Monday, March 31, 2008

How the World Works

"It is no easy task to be good. ... Anyone can get angry -- that is easy -- or give or spend money; but to do this to the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, with the right motive, and in the right way, that is not for everyone, nor is it easy; wherefore goodness is both rare and laudable and noble."
-- Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book II, Chapter 9.
Why are moral and political issues so difficult? Why isn't it easy to find answers to them that everyone can agree on?

Predicting the Future

One of the main sources of political disagreement -- and political incivility -- is disagreement about the way the world works. How will people behave if we pass a certain law? What will happen to the economy? Will incomes go up? Will unemployment go down? What will happen if we go to war? Will we win or lose? How many soldiers or civilians will die?

The empirical world -- the world we live in, observe and experience through sight and sound, etc. -- is hard to predict. Science has made great progress in studying the world and understanding the cause-effect relationships that govern it. But there is still an awful lot that we don't know about how the world -– and the people in it –- behave. (That is, there is a lot of vagueness in our knowledge of the empirical world.)

This creates a real problem when we face moral or political choices, because one of the things we take into account in order to make those choices is their consequences. Since we don't understand all the cause-effect relationships in the world, we don't necessarily know the consequences that different actions will have. Being unable to accurately predict the consequences of our actions makes it tough to figure out which action is the right one.

This is particularly apparent when we try to predict the behavior of people. It’s bad enough that we can’t always accurately predict earthquakes, chemical interactions, the weather, bee attacks, meteorites and milk in the refrigerator. We also have trouble predicting the behavior of parents, children, spouses, football coaches and little sisters. Even predicting the behavior of large groups of people –- elections, stock markets, sports teams –- is also difficult.

The way to fix this ignorance is with experiments, just like we do in physics, chemistry, and biology: Set up two identical sets of circumstances with only one difference between them so that you can isolate that factor from everything else. (In other words, you set up a control group.) Then you watch the two scenarios run and you find out what effect that one factor has.

But it's hard to run experiments (along with control groups) when it comes to people. It's not clear how you could ethically set up, say, military experiments to see which battle tactic is more effective. And economic experiments, where you test the effect of different tax rates or social spending, are very impractical. It's just not possible to set up two large, identical economies, and then give one of them a different tax rate to see what difference it makes.

Without experimental data, we only have historical data to look at. But such data is far from perfect. For instance, you can compare the histories of economies with higher tax rates to the histories of economies with lower tax rates, but these economies will differ in lots of ways other than tax rates, which makes it difficult to know how much differences in their performance is due to a difference in tax rates rather than a difference in something else. So it's hard to predict what effect a tax rate (or some other economic policy) will have if you implement it.

Figuring Out the Past

Along with the future, the past is also often a mystery. For instance, police investigators regularly face questions such as: Was a certain person murdered, or did they die of natural causes? If they were murdered, who was the murderer? And courts routinely face similar questions: Was this injured person harmed by someone else’s negligence or ill-will (which would make them eligible for compensation)? Or were they harmed by their own misbehavior (in which case they don’t deserve compensation)?

In order to make the right decision, we often need to know certain facts about the past. If those facts are unclear, then it's also unclear what the right thing to do is.

Humility and Certainty

Despite all this uncertainty, people in politics are incredibly confident in their knowledge of how the world works. The seem to know so clearly that their policies are right and will have good consequences that they feel justified in calling people who disagree with those policies names and deriding them. (After all, if it's so obvious that these policies are right, you'd have to be evil or stupid to disagree with them.)

And yet, these same people frequently avoid making specific, measurable predictions about the future. They'll say their policies will make things "better", but they're loathe to provide an actual number and tell us, say, how high the unemployment rate will be a year after their policies are enacted. Probably because they know there's a good chance they'd be wrong, right? (On the off chance a politician does give a numerical prediction, they often regret it: see Christina Romer's 2009 unemployment chart.)

After all, try predicting sporting events, elections, overseas political upheavals, wars, technological innovation, whether a relationship will last longer than a year, whether someone will like your outfit, or what the next fad among teenagers will be. If it were easy to predict these things, you could become a billionaire in no time.

But it's not easy. It's fantastically difficult. So, the next time you're compelled (or someone you know is compelled) to denounce someone for supporting "failed policies", think carefully about what evidence there is to back up what you're saying. Do you have experimental data? Is your evidence as iron-clad as, say, the evidence that citric acid cures scurvy? (This was discovered by James Lind in one of the first clinical trials -- i.e., medical experiments -- in the 18th century.)

If not, maybe it would pay to demonstrate some humility before resorting to insults (or at least try to run some experiments, first). It's bad enough that we live in a world that's hard to predict, there's no point making things worse by antagonizing people who disagree with us.


Below are examples of empirical uncertainties relating to some perennial moral issues:

Aiding the needy
  • Is providing aid directly –- for example, giving away food, blankets, shelter and so forth –- a more effective way to reduce need than giving some form of currency –- for example, cash or food stamps?
  • What sort of aid helps most in the short-term? What sort of aid helps most in the long-term?
  • What sort of aid will result in the recipient continuing to be dependent on others?
  • What sort of aid will result in the recipient being self-sufficient in the future, and no longer needing aid (i.e., “give a man a fish, you feed him for a day –- teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime”)?
  • What sort of aid will result in the recipient being so prosperous that they will be in a position to help others who are needy?
  • What kind of aid is most likely to be abused or used fraudulently (for example, traded for drugs)? What kind of aid reaches the people who need it most, rather than being misused by people who aren't in need?

  • Will this person or candidate fulfill their promises? Have they kept their promises in the past?
  • Have they lied in the past? Are they lying to us now? Will they lie to us in the future?

Climate Change and Global Warming
  • What is the current direction of climate change? Is Earth warming?
  • Did humans cause global warming, and do they have the power to reverse it?
  • What are the potential consequences of global warming? How much would sea levels rise? How much damage would be caused? What are the costs and benefits of adapting to global warming compared to the costs and benefits of reversing global warming?

Illegal immigration
  • What immigration policies will best prevent terrorists or criminals from entering the country?
  • What immigration policies will best fill the labor needs of the country?
  • What policies provide incentives or disincentives for people to break the law?

  • What punishments will deter people from committing crimes?
  • What punishments will prevent people who have committed crimes from committing further crimes in the future?
  • What punishments are the most cost effective, giving the best results for the least money?
  • What punishments do the best job of educating wrongdoers -– for example, a misbehaving child, or a car thief, or a domestic abuser –- about what they have done wrong, and perhaps getting them to follow the rules in the future?

Taxes and Spending
  • How much money will be needed to pay for the spending programs the government has committed to?
  • What tax policies will bring in the revenue needed to pay for government spending?
  • What effects will the tax policy have on unemployment, individual incomes and savings, economic growth, consumer spending, income and wealth disparity, debt, investment?

Use of Coercion

  • Will employing economic and political sanctions against someone or some country –- for example, the current regimes in North Korea, China, Cuba, Iran; or past regimes in Nazi Germany, South Africa under apartheid, Iraq under Saddam Hussein –- decrease their bad behavior? Or will it create resentment and inspire violent defiance?
  • Will threatening the use of force against someone or some country decrease their bad behavior and instill order? Or will it create resentment and inspire violent defiance?
  • Will using force against someone or going to war with some country decrease their bad behavior and instill order? Or will it create resentment and inspire violent defiance?

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Gore Demeans Global Warming Skeptics "A Little Bit"

In footage of an interview with 60 Minutes correspondent Lesley Stahl (March 27, 2008, see story and video), former Vice President Al Gore disparaged global warming skeptics:
STAHL: You're launching this big ad campaign at a time when there's still a lot of skepticism about whether global warming is man-made.
GORE: I don't think there's a lot.
STAHL: Well, there's pretty impressive people like the vice president.
GORE: Well.
STAHL: He said we don't know what causes it.
GORE: You're talking about Dick Cheney.
STAHL: Yeah. But others, and they say, 'Well we don't know what causes it and why spend all this money 'til we really REALLY know?'
GORE: I think that those people are in such a tiny, tiny minority now with their point of view. They're almost like the ones who still believe that the moon landing was staged in a movie lot in Arizona and those who believe the Earth is flat. That demeans them a little bit, but it's not that far off.
By asserting that global warming skeptics deserve to be disparaged in the same way as flat-earthers, Gore is essentially calling them ignorant, which is a form of name-calling.

If Gore believes that scientific evidence proves that Earth is warming, and that humans caused it (and that they can reverse it, which is another matter altogether), then he should say so and cite the evidence.

But to go on to say that anyone who disagrees deserves to be disparaged is uncalled for.

Governor of Puerto Rico Goes Ad Hominem

The governor of Puerto Rico, Anibal Acevedo Vila (D), March 27, 2008, made this comment in a statement responding to news that he and 12 other people were being charged with campaign finance violations:
"This action, which is politically motivated, is the result of three years of leaks, rumors and spectacle designed to harm me. ... I want to assure the people of Puerto Rico that I have never solicited or accepted a donation in exchange for a government contract, have never permitted misuse of funds or acted illegally. I know several of the accused very well and am convinced that they have never accepted a bribe or stolen a cent. If anyone did it, I would be the first to request that they be charged. Since the federal authorities know this is true, they have decided to extend their jurisdiction and distort the truth."
Like most politicians who are denying some accusation or other, Acevedo isn't content to just stick to the facts at issue. Instead, he goes on to question the motivations of his accusers by calling the charges "politically motivated," which is just an attempt to argue that the charges against him are false because those making them have bad intentions. So, yet again, we have a politician trying to defend himself by using ad hominem reasoning.

If the accusations made against Acevedo are, in fact, false as he says they are, then that should be enough to refute them. Why go on to bring up the motivations of your accusers, when motivations don't prove or disprove the truth or falsity of accusations?

A Study in Mistrust

Should research on lung cancer be trusted if it is funded by a tobacco company?

This is the question raised by a recent article in the New York Times (Cigarette Company Paid for Lung Cancer Study, March 26, 2008). The article notes a study which concluded that CT (computer tomography) scans could significantly decrease lung cancer deaths. The revelation the study was largely funded by money from tobacco companies has resulted in widespread skepticism about its results.

But is that a fair conclusion? The skeptics are arguing something like this: "The tobacco companies funded it, which creates a conflict of interests. The company funding the study is going to want a result that's in their favor. Therefore, the results are tainted, and cannot be trusted."

But isn't it ad hominem reasoning to say that, because of somebody's bad or selfish intentions, what they say cannot be trusted?

In defense of this reasoning, the article does note that:

Corporate financing can have subtle effects on research and lead to unconscious bias. Studies have shown that sponsored research tends to reach conclusions that favor the sponsor, which is why disclosure is encouraged.

But that's different from saying corporate-financed research is never accurate, or even that it's more often false than accurate. The article doesn't say what percentage of corporate-financed is flawed to the point of being worthless, or HOW MUCH more likely corporate-financed research is to be flawed than research funded by other means.

We and the media spend a lot of time focusing on conflicts of interest, full disclosure, and "following the money". But how much of this focus is truly valuable, and how much of it is just ad hominem?

Should we ignore any corporate-funded research that makes corporations look good?

Should we ignore any government-funded research that makes government look good?

Should we ignore any scientific research that makes scientists look good?

Is this kind of mistrust always reasonable? Or just sometimes? If so, how do we determine the difference between justified suspicion and ad hominem argument?

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Chinese Government Goes Ad Hominem

The Chinese government March 23, 2008, responded to criticisms of it's handling of the March 2008 riots in Tibet made by Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi:
" 'Human rights police' like Pelosi are habitually bad tempered and ungenerous when it comes to China, refusing to check their facts and find out the truth of the case ... Her views are like so many other politicians and western media. Beneath the double standards lies their intention to serve the interest groups behind them, who want to contain or smear China." (China blasts Dalai Lama, Pelosi on Tibet, AP, Mar 23, 2008)
The Chinese government is trying to dismiss Pelosi's criticisms on two grounds:
  1. that she has bad intentions toward China
  2. that she hypocritically employs double standards
But both of these arguments are ad hominem. Even if Pelosi does have malicious intentions toward China, that doesn't prove that her criticisms are unfounded. And, even if Pelosi is hypocritically holding China to a standard that she doesn't hold other countries to, that doesn't mean that the standard she is currently holding China to is an unreasonable one.

Ad hominem arguments - whether they appeal to allegations of bad intentions or to hypocrisy - are flawed arguments, and they aren't sufficient to refute Pelosi's criticisms.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Justice and Fairness

Justice -- or fairness, as people also refer to it -- is a very significant moral consideration. It amounts to giving people what they deserve.

What this means in detail, though, is complicated and controversial.

Equality and Equity

Generally, though, two things that justice demands are clear.

One is that we should treat people equally. That is, we shouldn't give certain people extra consideration or status for arbitrary reasons. If I get thrown in jail for a certain crime, you should get equal punishment if you commit an identical crime. Same crime, same punishment. Equal pay for equal work. Equal harm, equal compensation. Reciprocity is another way that equality arises: I'll treat you the way you treat me.

Some of humanity's greatest moral efforts have focused on equality. In particular, attempts to push for equal rights under the law, to end discrimination based on race, gender, religion, etc., are based on the ideal of equality. Racism and aristocracy are chiefly objected to on the grounds that they put one race or one family ahead of everyone else arbitrarily and for no good reason.

But, on the other hand, justice also seems to demand equitable treatment. That is, we should treat people differently when there is good reason to do so. People guilty of murder should be treated differently from people who are innocent of it. People who are sick or in need deserve different treatment from those who aren't. The person with the more serious injury goes to the front of the line at the emergency room. The person who works harder should get paid more.

With this in mind, we can identify at least three respects in which we demand equitable treatment for people: need, merit, and culpability.


People who are suffering, who are deprived of freedom or resources, deserve more assistance than those who are not. The Civil Debate Page expands on this in the section on aiding the needy.


People who work harder, who achieve more, or who make greater sacrifices or contributions for the sake of others deserve more consideration, praise, and gratitude that those who do less. The Civil Debate Page expands on this in the section on merit.


People who are innocent of wrongdoing deserve to avoid blame and punishment. People who are guilty of wrongdoing deserve to receive (proportional) blame and punishment for their misdeeds. The Civil Debate Page expands on this in the sections on culpability and defiance.


Of course, these different considerations -- need, merit, and culpability -- often come into conflict with each other (and even themselves), resulting in moral dilemmas:

  • A drunken driver crashes into another car, causing himself a potentially fatal injury, and a severe but survivable injury to the other driver: if we can only help one person, should it be the drunken driver, or the innocent victim?
  • In return for a pardon, a criminal offers to hand over information sufficient to secure the arrest and conviction of people who have committed more serious crimes: should the government accept the offer?
  • Should a scholarship go to the student with higher grades, or the student with less money?

These questions are difficult to answer. But, with a greater understanding of the moral elements and considerations that play a role in such questions, we can have more productive -- more respectful, more dignified -- discussions and debates about matters of justice.

Evasion: "They Have a Right to Their Opinion"

One way that politicians and pundits avoid answering questions is to change to topic to freedom of belief or freedom of speech. Usually, this happens in the context of a politician or pundit being asked about someone else's beliefs.

Suppose a certain senator -- call him Senator Fred -- makes a controversial statement. Another member of Senator Fred's party is likely to be asked whether he agrees with that statement.

The evasion goes something like this:
Question: "A member of your party, Senator Fred, has made a controversial statement. Do you agree with what he said, or are you going to denounce what he said?"
Answer: "Well, Senator Fred has a right to his opinion, he has a right to believe it and a right to say it."
Notice, the question hasn't been answered. The matter of whether Senator Fred has a right to make a certain controversial statement -- or, more broadly, to hold controversial beliefs -- is not at issue. The question was whether Senator Fred's colleague is going to agree with the senator's comment or disagree with it.

Politicians and pundits usually want to avoid both of those choices, though. On the one hand, agreeing with a controversial statement or belief could land them in trouble with voters. On the other hand, though, denouncing a fellow party member can land them in trouble with their party.

So, they try to manufacture a third way, a way out of from between a rock and a hard place, by changing focus to the right to freedom of belief, or freedom of speech. Few people, of course, are going to disagree with these rights, so the person who uses the "they have a right to their opinion" evasion can say something that most people agree with while appearing to have answered the question they were asked.

But, really, they haven't answered the question. They've just managed to skillfully avoid answering it. And they usually get away with it.

Best Response

So, what should we do when we see someone employ this evasion?

The thing to do is to point out that they're answering a question that wasn't asked, and failing to answer a question that was asked.

For instance, you should say something like this:
"I'm not asking that, we all agree he has that right. The question is, do you agree with him? You have a right to agree with him, a right to denounce him, and a right to be silent on the matter: which right are you going to exercise?"
Or, say:
"That wasn't the question. I didn't ask 'Does Senator Fred have a right to believe or to say X?' Forget about Senator Fred altogether. Focus on the statement itself. Do you believe that statement is true?"
Responses along these lines will hopefully put the answerer on the spot, and make them give up on this evasion.

QUESTIONER [unidentified]: Talking about the comments that came up last night, the statements by this questioner talking about President Obama being a Muslim, talking about Muslims being a problem in this country. You just said that question is offensive to the press, is it not also perhaps offensive to the millions of Muslims in America?

SANTORUM: Here's what I have to say about that. People are entitled to their opinions. We have a First Amendment for a reason. People can just stand up and say what they want. You don't have to agree with it, you don't have to like it. I have a lot of events where people get up and say things that I don't like. I have a lot people say things about me that I don't like. Read my Twitter feed. But I'm going to defend your right to say it. Whether I disagree with it or agree with it really isn't the point. The point is, do they have the right to say it, and do we have an obligation to correct it? And my answer is yes, they have a right to say it, and no, we don't have an obligation at a town hall meeting to correct everything that someone says that we disagree with. … I'm not playing this game that you guys want to play. The President can defend himself, he doesn't need Rick Santorum to defend him. He's got you doing that very, very well. So cut it out. … It’s not my job, it’s not Donald Trump’s job, it’s not anybody’s job to police a question. The questioner can say whatever he wants, it’s a free country.
-- Republican presidential candidate former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA), September 18, 2015, responding to a question concerning remarks made at a campaign event for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. At Trump's event, an attendee said Muslims were the problem with the country, and Trump did not challenge the remarks.

Comment: Santorum is knocking over a straw man: no one has suggested that the remarks made at the Trump event should be illegal. Freedom of speech – as enshrined in the First Amendment – allows people to make remarks like the attendee at Trump's event, but it also allows people to criticize those remarks. Santorum (like Trump) is free to do so, but declines. We are free to think less of Trump for not criticizing bigoted remarks (which they were), and to think less of Santorum for not criticizing Trump's silence. The point of debate is to arrive at the truth, so of course people should challenge falsehoods. Santorum is evading the question of whether the remarks in question were offensive to American Muslims, using "right to their opinion" and "not my job to police civility" rhetoric.

(The list above is not intended to be a comprehensive record of all relevant examples.)

Monday, March 24, 2008

Climate Change and Global Warming

The issue of global warming takes up a great deal of attention in contemporary discussions of politics. Sometimes, it is difficult to say what people are disagreeing about (or even agreeing on), because there are several facets to the issue.

Broadly speaking, the issue of climate change comes down to three questions.

Clarifying the Temperature Question

Is Earth getting warmer? (And, further, how much warmer, and will it continue to get warmer in the future?)

This seems like a straightforward question about observable, empirical matters that can easily be answered by looking at temperature records. But it's actually a bit more complicated than that.

The question itself needs clarification, because it is in search of a relational claim. Before we can answer the question, "Is Earth getting warmer?", we need to answer the question, "Getting warmer than what?" Warmer than 10 years ago, 50, 100, or 1,000 years ago? If Earth is warmer than it was 100 years ago, but colder than it was 1,000 years ago, does that count as global warming or global cooling? Our basis of comparison needs to be specified before we can answer the question, "Is Earth getting warmer?".

Of course, we don't have to pick a particular year to compare current temperatures to. Instead, we can ask about a counter-factual, hypothetical comparison, by asking, "Is Earth warmer than it WOULD HAVE BEEN had CO2 (carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas) not been added to the atmosphere?" And this is the question most scientists seem to be asking, though it also calls for clarification (for instance, how much CO2, and added when?).

Another matter needs clarifying: When considering Earth's temperature, are we interested in the temperature of the land, the seas, or the atmosphere? It is not guaranteed that they will all change in the same way. Are we instead combining the temperatures of all three and considering them at once?

Once these issues are settled, then it makes sense to look at the temperature record for answers. This step also presents difficulties, as actual temperature records don't go back much further than a century or two. Beyond that, we have to look at things that exist today but were affected by temperature in the past - what's known as temperature proxies. These proxies - things such as tree rings and ice cores - are worth looking at, though getting information from them is tricky, because they are also affected by things OTHER than temperature.

Causal Relationship

Assuming that Earth is getting warmer, the next issue to be addressed is our causal relationship to that warming. That is, did we, human beings CAUSE the warming, and can we REVERSE it?

Discussion about global warming typically focuses on the question of whether or not humans caused it, in the belief that, if humans caused global warming, then humans can stop it. This is erroneous, however. Global warming might turn out to be like a boulder falling down a hillside: a person can set it in motion, but can't turn it around once it IS in motion. (A more morbid example is death: we're able to cause someone's death, but not reverse it.) Conversely, global warming might turn out to be something like polio: something that human beings didn't create, though they did find a way to counteract it.

In principle, there are four possible combinations regarding our causal relationship to global warming:

  • Humans DID cause global warming and CAN reverse it
  • Humans did NOT cause global warming and CANNOT reverse it
  • Humans DID cause global warming but CANNOT reverse it
  • Humans did NOT cause global warming but CAN reverse it
Really, though, it is our ability to reverse global warming that is of more interest. If we're not now in a position to reverse global warming, the question of whether or not we caused it is relatively superfluous.

Costs and Benefits

Assuming that Earth is warming and that humans are in a position to reverse it, the final matter to consider is, what are the costs of global warming compared to the costs of reversing it? Is the cost of reversing it worthwhile?

This requires a great deal of predictive ability, in both the short term and the long term. Certainly, global warming will have costs, but there will also be benefits, as well, just as reversing global warming will have both costs and benefits. How do these costs and benefits balance out? Are there good effects of global warming - for instance, forestalling an ice age - that outweigh the costs? Or, do the costs of global warming - for instance, rising sea levels and increased desertification - outweigh any benefits?

These questions aren't merely empirical ones: they also involve judgments about which costs and benefits take moral priority over others, which further complicates things.


The issue of global warming is a mixture of several different questions: empirical, scientific questions regarding the reality and reversibility of climate change, and the question of assessing the moral costs and benefits of trying to influence climate change.


Merit is a moral consideration related to justice. It concerns our response to excellence of various kinds, how some people deserve reward, gratitude, and praise for achievements and accomplishments they have made that others have not.

As with need and culpability, merit concerns equitable treatment, rather than equal treatment. That is, we give extra attention to those who have done more or given up more.

There are several ways in which we consider merit. We'll look at them briefly:


In assessing merit, we often look at how much people have contributed. For instance, those who have worked harder, or who have made a greater (positive) difference in the lives of others are considered to have greater merit.

How exactly we measure this is controversial. There's an instinctive inclination to use the "sweat of the brow" test: just see how hard a person has worked, how much effort they've put into a project. But hard work doesn't necessarily mean productive work. There is such a thing as "busy work" that takes a lot of energy and occupies a person's attention, but that does not really result in much of a gain for anyone.

Better, then, to look at the actual benefits that result: Were lives saved that would otherwise have been lost? Were lives improved in a way that otherwise wouldn't have happened? Were people protected from need or harm?

These are the things that we look at when we evaluate people's contributions. And, naturally, the greater the contribution, the greater the merit. All else being else being equal, philanthropists who contribute millions are credited with greater merit than those who give only a few dollars.


Another way of looking at merit is to consider the sacrifice that was made in order to improve the lives of others.

Again, the "sweat of the brow" test comes to mind -- that is, how much energy, time, and effort was invested. But, again, this depends on the work actually yielding some benefit to someone else.

Sacrifices can be small -- such as giving an hour of one's time, a small donation of money, etc. -- or large -- giving one's very life for the sake of others. Philanthropists who donate millions are contributing a great deal, but -- since they typically remain wealthy even after their donation and are not left in economic hardship -- it's not clear that they have made a great sacrifice. People who give to the point of putting themselves in hardship, or who die for the sake of others, are given the greatest merit of all.

Achievement and Excellence

There is another sort of merit, one that comes under the more generic description of achievement or excellence.

For instance, people who demonstrate athletic or artistic excellence -- who win at sports or at spelling bees or have other such accomplishments -- have earned greater merit. It's not quite the same sort of merit as when someone donates a kidney or funds cancer research, but it's not insignificant, either.

Response to Merit

How do we respond, morally speaking, to merit? It varies in different circumstances, but there are examples we can look at to draw broad lessons.

The moral response to merit typically involves things such as praise, gratitude, and reward. We often give praise to those who make great sacrifices, contributions, or exhibit excellence. And we generally (though not always) do this publicly in the form of medals, trophies, parades, etc. We also offer expressions of gratitude to those who have made contributions and sacrifices. Again, sometimes these expressions are made publicly, sometimes privately.

Sometimes we go further, and respond to merit by giving rewards. In the same way that we give aid to the needy, we give rewards to the meritorious.

Controversially, this can mean rewarding someone for the good they have done by excusing them for the bad that they are guilty of. But this is almost always a difficult decision, as we don't want to send the message that, by doing good, people can earn the right to (or at least get a free pass for) doing bad.


Merit pops up in our lives -- as well as in political and moral discussions -- in lots of ways.

People insist that tax rates reflect the right of people to keep the money they have earned through their hard work. People ask for more pay when they believe they work harder or contribute more, or offer skills that are more scarce or in greater demand (and therefore more valuable). People who have sacrificed more -- or risked more to potential sacrifice -- ask for more reward.

We often give greater expressions of praise and gratitude to police, soldiers, firefighters, and medical workers, on the basis of the greater contributions they make and/or sacrifices that they risk. At the same time, we often worry -- probably correctly -- that we still don't do enough to separate these people out for the greater consideration they deserve on the basis of merit. Although these are all paying occupations, the pay they get is rarely comparable to the benefit they provide or what they risk losing.


Merit, then, is central to our thinking about justice. And justice, in turn, is central to our understanding of what is right and wrong, both morally and politically.


When somebody does something wrong, we are often prompted to respond. Unjust and harmful acts shouldn't go unopposed. We have an obligation to defy them. Of course, HOW we should defy acts of harm and injustice is a difficult question to answer.

Punishment is one of the options that is often proposed. Punishment typically involves some sort of sacrifice that is imposed on a person who has committed an offense in response to that offense. There do seem to be a variety of moral goals that can be achieved through punishment, which I will list below.


One goal that punishment can achieve is incapacitation. That is, a punishment can be imposed on the offender that will prevent them from committing –- or at least, make it far less likely that they will commit –- another offense or injustice in the future.

Punishments such as the death penalty and jail are often touted for their ability to keep offenders from harming innocents again. Curfews and parole programs also tend to incapacitate offenders. Certainly, many a child has been grounded by their parents in order to "keep them from getting in any more trouble".

Publishing the names of photos of offenders –- for instance, people who have solicited prostitutes or bounced checks -– is often proposed as a way to deprive them of their anonymity, and make it tougher for them to commit the same crime again.

More severely, amputating the hands of thieves has sometimes been proposed as way to keep them from stealing again.


Deterrence, like incapacitation, looks to the future and tries to ensure that future crimes don't occur. But, while incapacitation focuses on the person who committed the crime, deterrence considers the future criminal prospects of everyone, regardless of whether or not they've committed a crime in the past. That is, deterrence asks the question: how can we punish this particular offender in order to deter other people from committing the same crime that he committed?

It's fairly easy to come up with punishments that will make people think twice about committing a certain crime. Swift and certain torture and/or execution would certainly be more than enough to dissuade people from committing crimes. If such punishments were applied to murder, arson, shoplifting and double-parking, the incidence of these crimes would likely go down.

However, punishments that have a strong deterrent effect -– notably, the death penalty, torture, life in prison -– run afoul of retributive concerns (see below). That is, one of the goals we also tend to seek when we punish people is for the punishment to be proportional to the crime. And putting people to death for minor crimes such as double-parking seems overly harsh.

Another issue with deterrence is that – like incapacitation – it involves making predictions about the future, and predictions aren't always accurate. What, exactly, is the deterrent effect of the death penalty? How many murders does it deter? Does it deter murders more than, say, life in prison without parole? These are tough empirical questions. Do we have enough of an understanding of how people respond to different punishments in order to prefer some punishments over others on the grounds of deterrence?

Restitution, Compensation and Reparation

Punishment often aims at repairing the harm done to the victim. That is, we often require the offender to fix the injury that they've done to the victim. Restitution is backward-looking, in the sense that it focuses on the harm done in the past, and how to fix, reverse, or undo it.

This is very common in civil cases, where a court orders someone to pay damages to the injured party. And parents also frequently punish their children with restitution in mind: you broke your friend's toy or the neighbor's window, so now the money to replace it comes out of your allowance.

This sort of punishment may be the most closely linked to earning forgiveness for harming another person. (Which raises the further question: what role does forgiveness play in punishment, and vice versa?)

However, some harms – such as death – are irrevocable. If I kill someone, what on earth could I do to repair that? Even if I could somehow fully compensate the family and loved ones of the victim (which is doubtful), how could I compensate the victim himself? There doesn't seem to be any way of even approaching the goal of restitution. And yet, punishing a murderer is entirely appropriate. So, while restitution does seem to be one legitimate aim of punishment, it can't be the only one.

Reformation, Education and Rehabilitation

Punishments of this sort attempt to change the offender into someone who is less likely to commit crimes or offenses in the future. This is similar to, but not quite like, incapacitation. Reformation is forward-looking (like incapacitation and deterrence), but the punishments it proposes tend toward improving the mindset, motivations and moral character of the offender.

There are several variations on this theme. The focus can be on various things:

  • helping the offender to be a more skilled and productive member of society, so that they do not resort to crime for a living
  • socializing the offender so that they reintegrate and fit into society
  • getting the offender off of drugs, alcohol or gambling, or other harmful substances or activities that often coincide with criminal activity
  • educating the offender to understand the difference between right and wrong, so that they will more often choose the former rather than the latter in the future

As with all the forward-looking goals, predicting what punishments or regimens will be effective is an issue. Some programs may work better than others, and some may not work at all.

And some programs or regimens may only work with some people. For instance, the punishments we apply to misbehaving children often have a significant educative or reformative component. Children often do bad things because they are ignorant about what the right thing to do is. And so we often punish them in ways that will increase their understanding of where the boundaries of acceptable behavior are. Most adults, though, already know largely where those boundaries are. So there is a question of whether or how much we should be applying the same sort of punishments.

Examples of punishments that aim at reformation are parole and other government supervision programs, drug rehabilitation, community service, therapy, job training and activities that provide compensation to the victim.


I leave this punishment goal for last because it is perhaps the least understood one, while at the same time being one that is most often appealed to.

Generally, the retributive goal is summed up by the often-used phrase "let the punishment fit the crime." Retribution is backward-looking, in the sense that it considers the punishment in comparison to the crime that was committed in the past.

We can separate out two distinct principles at work with retribution: First, culpability. The goal is to ensure that only people who are guilty of an offense should be punished. People who are innocent should not be punished. The second principle is proportionality. The punishment should be proportional or commensurate to the crime, harm or injustice that it is in response to.

Culpability may seem obvious, but notice how important and pervasive this retributive consideration is. We could probably deter many crimes by punishing the innocent loved ones of anyone who committed those crimes. For instance, if someone commits a murder, we could go after not just the murderer, but also their parents, children, siblings and so forth, throwing them all in jail or having them all executed. But we generally rule out such punishments, despite their deterrent effect, because we believe that it is wrong to punish innocent people.

Proportionality also carries a lot of weight when it comes to determining punishments. That importance is fairly well enshrined in two quotes:

"Do to him as he intended to do to his brother ... life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot." -- Deuteronomy 19:19-21
"Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted." -- Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution
Essentially, proportionality demands that we avoid both overpunishment and underpunishment. In other words, punishments go wrong by going too far -- for instance, the death penalty for double-parking – and by not punishing enough -- for instance, a $5 fine for murder. Punishments shouldn't be too harsh, or too lenient. And the reason for this comes down to justice, fairness, people getting what they deserved. People who commit a minor offense don't deserve a harsh punishment, in the same way that people who are innocent of wrongdoing don't deserve any punishment at all. More, people who commit major offenses -- murder or rape -- deserve more than a minor punishment. Murderers shouldn't enjoy the same level of freedom and prosperity that we think non-murderers deserve to have. Nor should they simply get the minor punishments handed down to shoplifters. We treat people who are guilty of crimes differently from people who are innocent of crimes because their behavior is morally different. Likewise, crimes like murder are morally on a different level than crimes like shoplifting, and deserve to be treated differently.

Retributive concerns -- that is to say, concerns about justice and fairness -- pervade our thinking about punishment. Retribution is what we appeal to when we object to innocent people being punished for crimes they didn't commit, or when we say that certain punishments are too cruel for certain crimes (even if they have a great results in terms of deterrence and incapacitation), or when we say that someone has not been punished enough for the crime he committed. When we say that people who commit crimes should not gain an advantage over people who obey the law -- and maybe that they should even suffer a setback -- that is a an appeal to retributive concerns of fairness. Likewise, when we say that law-abiding citizens should not have to give up their freedom for security, that it should instead be people who break the law who should make the necessary sacrifices in freedom (for example, by going to jail), that is also an appeal to retributive concerns.

Who Punishes, and Who Gets Punished?

Another issue concerns who has the authority to hand down certain punishments, and who is the appropriate recipient of those punishments?

Handing down punishments is one of the chief concerns of government, though there is a lot of debate about what kinds of punishments it should be allowed to apply (e.g., the death penalty). Likewise, parents and teachers routinely hand out punishments, though it is controversial whether they should be allowed to apply some punishments (e.g., spanking). Professional associations also frequently punish people for violating their rules (e.g., when a legal association disbars a lawyer).

On the other end, there are controversies regarding whether it is acceptable to apply certain punishments to certain people. Should children or mentally handicapped people be put in jail? How do you punish a 10-year-old who commits murder?

Examples of Punishments

Below is a list of several punishments. What purposes do they serve well, or poorly? What kinds of people should they apply to (if anyone)? What kinds of authorities are fit to hand them down (again, if any)?

  • the swift application, with few appeals, of the death penalty
  • the slow application, with several appeals, of the death penalty
  • a limited time in jail (e.g., 1 year, 5 years, 10 years)
  • a lifetime in jail, but with the possibility of parole
  • a lifetime in jail, without the possibility of parole
  • exile, or banishment from the country (either permanent or for a limited time)
  • being grounded, with a 5PM curfew
  • having to stand in the corner for five minutes
  • a fine (e.g., $50, $1,000, or $1,000,000)
  • corporal punishment (e.g., spanking)
  • 10 years of hard labor
  • torture
  • public shaming (e.g., publicizing the identity of people who have solicited prostitutes)
  • revoking a driver's license


Not every bad action demands a punishment. Some bad actions aren't serious enough to merit a punishment. And some misbehavior punishes itself.

But, often times, punishment is called for. But we often disagree about what goal or goals we should be trying to achieve in punishment. And, even when we do agree what goals we should be seeking, sometimes they come into conflict, and we disagree about which goal takes priority. And of course, there's the matter of trying to predict what the effects of our actions will be (e.g., is the death penalty a better deterrent than life in prison? What punishments are most cost-effective?).

Friday, March 14, 2008

Moral Priorities

"It is no easy task to be good. ... Anyone can get angry -- that is easy -- or give or spend money; but to do this to the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, with the right motive, and in the right way, that is not for everyone, nor is it easy; wherefore goodness is both rare and laudable and noble."
-- Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book II, Chapter 9.
Why are moral and political issues so difficult? Why isn't it easy to find answers to them that everyone can agree on?

Different Goals in Competition

Sometimes the reason moral and political issues are difficult is because doing the right thing conflicts with our selfish desires or involves sacrifice. But not every moral conflict is a conflict between good and evil, right and wrong, altruism and selfishness.

Rather, sometimes the problem is that there are several morally good goals for us to strive for. There are a variety of morally good things that we can accomplish, a variety of moral obligations we have to follow, a variety of moral rights we have to respect. And sometimes these different moral goals, obligations and rights are in competition with one another. Accomplishing one of them frequently involves giving up on another. The morally good things in the world often can only be grabbed with both hands, so to speak, meaning that holding one forces us to let go of another. Rather than a conflict between good and bad, we often face a conflict between good and good, and we have to figure out which good is greater.

(The above view is different from moral relativism. Moral relativism claims that there are a variety of moral goals, duties, and rights, but that they are not universal. According to relativism, a duty or value that applies to you might not apply to me. In contrast, what I'm describing is a situation in which there are a variety of moral goals, duties, and rights, that are universal, they all apply to every one of us. This view could be called moral pluralism.)

Intentions, Actions, and Consequences

One of the ways this pops up is in how we try to figure out what the right thing to do is. We typically judge an action by the intentions behind the action, the nature of the act itself, and the consequences that result from the action.

When it comes to intentions and motivations, altruistic, helpful ones are preferred over malicious, selfish ones. If I'm acting out of a motivation to help people, that's better than if I'm intending to harm people. (Virtue theories of morality tend to focus on intentions and motivations. They also tend to be more concerned with judgments about whether a certain person is good or bad than with whether a certain action is right or wrong.)

When it comes to the actions themselves, acts that are helpful, serve justice and respect people are preferred over acts that are harmful or violate rights and obligations. Giving to charity, helping someone, or telling the truth, for instance, are preferred over killing, stealing, or lying. (Deontological theories of morality tend to focus on the character of actions, rather than the intentions that lead to those actions or the consequences that result from them.)

When it comes to consequences, consequences that involve people living, being happy, or flourishing are preferred over consequences that involve people dying, suffering, or being corrupt. An act that results in people, say, being able to get food and medicine more easily is better than, say, an act that causes them to starve or be unhealthy. (Consequentialist theories of morality, as the name implies, tend to focus on the consequences of our actions, rather than the nature of the actions themselves or the intentions or motivations that lead to those actions.)

It would be great if we could come up with simple rules to follow -- give to the needy, don't kill, don't lie, don't steal, don't hit. But it's easy to think of exceptions to these rules. An act that is intrinsically good can have very bad consequences. And an act that is intrinsically bad can have very good consequences. Moreover, some acts have a mixed character: they have good and bad qualities. And the same goes for consequences: one act may have both good and bad consequences.

So we wind up facing moral dilemmas: Should we lie in order to protect an innocent person? Should we conduct military operations that will harm or deaths innocent people if it will also result in the deaths or capture of dangerous enemies? Should we agree to let a criminal off the hook if he or she provides us with information that allows us to prosecute other criminals? Should we punish someone who, out of malicious intentions, performs an act that has good consequences? Does the end justify the means?

Sometimes it's clear what should outweigh what. But many times it isn't. Dilemmas often involve vagueness about what moral considerations should take priority (that is, what morally good things outweigh what other morally good things).

Moral Considerations

Below are some of the moral goals, obligations and rights that enter into moral dilemmas:
Compassion: giving aid to those who are in need
Defiance: protesting, rebuking, or punishing harmful or unjust behavior
Honesty and Faithfulness: keeping obligations and promises, telling the truth
Forgiveness: repairing harms and fixing our moral flaws, and acknowledging those who have done the same
Loyalty: giving extra consideration to family, friends, and those who have helped us
Merit: praising and rewarding those who have made sacrifices or contributions

Below are examples of moral dilemmas illustrating how difficult it is to set moral priorities. (Many also involve difficulties in making predictions about the world.) Some of these dilemmas may seem artificial and implausible, but they do raise many of the moral conflicts that we face in real life. Thinking about them can be instructive in addressing moral issues more generally.

Investigating moral dilemmas will, hopefully, make us less likely to conclude the worst about those who disagree with us on moral or political issues. Too often, we're inclined to think that those who disagree with us are selfish, malicious or immoral, or that they are just stupid.

But, as the moral dilemmas below illustrate, it is very difficult to establish clear moral priorities. The fact that someone disagrees with our assessment of what is right or wrong shouldn't lead us to instantly demean them.

How would you respond to them?
While traveling in the wilderness, you encounter a grim scene. A group of armed bandits has captured 20 people from a local village, and is about to kill them. Even though they are murderous towards the local villagers, they are overjoyed at your presence, because they are hospitable to outsiders. To celebrate your arrival, they offer a bargain: they will free 19 of the villagers, so long as you do the honor of killing one of them. If you turn down the offer, the bandits will kill all 20 villagers. Do you shoot the villager? More generally, should you kill one innocent person in order to save two others? How about five others? Ten? One hundred?
This sort of dilemma brings the the fore the issue of moral agency. Also at issue is the judgment of whether to do something harmful in order to bring about good consequences (in other words, does the ends justify the means?).

A runaway trolley is hurtling toward five people, and will surely kill them unless it is diverted. You are near the lever controlling the trolley tracks, and can switch the trolley onto a second track. But there is one person on that track. Do you divert the trolley so that it kills one person instead of five? What if that one person on the second track was a child, while the five were all adults? What if that one person on the second track were you?
Again, moral agency figures into this example, as does ends and means reasoning. The variants also raise the issues of the relative helplessness or need of the victims, as well as self-sacrifice.

Amy loves Bob, who lives away from her on an island in the river. From the shore of the river, Amy sees that Bob is injured. The only way she can get to Bob to help him is by boat. She asks Cara, a boat-owner, for help, but Cara refuses. Dan also has a boat, but he won't let her use it unless she sleeps with him. Desperate to help Bob, Amy does so. Afterwards, she reaches Bob and helps him. Once Bob learns that she has slept with Dan, however, he spurns her. Depressed, Amy tells her story to Ed, who, outraged, beats up Bob.
The above is a variation of one of the Kohlberg Dilemmas, a set of dilemmas used by the psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg in his studies of moral development. (This particular one I believe is called "Alligator River", and I'm recalling it partly from memory.) Kohlberg asked people to rank the five characters in the story from best to worst. Considerations of need, loyalty, and defiance figure in to this particular dilemma.

A young man lives in France in 1940. As the Nazi German army invades France, he is tending to his sick mother. Should he remain with her? Or should he leave her, heading to the front or fleeing to Britain in order to fight the Nazis?
The above is a dilemma posed by French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. At play are considerations of loyalty, helplessness and need, and defiance.

Two young girls, your daughter and her friend, are swimming at the beach. It becomes clear that they have both been caught in a strong current and risk drowning. You can only save one of them at a time. Your daughter is the stronger swimmer, and has a greater chance of surviving if she has to wait for you to come back for her. Who do you save first?
This example is a variation from a "top 10" list of moral dilemmas (it's a good list, I encourage you to look at them; the list of proposed solutions in the comments section is also worth looking at). Again, helplessness and loyalty figure in to this particular dilemma.

You are a medical professional and you come upon an accident in which a drunk driver has struck a pedestrian and then crashed into a tree. The pedestrian is hurt to the degree that, without immediate attention, they will likely suffer long-term damage, such as limb loss or brain damage. The driver is more seriously hurt, and will almost certainly die without immediate attention. You can only help one. Which one do you help?
Considerations of need, defiance, professional obligation and punishment factor in to this dilemma.

Again, you are a medical professional and you come upon the scene of a car accident. In the car is your spouse and another person, and you realize that your spouse has been cheating on you with this person. Both your spouse and the lover are at risk of dying without immediate medical attention, the lover perhaps more so. You can only help one. Which one do you help?
This example is also from the "top 10" list of moral dilemmas. Again, need and professional obligation play a role, as does loyalty.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Dr. Laura's Remarks on Adultery

While appearing as part of a panel discussion on NBC's "The Today Show" on March 10, 2008, radio show host Dr. Laura Schlessinger made several remarks on why some husbands cheat on their wives. Her comments are below:
SCHLESSINGER: "Men do need validation. I mean, when they come into the world they are born of a woman and getting validation from mommy is the beginning of needing it from a woman. And when the wife does not focus in on the needs and the feelings, sexually, personally to make him feel like a man, to make him feel like a success, to make him feel like a hero, he’s very susceptible to the charm of some other woman making him feel what he needs. And these days women don’t spend a lot of time thinking about how they can give their men what they need."
TODAY CO-HOST MEREDITH VIEIRA: "But, you’re saying the women should feel guilty like they somehow drove the man to cheat?"
SCHLESSINGER: "You know what, the cheating was his decision to repair what's damaged and to feed himself where he’s starving. But, yes, I hold women responsible for tossing out perfectly good men by not treating them with the love and kindness and respect and attention they need."
And later on the show, she said:
SCHLESSINGER: "But in relationships, when people starve out the person they're supposed to feed, their soul, their psyche, you have to have some expectation of assuming some responsibility for how they're left feeling."
HELEN FISHER, ANTHROPOLOGIST: "I refuse to believe that this adultery is the wife's fault. I refuse. I can't believe that."
SCHLESSINGER: "We're not talking about fault."
Still later on the show:
SCHLESSINGER: "If he’s sociopathic or narcissistic, all bets are off ... The woman can be the best person in the world, and he’s going to be a jerk ... The average husband longs for one thing, and that’s to be special to his woman."
Schlessinger has tried to fend off accusations that she was blaming women for making their husbands cheat on them. Despite her attempts, I believe much of what she said was off the mark, and displayed a failure to understand the moral concept of defiance.

Schlessinger's argument essentially seems to be that, since some men are dissatisfied with their marriages, and since that dissatisfaction stems from the behavior of their wives, the wives are responsible when the husbands try to alleviate their dissatisfaction by committing adultery. I think this argument goes wrong on at least two points.

First, is adultery a LEGITIMATE response to being unsatisfied with your marriage? Just because it's a response that people choose doesn't mean it's a justified response. Some husbands who are dissatisfied with their marriages respond by abusing drugs or alcohol, or by hitting their wives or their children, or even by killing them. Are these responses justified? No, of course not. But, if they're not justified responses, then how can the wife be held responsible for them? Sometimes I'm dissatisfied with a purchase I make at the store. Does that make it OK for me to respond by killing the clerk who sold it to me? And then to say, "Hey, he sold me a piece of junk, it's his fault I killed him"?

No, even if the husband has a legitimate grievance - that is, a reasonable basis for being dissatisfied and believing that his wife is mistreating him - that doesn't mean any response whatsoever to this grievance is justified, let alone that the wife is somehow partly responsible for the husband's response. Murder or physical abuse aren't justified responses (unless she's chasing him with an ax), and I don't see how adultery is, either.

Second, Schlessinger doesn't give enough attention to whether the husband's feeling of dissatisfaction itself is legitimate. Sometimes people are dissatisfied in their marriages because they have unreasonable, illegitimate expectations about what their spouses should be doing for them. If a husband is dissatisfied with his marriage because his wife won't meet his unreasonable demands, then the grounds for blaming her for his adultery falls apart even further. Schlessinger briefly gives a nod to this consideration by pointing out that "sociopathic or narcissistic" will always be dissatisfied. But not ALL husbands with unreasonable demands are sociopaths or narcissists, are they? Some of them are just, well, unreasonable.

Schlessinger at one point seems to beg off from the idea of blaming wives for husbands' adultery by saying, "We're not talking about fault." Perhaps she means that she's offering an explanation, not a justification for the husbands' adultery. But she doesn't elaborate on the point, and it is hard to reconcile with her earlier claim to blame wives for "starving" husbands who merely try to "feed" themselves through adultery.

In summary, Schlessinger mishandles the concept of defiance in two different ways. Not surprisingly, defiance - the idea that we should protest injustice and mistreatment, and call for it to be stopped and reversed - is often mishandled in just these two ways. On the one hand, we often make the mistake of thinking we've suffered an injustice or been mistreated when we really haven't. We're instead just being selfish or unreasonable. On the other hand, even when we believe correctly that we've been mistreated, we often make the mistake of thinking that any response to that mistreatment - no matter how severe or unproductive - is justified.

(The above discussion focused on the infidelity of husbands, but, of course, the same points can be made about wives and couples in general, married or otherwise.)

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Gov. Spitzer's Unsuccessful Apology

Governor Eliot Spitzer (D-NY) March 10, 2008, held a brief press conference to respond to news that he had paid a prostitute for sex. This is the full text of what he said:
Good afternoon. For the past nine years, eight years as attorney general, and one as governor, I have tried to uphold a vision of progressive politics that would rebuild New York and create opportunity for all. We sought to bring real change to New York and that will continue. Today I want to briefly address a private matter. I have acted in a way that violates my obligations to my family and violates my, or any, sense of right and wrong. I apologize first and most importantly to my family. I apologize to the public, whom I promised better. I do not believe that politics in the long run is about individuals. It is about ideas, the public good, and doing what is best for the state of New York. But I have disappointed and failed to live up to the standard I expected of myself. I must now dedicate some time to regain the trust of my family. I will not be taking questions. Thank you very much. I will report back to you in short order. Thank you very much.
This scandal, of course, raises a number of issues, some perennial and some relating to Spitzer in particular:

  • Should we demand that public officials meet certain standards of good character?
  • If so, what are those standards?
  • Is breaking the law - any law - grounds for removing a public official?
  • Is committing a "victimless crime" grounds for removing a public official?
  • Is paying or receiving money for sex a "victimless crime"?
  • Does Spitzer's insistence that his governorship would maintain a higher standard of ethical behavior make this scandal more unforgivable?
  • When considering what charges could be brought against Spitzer, is it fair to be as stringent with him as he was with others when he served as an attorney general in New York? Is it hypocritical for him to expect less stringent treatment?
  • Is it desirable for the government to adopt a "get-as-good-as-give" attitude, being tough on public officials who were tough, but lenient on ones who were lenient?
What I'd like to focus on, though, is the matter of forgiveness and whether Spitzer's statement was a successful attempt to apologize for his misbehavior.

I believe his apology fails on at least two points.

First, Spitzer never clearly says what he did wrong. He says he owes apologies to his family and to the public, but he doesn't tell us what he's apologizing for. If the stories we're hearing in the news are correct, he definitely has a lot to apologize for. But it's up to him to be clear about what it is he's done wrong, not to leave us guessing why he's apologizing. Without admitting the details of how he has harmed the people he is trying to apologize to, he is only giving the appearance of being contrite, and failing to demonstrate that he understands WHY he should be contrite. This "I'm sorry for doing somethingorother" may be acceptable when it comes from children - who are still learning about moral concepts and responsibility - but it's unacceptable when it comes from an adult.

Second, Spitzer failed to appropriately handle the distinction between private versus public. He said he convened the press conference to "address a private matter". But the fact that he offered apologies to the public showed that even he knew the matter was well more than private.

In addition, at the press conference he offered an apology to his family. Though they certainly deserve an apology (at the very least), that apology should be made privately. Make the apology to the public in public; make the apology to the family in private.

Which brings up another private-versus-public issue: Spitzer's wife, Silda Wall Spitzer, stood with him at the press conference. If this were a purely private matter as he said, then there should be no need for her to attend a governor's press conference. While she is clearly a victim of the governor's behavior, apologies can be made to Mrs. Spitzer in private.

However, Gov. Spitzer probably wanted her at the press conference in order to show that, despite his misbehavior, she still supports him. And this is in keeping with the way many politicians, Gov. Spitzer included, offer their families up to the public as points in their favor. Politicians routinely parade their loved ones up on stage during campaigns, displaying their happy family life as a mark of their fitness for public office. They implicitly make the argument that, "because I have a happy, well-ordered family, I'm a good candidate for public office." Which is just to say that they offer up their private lives for public evaluation. Which is just to say that Gov. Spitzer is greatly mistaken when he describes his paying for sex as a "private matter".

(Politicians who are found out to have a not-so-happy, well-ordered family life often change their minds and say that their private life has little or no bearing on their ability to serve in public office.)

In summary, Gov. Spitzer's attempt to apologize was significantly lacking, because he remained completely unspecific about what he did wrong and failed to discern what issues were public and what issues were private. (If he'd been more specific about what he did wrong, he'd likely have done better in separating out the public and private issues.)

This doesn't bode well for him, because apology is generally the easiest component of forgiveness.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Statement of Purpose

Everybody cares about political and moral issues, but very few people treat them carefully. Debate about such issues too often results in a lot of anger, hatred, insults and invective.

In particular, people don't know how to reason properly -- that is, how to support or defend their beliefs with good arguments, rather than flawed ones. Also, people don't often appreciate that there are many morally worthwhile goals, goals which often compete with one another. We're often pushed in different directions by different moral considerations. Often, in order to do one good thing, we must often give up on another.

We frequently do a great deal of harm when we debate moral and political issues.

This is most apparent in our treatment of those with whom we disagree. We think that our own positions are so obviously and straightforwardly correct that we are stunned that someone could think otherwise. We are are quick to conclude that anyone who disagrees with us must be selfish, stupid, or somehow deficient. Otherwise how could they hold an opinion different from our own?

Once this sentiment is spoken out loud, it offends the people it is aimed at, and they retaliate in kind, and the debate will be poisoned. So no progress gets made on that topic, and the trading of insults also stunts discussion on other topics, and resentment lingers.

Too often, we engage in these tactics that incite the worst in others, as well as ourselves. And, in doing so, we encourage the people we offend to defend themselves using the same tactics we use against them. And then we reply in kind, and we all get caught up in an unproductive cycle of name-calling, ad hominem argument, demonizing and exaggeration, etc. Each side, trying to do what it believes to be right and good, becomes more desperate in the face of an opponent that seems to be willing to use any tactic to thwart progress. And so each side believes it must use any means necessary to stop the other side, denouncing their opponent for doing the same sort of thing they themselves are doing.

Such 'debate' -- if it can truly be called that -- only incites our hatreds, and does little to increase our understanding of the moral choices we face. It harms our character as individuals and as a society, and does not move us toward better government.

You don't create good government by creating bad people.

The purpose of The Civil Debate Page is to point out the errors that distract us from understanding the real issues and choices we face in life, morality and politics. By revealing these errors, we can engage in debate that raises our understanding and improves our character. This is the best way to improve our government and our society.

Civility doesn't mean giving up on what you believe and compromising and being bipartisan for the sake of getting along. Civility doesn't mean not criticizing ideas that you disagree with. Civility means standing up for what you believe without resorting to disrespectful or unproductive behavior. Civility is like being a good sportsman and engaging in fair play: you play for one team and try to beat other teams, but you don't cheat in order to win.

The Civil Debate Page is divided into several sections that address different aspects of this mission.

The Why Do People Disagree on Politics & Morality? section explains why the answers to moral controversies are difficult to find, and why we frequently face moral dilemmas.

The Moral Considerations section lays out moral goals, values and concepts that are common to us all, and that factor in to various moral and political issues.

The Logic and Good Reasoning section gives information on how to reason successfully (i.e., in a way that preserves truth).

The Evasion, Faulty Reasoning, Name-Calling, and Rhetoric sections point out behaviors that can stand in the way of productive, civil debate. They try to sort out and explain what behavior good or bad, and to provide examples.

The Applied Issues section deals with current moral and political controversies, explaining what moral considerations are at play in the particular controversy.

Ultimately, I hope that The Civil Debate Page will lead people to a greater understanding of what morality and good reasoning involves, and discourage them from simply disparaging those with whom they disagree.

Life is difficult and contentious enough without creating needless animosity.