Lumps and Statues

I'm still thinking about "first contact"--whether seeing blobs on an ultrasound is seeing our children for the first time. Or is that just an organism we see, and does the organism only later come to "constitute" (but not literally become) a child/person?  Which means I am reading and thinking a lot about ...  you guessed it ... lumps and statues.

The constitution view says a lump is one thing, a statue is another.  The lump constitutes (but isn't identical with) the statue.  If that makes sense, you might be able to use the same tools to describe the organism-to-person relationship.  An organism constitutes a person just as a lump constitutes a statue. Only (I confess) I have a very hard time taking lumps and statues seriously.  They seem "socially constructed"--to use a rather slippery term. That becomes clear when you tell different lump-becomes-statue stories:

Story #1 -- Once there was a rich man with a huge blob of gold.  He loaned the blob to famous sculptor, but said he wanted it back.  The famous sculptor heated it up a bit and shaped it into an eagle.  The eagle was on display at the Met for a year and then the sculptor gave it back to the rich man, who heated it up and got rid of the eagle shape. He was thrilled to repossess his blob.

Story #2 -- One day Jimmy was eating breakfast and saw a can of pink play-doh on the table. He grabbed the lump of play-doh and shaped it into a snail, then smashed it and put it back into the can. Then he resumed eating his Cheerios.

In the first story, it seems like there are two entities:  blob and eagle.  The blob temporarily constitutes the eagle. In the second story, it seems like some play-doh just temporarily takes on a certain shape--no lump, no statue! But from a God's eye perspective there's surely no difference between the two sequences of events.  In the first, the blob and the eagle both seem important and "ontological", but surely that's just because we care about rich men, ownership, sculptors, and artistic creativity.

I'm tempted to say we're reading too much into the first story, and the truth about both is what we immediately see in the second.   There's some playdoh in the can--it doesn't especially seem like a single entity, just because it's cohesive.  And it gets a shape--it becomes "ensnailed" so to speak. Thus, in both situations, no lump really, no statue really!

If that's right, lumps and statues don't especially help us think about constitution.  The constitution literature says (more or less)--"Don't worry, choose another example!"  But I find that not as easy as you might think. It's easy to think of examples of the composition relation--every object has lots of parts.  It's not so easy to think of instances of the constitution relation, which is supposed to hold between one thing and just one other thing, like one statue and one lump.  So ... scratching head, reading onward.


The Reasons of Love

Reposting, because I'm discussing this book in my class today. The title has become pleasantly fused in my mind with "The Hazards of Love" from The Decemberists--enjoy!

What a lovely book. The second chapter has a rather compelling objection to the sort of view of the good life that I defend in my book The Weight of Things. I defend what Parfit calls "the objective list view." There are intrinsically good ingredients, like happiness, autonomy, self-expression, morality, etc., that make a life good. Their goodness imbues a life with goodness.

Frankfurt points out that a person needn't care about those things, however intrinsically good they may be. Our lives don't go well unless we care about something, or (he goes further) in fact we love someone or something. It's not just for the pleasure that love is important, but because only with love do we view something as a "final end." That is, we view who and what we love as important for their own sake, and not just for the sake of something else.

Frankfurt takes loving children as the purest form of love. Parents love infants and young children (do my 12 year olds count? yes!) in this sort of ultimate way. Keeping your kids happy and healthy matters for itself, and for no other reason. Thus, it always seems unquestionably worth putting your energy into their well being. You're not pulled between that and other things, not uncertain of the worth of caring for your kids. In fact, he makes a surprising analogy between love and logic. Taking care of children is something we do "of necessity," like we draw a conclusion from a valid argument "of necessity." In both cases, there's an end of ambivalence. What must be thought, said, done, is completely clear.

I'm sticking to my guns and saying that a life cannot go well without the ingredients like happiness, autonomy, self-expression, morality, etc.--none of which are guaranteed just because we love someone or something. But I rather like the idea that love provides momentum.

It really does seem like love for children is in a class by itself. Frankfurt's analysis is required reading for parents who change their lives around to make more time for their children. I think women come under way too much fire for quitting or cutting back on jobs, to give their full attention to young kids. If the love we have for children has such a special quality and significance--and it does!--then why wouldn't it be perfectly rational to clear all the space you can to enjoy that period of your life? It makes sense when mothers do that, and when fathers do too.

Frankfurt only means to offer love for children as the paradigm case. There is also love for other people, things, and activities. That's what he says, anyway. I have a hard time coming up with other examples where love has that clarifying quality--giving unquestionable worth to efforts and activities. If you love playing the violin, or reading, or writing, or fighting for human rights...does any of that create the same feeling of unquestionable worth that caring for your own child does? Is loving the violin really anything like loving your child?

Maybe. I'm not sure. The second chapter of this book is a marvelous paean to the love of children. Whether it really succeeds in making the case that love is fundamental, the driving force in any good life, is something I'm going to have to think more about.


Eating Meat, Raping Women

The long comment thread triggered by Gary Francione's Philosophy Bites interview degenerated in predictable ways, but did get me thinking about one of the standard abolitionist "moves".  Francione and another commenter toward the end of the thread argue that supporting "humane" animal products is like supporting "humane" rape, or supporting "humane" child molestation. I got to thinking about whether this makes any sense at all, and ... no, it doesn't.

First, some thoughts about the ethics of using animals for food. What many say, despite varying ethical orientations, is that the animal eater is guilty of causing "unnecessary harm". The phrase suggests a balance that's "off".  There's a certain harm done--H.  And there's a certain benefit to the consumer--B.  The wrongness owes to the fact that H is a serious harm, B is a trivial benefit. Bad H:B ratio, in some sense or other (there are many ways to spell that out). If you think in those terms, then you implicitly allow that the balance can be worse and it can be better.  So there are degrees of wrongness, and there also degrees of rightness.

If you think about eating animals in terms of what's "necessary" and "unnecessary", you'll probably wind up saying that some people actually ought to consume meat.  The harm, H, is relatively trivial, considering the benefit, B.  Take a poor mother who has no other good source of protein for her children but goat's milk.  The goat seems to not mind being milked and lives outdoors (low H); the children get health-saving benefits (high B).  She ought to milk that goat and feed her children.

Lots of people think this way about eating animals-- in terms of what's necessary and unnecessary, or implicitly in terms of the H:B balance. I talk about unnecessary harm in my book Animalkind. David DeGrazia talks about unnecessary harm in his excellent book Taking Animals Seriously. Any utilitarian implicitly thinks in terms of balance, though there's a lot more to utilitarianism than that, and utilitarians have a particular view of how to balance H and B. Even Francione talks in these terms, in that Philosophy Bites interview, though maybe that's just loose rhetoric for him, and not what he really has in mind (since in his writings he says animals are persons who cannot ever rightly be used as resources).

Now (getting to the point!) on the balance analysis, it clearly does make sense to encourage humane omnivorism as an improvement over indifferent omnivorism because humane omnivorism involves a better balance.  H is decreased, so the H:B ratio is improved.  So the humane omnivore has got to be morally better than the indifferent omnivore.

So ... must we go down exactly the same road and see humane rape (absurdly enough) as exactly the same sort of improvement over brutal rape?  There are some ethicists who apply the same concepts to every single moral problem.  So if the "unnecessary harm" analysis of wrongness applies to animal consumption, it has to apply to rape as well.  But there are lots of possible reasons not to go that route. Perhaps we are pluralists about ethics, so recognize that all problems don't yield to the same analysis. Perhaps we think rape is in a unique moral category. Whatever the ultimate explanation, no, I would not say rape is wrong because it's a case of "unnecessary harm."  Its wrongness is not a question of an imbalance. Forced sex is inherently wrong, and not because of an H:B ratio that's unfavorable. Or so it seems to me.

If you reject the balance analysis of the wrongness of rape, then humane rapists aren't morally analogous to humane omnivores.  Switching to humane omnivorism goes to the heart of the matter, reducing the core wrongness.  In the case of rape, it's certainly better to be more humane and worse to be more cruel (the crime of rape does come in degrees), but the "how" doesn't go to the heart of the wrongness.  You do reduce the core wrongness of eating meat by treating the animal more compassionately.  You don't reduce the core wrongness of rape by treating the victim more compassionately.

Glad we cleared that up!  This is one of those cases where an analogy looks demented on the surface, and if you think about it for a couple of hours, it still looks demented.  So you've basically thrown out those hours of your life.  But maybe making the argument here will convince a few people (I'm an optimist!) that they need to retire the humane meat/humane rape analogy.

Sexists in Atheist-Land

Rebecca Watson's Slate article is a must read, but will it convince everyone she's been treated abysmally?  Ha! The problem with the sexists in atheist-land is that they cannot imagine that they have their own biases and blindspots. We're super-smart skeptics, right?  If you look at what Watson has been through (if the Slate article isn't enough, look at her page o' hate) and think someone else (like Richard Dawkins) is the real issue, you should be suspicious of your desire to change the subject. Never mind the page o' hate--that's not the real problem (some seem to think). The real problem (they say) is that a year and half ago Watson was a tad rude to some other women at a conference.  Or: the real problem is that she over-reacted to Dawkins' "Dear Muslima" comment a year and a half ago. Or: the real problem is that she once did something or other at some forum. Or: the real problem is that her supporters at Freethought Blogs don't run their comment threads in a completely fair and open fashion. My thought is--sure, let's let every problem have its day.  But when does it get to be Rebecca Watson's day? How much more abuse does she have to be subjected to until it is her day?  This worries me, as I think the answer might be that she has to be lying at the bottom of a river (think Tyler Clementi) for it to be her day. Then again, I think there are a bunch of people who would think even that wasn't enough.  It would be her fault, somehow.  Call it what you will--sexism, misogyny, anti-feminism, or just stupidity. I find it completely repellant.


The Meaning of Life

The religious view of the meaning of life is wonderfully stated at the end of one of my favorite movies of all time (and I do mean it)--THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN! Haven't seen it? You must!


Space Pasta

click to enlarge

My "book" (manuscript, so far) on parenthood is going to have a chapter on parental pride.  What's it all about? Why are we entitled to it?  Why is it so enjoyable? Today's occasion for parental pride--"Space Pasta" by my daughter Becky. Think of the wheel on the left as the sun, and you'll get it.


The Thinking Animal Problem

I'm still in "pondering mode" on the question of when we make first contact with our children. I wrote about that topic in July and again in August. Now I'm reading Eric Olson's book What Are We? and ... still pondering.

I'm fond of the animalist view--Olson's view--which says we are animals (or organisms) that come to have mental properties at some point, whether before or after we are born, and can lose them at some point. According to animalists, the gaining and losing of mental properties isn't ontologically important, so to speak. There's no second entity, a person that's essentially a person, constituted by an organism over just that period of time when the right mental properties are instantiated.  

Why do I like the animalist view? Maybe it's just a matter of parsimony. There are organisms. There's no denying that. They come to have certain personhood-related properties.  There's no denying that. But do we really need to think there are also essential persons, entities over and beyond (but constituted by) organisms? When all is said and done, I think this sort of talk may be superfluous.

Which is not to say I'm sold on all of Olson's reasoning for animalism. Take for example the "thinking animal problem." Olson thinks this is a strike against ontologically distinct persons and the constitution view: it's extremely peculiar to say that the animal sitting in my chair right now (and no, I don't mean my cat!) is thinking all the thoughts that I (i.e. the person constituted by the animal) am thinking. For example, it's peculiar to think there are two entities looking forward to tonight's presidential debate (one constituting the other) and not simply and exactly one.

Well OK, it would be surprising, I admit, if I were constantly shadowed by a thinking animal. (It sounds a bit like going around with a ferret on your shoulder.) It's odd sounding, to be sure, but wildly odd? I guess some people think so, as (I'm amazed to learn from Olson) some constitutionalists are bothered to the point of being prepared to say that only persons have thoughts, not the organisms that constitute persons.  They are prepared to say (amazingly enough!) that the animal in my chair has a brain buzzing away, but nevertheless the animal can't think.  Only I--the person constituted by the animal--can think.  

The longer I think about the thinking animal problem, the less I can even understand why it's a problem to begin with, let alone a problem serious enough to warrant such a wacky solution.  On the constitution view we're going to have all sorts of doubling up of properties. The person in my chair is a democrat, and the animal is too. The person in my chair is typing, and the animal is too.  Right?  Should we really be troubled by the typing democratic animal problem, and say there's no typing democratic animal in my chair?  For that matter, if you fashion a lump of clay into a cute snail, should we be troubled by the cute lump problem, analogous to the thinking animal problem? Are we supposed to be bothered by there being two cute things--the lump and the sculpture?

It's (just barely) possible that we're supposed to find something particularly odd about the animal in our chair having our thoughts--because they're thoughts and it's an animal potentially having them.  But ... why?  If the thinking animal problem is especially about thinking and animals, why is there a special problem? If it's only as much of a problem as there being cute lumps of clay as well as cute sculptures constituted by lumps of clay, then (it seems) the problem is a non-problem. It's just not that dismaying to suppose there are two cute things in the picture above, the lump and the sculpture.

Actually, there's more to Olson's discussion of why the thinking animal problem is a problem--I'm just addressing the too many problem. It's really not obvious at all that we wind up with too many anythings if we say there's a thinking person and a thinking animal in my chair; and a cute lump of clay as well as a cute sculpture in the picture above.  It's a tad strange, to be sure.  Certainly not strange enough to get me to agree that only the person in my chair thinks, but not (mirabile dictu!) the animal.


Loving Life

There's nothing like a health scare to make you love being alive. I love all the pictures in Greta Christina's latest post.  (Hope she won't mind if I borrow one.) Best, best, best wishes to her ... and to other folks I know who are going through this sort of wretched stuff.


Philosophy at the Movies (repost)

Reposting because I just saw Moon again and I'm back to thinking about its connection to the issue of personal identity. Terrific movie!

Last night I watched Moon (2009), the movie Duncan Jones made before Source Code (2011).   Duncan Jones went to graduate school in philosophy for a while, before fleeing to film school, and yes indeed, both movies deal with philosophical issues--in fact, the same issues.

Source Code: a soldier (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) seems to be in a capsule at a military base, but can enter the mind and perspective of a man on a train that blew up the day before (?).  His mission is to find out who planted the bomb so the guy's next terrorist attack can be prevented.  Back the solider goes, again and again, Groundhog Day style, and gradually he learns what he needs to know--and falls in love, too.  But it's not really "back", we are told.  This isn't time travel. It's... it's something-or-other. All the while, Jake longs to get out of the capsule, get back to reality, and make contact with his father. 

Moon: in the far distant future, Sam Bell (played by Sam Rockwell) is stationed for three years on the moon, where helium-3 is being harvested for use in fusion reactors on earth. He's all alone, except for a robot named Gerty, and something is not right.  Sam longs to get back to earth to see his wife and child.  And then things ... happen ...

Now's where the spoilers begin, so you might want to stop reading!


I warned you!

Looking at these movies from a philosophical angle, they're both about personal identity.  Jake Gyllenhaal escapes the capsule at the end of the movie because his final "trip" turns out to be time travel.  He's become that man on the train.  Now--how's that?  His brain doesn't make the journey, so could he really be the man on the train? Etc. etc.

Sam Bell makes it off the moon courtesy of the fact that the Lunar Corporation has equipped the moon station with a whole series of Sam Bells, a huge set of clones.  At one point, three of them are alive.  Sam1 dies, Sam2 gets back to earth, and Sam3 stays on the moon.  We are invited to think Sam1 actually survives, because the real Sam is the whole collection.  (This is a view of personal identity championed by Mark Johnston in Surviving Death; he uses it to explain how there can be an afterlife without there being heaven or soul).

So--are these moves supremely philosophical explorations of personal identity?  Well, no, I have to say. In the "extras" on the Moon DVD, there's an interview in which Duncan Jones is asked whether his philosophical background influenced the movie.  He instantly says no, "there's nothing academic." (Or something close.)  He says Moon is about long distance relationships!  (Hey, I thought, what about that cool group theory of personal identity?!)

Likewise, I have to say, Source Code doesn't come across as really being about the time travel, personal identity, or philosophy of mind issues it raises. It's about the feeling of being trapped in that capsule, and trying to get back to reality.  It's about Jake's desire to reconnect with his father, to go back to the girl on the train.  It's also about the sheer excitement of trying to avert a terrorist attack, and the cool way that he learns more by going back to the beginning of the 8 minutes so many times. 

In fact (aha!), Moon especially, but Source Code too, evokes exactly the mood of Duncan Jones' father David Bowie's song Space Oddity.  Far away, alienated, can't get back to the one I love (stuck in a Scottish boarding school, far from mom and dad?).

It's not very often that movies with philosophical themes are really primarily about those themes (The Adjustment Bureau, reviewed by Dana Nelkin and Sam Rickless in the new issue of The Philosophers' Magazine is one.)  Next stop:  The Tree of LifeMy hope is that this will be the subject of my next column in TPM, and that it will make sense to call the column "Texastentialism," since the movie is set in Texas and I hear it's about the meaning of life.  Who knows, though, it might really be about something else.


Update:  Saw The Tree of Life.  A dozen people walked out in the first half hour and the movie induced incontinence in many others--as in, frequent bathroom breaks.  My review, short version:  GOD!!!!  (Sadly enough, I'm going to have to save the title 'Texastentialism" for another occasion.)


Animal Ethics Links

You might be interested in this Philosophy Bites interview with Gary Francione.  Don't miss the first couple of comments by Spencer Lo, who draws on many passages in Practical Ethics (the latest edition, published in 2011) to argue that Francione misrepresents Singer's position on killing animals. Francione at first writes off Lo as a defender of "corporate welfarists" but (fortunately) settles down and responds at length, later in the thread. I'll leave it to you to ponder whether he responds fairly. (Comments welcome.)

Also interesting: Brian Leiter did a poll on what philosophers eat, and found philosophers remarkably worried about eating animals, even if they do (mostly) eat them. Over half the carnivores said they thought they should be vegetarians (or vegans).  There's lots of great discussion and debate in the comment thread.



I've been discussing the movie Looper with my husband and kids ever since we all saw it last weekend--it takes a lot of talking to get clear(er) about what happened and whether it's really possible.  Plus the movie raises some interesting ethical issues. 

SPOILER ALERT! I'm going to ruin the whole thing. Don't read this if you plan on seeing the movie.  Also, feel free to correct me if I have some of the details wrong. This is confusing!

So--it's 2074 and time-travel has been invented.  Bad guys put their enemies in time capsules and they're sent back to 2044, where "loopers" kill them and collect a reward that's strapped to their backs.  Some of the bad guys from 2074 have returned to 2044 and formed a syndicate behind a strip club. They enforce various rules, one of them being that if a looper's older self is sent back, the younger self must kill the older self.  We can't let our older selves hang around. I suppose that's because they might expose the whole operation, interfere with the syndicate, etc. It's not a question of preventing metaphysical mayhem!

So anyway, the movie starts in 2044. Young Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt)  is a successful looper who does a lot of shooting out in a corn field, where the syndicate's enemies sail in from the future. Then one day Young Joe's older self, Old Joe (Bruce Willis), sails in.  Young Joe shoots Old Joe, as required. A bunch of other stuff happens, but never mind.

Young Joe then gets older, year by year. He lives a dissolute life, eventually becomes Old Joe, and  falls in love. At that point the syndicate is in operation and it's using its time travel methods. The Rainmaker bursts into Old Joe's home and his beloved wife is shot.  They put Old Joe in the time capsule, sending him back to be shot by Young Joe.

But Old Joe was once Young Joe, so remembers being the shooter, and knows what to do to avoid being shot. He gets the bag off his head so Young Joe will see his face.  Young Joe doesn't shoot him, so now Old Joe is free to try to prevent the later killing of his wife.  He hunts for the Rainmaker's child self, etc.

Before I go on, a comment.  Old Joe remembers being Young Joe and successfully shooting himself (Old Joe) in the cornfield.  That's why he knows how to subvert the shooting--by taking the bag off his head. But that means there's no single fixed past. When he travels back again to 2044, it's as if he's traveling on a spiral path, not a loop.  He goes back in time, but not to exactly the same "place".   Hmm!

OK, so Old Joe tries to find the Rainmaker's child self. The idea is that if he had been killed as a child, then he wouldn't have been able to kill Old Joe's wife.  This is the point when I started to find the movie both emotionally and intellectually riveting.  The whole premise of the child-hunt is actually a false counterfactual: that if the little Rainmaker had been killed, everything else would have gone in about the same way--Old Joe would have wound up in about the same place, with the same woman, and she simply wouldn't have been killed. But no, it's perfectly possible that if he'd been killed, lots and lots of stuff would have gone differently. He might never have met that woman, etc.

But no matter.  The false counterfactual allows the movie to explore a very intriguing question.  May we kill the child selves of bad guys, to prevent their later crimes, or are they entitled to the special protection we normally extend to innocent (for the time being) children? If we lived in a different sort of world, we might have to think about that question very carefully. It might even have a well-known name, like "The Baby Hitler Problem"!

Old Joe goes in for killing children in a big way, because there are three different children who might be the child self of the Rainmaker.  He kills two of them before it becomes clear the right child is the one Young Joe is protecting out in the country. At this point love conquers all in an interesting way.  Old Joe's love for his wife tells him to kill, kill, kill (3X).  Young Joe is emotionally (and physically) touched by Sara, the child's loving mother, and so protects the little Rainmaker.

Old Joe pursues Sarah, the child, and Young Joe into a cornfield and in a sudden flash Young Joe realizes there's another way to alter the future.  The little Rainmaker doesn't have to be annihilated, he just has to be improved. We see a preview of the future: what will make him go so bad is being abandoned after Old Joe shoots his mother.  Old Joe needs to be stopped.  Most efficient method: Young Joe shoots himself, immediately zapping Old Joe out of existence. Thus, Sara is not shot, and the little Rainmaker grows up with a mother's love.   Old Joe gets more than he bargained for.  Yes, his beloved is never shot, but he doesn't live long enough to ever meet her. He dies in 2044, when he's Young Joe.

Time travel sure seems contradictory.   Young Joe subverts a certain future by shooting himself.  That future's gone. But that future also must be real. Otherwise there's no way for Old Joe to enter the picture and chase everyone into the cornfield. If Old Joe wasn't chasing them, what were they doing there?  It seems we are really left with a contradiction. Old Joe came from the future and chased them. He didn't come from the future and chase them.  The future is fixed--in 2044 we can say Old Joe will see his wife killed in 2074, and thus will come back to kill the child. But in 2044, the future is open. Old Joe could be part of it, or not a part of it. As it turns out, he's not a part of it. Or is he? He is, he isn't ... Hmm.

The philosopher David Lewis wrote a famous paper about time travel--"The Parodoxes of Time Travel." It starts, "Time Travel, I maintain, is possible. The paradoxes of time travel are oddities, not impossibilities. They prove only this much, which few would have doubted: that a possible world where time travel took place would be a most strange world, different in fundamental ways from the world we think is ours.  Odd, but not contradictory.  Now I shall read the rest of the article, plus others in the anthology Science Fiction and Philosophy: From Time Travel to Superintelligence (ed. Susan Schneider).  Fun topic, super-fun movie.


Elsewhere in science-fiction-and-philosophy-land:  I rewatched Moon last night. I can think of no better movie for framing a discussion of the famous idea, due to Derek Parfit, that identity is not what matters." Wonderful movie, must work it into some class one day!


The Hidden Cost of Following the Principle of Procreative Beneficence

Lately I've been thinking (and writing) about the principle of procreative beneficence that's been advocated by Julian Savulescu (lots of links here). Here's the basic idea, from an abstract to one of his papers--

It seems to me there is at least a tension between following the principle of Procreative Beneficence (PB) and having what you might call a "parental attitude".  But the tension is subtle. Let's see if I can convince you (dear reader)!

There's a phrase in the abstract that ought to make us scratch our heads.  Savulescu says "couples (or single reproducers) should select the child, of the possible children they could have, who is expected to have the best life..." (etc., my italics).  The italicized phrase makes it clear Savulescu respects the fact that people prefer to have their own child.  So suppose Dave and Donna are employing IVF and have 10 embryos sitting in the lab, ready for implantation. Brad and Betty are in the waiting room with them, and they're noticeably buff, beautiful, and brilliant, while Dave and Donna are noticeably not buff, not beautiful, and not brilliant. They all get to talking, and it turns out Brad and Betty have extra embryos.  B&B offer them to D&D, and they've got to admit that little B would probably have a better life than little D, considering all the advantages associated with brains and beauty. Savulescu clearly isn't saying D&D have to accept their offer.  According to PB, D&D only have to select the child who is expected to have the best life of the possible children they could have.

So D&D get to indulge their desire for their own, but hold on! We have lots of different thoughts and feelings about "our own". Why legitimate just the desire to have our own?  Once we have children "our own" makes a lot of differences. Not only do I care more about my two children than any other children (yes, I confess that I do), but their both being "my own" makes me care about them equally.  This is an unpleasant thought to have on a perfectly good Saturday morning, but if I were in a "Sophie's Choice" situation, hell no, I wouldn't apply anything like PB--I wouldn't save the child with the best chance of the best life.  There's a part of the parental attitude that concerns the way you care about your kids compared to other kids; and a part that concerns how you care about your kids compared to each other. I think this is true even before they come into the world.  You want your own and the sheer fact that two possible children are your own tends to eclipse small differences between them.

Now you might say I've just glued two attitudes together here--wanting your own (not other people's kids) and seeing all of your own as equally desirable.  If these attitudes are just glued together, there's no reason Savulescu should respect the second, just because he respects the first. But I say: no glue!  These things go together because they both emanate from a sense we have that our own biological child is a sort of second self. Our children come before all other children in much the way our selves have a certain natural priority. If two children are both sort of second selves, it's no wonder we're not going to choose between them based on who has the best chance of the best life. 

Now, Savulescu's happy to allow D&D to put their own embryos ahead of all other embryos.  But what if they have a "Sophie's Choice" reaction to PGD--they don't want to use it, because, as they might say, "all those future children are our own"? The principle of procreative beneficence forbids that.  But with what justification? Letting D&D prioritize their own embryos, and turn down the offer of B&B, obviously cannot be justified in any sort of consequentialist fashion.  The result of allowing them that preference is a worse, not a better, "crop" of kids. So let's not let Savulescu quickly make a consequentialist argument why D&D must use PGD to select among their own embryos.

Bottom line: if we're going to let the parental attitude play a role at all, we can't assume that half of it is legitimate and the other half not.  I see both as having a legitimate role to play throughout the time when people are parents, and even when they are trying to become parents.  They both have some weight, whereas Savulescu only gives weight to preferring our own. Now, "some weight" of course doesn't mean "all the weight." I hasten to add that I would also give weight to considerations about pregnancy outcome.  The more problematic the possible outcome, the less that people should let the parental attitude prevail--either the part that prefers "our kids" to other people's kids, or the part that makes us care equally about all of our kids.

But in the ordinary situation, where embryos differ only in some relatively minor way, it seems to me it's a good prospective parent, not a flawed parent, who says "I don't care, they're all my own."  Another way of making the same point: Savulescu says PGD has few costs for prospective parents who have already signed on for IVF. But not so. It always has a cost. It compromises the equal caring that's a natural part of the parental attitude. That's a cost worth paying to secure some improvements in pregnancy outcome, but not in every single case.


Animal Pain

This is a terrifically interesting and well done video responding to the contention that animals can't feel pain.  I'll make some comments below.

1:08 The video starts in a shaky way, speculating that sea mammals may be aware of the feelings of the humans they interact with. Well, maybe. Fortunately that's just the entry point into the main question: do animals feel pain?  Wish I could refer to the narrator by name--don't know who she is.

2:00 Neo-Cartesian philosophers Michael Murray and Willian Lane Craig argue that animals have (a) reactions to stimuli, and (b) pain experiences, but no (c) higher order awareness of pain experiences.  There's nothing bad about pain, in the absence of (c), so there's nothing bad about animal pain.

Comment: It seems obvious the last person you should ask about the existence of animal pain is someone who has a vested interest in the answer being "No, there isn't any."  Theists like William Lane Craig see their whole world view, their whole mission in life, under threat, if animals feel pain, because animal pain creates a terribly difficult instance of the problem of evil.  We need to rebut the theists' arguments directly, but should also laugh at the notion that they're unbiased authorities on animal pain.

Craig says animals don't have a pre-frontal cortex so can't have (c).  He says it's a tremendous comfort to animal owners to know that animals never suffer.  I'm worried about William Lane Craig's dog!  If he really takes his own verbiage seriously, he could reduce his veterinary bills by letting the poor animal have surgery without anesthesia. Fortunately veterinarians, whether theists or not, aren't about to listen to crap (crummy religious animal psychology).

4:30 Great clip showing the influence of people like Murray and Craig. Fella says only humans have pre-frontal cortex.

5:30 It's great the video challenges the scientific claim that animals lack a pre-frontal (or frontal) cortex, but it also needs to challenge the view of animal pain that says self-awareness is needed for animal pain.

7:30 Bruce Hood clears it up--yes, other animals have a pre-frontal (or frontal) cortex.

9:00 More on how animals do have a pre-frontal cortex. When I teach the topic of animal pain to undergraduates, I use the same type of diagram the video does. I agree completely that Craig's intellectual integrity has to be questioned. 

11:48 Now we get to the good stuff. With Stuart Firestein we get away from the higher order awareness theory of pain.

13:20 Lori Marino talks about animal self-awareness, so now we're again  taking seriously what Craig says about the nature of pain--that it is bound up with self-awareness. Marino grants self-awareness to dogs, but my impression is that that's a minority view.  She cautions against relying too much on the mirror self-recognition test. Well and good, but that leaves us having to be agnostic about whether many animals have self-awareness. If you think self-awareness is a pre-condition of pain, you're going to wind up being agnostic about pain in many species. We need to hear from animal psychologists and philosophers of mind who think pain does not require self-awareness.  I believe that's the majority view.

16:55 Marino says self-awareness can't be localized. So the anatomy of animal brains just doesn't tell us (as Craig thinks it does) whether animals have it or not. Again, I think if you want to counter skepticism about animal pain, it's not your best bet to grant the contention that self-awareness is required for pain. 

19:40 Guy reads Craig to Marino. She laughs, "It's nonsense."  She thinks pain awareness is not located in the pre-frontal cortex. She says pain reception is sub-cortical. All species have brain systems that are involved in detecting pain.  She rejects idea that pain requires meta-cognition. (Yay!!!)  "There is no evidence for that."  She says fish feel pain.

24:00 Animal joy, empathy, etc. She really wants to press the idea that animals have self-awareness. Maybe yes, maybe no. I think it's much more important to establish the existence of animal pain, and to do that it's important to deny the alleged connection between pain and self-awareness.

28:07 Oh no, Craig believes in an immaterial soul!  Narrator rightly points out that raise the question why it matters whether animals have (pre)frontal cortex.  Does Craig have to rule out that animal pain is seated in animal souls? (Ha!)

28:45  The Cambridge Declaration on animal consciousness (July 12, 2012) All mammals and birds, at the very least, have consciousness.

30:00 Jane Goodall autotuned!  Wow!

Final thought. If I were a desperate theist trying to contend with the existence of animal pain, what would I say?  Well, maybe there's a little something to the idea that mild pain makes life more interesting.  A dog wouldn't enjoy his dinner as much, if he weren't first hungry.  That leaves extreme pain as an unsolved problem, as extreme pain doesn't make life more interesting--it just makes life suck.  If you really, really want to pretend it doesn't exist, I find it more attractive to just say God zaps it away miraculously. At least that way we don't do any pretend science. We let the real science of animal pain be as it is, and then allow that it's suspended whenever God's feeling compassionate toward animals.  Arguably the science-respecting theist ought to prefer that approach.

Thanks to Spencer Lo for sending the video link.


How many "great books" have you read?

Fun question from James Garvey over at Talking Philosophy.


Coming soon: discussion of the movie Looper. It's a very entertaining movie with a wildly fun time travel theme, but what I really enjoyed was the way the movie raises questions about our having (or not having) special duties to children.  Stay tuned.


Guilt by Association

Recently observed in certain combat-ridden regions of the internet: overuse of the phrase "guilt by association."  People seem to think who you associate with can't make you guilty, and that's absurd.  Let's say (just hypothetically) that X associates with a racist website.  He likes to criticize Obama, which is of course fine, but does so at White Guys R Us, knowing that this will incite the resident racists to pour racist abuse on Obama. He doesn't himself engage in racist abuse. He just puts his screed (not a clever screed, but that's beside the point) at White Guys R Us.  Now, if I criticize X, do I find him "guilty by association" in the pernicious sense?  Of course not. It's genuinely represensible that X made his argument against Obama at a site where he knew that would trigger racist abuse.  He was directly complicit in that abuse. More generally, by talking to the racists (about anything), he supports their site and conveys acceptance of them.  He validates and reinforces (all the more so if he never questions any of the racist antics at the site).  X is an enabler of racists, when he ought to be an opponent. Innocent or guilty?  Of course he's guilty!

No time to read or moderate comments today, so they're off.

Update 10/8:

I've been honored with a response at a new blog network called "Skeptic Ink". How flattering!  Except the response is a pile of nonsense.

First problem is that Maria Maltseva (or Bluharmony, as she sometimes calls herself) misunderstood the post.  She thinks I'm guilty of a fallacy opposite to argument from authority. She writes: "An appeal to authority argues in favor of an idea based on associating an authority figure holding that idea, whereas guilt by association argues against an idea based on associating it with a supposedly disreputable group."

Total misunderstanding. It's obvious that I wasn't attacking X's ideas here. In fact, I explicitly say, about the ideas, "not a clever screed, but that's beside the point."  No, the issue is an ethical one about the person, X. I am calling the person guilty for putting an editorial criticizing Obama at a racist website.  Reason? Because X knows "this will incite the resident racists to pour racist abuse on Obama."And because participation will "validate and reinforce" the racists--"all the more so if he never questions any of the racist antics at the site."

Besides mangling my argument, Maria attempts a reductio ad absurdum. If my reasoning were correct, then "Jean Kazez would be guilty of everything said at FTB [Freethought Blogs]."  After all "she posts on FTB and associates closely with some of the bloggers who write there."

Let's get the factual matter out of the way.  I almost never comment at Freethought Blogs, and when I do I usually comment critically.  I have no close associations with anyone at Freethought Blogs. The suggestion is ludicrous, considering that I've written several posts that are critical of bloggers there in the last year. 

Challenged about this, Maria said I'd "piled on" in a thread she contributed to at Butterflies and Wheels using the name "Gender Traitor." Apparently she's talking about this one comment from a year ago (#986 in the thread).  I'll just say: if that comment has any connection with posting an anti-Obama essay on a racist website, I'll be a monkey's uncle.

In any event, I think it's howling mad to say Freethought Blogs --a network of 35-40 blogs, where perhaps 99% of what goes on is perfectly respectable secular discussion--can be compared to the racist website in my paragraph.  But enough of that. There are a lot of people who would apparently like to dedicate the remainder of their days on earth to discussing Freethought Blogs, but I would not.

That's about it.  Now I will get back to enjoying a perfectly gorgeous day in Dallas.