Not a feature film starring Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn. A reality
Last week the White House hosted its first state dinner and the biggest story wasn’t the pomp or the circumstance. It was the DC socialites who crashed the party.
In addition to the other twists and turns of the story, the event has been especially sobering for the Secret Service, which failed to flag them as uninvited. The embarrassment only grew when it was learned that they actually met the president.
Although the couple proudly posted pictures of their expedition, some have speculated that the event will haunt them as a historic faux pas.
Ethically speaking, who was more in the wrong? The crashers or the Secret Service?
Showing up to an invitation-only event without one is certainly a classic faux pas. But is violating social protocol unethical? That’s harder to determine. A good case can be made that sometimes morality asks us to violate social protocol (say, refusing to give up one’s seat on a bus despite a racially structured social code).
What makes this case notably different is not merely that the crashers arrived uninvited at just any party, but a state dinner. There are strict regulations that govern contact with the president and entry into presidential quarters. Presumably, these rules are designed for the president’s protection, an objective are all bound to respect and uphold. Violating them was a definite no-no.
The Secret Service on the other hand suffered a serious breach of duty. While the details of how the couple made it into the dinner — and up to the president — are still emerging, the Secret Service clearly failed to uphold its own protocols. Presumably both Secret Service procedures and individual agent conduct are held to the highest level of scrutiny. Any violation or lapse is by implication ethically severe.
No one was a winner in this situation, but where the couple was reckless, the Secret Service failed.
Last week I wrote about the depiction of war in video games and suggested that the line between virtual and actual conflict seems to be getting thinner. Now, two Swiss human rights organizations have determined that some video games feature violations of international law. The orgs, Trial and Pro Juventute, argue that the violence included in many of today’s “military games” would actually constitute war crimes, and that allowing gamers to simulate such actions legitimizes them.
Opponents of these games can object either on consequentialist or virtue-based grounds. Either war crimes in games have a traceable effect on the values and behavior of games and thus society, or there’s just something inherently wrong with allowing war crimes to take place, even in a virtual setting (or both). It’s hard to prove the consequentialist argument, and the virtue-based argument seems a bit censorial… Would we censor all forms of media in this way?
The Swiss orgs responded that games are especially dangerous because of their interactive nature. We don’t just watch war crimes take place – we make them happen (and are often rewarded with bonus points).
Via Andrew Sullivan, The Economist has a fascinating post on the growing parallels between religion and theoretical physics.
It’s not that the physicists aren’t right. It’s just that, compared to the 19th century, more of the propositions that physicists are asking non-scientists to entertain are not vastly more elegant or evidence-based than those of religion. This may largely be an artifact of science journalism, with its focus on the weird and the unknown, rather than of science itself, most of which tends to be a lot more grounded and prosaic.
I think the author is on to something here. Religion’s goal, it seems to me and I think to many other non-believers, is to explain the world in a way that makes sense to them. Physics does the same thing — in the last several centuries, in ways that could be proven, but in the last 50 years in ways that are increasingly theoretical.
It goes to the point that debating The Existence Of God is pretty mundane and unnecessary for non-believers. The more interesting questions revolve around how beneficial or harmful religion and certain religions are. Physics too, since it’s not clear now how a better understanding of dimensions we cannot access will help us pass health care reform etc. When there is no way of proving a proposition, the better way to think about things is to understand what impact belief in that proposition will have.
Last week Congressman Obey submitted a bill that would impose a surtax to pay for the continued war effort in Afghanistan. The goal, according to TNR, is to raise awareness of the real costs of the war in a way that will make the tradeoffs of the conflict more obvious.
A quick take is that this kind of regulation is definitely justified. Military spending has always occupied a strange netherworld where it is rarely if ever discussed as a direct trade off with social programs. Of course, this bill is not likely to pass. But it raises interesting questions about why the obvious trade offs in public spending are not more fully discussed. What is it that makes military spending so popular? Is it dedication to an amorphous “victory?” More questions than answers here — perhaps a smart commenter can explain why American political discourse has evolved this way.
DCist had a post Monday on an on-going discussion between the D.C. Council and the Archbishop of Washington over the consequences of a likely move by the Council to legalize gay marriage. The Archbishop has suggested that legalized gay marriage would force the Catholic Church and its related charities to provide benefits to the spouses of gay employees, a requirement that would violate core beliefs of the church. Though the Archbishop has wavered on it’s position (at one point claiming it would cease to provide charitable services in DC), it has most recently declared that it will simply not follow the law. The clash raises an interesting issue about what to do when law violates an individual’s core beliefs.
The New York Times has an interesting discussion on the criminal sentencing of juveniles and the mentally handicapped, a topic we’ve discussed extensively here. The article explores the difference between rules and standards in sentencing. For example, “if you commit murder even hours before your 18th birthday, you cannot be put to death for your crime. The same killing a few hours later may be a capital offense.” That is a clear rule about when to use the death penalty. A similar Supreme Court ruling bars the execution of the mentally disabled. According to the article, while this sounds like a rule, it is actually a standard, because determining mental handicap is somewhat subjective, as compared with proving age. In the end, all of these debates link back to responsibility – at what age and level of mental capacity can we call people responsible for the crimes they commit?
Or, A Defense of Socratic Education
Continuing my Malcolm Gladwell as Last Man theme, Lane Wallace via the Atlantic Correspondents blog tries to explain why we get the management/self-help gurus we deserve.
“…humans are just so uncomfortable with ambiguity. We desperately want there to be a pattern, an orthodoxy, a model, or a formula we can simply implement or follow to find our way back to safe, clear, and happy endings….But whatever the reasons are, if her observation is true, then it’s cause for concern. Because there are dangers to oversimplification, as recent events in both our economy and Iraq have painfully reminded us. No matter what we might like to be true, successful leadership in an increasingly complex world is going to depend not on condensing it to simple terms, or finding the right prescriptive formula, but on getting comfortable enough with ambiguity and complexity to see a way through it.”
I think there’s a good point here, but I’d dispute that this oversimplification is somehow natural to the human condition. One can point to any number of nuanced, cautious thinkers writing about problems like the Iraq war, health care, etc.
However, it’s much more difficult to find this kind of nuance in business writing. As an example, Fast Company, a leading business magazine, rates business books on a rigor scale with the top comparison being a best-selling management tome Good to Great. However, even a modestly educated reader will finish the book and reflect that s/he has really just learned the following lessons: be a good leader, hire dedicated people, be disciplined, etc — the sort of list a Business 101 student might author the first day of class.
I think that Wallace has overgeneralized — it’s this particular genre of management literature that lacks nuance and any real methodological depth.
Surely a big part of the distinction is motivation. At the risk of generalizing, academics write to impress others in their field and advance knowledge. Business books are written to…sell business books, as well as create lucrative speaking and consulting opportunities. So business books tend to be written in a way that appeals not only to the CEOs of major corporations (generally Harvard et all business school grads), but also church groups, government offices, etc.
I also disagree with Wallace’s argument that the next generation will be worse at dealing with ambiguity (a conclusion she comes to after one interview with an admissions director). Those who acclimate themselves to dealing with disagreement and nuance will succeed — an education that is more suited to philosophy, literature, or the liberal arts much more so to a strict education in business. Meanwhile, those who believe they can gain something from the intellectual poor house that is management literature should mark down the contact information in their book jackets — they will require a lot of expensive consulting.
Image used under creative commons
Non faith-based reply to Marc
Marc argues that a strong moral argument exists to require insurance companies to cover spiritual healing. He writes that, “When risk is involved, the bearer of the risk should ultimately make the decision.” Since patients in need of care bear the risk of the success or failure of the procedure, if they desire a spiritual healing, insurance companies ought to cover the cost, Marc argues. This argument fails because the insurance companies—and all the fellow members of the insurance plan—are the people covering the cost and bearing the risk.
The purpose of insurance, Marc writes, “is to prevent bad luck from having a negative impact on our life circumstances.” The way it does that is by spreading the costs of bad luck and accidents. The individual who selects a faith healing procedure does not bear the risk alone; everyone shares the risk, at least financially. Assuming that those individuals who select faith healing procedures would have the opportunity to select science-based procedures should the former fail, the end result would be higher premiums for everyone. Why should others have to subsidize other people’s religious beliefs via a science-based insurance company? If the faith healing procedures were the same price or cheaper than the science-based procedures—and people who selected them couldn’t then see a medical doctor as well—it would be a different story. But even were that the case, I don’t see why such an option should be mandated by the government.
A number of experts at the Chronicle of Higher Education weigh in here. They address a number of important education debates: Who should pay for higher education? Are there still strong economic incentives to attend college? Can the U.S. learn from other countries on this issue?
With an abundance of college students and graduates, a severe decline in jobs, and the ever-ballooning cost of tuition, we are in need of a serious sit-down on these issues.
Science vs. religion in the pursuit of healing
The Washington Post had an article yesterday on efforts by the Church of Scientology to get Congress to include in health care reform a provision that would require insurers to reimburse patients for the cost of prayer practitioners. In the United States, health care is most often administered through scientific-based medicine – medication, surgery, etc. However, for much of human history, there has been a concept of faith healing – the idea that religious belief, prayer and rituals can evoke divine power to remedy disease and disability.
Like doctors, prayer practitioners claim to be able to heal the sick. So, the argument goes, insurance should cover the cost of prayer. So should it? Read more