Friday, January 27, 2006

Episode 116

Sacred Space: Lawmaker Proposes a Ban on Protests at Military Funerals

A lawmaker in Illinois is proposing a bill that would ban protests within 300 feet of funeral from funerals or memorial services. The bill is a response to the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka Kan. led by Fred Phelps. Phelps and his group contend that soldiers are dying in Iraq because God is punishing America for its acceptance of homosexuality. Their protests mostly involve holding up signs that say, "Thank God for dead soldiers" and at least one report of verbally engaging funeral attendees. (He's also sure the West Virginia mining accident has the Almighty's fingerprints on it for the same reason. WBC plans a protest soon).
Before I unpack some of the cool issues of ethics and free speech, allow me to exercise my freedom of expression: "Ahem . . . Fred Phelps, your teachings are destructive, irrational, deluded, and violate several important tenets of the historic Christian faith. Fred, God will not be pleased when you meet face to face." That felt good.
Now setting aside my libertarian concerns about hard cases making bad law, there seem to be a couple of good questions to consider here. The article mentions that the key to law will be whether the protest represents "content-based" or content neutral. If its content based--privileging one opinion over another--as it surely seems to be, then it is subject to strict scrutiny, meaning, it can be weighed against public safety and other concerns including profound offense (i.e. these are mourners; to protest in this way is profoundly offensive). So if the protesters are trying to privilege one opinion over another they are less protected than if they were merely reporting facts about something? I wonder if we can make a case for just the opposite. What's most important is the kind of speech that is content based. Nobody is too worried about content neutral speech if there is such a thing. (if ever there was a bad label for a concept, this is it.)
George Sher has argued in "Freedom of Expression in the Non-neutral State" that speech should be privileged over expressive action. Speech act theory aside, he thinks we can divide speech and action with enough percision to privilege speech over actions. If we can do that, could we draw a clear enough distinction between deliberative speech and purely expressive speech? Some philosophers have argued speech should be priviledged because it is closer to thought than action. (I think D. Jacobson makes this point concerning Mill.) Does that put deliberative speech-- the right to persuade others to think like you--closer to thought than expressive speech?
How would we define deliberative speech? Is it enough to say its speech that intends to argue a point with the goal being acceptance by the other party rather than merely expressing an opinion? Is there significant difference between statements like "Free Healthcare should be a right of all citizens." versus "Thank God for Dead Soldiers"? If so, could we argue that deliberative speech of an argumentative sort is more fundamentally altered by time, place, and manner restrictions than say expressive speech? Is it affected enough that we could make expressive speech subject to strict judicial scrutiny and privilege deliberative speech?
This would mean that deliberative speech would only be subject to a harm principle (ala Mill) where as expressive speech would be subject to an offense principle (ala Joel Feinberg). In which case, a ban on the Phelpian kind of protest would be vulnerable to consequential arguments--weighing concerns etc. After all, Phelps isn't really trying to convince funeral goers with statements like "Thank God for Dead Soldiers" He's trying to get his point on CNN. he trying to alter the perception in America. Legitimate as that is, he could do that lots of places other than in the faces of mourners. (I hear Larry King will interview just about anyone). One major objection to this argument would be that "deliberative speech" could include all sorts of manipulative, misleading, and incendiary speech. I mean does anyone consider most of what gets "soundbited" on the news from the president and congress consumate deliberative discourse?

Thursday, January 26, 2006

playing with predicates

The White house recently complained that the media had been calling the NSA spying campaign "domestic spying." It released this document explaining the proper usage of the words domestic and international:

Their standard:

Domestic Calls are calls inside the United States.
International Calls are calls either to or from the United States.

Domestic Flights are flights from one American city to another.
International Flights are flights to or from the United States.

Domestic Mail consists of letters and packages sent within the United States. International Mail consists of letters and packages sent to or from the United States.

Domestic Commerce involves business within the United States.
International Commerce involves business between the United States and other countries.

What I have not seen anyone point out yet is the asymmetry in predicate usage. In a domestic call the caller is contacting someone who is in the US. In a domestic flight, the flyer is flying somewhere in the US. Therefore, domestic spying should not be defined by what the "spyed upon" is doing, but what the "spyer" is doing. Domestic spying would be when the spyer is spying on someone in the united states. The government's point is that only one of the two parties is in the US, the other party has to be outside. But there are three parties! The application of "domestic" in their examples applies to the activity of the primary actor in relation to the location of another actor. Caller to callee, flyer to destination, spyer to spyee. I think, then, that they would have to admit (If they're interested in being consistent) that they are practicing domestic spying and international spying. They cannot in any honest way deny that that they are carrying out domestic spying. Certainly not given their own examples of how domestic should be used.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

True story

Man held for vandalizing Duchamp's "fountain" for performance art

I love it. I actually like Duchamp's fountain, but since there are seven of them (or something like that), I don't mind one or two being destroyed for the sake of ironic performance art. Although, I think he had the right idea last time by just urinating on it.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Brilliant blonde joke

This one is rich in philosophical significance: Alex Gregory looks to have found the best blonde joke ever.

Episode 115

Ethics and Statistical Analysis

This post is partially inspired by Jonathan Miles' comments regarding the last Moose and Dude comic. However, I felt that it was too off-topic to continue in that thread and I hope it will warrant discussion on its own here.

Jonathan mentioned, and Arthur continued to discuss, the fact that certain aspects of Jonathan's argument hinge on empirical data. In particular, in order to measure the force of Jonathan's argument, one would, minimally, need to determine what, if any, connection exists between beastiality and the "slippery slope" of harm. This brought to mind a particular concern of mine in ethics. Presumably, one probable avenue for attempting to determine whether any such connection exists would be the use of statistical analysis. For example, one might attempt to discover a significant correlation between people who engage in beastiality and people who engage in particular harmful behaviours.* This, it seems, is a fairly popular way of doing things. For example, I'm sure many of us have seen the commercials that tell us that if we eat dinner with our children, they are less likely to drink or do drugs. Presumably, this statment is based on some statistics about families eating dinner together and underaged drinking and drug-use.

I have always found such statements extremely troubling, mostly because it seems to me that saying "There is a statistically significant correlation between X and Y" is NOT justification for saying "X makes Y more likely." Largely, this is because there are other factors that might be involved. In the case above, for instance, it has always seemed likely to me that a correlation in that case indicates, not that eating dinner with one's children will keep them out of trouble, but that many parents who are able to keep their children out of trouble through good parenting also eat dinner with them. Thus, if you are a terrible parent, you should not conclude (as the commercial seems to indicate) that if you start eating dinner with your child every night they will begin behaving well.

It seems to me that such cases are particularly problematic in the sort of psychological/ethical cases we are discussing here. If we were to discover a correlation between beastiality and harmful acts, would this really indicate that beastiality leads to such things? It seems to me just ask likely that the stigmatization of beastiality in our culture might make it such that only those who are otherwise troubled psychologically would engage in the activity. (Please note that these are just possibilities, I am not asserting any of this to be the case.) If this were, indeed, the case, then one might find that were beastiality not stigmatized, such a correlation would no longer exist.

Anyway, I think I've said enough here, and I'm quite interested to hear what others think about this issue. In particular, aside from comments about my reasoning, I am curious what alternatives others might offer for discovering the answers to empirical questions such as those raised by Jonathan's argument, assuming they share my worries about statistics.

PLEASE understand that I know little to nothing about statistical analysis, and it may very well be the case that I missed something, or (perhaps the more likely case) that this is an issue that has been discussed and dealt with many times and it just happens to be that anti-drug groups don't bother to worry too much about truth in advertising.

*I say "particular" because showing that someone has sex with sheep and is mean to their brother--or engages in any number of other harmful activities--probably wouldn't tell us much, as many people who are mean to their brothers don't have sex with sheep. I have in mind here specific types of harms, most likely serious crimes, that could be shown to have a particular connection with beastiality.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Psychiatric Association To Classify Libertarianism As Sociopathy

January 17, 2006, Washington D.C. - Anonymous sources within the American Psychiatric Association claim that the upcoming fifth edition of the influential Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM-V, will classify libertarianism as a form of sociopathy. A.P.A. spokesperson, Dr. M. Sori Tymesup, told reporters last night that it was A.P.A. policy not to comment upon internal publications prior to their release and suggested that those seeking a more immediate response should “go cry to their mommies.” In a press release issued this morning, the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank based in Washington D.C., or as they refer to it, "Gov'mnt Sucks City," said they were deeply concerned about the A.P.A. reports and advised fellow libertarians to pray to the free market for strength.

In response to repeated requests for a response, White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan responded that the administration was monitoring the situation, adding, "Look, we're never ones to lose sleep about giving people the shaft, but even we have our limits, the ice water in our veins has a freezing point - that's what makes us Compassionate Conservatives. These libertarians must spike their free-trade coffee with liquid nitrogen – they don’t care what the F.D.A. says.”

On the house floor this afternoon, Congressman Bernie Sanders (I-VT) praised the A.P.A. for "their courageous action" and introduced a bill to create seventeen cabinet-level positions to oversee a Federal Bureau of Asymmetrical Government Compassion for Wayward Libertarians Agency Department. "The F.B.A.G.C.W.L.A.D. will be instrumental in forming a commission to study the policy implications of recommending the creation of a congressional oversight sub-committee to monitor the F.B.A.G.C.W.L.A.D.’s Office of Agency Efficiency and Toilet Paper Roll Request Form Processing."

Unconfirmed reports report that across the country, libertarian-activists have been immolating themselves outside local Food Stamp offices. This afternoon, a caped crusader, referring to himself as Freedom Man, was seen outside Federal Election Commission headquarters paying passersby to sign petitions entitled "Freedom for Everyone: Property Uber Alles." Peter Jaworski could not be reached for comment.
Mark H. Herman