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Good News For Once

Apparently a bunch of states have recently re-enfranchised people who have served their felony sentence. And as if to strike at the heart of my cynicism, one of the first in this wave was Texas, where nine years ago a re-enfranchisement bill was signed by Governor George W. Bush.


Can we kick out all the current Democrat presidential candidates and get a new set? All of them appear to be first-class wankers. (And I include Al Gore, even though I'm certain he won't actually run, because his current appeal is due to his status as an activist -- as soon as he's a candidate again, it will be all triangulation.)


Thales of Nashville

Todd Zywicki challenges environmentalists to make like Thales and earn some profits from their predictions of climate change:

But I do understand economics. And if believers in global warming are so certain that it is going to occur that they are willing to impose taxes and other coercion in order to combat it, why aren't they buying up all the land 300 yards or so from the current beach, or wherever they expect the sea level to rise to in the future? Shouldn't Al Gore be cornering the market on coastal land twenty feet above today's sea level? Surely that land must be a bargain today compared to what it will be worth if his predictions are accurate.

But there are a host of problems with this proposal:

1. Not everyone is an insatiably profit-seeking homo economicus. And environmentalists in particular are unlikely to have such an orientation, being more attracted to what we might call the homo sufficientus model. Speaking for myself, even if the other objections I list were somehow neutralized, I wouldn't be buying up any future beachfront property, because "real estate speculator" is not the kind of person I want to be or the kind of life I want to lead regardless of the amount of profit to be made. (On the other hand, there are certainly entrepreneurial environmentalists out there, including to some degree the one Zywicki singles out, Al Gore.)

2. You'd think a devotee of economics would remember to account for incentives. Once you own a piece of future beachfront property, you have a vested interest in the amount of climate change that will make it pay off. In Thales' case this wasn't an issue, because he had no control over the weather that he was banking on. But the whole point of climate change is that we are controlling the weather. What environmentalist would want to create a real or percieved conflict of interest with his or her advocacy of policies aimed at minimizing climate change? (Indeed, it's easy to imagine some clever economist proposing that all policymakers working on the climate change issue own current beachfront property, to give them an incentive to seek the strongest policies.)

3. Post-sea-level rise beachfront property will not be as valuable as current beachfront property. The value of beachfront property is due not strictly to the proximity to water, but to the type of shoreline landscape associated with relatively stable coastlines. People want a nice clean beach with a view out over a big flat ocean and nice places to swim. What future beachfront property will overlook, however, is a swamp dotted with the roofs of flooded houses, trees obscuring the horizon, debris washing in all the time, and perhaps some ugly, hastily-constructed levees. It's possible that the view could be so depressing that coastal property would end up being less valuable than inland property. Just take a look at any of the immediately post-Katrina pictures of New Orleans and ask yourself if you'd want to vacation somewhere that overlooks that.

4. Sea level is not going to quickly rise 20 feet and then stabilize there. Sea level rise will be a long process, potentially continuing long after today's investors are dead. So you can't just draw a line on a map and say "I predict that these parcels will be the future's beachfront property." What property is beachfront will change over time as climate change unfolds. (And indeed, under the most optimistic geo-engineering scenarios such as widespread carbon sequestration, today's beachfront may end up being beachfront once again.)

5. Presumably sea level rise will stop at some point (if only because we run out of ice to melt and thermal expansion for the oceans to experience). But predicting that ultimate stop date requires predicting the outcome of political choices, which are affected by lots of things outside the environmental arena (e.g. current US climate policy has been shaped by 9/11 and the GOP corruption scandals through their impacts on which party gets power). Predicting long-term political outcomes is orders of magnitude more difficult than predicting the short-term behavior of markets or geophysical systems.

Marriage Down Under

Australia's Labor Party has endorsed registered partnerships. The proposal is both less and more progressive than the civil union proposals here in the US (such as New Hampshire's recently passed bill). It's less progressive because the set of rights that they would grant is more modest, and supporters went out of their way to reassure the party's recalcitrant right wing that civil unions are not equivalent to marriage. But it's more progressive because, as John Quiggin notes, the partnerships would be available to people in non-romantic relationships, such as a carer and their dependent, which is a step in the direction of the "Beyond Marriage" principle of providing recognition, protection, and support to any long-term relationship of interdependence and care.

People on the anti-marriage side often get worked up over the term "homophobia," since taken literally it implies that opposition to equal treatment for homosexuality is rooted in visceral revulsion, rather than a principled stance. But looking at the arguments from Labor's right wingers, it's clear that in this case "homophobia" is a quite apt term. They are against registered partnerships because they would "demean" and "attack" opposite-sex marriage and "robs marriage of its unique and privileged status." The only way that expanding access to a right or status can "demean" the people who already had it is if those people think "eww, I don't want to be in the same category as those people."

On the other hand, another argument made by Labor's right would be better described as "homo-callous," though it rests on the electorate's homophobia. I mean here the US-Democrat-style argument that rights for same-sex couples have to be sacrificed to the all-important goal of getting elected.



Dear Blogger,

I had my archiving system all set up the way I wanted it. Please stop changing my settings without telling me.


PS: No comments telling me to use a different blogging tool are allowed.


Toxic Wastes and Race

In 1987, the United Church of Christ's Commission on Racial Justice issued Toxic Wastes and Race, a report documenting the disproportionate number of people of color living near toxic facilities. The report played a key role in catalyzing the environmental justice movement and bringing national attention to the issue. The UCC recently produced a follow-up report, Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty (pdf), that uses improved GIS methodology and 2000 census data to update the 1987 report's conclusions. It's a long report, but it's worth reading at least the executive summary to get a picture of the grim situation facing our country.

Key points of the new report are:

1. Race is a strong predictor of the location of toxic waste sites, and it remains highly significant after class variables (income, education, blue vs white collar) are controlled for. Nationwide, there are nearly two times as many people of color living within 3 km of a toxic waste facility as living farther out. Racial disparities are highest for Latinos, but not statistically significant for Native Americans. We should be careful, though, not to take that result as indicating that Native Americans are not the victims of environmental injustices. The report dealt only with toxic waste facilities, which are disproportionately located in urban areas, while it did not consider such environmental harms as water-borne pollution that travels more than 5 km. Also, environmentally destructive activities often impact Native lands (official or traditional/culturally significant) without necessarily being within a few kilometers of Native houses. (Indeed, this raises a larger methodological issue, in that impacts on a person are typically judged strictly by where that person sleeps at night, rather than other places they may occupy, such as work sites, or other locations that are important to them even if they're not physically present, like a sacred mountain.)

2. The situation is worse than the original Toxic Wastes and Race report indicated. The original report simply said that if you lived in the same ZIP code as a toxic facility, you are affected, and if not, you're not. The new report uses more sophisticated GIS techniques to include anyone living within a specified distance of a facility, regardless of where the census tract boundaries fall. This methodological change significantly increases the measured racial and class disparities.

3. Environmental justice has improved only a negligible amount between 1990 and 2000. During the 1990s there was an enormous increase in environmental justice activism, and numerous significant victories in places like Kettleman City and West Harlem. So the lack of nationwide improvement suggests the scale of the forces pressing toward environmentally unjust outcomes. Further, it's likely that the situation has worsened even more since 2000. The report describes a number of recent federal-level setbacks. These include the 2001 SCOTUS decision in Alexander v Sandoval striking down the key EJ legal argument that unintentional disparate impacts violate the Civil Rights Act, and the Bush EPA's persistent failure to implement the environmental justice policies called for in Clinton's Executive Order 12898.

4. Churches are key players in the fight for environmental justice. The report doesn't address this issue explicitly, but its very existence as a publication of the United Church of Christ testifies to the importance of the church. The (deserved) praise heaped on white evangelicals for their newfound interest in addressing climate change can sometimes obscure the long history of black and Latino churches providing organizational skills, resources, and inspiration for environmental justice struggles.


Mayberry and Racism in Casa Grande

Environmentalism is generally considered a left-wing issue, but it has an unfortunate tendency to get tied up with un-progressive positions on other issues. This is clear here in Casa Grande, where the overarching theme of local politics concerns the direction that the city's rapid growth is taking it. The debate is carried on in reference to the Mayberry ideal, a certain vision of rural life that underpins both newcomers' attraction to the area and older residents' unease with them.

The Mayberry ideal is generally positively inclined toward the environment. It creates a strong presumption against growth in general, and in particular against the kind of sprawling growth that dominates the city today. This growth is environmentally detrimental, as its landscape of walled-off high-income housing is water-intensive, promotes reliance on cars (to commute all the way to Phoenix every day, or even just to get around the decentralized town), and encourages the building of big box stores and separate shopping plazas rather than mixed-use areas. Perhaps its biggest oversight is its lack of accommodation to smart growth, such as public transportation, preferring instead to cling to small-town rurality.

But the Mayberry ideal has a darker side, in that Mayberry was a white town. We don't have any local Don Imuses willing to say it in bluntly racial terms, but there is a clear undercurrent of anti-diversity sentiment in the city council race. Candidates -- particularly the two whites, Tina Cramp and Mary Kortsen -- hinted at the undesirability of "those kind of people" moving to Casa Grande, bringing their urban crime and meth problems to our quiet town.

But the clearest example I've seen came from a recent community forum on the police department's treatment of the black community. As reported in today's Dispatch (not yet posted online), Tad Roberts told the forum:

There was an incident where certain kids had driven up to a fast gas station here in town, coming out of football practice, and they were told that their kind of element was not wanted in Casa Grande. Just because the kids had on some sweats, had a little rag on top of his head.

I have to commend the police officer that rolled up. He said (to the initial officer), "why do you have those three young men sitting on the curb like this?" The first officer said "well, they're not the element we want in Casa Grande, they look like drug dealers." And the other officer said, "that's Mr. Roberts' son, you get in the car and you go home and take your cousins with you." The officer felt like this big.

The forum generated a host of other complaints of the sort commonly made when a largely white police force patrols a black neighborhood -- lack of service, hiding in cars rather than building rapport with the community, etc. But I highlight the story of Roberts' son being stopped because the first officer's explanation points at the rotten heart of the Mayberry ideal -- "they're not the element we want in [our town]." Whether "they" are the snowbirds, "California transplants," and retail chains moving into the sprawling developments, or black people (especially if they engage in typical urban black culture), they're not wanted because they disrupt the small-white-town ideal.

Casa Grande needs a new ideal, one that motivates resistance to environmentally destructive sprawl while also resisting attempts by dominant groups to seal the town off as the property of "our kind of people" by marginalizing their neighbors.


Science Is Neither Stiflingly Conformist Nor A Wide-Open Free-For-All

It irritates me when people make poor arguments for bad causes. Often these poor arguments are overreactions to arguments by the other side. A good example comes when debates over science (such as evolution or climate change) turn to the question of the treatment of dissent in the scientific community. Devilstower* succinctly puts the standard pro-science argument:

When science enters the public space, it's often presented as if scientists are slaves to existing theory -- guardians of the status quo, unwilling to admit that any current thought could possibly be wrong. Nothing gives a better sense of the divorce between scientific academia and popular journalism than the ease with which this hoary chestnut is passed along. Academia -- and especially scientific academia -- is a pool of sharks. It's a collection of people who not only think they're smarter than everyone else, but must prove it to advance in their careers. The scientist who goes through life dotting i's and crossing t's on someone else's theory is the scientist who is doomed to have "associate" forever hanging from the front of her title.

The anti-science side is wrong to simply dismiss the views of the scientific establishment as being the result of some form of doctrinaire ideological conformity. Nevertheless, pro-science partisans like Devilstower go too far in extolling the disclipinary virtues of the academic invisible hand. Such paeans tend to assume a dubious libertarian model of the scientific world. There are a variety of factors pushing scientific thinking in the direction of conservatism and conformity, and it does the pro-science side no favors to paper over them. Following is a non-exhaustive list of ways that an existing theory or paradigm might, independent of its truth, persist and infect new research.

I'll jump in the deep end and begin by pointing to funding as a source of conformity in science. It irritates me the way many people will point to funding as invalidating climate change skeptics' research, yet assert that climate change believers' research is entirely unaffected by funding considerations. As a grad student, I have been told repeatedly to shape my research in directions that are more "fundable." Nevertheless, it is important to be clear on how funding affects science. It is exceedingly rare for academic science to encounter the kind of tobacco-industry-style quid-pro-quos that pop to mind when thinking about funding shaping science. What is much more common is the fact that in order to get funding, one has to sell one's proposal -- an outline of a hypothesis that is necessarily lacking in evidence to support it -- to a funding agency's reviewers. These reviewers are other scientists, with their own preexisting views about the best explanations for your topic and useful larger frameworks in which to investigate it (and their own egos to stroke). Even if they're openminded enough to be won over to an alternate theory when presented with the finished evidence, they may quite reasonably be reluctant ex ante to fund your wild goose chase. Further, the influence is not just a question of choosing one of two or more competing theoretical frameworks. It's just as often a question of which areas (out of the infinitely many things that could be investigated) are gone over with a fine-toothed comb versus which other areas are largely neglected. For example, I would not be surprised to find that the research coming out of my own department's grad students has skewed toward the kind of answers one can get using satellite imagery due to the existence of an attractive grant program from NASA.

The funding issue leads to a larger issue, which is that science is a social project. It's naive to imagine that the mere truth of a theory will be sufficient to win over the scientific community. Promoting one's theory takes a certain degree of salesmanship and alliance-building (with editors, conference hosts, other researchers who will expand upon and thereby promote your work), which in turn require conciliatory consensus-building rather than righteous iconoclasm. Your advisors and colleagues are more likely to write you good letters of recommendation (allowing you to get or keep your research post) if your work supports their views. Such influences operate even before you have your revolutionary theory in hand, since research (especially in the hard sciences) often requires teamwork rather than a lone genius locked away in his personal lab.

Another problem is specialization. Few scientists have the luxury of sitting back to survey the entire scope of their field, taking in all of the work that's affected by some basic proposition (such as evolution). But in focusing on a narrower, more tractable problem, you inevitably have to take other researchers in bordering topical areas at their word. For example, my research on discourses about fire management has to just accept the mainstream status quo conclusions of fire ecologists and social psychologists working on other environmental risks in order to make headway on the issues I'm focused on. But that means that that taken-as-given research exerts a conformist pull on my own research. And then in a few years some researcher working on, say, earthquake risks will take my work as a given boundary to his or hers.

The larger problem here is the lack of time and resources to construct new theory. Ideally, a new theory will explain all of the data explained by the old theory as well as at least one new piece. In practice, that's extremely difficult to achieve, and only gets harder as more data relating to the old theory piles up. Major revolutionary theories, particularly ones that overturn past conceptions (e.g. evolution) rather than ones that reconcile or fill in important gaps between existing theories (e.g. the synthesis of evolution and genetics) require a large investment of time

Just as science is a social activity, scientists are people. People's actions are strongly driven by questions of personal identity -- you act in order to demonstrate to yourself and others that you are a certain type of person in a certain social location. Personal identity gets strongly tied up in being a proponent of a certain theory, and status can be gained by hooking up with a powerful school of thought. New theories, whatever their truth, are a threat to the identities of those who have committed to alternatives. On the other hand, some people are congenitally contrarian, with their identity tied up not in any particular theory, but in the practice of disagreeing with the status quo, whatever it might be.

Being people, not every scientist has the entrepreneurial iconoclastic personality assumed by the invisible hand argument Devilstower makes. Many scientists simply want the cushy** job of a university professor, or are more interested in teaching than research. Such personalities lack the motivation or the stomach for the kind of difficult battles that are required to push a new theory against the status quo.

Also, you have to ask where the revolutionary theory comes from. Scientists can rarely go into the lab and chug away until they find an answer. You have to have some reason to ask a certain question and look in a certain place for an answer. So unconscious or taken-for-granted biases can shut off whole avenues of inquiry. Feminists have shown, for example, how certain alternative ways of looking at issues in biology simply hadn't occurred to biologists for a long time because there was little in the experiences of the mostly-male academy to suggest certain alternatives. The feminism example also shows how conformity biases can be managed, since increasing the number of female biologists helped to generate new theories because women's experiences and culturally-created outlook suggested new possibilities to them. But of course the scientific world is still not nearly representative of all of humanity's diversity (not to mention the insights that non-humans might come up with).

All of this is emphatically not to say that science is as doctrinally conformist as creationists and climate change skeptics often claim. There are strong pressures, including those Darktower identifies, pushing in the other direction -- and evidence does ultimately matter. And the conformity pressures will operate in any intellectual environment (including, e.g., creationist circles). Nevertheless, there is conformity in science, and it's worth recognizing its sources.

*Yes, I admit that I browse DailyKos. It's one of my shameful vices.

**Before any academics whine about how time-consuming and stressful academia is, just ask yourself if you'd rather be a hotel maid or a migrant tomato-picker.

Creationists Hate Puppies

One of the more curious features of creationism is the way it often seems to be driven by hostility to that very creation. This comes out most strongly in the "ethical" argument for creationism (trotted out after every domestic tragedy): believing in evolution leads to immoral behavior, so therefore we should teach creationism. The ethical argument seems to be the most psychologically motivating for creationists even though it teeters between being a noble lie and an argumentum ad consequentiam. The claimed connection between beliefs about the origin of life and moral behavior is made by asserting that divine command theory is the only valid meta-ethical principle.

Pam Spaulding points out a creationist making the ethical argument with respect to the recent shootings at Virginia Tech. She's right to hold up Grady McMurty's claims for ridicule, but I think it's also worthwhile to point out the particularly blatant bit of creation-hating that's caught up in his use of the ethical argument:

[When evolution is being taught], he asserts, people should not be surprised when mass shootings occur, such as the one on the Blacksburg university campus on Monday. "And at Virginia Tech, what do we have?" he asks rhetorically. "We have a person who, unfortunately, thought that humans had no more value than cats and dogs -- and unfortunately, I think, probably felt the same way about themselves."

The creationist continues explaining his premise. "And so what happens? If we are nothing but thinking animals, [and] if you have excess people, then you can just put them in a bag, throw them in the river the way you would too many kittens or too many puppies."

In other words, in McMurtry's world we have a choice between valuing humans or valuing nothing. It strikes him as obvious and uncontroversial that puppies and kittens are worthless -- not just worth less than humans, but totally worthless and hence able to be disposed of. He's making a point that could easily have been made with reference to, say, rocks or twinkie wrappers or some other thing that nearly everyone agrees is worthless and disposable, but instead he singles out puppies and kittens, the two non-human beings that are most likely to be given some measure of moral consideration -- indeed, consideration for whom is the cliche example of a breathtakingly uncontroversial political stance.

(Note that I'm not here making my own argumentum ad consequentiam against McMurtry's version of Christianity -- I'm simply pointing out what it entails. The cruelty he describes is something we'd just have to accept were his views on God and morality to prove to be correct. However, I think we have other good reasons not to accept his version of Christianity.)


A Homophobic Sermon With A Pro-Gay Lesson

Yesterday I went to check out the Presbyterian church, and I ended up hearing the first overtly homophobic sermon I've heard in 26 years of going to church. (The non-UU churches I've been to studiously avoid taking a clear position on any politically charged issue.) What made the sermon interesting, though, was that the Bible passage that the pastor was preaching on struck me as supporting acceptance of homosexuality.

The sermon was based on 1 Corinthians 10. The context, the pastor explained, is that the Apostle Paul is writing to the Corinthian church to instruct them in how to draw the line such that they avoid engaging in idolatry but are not burdened by excessive puritanism. The core of the sermon was these three verses:

19Do I mean then that a sacrifice offered to an idol is anything, or that an idol is anything? 20No, but the sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, not to God, and I do not want you to be participants with demons. 21You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons too; you cannot have a part in both the Lord's table and the table of demons.

Here, the pastor explained, Paul is saying that things, such as certain foods, used to worship idols are not intrinsically evil. However, Christians ought to avoid those things if partaking of them would entail participating in -- and thereby condoning and supporting -- idolatry. This is all good, but the homophobia came in when the pastor went looking for an example to illustrate idolatry in the modern context. Paul talks in this chapter about food sacrificed to pagan gods, since that was the most prominent form of idolatry in his time. Today, however, idolatry usually consists of the "worship" of things like money or selfish sexual gratification. The pastor said that just as the Christians in first-century Corinth could eat food sacrificed to idols but must not engage in the sacrifices themselves, modern Americans can maintain friendships with homosexuals but must not support the practice of homosexuality by, for example, supporting a gay pride parade.

The applicability of the homosexuality example is called into question, however, by a few verses later on that elaborate Paul's anti-essentialist criterion for when things are acceptable:

23"Everything is permissible"—but not everything is beneficial. "Everything is permissible"—but not everything is constructive. 24Nobody should seek his own good, but the good of others.

25Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience, 26for, "The earth is the Lord's, and everything in it."

Paul here is proposing a strikingly pragmatic and consequentialist outlook. Nothing is intrinsically bad, but some things may not be "beneficial" or "constructive" toward the end of "seek[ing] ... the good of others." He talks in terms of food, as that's the running example of idolatry in this chapter. But it seems to make perfect sense to apply the same line of thinking to sexual practices, since they were recognized then as, and are today, often connected to idolatry.

When we apply this passage to sex, an interesting thing happens. Paul tells us, "Do anything described in Dan Savage's column without raising questions of conscience, for, 'Your bodies are the Lord's, and everything in them.'" There are no sexual practices that are intrinsically immoral, only those that are not constructive toward loving thy neighbor. If you are not using your sexuality to pursue an idol (e.g. selfish sexual gratification at the expense of others), then it is permissible. Questions of pragmatic-consequentialist constructiveness are settled not by looking for proofs in the Bible but rather on the same grounds as secular argument. And on secular grounds, the case for acceptance of homosexuality is clear-cut. Indeed, opposing homosexuality is condemned by Paul's criterion, because it is an idolatrous privileging of one way of life without proper consideration of the good of others.


Freedom Of Speech And The Interest In Recognition

Let me begin this post by stating clearly that I think the condemnation of Don Imus's slur against the Rutgers women's basketball team, and Imus's firing by CBS and MSNBC were thoroughly justified. I also think that Imus's defenders are wrong to oppose those developments on "freedom of speech" grounds. Nevertheless, I'm uncomfortable with the direction some of my fellow Imus-detractors have taken in responding to the free speech claims, because they seem to partake of a conservative understanding of the right to free speech.

Kevin at Slant Truth uses the "First Amendment" defense:

What boggles the mind is that these people apparently have no idea what the concept of free speech in the U.S., as guaranteed by the First Amendment, actually means. ... One thing should be clear from the get-go: The First Amendment applies to the government and not to private organizations and individuals.

Kevin is right that the First Amendment, which is the extent of legal protection for free speech in the U.S., applies only to government actions. This is an important point insofar as anyone would claim that Imus ought to win a lawsuit against CBS.

Nevertheless, to restrict our consideration to Imus's legal rights under the current regime misses the point of the free speech claim. What's being claimed by (at least some of) those defening Imus on free speech grounds is not that his legal rights have been violated, but that his moral rights have been violated, so pointing to the text of the First Amendment is unhelpful. After all, we wouldn't consider it relevant if Imus's defenders pointed to the text of the Fourteenth Amendment and the Civil Rights Act to show that he didn't violate the Rutgers women's basketball players' legal rights.

My point is not that the law can be unjust -- as it happens, I think modern First Amendment jurisprudence comes fairly close to capturing the extent that there ought to be a legal right to free speech. My point is that the moral right to free speech may be broader than what we'd write into law (the essence of liberalism is the refusal to conflate what is moral with what is legal). One may hold that the moral right to free speech happens to extend only to government actions -- but then you have to make that case, rather than just pointing to the text of the First Amendment. I, on the other hand, do believe that private organizations and individuals can interfere with the right to free speech.

Lindsay at Majikthise takes a different approach to rebutting the free speech claim:

Nobody is impinging on Imus's right to free speech. He can start a blog, or get a soapbox and air his retrograde views in the local park. It's a free country.

It's true that Imus's formal right to free speech has not been violated. His throat and tongue are still quite capable of forming the words "nappy-headed hos." Nevertheless, it seems it should be obvious to anyone coming from a left background that having a formal right is a far cry from having a substantive right.

Rights exist to secure the satisfaction of important interests. A key thrust of progressive thinking has been to highlight the fact that mere formal rights are inadequate to securing those interests. So, for example, the formal right to an abortion established by Roe v. Wade is inadequate at securing women's interest in control of their reproduction, and must be made more substantive by things like funding to allow all women to be able to afford an abortion.

In the free speech case, one key factor that affects the substantive value of a the right is what kind of platform you have for making your speech heard. You speech is less free the less ability you have to get your message out. There is a clear substantive difference between having a nationally broadcast radio and TV show, and having a soap box in the park. Now, one may certainly argue that a nationally broadcast radio and TV show is far above and beyond the level of substantive value for the right to free speech that anyone is entitled to -- but again, that argument must be made, rather than dodging the issue by retreating to a purely formal right to free speech.

Kevin and Lindsay's arguments amount to pointing to the non-violation of Imus's formal legal rights in order to rebut the claim that his substantive moral rights were violated. That's not a line of thinking that I find useful. Nevertheless, I maintain my position that Kevin and Lindsay are right to applaud Imus's firing. To build what I think is a more justifiable case in favor of the firing, we have to look at what the underlying interest is that motivates the substantive moral right to free speech.

One fundamental human interest is in recognition. That is, it is good for a person to be seen by others (as well as by him- or herself) as a sentient and morally considerable being. Freedom of speech is one way that we protect the interest in recognition, because one critical way that most human beings secure recognition is through communicative action. To be (substantively) able to give honest expression to one's thoughts, and to have others hear and respond to that expression as the output of a sentient being, is necessary for achieving recognition.

But the communication facet of the interest in recognition also entails a right to choose what speech to support. Thus, as Kevin says, "Individuals have every right to control the discourse that occurs within their own spaces," or as Lindsay puts it, "They had every right to fire him for tarnishing their brands and alienating their listeners." A speaker-focused conception of free speech is only one side of a balance among the various entities involved in shaping the outcome of any speech act, all of which have an interest in recognition (among other interests).

What's more, the interest in recognition is secured not only through communication, but also through recieving respect. There is a moral right to be treated as a worthwhile human individual. This whole controversy began because Imus violated the Rutgers women's basketball team's right to respect by referring to them with terminology loaded with racist and sexist significance. Just look at any of the team members' comments (or the comments of any other people who felt caught in the cross-fire) to see the extent to which his comments impinged upon their interest in recognition. Firing Imus helped to defend the interests of anyone who might ever be at risk of being called a "nappy-headed ho," by 1) reducing Imus's future ability to commit such violations, 2) sending a counterbalancing positive message of respect to those hurt by Imus's comments, and 3) educating the rest of the country about the effects of such expression (so that future would-be Imuses will at least decide not to try to secure their own recognition at a cost to others', and at best will reconsider being the kind of person whose recognition-through-expression must come at the expense of others).

Thus firing Imus is a net gain for the human interest in recognition, despite the small cost to Imus's recognition-through-expression that he suffered through losing access to his outsized substantive capacity to speak.


Bush's Fake Immigration Offer

President Bush's attempt to be a moderate on the immigration issue has sent many of his erstwhile supporters into a frenzy. But sadly, when it comes to Bush and his right-wing base, it seems the enemy of my enemy is rarely my friend. His immigration proposal is downright insulting:

The White House draft plan, leaked last week, calls for a visa that would allow undocumented workers to apply for three-year work permits. They would be renewable indefinitely, but cost $3,500 each time.

To become legal permanent residents, illegal immigrants would have to return to their country, apply at a U.S. embassy or consulate to re-enter legally and pay a $10,000 fine.

Perhaps it should have occurred to him that people who are coming to this country because picking tomatoes for a few dollars a day is a step up the economic ladder might not have thousands of dollars on hand. So obviously immigrants and their allies aren't buying it:

"Charging that much, Bush is going to be even more expensive than the 'coyotes,' " protester Armando Garcia, 50, said, referring to smugglers who take people across the border.

But I have to disagree with one immigrant's analysis of why Bush wants such exorbitant fees:

"For my wife and I, it would cost about $30,000," said Francisco Gomez, 41. He and his wife are in the country illegally. "Multiply that by all the illegal immigrants here . . . It's obvious Bush just wants to fund his Iraq war with our money."

Bush has never shown any sign of recognizing that is he wants to spend money on a project (like the war), he has to get that money from somewhere. He is, after all, the President who ran up the biggest budget deficit in the country's history.

What's actually happening, I think, is (at least in part) a move to strengthen the rhetorical position of the anti-immigration crowd. Perhaps the most common argument from "reasonable" conservatives on immigration is that they're not anti-immigration, they're just anti-illegal-immigration. They say that they will welcome with open arms anyone who waits their turn in line and goes through the proper channels to enter the country.

The problem with the "anti-illegal-immigration" argument is that there is no line to wait your turn in -- the current immigration system is so byzantine that there is simply no way for most would-be immigrants to enter legally. Bush's plan cleverly circumvents this argument. The $10,000 green cards and $3,500 work visas create a theoretical possibility for much more legal immigration. But in practice they do little or nothing to enable more people to have status. Thus we will continue to have a large illegal immigrant population, but the theoretical path to legality will make it easier for conservatives to demonize them and justify harsh treatment, since it's technically possible for them to have come here the proper way.


Pain and Nature

Environmental ethicist J. Baird Callicott has argued that welfare-based ethics are mistaken to treat pain as bad. Pain, he says, plays an important functional role for the organism, and hence for the larger ecosystem -- it shows it what not to do. As he puts it in Earth's Insights (praising the Hua-Yen Buddhist idea that everything is what it is because of everything else, and hence nothing that exists is bad):

In nature, pain and death are facts of life at the heart of evolutionary and ecological processes. ... pain is necessary to the survival of an animal organism, however, unwelcome as it may be. A genetically anesthetized animal would have as lethal a birth defect as one born blind or deprived of some other vital sensory function. ... Attempts to extend standard Western ethics to nonhuman natural entities and nature as a whole have proved counterproductive from an ecological point of view... Standard Western approaches to ethics, extended simpliciter to nature, would require us to divide our fellow creatures into good guys and bad guys and condemn the very soul of ecological processes -- trophic relationships -- as inherently evil, since ecological processes inherently involve pain and death.

But Callicott's argument isn't really about pain, it's about the capacity for pain. Pain would not achieve the function he attributes to it unless the organism considered the pain to be a bad thing and strove to avoid it. Doing something damaging, feeling pain, and then avoiding that activity is still worse than not doing the activity in the first place, so the hedonist aim of reducing pain remains intact.

Indeed, the fact of ecological interdependence means that properly applied, Western hedonist ethics do not lead to the conclusions Callicott attributes to them. The hedonist can recognize the fact that ecological processes require some pain, and accept that pain as necessary for achieving the greater good (indeed, hedonism's propensity to accept such tradeoffs is exactly what deontologists condemn it for). Ecology could only be condemned as "inherently evil" if there was an alternative that would achieve all the good of our present ecological system with less pain. Were such an alternative available (and I don't imagine it is or will be in the forseeable future), and setting aside the problem of getting there from here, it's hard to imagine what -- aside from a conservative-Nietzschean celebration of the nobility and grandeur of (other entities') suffering (a la Holmes Rolston III, IIRC) -- would justify retaining the present ecology.

Callicott's argument does suggest a rebuttal to the idea that pain is the fundamental bad thing, since he takes it to be functionally related to some deeper bad thing that it's steering you away from. One would then need to establish on independent grounds what makes that deeper bad thing bad, in order to be able to judge the usefulness of different pain responses. Simply relying on evolution to have calibrated our pain responses to match the underlying bads is inadequate, since 1) evolution is always a work in progress that may not have caught up to our current environmental conditions (a point often overlooked in attempts to ground ethical duties in evolutionary outcomes), and 2) much human pain is socially learned, not biologically programmed (such as the distress I feel when considering the many states with DOMA laws versus what a homophobe feels when considering Massachusetts).

As a side note, I suppose one of the reasons this blog gets only a handful of readers a day is that I tend to write responses to arguments and debates that most of my handful of readers have never heard about or care about. On the other hand, one of my primary motivations for blogging is to be able to jot down ideas like this for my own intellectual benefit, so trying to blog in a way that would boost my audience would lead to less blogging. C'est la vie.