Prison Inmates Meet Socrates
Written by Lawrence T: Jablecki who is the director of the Brazoria County Community Supervision and Corrections Department in Angleton Texas, and has a Ph.D. in political philosophy from Manchester University in Manchester, England. Printed in the May/June 2000 Issue of The Humanist.
Since 1986, as an adjunct professor on the faculty of a college and a university in the state of Texas, I have had direct contact with hundreds of prison inmates enrolled in academic programs for the purpose of completing the associate’s, bachelor’s, and master’s degrees. I am persuaded that this experience permits the following assertions: the overwhelming majority of prison inmates in this country, both state and federal, are not incorrigibly mean or evil, and a correct understanding of the “public interest” dictates that they should be given the opportunity to participate in state and federally funded higher-education programs designed to change their thinking and conduct.
If any reader is tempted to brand me with the pejorative label of a liberal weenie who doesn’t believe in the hard coinage of punishment, the following brief comments should suffice to assuage that suspicion. Criminal offenders are in conflict with the norms of society; they are not suffering from psychological disorders that both explain and excuse their conduct. They have consciously and deliberately chosen to commit a crime or, in numerous cases, they consciously and deliberately set themselves up for committing a crime by altering their normal mental and physical capacities. They were free to do otherwise and should be held responsible. Violent predators and many career criminals deserve to be incarcerated for many years, and some should be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. I have no philosophical objection to capital punishment, but I am opposed to it because innocent persons are convicted and executed.
Now that I have exposed most of the philosophical guts of my position on crime and punishment, the specific purpose of this essay is to elucidate the reasons why I believe that an introduction to the gadfly of Athens is a highly potent crime-prevention initiative that should be made available to a multitude of prisoners.
I graduated from high school in 1958 and the thought of pursuing higher education was almost totally foreign to my mind. Primarily to maintain my association with buddies in my graduating class, I enrolled in a local junior college and unceremoniously flunked out after less than a full semester due to a total lack of interest. I went to work full time and made some very foolish choices that brought me dangerously close to becoming a felonious hoodlum. When not working, I was in the neighborhood bowling alley, where I achieved some local notoriety as the kid with a 200-plus average. In the fall of 1959, motivated mainly by the desire for an adventure away from parental oversight, I enrolled in the four-year college in Oklahoma where my mother had been a student.
Although I was not failing any of my classes during my first semester, I refused to allow any serious reflection and study to engage my mind or interfere with fun, so by January 1960 I was determined to drop out and pursue the career of a professional bowler. The passage of very close to forty years has not significantly dimmed the memory of an event during the same month that marks the beginning of a radical transformation in my thinking and conduct.
Walking to class one afternoon I encountered one of the recognized campus intellectuals. In response to my greeting of “Hello, what do you know?” he made an abrupt stop in front of me and said, “Mr. Jablecki, I do not know anything. I am simply attempting to understand.” He then marched past me. Not having a clue as to the meaning of his curt remark, I articulated a response in very unscholarly language. Several days later I asked a senior who was majoring in something called philosophy to explain to me the distinction between knowing and understanding. After his learned discourse, most of which I failed to comprehend, he urged me to remain in school and suggested that in the spring semester I sign up for “Introduction to Philosophy.”
Inspired by his apparent wisdom I remained in college and enrolled in “Introduction to Philosophy.” In that class the instructor explained the perennial problems of philosophy: I was able to grasp the difference between knowledge and understanding, and I was introduced to the life and teachings of Socrates. During the semester my ambitions, my thinking, and even my behavior changed. I sold my prized black-beauty bowling ball and purchased some philosophical works, which are still in my library. In a very brief period of time a Socratic “conversion” changed the entire course of my life. To the teacher, Dr. Mel-Thomas Rothwell (deceased), I owe an immeasurable debt of gratitude for his patient mentoring until my graduation in 1964.
The relevance of this autobiographical snapshot is that it evidences the view that it is impossible to exaggerate the power of ideas and concepts–for example, justice, truth, goodness, virtue, and beauty–to grab a human mind and redirect a person’s life in the manner advocated by Socrates. And, at the risk of making a generalization to which I acknowledge numerous exceptions, a Socratic conversion usually requires the inspired communication of a teacher or mentor who has experienced the transformative power of ideas and concepts.
In the 1986-1987 academic year I was given my first opportunity to introduce Socrates to prison inmates under the auspices of what was at the time Brazosport Junior College in Lake Jackson, Texas. This institution, now known as Brazosport College, continues to provide a two-year course of instruction leading to an associate of arts degree. I taught two courses of “Introduction to Philosophy” to approximately thirty male inmates at the Clemens Unit of the Texas Department of Corrections. I possess no knowledge of the success or failure of any of these men, but I do have some vivid recollections of some of the classes, including our lively discussions of Socrates.
The first session of the first class has left a permanent mark in my bank of memories. Standing in front of a group of men convicted of a range of serious felonies and incarcerated for a substantial number of years can be terrifying, to say the least. I told them that I had agreed to teach this class because of my firm commitment to the views of the German philosopher Immanuel Kant concerning “respect” for all persons as moral agents capable of choices and my equally firm belief that they can change the direction of the remainder of their lives if they choose to do so. This is essentially how I introduce myself to all new classes of prison inmates. And if they perceive that I really mean what I say, the path is clear for some existentially meaningful discussions and insights.
Perhaps the most important fact I can report about these men–inclusive of the inmates I have taught to date–is that, except for a mere few, they do not blame society or others for their criminal behavior. This acceptance of guilt and responsibility is probably at odds with the belief of most people about the supposed rationalizations of criminals. Not unexpectedly, many of the inmates vented their resentment about how they believe they were unfairly treated at one or more steps in our system of criminal justice, and any seasoned practitioner in the system is obliged to acknowledge the truth of some of their claims. The pertinent and critical point, however, is their acceptance of the facts that they made real choices to commit crimes and that society has a right to protect itself by incarcerating malefactors.
These intuitive or pre-philosophical beliefs are fertile ground for introducing the free-will-versus-determinism debate and the arguments employed to justify the institution of punishment. And these issues lead straight to what is usually a hotly contested debate of the Socratic view that persons do not voluntarily or knowingly commit evil or unlawful acts because knowledge and wisdom are the most powerful elements in human life.
When the above issues are examined in philosophy classes in what the inmates refer to as the “free world,” they do not convey the same sense of urgency and importance as they do for students confined behind steel bars. One version of determinism is that all so-called free choices are illusory because no human actions or decisions are exempt from an unbroken chain of “causes.” Realizing that, if true, this theory could exonerate him from blame and punishment, a convicted murderer eagerly stated, “I would like to think that it was determinism” rather than a choice, and the room was filled with soft laughter. Another student, convicted of aggravated robbery, attempted to articulate the centuries-old view that all persons are born with an innate knowledge of right and wrong–that is, a moral compass called the conscience. Confessing much confusion about how it works, he said, “Now, I done something and I know it was wrong.” Following a Socratic unpacking of the words cause and compel, the unanimous decision was that none of them were compelled or forced to commit their crime and they were free to do otherwise.
It should come as no surprise that a discussion of the purpose and justification of punishment with prison inmates, many of whom have been incarcerated for a major portion of their lives, reaches a high level of emotional intensity. No student, in either class, claimed or even implied that he did not deserve to be punished. A chorus of voices, however, condemned the enormous disparity in sentences characteristic of an indeterminate sentencing system and the wide range in which judicial discretion is free to roam.
With no hesitation, one of the men expressed the belief that if he stole a car and Dr. Jablecki stole a car the latter would undoubtedly be gently treated with probation and the former would be sentenced to prison. This, he exclaimed, is not justice or equality, as both committed the same crime and deserved the same punishment. Heads nodded in agreement and several voiced the caustic remark that the lovely lady of justice wearing the blindfold of impartiality and equality is never blind to the influences of money and status in the community. Anyone, therefore, who plays the role of a Socratic midwife in a similar situation needs to be prepared to maneuver through an emotional minefield in which they will be made aware of all the ugly warts and blemishes in our system of criminal justice.
Now, as implied earlier, I can still almost hear the initial outbursts of disbelief expressed in response to Socrates’ belief that no person voluntarily or knowingly commits an evil or wrong act. Socrates, according to the first consensus, had been drinking too much wine or he was an insane old man. The inmates said they knew exactly what they were doing when they committed a murder, robbed a store at gunpoint, sexually assaulted a woman, or cut a drug deal. Assuming the role of Socrates, I called them a collection of ignorant fools incapable of recognizing their best and permanent interests as human beings.
Needless to say, this enlivened the tone of the discussion and set the stage to unpack the meaning of a cluster of relevant words: knowledge, wisdom, ignorance, self-interest mistake, voluntary, involuntary, happiness, and virtue. After several hours of defining and analyzing them, the new consensus was a defense of Socrates’ sobriety and the belief that he was a very smart old man. Although I don’t have current information on any of the inmates, I believe that most of them made some progress in the ascent from the cave of ignorance and have not forgotten their meeting with Socrates.
In 1988 a fortuitous meeting with George Trabing, the director of the prison program for the University of Houston at Clear Lake, resulted in an invitation for me to join the adjunct faculty of the university. My assignment was to teach a variety of undergraduate and graduate courses in philosophy to prison inmates housed in the Ramsey I prison unit in Rosharon, Texas. During the past ten years, missing only one or two semesters, I have taught a number of classes–including “Metaphysics,” “Epistemology,” “Philosophy and the Law,” “Philosophy and Religion,” “Political Philosophy,” “Ethics,” and “Human Rights and the Justification of Punishment”-in which I inject the life and teachings of Socrates.
The university’s bachelor’s program was established in 1974; the master’s program began in 1988. Four degrees are currently offered to inmates: a B.A. in behavioral sciences, a B.A. in the humanities, an M.A. in literature, and an M.A. in the humanities. As Trabing, Jerry Fryre, and Craig White describe in their 1995 report Five Year Review: Texas Department of Criminal Justice Outreach Component Human Sciences and Humanities, the degree in behavioral science contributes to the development of the
undergraduate student’s skills in analytical thinking, written communication, and research; to provide understanding of the customs, languages, values and behaviors of culturally diverse populations, and to educate students to participate as informed, critical citizens of society…. The primary mission of the undergraduate and graduate plans in Humanities and literature is to promote cultural literacy and interdisciplinary skills through the study of the liberal arts. The most important dimension of the mission of all of these educational programs, however, is to promote positive changes in the thinking and conduct of inmates and to reduce the recidivism rate of those who are released on parole. The profound relevance of Socrates’ teaching that the “unexamined life is not worth living” and his identification of knowledge and virtue are captured in the five-year review’s comments regarding the men who earned their degree in the humanities: These students find that courses in history, literature, and philosophy profoundly deepen their sensitivities and expand their horizons. TDCJ students may come from pockets of economic and intellectual poverty from which they have never escaped–they have literally no knowledge of other ways of living. Humanities courses open new realities to them, wholly changing their perspectives about who they are and what the world is about…. Such courses are truly revelations, showing ways of living and thinking that they have not encountered before. Now, as every practitioner in the field of criminal justice should know, the verification of an indisputable causal connection between offenders’ completion of any crime-prevention strategy and their subsequent conduct is a tricky enterprise. At the outset, the creators of these academic programs for prison inmates were cognizant of the paramount importance of documenting a bank of data from which they could quantify the apparent successes and failures. The university’s most current report was released in January 1995 as a twenty-year history of the program. The report found that more than 200 inmates earned a bachelor’s degree, while forty-five earned a master’s degree. From 1990 to 1995, of the thirty-nine inmates who earned a bachelor’s degree, seventeen were released on parole and two were returned to prison–a recidivism rate of II percent. During the same period, of the forty-five who earned a master’s degree, nineteen were released on parole and one was returned to prison–a recidivism rate of 5 percent.
To argue that their academic accomplishment is the only factor capable of explaining their successful reintegration into society would be a mistake. The only near definitive answer to this issue is to track a control group of parolees in the same age range and duration of incarceration who have not completed a similar academic program. Although the U.S. Department of Justice did not fund a recent grant proposal from the university to conduct such research, studies conducted in Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, and other states have all reported significantly low recidivism rates for inmates in correctional higher-education programs, ranging from 1 percent to 15.5 percent. In addition, my contact with the students in the Texas program–some of whom are now on parole confirms a determination to change and make contributions to society totally unmatched by the majority of inmates who spend their idle time playing dominos, watching television, and reflecting on their perceptions that they are the oppressed victims of society.
Fortunately, I experienced my Socratic “conversion” when I was twenty years old and would not entertain benevolent thoughts toward any person casting doubts on the reality and meaning of that experience. Similarly, five of the former inmates who achieved academic success deserve to be heard. Their comments include:
- “My new degrees, new self-image, and newfound confidence in society led me to try something I’d never tried before: a straight lifestyle…. Without the formal education which was available through the college program I would still be trying to perfect my technique for a life of crime. Instead, I am giving something back.”
- “I cannot begin to tell you how much my life has changed as a result of the ‘awakening’ I received from each … of my instructors. The accomplishments I have made since my release would not have been possible without an education.”
- “Because of my educational pursuits started while incarcerated, I find myself with a master’s degree, an L.C.D.C. (licensed chemical dependency counselor), and a position as the manager of client services with a large nonprofit organization. I am forever thankful…for the opportunity to change my life.”
- “For me, the college experience…has changed my life. It has allowed me to believe in myself. It has forced me to reevaluate my life without the self-pity or excuse making.”
- “I firmly believe that education is the key to staying out of prison…. My parents are proud of me; I am respected and consulted by my colleagues; I pay taxes. … I hope that I do make a difference in other peoples’ lives as a result of my experiences and achievements.”
The latter reference to the payment of taxes by a former inmate exposes the shortsighted and factually incorrect arguments of the politicians in Washington, D.C., who have seen to it that prison inmates are ineligible for federal Pell Grant tuition assistance for higher education. In his July 10, 1995, New Yorker article “Teaching Prisoners a Lesson,” James S. Kunen draws attention to the critical factual misrepresentations involved in the demise of inmates’ eligibility for Pell Grants: When Bart Gordon, a Democratic representative from Tennessee, sponsored the 1994 crime-bill amendment that barred prisoners from receiving Pell Grants, his aim was to trim the fat in federal education spending. He was under the impression that prisoners were using up something like seventy million dollars a year in Pell Grants that could have gone to more deserving students–those on the outside. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, a Republican who led the fight in the Senate against Pell Grants for prisoners, argued that inmates siphoned off two hundred million dollars and displaced a hundred thousand law-abiding students. In fact, all applicants who meet the grants’ need-based eligibility requirements receive Pell Grants, regardless of how many qualifying recipients there are. As a General Accounting Office report explains, “If incarcerated students received no Pell Grants, no student currently denied a Pell award would have received one and no award amount would have been increased.” And the amount of money saved by cutting off grants to prisoners is tiny: according to the General Accounting Office, of approximately four million Pell Grant recipients in the 1993-94 academic year, twenty-three thousand were in prison, and they received thirty-five million dollars of the six billion dollars awarded, or about six cents of every ten program dollars. It would probably be incorrect to suggest that Hutchison and the other members of Congress who helped her destroy hope for thousands of inmates in this country are in the philosophical camp of the ancient Cynics, who were contemptuous of bodily pleasures, sneering fault-finders, and incredulous of human goodness and the capacity to change from vice to virtue. I am persuaded, however, that the policy these politicians approved places them in the category of unmerciful retributivists who sincerely believe in the moral imperative of severe punishment for all criminal offenders–that is, they have no mercy for the wicked. They are not hypocrites, because they really believe that the construction of new prisons is not a necessary evil but a necessary good. Some of the extremists in this camp probably believe that it would be good policy to literally brand the scarlet letter C (for convict) on the forehead of every prison inmate.
Contrary to the philosophy of unmerciful retributivism, Pell Grants for inmates had the long-range potential of saving billions of tax dollars that will now be spent on the construction and maintenance of prisons and the annual costs of warehousing multitudes of federal and state inmates in what can best be described as toxic waste dumps inhabited by persons with little or no hope for a future that can make life worth living. And equally, if not more important, the advocates of unmerciful retributivism have crafted a policy that unintentionally results in a multitude of new victims of crime perpetrated by parolees who have changed from bad to worse.
Recognizing the existence of an unknown number of contingencies–all of which can influence the success or failure of a parolee armed with a university degree the university’s statistics stand in sharp contrast to the fact that, in Texas, between 45 percent and 50 percent of parolees are reincarcerated within three years of the date of their release. Most of them are convicted of new felony offenses, many of which involve victims who suffer (among numerous things) the loss of property, physical injuries, and death. Although it is an expansion of the normal usage of the word, this is an obscenity that in addition to all of the accompanying human suffering is costing taxpayers many millions of dollars every year. In Texas, the annual cost for one prison inmate is close to $20,000–very close to the amount my wife and I pay for our son to attend the prestigious Rice University in Houston–and this cost does not include the maintenance of existing prisons and the construction of new ones.
After ten years of almost weekly contact with students in the University of Houston prison program, it has become abundantly clear that if I did not believe in the inmates’ capacity to change their totally selfish habits of thought and conduct I would not waste my time on an academic exercise destined to fail. Inmates do not have a “right” to a free university education, nor do they “deserve” it. However, there is an urgent and compelling public interest at stake, justifying the use of tax dollars to create and sustain academic programs for them. Once they grasp the Socratic definition of knowledge and its vast distance from opinions and beliefs, most of my current students articulate the hindsight observation that, had they met Socrates at the age of twenty or earlier, it is not unrealistic to suggest they might not be meeting him now clothed in prison garb. While not willing to fully embrace the contention that during their life of crime they were totally ignorant and really did not “know” what they were doing, most of my students “see,” for the first time, the profound truth of Socrates’ doctrine that the possession of knowledge and wisdom can lead to a radical and positive change in both thinking and behavior.
Despite the occasional bitterness aimed at the alleged disparities in the system of criminal justice, during these discussions many of the inmates feel at ease to lay bare their souls and express genuine remorse about the impact of their conduct on parents, spouses, children, and victims. It would be foolhardy to claim or even imply that an encounter with Socrates is a necessary prerequisite to bring the majority of them to a profound existential consciousness of the negative consequences of their crimes. In fact, many of them have previously read several books of Plato’s Republic, and some have read his Apology and Crito. But none of them have participated in a methodical unpacking of the content, the profound truth, and the errors in Socratic doctrine and instead have had their emotions shaped by traumatic events in their lives–the death of one or both parents, a divorce decree from a former spouse, children who commit crimes, and a denial of parole. The important claim can be made, however, that the Socratic method of philosophical reflection provides a coherent conceptual framework in which many of these men, for the first time, are “awakened” to a totally new perspective on life.
Prior to my career in criminal justice, when I discovered Great Visions of Philosophy by W. P. Montague, a notation of “good” was made by the following passage:
There is a great deal of wrong conduct by individuals and by groups that owes its wrongness to want of wisdom rather than to want of will…. We all know that boys brought up in a slum district may get the notion that gang loyalty is really better than loyalty to society; the stealing, kidnapping, and even murder are justifiable and thrilling adventures; and that pity for the weak is stupid or unmanly. In these groups the only vices recognized as such will be the vices of cowardice and of treachery or “squealing” on one’s “pals.” To be a “tough guy” and perhaps the leader of a gang is an activating and in a sense a genuinely moral ideal of many a high-spirited lad, whose courage and energy if directed into other channels might make him not merely a useful citizen but even a hero. It is obvious enough that here the kind of moral reform that is called for is educational in the broadest sense, involving destruction of hideous economic conditions and of the cultural squalor and ignorance that go with them. Not all criminals indeed but probably the majority could be reformed or cured by being given a Socratic wisdom or knowledge of the things in life that are really worthwhile and an environment that would make it possible to achieve them. Moreover the whole philosophy of punishment would be revolutionized. Prevention rather than cure would be emphasized, and when preventive measures had failed the necessary restraint of the criminal would be accompanied by education rather than by social revenge.
My Socratic conversion justified the use of the word good in response to the above claims. Today, however, I can confidently proclaim the truth of Montague’s call for a Socratic revolution in the philosophy of punishment.
According to the most recent estimates released by the U.S. Department of Justice, at the close of 1998 there were 1,232,900 federal and state prison inmates. To advocate the belief that the majority of them could be reformed by a strong dose of Socrates appears to be an incredulous form of idealism completely out of touch with reality. Given the facts that the opinion of the public is that prison inmates should be “better” people when released on parole and that high-school equivalency classes and vocational training programs provided to the majority of them are not designed to foster moral reform, the suggestion that a multitude of inmates should be introduced to Socrates is not a fantasy of an unearthly idealism.
More specifically, I am absolutely convinced that the recidivism rate of former prison inmates can be reduced significantly if, while incarcerated, they are skillfully guided through a systematic discussion of the life and teachings of Socrates as presented by Plate in the Apology, Crito, Phaedo, Protagaras, and the analysis of the concept of justice in the Republic. This is the largely uncultivated and fertile soil in which federal and state authorities should plant the seeds of carefully designed and well-funded programs capable of tracking the lives of the participants (male and female) and those in control groups for three to five years in order to establish some incontrovertible data regarding the power of education to change the thinking and conduct of former criminal offenders.
So I tell all of my students that the only way to silence the voices of the cynics committed to the view that providing a university or college education to prison inmates is flushing clean dollars down a dirty toilet is to remain crime-free following release on parole. I tell them that the continuation of the program is contingent upon years of cumulative success stories and that their moral obligation to succeed is grounded in the lives of the students who remain behind bars. They are encouraged to contact me after their release, as I may be able to assist them in their search for employment. However, if they call me for help after committing another felony offense, I will volunteer to testify against them. As I said on May 13, 1998, in the conclusion of the commencement address I gave to a group of inmates who had earned either an associate’s degree from Alvin Community College in Alvin, Texas, or a bachelor’s or master’s degree from the University of Houston at Clear Lake:
The profound sense in which Socrates was correct is precisely why we are here this evening. Collectively, your teachers have guided you on the ascent from the cave of ignorance as articulated by Plate in his Republic. You have been led out of the abyss of intellectual and moral darkness and our hope is that you have experienced a genuine Socratic “conversion”–that is, that you have accepted total responsibility for the rottenness of your past conduct and are morally prepared to fulfill your obligations as a member of the human community…. However I am obliged to tell you that, if you have not or do not experience a Socratic conversion prior to your release, you will be nothing more than a hypocritical, educated crook. Socrates does not hold all the answers. For example, I readily admit to my students that, although he was committed to the view that humankind is essentially good, Socrates failed to recognize what philosopher David Hume called the incurable weakness in human nature. In his essay Of the Origin of Government, Hume comments on the nature of humanity and why it was necessary to invent a system of rules to protect lives and property: It is impossible to keep men faithfully and unerringly in the paths of justice. Some extraordinary circumstances may happen, in which a man finds his interests to be more promoted by fraud or rapine than hurt by the breach which his injustice makes in the social union. But much more frequently he is seduced from this great and important but distant interest by the allurement of present, though often very frivolous, temptations. This great weakness is incurable in human nature.
Men must, therefore, endeavor to palliate what they cannot cure. They must institute some persons under the appellation of magistrates, whose peculiar office it is to point out the decrees of equity, to punish transgressors, to correct fraud and violence, and to oblige men, however reluctant, to consult their own real and permanent interests. In a word, obedience is a new duty which must be invented to support that of justice, and the ties of equity must be corroborated by those of allegiance.
Hume’s view of humanity is consistent with Montague’s claim that whether we call it “sin” or “selfishness,” wrong conduct is due “not to lack of wisdom, but to lack of will…. Insight into the nature of the good … may be termed a ‘necessary,’ but not a ‘sufficient,’ cause of virtue. Wisdom by itself is not enough and great Socrates was wrong in thinking that it was.” Also, almost invariably during our discussions one or more students realize that Socrates’ doctrines of humankind and knowledge and virtue are diametrically opposed to the orthodox Christian belief that humans are sinners whose salvation from evil inclinations requires a supernatural infusion of divine grace. The majority of my students, in widely diverse environments, were nurtured in the tradition of Christian theism, and, not surprisingly, a significant number of them are unwilling to concede that Socratic doctrines inflict any serious damage on their religious commitments.
As was the case when I was introduced to Socrates, he can shake unexamined beliefs and faiths. However, unlike any of their other academic classes, it is important that most of my courses contain opportunities for prison inmates to reflect on the most important and enduring questions of human existence. And I can confidently claim that many of them are surprised by the joy of facing the unfathomed depth of Socrates’ message to live an examined life.
Freedom Of and From Religion in Utah
Brian Barnard, JD spoke about religious freedom and the freedom from religion in the state of Utah. Mr. Barnard has litigated many suits in Utah dealing with separation of church and state issues. Two of the main premises of his presentation are that separation of church and state is not a goal in and of itself. Rather, the separation is necessary to protect another more important right to assure religious protection found in the First Amendment. People must be free to protect their own religions (or lack thereof) without government interference. When government supports one religion to the exclusion of others, or when government supports religion to the exclusion of non-religion, the peoples’ right to free exercise of their beliefs is in jeopardy.
Second, people and officials often falsely claim that they are generally in favor of government involvement in religion and in support of religious ideals. In fact, they only support their own religious principles.
To illustrate the first situation Mr. Barnard recalled past litigation with the city of St. George concerning the lighting of the LDS temple. The city provided free electricity to the facility claiming that it was a tourist attraction that benefited the whole city. The case never came to a conclusion in the court system because the LDS church decided that the publicity being generated was undesirable and had the power company install a meter and begin charging for the used current.
The second was illustrated by recalling court proceedings involving Ogden City and a stone monolith in front of the Municipal Building with the biblical “Ten Commandments” inscribed. Mr. Barnard represented a religious organization known as the Summum who have “Seven Aphorisms” as a statement of their core beliefs. They were not allowed to place a stone monument with these principles inscribed in the same park. While denied in court, other municipalities have been reticent to post Moses’ injunctions. A second example of this point was a case involving prayer at the beginning of the Murray City Council meetings. While they claimed to be open to all prayers, they refused to allow a prayer that included, “Our Mother in Heaven, please give these government leaders enough wisdom to see the need for separation of church and state so that they will stop having prayers before government meetings.”
Unfortunately for us (but perhaps fortunately for Mr. Barnard and his family) there is plenty of unfinished business in Utah and the rest of the country in making sure that the religious freedom portion of the First Amendment is enforced.
The Elegant Universe
One of Albert Einstein’s greatest hopes was to find a unified theory to explain the ultimate constituent particles or forces of the universe. Ironically much of his work in describing gravity was at odds with what was known about electromagnetism. When I studied physics as part of my university protocol the lessons were divided into two separate and mutually exclusive sections. For the grandiose, macro-universe one used Einstein’s theories. For the micro world of the atom the whole new set of formulae of quantum mechanics had to be learned.
Since my days in a formal education setting many new particles beyond electrons, protons, and neutrons have been predicted and discovered. Now there are muons, neutrinos, quarks (with interesting names like up, down, charm, strange, top, and bottom), etc.
Brian Greene, in his book The Elegant Universe, Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory, (Vintage Books, 1999) argues that physicists may be close to TOE-The Theory of Everything.
Most of this book was written for the lay person with an interest in science but without needing a strong mathematical background. There are a few chapters devoted to those better equipped for the math, but they are marked and can be skipped without losing out on the important concepts in the book.
Superstring theory not only resolves the differences between relativity and quantum mechanics, it requires both lines of thinking. It is also the first concept to fully explain gravity.
If you are like me and are interested in a refresher on physical theory I think that you will find this book fascinating.
AHA Conference Report
The Executive Director of AHA, Tony Hileman, told the board of directors one of his primary projects for the coming year is to improve the association’s relations with local chapters and individual members. Hileman said the transfer of membership records and chapter records from the Amherst, NY office to the new Washington DC office will soon be completed. A program to make members and chapters more aware of the value of belonging to the American Humanist Association will be evident in the near future. The success of this project is vital to fulfilling the new AHA Mission Statement approved by the board and members attending the June conference in Hasbrouck Heights, New Jersey. The adopted mission statement defines AHA as a democratic voice for humanism whose aim is to increase public awareness and understanding of humanism and to serve the needs of its members in their pursuit of living meaningful lives.
As Hileman begins his second year as Executive Director his predecessor, Fred Edwords, will devote his time and energy as Executive Editor to revising and modernizing The Humanist magazine with the goal of making it more relevant to humanism.
The board also adopted a resolution calling for the United States of America to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child; a resolution opposing Capital Punishment; a resolution Opposing the Use of Corporal Punishment and a resolution calling upon the U.S. Congress and all political leaders to make protecting children from gun violence a top priority.
The following is the mission statement adopted by the board of directors:
The MISSION of the American Humanist Association is to be a clear, democratic voice for humanism in the United States, to increase public awareness and acceptance of humanism, to establish, protect and promote the position of humanists in our society, and to develop and advance humanist thought and action. Guided by reason and our rapidly growing knowledge of the world, by ethics and by compassion, the American Humanist Association is dedicated to serving the needs of its members in their pursuit of fuller, more meaningful lives that add to the greater good of our society and all humanity.
President, Humanists of Utah
Member AHA Board of Directors
Are Human Rights Inherent in Our Nature?
Richard Layton’s Discussion Group Report
“Human Rights are not legal fictions conferred by governments but are inherent features of our nature as human beings,” argues Robert Grant in his article, “The Social Contract and Human Rights,” in the January-February issue of The Humanist.
He says all societies have rules or laws and require their members to obey them for the peace and good order of that society. He cites John Rawls’ assumption in his book, A Theory of Justice, that a society is defined by its rules. There are two sources for the duty to obey such laws: authority and mutual consent. In Europe the authoritarian doctrine of the divine right of kings until the eighteenth century asserted that kingly authority was derived from the higher authority of God and therefore could not be called into question by either parliament or people. In many other cultures rulers were seen as gods themselves or as direct descendents of gods. Obedience to such figures of authority or to their duly ordained subordinates was seen as a basic duty. But mere obedience is not an ethical act. When it is enforced through conquest or slavery, or is simply the result of blind and unthinking compliance with the law, there is no free, intelligent, and conscious choice involved; there is no consent. “To yield to the strong is an act of prudence, not of respect for the law, asserts Grant. “Only when submission to the authority of a society is learned and accepted as a thoughtful, deliberate choice does acceptance of this duty become an ethical act.”
John Locke’s concept of the mutual consent of the governed as the basis of the social contract, enunciated in 1690, moved Western civilization from authority to agreement as the basis of civic duty to obey society’s rules. It was one of the greatest paradigm shifts in human history.
In our time John Rawls has transformed the conception of the social contract into a parable. In his scenario we imagine a gathering of human beings who have been stripped of their accidental characteristics: sex, age, race, nationality or tribe, social status. wealth or poverty, good health or disability. They are left with only the essential characteristics of their human nature. These humans can make free choices about what is in their own self-interest-and they understand that their enlightened self-interest values long-term goals over short-term satisfactions. They are social animals that know how to cooperate with each other. Each of these human beings becomes what the law refers to as “the reasonable person,” a hypothetical or abstract person who will act reasonably under any circumstance. These people come together and make rules for the commonwealth behind the “veil of ignorance”-that is without knowledge of who or what they will become when they return to society. Being completely equal in bargaining power and absolutely impartial, they will make rules that are both reasonable and just-that is, that burden and benefit each person equally. This becomes the ideal social contract.
In real life no such ideal gathering of people has ever taken place and no such ideal social contract has been drafted. We must then turn to the concept of an assumed consent, which takes it as granted or true that every reasonable person in a state of perfect equality and impartiality, if asked, would give such consent to the contract. Therefore, every member of a society is automatically bound by the social contract. Only when people explicitly acknowledge and accept the duties imposed by the social contract, with knowledge and forethought, do they perform an ethical act. Such explicit consent internalizes a person’s obligation to obey the law.
Basic duties are natural duties, since they arise from our nature as human beings. However, these natural duties are not perfected until we form ourselves into social groups, since duties are relationships. For example, the duty not to kill each other becomes a duty only with the formation of a social contract. In a disarmament negotiation, no party to the proposed compact would surrender weapons unless and until all others in the group had laid their arms on the table. So the consent must be unanimous and the duty imposed universal. Using the reasonable person test, the same analysis can be made of every basic duty. These will be very few.
“The social compact,” says Grant, “is the fundamental compact that consists of the rules imposing basic duties, assigning rights, and distributing the benefits of political, social, and economic cooperation, unanimously agreed to by reasonable people in a state of perfect equality and absolute impartiality.” It is the fundamental compact that is assumed to exist in every society.
A right is one side of a relationship; your right is the duty of another. A human right is a relationship arising from our nature as human beings that entitles an individual to certain conduct from another. It is a contractual right flowing from the social contract. A human right is not to be confused with a possession, like an apple or a house. Nor should it be equated with a human power, like the power to think or see or live. It is a relationship between an individual and all others that entitles a person to certain conduct from every other person and from society. Human or natural rights are only those that arise from the acceptance of natural duties. The denial or abridgement of human rights constitutes a breach of the social contract. These rights are universal, unalienable-they cannot be taken away or even abridged-indivisible and interdependent. There are very few human rights-life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness-but they are basic to our ability to live as human beings.
Self-government ultimately boils down to government by the majority of those voting except that human rights are not subject to majority vote. Unalienable means unalienable. “Governments become just, says Grant, “when they enforce the basic natural duties and protect the human rights flowing therefrom that constitute the social contract. And individuals become ethical when they freely acknowledge and affirm obedience to these basic duties as a personal obligation and give their informed consent to respect and honor the human rights of all other human beings.”