Sunday, November 3, 2013

Do originalists contradict themselves on the 2nd and 14th amendments?

A few weeks ago, I found an article which accuses Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia (and, by implication, originalism in general) of hypocrisy. The article is well written, civil, interesting, and worth a read. The author argues, among other things, that an ideologically consistent originalist view would have to either permit restrictions on any handguns which didn’t actually exist at the time the second amendment has passed, or permit the definition of “citizen” and “person” to evolve from the original 14th amendment understanding. He writes:

“if our understanding of “arms” can evolve (something Scalia clearly sees as acceptable, as he does about instruments for use in application of the death penalty—also in the interview this morning) then I do not see why our understanding of “citizen” and “persons” cannot evolve. And if they cannot, where is the justification for our understanding of “arms” to change?”

The trouble with this is that author uses the phrase “understanding of the word _____” to conflate two very different things: the parameters of a categorical description, and the specific instantiations which fall within those parameters. The definition of a word lays out the parameters, while anything which falls within those parameters is said to be an example of that word.

The parameters of the word “fan”, for instance, may be understood as any machine designed to cool something off, and examples may include a ceiling fan, handheld fan, computer fan, industrial fan, etc. New types of machines may be invented, and based on their design and purpose, they may or may not classify as fans. But the original parameters of the word fan have not changed.

So it is with guns. The word “arms” is a categorical description, not a reference to specific items that existed in 1791. Originalists like Scalia look to the text of the constitution, and the arguments for its passage, to gain insight onto what the parameters of that word were understood to be. In this case, Scalia argues the word “arms” was meant to mean any handheld weapon which could be "born". 

Evolving weapons technologies do not change the definition of arms any more than evolving business technologies change the definition of commerce. It may change the application of that definition by creating new instantiations of commerce which fall within the previously accepted definition. But the definition itself remains fixed. Technological innovations can produce new inventions which nevertheless fall within the same, unmoving parameters of what “arms” are and were commonly understood to mean.

This is very different from widening those parameters to include things which did in fact exist at the time, but were never meant to be encompassed by the words the framers employed. And that is what Scalia argues is happening when people try to stretch the 14th amendment to protect people whom, at the time of the framing, were understood to fall outside the field of people protected by it. Now, I’m not sure I agree with Scalia about the intent of the original wording, and maybe my interpretation of the 14th amendment is more expansive than his. But whoever’s right about that issue, it’s a separate issue from the boundaries of the word arms, so Scalia’s not contradicting himself.

Does the 8th amendment require providing sex change operations to inmates?

I recently stumbled upon an interesting article giving an update on the case of convicted murderer Michelle Kosilek. Kosilek, who was born a man but suffers from gender-identity disorder, is serving a life sentence for strangling her wife. The article can be read here. while my original blog post on the subject can be read here.

The author writes "we impose conditions that cause pain and suffering—when, for instance, we withhold surgery that would bring a prisoner’s body into harmony with her consciousness"

I think this glosses over an important distinction between deprivation and infliction. Both can sometimes count as cruel and unusual punishment, but one is worse than the other. Actively inflicting pain on someone with a weapon or tool or device of some sort seems different to me, and more cruel, than the failure to give them something which might relieve pre-existing distress. The state did not give this woman gender identity disorder; she's had it since birth, she lived with it for the first 41 years of her life, and had she not murdered someone she might continue to live with it to this day. The state is not the cause of her discomfort.

Another important and related distinction is between prevention and provision. If this woman, or other charities/family members acting on her behalf, had the financial means to pay for this treatment on their own, and the State of Massachusetts was physically preventing that by refusing to allow her out of jail for the operation, perhaps that would be cruel. Keeping the woman in her uncomfortable state on purpose, to intentionally exacerbate her discomfort, is just unnecessary. But the woman is not asking for permission to temporarily leave prison so that she can receive this treatment on her own dime; she's demanding that the taxpayers of Massachusetts buy it for her, that they in fact confer a boon upon her which she would not have received at their expense had she never murdered someone in the first place. Considering law-abiding transgender people suffer due to their inability to afford this operation every day, and the government is not legally obligated to provide it to them, this strikes me as problematic.

Also, there is a slippery slope argument. If “adequate” healthcare is includes sex change operations, where is the limit on what prisoners are entitled to at taxpayer expense? Do we have to pay for preventive care? What about daily multivitamins to ensure they get enough calcium and don’t develop osteoporosis? Must we provide dental floss and Listerine and foot powder and sunblock and condoms and chapstick and Vaseline and Tylenol? These things are “healthcare” in that they can potentially improve one’s health or alleviate irritating bodily symptoms, but they’re still inaccessible luxuries to most of the world’s inhabitants, and we certainly wouldn’t equate the government’s failure to provide it to them with the infliction of a “cruel and unusual punishment”. If the government is to bequeath them on a group of people as an act of charity, you’d think inmates should be last on the list.

Would it be constitutional for the federal government to ban abortion?

A friend of mine is ardently pro-life. Yesterday, Ron Paul came to our school to give a talk, which was followed by a Q&A session from members of the audience. My friend asked Dr. Paul (who is also pro-life, but believes it should be left up to the states) about his views on abortion, and then posted his reply on Facebook as evidence that liberty cannot exist unless the right to life (as he defines it) is protected. One of his pro-life friends commented that Ron Paul's stance was insufficient, because he rejected federal legislation as a means of implementing pro-life policies, writing:

Pro-Life guy - "I think we should change the culture and the laws on a federal level and a state level, while I think Ron would say let's change the culture and some laws on a state level just not on a federal level. I mean, a
rguably, we shouldn't make contract laws, we should just change hearts and minds and souls and people will follow contracts. Honestly, if it was merely a question of changing hearts, minds, and souls, we wouldn't need any government because everyone would be good moral people. Ultimately, both the culture and the laws must be changed, and certainly they are intertwined."

I replied "
which of the Federal government's enumerated powers, if any, would you claim justifies them to prohibit abortion? If you can't find one, perhaps you could advocate a constitutional amendment, but I highly doubt you'll find a high enough majority to do that. Better get cracking on that hearts and minds stuff."

This is a transcript of the debate that ensued, which covered a wide range of interesting constitutional topics. As always, I've concealed the names of the other participants to protect their privacy. I've distinguished between my friend and the random guy who commented on his thread by calling them "Pro-Life Friend" and "Pro-Life Guy", but for our purposes their ideas were close enough to be considered the same adversary.

Pro-Life Friend: I would argue that the 14th amendment would suffice to grant such a power, coupled with a congressional act defining what constitutes a person. Senator Rand Paul introduced such a bill in March of this year. https://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/113/s583/text

Me: That’s a decent argument, but humor me on this analogy.

Imagine Congress were to pass a law which defined the word “commerce” in a way which, while plausible, is by no means obvious. Imagine their definition is more expansive than the one whi
ch generally comes to mind when we hear the word commerce, and that Congress defined it thusly for the purpose of widening their regulatory powers over things we might not historically consider federal matters. Of course, the courts might overrule them and strike these powers down. But even if the courts permitted these laws, wouldn’t this be problematic from the originalist perspective we often agree on in class?

When the people consented to grant the federal government the power to regulate commerce “among the several states”, it is highly dubious that they envisaged that word to include restrictions on growing wheat in their own back yards (see Wickard vs. Filburn, 1942). For the federal government to pass such laws anyway on mere majority support, without clearing the constitutionally mandated threshold for a constitutional amendment that officially clarifies the language, would be to exercise powers to which many citizens never subjected themselves.

So it is with the word person. If I handed someone a pencil, and told them to draw me a person, it’s highly unlikely they would draw me a picture of a fetus – outside the abortion debate, it’s simply not what comes to mind. Whether or not it SHOULD be included in that definition morally is a separate issue from whether the framers MEANT it to be included historically. And in the context of the 14th amendment’s Reconstruction era passage, I find very little evidence that this is the sort of power the people meant to bestow upon the federal government.

I agree with you that Roe vs. Wade is a ridiculous decision. But it is one thing to say the 14th amendment permits the states to ban abortion, and quite another to say it mandates them to do so at Federal behest. In class you often trumpet the advantages of federalism and the importance of the 10th amendment, so I’m sure you see that distinction.
Pro-Life Guy: Not to mention the fact that it is the basic function of the federal government to provide for the common defense and the security of the rights of all our citizens equally. As long as the unborn fall under our definition of "person", they are privileged to all the rights and securities that every other citizen is privileged too. The same argument would apply to any scenario where a human being was being deprived of life without due process under the law, if it was determined that children had the right to euthanize their parents at a certain age, there is perhaps no specific clause within the Constitution (outside the 14th amendment) to prevent that law, the authority is inherent in the language. Any social compact in the social contract theory gives the government the duty to protect the rights of life, liberty, and property of its citizens.

Me: 
you are correct that providing for the common defense is one of the purposes of the federal government laid out in the constitution's preamble, but Congress can only pursue those objectives by carrying out the specific tasks granted to it. That's the entire purpose of a government with enumerated powers: Congress can provide for the common defense, but it can't do whatever it likes for that purpose, only those activities which are listed in Article I, Section VIII.

"if it was determined that children had the right to euthanize their parents at a certain age, there is perhaps no specific clause within the Constitution (outside the 14th amendment) to prevent that law" - exactly, which is why the federal government shouldn't make laws on such matters. The states should. Unless it occurs in a national park or the city of Washington DC, murder itself is a state crime, tried in state courts. If your contention is that abortion is murder, it should be defined at the state level.

"Any social compact in the social contract theory gives the government the duty to protect the rights of life, liberty, and property of its citizens." - Once again, only within the specific powers granted in the compact. If it could exercise any power it liked so long as it were loosely pursuant to those ends, the constitution would be very short, because all it would need to do is say so.

Pro-Life Friend: I've actually been thinking about it more, and the clause "born and naturalized...and subject to the jurisdiction thereof" is now seeming to me problematic for passing such a federal law defining personhood (and thus banning abortion) for the simple reason that it specifies "birth" as a criterion. Perhaps a constitutional amendment would be necessary to justify such a federal law after all.

Me: To be fair, ******, your earlier case is strengthened by the fact that "born or naturalized" is used only as a condition for citizenship, and that of the three subsequent clauses, only the first limits its protections to the "citizen" as opposed to the "person." So if you tried to use the privileges and immunities clause, you're right that would be problematic. But I think the fact they chose to use the word "person" instead of citizen in the equal protection clause could be cited as evidence they wanted equal protection for non-citizen people as well.

Pro-Life Friend: Ah yes, I overlooked that. "nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; " means not only citizens. In other words, you can't murder illegal immigrants or what not, so this also could apply to the unborn if the definition of personhood is clarified in light of modern science. So in that case, I reverse, my reversal. An interesting question to look into would be to ask what the framer's view of when personhood begins, or if they would have even discussed it. I know embryology and the science of fetal development wasn't hammered out yet. But consider: If the framers said all turtles (for example) shall be protected and years later, science led to the realization that some species of frogs were in fact turtles all along, then could those former frogs be protected as turtles? A wierd analogy, but I think *******'s point holds in this regard.

Pro-Life Guy: And yet, we do not operate under the Articles of Confederation nor the 10th Amendment run amok system that Ron Paul suggests. If I asked you to draw a person, it's unlikely you would draw them black, or old, or missing one limb. Does that mean that someone missing a limb is not a person because its not the first thing you draw? The framers did not include blacks in their meaning for person, does that mean that blacks do not have natural rights without the 14th amendment? Are our rights derived from the Constitution or from God? The unborn have a natural right to life as anyone else, the question is whether we chose to recognize that and grant them the same protections as other citizens or not.

Me: you are correct our rights do not come from the constitution, but we are not arguing about whether a fetus has a right to life. We are arguing about the relative broadness of the federal government's constitutional powers. Nor am I even arguing that a fetus is not a person. I'm merely arguing that unlike a black person or a crippled person, it is not obvious or unquestionable that a fetus is a person - as I'm sure you know, there is much heated debate on the subject. Furthermore, I am arguing that in order for any exercise of federal power to be legitimate, the people's consent to the grant of that power must be relatively clear from the constitutional text they cite for their authority. It seems to me the people never clearly consented to the exercise of the Federal power you would subject them to.


Pro-Life Guy: How you define a person though must be a federal responsibility. How can you have a fetus who is a human being with rights and protections in Ohio and when he crosses into Illinois he is no longer a person with rights and protections? Even non-citizens have rights and protections according to the natural law when they are within our borders. This cannot be a state by state issue, any more then slavery could. Stephen Douglas argued for popular sovereignty with slavery, while Lincoln said that it makes slavery a relative preference rather then a moral absolute. Are we to do the same with abortion? Leave it to legal preferential relativity rather then say that it is a moral absolute? Aquinas spoke of when the human was conceived, but I do not think the founders imagined that we would establish murdering your child as a right. I think they would have viewed it as a gross violation of the social contract (the government allowing one citizen to violate the rights of another, the majority persecuting the minority). I ask this, I know that the federal government does not have any murder laws, but would it be unconstitutional if they did?

Me: Whether something is legal says nothing about whether it is moral. Permitting each state to set its own moral standards says nothing about which set of moral standards is preferable. There may well be a moral absolute, and some states may well be violating it. But seeing as nobody can agree on what that moral absolute is, and each side thinks the other is the one violating it, federalism maximizes the number of people who are able to get their way. As it applies to your example, the actual, natural, God-given rights of a fetus/woman would not change when that fetus/woman crosses state boundaries, even if the state's recognition and protection of those rights did. In that case, one or both of the states may be morally wrong. Lincoln said that slavery was an absolute moral wrong no matter where it took place, but even he didn't believe he had the constitutional power to abolish it during peacetime. The Emancipation Proclamation was only justified as a temporary wartime measure, and when the war ended it did indeed require a constitutional amendment to make it illegal.

Pro-Life Guy: To that point, I would argue that it is fairly evident in the Constitution (especially in light and context of the Declaration of Independence and the context of social compact theory of Locke) that the government is being granted the right to defend life and liberty, not without limit, but certainly violations against common law. Common law applications such as laws against murder or rape, do not need to be spelled out, they are inherent social compact rights. I think it is evident that a fetus is a person, when someone is pregnant, people don't ask "how is the fetus doing?" or "what is the fetus going to be?" or "is it a person or not"? This question is certainly not relative (based on whether the woman wants the child or not) and there is no scientific evidence that the fetus is not a person, but there is plenty that it is. The only people who deny their personage are those attempting to rationalize abortion. Abortion is not founded on a belief that they are not people, the belief that they are not people is founded on abortion. Their natural right to life is protected under the Constitution in context and I would argue that passing a law banning abortion is perfectly justified by a natural law based government (which I would argue was the founder's intent)

Me: ******* says "it is fairly evident...that the government is being granted the right to defend...violations against common law", and that these violations "do not need to be spelled out." - I think this is the heart of our disagreement. I strongly believe that the federal government cannot do anything besides what is spelled out for it to do in the constitution, because that document is the only source of their authority - the only thing that gives congressmen any more power than you or I. To answer your earlier question, no: outside the military and the oceans and what happens on federally owned lands, I don't think prosecuting murders is a federal prerogative.

Instead, it is a state prerogative, because the states are another matter entirely. Their powers are not enumerated, and according to the 10th amendment, they can do pretty much whatever they like so long as it's not expressly prohibited. This is why what you call "common law violations" like murder and rape are defined and prosecuted and enforced at the state level, often with varying legal standards and punishment across state borders. The morality of the death penalty may be a moral absolute, but not everyone agrees on that, so some states use it and others don't. So it was with abortion until Roe vs. Wade. Even if it's obvious that the defining and defending natural rights was a primary purpose of government, it doesn't answer the question of WHICH government. Thankfully, the constitution does.

"Their natural right to life is protected under the Constitution in context and I would argue that passing a law banning abortion is perfectly justified by a natural law based government (which I would argue was the founder's intent)." - You say this as if everyone agrees on what "a natural law based government" consists of. But pro-choice advocates can cite natural law every bit as much as you can; women are naturally endowed with the property of their own body and the liberty to do with it as they please to the extent that they don't harm others. There is not even a remote consensus about at which point a fetus becomes someone else's body, instead of a part of their own. The framers were not naive enough to believe that the application of natural law was self explanatory, which is why they didn't write a constitution that just said "the federal government can do whatever is necessary to defend natural law." The states would have balked at such a constitution, because they didn't want to be bound by the interpretations of non-residents. So instead, the framers wrote a limited grant of power which specifies precisely what the federal government can and can't do, and left the remainder of the governing decisions to the states, knowing full well that some states might interpret our natural rights differently than others.

Pro-Life Guy: I think this may be at the heart of textualist versus contextualist. While I am going to attempt to find textual evidence to support an abortion ban, I would also say this. The reason the founders avoided any language to be placed in the Constitution about the authority of defining a human person has a couple of different reasons. The first is that they did believe that over time the state's would step up and protect human rights such as in the slavery case. They were proved wrong and it has become evident that a state government can easily become just as tyrannical as any federal government if not more so (New York for example). Secondly, because I believe it is evident both in the federalist papers and simply reading through Social Compact thinkers that certain premises are taken for granted. The primary premise is that men are endowed with inalienable rights to life, liberty, and property and the primary function of government is to protect those rights. Lincoln has a beautiful piece called the golden apple and the silver frame that is a quick five minute read and I think puts the situation correctly. The Declaration of Independence/our principles are the picture of the golden apple and our constitution is the silver frame. The silver frame exists not for its own sake, but for the sake of the golden apple. Thee constitution exists not for its own sake, but for the sake of the principles that it protects. The fundamental principle guiding our entire American thought is that we are endowed with the natural rights to life, liberty and property. If the Constitution is failing to protect these things, the Constitution is failing as is our government. Our government's prerogative is to protect our lives, our liberty, and our property. http://teachingamericanhistory.org/.../

Me: "The fundamental principle guiding our entire American thought is that we are endowed with the natural rights to life, liberty and property. If the Constitution is failing to protect these things, the Constitution is failing as is our government."

I a
gree with this. Where we disagree is what to do if the Constitution is failing. I say we should set about fixing the constitution. You appear to be saying we should ignore the framework of enumerated powers, and grant Congress the power to do almost anything that a majority feels will protect our ill-defined rights.


Pro-Life Friend: What did the framers of the 14th amendment mean by "person"---that is the question. And can the word "person" be expanded in light of science and the philosophy of the Declaration (life, liberty and pursuit of happiness) implicit in the amendment's drafting--so that the the framers' approval of protections of fetal life could be seen as implicit?

Me: ****** 
asks "can the word "person" be expanded in light of science and the philosophy of the Declaration (life, liberty and pursuit of happiness) implicit in its drafting."

No. To alter the terms of a contract after it was signed, without reaffirming the consent of the other party, is to bind the other party by something they never agreed to. Also, scientists may define life differently than philosophers or political theorists even in the modern era, to say nothing of what the word meant in the 1800's.

Pro-Life Guy: Andrew, they are going to define the terms as they so choose their way, and we will define them the right way. We have to stand by our conviction that our stance on natural law and life is true and theirs is untrue. Simply the fact that they are able to redefine the terms and try to twist them into ways they are not meant to be twisted does not make our position any weaker. Stay the course, fight the good fight, finish the race.

Pro-Life Gal, heretofore unheard from in the debate: I am too tired tonight to wade through these arguments tonight, but I feel like I need to point out one obvious point. Ron Paul and others like him tell us that if we truly want to end abortion we need to change the culture. Historically, that is not so. Whether we are talking about the English slave trade, American slavery, or the Civil Rights movement, societal attitudes changed after laws were passed protecting human rights. And on a very pragmatic level, legal=moral for the vast majority of Americans who are not Hopkins students (and maybe some of them as well.) Finally, I would like to ask Paul, just what percentage of the population would we need to become committed anti-abortionists before the legislatures would pass laws? 51%? 78% ? 99%? I guess there are some people with slave ancestors who are pretty glad that abolitionists didn't wait to change the opinions of the whole population before slavery became illegal.

Me: **** brings up an interesting and important point, but I ultimately I think her view is historically wrongheaded and morally dangerous. I wrote a full blog post on just this issue a couple years ago, which you can read here: http://the-thought-that-counts.blogspot.com/...
. If you're too lazy to read the whole thing, I will include relevant excerpts below.

First, as for why it's historically wrong. The way that slavery became illegal was through a constitutional amendment, which by necessity had to be ratified by a certain percentage of the people's representatives. That portion was higher than 51%, and attaining that level of support did indeed require a deep cultural shift in opinion on the issue of slavery. This shift predated the legal change, and took many decades to build. Abolitionists were once radical, but by the time the 13th amendment passed, their ideas were mainstream. It's true, of course, that they were not unanimous or universal, and that these views continued to liberalize after the law was passed. But the cultural shift began long before that, and there's little evidence that the change in law accelerated that trend. Many more minds were changed by nonviolent persuasion, through books like Uncle Tom's Cabin and the speeches of Frederick Douglass and the dispute about the expansion of slavery into new territories, than by legally mandated opinion.

The same occurred with the Civil Rights Act. I don't think people became less racist because the law told them racism was bad. I think the law changed after enough minds had already changed alongside it, and that those minds would have continued to change whether the law codified those ideals or not.

Meanwhile, other shifts in popular opinion did not keep growing, and were eventually reversed. As I wrote in my blog, "for every lasting shift in society’s moral consensus, there’s been another temporary fluctuation that didn’t last. Take prohibition, or the Know-Nothing Party, or the Trail of Tears, or Jim Crow laws, or the Mexican-American War, or the Japanese Internment camps, etc. Today, we recognize these acts as blunders that were terribly unfair, but at the time they occurred each received some degree of popular support."

If there's any lesson from those disasters, it's that basing policy off the brief whims of a fickle majority is unwise. The native Americans and Japanese-Americans probably did wish that politicians had waited for a greater and more lasting consensus before springing into action.

Now for why Jody's view is morally dangerous. Perhaps it is an overstatement to say that Jody's mindset is the essence of everything that's wrong with government...but I'm gonna say it anyway. Hers is the idea that might makes right; the notion that if she and I have a difference in opinion on some moral issue, she is justified in forcibly imposing her will on me through the middle man of government. This unwillingness to live and let live is the definition of intolerance, and it is the antithesis of individual liberty and personal choice. From taxes and wealth redistribution on the left, to abortion and gay marriage on the right, each party attempts to make the entire world comply with their highly subjective moral code, and the result is that everyone ends up oppressing everyone else. The government is not an omnipresent moral arbiter; it is merely an opinion with a gun. The sooner Americans realize that, the freer they will be.

Morally, I don't have an answer for what level of consensus justifies government action in the abstract. But practically, I think the constitutionally stipulated levels for passing a constitutional amendment are a good start.

Pro-Life Friend: A lot's going on here for sure, and can't respond to all of it over facebook in a timely manner, but let me just go ahead and quote Justice Blackmun from the Roe v Wade decision (you've seen this I'm sure):

"The appellee and certain amici argue that the fetus is a ‘person’ within the language and meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment. In support of this, they outline at length and in detail the well-known facts of fetal development. If this suggestion of personhood is established, the appellant's case, of course, collapses, for the fetus' right to life would then be guaranteed specifically by the (Fourteenth) Amendment."

I disagree that the framers had to have the direct intention of included fetuses for the language to be inclusive of them. The meaning of personhood is an abstract category of individuals with the natural inherent capacity to give rise to human functions, whether or not those functions are ever attained in which we can discover the particulars that fit the mold over time. Science and common sense can help us realize when it is that we are dealing with a person by letting us know when we are dealing with a human being, because for rights to be truly innate and God-given, humanity and personhood must go hand in hand, not based on arbitrary lines of size, level of development, environment, or dependency. The framers did not have to include the Inuit peoples as persons even though the Inuits may not have been known to them to exist. And fetuses, whether they were acknowledged as persons by the founders given their current scientific knowledge is irrelevant to whether the amendment allows for federal action in defense of preventing the taking of innocent human life in the womb.

What I find morally dangerous is not people who want to put an end to the killing of the unborn, like Jody or myself, through the passing of all laws possible (at the federal and state level) to do whatever we can to stop the killing and build a consensus as soon as possible within the constraints of the law of course. I agree laws must have something behind them in terms of consensus, but I don't think that should stop prolife politicians in Washington from gettting creative. But I think Ron Paul dilutes the urgency with which the pro-life issue talking about it being a purely state issue (after Roe v Wade made it federal), and when the Congress has power right now to pass laws that can build a culture of life and cripple the abortion industry especially through defunding groups that indirectly get federal funds for abortion like Planned Parenthood. After all Wilberforce passed indirect national laws to end slavery in England so quickly, as part of his building of a consensus against slavery. I think there's a lot pro-lifers can learn from the successes and failures of the slavery abolitionists. "Justice too long delayed is justice denied." " -MLK

Me: You say all "individuals with the natural inherent capacity to give rise to human functions" are persons. Who decided that? You?

"I think Ron Paul dilutes the urgency with which the pro-life issue by suggesting that it should be a purely state issue, when the feds have power to pass laws that can build a culture of life and cripple the abortion industry." - Even if the feds did have that power, and even if legislation can "build a culture" instead of vice-versa, and even if making something illegal did cripple the industry instead of just pushing it undergroud (a la the drug war), that doesn't mean that's how the power would actually be used in practice. Enabling federal legislation on the issue would also enable federal legislation legalizing all abortions in all states, regardless of trimester, overruling any objections by any conservative state. Considering the national mood on social conservatism in general right now, that strikes me as much more likely than a universal ban. Be careful what you wish for.

Under Ron Paul's system, some states could ban abortion even in the absence of national consensus, whereas currently none can. From a consequentialist pro-life perspective, that should be viewed as an improvement.

Pro-Life Guy: One thing in defense of ****, when its a question of defending someone's rights, there is a might element where I may have to use my might in order to protect the right of another human being from someone. 51% is not a magic number where suddenly there is consensus and justification for law.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Is the Market Moral? Four reasonable, erudite questions from a Rawlsian free-market skeptic

This New York Times Blogger has some questions for what she calls “free market moralists.” She claims that in order to agree with famous libertarian Robert Nozick and the assertion that “a just society is simply one in which the free market operates unfettered,” ideologically consistent people have to say “yes” to all four. As someone who has heard enough of Nozick to agree with his basic conclusions on a just society, and someone who considers himself ideologically consistent, I was naturally intrigued, and decided to take her test.

To keep myself honest, I decided to respond to each question in two parts. This first part was a yes or no answer given after reading the question only, alongside an explanation of why I answered as I did. Only after this first part was written (scouts honor!) did I scroll down the page and read her counterexamples, which attempt to make a “yes” answer appear morally counterintuitive. Part two was my response to those counterexamples.

To keep the author honest, I preface each of my answers with whether or not I think it is a fair question. By “fair”, I mean a question which someone who believes in the morality of free markets would have to answer with a “yes.”

For your convenience, I’ve posted the questions in italics, so you don’t have to keep referencing the original article and flipping back and forth between the two pages. The counter-examples the author provides, however, are not reproduced, so you’ll have to either infer what they were from my responses, or read her article at the same time as you read my responses.

Question #1: “Is any exchange between two people in the absence of direct physical compulsion by one party against the other (or the threat thereof) necessarily free?” This is a fair question (meaning Nozick’s theory does assume it), and my answer is yes. Governments do not regulate circumstances in which we find ourselves; they regulate the actions of human beings. If a government is to protect freedom, it can only do so by regulating human action – not by attempting to equalize the situations in which humans find themselves. Political freedom is not defined by the likelihood that someone will choose in one way or the other, or the circumstances in which they find themselves. It is defined by the absence of force and coercion. Otherwise, people would not be born with equal freedom at all – it’s ridiculous to assert that people are born the same, in the same conditions, with the same opportunities, with the same external pressures or internal motivations, or the same incentives. The act of coercing cannot be undertaken by non-human things like poverty or desperation – it can only be taken by humans.

Response to the author’s commentary on question #1: Correct. The decisions taken by that woman were not pleasant or happy or nice to think about, but they were free. Many people, myself included, have a gut feeling that something is sad about this woman’s situation, and they are correct: desperate poverty is a terribly sad thing. If we are compassionate people, we will help this woman voluntarily, with our own time and money and efforts, without using her situation as leverage to get something in exchange. But the reality is that many of us will not do that, which means those who offer the woman something money conditionally are actually helping her out – however ignoble or selfish they may be. This woman is better off having the option to prostitute herself than she would have been had there existed truly coercive laws against prostitution or organ sale – because in that second scenario, she may would either be dead or in jail. The pimp helped her more than the policeman, because the pimp fed her family, while the policeman arrested her and took her from her family.

Question #2:“Is any free (not physically compelled) exchange morally permissible?” No, but while I’m not sure about Nozick, I don’t think saying no is contrary to libertarianism or a belief in the morality free markets. Even a free market needs some laws in order to function properly: laws against theft, for instance. My definition of theft includes things which do not involve physical compulsion. If you sell me a can of beans, but when I get home I open it and find it empty, and that you filled it with glue to simulate the weight of beans, I would say that is a form of theft. You haven’t wielded or even threatened physical force on me or my property, but you did breach the contract you agreed to when you told me it was a can of beans. I have a right to my property, and you defrauded me out of my property, so that is not morally permissible. The same works in reverse if I had given you counterfeit money in exchange for the beans. I suppose the argument could be made that we shouldn’t have made the transaction if we didn’t trust one another, and that each of us assumed some level of risk by trusting the other’s word. I haven’t read Nozick, and perhaps he made that argument – but if so, I’m not yet to that level of libertarianism: I think there is a role for government in literally keeping businesses honest – and not just businesses, but all parties to a voluntary transaction. So no, not all transactions which lack physical compulsion are morally permissible.

Response to the author’s commentary on question #2: Oh, absolutely – I expected this argument to be more challenging. There is nothing immoral about that transaction. Once again, most people would feel uncomfortable by this state of affairs, and feel terribly sad and sympathetic for the laborer. I would too. But once again, as in the above example, it is important that we identify what it is specifically that makes us feel morally uncomfortable: is it the act of employing the man at a low wage that is objectionable, or do we object to the situation of desolate poverty in which the man found himself even before his rich neighbor made any offer at all? Would we be less outraged by this if the rich neighbor offered him no job, and left him with no means of making a living? It is unfortunate that the poor landless neighbor is poor and landless. It is unkind that the rich person is not willing to give the poor person some money voluntarily. But the rich man has done nothing to harm his neighbor or worsen his condition. If the transaction harmed the poor person, in his own estimation, he would not have accepted the offer. If the poor person is a victim, he is a victim of fate, not a victim of any cruelty or aggression by other humans.

Question #3:Do people deserve all they are able, and only what they are able, to get through free exchange?” No, and this is not a fair question, because a belief in the morality of markets does not require a yes answer. I object to the word “deserve”, because it carries moral implications that I don’t think apply. Everybody getting what they “deserve” is a matter of justice, as in the phrase “just desserts”. I am not of the Ayn Randian opinion that wealthy people deserve to be wealthy, and poor people deserve to be poor. On the contrary, I don’t think our possessions are a question of justice at all. I view our relative wealth as an amoral attribute – a purely happenstance characteristic. To me, saying “Person X deserves to be wealthy” is like saying “Person X deserves to be sexy” or “Person X deserves to have brown hair.” Like hair color, wealth is neither morally good nor morally bad; it’s just one of the many characteristics that form our unique individual identities. Like hair color – and, for that matter, weight and knowledge and many other variable identifying characteristics - our wealth can change without our relative worthiness changing alongside it. But, just as Ayn Rand is wrong when she says the businessman “deserves” to be paid X amount, socialists are wrong when they say the laborer deserves to be paid Y amount. Wealth is not a question of just desserts.

Response to the author’s commentary on question #3: I agree with everything the author wrote, except the last sentence. Once again, I haven’t read Nozick, and if Nozick did say this, than he is wrong. But I suspect when Nozick makes the case that the outcomes of the free market are moral, he merely means that the free market is, by definition, free from force and coercion, which libertarians view as the fundamental moral wrongs. To me and to most libertarians, it is injustice, rather than justice, which has independent existence. Put another way, we define certain actions as an injustice, and define justice merely as the absence of those activities. The market is only moral because it is the antithesis of the immoral activity of coercion. That’s different from saying that the relative levels of wealth which everyone attains in the free market correlate with their relative levels of moral virtue.

The assumptions on which the author bases her article conflate these two different conceptions of morality. Free market supporters, she writes, have “a moral worldview according to which the free market is the embodiment of justice.” She isn’t exactly correct; a more accurate summary is that the free market is the absence of injustice. According to us, she says “the operations of the free market are always moral — the concrete realization of the principle that you get no more and no less than what you deserve.” But if what people “get” from the market is not a question of what they deserve, as I argued above, then the operations of the market are morally neutral.

If Nozick really said that Wilt Chamberlain “deserved to get rich”,
the context in which he used it is important. Chamberlain owns his body, and is has a right to do with it as he pleases. He offered the service of his body in exchange for wealth, and that offer was accepted. Thus, failing to honor that contract would deprive him of something that was rightfully his, which would be immoral. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I imagine Nozick is not saying Chamberlain deserves to be wealthy on account of his athleticism; as the author explains, that athleticism was assigned to him in a sort of random genetic lottery, and it seems counterintuitive that what we “deserve” is randomly assigned to us. Rather, Nozick is saying “Wilt Chamberlain is entitled to keep what he’s peacefully acquired, not because his athleticism makes him more morally virtuous than other people, but because taking his earnings from him would require the use of force, coercion, or deceit, which is immoral.” If he used the word “deserves”, I suspect he meant it as a way to say “is entitled to.” And even if not, even if Nozick is wrong, that doesn’t make everyone who agrees with the idea that the market is moral wrong alongside him.

Question #4: Are people under no obligation to do anything they don’t freely want to do or freely commit themselves to doing? That depends on your definition of the word “obligation.” Do you mean it in the loose way of “what we ought to do to maximize the morality of our actions”? Or in the strict way, of “what you must do to avoid having committed an immoral act”? There’s sometimes a tendency to view morality as a binary, in which there are only two possibilities: doing the right thing, and doing the wrong thing. But this is overly simplistic, because there are often more than two options, and each can have relative quantities of rightness and wrongness. Furthermore, I would argue some courses of action can be morally neutral, and that inaction generally falls into this neutral category.

This means that inaction can be permissible even if action is preferable. If the action is morally good, whereas inaction is morally neutral, a morally optimal agent would be obligated to act. But that doesn’t make inaction immoral, it just makes it less moral. And it certainly doesn’t justify forcible reprisal on those whose actions are merely permissible, rather than ideal.

A common example of this is the hypothetical situation in which a child is drowning in a pool, and you are the only one who has the power to save them. Are you morally obligated to do so? I would say it is morally preferable to do so; by choosing not, to you would be choosing a morally inferior option. If I were in that situation, I would certainly try to save the child, and most libertarians I know would do the same. But we also recognize that failing to save the child is not the same as actively drowning the child yourself, perhaps by pushing them into the pool and holding them under water. The moral culpability associated with inflicting the harm on someone else directly does not apply to passive observance of the tragedy.


Response to the author’s commentary on question #4: haha, I called it. I swear I didn’t look at the example before I wrote the above response. Interestingly, the author touches on the heart of the matter in her conclusion, when she compares the drowning man to a starving African child. I think this is an excellent analogy. Just like saving a drowning man, donating our money, time or efforts to save starving African children is viewed as a moral good. We view it as morally preferable to inaction. But we do not view it as an obligation; in fact, many of us choose not to do it. Even those of us who do (a group which includes me, as it happens) generally do not view those who fail to donate money as evil. Certainly, they’re nowhere near as evil as a murderer who kills a child with his own two hands. And certainly, most of us would not feel morally comfortable breaking into our neighbor’s house or bank at gunpoint and stealing their money, even if we intended to give that money to a charitable cause. Yet this is exactly what Rawlsian progressives advocate. In fact, that’s not even true: most socialists would have the government take our money by force, and then use it for purposes OTHER than helping starving Africans – things which are generally of a far lower moral imperative than saving lives.

I thoroughly enjoyed both reading and responding to this article, and was pleasantly surprised to find it on the New York Times website. The author’s questions are erudite and thoughtful, and her conclusions are civilly and logically presented, which I respect. Articles like hers do much to advance philosophical discourse and further each sides understanding of the other. But ultimately, her article does not effectively rebuke the libertarian mindset for three reasons. Firstly, it either misinterprets the heart of our moral intuitions, or applies them against a straw man upon which the libertarian argument does not depend. Secondly, it assumes our moral intuitions are correct in the first place. And finally, it does not propose an alternative that is more consistent with those moral intuitions than the mindset she attacks. I welcome any Rawlsian rebuttals to my argument, in the hopes of exploring what our “moral intuitions” really say about those alternatives.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Transcript of Facebook debate on rights, the 2nd amendment, education, and constitutional ambiguity

When I shared the same link my aforementioned conservative friend posted, it sparked another interesting debate on my Facebook wall. Once again, I'll post the transcript here, and try to update it as it goes.

Friend #1: the contradiction. it hurts.

Me: ? explain

Friend #1: The part where the author explains the difference between the first ten amendments and FDR's second "Bill of Rights" just frustrates me. None of those "rights" had stronger language than the actual bill of rights. He completely breezed over the second amendment acting like that wasn't exactly what he just argued against when it came to FDR's rights. Yes, sure, you have the right to bear arms, but no one has to arm you. Yes, sure, you have the right to health care, but no one has to give it to you. That is what the language says if you take out his rage filled interpretation.

Me: Except the people he was raging against do indeed interpret the right to healthcare as a right others have to provide for you. The real bill of rights is a list of limits on governments power: government cannot restrict your speech, it cannot prevent you from bearing arms, it cannot quarter troops in your house, etc. This is compatible with the definition of a right as something you have inherently, which others cannot provide, but can only take away. FDR's so-called "rights" turn that on its head, because they're a list of things people do not have inherently: a job, food, clothing, medical care, education, etc. Also troubling is the repetition of broad and subjective phrases like "adequate" and "decent", which are ill-defined and open for interpretation (which rights oughtn't be). So I disagree with you on that: FDR's rights are fundamentally different from the second amendment, especially in their modern interpretation.

Friend #1: You just used the term "inherently have". Why do people inherently have the right to bear arms? With that being said, how is "arms" not "ill-defined and open for interpretation". The founding fathers never put in the "no missiles, no tanks, no F-22" clause.

Friend #2: I want an F-22...just sayin...I really do.

Friend #1: well you do have the right to bear arms...

Friend #2: Also not to be cynical, but if education is not something that we all "inherently" have then we should be up in arms about having a public school system that "wastes" our money. We have these systems in place, not because we are guaranteed them, but to provide an opportunity for the populace to better themselves in an ever-changing competitive world so that they can "Pursue Happiness" and guarantee themselves "Life and Liberty." It's written there not as a "right" (the meaning of which is not to be interpreted as a certainty) but as a PRIVILEGE; a gift, if you will, for living in a nation that has built itself on the basis of cooperation from the local to the federal level. Cooperate or get the fuck out. Join or Die. Honestly the rhetoric has been the same since the country's inception.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RablPaIREkk

Friend #1: The main point I wanted to get across that I didn't really approach was that the constitution, to me, is a dynamic piece of literature written by politicians with specific political interests. To behave as if the original bill of rights is somehow more important or is invincible to the same level of criticism as a new right is simply incorrect. Every part of the constitution is amendable and for right reason. The second amendment, as I mentioned before, seems to give every person the right to own ridiculous weapons that most citizens would imagine to be unnecessary in today's world. The fourth amendment protects us, the people, from illegal government searches, but where is that line crossed today, over 200 years after it is written in the world of the NSA, the ever expanding internet, smart phones, etc.? Keep in mind I am not giving a history lesson or a lesson on political ethics, but rather pointing out that a 200 year old document will have flaws; some that we have already found and changed.

Me: I'll respond in order. Aaron's first question is "Why do people inherently have a right to bear arms?", and the answer is that people inherently have a right to bear anything. "Bear" is a verb, and verbs are things people may do. In the absence of government, or what Hobbes and Locke called a "state of nature", people may naturally DO whatever they please. Perhaps they will not attain all they desire, and they might even use that freedom to oppress one another - as Hobbes said, perhaps life in a state of nature would be "solitary, nasty, poor, brutish and short." But the fact remains that without any uniformly imposed restriction or law, I am free to carry whatever arms I'm able to acquire, without the fear of coercive reprisal for the act itself.

Of the 8 rights on FDR's list, 5 are not verbs, but nouns - a job, a home, medical care, protection, and education. In a state of nature, man may provide himself with these things, or enlist the help of others to provide them for him, but he does not have them inherently. Unlike life, liberty, or property, FDR is not asserting a right to things we already have - he's asserting rights to things which must be provided for us. Even the three rights which are phrased as verbs - "to earn", "to raise and sell" and "to trade" are not framed as permitted activities of which everyone is naturally capable, but actions which cannot take place in the absence of government intervention. Locke's rights must be PROTECTED by government; FDR's rights must be PROVIDED by government.

Friend #1: I understand exactly what you are saying, but I hope you agree that there are clearly flaws within the bill of rights that do no address our modern society. Why does the people's right to bear arms have to be protected? I see the obvious reasons such as if the government gets too strong or for self-defense. However, I think it is common knowledge that if you don't have an F-22, but the government does...it won't be a long fight. As for self-defense, according to a survey I just read a few weeks ago, guns are used more for suicides by people that own them (or know people that own them and acquire them) than for homicide or robbery. Although, I digress, for I am a bit off topic.

Me: [Friend #1's] next question is "how is 'arms' not ill-defined and open for interpretation?'". To some extent, they are, but not nearly so much as most people say. Arms are weapons. "to bear" means to carry, and arms which can be borne are arms which can be carried: handheld weapons. Arms which it is impossible to carry would presumably not be protected. This is the definition Scalia employed in his DC vs. Heller decision in 2010, and it excludes tanks and warplanes.

I concede that debate exists on what the word means, but it still has a much more concrete definition than "adequate" or "unfair" or "decent", which are entirely dependent on subjective interpretation.

Next is [Friend #2]. "if education is not something that we all "inherently" have then we should be up in arms about having a public school system that "wastes" our money." - hehe. you say this like we libertarians AREN'T up in arms about this...if you think legal handguns are radical, I should introduce you to some of my friends...

Overall, though, you seem to get it. You concede education is not a right, so much as "a privilege; a gift, if you will, for living in a nation that has built itself on the basis of cooperation." Of course, this gift comes at the expense of others, it's funded through coercion and theft, and you're not allowed to decline the gift because schooling is mandatory...but that's close enough.

Transcript of Facebook debate on roads and the New Deal

One of my conservative friends posted this link, along with an open invitation for debate:

http://sufficient-reason.tumblr.com/post/26781491317/dear-liberal-heres-why-im-so-hostile

One of his friends, who I'd describe as a moderate and informed liberal, took the bait. I responded to him, and we were off to the races. Here's a transcript so far: (I'll try to update it as new posts are made until it dies)

Moderate liberal: So dare I ask in this forum?: Do you fall prey to the tyranny of using Federal Roads? Or is following a federal roadway somehow --self expression? Our Federal Government decided the path you WILL forever take building highways. Isn't our Federal roadway system simply a more organized way to realize a more productive economy while our citizen live within a modicum of organization? Or is this Government intrusion into every State, out-of-line?

Conservative friend: totally appropriate ******** (name of friend)

Me: 
It's tough to blame freedom-minded people for using government services when government intervention has eliminated our preferred alternatives. For example, could you really call Canadian libertarians hypocrites for using the public health insurance system, when in most of Canada, private health insurance is illegal? Inversely, I wouldn't blame an American communist for buying food, clothes, or even a car from big corporations - even if he thinks those things could be made better some other way, for the time being capitalism is the only option. Rationally operating within the system we have does not preclude advocacy for a better system.

So it is with roads. Maybe if private investment had been permitted to take the lead without coercive government intervention, roadways would be even better and more cost-efficient than they are today (see the link below for evidence of this). Perhaps privatization (which has already begun in some states) might help these roads be maintained more efficiently in the future. But in the meantime, one can drive on the roads which exist without endorsing the manner in which they came to be.

Moderate liberal: I said my piece, I ain't bitin'....this is crazy shit land...It's was called the Lancaster Pike in Philly and there are 1000's of "penny Bridges" all over the land...the idea of private roads died long ago. Offer it up.

Conservative friend: [You are] taking an approach, a concept, and trying to obfuscate by using one specific example that may or may not be appropriate. Refute the points made in the article. Andrew Doris gave a great rebuttal to your points and frankly better one that I could have. Take the article I posted apart. Keep it relevant to the article. That was more of a high level compare and contrast. Keep it there and ......go. (well done mr. doris...and you *****)

Moderate liberal:  http://publicpolicy.pepperdine.edu/.../hh061036.htm


^^^Herbert Hoover speech of 1936. It's points echo your article. Keep in mind that the men who actually fought Tyranny worldwide…voted for Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Food Stamps, were mostly Unionized workers who demanded Health Care Insurance and fair pay and vacations, got themselves a GI Bill that allowed them to make a Down payment on a Home or go to college. When they hit age 65 and Social Security and Medicare were broke..Ronald Reagan raised FICA tax by 2% to fund the system. And I quote Ronald Reagan (1982), "The bond between the American people and the Federal Government's commitment to Social Security, shall never be broken." So, I say to you..you have a mythological notion of America. Your whole Canadian/ American being forced to use government- argument, highlights a Philosophy that is runs completely contrary to reality and the needs of a modern nation in a modern economy. Herbert Hoover, Sen Robert Taft and Barry Goldwater, were completely rejected by the American Voter year after year. IKE was the first Republican to be elected in 22 years after Hoover and he was a New Dealer. Nixon and Ford were New Dealers and RR was a secret New Dealer. Time to put your feet back on the ground. Philosophies are fine..reality is better.

And just in case you don't "get-it"…Hoover was Historically completely wrong….as you guys are today. as we used to say SSDD..same shit different day.

Me: 
I'll respond to your arguments in order.

1. I read Hoover's speech from your link, and its resemblance to my arguments is tenuous and superficial. While his rhetoric is thematically similar, this was merely a politicized reaction to FDR's unprecedented power expansions - not a heartfelt concern for small government. His actions while in office say otherwise - the truth is that Hoover was mighty interventionist himself, and that the New Deal was merely an expansion of his policies, rather than an about face from them, as these links argue:

http://www.econlib.org/.../Enc/HooversEconomicPolicies.html


http://mises.org/rothbard/agd/chapter11.asp


http://thecollegeconservative.com/.../


2. By "the men who actually fought Tyranny worldwide", I presume you mean those who fought in WWII. I don't see why that's relevant. Yes, the Nazi's were tyrannical, and yes, it was good to fight them. But a) Americans of all political persuasions joined in that fight, and b) even if the war effort was led only by FDR lovers, winning a justified war does not make one an expert on political freedom, much less economics.

3. "you have a mythological notion of America" - You conflate my notion of what America should be with my recognition of what America is. I do not pretend that my proposed policies have actually been followed in America in a very long time, or in some instances at all. My ideology is not about hearkening back to the good old days before FDR - there was plenty wrong with the country back then too. But not all change is good, and thus

4. "Herbert Hoover, Sen Robert Taft and Barry Goldwater, were completely rejected by the American Voter year after year." - As I explained, Hoover was hardly a libertarian, but you are correct that Robert Taft and Barry Goldwater lost. Once again, that doesn't make them wrong. The downside of democracy is that is popular is not always right. I think Barry would have made a far better president than LBJ, and merely observing that he lost the election isn't evidence to the contrary.

5. "Hoover was Historically completely wrong...as you guys are today." - Even if we accept Hoover as a stand-in for what I actually believe, saying this doesn't make it so. If your objective in this post was to rub it in that historically, the big-government side got its way, I assure you we needed no reminder. But you present no argument about the superiority of bigger government to smaller, because you present your unsupported opinions as incontestable facts. Perhaps these links will show that your "facts" about FDR being right can indeed be contested:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7QLoeehMw0w


http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB123353276749137485


http://newsroom.ucla.edu/...

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Hopkins Hillel promotes productive dialogue

(An editorial I authored for the October 16th issue of the JHU Newsletter).

Last Friday, the Smokler Center for Jewish Life hosted a presentation by Avner Gvaryahu, a former Israeli soldier and the co-director of an organization called Breaking the Silence. Breaking the Silence is a group of former Israeli defense and military servicemen who became disillusioned with the tactics and perceived injustices of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories. The group claims to love Israel and remains deeply patriotic; however, it advocates for a two-state solution as a means of making both Israel and the world a more peaceful and tolerant place.

Given the polarizing subject matter, the group’s activism is often extremely controversial, and Friday’s presentation was no exception. Several pointed questions created a tense atmosphere, and it was clear that many in attendance disagreed strongly with Gvaryahu’s conclusions. It is for precisely this reason that the Editorial Board commends Hopkins Hillel for welcoming the presentation.

Over the past three years, two proposed Breaking the Silence events at the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) were met with intense resistance from the Hillel of Greater Philadelphia due to ideological disagreements. It took seven months and a student petition before the UPenn event was finally held last March. Months earlier, the Harvard College Progressive Jewish Alliance was forced to cancel an event titled “Jewish Voices Against the Israeli Occupation” after opposition from Hillel International.

In contrast to these unfortunate examples of ear-plugging, Hopkins Hillel enthusiastically embraced the opportunity for productive dialogue on important issues. Encountering ideas that challenge our world view can be unsettling, particularly on issues as emotionally and culturally sensitive as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The cognitive dissonance that results from immersion in such views challenges us to either justify or change our own opinions, which removes the mental comforts of continuity and certainty. Actively seeking such challenges takes more than open-mindedness; it takes courage. Hillel’s decision to invite controversial speakers says much about their commitment to vibrant, informative and respectful discourse on the issues that matter most to their members.

For those Hillel members who agree with Breaking the Silence’s message, the presentation helped raise awareness for an atypical Jewish viewpoint. For those who disagree, the willingness to engage with alternate perspectives displays impressive maturity and confidence in their own beliefs. And for those who had not yet made up their minds about the conflict, the presentation offered a unique opportunity to hear many sides of the debate in a passionate but civil setting. Here’s hoping other Hopkins student groups follow their example.

Religion shouldn't be a taboo topic

(An editorial I wrote for the JHU Newsletter).

For many young people, going to college inspires a sense of independence and self-discovery. Finally freed from parental control and oversight, students feel compelled to strike out on their own, forge their own identities and form their own opinions. Inherent in this feeling is a growing skepticism of the customs they’ve practiced since they were young and a growing willingness to challenge what their parents have always told them to be true. Nowhere is this more evident than in the tendency for college students to drift away from religion.

Across the country, religious service attendance rates at colleges and universities are decidedly lower than in the population at large, and many students feel indifferent to the subject in general. This trend has only increased in recent years, and Hopkins is no exception; religious groups on campus are generally tolerated but often ignored. Many students who do have faith choose to keep it to themselves, resulting in a void of public discourse on the issue. This week’s news feature on page A4 describes the religious scene on campus in greater detail.

Of course, religion is a deeply personal matter, and the Editorial Board cannot opine on whether these trends are good or bad. We do, however, recognize the sense of community that religious outreach groups can provide and remind students seeking such a support network that Hopkins offers a variety of opportunities for religious involvement on campus. Freshmen coming from religiously vibrant homes may be taken aback by how little the subject is discussed among the student body, and it is important that these students feel welcome to practice their faith if they choose.

Furthermore, the Board encourages students of all viewpoints to feel more comfortable discussing religion on campus. Just as political discourse is furthered by open and robust conversation, we suspect that lifting this unofficial taboo would enhance students’ understanding of alternate religious perspectives. The Hopkins admissions office tries hard to create a diverse campus environment, welcoming students from a wide variety of racial, cultural and ideological backgrounds. They do this because immersion in unfamiliar cultures and customs is a critical component of the undergraduate experience, one which fosters tolerance and intercultural understanding. The vast array of religious viewpoints on campus is just another intriguing element of this diversity, and exploring these differences teaches us not only about others, but about ourselves. It’d be a shame to waste that opportunity.