Why Tolerate Religion?

book coverIs religion special such that the law should give religious commitments special/preferential treatment over other claims of conscience? And if they are not special, how should the law deal with religious-based claims for exemptions from otherwise applicable laws?

Here’s the hypothetical Brian uses at the start to illustrate the question: Imagine you have two fourteen year old boys starting middle school (NB: may the gods help them). Both are wearing daggers around their necks. Boy One is wearing a dagger because he’s a devout Sikh and in that religion, male believers must wear this sort of dagger as a symbol of religious devotion. Boy Two is wearing a dagger because for generations upon generations his family has been part of a culture where, when a male enters manhood, his father passes the dagger that his father gave him (and his father him etc.) and the boy/new man is then expected to wear it at all times. That is, the boy’s whole identity as a man in his community is wrapped up in wearing this dagger. Now imagine the school has a policy against bringing weapons on campus. What should happen?

Option One: The school should grant Boy One but not Two an exemption

Option Two: The school should grant Boy Two but not One an exemption

Option Three: Boy One and Two both get exemptions

Option Four: Neither One nor Two get an exemption.

Today, the most likely answer outcome is Option One. Boy One gets an exemption because his desire for an exemption is rooted in religion while Boy Two’s request stems from a non-religious conscientious objection. Brian more or less assumes that toleration is the underlying motivating force for why we feel compelled to make exemptions generally but then asks why we should “tolerate” (and by that he means make special exceptions for) religious-based claims over non-religious ones. After arguing that the answer is no (no, there is no reason to treat religion requests for exemption differently than other non-religious conscientious objections), he proceeds to argue that instead we should generally not create exemptions from these sorts of laws.

Unlike many readers (judging by other reviews I’ve seen), I find Brian’s first claim persuasive. I can see no good reason to privilege the Sikh boy’s request for an exemption from the weapon ban over that of the boy whose identity as a man is wrapped up in wearing the same dagger. My intuition, though, is to take much more seriously Option Three (i.e. giving both boys an exemption). Brian mostly dismisses this option out of hand by saying it would basically lead to anarchy. I don’t find that persuasive for two reasons: (1) we need some account of why anarchy is not an option (this is a philosophic argument, so it’s a bit like cheating to just assume that anarchy is off the table) and (2) we need some reason to think that allowing for exemptions for all claims of consciousness would actually lead to anarchy. I’m skeptical. Just think about the power of default rules, for starters.

I think I’ll save a full review of this book for when I’m guest posting on PrawfsBlawg later this summer, I’ll just mention a few other questions I’m left with:

  • The argument seems to be that toleration is what is required to show proper respect (meaning appropriate recognition) for other people’s faculty of conscience. (p. 69) But why? It seems true that we should give appropriate consideration to the ends and objects other people are aiming for but why is toleration appropriate? It’s not so clear to me that letting you be plainly wrong about something, without making at least an attempt at showing you what I think to be true, is the morally required stance I take. Or maybe the idea has to be that there’s no such thing as being wrong (or right) in the moral space? But I certainly don’t take that position. Knowing what is “right” and “good” is extraordinarily difficult but that doesn’t mean I don’t know when one thing is better than another. And, I take that to mean I think there’s some truth in there.
  • He says the state may not directly target or coercively burden claims of conscience generally, unless those claims violate the Harm principle (Mill’s principle – the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. (p.115)  If we take the Harm principle seriously, why the focus on direct targeting? Who cares if you target me directly or not if you exercise your power over me, against my will, for a reason other than the prevention of harm to others? In other places Brian says the state has the right to push its own conception of the good. Ok… (1) why and (2) if that’s right, then it seems the state can target or coercively burden my claims of conscience. (maybe the pushback is to define “coercive” narrowly — to cover only super forceful coercing. But that seems like cheating)

In short, a quick and thought-provoking read!

Sasha and Emma: The Anarchist Odyssey of Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman

Book CoverJust finished an absolutely engrossing dual biography of Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman. I should keep better track of how I’m led to all the different books I buy and read – it’s interesting to see how your own most core views morph over time in response, in large part, to the sheer fortuity of what you read. As for this book, while I can’t remember the specifics, I think my recent interest in the history of anarchist thought in the United States is connected to both the First Amendment section of a paper I’ll be trying to get published soon (it deals with labor law and government interests that do/do not compel restrictions of speech in that context) and also Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, the influence of which continues to spread through my brain.

But back to the book. I am embarrassed to confess that, prior to this book, I knew almost nothing about anarchist thought in the United States. I’ve read a number of very unfortunate First Amendment cases dealing with anarchists’ speech, but I never dedicated time to learning about the nitty-gritty of its different branches, its history, etc. Ugh. Such a mistake.

This book is a great introduction to the area. Paul Avrich (the first author) was a professor specializing in Anarchism and I suspect you won’t find a better guide into the field than him. (This book was also the last project he worked on before his death in 2006. [I know this because I tried to email him after finishing the book to ask him some follow-up questions.] His daughter, Karen Avrich, ended up compiling his work and actually writing and creating the final product. You can read a little bit about their lovely collaboration here.)

But moving on — as I mentioned, it’s a dual biography of two hugely influential anarchists — Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman. And, given their inspirational and significant friendship, it seems quite natural to read about both of their experiences at the same time.

I kept a list of ideas, peoples, things, etc. the book mentioned that I wanted to learn more about. I’ll add my notes verbatim here, too (so some may make more sense than others):

  • International Institute of Social History – Amsterdam
  • The Bolshevik Myth (Berkman’s account) and the separate concluding chapters (published separately)
  • Goldman’s book – My disillusionment in Russia (two volumes originally, later published as one)
  • Spanish Civil War (esp. how it does/does not relate to activity in Russia and Germany)
  • Gustav Landauer and Alfred G. Sanftleben (libertarian socialists)
  • Leonard Abbot (part of the Ferrer teaching association – just look up Ferrer teaching generally)
  • Modern School Movement (Avrich wrote a book on this, I think)
  • Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist (Berkman from awful time in prison – also first discussion of homosexuality outside the medical context?)
  • Becky Edelsohn
  • Gertie Vose
  • Upton Sinclair (relation to anarchists)
  • The Blast and Mother Earth (Berkman and Goldman’s publications)
  • Catholic Worker Movement
  • Labadie Collection at the University of Michigan (at least had documents about radicalism in it)
  • Voltairine de Cleyre

Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo, and the Battle that Defined a Generation

Book coverOne of my very earliest memories is of me waking up in the middle of the night, creeping ever-so-silently to the living room, muting everything (and checking that it was muted about a million times), and then playing Sonic the Hedgehog on the Sega Genesis and Super Mario on Super Nintendo. Upon hearing that I was reading Console Wars, my mom brought that story up to me herself. Apparently despite my best efforts, she saw me do this midnight gaming regularly and didn’t have the heart to send me back to bed. Thanks, mom.

It was memories like these that flooded my brain when I first saw Console Wars on display at a small science fiction bookstore in San Diego. Well, those and the more recent ones of Ready Player One (basically one of the most awesomely fun books of all time [and one I recommend to those interested in in-game property law]) and Indie Game, a 2012 movie that made me shed tears of admiration.

So, long story short, I had to buy the book. And a signed copy at that! A bunch of the real players (e.g. Tom Kalinske [Sega], Al Nilsen [Sega], Perrin Kaplan [Nintendo], and author Blake Harris) were on a panel at Comicon 2014 and signed it then. [You can see the panel here]

The book tells the story of the early console wars, with 95% emphasis on the battle between Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo (i.e. my two earliest consoles). [The book ends with the dawn of the PlayStation, and N64 on the horizon]. While some of the recreated dialogue is more than a little corny, the story itself is so interesting. What struck me the most was the parallels between the Nintendo and Sega battle and the one between Apple and Google. In particular, both Nintendo and Apple have favored more control while Sega and Google have battled this with platforms that are much more open. In the case of Nintendo, it worked.

Another tidbit — my mom worked at Silicon Graphics in the early 90s and I remember playing N64 (Mario Kart!) when I’d go into work with her. And one more — Google, which gave me my first post-high school job, took over the very buildings Silicon Graphics had during those early heydays.

Anyway, a fun read.

The Shareholder Value Myth

book cover At at fast 115 pages, you can read this book in a sitting. Looking back, it would make more sense for a beginner to read this and then Firm Commitment (the last entry). Professor Lynn Stout’s view here seems to be that what’s actually in shareholders’ interest is different than what we typically think of and we actually harm them through the current conceptualization of what is in their interest (i.e. “maximization of stock value”). In short, they’re people with lots of different interests that include more than just stock-price maximization. So, we should expand our understanding of what “shareholder value” means, if we are going to actually benefit them.

Some of the examples she uses to make her points I don’t get. For instance, to illustrate her argument that something that might help a shareholder qua shareholder could end up hurting him along another dimension. Here she asks the reader to imagine a shareholder in Microsoft. Their stock price might shoot up if Microsoft knocks out all competitors and become a monopoly (which is good for the shareholder qua shareholder), but if the shareholder also buys software as a consumer, he’s also forced to pay monopoly pricing, which hurts. I get the idea but… I’m guessing the average person who is both a shareholder and consumer of Microsoft nets a lot more financial benefit from the upward stock price, even after paying a bit more on the consumer side. By a lot.

Another oddity — “Goldman Sachs investment bankers and Morgan Stanley traders can easily take their skills and their client relationships to other banks, and often do, and at least in the United States, any attempt to stop them would run afoul of the U.S. Constitution’s Thirteenth Amendment.” (pp. 84-85).  I don’t know if she’s trying to suggest non-competes are unconstitutional?

Anyway, a nice intro read (also a plus are the helpful footnotes) but at least for purposes of this project she takes as a premise that shareholder value can be the lodestar, it’s just we need a robuster version of it.

Firm Commitment

book coverWhile working on my Article I came across Oxford University’s Saïd Business School Professor Colin Mayer’s book Firm Commitment. I read a few reviews (here’s the Economist) that led me to believe I needed to read it before finishing up one of my larger sections. And so my weekend was born.

I absolutely recommend this book to those looking for a broad overview of the control-ownership issues in corporate governance. Mayer has his own recommendation, but even if you aren’t on board with it, you’ll walk away with a much stronger understanding of this important area. Especially helpful for me was both the discussion of corporate laws in other countries and the (too) brief introduction to the history of corporations in England. I’ll be looking into the relationship between the creation of corporations and the development of guilds, and later unions, soon.

My main complaint is perhaps the result of my own confusion: Mayer seems to occasionally argue that dispersed ownership is causally connected to the governance structure of a company, but I cannot see any necessary connection whatsoever with ownership and governance. In theory, you could have a public firm that is comprised of only non-voting stock… no? (think about dual class shares as a milder example)

Regardless, very happy I stumbled upon this book.

Collegiate Republic: Cultivating an Ideal Society in Early America

Book coverJust finished the first of my Christmas present books – Collegiate Republic: Cultivating an Ideal Society in Early America by Professor Margaret Sumner. A combination of my interest in tracing the history of certain ideas through American history (e.g., virtue, self-interest, the good, utopia, etc.), book hunting, and the history of higher education led me (and my Christmas list) to it. My main complaint is that at 202 pages, it wasn’t nearly as dense as I was hoping.

In short, the book is sold as a historical overview of the earliest stages of higher education in post-Revolution antebellum America (the post-Revolution qualifier is significant: I hoped the book would talk about the history of Harvard too, but being established in 1693 meant it did not make the cut). In reality, the book is divided into five stand-alone chapters and only scratches the surface of each area it covers.

The biggest point of frustration came from what the book did not explain. In particular, early on Sumner tells us that these early colleges and college families were interested in promoting “virtue,” “the common good,” and “self-sacrifice” amongst students (and society at large). But Sumner never quite explains what these concepts mean to these people, at that time. And, in fact, her highest level conception of the relationship between these undefined concepts seems to change. Early on she casts self-interest and self-sacrifice as opposing forces, with self-sacrifice associated with the common good (p.34) while later (p. 104) she conceptualizes self-interest as potentially compatible with the common good. “College families were not only determined to renovate public spaces, they also used those structures considered most ‘private’ to the sider world – their homes and their very selves – to model how self-interest, the element that always threatened their design, could be made to work for the common good.” As I’ve written about elsewhere, I’m particularly interested in (and sensitive to) the changing relationship of these concepts, which means I notice inconsistent treatment of them in a single text.

Interesting tidbits about the role of women in college communities and the changing understanding of labor (from exalting the yeoman to revering the life of the mind).

Short nice read with a robust bibliography for those interested in further reading.