Tuesday, March 29, 2011

A Tortured State of Exception

In class, we discussed the issue of whether or not a state of exception of should be created for torture. While I presented an argument in class, I feel that it got a bit derailed and would like to clarify my position. The initial point that I wanted to make regarding the use of torture is that there is no fundamental difference between what we have already deemed an illegal human rights violation and be carrying out as a newly legalized human rights violation. While we do not hold the state and its agents to the same legal standards as non-state actors, we do not generally go so far as to say that a state may simply ignore human rights all together. As torture has already been identified as a human rights violation, I don't think it is right that attributing it to state actors is enough to justify its use. Furthermore, those cases in which we do make exceptions for things that we would normally consider illegal and immoral (whether for the state or non-stat actors) are highly qualified versions of the acts such that there is some significant difference in the conditions under which they would occur legally and illegally. For instance, we make a distinction between murder, killing in self-defense, and the death penalty; however, the already illegal form or torture as an interogation technique and the proposed legalized form do not appear to differ in any distinguishable way. Given these considerations, I see no reason to weaken our stance against governmental use of torture as an interogation technique.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Extreme patient care: Cooing at a baby a violation human rights?

When searching for some fresh human rights material, I came across a curious article in the British newspaper The Times titled "How do you infringe a baby's human rights? Just say 'coo'" (2005). According to the article, some hospitals have outlawed cooing at babies because it was decided that such behavior violates the newborn's human rights. In fact, the article cites a hospital in Halifax, West Yorkshire, where newborns are not allowed to be examined, fussed over or cooed at, and well-wisher have been banned from asking mothers about their babies.

The hospital expresses that a stringent commitment to human rights is at the heart of the issue—they are legally bound to uphold the privacy and dignity of every patient, so why should that of newborns be any different? They claimed that although people may be well-intentioned with their doting and questioning, a newborn is not respected when it is treated like produce in a supermarket. Throughout the maternity unit, signs have even been posted saying, "What makes you think I want to be looked at?"

This idea has, not surprisingly, been criticized by many. The article interviews new mothers who find the rules a ridiculous case of patient confidentiality gone wrong, claiming that they feel offended when people don't ask them about their new baby and fuss over him/her. One mother even goes so far to say that it is cruelty to ask visitors to ignore the newborns, as it deprives them of the attention that babies need.

I'll admit that when I first read this article, it seemed silly to me— crazy British bureaucracy. But the more I thought about it, the more it began to seem almost appropriate. Although a people group may not know about their rights or actively claim them, they still deserve such rights given their inherent humanity (this is pretty much the foundational thought behind human rights). So the same should apply to newborn babies, yes? And just because someone's parent or legal guardian does not agree with the extent to which human rights are ascribed to the person under their charge, are that person's rights no longer valid? Certainly not.

So what do you think? I assume that everyone in this class would ascribe human rights to a newborn, but is this kind of legislation a bit extreme? Although the babies themselves cannot express a desire to claim these rights, is it nonetheless our responsibility to ensure that they are upheld? And what happens when the consequence of these rights contradicts with the wishes of the baby's parents? Finally—and this may be where I disagree with the legislation— are the rights to dignity and privacy really violated by the cooing and questioning of baby-crazy strangers and relatives?

The Right to Lie

Kant claims that because lying somehow self contradicts itself according to the categorical imperative that lying is immoral. In class I asked if lying can be considered immoral in itself. Consider this: a sick man wants to find your puppy so he can harm it. He asks you where your puppy is and says that if you don't tell him where your puppy is he will cut off your hand (this guy is real messed up). Could lying possibly be justified as still immoral but permissible in extreme circumstances? Kant's imperative leaves no room for exceptions, how much do you value arm?

Lying allegedly produces a contradiction because a known falsity said, heard and consequently believed by the receiving party produces a false idea in the mind of the receiving party. Is there anything inherently immoral about another person not knowing the truth of something? What imperative do we have to stand by our word at all costs? It doesn’t take a genius to understand that in some cases telling the truth would be plain stupid.

In my opinion, lying can be a powerful and versatile tool for manipulating one’s circumstances—poker being a prime example. Associating an inherent value with an idea was dismissed when Sartre declared existence to precede essence. The immorality of lying may be factored into a utilitarian analysis, if one is so inclined, but perceived results should be considered as well. I propose that lying in itself holds no moral value, that its moral or immoral value corresponds directly to its positive or negative consequences. Lying does contain some innate negative consequences. Being regarded as an honest person has great benefits when aiming to be trusted. Lying, especially when unnecessary, places trust on the line because the hearer now has the lie to compare with the truth, should the truth come to his knowledge. This, along with any self-incurred guilt—Raskolnikov—is the only inherently immoral component in lying.

Other positive or negative consequences of lying strictly dependent on circumstances may be ignored; as it has been demonstrated, telling the truth is just a privy to adverse results. Lying and telling the truth are neutral in value. A prudent person knows the right way to lie. Don’t buy into Kant’s categorical imperative. Telling the truth benefits the receiver of the truth. Having the option to lie when appropriate benefits you. Don’t let Kant live you life for you.

Torture Warrants

In his article “Tortured Reasoning,” Alan Dershowitz explains that, while teaching and researching in Israel, he learned that the Israeli Secret Service employs a number of techniques on detainees in an attempt to prevent future terrorist attacks. Although he does not consider these techniques outright “torture” (he refers to their methods as “rough interrogation” in his article), Dershowitz argues that they violate core civil liberties and human rights (258). During his stay in Israel, Dershowitz presented the Israeli government and judiciary with an interesting dilemma: “is it worse to close our eyes to [torture] and tolerate its use by low-level law enforcement officials without accountability, or instead to bring it to the surface by requiring that a warrant of some kind be required as a precondition to the infliction of any type of torture under any circumstances” (257). If an investigator who believes that torture is necessary in order to save lives applies to a judge, Dershowitz argues, a judge would then have the authority and responsibility to determine whether or not (s)he should be granted a “torture warrant” (263). Dershowitz believes that this type of process could have eliminated the abuses committed in the Abu Ghraib prison outside of Baghdad. Dershowitz argues that, when “no lines are drawn, no guidelines issued, and no accountability accepted,” our leaders in Washington and our leaders on the field subtly sent a message to the police officials within the prison that it was acceptable to take any action that would allow them to obtain important information (276). If these officials were required to attain a “torture warrant” in this specific situation, Dershowitz believes that there would have been an authorized method for securing information through the use of extraordinary measures; judges would have gotten their “hands dirty” and high-ranking officials would not have been able to hide behind plausible deniability. “If the man with the hammer must get judicial approval before he can use it, he will probably use it less often and more carefully” (271).

If such a requirement is enforced, would it really reduce the frequency, severity, and duration of torture? Although Dershowitz argues that requiring a warrant would allow neutral and detached magistrates to decide whether or not torture is necessary in a given situation, it seems that Dershowitz fails to consider how the “magistrates” would respond when making these decisions. If these warrants could potentially save lives, would it matter whether or not judges dirtied their hands or high-ranking officials were unable to hide behind plausible deniability?

Saleh v. Titan: An Exception to the Law?

In a CNN interview with John King regarding a new CIA investigation, Democratic Senator Maria Cantwell stated, “No one is above the law.” With that quote in mind and after our viewing of The Ghosts of Abu Ghraib, I was interested in seeing which court cases occurred in relation to the crimes that occurred at Abu Ghraib. It was terrifying to learn that the detainees were randomly taken from their homes on the basis of groundless suspicion and that the women and children were captured for emotional torture and tortured themselves without having committing any wrongdoings. While looking through the aftermath trials on Abu Ghraib, I came across the case of Saleh v Titan.

Saleh v Titan is fighting for 250 Iraqi plaintiffs against the dehumanizing actions of the CACI International Incorporated and Titan Corporation (now L-3 Services) at Abu Ghraib .This charge is composed of two separate suits against two corporations that are private military contractors who provided services to the U.S. government for operating the military prison camp of Abu Ghraib. In September 11th, 2009, the Supreme Court decided in favor of the defendant, Titan/L-3 and CACI. The case is still in progress because of Circuit Judge Garland’s dissent on the case who claimed that this case should be further pursued as he was in favor of the prosecutors.

If you want more details on the case Saleh V Titan, here are the links to the case details:



It is important to note that Titan/L-3 and CACI were private military contractors who were participating in furthering acts at Abu Ghraib. With that said, do the private contractors who are sanctioning and furthering the dehumanization of innocent people through acts such as forced nudity and violent abuse, not guilty of that charge? I just find it hard to believe that a plaintiff group of 250 detainees claiming the same charge against Titan/L-3 and CACI is not enough witness based evidence for Titan/L-3 and CACI to be found guilty of torture. The large number of plaintiffs cannot simply be ignored; the Supreme Court has to acknowledge the evidence that lays in that number, 250, itself as this case continues.

The decision on Saleh v. Titan was counterintuitive to me. Thus I wanted to ask, one, are there different laws specifically applicable to the rights of private military contractors? Two, do you agree with the Supreme Court’s decision in favor of the defendants? Three, does such a court decision of not prosecuting the private military contractors,Titan/L-3 and CACI,place them, in a sense, “above the law”?

Friday, March 25, 2011

Regarding Pimps and Waterboarding

One has to give Alan Dershowitz credit for testicular fortitude, since I very much doubt his advocacy of torture warrants earned him many friends in academia. Furthermore, I found his framing of the argument for the effective legalization of torture to be somewhat novel; Dershowitz does not seek to defend torture on moral grounds, but rather argues that since its use is inevitable in certain cases, institutionalizing the practice will subject it to greater scrutiny and thereby limit the amount and severity of torture that would otherwise occur "under the radar". If you truly oppose torture, in this view, the best course of action is to bring it into the light of day, even if that means partially legitimizing it.

My astonishment at Dershowitz's sheer (if fairly well-reasoned) audacity diminished somewhat when I realized that the logical structure of his argument for legalized torture was much the same as the standard argument for legalized prostitution: in essence, "This is not going away, no matter how unpleasant it is, so we may as well make it legal in order to ensure transparency and prevent the worst abuses." Just as anti-prostitution laws have failed to eliminate the demand for commercial sex, anti-torture laws and treaties have failed to prevent governments from engaging in torture when they have found it advantageous. In Dershowitz's view, the sub rosa nature of torture leads to greater abuse, just as, in the view of proponents of legalized prostitution, the underground nature of the sex business aggravates its worst aspects (trafficking and abuse of women, spread of disease, etc.).

I would not favor Dershowitz's institutionalized torture for the same reason that I do not favor legalized prostitution: even if bringing the practice into official scrutiny would decrease its use (a contention of which I am dubious), there are some practices which are degrading and unworthy of a civilized society, and should not be condoned. No doubt in Dershowitz's view I thereby shut my eyes to the reality of torture, but I fully recognize that certain moral principles (such as an aversion to torture and the duty to defend the lives of innocents) may sometimes be mutually exclusive. I simply believe that leaving the resolution of such situations up to the consciences of the individuals involved is preferable to institutionalizing any recognition of a barbaric practice such as torture. 

Nor do I share Dershowitz's fetish for transparency; if the Wikileaks imbroglio has shown anything, it's that unbounded scrutiny of government action does not do unbounded good. Government should be held accountable, but that accountability must be balanced against the need of the agents of the state to navigate moral dilemmas in the service of the national interest. I have little doubt that the exigencies of extreme cases will always lead the state to do whatever it deems necessary; better to operate with that understanding than to legally debase our traditional aversion to torture; it reamains as a check on those who are tempted to stretch the boundaries of "necessity". 

Dershowitz refers to this view as "the way of hypocrites". So be it. There are worse things than hypocrisy, and it is preferable to sometimes fail to live up to our standards than to abandon them in the name of accountability.

Gray Lines in the UDHR?

Between our discussion of torture and my specific documentary for class, I am having to do a lot of evaluating of gray area. While we debated the legitimacy of torture last class, the plain fact is it is explicitly prohibited by the UDHRs and, therefore, no is the final word. In the same article that excludes torture the UDHR also prohibits cruel or degrading treatment. I'm not sure if these are supposed to be lesser forms on the torture scale or just other similar categories the document wanted to encompass, but I'm wondering what we are specifically supposed to take from this right? Degrading treatment. Is jailing a homeless man for loitering degrading? Or is it simply necessary? What about having social workers hound those on welfare, constantly evaluating their need? Is prohibiting someone without a roof access to sleep in our public parks cruel, or just necessary for the upkeep of societal standards?

Article three grants the right to security of person. What does that mean? Certainly, it implies some security from government intervention in one's private life, but security seems far more broad. Does security include shelter as a subheading? I certainly feel like a shelter is the most fundamental form of security. If so, how is it that homeless people are allowed to exist as such? If our country is in compliance with UDHR, shouldn't it homing the homeless left and right. Certainly there are shelters, but do those fall under the category of security really?

My last thought strain. These last two paragraphs I obviously lead the reader to understand I was a bit dubious of the relationship between UDHR and American reality. However, I also have to ask, "At what point is the government no longer responsible for a citizen?" These articles are rights, but this is also a country of personal liberties. Is the government absolutely responsible for a baseline standard of living for everyone, or can an individual lose access to that right through personal folly?

The International Red Cross and Gitmo

Though Ghosts of Abu Ghraib focused primarily on the torture practices within the Abu Ghraib prison, it also briefly mentioned the similar techniques in use at the Guantanamo Bay Military Prison. The film stated that the US government did not allow observers in Gitmo, which struck me as odd, for I thought that observers from the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) had been allowed in (in fact, I had thought it was leaked parts of their report that had originally caused the Gitmo scandal).

I did some digging and discovered on the ICRC webpage that observers have been working at Gitmo since 2002. But they refuse to speak about the conditions they have observed, preferring instead to work directly with U.S. officials to solve any problems (though the ICRC admits there are problems).

This is policy for the ICRC. As the official protector of the Geneva Conventions they observe prison conditions worldwide, but they refuse to report their findings to the world at large, for reasons of neutrality. They contend that by maintaining absolute neutrality on political issues, they are ensured continued prison visits. And were they ever to break that policy, their access would be denied.

I've always found this part of ICRC policy a little problematic. I understand the argument: we can do more for prisoners if we have continued access to them. But couldn't the world do more to stop torture if we knew about it? Wouldn't pressure from America's allies, from other international organizations, from her own citizens be more likely to end torture than pressure from the ICRC?

What do you think? Is this policy of absolute neutrality a good one? Is there a better policy?

Wow, Latinos and Jews are the Real American Threat

This morning I was reading the internet, when this article was sent to me by a professor. I thought that in light of the documentary we watched about Abu Ghraib, this article tries to debunk the common fear of Islamic terrorism. Overall this article is an interesting examination of who has most frequently has made attacks on US soil, breaking terrorists into the ethnic, political or religious group they belong to.
Some on the Military Police in the film mentioned that they had to kill these people before they killed Americans. Little did they know but while 9-11 maybe have been the worst case of terrorism in this nation's history and though it was perpetrated by Muslim men, mainly from Saudi Arabia, this was truly an anomaly even among US terrorism.

From the above article I found that indeed Islamic terrorism has occurred, but it only accounts for 6%. The data is based on the FBI database of terrorism, so it includes eco-terrorists, narco-terrorists, religious terrorists and political terrorists. Still it was surprising to find out that the Latinos account for 42%, while this is surely an exaggerated number. Overall this should make us (America) rethink the supposed common sense that it is Muslims and Muslim-Americans who pose the biggest threat. Look at the chart below to see who actually attacked US soil between 1980 and 2005. It puts things in perspective. What if instead of Muslims we scapegoated all Latinos, incarcerated them and profiled them?
Wouldnt we find a handful of bad guys, drug terrorists, maybe a youth who made few friends and wanted to seek revenge on a nation who did not accept his Latino people? YES we would, just like we have found maybe 50 suspected Muslim terrorists, we have to realist about how we profile and fight terrorism.

Terrorist Attacks on U.S. Soil by Group, From 1980 to 2005, According to FBI Database

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Psychological Rights

After viewing the documentary on Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, I felt overwhelmed with emotions of embarrassment, anger, severe sadness, and an urge to figure out why the United States would reprimand the soldiers that were following orders, yet honor the man that had commanded and urged their actions. The HBO documentary showed the irony of the situation regarding General Geoffrey Miller and his “service” to the United States. The paradox that is found in the United States reaction to the reports of torture seem to be centered around the accountability for psychological influence or manipulation. To further clarify the situation, the soldiers were held responsible for their actions that were inflicted upon the detainees. They were taught ways of torture that do not create pain, but rather psychological repercussions and psychological pain. After doing further research, I found that the CIA has constructed numerous studies on the proper ways of managing torture victims to make them feel as though they are inflicting pain upon themselves. Through this, they are able to beat the detainee down enough psychologically that they succumb to the interrogator. The psychological pain and manipulation is a lot harder to overcome in comparison to physical torture. The inability to simply overcome psychological torture reiterates the power of the mind and the way experiences can alter psyche of a person.
The soldiers were held accountable for the manipulation of the detainees’ psychological stress, yet it seems their own psychological reliability should have been in question. The Stanford Prison Experiment in conjunction with the Milgram Experiment reiterates human beings willingness to comprise their moral obligations when put in a position of authority and instructed on how to behave. These two studies are easily accessed and readily known nation wide.
The soldiers are held responsible for their behavior towards the detainees, yet why was General Miller not considered the ultimate source of the behavior. It seems to me there is a double standard occurring here that may be completely political, yet morally corrupt and a violation of the soldiers human rights. If they are going to be held for the psychological distress they ensued under the presumption they are benefitting the country, would it not make sense to hold General Miller accountable for his behavior under the same principle. Psychological torture has not been given enough attention in our society and in the United States. It is evident that the amount of pain someone can endure without being touched may even exceed physical harm or pain. If this is true, why haven’t we taken greater action to figuring out a better way to judge psychological pain. What are some ways in which we could account for psychological issues? Do you feel like freedom from psychological torture is a human right? How could these problems be judged?

Do the Ends Justify the Means in Torture?

After watching the short documentary on Abu Ghraib I became curious about the psychology of the torturers. I stumbled across the article “The Psychology of Torture: Past Incidents Show Abusers Think Ends Justify the Means,” which I found on the Washington Post website. The article attempted to explain why people who tortured at places like Abu Ghraib did not feel as if what they were doing were violating human rights. The post explained that, “Torturers usually believe they are carrying out the will of their societies -- and feel betrayed when the public professes outrage after the abuses come to light, said a range of historians, activists and psychologists.” I think the Post raises a point that the soldiers might have thought they were doing their duty for the country and instead of questioning the methods they were told to inflict on the people, they did them and adjusted to their assigned “duty,” for the “good of the country.”

The Post claims that, “Human rights activists said such arguments stand on a slippery slope: Once captors are given license to torture, the abuse of large numbers of prisoners usually becomes standard operating procedure.” However, with this point, the Post raises another position that reflects how Americans react to torture. The Post acknowledges that Americans were shocked about the reports from Baghdad, yet in a poll taken in October 2001, 45 percent of Americans claimed they were willing to use torture, “if it were necessary to combat terrorism.” Although the poll was taken with the support of “hypothetical scenarios in which a terrorist had knowledge about an attack planned on the United States,” Americans still thought torture would be an acceptable method to extract information to help the greater good. Although the Americans in this case seem to use a Utilitarian position to justify their logic to torture terrorists, do the ends justify the means in torture? The Post says, “The U.S. troops who abused Iraqis at the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad were most likely not pathological sadists but ordinary people who felt they were doing the dirty work needed to win the war, experts in the history and psychology of torture say.” I am by no means trying to rationalize the behavior performed in Abu Ghraib prison (actually I was quite mortified by the video), but I want to ask the class where do you think psychology comes into play with torture? In what situations would torture be acceptable? Is the utilitarian approach the only approach to rationalize the abuse of others to gain information? Ultimately, do the ends justify the means in torture?

I encourage you all to look at the article, it isn’t too long but it is interesting!

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Human Nature

Our discussion last Tuesday reminded me of a video I had seen recently on RSA Animate, a website with a series of short, animated lectures (which are often pretty funny). If you can spare 10 minutes, I’d highly recommend watching this talk by Jeremy Rifkin on “The Empathic Civilization.”

Rifkin begins by arguing that human nature is not based on materialism or self-interest, but empathy. Humans are “soft wired to experience another’s plight as if we are experiencing it ourselves,” Rifkin says, citing the phenomenon of mirror neurons. Here’s an example of mirror neurons: if you see someone touch a hot stove, the same neurons in your brain would light up as if you had actually touched the stove too. Studies have shown that chimpanzees and some other animals may also possess the capacity for mirror neurons.

If we are “soft wired for empathy,” then how can we explain the occurrence of blatant and horrendous human rights violations? Rifkin offers an explanation, saying that our capacity for empathy is repressed by various institutions, and when empathy is repressed, we become materialistic and narcissistic.

The video also traces changes in consciousness throughout history, arguing that historical trends suggest it is feasible for us to extend feelings of empathy not only to all of humanity, but also to other creatures as well as the entire biosphere.

So I’m wondering if the feeling of empathy necessitates action. Although we may feel empathy and experience a sense of solidarity, I can think of many cases in which an individual does not have (or doesn’t think that he or she has) the means to redress the injustice. Also, going back to our discussion on Tuesday, when defining what it means to be human, do we need to agree on human nature? Do you think it’s possible to define “human” from a behavioral perspective like human nature?


I am sure that everyone is aware of the travesty that happened yesterday in Japan, and it really made me start to wonder what we as a class would say in response. We have been talking a lot about a country's right/responsibility to intervene when human rights are seen to be taken away, and there has been some disagreement over whether these rights had to be taken away by active violators, or if just the lack of access to these rights was sufficient reason for active roles to be taken. I am really curious as to those falling in the previous category whether they believe it is our country's responsibility to go and help those in need after such a catastrophic event. Personally I believe that it is absolutely our responsibility and duty to lend a helping hand to those who have had their lives destroyed and rights demolished by the earthquake, however I am open to arguments from the opposition. I just feel that if we are going to commit to UNIVERSAL human rights, then they can't only be acknowledged as lacking when there is a perpetrator but rather whenever they are taken away they MUST be acknowledged. And in Acknowledging them, those who have the power to act in defense of these rights must stand and do so, drawing on all resources available to help the global family that is humankind. So lets hear some feedback!

Baboons and Rights Discourse

After our conversation about who deserves rights, I kept wondering about could justify our belief that we (as humans) are categorically different than nonhuman animals. After doing a little bit of research, I found an interesting study from the University of Iowa that talked about the possibility that baboons have the capacity for abstract thought. The study says that, “Baboons in laboratory experiments showed hints of abstract thinking by picking out various images on a computer screen, a surprising finding that raises new questions about evolution and what distinguishes humans from the rest of the animal kingdom.” In the study, baboon subjects are taught to recognize sets of images on a computer screen. While human subjects learned the correct responses much faster than the baboons, both were able to recognize the patterns.

Does this mean that baboons are deserve the same kind of rights that we do? At first glance, one might argue that we should. If baboons have the same kinds of brain functions, it would be wrong to deny them rights. Originally only rich, white, landing-owning males had rights and slowly more and more people were included. Why shouldn’t we include nonhuman animals as well? If we once denied rights to people who deserved rights, it is very possible that we are currently denying rights to nonhuman animals rights that they deserve.

However, baboon cognitive functions are nowhere close to human cognitive functions. The study says that baboon subjects took 7,000 tries to reach an 80% accuracy, whereas human subjects only took 100 tries. Also, it is important to keep in mind that the baboons had to be ‘taught’ while humans ‘learn’ what to do. This suggests that the human subjects had the intention to think in this capacity, but the baboon subjects required instruction. Without any human intervention, the baboon would never go through such an experiment.

Ultimately, it is difficult to say exactly what rights to give nonhuman animals because they cannot defend their position. The only way to ascribe rights to animals is to make arguments on their behalf. Does the inability to communicate preclude you from the rights discussion? Practically it does, but fundamentally does one need abstract language (or at least the potential for abstract language) to be considered as a candidate for any kind of rights?

Here's the full article: http://www.psychology.uiowa.edu/faculty/wasserman/PDF/abstractThought.pdf

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Human Right to Mass Transit or A Useful Sin Tax

My thoughts for this post were really sparked by the disucssion of the Sin Tax, so I will start from there (Thanks to Liz Fieser):

First, we cannot forget the huge benefit to a Sin Tax - It produces the revenue for a government to deal with the negative consequences of human vices.

Just look at these statistical problems with drunk driving:

"In 2007, nearly 13,000 people were killed in drunk driving related crashes (NHTSA, 2008)."
"Each year, approximately half a million people are injured in crashes where police reported that alcohol was present—an average of one person injured approximately every minute. (Blincoe, Seay et al., 2002)"

If those numbers don't seem to please your economically driven minds look at these dollar ammounts:

"Research shows that alcohol-related crashes cost the public an estimated $114.3 billion annually—this includes an estimated $63.2 billion lost in quality of life due to these crashes. (Taylor, Miller, and Cox, 2002)"

But here in lies a problem with the Sin Tax look at New Mexico and more generally the fact that alcohol hurts all of society:

According to the report [ in the November 2009 issue of New Mexico Epidemiology], the costs of alcohol abuse in New Mexico amounted to $2.5 billion in 2006 – an amount 26 times greater than the $97 million in tax revenues collected that year from alcohol sales. Almost 1,000 deaths in New Mexico were attributed to alcohol in 2006, representing more than 27,000 years of potential life lost.

Enough said. Something that harmful needs to be taxed, and unlike buying cars, most the time it is the people driving them that makes the vice tax more reasonable. We can be a free society, but the right of someone to live should not be compromised by the need to drink and drive. But there is also damage done to people through disease and dependency, so logically we need to tax Alcohol more, right?

This lead me to two more choices that I will now discuss:

A. That we increase the sin tax until it meets at least 50% of the total societal cost, but that would certainly bankrupt the alcohol companies and people buying it. It might even start a new prohibition. Also, a HIGH (20-30%) Sin tax might be a way to shift behavior? But will people just go to other Drugs? Quite possibly. So if that occurs maybe we should just address the issue from the angle that American will continue to use some kind of substance to alter their reality. So if we think that is true, maybe drunk driving can be dealt with through a protection of human rights.

If we all can agree that one of the most important rights is to protect people from bodily injury or death, then we need to replace driving with mass transit. As I have stated if people will be reckless and kill each other through driving under the influence then we need to change how much influence they have on their mode of transit. If the above figure of loses of life and dollar cost of drunk driving is near the murder rate and totals nearly 114 Billion dollars, what if all that money or even half, the physical amount was spent building a network of buses, trams, subways and monorails that could give drunken Americans an Alternative?

Sounds like a utopia. People don't crash as much on a subway or bus, people don't need to pay insurance, and with fewer drivers it would be safer and the Human Right's of other is not infringed upon, as fewer deaths occur. I think mass transit should be a human right because it can help protect life and afford transport to even the poorest members of society.

BUT WAIT! There are even more benefits to mass transit, look at these exams of its benefits:

"Every $1 billion invested in the nation's transportation infrastructure supports approximately 47,500 jobs- proving that transportation continues to be an economic engine and job creator."
"Every $10 million capital investment in public transportation can return up to $30 million in business sales alone."

Look at this neat chart of some successful cities with Mass Transit showing the return on dollars invested in public transportation is far greater than the costs.

- http://www.publictransportation.org/reports/asp/essential.asp

Overall, the point I am trying to make is that the Sin tax won't go far enough to change our abusive behavior of alcohol. If we increased it even to 25%, people would just buy more weed or cocaine and people would still crash. So in order to make a society more pollution free, economically sounds and protect people from their own reckless behavior - we need to invest in the community of mass transportation.


Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Israeli–Palestinian Conflict

Although James W. Nickel (the author of “What’s Wrong with Ethnic Cleansing?”) believes that it is entirely possible to provide plausible explanations of why ethnic “cleansing” is generally detestable, he also believes that there are certain sorts of ethnic cleansing that are conceivably justifiable (476). Nickel explains that ethnic cleansing may be tolerable when five criteria are met: “partition and ethnic cleansing are indispensible means to making possible a stable peace between antagonistic ethnic groups, the ethnic cleansing is both non-genocidal and largely non-violent even though force may be used to induce people to more, fair replacements or compensation are provided for lost territory, membership, and property, the mode of transportation is sufficiently safe that there are not large numbers of injuries and death as people are moved, and those relocated have places to go and adequate assistance is provided for resettlement” (474). Nickel believes that these specific conditions could have helped resolve the conflict in Bosnia in 1994. Because of the continued violence within the region, Nickel explains that “mild” means of forcing people to move would have been acceptable. Stopping the war and achieving a stable peace could not have occurred through any other means. Furthermore, the adequate replacement of lost territory, property, and membership would have been satisfied under these conditions; each group would have received their own territory. The last two conditions, however, could only have been satisfied with the help of external bodies (the United Nations, charitable organizations, and other countries who were both willing and able). Nickel believes that these bodies would have been able to provide safe means of transfer and assistance with resettlement (476).
The ongoing violence resulting from the Israeli–Palestinian conflict (largely concerning security and human rights) has encouraged a significant amount of international action. The conflict has been marked by a number of key issues: mutual recognition, borders, security, water rights, control of Jerusalem, Israeli settlements, Palestinian freedom of movement, and legalities concerning refugees. The most recent negotiations (between President Barack Obama, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas) started in September of 2010. Although these negotiations seemed promising at first, they ended in February of 2011 when Netanyahu refused to extend a building freeze for Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Would the conditions of the “tolerable” form of ethnic cleansing that Nickel presents in his article stimulate any type of peace settlement in Israel (if agreed upon by Israel and the Palestinian National Authority)? The chances of satisfying these conditions would be difficult, but it seems as though President Obama, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas would have much to gain if they rationally considered these conditions during their peace negotiations.

State Obligations?

This chilling video posted on CNN.com caught my attention, because it brought up many of the same questions that we discussed in class. Tuesday, we talked about whether states should be held to the same moral obligations or moral code as individuals. If it is true that states do maintain a moral entity, what is the obligation of other countries and the strategy for intervening when those moral codes are being violated. Watching this video brings about many emotions that I think can be overlooked in converstaion and in our attempt to be logical when assessing our role as moral states. Watching this drastically sad violation of human rights, I feel that one cannot help but want to intervene.

As you can see in the video, women, children and men from the Ivory Coast are participating in what looks like a non-violent rally. They are smiling, laughing, chanting, and joining together to relay their opinion through a community protest. As the camera becomes blurry, the person holding it captures three giant army trucks with police on the side drive into the protest. Without any warning or any knowledge they would be arriving, they fired machine guns from the tanks. People start to run and a part is cut out due to the gory violence that is occuring. Six women were brutally murdered amongst family, friends and their children.

As the video continues he speaks that the “French Consulate has condemned these actions and asked the UN to investigate.” There have been over 300 deaths in the Ivory Coast since December. Often times, I feel our converstaions in class are hypothetical “if this.. then we should…” I pointed this out in class during our discussion of the shooter. In a moment of despair or shock you can think you would act a certain way, but you’d never know till you were in that situation. In response, Professor Johnson made a good point stating that hopefully since you had thought through the scenario before, you were more likely to act according to your better judgement rather than instinct at that moment. Having seen these videos and many others around the world, haven’t we found a way to handle this situation without causing global turmoil? Do you think there could be a way in which the UN reacts to brutal killing and their reaction make a big enough impact to make a change? Would it help to look towards the dominating countries for guidance or should they act in almost a peer pressuring way that we as the dominating countries of the world will not stand for murder of the innocent?

Attempting to Prevent Suicides in India’s Education System

Here is this morning’s headline from an article in The Times of India:

“Patna student commits suicide after failing in exam”

Patna is an area of Bihar, India in the northeastern area of India, which is where the 19year old student in the headline above is from who committed suicide this morning. I lived in Pune, a city in western area of India, for two years and studied at an all girls school there. I was there when I was seven and eight years old but I witnessed the stress that was put on the students by their families even as seven and eight year old girls.

Here is how the India education system’s exams and schooling works. There are exams for ‘junior’ and ‘senior’ colleges, which means there is an entrance exam in tenth grade and another in twelfth grade. Most students take tutorial classes outside of everyday class as a means to better their understanding. The tutorial classes do not ease their stress of expectation but are simply used as a means to make sure to receive a higher score on future exams. The scores come out in a few weeks after the exam has been taken, which leads to the real problem in the right for these students to have a health mental state. The scores of these exams are stepping stones to college, so I understand that they are important but not important enough for students to feel as though they should commit suicide when they receive low scores. The families and students are holding their breath in hopes of a high scores. In certain instances, this expectation stresses out the students enough , from elementary through college, leading them to commit suicide after they have received their test scores.

The stress on education is a part of the cultural ideology in India. Nevertheless, I think it is a human right of the students to have a healthy mental state but I am not sure if there is anything that can change this system expect for the people themselves. I am not saying that India is the only country that has such a stressful system of expectation in regards to education- it is simply the one that I have been a part of and seen firsthand; if such a suicidal norm occurs in other countries then that is all the more reason to intervene to universally help students to have a healthy mental state- one with minimal stress and no motivation to commit suicide.

Thus, do you think the students having a healthier mental state is even a matter of human rights? If so, do you think the Indian government or the UN should intervene to change this sort of system of stress on the students to lessen or prevent future suicides? If not, do you think it is the responsibility of the people to work towards creating a healthier mental state for the students?

Friday, March 4, 2011

"Sin Tax"

Yesterday, as I was clicking through my usual routine of stories on CNN.com, I came across one of their highlighted stories in their health section, “Teens should be banned from tanning booths, doctors say.” I know this story may not seem to spark the initial relation to “human rights,” but the piece enticed me to think about some deeper controversial topics. One of the controversial topics that struck me as I examined the debate presented in the expose was the idea and use of “sin taxes.” With this thought, I couldn’t help but wonder if “sin taxes” were a violation of human rights. “Sin taxes” can be widely defined as a state tax that is placed on objects or services that can be thought of as a “vice” such as alcohol, cigarettes, and gambling.

In the article several predominant people voiced their concern and thoughts on the issue that is allowing significant amounts of American youth to be at risk for cancer. Dr. Sophie Balk, lead author of the statement written by an American Academy of Pediatrics committee said, "We are looking for legislation that prohibits kids from going to tanning salons. It's protecting our youth from something potentially harmful.” Do you think that the government has the right to intervene in an individual’s life to prevent potential health risks?

It would seem logical that if we were at a large risk for a health problem we would steer clear from the problem at hand. However, in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights article twenty-four, it states, “everyone has the right to rest and leisure.” Although some of these objects and services may be leading to health problems, some people would classify these activities to be “leisure’s.” The first problem that arises from this situation is, who is to decide what constitutes as “leisure”? From the average teenage tanning bed user, these taxes would be a violation of human rights because the taxes forbid her from her right to leisure. Some of the newly examined items up for possible “sin tax” include junk food, which includes sodas and personally I have several friends who would have a hard time letting go of even a small “leisure” such as DietCoke. Junk food and soda do not seem like a human rights issue and one would never connect the two together if it were not for the “sin taxes.” So are “sin taxes” a violation to human beings right to “leisure” as stated in article twenty-four or does the government have a right to step in when people and youth are unable to steer clear of potentially dangerous objects and services?

The article can be found here


I recently had the time to catch up on my Netflix queue and watched a documentary about the experiences of Dr. James Orbinski as a medical relief worker in Africa that raised a lot of controversial talking points about human rights and intervention.
Orbinski sets out a pseudo-thesis for the purpose of his documentary, exploring the reality of intervention versus the good intention such action represents.

"Humanitarianism, since the end of the Cold War has undergone a major transformation. And many of the basic principles and ideas that underlie humanitarian practice have been co-opted under a military-political agenda.

And we now have humanitarian wars. And if you just think about that, it’s a complete oxymoron.”

Orbinski is clearly bothered but the outcome, or lack of, in Sierra Leone and Somalia where he worked - and yet he does not regret responding to the obligation he felt to help. It is one man's struggle that can be extrapolated to examine the conflicts of humanitarian action as a whole.

At one point Orbinksi describes the system for treating patients in triage during the civil war in Sierra Leone. By numbering the arriving injured based on injury and survival likelihood, triage doctors were able to efficiently save as many lives as possible given their resources. And yet, as Orbinksi still remembers, it went against every instinct as a medical professional and a civil human to let a living human suffer to ration drugs or fluids for the sake of maximizing the success of their operation.

In the end systems like this have to exist and are indeed the most rational but at the sime time cruel and unforgiving. Triage forces us to examine who we're really helping and at what cost. If you get the opportunity, I encourage you to watch it.

Genocide and Morality

I would like to consider ethical ramifications of genocide. Let us take genocide to mean forceful action taken to rid a target group of people from a certain area. First, let us consider the notion of property. European countries historically make clear distinctions between state boundaries, these boundaries having been established through much real conflict. Prior to western exposure, African tribes interacted and battled, but land was not clearly distributed. Native American tribes “sold” land to Europeans, oblivious to any notions of owning the land. My point is, owning land seems to be a civil right, requiring an ordered civilization, and not a human right inherent to people. Realistically, no factor entitles one person to the land more-so than anyone else. Ancestry, history, the price you paid for it, etc, give you no claims to land outside of the society these factors pertain to. Did Europeans have the right to expel Native Americans from their established settlements? —No. Did that stop them? –Of course not. We even celebrate Christopher Columbus Day.
Is genocide bad? God says thou shall not kill. What’s that, you wiped out a nation? For shame! The smite be of God upon you! Or, just your conscious. Sure, German’s faces are red now, but had they conquered the world and successfully instituted eugenics, the world would be a much different place. Sour as it may seem now, one cannot dispute that, had the Nazi’s won, the victorious super breed would have looked upon the horrific past as a necessary and justified sacrifice for the good of humanity. Psycho, right? Plato would have said the same thing about democracy, and—what with Tea Party politics—he makes a point.
Genocide is always wrong. So is killing, lying, cheating, stealing, adultery, homosexuality, drugs, terrorism, science, Muslims, slavery, and birth control. All these things are considered wrong according to different people and for various reasons. They are sins, they form contradictions, you name it; they are never permissible. While I do not disagree that killing things is immoral, I do not think this excludes the possibility of genocide having any real positive consequences. Clearly target victims suffer, and while a people should not be reduced to a single identity or defining attribute, this is not to say that I cannot conceive of a group of people engulfed in a dangerous, threatening, and completely irrational mindset that, after exhausting all other options, might deserve or permit genocide. If all the Muslims in America suddenly took up arms as terrorists against the country as Muslims, the government would be forced to squash this. If a group such as the one just postulated continued to do so, inciting deeply ingrained hatred against its country, then my question is: might there ever be a case in which the state’s best interest would be to entirely wipe out an opposing faction? Does such a group still have a right to exist? What would be the real cost of morality here?

The State as Moral Agent

Some attention has been given to the similarities or dissimilarities between the moral obligations incumbent upon individuals as opposed to those of states. In their potential role as intervening agents in cases of gross violations of human rights, the question is whether states may be held to the same moral expectations as individual humans.

In the class discussion of the example of the campus shooter, it was noted that individual responsibility for responding to emergency situations seems contingent on both one's role within the social environment and proximity (literal or otherwise) to the crisis. Some questioned whether such considerations could be properly applied to events occurring on the other side of the world. However, in this case the factors framing the moral choices of states are not particularly different from those confronting individuals; that is, the (at least potential) moral claims that may arise for states are heavily dependent on context, just as they are for individuals. As the individual in the classroom can be more reasonably expected to attempt to respond to the situation than can an individual in the adjacent building, so a country neighboring a state which violates human rights can be said to have a more compelling direct interest in addressing the violation than can a nation on the other side of the globe. Likewise, the global leadership role of a powerful state like the United States may be considered analogous to Dr. J's self-avowed position of responsibility in the classroom. After all, to which country are the demands from some quarters for military intervention in Libya primarily directed?

However, in another respect, the moral character of state behavior is quite different from that of persons. As noted in class, courageous, self-sacrificing behavior by individuals is much-admired, even where it is not felt to be obligatory. In certain cases (such as for a soldier in wartime), self-sacrifice may even be deemed a moral duty. In general, at least in the Western Judeo-Christian moral universe (and its secular subsidiaries), altruism is the mark of a good person. We admire those who are willing to put the well-being of others above their own. 

A state, conversely, is duty-bound to pursue its own self-interest, because it is entrusted with the welfare of its people. For a state to forgo its own interest in favor of the welfare of others seems to conflict with its basic purpose, and may not even be admirable, since it would betray its first loyalty to its own citizens. In the case of self-sacrifical behavior, what may be the height of moral excellence for the individual is unthinkable folly for the state.

At the very least, the state's role as guardian of its own citizenry, first and foremost, significantly alters the moral calculus underpinning its conduct. Yet, even if states are different sorts of moral agents than individuals (if the state can be termed moral at all), they clearly are capable of action with great moral significance. 

One of the best, and unfortunately too-often neglected, examples of state power acting towards moral ends is the role of the British Empire in stamping out the international slave trade in the 19th century. After having benefitted, admittedly, from this vile traffic for decades, the United Kingdom undertook a massive effort to banish it, committing considerable naval and financial resources over the course of decades (I read somewhere that the campaign against the slave trade may have consumed as much as 2 per cent of Britain's annual economic output during this period). Many millions of pounds were expended, and hundreds of British sailors and marines were killed in the service of this cause. While efforts to curb slave-trading intersected with Britain's other colonial interests, it is clear that the expense in blood and treasure far outweighed any material benefit the British could hope to recoup.

Was this foolishness? Was it laudable? Was it merely the fulfillment of a moral obligation to humanity? I don't know, but I am deeply impressed by it. My very astonishment stems in part, I suspect, from this tale's relative rarity as a clear example of state power directed towards morally unimpeachable ends (whatever the reason; as I indicated in class, I doubt it is ever proper to speak of purity of motive when it comes to state behavior). Nonetheless, it demonstrates the capacity of the exercise of political power for moral good. Arguably, states do not operate outside the moral universe; at the same time, they occupy a rather different place within it than does the individual.