Cultural Psychology

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The Supreme Court, Gay Marriage, and Prisoners of Plato’s Cave Arguing About Shadows

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shadows on wall of platos cave

Despite my best efforts to ignore the subject, I’ve been forcibly informed that on Tuesday, March 26, 2013 the US Supreme Court will begin hearing arguments on the pending gay marriage case.  The case interests me no more than the arguments amongst prisoners in Plato’s cave about the shapes of shadows flitting on the wall (Republic 7.514ff).

One group with a childish concept of ‘rights’ will face another with an equally erroneous concept of ‘morality.’ No arguments based on logic or explicit first principles will be raised.  The names associated with the foundations of moral philosophy, names like Plato, Aristotle, Zeno, Epicurus, and Cicero, will not be mentioned.  One faction of a dumbed-down, culturally illiterate society will square off against the other.  They should name the case Folly vs. Folly.

Her blindfold will spare us seeing Lady Justice roll her eyes in exasperation.

I suspect the Supreme Court will ultimately endorse gay marriage, since, Reason long since having fled the halls of the Court, the matter will be decided politically.  If so, some good may come from the Supreme Court placing itself so far out on a limb that all Americans will start to see that it is better for us have these issues decided by logic and good-will, not animosity, power-politics, and the machinations of demagogues.

But since Fate has thrust the matter before me, I will weigh in on it.

Proponents of gay marriage assert that marriage is a right.  Now is this true?  Is it obviously true?  Should we not begin by defining what a right is, and then supply a reasoned argument why marriage is a right?

And if marriage is a right, is it a civil (legal) right or a natural right?  A natural right is an inalienable right, one that exists, say, in a state of primitive nature before governments are instituted.  Consider this example.  If two strangers (let’s say a man and woman, just to keep the example simple) accidentally wash up on a deserted island and then decided to start making babies, they would not, and could not, be married.  Marriage would have no meaning.  Marriage is a category that produces a relationship of a pair of people to the rest of society. If there is no society, it is meaningless to speak of marriage.

Now someone might reply.  “No, you are wrong.  It is God who marries two people.”  Well, fair enough — we can easily clarify that.  Marriage exists both as a religious and a secular institution in today’s society.  We are not considering here the issue of religious marriage.  That is for churches to consider, not the Supreme Court.  Our focus of attention here is exclusively secular marriage, of the kind that would require two people to get a marriage license, register at City Hall, check “married” on a census survey, etc.

Now since, as our example suggests, a secularly defined marriage does not exist without a society, it would appear to be more a civil right than a natural right.  Again:  having sex is a natural right; but being designated by society as “married” is not a natural right.

This suggests that marriage, if a right at all, is a civil right.  Civil rights are decided by legislation.  There is nothing inherent in the nature of civil rights that unconditionally demands that all people, in every case, are entitled to exactly equal treatment.  Cases in point:  children are not allowed to drink alcohol; felons are not allowed to vote (in some states).  But let’s stop with this.  There is plenty of room to argue either way here — that gay couples should or should not, based on issues of justice and society’s best interests, enjoy a civil right to be married.  This should be discussed, but it should be done in a constructive and unprejudiced manner.

However it must also be asked whether marriage is a right at all.  There are other paradigms for looking at marriage which seem at least as plausible.

We can, for example, see marriage as a privilege.  Let’s again consider the state of a primitive, aboriginal society, before the development of a formal government.  In a clan or small tribe, we can likely find examples of the principle that not everybody is sanctioned by the community to be married.  Consider the nature of marriage: it is a ceremony attended by many others, perhaps the whole village.  It is a cause for community celebration. There are dowries to be paid. Moreover, the married couple typically must show some evidence of being able to contribute to the life and welfare of the community — as judged by the standards and values of that community.  In the traditional wedding ceremony, we still have the part that says, “if anyone has any just reason why this couple should not be united, let them speak now or forever hold their peace.”  Presumably this part is in there for a reason. Doubtless there have been many times when this option has been exercised.  Any number of objections might be raised.  “The man is a lout, an alcoholic!”  “The woman is unfaithful!”  “They are both lazy good-for-nothings, who never help with the community labor, and will do nothing but produce more mouths to feed.”  The point is that the community has some, and perhaps a great deal to say about who should be allowed to be married. If marriage is a privilege, how else is a community to decide this except by legislation, or at the ballot box.  That is what the citizens of California did:  they went to the ballot box, and the majority voted against gay marriage.

Do I agree with that?  I’ll say this much:  that an issue like this is of sufficient gravity that it should not be decided merely by a simple majority vote.  Here is a case where a super-majority — say a 2/3 or 75% majority might demonstrate sufficient consensus to decide an issue.

Or what if, along similar lines, we see marriage as an award, an honor granted to certain couples based on merit? If we go back to the origins of marriage in primitive society, that is not an entirely implausible model, and not one that should be dismissed without fair consideration.  If a young couple has made a sufficiently good impression on their family and village, people will help them out with a place to live, gifts, etc., as though to say, “we’d like to have more people like you; get working on it!”

In that case it is absurd to claim that everyone is entitled to “equal treatment under the law.”  If marriage is an award, then one can no more insist that everyone is equally entitled to marriage than that everyone equally deserves a ticker-tape parade just because an astronaut gets one, or a reception with the president because the Super Bowl winners get one.   But, you might ask, who decides who gets the ‘award’ of marriage and who doesn’t.  That is society’s prerogative, just as in the case of other awards.

No doubt in the Supreme Court case someone will raise the issue of uniform enforcement:  if a gay couple is married in Massachusetts, and it isn’t honored in California, that will make the administrative tasks of the federal government impossible.  That is a specious argument.  By this reasoning we should simply eliminate the individual states altogether as administratively inconvenient, and adopt a single, uniform national code of law.  Further, by such reasoning any state could pass a strange law concerning marriage (e.g., permitting marriage for children under the age of 12) and the other states would have to honor it.

There is one potentially interesting topic likely to emerge in the case.  If gay marriage is considered a right based on “equal treatment under the law,” how can society then deny a right to polygamous marriage?  What will be interesting is to see the fancy footwork as the pro-gay marriage attorneys try to side-step that question.

Meanwhile the United States is in a state of perpetual war, a matter which concerns all our welfare and basic issues of justice 100 times more than the issue of gay marriage.

No comments please.  This subject hold no interests for me.  I write only to bemoan the fact that this topic is being mishandled by all parties.

Priorities: Anti-Human Trafficking or Drug War?

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Over the weekend, Lucy Liu and other activists discussed the global problem of human trafficking in a special edition of CNN’s Larry King Live.

One television reporter mentioned that what the US federal government spends on stopping human trafficking is less than .1% of what it spends on the War on Drugs.

That is certainly a revealing statistic, and I checked the numbers.

According to this USAID web page the “USAID spent a total of $134 million on anti-[human] trafficking activities between fiscal years 2001 and 2008.” That averages out to roughly $17 million per year.

Federal expenditures on the War on Drugs for 2009 were, according to this webpage, conservatively estimated at $22 billion.  (This doesn’t include an estimated $30 billion in state expenditures, and possibly also doesn’t include costs of military anti-drug activities in Afghanistan).   That does indeed work out to anti-human trafficking expenditures of less than 1/1000 (or < .1%) of what the federal government pays in connection with the War on Drugs!

And note that the War on Drugs is on questionable moral grounds to begin with.  To me this demonstrates the hypocrisy and ulterior political motivation of the War on Drugs.  If it is truly social justice we seek, this would be far better served by addressing the more serious problem of human trafficking.   Instead of freeing actual slaves, that is, people who are oppressed and exploited against their will, we spend 1000 times more resources in an ineffective attempt to protect drug users from themselves.  Drug use is, at worst, a victimless crime, and in many cases it is a freely chosen recreational activity.  Nevertheless, the point of this post is not to criticize the drug war, but to support efforts to put an end to global human trafficking.

I propose that a bill be introduced in Congress to reduce the budget of the War on Drugs by 1%, and to devote this money instead to anti-human trafficking activities, whether by the USAID or UNICEF.  Even if this is only a symbolic gesture, there is nothing wrong with making a symbolic statement per se.

Written by John Uebersax

April 6, 2010 at 9:36 pm

Is the US Drug War is Ruining Mexico and Latin America?

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Is the US Drug War is Ruining Mexico and Latin America?

Some of my posts here are more academically oriented — on issues like social policy or psychology — but since this is a blog, some posts are more ‘from the heart’.  This one is a case in point.

The other day I saw a television news story about the Mayor of Juarez (Ciudad Juárez), the large Mexican city that borders El Paso, Texas. (You can watch the same or a similar interview here: )

It was shown how, after receiving death threats from Mexican drug cartels, he has to go everywhere with an armed guard.  In reply to the interviewer’s question whether he’s considered quitting, he said ‘No’, and explained that he was too committed to helping the city develop at a critical point in its history.

The Mayor seemed completely credible, and if that is his motivation then he is heroic.  I tend to believe him.  When I was a child, my family frequently drove into El Paso (the nearest large city).  I vividly remember looking south across the Rio Grande to the hillsides of Juarez, filled with shacks, and signs of utter poverty.  It was incredible to think that, this close to the US, people could live under these conditions.  A person could not witness this without being motivated by the innate human sense of compassion to want to see these conditions improved.

So when this man says that he has a vision of a decent life for his city and people, I believe him.  But standing in his way are drug cartels.  And standing behind the Mexican drug cartels is the insane Drug War of the United States.

Let us speak plainly here, enumerating the plain facts:

1. The Drug War doesn’t work.

Despite the billions of dollars spent, drug abuse is still common in the United States.  Anyone who wants to can easily by marijuana or harder drugs.

2. Public sentiment favors decriminalization of marijuana.

In virtually every referendum in which it’s been put to the test, voters have demanded decriminalization.

3. The Drug War is a cheap ploy to curry favor with voters by appearing tough on crime.

If any American citizens do want the war on drugs, it’s probably because their opinions have been manipulated by politicians.

4. The Drug War results in numerous (and sometimes fatal!) civil rights violations of American citizens.

DEA agent:  “What do you mean, ‘wrong address’?  Oops! Sorry about that gunshot wound.  Nothing personal, right?”

5. The Drug War has filled our prisons.

How to create jobs:  (a) make more laws, (b) put more people in jail, (c) hire more guards.

6. By making drugs illegal, it becomes no longer necessary for people to develop moral character by choosing not to use drugs.

What’s really revealing is that this argument is completely over the heads of government officials.

Americans lived without the Drug War for a long time and it didn’t cause society to collapse.  From the 1930’s through the 1950’s, marijuana use was well known.  It was considered a vice, but wasn’t criminalized to the extent it is today. It was associated with artists, musicians, and bohemians.   Common sense, social norms, and a plea to personal responsibility were enough to keep the problem from getting out of control.

In the 19th century, people could go into a drug store and by opium tincture (laudanum).  Again, this did not lead to the breakdown of society.

These and other examples show that legalization of drugs doesn’t cause society to fall apart.  Yes, there will be cases of addiction and abuse, but these can be dealt with, just as we now deal with alcohol abuse and addiction.  It’s less disruptive to society to deal with drug abuse by individuals than to deal with a government that has gotten out of control, and, at least with regard to drug policy, is indistinguishable from a fascist state.

All this would be bad enough if the problems of the Drug War were confined to our own country, but, as the example of Juarez’ mayor shows, that is not the case.  By making marijuana and cocaine illegal we create a demand for illegal drugs, which are supplied by Latin America.

On top of this, American policy is hypocritical, since the fact is that many Americans want to use marijuana.  In how many motion pictures or television shows do you see sly innuendos or allusions to marijuana use?  Our laws make it illegal, but our culture sees it as ‘cool.’

We are making Latin America do our dirty work, while our politicians strut around congratulating themselves on their high moral principles.

We have no right to do this.  The just and honorable thing, not to mention the practical thing, is to decriminalize recreational drugs.

Top 10 Reasons Why the War on Drugs is Evil

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Top 10 Reasons Why the War on Drugs is Evil

10. Doesn’t work
9. No open debate, objective policy review, or clear moral basis
8. Corporate-run prisons
7. Prison guard unions lobby for more drug laws
6. Real purpose: justify big government
5. Mandatory sentencing and no-knock warrants trash Bill of Rights
4. Disproportionately harms lower income groups
3. SWAT raids on mellow medical marijuana clinics
2. Produces global conflict: Afghanistan, Colombia, Mexico …
1. Real name: War on Citizens

Written by John Uebersax

March 8, 2009 at 3:51 pm

Clergy Speak Out Against the War on Drugs

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Mike Gray of Common Sense for Drug Policy, in cooperation with the Interfaith Drug Policy Initiative, has made a documentary titled “Protestant, Catholic and Jewish Clergy Speak Out Against The War On Drugs“.

Substantial clips (9 and 11 minutes each) from the video can be found here:

These clips shows Christian and Jewish clerics speaking out against the ‘war on drugs’. May insightful and wise things are said.

The stituation now is reminiscent of what during the Viet Nam war. For a long time, people who spoke out against the war were considered unpatriotic. But little by little, more people joined their voices to the opposition, until the tide turned. Then it became clear that the consensus opinion was against the war. That is what is going on today, hopefully, with regard to the war on drugs.

Mike Gray was also kind enough to send me a transcript, which you can view here.

Written by John Uebersax

March 8, 2009 at 2:36 pm