Is Digital Piracy Wrong?

Recently, I rented a DVD and saw the all-too-familiar anti-piracy ad before the movie started. This got me thinking.  Most of the people I know would not take a CD from a store without paying for it.  Most of the people I know do go online and download unlicensed copies of songs and other digital media without paying for them.  It is clearly in the interest of organizations such as the RIAA and MPAA to try and prevent illegal downloads which cut into their bottom line.  This is why they publish ad campaigns portraying the two acts as morally equivalent examples of stealing.   However, the ease and availability of free pirated media online suggests that anti-piracy groups have been largely unsuccessful in changing behavior.  People may call file-sharing “stealing” with a nudge and a wink, but most of the people who “steal” digital media would not take a hardcopy of the same media from a store.  This makes me think that ad campaigns aimed at exploiting this  intuition are doubly wrong-headed.  If people shared the intuition that it is wrong to copy a file in the same way that it’s wrong to take a CD, the ad campaign would not be necessary in the first place.  Moreover, it is precisely because most people do not share the intuition upon which the ad is dependent that the ad is ineffective.

The ineffectiveness of anti-piracy ads speaks to a larger point about moral intuition and behavior.  When asked why stealing is wrong, most people will answer in one of the following ways:  1)” It hurts someone” (Consequentialism), 2) “What would the world be like if everyone did that?” (Deontology), or 3) “It won’t work out for me in the end” (Prudence…also, sort of Nihilism).  Since very few people are caught or prosecuted for illegal file-downloads, the prudence argument against file-sharing is not compelling.   The consequentialist argument depends upon identification of a victim who is harmed by the copying of digital media.  The fact that the recording industry has yet to come up with a sympathetic poster child* to summon the guilt of the pirating public strongly suggests that such a victim doesn’t exist.  That leaves us with the deontological argument which is weakened only by the fact that the hypothetical question it poses already has an answer, and that answer is surprisingly pleasant.  We already live in a world where most people consume pirated media, and yet musicians still record songs, writers still write novels, and filmmakers still make films.

Leaving aside opinion polls and behavioral statistics, a compelling argument can be made that copyrights constitute a moral right which corresponds to a moral obligation on the part of the media consumer.  If copyrights are a subgroup of property rights, and if property rights are a subgroup of moral rights, and if we have moral rights (inalienable, natural, God-given, or what-have-you), then you can make the argument that we are morally obligated to pay artists for their copyright in the same way we are morally obligated to refrain from trespassing or violating another person’s body.  The problem here is that an equally compelling argument can be made that these rights aren’t equivalent.  Moreover, the concept of natural rights is itself highly problematic.  We don’t want to say that copying a digital file is as much of a moral crime as stealing physical property or intruding on another person’s body, but if stealing is wrong because it violates a right, then the same wrong has been committed in all of these cases.

So, to conclude:  1) most people don’t think copyright violations are morally wrong.  2) They don’t think it’s morally wrong because they can’t identify a person who gets harmed, and they don’t think their behavior is contributing to an imminent catastrophe.  3) The only way to make a good case that it is morally wrong to download music is to give heavy moral weight to copyrights. 4) Nobody really gives heavy moral weight to copyrights.  I’m not suggesting that anyone ought to participate in digital media piracy.  I’m just saying the arguments against it are weak at best.

*Though, of course, there have been some famously unsympathetic ones.

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Sometimes People are so Crazy They Scare You

I’ve struggled for a couple of days to figure out what to say in this post. Sometimes you read things that are…well, they’re just batshit crazy.  I recently read something like that.  It’s batshit crazy.  There is simply no other way to describe it.  I would like to think that when Linda Kimball wrote “Evolutionism: the dying West’s science of magic and madness” that she was merely lying for Jesus.  As terrible as that may be, it’s at least a somewhat rational action that one can understand, even if one cannot approve.  But this article is so nuts, so madly over-the-top, that it’s near-impossible for me to believe that such is the case.  Rather, it looks like Kimball is, instead, completely insane.  That said, this is a longer post, and, in the end, I feel like I haven’t said very much.  I tried to make substantive points, but it gets hard when the points to which you’re replying are, again, just crazy.

The article in question appears on Alan Keyes’ site, Renew America, so I knew going in that the tone was going to be of the far right-wing and fundamentalist Christian.  Even so, that did not prepare me for what I read.  Kimball begins by opining about the rise of the “occult intelligentsia” that, apparently, came out from the Renaissance.  She says,

since the Renaissance, a powerfully influential occult community existing at the highest levels of society has been both the intelligentsia and the real powers behind what has been variously called the Progressive Underground, the Anti-Establishment, and the Counter Culture, the aim of which is twofold: first, the total destruction of the Old Order based on Christianity , and second, the creation of a utopian New World Order which is to rise out of the smoldering ashes of the Old Order.

So, already we have the assertion that sometime since the 14th to 16th century there has been some ruling elite who have been attempting to destroy the “Old Order,” that order, I guess, being the order from the Medieval period, since most people would consider the 1500’s pretty old at this point.  Is there any way to read that?  It would seem that the ruling elite, the “powerfully influential community existing at the highest levels of society,” for the past 500 years would be the ones behind the old way of doing things, but that 500 year-old order is explicitly not her complaint.  Rather, they’re the ones still hammering away at the Old Order, the one preceding the Renaissance.  Maybe that Old Order was feudalism?  Who knows.  It’s unclear on exactly what that Old Order is beyond it being Christian and Right.  At any rate, it just goes downhill from there.

Kimball moves on to a discussion about how the occult intelligentsia is obsessed with magic, and ends up saying, “The return to the ancient science of magic produced two currents of animism: Eastern/occult pantheism and rationalist/materialist/secularism.”  Yes, she said that rationalism-slash-materialism-slash-secularism is a form of animism, a kind of magic.  I hope you’re scratching your head on this one and hoping for some clarification.  I was.  And here it is: 

Essentiality, animism is the belief that not only is all of nature animated — including both living and non-living things — but that the animating force or spirit conveys power and influence. Western occult-pantheism speaks of animating spirit or soul while materialism speaks of miracle-producing ‘knowing’ energies that in their modern forms, animate and inform what can be viewed as either discarnate entities or ‘force and/or voice ideas’ called memes, genes, dialectical matter, chance, causation, determinism, evolution, and neurons, for example.

Yep, genes, neurons, evolution (I know, I know, the category error here is painful), and even causation are all “miracle-producing ‘knowing’ energies,” whatever that means.  Though it shouldn’t be necessary, I guess I’ll point out that it is a radical mischaracterization of materialism to suggest that it is any form of magic, animism included.  In fact, as we normally think of it, it is antithetical to magic.  And saying that genes and neurons are considered as some kind of magical energy by those who use the terms positively is…nuts.  It gets it exactly backwards.  They are explicitly not magical.  They are natural.  That’s the point.  (As an aside, dialectical matter?  Really?!)

Kimball then proceeds to write some really bizarre stuff about Hegel and Marx, saying they were part of a tradition of Hermetic mysticism.  She writes, without the least bit of humor,

The foundations of Hermeticism are forbidden knowledge — revelations — revealed to Hermes during an out-of-body experience. The Divine Pymander of Hermes Mercurias Trismegistus relates Hermes mystical encounter with The Great Dragon. Calling itself Poimandres, the Mind of the Universe, the Dragon transformed itself into a glorious being of Light and proceeded to ‘illuminate’ Hermes with the forbidden knowledge that would eventually find its’ way into Hegel’s dialectic and from there into Marx’s dialectical materialism.

Regardless of what you think of Hegel or Marx, the suggestion that they in any way believed that their work was the result of a Great Dragon Laser Beam giving them forbidden knowledge is beyond silly.  It’s…well, you know.

It’s at this point that Kimball gets to her real issue:  “naturalistic evolutionism”!  She says,

Though taught under the guise of empirical science, naturalistic evolution is really a spiritual concept whose taproot stretches back to the dawn of history. It was then, reports ancient Jewish historian Josephus, that Nimrod (Amraphel in the Old Testament) used terror and force to turn the people away from God and toward the worship of irrational nature. Moving forward in time to the Greco-Roman world, evolution serves as the mechanism of soul-transference in metempsychosis and transmigration of souls. In the ancient East, the mystical Upanishads refine evolution and it becomes the mechanism of soul-movement in involutions, emergences, incarnations, and reincarnation. In that both rationalist/materialist/secularism and its’ counterpart Eastern/occult pantheism are modernized nature pseudo-religions, it comes as no surprise that evolution serves as their ‘creation mythos’.

I bet you didn’t learn any of that stuff in your biology classes.  Who knew that evolution was about “soul-transference,” “transmigration of souls,” or had anything  to do with souls at all?  I think I must have been absent the day they taught us to use evolution to terrorize people, turn them away from their gods, or force them to worship anything.  I’d love to know how talk of mutation and selection can bring about worship to some god-entity.  Except, of course, that’s just crazy.

From here Kimball falls into the usual creationist/fundamentalist drek of using definitions of evolution that no biologist holds, claiming that science relies on Christian principles, and informing us that “many scientists have already rejected [Darwinism] as useless.”  I’d like to note here that Kimball seems to criticize science throughout most of this piece, then wants it to be ok because it’s actually a Christian project, and finally attempt to appeal to the authority of scientists, most of whom, according to her earlier parts of the essay, are occultists.  Yea.  Even better, when she actually quotes “scientists,” she doesn’t.  It’s great.  Under the heading “What Some Scientists are Saying About Naturalistic-Evolution she quotes four men:  George Wald, David C.C. Watson, Robert Andrews Millikan, and T. Rosazak.  Of those, Watson was an English teach with a degree in Classics, and Rosazak was an historian.  Neither were scientists in any sense of the word.  The other two were scientists, but they don’t work so well for Kimball, either.

The quote she takes from Wald reads thus in Kimball’s essay:  "When it comes to the origin of life on this earth, there are only two possibilities: Creation or spontaneous generation. There is no third way. Spontaneous generation was disproved 100 years ago, but that leads us only to one other conclusion: that of supernatural creation. We cannot accept that on philosophical grounds, therefore we choose to believe the impossible: that life arose spontaneously by chance."  Here I want to thank the hard work of the people at the Quote Mine Project over at the TalkOrigins Archive.  There’s an entry for this quote, and it turns out that it is actually fabricated.  That’s right; it’s made up.  The quote supposedly comes from the September, 1958 issue of Scientific American.  Here is the actual quote from that article.  It is quite lengthy, but quoting only part of it will fail to capture the point of the issue that Wald is addressing.  It follows,

Throughout our history we have entertained two kinds of views of the origin of life: one that life was created supernaturally, the other that it arose "spontaneously" from nonliving material. In the 17th to 19th centuries those opinions provided the ground of a great and bitter controversy. There came a curious point, toward the end of the 18th century, when each side of the controversy was represented by a Roman Catholic priest. The principle opponent of the theory of the spontaneous generation was then the Abbe Lazzaro Spallanzani, an Italian priest; and its principal champion was John Turberville Needham, an English Jesuit.

Since the only alternative to some form of spontaneous generation is a belief in supernatural creation, and since the latter view seems firmly implanted in the Judeo-Christian theology, I wondered for a time how a priest could support the theory of spontaneous generation. Needham tells one plainly. The opening paragraphs of the Book of Genesis can in fact be reconciled with either view. In its first account of Creation, it says not quite that God made living things, but He commanded the earth and waters to produce them. The language used is: "let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life…. Let the earth bring forth the living creature after his kind." In the second version of creation the language is different and suggests a direct creative act: "And out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air…." In both accounts man himself–and woman–are made by God’s direct intervention. The myth itself therefore offers justification for either view. Needham took the position that the earth and waters, having once been ordered to bring forth life, remained ever after free to do so; and this is what we mean by spontaneous generation.

This great controversy ended in the mid-19th century with the experiments of Louis Pasteur, which seemed to dispose finally of the possibility of spontaneous generation. For almost a century afterward biologists proudly taught their students this history and the firm conclusion that spontaneous generation had been scientifically refuted and could not possibly occur. Does this mean that they accepted the alternative view, a supernatural creation of life? Not at all. They had no theory of the origin of life, and if pressed were likely to explain that questions involving such unique events as origins and endings have no place in science.

A few years ago, however, this question re-emerged in a new form. Conceding that spontaneous generation doe not occur on earth under present circumstances, it asks how, under circumstances that prevailed earlier upon this planet, spontaneous generation did occur and was the source of the earliest living organisms. Within the past 10 years this has gone from a remote and patchwork argument spun by a few venturesome persons–A. I. Oparin in Russia, J. B. S. Haldane in England–to a favored position, proclaimed with enthusiasm by many biologists.

Have I cited here a good instance of my thesis? I had said that in these great questions one finds two opposed views, each of which is periodically espoused by science. In my example I seem to have presented a supernatural and a naturalistic view, which were indeed opposed to each other, but only one of which was ever defended scientifically. In this case it would seem that science has vacillated, not between two theories, but between one theory and no theory.

That, however, is not the end of the matter. Our present concept of the origin of life leads to the position that, in a universe composed as ours is, life inevitably arises wherever conditions permit. We look upon life as part of the order of nature. It does not emerge immediately with the establishment of that order; long ages must pass before [page 100 | page 101] it appears. Yet given enough time, it is an inevitable consequence of that order. When speaking for myself, I do not tend to make sentences containing the word God; but what do those persons mean who make such sentences? They mean a great many different things; indeed I would be happy to know what they mean much better than I have yet been able to discover. I have asked as opportunity offered, and intend to go on asking. What I have learned is that many educated persons now tend to equate their concept of God with their concept of the order of nature. This is not a new idea; I think it is firmly grounded in the philosophy of Spinoza. When we as scientists say then that life originated inevitably as part of the order of our universe, we are using different words but do not necessary mean a different thing from what some others mean who say that God created life. It is not only in science that great ideas come to encompass their own negation. That is true in religion also; and man’s concept of God changes as he changes.

Lest you miss the most important point, let me highlight one sentence:  “Our present concept of the origin of life leads to the position that, in a universe composed as ours is, life inevitably arises wherever conditions permit.”  Contrast that with the sentiment of the fabricated passage that Kimball presents, and you’ll see that Wald’s point is precisely the opposite of what Kimball suggests.

That leaves us with the last of Kimball’s “scientists,” Millikan.  Millikan was a physicist, not a biologist, and the quote Kimball uses is from 1925.  The man has been dead for 57 years.  This is not exactly cutting edge stuff, here, and this is the only genuine quote from a genuine scientist.  Let the weight of that sink in for a moment.  Kimball brazenly asserts many scientists have rejected Darwinian evolution, and in support of this she provides a single scientist speaking 85 years ago.  Nuts.

Kimball next briefly slams the environmental movement as satanic before attempting to use an article from a 1980 issue of the Skeptical Inquirer to suggest that it is really non-Christians who believe nutty stuff.  If that is an attempt to insulate herself from the criticism from being nuts, it failed. 

In the end, I can’t do justice to this piece.  It’s too far out there.  It’s so crazy that I would not even mention it, except it comes from Renew America.  You might disagree with most the stuff they do and say, and I certainly do, but, hyperbole aside, they are not the blog of some emotionally and psychologically unstable individual who clearly needs medication.  They are, for lack of a better description, a “respectable” source.  That is why this essay is so mind-blowing.  It clearly is the work of an emotionally and psychologically unstable individual who clearly needs medication, and pronto.  Again, and this is also hyperbole aside, it’s crazy.  Yet, it was published on a serious site.  That’s terrifying.

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People are Crazy



The above picture was posted by Mike Adams, the so-called “Health Ranger,” on his blog.  In it he writes, “This parody cartoon grew out of the idea that vaccines are ‘shots’ that are being increasingly forced upon children and teens.”  Yes, I see what you did there.  One can only wonder at the intelligence of his typical reader if such a “clever” play on words needs to be explained in the first sentence.  Of course, one can only wonder at Mike’s own intelligence as he writes, “Most modern vaccinations are, of course, a form of chemical violence against children” (emphasis in original).  That’s right, chemical violence!  Continuing, “But far too many of today’s vaccines are chemical concoctions that are entirely unnatural to the human body. To force them into the bodies of innocent children is an act of medical violence.”


I never cease to be bothered by the use of words like “unnatural” in this context.  I have no idea what it means.  The vaccines are, of course, wholly natural.  They are wholly inside nature, harvested and compounded by wholly natural means, and all of this is done by wholly natural beings.  At no point is any part of this process or end result outside of nature.  Nowhere along the line is it “unnatural.”  No one is praying to some unholy denizens from the hoary netherrealms in an effort to cultivate, manufacture, or distribute vaccines.  I mean, that would be unnatural.  Someone might say that it is the manufacturing itself that makes it unnatural.  While that would be weird, and I might not like it, at least in that case I would get what these people mean.  But then I’m hit with “all natural” products that are absolutely processed and manufactured.  “Natural” supplements that come in pill forms are processed and manufactured in exactly the same way that the supposed unnatural products are.  And, obviously, they’re all chemicals, so it can’t be the fact that the products in question have a chemical nature that gives them the attribute of unnatural-ness.  In the end, the word just seems to be completely empty and used for the express purpose of generating fear.  That seems a pretty dishonest and rotten thing to do.

I guess I could pick on phrases like “chemical concoction” here too (wait, “chemical concoction”), but I’m hoping my readers are a little brighter than Adams’ and can pick up on the fact that the above criticism applies to this as well.

But wait, boys and girls, it gets even better.  Adams also writes,

The doctor in this parody cartoon was intentionally created to depict a "crazed" mad doctor because nothing turns an ordinary doctor into a mad man faster than an argument about vaccines. While he may seem to be a reasonable person on all other subjects, once you challenge him on the dangers of over-vaccination of children, all reason gets thrown out the window and he morphs into a raging lunatic of unscientific emotion.

That’s right.  It is not people such as Adams who resort to irrational arguments like absurd and disgusting ad hominems when discussing vaccines.  Nope, it’s those “mad doctors.”  When Adams depicts doctors who support vaccinations as gun-toting lunatics with maniacal grins shooting enormous syringes that look to be loaded with glowing re-animator fluid into a classroom of terrified children, he’s participating in a rational dialogue.  Of course.  And when he further writes, “The complete lack of scientific evidence supporting the safety and efficacy of vaccines makes no difference to [the doctor]. ‘Vaccines need no science,’ he’ll say, ‘Because everybody knows they work!’” he’s being completely honest and sincere.  Oh, wait…

Sometimes you just have to sit back and scratch your head over this stuff.  He’s explicitly attacking people I know.  He’s explicitly saying that individuals who are working hard to keep people I love safe are “mad men.”  Something needs to be said in response to this.  Is it appropriate to call Adams crazy?  It’s hard to say.  He’s either crazy or a vicious and terrible liar.  Regardless, he clearly cannot be trusted, and people need to speak out against such awful and unwarranted attacks.  The only thing more disturbing than this cartoon are the comments Adams’ readers write in response.  Have a look.  Laugh or cry.


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Should Jefferson’s God Be Your God Just Because He Was Jefferson’s God?

A recent New York Times article entitled “How Christian Were the Founders?” analyzes the current attempt by the Texas Board of Education and Christian fundamentalist activists in general to cast the founders of the US in explicitly Christian terms.  There is, unsurprisingly, quite a bit of debate about this issue.  Were the people who founded the US Christian?  Like everything else in history, it is a complicated question.  On the one hand you have early documents like the Mayflower Compact that make explicit reference to the Christian God, and you have words like “Creator” in the Declaration of Independence, which, while not the Constitution, is unarguably relevant to the ideas of the “founding fathers.”  On the other side you have Jefferson, the person who penned the Declaration of Independence, writing to concerned Baptist ministers about the First Amendment,

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should "make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.

Saying there is a “wall of separation” seems to make it pretty clear that the intent behind that part of the Constitution was to, well, create a wall between church and state.  However, that does not even come close to the (in)famous language in the Treaty of Tripoli.  It is here that we find most of the same people who founded the US ratifying a treaty that claims “the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.”  It’s hard to get much more explicit than that.

All that said, I’m not really interested in that debate.  I am much more interested in the motivation on the part of these Christian fundamentalist activists for pushing the idea that the founding fathers were all devout Christians who created this country with the explicit intent of furthering the Christian faith.  It seems that the only reason for this has to be an attempt to make some sort of bizarre argument from authority to justify and ground Christianity now.  It comes off as being something like this:

  1. The US was founded to further Christianity and Christian values.
  2. We live in the US.
  3. Hence, we should further Christianity and Christian values.

But does this make any sense at all?  I don’t see how it does.  Further, I don’t think that these activists think this makes any sense, either.  It seems wildly unlikely that they would make the argument that, were they in a country that was founded on some other religion, they should then further that religion’s articles of faith and values.  That would remove any concern about the truth of such articles from having any place in one’s reasoning on the subject.  The religion and fervor to one’s religion would be reduced to an accident of birth that hinged upon time and geographic location.  Surely, none of these activists think that is right.  Further, it means that whatever the religion of these founding fathers was, that’s what the activists’ religion should be as well.  So, if it happened that we found some sort of incontrovertible evidence that, in fact, the founding fathers were all devout followers of Satan who formed the US in line with some nefarious plan to deliver to the Great Lord of the Dark all of the future souls of this nation, then, given the reasoning above, these activists should leave behind their allegiance to God and Jesus and, instead, set up black alters to ol’ Scratch.  And that is clearly absurd.

The point here is that the religious persuasions of the founders of the US are wholly irrelevant to the truth of any particular religion.  Simply pointing to the beliefs of some group of people as your justification for your own beliefs without concern for the grounding of the beliefs in the first place is ridiculous.  Just because your parents believed something doesn’t make it right, and that goes for the founders of your country as well.

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New Sex Ed Research Is Useless

It would appear that both Liza and I have sex education on the brain, and that’s funny considering that we have not spoken about this at all.  Even so, she just posted about sex ed, and now I’m doing the same.  There is a difference, however.  Her post had, in terms of the empirical research that served for the initial source, a study that suggests that abstinence-only programs do not work so well.  I, however, would like to address the reports concerning the new study that say something very different. is reporting that a new “landmark” study has been released that shows “An abstinence-only education program is more effective than other initiatives at keeping sixth- and seventh-graders from having sex within a two-year period…”  According to the report, the scientists engaged in this research program discovered that those students who received instruction in a program that was abstinence-only were significantly less likely to engage in sexual activity over a two year period.  That is, of those students who received the abstinence-only instruction, only a third engaged in sexual intercourse.  This is contrasted with the more than half of students who engaged in sexual intercourse who received “safer sex” instruction, and more than forty percent who participated in a course that had both abstinence and safer sex instruction as parts of the program.

The researchers were quick to point out that this study should not suggest that safer sex courses should be abandoned, and several organizations have said something similar.  The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy released a statement that said, “"It is unreasonable to expect any single intervention, curriculum or program to solve the teen pregnancy problem.  True and lasting progress requires not only good programs in schools and communities, but also supportive norms and values, informed and active parents, good health services, a positive media culture and more."

I hope those reading this have caught the plain weirdness of this study with the above quote being the clue.  What is strange about this is that the study in question does not address the very thing for which sex education programs were created, namely the need to limit the spread of STDs and unwanted teen pregnancy.  Those issues are not in any way a concern for the researchers here.  Their concern was merely whether or a group of students with the average age of 12 had sex by the time they were 14.  Let’s put aside the issue that this is a single data point that appears to conflict with other good data, though this is certainly very relevant, and let’s focus only on this single concern.  Though there may be some peripheral interest in whether or not pre-teens are engaged in sexual intercourse, such a concern is hardly central to the reasons for having sex ed courses.  As the quotes in the CNN article from those groups engaged in sex education demonstrate, unwanted pregnancies and the spread of STDs, especially AIDS/HIV, are the critical reasons for having these programs, and this is wholly unaddressed by researchers.  As such, it is hard to see that this study is relevant at all to the concerns of those debating how sex ed should be taught.

Now, I can imagine that some might want to argue at this point that those children who are not having intercourse are necessarily less likely to become pregnant or wind up with an STD.  However, those are hardly the only kids with which we are concerned.  We are also worried about the kids that are having intercourse, and we need them to be as likely as possible to act in a way that is most beneficial to public health.  If it turned out that some program produced few children having sex, but that the numbers related to the actual point of sex ed, namely pregnancy and STDs, were higher than the numbers produced by a safer sex program, then the former program would clearly be the failure.  This is because it would have missed the point entirely by focusing on the wrong issue.  As such data, the truly relevant data, is wholly missing from the research in question, the study itself is virtually meaningless for anyone trying to figure out the best way to teach sex ed.  And, to make it worse, this is compounded by the fact that, as Liza pointed out in an earlier post, the bulk of the data heretofore gathered goes against the outcome of this single study.

Here’s the bottom line:  in terms of sex ed, it just does not matter whether or not your kid is having sex.  It is much better that teens be sexually active while being disease and child free than it is that some portion remain virgins while the others have their lives irrevocably damaged by the consequences of unsafe sex practices.  I completely understand that many parents do not want their children engaged in sexual activity, and, were I a parent, I would likely feel the same.  But, again, that is just completely irrelevant to the public concerns that sex ed courses address.  Sex ed programs are there for a reason, and if you’re caught up in keeping intercourse numbers down while disregarding the relevant issues of disease and unwanted teen pregnancy, then you have missed the point entirely, and that is exactly what this study has done.  It has simply missed the point.

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More on Sex Education and Values

I thought I would write a short post about Ross Douthat’s most recent column in the New York Times because he addresses an issue that was recently the subject of one of my posts.  On the subject of sex education, Douthat writes “The evidence suggests that many abstinence-only programs have little impact on teenage sexual behavior, just as their critics long insisted. But most sex education programs of any kind have an ambiguous effect, at best, on whether and how teens have sex.”   In defense of this claim, Douthat mentions a recent book on the history of sex education in America by Kristin Luker and notes the author’s conclusion that it is “surprisingly difficult to show that sex education programs do in fact increase teenagers’ willingness to protect themselves from pregnancy and/or disease.”  Douthat then goes on to make the argument that, because evidence about the effectiveness of all types of sex education is inconclusive, different regions of the United States ought to be able to use federal funding to institute different educational programs to reflect community values.

Douthat’s primary thesis is that the contraception-versus-abstinence debate should be viewed  “more as a battle over community values than as an argument about public policy.”  As my previous posts would suggest, I agree that this is a battle over values, but Douthat’s conclusions about public policy do not follow from this premise.   Douthat suggests that we should keep federal funding for sex education but allow communities to use that funding to reflect their own “sacralist” or “naturalist” values about sex.  This is problematic for two reasons.  First, if Douthat could demonstrate that sex education had no effect, whatever its content, then surely the conclusion is that the federal government should quit doling out money for sex education, period.  The fact that he wants to keep such funding in place belies the reality that such education has some sort of desirable effect.  Second, Douthat’s point that  specific socio-economic, cultural, and family factors exert a greater influence on a teenager’s sexual behavior than one class taught in school sounds good, but the argument itself is really weak.  By analogy, the availability of high-calorie junk food and captivating sedentary distractions clearly exerts more of an effect on childhood obesity than the content of one class that touts the benefits of healthy diet and exercise, but nobody is saying that the evidence about health and nutrition class is so inconclusive that we ought to let communities use federal funding for that kind of health education to “reflect community values”.

Douthat’s conclusion is that the federal government “[shouldn’t] try to encourage Berkeley values in Alabama, or vice versa,” and, for this reason, federal funding earmarked for sex education shouldn’t come with any “ideological strings attached.”   This argument is really a variation of the “states rights” position which holds that local governments have a better understanding of the specific needs of their communities and should, therefore, have the authority to make policy decisions that respond to those needs.   It is a mostly reasonable argument that has been used, at various times, to justify everything from slavery and Jim Crow laws to including “alternatives to evolution” in “science” books used in public schools.   It seems that Douthat thinks that “sacralist” and “naturalist” values fall into the benign class of things such as snow removal and libations taxes that should be regulated on a local level for practical reasons.  This is absurd.  It is precisely because sex education is rife with implicit questions about values that the states rights argument is not appropriate here.

The question of whether the the federal government ought to be able to ear-mark funds for a specific purpose which reflects a specific value is really empty.  All laws, regulations, and taxes are justified, at some level, by some value, and, for the most part, the kinds of values that are implicit in policy decisions are uncontroversial.  It is only in those cases in which a controversy arises that the states rights argument gets trotted out, and in those cases it is almost always used by those who are angling to promote an opposing value.  For example, we all know that the same people who want a federal amendment banning gay marriage would happily argue that they have the right to use federal funding ear-marked for sex education to reflect their community’s “sacralist” values of abstinence.

Of course, the hypocrisy of politicians and political activists is not a direct response to Douthat.  He could consistently say that the federal government has no right to impinge upon local laws and policies which reflect community values, regardless of what those values are.  But, this is an absurd position.  If accepted, it entails that the federal government was also unjustified in overruling laws regarding slavery and segregation which were, at the time, a reflection of “community values.”  It would be more reasonable for Douthat to make the case that sex education is like traffic regulation where the value is uncontroversial and is promoted more through its existence than through its specific content*.  Unfortunately, this is a pretty unappealing analogy as virtually everyone agrees that the value of education is derived, in large part, from its content.  So, I’m left to the conclusion that Douthat’s argument just doesn’t work.  He doesn’t say that sex education is not valuable, he can’t say that the content of such classes doesn’t matter, and he shouldn’t say that the federal government has no business taking a position on something that is valuable and does matter.

*For example, it’s not morally important whether we drive on the left or the right side of the road, but it is morally important that we all agree to one or the other.  Thus, the value of traffic laws does not derive from their specific content but from their existence in the first place.

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