The National Popular Vote: A Vote For Us All

The United States of America has done more than any other single nation to make democracy the standard of legitimacy for governments. Even in nations that have no democratic tradition, the pretense of democracy is almost always there. In Iraq, then President Saddam Hussein (note the democratic title) made an effort to appear democratic and submit to elections – however fraudulent. In 2002 his government claimed he won 100% of the vote in a referendum calling on him to serve for another seven years (Saddam ‘wins 100% of vote’). As America contends with a rising China and a tumultuous Middle East our soft power remains a necessary component along with hard power in any vision that can realistically achieve our international aims. Quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan, along with the impasse we are experiencing with Iran makes the limits of hard power all too obvious. When it comes to soft power, there is nothing more powerful than the strength of the American democratic tradition and the stability of our government. This was of course called into question in the 2000 election between Al Gore and George W. Bush. President Bush was elected despite having lost the popular vote. Americans were not the only ones disillusioned with the long and divisive process. International competitors such as President Vladimir Putin of Russia have exploited this. President Putin implicitly brought up the 2000 election when he criticized the Electoral College as a flawed system (Barry). Aside from needlessly making ourselves vulnerable to such foreign criticism which does real damage to our ability to influence other nations, the Electoral College hurts American citizens’ faith that they are in direct control of their own democracy. The Electoral College denies Americans, as a national electorate equal participation in Presidential Elections and risks making president someone who was not democratically endorsed by the American people, while its greatest advertised benefit, supporting federalism (Gregg 35) and the voice of the states (Gregg 35) is already addressed by the institution of the American senate (Chang 222). The best solution to this issue is adoption of the National Popular Vote (NPV) plan, which will tie the Electoral College results to the winner of the popular vote every single time while remaining more amenable to revision as necessary than a constitutional amendment would be.

The Electoral College was originally a compromise between small states and large states (in terms of population). The primary reason for the states forming a union were practical, not patriotic (Ward 866). The states would be vulnerable to foreign manipulation and intervention so long as they were autonomous political entities unable to guarantee a united front towards aggression.
The smaller states wanted each state to have equal say in the federal government; in line with how each member state has one vote in the United Nations General Assembly regardless of population (of course, I am ignoring the issue of the Security Council and the five permanent members). Today, the United States would not like it if India or China had more power in the UN than we did, just because each nation has several times our population.
More populous states were not happy with the notion of states which were much less populous and powerful than them from having equal influence on the federal government. Their feeling was that the more residents each individual state had (and hence, the larger the share of the entire nation) the more influence that state should have.
Reconciliation between these two divergent perspectives was reached in the Electoral College. The Electoral College awards each state a certain amount of electors. This is based on the number of seats the state has in the House of Representatives (which is based on population for the most part, though each state is guaranteed at least one representative), plus the state’s two Senate seats (Ward 866) which are not based on population. The fewest electors any one state can have is three.
Though the question of how much influence each state should have nationally is inherently a federal issue, states were given discretion as to how they would express that influence. Thus it was up to the states to decide how to allocate the electors (Chang 206). It does not necessarily have to be based on the popular vote of the state – rather, they could be chosen by the state legislature, for instance (Chang 206; Gringer 185).
The electors would meet to cast two votes for President each (Chang 209). Assuming a candidate got the majority of the electoral votes – today that would mean at least 270 Electoral Votes (Gringer 187) – as opposed to a tie or a plurality, that individual would become President and the runner up would become Vice President.
It was believed that a candidate would only rarely be able to get a majority in the Electoral College (Ward 866). When the Electoral College failed to give the majority of votes to any one state, the House of Representatives would elect the President among the three top candidates (Chang 207). Each state delegation would get one vote (Chang 207). This would be the ultimate concession to the small states since each state would be equal in this round of voting. However this only actually happened in 1824 when the House of Representatives chose John Quincy Adams over Andrew Jackson (Ward 866) despite the fact that Adams was second in both the popular vote and electoral vote (Ward 866).
Though most states award all of their electoral votes to the winner of the statewide popular vote – except for Maine and Nebraska (Gregg 34) both of whom employ a proportional allocation of votes based on congressional districts – this is at the discretion of the states ( Chang 206). The Electoral College was never meant to be the voice of the American people. In fact, Americans do not have a constitutional right to vote for President (Chang 206). It is widely known that we vote for electors as opposed to the President herself, but not even this indirect method is guaranteed us by the Electoral College (Chang 206).
The Electoral College today is an impediment because it risks putting in power someone who did not win the national popular vote. An example of this was the 2000 Presidential Election between Governor George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore (Gringer 182). After the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Bush Campaign, and Florida’s Electoral Votes were awarded to it, George W. Bush became our 43rd President, even though Al Gore received hundreds of thousands more votes nationally than George W. Bush did (Chang 218). This casts real doubts on our democratic system and hurts our aspiration to be an international model. We are the only nation in the world who implements such a scheme.
Another issue with the Electoral College is that it focuses the attention of Presidential Elections on swing states (Chang 222). Since candidates are looking for electoral votes and not popular votes, they largely ignore states they know they are either going to win or lose for sure (Chang 222-223). They only campaign in states that are close enough that they could go to either candidate – that is, the swing states. This can be interpreted as effective disenfranchisement of most American voters, and even most small states (Gringer 222-223), which are supposed to be the primary beneficiaries of the Electoral College!
The Electoral College is enshrined in our constitution (Chang 206) and would be very hard to remove (Chang 210). Especially since many small states would not be inclined to abolish an institution which is perceived as benefiting them and their support would be necessary in the senate. There have already been over 1,000 attempts at altering or removing the Electoral College (Gringer 184). The National Popular Vote (NPV) plan avoids this peril of the amendment process by working within the constitutional framework to ensure the winner of the national popular vote becomes our president in every single election (Chang 205).
As mentioned above, states decide how to allocate their electors and most states allocate them based on the popular vote of their state. This is not required though. There are absolutely no guidelines or restrictions on the federal level as to how they are allocated (Chang 206) (there are restrictions on who can be an elector, but not on how they are allocated to a particular candidate or candidates).

The NPV calls on individual states to allocate their electors based on the national popular vote. For instance, in 2000 if George W. Bush had won the popular vote in Texas, but lost the national popular vote to Al Gore, the Texan electors would have all gone to Al Gore if the NPV was in effect and Texas was a part of it.
The NPV will only go into effect once the total of electoral votes from the states in the compact meets or exceeds 270 (Gringer 187) out of a total of 538 electoral votes nationwide, constituting a majority. This way the states are only bound to the national popular vote if and when the popular vote winner can be guaranteed victory in the Electoral College itself (Gringer 187).
Some proponents of the Electoral College claim that small states would lose much of their influence under the NPV. There are two primary reasons for this. First, the fewest electoral votes any state can currently have is three regardless of population which gives small states a relatively larger influence. This and the fact that regardless of how much you win or lose in any state (excepting Maine and Nebraska) you still get the same amount of Electoral Votes, candidates are encouraged to campaign across the entire nation, as opposed to just focusing on certain regions (Gregg 35). This makes the President care about the entire country when she is elected, not just the narrow base which elected her.
In the beginning of our Union this would have been a convincing argument, since citizens primarily saw themselves as citizens of their individual state, as opposed to citizens of the United States of America. So people cared much more about their state interests being recognized in the federal government. Today, we see ourselves as Americans first. The election of the President should not be a decision that fifty states make, but one that all Americans as a unified people make. Each vote should count equally, regardless of what state any individual voter comes from.
To the extent that states or groups of states do have particular interests or needs (say the Gulf region in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina) there is the United States senate which awards each state two senators regardless of population, and thus protects smaller states – it is this institution specifically which would make getting rid of the Electoral College by constitutional amendment so difficult. We also have a presidential primary system which focuses heavily on individual states and their concerns, including those of small states (Iowa and New Hampshire).
Beyond this, the Electoral College in practice primarily serves to give swing states disproportionate influence (Gringer 222). Small states that are not swing states are ignored even more than large states that are not swing states (Gringer 222-223). So the electoral college does not broaden the presidential campaigns to more of the country, it focuses them on certain states that are not necessarily representative of the nation as a whole (Chang 218).
There are other people who support getting rid of the Electoral College, but believe we should only do so by Constitutional Amendment (Gringer 182). This is because they feel there may be legal issues with the NPV (Gringer 197-223). Primarily that it disenfranchises minority voters who can be influential at the state level (Gringer 201), but not necessarily on the national level, and because this could amount to an interstate compact which the Constitution says requires congressional approval (Gringer 226). Lastly, the NPV may be a problem because it is not being well thought out on the national level (Gringer 227). Rather, it is going quietly from state to state without a real discussion (Gringer 227).
If the NPV hurts the ability of minority voters to select the candidate of their choice, so would a constitutional amendment abolishing the Electoral College. In any case, the popular vote and Electoral College have selected the same winner in all but four elections (Chang 216). The last election that this happened, in 2000 (Chang 218), the choice of racial minorities – Al Gore – won the popular vote and lost the Electoral College. So it seems that the minority vote could actually be more influential in the NPV, not the Electoral College. In any case, many states with large minority votes (such as California) have passed the NPV with the support of minority politicians. The courts have ruled in the past that election changes supported by minority legislators and not intended to disenfranchise minorities are okay (Gringer 202).
The Constitution does state that interstate compacts must be approved by congress, yet the Supreme Court has consistently ruled that interstate compacts do not require congressional approval so long as they do not infringe on the power of the federal government (Chang 214). Since the Constitution gives absolute authority to the states as to how to allocate electors (Chang 296), it is not an interference with a federal prerogative and thus should not pose any constitutional issues. Even if it did, passing the NPV and then seeing it struck down by the Supreme Court could create a major impetus for constitutional reform so no one who wants to see the Electoral College abolished is taking a risk by supporting the NPV.
The NPV and the ultimate aim of formally abolishing the Electoral College through constitutional amendment are not mutually exclusive. The NPV could actually provide a good testing ground and serve to show small states and other skeptics that there is nothing to fear from a popular vote, which could then make getting an amendment through the senate more realistic. If there are unforeseen consequences with the NPV, it could be altered much more easily than a constitutional amendment could be (which would require another constitutional amendment).

This flexibility on the part of the NPV is not unimportant, especially if we are to allay the concerns of people who see the stability of the American political system as having its taproot in the Electoral College. While the states can independently join the NPV compact, they can also independently leave it in the case that there are unforeseen circumstances. Though we have every reason to be confidant that a popular vote is the best alternative for the United States, we cannot rule out the potential need to make slight revisions. For instance, the Twelfth Amendment was ratified in the wake of the election of 1800 in which Thomas Jefferson tied in the Electoral College with his own running mate, Aaron Burr (Ward 866). This was a possibility that our Founders failed to account for. We should be humble and allow ourselves more flexibility.

Without doubt, the NPV is our best hope of redressing the inequities of the Electoral College while maintaining a reasonable means of revision that the states could undertake themselves. Until this plan is put into place, our political system continues to suffer. Though I doubt President Putin has very praiseworthy motives for attacking the Electoral College, we cannot commit ad hominem and allow the messenger to blind us to the seriousness of the claim. The electoral crisis of 2000 was not an anomaly, rather it may be a portent of things to come if we fail to act. If Senator John Kerry had won Ohio in 2004 he could have won the Electoral College and become President despite George W. Bush’s popular vote victory (Wisckol). In our most recent election between President Barack Obama and Governor Romney many commentators were speaking of the possibility that one candidate would win the popular vote while another president would electoral vote. Another possibility was that they might tie in the Electoral College and each receive 269 votes which would send the election to the House of Representatives where Romney would almost certainly be elected (Silver). If Obama won the popular vote in this scenario you could have a situation very reminiscent of 2000. The United States is a nation of laws, but that does not mean those laws should not evolve. Our greatness is premised on our ability resolve our weaknesses and faults within the system itself, without having to resort to measures outside of it. Our Founders did not give us commandments written in stone, rather they gave us a document and system which with the NPV in place can continue better give us in the words of President Abraham Lincoln, “government for the people, of the people and by the people.”

Works Cited

Barry, Ellen. Blunt and Blustery, Putin Responds to State Department Cables on Russia. New York Times. 1 Dec. 2010. Web. 2 Dec. 2012.

Chang, Stanley. Updating The Electoral College: The National Popular Vote Legislation. Harvard Journal On Legislation 44.1 (2007): 205-229. Academic Search Complete. Web. 2 Dec. 2012.

Ward, Elliot. Electoral College. Encyclopedia of the American Constitution. Ed. Leonard W. Levy and Kenneth L. Karst. 2nd ed. Vol. 2. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2000. 866-867. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 2 Dec. 2012.

Gregg, Gary L. Unpopular Vote. American Conservative 10.12 (2011): 33-35. Academic Search Complete. Web. 2 Dec. 2012.

Gringer, David. Why The National Popular Vote Plan Is The Wrong Way To Abolish The Electoral College. Columbia Law Review 108.1 (2008): 182-230. Academic Search Complete. Web. 2 Dec. 2012.

Saddam ‘wins 100% of vote’. BBC News. 16 Oct. 2002. Web. 2 Dec. 2012.

Silver, Nate. New Polls Raise Chance of Electoral College Tie. The New York Times. 1 Oct. 2012. Web. 2 Dec. 2012.

Wisckol, Martin. Momentum Grows to Override Electoral College. The Orange County Register. 2 Nov. 2012. Web. 2 Dec. 2012.

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Care for all Children

Morality does not usually seem to be a complicated issue.  Certain actions are right, or wrong in the abstract.  We then use these standards to judge our actions and the actions of others.  Insofar as someone follows these rules, they are ethical.  In such an abstract system, human beings themselves are treated as “equally situated” abstract entities.  The simplicity in the system is that there is no need to become intimately interested in the particulars of an individual’s context.  This is why people are often able to ignore the suffering of others, even children, when assessing their actions, as a District Attorney says to a young woman, Gabrielle, “There is no reason why you could be this way… There can be no ‘why’ for the things you have done” (Bernstein 265).  This sort of coldness in the face of a young person who commits an act against our “objective” standards is possible because justice ethics makes no room for understanding the individual as such.  When we focus on abstract rules at the expense of care for the individual we create needless suffering in the name of a hollow ethical approach.  Any substantive ethic of justice must be supplemented  by an ethic of caring.  Our challenge as a society is to find the right balance, otherwise, we can approximate justice of any sort, in name only.  The treatment of Nathan Ybanez before and after he killed his mother, Julie Ybanez, has lacked justice, because he was not given the care we as a society assert all children are entitled to.  Thus those who looking at his case base their support of his harsh punishment on rules, duties, and fairness, are overlooking the fact we as a society failed to follow our own standards, and duties to provide him care.  The only way to right the injustice society has committed against Nathan Ybanez is to compensate him now for the care he lacked, despite the effort of some to get him help.

Nathan Ybanez was a child of only fourteen when he moved with his family to Colorado and took the life of his mother, Julie, in the same year, 1996 (Frontline 1, 2).  Nathan claims that he was physically abused by his stepfather, Roger, and sexually abused by his mother (Frontline 1).  Nathan never went directly to the authorities to seek help because he was embarrassed and wanted his friends to thinks he is a “normal person” (Frontline 2).  This does not mean it did not bother him, of the sexual assault he endured he says

I knew it wasn’t right, but I wasn’t sure about my place in the whole area of what was going on with my family and the world in general.  I’d been kept apart from a lot of outside things, these kind of things [sexual abuse] make me feel like I wish I could cut off my own skin.  That’s how I feel.  Even today.  So I don’t like talking about them. (Frontline 1)

While we do not know exactly when the physical and sexual abuse of Nathan began at the hands of his parents, we know that he was fourteen at the very oldest.  Presumably it may have been going on for several years.  While it seems that the best strategy for Nathan would have been to go to the authorities, children and adolescents are not always able to properly assess the consequences.  Yet, while Nathan was not open about the abuse he was enduring, he was not able to entirely hide it from those who took an interest in his life.  His friend, Erik Jensen went to his parents about his concern for Nathan, and in turn, Erik’s parents went to social services (Frontline 2).  Yet social services explained that at Nathan’s age he was expected to essentially fend for himself, because there were not enough resources for older children (Frontline 2).  In fairness, social services denies that this was ever their response (Frontline 2).  In my own experience with child protective services, and other mental health programs meant to help the most vulnerable, this sort of response is however, incredibly common.  I do not understand the motive of the Jensen parents to make this up either, since if this helps anyone, it would presumably be Nathan Ybanez, not their own son, Erik.

With the failure of the system to help him, perhaps Nathan was acting more rationally than we might initially have thought.  Nathan’s fear that no one with authority would help him, as sad as this is, seems to be correct.  When deciding if Nathan acted appropriately or not, when he eventually killed his mother, we have to ask ourselves what alternatives were present to him as an abused child. Perhaps social services would have acted differently if the severity of Nathan’s problems were made clear — the Jensen parents did not realize the extent of his abuse — yet ultimately there would have been very little physical evidence.  It would have been Erik’s word against his parents’, and in the meantime, he would still be at their mercy.   So why would anyone — adult or not — want to incur the wrath of those who have the most power over us?

Nathan eventually took matters into his own hands, “on June 5th, 1996 Julie told Nate that she was sending him to a Christian boot camp in Missouri.  Nate was terrified by this prospect.  ‘It seemed to me that something had to happen — had to happen that day” (Frontline 2).  What happened was Nate killing his mom very violently while his friend, Erik was there (Frontline 2).  Of course the notion of a child killing his mother because she wants to send him away to a boot camp seems entirely disproportionate.  A child who commits such an action seems to be the very definition of evil.  That is if we assume that these children are abstract beings with no context that may explain their actions.  To ignore what seems obvious, that this news was the spark, versus the root cause of the killing is denying real justice to Nate.  We are being willfully ignorant, as the DA earlier mentioned was with Gabrielle (Bernstein 265).  We come to the conclusion that there can be no explanation, because we refuse to look for one.  Looking for one would weaken the notion that certain actions, divorced of all context, are inherently right or wrong.

This very perspective lacks any sort of rational foundation, because it requires the erroneous assumption that we are all equally situated.  Feminist ethics is vocal against this error, “[it] can never begin by assuming that women and men are similarly situated — although it may discover that some women are situated similarly with some men in specific respects or contexts” (Becker 532).  Whereas men generally enjoy privilege over women, care ethics cannot stop there, but must look at the individual and their context.  In the case of Nathan Ybanez, an abused child, he was not in an intellectual, emotional, or material position to properly defend himself against his own caregivers.  We might criticize his actions, but the focus of such criticism is mistaken.  We must instead focus on how society let him down, and hence, our own responsibility for his abuse, and the death of his mother.  My assertion is premised on the fact that we acknowledge that it is just for parents to care for their children. This means that parents must employ an ethic of care with their children to help them become happy, healthy adults.  In cases in which parents are unable or unwilling to meet this standard of care, we see ourselves as having an obligation — founded upon justice — to supplement the care the child is entitled to.  This implicit assumption is illustrated by the numerous programs we have for children — Children’s Health Insurance Plan (CHIP), welfare, public schools, child protective services, foster care, and so on — and laws we have that are specific to children — in many states you cannot smoke in front of children, there are laws against children drinking and smoking, and so on.  Yet, we do not often take this obligation seriously enough.  I am sympathetic to the social services officials who told Erik Jensen’s parents that not much could be done to help Nathan at his age, given their limited resources.  It is we as a society who have not made sure these important programs are properly funded and maintained.

Given Nate’s lack of care, there is no good argument from a justice perspective that a child like Nate is the primary aggressor in this situation.  Justice demands we review our obligations to children and address the gross shortcomings.  Justice further demands that the victims of our failure to properly meet our obligations, such as Nate, are not punished for it.  Yet this is exactly what happened to Nate.  Nate was convicted of first-degree murder and given a mandatory sentence of life without the possibility of parole (Frontline 4).

Since Nathan’s trial the Supreme Court has ruled mandatory life-sentences against persons who were juveniles during the time of the crime to be unconstitutional (Life Without Parole 1).  Unfortunately this only applies retroactively to the year 2012 (Life Without Parole 1).  Nate committed his crime in 1996 and was convicted in 1999 (Frontline 2, 3).  This legal distinction will make it that much more difficult for Nate to ever get to see freedom.  Yet this legal distinction is entirely unimportant to ethics.  If it is unjust for children to be given mandatory life-sentences in the year 2012, it is unjust for Nate to be given that same sentence in 1999.  There is no utilitarian justification for this either.  Nate is not somehow suffering for the greater good.  His imprisonment helps no one.  In fact a life sentence for a sixteen year old will cost approximately $2.25 million dollars (Life Without Parole 4).

Not only is our treatment of Nate and others like him unjust, we have real alternatives. In Burning Down the House: The End of Juvenile Prison, Nell Bernstein offers what is in my mind the best possible set of alternatives.  She points out that that

Eighty to [ninety] percent of American teenagers… will go through a period of delinquency…  The vast majority will grow out of it as they grow up… seen through the lens of its near universality, juvenile delinquency begins to look less like an aberration than a developmental stage [thus] “what rehabilitates” may not be the right question [instead we should ask] “what do children need?” (Bernstein 259-260)

Reenvisioning juvenile justice to take into account that question “what do children need” means emphasizing care for the child.  Models which are oriented in this perspective include Multisystemic Therapy (MST) and Functional Family Therapy (FFT) (Bernstein 275).  Both of these approaches do not make the erroneous assumption that all children are equally situated.  Instead they seek to understand the wider context of the child’s life.  Instead of seeing the child as a problem, the focus is on how to change positively the child’s living situation by making the family unit as functional as possible (Bernstein 278).  These methods cost between three thousand and nine thousand dollars per month for each child (Bernstein 277).  This pales in comparison to 2.25 million dollars per year to house the average prisoner (Life Without Parole 4).

While these approaches might be helpful to Nate, their use would be limited in his context.  This is because there is no real family unit for Nate.  Given the physical and sexual abuse he suffered, he should have been taken away from his parents.  Of course after he killed his mother, this intervention became impossible altogether.  Yet, if Nate was put in the care of another family — say Erik Jensen’s — after a better funded social services investigated allegations of abuse and found that Erik was in danger, he could have perhaps been well-served with this kind of approach to help him and his foster parents best understand what kind of care he needs.

I understand the concern with not incarcerating Nate at all in the immediate aftermath of his mother’s death.  For all we know he might have been planning to kill other people.   It would make sense that we want to incarcerate him until we could be reasonably assured he was not going to commit such a crime again, and then focus on approaches like MST or FFT.  In this context something like the Missouri Model would be more appropriate for Nate.  The Missouri Model for youth focuses on rehabilitation, the staff has a “culture of caring”, they work to make young people happy and healthy (Bernstein 284).  Only a quarter of the former Missouri Model youth reoffended in their first year of release, which is significantly less than the rate of recidivism we see with traditional programs (Bernstein 284).  Youth are challenged to discuss their  feelings and form relationships with each other (Bernstein 285).  This could have helped Nate a lot.  Since he wanted to be a “normal person” and presumably did not think others would understand (Frontline 2) he kept quiet about his abuse.  The Missouri Model could have paired him with other young people who had endured similar trauma.  He could be made to feel “normal” while also sharing his experiences with other people.  Undoubtedly this would lead to the communication and coping skills that he lacked as an isolated and abused child.

Gail Palone would disagree entirely with this approach.  She says, “They took lives.  They took sons, they took mothers, they took fathers, they took aunts, they took uncles.  They took so much away from people and we can never get it back” (PBS Documentary).  Palone is coming from the perspective of a mother whose son, Matthew Foley was killed by another juvenile (PBS Documentary).  I am absolutely sympathetic to her pain and anger, and do not wish to cast her as a villain.  Her own perspective limits her ability to look at these children as individuals however, and I am speaking of her now, because I believe her perspective is privileged in our society.   When we think of young people killing others, we think of young people going after loving parents, siblings, community members.  Instead of looking at the context of individual cases, she assumes someone like Nate deserves life in prison because he took someone’s mother.   In reality, Nate defended himself against the person charged with being his mother.  The sexual abuse means that Nate was denied the mother he deserved.  In killing Julie, Nate tragically defended himself the best he could.  Nate is Erik’s friend, he could have learned to cope with the traumas inflicted upon him, and become a productive member of the community.  Instead, we turned an ethic of justice into an ethic of vengeance because we refuse to acknowledge that not everyone is equally situated, especially when they are children, and have thus denied care to those we have an obligation to provide it to.  An ethic of justice, which is worthy of being described as “just” must not ignore the essential role care plays.  Our lack of care which has turned our justice system into vengeance exacted against youthful offenders like Nate has indeed taken away what could have been a father, uncle, and friend.  It has served to compound the evil already inflicted on this young victim.

Works Cited

Becker, Charlotte.  Becker, Lawrence.  “Feminist Ethics.”  Encyclopedia of Ethics.  2nd Edition.

New York City: Routledge, 2001.  528-39.  Print.

Bernstein, Nell.  Burning Down the House: The End of Juvenile Prison.  New York City: The

New Press.  2014.  Print.

“Life Without Parole: An Overview.” The Sentencing Project (n.d.): n. pag. The Sentencing

Project. Web. Oct. 2016.

“Profile: Nathan Ybanez & Erik Jensen.” PBS. PBS, n.d. Web. Oct. 2016.

When Kids Get Life. Frontline, 2007. PBS. Web. Oct. 2016.

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Loving Life and Feeling Its Rejection

The moments I think I will end my life are the ones I am most in love with life.  I think back to my childhood when I thought that despite all of the dysfunction, some of the people I was growing up with would love me.  I feel the pain acutely when watching genius performers at a community college, so eloquently and forcefully giving voice to experiences I will never have.

I feel neutered, unable to produce anything or anything.  I remember family trips to Yosemite, loving the smell of the trees.  Waking up in the cold morning, fascinated with my nose, and how the cold outlined the intricacies of my ears.  Jumping over my mom who was still asleep to head into the campground where fires were on and birds were out.  As soon as the adults would let me, I was at the stream, slipping on rocks looking for fish.  I was just as happy to come across worms and beetles though.  I was happy.

I was not happy because I had no father, or because my mom often seemed to be trying to make me a good son for some man she liked.  I was never happy when my cousins taunted me for being Mexican — they were only half — or for being fat.  My cousin pronounced that anyone could gain weight, but once you have it, you will never lose it.  That kept me from trying to take control of my health for years.

I was not happy when my aunt, who was like a second mom to me, stopped talking to me for three years.  She was mad that her husband died and she was mad at life.  That Christmas, despite my mom telling me no, I got her presents and took them to her.  I let myself into the house, because I thought it was still my second home.  I found her at her computer and I presented the gifts.  She kept typing, her face got redder and redder.  She pounded the keys that much more ferociously, and she did not look at me.  She did not wince when I began to cry, so I left.

Perhaps that should have been ominous.  Maybe I should have prepared myself for a lifetime of losing cousins, my grandma, and others, to dysfunctional hatred.  I think about Hillary Clinton and how everything seemed to go wrong for her.  She always seemed to overcome the crisis at hand, and so it seemed like there was hope.  She would be presented with a crisis no other candidate had to endure, and her resilience convinced her she could survive.  Then she had another.  She must have felt a relief on November 8th, knowing that there is no surviving this.  It means future crisis is taken off the list of options.  It means you can admit to yourself that all of your goals were just compensating for something anyways.

I am a senior in college now, still convinced I will fail.  I am waiting for the tragedy to happen.  A few weeks ago I thought about dropping out.  I was falling behind all of my classes.  A kind professor extended my deadline and I was able to pull ahead.  So now, I fret.  That did not do it, what will?

Perhaps I actually think I will graduate college.  The fear is, what happens when graduating college does not make me happy?  When I still have no family, when I still have to think about the one meaningful romantic relationship I had and failed at?  

I think about my cats, and the ones who went missing recently when they started going outside because they tore a hole into the screen.  Every single one I loved deeply, went out that hole and never came back.  

Not all of them.  Claudius died an agonizing death before he could take his walk to freedom.  The night before he was euthanized I put him in a different room because he kept peeing on me.  I let my cat spend the last night of his life alone, because I did not want to be peed on.

He had already peed on me.  At some point, I do not think being peed on again is going to make much of a difference.  For whatever reason, I decided I should not allow myself to be peed on again though.  I comfort myself by remembering I was confident that he would survive and be well.  This was not his last night of life at the time.  He was just a sick cat who would feel better once he got checked out by the veterinarian.  Of course, part of my knew that he would die.  I felt it, my conscious self was able to suppress that, and it apparently also allowed me to deny compassion to a sweet and lovely creature who needed me.

I apologized to him for that the next morning while he died in my lap.  I do not think he heard me, so I apologized again while he was he was dead.  And I am a bastard.

I see people who are happy and uninhibited because they drink alcohol.  I think about becoming a drunk, about how pleasant I might be.  How much less boring I would be.  Then I think that I have never been drunk once in my life because I did not want to be like the people in my family.  I wanted to stay away from addiction.  I have stayed away from life.

My friends love talking to me about philosophy and politics.  No one wants to talk about philosophy and politics all the time.  So when something else is on their mind, they go somewhere I have never been.

I wonder why my friends do so much without me, I let it be known, and then they invite me to places.  I do not go, because why would I want to do something which does not involve politics or philosophy?  Why do I want to embarrass myself by pretending to be the whole human being they probably imagine me to be?  So I become overwhelmed by the thought of accepting their invitations and say in my room.

As the invitations stop, I wonder again, why no one seems to interact with me outside of philosophy and politics.

I do not know whose fault it is.  It is not theirs.  I do not think it is mine.   I think I understand what it is to be happy, and that understanding contrasts with a void inside of me.  I want so badly to love and be loved.  To laugh when it is not forced.

So I love life, and it hurts.  I love people, but I cannot relate with them.  I do not know who they are.  I let them see so much of me, what has been prepared for them.   I hide the rest.

I did not visit my mom when she was dying in the hospital.  I did not want to.  I did not feel particularly welcome.  She belonged with other people.  She was my mom, not my family.

I have spent my life saying you are born into one family, and you have the opportunity to build another.  Maybe you can, I cannot.  I still love the idea.

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Schopenhauer’s Ethics

Schopenhauer’s ethics builds off of Kant’s distinction of the noumenal and phenomenal worlds, and their counterparts in the individual, the intelligible and empirical character, while at the same time effectively refuting the Categorical Imperative as a tenable ethical principle.  He instead makes the convincing argument that compassion is the true basis of morality, for all sentient beings, human or otherwise.

Schopenhauer’s philosophy is impossible without Immanuel Kant’s.  Building off of his metaphysics, Kant bases the possibility of his moral system on our “supra-sensible dimension to our conative natures” (Young 202).  The supra-sensible dimension is what Kant calls the noumena, and Schopenhauer calls the Will.  The noumena is independent of the forms of time and space and is outside of the sphere of human cognition.  In this sense we can never directly access the noumena in a conscious manner.   However, we can be aware that it exists.  Since the noumena is outside of the empirical world, and since we also exist as noumena, it is possible to believe that we are free in the noumenal world, and thus morally culpable.  This noumenal half of ourselves is our intelligible character (Koßler 233).

Whereas our empirical character is according to Kant entirely determined by the laws of nature, our actions may at the same time be expressions of our intelligible character.  If our actions are expressions of our intelligible character — Kant acknowledges he cannot prove this — then morality is possible.  While Schopenhauer incorporates the noumenal and phenomenal distinction, as well as the notion of the intelligible character into his own ethical philosophy, Schopenhauer is almost uniformly critical of the rest of Kant’s ethics.

Julian Young quotes H.J. Paton’s summation of Kant’s ethical philosophy which states in very concise form its main tenets,

(1)  If a principle of rational action is valid for any, then it is valid for all rational beings.   (2)  A rational being must think of his practical principles as rational principles.   Therefore,  (3)  A rational being must think of his practical principles as universally valid.  That is,  (4)  A rational being must regard his practical principles as universal laws valid for all rational beings. (Paton qtd. in Young 197)

Paton is essentially describing the Categorical Imperative, which requires all rational agents to only act in a manner which could be universalized as a law for all rational agents.  For instance, I might be able to will that I embezzle money from the government for a private jet to travel in.  Yet, if everyone went about getting a private jet — or some other luxury — by the same means, this would bankrupt the government and ruin the economy. So upon reflection, this is not something I could will as a universal law for all rational beings, as it would end up harming myself.

Schopenhauer strongly criticizes the Categorical Imperative and the Kantian notion that all human beings must be treated as ends.  Schopenhauer questions the Kantian claim that we have duties to ourselves based on the Categorical Imperative and the notion of humans as ends (Schopenhauer 19).  Schopenhauer argues it is preposterous to assume we need to find an a priori law to tell us to do what it is already in our nature to do, which is to act in our own interests (Schopenhauer 19).  He sums it up nicely by saying “but [there is] an amusing effect in cases where people begin to show anxiety about their persons, and talk quite earnestly of the duty of self-preservation; the while it is sufficiently clear that fear will lend them legs soon enough, and that they have no need of any law of duty to help them along” (Schopenhauer 19).  Another issue that Schopenhauer has with the Kantian ethical philosophy is that if sound, there should not be moral dispute about anything, which is clearly not the case.  This is because since Kant bases morality on reason, and believes that everyone has access to it — if they did not have access to the moral law, they could not be blamed for not following it, based on the ought implies can principle — and so, we should assume that there will be no more issue with moral truths as there is with truths of “arithmetic and geometry” (Schopenhauer 38).

Schopenhauer instead anchors his ethical philosophy on the notion of compassion (Fox 376).  Compassion is a much more suitable candidate for an ethical foundation than what Kant is able to propose with his Categorical Imperative.  I strongly agree with Schopenhauer’s position that rationality and morality are distinct (Young 195).  Julian Young describes Schopenhauer’s view of Kant’s position to mean that “failures to choose to perform morally required acts are always failures in rationality, that is, the choices of a fully rational agent are always consonant with the requirements of morality,” yet “all ages have recognised the concepts of rationality and morality to be entirely distinct and that they have been right: Machiavelli’s prince, for example” (195).  Since the two are distinct, we need a non-rational basis for morality.  Not only is compassion non-rational, it can actually serve to motivate action which is necessary for Schopenhauer.

Schopenhauer argues this his ethics is based on metaphysics, for him explanation of how compassion can serve as ethical foundation is impossible without the Will (Koßler 231).  For Schopenhauer a psychological explanation of compassion will always fail or come up short (Fox 377).  The ethical significance of the Will is that we are all one (Fox 378).  While we are individuals in the phenomenal aspect of existence, and thus often look out for our own self-interests, on a certain level we know that this individuation is an illusion (Fox 378).  Hence, when we feel the pain or suffering of another, we are feeling with our being a metaphysical truth, that that creature’s pain is our own.  When we hurt someone, or some animal, we are hurting ourselves.  The notion that we are immune from the pain of others is an illusion, and we can never achieve true morality unless we recognize this.   Importantly, this recognition does not need to be clear in our abstract reasoning.  Hence, many people can be moral and compassionate without having ever read Schopenhauer’s philosophy.  This is a strength of Schopenhauer’s philosophy over Kant’s, since Kant’s seems to require a very strong grasp of philosophy to put morality into effect.

Since Schopenhauer’s ethical philosophy relies on compassion as the understanding that we are all one metaphysically, it would be arbitrary to not apply Schopenhauer’s ethics to animals.  The first main reason for this is that while animals may not have reason, abstract reason and understanding of the noumenal/phenomenal distinction is not necessary.  Our more basic recognition of the pain of others as being in some sense our own pain need not be intellectual.  Many sentient non-human beings regularly display behavior that if found in a human would be described as compassionate.  We may dismiss many of their actions as the result of instinct, but this just means it is inherent in the creature.  Many human actions are instinctual.  For instance, the fact that children appear cute to us makes it more likely we will be caring and loving towards them.  If children had not evolved to appear cute to us, we might not be as compassionate towards them.   This does not mean we are not compassionate because our compassion can be explained in instinctual terms.  Second, since compassion for Schopenhauer is based on the fact that metaphysically we are all one, we must realize that this applies to all existence, not just humans.  Thus, when we harm a dog or a cat, or have a pig slaughtered, we are not just harming those poor creatures, we are in a very real sense harming ourselves.

Michael Allen Fox recognizes this application to animals and credits Schopenhauer for explicitly acknowledging this connection (369).  Fox goes on to criticize Schopenhauer for not being consistent in applying ethical protection to sentient animals.  Fox is critical of Schopenhauer claiming we can eat animals and use them as work-animals, because if we starved ourselves or conducted the labor that work-animals currently do, we would ourselves suffer more than the animals themselves (381).  Schopenhauer is not claiming that we have license to impose suffering on animals as we see fit, but that if the ultimate goal is to reduce suffering as much as possible, in cases where suffering is inevitable — either the animal is slaughtered or we starve to death — we should take the route which promises the least suffering.  Since animals are not as aware of what is going on, they will not suffer as acutely as human beings would.

In my mind, Schopenhauer offers a strong argument on why we can slaughter animals for food to prevent starvation.  Fox however criticizes Schopenhauer saying “many would argue against [this] — also on utilitarian grounds — that the optional (human) gustatory pleasure derived from eating meat does not outweigh the (animal) pleasure thereby denied…” (381).  In isolation, there is nothing wrong with Fox’s criticism.  The issue is that Fox is criticizing Schopenhauer in a manner entirely divorced from his historical context.  Meat and dairy was seen as an essential part of the diet in the Western Europe of Schopenhauer’s time, and Schopenhauer was taking into consideration also people who lived in more northern climates who had a larger dependence on meat.  I grant that Schopenhauer could have in theory lived as a vegan.  There are other cultures in the world that were vegan during Schopenhauer’s life.  However, there is no evidence that Schopenhauer had the nutritional knowledge of how to go about that diet.  There was clearly not the plethora of vegan information and food alternatives that there are today.  It was in this context that Schopenhauer implied we need meat to survive.  I have no doubt that if Schopenhauer was a contemporary of ours, he would not claim it is ethical to slaughter animals for food when we have practical alternatives.

Ultimately, I disagree with Schopenhauer that compassion cannot be explained psychologically.  If compassion is metaphysical in nature, resting on the notion of our unity, then having a brain — psychological processes — should not be necessary.  A rock should be able to feel compassion.  If someone thinks the example of a rock is unfair, I will point to solitary creatures.  The female black widow will never have compassion for her mate, nor for her children which she will eat if given the chance.  The same can be said of certain species of frogs and other more advanced animals who cannibalize each other.  These examples all involve subjects with brains and some level of intelligence, which are entirely devoid of compassion.  There is no way to explain how compassion is entirely lost in some creatures, but present in social creatures, if we do not locate compassion in the psychology of social creatures.  This does not mean I reject Schopenhauer’s philosophy which states we are one metaphysically.  I accept it, and I believe it beautifully illustrates why compassion is a good idea for us; it just does not explain why we have compassion to begin with.

Since compassion is just a psychological feeling — though one I quite admire and encourage — I am ultimately sympathetic to Nietzsche who dispenses with Schopenhauer’s morality, and moral truths altogether.   There is no doubt in my mind that the road to Nietzsche begins with Schopenhauer’s rejection of reason as a basis for morality.

Works Cited

Fox, Michael Allen. ““Boundless Compassion”: The Contemporary Relevance of Schopenhauer’s

Ethics.” The European Legacy 11.4 (2006): 369-87. Web. 08 Oct. 2016.

Koßler, Matthias. “Matthias Koßler, Life Is but a Mirror: On the Connection between Ethics,

Metaphysics and Character in Schopenhauer – PhilPapers.” (2008): 230-50. On the

Connection between Ethics, Metaphysics and Character in Schopenhauer – PhilPapers.

  1. Web. 08 Oct. 2016.

Schopenhauer, Arthur. The Basis of Morality. Trans. Arthur Brodrick Bullock. London:

Humanitarian League, 1915. Print.

Young, Julian. “Schopenhauer’s Critique of Kantian Ethics.” Kant-Studien 75.1-4 (1984): Web.

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Determinism Presentation

(originally presented several years ago)



Presented by:

Patrick Jimenez

Determinism: the position that events which happen, happen as necessary effects of causes. All instances of reality then have been caused, as opposed to being spontaneous in any absolute sense.

Causality: “The relation between cause and effect, or the act of bringing about an effect, which may be an event, a state, or an object (say, a statue). The concept of causation has long been recognized as one of fundamental philosophical importance. Hume called it ‘the cement of the universe’: causation is the relation that connects events and objects of this world in significant relationships. The concept of causation seems pervasively present in human discourse.”

-The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, Second Edition, Article on Causation by J.K.

Further, causation is intimately related to explanation: to ask for an explanation is, often, to ask for its cause.”

-The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, Second Edition, Article on Causation by J.K.

It is certainly not the least charm of a theory that it is refutable; it is precisely thereby that it attracts subtler minds. It seems that the hundred-times-refuted theory of a ‘free will’ owes its persistence to this charm alone; again and again someone comes along who feels he is strong enough to refute it.”

-Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, p. 24-25

                  • To the extent that an event is described as the effect of a cause, it must logically be seen as the necessary effect of a cause. In this sense, they are necessary effects of the cause.
                  • When we label something as cause of an effect, we are stating that this effect follows necessarily.
                  • Some incomplete sets of instances can potentially produce more than one result. For instance a dog barking can cause another dog to fight this dog. Alternatively it could lead the dog’s owner to give it a treat, or cause a baby to begin crying. A dog’s barking then in each of these instances would only be a part of that cause which leads to the different effects of either: a dog fight, being given a treat, a baby crying. When we speak of a cause then it has to be in its totality (state A caused state B as opposed to certain events in state A caused certain events in state B). For instance the cause which results in this specific instance of the baby crying would include not only the dog barking, but the fact that its parents produced the baby, the proximity of the dog and the baby, et cetera.
                  • Determinism does not state (though it also does not state the contrary) that all effects must in turn be causes. It simply states that all effects have necessarily been produced by their specific causes.

Free Will is contrary to Determinism in the context of this discussion. It refers to a belief that effects are not necessary results of their causes, or that there could be uncaused effects.

                  • Free Will is usually extended specifically to human actions. This arbitrary barrier is usually due to the feeling that humans make authentic choices which are not the result of determinism, and more importantly due to religious positions.
                  • If Free Will is negated then it is very hard to justify notions of good and evil as real concepts.
                  • To the extent the good and evil are maintained as existing, it is hard to justify why a just god would allow such evil


                  • Determinism does not assert that we do not make choices, have genuine positions, or desires. It simply states that such choices, genuine positions, and desires are determined, or caused. “The ‘unfree will’ is mythology; in real life it is only a matter of strong and weak wills.” (Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, p. 29)
                  • Concepts such as political freedom (democracy, et cetera) are not contrary to Determinism. Humans can have political positions, views, et cetera as discussed above.
                  • There is no just correlation between Determinism and tyranny, political oppression, or antisocial behaviors.

General Notes:

The philosopher Descartes in his conception of mind-body dualism asserted that the human mind and brain are separate. This is a notion which is utterly rejected by modern science, and which I feel is relevant to our discussion.

                  • Descartes sought to form a boundary between the natural world which he felt belonged to the study of science and the mind which he felt was under the proper sovereignty of the Church.
                  • Alienating the human mind from the natural world is a mistake as science attests. All science assumes Deterministic principles. If we could not rely on Deterministic principles, then the idea of replicating experiments or results would be nonsensical. Neuroscience very explicitly rejects Dualism, and with it the idea that the human mind is somehow apart from the natural world.

The view that every event or state of affairs is brought about by antecedent events or states of affairs in accordance with universal causal laws that govern the world. Thus, the state of the world at any instant determines a unique future, and that knowledge of all the position of things and the prevailing natural forces would permit an intelligence to predict the future state of the world with absolute precision.”

-The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, Second Edition, Article on Determinism by B.B.

Some determinists formulate the doctrine somewhat differently: (a) every event has a sufficient cause; (b) at any given time, given the past, only one future is possible; (c) given knowledge of all antecedent conditions and all laws of nature, an agent could predict at any given time the precise subsequent history of the universe. Thus, determinists deny the existence of chance, although they concede that our ignorance of the laws or all relevant antecedent conditions makes certain events unexpected and, therefore, apparently happen ‘by chance.’”

-The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, Second Edition, Article on Determinism by B.B.

Presently most arguments for Free Will are of a religious nature, and accept Deterministic principles outside of human actions.

                  • The primary basis of these arguments is: (1) God has granted Free Will to humans (2) humans have Free Will.
                  • This is an attempt to get around the Problem of Evil by placing responsibility for evil in the world with humans as opposed to with God.

Nonreligious Objections to Determinism: Inferences from Quantum Theory

                  • Those who attempt in modern times to assault Determinism from nonreligious grounds commonly draw inferences from Quantum Theory which they feel invalidates Determinism.
                  • In the micro-world, there are thought to be effects which do not become causes, or which terminate any causal change before reaching the threshold of the macro-world. However, Determinism does not state that Effects must become causes themselves. It only states that Effects cannot be uncaused.
                  • To the extent that people believe Quantum Theory presents uncaused Effects, Determinism is seriously undermined. However, I do not believe Quantum Theory does this. There may be causal relationships which we do not understand or which we cannot identify. Determinism insofar as it is a principle for interpreting the empirical world does not necessitate such knowledge.
                  • Those who still believe Quantum Theory undermines Determinism usually make this the basis for their defense of human Free Will, without questioning Deterministic or mechanistic principles outside of human actions. This is utterly inconsistent. If their claim regarding Quantum Theory is to be taken seriously, then no causal chains could be admitted as valid. To the extent that experiments or results could be replicated we would have to admit that we are witnessing nothing more than mere coincidence. Mathematics, and all science, including the science behind Quantum Theory would lose credibility.
                  • An answer to this criticism I have posed is the separation of the macro-world, and micro-world. The distinction between the macro-world and micro-world however is arbitrary. To the extent that it could be given as justified for the sake of argument, why wouldn’t the human mind be a part of the macro world?

Hume, Kant, Schopenhauer

In the discussion of great philosophers, I would like to plead humility. The following is my interpretation of Hume on Determinism and Kant and Schopenhauer on Free Will. I certainly am aware that many might disagree with me. I welcome this criticism. To the extent that I can be proven false in my interpretation, I will certainly make the necessary adjustments.

The Views of David Hume

                  • Hume is famous in philosophy for being a Skeptic. He was skeptical of many things, including claims that humans could have knowledge of the external world.
                  • Specifically, Hume doubted our ability to have any knowledge of causality outside of the imagination. However, Hume never argued for Free Will, and was a Determinist philosopher.
                  • I believe that the current debate on Free Will versus Determinism would sadden Hume. Maybe it would even sadden him as much as it saddens me.
                  • Hume’s position on causality was entirely epistemological in nature. He doubted how much humans had the capacity to know.
                  • His was an honest inquiry. He was not trying to justify the Abrahamic God, or anything of the like. Instead he doubted that we could have knowledge of causal relationships.
                  • The reason being that all we directly perceive (he was an Empiricist) are certain events. We never actually perceive cause and effect, only constant conjunctions.
                  • A rooster crows every morning right before the sun comes up for instance. Does this mean there is a causal connection between the rooster and the sun? Of course not. There is simply a constant conjunction.
                  • According to Hume all events are as far as we know only constant conjunctions. It is by our imagination that we impose a causal relationship.
                  • This does not mean that Hume felt causality was false. In fact he believed in causality. It simply means that Hume did not feel humans could ever prove causality.
                  • In any case, I must point out that the damage Hume did to causality (which Kant repaired) was damage done to determinism writ large. As opposed to Hume being seen as a defender of human Free Will (which he was NOT) Hume has been seen as someone who did violence to the foundations of science.
                  • The problem is that often times when we think of Determinism we are only thinking of it in relation to human actions. Determinism applies to the entire natural world however. Hume casting doubt on causality cast just as much doubt on mathematics, biology, physics, et cetera.
                  • Aside from religious arguments (which are bad arguments) there are no arguments which can even seek to illustrate a scenario where humans have free will yet the rest of the material world does not have free will. If all the natural world had free will, you would of course have unmitigated chaos. We do not have unmitigated chaos because the world acts in accordance with certain laws.
                  • Neither Hume nor Quantum Theory gives even the least comfort to the defender of human Free Will. Anyone who argues that they do must first admit Hume and Quantum Theory also destroyed the scientific method and logic (Quantum Theory is based in science, and Hume was based in logic/philosophy) which would destroy both of the arguments they are trying to use. However, if someone can get beyond that hurdle, I’ll perhaps listen.
                  • Hume also attacked those who argue for Free Will on a practical level. Many people say that we need Free Will for morality (which is true). Thus, if one wants a moral society… therefore Free Will (the bad grammar is intended here).
                  • Aside from the fact that Hume felt it was quite despicable to try to form conclusions based on what one wants to be true, Hume also pointed out that these absurdities can happen with or without Free Will. This is of course a pretty strong blow against morality.
                  • The reason he felt this was that if one had Free Will, that means one has the power to recreate himself. So there are no stable individuals. So to say imprison someone for murder that he committed yesterday would make no sense. Because today he is just as likely to be criminal as a girl scout. If you have Free Will, you cannot use past actions as a guide to present or future behavior. You can only do such within the context of Determinism.

The Views of Immanuel Kant and Arthur Schopenhauer:

                  • Implicitly our discussion of Determinism thus far has been in relation entirely to the World of Representation, or phenomena.
                  • As humans we can only ever be aware of the phenomenal representations. We can never know the thing-in-itself, or the noumena.
                  • We cannot know the noumena (this is a very short and incomplete explanation, so that we do not veer too far from the main topic) because our only knowledge is mediated by our forms of intuition, time and space, and our senses. Humans cannot experience anything outside of this, so we can never known an object outside of this filter.
                  • There might be a semblance between phenomena and noumena. However, humans can have no knowledge of this. If there is a semblance it is not one in which we are in a position to posit.
                  • Our only knowledge of the noumenal world can be negative.


                  • Kant was acutely aware that Determinism hinders morality.
                  • However, Determinism applies only to the world of phenomena. To the extent that it does apply to the noumenal world, we can have no knowledge of this. However, even though dogmatic assertions are clear violations of reason, we can still have faith, or reasonable assumptions.
                  • Though not in anyway provable, Kant asserted that it is not impossible that our morally good actions or morally bad actions do come from our noumenal nature. That is that they are reflections of ourselves solely as opposed to any causal chain. [Note: According to Kant, Descartes’ ‘I think, therefore I am’ though being true, refers only to our phenomenal selves. So we literally have no knowledge of our noumenal selves. All our conscious and subconscious faculties with which we use to make decisions are entirely phenomenal. Your inner voice is phenomenal, not noumenal.]
                  • However, though these actions might be free on the noumenal level, insofar as we can perceive them in the phenomenal world they must be in the context of causation.
                  • Essentially, Kant argued that our actions might be free actions on our part on the noumenal level, and in that sense moral actions, but that on the phenomenal level, they were necessarily translated into natural, or Deterministic actions.
                  • It is important to understand that this position was a matter of faith rather than fact for Kant. The furthest he would go in defending this position was to state it could not be proved false (even if there it was not at all possible to prove it in a positive sense), and that the man who sought a rational moral system, it was a necessary postulate.


Man can do what he wills, but he cannot will what he wills.”

-Arthur Schopenhauer

                  • Schopenhauer believed very strongly in the Principle of Sufficient Reason (which originated with Leibniz).
                  • The Principle of Sufficient Reason essentially states that in order for something to exist, it must have sufficient reason to exist.
                  • An example of this is that, if something exists, it cannot be impossible for this same thing to exist.
                  • The Principle of Sufficient Reason is not necessarily an explicit endorsement of Determinism, however, I would argue Determinism necessarily follows the Principle of Sufficient Reason.


Neuroscience, mentioned above, treats the human mind and brain as one. It seeks to explain human behavior from nonreligious sources. Hence the discipline views human behavior as Deterministic.

                  • If Determinism is not true, then the foundation for psychology, psychiatry, neuroscience, et cetera is destroyed.
                  • Neuroscience has been more successful than any nonscientific approach in explaining human behavior. This suggests the validity of Determinism.
                  • The mind is subject to natural and biological laws. It is an evolved entity which has adapted and changed over millions of years just like any other body part or mechanism.
                  • Determinism would have to be invalidated for Descartes Dualism to makes any sense. Beyond this, it is hard to understand why abnormalities in the brain would have an impact on the human organism it belongs to. If Descartes is correct, then why should brain damage impair human actions if human actions are uncaused and willed independently of the physical human organism?
                  • More generally, the identification and systematic description of causal relations that hold in the natural world have been claimed to be the preeminent aim of science.” (-The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, Second Edition, Article on Causation by J.K.) In other words, science cannot go where causation is not established. What aspects of our phenomenal world would we say is permanently outside the scope of the sciences?

Moral Implications

Evil: morally reprehensible: sinful, wicked. (Merriam Webster’s Dictionary)

What problems does Determinism pose to the idea that there are evil actions committed by humans?

                  • Free Will is necessary in the conception of evil. If an act is committed which could not be otherwise, we do not call it evil. For instance a rock falling on my house is unfortunate. Such an event will have very negative consequences for me, however I will not claim that the rock is evil, or morally responsible.
                  • If human actions are necessary then we lose the foundation with which we assign moral value to their actions. Good and Evil as moral terms lose their validity.

What problems does the existence of Evil pose to those who believe in a just God?

                  • Though I believe Determinism casts doubt on the idea of evil in an absolute sense, there are certainly actions which are commonly considered evil. Such actions includes needless murder, natural disasters, et cetera.
                  • If God is omnipotent and omniscient, then he can stop this evil, or misfortune. The Philosopher Epicurus posed the question this way: “Is [God] willing to prevent evil, but not able? The he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?”

Epicurus’s challenge to the theist is deadly if the theist is not able to assert human Free Will as the cause of evil. Of course even if humans did have Free Will, that would not mean that God could not still intervene. This however is outside of our present discussion.

Closing Remarks:

Determinism is an established scientific fact. The claims of science lose their foundation when we deny Determinism. Science has been used in various forms to cast doubt on Determinism, most notably with Quantum Theory. The inferences which must be drawn from Quantum Theory however to justify such an attack on Determinism are groundless, and would have larger implications than simply salvaging human Free Will in a secular context.

Most defenses of Free Will are religious in nature.

Schopenhauer was a Determinist philosopher. Though his primary influence, Kant did maintain a belief in a sort of human Free Will, he admitted it could not be proven in fact. In any case his concept of Free Will applied only to the noumenal. So far as his views of the phenomenal world, he was a determinist. There is nothing in Kant’s philosophy which establishes Free Will. His philosophy actually indicates the contrary.

If religion is a vestige of human thought, I ask those of a secular persuasion, by what justification then can we uphold a pillar of such religious sentiment by clinging to the concept of Free Will?

Does such a concept allow you to view science as credible, or to make sense of an uncaused world?

Is the assertion of evil simply an unfounded judgment which denies we as a society the opportunity of understanding the causes and reasons behind human behavior to the fullest extent? Or is it better to maintain a notion of moral evil which allows us to judge, and not understand, or in other words to pretend that there was not a cause?

I thank you for the opportunity to share my own views on this important matter, and look forward to your challenges. Thank you.

1 President Steven Morales of the Club of Secular Understanding deserves credit for this title.

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Who is being cheated?

We are not equally situated.  Why should that not be taken into account?  

Determining who is the best fit for a university based on their grades or test scores, when I have not taken into account the opportunities and hardships they have faced is absurd.

It would be like if I wanted to admit the fastest runner.  So I say “you all need to start running to my house.  The first person at my front door will be admitted, because that person must be the fastest.”

Now, if they are all equally situated, or in this scenario, starting from the same distance from my house (never mind other factors like hills and such) that makes perfect sense.  If some of them are a mile from my house, and others are twenty miles, and still other thirty miles away… the person who gets to my house first is not necessarily the fastest runner.  If the person from thirty miles away shows up just a few moments later, why should I think that the person from one mile away is the fastest?
Affirmative action recognizes we are not all equally situated.  It is not about making it easier for some people, but recognizing that it already is harder for some people, and that we should perhaps compensate for that a bit as a society.

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He Cannot Speak Spanish

“She knows he cannot speak Spanish.  She did this last year,” I remember my aunt telling my uncle.

I smiled and said “thank you” while paging through the book to imply excitement.  I was confused while doing this.  The whole reason I was pretending to be happy about the book was because my aunt was there, and she always insisted I be grateful for any and all gifts.  Yet, she was not happy about this gift.

Peggy is my aunt’s mother-in-law.  She has never been happy that her son married into a Mexican family.  She also resented that her daughter-in-law broughts nieces and nephews over to her family gatherings.  In this case, we were there for Christmas, and all of our presents were children’s books in Spanish.

My early childhood was spent moving between East Los Angeles and Ontario, California.  All of the neighborhoods were poor and made up of minorities.  My mom would use my aunt’s address to register me for school in the more affluent communities my aunt called home.  As a result, most of my classmates were white and middle class.

Some of my dearest friends as a young child would call me “lazy” “hector” “poor” and so on because I am Mexican.  This never bothered me, as I took it as kidding.  I would joke back.  I never took it that seriously.

Other kids at school would deny that I could be Mexican.  I do not know if this is because my skin is light, or if it is because they did not think I “behaved Mexican.”  It was always rather odd to me to try and prove myself.  If they do not believe I am Mexican, how am I supposed to prove it?  Even as a young child, I had a problem standing by claims I could not prove, so I would just become quiet when pressed.  Perhaps these children took it as an admission that I was just pretending to be Mexican.

In any case, it was the children who doubted my being Mexican who bothered me the most.  Until I moved in with my aunt.  It was an exciting time for me.  I went from an apartment where my best friend’s older brother was shot and killed at my front door, an apartment where I would watch cockroaches run across my mom’s sleeping face at nice, and where we used an old coffee table as a couch because we could not afford a coach, to a beautiful house with an air conditioner, washer, dryer, and many other amenities.  My friends were all impressed by my aunt’s house — the one which had been mine according to school registration forms for several years now — as it was big even by the middle class standards of my school.

After celebrating my birthday party there, kids talked about the house for several days.  It all made me happy and confident.  Until very solemnly one of my best friends who had really liked the house initially asked, “did your family just use welfare to buy that house?”  Now, my friends had joked much worse than this… however before it always sounded like a joke.  This was no joke.  My friend was bothered, and it bothered me.  Years later I would find out that this question came from his older brother who did not like Mexicans when he told him about how I suddenly moved to a new house.  Apparently, vast amounts of welfare money was the only plausible explanation for my not living in poverty anymore.

The aunt who I moved in with was not the only one who had married a white man.  My other aunt married a man of German descent and had children with him.  My cousin from this marriage was one of my primary playmates growing up.  For the most part we would get along, but of course we also fought sometimes.  One time we were arguing in the swimming pool of the house I had moved into about what game to play.  She insisted that she was in charge.  First it was because she was older.  When I refused to do what she said because she was older, she then changed tack and said that Mexicans could not be in charge.  I immediately responded that we were both Mexican.  She said that she is only half-Mexican and hence  better than me,

Today, I do not consider myself Mexican.  It is not a culture I identify with.  This might largely be due to the fact that I do not identify with my biological family at all.  If I am not rooted in my family, why would I pay much attention to its culture?  Giving up my Mexican identity was a slow process.  Several times over the years I have thought to myself, “those kids who used to deny I am Mexican actually were right.”  Yet, I still feel that sense of isolation and anger when I remember the times I have been discriminated against for being Mexican or not Mexican enough.

While I was still struggling with how to identify, my friends Gabriel and Miguel were talking about how white people do not understand Mexicans.  My facial expression prompted Miguel to say, “Patrick, I will accept you as a Mexican when you learn to speak Spanish.”

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