Last Friday, President Obama weighed in publicly on the mosque at ground zero. In doing so, he has joined Mayor Bloomberg as one of few major political figures who have openly voiced support for the project on the basis of freedom of religion.
However, polls indicate that Americans as well as New Yorkers overwhelmingly oppose the mosque’s construction to the tune of 68 percent. The poll reaffirms a truism that the writers of the Bill of Rights were grimly aware of: freedom often runs afoul of democracy. As one opponent of the mosque argues: ‘…[Obama]'s lost sight of the germane issue, which is not about freedom of religion,” she said. “It's about a gross lack of sensitivity to the 9/11 families and to the people who were los
Except the germane issue is exactly the balance between sensitivity and principle, and whether, as Jonathan asked yesterday, something can be “legally harmless but unpleasant enough for us to rightly or morally require legal intervention at the cost of others’ legal rights?” Namely, do people have a right not to be offended? Do they also have a right for their faith, beliefs, or values not to be challenged?
Greg Gutfeld of Fox News clearly believes not. In one of the most creative responses to the Ground Zero Mosque controversy, Gutfeld argues for both supporting the mosque's construction and opening a gay bar next door. Now that might take equal opportunity offending to an extreme. But in a society in which we value both the principles of religious freedom and the “marketplace of ideas,” should we want it any other way?
Image from Flickr user Johnnie Utah used under a Creative Commons Attribution license
Morality vs. legality?
The debate over the Muslim mosque and community center near Ground Zero has resulted in a number of different, passionate reactions. Once the media took up the subject, politicians and leaders from all over the US weighed in rather quickly.
On Friday, even President Obama shared his view in favor of the mosque, stating “This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakable. The principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country, and will not be treated differently by their government, is essential to who we are.”
Not surprisingly, critics of the mosque pounced. And their response was strong enough to push the President and his staff to “recalibrate” his comments from Friday evening more than once. Although his remarks were initially received as a deliberate endorsement of the mosque construction, President Obama apparently meant only to speak in favor of the project’s legality—not in favor of “the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque [near Ground Zero].”
Regardless of how you interpret the President’s statements this weekend, his clarification here suggests a crucial distinction underlying this Ground Zero mosque debate: even in a society that emphasizes personal liberty and freedom of religion, there may be a difference between what is legally permissible and what is morally permissible. Read more
The gay marriage debate in California and beyond
In a 136-page decision, Federal Judge Vaughn Walker has overturned California’s Proposition 8, which provided that “only marriage between a man and a woman is valid.” A (temporary) triumph for supporters of gay marriage, the case will likely be appealed and eventually find its way to the Supreme Court.
The gay marriage debate is but one battle in a larger “culture war” between two diametrically opposed worldviews, with differing beliefs about human flourishing and the societal consequences of social liberation. Read more
Who do they represent?
The most interesting ethical questions surrounding Charlie Rangel don’t concern him, his villas, or his rent controlled apartments. They are about the operation and purpose of the House ethics committee and what ethical perspective members of the House should bring to bear on the controversy.
Rangel, dethroned former chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, has been charged by the ethics committee with 13 violations, including, among other sins, using his office to solicit donations to school to be named in his honor and failing to pay taxes on and report rental income from a house in the Dominican Republic. Settlement talks have stalled and Democrats are wringing their hands over the prospect of a public ethics trial for a fellow party member. It will not help their chances in the November elections.
A number of ethical perspectives in tension here, and for everyone involved. Here are a few.
First, there is the special obligation one has to himself, his life’s work, and his family. This means wanting to keep one’s job as a Congressman (or to regain one’s job as a chairman), and leads to asking the question: What process and outcome will be best for my election chances?
Second, there is obligation to one’s party, both as a matter of duties to an organization one has freely joined and also as a matter of personal integrity, in the sense of fealty to one’s political and philosophical ideology. This leads to question: What process and outcome will be best for my party’s election chances?
Morally wrong or just politically stupid?
Last week The New York Times reported that Connecticut Attorney General and Democratic nominee for Senate, Richard Blumenthal, lied about his Vietnam service. He spoke about when he “served in Vietnam” and the national mood when he “returned”, though the closest he got to war was serving in the Marine Reserve, which it was known would never be deployed. Yesterday, it was revealed that Lucas Baumbach, a Republican candidate for state Senate in Idaho, plagiarized almost word for word from then-Senate candidate Obama’s 2004 DNC speech.
Leaving aside the obvious inquiry of why candidates say silly things, the public philosophical question is whether or not it is wrong. I don’t ask this question from an individual ethics point of view. There is plenty of literature on the morality of lying and plagiarism. I’m more interested in whether it is wrong for candidates, as candidates for political office, to lie and plagiarize. Read more
Pakistan expands internet censorship, including a outright ban on Youtube, after a court deems certain internet content contrary to Islamic law, like a Facebook page encouraging people to draw pictures of Mohammed. This reveals the obvious tension between certain interpretations of Islam and liberalism. The response might be that the court and the country support liberal freedoms, just not when they breach Islamic law. This is essentially a debate about of the fundamental sources and purposes of legitimate government; whether liberal freedoms are core of the whole point of government, whether they’re subordinate to religious values, or whether they’re just somewhat important values included in the bag of political concerns. It doesn’t get any deeper as a matter of political philosophy, which is something I always say about anything concerning Youtube and Facebook, especially in regard to that Youtube video where the dog says “I love you.”
Righting wrongs during wartime
War is difficult to execute, and its costs are inevitable. Good people die, the innocent are hurt or killed, and the destructin – physical and otherwise – persists long after the fighting has stopped.
But that hasn’t prevented us from trying to limit the extent of war’s evil. New facts have surfaced with regard to a disturbing incident in Afghanistan that raise – again – the question of whether such attempts are simply a fool’s errand.
In February, three women were killed in an American Special Operations gaffe, although U.S. soldiers denied it at the time. Now an Afghani investigation has not only confirmed that American forces were responsible for the deaths, but that they attempted to actively hide their involvement. A chilling account in the New York Times reports evidence that Special Operations soldiers dug bullets out of the women in order to disguise the cause of death. Read more
Well-known “new atheist” and neuroscientist Sam Harris took on this controversial question at this year’s TED conference.
Harris suggests that conventional wisdom tells us that science has nothing to say about questions of right and wrong. It cannot give us a foundation for values – it cannot give us goals, it can only help us get to our goals.
But, he says, all moral beliefs reduce to both facts about the brain (since beliefs, culture, experience all take place there) and factual claims about the mind, consciousness, and the world around us, etc. Since we can study these beliefs, claims, and their effects, science and reason can guide us to right and wrong answers about human well-being.
What does science tell us about the possibility of moral realism? Within the philosophical debate, science’s relevance is often neglected.
If he contributes nothing else to society, the infamous Fred Phelps has at least forced us to further examine the notion of free speech. At what point does offensive expression become punishable under the law?
Phelps is the leader of the Westboro Baptist Church, which has gained notoriety over the past decade as a result of its practice of protesting military funerals with signs that read “Thank God for IEDs,” “Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” and of course “God Hates Fags.” The group believes that our losses in the War on Terror (along with the suffering from Hurricane Katrina and from the economic recession) are part of God’s punishment for our tolerating homosexuality.
The Supreme Court will now hear Snyder v. Phelps, in which the family of a deceased Marine has sued for damages after Phelps et al showed up en force at their son’s funeral. Most Americans would universally and absolutely condemn the church’s actions. But should they be illegal? If the Court sides against Phelps, would that not open the door to further litigation and regulation of “unsavory” speech?
Truly, one of the law’s most difficult conundrums.