Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The campaign finance mess

Most concerned voters regard the Citizens United v. FEC decision (2010) as a disaster for our already beleaguered electoral process because it allows corporations – not just individuals – to donate to political campaigns. Not content to leave the matter there, the Supreme Court did further damage earlier this year in McCutcheon v. FEC which eliminated any upper limit on how much a given donor – individual or corporation – can contribute to political campaigns in a given election period.

Unfortunately, many folks have reacted to these decisions in the wrong way: they regard the villain of the piece as the Court’s much earlier holding (late 19th century) that corporations are legal persons and therefore entitled to some of the same constitutional rights as natural persons. This reaction misses the real point of the court-majority’s opinion. The core idea of their argument – made clear in a long series of cases - is their claim that there is no constitutional requirement that the electoral process be fair. They reject outright the idea that voters have a right to a (more or less) level playing field in elections. Here is Chief Justice Roberts quizzing attorneys for the state of Arizona during oral argument over a 2011 case involving campaign finance:
I checked the Citizen’s Clean Elections Commission website this morning, and it says that this act was passed to, quote, ‘level the playing field’ when it comes to running for office. Why isn’t that clear evidence that it’s unconstitutional?” So much for the century-long effort of liberals and progressives to accomplish that democratic goal.
In this context, the attack on corporate personhood is a red herring. Of course corporations are not natural persons; that is a necessary truth. Corporations are creations of a legal system and could not exist without it. And they lack many of the essential properties of a natural person, among them, they don’t have their own ideas, make their own choices, feel regret over their unsuccessful investments and cannot be thrown in jail. But that said, it does not follow that corporations cannot legitimately possess some kinds of legal rights. Indeed, they could not function without legal rights to make contracts, own property, sue other corporations, etc. But it does not follow by any stretch that because they have some legal rights they must have all the legal rights of natural persons, including the right to contribute to political campaigns.

Clifford Anderson
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

Sunday, August 10, 2014

This is your brain on marriage equality (part 2 of 2)

L: I suppose you won’t accept the claim that the genesis of marriage is relevantly similar to the genesis of the daddy-daughter date?

R: Doesn’t that claim commit you to controversial views in theology or human evolutionary biology?

L: All it requires is that, just as one or more persons invented daddy-daughter dates as an inherently different-sex institution, whoever invented marriage did so as an inherently different-sex institution.

R: But how do you know that whoever invented marriage did not intend it to be a more general and gender-neutral institution, like the “parent-child outing” I mentioned?

L: Human history? I think we had a consensus—about marriage being a different-sex institution—that was, if not unanimous, at least so ancient and widespread that even cultures most celebratory of homoerotic desire did not question that marriage was a different-sex institution, even when their most creative thinkers were willing to abolish or change that institution in countless other respects (as in Plato’s Republic). The cracks in this consensus are a recent local flash in the pan.

L: We can’t infer from what was historical to what is right.

R: Agreed, but your question was about what was intended by whoever invented marriage.


R: But—here is a related worry—I think that perhaps we are in a different boat on this matter than we were even just a few years ago.

L: How so?

R: To ask whether marriage is an inherently different-sex institution these days is like asking whether Utah should refused admittance to the United States. That ship has already sailed, right? Some places have already decided that marriage is not an inherently different-sex institution.

L: Well, consider this: what do you think a son would say if his father told him they were going on a daddy-daughter date together today? And if the father said this after an uncountably long phase of going on daddy-daughter dates and father-son adventures, and after the other families in the community had noticed these institutions and adopted them as well? What would the son say to his father’s announcement?

R: I suppose the boy would laugh. Then he would attempt to correct his dad: “you mean we’re going on a father-son adventure, right, dad?”
L: What if dad replied “I know we used to go on those. We still can if we want to. But I overheard a few of the neighbors last night took their boys on daddy-daughter dates for the first time. I figured that if they can do it, so can we.”

R: Ah, I see. The boy would say “the neighbors are confused. They can’t take sons on a daddy-daughter date just like they can’t take moms on a father-son adventure. They can say what they want, but you and I need not be confused.”

L: I would not put it quite that way about marriage. But the gist of the son’s response seems correct in his case. The father is viewing a decision whose coherence is dubious to begin with as if it’s a coherent and exemplary feat.


R: I’m not persuaded by that last response. But I’ve felt there is something unfair about comparing marriage to daddy-daughter dates, and I think I just realized what.

L: What?

R: The complex title “daddy-daughter date” has a grammar that presents its different sexes fairly explicitly. But the lone word “marriage” doesn’t. It’s too bad for you that whoever invented marriage didn’t use a complex title like “man-and-wife marriage” or “male-and-female marriage.”

L: And it’s too bad for us all that the makers of dictionaries didn’t arrange the entries alphabetically by their definitions so we could look up the words.

R: You would not read much into the fact that the word “marriage” isn’t grammatically more complex?

L: I already said that the inventors of the daddy-daughter date could have called it anything at all. Stuff’s what it is and isn’t other stuff—for reasons that are not completely at the mercy of our labels.

R: But it still seems relevant here…


L: There’s another way of looking at the last two points. Do you think professional baseball is baseball?

R: Yes...

L: Is professional soccer soccer?

R: Of course. And the same with pro basketball, pro golf…

L: And professional wrestling?

R: Hmmm….No…Professional wrestling isn’t wrestling.

L: Why not?

R: It's fake. Those guys in the ring aren’t competing. They’re acting. Sure, they’re big and strong and could whip me in a real wrestling match. Some of them may even have been (or be!) real wrestlers. But what they’re doing in that ring, with the strutting and boasting and jumping and slamming—that’s not real wrestling.

L: But it’s called “wrestling”. Indeed, “professional” wrestling. Doesn’t a professional usually mean something like the best example?

R: I suppose so. But the only “professionals” in those rings are professional actors.

L: But don’t some people who watch professional wrestling think it’s real?

R: Some do; but of course that is no proof that it is real.

L: But you see my point, right?

R: That same-sex marriage is marriage about as much as professional wrestling is wrestling?

L: I didn’t say that. You can’t always take a title at face value. And you can’t always tell where the title applies just by looking at some grammar in the title itself.

R: But if that is your point, it undercuts your argument, right? Doesn’t professional wrestling just show that words—like “wrestling”—can historically expand from a narrower meaning to a wider meaning? Why not with “marriage”?

L: Professional wrestling does show that words can expand their usage in different ways. But sometimes words—here “wrestling” and “professional”—are used to make stuff seem like what it’s not. Some things might be thought and talked about as “marriages”—by a person, group, church, or state—without really being marriages.

R: You may be unsurprised, but I am unconvinced…

Russell DiSilvestro
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

Thursday, August 7, 2014

This is your brain on marriage equality (part I)

Today I finished two books relevant to our culture’s ongoing discussions about marriage, equality, and marriage equality—Minimizing Marriage by Elizabeth Brake, and What is Marriage? by Sherif Girgis, Ryan T. Anderson, and Robert P. George—since I am using two related articles by these four authors in my Political Philosophy course this fall.

So I’ve got marriage equality on my mind. Or—making some assumptions—on my brain. Assume two parts of my brain—“Righty” and “Lefty”—can think and talk. (The names map—poorly—cerebral hemispheres, not the political spectrum.) Neither reflects the views of the mentioned authors, or pretends to be up to speed on the literatures concerning marriage equality. Listen and see if you can help each think better.

Righty: I believe in marriage equality.

Lefty: Me too, but it depends what you mean by it.

R: Well let’s pretend I’m a straight woman and you’re a gay man…

L: Umm…

R: …and let’s pretend we live somewhere that says marriage is only between one man and one woman…

L: Fine.

R: Then I think marriage equality means that people like you should be allowed to marry, just as people like me are.

L: But we already can.

R: No you can’t. Not here and now. Remember what we're pretending.

L: I do. If I want to marry, I just have to find a woman who agrees to marry me.

R: Wait, that is not what I mean. You can’t marry someone like you—someone who is attracted to a person of the same sex.

L: Sure I can. I just have to find a woman who agrees to marry me and is attracted to a person of the same sex. Elton and Ellen can marry each other just as equally as Kanye and Kim can.

R: But that is still not what I mean. Neither Elton nor Ellen can marry someone of the same sex.

L: So? Neither can Kanye or Kim.

R: But that’s different. They don’t want to marry someone of the same sex.

L: So?

R: So marriage equality means that individuals can marry each other whenever they want to.


L: If marriage equality meant that, you would be fine with polygamy and many other kinds of ‘marriages’. But you aren’t. So it doesn’t.

R: Ah, that’s a common move. Some are fine with some of those things, but let’s pretend I’m not.

L: OK…

R: I guess my view is this…Marriage means two unrelated legal adults in a consensual, exclusive, life-long—or at least long-term—romantic commitment. Marriage equality means individuals of the same sex can get married to each other, just as individuals of the opposite sex can get married to each other. What’s your view?

L: Marriage, among other things, is an inherently bisexual institution. Marriage equality, among other things, means individuals should have equal opportunity to enter this institution.


R: Um, “bisexual”?

L: Two-sexed. Compare: a bicameral legislature has two chambers; a biracial couple represents two races. And so on.

R: But the word “bisexual” already has another standard meaning when applied to individuals.

L: Fine. Pick other prefixes. Instead of labeling the sexual composition of institutions “bi-” and “uni-” we could label them “hetero-” and “homo-” when the sex of their members is different or the same.

L: But that makes inherently homosexual institutions out of the Boy Scouts of America and the Gay Men’s Chorus.

R: True. But not because it’s the Gay Men’s Chorus, but because it’s the Gay Men’s Chorus. Inherently homosexual institutions would be so labeled not because their individual members are homosexual, but because their individual members are of the same sex.

R: Again, the word “homosexual” already has another standard meaning when applied to individuals.

L: Fine. I’m willing to use labels like “same-sex” and “different-sex” to make the point. My view is that marriage is an inherently different-sex institution. One or both individuals within it can be bisexual, homosexual, heterosexual, pan-sexual, or whatever. Individuals have equal opportunity to enter this institution.


R: Why is marriage inherently different-sex? What makes anything inherently anything?

L: I doubt I can answer the general question. But perhaps one answer to the specific question is this: there are such things as inherently different-sex institutions; and marriage is one.


R: Show me there are such things as inherently different-sex institutions.

L: Imagine a father took his young girls out for individual ice cream outings, and called these “daddy-daughter dates.”

R: Ah, I see. A daddy-daughter date is an inherently different-sex institution?

L: Yes. And even though it wasn’t contrived to be that way just by naming it with capitalized words like “An Inherently Different-sex Institution.”

R: But there’s nothing remotely sexual about this different-sex institution.

L: Right. Just as there’s nothing remotely sexual about the same-sex institution of the Boy Scouts.

R: Are you sure the daddy-daughter date is inherently different-sex?

L: Yes. When the father’s young boy reached the age for ice cream outings, they could not go on a daddy-daughter date together. They invented a similar institution and they called it a “father-son adventure” instead. Which, of course, was inherently same-sex—but not out of animus towards the daughters.

R: Could they call it a “daddy-son date” instead?

L: Indeed, they could call it anything at all.

R: Why?

L: The words we slap on these institutions do not make them different-sex or same-sex institutions any more than words like “five” and “six” make natural numbers odd or even.

R: Could they make a more general and gender-neutral institution and call it a “parent-child outing”?

L: Of course! But daddy-daughter dates, mother-son banquets, brother-sister breakfasts, and a thousand other imaginable institutions are inherently different-sex. And father-son adventures, mother-daughter empowerment trips, sister-sister flame grill barbecues, and a thousand other such institutions are inherently same-sex.


R: Let’s say I agree so far. You still haven’t shown that marriage is an inherently different-sex institution.

(This is the first of a two-part post.)

Russell DiSilvestro
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State