A Philosophical Primer

Tuesday, September 25, 2012 7:29 PM By Brian Niemeier , In , , , , , ,

We children of postmodernism find ourselves in a curious age when philosophy is derided as vain woolgathering while a specific set of dominant philosophies fundamentally affect our thoughts and actions. Perhaps it's more accurate to say that the effects of philosophical thought have seldom been greater, yet the study of and critical reaction to the discipline itself is generally discouraged.

As a result of this philosophically ambivalent culture, most people adopt makeshift personal ideologies lacking even basic internal consistency. This approach, especially when it comes to morals and ethics, is gravely problematic. Truth can't contradict truth, and the person who, for example, claims to respect the universal value of human life while supporting unrestricted capital punishment shows a lack of integrity that denies access to the full truth. This kind of intellectual cherry picking also erodes the moral force of one's convictions, making it difficult to convince others.

Philosophy is undeniably important--even vital--to individuals and societies alike. It is the search for wisdom: the knowledge of what is good and therefore of how to live a good life. Philosophy governs persons, families, and governments. In fact adopting a personal philosophy seems to be the default human condition since even attempts to deny it (i.e. skepticism) fall into the category of philosophy themselves.

The following is a short list of positive and negative guidelines for examining one's personal philosophy to attain greater internal consistency.

1. Examine others' positions and your own assumptions critically. Reject gullibility and obstinacy while being intellectually honest.
Don't default to a position of doubt. Avoid the Cartesian mistake of starting from existential doubt and trying to work your way up to universal truths. It's an unnecessary presumption, contradicts itself (how can you know that you think if you doubt everything else?), and is impossible besides.

2. Take the time to study philosophy. Many people believe that they can figure out the true nature of reality on their own. Many people are wrong. While the rare Gautama Siddhartha comes along every few thousand years, most of us need a strong foundation of systematic logic to learn how to think and exposure to the works of great philosophers to broaden our perspective.
Don't fall into syncretism. As noted above, a major problem degrading the quality of civil discourse is people's tendency to pick and choose their convictions from myriad (sometimes conflicting) philosophies. This lack of internal consistency is called syncretism. One of its major downfalls is syncretism's tendency to isolate its adherents in their own private intellectual worlds, which makes meaningful dialogue difficult.

3. Have fidelity to the truth. The whole point of philosophy is to know and live the truth. Living in a way that's in line with how reality works will logically foster order and happiness. Even if you conclude to a nihilistic universe without purpose, accepting the harshest truth is still better than living a lie.
Don't be seduced by relativism. When confronted with the sheer variety of philosophies that have been proposed as accurate models of reality, it is tempting to make a kind of intellectual compromise by claiming that truth varies from person to person. This kind of relativism isn't a rational compromise. It's a lazy way of dodging one's obligation to pursue truth. Saying that each person can have his or her own truth actually denies the existence of the universal truth which is philosophy's goal. Therefore, relativism is a form of anti-philosophy that clouds one's view of reality instead of clarifying it. Like pure skepticism, it is also self-contradictory because the premise that truth is relative is itself proposed as a universal truth.

4. Argue in good faith. Seek out people with contrary viewpoints and hear them out. It can be frustrating to come across an opposing argument one can't defeat, but if you don't understand your opponent's position, you don't fully understand your own.
Don't build straw men or resort to bullying. More than one debater has fallen back on red herrings and name-calling when pressed. Dispense with dishonest and lazy tactics like these. Fight the urge to call the person arguing against your support of gay marriage a homophobe. Such ad hominem attacks neither defeat your opponent's argument nor prove yours. They only shut down dialogue. Likewise, willfully misinterpreting a position with which you disagree to make it easier to defeat accomplishes nothing.

Does Obama Deserve Reelection?

Thursday, September 6, 2012 12:32 PM By Brian Niemeier , In , , , , , , , , , , , ,

This post is not intended to support any particular candidate. Both major parties have done a remarkable job of undermining the prosperity, happiness, and liberty of the American people. However, only one major candidate has transcended the incompetence and elitism that defines the national leadership and set a course toward despotism.

That candidate is the current incumbent, President Barack Obama. Let's ignore the constant stream of partisan propaganda hyping each party's pet economic theories, candidates' personal shortcomings, and fear tactics involving social programs. Instead, let's put these perennial concerns in perspective by taking a step back to examine Obama's worthiness to hold office in light of the presidency's constitutionally defined role.

Article II of the United States Constitution establishes the office of the president and that office's powers. If you took your Constitution test as long ago as I did, here's a refresher: the president is the chief executive of the United States, responsible for signing acts of Congress into law. The president is also Commander in Chief of the US military. In short, the president is the highest law enforcement authority in the nation.

Considering the vast scope of the executive's power, it makes sense that an individual entrusted with so much authority has to swear an oath before taking office. By taking this oath, the president swears to, "...preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States."

Earlier this year, President Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act. This law gives the current Commander in Chief and his successors the option to detain US citizens in military prison without trial. The NDAA contradicts several Constitutional provisions, including Article I and the Fifth Amendment.

A second constitutional violation that is perhaps less blatant but more grievous than the NDAA is the Department of Health and Human Services mandate forcing religious organizations to cover drugs and procedures to which they are morally opposed. For example, the mandate will compel Catholic hospitals and universities to include abortifacient drugs and surgical sterilizations under their insurance plans. Helping to pay for such drugs and procedures would make these institutions material cooperators in activities which their religious tradition regards as immoral. The HHS mandate even applies to companies owned by private individuals holding similar values. One such company has already won a preliminary court victory against the Obama administration, with the judge stating that the owners would suffer "irreparable harm" if forced to follow the mandate.

The president's support of his HHS secretary's mandate could be an even graver affront to the Constitution than the NDAA because the HHS mandate violates what is perhaps the single most fundamental constitutional principle: government non-interference in religion as stated in the First Amendment.

When he first took office, President Obama swore a solemn oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States. The oath of office is significant because it sums up the president's duties and sets the limits of executive power. President Obama has repeatedly infringed and ignored the constitutional limits of his authority. In doing so, he has broken his vow to the American people and moved the nation incrementally closer to dictatorship.

Regardless of political affiliation or religious confession, no American of intellectual integrity can deny that President Obama has abused the authority that we entrusted to him. Having made this difficult and disturbing conclusion, anyone continuing to support Obama's candidacy commits the worst hypocrisy.

Akin and Ryan: Ignorance and Inconsistency

Tuesday, August 28, 2012 2:10 AM By Brian Niemeier , In , , , , , , ,

In an August 19th TV interview, Missouri Congressman Todd Akin said, "First of all, from what I understand from doctors, [pregnancy from rape is] really rare. If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down."

Responding to this statement, several commentators including members of Akin's own party have asked him to resign from his senate race against incumbent Claire McCaskill.

Last week, vice-presidential contender Paul Ryan remarked, "I've always adopted the idea; the position, that the method of conception doesn't change the definition of life."

Some are now suggesting that Ryan should be removed from Romney's ticket for making that comment.

These two events have now overlapped to create a situation wherein two prominent elected officials are being pressured to resign their candidacies: one for downplaying pregnancy as a consequence of rape and the other for acknowledging that conception can result from rape.

Let's analyze the reasoning at work here. In the first place, Akin is being denounced for sounding, "ignorant", "stupid", and "boneheaded". Meanwhile, Ryan's remarks are called "nauseating" and "far more offensive...than Akin's..."

Akin's statement is conclusively disproven by statistical data. It likely results from an exaggeration of studies showing that long-term stress can reduce women's fertility. Though extremely traumatic, the stress caused by rape is insufficient to block conception. Dr. Sharon Phelan, a fellow at the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has pointed out that rape may carry a lower risk of pregnancy due to the fact that perpetrators ejaculate less often during rape than do men engaged in consensual sex. However, Akin's claim focused exclusively on the victim, so Phelan's caveat does little to legitimize his point.

Based on the fact that his comments were erroneous, Akin is certainly guilty of rashness, imprudence, and ignorance. Asserting that he spoke out of malice is more difficult to prove. Accusing him of intentionally insulting rape victims is uncharitable considering the context of his statement and his subsequent apology. Similar accusations of misogyny based on inferences that Akin meant to blame rape victims for the horrible crime committed against them presume impossible knowledge of the congressman's interior thoughts and motives.

Akin's statement was tactless and ill-informed. Due to the degree of scandal that could (and did) result from his position, he should have known better.

Having established that Akin's comment was blameworthy, how does Ryan's compare? Akin said that the incidence of pregnancy is reduced in the case of rape, which has been empirically disproven. Ryan's statement falls into a different category entirely. He asserts his support for an ethical principle, e.g. that the value of human life isn't dependent upon the circumstances of any one life's origin.

It's important to distinguish between what Ryan actually said and the way that his words have been interpreted by some. For example, the video in the link above is titled, "Paul Ryan: Rape Is Just another 'Method of Conception'". This title is a dishonest skewing of Ryan's actual statement which adds qualifiers that he didn't use. It is in fact a red herring that deflects attention from Ryan's point to a manufactured response to it.

Further comparison of Akin's position to Ryan's shows that, while the former's statement is empirically false, Ryan's claim involves a moral value that can be logically defended and is held by a great number of people. Therefore, Ryan can't be accused of ignorance in the same regard as Akin. His critics seem to acknowledge this fact, instead calling his remarks insensitive and offensive. Far more than in Akin's case, the accusations lodged against Ryan seem to arise from his critics' uncharitable twisting of his words and intent.

As the experts who debunked Akin's claims attest, rape is, sadly, a cause of conception. This fact was a premise of Ryan's position; not the conclusion. He himself made no mention of rape, but alluded to it indirectly. He also attached no derogatory or dismissive terms to the crime of rape or to rape victims. Calling his words "nauseating" and "offensive" doesn't do justice to his point and serves to discourage further discussion on the value of human life.

A far more valid objection to Ryan's statement has been overlooked by his opponents: namely, the inconsistency between his stated values and his policies. In the interview, Ryan claims to uphold the universal value of human life regardless of how that life came into being. He then declares his tacit support for abortion in cases of rape and incest.

Ryan did make a statement that is more odious than Congressman Akin's; just not the one he's being criticized for. Claiming to hold a standard which he then immediately contradicts is brazen hypocrisy. Defending his lack of integrity by appealing to his running mate's position doesn't reconcile his conflicting views, it only reveals his motive. Likewise, resorting to the argument that Romney's exceptions for rape and incest are preferable to abortion on demand doesn't shore up his position either, since it's actually an argument against the universal value of human life (i.e. preventing the trauma of carrying a child conceived through rape to term outweighs the child's value).

What we're left with are Akin's claim--ignorant, crass, and rash as it was--set against Ryan's logically viable yet immediately compromised stand on the value of human life. Seen in this light, Ryan is either incredibly self-deluded, which is a dangerous quality in an elected official, or purposefully disingenuous, which is even worse.

Inconsistency is Ryan's major fault on this issue, and his critics should strive to avoid their own conflicting charges against his and Akin's remarks. Rape can either lead to pregnancy or not, and it's blatantly unfair to demonize one person for holding the former view and another for holding the latter. The omission of Ryan's obvious hypocrisy among his critics tends to show that his opponents are more interested in bullying him into silence than engaging in honest debate.