Tuesday, December 15, 2009

You Have to Understand the Argument before You Can Refute It

Dennis Prager's latest article asks the question of whether or not America is focused on making good people anymore. He takes the time to note that he, like many conservatives, believes that external conditions do not create bad people, and poverty doesn't lead to crime.
Now, while no one could possibly refute the argument that starving people will steal bread for their families (an act that is morally defensible), the argument that poverty causes crime posits that when poor people in America commit murder and other violent crimes, it is because they are poor.

This is irrational dogma, as much a matter of faith as any theological doctrine. Two simple facts illustrate this: First, the vast majority of poor people, in America and elsewhere, do not commit violent crimes. Second, a large amount of crime is committed by the middle class and even by the wealthy. Neither fact prompts the "poverty causes crime" believers to rethink their position.
This is a lousy argument on a few points, but mostly because Prager doesn't seem to understand what the argument is.

Poverty doesn't make people into criminals; people have the opportunity to choose (Prager is right on this point). What poverty does, to put it in a religious sense, is tempt people to commit crimes. If you are poor, and you don't see any legitimate way out of your poverty, crime becomes a viable escape route. If society seems broken and doesn't flat work for some people, than those people are going to turn to methods outside of society.

Consider for a moment; both Christianity and Judaism consider fornication (i.e. sex outside of marriage) a sin. Lets say, some perverse billionaire decides to just mess with people, so he opens a free whore house. Totally free and safe. Hygienic. Yes, many people would decide not to go to the free whore house. But some would. Over time, many would (particularly as people got the idea that there weren't direct consequences to their actions). The spiritual damage to the community would presumably be great (and, in fairness, there would probably be some direct family damage as well). In that context is it enough for the Billionaire to say "Well some people aren't coming around to my free whore house. And look some people are fornicating with work mates. So you can't hold me responsible for the spiritual damage my free whore house is causing."

That's a pretty sad argument in fact. When you take action to create temptation, you are sinning yourself. And it is perhaps a more serious sin than those who fall into your trap. Consider Jeremiah 5:25-27.
25 Your iniquities have turned away these things, and your sins have withholden good things from you.

26 For among my people are found wicked men: they lay wait, as he that setteth snares; they set a trap, they catch men.

27 As a cage is full of birds, so are their houses full of deceit: therefore they are become great, and waxen rich.
I think that describes my fictional billionaire pretty well. And, perhaps, that describes us a society. Not all the time and not all of us, but when we are basically happy to let children grow up in poverty, grow up without hope, without dreams, well, maybe that's not the best thing in the world. And it reflects badly on us as a society.

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