Friday, May 15, 2009

Paradoxes about Intruding on "Nature"

Tibor R. Machan

Whether this is deliberate I don't know, but many movies made for children these days have strong moralistic messages that say: We human beings are the scourge of the universe! The recently very popular production of Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park onto the big screen is no exception even though the late author ended his life very skeptical about, for example, global warming alarmism. Steven Spielberg was, of course, the right candidate for bring off the earlier morality tale to screen--wasn't his ET, for example, another case of finger wagging at ordinary people for being so heartless and cruel as to want to study the creature from outer space rather than, well, cuddle it with no questions asked?

In the middle of Jurassic Park Jeff Goldblum's character, a mathematician, delivers the movie's moral message, just in case the action didn't manage to speak for itself: Any interference with the course of nature by human agency is mostly going to do harm to all concerned, so stop it, stupid! (How is it, by the way, that human nature isn't part of nature? Last I looked we were smack in the middle of it all, governed by the laws of nature to boot!) Thus when a wealthy Scott sets up the awesome park near Costa Rica featuring cloned prehistoric dinosaurs, all hell breaks loose. Never mind that there is really no reason given why this should have occurred, other than the idiocy and recklessness of one employee who seems to have been allowed to control the entire park without the slightest supervision. The lesson that we should have been given is: Don't allow loose cannons into your operations, they will muck things up.

Why is the intended message a silly one, despite how so many environmentalists mouth it regularly? Indeed, quite a few of them take part in efforts to save endangered species, ones that by the laws of nature, it would appear, are headed for extinction! The main reason is that human beings are themselves, of course, part of nature and what they can and will do can itself be evaluated as either healthful or harmful. Just because human beings interfere with nature via, say, antibiotics or pain killers or transplant operations, that itself does not show what they do to be all good or all bad. Each interference must itself be considered as either helpful or harmful. Just interference isn't the issue--after all, animals throughout the globe interfere with nature every time they devour one another, build a dam, pollinate, or reproduce.

Consider a quite recent discovery near the Great Lakes that if a good number of a parasite that has been killing other sea life there is sterilized by human beings, by way of injecting it with certain chemicals, the parasite will eventually be eradicated and the rest of the life in the lakes will begin to flourish again. Or consider, simply, Novocain or artificial limbs. All these and similar cases testify to the point that human interference with nature is often enough benign and should be encouraged.

No doubt human behavior is different from that of other living things because we have the unique attribute of free will and can act rightly and wrongly, with no guarantee against small or large mistakes. (Oddly a lot of scientists who worry about our interference in the wilds seem to think we do not have free will at all!) Thus for us it takes more than mere instincts to conduct ourselves successfully. But that is itself something in nature, the environmentalists' suggestion to the contrary notwithstanding. The idea that human beings are some sort of fungus or oddity in nature is wholly arbitrary and ignores the existence of enormous diversity throughout nature quite apart from us.

What I find of some concern is that so many adults keep trying to tell our children to distrust the only source of hope for the future, namely, sound human judgment. By preaching the doctrine of the innate evil of human nature as against the peaceful, benign nature of everything else, what is being encouraged is a persistence lack of self-confidence, a sense of hopelessness, an attitude that either we ourselves forgo a decent and exciting life or we pursue it at the expanse of nature's great harmony. This message is wrong and needs to be countered with some moderation about both the bad influence of human interference and the naivete that nature is always kind and gentle.
Notre Dame & Obama

Tibor R. Machan

There appears to be a widespread belief among Roman Catholics that so called catholic schools--including universities--owe some kind of strong allegiance to the doctrines of the church. But this is contradicted by numerous facts.

At Notre Dame, for example, quite a few professors, including some in the department of philosophy, do not even believe in God, let alone embrace the RC version of religious faith. And that would appear to be something far more objectionable to the faithful than giving a one time honorary degree to a president who, yes, holds some views that are contrary to at least a certain version of church doctrine but who on other matters may well be following the church's philosophy.

President Obama supports stem cell research, for example, which is considered by some Roman Catholics as morally wrong (although even on this there is no unanimity within the church), and he is also pro-choice on the abortion issue, believing, from what I understand, that until after about the 23rd week of pregnancy no human being has come into existence and so abortion up to that point, which kills the fetus, doesn't count as homicide, let alone murder. Indeed, both these positions contradict the standard Roman Catholic view, although whether the faithful should hold those views because they are church doctrine and part of the faith or because that is the correct biological view of the development of the human organism is not clear to me. (I know many Roman Catholics, some who teach at Roman Catholics Universities, and they are by no means in full agreement on this matter.)

What then is one to make of this brouhaha if anything at all? (Some controversies are what someone I knew forty five years ago called shamtroversies, that is, phony and made up just to have something to beef about!)

In the community of higher education, especially at post graduate centers, the tradition has developed that so long as one has earned one's academic credentials honestly, has gone through the credentialing process--earned his or her degrees fair and square--one is eligible to teach at the university level in the field of one's degrees. Whatever is looked at to certify someone is not supposed to include one's viewpoint--is one a socialist or communist or libertarian or republican, for example, even in such normatively pregnant fields such as political science, philosophy, or history. Even though this is a commonly professed ideal but not always fully followed, no university department will fess up to diverging from it (apart from certain out and out proselytizing institutions, such as Liberty University, where it is understood by everyone that a certain party line is being handed to students and no genuine academic inquiry is taking place).

But universities aren't only concerned with academic integrity and practice. They are parts of communities and very much rely on the support of alumni and others and in the matter of selecting commencement speakers and recipients of honorary degrees, the criteria aren't just academic or only barely so. One can receive an honorary doctorate without having any academic background in the field. And most often the granting of such honorary degrees is a matter of calling attention to the university, letting the world know that such and such a famous person regards it an honor to receive the degree there.

Yet there is the other side of the coin, too. By granting the degree, an institution is saying out loud, for everyone to notice, that it regards the recipient worthy of the honor being granted. Or, less naively, that with the granting of the honor one is hoping to gain favor with certain wealthy potential donors. And in that respect the criteria are varied and although on some scale a recipient may not measure up, on another he or she could do so swimmingly.

In this instance President Obama's political-economic outlook, his being such an avid supporter of social democracy and the welfare state--especially on the matter of government interference with the economy in support of fairness and equality--may very well over-ride any Roman Catholic preference for someone who is in full accord with the church's position on when a human being begins its life, etc.

So, then, this controversy is really perfectly acceptable--it amounts merely to taking an administrative decision at Notre Dame out beyond the walls of the university. It really isn't about a matter of principle. In other words, by inviting President Obama to receive an honorary degree, the school will not have gone on record contradicting Roman Catholic doctrine on anything!

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Guaranteed Health Care

Tibor R. Machan

This morning I was checking the news on CNN and happened to tune in just as a woman, about 50 years old, was being forcibly ejected from a Senate meeting discussing reforms in the health insurance system. As she was led out she kept shouting, "We want guaranteed health care," "We have a right to guaranteed health care," and so on. Not a soul replied to her, not in the audience nor from the dais.

Why is it taken to be a palatable notion that people should get their health care guaranteed? Of course, there are other services that are treated as if people had a basic right to them, such as primary and secondary education. But then there are many services people want, even need, that few would regard as due people as a guarantee. The food we purchase at grocery stores isn't anyone's by right--if it were, farmers and other food service professionals would have to provided it without payment and on demand. For that what is due when one has a right to something. My right to my life is not something the respect for which I need to pay someone. (Yes, the protection of such a right, by the legal system, requires funding but that's not the same as its respect! Once protection comes into the picture, someone has already done violence to a right! But those who don't do this aren't getting paid!)

Genuine rights can be respected without having to do anything except abstain from their violation. If, however, an alleged right such as to education or health care or insurance is observed, someone must do something for another whether he wants to or not. That is what property taxes are, forced payments extracted from residents to pay for educational professionals, overhead, equipment, transportation, and so forth. While when we want to get something as vital to our lives as food we need to meet the terms of those who produce it, this isn't observed with education and may not be for long with health services. But why?

I can only imagine that those who advocate health care as a guarantee must think of health care professionals as involuntary servants, sort of like those who used to be drafted into a conscript military. Same with people who defend primary and secondary education as a right--they must see those who provide it as conscripts. Or they must see those who are forced to pay for these services by the professionals who are to provide them as needing to submit to forced labor! And while this may all be palatable in a feudal society, it should not be in a society that aspires to be home to free men and women instead of slaves.

That fact that no one at that Senate hearing offered even the hint of a protest to that woman who insisted that health professionals and/or those paying for their work are he conscripted servants is very discouraging. At the highest levels of government it seems it is not really an outrage to declare a professional group to be involuntary servants rather than free men and women. This in a country the leaders of which still have the audacity to call it free! And as far as I can tell, not too many professionals in the field of health care protest the idea that what they do belongs to their clients by some kind of basic right. Oh, maybe a few doctors and nurses protest, in various obscure forums. But it appears that at a Senate hearing when someone declare professionals as essentially indentured servants of their clients no one speaks out in protest.

It seems to me that here is one place where our system of elementary and secondary education lets us down but that's no great surprise either. Considering that education, too, is deemed to be a right that people ought to have guaranteed to them instead of having it be provided to clients in a system of free exchange, waiting for educators to protest the idea of education and health care being a basic right is utterly futile.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Some Paradoxes Worth Wider Attention!

Tibor R. Machan

Here is a paradox in the position being championed by several commentators on a prominent anti-vivisectionist website: If other animals may kill and maim fellow animals, and if human beings aren’t significantly different from other animals, why are human beings derided for killing and maiming other animals just as those kill and maim other animals? All those pictures of animals that have been hurt by people could be matched by pictures of animals that have been hurt by non-human animals. Nature is replete with cases of that kind. Some defenders of non-human animals claim that humans are not all that different from other animals; if this is so, why do they demand that humans treat non-humans so differently from how non-humans treat other non-humans?

This paradox is a serious one and it requires an answer from those who condemn human beings for treating non-human animals hurtfully! But there are others, too, that are worth mentioning.

There are innumerable scientists and philosophers who hold that everything that occurs in the world had to occur or, to put it differently, there is no freedom of choice or free will in human existence--que sera, sera or what will be will be. Often this position is also expressed by defenders of evolutionary theory or Darwinians. They claim that with Darwin's views well established, we know now that everything in the living world happens as a result of the principles identified by Darwin and his students. Although Darwin made some attempt to reconcile his views with the idea of morality in human life, it is widely thought that there is no way to reconcile those views with the theory of free will or human origination or initiation of action, behavior, or conduct--i. e., with personal responsibility.

Yet, many among those who subscribe to the Darwinian position, especially in the environmental movement, engage in talk about how human beings should have done this rather than that with the environment, how they ought to have helped preserve endangered species, how they should not have cleared rain forests, or depleted rivers or lakes of fish, or drive SUVs., etc. Furthermore, many of these persons also claim that human beings have a choice between, say, what former Vice-President Al Gore is advising people to do and the opposite, which he advises people not to do. Evidently, then, Mr. Gore and millions of his more or less well educated followers believe that people do have free will and are not compelled to behave along lines the forces of evolution makes them behave.

There is a unit now at the University of California, Santa Barbara, which is working on revising America's criminal law system in line with the view that free will is an illusion and there are no criminal culprits who can be held responsible for their illegal conduct. "Proponents of neuroscientific evidence say it can help make the judicial system more accurate and less biased on matters of guilt, punishment, and treatment, on the detection of lies and bias, and in the prediction of criminal behavior. They believe the result could be less crime and fewer people in prisons...." Although described in terms that do not straightforwardly reveal the orientation of the project's supporters and administrators, the bottom line once one reads through what is available at the project's website is clear, namely, that human choice is an illusion and thus the concept of criminal responsibility must be purged from the legal system.

Here, too, a paradox arises since the project is very judgmental, viewing as it does the American criminal law wrongheaded and in need of serious revision. But, of course, if no one has any choice about what he or she is doing, neither did all those who were instrumental in fashioning America's system of criminal law. Everything happened as it had to and will continue to happen as it must. All the hand-wringing is then utterly pointless.

A short piece is not where the paradoxes can be addressed fully but it can bring to the attention of the general public what is cooking at some of America's higher education institutions.