4/28/12

Who to Trust?

I've been watching the debate between Bart Ehrman and Richard Carrier with fascination.  I'm a fan of Bart Ehrman's, based on reading two of his books--Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millenium and one correcting errors in The DaVinci Code.  Richard Carrier is someone I've noticed over the years peripherally, without paying direct attention to him. People seemed to think he was super-smart. Now Ehrman has written a book excoriating Carrier and other mythicists--people who think Jesus is 100% a myth, not a historical figure. The debate gets enormously complicated, and I'm not about to do the homework it takes to follow every move.  In a situation like this, you have to save time and effort and ask yourself "Who do I trust?"  That's exactly how Carrier would have me approach this, for which I am (of course) grateful.  Carrier writes--
I do not see this as a competition between us as to who is the better scholar, but as simply a matter of who to trust: someone who presents carefully researched, carefully worded, carefully reasoned work on this subject, with a minimum of mistakes (because as I’ve said, I make them, too), or someone who doesn’t.
The part after "who to trust" is tendentious, of course.  Bart Ehrman's books are fantastic, and they show he's a good scholar and perfectly prepared to be a skeptic (he abandoned the Christian faith of his youth).  In rounds one and two of the web-debate, I think Ehrman slaughters Carrier.  But here's what really destroyed Carrier's reputation in my eyes. It so happens that the first thing Carrier wrote after he joined Free Thought Blogs was an astonishingly cocky yet unbelievably stupid diatribe called "Meat not Bad".  The thing was shot through with errors, yet the tone invited the reader to think Carrier was Mr. Smart slaughtering all the dummies. His conclusion: "I think being a vegetarian out of 'compassion' is irrational. I mean that in the classic sense: it’s a non sequitur, and thus illogical. It’s to treat animals like people, which they are not."

You could not read the literature on the treatment of animals, or watch videos put out by reliable groups like the Humane Society, and come away with this opinion. Could not. Yet he holds forth with certitude, and make the other side out to be illogical. This, I take it, is Carrier's modus operandi.  It's exactly what you see in his current debate with Ehrman.  So I have no time for Richard Carrier, but Ehrman's book sounds fun--perhaps just because it's intriguing how some atheists are so determined to move from "No God" to "No Jesus".  I'd like to see this passion for no-Jesus dissected.

4/26/12

Martha Nussbaum on Religious Intolerance

She talks about her latest book The New Religious Intolerance here.  I think she goes too far in the direction of "can't we all just get along?"  What she says about martyrdom made me especially queasy.  People who let themselves be killed during the Holocaust, in solidarity with Jews, have no connection with suicide bombers who blow up other people in the service of "jihad".  And no, we don't have as much reason to worry about orthodox Jews as we have to worry about fundamentalist Muslims.  Nonetheless, an interesting interview, and the book is probably good reading too.

4/25/12

Collective Obligation, Personal Virtue


So here's the puzzle I'm scratching my head about (though I ought to be grading papers):  Each society has a more or less ideal birth rate.  Maybe for the US it's ideal if the average couple has two children.  We don't want a higher birth rate for environmental reasons, among others, and we don't want a lower birth rate for lots of reasons -- because new people will be needed to support the elderly, because people are valuable to each other as consumers, inventors, helpers, etc., and because a new human life is intrinsically good. (If the ideal average strikes you as somewhat less than two per couple, so be it.  Let's not quarrel about details.)

Anyhow, there's this ideal birth rate, but on that basis, what moral judgments should we make?  I can't see saying the person with four children has behaved impermissibly, let alone the person with no children.  To justify this reticence, it helps to think that a society has a collective obligation to maintain a certain birth rate, and to think this doesn't translate automatically into individual obligations.  If our birthrate in 2012 is three children per couple then we've gone wrong, but that's not actomatically to say that specific people with zero or four children have gone wrong. If our collective birthrate is in fact two children per couple, then nobody's gone wrong -- not even someone with eight children. 

But now (getting to the heart of the matter): we ought to say something at an individual level. After all, the birthrate depends entirely on individual decisions. What should we say?  If we say every couple should have two children, that's saying exactly what we decided we shouldn't say.  We want to say something "softer" - but not too soft!  Perhaps after saying what we ought to do collectively, what we need to talk about at the individual level is virtue, not obligation.

But ... what's the virtue?  Perhaps I just haven't read the right literature (recommendations anyone?) but it seems like the critical virtue is not one on the big famous lists of virtues, like the Aristotelian list or the Christian list.  The relevant virtue is being "socially responsible." That is to say, being mindful of what's good for a society as a whole and mindful of the impact of one's personal decisions. 

How are we going to credit people or blame then, if we think in these terms?  If the ideal birthrate is two children, we're not going to blame someone with over two children because they may have been perfectly mindful. If you're an American and you know that our birth rate has been 2.1 for the last ten years, you can have four children without there being anything socially irresponsible about it. You may have known that some childless couple would balance your high fecundity.

But what if our birthrate gets too high or too low? Should we think a childless couple, in a country with a too-low birthrate, is socially irresponsible? That's not to say they're acting wrongly, but even saying they're socially irresponsible sounds too harsh. Maybe we just need a subtle distinction.  They're not displaying social responsibility, in that particular part of their lives, but that's not the same thing as being irresponsible.  Similarly, someone who doesn't join the army doesn't display courage, but that's not to say they're necessarily being cowardly.

The same might be said about a couple who have 4 kids when they know the birthrate in their society is too high.  Not socially responsible!  At some point, though, I suppose we have to stop being delicate and just say "socially irresponsible." There's an important asymmetry here. While it's almost never socially irresponsible to have no children, except "in extremis" (think End of the World scenario), it's not so rare for it to be socially irresponsible to have another child -- your 10th or 15th or whatever.

So:  there are collective obligations, but at the individual level, just virtues and vices, as well as their absences (an important wrinkle).  This is not at all how you'd want to conceptualize every domain of ethics, but it seems right in the case of reproduction. Or so it seems, at the moment ....


4/22/12

The Case for Meat


The New York Times parade of meat-defenses is in -- let's have a look.  One of them is a defense of eating lab meat, not natural meat, so let's throw that out, no matter how well written it is.  I also happen to know who the author is, and she's actively seeking votes. I think that's a no-no in a contest like this.  The idea is to find out which of the six essays appeals most to Times readers, not who has the most friends and supporters.

Then there are essays that make some use of philosophy - perhaps written by philosophers. For What Shall We Be Blamed -- and Why? grants that not eating animals is morally ideal, but says all evils don't have "equal claim to our energies."  Inevitably, we'll do some bad things ("the moral world is tragic") and we need to avoid the worst things first.  So when many things are vying for attention, we may make avoiding meat-eating less than our first priority. A single mother with two jobs and three kids may serve her kids chicken instead of trying to figure out how to make lentil stew.  A young vegetarian may eat the roast beef his mother prepared when he goes home for a family visit.  I hope the judges don't pick this essay, because it gives people a pass to eat meat in pretty rare circumstances.  What's wanted is a more general, frequently applicable defense.

Meat is Ethical. Meat is Bad. makes use of philosophy too, but I think not well.  The author says there's a difference between harming someone by making her worse off during some time period and "making her worse off in some way in her life considered as a whole." The author then says "It is only by harming someone in this second way that something can count as bad."  But this is seriously nonsensical, so we don't need to bother with the paragraph that comes next--on why we should think animals can't be harmed in the second way.  Obviously you can harm do something bad to someone, even if the harm badness doesn't mar her life as a whole.  No reasonable person thinks that smacks, lies, thefts, broken promises, etc., when delivered to humans, only harm are only bad when they harm the victim's life as a whole.  The author goes on to say meat is bad, but only because it horrifies us to think of the animal we killed.  We shouldn't feel horrified (because we don't really harm do anything bad to animals), but we do. "And until we cease to be so we will have a powerful self-interested reason to not eat meat."  A strange conclusion to end with for someone trying to defend eating meat. If the judges pick this essay, I'll eat my hat. [corrections thanks to "anonymous"]

More philosophy.  Sometimes It's More Ethical to Eat Meat Than Vegetables. turns on a principle from Aldo Leopold's land ethic: "A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise."  On that basis, the author thinks it's sometimes going to be right (in fact, obligatory) to eat meat, but often wrong. "A well-managed, free-ranged cow is able to turn the sunlight captured by plants into condensed calories and protein with the aid of the microorganisms in its gut. Sun > diverse plants > cow > human."  So--you can treat individuals any way you like, so long as you aren't haring the "biotic community."  This will make no sense to people who take animals seriously as individuals--like most people do, when it comes to their dogs and cats. So I think this fails to make an effective defense of meat-eating.

And now let's talk about the two manure essays.  I think one of these is going to win.  This is the Deal We've Made is nice and straightforward. The author says "the domestication of animals and the cultivation of vegetables go hand in hand."  You have to enrich the soil to grow vegetables, and animal manure plays a crucial role. Then there's an argument about "the deal" we've made --"we humans create an environment in which the plant or animal can thrive, we encourage reproduction and, in exchange, we harvest a portion of the crop."  The author wisely points out that we have to live up to our end of the deal.  "It's not enough to simply ensure the safety and survival of my animals. As fellow sentient creatures with whom I am engaged in a partnership, I have a responsibility to show both respect and benevolence, in life and death."  So: no factory farming allowed, but it's ethically defensible to eat meat from well-treated animals.  If you're eating vegetables grown in manure, your diet depends on meat-eating, even if you don't eat meat.  So how could a vegetarian diet be any more ethically defensible than a meat diet?  I think this is a good question.

We Require Balance. Balance Requires Meat. makes some manure points too, but I prefer "This is the Deal" for two reasons.  One is that the "deal" talk is essentially ethical, so the "deal" author does a better job of making an ethical case for eating meat.  The other problem is that in the "Balance" essay focuses explicitly on organic farming, whereas the "Deal" argument centers on any plant farming that uses manure at all. The "Balance" reasoning is:  we must confine ourselves to organic farming; organic farming requires manure; manure comes from the animals we eat.  I don't think we can really feed 7 billion people with organic-only farming, because the yields per acre are too low.  So this defense of meat eating rests on an unstable foundation.

So: "This is the Deal" gets my vote. But here's the question I'm left with.  What percentage of plant farming involves animal products as fertilizer?  What would manure-free conventional agriculture be like? (Let's not add the restriction "organic" -- as I said above, I don't believe the world can go all-organic.)  Could we work toward a world in which plant farmers don't depend at all on animal agriculture?  Would a future like that be viable? If plant agriculture not only does depend on animal agriculture, but must depend on animal agriculture, then I think "This is the Deal" makes a pretty formidable argument.

So:  which essay did you like best?

**

p.s. Some people don't care for this contest,  but I do.  Most people who think about meat eating a great deal are against it, particularly people who write about it (as journalists or philosophers), so it's interesting to have an airing of possible defenses.  It's also useful to have the winnowing of defenses done by people like Peter Singer and Michael Pollan.  This raises the level of discussion, eliminating defenses that are flat-out speciesist, or wrapped up in hopelessly unimpressive ideas about human privilege.  None of the final six essays say anything like "Humans are rational and self-aware; so they have rights and animals don't; so animals are on the menu. " Thank God! With long and careful thought, most people will ultimately not find that sort of thing to be a convincing or satisfying defense of meat-eating.  I think the final six essays do include some of the thoughts that stand the best chance of surviving careful reflection about the ethics of meat.

4/14/12

Coyne v. Haidt

I thought it was not so nice of Jerry Coyne to dismiss Jonathan Haidt as "a bit of a woo-ish self-help guru". In fact, both unnice and not reality-based. Haidt's book The Happiness Hypothesis is extremely interesting and well-written, and no less valuable because it does have a self-help element (I use it in a course I teach). And that's saying nothing about his extensive and influential research on morality and disgust.  Haidt is a mere "faitheist" (he is an atheist) in Coyne's eyes because he's not a religion-hater.  Outrageous! But Haidt turns out to be above the fray.  He responds to the substance of Coyne's post in this long and interesting comment.  (My extra-curricular reading list is getting horribly long.  Mooney and Haidt and E. O. Wilson's new book.)

Children Come from Us


pics on Sodahead
I've been thinking-writing about why people want to be parents -- what are the most central motivations and satisfactions?  This is a hard thing to think about without being constrained by a sort of political correctness.  The politically correct view, I think, is that we have children to enjoy nurturing them.  That's PC because nearly everyone who wants to be a parent can have that.  Single people, gay couples, infertile people ... everyone has access to the experience of raising a child, if they're willing to adopt.  But then, is that politically correct enough?  Some will be touchy about an account of why people parent that suggests that parents have something that's unavailable to people who are voluntarily childless.  We need to identify the good of being a parent in some utterly neutral way that leaves nobody out.

Abrupt segue: I'm thinking about reading Chris Mooney's new book The Republican Brain, and Jonathan Haidt's book The Righteous Mind, because I wonder whose side I'm on.  Mooney thinks there's something especially distorting about brains on the right, while Haidt thinks liberals and conservatives are guilty of their own distortions.  This comes to mind because the pressure to discuss parenthood in a way that's politically correct -- that leaves no one out -- is a peculiarly left phenomenon.  If someone wrote a book called The Liberal Brain it would have a very long chapter on political correctness.

Anyhow--the politically incorrect thing I'd like to say about parenthood is that people want to have a child who comes from them.  Being the source of a new human being is thrilling and satisfying.  Note: this isn't a question of simply sharing genes. With all due respect to my brothers, it's not thrilling in the same way to have a brother, though you share as many genes with your brother as with a child.  The child, but not the brother, comes from you.  Nor is the joy really a question of shared genes at all.  I enjoy the fact that the kids who come from me both have blue eyes, though I'm a hazel-eyed member of a dark-eyed family  (but apparently a blue-eyed gene carrier).  I enjoy the fact that my daughter joined the choir, though I can't imagine wanting to sing in a group.  I would enjoy the fact that my children come from me even if I didn't have a clue about genes--what's satisfying is 'coming from" itself, not the genetic backstory.

Now, saying all this does make me nervous.  After all, I'm a good liberal, and a good liberal does not want to leave anyone out.  I don't like the feeling of glorifying an aspect of parenthood that some people will have to live without.  When I was trying to become with child 16 years ago, I spent quite some time in close contact with people dealing with infertility.  Some of them were never able to conceive. Some moved on to adoption.  One adopted and then conceived.  There is a lot of pressure to say that whether you adopt or conceive, you wind up with exactly the same thing--a child to nurture. The nurturing is the real treat, not being the source of the child.

Only it's not entirely true. Being the source of a child is thrilling, and I think most people will work for years and years before adopting because most people want to experience that.  So what's a good liberal to do?  Value pluralism to the rescue!  If I say that "coming from" is something people want, it doesn't follow there's nothing else they want.  If you read memoirs of adoption (like Scott Simon's) you can see that the desires and satisfactions of adoption are different, but deep.  He talks about a feeling that might be the counterpart of the "coming from" feeling--it's the feeling that a certain child was "meant to be" yours.  Kismet made that child come into your life.

Now--you might say--the "meant to be" story isn't as true as the "coming from" story.  It's more of a poetic gloss on the experience of adoption, as opposed to having a basis in fact. But maybe what's going on here is real enough--it's the beginning of love and commitment, and really does feel like "meant to be."  Lots of people start romantic relationships with exactly that sense of fatedness.

Perhaps the two feelings--"comes from me" and "meant to be"-- are separate and different roads to the same destination--child of mine.  The liberal in me won't let me say the biological road is better, and maybe it really isn't better.  It's undeniable that adoption has a plus ethically--I don't think we benefit children by creating them, but we do by adopting them.  Perhaps the experience is also every bit as magical--Scott Simon's memoir makes it seem so. In any event, it's important that you wind up with child of mine.  Wanting to nurture a child is obviously one of the big motivations of parents, but nurturing mine is very much at the heart of the experience.

4/8/12

Easter Blasphemy

I thought I'd indulge in some Easter blasphemy ...

Blasphemous thought: do Christians really believe today the son of God was resurrected and saved all believers from their sins? If they really took that seriously, would they honor the occasion by focusing on a giant bunny who brings candy to children?

... but then I read Nicholas Kristof ("God Makes a Comeback"), and I think I'm pretty much in that camp--the camp (including Alain deBotton, Jonathan Haidt, and E. O. Wilson) that says we should recognize the often positive functional significance of religion, and not harp endlessly on the (er) problematic truth values.  Religion knits people together into cohesive groups that at least often do better together.  The Easter bunny business makes me think quite possibly even true believers aren't actually that focused on the serious literally content of religion. "It's the cohesion, stupid!", to mangle a wise political slogan.

4/6/12

Zoopolis (3)

Final post. This is the book that everyone in animal ethics ought to be talking about, and no doubt will be talking about in the fullness of time. You need to read it, if you're interested in the moral status of animals. 

The plot, if you haven't been reading my posts on the book:  Donaldson and Kymlicka argue that all animals have basic rights, but that they also have further rights, depending on which of three categories they fall into.  The very original suggestion of the book is that the crucial categories are political, not merely moral. Animal companions are entitled to full citizenship within their "home" country.  Wild animals should be treated like separate and sovereign nations.  Then there are "liminal" animals who depend on humans, but aren't in a cooperative, mutual relationship with them. They're the resident aliens, akin to migrant workers. They're entitled to denizenship, but not citizenship.

Are they serious? Do they think dogs should be citizens, or are they just a bit like citizens?  Should we regard Grizzly Bear Nation as really another nation, or just analogous to Cherokee Nation (for example)?  Are rats really resident aliens, or is this just a metaphor?  The authors opt for "really" in all these cases. I think this is where the book is most vulnerable.  They have a very detailed and perceptive discussion of the human side of each parallel--human citizenship, sovereignty, and denizenship are discussed with great detail and subtlety.  They also discuss animals, and the animal-human relationship, in enormous and fascinating detail. What's not so convincingly defended is the idea that the categories are more than metaphorical--that they're literally a good fit.

For example, it seems like no more than a metaphor to say that people are engaged in "ethnic cleansing" when they exterminate rats (liminal animals).  I can sort of see the connection between rats and squirrels and resident aliens -- it's not so off base that I'm utterly baffled.  But still ... Ethnic cleansing, literally? When rats are removed from a basement, they become refugees, they say.  Or do they just become like refugees? To get from "like refugees" to "refugees" seems to require some pretty heavy-duty anthropomorphizing.

There's lots of anthropomorphizing in this book, as much as I hate making that tired charge. For example, when they're making their case for wild animal sovereignty, the authors frequently talk about animal "communities".  We are to respect the autonomy of elephants in the way European colonizers should have respected the autonomy of first peoples.  But "community" is a bit loaded.  A human community conceives itself as a community and aims to preserve itself as a community.  A herd of elephants, or school of fish, of flock of flamingos--these are all cohesive groups, to be sure. But are they really "communities", exactly?  Are they communities in the sense that would be needed to conceptualize the duty to respect elephant autonomy just as we conceptualize the duty to respect native American autonomy?

The very long discussion of animals fit for citizenship is rather anthromorphic too.  When we have rules prohibiting companion animals in restaurants, that's demeaning to the animals, they say, like it's demeaning keeping blacks out of restaurants.  It makes dogs second class when they have to be tied up outside.  Sort of!  But exactly?  In a discussion of sterilizing dogs, they talk about animals wanting to have families. Do dogs ever really want to have families--if you use that phrase literally? Do dogs even have families, in the sense that people have families?  Sure, they reproduce.  But do they have families?

The are lots and lots of examples like this.  My sense is that the authors have achieved a very high degree of clarity and precision, in their account of our duties to animals. Once we see elephants as members of Elephant Nation, we much better understand what we should and shouldn't do. Once rats are thought of as being like migrant workers, our duties toward them are much clarified.  If dogs are citizens, that tells us a great deal about how we must treat them.  But this is a bit like the maneuver of pro-lifers. Instead of having an ethics for what a fetus really is (an intermediate entity that truly is in a grey zone), they say a fetus is straightforwardly a person, from conception onwards. Then the ethics of abortion becomes a whole lot more manageable. But (ahem) who really thinks a fetus is a person?  I wonder if anyone really does, in their heart of hearts.  Likewise, everything will be much clearer if we can convince ourselves that whales comprise Whale Nation, or that our cats are fellow citizens.

Regardless of my worries, I really enjoyed this book. It's extremely well written and carefully argued, and stuffed with fascinating observations about humans, animals, and the relations between them.  Another reason I enjoyed it is that it felt a bit like science fiction--as I read, I was able to imagine a completely different world from ours, one in which animals are seen as fellow citizens, resident aliens, and "foreigners".  Dream novel:  Margaret Atwood reads Zoopolis and creates a fictional world like that.  Question: is it a utopia or a dystopia?  Would it be all to the good to alter reality in this way, or in some ways bad?

I'll just end with an excerpt which I found lovely and insightful--



4/5/12

The Dead Have Rights

I was amazed to learn this morning, from a coroner's report, that Whitney Houston was wearing a wig and dentures when she died, and that she had breast implants.    I was even more amazed to realize that a government coroner's office will tell the whole world private information like this, even though it has no connection at all to what they're supposed to be investigating--the cause of her death.  Once you are a dead body, you have no secrets.  Not only can the state take your clothes off and dissect your body--that part's understandable--but they can broadcast anything they discover to the entire world, without having to justify specific disclosures in terms of the public's rights to know about them.  Everything's out in the open, if you have the misfortune of being dead.

Surely laws could be written to protect the privacy of the dead.  How about it?  The Whitney Houston Privacy Act--in all 50 states?  Of course, the Supreme Court might strike it down--obviously privacy means nothing to the brilliant dudes who recently upheld strip searches for people held on the most minor charges.  But it's worth a try. I can't see any earthly reason why Whitney Houston shouldn't have been able to take her most personal secrets to the grave.

4/3/12

Exciting Day in Dallas

It's amazing how calm this guy's voice is!