Angels or Slugs

Tim Mulgan's book Future People  is full of tricky, ingenious, subtle ideas.  It's mainly an attempt to hammer out the ethical rules that govern creating new people.  Here's the rule he winds up proposing  (p. 170)--
The Flexible Lexical Rule. Reproduce if and only if you want to, so long as you are reasonably sure that your child will enjoy a life above the lexical level, and very sure that the risk of your child falling below the zero level is  very small. 
The zero level is the level at which a life is not worth living.  The lexical level is...well, that's what I want to talk about.  "Lexical" connotes "like letters."  All of the As come before any of the Bs.  In our value systems some things take lexical priority over others.  Suppose you are an ardent Apple fan.  You are offered both Apple products and Dell products.  In ever case, you choose the Apple product.  You would rather have one Apple product than any number of Dell products.  But when they run out of Apple products (there aren't that many), you're happy to accept Dell products.  They do have some value to you. Apple stuff has lexical priority (for you) over Dell stuff.

Do some lives have lexical priority over others?  Mulgan thinks so.  Suppose God has already created a world with both angels and slugs.  (There's already variety in this world, so we don't have to worry about that as a desideratum.)  Should God create all the angels he can, before any more slugs?  Or is there some kind of an exchange rate?  Is creating one angel the same as creating a million slugs?  It's plausible to think that angels are lexically prior to slugs.  God should exhaust his angel-making powers before making any slugs, but he should go on to make some slugs. (Don't worry about omnipotence--the God talk here is obviously not to be taken seriously.)

Take a more real-worldish application of the idea: Tom Regan's famous case of four adults and a dog on a sinking lifeboat.  They all have inherent value and rights, he thinks.  In ordinary circumstances, the adults can't eat the dog.  But in this unusual situation, where all will die if nothing is done, he says the dog should be thrown overboard.  The dog has less to lose, in the way of valuable future experiences.  Dog-years just aren't as rich in value as people-years (assuming they're all normal, and other things are equal).

In fact, Regan says it would be better to throw a million dogs overboard, rather than one person.  (Why would we need to throw that many?  Presumably, they're teeny tiny dogs!)  Quick way to capture how Regan values people vs. dogs: he thinks in the lifeboat type situation, people take lexical priority over dogs.  We should save all the (normal) people before any of the (normal) dogs, but then we should go on to save dogs (if we can).

Mulgan, then, is saying that some people's lives take lexical priority. The lives above the lexical line are different--they're autonomous lives; the ones below are non-autonomous.  Don't worry. That doesn't mean he's for using non-autonomous people as slaves or food.  The way Mulgan uses the concept is not drastic.  Before creating a child, we ought to be reasonably sure he or she will live a life above the lexical line. Failing that, we can create children below the lexical line, but above the zero level.

Should we buy into the lexical priority of autonomous people?   How would the line affect the way we treated people once they are born?  Would we have to throw less autonomous people off of lifeboats?  Would a special-ed program have to put extra resources into the highest achieving kids, the ones with the best chance of getting above the lexical line?  And do less for those way below the line, since they'll never have the super-valuable type of life?

But back to basics.  All the angels before any of the slugs?  All the people (on the lifeboat) before any of the dogs?  Do any lives ever take lexical priority over other lives?  This is the most fundamental question, and the one that keeps rolling around in my head.

When the going gets tough, I say "make a poll."  Assume angels are like people, only even better.  And assume slugs have a tiny bit of mental life--only enough to enjoy a good slither.  So what about creating angels and slugs?  Four possibilities-- 

(1)  God should create all the angels before any of the slugs, though if he can't create any more angels, he should create some slugs (the lexical view).

(2)  It's all the same whether God creates one angel or some vast number of slugs (the exchangability view)

(3) It's all the same whether God creates one angel or one slug (the egalitarian view).

(4)  God should create angels only, because slugs have no value (the elitist view).

The poll is in the right column.


Fat Monkeys

Quick last violation of "Saturday only" blogging rule.  For people who think or teach or write about animal rights, this story about obesity research using monkeys and baboons makes perfect fodder for discussion.  Don't miss it!

Reply to Blackford

Now that I've had a chance to read Russell Blackford carefully, I want to respond to a few things he says about my post, "The Emperor's Gnu Clothes." To recap quickly:  I've compared new atheists like Dawkins and Harris to the girl in the original story--they're [admirably!] candid defiers of social convention.  In my second telling of the story, other kids along the parade route get revved up and start ridiculing the naked emperor for his corpulence.  When adults tell them to be careful how they communicate they just get mad at the adults.  So--there's a shift from candor to contempt--aimed both at the emperor and at the adults. 


The Greenest Possible World

A couple of nights ago I gave a presentation on the environmental impact of meat for SMU's vegetarian club.   Here's the slide show--comprehensible without my voice-over, I think.

The slide show makes an argument--that the future will bring either vastly more factory farming or more plant eating.  It cannot bring more traditional farming, with animals grazing under the wide blue sky.  Why not?  Because 30% of the earth's non-ice land surface is already covered in livestock (26%) and feedcrops (4%).  Lovers of wildlife should be extremely concerned.  "Mild" animals--billions of grazing cows and sheep--are literally crowding wild animals out of existence.  They are also contributing to climate change and depleting valuable resources.

There are lots of cool graphs, charts, and maps in the slideshow, many from the UN report Livestock's Long Shadow--a really fabulous resource. 

I think it's quite clear we should eat more plants, but here's what's less clear to me.  From a green point of view, how far (ideally) would we roll back animal farming?  Would we ideally reduce the 30% to 25%...to 20%...to 15%...or to what?  Some animal pastures can be converted to plant farming, with much higher nutritional yields. Plant farming is much more efficient.  But some pastures cannot, so that eliminating animal farming on that land means expanding plant agriculture elsewhere.  I suspect the greenest possible world feeding 9 billion people (in 2050) couldn't be a purely vegan world.

On the other hand, the greenest possible world will also not be one in which the whole world consumes animal protein at the rate that affluent countries do today. Consumption of animal products has to decline, if 9 billion people are going to be fed in 2050, with any land left for other species.  From a strictly environmental standpoint, the moral rule to promote is "eat more plants."  It's all to the good for some to eat none, to compensate for others who over-consume.  But in the greenest and most egalitarian of all possible worlds (that involve 9 billion people living on this planet), I think everyone will eat a little meat.

That's a surprising conclusion to reach, I think.  It's not ethically unproblematic to take the life of any animal, whether or not they have robust rights just like ours.  So it's odd to admit that it's got to be done.  Perhaps the best diagnosis is this:  there are so many humans that our options are tragically narrowed.  We simply cannot all survive and also grant animals the full moral status they are entitled to.  Going into a future with too many people and not enough land, we cannot completely stop using them as food.

On the other hand, we also can't use animals as food to the degree that we do now.  The average American's animal consumption is the highest in the world--250 pounds of meat per year! Consumption of animal products is going to have to decrease, but perhaps not to zero.

Sound right? Look at the charts, maps, and graphs in the slide show, and let me know what you think.


"The Emperor's Gnu Clothes" (from January 25) has recently been much discussed (Stangroom, Blackford, Coyne, Schoen, Rosenau).  That's for your reading pleasure. I think I've run out of things to say on the topic.


Female Atheists

So there's a lot of talk about this panel discussion (at the recent American Atheists meet-up in Huntsville, Alabama) at atheist blogs. [Hmm--the video has now been covered up with a complaint-retraction.  Too bad--why not let people watch and make up their own minds?!] As near as I can tell, the discussion started here and now it continues here.

Were the goings on unpardonably sexist?  To begin with, this wasn't a panel of five men and one woman specifically set up to discuss the under-representation of women in the atheist movement.  That would certainly have been ridiculous. It was an "attendees choice" panel designed to respond to attendees questions, whatever they might be.  The second question was about under-representation.

The video (see first link) doesn't, to my mind, reveal men behaving badly. It actually just reveals that a regional atheist meeting is run by "just folks."  Whereas academic, urban types consistently say "men and women," these people say "guys and girls" or (mostly) "males and females." Good heavens, I bet they don't read the New York Times either!  When an audience member gets up and complains about the term "female," the panelists aren't quick enough to point out that they've consistently paired that term with "male." No harm, no foul.

A panelist makes a klutzy joke about calling women "the fairer weaker sex," which reveals that the humor in Alabama isn't quite up to my standards. [4:45 pm:  OK, with that change it's more obnoxious.]

As to the one woman on the panel being drowned out.  I really don't see that.  She's given a chance to speak, but doesn't use it well.  She doesn't seem to have much to say or maybe she's just not a confident public speaker.  It doesn't look to me as if she's bullied or interrupted.

So--I see no special problem with the session, but what about this issue of women being under-represented in the atheist movement?   I know lots of women who don't believe in God, but can't imagine any of them going to an atheist meeting.  Why not?  I think the belief is just not important to them. It's not central to their lives, doesn't define who they are.  They affiliate based on other interests--in culture, politics, books, and (drum roll) being Jewish.  But not based on thinking there ain't no deity.  That's a big "who cares?"

To get them to go to atheist meetings, you'd have to get them to care more.  But would it be good for them to care more?  Would they be better off, or would the meetings just be more gender balanced?  Hard question!

I'm a little different.  Being an atheist is not central to my life and doesn't define who I am.  If I want to make the world a better place, I'm going to choose a different focus.  But I like ideas, philosophy, debate.  For "public intellectuals," atheism is one of the lively subjects of the day.  I'm attracted to corners of the internet where atheism is discussed, and likewise I'd be attracted to real world venues.   Plus, I teach classes where atheism comes up, and both of my books have a connection to the topic. Plus, I've written a few articles for Free Inquiry and written a fair amount about atheism at this blog.

So:  "Pick me, pick me!"  I'd be happy to speak at an atheist meeting--about religion and the good life; or about animal rights and atheism; or (fun, fun, fun) about accommodationism.  Conference organizers could increase the number of female speakers if they put their minds to it.


Atheism in America

I had a lot of fun looking for atheists last week--with Julian Baggini, who is writing an article about atheism in America. He found a bunch, including a bunch of teenagers, some of them deep in the heart of Texas. Think ranches and cowboy churches, and bad coffee with good fried pie. I can't wait for the article to come out (in April).

He also gave a talk to a group comprised of SMU undergraduates and faculty, plus members of a local "fellowship of free thought." He explained what atheism is and isn't, and argued that atheists and theists can get along. Atheists come to be overly anti-theist, he said, when they don't try to understand what religion offers people. It doesn't so much offer doctrine as it offers practices --many positive, like expressing gratitude before meals, and creates communities.

Julian was questioned and challenged a bit, but there was no major battle. Which tells me that atheists out in the real world do not look exactly like atheists on the internet. I had the same sense while listening in on a few interviews.

The more that atheists "come out," the more than everyone's going to know one, and the public perception is going to shift. Not only will it shift way from the longstanding misperception that atheists are immoral people--devil worshippers, maybe. I think it may also shift away from a more recent misperception--that new atheists like Dawkins, Harris, etc., have the typical attitudes. More and more, I think not. They really are anti-theists, and I'm not sure that's true of the rank and file American skeptic.

But we'll see--I suspect Julian's article will shed more light.


'Sno Joke!


photo via Jerry Coyne