I Don’t Think It Means What You Think It Means

Over the past week I’ve heard several mentions of the breakout of prayer by students at a football game in Marianna, children-praying-in-school-300x300Florida.  The local TV station reported “Just before Friday night’s football game at Marianna High School, students, parents, and even the players went through with reciting the Lord’s Prayer.”  Further, a student is reported as saying “It just shows that with God anything’s possible, nothing can stop us.”  This is all in response to the fact that the local school board had decided that an organized prayer was problematic, something that has been repeatedly upheld by the courts.

Here is what I find odd about all this.  People keep acting as if the students and parents taking it upon themselves to pray is some kind of triumph over some movement to prevent that kind of thing from happening.  But nothing could be further from the truth.  No one has ever suggested that private individuals are not allowed to pray before football games, at graduations, or anything else.  That has never been the issue at hand.  What has been at issue is the idea of prayers organized by public school officials, and this is for a very simple reason.  It is both illegal and inappropriate for the government to endorse any particular religion.  And, of course, that’s what almost all parents, including those in Marianna, Florida, want, even if they are not aware of that fact.  I promise, the last thing any these people who recited the Lord’s Prayer want is for some school official to stand up and lead their children in a prayer a Hindu deity.  They would absolutely freak out.  But, of course, that’s the same kind of respect Hindus want as well.  They don’t want someone in power telling their kids to what god it is appropriate to pray.  And I doubt Protestants want a Catholic official leading students in a prayer to the Virgin Mary, and I can’t help but think that most Southern Baptists would be incredibly uncomfortable if the team coach broke out in Tongues before the big game.  I can come up with these examples all day long.  The only prayers people want their kids praying are prayers to their own god in their own way.  And that’s exactly the reason for not having public school officials lead the children in their charge in prayers in general.

But none of that has anything to do with individuals themselves saying prayers to whatever they want.  On the contrary, that right has been affirmed repeatedly by the courts and defended by that oft-maligned “liberal” group, the ACLU, the same group the report above says claims “it’s against the law for school administrators and teachers to either encourage or discourage [prayer].”  And that is exactly what they say, that school officials cannot encourage or discourage school prayer, but it is that last part that people so often seem to neglect.  There is this strange conviction held by many Christians that they are somehow persecuted, that some secret, nefarious, liberty-hating liberal (funny as that is) cabal within the government is desperate to prevent Christians from worshipping as they wish.  Their evidence of this is that others’ liberties are being protected, namely the liberty to not be coerced into worshipping any particular god at all.  But that is evidence of no such thing, and I am constantly puzzled and dumbfounded as to how anyone who is in control of their mental faculties could ever draw such a conclusion.

A group of Christians praying in public is no victory over anything.  No one is attempting to prevent Christians from practicing their religion.  The only thing at issue has been whether government officials should endorse a particular religion, and this is exemplified here by the idea of teachers leading children, who are told to do as their teachers say, in prayers to entities that may or may not be approved by the children’s parents.  That’s it.  Pray in public all you want.  But when you brag that you’ve somehow overcome prejudice and attempts to revoke your rights because you prayed to Jehovah, you just look foolish and show your own radical misunderstanding of how your own rights are being protected.

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Abortion, Eugenics, and Human Rights

In this post I make the argument that the practice of eugenics is common and generally not morally problematic.  I make this argument in order to motivate another point about the rhetorical dishonesty of anti-abortion activists.  Though I will make the argument that anti-abortion activists are deceptive in their use of the rhetoric of eugenics, I will not make an independent argument for or against the claim that abortion is wrong.  For the purposes of full disclosure, I will state for the record that I do not think that abortion is wrong.  However, my personal view has little bearing on this broader point which is about the conflation of two distinct cases for moral personhood.

Abortion is an ethically murky issue.  If we have a moral obligation to refrain from harming (or killing) other persons, then it is fair to say that other persons have a "right" to our restraint, a de facto "right to life."   For this reason, the debate about abortion hinges on the question of whether human fetuses are persons to whom this obligation, and the corollary right, extends.  Generally speaking, Christians (and many other religious people) believe that fetuses are persons because they believe that the criterion for personhood consists of having a soul and that fetuses become soul-bearing entities at the moment of conception.  But you do not have to believe in a soul to worry that the distinction between a mostly-developed fetus and a recently-born infant is morally arbitrary.  However the criterion for personhood is cashed out, it will have serious implications for the broader moral theory and the political rights and laws that extend from it.

Because the concept of personhood is so closely tied to moral and political rights, some members of the pro-life constituency have allied themselves with activists for certain politically disenfranchised groups, including the mentally and physically disabled.   Both pro-life and disability rights activists share the common belief that some groups of persons have moral rights which they may not be able to defend on their own, and they find common cause in their perception of themselves as defenders of these rights.  For this reason, it is not surprising that many pro-life activists have adopted a rhetoric that appeals to the social-justice values of other activists, rather than religious rhetoric about the sacredness of human life.  For example, some pro-life activists have begun using the politically-loaded term “eugenics” to describe certain common pre-natal tests that give pregnant women information about the health and development of their fetuses.

Pro-life activists argue that the practice of testing fetuses for Downs Syndrome, Tay-Sachs, and other genetic disorders or diseases amounts to eugenics because pregnant women are likely to abort fetuses that are not normal or perfectly healthy.  Of course, on a purely definitional level, this is true.  Any practice that seeks to promote good or improved offspring is eugenic, including the practice of non-random mate selection, in which nearly every reproductively active human participates.  If a pregnant woman could undergo some sort of treatment that could alter the chromosomal mutation of her in utero fetus rather than aborting it, the practice would be equally eugenic; it just wouldn’t involve abortion.

Were there a procedure available to suppress or alter genetic disorders so that a fetus with such a disorder could be born as a normal, healthy baby, most mothers would undergo such a procedure.   For example, if a pregnant mother-to-be learned that she was carrying a fetus with Downs Syndrome, and the doctor gave her the option of a procedure which would guarantee that her fetus was born a “normal” baby or the option of aborting the fetus and trying again, it is likely that the mother would undergo the procedure to make her baby normal.  No such procedure exists, of course, but this hypothetical possibility is relevant because it illuminates the crucial distinction between pro-life activists, and disability rights activists.  Pro-life activists have no reason to oppose a procedure that improves the fitness, health, or life expectancy of an in-utero fetus, and they have a good reason to support such a procedure if it is an alternative to abortion.  They can (and probably should) support eugenics of this type.  Some disability rights activists, on the other hand, do have a reason to oppose a procedure like this (and, in the case of some disabilities, they have), because eugenics of this type poses the threat of extinction for the population they mean to protect.

If no children were born with disabilities, older people with disabilities would, as a matter of course, become a smaller and more politically vulnerable minority, and eventually people with certain disabilities might die out entirely.  Many people without disabilities do not find this a worrisome or problematic possibility, but those who believe that the existence of persons with disabilities adds valuable diversity to society at large do worry about it, just as most of us worry that the extinction of a minority race or ethnicity of people -even through entirely voluntary, non-genocidal, reproductive choices made by individuals- would be bad.  In fact, the endangerment of a minority group of people is the outcome that gives the practice of eugenics a negative moral connotation.

It is disingenuous for pro-life activists to use the word “eugenics” with full awareness of this negative moral connotation to make an argument against abortion.   Virtually everyone practices some form of eugenics when they participate in selective mating with the intended purpose of producing healthy offspring with the traits they value.  Pro-life activists do not care about most of these eugenic practices, and there is nothing in their position that commits them to valuing the continued existence of some vulnerable minority group within society.  The only eugenic practices they want to restrict are those which terminate the life of a fetus, regardless of what kind of life that fetus might grow up to live.

“Who counts as a person?” and “what obligations do we have to other persons?” are two of the fundamental questions of moral theory.  Insofar as any of us care about preserving a minority group’s rights we must be concerned with these questions because people in virtually every minority group have been denied equal rights in society when their status as equal persons under the law was denied.  But our interest in protecting the rights of minority groups composed of those we do count as persons does not commit us to the claim that fetuses are persons who should be afforded the same rights.  Pro-life activists cannot motivate their case by drawing an analogy between the unborn and other historically politically vulnerable minority groups without first making an independent argument that the cases are relevantly similar.  In other words, they need to make the case that fetuses are persons.  Without that, their rhetoric of human rights is empty, and their talk of eugenics is a rhetorical red herring.

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Some Questions about Gun Control

Two recent columns from the New York Times editorial page have me thinking about the bad arguments that otherwise bright people use in defense of gun control. Before I explain why I find these arguments unconvincing, I want to make it clear that gun control is one issue about which I am politically and morally agnostic. I have spent most of my life in small towns and cities in neighborhoods where shootings rarely (if ever) occur, and nobody in my family hunts. For these reasons, I have never been interested in owning a gun, either for self-protection or for sport, nor have I been threatened by other people who have guns. Moreover, while I am inclined to have a laissez-faire attitude about the manufacture and sale of medium-sized objects, I don’t buy into natural rights, and I do not use ‘constitutionality’ as a short-hand for ‘justice’. I do not think the debate about guns starts or stops at the Second Amendment, but I do think that the burden of proof in any debate about regulation or restriction should fall on the more restrictive party.

This week, columnist Bob Herbert and former president Jimmy Carter both wrote op-ed pieces about the crisis of gun violence in the United States. Carter makes an explicit case that gun laws should be more restrictive, and he laments the disproportionate power of the National Rifle Association to lobby on behalf of gun manufacturers under the pretense of defending the Second Amendment. Herbert seems to be making a similar argument, but he does not explicitly mention the NRA or any gun law. Instead, Herbert focuses upon the United States’ violent, “culture soaked in blood,” and, at the end of the column, he chastens us for our blasé attitude toward “gun nuts” who are “committed to keeping the killing easy.”

I share Jimmy Carter’s disdain for the NRA, and I am inclined to think that Herbert is right that culture (though this begs the question, “which culture?”) is at the root of gun violence, but these are really peripheral points to the argument that Carter makes explicit and that Herbert suggests implicitly. Both men cite statistics about gun violence in the United States and then make the case that we need to do something about it. (Carter wants a ban on assault weapons that can penetrate police armor. I’m not exactly sure what Herbert wants, but I’ll infer that it is some type of stricter gun regulation because he worries about “gun nuts free to press their crazy case for more and more guns in more and more hands,” and he concludes that “we should be committed for not stopping them.”) The problem is that the statistical data about gun violence which they use is not a good justification for gun regulation because it tells us nothing about the relationship between gun laws and gun violence.

In order to understand why the justification for gun regulation is problematic, I want to take a brief detour into the world of drugs. As anyone who has ever been to a summer rock festival can attest, laws regulating ownership and use of controlled substances are imperfect deterrents. There are a number of reasons why people openly defy the law by using illegal drugs in public, but chief among them, in my opinion, is the fact that most people who use illegal drugs do not find drug laws to be morally compelling. This may seem like an obvious and redundant point (people who break the law don’t respect the law), but the fact that many people intentionally and unapologetically break a law is, in this case, relevant for the justification of the law itself. This is because legislators make the argument that drug laws are justified because they promote a public good, a desirable outcome in the world. Regulations aimed at producing a certain outcome are not the same as laws that protect moral rights over persons or property because those laws are generally taken to be intrinsically justified. So, the fact that people will break the law is not relevant if the law has some sort of intrinsic justification, but it is relevant if the only justification for having the law is that it will produce an expected outcome. The fact that drug laws have failed to prevent drug use and all of the undesirable consequences associated with drug use is relevant to whether drug laws are justified, and the fact that laws intended to protect the public good sometimes fail to produce the outcome which justifies them is relevant to the gun control debate.

With gun ownership, as with drugs, people break laws put in place to protect the public good, but the issue is clouded by the fact that those who break gun ownership laws (or, at least those who get caught breaking the laws) tend also to break rights laws by violating others’ persons or property. This makes it easy to conflate illegal gun ownership and illegal rights violations, but, as we have seen with drugs, there is a relevant distinction between laws justified because they protect a right* and laws justified because they produce a public good. The former requires a philosophical or legal argument to demonstrate that the right can be claimed. The latter requires an empirical argument based upon relevant data. This is because the justification for a law that produces a public good is an empirical prediction about the outcome of that law in the world.

Gun control advocates such as Carter and Herbert seem to be making exactly this type of empirical prediction when they admonish us to do something about gun violence. In his column, Bob Herbert cites approximately twenty different statistics about gun violence ranging from the number of guns owned privately in the U.S. (about 283 million) to the number of people murdered by guns every year (approximately 17,000) to the annual cost of treating gunshot-related injuries (estimated to be about $2 billion). The obvious inference from Herbert’s list of statistics is that stricter gun control regulations will help to reduce some of these tragically high numbers. This is the justification for gun control. It is supposed to be a public good. But, do the statistics about gun violence that persists under our current system of regulation really give us any reason to believe that gun violence will be reduced if regulations were to be tightened? I can think of at least three reasons to be skeptical about whether stricter gun regulations will produce a significant drop in gun violence, which is the outcome necessary to justify their existence. They are as follows:

First, the cited statistics do not distinguish between violence perpetrated by those who own guns legally and those who do not. If it turns out that most of the people who commit violent crimes do so with illegally purchased, unlicensed weapons (and there is some reason to think that this is the case), it is difficult to make the case that making it harder to get a gun license will have a significant effect on gun violence.

Second, people who are inclined to obey a weapons possession law are unlikely to break a person or property rights law. This is the inverse of the first reason. The people who would obey regulations are not, generally speaking, the people who need to be regulated.

Third, bans and restrictions create black markets, and black markets tend to create more violent crime, not less. There is no better evidence of this law of unintended consequences than the violence of the so-called “war on drugs,” which is at least partially responsible for our current rates of gun violence.

I am interested in other research pertaining to gun violence, and I think it is possible that a compelling empirical case could be made for why certain gun restrictions will reduce gun crime. But it is not enough to cite tragic statistics in order to justify restrictive laws. If we are going to admonish our legislators to work toward a solution to gun violence we must first seriously confront the question of whether that solution will work.

* Here, I completely ignore the question of whether the Second Amendment gives gun ownership its own special status as a right. If gun ownership is a right, then the calculation for weighing it against public welfare becomes trickier still. But, since my focus is on whether gun restrictions actually do serve the public welfare, I am bracketing the issue.

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