Fred Phelps, the leader of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church, died the other day at the age of 84. Phelps was near-universally despised. His church taught that when soldiers died in war, it was because god was angry at America for tolerating homosexuality. He believed that the best way to spread this message was to picket the funerals of dead soldiers with “God Hates Fags” signs. It’s not my purpose today to get into why this is repugnant (I assume the reader agrees with me on that), but to instead take Fred Phelps and use him as a case study to investigate the curious moral question of whether or not it’s okay to express the happiness we feel when repugnant people die.
Recently, Arizona governor Jan Brewer (R) vetoed a controversial piece of legislation that would have allowed businesses in Arizona to refuse service to homosexuals on the grounds that to do otherwise would infringe upon their religious freedom. The bill was widely condemned, and I had no wish to pile on, but I’ve read a piece that offers an interesting defense of the bill. While I don’t think the argument ultimately holds up, it’s an argument that needs to be taken seriously and picked apart.
Yesterday, on encouragement from my little brother, who is an aspirant aeronautical engineer and a huge Bill Nye fan, I watched the debate between Bill Nye (of Bill Nye the Science Guy) and Ken Ham, who is president of the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky. I also ran across this piece on Buzzfeed, in which Ham supporters ask lots of questions that, based on what I’m reading on my Facebook, don’t seem especially reasonable to Nye’s guys. Instead of contributing to the internet flame war, I’d like to try to use what philosophical skills I have to highlight what precisely the difference is between the two positions, because the gulf is incredibly vast, more vast than I believe most of the participants on either side of this debate commonly understand.
Today I’d like to put on my democratic theory hat and offer a critique of Jürgen Habermas‘ theory of deliberative democracy. Habermas gives his answer to the question of what kind of government we ought to have by appealing not to any specific goal or end that he thinks government ought to have, but by instead offering standards by which we can judge a procedure through which one would determine one’s society’s ends. I argue that Habermas relies too much on moral intuitionism to substantiate these standards and consequently provides insufficient reason why we should choose to determine our form of government by appeal to procedure rather than by appeal to result.
Today I’d like to mount a critique of Isaiah Berlin. In particular, I’d like to go after his objectivist argument for value pluralism, the notion that there are multiple moral systems that, despite their conflicts, cannot be described as more true or better than one another because their differences are so foundational as to be incomparable on any given metric. I will argue, contra Berlin, that he is simply empirically wrong–in the real world, moral theories separated by time and culture have much more in common with one another than Berlin perceived.