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08/20/2006

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Chris

I don't think my criterion excludes people with mental or physical impairments; even an extremely retarded human being can do things far, far more advanced than a dog can do.

I don't think that a sleeping person's latent desires are so different from an embryo's. They each are biologically embodied, but will require a certain process to unfold before the actual desires manifest themselves and cause actions.

"A sleeping person would wake up, pick up the newspaper and start reading. A fertilized human egg cell would have to undergo a dramatic transformation and then become self aware, learn language and reading and then finally pick up the newspaper and start reading." These two processes don't seem so very different to me. Waking up is a pretty dramatic transformation. Nothing happens to the embryo, I think, that can justifiably be said to turn it into a different sort of object. Both processes are biologically directed from the inside and are the manifestations of innate capacities. The embryo just requires a longer process of waking up. True, the sleeping person has done these sorts of things in the past, and that's why I talk about replicated sleeping persons, who haven't.

"Some entities may, in the future, experience a desire not be killed." I put the embryo & replicated sleeper here, and think that that's enough--though instead of "may," I'd say "will, unless interfered with."

Chris

Forgot to respond to this: "More fundamentally, it is not clear why prohibitions on killing should be based on whether an entity might in the future do something like read a newspaper." Just seems right to me. I can't see any good alternative reason why killing replicated sleeping people would be wrong, but it seems obviously so.

Also forgot to respond to this from before: "You also imply that determining whether something a person is 'obvious'." Only in some cases, not all the time. Sleepers are an easy case.

Anonymous

With all this talk about the morality of "killing" eggs and sperm, perhaps we ought to discuss the morality of bombing civilians. Or of standing silent in the face of genocide; or of allowing AIDS patients to go without life-saving drugs; or of allowing babies in under-developed countries to die of starvation. Or, perhaps, that would expose too much political hypocrisy for one day.

"Murder" is a legal term that does not apply to the unborn, much less an unimplanted embryo. So let's take that word out of the debate.

We have to draw a line, somewhere, demarcating who is a legal "person" that has a legally enforceable right to life, which cannot be taken away without due process of law. One simple and widely accepted line is that, once a baby is born, it becomes a person, because it can live and breathe on its own, outside the womb.

As to the unborn, we will not solve that question today. But can we at least agree that the goal is to protect something greater than a small collection of cells? The question of what a 150-cell embryo might become, after nine months of pregnancy, is quite different from the question of what it IS before it has ever been implanted in the womb.

Chris

Anonymous,

"But can we at least agree that the goal is to protect something greater than a small collection of cells?" I'm not sure what you're asking that we all agree to--that we at least protect all the human individuals that are more than just a small collection, or that we at most protect those? I see very little grounds for thinking that it is uncontroversial that the embryo is not a person--certainly not if you think that the question itself is a hard one!

The smallness of the embryo can't be dispositive, can it? Remember Horton: "A person's a person, no matter how small." Also, I don't think it's right to call the embryo a mere "collection," since it displays integrated organic functioning. The embryo is not just a heap of cells, but a single functioning organism.

"The question of what a 150-cell embryo might become, after nine months of pregnancy, is quite different from the question of what it IS before it has ever been implanted in the womb." You seem to be suggesting that implantation turns the embryo into a new, different entity. But I don't think the way that the biology works really suggests that--as I understand it, implantation is not the intervention of an external power on the embryo, rearranging it and turning it into a new being, but instead a process directed by the embryo itself.

CTW

going a bit further than wes did (altho my guess is that he won't disagree), the reason these kinds of debates are inherently religious is that they depend on a view of life - and in particular human life - as "sacred". if you don't believe it is, then as others have noted, the rules delineating when killing an organism is OK and when it isn't is an arbitrary - not to suggest groundless - social convention that needs to be justified on some basis other than "it's morally wrong".

in the US, the majority currently consider unjustified killing of a human being to be not OK, but accept numerous justifying exceptions (executions, self-defense, accidents, war, abortion with restrictions, etc). squashing small bugs is OK (for non-ahimsa followers) but drowning a cat for fun isn't. research on animals is OK until it gets too much publicity at which point it can become not OK. raising and slaughtering animals and thereby facilitating early death of overweight humans is OK, as is letting millions starve to death annually. and there are many who think mass killing of humans is OK as long as it's because "they" are a potential threat to "us". lot's of arbitrary and not terribly coherent lines.

and yet there is an outcry against destroying a few cells that might possibly - with low probability - become an unequivocal human being sometime in the future, ie, some want to move that arbitrary line to, if not beyond, the limits of rationality. as several have suggested, whether one is religious and motivated by sanctity of life concerns or secular and motivated by pragmatics, there would seem to be numerous more pressing concerns involving inarguably "living creatures" on which to expend one's energies in moving those arbitary lines.

and I second anonymous's suggestion re "murder". use of that term in cases where it is legally inaccurate is clearly meant to short circuit serious discussion and a sure fire indicator of one whose opinions should be, and by me are, ignored.

Chris

CTW,

"[T]he reason these kinds of debates are inherently religious is that they depend on a view of life - and in particular human life - as 'sacred'. if you don't believe it is, then as others have noted, the rules delineating when killing an organism is OK and when it isn't is an arbitrary - not to suggest groundless - social convention that needs to be justified on some basis other than 'it's morally wrong'."

I still don't see why religion has anything to do with it. Even if you think life is sacred, or that God said "you shall not murder," that doesn't tell us which beings fall under the prohibition. We still need some reasoning about exactly which entities are worth preserving and why, and I don't think religion is going to be of much use. On the other hand, even if we think that God never said any such thing, we still have a norm against homicide if we're at all civilized, and we have to engage in just about exactly the same sort of reasoning about which entities are worth preserving and why that the religious person has to engage in.

Religious people aren't the only ones who uphold a moral norm against homicide, surely! If not, then we can all reason about what that norm is and exactly what beings it should cover. We don't need to think that life is "sacred" to support a moral norm against homicide; we just need to think that human life is important and worth protecting. Nothing spooky or mystical-twistical going on here at all.

Scott R. Monroe

"The main therapeutic applications of stem cell research lie too far in the future and are too uncertain to attract much private investment, given the high discount rates that most businesses use to evaluate projects".


Could it be that government's "discount rate" for medical research is too low? If prices and investments reflect the current and future desires of consumers, including the desire for medical treatments, why is government better allocating scarce resources than private enterprise? Given limited current technologies and the clouded feasability of future treatments, I think you jump too quickly to the conclusion that government must correct "broken" market mechanisms.

CTW

"Even if you think life is sacred ... that doesn't tell us which beings fall under the prohibition."

I probably should have said "life per se is sacred"; and "inevitably" instead of "inherently", altho since I had contemporary US society in mind, both are true.

some religious folks apparently feel that anything living that might somehow, at some time become a human organism or that is a currently a harmless (to cover some of the justifications for homocide mentioned above) human organism, no matter how dysfunctional, must be preserved. that is putting a premium on human life that I see no justification for other than religious dogma, ie, that life per se is "sacred". I'm suggesting that religion not only "is[n't] going to be of much use" in setting the line between OK and not OK, it tends to push the line to extremes unjustifiable on secular grounds. ie, I disagree that "we have to engage in just about exactly the same sort of reasoning about which entities are worth preserving and why that the religious person has to engage in". someone who considers life per se to be "sacred" will weigh in factors that someone who doesn't will ignore. for example, to me the prospective human life represented by an embryo has zero "worth" since there are huge numbers of prospective human beings represented by other human choices, eg the failure of every female to bear a child every year possible. again, where do you draw the line? the catholic church clearly draws it way beyond where I would, but wherever it's drawn is arbitrary, IMO.

"Religious people aren't the only ones who uphold a moral norm against homicide, surely!"

well, in my vocabulary, yes they are. I don't know how to identify what is and isn't "moral", so I try not to use the word (with no noticable detriment so far after a few years of avoiding it). there are plenty of purely pragmatic reasons to limit homicide without going off into the philosophical morass of "morality".

ben

What makes this debate religious is the insistence of pro-lifers that their world view be imposed on others. Their rejection of the idea of 'each to their own,' that only unreasonable people will disagree, is religion's mark on this debate.

Chris

CTW,

"'Even if you think life is sacred ... that doesn't tell us which beings fall under the prohibition.' I probably should have said 'life per se is sacred'; and 'inevitably' instead of 'inherently', altho since I had contemporary US society in mind, both are true."

I don't see how adding "per se" and "inevitably" help tell us what beings fall under "life," assuming that we're taking some definition that excludes lower animals, or at least insects.

"[S]ome religious folks apparently feel that anything living that might somehow, at some time become a human organism or that is a currently a harmless (to cover some of the justifications for hom[i]cide mentioned above) human organism, no matter how dysfunctional, must be preserved."

That's not the position I've set out above; I'm only talking about the fact that a properly functioning embryo will, by exercising innate, intrinsic capacities, become an adult human being who performs the sorts of behaviors that characterize persons. I also don't think that anyone thinks that a mere collection of a sperm and an ovum, pre-conception, is a person, though the collection could become a human organism.

"'Religious people aren't the only ones who uphold a moral norm against homicide, surely!' [W]ell, in my vocabulary, yes they are. I don't know how to identify what is and isn't 'moral', so I try not to use the word (with no noticable detriment so far after a few years of avoiding it). there are plenty of purely pragmatic reasons to limit homicide without going off into the philosophical morass of 'morality'."

Judge Posner might agree with you, but I don't think a lot of others would, and I don't think merely thinking that actual moral norms exist marks someone as religious.

ben,

"What makes this debate religious is the insistence of pro-lifers that their world view be imposed on others."

But aren't those who deny that the embryo is a person also insisting that their worldview be embodied in the law? That also seems an odd criterion by which to judge a dispute to be a religious one; someone who thinks, say, that widespread gun ownership is a bad thing and therefore wants to ban guns is also insisting on imposing his worldview on others. But that doesn't make the dispute over guns a religious one, even if the proponent of the gun ban also happens to have other views that are religious.

CTW

chris:

I think we're talking past each other because you're responding to arguments I didn't intend to make.

- if you reread my 8/25 11:04 AM comment, you'll see that I first addressed the debate, not the process of line drawing. the former appears to me to be dominated by religious dogma, specifically "sanctity of life per se". I think we agree that the latter need not be and preferably would not be.

- I then stated that IMO, in the absence of religious dogma exactly where the line is drawn is "arbitrary" in the sense that there's no unequivocal "right" answer, altho hopefully there would be pragmatic reasons supporting the choice. it's unclear to me whether you agree with that.

- finally, I more-or-less parroted judge posner's mystification why one would draw the line at doomed embryos in the absence of religious objections. you seem to find the argument that an embryo could conceivably develop into a person dispositive, though for reasons I don't understand. I don't find it dispositive since as suggested before, I consider the choice of what lives are preserved to be a pragmatic decision. judge posner and I may or may not be in agreement on this, but if we happen to be it would be much more accurate to say I agree with him rather than vice versa, since his writings motivated my belated interest in these kinds of ideas.

you might find the following to be interesting, if - as I assume - your argument is related to the "heap" paradox addressed therein:

">http://leiterlawschool.typepad.com/leiter/2006/07/religious_reaso.html>

-charles

ben

Chris

But aren't those who deny that the embryo is a person also insisting that their worldview be embodied in the law?

No. Giving individuals the choice means each can separately apply their world view. Those who find abortions acceptable may have them. Those who do not may not. Those who suppose general bans on abortion do so out of a religious intolerance.

Your gun example isn't a correct analogy. Gun control can be justified because guns impose negative externalities, a non-religious criteria for a ban.

ben

My last post: "support" not "suppose"

Chris

charles,

"I first addressed the debate, not the process of line drawing. [T]he former appears to me to be dominated by religious dogma." I don't understand this distinction: the debate over whether the embryo is a person is a debate over where to draw the line around the "person" category. I don't see what's supposed to be "the debate" and what's supposed to be "the process of line drawing"--aren't they the same thing?

"IMO, in the absence of religious dogma exactly where the line is drawn is 'arbitrary' in the sense that there's no unequivocal 'right' answer." One of my points is that I don't see why there's a clear answer even with religious dogma: knowing that persons are sacred, or loved by God, or whatnot, doesn't tell us who's a person. I think there is a moral fact of the matter about whether the fetus is a person, just like I think there's a moral fact of the matter about whether black people or infants or seriously retarded people or dogs are people. I do think that these questions are sometimes hard to answer. I'm not how "unequivocal" that makes me, but personhood surely isn't a matter of social convention.

"[Y]ou seem to find the argument that an embryo could conceivably develop into a person dispositive." That's not my position: I suggested that the embryo is a person because it has the intrinsic, innate power for certain sorts of behaviors that characterize persons. I think that that criterion is the right one because it handles other examples and counterexamples adequately, and other possible criteria, like Tooley & Warren's present-exercise criteria, don't.

ben,

"Giving individuals the choice means each can separately apply their world view. Those who find abortions acceptable may have them. Those who do not may not." This doesn't seem right to me. People who insist on freedom to destroy human embryos & fetuses are denying other people the opportunity to protect them, just like people who insist on the freedom to own slaves are denying other people the opportunity to free them.

"Those who suppose general bans on abortion do so out of a religious intolerance." I don't think so at all, but I'm just repeating myself. The key category is "person," not any concept that is ineliminably religious.

"Gun control can be justified because guns impose negative externalities, a non-religious criteria for a ban." But protecting embryos can be justified on the ground that killing an embryo (or evicting it) imposes a negative externality on the embryo, by killing it (or leading to its death). That's a criterion that doesn't have anything to do with religion.

Judge Posner,

Sorry this is all so unnourishing for you! I wonder, though, if a lot of people before the Civil War (or after) thought similar things about the question of whether black people are really persons--that it is just a question that we should resolve on pragmatic grounds, rather than trying to get our metaphysics right. If we found that the Nazis' experiments actually produced advances in science & technology, I don't think that objections to it would have disappeared. I certainly hope not!


ctw

"One of my points is that I don't see why there's a clear answer even with religious dogma"

that's because you want to address the "process" of drawing the line rationally, ie, when does a living organism become a person. my impression is that the essence of the extreme religious view is that any human life in any state - including possible even with low probability - has to be protected at all costs, which is their beginning and final position in the "debate". otherwise, why prohibit contraception? why object to plan B? why did the rep for the anti-ESCR position on a recent panel discussion offer so inadequate an argument that even ultra-liberal, america-hating, god-denying orin hatch got visibly annoyed with him?

it appears that you don't fully appreciate how irrational some people can be. listen carefully to the arguments of the religiously motivated - they're routinely devoid of objective content, whatever the subject. and I'm fully aware that this sounds bigoted, but I've spent much of the last year or two trying to find the rationality behind religious belief, but to no avail. which is fine - I'm of the "whatever helps you get through life" school - until they enter the political arena, at which point I believe they are obliged to argue based on reason, not dogma (establishment clause, you know), and I find their arguments routinely fall short of that standard.

but back to the rational approach. you consider the embryo a person. to repeat, I don't care whether that's correct or not since I don't consider human life sacred. I require more justification than that for not destroying stem cells. so we disagree, which is why I consider the ultimate decison on where to draw the line to be arbitrary - it will be determined by whether more people agree with your position, my position, or some other position. and they will make that decision based on a myriad of inputs. sounds pretty arbitrary to me.

-charles

Chris

charles,

Your complaint about what you call "the extreme religious view" seems to be that its proponents do not offer any reason for thinking that an embryo is a peron, not that they offer a religious one. I just don't see what the actual religious argument is supposed to be, and why the controversial part of it really is religious.

"you consider the embryo a person. to repeat, I don't care whether that's correct or not since I don't consider human life sacred. I require more justification than that for not destroying stem cells."

We should first distinguish between destroying stem cells themselves and destroying embryos for the sake of harvesting their stem cells. No one thinks that just any old stem cell is a person, certainly not me.

If you don't like the term "person," we can push back our disagreement to a new one--let's call it BWND, for "being worth not destroying." Since you seem to think that a justification can really exist, or not exist, for protecting a particular sort of being, you seem to think that there is an answer to whether a being is a BWND. Then we have the same questions about what property should serve as the criterion for whether a being is a BWND. I think a replicated sleeper is obviously a BWND, so Tooley & Warren's criteria, or any other criterion requiring actual, manifested desires, won't be adequate for determining which beings are BWNDs. I still don't see what criterion you would use, or what property you think the embryo lacks for BWND status--what exactly is required to justify not destroying a particular being, that the embryo doesn't satisfy? Present-exercise criteria can't deal with sleepers, and past-exercise criteria can't deal with replicated sleepers. That leaves future-exercise criteria. The one that looks good to me is the innate-capacity criterion, which allows that the human embryo is a person. I don't see any other criteria on the table.

"we disagree, which is why I consider the ultimate decison on where to draw the line to be arbitrary - it will be determined by whether more people agree with your position, my position, or some other position. and they will make that decision based on a myriad of inputs. sounds pretty arbitrary to me." I think you're being far too sanguine about the impossibility of reasoning about this issue. It doesn't seem to me that we've really tried very hard at it at all. The mere existence of disagreement isn't a good basis from which to infer the impossibility of fruitful reasoning about the issue.

ctw

"I just don't see what the actual religious argument is supposed to be"

again, it appears that you are so wedded to taking a position based on reasoned assessment that you can't imagine doing so on any other basis. that's where I was a year or two ago, but now I've "seen the light". the religious not only admit but also assert that you can't apply reason to religious belief. they can (and many arguably do) simply "believe" that ESCR is "wrong", end of argument.

and here's my reasoning to support that "arguably". if someone is: 1) an activist committed to a dogmatic religion that condemns X, 2) adamantly opposed to X, and 3) unable to mount a reasoned argument against X, the most likely explanation for their opposition is religious dogma. one can argue that my conclusion would be demonstrably wrong if the religion in question provided the missing "rational argument against X", but religious dogma is merely the product of other people to whom my reasoning can be applied. to date, the only rational argument I've encountered in opposition to ESCR is yours (which is not to say it's convincing - I think prof leiter pretty much refutes it in the article cited earlier). my exposure to this issue is admittedly minimal, so there may be many rational arguments out there, but if so they've been inadequately conveyed to or by those public spokespeople I've heard.

re BWND, you aren't taking me at my word: like J posner, I don't care about such concepts ("nourishing" or not) as they by themselves don't lead to resolution and can't for those who view deciding what organisms are destroyed as essentially arbitrary (again, not meant to imply unfounded). specifically, whether an organism is a "person", a "BWND", a "latent soul", or any other similar concept one can construct, I view the process as being that society makes an implicit cost-benefit trade and decides whether that organism will survive based on the result. ie, whereas you appear to hold the position that once you establish the classification of the organism, the trade is over, I don't. so far, however one classifies embryos or stem cells the trade appears to me to favor ESCR, but new information could alter that.

understand that I don't consider your position "wrong", and it could very well prevail because of the inevitable popularity of any argument consistent with the concept of human exceptionalism (it's amazing how even committed evolutionists have a very hard time dealing with the logical consequences of "darwin's dangerous idea"). and neither do I mean to suggest that debate should cease, only that I attach zero weight to positions that appear to be based solely on religious dogma and consider that the establishment clause requires legislators to do likewise.

ctw

"I think you need to get out more!"

well, you and I may disagree on some issues, but on that one you and my wife definitely agree!

I did get the report (thanks). the george position seems to be "yours", by which I meant you had presented it, not originated it. but look at prof wilson's statement. his trade weighs things differently, and that's really all I'm claiming - it's a trade, people will weigh the inputs differently, and come up with different answers.

"as I see it, you are adopting, as your criterion for protection, "useful for society, on balance."

then you see it incorrectly. believe me, there isn't anything much more useless to society than a retired hermit, which I more-or-less am. I'm arguing that society makes the decision and determines the grounds for the decision. if the decision were up to me, things wouldn't change that much. in fact, until I got a lot more input than I have, very few things would change. rest assured, I wouldn't have all the "useless" people executed since that would be tantamount to suicide, and I happen to have a quite pleasant life that I am in no hurry to exit.

"you think ... there is nothing wrong with that"

this is the crux. if you'll pardon the theft of a famous quote, "it depends on what the meaning of "wrong" is". for one who truly doesn't believe that there is a transcendant being that made the world - in particular us - for a purpose and expects us to behave in ways that advance that purpose, what are the possible mechanisms for defining what is "wrong". the only one I see is our own reasoning. and reasoning doesn't always come up with the same answer. so in our society, we vote, and in that sense the definition is arbitrary.

there are easy cases, eg, killing your brother to get his share of the inheritance. society simply wouldn't function if that weren't considered "wrong". other killings are somewhat harder, eg, defensive war, individual self-defense, abortion when the prospective mother's life is at risk, capital punishment when the prospective victim is considered dangerous to others: in each of these, there's a trade-off between one life and another. harder are killings like capital punishment when there isn't a threat to others, mercy killings, abortion when there's no threat to the mother: now the a trade-off is one person's life vs another's rights. in the case of ESCR, there's a trade between low probability future events, viz, use in sucessful IVF vs medical breakthroughs. you apparently see the trade as easy, I see it as really hard. c'est la vie (unintentional double entendre, there).

"of course you think I'm wrong"

for one last time: I don't consider that thinking in terms of right and wrong helps. you have made your argument, I don't accept it. that is not equivalent to thinking you are wrong. as it happens, I actually couldn't care less about ESCR and have no strong opinion one way or the other. (I do however, have strong opinions about the establishment clause, which is what got me involved in this discussion.) but even if I did, I wouldn't claim to be "right". as posner said, there is no way to resolve such disputes. I might forcefully and even emotionally aver that the argument for my position was stronger than those for opposing positions, but unless I got caught up in the passion of the moment and became careless, I wouldn't claim that my position was "right".

-charles

ctw

"Sorry for thinking you hadn't seen George's argument"

you were correct, I hadn't. just followed your pointer.

"you think that moral reasoning is an attempt to talk about something that isn't there, something that doesn't exist."

just replace "isn't" and "doesn't" with "I am not convinced is (does)" respectively and you've got it. I don't know enough to be sure about much of anything subjective, so I try to avoid dogmatic assertions about such matters.

"when the skeptic denies ... that it would be wrong for the powerful people in society to exterminate the rest, the skeptic is in error"

that example isn't as far-fetched as you might imagine. on some, perhaps many, right-wing web sites, there is "exterminationist" babble the target of which is "liberals". now I think those people, if at all serious, are emotionally immature, even somewhat mentally disturbed; ignorant if not moronic; atavistic; probably cowardly; delusional if they think there would be any popular support for such inanity; and no doubt several other descriptors that don't come immediately to mind. but I don't see that also labeling them immoral adds anything.

"The only people who couldn't care less about (embryo-destroying) ESCR are the people who do not think that it is morally wrong to destroy embryos."

well, my choice of words admittedly wasn't the best. I think it's meaningless to take a strong position on something about which you know little, and to know enough to justify a strong position typically takes a lot of effort. so, one has to pick and choose, and I'm not interested enough in this particular issue to make the investment. however, since it's a hot topic, there is some minimal amount of exposure that can't be avoided. from what little I've been exposed to so far, I don't see a clearly preferred position. my careless language was shorthand for all that.

"we can't keep slavery around just because it might happen to be a more efficient system than free labor."

apparently, richard rorty said "moral progress is a matter of wider and wider sympathy". I understand his point to be roughly that in a more evolved society, people will have greater empathy for one another and be less comfortable with mistreatment of others ("there but for the grace of god ...", etc). labeling slavery as "immoral" doesn't appear to add anything to that broader sentiment.

"I take it ... that you would not morally condemn someone who acted in a way that you thought was unconstitutional."

not to pick nits, but people can't act in unconstitutional ways, only governments. but to your point, if someone promoted or supported a government action that I thought was unconstitutional, I would argue that they were incorrect in their assessment of the action's constitutionality. I certainly wouldn't call their position immoral; that would indicate ignorance of the complexity and uncertainty of constitutional interpretation.

I see a potential problem with claiming one's position to be moral. suppose you hold a position the society accepts as the moral one, but in time that position is unequivocally rejected by the society, and later on you accept the new concensus position (for example, a reformed southern segregationist between roughly 1960 and 2000). does that mean that you were moral, became immoral, and finally became moral again? if so, exactly what does it mean to have the moral position?

be assured that I have all the emotional reactions any other sensitive person has to things I find repugnant. but I can usually explain my aversion on rational grounds and don't find calling also them immoral at all useful.

-c

Chris

Don't think there's much more to add. Two things:

"[P]eople can't act in unconstitutional ways, only governments." Sure, people can act in unconstitutional ways! E.g., Article 2 section 3 says the President "shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed." If he doesn't, he's acting unconstitutionally and violating his oath. Article 6 clause 3 says that all sorts of individual officials "shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution." Individuals can violate the Constitution too; when they do, they're acting unconstitutionally.

"I see a potential problem with claiming one's position to be moral. suppose you hold a position the society accepts as the moral one, but in time that position is unequivocally rejected by the society, and later on you accept the new concensus position (for example, a reformed southern segregationist between roughly 1960 and 2000). does that mean that you were moral, became immoral, and finally became moral again? if so, exactly what does it mean to have the moral position?"

I see no problem at all here. Society can be wrong about moral questions, just like it can be wrong about straightforward factual questions. I don't think that being wrong about about a moral question makes a person immoral, though. I think that someone who adopts society's mistaken view about some moral question at time 1 is himself wrong at time 1. If the broader society changes its mind by time 2 and adopts the correct position, but the individual doesn't, then the person is mistaken at time 2 and the society isn't. If the person changes his view by time 3, then his position is correct at time 3. I can't understand what point you're trying to make. Conformity with what society thinks isn't the same as being right on a moral question, not by a long shot. Society can make mistakes about whether segregation or slavery is wrong, just like it can make mistakes about whether, say, Uranus is bigger than Neptune.

ctw

"Don't think there's much more to add."

agreed. on your two points:

1. well, I find that interpretation a bit circular and self-referential, a well known trap in logic: it's unconstitutional to act unconstitutionally. seem more likes a violation of the oath of office.

2. "Society can make mistakes about whether segregation or slavery is wrong, just like it can make mistakes about whether, say, Uranus is bigger than Neptune."

and here is where we apparently irremediably disagree. in the latter case, we obviously agree that the error would be one of fact. once it is corrected, no informed person would ever again make it.

you seem to consider a "moral" error to have the same character: society can make a moral error, then correct it. but why can't it return to the original position? answer: it can, and in fact one can argue that in many arenas, US society has. what good is a "truth" that can't hold it's own once established?

as the US continues to dramatically (in my language) "dumb down" and (in your language, perhaps) "lose it's moral compass", I see correcting the public's factual errors as more promising than seeking moral truth. especially since the very institutions that purport to be the final arbiters of moral truth often base their assessments on self-inflicted factual error.

- charles

Chris

I just don't understand why you don't think that the Constitution tells individual office-holders what to do. I mean, it just does.

I don't think that our grasp of normal factual truth is necessarily more firm than our grasp of moral truth. For instance, there are all sorts of factual details about Athens or about London that Aristotle or Shakespeare took for granted that their audiences would know, but now we need annotated editions of their works in order to remind us of the factual background. We need historians to remind us of things that everyone used to know. On the other hand, the difficulty in maintaining our grasp of moral truth simply underscores the need of good parenting and all the other sorts of ways that society keeps its norms secure. We have to remind the next generation about both natural and moral reality.

Working on figuring out the facts about the natural world, and getting those facts out, is important, sure, but so is moral reasoning.

ben

Chris

People who insist on freedom to destroy human embryos & fetuses are denying other people the opportunity to protect them

Ok, but preventing abortion denies a mother’s freedom to choose, and the freedoms of all those who are pro-choice. How to break the stalemate? If you accept the possibility that reasonable people will disagree with you as to when the moment a foetus is entitled to protection from termination, then it follows, doesn’t it, that some non-religious standard is required. What is that standard?

The key category is "person," not any concept that is ineliminably religious.

What is the non-religious criteria you would apply to convince a non-Christian like me that the line you have drawn is superior to mine?

Your slavery example is backwards: slave owners deny the freedom to choose in the same way as pro-lifers.

ctw

chris:

tried to respond earlier, but a tree fell on our power lines and we were without power all day.

I have nothing to add. some of my arguments are playing devil's advocate. altho I believe their essence, some may have been presented with a little more confidence than I actually feel. truth is, I'm all for the "moral reasoning" in which you engage (although ala J posner's observation in one of his books that "legal reasoning" is just "reasoning", I'd say the same is true re "moral reasoning"). my objection is only to the morals gibberish minus any reasoning to which we are subjected these days in the political arena.

your well reasoned parries forced me to think some things through more carefully, and I appreciate that.

regards - charles

Chris

charles,
Thanks for the kind words, and sorry about the tree!

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