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God Brought Baal-Worship On Himself

The story of the Plagues of Egypt is one of the more disturbing ones in the Bible. While many of God's other Old Testament abuses (genocides, etc.) can be glossed over as an allegory for disciplining the wicked, the Plagues show him at his most sadistic. After the first few signs, Pharaoh wants to let the Israelites go, but God uses his mind-control ray to harden his heart, thus providing an excuse for God to heap suffering on everything in the land of Egypt. It's no wonder the Gnostics decided that the God of the Old Testament is actually Satan*.

Don at the Evangelical Ecologist reminds me that the suffering of the plagues was not just visited upon the people of Egypt (who, under the organicist theory popular among terrorists and people fighting against terrorists, are arguably punishable for their leaders' sins), but also on their morally innnocent livestock. Don suggests that we could see this as God making a point against idolatry. He points out that animals and anthropomorphic deities were popular at the time -- witness the animal-headed Egyptian gods and the Israelites' own Golden Calf. So smiting a bunch of animals was God's way of saying "I am more powerful than any animal, so worship me, not them."

I'm not sure about the specific concern with animal worship, but I think Don is right to see the larger picture of the Plagues as being a case where God manufactured an opportunity to make a demonstration of his power, thereby cowing the Israelites into worshipping him.

Reading the rest of the Old Testament, it's clear that God's Shock and Awe strategy failed. The OT is a litany of time after time when the Israelites turn to idolatry (worshipping the Caananite gods Baal and Asherah), and God is forced to do some smiting to keep them in line. And in any event, the Plagues even failed to convert the Egyptains. But I think we can go farther than just saying that smiting is an ineffective deterrent -- I think it's also partly responsible for the temptation that Baal posed to the Israelites.

With the Plagues (and earlier nefarious acts like the Flood), God established a certain frame for choosing deities. That frame is one based on power. Worship the God who can smite your enemies, and who will smite you if you give up on him. God isn't making a moral plea ("worship me because I deserve it and because my decrees are just"). He's making a pragmatic demand ("worship me or you'll end up with boils or worse"). God sets himself up not as an altruist who wants what's best for his creation, but as a dictator who demands obeisance and will sacrifice his creation to get it.

But with this power-based frame in place, it's no wonder the Israelites kept turning to Baal. In the long run, God is more powerful than Baal and will engage in more thorough smiting. But Baal offered a great deal of more immediate power, both supernatural and socio-political. The benefits of Baal-worship were thus clear, whereas there was little other reason to stay loyal to God.

*It occurs to me that there's a parallel here with the way Pilate wanted to let Jesus go, but the crowd badgered him into signing off on the crucufixion. So perhaps the New Testament God is a bit Satanic as well. This is why I have trouble with the idea of seeing the crucifixion as a sacrifice demanded by God.


Environmental Injustice And Failed Community Involvement

South Phoenix is a classic example of environmental racism. The city's white leaders spent a century shoving its dirty industry and "dirty people" into the south part of the city. And while the kind of racism that people own up to began to fade in the 70s, the continuing neglect of the area, and its continued lack of effective zoning and construction of polluting transportation infrastructure (two major interstate highways and the airport) has not improved matters (For more of the historical background, see this article (pdf) in Human Ecology Review.)

The authorities recently had a chance to start to put things right, but it looks like they failed:

Five years ago, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency gave the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality a grant to clean up toxics in a 12-square-mile swath of south Phoenix. That largely low-income area has a high concentration of pollution-producing industrial facilities.

The DEQ set up a panel of community members and asked them to offer ideas on how they'd like to see toxic pollution reduced in their neighborhoods.

The community board spent more than a year crafting a list of 10 major steps they wanted regulators to take.

Most of the things they asked for - a study of the health risks posed to their neighborhoods, stricter enforcement at polluting facilities, better zoning to prevent industries from locating next to homes - never materialized.

DEQ's response is that on the one hand, they are doing things to improve the environment, and on the other hand, they don't have the authority to do some of the things the community wanted (like changing zoning laws).

What this situation looks like is a clear failure of community involvement. DEQ created the form of a community involvement process by creating the community panel. Unfortunately, the substance of community involvement appears to have been lacking. A successful community involvement process requires engagement from all of the responsible parties. The community has to be at the table with DEQ, as well as with the city's zoning board, and any other entity with power over an aspect of the issue.

The reasoning here is effectively entailed by the reasoning for involving the community. The cleanup is being done for the benefit of the community, so the people doing it need to hear what the community thinks will benefit it. On the other hand, the community's proposals need to be shaped by the context of who has the ability to do what. This is more than just recognizing the limits of an agency's power and thus not asking for unreasonable things -- it's about getting committments from the various stakeholders to do their parts.

What appears to have happened in the South Phoenix case is a disjuncture between the planning and implementation. Without engagement and buy-in from the responsible parties, the community ended up making two kinds of recommendations -- those that DEQ can't implement, and those that they won't. The ones they can't implement are a result of the community involvement process's failure to enable the community to address their concerns to the right people (e.g. the zoning board). The ones they won't implement are the result of a lack of buy-in that allows DEQ to say they've "considered" the community's proposals, but does not create the sense of ownership or mechanisms of accountability that would give the community's plan any teeth. The key fact that encapsulates the failure here is that after the community made its recommendations, DEQ went on to write its own toxics reduction plan with the community plan as just one input. DEQ effectively distracted the community with some play-acting while sheltering itself from any commitment to substantive involvement.

Ultimately, the situation in South Phoenix is doubly racist. It's racist at the distributive justice level because the city's black and Latino neighborhoods are bearing a disproportionate share of toxic pollution. And it's racist at the democratic justice level because DEQ, EPA, and the city are failing to respect those communities' right to determine their own fate.


The Sins Of Your Ancestors

Hugo Schwyzer has a long and sometimes grating meditation* on the question of reparations for slavery and other racial oppression. He frames it as a question of responsibility for the sins of one's ancestors.

The "sins of your ancestors" frame has some utility in drawing attention to how the present system was historically constructed, and thereby highlighting precisely what kind of wrongs need to be righted. And it has utility in reminding us that those ancestors were in fact sinners -- and sinners in quite specific and often brutal ways, not just in a lip-service "we're all sinners" sort of way. But I think "sins of the ancestors" is problematic as a frame for thinking about the responsibilities of present-day descendants.

The problem with "sins of the ancestors" is that responsibility is not strictly about ancestry. Schwyzer is an upper-class descendant of a long line of upper-class people, and he owns up to the slave-owners and capitalist racial exploiters in his family tree. I, on the other hand, am the descendant of dirt-poor New Englanders and post-Civil War immigrants. So my family tree's responsibility for engineering racial oppression is tiny compared to Schwyzer's**. If I accept the "sins of the ancestors" frame, I could easily become one of those annoying people who whine about how none of my ancestors were slave owners.

But despite the great difference in ancestral guilt, Schwyzer and I recieve very similar amounts of white privilege, and thereby have similar levels of responsibility. The amount of privilege that's handed down as strictly consanguinial inheritance is small compared with the amount that's distributed as a sort of public good to everyone in the beneficiary class. The argument that's used to make descendants responsible for the sins of their ancestors -- you unfairly benefit from their sins -- must carry us further to the recognition that ancestry is no criterion at all. Responsibility is proportional to the scale of the descendant's benefit, not to the scale of the individual's particular ancestors' personal sin.

*Though this is one of the few posts on his blog that he doesn't describe in the title as a "long meditation." The post is actually, it turns out, a "rambling response."

**Which is not at all to say they were totally innocent. I should also note that I am distantly related to presidents Andrew Jackson and Franklin Pierce, two of our least racially enlightened commanders in chief. And in double-checking the Andrew Jackson connection in the family history book my maternal grandmother wrote, I was reminded that it's likely that one set of my great-great-great-great grandparents did have slaves, and their son was a Confederate soldier who later deserted to the Union side. (This is the anomalous slice of my family tree, as they hailed from South Carolina.)


A Recommendation

I don't often do "go read this" posts, but if you're not reading Slacktivist's page-by-page deconstruction of the Left Behind books, you should be. The great thing about this series is not just his ability to highlight the morally bankrupt theology behind the inept writing, but the way that in the process he outlines a compelling alternative vision of what Christianity ought to be (in a way that only an insider can).


Collective Problems

We often hear that certain problems require collective solutions, so worrying about individual behavior and responsibility is beside the point. I think such claims need to be more clearly specified. After all, social structures and collective patterns are made up of the effects of individual behaviors.

We'll call individual solutions actions or choices that can be taken by a person independent of what anyone else is doing. Collective solutions are achieved through agreement by a group of people to alter a social rule or institution that shapes people's behavior. It seems that there are at least four senses in which a problem can require a collective rather than individual solution:

Aggregative Problems
Aggregative problems are the most common form of problem requiring a collective solution, but they're also one in which the "it requires a collective solution" defense is fairly weak. In an aggregative problem, a real solution the problem requires everyone to modify their behavior together. This is tied to the claim that reliance on individual virtue will be insufficient to bring about a change in everyone's behavior, so some sort of collective mechanism such as a tax is necessary to motivate and coordinate people's action. However, the fact that something is an aggregative problem does not necessarily rebut concern about people's individual behavior, since, after all, the solution is ultimately about getting every individual to practice that behavior. The more the problem admits of degrees of problematicness (contrast the various possible degrees of global warming with the yes-or-no binarism of nuclear annhialation), and the more individuals' contributions are additive rather than having a threshold at a certain level of participation, individual action makes some contribution to a solution regardless of what anyone else does. Pointing out that something is an aggregative problem just reveals that worrying about one's individual behavior is not enough, so one needs to engage in some more political action (from blogging to protesting) to get others on board as well. And individual action can be an important part of that political action, insofar as it builds a model for the desired outcome.

Tragedies of the Commons
A tragedy of the commons is a situation in which individual action ends up doing no good at all, because it's offset by a corresponding change in others' action. A virtuous shepherd who individually keeps his herd small won't prevent any degradation of the common pasture, because someone else will just expand theirs to eat up that grass. Thus there's no point in worrying about one's own behavior, except as a way of establishing moral credibility, until you can get everyone to agree to the new course of action.

A variant of the tragedy of the commons is the "heightening the contradictions" argument. That is, individual action may alleviate the problem to some degree, but that's bad, because it saps the motivation for pushing for a collective change. If, say, I pay my factory workers well, the benefits to them are offset by the reduced drive that gives toward unionization and a more fundamental and across-the-board restructuring of employment relations. Heightening the contradictions is a tricky argument, however, because it's usually far from obvious that the effects are as described, or that it's ethical to sacrifice the people who would benefit from the individual action (e.g. my factory workers) for the greater good.

Systemic Problems
With a systemic problem, the issue is the opportunties and rights that are or are not available. So for a person to make their choices as if the rules were different is no substitute for the rules actually being different. A systemic problem is not solved so long as it's dependent on the goodwill of some actors. The difference between a systemic problem and an aggregative problem is whether noblesse oblige alone would be an adequate solution. So energy conservation is an aggregative problem -- unlikely as it may be that this would happen, if it were to come about there would be nothing to complain about. On the other hand, the problem of rape would not be solved (though it would certainly be very much mitigated) if all men voluntarily refrained from having sex with unconsenting partners, because it's still a problem that they have the unexercised opportunity to do so.

Social Responsibilities
With problems that are social responsibilities, the point is to get society as a whole to provide some benefit (usually through the government). So individual provision of the same benefit doesn't actually address the problem. This is often the response of people who advocate an expansive welfare state but are stingy about giving to charity. One could go on to claim that in the absence of society taking responsibility, individual responsibility is still important as a way of alleviating the symptoms in the meantime. This could then be rebutted by a "heightening the contradictions" argument.

Of the options surveyed here, Tragedies of the Commons and Heightening the Contradictions (which I would venture are the least common types of collective problem) are the only ones in which individual action is strictly useless. Nevertheless, pursuing any strategy for social change is not costless, and the costs of social change (time, energy, attention, and resources) can be at least partly fungible between strategies. Thus it may be that (in a given situation) taking individual action, or advocating for others to take individual action, may be substantially less cost-effective than directing those efforts toward collective solutions. (Then again, criticizing others for pursuing individual-level rather than collective solutions may not be cost-effective either!)


Precaution, Cost-Benefit, and Alternatives Analysis

One of the big interminable debates with respect to environmental issues is about the relative merits of the precautionary principle (PP) and cost-benefit analysis (CBA). The core disagreement has to do with attitudes toward risk and uncertainty -- the PP advocates risk aversion, whereas CBA advocates pursuing the greatest expected utility.

I find it interesting, though, that proponents of both methodologies make a similar subsidiary claim: "my methodology promotes looking at a broad range of alternatives, whereas the other one condones a narrow focus on a single option." The use of this argument strikes me as a good case study in the pitfalls of comparing an idealized version of your own proposal to the actual real-world implementation of your opponents' principle.

CBA advocates assert that a key virtue of CBA is that it encourages decision-makers to compare the costs and benefits of many options in order to see where they can get the most bang for their buck. They like to cite studies showing that various regulations have wildly varying costs per life saved, showing that our regulatory system could be improved by moving dollars from less productive activities to ones where they will save more lives (from Superfund cleanups to seatbelt campaigns, for example). The PP, or at least precautionary attitudes, are partly to blame for the current incoherence, because the PP encourages a decision maker to look only at the activity in front of him or her and ask "is there some risk here?" Thus the PP gives no guidance in comparing different priorities.

PP advocates claim that it is actually the PP that encourages looking at a broad range of alternatives. Under CBA, it's easy to just tote up the costs and benefits of an activity. If the benefits exceed the costs, we declare the costs to be "acceptable," and forge ahead. The PP, on the other hand, rules out activities with significant risks. But rather than forcing us to bear huge opportunity costs, it spurs us to think creatively about finding ways to get the benefits without the risks. PP proponents have a strong faith that low risk, win-win solutions exist if only a rule like the PP were to stop us from settling for the least evil of the obvious options.

I think the lesson here is that in the real world, people will tend to focus narrowly on a single option, regardless of what philosophers claim should be entailed by their decision-making strategy. We therefore need to elevate looking at a broad range of alternatives -- call it "alternatives analysis" -- into an explicit principle in its own right, rather than simply hoping that it will follow automatically from the use of CBA or the PP.


Onions Grow On Little Mesh Bags

A common line of criticism against contemporary society is to point out how disconnected most Westerners are from the origins of their food. I find it interesting that the standard illustration of this phenomenon is meat, which we reputedly think comes from pink styrofoam trays at the supermarket.

But of course the example gains its force from the fact that it's actually too extreme to be true. We know steaks actually come from cows, not plastic packages (and hence we're led to agree with the author about the ridiculousness of those other Average Ignorant Consumers). What's more, we all have a general idea of what a cow is like. Certainly we have a great deal of ignorance about how livestock is raised and processed, but we know what animal is involved for anything but the dodgiest sausage.

Vegetables, on the other hand, are shrouded in even more mystery. How many people know what kind of plant a potato grows on, much less what that plant looks like? And even our vague sense of tropical versus non-tropical crops is unable to provide a modicum of information about the growing habits of many vegetables. Our knowledge is better for some, either because they're iconic (e.g. corn) or because they're often sold whole (e.g. carrots). But an average person in the US would have difficulty describing the plants that much of the produce section came from, whereas errors in the meat department would be limited to the exact shape of a few kinds of fish.

There are a few reasons that meat might seem like a more compelling illustration of our ignorance of where our food comes from. One is the cross-fertilization of concern about being out of touch with our food system and the "visceral argument" for vegetarianism. The most terrible aspects of meat production are more immediate (slaughtering a living creature and seas of manure, versus migrant farmworkers being underpaid and monocultures destabilizing ecosystems), so ignorance and not-thinking-about-it seem to play more functional psychological roles with respect to meat*. Second, at a certain scale the difference in appearance between meat and its source is greater -- though we may not know what a whole potato plant looks like, the potato part looks like a potato, whereas there's no part of a living cow that you can see that looks like a steak. So it's easy to forget where our ignorance really lies.

*Despite its intuitiveness to some people, I don't think the visceral argument carries much weight. People are quite good at adapting to and accepting cruelty that isn't directed at them.


Conservative Relativism

Conservatives love to rail against moral relativism, so I find it vicariously embarassing how often they resort to relativist arguments. One of the more popular is the "I was raised to believe" argument. A good recent example of this argument comes from General Pace, who is unfortunately the Chairman of the US military's Joint Chiefs of Staff. He says he opposes allowing homosexuals to serve in the military because his "upbringing" taught him that homosexuality is immoral.

As a psychological matter, the role of upbringing is quite important in explaining why a person holds the beliefs that they do -- most people either accept, or rebelliously invert, what they were taught as children. But Pace isn't telling us that regardless of what's right he's psychologically impotent to change his beliefs. He's making an argument, trying to convince others to support him in keeping homosexuals out of the military.

But of course the appeal to upbringing is a thoroughly relativist argument. Plenty of people these days were raised to believe that homosexuality is just fine. (And others of us were brought up without any strong message either way -- my family is fairly conservative in general, but on this issue it's more passively heteronormative than actively homophobic.)

Pace has since tried to shield himself from criticism with another classic relativist argument: he says he was just talking about his "personal opinions about moral conduct."


Free Markets Would Halt Capitalism

There's a lot of talk about the importance of market-based solutions to environmental problems. The paradigm case is air pollution, where cap-and-trade systems or emissions taxes are touted as bringing the efficiency of the market into the system. However, cap-and-trade or taxes are not market-based solutions -- rather, they're market-using. In a cap-and-trade system, all of the work of setting pollution levels is done in the same top-down manner by the government. All the market does is determine how and where those reductions will be made. A tax theoretically allows the market more control over the level of pollution, since companies could always decide it's worth the cost to emit more. Nevertheless, the tax rate is still set by the government, and will undoubtedly be calculated and adjusted in order to achieve a government-selected level of pollution.

The only truly market-based solution in the realm of air pollution is to let the people who bear the costs of the pollution set the price at which they're willing to allow it. That is, we would have to privatize the air, so that each breather had the right to a share of clean air, and could sell part of that right to a plant or other facility that wanted to put a certain amount of pollution into it. Under this system, the market truly would determine what level of pollution is acceptable, on the basis of contracts between polluters and pollutees. The government's role would be reduced to courts that enforce breaches of contract and illegal encroachment on individuals' air. For the sake of this thought experiment, we'll make the assumption that such courts would have access to the information needed to determine whose pollution is in whose airspace, and that they would consider measurable levels of pollution to be actionable trespasses that harm the air owner*. But such a truly market-based pollution control system would bring both pollution and pollution-creating activities to a screeching halt.

The trick is that you can't pick and choose whose air to pollute. Air flows and mixes and affects everyone within a certain area. That means that for a plant to emit some pollution, it must buy the right to pollute from everyone in the area. And that means that all it takes is one holdout to bid the polluter up to an astronomical rate, or refuse to sell altogether. This is a perfectly economically rational decision, if the person values clean air more than they value any amount that the polluter is able to pay -- and even if it's irrational, the real world is populated with plenty of irrational people.

The only reasonable solution, if we think that some level of polluting activity ought to be allowable, is to move back toward that dreaded institution, common property. The air in some suitably defined intermixing bubble** is the common property of all of the people who use it. These people can then make a collective, and hopefully democratic, decision about how much pollution ability to sell, overruling any holdouts. The result is effectively a cap-and-trade or emission tax system. Indeed, the air-owning collective could even impose an end-of-pipe solution, drawing up a contract that allows the plant to emit as much as it likes, provided it installs a certain type of scrubber on the smokestack. Such collectivization also reintroduces all of the problems of politicization of environmental management that advocates of market-based solutions are trying to avoid.

*In the real world, both of these assumptions would be highly questionable, dealing a further blow against common-law-based solutions to pollution. Even in a Hayekian paradise, the costs of acquiring the information necessary to pin a particular individual's air quality, and the resulting harms, on a particular emitter, would be monumental. And the innocent-until-proven-guilty standard and considerations of how much harm gives an individual standing would incline the courts to be very permissive toward polluters, particularly when there are any uncertainties. Across-the-board restraints on risk-creating activities are necessary to circumvent these issues.

**The size of this bubble would vary depending on the pollutant. For some, like greenhouse gasses, it would be global. The bigger the bubble, the more opportunties there are for holdouts under the privatized system.


Moral Relativist Anti-Vegetarianism

Elizabeth199 asks a question I've often wondered:

Is there ANY way for a vegetarian/vegan to suggest that vegetarianism/veganism is the best option for eating without it coming across as obnoxious proselytizing?

Sadly, I think the answer is no -- the stereotype of the obnoxious crusader for vegetarianism is so deeply entrenched in some minds that even the most conciliatory discussion of the issue can trigger feelings of being preached at.

I think part of what's happening is that people deal with their anxiety about diversity by invoking moral relativism. We humans like to have our way of doing things endorsed by others. It gives us independent confirmation that the way we do things is reasonable, and perhaps even self-evidently correct. So there's some discomfort involved in discovering others who quite sincerely pursue a different way of life. There are various ways of dealing with this diversity, the healthiest being critical engagement and humility. But it's psychologically easier to resort to imputing ulterior motives or a defecit of rationality. Another common strategy in the modern era is to invoke moral relativism -- the idea that no way of doing things is better than another, and therefore one should avoid passing judgment on others' lifestyles.

The proselytization charge deflects the focus from engagement with the substantive issue, declaring it to be an off-limits matter of taste. That's a bit of a concession, since the ideal (from a psychological standpoint) would be to regard one's own position as morally correct. But it enables a charge to be flung back at the other -- they're trying to violate the moral relativism code by proselytizing, asserting that their way of doing things ought to be adopted by others. The other becomes the bad guy, waving his or her difference in our faces.

The proselytization charge gains force from downplaying the range between convincing and coercing. Convincing is about using the power of the better reason (either passively through stating one's own position, or actively through engaging others in debate) to win others over. Coercing is about using any other form of power -- from mild informal social pressures to jackbooted thugs -- to gain compliance. Thus even passive convincing is interpreted as medium-strength social pressure.

The function (conscious or unconscious) of the relativism response is twofold. First, it offers psychological comfort to its user by placing the other person in the wrong for their supposed resort to proselytization (and may even give a backhanded justification to one's own lifestyle as a form of spite -- e.g. the "for every animal you don't eat, I'll eat three" bumper sticker). And it puts the other person on the defensive, leading them to soften their expression of their position in order to avoid being accused of proselytizing.

So what makes vegetarianism especially threatening whereas diversity in other parts of life evokes less hostility? One inescapable part of the picture -- which unfortunately vegetarians spend a lot of time disclaiming in a usually futile effort to avoid the proselytizing charge -- is that vegetarianism is a moral position. Aside from the small number of people who are vegetarians purely for health or henotheistic religious reasons, to become a vegetarian is to implicitly endorse a non-relativistic moral code*. Second, vegetarianism is threatening -- becoming a vegetarian involves a significant change in a fairly fundamental part of one's lifestyle. Third, vegetarianism is realistic. For all the joking about how life wouldn't be worth living without bacon, vegetarianism is within reach of the majority of developed world adults. (It's not without hardships for some, and I'm not endorsing a purely personal-lifestyle-change-based policy, but the fact remains that most North Americans could drastically reduce their meat consumption if they really put their minds to it.) Adding to the realism is the surface plausibility of the vegetarian position -- it's comparatively easy for even a committed omnivore to understand what makes vegetarians think they're right. And finally, vegetarianism is encountered relatively frequently -- something like 1-2% of Americans are vegetarians, and the idea is an obvious one -- so a clear stereotype and pattern of response can develop.

*I think of this as the "Schwyzer Fallacy," since Hugo so often seems to want to state a moral principle, yet disclaim responsibility from the implications of universalizing it to apply to non-Hugo individuals. It makes baby Kant cry. Of course, the Schwyzer Fallacy is only a fallacy when it's proposed as an ontological statement. One can have an epistemological Schwyzer Non-Fallacy, in which one declines to universalize because of a lack of information that would allow accurate application of the principle to another person's circumstances.


How Whites Shape Black-Indian Relations

Today the Cherokee nation will vote on whether the descendants of the tribe's former black slaves ("freedmen") can remain members of the tribe. [UPDATE: The freedmen got voted out.] Being neither Cherokee nor black, I'll reserve comment for now on whether they should vote yes or no, though in the interests of full disclosure I should admit to a strong gut reaction in favor of including the freedmen. (I have a post brewing in the back of my mind about when and how a member of a dominant group is ethically and politically justified in accusing an oppressed group of oppressing a third group, since it's not as simple as either "injustice is injustice wherever you see it" or "worry about the log in your own eye.")

What I found interesting about the Washington Post article on the vote was the way that it showed how the stage for the present situation was set in significant part by the actions of white people and their governments. And this stage-setting happened in complex ways that can't be reduced to seeing the wrong outcome of today's vote as a simple transferrence of white racism.

It starts, of course, with the fact that the Cherokees got the institution of black slavery, as well as the slaves themselves, from their white neighbors. I would not be surprised to find that the adoption of slaves was not just a "hey, that sounds like a good idea" sort of cultural/technological transfer, but also a response to the necessity of improving the tribe's economic productivity and social status in the face of white encroachment on their land.

The initial adoption of the freedmen into the tribe came at the end of the Civil War, when the Union imposed a treaty on the Cherokee and other slave-owning tribes who had fought with the Confederacy. So the tribe's fate was tied up in the outcome of a war driven mostly by two white factions' dispute over how to handle black-white relations.

Then came the Dawes Commission, an agent of the white-dominated federal government which made official pronouncements about who was Indian enough to be a Cherokee or black enough to be a freedman. These pronouncements will be an important part of determining how to apply the outcome of today's vote to individual people who lay claim to tribal membership.

The article also mentions the effects of segregation, which broke the bonds of community between Cherokees and freedmen. This weakened the actual shared entanglement of lives and experiences that would have formed both a motivation and a justification for keeping the freedmen in the tribe.

But while it can easily detail the racial sins of our predecessors even up to the Jim Crow era, the Post (like most mainstream outlets) pulls its punches when it comes to how the issue is shaped by contemporary racial dynamics. The situation would surely be different if the Cherokee and freedmen weren't both getting the short end of the stick from white-dominated society. A central issue motivating the present vote is that tribal membership means not just acceptance into a community and participation in its affairs, but also access to resources. In particular, the Cherokee nation gets a fixed sum of money from the federal government. This arrangement -- as opposed to full self-sufficient sovereignty, payments scaled to the population of the tribe, or the lack of any compensation, as is the case for non-tribe-member blacks, is obviously the product of continuing racial politics between those two groups and whites. And of course whites have been the key purveyors of the stereotypes of the rich Indians and the welfare-grubbing blacks, which doubtless motivate some Cherokees who vote "no" and some blacks who are just now trying to sign up for tribal membership.

All of this is not to deny the historical and present agency of either the Cherokees or the freedmen, or to excuse anyone's actions as being simply an effect of white racism. Indeed, what makes this story an interesting and illuminating case is the way the perpetration or resolution of one injustice shapes the terrain on which the subsequent struggle will be fought.


Respecting Your God-Given Species-Being

I haven't written much about animal rights lately, but Joe Carter prompts an interesting observation. Here's how Richard Mouw, who Carter quotes approvingly, puts a Christian case for opposition to factory farming:

The Bible says that God created every animal 'after its own kind.' Chickens aren't people, but neither are they nothing but hunks of meat. Chickens are chickens, and they deserve to be treated like chickens! This means that we have to give each chicken the space to strut its stuff in front of other chickens. ... [The farmer] sensed an obligation to treat his chickens with dignity-not human dignity, mind you, but chicken dignity.

I found this argument interesting because it sheds light on one of the standard "radical" cases for moral consideration, not just of animals, but of plants and ecosystems too. Both the radical argument and the Christian argument are "perfectionist" moral theories. That is, they assert that each category of beings* has a way of life proper to it, and moral harm consists in interfering with a being's pursuit of its proper way of life (or in some cases failing to aid it in that pursuit). Certainly Christians and radicals would disagree on the basis for those proper ways of life -- Christians would say that they're defined by the Creator's purposes, while radicals derive them from "nature," that is, the normal unimpeded course of development. And Carter certainly draws a far more narrow practical conclusion. But they both pursue the same form of argument, and would probably agree to quite an extent on the content of the proper way of life for most species.

I think both attempts to establish a perfectionist account of moral obligation fail. I simply don't agree with the type of obligation-creating purpose-laden creation that's required in the Christian perfectionist argument. On the other hand, the radical perfectionist argument makes too many questionable assumptions about what counts as normal and non-interference (since the development of any entity is an interaction between its internal propensities and its external environment). Further, all perfectionist theories enact a problematic "lumping," assigning beings a good life based on (debatably arbitrary) category membership.

The alternative to a perfectionist theory of consideration for animals would be a "liberal" one. Liberal theories focus on the self-determination of individual entities, either directly promoting it (e.g. utilitarianism) or defining and defending certain procedural prerequisites (e.g. rights-based and Kantian theories). To a liberal, the problem with Mouw's chickens is not that they can't do the kinds of things that chickens are supposed to do, but rather that they can't do the kinds of things that those particular chickens would want to do.

Note that perfectionist theories are likely to be more expansive in the number of beings they extend moral consideration to -- after all, the definitions of a God- or nature-based good life would seem to extend to anything that was created by God or exists in nature, whereas liberal theories end wherever the capacity for that theory's relevant type of self-determination ends. However, this doesn't mean that perfectionist theories are necessarily more radical in their practical implications -- for example, it's much easier to imagine that eating an animal could be consistent with its proper form of existence than to imagine it's compatible with respecting its self-determination.

(Carter would seem to confuse the issue by going on to talk about how he's in favor of animal welfare rather than animal rights -- implying a utilitarian basis for his concern. But with respect to the animal issue, welfare vs rights is actually a code for how radical your policy conclusions are, with the dividing line typically drawn at willingness to endorse vegetarianism.)

*Generally the species is taken to be the morally relevant level of categorization, though Christians often further divide each species, particularly humans, by gender.


Al Gore is under fire for hypocrisy, as various people claim that he uses an awful lot of energy. (Note that, tempting as it is to focus on discrediting the most recent messenger, these kind of claims have been circulating for a while -- see, e.g., this post by Joe Carter.)

David Roberts covers three basic rebuttals to the charge that Gore talks the talk but doesn't walk the walk. The first two I think are legitimate (assuming their factual basis is correct):

1) Gore does not actually use that much energy, and the energy he does use is green. Obviously if he does in fact walk the walk, the hypocrisy charge evaporates.

2) Gore's extra energy use is necessary for him to spread the message about climate change, which ultimately results in greater conservation. This is a standard consequentialist tradeoff argument. I think insistence on personal purity is morally questionable across the board, but it's especially so with respect to a fundamentally consequentialist issue like climate change.

But Roberts says he wishes he could focus on a third argument -- and in fact it seems to be the most popular argument among Gore's defenders:

3) Gore does so much good work on this issue that he deserves to be allowed to be a little wasteful in his personal habits.

The problem is, argument 3 is not a valid one. It essentially says that the more you talk the talk, the less you need to walk the walk. Can you imagine anyone saying "you know, Mark Foley did so much good chairing the House Caucus on Missing and Exploited Children that he deserves to hit on a few pages. He earned it!" Of course not.

The overtones of argument 3 -- which I'm sure Roberts and others would deny intending, but they're there all the same -- are also troubling. It implies that Gore is a better person than us peons, who's too important for us to be worrying about whether he walks the walk. And it plays into the conservative frame that environmentalism is all about sacrifice, so energy use is like an ice cream cone that you'll give up if you're good, but you can have as a reward if you're a good boy.

So maybe Gore doesn't use all that much energy, and maybe his excessive energy use is a necessary cost that's offset by the benefits it allows him to achieve. But it shouldn't be some sort of reward that we should give him for being such a great activist leader.