The taxes I pay keeps the doctor away

The ethics of “sin taxes”

The other day Marc linked to a New York Times Room for Debate discussion on whether people should be paid to stay healthy. While that post focused on rewarding healthy behavior, much of the current debate and policy centers on restricting and discouraging unhealthy behavior. A common method for doing this is by imposing “sin taxes” on “certain objectionable products.” For instance, taxing cigarettes at a high rate in part to discourage people from purchasing them. These sorts of taxes are often popular with voters, but are they justifiable? Read more

Share your toys…and your astronomy data?

The NYT discusses the debate over NASA scientists keeping their data to themselves.


A natural problem

Baseball and steroids

George Will is a conservative, political philosopher (by training), and noted baseball fan.  How these three worlds come together – if at all – arose in a recent interview in the Wall Street Journal.  Among several choice comments, this one in particular was interesting:

Since coming to grips with steroids, the sport has “had to make some interesting distinctions,” he says. “What’s the difference between steroids and Tiger Woods getting Lasik? What’s the difference between eating spinach and eating amphetamines? Well, one thing enhances the natural functioning of the body, the other makes the body behave unnaturally. I know there is artificial clarity to that distinction, but it’s useful.”

This kind of reasoning comes up fairly often in the context of steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs, and the problem is the obsession with the idea of “natural functioning.”  I think it’s worth questioning whether what’s “natural” has any inherent value, or whether we can really determine what is “natural” at all. Read more

Sam Harris – Can science address morality?

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.


The (im)possibility of secular judgment

Stanley Fish (whose articles consistently elicit a response from me) has an interesting piece up on two troublesome distinctions in liberal thought: the distinction between religious and secular reasons and the distinction between public and private reasons.  As is often the case, the article is really a supportive book review in disguise – this time of law professor Steven Smith’s “The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse.”

“Classical Liberals,” according to Fish, have long argued that when it comes to political debate, religious or value-laden arguments are inadmissible, since they operate on assumptions that are not universally shared or provable.  Instead, they argue, we should rely squarely on “secular reason” to do the job of here-and-now policy-making.

But according to Smith / Fish, “secular reason” can’t actually solve ANY of our political problems.  At least not without “smuggling in” some of that which it despises – metaphysical assumptions, values, and comprehensive doctrines.  Science and reason can’t tell us what to do with data; we must choose how to use the tools of reason, what to aim them at, how to interpret information, and which facts really matter.  Reason alone can’t do all of that picking, choosing, and ranking – we need some kind of substantive value system to do that.

Read more

Reason and faith in higher education

How should universities teach religion, if at all?  It’s a touchy subject – one that even the mighty Harvard has struggled to wrap its collective head around.  That’s the subject of an interesting recent Newsweek piece by Lisa Miller.

Miller tells the story of a general curriculum conflict at Harvard between those who want to integrate faith and spirituality into course requirements (via a mandatory module called “Reason and Faith”) and those who would rather keep religion out of the classroom.  The author sides with the former group, suggesting that “[t]o dismiss the importance of the study of faith—especially now—out of academic narrow-mindedness is less than unhelpful. It’s unreasonable.”

Steven Pinker, the well-known evolutionary psychologist, led the charge against the “Reason and Faith” module, arguing that the university’s mission is not to give a platform to all popular claims, but to pursue knowledge through rational inquiry.  Teaching the importance of faith – at least as part of a mandatory curriculum requirement – would be anathema to that mission.  Read more

The Tebow ad, Continued…

So here it is, as it aired:

Not much controversial material there (viewers were told to visit Focus on the Family’s website for the full story, including Christian references and anti-abortion argument), but we’ve all heard plenty about the ad’s intent by this point.

But there’s more to debate here than the ad’s propriety – what about the validity of the argument?  The argument being made is a version of the famous “Beethoven example” used by the pro-life community:

“About the terminating of pregnancy, I want your opinion. The father was syphilitic. The mother tuberculous. Of the four children born, the first was blind, the second died, the third was deaf and dumb, the fourth was also tuberculous. What would you have done?”

“I would have terminated the pregnancy.”

“Then you would have murdered Beethoven.”

Convincing, eh?  Had Tebow’s mother made what many pro-choice advocates suggest is the “right decision,” we wouldn’t have her successful son Tim.  Richard Dawkins rebuts this logic, reminding us that by the same reasoning, we should equally condemn each act of abstinence; after all, every decision NOT to have procreative sex deprives the world of a potential genius.  Also, in order for Tim to exist, some 40 million rival sperm lost out in the race to an egg.  One of those sperm could have grown up to cure cancer.  Is Tim Tebow the man who prevented that cure?  These thought experiments are quite interesting, and worth thinking about if we want to get our logic straight on abortion.

(That’s setting aside the factual inaccuracies of the example, as Beethoven was the eldest child, none of his siblings were blind, deaf, or dumb, and his father did not have syphilis).


Vaccines and Autism

Bad science and good PR

Over the past few years, there has been a building movement against vaccinations in the U.S. on the grounds that they are either ineffective, harmful, or perhaps even part of an insidious government plot.  This isn’t coming from the usual anti-science suspects, either – it’s largely coming from Hollywood: comedian Bill Maher has said he “would never get a vaccine,” and that he doesn’t trust the government, especially with his health.  Maher believes that vaccines are a “Western” misunderstanding of health, and that a natural, healthy diet and lifestyle will ward off most maladies.

Actor Jim Carrey and former Playboy centerfold Jenny McCarthy are the most prominent among the anti-vaccine crowd, warning primarily of a link to autism.  Autism rates have increased rapidly during the same period of time that vaccines have become widespread, they say.  But the Carrey/McCarthy camp was dealt a serious blow last week when the British medical journal Lancet retracted a 1998 paper linking vaccines to autism by Dr. Andrew Wakefield.

Read more

The universe is big

In the “physics to make your head hurt” category, here’s a nifty app that demonstrates the scale of the universe, from quantum foam and strings to the estimated size of the universe.  (Warning: plays a cute little tune).

There’s a philosophical message in there somewhere.


Neutrality on sex education

Ross Douthat makes a typical neutrality-based argument for leaving sex ed decisions up to local communities, not the federal government.  Liberals have attacked the fed’s endorsement and funding of abstinence education since the Clinton years, citing studies illustrating its ineffectiveness and often counterproductive results: teenage pregnancies have gone up, not down, with the introduction of abstinence-only.  But Douthat contends that comprehensive sex ed does no better, and that this is more about culture than pragmatism anyway:

America’s competing visions of sexuality — permissive and traditional, naturalist and sacralist — have been in conflict since the 1960s. They’ll probably be in conflict for generations yet to come.

But as long as they are, it shouldn’t be Washington’s job to choose between them.

I don’t find this convincing.  The fact that there are “competing visions” in a debate doesn’t mean one of them isn’t empirically correct and justifiable as national policy (there are many who don’t accept evolution, western medicine, or global warming, but I think it’s in our national interest to set policy according to the accepted science rather than popular opinion in those matters).  But where you stand on this will depend on a number of philosophical assumptions, including your view of democracy, of individual liberty, and of course, on the line between perfectionism and neutrality.

Secondly, I think that Douthat, David Brooks and other conservatives sometimes jump too quickly to “we just can’t prove anything either way in this area”; it’s part of a larger worldview that holds many ethical and political questions beyond the power of reason to answer.  Brooks recently used this ephemeral skepticism to call international aid into question and now Douthat employs it to lay sex ed arguments to rest.  I think it’s dangerous to give up on analysis this easily – but perhaps that’s my liberal, “everything can be rationally understood” bias :-)


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  • Editors

    Jacob Bronsther is a law student at NYU. He has an MPhil in Political Theory from Oxford.

  • Sam Gill is a consultant in DC. He studied Political Theory at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar.

  • Marc Grinberg is a Presidential Management Fellow. He studied Political Theory at Oxford.

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  • Luke Freedman is studying Philosophy and Political Science at Carleton College.

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