Monday, December 31, 2012

What I Hope for in the New Year

Some things I hope for myself in the coming year:

1. I hope that when I speak or write, I will have the courage to say what I think is true, rather than what I think I should think, or what others (whose opinions matter to me) think I should think.

2. I hope when I do say what I think, it will be with the humility to know I could be wrong. And I hope that it will be with enough self-trust and integrity not to abandon what seems apparent to me just because I could be wrong. Instead, I hope it will only be when I have been offered reasons or evidence that sincerely move me.

3. I hope I will seek out the good even when I see much darkness, that I will have the courage to recognize the darkness, not hide from it, but also not let it blind me to the stars. I hope that I will recognize the light that I can nurture, and see how best to nurture it, and so help forge an honest pathway to greater joy. 

3. I hope that I will live more fully in each moment, taking in the smells and sounds and sights around me. I hope that when my daughter clings to my neck and presses her cheek against my own, I will let every other concern slip away, even if just for that moment, so I can fully savor the smell of her hair.

4. I hope I will not lose my anger--and the energy for action that it provides. But I also hope that the anger will always give way before compassion, before empathy, before the will to understand. I hope that my anger will never drive me towards recklessness, and that my wisdom will tell me when my anger is misplaced.

5. I hope I will spend more time laughing and making music--both literal and figurative music--with the people I love.

What are your hopes for the coming year?

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Gun Control Conversation: Things Not to Say

I think there may be hope for a serious conversation about enacting sensible gun regulations in this country. But there is also a real danger of that conversation being quickly derailed. If the former is going to happen and the latter avoided, there are certain things people tend to say in these discussion that it would really be better to avoid. This is true of people on both sides.

I already talked, in an earlier post, about one such unhelpful remark: The accusation that gun control advocates are "politicizing a tragedy." Here are a few other remarks that it is better to leave behind:

1. "Our children are more important than your guns."

This statement is clearly true. Children are more important than guns. The problem is not with the truth of this statement. The problem, perversely, is that the statement is so obviously true...but is put forward as if this were what opponents of stricter gun regulations disagreed with.

Imagine that you enjoy tennis, and some child in your town was murdered with a tennis racket. Then imagine that a small group of people started arguing for restricting access to tennis rackets. You start to argue that tennis rackets aren't the problem and your opponents suddenly shout you down with "Our children are more important than your tennis rackets!" How would you feel?

I offer this example not because I think guns are comparable to tennis rackets. They're not. Many guns are specifically designed for the express purpose of efficiently ending the lives of human beings. Tennis rackets are designed to hit tennis balls. I offer this example to highlight how stating the obvious as if it were a matter of contention--in effect accusing your opponent of disagreeing with you on something about which no decent human being would disagree--doesn't settle the argument. It just gets your opponent more angry and less willing to engage in a serious conversation.

We all need to focus our attention where the disagreement actually lies. In the case of the safety of our children, the disagreement is not over whether their lives are more valuable than guns. So where does it lie? A big part of the debate is about whether stricter gun regulations will keep our children safer--and if so, what sorts of gun regulations will optimize their safety and what sorts will needlessly restrict gun owners to no good effect.

Much of the debate also turns on an ideological disagreement about the extent to which public safety should be secured by government institutions (police, military) and policies (such as various airport security regulations) and the extent to which it should be secured by extending to individuals the right to secure their own safety by the means they judge best. When it comes to such things as locks and security systems, we all agree that full autonomy should lie with the individual. When it comes to guns the debate becomes complicated because guns both pose a threat to the public safety (when in the wrong hands) and can be used by individuals to defend themselves and those they love from such threats. The conflict here is a case study in broader ideological disagreements about the right balance between individual liberty and communal action for the common good.

2. "In such and such a case of gun violence, greater gun control failed to stop the killer/ ready access to guns by private individuals failed to stop the killer/ ready access to guns by a private individual prevented the gun violence from being worse."

Here's one example of what I have in mind:


I've been trying to track down another one I saw--this one from the other side of the issue--but can't find it. I remember the gist of it well enough, though. It features an image of Nidal Hasan--the shooter who killed 13 people and wounded 29 others at the Fort Hood military base in 2009. It cites the number of people killed and injured and notes that this occurred on a military base, where presumably there were lots of armed people about with lots of training in how to use their weapons...and then it draws the conclusion that arming people more heavily won't stop mass shootings.

A facebook post by a philosophy colleague at another university called my attention to the extent to which specific anecdotes like these are being invoked on both sides as if they settled anything. They don't. The question is whether a particular policy or other will save lives--not whether it will bring an end to all gun-related deaths, all mass killings, etc. No matter what policy we adopt, there will be people who get hold of guns and succeed in taking human lives. We don't live in a perfect world, but we might be able to achieve a better one.

Anecdotes have a powerful impact on our imagination and can shape our thinking, but there is a reason why "anecdotal" evidence is treated with suspicion. And one needs to be careful about the anecdotes one chooses, since it may be a matter of debate whether they make the point you want. For example, according to a Mother Jones article, the Pearl shooting was apparently over by the time the vice principal got his gun. What he managed to do was hold the shooter at gunpoint in the shooter's car until the police arrived.

Of course, it may also be that the shooter was heading off to another location to shoot up some more people. The point is that now you're in a debate about what happened and what would have happened in a particular case when, in fact, the anecdote doesn't really speak to the broader issue. The substantive conversation about what policies are best both in terms of outcomes and in terms of other ethical considerations has been derailed.

3. "If guns are outlawed, only outlaws will lave guns."

This statement assumes that the subject of discussion is nothing but whether a sweeping ban on private gun ownership is the best policy. But it is precisely this sort of all-or-nothing thinking that polarizes discussions and makes more nuanced conversations about sensible policies so difficult.

What we have to ask is not what the effects of a total ban would be, but what the effects of the more nuanced and realistic policy proposals on the table would be. We have to say, for a range of policy proposals, "If this proposal were enacted, then what?" And we have to decide which of these various proposals--proposals which regulate gun ownership in various ways as opposed to outlawing them--is the best policy given the social realities of our country, its history, the evidence of various policy effects on violence, the legitimate moral claims of individuals, and fidelity to our constitution (which requires a serious discussion of what a right to bear arms for the sake of well-regulated militias actually means for us today).

Besides which, even those who propose a ban on guns don't mean for that ban to extend to law enforcement and the military--so it's simply false that only outlaws would have guns.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Mental Health Care Reform

Yesterday, I read this post from a mother of a boy with a mental illness--a boy she loves, a boy who frightens her, a boy who might one day do the kind of thing that causes a nation to weep. For now it is the mother who weeps. If you haven't read it yet, do so. Now. Don't even finish this post. It will change how you think.

I said in an earlier post that we need a serious national conversation about easy access to guns in this country. We also need a serious conversation about how to improve access to and quality of mental health care for those who suffer.

The gun lobby has this slogan: "Guns don't kill people. People kill people." The obvious response is that people kill people with guns. And guns make it so much easier to kill. The more powerful the gun and the more ammunition it holds, the easier it is.

The person with suicidal thoughts is so much more likely to act on those thoughts if there's a gun in easy reach. A person in a jealous rage is so much more likely to kill if there is a gun right there.

If a tornado rips through a school, children's lives are at risk. But there are people with tornados in their heads. Whether they become as dangerous as actual tornados depends on what weapons they have available.

But there is something right about the gun lobby's slogan. A gun, without a human at the trigger, is inert. When death happens it is because something human has been added to the mix: negligence or malevolence, hate or jealousy, fear or desperation. Or madness. In a perfect world, a wold purged of all sickness and sin--that is, in a world that we will never see this side of death--guns would pose no danger to anyone.

Because a perfect world is impossible, we need to talk about sensible ways to make it harder for guns to fall into the hands of those who would use them to harm the innocent. But because we can do better even if we can't purge all the forces that drive people to murder, we need to talk seriously about doing what we can to reduce impulses to violence--not only to nurture a more nonviolent spirit among those of us who are of sound mind, but to extend desperately needed help to those of us who are not.

This is a dimension of health care reform that must be explored seriously by everyone. The invocation of mental illness and mental health care reform cannot and must not be reduced to a diversion tactic by opponents of greater gun regulations--a way of turning attention away from one of the issues we need to wrestle with. It must be something that all of us regard as a high priority. And those of us who favor greater gun regulations cannot ignore the cry of the mother who finds herself struggling to help a beloved child who terrifies her. We cannot think that all has been solved by making sure her child can't get hold of an assault weapon. We cannot leave that mother out to dry.

In a world where the mental health care of children depends on the benefits package that the parents might or might not receive through their employer, our world will have more people growing up with tornados in their heads than there have to be. We can do better. We must do better for the sake of children like those slain at Sandy Hook, for the sake of those mothers who find themselves responsible for children who seem like ticking time bombs. For the sake of those children who don't know what to do with the tornado in their heads, and who sometimes imagine it will all be better if they just let it loose in the world.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Let Us Come Together

Let us talk together.

Let us talk about how we can get help to the mentally ill before it is too late. Let us talk about better ways to keep guns out of the hands of those who shouldn't have them. Let us talk about the forces in our culture that increase rage, belligerence, and despair. Let us talk about ways to keep our children safer while also preserving the joys of childhood, without allowing a single extreme event to define their world in stifling ways.

Let us act together.

Let us reach out to the families who have lost their precious children, to do what we can as a nation to provide comfort in the midst of horror. Let us live out lives in that infectious spirit of love, that spirit of grace and care and mercy that is, in the end, the surest antidote to the spirit of violence that gives rise to horror. Let us listen and talk with those who disagree with us, but in the end let us act on conscience--letting our government representatives know where we stand, engaging in nonviolent direct action when we feel called to do so, working to make the changes in our local communities that we believe in.

Let us dream together.

Let us dream of a better world, and let our dreams shape our conversations and our actions. Let us dream, but while we dream let us remember that no matter what changes we make, no matter how much real progress we make, the world will always be a place where horror can and will strike. When it does, let us not fall into despair or apathy or a loss of purpose. Let us instead hold hands in the face of horror and remind each other of our dreams.

Let us reach beyond ourselves.

Let us turn our hope towards a power which can do more than we can ever do. Let us light candles and say prayers and reach for that elusive good which has the power to transform us from within, and so transform our world one living soul at a time. Let us keep talking, acting, and dreaming of something greater than we can ever realize alone, something whose intimations are to be found in that spirit that we feel among us when we come together in compassion and patience and good will.

No matter our differences and disagreements, our passions and our fears, let us now, in this moment, come together.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Guns and Tragedy

When a mentally ill man, armed to the teeth, walked into a movie theater in Aurora, CO and started shooting, I thought to myself: We need a national conversation about gun regulations.

I thought it. Others said it aloud and were shouted down for "politicizing a tragedy." And I thought, "Maybe now isn't the right time. We should grieve, honor the dead, get over this. Then we need to talk."

A few weeks later, when a hateful ideologue gunned down people in a Sikh temple, I thought to myself: We need a conversation about gun regulations.

I thought it. Others said it aloud and were shouted down. And I wondered if now wasn't the right time.

Not long after that, here in Stillwater, an adolescent walked into the local junior high school, pulled out a gun he'd gotten from somewhere, and killed himself in front of his peers. And I thought about this boy who, for some reason, needed to scream, to scream as loudly as he could, and who found a lethal way to do it.

I wrote about that tragedy, and I brushed against the issue of guns--but I hesitated to make it the focus. I didn't want to "politicize" the tragedy.

And now. Now after listening to horror while my wife and two children--my whole heart--were all together in the nearby elementary school; now as we confront the bloody aftermath of madness; now as the nation faces the corpses of babies, killed so easily; now, after I come home and hug my children and my wife and imagine some mentally unbalanced kid somewhere out there, here in Oklahoma where anyone may privately sell their gun to anyone else without background checks or waiting periods, where the tools for mass murder can so easily fall into the hands of those who are contemplating mass murder; now when it hits my heart, when I imagine my own children cowering in a classroom, my little girl who is so effortlessly and exuberantly affectionate, my son who is so endlessly creative; now, again, I find myself thinking that we need a national conversation, a serious and sober one, about what we can do, if anything, to make it harder for the lunatics to acquire the weapons that make unthinkable horror so easy to do.

It needs to be thoughtful and informed and realistic. It needs to take into account the reality of the gun culture in America, the fact that the guns are out there in large numbers already, the fact that most gun owners are responsible citizens, and the fact that there are legitimate reasons ordinary citizens have for wanting guns.

But it also needs to take into account the fact that it is painfully easy in this country for persons who are homicidally insane to get their hands on weapons that enable them to efficiently murder classrooms full of children.

It needs to be a conversation that takes seriously the middle ground, a conversation that's not a shouting match between the forces of total prohibition and the forces that treat every proposed regulation--even something as simple as a background check--as a fundamental assault on human liberty. It needs to be a practical conversation that integrates the interests of gun owners, the social and historical and cultural realities of contemporary America, and the desire to keep our children safe.

Such a conversation is both possible and necessary. But if it is going to be an intelligent conversation, there are things we need to stop saying. One of them is this:

You’re politicizing a national tragedy.


When our nation confronts tragedies like today's massacre of children in Newtown, CT, or the massacre of movie-goers in Aurora, CO, we are shocked. And we mourn for the lost. And we try to find ways to honor the dead, to lift up the heroes who died protecting others, to tell the stories, to weave some semblance of meaning out of the horror.

But something else we do is think about how to stop tragedies like it from happening again. This is not "politicizing a tragedy." It's responding to a tragedy in a natural and normal human way: We ask ourselves, "How do we stop this sort of thing from happening again?"

It is precisely with respect to this question that there is such a great divide in America. There are those who think we can reduce the frequency and severity of such tragedies by making it harder for madmen and hate-filled ideologues to get their hands on guns. And there are those who think that if more decent citizens have guns in their possession, the bad guys would be more quickly stopped.

More gun control will solve it. Less gun control will solve it. I suspect these alternatives oversimplify a more complex reality and create a this-or-that perspective on solutions that leaves out the range of creative alternatives that integrate concerns and insights from both directions. We need to think about these complexities.

National tragedies can and should be catalysts for that—events that move us to think about what we could do differently to reduce the frequency or severity of such tragedies in the future, and to act accordingly.

I suppose there are those who see tragedies as opportunities to further their own political career or score wins for their political party, because they see that the tragedy plays into their political platform. But that is not what is going on when a father hugs his child, thinking that it could have been his little girl or little boy, and then asks what can be done before the next time, the time when that's exactly who it might be.

To be moved by a spate of mass shootings to ask serious questions about what can be done about it isn’t politicizing a tragedy. It's confronting the reality of tragedy in one of the most pragmatic, useful, forward-looking ways that one can. Americans are historically pragmatic. We're problem solvers. The death of our children is a problem, and like it or not, ready access to guns is implicated in that problem.

And we affirm a principle of democratic government, in which civil discourse about our problems, public conversations about the issues that matter, are encouraged as a way to help produce wiser public policy.

To seek to silence willy-nilly those who raise these concerns by accusing them of politicizing a tragedy seems an attempt to shut down conversation--the conversation that needs to happen--perhaps out fear of where that conversation might lead.

If you have legitimate interests that you want protected, then participate vigorously in the much-needed conversations that tragedies can help to catalyze. Don’t try to shut down their catalyzing power by mislabeling the motives of people who are as horrified and grieved by the tragedies as everyone else.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Sam Harris on Torture

Although Sam Harris's PhD is in neuroscience, he never left his undergraduate philosophy degree (from Stanford in 2000) far behind him. This has been clear from the time of his first major bestseller, The End of Faith. In that book--the first of the so-called "new atheist" bestsellers--Harris devotes a chapter to ethics, previewing what he later attempts (and, in my view, fails) to do in The Moral Landscape.

In that ethics chapter from The End of Faith, Harris even does a bit of applied ethics (by which I mean the discipline of thinking about particular moral issues and dilemmas in a rigorous way in the attempt to provide reasoned guidance in decision-making). Specifically, he focuses on the moral status of two controversial questions: the ethics of torture and the ethics of pacifism (spoiler: he thinks torture can be justified while pacifism is "flagrantly immoral").

This past semester I had my introductory ethics students read what Harris has to say on torture. I wasn't surprised to find some students convinced (at least initially) by what Harris says. In a manner characteristic of the new atheist writers, Harris tackles the ethics of torture with the kind of confident authority and eloquence that so effectively obscures the serious defects in his argument. This is not to say that Harris has nothing of value to say about torture. He makes some interesting and important points in the course of developing his unsound argument. But the main argument is nevertheless unsound on several levels.

It struck me as a useful exercise in critical thinking to assess with my students a piece of writing of this sort: writing in which word choices create false equivalences and authorial confidence masks a deep ignorance of relevant literature. And it also seemed that Harris's essay--and a consideration of what he overlooks--could serve as a useful springboard for deeper reflection on the issue of torture and the broader ethical issues it brings to light.

For the very same reasons, it seems worth addressing on this blog. But doing so adequately--especially in a way that affords us a deeper look at torture and surrounding issues with an eye towards broader ethical insights--would take more than a single post. In this post, then, I want to content myself with offering an overview of Harris's core argument and, as I go along, quickly identifying his main oversights. A deeper look into these oversights and their significance will have wait for later.

So, what is Harris's main argument? Harris focuses on the issue of torturing suspected terrorists for the sake of acquiring life-saving information (such as the location of a hidden bomb that will take untold innocent lives unless found and disarmed in time). This way of framing the issue--in terms of the so-called "ticking bomb" case popularized in recent years by Alan Dershowitz--may itself be problematic. David Luban has argued precisely that in the Virgina Law Review, because it treats a highly unusual scenario as if the moral status of torture in that scenario could be considered on its own, isolated from a consideration of the ethics of our broader policy (either secret or open) with respect to torture. Luban offers some quite interesting and useful remarks about the difficulty with such isolated consideration of the extreme-and-rare case. Harris seems utterly oblivious to any such difficulties. If he's aware of them, he ignores them utterly.

Moving on: Having focused in on the ticking bomb scenario, Harris begins his argument with the assumption--which he takes to be rather self-evident--that if the prospective torture victim is known to be guilty (and, presumably, to possess the needed information), torture is clearly justified.

This starting assumption is hardly as uncontroversial as Harris takes it to be. First of all, there are those who will balk at its consequentialist character--taking there to be something intrinsically wrong about the deliberate infliction of pain when such infliction is not merely foreseen as a side-effect of something one is doing but is an intended aim of one's action (even if it is intended not for its own sake but as a means to some more ultimate objective).

Second, there is the whole question of the relative efficacy of torture as compared to other forms of interrogation. If one is sufficiently consequentialist about these matters, what the ticking bomb scenario would do is justify that means of extracting the needed information that is most likely to produce the desired result. When, if ever, is it reasonable for us to suppose that torture is that most-effective means and so act accordingly? Harris doesn't even take up the question. He does concede that the probability of successfully extracting reliable information through torture may be low, but he fails to consider that this may mean there are other interrogation techniques with a higher track record of success (or with which trained interrogators have more training and experience, and so are better equipped to use effectively).

Of course, in order to explore such comparative issues, he'd need to conceptually distinguish between torture and interrogation. Harris never even attempts to do this.

In any event, Harris assumes that torture is justified if you've got a known terrorist in your clutches who has the information you need in order to save countless lives but who refuses to divulge it. The moral problem, for Harris, arises when we suspect but don't know for sure that the person in our custody is indeed a terrorist with knowledge of the whereabouts of the hidden bomb. In that case, Harris says that the moral problem is that we risk torturing an innocent person by mistake.

In fact, Harris's next error is in arguing as if this--the risk of torturing an innocent--is the only risk. He doesn't explore the risk of torturing someone who is indeed guilty of terrorism and involved in the bombing plot, but who lacks the relevant information. Torturing someone to extract information they don't possess is, in the ticking bomb case, not just a dangerous waste of time. The problem runs deeper. What lies behind the idea that torture can be justified in these cases is the assumption that increasing someone's suffering is more likely to break down their resistance to doing what you want. If they don't talk, you move from interrogation to thumb screws. If they still don't talk, you tighten the thumb screws. Follow this pattern with someone who doesn't have the information you want, and you are inflicting ever increasing amounts of suffering to no good effect. Continued escalation can lead to false information or death, but not to anything useful.

But all of this is preliminary. Harris's real argument begins only once he has swept a host of philosophical and practical problems under the rug in order to get to this premise: The main moral problem with torturing a suspected terrorist in order to gain life saving information is that the suspect might be innocent. His aim, then, becomes to challenge the view that "uncertainty about a person's guilt will generally preclude the use of torture." He challenges this view, interestingly enough, by arguing that "such restraint in the use of torture cannot be reconciled with our willingness to wage war in the first place."

Here it is important to pause long enough to remind the reader that Harris's discussion of torture is immediately followed up by an attack on pacifism. Harris's immediate conclusion with respect to torture is this: Either we give up on war, or we accept torture. By making it clear that we should not give up on war (that it would be "flagrantly immoral" to refuse to go to war in the right cases), Harris drives home his own broader conclusion, namely, that torturing people--even those who might be innocent--can be morally justified.

That, then, is his broader argument. But in his focused discussion on torture his aim is the more narrow one of arguing that if we think war can be permissible, then we have to hold that torturing potentially innocent people can be permissible too. And why is that? Because war inevitably brings with it "collateral damage"--the deaths of innocents who are in the wrong place when the military installation is blown up, who end up in the crossfire when enemy soldiers are targeted, etc. Here's how Harris puts the point:

What, after all, is "collateral damage" but the inadvertent torture of innocent men, women, and children? Whenever we consent to drop bombs, we do so with the knowledge that some number of children will be blinded, disemboweled, paralyzed, orphaned, and killed by them. It is curious that while the torture of Osama bin Laden himself could be expected to provoke convulsions of conscience among our leaders, the unintended (though perfectly foreseeable, and therefore accepted) slaughter of children does not.
In other words, Harris's argument for torture purportedly piggy-backs on the justification for allowing collateral damage. If collateral damage is morally justified (given a certain probability of achieving a sufficiently good result), then torture will be justified (assuming a comparable probability of achieving a similarly good result).

But if Harris wants to piggy-back his case for torture on the case for collateral damage, it would make sense to look at how and when collateral damage has, historically, been taken to be justified. It would make sense, in other words, to try to show that the reasons why people have historically justified collateral damage are also reason that would, likewise, justify torture. There is, after all, an enormous body of literature on the ethics of war. There is, in fact, a "just war tradition" that has given rise to the so-called "just war theory," which has through the years served as the basis for much of our national and international policy-making and deliberations with respect to war. And, as a matter of fact, the just war theory has explicit things to say about collateral damage. There is, if you will, a conventional understanding of the conditions under which so-called collateral damage can be justified.

Sam Harris presumably never encountered this just war tradition and the body of literature surrounding it during his years as an undergraduate philosophy major. I say this because he makes no mention of it. None. He argues that torture is justified if collateral damage is, but at no point does he actually take up the classical justifications of collateral damage to see if, in fact, they transfer to torture.

As a matter of fact, they don't. Let me say that again: According to the classical just war conditions for the justifiability of allowing collateral damage, there is no parity between causing collateral damage in the pursuit of military aims and torturing a suspected terrorist to extract information. The conditions that are classically invoked to justify the former DO NOT justify the latter. So Harris' oversight here is a serious one.

It is made even more serious by the fact that Harris goes through the motions of looking for some relevant difference between torture and collateral damage that might be invoked to challenge the moral parity he attributes to them. He considers and nimbly refutes some very poor reasons for denying this moral parity. Perhaps he thinks that the standard just war position on collateral damage--which, if accepted, would undermine the purported moral parity with torture--is just as bad a basis for denying the moral parity as the bases he considers. But if so, he fails to say why. He fails to even take up the question.

In short, he says that A is like B--but fails to consider the standard account of B, which if accepted would render A unlike B. And he fails to consider this standard account, which would refute his thesis if it worked, even though he pretends to go through the motions of looking for considerations that might refute his claim that A is like B.

But if anything should be taken up in a philosophically serious attempt to show that A and B are morally equivant, it would presumably be the standard understanding of B, at least if, according that standard understanding, A and B are not equivalent at all. Failing to do this is either a serious philosophical failing in its own right (completely ignoring the clearest and most historically important basis for objecting to your thesis) or evidence of a profound ignorance of the scholarly knowledge that anyone making Harris's argument ought to have.

I should note that, even though I think the standard just war view here would, if acceptable, undermine Harris's purported equivalence between collateral damage and torture, I'm not at all committed to the standard just war position. I think it may very well be one we shouldn't accept. And if we don't accept it, the equivance between torture and collateral damage that Harris asserts would be restored--but for reasons that, I suspect, would make it much harder for Harris to make the case that war is justified even when it produces collateral damage. In other words, I think the strongest basis for challenging the just war tradition on this point is more likely to establish an equivance that tips the scales against BOTH collateral damage and torture than one that tips the scales in favor of both. But that is an issue for another time.

For now, I want to say this: In this post I've boldly asserted that Harris's claimed equivalence between collateral damage and torture would be undermined if we accepted the standard just war position on collateral damage. I have yet to explain why this is so. A full explanation will have to wait for a later post, but a brief account is warranted here. In brief, then, the just war tradition works out, in relation to collateral damage, the implications of something called the doctrine of double effect. This is a doctrine that lays out precise conditions under which it can be morally permissible to pursue an action that has both a good effect and a bad one. Among other things, the bad effect cannot be a means to the good effect (another crucial requirement is that the good effect outweigh the bad). In other words, the bad effect has to be an unintended, if foreseen, side-effect--that is, an effect the elimination of which would not prevent the good effect from being achieved.

This is what distinguishes bomb attacks with "collateral damage" from bomb attacks that directly target civilians in order to terrorize the population and thus weaken their resolve to continue the war. The latter is strictly ruled out on traditional just war grounds because the bad effect is in this case intended as a means to the good. Fire bombing of Dresden? Ruled out by traditional just war theory. Nazi bombing raids over London? Ruled out. Atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Ruled out.

What characterizes a legitimate case of "collateral damage," on just war theory, is this: If the innocent civilians could be evacuated from the site of a bomb attack on a military target, it would still be possible to perform the very same bomb attack for the sake of achieving the very same end result (taking out the military target). You don't need the suffering and death of the civilians in order for the bomb attack to achieve the military objective it is intended to achieve. The same cannot be said of the suffering of a torture victim that is pursued for the sake of extracting information. You can't torture information out of someone without causing them pain. Put bluntly, if you give them enough sedatives that the torture doesn't hurt them, it's not torture and the whole method of pursuing the goal has been abandoned. In the case of torture, you are pursuing the bad effect in order to achieve the good one.

You might think this distinction makes no moral difference. In other words, you might disagree with the weight of the tradition and the majority of scholars in the just war tradition. But if so, it is not a sign of impeccable scholarship to refuse to say why--to refuse to even acknowledge that there is such a basis for rejecting your thesis.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Salvation Army, Homosexuality, and Gestures of Charity

One of the things many of us associate with the Christmas season is the appearance of "bell ringers" outside retail stores and other public venues--sometimes dressed as Santa, more often not. They have a little collection bucket next to them. As people pass by they fish in their pockets for loose change to drop into the bucket. A simple act of charity at a time of year that's supposed to be about love, but which too often becomes about supporting a consumerist culture.

A few years back when my son was three-and-a-half, he'd been collecting change for awhile in a homemade piggy-bank. Suddenly at Christmas time he decided that he wanted to "give it to the bell ringers." He brought all his life savings to the front door of our local Walmart and dumped it all into the red bucket with a noisy clanging.

For my son it was a gesture of giving. He wanted to help people who didn't have enough food--and the bell ringers were, for him, the most visible symbol in his small world of living in a spirit of generous love. When it came to what he should do with his money, he could think of nothing better than to align himself with such a spirit--with the clamorous noise of a year's worth of collected change filling up a red metal bucket.

Or are things really that simple? Most of these bell ringers--certainly all of them here in Stillwater, OK--belong to the Salvation Army. The change that goes into the red kettles goes to support the Salvation Army's Christmas ministries, which focus on providing tangible material aid to "needy families, seniors, and the homeless, in keeping with the spirit of the season" so that "the real meaning of the season is not forgotten."

But the Salvation Army also happens to be an evangelical Christian movement that ascribes to a conservative theology and a conservative view of Scripture. In a sense, the Salvation Army is a Christian movement born among outcasts--the fruits of the unconventional evangelism of William Booth, who reached out to the most impoverished, to prostitutes, to alcoholics, to those who weren't welcomed into the establishment churches of England in the 19th Century. But because of its theory about the Bible's authority and its interpretation of the relevant texts, the Salvation Army today perpetuates what I take to be a damaging teaching about sexual minorities, a teaching that contributes to their social marginalization.

And because I have so many friends and relatives who, like me, are working hard to end discrimination against gays and lesbians and other sexual minorities, I hear a lot about the Salvation Army at this time of year. Some of my friends would, I think, be scandalized that I let my son, as a wide-eyed three-year-old wanting to do good, pour his savings into a Salvation Army bucket.

Primarily their message is this: Don't give them your loose change. Don't support them, no matter how innocent those bell ringers might look and how good it might make you feel to drop your loose change into that little red kettle. It shouldn't make you feel good, because not only does the Salvation Army discriminate against sexual minorities within its own ranks, but it supports broader policies of social marginalization.

Sometimes, however, the message I hear is more strident: The Salvation Army is a hate group.

Sometimes its hard to be clear on all the facts amidst the rhetoric. Among other things, it seems pretty clear that the Salvation Army is attempting to pursue non-discrimination practices with respect to those it serves and its employees (at least those who aren't clergy). They've made a concerted effort in recent years to stress that they are not anti-gay.

That's how they see things, at least. But it is also clear that the Salvation Army endorses the traditional Christian view on homosexuality--namely that same-sex sexual activity is sinful. And as with so many other conservative Christian communities on this topic, it seems clear that the Salvation Army doesn't see a substantive difference between calling homosexual acts sinful and calling, say, drunkenness or prostitution sinful. You can still reach out to alcoholics, love them, care for them, if you condemn their drinking. In fact, that's part of how you show love for them.Why isn't condemning homosexuality the same thing?

In fact, it isn't the same thing at all, for reasons I've addressed at length elsewhere and so won't explore at length in this post. Let's just say that there's a big difference between putting the "sin" label on something that damages the lives and welfare of everyone affected by it including the person doing it, and putting the "sin" label on something that cuts to a person's very identity and prospects for fulfillment and love--essentially telling them that if they express who they are with integrity in loving and caring ways, building a relationship that is life-enriching and deeply meaningful, they are committing themselves to sin, and the resultant relationships really ought to be ended forthwith.

The message my gay and lesbian neighbors hear is this: "You should never form an intimate relationship with someone you are able to love romantically; and if you do it is bad, no matter how virtuous and committed and faithful and otherwise beautiful it seems. It should be ended, even if were the same relationship observed in a hererosexually married couple we would view the dissolution of it as a tragedy to be resisted."

But groups like the Salvation Army don't see this. Perhaps, with enough relationship-building and open communication, with more opportunities for "soldiers" in the Salvation Army to build relationships with openly gay and lesbian neighbors, all of that will change. But for now, they see homosexuality as a sinful life choice that is contrary to God's good plan--something that, as with alcoholism, can be opposed while still loving those who are "afflicted" by it.

If you think they are dead wrong about this, should you boycott their fundraising efforts--efforts that go primarily towards serving the needy? Should you refuse to drop that coin in the bucket...and then hopefully remember to give it to some other charity that doesn't ascribe to the harmful teaching? Should I have pulled my son aside and told him not to give his money to the bell ringers, and then tried to explain to a three-year-old why not? Should I have shattered his illusions about the bell ringers and their good intentions, and then gone through the symbolically less meaningful ritual of taking his money to the bank and writing a check for that amount to Oxfam?

If the Salvation Army were a hate group, then the answer to this question would be clear. I don't support hate groups. If there'd been men in white sheets and pointy white caps raising money for white hurricane victims, and my son had wanted to give, I wouldn't have hesitated in shattering his illusions. But even if the Salvation Army is wrong about homosexuality, that doesn't make it an anti-gay hate group.

My own direct experience with the Salvation Army is quite limited. The only real person-to-person connection comes from my own childhood, and it is bathed in a warm glow of fond memory. I was six years old and living in Norway. My parents were away for a weekend, and my sister and I were left in the care of a woman who was a friend of my grandparents. She was also a soldier in the Salvation Army. She wore her uniform proudly. I remember that she had a dog, a standard-sized poodle. It was a beautiful dog, gentle and smart. When we attended Sunday services the dog came with us. It rose when we rose, sat when we sat.

When I think of the Salvation Army, I think fondly of that dog. I also remember a weekend characterized by kindness.

But one nice dog, and a kind a babysitter, doesn't refute the "hate group" charge. Here's what does: A hate group is a hate group because its mission is fundamentally shaped by an ideology of hate. The group exists, at least in part, to oppose a targeting class of people, to oppress or marginalize or destroy them. Even a cursory look at the history of the Salvation Army reveals that this is not what it's about. The Salvation Army is a nonviolent movement aimed at spreading the gospel as they understanding it. It's about "saving souls." Think what you will of the theological beliefs underlying such a mission. You may find them thoroughly distasteful and unworthy of your support. But such a mission isn't one of hate--even if certain misguided beliefs lead to practices that do harm.

When you hear that bell and see that familiar red bucket--as you think about whether to fish in your pocket for loose change--a key question has to be whether the unambiguous good they will do with that money is outweighed by the harms that might flow from their errors.

And if your son wants to give, there are other questions, too--such as whether a principled refusal to support groups that perpetuate anti-gay teachings is worth derailing a small child's desire to align himself with the clearest symbol of generosity his young mind has found...whether it's worth destroying that symbol and introducing the specter of cynicism at a formative moment in his development.

More broadly, we live in a world where nothing is perfect--no individual, no organization, no movement. But we also live in a world with symbolic acts that stand for our better natures and our higher aspirations. For better or worse, the Salvation Army's bell ringers, their red buckets, have become a symbol during the Christmas season. We are urged to make a small gesture towards the reality of human need--fishing into a pocket--as we rush in and out of the big retail stores buying useless stocking stuffers for people who have more than they need. We remember, for a moment, that there are those who don't have enough in our world of excess. We are encouraged to give.

Those who stand behind that symbolism are flawed people with a sense of connection to the divine and a sense of mission. It is not a mission of hate--not a mission to marginalize and oppress those whose sexuality doesn't fit the norm. But they do have beliefs which happen to contribute to such marginalization. Does this fact mean they do not deserve to carry the symbolic weight of charity during the holidays that they have come to carry?

For me, there is no easy answer. I will say that I haven't thrown spare change into a Salvation Army bucket this season because I'm conflicted about what their views on homosexuality mean, or should mean, for me. But I am also deeply hesitant about encouraging a boycott, or about trying to destroy the symbol that evoked one of my son's earliest and most earnest gestures towards a spirit of charity. There's a sense in which the "bell ringers," by standing out there every December, have helped shape my son's moral development, making him, arguably, a better person than he might otherwise have been--a better person than he would have been had I talked him out of emptying his piggy-bank into that bucket.