Reading George Fox

Faith Not Reason

I left an extended version of this response as a comment on Keith Giles’s posted “Saved by Zero”.

In 1936 Alfred Tarski proved that no formal system can prove its own truth, which is a pretty big impediment to using mathematics to justify God’s existence.

Even if one could get around that, it’s probably impossible to prove the existence of God in any meaningful way. Trying to reason from fundamental physics (which we still don’t fully understand) or a logical system devised by humans isn’t going to get us there.

In an extreme case, how would one tell the difference between a materialistic, deterministic universe and a universe set in motion by an omnipotent and omniscient watchmaker God?

How can one be sure that a revelation is from God or from the natural workings of the human brain, which we still only rudimentarily understand? Or perhaps God determined that those workings would occur?

There’s no there there.

Belief in the divine/spiritual realm comes down to faith. As does disbelief in those things. And if understand correctly, Jesus said something along the lines of not relying on human reason but relying on him instead.

Personally, I’m an atheistic Quaker with a psychological understanding of the religious experience. But that’s my personal truth, I don’t think it’s possible to reason another into believing it, nor do I care to try. We’ll probably get closer to the big “T” Truth by sharing our personal glosses on the divine rather than by trying to decide which is best.1

Written in Friendship.

  1. Which, to a rough approximation, is the philosophy behind Quakerism. 

A Rigorous Response to A Sophomoric Argument

Berny Belvedere responds to Patrick S. Tomlinson’s Fertility Clinic Hypothetical:

(1) The standard liberal position crucially involves the view that every individual has equal value.

(2) In a scenario roughly comparable to Tomlinson’s, where a standard liberal had to choose between saving 100 random people, or their own spouse or child, someone who believed that every individual has equal value would easily and unproblematically choose to save the hundred random individuals.

(3) But if a standard liberal were actually put in such a scenario, he would choose to save the family member.

(4) Thus, standard liberals don’t really believe every individual has equal value.

(5) The liberal position is a sham.

This argument is unserious because Tomlinson is not arguing about what people would do, but what people believe they should do.

The “standard liberal” (or at least a rigorous utilitarian) would admit saving family over strangers was the morally wrong choice and, if they had the courage of their convictions, they’d save the 100 people.

We see this scenario played out in movies all the time. It happens three times in Infinity War: Quill and the Scarlet Witch make the choice to kill their romantic partner to stop Thanos. Both times it is portrayed as courageous.

Would the average “pro-life” person argue that saving the 1000 embryos over a 5 year-old is the morally correct action? Where is the art celebrating that choice?

The Trolley Problem

Many people who say they would pull the lever in the first scenario then say they would not push the fat man in the second scenario.

If one are certain that pushing the fat man will save the others, one should do it. However, this is much less likely to be the certain outcome than pulling the lever.1 The question of killing a person to potentially save the lives of others is a much more difficult.

The Starving Poor

Does this differentiated response—which is objectively imbalanced given that entire villages suffering hunger is uncontroversially worse than an individual suffering hunger—indicate that you think one life is worth more than thousands?

Peter Singer believes that a single animal’s welfare can outweigh a single human’s needs and plenty of people have accepted his argument. Certainly that is a more controversial moral calculus than presented here. Update: I came up with a better argument.

Unlike in the Trolley Problem, there’s no reason one couldn’t feed the starving child at the door and help the starving villages. Yes, there is some cost to the first that will affect the second, but once again, this is a more complicated utilitarian calculus than the stark choice of saving someone in a burning building.

What Berny Would Do

Let the thousand human lives haunt me afterwards; in this moment, they cannot haunt me more than seeing a helpless child be swept up in a fire.

Again Berny avoids the question. Ignoring what he would do, does he believe he should save the embryos?

If you don’t, you are anti-abortion, not pro-life. Tomlinson’s point is that he’s never met a person who was willing to make that argument.

  1. Even if the two options are presented as equally infallible, people will naturally doubt pushing a person is as reliable as operating a machine. 

A Response To Dave Winer’s Claim of Small Justification

Today Dave Winer linked to his earlier post claiming there was a small justification for the internment camps at the border. I’m going to leave aside the argument that there can be a moral justification for imprisoning these children. If a law is fundamentally unjust and immoral, the duty of the law-abiding is civil disobedience, not acquiescence.

So, for sake of argument, it is moral1 to imprison refugee children, either by separating them from their parents or with their parents for an indefinite length of time. To justify such a law, for legal asylum seekers who have committed a misdemeanor2, the policy would have to be both by far the most effective and least punitive.

Oddly enough, Winer himself has linked to the evidence that interning asylum seekers and their children does not meet these standards. ICE used to have two less punitive and restrictive methods: the Intensive Supervision Alternative Program (ISAP) and the Family Case Management Program (FCMP). In the former, electronic ankle bracelets were used to track asylum seekers and 99.6% showed up for their court dates.3 Regular phone check-ins and unannounced visits were also part of the program. This is hardly “catch-and-release”.

In the FCMP, social workers were assigned to monitor asylum seekers and their families and make sure they attended their hearings. The government provided lawyers, housing, and transportation.

The contractor that ran the program said that 99 percent of participants “successfully attended their court appearances and ICE check-ins.” That included the 15 families who were ultimately deported. -Vox

Now, even if one rejected the moral argument for these programs and claimed deterrence to a misdemeanor committed by asylum seekers exercising their legal rights under US and International law is the preeminent goal, the alternatives to detainer are also significantly most cost effective.

In its budget request for fiscal year 2018, DHS said that it cost about $133.99 per day to hold an adult immigrant in detention and $319.37 for an individual in family detention. Meanwhile, the agency said the average cost of placing someone in an alternative program is $4.50 per day.4 -Vox

Moreover, the deterrence against misdemeanors argument has a more serious defect. We are partly responsible for creating the crimes. We have made it nigh impossible to cross the at the official entrances, removing the legal option. If asylum seekers were allowed to cross the border legally, there would be no justification to indefinitely detain people who has committed no crime. The solution to ending the misdemeanors is for our government to obey the law and open the border crossings. Punishing people for crimes that we have illegally pushed them into is perverse.5

Another argument the government has offered is that these programs are not as effective at guaranteeing removals. However, this can hold no weight. If providing asylum seekers lawyers advocating for their legal rights convinces judges that more refugees have legal claims to stay in our country, the law requires us to let them stay. To argue for their deportation despite this is to reject the rule of law, which the law-abiding citizen should not stand for.

Weighing more cost effective, more humane, and effective programs against child and refugee imprisonment is not a hard moral or practical calculus. There is no justification, even a small one for our government’s policy.

  1. I am also going to ignore the atrocities that are happening to some of these children, including forcibly injecting them with potent antipsychotics. Basically, let’s give the government every benefit of the doubt and see if there’s any merit to their position. 
  2. We rarely throw people into jail upon their first misdemeanor. Otherwise most of our population would be interned for speeding. 
  3. Granted only 79% complied with removal orders, but I think there is a very strong argument for improving an effective but imperfect humane system than choosing the most punitive one. 
  4. I’ve also seen estimates of $24 and $36. Both still an order of magnitude cheaper. 
  5. If police officers blocked every crosswalk for no legal reason and then arrested and imprisoned jaywalkers, we’d think they went insane, not try to find a justification for that policy. 

Don’t Let Those Bastards Own the Flag

Calling the atrocities un-American is important. We have dismally fail to live up to our ideals again and again. Thomas Jefferson was a slave owner and a rapist. But his words in the Declaration of Independence are America too.

We have done terrible things. We have made a mockery of our rhetoric again and again. We have killed and tortured and raped and slaughtered.

We must not let that happen again. We must rise to the challenge of our claim that all men people are created equal. Those who are torturing children do not own the flag. The true patriots are those protesting at the gates.

Update 10-13-2018: Was looking back through the blog and noticed the gendered quotation.

They Cannot Wait

This isn’t the preeminent crisis at the moment, but I wrote a response on the urgency of carceral state reform and thought it worthy to post directly on my blog.

The full conversation is here.

You are right that we need to work on getting buy in from the rank and file. But even if you’re correct and the system only fails 20% of the time, that’s thousands of innocent people suffering. They shouldn’t have to wait for justice because it’s hard to get the rank and file on board.

Also, there will be times when it is simply not possible to convince them. If we reduce the incarceration rate to triple the European average, the majority of prison guards will lose their jobs. They are going to fight hard as hell to keep their livelihood.

Or an example from Pennsylvania: if a former prosecutor turned Republican State Senator, multiple rigorous studies, and participating in a five year commission couldn’t convince the DAs to accept reform, the hill is a pretty steep climb. How many people suffered unjustly while we were trying to persuade them?

So, at the same time we work within the system, we must also, as Dr. King said, bring the tensions to the surface. We need to convince a mass movement to put pressure on government to accelerate change. To forcibly alter the perverse incentives.

The Civil Rights movement didn’t spend time convincing White America to support inter-racial marriage; they pushed Loving vs. Virginia through the courts. It wasn’t until 1994 that more than half of America supported that decision.

The Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis spent over a decade trying to convince society that LGBT+ folk should be accepted. They barely made any progress. Police still regularly persecuted them. Change only began accelerating when they stopped trying to convince the police and rioted.

You may find these provocative comparisons, but I really do believe even a 20% failure rate is a serious crisis, worthy of aggressive tactics. The system’s victims cannot wait.

Another Broken System with Good People

@dynamitemoth My unconscious came up with a perhaps less controversial parallel overnight. The American healthcare system is full of hard working, caring people who are truly doing their best. Yet we still spend twice as much as other rich countries while covering less people. The system is structured that often the best option is the emergency room, which is also the most expensive option. Insurance is so complex that patients need to make sure that the doctors treating them are on their plan even when the hospital is.1

A personal example: I was in the psychiatric ward of a well respected and good hospital. However, a private company had recently bought it and was cutting the budget to increase profitably. One weekend there were simply not enough staff. Those who were there were incredibly compassionate and good at their jobs, but there weren’t enough of them and patients ended up taking care of other patients. Which of course triggered us creating a shit show cascade of trauma.

There were no evil or incompetent people, yet the situation was terrible. At one of the best hospitals specializing in a specific area of mental health. When the system is broken, the intentions of those inside are not the important part. Structural factors are.

  1. Or that the specific illness is. When I shop for insurance, I make sure specific hospitals are covered. In case I have to go to the psychiatric ward, I want to make sure that my psychiatrist knows the doctors there. One year I bought insurance that covered the right hospital. Except that they subcontracted out their mental health coverage to Value Options. Which didn’t cover that hospital. I had looked pretty hard when choosing insurance, yet I could find nothing on their website indicating the difference. I didn’t think to ask if the hospitals they listed as in network were actually in network for my needs. 

The Carceral State and Good People

@dynamitemoth They have the best of intentions, but it’s within a very flawed system.

The reason that plea deals are used so much is prosectorial discretion: they’ll threaten to charge with more serious counts adding up to an incredible amount of years. It then only makes sense not to risk a trial. It’s also hard to believe that 97% of all cases involve a guilty defendent; that would require nigh infallible police and prosecutors. Also, here’s an explanation of how a federal guilty plea works and the absurdity it can become. Prosecutors are also loathe1 to provide evidence of innocence. There’s a ton of pressure of prosecutors to win cases, so they’ll even block the release of clearly innocent people. Expert witnesses and forensic experts are often relied on again and again even without evidence that the science has any basis in fact.

There are a ton of incentives for detectives to quickly close cases, so they often settle on the first or second suspect. Police are taught to be overly defensive and often escalate situations. Once a department gets a SWAT team, they find reasons to use it. Military supplies and civil forfeiture create perverse incentives to play with the toys and to justify the seizure of money to fund departments. Plus, civil forfeiture cases are charged against one’s property, so even if the initial charges are dropped one may have to fight to get the money back.

Here’s a book about police militarization. The Pentagon gives millions of dollars of surplus equipment to the police every year. Equipment used in war zones.

Defense attorneys are regarded as problems to be worked around. Public defenders are overworked and underpayed.

God help you if you get convicted2 of a sex crime even if it’s for pantsing a classmate when you were 10. Even if the sex offenders have committed dangerous crimes, forcing them to live under bridges probably makes it more likely that they’ll reoffend because what is there to lose? At least in prison one lives indoors.

Then there’s the hell of reporting a sex crime.

Cops might basically rape a person if they suspect that they are a drug mule.

It can take decades to hold rogue cops accountable—of torture.

Even if the purpose of prison is not to rehabilitate, keeping inmates in solitary for decades is torture. Pushing inmates into gangs for their very survival is not a positive outcome for public safety. Our prisons are creating gang members. Prison rape is an atrocity. The system is even traumatic for the guards.

Police are allowed to lie, but if a person makes a mistake during interrogation, they can charge the person with lying to them. Even if they were innocent of the crime the police were investigating. (Never ever, ever talk to law enforcement without a lawyer).

Juvenile courts give tremendous discretion to judges and can end up ruining kids lives. Even when the judges are trying to help.

Police officers in schools help keep students safe, while at the same time turning discipline into a legal matter. Instead of getting detention, students get arrested.

There are good people in the criminal justice system who try to do good work. However, the system is fundamentally broken: providing the wrong incentives and numbing people to the violence it inflicts. I believe shifting our attention from the massive injustice of the system by pointing out there are good people in it is akin to being the white moderate. It’s trying to balance the feelings of police and prosecutors and prison staff against the suffering of those ground up by the system, whether they be innocent or guilty. Change is desperately needed and it’s going to take a massive effort. That must be the focus.

  1. Krasner is doing an amazing job, but this article still demonstrates the depth of the problem. 
  2. Thankfully, this particular absurdity has been fixed; it took years of determined fighting. Even after the law was changed, they had to keep fighting to vacate the pre-existing convictions.