Archive for January, 2011

The Corrosion of Normal Moral Thinking, ctd

January 31, 2011 2 comments

In his New York Times opinion piece Nicholas Kristof highlights how religious thinking can cause people to care more about dogma than living human beings.

The National Women’s Law Center has just issued a report quoting doctors at Catholic-affiliated hospitals as saying that sometimes they are forced by church doctrine to provide substandard care to women with miscarriages or ectopic pregnancies in ways that can leave the women infertile or even endanger their lives.

Of course, stalwart apologist of the liberal religious Kristof champions his version of Jesus against those rule-sticklingly traditionalists.

The thought that keeps nagging at me is this: If you look at Bishop Olmsted and Sister Margaret as the protagonists in this battle, one of them truly seems to me to have emulated the life of Jesus. And it’s not the bishop, who has spent much of his adult life as a Vatican bureaucrat climbing the career ladder. It’s Sister Margaret, who like so many nuns has toiled for decades on behalf of the neediest and sickest among us.

I happen to agree with Kristof about the absurdity and callousness of the Church’s excommunication of a nun for saving a woman’s life, but how does he justify his judgement on religious grounds? Many sincere believers consider an embryo or a fetus to be an unborn human child equally deserving of moral compassion as a fully conscious adult. From their premises, they are being perfectly rational. Yet, Kristof summons the Nazarene in his court of moral opinion even though Jesus never told us what he thinks on this issue. However, there is certainly some biblical warrant to suppose God isn’t supportive of abortion. It’s not my burden to resolve this issue for either side. This thick haze just doesn’t obscure morally normal vision – there is no need to try to look through it. An unconscious blastocyst does not have the same moral weight as a breathing pregnant woman.

Sadly, it appears the Republican Party is lost in the fog and continues to exhibit more symptoms of moral vertigo with their push to redefine “the definition of rape and incest” in order to limit federal assistance for abortion.

For years, federal laws restricting the use of government funds to pay for abortions have included exemptions for pregnancies resulting from rape or incest. (Another exemption covers pregnancies that could endanger the life of the woman.) But the “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act,” a bill with 173 mostly Republican co-sponsors that House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has dubbed a top priority in the new Congress, contains a provision that would rewrite the rules to limit drastically the definition of rape and incest in these cases.

With this legislation, which was introduced last week by Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), Republicans propose that the rape exemption be limited to “forcible rape.”

The sooner we abandon the notion that religion has a purchase on morality the better.

(1st piece)

Graciously Responding to Non Sequiturs

January 31, 2011 Leave a comment

Sam Harris parries a lot of weak criticism of his book and answers his more serious challenges.

The purpose of The Moral Landscape is to argue that we can, in principle, think about moral truth in the context of science. Robinson and Horgan seem to imagine that the mere existence of the Nazi doctors counts against my thesis. Is it really so difficult to distinguish between a science of morality and the morality of science? To assert that moral truths exist, and can be scientifically understood, is not to say that all (or any) scientists currently understand these truths or that those who do will necessarily conform to them.


[C]onsider the concept of health: should we maximize global health? To my ear, this is a strange question. It invites a timorous reply like, “Provided we want everyone to be healthy, yes.” And introducing this note of contingency seems to nudge us from the charmed circle of scientific truth. But why must we frame the matter this way? A world in which global health is maximized would be an objective reality, quite distinct from a world in which we all die early and in agony. Yes, it is true that a person like Alice could seek to maximize her own health without caring about the health of other people — though her health will depend on the health of others in countless ways (the same, I would argue, is true of her well-being). Is shewrong to be selfish? Would we blame her for taking her own side in any zero-sum contest to secure medicine for herself or for her own children? Again, these aren’t the kinds of questions that will get us to bedrock. The truth is, Alice and the rest of us can live so as to allow for a maximally healthy world, or we can fail to do so. Yes, it is possible that a maximally healthy world is one in which Alice is less healthy than she might otherwise be (though this seems unlikely). So what? There is still an objective reality to which our beliefs about human health can correspond.

Goldstein and McArdle on Education

January 31, 2011 1 comment

Watch this bloggingheads video which discusses many of the major issues in education policy right now. Is anyone aware of any wonky consensus about any particular ed. policy the left and right largely agrees on that could be implemented? For economists, ending agricultural subsidies finds support on both ideological ends but continue because of politics – is there any parallel issue for education experts?

Categories: Educational Policy

Where to Read Good Egypt Coverage

January 29, 2011 3 comments

I’ve found The Daily Dish an essential hub for cataloguing coverage from all over the media.

Marc Lynch’s FP blog provides expert analysis.

Categories: Uncategorized Tags:

Distractions of Attentive Government

January 27, 2011 2 comments

Public safety is a proper role of government. I can empathize with those concerned with limiting the dangers of distracted driving even if I’m skeptical of the effectiveness of new laws to prohibit distractions such as cell phone use. But even if you agree that government should pursue such goals, today’s New York Times story on “distracted pedestrians” reminds us that sometimes we’d be better off with more inattentive legislators.

That is the theory of several lawmakers pushing the latest generation of legislation dealing with how devices like iPods and cellphones affect traffic safety. The ubiquity of interactive devices has propelled the science of distraction — and now efforts to legislate against it — out of the car and into the exercise routine.

In New York, a bill is pending in the legislature’s transportation committee that would ban the use of mobile phones, iPods or other electronic devices while crossing streets — runners and other exercisers included. Legislation pending in Oregon would restrict bicyclists from using mobile phones and music players, and a Virginia bill would keep such riders from using a “hand-held communication device.”

Politicians’ imagined need to solve every problem becomes pernicious when they don’t weigh the consequences of their own action. As much as I’m receptive to the libertarian critique of nanny-state government, the need for personal responsibility, and the state’s misallocated focus on trivial problems like exercisers’ music I think their emphasis is sometimes misplaced.

Governments shouldn’t not ban ipods because it’s runners own fault if they get hit by a car or because government inherently shouldn’t treat citizens like children but because the state needs to be sure their attempt to solve one problem won’t be replaced by other problems of indeterminate repercussion.

In this case, it is not even clear pedestrians distracted by technology is what is causing the uptick in fatalities. The increase is contained to just “the first six months of 2010” among a national drop going back years. News flash: people listening to music and talking on their phones while on a jog isn’t that novel.  So banning the activity might not only do very little to solve “the problem” but any minor benefit might result in less exercise, less efficiency, and less enjoyment. Can anyone in America really argue right now that our problem is too much excerise?

Feelings vs Expectations

January 24, 2011 2 comments

I’ve spent a good amount of time distinguishing between different types of uncertainty and how they affect or don’t affect our economy. (e.g. here, here, and here) On a simlar topic Matthew Yglesias gives us the quote of the day discussing businessmen’s feelings versus rational expectations for business:

The notion that economic growth depends crucially on the subjective feelings of the business executive class is one of the most pernicious ideas to take hold over the past 12 months. One should distinguish this hypothesis from the accurate point that rational expectations matter in the economy. Expectations do matter. But this is often confused with the idea that if the waiters at Davos are rude this year the economy will go into a recession, but if Obama gives a CEO a really sensual back rub growth will return.

Financial vs Mathematical Inequality

January 19, 2011 Leave a comment

Dan Ariely conducted John Rawls’ veil of ignorance study for wealth distribution and posted the results on his blog.


Unsurprisingly, Americans were wildly off the actual distribution and preferred a more equal distribution. If you read into the study it turns out most Americans favor the Swedish level of distribution.

This is all very fascinating and instructive, but I can’t help but worry that a study like this highlights another type of inequality… of math and logic skills. The respondents were asked to “indicate what percent of wealth they thought each of the quintiles ideally should hold, again starting with the top 20% and ending with the bottom 20%.” I seriously wonder if you explained that making the 2nd and 3rd quintile each hold 20% of the wealth meant that they would each be perfectly equal and have no disparity in wealth and making the top quintile hold only about 30% of the wealth meant that the “richest” wouldn’t be very rich in a relative sense. If you look at the graph that averages out everyone’s preference in the study it seems like Americans prefer that almost no differences in wealth exist at all. Do Americans understand that distributing wealth in the way they did doesn’t mean that wealth is progressively tiered down but means that everyone has almost the same wealth with the richest having slightly more and the poorest slightly less?

Unfortunately, I can’t find an actual poll asking specifically if rich people deserve their extra wealth, but I remember reading that many Americans feel that they do. [Source anyone?] Greg Mankiw’s latest paper certainly is representative of that view. Ariely is a great behavioral economist that regularly shows that people give answers by how the question is framed. There is no doubt that Americans would prefer less inequality – there is little doubt less inequality would be a good thing – but I’m left wondering more about the possible disparity in their understanding.

(h/t Zach)

Categories: Dan Ariely
%d bloggers like this: