Saturday, September 22, 2007

Remembering Ken Lane

I just found out that someone I respect and love dearly, lost his battle with heart disease today. Ken exemplified his faith, in ways matched by few. He gave selflessly, working in charities and as a leader of our church. In everything he did, he gave to others. From organizing great children's parties to providing food and clothes to those in need, he truly led a life reflective of the very best that Jesus taught. He was dearly loved and respected, his contribution to his community and church family will be sorely missed. I truly hope that I can make even half the contribution to my community, that Ken made. For those of you who believe in such things, please remember Ken's family in your prayers. He leaves behind a wife, daughter and grandson, in his immediate household, as well as a son.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Rights; Part I

I would like to thank Kurt for writing what will be a series of posts about rights. He does a fine job of introducing himself, so I will be minimal. I have enjoyed Kurt's wry humor and insightful comments, at Dispatches for quite some time. I am really looking forward to reading the rest of this series.

Many Thanks to DuWayne for asking me to write a piece for Inalienable Rights. As he did not suggest a topic, I decided to put together an argument I had been working on anyway, the question of the origin of rights. This may be broadened to include the question of morality (assuming this to be a different subject), or when you get down to it, the structure of societies in general. The question of whether morality must be based upon religious revelation has received a lot of attention in the blogosphere lately (see Balkin, or Volkh or Andrew Sullivan, for instance). My contention is that this formulation has the process backwards, as I intend to show. Unfortunately, this will also show that DuWayne's title is incorrect: There are no such things as Inalienable Rights. As it turns out, this is not as depressing as it seems at first sight.

First, a bit about me. My name is Kurt Ehrsam. I comment on a number of blogs under the name kehrsam (pretty clever alias, I know). I am 43, divorced, and live in the mountains of North Carolina with my 85 year old father. My undergraduate degree was in Political Economy and Foreign Relations, with minors in History, Philosophy, and Biology (I stayed in school a long time). I have a law degree as well, so I will be coming at our topic primarily from an economic and legal approach. I have worked as a lawyer, a car salesman, a teacher, and a Congressional aide, thus single-handedly demonstrating the dangers inherent in a Liberal Arts education.

I was raised in a militantly atheist family, but have somehow ended up a moderate Christian. I attend a Southern Baptist church, but really don't fit into their theology; my ex-wife was a Wiccan priestess, so I speak that language as well. I am moderate in politics and have worked for a number of Democratic politicians and campaigns over the years. I am not a particularly community-minded person, nor am I a joiner, so I often miss out on the local angle of issues. I can be too impersonal, standoffish, or brusque; that is part of the package, too. Hey, I was a lot worse twenty years ago, so I'm working on it.

Let's get to the argument:

Jonathan Haidt writes,

But if you try to apply this two-foundation morality to the rest of the world, you either fail or you become Procrustes. Most traditional societies care about a lot more than harm/care and fairness/justice. Why do so many societies care deeply and morally about menstruation, food taboos, sexuality, and respect for elders and the Gods? You can't just dismiss this stuff as social convention. If you want to describe human morality, rather than the morality of educated Western academics, you've got to include the Durkheimian view that morality is in large part about binding people together.

Wow, menstruation, Procrustes and Durkheim in the same paragraph! I encourage everyone to read the entire essay, by the way. Don't worry, I'll wait for you.

I'd like to start with that question, "Why do so many societies care deeply and morally about menstruation, food taboos, sexuality, and respect for elders and the Gods?" because that is where morality starts, at the level of culture. My contention is that this is an analytical problem, in the sense that we could create a taxonomy of culture showing evolution just as we can for (say) species Canis. For that we will need a few axioms, or at least solid premisses:

1. Humans have basic needs which must be met, such as the need for food, water, and oxygen. Beyond these absolute needs, humans also desire other things, such as sex, prestige, leisure and the desire to see Britney Spears humiliated. Humans may rank these desires differently, such that sex may be elevated to the level of an absolute need, or may be more or less suppressed.

2. The "purpose" of human cultures is to maximize these needs and desires for its members. Elements of culture which greatly contribute to meeting needs and desires (fire is a good example) will be universally adopted by all cultures. Elements which have little impact (clamshell hamburger packaging, for instance) come and go at random.

3. In general, the individual culture is not aware of the decisions it is making. Rather, the choices of individuals are being summed as the general culture. Market forces are thus brought to bear in deciding what elements of culture will be propagated.

4. Culture operates in the context of environment.

5. Culture seeks relative stability. In other words, market forces, over time, will tend towards sustainability of the current culture. If the current culture is unsustainable, culture will gradually recede to a sustainable level. And finally,

6. Culture is defined by the technologies a society chooses to adapt itself to its environment. Technologies are learned behaviors which may be both material (such as agriculture or metallurgies) or social (such as language or religion).

Given these assumptions, it is pretty clear how I am going to analyze most situations: I'll define what technologies are involved, and given the environment, predict whether that increases or decreases the overall levels of satisfaction of some or all of the population. For instance, take the policy of turning Midwestern corn (or cheap European wine) into ethanol. While there is one population in favor of the practice (Midwestern farmers and communities) the negative costs and externalities will eventually lead to the policy being canceled by the rest of society that is currently bearing those costs.

I chose that example because it is a case where an elite adopt a technology based upon their needs, but which conflicts with the greatest good of the overall society. This is often a problem in the short-term. Longer term, the needs of the overall society generally prevail to some extent. There is a widespread assumption in the West these days that new technology will spare us from this type of conflict in the future. This is possible, of course, but current US standards of living are so unsustainable that it will take some doing.

What about Inalienable Rights, then? First, we have to define a moral system as a technology which is adopted by cultures because it provides order and predictability. Let's start with a small society, such as a solitary tribe practicing a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Their needs for a moral system turn out to be highly complex: They need to minimize intra-tribe conflicts (especially killing), secure personal property (so that it will be created), regulate sex (to prevent inbreeding and for political purposes), and come up with a means by which group decisions can be made and enforced (politics). If other tribes are nearby, issues of trade and intra-group conflict arise.

A look at Leviticus shows us how this works in practice: The Lex Talionis, for instance, marked a great leap forward from the prior practice of inter-family feuds. The moral bounds are highly ritualized, thus ensuring two things: First, morality is taken out of an individual context, such that killing someone is an offense against God, not just the dead man's family. Second, the law becomes highly stable, thus locking the culture into a stable, sustainable form as well. It is, in fact, so stable that we still have people today seeking to invoke Leviticus, despite the fact that the environment and culture are completely different from the First Millenium BCE context in which the law arose.

As cultures get more complex, so does the social technologies necessary to hold them together. Lets take the right of private property as our example. We first come to a major question: Who actually "owns" a piece of real estate? In Western cultures since the age of Charlemagne, the answer has been "The Sovereign," which is to say the King or the state (which may be synonymous). The Sovereign is said to hold "Allodial Title" without restriction; all others hold their title from the Sovereign, subject to four "uses" or restrictions, which are taxation, the police power, escheat and eminent domain. So the individual never fully owns his property; instead, he holds a number of rights which may vary based upon the situation: The more complex the society, the more regulation of the property.

In other words, the "right" to pribate property is nothing more or less than what the society grants for its own purposes. A hunter-gatherer tribe has no use for private real property at all, unless there is some outside agency (for instance, in the 17th Century several Canadian tribes developed ideas of private hunting territories based upon interaction with French fur traders). In a highly complex society such as ours, private property is a necessity, but is hedged about with restrictions and zoning regulations, public rights of way, etc.

Inalienable Rights are thus nothing more than the boundaries beyond which the culture has decided not to go. As cultures have evolved, they have been able to gain more benefits for more people by granting greater individual freedoms, but these freedoms are constrained by a web of ever more complex regulation. The right does not exist outside of the context of the culture.

In Part 2, I intend to analyze the development of a particular right, the right to life, following its definition from earliest times to Western society. In addition, I will flesh out more fully any ideas from here in Part 1 that draw particular attention in the comments. I will probably also comment on the inter-relation between religion, government, and the overall culture, although that may require a Part 3. Cheers to all!

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

My Lovely Neighborhood

I just love my neighborhood. January, before I moved here. A couple of weeks ago, less than half a block away. Monday night, a little less than a block from home. To say that I am tired of living in this bloody pit, is putting it mildly. The police in both East Portland and Gresham (two blocks away), say they are going to increase their presence in the area, but I don't see how much they really can. You can't go a block without seeing a cop. Gresham and Portland cops crossover regularly, in a ten block buffer zone. Lately, Gresham cops have even been responding to complaints in my neighborhood (including my building), if they happen to be closest. Apparently, they are going to put cops on bike and foot patrols around the neighborhood.

I echo the sentiments of some of my neighbors though, if they can actually do more, why the hell have they waited this long? I have spent a lot of time talking to the cops in my neighborhood. We have community policing and I know many of the cops that patrol here, including the watch commanders, all shifts. In the short term, I imagine this means that we'll have an influx from the surrounding precincts. In the long term, who the hell knows? I know that I am bloody well tired of this crap hole and I am ready to move. This, by the way, is one reason I am bloody well good and pissed about this. We can throw away money and manpower, enforcing a ridiculous, pointless and ineffective ordinance like that, while we have to scramble to fight serious crime.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Mmmm, These Make Me Giddy

Via Mo at Neurophilosophy, I found the sexiest pictoral I've seen in a long time at Curious Expeditions, a site that I really look forward to exploring. There were so many exciting shots, that it was hard to choose which ones to post here. So here are a few of my favorites. I highly recommend checking out the whole pictoral, especially if you are as much a bibliophile as myself - but be forewarned, there are a lot of pictures for one page, it loads slow and sticky. (click on images to enlarge)

First, we have Yale's Beinecke rare book and manuscript Library in New Haven Connecticut USA. Not the most spectacular of libraries in this collection (though impressive nonetheless), but when you consider that these are all rare volumes. . .Well, it sends shivers down my spine.

Next, we have Bodleian Library, Oxford University, England. I could definitely wile away some hours, reading here.

Here is the Real Gabinete Portugues De Leitura, Rio De Janeiro, Brazil. Just a lovely, comfortable looking place.

This just looks like it would be wonderful fun (and quite easy to literally) get lost in. Riggs Library at Georgetown University, USA.

For sheer ostentatious delight, the Waldsassen Abbey Library, Bavaria, Germany.

Finally, we have my favorite. The Abbey Library St. Gallen, Switzerland.

There are many, many more where these came from. I would love to know which your favorite is.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

What Are Inalienable Rights???

In my vanity, I occasionally go through my site meter and see where people who come to this page live. When I do this, I can also see where they are coming from to get here. Lately, I have noticed a number of hit coming from the google search string "what are inelienable rights."
On the one hand, I feel bad that I haven't had a good philosophical post on human rights in a while, on the other, that's because I am working on a really big job at the moment and have little time.

So I'd like to kick that question back at you. What are inalienable rights? What does that phrase mean to you? Extra points (not that the points actually mean anything) if you can tell me, what is the most important inalienable right to you? Tough question, as inalienable implies that any right under that heading is of critical importance. Harder still, because so many of them are interconnected.

Here is my first post, that discusses what I think is possibly the most essential of human rights, the rights to make decisions about one's own body. . .

Please, don't embarrass me by leaving this thread empty. Click on the comments and leave one, anon if you feel the need. Uber-bonus points if you want to email me with an idea for a post on this topic - again, the points are, well, pointless, but I'll really appreciate it. . .

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Egyptian Blogger Identifies His Torturure

I would like to thank Mo of Neurophilosophy, for allowing me to repost this piece from his blog. I will have more comments on it after I get back from the job today.

From Mo's blog;
I graduated with a B.Sc. (Hons) in Neuroscience from University College London in 1998, and am currently studying for a Masters in the same subject and at the same institution.

Abdel Monim Mahmoud, an Egyptian journalist and blogger, has identified (in Arabic and English) a prison officer who allegedly tortured him for 13 days at a state security headquarters back in 2003.

27-year-old Mahmoud is a member of Ikhwan Muslimin (the Muslim Brotherhood, MB). The MB is the world's first Islamist movement - it was founded in 1928 - and its early ideology is what inspires most of today's Islamists, including al-Qa'eda.

The MB has always been, and remains, Egypt's biggest and most popular opposition party. It is officially illegal, but is tolerated by Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak: the party is highly active in modern Egyptian politics, and, in fact, holds 88 of the 454 seats in the Maglis el-Shaab (the Egyptian parliament).

Members of the MB are among the many thousands of Egypt's political activists who have been imprisoned - and tortured - over the years by the country's presidents, all of whom have brutally oppressed any form of dissent.

In the past year, that oppression has been extended to those who try to voice their opinions online: a number of Egyptian bloggers, including members of the MB, have been arrested on trumped up charges and imprisoned (and, in some cases, tortured).

Mahmoud spent 46 days in Torah Prison in southern Cairo. He was first detained on charges of belonging to an illegal organization, organizing secret meetings with the aim of disturbing public order, and creating and possessing images that are destructive of public order.

The latter charge refers to a film clip taken by Mahmoud on his cellular phone - and later uploaded to Google Video - which apparently contains evidence that the Egyptian police tortured and killed a 12-year-old boy.

Mahmoud expects to be detained again in the near future.

(Via Global Voices Online, Elijah Zarwan and Nora Younis)

Monday, September 3, 2007

Religion and Public Schools

In the last seven days, my brother Ed has written about three different court cases involving religion in public schools, at Dispatches from the Culture Wars. First, we had the recent 9th circuit court, making an abysmally bad decision about a bible study club, in Truth versus Kent school district. In it, the court ruled that the club could not be afforded recognition by the school, because it required that members be Christians. This, in spite of the fact that several other school clubs actively discriminated against those who did not agree with the specific ideological perspectives advocated by said clubs. This, in spite of the fact that this was the sort of thing the Equal Access Act was meant to prevent.

Two days later, Ed writes about the Praying Parents Case, specifically, John and Jane Doe v. Wilson County School System. In this case, the school is clearly in the wrong. Now there is absolutely nothing wrong with parents getting together to pray for their children's school. It is even reasonable for them to do so on school property, as long as they have permission to do so and don't create a distraction from student instruction. A listing of the factual allegations, with my brothers comments on each one;

1. That the school has a See You At The Pole day and that the school put up posters around the school promoting the event.

The validity of this complaint really rides on who put up the posters promoting the event. The event itself is clearly legal as long as it is organized and sponsored by students or an outside group. If the posters were put up by a student Bible club, for example, then there is no constitutional problem here. If they were put up by the school administration, there is a clear establishment clause violation.

2. The Praying Parents are not merely a group of parents who pray on their own, they are endorsed by the school administration and given access to students that no other group gets.

This is clearly the strongest charge. Any group of parents has every right to pray for anyone they wish to pray for, of course, and depending on the circumstances they probably even have a right to use school facilities to do so. But the complaint presents a great deal of compelling evidence that this goes far beyond that and that this group is not only endorsed and promoted by the school administration, but is given access to classrooms during instructional time.

According to the complaint, after they pray they go around the school and are allowed to go in to classrooms during instructional time to hand out cards and treats to students to let them know that they've been prayed for. The school also has a section on their official website about the group, includes them in the school newsletter and sends fliers home to parents from the group. The access to classrooms is the most damning fact here and it's highly unlikely that the court is going to allow that.

3. The school sponsored and promoted a National Day of Prayer event.

This is also a very compelling part of the complaint. The complaint includes exhibits showing that the school distributed a flier to the students encouraging them to take part in this event. They also published a newsletter endorsing and promoting the event, which was held in the school cafeteria, and even held a contest among students for the best poster to promote the event, which they then hung in the halls of the school.

4. The school held a Christmas program with religious music.

This is a pretty weak claim. The courts have pretty consistently allowed religious music to be performed by school choirs and bands. It's possible that there was more to it than that, but if that's all they have this claim isn't likely to succeed.

5. That teachers led students in prayer and singing religious songs during class time.

This is a pretty serious charge and the complaint says that the school actually sent out a DVD to all the parents showing a montage of the events of the last year that included footage of this going on. Again, unlikely that a court will allow that sort of thing.

The first aspect of the complaint, as Ed mentions, hinges on who is putting up the fliers. If it is students, then it is legal, if not, then there is a serious question of it's legitimacy, if it's the faculty, then it is clearly illegal. The fourth aspect is just plain ridiculous, unless there is more to it than that. It sounds like this school might well have pushed that past a threshhold of acceptability, as they have clearly gone beyond any acceptability in other areas. However, there is absolutely nothing illegal about schools performing religious Christmas music.

Finally, we have what I would consider a very obnoxious case, Busch v Marple Newtown School District, which Ed posted about today. In this, a kindergarten child is given the assignment, about me, which asks kids to tell their classmates about the things they like. Part of the assingment is to draw a picture of their favorite things to do and have a parent come in to read from their favorite book. This particular child drew a picture of his church. Quite reasonable, depending on his mood and which of his friends were there last Sunday, that might be my son's pick (though since he has moved up from the preschool class, where his "best" friend still resides, it would be increasingly unlikely to be his answer). The problem came in when his mom came to read the class a selection from his bible. Now that is not illegal, the school was clearly wrong to keep the mother from reading.

The problem that I have with this case, is that apparently, this is not the child's favorite book. This has nothing to do with the legality of the case, flat out, the school was wrong. I imagine that this is probably why the school did what it did. This does not make it right. I feel very sorry for this child, who's mother would encourage him to be dishonest, in the name of religion. The ethics that this mentality will likely perpetuate, makes me shudder, but I digress.

What I really appreciate about this triad of cases, is that they represent the absolute mess that we have, in regards to religion in public schools. It really isn't all that complicated or difficult. The Equal Access Act is not all that complicated. Clinton produced easy to understand guidelines that clarify what is and is not acceptable, constitutionally, in the nineties.

I got into an interesting exchange, here, which I think does a very good job of showing the fuzzy thinking that gets in the way of reasonable discourse. I would recommend reading the exchange, as not only do I make some rather important points, but so do Ed and another commenter, kerhsam. While it is certainly important to keep schools from advocating religion or any ideology, it is also important to recognize that students have few restrictions in that regard, nor should they. Whether political or religious in nature, restricting student speech, requires passing a very high bar indeed.