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.

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Some media is better than other media

This article is excellent. I don’t agree with everything in it, but I think it has two very good and important points:
 
1. If you give up on things like value judgements and expertise, you lose almost all ground you have to say much with oomph. Some things are better than some other things. Aesthetically as well as politically. Media created with nuance and skill is better than kitsch and propaganda. People who spend a lot of time studying a thing do tend to know better than most about that thing. “Elitism” has become such a bad word that we’ve forgotten that it is better to be better.
 
2. Texts (and other works, but usually texts) that are difficult and slow, but rewarding, to work through have benefits over fast and easy media. Simple messages are easy to use as rallying cries. For good or bad causes. If something takes no thought to consume, then it usually won’t get much thought in its consumption. This isn’t to say that writing in such a way that is needlessly difficult to understand is a good thing, but works that reward reading slowly and rereading and analysizing are better.
 
 

Dragging people down instead of trying to make things better

Perhaps I’ve blogged about this before. The tendency has existed long before social media, but social media makes it even easier to broadcast one’s ressentiment. Today this one popped up in my newsfeed, edited because Facebook and Twitter will use it as the image for this post:

Epipen Ressentiment

See what I did there? The original post suggests that because children’s parents are being charged nefarious costs, drug users should also be charged nefarious costs. That’s, of course, either idiotic (in most cases) or evil (if you’re selling epipens). By crossing out the second sentence, I changed the message. That people are being gouged of their limited resources because they or their children need epinephrine to not die is screwed up.

One might object that they think children are blameless and that drug users deserve worse. Even thinking that, to try to drag the conditions of drug users down instead of to raise the conditions of children up is at best an expression of bitter ressentiment.

And this is, of course, just one form. This shoddy rhetoric also comes up with the minimum wage. Some people will say that, for example, nurses only make $13 an hour, so clearly people working cash registers should make less than $13 an hour. Thinking and speaking that way only drags everyone down. If you want to hold onto that nurses should make more than cashiers, then instead reason that since everyone working should make at least, say, $15 an hour, nurses should make at least $20 an hour. And instead of saying we should make drug users pay up or die, instead say nobody should be forced into such a bad situation.

Sex discrimination inherently includes discrimination on homosexuality, transsexualism, etc.

I’ve been saying this for years, but hey, looks like the courts are getting on board.

The linked article includes some statements in opposition, but they’re generally terrible. First, a brief argument for the statement in the title of this post. If you’re going to support equality across sexes, then you’re going to support that for all x, if x is permissible for one sex, then x is permissible for all sexes. (There are other understandings of how to use the word “equality”, but those are clearly not the ones in play here.) So, if it’s okay for people of any particular sex to be attracted to women, then it’s okay for people of any sex at all to be attracted to women. And so on.

Jeff Sessions said,

Title VII’s prohibition on sex discrimination encompasses discrimination between men and women but does not encompass discrimination based on gender identity per se, including transgender status.

I’m curious what action Jeff thinks is unique to the transgender “status”. To use the case in the article as an example, there’s nothing Stephens is doing against any rule, unless there are some sex-specific rules. There is no way to state his objection to Stephens’s case completely without reference to her sex.

The employer, Rost, said he wants to run his business in accordance with his religion that says that

a person’s sex (whether male or female) is an immutable God-given gift and that people should not deny or attempt to change their sex.

I’d be really curious to see which religion says you cannot employ people who deny or attempt to change their sex. I’ll admit I’m only a little into the iceberg of religion, but rules for employers seem to be generally sparse, and I’ve never seen anything approaching this.

Posner said,

It is well-nigh certain that homosexuality, male or female, did not figure in the minds of the legislators who enacted Title VII,”

He then proceeded to say the meaning of “sex” can be updated to include homosexuality. But that’s unnecessary. There’s no way to discriminate against homosexuals without also discriminating on the basis of sex.

If the Court finds a law says a bad thing, then change the law

Noah Feldman wrote in response to calls to amend the US Constitution to repeal or otherwise fix the second amendment. He makes an interesting point about antiquity serving to protect some rights. If some instance of government wanted to curtail certain rights, it would have to go through the amendment process (assuming it doesn’t just burn the Constitution—this only works for slow-moving evil). Even though valuing the older rules just because they’re older is in itself ridiculous, taking it as a value adds a line of defense to the older rules. So if the older rules are particularly good, then taking that value can be a good strategic move. The value does demand they be taken as a whole, though, so the ten amendments from 1791 come as a package deal.

Feldman seems to have some other motives in mind, though:

But amending the Constitution just because the Supreme Court may have taken its interpretation too far would undercut the very idea that the justices have the authority to interpret the Constitution to apply and expand basic rights. Live by the judicial interpretation, die by the judicial interpretation.

The interpretation is of existing legislation. What Feldman is proposing sounds like giving the court final authority on what ought to be done, rather than how to read the laws. Amending the Constitution because the court reveals the official reading says some undesireable things is completely respecting the idea that the justices have the authority to interpret the Constitution.

Take an analogous example to illustrate. Ava goes to the store with a 25% off coupon. Then she sees a rack of items for 30% off. She goes to check out expecting a 55% discount.  But then it rings up with only a 47.5% discount. She asks what gives and the shopkeeper says the discounts are taken in succession, not added together. If she were to argue, that would be not respecting the interpretation of the shopkeep. If she acknowledges what the shopkeep says but then decides in light of the new information to change her action and not buy the item, then she’s respecting the interpretation.

What does it say that people have no idea how to argue for caring about other people?

Certain debates prompt a certain article from the Huffington Post to make the rounds again. Sometimes it’s gun control; sometimes it’s health care. At this point people have mostly given up on linking to the article, preferring to state the headline and move on:

See the source image

Usually this comes from liberal spheres. On the occasion a leftist voice can be heard, sometimes a leftist will deal with the bad taste of Huffington Post long enough to repeat the line. That both of these types tend to respect expertise (or at least pay lip service to it) makes their lack of turning to the relevant experts rather odd. There are, after all, plenty of people who do know how to explain why you should care about other people. (Or, at least they claim to. I don’t think they succeed. But I’d certainly turn to at least a few moral philosophers before declaring the project impossible.)

Perhaps there’s really two problems one of these people might be having. The first is a lack of understanding why they should care about other people themselves. They find it basically aesthetically pleasing when people show care for other people, but their taste is fundamental. They cannot explain it to someone else because they have no explanation besides claiming it as a brute fact.

The second is a pedagogical problem. Even if Kant’s Metaphysics of Morals does successfully explain why you should care about other people, whipping a copy of it at a nearby person who doesn’t care about other people is unlikely to persuade them. If any moral philosophy is right, it’s probably right in a way that’s difficult to understand. Most people are not well-equipped to impart the arguments to others. But then, that’s usually the result of not having much of an argument for it for themselves. So the problem is probably the first in most cases.

But if there’s no reason to care, then demanding anyone else abide by your arbitrary maxim is absurd. “I don’t know how to explain to you that you should care about the rights of grass” sounds silly. Vegans often do know how to explain to you that you should care about animals. Perhaps this is just an accident of their coming to veganism from a position of non-veganism. The arguments don’t always persuade, but they are at least better than throwing their arms up and saying “I don’t know how to explain to you that you should care about animals.”

 

TBT: More of people trying to replace education with gatekeeping for employers

This article is pretty good. A few comments, mostly echoing Strauss, though my own thoughts are intertwined:

1-Perhaps the most disturbing issue at play here is the profit motives driving educational reform at the moment. Yes, K-12 education could be done better. However, looking at the material associated with the Common Core as well as the people advocating it at the highest level, the companies making tests have a lot to gain. More tests means money is being spent padding their pockets rather than educating children.

2-Related to the above is the distressing tendency for learning to be quantified. A teacher reading a student’s work will know much better what needs to happen than any number can express. I wrote down my SAT scores on some college applications, but the test itself was entirely useless. Likewise, my modus operandi with ECA and ISTEP+ results was to light them on fire. (Not really. But where they are is beyond me.) Telling me I got a 654/800 or whatever other score tells me approximately nothing. Was my reasoning not solid? Was my grammar poor? Was the grader intoxicated? Did I fill up every single line and use no punctuation but still get a perfect because OMG SO MCH WRITING (yes, that happened to someone on the ISTEP+)?

I don’t know. I’ll never know. Quizzes here and there, along with chapter or unit tests with individual feedback is pretty useful; don’t get me wrong. Feedback is always critical (except apparently in MOOCs), but numbers are not feedback. Hell, Finland seems to do fine when they throw numerical grades out entirely and just focus on teachers and students communicating what’s going on. “This essay would work better if…” or “You need to use this formula here…” is a lot more useful than “4/5 B-“. What the hell does that even mean?

Of course, to, say, the profit-minded who are purely interested in who can churn out the best numerical results? Perhaps corporate employers who need a quick, easy method of whacking thousands of applications away without any work? Tests might aid them a bit. Human interaction isn’t as profitable. For those who care most for profit, anyhow. Anyone who’s looking to move up or focus on learning has an obstacle in their way.

Can’t get more money to seek more education because scores are too low.
Can’t focus on learning because the test is more important.

3-The idea of nationwide consistency is nice. Why Maryland is a year ahead of Indiana in Mathematics is beyond me. Why English curricula, as far as I know, is completely different state-to-state is also beyond me. (Well, it’s not beyond me; Jeffersonianism is entirely to blame.) CCSS is also not the solution because it doesn’t even work on the school level. Saying “9th grade students should generally learn algebra to some degree of depth based on ability” is one thing. “All 9th grade students must know how to solve two-variable systems of equations via substitution by October 18th”, or something to said effect, is an entirely different thing. While, as far as I know the latter case is not CCSS, the idea that completely uniform education is going to happen, especially with funds being siphoned to testing, is not particularly convincing.

The article notes several other issues, and I do recommend reading it. Another notable aspect is the lack of educators involved in the design of Common Core. When one K-12 teacher is involved, no professors, and no parents, but a solid 300 non-educators, primarily politicians and businesspeople, there’s probably an issue. I’m no expert in pedagogy, and thus my comments ought to come with a grain of salt, but neither are the vast majority of the people designing the educational reform. Maybe when we get the money and numbers off the table and let teachers who, you know, actually know how teaching works do their jobs, we might see better results.

Yes, there are equality problems. Solutions beyond “Seek revenge on schools that fail our standards,” exist. They’re also actually solutions. My preferred plan would be to have funding based on the national level, thus making each student able to have equal funding regardless of district, but other solutions, of course, exist. I’d also advocate for smaller classes and longer school days, but that’s, of course, getting off-topic.