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.

Tragedy illuminates Hopkins' support system

(An editorial I authored for the 9/29 edition of the JHU Newsletter).

This past week, heavily armed terrorists killed more than 60 innocent civilians at the Westgate Shopping Mall in Nairobi, Kenya. Among the dead included 2004 SAIS alumna Elif Yavuz, her partner Ross Langdon and their unborn child. Langdon was an award-winning architect and humanitarian who designed buildings across Africa, specializing in human development and sustainability. Yavuz was a malaria specialist who had worked at the World Bank, conducted fieldwork with AIDS patients in Tanzania and Kenya and graduated from the Harvard School of Public Health last year. A member of the Clinton Foundation, she was visited by former President Clinton himself just a month before her death.

Senseless tragedies like these have a humanizing effect on otherwise abstract death tolls. Reports of faraway violence are not uncommon in the daily news, but they are particularly heart-wrenching when a locally recognized face is among the victims. Losing someone so close to home grants much-needed perspective on the petty concerns of our day-to-day lives.

Yet, even as we grieve Yavuz’s death, the Editorial Board cannot help but be inspired by her life. While the events of this week remind us that problems persist in the developing world, they also remind us that brave Hopkins alumni are on the front lines of the struggle to solve those problems. Every day, Hopkins equips its students with the tools they will need to rise, meet and defeat the global challenges of the next generation. Every day, thousands of Hopkins alumni use that education to make the world a better place. Elif Yavuz’s life stands as a testament to the selflessness and dedication of those heroes. Her mourners should take comfort in the knowledge that the impact made by her and those like her will last far longer than her brief but busy life.

Furthermore, the overwhelming response here on campus speaks volumes about the Hopkins community. In the hours following the University’s email announcement, the campus was abuzz with expressions of shock, horror, solidarity and support. To whatever extent social media can read the pulse of a community, it should be noted that numerous Facebook news feeds were peppered with student statuses honoring the victims. Anyone would lament such horrors, but Hopkins affiliates seemed particularly affected by the loss of one of our own. Most current students have never met Elif, but many felt a connection to what happened nonetheless. Amidst busy schedules full of classes, essays and the first wave of midterms, Hopkins students took the time to read and reflect on that connection.

We suspect not all schools would respond with such sincere care and concern to the death of a single affiliate. Hopkins seems to have produced the diverse alumni network of a larger university without losing its close-knit small-school charm and unity. Current undergraduates are no doubt reassured that whatever obstacles they encounter, their Hopkins peers and colleagues have their back.