What is the Missouri Plan?

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A view of the south side of the Missouri Capitol building in Jefferson City [Zachary Reger]
Missouri’s most notable claim-to-fame in modern legal philosophy is often overlooked.

The state’s constitutionally guaranteed system of merit-based judicial selection — the “Missouri Plan,” as it’s often called — marked a seismic shift in the process of court appointment, one that swept the nation in a grand revision of how we populate many of our appellate and high courts.

By forgoing popular alternatives of direct election and nomination-confirmation of state judges, Missouri ushered in a new “nonpartisan” era of judicial selection.

After the Plan’s initial adoption in the mid-1900s, dozens of states followed, creating merit-based systems of their own. Newly democratic nations across Europe and South America drew inspiration from the Plan in writing their own constitutions, as did even a few established democracies during historic reformation votes.

And Missouri started it all.

What follows is a brief overview of the philosophy and origins of the Missouri Plan, a lightly edited excerpt taken from my undergraduate thesis work at the University of Missouri.

Continue reading “What is the Missouri Plan?”

What is free will — and do we have it?

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“The Thinker” at Columbia University [Zachary Reger]
Free will, in the folk sense, entails a requisite amount of control over one’s activity, enough so that an agent maintains moral responsibility for the resulting consequences. Yet contemporary philosophers disagree on whether humans have the amount of self-mastery necessary for this type of freedom. Central to the debate is another question: Is determinism, or the notion that past events plus the laws of nature fully determine one possible set of future occurrences, compatible with free will? Thinkers divide on this point, as well — those answering affirmatively we call “compatibilists,” while those in dissent are named “incompatibilists.”

A large number of current free will theories can be sorted into one of three major categories.

The first camp, libertarian-style theories, are incompatibilist. Because determinism is false, however, we can be confident in the possibility of human agency in at least some circumstances. This is due to the believed indeterminate nature of quantum particles in the human brain. These probabilistic states can be sequenced to transfer indeterminacy to higher levels, such as the mental arena of human decision-making.

However, opponents of libertarianism point out that, even given the assumption this amplification actually occurs, indeterminism seems to be just as problematic for free will as determinism. If an event’s occurring is merely probabilistic, they say, isn’t it up to sheer luck, not human choice, whether it happens?

The second group, compatibilist-style theories, state that determinism and free will are compatible, despite the intuition that an absence of supposed “alternative possibilities” denies this freedom. To illustrate this, compatibilists have composed thought experiments in which a person lacks alternative options, but is still seemingly morally responsible for her decisions because she never sought to pursue another path.

Opponents of these theories say this process of intuition revisionism is either unreliable, incomplete or based on false assumptions. The agent who lacks alternative possibilities may in fact be acting freely — but only if one first assumes the compatibilist mantra. That would be invalid, a form of circular reasoning, they argue.

The final variety, hard incompatibilist-style theories, is the only group to deny the likelihood of free will’s existence. (Although some are simply agnostic on the point.) The lack of human freedom is a given because both determinism and indeterminism are incompatible with it, they say. If there is one possible future that cannot be altered, human choice must be mere illusion. If our actions are only up to chance, we have no control over the result. Thus, regardless of the truth value of determinism, humans must not have free will.

But hard indeterminists have detractors as well — they usually fall into one of the other two camps previously described.

So it seems that, in the horse race of free will theorizing, the final crown is yet to be claimed. Such is the fate of the current philosophic landscape: passioned debate and reasoned disagreement continue to abound.

Of that, at least, we can be certain.

Republicans went nuclear — now what?

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1946 nuclear test at Bikini Atoll [Public Domain]
After a Democratic filibuster of Neil Gorsuch, Congressional Republicans have exercised the “nuclear option,” dismantling the requirement of a 60-vote cloture movement before voting on Supreme Court nominees. Gorsuch can be confirmed with a mere 51 supporting senators, an up-or-down vote scheduled for Friday.

So what now?

Two law professors write in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that we should “stop worrying and learn to love the nuclear option.”

On the other hand, an opposing law professor writes a piece for U.S. News arguing that to kill the filibuster is to “kill trust in the court.”

When all is said and done, at least one thing is certain — it will have been an excellent day for C-SPAN ratings.

Washington Society hosts public dialogue on ethics

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Overview

The Washington Society held a public dialogue on the origins of morality in the Kinder Institute on the University of Missouri campus Monday afternoon. The dialogue, titled “Where Does Morality Come From?” was led by political science Professors Justin Dyer and Jonathan Krieckhaus. Dyer is director of the Kinder Institute.

Krieckhaus kicked off the event by going through a numbered list of points to make about morality in general (copy below).

First, Krieckhaus made the point that it is not prima facie evident that morality does in fact exist.

Knowing this, his second point listed four “existential stances” one can take toward morality: Amorality, logic, deism and naturalism.

The professor’s third point was to explain the increasing importance of this final type, naturalism. Our country is growing less religious with each successive generation, he said, and so, if we are to preserve and develop a shared sense of moral norms, we must turn to non-deist moral reasoning.

Krieckhaus’ fourth point explored the pros and cons of such a form of moral reasoning, mentioning that it is potentially more useful, but also more difficult to develop.

Finally, the last point centered on the Golden Rule. Does the notion of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you fulfill the requirements of a shared naturalist morality in the way we would wish? Not quite, explained the professor, listing a few fundamental disagreements we would still have, such as matters of sexual engagement and abortion rights. However, the Golden Rule is still important, as it is useful in guiding our morality in many other cases.

After Krieckhaus’ lecture, there was a similar introduction from Dyer, a moment of dialogue between the professors and then a period where audience members could ask questions.doc-oct-11-2016-9-02-am

My Analysis

I found Krieckhaus’ talk to be the most interesting of all the segments, specifically his assertion of the importance of non-deist moral reasoning.

It was here that he began to reference Plato. Krieckhaus, who believes there is a discoverable logical foundation upon which we can build our shared morality, nevertheless explored what a world would be like if that was not the case. In such a world, we may need to develop a “noble myth,” he said, echoing the notion of Plato’s noble lie. Even if a non-deist morality doesn’t exist, it is best for society that we create the illusion that one does.

I completely agree with this assertion. Society needs some moral norms in order to function properly. Religion has traditionally been the easiest manner of communicating these norms, but as the developed world continues its trajectory away from deism, it is imperative we find a sturdier foundation upon which to build a new moral system.

Brexit, Asimov and “The Evitable Conflict”

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Isaac Asimov

On Thursday, Britain voted to leave the European Union, a decision that sent shockwaves through the worldwide economic market – an escape nicknamed “Brexit” by political commentators.

By this public referendum, the country renounced the centralized common marketplace of the EU in favor of increased economic and political autonomy. This foreseeably comes at the expense of the British pound’s short-term valuation against foreign currencies, as investors eschew the country’s uncertain financial future in favor of more secure denominations.

In 1950, American science writer Isaac Asimov penned The Evitable Conflict, a short story that serves as climax for his famous I, Robot collection.

In the future envisioned by Asimov, the world of the mid-21st century has been divided into four governing regions composing a single, globalized state. Each region contains an artificial intelligence called a Machine, to which economic data is given and policy recommendations are returned. In exchange for this increased centralization and outsourcing of political decision-making, humanity has seen an unprecedented degree of peace and prosperity, with war, famine and large-scale conflicts permanently eliminated.

In the story, Asimov presents a future in which issues once seen as inevitable become avoidable through economic co-operation.

However, it is not a future consciously chosen by the human race. In effect, the world had no choice. As the Machines became more and more complex, they began to create an illusion of autonomy to preserve what they calculated as the course preserving the greatest good for all of humanity. It may be the path humanity would have chosen anyway, hints Asimov, but the particular implementation was never really up for consideration.

In The Evitable Conflict, the Machines are fictional stand-ins for modern political structures and economic policies. Now, the fate of nations is beholden to the whims of democratic collectives and stock market trends, largely uncontrollable global forces arising as the true masters of human destiny.

If Asimov proves correct, Brexit is either a fluke or temporary set-back in the world’s inevitable path toward increasing economic and political centralization, the ultimate fate of a technologically advanced society growing closer and closer together with every coming day.

If Asimov is wrong, then individual people may have much broader control over what becomes of their lives than some social scientists might suggest. Brexit may stand as the clearest evidence in the error of Asimovian-style thinking and the perceived inevitability of continued trends in global centralization.

Only time will tell what comes next. Britain may leave, but uncertainty remains.

The Evitable Conflict” and other short stories are available in Isaac Asimov’s “I, Robot,” for sale in paperback, audio and digital download here.

REPORT: Gay Republican ponders party’s push for religious liberty legislation

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A view of the south side of the Missouri Capitol in Jefferson City (Zachary Reger)

EDITOR’S NOTE: Information for this story was gathered from interviews conducted throughout the Missouri General Assembly’s 2016 legislative session, which ran from January to mid-May.


JEFFERSON CITY — Zachary Wyatt-Gomez, 31, a former Missouri representative and openly gay Republican, is an ideological harbinger—a man whose own life story mirrors the morphing philosophy of his seemingly fractured party.

But Wyatt’s experience also highlights a growing divide within the GOP, an uneasy coalition straining to establish some form of consensus between its business-minded and socially conservative wings.

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Zachary Wyatt-Gomez

It’s a divide that served as tinder for this spring’s religious liberty showdown in the Missouri General Assembly.

Senate Joint Resolution 39, a Republican-sponsored religious liberty constitutional amendment, was first presented as a way to protect the socially conservative beliefs and practices of ordinary citizens from overbearing government oversight.

Opponents argued the resolution would legalize discrimination.

Specifically, SJR 39 would have allowed some wedding-related businesses to refuse service to same-sex couples based on a “sincere religious belief.”

After passing the state Senate, the resolution was defeated in a House committee on April 27.

SJR 39 needed a simple majority to pass the committee and continue its journey to the House floor. The vote was 6-6.

Continue reading “REPORT: Gay Republican ponders party’s push for religious liberty legislation”

What can a journalist do that no one else can?

Journalists do quite a bit.

We enlighten and entertain. We further democratic values by bringing voice to the underserved and underprivileged. We promote intellectual tolerance and diversity by remaining objective heralds. Further, we keep watch on the powerful and keep watch over the powerless.

But there’s nothing special about any of these things; there’s nothing special about what a journalist can do.

With a pad and paper, anyone could do these things.

But most won’t.

Journalism isn’t unique. It isn’t exciting. It isn’t adventurous.

It is necessary.