We all want Small Government

from Hobbes book Leviathan

Republicans are the so called “small government” party. That’s untrue. The reality, in my opinion, is that we all want small, or big, government, depending on what parts of the government we are talking about. When it comes to the war part of the government (“defense”), Republicans are big government all the way (and, to a lesser extent,  Democrats too). When it comes to helping poor people, generally Democrats are big government, Republicans small government, and Tea Party no government (which I think is race based, but that’s another issue). In other worlds, “small government” is not an accurate way to describe a political party.

I think that we all understand the general problem with government over time; namely, it gets bigger, it grows like a leviathan. It’s a rolling stone that does grow moss. If you looked at the current United States Code Annotated, the set of all federal laws on the books now, it spans over 50 feet (much of that includes notes about court cases but still). The Code of Federal Regulations (written by the various executive agencies like EPA), is another 50 feet.When library patrons walk into the law library I work at, they are usually astounded at the sheer volume. If you looked at the same set 50 years ago, I’m willing to bet it would be significantly smaller (I’ve noticed this trend with Michigan law…I’ve seen that as the decades grow, the volumes grow). Now, I’m not saying this is the worst thing ever, I’m just saying that, at some point, it does become a problem. Politically, it’s very hard to slash government; it’s not a sexy thing to do. Thus we have a big government. Democrats are concerned too. What to do about it?

I will add just a few ideas. First, budgets reflect priorities. Let’s stop funding wars, which cost billions. Let’s slash the Defense down to a reasonable level. Let’s make large corporations actually pay their taxes, and let’s go back to a more progressive income tax code  for the super rich. With all those savings and all that revenue, let’s invest in education (I believe a lack in education is what causes larger problems like poverty, in part).

What parts of the government do you want smaller? 

What parts do you want bigger?

We all want Small Government

In Search of an Atheist Moral Hero

John Lennon: moral hero and atheist?

I’m not trying to be a dick about it or argumentative. I really want to know about a great person in history who also happened to be an atheist. Much of my inspiration in life has come from reading about great men and women: about St. Francis of Assisi, Martin Luther King Jr., the current Dalai Lama, Dorothy Day, Gandhi, Jesus, Simone Weil…the list goes on. After thinking about this for years, I am yet to land on a figure living or dead who was a great moral hero and who was an atheist. Now, don’t get me wrong, I realize that history has not been kind to atheism, and therefore many atheists never “came out.” I also realize that biographies and (especially) autobiographies are a little exaggerated, and that many of my “great men” were also ordinary people with ordinary problems. But the fact that all these great men and women were great because of their religious beliefs is, to me, indisputable. Get rid of the religion of MLK, for example, and you get rid of MLK. That’s another discussion.

Anyway, please suggest an atheist hero in the comments section below. This is a challenge and an opportunity for learning. I would like to read their biography.

Ground Rules

  1. They must be an atheist, which is simply defined as a person who doesn’t believe in God or a supreme being. So don’t give me Thomas Jefferson (he was a Deist), but perhaps Thomas Paine (although wasn’t he mostly a political revolutionary?). Also, the person cannot be religious. In other words, don’t give me a Buddhist that doesn’t believe in a personal, monotheistic God. Also, several religious people have been fiercely critical of religion. For example Luther, Tolstoy, Isaac Newton. That does not mean they are atheists (far from it, they were real Christians). Give me a real atheist, like Freud for example (but don’t give me Freud…see next rule). Of course I am not saying that their morality has to be related to their atheism in any way (that would be absurd…atheism is a lack of belief). Or, if you must, give me an outspoken agnostic even, I’ll go with that.
  2. They must be really good people. Not great scientists, or great thinkers alone – great moral people. Great people do great things for other people, as all the people I mentioned above. Bertrand Russel perhaps? He was a social activist for peace and was behind some good causes. But I would need more information. Also I heard he was actually a dick in person. I don’t know that, I just heard that from a professor of philosophy whom I respect. Einstein was a Deist as far as I can tell. John Lennon perhaps? Now we’re thinking. How about Carl Sagan or Neil Degrasse Tyson? Well, maybe. Besides being excellent science popularizers (and great scientists in their own right), what have they done ethically?
  3. No Socrates. He is one of my greatest heroes; in fact, part of my tattoo is based on him. But as I read Plato’s dialogues, I’m convinced that Socrates believed in one God (or at least Plato did…it’s hard to pull apart Socrates from Plato).
Not Fair!
You might find yourself saying “not fair” for several reasons. First, atheists were persecuted so much that they never “came out.” I answer, like Jesus you mean? Great religious people have been persecuted too; indeed that is why they were so great. Or perhaps you think that historical figures lied about being religious, when secretly they were atheist. Setting aside that fact that lying  is not a virtue, you have to provide some evidence. You can’t just name drop historical figures and say they were atheist. If they were silent on the issue, I might even buy that. But mostly I don’t find this argument very successful. My Kant professor in college, for example, thought that Immanuel Kant was secretly an atheist. If you’ve read any of his work, you know that’s silly. The truth is my professor really really wanted him to be. Second, you might say that atheism is not a moral worldview, so my quest to find an atheist moral hero makes no sense. But I’m not making that connection. All I’m asking is for a great person who happened to be an atheist. Now, I do see the connection between religion and morality of course. By definition, religion is a moral endeavor. Third, I’m not suggesting that atheists cannot be good people. My brother is a good person, so is my wife. Fourth, you might argue my rules above are too constricting. How so? Fifth, you might say that history has been dominated by religion; therefore, the atheists have disappeared from the record. I can see that.
In Search of an Atheist Moral Hero

Morally I’m Pro-Life, Legally I’m not, and why Pro-Lifers need to calm down

Morally I’m Pro-Life
For some of our beliefs and opinions, we should recognize a distinction between the moral belief itself and its legal implications, or its potential legal implications. For example, I believe everyone should love others, including their enemies, but I do not believe that should be a law. I don’t think, for example, that disliking your neighbor should come with a $200 fine. I believe in radical forgiveness, but I would not support getting rid of all prisons and jails (in the name of forgiveness). I believe in God, but I also think government should be secular. These are moral and religious issues that may or may not become legal issues, depending on whether we want to extend them. The more I thought about the abortion debate and how complex it is, the more I realized that abortion is the same kind of issue–it’s moral and legal.

  • Moral Pro-Life: When you believe that abortion is wrong.
  • Moral Pro-Choice: When you believe that abortion is permissible.
  • Legal Pro-Life: When you think abortion should be illegal
  • Legal Pro-Choice: When you think abortion should be legal.

Pick two. Before you think I’m splitting hairs or creating distinctions ex nihilo, check out this Pew survey which suggests we all look at it this way. I believe terminating a pregnancy is wrong, except in the case of rape and the mother’s safety. That’s my moral view. I wouldn’t get an abortion, and if I extend my morals to other people, I don’t think they should get an abortion either (the same way I don’t think they should dislike their neighbor, or lie, or punch people in the face). I would never judge someone that got an abortion, based on the Christian prohibition against judging (Jesus: “judge not”). I would not hate them for it. I would simply think it’s not right. That’s all. Negative emotion is not required. The proper response is compassion, understanding, and sadness (both for the baby and the parents). I believe in contraception, which includes Plan B (in my understanding, it’s preventative, not a termination). More on that later.

Why am I morally pro-life? Five main reasons. First, everyone is pro-life to a certain extent. When having these arguments, we forget that almost all Pro-Choicers are pro-life when it comes to the third trimester (i.e. babies that pretty much look like a real baby). Even liberals do not want to see mothers kill these kinds of babies. So the real question is: where exactly do we draw the line? From sex, to fertilization, to “viability,” this is where the science gets very murky and the place we pick seems a bit arbitrary. Therefore, I don’t blame people for picking “fertilization.” Intuitively, it makes sense, but people don’t even understand the science behind fertilization (I don’t).

Second, actions have consequences. Sex is a big, powerful action with big consequences. One of those possible consequences, even with birth control, is a baby. Generally speaking, we should live with our decisions. This is a case where we use medicine to terminate one of our decisions, almost like asking a Genie to go back in time. But wait a minute, you say…don’t we do this all the time? When we “decide” to go skateboarding and break a leg, should we not go to the doctor and fix it? Well, of course we should, be the key word here is fix. Terminating a pregnancy is not fixing anything. That’s stretching the word fix, heal, or mend a little too much. It’s morally different. In fact, because we are dealing with a living thing (even a bundle of cells), it’s impossible to think of an exact analogy that matches other sorts of medical scenarios.

Third, we are talking about a future person here; or, at the very least, a potential human, barring any complications with the pregnancy or birth. That matters. Existence is a prerequisite for a good life. You can speculate all you want about whether they would have a good life, whether adoption is a viable option, etc–you don’t know. There will never be another person quite like this one. Of course, the bundle of cells could really give a shit, they have no feelings, memory, nothing. They will pop out of existence without a peep. Yet, even under the worst of conditions, you will always wonder what would have happened.

Fourth, there is virtue in the pro-life position. If you get rid of the sexism, the Pro-Life movement could be based on compassion. And, to a certain extent, I think it is. If you take away the men who simply want to control women’s bodies, pro-life, at its core, is nothing more than people who care about life (fetuses), who stick up for those who cannot defend themselves. In this way, it shares the same impulse of the animal rights movement and the environmental movement. These are people giving voice to the voiceless. There is merit and virtue in that.

Fifth, it seems odd for us to want doctors, who took a Hippocratic oath never to harm, to terminate pregnancies. The whole point of medicine is to promote life and health. I realize this argument isn’t that good.

Legally I’m not
When I start to think about actually making a law, then it gets complicated, uncomfortable, and more of a womens’ rights issue. According to Pew, the American public feels the same: although 49% of American adults think abortion is morally wrong, only 40% think abortion should be illegal. Considering all the circumstances and consequences, I cannot support a law banning abortion. First of all, education about birth control and sex needs to improve. A law would disproportionately affect those less educated. Second, poor people would be most affected. Third, religious zealots have convinced too many people that birth control is evil and abstinence the only way, which is very unrealistic. Fourth, quality health care is not accessible to many Americans. And fifth, a lot of the people behind this (not all) are sexist males that simply want to control women. All of these practical considerations must be taken into account when thinking legally, as opposed to morally. Thinking legally considers sociological realities, while moral thinking exists in a vacuum of sorts. Right and wrong are right and wrong no matter what, no matter where, no matter how. Given the political climate, I could never force all women to either get an unsafe illegal abortion or to go through with a pregnancy they did not want. Pro-Choice is the default position, especially when in doubt.

Why Pro-Lifers need to calm down
What really amazes me about the abortion debate is that it has become such a big debate. In the grand scheme of things, abortion should be a fringe issue, a minor moral point that some people squabble over. We are talking about bundles of cells here, about zygotes and one-month-old fetuses. As actual people starve all over the world, as war is still raging in the Middle East, as most people do not have access to quality health care, as we fundamentally change the climate, this is what we argue about? Defending fetuses should be the least of our worries; it should be near the bottom of our priority list, not a major part of political platforms. In other words, what I’m saying is this: pro-lifers should stop trying to pass laws that ban abortion. Keep it a fringe moral issue, that’s it; don’t make it a legal issue. The more emotion people get about it, the more ridiculous it is. The fact that the argument has become so big tells me one thing: sexism is indeed a major part of it.

Morally I’m Pro-Life, Legally I’m not, and why Pro-Lifers need to calm down

What we mean when we say "it’s perfectly natural"

It’s completely natural. It’s totally natural. There’s nothing wrong with it. Do it.

From masturbation to racism, from organic food to free range cows, from shampoo to all-purpose cleaners, from beards to smoking pot, from home births to refusing vaccines, the word natural has been employed to convince people that something is okay because….it’s totally natural dude. Here is the magical formula:

x [behavior you like]   +   “is natural”   =   x is morally permissible/good

biological necessity

Masturbation. We say it’s natural because the human body practically requires it, especially during young adulthood. The evolutionary and biological forces are so strong that it would take an enormous amount of moral will power to not do it. Kant, a product of his times in this respect, actually produced a moral argument against it, saying that masturbation amounts to muddying up your imagination, using your mind as a means to an end. Suffice to say we don’t buy that argument, for good reason. In this case, the natural impulses far outweigh any moral arguments you can come up with, and the moral arguments are pretty weak. Leave it to the monks I say.

Sex. It’s perfectly natural for human beings to have sex with many people, and even for partners to be unfaithful. It’s so common that a zoologist, for example, would have to conclude that we are not in face a monogamous species after all but somewhere in the middle (explains our divorce rate). Yet, morally speaking, we do not condone sleeping around or cheating; not even close. Why? I think it’s because sex also happens to be a moral issue, not just a biological impulse. Both are real. In fact, the moral argument is strong, and the natural inclination is not so strong that we cannot defeat it. In other words, it’s in the moral sweet spot, in between natural inclination and moral inclination. Personally, this is how I harmonize my moral and biological natures: Sex is a special thing to be done with people you care about, and you should never cheat on your partner, ever. Just my opinion.

In fact, this really gets to the essence of morality. So many moral issues fall within the moral sweet spot: drugs, drinking, stealing, lying. They all involve natural impulse battling moral principle. Shout out to Kant for nailing it, among others.

knowing where it came from. 

Is “natural” food better for you? First of all, pretty much all the food we eat has been modified by human beings, so that has no meaning. Second, just because a food is processed or genetically engineered doesn’t mean its bad. Some people talk about “chemicals” as if they are bad things. If you like to grow corn and eat it, that’s great, but the food itself is no better than corn at the grocery store. I think the truth lies here: many frozen foods, packed with preservatives, have way too much sodium and other stuff. Also, if you don’t know what your food is made out of or where it comes from, there’s a chance its bad for you, or perhaps we could say even a tendency due to corporate greed with values profit over nutrition. Eat local. Also, fast food is obviously bad for you. We all know that by now.

Same thing with pot or mushrooms. The fact that you can grow it, or that it comes from the ground, has nothing to do with how bad or good it is for your brain and body. I’m guessing the jury is out: they are in fact bad for you. Stop rationalizing getting high and just get high. I make my own beer, but I certainly don’t rationalize getting drunk (I just do it).

the way it is

Racism. The main argument used for slavery was that the natural order of things required it; black people naturally are subservient animals and therefore should be treated as such, for their own good. Setting aside the factual errors, this is a very dangerous form of moral argument. You describe something in nature and then prescribe it as moral, as right, as the will of the Creator. This is a huge error, a category mistake. Scientific-types are especially prone. Just because something is does not mean that it ought to be. Simple as that. Morality challenges the status quo, demands improvement always. So even if black people were intellectually lower than white people at that time (due to slavery of course), then owning them does not follow. The moral question does not rely on such facts. Morality relies on principles, which hopefully are self-evident.

other meanings

Sometimes natural means “normal.” When kids are bad, for example, or act out occasionally, we console parents: “Don’t worry, it’s perfectly natural at that age…”. My wife told me that lawns are not natural. Well, certainly they are normal. But what she meant was that lawns are dead zones, they don’t promote growth; that not having a lawn is better for nature (flowers, water, butterflies, life). Makes sense to me. Marketing campaigns use the word “natural” simply to sell stuff. Factually it means nothing, it’s a fad. Philosophers in the past used the word “natural religion” to describe religion without the Bible, sans revelation–supposedly the religion a person would come to “naturally.” In sports we call someone a “natural” when they possess talent at a very young age. Then we’ve got the crazy anti-vaccine people and the home-birth people, who usually are rich, white, privileged folks who apparently think that modern medicine is unnatural or wrong or whatever. I’ll end there.

What we mean when we say "it’s perfectly natural"