Quick Post: Why I’m pro-choice but okay with Zoe’s Law #auspol

I tend to stick away from conversations involving abortion because it is such a sensitive subject.  It’s a conversation which is routinely trolled and is intensely personal.  I can’t think of a legislative issue which has similar stakes.

As a guy, the subject is at arm’s length and I struggle to know the extent to which I can engage with the subject.  There’s an intellectual, emotional, and lived distance between myself and the subject to which I need to be sensitive.

At the same time, as a piece of public discussion, I find it extremely interesting to explore the issues and what they mean for me and how they accord with my other political views.  As a piece of politics, I find it interesting to see the ways in which the issue is framed and to see the way language is used to control the way we think about the issue.

Take the following four scenarios.

  1. A woman discovers that she is two months pregnant but does not wish to be.
  2. A woman is eight months pregnant and her partner dies.  She does not wish to continue with the pregnancy.
  3. A woman is eight months pregnant.  She and her partner decide to end their relationship.  She does not wish to continue with the pregnancy.
  4. A woman has gone into labour.  During childbirth there is a medical complication.  The doctors inform the parents that the child has been severely brain damaged.

In all four of the above scenarios, I do not consider it ethically wrong to terminate the child.  I believe this qualifies me for the label ‘pro-choice’ (even ‘pro-death’) but various people — including Van Badham — have informed me that I am actually pro-life (and anti-choice).

Why?  Because I also think the principle behind Zoe’s Law is a good one.

Continue reading

Quote: On the use of dialogue as a philosophical medium #atheism

One of my stock arguments is about genuine moral dilemmas and their expression in virtue ethics: the idea that two morally excellent people could disagree on a particular subject without it being ‘merely a matter of opinion’ or with the interlocutors having to ‘agree to disagree’.  It’s about trying to find something like ‘co-correctness’, where more than one moral position on an issue is valid or where the parties can identify the cause for their differing position.

I’ve said that dialogue format is conducive to this kind of writing.  You try to imagine two morally excellent people having a discussion where the parties disagree.  I happened to open up Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Reason to find the following quote:

It has been remarked, my HERMIPPUS, that though the ancient philosophers conveyed most of their instruction in the form of dialogue, this method of composition has been little practised in later ages, and has seldom succeeded in the hands of those who have attempted it. Accurate and regular argument, indeed, such as is now expected of philosophical inquirers, naturally throws a man into the methodical and didactic manner; where he can immediately, without preparation, explain the point at which he aims; and thence proceed, without interruption, to deduce the proofs on which it is established. To deliver a SYSTEM in conversation, scarcely appears natural; and while the dialogue-writer desires, by departing from the direct style of composition, to give a freer air to his performance, and avoid the appearance of Author and Reader, he is apt to run into a worse inconvenience, and convey the image of Pedagogue and Pupil. Or, if he carries on the dispute in the natural spirit of good company, by throwing in a variety of topics, and preserving a proper balance among the speakers, he often loses so much time in preparations and transitions, that the reader will scarcely think himself compensated, by all the graces of dialogue, for the order, brevity, and precision, which are sacrificed to them.

There are some subjects, however, to which dialogue-writing is peculiarly adapted, and where it is still preferable to the direct and simple method of composition.

Any point of doctrine, which is so obvious that it scarcely admits of dispute, but at the same time so important that it cannot be too often inculcated, seems to require some such method of handling it; where the novelty of the manner may compensate the triteness of the subject; where the vivacity of conversation may enforce the precept; and where the variety of lights, presented by various personages and characters, may appear neither tedious nor redundant. [Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Reason]

It’s good to know that I wasn’t going out on a limb…

If it bleeds, we can kill it… Ethics of Eating Meat (cc @tammois @msizer)

By and large, the ethics of eating meat doesn’t cross our minds. It usually takes a spectacular screw up – like the live export outcry last year – for the question to bubble up in public debate.

It doesn’t seem unreasonable to apportion some of the blame for this apathy on animal rights activists themselves. PeTA did a spectacular job of turning the animal exploitation into a debate about sexual exploitation with their scantily clad models. When discussing animal rights with most vegans and vegetarians, it is almost as if the parties are speaking their own language. In a recent discussion with @MSizer, there was fundamental disagreement about the words in play. What does it mean to make a creature suffer? To Sizer, if you killed an animal painlessly, the animal had suffered because it couldn’t pursue its life goals. To Sizer, a humane death was impossible if not in the interests of the animal itself.

In response to the discussion, left wing pastoralist and primary producer, @tammois shifted the debate on pragmatic terms. Even if Sizer was correct, people eat meat for complex reasons and, as such, Sizer should be more concerned about engaging people in a discussion about how to eat meat ethically rather than disengaging them by asking whether eating meat is ethical at all. You can read her summary here.

@Tammois’ point is correct but it doesn’t engage with Sizer’s point. Sizer denies that any production of meat is ethical (and considers using their products to be exploitative).

I used to be a vegetarian, so I’m not unsympathetic to Sizer’s cause. There is a strong need to rationalise our intuitions about the world. The modern convenience of getting meat from the supermarket means the ordinary person is less and less likely to connect ‘meat’ with ‘animal who frolicked in the fields with enormous Disney eyes’.

But it’s not an intuition we can support consistently. We kill things all the time, directly or indirectly. In order to support the population we’ve got now, we have to farm unfarmable lands and impact ecosystems in ways we can’t possibly imagine. If we are ill, we privilege our well being over the parasites in our stomach. Our immune systems destroy all kinds of life forms. When a woman doesn’t want a pregnancy, she can terminate it even though it interferes in the child’s pursuit of life goals. Killing things is not ipso facto a moral wrong.

If you don’t share Sizer’s dictionary, there is no reasonable argument against eating meat. If an animal is killed humanely, no reasonable person would say that it suffered. We are not inflicting pain on the world. We are not sadistically carving creatures whimsically.

The previous two paragraphs create a spectrum. If killing things is not morally wrong, there appear to be times when killing things is morally wrong. More precisely, it’s the lead up to the death which pricks our moral ears.

Consider killing a person. What is it about taking a human life which makes it troublesome? Historically, we’ve attached an idea of sanctity to it. Human life is special because it is sacred. If we don’t subscribe to the religious idea of the human person, we’re in a bit of trouble with that line of thought. The best we can do is affirm a principle that we don’t interfere with a person without their consent (whatever that means) and killing somebody (ordinarily) is a breach of that principle. Some people might suggest it’s in the interest of survivors to punish murderers, but that’s a difficult line to pursue.

We don’t run into the above problem with animals. Even if we’re not killing them, we interfere with animals without their consent all the time. We move them, shelter them, feed them, sell them, breed them, &c. Sizer’s argument about interfering with liberty (and therefore making them suffer) doesn’t match what we consider to be ordinary engagement with the animal kingdom. That doesn’t necessarily mean our engagement is correct, but it is more difficult to see how we could be incorrect.

Despite that, it doesn’t seem to be open slather season. We can imagine a time when a person consents to death but the person carrying out the wish takes pleasure in making the death as painful as possible. Here, consent isn’t really the issue (though we could ask if the person consenting to death consented to an excruciating death). The issue appears to be the character of the executioner.

Most of us don’t inflict pain on sentient creatures not because we worry about the metaphysics of rights or the philosophy of consciousness, but because we don’t want to be the sort of people who are cruel and sadistic. We worry about our virtue as people, and the behaviour of the sadistic executioner troubles that sense of our collective virtue.

The above results in the position that it’s not death which should worry us, but pain. Given that we can obtain meat without inflicting barbarous torture, eating meat can be ethically fine.

(P.S. The original title of this post was going to be ‘What Would Jesus Eat?’ but I wasn’t sure I could justify kosher meat production due to my hideous and inexcusable ignorance of it)

I remember when I lost my mind… there was something about the way they taught ethics

I’m going to update regarding the essay in The Australian Book of Atheism which argues:

Premiss 1: Religious education is bad.

Therefore: Religious education is bad.

But in discussing some of the ideas elsewhere, I got bogged down in an argument with @pandeiacomic on Twitter about Primary Ethics.

In NSW, the Education Act has been changed to allow students to receive ‘philosophical ethics classes’ instead of going to religious studies classes.  As an atheist myself, I think this is a bad idea.  I feel that a lot of our social problems relate to cultural illiteracy: we lack the language to construct a positive and robust discussion about our culture and society.  If religious education classes were taught well (and I happily admit that they are not — I’m not sure what educational relevance colouring a picture of Jesus holding a duck has to do with religious instruction), they would help people discuss culture meaningfully.

Sometimes, I wonder if my fellow atheists would be better equipped to discuss religion if they’d had better religious instruction (one of the essays in The Australian Book of Atheism starts discussing religion in society before going off on an irrelevant rant that the Earth didn’t begin 6,000 years ago; because, you know, hurr hurr that’s what theists believe). Continue reading

They made us this way for what they can never say… Descriptivist normativity in philosophy of sex

Oooooh, big words.  Fortunately, they mean something interesting.

I had a bit of a snark at Family First for their normative view of the family: children ought to have a mother and a father.  I rejected it based on the need for the ‘correct’ kind of mother and father, suggesting we should replace this with ‘Children ought to have a loving environment’.

I could have attacked the statement in a way more similar to the fashion of the time: assert that there is something fundamentally flawed about normative statements regarding lived experience.  There’s an article in the Sydney Morning Herald regarding sexual morality and why monogamous relationships are somehow the worst possible things we could do to ourselves.

Using anthropology, anatomy, archaeology and primatology. Ryan takes aim at what he calls the “standard narrative”, the idea that men and women evolved in families in which a man’s possessions and protection were exchanged for the women’s fertility and fidelity. This notion, what the anthropologist Helen Fisher calls the ”sex contract”, has long dominated our thinking about sexual evolution.

But it is a myth, according to Ryan, who points out that for 2 million years our ancestors lived in small, interdependent, highly egalitarian groups who shared everything, including sex. “Evidence suggests that our pre-agricultural ancestors would have had several ongoing sexual relationships at any one time,” Ryan says. “These overlapping, intersecting sexual relationships strengthened group cohesion and could offer a measure of security in an uncertain world.”  — Source.

While it’s difficult to analyse something based on the media release (and science journalism in Australia is woeful (though there might be a reason for that) think about precisely what’s been written here.  Ryan has attacked the ‘standard narrative’ based on how our ancestors lived for 2 million years.  It’s a weird comment to make, not least because Ryan isn’t an archaeologist or anthropologist, but because hominids haven’t existed as a single, continuous species for that amount of time.  Two million years ago, there were no domesticated animals.  Therefore, is it a myth that domestication affected the evolution of dogs?  Clearly, it’s not.  Did we domesticate ourselves?  Probably.  Could that have included an evolution of monogamous relationships?  Possibly.  So ‘2 million years ago, we were different’ isn’t an argument about our current behaviour.

But also consider the assumptions behind the statement.  In describing our ancestors, Ryan is alluding to a normative framework of how we should be. Continue reading

All of the boys and the girls here in Paris… also think there are objective moral wrongs

I endured Steven Spielberg’s A.I. last night (and if you’re morbidly curious what my running commentary was like, you can find it here).  One part in particular stuck out for me.  As you’re never going to watch this film, I’m sure a SPOILER ALERT isn’t needed, but here it is anyway:


At one point, the nasty humans — or ‘Orgas’ as they’re known in the film — go hunting unregistered robots — a.k.a. ‘Mechas’ — and hold a circus where the Orgas torture the Mechas.  One Mecha pleads for its ‘life’ before it’s put into a cannon and shot.  The last we see is its burning face sliding down the cage wall while the crowd cheers.  A disturbingly attractive Mecha — played by Clara Bellar — has acid poured on her and the crowd cheers as she dissolves.

They draw the line with the protagonist because they mistakenly think it’s a real boy.

This neatly touches upon a broader problem in philosophy caused by the dominance of the rights discourse in modern applied ethics.  Most people are intuitionists: they can’t tell why what they’re doing is moral and correct, but they can generally spot the difference between good actions and wrong actions with bellyfeel.  It’s one of the roles of the philosopher to help people elucidate what they believe and how they can reason with others about what they believe. Continue reading