A recent op-ed in The New York Times about wilderness areas raises important questions about the ethics of public access and environmental preservation in the national park system. Its author sharply criticizes what he feels is overzealous enforcement of the 1964 Wilderness Act.
Citing cases of deaths caused by lack of signage and vast expanses of wilderness, the article suggests that the laws once intended to preserve areas of natural beauty and promote easy access to them have instead needlessly endangered lives. Further preservation efforts, enacted as recently as 2009, only exacerbate the problem:
“… agencies have made these supposedly open recreational areas inaccessible and even dangerous, putting themselves in opposition to healthy and environmentally sound human-powered activities, the very thing Congress intended the Wilderness Act to promote.”
There is significant ideological tension between encouraging access to wilderness and the efforts to preserve it. Activists talk about the vital importance of the wilderness experience, but realistically, the only way to preserve that experience is through limiting access to it. But how much space do we really need?
A conflict inevitably arises. On one side, there is a kind of wilderness elitism. Its goal is to maintain the purity of large swaths of the natural environment for the privilege of a select few. It is, on a basic level, impossible to sustain for everyone. Its counterpart is wilderness populism, which maintains that these natural areas should be easily accessible for everyone. This idea of mass access, while egalitarian, threatens to destroy the qualities that make the wilderness so precious to enthusiasts.
So far, the government has struck a good balance, and accomplished great things with wilderness preservation. Refusing to put up signs, however, needlessly endangers people. More than that, it isn’t helping anyone to more fully experience the solitude of the woods.
Image used under a Creative Commons Attribution License from Flickr user Jagger
In the latest episode of the War on Drugs, about 10% of the Mexican federal police have been fired for corruption or failure to perform their duties. Many face additional criminal charges. Perhaps some federales will now think harder before dealing with the cartels.
As Jake has described, punishment serves four purposes: retribution, rehabilitation, deterrence, and incapacitation. In the case of the federales, deterrence was probably the prime motivator.
But how effective is deterrence? For a criminal, the severity of punishment is one of three things to consider. The other two are the likelihood of being caught and the reward for carrying out the crime.
In the course of policing, a government can affect two of these factors: likelihood and severity of punishment. But affecting only these two factors may not be enough. Until recently, the Chinese government was routinely executing officials found guilty of malfeasance, yet corruption remains stubbornly entrenched.
This is because the potential rewards for abusing power might be so great as to trump dangers to life and limb. A simple cost-benefit analysis tells us that if the potential reward for a crime is great enough, then many risks may be justified.
In Mexico, the continued existence of a lucrative underground market provides irresistible opportunities to some people; in China, a lack of transparency in the political system does the same thing.
Punishment surely has its place among the means a society uses to control miscreants. But lasting solutions to corruption might require that we think more about eliminating the rewards that make corruption attractive.
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Are these sort of criticisms appropriate?
Glenn Beck’s Restoring Honor rally has come and gone, but the conservative television host is continuing to make headlines this week. On Sunday, he strongly critiqued President Obama’s religious beliefs.
Beck claimed that Obama “is a guy who understands the world through liberation theology, which is oppressor-and-victim.”
“People aren't recognizing his version of Christianity,” Beck added.
Is Beck’s criticism of Obama a valid critique of the President’s philosophy or an inappropriate attack on a matter of personal faith? Read more
Project Syndicate has an ongoing series by Columbia University economist Jagdish Bhagwati on “The Open Economy and its Enemies.” There is more or less a consensus among economists that free trade promotes economic growth; the law of comparative advantage still holds nearly two centuries after it was formulated. But the opinions of both the public and other social scientists are more ambivalent.
Competition is the means by which actors in an open economy are disciplined. But competition generates losers and winners, too –at least in the short run. Non-economic concerns with free trade include growing inequality, the constant displacement of people under conditions of ruthless competition, environmental degradation, the globe-spanning hazards of mutual dependency, and national security.
Critics of free trade may accuse economists of linear thinking for ignoring the messiness of reality. But economists might equally accuse critics of free trade for ignoring the bottom line –that increased wealth will expand the possibilities of what a society can accomplish.
The free trade debate, like many others, asks how willing we are to trade increased levels of wealth for other values, and under what conditions. Not surprisingly, this debate tends to come to the fore in times of economic uncertainty.
Image by Flickr user free range jace used under a Creative Commons Attribution License
When good policies expire
This is a perfect example of what you could call “freezing difference.” MSNBC explains:
Following an uproar over a policy it said was designed 30 years ago to achieve racial equality, a school district board in a Mississippi town on Friday scrapped a system of student elections where race determined whether a candidate could run for some class positions, including president.
The policy designated on a rotating basis the race of each position. So, for example, one year the class secretary had to be white, the next year black, and so on. There were four total class officer positions up for grabs. The school dropped the policy this year in response to a parent complaint after a 12-year-old girl was considered ineligible to run for one of the officer positions because of her race.
From where we stand, this feels wrong. The story writes itself: “Precocious black student prevented from running for class office due to her race. School stands by 30-year-old policy.”
But take a look at what the district superintendent said when he revoked the policy, making every officer position equal opportunity: Read more
Over at CNN, Will Bunch bemoans how Glenn Beck is attempting to rewrite history in order to support his own political agenda.
For thousands of followers […], there is a genuine desire to relearn American history. The only problem is that what they're learning is bunk. It's not history as it happened, but rather a Beck-scripted, Tea Party rewrite of history that demonizes Obama, Democrats and progressive activists.
This problem is a consequence of the harmful reverence for history that I wrote about earlier this week. If we didn’t have such a history-worshiping political cultur
e, then no rewrite of history would have such an effect on our present day politics.
For example, Glenn Beck teaches his viewers that America’s creation was rooted in Christianity. Whether this is historically true or not, it shouldn’t matter. Even if America was rooted in Christianity, it shouldn’t settle the issue about whether today’s America should be a Christian nation.
The solution is a greater reverence – or at least awareness – of philosophy’s place in politics. If we had such a political culture, Glenn Beck and others would have to argue their case with solid theory and sound logic. And if he can do that, then maybe he’s right.
Photo by Flickr user Gage Skidmore used under a Creative Commons Attribution license.
Monday, August 23 – Friday, August 27
- On Monday, Sam discussed the importance of politicians explicitly stating their political philosophies before urging President Obama to read The Public Philosopher; TPP intern Charles explained the view that a debate over first principles and the role of government has eclipsed the ‘culture wars’ over abortion and gay marriage; in another post, he argued that European countries ought to integrate the Roma;
- On Wednesday, TPP intern Han criticized some attempts to alter the Constitution by arguing against ‘Founding Father-ism’; TPP intern Ethan defended video games against people like British Defense Secretary Liam Fox, who called for a ban of the most recent Medal of Honor game
- On Thursday, TPP intern Charles investigated seeming Western news media indifference towards terrible Pakistani floods; and Jake explored the meaning of 'moderate Islam' in light of a recent Ross Douthat piece
In Others’ Words
- A Korea Times article on the release of Michael Sandel’s new book on moral reasoning provided an interesting glimpse into East Asia’s regard for ethics, and philosophy in general
- Another article from Mainichi Daily News similarly illustrates the popularity of philosophy and philosophers in East Asia
- For Victoria Advocate, Raymond Smith decried the world’s fall into depravity
- Nina Rosenstand from Philosophy on the Mesa returned from vacation and jumped into a discussion of moral naturalism
- A user at Heathen-Hub pointed us to a talk on the ethics research of Eric Schwitzegebel and Joshua Knobe
- Philosophy In A Time of Error linked to an interesting attack advertisement against Immanuel Kant
- Tehran Times offered an interview with Eric Thomas Weber, who believes that John Rawls returned Western philosophers’ attention to the notion of the social contract
- Guest blogger Ryan Berg wrote for Capitolism on the relationship between the philosophical notion of ‘fairness’ and the Bush tax cuts
- Daniel McCarthy for The American Conservative discussed the issues at heart of the upcoming book, The Dilemmas of American Conservatism, and connected the thinking of Willmoore Kendall with that of Murray Rothbard
- A recent Politico article asks “What is Obama’s philosophy?”
- And then a recent Salon article criticized that Politico piece, before exploring the same issue
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Who's liberal enough?
Ross Douthat writes a thoughtful piece at the NYT Blog on how to understand and engage with Muslim critics of radical Islamism. He rejects those Western thinkers who limit the category of “moderate Muslims” to those, like Ayaan Hirsi Ali or Irshad Manji, who endorse Western liberalism absolutely and without qualification. He writes:
This school of thought strikes me as misguided. Manji and Hirsi Ali are brave and admirable, but what they’re offering (Hirsi Ali especially) is ultimately a straightforward critique of Muslim traditions and belief, not a bridge between Islam and the liberal West that devout Muslims can cross with their religious faith intact. If such bridges are going to be built, much of the work will necessari
ly be done by figures who sometimes seem ambiguous and even two-faced, who have illiberal conversation partners and influences, and whose ideas are tailored to audiences in Cairo or Beirut or Baghdad as well as audiences in Europe and America. That’s how change — religious, ideological, whatever — nearly always works.
On the other side, Douthat is clear that making “these kind of distinctions doesn’t require us to suspend all judgment where would-be Islamic moderates are concerned” and that ” forays into more dubious territory should be greeted with swift pushback, rather than simply being accepted as a necessary part of the moderate Muslim package.”
I discussed similar issues here.
Image by Flickr user Paul Lowry used under a Creative Commons Attribution License
On both the 11th and the 23rd of this month there have been stories on BBC citing the inadequacy of the international aid response to the Pakistani floods. At the moment, there are seven mentions of the Pakistani floods on the front pages of the BBC site.
U.S. news outlets have less to say. CNN, Fox, CBS, the New York Times, and the Washington Post have one or two mentions each on their front pages. ABC News and the Wall Street Journal have none at all. Elsewhere in the world, Der Spiegel, Xinhua and Pravda are about the same.
The British understandably feel a peculiar connection with their former colonial possession. But in most of the world, you would not think that there is an ongoing calamity displacing millions of people, exposing them to hunger and disease.
One BBC article offers tentative answers for this indifference. Some suggest that Pakistan is merely unluc
ky. The floods come while donors are fatigued from the Haitian earthquake; the disaster unfolded over a span of weeks and makes a weak headliner; the floods are a part of the seasonal monsoon rains.
Other explanations, however, point to Pakistan’s perceived faults. Namely, Pakistan’s links to terrorism and corruption within its government make sympathy a tough sell. Comments on the story’s page suggest, sometimes harshly, that a country capable of amassing nuclear weapons, maintaining a large army and funneling money to terrorists surely has the means to rescue its own people.
This is close to approval of collective punishment. Victims of the flood cannot be held personally responsible for the dubious actions of Pakistan’s ISI (its clandestine intelligence service), its decades under military government, or greed and corruption of its officials. Moral and legal codes everywhere assign agency to individuals and judge them accordingly. Can individuals be blamed for the actions of others in a group over whom they have little control? What are the bounds of collective responsibility?
Image by Flickr user DFID-UK Department for International Development used under a Creative Commons Attribution License
Why banning realistic depictions of war in games is wrong
The BBC reported on Monday that British Defense Secretary Liam Fox has continued to defend comments he made calling for a retail ban of the newest Medal of Honor game. The publishers of the game, Electronic Arts, have defended it and accused Fox of portraying its content unfaithfully.
Fox denounced the game on Sunday, saying it was “shocking that someone would think it acceptable to recreate the acts of the Taliban against British soldiers.” Fox also made an appeal to patriotism, arguing that this new installment of the franchise is a “thoroughly un-British game.”
His comments can be seen in the context of a larger crusade against objectionable content in videogames that has involved some of the best-selling games of all time, including the Grand Theft Auto series and the newest installment of the Call of Duty series.
Arguments against these games usually claim that their content is immoral, obscene, or in some other way objectionable. Additionally, this claim is often accompanied by the idea that the interactive aspect of a game has a special persuasive power. Read more