Does it matter that many don’t understand their own religion?
A recent Pew poll reveals that Americans have a serious lack of knowledge regarding religion. Knowledge of Buddhism could be categorized with the location of Iraq on a map as knowledge that would be nice for the public to have; what seems disturbing is that many don’t understand quite basic tenants of their own religions.
Most shocking to me: “Forty-five percent of Catholics did not know that their church teaches that the consecrated bread and wine in holy communion are not merely symbols, but actually become the body and blood of Christ.” My memory of Catholic school was that this is an incredibly central tenet of Catholicism, at the very core of the religion, and one of the key theological beliefs distinguishing Catholicism from much of Protestantism.
Should we care?
Are politicians obligated to talk to the media?
ell, Tea Party favorite and winner of the Delaware Senate primary, used her Fox News platform to announce that she will no longer give national interviews. This seems to leave open the possibility that she would give interviews to local Delaware media, but that might be expecting too much. Someone with more media experience can correct me,
but I’d guess that an interview given to the local ABC affiliate is up for grabs to be picked up or at least quoted by the national news office. Is O’Donnell’s choice ethically problematic? Read more
Why the State Department’s criticism of Arizona’s law is a strike for states’ rights
The AP reports that the US State Department listed its objection to Arizona’s immigration law as a step the State Department is taking to protect human rights. Understandably, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer disagrees, writing:
“The idea of our own American government submitting the duly enacted laws of a state of the United States to ‘review’ by the United Nations is internationalism run amok and unconstitutional.”
Let’s take these claims one at a time.
If the role of the High Commissioner on Human Rights is indeed to protect human rights, a state’s ability to criticize its own past decisions seems to be critical. Given the UN’s lack of hard power and unwillingness to intercede in state-level politics except when absolutely necessary (and often not even then), for there to be any kind of international human rights regime states must police themselves. The State Department’s actions seem to be internationalism of the best kind.
Further, the State Department’s decision is in fact a strike in defense of state sovereignty. By criticizing Arizona’s law, the State Department concedes Arizona’s ability to make laws that displease federal bodies. While the State Department is working through legal channels to overturn the law, in the meanwhile the immigration law remains on the books and seems to be a legitimate and likely target for human rights discussions.
It’s certainly not clear why Brewer thinks the state department’s decision is unconstitutional, other than the fact that things one disagrees with tend to be unconstitutional. In fact, the federal judge who ruled against Arizona’s law seems to believe that it’s the law itself that’s in the wrong.
Image credit: Wiki Commons
What is the future of elite education, and what are the stakes for equality?
Anya Kamenetz's article, alluringly subtitled “How TED Became the New Harvard,” makes the argument that the elite conference/video sharing site has all the attributes of the next generation of elite education: tightly curated lectures from globally recognized leaders, distributed widely for free, discussed widely in facilitated local groups.
The appeal is obvious. By making lectures open to all, TED facilitates anyone in the world consuming elite content regardless of economic circumstance. By inviting only the very best-known to give lectures, TED ensures that most of their content is, if not fantastic, at least prestigious.
What's curiously absent from Kamenetz's article is any discussion of the credentialing function served by universities. The world in which only students of the most elite universities would have physical access to information is clearly over. However, as long as companies, graduate schools, and elite nonprofits continue to offer better opportunities to Stanford grads t
han Samford grads, elite education will remain secure. Exposure to ideas is in no way co-equal with exposure to opportunity.
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Do corporations have a responsibility to help the economy?
Daniel Gross has a front-page article on Slate claiming that certain specific companies can “afford” to match employee 401(k) contributions again; companies like UPS and FedEx put their matching programs on hold during the worst of the recession.
The article uses two facts to assert its conclusion:
- It would be good if workers had more money
- At least some companies have cash reserves
What Gross doesn't seem to understand is that corporations don't have an obligation to The Economy — they have obligations to their shareholders (and
s professional'>cialis professional
, of course, to comply with government regulations).
This would be a simple and quite charming misconception if thinking like this didn't end up on the front page of popular national publications.
What's pernicious about Gross's position is that it doesn't make a call for any action that might actually help. Corporations are not likely to be shamed into providing benefits higher than they must. If wages must go up, employees will have to demand them, governments will have to mandate them, or employees will have to deliver more value. (I tend to prefer the last.) If Gross valued the long-term health of the economy he would have an eye on international competitiveness and productivity, not the short-term marginal compensation of a few thousand employees.
Image courtesy Wikicommons.
Should the government be in the business of maximizing its educational investment?
Last week, the Obama administration released its proposals for reforming the way the federal government does business with for-profit colleges. What’s at stake is millions of dollars of federally-backed loans. Data suggests that for-profit colleges have a comparatively poor track record of graduating students into jobs capable of supporting debt payment. In effect, many for-profit colleges run without significant downside risk, which is all held by the government. The proposed regulations call for a halt to government-backed loans to schools with less than 45% of their graduates able to make payments on the debt principle.
The underlying moral foundations of the administration’s move are debatable; is the concern that the government is making poor investments, or that the poor investments are going to fund predatory private interests?
If it’s the former, the proposed reforms are likely to be ineffective. Although educational resources are important, the brightest students will likely succeed whether at Harvard, State U, or University of Phoenix. Likewise, the least capable students are likely to fail at any institution. Admissions offices no doubt have years of data suggesting which students are likely to fail to graduate. This is not to say that universities have no role, but that the abilities of the student are probably better predictors of future success. If the government wanted to get the most out of its investment, it would do better to review applications individually, choosing the best-performing students.
If, in addition to wanting to maximize its investment the administration is also trying to clamp down on predatory practices, I’m not sure what it’s moral claim would be. Why should the government encourage the students who are least likely to succeed to attend State U rather than University of Phoenix? Perhaps the argument could be made that the government is just doing more of what it already does — funneling money to public universities. But if this is the goal, it can and should be done in a better way than putting the debt load on the backs of students who are unlikely to be able to pay it off.
Ultimately, the administration is avoiding the key issue — that, for thousands of students, investment in a BA is unlikely to pay off when it involves tens of thousands of debt. Other administration priorities, like reinvestment in community colleges, are likely to lead to better returns.
Image courtesy Wikimedia commons.
Should high-crime neighborhoods have a say in police staffing levels?
This week the New York Times featured a program which targets high volume of police attention and effort in a small geographical area, a Brooklyn housing development. This mostly takes the form of stop-and-frisks, designed primarily to reduce the number of guns in the development.
Data shows that the stop-and-frisks are useful in reducing crime within the projects but have not been effective in reducing crime for the precinct as a whole. The legal basis for the program appears a bit tenuous. Police are required to have reasonable suspicion before stopping a citizen. In the city-owned projects, police routinely use violations of housing code as a pretense for stops.
The piece presents residents of the development as conflicted between the increase in public safety and the decrease in privacy.
Should residents be given a role in deciding the nature of police involvement? One could c
ertainly envision a neighborhood referendum putting the question of increased police scrutiny to the test.
(Certainly one could just say that increased police involvement is good in principle but should be conducted in some better way; I'd like to bracket that question for now).
There are certainly benefits to society as a whole to decreasing levels of crime. This seems to be a special case in that the program is ineffective outside the walls of the housing complex, but quite successful inside. The key stakeholders are quite clearly those inside the complex. With that in mind, I'd argue that it does indeed make sense to give communities some decision-making power. The proper balance between safety and privacy is one that local police departments are not likely to get right when working on a block-by-block basis. Given that decision-making must be this granular, it makes sense to offer that power to the communities the police serve rather than to the police themselves.
Image from thomashawk used under a Creative Commons license.
Should we be happy we can buy arguments?
Yesterday Han linked to the NYT piece that discussed the strange increase in theist vs. atheist iPhone apps. The upside to these programs is that at least some people who use them will be exposed to the first time to a more sophisticated level of debate. (That’s in theory; the word-play trickery referred to in the NYT article sounded more a clever child challenging a befuddled teacher).
Han argued that the apps eliminate the role of arguement in coming to a superior conclusion than either party had brought to the discussion. On a high level, I think Han is correct. In a debate between Nietzsche and Aquinas we’d hope that there would be some kind of synthesis, some new insight created. But in the kind of dorm room arguments these apps are directed towards, I don’t think our expectation is really for world-shattering insight.
I have a slightly different objection, which is that the ability to rely on ready-made arguments eliminates what I would see to be the role of theological arguments — to force participants to rethink assumptions. The challenged interlocutor now has no reason to actually consider or re-consider an argument as long as there is a pithy and self-satisfied response waiting. If debate isn’t there to advance the peaks of human knowledge, as I argue contra Han, it’s function must be something else. I’d argue that the function should be to give the interlocutors practice in reasoning out positions, being constructively critical of other viewpoints, and accepting limited concessions to their initial position. Pre-scripted debates provide none of these benefits.
There is an important distinction in the article. The nominally pro-atheism app seems like it provides more raw material than actual arguments. In a debate about the veracity of the bible, it certainly would be good to be able to bring in contradictions and irrationality; whether contradictions provide a good reason to reject a given arguemnt is another story. More data should be good for debates, and technology that can provide it is to the good. When pre-scripted advocacy replaces actual arguments, however, we’ve lost a major component in the socialization of democratic citizens.
Image courtesy TWcollins under a Creative Commons License.
What kind of philosophy is good for the state?
NYT’s The Stone published what is, to me, the first piece that effectively delivers on their mission. The question at hand is why philosophy appears to be so remote an inaccessible to those outside of academic philosophy. I’ll address the first response, by Alexander George.
The dilemma is that philosophical questions are of broad interest. Unfortunately, unlike the hard sciences, philosophy can rarely present concrete courses of action.
Philosophical questions can present themselves to us with an immediacy, even an urgency, that can seem to demand a correspondingly accessible answer. High philosophy usually fails to deliver such accessibility — and so the dismay that borders on a sense of betrayal.
Instead, philosophy tends to spin into every-greater abstraction. George argues that this abstraction leads necessarily to the incredibly intricate theoretical work done by academics.
The approach that involves the search for “new discoveries” of a theoretical nature is now ascendant. Since the fruits of this kind of work, even when conveyed in the clearest of terms, can well be remote and difficult, we have here another ingredient of the sense that philosophy spends too much time scrutinizing the sun.
I might add an additional reason: academics must publish, and having something worthwhile to say often requires some sort of theoretical innovation.
This question is of strong interest to the mission of The Public Philosopher. If there are to be philosophical/ethical answers to political questions, philosophy will have to supply them in widely comprehensible language. Ultimately, there will always be a layer of abstraction that goes beyond the needs of a population in resolving its everyday challenges. Unfortunately, it’s that abstraction that can often the locus of debate in academic circles.
Photo by Flickr user kevindooley used under a Creative Commons Attribution license.