Monday, December 23, 2013

American Hustle Meets Postmodern Ethics

A quick little reflection that happened on the ride home from seeing American Hustle.

There is an obvious quote from the movie that reflects postmodern ethics: There is no black and white, just a whole lot of gray (I'm paraphrasing since I can't find the original online).

I think we've all heard something similar to that before. It's almost a platitude by now. But that idea gets a little more teeth to it later on in the Jennifer Lawrence/Amy Adams bathroom scene where Lawrence's character, as inebriated as she is, points out that "maybe all you've got in life are f***** up, poisonous choices." I think that gets to the heart of the matter.

It is very hard to reflect ethically on someone's situation when there are no good choices -- they are all messed up and poisonous. Sure, we must be accountable for our prior actions, some of which maybe have put us in our current poisonous position. But that doesn't change anything going forward.

I think the key to recognizing that there is an awful lot of gray out there is the ability to put oneself in another's position, as much as that might be possible. To feel the suffering and the pain of their situation. Not to attempt to remain completely objective and external to their situation, but to insert ourselves into it. That is empathy. And that is where 21st century ethics takes us.

The idea of poisonous choices isn't new, Lawrence Langer spends a good deal of time talking about it. It seemed almost a sport of the Nazis to manufacture situations in which there was no good choice. Sophie's Choice and exorcist: The Beginning offer two such examples (I don't mean to turn to Hollywood instead of history to illustrate the point -- just the most recognizable).

For me, this idea of having no good choices is the definition of tragedy. This is an idea I got from James Childs although I'm not sure which book or where to reference. We are often faced with tragic situations. I suppose the only option is to choose the least bad choice. But more importantly, I think it is important to recognize when others face these tragic situations and to empathize with them instead of damning them.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

The Economics of Pope Francis's "Evangelii Gaudium"

Pope Francis issued his first exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, on November 24th. A storm of controversy ensued over his economic statements. He was anti-capitalist. A socialist. A religious leader meddling in politics. Before deciding for myself, I wanted to read the exhortation in its entirety. What I discovered is that it is a brilliant, beautiful, and inspiring work for all Christians. This has certainly been lost in the controversy. Here is a link to the text, which I highly recommend: Evangelii Gaudium.

Before digging into the nitty-gritty of the economic aspects of EG, I think it is first important to mention a concept taken from Biblical hermeneutics -- that of description versus prescription. Simply put, description merely describes certain social or cultural customs present in history. It is like saying is. Prescription, on the other hand, is a command, law, or exhortation for a community in history. It is like saying ought. A common example is in 1 Cor 11 where Paul says women should cover their heads in church. This certainly appears to be an example of prescription. Is it possible that, instead, Paul is merely describing the custom in the early church? This is what the early church looked like (description) but need not be binding for all of history? This is, of course, a debate that won't be addressed here; I use it only as a means of introducing descriptive vs. prescriptive.

One of the main debates about EG has been whether it is socialist or anti-capitalist. First, it is of utmost importance to establish that capitalism is not monolithic. There is no one capitalism. There are many capitalisms. There are the theoretical versions of capitalism such as the minimalist capitalism of Nozick, or the welfare state of Rawls, and also real life examples of the difference in economies in the USA, Great Britain, and Scandinavia, etc. Some attempt to narrow the definition of capitalism to mean only the most laissez-faire of economies. This is unfair and clearly ideological in its reasoning. So while reading EG, it is important to remember that there are several flavors of capitalism that all equally qualify as capitalism.

So when the Pope criticizes inequality, or how markets exclude some, or the idolatry of money, which is it? Is it prescription: does the Pope advocate socialism or jettisoning capitalism? Or is it description: does the Pope describe the many injustices brought about by our current flavor of capitalism? To answer this, its time to turn to his own words. Quotes are obviously taken from the English version of EG, although I have read some commentaries that suggest the debate is brought about largely through poor translations from the Latin (original) version. I have no clue.

The first critique of contemporary economics comes early on in the exhortation:
The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience. (2) 
A critique not of economic systems, but of consumerism. The pursuit of the new, the bigger, the better, the more expensive. This pursuit of happiness in the possession and consumption of things leads to loneliness and sadness -- the opposite of the intent when purchasing them. This attitude is not surprising given the Pope's namesake. This is perhaps the most important quote, economically speaking, of the entire exhortation. Can we imagine a world economy in which buying the newer, better, bigger, more colorful thing is not our most important desire, but rather recognized for what it is, a vain chasing of the wind? (Eccles 1:14)

A similar thread throughout the economic passages of EG is an appeal to ethics. Economics without ethics is useless. Economics is ethics. When we forget this, when we are "economically advanced but ethically debilitated" (62), injustice is the result. If society made decisions more ethically, perhaps there would be no need to critique capitalism? Francis appeals to the leaders in society to help bring this about:
I exhort you to generous solidarity and to the return of economics and finance to an ethical approach which fa­vours human beings. (58)
If I may presume to paraphrase the Pope, economics should serve humans, not vice versa. Yet this change in attitude should come about by a change in priority by our leaders, not from on high by regulation or state intervention. Solid leadership is necessary if we want to re-inject ethics into economics. The pushback of ethics over profit will be strong -- perhaps even violent. The question of ethics is irksome for business (203). Yet without ethics, humans are pawns of the market as opposed to beneficiaries of it.

This leads to another common thread throughout EG -- are markets inherently bad? Are markets the problem and cause of inequality? Are markets made to serve humans or are humans made to serve the markets (cf. Mark 2:27)? It is in his comments on markets that Pope Francis could be viewed as an anti-capitalist. I hope to reconcile his words with a pro-market view without changing his intent.

The most critical of all the passages comes from a section titled "No to an economy of exclusion" and is perhaps the most often-quoted:
some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about great­er justice and inclusiveness in the world . . . meanwhile the excluded are still waiting. (54)
We can understand the Pope's reason for critiquing markets in the title he gives to this section. It is not that markets are necessarily at fault -- it is that their current construction excludes many. Markets do not work well when many, in this case mostly the poor, are not given entry into the market. Sometimes this is appropriate such as when the good or service is a luxury, but when the good or service is a necessity, excluding some from the market is unjust (cf. Obama, College, and Demand Curves). We must also remember that trickle-down economics is but on flavor of capitalism. There are many conservative economists and politicians who do not favor trickle-down economics. They believe this flavor still intervenes in markets, it just does so in favor of the wealthy with the hopes that the wealth flows downward. They think the state should not intervene on anyone's behalf whether rich or poor.

The Pope also alludes to a contemporary change in what markets actually are. In their inception, as an emergent order, markets were personal interactions. We knew the person or business with which we were making an exchange. Fraud or deceit was remembered, communicated, and the results affected the market. Nowadays, markets are no longer personal or local. They are anonymous and global. Fraud and deceit are no longer easily remembered or communicated because of the identity-less nature of those with whom we exchange. The Pope more eloquently refers to this as the "idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose" (55).

An even more damning passage can be found in 56. The Pope critiques "ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation." This mindset "rejects the right of states  . . . to exercise any form of control." The result is a transfer of power where transnational corporations "unilaterally and relentlessly [impose their] own laws and rules." This is not a critique of capitalism or free markets, but rather of neoliberalism (yet another flavor of capitalism). I've written on this before. The gist is best summarized by Foucault -- does the state supervise the market or does the market supervise the state (see here and here)? This is beautifully summarized in the Pope's title for the next section: "no to a financial system which rules rather than serves" (again cf. Mark 2:27).

So far, hopefully, I've argued that the Pope's comments can be seen as descriptive of the current state of global economics (perhaps most succinctly described as neoliberalism). Reading EG, can anything be gleaned from the prescriptive side of things? I believe so. And I believe it can best be seen when viewed alongside the work of Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum.

The key phrase in understanding Sen's work is "development as freedom" (also the title to one of his works). For Nussbaum it is "creating capabilities" (also a title). I don't wish to oversimplify how their views are different by conflating the two, but for brevity, we can look at Nussbaum's ten Central Capabilities: life, bodily health, bodily integrity, senses imagination and thought, emotions, practical reason, affiliation, other species, play, control over one's environment both political and material (Nussbaum "Creating Capabilities" 33-34). It certainly does not do Nussbaum justice to just list her Central Capabilities, but it helps illustrate that there is more than the state's responsibility than simply preserving one's right to life and property (the only two liberties that matter for many political philosophers including Nozick). I believe a broader understanding of liberty is needed in order to maintain free markets while also countering all the critiques of our current flavor of capitalism that the Pope has described above.

So is there anything in EG that alludes to the method of Sen or Nussbaum? There are small hints in the Pope's use of language, such as phrases like "promote the integral development of the poor" (188) and ensuring their "general temporal welfare and prosperity" as opposed to simple welfare acts such as "ensuring nourishment" (192). In this same paragraph. the Pope is even more explicit when he says these efforts should include "education, access to health care, and above all employment" because "a just wage enables them to have adequate access to all the other goods which are destined for our common use" (192). Here, I would argue that the Pope both supports the capabilities approach of Sen and Nussbaum and that he supports markets. By providing employment, the poor are able to escape the exclusion of the market and enter it as humans freely exchanging goods and services with other humans. It is markets that can help bring about the Pope's vision, not the elimination of them.

When liberties and rights are viewed from a broader perspective, in which they include education, health care, housing, sustenance, the ability to play, etc., there is no longer a need to ask the wealthy to "renounce their rights so as to place their goods more generously at the service of others" (190 taken from Paul VI Octogesima Adveniens). No one should be asked to renounce their rights. When we view rights/liberties as extending beyond bodily harm and private property and consider them more broadly, it is a question of balancing rights as opposed to renouncing them -- a concept with which the United States is historically grounded.

I believe in order to achieve the vision that the Pope describes we need markets. And these markets should be, so much as possible, free. Markets are still, usually, the best way to determine prices and wages. Yet they need some revisions -- not in regulations, but in our attitudes toward them. For instance, the goal of markets is efficiency. If we view markets as the master, then efficiency is the end. If we view markets as tools towards human flourishing, then efficiency is a tool towards the relief of suffering and the promotion of wellbeing. So we must prioritize the human end of markets over the economic end of markets while at the same time realizing that efficiency is an important tool to helping achieve this.

Secondly, markets must incorporate all costs and benefits. This means that market externalities must be accounted for. Failing to do so is appropriately called a "market failure" in textbooks. Failure to account for externalities results in improper prices and wages. Externalities such as pollution end up causing prices that are lower than they should be with the difference made up by society at large. Externalities such as a quality education end up causing prices lower than they should be. The Pope is aware of how these externalities, in a global economy, can result in concantenations that travel through the entire global population is extremely short amounts of time: "each meaningful economic decision made in one part of the world has repercussions everywhere else" (206). Because of this, governments must act to ensure that transnational corporations are not able to flee to a country which does not account for externalities such as pollution, child labor, and protection of the environment: "no government can act without regard for shared responsibility" (206).

In the end, it would be silly to expect the Pope, a spiritual leader, to speak about economics with the technical clarity of an economist (is that an oxymoron?). The Pope's comments can best be understood as describing what is wrong with our current system, not as a prescription for what should be done instead. When viewed in this light, the following passage is extremely appropriate and useful:

In her dialogue with the State and with society, the Church does not have solutions for every particular issue. Together with the vari­ous sectors of society, she supports those programmes which best respond to the dignity of each person and the common good. In doing this, she proposes in a clear way the fundamental values of human life and convictions which can then find expression in political activity. (241)

Saturday, November 9, 2013

How to: Academic Writing for the Humanities Part 3

Part 1 is here. For those who thought parts 1 and 2 were too cerebral or boring but are interested in improving their writing, Part 3 will probably be the most interesting.

Possibly the most important part of this whole thing

What are we looking for when we “analyze”? I've heard people say “I spent so much time on this paper and my professor says I'm not digging deep enough. What more do I need to do???” The answer, for me at least, lies in Bloom's taxonomy. Bloom is a last name that all educators know with a first name that everyone has forgotten, but he developed something very important for us: levels of thinking. Bloom created six levels of thinking from lower to higher those levels are: knowledge, understand, apply, analyze, evaluate, create. The first three are often called “lower order thinking skills” while the last three are “higher order thinking skills” (HOTS). It is the HOTS that we want to primarily engage in our papers. These skills are easier to understand when we see key words that can be found in questions associated with each level. For instance, your paper may call for a definition of “religion.” Quoting Durkheim's definition of religion would be at the knowledge level. Consider knowledge regurgitation. Putting his definition into your own words would be at the understand level. These would be at the lower level. Deciding if a specific tradition meets Durkheim's definition of religion would be a HOTS. Comparing and contrasting Durkheim's definition to someone else's definition is a HOTS. Illustrating the ways in which Durkheim's definition shows a Western bias is a HOTS. Creating your own definition of religion would be a HOTS.

HOTS are where the juicy parts of our paper need to come from, not the lower order questions. The lower order questions often need to be addressed in order to set up our HOTS, but they should not be the focus of a paper.

Here is an image I admittedly stole, but this stuff can be found in so many places it's basically common knowledge (note they do change names of some levels). For more information (especially visual representations of HOTS), simply Google “Bloom's Taxonomy.” In your papers, you want to shoot for the top three levels in this visual aid. Included with the levels are keywords to help determine which level you're currently addressing with your research:

Knowing that you're addressing higher order analysis in your research paper requires you to know what sorts of questions belong to which level. Here is a good chart showing the levels and the types of questions that belong to each. For the humanities, here are some good types of questions to consider when analyzing data (journal articles, books, etc.) for a research paper (all are taken from the above link):
  • "What is the relationship between...?"
  • "What things justify...?"
  • "What could be changed to improve...?"
  • "What outcome would I predict for...?" (the flip of this would be taking the outcome first and then designing the process needed to reach it)
Parts 1 and 2 of this series (hopefully) helped those who are intimidated by the research process. For those already comfortable writing, they can skip them. Part 3 helps those who aren't sure if they're digging deep enough in their analysis.

Friday, November 8, 2013

How to: Academic Writing for the Humanities Part 2

Part 1 is here. This part, heavy into "coding" may sound unnatural or forced. Again, these first two parts are for those struggling with the writing PROCESS. Grounded Theory (GT), qualitative data analysis (QDA), and the coding process may not be for everyone, but they will help those who feel lost in the research part of a research paper.

A note on coding -- when I first wrote this presentation, Twitter had not IPO'ed and news media were not using "tags" in all of their stories. So anywhere the word "code" or "coding" appears, it could easily be changed to "hashtag" or "tag."

OK, I'm done reading everything and have excerpted everything I want to excerpt. Now what?

This is where the “A” in QDA starts to happen. Go through all your excerpts and look for “themes.” These themes will be your major organization groups. In some cases, you can treat them as a “parent code.” After finding major themes, you'll want to start looking for specific codes that you'll use to organize your data. This IS analysis, by the way. These should be words or short phrases that sum up what the excerpt is about. Many times, codes can be found within the QD. For instance, if you're doing a paper on gamers and the term “newb” keeps coming up, this is an in vivo code – a code made by the informants themselves. Use it. Same can be said for typologies developed by the informants themselves (in this case your authors).

You'll know you're done developing codes when every excerpt can be classified into a code. This is called “saturation.” And yes, a code could very well be “misc” or “unclassified.” This is especially true of any excerpts you want to save for later research that don't directly apply to the current question(s).

Here is the rough draft of my themes/codes for a paper:

This list isn't quite useful yet. Many of these themes are actually subthemes of others. The best way to do this would be to have each theme on a Post-It note and sort themes into groups and then place related groups next to each other, etc. until you get a visual form of your mental concept. For my themes, I decided on three main themes. Here's what I ended up with:

All done!

Not quite. Now that you have your codes, you need to go through all your excerpts and assign them their codes in WeftQDA. Excerpts can have more than one code as well. The reason you're doing this will become clear (and awesome) in the next step. So just get it done . . .

OK that took awhile, this next step better be good.

Now you can ask WeftQDA to show you all the excerpts that are coded “_____” and look at each excerpt across author. Yes, you could have done this on your own with copy and pasting or with different colored highlighters, etc., but it would have taken a long time. It is at this point that you'll realize how important it was to begin each excerpt with author initials and page number – when they're organized by code they're all jumbled up. It would be very hard to go back to the original text and check context and citation information without this step.

Now that you see all your excerpts across authors sorted by codes, you can better analyze this data. You don't need to print out 12 PDFs and lay them on your floor and try to keep track of what neat quote you saw where that goes with this other neat theory from so-and-so which you thought you put here but is actually hidden under another paper . . . etc. THIS is where the good analysis happens.

This process looks really tiring and cumbersome. More trouble than it's worth.

It may be for some people. They're probably better off not using it. But for people who struggle with the writing process, more structure is often a good thing while they get “used to” writing academic papers. This process might be a life saver for someone's first semester or two and then might become superfluous afterwards. Or it might be great for certain types of papers and unnecessary for others. If you get A's on papers already, keep doing your thing. If you're worried about your grade, it might be worth it to try this out.

Part 3 now up.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

How to: Academic Writing for the Humanities Part 1

This presentation was originally called “Using Grounded Theory (sorta) and Qualitative Data Analysis (sorta) for Academic Writing in Religious Studies.” There is no reason why it needs to be limited to religious studies. I also didn't want to pigeonhole it too much with the GT and QDA part -- even though I found I use those two things quite a bit in my writing. Many will probably notice they use some sort of GT intuitively. While understanding GT and how I suggest using QDA and coding is NOT necessary to write well, for those struggling to find their writing groove, it could be a systematic way to improve the process.

What is the point of this presentation?

I've often heard grad students in the humanities describe difficulties with writing. Even when the end product was of high quality, the process of writing itself was often daunting. It doesn't need to be. It's a lot of work, but need not be difficult. Along with these complaints about intimidation, I've also heard colleagues make comments such as “how am I supposed to meet expectations for this term paper when in undergrad no one ever taught me how to write like this?” Writing at a graduate level is not easy. And when our high school and undergrad programs don't teach us the skills needed to analyze data at a graduate level, we're often left floating downstream and feeling like we aren't meeting expectations: either our own or our professors. This presentation is made with the goal of (1) making the process or writing easier and (2) showing some strategies for meeting expectations for quality of writing.

What is Grounded Theory?

The short answer is that Grounded Theory (GT) is a method employed mainly in the social sciences for developing research questions, constructing data collection techniques, collecting data, and constructing theories. Central to GT is the idea of “leaving baggage at the door.” While they play a part towards the end of the process, preconceptions and existing theories should be kept at bay for the time being (the “theory” should be “grounded” in the data). Also important to GT is the concept of a spiraling methodology. After a research question is decided upon, a preliminary literature review could easily lead to a revision of the original research question. This would then lead to further refinement of the literature review. The same is true of data collection. Data may show up that leads to a revision in collection techniques or even a step back all the way to deciding on a research question. This visual aid illustrates the spiral (or 2 steps forward 1 step back) nature of GT (from Qualitative Research Methods for the Social Sciences by Bruce L. Berg).

But I'm not doing a social science project with surveys, questionnaires, and interviews. Why should I use GT?

While GT was developed and is primarily used by social scientists doing these sorts of projects, it can just as easily (and effectively) be used for academic writing. The main difference is that the data collection and research design will be replaced with library, journal, and database searches. Instead of getting data from people through surveys and interviews (or videos, photos, etc. in the case of content analysis), we get our data through reading. Lots of reading. Yet the data gathered through reading can still be used within a GT method by using the spiraling technique listed above. While reading journal articles related to a research question, data may show up that leads to a revision or refinement of your research question. Or it might inspire a whole new research question altogether. One of the primary advantages to GT is that it helps keep confirmation bias in check.
OK, so what's the process?
A first step is to figure out a general topic for your paper. Remembering the spiral method, this step goes along with a literature review which will further refine the topic . . . which will lead to a refined literature review . . .which will lead to a re . . . you get the idea. Hopefully, you will end up with a research quesiton or series of questions. Write these down and organize them. Some questions will be “subquestions” of others and some will be different, yet related, categories entirely. From here, you do those handy Boolean searches for books and articles which will help answer your research question(s). These are what will become your qualitative data (QD).

Note: Almost everyone who writes in the humanities does this -- whether they consider they sources QD or not. While I go through how to use QDA software below and in Part 2, for papers with fewer sources (say . . . less than a dozen), it is probably not worth the time to use the software. But the same idea of coding (see part 2) applies -- just done mentally.
Luckily, most of this QD will be in the form of PDFs. Most PDFs allow you to copy and paste text. Of the dozen or so I used for this paper, only one prohibited this. So the next step is to read through all these articles. I had the PDF open in one window and my word processor open in another. Whenever I came across an excerpt I thought would help with my research question(s) (or that simply seemed interesting for further review), I copied and pasted it into my word processor. Two notes on this: (1) use .txt as your file type as this is what WeftQDA accepts, (2) before each excerpt put the authors initials and the page number on which the excerpt is found. This second step is important later on in the process.
Part two will look at how we deal with all this data.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Book Review: Anarchy, State, and Utopia by Robert Nozick

I'm certainly not a libertarian. My views rest very much closer to Rawls and the communitarians. So I was prepared to dislike this book from the start. Yet one cannot embrace the Rawlsian view without also being open (and knowledgeable) of those who critique it. I communitarian who has never read Nozick is no better than a libertarian who has never read Rawls. So I set out to tackle this beast. I was pleasantly surprised. Nozick is a great philosopher. His logic is clean. His arguments (usually) concise and easy to follow. Yet I disagree with his conclusion.

The main reason I end up disagreeing with Nozick's arrival at a minimal state is due to his presumptions. Nozick believes that the foundation of the state must begin with individual rights. I'm inclined to agree with him. The rights be believes the state should enforce, however, are limited to property rights and freedom from aggression (pretty explicitly stated as bodily harm from assault or war). I find this far too narrow a list of rights. I am much closer to the Nussbaum/Sen idea of rights as capabilities/functionings. Why should the state preserve the right of a citizen to not be assaulted, yet deny that citizen the right to health care? The difference seems arbitrary. Nozick's idea of giving individual rights primacy coupled with the human capabilities approach could yield some very interesting results.

My other main disagreement with Nozick comes from his defense of the minimal state against those who have criticized libertarianism. When defending one's position against critiques, real or imagined, it is often difficult to avoid arguing against a straw man. Unless citing specific criticisms of one's position, it is very easy to construct a hypothetical position and then argue against THAT instead. I feel Nozick does this to a degree when he explains why libertarianism can withstand the assault of communitarians.

Overall, this is a must read for anyone interested in the justice debate of the last 40 years that started with Rawls and continues to the present.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Thoughts on Last Sunday's Readings (A Week Late)

As a music director in charge of choosing hymns, I read the readings for Sunday well beforehand. Then I hear them again on Sunday. Sometimes I come up with something useful as I read. More often, I don't. So I figured I'd share. The readings can be found here. The ELCA, like most liturgical denominations, follows the Revised Common Lectionary. An excellent resource for that can be found here. For picking hymns based on the RCL try this.

The first lesson reading from 2 Kings as well as the Gospel reading from Luke both contain God doing something. God is an active agent in the lives of those involved in the stories. In the first lesson, it is Naaman. In the Gospel it is the ten lepers. In both cases, the people helped came looking for help. (I would love to tie the second lesson into it, but 2 Timothy just doesn't fit.) Naaman was told what to do to be healed. It involved nothing difficult, simply to bathe in the river. The ten lepers had to do nothing. Jesus simply healed them.

What I find interesting in both stories is the idea of unilaterality -- in other words, only one side did any action and that was God/Jesus. There was no quid pro quo involved. Granted, Naaman had to bathe in a river, but I wouldn't consider that a quid. God acts. God's actions are not contingent upon our doing something. There is no negotiating.

In our human interactions, unilaterality isn't always good. Think of war. Multilaterality is usually desired in those cases. The more countries you can convince of going to war, the stronger case you have made for military action. When it comes to making peace, however, unilaterality often proves superior. It may in fact be the only way to stop the "this for that" cycle. So a rule of thumb seems to be that unilateral action when things are good and multilateral when they're bad.

Let's shift to interpersonal relations. Forgiveness is best when done unilaterally. Can we imagine a case of forgiveness based on a qualification being good? I will forgive you if . . .. We needn't reach a consensus on forgiveness in order to forgive.

When God acts upon us, it is done unilaterally. God loves/forgives/heals us not because of what we do, or pray, or think (now you see why 2 Tim doesn't fit?). We are then expected to do the same towards each other. We should love/forgive/help without expecting anything of our brothers and sisters.

H. Richard Niebuhr wrote a wonderful book title The Responsible Self. I thought it was a strange title. How does Christian theology tie into being a responsible person? He uses the word responsible, however, in a different way. Focusing on its root, response, he points out that we should live our lives as a response to God's love of us. God acted first and unilaterally. Now we should copy that and do the same for each other. We should live responsibly -- our lives should be lived in response to God's love.

"So we love because God first loved us." 1 John 4:19

Monday, October 7, 2013

Neil deGrasse Tyson Is a Horrible Scientist

In this YouTube video, Neil deGrasse Tyson shows that he is more celebrity than he is scientist. The logical inconsistencies are so infantile I can't believe this was presented to scientists and wasn't even questions.

Right around 8:40, he begins the often heard but never taken seriously assertion that only two Muslims have received Nobel prizes ("But he's not middle eastern Muslim, he's Pakistani Muslim" as if that mattered for anything???). Therefore, Muslims must not be as smart or something culturally is holding them back. This should strike any thinking person as bigotry. And it is.

Nasim Nicholas Taleb has already pointed out that when Richard Dawkins made the same argument, he was pointing out his own glaringly horrific understanding of statistics. I would link to Taleb's comments, but I can't find them. Luckily, there is this concise summary along with a Taleb video explaining it.

So Taleb has taken Dawkins to task for the Muslim/Nobel anecdote. It is now time for yours truly to take NDT to task for the same anecdote. NDT ends the anecdote with a slightly different moral.

"Now . . . how many Nobel prizes are won by Jews? It's like . . . a fourth of the Nobel prizes." He then goes on to point out that there are around a billion Muslims in the world but only 15 million Jews "tops." Therefore, the statistics prove that Jews are smarter than Muslims (according to NGT's asinine logic which Taleb rips to shreds).

But here's the kicker: "I don't want to know why 85% of the Academy [of Sciences] rejects God, I want to know why 15% DON'T."

Hold on there brainiac . . . didn't you just say Jews are overrepresented in Nobel prizes? So if you wanted to be a good scientist, using NDT's own data, wouldn't you want to be a JEW rather than an atheist?

Neil deGrasse Tyson, you are not a scientist. You are an ideologue. You lack the basic rationality that our children so sorely need. And here you are the de facto spokesman for "science." It's embarassing.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Why Hurricane Season Predictions Are Bad for the Environment

I had written this a couple days ago and was going to publish it on Sunday. I had to move the date up after I saw this horrendously asinine article about assessing the economic risks of climate change.

This article is asinine because: (1) You cannot assess the risk of climate change. This would require economic models based on climate models. Neither one of the two lends itself to model making; (2) Economics/Finance has talked a lot about risk assessment and risk avoidance. They suck at both. What was the Great Recession if not proof that these eggheads either can't assess risk or they can't do anything about what they know?; (3) We know the climate is changing. We know that is bad. We know why it's changing. We know how to stop it from changing. Why do we need to assess the economic risks of it? Are the human risks not enough to spur action?

The following was not written as a response to this article, but it addresses it well.

Now onto the main event:

Here in Miami there are three seasons, not four. There is summer. There is not-summer. Then there is hurricane season -- the dates of which are ingrained in our minds: June 1 to November 30. Every year before hurricane season starts, someone decides to predict how active it will be. They include the number of named storms and the number of major hurricanes. This year's prediction was horrendous. See here, here, and a ton of other places. But why is predicting how active a hurricane season will be bad for the environment? It all comes down to models.

Models abound in science. They can be simple or complex. They are found in both the hard sciences (physics, chemistry, etc.) and the soft sciences (economics, sociology, psychology, etc.). They are often helpful. They are sometimes damaging. The degree to which they either help or hurt is related to how accurately they can predict an outcome. Usually, the more complex a system, the less likely its model will be accurate in predicting outcomes. Hurricanes are a perfect example. The region of the earth's atmosphere that influences the formation of ONE hurricane is huge (one could argue it's the entire earth). Current models for predicting whether ONE hurricane will develop, its track, its size, and its strength are definitely important for those who may be affected. They definitely save lives. At the same time, they are only accurate to an extent. Hence the "cone of error." I am in no way saying we should stop tracking hurricanes or shut down the National Hurricane Center. Tracking individual storms is necessary and the accuracy of it is high enough to merit its funding.

The problem is trying to model an entire SEASON of storms. It's ridiculous. If someone claims they have an accurate model to predict an entire hurricane season accurately, they deserve nothing more than to be ignored. Yet every year they make headlines. This year they made two: the first was the initial prediction; the second was how wrong they were. Some things do not allow models to be made. At least accurate ones. Included in this group is also global climate. If ONE season of hurricanes in ONE ocean's tropical basin is too complex to model, then an entire planet's climate is even more so. Yet we try to do it.

It is hard to read an article, let alone a book, on climate change that doesn't make predictions. Whether it is average temperature in 2050 or the amount of sea level rise by 2100, experts seem to think that making predictions is their job. It's not. Now, certainly there is a range of average temperatures or sea level rise that one could predict within a certain probability, but this is never how it's presented. It's usually presented as a fact. I recently saw a link to a site where you enter your birthdate and it will tell you what how much higher sea level will be on your xth birthday. As if it were a simple input/output calculation. There are simply too many feedback loops that all affect each other, some of which we surely don't even know about, to pretend we can predict anything about future climate change with any certainly. This is important to admit, but it doesn't mean science is useless when it comes to climate change.

Unfortunately, when some hack tries to predict the hurricane season and fails miserably, another hack climate change denier or skeptic will seize on that and say "look, we can't even predict this year's hurricane season, how on earth can we predict the climate 50 years from now?" And that is the link that makes hurricane predictions so dangerous. One group makes assertions about science that go beyond what it can actually do. Another group takes that to mean that science can't do anything. The loser in this whole thing is the environment, of which humans are a part.

So if science cannot produce models to accurately predict the climate 50 years from now, what good is it? My answer would be that we should consider what science has accomplished concerning climate change not by looking into the future, but by looking into the past. Science has connected the dots that allow us to know that global temperatures are increasing. That CO2 concentrations are rising. That much of this is because of human actions. That seems like plenty to me. Why look to the future when the past is so certain?

On a recent EconTalk podcast, Robert Pindyck boils it down nicely. When it comes to predicting the future, science is able to tell us fairly accurately some broad generalizations.
  • Temperatures will continue to rise. This is mostly due to humans.
  • This is not a good thing. Rising temperatures will change geographic features. While some areas we see desertification, others will see greening. So we may be able to move from one area to another, but the changes will happen too quickly to adapt easily. Communicable diseases will increase. Sea level rise is highly likely. Etc.
  • We should do something about this. (1) Cut carbon emissions so that CO2 concentrations fall below at least 1990 levels (Kyoto Protocol). (2) Devise and implement ways to mitigate climate change. This is not so that we can skip doing (1), but because the rate of change of the climate, even if we cut ALL carbon emissions TOMORROW, will be decades in the making. So either way, we will need to deal with higher temperatures and what go with them.
I think Pindyck nails it. Science may be limited in what in can predict about future climate change, but when even the generalizations are scary, why do we still sit on our hands?

Monday, September 30, 2013

Jesse Is NOT Free

Probably my last Breaking Bad based blog post. I want to get back to economics, environment, and theology. :)

I will admit to not having cable. I watched all my BrBa on Netflix. For S5B I bought it on Google and watched it via Chromecast. So for last night, in order to watch it live, I had my dad point his webcam at the TV and we Skyped for 75 minutes. It wasn't ideal, but it did the trick. I'm off to watch the HD version as soon as I post this.

I was positive Walt would rescue Jesse and Jesse would live. I didn't see Walt's belief that Jesse was "partners" with the Nazi's coming though. Maybe that was just a feint to get Jack to habeas corpus (produce the body) to make the rescue easier. Anyways, I love how he faked a fight in order to protect Jesse from his little friend (what a scene!). I also loved how Jesse got to take care of Todd. In a very corporal way as well. No guns. No knives. Just handcuff garrote.

In the end, Jesse rides into the sunset more alive than we've seen him for a long time. I've seen various TV critics and bloggers pondering what becomes of Jesse now. Does he adopt Brock? Does he become a HS chemistry teacher? To me, the answer is obvious.

Jesse goes to prison. Did we forget that Jesse's taped confession that Hank and Gomie oversaw was in the Aryan compound? Jack and the boys laughing over the crybaby? Does anyone doubt the police, DEA, and probably FBI aren't going to find the DVD amidst all the evidence? No magnets can save him this time.

I also think Jesse made the cathartic turn back when he confessed all to Hank and Gomie that he was willing to accept his fate. The confession, however, would surely diminish whatever punishment was coming. The only problem now was he has an additional crime to confess to that isn't present on the DVD -- the murder of Todd.

More important than if Jesse is PHYSICALLY free or not, though, is whether he is mentally and emotionally free. I wouldn't doubt that his howls of freedom were because he was finally done being manipulated by Walter White.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Walter White is NOT a Three Dimensional Character

I've basically been on bed rest for the past 3 weeks. I had never watched Breaking Bad until then. Netflix and Google got me caught up quickly. What a show.

Vince Gilligan is on record several times about how he wanted a show where the main character goes from Mr. Chips to Scarface. I think that's an apt description of Walter's progress. The writing on this show is fabulous. As is the acting. As is the cinematography. Hard to find one weak side.

Saying that WW isn't 3D is not a knock on anything about the show. It's just an observation. Many have tried to pinpoint the exact moment that Walt turns, but I think that moment is impossible to find because from Pilot, Walt is a narcissist. THAT is his fatal flaw and it's present in him from before his 50th birthday. What changed from Pilot to Felina wasn't Walt, it was the situations into which Walt was placed. Yikes -- that passive voice really makes it sound like Walt has no agency. The 7 writers of the show would not approve. But I digress.

In saying that Walt does everything for his family, that is true -- but only to him. His actions are selfish through and through. The old (and lame) saying that there is no selfless act because it makes the one doing it feel good afterwards does not hold true as a generalization, but it DOES hold true for Walt. Every seemingly selfless act Walt does has an ulterior motive underlying it.

For instance, Walt is neither in the meth business or the money business. At the same time, however, he is not in the empire business either. He is in the business of making the best meth anyone has ever seen. When he tries to leave the business, his motivation for re-entering is never about money OR meth -- but about the pride he gains from cooking.

Any time he finds himself in a bind, he is able to project the blame onto another character (often Jesse -- that poor sonofagun). When Walt breaks the norms of proper behavior, he feels entitled to do it. Those norms, after all, are for everyone else. He is different though.

These are all classic symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder. I believe THAT diagnosis even has primacy over his sociopathy. He is first and foremost a narcissist. And that started at the beginning and continues to the . . . well at least through the penultimate episode. We shall see.

BREAKING EDIT: The above was confirmed in the series finale "Felina." "I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. I was alive."

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Breaking Bad, Turn-of-the-century American Literature, and Catharsis

The Scene

A woman stands at the water's edge. She's married with children. At one point, marriage and motherhood provided her with joy. She now has lost whatever passion she had for life. She attempted to find that thrill of life via an affair. It didn't work. Now she doesn't feel anything. She's numb. She attempts to regain some sense of feeling by dipping a toe into the cold water. Nothing. She continues deeper and deeper into the water searching for SOME feeling. Nothing. It's not that she wants to die. She simply wishes to cease living. Eventually she's fully submerged.

Is the woman Skyler White or is it Edna Pontellier?

Edna who?

I am admittedly a Breaking Bad neophyte, but what I love about the show is the wealth of literary sources it draws on. The scene above, from the episode Fifty-One, could just as easily have been from Kate Chopin's The Awakening. From what I can tell, no one has made this connection yet. There are probably several allusions per episode. It's part of what makes the show great. In an age of so much reality television (that isn't really reality) BS, it's nice to watch a show that is intelligent and thought provoking.

Catharsis vs. Kenosis

Vince Gilligan is obviously well versed in the theory of writing. He regularly draws on techniques used from Greek tragedy, to Shakespeare, to postmodern story-telling. Catharsis is central to all of these. A cathartic experience for the audience is similar to fasting or a detox program -- it empties oneself of unneeded accretions of daily life in order to rearrange the things that truly matter. In this sense, it is similar to the concept of repentance (metanoia). We stop, look around, and reassess our priorities. Good TV can help with this.

Kenosis, on the other hand, is an emptying of oneself. While this can make room for other things (such as in the archetypical kenotic experience of Christ emptying himself in order to perform solely the will of the Father), in contemporary culture we empty ourselves and that's the end of it. No refilling. No finding other priorities. No reassessment. There is plenty of programming on television that serves a kenotic function. We "escape" into the world of the Kardashians, emptying our minds while we persist vegetatively in an unreal reality show.

Someone may watch the Karsashians and decide to look more into fashion. Great. That's just what this world needs. Someone watching Breaking Bad may decide to delve more into chemistry (hopefully not with the intent of cooking meth, but rather of understanding the dialog -- the "chirality" and "exothermic" stuff). Or read the wiki on Shakespeare to understand just why so many people compare Walt to Macbeth.

Vince Gilligan is obviously a creative guy. But what he has created in Breaking Bad is also creative. The show is itself a  creator.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Against Neil deGrasse Tyson

Someone has decided that Neil deGrasse Tyson is all the sudden in vogue. Fine. Better than the Kardashians. But what gets me is that he has been anointed the spokesperson for "Science" with a capital S. Half of my problem is that some of what he says does not stand up to Science itself. The other half is his attack on faith.

Before I go further, it is very important to point out that I am not anti-atheist. I don't do any proselytizing of my own. On some "god" concepts, I agree more with atheists than with people of faith. For me, it isn't as important the end you get to but rather how you get there. Blind faith belief in God isn't my thing. But neither is blind faith belief in science. So while I will criticize NDT for some of his thoughts on religion, please don't confuse me with the type of Christian that is militant to his views because of evolution or the big bang.

The easiest way to illustrate my point is by using his quotes. Granted, quotes are taken out of context, but they're also more concise. Let's start with places I agree with him.
People cited violation of the First Amendment when a New Jersey schoolteacher asserted that evolution and the Big Bang are not scientific and that Noah's ark carried dinosaurs. This case is not about the need to separate church and state; it's about the need to separate ignorant, scientifically illiterate people from the ranks of teachers.
Heck yea. We shouldn't allow teachers to teach stuff that isn't true. Period. Can't argue there.

I know that the molecules in my body are traceable to phenomena in the cosmos.

For sure. This is central to Sallie McFague's theology. As he says eloquently, we are made of stardust.

 Now for where I have serious problems with him. Granted, when you're asked to speak as much as he is, some of what you say may not be too well thought out. But this next one shows how his philosophy of science is seriously lacking.

The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it.

Wow. Has he never read Thomas Kuhn? Science changes its facts all the time! We believe something as a rock solid fact until something else comes along to replace it. There's nothing wrong with that. That's how it's supposed to work, but he is blind to this fluid nature of scientific knowledge.  It is almost like he clings to science the way the Middle Ages clung to religion. It's true because God/Pope/Bible/Science says so no matter what proves it wrong! Well . . . science has been proven wrong. Ergo it is no more infallible than the trio mentioned above. NDT's view of science is religious.

Which makes his attack on religion a bit bizarre. But first, some of it is just funny.

Once upon a time, people identified the god Neptune as the source of storms at sea. Today we call these storms hurricanes.... The only people who still call hurricanes acts of God are the people who write insurance forms.

Ha. Humans are always looking for an out and force majeur is a good one! While this one is funny, it points to a concept that comes up in some of his other quotes. God was only invented as a means to explain the unexplainable. As we explain more stuff, we need less God. That works, but only if you agree with the original presumption. I don't think too many people nowadays believe in God as a means of explaining the unexplainable. We abandoned that God long ago (for good reason). So if NGT is arguing for the Death of God movement, I'm all for it. Our idea of what God is should certainly NOT rest on explaining unexplainable phenomena.

It is this nuance that he seems to always ignore. For instance, he goes on to connect the two (unknown/God) erroneously. He says, to paraphrase, there is no God because I have a wrong definition of God.

The more I learn about the universe, the less convinced I am that there's any sort of benevolent force that has anything to do with it, at all.

Again, if making God out to be the prime mover, then science has done a lot to shoot that theory down. But who says that has to be what people of faith view God as? Perhaps God is something other than the benevolent force that moves the universe?

He goes further to imply that people of faith are not only wrong on a scientific basis, but less intelligent than atheists.

I want to put on the table, not why 85% of the members of the National Academy of Sciences reject God, I want to know why 15% of the National Academy don’t.

Now there are several fallacies loaded into this quote. First, why should we view the NAS as the experts on whether God exists or not? The end of science is not to prove or disprove the existence of God, so why should he expect 100% of its members to be atheists? Second, why should all scientists be atheists? Is there empirical evidence to disprove the existence of God? Absence of evidence of God's existence does not equal evidence of God's absence. This is a central tenet of science (since Popper) with which I would imagine NGT is familiar. So why ignore it now? Third, if I attended a different conference, say the American Academy of Religion, would it be surprising to find that 85% of its members believed in God? Or that 15% didn't? I wouldn't think so. Studying religion does not require one to believe in God. Studying science should not require someone NOT to believe in God. To assert otherwise sounds like demagoguery.

If we boil science down to a set of beliefs based on the scientific method and empirical data, why should religion not fit the bill? Why should empirical data not include faith? I'll be honest -- I've seen a ghost. That's empirical data. Two other people saw it as well. I'm sure a skeptic could disprove it and I'm not interested in defending my experience. The point is that it was experienced (the definition of empirical). Faith can be experienced as well. With all our senses. Not only seen and felt and tasted, but also intuited in ways that go beyond our traditional five senses. For NGT to argue otherwise does a disservice to his truly awesome scientific contributions.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Evolving Just War Tradition (Part 3): Three Public Keys to Just War

A well trained military. A free and high quality press. Civil discourse.

Part one with bibliography can be found here.

The Need for Military Training

Military training is multifaceted. There are technical aspects that need to be mastered such as accurately delivering munitions to a target or flying a plane. Another side of military training is the ethics of combat. This includes rules of engagement briefings on the lowest level and philosophical debates on the highest level.1 For the Just War tradition, technical training is most important with regards to noncombatant immunity. When training is denied or under-emphasized, Walzer feels that “the inevitable consequence of putting deadly weapons into the hands of undisciplined soldiers, and armed men into the hands of stupid or fanatical generals” is civilian death (130).

At the heart of this issue are two separate concepts of accuracy, which Himes labels “indiscriminate weapons and the indiscriminate use of discriminate weapons” (152). On the one hand, soldiers are expected to deliver their discriminate munitions accurately. On the other, military brass are held accountable for not using indiscriminate munitions in situations where noncombatant immunity can be impaired. Indiscriminate munitions (cluster bombs, land mines, etc.) are inherently unjust when used in situations where combatants and noncombatants share close quarters. For reasons of aim, a well trained standing military can in many ways be considered necessary for a just war. A polar opposite of this would be the child soldier who is handed an AK-47 with no more training than a viewing of a “Rambo” movie (McCormick 121). When it comes to technical training and the discriminate use of indiscriminate munitions, the United States' operations in Iraq have received relatively little criticism. The instances of civilian deaths by American fire have usually proven to be accurately delivered discriminate munitions. At fault was the target selection process, the only obvious remedy for which is better military intelligence.

Concerning the ethical training of a military, Paul Robinson, Nigel De Lee, and Don Carrick have edited a collection of essays entitled Ethics Education in the Military. These essays shed light on both the importance of ethics training in the military as well as the patchwork nature of teaching the subject in the United States.2 Among the important questions raised in these essays are “why is ethics training in the military important?” and “what type of ethics should be taught?”

One answer to the “why” question is the functional approach that believes an ethical soldier is a “better” soldier where “better” meaning “a more efficient killer.” A second argument for ethics training is aspirational – soldiers are expected to leave the ethics training as “better” people who will thus make better ethical decisions (Robinson 161). As for the “what type” question, the answer in the United States is almost exclusively virtue ethics. This method aims to inculcate several virtues into the soldier such as loyalty, respect, honor, and courage. At both West Point and the United States Air Force Academy, virtue ethics is the predominant form of ethics training.

I believe the argument for virtue ethics training is less than ideal. As West points, “West Point and other service academy graduates commit war crimes and other offences at rates similar to less well 'bred' soldiers” (Robinson 39). If this is true, it is all the proof needed to put the nail in virtue ethics's coffin. The presumption that a soldier who embodies the virtues listed above will automatically be able to make ethical decisions on the battlefield, often with very little time to contemplate, is fallacious. Walzer spends over 300 pages attempting to lay out the complexities of the Just War tradition and provides specific historical case studies showing how these theories need real life revisions when on the battlefield. This sort of casuist case study is, in my opinion, what is most needed in military ethics training. Luckily, it is not completely lacking. West mentions how cadets are exposed to case studies throughout their four years at West Point. This facet of their training, however, must be nominal as he only devotes one sentence to it. In his essay on ethics training at the U.S. Air Force Academy, Martin Cook states that supplemental training includes day-long retreats which include “small group discussions in which experienced officers and civilians discuss with cadets their own real-world moral conflicts and hard cases they have encountered in their professional lives” (Robinson 60). Cook goes on to say that the cadets consistently rate this supplemental training as the most valuable and enjoyable (Robinson 60). This leads one to wonder why this small group case study format is “supplemental” and not “core.”

An additional oversight in the ethical training of the United States military lies in the focus on officer training at the expense of non-commissioned officer and enlisted training. When comparing ethics training across countries, Jessica Wolfendale points out that “the ethics programmes offered to non-commissioned officers . . . and enlisted personnel, when they do occur, are usually of short duration or non-existent” (Robinson 167). This is a problem considering the sorts of moral dilemmas in which so many NCOs and enlisted soldiers find themselves. In his foreword to this collection, Patrick Cordingly noted that in the first Iraq war, the chain of command became so stretched that “[s]oldiers, unsupervised by default, performed tasks that they were not prepared for” (Robinson xiii).

One would think that this lack of supervision may have been the principal cause for atrocities like the Abu Ghraib scandal, but I believe differently. The acts committed at Abu Ghraib were so despicable that one need not have a training in military ethics to know that they were grossly immoral. I believe there was another principal cause and that it is related to the inculcation of virtue ethics. Many of the virtues that the United States military embraces serve to create a strong sense of camaraderie. This is especially true in institutions such as West Point and the USAFA, but can also be found within units that remain together for extended amounts of time – especially when combat is involved. The desired result of this virtuous camaraderie is a esprit de corps on the battlefield which not only makes the soldier more efficient, but also contributes to the “leave no man behind” spirit. A corollary to this camaraderie, however, is the “no snitching” spirit found at Abu Ghraib. Those who knew that what was occurring was wrong failed to speak out immediately or were coerced into remaining silent. Camaraderie is a two-edged sword to which continuously close attention must be paid.

The Need for a High Quality Press

While the need for a high quality press is important for many topics of national interest, this idea plays an important role specifically in the justification of violence. Several thinkers have pointed to the importance of the press in establishing a justifiable use of force. Yoder believes that “[t]he person claiming to respect just-war rationality must [study the facts of politics] . . . and therefore must have a reliable independent source of information” (78). Yoder's observation on the importance of the press is accurate. While some critics oversimplify the Just War tradition to a “calculus” which spits out a decision based on the evidence entered, the importance of accurate data is not denied by any of its adherents.

In complex issues such as the justification of war, the press plays a three-fold role: (1) it provides the data mentioned above, (2) it provides analysis of this data, (3) and it provides one of the forums used in the public conversation I will address below. Concerning the first role, the data the press shared concerning WMD in Iraq and the linking of Hussein to terrorist organizations proved the most damaging. One must wonder how these two assertions were able to “pass muster” in a critical press that supposedly relies on multiple sourcing. While Piers Robinson, et al, focus on the media in the United Kingdom, they offer some salient points concerning the U.S. media as well. For instance, they point out that journalists tend to favor the “spin” of the political elite and therefore tend “to be supportive of political elites . . . through the dependence of journalists upon elite political sources” (Robinson 537). The fact that these sources often remain anonymous further allows government officials to “feed the news” their own version of stories – in effect, their own data. These authors go on to point out that one would expect the press to also rely on “other involved parties including civilians, humanitarian organizations, antiwar movements, and international actors such as the U.N.” but that “the relative absence of such alternative perspectives is important in rendering media 'vulnerable to manipulation' by officials” (Robinson 540).

Citing a Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting study, Andrew Calabrese provides empirical evidence that what Robinson asserted is also present in the U.S. media. This study, which examined the principal news shows of ABC, CBS, NBC, FNC, PBS, and CNN, found that 63% of on-air sources were current or former government employees (Calabrese 166). Calabrese also points to the government's use of foreign media to knowingly disseminate inaccurate information. While they considered this part of a “psy ops” campaign, there arose fear that “the U.S. media would pick up disinformation from the foreign media and publish and broadcast it to U.S. audiences” (Calabrese 163). This shows that the government was aware of the press' penchant for running stories without properly sourcing them and viewed the risk of poisoning the well of U.S. news to be too great. These authors place a great deal of importance on the inclusion of non-governmental sources and multiple sources for an accurate press.

Concerning the second role of the press, that of data analysis, several studies have examined the manner in which the press has “framed” the war. Ian Taylor uses frame analysis to examine the different ways in which the data mentioned above is mediated through news sources. Taylor identifies three frames each for pro-war and anti-war opinion and notes that these frames are important “because as the main protagonists in the debate they were the ones who drove the arguments onwards vigorously promoting their packages as they attempted to persuade public opinion” (85). With this in mind, one has to wonder whether any of these three anti-war frames were present in American media. As noted above, the main news sources in the U.S. were, if not pro-war, decidedly not anti-war. Taylor goes on to stress the importance of a polyvocal press because “one of the main tests of pluralism for the mainstream national media must be whether or not the full range of perspectives on the conflict were articulated through the national press when taken as a whole” (86). If one function of the press is to help “persuade public opinion,” then this power must be held accountable when that opinion approaches monolithic status.

In his critical essay on both the media and the Bush administration, Calabrese early on points out how “the major media of the United States played a key role in uncritically projecting American imperialism, both domestically and abroad” (155). While Calabrese's passion at times proves overly subjective, he provides an important argument against the commercialization of American news media. The fact that many news outlets are now owned by large corporations combined with the profits generated by high ratings, “the networks went to great lengths to seamlessly blend their patriotism, technological prowess, and professionalism, which in the long run has the potential to yield market advantages” (Calabrese 168). Cristian Parker Gumucio notes the same danger for newspapers: “[t]he ownership of the written press by audio-visual corporations encourages unthinking consumption and prevents critical analysis” (27). The chance for increased revenue through war-time ratings as well as the risk of losing ratings by portraying anti-war opinion surely entered into the framing debate for national news outlets. The risk involved in questioning the justification for war, especially after war has already begun, is great for those in the media. In his review of combat films, Patrick McCormick notes that “[e]arly massive demonstrations against the war were met by rallies and ribbons directing Americans to 'support the troops'” and that “honor demands that Americans 'support the troops' by continuing to wage war” (110). This equation of “anti-war” with “anti-troops” allowed the pro-war faction to dictate the conversation and implicitly threaten news outlets. As Calabrese states, “[c]ommercial advertisers generally do not wish to be associated with a program that presents, much less advocates, a minority political viewpoint” and because of this “the mainstream U.S. media neglected to give American citizens an adequate picture of the scale of the antiwar movement at home or abroad” (171).

The issue of a quality press has two substantial deficits to overcome: one being the reliance upon single anonymous sources for stories and the other being the extent to which profit-making dictates the conversation for national news outlets. These two are undoubtedly related. The risk of “getting scooped” makes the time needed to corroborate stories with multiple sources less of a priority. Yet on issues as important as WMD, terrorist links to Iraq, and war itself, it is the responsibility of the press to perform its due diligence in reporting data as well as in analyzing and framing that data responsibly.

The Need for Quality Public Conversation

An aspect of American democracy that has shown itself to be deficient not only in the debate leading up to the Iraq War, but in multiple matters is the lack of quality public conversation. While this has been apparent in subjects as diverse as presidential elections, Wall Street bailouts, and health insurance reform, it was specifically a problem in the debate on the justification of an invasion of Iraq. While “discourse” and “dialog” do not etymologically denote an either/or limitation, it is exactly this dimorphic character that I believe is at fault for American's inability to enter into quality conversation.

This binary nature of conversation is present even in authors who were in the minority anti-war camp. George Weigel ends his essay with “[w]e may be sure that the war against terror will suffer commensurately if the Iraqi phase of the quest for freedom and a new politics in the Arab Islamic world is frustrated. No one – in the Congress, in the churches, in the academy, or on the street – can wish for that and still claim the mantle of moral seriousness” (20). This bifurcation, either you are for the continued Iraqi phase of the War on Terror or you lack moral seriousness, is a fallacy of false dilemma. There are other options than just these two and part of a quality conversation is to recognize them. Whether it is due to a two-party system or simply the dualistic nature of mankind, the conversation on Iraq quickly became one in which all comers were fit into the “hawk” or “dove” camp or similarly binary pigeonholes. As Yoder points out, there is an effective, if disingenuous, rhetorical device used where “politicians may exploit nationalistic and xenophobic, even racist, enthusiasms of common folk, thereby putting themselves under pressure to perform in a way as 'patriotic' as their campaign language” (26). This sort of rhetoric further strengthens the binary characteristic of national conversation.

One question, therefore, is “how can the church help in creating and supporting quality conversation on a national level?”3 Luckily, there has already been work done by theologians and ethicists on this question as it relates to other debates and much of this can be equally applicable to the Iraq War. One of these is the pastoral realization that the church has the responsibility to be a voice for its sheep. As Shaun Casey states in his critique of the Iraq War, “[t]he American people, whose sons and daughters will be put in harm's way, deserve better [than the case made for war by the Bush administration] from their public leaders” (94). I would add that those same sons and daughters are not only owed justification for going to war, but also a voice in the conversation.

The need for national conversation is most important for our “sons and daughters” and their families that will end up making the ultimate sacrifice. It is in this vein that Walzer shows his adept casuistry:

The stakes are high when we debate whether to send soldiers into battle, especially when we send them to intervene in someone else's country. Leaders and ordinary citizens need to worry about, argue about, even fight (nonviolently) about what to do. And when they worry, argue, and fight, they will cite examples just as I have done in this book and they will use the terms of just war theory – more justly than tyrants do, because they will respect the disagreements of their fellow citizens. (xvi)

Walzer may be idealistic in assuming the mutual respect of disagreeing opinions, but his accent on the importance of conversation is significant. He later goes on to stress the important role that this national conversation has in making the case for war. While American troops are, as of now, unable to practice selective conscientious objection, they still have the right to exercise their displeasure of selective wars in other ways – some of these include voicing their opinions in the national conversation.

Since this country is founded on the “consent of the governed,” it is also likewise necessary that troops should (nominally) approve of any military conflict. Walzer thinks “[t]he need to seek [the troops'] consent (whatever the form in which it was sought and given or not given) would surely limit the occasions of war . . .” (29). Yoder follows this same line of thinking when referring to the “morally responsible citizen draftee” (47). He believes that this concept finally came to the fore during the Vietnam war when “[t]housands of young men refused to serve for reasons derived not from absolutist pacifism but from their own conscientious, although not always articulate, application of the just-war criteria” (Yoder 48). These troops revoked their consent and were willing to pay the price for it.

This also raises questions of legitimate authority in the United States. If the “consent of the governed” and “government by the people” are assumed, then any decision to go to war without some “broad consensus” could realistically be considered illegitimate. Add to this the 20th century concept of going to war without a congressional declaration of war and the case could truly be made that the U.S. practices unilateral war declaration through the power of the Oval Office. Returning a war declaration to its proper place in Congress would necessitate a conversation and hold Congresspeople accountable for their votes, thus raising the need for national conversation and “broad consensus.”

While this country is also built on the idea that “all men are created equal,” this concept can be dangerous when transposed to the realm of opinion. This can result in an “egalitarianism of opinion” where experts have no added weight in the conversation. In responding to this concept, Walzer points out that “morality is unimportant if all opinions are equal, because then no particular opinion has any force . . .. No one can argue about justice and war . . . without striving for an authoritative voice and laying claim to a certain 'weightiness'” (288). In effect what Walzer is calling for here is a better national education program in Just War tradition. While Walzer's work is strictly secular, an obvious choice for enactment of this program is the church. The pulpit may not be the place for a sermon on Just War theory, but there are undoubtedly other opportunities for education within the church.

While the church should not only provide education and a forum for conversation, it should also maintain its own prophetic voice and speak out in opposition to the official government position when needed. A group of Catholic bishops as well as a group of one hundred Christian ethicists responded thusly when talk of an Iraq invasion first came up (Colson 72). The statement of the Bishops stressed the importance that “decisions concerning possible war in Iraq require . . . broad consensus within our nation” (Burghardt 18). Himes follows this prophetic clerical voice to an even broader conclusion when he states that “[w]hat is needed today is not a pastoral letter but the searching public discussion of the early eighties that was partly stimulated by the process of writing the 1983 letter [The Challenge of Peace]” (157). The prophetic voice of the church should be a catalyst towards a broader conversation in individual churches, between laity, in the academy, and in the press.

As Patrick McCormick notes, the church has often lost this prophetic voice and adopted a voice of acquiescence instead: “American citizens (who are overwhelmingly Christian) have consistently surrendered their duty to critically examine their government's call for war . . ., preferring instead to allow the president and Pentagon to make such judgments and seeing themselves as obliged merely to support the war” (118). Even Reinhold Niebuhr, famous for renouncing his pacifism in exchange for a justified defense of Europe against Nazism, believes that there should be a conversation not over going to war, but over weapons systems. When referring to the hydrogen bomb he said “[t]he fact that this [the development of the hydrogen bomb] was done without public debate represents a real threat to the democratic substance of our life” (235). One could assume he would feel the same whether referring to the H-bomb or the Iraq War.

On the subject of theoretical moral discernment in the church, David Fredrickson offers helpful advice in his analysis of Pauline ethics. Fredrickson uses three of Paul's epistles to lay out a framework for discernment within the early church. For Paul, “free speech” was an essential aspect of discernment. This translation is nowadays layered with many different images (civil liberties, first amendment, Founding Fathers), but Fredrickson points out none of these were Paul's meaning. For Paul, “free speech” meant being able to speak freely in a social setting without fear of recrimination or judgment. Free speech is necessary for “politics” and “democracy” to function properly (Fredrickson uses these words in an Ancient Greek sense). For Paul, the early congregations he founded were analogous to the Greek city-states. Every wealthy male should have a voice in the city-state. Paul, however, took this a step farther, including not just wealthy men. Fredrickson lists this as another key function of free speech — the silent voices on the periphery must be given a chance to be heard.

Free speech is the first essential ingredient for Fredrickson's image of moral discernment. The second is a church-wide conversation. Allowing all voices to be heard in the setting of a church-wide conversation can be a powerful tool towards maintaining unity in the church even amidst disagreement. This church-wide conversation can be carried over in the national sphere where Paul's concept of “free speech” could be honored and nurtured (as there is nothing overtly religious about mutual respect in conversation). This practice could easily negate the current level of binary dialog where each individual is allowed to belong to one of two groups. Fredrickson's advice would transform this into a plethora of voices in America's pluralistic conversation where the “silent voices on the periphery” are also included.


Examining the Just War tradition and its relation to the Iraq War brings some important, if disconcerting, truths to light. Just war criteria, no matter how strictly enforced, are useless in the face of inaccurate data. While these criteria are not simply a computational model that spits out a solution, basing deliberation on inaccuracies will usually not yield an accurate result. Attempting to have a national conversation on the justification for the Iraq war when rhetoric makes it difficult for citizens to subscribe to a position other than “for the troops” or “against the troops” is difficult. At the same time, the opinions of these very troops are hard to hear over the din of the million dollar industry of the press. While there is no easy fix for these issues, I have attempted to highlight some of the greatest of the problems as they relate to Just War tradition in the 21st century. From these problems come some possible solutions, or steps toward solutions, that can be enacted – some in the secular sphere and some in the religious sphere.

First, ethics education in the military should not be limited to are accented towards officers. Considering the extent to which non-commissioned officers and enlisted are expected to make difficult moral decisions in the heat of combat, ethics education is necessary across the board. The program for this education, while possibly maintaining its emphasis on virtue ethics, must at the least provide a solid curriculum in case-study based ethical deliberation similar to Walzer's approach.

The press could also help the situation by turning away from single anonymously sourced reports and returning to multiple-sourced corroboration. At the heart of this may well be the profit-driven nature of the press in contemporary society, yet the fear of getting scooped is no excuse for poor journalism. How this profit-driven model of journalism can be used towards providing the public with a better product (as opposed to a more entertaining one) is important on every issue, not just war, and deserves more attention.

From an ecclesiological perspective, the church must remember its responsibility to speak boldly when need be and reclaim its prophetic voice as shown by Amos. This is true especially with regards to the White House and news sources. The church should also embrace its ability to serve as a nurturing environment for “free speech” with a goal of moral discernment. These two suggestions, combined with a catechesis of Just War tradition in the church, would go a long way towards eliminating the fallacies of false dilemma rampant in national conversation.

Lastly, war should not be a unilateral issue. The ability of the president to initiate a seven year (or longer) war without appealing to Congress for a war declaration is not only appalling, but unconstitutional. While the president can rightly use the military for a police action, returning the responsibility of going to war to the Congress would force a national conversation and make those voting accountable to their constituents.

The goal of the Just War tradition should be to make each subsequent war more just than the last. Interestingly, to do this requires well-trained standing armies. Standing armies are anathema to a lasting global peace. As Walzer puts it, “[o]ne does not abolish war by fighting it well; nor does fighting it well make it tolerable” (45). Yet until the time comes that “the wolf shall live with the lamb,” this tradition serves to reduce the amount of suffering resulting from war by restricting both when it is fought and how it is fought.

1This does not imply that these are the only two types of military training.

2The editors included essays concerning the militaries of many different countries, although the two on the U.S. are most salient for this discussion.

3Here I use “church” to broadly refer to the Christian church in America. It could easily apply to a specific denomination, organization, or individual congregation as well.