Sunday, April 25, 2004

Karen Hughes Brings Philosoraptor Out of Semi-Retirement
You Know, I Just Don't Like That Woman

The folks over at d-Kos bust Karen Hughes for the following bit of sophistry:

"I think that after September 11, the American people are valuing life more and we need policies to value the dignity and worth of every life," she said. "President Bush has worked to say, let's be reasonable, let's work to value life, let's reduce the number of abortions, let's increase adoptions. And I think those are the kinds of policies the American people can support, particularly at a time when we're facing an enemy and, really, the fundamental issue between us and the terror network we fight is that we value every life."

I think—and I think that most of us who study philosophy think—that the abortion question is harder than most activists (right and left) think it is. This is one of the controversies I tend to avoid because both sides can get so irrational so quickly. But this quote from Karen Hughes does annoy me—perhaps mostly because Karen Hughes annoys me so much. Self-doubting liberal that I am, I worry that I’ve let liberals get away with saying equally slippery things about the issue without calling them on it. But I’m going to call her on this anyway.

Now, one could say what Hughes says here with perfect sincerity. I do not agree that aborting a fetus is equivalent to murdering a human being, but many intelligent people do think this of course. I expect you realize that I’m not going to try to settle that controversy here. Now, I assert that Hughes is not sincere about this claim, though that, of course, is not what's primarily wrong with it. It’s clear that it is wrong for terrorists to murder innocent people; it is not clear, however, whether it is wrong to abort a fetus. Consequently the analogy is a contentious one at best, intended to pretend that a complex and unclear moral issue is relevantly similar to a simple and clear one. (That's what "moral clarity" seems to amount to in this administration, after all...)

The difference between us and the terrorists is, of course, not that they hold abortions to be morally permissible and we do not. On the contrary, most of us hold at least some abortions to be morally permissible, whereas I imagine that bin Laden and his ilk are inclined to disagree—a position much closer to Mr. Bush’s and Ms. Hughes’s. But I’m going to end this line of inquiry right now lest my own argument become as sophistical as Hughes’s.

What really ticks me off about Hughes’s central claim is that it is ambiguous in just the way necessary to blur the important issues. She claims that “the fundamental issue between us and the terror network we fight is that we value every life.” Now this might mean that (a) we value the life of every biologically human thing, or it might mean that (b) we value the life of every person. (Theoretically it could mean that we value the life of every living thing, including plants and animals, but it’s obvious that that isn’t what she means, since I’m sure she has no sympathy for such a position.) But (a) and (b) are inequivalent as I’m sure you realize. Not every biologically human thing is a person, and it is fairly certain that not every person is a biologically human thing. It’s not completely clear what it is to be a person, but ordinarily persons are thought of as sentient, self-conscious, rational and autonomous beings. God and intelligent aliens, if they exist, are persons though they are not biologically human things. Persons (I assert, blatantly ignoring well-known alternative positions) have intrinsic value. Although excuses might theoretically be made for both of them, Hitler and bin Laden do not seem to understand this. But no one thinks that every living biologically human thing is intrinsically valuable. My most recently-produced red blood cell, for example, is a living, biologically human thing, but it isn’t intrinsically valuable (though it is instrumentally valuable in virtue of its role in keeping me alive). And were I, Heaven forbid, to slip into an irreversible vegetative state, my life, such as it would be, would no longer be valuable. What is valuable about me is my personhood—my sentience, autonomy, rationality, etc.--not my biological life, nor my human life biologically construed. Not, that is, my respiring and metabolizing.

But Ms. Hughes intentionally blurs this distinction. Many of us—on perfectly defensible grounds—do not believe that very early-term fetuses are persons, and, consequently, we do not believe that their lives are intrinsically valuable. We believe the life of every person is valuable, but we do not believe that, say, eight-cell fetuses are persons. Bin Laden presumably recognizes the personhood of his victims and elects to kill them anyway. Hughes’s claim is true only if by ‘life’ she means the life of a person—that is, if she means that the difference between us and the terrorists is that we (theoretically, at any rate) believe that the life of every person is intrinsically valuable. But her attempt to analogize terrorism to abortion can only succeed if by ‘life’ she means something like brute biological life—metabolizing and respiring even without sentience etc. So her terrorism-abortion analogy only works if she is asserting that the difference between us and the terrorists is that (i) we hold metabolizing and respiring to be valuable even when they are unrelated to sustaining a mind, whereas (ii) the terrorists disagree. Almost none of us think any such thing, however. Which is good since, if we did, the terrorists would already have won. This particular philosophical argument, anyway.

Tuesday, April 13, 2004

Not a Christian Nation:
John Adams v. Judge Roy Moore & co.

"As the second president of the United States, Adams signed into law the Treaty of Tripoli (1797), which declares that "the government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion" and is in no way an enemy to Muslims. On this basis "it is declared... that no pretext arising from religious opinion shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries." Further, "The United States is not a Christian nation any more than it is a Jewish or a Mohammedan nation." It was carried unanimously by the Senate." ( my emphasis)

from Doubt: A History, by Jennifer M. Hecht, p.361

Thursday, April 08, 2004

Blogging will be light, Air America, Condi's Story Corner

1. Blogging will probably be light until the semester is over (i.e. until the second week in May), though I hope not as light as this last week...

2. I heard about 5 minutes of Air America on (I think) its first day. Not impressive. No, not impressive at all. Pretty pathetic, actually. I mean, I'm optimistic given how good Franken's book was, but what I heard was bad. I had to turn it off after about...well, 5 minutes I guess that would be. Their biggest mistake was--and this is obviously a doozy--having Michael Moore on as a guest...and on the first day, even. Ugh. Not a smart move. That guy's awful. He strikes me as being about as serious and intellectually honest as, oh, say Rush Limbaugh. Not as big a blowhard, but cut from more-or-less the same cloth. The only notable thing I heard went like this: They begged for callers for awhile, then they finally got one, who turned out to be a really pleasant apparent conservative, who apologized for giving them a toughish comment on their first day, but noted that even according to the most pessimistic estimates about Iraqi civilian casualties, we may very well have saved more people than we killed given how many were dying under the sanctions. Then Moore stammered out some non-sequitorial hogwash, and they moved on. I can't even remember what Moore said, in part because it made absolutely no sense. An inauspicious beginning, sadly. But, as I said, after that I turned it off out of embarrassment, so it may have gotten better. But these guys need to distinguish themselves from the Limbaughs of the world not just by adopting a more reasonable-sounding tone of voice, but by being more reasonable. They should have noted that Reasonable Conservative had an interesting point, promised to check out the numbers, and comitted themselves to having a serious discussion of the point on the air in the near future. Sadly, as I said, they elected just to bullshit about it instead. Or, rather, Moore did, and Franken tacitly gave his consent.

3. Tuned in to Condi's Story Corner today between classes...tried to disengage my cynicism drive before tuning in...but only got to hear about 10 minutes, during which time the only notable thing she said was utter sophistry. On the general topic why the heck didn't you guys do something to stop 9/11, she said--this is almost a quote but isn't--the real question isn't why we, in our 200-some-odd days in office, didn't do something to stop it; the real question is why wasn't more done before we got into office. No, see, DOCTOR Rice, that isn't the real question at all. That's a question, of course, but there is no sense in which it is the real one.

It's pathetic that these people can't take responsibility for their own failures and are still trying to blame Clinton for everything bad in the world. It's important to know whether the Clinton administration lived up to its responsibilities, but, see, that administration is over, so questions about its actions are primarily (as they say) academic. The real questions in this case are questions the answers to which can have concrete practical consequences for the future of this country. For example, questions that bear on the issue of whether this administration deserves another term in office. Those are the real questions.

These people deserve to be kicked out of office--even ignoring all other reasons--because they are so obviously unhinged about Clinton. Anyone that unhinged about anything should not control the Presidency. I suppose we're all tired of discussing how bizarre it is that these people came into power vowing to "restore" honor to the White House (falsely presupposing, of course, that honor had been stripped from it)...and proclaiming a new "era of responsibility"...only to refuse to take responsibility for anything, reflexively blame Clinton for everything, and behave in the most dishonorable manner of any administration since Nixon. So, let's make sure we've got this straight: consensual oral sex between adults in the Oval Office--dishonorable; massive, sustained campaign of blatant lies and distortions to trick the country into a probably-ill-advised war: honorable. Does anyone, off the top of his head, know what planet these people come from? Originally, I mean?

See, one of the most alarming things about all this is that it's so bad that it's almost not even worth mentioning anymore...

[That last sentence doesn't make any sense. Sorry. (Don't blog tired...don't blog tired...) It was supposed to say something like this: "One of the most alarming things about all this is that their sophistries have become so common that they are almost not even worth mentioning anymore."]

Thursday, April 01, 2004

All Clarke, All The Time

via Statisticasaurus Rex, two Clarke-relevant pieces:

1. Terry Neal, "Credibility Questions Could Boomerang on Bush" from the WaPo


2. Fred Kaplan, "The Dogs That Didn't Bark," from Slate.