Monday, July 27, 2009

A Quick Update

It has been quite some time since my last post. Something I hope to do some work on that has happened recently is the confirmation hearings of Judge Sotomayor. I think they pose some interesting questions on the subject of jurisprudence and the legal system. All that aside, however, I felt that about four months of inactivity on this blog was too long. Life has progressed steadily on. We are in a new apartment, our son is growing at an incredible rate, and we are doing a lot of thinking and praying on the subject of graduate school and various related career questions. Now is too soon a time for an extended post on the various options and their relative merit, but I promise to provide one sometime soon. In the meantime, check out my wife's blog for a more detailed account of our daily lives.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Grad School Update: No Go

I just wanted to give a quick update on the graduate school situation. As of this past week, I have heard back from all seven schools, and the answer has been a unanimous thanks but no thanks. As a result, we will be here in Minnesota for another year. This does not mean that we are giving up on grad school. We will be applying to a lot of the same schools again next year. It simply means that we are going to have more time to make some money before we go and get used to the whole parenting gig.

I also want to reassure Katie that I have not forgotten about my Faith vs. Reason series I promised earlier. They are coming soon.

What Conservatism Means to Me

I know I promised that my next posts would be a follow up on the Reason v. Faith debate, but that will take a lot of time and effort. With spring break upon us and a few extra projects to finish, it may be a bit longer before I can wrap that up. I did think of something very worthwhile to write about in the mean time. As you have probably figured out, I have fairly strong political convictions. As it is inevitable that these convictions will influence and color this blog, I thought it only fair that I outline my convictions so that the views presented here can be properly understood and appreciated in full light of their foundational premises. With that in mind, I hope to outline what conservatism means to me.

  • Conservatism is not a political party. All too often in our political culture you will see the Republican Party labeled "conservative." While it may be true that many in the GOP would label themselves conservative, the Republican platform has more planks in it than conservatism. On the other hand, while I don't think I've ever met one, it is theoretically possible for there to exist a conservative Democrat. Neither party has an ideological corner on conservatism.
  • Conservatism is not a necessarily religious perspective. Again, in our culture these two ideologies seem to be thought of as necessarily mutually inclusive. Belief in God or a particular religious tradition neither determines your politics nor does it prohibit your politics. While we may observe a correlation between religious belief and practice and conservatism, correlation does not equal causation.
  • Conservatism is not the rejection of progress or change. In many social situations, conservatives are portrayed as simply being opposed to whatever progressives are in favor of. It is as if conservatism has no real agenda, no real ideas; it only exists as the ying to the progressive's yang. This is not true. Conservatism obviously opposes many of the premises of progressivism, but it does not do so simply out of spite. There are real disagreements which prohibit cooperation.

At this point one might ask, "So you've told us what conservatism is not. Then what is it? Are there any real characteristics of conservatism?" I believe there are. Specifically, I believe that, for me, conservatism can be summed up in a single, albeit dense, point: Conservatism is the pragmatic appreciation of the fragility of social order, and the desire to preserve those practices that best protect it. There are two main ideas in this definition that deserve to be explored in greater detail; pragmatism and fragility in regards to social order, and protecting social order.

So what do we mean when we speak of a pragmatic appreciation of the fragility of social order? Simply put, the conservative does not take social order and cohesiveness for granted. The conservative possesses a theory of human behavior and nature that posits that in order for a society to be a healthy and functional society, there must be rules and systems set up that will protect the individual not only from those who would seek his harm, but also from his own desire to inflict harm on others. These systems are never perfect, and so when one does end up working and functioning well, it is prudent to guard the system carefully. If the system is not guarded, if it is tampered with, the whole society stands to lose that integral social structure. This can be contrasted with the progressive's notion of society as something which must be constantly moved forward and revised. The progressive believes that society must be constantly changed to achieve a more equitable circumstance. The conservative acknowledges that while the system may be flawed, it is better than those that preceded it, and before the system is changed we must be extremely sure that it will be for the best.

This leads us to the conservative notion of preserving the practices that best protect the social order. Moving from the previous section, the conservative's natural tendency is then to protect and preserve the systems already in place within society. If the social order is fragile, and if changing things without regard to possible consequences is dangerous, then the conservative will be very hesitant to betray those social institutions already in place to protect the status quo. Again, not because the conservative believes the status quo to be the pinnacle of human society, but because he knows that it is sustainable and better than many of the alternatives.

So how do these principles play out in actual policy? A good example taken from current discourse is the economic crisis and the federal bailout measures. The conservative position argues that by meddling with the market we created the incentives that encouraged the banks to pursue these high risk investments in the first place, and by bailing them out once they invariably fail we only create more incentive. The best course of action would be for the institutions that are failing to fail, allowing the market to organically purge itself of overly risky investors.

Now the critics of this position would argue that not only does this fail to serve the average citizen who has lost his savings in the crisis, but it also ignores the government's responsibility to fix the mess it originally created with those original incentives. The conservative reply to these criticisms is that the citizen who lost his savings was either not aware of where his investments were, in which case it is not the government's responsibility to fix the problem, or he knew and decided the risk was warranted, in which case again it is not the government's obligation to bail him out because he misread the market. To answer the argument that because the government created the original incentive and so bears the responsibility of setting things right again, the conservative position would be to point out that ill-advised intervention is not fixed by more ill-advised intervention, and that by allowing those institutions to fail the government is in fact setting things right by allowing the market to fix itself.

This example is not meant to be exhaustive or offensive. I understand that the situation is more complex than I have here treated it, but I feel that I have made my point in regards to conservatism. Hopefully this post will clarify any further political discourse that takes place in this blog. Feel free to comment.

Monday, March 9, 2009

5 down, 2 to go!

Saturday we got the no-go letter from University of Chicago, so we're down to Texas-Austin and Ohio State. Today is the 9th, I really feel if we go a week without getting rejected by both of them there might be a chance.

It's an interesting situation to be in, not knowing where your life will take you. We all share that experience to some degree I suppose. One can never tell 5, 10 years from now where you'll be. This is different. The next two weeks literally will determine where my family and I will be for at least the next year, potentially the next five. And I have no idea where that will be. It's such an exercise in faith. I keep bouncing back one minute from the next, hope and despair, I'll get in I won't get in. When I say despair it's not as if I'm actually despairing in an emotional sense, it's more just despairing of getting in this year and trying to make the best of the options open to me here in Minnesota for the coming year.

Ultimately what will be will be, and honestly, I'm really ok with that. I'm just looking forward to being done with the next two weeks. :-)

Friday, March 6, 2009

Graduate School Update

Just a quick update on my grad school applications: Out of the seven schools I originally applied to, four have deemed me unworthy to pursue higher education at their institutions at this time. These include the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Arizona, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. We have yet to hear back from the University of Chicago, the University of Texas-Austin, or Ohio State University.

In case you have no idea how this all works, most of the schools go through several rounds of consideration. After the initial "no's" are sent out, the remaining applications are assigned to faculty for close review. After the review process, the faculty board goes through and decides which applicants should be offered a spot in the program (Keep in mind, most of the programs have maybe 5-7 positions open, with an average applicant pool of close to 200). For most schools, if you last to mid-March there is a very good chance that you're in the final considerations. This by no means acts as any kind of a guaranty that you will be accepted into the program, but it means you have a shot.

My hope, seeing as today is March 6th, is that I've made it to that final round of consideration. If I can make it to around March 15-17 and still not be rejected by all 3 remaining schools, I feel that there is a reasonable chance that I could be accepted this term. If I hear anything more from any of the remaining schools, I'll be sure to post it. Your thoughts and prayers are appreciated!

False Dichotomies: Science and Reason vs. Religion and Faith

It seems that in our culture, for whatever reason, we view faith and reason in opposition. As a result of this position, we view religion (as the exemplar of faith) and science (as the exemplar of reason) as irreconcilable worldviews. Either the universal claims of science must be right and the claims of religion wrong, or vice versa. There is no middle ground, no merging of the two.

Why is this? Why must an individual choose between faith and reason? Is faith unreasonable? Is reason faithless? I would argue that this cultural dispute is all premised on a fundamentally wrong understanding of the nature of faith and reason. Faith and reason are not mutually exclusive, as some in culture would have us believe, but are in fact complementary.

I have a lot of projects to work on this weekend, so I won't be able to explore this issue to the depth I would like to right now. My plan is to devote three more posts to this topic: 1. A discussion on the nature of Faith, 2. A discussion on the nature of Reason, and 3. A discussion on the potential synthesis of the two. I wanted to post this as a kind of preview so that I could not only get your comments on the subject before I start to write, but also to insure that I actually follow through with it. If you know me you know that I don't have a good track record with blogging, so here's hoping that the risk of public derision will motivate me! I hope to start on the posts next week. Let me know what you think!

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The Importance of Metaphysics in Ethics

In one of my classes this semester we are discussing how ethics relates to public decision making. So far we have covered several different ethical systems such as Kantian duty ethics, cosmopolitanism, and the democratic theory of ethics. We recently moved on to a much more contentious (at least in our classroom) theory; utilitarianism. Peter Singer, probably the most influential modern utilitarian, has written several books on ethical problems from a utilitarian perspective. The piece we read for our class came from his book Practical Ethics, where Singer offers a fairly basic conception of what a utilitarian ethic looks like.

For Singer, as for most utilitarians, ethics is not about following rules or deciphering an all-applicable moral code. Ethics is rather concerned with determining the situational solution for any given circumstance that maximizes good (pleasure) while minimizing bad (pain or suffering). As such, it is a consequentialist approach to ethics; it is not concerned with the means that is used, simply with the ends. There are no acts which are always wrong for all people in all situations, there are only actions. These actions can bring about a good or bad result, and therein lies the ethical nature of action.

The specific example we discussed in class had to do with animal rights. As a consequentialist, Singer is concerned with bringing about a state of affairs which maximize the interests of all those affected; one cannot favor oneself or one's group simply because they are more closely connected to the individual. One must take into account the interests of every individual affected by the decision or action. Issues of discrimination on the basis of age, race, gender, and other differences are an often pointed to example of such an ethic. Most people would agree that to favor the interests of one group of people over another is arbitrary and unethical, and therefore we must consider everybody as equal.

The question to consider, then, becomes one of what quality or characteristic can we point to as accounting for the equality of every individual's interests. What do we all share in common that grounds this moral intuition that we all deserve the same consideration? Many philosophers argue that our rational nature, our ability to think abstractly and contemplate our own existence, our sentience, all of these qualities give us the rights of personhood. The problem with such an argument, Singer rightly points out, is that it cannot account for all of us. Why do the interests or benefit of the mentally handicapped person deserve the same consideration as the interests of anybody else if they do not share our rational nature? What accounts for their personhood?

Singer's response to this problem is to argue that by trying to make equality and ethics about personhood we have created an inherently unjust conception of ethics. Equality and ethics are not determined by personhood, but by the mere fact that the individual can experience pleasure and suffering. The suffering of the mentally handicapped is just as real as mine or yours, just as their pleasure is the same as ours. This shared capacity is what gives the utilitarian basis for ascribing equal consideration to all, regardless of capability.

Singer's next move is where his position becomes especially contentious. Because personhood and rationality is no longer the prerequisite for equal consideration, there is no ethical reason to assume that animal species are not entitled to the very same ethical consideration as a human being. In fact, Singer argues that animals, due to their ability to experience pleasure and pain, in fact are of equal moral worth as humans.

This conclusion, that animals deserve the same moral weight as humans, can be extremely problematic to those whose moral intuitions do not mesh with Singer's. This can be especially concerning for the Christian. If animals are equal to people, how ought we to understand Genesis chapter 1, where God pronounces that man is made "in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth." (Genesis 1:26 ESV) Here it seems that God is telling us in no uncertain terms that we are in a different class than animal life. He made us in His image, and then put us in charge of every animal on the earth. If that is so, how do we respond to Singer's argument while still providing for equality between humans regardless of capability?

The solution is the importance of metaphysics in our ethical considerations. The potential metaphysical differences between humans and animals (such as the existence of the soul) could account for a difference in moral weight while still allowing for equal consideration among all humans. Humans, being made in God's image and possessing a soul, are to be given preference. This is not to say that animals have no moral or ethical value. Treating an animal with cruelty is still wrong. Conversations about animal abuse and abandonment, as well as problems involved with factory farming, are all still worth having.

Let me know what you think. This blog being new, I'm very interested in hearing your comments.

Note: I've put an interview with Peter Singer below this post. As a warning, some of the topics discussed are of a more adult nature, and all of Singer's positions are of a morally provocative nature. Do not watch unless you're ok with being outraged.