Atheism's Best Defense of Rights

Over at Smallest Minority, Kevin Baker has posted a monumental effort at defining a "right," and explicating why it and the United States are so important, from the atheist perspective. (Kevin was kind enough to quote from my earlier piece, The Enervated Man of the West, as part of his presentation.) Ultimately he must fall back on Ayn Rand's "one fundamental right," the right to your own life, from which all other fundamental rights flow.

Yet, strictly speaking, this is not a "right." Nothing has granted your life protected status. By speaking of a "right to your own life," Rand, and Kevin in his piece, simply acknowledge that if you do not defend your own life absolutely, you will inevitably be destroyed. It is a philosophical reflection of reality:
The "state of nature" is the ultimate objective reality. In it, people will do whatever is necessary to survive, or they don't survive. In point of fact, throughout history - even today - people have not only defended their lives, liberty and property, they have taken life, liberty, and property from others not of their society. And they have done so secure in the knowledge that their philosophy tells them that it's the right thing to do.
Kevin argues that such an outlook clashes with the basic principle underlying Western civilization, that of God-given rights. And though a devout atheist himself, he concludes that the advance of atheism is to blame for the crumbling of our cultural strength:
It is my contention that the loss of faith in Western civilization is the direct result of two things: the secularization of Western civilization, and a corresponding realization that there are no absolute, positive, unquestionable, fundamental, ultimate rights. Or, more specifically, the cognitive dissonance resulting from the refusal to accept this as objective fact.

Western civilization is based on the concept of God-given individual rights, but reality refutes their existence. War cannot exist if such a philosophy is true, yet war exists. People die. Their liberty is stripped from them. Their property is stolen or destroyed. No one is punished for the violation of these rights. If a society abandons religion (as much of Western civilization has done) then we cannot count on God to punish the violators, and they get away with their crimes against us, (See: Josef Mengele, Slobodan Milosevic, and most probably Saddam Hussein) yet we've been breastfed on the idea that our rights are absolute, positive, unquestionable, fundamental, and ultimate - not to mention, self-evident.
This is the danger of atheism. Even Ayn Rand's "one fundamental right" when expressed in a social setting is merely a collective decision of enlightened self-interest. There is nothing about human life, in the abstract, that is worth defending when its destruction does not affect you.

This is why I have tended to avoid talking about "rights." Instead, I talk about the "sanctity of life," which has nothing to do with whether a murderer is punished for his crime or not. Nor does it have to do with human reason. Rather, it is an inherent state of existence, springing forth from our status as Divine creations. Only this axiom—that we are created, and given intrinsic significance, by God—can serve as a philosophical basis for defending life in the abstract. Kevin acknowledges this, which is why he believes that an intrinsic right to life does not truly exist.

Kevin believes that the need to wage war directly contradicts the idea of a "God-given right to life." He further believes that this contradiction must ultimately lead to a fatal cognitive dissonance that will bring down cultures based on such an idea. In saying this, Kevin does not consider how a worldview built on sanctity differs from one built on natural rights.

Kevin states: We have the right to kill others because our own lives are of value. Yet taken to its extreme, this formulation simply means that you can ultimately do whatever you need to to defend your own life, including killing the innocent. (This point is made explicitly above.) Meanwhile, in Judaism you are allowed to set aside nearly all parts of the law to save life. But there are clearly defined circumstances in which you are categorically ordered to lay down your life. You must allow yourself to die rather than commit idolatry, a capital sexual transgression such as adultery, or murder. These acts are considered so profane that you may never, under any circumstances, defile yourself with them.

However, you can, and sometimes must, kill someone who seeks to commit murder himself.

What is the difference? I believe that the act of profanity in which the would-be murderer has immersed himself nullifies his sanctity, for that instant.

More to the point, there is no contradiction between the sanctity of life and killing another to defend that sanctity. Admittedly, I have not studied enough to say whether this is the rationale used by Jewish law; but it shows, I think, that while a "rights"-based society might be built on a contradiction, as Kevin suggests, this does not mean that belief in God cannot generate a consistent worldview that allows war in defense of life.

Which brings us to the upshot. Without belief in God, you are left with self-interest, in its crude or enlightened forms. With belief in God, you can have the basis for a true defense of life as a principle.

Perhaps Kevin might be interested in a modified form of Pascal's wager. The stakes here are not eternal damnation, whatever that means; they are the philosophical integrity of our society, here on Earth.


There's Reality, and There's Political Reality

Last week I attended an industry conference in Atlanta, at which the headline speaker was former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan. Greenspan was interviewed on the front stage by a CNN finance anchor, Ali Someone-or-Other (not being in the habit of watching CNN, I did not know him at all). The contrast throughout was striking: while the interviewer kept digging for the incendiary soundbite, Mr. Greenspan consistently replied with deep, reasoned analysis that displayed a level of historical perspective too often lacking today. For example, when asked a question about the housing boom and emerging slump, Mr. Greenspan began his answer by outlining the economic effects of the fall of the Soviet Union. And as he made clear in his answer, one cannot try to understand the current interest-rate environment without going back at least that far.

Ali asked if oil speculation posed a threat to the economy. Greenspan replied that the speculators were doing a great service, by building up large inventories of crude oil that would otherwise not have been available to mitigate shortages. Ali asked if hedge funds were dangerous and needed to be tightly regulated. Greenspan instead spoke highly of hedge funds, calling them "the pollinating bees of Wall Street" and crediting them with turning inefficient economic niches into efficient commodities. And on and on it went.

Noteworthy was the exchange on Social Security. When asked about the problem with Social Security, Mr. Greenspan replied that there was no real problem with Social Security: we know how much money there is, we know how many people there will be, and we know how much the shortfall is. He said, "I'm a Republican, but I could sit down in a room with Bob Rubin [i.e. Robert Rubin, Treasury Secretary under President Clinton] and we could solve the problem in fifteen minutes. And the first ten minutes would be spent reminiscing over old times."

The problem was not one of numbers, he said, but of the lack of political will. (Neither party really wants to ask Americans to tighten their belts, which is what the situation demands: either more taxes, smaller payouts, or a radical restructuring that would cause great trauma in some form or another.) The real problem was not with Social Security, but with Medicare: "We have made promises we don't know if we can keep." Not only because of the ballooning expense of medical care—we don't know if there will be enough hospitals, doctors, or nurses to provide the necessary services. And the government is only halfheartedly trying to figure out exactly what it has promised, even as it piles on more promises on top of the ones already made.

The most serious problem Mr. Greenspan pointed out was the catastrophic failure of our schools. He noted that at 4th grade, our students score near the top of the world in academic achievement; but by the time they reach high school, American students rank near the bottom of developed nations. This is the cause of our shortage of doctors and scientists; it is also the cause of the stagnation of low-skill wages, as students who by rights should have been prepared for technical careers must settle for low-skilled work instead, glutting the labor market.

Yet very little is done to actually improve our schools. Teachers' unions fight tooth and nail against the expansion of charter schools, or any substantive reform of the school bureaucracy, and instead loudly moan for more money. This despite the worst-performing school district, in Washington D.C., also being the most lavishly funded. The problem is not one of money; it is of institutions. And Democratic politicians especially are too deeply indebted to the teachers' unions to dare cross them.

(One notable exception is the Democratic mayor of Los Angeles, Antonio Villaraigosa. I'm not sure if I agree with a city takeover of the school district in the abstract, but it will surely do a great deal of good in the concrete. And I particularly enjoyed the panicked howling from the teachers' unions.)

Something is very wrong with our politics when the most damaging and obvious problems are never addressed, while relatively minor problems are built up into bogeymen. A part of this is from the "gotcha" mindset typified by the CNN interviewer, who was more interested in creating controversy than in reasoned analysis. (To be fair to him, he was quite a skilled interviewer. But still a narcissistic lightweight.) Our politics is less about improving the country than it is about scoring points off of the other guy. Witness the hyperventilating over Rep. Foley's famous emails, a subject which (while sordid and reflecting very poorly on his character) has nothing at all to do with government policy.

Yesterday on a local radio program, Larry Mantle's "Airtalk," Kevin O'Leary proposed a new political institution to help remedy this malady. Borrowing from the Athenian system of democratic assemblies, O'Leary proposed that each Congressional district should select by lottery 100 citizens, who would participate in a citizens' assembly for two years if they accept the appointment. There would thus be 43,500 such average-joe assemblymen, who would debate the issues of the day away from the backbiting of Washington. Read his website for a summary; I have a few issues with the idea, which I brought up in a phone call to the show, but it has a great deal of potential to get the government focused on doing its job again. (You can listen to the segment, as of right now, by going here, scrolling down to Tuesday, October 24th, and clicking on the "Saving Democracy" audio.)

At any rate, we as citizens need to muster the will to break out of the petty morasses of the moment and consider the difficult questions that matter most. The laws of economics cannot be ignored by the political class forever.


On another note, Michael Barone writes about a private interview he and seven other columnists had with President Bush earlier today. The hour-long audio of the interview is posted, and makes for fascinating listening. The President began his remarks sounding stilted and uncomfortable, but loosened up considerably as the interview wore on. If you have any interest at all in the thoughts of the most powerful man on Earth, take a listen. This is not the fabled Texas cowboy by any means. (Much as he would like to be sometimes; listen especially to his comments about Syria!)


Redeeming Our Politics

Excerpts from a post about politics by Roger L. Simon and from a few commenters:
It's blood sport performed by truly uninteresting performers—basketball without Kobe, Shaq or Jordan. People like Reid, Hastert, Pelosi are complete mediocrities who should be at much lower levels in our society. Something is fundamentally wrong on both sides of the aisle if they are the upper leadership of our Congress…

[Carl Spackler:] Life gets more complex every year. But not by accident. In my case of building private homes, I can remember when a permit was a twenty minute exercise. Now, six months to a year is normal. Same in manufacturing or even in running a middle school. So, more intellectual power is sucked up in doing the same thing. Only it seems as if the cost continues to increase and quality declines.

And who do you think gets paid the most? Take wood frame house building. It’s really very simple. Is it the framer working in the summer sun, up high on the rafters or in the winter winds and snow lifting walls up? Nope. The plumber, the electrician or the mason with the skin on his hands crevassed and like sand paper? All of whom work without sick days, paid vacations, pensions? Nope. The highest paid are the paper shufflers. The lawyers, the inspectors, the ‘environmental consultants’. So why would people do real, literally constructive work?

[ahem:] Everyone's missing the part played by yellow journalism. Many honorable people are dissuaded from participating in government because they don't want to be combed over by the idiot media.

How dearly would I love for a politician to turn around and ask Diane Sawyer about her sex life for a change. If the media dimwits had to answer the insulting questions they ask daily, they might back off…

[geekWithA.45:] If you remember reading documents and other root materials from the time of the Founding, such as the Federalist papers, you'll note that on many, many occassions they talked about how the system would bring forth the best and brightest minds, men of sterling character and integrity.

You could say that this is one of the Republic's dependencies.

You'll also note that they make repeated references to the dependency on an educated, informed electorate.

It's pretty hard to argue that these dependencies are being met.

God help the Republic.
At present, winning election to public office requires an incredible assortment of skills. One must curry favor with the party machine; one must build (or at least fund) a powerful get-out-the-vote organization. One must be reasonably photogenic; one must know the right people. One must know how to stroke the egos of news reporters to ensure favorable coverage. One must carefully balance the interests of the various segments of your electorate, to ensure that all-important 51% "Yes." And one must either have a spotless record, or else pay off the right people to ensure their silence.

Most of all, one must have a lot of money, or else one or several wealthy backers. (Since McCain-Feingold, the wealthy actually have more influence on politics than before, by design. It is the middle class and the upper-middle class who were effectively shut out of politics by that ill-made law.) You could fund a campaign with thousands of small donations, of course; but to win national office, you need a war chest of millions, sometimes tens of millions. Try getting that from your friends and family.

What you do not need is any skill in statecraft, law, or economics. True, you must be expert in the rules and procedures, the minutia of getting things done, and you have to perform well enough that your constituents are not actively disgusted with you; but the simplest way to do that is to avoid taking strong positions on anything. When power is apportioned through an elaborate popularity contest, there is no reason to suppose that your elected officials will be true statesmen.
[Section9:] Washington is Hollywood for ugly people.
So what can we do? How can we spectators to this glorified mud wrestling match rescue our government from its own mediocrity?

One can imagine all sorts of necessary or desirable changes in electoral procedure; but they will have limited effect so long as we continue to act as though our leaders must come from an electoral caste, a self-styled aristocracy. It galls me every time I see a national politician run unopposed, simply because nobody—nobody!—in that district wants the hardship of running. It galls me when practically everyone thinks of voting as a choice between two evils, and then does nothing to help remedy that detestible state.

"How many libertarians does it take to change a light bulb? Just one, but you have to get him to show up."

Our government will continue slogging its way through mediocrity, unless talented people from all walks of life run for office. Not because they desire power, not because they want to run their fellow citizens' lives, but precisely because they want neither. Those with a keen understanding of government's operation, history, or human nature should see it a civic duty to interrupt their real lives for a time, and dedicate their service to the good of the nation. A burden, even. Yet one that must be carried, unless we want to let our laws be written by the Hasterts and the Pelosis of the world.

Almost all of them will lose. Running will represent a huge investment of time, money, and emotional strain that candidates will never get back. But their mere presence in the ring will change the dynamic of our politics, just a bit—will force our elected officials to talk about ideas as often as about their skill at securing pork, about the real world as often as the high-school-lunchroom politicking of Washington.

And a few of these talented statesmen might win.



North Korea's been conducting purported nuclear tests and threatening war, the budget deficit has shrunk to 1.9% of GDP (well below the 40-year average of 2.3%), Jimmy Carter has opened his fetid mouth in public again, the price of oil has dropped like a rock, and Pope Benedict continues to state uncomfortable truths about modern Islamism.

So why haven't I been posting?

There are several reasons for my inactivity; a chief one is that I've been pushing to finish the revision of my undergrad thesis, on which I have now worked off and on for nearly two years. The previous draft was a complete mess, as was obvious when I picked it up again after a few months. The draft that is presently taking shape (my last, God-willing) is much stronger, and also incorporates more literature from the field.

I should have it finished in short order, at which point I plan to upload it to the Net. Until then, I commend you to the blogs on my sidebar.