Tragedy. Again.

For the second straight week, an NFL player lies dead, the victim of a seemingly avoidable sequence of actions that was unfortunately not avoided.  Jerry Brown lies dead at the age of 25, the result of a one-car accident with his teammate Josh Brent at the wheel and drunk.  And while the circumstances surrounding his death and that of Javon Belcher are vastly different, there is something similar: missed signs.

From ESPN’s Dan Graziano:

“Drunk driving is as selfish, avoidable and inexcusable a crime as there is… The decision to get behind the wheel of a car after you’ve had too much to drink is flatly irresponsible… The decision to get behind the wheel of a car after you’ve had too much to drink is flatly irresponsible — whether you play NFL football or not. But there were a number of NFL drunk-driving cases this offseason, from the Giants’ David Diehl to the Lions’ Nick Fairley to the Jaguars’ Justin Blackmon. And while none of those cases resulted in anyone getting injured or killed, this is not the first case in league history that has. It serves as a reminder of why it’s so important for the league to make its players aware of the seriousness of the issue, and the number of drunk-driving cases the league still deals with serves as a reminder that the message isn’t sinking in.”

Graziano is right.  But, at the same time, I think he misrepresents the mindset that goes into people’s “decision” to drive drunk.  I say this because I have driven drunk.  I thank my lucky stars that I suffered no consequences of this decision, physical, legal, or otherwise.  I put decision in quotes there because, in my experience, the perpetrator of this admittedly irresponsible decision is rarely making a conscious decision to drive drunk.  Rather, they are making a supremely poor assessment of their own impairment.  The drunk driver does not think to himself, “I am drunk but I will drive anyway.”  He thinks, “I feel fine.  I can drive.” It is this poor self-assessment and lack of self-awareness that makes it so easy to repeat the mistake.

Because of America’s drinking laws and the resultant drinking culture, most of us learn to drink without models for how to do so responsibly.  This means that most of what we do when it comes to drinking we do poorly.  At the top of this list is an understanding of alcohol’s effect on our body.

I don’t say any of this to excuse Josh Brent’s actions.  He made a series of bad choices and a man is dead because of it, with Brent’s life also irrevocably changed.  I say this because as long as we view drunk driving as something only stupid, irresponsible people do, we are all more likely to do it.  As long as we think we would never actively choose to drive drunk, we are all more likely to do so. As long as we fail to understand the signs of intoxication, we are all more likely to fall victim to its effects.

Signs were missed regarding Javon Belcher’s mental state and now two people are dead and an infant orphaned.  Signs were missed regarding Josh Brent’s intoxication and one person is dead and another likely headed to jail for a very long time.  Mental illness and intoxication are two things our society does a piss poor job at.  And our failings in these areas are fatal.

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115 thoughts on “Tragedy. Again.

  1. Honestly, given the potential legal and human consequences I don’t know why reliable, portable BAC machines are not more mass marketed to social drinkers, especially those who live in the suburbs. Perhaps someone will develop a smartphone app for this (yes, I imagine breathing into your smartphone). Eventually, driverless cars should solve this problem.
    • Because there aren’t reliable, portable BAC machines.

      As long as it’s just the cops that have BAC machines that don’t work well, it’s no big deal — Because the authority of the state can back up the oft-worthless results.

      But what happens when a BAC machine says someone is okay to drive and they nevertheless kill someone? The manufacturer will get sued out of existence.

      • Alan,

        I’m not sure if the “sued out of existence” will occur. Yes, we have very strict products’ liability rules here in the US with the “strict liability” theory available to plaintiffs (when normally when accidents occur “negligence” is the standard plaintiffs have to use; “strict liability” — for those readers who may not know — is an easier standard for plaintiffs, tougher for defendants). But that just means the manufacturers better make sure their products work well. Cars are already subject to this standard.

      • Of course. The point is, while selling to the public requires that manufacturers make sure there products work, selling to the police doesn’t. I’m sure if breathalyzer manufacturers were confident of their product, one or two would try to sell to the general public. But they know that their products aren’t particularly reliable.
    • Self-administered BAC’s don’t actually help in these matters.

      Social drinkers that have access to them rarely use them unless they know they are not going to be driving; when they do, they almost always ignore their results. BAC’s only tend to be used appropriately as a deterrent when there is an outside agency (government, employer, etc.) that requires and monitors their usage.

      That segment of society that might actually use and heed BACs while out drinking overlap almost entirely with the segment that wouldn’t have put themselves in a car after drinking to excess in the first place.

  2. And while the circumstances surrounding Jerry Brown’s death and that of Javon Belcher are vastly different, there is something similar.</i<

    Their initials?

  3. For whatever reason, I am reminded of this Pulitzer-winning Gene Weingarten piece about parents who forget a child in the backseat of a car.

    I realize it’s not quite the same thing as drunk driving; but like you say, we have all done something stupid/thoughtless and gotten away with it (in the recent Zimmerman convos, I have mentioned that I once did something somewhat similar to some of his actions, though luckily no one ended up dead); and we would do well to remember that “there but for the grace” go we all.

    • Yea. But with DUIs, we often say, “That guy made a horrible decision.” My point is that it is rarely a decision, but more often a mistake. One we all could, might, and possibly have made without even realizing it.
      • Kazzy, I think I get the distinction you are trying to make; but it does sound a little bit like “a mistake is something that I make (or have made); a horrible decision is something that others make (that I have never made yet).” I don’t want to derail this thread, but if we think a person is not in full control of their judgement and decision-making faculties when their brain is under the influence of alcohol, then this is also somewhat true when a person’s brain is flooded with adrenaline/suspicion/fear (or other conditions that may pertain at the time they made the mistake/decision).
      • I think there’s a lot of truth to this, as I think there’s a lot of truth to your other point that there but for the grace of god go any of us.

        I’m almost fanatical about not driving drunk. If I’m driving, THE MOST I will drink is, say, one beer (I usually drink nothing), and then I’ll be sure to wait 2 or 3 hours before driving.

        However, even though I’m hyper-vigilant when it comes to drinking and driving, I have been reckless when it’s come to other things. Fortunately, I haven’t hurt anyone.

      • “…but it does sound a little bit like “a mistake is something that I make (or have made); a horrible decision is something that others make (that I have never made yet).””
        Not at all.

        “…if we think a person is not in full control of their judgement and decision-making faculties when their brain is under the influence of alcohol, then this is also somewhat true when a person’s brain is flooded with adrenaline/suspicion/fear (or other conditions that may pertain at the time they made the mistake/decision).”
        Exactly. I view a hired hitman differently then I view someone who loses control in a moment of passion. I view someone who misjudges their intoxication differently than someone who says, “There is nothing thing wrong with drunk driving. I’m going to get plastered tonight and drive home.”

        As with mental illness and drunk driving, I think the extent to which we healthily handle our emotions is poor. I work with my students on understanding the difference between emotion and action, that it is healthy and normal to feel any and all emotions and what matters most is how they handle those emotions. For a long time, and still to this day, there is a tendency to tell kids to just be happy all the time and to not be sad because who wants to be a grumpy pus? We don’t, at a societal level, handle ANY of this well and we’d be much better served to. We’d see FEWER (not zero, but fewer) crimes of passion if we taught folks to better understand, process, and handle their emotions than to just suppress them. We’d have FEWER (not zero, but fewer) drunk driving incidents if people better understood intoxication. And we’d have fewer (not zero, but fewer) incidents like the Javon Belcher murder-suicide if we better understood and recognized the signs of mental illness.

        Nothing will eliminate all these. But we absolutely should strive to better understand the psychology that predicates these actions before we get on our high horses and tut tut folks.

  4. This might well be a myth, but I’ve heard people talk about cars that won’t start unless you blow a clean reading- supposedly, the apparatus can be mandated for people with too many DUIs. Does something like that exist? Would it be too invasive to have such a thing?
      • I STILL make occasional reference to “the phone cops”.

        Johnny Fever was a great character. For a mainstream sitcom at that time it was funny that he was such an obvious “head” – I seem to recall an episode where he is in a theater and there is some kind of raid (or he thinks there is) and he and Venus just start emptying their pockets of pills onto the floor of the theater in a total panic.

      • When my daughter took chemistry, I showed her Venus Flytrap Explains the Atom, and she got it right away. I can still ask her why protons are positive, and she’ll tell me that it’s because they have all the good-looking women.
      • “Even more surprising, 54% of drivers (105 million) have driven while drowsy at least once in the past year, and 28% (54 million) do so at least once per month.” I’m surprised that the number of drivers who say they have driven while drowsy is so low. Maybe that’s just because I am biased towards thinking everyone drives tired. The bias comes from working either weekend nights or third shift for many years.
    • Yes they do exist. I know people who have had to have them installed after a multiple DUI conviction. I wouldn’t want to have to blow into my car in order to start it. I would feel that it was pretty invasive.

      P.S. If I don’t comment back for a while it is because I can’t seem to see the reply’s to my comments on the main blog until many many minutes have passed. So frustrating, I can see them on the right hand side, but they just won’t show for me after many attempts to refresh within the blog post itself.

      • That’s a page caching problem. A hard refresh of the page (in Chrome, it’s the “arc with an arrow” icon at the top left; in Firefox, the same icon is at the right of the URL bar) will show all recent comments. The big hammer in Chrome is to use an “incognito window”. That doesn’t use the disk cache at all, so you should see comments in the main page immediately. I’m not sure if the Firefox private browsing mode also works, but it’s worth trying.
      • Thanks for the help. I ended up having to crap clean (CCleaner) and it’s all good for now. I probably hadn’t cleaned the cache in a while. Get’s close to finals and I start to lose my mind.
      • An alternative in Firefox is to go into about:config and set browser.cache.check_doc_frequency to a value of 1. This will cause the browser to always check for a new version of the page (at least in theory, if the version of the page is current, minimal data will be downloaded). Unfortunately, this applies to all pages, not just a particular site. On the gripping hand, LoOG is far from the only site where page caching is an issue, so I don’t mind that everything gets checked. For reasons unknown, at least on the Mac version, the setting isn’t available as a preference, you have to go through about:config. You would think that there would be an extension or add-in of some sort to do more fine-grained cache management, but I can’t find any that are current.
    • Yep, just one DUI gets you one in your car for a year in Oregon. But you have to pay for the device and maintenance of it. You also have to take diversion classes for a year. I know a couple of people who have them and they ain’t cheap.
      • In Wisconsin if you own multiple vehicles you have to install them in each car registered in your name. I knew someone who was looking to unload some vehicles to family members, he had five vehicles. Like you said just one isn’t cheap.
  5. I am always surprised about how many people parent’s did not drink in front of them while they were growing up.

    My parents were always a glass or two of wine with supper types. This made me think of alcohol as something to drink with meals. Not a binge and party drink. I also got to have a little bit with shabbat. All in all, this turned me into a rather moderate drinker.

    Our lack of public transportation is also a problem. Unless you live in a handful of cities, you need to take your car to go out.

    • My dad drank in front of me. And I did have drinks with my folks pre21. But we never really talked about, “Here is how you know you’ve had too much.”

      Pub tran is also an issue. Where I live now, bars have parking lots. Big parking lots. Seems very weird to me.

    • My parents drank, but drank very lightly. My father would buy a twelve-pack of beer at Thanksgiving, and there’d still be some left by January. (It was Budweiser, which probably explains why no one drank it.)

      It’s probably not much of a surprise to anyone who knows me, but I grew up thinking drinking was a sin regardless (I grew up thinking that breathing was a sin, so your mileage probably varies). I learned “how much is too much” the old fashioned way–multiple and embarrassing adventures.

  6. I have also driven when I have drunk more than I should. I do believe it is a decision. The decision happens before you have started drinking, and you either do or don’t make an absolute commitment to yourself not to drive drunk, hopefully by making a plan about what you will do instead. Find a way to stay near where you’re drinking; find a generous soul to stay sober and drive; arm yourself with cab companies’ numbers and commit to calling one rather than getting in your car; simply don’t drive to the wherever you’ll be drinking to start with. I’m not preaching, just observing my own experience with dealing with this issue. I’ve often encountered moments when the decision whether to drive drunk was made, they just aren’t close in time to when I might have actually gotten in a car and turned the key.
    • …I do think that Radley Balko’s recent comments about punishing bad driving rather than the cause of it is interesting, and I’m thinking it over. It occurs to me that we do punish bad driving whatever the cause now, so he isn’t really proposing any substitution for legalizing driving under chemical influence. Make of that what you will.
      • Balko is often good. This, however, is far from his best. How do you define bad driving? Doesn’t everybody drive poorly a little but not enough to be a public danger. A drunk driver can pose a far greater risk. As i’m sure Balko knows many people drive drunk without getting caught or killing anyone. That doesn’t mean they are safe, it means they got lucky or other people avoided them. I used to work in a rehab. Plenty of alcoholics have dozens of stories about all the nights they drove home but can’t remember it. If they couldn’t even remember driving, they weren’t safe.

        Setting a BAC level as the difference between legal and illegal offers a fairly black and white measurement instead of a cops judgement. Most drunks who drive think they can drive just fine. But obviously drunks also have impaired thinking. Having driving drunk be illegal is a bright line for impaired people instead of a mushy, ill-defined “bad driving.”

      • The issue I sometimes get into here is we punish outcome, not action or intent.

        If you and I go to the bar together, drink the same number of beers, achieve the same level of intoxication, and drive home along the same road, going the same speed, and someone is crossing the street and clears your lane but not mind and I hit and kill him, my punishment is different than yours. In a way, that seems strange.

        Sort of like the whole idea of “attempted murder” seems strange to me.

      • Imagine the same scenario – you and a Buddy driving home with the same outcome – but you’re dead sober and he’s dead drunk. You hit and kill the person while he continues his sloshy way home.

        In that case, you’re guilty of something, from manslaughter on down to reckless driving (or even less). He’s “innocent”. No justice there, eh?

        The purpose of a drunk driving laws are to change people’s behavior, and they accomplish that – in part – by punishing people who’ve broken the law more severely than if they were sober. (And then there’s the checkpoint stuff, as well.) Insofar as the laws aren’t purely punitive (life sentences for DDers who’ve killed someone), or preventative (get the chronic DDer off the road by taking his license), DD laws are justified as a form of pro-active social engineering.

      • I’m not necessarily advocating changing the law, but it seems strange that two people can do the exact same thing and because of forces out of their control, be offered a very different consequence. Which is life, I suppose. But it’s codified.

        Take murder. If you and I both shoot someone in the head and your guy dies and mine doesn’t, I’m charged with attempted murder. If my guy eventually dies, my charge is upped to murder.

  7. If you’re going to indulge in drinking, there’s no excuse not to have some sort of alternative to driving lined up. Doubly so if you make an income of more than a million a year. If you drink, you don’t drive, period. It’s not like these dudes couldn’t afford a cab.
      • I was looking, too. The other day I lost a big comment, too. Couldn’t find that one, either. That’s why I always work with an outside editor, then cut and paste into the comment box.
    • Ok, thanks for looking y’all.

      The gist of it was Check The Stats, Not Anecdotes. (& certainly not Sensational News Items). & I expected better from someone who is all about pounding the stats, vice pushing a narrative.

      Drunk driving isn’t what it used to be.

      It *used* to be over half of all driving fatalities. But now it’s down to less than a third, and has also dropped dramatically in raw numbers (-60%) despite an increase in both population (+33%) and vehicle miles travelled (+86%). between 1982 and 2010 (though MVT is level since about 2006).

      (though one wouldn’t know we’ve made incredible progress from the CDC and NHTSA web pages – it’s still all MADD propaganda, all the time)

      • Kolohe,

        If your stats are indeed correct, and I have reason to doubt them, that is very encouraging news. If my post came off as fear mongering about drunk driving, I didn’t intend it as such. Rather, I wanted to offer up my personal experiences to combat the narrative that people who drive drunk are simply selfish, stupid, irresponsible assholes. They aren’t. It’s more complicated than that, t’is all.

        And, as Glyph pointed out, this more nuanced approach is not limited to drunk drivers, but a whole host of folks. Generally speaking, I’m not one for drawing hard and fast lines between “good guys” and “bad guys”.

      • Generally speaking, I’m not one for drawing hard and fast lines between “good guys” and “bad guys.”

        I think I share the same temperament, at least intellectually. In practice, it’s sometimes hard for me to live that way.

        Perhaps because drunk driving is not one of the (many!) temptations I’ve been subject to, I am more willing to judge drunk drivers as “simply selfish, stupid, irresponsible” even if I believe the “simply” does a lot of work. If you were to call me on one of my failings, I would be more inclined to argue “nuance!”

      • I’m not sure what you’re trying to prove.

        Drunk driving isn’t any safer that it used to be, it’s just that fewer people are doing it, and that’s largely because of all the MADD “propaganda”. And it still causes 30% of all driving fatalities. Do you really want to start an ad campaign “Drunk driving — safer than you think!” ?

      • Heh. That reminds me of the “repeal the clean air regulations in Denver” campaigns that crop up every coupla years. The argument is that Denver air is so clean we don’t need no stinking regulations.

        Not that Kolohe is making that kind of argument, mind.

      • I’m not sure what you’re trying to prove.
        “Mental illness and intoxication are two things our society does a piss poor job at. ”

        I agree with the former, but we have gotten better at the latter. The implication* that there is still some sort of crisis continues to make the nation’s roads a 4th amendment free zone, plus continues to make a mockery that all people are subject to equal protection under the law, (and that people have the right to control their own bodies)

        *that I read into the piece; if it’s not there, so be it. But like I said, various federal and state websites still read like there is a crisis and we need to take more action.

      • By “4th amendment free zone,” free zone, do you mean implied consent to a blood alcohol test? That’s not a response to a crisis, that’s normal regulation, like requiring two working headlights art night. Or is that another one that should only be enforced after the accident?
      • I mean roadblocks. But also thanks for reminding me of the 5th amendment free zone the roads are these days as well. If you desire your right to move greater than 4 miles per hour, The State has given itself the power to a) put a gun to your head to stick a needle into your arm against your consent and without a warrant if you desire the right to move around the country by private automobile b) put a gun to your head to search all your belongings and person down to your epidermis if you desire public transport.

        The Committee For Cops That Still Pull People Over For Driving While Black (CFCTSPPOFDWB – they’re working on a better acronym) also love liberals that love primary enforcement, like headlights and especially seatbelt laws. Gives them a great cover.

      • They’ll even put a gun to your head to force you to pay the fine for crossing a street against a red light . It’s exactly like You Know Who.
      • At least in this state the cops can do a BAC after a person fails several other non-invasive tests such as walking, talking, eye movement, juggling, etc. Failing those gives the cops probable cause to ask for you to blow. equal protection…huh???
      • 20 year old adults are not treated under the law like 21 year old adults – though people are perfectly willing to give both guns in the mountains of Afghanistan.

        Other people that are horrified that a 19 year old woman might not have access to any and all forms of contraception are perfectly fine that she doesn’t have access to a white wine spritzer.

      • 4 year old children can’t buy booze either, is that an equal protection issue?

        You can blow into a breathalyser. They only take blood if you refuse to blow and to confirm a positive breath test.

      • Speaking of which…I heard in my state (MO) that if you refuse a breathalyzer from a cop then they automatically suspend your license for a year.

        Does that kind of thing strike anyone else as a 5th Amendment violation? Really, if you can’t refuse without punishment then you’re effectively being required to self-incriminate.

      • Does that kind of thing strike anyone else as a 5th Amendment violation?

        No. It’s not a criminal matter.

      • And now we should all see why we have Drug Wars and Drone Wars and War Wars without end. Because people of supposed principle are perfectly willing to throw away principles as long as policies get results – like a decrease in drunk driving and drunk driving deaths.
      • Gotcha…we have drones over AfPak ( and lord knows their bombs are much nastier then those from F-16′s) because we try to cut down on drunk driving.
      • Because people of supposed principle are perfectly willing to throw away principles as long as policies get results

        Who, liberals? Liberals have never claimed to have principled views on these issues – at least as I think you’re using the word. I think a more accurate rewording of that sentence, as a criticism of liberals anyway, would be – “because people without principles are perfectly willing to adopt policies they think get results…”. That’s a legitimate criticism of liberalism, at least in my book. But it’s inaccurate to say that liberals claim to have principles which they then abandon out of convenience. (Again, if I’m understanding your use of the word “principles” here.)

        Liberals are primarily concerned with outcomes, it seems to me. I mean, I’ve never heard a liberal argue that if a young woman is allowed to legally purchase birth control then she should also be allowed to legally buy alcohol, as if the same governing principle ought to justify both policies.

        But maybe I’m not understanding your argument here.

      • Why do you think “liberal” means “doesn’t accept principles (of justice)”?

        Suppose enslaving or murdering 1000 innocent citizens “worked” or “made society better” in the vague pragmatist way that you seem to be thinking about. Would that be an action that is prescribed by “liberalism” as you define it?

        I’d say no. Very much no.

        Liberalism, as I see it, is an acceptance of negative rights (e.g. property rights, bodily rights, right to freedom of movement and speech) as the primary political principle. But liberals temper thier view with the acceptance of other principles as well, usually with a commitment to some set of positive rights (e.g. the poor aren’t really free unless they are given equal opportunity, which requires state funded, redistributive educational spending) or to equality of some sort (e.g. Rawls’s difference principle).

        Take a look at the definition(s) of Liberalism here for a more in-depth explanation of what I am arguing. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/liberalism/

        —-

        BTW, if liberals don’t accept principles, how do they go abput determining which outcomes a good outcomes? What is their method? N.B.: Any statement of the way of determining what a good outcome is that you give, will be your principles. And without a way of determining what a good outcome is, your view would be woefully relativistic.

      • BTW, if liberals don’t accept principles, how do they go abput determining which outcomes a good outcomes?

        Values. Competing, conflicting, messy values.

      • Omelas only recycles Dostoyevsky: Brothers Karamazov

        “One picture, only one more, because it’s so curious, so characteristic, and I have only just read it in some collection of Russian antiquities. I’ve forgotten the name. I must look it up. It was in the darkest days of serfdom at the beginning of the century, and long live the Liberator of the People! There was in those days a general of aristocratic connections, the owner of great estates, one of those men—somewhat exceptional, I believe, even then—who, retiring from the service into a life of leisure, are convinced that they’ve earned absolute power over the lives of their subjects. There were such men then. So our general, settled on his property of two thousand souls, lives in pomp, and domineers over his poor neighbours as though they were dependents and buffoons. He has kennels of hundreds of hounds and nearly a hundred dog-boys—all mounted, and in uniform. One day a serf-boy, a little child of eight, threw a stone in play and hurt the paw of the general’s favourite hound. ‘Why is my favourite dog lame?’ He is told that the boy threw a stone that hurt the dog’s paw. ‘So you did it.’ The general looked the child up and down. ‘Take him.’ He was taken—taken from his mother and kept shut up all night. Early that morning the general comes out on horseback, with the hounds, his dependents, dog-boys, and huntsmen, all mounted around him in full hunting parade. The servants are summoned for their edification, and in front of them all stands the mother of the child. The child is brought from the lock-up. It’s a gloomy, cold, foggy, autumn day, a capital day for hunting. The general orders the child to be undressed; the child is stripped naked. He shivers, numb with terror, not daring to cry. . . ‘Make him run,’ commands the general. ‘Run! run!’ shout the dog-boys. The boy runs. . . ‘At him!’ yells the general, and he sets the whole pack of hounds on the child. The hounds catch him, and tear him to pieces before his mother’s eyes!. . . I believe the general was afterwards declared incapable of administering his estates. Well—what did he deserve? To be shot? To be shot for the satisfaction of our moral feelings? Speak, Alyosha!”

        “To be shot,” murmured Alyosha, lifting his eyes to Ivan with a pale, twisted smile.

        “Bravo!” cried Ivan delighted. “If even you say so. . . You’re a pretty monk! So there is a little devil sitting in your heart, Alyosha Karamazov!”

        “What I said was absurd, but. . . ”

        “That’s just the point, that ‘but’!” cried Ivan. “Let me tell you, novice, that the absurd is only too necessary on earth. The world stands on absurdities, and perhaps nothing would have come to pass in it without them. We know what we know!”

        “What do you know?”

        “I understand nothing,” Ivan went on, as though in delirium. “I don’t want to understand anything now. I want to stick to the fact. I made up my mind long ago not to understand. If I try to understand anything, I shall be false to the fact, and I have determined to stick to the fact.”

      • Good question.

        One of the reasons I’m not a straight up utilitarian is Omelas.

        Also, do you suppose they have parking problems in Omelas? (Or Salem OR) Because I don’t see how torturing the kid could solve parking problems, and you don’t have utopia if there are parking problems. So I would walk away because of the parking.

      • I didn’t read the essay, but judging from BP’s answer it’s the question Ivan asked Alyosha: would he torture a small child for eternity if it meant everyone else would be infinitely happy.

        No, I’m not down with that. I always understood Dostoevsky’s essay to be a refutation of utilitarianism, (it’s also a pretty big dig at Alyosha’s religious beliefs), even tho I don’t reject utilitarianism. Things like Omelas certainly make the case that utilitarianism isn’t a complete moral theory.)

        And frankly, I don’t see how Omelas can be justified except by utilitarianism.

        But maybe I’m not getting the question.

      • Oh, and this:

        “Suppose enslaving or murdering 1000 innocent citizens “worked” or “made society better” in the vague pragmatist way that you seem to be thinking about. Would that be an action that is prescribed by “liberalism” as you define it?

        This question seems to confuse pragmatics with a moral theory. Utilitarianism in particular. Pragmatics is about arriving at practical solutions to problems. So pragmatics is entirely silent about morality of enslaving people.

      • Stillwater,

        Where you lose me is in how you define what a “problem” is, and what would be an acceptable “solution” without reference to some principles.

        Is this where you’d use the term values instead? If so, how are you distinguishing between a value and a principle? For my own part, principles seem to be inextricably linked to values. That doesn’t mean they’re absolute; differing values, hence differing principles, can conflict, so we have to rank order them to know which should take precedence when. And that doesn’t sound too different from your position. So is the disagreement between us purely a matter of language, how we use the word “principle,” or is it actually more substantive than that?

      • If so, how are you distinguishing between a value and a principle?

        Here’s the first definition of the word “principle” I came across on the interwebs: A fundamental truth or proposition that serves as the foundation for a system of belief or behavior or for a chain of reasoning.

        That’s how I’m using the word. (Which I think is the standard usage.) A principle is a proposition from which other beliefs follow. In a political context, a political principle (along with other principles) form a system of thought from which conclusions (normative ones) can be drawn. At a minimum, such principles will constitute necessary conditions on the legitimacy of policy. A complete set of principles would constitute necessary and sufficient conditions for policy: it would comprise a complete prescription for realizing a “best outcome”.

        A complete, consistent set of political principles (if such a thing were possible) would constitute an idealized model of a political system justified by a preferred value, and would therefore functionally provide answers to the limits and extent of policy, and would normatively resolve conflicts between principles as they obtain in practice via a priori reasoning (that is, appeal to the basic principles).

        The project of identifying a consistent complete set of basic political principles isn’t a far flung adventure, btw: it’s the project Rawls undertook, and Nozick (to name only two theorists who’s names come up often here at the league). But it’s also a project undertaken by libertarian political theorists in general.

        This project contrasts with contemporary US political liberalism in an important way – at least, I’ve been arguing that it does. US liberals do not justify policy preferences by appeal antecedent political principles a priori derived or a priori held, or hold that policy need be determined by antecedent principles. They are primarily motivated to introduce policy based on the values: eg., that equality of opportunity in the work-place to non-white males is a good thing (justified, theoretical context by fairness, or equality of opportunity, or equality under the law, or etc). And the continued justification for specific policy P to achieve or promote equality of opportunity be measured by how well that policy achieves it’s intended goals (that is, pragmatically). In short, values motivate the desire for policy (not what I’ve called “first principles”) and pragmatics determines the broad contours of how policy will be constructed.

      • One other thing which I didn’t mention is that even if a liberal agreed with a libertarian about the idealized model (which we generally don’t, for reasons LWA articulated very nicely in a comment I’m too lazy right now to track down), other practical constraints would likely prevent that liberal from agreeing with the libertarians policy prescriptions regarding a specific situation. I’m thinking in particular about the political possibility of enacting those policies, and practical considerations following from enacting those policies.

        Which is, as I’ve mentioned before, very much like Jason Kuznicki’s approach to these issues.

      • OK, I hear you. I’ve been using the term much more loosely. Probably 90% of our disagreements can be based on that. For me a principle is a general guide–e.g., principles of design, which are rarely absolute (but you need to have a good understanding of them before you’re qualified to know when you can violate them).

        As to liberalism not being based on principals as you define them, I’m intrigued by the developing discussion between you and Shazbot about that. I hope you two will continue, because we don’t get many in-depth discussions about the foundations of liberalism here, and I find it very interesting.

      • Yeah, liberalism doesn’t get much analysis. In part, I think, because there isn’t much to analyze. Part of the disconnect between my account and Shazbot’s account is that he’s adopting a very academic view of liberalism whereas I’m just describing what liberalism is in practice, without making any normative claims about what it ought to be. I’ve mentioned this before, but most liberals in the wild haven’t even heard of Rawls, let alone read him. So the liberalism they adhere to won’t be Rawlsian. Or any “ian”, if you ask me.
      • We need a new thread on this. (Always enjoy talking with you two.)

        Some quick points:

        James,

        “I may not have a non-controvertible meta-principle.”

        Well, you can have controvertible principles. But you need to know what to conclude when your controvertible principles disagree. Moreover, you need to know the extent to which your principles are controvertible. It seems to me that you have two options.

        1. Admit that you don’t know what to do (or what policy to support) when you have conflicting principles or a controversial case that may or may not be an exception to your controvertible (I’d say “ceteris paribus”) principle(s).

        2. Say that you do know what to do (even while admitting the possibility of error, given that pobody is nerfect) in cases where you have conflicting principles or where you are unsure if it is an exception to your principle(s).

        I don’t see how you can take option 2. and not explain how you go about determining, in general, in a non-arbitrary way, how you figured out what to do (or what policy to favor) when your policies conflict or when they seem to have an exception.

        It seems to me that you -and Stillwater- are explicitly saying that you make these choices arbitrarily, yet somehow you are making the “right choices.” (But if it is arbitrary, and someone else makes a different arbitrary choice, then how can you be right and they be wrong? Or vice versa?)

        Maybe here is a question: what is the conceptual difference between “I decided to favor X arbitrarily” and “there is no principle that implies that I should favor X”?

        Stillwater,

        “Things like Omelas certainly make the case that utilitarianism isn’t a complete moral theory.”

        They imply that the utility principle is false, not just incomplete. Once you accept other principles into your moral theory, you need a meta-principle that tells you what to do when the principles conflict.

        “Shazbot’s account is that he’s adopting a very academic view of liberalism”

        Oddly, I think the philosophers, especially Rawls, are trying to clarify what people do think about principles of justice (or morality). It is hoped that the clarification might correct people’s thoughts about principles, but only in small ways. But the primary goal is to make sense of where people’s moral and political intuitions come from to help them deciding some of the harder cases they encounter.

        “they are primarily motivated to introduce policy based on the values: eg., that equality of opportunity…”

        What you are calling values, I am calling principles. Please feel free to read “values” whenever I write “principles.”

        I mean to argue that liberalism is based on accepting certain principles/values and a meta-principle/value for what to do when the principles/values conflict.

      • It seems to me that you -and Stillwater- are explicitly saying that you make these choices arbitrarily, yet somehow you are making the “right choices.”

        I wouldn’t lump James in with me on that score. James has a much more principled view of policy and governance generally than I do. And he’s been pretty clear about that, I think. I, on the other hand, am just a mushy liberal sentimentalist …

        But personally, I think you’re confusing things when you use words like “arbitrary” in this context. James threw out a general (meta) principle earlier to the effect that human flourishing is the overarching goal of his policy prescriptions. It seems to me, and I don’t mean for this to be confrontational, that “human flourishing” is a value, not a principle. And ultimately, that’s what all our policy prescriptions are based on: values.

        So, what you’re in effect asking for, at least by my way of thinking about things, is for a justification of values. And not only that, but specific values, in a context. I don’t think that can be done, myself. Humans simply have values, and we move thru them, and change our orderings, and find new ones or discard old ones, based on our experiences in the world and not by abstract reasoning – tho abstract reasoning itself is a human experience, so it also can change people’s values.

      • I’m not asking you to justify your values/principles. (Though I believe that we can justify these things to a point.)

        I’m asking for a statement of what your value/principles are and how you decide cases where your value/principles conflict.

        So far, I believe that your answer is that you have value/princples, but in when it comes to hard cases (where the value/principles are unclear or in conflict), whatever seems like a good policy at the time is the better policy.

        That is arbitrary, and wholly subjective, IMO. And pragmatism of the sort that you are relying ins arbitrary and subjective in exactly this way.

        But I don’t mean to sound so critical.

      • And pragmatism of the sort that you are relying ins arbitrary and subjective in exactly this way.

        Pragmatism, I would counter, isn’t subjective at all. By definition. What you’re really asking as how I determine a pragmatically best outcome given competing values, no?

        That’s context sensitive, on the one hand, which limits the scope of values to a specific situation which is identified precisely because it requires action. On the other hand, practicality, possibility, best-use-of-resources, likelihood of enacting change, impact, etc., are all criteria that go into determining which value to act on, and in what way.

        It’s not a perfect system. I admit it. It’s not principled. But by my lights, it’s a better system than a priori determinations that disregard those unsightly “facts on the ground” which comprise social life.

      • I think we agree that figuring out which policy is the best means to achieving the ends stated in our value/principles is empirical. Moreover, discovering which policy is the best means to achieving our ends is “pragmatic” in the sense that you have to try something and revise and work towards something better. (James’s cow path analogy in -I think- “The Pragmatic Theory of Truth” is what you are thining of.)

        But that doesn’t answer my question. My question is how you go about figuring out your ends (especially when you have competing ends or some case might be an exception), not which is the best means towards achieving some end.

        Here’s a case. Suppose you and Hanley agree that policy X meets one end, e.g. it respects property rights, but it also stands in violation of another end, e.g. it limits equality of opportunity.

        He says policy X is good because although there are some cases where property rights should be violated, this is not one. You disagree and say that he X is a bad policy and should be scrapped or replaced.

        How do you prove that you are right and Hanley is wrong? You say that, from a pragmatic point of view, X doesn’t work (shown by experience and something a posteriori). Hanley responds that he thinks that, from a pragmatic point of view, X does work. Suppose you agree on all the facts about X, but Hanley takes those facts as evidence of X’s pragmatic success, while you take those facts as evidence of X’s pragmatic failure. How do you prove that Hanley’s POV on the pragmatics of the situation is wrong?

        More generally, what criteria do you use (and you can relative to context as you see fit) to determine whether some policy X has pragmatic value?

        James and Peirce and Dewey all face this problem, too, IMO. As Sidney Morganbesser is famed to have said (apocryphal, maybe): “Pragmatism is a true theory, it just isn’t very useful.”

      • You might not like this answer… Sorry in advance if that’s the case.

        How do you prove that Hanley’s POV on the pragmatics of the situation is wrong?

        Well if we both agree on the facts and the theory and the purpose and all the relevant evidence, but we disagree that X is the correct solution to problem P, then at least one of us is irrational, and there’s a disagreement between us.

        But these types of disagreements are part and parcel of political disputes, yes? We’re all imperfect beings, with incomplete knowledge.

        So, is there a right answer to whether X is the right solution? James and I both think we know the answer to that. At least one of us is wrong but we both think we’re right. That’s just the way things go, I guess.

      • Or, as you say, the acceptance of multiple, inconsistent sets of principles, none of which is more central (+/-) than any other. But at that point we’re not talking about a principle driven theory, it seems to me, since any principle can be defeated by realizing a preferred value in policy.
      • Doesn’t sound too different from my position; it just may be that we rank-order the incommenursate principles differently. (And I suspect we also talk past each other, using the word principles somewhat differently, Stillwater, I think, using the term more restrictively than I’ve used it.)
      • But the principles determine what is best, and the policies are selected based on how well they meet our principles.

        But that means you accept multiple principles, not no principles.

        What you now need to tell us is how you go about determining which policy is best when two of your principles (say equality and freedom) imply different things about a policy. (Say it meets the goals of one principle, but not the other.)

        Let us call this “way of determining what policy to favor when your principles are in conflict about the policy” a “meta-principle.”

        Rawls has meta-principles for his Liberalism. (Maybe others do, too.) I accept his meta-principles.

        But what are your meta-principles, Hanley and Stillwater? It seems to me that you don’t have them. But that is the same problem as not having principles (“principles” being construed broadly as “a way of figuring out what policy to favor.”)

      • I should say Rawls has a meta-principle, not multiple meta-principles.

        A meta-principle is simple: it is a statement of how we figure out what policy we should favor when our principles (e.g. negative property rights and the fact that we ought to redistribute resources for equality of opportunity for young people) come into conflict.

        What is your meta-principle, so defined? If your answer is “go with what works”, then what are your criteria for determining that some policy “works”?

      • But what are your meta-principles

        Practice. Empirical evidence. If it works, then go with it, tinker with it, make it better according to the same or some other preferred metric. Preserve it. Whatever.

        Policy doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It’s not an a priori project that requires an a priori justification. At best, a priori reasoning can provide us with a reason to implement a policy in order to find out if it works. But the ultimate test is that it does. And lots of policies have been shown to work, be they restrictions on killing others to resolutions to certain types of collective action problems. As time goes by, we (hopefully) implement better policies. It’s a patchwork project, filled with inconsistencies.

        But that is the same problem as not having principles (“principles” being construed broadly as “a way of figuring out what policy to favor.”)

        I don’t think we’re using the term “principles” in the same way. For me, a political principle is a necessary condition for, and a complete set of political principles would be sufficient to determine (if implemented) a best outcome according to the values of the theory. There would be no need to “figure out” a best outcome, since the outcome entailed by the principles is the best outcome.

        So they aren’t ways of figuring out what policy to favor, they in effect determine policy a priori. Or, in the case of a single principle, it constitutes a condition on any potential policy (it has to be consistent with the principle.

        But liberals – or so I’m arguing – don’t view politics like that. They look at a problem that needs correcting and arrive at a policy to address it. That policy will be (maybe!) consistent with constitutional principles, but won’t be derived from already held a priori moral or political principles. Eg., if the lakes are burning, restrict toxic waste dumping into the water.

        Later, of course, an argument can be constructed that justifies prohibiting toxic waste dumping based on negative rights (say). But that’s not the liberal’s justification. It’s: keep the lakes from burning. Or keep drinking water clean. Or don’t burn the fish.

      • I really like this comment Still. I think it captures something important about the way liberals look at things.

        I’ll add that people use the word principles in different ways. One way that many people use it is as another, better sounding, word for theory. I mean in this case theory as “the way i think the world works.” The problem of course being that theories always struggle with actually describing the real world and many fail. Many hard science type of theories fail let alone econ or political theories. It is only by the empirical gathering of data and modifying theory that we can incrementally get closer to a theory that matches the world. This is how it works in the hard sciences.

        To often principles are seen as concepts that should not vary, be immutable and should shape policy. But viewed as theories of how the world works we shouldn’t be driven solely by theory. They have an important role to play in helping us understand the world and give us a template to start testing, but we have to be open to empirical testing and evolving of our theories.

      • Interesting. But I still don’t quite understand.

        Suppose one of my principles (or values or whatever), e.g. my general value of equality of opportunity, tells me X is a good policy. But one of my other principles tells me X is a bad policy.

        You say that I should give X a try (or give the absence of X a try) and see if it “works.” Suppose there is a disagreement between Jones and Smith about whether X works. (Or suppose you are internally conflicted about whether X works.) How do we determine this?

        You say “experience” will teach us what works. But what do we look for in our experiences of the policy to determine that it works? I would ask the same about empirical information. What do we learn empirically that tells us that X is or isn’t a good policy.

        One possibility is that you are a utilitarian, through and through, and you think a policy is good if it maximizes happiness (or pleasure or satisfaction or something like that). And to determine whether something “works” we should check to see if it maximizes utility.

        Is that what you think? If not, then what is the feature of “is working” that some policies have and others don’t.

        Let’s look at an example: Is the policy of keeping alcohol legal, under certain constraints, “working”?


      • For me, a political principle is a necessary condition for, and a complete set of political principles would be sufficient to determine (if implemented) a best outcome according to the values of the theory. There would be no need to “figure out” a best outcome, since the outcome entailed by the principles is the best outcome.

        OK, we definitely aren’t using “principal” the same way. For me it has no such grand exalted overarching position. For me a principal is a general rule, such that “all other things being equal, X is better than non-X.” E.g., under normal conditions, theft is bad. But absent further information about our conditions, it doesn’t tell us whether theft is bad in this particular instance. “Murder is bad”
        is also a principle, so stealing someone’s murder weapon to prevent them from killing wouldn’t be bad.

        But what are your meta-principles, Hanley and Stillwater? It seems to me that you don’t have them.

        I probably do, implicitly, or at least roughly. As an institutionalist, I’m extremely skeptical of the concept of a rule that fits all situations, so I may not have a non-controvertible meta-principle. Perhaps “be dubious of any claim that a rule is absolute, that it will fit all situations” is a sort of meta-principle; it leads me to be skeptical when anyone claims that a rule is absolute, that it must never be violated. (And yet still, I’d walk away from Omelas, even if their solution had no parking problems.)

        All rules are socially constructed, which is one of the reasons I believe no rules can be absolute. All human systems are imperfect, and one of the worst imperfections is to insist that “this rule” trumps all other rules. But as socially constructed systems, the effort to say a rule is objectively true, or universal, is very dubious.

        Perhaps the closest we can come is to say our principle is to promote human flourishing, but we should never fool ourselves that we could ever possibly all define human flourishing in the same way, or that we could empirically demonstrate whose definition is best, nor are we likely to ever agree in detail on the means to achieve that goal.

      • Thanks for that greg. I think you and I view things from the same starting points, and tend to have similar analyses. I agree with what you wrote here – it’s pretty much what I was driving at in the above comment.

        For some reason, what you said reminds me of a comment I wrote to RTod a while ago re: a priori, first-principle, ideological views of policy and political economy:

        “The problem, which you’ve been outlining (I think :) ), is that entire swaths of evidence are necessarily excluded from entering into this type of reasoning. There is no algorithm which takes the ideologue back to reality.”

        I’m not saying our libertarian compatriots fall under this critique. But I think it’s a big problem for any and and all a priori theories.

      • Yeah, we’re willing to throw away the God-given right to drive down the highway, guzzling from a bottle of bourbon, merely to save some innocent lives. It’s only half a step from the Gulag.
      • I’m a bit troubled by DUI checkpoints, at least the ones that stop every car that happens to pass that way with no probable cause. I’m not at all troubled that clearly impaired driving leads to a determination of BAC without having to wait for serious consequences first.
      • Agreed. Perhaps it’s just a consequence of my sort-of chosen profession, but I’ve driven past entirely too many accident sites complete with bodies laying under sheets beside mangled cars.
      • How about the ones where they notify of an upcoming checkpoint, then pull over those cars that exit after the checkpoint notification but before the “checkpoint”? That one’s a classic.
      • I’ve driven past a bunch of those over the years. Never once has there been an actual checkpoint. It’s more like an intelligence test.
      • I saw film on TV, years ago, know, of a sting where the cops mailed people with suspended licenses that they’d won free football tickets and had to pick them up at a place located inconveniently outside of town. Then they arrested all of the people that drove there. It approaches entrapment, but there’s a good presumption that these are people who’ve been driving regularly.
      • As well as drug arrests at TSA checks for weapons. Like you’re going to hijack an airplane with a joint.
      • Someone is not going to hijack a plane with a joint, but if a cop sees a crime being broken then they should arrest the person. That is their job; arrest people breaking laws. Drug trafficking is illegal. Yeah the WOD is bad and all, but it is illegal now. I’m sure you could narrow the field that cops/tsa/whoever can ‘t arrest people for some subset of crimes in checkpoints but i’m not really seeing the sense in that. That will just make things more complex and then prone of screwups and certainly leave some stupid hole in the concept. I’m betting if a guy exactly fit the description ( including specific things like tattoos) of a rapist/murderer we would agree cops at a checkpoint should arrest him.
      • Perhaps they should check for illegally downloaded songs.

        Please provide your password to the uniformed lady.

        Or do you have something to hide?

      • “Officer, thank God! He’s got a gun and I don’t know where he’s taking me or what he’s going to do with me but please, please, help me!”

        “I[‘m sorry, ma’am, this is a DUI checkpoint. Sir, if you stay on this road another five miles, you can pull in at the kidnapping checkpoint.”

  8. I put decision in quotes there because, in my experience, the perpetrator of this admittedly irresponsible decision is rarely making a conscious decision to drive drunk. Rather, they are making a supremely poor assessment of their own impairment. The drunk driver does not think to himself, “I am drunk but I will drive anyway.” He thinks, “I feel fine. I can drive.” It is this poor self-assessment and lack of self-awareness that makes it so easy to repeat the mistake.

    I think this is part of the dynamic. However, an additional thought process that, I imagine, sometimes obtains is “I know I’m ‘a little drunk,’ but I’m a good enough driver anyway.” Maybe that’s a distinction without a difference, but I’ll put it out there.

    You’re not claiming the extent to which drunk driving isn’t a full-0n decisions is any excuse for doing it. But I’ll stress the “decision” aspect of it a little more than you are. As others have pointed out, the decision is made when one decides to drink without a plan for alternative transport. I’ll also say that some people keep their sense of right and wrong even when very drunk. There have been times when I’ve drunk quite a bit, but I’ve never once been so intoxicated that I didn’t know right from wrong.

    I’m not sure how generalizable my experience is. For all I know, maybe I’ve simply never drunk as much as some people. I’ve known some people that seem to lose themselves when they drink so that they seem like almost different persons. But to the extent that my experience is generalizable, or at least to the extent that some drinkers belong to the same subset of drinkers I (apparently) belong to, then drunk driving is a real decision.

    • You make a good point re: decisions. The final action of drunk driving is usually the result of a series of decisions. Rarely is one of those decisions, “I will knowingly drive while knowingly intoxicated.” It is usually, “Should I go to the bar? Yea, but I’ll just grab dinner.” “Okay, I’ll have a beer. It’s Joey’s birthday after all.” “Okay, another round. I’ll wait out the drunk and drive later. If I don’t feel up to it, I’ll take a cap.” “Hey, a few more down, and I feel fine. A glass of water and a cup of coffee should suffice and I’ll be good to drive.” Etc.

      “There have been times when I’ve drunk quite a bit, but I’ve never once been so intoxicated that I didn’t know right from wrong.”
      I’m sure that is the case for most people. I think most people THINK they are doing the right thing, they THINK they are driving sober, or sober enough. Rarely is it the case that someone says, “I know I’m drunk, too drunk, but I’ll drive away because fish y’all.” The few times I’ve heard of circumstances like that, it usually involves someone who is suicidal or otherwise dealing with a mental illness, which itself is impairing their decision making process.

      As I said to Glyph, there is a difference between a hitman and someone who kills in the heat of passion. Some people know they are doing wrong and do it anyway. Others have a divergent worldview that allows them to see what many of us might thing is wrong as a non-wrong (e.g., dog fighting). Most folks THINK they are doing the right thing but are woefully wrong in that regard.

      And, yes, regardless, these people should be held fully accountable for their actions.

  9. I am late to this thread but I am surprised to not see head injuries mentioned. I see this as far more of a threat and the number of former players suffering from brain damage is becoming an epidemic. Junior Seau’s autopsy was ruled to not reveal head trauma but it just seems unbeliveable considering the context. And Jovan Belcher could have also had the same problem. While the irresponsible behavior of players is tragic in itself, the NFL has bigger problems IMO.

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