Blessed Are the Peacemakers: For They Shalt Have .50cal Machine Gun Turrets

September 6, 2008

Missed this story when it first broke, but can you think of a reason for a local police department to have an armored personnel carrier with a mounted 50 caliber machine gun turret? Can you imagine them actually using such a thing in a residential neighborhood in the U.S.?

Probably not. The Sheriff claims that the vehicle will “save lives” and reasons that when “something like this rolls up, it’s time to give up.” I’m all for the police being appropriately armed, but give me a break. First of all, this thing is not going to have time to “roll up” unless the police are either conducting a pre-planned raid, or having a long standoff. And in either case, I very much doubt that an APC is going to intimidate criminals any more than twelve guys in riot gear and machine guns already can. .50cal machine guns are for closed firing ranges and war zones: places where you either want to have safe, human-target-free gun fun, or else turn real human beings into hamburger. They don’t belong in residential or urban police operations for anything short of Die Hard.

But wait: what if I told you that it all made sense because… because… Jesus!

Sheriff Lott stated that the name selected from the entries will be “The Peacemaker” because that is the APC’s purpose and the bible refers to law enforcement in Matthew 5:9 “Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God”.

As DrugWarRant points out:

In all my reading of the beatitudes, I never once imagined Christ astride an Armored Personnel Carrier complete with a turret-mounted .50-caliber belt-fed machine gun, surrounded by apostles in SWAT gear, as he said to the crowd “Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.”


Conscience For Me But Not For Thee: The Case for Pro-Life Docs and Pharmacists

August 22, 2008

In two recent threads over at Pharyngula, one about a poll and the other about some recent comments from HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt, I’ve gotten myself caught up in some pretty heated exchanges over the issue of pro-life doctors, and their impact on reproductive choice and access to health care.

This controversy has been building for some time, as legislatures and now licensing boards are increasingly confronting the question of whether, and to what degree, the consciences of anti-abortion doctors should be protected. More and more women are startled to find local doctors and pharmacists refusing what they had assumed were basic and perfectly legal prescriptions.

Now, as far as the original issues go, most of the things that anti-abortion docs, pharmacists, and their advocates are currently pushing for are indeed overboard. The idea that a doctor can refuse to refer a patient to another doctor, or refuse to even give them information, is unjustifiable. And if a CVS pharmacy wants to offer the pill to its customers, then it has all the cause in the world to only hire and retain staff that are willing to dispense it. It’s simply not unjust discrimination to fire someone if their conscience prevents them from doing what the employer needs done, and no reasonable (reasonable on the employer’s terms) accommodation can be found.

Unfortunately, many of my pro-choice compatriots have, I think the wrong idea themselves, asserting principles of their own that go far beyond the right of employers to set the conditions of employment. When it comes down to it, it seems that many people believe that doctors who refuse on ethical and/or religious grounds to prescribe birth control pills, pharmacists that refuse to fill such orders, or even, it seems ob/gyns that resist performing elective abortions should either ignore their consciences or essentially leave their chosen professions. But the justifications given for this harsh ultimatum are, I think fatally flawed.

Two principles in particular are, I think twisted or misapplied to this situation: the idea that pro-life doctors are forcing things on their patients, and the idea that pro-life doctors and pharmacists aren’t doing “their job.”

Doctors Have No Right To Force Their Choices on People

As general principle, this idea Is central to most cannons of medical ethics and medical license boards. And justly so. It’s based, first and foremost, on the idea that people of sound mind have an absolute right to accept or refuse medical care, and to pick the treatment plans they are comfortable with under the advice of the physician. It’s based on a laudable ethic of not forcing something on someone without their consent.

The problem is that this ethic seems to fall by the wayside whenever people start considering the views of people they don’t like. Or it gets implausibly twisted, so that the “forcees” are claiming to be the victims. It takes a true mangling of language to assert that someone not doing something for you constitutes forcing you to do anything. But that appears to be precisely what it going on here.

Consider the common assertion that doctors who refuse to prescribe birth control, especially when they practice in far-flung areas and stats that offer little choice in doctors to begin with, are “forcing” their own preachy choices on the patient. But are they?

When a family doctor sets up a shingle in a small town, people’s access to health care improves in real terms. But now suppose that the doctor refuses to prescribe birth control or perform elective abortions. Has the doctor actually “forced” anything on anyone? His or her values? His or her services?

In virtually all routine situations, no. The people in the town are certainly no worse off than they were before the doctor arrived. The doctor’s existence provides some benefits, but perhaps not all the benefits they’d want. Demand that the doctor violate his or her conscience or else find another profession, and you might well end up with no nearby doctor at all. The same goes for a hypothetical “pro-life” pharmacy.

Yes, people in that situation lack access to things they want and need, and are protected by law. But that’s the exact same situation they were in before the anti-abortion/anti-pill doctor set up shop.

So what’s the solution? Well, if we really care about access to birth control, if that’s really something we consider to be a moral value or even an assured, positive right, who has the responsibility to supply it? Does that responsibility fall almost entirely on the doctor who thinks it’s immoral, just because he happens to be the most local? Or does it fall on all the people who think it’s a basic right? If you answered the former, I have to admit that I’m simply flabbergasted.

The situation here is a little like the often confused outrage at “scalpers” who, during a disaster, offer things like water bottles for sale at ridiculously inflated prices. These people are routinely condemned as greedy, and they certainly are. But somehow it never occurs to all these outraged moralists that, if people in a disaster have some sort of positive right to receive water (free or cheaply), that this right cannot possibly be a burden and a responsibility that falls on some people more than others. At least the scalpers are offering water for sale at all. Rarely have any of the outraged people rushed over to offer even a drop of their own water, at any price. If the scalpers are as greedy as their inflated prices, then the moralists shaking their heads are themselves infinitely greedier.

Blaming the scalpers for a lack of available water, or blaming pro-life doctors for lack of available abortion services and birth control, is, in the end, nothing more than crude scapegoating. It takes the focus, rather conveniently I might add, off of the collective failure for which the moralists themselves are implicated.

And the further irony is that the moralists’ proposed solutions often wouldn’t really help anyone overall. Scalping only works when there is an extremely limited water supply: i.e. there’s too little water to go around in the first place. If scalpers simply gave away all their supplies for free, there would still be too little water: in fact, in the end, there would be exactly the same number of people with and without water. All that would be different is the method by which these people would be chosen (and the usual alternative, first come=first serve, is arguably no more “fair” than rationing the supply by price, which at least has some built in mechanism for assessing people’s relative need for the water).

Likewise, if anti-abortion/anti-pill physicians and pharmacies left the business, as their foes seem to suggest they should, there would still be the same shortage of medical care and lack of access to birth control that we started with.

From where I sit, that makes this issue look a heck of a lot more like an act of partisan revenge than a sound policy or pro-patient principle.

If They Don’t Want to Do What (I Say) the Job Entails, They Should Find Another Job!

This second principle, uttered as if it were an obvious truism, is in fact an utterly bizarre essentialism. Obviously, if we are talking about an employer defining what “the job entails” and finding someone wanting, there’s no problem. But this isn’t the sense in which some people mean “the job.” They mean it in a more cosmic sense: turning mere convention into Platonic form.

Who says that the role of being an ob/gyn, a family doc, or a pharmacist must involve prescribing or dispensing contraceptives? What defines that role such that it’s supposedly essential to this or that specialty? Is this some sort of immutable law of the universe? No. To the extent that they are set and regulated at all, the required roles of various professions (and the permitted variations) are set by committee or political process, not fate. And those debates have to deal with the very political and ethical questions we’re already considering.

Thus, asserting that elective birth control must be part of the role of certain doctors is little more than a begged question. If you regard a fetus or even a fertilized embryo to be a being with moral rights, then harming it without dire need would not legitimately be part of the role of any physician. Reject that idea, and it’s a legitimate part of reproductive health and choice. I certainly have my opinions, but I also have a respect for the importance of social pluralism. And we cannot simply presume anyone’s opinion from the get go when determining what medical ethics demand or deny.

A more reasonable question is: can anti-abortion doctors be reasonably accommodated into our medical system with their existence causing serious additional harm to anyone? I think the answer is yes.

My opponents disagree. They imagine Jehovah’s Witnesses as ER docs who then refuse to transfuse blood to car accident victims. But these examples are absurd. No one would hire such a doctor to such a position in the first place, and if one did, it’s unlikely it could be licensed to accept emergency patients (who are often in a very different situation than a person seeking a physician or going to a pharmacy). On the other hand, plenty of people in the United States not only would have no problem with seeing an anti-abortion ob/gyn, but would favor going to one. Is denying the possibility of this choice even in keeping with the respect for autonomy that underlies pro-choice politics in the first place? I think not.

The early pioneers of reproductive choice knew that making it a reality meant actually physically and financially getting doctors and products out to women everywhere. If choice is a positive right and not just a negative one (i.e. not merely something that the government cannot ban, but something that must actively be ensured, presumably by society itself) then it’s going to take a tall order of money, time, and resources to supply it. Butting heads with anti-abortion doctors and pharmacists, or demanding they conform or go out of business, isn’t even remotely the same thing.


Church Gunman’s Anti-“Liberal” Vendetta Confirmed, Note of Interpretive Caution

July 28, 2008

It seemed like a strong possibility from the moment the story broke, but apparently the recent gunman who attacked the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist chuch was, in fact, angry with the percieved “liberal” views of the people he gunned down.

Jim D. Adkisson, 58, ranted that “liberals and gays” taking jobs had prevented him from finding work. He wrote that he expected to keep shooting parishioners until the police showed up and killed him, Knoxville, Tenn., Police Chief Sterling Owen told a news conference.

I don’t think this sort of political violence is common, conventional, or particularly instructive when it comes to judging the character of any normal person on any side of the “culture wars.”

But it is a sad reminder that for some disturbed individuals, imbibing a sufficient degree of politicized character caricatures can make you lose sight of the real people standing in the way between you and your by-proxy “revenge” on whatever larger forces you’ve come to despise.

We’ll surely learn more about Jim Adkisson as time goes on, but whether his problems are psychological, environmental, or ideological, knowing that screwed-up people like him are out there should give us all pause when we feel the temptation of unequivocal condemnation. The vast majority of us can handle overblown political and cultural rhetoric without succumbing to sociopathy. But a scattered few cannot.

And while we cannot reasonably hold people culpable for “inspiring” the unpredictably extreme acts of maniacs, I’d never want to come home to find that someone has gone on a rampage with my angry words inflaming his twisted heart and pouring out of his lips as he pulls the trigger. Morally responsibile or not, it’s still a chilling possibility that, I hope, makes us all think twice whenever we carelessly abandon rhetorical moderation. Whenever we seek, often for mere short-term political gain, to paint even a loyal and sincere cultural opposition as craven and unequivocally evil.

Not everyone who’s listening is in on the joke.

More on this, I’m sure, to come.

Update: Also sounds like wasn’t so hot on the Bible and Christianity either:

She said she was surprised by his reaction when she told him she was a Christian. “He almost turned angry,” she told the newspaper. “He seemed to get angry at that. He said that everything in the Bible contradicts itself if you read it.” She also said Adkisson spoke frequently about his parents, who “made him go to church all his life. … He acted like he was forced to do that.”

Though if he really had a vendetta against Christianity over the Bible contradicting itself and people being forced to go to church as kids, a UU congregation is just about the last organization any sensible person would want to target.


Ancient Jewish Tablet Ignites Controversy: Another 3-Day Messiah?

July 5, 2008

When the Drudgereport first posted an unlinked story “BIBLICAL STONE CAUSES STIR; re-evaluation of Jesus story?” this morning, it caused quite a stir and much speculation. And while it remains unlinked at the moment, it likely refers to this NYTimes story: Tablet Ignites Debate on Messiah and Resurrection.

The tablet of this story contains what appears to be a sort of Judaic sect’s apocalyptic gospel, ostensibly transmitted to man by the angel Gabriel. That in itself is not so controversial, since such literature was well known in the era. What’s stunning is that some scholars have made what seems to be a decent case that the text proves the pre-Christian existence of a cultural motif of the suffering messiah: one who, no less, is killed and then perhaps even comes to live again three days later. If this is so, it means that this idea was not, as most scholars believed, original or unique to Christianity, but was in fact a known cultural theme that predates the life and ministry of both Jesus portrayed in Gospel texts as well as any historical Jesus.

As with all such finds (such as the famous Ossuary of James, now widely believed to contain partial fraud), a significant amount of skepticism is warranted. But for many reasons, including the length of time the tablet has been around in scholarly hands, it seems like few doubt the legitimacy of the stone and its text, at least insofar as their dated origin. The debate instead revolves around what precisely that text says (much is illegible or missing) and what that means for the cultural and religious beliefs of the time.

“Some Christians will find it shocking — a challenge to the uniqueness of their theology — while others will be comforted by the idea of it being a traditional part of Judaism,” Mr. Boyarin said.

On the face of it, the use of past events to flesh out the Christian story is not exactly unprecedented: many of the Gospels and other early Christian writings seemed concerned with showing that their religion echoes, and thus is legitimately rooted in, Jewish scripture and history (i.e. the idea that Jesus was in some respects analogous to the lamb of Passover). This could simply be one more example, and whether or not this demonstrates post-hoc justification and embellishment or prophetic harmony is a matter of subjective opinion.

However, while some believers may indeed decide that the tablet is actually just another prophecy predicting the life story of Jesus, that line of argument is complicated by the fact that the story of the tablet seems to concern very different events and characters (and if it is a real prediction, then the Bible seems to be missing a rather amazing and key text!)

And the idea that the Christian idea of martyrdom was so culturally “out-of-the-blue” that it just has to be true (i.e. true because it’s too absurd and out of the mainstream for the Gospel writers to have dreamed up) is still decisively undermined. To be sure, atheist critics of such apologetics have dealt with these sorts of arguments quite convincingly in any case. But if the translations and interpretations of the tablet pan out, it will be yet another case in which the comfortably certain claims of evangelists are later overtaken by real history, which seems to have no particular inclination to validate such apologetic assertions after the fact.

Will this turn out to be another James Ossuary scandal, where over-competitive scholarship drove breathless conclusions and media stories far beyond what skeptical scholarship should have allowed? Or will this find ultimately alter our understanding of the pre-Christian world and the context in which Christianity took hold?

You were expecting me to have any clue? Nope. We’ll have to wait and see!


Texas Legalizes Abusive Exorcisms… Or Does It?

June 28, 2008

There’s been much dismay in the rational-o-sphere about a recent ruling by the Texas Supreme Court. The ruling concerns a case in which two “exorcisms” were performed on a minor, leading her to be injured and psychologically traumatized. The original jury held the church accountable, awarding the girl a few hundred thousand dollars. The Texas Supreme Court, on the other hand, found that the actions of the church were protected under the 1st amendment.

On the surface, this sounds like a pretty scary ruling: basically saying that a group can claim religious warrant for forcibly restraining someone against their will, injuring them, traumatizing them, and then get off scott free. But as I read through the full text of the opinion, the case looks decidedly more complicated.

Read the rest of this entry »


Jesus Was Wrong: Give Charity in Public, And Don’t Diversify

June 22, 2008

Peter Singer is the sort of philosopher that everyone feels free to sneer at and denigrate… all without ever actually reading his actual writing or seriously addressing his arguments. Which is too bad, because he’s one of the few ethicists out there that sincerely treats moral inquiry as an exercise in figuring out what’s actually right to do, as opposed to simply finding ways to better justify what we already do… or at least already believe is right (our moral habits, as it were).

Along these lines, Singer has recently challenged Biblical instruction of Jesus to give charity in private.

Singer doesn’t deny that the abstract idea of some person anonymously giving large sums of money without any hope of thanks appeals to our sense of what true altruism entails. But the reasons that we find that image so appealing and the actual good that the ideal accomplishes simply may not match up.

The abstract nature of the image the core of its virtue: it’s nice an clean and untroubled in our minds. It allows us to conceptually rule out all possible suspect motives from the person’s action other than either true concern for others and secretly feeling good about oneself. Thus, in our minds, we can be certain that the person’s act was pure and saintly. This was the ideal Jesus was so approving of: an otherwise reasonable disgust with people who give lavishly to impress others rather than to actually help them.

But as Singer argues, people in the midst of disasters don’t need anonymous saints, or require some level of purity in motive. What they need are actual people with faces to help and comfort them and as many charitable resources as possible applied to their problem.

And here’s the key point: everything we know about human behavior implies that people respond to peer pressure when it comes to charitable giving: if they see their neighbors giving, they’ll be more likely to give, and give still more. Thus, the good that setting an example does by far outweighs whatever secret motives someone might have for doing it. Those motives remain as mere thoughts in the head. The aid is still aid, and public knowledge of it sets and example that can be followed.

Singer doesn’t deny that a lot of lavish giving and “nameplate” philanthropy is contaminated with bad motives. But that’s largely because those bad motives lead people not to think very seriously about what charities are really the most important, not because the public nature of giving is itself bad:

Surely, what matters is that something was given to a good cause. We may well look askance at a lavish new concert hall, but not because the donor’s name is chiseled into the marble faade. Rather, we should question whether, in a world in which 25,000 impoverished children die unnecessarily every day, another concert hall is what the world needs.

On that note, economist Steven Landsburg has even more interesting advice about charitable giving: if you want to do the most good, it rarely, if ever, makes sense to diversify the recipients of your charity.

His argument is deceptively simple:

You might protest that you diversify because you don’t know enough to make a firm judgment about where your money will do the most good. But that argument won’t fly. Your contribution to CARE says that in your best (though possibly flawed) judgment, and in view of the (admittedly incomplete) information at your disposal, CARE is worthier than the cancer society. If that’s your best judgment when you shell out your first $100, it should be your best judgment when you shell out your second $100.

So why is charity different? Here’s the reason: An investment in Microsoft can make a serious dent in the problem of adding some high-tech stocks to your portfolio; now it’s time to move on to other investment goals. Two hours on the golf course makes a serious dent in the problem of getting some exercise; maybe it’s time to see what else in life is worthy of attention. But no matter how much you give to CARE, you will never make a serious dent in the problem of starving children. The problem is just too big; behind every starving child is another equally deserving child.

That is not to say that charity is futile. If you save one starving child, you have done a wonderful thing, regardless of how many starving children remain. It is precisely because charity is so effective that we should think seriously about where to target it, and then stay focused once the target is chosen.

And, through, the suspicious sorcery of economic theory, he even translates his argument into mathematics. Landsburg also makes the case that diversification may be a far better gauge of selfish motives than mere publicity:

People constantly ignore my good advice by contributing to the American Heart Association, the American Cancer Society, CARE, and public radio all in the same year–as if they were thinking, “OK, I think I’ve pretty much wrapped up the problem of heart disease; now let’s see what I can do about cancer.” But such delusions of grandeur can’t be very common. So there has to be some other reason why people diversify their giving.

I think I know what that reason is. You give to charity because you care about the recipients, or you give to charity because it makes you feel good to give. If you care about the recipients, you’ll pick the worthiest and “bullet” (concentrate) your efforts. But if you care about your own sense of satisfaction, you’ll enjoy pointing to 10 different charities and saying, “I gave to all those!”

The lesson here is clear: if you want to do the most good, give a lot of money to a single cause (one whose problem is huge relative to your contribution, and the one you think most objectively worthy), and tell everyone you know. Maybe they’ll conclude that you’re a bragging, self-aggrandizing sociopath. Who cares? The research shows that they’ll still be shamed into following suit. And for desperate people in need, the issue of what a bunch of first-world philanthropists think of each other is laughably irrelevant.


Teacher Who Burned Crosses into Student’s Arms Gave Extra Credit for Expelled Film

June 20, 2008

The science-blogosphere has been following the story of John Freshwater, a Mount Vernon public school teacher, for some time. The man is clearly off his rocker. He burned a cross into the arms of one his students. In class. And in addition to a host of definitive religious assertions to students during class time, Bibles and other religious materials featured prominently in the classroom, Ed Brayton also notes that:

He kept creationist books and videos in his classroom, including at least one video and one book by Kent Hovind. He also kept the book Refuting Evolution there. Parents showed the investigators handouts from religious groups slamming evolution and claiming that dinosaurs and humans lived together, among other things.

He even used, as a class example of how “science can be wrong” (a perfectly legitimate and even important thing to teach) the idea that science may have found a genetic basis for homosexuality, which of course meant that ‘In that case science is wrong because the Bible states that homosexuality is a sin’ (which is not even close to a legitimate thing to teach in public school).

But from Panda’s Thumb comes word of an even more intriguing tidbit in the recently released report on his conduct:

Mr. Freshwater gave an extra credit assignment for students to view the movie “Expelled” which does involve intelligent design.

Mmmm hmmm…

Interestingly, this is one of the few cases in which I’ve heard about Expelled successfully penetrating into a school classroom, which was supposedly one of its primary goals. And, surprise surprise, it comes from a young earth creationist using a public school classroom as his bully pulpit.

One who feels at liberty to brand his religious beliefs directly into the skin of his students. Teach Burn the controversy!

Update: Freshwater fired. Countdown watch until the DI claims him as another martyr for intellectual freedom…