This Country Needs to Stop Beating around the Bush on Abortion

You’ve all heard the brouhaha surrounding Obama’s commencement speech at Notre Dame, and you’ve also probably heard the somewhat emerging consensus that he handled the controversy well, mostly by doing that “Obama” thing that he does, which, according to this John Dickerson piece in Slate, is this:

“Here’s how he explained this approach as it applies to his decision-making: “[Opponents] might not, at the end of it, agree with me, but having seen how I’m thinking about a problem, having a sense of how I’m making decisions, that I understand their point of view, that I can actually make their argument for them, and that that’s part of the decision-making process, it gives them a sense, at least, that they’ve been heard, and … it pushes us away from the dogmas and caricatures that I think get in the way of good policymaking and a more civil tone in our politics.””

This is all well and good, except it does not address the underlying normative question: whether the coercive powers of the state should be used to either allow or prohibit abortions.

Having a fair interpretation of your political/philosophical opponents’ arguments might be necessary to resolve political/philosophical questions, but it surely cannot be sufficient. Let me give an example. In any undergraduate philosophy course on applied ethics, abortion is usually taught. And in such a typical course, the student usually reads two papers, considered paradigmatic, by Don Marquis (PDF version here) and Judith Thompson (regular HTML version here), arguing against and for abortion, respectively. And in this typical undergraduate philosophy course on applied ethics, you can expect a typical essay assignment to be defending either Marquis’ or Thompson’s position regarding abortion. Now, at the very least, a competent paper at the undergraduate level will provide a fair reading of the two papers, examine their various premises, and then critique one or the other to support the student’s own position. If the student does well, the paper usually gets a decent to good grade.

If this were the case, the student would be acting exactly the same as Obama says: he has taken his opponent’s arguments, gave them a fair reading, critically examined them in depth, critiqued them cogently, and made a normative argument. But would anyone consider this, by itself, sufficient to resolve the underlying philosophical difference?


So really, Obama is dodging the issue big time here. One can easily demonstrate one’s good faith in taking one’s opponents’ arguments seriously, but what does this have to do, ultimately, with taking a stand one way or another? How does this really resolve the question at hand?

But here, one must give at least a crude account of what it means to “resolve” the questions. My own crude account is that there are at broadly two ways of conceiving a resolution to the question. First, there is the realist conception: namely, one can resolve the question by arguing that either one side or the other is TRUE in a normative sense. That is, either abortion is right, or it is wrong. The history of the debate shows that this question isn’t likely going to be resolved soon on this realist account, but nothing in the question itself suggests that an answer is conceptually impossible. One thing is for sure: knowing the other side’s arguments, giving them a fair reading, and showing the other side that you have given their arguments a fair reading, aren’t enough to resolve the question.

Which leads me to the second broad conception of resolving the abortion question: the political resolution. In this conception, the question of whether abortion IS right or wrong is bracketed aside. The appeal to one’s opponents is no longer based on the truth of the normative claim, but on consensus. Take, for example, the right to free speech. A citizen who happens to be a Christian, an utilitarian of the Millian persuasion, or a dyed-in-the-wools Kantian might all agree that free speech should be protected, but their reasons for their conclusions are probably very much different from one another’s. But nevertheless, the question of “should the state protect free speech” is resolved politically because the resolution does not depend on harmony between the differing and conflicted normative schemes these citizens hold.

Is such a political resolution possible for abortion? Again, Obama simply evades the issue, by talking about how both pro- and anti-abortion folks can agree on the fact that we should institute policies that decrease unwanted pregnancies. Sure, there might factually be a consensus, but what does this have to do with the question at hand?

In this case, the history of the intractability of the abortion debate does constitute very strong evidence that perhaps a political resolution is not possible for abortion, because the history and the content of the debate both show that inevitably, debates about abortion could not bracket aside these differing, conflicted, and fundamental normative schemes that each side holds.

So where does this leave us? It leaves us in a stalemate, both philosophically and politically. At least philosophically, we have not closed the door on the possibility of resolving the questions, but for all intents and purposes, politically, abortion is at a stand still. Obama can do all he wants to make the debate itself not acrimonious in how it is carried on, but he can’t do anything about the intractability of it. We can all be very civil, but civility ultimately does nothing to answer the question.

What will ultimately answer the question, at least on a political level, is coercion: coercion in the form of a fair vote with the majority, whichever side that might be, “winning.” But this result isn’t going to satisfy anyone, because the losing side will feel alienated from the decision and feel that it is illegitimate. And political winds change over time, so the majority will also change. But this isn’t going to be something that the losing side, whichever it might be, can reasonably accept. No matter who “wins” politically, the losing side will feel the “win” to be illegitimate and arbitrary.

And in a sense, it is arbitrary, because we have simply not answered the question. But the existence of this arbitrary conclusion, for a question of this magnitude, both normatively and politically, presents a challenge to our notions of political legitimacy.

And this is the possible conclusion that this country, Obama included, has been trying so hard to push to the bottom. This country simply refuses to acknowledge even the possibility of this conclusion, but given all the history, all the evidence, I don’t see how anyone can simply brush the possibility of this conclusion aside.

No matter how much Obama talks about the need to find common ground, to make the debate civil and not acrimonious, this possibility exists. And it is time that we, as citizens, start to think seriously about its implications.

Reframing the Debate on Corporate Social Responsibility

The question of whether businesses can both do well and do good is an old one, and Edward Glaeser (Harvard) offers his own views on the debate in the New York Times today. Glaeser admits that his own thinking is fundamentally aligned with that of Milton Friedman, who argued that corporations’ only obligation is to maximize shareholder wealth, but he also wants to offer an alternative:

“I certainly agree with Friedman that traditional corporations have one overriding moral obligation — to fulfill their fiduciary duties and maximize shareholder wealth. Yet I’m also a fan of organizational innovation, which makes me a little more enthusiastic about the idea of experimenting with new legal entities with more complex objectives.”

Too bad Glaeser doesn’t go into enough detail for my liking and really spell out what these hybrid entities are and how they might reconcile what seems like an irreconciliable difference between doing well and doing good.

But then again, this debate always comes down to stalemates like this one, with neither side giving much ground to the other. I’m personally tired of this debate, and tonight, I aim to propose a rough sketch of an alternative.

And it goes like this: corporations can, in fact, both do well and do good, BUT, and this is the crux of my argument, it can only achieve both ends if its shareholders and the public actively provides a meaningful financial incentive for corporations to act in a socially responsible way.

An example. Two corporations A and B both make similar product X. However, corporation A makes product X in a country with laws that prohibits excessive environmental pollution when making product X. Corporation B, on the other hand, makes product X in a different country in which no environmental law exists. Suppose that in following the law, as every corporation is obligated to do, corporation A must invest in brand new production equipment and pay a huge upfront fixed cost, it has a distinct competitive disadvantage compared to corporation B, who because of its location, faces no such costs. Corporation A passes on this upfront fixed cost to the consumers, making its product X more expensive than corporation B’s.

Clearly, this example is simplified for the sake of argument: corporation A acted in a socially responsible way by obeying the laws of its country while preserving the planet for future generations. Corporation A could have moved to another country with less restrictive environmental laws and avoided the additional cost and remained competitively equal with corporation B, but it chose to do the right thing.

But what would the real-world result be for corporation A? First, consumers will probably stop purchasing its brand of product X and instead give their money to corporation B (assuming that only two corporations make product X). Shareholders of corporation A will probably sell off its stocks because corporation B is now clearly more profitable. The Board of Directors will probably vote out existing management and hope to find new management that will make corporation A competitive with corporation B again. This would most likely mean that the new management will move production of X to a different country with a much more lax environmental law.

In the end, the only loser in this hypothetical scenario is the environment and future generations who must live with a more depleted and more polluted planet.

So what is the essential problem: prisoner’s dilemma. How to resolve this problem: by creating totally different incentive structures so that corporations are not punished, but instead rewarded, for doing the sociall responsible/ethical thing. If the public is truly, sincerely, and genuinely interested in preserving the environment, it should not stop purchasing corporation A’s product X and buy corporation B’s product X: in fact, it must purchase MORE of corporation A’s product X and LESS of corporation B’s product X.

By doing so, the pubic sends a strong signal to corporations that it intends to put its money where its values are. It must show the corporations that it is a financially sound, if not profitable, decision to act in a socially responsible manner. This does not violate Friedman’s fundamental tenet that a corporation’s fundamental obligation is to maximize shareholder wealth because it is in the interest of corporations to act ethically because acting ethically is the means to maximize shareholder wealth.

To make this option viable however, we must redistribute obligations such that it is up to BOTH consumers and corporations to do the right thing. In fact, the burden on consumers is made greater in this case, because they are the ones that have to create significant demand for corporations to act ethically, and this means, above all else, really voting with their wallets.

But ask yourself this: how many people do you know are actually willing to act on their values? And no, drinking organic fair trade coffee does not count because it is not significant. So you are willing to pay that extra 50 cents or a dollar for fair trade coffee, but are you willing to spend an additional $100 on a product that you know to be made by a socially responsible corporation in an ethical manner? What is the upper limit of the price differential that you are willing to pay?

Furthermore, in order for this option to be truly viable, the incentive structure would have to hold across the entire globe. This is the essential prisoner’s dilemma problem: so long as one player cheats and benefits, the entire system collapses.

Hard? Of course, as it is nearly impossible to put in practice. But at least it is a theoretical answer to how corporations can both do well and do good. But this answer has radical implications for consumer behavior, and I heartily acknowledge that my present model is way over-simplified, but assuming ideal conditions, it could work.

The Last Time I Checked, God is Still Dead

Alex Byrne wrote a pretty good article in the Boston Review going over the two kinds of popular arguments for the existence of God: the ontological and the teleological arguments. Byrne’s article gives you the basic overview of these kind of arguments, although if you want more technical details, you can read their entries in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

After providing an overview of the ontological and the teleological arguments for the existence of God, Byrne concludes, unsurprisingly, that neither argument offers persuasive evidence of God’s existence. However, I really liked Byrne’s way of putting the conclusion in the broader context of belief:

“If a persuasive argument for the existence of God is wanted, then philosophy has come up empty. The traditional arguments have much to teach us, but concentrating on them can disguise a simple but important point. As Anselm and Paley both recognized, the devout are not exactly holding their collective breath. For the most part, they do not believe that God exists on the basis of any argument. How they know that God exists, if they do, is itself unknown—the devout do not know that God exists in the way it is known that dinosaurs existed, or that there exist infinitely many prime numbers. The funny thing about arguments for the existence of God is that, if they succeed, they were never needed in the first place. “

In drawing this conclusion, Byrne shifts the discussion from the metaphysical/ontological (whether God exists and what properties he has) to the epistemological: that is, how do believers know that their God exists? If, as Byrne argues, that believers’ epistemology do not rest on logical arguments, then the whole enterprise of proving God’s existence through logic is doomed to futility.

Note, however, that Byrne’s conclusion is not that no one can prove that God does not exist: his conclusion is that God’s existence can’t be proven using logical methods of argument. It’s also important to be aware of the scope of the argument: the refutation of the ontological and teleological arguments only prove that God, as characterized by Abrahamic religions, does not exist. Refuting the ontological/teleological argument does not entail the non-existence of non-Abrahamic deities.

Highly Recommended: The Original Position, Re-Written

Samuel Freeman probably devotes more time than anyone else, in a field that has already become its own cottage industry, to analyzing, compiling, and defending the ideas of John Rawls. I think one of the indispensable secondary literature on Rawls is Freeman’s intellectual/critical biography of Rawls. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who takes seriously Rawls’ body of thought, itself an impressive ouevre and already a bona fide monumental classic in the history of political philosophy.

Thus, I also highly recommend Professor Freeman’s re-write of the entry on “the original position,”  a cornerstone concept in Rawls’ philosophy and contemporary political philosophy in general, on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. This re-write has been long in the waiting, as the last substantive revision on the topic dates back to 2003. I personally can’t think of a better person with more academic authority to write on this topic. I would recommend this to anyone who is even remotely interested in contemporary Anglophone political philosophy, because you pretty much cannot engage with the topic without having some kind of grasp on the concept of the original position.

The entry is well-written, with lucid prose that does not dumb down an important and nuanced concept. This is about as good of an overview of the concept as you are going to get, if you are not going to read through the primary sources. After having read this entry, you should be versed enough to have a meaningful discussion about the concept.

But really, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is an invaluable resource: pound for pound, its entries are written by some of the best people in the field, and although the level of lucidity/complexity varies, a careful reading of the entries should at least provide you with the amount of context you need to make sense of it.

Why Interfaith Dialogue is Bound to Fail

As this NYT piece reports:

“In quotations from the letter that appeared on Sunday in Corriere della Sera, Italy’s leading daily newspaper, the pope said the book “explained with great clarity” that “an interreligious dialogue in the strict sense of the word is not possible. In theological terms, added the pope, “a true dialogue is not possible without putting one’s faith in parentheses.””

Finally, someone understands! Don’t get me wrong, I would love nothing more than to reconcile fundamental theological differences, but the nature of theology is such that reconciliation is not possible, from a strictly logical point of view.

True interfaith dialogue is logically impossible because theological views are truly comprehensive, that is, they underlie every belief held by their believers. In other words, theological views are fundamental–they cannot admit of any contradiction or falsity, or else the believer’s entire belief system is undermined. To admit even the possibility of one’s theological beliefs as false, or that there could be other true theological beliefs, is to in some ways to cease being a believer.

Dialogue, in its Socratic sense, is not possible unless there exists some points of agreement. But theological views, by their nature, cannot admit to any agreement with other, different theological views. If one’s belief system is founded on that the Christian God is the only true, real God, then one cannot have a dialogue, in the true sense of the word, with someone whose belief system is founded on the existence of a non-Christian God.

In other words, if theological views are theological views, then they must be all encompassing. And if they are all encompassing, they can never admit the possibility of another all-encompassing belief system. This is what the Pope means by “putting one’s faith in parenthesis,” because without creating some room, no matter how small, that one’s theological system does not encompass, the dialogue is DOA.

Pessimistic? Undoubtedly. But I’ve always been annoyed by people’s neglect to truly consider what “respecting” other people’s beliefs really mean. As Simon Blackburn points out, one cannot have respect for another’s beliefs if those beliefs are (to oneself anyways) patently false. One can tolerate, from a purely political sense (as in, not persecute), a false belief system, but there can be no respect for it.

This ultimately brings me to my conclusion: religion cannot never completely co-exist within a secular society, because it is in the nature of religion to be fundamental, comprehensive, and all-encompassing. But if the laws of a secular society are to be legitimate, then they must justify themselves to everyone, non-believers included. And if they are to be justified to non-believers, they must be justified on secular grounds.

In the end, there can only be a consensus with tension, and that tension will never go away

The Center Cannot Hold

And do you know why? It’s because there is no such thing as the center. Which makes the whole post-election punditry on whether America is a “center-left” or “center-right” nation completely incoherent and meaningless.

Simple geometrics will suffice: directionality only makes sense if there is a fixed point, but if the fixed point is defined by its relationship to directionality, then the whole exercising of fixing a center becomes circular.

Kind of like how political “analysts” circle-jerk each other, and the result of so much collective ejaculation is somehow treated as “conventional wisdom.”

Let’s examine how the center is fixed in American political punditry: usually “analysts” define the center as the middle point between two extreme ideological spectrums. Yet what no one ever mentions is that ideological extremes shift over time, thus the center shifts with them. Yet what is considered “left” and “right” is defined in their relationship to the center, but the center is somehow defined in its relationship with the “left” and the “right.”

So the center cannot hold because there can be no such thing as the center in an ideological sense. There can only be multiple ideological positions, but to characterize these positions along a spectrum is misleading and circular.

In other words, these motherfuckers should be out of a job, but instead they occupy positions in leading newspapers and disseminate their incoherent positions from a pedestal.

Shuffling off Your Mortal Coil, Explained

Alternative title and main thesis: the fear of the unknown as a reason to fear death is based on bad epistemology.

I couldn’t phrase that to have quite the same ring as Shakespeare was able to, but then again, I am only an amateur philosopher-wannabe.

Nevertheless, Hamlet’s famous soliloquy, I think, neatly sums up why most (maybe not all) people fear death: they don’t know what happens when you die. To put this in very abstract terms: people fear death because they have no epistemological access to death.

Sounds plausible, except it’s completely wrong.

Myth: We don’t know what happens when people die.
Fact: We do know what happens when people die.

Elaboration: Death is the complete cessation of all biological functions. The mechanics are fairly simple: some phenomenon occurs that cuts off oxygen to the brain, and if this lack of oxygen happens for long enough, your brain ceases to function, and when it ceases function, it shuts down your entire biological process. And presto, death!

The 799 pound gorilla in the room: Do you got soul? And not just the kind with which to get funky either, but the kind that is a common feature of Abrahamic religions. Some common characteristics are: an incorporeal substance apart from a physical body that persists forever, regardless of what happens to the physical body.

I don’t want to say definitively that the soul, as characterized thus, doesn’t exist, but I’m going to say that when you take into consideration all available evidence, it is highly unlikely that the soul (characterized thus) exists. So if you believe this, which I think you should have good reason to, then you can’t really claim that you don’t know what happens during and after death, because science has pretty much figured out what death is, completely.

So what do we know: we know that, absent the extremely improbably existence of a soul, death consists entirely of the cessation of all biological functions. It is as simple as that. There is no great epistemological quandary here, so I think it is bad faith to say that one fears death because one doesn’t know what happens after death. Of course one knows what happens after: nothing! That’s the definition of death.

Well, if you want to get technical: something does happen to your body (not you, the distinction is a very important one) dies. Depending on how people handle your death, you either start decomposing into the earth in which your body is buried, or your body is incinerated by fire and your body become ashes.

An aside: I have heard, on more than one occasion, avowed atheists who profess to commit to a scientific epistemology, argue that the soul can exist. I would normally think that someone who’s a committed naturalist would disavow substance dualism altogether, so the only explanation that I can come up with is psychological: they simply do not want to acknowledge that once your body dies, you die.

A qualification: Note that I did not say that the fear of death is wholly unjustified, but only that fear of the unknown is an insufficient reason to justify the fear of death. There might be justified reasons to fear death, but that’s stuff for another post.