The Third Book of Plato’s Republic


  • Mythology and its lessons
  • Homer
  • Depictions of death
  • Girly-men
  • Achilles the lamenter
  • Zeus the weeper
  • Fits of laughter
  • No lying (by private individuals)
  • Honest and temperate youth
  • Asexual
  • No eating (or drinking) for the sake of eating (or drinking)
  • Oh, that slutty Aphrodite; that condemnable Ares!
  • The rapists Theseus and Peirithous
  • Narration
  • Matter and manner of poetry
  • Style of poetry
  • Simple narration and imitation
  • Simple narration as story-telling
  • Imitation: acting
  • Tragedy and Comedy: nothing but imitation
  • Dithyrambs as strictly narrative
  • Etc.

Filed under: Philosophy, ,

Jacob Sullum’s “Who’s Afraid of Federalism?”

One point ought to be made about Mr. Sullum’s column: his characterization of what the federal government is doing to MA is incorrect. The flaw is to be found in the following passage:

In determining Medicaid eligibility, for example, Massachusetts had to count married people of the same sex as separate individuals rather than a single household. In operating two state-owned military cemeteries, it had to turn away spouses of veterans if they happened to be of the same sex.

By requiring Massachusetts to pretend that gay marriages do not exist in cases like these, Judge Tauro concluded, the federal government was impermissibly intruding on family law, “a quintessential area of state concern.” He noted that the definition of marriage has long been viewed as a power “reserved to the states” by the 10th Amendment because it is “not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States.”

The problem lies in the “requirement” language. The federal government does not require MA to behave this way. MA is only “required” to behave this way if it is to receive federal funding that it is not in any way entitled to receive. There is therefore no intrusion into state affairs, since MA can simply refuse to give gay spouses the benefits in question. It would be quite a different story if the federal government were requiring the state of Massachusetts to not recognize gay marriages at all. It is doing nothing of the sort, however: its action is akin to conditioning transportation grants on the enactment of a specific speed limit.

Mr. Sullum is correct in his criticism of those who argue against this decision while maintaining a vague support for states’ rights. He is incorrect in his assessment of the funding relationship which exists between the federal agencies subject to DOMA and the states. This prong of his analysis therefore fails.

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The MA DOMA Ruling

The ruling by District Court Judge Joseph Tauro is here: http://www.scribd.com/doc/34072925/DOMA-decision-in-Mass-AG-case.

Judge Tauro argues that MA would be injured by the federal government if it did not receive funding for its veteran cemeteries. Judge Tauro is wrong on this specific point, however: MA would not be injured by refusing entry to gay spouses, and this is all that it is being asked to do. If the action that MA was being asked to take were to cause the state direct harm, the judge’s analysis would hold. There is no direct harm here, and there is also no indirect harm to the state. There is no harm to MA when it excludes gay spouses from such benefits.

The rest of the judge’s analysis might be correct, but in this case he is mistaken.

Here is the relevant quotation:

“DOMA plainly conditions the receipt of federal funding on the denial of marriage-based benefits to same-sex married couples, though the same benefits are provided to similarly-situated heterosexual couples. By way of example, the Department of Veterans Affairs informed the Commonwealth in clear terms that the federal government is entitled to “recapture” millions in federal grants if and when the Commonwealth opts to bury the same-sex spouse of a veteran in one of the state veterans cemeteries, a threat which, in essence, would penalize the Commonwealth for affording same-sex married couples the same benefits as similarly-situated heterosexual couples that meet the criteria for burial in Agawam or Winchendon. Accordingly, this court finds that DOMA induces the Commonwealth to violate the equal protection rights of its citizens.” – p. 27.

But where is the inducement if there is no damage by complying? There can be no inducement in such a case, and therefore the court’s conclusion that DOMA would penalize MA is incorrect.

The remainder of Judge Tauro’s analysis relies on his reading of the Tenth Amendment. It would be interesting to see DOMA struck down on such grounds, particularly since such a case could be a precursor to a like challenge against the individual mandate in the health care reform legislation.

On p. 35 the ruling argues that a similar penalty is relevant to the Medicare and Medicaid Services provision, and that MA has been forced to pay an additional sum of $640,661 and has lost $2,224,018 in federal funds. However, the reason for these costs is not the federal government action, but the state action (i.e., its decision to grant homosexuals the right to marry). As such, it cannot be said that federal action is causing MA money.

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Abortion, Eugenics, and the Meaning of Margaret Sanger

An interesting argument about the relationship between abortion and the eugenics movement of the early-to-mid 1900s. The author attempts to draw a line between the two movements: http://www.politicsdaily.com/2009/07/22/ginsburgs-remark-stirs-an-old-debate-abortion-eugenics-and-th/.

Filed under: Bioethics, ,

A Poor Prediction

In five years, the cheap point-of-purchase fuel will be petroleum. Electricity generated by oil will be subject to various carbon taxes, but those taxes will be passed on to consumers. Those same consumers will be able to buy heating oil and gasoline at very cheap prices due to lowered demand of oil as fewer oil-burning plants are opened.

Filed under: Uncategorized,

When did Ronald Reagan die?

Ronald Reagan, 33rd Governor of California and 40th President of the U.S., had Alzheimer’s Disease. His death was reported on June 5, 2004. We can most certainly say that his body suffered respiratory failure on that date, and that his lungs could no longer deliver oxygen to the bloodstream and expel carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. At some point soon after lung failure, his heart would have stopped beating and his brain would have ceased to function.

But the question still stands: when did he die? We can note that his lungs stopped at a certain time, that his heart stopped at a certain time, and that his brain ceased to be functional at a certain time. But are these answers to the question of death?

In the United States there are two ways to determine death: the cardiac criterion and the brain-death criterion. These approaches help us determine when two of the key parts of the body case to perform their function. Once we know that this is the case, we feel confident in saying that the person is dead.

There is a lot of controversy over the meaning of brain death these days, and there is even some lingering controversy over the meaning of cardiac death. What both of these criteria assume, however, is that the person is the body. Is this a justified assumption?

There are two questions wrapped up in this: the first is the question of what a person is. The second is the question of how a person persists over time. In the case of the first question, we have to find out what makes a person a person. In the case of the second question, we are talking about what makes a person a person at more than one time. That these are two different questions is easy to see: the United States in 1802 is not the same as the United States in 2010. It is legitimate to ask, therefore, what makes the U.S. the U.S.? Is it nothing more than its physical boundaries? If so, then the U.S. would remain the U.S. regardless of whether it was invaded by the Russians tomorrow, for example. The boundary approach would also mean that the U.S. of 1802 ceased to exist after the Louisiana Purchase of 1803.

What if we argued that the U.S. is defined by the continuity of its history since the drafting and enactment of its constitution? In that case, the U.S. was born in 1789. Aside from the hiccup that was the Civil War, it would seem that the nation has never ceased to exist, even in spite of its various territorial changes.

What about persons, then? Applying the same reasoning, we would reject the “boundary” approach. Knowing that people’s boundaries change (even from moment to moment, as they take in material from the outside and expel material such as CO2, sweat, hair, etc.), we could argue that a person is defined by a particular history.

The philosophical question of personhood is several thousand years old. The term itself dates at least to the Latin persona, which might itself originate from personare, “to sound through.” These terms might also originate with the Etruscan persu, which may mean “mask” or “face.” If we go beyond the etymology, we find questions of identity to be very important to the ancient Greeks. Various puzzles about identity were being considered as long ago as 500 B.C. in Athens and Asia Minor. One of these illustrates the question of personhood — or “personal identity” — rather nicely. It is The Ship of Theseus, which first appears (probably) in Plutarch’s Life of Theseus (Section 23).

The puzzle asks us to consider the story of a ship used by Theseus and on which he sailed. Plutarch reports that the ship was preserved for several centuries by the Athenians, who from time to time would have to swap an old timbre or piece of the ship for a new one. At some point, all of the ship’s parts had been replaced. Is this the same ship?

This question can be approached in at least three ways: through the ship’s material, its form, or its function. In the first approach, we might say that the ship is not the same because its material is new. In the second approach, we might say that the ship is the same because its form is the same. And, in the third approach we might also say that it’s the same because the ship fulfills the same function(s) as before.

Let’s examine what this means for the personal identity debate in the case of each approach:

  1. Materialism: the person is the same whenever the body is made up of the same material. This approach has an obvious disadvantage (whether it is in the case of ships or of people): the stuff of which people are made changes from second to second.
  2. Formalism: the person is the same whenever the form of the body does not change. What exactly this might mean in terms of a person is a bit fuzzy, but presumably it would apply to the peculiar arrangement which matter takes. Ronald Reagan had a distinct arrangement of limbs, eye color, hair color, etc. While others might have shared any one or even several of his features, they would not have shared the totality of the arrangement. The disadvantage: it would mean that we effectively become a new person when that arrangement changes, as it inevitably does throughout our lives.
  3. Function: in this theory we would define Reagan in terms of the things he did. But obviously all of those things have changed over time as well, so we are left with the same problem as in the two theories above.

It would seem that each of the theories run up against difficulties when they attempt to incorporate time into an otherwise static terminology: we want to define something as it is and always has been and always will be, but taking time into account makes that rather difficult. Even when we deal with seemingly changeless things (the Washington Monument, for example) we will note minute and some not-so-minute changes to its matter, form, and function.

What is to be done, then? When did Reagan die?

Once we have approached the question from the three theories above, we see that this question is not quite the right question. The question of death is made difficult because of the question of Reagan’s nature. That is, what matters here is not “When did Reagan die?” but instead “What was Reagan?”

To find out when Reagan died, if that is even possible, we have to find out what Reagan was. We might find that the natural conclusion is that Reagan did not in fact exist.

Filed under: Bioethics, Philosophy, , , , , , , ,

The Great Rupture

A NY Times piece that forces us to consider the meaning of country.


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High-Risk Pool Inclusion

A June 2010 story about the creation of high-risk pools by states. The health care reform package would create such high-risk pools in states that do not currently have them. The objective of those pools is to enroll people with pre-existing conditions that have a hard time finding “affordable” coverage in the open insurance market.

Some states have already set up such pools. There is fear that the reform bill allocated too little money to keep these pools running until 2014, when insurance companies will not be allowed to turn anyone away from coverage (the act allocated $5 billion nationwide).

Here’s the TX state health pool page: http://txhealthpool.com/. Here’s a story about Montana’s risk pool, just in the process of being created: http://www.flatheadbeacon.com/articles/article/high-risk_health_insurance_pool_to_launch_in_montana/18439/.

Filed under: Bioethics,

Health Overhaul May Mean Longer ER Waits, Crowding

A lot of stories like this have been coming out in the three months since passage of President Obama’s health care reform package. Only time will tell, but it seems reasonable that the addition of so many more people into the health care system will add to waiting times and overcrowding.

Filed under: Bioethics,

Proposed: Life Begins at Fertilization

An intriguing scientific analysis of fertilization leads the authors to conclude that — at least in natural procreation — a new life is created upon fertilization (and not upon implantation in the uterine wall, as some would argue).

Filed under: Bioethics, ,