A beautiful defense of academic freedom

In case you were not already aware, over the past couple weeks my alma mater Brooklyn College has been at the center of a controversial debate regarding academic freedom. In brief, the school’s Political Science Department announced that it would be sponsoring, along with several campus groups, an event on February 7 featuring the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which aims to stop what it considers the Israeli oppression of Palestinians. 

The event drew fiery criticism from a range of prominent people. Lawyer Alan Dershowitz claimed the school was engaging in anti-Israel propaganda, and urged for the inclusion of pro-Israel voices, or else cancellation of the event. The New York Daily News agreed with Dershowitz. New York State Assemblyman Dov Hikind called for Brooklyn College President Karen Gould to step down. And perhaps worst of all, state and local lawmakers, such as the hypocritical City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, threatened the school’s funding over the event. 

In response this criticism, Gould strongly defended the school’s right to hold events which include challenging and controversial points of view, noting that sponsorship does not equal endorsement. Brooklyn College professors, such as Corey Robin and Samir Chopraalso came to the defense of their school’s right to academic freedom. And, more broadly, media outlets such as the New York Times and writers such as Glenn Greenwald articulated why attacks on the school were wrong-headed.

But today, perhaps the most prominent figure expected to comment on this story finally has: New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. And his remarks are, at least in my opinion, a beautiful defense of academic freedom:

Well look, I couldn’t disagree more violently with BDS as they call it, Boycott Divestment and Sanctions. As you know I’m a big supporter of Israel, as big a one as you can find in the city, but I could also not agree more strongly with an academic department’s right to sponsor a forum on any topic that they choose. I mean, if you want to go to a university where the government decides what kind of subjects are fit for discussion, I suggest you apply to a school in North Korea.

The last thing that we need is for members of our City Council or State Legislature to be micromanaging the kinds of programs that our public universities run, and base funding decisions on the political views of professors. I can’t think of anything that would be more destructive to a university and its students.

You know, the freedom to discuss ideas, including ideas that people find repugnant, lies really at the heart of the university system, and take that away and higher education in this country would certainly die.

As Brian Leiter asks, “Will the other miscreants from Dershowitz to City Councilman Fidler now recant? They’ve been whacked by both the Mayor and the New York Times, as well as the rest of the civilized world.”

We shall see. You can follow Corey Robin for updates.

Catholic hospital reverses itself, says it was morally wrong to argue fetus is not a person

On Jan. 24, I posted about two news articles which revealed that, in an effort to evade a malpractice lawsuit, lawyers representing a group which owns a Catholic hospital in Colorado have been arguing, contrary to Catholic doctrine, that a fetus is not a person. 

Today, weeks after the story attracted widespread attention and criticism, it appears that the group, Catholic Health Initiatives (CHI), has changed its tune:

"In the discussion with the Church leaders, CHI representatives acknowledged that it was morally wrong for attorneys representing St. Thomas More Hospital to cite the state’s Wrongful Death Act in defense of this lawsuit. That law does not consider fetuses to be persons, which directly contradicts the moral teachings of the Church."

It will be interesting to see if and how this announcement will change the outcome of the case. I’ll keep you updated as everything moves forward. 

Why atheists should care about poverty

Walker Bristol, a political philosophy student at Tufts University, wrote recently on the Huffington Post that atheists — especially those who identify as New Atheists — should focus less on buying billboard space and more on combating social inequality:

Social justice is achieved through an alliance between sister causes. Not only must the atheist movement begin to openly care about and fight against class inequality and poverty, but they must do so by breaking down the divides between themselves and religious communities that share the same goal. The Foundation Beyond Belief, in facilitating philanthropic giving for humanist organizations, already sponsors a Poverty and Health charity each quarter, a beneficiary category which almost always receives the most donations of each of those supported by FBB. Local humanist organizations such as Atheists Helping the Homeless in Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas have also taken a lead in fighting economic inequality on the local level. But our national leaders continue to pour funds into self-righteous billboard campaigns rather than improving quality of life for those whose economic turmoil leaves them without access to the education that might improve their critical thought. And as long as that’s the case, the rest of society will continue to look on atheists with scorn, and potentially fruitful relationships with the religious will be shattered.

Thought it should be a compelling argument on its own, Bristol doesn’t simply posit that many people are suffering from the consequences of social inequality and that atheists should try to help them (remember, atheists believe that humans, not God, are ultimately responsible for improving the world). Bristol also proposes that doing social justice work would help to positively change the image of atheists, who are widely considered to be cold-hearted people.

So, just in case you’re the kind of atheist who doesn’t care about social inequality, perhaps you’re the kind who cares about changing what people think of atheists. Either way, now have you have a good reason to perform social justice work.

Should some people matter more than others?

In the past couple decades, prominent philosophers and social critics such as Peter Singer and Jeremy Rifkin have forcefully argued that humans must work to discard traditionally narrow, tribal thinking and extend their moral concerns to humans beyond just family, friends, and neighbors (as well as non-human animals). 

For example, Singer writes in his book “The Expanding Circle”:

“If I have seen … that from an ethical point of view I am just one person among the many in my society, and my interests are no more important, from the point of view of the whole, than the similar interests of others within my society, I am ready to see that, from a still larger point of view, my society is just one among other societies, and the interests of members of my society are no more important, from that larger perspective, than the similar interests of members of other societies.”

But author Stephan Asma says there are serious problems with this position. As he wrote recently on the philosophy blog of the New York Times:

All this sounds nice at first — indeed, I would like it to be true — but let me throw a little cold water on the idea. … All people are not equally entitled to my time, affection, resources or moral duties — and only conjectural assumption can make them appear so. (For many of us, family members are more entitled than friends, and friends more entitled than acquaintances, and acquaintances more than strangers, and so on.) It seems dubious to say that we should transcend tribe and be utilitarian because all people are equal, when the equal status of strangers and kin is an unproven and counterintuitive assumption.

Singer’s abstract “ethical point of view” is not wrong so much as irrelevant. Our actual lives are punctuated by moral gravity, which makes some people (kith and kin) much more central and forceful in our daily orbit of values. (Gravity is actually an apt metaphor. Some people in our lives take on great “affection mass” and bend our continuum of values into a solar-system of biases.  Family members usually have more moral gravity —what Robert Nozick calls “ethical pull.” 

You might have noticed that Asma is simply appealing to the fact that humans do value certain people over others. The real question is, “should we?” Asma answers with a firm “yes,” and defends what he refers to as “favoritism” on the grounds that it is beneficial to individual human flourishing. 

… my case for small-circle care dovetails nicely with the commonly agreed upon crucial ingredient in human happiness, namely, strong social bonds. A recent Niagara of longitudinal happiness studies all confirm that the most important element in a good life (eudaimonia) is close family and friendship ties — ties that bind. These are not digital Facebook friends nor are they needy faraway strangers, but robust proximate relationships that you can count on one or two hands — and these bonds are created and sustained by the very finite resource of emotional care that I’ve outlined.

Here’s the thing: I accept the notion that close relationships are integral to leading a good life — but that does not mean I reject the arguments put forth by Singer and Rifkin.

As I see it, we should readily accept that humans are bound to practice some form of “favoritism,” and cherish our relationships with those who we deem as favorites. However, I believe we should also recognize that while a couple of people might provide us with great meaning and happiness, there exist many people outside of one’s favorites who are capable of experiencing happiness and suffering, and these people are deserving of our moral concern. Of course, the question “How much moral concern should we give to such people?” is a very tough one to answer, but for the moment, I think it’s fair to say “more than they have received throughout history.” 

More simply put: there is no reason why a person cannot have his or her favorite people, and also feel significant amounts of empathy for, and do their part to help, starving and disease-ridden children around the world.

After all, isn’t another “important element in a good life” basic health? 

The secret to happiness

The following quote is taken from Bertrand Russell’s book The Conquest of Happiness (1930), a fabulous work in which Russell mixes philosophical analysis and practical thinking in order to help people cure unhappiness and find happiness. 

"The secret to happiness is this: let your interests be as wide as possible, and let your reactions to the things and persons that interest you be as far as possible friendly rather than hostile."

I know many people will reply, “easier said than done.” However, I would urge you to at least try keeping this thought in your mind as you go forth each day into the world, and see if it at all changes your behavior. You might be surprised by your findings. 

A more basic sense of justice

I’ve just found on CNN.com an article exploring in more depth the research I mentioned in yesterday’s post, which involves primatologist Frans de Waal and other scientists exploring through the study of chimpanzees whether humans are uniquely fair:

You might think of “morality” as special for humans, but there are elements of it that are found in the animal kingdom, says de Waal — namely, fairness and reciprocity. His latest study, published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests that chimpanzees may show some of the same sensibility about fairness that humans do.

The popular belief that the natural world is based on competition is a simplification, de Waal says. The strength of one’s immune system, and the ability to find food, are also crucial. And many animals survive by cooperating.

"The struggle for life is not necessarily literally a struggle," he said. "Humans are a highly cooperative species, and we can see in our close relatives where that comes from." …

De Waal isn’t sure that his monkeys have what a philosopher would call a “concept of justice” in an intellectual sense. But the emotional reactions researchers have observed indicates that there is, at a more basic level, a sense of justice among them.

The article also includes some pushback from other scientists: 

So, does this mean that chimpanzees show the same sense of fairness as humans? Keith Jensen of the University of Manchester, who has conducted similar experiments in the past, isn’t so sure. His results did not show that chimpanzees have a sense of fairness.

Jensen is concerned about the results of this new study because it’s not clear that the responders knew that they could reject offers. None of the participants, human or chimp, ever rejected the offers of their partners.

"The fact that responders never rejected nonzero offers suggests that they were not sensitive to unfairness but were only motivated by getting food for themselves, regardless of the intentions of the proposers or the consequences for them," he said in an e-mail.

You can read the full article here

Study sheds light on origins of human fairness

In an interesting follow to last week’s post on the question of whether humans are uniquely violent (the answer: probably not), I have just come across a new study which explores the question of whether humans are uniquely fair (the answer: absolutely not).

Here is the abstract:

Is the sense of fairness uniquely human? Human reactions to reward division are often studied by means of the ultimatum game, in which both partners need to agree on a distribution for both to receive rewards. Humans typically offer generous portions of the reward to their partner, a tendency our close primate relatives have thus far failed to show in experiments. Here we tested chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) and human children on a modified ultimatum game. One individual chose between two tokens that, with their partner’s cooperation, could be exchanged for rewards. One token offered equal rewards to both players, whereas the other token favored the chooser. Both apes and children responded like humans typically do. If their partner’s cooperation was required, they split the rewards equally. However, with passive partners—a situation akin to the so-called dictator game—they preferred the selfish option. Thus, humans and chimpanzees show similar preferences regarding reward division, suggesting a long evolutionary history to the human sense of fairness.

You read some news coverage of the study here.

Meet … Michael De Dora

Recently I sat down for a video interview with Christopher Brown for his podcast, Meet the Skeptics. The podcast serves to introduces the skeptic community (i.e., people interested in scientific inquiry, especially as applied to pseudoscientific and paranormal beliefs and issues) to its public leaders. I qualify as director of public policy for the Center for Inquiry, an organization that advances reason, science, and secular values, and which has an affiliate called the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry.

In our discussion, Chris and I spoke about a range of things, including my deconversion from Catholicism, my time at FOX News (no, really), and my current work advocating for rationalism on Capitol Hill and at the United Nations.

You can listen or watch the interview here.

Clarifying the continually controversial relationship between science, morality

Recently author and prominent skeptic Michael Shermer contributed to Edge.org's collection of essays on the question, “What Should We Be Worried About?”

Shermer’s answer: "The Is-Ought Fallacy of Science and Morality." 

We should be worried that scientists have given up the search for determining right and wrong and which values lead to human flourishing just as the research tools for doing so are coming online through such fields as evolutionary ethics, experimental ethics, neuroethics, and related fields. The Is-Ought problem (sometimes rendered as the “naturalistic fallacy”) is itself a fallacy. Morals and values must be based on the way things are in order to establish the best conditions for human flourishing. Before we abandon the ship just as it leaves port, let’s give science a chance to steer a course toward a destination where scientists at least have a voice in the conversation on how best we should live.

Philosopher of science (and friend) Massimo Pigliucci is not prone to letting swipes at philosophy go without response. So, as he marvelously did several months ago with Lawrence Krauss, Pigliucci has taken to his blog Rationally Speaking to calmly and cooly explained why Shermer’s position on the relationship between science and morality is unsupportable. Pigliucci’s article is admittedly long, but once again, it should be considered required reading for anyone interested in this subject.

Here’s a glimpse:

Shermer then goes on to add a market economy to the mix of his favorite ideologies, claiming that “it decreases violence and increases peace significantly” (hardly surprising, coming from a well known libertarian). Once more, without even going to question the empirical assertion, shouldn’t we at least admit that “market economy” is a highly heterogeneous category (think US vs China), and that some market economies decrease fairness, do not provide universal access to health care and education, lower workers’ wages, and overall negatively affect human flourishing? How should we rank our values in order to make sense of the data? How do the data by themselves establish a guide to which values we should hold? And why should we follow whatever the current science says, as opposed to having discussions about where we would like science and technology (and economics) themselves to go?

You can read the full essay here.

Catholic hospital argues, contrary to Catholic doctrine, that a fetus is not a person

It appears that even core religious dogmas are changeable when sticking to them might cost money. Take a look at this disturbing story in the Colorado Independent:

Lori Stodghill was 31-years old, seven-months pregnant with twin boys and feeling sick when she arrived at St. Thomas More hospital in Cañon City on New Year’s Day 2006. She was vomiting and short of breath and she passed out as she was being wheeled into an examination room. Medical staff tried to resuscitate her but, as became clear only later, a main artery feeding her lungs was clogged and the clog led to a massive heart attack. Stodghill’s obstetrician, Dr. Pelham Staples, who also happened to be the obstetrician on call for emergencies that night, never answered a page. His patient died at the hospital less than an hour after she arrived and her twins died in her womb.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, Stodghill’s husband Jeremy, a prison guard, filed a wrongful-death lawsuit on behalf of himself and the couple’s then-two-year-old daughter Elizabeth. Staples should have made it to the hospital, his lawyers argued, or at least instructed the frantic emergency room staff to perform a caesarian-section. The procedure likely would not have saved the mother, a testifying expert said, but it may have saved the twins.

The lead defendant in the case is Catholic Health Initiatives, the Englewood-based nonprofit that runs St. Thomas More Hospital as well as roughly 170 other health facilities in 17 states. Last year, the hospital chain reported national assets of $15 billion. The organization’s mission, according to its promotional literature, is to “nurture the healing ministry of the Church” and to be guided by “fidelity to the Gospel.” Toward those ends, Catholic Health facilities seek to follow the Ethical and Religious Directives of the Catholic Church authored by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Those rules have stirred controversy for decades, mainly for forbidding non-natural birth control and abortions. “Catholic health care ministry witnesses to the sanctity of life ‘from the moment of conception until death,’” the directives state. “The Church’s defense of life encompasses the unborn.”

The directives can complicate business deals for Catholic Health, as they can for other Catholic health care providers, partly by spurring political resistance. In 2011, the Kentucky attorney general and governor nixed a plan in which Catholic Health sought to merge with and ultimately gain control of publicly funded hospitals in Louisville. The officials were reacting to citizen concerns that access to reproductive and end-of-life services would be curtailed. According to The Denver Post, similar fears slowed the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth’s plan over the last few years to buy out Exempla Lutheran Medical Center and Exempla Good Samaritan Medical Center in the Denver metro area.

But when it came to mounting a defense in the Stodghill case, Catholic Health’s lawyers effectively turned the Church directives on their head. Catholic organizations have for decades fought to change federal and state laws that fail to protect “unborn persons,” and Catholic Health’s lawyers in this case had the chance to set precedent bolstering anti-abortion legal arguments. Instead, they are arguing state law protects doctors from liability concerning unborn fetuses on grounds that those fetuses are not persons with legal rights.

As Jason Langley, an attorney with Denver-based Kennedy Childs, argued in one of the briefs he filed for the defense, the court “should not overturn the long-standing rule in Colorado that the term ‘person,’ as is used in the Wrongful Death Act, encompasses only individuals born alive. Colorado state courts define ‘person’ under the Act to include only those born alive. Therefore Plaintiffs cannot maintain wrongful death claims based on two unborn fetuses.”

The Catholic Health attorneys have so far won decisions from Fremont County District Court Judge David M. Thorson and now-retired Colorado Court of Appeals Judge Arthur Roy.

Can you say “hypocrisy”?

The case has since been appealed to the state Supreme Court, though, to be sure, the prior rulings are consistent ”with a long-standing interpretation by state courts that define ‘person’ under the Wrongful Death Act to include only those born alive.”

You can read more in the Denver Westward News.