Monthly Archives: September 2011

Why the Death Penalty is Immoral

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As those who know me are aware, I typically see the world in various shades of gray. Very rarely is there anything that can be classified as strictly right or wrong; for example, most people would agree that stealing is wrong. But, in the case of a parent, who, by no fault of their own, has found him/herself unable to provide food to their starving child and steals food out of desperation, I think it is safe to assume that most people would agree that this instance of stealing does not bear the same ethical weight as, say, robbing a bank at gun point.

However, there is one issue in particular in which I can find no gray area, no way by which to justify or excuse its existence. And that is the death penalty.  The very idea of a method of punishment that kills people who kill people because killing people is wrong is, to put it bluntly, stupid. It is irrational, illogical, and barbaric and it has no place in a civilized society. Moreover, the margin for error is too great. Far too often, innocent people, like Troy Davis, find themselves on death row for crimes they did not commit. Now, proponents of the death penalty might argue that this rarely happens or that improvements in modern technology will eliminate the occurrences of  such instances of injustice. To them, I have a few points that I would like to make:

1) Human error.
Sure, it is true that advancements in modern technology have improved the ability of forensic teams and crime scene investigators to test DNA samples and better determine if the evidence can be linked to the accused. Furthermore, thanks to these improvements many falsely accused and wrongfully convicted individuals have been exonerated. According to the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), since 1973 more than 130 people on death-row have been exonerated as a result of DNA evidence; most of these have been between 2000 and 2007, at an average rate of 5 per year.

As good as that might sound, it becomes less impressive when one considers the sheer volume of appeals cases that have been found to contain such egregious errors that the accused were given entirely new trials. According to a 2000 study by Professor James Leibman of Columbia University Law School, from 1973 to 1995, thousands of capital sentences were reviewed and of them sixty-eight percent , about seven out of every ten cases, were discovered to contain serious prejudicial errors. The study goes on to state that in the cases in which death was the punishment, “courts threw out 47% of death sentences due to serious flaws” and “a later federal review found ‘serious error’ – error undermining the reliability of the outcome- in 40% of the remaining sentences.”  

Furthermore, technological improvements are not infallible and human error will still occur. From mismanagement of the crime scene to mislabeling the evidence to improper storage; all of which can contaminate or damage the evidence, leaving it useless or leading to inaccurate results. Moreover, DNA evidence is not always available and, as this ACLU report states, in many cases “because of the nature of the crime, DNA evidence cannot identify the murder.” Whats more is that at this time, post-conviction DNA evidence is  not admissible in all states , and some states only allow it in certain circumstances. Therefore, the claim that improvements in DNA testing will eliminate false convictions is, as DPIC states, simply not true.

2) Mistaken Identity.
As stated above, DNA evidence, when available and put to use,  is not fool proof and, despite improvements, innocent people are still wrongly convicted.  In the instances in which DNA is not available or simply not used, one thing on which investigators and prosecutors rely is eye-witness testimony. Unfortunately, this is one of the least reliable methods for determining a person’s guilt. The reason being is that our visual memories are just not as dependable as we would like to think they are. Numerous studies have been done on the accuracy of eye-witness accounts of events and have found that, well, people pretty much suck at remembering details.

According to a 2009 report by 60 Minutes‘ Lesley Stahl, of those convicts who have been exonerated by DNA evidence, nearly three-fourths of them were initially sent to prison based solely upon the testimony of an eye-witness. This is what happened to Ronald Cotton, the subject of the CBS report, who was unjustly convicted of raping two women in 1984 based upon the testimony of one of the victims, Jennifer Thompson. Since the report is provided above I will not go into much detail about it; suffice it to say: Thompson made a conscious effort to memorize every possible detail about her attacker, from his facial features to the sound of his voice and still she managed, unintentionally, to identify the wrong man and, ironically, to fail to recognize her actual attacker, Bobby Poole, even when he sat before her in a court room three years later. The reason for Thompson’s error resulted not from any flaw of character on her part, but on the fact that the human memory makes mistakes. It is fallible, prone to suggestion, and easily manipulated.

As this 1999 report by the Stanford Journal of Legal Studies, by Laura Englehardt, which was based upon a lecture by Barbara Tversky, Professor of Psychology, and Law Professor, George Fisher demonstrates, human beings have a “propensity to remember erroneously events and details that did not occur.” The report references a study done in the 1970’s by Elizabeth Loftus, Professor of Psychology at the University of Washington, in which test subjects were shown images of cars at either a stop sign or a yield sign. The test subjects were then asked a series of questions about the images they had seen. During the questioning, experimenters purposely substituted “yield sign” when questioning those test subjects who had been shown the stop sign, and vice versa. What resulted was the test subjects reported having seen the wrong image. In other words, the people who saw a stop sign reported seeing a yield sign, and those who had seen a yield sign reported seeing a stop sign. However, as the report goes on to state, even without the interjection of false information from third-parties, our memories are distorted from the moment they are made and, as we recount those memories, they become more and more distorted.

For this reason, mistaken identity is a real and serious problem and, as mentioned above, results in false convictions more often than not.

3) Justice is blind.
There is a reason that Lady Justice is depicted as she is: blind-folded, holding balanced scales in one hand and sword in the other; it is meant to be a symbolic representation of that act of justice itself. A system that is supposed to be firm but fair, and always objective and impartial. Sadly, for many, symbolic is all it is because the reality of the legal system is one of blind bias, unfair conviction rates that disproportionately affect non-whites and the poor, and of cruel and unusual punishments handed down by people, who far too often have only partial information.

In 2005, DPIC released its study on the problem of juries deciding life and death cases with only partial or faulty information. The report found several flaws with juries, among which was the way in which juries are selected and, of course, the quality and accuracy of the information that they are presented. According to the report, the sex and race of a potential juror are key factors in whether or not they are selected to serve on the jury in capital punishment cases. The reason for this is that blacks and women are more likely to oppose the death penalty. Those chosen to serve on such cases are more likely to be “pro-prosecution and conviction-prone,” while those who are not chosen are rejected based upon personal beliefs against the death penalty. This, of course, is problematic because it weights the jury in favor of the prosecution thus denying the accused his/her Constitutional right to a fair trial.

Equally problematic, and for the same reasons, is the other finding stated in the report, that of purposefully withheld information and failed investigations. According to Section II of the report (see page 8), prosecutors sometimes deliberately withhold critical information from jurors and defense attorneys fail to investigate. From 2000 to 2005, such misconduct lead to 121 instances of convictions being overturned and the accused exonerated of all charges. In 2000 alone, thirty-seven people were released from death-row; misconduct by the court was cited as the reason in sixty-two percent of those cases.

4) It is unconstitutional.
This one requires little discussion as it is matter of fact. As per the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution, the law of our land, no one shall be made to suffer cruel or unusual punishment. There are few things more cruel and unusual than institutionalized death.

In conclusion, as a civilized society, which is what we would like to believe ourselves to be, we can certainly devise a better way by which to punish truly heinous crimes. Life imprisonment being one of them. Furthermore, if we are indeed a nation built upon Christian principles as so many people, many of whom advocate the death penalty, claim then we absolutely cannot allow capital punishment. As Jesus himself said, “let you who is without sin cast the first stone.” This is not a call to be non-judgmental as so many people wrongly interpret it to mean, but a direct command against the death penalty because that is what stoning was under Biblical law, a death sentence. Furthermore, killing a killer because he/she killed someone robs the person of their opportunity to seek redemption and find salvation; and isn’t that the whole point to Christianity? Salvation of all? (hint: the answer isn’t “no”).

Do not misunderstand, I sympathize completely with the victims of heinous crimes, and with their families. I dread the thought of serious harm being done to those I love. But killing the person who may or may not have done the crime will not bring back those lost, nor will it truly alleviate our pain. And, even if we can decrease the margin of error to such a point at which for every one-hundred or one-thousand people who are correctly convicted, one conviction is false, it is still a price too high to pay. Isn’t it enough that an innocent life, that of the victim, was lost and their loved ones are grieving? Must we, for the sake of satisfying our own desire for vengeance, sacrifice more innocents and cause more loved ones to grieve?

No. Vehemently and unapologetically I say, no! The death penalty is wrong. Period. As the evidence shows, the potential for error is too great and occurs far too often to justify its existence. It is time to dispense with the brutality and find a better, more civilized way.

The Doctrine of the Scapegoat: A Parallel between the Devil and Jesus

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 We are all, or at least we should be, familiar with the concept of the scapegoat. In the modern world the term is typically associated with an individual or group of people on whom all of the blame for society’s ills is placed. This person or group is then ostracized from the larger community or even put to death. A fantastic example of this in action is right-wing opinions of homosexuals and feminists, on whom they place the blame for the decline of western society and the degradation of marriage.

Our modern concept of the scapegoat has its roots in Biblical times, both literally and figuratively.  In its literal execution, during Yom Kippur, the Jewish “Day of Atonement,” the high priest would lay the sins of people upon a goat’s head and loose it into the wilderness. Sad as it was for the goat, I am more interested in the figurative execution of the Biblical scapegoat.  Most specifically, in two particular figures, who are, arguably, the most important figures in western religion: The Devil and Jesus. Undoubtedly, many of you are wondering how I could possibly draw a parallel between The Devil and Jesus; one is the manifestation of all evil and one is the manifestation of redemption and God’s eternal love for humanity. If you missed the answer within that description, then read on…

First, let us explore the generally accepted images of the Devil and Jesus in Christian theology and mythology (yes, Christianity has a mythology):

The Devil, once called Lucifer according to many versions of this Christian myth, was God’s most beloved angel. Lucifer’s high rank and closeness to God made him prideful, believing himself special in all of creation he rebelled against God. When God created humanity, Lucifer saw how much God loved them and he became envious. So, Lucifer devised a plan to turn God against His new creation: he takes the form of a serpent, sneaks into Eden and, well, we are all familiar with the story of the fall (if not, read it here). God, who is enraged at Lucifer’s rebellion and trickery, then strips him of his rank and title and throws him into the bowels of hell. From then on, so goes the story, the Devil and his minions move among humanity, planting seeds of sin within our hearts and minds and tempting us to go against God’s word.

Conversely, we have the image of Jesus as it is generally accepted in Christian theology, which is that of  God in the flesh, who has come, according to 1 John 3:8, to destroy the work the Devil by leading humanity to the ultimate path to salvation. And, ultimately, how is Jesus to accomplish this? Well, that answer lies in another of Jesus’ images, one that is, for the purpose of this post, the most important image of Jesus in Christian theology,  that of the lamb of God. Now, for those of us who are familiar with ancient Judaism, the sacrifice of a lamb was, among other things, an important element in the Jewish ritual of atonement.  The symbolism conveyed by referring to Jesus as “the lamb of God” is of course intentional. Jesus, according to Christianity, was meant to die for the sins of humanity

While it seems, at least at first, that each of these figures serves a drastically different purpose, if you look more closely, they have something profoundly important in common. Each of them is a figurative scapegoat for humanity’s sins. We place upon each figure the responsibility for the sins of humanity and then we sacrifice them, in one form or another. In the case of the Devil, humanity would have never fallen if not for his manipulation of Eve in Eden, and so we blame him; throughout Christian history, every ill to befall or to be committed by human beings was deemed the work of the Devil. As a result, the Devil is doomed to exist through all of eternity as an outcast, exiled from his home and stigmatized by his fellow creations.  In the case of Jesus, all of humanity’s sins, every infraction and ill-deed against God is placed upon his head as he is sacrificed, in death, for the atonement of humankind.

Both the Devil and Jesus are symbols of humanity’s inability to take full responsibility for our actions and our unwillingness to reflect upon those misdeeds and overcome our individual shortcomings so as to grow and become better people. Why assume responsibility when the Devil made us do it and then Jesus, ever so kindly, paid the fine?

Something that makes me go, “Hmmmm?”

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Below is a brief highlight of what was a rather lengthy conversation about homosexuality and societal acceptance. The conversation took place between a couple of random chicks and me in my Lit class after the Professor posed a question about coming out in the workplace when one lives in an area in which being gay *will* get you ostracized:

Chick 1: I think that gay people should just kinda, you know, deal with it…Society is changing and things are getting better, but I think it’ll just take time…Why do they have to come out at work? It’s like “don’t ask, don’t tell,” I feel like they’re there to do a job and should just do the job and then be themselves at home…

Me: Wait a minute…You’re asking people to deny a part of who they are simply because some people in society might think it’s icky? You expect the gay person to pretend to conform, never allowed to discuss their relationships with their co-workers?

Chick 2: Well, I personally think people shouldn’t discuss their private lives at all at work. It’s unprofessional.

Me: I agree, but that point is moot because people *do* discuss their private lives at work. The question is, should gays be forced to keep silent out of fear of repercussion?

Chick 2: *shrugs*

Me: (directed at chick one) Going back to your statement about the military, why should soldiers in the military be expected to keep their relationships hidden? Especially when they’re stationed far from home, most likely in a combat setting? What about when they’re overseas and everyone around them is having conversations with their significant others, but the gay persons have to pretend they’re just talking to a friend? What about the civil rights issue? Is it not a violation of their first amendment rights? You realize that under DADT, a gay person cannot come out at all, right?

Chick 1: Well, they don’t have to be in the military. They could do another job…

Me: You know, they used to say the same thing to women…Not just in the military, but to women who wanted to do anything that was considered *men’s work,* this included voting…Should women have just dealt with that?…

Dude in class: (interjecting) I think it’s wrong to keep gays quiet…I, for one, think they’re born gay…

Chick 1: Well, I agree. I think they are, too…

Me: So, then why would you put the burden of “just dealing with it” on the person who is born the way that they are…they have no choice, it’s literally who they are…and not on the bigot who has chosen, via willful ignorance, to be a judgmental tool?

Chick 1: *nods and shrugs*

I still want an answer to that last question: Why is the burden of acceptance always placed upon the marginalized and not upon the marginalizers? Why is it that the oppressed are always expected to just “deal” with it? Should it not be the other way around? Moreover, in keeping silent do those who disagree with bigotry not lend a measure of credence to that bigotry?

Creating God

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Anyone who knows the Bible, who has either read it or merely heard about it, knows the Genesis story of creation’s claim that God created human beings in its own image. This belief is problematic for several reasons. For one, it is not an idea unique to the Abrahamic religious traditions, as most of the known religions throughout human history have held the belief that god/s created humanity, granted via different means, in their own images. One such example is that of a Greek creation myth (note: the Jews,  and subsequently early Christians, were highly influenced by Greek culture), in which Zeus instructs his two sons, Prometheus and Epimetheus to create humans and animals; Prometheus took the task of creating humans, whom he made in the images of the gods. Moreover, the Genesis account is not original to itself, as it has much in common with many Near East creation myths, such as the Babylonian creation story of Enuma Elish. And, for two, God appears to be extremely flawed and bizarrely human.

It is this latter point that I find most problematic. What is interesting and disconcerting about most of the creation stories is not only fact that they all claim that humans were created in the image of God/s,  but that the way in which our deities behave(d) is very much like how humans behave. From the gods of the Aztecs to the God of the Zoroastrians, humanity’s deities, while not always human in appearance, have been ascribed a wide range of  human emotions. They have been prone to love, hate, wrath, jealousy, vengeance, sadness, regret, and everything in between.

For the sake of time I will not discuss every emotion in detail and will, because of geography, focus upon the Abrahamic God.  Now, let us examine a few of the attributes of this deity.

1) Love:
It is not unreasonable to assume that the deity that created the universe (assuming that deity is real) has a capacity for some form of emotional connection to its creation; however, love is often an erratic, unreasonable, and irrational emotion. It might be more logical to insist that the deity of creation possess a capacity for compassion, such as empathy, which unlike love is more rational. I say this because love is difficult to define, it is an intense feeling that often defies any tangible reason for existing. How often are we asked, “Why do you love whom you love?,” and our response is, “I don’t know…” as we then proceed to list various attributes that we like about the person. Empathy, which is not wholly unlike love, is easier to explain.

We feel empathetic toward other people because suffering bothers us, it bothers us because human beings have an innate biological drive, like all living things, to preserve our species, and because we know suffering first hand. We all know the feeling of hunger, thirst, physical pain of injury, and the sadness of loss. Since we know how these things feel, and we desire to not feel them for ourselves, we are able to empathize with others who feel them and thus are driven to compassion. We can think through the suffering we witness and come to the conclusion that: since hunger is unpleasant and we need food to survive, therefore I should ensure that my fellow tribes-person/citizen/human (the concept of whom we help is evolving as society does, but that’s a discussion for another time) has food to eat. Empathy essentially results from observation, experience, and sound deductive reasoning.

If a deity, like the Abrahamic God did indeed create the universe, and is indeed all knowing, then it should stand to reason that that deity knows (even if it does not understand) our need for food, water, shelter, companionship, and knows, by observation, the negative affect the lack of such things will cause us. Therefore, when we lack those things and suffer as a result, said deity would feel empathetic toward its creation. However, even this requires one to assume that God, if real, is similar to humans in any way.

2) Jealousy:
This one in particular has always been one of the most problematic of all of God’s ascribed attributes. Even more so than love, jealousy is completely illogical. While we cannot adequately define love, we do at least understand why humans feel it. Love drives us to form human bonds and connections that improve our overall quality of life and encourages us to protect our family/tribe/society from undue harm. But jealousy, which is often erroneously seen as a byproduct of love, is blind and serves no purposes to the preservation of one’s self or loved ones. Jealousy drives us to do terrible things to others. When we are jealous of another’s possessions, we steal them; even worse, when we are jealous that a lover is with someone else, we fly into a fit of jealous rage, sometimes resulting in murder.

According to the Abrahamic tradition, God is capable of such fits of jealousy. In the Genesis story of Noah, for example, God, who is angry that humanity is not worshiping it, floods the world. In fact, in Exodus 20:4-5, God is said to have described itself as being “a jealous God.” This supposed aspect of God’s “personality,” drives it to do some downright awful things throughout the Bible, including threatening to wipe humanity “from the face of the earth.

Again, if we are to believe that a deity exists that is capable of creating the universe, an act which requires a capacity of logic that exceeds human capabilities, then how can we also believe that the exact same deity is capable of such irrationality as jealousy?

3) Vengeance:
This is, in my opinion, the worst of all of God’s ascribe “personality” traits. Vengeance is a highly irrational response to having been wronged. According to the Bible, God exacts vengeance upon anyone and everyone who it feels has wronged it in some way. In fact, vengeance and retribution are common themes throughout the Bible; culminating in the ultimate act of vengeance, the destruction of the world and all who did not conform to the Bible’s idea of goodness, who will suffer eternal torment in hell, as this passage from Isaiah states.  In Genesis God floods the world and destroys the sister cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, killing every man, woman, and child. In the book of Numbers, God kills a group of rebellious Israelites for daring to question God’s choice for the Jewish promised land.  Even the New Testament teaches that the wrath of God will one day befall humanity, such as in this verse from the gospel of  John and this one from the book of Revelations.

So the question remains, why does God have human emotions? Why love, jealousy, or vengeance? Why attribute something as irrational and inexplicable as human emotions to a deity that supposedly created everything?  It should stand to reason that if a deity existed that was capable of creating the entire universe and everything therein, a universe governed by the laws of physics, then that deity possess a capacity for logic and reason that surpasses anything of which the human mind is capable of producing or even conceiving. Love, for example, is a human emotion; therefore, at its core it is a chemical reaction to physical human interaction. It does not stand to reason that a deity that lacks any physical form, as the Abrahamic God supposedly lacks, could be capable of such feelings.

The “personality” traits that are ascribed to the Abrahamic God by its followers have been ascribed to various other deities throughout human history. For example, the White Buffalo Woman of the Plains tribes of North America, was not only human in appearance, she was described as being nurturing and protective, like a mother. Likewise, the gods and goddesses of the ancient Greeks were ascribed a wide range of human emotional traits, with each one possessing certain ones in more abundance than others,  for example:  Zeus was wrathful, lusty, and, at times, compassionate; Athena was wise, brave, and highly protective of those faithful to her.

Upon examination of the human attributes associated with various deities worshiped by humans, there seems to be good reason to assume that humanity, in an effort to understand the universe and its possible, if highly improbable, deity/deities, projects its own self images onto other beings. Ludwig Feuerbach and Sigmund Freud called this “psychological projection.” And it makes sense. Not only have groups of people, via religious doctrine and practice, created humanesque deities, individuals also create their own ideas about God based upon their personal experiences. For example,  one who was raised by a harsh and an authoritarian father figure is more likely to view God as being a harsh and an authoritarian figure than someone who was raised by a more compassionate and libertarian father.  Similarly, someone who may have been abandoned by their father is more likely to view God as being aloof or non-existent than someone with a strong father-child bond. Even our political ideologies influence our perceptions of God; someone who is politically conservative is more likely to view God as being pro-capitalist and anti-socialism (“God helps those who help themselves”), while someone who is liberal is more likely to view God as favoring a socially egalitarian society in which people’s needs come first.

Given the tendency of humans, across time and distance, to not only ascribe human characteristics to their deities, but to also make assumptions about God that are based upon their own personal beliefs and life experiences, it is  far more likely that people create God in our own image, not the other way around.

Free Will or None: How Much Control Do We Really Have?

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Metaphysics is a branch of philosophy which questions the basic nature of reality. As with all branches of philosophy there exists more than one school of thought within metaphysics; for example, materialism which holds that matter (the stuff of which the universe is made) is ultimately what is real, idealism which holds that ideas are the only reality, and realism which is closely related to materialism and argues that things exist in their own right. Naturally one cannot question the nature of reality without also concerning oneself with what, if any, control one has over that reality which gives rise to one of the more complex debates of philosophy: Do we or do we not possess free will?

There are two primary theories off of which all other theories branch: Determinism and Indeterminism. The former suggests that human beings are not free agents and that we, and subsequently the “decisions” we make, are nothing more than the effects of prior causes; the latter suggests that human beings are free and not merely determined by prior causes. But, is either of these theories truly reasonable? Proponents of the theory known as Compatibilism would argue that human beings, while products of events beyond their immediate control, do possess the will to overcome those events; it is an argument with which I fully agree.

As stated earlier, Determinism, which falls in line with metaphysical theory of materialism, suggests that human beings do not have control over their own actions. There are two theories within determinism worth mentioning that support this idea. One is known as scientific determinism which insists that nothing happens without a natural cause and since human beings are part of the natural world  every act or decision is just one kind of a natural event. In order for free will to exist than all actions must also be random; if this is true then the universe and nature would fall into chaos. The other is a religious concept known as predestination, which states that God, in His infinite wisdom, has a plan that has been set in motion from the creation of the universe, and all human beings have a part in that grand plan. At first glance either of these would make sense: the sun is the center of the solar system and all planetary bodies revolve around it each following a set course from which they never deviate; supporting the theory that there is order in nature, or everything works according to God’s design (though we won’t delve any further into the latter point as that is a whole other argument in an of itself). However, upon further scrutiny of the concept of order existing in nature it becomes apparent that there are moments that appear to occur at random, especially when one delves into quantum physics. There are moments when it would seem that the actions of human beings are certainly chaotic: we rape, murder, wage war, and riot; I must ask, where is the natural order, or for that matter God, in those moments?

This brings us to the theory of Indeterminism, which is a branch of idealism, or free will. Proponents of this theory would argue that human beings possess complete free will; the basis of their argument is that one could have always acted differently even if every event up to the moment the decision was made remained the same. Given the often violent and seemingly chaotic actions often taken by human beings, one could see how this might seem possible. Why do some people go to war while others protest? Why do some people in a crowd riot while others disperse peacefully? An indeterminist would say because each agent acts according to his own will.

However, there are some problems with this. The first is that we are inevitably influenced by past experiences, by our upbringings, and our educations. To say we are completely free is to deny such obvious facts as one cannot choose one’s parents; when we are children we are completely at the mercy of our parent’s whims, financial status, and religion. The second problem is that of the victims of violent crimes such as rape or murder. Surely we are not expected to believe that the victim is in control in such situations. Furthermore, the idea that people’s choices and actions are a matter of pure chance, as argued by William James, then what reason would we have to feel as if those decision were truly ours in any real sense? If our choices and actions were just a matter of chance then anything we did would be unjustifiable, erratic, or explainable, which really does not fit the characteristics of most human behavior.

Compatibilism, which ties into realism, walks a fine line down the center of the afore mentioned theories: human beings are free agents, to a certain degree. Compatibilism asserts that we are products of our environments in the sense that how we were raised, the education to which we were exposed, and the culture in which we live add to our sense of self and each can influence the decisions we make. Furthermore, it takes into account that we make decisions contrary to our conditioning everyday; for example, often despite of ,or in spite of, the religious upbringing we may or may not have received as children, people choose to believe a completely different theology than that to which their previous education had exposed them.

There are two versions of the Compatibilist view: Passive Self-determinism and Active Self-determinism. The first of which, as advocated by philosophers like David Hume and John Locke, states that freedom means being able to do as one wills for one’s self without external coercion from anyone else, to act according to one’s own preferences and motives; what one wants/decides is the result of one’s personality or character as determined by such as genetics and upbringing. In this sense freedom falls in line with scientific determinism (or realism) which states that one’s impulses, preferences, and motives are completely determined by prior events. The latter version, as advocated by Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, asserts that freedom exists as insightful awareness. Proponents of this view argue that human beings are not innately endowed with free will, and that all human responses are subject to accurate predictions; however, as thinking beings humans are capable of reflection and thus become insightfully aware. In this sense freedom falls more in line with objective idealism because it advocates that through thoughts (or ideas) people possess that ability to judge their own judgments and consider the alternatives.

There are of course problems with each of these ideas. In response to Passive Self-determinism, I must point out that there are many types of inner coercion that can drive a person to act in a manner they may not to behave; for example, people suffering from Bipolar disorder (manic depression) suffer severe mood swings over which they have no control, one moment feeling excitable and anxious and the next moment feeling deeply and inconsolably depressed. As for Active Self-determinism I must ask that if freedom is something one must learn than would that not limit freedom to be based solely upon knowledge one acquires about one’s self from the world around them thus not really being as rooted in the mind as idealism would require it to be?

I find it to be unreasonable, at least in my opinion, to insist that human beings are at the mercy of events set in motion from the outset of the universe or that we are completely free agents in full control of our lives. I say it is unreasonable because each assertion, determinism and indeterminism alike, have very narrow views of reality, each one ignoring those aspect which they cannot explain. Determinism ignores that people make reflective choices which result from an intricate process of weighing the pros and cons of any given choice; while indeterminism ignores that there are events in each of our lives in which we have no options, like where, when, and to whom we are born. Ultimately for me, Compatibilism (specifically Passive Self-determinism/realism, despite my expressed concern) is the most reasonable because it asserts that human beings are rational, free-thinking agents capable of making decisions without ignoring that we are, at moments, at the mercy of events beyond our control.

My Personal Reflection on 9/11

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It is now the 11th Anniversary…but this is all still relevant, so I am re-blogging it. The only thing that has changed is my sons answer, he now  realizes that a chocolate river for everyone isn’t feasible, but he still wants a world that is by far and large better than this one.

Tomorrow marks the 10th Anniversary of one of the saddest days in our nation’s history, the day on which nearly 3,000 men, women, and children were murdered in what is still, in the opinions of many of people, a senseless act of violence (although, it did have a root cause, but that is a discussion for another time). As I reflect upon that  day and recall what I was doing on the morning we were attacked, I cannot help but think about what we have become since: a nation plagued by fear, driven by revenge and misplaced hatred, and weighted down by a war of ever mounting costs, both in lives and money.

And I am sad.

I am sad because as I watched the second plane crash into South Tower as the North Tower burned, I held my infant son in my arms. I am sad because as the reports came in that it was in deed an attack on the United States, an act of war, I knew that the world into which I had bore him had just taken a turn for the worse…and, much to my dismay, I was right. I am sad because my child, now ten, has never known a world without war. I am sad because he has grown up in a world in which right-wing extremists and political ideologues equate Islam with murder and hate as they use their media outlets to monger war and fear.

And I am angry.

I am angry because as the years have progressed we have not. As we throw more and more money at war and destruction, we have allowed our education system to decline, our entitlement programs to all but disappear, and our infrastructures to deteriorate. I am angry because as we are force fed lies about the importance of democracy and freedom, we are oppressing millions worldwide. I am angry because we are no closer to ending terrorism than we were when the war began. Why? Because the root causes of terrorism is hatred and poverty, which cannot be overcome with violence; in fact, violence only exacerbates them. It cultivates them like shit on a field of weeds. I am angry because after ten years of war,hundreds of thousands of casualties (US, Afghan, and Iraqi), and trillions of dollars we are still in mourning for the lives lost on that sunny September morning; lives that are still lost, and no amount of money burned, no number of lives sacrificed will ever bring them back. I am angry because the only thing the War on Terror has succeeded in doing is eroding everything that makes America great, chief amongst them is our religious freedom.  In the aftermath of 9/11, right-wing Christian zealots have used fear of terrorism as an excuse to limit the free exercise of religion for Muslim Americans across the country as they attempt to prevent citizens of this nation from building houses of worship simply because those citizens happen to practice Islam.

This is not the world I want for my child. A world plagued by fear, greed, and hatred. When asked what sort of world my child would make if given the chance, he said, “I would make a world where people matter because they are people, and everyone has enough money and food. Oh, and a river of chocolate in their yards…” Children are awesome.

And so I am also hopeful.