Friday, October 26, 2012

Rape and Bad Theology Once More

In light of the recent remarks by Indiana Senate candidate Richard Mourdock, it seems timely and appropriate to repost an earlier piece, "Theology and Rape Blessings," which I composed a couple of months back in response to some of the more disturbing "defenses" of Todd Akin's "legitimate rape" remarks.

But I need to do so with a brief introductory correction to my earlier comments on this subject. In the piece reposted here, I say that I don't think defenders of Todd Akin's remarks "believe that every act of sin and wickedness is part of God’s plan, every rape predestined by God to serve God’s glory."

Apparently I was wrong about this. I don't see how else to read Mourdock's comments other than as saying something along these lines. If so, his theology is even more troubling than the rape theology I examine in this post. 

Also--as I note in the post below--this sort of theology is not even coherent as a basis for opposing abortion in rape cases. If God is so sovereign that every rape pregnancy is part of God's plan, then wouldn't it follow that God is so sovereign that every abortion of a rape pregnancy is part of God's plan too? Wouldn't it follow that Roe v Wade was part of God's plan? Mourdock's comments not only seem to make God into an accessory to rape, but they do so in a way that fundamentally undermines the very purpose for which Mourdock and others like him make these claims.

But, given how marginally coherent Mourdock's remarks seem to be if interpreted in the most obvious way, maybe we should take him as having misspoken or spoken loosely. In that case, it seems the best we can do is interpret him as saying something along the lines of the (somewhat) more nuanced theology I've charitably attributed to Todd Akin's defenders. If so, what I said before about that theology bears repeating in the light of Mourdock's comments. 

So here it is, this time with subheadings:  

Todd Akin's Defenders

Attention to the GOP convention has helped to eclipse the furor over GOP Senate contender Todd Akin’s remarks suggesting women have a built-in birth control mechanism to prevent pregnancy due to “legitimate rape.” So perhaps now is the time to reflect more soberly on an underappreciated dimension of that controversy, a dimension that I suspect will unfortunately stay with us long after Akin loses his election and is forgotten.

I'm not thinking about Akins' dubious views about women's biology, nor the implicit suggestion that some significant number of purported rapes are as illegitimate as babies born out of wedlock (although that's a serious matter). The idea I want to consider is the notion that pregnancies resulting from rape are a blessing from God.

Several conservative voices have gestured towards just this idea. Shortly after the Akin story broke, Mike Huckabee remarked during a radio interview with Akin that “even from those horrible, horrible tragedies of rape, which are inexcusable and indefensible, life has come and sometimes, you know, those people are able to do extraordinary things.”

Now Huckabee is surely right that being a child of rape doesn’t determine your future character or talents or contributions to society (a point that VP candidate Paul Ryan recently made in terms that outraged some pundits). A child of rape can grow up to be a fine human being. A child of consensual sex can grow up to be a serial killer. I’m sure most pregnant rape victims know this (although they may question their ability to guide the child towards the former and away from the latter).

The question is why Huckabee points this out during a soft-serve interview with Akin. I suspect it was a gesture towards a notion quite common in the conservative Christian circles in which Akin and Huckabee travel--namely, the notion that rape-induced pregnancies are a divine way of bringing good out of evil. That is, they're a blessing from God. If so, Huckabee was politically astute enough merely to gesture. Missouri GOP central committee member Sharon Barnes did more than that. In coming to Akin's defense, Barnes maintained that while few rapes result in pregnancy, when they do then “at that point, if God has chosen to bless this person with a life, you don’t kill it.”

Let’s be clear about what victims are likely to hear in Barnes’ words: “The rapist may have been bad, but you want to murder an innocent baby that God planted in your womb as a blessing to make it all better.”

Curses into Blessings

Now I want to say two things here. The first is brief but important: In a society committed to freedom of religion and church/state separation, public policy should not rest on how you answer the question of what’s a blessing from God and what isn’t.

The second thing is more involved. It’s about the theology implicit in Barnes’ claim, a theology according to which God works even through the horrors perpetrated by sinners, using them to serve His providential plan.

Let me be clear about something: I don't think Barnes and those like her necessarily believe that every act of sin and wickedness is part of God’s plan, every rape predestined by God to serve God’s glory. There are some theologies which say this, but if rapists were predestined to rape then, presumably, rape victims who abort were predestined to abort and the society that allows them to abort was predestined to allow it. I doubt that’s Barnes’ view.

Rather, I think it’s more plausible to take her as asserting a theology of the following sort: God allows humans to exercise unrestricted free choice, and while desiring that they make loving and just choices and condemning them when they don’t, God is so resourceful that (put simply) He can turn every lemon that sinners throw at Him into lemonade.

In other words, God turns every curse into a blessing, and it’s up to us to see how God makes use of tragedy and villainy to make the world a better place. If a rape victim becomes pregnant due to rape, it’s because God chose this way to transform curse into blessing. The rapist shouldn’t have committed the offense, but God can redeem even the most terrible acts.

This theology is part of a broad class of theologies--what I'll call redemptive theologies--which share the idea that God cares about the evils of the world and is acting to redeem them. Since my own theology is a theology of redemption, I obviously don't think the redemptive aspect of Barnes' theology is where the trouble lies.

But not all theologies of redemption are created equal. Barnes' theology makes God into a micromanager of sin, redeeming sins one by one, turning each in turn into another cool refreshing sip of spiritual lemonade. God is sovereign over every outcome, stepping in at every instance of wickedness to miraculously turn it to the good of those who trust in Him (sometimes by making babies out of rapes, sometimes in other ways). If we don't see this happening in our lives, then presumably it's our own fault: a failure of faith, perhaps, or simply a failure to polish up our Pollyanna glasses. Or maybe the miraculous good that will spring from these hard lumps is yet to come, if we only wait faithfully for it (but of course that wouldn't be the case with a rape pregnancy, since the miracle of new life is right there for everyone to see, hard on the heels of the violation).

Alternative Theologies of Redemption

Not every redemptive theology is like this. In fact, the core redemptive theology of Christianity isn't like this. Traditional Christian thought has it that God redeemed a broken world through a singular intervention in history. On this view, God redeems the evils of the world, not by turning them one by one into lemonade, but by building a broader cosmic context around them that erases their nihilistic power.

I should note that a redemptive theology is not quite the same as a theodicy (a response to the argument from evil). A theodicy attempts to explain why God would allow the evils of this world to exist in the first place. A redemptive theology begins where a theodicy leaves off, granting that God cannot or morally may not prevent the evils from occurring, and offering an account of how God redeems evil so that evil doesn't have the final world in creation (or, we might hope, in any part of it).

Based on this distinction, Marilyn McCord Adams' theological work on horror is best classified as a redemptive theology. Adams proposes that God defeats the horrors of the world by participating in horror on the cross. By choosing to be most truly present in the world at the very place of dire affliction and forsakenness, God thereby ensures that our worst moments cannot strip our lives of ultimate meaning.

I don't want to go into a detailed account of Adams' redemptive theology here, but I do want to contrast it with Barnes' micromanager theology. For Barnes, when a rape victim becomes pregnant it's because God has decided to redeem the horror of rape by making it the vehicle for producing a precious baby. For Adams, God redeems it by choosing to inhabit the world most fully at the very place of affliction where the rapist thrusts his victim. In so doing, in standing with the victims, being classed among them, enduring what they endure, their humiliation and degradation is transformed. The rapist means to turn his victim into a mere thing. But if she's a mere thing for being pushed into this forsaken place, then the very creator of the universe is a mere thing for choosing this forsaken place to be where the creator most fully inhabits the creation. Or put another way: when the rapist seeks to turn his victim into a thing, he succeeds instead in turning her into an image of God.

This is not to say that she feels or should feel uniquely blessed by her violation, or anything so obscene. It is, rather, to say that in that moment of being uniquely cursed, God is being cursed with her, screaming every outraged scream, weeping every hopeless tear. And in standing with the victims in their moment of greatest degradation, because it is the very source of all being and worth and meaning that is standing with them, their degradation cannot turn them to nothing, cannot erase their worth, cannot strip all meaning from their lives.

Now Adams’ theology may have problems, but there are good reasons to think that something along these lines fits far better with Christianity and the realities of the world than does the micromanaging God who squeezes each sin-lemon as it comes along into a sip of blessed lemonade. But Barnes’ claim about pregnancies due to rape presupposes the micromanager-theology. And one reason I find this theology so troubling is precisely because of its implications in cases like rape.

The Theology of Rape Blessings vs. The Theology of Love

It's one thing for the victim of rape to decide, perhaps after herculean struggle, to embrace the child that springs from horror and treat is as a blessing—and for others to view such embrace as an astonishing, wondrous response to violation and trauma. It is something else to say that whenever life springs from rape, it’s because God has seen fit to transform a horror into a blessing—and if you don’t view it in those terms, if you somehow don’t succeed in separating what is growing inside you from the violation that invaded your flesh, tore into you, and left this blessing behind—if you aren’t able to pull off this astonishing, wondrous response, if instead you find yourself clawing at your gut and raging for someone to get it out of you, get it out of you for God's sake...then you’re at odds with God Himself.

To respond to the victims of rape in this way—with mandates, with the specter of cosmic condemnation for failing to see the fruits of victimization as a blessing—seems a fundamental failure of empathy. But empathy is at the heart of love. A theology which affirms that God is love must be a theology of divine empathy. And that means a God who dwells with us in that harrowing place—who so identifies with Her creation that every time someone is raped She goes to that place afresh, violated and degraded and left clawing at Her gut and raging for someone to get it out of Her, get it out of Her for God's sake.

If Barnes and those like her want rape victims to view their pregnancy as a blessing, they’re asking for a miracle. And if they want to see that miracle occur they’d be well advised to change their theology. Because the God who’s most likely to pull off a miracle like that is the God who’s down there in the pit of horror with the victims, screaming every scream.

ADDENDUM: It appears that Mourdock has explicitly come out and clarified his earlier remarks--stressing that he meant by them exactly what I took Akin's defenders to mean in this post. Hence, this post can be taken as directly addressing Mourdock's view.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Misrepresenting Climate Science

The question of whether human activities contribute to global climate change is not a political question. It's not an ethical question.

It's a scientific question.

The question of what we should do about it is primarily an ethical question. But if it calls for anything, it calls for collective action and public policy changes, and so becomes a political question as well. Communities need to wrestle with alternative public policy responses, hopefully through public discourse shaped by a shared commitment to the welfare of society, an awareness and respect for diverse interests and worldviews and ways of life, an appreciation of what is feasible for the society to do given its resources and its history...and an understanding of the relevant science.

The political question about public policy comes after the scientific one, in the sense that we need to know what the science tells us about what's going on before we can make informed decisions about what to do about what's going on. To invert this order can be quite dangerous.

Some scientific conclusions call for public policies that are, to put it simply, painful and hard--sometimes hard for everyone, sometimes hard for a particular constituency. Nobody likes being called to do what is painful and hard. Hence, if we let political questions come before scientific ones, we are in danger of rejecting scientific discoveries because they're unpleasant. And so we don't do the hard thing that needs doing. The result is even greater pain and hardship in the long run.

This is what it means for a scientific question to become "politicized": Sometimes a proposed public policy is found by someone to be undesirable--maybe because it would force you to make life changes you don't want to make, or stop business practices that have proven quite profitable. But sometimes that same public policy would be clearly the right one to implement if a particular answer to a scientific question were correct. And so, in order to avoid facing an undesirable public policy, you try to convince yourself and others that the unpleasant answer to the scientific question is incorrect, and the more congenial answer is right...regardless of whether or not that's the direction in which the scientific research points. It's one thing when an individual does this, something else again when a political party does it on behalf of its constituency, marshalling resources to ensure that scientists won't say the "wrong" things or, if they do, will be discredited or go unheard.

You can bet that something like this is going on any time that public views about a scientific question are divided along party lines, and the political debate about the question is far more contentious than what one actually finds within the community of scientists. When something like that is going on, its a clear sign that one political party or both are letting the policies they find most attractive dictate their take on what the science says.

This is clearly going on with climate science. And we all know this. And neither political party denies it. What they deny is that they are the party guilty of doing the politicizing. Instead, each side accuses the other of being the one that has politicized climate science. When this happens, it seems as if the media gravitates towards giving each political view equal time in an effort to remain fair and balanced. Not wanting to appear biased, mainstream media outlets will do something they simply don't do with respect to scientific questions that haven't become politicized: They given equal time to dissenters from the scientific consensus, without much regard to whether the dissenters have comparable scientific credentials or have been hired by those with a vested interest in one answer being the right one.

Of course, there are those media outlets that buck this trend. Unfortunately, some buck the trend because they care about accurate scientific reporting, whereas others buck it because they really are biased.

In short, there are media outlets the bend over backwards not to appear as if they are politicizing an issue, even at the risk of misrepresenting science; there are media outlets that really have become politicized, both on the left and on the right; and there are media outlets that want to convey a clear and accurate understanding of our scientific knowledge to the public. But how is the typical citizen, who knows very little about science and has little time to devote to the matter, supposed to tell which is which?

A good chunk of the American population believes that most media outlets are biased towards the political left and that the only trustworthy source of news out there is FOX. Another chunk believes most media outlets are pretty centrist, and that FOX is a right-wing propaganda machine posing as a news organization. These respective views reflect political party affiliations pretty closely--and they also determine where people are inclined to look to get their views on scientific questions.

So: Climate science has become politicized. Each side claims the other side is doing the politicizing. To decide who is doing the politicizing and who isn't, we need to see what the science is. To do this we turn to the media. But the media has become politicized as well--and our views about which media outlets to trust are typically informed by our politics.

Recently, a group of socially engaged scientists sought to cut through this impasse by turning their scientific eye to the media's communication of climate science. Specifically, the Union of Concerned Scientists recently investigated News Corporation (which owns FOX News and the Wall Street Journal), and concluded that there is enormous misrepresentation on FOX News generally and on the Wall Street Journal opinion pages. The following video represents UCS's attempt to communicate its conclusions in an accessible way to the general public:

But, of course, the Union of Concerned Scientists is surely going to be represented as just another left-wing interest group spinning the facts to suit their politics. After all, was there a comparable effort to study the frequency of misrepresentation on CNN? In the New York Times opinion pages? Isn't this just another politicized interest group?

In short, how is the lay person going to decide whether the Union of Concerned Scientists actually represents the scientific community's attempt to cut through thepolitics and media noise? Who do you trust as an honest voice expressing non-politicized scientific consensus, and who do you dismiss as peddling politicized misrepresentations? I suppose you could do your own journalistic investigation of the scientific community--seek to understand not only what most scientists think but also why they think it, and how the methodologies of science work to keep politicization from systematically contaminating the findings.

But not everyone has the skills needed to pursue such an investigation effectively, let alone the time. While I think research could be done by the lay person well enough to conclude that most scientists are convinced that human-induced global warming is real, I'm not sure that most lay people have the resources to be able to determine for themselves whether this is because (as some on the right will argue) the scientific community has been compromised by politicization, but for a few heroic dissenters who have the science on their side; or whether, on the contrary, the few dissenters are the ones who have been compromised by the influence of those with a political agenda.

So let me offer a suggestion. Science tends to get misrepresented when the policy implications of accepting the science are going to be costly. It is not nearly as plausible to suppose that someone sees the policy implications of the best science, discovers that these implications are unproblematic and easy to implement without demanding sacrifices...and so decides to misrepresent the science so as to make it seem as if it places costly demands on all of us when really it doesn't.

This isn't a foolproof technique for deciding who to trust. There may be reasons why someone would want to convey the false impression that we need to buckle down and make very hard, long-term social and economic changes that are going to be deeply unpopular. Under the right conditions, telling people that the country and the world have to make substantial sacrifices and radical life-changes may be a winning political strategy, a way to get people flocking to vote for you on election day.

But generally not. And when it is to your advantage to convey such a message--as a way of getting people to vote for you out of fear, perhaps, that the other guy is leading us to the brink of ruin--the advantage typically evaporates once you're in power. The political incentive to use your power to demand needless and painful sacrifices of your constituents isn't all that great when you risk getting voted out of office.

So, following this strategy, chances are that those who are telling you that human induced global warming is bunk have more incentive to politicize than those who are telling you that human induced global warming is a real problem that we have to come to grips with. After all, those who say the latter are offering an unpleasant and unpopular notion: Our transportation industry, our energy grid, our way of life is contributing to a problem of potentially dire significance. There's enrmous reason for people to want this notion to be false even if it's true. The auto industry and energy industry don't want it to be true that their businesses depend on and perpetuate practices that threaten the integrity of our ecosystems and the future prospects of humanity. Ordinary citizens don't want to be told that their way of life--their cars and electric lights and air conditioners and on and on--is threatening future generations.

There's ample reason for people to want to deny human-induced global warming even if it's true. Is there comparable reason to suppose that those who support global warming science would have strong motivation to systematically fabricate sustained warnings that call for massive changes and world-wide sacrifice, even if there is no good reason to think such warnings are warranted?

There are reasons why scientists who are convinced of global warming science might downplay findings that would be jumped on by politicized opponents, out of fear that these findings would be misrepresented and used to mislead the public who don't understand their significance. Doing so would be a bad idea--and if you were caught doing it, it would actually hurt your cause. But that's not the same as having a motive to systematically mislead the public about conclusions that the science doesn't support.

Of course, there are those who argue that global warming science has become a kind of cottage industry, and that scientists who make their living in this cottage industry would lose out if it proved that human activities aren't contributing to global climate change. But on this issue we need to consider how and why such a cottage industry would develop in the first place. Where did the idea come from, if not from the conclusions reached by legitimate science?

But let's grant that the science initially pointed to human-induced global warming. One might suppose that the egos of those scientists who first introduced the global warming thesis would be invested in it not being disproved. I suppose one might think that ego is t force here that is keeping the scientific community from seeing that the initial evidence has been overturned.

But there are egos everywhere in every field of science, and science has been very good at devising a methodology and a community in which fidelity to scientific findings does more to shape the consensus in the long run than the egos on one side rather than the other. Looking at the trend in the scientific community, it hasn't been one of egotistical defenders of global warming science one by one bowing to the weight of contrary evidence. It's been the reverse.

Let's put it another way: Who do you think is more likely to have their views on science compromised by politics: Politicians who as a whole care primarily about political questions, or scientists who as a community care deeply about the integrity of science, and who work within a system designed to maintain the integrity of science?

I suppose that modern Luddites--opponents of technology--would have an incentive to misrepresent science in favor of a dire threat cause by our technological way of life. If scientists were largely Luddites, there might be a problem here. But scientists are not, in general, Luddites. It's not just that they make use of cutting edge technology in their work. It's also that the public support for the work they do rests to a great extent in the technological innovations that scientific research and discovery makes possible. There's at least a sense in which technology just is scientific findings put to use to solve human problems.

In short, there is a presumptive reason to suppose that those who deny global warming science are more likely than defenders to be engaged in politicization. And there is little reason to suppose that this presumption is defeated in the particular case at hand. And so, if you're wondering who to trust amidst all the media clutter and political grandstanding, I'd bet on the majority of climate scientists who say that, in fact, human activity is contributing to a serious problem of global climate change.

Of course, that doesn't tell us what we should do about it. Maybe if politicians were to stop debating the science, they could get to work on debating that.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Meta-Ethics and Moral Arguments for God

I haven't talked much on this blog about moral arguments for the existence of God, at least not explicitly. In a way this is a bit odd, because my first book can be viewed as offering one kind of moral argument--not for the existence of God, but for the legitimacy of having faith in God's existence.

Moral arguments for God's existence, or for religious faith, fall right at the intersection of my main philosophical interests. In this post, I want to consider one such intersection: The need for moral arguments for God to engage with the diverse range of ideas that fall under the heading of what is called "meta-ethics."

Off and on I've posted things on this blog pertaining to what is called "meta-ethics," although I've tended to eschew that term. The field of meta-ethics is perhaps best understood in terms of the questions it asks, which in turn are best understood as question about the answers to lower-level ethical questions. Such lower-level questions are usually categorized as either "applied" or "normative." Applied ethics asks questions like the following: "Is it always wrong for a person to terminate an unwanted pregnancy?" Normative ethics, meanwhile, asks more general-level questions about the nature of morality, such as,"Are there some things that are wrong regardless of the consequences, or is the moral status of an action always a function of its outcomes?"

Meta-ethics steps back, looks at the answers to such lower-level questions, and asks about the nature of these answers. When you say that deliberately terminating a pregnancy is always wrong, are you asserting something of pregnancy-terminations that you take to be true of them, namely that they always have the property of wrongness? If so, what kind of property, exactly, is "wrongness"? And if not, what are you doing when you say these words?

When I say that the end does not always justify the means, am I asserting a fact which is either true or false apart from how I feel? Or am I simply expressing, say, a general-level feeling about actions that prioritize ends over means? Or am I, perhaps, simply voicing my personal commitment never to let consideration of ends trump consideration of means? If I'm asserting a fact, is it morel like a mathematical fact ("2+2=4"), an empirical one ("There are two beers in the fridge"), or a socially constructed one ("Barack Obama is President of the United States")? Or are moral facts unlike any of these?

When I've wandered into meta-ethics on this blog, it has generally been in relation to the question of whether moral claims are "objective" or "subjective." This is a classic way of attempting to get at one of the most crucial meta-ethical questions: Does a moral judgment have a truth value that is independent of the preferences/attitudes/beliefs of the individual making the judgment?

Although I haven't explicitly pursued the connection here, these meta-ethical questions have bearing on issues in the philosophy of religion. More precisely, there's one especially widespread kind of moral argument for God's existence whose soundness depends on some very precise answers to a number of questions in meta-ethics. The species of argument I have in mind has something like the following form:

1. Moral claims have an objective truth value, and some moral claims are true (they're not all false).
2. In order for moral claims to have this sort of objective truth value, theism must be true (or at least metaphysical naturalism must be false).
3. Therefore, theism is true (or metaphysical naturalism is false).

(Clarifying note: What is premise 1 saying? Here's a rough elaboration: A moral claim attributes a property of a certain kind--what we might call a normative property, such as "right" and "good"-- to such things as persons, actions, character traits, and states of affairs. Premise 1 is saying, first, that some of these attributions are correct and others incorrect; and second, that what makes the correct attributions correct is something apart from anyone's (individual or group's) actual approval or disapproval, acceptance or rejection, of that which is being called good or right, etc.)

Typically, the case for the first premise of such an argument rests on an appeal to basic moral intuitions. We are invited to consider a moral claim such as "Torturing children for fun is immoral." We are invited to think about what it would mean for such a claim to be treated as lacking in objective truth. If the implications of such thought experiments are deeply counter-intuitive, it follows that we intuitively accept the first premise. Once this is established, an effort is made to defend the second premise--that is, to show that in order to remain true to our intuitions--in order to underwrite the meta-ethical position we intuitively embrace--we must suppose there is a God. How this is done will vary greatly according to the version of the argument being considered.

A weaker form of this strategy of argument would hold that theism does a better job of making sense of our moral intuitions than does any form of naturalism; hence, theism is the best way (at least given our current understanding of matters) to underwrite those intuitions.

One crucial weakness of any such strategy of argument is this: Even if it works, the reasoning can work in both directions. As one of my friends from graduate school once quipped, "One person's modus ponens is another person's modus tollens." (I won't explain the terms. Google them if you care.) In a nutshell, if you agree that given your intutions premise 1 should be accepted, and you accept 2, you actually have two choices: accept theism or reject your intuitions. And there are some who find theism so implausible (or naturalism so obvious) that they are more than ready to take the second option.

But this is hardly the only way to resist the conclusion of a moral argument along these lines. In fact, there are meta-ethicists who question whether our intutitions really speak as strongly in favor of premise 1 as defenders of this sort of argument suppose. Furthermore, there are meta-ethicists who deny premise 2, having offered quite sophisticated defenses of naturalistic accounts of objective moral truth

Put simply, both premises 1 and 2 make meta-ethical claims that can be and have been challenged in the philosophical literature.

Let's start with the first premise. I have formulated this premise so that it would be true if either of two important meta-ethical positions is correct: (i) moral realism and (ii) objectivist versions of constructivism. Moral realism is, roughly, the view that there are moral facts "out there" whose truth is independent of what any individual or group, even an "ideal" one, does or would think/feel/endorse. Objectivist versions of constructivism hold, roughly, that moral truth is determined by the judgments that would be made by a person or community under certain ideal conditions--for example, under the condition that the individual were being perfectly rationally consistent in the presence of complete knowledge of all relavant facts. In other words, what makes some moral claim true is that the moral claim would be endorsed by the ideally-situated person or group (not by what anyone actually endorses--actual endorsements are correct or incorrect based on their correspondence to this ideal). This view is to be distinguished from subjective and relativistic versions of constructivism. Subjectivism holds that a moral claim is true if it correctly reports the actual contingent thoughts/feelings/attitudes of the individual making the report. Relativism holds that a moral claim is true if it correctly describes that actual agreements reached by a given group, such as a culture or society.

The reason I've formulated premise 1 so that it encompasses both (i) and (ii) is simply this: In my judgment the intuitive case for objectivity in ethics (assuming it is convincing) would be satisfied by either of these theoretic approaches. This is not to say that I think both approaches can be philosophically developed or worked out with equal success. It is one thing to say that our intuitions would be satisfied if there were a moral truth "out there." It is something else to give a plausible account of what such moral truth would be like. It is one thing to say that our intuitions would be satisfied if there were some idealized perspective from which these intuitions would be reliably endorsed. It is something else to attempt to describe such a perspective and show that it would actually underwrite our moral intuitions.

In any event, what the first premise rules out are those meta-ethical views that deny that there are objective moral truths. These are: (a) noncognitivist theories (which hold that moral utterances don't have any truth value at all, since they don't assert anything but, instead, merely express attitudes or plans or some such); (b) subjective or relativistic versions of constructivism (sketched out above); and (c) "error theory" (which holds, in effect, that moral claims do have an objective truth value, but that all moral claims are objectively false in the way that all claims about the properties of non-existent things, like unicorns, are objectively false).

Premise 1 of the argument above effectively rejects each of these theories. But there are, of course, sophisticated meta-ethicists who have rigorously defended these alternative meta-ethical views, even in the face of the intuitive challenge. Simon Blackburn, for example, has been an importand defender of (a). Another, with whom I had dinner a couple of weeks ago, is Allan Gibbard. Gilbert Harman has defended (b). And John Mackie has defended (c). These philosophers have endeavored to account for the intuitions that seem to support an objectivist meta-ethical stance either by explaining the intuitions away or by showing that there remains a way to preserve the intuitions (perhaps in a modified form) within these alternative meta-ethical frameworks.

As to the second premise, there are some sophisticated moral realists who, in recent years, have attempted to stake out a version of moral realism that is thoroughly naturalistic (David Brink and Richard Boyd are good examples). Furthermore, there are a range of sophisticated theories--most of them inspired by Kant--that purport to provide an objective foundation for moral truth that is "constructivist" in the technical sense and which makes no appeal to God in the course of offering that foundation (John Rawls, Alan Gewirth, and Christine Korsgaard offer examplars of such approaches). In general, constructivist accounts of morality, whether objective or subjective or relative, are consistent with naturalism (even thought at least some constructivist theories may also be consistent with theism or other forms of supernaturalism). As such, there are a wide range of theories that would need to be discredited in order for the second premise of the above argument to remain anything more than controversial.

In short, moral arguments for the existence of God that have anything like the above structure need to tackle the entire range of meta-ethical literature. It's not enough that they be able to show how moral objectivity could be defended on theistic assumptions. They also need to show (a) that naturalistic forms of moral realism don't work as well as the favored theistic theory; (b) that objective forms of constructivism don't work as well; (c) that contrary to claims made by some noncognitivists, subjective constructivists, etc., these theories really do fly in the face of our moral intuitions; and (d) if one must choose between one's moral intuitions and a metaphysical naturalism, there is good reason to jettison the latter.

This is quite a project, to say the least. It's unlikely that even with a hefty book one could adequately pursue each elements of it (Robert Merrihew Adams has gamely attempted something along these lines with his Finite and Infinite Goods; but while I regard that books as a great intellectual achievement, it is hardly the final word on the subject--as is evidenced by the rich exchange, following the book's publication, between Adams and the naturalistic moral realist Richard Boyd).

So, even if I were inclined to defend this sort of moral argument for God's existence, I wouldn't be inclined to do so in a blog post. And the fact is, I'm not sure what to think about this moral argument. I'd love to find a version of it that convinces me when I put on my critical philosopher's hat, but I haven't yet.

There are, however, other kinds of moral arguments. Some I find myself more drawn to than others.

In fact, one way to read Is God a Delusion? would be to treat it as an extended defense of a moral argument, not for God's existence as such, but for the decision to have faith in the existence of God. Here's how I'd formally reconstruct the argument along these lines that is nascent in the book:

1. Some things are objectively morally good.
2. If naturalism were true, then reality at a fundamental level would be indifferent to what is objectively morally good (the basic constituents of and principles governing reality would, given naturalism, neither embody such goodness themselves nor reliably promote its expression or preserve/perpetuate that which expresses it).
3. There is a worldview, opposed to naturalism, according to which reality at a fundamental level would not be indifferent to what is objectively morally good but, on the contrary, would embody such goodness, promote its expression, and preserve/perpetuate that which expresses it. A worldview of this sort is what unites theists who regard God as a proper object of devotion, trust, and worship (as opposed to fear and fawning subservience), and so can be described as the worldview of theistic religion (as opposed to theistic superstition, following Plutarch's distinction).
4. Both naturalism and the worldview of theistic religion are compatible with reason and our overall body of experience, even though both exceed what reason and evidence can establish.
5. Given the definition of theistic religion offered in (3), it would be objectively morally good if the worldview of theistic religion were true.
6. Living as if the worldview of theistic religion were true is a morally benign choice--that is, doing this would not produce outcomes or behaviors that are objectively morally bad, but would produce outcomes or behaviors that are objectively morally good.
7. Faith in one important sense of the word involves the decision to live as if a worldview is true based on the hope that it is true, and this decision is reasonable and moral if (a) the worldview is compatible with reason and experience even if not uniquely supported by it; (b) it would be objectively morally good were the worldview true (hence making the worldview a suitable object of hope); and (c) living as if it were true is morally benign.
8. Hence, faith in the worldview of theistic religion is reasonable and moral.

Framed in this way, it's obvious that my overarching line of argument in Is God a Delusion? depends on a meta-ethical premise, one which I never explicitly defend. But notice that this premise--roughly, that there are objective moral goods--would be true were any form of moral realism or objective constructivism correct. In other words, this argument does not depend on discrediting naturalistic forms of moral realism and every version of objective constructivism. It does, however, suppose that noncognitivism, error theory, and subjective and relativist forms of constructivism are mistaken.

In short, a unifying argument in Is God a Delusion? presupposes a meta-ethical position, but a far broader one than the more narrow moral argument requires.

There are other moral arguments for God's existence, and I suspect that each such argument probably depends for its soundness on some kind of meta-ethical position being correct. If so, then criticisms and defenses of moral arguments for God, to be complete, will inevitably have to consider work being done in meta-ethics.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Why Big Bird Matters

Perhaps the most memorable moment of the first presidential debate occurred when Mitt Romney announced that he'd fire Big Bird. Social media (and to a lesser extent political cartoonists) went nuts with it. My favorite facebook meme is this one:

Many other good memes are found here.

But other than being a source of amusement, is Romney's targeting of the big yellow symbol of kindness and children's educational programming of any real significance? Romney dismisses all of it as a distraction from the issues that really matter: “These are tough times with real serious issues, so you have to scratch your head when the president spends the last week talking about saving Big Bird.” Is Romney right to treat this as a trivial issue? Or does Big Bird matter?

Of course, Big Bird is a symbol of something. What's at issue is whether the things that Big Bird stands for should be put on the chopping block, and what it means for a presidential candidate to promise to do just that.

During the debate, the attack on our yellow friend came as Romney was being pressed to explain how he'd balance the budget in the face of his enormous across-the-board tax cuts and military spending increases. The problem, as Obama pointed out, was this: Romney's stated strategy for covering the tax cuts and spending increases has been to eliminate exemptions and deductions; but this strategy would only close the gap if middle class deductions and exemptions were axed to the point of effectively raising their taxes by thousands of dollars. So how else could Romney close this gap?

Romney mentioned two things: Repealing Obamacare and cutting the federal subsidy to public broadcasting. That is, he'd eliminate the program that ensures that my friends' daughter with juvenile diabetes can actually get medical coverage, and he'd fire Big Bird.

Since Obamacare is actually a cost-saving policy, Romney's first suggestion makes no sense at all. Only the latter suggestion would actually amount to a budget cut. But it’s an eyebrow-raising suggestion for the simple reason that the federal subsidy for public broadcasting is a miniscule part of the federal budget.

According to the Christian Science Monitor, "The CPB’s two-year, $445 million government grant makes up less than 1/100th of a percent of a Federal Budget worth upwards of $3.5 trillion." It’s like a family faced with mounting credit card debt declaring, “That’s it! No more visits from the tooth fairy!” Pocketing the quarters that might have gone under the pillow will surely be a deep disappointment to the child, but it won't do a lick of good to solve the family's financial troubles. Here's one political cartoonist's way of making the same point:

David Horsey / Los Angeles Times
(Source: David Horsey, LA Times)

But the problem goes deeper. It’s not just that federal support for public broadcasting amounts to pocket change. It’s that this support is a meaningful expression of public values. What are you saying when you announce to the nation that you’re firing Big Bird? What you’re saying is this: educational programming is not a national priority.

Let’s be clear about something. The children’s programming on PBS offers something that for-profit television simply isn’t interested in offering: genuine early learning opportunities. Some have called it "America's biggest classroom."

My kids watched Sesame Street, Super WHY, Between the Lions, the Electric Company, and other shows—and guess what? Watching these shows helped in their early education. Furthermore, these shows were a safe haven of sorts. Sometimes I'd be home alone in the morning and had to take my shower. 15 minutes in front of the TV could be a way to keep them safe and out of trouble--or it could be a source of trouble. I never knew what my kids would end up watching if they tuned into a show on commercial TV. Commercials would urge them to buy toys they didn't need, sparking a clamoring and whining for something I knew would sit there in the closet after the first day. Or they'd suddenly want sugary cereals that are terrible for human health. Sometimes they'd see images I'm not at all sure I want my children seeing.

On PBS Kids, they learned how to read.

PBS is part of our national commitment to education. It’s a cost-effective way to disseminate educational programming to the American population, programming that commercial and cable television has little interest in developing and disseminating for a simple reason: While these shows aspire to be both educational and entertaining, it’s only the “entertaining” element that’s profitable. Why strive to educate while you entertain, if the educational dimension doesn’t add to profitability?

In the debate, Romney tried to sell the idea that private enterprise always does it better than “big” government. But he’s simply wrong about this. Yes, private enterprise does many things better. But private enterprise is profit-driven. It cares about making money, not about promoting social values. If you want to focus on the latter even when it’s not profitable to do so, you can’t trust in the free market.

Had it not been for government support for public broadcasting, the educational children’s programs we see today would never have existed. And our society would have been poorer for it. This is not wasted money. It’s a very small amount of money by federal standards, and in terms of what you get in exchange for such a miniscule outlay of resources, it’s money well-spent.

Of course, some of this educational programming, while it got its start thanks to federal support, can and does now largely support itself. Sesame Street is like this, largely because of its now-iconic characters. Big Bird has been around long enough to resonate with symbolic meaning, with the innocence of childhood and the joys of discovery and the value of early education. Big Bird will survive what Romney does. The deeper problem is what happens when you commit to the idea that the government will no longer provide even token support for such symbolically weighty programming (and much-needed support for other programs that are bound up with those same symbols).

On this more profound symbolic level, government support for public broadcasting communicates and reinforces our collective commitment to educating and informing the public, both children and adults, about issues and ideas that matter—issues and ideas that it's good for people to know about even if devoting resources to this isn’t as profitable as renewing Honey Boo Boo for another season.

The philosopher Aristotle noted long ago that we become virtuous by doing virtuous acts. To become courageous, you behave courageously until it sinks into your character. To become caring and compassionate, you behave in these ways until they become a part of who you are.

This process of habituation works not only on the individual level, but on the collective level. You change the culture of a corporation by consistently engaging in practices that express the desired cultural values, especially practices that are visible and that resonate with symbolic weight.

You shape the character of government in similar ways. If you want a government that cares about the American people, you don’t achieve that by eliminating some of the most symbolically resonant government expressions of care. If you want a society that prioritized the healthy education of our children, you don't engage in financially-insignificant but symbolically-weighty cuts to children's educational programming.

You don't fire Big Bird.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Hegel's Rabble

One of the most interesting talks I attended at the Central State Philosophical Association Conference was entitled "What Is to Be Done about the Rabble?", presented by Joshua Anderson. The paper focused on a piece of Hegel's political philosophy, specifically, his idea that the operation of modern civil society gives rise to a problematic underclass of people whom Hegel dubbed "the rabble" (from what I can tell, not intended to have the derisive sense that "rabble" connotes today). While I don't remember all the details of the talk and the ensuing discussion, I want to share here what I took from the conversation and from my subsequent refresher reading of the relevant passages from Hegel's Philosophy of Right--because I think it has important implications for our contemporary conversations about poverty and welfare.

For Hegel, the beneficiaries of civil society are organized into "Corporations"--by which Hegel means organizations of people who carry out some recognized branch of the work that a civil society needs done (this would include corporations in the modern sense but would also extend to other kinds of social organizations, such as universities, police and fire departments, hospitals, governmental agencies, etc.). Full membership in civil society is conferred when you become a member of a Corporation. When you do, you have a role, a recognized place in society for which you are compensated with the means to meet your needs.

Corporations in this sense are a crucial part of organizing human beings into a civil society. As Hegel puts it, the Corporation operates as "a second family for its members, while civil society can only be an indeterminate sort of family because it comprises everyone and so is farther removed from individuals and their special exigencies." Put another way, the Corporation serves as a kind of mediating social unit, between the family and the society as a whole. You become a citizen of society through corporate membership. As a member of a Corporation you have a specified role to play in an organization that itself has a specified role in society as a whole. You are recognized and remunerated by the Corporation, and the Corporation is in turn recognized by the civil society at large and given the right to exchange the goods or services it provides in exchange for capital.

This arrangement brings several concrete benefits to the Corporation member. First, and most obviously, as a Corporation member you acquire the resources to care for yourself and your dependents. Without this, you are impoverished.

Second, you acquire recognition from your community. You are seen as a contributing member--you have a "recognitive status"--and so enjoy a sense of belonging. Without such a role, you are alienated.

Third, you acquire the opportunity to do meaningful work and so experience yourself as being a contributor to society.  In Hegel's words, "the Corporation member needs no external marks beyond his own membership as evidence of his skill and his regular income and subsistence, i.e., as evidence that he is somebody." As social animals, we "find ourselves" through the impact we have on the social world. Our sense of self, our dignity, is bound up with being able to recognize that impact in our community. Hence, without such a role, we are cast into a position of shame.

Hegel argues that as civil society increases its population and its wealth, there are inherent limits to how many positions relative to the population are available within Corporations. Hegel is a bit unclear about why. He seems to think that Corporations are engines not only of production, but of differential distribution of the benefits of production. Conditions arise "which greatly facilitate the concentration of disproportionate wealth in a few hands," but the flip side is a growing mass of people who are left out. These persons are not only impoverished, but alienated and defined by shame. From the standpoint of society they are outsiders; from their own standpoint they lack the kind of identity that can confer positive self-worth.

These are "the rabble." They are denied two crucial things: First, they are excluded from the benefits of the social contract. Second, they are deprived of the opportunity to contribute to society in ways that are socially recognized and respected. In more technical lingo, they are denied the opportunity to legitimately "externalize themselves" in their social environment.

This second kind of deprivation should not be underappreciated. One of Hegel's important contributions to social philosophy--picked up on famously by Marx--is the insight that those who work have a unique advantage over those who are idle, even if the idleness is that of wealth and privilege. Those who work make an imprint on the world. That imprint is an assurance of their own significance and identity. It's as if they can see themselves through the effect they have on their environment, and so come to know that they matter. It is for this reason that, on Hegel's view, slaves are better off, at least in one crucial way, than the rabble.

Hegel doesn't see a way to avoid the creation of a "rabble" in a civil society, nor does he see a solution that will do any substantive good. He considers the possibility of the wealthier classes supporting the rabble through a kind of social welfare, which he dismisses on the grounds that receiving subsistence without working for it "would violate the principle of civil society and the feeling of individual independence and self-respect in its individual members." The first part of this dismissal is a familiar refrain today (those who receive benefits without contributing are "freeloaders" or "moochers"). The second part is more interesting: Neither charitable giving nor state-sponsored welfare confer a meaningful place in society, a recognized role and the opportunity to engage in the sort of work that confers a sense of self and dignity.

So what about giving the rabble jobs? Hegel says this won't solve the problem either, because the problem is a function of overproduction relative to "the number of consumers who are themselves also producers." You give more people more jobs, and you overproduce even more. This solution, Hegel claims, only intensifies the fundamental problem that gives rise to the impoverished class. In short, Hegel seems to be a proto-Keynesian convinced that universal employment inevitably guarantees overproduction relative to demand. To achieve a balance between supply and demand requires that a proportion of the populace remain unable to find work.

 But Hegel is vague about this, and I'm not enough of an economist to say with confidence whether he is right, or how this proto-Keynesian view relates back to his idea that the creation of a rabble is the necessary flip-side of growing concentrations of wealth. My best guess is that the existence of a pool of potential workers that exceeds the available work not only is required for the sake of preventing overproduction and so preserving profit, but is also required in order for employers to be able to keep more for themselves of what the worker's labor is worth. If workers can be easily replaced by dipping into the hungry rabble, who will happily take any employment on any terms for the sake of fending off starvation, then workers are at a bargaining disadvantage. They'll be compelled to sell their labor for less than it is worth, while corporate owners keep the difference and so get rich.

The closest Hegel comes to proposing a solution to the problem of the rabble is to suggest that the rabble serve as a motive for foreign trade and, ultimately, colonial expansion. Through the latter, society "supplies to part of its population a return to life on the family basis in a new land and so also supplies itself with a new demand and field for its industry." In other words, you export your rabble, who ideally return to a simpler agrarian existence of local self-sufficiency ("life on the family basis," as opposed to life in a civil society unified around industrial production). They are gone from your soil but still consume your goods, meaning that consumption of what you produce exceeds your local population. And this makes possible more universal employment while still facilitating the accumulation of wealth among the privileged classes.

A handy solution for Hegel. But the history of colonialization is frought with injustice as soon as you pay attention to the fact that colonial settlers were actually moving into lands already occupied by peoples not participating in the industrial social contract and its mode of social organization. Furthermore, the history of colonialization seems to me to be the history of a globalization of the industrial social model, leading ultimately to a global "rabble": whole nations of destitute and disenfranchised human beings. Eventually you run out of new frontiers, and the problem of the rabble resurfaces on an international scale.

And so we confront the question posed by Joshua Anderson in the title of his conference paper: "What is to be done about the rabble?" Is such an underclass really as inevitable as Hegel thought? Are there any meaningful solutions that address both of the chief problems from which the rabble suffer--namely poverty and lack of recognitive status?

The coversation at the conference was too rich and interesting to adequately summarize. In simplest terms, Anderson's suggestion in his talk was that the rabble themselves, by existing outside the social contract, had a freedom to act that offers hope for the emergence of a solution from within the rabble. His commentator, Roxy Green, noted that the life circumstances of the rabble will likely put limits on their capacity to understand social dynamics enough to use their freedom productively.

These points, taken together, call attention in my mind to something Hegel doesn't dwell on but which is important to consider--namely, the way in which the rabble pose a threat, and the way in which society tends to manage that threat. Insofar as the rabble don't benefit from the social contract, it is fairly clear why they threaten the social order: We can't expect them to follow the rules when they aren't beneficiaries of the system the rules are meant to keep in place. In short, the first kind of deprivation from which the rabble suffer erases a crucial constraint against lashing out destructively.

And the second kind of deprivation can positively motivate violence. As social animals, it is very important to us that we matter in relation to our social environment. If there are no legitimate roles through which we can achieve this, then what happens to us? We either begin to think of ourselves as something less than human, as having a status equivalent to the squirrels that dart across one's path but aren't part of the human community; or we assert our humanity in dangerously anti-social ways. Denied a positive impact on the social environment, some opt for a negative one.

But while the rabble are threatening for these reasons, the threat they pose is mitigated by their lack of power and their limited knowledge. When they do lash out against the civil society in ways that violate the laws, their blows are usually quite limited in their capacity to damage the system or its most affluent beneficiaries; and, generally, they are quickly apprehended and far more likely to be convicted than those who enjoy the benefits of the social order would be. This is a baseline solution that members of civil society in general, regardless of political persuasion, seems to endorse: Count on the police and criminal justice system to take care of the threat posed by the rabble--directly by removing those who break the law from society; indirectly through the deterrent effect of these examples. Given the general powerlessness of the rabble overall, this may go a long way towards solving the threat posed by the disenfranchised underclass--and that may be all the "solution" that many care about.   

But sometimes the threat posed by the rabble--either through sporadic violence or more concerted action (not necessarily violent) to claim some share of what they are denied--faces the prospect of becoming more serious. And so civil society supplements law enforcement with other strategies. The rabble's limited perspective and knowledge means that savvy beneficiaries of the social contract can find strategies to misdirect and mislead them into behaving in ways that serve or at least don't threaten the status quo. Perhaps they are led to turn on one another, to be so hostile or fractured among themselves that there is little risk of organizing effectively. If there's a poor, unskilled working class, it might be possible to pit them against the rabble.

Or perhaps the underclass is fed the promise of some otherworldly solution to their plight, the message that their state in this life is irrelevant and they should live wholly for the life to come.

Or perhaps they hunker down in hopelessness and self-blame--beating themselves up, literally or metaphorically, because they have come to accept a narrative according to which they are responsible for their own alienated state and would be just fine if only they had the will to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Perhaps they are fed stories of rags-to-riches archetypes who embody the notion that anyone can succeed in civil society, even if they start out among the rabble. Such stories imply that there are no rabble in the true sense, since anyone in this state could escape it if only they applied themselves.

Another way to manage the rabble is to follow Hegel's first suggestion: provide them with a subsistence living through handouts--perhaps as an official social policy. Do this, and they now become beneficiaries of the social contract, even though they remain alienated and denied a meaning-bestowing role. As beneficiaries of the system, they are brought within the scope of its laws. They owe their obedience. Furthermore, fear of losing what little they have can keep them from lashing out. The problem, of course, is that now they are deprived of dignity. And general allegiance to the principle of civil society--that each member gains his or her share of social goods by contributing proportionately--may combine with the very rags-to-riches stories mentioned above to produce outraged resistance from the poorest of those who do contribute, since their share of social goods may be little more than what the rabble a receiving without working for it.

What these solutions have in common is that they all operate within the framework of the system that creates the rabble in the first place. The most famous Hegel-influenced philosopher on socio-political matters, Marx, can be seen as looking for a solution by adopting an alternative system brought about by a revolution of, not the rabble, but the proletariat (the exploited workers who benefit minimally from the industrial social contract).

But is the creation of a rabble really as inevitable as Hegel thinks, given the roughly capitalist social contract that Hegel envisions? Can a free market industrial society exist without giving rise to a disenfranchised underclass, either at home or abroad? If it is not inevitable, who benefits from the patterns that give rise to this underclass, and what sort of resistance will efforts to change things generate among those beneficiaries?

My own intuition is that the creation of a rabble is not inevitable, even in a free market system, so long as that system is regulated and supplemented in the right ways--such as, for example, with minimum wage laws that undercut the incentive to play the working poor against the rabble for the sake of exploiting labor, and tax policies that erase the advantages of concentrating wealth through exploitation of the vulnerable. If the incentive to hire in the private sector is limited by worries of overproduction relative to demand, the government can step in as an entity not beholden to such profit concerns and hire the unemployed to do tasks that serve the public good: investments in infrastructure, etc.

But I'm not economist, so my grasp of these issue is limited. What do others think?

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Were I President Obama...

So the first presidential debate of the campaign is history. Here are my first-blush impressions.

As I see it, Romney "won." He came out more polished, and he was able to more effectively deliver a unified message. If anyone benefited from the debate (and I'm not at all sure anyone did) it would have been Romney.

His message, in sum, was roughly this: "Free enterprise does it better than big government, at least so long as there is regulation and so long as there are crucial government investments and an effective social safety net; and my plans achieve the latter despite what my opponent says, and they do it while trusting free enterprise instead of big government."

I say that this message was effectively delivered. That's not to say I accept it. I'm not at all convinced that Romney's proposals offer the regulations that are needed, make the investments that are most important for the future (green energy may be the single most important investment we can make for the future of humanity, and Romney chastised Obama for that prioritization), or provide the most just and compassionate response to the plight of the poor.

But those questions aside, I am unconvinced by the first piece of Romney's message. I simply don't think the blanket endorsement of free enterprise is accurate. Of course free enterprise is important, and in many things is the best way to produce and distribute goods. But when it comes to paying for health care (which isn't the same as providing it), I think there are good reasons to believe that a single-payer system that is not-for-profit has crucial advantages over a multipayer insurance industry composed of profit-seeking businesses.

Not that either candidate is proposing anything other than the latter with respect to health care in general--but Romney is proposing that we move to the latter with respect to Medicare, while Obama wants to preserve Medicare in its current form--as a single-payer, not-for-profit government program. Obama tried to make this point and highlight its significance--and I think some people heard it. But the message was at least partly occluded by Romney's repetition of the charge that Obama is cutting Medicare by $700 billion.

Obama did try to point out that the cuts were not to Medicare benefits but were cost savings made possible by other provisions of Obamacare (for example, universal coverage will save hospitals the money lost to providing emergency care for the uninsured, meaning they won't have to recover the costs by charging higher rates elsewhere, such as to those covered by Medicare). But in my view he didn't push this point forcefully enough. Had I been Obama, I would have turned to Romney and pointed out that he was just repeating a tired old misrepresentation of the facts that had been thoroughly debunked by the fact checkers when Ryan repeated it at the convention. And then I would have used that moment as an opportunity to tout the merits of Obamacare: the Affordable Care Act makes possible the sort of cost saving measures that increase the long-term financial viability of the Medicare program.

And speaking of what I would have said were I President Obama, one biggie pertains to Romney's proposed tax plan. This is what I think Obama should have said: "If you lower the tax rate across the board but pay for it mainly by eliminating tax exemptions and deductions, you haven't lowered taxes overall. You've decreased taxes for those who were not benefiting from those eliminated exemptions and deductions, and you've raised taxes on those who were benefiting from them. So the question is which deductions and exemptions Romney wants to eliminate, and who the current beneficiaries of those exemptions and deductions are. If it's disproportionately the middle class, then you've effectively raised taxes on the middle class. And according to such-and-such study, it is disproportionately the middle class."

I say that were I in Obama's shoes, that's what I would have said. The truth is that were I in Obama's shoes, I would have stared in frozen horror at the lights and the cameras and hemmed and hawed incoherently. And probably nervously chewed off a hang nail.