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Category: Social Responsibility and Social Justice

An Israeli Cease-Fire?

The toll on civilian bystanders in Gaza shocks the conscience, so the heart cries out for it.

My heart cries out for it.

And, yet, my head also cries out: What is the alternative?

Because, in the absence of an alternative, a demand for a unilateral and permanent cease-fire is, in effect, a demand for preservation of the status quo.

And the status quo is unacceptable!

The status quo is more October 7ths — or worse — again and again and on into the indefinite future.  Israel cannot and will not accept living with such a continuing threat.  Nor should it be expected to.  No rational and moral government could.

So, to all those demanding an Israeli cease-fire: where are your corresponding demands on Hamas?  Have I missed them?  Where are the calls for Hamas to:

  • Stop their ongoing war-crimes by immediately and unconditionally releasing all the hostages they are holding?
  • Stop their ongoing war-crimes by immediately and unconditionally disentangling their military forces and equipment from the civilian populations and sanctuaries they are using as human shields?
  • Surrender the war criminals who planned and carried out the rape, maiming, and butchering of civilians in an unprovoked attack to face justice, either in the Israeli courts or at the Hague?
  • Turn control of governance in Gaza over to some organization whose goal is the well-being of the Gazan people rather than conquest and destruction of a neighboring country and its citizens?

And how do you plan to make sure all those things happen?  I suspect asking nicely won’t be quite enough…

Yes, I want Israel to stop waging war on Gazans.  But…I also want Hamas to stop waging war on Israel!  And, when it comes down to it, the reality is that Hamas will never do that.  As long as they are left in charge in Gaza, the status quo — constant low-level warfare occasionally erupting into high-level warfare — is going to continue on and on and into the indefinite future.

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Should advocating for genocide against the Jews constitute a violation of campus codes of conduct?

It is only reasonable to defend repugnant proclamations as the unfortunate but unavoidable result of a principled policy of support for “free speech” if you actually and consistently have such a policy.

Defending repugnant proclamations on that basis when you, instead, have a well documented history of suppressing free speech to assuage the feelings of a panoply of highly offendable favored constituencies sounds exactly like what everyone is seeing it for: a defensive self-justification for treating one particular disfavored constituency with contempt.

When faced with situations that are murky or difficult or fraught with contradictions — when our own knowledge and experience seem inadequate, when we are simply ignorant or when our hearts and our heads seem to pull us in different directions and we are unsure of which to follow — we often look to “established experts” and “leaders” of various types to guide us. We accept that guidance not merely because of some perceived expertise but because of a perceived moral authority — an authority to guide us not merely on what is “true” or “effective” but on what is “good” and “proper”.

In some other world, the Presidents of three of our most prestigious centers of academic excellence, institutions nominally dedicated to the extension, dissemination, and preservation of knowledge, to the pursuit of truth and wisdom, would seem to be exactly the kinds of “leaders” and “experts” we might call upon for guidance.

Yet, the fact is, because of what has been happening on their campuses on their watch, those three had no moral authority to lecture us on the value of “freedom of speech”.

Their testimony was akin to Donald Trump asserting the moral authority to lecture us on the value of honesty…

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FWIW: How is the U.S. actually doing on reducing Greenhouse Gas emissions?

Per the EPA (emphasis added):

Greenhouse gas emissions in 2021 (after accounting for sequestration from the land sector) were 17 percent below 2005 levels

from “Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks” (data through 2021, published in 2023)

Further, that 17% decrease in emissions happened while the American population increased by ~12.3% (from 295.5M to 331.9M per the U.S. Census Bureau).  So, under the same assumption, the rate of greenhouse gas emissions per capita has been decreasing at an even faster average rate: more like 2%/year, nearly twice as fast as the rate of decrease in the actual emissions.  Demographic projections by the U.S. Census Bureau predict a declining rate of population growth (and even the beginning of a decline in actual population) over the next century (to something like 350M by 2050 and to 366M (and decreasing) by 2100).  Under the same assumption about per capita emissions that we made about overall emissions — that the average percentage rate of change will remain consistent —  we might then expect the net effect, taking slowing population growth into account, to be an overall reduction in emissions (again, below 2005 levels) of more like ~57% by 2050 and ~83% by 2100.

Those numbers are not, perhaps, what climate activists want or what climate scientists would say we should target.  They are certainly not “net zero”.  But, they represent real, measurable, and steady progress.

So they are also not, perhaps, what the most alarmist headlines would lead you to believe about how we are doing.

It may well be that we are not doing quite enough.  But, we are far from doing nothing…

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“One-Time” Millionaires

In her front-page commentary piece about ‘one-time millionaires’ — largely small business owners who sell their businesses at retirement — Shirley Leung expresses very little sympathy — bordering on contempt — for the notion that such people might run afoul of the proposed new “Millionaire’s Tax”. Says she,

Let’s be real here. It’s hard to have sympathy for people who stand to make a lot of money from selling their businesses…

Unlike Ms. Leung, I find myself capable of great sympathy, indeed, for their plight…

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Absolution and Responsibility

Among the civilizing aspects of modern culture is the fact that ancient traditions of personal retribution have been supplanted by a socially-administered system for public accountability. Victims and their families may no longer take the law into their own hands by seeking vengeance on predators.  Instead we, as a society, promise to see justice done on their behalf.

But that is a compact that goes both ways:  if society demands authority over the administration of justice, then it also assumes responsibility for it.  If we have promised to see justice done, then delivering anything short of justice is a breach of that promise.

Within such a system, justice demands that sentences we assign are and should be proportionate to the moral severity of the crimes committed. Ensuring, then, that those proportionate sentences are, indeed, carried out is how we fulfill society’s moral obligation to the victims.

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America’s Original Sin

American slavery was a sin, but neither an original nor an idiosyncratic one….

… On the other hand, Jim Crow — and the racialist foundation upon which it was erected — was America’s original sin: we invented it and allowed it to take root in spite of (or, arguably, as an excuse for disregarding) our founding creed of human liberty; we took far longer than we should have to rid ourselves of it – longer, indeed, than we did to rid ourselves of slavery, itself; and we yet suffer its furtive vestiges and endure its execrable repercussions more than sixty years after it was officially and formally consigned to the ash-heap.

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Under Color of Authority

The police act on our authority and in our name.  That gives us a corresponding responsibility to act, as well, when they step beyond reasonable bounds we have set.  And, if we don’t act – if we relax and extend those bounds, either intentionally or simply by failing to accept the responsibility to rein them in – then we are, as well, responsible for the consequences.  The color of authority becomes actual authority if we acquiesce to it; and, therefore, the moral stench of that authority, when exercised indecently, adheres to us as much as it does to whoever exercised it on our behalf.

The protesters want justice, but not the kind that a court can give them by convicting a particular villain.  Their protests are not really directed at the police or at the courts or at the politicians: they are directed at us.  And what they are demanding of us is simple: “Step up!  Stop accepting the unacceptable! Rein in those who claim to act in your name!”

That is, indeed, our responsibility.  How can we do less?

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Risk, Part 1: Trade-Offs and Value Judgements

Part 1 of a 2-part sequence on different aspects of how American society deals with risk:

…we all intuitively understand, even if we can neither articulate nor rationalize the precise placement of the implied ethical boundaries – or are loath to admit to them – that the trade-offs in risky human activity between the potential for loss of human life and the potential for benefit, economic or otherwise, are not as stark and as obvious as the simple and common mantra –that saving human life is always worth any cost – implies.

To be blunt: there is, indeed, some upper bound on how much cost, either in economic benefit or in liberty, represents a fair trade for a statistical human life.  And we all personally adjudge where that bound lies, implicitly if not explicitly, many times per day, every day, as a matter of routine. We all take risks and impose risks on others because we think we will reap some economic or physical or emotional or social or moral or spiritual reward from doing so…

There is a legitimate, important, and ongoing debate that we may and should have over where, on the continuum of behavior, the margin lies between prudent risk-taking and reckless disregard. But we must acknowledge that there is a continuum, not a simple border: not all risks are reckless ones and there are costs sufficiently dire, and benefits sufficiently valuable, that they may, indeed, justify the risk of precipitating some generalized and arbitrarily-distributed human suffering in order to forestall or foster them.

For those who have taken the position that no relaxation of the lockdowns should be even contemplated while any significant risk remains, that means accepting and acknowledging that zero risk is an unrealistic and unachievable standard.  It means acknowledging that reducing risk for some causes real and consequential harm to others and that, at some point, the harm of incremental gains in risk reduction exceeds the incremental harm of the virus, itself.  We can’t live in lockdown forever; and, in the absence of an effective vaccine or a cure, widely deployed to create widespread immunity, the lockdown will, indeed, stretch on forever because there will never be a time when releasing it will seem propitious and wholly safe.

For those who have been advocating for a quick and complete re-opening – and especially for those actively protesting the imposition of various modest public safety measures like the wearing of masks – that means accepting that we all have responsibilities commensurate with the rights we so self-righteously defend.  What we do affects the community.  Yes, we have the personal right to accept a risk of catching the virus in pursuit of some other reward.  But, assuming risks for yourself – by exposing yourself to disease carriers – and imposing risks on others – by carrying the disease to them despite their own best precautions – are two very different acts and should fairly be judged by different criteria, the latter more stringent than the former.  Whether you like it or not, in a world of pandemic you have a moral responsibility to protect others against the possibility of your own contagion.  If you cannot willingly and diligently assume that responsibility, then your moral claim to a “right” to be free of restraint is little more than a hollow defense of self-indulgence.

And for all of us, that means taking each other’s concerns seriously, with empathy rather than with contempt.  The pain people are expressing is real, not imagined.  What you find comforting, others may find distressing.  What you find to be reasonable precaution others may experience as destructive overreaction.  Neither side may or should presume they hold a monopoly on truth or on wisdom.  We are, indeed, in this together because this is a contagion.  But that doesn’t mean we all experience that contagion in the same way or bear its burdens in the same forms or to the same degree.  The fact that someone disagrees with your value judgements about those burdens means they and their circumstance are different than you and yours.  It doesn’t mean they are right.  But, it also doesn’t mean they are wrong.

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Trump is Reprehensible: Does That Create a Moral Duty to Vote for His Opponent?

To use an analogy that is, admittedly, intentionally, and consciously way over-the-top in order to make the point utterly unmissable:

Yes, Trump is Hitler. But, if the choice you offer me is to get rid of Hitler by embracing Stalin, can I be blamed for, instead, wishing that a pox descend upon your house as well as his?

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