Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.

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Monday, April 15, 2013

Why the "Nazi essay" teacher was wrong (and why he wasn't)

I've been a little uncomfortable with the uproar against the Albany teacher who assigned his students to write a persuasive essay from the Nazi perspective that Jews are evil.  Yes, given our history, the particular conclusion assigned was bound to shed more heat than light no matter how noble the teacher's intentions were, with foreseeable harm to members of the community.  And more broadly, any such assignment is very problematic if not done in a context where the objectives were obvious and there were an entire series of projects through which the students were asked to assume counterintuitive positions.  I also have doubts as to whether such an assignment could be pulled off smoothly with such a young age group.  However, I also agree with Ken Kersh's point that simply asking students to adopt a moral conclusion:

deprives students of a deep understanding of how it is that people can actually hold those views, and still go to church and sleep well at night -- to understand themselves to be doing the right thing. Besides making students shallower people where it comes to understanding history and political and social thought, it make them shallower in the understanding of themselves: only by seeing how odious and unjust ideas issue from sophisticated and powerful logics (typically in conjunction with intense emotions), can they begin to feel the necessity of continually examining themselves, asking how in their own time and place they might be following similar logics and scripts, both time-tested and new. Learning how others think –- including badly -- is a critical part of learning to think effectively themselves.

When I teach our Foundations of Justice course, I ask students to argue both sides of the abortion issue -- not because I want them to conclude that moral truth is in the eye of the beholder, but because I believe that they will be better advocates when they have put themselves in the shoes of those who oppose their views.  Now assigning to high schoolers a proposition that demonizes a religious minority is a much different notion than a case law-driven exercise in advocacy for law students, and so I agree with those who question the high school teacher's prudence in selecting that particular topic, but I'm leery of any emerging tendency to equate categorically the assigned content with the pedagogical objective. 

April 15, 2013 in Vischer, Rob | Permalink | Comments (10)

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

What is wrongful discrimination?

I've tried to dial back our society's emerging presumption that "discrimination" is always bad, as have others (including Rick).  Re'em Segev has a new paper offering a working definition of "wrongful discrimination" that might shed more light than heat:

Discrimination is a central moral and legal concept. However, it is also a contested one. Particularly, accounts of the wrongness of discrimination often rely on controversial and particular assumptions. In this paper, I argue that a theory of discrimination that relies on premises that are general (rather than unique to the concept of discrimination) and widely accepted provides a plausible (exhaustive) account of the concept of wrongful discrimination. According to the combined theory, wrongful discrimination consists of allocating a benefit that is not supported by a morally significant fact (a valid reason), or in a way that involves distributive injustice, or both.

March 26, 2013 in Vischer, Rob | Permalink | Comments (0)

Roberts on Berry on SSM

As the Supreme Court takes up the marriage question, Christopher Roberts offers an interesting reflection on Wendell Berry's recent reversal on the question:

Berry’s talk does not hold together either in its logical implications or with the vast majority of his prior work, yet it makes some rhetorical sense if he is merely distancing himself from bigotry. But if so, he protests too much. His speech concludes with some lovely and mystical words about the interconnectivity of all creation, and it’s clear that he imagines himself on the side of the gentle and good. But as his own substantial earlier work demonstrates, and as should have been obvious to a man of his public experience, not every commitment to traditional marriage is irrational and poisonous. Berry’s philosophical shortcuts in this talk are not benign.

March 26, 2013 in Vischer, Rob | Permalink | Comments (1)

The nones' retention problem

Michael Gerson offers more statistics about Americans' declining attachment to institutional religion.  One statistic had escaped my attention previously:

According to Pew, 74 percent of the nones grew up in a religious tradition of some sort. Yet while conversion has increased the ranks of the nones, retention is not particularly good. Protestantism, for example, loses about 20 percent of those raised Protestants. Of those raised unaffiliated, 40 percent fall away from the non-faith and rebel toward religion, making for a new generation of awkward Thanksgivings.

 

March 26, 2013 in Vischer, Rob | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, February 22, 2013

Is it socially acceptable to hire an opponent of SSM to write a comic book?

I've been intrigued by the protests targeting DC Comics for the company's decision to permit an anti-SSM advocate to write part of the Superman series.  This represents part of a troubling trend not just to challenge anti-SSM advocates on the merits of the issue in the public square, but to push them to the margins of society.  But here are my questions: is the problem with these protests that they're seeking to deny a publicly prominent employment opportunity to an individual based on his political views, or that they're seeking to deny a publicly prominent employment opportunity to an individual based on his opposition to SSM?  In other words, would the protestors be on firmer ground if they were seeking to organize a boycott of DC Comics for hiring an outspoken opponent of interracial marriage to write for the Superman series?  As SSM becomes more widely accepted, do we need to be prepared to defend the social inclusion of a wider variety of unpopular views?

February 22, 2013 in Vischer, Rob | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, January 21, 2013

A Christian law school in Canada?

Canadian law school deans are opposing the creation of a new Christian law school at Trinity Western University because of the university's "community covenant" prohibiting homosexual conduct.

January 21, 2013 in Vischer, Rob | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack (0)

MLK and the Morality of Legal Practice

If you're looking for a suitable gift for a loved one on MLK Day, I suggest this hot-off-the-presses new book, Martin Luther King Jr. and the Morality of Legal Practice: Lessons in Love and Justice.  Here's the blurb:

This book seeks to reframe our understanding of the lawyer's work by exploring how Martin Luther King Jr. built his advocacy on a coherent set of moral claims regarding the demands of love and justice in light of human nature. King never shirked from staking out challenging claims of moral truth, even while remaining open to working with those who rejected those truths. His example should inspire the legal profession as a reminder that truth-telling, even in a society that often appears morally balkanized, has the capacity to move hearts and minds. At the same time, his example should give the profession pause, for King's success would have been impossible absent his substantive views about human nature and the ends of justice. This book is an effort to reframe our conception of morality's relevance to professionalism through the lens provided by the public and prophetic advocacy of Dr. King.

January 21, 2013 in Vischer, Rob | Permalink | TrackBack (0)

Friday, December 21, 2012

The NRA: "Be afraid. Be very afraid."

Consider my colleague Greg Sisk's call for us to embrace -- with God's help -- the best in ourselves and our society:

"[A]ttention to moral character and cultural healing is imperative if we take seriously the calling to create the best environment for human thriving.  And, at present, we have ample reason to doubt that American culture is bringing out the best in our people."

Then consider the NRA's call for an armed guard in every school, along with the stark rationale offered by Wayne LaPierre:

The truth is that our society is populated by an unknown number of genuine monsters — people so deranged, so evil, so possessed by voices and driven by demons that no sane person can possibly ever comprehend them. They walk among us every day. And does anybody really believe that the next Adam Lanza isn’t planning his attack on a school he’s already identified at this very moment? How many more copycats are waiting in the wings for their moment of fame . . . while provoking others to try to make their mark? A dozen more killers? A hundred? More? How can we possibly even guess how many, given our nation’s refusal to create an active national database of the mentally ill? And the fact is, that wouldn’t even begin to address the much larger and more lethal criminal class: Killers, robbers, rapists and drug gang members who have spread like cancer in every community in this country. . . .

I call on Congress today to act immediately, to appropriate whatever is necessary to put armed police officers in every school — and to do it now, to make sure that blanket of safety is in place when our children return to school in January.

Is LaPierre asking us to embrace the best in ourselves and our society?  These remarks reflect the power of fear, but they do not reflect a Catholic understanding of engagement with the world.  I have a hard time imagining John Paul II teaching us that the answer to gun violence is more guns because "our society is populated by an unknown number of genuine monsters."  I don't resent gun ownership, but I struggle to reconcile the rhetoric in which gun rights are sometimes embedded -- fear of the other, withdrawing behind the power of the gun, simplistic responses to evil -- with the call of solidarity and the exhortation to "be not afraid."

December 21, 2012 in Vischer, Rob | Permalink | Comments (17) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The case for guns

I appreciate -- and have learned from -- the comments made in response to yesterday's post about Catholics and gun control.  One category of response is relatively straightforward: this sort of law can't be crafted in a way that will be effective.  I get that, and I'll defer to others with more expertise than I have to sort out that debate.  Two other categories of response intrigue me. 

The first amounts to variations of "owning and shooting weapons like these is a hobby that is highly valued by many Americans."  True enough.  My friends and family members who own guns enjoy them, and I have no doubt that they will continue to use them safely.  But what if a hobby also presents a readily foreseeable likelihood that the misuse of the item on which enjoyment of the hobby is premised will cause widespread death and bodily harm?  Chicago has long banned the sale of spray paint; many cities, including my own, ban its sale to minors.  This has made it more difficult for my 12 year-old daughter to enjoy her hobbies, none of which involve (as far as I can tell) "tagging" the property of others.  I think the spray paint ban is entirely reasonable even though it infringes on others' ability to enjoy their hobbies.  Graffiti presents nowhere near the public problem that gun violence presents.  I'm not saying that the Bushmaster enthusiast's interests carry no weight in the analysis; I'm just skeptical that those interests should carry as much weight as some seem to assert.  (Again, I'm assuming for the sake of this argument that such laws could, in fact, be efficacious in preventing at least some gun violence.)

The second category of response simultaneously looks back to our proud history of rugged American individualism and forward to either a post-apocalyptic or totalitarian future.  It boils down, in my estimation to, "Sometimes you just may need to kill a lot of people in a relatively short time frame."  (How often does a large group of people invade someone's home?)  I am a big fan of Niebuhrian realism, but this line of argument seems to veer into outright cynicism not just about the future of civilization, but also about the Christian's place in it.  Christians should work toward a tolerable justice, of course, but there's a strain of "self-survival at all costs" to this line of argument as well, and I'm not yet sure what to make of that.

December 20, 2012 in Vischer, Rob | Permalink | Comments (22) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Catholics and gun control

The shootings in Connecticut have affected the country more deeply than any event since the attacks of 9/11, in my opinion.  They represent an evil that cannot be remedied by any legislation, though legislation may play a role in making such events less common.  I do not want to diminish the horror of last Friday's events by framing our response in strictly legal terms, but we are a Catholic legal theory blog, and the legal debates are now upon us.

I am not a gun owner, and I have never quite gotten my mind around the full-throated defense of gun rights.  (I understand the Second Amendment argument; I'm referring to the various forms of the "any limitation on gun ownership is bad public policy" argument.)  In my view, the NRA has a similar function to NARAL in that both groups make reasoned discourse on the underlying issue more difficult.  I don't believe that there is a "Catholic" position on gun rights, but I do believe that there is a Catholic understanding of freedom that is in considerable tension with the understanding of freedom that seems to animate the arguments of some gun rights advocates.

So here's my question: Why should a Catholic who takes seriously our obligation to cultivate the common good oppose a ban on the sale of assault weapons?  I'll assume the elusiveness of an agreeable "assault weapon" definition -- I understand that's an obstacle, but that does not seem to be the only sort of objection.  I'm interested in the more principled grounds for opposition.  I ask this question in a fully non-snarky way -- I'm not an expert on guns or gun laws, so I would like to be pointed to the best arguments why a Catholic worldview is consistent with the private ownership of guns designed for killing at a high rate of speed. 

December 19, 2012 in Vischer, Rob | Permalink | Comments (36) | TrackBack (0)