Archive for the ‘Freedom’ Category

1069646562-lgl-2d-4096x40962

A week ago I receive an invite from a friend to meet him and some others for dinner that evening. I promptly tell him sure and go about my business until it was time to get ready. As I’m stepping out of the shower, I reach for my phone realizing I don’t know where the restaurant is and I text him back. “Hey, where is X?” His reply had Earth shaking implications.

He sent me a link from lmgtfy.com. That is, he sent me a snarky, albeit well intentioned rebuke about my very unself-reliant approach to not knowing something. Why should I waste his time asking a question when I could’ve just googled it? So my fiancé, he, and I got a good laugh out of it and life went on.

A few days later, someone posted a question on Facebook about what word processor to use on a Mac. I felt compelled; nay, obligated to respond to her question with the same response my friend sent to me. The pertinent jeer of lmgtfy.com proved useful again and suddenly I’m struck by the implications of my own actions.

Are questions worth asking any more? I asked Google.

Screen Shot 2013-03-08 at 4.15.37 PM

Apparently not every question comes up with a worthwhile response. Why then would we still feel bothered by having to respond to a question when someone could just look it up and discover the answer for themselves? Apparently it depends on the question. So I asked a few more.

In Isaac Asimov’s short story, The Last Question, a system that can be said to be the internet is essentially used to answer all types of useful queries. In the story, one person in every generation or so asks a question with some fundamentality to it. Anyone familiar with the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics knows about the question posed and it’s weightiness. “Can entropy be reversed?” If you don’t know about the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics or what entropy means, then I have a lovely link for you right HERE!. There is a critical mass of information wherein even the incalculable can become calculable. Even when I asked my first question above, Google attempted to give me its “sufficient data for a meaningful response.” So while we may not be ultimately satisfied with the answers we receive from the  knowledge nebula to the ultimate questions (think: 42), we are still given 800,000 potential loci for something more subjectively meaningful.

 

So what? What does this mean for us? Even as I’m writing this, an article from one of my favorite editorial sights is publishing an article on roughly the same thing.

A week prior to the dinner in question, I went out with the same friend where we had a discussion about moral obligations with regards to knowledge. My position was this: With information being increasingly more available, are people now morally obligated to know certain things about the world? I mentioned that whether we want to admit it or not, we already have a standard for this. Prior to the internet, saying “I don’t know” to some questions would warrant some contempt. If you were to not have a position or even a standard wealth of knowledge on slavery in the 1860s, you may be looked down upon. Now that we have Google, is it okay for people to not know about certain world events or discoveries? My friend was more sympathetic to the ignorant amongst us. He thought there were plenty of cultural and environmental reasons why people wouldn’t know something or wouldn’t feel compelled to know something. Should we fault the rich for not knowing the needs of the poor? Should we fault the impoverished for not knowing about macroeconomic trends and issues? Do high school students in Alaska need to know about heat waves in Texas? Should Americans know about what’s going on in Syria? It all seems to depend on what you’re asking and to whom. However, not having an answer is becoming less acceptable if you have access to the same information. The internet to one degree or another, I’m arguing is a great equalizer. If that is true, then we can say that with minimal effort, and with great expectations from others, individuals should meet a higher standard of knowledge or at least utilize the capability to attain that knowledge on average. My fiancé during this discussion did not share my friend’s sympathies. She is much more inclined to impute the ultimate responsibility on the ignorant. They are willfully ignorant by their knowledge-seeking malaise. Additionally, she thinks, they should feel ultimately responsible for their own set of knowledge, and that any individual doesn’t owe society at large anything for which to feel obligated. To her, the obligation comes from within. To me, the obligation simply exists as sort of brute fact by which we are helpless to comply, though those of us that do so willingly and productively are good people. My friend I think is wary of the term “obligation.”

So the question remains fairly open. Are questions obsolete? Well, maybe not. Many of them are certainly becoming a faux pas. It seems Google has an answer for everything except in philosophy. Almost by definition, philosophy tends to tackle issue for which the ken of humanity has not yet breached that critical mass I mentioned earlier. Google cannot answer your ultimate questions. Instead it’ll spit back references and other attempts to your questions in ways that you may or may not find useful. If you ask google about loneliness, you might derive some meaning from its responses. If you seek to understand a language in the the robust, idiomatic and nuanced parlance of its domain then you might find plane tickets or audio tapes or movies. However, Google doesn’t have the moral obligation to provide you with the answers you seek. Instead it demands that you recognize the relentless obligation you have to constantly ask the right questions.

 

Guns are not like other objects. They aren't even like each other.

Guns are not like other objects. They aren’t even like each other.

 

If you don’t occasionally check out THE STONE, you should. Who would’ve thought that a major newspaper would have a philosophy column online. At any rate, since the shooting at Newtown, Connecticut they have been posting lots of super interesting posts about the gun debate. Here is an awesome one which helps to clarify the rights versus goods argument I made in my previous post, and this by a real philosopher.

 

The Weapons Continuum

(Part 1: The Non-Evidential Discussion)

             I find myself writing a draft off this post every few months. Every time there is a horrific shooting, often worse than the one before, my mind races and my fingers search for a keyboard. If Facebook and Twitter are any indication, then most of you do the same. I usually soak in what ever I can of popular opinion and the arguments from social media to get a sense of where people are in the discussion. I check news sources too, (no, not TV news) to get a feel for the particular narrative that always seems to take on new characteristics and new language after each shooting. On every occasion I feverishly hash out a draft, and for some reason it never seems to make it to my wall. There are too many digressions. There are too many distractions. Every argument smashes into the rear end of the next without getting resolved. So now it is about a week since the shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, and I wonder if I can flesh this out. Oh, and it isn’t too soon. There is no such thing.

Friendly Argument about Guns

Friendly Argument about Guns

             I decided the best way to tackle the issue of gun control is to split it up in parts. The first part will consist of the non-evidential arguments for gun control. Most people immediately refer to what ever statistics or anecdotes that they can muster when arguing for or against gun ownership, as they absolutely should! However, statistics, examples, and stories are easy to be skeptical about and often refute one another without legitimate sources and research involved. Keyboard crusaders are all but credible authorities, myself included. In the social-media arena, it is enough to post a quickmeme with an eye catching graphic or phrase for the tidal wave of comments ensue. My first post won’t do any of that. Instead I’d like to focus on what most people agree is an irreducible, irreconcilable, source for debate and conflict. That topic is Rights.

        There is a constant back drop of rights talk that requires a little elucidation. What does it mean to have the “right to bear arms?” What does it mean to have the right to anything? This is a word we use fairly loosely in conversation but it is never really brought to the forefront of an argument and explained. Can rights change? Are they strictly bound to a specific text or do documents like the Constitution just reflect some basic societal intuition? In talking about gun control, it seems like the most common deflection immediately goes into rights talk and what had started off as a wonky back-and-forth between friends peters off to a stalemate. Without delving into the historical context of the Constitution and talking about what the founding fathers meant/thought/believed about the 2nd amendment (that would be an evidential argument), let’s actually talk about rights.

2nd

        The idea of people having a certain right may have erupted around sometime in the early 1700s. It wasn’t until the old European monarchies started to crumble that people started to gain a real sense of individualism. Suddenly the majority of people weren’t just uneducated slaves. A great secular awakening and philosophical writings churned a feudal European serfdom into an era that would soon be called the Enlightenment. A reverence for science and knowledge grew and this was also reflected in the new science of political theory. Up until that point, with perhaps the exceptions of Aristotle and Thomas Hobbes, political concepts were not based on community or individuals. Instead, things like divine right theory and hereditary totalitarianism were the norm.

       It wasn’t until the late 17th century that John Locke developed social contract theory wherein the individual has a direct relationship with the state. This empowers the citizenry in a society to be able to participate and affect the governing body. While versions of democracy had made appearances in different forms up until this point, it wasn’t until Locke wrote his two treatises of government that individual’s rights started to make their appearances. At this point also, political pamphlets were readily available and literature was starting to become the 17th century equivalent of the internet. Literacy was at an all time high, especially in the United States which had the highest rate of literate citizens in the world. So when Locke wrote about individuals in a state of nature are entitled to “Life, Health, Liberty, and Property” (property has a different meaning here than it does today), it resonated with a population with a new sense of individualistic value. Nearly a hundred years later, our founding fathers and namely Thomas Jefferson included the phrase, “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” in the Declaration of Independence, which was directly influenced by John Locke. At this point in history, another major thinker that revolutionized the concept of inherent rights was emerging. Philosopher Immanuel Kant lays the groundwork for what would become the major moral dichotomy of our time.

        While rights were becoming a meme worthy of replication in a society like America, the going moral philosophy was utilitarianism. Jeremy Bentham and later on John Stewart Mill (another philosopher that influenced our Constitution) developed a view wherein moral acts were contingent on their utility to society. It is easy to see how this view would become popular in the nationalistic sense. Things were morally good if they benefited the greatest amount of people to the greatest extent that it could. This is as altruistic as anything could be. It is of course, not without its short comings. While intuitively beneficial, it does seem to demand a lot of people to be self sacrificing and unselfish to one degree or another. In a world where individualism was taking over, utilitarianism may ask people to do things for the greater good that seemed undesirable. A good example is the ol’ train track scenario in moral philosophy. So there was a need to leverage strict utilitarianism with whatever it is that leads us to ascribe special privilege to individuals.

        So when Immanuel Kant, produced his Critiques of Pure Reason he stood at odds with Utilitarianism with his own philosophy, Deontology. Kant’s arguments can get lengthy and convoluted but in the shortest terms possible Deontology says: 1) People have a duty to do good, 2) Good is only good if it is a good in and of itself, and that it can apply universally to all people, it cannot be related to a want or desire 3) People are an end in and of themselves. It’s because people are rational beings and they are able to distinguish between treating people with dignity and as a reason to do good and not merely as a means to a desirable end. So we have a duty to do good things, regardless of their benefit to people. For Kant, lying is never good because it treats people as a means to an end and serves to undermine their dignity—even if a lie were to save the planet from destruction!

        Instead of using these terms, we’ll use more accurate terms for the gun debate and call them it the Good (utilitarianism) vs. the Right (deontology). Almost every moral debate that I can think of is framed within these two ideological sides and documents like the Constitution itself carefully balances between them. When someone embraces one side, they are sacrificing the advantages of the other. When a right overlaps with what we consider to be a greater good, then we don’t really have any controversy. A good example could be something like voting rights for women, or equal education opportunities for people, or religious freedoms. These are by and large uncontroversial, whereas at one time in the past they may have needed some debate. To say that we have the right to be treated equally serves the benefit of the society and treats people as ends in themselves. Dignity is assigned to everyone equally in this instance.

        When we start approaching the right to own guns, things get a little hazy. Is the right to own guns a way to treat people as dignified ends? We in the Unites States take it for granted that any extension of freedom is a moral good. Freedoms in almost every other context seem to be uncontroversial and beneficial as opposed to a lack thereof. However once freedoms for individuals start to breach the well being of other individuals, we begin to see structures for which law must create a workable boundary. We are not free to murder. We are not free to drive drunk. We aren’t even free to plagiarize the ideas of others, or libel against them. So, why all the hoopla over guns?

        Once the gun debate is reduced to the idea of rights, the only response is to combat it with notions of the good. If you have ever participated in friendly arguments at bars or on social media, you may have already noticed. In order to establish a right, there must be a correlation with the good in order to justify it. Once you ask someone who believes in a right why they believe in that right, the response must come in the form of how it benefits society (unless you’re arguing with a philosopher and there’s a good chance it’ll happen anyway). If you ask someone why it is important that we have the right to bear arms, people will cite the 2nd amendment. We know that rights precede the Constitution, so we can ask why it was considered a right in the first place (by the way, the Bill of Rights was very nearly not even included in the Constitution). So the answer must come in the form of, “because it is better than to not have the right.” The response is, “why?” That’s where all the crazy answers start to come out because not enough critical thought it put into the answer. People start invoking Hitler’s gun policy on Jews, or that crime will increase, or that the right is God given, etc. All of which are evidential arguments that require data to support. Rarely, if ever, are arguments from these grounds substantial or coherent. Frustration ensues.

Right vs. Good

Right vs. Good

 

        That isn’t to entirely dismiss the claim that maybe we do have a morally defensible right to guns. We still have to wonder, at what cost? We know that roughly 10,000 to 30,000 deaths occur each year from shootings. Without going any further into the statistics, we can see that no other right affects the potential ending of human life so directly. There are of course evidential reasons (that I will get to in future posts) that can factor into why the number is what it is, but this will only distract from the fact that the prevalence of guns, lead to the existence of gun deaths. It could be argued, and indeed it has, that guns don’t cause guns deaths–people do. While on the face, this could be seen as true, but that doesn’t absolve the usage of guns altogether. Clearly guns are present at the scene of a crime where a shooting occurs. Even if it’s in a small degree, guns carry at least some responsibility for the deaths that occur from the bullets that were in them. Secondly, the argument that our culture in America has a special relationship with guns unlike any other country seems to be untrue even on its face. It is possible to delve into the historicity of firearms and combat in at least 100 countries that would negate this theory from “specialness.” Nevertheless, I’ll assume that this is true. It then seems funny that the immediate defense of many gun advocates, most notably the NRA, is that our culture of violence is to blame for gun deaths vis a vis video games, movies, the media and comics. It is blaringly evident that gun culture must carry its negative aspects into the definition along with what ever goods may be found in it. To blame gun culture for deaths but use it as a reason for the a right to have a gun, well it seems silly.

        The question must be asked: How many gun deaths is the right to own guns worth? The right for freedom of slaves (amongst other things) was worth a civil war with hundreds of thousands of deaths. Is the right to own guns worth 30,000 deaths? 100,000? 1,000,000 per year? Of course it is possible to hedge what the right to bare arms means and currently I’m not advocating banning guns altogether, but I am offering the question up hypothetically. What amount of deaths per year would make it considerable to pro-gun advocates to submit that maybe banning guns unilaterally is a necessary action? Let’s say the number is a mere 100,000. The follow up questions must inquire as to why that number is significant? If 99,999 deaths occur in one year, then it isn’t worth considering? The goal would be to find a common ground with some reason for there being a non-arbitrary number. For defenders of the right, the number is infinite. There may not be a sufficient correlation between guns and gun deaths, or the right supercedes any consequences, or libertarian freedom is the highest value, but sufficient reason must be given to defend these positions. As for defenders of the good: the number is 1. The right to own guns for these group is directly related to death and it represents a verifiable evil that must be suppressed. Extreme positions on either side are impractical. Seeing as how the law is based on normative intuitions; that the general feelings of the citizens are reflected in law then it seems likely that people in the frame work of this argument would most likely want to keep the number as low as possible while still maintaining the right.

        There are a number of prescriptions as to how to balance this argument. The point is that for the right, the only thing worth preserving is the right itself. For the good, it is people’s lives that are paramount and this reflects a more sensible attitude toward a very real state of affairs in relation to gun deaths. If the number of gun deaths per year fluctuated wildly, then the argument might take on a different tone. It would be possible to differentiate between bad years and good years and discovering the causal relationships between the two to work toward a compromise between the good and the right would be a matter of working toward the better years. The fact of the matter is that the number of gun deaths remains on a steady rise and so does the general consensus about stricter gun laws. In my opinion, by defending the right to own a gun we are obscuring what it means to treat people with dignity in the Kantian sense. Human dignity has been surpassed by ideology and a sort of religious belief in adherence to rights. We accept rights with the costs that come with it, but the 2nd amendment might straddle the fence as to how much we are actually willing to pay in a modern, peaceful society.

        If the right for one individual to protect themselves (a speculation at best), is worth the deaths of some 10,000 people nation wide, then how can we say that this does not exemplify our worship of the mere thought of security versus actual safety. The defense of this statement inexorably leads us into the evidential arguments which will be submitted in the coming weeks. I hope to receive some feedback for this post along with counter arguments. I have given a really basic account of rights and utilitarianism in order to keep it friendly to everyone so if the best a comment can do is critique my portrayal of Kant or the Constitution then save it unless you’re really trying to assert something worth talking about. Remember, the core argument is Right versus Good. It doesn’t matter which side that you tend to fall on, but there is a resolution that must be accepted between both. Imagine yourself as the single decider in the matter. The fate of the country rested on you. How would you decide the law of guns and why? How would you explain yourself to the people that went against you?

       The Republican National Convention is almost a week behind us now, which is roughly a millennium in the media-cycle. During this empty-chair obsessed stretch of time, I’ve been waiting for a critical analysis of the RNC motto which was draped from every wall and leaping from every spokesperson’s mouth: We Built It. Sure, every news station had something to say about how this rally cry was in defiance of Obama’s oft misquoted speech. There has been plenty of punditry and comedic blowback with regards to the manufacturing of gaffes. But, even if we grant the false characterization of Obama’s sentiment from the point of view of the Republican marketing force, we still don’t see a justification of the motto from the RNC. In fact, I’ll argue that “We Built It” is yet another indication of the immoral tenets of faith that are necessary to maintain the conservative position in contemporary politics.

Who is the “We” of the slogan? If you asked any attendee at the RNC I’m sure they would consider themselves to be included in that “We.” They would say that it is any hardworking American citizen or something to that effect. I can’t help but feel that the party leaders don’t just mean hardworking American citizens built whatever that is. If that were the case, it would be no different than what Obama said. Surely government workers, people who erect the bridges and pave the roads of President Obama’s speech, work just as hard as anyone in the private sector. No, the RNC slogan would have to be more narrowly specified in order to distance itself from even partially embracing big government. So again, who exactly is the We? It seems to me that they are referring to the people that became successful without the guiding hand of the government. The only people the Republicans value; the only value Republicanism demands is entrepreneurship. Free market prowess and endowment. To be sure, this is a valuable value indeed, but is it so paramount that it trumps the needs of all Republicans, including the unsuccessful ones? What does this say about the nominees of the GOP and what kind of reverence they demand of their loyal party members who may not be able to meet their expectations? Is it possible to be an unsuccessful Republican? Is it possible to work for the big government bureaucracy and vote Republican? Of course it is! So then why does this slogan become so appealing?

Perhaps it appeals to our vanity to want to be members of a meritocracy. The raising of successful entrepreneurs to the point of worship is prevalent because most people believe that they too have the equal chance at rewards of which the elite have already reaped. All the rats have an equal chance at the cheese if they work hard enough. A just meritocracy promises to give ample rewards for the efforts of the participants. This seems fair enough. The obvious objection is that not all people have an equal chance. Even if we give people an equal starting point, perhaps two individuals born on the same day to equally affluent families, there are an innumerable amount of invisible factors that will surely sway the success attained by each. Many proponents of the meritocratic ideology would chalk the happenstance of unfair starting points to a brute fact of life. Tough noogies. If you’re just dealt a bad hand, and you’re unable to manifest success from it, then you just weren’t meant to be successful. This seems eerily reminiscent of the Calvinistic elect; a predetermined fate of which you are either a member of God’s favored flock, or you are doomed. If this is an exaggeration, then what are we to say of how success is then managed? It seems that if people from the illusory starting point become successful, that only their children will have the immense advantage of also becoming successful (like Romney himself), and it maintains a strict genealogy of equity and affluence. The definition of this phenomenon is what is labeled a Plutocracy. This is the plausible slippery slope of a strict meritocracy. Republicans are advocating exactly this when they hiss at the notions of social safety nets. If we are to laud the successful, who become successful almost definitely on the merits of circumstance, and we are also to let the poor be damned, then we are embracing Social Darwinism.

The good news is that our society doesn’t work like this. Philosopher and political theorist John Rawls has been able to illustrate a set of rules by which all can abide, and in which the quandaries of moral obligations can be satisfied. The metric for a fair start that John Rawls proposes enables people to become successful but only if they work to the benefit of the least well off. In other words, it does not advocate for communism, where all are equal. It also negates Plutocracy. What Rawls’ differential principle says is that if we are to allow for vast ranges of social and economic inequality, those at the top should be morally obligated to contribute to the well being and wealth of opportunities that the least well off should enjoy. Please watch famed Harvard professor Mike Sandel explains it HERE in the fullest terms.

The great news is that this is how our society works now! It is also why we cringe at allowing room for trickle-down economics in a moral discussion about wealth inequality. There is too much room for corruption when the least well off wait with baited breath on the charity of the successful amongst us. If there is no policy or social contract to ensure there is a just distribution of opportunity (not necessarily wealth!) then there is no motivation to be just. In order to shift away from the traps of a strict meritocracy, the United States has implemented several safety nets to protect members of its society from becoming victims of Social Darwinism. This could be the result of Rawlsian political ethics.

The Republican National Convention hinged on their supporters’ faith in the most successful people in the nation, and their willingness to redeem their political and economic ideologies. When the RNC banners shouted We Built That!, it was a reminder that everyone owed them special treatment. We have noticed that they try to legislate the special treatment for themselves! The reason why most people want to raise taxes on the 1%; the reason why we want to regulate the economic practices of the richest people; the reason why we want to make sure everyone has access to health care, a good education, and a safe environment is because we all intuitively feel morally obligated to equality. Meritocracy, Plutocracy, and Social Darwinism only appeals to the people it benefits! They have no choice but to pitch the dogma in the form of plausible policy. No informed person willingly signs up to be subjugated to these political structures. Without shunting the majority of financially destitute Americans, the GOP has not laid out a plan for which they can ethically rebuild the nation. If we are to submit to success by any means necessary, then we are opening the door for a very, very scary future.

Time Magazine Photo of the War torn city of Homs

We get overwhelmed. Rightfully so. If we had only to focus on one international travesty, the rest of the world united behind us, solutions would be simple. Bad guys would be identified. Good guys would mete out punishment. Our emotions would be backed by concise opinions and it comes easy to imagine that the backlash for war crimes would be swift and justified. Unfortunately we live in a diffuse world, and the multitude (sometimes magnitude) of crimes against humanity can be demoralizing. Fraught with dissolution, we turn a blind eye to the mess. The far-off problems of other countries and cultures are not of our particular interest. Besides we have our own problems here, right? We are not morally obligated to help. We are not even morally obligated to care. Shit, all I do is write about it and I express a markedly higher level of concern than most people. So to what do we owe the millions of citizens across the world? How do we determine what the right reaction is? And forget about helping. That seems a far cry from what the majority of people are willing to do. But I do think we are obligated to know and open discussion about the affairs of other nations. During the uproar of the Kony2012 campaign, there was a tug-of-war between the compassionate and the skeptical. Neither side maintains an accurate account of virtue, but the fruits of that argument are what make the campaign worth while. It forces us to defend our opinions with knowledge. It follows from that knowledge that we take on the responsibility of correcting those who are false, or in turn reexamine our own platitudes. This is our moral obligation. We, as a populace without censorship, without oppression (in comparison), should take up the responsibility of the moral high ground. We should judge other nations and cultures for their indiscretions and we should be able to defend our opinions in doing so. When an authority violates the basic rights most of the world agrees that its citizens have, and they are unable to defend themselves, we become compelled to (at the very least!) chronicle the disaster. Let us argue over the worth of other lives.

For many of the lay people here in the States, of all generations, the Arab countries are the paradigm of turmoil, violence, sectarianism, and more recently terrorism and religious fanaticism. Between the rogue American Soldier murdering Afghan civilians, Koran burnings with subsequent riots, and the girl in Morocco that committed suicide to not suffer the indignity of marrying her rapist, it is easy to dismiss the prospects of a thriving, civilized Arab world—one, in which America takes place in the civilizing process. Let us not debate the accuracy of those descriptions and grant for now that it is a troubled chunk of the globe. Within the last year we have seen a turn for the better though! And with the advent of the “Arab Spring” we have seen major change in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya. Protests against a culture of oppression have accumulated in Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, and Oman in relative peace (particularly in comparison with our own revolutionary war). While the results of these protests and revolutions remain to be seen, there is still hope that over the horizon there is an era of peace, prosperity, and justice—even if it is only marginally so. What is important is that these movements, similar to the Occupy or Tea Party crowds here, is that they are movements of the people. The powers that be are being challenged by the general consensus of citizens, not political factions (that comes later on). This is very important because it says something about the youth movement against traditional regimes, and about the power of quiet rumblings of dissatisfied civilians.

Speaking of regimes, the ruling faction in Syria is fighting the dream of liberalism to the best of its ability. While Egypt and Tunisia were stealing the spotlight for much of 2010 and ’11 Syria was quietly boiling over. What started as school-age mischief has turned into mass extermination. A quick and (overly)simplified introduction to how the Syrian rebellion began:

1)      The unrest started in the southern city of Deraa in March when locals gathered to demand the release of 14 school children who were arrested and reportedly tortured after writing on a wall the well-known slogan of the popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt: “The people want the downfall of the regime.” The protesters also called for democracy and greater freedom, though not President Assad’s resignation. – As BBC reports.

2)      When the people marched for their release which was a minor protest, the government’s security forces opened fire on the crowds, which included suppressive sniper fire.

3)      The following day, mourners of those killed in the protests were fired upon during funeral processions by the police forces under orders from the government. It is an act of protest to mourn the loss of loved ones that were considered traitors, and apparently this act is punishable by death.

From there the rebellion spiraled out of control, as I’m sure you could imagine. Uprisings against local police forces in isolated cities prompted a military response using heavy artillery, including tanks. The cities of Deraa, Baniyas, Homs, Hama, Aleppo, and the capital of Damascus have been targets for leverage used by rebels and the government. Homs in particular has been the most heavily shelled city.

The death toll in the conflict is nearing 10,000 by some reports, though the exact number is hard to calculate because no one is offering a clear representation of the conflict.

Of course sympathizers to Syria’s ruling regime are the wealthy minority—minorities, both economically and religiously. This illuminates the driving force of the identities within the conflict though it doesn’t appear anyone has lit the fires of sectarianism. It remains just a near-civil war between the poorer youth and the reigning power of al-Assad. The battle for the government has been to paint the rebels as unsavory terrorists, the type of people no one wants to associate with. If the government is able to cut off popularity amongst the people, it will crush the uprising and come out looking like heroes.

Recently, a series of bombs targeting government buildings have sparked outrage in the capital city of Damascus. The people there, some ways off from the battles of other cities, thought they were safe from the uprising. As one of the most thriving areas in the nation of Syria, it’s easy to imagine where most of the sympathies lie within the Damascans. Local media sources there have tried to cite foreign forces as being responsible for the bombs which killed 27 and injured nearly a 100 more, though interestingly enough it is not being attributed to the Syrian National Council (SNC, the united group officially representing the rebels) or the Free Syrian Army (FSA, a group of defected military persons). This seems like it is obviously a move to sway national opinions in their favor, and preemptively cutting off the possibility of sympathetic countries like the U.S. and Turkey interfering. Aljazeera’s video here shows the complexities of the bombings in Damascus, and the reaction from the people:

The United Nations in their inception was not designed to meddle in the affairs of sovereign nations. Though, as Hillary Clinton has argued, when it comes to crimes against humanity, where better to mediate and interfere? Al-Assad is making all the noises of a war criminal, in which the U.N. would be able to interfere, but in order to facilitate a peaceful transition to a post-Assad government it becomes important to not label him as such, as it will also dissuade other despots from relinquishing power peacefully. China and Russia have voted against motions that were near unanimous in declaring Bashir al-Assad as a war criminal, therefore putting him in the scope of possible military action. As major players on the world stage this is a critical blow the suffrage of the oppressed people of Syria.

Kofi Annan, a major member of the U.N.’s security council has been trying to open talks with the Syrian government to reach a diplomatic solution to the war. However, his role has not been without controversy as he was voted against by Russia and China as the choice for the position. Many fear that the attitude towards Syria has been one that is already predetermined by western and Gulf forces as being similar to those of the Libyan example. Strong arming the ruling party could incite further violence and further destroy and already tarnished image of western foreign policies.

It has been tough for Obama to make a public stance on the matter because it is election season. He runs the risk of losing blocs of voters no matter how he responds. In a speech he had said that all options are still on the table for Syria, though military action is still premature. The declarations of war from the conservative campaign have shown the irrationality of shoot-first foreign policy, not to mention the irrationality of the party itself. It’s unfortunate, though perhaps circumstantial, that an international crisis becomes a risky topic to address to the public. It appears that the diplomatic actions taken by President Obama and Hillary Clinton within the parameters of the U.N. supports the willingness to coalesce an ideal world government. This is by and large a laudable course of action, though the crack downs by the Syrian government has made it hard to not intervene. At what point will it become completely necessary for military action either sanctions or unsanctioned by the U.N.? How many deaths? What kind of tactics? 25,000? 100,000?

What now for us? Well it seems that for the time being we are forced to maintain the discussion about countries like Syria in the same way the virility of the Kony2012 sparked discussion about the accuracy and intentions of the Invisible Children group and their goals. The yaw and pitch of opinions gives a direction that is ultimately desirable for all groups. While it seems that the social fervor for Joseph Kony and the nay-sayers that haughtily criticized the supporters of the campaign were taking pot shots on social media, they were really participating in a learning process! The lull in the post-viral stage of the campaign I think is due to the better understanding of who Invisible Children really are, and how successful, emergent countries like Uganda have dealt with issues like Joseph Kony. We can apply the same argument here with Syria. Let us argue the finer points of diplomacy and military action. Let us delve into how the Syrian people feel. We can debate the legitimacy of government crackdowns or social uprisings, as we did with Egypt. Raising the bar of social conscience is how we take part in the realm of things like foreign affairs and moral dilemmas. The more we argue the more refined and defensible our opinions become. By becoming responsible for our personal opinions we defend our own moral ground, which in turn advocates for the moral grounds of others. This is where our moral obligations lie. Everything else is compassion.

For about a month now the culture wars have become the new epicenter for political controversy. The media for the time being have shied away from Jobs and Deficit talk to shit-kick social conservatism and the rights of religion, and briefly took time to mention things like gas prices to keep the public’s blood at a simmer for President Obama. There is nothing like election season for those who want to sound the alarms for social issues and this has been an Indian summer. With the Republican race drawing to a close, and the candidates, having exhausted what little they have to offer on economic policy, turned to topics of social conservatism in education. Rick Santorum has been calling Obama a snob for wanting everyone to be able to go to college or trade schools. This type of anti-intellectual sentiment is fuel for the conservative fire, and in particular the red states that have the lowest student competency rates. Reproductive rights have been making the headlines. The discussion on invasive trans-vaginal sonograms for women choosing abortion, have created uproar in the states implementing that policy into law. And now, the new topic is about contraception.

Most of us under the age of 35 have received some level of sex-ed in school. I can almost vaguely remember through the fog of teenage indifference, some elderly health teacher demonstrating how to put a condom on using props. And while perhaps the message itself may have been lost on the students in class, the conversation was there and it was not taboo for teens and pre-teens to discuss the parameters of sexual relationships. It was in this generation that adults stopped being willfully ignorant of teenage sexuality and started to address the problem with education and forwardness at home. Parents were being encouraged to have the talk with their teens and pre-teens regarding the responsibility that sex requires to be practiced safely. “I don’t care what you do, just use a condom,” my dad told me when I was 12 or 13, “If you need me to, I’ll buy them for you.”

So here is how the story goes: Under Obama’s healthcare reform employers are mandated to offer contraception to their employees. This includes religious organizations. I’m sure you can see the issue already if you haven’t heard about or read about it by now. Conservative organizations and companies that often employ secular workers, such as schools, have reserved the right to withhold the coverage for contraceptives in all their forms because it conflicts with their religious values. They also claim that not paying the insurance companies for contraceptive coverage lowers their premiums, ultimately saving them some pence on the pound. The evidence for this is inconclusive and speculative, and there are lots of conflicting reports as to whether or not this claim is accurate in the numbers. Regardless, the main defense for the conservatives was the economic basis for having to offer coverage for contraception, and by comparison, little was focused on the moral issue. Well there is a reason for that.

I think most people are familiar with what church doctrine has to say about contraception. While the bible doesn’t mention anything about latex condoms, some historians believe there were tonics and other rituals practiced as means to have sex without conceiving that predate the beginning of the Common Era. It wasn’t until 1968 when Pope Paul VI wrote the Encyclical Letter entitled Humanae Vitae where the magisterium of the church officially condemned the use of birth control. It says, “We are obliged once more to declare that the direct interruption of the generative process already begun and, above all, all direct abortion, even for therapeutic reasons, are to be absolutely excluded as lawful means of regulating the number of children.” So it follows that Catholics cannot use birth control as it goes against God’s law. Related to this is an interesting statistic that’s been making its rounds both in public discourse and former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi used it on the senate floor: 98% of American Christian Women have used contraception. Some media outlets have taken the liberty of making the number 99% in the wake of that numbers new significance. The study that produced this number has come under some fire because it is so overwhelmingly one-sided making many people skeptical. The most accurate way to word the findings is, “Data shows that 98 percent of sexually experienced women of child-bearing age and who identify themselves as Catholic have used a method of contraception other than natural family planning at some point in their lives,” according to a spokesperson for the study itself. Regardless, even if the number was around 50%, that still is a substantial amount of women who have used contraception at least once, and that goes against the Catholic Church. This can mean one of two things. The first is that a super majority of women and presumably men think they know better about their belief system than the authorities on the topic, i.e. the Pope. Or, that the actual rules set by their faith are less important than the professions and image of upholding their belief system. Everyone becomes a type of apologist because they can rationalize their excuses for not being a slave to their faith and using practical means to ensure a safe and healthy lifestyle.

So senate republicans tried to repeal President Obama’s ruling on contraception coverage. After having held a hearing comprising of almost all religious men, they decided it was necessary to reverse the mandate on moral grounds, but argue it in terms of economics and the right to offer what ever coverage they saw necessary. Besides, if a secular person wants to work in a catholic school, shouldn’t the just accept the conditions? Well perhaps, but why shouldn’t the organizations just offer the coverage and leave the devices of contraception usage and sin up to the employee. The devout wouldn’t be using them anyway presumably. And then the argument went to its logical end when it was brought up that any form of payment could possibly lead to the purchasing of contraception, for which the religious organizations would be facilitating anyway. In the end, the real dispute became about allowing religious organizations to have more immunity (or amnesty) from the common laws of men. The repeal was defeated 51 to 48 in the senate with party lines intact. Only one republican voted against the reversal, the departing Olympia Snowe of Maine.

One woman was allowed to testify for the case to uphold the mandate. Her name is Sandra Fluke. The woman of whom Rush Limbaugh undeservedly stole 15 minutes of fame from by calling her a slut and a prostitute, referring to his fact that the taxpayers would be paying for her to have sex. Her testimony is attached here, it explains pretty thoroughly the importance of equal coverage for everyone with regards to contraceptives and why it has become a need.

I think we do have a right to casual sex now. Maybe it’s not so clean cut as that sounds, but we, in practice, exercise this freedom rather vigorously. This is independent of whether or not you repent for it afterwards. For the prudish organizations of our culture to claim the right of exemption on the premise of divinity has long outlasted its nuance. What is worse is when they seek immunity so they can limit the freedoms of their loyalists or at the very least, their workers. For the first time in this century, and the second time in American history, sexual freedom is a form of rebellion. This time, we reserve the right to be able to do it safely.

I’d like to jump right into this post without another long introduction. If you’re reading this, I suggest you read my previous post for a bit of a prologue on the topic of abortion as I mean to address it here. What I will say is that women’s reproductive rights are under a new wave of conservative attack. An all too common decorum held by many of our peers is to allow these cards to fall as they may, and let the hands of this game be played by the professionals. This is exactly why I remain motivated to write this blog. The professionals we allow to draw up the parameters of our law are, in principle, supposed to be representing our interests, not defining them for us. When we defer to authority, we are relinquishing our right to have opinions of our own. So when the state governments of Virginia, and Oklahoma, and Nebraska, get together to set a precedent in combating women’s suffrage, it is only up to general consensus to respond vehemently. The topic of abortion, at the very least, needs to be discussed on a philosophical level so that we know what we mean when we say women have the right to choose, or that it is murder. Those who have the most tenable argument are the ones that should resonate with us and have the most influence, not those who argue loudest or wield the most money and power.

I didn’t want to mention religion again. Really, I didn’t. However religious leaders are maintaining their perennial position on the autonomy of women’s bodies which is that they have the final say in their care and treatment. With regards to the new universal healthcare laws that Obama put into place, it is my understanding that he put religious organizations underneath the umbrella of its coverage. What this means is, that any organization, including religious ones, must offer coverage for contraception and birth control to their employees, regardless of whether or not that employee is religious or secular. If you’re a janitor in a Catholic School, or a Special Needs Teacher, your health insurance will not cover birth control. What is being expressed here is that only religious practices are allowed to change the laws as they see fit, and it is in this blogger’s opinion that they haven’t provided any grounds for which to deserve this extremely special privilege. This is the panel that made lobbied against the President’s directive:

All those women in the back just got to watch.

. Not a single woman testified against the motion. Surprised?

Lastly, I’d like to again reiterate the arguments presented here and in my previous post are not my own. They are retold, to the best of my ability, from an undergrad course in Bioethics. Most, if not all the credit is due to my awesome professor of philosophy, whose name is absent for the time being. My goal of presenting both the views of the previous post and this one is to open up the minds of people with regards to the discussion on abortion, beyond what we are told by our parents, religious leaders, and community.

*          *          *

Position 2:

The (Secular) Moral Impermissibility of Abortion – Marquis’ Argument from Potentiality

Most people tend to use the argument from potentiality without even knowing it. They think about what the baby could turn into. They think of it after it is born, relate it to how adorable (most) other babies tend to be, and start to feel all warm and squishy inside thinking about holding them and playing with them. There are many endearing and absolutely beautiful things about babies that when we think of abortion, we can see it as nothing more than the horrible act of robbing something from humanity. Is this true? Will this work in a philosophical argument?

Let us not fall into a trap here. I mentioned this in the last post: We are not supposing that a fetus could be the next Beethoven, or Picasso, or Albert Einstein. This is not a logical argument. Opponents could easily say that you’re aborting the next Charles Manson, Pol Pot, or Adolf Hitler. I think most people would justify the abortions of the latter three. A billboard in Harlem caused an uproar when it used this argument alluding to Obama.  Not only is this racist, in that it preyed on the hopes of minority parents for their children to become whatever they would want with limitless possibilities, but also it also doesn’t use a sound argument philosophically, which really just means it’s nothing more than obnoxious and insulting.

What Marquis (pronounced Mar-kwis) wants to do is give fetuses and adult human beings a symmetrical characteristic that is wrong to take away. In the last post we talked about moral standings and the right to life, which will carry over here.

What makes premature death a misfortune? We’re talking about adults for now. When a 19 year old girl dies, and when a 91 year old woman dies, what is the difference? Is there one? Marquis says what encompasses the sense of loss we all share for those who die is their loss of a future of value. When a person lives to old age, and then dies, we don’t consider it premature because they’ve lived a fuller extent of their potential than say a child in grade school. This doesn’t necessarily mean that a younger person would have done more with their lives, but that they had the potential to.

Smith, a grade school student at the Socrates School for a Better Tomorrow, values the goods his consciousness brings. He appreciates being able to think, and reason, and the ability to make moral decisions and consider a future in which he could contribute to the world by using these tools. Smith enjoys painting. Rainy days inspire him. He hopes to fall in love, and to continue to enjoy his friendships. Unfortunately, his life was cut short by a drunk driver. His death represents a loss to Smith, of the greatest magnitude. If he were only in a coma, he’d still have the potential to come out of it and enact all those goods of consciousness. He’d have the potential to paint again on a rainy day.

For Marquis, this trait of potentiality carries over to human fetuses. They have the potential to have a future like ours, with all the goods of consciousness we will have the potential of having when we become standard adult human beings. This potentiality grants the fetus a Moral Right to Life, on par with those of standard adult human beings. Even if that baby were slated to live the most horrible conditions, and suffer for the longest possible amount of time, it still has the potential to take advantage of all the goods of conscious both you and I enjoy. It is just as wrong, according to Marquis’ reasoning, to kill a human fetus as it is to kill a standard adult human being because you are robbing it of the greatest magnitude potentiality.

To restate it in philosophical terms:

P1: Standard adult human beings have the potential for goods of consciousness (i.e. the experiences of love, rationality, art, et al.).

P2: The worst possible moral crime is to take away the potential for the goods of consciousness (i.e. murder).

C1: It is wrong to kill standard adult human beings.

P3: Fetuses have the potential to become standard adult human beings, which experience the goods of consciousness.

P4: Abortion takes away the potential to experience the goods of consciousness.

C2: Abortion is the moral equivalent to murder.

There are objections of course to this argument. I’ll state only the two that make the most sense to me, and one of them is by Tooley and was one of the last things I mentioned in my last blog post.

Objection 1: The Contraception Objection

For me, this seems the most logical. We can simply ask, “At what point does something attain potentiality?” To which, Marquis presumably replies with conception. Though we have no reason to believe that only at conception, something is given the potentiality of having a future like ours and thusly a serious right to life. What about the ovum? What about each of the millions of sperm residing in the nether regions of some of my readers loins right now? If you are not both copulating, and reading this at the same time, you are committing at least one horrendous moral crime on par with murder! Every time a male masturbates, and robs the potentiality for those sperm to become standard adult human beings with goods of consciousness, he is committing genocide under Marquis’ reasoning. He might defend this point by saying that conjoined (egg/sperm) can be identified as a zygote, and thusly is something we can point at and say it has a right to life. He might also say that the set of [1,000,000 sperm cells + 1 egg] is not something you can point to ostensibly and identify as an entity with that potential. Well, if we just gave that set of [1,000,000 sperm cells + 1 egg] a name, like Snagglefritz, then it has overcome identity theory, and now has contained within its definition a potential for all the goods of consciousness.

Object 2: Tooley’s Principle of Moral Symmetry

While this argument doesn’t necessarily take something away from the argument of potentiality, it does offer the other side of reasoning to the difference between intentionality and actuality. Under the Moral Symmetry Principle, choosing not do something is equally moral a initiating it, and then stopping it before it reaches its end.

A thought experiment:

If you have a pet, dog or cat, which ever you prefer, and you have a strong bond with that animal, you might sometimes wonder what it is thinking and feeling. Imagine you could inject that animal with a special serum that would give it all the experiences, consciousness, and goods therein of being human. It would basically be a dog/cat with all the mental and emotional traits of being human. The serum takes 14 days to work. During those 14 days there is nothing noticeable happening to that cat. You inject it, and then on the 14th day, suddenly it’s for all our purposes, a human being. Once you inject it, (and arguably before hand) with the serum, that cat attains potentiality. It is then, under Marquis’ reasoning the moral equivalent of murdering a human being if you give that cat an anti-serum on the 13th day, or the 2nd day. There’s something to be said about that seeming out of touch with our ideals for morality. Tooley argues this for a fetus as well. If you remember from my last post, a fetus has not attained all the wherewithal to own a serious moral right to life, and therefore is still in the cat/dog’s 2 week period where it is still okay to reverse the process.

I have one last piece of logic to offer which strikes me as the ultimate challenge to anyone who maintains the belief that a human fetus “dying” and  a person dying are moral equivalents. Approximately 12,000 to 20,000 people die of HIV/AIDS here in the United States yearly. There is a significant effort put forth, involving man hours and dollar amounts, to combat this plague. The same goes for several other diseases and disorders which plague humanity. According to some statisticians, approximately 6,000,000 fetuses are spontaneously aborted, that is miscarried, every year. We do not see this as a great human plague. While I’m sure religious acolytes chalk this up to God’s will, what ever that means, that should still be seen as the greatest continuous loss of life and our greatest moral responsibility. If just the United States were to endure something that is equivalent to the holocaust every year, why don’t we react with greater fervor? So maybe, from the anti-abortion point of view, Mother Theresa didn’t seem so off base when she said that “the greatest destroyer of peace on Earth is abortion” in her acceptance of the Nobel Prize. However, when we consider the injustice being perpetrated on the undeserving, we think of oppressed people, starving people, impoverished people, suffering people, not fetuses. To place the esteem of full moral status on an unborn human fetus, morally requires you to become an extremist or suffer the fate of cognitive dissonance.

Well this concludes the abortion topic for the time being. There’s actually lots more to discuss of course, like Judith Jarvis Thomson’s argument that even if a baby has a serious moral right to life, it doesn’t mean we can’t abort it on other grounds. For now I think I’ve exhausted everyone’s focus on the single topic and might perhaps return to it at a later time. I hope everyone found this 2 part series to be insightful. Keep the comments coming, and I’ll respond to them as much as I can. Respond to each other too, but remember to stay respectful.