Pigs and fetuses

What does it make sense for us to value? This is the question (perhaps among others) we should be asking when we broach topics like abortion. All worldviews incorporate, either explicitly or implicitly, a value ontology. (“Ontology” is just the fancy philosophical word for an account of what exists.) You can think of a value ontology as a list of things that actually matter. So for example, in the evangelicalism I grew up in, fertilized eggs, human fetuses, and grown human beings all mattered–infinitely. Other things (puppies, pigs, rocks, whatever) mattered maybe a little. But if you had to choose, you had to choose the human every single time, because human beings have souls that are created in the image of God. That’s one kind of value ontology. One kind of way of looking at the world and making a judgment about what matters.

At bottom though, that way of looking at the world doesn’t make sense (because there’s no such thing as a soul). Once you adopt an atheistic and humanistic picture of the world, you need to adapt your value ontology. You need to ask the question of what it actually makes sense to value, what should really matter to us. Other human beings should matter to us. That is, it makes sense for us to value each other. We grow and thrive in relationships. Friendship makes life worth living. We’re social beings through and through. Other people make our lives worth living. And even when those other people are obnoxious or mean, we shouldn’t kill them, at least not on a whim, because it’s better (we like it better, we do better) to live in a society where people don’t randomly get whacked for perceived slights. That’s why we need a good justice system, a transparently run police, and a culture of ‘live and let live’, at a minimum.

What about rocks? Should we value rocks? Should they matter to us? Should we treat them as sacred? Probably not. We obviously have some interest in rocks, insofar as geologists can use them to tell us interesting stuff about our planet, for example. But should I feel a qualm about breaking a random rock in half? No. Clearly not. (Unless it has sentimental value to someone I love, that is, in which case breaking it would be very mean.) Something can be said for similar non-sentient and non-functional items.

Some things have value not because of any deep relationship we can have with them, but because of what they can do for us. So for example trees aren’t like human beings, but if we chopped down every last tree, that’d be really bad for our species (and a few others). Besides, trees are fun to look at, and to climb. So we keep at least a few of them around.

What about pigs? Should we value pigs? This is controversial ground. Not because there’s disagreement about whether human beings should value pigs, but because there’s disagreement about how pigs should be valued. Many people think pigs should be valued in the same way that trees are valued–for the ways in which they’re useful to us (think bacon). And there’s no doubt that pigs can be and are useful to human beings (at least in our culture) in such a way. But is that the only way they should be valued? I stand with those who think that the impressive intelligence and sociability of pigs should give us pause. Not only are pigs sentient (they feel pleasure and pain), they have a certain degree of higher brain function that makes their experience of the world that much richer. They have relationships with each other, even if not with us. And so I think it makes sense to extend our “live and let live” system to pigs (and similar creatures). We don’t need pigs (and, as tasty as it is, we don’t need bacon). Or at least, we don’t need to commodify them, kill them, and eat them. In some parts of the world, they’re kept as pets. And maybe something like that makes sense (at least as much as having pets “makes sense”). But unless we’re ok being the kinds of people who ignore (and the kind of society that ignores) the pain and happiness of sentient beings for the sake of our palates, our current practices don’t make sense. We don’t value pigs as much as we should, not in the way that we should (given the kinds of beings we want to be). Unless we want to be cold and calloused people, or a cold and calloused species, it seems like we should care for and about those pigs who need it, and leave all other pigs (and animals) alone. For those who think ‘caring for’ pigs (and cows, or whatever) is compatible with creating production systems that require their slaughter, think about how we treat our pets (when we treat them well). Do we eat our dead dogs? Should we build dog slaughterhouses? If you don’t think so, why should our care for dogs be any different than our care for pigs?

In brief, I think it makes sense for a social and empathetic species such as our own to have a relationship to other (especially but not exclusively mammalian) species different from the (largely exploitative) relationship we currently have with them. Pigs should rank more highly in our value ontology.

What about fertilized eggs, embryos, fetuses? Well, let’s just say that I think the logic which pushes us to view pigs and other animals as deserving of our moral concern does not extend to pre-sentient human organisms in utero or in vitro. The parents of a particular fetus might value that fetus, for what it might become, for how it will change their lives, or whatever. And I suppose that kind of valuing makes sense. But do we have grounds for criticism of those parents if they don’t value their fetus (and choose to abort it)? What possible grounds might those be? A fetus is not yet sentient–at all. It is not (yet) a relational being, in anything more than just the chemical sense that it is physically dependent on its biological mother. But it does not have thoughts, feelings, hopes, dreams, expectations, fears, or anything of the sort. While we may value a particular fetus (as I valued my daughter when she was still a fetus), there is nothing about being a fetus which, as such, demands that we value it. And so just as I am not a bad, cruel, or negligent human being for crushing a rock, so also I am not a bad, cruel, or negligent human being if I abort a fetus.

In the value ontology of humanists, pigs should figure more prominently than fetuses.


State of the union

The text of Obama’s 2012 state of the union address can be found (among other places) here. This is me throwing together a few thoughts about it, primarily to help me process all that was said.

(1) I still love hearing Obama speak. I can’t think of a president (American or otherwise) I’d rather listen to.

(2) Obama shamed Republicans. Not hard to do, I’ll admit, given how infantile they’ve been recently. But it’s still enjoyable to see the president call them out on their nonsense.

(3) On economic policy, Obama is a consistently sane moderate, who should have bipartisan appeal. On almost every issue, he makes proposals that make sense, and that touch on key desires of both parties. For instance, he suggested that half of the money no longer going to combat operations in Iraq be used to pay down the debt (nod to Republicans) while the other half be used to rebuild infrastructure (nod to Democrats).

(4) On foreign policy, Obama is a right-wing hawk. He believes in maintaining the U.S.’s place in the world through military strength. What makes him appear progressive is his insistence on intelligent world domination. But don’t be fooled, Obama is just as happy rattling sabers as W ever was (see for instance his “no options off the table” bit about Iran, or his reaffirmation of the U.S.’s “ironclad” commitment to Israel).

(5) Obama continues to work for unity, when Republicans have demonstrated total opposition to that idea (if you watch the speech, you’ll notice how little they clap or stand, even when they should be agreeing). This “can’t we all get along?” approach at home is matched with fierce international exceptionalism. At least rhetorically. U.S. involvement in Lybia is much more collaborative than either of the Iraq and Afghanistan ventures. But in rhetoric at least, Obama is unafraid to embrace a notion of international “leadership” familiar (in rhetoric) from the Bush era.

The generous interpretation: Obama is doing his best to get things done that need to get done, and is willing to compromise (at least in rhetoric) on issues over which he has little control. His insistence on the supreme importance of economic recovery is spot on. And he is slowly regaining international trust, without substantially changing the U.S.’s approach to foreign policy.

The cynical interpretation: Obama is a moderate Republican. He has tremendous influence which he consistently refuses to use for Palestinians, for unions, for fairness in international trade, or against bankers, obstructionist Republicans (though he gestured at a critique of Republicans on this point in his speech), Reagonomics, and nationalistic nonsense.

So what say you? Should I vote to re-elect Obama in 2012? Or should I “throw away” my vote with the Greens (or someone else)? Should I write-in Kucinich?

A third morality

Morality is about sacrificing one’s self-interest for the sake of the greater good. It is about putting others in front of oneself–waiting one’s turn. It is about turning the other cheek, enduring hardship, becoming compassionate and longsuffering.

Or so we are told.

What if this is just the morality of the weak? What if this is just what the poor, resentful huddled masses tell themselves to feel superior to those who are beautiful and powerful? The beautiful, the creative, the powerful–the few and the proud–these excellent individuals are only weighed down by such concerns. A morality of the weak only normalizes mediocrity. What’s needed is a morality of strength, power, and excellence! Enough with being held back. Enough with putting others first. Let the powerful be powerful. Let the beautiful be beautiful. Let the excellent be excellent. If you are none of these, bite your tongue, and get out of the way.

These are two moralities, two moral codes, two ways one could choose to live. Thinkers like Friedrich Nietzsche and Ayn Rand have done much to suggest this framing of the question “how should we live?” Many of us grow up thinking and being taught that we need to bottle up our impulses–control ourselves–and live by society’s rules. Nietzsche and Rand come along and rouse us from our slumber. Enough with mediocrity, they tell us. Shine–if indeed you can.

This lens is attractive, but it is distorting. Beyond the so-called morality of the weak and the so-called morality of the strong, there is a third morality.

First, we should note that a moral code does not aim to describe the world. It aims to give guidance as to how one should live in the world. And so there should be no question as to which moral code is ‘correct’ or ‘true’. It’s not like Nietzsche or Rand (if this is how we read them) “get it right.” There’s nothing to get right. Morality is a human project, not a feature of the universe.

But if morality is human project, then it is whatever we want to make it to be. And why not have a moral code that celebrates excellence without celebrating sociopathy? Why not have a moral code that says BE AWESOME and DON’T BE AN ASSHOLE? If I have a moral code to commend to you, it is this third morality. Neither slave morality nor master morality. Neither the morality of the sociopathic elite nor of the mediocre horde. It is the morality of the individual empowered to be excellent both in personal achievement and in empathy.

The idea that you have to choose between the two–between being awesome and not being cruel/mean/whatever–is unhelpful. Try both!

Consciousness and wonder

The so-called “mind-body problem” is a standard topic in upper division philosophy classes. Regardless of how far back the class starts (whether it starts with behaviorism or with Descartes), it inevitably ends up or passes through contemporary debates over ‘consciousness’. Consciousness–the ‘what it is like’ to be a being aware of the world–is thought to be mysterious. And philosophers, who love neologisms, have taken to calling the subjective ‘feel’ of experiences “qualia” (“quale” in the singular).

Qualia, they argue, are profoundly mysterious, because one can give a functional analysis of the mind without appealing to them. That is, what the mind does can be explained without reference to consciousness, which seems to imply that consciousness as such is epiphenomenal–like so much inert froth on the bubbling cauldron of our non-conscious brains. (See for instance David Chalmers’ argument in The Conscious Mind.) On this view, it is logically possible for there to be (though of course no one thinks there really are) zombies–people who look and act just like anyone else, but who aren’t conscious at all (there’s nothing it is like to be them). The writer Robert Wright (in the last section of his book Nonzero) has even gone so far as to say that consciousness, which we might never have had (!), is what gives life meaning.

As an empiricist however, I’m very skeptical of this claim that consciousness is epiphenomenal. It appears to be false. In the case of blindsight patients, for example, the loss of conscious experience has some pretty clear mental and behavioral implications. And so while philosophers may assert that a functional analysis of the mind that doesn’t appeal to consciousness is possible, this claim appears to be false. Philosophers, predictably, haven’t really offered anything but the most general analyses of the mind, and none nearly complex enough to account for the full range of human behaviors and capabilities.

Though they claim to be naturalists then, these philosophers are falling into a Cartesian trap. Descartes, if you recall, thought much could be learned about the mind (for instance, that it can survive without the body) through introspection. Some theistic philosophers still endorse (or employ without explicitly endorsing) such views (Richard Swinburne in The Evolution of the Soul for instance, and William Hasker in The Emergent Self). But if psychology and neuroscience teach us anything, it’s that our minds aren’t to be trusted for anything but the most mundane tasks–and even then, we’re pretty awful. (It’s always therapeutic and humbling to breeze through Wikipedia’s list of cognitive biases.) To be an empiricist then, is to reject the assumption that armchair philosophizing can tell us anything about how the world is structured. To be sure, close attention to one’s experiences can tell us a lot about those experiences, and even, in proper dialogue with the sciences, about the structure of the mind (but not the brain!)–that’s what meditative practice is all about. But introspection and thought-experiments (about zombies or otherwise) can’t tell us whether or not some feature of our mental life is ‘logically separable’ from all our other mental goings-on.

The pragmatist Hilary Putnam (in The Threefold Cord) has suggested that there is confusion about consciousness because consciousness is imagined to be a thin layer (epiphenomenally) superimposed on other mental phenomena. This confusion has its roots in the simple extraordinariness of being a living, conscious being. Being conscious is amazing!!

But the fact that we (and our closest evolutionary relatives) are undeniably conscious does not make consciousness a ‘thing’ (to be conceptually abstracted from the mind). We are alive, but life is not a ‘thing’. “Life” is our word for a variety of relatively well-understood biological processes. So also “mind” is our word for a variety of things the human brain does. So also “self” is a word we use to conveniently structure our world and experience, though no single ‘self’ is to be found in or around the brain. And finally, “consciousness” is just a word. Philosophers say it is a ‘property’ of certain types of organisms, but that is just another way of saying that some organisms are conscious. We get clarity on such phenomena not by trying to imagine zombies, but by doing research. Something, incidentally, philosophers are not very good at.

I’m not especially qualified to make this judgment, so take it with a grain of salt. But, as far as I can tell, much of so-called ‘consciousness studies’ (at least, that which is concerned with “the hard problem” of ‘explaining’ consciousness) is a waste of time.

It is said that philosophy begins in wonder. But no one said it had to be good philosophy.

Gay marriage, polygamy, and God

Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum has recently gotten a lot of flak (according to the L.A. Times) for saying what most social conservatives actually think, namely, that there’s no principled difference between accepting gay marriage and accepting polygamy and a whole host of alternative sexual arrangements. Comparisons with bestiality and incest (at least of a coercive kind) are, to my mind, entirely unwarranted. But I think progressives are being a bit simple-minded when they decry the connection between non-hetero marriage and non-pair marriage. If marriage isn’t the union of a man and a woman, after all, why shouldn’t it be the union of two women and one man? Of three, four, or five men? And so on.

The simplest argument for gay marriage is that (1) people want it, and (2) it harms no one. By the same logic, if domestic arrangements beyond the traditional pair are desired and can be made to last long enough to warrant legal recognition, they should be recognized by law too. Consenting adults should be able to enter into whatever domestic arrangement they see fit, and the law should keep up as best it can.

The debate over gay marriage is actually a great way to see how religion can be harmful. If one believes hetero marriage really is a divine ordained institution, anything else will be quite uncountenanceable. But if, as a good humanist and naturalist, one sees prevailing norms concerning relationships and marriage as products of a particular culture at a particular time and place, there will be no reason not to change those norms in accordance with changes in the culture. Marriage is and always has been a human creation. But belief in God, at least the way such belief works in North American culture, keeps one from realizing this. And the belief in God also justifies, baptizes, whatever prejudices happen to be codified in the tradition. Yes, gay marriage is “changing the definition of marriage”. So what? There is no God. Therefore changing the definition of marriage is permitted. And amply justified under present circumstances, I would add.

When I was still a Christian, I considered myself somewhat progressive on the question of gay marriage–I didn’t think it was necessarily ‘sinful’. But it wasn’t until I left the faith that I realized how entirely irrelevant sex and gender are to the value of a relationship. Of course, many Christians support the gay rights movement. More power to them. But to the extent that a theistic worldview provides a welcoming home to beliefs of the form “X is God-ordained”, there will always be the risk of (allegedly) divinely sanctioned social conservativism (that is, conservation of the tradition because, well, God approves of it, and not of alternatives).

From a humanist perspective, what matters is not what God supposedly thinks, but human beings and their welfare. (All sentient creatures, actually, but that’s a post for another day.) Social arrangements are thus to be evaluated on the basis of their conduciveness to human happiness, freedom, and flourishing. No more, no less.

So atheism commends itself to us by clearing the path, so to speak, between humanity and happiness. God has a tendency to get in the way.

Theists and theism

I was recently accused, on the basis of my general scorn for theism, of thinking that all theists were stupid. For the record then, I do not think theists are stupid. (For Thor’s sake, I was a theist just a couple of years ago!)

I think theism has been decisively discredited. (That’s an important difference.)

I like to make a distinction between deism and theism. Deism is the idea that a being (whom we can call God) originally wound the clock that is the universe but has since then had a total ‘hands off’ policy. That is, deism ‘answers’ the question “why is there something rather than nothing?” with “God”. Of course, this isn’t much of an answer. And I think what satisfaction it brings, it brings in virtue of some non-deistic assumptions (namely, some theistic assumptions), having to do with God’s ongoing involvement with and knowability through ‘creation’. But strict deism is, as far as I can tell, unfalsifiable as well as unverifiable. Philosophically this makes it uninteresting to me. I think it’s easier to stop the “why?” question before it gets to “God”, and stick with the mystery that is the universe. But perhaps that’s a matter of taste. Deists, if they’re consistent, should be functional atheists, so refuting deism is not an interesting philosophical project (to me).

Theism, on the other hand, is the belief that a being (whom we can call God) not only created everything but also continues to care about and be involved in ‘creation’. In the traditional monotheisms (Judaism, Christianity, Islam), this means that in addition to ‘general revelation’ (that which is revealed about God through the workings of nature) there is ‘special revelation’ (that which is revealed about God in a holy book or tradition), typically coupled with some notion of providence. And these are (among other things) what make theism indefensible–not in principle, for certainly if there were a god, special revelation and providence would make sense, but as a matter of empirical fact. There is nothing about the world’s religious books that isn’t exactly what one would expect from such books if there were no God. That’s damning! And, to the best of my knowledge, there’s no real way to tell providence from luck. Again, that’s very damning.

In brief, Christianity (and Judaism and Islam) looks exactly the way it would if it were just a human product, a human system designed to deal with the vagaries of human existence. And there’s nothing wrong with designing systems of thought to deal with the vagaries of human existence. But the traditional theisms trumpet around on the claim that they are more than mere constructs–they are the divinely revealed True Religion.

So yes, theism is most likely false. It no longer deserves our intellectual respect. Theists, on the other hand, are (some of them, at least) intelligent, well-meaning folk. I am no friend to theism, but I am friend to many a theist.

And as a sign of my intellectual respect for my theistic friends, I don’t pooh-pooh them or lie to them about the fact that I think they are dead wrong and harmfully so.

This is not a final pronouncement, but an invitation to conversation–the very stuff of friendship.