Can’t go wrong with little theological disputation on a Saturday morning: Michael Gerson offers up the old saw that morality without Theism is vacuous or unjustifiable. Christopher Hitchens replies by arguing that theism is not a necessary condition of morality.

First Gerson.

>So the dilemma is this: How do we choose between good and bad instincts? Theism, for several millennia, has given one answer: We should cultivate the better angels of our nature because the God we love and respect requires it. While many of us fall tragically short, the ideal remains.

>Atheism provides no answer to this dilemma. It cannot reply: “Obey your evolutionary instincts” because those instincts are conflicted. “Respect your brain chemistry” or “follow your mental wiring” don’t seem very compelling either. It would be perfectly rational for someone to respond: “To hell with my wiring and your socialization, I’m going to do whatever I please.” C.S. Lewis put the argument this way: “When all that says ‘it is good’ has been debunked, what says ‘I want’ remains.”

>Some argue that a careful determination of our long-term interests — a fear of bad consequences — will constrain our selfishness. But this is particularly absurd. Some people are very good at the self-centered exploitation of others. Many get away with it their whole lives. By exercising the will to power, they are maximizing one element of their human nature. In a purely material universe, what possible moral basis could exist to condemn them? Atheists can be good people; they just have no objective way to judge the conduct of those who are not.

1. Human beings have good and bad instincts.
2. Morality requires choosing the good instincts over the bad instincts.
3. Moral choice requires an objective standard for judging desires.
4. Atheists have no objective standard for judging desires.
5. Therefore, Atheists cannot be moral.

That’s one construal of the argument. Gerson seems, however, to vacillate between this and something like

\6. Therefore, Atheists have no reason to be moral.

and something like

\7. Therefore, Atheists have no objective moral standards.

Probably part of the problem lies with the slippery notion of what it means to be “moral.” But, setting that aside, 4 is the crucial claim in any version of the argument. And here, I think, Gerson gets a little simplistic.

>In a purely material universe, what possible moral basis could exist to condemn them?

I’m not sure whether Atheists are committed to a “purely material universe.” Seems as though they could hold to the existence of the mental as well. And whether or not they hold that, there are plenty of plausible accounts of morality that ground moral judgment in the nature of reason. If the evolutionary account of ethics explains the origin of reason in evolution need it thereby undermine its authority? If an evolutionary account of mathematical reasoning were developed, would it remove the authority of mathematical proof?

This is, of course, a superficial response, but this argument and the earlier one from Stanley Fish seem to rest on the either deliberate or ignorant disregard of recent moral philosophy. Both blithely dismiss the possibility of a non-theistic justification of morality with several straw man arguments (“purely material universes”) ignoring great bookshelves full of candidate justifications for morality.

It may turn out that there isn’t a coherent non-theistic justification of morality. But to claim that there isn’t, at this point in time, requires some serious response to numerous alternative positions. Until that happens, there seems little reason to me to accept Gerson’s argument. Nonetheless, it would be desirable if the proponents of this argument in the popular press would spend a little more time justifying the controversial premise.

Second, Hitchens. When we strip his characteristic verve from his column we get essentially.

1. Some theists are not moral.
2. Some moral people are not theists.
3. Therefore, it is not the case that theism is a necessary condition of being moral.

As Hitchens points out, Gerson waffles a bit on his conclusion. Sometimes he suggests that theism is necessary for morality, sometimes that it encourages it, sometimes he even seems to grant Hitchen’s argument, but then hold that theism makes sense of the morality that both theists and non-theists can possess.

Actus reus non facit reum nisi mens sit rea

A few weeks ago the Chicago Tribune ran a story entitled, “What is a Hate Crime?” The story was so bad the public editor condemned it and expressed bafflement that such an experienced reporter could have written it. Aside from the fact that the story didn’t bother to address the legal meaning of the term hate crime, it was premised on the complaints of a Charlie Daniels (yes, that one), a couple of right wing bloggers (known for hyping the false), and various white supremacist groups. They complained that a horrific abduction and murder in the Nashville, Tennessee area should qualify as a hate crime because it was committed by people of a different race from the victim. The story furthered their complaint, pointing out statistics on crimes where the victim is of a different race than the perpetrator.

Ignoring the objections of the public editor, today the Tribune posts an unsigned editorial about the upcoming vote on hate crimes legislation. They write:

>The Tribune carried an interesting story recently about a particularly heinous double murder in Knoxville, Tenn. The two young victims, who were kidnapped, raped and killed, were white. The three men and a woman who stand charged with the crime are black.

>The story posed some difficult questions about how this country deals with crimes that have a racial overtone — when someone of one race kills someone of another race. And it asked the question: What is a hate crime?

>The definitions in federal law and various state laws differ, but generally a hate crime is considered to be any crime that is motivated by bias based on race, religion or other factors. Hate crime laws permit tougher punishment based on the motivation and broader social impact of the offense.

>So did the Knoxville case qualify? “There is absolutely no proof of a hate crime,” said John Gill, a special counsel to the Knox County prosecutor. “It was a terrible crime, a horrendous crime, but race was not a motive.”

>Yet Mary Newsom, the mother of one of the victims, told a Tribune reporter: “If this wasn’t a hate crime, then I don’t know how you would define a hate crime.”

However horrible the criminal act, its horror does not make it a hate crime–pointing that out, as the Tribune ought to know from reading their own public editor (or their mail for that matter) is irrelevant. In addition to this, the editorial makes the two common objections to hate crime legislation–both of them silly in my estimation.

The first, hate crimes legislation is unnecessary:

>But why expand the use of a federal hate crime law?

>Not only are crimes of violence already punishable under state laws, most states also have their own hate crimes statutes. The vast majority of street crime has always been handled by state and local authorities, and nothing suggests they are abdicating that responsibility. It’s telling that only a tiny percentage of existing hate crimes leads to federal indictments.

>The Senate version is called “The Matthew Shepard Act,” after a gay man beaten to death in 1998 in Wyoming. But that case fails to prove the need for an expanded law. His two assailants were not charged with a hate crime, since the state had no such law. They were, however, convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison.

The rarity of the crime has nothing to do with whether or not it should be illegal. Aside from this, the Matthew Shepard case is not exemplary. Not all hate crimes are murders, so sentencing in those cases might not be adequate (in that they wouldn’t involve maximum penalties).

The second objection rests on a sophomoric skepticism about judging mental state:

>Hate crime laws may be justified when the crime has a broad societal impact. A brick through the window of the first black family on a block is more than a prank. But hate crime laws raise concerns when they punish criminals differently not because of what they do, but because of what they think. In the view of Northwestern University law professor Martin Redish, it’s the equivalent of tacking on extra punishment if a crime is meant to promote the cause of communism. Beat a man because he looks rich, or because he’s got a Republican bumper sticker on his car, and there’s no hate crime. Beat him because you think he’s Jewish, or Cuban, or (under this bill) gay, and there is.

This is a bit of a twist on the old argument. But it’s worth pointing out that people get punished for what they think all of the time. It’s almost as if the “guilty mental state,” the mens rea, were the cornerstone of criminal law. So pointing out that you’re punishing someone for what they think doesn’t amount to much. Besides, juries are asked to make all sorts of judgments about knowledge, intent, volition, character, honesty, depravity and much much more (especially when it comes to sentencing).

The twist in this argument, however, consists in its muddying the waters about which groups qualify for protection from hatred–the rich aren’t included, but neither are Civil War reenactors, NASCAR fans, or Trekkies. Perhaps they could petition the government for inclusion.

***Vacation for a week starting tomorrow. Enjoy the archives.

Segregation forever

For almost three years now we’ve noted David Brooks’s tendency to divide the world into two’s. Frequently this division is the first step on the way to a false dichotomy:

>do you want to surrender to terrorists or fight them like a man with the military, you choose;

sometimes, however, it’s just a random an arbitrary division:

>there are two kinds of people, some like cheddar, others Velvetta.

It’s false, but not the kind that’s fallacious.

Now we know why Brooks does this:

>For hundreds of thousands of years our ancestors lived in small bands. Surviving meant being able to distinguish between us — the people who will protect you — and them — the people who will kill you. Even today, people have a powerful drive to distinguish between us and them.

>As dozens of social-science experiments have made clear, if you separate people into different groups — no matter how arbitrary the basis of the distinction — they will quickly begin discriminating against others they deem unlike themselves. People say they want to live in diverse integrated communities, but what they really want to do is live in homogenous ones, filled with people like themselves.

>If that’s the case, maybe integration is not in the cards. Maybe the world will be as it’s always been, a collection of insular compartments whose fractious tendencies are only kept in check by constant maintenance.

Human nature. But there’s hope:

>Maybe the health of a society is not measured by how integrated each institution within it is, but by how freely people can move between institutions. In a sick society, people are bound by one totalistic identity. In a healthy society, a person can live in a black neighborhood, send her kids to Catholic school, go to work in a lawyer’s office and meet every Wednesday with a feminist book club. Multiply your homogenous communities and be fulfilled.

>This isn’t the integrated world many of us hoped for. But maybe it’s the only one available.

Now the only way this analysis works is if Brooks understands the question of integration on the blender model: everyone in every way all of the time is blended through and through. Every one is the same. Everything is in everything.

I can’t think of anyone who ever seriously thought that was the goal of integration. Integration, in the relevant sense nowadays (what with the Supreme Court and all), means equal access to the goods of society (housing, public schools, etc. ) regardless of for example race, gender or sexual orientation.

Moving freely between institutions and communities (say, without legal or social blockades) is precisely what integration is. And that’s hardly the same as George Wallace’s “Segregation now. . . .segregation forever.”

Faddish social theories

I don’t know what the argument was for the Seattle Public School system’s diversity policy recently considered by the Supreme Court, but after reading George Will today, I know even less:

>Seattle’s “race-conscious” policies were devised by the sort of people who proclaimed on the school district’s Web site that “having a future time orientation” (planning ahead), “emphasizing individualism as opposed to a more collective ideology” and “defining one form of English as standard” constitute “cultural racism” and “institutional racism” and arise from “unsuccessful concepts such as a melting pot or colorblind mentality.” Stephen Breyer, in a dissent joined by Ruth Bader Ginsburg, David Souter and John Paul Stevens, said the court should be deferential to such people when they shuffle pupils on the basis of race.

>Why race? Although progressive people would never stoop to racial stereotyping, they evidently believe that any black or other minority child, however young or from whatever social background, makes a predictable and distinctive — you might say stereotypical — contribution to “diversity.”

>Breyer said that last week’s decision abandons “the promise of Brown.” Actually, that promise — a colorblind society — has been traduced by the “diversity” exception to the equal protection clause. That exception allows white majorities to feel noble while treating blacks and certain other minorities as seasoning — a sort of human oregano — to be sprinkled across a student body to make the majority’s educational experience more flavorful.

>This repulsive practice merits Clarence Thomas’s warning in his opinion concurring with last week’s ruling: Beware of elites eager to constitutionalize “faddish social theories.” Often, they are only theories. As Roberts said, Seattle and Louisville offered “no evidence” that the diversity they have achieved (by what he has called the “sordid business” of “divvying us up by race”) is necessary to achieve the “asserted” educational benefits.

>Evidence is beside the point. The point for race-mongering diversity tinkerers is their professional and ideological stake in preventing America from achieving “a colorblind mentality.”

Their policy might even be less justifiable than this makes it seem. But that’s precisely why I want to know what it is. In the fever of his perpetual advocacy (and perhaps his recent rediscovery of the virtues of segregation [here–then here]), Will never lets on that there was ever a legal case for it. And here he has managed even to make the Supremes sound like him–picking quotes about racism out of context (and to heightened negative effect). Here, for instance, is the fuller context of that quotation:

>Cultural Racism:
Those aspects of society that overtly and covertly attribute value and normality to white people and Whiteness, and devalue, stereotype, and label people of color as “other”, different, less than, or render them invisible. Examples of these norms include defining white skin tones as nude or flesh colored, having a future time orientation, emphasizing individualism as opposed to a more collective ideology, defining one form of English as standard, and identifying only Whites as great writers or composers.

That’s better. Having a discussion about that quotation, however, would take time and would involve seriously considering the claims it makes. And that’s boring. It’s easier to call them “faddish social theories” and be done with it.

Freedom of speech

Whenever a constitutional matter comes before the public, people are fond of citing the relevant amendment, as if the words alone will resolve the conflict so many legal minds have failed to understand. This is a favorite tactic of George Will, especially when it comes to McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform. He will say, very slowly, that “Congress-shall-make-no-law. . . It’s as a plain as day, only a communist moron could not see that.” Today’s version of that argument comes from Robert Samuelson. True to the tradition, he writes:

>”Congress shall make no law. . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

>The Fourth of July is an apt moment to reflect on one of the great underreported stories of our time: the rise of speech regulation. Glance at the First Amendment, but do not think it still applies. Large bodies of political speech are now governed by laws, agency regulations, court decisions and lawyerly interpretations. Speech has become unfree.

>This does not mean that we don’t have vigorous debate or that most points of view aren’t represented. But in and around elections, what can be said, by whom and under what circumstances, is now a tangled web of legal qualifications — all justified as campaign finance “reform.”

>As proof, consider the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Federal Election Commission v. Wisconsin Right to Life Inc. Don’t try to understand it; you won’t. That’s the point. What’s permissible or impermissible speech is now murky. Plain political speech has mushroomed into many subcategories — “issue speech,” “electioneering communications,” “express advocacy” and “nonexpress advocacy,” among others. Different legal standards apply.

He goes on to point out (correctly, we imagine) some of the myriad practical difficulties of regulating “political” speech according to the parameters of McCain-Feingold. Indeed, McCain-Feingold may be a dumb law.

But it’s not dumb because of some obvious contradiction with the first amendment or because it confuses what was not confused before. A quick glance at constitutional history will reveal many cases in which the notion of “speech” has been expanded (or contracted) either in virtue of its content, its location, or more fundamentally, the person or entity doing the speaking. Simple, seemingly absolute rules such as the amendments to the Constitution, invite all sorts of challenges and raise all sorts of legitimate questions about what, where, when, why, and who.

Obscenity anyone? Is that speech? How come it can be regulated?

So, while the McCain-Feingold law may–I say may–have been sloppily written. It’s not wrong simply because it abridges political speech. Whatever is left of the integrity of our political process deserves more mature consideration than this.

The Philosopher President

H/t to Leiter and others for this:

>At the nadir of his presidency, George W. Bush is looking for answers. One at a time or in small groups, he summons leading authors, historians, philosophers and theologians to the White House to join him in the search.

>Over sodas and sparkling water, he asks his questions: What is the nature of good and evil in the post-Sept. 11 world? What lessons does history have for a president facing the turmoil I’m facing? How will history judge what we’ve done? Why does the rest of the world seem to hate America? Or is it just me they hate?

>These are the questions of a president who has endured the most drastic political collapse in a generation. Not generally known for intellectual curiosity, Bush is seeking out those who are, engaging in a philosophical exploration of the currents of history that have swept up his administration. For all the setbacks, he remains unflinching, rarely expressing doubt in his direction, yet trying to understand how he got off course.

>These sessions, usually held in the Oval Office or the elegant living areas of the executive mansion, are never listed on the president’s public schedule and remain largely unknown even to many on his staff. To some of those invited to talk, Bush seems alone, isolated by events beyond his control, with trusted advisers taking their leave and erstwhile friends turning on him.

Two questions: (1) which philosopher would you send to converse with Bush (don’t recommend yourself please)? (2) how does he or she answer Bush’s questions?