McCain Mispeaks, Hagee Hems and Haws

May 14, 2008

Republican Presidential candidate John McCain has gotten himself in hot water lately by toadying up to a couple of the “agents of hate” peppering the religious right. One of these is John Hagee, who believes that God destroyed Katrina because of gay dancing, called the Catholic Church “the great whore,” and is a good buddy to Israel… in the fond hope that the Second Coming will imminently roast it, and all non-Christian Jews, off the face of the Earth.

Hagee has now apologized, sort-of, for the “Great Whore” remarks.

When it comes to the comparison between Obama and his pastor’s Wright’s nutty, anti-american sermons, I think McCain comes out worse here. A church is a faith community, a family, not a magazine subscription that one cancels when someone in it, even a leader, says something you disagree with. McCain, on the other hand, actively courted these people in an explicitly political fashion: gaining their support specifically, wanting people of their views to endorse his campaign’s positions.

McCain’s response to these charges has been characteristically evasive, bristling with irritation that anyone would even bring anything critical up, and then wont to make lazily grandiose dismissals that don’t make a lick of sense. Case in point, when asked by George Stephanopoulos if seeking Hagee’s support was a mistaken, McCain replied:

“Oh, probably, sure. But I admire and respect Dr. Hagee’s leadership of the — of his church,” McCain said, later adding: “I’m glad to have his endorsement. I condemn remarks that are, in any way, viewed as anti-anything.” (emphasis added)

So McCain is anti-anti-anything? Does that mean he’s for everything? Come on. Obviously this statement is nigh incoherent, particularly for a politician who is anti-plenty of things. The sweeping nonsense of this statement comes, I think, from simple disinterest in thinking or addressing the specific controversy and his place in it. As far as I can tell, the man who once thoughtfully lambasted “agents of intolerance” in his own party no longer exists.


Human Dignity: An Ethically Useless Concept

May 12, 2008

Last year Steven Pinker wrote a fantastic article on bioethics that somehow had escaped my notice until a commenter recently brought it to my attention: The Stupidity of Dignity.

The point of his essay is not, as one might fear, that human beings lack an inherent dignity or moral importance. It’s that the term “dignity” has been so constantly abused that it has become almost worthless in moral debates. It’s incoherently defined, capable of having nearly any property, even contradictory ones. And it’s all too often used simply as a proxy for the philosopher’s or theologian’s subjective dislike of some behavior or idea.

Here’s the key point of the article:

The problem is that “dignity” is a squishy, subjective notion, hardly up to the heavyweight moral demands assigned to it. The bioethicist Ruth Macklin, who had been fed up with loose talk about dignity intended to squelch research and therapy, threw down the gauntlet in a 2003 editorial, “Dignity Is a Useless Concept.” Macklin argued that bioethics has done just fine with the principle of personal autonomy–the idea that, because all humans have the same minimum capacity to suffer, prosper, reason, and choose, no human has the right to impinge on the life, body, or freedom of another. This is why informed consent serves as the bedrock of ethical research and practice, and it clearly rules out the kinds of abuses that led to the birth of bioethics in the first place, such as Mengele’s sadistic pseudoexperiments in Nazi Germany and the withholding of treatment to indigent black patients in the infamous Tuskegee syphilis study. Once you recognize the principle of autonomy, Macklin argued, “dignity” adds nothing.

The rest of Pinker’s article basically argues that despite an entire volume full of responses to Macklin’s challenge, the mostly conservative and religious Presidential Council on Bioethics have failed to answer it. In some cases, as with the notorious Leon Kass, they did worse than fail, exposing bizarre theocratic preoccupations that celebrate death and bemoan liberty in life.

A tour de force. Anyone know of any good responses to, or critiques of, this piece from conservative critics?


More Advice on Sex From a Virgin

May 11, 2008

Pope Benedict is back in the news for one of those sparse AP religious news pieces. He’s been praising a 1968 encyclical called Human Vitae which, among other things, definitively reaffirmed the Catholic Church’s ban on the use of artificial contraception. (It also happily makes up for the rather glaring omission of rape from the Bible’s otherwise absurdly comprehensive list of things God hates except when he’s busy ordering them). It would be nice to have the full speech, but it’s yet to appear in the usual places. But the snippets quoted by the AP are bad enough for a little fisking:

“What was true yesterday remains true even today. The truth expressed in ‘Humane vitae’ doesn’t change; on the contrary, in the light of new scientific discoveries it is ever more up to date,” the pope added.

And which scientific discoveries are those? That there is, after all, no “moment” of conception when a magical homunculus pops into being? That even a non-fertilized egg, or potentially any cell in the human body, can be induced to grow into a new human being? That the creation of a human person is a long complex process resulting, eventually, not instantaneously, in specific functional capacities?

The mark of the human search for truth, you see, is that it does change: it updates itself in light of new evidence, apologizes for error. This is doubly true in the case of moral understanding: better knowledge helps us make better decisions, alerts us to moral consequences we may have missed.

Now, I understand that Popes claim to be relying on insights supposedly proscribed by a higher power, and I suppose this is where we must differ. I don’t see any evidence of such insight. In fact, the contrary. What I see are doctrines formed in (perfectly understandable!) ignorance of human biology and social experience, now (less understandably) grasping at straws and cherry picking in an attempt to remain relevant, all the while resisting any re-examination.

And while Popes couch their declarations as sincere defenses of moral sense and human dignity, it’s hard to take them as seriously as they intend it. Perhaps mainly due to the nature of the institution they find themselves wedded to, there is very little room in which to confront the possibility of error. And when it comes down to admitting doctrinal error or real human dignity, which does history tell us is likely to bend to which?

“No mechanical technique can substitute the act of love that two married people exchange as a sign of a greater mystery,” Benedict said in his speech.

I quite agree that sex, as with all human experience, can be part of a greater mystery. But the Pope is sorely abusing the word here: appealing to positive connotations he has earned no right to. Indeed, his entire purpose is to routinize that mystery into the very specific form he believes the universe favors, all in service of a doctrine that is itself no mystery (except in the sense that it’s often philosophically unintelligible).

Benedict expressed concern that human life risks losing its value in today’s culture, and worried that sex could “transform itself into a drug” that one partner had to have even against the will of the other.

“What must be defended is not only the true concept of life, but above all the dignity of the very person,” the pope added.

You know what makes human life lose value and dignity? Cloudy, impenetrably confused moral thinking.

Like the sort that compares a experiencing, feeling human being to a nerveless embryo, and thus mangles any sense whatsoever of what makes human life, in particular, morally important.

Or the sort that stands in opposition to the distribution or even the education of poor people about contraceptive methods to prevent the spread of deadly disease. The one that treats knowledge as a temptation, and ignorance a blessing… if by blessing, you mean infecting your wife with AIDS because your priest declares that condoms are not permitted even within a marriage, even for that grave purpose.

Of course, voice these sorts of criticism within earshot of excitable apologists, and you’re bound to hear one or two responses.

The first is to loudly bemoan the supposed scientism-sans-conscience of Catholicism’s critics. This response is mere subterfuge. Us “moderns,” secular or no, are not nihilists: what we have are different values than the ones promoted by pontiffs, different ideas about where to draw the line on, for instance, stem cells. What we’re due in response is debate, not glib dismissals about our supposed moral blindness or vacuity.

The second response is that critics of Catholic doctrine are ultimately just narcissists: heedless pleasure seekers. Oh how they love this endlessly self-aggrandizing accusation! But the character of this sort of argument is both slanderous and baseless. Half the time it doesn’t even make sense, as when critics like myself are largely arguing on behalf of the liberty of others (such as homosexual rights that I myself have no need of).

The other half of the time, it’s just a backhanded way to justify injustices or restrictions that stand accused of causing harm themselves. It’s easy to frame any argument for progress as “selfishly” promoting pleasure and reducing suffering (how dare we desire to treat malaria, hedonists we!). Easy, but rarely helpful or sensible as a criticism of those ideas or improvements.

And worse, these declarations against demands for human happiness are insincere. For apologists often appeal to the idea that they know, better than everyone else, what best leads to happiest: they merely insist that they have a bead on the deepest sorts of human happiness. That anything other than their path leads to misery and ruin, not merely in an imagined afterlife, but here on earth. Very well: but others make the same claims about their own contrary paths and philosophies. Thus there is room for legitimate debate.

But, I suppose, such fair debates risk the unacceptable possibility of rational defeat. Simply accusing your critics of hedonistic animality is all the simpler and less dangerous.


First Things First: Tsunami, Theodicy, and Recycling for Cyclones in Myanmar

May 8, 2008

This wasn’t quite how I wanted to start a series of posts on theodicy, but here we are. In the wake of the recent cyclone disaster in Burma/Myanmar, the conservative religious journal First Things has reprinted any article attempting to reflect on the similarly shocking disaster of tsunami. You might remember First Things from my previous rants on one of the journal’s founders Richard John Neuhaus and his loving fantasies of anguished atheists. Well, a link from Exploring our Matrix led me back there yet again, and this was the result:

Read the rest of this entry »


Kenneth Miller’s Editorial on Ben Stein’s Anti-Evolutionary Expelled

May 8, 2008

Kenneth Miller, author of “Finding Darwin’s God,” and the very sort of religious scientist that Expelled’s producers avoided like the plague, has an editorial out today, lambasting the film and Ben Stein’s recent comments that “science leads to killing people.”

Good read from an important voice in this debate. And his new book, “Only a Theory,” which I’m quite excited to read, comes out next month!

HT: Gospel of Karen


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