November 18, 2004

Less contempt; more mutual ground

Gerald Dworkin: November 18, 2004

A first step in getting our message across to those who disagree with us is to stop expressing contempt for them. Garrison Keillor made a joke recently about denying the right to vote to born-again Christians  (since their citizenship is in Heaven) .. That’s not funny.

A second step is to seek to find common ground despite higher-level fundamental disagreements. Both parties to the abortion debate can agree that it would be preferable if there were fewer abortions. So both parties can agree that better access to birth-control is desirable. Both those who advocate gun-control and those who oppose it can agree that trigger-locks and other safety devices are desirable. Both those who support affirmative action and those who oppose it can agree that primary education has to be improved and supported for minority kids. Both can agree that extensive out-reach, and the most diverse pool for hiring, entrance to law schools, etc are desirable.

Of course, this does not mean that we should be any less firm in our convictions about what is right or wrong on these issues. Nor that we should be any less energetic in trying to convince others that we are right and they are wrong. But it does mean that, at the political level, we stand a chance of building coalitions with those who disagree with us.

December 03, 2004

Domestic Security

Gerald Dworkin: December 3, 2004

So far –rather surprisingly—there has been no discussion of the issue of domestic security. In this post I define that issue rather narrowly—the prevention of further domestic attacks by Al-Qaeda or other jihadist organizations. I believe many  voters chose Bush  on the basis of a belief that the policies pursued by the administration in the prior three years were effective, and would continue to be effective, in deterring and preventing such attacks. And that they did not have a similar confidence that Kerry and his policies would have a similar effectiveness.

 The one firm data point is that there has been no repetition of 9/11 in the three years following that attack. And there have been successful attacks in other parts of the world—notably in Spain.  It, of course, does not follow that the domestic policies of the Administration—particularly those of the Justice Department under Ashcroft—explain the data point. Indeed many of the prosecutions of suspected Al-Qaeda operatives have had to be dropped or plea-bargained down to much less dangerous offenses. But it is a reasonable hypothesis that domestic policies had something to do with the prevention of further attacks.

 Further, the absence of such attacks is surprising. Had I been asked on 9/12 what my guess would be about whether we would be attacked again within the next three years I would have said somewhere between 50% and 75%. I suspect that most people would have also given estimates in that range. Given that for many people, including the so-called “security moms”, the issue of avoidance of such attacks ranks pretty high on their list of desirable ends, the failure to address these concerns could be a significant factor in the Democratic loss. Note, by the way, that the percentage of voters who specified the much more abstract “moral values” as their reason for voting the way they did was actually down from both the 1996 and 2000 elections.

 It is not enough to argue that the invasion of Iraq has contributed, not diminished, to the number of people in the world who are prepared to commit such attacks. This is certainly true and important but, unfortunately, that fact means that it is all the more important that we take domestic measures to ensure that greater willingness does not translate into greater success.

 What needs to be spelled out is how to increase domestic preparedness without the kinds of sacrifices of civil liberties that most of us worry about. This does not mean that there will not be some diminution of the range of freedoms we have enjoyed but it does mean that that we can give reasons for where—and why-- we draw the line even if we are prepared to shift its location somewhat.

December 10, 2004

Is Terrorism Important?

Gerald Dworkin: December 10, 2004

A commentator on my post Domestic Security says: “I don't think scant attention to civil defense sunk the Democrats. Kerry addressed domestic security over and over again. He talked about the absurdity of x-raying airline passengers and not cargo holds. He promised to do something about the huge number of cargo containers that enter our ports without being inspected. He promised to double the number of special forces operatives...”

This is true, but it seems to me that this did not convince enough voters who were concerned about domestic security issues so the question is why not. Well, if I were an undecided voter I would be concerned about things like the following. The New York Times asked delegates at the Democratic and Republican convention about which issues they thought were most important. 2% of Democratic delegates said terrorism; 15% of Republican delegates mentioned terrorism. Only 1% said homeland security was important. Michael Moore went around the country proclaiming there was no terrorist threat. Those who attacked the Patriot Act rarely proposed changes which would be more effective in protecting us against domestic attack, as opposed to changes which would protect us against increased governmental surveillance.  It wasn’t clear that the Democratic activists or Kerry saw domestic security as a central issue comparable, say, to preserving Social Security or to doing something about the health care mess.

 Now it may be that the view that terrorism is not a threat, or it is relatively minor when compared to other threats, is correct. Perhaps we ought to be more worried about a bird-flu pandemic and less worried about another 9/11. If that is the case we ought to be making that argument. But if that view is incorrect, and if the threat of terrorism is a long-range and serious one, then we would be making very different arguments. We would attack the tax cuts for depriving us of funds that ought to be going to the military, or homeland security, or intelligence gathering. We would be arguing for more troops in Afghanistan  where the goverment basically rules only Kabul.

It is one thing to attack the Administration for incompetence, ignorance and arrogance in fighting terrorism. It is another thing to think that the goal itself is mistaken.

December 29, 2004

Posner and some distinctions

Gerald Dworkin: December 29, 2004

David takes on our fellow blogger Richard Posner for his moral skepticism. “The rhetorical punch of [Posner’s] diatribe comes in its penultimate sentence, which is of course a rhetorical question: "One can give reasons for them, but would they be anything more than rationalizations?"  Here Posner concedes that reasons can be given for our moral strictures against infanticide, animal cruelty, and so on; but he then poisons the well for anyone who would attempt to give those reasons, by tainting them wholesale and in advance with the label of "rationalization".  There is then no arguing with Posner, because any argument would give reasons, which would be nothing but more rationalization.”

There may be no arguing with Posner but, in the general spirit of our blog which is to at least try and argue with those with whom we disagree, let me try to interpret his claims in a way which leaves them open, in principle, to reasoned disagreement. It seems to me to be an empirical issue, perhaps a very difficult one to find evidence for, whether the typical reasons, arguments, considerations in favor, we (any of us) give for our moral opinions are the basis on which we hold, believe, accept them. 

We have to distinguish at least between the historical explanation of how we came to hold our moral convictions (which will at least in many cases be of the sort that Posner makes reference to—what our parents believed, who we liked to hang out with, our native culture, etc) and the reasons we now give to justify our beliefs, It can’t be simply a coincidence that most of the medical personnel in Istanbul that I once gave a lecture to about patient autonomy thought there was no such thing—that the family of the patient is the only unit that has the right to make decisions about the patient. 

Now the fact that I originally came to hold a belief because of certain historical considerations is compatible with my continuing to hold it for different, justificatory reasons. I might have reflected on the causes which led me to hold the belief, come to think they are insufficient, but continued to hold them on the basis of what I now believe to be good reasons. The question Posner raises is whether these reasons are (always, mostly) rationalizations, and the true explanation(s) for out continuing to hold these beliefs are the various, non-justificatory causes.

Analogy: I came to believe there were an infinite number of primes because a friend passed on this information to me when I was 11. But he also, I learned later, passed on lots of other things which were not true. But I now actually have a proof of this fact and so hold the belief now on that basis. The claim that my belief is just a rationalization requires showing one of two things. Either that such proofs are not themselves good reasons or that I would have continued to believe the claim even if I had no such proof.

Posner must believe one or both of the these things about moral beliefs. Either there are no good arguments for moral beliefs or that even if there are these do not explain why we hold them. 

Arguing about the first claim is a philosophical task. Nothing in Posner’s post is evidence for the radical claim that there are no better or worse reasons for accepting various moral positions.

Arguing about the second is a very complex empirical issue. Relevant evidence would include things like the following. After having shown someone that the justificatory arguments she presents for some conviction are faulty, and she concedes this, she continues to hold the belief. This is not by any means irrational. I find this to be true of many of my normative beliefs. Of course, I believe (hope) that a better argument can be found. But suppose I never discover one. Do I, must I, abandon the belief?

If people hold their beliefs on the basis or reasons, then reasoning should be the way to get them to change their beliefs. But we know that in many cases getting them to look at things differently, or to have a certain kind of experience, or allaying their anxiety, or appealing to their sympathy, or shaming them, will be the effective lever of change. Of course, one could tell a story linking these to arguments or reasons, but will this story be explanatory?

My own conjecture is that some substantial number of our moral convictions are (in fact) held for the kinds of reasons that Posner refers to. But this is compatible with there being good reasons that could justify holding them or abandoning them.

January 30, 2005

Agreement and Disagreement

Gerald Dworkin: January 30, 2005

The film director Bertolucci once said that one can only disagree with those with whom one basically agrees. This is an interesting idea and I would like to explore what might be meant by this.

 (1) Argument is only useful if there are common premises that both parties share.

 This might seem to be a truism; actually it is false. It is possible to argue ad hominem, i.e. showing an opponent that from premises he accepts, although I do not, one gets a contradiction. Thus he must give up at least one of his views. This, of course, does not show the view he abandons is false. Just that he has no grounds for holding it.

 Even if there are shared premises, and one shows that from those premises an opponent must come to accept my views, this does not show that my views are correct. The common premises may be false.

 What is correct about (1) is that I can only convince (rationally) an opponent of the truth of my view – and the falsity of his—if we share true premises. But while this is necessary it is not sufficient. We must also share methods of argument. Starting from shared true premises but not accepting shared methods of argument will not get us anywhere either.

 (2) Disagreement is only possible with those who share a common world, or a common sensibility, or a common body of knowledge

  I don’t disagree with a two-year old about the merits of inflation-indexed bonds. I don’t disagree with someone who thinks it would be a good idea to introduce a knightly code of honor for a fraternity on my campus. To borrow an example from Posner’s recent blogging, I don’t disagree with someone who believes in God; rather God doesn’t exist for me. He plays no role in my life.

 (3) Moral disagreement is only possible when there are shared responses.

 “But I'm damned if I can say—to someone who's seen House of Flying Daggers and says, "so?"—why that movie is so heart-stoppingly beautiful, any more than I could play you Maria Callas singing "Vogliatemi bene, un bene piccolino" from Madame Butterfly and persevere past an indifferent response.”  Charles Taylor (movie critic for Slate)

  As an exercise for the reader, look at this argument for the immorality of homosexuality.


February 02, 2005

Academic Freedom

Gerald Dworkin: February 2, 2005

Here is the full text of the article that is causing so much controversy regarding Churchill’s invitation to speak at  Hamilton College. So far he has had to resign as chair of the Ethnic Studies department at Boulder and his speech has been cancelled because of “credible threats” of violence at Hamilton.

While some of the language is disgusting  (little Eichmanns for those killed in the WTC) and some of the claims are bizarre (were the secretaries, janitors, fireman, waiters in the restaurants, stock clerks, etc. also part of the “technocratic corps at the very heart of America’s global financial empire"?) the main theses represent moral, political, and empirical claims about the cause of the attack, and its moral character. No faculty member should be dismissed because of such claims. Whether someone who has, and publishes, such views should continue to be retained in an administrative post is a more difficult question. It is plausible that the head of an academic unit represents that unit to the public and, in any case, serves at the discretion of the administration. A similar case occurred a few years ago at the City College of New York where Leonard Jeffries, the Chair of Black Studies, was removed from his position for, among other things, calling a fellow professor the “head Jew at City  College".   A Federal Court of Appeals ruled that the dismissal was legitimate, which doesn’t settle the issue of whether it should have been done. Being a free speech fanatic I will hold my nose and defend Churchill's right to speak at  Hamilton (if there are threats of violence then protect the speaker), and against any attempts to dismiss him from his academic position.

February 08, 2005

Spreading Liberty

Gerald Dworkin: February 8, 2005

1)  Ward Churchill has had a talk on his own campus cancelled because of threats of violence. (Update:  The University reversed its position and Churchill spoke the next day.  Another piece of good news: The University of California backed down from its position that a blogger with the website "darksideofucsb" could be prosecuted for using " UCSB" in the url!)
2)  The Chancellor of the University of Colorado is setting up an internal review committee to determine if Churchill should lose his tenured position.
3)  An economist at the University of Nevada, Los Vegas is under attack for asserting in a classroom that homosexuals tend to plan less for the future than heterosexuals ( partly because childless couples tend to plan less than those with children).
4) An item in the New York Times today reports that some firms are firing employees for smoking at home.
Perhaps we ought to start spreading liberty and freedom here at home.

February 12, 2005

Deja Vu all over again

Gerald Dworkin: February 12, 2005

I highly recommend, both as entertaining and informative, Corrupting the Youth by James Franklin. It is a history of philosophy in Australia. In light of recent developments it is interesting to read of the attacks on John Anderson who was a highly influential and (in his youth) radical Professor of Philosophy at SydneyUniversity. He attacked traditional religion, the idea of King and Country and said that war memorials were idols. 

He was attacked on the floor of the New South Wales Parliament in these terms: “…when a man stands up and traduces in unbridled terms institutions that are revered, and that appeal to the highest sentiments and the noblest motives in the community, he transgresses the reasonable bounds of propriety and all the canons of decent conduct.”

 The University Senate censured Andersonfor using “expressions that transgress all proper limits” and required him to abstain from such utterances in the future. Needless to say he did nothing of the sort and upon entering his logic class to sustained applause said, “I will not insult the intelligence of this class by asking it to put the Senate’s resolution into logical form.”

Update:  Some readers have asked me where to get this book.  I don't know whether it is on sale in the US. It is not on Amazon for example.  It was published in Sydney by Macleay Press.  Your best bet is a good university library.

February 24, 2005

Liberals, Conservatives and Values

Gerald Dworkin: February 24, 2005

Jonathan Chait has an interesting piece in the current New Republic

The relevant part for my discussion is the following.

…conservatism, unlike liberalism, overlays a deeper set of philosophical principles. Conservatives believe that big government impinges upon freedom. They may also believe that big government imposes large costs on the economy. But, for a true conservative, whatever ends they think smaller government may bring about--greater prosperity, economic mobility for the non-rich--are almost beside the point. As Milton Friedman wrote, "[F]reedom in economic arrangements is itself a component of freedom broadly understood, so economic freedom is an end in itself."

We're accustomed to thinking of liberalism and conservatism as parallel ideologies, with conservatives preferring less government and liberals preferring more. The equivalency breaks down, though, when you consider that liberals never claim that increasing the size of government is an end in itself. Liberals only support larger government if they have some reason to believe that it will lead to material improvement in people's lives. Conservatives also want material improvement in people's lives, of course, but proving that their policies can produce such an outcome is a luxury, not a necessity.

Even if we confine our attention to the question of the optimum size of the government the issue is more complicated than Chait makes it out to be.  First, there is an issue of what is meant by the size of government, i.e. government expenditures, number of government regulations, nature of the regulations (administrative, criminal, civil), proportion of GDP collected by the government, etc. Second, liberals may also view government regulation as restrictive of freedom, and value freedom intrinsically. They may not view taxation as an interference with freedom –as some of the recent discussion of “it’s my money” and taxation shows. But they may.

Finally, if the issue is defined as simply size of government then, of course, for liberals that is not an end in itself. But if the issue is defined as something like the following—is it better that the poor be helped by private charity, or by contractual arrangements (self-insurance against poverty in retirement) , rather than collectively financed payments? —then this is not simply a matter of which system will do the job more efficiently. Liberals may believe that a society which collectively determines to provide this form of security is better (for that reason) than one which leaves it to individual charity or the prudence of its members.  In a similar fashion, some believe that it is better that blood be collected from volunteers rather than paid for—quite independently of whether such a blood supply is safer. All these judgments can be questioned. But one can also question whether freedom should be valued for its own sake. And Chait is wrong when he says “This preference for removing power from Washington is simply something that either you accept or you don’t.” It is harder to talk about what things should be regarded as ends in themselves rather than as means to accepted ends. But it can be done.


March 13, 2005

How Not to do Investigative Reporting

Gerald Dworkin: March 13, 2005

There is an extremely interesting document available here.  It is the independent investigation of the CBS handling of four documents relating to President Bush’s service in the Texas Air National Guard. The report was commissioned by CBS and headed by Richard Thornburgh, former US Attorney General.  It is 234 pages in length, so one is unlikely to read it in its entirety, but even spending half and hour skipping around in it is fascinating and rewarding.

 This is a thorough investigation of how CBS pursued this story, how it vetted the authenticity of the documents, and how it responded when the blogosphere began to criticize the story within hours of its broadcast. The lessons that I have drawn from it are many and various. I give only my conclusions, and readers will have to determine from reading the document whether they agree or not.

 1) This is a case-book example of how not to do an investigative report. The producers and reporters of this story were, at the least, negligent at every step in the investigation. They failed to consider the biases of their witnesses. They failed to authenticate the documents. They ignored considerable evidence that the documents were not authentic. They aired misleading excerpts from on-camera interviews. They misrepresented the views of their witnesses in voice-over commentaries. They ignored testimony that contradicted their claims. They failed to even contact the supposed source of the documents.

 2) The major source of these failures was the competitive pressure to be the first to broadcast the story. A number of print sources were buzzing around this story and it was clear that people were willing to sacrifice accuracy for the “scoop.”

 3)  Given that these were highly-accomplished professionals—the lead producer was one of the first to expose the Abu Ghraib scandal—there had to be a large element of self-deception to allow for the mistakes in (1). They had to convince themselves, against considerable  evidence, about such things as the qualifications of the document examines they used, what the examiners actually said, how reliable the person who handed over the documents was, whether they could explain away the various typographical criticisms of the document that the bloggers came up with immediately, etc. All this of course was made easier by the immense time pressures to publish the story first.

 4) The CBS response to the story in the two weeks after the criticisms emerged was as immoral as the story itself. Statements were issued in justification of the authenticity of the documents that were as misleading as the original story. Such misleading comments on the story continue to this day. Dan Rather on a recent David Letterman program said that the Thornburgh report did not state that the documents were inauthentic. It is true that the report says that it “was not able to reach a definitive conclusion as to the authenticity of the [Killian} documents.” But no sane person can read the many pages devoted to the “substantial questions regarding the authenticity of the [Killian} documents” without coming to the conclusion that it is overwhelmingly likely that they are not authentic.

 5) I do not believe any fair-minded reader could deny that President Bush is owed an apology by CBS news for the disgraceful airing of this story. It is particularly disgraceful that the story was aired in the closing months of the presidential campaign.

 6) The power of the internet to tap the specialized knowledge of hundreds of ordinary people and bring it to the attention of a wide number of readers is astounding. Some people knew about typewriters, some people knew about kinds of type, some people knew about what forms of abbreviation were in common use in the Texas ANG in 1972, some people knew the details about the chain of command, some people knew that one of the persons who was supposed to be exercising influence was retired. Much of this emerged with 12 hours of the story being broadcast!

 7) The Bush administration has been legitimately criticized for its use of prepackaged phony news stories (See Sunday New York Times for a lengthy story), and its hiring of commentators to spread its message under the guise of independent commentary. We should be no less critical of reporting  that is supposedly favorable to liberal causes.