Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category


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 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 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.


        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?


(Posting a school paper as is. No works cited page at the moment. This will be corrected.) Notable sources include Noah Feldman, Michael Walzer, and Jurgen Habermas. All geniuses.


The demand for justice after a terrorist attack on the scale of the 9/11 events may warrant the type of knee-jerk declaration of war (specifically, the War on Terror) that we have seen in the time that followed. The United States government has done a good job of justifying ad hoc its response to the threat of terrorism, with the general consent or indifference of the citizenry. That is, up until recently. Granting that the situations immediately after 9/11 required the United States to enter into a Supreme Emergency modus operandi, it appears the desire for constitutional law to remerge. Now a swell of dissatisfaction, always present but nary as lucid, has begun to make its humanitarian and ethical case against the continued War on Terror. The criticism isn’t so much about lack of necessity for there to be an anti-terrorism force, but that the means and motives by which it is carried out are increasingly malevolent. By reexamining the justifications of certain practices and policies it might be possible to help clarify what values we carry into an effective anti-terror strategy. This might also help to garner popular support for the operations that have become prima facie oppressive or even terrorist-like on behalf of the American agencies engaged in anti-terrorism. The question the US is facing now warrants an answer: Are the affects of anti-terrorism worse than the threat of terrorism?

            Even if we had established concrete definitions of war, crime, and terrorism, it would stand to reason that the urgency for an immediate response to 9/11 would force the US to hastily cobble together some kind of argument for going to war in the middle east while still riding high on the surge of retributive justice sought by the people. The state of affairs the United States found itself after the attack was unstable to say the least. Jurgen Habermas recalls, “the repeated and utterly vague announcements of possible new terror attacks and the senseless appeal to ‘be alert’ exacerbated the vague sense of dread and the indefinite state of alarm—in other words, precisely what the terrorists intended” (p4). Justice must also include elimination of the threat. Bringing these terrorists to justice was synonymous with killing them it seemed, and the US saw it fit to blend what ever justification it could find in order to take an action. Feldman writes, “To maximize flexibility, the US government would probably try to give itself the option of invoking either the crime paradigm or the war paradigm at any moment,” (p477).

At the early stages of the War on Terror, it didn’t matter which paradigm of justice the US chose, either treating terrorists like enemy combatants or as criminals though ultimately it adopted the language of war. The US used what ever methods reaped the most desirable goals including torture, indefinite detention without trial, drone strikes, etc. This is reason enough to invoke a philosophy of consequentialist considerations with regards to justifying how the US has acted in the past, and how it can defend decisions and actions going forward. While it is true, as Walzer critiques, that consequentialism can’t assign exact values to what aspects of anti-terrorism should be measured and how heavily, it does establish polar extremes from which to avoid or achieve. Without much valediction, reducing superfluous civilian killing, financial cost, and oppression and fear can be seen as morally sound principles. If there was a need for this excess in the past to bolster the might of a culture that won’t be bullied by terrorism, that time has apparently now passed. While apparently effective, as we have seen with the death of Osama bin Laden, and the lack of fulfilled terrorist attacks, it can be equally argued that the methods of effective anti-terrorism is police-like. The US can raise its level of legitimacy by reenacting the rules of law, and relinquishing the policies of emergency ethics.

            The arguments over whether a terrorist should be granted the rights of a criminal can tip the scales with regards to the legitimacy of the anti-terrorism movement. By subjectively assigning the identity of terrorists to the category of enemy combatants, the US burdens itself with a heap of moral risk. Firstly, it is not all together clear that terrorists are enemy combatants of war. Under Just War theory, there must be a cohesive body for which to wage war against and according to Noah Feldman, “The terrorist mastermind…is different with respect to provenance than a general who plans an attack that will be made on the U.S. by an army attacking from without,” (p469). In the case of a homegrown lone terrorist, it would seem strange to declare war on him/her. It is also unclear that a terrorist, in this case al Qaida, represents the ideologies of a legitimate state. Just war would necessitate that there would need to be a reachable peace and a political body to negotiate with, amongst other criteria, that rule out fundamentalist-based terrorism. This example rules out 2 out of 4 of Feldman’s criterions for determining whether a terrorist is an enemy combatant: provenance and identity. The remaining two of Feldman’s criterions that help to support the idea that they are indeed enemy combatants seem pyrrhic in their victories. The intentionality of a terrorist to discredit a state or not recognize it as legitimate is only nominally important in that there is no reason to take their intention seriously once terrorism is used—they have disqualified themselves by their sheer abhorrent and immoral nature. The scale quality says that the magnitude of a terrorist attack might push a regime over the threshold of criminal to enemy combatant, but the threshold seems morally arbitrary. Secondly, the policies of pursuit with regards to enemy combatants, “shoot first and ask questions later,” give rise to a host of human rights violations that serve to undermine favorability to the continuation of warring with terrorists. By a systematic gathering of intelligence, pursuit, and execution, there is an engine of assault without a check or balance to determine whether each strike is worth investing in. Now we are forced to look at the policy as a whole. Lastly; the unilateral practice of using torture, drones, and indefinite detention as tools of waging war raises the culpability for impeccable accuracy to a near implausible standard. Michael Walzer describes the ethics of anti-terrorism and puts it lightly when he writes, “The terrorists hold that there is no such thing as ‘collateral’…damage. All the damage for them is primary…The more deaths the more fear. So anti-terrorists have to distinguish themselves by insisting on the category of collateral damage, and by doing as little of it as possible” (p9).

In order to maintain legitimacy, it is absolutely crucial that the US does not act terroristic while combating terrorism in this way. In defending the potentiality for collateral damage for drone strikes, the US has painted all people associated with a potential terrorist, as potential terrorists. Whether terrorists are or aren’t enemy combatants, it must be said that the term “innocent” is not up for mitigation. Walzer writes, “[Innocents] are ‘innocent’ whatever their government and country are doing and whether or not they are in favor of what is being done,” (p1). It is in this way, that even consequentially speaking, it is damning for the US to continue the War on Terror and instead adopt a policing policy of anti-terrorism. If the methods of anti-terrorism as they are carried out now continue, then the western world serves to embolden the fundamentalist terrorist and public sympathies within their influence. Walzer continues on this theme in another work, “repression and retaliation [of terrorism] must no repeat the wrongs of terrorism, which is to say that repression and retaliation must be aimed systematically at the terrorists themselves, never at the people for whom the terrorists claim to be acting,” and later on, “The refusal to make ordinary people into targets, whatever their nationality or even their politics, is the only way to say no to terrorism. Every act of repression and retaliation has to be measured by this standard,” (p60-61). While being interviewed, Habermas makes the same point, “the state runs the risk of being discredited by the inappropriateness of the measures it deploys, whether internally by militarization of security that undermines the rule of law or externally by mobilizing a disproportionate and ineffective military and technological supremacy,” (p8). This language rises in the minds of anyone who travels the awful banality of the TSA. Without the moral high ground, anti-terrorism begins to look like oppression or terrorism in kind.

The War on Terror, while initiated on emergency standards of supposed necessity can be justified only through a consequentialist view. All things considered, the best course of action was to suspend the status quo of natural or constitutional law to achieve a certain goal. Ostensibly, the threat of utter catastrophe has subsided and now we must change gears as well. Consequentialism with the goal of establishing a world with the greatest amount of well being for all, offers the ability to evolve in light of new evidence and circumstances. As it has become blatantly evident that our practices directly related to our war-like approach to anti-terrorism has undermined our legitimate claim to just war, or justice in general, then it becomes increasingly necessary to adopt a criminal approach. With considerations to a more global society, it might be finally time to take a supranational justice system seriously. Globalization has rendered the inherent value of our borders worthless. The moral weight of killing citizens (read as innocents) in another country that happens to harbor terrorists is equally immoral as killing our own.

       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.

It’s become my new mission to make Science cool in a pop-culture sense. Riding the wave of the new Mars lander, Curiosity, I think it’s a great moment to capitalize on the focus of these things while the time is right.


So here is the Wikipedia explanation of Schrodinger’s Cat. If not your brain is both dead and alive at the same time.



There has been a lot in the news about Mitt Romney’s dubious personal finances. So when his wife, Ann Romney, went onto ABC to defend her husband she incidentally stepped in shit, twice. Having had to explain why her husband would refuse to show how he manipulated the system within the parameters of the law, but perhaps against the spirit of patriotism (what with tax loopholes, offshore accounts, et al.), she took up a daunting task indeed.

The liberal minded media saw her second step in shit when she said, “We’ve given all you people need to know.” The question is who is “You”? Is it just liberals? Well that wouldn’t make sense because it was largely demanded by many of Romney’s fellow party members including George Will, Ron Paul, Bill Kristol and Michael Steele! Does “you” refer to Americans? The media? Who? This comes right after Mitt himself said, “It’s kind of amusing,” that people wanted his tax returns.

In any case, there was a subtle sentence before that which has caught my attention which I think Ann Romney tried to pitch as a way to measure Mitt’s character.

“…He is a very generous person. We give 10% of our income to the church every year.”

For those of you who aren’t listening, that’s the Chuch of Latter Day Saints. The Mormon church asks all its members to tithe 10% of their income. What Romney donates, even by the Mormon church’s standards, is not an exceptional donation. It is what is expected of him.

Is tithing charity?

If what Ann Romney was trying to show was that Mitt was a charitable human being, then we’d have to examine what it means to be charitable. If a person is giving resources, time, money, and/or effort at the expense of one’s self to those who would benefit much more from it, then we can say that it is charity. If one does not wish to donate time or effort, money might be sufficient, but are all financial donations charitable? Hardly! I don’t consider paying Verizon a large fraction of my paycheck even close to being charitable. However, I feel it could be argued that Verizon does more for a society, indeed the world, than The Church of Latter Day Saints. Verizon, could certainly be more transparent about where the money goes as made famous by BusinessWeek’s front-page article. It’s really important you read this article in order to understand how a church, any church, doesn’t constitute as a charitable organization.

If not, it is humorously simplified here by Bill Maher:

For more on the ethics of charity, read works by Peter Singer.