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Thursday, June 28, 2012

Learnings from Assisted Suicide in Oregon

The National Post has an article about the assisted suicide law in Oregon, newsworthy the article asserts because Canada may look to how the law works in Oregon as they deliberate their own law.

Go and read it for background on the law, its supposed safeguards, and the rate at which it is used.

Here are a few quotes (admittedly removed from context, but not to deceive you), then some brief comments.
“Having this on the books has given people hope and choice,” George Eighmey, former executive director of Compassion and Choices, said in an online interview. “Just having it on the books has given thousands of terminally ill people comfort.”
And while the Catholic Church was a major opponent to the Death With Dignity Act, the Archdiocese of Portland no longer speaks about the issue.
And acceptance has climbed among patients, even as population slowed with the poor economy.
Just having it on the books also has several other effects. One is, people will be pressured in one way or another to do it. Just having it on the books makes it an option. It makes it a thing to think about, to consider, to do, even if one would rather not.

Acceptance has climbed among patients -- and it is not surprising. As they face greater and greater financial hardships because of the economy, more and more would want to end it all. That last sentence in the quote is actually pretty creepy. It's worded as if a tanking economy should have the opposite effect, and the writer is surprised to find a correlation between the number of people who kill themselves and widespread financial hardship. Yet, it notes that financial motivations may be at work. It's cheaper to die. Oh, and it's comforting to those poor folks that their lives have a dollar value and they can save themselves and their loved ones money in these hard times by dying.

Another effect of the law being on the books is the encroaching complacency of those who believe that killing innocent people is always wrong. That destroying the autonomous subject (or permitting, facilitating, encouraging his self-destruction) is not a good way to preserve his autonomy. That there's an essential and mutually exclusive separation between caring and killing. But opponents are lulled into dullness. Witness the Catholic archdiocese of Portland, to whom all I have to say: For shame.

I have to hand it to the writer for getting a range of perspectives, but it does overall paint the picture as fairly rosy for the Oregon law: It's working, it's popular, more Oregonians are killing themselves than ever, see how successful the law is! Canada should do it, too! But, that's par for the course for mainstream media on this issue.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Atheism, Religion, and Ethics: A Discussion (Part 1)

I am very happy to post the first installment of my discussion with Ray, who has been interested in my posts on atheism and ethics. For some more background on how this discussion started, please see those posts and the combox discussions that ensued.

It began with my assertion that in the absence of God, there can be no objective source of morality/ethics/legal justice. These things will devolve into a more or less subjective determination of what is right for “me.” That might result in people trying to get along, but it will also result in people acting out of pure self-interest and being a law unto themselves with their own advantage as the goal. My main point leads to the conclusion that atheists who act ethically in the common sense of the word – abiding by what most people would call right or wrong – do so for the same basic reasons as those who act out of pure self-interest, and whatever can be said of those who act in an unethical manner (in the same common sense meaning of ethical), it cannot be said with authority that what they do is unethical. We can only disagree with it, but not call it “wrong” or “evil.”

Ray holds that objectively knowable ethics does emerge in the absence of God from human beings acting in the real world for particular goals. He begins his explanation with an analogy to chess. Here’s Ray:

Given the rules of chess, and a desire to win a chess game, then sacrificing your queen at the start of the game is an *objectively* bad strategy. In other words, "ought" doesn't arise from "is" - but "ought" does arise from "is" *and goals*. We have fixed 'rules of the game' in the laws of physics - we are not free to violate those conditions. Gravity and thermodynamics and conservation of energy can't be cheated. Humans also have goals, and - just as in chess - given fixed conditions and goals, *objectively* effective and ineffective strategies arise of necessity.

So far, all we've got are 'effective' and 'ineffective' - which is not the same as 'good' and 'bad' in the sense you're looking for. As you put it, "Wise strategies are employed by the evil and the good alike, and perhaps even more effectively by evil people than by the good." But if you have reservations over terminology - which I'm conceding for the nonce - then I do, too. I'd suggest swapping out "wise" in your sentence above for "shrewd" - since the word 'wise', in my experience, has a certain moral component or connotation to it as well.

I think your counterpoint can be summed up as, "different goals make for different strategies". Is that fair?
Yes that’s fair.

But we get ahead of ourselves. Let’s start with the beginning. Your analogy to chess actually conforms very well to a traditional understanding of the elements of human acts. In traditional terms of, for instance, Aristotle or Aquinas, all acts occur in a set of given circumstances and involve a particular end. Deliberation about the end under those circumstances yields a determination of the means to attain the end. Some means are well suited to the end, and others not. I have to agree with you so far, Ray, and say, Yes, sacrificing your queen early does not seem like a means well suited to winning at chess, given the circumstances of the rules and the desire to win.

The same could be said of any goal. If you needed to buy milk (goal) and the supermarket was 5 miles away, using a unicycle as a mode of transportation does not seem like a good strategy, objectively speaking. A car would make much more sense.

But circumstances and goals are seldom so simple. Not only do different goals make for different strategies, which is surely true, but so do different circumstances.

In terms of goals, it has to be considered that all things we do, we do for reasons beyond the activity at hand. We play chess to win, but we may play for other reasons at the same time. We buy milk to drink for enjoyment or nutrition, or to use in a recipe for cake. These further goals might render the act ethically evil: In chess, we might choose to play and win to humiliate our opponent, say, or to gain the glory of victory and the acclaim of chess fans; we might want to buy milk to make an enemy who is allergic to milk sick.

In terms of circumstances, wanting to win at chess may be unethical if one is a grand master and one’s opponent is a novice, where teaching the principles of the game might be a better goal. Now, one can want to win against a novice at the same time as wanting to teach the game, and it becomes a matter of which goal takes precedence.

Also, whether or not God exists is a circumstance that is sure to have an effect on most of our moral actions. If God does not exist, then it is difficult to say that it is wrong to beat the heck out of a novice just for fun, or to slip milk to someone allergic to it to make him sick. If the individual determines he has a good reason to do such things, how is it that someone else can call them objectively wrong?

To push your analogy a little further, you might say that acting in such a way is sure to be a bad strategy, objectively speaking, for making other people like you and want you around. Perhaps. However, what if that’s not one’s goal, at least with respect to those people who think such things are wrong? If God exists, then it would stand to reason that “pleasing God” (understood properly, which we haven’t gotten to yet) would be something that all reasonable people would want to do. Wrongness would come from the objective fact that treating other people badly would be a bad strategy for pleasing God. In the absence of God, the main person I need to please is myself, and would strategize accordingly.

But I think perhaps I went a little far, so let’s backtrack a bit. For now, I agree with the basic notion that in the reality of the world and with a particular goal, some strategies are objectively well suited to attain the goal, and others not.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Coming soon -- Atheism, Religion, and Ethics: A Discussion

Some of my most frequently viewed posts of late involve the issue of whether atheism provides any foundation for a system of objective ethics. Atheists, from what I can tell, are divided on the issue, but my position is that by denying the existence of God, atheism at least tacitly denies the possibility of judging anything to be objectively moral/ethical.

A rather interesting discussion has occurred in the comboxes of these posts, challenging me not only philosophically with respect to the topic, but also with respect to my Italian temperament. You know, in Italy, if you get into a fender-bender, it is somewhat obligatory to wave your hands and do a little yelling and engage in some hyperbole with the other person, and afterward, you go to the cafe and get an expresso together. So, it's nothing personal.

But this isn't Italy, so my interlocutor and I will skip the histrionics and just go right to the cafe and have our discussion there.

Or rather, we'll have it right here. First post in the series coming in the next day or so!

Monday, June 18, 2012

Atheism and Morality/Ethics

I've got one or two posts about ethics and atheism, either in the body of the post or in the comments. You can look here. And here. (The post at that second link rambles a bit, not real happy with it.)

I basically hold that if you are an atheist, a real true atheist, then you cannot hold that there is such a thing as an objective moral order. Now, laws are a moral code, a system of ethics on the scale of a nation. Laws and other ethical systems are based on an objective moral order, a sense of "justice" that is above the law and against which we know if a law is a good law or a bad law. If there is no God, however, there is no such thing as an objective reality called "justice," but only what individuals decide for themselves.

I also hold that if an atheist asserts there is such a thing as an objective moral order, then his thinking is polluted by religiosity, having grown up in a society whose laws and sense of justice is formed by religious philosophy. A real atheist has to purify his mind and get down to brass tacks: The only thing he is, is a material body, and the only ethical system that matters is the one he chooses for himself. Things might be illegal, but immoral or unethical -- that only he can decide. Therefore, he becomes the supreme arbiter and judge of what is ethical, and law gets its authority only from the power to coerce obedience, not from any kind of objective justice to which it conforms.

But there is another way to go for such ethical atheists. Admit the fact that you believe in something higher than yourself that is not merely the source of "justice" but is in fact Justice Itself, Morality Itself, Reason Itself, Good Itself, Cooperation Itself. That is, deep down, if you believe there is an objective moral order, you really do believe in God.

Check out this final post in the atheist portal a Patheos, a renowned young atheist who went to Yale named Leah Libresco. She's way smarter and better educated than I am on the atheist-ethics thing. And she walked that walk from atheism. To Catholicism. From abject falsehood...to the objective truth.

What she realized is that the middle ground is bogus. Atheism cannot work with ethics. She thought it through. And decided that Morality (another name for God, if you think about it) exists.

Welcome, Leah!

H/T to the Anchoress.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

When Politicians Demonize Certain Industries

Here's an interesting story from The New York Times about an email exchange between President Obama's heath overhaul advisor and the pharmaceutical industry. From the article:

On June 3, 2009, one of the lobbyists e-mailed Nancy-Ann DeParle, the president’s health care adviser. Ms. DeParle reassured the lobbyist. Although Mr. Obama was overseas, she wrote, she and other top officials had “made decision, based on how constructive you guys have been, to oppose importation” on a different proposal. 
Just like that, Mr. Obama’s staff signaled a willingness to put aside support for the reimportation of prescription medicines at lower prices and by doing so solidified a compact with an industry the president had vilified on the campaign trail. Central to Mr. Obama’s drive to remake the nation’s health care system was an unlikely collaboration with the pharmaceutical industry that forced unappealing trade-offs. 
The e-mail exchange three years ago was among a cache of messages obtained from the industry and released in recent weeks by House Republicans — including a new batch put out Friday detailing the industry’s advertising campaign supporting Mr. Obama’s health care overhaul.
So, here's what happened. Candidate Obama vilified the pharmaceutical industry, blaming them for the high cost of health care, of exploiting sick people who need medicines, and that sort of thing. He gets elected and begins pushing legislation that would, among other things, punish the pharmaceutical companies (along with the rest of us). The pharmaceutical companies do not want to be punished, and who can blame them? So, they negotiate. Obama throws them a bone and won't punish them. They spend money advertising their support for Obamacare in thanks.

Now, it is conceivable that Obama really truly believes that pharmaceutical companies are part of the problem and perhaps in fact they are. But if that is so, what happened to Obama's principles when it came time to solve that problem? He sold out. He let the problem go, and for what? Advertising support to the measure passed. Smart politics? Or manipulation? A practical compromise to get something done? Or an abandonment of principles? In any case, the deal he struck with pharma means that Obamacare will not bring the cost of medication down. The problem remains, and we have to pay for it. 

On the other hand, perhaps the pharmaceutical industry is not quite so problematic -- what I mean is that perhaps their pricing polices are not as big a part of our health system's difficulties as Obama made them out to be (which isn't to say they are not a problem at all). What then? Candidate Obama either was mistaken or he exaggerated or both to get their support. He bullied them and took their lunch money. We've been watching The Godfather at home and it occurs to me that what Obama did bears a fairly strong resemblance to "making them an offer they couldn't refuse." 

Whether pharma is a problem or not, Obama is loser. Either he's a wheeler-dealer lacking in principles for political gain, or he's a bully who extorted support from a lucrative industry. Actually, in Obama's case, I don't think it's either-or, but both. My point is that there is no way to conclude that he's a principled, virtuous civil servant trying to make things better for us citizens.

When a viable candidate or sitting official bad-mouths a particular industry, what he's really after is campaign money and/or help in lobbying to get something done.

It's bullying in action.

Say what you want about the pharmaceutical industry -- this post is not about them. 

You know, any strong political force that promises to stand up against Big Business -- what they really want to do is have enough power to threaten Big Business so that Big Business starts funneling them cash and influence. And what do they do with that cash and influence? Use it to pay people with government hand-outs to vote for them.

Funny how that works, huh?

Monday, June 4, 2012

When Atheists Rule Nations -- Update

My wife and I, and some friends, saw the movie For Greater Glory this weekend. My wife points out that the screenwriting/dialogue leaves a bit to be desired, but the overall story and other aspects of the film are really good. If you don't know it, it's about events in Mexico in the 1920s, when an atheist government came to power and decided that Catholics were agents of Rome (a foreign power) and so persecuted them. It's not so different from what some people say whenever Catholics attain to high office in our country, usually under the meme of "separation of church and state."

What happened next in Mexico was a bloody war that lasted for several years. Priests rounded up and lynched for saying Mass. Religious images desecrated, destroyed, burned. Faithful tortured and killed, even children before their parents' eyes, because they wouldn't say, "Death to Christ." Blessed José Sánchez del Rio was one such real young person, featured in the movie, who with his dying breath said, "Viva Cristo Rey!"

Can it happen here, in the good ol' USA? Hm. Well, it might take a while, but yeah, it could. All that really has to happen is atheists have to take control of the government for a long time, weed out people of religion from the Supreme Court, and then determine that being Catholic and in union with the Pope is an act of treason. "Separation of church and state" means, ultimately, that any religion that is subordinate to a foreign head of state is a threat to national sovereignty. The only kind of tolerable Catholicism would be one that is organizationally independent of Rome and, in some sense, subordinate to the US Government though technically independent of it, too, like the atheist government of communist China imposed on the church there. It can happen. Not for a while, perhaps. But give it time.

In the meantime, atheists resort to bullying and ridicule instead.

But it occurred to me that the movie seems to support what I said about atheism leading to totalitarianism in earlier posts. So: What happens when atheists rule nations? Besides Mexico 90 years ago, I mean?

Justice. Freedom.

Like the French Revolution. See also here, and here.

Like the Spanish Civil war. The movie There Be Dragons is a good one to watch for what the anti-religion forces were like.

Like Nazi Germany. (Yeah, Hitler was born Catholic but he hated the Church started persecuting Catholics when he ran out of Jews.)

Like the Soviet Union, especially Stalin.  Like Mao Zedung. If the numbers are right in the article in the link, Mao alone may have killed more people of religion than anyone in history.

But notice the trend. A political upheaval occurs. Atheists come to power. And begin killing priests, nuns, faithful.

This is one reason why atheism and ethics simply do not mix. Atheism brooks no opposition. If you oppose atheism, you are wrong and need to be silenced. If the nation is atheist, and you are not, you are a traitor and need to be killed. Atheism becomes the end toward which all good and right actions tend, and any action that tends toward it is by definition good and right. ANYTHING. Anything else is evil. And punishable.

Let us not forget, with separation of church and state, the United States of America is a secular nation. It is fast becoming an atheist nation. We have that pesky Constitution and First Amendment, though. But we also have a judiciary that likes to redefine what the words of the Constitution mean. People will be free to practice their religions as long as they keep it to themselves, hide it in their homes, and not let it out in public places like work, politics, and so on. Separation of church and state means that people of religion should not be allowed to hold high office, and if they speak out against the government, they are traitors.

Can't happen here? Oh, I think it can.

UPDATE: The wonderful, just, and ethical atheists in China, following in the footsteps of their leader Mao, are responsible for approximately 400 million -- FOUR HUNDRED MILLION -- deaths of their OWN people. That's more people than in the United States of America. Imagine the Chinese WIPING OUT every American on the planet, and most Canadians, too, just for good measure. That's how many of their own people they have eradicated through FORCED ABORTIONS due to their one-child policy. That's what atheism gets you, that kind of justice. The kind of justice where if you're pregnant and refuse to pay the fine (about $6000), they beat the crap out of you, kill your baby, and put your dead baby's mangled body next to you to make sure you got the point. The Mafia, they'll break your thumbs, put your favorite horse's head in the bed with you, frame you for murder so they can get your cooperation, kill your kids, and all that. But they got nothing on the Chinese. That's what atheism gets you.

Oh, and the USA owes them about a trillion dollars. If you get the crap beat out of you, a forced abortion, and a dead child for owing them $6000, I think we're in trouble if we can't pay back the $1,000,000,000,000 or so we owe them. (That works out to about 167 million forced abortions.)

Just something to think about this election year.