Monthly Archives: September 2012

Why “Because my God says so” doesn’t cut it in a democracy

Scott Aikin and Robert Talisse offer a clear, excellent argument for why discussion and deliberation in a democracy must be predicated on public reasons rather than exclusive, religious ones:

[T]he main function of public deliberation is not to prove that one’s views about the public good are true, but rather to show one’s fellow citizens that one’s views about the public good are justifiable.  And to show one’s fellow citizens that one’s views about the public good are justifiable is to show that they are justifiable to them.  In order to show that one’s views about the public good are justifiable to your fellow citizens, one must articulate the case for one’s views in terms that do not presuppose one’s own particular moral, metaphysical, or religious commitments.  For your fellow citizen may reject these commitments without thereby disqualifying themselves for democratic citizenship. […]

We may say that public reasons are of the kind that cannot be dismissed as irrelevant or unintelligible by democratic citizens.  Thus there is a fundamental difference between a reason such as “The Bible forbids it” and “Equality requires it.”  One who dismisses the former does not thereby disqualify himself for democratic citizenship; one who dismisses the latter does.  Accordingly, a group of citizens that insists on a public policy that can be supported only by means of nonpublic reasons thereby shows disrespect for their fellow citizens.  Put otherwise, to affirm a public policy that cannot be supported by public reasons is in effect to say to one’s fellow citizens “Because I said so.”  And that’s to deny that one’s fellow citizens are one’s equals. […]

Knowing that deliberation occurs against the backdrop of deep disagreement, we must on the one hand be willing to recognize the diversity of religious, philosophical, and ethical commitments available to democratic citizens.  On the other hand, we must be able to explain the basis for any policy we advocate with reasons we can expect any of those diverse individuals to endorse as consistent with their status as a fellow free and equal citizen.  That’s the tightrope of democratic justification.  Democratic deliberation, then, requires us to argue from a public perspective.

I emphatically agree; the entire essay is here and worth reading.

I think it’s worth noting that Barack Obama has eloquently made this argument in the past, and it’s an argument worth making often:

Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. What do I mean by this? It requires that their proposals be subject to argument and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, to take one example, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I can’t simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God’s will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all. This is going to be difficult for some who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, as many Evangelicals do. But in a pluralistic society, we have no choice. Politics depends on the ability to persuade each other of common aims based on a common reality.

(via The Dish; image via Echr Blog)

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Science versus dogma

Click on the image (or here) for the full sequence. If there’s a simpler or cuter way to summarize the conflict between the methods of science and the claims of fundamentalist faith, I’ve yet to see it.

I found this via Phil Plait, who says: “Not everyone is so unwavering in their dogma, but enough people are (especially those who run this country) that this should be required reading by the time every US citizen reaches elementary school.” I concur.

(A note: from the comments on Plait’s site, there seems to have been some debate about whether the artist was reinforcing gender stereotypes. Well, maybe — though I’m not aware of any perception that women are more fundamentalist than men, and there are certainly plenty of fundamentalist males in the news today. As always, though, please correct me if I’m wrong. And you can check out PZ Myers’ post about it and his readers’ reactions, if you’re interested.)

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How to build a person

Tim Minchin narrates a nice introduction to the history — and future — of genomics:

More on ENCODE — the Encyclopedia of DNA Elements — here:

Gina Kolata of the New York Times walks us through the most recent breakthrough in DNA research and its implications. It’s worth reading through, but here’s a bit some may miss:

The findings, which are the fruit of an immense federal project involving 440 scientists from 32 laboratories around the world, will have immediate applications for understanding how alterations in the non-gene parts of DNA contribute to human diseases, which may in turn lead to new drugs.

Indeed — ENCODE operates under the auspices of the US National Human Genome Research Institute, which is a division of the National Institutes of Health. That’s your tax dollars at work, America! As researchers continue to decode the human genome and gain significant ground in the fight against diseases like diabetes and cancer, it’s yet another clear example of why government matters.

(h/t Boing Boing)

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The Dalai Lama, “beyond religion altogether”

Wow. Here’s the Dalai Lama:

[T]he reality of the world today is that grounding ethics in religion is no longer adequate. This is why I am increasingly convinced that the time has come to find a way of thinking about spirituality and ethics beyond religion altogether.

And also this, from his book The Universe in a Single Atom:

My confidence in venturing into science lies in my basic belief that as in science so in Buddhism, understanding the nature of reality is pursued by means of critical investigation: if scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims.

Fantastic — and this comes from a source I’d never have expected. What other major religious leader would have had the courage, confidence, and humility to make this assertion?

I must admit here that I’m shockingly ignorant of the tenets of Tibetan Buddhism and the beliefs of the DL. More for me to learn and catch up on, hooray!

(via io9; photo via Inquire)

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“Still holding on to that torch for life”

A song for New York, from Lucy Kaplansky:

It’s been eleven years, and songs like this — and the memories of that day — still bring tears to my eyes. I don’t think I’ll ever be over it.

My daughter is eleven now. She was just four months old on 9/11 and has no memory of that day, only the stories her parents have told her — it’s history for her, just another thing that happened in the world before she became aware of the world. Maybe that’s the way it should be. I wouldn’t wish this quiet grief to haunt her for the rest of her days. Let her acknowledge that day and move on with her life, in sunlight and in joy.

They’re teaching her in middle school to accept — “not just tolerate” — all cultures. I temper it a bit, telling her that all people deserve respect, but not all ideas do. Where cultures have wrong ideas — honor killings, female genital mutilation, the belief in the supremacy of one religion or another — people must speak out against them.

But perhaps the middle school teachers are right to emphasize respect and acceptance first: if respect is the foundation, perhaps it will help kids grow up to remember that whoever they disagree with is a human being too. In the end, after all the many important issues to disagree about, there’s nothing more important than that.

More thoughts on 9/11 here.

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Designing for the cities of the future

Kent Larson offers a fascinating glimpse into new technological and design possibilities aimed at making the cities of the future more accessible, more environment-friendly, more space-efficient, and more liveable:

Yes, please!

The transformable apartment, in particular, seems to be an idea that’s catching on. Hong Kong architect Gary Chang has already made it a reality.

(via TED)

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Why libraries matter, cont’d: “Permanent, unlimited, free”

Ursula K. Le Guin. in a must-read post, makes the case for why libraries matter in the digital age:

Libraries are essential because they keep permanent collections — even of unpopular books, even of impermanent, seemingly valueless items — a samizdat from 1940, a newspaper from 1933. Ebooks, including self-published ebooks, would become part of permanent library collections, which could then join the worldwide network of electronic libraries.

The existence or disappearance of a library’s permanent collection isn’t a sexy issue. But it’s absolutely basic to access to information and to the continuity of human knowledge. […]

The goal of the public library has been to give anyone who needs or wants it permanent, unlimited, free access to books. All books.

The goal of the public library in the electronic age is what it always was: to give permanent, unlimited, free access to books — print books, ebooks, all books — to everyone.

She outlines the threat libraries face from stingy corporate publishers:

For a long time most Americans agreed on the importance of the free public library to the well-being of the community and the country. A publisher then would hesitate to be seen deliberately making things hard for libraries. But reactionary ideology has weakened the idea of community; muddy thinking has convinced people that information on the Internet is free; and libraries are being conveniently misrepresented as mere outmoded warehouses for print books. Readers may assume that libraries don’t and won’t buy and circulate ebooks.

In fact, despite the expense of constantly changing technologies, the non-support of voters bleating anti-tax mantras, and the aggressive tactics of corporate publishers, the great public libraries have kept abreast with the electronic age, and they very much want to buy and circulate free ebooks.

Since corporations don’t consider human rights or needs, only corporate profits, they feel free to use tactics that infringe, ignore, or flout the rights of readers. They are in fact practicing commercial censorship. They are keeping books from us.

If the part libraries play in distributing ebooks gets “frictioned” into insignificance, it will be easier for the corporations to take further control of what ebooks you personally can obtain, how long a book will stay on your reader before you have to pay for it again, and whatever else they want to control. If they see profit in doing any of this, they’ll do it. If small publishers try to sell the books they don’t sell, the big corporations will eliminate the small publishers.

And cross-file this under “Books are made of win”:

If ebooks largely replace printed books, and the public libraries are decimated or eliminated as a permanent resource open to everybody, we may be able to access books only through the corporations. It will not be easy to get a book the corporations have decided is unprofitable, outdated, unnecessary, or unpleasing; it may be very difficult to find out whether a text has been cut or tampered with; there may be no way to know that a book ever existed.

Much more here, and as always, worth reading.

(Video via Ebooks for Libraries)

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