Why basic philosophy should be offered in high school

Whenever I consider any ethical issue dealing with health care, I always refer back to my days in various philosophy courses, especially Bioethics. It helps to clarify a lot of issues, including ones that happen to be topical. For instance, some conservatives have said Sandra Fluke would have us all pay for her to have sex. This is a mischaracterization of the issue. Requiring insurance companies to cover contraceptive care for women is good public policy. Countries with poor birth control tend to do poorly in neonatal, infant, child, and maternal health indicators. Just look at the trends.

I recently did a little research on Nicaragua, the second poorest nation in the Western hemisphere. Some of the stats I found were much better than expected. They were still awful, especially as compared to Sweden, but I figured I would see worse. For instance, whereas Haiti and Tanzania have a maternal mortality rate of 652 and 497 per 100,000 live births respectively, Nicaragua ‘only’ has 103. That’s incredible. (Sweden has 4.6 and the U.S. has 17.) There are a number of factors which contribute to this, including a relatively high number of births attended by medical professionals, but one major factor is certainly high contraceptive use. The nation finds itself in league with developed nations at around 72% use. This lowers the birth rate (2.6 per woman in Nicaragua, 1.9 in Sweden), and makes medical care much more available. It is clearly good policy to lower birth rates. (Again, watch the video I posted.) The more population growth is controlled, the better off most nation’s will be.

So, to go back to Fluke, we aren’t paying for her or anyone else to have sex. What we’re doing is making a smart investment in the future. Such an investment will pay off especially well for minorities and poorer people – which, in turn, pays off well for everyone else because once a nation raises up its poor, it improves everyone’s lot in life. (Don’t you think employers would like to fill the 2 million job openings in the U.S. that Americans aren’t educated well enough to perform?)

Another argument in favor of requiring insurance companies to cover contraceptive care is that there are other health issues which birth control address. For instance, a woman may be given the pill for the control of cysts. Few people seem to have a problem with this, thus making this a much more popular argument than my first one (though I believe my first one is far stronger). Seeing the popularity of this argument, however, one conservative lawmaker from Arizona has a monumentally stupid idea:

The current law states that birth control is covered under health insurance plans for women in Arizona for contraceptive purposes as well as health concerns. However, the new birth control bill, House Bill 2625, states that women who want their birth control pill to be covered by their insurance plans must verify its purpose to be solely for medical reasons and not to prevent pregnancy. The bill would grant employers to deny female employees the right to be covered based on religious beliefs.

Our old friend Roxeanne (who is currently getting embarrassed in the comments) has thrown in her 2 cents:

The return volley is from [lawmaker] Debbie Lesko: woman, office-holder, Majority Whip, survivor of domestic violence, and totally against forcing Catholic institutions and small businesses to pay for the sex lives of their employees, but understanding that woman with PCOS shouldn’t be penalised because her disease is often treated with a pharmaceutical that is used for recreation, not medicine. The solution? Enable religious institutions to not pay for contraception qua contraception, but allow them to require proof of use for non-contraceptive purposes.

From the freak-out, you would have thought that she asked women to join brothels. The freak-out is all they have left.

It’s stuff like this from conservatives like Lesko and Roxeanne that inspire titles like the one I have for this post. Let’s examine this all just a little bit more.

First, these people are mischaracterizing the argument. It’s just good public policy to require insurance companies cover contraceptive care. Second, even if we only consider the argument that birth control has other uses, this just boils down to an invasion of privacy. Telling women that they must disclose their health issues to employers runs directly counter to the idea that one’s medical history is between one’s self and one’s doctor. Saying, “If you want this pill, you must tell a third, non-medical party why” is hardly in line with modern Western thinking.

If people like Roxeanne, Lesko, and other conservatives had any sense about them, they would have dug deeper into the arguments. Instead they have all just stopped at addressing one concern without paying any attention to the consequences of their ‘solution’. That’s like playing chess and not looking ahead to the next move because the immediate move puts your opponent in check.

Being a person who frequently gets into debates, I see this sort of thinking all the time. Time and again, people who aren’t familiar with philosophical thinking will get in over their heads and make bad arguments. “We should do X!” might seem to fly at first, but chances are there’s something wrong with it when Y and Z haven’t even been considered. If more high schools required students to become familiar with how philosophy works, that would translate into a smarter populace that would be able to debate intelligently.

This stuff just isn’t that hard.

Bill Maher, Rush Limbaugh, and language

I don’t think I need to update anyone on Rush Limbaugh’s controversy, but briefly: Law student Sandra Fluke testified before Congress (but really just before Democrats because Republicans don’t let women testify about reproductive health) about requiring insurance companies to cover contraceptives. She said that it can cost a law student up to $3,000 for contraception. Limbaugh did a little sneaky math and calculated that Fluke would have to have sex over 2.5 times a day in order to spend that much. Of course, he was pretending that contraception means only condoms (estimated at $1 a piece). As a result of his numbers, he concluded that Fluke must be a “slut”. He did not literally mean that she is having sex that frequently, but he did mean to say that if a woman has over a certain amount of sex, she is a slut; he used this contention to draw his wider point that it was not that expensive for contraception. Outrage has ensued and now that Limbaugh is getting screwed by his advertisers, we’re all waiting for him to post the video on the Internet for all to see.

(Incidentally, costs for certain types of contraceptives which have other health benefits for women – benefits some of them clearly need, such as they concern cysts – can run close to the numbers Fluke has given. The highest number I’ve seen comes in around $900 a year, pre-tax.)

So let’s fast forward and see where we are. The Republicans in Congress have largely refused to say Limbaugh was wrong in what he said. At best they will admit that his language was a tad saucy for their politically savvy tastes. It’s pathetic: Limbaugh said there is a limit on how much sex women should have and if they exceed that limit, they are sluts. This should be a no-brainer, but Limbaugh is a fat god to the Republican orthodoxy, so no one wants to take him down a notch. Even if he deserves it.

In fact, one part of that orthodoxy has gone so far as to look for an off-setting penalty against the political left, as Jon Stewart put it. FOX Noise has been going after the language of comedian and talk show host Bill Maher in an effort to basically say, “Look! Your guy does it, too! If you don’t condemn him, you’re a hypocrite!” It isn’t a bad strategy. If someone says Maher’s language is reprehensible, FOX and other Republicans can say everyone says bad things and there’s no reason to get in such a huff about it all, plus it’s unfair to go after someone on the right when few ever go after those on the left. On the other hand, if someone defends Maher, whether successfully or not, the Republicans have diverted attention from Limbaugh’s admonishment of women who have ‘too much’ sex.

Unfortunately, I feel compelled to chime in and contribute to the Republican plot to distract people.

First, I want to point out that Bill Maher does not enjoy the status on the left that Limbaugh enjoys on the right. Hell, as an atheist I’m not even a big fan of him. Sometimes he’ll have a good quote here and there and I like that he can be brash, but he hardly represents the left at-large, especially when he barely represents mainstream New Atheists. Second, here is his defense:

I’m a comedian – not just a guy who says he is, like Rush, but someone who – well, you saw me do stand-up last year in D.C. There’s a big difference between just saying you’re a comedian and going out and getting thousands of people to laugh hard for 90 minutes. And the one I’m compared to most is Carlin, who also had these kind of problems. Edgy is my brand – everyone wants that, but they say, “but never go over the line.” It’s like telling Tom Brady, ‘Throw into coverage 40 times a game every game but never throw an interception.'”

FOX Noise, having randomly gone after Jon Stewart in the past, knew that “I’m a comedian” would be the first line of defense from Maher, so they went about declaring as much and saying that since they knew what the response would be that the response was therefore invalid. They claimed it is ‘hiding behind comedy’. They’re wrong. There is a different context to comedy and thus language has to be understood differently in that world. Let’s look at some parallels and examples.

Say I was to discuss these words: nigger, cunt, slut, fuck, asshole, and cock. Many people would be too PC to actually say them, but I would gladly use them. I presume that if I’m having an intellectual discussion on language and the taboo aspects of it that I am speaking with an adult. People should be able to deal. But even if they can’t manage to hear some naughty words, does that mean that I am at fault for using derogatory or demeaning language? Of course not. A discussion about “nigger” does not mean I have actually called anyone a nigger. A talk about “fuck” does not mean I told someone to fuck off. Context obviously matters. Now let’s jump back to comedians.

A comedian who says something incredibly offensive does not necessarily actually believe what he has said. When Daniel Tosh says that his girlfriend recording a game on regular ESPN instead of ESPNHD is a valid excuse for domestic violence, he doesn’t actually mean that. Context matters. In this case the context is that of comedy. If President Obama said the same thing as Tosh, it wouldn’t fly. He (and most politicians) aren’t afforded those sort of luxuries of comedy. He can crack some jokes, but he’s on a very short leash. We expect different language from different people in different environments. This isn’t that hard.

Now to switch gears just a tad, here’s another piece from Maher:

To compare that to Rush is ridiculous – he went after a civilian about very specific behavior, that was a lie, speaking for a party that has systematically gone after women’s rights all year, on the public airwaves. I used a rude word about a public figure [Sarah Palin] who gives as good as she gets, who’s called people “terrorist” and “unAmerican.” Sarah Barracuda. The First Amendment was specifically designed for citizens to insult politicians. Libel laws were written to protect law students speaking out on political issues from getting called whores by Oxycontin addicts.

Maher is wrong on some of this. Nothing Limbaugh said was libelous. He used numbers provided by Fluke to create a hypothetical scenario. From there he said she was a slut which, regardless of context, is simply opinion. He is just as protected by the First Amendment as Maher is when he goes after Sarah Palin. This is part of the reason I don’t think Maher can be said to represent anyone except himself.

He does sum things up nicely, though:

Of course if you take out of context over 10 years snippets inside comedy bits you can make anyone look bad – and sometimes, I have been! Not perfect, but not misogyny. In general, this is an obvious right wing attempt to dredge up some old shit about me to deflect from their self-inflicted problems. They are the kings of false equivalencies.