Friday, September 30, 2005

College prep?!

Look at this.

thought experiments: not intended for public use

Daniel sent this story to me this morning with the subject line "Why philosophers could never be politicians..." This is so very hilarious to me. I keep thinking the politician's responses make them sound like total idiots--the further you read the more absurd it gets.

scaling up: the government on behalf of society

1. The unspoken assumption that Daniel tries to bring to light and confront in his opinion piece is that governments are a morally justifiable way to get people to do good things and to keep them from doing bad things. He frames the government as a political entity of force and coercion. To make his point Daniel scales down the concept of taxation for the poor to a single interpersonal relationship.

Someone might argue that to scale moral issues up or down changes the content of the dilemma (e.g., two people fighting is a different moral issue than the justification of two armies going to war). Wacome wonders if this belief is simply arbitrary.

But consider murder, the unjustified taking of someone's life. If one woman kills another woman, it's murder. But if the murderer is put onto trial and is sentenced to death, we consider this a different sort of act than murder. Hopefully even someone who thinks that governments unjustly kill when they enforce a death penalty, sees this act as somehow having more reasons and more legitimacy within society--at least in general people do seem to give the government more legitimacy in these matters, in a way that cannot be scaled up or down.

That is because, at least in a republic, we see the government not only as a political entity (dealing with the military, borders, diplomacy) but also as a speaker for society. We must give reasons to society for our behavior and we all work together to decide what it is our society stands for. The government works as a service to society. So to give one's money over to the government is not the same as giving one's money to any stranger on the street, it is to give it to the greater good of society. And, seeing that all the property we do have comes from society, it is really giving back a little to society via the government for its betterment.

Exactly how this is done is a different question and there perhaps are better ways to work toward an equal and fair society. Tax exemption is a good way of letting people choose where they put their money instead of just letting it go to some general fund; in this way society promotes charity and philanthropy, especially among the very wealthy.

2. Nevertheless, I do agree that society cannot make people do the right things for the right reasons, especially live according to the gospel. There is a force behind society that makes sure people act certain ways but there are many 'forces' around us that shape us and direct us.

In one way of looking at things, I was forced to learn English as a child, I was forced to live in a family, I was forced to walk on two legs, I was forced to live as an American citizen. Well, yes, forces do impose themselves on us continually but we do not think that all force is inherently bad, right? The forces of nature have shaped our entire species but we don't think that it would've been better if we had been radically free immaterial souls. So why then, as members of a society, do we think that society is bad for forcing us to abide by rules that lead to the betterment of all its members? We should not be upset that we might have to give reasons for breaking the rules of society and that, while in our own minds giving our money to support a war may be morally wrong, we can still say that if society throws us into jail for tax evasion society is still acting fairly and properly.

[I'd like to make a note that these comments are for the sake of argument, worthy to be considered, but not my own position.]

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Opinion Piece: The government is not the kingdom of God

Here is my opinion piece for those who may not have read it in the Beacon.

The goverment is not the kingdom of God

Think about the following situation: Suppose I tell my wealthy neighbor that I’ve been reading Hosea, and I think he should give more money to the poor. Then, I get together a bunch of neighbors, and we go over to the rich man’s house with rifles and shotguns. We demand that he give us a third of his income to give to a poor family down the street—and he does.

Should either the posse of neighbors or the rich man be credited with Christian charity? Hardly. The group of neighbors took the money using the threat of violence, and the rich man gave his money only because he was threatened . The neighbors may have fed and clothed the poor, but they have done so by using violence—a means contrary to the Gospel.

This situation is no different from the liberal tax policy alluded to by last Friday’s chapel speaker Dr. George DeVries. He thinks Christians should be outraged that “our government cuts taxes on the very rich and pays for it with smaller appropriations for the very needy,” implying that Christians should expect the goverment to take money from the rich to give to the poor.

He fails to realize, however, that such a “progressive” tax system relies on physical violence. If you have any doubts about this, try not paying taxes for a year. Within weeks, the government will arrest you, confiscate your house and sell enough of your possessions to pay the tax. This despite the fact that you may object to the government using your money to fund an unjust war or stem cell research.

While Jesus severely criticized the rich, he never used violent coercion to care for the needy. He called the rich young ruler to sell his possessions and give the money to the poor. But when the man refused, Jesus didn’t tell his disciples to use weapons to take the man’s belongings.

Think about another example: Suppose I find out that my neighbor is not only rich, but also a glutton. Appalled that he is committing such a blatant sin, I go over to his house with my posse of neighbors and we confiscate his Snickers bars, ice cream and Little Debbies, and tell him that we’ll regularly check in to make sure he eats right.

Like the neighbors in this second story, many conservative Christians want to use coercion to serve the Gospel by discouraging people from doing bad things, even if those “sins” aren’t directly hurting anyone else. Conservatives are intent, for example, on using the federal government to stop gay marriage, even though gay couples aren’t directly harming anyone else by living together. Such actions are supposedly justified because they make society more moral.
Jesus, however, never using the coercion of laws to stop sin. When Jesus met the women caught in adultery, he didn’t try to pass a law against unfaithfulness (in fact, he stopped her from legally being stoned). Instead, he told her sins were forgiven and asked her to voluntarily leave her life of sin.

Jesus refused to become a political leader or use force to advance his Kingdom. Almost everyone expected Him to use His power to fix the political problems in Israel, to remove the oppression and injustice of the Romans or to clean up the corruption of the Jewish Sanhedrin. Instead, Jesus cared for individual people, told parables and died a humiliating, powerless death. Jesus showed that the Kingdom of God isn’t about forcing other people to do the right thing, it’s about repenting of your own sin, believing in the grace of God, and convincing others to do so as well—but not through the use of political force.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Scaling Up?

Berntson’s editorial (NWC Beacon, 9-16-05) points out that social programs advocated on both the political left and right, and endorsed by many Christians as means to realizing the kingdom of God, violate principles of common sense morality. E.g., it would be morally wrong if, upon reading the prophet Hosea, I gathered an armed group to expropriate my neighbor’s wealth for the worthy purpose of aiding the poor, and tax-funded welfare programs are morally equivalent to this. But if an act is morally wrong, that’s at least prima facie reason to think it’s not in accord with the Christian gospel. It’s worth noting that this type of intuition need not emanate from an anarchist or libertarian perspective; it underlies Peter Singer’s well-known assertion that we are morally wrong to refrain from transferring a significant portion of our wealth to rescue desperate persons in the underdeveloped world.

The moral critiques grounded in these moral intuitions are generally resisted by those who at least implicitly hold that moral principles applicable to small scale, interpersonal interactions do not necessarily apply to matters of public policy. On this view, taxing to fund welfare programs is not relevantly similar to robbing one neighbor to help another, and failing to contribute to Oxfam in ways that significantly alter one’s affluent lifestyle is not relevantly similar to letting a child drown rather than getting my Armani suit wet.

My question is whether the resistance to scaling up one’s moral principles is arbitrary, or is there a principled difference between right and wrong depending on scale of application.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

A few things you might want to look at...

Jim Holt's review essay of Frankfurt et al on truth and b.s.

A piece from the Chronicle on why professors are the way they are

Action Philosophers!

The Socratic vocare?

I was attached to this city by the god -- though it seems a ridiculous thing to say -- as upon a great and noble horse which was somewhat sluggish because of its size and needed to be stirred up by a kind of gadfly. It is to fulfill some such function that I believe the god has placed me in the city. I never cease to rouse each and every one of you, to persuade and reproach you all day long and everywhere I find myself in your company (Socrates, in Plato's Apology 30a-31a).


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