A brief example of the disingenuity of states’ rights champions

So, California wants to have its own emission standards for automobiles. They want standards that are stricter than the national standards. Some other states do, too, but California is the one that really upsets the anti-environment right because there are so many cars in the state that California standards are effectively national standards.

Where are all the states’ rights champions on this? Why are Fox News pundits not up in arms about the rights of states to set their own standards? Whenever national law looks like it’s about to progress, the right, especially in very regressive states, appeal to states’ rights. There are two options for why:

  1. They have principled reasons to support states’ rights, or
  2. It’s politically expedient to appeal to a principle that nobody really holds but seems more likely to at least keep a few states back than an argument from their actual principles would.

Given the silence of this group on California’s rights, 1 is very unlikely.

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Another attempt to bring out the two most critical points in the abortion debate

A month or two ago Ireland made a stride towards legal abortion, and the US made a stride in the opposite direction. Abortion is always on the political table though. I imagine a perfect pregnancy-prevention mechanism would cool the flames quite a bit, but even then, people can change their minds, and the question will emerge of whether that should be allowed. But as usual, this most recent flare-up of abortion debates involved a lot of people talking past each other other. I think, though, there is ultimately one argument for the prohibition of abortion that is good if it works. There are plenty of reasons one might want to prohibit abortion, such as controlling women, liking the appearance of pregnancy, and any other number of bad reasons, but they’re all pretty bad. So, here’s the one possibly good argument:

  1. Killing people ought to be illegal.
  2. Unborn humans are people.
  3. So, killing unborn humans ought to be illegal.

This seems to be the most intuitive and defensible argument for making abortion illegal. A lot of people seem to endorse it, sometimes implicitly. There’s a need in the popular discourse, though, to be more explicit about the two premises in play, because oftentimes people will defend 2 against an attack on 1, or vice-versa.

Getting a little more clear on the premises

Neither premise is super clear, as is the cost of making them short. The first, the killing people ought to be illegal, has plenty of exceptions. Asking why killing people ought to be illegal seems a little strange. Being wrong to kill seems like it might just be a feature of being a person rather than some other kind of thing. So wrong, in fact, that any code of law that doesn’t forbid killing people seems fundamentally broken. So, to spare us a lengthy dive into a theory of moral personhood, I will assume that there’s an agreement that in general people’s lives should be protected by law.

The generality rather than universality of the statement is important, though. There are exceptional cases in which we defend the legal killing of persons. Self-defense is the most obvious. If someone is threatening your life, you’re allowed to kill the person threatening your life. There are perhaps other crimes that might make killing someone defensible. If someone is threatening the lives of others, if someone is severely assaulting you, and so on. War and law enforcement create further situations. Sometimes there is no choice but to kill some set of people, and the choice is merely which set. Accidents that aren’t the result of negligence also usually land on the legal side. My point here is just that we ought to have many legal exceptions for killing people. This is of course an opening that someone defending the legality of abortion against this argument can and often does use.

In the phrasing of the second premise I use “people” in a possibly technical way. While we might have been able to dodge questions of moral personhood for the first premise, they are the heart of the second premise. By “person” (and derivatively, “people”), I just mean a being with moral personhood. That still sounds a bit circular, but getting a technical definition down is a whole subsubfield of philosophy on its own. Examples can give us a good enough idea, though! Normal adult humans are the archetype of people. If a theory of personhood excludes them, it’s probably defective. Inanimate objects are not people. You can violate the autonomy of a rock all you want, and nothing wrong is being done. Then there are edge cases. Is C-3PO from Star Wars a person? Maybe. Are higher apes, or maybe dolphins people? Again, maybe. Within the realm of humanity, we can ask the same of fetuses and maybe infants, too. Once we pin down what gives adult humans their moral worth as people, we can turn to the unborn and ask if they are people.

Arguments pointing to the human DNA and beating heart of the unborn are usually along these lines. They are implicitly placing the bar for personhood at humanity. Nobody defending abortion thinks that the unborn humans are not living beings, and nobody denies that they are human beings. They very obviously are. What one might deny is whether they are persons. Often someone backing this sort of argument against abortion takes for free that all humans are morally relevant persons and then goes in to prove the much easier point that unborn humans are human. But this is just the root of much misunderstanding.

The common arguments against each premise and setting up the right questions

With the first premise, that killing people ought to be illegal, usually the premise is not denied outright so much as the line pushed. Almost nobody thinks every case of killing a person ought to be illegal, so the argument here is on where to draw the line. So, let us take up the case of whether the line ought to be before or after abortion. For the sake of argument, let’s assume that personhood begins at conception. Given this, can someone kill a person inside them?

A well-treaded argument asks us to consider waking up in the hospital attached to a famous violinist. He brings a lot of happiness to the world with his playing, but is sick in such a way that he requires using your body for life support for awhile. Let’s say he’ll be hindering you for about nine months. If you pull the plug, he dies. The defender of abortion here draws on the intuition that you ought to have the legal right to pull the plug anyway.

The argument can be strengthened or weakened. Someone not yet convinced might think that the state should totally use someone as life support if they aren’t doing much with their lives but the person in need of support is. This person might also think mandatory blood donations are a good idea. In that case, we can reduce the status of the violinist until he contributes as much to society as the unborn do: nothing.

On the other hand, someone arguing against abortion might not be satisfied yet. Usually the first next objection is that the aborter usually has something to do with the creation of the unborn person, so while normally you have a right to not let someone use you as life support, you do if you willingly engaged in an act with the potential to create that situation. (We might note that this makes the argument against the legality of abortion no longer work against cases of rape.) So let’s alter the example to fit this. How far we want to push it is another question. Perhaps the right analog is someone who you accidentally hit with your car. You weren’t trying to, but a danger of getting behind the wheel is hitting someone. If they require the surrender of your bodily autonomy, ought the law demand it? (Ideally, this case uses you as life support for nine months. If you don’t have enough imagination, maybe ask what the law should demand if they need blood. Or a kidney.) Alternatively, perhaps the right analog is someone who you aimed your car at and hit. You knew the likely consequences of your actions. But the fun of smashing someone with your car seemed worth it. Are you bound to use your body to aid the person you hit?

I’m not sure yet where to move from there, but those seem to be the two questions at hand, in addition to the question of which one pregnancy is more like. For the argument presented for the prohibition of abortion to work, whichever one abortion turns out to be like has to also be answered that, yes, the government should step in and force you to surrender your bodily autonomy. You cannot pull the plug on/deny an organ donation to someone you hit with your car.

Onto the second premise, then. Are unborn humans people? If they’re not, then the door is open to killing them. They might still have some rights. Dogs aren’t people, but you can’t torture them. Nonetheless, their being people is pretty significant to this argument.

Now, we don’t need perfectly refined necessary and sufficient conditions of personhood to answer this question. All we need is something sufficient that unborn humans have or something necessary that they do not. So, someone making the argument against abortion will try to put forward a condition that anything that fulfills the conditions is a person. And someone defending abortion will put forward a condition that is required to qualify as a person.

On the arguing against the legality of abortion side, being alive tends to come up far more than it should. Lots of things are alive. The fly I just swatted was alive, but it was not a person. Next up is human. From here we see all sorts of conditions thrown around, like a beating heart or looking like a human in ultrasounds, or just being alive while having human DNA. Being alive while having human DNA isn’t enough since removed limbs are not people. Okay, so being alive, having human DNA, and either being able to survive independently or on a path of development toward independent survival. That seems to be the stable position, but then the question emerges: Why is that the line for moral personhood? What about having human DNA and either being biologically independent or on the path to such makes someone morally relevant as a person? This is what the person arguing against abortion needs to be more clear about.

Cue the defender of legal abortion. There are some conditions thrown out that turn out to be rather silly. “It’s just a clump of cells” is common, but it doesn’t work. As noted in the previous paragraph, the clump of cells is special in that it can develop. Given the right resources, it will develop into a human. Now if you want to push for the absurdity of allowing speculation into the future with some resources just assumed, you might argue that an egg or sperm will develop into a person given the right resources. But clearly eggs and sperm are not people, so that line cannot work. There’s room to go back and forth on this, but I think looking for a biological answer to personhood is a mistake.

Remember when giving examples of possible persons, beings like C-3PO came up. When we ask why someone is morally relevant as a person, the features that really matter are not a certain biology, but certain capacities or abilities. The ability to enter into interpersonal relationships, intelligence, language or concept use, moral understanding. These are all possible criteria. Unborn humans seem to fail all of them. Of course, each of these also has some dangers. If an adult human is incapable of being in an interpersonal relationship, is she not a person? Is sufficiently low intelligence grounds for denying personhood? Is someone completely amoral not a person? Perhaps. Is any of these things are the things that really matter to personhood and some humans fail to meet the condition(s), then maybe some exceptional humans are not persons.

The other side to this is the developmental disjunct. Maybe an unborn human is unable to enter a relationship, well below whatever an intelligence criterion might be, and amoral. But, the likelihood of developing into such a being is high, given adequate resources. And we can assume some level of resources because if you starve anyone, they will degrade and likely lose these conditions. There might be something question-begging about saying only the present individual counts, unless some further reason is given. One might look to people who are comatose or asleep. They fail the conditions, except maybe being in relationships. Yet going to sleep doesn’t make you not a person. But the defender of abortion can appeal to someone sleeping having a personal history. Though maybe going into a permanent coma does deprive one of personhood. Or dying. Are dead people still people? If they are, then being alive isn’t even a requirement. It doesn’t seem entirely absurd, though, to say that dead people are people. In which case maybe the personal history requirement is just the crucial requirement for personhood that captures all the cases we would otherwise want but excludes the unborn.

The problem here is just that now we’re stuck asking what a personal history is. My working hypothesis for a condition for personhood is something like personal history, and I take the lines to be drawn not by strict logical requirements, but rather by a general understanding of what a story of someone’s life looks like. Now, maybe “I know it when I see it” isn’t all that helpful in figuring out whether unborn humans are people. It may just leave us right where we started. But, as I said, just finding a necessary condition for personhood is enough, even if it’s not the most restrictive true necessary condition. That is, maybe the real bar is higher, but if we find a bar that’s not too high but the unborn still cannot meet, then the case against the second premise is made. So maybe a condition like this: someone is a person only if she is able to engage in interpersonal relationships or can use language or can use concepts or is intelligent or has moral understanding. Surely that’s too low a bar for personhood, but it doesn’t seem too high in any important regard, and unborn humans don’t clear it.

To summarize:

  • The best argument to make abortion illegal has two premises, each of which must be argued separately.
  • The first question  is whether, even if unborn humans are people, abortion is one of the exceptions in which we think killing people ought to be legal. The argument against the legality of abortion demands that abortion is not justifiable.
  • The second question  is whether unborn humans are people. While a complete definition of personhood is not needed, the argument against the legality of abortion demands that unborn humans do fall within the boundaries of personhood.

Even if the Bible is not the law, it is the document a lot of Americans look to for values

In the US, a lot of people are Christian. Christianity is a big enough force in the country that the “Religious Right” is a thing. While not all Republicans are concerned with religion, it’s at least a staple of the party, and any conservative politician will at least pay lip service to it. The Trump administration is no exception, and it has indeed tried to justify itself with the Bible.

In response to this and the absolutely infernal acts the administration is propagating, some others have pointed out that a good reading of the Bible will lead one to find condemnations of categories of things that include treating immigrants and refugees horribly.

In response to this response, some have stepped back and tried to deny any authority to the Bible either way:

hereweare

In some sense, yes, this is right. Though the second paragraph makes a subtle shift. Most people who are talking about the application of Jesus’s words to tearing kids from their parents are not trying to make a legal argument. I would be very surprised to find someone saying that tearing kids from their parents is illegal. Plenty of people are saying that it’s wrong, or that people should not tear kids from their parents, but that’s not the same as saying it’s illegal.

There are Constitutional provisions in the US restricting how laws can interact with religion. Though there’s an under-appreciated distinction between policies and the reasons behind policies. This comes up when people talk about the political compass too. Someone could be, say, authoritarian-left for a variety of different, even contrary reasons. But if you’re just trying to measure the concrete policies people support, then the motivations are abstracted away.

Likewise, people have all sorts of motivations for voting the way that they do. Many people, citizens and legislators, look to religion for guidance on which ways to vote. And if it’s something like what to set the income tax rates at or whether usury ought to be legal, then that’s a thing people can do. (There is some slippery room with legislators openly voting based on religious beliefs for policies without religious content, but even then, most people will let their values or morality tell them how to vote, and many people get those values from religion. You’re just one step removed.)

So in the sense of whether the Bible is the document that the agents of the state are supposed to consult in governing the country, no, of course not. You look to the laws and the will of the people. However, most of the people behind the laws and will are Christians. You might not like that. I’m not arguing whether that’s a thing worth trying to change, but for now, it is the case, and it will almost certainly be the case for at least several more years. So even if you think a long-term strategy of diminishing Christianity or religion in general is good, short-term solutions to urgent problems are also needed.

Public opinion and outcry does seem to have some effect on what the US government does. (Just yesterday Trump signed an order to keep families together. This may have been the Republican plan all along, but nonetheless, the plan at least had to incorporate public reactions.) So, to get good outcomes, we should include persuading the public to support the right policies. To do this requires appealing to the values people have. (We should also try to instill better values, but, again, that’s a long-term move.) In this case, adherence to the values of Christianity is a value a lot of people already have, and Jesus is pretty clear on this topic. So even if you or I think the Bible is not the document to look at for guidance in organizing society, plenty of people do, and they’re going to act as such. So we may as well point out that Jesus said to be good to people, as well as other things condemning pretty much everything ICE and company do.

Now, one might argue that if the majority religion were some other religion that supported these atrocities, then we would want people to steer away from what it says. Sure. We rarely appeal to every value anyway. In that case we would not look to adherence to religious teachings as a value and pick other values to appeal to. We can see this here, anyway. Most people probably take the obtaining of wealth as a value. Taking in refugees does not clearly serve that end. But for our purposes, that just means we don’t appeal to the value of money on this topic.

Brick-and-mortar stores are complaining that online stores not having to charge sales taxes is unfair; they’re right, what an occasion to end sales taxes!

Though it’s a state government leading the charge, the good justification for changing the law isn’t the one in the state’s interest. I see two complaints here:

  1. The state government wants more revenue. Online sales generally lower the amount of in-state sales, so the sales tax revenue is reduced.
  2. Physical retailers have to charge more than online retailers because of the sales tax boosting their effective prices. This gives buyers an extra incentive to buy online.

Complaint 2 is pretty reasonable. Unless we’re looking to give online sellers an edge for the sake of stomping out physical sellers, then the current situation is needlessly unfair. But there’s two ways to make it more fair. One is to add sales taxes to online purchases. The other is to destroy sales taxes entirely. Given sales taxes are a regressive, anti-demand tax, that second option is a lot nicer.

This second, better option would aggravate complaint 1 even further, but unlike sellers who only acquire revenue via selling things, state governments have other, better options. They can tax for land use. They can have progressive income or wealth taxes.

One comment in the linked WSJ article made a decent point against 1, as well: sellers without a physical location in the state are consuming less of the state resources. They aren’t taking up space, polluting the air and water, creating garbage, and otherwise creating various negative externalities for the state.

(Of course, the current court case can, officially, only be decided by what the current legal documents say rather than what they should say, and some analysis of the constitution suggests the status quo will be upheld. Though even the linked analysis then suggests that actual legislative changes should be made. The interstate commerce stuff is somewhat interesting, but a bigger hammer seems more appropriate here.)

In good news: Philadelphia’s top prosecutor is going against the trend of ruining as much life as possible

He’s suggesting “wild” ideas like offering very low sentences instead of caging people for extended periods of time. And recourse for people being wrongly punished.

 

I’m guessing the growing awareness of sexual assault problems on college campuses needs no introduction. Nor does the zeal that is leading the charge. In recent news, a guy was accused of sexual misconduct, but he made a case for asymmetry in application of the rules and won. I am, at least at this initial stage without that much information, pleased to see this. The asymmetry in how men and women are treated is bad. To borrow the already well-used expression, many of the zealous are seeing women as sex objects and men as sex offenders. If that’s right, it’s bad for everyone. (Well, I suppose the nonbinary individuals might make it out alright, if anyone advancing this pernicious sort of zeal acknowledges them. I’m sadly doubtful.)

The clearest example of the asymmetry, for any nonbelievers, is the existing cases (and approval thereof) wherein a gal and a guy are both heavily intoxicated, they are both unable to consent, and somehow only the gal is wronged. To take that approach to the situation is to deny the gal her agency. And, if either was harmed, deny the guy his vulnerability.

This is of course not to say I think we should let up on the pursuit of preventing sexual assault and harassment. Of course both would ideally be eradicated. But the asymmetry changes the dynamic from aiming to fix the problem of sexually predatory behavior to the different problem of gender politics. Are there real asymmetries and structural injustices along gendered lines? Yes. But hijacking the campaign to get rid of sexually predatory behavior just makes both pursuits worse.

More reason to decimate nonprivate evaluation

Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò wrote a great piece on how he’s a teacher, not a job trainer. I commonly complain about liberal arts institutions being co-opted as job training centers. Táíwò’s article takes the individual perspective, and gets a better personal angle on why this is bad. My usual argument is primarily that life has a lot of awesome stuff to it, and making money really isn’t that much of it. That “When will I use this?” is a common question asked about ethics classes shows how deep the problem is. We have more resources than ever being poured into higher education, but we’re getting rid of most of higher education.

Conveniently, Ben Orlin wrote about math’s role as a gatekeeper around the same time. Mathematics, an allegedly more practical field of study than any humanity, is abused as a gatekeeper. Mathematicians see beauty in math. I know many who would love to instill some enjoyment for mathematics into their students. Instead they have to teach requirements to a room full of people looking to take the test. Mathematicians by and large don’t seem fond of their role as gatekeepers. I’m not sure who does. At best playing gatekeeper is a means to dragging students into classes so administrators will agree to let the department have money.

One step out of the muck would be increased, mandatory privacy on grades, and perhaps courses taken. The gatekeeper function is much harder to fill when there’s no record to look at. Employers can’t bog down the education process with their exploitation of it as a filtering mechanism. (If they have too many applications to look at applicants as individuals, perhaps they’ll see some incentive to fix the broken job market.)

I’m not denying the importance of evaluation. Feedback is a critical part of the learning process. You have to know where you’re going wrong to fix it. Sometimes you need pointing in the right direction to improve. But these can be had without letting anyone outside the educational process aware of the feedback.

Unfortunately this idea falls among those that would require universal adoption all at once. If any small group of institutions did this at once, they would likely just be shunned. If they won’t play into the wishes of HR departments, then HR departments will shun their graduates. Then they’ll struggle to find any students. But, I retain three thoughts: One, there may still be something of use in this partial idea. Two, if UBI gets rolling, universities can exist without depending on high enrollment. Three, grade inflation is leading us down this road anyway. If everyone gets an A, nobody gets an A. If anyone can get a degree, the degree doesn’t signify much. At that point, all the degree says is one came up with tuition money one way or another. At that point, one should hope at least students get an education out of the deal.