Friday, June 22, 2007

Hillary and Ideology

Tibor R. Machan

When President Bush vetoed the embryonic stem cell research bill, he did it, of course, for the wrong reasons. But that’s nothing new—he along with nearly all Republicans and Democrats believe that robbing Peter for the benefit of Paul is quite all right, so long as the goal itself is swell. The Democrats think the goal of doing such research is a good thing, while Bush and his cohorts think such research is a bad thing, at least when it involves human fetuses.

Now what would be really wonderful is if the two sides actually argued out the matter—why is it supposed to be a good thing versus a bad thing to do such research. Bush gave as his reason that at this time securing the stem cells involves the killing of human beings. The Democrats—or most of them—presumably do not believe this is the case.

So, let’s have a debate about this—what are the arguments pro and con and who is right? That is the real issue, apart from the one no one will touch upon now, namely, whether it is fine to take money from people to pay for benefits for other people.

Hillary Clinton had her chance to chime in with some serious points but instead engaged in the all too typical election year demagoguery. She accused Bush of favoring ideology rather than science. But that is sheer bunk. Bush’s views are not ideological—or, alternatively, so are Clinton’s. Both operate from certain premises they believe are true and derive conclusions they believe are supported by those premises, thus true as well. So Bush start by assuming that mere cells from an early fetus are the cells of a human being, thus taking those cells involves homicide. Clinton and her associates think that those early cells are not human beings but amount to some of the elements that will become parts of human beings. These are, roughly, the two scientific—or, more accurately, philosophical—positions and it would be a decent thing for both parties to admit it. Instead we get put downs—for calling Bush’s position an ideology is nothing better than dismissing it as some kind of self-serving delusion. Yet, what it is amounts to a position, drawing on science, philosophy, and religion that's different from Clinton’s on the issue of what constitutes a human being.

Honest politicians would debate the issue, like Lincoln debated Douglas about slavery, with facts, history, arguments, and so forth. But no. What we have is the casting aspersions, using loaded terms to demean the other’s viewpoint. This, sadly, is how the likely next president of the United States of American wants to discuss public policy matters—name calling, besmirching, demeaning.

As one philosopher, Daniel Dennett, said in a piece recently, there is nothing so painful to a person with integrity than having his or her views badly defended by some supposed ally. I am not at all convinced that Bush’s stance on the nature of stem cells is correct. Indeed, I disagree with it. But at least he is up front about why he champions it, namely, because his faith and his conception of the relevant science commits him to the idea that fetuses are human beings—indeed, infants whose destruction constitutes homicide. If Mrs. Clinton acknowledged that Bush is working with a different set of assumptions from hers, they could have a serious public debate. That is what democratic politics is supposed to be about, not name calling and the dismissal of one’s adversaries as ideologues.

Of course, such an approach to politics—demagoguery—isn’t new. But if I recall correctly, there used to be less of it when, say, Kennedy and Nixon went before the nation to debate, prior to the 1960 elections. Yes, even then the media focused too much on who looked better, how Nixon perspired while Kennedy was oh so spiffy. But there were many substantive issues, as well. And not a lot of name calling!

Alas, now we are in an era where the tone of political discourse is modeled on Michael Moore’s “documentaries” which focus not on policy but on motivation and personal psychology. But does it have to be this way? Maybe the voters are at fault. Maybe they do not encourage serious discussions but root for their candidate as fans root for their favorite team—it’s all blind loyalty!

Still, I wish to put in I a good word for civilized public debate, respectful of the decisions opponents make that differ from one’s own, not because those decisions are good ones but because a candidate for office has made them and we may have to live with that candidate for some time as the country’s leader, however much this might be distasteful to many of us.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

What is Central About Humans?

Tibor R. Machan

The newspaper I read regularly carried a story on June 20th, 2007, from Cox News Service, under the byline of a Bill Hendrick, reporting on a finding at Emory University’s primate center that "the local customs that define human cultures also exist in the world of chimpanzees." The story goes on to say, "That means that humans aren't the only animals with culture, said Frans de Waal...." The evidence for this is that when a couple of chimps began to use a new method for mutual cleansing, in a while the entire group adopted the method but chimps outside the group kept to the old ways.

The first question is, is the report itself accurate—science writing among journalists is quite often sloppy and unreliable. This would not be the first time that a journalist’s account of what a scientist is doing and believes his or her work demonstrates differs considerably from the original. In this case, at least, my impression is that the reporter is trying to be provocative, although this may also be the case with Professor Frans de Waal.

Consider that while having cultures may be important about human beings, it is not the essential fact about them. Nor does it seem that “customs … define human cultures.” What is essential about intact human beings is that they think conceptually, with abstract ideas, theories, principles, long range, etc., and so forth. If chimps had the equivalent of human cultures, they would engage in such thought processes and generate from them a host of undertakings and institutions that they quite evidently do not. For example, if chimps were to have developed the sort of cultures human beings have, they would be, among other things, engaged in teaching graduate level primatology courses, doing primate research, and so forth.

Until some animals build universities, museums, court houses, publishing companies, concert halls, and the like, we may be sure that human beings are quite—indeed, fundamentally—different from all other known animals. The alleged findings reported about the chimps at Emory University’s primatology center really do not suffice to overturn this idea in the slightest.

Now remembering that journalists do not always give accurate reports about the work of scientists—at times because such work isn’t all that revolutionary or even exciting and journalists refuse to resist the temptation to embellish the actual science they have run across—what is so annoying about this report is its implicit misanthropy.

Most of us must have noticed the glee with which some contemporary commentators announce that human beings are nothing special and, if anything, quite a despicable part of nature. Environmentalist are full of this stuff, some even looking forward to the extinction of the human race. Artists in the early parts of the 20th century were in the habit of depicting people in very unflattering ways; even some renown composers preferred making music sound weird instead of beautiful, just to make the point, one may assume, that people often create God awful music and do not deserve much admiration for what they have done.

In other fields of human interest, too, many people have yielded to the misanthropic temptation. And some of that is understandable in light of certain entirely unrealistic claims that have been made in behalf of human beings—for example, in certain religions. Ancient and discredited cosmology has tended, also, to give humanity an unreasonably exalted position in the world. So some debunking certainly made sense, for a while at least. Indeed, old Aristotle led the way when he made the remark that “If there is anyone who holds that the study of the animal is an unworthy pursuit, he ought to go farther and hold the same opinion about the study of himself.”

Nevertheless, again following old Aristotle, it is best to be moderate here, as in many other areas: just because human beings are not gods, it doesn’t follow by a long shot that they aren’t what used to be called “the crown of creation.” Nothing even in Darwin denies this—indeed, the genius evolutionary theorist himself reflected on the matter at considerable length without becoming a misanthrope.

Finally, just because for the time being human beings are known to be nature’s favorite—what with their free will and incredibly powerful mentality rendering them capable of unlimited creativity—nothing guarantees either that everything they do is swell or that no species of living beings could be discovered that will displace them from their prominent position in the scheme of things.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Why Not Regulate Religion and Speech?

Tibor R. Machan

When I was in college ages ago the truth in advertising and lending and such measures were high on the agenda of modern liberals. Oddly, they were the same people, usually, who declared themselves to be loyal champions of free speech, defenders of an absolutist stance on the First Amendment to the US Constitution. But not when it came to commercial speech. You know those people in commerce—all chronic cheats and liars, of course. (The modern liberal’s hatred of commerce trumps their most cherished ideals!)

One time when this campaign against commercial speech was in progress, I walked by a church that featured a huge sign saying “Jesus Saves.” My mind immediately started to consider, well why not truth in religion? Why only commerce? Indeed, isn’t religion far more important to most people than mere business? If modern liberals insist that the task of good government is to be our nanny, to engage in paternalistic—what is now often dubbed “precautionary”—public policies, why don’t they all advocate strong federal regulation of religious speech? After all, nearly everyone believes that those who peddle religious ideas they do not share are charlatans, liars and cheats. And what they peddle, of course, is far more harmful than anything put into an advertisement, something most sensible people realize is filled with hype, gimmickry and not statements of purported truths. All those religious charlatans—I leave it to the reader to pick his or her own list—are misleading thousands, millions of human beings about what is by many people regarded of the utmost importance, namely, how to secure their everlasting salvation in the afterlife. If one is mislead about this, one won’t just purchase hazardous goods or services but lose forever one’s chance to attain the greatest prize of all! Surely this, more than anything else, requires some solid, conscientious federal, state, county, and similar government intervention.

But no. Entirely inconsistently, modern liberals—and, indeed, many folks of all ideological positions—insist that when it comes to this absolutely vital aspects of their lives—actually, their everlasting existence, here on earth and thereafter—people may be trusted to their own resources. They and their family and friends and fellow parishioners and such are entrusted fully with the job of taking care of all this, without introducing the state. Indeed, this last is deemed by most modern liberals—and, again, by many others—as completely anathema to what government’s role is in human community life. Other than outright attacks upon people, deliberately devious fraud and the like, government must stay away. It would be totally perverse to have government act in a precautionary fashion, as it is urged to do when it comes to innumerable other aspects of our lives (most notably, these days, how we related to the environment).

Yet this is totally absurd. And there is also the absurdity, when one considers the modern liberals case of government regulation and licensing and inspection and quality control—the stuff done, at the federal level, by OSHA and dozens and dozens of other agencies—that the profession of journalism ought to be exempt from precautionary public intervention. Just watch and read the news and commentaries—they are filled with malpractice! Journalists routinely rush into print with items they have only the faintest ideas about, for example, in various branches of the sciences. They report on matters of no importance at all and treat various people as if they deserved the attention of their customers, viewers and readers. Yet, modern liberals and other champions of government’s role as our protector against the possibility of malfeasance do not advocate the establishment of departments of journalism at the various levels of government.

I must be careful. Someone I knew once quite well, the Louisiana attorney and politician Louis “Woody” Jenkins tried to demonstrate the absurdity of government regulation to members of the state government by proposing, of all things, the regulation of water diviners. Lo and behold, too many of them didn’t get the point and nearly enacted the measure into law!
On “Insulting Islam”

Tibor R. Machan

Reuters reported that “Iran accused Britain on Sunday of insulting Islamic values by knighting Salman Rushdie, whose novel ‘The Satanic Verses’ prompted the late Iranian Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini to issue a fatwa death warrant against him.” I read on and there is more of this in the piece, faithfully laying out the rant of Iranian Foreign Minister spokesman Mohammad Ali Hossein. He is quoted as saying that “Honoring and commending an apostate and hated figure will definitely put the British officials in a position of confrontation with Islamic society.”

So I am reading this and thinking, who are these barbarians and why do they get such elaborate treatment from Reuters. Why not just ignore the bastards? Why give them the honor of reporting their ravings? Beats me for sure. After all, what did Rushdie do? He wrote a novel in which the fictional story involves ferreting out some parts of the Koran in ways that Muslims—or, rather, some of the self-appointed leaders of Islam—consider offensive. So what?

Nearly everything written in newspapers, broadcast on TV and radio, shown at the movies, etc., etc., offends my views daily. The stuff is infuriating—I consider much of it hazardous to the welfare of my fellow human beings, not to mention myself. Do I then call up my favorite cousin Guido and urge him to put out a contract against all these people who fail to take into consideration my sensitive nature? No.

I realize, as should all Muslims, including Minister Hossein, that we live in a world of human beings who are likely to be at odds with one another on innumerable topics, including on just what is true and false in the Koran. Civilized people acknowledge this fact and live with it and if they care enough, they write books, articles, letters to the editor and, perhaps, now and then join a march, so as to express their objections but always peacefully.

But no. The Iranian Minister is talking about confrontations. Growing out of an insult? Get real—the world would be bogged down in constant, unrelenting large and huge battles if an insult justified a confrontation. Who the hell are these people, the Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini or the Iranian Foreign Minister spokesman Mohammad Ali Hossein, to issue death threats against people who speak or write against their views? Have they no shame? Acting like angry infants, throwing fits, issuing threats when all they have to deal with is ideas, words, gestures—that is, various peaceful ways of making a point.

To my mind this repeated outburst on the part of these Muslim leaders does little more than demonstrate just how infantile they are and how little confidence they have in their own doctrines. If a set of beliefs is well founded, sound, true, does it really require being enforced by a bunch of thugs? Well, come to think of it, some folks have thought this about their own views but then they were usually deluded about their views being well founded, sound and true. The Nazis, the Fascists, the Commies and many others have, of course, acted exactly like these barbarians in Iran are acting. And they were all peddling false ideas!

But then why does Reuters report on these maniacs as if they were civilized contributors to international dialogue? Why doesn’t Reuters interview some folks who could answer nonsense like this from the Iranian Minister: “Giving a badge to one of the most hated figures in Islamic society is .. an obvious example of fighting against Islam by high-ranking British officials.” Could they not find someone prominent who could be quoted saying, “The Minister is crazy—giving honors to people isn’t fighting! Fighting is sending in an army or, come to think of it, issuing a fatwa! That’s what amounts to fighting. What giving Rushdie a knighthood amounts to extending a peaceful gesture of admiration. Nothing more. No fighting. And others need not agree!”

But the failure to heed these and other distinctions in how people can behave toward one another seems to be endemic of the Muslim leadership, at least in Iran. This failure pretty much consigns them all to an age that the West is mostly left, in the spirit of that nice and widely known cliché, “Sticks and stones may hurt my bones but words I can always walk away from” (with my spin).

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Who Champions Liberty?

Tibor R. Machan

In the May 31, 2007, issue of The New York Review of Books Professor Ronald Dworkin of New York and Oxford Universities quotes Justice Anthony Kennedy favorably (p. 21) championing what amounts to a libertarian position on the relationship between the majority's moral views and imposing these on the rest. As Kennedy stated in his majority opinion in Lawrence v. Texas (the famous, or as some would have it, notorious ruling that rejected laws against sodomy in Texas),

It must be acknowledged, of course, that the Court in [an earlier] Bowers [case] was making the broader point that for centuries there have been powerful voices to condemn homosexual conduct as immoral. The condemnation has been shaped by religious beliefs, conceptions of right and acceptable behavior, and respect for the traditional family. For many persons these are not trivial concerns but profound and deep convictions accepted as ethical and moral principles to which they aspire and which thus determine the course of their lives. These considerations do not answer the question before us, however. The issue is whether the majority may use the power of the State to enforce these views on the whole society through operations of the criminal law. (p. 21)

Kennedy was suggesting an arguably libertarian view concerning the relationship between moral principles that guide personal conduct and the government of a free society. But, as I recall, in many other areas both Justice Kennedy and Professor Dworkin do not share this libertarian approach. For example, in the matter of how people should dispose of their wealth and labor, whether they may consume dangerous drugs, or whether they may engage in consensual prostitution, all of which are also moral issues quite like the one about homosexuality and sodomy, they appear to be far from libertarian.

Certainly Professor Dworkin, a prominent voice championing widespread wealth-equalization by way of public policy, would have the government authorized to take form Peter to help out Paul, in quite Draconian ways, if we judge from his several books and essays, especially Sovereign Virtue (Harvard University Press, 2000). Indeed, Professor Dworkin’s selective resistance to the “tyranny of the majority” where it concerns coercing women to remain pregnant is quite widespread in the so called pro-choice community. Most in that community fully approve of freedom of choice only vis-a-vis remaining pregnant. On innumerable other fronts they share Professor Dworkin’s and Justice Kennedy’s (implicit) view that the government has full authority to make people follow the majority's—or what they take to be the correct—moral vision.

Quite apart from the issue of whether abortion should be banned—and that would depend on whether the ban applies when a woman is carrying a human being—what appears to make the pro-choice position as advocated by the likes of Professor Dworkin quite disingenuous is this highly selective view about the choices they believe people have a right to make without government interference. If anything, the abortion issue would be one where one could expect caution and a reluctance to accept the idea that the right to obtain abortion is unproblematic. It is far simpler to see that the right to smoke marijuana or engage in prostitution or do innumerable other things that are now banned by the government should be fully acknowledged and protected. The risk of drastic error does not exist there, whereas it is at least plausible to see such a risk with even the earliest of abortions.

Of course, so called pro-life advocates cannot brag about their own consistency. For example, many believe that an early fetus is a human being because it shows the capacity to feel pain and behaves in ways that are routine for infants. But this is equally true for many non-human animals whom pro-life advocates do not wish to protect (for example, against being used for scientific experimentation).

So it seems that both sides in the abortion debate tend to be pleading a lopsided, highly selective case and are not advancing a bona fide principles position. Until they change, their case will lack credibility in the eyes of a great many thinking people.