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.


Muslim Women Surgically Pose as Virgins to Avoid Disgrace and Death

June 11, 2008

When I first heard about Hymenorrhaphy (a form of plastic surgery on the to restore the appearance of an intact hymen) I wasn’t quite sure what to think. When it was first developed and promoted, the procedure was billed as a benefit to the healing process of some rape survivors, who felt they needed a physical healing to coincide with the rest of their recovery. Fair enough.

But however you feel about that purpose, articles like this, detailing the rise of hymenorrhaphy as a means to deal with a culture clash, surely put a far more disturbing spin on things.

“If you’re a Muslim woman growing up in more open societies in Europe, you can easily end up having sex before marriage,” said Hicham Mouallem, a doctor in London who performs the surgery. “So if you’re looking to marry a Muslim and don’t want to have problems, you’ll try to recapture your virginity.”

The essential point of the surgery, when you think about it, is grotesque: to install a flap of skin whose sole purpose is to be painfully torn apart in later intercourse… all to give a man the satisfaction of a bloody first coupling. In some cases, even to give him evidence of blood to show to his waiting friends and family. Never mind that hymens can be broken for all sorts of other reasons other than sex (medical problems, physical activity, injury): many men and their families are now demanding an official “certificate of virginity” from gynecologists before they’ll even consider taking a marital “test-drive.”

The article highlights one such case in particular: a woman whose hymen was torn from horseback riding as a child who had to take out a loan to even afford the surgery.

“In my culture, not to be a virgin is to be dirt,” said the student, perched on a hospital bed as she awaited surgery Thursday. “Right now, virginity is more important to me than life.”

Unfortunately, for far too many women, virginity and life are often the same thing: the specter of so-called “honor killings” awaits woman that stray beyond the approved sexual traditions of various cultures in the Middle East and Africa.

One of the most gruesome cases in recent memory involved an Iraqi girl who befriended (without any evidence of actual physical romance) a British soldier… and had her throat crushed underfoot and body stabbed and mutilated by her own father. The father was arrested, but then let free.

At the police station where the father was held Sergeant Ali Jabbar told The Observer last week: ‘Not much can be done when we have an “honour killing” case. You are in a Muslim society and women should live under religious laws.

The young woman’s mother, a distraught witness to the crime, eventually fled the family… only to be gunned down in the street. Sadly, this story is far from an isolated incident (as the refusal of Iraqi authorities to prosecute a confessed killer might have already indicated). And it is not only men at fault. This “tradition” has even seen mothers restrain and slit the wrists of their own struggling daughters… for the crime of failing to commit suicide after being raped by their own brothers.

Given these sorts of bloodbaths as a backdrop, it’s hard to fault women for seeking the surgery.

But there’s little room for cultural relativism here. The cultural demands driving women to go under the knife, to fear for their lives and safety, or simply to hate and fear sex and their sexual pasts in general, are not quaint little cultural differences. They are backward and morally vile. They are a practice and an attitude that needs to be opposed, denigrated, and ended. It’s defenders should ultimately come to feel shame and remorse. It’s executioners should end up with the same punishments as any murderers or abusers.

Our own culture is hardly free from pernicious influences on women: including even those that lead women to breast implants and other cosmetic surgery. But there’s a world of difference between the stressful notions of physical attractiveness and the idea that women are “dirt,” fit to be beaten, humiliated, or even killed if they have had sex (or have even been raped) outside of marriage.

Let’s hope that more members of the relevant cultures and religious traditions at least take the attitude of this guy (reacting to a French case in which a recently man humiliated and dumped his wife on her family’s doorstep, accusing her of being impure, and then demanded an immediate annulment):

“The man is the biggest of all the donkeys,” said Abdelkibir Errami, [the Islamic Center of Roubaix’s] vice president. “Even if the woman was no longer a virgin, he had no right to expose her honor. This is not what Islam teaches. It teaches forgiveness.”

Gay Marriage Today: Why Not Polygamy Tommorow? …Here’s Why

May 20, 2008

Advocates of gay marriage are often far too glib about their institutional goals. Myself included. We dismiss all sorts of slippery-slope and social fears as simply being based on bigotry (and perhaps we luck out there, because we often turn out to be right, even if it was just a knee-jerk accusation). But many of those fears do make logical sense, particularly when social changes are made by judicial rulings based on distressingly broad and unmoderated principles.

One of the most legitimate of these fears has always been that judicial rulings about gay marriage that are based on bare notions of equality and fairness would carve a path towards the legal recognition of, well, polygamy. And with a polygamist cult controversy still driving news cycles, and HBO’s Big Love back for another season, polygamy can no longer be casually dismissed as an esoteric issue.

That doesn’t mean, that it can’t be dismissed though. It just means that it’s going to take a lot of serious work and argument to do it.

And so, over at Volokh Conspiracy, Dale Carpenter has penned a must-read “Cliff’s Notes” version of some of the best arguments against the “gay marriage/polygamy” connection. Personally, I find them convincing. I’d appreciate any arguments concerning why I should not.

As to the recent California gay-marriage decision itself, I’m of two minds. It should come as no surprise that I like the result. But I also have very strong sympathies with the view that the judges in this case (most of whom were Republicans, by the way) are using methods that overstep important boundaries in our system of government.

On the other hand (again!), I have slightly less sympathy given the fact that people often write constitutional and legal language that claims to be based on lofty moral principles and language… but then whine when someone actually goes and takes those principles seriously, rather than merely conventionally. If you don’t want constitutions to be treated any differently than literal regulations and craven contracts of social convention, then don’t write them as if they were shining beacons of truth and justice.

For all the gay couples who will finally be able to codify their partnerships in the law of our society, there’s little to offer aside from congratulations.

Update: Over at Dean’s World, Dean links to law prof John Witte Jr. and his take on the issue. Among other things, though, Witte notes that one of the traditional reasons that polygamy has been verbotten in the West is that is “routinizes patriarchy.” I’m no women’s studies stooge, but that particular reason strikes me as a little implausible except as a very, very recent development.


More on the Pinker/”Dignity” Bioethics Debate, A Reponse to Patrick Lee and Robert George

May 19, 2008

That Steven Pinker article “The Stupidity of Dignity” is now out in published form, and continues to be a source of controversy. For those who detest Pinker’s tone, Russell Blackford has his own, similar, take to the concept of dignity that he penned a few years ago in response to Francis Fukuyama.

A recent commenter suggested I give my own thoughts on one of the Bioethics Council’s “dignity” essays, and I figured I’d expand my comment into a fuller review. The essay/chapter in question is Patrick Lee and Robert P. George’s “The Nature and Basis of Human Dignity.” And they start off with a definition of dignity that I find problematic right off the bat:

Read the rest of this entry »


Fail? Critics Respond to Pinker’s Essay on “Dignity” as Ethically Worthless

May 17, 2008

In response to Stephen Pinker’s essay bemoaning the vacuity of “dignity” as a concept in bioethics, let’s highlight some critical responses from other thinkers: Yuval Levin, Ross Douthat, and Alan Jacobs.

Let’s accept every single one of their criticisms about Pinker’s tone, his paranoia, and his obviously less than impartial personal opinions about people like Leon Kass. Nevertheless, Pinker does very clearly and very directly raise a lot of serious, and possibly fundamental, problems with the concept of “dignity” in bioethics. And none of these writers seem interested in responding to that particular challenge. Which is too bad, because that’s really the only interesting part of the whole debate in the first place.

As one commenter said:

I’m not convinced Pinker has all the answers, but he seems to be taking the dignity argument more seriously than Jacobs, Douthat, or Levin. I tend to expect better of all three of those names. If Pinker was only 20% substance, that’s a higher percentage than any of the rest of us have achieved today.

Just to be a little provocative myself, let me say that I suspect the high regard that conservative scholars have for “dignity” lies in the fact that it, unlike the concepts of liberty and personal autonomy mediated by due process which have served us quite well so far, “dignity” is malleable enough that it allows the otherwise absurd idea that a random citizen sitting on their front porch is violating their own dignity by behaving in a way those scholars find distasteful (like licking an ice cream cone, or holding the hand of their gay lover). This also alleviates the often distressing inability to directly justify their dislikes as being immoral or harmful in any sensible, non-theological fashion.

“Dignity” also has the amazing power to declare morally important actions and objects that have no “personal” capacity in and of themselves: such as nerveless, intention-less cells that happen to have certain proteins active (i.e. fertilized eggs), but lack any objective capacity that anyone can tie to an ethical interest. If you can’t explain why breaking apart an embryo is morally wrong in any sensibly direct fashion, well then you can always argue that doing so is a sort of bitter voodoo-doll assault on humanity’s dignity, by proxy!

As is often the case, I’m being a little glib here myself. But I don’t think I’m entirely without merit either. It’s true that personal autonomy has it’s own gray areas and problems, but it at least makes sense on some concrete level, especially as a principle value in a diverse and contentious society, and that provides a far more promising foundation than a concept that seems to mean everything and nothing. Furthermore, many of its problems can be redressed far more easily than the critics I referenced above allow. Even under a personal autonomy framework, we can, for instance, still understand why respecting the wishes of someone when they are not actively awake or unconscious would be important.

In that spirit, here’s a much more intriguing and substantive response to the Pinker article, from another writer at the American Scene, Noah Millman.


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?


Richard Carrier on Atheist Morality & Theist Fears of Depravity

April 7, 2008

I’ve argued that theism cannot provide any demonstrable advantage over the lack of it in regards to justifying “meaning,” including moral meaning. More recently, I’ve started to flesh out the reasons why I find the specifically Christian version of theism morally incoherent (from, of course, my own conception of what is moral: i.e. fairness, rational principles, concern for others, etc.), specifically the idea of salvation (as well as a response to a cumbersome critic).

Richard Carrier, up and coming historian and philosopher, has some more to say on the subject of morality that I think is worth a look. As he notes, when believers insist that non-believers are always a frightening inch away from rape and pillage, they are looking for a very specific set of answers, which are not always provided by atheists, perhaps because we’re missing the real point of the question.

As I noted in my first essay on meaning, one important key to this debate is to ask how exactly believers really come to their own moral justifications, which they purport to be satisfied with, or at least think superior to all comers. I think they, and perhaps even the rest of us, might be surprised at just how flimsy and often strangely indirect those justifications for moral behavior are.

On a side note, Carrier is also looking for patrons, of sorts, to sponsor him in his writing of a book on the historical Jesus. When the vast majority of Biblical scholars (though perhaps not the ranks of best) are devoted believers or even glorified salesmen like William Craig, it is always worthwhile to have a contrary perspective, especially from someone who is qualified to give one (as Richard is). I know I don’t have a devoted set of wealthy readers, or else you’d have already given ME all your money by now. But its certainly a cause worth passing the word around about.