Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Sleep Deprivation & More

I suffer from insomnia and have all my life.  So, I know something about sleep deprivation, personally, although it has never been used as an interrogation technique on me.  Sleep deprivation can cause massive weight loss or gain. It prevents the body from metabolizing glucose efficiently so that people who regularly suffer sleep deprivation are more subject to adult onset diabetes–as are those who work graveyard shifts.  As an interrogation technique, its results are mixed. People will say anything to be allowed to sleep, but the information given is often unreliable.  Former Israeli PM Menachim Begin described his interrogation by the Soviet KGB in his younger days and said that the sleep deprivation hurt him worse than deprivation of food and water.

Prolonged sleep deprivation often leads to hallucinations, headaches, anger, and the slowing of higher brain functions. (Yes, gentle readers, some of my least charitable responses to my critics on this site came at times when I was sleep deprived–not that this is a valid excuse for my sometimes unsanctified behavior.  My apologies.) 

The U.S. under Bush misused a scientific study showing no permanent harm in sleep deprivation, IF NO OTHER STRESSORS ARE PRESENT. But, as the author of that study, horrified that it had been so misused, told Congress, if you add stress, such as being detained, threatened, interrogated, then sleep deprivation causes far worse harm.

Does sleep deprivation count as torture?  Depending on how long it is used and in combination with what other techniques, it sometimes is.  But even if it is not technically torture, or is on the borderline, it clearly falls under the category of “cruel, unusual, inhumane, and degrading treatment” which is also forbidden by the same anti-torture laws.

And sleep deprivation was the mildest of the techniques described in the released torture memos.  Other tecniques included slapping (at least humiliating, and more so in certain cultures where a slap is worse than a punch; if delivered with enough force it is cruel); using a cloth around the neck to slam a head into the wall (!!); stress positions, prolonged nudity in extreme temperatures (both physical and psychological torture); small closed boxes (I  have claustrophobia, that would be horrifying!), sometimes with insects or other things of which the prisoner is afraid (specifically authorized by now-judge Bybee); people being given Qu’rans that they have been told have been soiled by urine, feces, or menses; men being smeared with a red liquid they are told is menstrual blood (psychological torture in cultures in which such is considered ritually unclean); the use of dogs to frighten detainees; etc.

Go ahead. Defend ANY of this as within U.S. or international law.  Defend any of it as moral. Anyone who claims this is moral is a sadist.

And these “interrogation methods” were authorized by people who had sworn to uphold the U.S. Constitution–National Security Advisor and later Secretary of State Condaleeza Rice; Attorneys General Ashcroft and Gonzales; Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld; White House lawyer John Yoo; Bybee of the Office of Legal Council (now a judge in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals); CIA Directors Porter Goss and George Tenet (the latter given the Medal of Freedom by Bush); Armed Services General Counsel Haynes; Vice President Richard B. Cheney; President George W. Bush.  All of them need to be investigated and prosecuted for these war crimes.

We now see why Bush wanted a special form of “military tribunal” for show trials or indefinite detention without trials.  Because, not only were many of the detainees not terrorists at all (even Bush released many picked up by mistake), but because the use of these methods would lead any civilian U.S. court, or any normal military court, to throw the case out and release the detainee/prisoner simply on the basis of the treatment. It wouldn’t matter how conservative the judge was.

There were voices of dissent within the Bush admin.:  Senior officers from ALL FOUR branches of the military protested, citing appropriate U.S. and international law; FBI Director Robert Muller forbade anyone in the FBI to have anything to do with this or to be present for any CIA interrogations–even when his job was threatened by George W. Bush. (The FBI has come a long way from the bad old days under J. Edgar Hoover.  The CIA needs just as thorough a housecleaning by new Director Leon Panetta.)

These practices are evil and defending these practices shows a degraded soul, a loss of moral coherence of the order of someone defending rape or child abuse.  If we are not outraged, we are not paying attention.


April 27, 2009 Posted by | human rights., torture | Comments Off on Sleep Deprivation & More

Waterboarding as Torture in U.S. Law

The former Bush/Cheney administration and its apologists in the media continue to claim that it is an open question as to whether “waterboarding” (immobilizing a person, pouring water over his/her face and breathing passages, suffocating him/her and leading him/her to believe he/she will die) is torture and forbidden in U.S. law.  The question is ridiculous.

  • Waterboarding (as it is now called) is one of the oldest known forms of torture. In the 1500s it was used in the Spanish Inquisition.
  • In 1898, an American soldier (Captain Edwin F. Glenn)  used the technique (then called the “water cure”) on a prisoner captured in the Philippines during the Spanish-American War.  When reported, Americans were shocked and protests led to Elihu Root, U.S. Secretary of War (now called Secretary of Defense) ordered Glenn court-martialed in 1902 and imprisoned.  A general under whose command this and other tortures occurred was court-martialed and removed from the army.
  • During WWII, both the Gestapo and some Japanese soldiers used waterboarding as a form of torture.  The Japanese were tried after the war and at least one hung by U.S. forces for waterboarding U.S. Airman Chase J. Nielsen.
  • Waterboarding was declared illegal by U.S. generals during the Vietnam War.  When a journalist photgraphed an American soldier helping two South Vietnamese soldiers waterboard a captured North Vietnames soldier, and published in the Washington Post in 1968, it caused outrage across the United States.  The soldier was court-martialed and dishonorably discharged from the U.S. army.
  • In 1983, Texas sheriff James Parker was sentenced to ten years in prison and his deputies to four years apiece for waterboarding prisoners.  When his case came up for clemency years later, then Gov. George W. Bush refused to pardon Sheriff Parker, specifically stating that no one is above the law.

In 1988, U.S. President Ronald Reagan signed the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment, or Punishment of 1984.  It was ratified by the U.S. Senate in 1994.  Since the U.S. Constitution classifies all treaties that the U.S. signs and ratifies as sharing the Constitution’s status as “highest law of the land,” then the U.S. must follow the Convention Against Torture’s provisions, including those which demand prosecution of those who authorize and those who implement torture.  It also forbids the U.S. to ship people to other countries that practice torture (“rendition”) and the Bush administration was guilty of that, also.

The reluctance of the Obama administration to try those responsible is rooted in several factors:

  • Such trials would be highly controversial.  The Washington Post published a poll today showing that Americans are about evenly divided over whether or not to have such trials.  Although law enforcement is not decided by popularity, the Obama administration has to  pass many pieces of legislation that will take all the public support he can muster.
  • The Republicans have already hinted that if the Obama administration tries anyone in the Bush administration, they will consider it “engaging in criminalizing policy differences” and they will investigate Democratic administrations when they get back in power.

But the consequences of refusing to try these cases could be even worse:

  • Members of the Bush administration could be indicted by the International Criminal Court or by the courts of other nations under the “global jurisdiction” where human rights violations are concerned.  This would put the Obama administration in the awkward position of either arresting and extraditing former Bush officials, including, maybe the former president himself or of defying international law.  If nothing else came of that, it would, at the very least, impede Obama’s attempts to rebuild America’s alliances abroad.  It also undermines his attempts to re-set our relations with the Muslim world.
  • Failing to prosecute violaters of human rights, no matter how highly placed, invites human rights abuses on Americans traveling abroad, whether civilian or military.
  • If members of the Bush administration travel abroad, they could be arrested and prosecuted by others with potential for a huge international incident.
  • Failure to prosecute violaters of human rights in the Bush administration makes it likely that a future administration will repeat these practices.  In fact, by calling them “policy differences” GOP torture apologists are already hinting that they will restart torture when their party wins the White House, again.  And their horror at the release of the torture memos as “exposing to our enemies the limits of American practices” seem to indicate they will try other practices in their place (electric shock to  the genitals?  bamboo shoots under fingernails? ).

Not too long ago (before 11 Sept. 2001), this was not controversial.  No one argued for the U.S. using torturing. Nor did anyone argue that “enhanced interrogation techniques” were not really torture.  This was not a liberal vs. conservative, left vs. right, or Democratic vs. Republican issue.  So, the current debate means that America has lost its way morally.  To that extent, the use of these torture techniques by the Bush administration and the fact that Americans find the use of torture or prosecution of torturers controversial, means that the terrorists have won–at least in part. Trying torturers, no matter who they are, is necessary for us to regain some degree of moral clarity.

April 26, 2009 Posted by | human rights., torture | 7 Comments

Now Perry WANTS Federal “Intrusion?”

I can’t resist pointing out this utter hypocrisy.  Gov. Rick Perry (R-TX) has stirred up a neo-secessionist movement among far right Republicans in his state and elsewhere because he thinks federal laws are “intrusive.” (Yeah, and your segregationist Southern governor predecessors thought the federal civil rights laws were “intrusive” too. We’ve been here too many times before.) BUT, now that he’s facing swine flu outbreaks from Mexico, Perry is asking for help: specifically anti-virals from the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta.  Um, Gov. The CDC is a FEDERAL agency.  Don’t you think such aid would be “intrusive?”

I’m sorry, but we can’t just want to be part of a nation when it suits us.  We can, of course, dissent from national policies we believe to be wrong. We can be vocal in our dissent from those policies. I was vocal in my disagreement with invading Afghanistan and Iraq, with the torture,  the spying on citizens without warrant, the suspension of habeas corpus, etc.  I remain a vocal dissenter of Obama’s refusal to try torturers, his Afghanistan policy, his continuing of Bush’s blurring of lines between church and state, etc.

Dissent is a vital function of liberty of conscience and is a fundamental right and necessity of a free society.  Long may it be practiced by conservatives, liberals, etc. in EVERY state.  But dissent is not flirting with secession.

One cannot decide to be American for the things one likes and secessionist Texan (or Alaskan, etc.) for the things one doesn’t like.  If you want the aid that comes from the CDC  (or hurricane relief, etc.), then you take the responsibilities, too. 

If the federal government under Obama were REALLY the tyranny that Perry and his teabagging band of fellow nutcases think it is, it would demand that the TX legislature rescind its “sovereignty” declaration and impeach Perry before it gave any help with swine flu.  But, guess what, Gov.? That won’t happen. The CDC help will be there.  And no one will even mention your seditious language or wait for you to be grateful.  Why? Because we ARE one nation and those are OUR citizens who are threatened, not just Texas residents.  We’ll be helping out KS, and OK, and CA and anywhere else that this shows up, too.  Plus, we’ll probably give aid to Mexico where this began to help them and us.  And it won’t surprise me if Mexico thanks us before Gov. Perry does.

We AMERICANS through our government will give the aid to our fellow citizens (and to our neighbors, the Mexicans). And when we are done, Gov. Perry will probably go back to planning to attend a 4th of July tea party where he runs down his country, again.  But I hope everyone in this nation sees this blatant hypocrisy for what it is.

Gov. Rick Perry (R-TX), LOSER OF THE WEEK!

UPDATE: Guess what, Gov. Perry? Guess what, Americans?  Today, the U.S. government, that “intrusive, oppressive” federal government, declared a public health emergency because of the swine flu pandemic outbreak. But the Centers for Disease Control would have had more money available to help than it will, now.  Why? Because REPUBLICANS stripped $900 million in pandemic disease preparedness from the stimulus/recovery package! Yep! Just as the Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-LA) mocking of “something called volcano monitoring” meant that Alaska was less prepared for the eruption that is harming its citizens still, so the GOP objection to this “pork” means that the nation is less prepared for fighting the swine flu than we would otherwise be.  Nice.

It was Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), one of only 3 Republicans to vote for the stimulus/recovery package, who insisted on stripping this from the bill.  She argued, correctly, that this money does not directly stimulate economic recovery.  However, the reason House Democrats originally included it should be obvious:  A pandemic during an economic downturn would be more devastating than in a healthy economy.  A pandemic can lead to workers being ordered to remain in their homes to avoid spreading the disease. It can lead to the shuttering of workplaces or transportation in order to slow or stop the spread and, of course, it can lead to massive public health intervention.  So, RESPONSIBLE planning in a recession would allocate funds for a pandemic to prevent further slowing of the economy.  Now, of course, we don’t have that.  By the way, Sen. Collins brags about having stripped the stimulus bill of that money on her website! 

  And Gov. Goodhair, secession-loving Perry? You can thank Sen. Collins if the CDC is not able to intrude as effectively in TX during this emergency.  FORTUNATELY,  most of that pandemic preparation money was passed in March as part of the Omnibus funding (leftover from last year because the GOP wouldn’t allow a real budget to be passed last year) that passed the senate on voice vote.  So, we’re not quite as screwed as we would be otherwise, but I am tired of Republicans playing with people’s LIVES for political points: from levees, to bridges, to volcanoes, to pandemics–preparation for disaster is VITAL.  And think LONG AND HARD, Goodhair, over how much harder your job would be if you were not TX governor, but President of the Republic of Texas.  Then you’d have to beg for the good ol’ USA to give you foreign aid to help with this flu.

GET IT THROUGH YOUR THICK SKULLS: We need government to do things, to be a stable civilization.  For government to work, it needs money.  That means taxes. You don’t get something for nothing.  FORTUNATELY, that flu pandemic money was included in the budget–but only in the House version. So, it has to survive the reconciliation process. And that’s the 2010 budget!

April 26, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Styles of Moral Reasoning/Modes of Moral Discourse

With this post, we come to the final dimension of the 4-dimensions of moral discernment, according to Glen Stassen, Christian ethicist and my mentor.  Although this series has not proved popular (based on the few comments), I will nevertheless index it and place it on the Popular Series page for easy reference for future readers. That’s because of the importance I attach to this topic. I will undoubtedly refer to this series in future discussions of ethical issues.

The top right box in the 4-dimensional chart  denotes one’s “style of moral reasoning” or “mode of moral discourse.” I saved this dimension for last precisely because in far too many textbooks on moral philosophy (ethics) ALL the discussion is here and the other dimensions of moral discernment are neglected–as if people were disembodied reasoners.

Generally speaking, moral reasoning takes one of two BROAD forms:  deontologicalforms of moral reasoning focus on whether a particular moral action is intrinsically “right” or “wrong” and usually right and wrong are deontological categories.  The most famous Western philosophical version of this is German Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804).  Kant argued that actions were either right or wrong regardless of consequences.  He argued that one could deduce unbreakable moral rules from a universal categorical imperative. (However, Kant formulated the categorical imperative in two very different fashions. He thought they were just two different versions of the same thing, but not all have agreed. Some have affirmed one version without affirming the other.)  1. To be moral, an action must be universalizable, i.e., one must be willing that everyone should do it.  Examples: One can affirm that everyone should tell the truth, but one cannot affirm that everyone should lie, ergo lies are always immoral and special pleading for one’s own self is wrong.  2. An action is moral if it never treats persons merely as means to an end, but always treats persons as ends in themselves.  A Kantian would say that torture is wrong, no matter any ticking time bomb scenarios, because it treats the one tortured as a mere means to an end. A Kantian who also believed that fetuses were persons from conception onward (once again, we see how the different dimensions intersect–here the basic convictions dimension influences the style of moral reasoning) would argue against abortion in all circumstances because such a Kantian would see all abortions as treating unborn persons as means to an end. (On the other hand, a Kantian who did not share that metaphysical view of fetal life, may come to a very different conclusion.)

Almost all forms of arguments for universal human rights are deontological to some degree or another. These often grow out of the natural rights tradition with its roots in Medieval nominalist philosophy and going through the -Leveller Richard Overton (c. 1599-1644) to the later John Locke(1634-1704). In a different fashion, the French philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) is also rooted in a natural rights form of deontology.

In theology, Divine Command approaches to ethics tend also to be deontological in approach. Something is moral because God commands it. Something is immoral because God forbids it. Period.  (This takes varied shape from Calvin to Barth.)  Natural law approaches tend also to take deontological shape. 

By contrast, teleogical approaches to ethics look to goals or outcomes.  The most famous modern version of teleological ethics is utilitarianism.  An action is Good (“good” and “bad” are teological terms as “right “and “wrong” are deontological terms) if it leads to the most happiness for the most people with the least unhappiness for the least people.  Utiltarianism is associated with the British lawyer Jeremy Bentham(1748-1832) and his disciple, the civil  libertarian John Stuart Mill(1806-1873).    More recent famous utilitarians include Australia’s Peter Singer (now at Princeton University)  and the pioneer of modern medical ethics, Joseph Fletcher(1905-1991).

Because American society is highly pragmatist (focusing on “what works”), there is much utilitarian thinking in American public moral reasoning–e.g., the arguments between those who claim that torture is ineffective as an information gathering tool (e.g., most American military commanders and FBI interrogators) and those who claim (e.g., Dick Cheney) that torture is effective in interrogation and therefore justified in saving lives by foiling furture terrorist plots.

(This is  a good place to point out that few people are consistent in their style of moral reasoning?  I often notice conservatives denounce utilitarian reasoning when it comes to stem cell research, but embrace it when it comes to torture.  Many liberals are mirror images–embracing stem cell research despite the destruction of embryonic life because of the potential good, while denouncing torture no matter if it is effective or not.  There may be consistent ways to consider both ends and means, but most people simply are not being consistent in their mode of moral discourse.)

A very different form of teleological ethics focuses not on the end or goal of an action (in terms of consequences), but of the end or goal of a person or community.  This kind of teleology asks about the purpose and goal of the moral life. The ways to that end are found in the practices and habits that form the person or community in certain virtues, i.e., moral qualities of excellence such as honesty, courage, wisdom, peaceableness, kindness, etc.  Almost all religions take some thought to the virtues, to moral character formation.  In Paul’ s Epistles, they are listed as “fruit of the Spirit.” (Paul also has vice lists–immoral qualities he wants churches and their members to avoid).  We similar concerns in Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, etc.

Note: This does not mean that all religions teach the same thing morally.  The shape of the virtues is narrative dependent, i.e., dependent on the shape of the story being lived out. (We are back to basic convictions, again.) Do different moral and religious systems mean the same thing by particular virtues given the same name?  It’s a difficult question that is highly contested in current philosophical, theological, and interfaith discussions.  Example of a major difference:  The ancient Romans greatly valued the virtue of courage–but courage was usually seen in terms of ARMED RESISTANCE TO AGGRESSION.  Thus, the nonviolence of the early Christians was often viewed as cowardice.  We see similar differences today in the debate over whether talking with enemies (which Jesus commanded) is a sign of weakness or strength in foreign policy.  However, I am among those who claim that this need not mean that no communication can happen between moral systems:  some Roman soldiers recognized the courage of the Christian martyrs–and it sometimes led to conversions.

Another critical variable in this dimension of moral discernment is the level on which one is discussing. I don’t mean intellectual level, but level of concreteness.  Situationists believe every moral act must be judged separately, usually with guidance from only a very broad rule of thumb, such as “love” or “compassion.”  Legalists focus on the level of moral rules.  If they are Christians, they tend to see the Bible as primarily a rulebook.   Principlists do not neglect moral rules, but when moral rules conflict, they reach back to the broader principles behind the rules.  E.g,, behind the rule “thou shalt not kill,” one might find the principle “Respect for human life.”    Still broader are those who function at the paradigmatic level, or the level of basic convictions.  Behind the principle, “respect for human life,” for instance, might be the basic conviction that all humans are created in the image of God and/or that all humans are persons for whom Christ died.  This is a narrative or ground of meaning level, again.

Often in moral discourse persons talk past one another because they use different levels of moral reasoning.  One is speaking in terms of rules, while another is speaking in terms of principles, and a third is outlining a broad theological or philosophical narrative paradigm.

I should note that these descriptions are fairly male-dominant.  Feminist theologians and philosophers (as well as female psychologists like Carol Gilligan) have noted that women’s moral reasoning is somewhat different–though whether this is cultural or genetic or what is a huge debate that I am NOT qualifed to answer.  Basically, women tend to be more relational in moral thought.  If posed a moral dilemma, men will often weigh conflicting moral principles “like math problems with human variables.” Women do not.  They seek win-win solutions rather than either-or answers to dilemmas.  They tend to reason morally in ways that keep families and communities together.  The moral world is a world of relationships, a web.  Few ethics texts, whether philosophical or theological, written by men, have yet to attempt a deep integration of feminist perspectives.

With this we have examined the critical variables in the 4 dimensions of moral discernment or judgment.  I want to emphasize again that EACH dimension influence every other dimension.  Further,  “history is the laboratory of ideas” and our encounters with the realities/outcomes of particular moral judgements acts as a “feedback loop” to influence every variable of all the dimensions–whether to reinforce previous conclusions or to challenge and modify them.  Hopefully, people and communities seek to grow as moral agents–to learn from mistakes, errors, sins.  The biblical name for such a “feedback loop” is “repentance.” 🙂

April 26, 2009 Posted by | convictions, ethics, moral discernment | 4 Comments

Torture Visuals































April 25, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | Comments Off on Torture Visuals

Perception and Moral Discernment

We have been discussing the dimensions of moral discernment, using the 4-dimensional diagnostic tool designed by Christian ethicists Glen Stassen.  Moving clockwise from the lower right, we have discussed the way basic convictions (or “ground of meaning beliefs”) shape our moral judgments and then the way our varied loyalties, interests, and passions also shape our moral discernment.  We now come to the upper left-hand box in our 4-dimensional diagram, the dimension of Perception, that is, how we see our moral environment, and the moral “issues” or decisions or problems or judgments that we encounter.  This dimension of perception is another part of ancient ethics  that was lost for awhile with Western ethics concentration on disembodied moral reasoning, but is being rediscovered in both moral philosophy (philosophical ethics) and moral theology (theological ethics).  See, e.g., Stanley Hauerwas, Vision and Virtue (1981); Judith A. Dwyer, Vision and Values:  Ethical Viewpoints in the Catholic Tradition (1999); David McNaughton, Moral Vision:  An Introduction to Ethics (1991); Duane L. Cady, Moral Vision:  How Everyday Life Shapes Ethical Thinking (2005).

Once again, Stassen identifies several critical variables that shape our moral perception.  One is authority.  There are authorities in every life.  In logic  arguments from authority are considered weak arguments.  But no one can master every field of information. We all take some things “on authority.”  If we identify the locus of authority for persons (religious leaders, government officials, parents, teachers, respected elders, etc.) we know a key factor in how people perceive the moral world around them.  But in addition to the locus of moral authority(ies), we also need  to pay attention to the nature and degree of a particular authority, asking “What kind of authority is it?” and “How much authority does it have?” My own commitments in politics are to rest authority with the people through elected representatives with lots of checks and balances, critical inquiries by a vigilant free press and answerable directly to the people. (Yes, this is an ideal rather than current reality. One works to make reality closer to the ideal.)  In religion, my Free Church commitments are similarly to non-heirarchical authorities, answerable to the gathered community and the whole people of God.  For Christians, Scripture is also an authority: For Eastern Orthodox Christians, Scripture is embedded in the liturgies and writings of the early Church Fathers.  For Roman Catholics, Scripture and Church Tradition form parallel strands of equal authority mediated by the Magisterium and the unique institution of the Pope who, when certain conditions are met, is believed to give infallible doctrinal and moral teaching. (There is a whole discussion of ordinary and extraordinary papal tradition that goes well beyond our purposes here.  See what you learn when you’re a Protestant who gets the chance to teach at Catholic universities?)  For Protestants, Scripture alone is to be the final authority in matters of faith and practice, but there is wide divergence in approach to interpretation.

For persons of other faiths or persons who have no religious faith (atheists, agnostics, etc.) there are also moral authorities.  Identifying their locus, nature, and degree is just as critical in understanding their moral perception.

Another critical variable in moral discernment is identifying the moral or existential threat, including both its nature and degree.  For example, in discussing stem cell research through the destruction of human embryos, some find the threat to be to the sacredness of human life while others see the threat in terms of the genetic diseases that could be cured if such research is allowed. (Notice how we are back with different convictions about the nature of human beings. Each dimension of moral discernment influences the others. This cannot be emphasized too much.)

In the debate over torture (and I have to write a post showing why even having a debate over torture is already a sign of moral confusion and decay that didn’t exist even in America even a few years ago) some see the threat of terrorism as justifying torture.  Others, such as myself, see torture as a threat to both the dignity and well-being of the tortured, to the torturer, and to the moral fabric of the society which allows it.

Another critical variable is social change.  Is any social change acceptable?  If it is, what speed or rate of change is acceptable? What allies are acceptable in working for change?  What method or methods are acceptable? 

During the civil rights era, the influential Christian ethicist Paul Ramsey was conflicted, not because he was racist (far from it), but because he had a strong sense of order. Ramsey supported the work of the NAACP which tended to work for change through the courts.  The nonviolent movement led by such organizations as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee struck Ramsey as “chaos in the streets.” The threat of such rapid and “undisciplined” social change was greater for Ramsey than the threat of segregation or the slower disappearance of segregation.

The final variable in the perception dimension is the integrity of information.  Is the moral agent (or community) open to new information or not? Does the agent manipulate information to fit a predetermined answer or does the agent allow new information to lead to new perspectives?  How does the agent handle information which contradicts previously held views?  This is not to say that one surrenders convictions easily (that’s what makes them convictions, rather than opinions), but one wants to make discernment based on accurate information, not innacurate or manipulated information.

April 25, 2009 Posted by | convictions, ethics, moral discernment | 1 Comment

Take Action Against Torture

In just the last few days (much faster than I expected), the debate in the U.S. has shifted from “whether” to investigate torture to “what form will the investigation take.”  Congress will probably hold hearings.  Some still want an independent commission.  But the drumbeat for the Dept. of Justice to appoint a special prosecutor for actual trials is growing louder–and nothing either the Republican torture defenders or the Obama administration’s “turn-the-page-we-have-too-much-to-accomplish-to-take-on-something-this-politically-divisive” wafflers can do is going to stop this train.  Thank God. I may have my country back after all.

You see, during the Bush years, what disturbed me most (leading to the only time I ever seriously considered abandoning my citizenship and emigrating elsewhere in Dec. ’04 and Jan. ’05) was not that a criminal cabal had taken over the White House.  That’s happened before and to many other countries that are wonderful places.  No, what freaked me out and depressed me deeply was that so many Americans went along with it.  Sure,  I get it:  From 9/11 onward there was an atmosphere of continual fear created by propaganda (everything from WH press briefings and color-coded terror alerts to Fox News–and CNN–to fictional “terror porn” TV dramas like 24 and The Unit). And the domestic spying and the official word that the president could disappear anyone, anytime, forever, just by declaring them an “enemy combatant” with no review didn’t exactly encourage speaking out.  Nonetheless, the low-level of resistance by average Americans was what demoralized me.

But now we seem to have reached a tipping point.  The Obama campaign released more in Americans than maybe it intended.  The candidate asked us to hope rather than fear and we did.  But something that the Right never seemed to grasp was that we were NOT sheep and not star struck.  The candidate asked us repeatedly, in good community organizing fashion,  to believe not just in HIS ability to change Washington for the better, but in OUR ability  to do so. So, just because Pres. Obama (or part of him) would rather not prosecute anyone doesn’t mean that his supporters, or average Americans, feel the same.

At the end of his 1st 100 Days, the president is hugely popular–more so than Bill Clinton or George W. Bush at this same period.  His policies are supported strongly by both Democrats and Independents.  The public wants MORE, not Less cooperation from Republicans in Congress and from Governors.  (Full numbers are here.) But the president’s popularity, and the popularity of most of his programs, is not translating into support for a free pass for torturers.  Even some Fox News anchors are breaking ranks and denouncing torture!  (Anyone taking bets on how long before Fox News’s Roger Ailes fires Shep Smith?  Will Chris Wallace be next?) This all comes as the most recent discoveries show: 

  • Torture techniques were approved not only by Cheney but by Condi Rice when she was Nat. Sec. Advisor.
  • The Bush admin. began looking to create the torture program before we went to Afghanistan, i.e., before we even had anyone to torture. In Dec. 2001, they called on the generals in charge of SERE, the program that teaches our military how to resist torture, and had them “reverse engineer” it for interrogations.
  • The initial torturing of “high value” detainees like Kahlid Sheik Mohammed (waterboarded 186 times in 1 month= 6x per day) and Zubayda (83 times in one month) was not to obtain intelligence about future attacks, but to try to obtain confessions, even false ones, of operational links between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein–to justify the upcoming Iraq invasion!
  • The first female soldier to die in Iraq committed suicide after refusing to participate in torture.
  • The FBI, which initially wanted to be part of all interrogations because it has the proper skills, walked out of CIA interrogations and quickly issued orders that no FBI agent was to participate. Then-FBI Director Robert Muller said, “This will end badly.” Bush threatened to fire him and he said, “Go ahead.”
  • There were administration lawyers who argued AGAINST the “torture is okay and we can call it something else line” and they were silenced and attempts were made to destroy all copies of their legal memos.
  • Rumsfeld lied about Abu Ghraib being a “few bad apples.” It was a result of a deliberate torture interrogation regime brought over from Gitmo and authorized directly by then-Sec. of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

  The more these things come to light, the more the public will demand trials.  Attempts to shield CIA agents or Bush administration figures will be viewed with the anger the public had for Pres. Gerald Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon in order to “heal the nation.”  It is not revenge or retribution, but a reaffirmation of human rights and the rule of law.

Because of that, I reprint actions you may take to keep the pressure building. (It will probably start with the disbarment of attorneys like John Yoo and the impeachment of Judge Bybee.  It won’t end there.  Expect trials to go on for years.  This clean up will take awhile.)

The National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT) lists several actions which U.S. citizens who are people of faith can take against torture:

  • NRCAT’s own Liliana Segura wrote an article summarizing the worst of the just released Bush torture memos.  NRCAT wants you to copy that article and distribute it at your church, synagogue, mosque, etc. this weekend.
  • Send a letter to the editor of your local paper (while we still have newspapers in this economy!).  They give a model here.
  • Print copies here of NRCAT’s petition for a bi-partisan “Commission of Inquiry” into these matters which will thoroughly expose the matter and send criminal recommendations to the Attorney General.

Faithful America asks that you write letters to local papers urging your local newspapers to write editorials demanding both a Commission of Inquiry and an independent special prosecutor against the authors of the torture memos.

Democrats.com urges you to write Congress and demand NO AMNESTY for torturers and those who authorized the torture.

I have some other suggestions: 

  • Contact the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and demand that CIA Director Leon Panetta FIRE all agents involved in the torture. (As many as he knows. He wasn’t CIA Director under Bush!) They need to be AT LEAST purged and their names sent to the Dept. of Justice for possible legal action and they need to be (forgive the term) “blacklisted” against hire by any other intelligence agency.  Even if Panetta fails to get all the culprits, this action will send a warning to CIA operatives that they cannot take such torture measures, even if authorized by a particular administration to do so.
  • Also urge Director Panetta to turn over the names of the medical personnel involved in interrogations to the American Medical Association. The AMA may want to police its own (who have gone down the Nazi doctor route!) and strip those involved of their licenses to practice medicine.  At the very least, each person named should be reviewed separately by the AMA.
  • Contact the leadership of the American Bar Association (the main professional organization for attorneys at law in the U.S.) and urge them to take steps to strip the authors of the torture memos of their law licenses so that they no longer have the right to practice law in the U.S.–and whatever other sanctions the ABA deems appropriate.  Also, urge the ABA to send a letter to Pres. Obama and Attorney General Holder urging the appointment of a special prosecutor in these cases.
  • Contact Rep. John Conyers (D-MI), Chair of the House Judiciary Committee and urge that the House Judiciary Committe begin impeachment procedures against Judge Jay Bybee of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.  Yes, one of the torture memo authors, Bybee, was later appointed by Bush to a federal bench just one step below the Supreme Court of the United States!  It’s a lifetime appointment, but judges can be impeached (though they seldom are).  No one who authored one of these horrendous memos should be adjudicating law in the American courts!  One Yale Law professor has already called for his impeachment.  We should try to get prominent Republican judges and lawyers to be part of this movement, because this is not partisan. (I would go after any Democrat who did any of these things, too!) Pres. Bill Clinton lost his law license for perjury in the Lewinsky scandal.  This is far worse.  If I can track down contact information for her, I will ask that retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Conner (a longtime Republican and a protege of the late Barry Goldwater, she was Reagan’s first Supreme Court appointee and the first woman on the Supreme Court of the U.S.), who administered Bybee’s oath, join the call for his impeachment.

With these kinds of actions, we can create the groundswell of public opinion to go after AT LEAST those who authorized the torture.  And we take steps to prevent this from recurring under some other administration.<!– @ 1:44 pm –><!– @ 9:02 am –>

April 23, 2009 Posted by | torture | 14 Comments

House Climate Change Hearing

Yesterday, Earth Day,  I watched C-Span coverage of the hearing of the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee on the planned cap & trade bill.  The hearings on “The American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009” had many odd moments.  But the strangest moments, causing me the most cognitive dissonance, were the repeated attempts of Big Coal CEOs (e.g., Jim Rogers of Duke Energy Corporation) try to explain to Congressional Republicans that electricity costs are going up NO MATTER WHAT, whether or not any cap and trade legislation is passed, so Congress might as well pass legislation to help us transition to clean energy around the nation.  The looks of disbelief on these Republican faces were comical.  They are used to trying to argue science with scientists (and never understand how dumb they look when they do this), but they expect to be considered the champions of business, especially the dirty polluters of Big Coal and Big Oil.  To have the CEOs of coal and oil companies side (at least partly) with the climate scientists (“pointy heads” as the Republicans think of them) and environmentalists (“tree huggers and granola crunchers” in the GOP lexicon) nearly caused their heads to explode.  I’d love to see similar hearings in the Senate–and watch what Sen. “In Denial” Inhofe (R-OK) does when Oil and Coal people side with the environmentalists and climate scientists.  It ought to be highly entertaining.

Other strange moments: Rep. Barton (R-TX) repeatedly claimed that cutting carbon emissions will lead to the de-industrialization of the United States. No, moron, it means switching to different forms of energy like hydroelectric, wind, solar, and geothermal (and, if certain waste problems could be solved, nuclear)–all using off the shelf technologies. 

Rep. Blackburn (R-TN) accused EPA Director Lisa Jackson of deciding to regulate carbon emissions “with or without Congressional approval.”  Jackson rightly replied that the Environmental Protection Agency had been ORDERED to regulate CO2 emissions last year by the Supreme Court of the U.S. and the Bush admin. refused to obey the order.  Blackburn looked like she failed to comprehend the significance of this–as if Supreme Court rulings are mere suggestions.

Rep. Terry kept claiming that without a breakthrough in carbon capture and storage technology  that a cap on carbon emissions would raise coal and oil prices.  No kidding.  That’s the POINT.  A cap-and-trade system rewards low-carbon power and pushes high-emission polluters to find ways to pollute less.  If the carbon prices don’t rise, it removes the economic incentives to pollute less. 

Republicans can’t seem to fathom how these kind of regulations lead to innovation and savings–even though they’ve seen it done with aerosols and refrigerants that deplete the ozone.  One CA legislator had to show how CA regs on refrigerators have resulted in lower prices and less energy use even though refrigerator sizes have  increased.  Secretary of Energy Chu testified that contemporary refrigerators use only 1/4 of the energy they used in 1975.

In all, the Democratic members of Congress seemed excited and optimistic.  They see this as a way to get off our dependence of foreign oil, create green jobs, save the planet, and help the economy all at the same time.  The Republicans, by contrast, see this as a disaster. They believe nothing can be done and many of them still won’t acknowledge the science of global warming.  Or they say the U.S. can do nothing until China and India make 3 times the sacrifices. One Congressman even claimed we had to wait until Yoruba (!) did something.

Another GOP talking point was to call the cap and trade bill an “energy tax.”  No, that’s different.  Energy taxes directly tax sources of energy (usually very dirty ones) directly.  Pollution taxes tax emissions.  Both can be helpful incentives to getting corporations to pollute less.  But a cap-and-trade system sets a limit (a hard cap) on emissions and gives credits to those who emit less and allows them to trade off with those who emit more.  It uses market forces to cut carbon emissions.  Europe has used it for over a decade under the Kyoto Protocol and has greatly cut their greenhouse gasses.  America and the rest of the world used it to stop acid rain and stop destroying the ozone layer by cutting out those chemicals that deplete the ozone layer.

In point of fact, I wish Congress would impose direct carbon taxes in addition to a cap and trade system because of the lost time.  If we had put  cap-and-trade system into place after the Rio Earth Summit of ’92 or in signing on to the Kyoto Protocols (Clinton did not push ratification through the Senate, to Al Gore’s extreme frustration), then, perhaps cap-and-trade would be sufficient. But the pace of global warming is faster than originally predicted and scientists now believe the world must cut greenhouse gasses by 70% over the next century (with the biggest cuts coming within the next decade) to avoid total climate catastrophe.  So, I’d want to combine cap and trade with direct carbon taxes in order to give maximum incentives to cutting emissions.

By far the strangest comment Rep. Shimkus (R-IL) called clean energy and climate legislation the “largest assault on democracy and freedom in this country I’ve ever lived through” and claimed that he feared passage of this law more than  war and terrorism!!

The law, with plenty of teeth, is sure to pass the House.  I worry about it getting past filibuster in the Senate, though, especially if the Republican senators are as out of touch with reality as the Republican Representatives!

P.S.:  Two things worry me.  1. Although environmentalism is now mainstream and a major concern of most of the nation, the PRIORITY always lessens during economic hard times because people put their short-term economic survival first.  2. Polling shows that many people strangely think that just because they voted for an administration that wants to stop catastrophic climate change that the ecological  news is getting better. Part of this may be that people can take in only so much bad news and with the steady drumbeat of bad economic news, war news, etc., have tuned out the ecological news–news which is pretty bleak.   Combined, I worry that this means people won’t put enough pressure on Congress to pass this legislation in a strong enough form.

April 23, 2009 Posted by | ecology, U.S. politics | 8 Comments

Death Penalty Update: Colorado

As noted by my friend, Daniel (who lives in CO when home from his mission work in the Bahamas), yesterday the Colorado Houe of Reps. narrowly passed legislation to repeal the death penalty.  From here the bill goes to the CO senate and, if it passes there, to Gov. Ritter (D-CO) who has not said whether or not he will sign the bill.  Ritter is a former prosecutor who has always supported the death penalty, but he is also a devout Catholic and in the last several decades the Catholic Church has shown strong opposition to the death penalty. (This is not the church’s traditional stance.) So much so is this the case that studies have shown that the more frequently American Catholics go to mass, the more likely they are to oppose the death penalty. (I wish the same could be said of American Evangelicals!)

The Colorado legislation would not just repeal the death penalty, but would use the money saved to help solve cold case murders.  That provision has to appeal to law and order types, including a former prosecutor who is now CO governor, I hope. I wish Ritter would speak out in favor of the bill since that could help its chances in the CO Senate.

If CO abolishes the death penalty, it will be the second state this year (both Western states with Catholic governors) right after New Mexico, and the third state in two years (NJ abolished the death penalty in 2007).

MD, whose Catholic governor campaigned on abolishing the death penalty and won, has just passed legislation that would make it much harder to execute prisoners.  Gov. O’Malley thinks it a good first step and will sign it, but is not giving up on full abolition.

There are abolitionist bills currently in IL, CT, NH, ME, and NE.  The Alaska legislature killed a bill to restore their long-abandoned death penalty and Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine (D-VA) vetoed legislation that would have greatly expanded their death penalty statute.

April 22, 2009 Posted by | death penalty | 6 Comments

Moral Discernment: Loyalties, Interests, Passions

Philosophers (and some theologians) often talk as if moral discernment was simply a matter of correct reasoning (e.g., deontologists vs. utilitarians).  The last 25 years has seen a mini-resistance movement focusing more on moral character (virtues, passions, affections)–a return to classic and medieval interests in a postmodern era.  Glen Stassen’s 4-dimensional approach to moral discernment was a forerunner of this interest.  We have looked at the dimension of basic convictions looking at the critical variables of God and human nature; justification and sanctification; love and justice; and the mission of the church in the world.  (These are Christian convictions, but we tried to indicate that there are usually analogues in other religious or moral systems that function similarly.)

Moving clockwise to the next dimension we examine the critical variables of loyalties, interests, passions, virtues, & affections.  The main point is that we all have loyalties and interests that affect our moral outlook.   A scientist who sits on the board of Exxon-Mobil is likely to approach the issue of global warming with a desire to defend the interests of the oil industry whereas an equally qualified scientist working for Environmental Defense will have a very different outlook. 

(Now, usually when I point this out, someone screams that I am making an ad hominem argument.  I’m not.  At the end of this post, I will deal with the issues of ad hominem  and genetic fallacies.  )

Our loyalties include our friends, mentors, and role models.  At least since Aristotle, philosophers have known the moral importance of friendship.  Parents are right to worry about the friends their kids make, although the influence can go both ways.  The same concerns are prominent in the Wisdom writings of Scripture, especially Proverbs.  Jesus gathered disciples and Paul held himself up as a role model for leaders in the churches he founded.

Our loyalties to our friends shape our moral discernment, but they need not determine it.  We can be aware of the limits of our friends and mentors. We do not need to romanticize them.  So, for instance, friendship with a rape victim who chose to abort may influence the way someone approaches the abortion issue, but it doesn’t preclude that person deciding that her friend made a moral mistake.  Similarly, and sticking with the same “issue” for sake of illustration, if a person is the parent of a special needs child, he would probably respond very negatively to the kinds of “quality of life” arguments that a utilitarian like Peter Singer makes for abortion (and Singer also  argues for infanticide!!) in cases of genetic “abnormality.”  But such a person, deeply loyal to his child, also understands the huge demands of raising special needs children and his loyalty would not necessarily lead him to rule out abortion in ALL cases of genetic  deformity–Tay Sachs is very different from Downs Syndrome.  But we should not make the mistake of thinking that our loyalties do not influence our moral judgments, both for good and ill.

We also have loyalties to particular practices and processes.  For instance, a particular conservative commenter who is not favorable to same-sex marriage nonetheless recently praised the Vermont legislature for passing legislation allowing same-sex marriage because he is committed to the priority of local and state legislatures and dislikes judicial decisions which appear to him to make new law.  This is a commitment to representative democracy and to a very restrictive understanding of judicial review.  A gay friend of mine disagrees:  While happy that Vermont passed such legislation (and several other New England states appear poised to follow suit),  he worries that rights that can be legislated into existence can be legislatively removed as Proposition 8 took away same-sex marriage last year in California.  His commitment is to a certain view of universal human rights that it is the responsibility of courts to recognize, uphold, and enforce.

We also have loyalties to particular communities and institutions. The way this can shape moral judgment is too obvious to need to explicate further.

We also have interests, including monetary interests, power interests, prestige interests, etc.  Some deconstructionists like Foucault may go too far in seeing all moral arguments as disguised power plays,  but we are naive if we don’t ask about the interests of those who make moral arguments.  To take an obvious example, former Vice President Dick Cheney has a strong self-interest in making his argument that the use of torture in interrogating suspected terrorists is both necessary and effective in protecting Americans.  Judges are expected to recuse themselves from cases in which they would have an interest in one side or the other prevailing (e.g., if a company was being sued in which the judge’s spouse was employed). 

In addition to other loyalties, each person also has an ultimate loyalty.  That ultimate loyalty may be to one’s nation or race or sex or to one’s religion or ideology.  Christians (and other theists) would say that their ultimate loyalty is to God  and would judge these rival claims for ultimate loyalty as idolatrous.  But notice that this connects this dimension back to the basic convictions dimension because if our ultimate loyalty is to God then rival conceptions of God’s character become very important in determining moral judgment.  Also, remember that classic theologians like Calvin have called the human heart an “idol factory,” and all of us deceive ourselves constantly.  So,  we may think that our ultimate loyalty is to God and someone else may examine our actions and conclude that our ultimate loyalty is money or power or the nation-state.  We are not always our own best judge concerning our loyalties.

Now for our “footnotes” on two logical fallacies.  Ad hominem (“against the man”) arguments attack the character of the person making a moral argument rather than the argument itself.  Nothing said about our loyalties and interests negates that.   A scientist working for Exxon-Mobil may still have valid arguments against the consensus on global warming.  I would  say, against some ethicists, however, that examining the loyalties and interests is highly useful.  For those of us who are scientific laypersons, however, that scientist’s employer is a good reason to view his conclusions with suspiscion and to stick with the scientific consensus until the Exxon-Mobil scientist manages to convince a substantial number of peers who DON’T work for petroleum companies.

The Genetic Fallacy is a related logical fallacy.  If one dismisses an idea or an argument or a moral position because of its origin, one commits the  genetic fallacy.  For example, I am a Democrat, but I would be foolish to dismiss an idea just because it was advanced by a Republican.  (Republicans have had two  very good ideas in economic justice in the last few decades:  The Earned Income Tax Credit and inner-city “empowerment zones.”) In diagnosing people’s interests and loyalties, we have not automatically discredited their  arguments.

April 22, 2009 Posted by | ethics, moral discernment | 3 Comments