would Jesus Do?” on the earned-income tax credit or missile defense is presumptuous. Jesus, were he around again in the flesh, would probably be doing sensible things such as healing the sick, embracing outcasts and preaching sacrificial love. After all, he showed little interest in issuing a “Contract With the Roman Empire.” But his followers eventually found that “love your neighbor” had political consequences, leading them to challenge slavery, infanticide and the mistreatment of women and children.

>This has been the Christian compromise on faith and politics. The essential humanism of Christianity requires an active, political concern about human dignity and the rights of the poor and weak. But faith says little about the means to achieve those ideals. The justice of welfare reform or tax cuts or moving toward socialized medicine is measured by the outcome of these changes. And those debates cannot be short-circuited by the claim “Thus sayeth the Lord,” spoken by the Christian Coalition or the United Church of Christ.

>Obama is clearly more fluent on religious issues than most in his party. But to appeal broadly to religious voters, he will need to be more than the candidate of the religious left.

It’s presumptuous to talk about what Jesus would do, but Gerson does so anyway by way of telling us what Jesus would not do as well as what sorts of things you can’t say Jesus would do. You can’t speak, he says, about specific policy proposals Jesus would support–e.g., welfare reform (from the right) or welfare (from the left). Aside from the fact that that’s precisely what the Christian right has been doing for years, Obama hasn’t endorsed policies (at least on Gerson’s presentation of them) as somehow necessarily following from the Christian faith without meaningful debate or non-sectarian justification. Gerson hasn’t given any indication, in other words, that Obama has invoked the commands of his Christian faith as the sole justification for his myriad policy proposals.

Of course, whether some given policy–say preemptive war–is consistent with the Christian faith is another question, the one that Obama is probably asking.

Olde Tyme Religion

Stanley Fish ought to dump the subject of religion. In his last blog entry, he moves the goal posts far away from the Atheist trio of Hitchens, Dawkins, and Harris. According to Fish, they argue that textual criticism shows the Bible to be a bunch of made up stuff by people who lived along time ago. So therefore there is no God–at all (so Fish says they say). He writes:

>So there’s the triple-pronged case. Religions are humanly constructed traditions and at their center are corrupted texts that were cobbled together by provincial, ignorant men who knew less about the world than any high-school teenager alive today. Sounds devastating, but when you get right down to it, all it amounts to is the assertion that God didn’t write the books or establish the terms of worship, men did, and that the results are (to put it charitably) less than perfect.

Then Fish goes on to point out how dumb that is, because:

>If divinity, by definition, exceeds human measure, the demand that the existence of God be proven makes no sense because the machinery of proof, whatever it was, could not extend itself far enough to apprehend him.

But that just changes the subject. As Fish says, Hitchens, et al. are talking about religions and their historical and textual basis. To be exact, Hitchens et al. in this particular instance deny that the Bible, with its stories of a man who walked on the earth, healed the sick, and blessed the Greeks (and so on and so on) constitutes reliable evidence for the existence of God. Skepticism regarding the literal historical truth of a foundational religious text, however, is a different matter from denying the possible existence of a Pseudo-Dionysian God beyond being. Denying the existence of such a Being–that is to say, a God, on Fish’s description, beyond existence, proof, knowledge or interaction with the world–is impossible.

*clarity edit 6/28. Thanks Ugo.

Hate crime

One argument against hate crimes legislation involves denying that one can ever know about someone’s intent. Kathleen Parker writes:

>WASHINGTON — The fallacy of hate crime laws — the prosecution of which requires a degree of mind-reading not yet available to most Earthlings — has been cast into stark relief the last few weeks after an interracial rape-murder that has bestirred white supremacists and led to death threats against an African-American columnist.

Many crimes involve judgments of intent. Intent is a state of mind. Determining intent therefore involves mind reading. To deny this smacks of some pretty silly lawyering: your honor, how can you really know that my client meant to kill anyone? Can you see inside of his mind? Homework assignment: think of all of the crimes that involve judgments of intent.

Another argument often advanced against the hate crimes legislation is the relative rarity of hate crime:

>In 2005, among about 7,000 hate crimes — mostly characterized by intimidation (48.9 percent) and simple assault (30.2 percent) — just six murders and three forcible rapes were reported as fitting the hate crime definition, according to the FBI’s Hate Crime Statistics report. Though we may hate “hate crimes,” those numbers hardly seem sufficient to justify extra laws designating a special category for certain crime victims.

The frequency with which an act occurs has nothing to do–I think–with whether it ought to be a crime or not. High treason is a crime, but almost no one does it (I think). Besides, while designating something a crime necessarily implies designating someone a victim, the crime is defined by the act, not the victim. A crime remains a crime, in fact, whether the victim feels himself a victim or not.

“Caution-to-the-wind Principles”

Adding to earlier diagnosis of the ad infantem fallacy: The argument the author over at the WaPo is making seems to me to be that the worry
over climate change is disproportionate to the danger or the likelihood
of the threatened harm. It is an increasingly common reaction to
climate change warnings as the straight-up deniers seem to be
retreating to their Hummers. It rests on a reasonable premise:

  1. Concern should be proportional to risk, where risk is proportional to magnitude of harm and likelihood of occurence.

Then you attack Al Gore for hyping the risk, while presenting a
posture of cool headed calm in opposition to Gore’s climate hysteria
(and benefiting the children as well!). It generally depends on making one of two claims:

  1. the harm will be less severe than Gore predicts.
  2. the harm is less likely than Gore claims .

Arguing these claims would require scientific argument/evidence.
This editorial flails around in the proximity of these claims but
settles on the related claim:

3. we don’t know what the likelihood or severity of the harm is.

The author supports this claim with

  1. an argument about the inability of climatologists to predict the
    weather in August. Therefore it is unlikely that they can predict the
    weather in 2100.
  2. an argument about the “controversies” surrounding whether storms
    are exacerbated by climate change or not. (Committing what we might
    call the fallacy of appeal to a single uncontextualized scientific
    study. Well, to be fair she doesn’t really commit this “fallacy” since
    all she wants to do is suggest that we don’t know.). On this see the
    debate over here or the related discussion here. We can also add that this is not exactly the most significant part of the harms imagined in the IPCC’s 4th report. (In fact it’s barely mentioned). Finally, as pointing out in the first link, contrast her use of this study with the WaPo’s own reportage.

These very weak arguments for 3, then allow the author to suggest
that we shouldn’t be too alarmist about climate change and certainly
not scare the children! Al Gore should be ashamed! Until you are
certain, don’t scare the children.

This sort of editorial probably takes about 5 minutes to write.
Really all that’s going on is

  1.   find some disagreement in the
    scientific literature
  2.   therefore we shouldn’t worry too much.

Somewhere in there is something akin to the appeal to ignorance. It
isn’t quite an appeal to igorance because the conclusion isn’t simply
the negative conclusion:

a) climate change isn’t a risk

but rather, something like:

b) we don’t know whether it is a risk, so we should treat it as though it isn’t a (big) risk.

There’s much more to be said about this latter step, as clearly sometimes it is a perfectly good inference. In environmental ethics we discuss something called the "precautionary principle." Roughly this is a principle that shifts the "burden of proof" to those who advocate a policy that is potentially very dangerous. For example, the advocates of a policy might have to demonstrate that the risk is minimal, or manageable, etc.

The sort of argument that we are analyzing here seem to rest on a "caution to the wind principle" which seems to suggest that in the absence of conclusive demonstration of certain and determinate harms, we shouldn’t worry too much, and we definitely shouldn’t upset the children.

Argumentum ad infantem

This probably ought to be a new fallacy–something akin to the Reverend Lovejoy’s wife’s plaintive cry on the Simpson’s:

>”won’t someone please think of the children, think of the children!”

I ran across it yesterday in the pages of the Washington Post. The argument–if you can call it that–seemed to be that Al Gore’s “Inconvenient Truth” makes points which are all basically right and makes recommendations we should follow, but it’s scaring the children, among other things:

>In “An Inconvenient Truth,” Al Gore tells us that unless drastic global changes are made, our cities will be inundated and those of us who haven’t drowned will face a world wracked by cataclysmic weather and swarming with pestilence. One of his devotees, actor Leonardo DiCaprio, is coming out with his own environmental horror movie warning of human extinction if we continue living as we are. This would have a negative effect on the box office, but extinction might be preferable to the future Gore envisions.

>I, however, refuse to see the apocalypse in every balmy day. And I think it’s wrong to let our children believe they’ll be swept away before they get a chance to fret about college admissions. An article in The Post this spring described children anxious, sleepless and tearful about the end; one 9-year-old said she worried about global warming “because I don’t want to die.”

>Usually we want to protect our children from awful events, adjusting the message to suit their age. Certainly we tried to do that after Sept. 11. But an essential part of the global warming awareness movement is the belief that scaring us to death is the best way to spur massive change. Gore explicitly compares warming to the Nazis of the last century and terrorists of this one.

>And a recent New York Times profile of Gore tells that we are to be flooded with “An Inconvenient Truth.” It is going to be shown in schools; book versions for children and young adults and a children’s television show are planned. The global Live Earth concerts scheduled for July 7 are expected to raise millions, going to a three-year public relations effort, headed by Gore, to deluge us with bad news.

>All this is not to say that it’s not getting warmer and that curbing our profligate environmental ways is not a commendable and necessary goal. But perhaps this movement is sowing the seeds of its own destruction — even as it believes the human species has sown its own. There must be a limit to how many calamitous films, books and television shows we, and our children, can absorb.

Commendable and necessary it may be, but won’t someone please think of the children?


Empirical generalizations are a matter of common sense, and, yes, generality. Most people know that one counter example is not enough to render it false. Most people. Most people also know, by way of generalization, that general rules are bound to be interpreted in surprising ways some of the time. That’s no surprise. Since the subject of rules is human behavior, there are (1) bound to be exceptions and, (2) instances where people will test the limits of the law, and, more importantly, (3) people who refuse to understand that general rules regarding human behavior are subject to (1) and (2)–most of the time that is.

A rule about workplace speech in California (I bet you can see what’s coming) concerns speech on the employee bulletin boards and email system. Fair enough. There are rules because people abuse public fora. But things went awry (as could have been expected). Here’s what happened, in George Will’s retelling (I recommend one seek an independent source for this):

>Some African American Christian women working for Oakland’s government organized the Good News Employee Association (GNEA), which they announced with a flier describing their group as “a forum for people of Faith to express their views on the contemporary issues of the day. With respect for the Natural Family, Marriage and Family Values.”

>The flier was distributed after other employees’ groups, including those advocating gay rights, had advertised their political views and activities on the city’s e-mail system and bulletin board. When the GNEA asked for equal opportunity to communicate by that system and that board, it was denied. Furthermore, the flier they posted was taken down and destroyed by city officials, who declared it “homophobic” and disruptive.

>The city government said the flier was “determined” to promote harassment based on sexual orientation. The city warned that the flier and communications like it could result in disciplinary action “up to and including termination.”

>Effectively, the city has proscribed any speech that even one person might say questioned the gay rights agenda and therefore created what that person felt was a “hostile” environment. This, even though gay rights advocates used the city’s communication system to advertise “Happy Coming Out Day.” Yet the terms “natural family,” “marriage” and “family values” are considered intolerably inflammatory.

As usual, we make no judgment here on the merits of the case as it stands (it seems poor taste to use language you have chosen on purpose to offend any captive audience–but sometimes that is unavoidable). We would merely like to return to the whole idea of general rules which are bound to confuse some and be abused by others.

Free speech, for instance, means you can assert the false without legal penalty, but you can’t shout fire in a crowded theater. You also can’t use it threaten people with violence of one kind or another. And the limitations continue. It’s a general rule. Rules have exceptions. To think such rules have no exceptions is simply the fallacy of accident (misapplication of a general rule). To suggest, however, that the existence of those exceptions means the rule ought to be abandon is to compound that with the ignoratio elenchi (suggest an extreme conclusion follows from premises the suggest something milder).

Worse than those two things would be to put them together to arrive at a silly conclusion:

>Congress is currently trying to enact yet another “hate crime” law that would authorize enhanced punishments for crimes motivated by, among other things, sexual orientation. A coalition of African American clergy, the High Impact Leadership Coalition, opposes this, fearing it might be used “to muzzle the church.” The clergy argue that in our “litigation-prone society” the legislation would result in lawsuits having “a chilling effect” on speech and religious liberty. As the Oakland case demonstrates, that, too, is predictable.

Not really. It doesn’t demonstrate anything. The Oakland case illustrates that rules (or laws) regarding human behavior will have exceptions and that people will exploit them (sometimes illegitimately). It doesn’t show that there shouldn’t be rules. Besides, if you want to demonstrate any proposition regarding human behavior, you’ll need many many more instances. One won’t inflammatory anecdote won’t do. That’s a hasty generalization.

No respect

E.J. Dionne wonders why the left gets no respect, no respect he tells us:

>Why can’t the left get any respect?

>Whenever you use the word “left” in American politics, you feel almost compelled to add quotation marks. Today’s left is not talking about nationalizing industry, abolishing capitalism or destroying the rich. What passes for “left” in American politics is quite moderate by historical standards.

Was yesterday’s “left” communist? Whatever are these historical standards? Even Dionne begins the discussion with his own George Will quality liberal communist. And he wonders about respect. One of the reasons for this lack of respect can be found in the media: just ask Bob Somerby, Eric Alterman, Glenn Greenwald, and Media Matters.

But forget about that. Another reason, I think, these lefties get no respect is they never go toe to toe with their conservatives in the discussion of ideas. Dionne, for instance, rarely if ever replies to conservative arguments. And its even rarer that he makes arguments for his own position.

Today, for instance, he ignores the question as to whether the “left” position on any given issue is a better one and focuses instead on whether it is a more popular one. So, as he discusses Democratic candidates (they must be the left), he talks not about their positions or arguments or principles, but rather:

>That’s why every leading Democratic candidate for president chose to appear at this week’s “Take Back America” conference organized by the Campaign for America’s Future, the leading group on the party’s progressive end. This included Hillary Clinton, whose roots in the centrist politics of the Democratic Leadership Council run deep. Clinton not only knows how much political energy there is on the left; she also knows where public opinion has moved, particularly on the Iraq war.

Jeez. Maybe the candidates had reasons for going to the conference that Dionne, in his position as the Post’s official lefty, could at least mention (if not defend). Dionne’s failure to do this, however friendly he might be to the causes or arguments of the left, doesn’t add much to our national conversation.

Blame the victims

Thanks to all the crooks and liars for visiting yesterday.

In other matters, in a rare moment of accountability, the prosecutor of the Duke rape case, Mike Nifong, both lost his job and was disbarred for exaggerating evidence in a rape case. Kathleen Parker, however, is not satisfied–and she has found the real culprit:

>It couldn’t have happened to a more deserving fellow, but the case doesn’t end here. Nifong’s legacy, which ultimately may hurt women more than it does the falsely accused men, will be long-lived. And the politically correct culture that allowed his charade to persist remains securely in place, while those who enabled Nifong walk scot-free.

>Which is to say, before we applaud the tragedy’s finale, we might ask Lady Macbeth if she can recommend a good soap.

>It is tempting to convince oneself that Nifong’s banishment means that all is right in Dukedom. Doubtless, many among Duke’s faculty and administration, as well as random race-baiters, campus feminists, various reporters, commentators and assorted armchair prosecutors would prefer that no one remember their roles in advancing the Nifong farce. (KC Johnson, Brooklyn College history professor, has it all on his Durham-in-Wonderland blog,

>But they shouldn’t get off so easily. All were participants in the scurrilous witch hunt that unfolded during the last year. All were congregants in the PC Church that sanctifies certain groups as unassailable victims (all minorities and females) and others as condemnable perps (all males, but especially descendants of history’s white oppressors).

>From the beginning, when an African-American stripper — alternately known as a “working mother” and “college student” — claimed that three lacrosse players had raped her, few questioned whether she might be lying or that the men might be telling the truth. A spirit of retributive justice prevailed while feminist law professor Wendy Murphy summarized the zeitgeist on CNN’s “The Situation”: “I never, ever met a false rape claim, by the way. My own statistics speak to the truth.”

Someone is justly punished for perpetrating a fraud (topic of disucssion: can anyone think of some other recent frauds, perhaps broader in scope and with more victims?), by playing on their plainly legitimate racial and class sensitivities, and Parker concludes that their racial sensitivities are to blame. The real upshot of the case is this:

>Thanks to these activists and Nifong — and the dancer who cried wolf — real rape victims may be reluctant to come forward. Others may not get their day in court as intimidated prosecutors anticipate defeat with jurors jaded by the Duke spectacle.

In other words, because of the skepticism Parker advocates about the honesty and motivations of rape victims, their supporters, and legal advocates, real rape victims might not come forward–because Parker might not believe them. And Parker thinks that’s the real crime.

Union made

In the Washington Post one finds two op-ed pieces that concern a piece of legislation before congress concerns the right of workers to organize, one against (George Will) one for (Harold Meyerson).

I don’t have a logical point to make about either of them (this is not an endorsement of either argument). It would be nice, however, if the authors had exchanged their work beforehand. That way the reader would have gotten the sense of an actual discussion, rather than a parallel one.

In Meyerson’s piece, the legislation concerns the right of workers to organize:

>This week, though, the Senate turns to legislation that not only speaks about the economic stagnation of all but the wealthiest Americans but that would actually begin to end it. The goal of the Employee Free Choice Act is simply to give workers the right to join unions without facing the (currently) one-in-five chance of being fired for playing an active role in a campaign to do so.

>Firing employees for endeavoring to form unions has been illegal since 1935 under the National Labor Relations Act, but beginning in the 1970s, employers have preferred to violate the law — the penalties are negligible — rather than have their workers unionize. Today, employer violations rank somewhere between routine and de rigueur. Over half — 51 percent — of employers illegally threaten workers with the specter of plant closings if employees choose to unionize (1 percent actually go through with this threat, according to Cornell University professor Kate Bronfenbrenner). And even when workers vote to unionize, companies can refuse to bargain with them and can drag out the process for years — indeed, forever. The Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service found that when unions win representation elections, 45 percent of the time they then fail to secure contracts from employers.

>This kind of hardball resistance to American workers’ attempts to unionize, combined with the decline of manufacturing, has achieved catastrophic success. Only 7.5 percent of private-sector workers today are unionized, down from one-third during the decades after World War II. And guess what? The middle class has been cut out of the ever-dwindling group of our countrymen who profit from the nation’s economic growth. The EFCA would seek to remedy this by offering workers an alternative path to forming unions — the submission of signed affiliation cards from a majority of employees would trigger union recognition — and by mandating binding arbitration if employers stonewall efforts to win a first contract.

>If we’re really serious about restoring economic security in America and economic vitality to the middle class, the EFCA would work a whole lot better than would a fence on the border.

For Will, on the other hand, it’s a question of hardball tactics used by unions (the only corporate entities he thinks are not persons):

>Democracy is rule by persuasion, but the unpersuasive often try to coerce the unpersuaded. Recent days have provided two illustrations of this tendency, both of them pertaining to labor unions, whose decades of declining membership testify to their waning power to persuade workers that unions add more value to workers’ lives than they subtract.

>Failing unions, like failing industries, turn to government for protection in the form of coercion. Failing industries have traditionally sought corporate welfare in the form of tariffs (coercion of consumers). Unions seek laws to confer what their persuasiveness cannot convince people to consent to.

. . . .

>The WEA’s whiny audacity was not more offensive than the aim organized labor tried to advance with yesterday’s march and rally in the nation’s capital. Unions were demonstrating in support of legislation with the Orwellian title Employee Free Choice Act. It would deny employees the choice of a secret ballot when voting on unionization of their workplace. Instead, union organizers would use the “card check” system, which allows them to pick the voters they want: Once a majority of workers — exposed one at a time to face-to-face pressure from union organizers — sign a union card, the union is automatically certified as the bargaining agent for all the workers.

It’s as if they come from two different worlds.

They’re bound to mess up

In his second commentary on Porphyry's Isagoge, Boethius argues that those who ignore the science of disputation are going to make mistakes (Patrologia Latina 64, 73A). He should have also pointed out that those ignorant of scientific disputations will likewise never learn the "incorrupt truth of reality." I think Stanley Fish falls somewhere in the middle: he's both ignorant of logic and science. He writes:

Dawkins voices distress at an imagined opponent who 'can't see' the evidence or 'refuses to look at it because it contradicts his holy book,' but he has his own holy book of whose truth he has been persuaded, and it is within its light that he proceeds and looks forward in hope (his word) to a future stage of enlightenment he does not now experience but of which he is fully confident. Both in the vocabulary they share 'hope,' 'belief,' 'undoubtedly,' 'there will come a time' and the reasoning they engage in, Harris and Dawkins perfectly exemplify the definition of faith found in Hebrews 11, 'the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.'

The evidence for the theory of evolution, my science oriented friends tell me, is vast and testable. On the basis of this vast and testable theory, Dawkins makes judgments (perhaps erroneous ones–remember children, this is science, people are bound to make mistakes, that's the point) about things and events that fall within the purview of the theory, such as the behavior of biological creatures–i.e., living things, like human beings. He claims that as we learn more about the brain–that thing with which we think, and whose wisdom is impaired with chemical substances found in booze–we will probably come to account for more and more human behavior. Confidence or rather faith in such progress is one reason why the study of neurology continues to be funded. One problem with Fish's claim is that he sophistically equivocates on the words "believe," "hope," and so forth. The fact that believers and science types both "believe," "hope" and "have faith" in other words, tells you nothing about what they believe and how they believe, but a lot about the multivalent nature of words. All cognizant beings stand in some kind of relation to the objects of their judgments–but that doesn't mean the objects of these judgments are all the same.