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Letters to the Editor

(updated 11/7/04)

Religion and Morality

"Link between religion and morality," Boston Globe, November 7, 2004

As an atheist, I find it particularly distressing to see Democrats paying lip service to the idea that morality should be linked with religion. The idea that religion gives insight into morality was developed centuries ago when morality was part of a comprehensive worldview that also included a flat earth, alchemy, and witchcraft.

As science broke away from religion and progressed through the centuries, morality was left stagnant, and only in the last few decades have the twin pillars of religious morality -- the soul and free will -- been discounted by modern neuroscience.

If morality is truly an area of human understanding, it should be capable of progressive refinement, with a body of principles designed to increase in relevance. The sooner religious America realizes this, the sooner we can reclaim our place among the advanced societies of the world.

(Steve is a member of the CFN Boston area Causality Club)


Free Will, Determinism, & Social Policy 

"Columbine Questions: Parents, Schools, and Bullies," New York Times, 5/18/04, published in response to David Brooks' 5/15/04 column, Columbine: Parents of a Killer.

David Brooks (column, May 15) writes: "My instinct is that Dylan Klebold was a self-initiating moral agent who made his choices and should be condemned for them. Neither his school nor his parents determined his behavior."

Certainly Dylan Klebold's choices are condemnable, but they were not self-initiated. Moral agents and their behavior are fully determined by environment and heredity, and to acknowledge this is not to excuse wrongful acts. It is, however, to suggest that a causal explanation for the Columbine massacre exists, should we care to discover it.

By claiming that moral agency is mysteriously self-constructed, Mr. Brooks short-circuits the investigation of what drove Dylan Klebold to murder and suicide and makes prevention of similar horrors more difficult.  

(see also The Moral Levitation of David Brooks)


"Accountability is Still in Play"  Boston Globe science section, 10/22/02

Many thanks to Carey Goldberg for the story on the neuroscientific threat to free will.  Although people might disagree about what free will is, science only threatens the freedom of human causal exceptionalism - the idea that, as disembodied mental agents, we get to cause without being fully caused in turn. 

 Goldberg portrays neuroscientist Benjamin Libet as trying to preserve a role for consciousness as the uncaused arbiter of action, but this unlikely scenario isn’t necessary for human dignity and responsibility.  Even if, as science suggests, human behavior is entirely determined, we must still hold people accountable in order to guide behavior and maintain moral standards.

 Although it wasn’t mentioned in Goldberg’s story, adopting a thoroughly causal view of ourselves has the salutary effect of drawing attention to the actual conditions which produce good and bad actions, while undercutting retributive attitudes based on the idea of contra-causal freedom.  In fashioning a self-concept compatible with science, we might be led to support more humane, more effective, and less punitive social policies.


"The End of the Suburban Dream?"   New York Times, 5/5/99 

It is remarkable that Alan Wolfe, himself a sociologist, rejects any sociological analysis of the evil behind the Littleton massacre, saying "we …should not try to find an explanation for all of life’s mysteries" (Op-Ed, May 2). Instead, he suggests that the lesson of Littleton may be that there are no lessons.

This is nonsense. Much can be learned, and the evil of Littleton is hardly a mystery, even if its roots are convoluted. Such violence stems from the biological capacity for aggression, catalyzed by psychological and social factors such as adolescent depression, uninvolved parents, ostracism by peers, media violence, and the availability of firearms.

To argue that evil is mysteriously sui generis is not only empirically false, but perversely counterproductive in its fatalism. Wolfe would have us ignore the vital lesson of Littleton: that there is much we can do, at the family, community and national levels, to make such tragedies less likely.


"Call to Order"  Atlantic Monthly, 7/93

Jack Beatty's "A Call to Order" leaves the false impression that human behavior is, in some crucial respect, independent of social, cultural, and biological determinants. In fact, there is no evidence to support the widely accepted belief (apparently shared by Beatty) that there exists a causally free agent within the individual who autonomously wills his or her actions.

Beatty calls determinism "offensive to reason and morality", but it offends neither. On the contrary, it is unreasonable to suppose that human beings, situated as natural creatures within a natural universe, are somehow exempt from complete inclusion in the causal network. In a deterministic world--the world we live in--morality and responsibility don't derive from the individual's capacity to independently originate behavior, since there is no such capacity. Instead they are the instrumental expression of what we want behavior to be: we praise and punish in order to create morally upright, responsible citizens.

Beatty supposes that public consideration of the "root causes of urban riots and violent crime" would lead to excusing criminal behavior, since it implies that such causes, not the individual, are responsible. But we must still punish arsonists--hold them accountable--for purposes of incapacitation and deterrence, even though we know they don't autonomously "choose" to be arsonists. Beatty's recommendation, that we cease public discussion of root causes because it "proffers tacit permission to criminality", is a sad and pointed example of how the cultural myth of free will can block constructive understanding of how people become good or bad.


"Understanding Violence"  Boston Globe, 4/96

Prison psychiatrist Jim Gilligan properly understands violent behavior not as a freely willed choice, but as the outcome of abusive and dehumanizing living situations many inmates endured as children ("Dr. Gilligan's prison education," 4/17). But he sidesteps the moral question raised by thorough explanations of violence: "When I say violent behavior is understandable, I'm not saying it as a moral or legal excuse. I'm not into playing the game of who's to blame or how much punishment is in order. I'm only asking practical questions: What causes violence and how can we prevent it?"

Despite such caveats, the implication of fully understanding the roots of violence is inescapable: we can no longer hold individuals originatively responsible for having created themselves as evildoers, since indeed persons are entirely the result of biological and social circumstances. This means that retributive justifications for punishment lose their footing, and that our response to criminality and violence must instead center on public safety, rehabilitation and prevention. The focus shifts from the individual as first cause to the amelioration of the conditions which produce dysfunctional individuals.

The irony is that by failing to explore the deeper implications of his work, Gilligan ignores one of the sustaining causes of violence itself: the urge to retaliate, based on the mistaken notion that persons are essentially self-made, hence deserving of punishment. Admitting that explanations exist for crime, deviance and violence need not excuse such behavior in the sense of letting criminals go free. After all, we must still protect ourselves from probable recidivists, deter criminality by imposing sanctions, and rehabilitate offenders when possible. Nor do explanations impugn a robust sense of right and wrong. But by undercutting punitive attitudes towards those who have become violent, such understanding can indeed help us become a less violent society.


"The death penalty is never appropriate"  Boston Globe, 6/97

In his June 20 letter ("McVeigh's death sentence was just"), Todd Flanders argues that the vast majority of Americans support the death penalty in some instances, and that if death is ever appropriate punishment at all, it is appropriate for Timothy McVeigh.  However, a significant minority of Americans, and the vast majority of legitimate regimes in the Western Hemisphere would argue otherwise.

For us, death is never appropriate, since by imposing it we collectively participate in the same brutality committed by the offender being punished, further desensitizing us to the taking of human life.  Capital punishment has never served as a deterrent and in fact is the hallmark of states and countries with the highest crime rates and the worst records on civil rights.

It is not a natural law that those who kill must be killed, but a social and political decision shaped by the priorities of a community and its citizens.  Certainly it is natural enough to want those who harm us or murder our loved ones to suffer and die in their turn, but it is unquestionably a greater virtue to forgo the pleasures of retribution so that our culture, bit by bit, may become less vindictive, less violent, and more humane.

McVeigh and his crime are the products of a society that revels in unlimited retaliation, documented in books, films, TV, and newspapers.  If we want less, not more of his sort, we will define the ultimate expression of justice as the deliberate refusal to participate in what we abhor.


No Essential Self 

"Is Everybody Happy?"  The New Republic, 2/94  (printed with letters from Rothman and Kramer)

Both David Rothman (2/14) and his target, Peter Kramer, believe that there exists an underlying "real" personality or self which can be restored to health, either by the good, old-fashioned hard work of talk therapy (Rothman) or via the easy route of psychopharmacology (Kramer). But the research that produced Prozac shows there is no true self to be saved by either brand of psychiatry, only a relatively stable configuration of neurally instantiated dispositions and desires which may change in response to interpersonal or chemical influences.

If there is no core personality to serve as the goal of therapy, what might constitute a principled rationale for intervention? Although Rothman dismisses it as "too mundane," for most of those taking Prozac the rationale is simply to find a modicum of happiness, achieved by modifying personal dispositions (e.g. shyness), so that effective and rewarding behavior becomes possible.

Rothman implies that the private benefits obtained through chemical control of personality, and those obtained via genetic control of external physical characteristics, will inevitably be co-opted by the social control of the individual. He imagines that our various "true selves" will be sacrificed on the altar of efficiency, homogenized by the demand for continually enhanced performance.

But conformity and compliance are not necessarily entailed by access to chemical or genetic self-improvement since, after all, there are many different jobs to be done, and our culture will continue to prize individuality (even if turns out to have no essence). To deny individuals these opportunities for self-design would be the ultimate act of social control, and it would be ironic indeed if concern for the fictional "true self" were adduced as its justification.


"Social Control of Personality"  Boston Globe, 3/98 

Although bioethicists are right to be concerned about using anti-depressants such as Paxil to enforce social conformity, this should not prevent use of such drugs to alleviate chronic dysphoria, even among those not mentally ill ("Prozac-like drug use for the healthy stirs debate", 3/23). The motive to seek relief from mild depressive symptoms, common to many, can be purely personal and completely legitimate, not a response to "social norms or marketing pressure."

Resetting one’s emotional tone up a notch or two certainly doesn’t result in an inability to react appropriately to loss, or in a lack of self-understanding, as some opponents of "cosmetic psychopharmacology" suggest. Occasional grief is indeed necessary, but not malaise born of a correctable chemical imbalance.

Government-sponsored programs to treat entire populations with such drugs are scarcely a possibility, and so are no reason for alarm. Rather, those concerned about the social control of personality should worry that our options for self-determination might be limited by those who insist that we suffer with what nature has bequeathed us.


The Abuse Excuse

"Mrs. Bobbitt's Brutality" New York Times, 1/94

The Times suggests that the Lorena Bobbitt jury "be forgiven for finding a reason to excuse Mrs. Bobbitt's brutality: brutality she herself endured for too long" (editorial, 1/22). But brutality, no matter how long endured, cannot alone excuse a retaliatory assault, and a jury that reaches a verdict on that basis is guilty of miscarriage of justice. Under such a warped standard, any mistreated person would be free to exact revenge in whatever measure they thought appropriate, usurping the rule of law.

The only legal excuses for Lorena Bobbitt's act are self-defense and insanity, and neither were necessarily entailed by the abuse she received from her husband. The only evidence relevant to the jury's finding of temporary insanity was testimony about the defendant's state of mind at the time of the assault. But this evidence was weak given that Lorena Bobbitt's claim of temporary psychosis was contradicted by her purposeful behavior and her lucid statements immediately following the attack.

The temptation and pitfall of the battered woman defense is to relax the legal requirements for acquittal by making a counterattack seem excusable when evidence for self-defense or insanity is slim. We can easily identify with a woman's rage, and easily see how rage can lead to an act we might endorse, were there not due process of law. But since due process exists we may not excuse such acts out of empathy alone, lest a battered woman become a law unto herself, and unpunished retaliation the norm.


"The trend is to equate victimhood with innocence"  Boston Globe, 3/94

A Globe editorial (3/21) reports that Lisa Grimshaw, having suffered abuse at the hands of her husband, lured him into an ambush where one of her friends bludgeoned him to death. The editorial goes on to suggest that Grimshaw's status as a battered woman justifies the early release granted her by the Parole Board.

Although consideration of battered women's syndrome has legitimately expanded the judicial scope of self-defense (hence the title of the film about the Framingham Eight, "Defending Our Lives"), it would be troubling indeed if this scope included the sort of attack Grimshaw planned. No matter how much abuse she suffered, no matter how much we may sympathize with her, still we cannot stretch the notion of self-defense to cover such premeditated assault. To do so would encourage victims of abuse to take the law into their own hands instead of seeking legal redress.

Although each case must be considered on its merits, the Grimshaw parole, along with the Bobbitt and Menendez trials, seems part of a disturbing national trend to equate victimhood with innocence. Unless acquittals of those who kill their abusers (real or imagined) are tightly linked to proof of insanity or legitimate self-defense, then the law will have been corrupted by our natural sympathy for these defendants.



"Cloning Now Demands That We Ask: Who Do We Want to Be?"

New York Times, 3/97

Kirkpatrick Sale, in discussing the technological momentum behind cloning (Op-Ed, 3/7/97) quotes President Clinton as saying "Each human life is unique, born of a miracle that reaches beyond laboratory science." If it were true that human life somehow transcended science, then those opposed to cloning and other sorts of bioengineering would have little to worry about.  But it's precisely because an exhaustive understanding of our biology is at hand that we will soon be able to control our genetic and reproductive destiny.

Since in a secular society such as ours there is no divine prohibition against assuming such control, it's really up to us to decide whether and how much to express our own desires in shaping the generations to come.

Those unmoved by the simplistic injunction not to play God must answer a fascinating and daunting question: what sort of creatures might we, and should we, next become? Better to face the question squarely than to hide behind appeals to the miraculous.


The Mind-Body Problem

"PMS Is Emotional, Too" New York Times, 1/98

It's not clear that premenstrual syndrome should not be considered an emotional disorder simply because it has biological causes ("Study Challenges Idea of PMS as Emotional Disorder," front page, Jan. 22).  All emotions are biologically based, in that they wouldn't exist without some sort of corresponding brain state. It is increasingly evident that the mind is the brain in action; emotions like irritability, anxiety, and anger are constituted by particular neural processes.

The article implies that there might be emotional disturbances that are in some way not a function of biochemistry.  But whether caused by family upbringing, genetic predisposition or acute stress, all mental illness and temporary emotional dysfunction are rooted in the brain.

Obviously, women should not be blamed for premenstrual mood swings that are the result of involuntary biochemical changes.  Since all mental illness is equally involuntary and biochemical, the stigma commonly attached to it has no justification.


Multiculturalism & Postmodernism

"Teaching multiculturalism"  Boston Globe, 11/93

John Silber's quest for truth at BU (Globe 11/24) seems to sacrifice open academic inquiry for a narrow vision of legitimate scholarship. Only by protecting students from relativism, radical feminism, Afro-centrism, critical legal studies, structuralism, deconstructionism, gay liberation, multiculturalism, and worst of all, dance therapy, does Silber believe truth is approached. But why should a robust and defensible view of the world have to be insulated from its competitors? Is it possible that Silber's vision might not survive a critical appraisal from his own faculty and students?

That multicultural studies are now part of mainstream curriculum in most high schools and universities suggests that Silber is well behind the curve, not of fashion or fad, but of responsible higher education. The Western culture he champions is only part of a larger picture, and it is best served by welcoming debate and difference, not by avoiding the intellectual challenges that are the essence of true learning.


"Right wing, not feminists, pose threat to science" Boston Globe, 11/95

Many thanks to Antony Flint and the Globe for enlivening the humdrum of politics with front page coverage of something truly momentous: the conflict between scientific realists and social constructionists ("Science isn't immune to cultural critique," 11/16).

The debate for decades in the philosophy of science, now joined by feminists and multiculturalists, is whether science models an independent reality of "natural kinds" or whether it is purely a socio-cultural artifact. These opposing positions reflect two commonsense truths: that there exists a world outside our heads (realism) and that our views of the world are a function of our social, cultural, and biological situation (constructivism).

Since neither of these truths can be given up, the debate will never be decided, and scientists need hardly worry that the canon of physical law will succumb to feminist theory. The only danger to science lies in the ascendance of ideologies which seek to limit the self-critical free inquiry that is its hallmark. Pat Robertson and Newt Gingrich are perhaps more to be feared in this regard than Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon.


Reproductive Freedom

"Biological barriers are meant to be broken"  Boston Globe, 1/11/94

Although Ellen Goodman disapproves of the latest developments in reproductive technology ("When biological barriers are broken," 1/9) she offers little support for this position beyond prejudicial phrases such as "retirement babies," "fetal farming," and the "specter" of children conceived using fetal eggs. Lacking a cogent argument, she merely parades her distaste for scientific advances in managing procreation.

To determine the ethical limits of such advances we must look beyond our initial queasiness and make principled decisions which take into account the actual benefits and harms for individuals. Unless Goodman can show what harm (beyond the shock of the new) comes from novel reproductive techniques, and demonstrate that this harm outweighs the manifest good they promise for infertile couples, then it is wrong to rule them out.

She argues that since there are already so many unwanted children in the world we should give short shrift to problems of infertility. But this is specious. The point is that reproductive technology allows intentional, wanted children that otherwise would not be possible.

Goodman would like traditional biological procreation to be our guide in making reproductive choices, but there is nothing new or unnatural about breaking "biological barriers," from contraception to Cesareans. We are creatures, after all, whose defining natural characteristic is the intentional control of ourselves and our environment. The exercise of control over reproduction should be governed by our ability and obligation to meet human needs, not by a blinkered reverence for biology.


Secularism & Social Policy

"Faith-based leftist movement isn't the answer"  Boston Globe, 6/95

James Carroll argues that the left must literally "get religion" in order to mount a serious critique of social and economic injustice (op-ed 6/27). But given declining membership in liberal religious denominations it is unlikely that a faith-based appeal to the progressive impulse would stir much interest. Whether one believes that God has forsaken the left, or the left has forsaken God, the best option for liberals is to concede to the right the easy rectitude of publicly avowed absolutes, and champion the cause of the less fortunate on secular grounds of human needs and rights.

Two taboos need to be loudly and conclusively broken by the left to make this possible. First, declare that a belief in God is not essential to the sort of moral stance that Carroll seems to think is the sole province of religion. Atheists and agnostics are not morally suspect; their desire for justice is no less strong, and their rationales for it no less compelling, for lack of theological underpinning.

Second, declare that unfettered capitalism is not sacred. Without restraints placed on the opportunity to amass unlimited wealth and without interventions to reduce the gap between rich and poor, achieving a stable, sustainable society is unlikely. The economic élites must eventually realize their future is tied to the material well-being of all.

Who, asks Carroll, has the courage and charisma to lead the left? His candidate, Jesse Jackson, might do were a faith-based progressive movement a possibility. But since it is not, a leader must emerge who will stand up to the religious right and make the strong secular case for economic and social equality.


"Editorial on marriage reinforced antigay bias"  Boston Globe, 8/96

The Globe is wrong to oppose state recognition of gay marriages (editorial 7/27/96). It rings hollow to call our current tradition of marriage a "bedrock institution of society" without citing some principle to show why only heterosexual unions qualify for society's blessing. Instead, the editors recommend a pragmatic accommodation to what they imagine will be a heterosexual backlash: grant all the tangible benefits of marriage to gays but withhold the offending "legal nomenclature."

Such gains would of course be welcome, but not to go the final step powerfully reinforces the implicit - and false - judgment that there is something morally questionable about homosexuality, that gay unions are not worthy of the same respect as those of heterosexuals.

The basic injustice, passed over by the Globe, is that restricting state recognized marriage to heterosexuals legitimizes and institutionalizes prejudice against gays. Our tradition of marriage is now in conflict with the recently acquired appreciation of the humanity and normality of homosexuals, and tradition must give way.


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