Archive for the ‘Current Events’ Category


“Post-Birth” Abortion?

September 7, 2012

“Normal Dan” Dan Liechty

There has been a lot of media hype this summer over an article published last February in The Journal of Medical Ethics.  Supposedly, the article makes an argument for “post-birth abortion,” that is, allowing legal infanticide for an unspecified period of time after a child is born, giving the parents a bit of extra time to decide if they really want this child or not. The argument is that this is only taking the justifications for pre-birth abortions one step farther and that all important moral justifications for pre-birth abortions apply equally to post-birth abortions, since no clear moral line of distinction can be made between a fetus about to be born and that same fetus some minutes or hours or days later after birth.

I first heard about this article on an ethics discussion list last winter. Most people thought it was a hoax. But the authors and the journal present it as a serious article, and over the last few months I have been “confronted” with this article numerous times by people claiming it is the “logical extension” of pro-choice thinking. Feeling perhaps a bit goaded, as well as enjoying a bit more free time this summer than I usually have, I finally actually read the article.

The authors, Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva, summarize what they see as the central moral arguments supporting abortion, noting that the thread that runs through them all is that they all place the convenience of the adults above the good of the fetus. They then engage in an “if…then…” thought experiment. They say that “if…” arguments for the legitimacy of abortion based on what is convenient for the adults only are morally valid, “then…” there is no moral difference between pre-birth abortion and after-birth infanticide.

They are not (I don’t think) advocating infanticide, but playing the Devil’s Advocate role concerning arguments for the legitimacy of pre-birth abortion set forward by others (that they play the role so well is the source of confusion about their intentions and why one can easily read them as actually advocating legal infanticide.)

Now, if it were true that abortion rights supporters draw solely or even mainly on what is convenient for adults as the basis for their moral reasoning, this article would have a lot of force behind it. In fact, it probably would have been already written by someone else years ago. But that is only very peripheral to the moral reasoning of those who support policies of choice in specific circumstances (it is, in fact, the perspective on abortion advanced by those who want to proscribe it entirely.)

The central pillar of pro-choice moral argument is the woman’s right to bodily integrity, plain and simple. This is why distinguishing between stages of fetal pre- and post-viability is of crucial importance in reasoning toward moral support for policies allowing for abortion in specific circumstances. Pre-viability, we are looking at a circumstance in which assertion of the woman’s right to bodily integrity (autonomy) must be protected above fetal right to existence, because the existence of the fetus is completely dependent on the will of the woman to continue the pregnancy. Post-viability, that is no longer the case, and therefore once viability has been reached, the right of the fetus to existence must be weighed much more equally with the woman’s right of bodily integrity.

Even once viability has been reached, in my view, the decision to continue the pregnancy is still strongly that of the woman herself, but the right of the fetus to existence increases along with the length of the pregnancy. Regardless, there is a crucial moral difference between pre-viability and post-viability. For the most part, we have set viability at about the end of the second term of pregnancy (approx. 6 months.) Increased medical technology is constantly pushing that backward into the 5th month, but there are certainly limits as to how far this can or (morally speaking) even should be pushed.

The authors of this article totally ignore and dismiss viability as a moral watershed in pregnancy termination, which is certainly why 99% of medical ethicists who read the article initially thought it was a hoax of some kind. It turns out it wasn’t a hoax, but it certainly was laughably poor, scholarship–about like someone making an argument about how high humans can jump but neglecting to take gravity into account. While “if…then” thought experiment has a place in academic discourse, no serious ethicist will have learned anything from this article about actual policy.

One thing I hope we have learned from this episode is that with the advent of the internet, articles of this type, on issues related to “culture war” hot buttons, are bound to be hyped and exploited far beyond the intentions of the authors or the journal editors. Much more cautious hesitation about publishing such articles is in order.


Roberts and Rationality

August 8, 2012

“Normal Dan” Dan Liechty

Circumstances conspired to put me on a “political news diet” for the last few weeks – no TV, no newspapers or magazines, no podcasts, no internet, very sparse radio contact. I have to say that once the withdrawal shock was weathered, it was pretty nice. What’s more, that the world could just keep right on going, even without me obsessively milking each medium to follow its every move. Furthermore, I felt much more relaxed and optimistic about our species the longer it lasted! But, of course, all good things must end, and like it or not I am now back home trying to work my way through the amassed pile of papers, mags, podcasts and Bill Moyers programs that were sitting here waiting for me. Did I learn anything from the experience? Probably nothing profound or that will stick. In any case, I’m back at it now, and noticing something others have missed.

There is an emerging consensus among academic social and political scientists that people do not make political commitments based on rational considerations of specific policies. Their research points toward the conclusion that across the political spectrum, conservative to liberal, people are heavily and even determinatively influenced by nonrational factors. Rational faculties are more likely to be employed in the secondary step of rationalizing decisions and commitments already made.

One version of this thesis getting a lot of attention right now is that of Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion (Pantheon, 2012). Haidt interprets research findings to conclude that people generally “pick a team” and then on specifics will line up behind whatever the team position is. This goes a long way in explaining why people will so consistently line up behind inconsistent positions on specifics (e.g., “Keep your government hands off my Medicare!”) and even support with a full head of steam policies that are directly contrary to their own personal best interests (e.g., the long-term unemployed person voting for those who will curtail unemployment benefits.) This often leaves liberals (who hold rationality in high esteem) scratching their heads confusedly. But liberals are prone to the same type of thing–misdeeds perpetrated by those on liberal side are much more easily overlooked and forgiven than the same misdeeds on conservative side.

There is a lot that could be done with this analysis, but it appears to break down when we consider the judgment rendered by Chief Justice John Roberts in the recent case concerning the constitutionality of Obama’s healthcare mandate. According to this view, we might have expected Roberts would line up dutifully with his “team” and find the mandate to be unconstitutional.

Instead, even though he dodged the direct question of the mandate, we find him weaving in and out to find some rationale for ruling favorably on the policy itself (as I only learned days later.) This was a real shocker to everyone! The conservatives clearly feel betrayed, that Roberts has double-crossed them and is not a reliable “team” player. Liberals discuss the possibility of welcoming Roberts into “their” camp. So while the team-analysis does seem to hold in terms of the follow-up reaction, it doesn’t seem to explain Roberts’s own motives.

Keep in mind that social science research is never intended to explain the motives of specific individuals in specific circumstances, but only that of large numbers of people in general circumstances. With that said, it seems clear to me that Roberts decided that by hook or crook the Obamacare policy had to be found constitutional. His resort to the taxing powers of the other branches allowed him to do this without total, in-your-face disagreement with “his” team on the question of the mandate. In other words, his brief was clearly a rationalization of a prior decision and not the basis for that decision.

Why this prior decision, when it would have been so easy to simply rule with the other four justices against the constitutionality of Obamacare? I suggest it has to do with the fact that Roberts is beginning increasingly to look at his court from the perspective of History. From this perspective, he sees that future historians will be writing about the Roberts Court as extremely activist and powerfully partisan. Although something like 40% of its actual decisions have been 9-0 or 8-1 (in other words, representing a clear court consensus–cause for at least some optimism about our divided political present) the remaining 60%, which are often the much more visible cases, have been down the line 5/4 decisions in which the majority unapologetically align themselves with the conservative point of view. Roberts understood that if, in the heat of this election year, there were to be yet another in a long line of 5/4 decisions on key watershed issues, this time against the healthcare mandate, thus effectively gutting the main positive policy achievement of Obama’s first term of office, the judgment of History will doubtless be that under John Roberts, the Supreme Court degenerated into little more than a submissive handmaiden of the Republican Party. Obviously, Roberts wanted desperately to avoid this judgment of History, and he found a way to do it (or at least mitigate it somewhat.)

I am surprised that no one else appears to have noticed this (at least I haven’t seen it mentioned in the post-decision analyses I have read so far) but it is really the only way I can make sense of the motives for his decision, and the Byzantine brief he wrote to rationalize it. We’ll have to see if it results in more unexpected twists and turns in future cases.


Of Gout and Global Warming

July 27, 2012

“Leucocephalus” Phil Hansten

[Please welcome our newest contributor, Phil Hansten! -ed.]

What we can’t think about: The possibility that climatologists are correct to warn of potential catastrophic climate change.

“Prediction is very difficult. Especially if it’s about the future.” This sounds like a quote from Yogi Berra… you know, the guy who said things like “It ain’t over till it’s over,” and “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.” But actually the quote is from the Danish Physicist, Niels Bohr. And he is right. Prediction is indeed difficult, particularly in complex systems such as climate change, or how combinations of chemicals will react in a particular human body. After spending the past 50 years trying to predict outcomes in people taking interacting drugs, I think the principles involved are almost identical to those that could be profitably used in dealing with the risk of climate change. Since climate change denial is a central focus of EBF, I thought we might explore this idea.

Prediction of Magnitude. Suppose you are on colchicine for gout, and you start clarithromycin for a sinus infection. Clarithromycin can produce colchicine toxicity, which in turn can cause fatal bone marrow suppression. Some people have less serious reactions, but we cannot determine ahead of time how bad it will be in any given person; there are too many variables. Climatologists have the same dilemma; they know that the CO2 buildup is risking catastrophe, but they cannot make precise predictions of timing and magnitude; again… too many variables. Precise prediction of outcomes, however, is not required for a rational assessment of risk.

Tipping Point. There is another similarity. Once serious colchicine toxicity begins, it is difficult to stop. Colchicine can inhibit its own elimination by the kidneys, and dialysis doesn’t work. So by the time a serious reaction is detected, it is often too late. Climatologists tell us a similar story; we may get to a point where mutually reinforcing effects are set into motion, and no amount of remedial action will stop the inexorable march to disaster.

Threshold for Action. There is scientific consensus among experts regarding both climate change and colchicine. Some refuse to accept the science, usually because they don’t understand it or they benefit from their denial. But it is not a matter of whether the specific predictions of climatologists will prove true 30 years from now…  rather, the question is whether global warming presents a non-trivial risk of catastrophe. The threshold for taking action when dealing with complex problems that can potentially lead to disastrous outcomes often occurs long before definitive scientific data are available. One can always say, “the jury is still out” to justify inaction; look at the delaying tactics of Big Tobacco after the health risks of cigarettes became clear. But in science, the jury is always still out, so the question is not about juries… the question is whether or not the data suggest we should take vigorous action.

But despite all the similarities, there is one striking difference between colchicine and climate change; ignoring a colchicine-clarithromycin drug interaction puts one person at risk of death; ignoring climate change could be fatal to billions.


The Paterno Statue

July 24, 2012

“Svaardvaard” Bill Bornschein

The pedophile scandal that has rocked Penn State University carries within it an element that Becker addressed so insightfully, the quest for immortality represented in the construction of all manner of memorials. In this particular case, ground zero for the anxiety surrounding this sad story is the iconic statue of  Paterno,  forefinger uplifted in the ‘Number 1’ gesture  leading his players. The statue was removed this morning amid chants of “ We are Penn State!” from loyal fans.  Prior to its removal the statue was protected from vandalism by a volunteer group of students.  The juxtaposition of the statue’s removal with the recent death of Paterno himself has likely increased the feelings of loyalty to the football program. The angst of the entire situation was heightened by the squeaky clean image of Paterno’s program, one that stressed team over individual by not placing players’ names on the uniform.  The perceived wholesomeness of Paterno and the program was reflected in a halo that adorned Paterno on a campus mural. The immortality overtone of the halo is obvious.

In chapter five of Escape From Evil, Becker speaks of the power of immortality ideology. He states, “All human ideologies, then, are affairs that deal directly with the sacredness of the individual or the group life, whether it seems that way or not, whether they admit it or not, whether the person knows it himself or not.” It follows that a threat to the individual is a threat to the group and a threat to the group is a threat to the individual. In describing primary cultures, Becker uses the power of immortality ideologies to explain why individuals submit themselves to painful passages into group identity. He asks,” Why would human beings…  subject themselves to circumcisions and subincisions, perforated nasal septums, neck rings, holes in the flesh… if not for the ultimate stake: immortality, the triumph over the extinction of the body and its insignificance.”  Even Ayn Rand would submit.  In modern times the tribal scarification has been replaced by endless practices and workouts, all in the hopes of achieving athletic immortality in a Hall of Fame, the secular equivalent of Valhalla. Beyond the players and coaches, the entire university community participates in a rich mix of cultural rituals, pep rallies, bon fires, tailgating and the like that cements the group bonds.

This symbiotic relationship between the fate of the individual and the group is on full display in the case of Penn State. Pedophile Sandusky violated the primary rule by placing his individual lust over the good of the group and the leadership of the university looked the end of the way to preserve an institutional legacy, until it all came crashing down. How will this play out? The NCAA has leveled very severe penalties on the school and a new vigilance is apparent in member NCAA institutions. My prediction is that the football program will eventually thrive again, the need for communal immortality being that strong. One reason for my prediction is observing the case of basketball at the University of Kentucky in my home state. The University recently celebrated a national championship in men’s basketball. This program is the most heavily penalized in the history of college sports and it was only twenty years ago that Sports Illustrated featured a cover of a KY basketball player with head hanging and the headline, Kentucky’s Shame. Today, that is all ancient history. It is true, paying players, point shaving and falsifying transcripts pales in comparison to the Sandusky and Paterno transgressions.  Further, in contrast to Penn State’s perceived tradition of integrity and wholesomeness, the University of Kentucky has a legacy of corruption that is broadly accepted by the fan base. Still, the overriding factor is the need to believe, the need to belong, the need to attach oneself to an immortality project, the need to transcend. Look for Penn State football to rise phoenix-like from the ashes.


Mixed feelings about same-sex marriage

May 22, 2012

“Normal Dan” Dan Liechty

I knew it would happen–that somehow the issue of “same-sex marriage” would push front and center into the politics of our nation leading up to November’s elections. For the last 20 years, this issue pops up before elections as predictably as dandelions in my front yard, assuring an energized turnout from the religious segment of the Republican base.

I confess. I have mixed feelings about the dispute centered on “same-sex” marriage. That’s probably a dangerous thing to say in relation to such a polarizing matter. Neither side wants to see this as anything other than good versus evil. Let me explain.

Certainly I support full civil and human rights for all people without exception. That is not the cause of my mixed feelings. My concerns focus on the question of marriage itself as it is practiced in the USA. If we simply open up marriage as it is currently practiced to any couple that desires it, that is in one sense a “step forward.” But in doing so we miss an opportunity to make needed and necessary changes in our current practices that would be beneficial on a number of different fronts.

Most specifically, our current marriage practices perpetuate a problem in the relationship between church and state that could be easily remedied, and the by-product of that remedy would also totally solve the problem of same-sex marriage. Presently, ordained clergy have state sanction to declare a couple legally married. Regardless of the justification this had historically, it is no longer justified. Furthermore, since this practice essentially turns every ordained minister into an ad hoc administrator for the state, a good case could be made against it on Constitutional grounds.

There are two aspects of marriage that should be conceptually separate, but which get too easily confused because of our current practices. These are the LEGAL aspect, which pertains to rights, responsibilities and privileges under the law, and the HOLY aspect, which can only be conferred by the blessings of a community, and in which the state has no place and must remain neutral. Much of the rancor related to same-sex marriage, rancor that divides our nation right down the middle, is a direct result of practices that seamlessly align these two very different aspects of marriage. One side feels that to deny same-sex partnership its recognized legal status is clearly discriminatory. The other side objects that were the state to sanction same-sex marriage, they would be forced by the state to recognize as holy that which their interpretation of true religion tells them is not holy, a clear intrusion of the state into their religion.

I would like to see the sanction to declare a couple legally married withdrawn from religious clergy and placed completely in the hands of secular state administrators, such as Justices of the Peace. It should be clear that marriage as a LEGAL status emanates from the state. Those desiring to enter into the legal status of marriage would go to a designated secular official of the state, declare their intentions, and have this legal status bestowed on them by the state official. Those who want to enter into HOLY matrimony, receiving the blessings of their chosen community for their union, would go to the official designated by that community for this purpose, for whatever ceremony is in keeping with the customs of that community.

In short, I would like to see “civil unions” for all couples, regardless of sexual orientation, as the recognized legal status for a couple, conferring upon all who enter into it with the same legal rights, responsibilities and privileges. Conferring this legal status is what the state is fit to do.

Those desiring to have their union recognized by their chosen religious community as a condition of Holy Matrimony are then free to pursue that within their chosen religious community, in addition to the civil declaration, or for that matter without the civil declaration (though they would then not enjoy the legal status of union.) While this might seem radical to Americans (and no doubt many of the professional clergy would resist having their marriage-declaration powers withdrawn) it is the standard practice in many nations today.

This approach completely solves the same-sex marriage dispute that is dividing our nation, because it dissolves the religious aspect of legal marriage. It is clearly in better keeping with the non-establishment clause of the Constitution, because it does not even temporarily put religious clergy into the position of being clerk for the state. Each religious community would be free to decide for themselves what unions they want to bless, and how to bless them with whomever designated to officiate, without overtones of legal discrimination for their customs. Whether a given religious community chooses to bless or not bless any particular union would be of no interest to the state, as indeed it should not be. Those belonging to communities that refuse to bless some unions as holy would still be expected to respect the legal nature of the civil unions of fellow citizens outside their communities, and would have no reason to feel threatened by doing so.

My hope has been that the issue of same-sex marriage would spark a much wider critical examination of current marriage practices in the USA. I fear that the current headlong rush into solidified positions on same-sex marriage, hammered out in the context of power politics and the coming election, will actually hinder the process of real critical examination of current marriage practices. Discussions quickly devolve into a bifurcated pattern of “for it” or “against it,” but “how might we agree to do this thing differently” remains off the table. Clearly a missed opportunity. That is why my feelings are mixed.


Let the Dead be Baptized

April 20, 2012

"Normal Dan" Dan Liechty

Recently there was a minor uproar when people learned that it is a practice of the Church of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) to “baptize the dead.” Although this practice is supposed to be limited to the direct bloodline ancestors of Mormon people (thus assuring that those of their ancestral line will be assured of salvation in the afterlife) the practice apparently has expanded (without official sanction from the church hierarchy) to include others as well. This was seen to be particularly offensive to Jewish people and others who felt that this posthumous “claim” of people for Mormonism is a breach of the American “truce” between religions on which our particular brand of tolerance is based.

I have some strong feelings about this situation myself, but have purposely waited until the hubbub has died down a bit before expressing them publically. I think we can well assume that if Mitt Romney indeed becomes the Republican presidential candidate, we will hear about all of this again in the course of the campaign. Therefore, now seems like a good time to express what I have to say about it.

All religions have their way of remembering and honoring the dead. There is nothing about this that should be discouraged. Most of the time, the rituals of remembering and honoring are expressed in prayers. I am not an expert on all Jewish practices, but in the services of my own (Reform) congregation, the Mourners’ Kaddish, the prayer for the dead, is the culmination of the service itself. Most of the time, those mentioned specifically by name in this part of the service are Jewish people. However, that is not always the case. We are a congregation in which a very high percentage of the marriages are “mixed,” meaning one of the partners does not come from a Jewish background (this is very typical for Reform, Reconstruction and Conservative congregations, less so for Orthodox congregations but rising even there.) If a person requests the name of a non-Jewish relative to be mentioned during this part of the service, there is no objection at all, at least in my congregation. That a non-Jewish person’s name is included in this part of the service is a sign of deep respect and a signal that we are all connected as one human family, regardless of religion or ethnic origins.

Clearly, in every religious service in the country you will find similar ritual inclusions of people who are not members of that religion themselves. I can hardly imagine anyone with any sense objecting to having others mentioned in prayer or other rituals who are not members of that particular faith.

So, apparently, in demonstrating their remembrance and honor for people no longer with us in body, Mormons include not only prayer but baptism in their rituals of respect. Thought experiment. Most of us, I think, would be positively touched to learn that local Mormon congregants had mentioned our recently deceased parent or close relative in prayer. I think this would be true even if we did not particularly believe in the efficacy of prayer itself–we would recognize in any case that such prayer was a signal of respect. Why would we feel any different then, if we do, to learn that in addition to prayer for our deceased parent or close relative, there had also been a ritual baptism?

I think this would be because in our own Christian churches, baptism is associated with inauguration of membership, and so it may feel like Mormons are “claiming” as members those who did not, in life, wish to be members. However, we should keep in mind that the “offense” occurs only because we are reading our own understanding of the meaning of baptism into the Mormon practice. But this is not legitimate. If as part of a service emphasizing Christian love, a minister claimed Gandhi as an “honorary Presbyterian,” of Lutheran, or Baptist, or what have you, would that be so offensive? I think not, and I suggest that the Mormon practice of baptism for the dead is no more than that–a sign of remembrance, honor and respect.

Now, baptism of deceased Jewish people has some different undertones. There is a long history in Jewish and Christian history of “forced” baptisms, of living Jewish people being baptized against their will, and we honor in memory those many Jews who chose fines, exile, and even death, rather than to submit to Christian baptism. To learn that Anne Frank and other Holocaust victims have been ritually “baptized” in Mormon memorial services cannot be easily separated from the feelings associated with centuries of forced Christian baptism. Because of this, such baptisms should never be done in the public arena (which Mormons would never do in any case) and it would be good if Mormons did not publicize the specifics of this ritual. But Mormons have never forced baptism on living Jewish people, and so again it is not right to impute the same motives of those who forced baptism on living Jewish people onto Mormons. Baptism of the dead is an inner-church Mormon ritual signaling remembrance, honor and respect for those being symbolically included in the ritual.

If and when discussion of this practice hits the public airwaves again, as it surely will during a Romney run for President, I would hope we can all just chill out a bit, and put this practice in the same context as prayer for the deceased. Building tolerance for each other is anything but easy, so let us not suspicion each other about the rituals we employ for rituals intending remembrance, honor and respect.


Art and Death in Louisville, Kentucky

March 27, 2012

"Svaardvaard" Bill Bornschein

Perhaps this would have been more appropriately titled “Art, Death, and You,” because with this post I’d like to invite you to explore the 2012 Motherlodge Festival in Louisville. Motherlodge is the brainchild of professional drummer Ray Rizzo. In short, it is a semi-annual cultural exchange between the two cities where Ray splits residence, Louisville and New York. In the Spring, artists, musicians and actors based largely in New York travel to Louisville to share a bite of the Big Apple with Kentucky. In the Fall, Kentuckians reciprocate with a visit to New York. Now in its fourth year, the festival has improved and expanded every year. This year we want to do something new, which is to invite friends of the Ernest Becker Foundation to not only observe, but also participate in the process. Several of the scheduled events will have Beckerian themes. This is by design. As I’ve argued in previous posts, artists are the re-mythologizers of culture and a re-mythologization of death is a necessary component of getting past the denial that grips us. Recall how Becker explains that it is the artist who can confront the terror of mortality by transforming the anxiety through creativity.

The entire schedule for the festival is available at The schedule can be found under the heading Spring Motherlodge 2012. While the entire festival is wonderful, here are a few specific events that will be of particular interest to you:

  • Artist Jim Gavenus will create an opportunity to explore death through an exhibition of photographs of people at the moment of their passing.
  • Crawling Between Heaven and Hell is a retelling of Hamlet, but set in 1920s rural America. Themes of mortality, power, and denial flow through the entire work.
  • A long table discussion of Becker and death anxiety featuring members of the coroner’s office, a police officer involved with gang violence, members of the Joseph of Arimathea Society who provide burial services for the indigent, a hospice nurse, and others.

The long table discussion will allow participation through Facebook by members of EBF and we encourage you to post questions and comments to the live stream of the event. Here are directions for doing just that. The conversation will be at 3:30 EST on Saturday, March 31.

How to use Facebook chat while watching live Motherlodge shows. All for free!

1. Check out the schedule of live broadcasts listed below the player.

2. During a broadcast, click the Facebook “Check in & Chat” button on the right sidebar.

3. Log in with your Facebook info.

4. In the next window, write a message to invite your friends to chat and click the “Post to Wall” button.

5. You’re there! Enjoy the live broadcast and chat with other people watching online.

This Motherlodge Festival offers a great opportunity to bring artists together with academics, health care professionals, and others to create a richer and more creative dialog about Becker.  Two sets of communities are coming together. Artists are getting exposure from your viewing and participation and the artists are in turn being exposed to Becker and the EBF. This is a small start toward what the dreamer in me hopes will be an ever expanding conversation that produces concrete results. The door is open. Drop in.


Right Policy, Wrong Reasoning

March 13, 2012

"Normal Dan" Dan Liechty

Unlike Huffington Post commentator Sarah O’Leary ( I do not at all doubt the deep sincerity of the US Roman Catholic Bishops’ objections to the extension of birth control access among American women, nor their abhorrence at the thought that employers who share their convictions against such practices will be expected nevertheless to provide for it in their employee health insurance plans. The Bishops and others of similar conviction have every right to their views. They are right to object to policies of the Obama Administration that would make birth control measures readily accessible to American women. That said, I should add that in my view, the Bishops are very wrongheaded in their convictions. Yet they do us all a service to religiously patrol the borders of religious liberty.

Americans highly value religious liberty, and in general we support a “hands off” policy toward religious beliefs and practices. This approach is wise politically and theologically. However, this hands off approach is not absolute. There are numerous examples in which we desire and expect the State to intervene to protect our fellow citizens against the sincerely held convictions of a minority of religious believers.

Regardless of their sincerely held religious convictions, we do not allow parents to withhold standard necessary medical treatment from their children. We deem this unfair to those children, our fellow citizens. Regardless of sincerely held religious convictions (and plenty of biblical precedent) we do not sanction bigamous or polygamous marriage. We deem this unfair to the second and third wives and their children, our fellow citizens. In these and many other cases that could be cited, we desire and expect the State to intervene on behalf of the health and welfare of our fellow citizens, even though it means contravening the undoubtedly sincere convictions of a minority of religious believers.

Thus with clear studies indicating that women’s general health is significantly improved with regular access to effective birth control procedures, it is completely in line with our generally hands-off approach to religious liberty for the State, in the interest of protecting our fellow citizens’ health and welfare, to pursue a policy that maximally facilitates birth control access for any woman who wants it, even against the sincerely held convictions of a minority of religious believers.

But I would caution against dismissing this all as just so much politics. The religious liberty issue has merit, and needs to be examined closely whenever it arises. We do not want State authorities to simply presume they can act willy-nilly against the deeply held convictions of religious minorities. We should be grateful that the concern has been raised in this case as well.

The Obama administration could have handled this with more tact and diplomacy, and quite frankly, for a supposed Constitutional scholar, Obama’s own pronouncements on what does and does not constitute legitimate religious convictions betrays a woeful lack of deep understanding of the issues involved in the concept of Separation of Church and State. Nonetheless, their concrete policy is clearly the correct one, in line with the historical precedent of what we expect from the State, to protect the health and well-being of our fellow citizens.


What Social Research Can Tell Us About the OWS Enthusiasm Gap

February 27, 2012

"Normal Dan" Dan Liechty

Bob Burnett, blogging for the Huffington Post ( recently articulated a fact of American political life that has puzzled many observers. While upwards of 80% of average Americans express approval for statements like “Wall Street has too much power,” and “The rich need to pay more taxes,” nearly the same number say they “do not support” the Occupy Wall Street movement. In other words, there is a large, even majority group of Americans, who express agreement with the basic OSW message, but express disapproval of the OWS movement itself. Very strange?

Laurence Kohlberg’s stage theory of adult moral development might give a clue to this surprising problem.  Based on his research, Kohlberg outlined 3 levels of moral development: the pre-conventional, conventional and post-conventional levels. Each of these levels consists of two stages, for 6 stages in total. In terms of numbers, if we were to graph these levels onto a bell curve, it would roughly put 80% in the conventional category and about 10% each in the pre- and post-conventional categories. The conventional level is just that, the level of moral development attained by the average citizen, and reflecting exactly the kinds of moral values on which a solid society is based. These are, in particular, (1) high regard for how you are viewed by others (stage 3), and (2) high regard for maintenance of law and order (stage 4).

It is not difficult to see, therefore, why significant numbers of people might agree to certain policy-oriented statements (on civil rights, ending a war, curtailing Wall Street power, taxing the rich) and yet feel an almost knee-jerk revulsion against those creating “disorder” in pursuit of those ideas and policies. Richard Nixon, of course, was the absolute master of manipulating for his own political ends this gut-level revulsion of the majority against those creating “disorder.” But the American right on the whole seems to better understand this dynamic than does the left. Notice today how even with Tea Party folks showing up fully armed, the rallies still take on the undercurrent of support for “law and order”; even the Militia Movement folks loudly assume this mantle of standing for order against chaos!

Recognition that morality stands above “law and order” is, in Kohlberg’s research, reflective of higher level moral thought, and only reached as a solidly habitual way of thinking by a relatively small minority of people. Many more people, however, can be spurred to consider it in specific cases, such as when police (symbolic enforcers of order) turn dogs and fire hoses loose on children, or casually coat unarmed and peaceful people with pepper spray at close range, in full view of the cameras.

The upshot of what needs to be learned from Kohlberg’s research, however, is that street protest movements need to very early on demonstrate itself as supportive of law and order, and standing again disruption of social order, if they want to gain widespread public acceptance. This is not, of course, an easy thing to accomplish when the actual goal of a movement is truly dramatic upheaval in the current system. But history demonstrates that it is not impossible either.


What do we mean by “government?”

February 14, 2012

"Normal Dan" Dan Liechty

In today’s local newspaper, there is a letter written by a fellow citizen of my town. The letter, titled “Government is nothing but a spending machine,” expressed the writer’s view that government is a farce, a flim flam. It reads, in part, “The harsh reality is that government produces neither goods nor services. How can it? Most of its members have never run a business, never met a payroll, never assumed any risk. Rather, government is an unbridled spending machine … the very antithesis of profit. Government spends, it does not produce.”

I genuinely seek to understand the view of such fellow citizens, which we are hearing with increasing frequency and volume. I attended a “listening session” (but which was highly engineered toward selling the Ryan Budget Plan) held by my elected congressman, Adam Kinzinger, and he made much the same claims about government – that government cannot by its very nature create “real jobs,” something only private sector employers can do (a strange sentiment coming from a man who had spent at least a third of his life in active pursuit of a government job.) Echoes of the same sentiment are being heard in the statements of various would-be political leaders such as Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann. I am sure that in no matter what area of the nation you live, you could easily pick up your own local newspaper, turn on your radio, or do a little eavesdropping on conversations in your local coffee shop, and quickly encounter sentiments like this.

Much as I have tried to comprehend this view, I remain totally perplexed. Have these people not benefited from a public education, either personally or for family members, or employees? Do they not drive on public streets? Do they not assume the daily public protection of police, fire and emergency services? Do they never enjoy public parks, pools or recreational facilities? Do they not benefit from the social insurance offered by the Social Security Administration? Do they not take for granted the control and protection of government regulators every time they buy medical supplies, meat or other foodstuffs? Do they not appreciate that because of government regulated licensing procedures, they do not have to personally investigate the qualifications of every physician, lawyer, dentist, CPA, psychologist and social worker they may need to employ? Do they not appreciate that because of government zoning enforcement a toxic waste dump cannot be placed right next to their property? Do they not daily enjoy the protection of the US military and defense services? The list goes on and on.

Certainly, every thinking person agrees that there is plenty of waste involved in the way government spends tax dollars, mostly because government programs must endure the cost overruns, fiscal shenanigans and outright fraud perpetrated by private contractors–government programs are easy marks for these business-suited crooks exactly because there is no funding for adequate oversight. But just as clearly, the fact remains that government sponsored programs, products and services (schools, parks, safety, roads, food, air and water regulations, to name only a few)  represent the closest measure we have in this country to “common wealth” that enhances the general quality of life and thus raises the standard of living for all citizens.

While I want to respect and understand the views of all fellow citizens, it is increasingly difficult to comprehend this current knee-jerk anti-government opinion as more than a sort of adolescent anti-authoritarian shriek. At the very least, I can only conclude that these folks use the term “government” to mean something other than the empirical designation of that term.