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Duncan gets Death August 27, 2008

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Criminal Justice, Current Events, Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts.

I have been out of town and have not been able to post updates, but for the past few weeks the Duncan trial has been moving through excruciating testimony and video of the torture of young Dylan to its predictable end: The jurors’ verdict is death on three counts: kidnapping resulting in death, sexual exploitation of a child resulting in death, and using a firearm during or in relation to a crime of violence. No mitigating factors. In his closing statement Duncan said,

“You people really don’t have any clue yet of the true heinousness of what I’ve done. … My intention was to kidnap and rape and kill until I was killed, preferring death, easily, over capture.”

There is speculation now that he may be on his way to Southern California for a trial, confronting him with the murder of a young boy in Beaumont, Riverside, Tony Martinez. Shasta’s and Dylan’s father, Steve Groene, said he considered it a waste of money, considering the circumstances. But would justice require that Duncan face all charges? Would that bring “closure” to the families?

As you know, I’ve followed this case since its beginning, and have attempted to share with you some of the reasons why I think it deserves our attention—not only because it confronts us with the concept of evil, in its narrowest sense, but also because it has brought up issues of sanity, of victims’ rights, of media ethics (I didn’t even get into that part!), and perhaps even of what it might take for a community to start a healing process after having gone through this kind of ordeal. Will Duncan’s death (after all the appeals, of course) give the community, and Shasta, some form of peace? The verdict gives us an opportunity to talk about the whole purpose of the trial: the concept of punishment. When someone like Duncan—who is indisputably guilty; no risk of executing an innocent person here—is sentenced to death, what is your reaction? Do you deplore the primitive reaction of a young society, feeling the need to put a person to death for what he or she has done? Do you consider it a shame that the community has given up on the possibility of rehabilitating Duncan? Or do you consider it a measure of justice, the only one truly appropriate for (1) the severity of the crime, and/or (2) deterring similar crimes, and/or (3) protecting other children from other acts by that same man? Here we have some of the key arguments in the death penalty debate, the abolitionist vs. the retentionist arguments, and the retributivist vs. the consequentialist arguments. I’d like to hear what you think.


Mopers Unite! August 25, 2008

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Culture, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics.

Eric G. Wilson, in this article (and this book) takes Americans to task for their superficial pursuit of happiness.

A recent poll conducted by the Pew Research Center shows that almost 85 percent of Americans believe that they are very happy or at least pretty happy…What are we to make of this American obsession with happiness, an obsession that could well lead to a sudden extinction of the creative impulse, that could result in an extermination as horrible as those foreshadowed by global warming and environmental crisis and nuclear proliferation? What drives this rage for complacency, this desperate contentment?… Surely all this happiness can’t be for real. How can so many people be happy in the midst of all the problems that beset our globe — not only the collective and apocalyptic ills but also those particular irritations that bedevil our everyday existences, those money issues and marital spats, those stifling vocations and lonely dawns?… Aren’t we suspicious of this statistic?  Aren’t we further troubled by our culture’s overemphasis on happiness? Don’t we fear that this rabid focus on exuberance leads to half-lives, to bland existences, to wastelands of mechanistic behavior?

Indeed Wilson is right. Americans do tend to confuse happiness with contentment, complacency, and pleasure, and we do so at some peril because, when we think this way, we don’t focus on the work we need to do to sustain genuine happiness and prosperity.


But then he goes off the deep end.


I for one am afraid that American culture’s overemphasis on happiness at the expense of sadness might be dangerous, a wanton forgetting of an essential part of a full life.… I am finally fearful of our society’s efforts to expunge melancholia… Melancholia, far from a mere disease or weakness of will, is an almost miraculous invitation to transcend the banal status quo and imagine the untapped possibilities for existence. Without melancholia, the earth would likely freeze over into a fixed state, as predictable as metal. Only with the help of constant sorrow can this dying world be changed, enlivened, pushed to the new.

This is psychologically implausible in the extreme. Instead of following up his complaints about our superficial understanding of happiness by referencing the long tradition beginning with Aristotle that views happiness as a life of achievement and good fortune, he advocates a life of –melancholy? Since when is melancholy, even when it doesn’t slide into clinical depression, a motivational state? Exceptions notwithstanding, most accomplished people I know don’t spend a lot of time wallowing in sadness. They acknowledge the vulnerabilities of life and then get on trying to cope with them.


Wilson has made the same mistake to which Nina alludes in this post from a few weeks ago—he defines happiness as contentment without ever considering the alternatives. The alternative to vapid, “blissed” out dopamine junkies is not melancholics. Rather, it is people who manage to cope well enough with their vulnerabilities so they are able to enjoy what they care about. That takes work and moral attention—not moping.


Is The Population Bomb a Dud? August 22, 2008

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Culture, Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts.
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It has been conventional wisdom among environmentalists that the earth’s population will continue to grow, eventually oustripping the avialable resources to support prosperity.

But this article shows that the trend lines are no longer so clear. Birth rates are beginning to fall throughout much of the world, precipitously in some places. And declining birth rates generate problems for societies.

“Low-birth Europe is faced with an ageing population, a pensions crisis, later retirement, changes in work patterns, shrinking cities and a massive looming healthcare cost. Nations of children with no siblings, cousins, aunts or uncles – only parents, grandparents, and perhaps great-grandparents – will face the burden of paying for the care of a massive older generation. The same prospect of an older, more conservative, less vigorous or inventive culture looms in China, Japan and much of the Far East”.


The article suggests that keeping population right around the replacement level 2.1 kids per women is the best policy. But it is not clear how to accomplish this. Another part of conventional wisdom is that giving women access to education and job opportunities outside the home reduces family size. But in many countries that has reduced birth rates too far below replacement level.


And it doesn’t always work. In Italy, Spain, Greece, and parts of Asia such as Japan, women have access to education and the workplace but social attitudes encourage women to adopt traditional roles:

“Women without their own income have very little bargaining power inside the home, but they can go on baby strike. The outcome is that, perhaps counter-intuitively, working mothers are now having more babies than those who stay at home full time. “The tradition that once boosted fertility,” says Falkingham, “now undermines it.”

The result is what the Japanese demographer Shigemi Kono calls “the revenge of women on men”… “Until social attitudes catch up with economic change,” says David Coleman, “many women in the developed world will become overloaded and respond by cutting down the number of children they have.”


The take away point: It is very hard to prescribe a general policy. Too much depends on local conditions

Why Philosophy? August 21, 2008

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Philosophy.
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This episode from NPR’s series This I Believe provides one of the best justifications for studying philosophy that I have heard.

Journalist Yvette Doss describes how philosophy gave her permission to think in ways that enabled her to overcome her underpriveleged circumstances. She closes with the observation that “Logic makes equals of us all”.

Give it a listen.

A New Voice August 20, 2008

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Culture, Dwight Furrow's Posts.

It is not often I am blown away by contemporary pop music. But Amos Lee has a gorgeous voice.


I suppose the genre is “coffeehouse soul”—mellow R and B deftly garnished with folk and country musical themes and thoughtful lyrics. The production values are superb and the band, a collection of Blue Note regulars, is pitch perfect. But it is the voice that captivates. It manages to be simultaneously silky and gritty—like a cross between Nat King Cole and Taj Mahal updated for a new century.


The newest album is Last Days at the Lodge, but the earlier efforts, Supply and Demand and Amos Lee, are perhaps a cut above.

Empty Skies August 17, 2008

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts.
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We face a considerable challenge in eliminating our dependence on fossil fuels for our vehicles. But there is a technological solution–hybrid, electrical, and perhaps eventually hydrogen fueled engines–that is very close to implementation, given the political will.

But there may be no such solution with regard to air travel.

This discouraging article details the problems and imagines a future in which air transportation is sharply limited. It is not a pretty sight.

Double Standard Redux August 17, 2008

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts.
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I wrote recently (here) that Obama’s main challenge is the double standard to which he is held by the press and public.

More evidence of the double standard appeared this week.

When Obama was traveling in Europe a couple weeks ago, he was criticized by many in the press (and of course by Republicans) for being presumptous–acting presidential before he was President.

This week during the (overblown) crisis in Georgia, John McCain claimed to be on the phone daily with Georgia’s President, while continually making policy pronouncements and potentially inflammatory remarks about our relationship with Russia. He was acknowledged in some circles to be pushing Bush toward an increasing belligerant tone. McCain is not yet President, but did we hear criticisms of his presumptuousness?

Obama has been continually attacked for being unpatriotic for the slimmest of reasons (for only occasionally wearing an American flag lapel pin, for having a pastor who criticized American policy, for having a wife who chided the U.S. for its rather evident racist past).

Yet, this week it was discovered that McCain’s chief foreign policy advisor was on the payroll of the Georgian government, lobbyied McCain on behalf of Georgia on numerous occasions, and owns a company that is still paid to promote the interests of Georgia.This was a minor news story ignored by most of the press.

Why is there no outcry about McCain’s judgment in choosing campaign advisors with a financially induced loyalty to foreign nations? When McCain proclaims “we are all Georgians” whose interests is he promoting?

Joseph Duncan Update #3: Kant vs Taylor August 15, 2008

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Criminal Justice, Current Events, Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts.

Should we allow Duncan a moment to express himself? Ordinarily I wouldn’t, but since we have previously talked about evil, it is interesting to see Duncan use the term about himself. In a letter to his mother he speculates about the concept of evil, and evil in him. So while others may have qualms about using the e-word about Duncan, he doesn’t hesitate using it about himself—albeit with qualifications:

There is a huge resevior [sic] of hatred – evil – that drives me to hurt people, even those I love.… I am driven by my hatred for our society  (“the system”) but at the same time tortured by my own compassion. … God has shown me the face of evil, he has also allowed me to see that evil is an illusion that is given life via our ignorance and fear, evil is real only because we make it real, if I could somehow teach people this we could develop many new and effective ways to fight evil which is hatred that manifests itself in any intelligent system… Our society is permiated [sic] with these evil “entities” (if you will)…Evil can live in a person and in a society as well. … I have been inflicted by an evil ‘demon’ that is nurtured by our so-called criminal justice system… I am still fighting my demons and asking God to guide me as he can.

Is there true recognition of moral failure here? No, of course not. He blames “the system,” he blames people’s ignorance, he seems to blame God for not stopping him, and he denounces “evil” as a social construct at the same time as he recognizes his “demons.” This is a narcissistic mind, and at every step of the way he twists his analysis into one of finger pointing. What it does show is that according to Kant’s definition of evil—persisting in doing self-serving acts with the full knowledge of them being morally unacceptable—fits Duncan perfectly.

What is it that is so morally revolting about Joseph Duncan? Of course the man has violated every rule of ethics and decency in every book, so from the knee-jerk visceral reaction to the cool, rational side of judgment, Duncan is a wrongdoer. But I am reminded of a famous analysis by American philosopher Richard Taylor who presents three stories of moral callousness: a young boy puts a pin through a bug and watches it squirm; kids pour gasoline over a cat and set fire to it; and Nazi soldiers bash the head of an infant in, and kill an old defenseless man. Taylor’s point is that if we line up all the familiar philosophical arguments against such behavior, what truly hits home isn’t that such actions have bad consequences, or they go against a universal moral rule, or fail to meet the standard of the Golden Mean, etc., but that they are done without a shred of compassion. Taylor argued, almost all by himself in the philosophical climate of the late 20th century (now more people are beginning to see things his way) that the true moral quality is compassion, not a rationality-based response. In the case of Duncan we can watch Taylor’s theory come to life: What is so immensely troubling about the story of Duncan’s killings (as is the case with most serial killers and rapists) is the lack of just ordinary human compassion (so much for his notion that he is tortured by his own compassion). His victims were bugs to him, and he liked to watch them squirm. In court it came out that he showed Shasta videotape of torturing her brother Dylan before shooting the boy in front of her, and he had the two kids write letters home to their dad, assuring him they’d be home soon, in-between the torture sessions, and prior to killing Dylan.  But as much as I have taken a shine to Taylor’s emotionalism, I still like to find a satisfying philosophical reason-based foundation for my revulsion, and I think I have to turn to Kant, again. What is so dreadful about Duncan? There are a lot of criminals who don’t have compassion for their victims, but Duncan adds an element to this callousness: He uses others merely as a means to an end, in a highly manipulative and organized manner. This is what he has done throughout all his life of crime—reduced others to simple tools for his own pleasure and needs, thinking and planning his next moves. And now that he apparently wants to die, his manipulative behavior continues: As Shasta had been nothing but an instrument for Duncan’s needs (maybe less for sex than for the feeling of power), I suspect he had plans of making her the tool of his dramatic exit, himself cross-examining the star witness against him, staging his own death sentence as a result of the confrontation. Who did he hope would play him in the movie, I wonder? This, fortunately, was prevented—her testimony was heard on tape, not live, in court yesterday.

I find that Kant and Taylor are not mutually exclusive; one theory is rationality-based, and evaluates the moral failings of a self-centered deliberation process; the other is based on emotions, and spotlights the lack of fellow-feeling in criminal acts. We need both aspects—the expectation of a rational “Golden Rule” understanding, as well as of a fundamental human empathy—to understand the abyss of wrongness/evil that Duncan presents to us. And later, when the jurors reach a decision about the penalty, we may be able to talk about this dual approach as two sides of a judgment: reason-based punishment combined with whatever measure of human empathy that may seem appropriate.





Joseph Duncan Update #2 August 13, 2008

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Criminal Justice, Current Events, Nina Rosenstand's Posts.
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Good news: a deal has been worked out so that Shasta Groene will not be cross-examined by Joseph Duncan after all. Instead her previous taped interviews  will be admissible. It is also becoming clear that Duncan’s motive for “defending” himself is suicide-by-court: He has not planned to introduce any mitigating evidence. The hearing is now underway, and you can follow along here: a link to ongoing online courtroom reports.

The Collapse of Moral Authority August 13, 2008

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts.
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Russia’s invasion of Georgia brings to the surface one of the great costs of the Iraq War—the United States no longer has the moral authority to effectively argue against Russia’s actions.


There is a great deal of uncertainty about what caused the conflagration. Is Russia trying to rebuild the Soviet empire or sending a message that it intends to at least exert its influence over territory formerly under its control? Was Russia baited into invading by Georgia’s attack on separatist movements sympathetic toward Russia? Did the Bush administration wittingly or unwittingly encourage Georgia to bait Russia? We don’t know the answer to these questions at this point. (This essay by Harold Meyerson makes some sense of the situation.)


But one thing is clear. Russia has not done anything that the United States hasn’t done in Iraq and elsewhere. It is therefore no surprise that when blowhards like Bush and McCain express their outrage at Russia’s actions, no one pays much attention. Even the Georgian President is not much impressed. France, on the other hand, is apparently more highly regarded as an honest broker. French President Sarkozy was able to negotiate a cease-fire shortly after disembarking from his plane (although it apparently has not yet been implemented).


In trying to build a framework for cooperation between nations, nothing is more important that maintaining moral authority. If you lack it, no one trusts you, no one empathizes with your situation, and no one is willing to put issues such as justice on the table because they fear these considerations will be cynically manipulated toward self-serving ends. Of course, the threat of force is necessary when moral authority fails. But without trust and the moral authority it engenders, all you have is the threat of force and a state of permanent war.


We used to have that moral authority, at least up to a point, but it has been thoroughly squandered by the Bush administration. Now we are regarded as no more than a bully—like Russia. And an ineffectual bully as well. Since we are tied down by two wars and a military decimated by ill-advised military adventures, there is nothing we can do about the Georgian situation even if some sort of military intervention were justified.


But that hasn’t stopped the neo-conservatives from ginning up war fever once again. They can’t help it. It’s just what they do. Without war fever to occupy headlines and the cable news gasbags, their lack of ideas about how to solve the considerable problems we face would be exposed for everyone to see. This is their big chance to reinvigorate the cold war to provide an excuse for their perpetual war against evil, which is the only justification they can find for their sorry existence.


So McCain is running around like Attila the Hun on a drug cocktail of meth and Viagra trying to impress everyone with his crisis management skills.


And what skills indeed!


Today, McCain made an utter fool of himself by declaring “In the 21st Century, Nations Don’t Invade Other Nations”!  Excuse me Senator, didn’t we just….? 


Do we want someone as disgustingly disingenuous as this as President, and someone so stupid he can’t deploy rhetoric that at least attempts to avoid contradiction and meaninglessness?