My Country, ‘Tis of Thee

I was thinking about writing a post based on recent statements by Sen. Orrin Hatch (Republican, Utah) and Sen. Charles Grassley (Republican, Iowa), but an actual writer beat me to it.

From Paul Waldman of The Washington Post:

With Republicans well on their way to passing a dramatic overhaul of the tax code, they have presented to the public a sweeping, comprehensive vision not just of what taxes should look like, but of what government is there for, what our obligations are to one another, and even how each of us should think about our value as human beings. This is a moment of uncommon clarity.

…. Let’s start with Iowa’s Chuck Grassley, who made this comment on the estate tax:

“I think not having the estate tax recognizes the people that are investing,” Grassley said, “as opposed to those that are just spending every darn penny they have, whether it’s on booze or women or movies.”

Right now, the first $5.5 million of any estate is not subject to the tax. Because of that, fewer than one in 500 estates owes any tax at all. So Grassley is saying that 99.8 percent of Americans lead contemptible lives of waste and folly, while only that remaining sliver of the extra-wealthy have shown the virtue that should win their heirs the ability not to pay taxes on the fortunes bequeathed to them. The Senate bill would double the tax’s exemption, while the House bill would eliminate the tax entirely; depending on how the final version turns out, Eric Trump may finally be free of the fear that he’ll have to pay taxes on his inheritance.

Now let’s turn to Utah’s Orrin Hatch, who explained why, despite his support of a bill offering trillions of dollars in tax breaks to the wealthy and corporations, we absolutely must start slashing the social safety net immediately:

“I have a rough time wanting to spend billions and billions and trillions of dollars to help people who won’t help themselves, won’t lift a finger, and expect the federal government to do everything.”

… There isn’t much political advantage in saying that if you die with less than $5.5 million in assets, like nearly all Americans do, that means you were lazy and self-indulgent, while only the wealthy have proven their moral worth by the size of their bank accounts. So when someone says something like that, you can be pretty sure he’s expressing his actual beliefs….

Those are value judgments, rooted in how Republicans tend to view the worth of different people. They operate on the presumption that the economic system is fair, and the results of that system provide a measure of different people’s virtue. If you’re rich — even if you got rich by choosing the right parents — they presume that you deserve to be taxed as lightly as possible, while if you’re in need of the kinds of help we offer low-income people, then it reflects a moral failing. If we give you any help at all, it should be as grudging as possible, accompanied by stern lectures and even rituals of humiliation like drug tests.

Their tax bill, and their upcoming assault on the safety net, will weave these principles more deeply into our laws. And these principles are their real rationale; ignore all the practical claims they make about the explosion of economic growth these tax cuts will supposedly produce, and how the benefits will trickle down to everyone, and how it will all pay for itself. Those arguments are transparently bogus. A recent survey of 38 prominent economists found that only one said the tax bill would significantly increase growth…

Confronted with this comprehensive debunking of their practical claims, Republicans are undeterred and undaunted. That’s because they’re driven by a moral imperative, one that says that no matter what effect cutting taxes on the wealthy and corporations might have on the economy, it’s just the right thing to do. It rewards the virtuous, and you can tell who the virtuous are by how much money they have. If you’re asking why they wrote the bill the way they did, that’s just about all you need to know.

Meanwhile, our law-and-order president (sexual predator D. Trump) has endorsed former judge Roy Moore, who will probably join Grassley and Hatch in the Senate later this month:


My country, ’tis of thee,
Sweet land of liberty,
Of thee I sing….

This Week of All Weeks, Jane Addams Is Worth Thinking About

Jane Addams (1860-1931) isn’t famous these days. At one time, however, she was the most-admired woman in America and well-known throughout the world.

Wikipedia lists her occupation as “social and political activist, author and lecturer, community organizer, public intellectual”. Her tombstone in Cedarville, Illinois, describes her as a “humanitarian, feminist, social worker, reformer, educator, author, publicist, founder of Hull House, President [of the] Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom”. It also notes that she won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931.

Addams fought for women’s suffrage and is considered the founder of the social work profession in the United States. Sociologists view her as a social theorist. Philosophers place her in the school of philosophy known as Pragmatism.  At her death, some compared Jane Addams, who never sought political office, to her hero, Abraham Lincoln.

As this horrible week comes to a close, it may help us to consider Jane Addams as an example of, in Lincoln’s words, “the better angels of our nature”.

Today, Addams is best known as the principal founder of Hull House, the first “settlement house” in the United States. It opened its doors in Chicago in 1889 and continued to operate until 2012. Its initial goal was to help recent immigrants find their place in American society, because Addams’s purpose in life was to convert her progressive ideas into action.

Here is a passage from Jane Addams and the Dream of American Democracy by Jane Bethke Elshtain:

The statement of purpose in Hull-House’s charter read: “To provide a center for a higher civic and social life; to institute and maintain educational and philanthropic enterprises, and to investigate and improve the conditions in the industrial districts of Chicago”; but this fails to capture the spirit and the manifold activities of Hull-House. Addams refined this statement over the years. It was a “place for enthusiasms”; it helped “give form to social life”; it offered “the warm welcome of an inn”; it was a place for mutual interpretation of the the social classes one to another; it responded to ethical demands and shared fellowship; it was a place for the life of the mind….

At the conclusion of her second autobiographical volume, The Second Twenty Years at Hull-House, Addams takes another stab at it: “It was the function of settlements to bring into the circle of knowledge and fuller life, men and women who might otherwise be left outside” [ p. 92].

The work of Hull House “gained expression in day nurseries, kindergarten classes, playgrounds, boys’ and girls’ clubs, a cooperative boardinghouse, theater workshops, music schools, language classes, reading groups, handicraft centers and eventually a Labor Museum” [p. 93].

In the early days, after Addams and a Hull House resident named Julia Lathrop came to the aid of a young woman, all alone, giving birth in a nearby tenement, Addams exclaimed:

“This doing things that we don’t know how to do is going too far. Why did we let ourselves be rushed into midwifery?” To which [Lathrop] replied: “If we have to begin to hew down to the line of our ignorance, for goodness’ sake don’t let us begin at the humanitarian end. To refuse to respond to a poor girl in the throes of childbirth would be a disgrace to us forevermore. If Hull-House does not have its roots in human kindness, it is no good at all” [p. 93].

We might say the same thing about the United States of America during the months and years ahead.

Trump, the Christian

Peter Wehner had various jobs in the last three Republican administrations. Now he works at a conservative think tank called the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t pay much attention to what he has to say about anything, but his thoughts on “The Theology of Donald Trump” are worth reading. 

After Mr. Trump met with hundreds of evangelical Christians a couple of weeks ago, James Dobson, who is among the most influential leaders in the evangelical world and serves on Mr. Trump’s evangelical executive advisory board, declared that “Trump appears to be tender to things of the Spirit,” by which Dr. Dobson meant the Holy Spirit.

Of all the descriptions of Mr. Trump we’ve heard this election season, this may be the most farcical. As described by St. Paul, the “fruit of the Spirit” includes forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control, hardly qualities one associates with Mr. Trump. It shows you the lengths Mr. Trump’s supporters will go to in order to rationalize their enthusiastic support of him….

The calling of Christians is to be “salt and light” to the world, to model a philosophy that defends human dignity, and to welcome the stranger in our midst. It is to stand for justice, dispense grace and be agents of reconciliation in a broken world. And it is to take seriously the words of the prophet Micah, “And what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, and to love kindness and mercy, and to humble yourself and walk humbly with your God?”

Evangelical Christians who are enthusiastically supporting Donald Trump are signaling, even if unintentionally, that this calling has no place in politics and that Christians bring nothing distinctive to it — that their past moral proclamations were all for show and that power is the name of the game.

Trump’s success demonstrates beyond any doubt that millions of Republicans are morally bankrupt, despite their claims to cherish rock-solid moral values. The support Trump is receiving from “Christian” leaders demonstrates that they are morally bankrupt too, no matter how much they claim to foster Christian values.

We Can Happily Look Forward to More of This

Here’s part of a brilliant report from MSNBC on Trump’s attempt to explain where the money went:

So where does that leave us? Trump said he’d raised $6 million for veterans, but that wasn’t true. He later claimed he never used the $6 million figure, but that wasn’t true. His campaign insisted Trump had contributed $1 million himself, but that wasn’t true. Trump said he “didn’t want to have credit” for the fundraising efforts, but that wasn’t true. He said he and his team were vetting groups they’d never heard of four months after the fact, but that wasn’t true.

And as of yesterday, all of this, the Republican candidate insisted, is the media’s fault. Indeed, Trump thinks journalists should be “ashamed” of themselves for scrutinizing his claims that turned out to be wrong.

Not to put too fine a point on this, but in a normal year, in a normal party, with a normal candidate, this is the sort of controversy that could end a campaign. Legitimate presidential hopefuls can get away with some dissembling and the occasional whopper, but Trump was caught telling obvious falsehoods about support for veterans’ charities.

If this happened to Hillary Clinton, is there any doubt it would be the #1 issue in the presidential race between now and Election Day? That every pundit in America would use this as Exhibit A in their takes on why Americans just can’t trust the Democrat?

Unfortunately, there’s some truth in that last paragraph, although I think there will be less media criticism of Clinton’s “untrustworthiness” as we head toward November. I mean, even if you want to be “tough” on both sides or you have an ax to grind, how do you criticize Clinton for spilling a glass of milk when Trump makes a habit of firebombing dairies?

Too Ironic to Resist: An “Establishment” Republican on Trump

It’s a good thing I don’t write this blog in order to make my four readers happy. If I wanted to make you happy, I wouldn’t write the word “Trump” ever again.

So, here in this vale of tears, someone named Peter Wehner published a nicely-written article in the New York Times pointing out that he and his fellow evangelical Christians shouldn’t support Trump. It’s hard to disagree:

This … man humiliated his first wife by conducting a very public affair, chronically bullies and demeans people, and says he has never asked God for forgiveness. His name is emblazoned on a casino that features a strip club; he has discussed anal sex on the air with Howard Stern…He is a narcissist appealing to people whose faith declares that pride goes before a fall.

Mr. Trump’s character is antithetical to many of the qualities evangelicals should prize in a political leader: integrity, compassion and reasoned convictions, wisdom and prudence, trustworthiness, a commitment to the moral good.

When Bill Clinton was president, evangelicals ranked moral probity high on their list of leadership qualities. Supporters of Mr. Trump, a moral degenerate, justify their support by saying we’re electing a president rather than a pastor. Why a significant number of evangelicals are rallying round a man who exposes them as hypocrites is difficult to fathom.

Part of the explanation is that many evangelicals feel increasingly powerless, beaten down, aggrieved and under attack. A sense of ressentiment, or a “narrative of injury,” is leading them to look for scapegoats to explain their growing impotence. People filled with anger and grievances are easily exploited….

Enter Donald Trump, alpha male.

Mr. Trump’s evangelical supporters don’t care about his agenda; they are utterly captivated by his persona. They view him as the strongest, most dominant, most assertive political figure they have ever seen. In an odd bow to Nietzschean ethics, they respect and applaud his Will to Power. And so the man who openly admires tyrants like Vladimir V. Putin and praised the Chinese crackdown in Tiananmen Square because it showed “strength” has become the repository of their hopes.

Set aside the fact that Mr. Trump is a compulsive and unrepentant liar. Set aside, too, that he has demonstrated no ability for statecraft or the actual administration of government and has demonstrated much incompetence at business to boot.

Bracket for now the fact that Mr. Trump has been more erratic, unprincipled and proudly ignorant when it comes to public policy than perhaps any major presidential candidate in American history.

What stuns me is how my fellow evangelicals can rally behind a man whose words and actions are so at odds with the central teachings of our faith. They overlook, rationalize and even delight in Mr. Trump’s obsessive name-calling and Twitter attacks, his threats and acts of intimidation, his vindictiveness and casual cruelty (including mocking the disabled and P.O.W.s), all of which masquerade as strength and toughness. For some evangelicals, Christianity is no longer shaping their politics; with Mr. Trump in view, their faith lies subordinate.

Aside from his misreading of Nietzschean ethics (Nieztsche would presumably regard Trump as a dangerous buffoon, not an Übermensch) and his misguided attack on Planned Parenthood (which I deleted), Mr. Wehner makes a pretty good case. Trump is more antichrist than Christian. 

But getting back to Mr. Wehner. According to the Times, Mr. Wehner, the professed Christian, “served in the last three Republican administrations”.

The last three Republican administrations? That would include Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush! Talk about three men who lackedintegrity, compassion and reasoned convictions, wisdom and prudence, trustworthiness [and] a commitment to the moral good”! Who exposed evangelicals as hypocrites and exploited people’s feelings of anger and fear! Who demonstrated a lack of interest and competence! Oh, brother.

Wehner rightly refers to the following as “Trumpism”:

[It’s] a purposeful effort, led by a demagogue, to incite ugly passions, stoke resentments and divisions, and create fear of those who are not like “us”…

Yet it’s the modern Republican Party, which stopped being the Party of Lincoln decades ago, that has succeeded in poisoning our politics with a strategy built on inciting ugly passions, stoking resentments and creating fear. The top Republicans are masters of demagogy and division.

Looking back on his long career serving Republican Presidents, Wehner should know all about making his faith subordinate to his politics. In embracing the Republican Party, he and other professed Christians “are doing incalculable damage to their witness”. Trumpism is Republicanism writ huge.

(While you’re here, check out John Oliver’s campaign to make Trump “Drumpf” again: might make you happy.)

Update:  Or if happiness is out of the question, read “Trump Might Not Be a Fascist, But He’s Merrily Leading Us Down That Path”, originally posted here. It’s long, but important, especially the second half or so.

Lies, Damn Lies and Some Statistics

I keep intending to update this blog, but end up doing other things. I can’t use those popular but lame “I’m too busy” or “There isn’t enough time” excuses. The truth is that I’m choosing to do other things. Why lie?

But last month I promised to revisit the philosopher Gerald Dworkin’s discussion of permissible lies when Professor Dworkin did. His new article, “How You Justified 10 Lies (Or Didn’t)”, was published a few days ago.

Professor Dworkin begins by listing the ten lies he discussed last time. He still thinks all ten would be permissible. Now, however, we get to see what percentage of 10,000 New York Times readers agreed with him. Even more importantly, from my perspective, we get to see how many of them agreed with me.

Surprisingly, all ten lies were deemed “permissible” by a majority of the Times readers. One lie was approved by 96% of the respondents. One was merely approved by 51%. But every single lie Dworkin listed got a positive reaction. Do the generally liberal New York Times readers who read “The Stone” philosophy blog and respond to opinion polls tend to be liars? Or maybe they were lying when they said these lies would be acceptable?

So here are the ten lies, listed according to my evaluations of them and showing how many Times readers got it right or were seriously mistaken when they responded to Professor Dworkin’s poll.

I think these five would clearly be permissible:

(1) to hold a surprise party. 96% of the Times readers agreed;
(3) to calm down a loved one who has severe dementia. 89% agreed;
(4) to protect a newly-widowed woman from unnecessary pain regarding the violent death of her husband. But only 51% agreed;
(5) to test for racial discrimination in housing. 89% agreed;
(9) to get a better price from a car salesman. 94% agreed (very few sell cars for a living).

I had some concerns about these two, but decided they would also be permissible:

(8) to tell the willing participants in a medical study that they received real knee surgery when they really didn’t. 87% agreed;
(10) to tell a young child that their drawing was great when it really wasn’t. 71%.

I had more trouble with the last three. I wasn’t completely sure about this one, but decided to reject it:

(7) to lie about one’s plans to have children in order to get a job. 62% said it would be permissible. I thought it would be better to deflect the question (being male would make it easier for me to deflect).

Finally, these two were easy to reject:

(2) to tell a young child seriously injured in a plane crash that his parents “were O.K.”, even though neither survived, so that the child might be stronger during his upcoming surgery. 63% said it would be o.k., presumably hoping that somebody else would tell the kid the truth later on: “You know that plane crash you were in, and how the doctor said your parents were o.k.? Well, they weren’t. They were dead all along.” I thought one of those vague answers doctors know how to give would be better in the long run.

(6) During the Cuban Missile Crisis, President Kennedy denied that America’s missiles in Turkey were discussed with the Russians. That was a lie. 55% said it was permissible. Again, I thought it would have been better to deflect the question or give a vague answer, while intending to eventually tell the truth.

After revealing the results of the readers’ poll, Dworkin discusses some of the more contentious lies. For example, a reader argued that it would be better for the woman in the job interview to answer truthfully regarding her plans to have a family, but “to question the heck” out of the interviewer (“How will this affect my chances?”, etc.). Other readers argued that the widow would have a right to know the truth about her husband’s painful death, although Dworkin observes that the woman might ask the question without really wanting to know if her husband suffered.

Most interesting to me is Dworkin’s discussion of the child facing surgery whose parents died in the plane crash. He and 51% of the respondents thought that saying the child’s parents were “O.K.” would be permissible. That’s hard for me to believe. Dworkin wants to protect the child in the short run, hoping that the surgery will go better if the child doesn’t know the truth. He also questions whether a young child has a right to know the truth, since young children aren’t fully autonomous yet. Fortunately, he concludes that if the child would be satisfied with a vague answer, a vague answer would be preferable to lying. I think that’s obviously true and that it’s extremely likely that a doctor could come up with a suitably vague but reassuring answer. So we aren’t as far apart on this case as it seemed.

In fact, while writing the previous paragraph, I realized that I could accept a lie in this situation too. My principal reason for disagreeing with Dworkin and the 51% is that I disagree with the particular lie they endorsed. I believe a lie like “Your parents were hurt too, so other doctors are helping them”, would be permissible, since it would allow for the possibility that the doctors weren’t able to help the parents enough to keep them alive. A lie like that could make the child’s transition to the truth less painful than hearing “your parents are O.K.”.

Dworkin concludes with some general remarks on the morality of lying. I think the most important point he makes is that there are no simple rules for deciding whether a lie is permissible. Life is complicated and so is morality. Different values come into play and need to be balanced in different situations. This is one reason the world needs blogs and other forms of communication, even though the people who communicate often end up doing things other things, some of which are easier or more fun than communicating.

Lies and Damn Lies, But No Statistics

The philosopher Gerald Dworkin got a big response when he wrote about lying earlier this week. He listed ten situations in which someone might or did tell a lie and asked his readers how they felt about each case. Dworkin himself thinks we all lie more than we realize and that lying is generally more acceptable than we think. It isn’t possible to respond to Dworkin’s list online anymore, but here’s the article. It includes some prefatory remarks. As for the lies, they’re listed below, followed by my thoughts on their acceptability.

Are the following lies permissible (yes) or not (no)?

1. A man lies to his wife about where they are going in order to get her to a place where a surprise birthday party has been organized.

2. A young child is rescued from a plane crash in a very weakened state. His parents have been killed in the crash but he is unaware of this. He asks about his parents and the attending physician says they are O.K. He intends to tell the truth once the child is stronger. 

3. Your father suffers from severe dementia and is in a nursing home. When it is time for you to leave he becomes extremely agitated and often has to be restrained. On the occasions when you have said you would be back tomorrow he was quite peaceful about your leaving. You tell him now every time you leave that you will be back tomorrow knowing that in a very short time after you leave he will have forgotten what you said.

4. A woman’s husband drowned in a car accident when the car plunged off a bridge into a body of water. It was clear from the physical evidence that he desperately tried to get out of the car and died a dreadful death. At the hospital where his body was brought his wife asked the physician in attendance what kind of death her husband suffered. He replied, “He died immediately from the impact of the crash. He did not suffer.”

5. In an effort to enforce rules against racial discrimination “testers” were sent out to rent a house. First, an African-American couple claiming to be married with two children and an income that was sufficient to pay the rent would try to rent a house. If they were told that the house was not available, a white tester couple with the same family and economic profile would be sent. If they were offered the rental there would be persuasive evidence of racial discrimination.

6. In November of 1962, during the Cuban Missile crisis, President Kennedy gave a press conference. When asked whether he had discussed any matters other than Cuban missiles with the Soviets he absolutely denied it. In fact, he had promised that the United States would remove missiles from Turkey. 

7. A woman interviewing for a job in a small philosophy department is asked if she intends to have children. Believing that if she says (politely) it’s none of their business she will not get the job, she lies and says she does not intend to have a family.

8. In order to test whether arthroscopic surgery improved the conditions of patients’ knees a study was done in which half the patients were told the procedure was being done but it was not. Little cuts were made in the knees, the doctors talked as if it were being done, sounds were produced as if the operation were being done. The patients were under light anesthesia. It turned out that the same percentage of patients reported pain relief and increased mobility in the real and sham operations. The patients were informed in advance that they either would receive a real or a sham operation. 

9. I am negotiating for a car with a salesperson. He asks me what the maximum I am prepared to pay is. I say $15,000. It is actually $20,000.

10. We heap exaggerated praise on our children all the time about their earliest attempts to sing or dance or paint or write poems. For some children this encouragement leads to future practice, which in turn promotes the development–in some — of genuine achievement.

Dworkin thinks all ten of these lies are justifiable. I think half of them clearly are. It’s acceptable to lie:

(1) to hold a surprise party;
(3) to calm down an Alzheimer’s patient;
(4) to protect a newly-widowed woman from unnecessary pain;
(5) to test for racial discrimination in housing; and
(9) to get a better price from a car salesman.

Lie (8), the one about telling people they had an operation when they really didn’t, is a bit problematic. To be acceptable, two conditions would have to be met. First, the patients would have to fully understand that some of them would be receiving, in effect, a placebo. Giving a placebo is acceptable in medical research if the experiment’s subjects understand they might receive a placebo and won’t suffer significant consequences from not getting the real thing. Dworkin mentions the first condition, but not the second.

I would add a third condition: every patient should receive the real surgery, not the fake surgery, if the study showed the surgery to be beneficial. Since these other conditions aren’t mentioned, I wouldn’t put lie (8) in the clearly acceptable category. But if forced to choose, I’d say it’s all right to “lie” in this case. Telling someone you will tell them a lie is more like playing a game than real lying.

Lie (10), the one regarding exaggerated praise for children, is also a little problematic. It’s acceptable to sometimes give children exaggerated praise, but the praise shouldn’t be extravagant. Praise should also leave room for improvement (if a drawing is perfect, there’s no reason to do a better one next time). But lie (10)  also goes in the “yes” column.

I have more trouble with lie (7). Should a prospective employee lie about their desire to have children if an interviewer inappropriately raises the subject? Instead of lying, I think a better response would be to politely ask the interviewer whether it’s appropriate to ask a prospective employee about having children. Not answering the question while mildly calling attention to its inappropriateness would be more acceptable than lying, so I give lie (7) a “no”.

The last two lies, (2) and (6), are easy to reject. In both cases, giving a vague or non-committal answer would be better than lying. Lie (2) might stop the injured little boy from worrying about his parents. But why open the door to a future revelation: “Remember when I told you that your parents were doing fine? I lied. They were already dead.” If you couldn’t think of a sufficiently vague answer, you could at least tell a lie that was closer to the truth: “Your parents were hurt, but the doctors are trying to make them better.” Then change the subject back to the child’s needs. Eventually learning the truth wouldn’t be as much of a shock.

Finally, in the case of (6), the only non-hypothetical lie in the list, it’s fair to say that all government leaders sometimes have valid reasons to keep a secret. Perhaps President Kennedy had a good, non-political reason not to tell the truth about his talks with the Russians. But he didn’t have to absolutely deny that America’s missiles in Turkey were discussed. Kennedy could just as easily have told the press that various issues of national security always come up when dealing with the Russians. This time was no different. Next question, please.

So, giving a “no” to (2) and (6) leaves me with seven acceptable and three unacceptable lies. Professor Dworkin, who said all ten were justified, promises to write about this further. I’ll do the same. But keep in mind that you can trust me, because I’m not lying. Whether this clearly untrustworthy professor returns to the subject is a whole other question.