Category Archives: Philosophy and Ethics

Losing the language

Michael Brenner tackles a tough topic at the Huffington Post, the decay and distortion of the language within a society and its politics. He gets it abysmally wrong on a few points, but the general topic is an important one (and a fascinating one, if you’re a word person). A few of the highlights:

“Language has become a victim of our debased public discourse. It is cause and reinforced effect of speech being used for self-affirmation rather than communication. Public personalities emote more than they express viewpoints.”

“The radical right in the United States effectively took control of the term liberal and all its variants so as to tar it with strongly negative connotations.”

I’ll agree in part with Brenner on this one. I don’t know who or what he means by “radical” right (perhaps anybody or thing on the right is “radical” to him), but I will lament that we have lost the ability to use the words “liberal” and “conservative” with much clarity these days. In terms of being open to new experiences, accepting of others, and being generally forward-looking, I have long been liberal and in some ways am even increasingly so. I’ll call that attitudinal liberalism. Politically, I’m staunchly conservative. But it’s a label that’s hard to wear, because we’ve confused the terms so much.

“There is nothing conservative about modern day Republicans … They are at once reactionaries … and radicals… Their socio-economic thinking in rooted in 19th century social Darwinism, their reference point the ‘Gilded Age’ of the 1890s. Rolling back the New Deal and everything associated with it is objective number one. So-called ‘conservatives,’ once in power, also aim to fortify the arbitrary powers of the Executive, at the expense of the principle of ‘checks and balances’ etched in the Constitution, in a manner never before experienced in the United States. Internationally, they are dedicated to building a world according to American specifications through generous application of American military power. This package is diametrically different from all that has been meant by conservatism.”

I agree that “conservatism,” both the term itself and the modern political agenda as such, has been too rigidly defined to necessarily include a more aggressively engaged/or even interventionist mindset when it comes to foreign policy. I don’t think the true test of “conservatism” ought to be whether one supports military intervention in the next country, or next country, or next country, etc. Though, of course, a valid test of conservatism might be whether one believes America has an exceptional and constructive role to play and can be a great political force for good in the world.

“Nowadays, the promotion of any social change is labeled reform — whether or not its objects will find their situation improved.”

Agreed. And both sides do this. It’s way too easy, and the media needs to start calling people on it.

Unfortunately, Brenner himself tortures language in this screed against tortured language. For example, he continually refers to an understanding of human behavior and acceptance of economic freedom as “fundamentalism.” His attempt – and we’re seeing this increasingly from the left (I suspect they love the aesthetic appeal of cleverly insulting free market types and religious people in the same breath) – is to assert that free market capitalism is founded more on faith than fact, and is utterly irrational.

Anyway, like I said, good topic, and some decent points of analysis here, despite its many other flaws. Worthy reading.

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Filed under Education, Media, Philosophy and Ethics, The Left, The Right

Glenn Beck may lose sight

Television and radio commentator Glenn Beck tells a live dinner audience that he may lose his vision, after having been diagnosed with macular dystrophy. From Politics Daily, via the Drudge Report (see the 6:30 mark).

Things like this are always powerful reminders of our mortality. Love him  or hate him, Beck has enjoyed tremendous success recently. Yet, he too will pass away – is passing away. Fading. Soon he literally may not even be able to see the things of this world.

Each and every one of us is in an unstoppable state of decay. Even our greatest successes will not save us. How then, shall we live?

We ought to live for eternity, and in the present, we ought to live with an eternal perspective. May we have the wisdom and strength to do so.

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Filed under Personal Living, Philosophy and Ethics

I know you are but what am I?

Are Liberals Smarter Than Conservatives? It’s a good question – if in large part because the former seems always to suggest exactly that. Jason Richwine tackles the issue and offers sound and honest insight.

While it may raise some interesting points of consideration, ultimately such a question does not meaningfully advance serious public policy discourse. This is the conclusion Richwine reaches, and it seems a reasonable one.

I suggest that any conservative who has ever been confronted by liberal intellectual arrogance read this article, and read it well.

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Filed under Culture, Philosophy and Ethics, The Left

Political Lives

Absolutely fascinating story in The Politico about Andrew Young, former aide to Sen. John Edwards. Lurid at times, pathetic at others, revealing intriguing and troubling aspects of human nature that came to the surface in the relationship between an aspiring operative and the politician he admired.

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Filed under People in Politics, Philosophy and Ethics

Theodore Rex on criticizing the president

As brought to my attention by the American Thinker:

“The President is merely the most important among a large number of public servants.  He should be supported or opposed exactly to the degree which is warranted by his good conduct or bad conduct, his efficiency or inefficiency in rendering loyal, able, and disinterested service to the Nation as a whole.  Therefore it is absolutely necessary that there should be full liberty to tell the truth about his acts, and this means that it is exactly necessary to blame him when he does wrong as to praise him when he does right.  Any other attitude in an American citizen is both base and servile.  To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public.  Nothing but the truth should be spoken about him or any one else.  But it is even more important to tell the truth, pleasant or unpleasant, about him than about any one else.”

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Filed under Barack Obama, Philosophy and Ethics

The changing face of public service

There was a largely unnoticed piece today in The Hill about former Bush White House staffers running for office in the 2010 elections. It made me think about the changing nature of public service, the professionalization of the political class, and the competing claims of what constitutes an ideal model of a public servant.

Ever since I was old enough to think about politics, I have had an attachment to the citizen statesman. The man or woman who serves out of a sense of duty,  brings years of real world experience to the job, and returns home after the job is done. I still believe in the concept of the citizen politician, and probably always will.

However, in recent years I have had to consider whether I hold a somewhat romanticized notion of what marks the idealized elected official biography. While a background outside of government may indicate that the person has pursued goals other than political power, and hopefully has impressed upon that person that government can not and should not attempt to manage all aspects of society, an individual with extensive political experience could certainly be a superior candidate in some cases.

This is particularly true today due to the massive scale of government and resulting specialization and professionalization of its functions and human resources. This is not a good thing of course, but it is a reality, at least at the federal level and to a certain degree among the states as well.

Some have argued that this reality makes the case against term limits as well – that institutional memory held by long-serving politicians is necessary to the effective functioning of government and its multitudinous extensions. Of course, an argument against term-limits is closely related to an argument against the widespread necessity of citizen politicians.

While on the whole I believe legislative term limits are healthy for republican government, the aforementioned massive scope, specialization and professionalization of government also would seem to suggest that seasoned politicians certainly have something special to offer in some cases. To an extent, this would apply to career political aides and operatives who eventually throw their hat in the ring themselves.

Admittedly this is something of a sprawling, inside baseball kind of discussion today. Why does it matter? Well, we’re talking about the people to whom we are entrusting our country and our freedoms.

Bottom line is that while I still hold to the ideal of the citizen statesman, I am open to the idea that political professionals in some cases – the elected variety and those behind the scenes – may be well suited to serve. As this trend continues however, we must be vigilant in ensuring that candidates accustomed to working within government are not also acclimated to the idea of its inevitable expansion.

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Filed under George W. Bush, People in Politics, Philosophy and Ethics

Unnatural selection: survival of the litmus

Two articles today raise the unsettling spectre of human genetic engineering. Or more precisely, of human genetic selection. Scientific advances now appear to make possible trait selection for cosmetic reasons, in addition to disease screening and gender determination, both of which have been practiced for some time.

BBC News reports that the Fertility Institute of Los Angeles, California will facilitate the birth of a designer baby next year. The Wall Street Journal offers further details and background on the process known as pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, or PGD. Both stories were featured on the Drudge Report today.

Fertility Institutes of Los Angeles, California will select and implant embryos based on genetic makeup

Fertility Institutes of Los Angeles, California will select and implant embryos based on genetic makeup. Photo available on the grou's website at http://www.fertility-docs.com.

Essentially, doctors test a handful of viable human embryos, and select a given embryo for implantation into the mother’s womb.

Perhaps most would agree that it would not be unethical to screen for life-threatening diseases or other serious conditions. But what about cosmetic trait selection? Characteristics like hair color, eye color and height? To what degree could skin tone be affected? The BBC article reports that complexion could be altered, but possible implications on race are not discussed.

This all raises a number of ethical questions, some old and some new. For instance, what happens to the embryos not selected? The undesirable human embryos? In most if not all cases, they are discarded – terminated. This human life is destroyed so John and Sue can have a perfect little Junior. 

Is it right to choose which humans will be born based on their genetic characteristics? Is it right to choose who will be part of your family based on what color their hair is, or how tall they are? In all of this, it’s important too make the distinction that these traits are not being selected. What is being selected is the individual embryos, based on their possession of certain traits (or lack thereof).

Among the most troubling facts reported by the WSJ article is this:

“Instead of avoiding some conditions, the technique also may have been used to select an embryo likely to have the same disease or disability, such as deafness, that affects the parents. The Johns Hopkins survey found that 3% of PGD clinics had provided this service, sometimes described as “negative enhancement.” Groups who support this approach argue, for example, that a deaf child born to a deaf couple is better suited to participating in the parents’; shared culture. So far, however, no single clinic has been publicly identified as offering this service.”

So, parents are electing to bring a child into the world because he or she will suffer from deafness, blindess or some other debilitating condition. That might sound like an odd or unfair way to put it, but remember that parents are not choosing traits – they are choosing children. I imagine that distinction – that fact – may be often overlooked in the ensuing discussion on the selection subject at large.

People without sight or without hearing often develop strong bonds with other similar individuals. These relationships form a sort of community in which there is a unique culture and customs. I appreciate – at least in a way I can from the perspective of someone who sees and hears – the desire of such parents to have a child who can personally relate to them in this fundamental way, and participate in the same culture. I can understand the fear that may arise in these parents when confronted by the possibility that their child may not be deaf, may not be blind – and thus may not be connected, personally and socially, to them in this way. 

However, I can not but conclude at this time that “negative enhancement” seems to be a misuse of science and wrongly indulged hope at best, and a selfish, primitive exploitation of human life and one’s own children at worst. I take a similarly dim view of positive enhancement for cosmetic reasons, and at least a skeptical view of genetic determination. On genetic disease screening, I’m more open but I believe there are still profound ethical questions to be answered. 

With continuing medical science advances and no state or federal laws on the books in the United States, one thing is clear: trait-selected human offspring are likely to walk among us in the near future.

Post Script: There are a few good movies that deal with related topics. Check out Gattaca with Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman, or The Island with Scarlett Johanssan and Ewan McGregor. The latter – in which some human beings are cloned and harvested for their organs – bears (if with artistic license to great dramatic effect) an undeniable connection to today’s practice of “savior siblings,” which is discussed in the WSJ article.

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Filed under Abortion, Bio-Science, Philosophy and Ethics