Legislating Morality

 

Legislating Morality

The topic of legislating morality is an issue that impinges on the ramifications of individual liberty, freedom, and values. Of course, arguably any law passed is a legislation of morality, from seat belt laws to public smoking. But whose morality are speaking about? And on what justificatory basis does one have –  or group have – to impose morality on others? Recent hot button issues have created a cultural divide with regards to rights of LGBT members, specifically people who identify as a different gender. The liberties of same-sex marriage is a continued bone of contention for many in the U.S. who feel that the liberalizing of America [e.g. abortion] is a spreading contagion that is infecting our young generation with unholy values. Undoubtedly, the current topic of legislating morality is between two camps: secular and religious people. I easily grant that there are secular groups, divided by secular reasons, who promote their secular values with regards to, for example, redistribution of capital, privacy laws, and U.S. interference in Middle Eastern affairs. However, in our colloquial way of understanding the meaning of “legislating morality,” it connotes a divide by secular and religious values.

There are four foundational questions that have arisen – within me – regarding the topic of legislating morality. First, what is the role of the citizen and the role of the elected official when discussing legislation? Second, is there a difference between public morality and private morality? How can you begin to even consider legislating a particular morality if you do not have access to that morality? Finally, is there a way to use objective methods to deliberate between morality, rather than relying on subjective religion?

The Roles of the Citizen and the Elected Official

Without getting too deep into political science, I think we can agree that we live in a representative democracy, based on the Constitution of 1787. Through the electoral process, citizens vote for candidates to represent their values on how to organize society as a whole. This is the simplest way I can put it, without parsing or debating every political term I just used. Given this process of representative democracy, the domains of the ordinary citizen and elected official are in completely different hemispheres.

When the ordinary citizen enters the voting booth, he/she is free to vote for whoever and for whatever reasons. In other words, they can draw from their own personal moral [and religious] convictions on “what society should look like” [to them] and select the candidate that best matches those convictions. The elected official, in contrast, is in a domain that is both pluralistic and non-private. Therefore, while the ordinary citizen can vote in either a sensitive pluralistic fashion or with a narrow dogmatism that benefits a certain sect, the elected official ought to view legislation from a vantage point of religious neutrality that takes into consideration the 320 million people living in their heterogeneous and pluralistic society.

On what justification, however, can I say the “elected official ought to view legislation from a vantage point of neutrality?” Well, we have a Constitution with amendments that fosters a Jeffersonian ‘wall of separation’ between the secular and religious state. The First Amendments states:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. (1791)

In addition, there is an Establishment of Religion Clause written into the First Amendment to prevent the federal or state governments from endorsing or supporting any specific religion in any manner. This includes endorsing any religion over a non-religion, and vice versa. This is why I say that elected officials and judges ought to act from a position of neutrality with regards to religion, by uplifting the betterment of human values over and above their personal conviction based on a particular religion. This First Amendment right is by no means clear to understand, and as you can see, it’s fairly abstract. Despite its somewhat ambiguous language, the essence of the First Amendment has provided a strong basis from which we can begin to have substantive debates on the parameters of freedom.

There is one particular court case that later provided a litmus test for religious neutrality. In the 1971 case of Lemon v. Kurtzman, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments as to whether the state should support a program that would provide aide to religious schools. In determining whether the government could give aid to an educational institution operated by a religious entity, the court applied a three-part test, now known as the Lemon Test. The three questions that must be answered in the Lemon Test include:

  • Does the action taken by the government, or the law established, have a legitimate secular purpose? If the answer is no, the violates the Establishment of Religion clause.
  • Is the primary goal of the government’s action, or law established, have the effect of advancing or inhibiting any religion? If the answer is yes, it violates the clause.
  • Does the action taken, or law established, allow for an intertwining of government with religion? If so, it violates the clause.

My intention is not to say that any law passed must contain absolutely no religious affiliation. The morality of love, respect, and altruism can be found in both Judeo-Christian and secular humanism ideals. The separation, however, occurs in the process regarding the justificatory reasons that takes into consideration a pluralistic United States. Written with the oppressive history of the Church of England in the back of the minds of the Framers, the First Amendment exonerates America from living under a religious or theocratic state morality, so that individual liberty can flourish.

It does not matter to me what religion you are, just know that your religion is a belief system and does not cue off of objective truths, otherwise we would call it science. And if you have a belief system, that belief system is constitutionally protected and I don’t have any problems with you holding that belief system or voting for issues that coincide with your religious values. But the moment you hold office where now you are making decisions that affect a pluralistic electorate, any laws you pass need to be based in objective reality. Otherwise you are bringing a personal truth to bare on other people who do not have a privileged access to your truth. And that is a recipe for disaster; a recipe for revolution.

Public Morality and Private Morality

When discussing the legislation of morality, I think we need to draw a distinction between public morality and private morality. And then, as a follow up, ask if any morality is actually really private? Growing up, I was indoctrinated with a morality, courtesy of my parents, that emphasized no cussing (moral speech), doing daily chores (work as morally good), and respecting those around me. Now this was a private morality under the roof of my parent’s house. My parents had no vested interest in making their morality public by, say, advocating that every child in the U.S. should do daily chores.

Public morality, in contrast, is concerned about the moral impact upon an entire society. For example, the Republican congress policy of cutting $210 million dollars for low-income women that grant mothers and their children access to healthcare highlights a morality that is public. This is based on the innate human ethic of care for those who need their basic needs met. Concern for public morality says it’s wrong for the Republican congress to reduce Medicare and give massive tax breaks to corporations. This too is based on the principle that exploiting the poor to increase the wealth of the elite is wrong. As you can see, public morality is concerned about the vast population’s ability to flourish and thrive in a heterogeneous America. Since Roe V. Wade, America can and will continue to move towards moral progress as women possess more rights to make decisions about their own body. Furthermore, fighting to take rights and/or minimize rights of the LGBT is a prime example of taking a private morality – based on values of a religious sect – and limit the flourishing of individuals who are simply trying to pursue love and a create their own loving families. Public morality is based on Enlightenment values that seek to minimize pain and increase freedom. These are values that elevate the ethics freedom, liberty, and justice so that people can, as the Declaration of Independence states, “pursue happiness.”

Insidiously lying dormant within this point is a distinction that I cannot leave unattended: the difference between social conventions and moral rules. Social conventions (e.g. daily chores) are contingent, local, and facilitate social coordination through shared understandings of etiquette and legal codes. Psychologist Elliot Turiel proposed a set of features that sharply distinguished moral from conventional transgressions. Moral transgressions are (1) more wrong, (2) more punishable, (3) independent of structures of authority and (4) universally applicable. For instance, rape, genocide, and pedophilia carry an almost universal moral repugnancy that transcends cultural norms. History as shown us that in order to normalize these types of moral transgressions [within groups], it takes religion or a macabre ideology in the remotest and uncivilized parts of the world. Thus, we can claim – objectively – that the holocaust, female genital mutilation and southern segregation in the 50s has crossed the threshold into moral rules that are wrong whether you are in Mississippi or Uganda.

Social conventions however, are likely to lie along a continuum, stretching from transgressions of norms that are little more than matters of personal preference (e.g. getting tattoos or wearing black shoes with a brown belt) to normative transgressions that are more likely to be matters for legitimate social sanction (e.g., violating traffic laws or not paying your taxes). A vast majority of psychologists and anthropologists would also add discrimination of homosexuals and abortion to the category of a social convention. This claim is supported by the fact that these are “moral mores” that are customs within a particular group. The same in-group morality is found in (most) Jehovah Witnesses refusal of blood transfusions, (most) Buddhist’s refusal to eat meat, and (most) Jewish people eating kosher foods. For these groups to take their private in-group morality into the public sphere – which they have not – would be insulting and egregious to a pluralistic society. My point is this, we as citizens in a pluralistic society, need to proceed with a calibrated caution when thinking about legislation because what is private morality to you may be an act of oppression to another.

A common rebuttal is to claim that not all private morality is private. In a recent group discussion with people from different backgrounds, several Christians pointed out to me that what two men do in the privacy of their own home, does in fact spread to laws that impact the whole community concerning “family values.” I can understand their point. I can also add that, likewise, the private acts of a dad beating his son or a majority of southern states endorsing this form of punishment, ought to be a public concern. Here is the problem with these contrasting points. Spanking or beating a child is a violent form of punishment that has empirical evidence to back the negative and harmful effects. Such that, the American Academy of Pediatrics is against this form of punishment. This stance against corporeal punishment is not based on ideology, religion, or a sect of doctors wanting a utopian society. Rather, it’s based on the empirical facts of the potential grave consequences [based on morals of care and harm] that spanking has on young minds.

The religious argument, that homosexuality involves public morality, is based solely on fear and doctrine-driven-ideology.  Anyone can comb through the database of their arguments and paltry justifications and you will find that a reasonable justification based on objectivity is completely missing.  Reasons such as the “Bible says it’s wrong,” or “it’s not natural,” or that “it’s a slippery slope and soon women will be marrying their dogs” has absolutely no substantive value. Whether it’s homosexuality, abortion, or racism, we can look at history and the consequences and benefits of accepting a progressive outlook and conclude that granting rights rather than oppressing civil liberties has moved America into a more compassionate and understanding domain. Even though we still have a long way to go.

Imposing Morality: Double-Talk

Before I move on to my next point, I would be remised not to address a common phrase that is shouted across the moral lines from both religious and secular people which is: “It’s not right to impose your morality on me.” I’ll take this one step further and see if you can notice the double-talk:

 “It’s not right to impose your morality on me, but let me tell you how society ought to be like.”

Imposing morality, or saying aloud “this is how society ought to be” is unavoidable and should be expressed in a country of free speech. However, when the religious express their moral ‘thou shalt’ and ‘shalt nots’, they are speaking from the side of a subjective sectarian ideology. While it is protected and a Constitutional right, this type of talk is not helpful in the public domain. On the other hand, the secular perspective can engage in a substantive debate based on tangible notions of moral foundations as was done by John Stuart Mill, John Locke, James Madison and Thomas Paine, to name just a few. When deliberating how society ought to flourish and thrive in a pluralistic fashion, there is absolutely no need for the injection of theologies of Christians, Mormons, Catholics, or Islam.

So in order to avoid double-talk, we should ask: is there a type of morality that should be imposed? I say yes. It is a type of morality that the Constitution speaks of when stating our individual right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It’s a morality that, as I said earlier, seeks the flourishing of all people, where individuals can have ample opportunities to thrive. This, I believe, is not necessarily a salient answer, rather, it’s a good foundation to start with as laws and legislation come into the scope of public policy. It’s an answer the elevates human well-being over what a particular religious sect thinks. I do, in fact, want to impose a morality that seeks the flourishing of human beings. And I am more than happy to speak from a sensitive and pluralistic viewpoint that draws from verifiable empirical evidence rather than revelation from a deity in the sky or that lives in my heart. So when it comes to imposing a morality that has its basis and justificatory foundation in religion, that is when you have a recipe for tyranny and revolution. No theocratic or religious state in the history of civilization has thrived or has provided the blueprint for human flourishing. So in order to avoid double-talk, the type of morality that shouldn’t be imposed is one from a subjective, unverifiable, Utopian ideal.

 Making Morality That is Accessible to All

When we are discussing the justificatory reasons for such-in-such law, the moral fibers of that policy need to be accessible. Religious sects have claims that are not accessible to everyone because millions of people in America don’t have a Holy Spirit inside of them, they cannot comprehend the Bible, and they use reason to reject access to a salvation based on a gruesome human sacrifice. In contrast, the justification for the moral wrongness of 1st degree murder, Ponzi schemes, and drunk driving are rooted in a shared logic and agreement that those actions cause a tremendous amount of harm and should be stopped. After all, we don’t see any protests on the steps of the Capital from people advocating the right to drive drunk behind the wheel. Furthermore, we have data and evidence that show the harm caused by these actions. I don’t need a deity to speak to my heart, in order to realize that I should not plan the murder of the next guy that cuts me off on the highway. Since the Enlightenment, we have done quite well with moral progress by using empirical reason rather than the Word of God, revelation, or conviction.

Can you imagine what it would be like if America became a theocratic Mormon state? Both the Judeo-Christian and the Atheist would be in complete agreement as to their shared confusion and incomprehension. Why? This is because laws would be legislated based on the Mormon scriptures which are God-breathed. Revelation would come from God or the current Mormon prophet who is in charge. Modifications to law would be made based on a felt conviction. The reason this would be so incomprehensible for the both the Judeo-Christian and the Atheist is because they have no access to these Mormon world-views. They simply don’t share in the Mormon belief. The Christian cannot relate to the Mormon scriptures and a living Prophet that speaks for God. The twist, however, is that the Christian is no different than the Mormon. Both world-views take their cues from subjective beliefs that have no basis in objective reality. If It’s not accessible, then it shouldn’t be imposed upon a pluralistic society.

Lastly, I want to anticipate a rebuttal and state that while the secular person does not have access to the privileged Enlightenment of the religious person, the religious person does in fact have accessibility to secular notions. Ethics is built on universal tangible foundations with regards to (1) care/harm, (2) liberty/oppression, (3) sanctity/degradation, (4) authority/subversion, (5) fairness/cheating and (6) loyalty/betrayal. All six of the moral foundations show up in every society around the globe. They form the scaffolding and provide the moral architecture of legislation, property rights, contracts, economic policy, and social relations. Allow me to reiterate that these six foundations are accessible to all people. The religious person or group has a lot to contribute to any moral discussion or act of legislation because of the universality of these six foundations of morality.

Using Objective Data to Inform the Legislation of Morality

It is often said that science, unlike religion, has nothing to say about meaning and values. Another way to put it is that science may discuss the “how” (i.e. causes) but it doesn’t have anything to contribute to the “why” (i.e. meaning). If this were true, then it would render this essay completely useless since I have devoted much time minimizing religion’s impact in legislating morals and elevating the need to use objectivity. Fortunately, we have sufficient evidence to support the claim that science can help lead us towards moral progress with regards to legislating morality. Allow me to quickly weave through several quick points to buttress my claim within this tapestry of thought.

We can begin with the individual organism as the primary unit of biology and society because the organism is the principal target of natural selection and social evolution. Thus, the survival and flourishing of the individual organism—people in this context—is the basis of establishing values and morals, and so determining the conditions by which humans best flourish ought to be the goal of a science of morality. The constitutions of human societies ought to be built on the constitution of human nature, and science is the best tool we have for understanding our nature. For example:

  • We know from behavior genetics that 40 to 50 percent of the variance among people in temperament, personality, and many political, economic, and social preferences are inherited.
  • We know from evolutionary theory that the principle of reciprocal altruism—I’ll scratch your back if you’ll scratch mine—is universal; people do not by nature give generously unless they receive something in return.
  • We know from evolutionary psychology that the principle of moralistic punishment—I’ll punish you if you do not scratch my back after I have scratched yours—is universal; people do not long tolerate free riders who continually take but never give.
  • We know from behavioral game theory about within-group amity and between-group enmity, wherein the rule-of-thumb heuristic is to trust in-group members until they prove otherwise to be distrustful, and to distrust out-group members until they prove otherwise to be trustful.
  • We know from behavioral economics about the almost universal desire of people to trade with one another, and that trade establishes trust between strangers and lowers between-group enmity, as well as produces greater prosperity for both trading partners.

These are just a few lines of evidence from many different fields of science that help us establish the best way for humans to flourish. We can ground human values and morals not just in philosophical principles such as Aristotle’s virtue ethics, Kant’s categorical imperative, Mill’s utilitarianism, or Rawls’ fairness ethics, but in science as well. But let’s move to a specific example that helps us move from what science says is descriptively so, to what is prescriptively right.

Take homosexuality and same-sex marriage, the latest of the Rights Revolutions that are unfolding in our time. Descriptively, science tells us that human beings have an evolved, innate drive to survive and to flourish, and that one of the most necessary and primal requirements among the many preconditions for life, health, and happiness for most people is a loving bond with another human being. Prescriptively, we can say that granting only a select group of privileged people the right to fulfill this evolved need – while simultaneously depriving others of the same basic right – is immoral because it robs them of the opportunity to fulfill their essence as evolved sentient beings. This is true even if the case could be made (as it has been by those who oppose same-sex marriage) that such discriminatory practices are better for the group (in a type of utilitarian calculus where the sacrifice of the few is justified if it leads to the greater happiness for the greater number). It is still wrong because the individual is the moral agent, not the group. It is the individual who feels the sharp pain of discrimination the sting of being excluded, and the insult of being treated differently under the law. Science tells us why they feel this way and reason instructs us what to do about it if we want to continue the moral progress of the Rights Revolution.

Conclusion

The divide that engulfs the subject of ‘legislating morality’ does in fact involve secular vs religious camps. On the surface it looks like an impasse: no matter what camp is talking, the other is going to not be able to relate. But this ignores the universality of morality. As a natural right, the personal autonomy of the individual gives us criteria by which can judge actions as right or wrong: do they increase or decrease the survival and flourishing of individual sentient beings? Morality is not arbitrary, relative, or completely culture-bound. Morality is universal. We are all born with a moral sense, with moral emotions that guide us in our interactions with other people, and that are influenced by local culture, customs, and upbringing. Nature endowed us with the capacity to feel guilt for the violation of promises and social obligations, for example, but nurture can tweak the guilt dial up or down. Thus morality is real, discoverable, “out there” in nature, and “in here” as part of our human nature. From these facts we can build a science of morality – a means of determining the best conditions to expand the moral sphere and increase moral progress through the tools of reason and science. This is what we have been doing since the Enlightenment, after the idea of Divine Right of Kings fell on its head. My hope is that when it comes to legislating morality, we can keep expanding our moral sphere.

-Wes Fornes

 

 

 

The Not So Free-Market Economy

 

Edward G. Ryan, the chief justice of Wisconsin’s Supreme Court, warned the graduating class of the state university in 1873: “The question will arise, and arise in your day, though perhaps not fully in mine, ‘Which shall rule – wealth or man; which shall lead – money or intellect; who shall fill public stations – educated and patriotic free men, or the feudal serfs of corporate capital?’”

One of my favorite Dr. Seuss books is The Lorax. Perhaps is because with eloquent subtly he uses personification to illustrate the danger of corporate greed upon both the environment and human beings. The beauty of the story concerns how the choices we make impact everyone around us. The idea of the inter-connectedness of mankind is a congenial thought when talking about world peace, but runs into difficulties when we talk about the economic well-being of others. The current plight of American economics is one that is rigged and riddled with greed while the idea of freedom morphs into a chimera. So this begs the question: is the Lorax of today the 2007-2008 crash and the continued economic exploitation of our plutocratic government? And more importantly, is anyone listening to the Lorax?

Economic Exploitation

So that I don’t sound too dramatic, here is the current picture. By 2007, the year before the crisis, the top 0.1 percent of America’s households had an income that was 220 times larger than the average of the bottom 90 percent. While recovery for the bottom percentage of Americans has been a Sisyphean feat, the wealthy have bounced back resoundingly. The wealthy had more to lose in stock market values, but those recovered well and relatively fast: the top 1 percent of Americans gained 93 percent of the additional income created in the country in 2010, as compared with 2009. Furthermore, if we consider the Walton family of Wal-Mart, the six heirs to the Wal-Mart empire command wealth of $69.7 billion, which is equivalent to the wealth of the entire bottom 30 percent of U.S. society. For the sake of brevity, I won’t divulge into the working conditions and wage disparity of the average worker at Wal-Mart, or the externalities of labor exploitation in factories in the East in order to maximize shareholder profits. And through all of this, the median household income is still the same as in the mid-seventies when adjusted for inflation. Unbelievable.

This is country that spends more on our prisons than education. A country that is sitting and watching large pharmaceutical companies rake in billions while hundreds of thousands of Americans can’t afford to fill their prescriptions. A country that appears completely content that the crash that not only created a vast loss in American’s retirement accounts, but also $6.5 trillion loss in housing valuations. Lastly, and unbeknownst to most Americans, the extreme poverty of people living at least one month of the year on 2 dollars a day person or less, the measure used by the World Bank for developing countries – had doubled since 1996, to 1.5 million. The “poverty gap,” which is the percentage by which the mean income of a country’s poor falls below the official poverty line, is another telling statistic. At 37 percent, the US is one of the worst ranking countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the “club” of the more developed countries, in the same league as Mexico (38.5 percent). The Lorax has been warning us for a while, but we’re not listening.

The Free-Market That Isn’t Free

With the rabid social inequality in our society today, it begs the question: how free are we? I mean, we’re told we live in a “free-market” society with “free enterprise,” with “freedom of contract,” “free trade,” and “free speech.” But when we dig deeper into the policies that are being implemented, it appears that the one’s tilting the scale in their favor is government officials, Capitol Hill lobbyists and corporate lawyers. When we’re dealing with a rigged system, freedom looks completely different to the hedge fund manager and the Wal-Mart employee.

As economist Robert Reich notes, most political debates soon turn to whether the “free market” is better at doing something than government. As Reich states:

“Few ideas have more profoundly poisoned the minds of more people than the notion of a “free market” existing somewhere in the universe, into which government “intrudes.” In this view, whatever inequality or insecurity the market generates is assumed to be the natural and inevitable consequence of impersonal “market forces.” What you’re paid is simply a measure of what you’re worth in the market. If you aren’t paid enough to live on, so be it. If others rake in billions, they must be worth it (Saving Capitalism, 19).”

The question typically left to debate is how much government intervention is warranted. Conservatives want a smaller government and less intervention; liberals want a larger and more activist government. One’s response to it typically depends on which you trust most (or least): the government or the “free market.” But this dichotomy is utterly false. There can be no “free market” without government. A market – any market – requires that government make and enforce the rules of the game. In most modern democracies, such rules emanate from legislatures, administrative agencies, and courts. Government doesn’t “intrude” on the “free market.” It creates the market. Yet the interminable debate over whether the “free market” is better than “government” makes it possible for us to examine who exercises this power, how they benefit from doing so, and whether such rules need to be altered so that more people benefit from them. So who exercises the power?

Who Exercises the Power?

The power backing the “free market” lies with the wealthy elite in or close to those in government. Under the guise of “freedom,” the rest of America sits on the sidelines watching astonishingly at escalating campaign contributions to back particular candidates and their agendas, burgeoning “independent” campaign expenditures, growing lobbying prowess, platoons of lawyers and paid experts to defend or mount lawsuits, public relation campaigns designed to convince the public of the truth and wisdom of the policies they support, think tanks and sponsored research that confirm particular positions,  and ownership and economic influence over media outlets that further promote particular goals. Under these circumstances, arguments based on the alleged superiority of the “free market,” “free enterprise,” “freedom of contract,” “free trade,” or even “free speech” warrant a degree of skepticism. The pertinent question is: whose freedom?

Illusion of Freedom

Our freedom is dictated by the government officials and their squadron of lobbyists and lawyers who represent corporate interests. The “free market” is a delusion of freedom that is-what-it-is because of policies of the elite.  Need more proof? Ask yourself why in Stockholm, Sweden you can get high-speed internet in every inch of the city (for around $20/month) but in the U.S. Comcast has an increasing monopoly such that they can ratchet up prices and limit your choices in order to deepen their pockets. By the way, Comcast and other cable operators spend millions of dollars each year lobbying and contributing to political campaigns (in 2014, Comcast ranked thirteenth of all corporations and organizations reporting lobbying expenditures and twenty-eighth for campaign donations).

Want another example? Most jobs will have you sign a contract agreeing that you will go to arbitration, rather than take your complaint to court –  if you have experienced some form of abuse. And here’s the catch: your company selects the arbitrator. According to a recent study, employees complaining of job discrimination got relief only 21 percent of the time when their complaints went to arbitration but 50 to 60 percent of the time when they went to court.

How about the countless times you are prompted to check off ‘you are agreeing to the terms and conditions’? I have yet to meet somebody who reads every word and can actually understand the legalese in those agreements. When consumers sued several hotels and online travel agencies for allegedly conspiring to fix hotel room prices, lawyers for Travelocity, successfully defended the company in court by arguing that customers who used its site could not participate because they had “agreed” not to sue. We are told to believe that we have ‘freedom of contracts’ but this is not the truth. This is coercive. Buyers and sellers have no real alternatives when a large corporation have locked up a market through its intellectual property, control over standards or network platforms, and armies of lawyers and lobbyists. Under such circumstances, contracts are inherently coercive, or so it might seem. And contracts today are often filled with conditions (likely in small print) that deny employees, borrowers, and customers any meaningful choice. Nonetheless, large corporations possess the political and legal clout to make sure they’re enforced.

Let’s keep it going. Bankruptcy was designed so people could start over. But these days, the only ones starting over with ease are big corporations, wealthy moguls, and Wall Street, who have enough political clout to shape bankruptcy law to their own needs. In 2008, The Street’s biggest banks had bought hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of risky products, such as subprime mortgages, collateralized debt obligations, and mortgage-backed securities. As you probably remember, the banks that were mislabeled “too big to fail” did indeed fail, and then were promptly given an estimated $83 billion dollars in low-interest loans from the federal reserve. Did the mass amount of homeowners get any help? Nope. As homeowners found themselves owing more on their mortgages than their homes were worth and unable to refinance. Yet Chapter 13 of the bankruptcy code (whose drafting was largely the work of the financial industry) prevents homeowners from declaring bankruptcy on mortgage loans for their primary residence. When the financial crisis hit, some members of Congress, led by Illinois senator Dick Durbin, tried to amend the code to allow distressed homeowners to use bankruptcy. That would give them a powerful bargaining chip for preventing the banks and others servicing their loans from foreclosing on their homes. The bill passed the House, but when in late 2009 Durbin offered his amendment in the Senate, the financial industry flexed his muscles to prevent the passage, arguing that it would greatly increase the cost of home loans. The bill governed only forty-five Senate votes, even though Democrats were in the majority. Partly as a result, distressed homeowners had no bargaining power. More than five million of them lost their homes, and by 2014 another two million were near foreclosure.

I could keep going and detail the rigged system that gives double-digit interest to student loans debt and those needing cash advances. I could outline how the corporate interests have the bargaining power over the healthcare system. Such that, by the 1980s, the anti-trust laws had dissolved in a way that hospitals began merging into giant hospital systems, capable of getting higher reimbursements from insurers. The results were a ratcheting up of health care costs, along with fewer choices. In 1992 the average American city had four hospitals; by 2014, it was served by just two.

Final Words

At what point do we say “this is not right”? At what point to we begin looking into candidates voting records on issues that truly impact every individual in this country? At what point to we disavow ourselves from the lies of “immigrants as rapists and who don’t contribute” and that “the number one threat to our freedom is ISIS”? The real threat is the incremental changes to the “free market” economy in policies that tilt the scale in favor of the elite and further silence the voice and freedom of everyone else. At the beginning of this post I mentioned the warning of the Lorax in Dr. Seuss’ classic story. No matter how much the Lorax warned, no one listened – until it was too late. The warnings of the present dangers are before us in a decimated U.S. middle-class and growing economic disparity. But does this truly convict us to do something about it?

~ Wes Fornes

 

 

(Part I) America’s Immoral Morality: A Sociopathic Foreign Policy of the Founding Fathers

Written over two days and finished this morning at Starbucks by my office in San Jose with a grande mocha (no whip) and my Pandora station set to Lady Gaga.  

“Blessed are the cynical, for only they have what it takes to succeed.” C. Wright Mills

Sociopathy is anti-social behavior by an individual or institution that typically advances self-interest, such as making money, while harming others and attacking the fabric of society.

I find it interesting that if an insane man guns down 20 kids in a school we are horrified at the maniacal act, yet when we hear of nascent American conquest of genocide and mass killings of Native Americans we simply shrug our shoulders. If you have ever had somebody break into your home or car, then you know that visceral feeling of having been violated. Now think about how natives of Hawaii felt in January of 1893 when America initiated a coup d’état of Queen Liliuokalani and instituting an American regime that took over the land and proceeded to profit from Hawaii’s sugar plantations. Again, while we have all experienced the feeling of disgust from being taken advantage of we nevertheless function almost as sociopaths when it comes to over 200 years of conquest by the United States.

If you think hard about it, it is mainly psychological distance that propels us to either rage or to yawn at atrocities. As an example, most individuals will feel more moral outrage at witnessing first-hand the torture of a man rather than simply hearing a CNN report of a man being tortured 6,000 miles away in, say, Japan. That is psychological distance. So if 19 maniacs steer 2 planes into the Twin Towers killing thousands of Americans we are outraged at the injustice. Yet if thousands are killed abroad so that we can control the 2nd largest oil reservoir in the world and maximize profits by setting up private businesses in the Middle East then we sit back and drink another latte inside an air conditioned Starbucks comforted by the lie: we’re bringing democracy to a bunch of savages. Because there is distance, our morals crumble. But when it hits close to home, we become pious moral philosophers pontificating on theories of justice. We’re sociopathic in our thinking when we kill 4 year olds in the Middle East, but become protective righteous Messiahs flooded with empathy when it involves our children. And this begs a crucial question: should the mere psychological distance of an immoral action be the chief arbiter?

A sociopathic society, paradoxically, creates dominant social norms that are antisocial – that is, norms that assault the well-being and survival of much of the population and undermine the social bonds and sustainable environmental conditions essential to any form of social order. It is here that we are confronted with the United States’ murderous conquest and relentless expansionism. We can either shrug our shoulders like sociopaths or we can be intellectually honest with our past which continues to wreak havoc and chaos in the Middle East today – thanks to a sociopathic foreign policy led by the U.S.

I will highlight the sociopathic 5 Empires of the United States, beginning in 1776-1828 and ending with our current empire, World Domination 1991-Present. My inspiration of this text comes from respected political scholars such as Noam Chomsky, Stephen Kinzer, Charles Derber and Immanuel Wallerstein.

First Empire: The Constitutional Empire 1776-1828

In 1776, Americans began a revolution to free themselves from the British Empire and to recreate themselves as an independent and great power. What can be called “Constitutional Code,” would concretize the ideology of the Founding Fathers. Here are 5 key principals that highlight the Constitutional Code:

(1) Americans are a free people on a free land.

(2) The Constitution is sacred and may have been sanctioned by a higher power.

(3) All Americans have the constitutional right to freely contract with others and to protect and accumulate property.

(4) Freedom requires prosperity. Resources must expand, and the state must be prepared to help citizens acquire, trade, and market their goods everywhere.

(5) As a beacon to the rest of the world, America has a manifest destiny to extend from seas to sea and, in fact, beyond the oceans.

The United States constitution would prompt George Washington to see America as a “new and rising empire.” The ideology of the Founding Fathers constructed an empire built upon a Constantine foundation where expansion plus conquest would equal ultimate power. Alexander Hamilton would go on to state his desire to see the thirteen colonies unite to create one big empire, “One great American system, superior to the control of all trans-Atlantic force and influence, and able to dictate the terms of the connection between the old and new world.” Hamilton sentiments were widely felt among American leaders, and morphed into concepts like White Man’s Burden and American Exceptionalism. The result was the idea of American as a city on a hill, a beacon of light in the midst of a world of savages. It was precisely this new American Empire that saw as its God ordained duty to bring civility and order to the natives. Truly a sociopathic conception.

Two things are needed for this sociopathic behavior. First, we have to develop a language that dehumanizes the “other.” So the indigenous Natives were commonly referred to as “savages” and “ignorant.” Second, the ends will always justify the means. Even though the “ends” are almost always built on utopian lies with regard to American interventionist policy, it will nevertheless justify the “means” no matter how brutal they are. John Adams words personified this so-called altruistic utopian quest when justifying conquest in his reference to “the illumination of the ignorant, and the emancipation of the slavish part of mankind.” It’s like we are doing them a favor. So a murderous conquest is justified if it emancipates the ignorant Native Americans.

This type of sociopathy is realized in the way that expansionism and brutality was justified with such righteous ease. The justification for the expansionist doctrine goes like this: killing, exploitation, and the enslavement of millions is justifiable if, and only if, the greater good results in an empire that promotes the values of the wealthy White nobles in power. Again, the ends justifies the means. This is usually where most American high school history teachers shrug their shoulders and then in the next breath express moral outrage at Adolf Hitler’s end goal of a pure race by means of a genocidal regime.

In what I call consensual hallucinations, here is the sociopathy of over 200 years of American politics: America’s interventions and foreign policy are always carried out with noble intentions. This is the consensual hallucination, whether it’s driving out 12 million Native Americans in America’s infancy, initiating coups that gave U.S. support to tyrannical dictators like Pinochet and Pol Pot, or even the 1953 coup that disassembled Iran’s government and has since created monumental blowback and collateral damage in our relations with the Middle East. The consensual hallucination moves us to say such ridiculous things like, “but the Founding Fathers were trying to bring peace to a barbaric land,” and, “It was necessary to invade a third world Iraq because they were going to take our freedom away,” and of course, “We need to invade in order to keep us safe and establish democracy in other countries.” Perhaps it’s time that we become intellectually honest with ourselves and take off our red, white and blue colored glasses that has blinded us to over 200 years of walking on the backs of people whom we think are “lesser” than us.

Going back to the Constitutional Empire, the empire required two main ingredients: land and resources. As early as 1751, Benjamin Franklin wrote that expansion for surplus land was crucial to creating prosperity and liberty and to avoid domestic corruption. So in 1783, in the Treaty of Paris, Britain ceded its territory south of the Great Lakes and east of the Mississippi River to the Americas. In 1803, President Jefferson completed the Louisiana Purchase, the largest expansion in the New Empire’s history, adding 526 million acres that constitute 22 percent of the land territory of the modern United States. In the War of 1812, the United States tried to take all of Canada from the British but failed. In 1821, Andrew Jackson conquered Florida since slaves were escaping there to gain Spanish protection. With the accumulation of such vast territories, markets would later establish trade and maximizing profit for wealthy land owners and businessmen that would bolster the next two empires in American history.

All the ingredients were there during the birth of America for expansion at the expense of innocent natives. Empires never become empires through altruistic and humanitarian means. History has shown that empires only flourish when a rising nation has its combat boot to the neck of smaller nations. Knowing this, the Founding Fathers created a blueprint that would pursue world hegemon through conquest and exploitation. The correlation I draw between early American policies and sociopathy is meant to expose how catastrophic harm can be justified when people are just objects used as means to an end with an end goal that is strictly self-interested.

The onus is on us as to whether we simply shrug our shoulders at this type of sociopathy or do something about it.

~ Wes