Thursday, December 21, 2006

Cal Thomas is at it again

My brother Tom called me yesterday to say that if I hadn't read Cal Thomas' latest op-ed piece I just had to drop everything and read it. It was simply too inflammatory to let stand. Since I was in St. Louis visiting my grandparents (more on that in a coming post) I didn't read Thomas' rant masquerading as an essay until just now. Simply put, I am stunned. I've picked Cal Thomas apart here before, but I've always tried to be charitable enough to avoid using phrases like flamingly stupid or ignorant beyond the point of my endurance.

In my last dissection of a Cal Thomas piece, I wrote that "[h]e is more than capable of making a good argument, though he does it less and less these days. But he is trading good reason for a flamethrower, which is not only intellectually dishonest, but morally reprehensible." The more he writes, however, the more I have to wonder whether or not he really can construct a decent argument. After all, building a sound argument, like building anything else, depends first and foremost on where and how you start. If your argument doesn't have a good foundation then it will crumble, no matter what you put on top of it.

Here is the foundation for Thomas' recent blustering:

Which of the following scenarios constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, as prohibited by the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution: (1) aborting a baby with a fully developed nervous system and probably inflicting great pain; (2) murdering a nightclub manager in cold blood; (3) taking 34 minutes — twice the normal time — to execute the murderer of the nightclub manager?

While he is clearly trying to manipulate us into thinking that options (1) and (2) are so obviously cruel and unusual that it would be absurd for anyone to pick (3), in reality, per the way that he is setting up his argument, (3) is the only option one could honestly pick.

Why? Because here we are having a discussion on constitutional law, as Thomas makes clear with his reference to the Eighth Amendment. As such, we can only discuss - per the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against the state's imposing a cruel and unusual punishment on someone found guilty of violating a law - the constitutional value of actions committed by the state. So, the only actions which can be deemed by the Constitution to be cruel and unusual are actions by the state. See the trend here?

In scenario (1), Thomas' graphic depiction of an abortion, the state is not an actor. Thomas is free to argue that abortion is immoral, and he is even free to argue that in most or all cases abortion should be illegal. I am not entirely inclined to agree with him, as I think

a.) that abortion is under limited circumstances morally permissible, and

b.) that outlawing abortion would produce more harm than good, failing to attain the good aim of limiting the number of abortions while simultaneously maximizing the worst possible end, which is an even greater loss of lives as abortions are performed underground rather than in medical clinic.

But we could, of course, have that argument. An argument we could never have, however, is one about whether or not an abortion procedure counts as cruel and unusual punishment per the Eighth Amendment. This is, of course, because the state commits no action in an abortion. As being a fetus is not a crime, and certainly not a capital one; and as being aborted is not the mandated by our criminal justice system or imposed by any state; an abortion may have a positive or negative moral value, it may be deemed to be right, wrong, or somewhere in the vast middle, but it will never be cruel and unusual punishment per the Eighth Amendment, and to claim otherwise is recklessly stupid.

The same is true of scenario (2). While this situation is less morally problematic that the first one (is there a serious debate in this country about the moral value of murder?) it is still not a situation under the purview of the Eighth Amendment, as it was certainly not the state who murdered "a nightclub owner in cold blood." Rather, it is the state who has rightly deemed such an action to be illegal, and in need of the harshest justice which can be legally administered.

So, the only action which could be considered cruel and unusual per the Eighth Amendment is the one in scenario (3), as it is the only action committed by the state. As such, it should be considered apart from the actions in scenarios (1) and (2), as there can be no serious comparison between the three. They simply don't have anything in common.

Bracketing off the moral consideration in abortion, which Thomas has so recklessly introduced here to conflate the topic, I have to ask this question:

Do we want the standard for the moral and legal value of actions committed by the state to be determined by the worst criminal acts? Do we really want murder to be the standard for criminal justice? Do we really want the state to justify the taking of a person's life by saying, like a spoiled preschooler, "He did it first!" or "She started it!"?

If I'm reading Cal Thomas correctly, that's exactly what he's saying.


Brian said...

Just the sort of ridiculousness I've always associated with Cal Thomas. I've never been able to read the guy with nearly the charity that you can muster. For me, his writ of charity expired during the Reagan administration.

That said, your diagnosis of Thomas' error is correct. I think, though, that Thomas is working off of a deeper mindset that unfortunately many of his readers probably share. It can be expressed as a series of claims:

(1) Permitting something to happen when one has the power to stop it from happening is on a moral par with performing the action oneself.

(2) The state has the power and the authority to stop individuals from performing morally blameworthy actions.

(3) Therefore, the state has moral obligations that exactly parallel those of its citizens. (From 1, 2)

(4) Therefore, when individuals perform morally blameworthy actions, the state is equally responsible for them. (From 3)

So, regardless of the Constitution and the reasoning behind it, Thomas apparently believes that allowing abortions is tantamount to the state sentencing embryos and fetuses to death.

My problem with this sort of reasoning isn't entirely with (1), although I do have my problems with it. My problem is with (2); I just don't see the state that way, and I suspect that many of Thomas' libertarian-leaning fellow travelers on the Right don't either. (It's claims like (2) that lead Bush followers to advocate for unlimited governmental power.)

All of that said, I don't quite follow your final thought:

"Do we want the standard for the moral and legal value of actions committed by the state to be determined by the worst criminal acts? Do we really want murder to be the standard for criminal justice? Do we really want the state to justify the taking of a person's life by saying, like a spoiled preschooler, "He did it first!" or "She started it!"?"

Are you saying that states should be held to a lower moral standard? To a higher one? A different one? I don't quite follow.

Chappy said...

I'm unsure which annoyed me more here: his infantile attempt at an argument or his premise as a whole. *Rolls dice*...premise it is then. This guy is right up there with Mark Hyman from The Point...full of sound and fury and signifying nothing. I think I'll sic the penguins on them both.

Liam said...

I think you kill his argument quite well. Normally I would attempt a more sophisticated analysis, but I think "Cal Thomas is a bonehead" will do fine in this occasion.

Sandalstraps said...


I'll respond to the last part of your comment first, and the first last (I try to be like Jesus!):

My final thought was a response to what I took to be Cal Thomas' argument for not only the moral permissibility of the death penalty, but perhaps even for the moral necessity of the death penalty. That is, the heinousness of the criminal act requires a similarly heinous punishment.

I take that to be a little like the parent who hits their child to teach them that hitting is wrong. Of course, that is a gross oversimplification of the best arguments advanced in favor of the death penalty, but we aren't dealing with the best possible construct here, are we?

My closing comment responded directly to this section of Thomas' article, which due to some writing/editing error never made it into my post:

One wishes such considerations were available to relatives of the deceased, and to the deceased, themselves, who are not given a choice in the method of their execution, much less the option of continuing to live.

This implies that because such considerations were not given to the deceased and their families by the killer, they should not be given to the killer by the state. As such, it is the killer whose actions set the moral standard for the actions of the state, a rather dangerous scenario.

As for the first part of your comment, you are right, of course. And I share your problem with (2). I just wish that people like Thomas would make those claims explicit in their work, so that we can have that debate rather than a debate on Constitutional law.

So, regardless of the Constitution and the reasoning behind it, Thomas apparently believes that allowing abortions is tantamount to the state sentencing embryos and fetuses to death.

I agree with you that this is what Thomas and his ilk apparently believe, though for the life of me I don't see how they could. Even assuming that the state is morally culpable for the deaths of aborted fetus' by failing to prevent them, I still can't see how that culpability - which stems from a failure to act rather than from any action - amounts to a formal death sentence. Sins of commission and sins of ommission may ultimately have the same moral value, but in terms of their content they are still not the same thing, nor are they wrong for the same reasons.

Chappy and Liam,

My the penguins sic the boneheads, each and every one.

Brian said...

Things are much clearer now, Sandman-- thanks. It appears that on top of everything else, Thomas is also a retributivist. Not surprising, really. I guess that all of us have our retributivist moments, but we're able to temper them with other moral considerations. Not our dear Cal, though.

As a matter of ethical theory, I'm intrigued by this comment:

"Sins of commission and sins of ommission may ultimately have the same moral value, but in terms of their content they are still not the same thing, nor are they wrong for the same reasons."

I'm not sure I agree or disagree. I'll just have to think about it.

Sandalstraps said...


I should clarrify that comment by saying that, in this case may does not mean that it is in fact the case that they do, but rather that, even if they do have the same moral value (which is not a given, though I'm leaning toward it) they are still not exactly the same.

So, for instance, if we were to somehow put together that perfect moral calculus that some Utilitarians keep looking for, and then ascribe a "moral quantity" to each moral action ("moral action" in this case referring both to sins of ommission and sins of commission), we might then with mathematical precision find that actively killing someone has the same moral value, per this "moral quantity," as failing to stop someone from killing someone else, at least under certain circumstances (we could imagine what those might be). Even still, the two would not be able to be described in the same way, and would remain very different sorts of moral actions, wrong for vastly different reasons.

Brian said...

Now, if you're a classical utilitarian, the only thing that's relevant to moral evaluation is the "moral quantity" of which you speak. So if the moral quantities are the same (i.e., the consequences have the same moral value), then there's no moral difference between them, even if the causes of those consequences are described differently. For classical utilitarians, factual differences don't always make a moral difference.

So if two actions of equal moral value, however determined, are wrong for different reasons, one needs a theory besides classical utilitarianism to tell us why the different ways in which the actions are generated makes a moral difference.

Sandalstraps said...


Historically speaking, yes, this is true. However, I think that this shows a great deal of shortsightedness on the part of Utilitarians (a shortsightedness shared by many of us who reflect on such issues).

If the question you're asking, as a Utilitarian, is what constitutes right action and wrong action, then "moral quantity" (if there ever could be such a thing) is the only concern, as you well note. But if your question is a deeper one, but one which can still be phrased to coincide with Utilitarian concerns, then more subtle considerations (which we shall see in a moment) come into play.

That question, phrased the way I think a Utilitarian might phrase it, is this:

How do we maximize that which is deemed to be good (pleasure, to put it crudely) while minimizing that which is deemed to be bad (pain, or more appropriately, suffering)?

With this as a concern - and I think that this is the ultimatel Utilitarian concern - there are simply more factors involved than just moral quantity. Of course the moral quantity of an action determines whether we can call it a good action or a bad action. And, of course, we take can active actions (commission) and juxtapose them against passive actions (ommission) and see that they might, quantitatively speaking, have the same moral value. But once we start down the road to moral correction, which is one way of looking at the goal of maximizing the good while minimizing the bad, other factors must come into play.

Simply put, we cannot work to alleviate suffering while bring about good without understanding why people actively harm or passively refrain from helping a victim. And even if both of these result in the same sad end (the death of a sentient being) they come arrive at that end in different ways and for different reasons. So, correcting the problems which gave rise to the equally bad ends, then, will almost involve very different solutions.

In the face, then, of our moral duty to not only identify right from wrong but to work to maximize the right and minimize the wrong wherever we can (a task which, especially when we are thinking collectively rather than just individually, necessarily involves some sort of moral correction) we cannot - even if we are as daft as Cal Thomas - make the mistake of conflating a sin of commission with a sin of ommission. To do so is to invariably fail to solve the problems which gave rise to the sin, and as such is to fail to prevent that sin from being committed again.

I know that I have here rather carelessly shifted from Utilitarian to Buddhist to Christian language. Oh well, that's just how it goes. At least you can see my concern here.