Posts tagged politics

Ronald Dworkin, theorist on relationship between morality and law, dead at 81

Matt Schudel of The Washington Post has written a great obituary on a man who has influenced the thinking of a countless number of people on this issue (including me):

Ronald Dworkin, an innovative legal thinker who developed a novel interpretation of the moral underpinnings of the Constitution and who became respected in liberal circles for his writings on law, politics and hotly debated public issues, died Feb. 14 in London. He was 81 and had leukemia.

New York University, where Mr. Dworkin was a law professor, announced his death.

Mr. Dworkin, who also taught for many years at the University of Oxford in Britain, went against a century of legal thinking — including the theories of his two most important mentors — to develop a new concept of jurisprudence based on society’s widely shared notions of morality.

His idea of “law as integrity” held that jurists should interpret legal cases through a consistent set of moral principles. In other words, law and morality were inextricably linked, which was a subtle twist in legal thinking. Mr. Dworkin’s theories gained a wide following, particularly among social liberals.

“For many, Dworkin was something of a legal prophet who tried to invest legal interpretation with a sense of moral reasoning,” Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University, said Thursday. “His writings offered a new and transcendent view of the law — a view that will influence legal reasoning for generations.”

You can read the whole thing here.

White House pushed on drone warfare

Earlier this week, NBC News leaked a confidential memo from the U.S. Justice Department which concluded that the White House can order the killing of American citizens if they are considered to be “senior operational leaders” of the terrorist organization Al Qaeda or an associated force — even if there is no information which links the supposed leader to an active plot against America. 

News of the 16-page memo set off a heated national debate regarding governmental secrecy, the limits on executive power, and the merits of drone warfare.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney tried to calm the debate by stating

"These strikes are legal, they are ethical and they are wise," Carney said. The government takes "great care" when deciding where and whom to strike, he added.

Yet both public and political pressure on the White House has only increased, forcing the administration to announce it will give Congress its memos backing drone warfare. 

Since this debate is now bound to continue, it’s worth keeping in mind — especially in light of Carney’s comment that the strikes are both legal and ethical — that the question of whether drone strikes are legal is entirely separate from the question of whether they are ethical. As Kevin Jon Heller wrote last month:

I still want to resist an idea that seems to underly all of the responses to my post: namely, that we cannot (or at least should not) consider collateral deaths caused by drone strikes to be immoral as long as those strikes were legal.  I strongly disagree with that idea; I think it is possible — indeed important — to insist that the drone program is profoundly immoral even if no individual drone strike ever violates the laws of war.  There is a vast philosophic literature on the difference between legality and morality, which I do not have time to discuss here. … Suffice it to say that very few people are such thoroughgoing positivists that they believe legality and morality are coterminous, even if they disagree dramatically with each other concerning the particulars of the difference. Two obvious examples: “pro-lifers” don’t consider abortion to be moral even though it is legal, while the pro-euthanasia crowd doesn’t consider assisted suicide to be immoral simply because it is almost always illegal.  Both groups simply reject the morality of the laws in question.

 Let’s hope — or, rather, make sure — this gets due coverage in the coming months. 

You can read about my views on this subject here

 

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. 

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.

Is secularism hostile towards religion?

J. Brent Walker of the Baptist Joint Committee argues on the Huffington Post that the principle of separation of church and state does not outright ban religion from playing some role in politics, but rather provides citizens the comfort of knowing government will not push religion on them; that government will remain neutral on the subject.

The First Amendment requires, and we should be happy to embrace, a “secular” government in the sense that it is prohibited from promoting religion or taking sides in religious disputes, favoring one over another. It should and must be neutral toward religion.

A secular government does not mean it is hostile to religion. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The institutional separation of church and state does not mean the segregation of religion from politics nor does it strip the right of people of faith to speak forcefully in the public square. It means only that government cannot pass laws that have a primary purpose or effect that advances religion. Religious speech in the public square and even some government venues is commonplace. Examples abound. One need only to look at Tuesday’s planned Presidential Inaugural Prayer Service. The president, vice president, dignitaries and Americans of diverse faiths will gather to celebrate the inauguration through prayer, readings and musical performances. And at the inauguration itself, an invocation and benediction will be offered. That doesn’t sound like religion is getting short shrift or that the public square is naked. Actually, it is dressed to the nines.

Walker is correct: secularism allows, and one could argue encourages, people to promote and defend their religious or other views in the public square. It also allows elected officials who are religious to be guided in their profession by their religious beliefs. Barring them from doing so would be both immoral and impractical. In this way, secularism is not hostile towards religion.

Yet few people seem to realize that the lack of separation between religion and politics poses a threat to the institutional separation of church and state. If lawmakers are making policy decisions based on their religious beliefs — especially as often as they do in these highly religious United States — then government is not truly secular. In this way, I think it’s fair to say that secularism is unfriendly towards religion.

To be clear, I do not think there is a problem with the lack of separation between religion and politics. As I said, it would be both immoral and impractical to ask our elected officials to leave their religious beliefs at their office door each morning. Rather, I think there is a problem with elected officials not realizing that making decisions based on religion is not necessarily wise. 

All of that aside, Walker goes on to make an important point which is not often heard. 

Yes, our culture can be crude and some people are indifferent or hostile to religion. But the answer is not to malign the separation of church and state, which would do away with religious freedom and give government the job of promoting religion. Jefferson’s radical Virginia statute created a vital marketplace for religion that must be based on voluntary belief, not government assistance. It is for us — people of faith and religious institutions, like the church — to take up the task of making our religion winsome to the world and count on government to do no more than to protect our right to do so.

In other words: those concerned with the fact that religion has taken a beating in the public square the last ten years (say, due to the New Atheists) should not attack seperation of church and state. They should try to defend their religious beliefs. 

Good luck. 

The importance of local activism

Hey, look, I’m in the newspaper! The Deseret News, to be exact, in an article focusing on states as prime battlegrounds for political battles over religious freedom.

"I try to tell our people, ‘You might think that what’s going on in Congress right now is the most important thing right now, but it’s absolutely not,’" said Michael De Dora, public policy director for the Center for Inquiry, a secularist group the advocates against government involvement in religion. "You need to pay attention to what’s going on at the school board, city hall and state levels because that’s where things are happening."

That’s true. If you are interested and have some time to devote to political activism, think local. There’s a lot that can be done, and probably less people trying to do it than you imagine. Give them a hand.  You never know what could come of it. 

Legality of drones does not justify their use

Kevin Jon Heller, writing on the blog Opinio Jurisrecently did a great job of making the important point that while the U.S. government might be able to provide some legal justification for the continued use of drone strikes abroad, that would be different than providing a moral justification. Replying to responses on an earlier post, Heller writes: 

I still want to resist an idea that seems to underly all of the responses to my post: namely, that we cannot (or at least should not) consider collateral deaths caused by drone strikes to be immoral as long as those strikes were legal.  I strongly disagree with that idea; I think it is possible — indeed important — to insist that the drone program is profoundly immoral even if no individual drone strike ever violates the laws of war.  There is a vast philosophic literature on the difference between legality and morality, which I do not have time to discuss here. … Suffice it to say that very few people are such thoroughgoing positivists that they believe legality and morality are coterminous, even if they disagree dramatically with each other concerning the particulars of the difference. Two obvious examples: “pro-lifers” don’t consider abortion to be moral even though it is legal, while the pro-euthanasia crowd doesn’t consider assisted suicide to be immoral simply because it is almost always illegal.  Both groups simply reject the morality of the laws in question.

You can read about my views on this subject here

Why people oppose, support marriage equality

Gallup yesterday released the findings of its latest survey on marriage equality. The good news is that a majority of Americans (53 percent) support marriage equality. But more interesting (at least to me!) than the overall oppose or support percentages were the survey’s findings regarding why people oppose or support marriage equality:

In other words: most people who oppose marriage equality do so for religious reasons, while people who support marriage equality do so based on secular reasons, such as equality and fairness. Perhaps this doesn’t come as a surprise, but simply a confirmation of what we all assumed was the case. Yet I would argue that it is important to know exactly why people oppose and support certain policies, because such knowledge allows those involved in the fight to hone their arguments and make them more likely to be accepted by others.

Hat tip to the Friendly Atheist.

A secular state is not an amoral state

Back in October I wrote on this website that people concerned with secularizing discourse on public policy, and thus secularizing government, might have more success in achieving their goal if they appeal to pluralism (“let’s make arguments all Americans can understand”) rather than strict church-state separation (“hey, you can’t say that!”).

Some religious believers countered that the more secular our discourse on public policy becomes, the less it will involve discussion on moral beliefs and values, if at all.

Yet as Christian blogger Robert Hunt points out, a secular state doesn’t abandon talk of moral beliefs and values. It simply requires a different approach to discussing them.

Does the secular state abandon the possibility of being a moral state?

The answer is no. The secular state does not abandon being moral. Indeed moral discourse remains firmly a part of political discourse. One need only examine the recent US presidential campaign to see this. It does, however, shift the basis for moral decision making in two ways. First, determining what is moral is moved away from decisions made by a religious establishment to decisions made by the majority of citizens (at least in a democracy.)  And secondly this decision making process takes place through public debate and appeal to information available to and known by all or a majority of citizens rather than to a privileged revelation or interpretation.

So to use a contemporary American example, if you want to argue that marriage should only be between a man and a woman you must show that your view is based on information and analysis available to everyone (or at least a majority) rather than a particular sectarian interpretation of scripture. You cannot appeal to the Bible, the Qur’an, or a particular interpretation of either and necessarily expect that your fellow citizens will accept its validity.

This is even more the case in the United States, where the constitution explicitly forbids the government to engage in establishing sectarian religious views in law.

The great advantage of the secular state is that it requires citizens to be engaged across religious and sectarian divides in order for it to implement a moral order. Citizens and their leaders must seek the universal rather than the particular for the state to function.

The transition to a secular state has not been easy in the Muslim world, or indeed in the non-Western world. Secular states are associated with both colonialism and Western nations that appear to many  to be highly immoral. Yet the alternative, a religious state, appears from its modern manifestations to be the way only toward endless sectarian violence and the oppression of religious minorities. 

Well put, Mr. Hunt.