Interesting story:

There was once a famous Methodist evangelist named Peter Cartwright was known for his uncompromising preaching. However, one day Andrew Jackson the President of the United States came to worship there.

Cartwright was known for his plain speaking, and the church elders warned him not to offend the President.

But when Cartwright got up to speak, the first words out of his mouth were, “I understand that President Andrew Jackson is here this morning. I have been requested to be very guarded in my remarks. Let me say this: Andrew Jackson will go to hell if he doesn’t repent of his sin!”

The entire congregation gasped with shock.  How could this young preacher dare to offend the tough old general in public? they wondered.

After the service, everyone wondered how the President would respond to Cartwright.  When Andrew Jackson met the preacher at the door he looked at him in the eye and said, “Sir, If I had a regiment of men like you, I could conquer the world!”

I don’t know if this anecdote is precisely accurate, but I find it thought-provoking nonetheless.

How much respect should religious people give government leaders?  Is it a great thing when pastors or other leaders in the religious community stay politically neutral or treat politicians/issues with kid-gloves to avoid offending parishoners or the general public?  If all pastors took that approach, would the anti-slavery or civil rights movements have succeeded when they did?

We could take this a step further beyond the government.  Do private CEOs deserve a “pass” for the activities of their companies?  Is it a good thing or a bad thing when religious leaders make any effort to avoid offending parishoners?

This is not to say that religious leaders should abandon all tact and start casting out wild, speculative political accusations under the cover of an assertion like “I will not try to avoid offending people,” but perhaps we need more challenging, thought-provoking religious discourse even when it steps on the toes of political figures.

The Bellamy Salute

July 2, 2013

What a creepy and thought-provoking picture:

The “Bellamy Salute”

Yes, kids used to utter the Pledge of Allegiance with this Nazi-style salute.  Another blogger posits that the pledge was originally drafted by a socialist and was designed to propagandize children into pledging that they will follow their government.

For the record, I don’t think there’s any merit to the common objection to the phrase “under God” in the pledge, at least from a Constitutional standpoint.  As far as that objection goes, no one is forced to say the pledge (if a school punished a child for not saying it, that would be a problem), and if a parent objects then he/she should consider a number of options: teaching one’s child to abstain from saying the pledge, visiting a school board meeting to raise the issue, and/or seeking another school or an alternate educational arrangement.  If nobody else in your community cares about your complaint, your child is going to end up in an environment of such people and such worldviews regardless whether the pledge is spoken.  The pledge (and the phrase “under God”) is not the problem, it’s a symptom of a problem that will never go away.  Communities and schools always have unspoken worldviews and I see little in the Constitution that mandates that communities be prevented from expressing those worldviews through their public institutions (they are going to do so anyway, it’s unavoidable).

Anyway, back to my point: is pledging allegiance a good thing?  Isn’t that like writing a blank check to the government, promising to follow regardless of whatever evil thing it might do?  Sure, some of us would resist an evil governmental action, but for the regular duty-following folk, a lifetime of stating the pledge of allegiance may have fostered some problematic inner attitudes (such as intolerance for dissent against the government).

For you monotheists out there (Christians/Jews/Muslims), is the pledge a form of idolatry?    Should Christians, as “strangers in a foreign land,”  pledge allegiance to any government?

Classic Tolerance

June 23, 2013

An article by Greg Koukl provides some insight into the idea of “tolerance”:

“Egalitarian” was a new word for them. “Think equal,” I said. “Treat others as having equal standing in value or worth.” They knew what an elitist was, though, someone who thought he or she was better than others. “Right,” I said. “When you are elitist regarding ideas, you are acknowledging that some ideas are better than others; and they are. We don’t treat all ideas as if they have the same merit, lest we run into contradiction. Some ideas are good. Some are bad. Some are true. Some are false. Some are brilliant. Others are just plain foolish.”

The first principle, what might be called “civility,” is at the heart of the classical view of tolerance. It can be loosely equated with the word “respect.” Tolerance applies to how we treat people we disagree with, not how we treat ideas we think are false. We respect those who hold different beliefs from our own by treating such people courteously and allowing their views a place in the public discourse. We may strongly disagree with their ideas and vigorously contend against them in the public square, but we still show respect to their persons despite our differences. Classic tolerance requires that every person be treated courteously with the freedom to express his or her ideas without fear of reprisal no matter what the view, not that all views have equal worth, merit, or truth.

. . . The view that one person’s ideas are no better or truer than another’s is simply absurd and inescapably self-contradictory. To argue that some views are false, immoral, or just plain silly does not violate any meaningful definition or standard of tolerance.

In other words, to paraphrase philosopher Peter Kreeft, we should be egalitarian with respect to people and elitist with respect to ideas, but never vice-versa.

Just a thought experiment, roll with me…

What if, in the American Civil War era, it was the North that insisted upon permitting slavery whereas the South opposed slavery?  So, in that vein, let’s say that the northern states began to seek to impose pro-slavery or slavery-compromising legislation upon the southern states through the federal government and supreme court, and then the southern states seceded from the United States on the grounds that they would not permit the northern states to impose their unjust pro-slavery national laws upon them.  The southern states create a confederacy which will protect each state’s ability to outlaw slavery (or not) and no other state will be able to impose legalized slavery upon them.

First question: in this situation, would you prefer that the confederates (southerners) win the civil war rather than the union northerners?  In other words, would you root for the pro-slavery north or the anti-slavery south?

Second question: if we took away the issue of slavery altogether, would you prefer confederacy or our current federal government?  What’s better, each state left to decide its own fate, or a national government deciding once for all?

Now, in this hypothetical, keep in mind that if you said you prefer a strong federal government, someone listening might call you a “racist” for supporting a form of government that once supported slavery.

Just a thought…

It’s election season, and I feel accosted by bad political arguments from all sides through television and the internet.  I offer this as a public service announcement, a guide for spotting typical bad arguments (largely copied from Wikipedia’s list of fallacies):

Relevance Fallacies

Red herring – irrelevant argument given in response to another argument to draw attention away from the subject of argument.

Ad hominem – attacking the arguer instead of the argument.

Poisoning the well – a type of ad hominem where adverse information about a target is presented with the intention of discrediting everything that the target person says.

Appeal to emotion – where an argument is made due to the manipulation of emotions, rather than the use of valid reasoning.

Appeal to spite – a specific type of appeal to emotion where an argument is made through exploiting people’s bitterness or spite towards an opposing party.

Appeal to fear – a specific type of appeal to emotion where an argument is made by increasing fear and prejudice towards the opposing side.

Appeal to pity – an argument attempts to induce pity to sway opponents.

Appeal to accomplishment – where an assertion is deemed true or false based on the accomplishments of the proposer.

Appeal to motive – where a premise is dismissed by calling into question the motives of its proposer.

Appeal to wealth/poverty – supporting or refuting a conclusion because the arguer is wealthy or poor.

Appeal to novelty – where a proposal is claimed to be superior or better solely because it is new or modern.

Chronological snobbery – where a thesis is deemed incorrect because it was commonly held when something else, clearly false, was also commonly held.

Straw man – an argument based on misrepresentation of an opponent’s position.

Mob appeal – where a proposition is claimed to be true or good solely because many people believe it to be so.


Admit it, we’ve all made these arguments and we’ve all been duped by them at various times.  The important thing is to try to avoid it.

Subsection (a): “Murder is the unlawful killing of a human being, or a fetus, with malice aforethought.”

Subsection (b) provides an exception for abortion consented to by the mother.

Some observations:

1.  Murder only applies to killing a human, not an animal or non-human.

2.  If a man walks up to a woman and, say, cuts off her arm (or any other bodily “tissue”) but it does not result in her death, it is not murder.

3.  A man who walks up to an unsuspecting pregnant woman and punches her in the stomach, intentionally killing her unborn child but not killing the mother, has committed murder under the statute, even if she had planned on getting an abortion.  It is not merely a tort or the crime of assault and battery; it is murder.

4.  If the man punches a woman who is not pregnant in the stomach, it is not murder, and if he punches a pregnant woman in the stomach but it does not kill the fetus, it is not murder.

5.  If the pregnant woman punches herself in the stomach and kills her fetus, or if she asks a man to punch her in the stomach to intentionally cause the death of the fetus, it is not murder.

So, killing an animal or cutting off a human appendage is not murder, and killing a human being is murder.  Killing a fetus is also murder, except when a pregnant woman decides for whatever reason that her fetus belongs with the categories of “animal” or “human appendage” rather than “human being”.

As written, subsection (b) of section 187 is logically consistent with subsection (a) because subsection (a) expressly does not apply if subsection (b) applies.  However, can the exception philosophically be reconciled with the rule?  On what basis may a fetus be deemed the equivalent of a human being based on the intent of another person?  Can a person truly decide and declare, based on any reason or no reason at all (i.e. randomly), whether another person is in fact a person or the equivalent of a person worthy of legal protection?  Does it make sense that it’s murder to kill someone else’s fetus, even if that person planned on getting an abortion anyway?  When would that fetus transfer from “human being” back to discardable tissue?  When mom makes up or changes her mind (unless someone else decides for her without her consent)?

It’s one thing to attempt to justify legal abortions on the ground that an unborn child is not a legal person or the equivalent thereof.  But wouldn’t that mean section 187 is incoherent?  Would one prefer, in the name of consistency, to rewrite section 187 to honor the argument that unborn persons are not in fact persons, thereby recasting and/or reducing the criminal sanction against a man who walks up to a random pregnant woman and punches her in the stomach, causing an abortion?  Is a “wanted child” more worthy of personhood and legal protection against killing than an “unwanted child”?  Why?

I was in the car with my niece yesterday and noticed two children wearing helmets ride by on their bikes.  I mentioned to my niece that when I was a boy, I rode my bike around town without a helmet because they were not required.  That prompted her very insightful question: “Why do they call America ‘free’ when there are a thousand laws?”

A “thousand” laws is a very modest estimate.  Ask any CPA about the complicated tax code.  Add to that the problems of the thousands of vague or unenforced laws, as noted by James Madison among the many threats to liberty:

“It will be of little avail to the people that the laws are made by men of their own choice, if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood; if they be repealed or revised before they are promulgated, or undergo such incessant changes that no man who knows what the law is today can guess what it will be tomorrow.  Law is defined to be a rule of action; but how can that be a rule, which is little known, and less fixed?”
— James Madison, Federalist no. 62, February 27, 1788

The helmet law is probably clearly written, but it is one of so many ever-changing laws that I couldn’t tell you for sure.  My niece’s question stands.  Can we continue to call our nation “free” when we live under a nanny state with an ever-increasing library of statutory requirements and interpretations?

According to the U.S. Census bureau, in 1790 the United States had 3.9 million persons in 13 states from Maine to South Carolina.  New York City had a population of 33,000.

Today, the nation has 308 million people, and New York City has a population of 8.2 million.  In other words, the Mayor of New York answers to more than double the constituents that George Washington did as President of the United States at the time the Constitution was ratified.

A small number of people produced a great document that currently governs a far greater number of people.  However, at the time that the Constitution was passed, the government was necessarily closer to its people because each representative had a much smaller constituency to please.  Has the nation out-grown the constitution, not in principles but in sheer representative force?  No doubt the refrain “I’m going to write a letter to my Congressman” carries even less weight than it used to.  Should the states be divided up for federal purposes, so that perhaps even each county receives a senator?

While such a change may sound radical and unfathomable, it might pose a beneficial check to the dual-party system imposed on the nation.

I was at the grocery store and found that a popular charcoal company has introduced a new line of “100% all natural competition briquettes”.  This raises a question for me.  Why would this charcoal, as opposed to the regular charcoal from the same company, be considered “natural”?  (As an aside, ordinary charcoal briquettes have chemical fillers in them that hold them together, in addition to charcoal made from carbonizing wood.)  Even the chemical fillers in the regular charcoal are “natural” in the sense that they exist in nature (they are not “supernatural”).  Why do consumers find the adjective “natural” so impressive in commercial products?

People seem to harbor the idea that “natural” means “before we humans messed with it,” as though humans tend to mess things up.  Honey is considered “natural” even though bees make it, so I don’t think “natural” as the word is used here simply means “something that was not made through the activity of some other organism.”  Humans are the targeted organism.  Things that humans make are not considered “natural” even if they are made from natural elements (as in the elements on the periodic table in chemistry class) with implements made from natural elements.  What is different about human production of food products as opposed to the honey production of a bee?

Could it be that we all know, at some intuitive level, that humans deliberate and make free choices, and those choices are subject to flaws?  Perhaps we also know that human choices in particular are more prone to error than the instinctual activity of a honey-making bee because humans have a tainted will, and they make choices they know are wrong for personal gain?

To believe that, of course, one must believe in free will, if not also a fallen nature and the concept of “wrong” or “selfish” choices, right?  Can one avoid the implied presence of some supernatural quality in humans?  Can atheists have any philosophical justification for using the term “natural” on charcoal bags and the like?

While I found myself wearied of debating people on the internet (both here and even more so on other websites), I have found myself more and more simply wanting to pose philosophical questions to the world, just in case anyone is listening.  Keeping up with current events and writing about them as frequently as possible won’t be the focus so much.  So here goes…

Is it possible, or even beneficial, for a person to hold different political beliefs at different levels of government?

For example, whether one wanted to socialize medicine or continue the ban on marijuana use, couldn’t a person believe (and vote accordingly) that such measures are better decided at lower levels of government than the national level,  and thus vote for libertarian-minded politicians (desiring little governmental regulation of anything) at the federal level and liberals (desiring mostly governmental support on social and economic issues) or conservatives (desiring mostly government support on social issues and deregulation on economic issues) at local levels?

Thus, one might vote against federal politicians who promise government aid to students and universities while voting for local politicians who promise to increase funding to local community colleges.  One might be in favor of an increased state-wide minimum wage law while opposing the federal minimum wage altogether.  One might vote against federal politicians who promise to continue the war on drugs while voting for a state proposition banning the possession of marijuana–or even a community ordinance prohibiting all cigarette use.

Ultimately, if you always vote the same way at all levels, you may be focused on the ends and ignoring the question of the appropriate means.  Maybe it would be a great thing to have socialized medicine or a ban on marijuana in one state while permitting decreased regulations on medical insurance or legalized marijuana in another.  If people in one state grow envious of the other for whatever reason, they could make an educated and informed decision on that policy.  Or maybe one state’s policy works great for that state, but wouldn’t work in another state.

Some issues are necessarily federal (like national defense and whether we will wage war), but should all issues be decided on as high a level as possible?  If you think some issues ought to be local, do you vote against federal politicians who meddle in those issues rather than leaving them to states and local communities?