Why aren't you a vegan?

Perhaps you are! But if not, please take this survey and disseminate.  I will share the results here in a week.  SURVEY


The Missing Posts

I've made six trips since February to visit my father in Pennsylvania. This means my thoughts have been interrupted a lot.  I get on the plane, read a book about something I'm working on, keep the topic on my mind for several days, and by the time I'm on the return flight, I've lost the thread.  Blogging is further down the list of my priorities, so it's even more difficult to hang on to potential topics.

So here we go--a bunch of topics I started to think about in the last few months, but didn't get to pursue.  I'm giving myself just a few sentences for each topic!

Caregiving drones
Drones are useful for hunting and killing enemies, but why not use them peacefully?  When my father can't find his hearing aids, I'd love to be able to send in a little hornet-sized drone to have a look.

Must we be vegans?
I'm not sure about the idea that we must always justify harm by citing a more serious benefit.  In sports and business, competition doesn't work that way--you can cause a competitor harm without being able to cite a compensatory benefit.   Does this tell us anything about using animals for food? Is Finding Food competitive, like engaging in sports and business competition?

Must we be vegans?
In the debate about food ethics, people seem too puritanical about food enjoyment, making it seem trivial. For most people, oddly enough, food pleasure is one of the greatest pleasures. Does it make any sense to assert a right to nutritious and delicious food?

Latest atheist battle
I see nothing very wrong with Ron Lindsay's speech at the recent Women in Secularism conference.  It seems like a very, very bad sign that such an innocuous speech could generate so much controversy.

There's some fascinating research that seems to show we are affected unconsciously by tiny cues--if you see words like "old" and "geriatric" on a screen, you'll walk away more slowly than if you see words like "young" and "teenager".  This makes me wonder about the impact of spending many days in a row at a senior home  Is there a "dose-response" effect, so I should worry about being seriously infected with elderly attitudes and behaviors? (If not, why not?)

Where's the hot sauce?
It wouldn't be so bad to live in a senior home, if you could just hang onto your own lifestyle.  Why must the food be so bland?  How will I survive without hot-hot-hot Mexican and Indian food, if I ever wind up in such a place?

Stoicism can be useful
When dealing with stressful situations, do I get any use out of the Stoic philosophy I cover in my classes?  Well yes, a little. I like Epictetus's advice that you should remind yourself that you do possess the character traits that will be needed, come what may.

Stoicism isn't all that useful
Stoicism is all about mind-control--handling a situation by thinking about it the right way. Unfortunately, when you have dementia, you can wind up with lots of problems that you can't think your way out of.  Stoicism is for the intellectually advantaged.

When life begins
I almost have it figured out:-)  I am making progress on a book chapter (hurray!).

The Grim Reader
Everything I'm reading these days seems to be grotesquely depressing.  That's the topic of my next TPM column.


The Badness of Death

What makes death bad for someone who dies?  This is on my mind for lots of different reasons--so here goes, some thinking aloud.

The question is puzzling if you even just think about the death of one individual, of one age and species, but let's be masochists and thinking about lots of deaths.

Death of a zygote after 2 days development
Death of a newborn baby
Death of a healthy young adult
Death of a very, very old unhealthy adult
Death of a healthy young cat

My gut feeling is that there's a certain Basic Badness to death (caps do so much to dignify ideas!). The Basic Badness consists of the fact that a certain conscious vantage point on the world existed for some time and then came to an end.  It seems to me this is a yes/no matter. Either the basic badness is present or it's absent.  And it's present whenever there exists a conscious vantage point. It's present in four of the cases, but not the first. A zygote has no conscious vantage point, so the Basic Badness of death is not present.  It might be sad and bad or even tragic in some way for a zygote to die--think about the miscarriage of a much wanted pregnancy.  But there is not the awfulness of termination of consciousness.

It would be foolish to say that all deaths are equally bad, just because they involve termination of consciousness. They have a certain type of badness to an equal degree, but there are other types of badness besides Basic Badness. There are two further types of badness (at least!) that make different deaths bad to different degrees.  Death doesn't just bring an end to consciousness; it also takes away future life, and that future life can vary in quantity and quality.  So in addition to the Basic Badness of death, there is also some degree of Deprivation.  A very old unhealthy adult is deprived of less, by death, than a healthy young adult.

More "compare and contrast": I would say the deprivation involved when a cat dies is less than when a newborn baby or health human adult dies--both in light of quantity and quality.  There are different "goods" possible in different lives, and not as much good in the average hour of a cat's life.  (NB: no less an animal advocate than Peter Singer says exactly the same thing.)

Next:  the Basic Badness of death is compounded also by the degree to which death Interrupts.  It's one thing to take away future years that would have been good. It's another to interrupt a project that's already under way.  Both are bad, but they're bad in different ways.  In one case, precious days are lost, in the other, someone dies with "unfinished business."

Death interrupts very little for a baby, a great deal for a healthy adult, and once again, quite a bit less for a very old unhealthy adult.  Does death interrupt for a cat, or is a cat's life lived day after day after day, with no possibility of "unfinished business"?  There isn't much chance of "unfinished business" for most house cats, but many animals can die with unfinished business. Think of a salmon killed in the middle of its journey upstream, or a beaver killed while building a dam.  But yes, on average, there's bound to be less interruption than when a healthy human adult dies.

Now let's do the math ... but how should we do it?  A zygote's death is not bad as far as Basic Badness goes, but it's maximally depriving.  Should we (1) simply add the numbers together? Is death, for a zygote, pretty damned bad, because of the deprivation?  Or should we say (2) that only deaths that are Basically Bad can be even more bad, because of additional bad-making factors?

I say (2).  I cannot make myself think the death of a zygote is bad in anything at all like the death of the other four individuals is bad.   The badness of deprivation doesn't "kick in" because there's no basic badness to the death of a zygote.

The Basic Badness of death can be worsened by deprivation and interruption, but where there is no Basic Badness, there's nothing to worsen.  The way that death brings consciousness to an end is a privileged part of the picture, with everything else playing a secondary, "compounding" role.  Why is termination of consciousness the primary thing? Perhaps--bottom line--death is not really death, unless it terminates a consciousness.  So deprivation doesn't make a zygote's death extra bad, because it's not really a death, in the funeral sense, to begin with, however much (nevertheless) it can be a grievous thing to lose a pregnancy.

At least--that's how things appear at the moment! Back to reading the death literature (I'm currently reading Death, by Shelly Kagan).


Selling Justice

Via Leiter, I see the San Jose philosophy department is complaining in an open letter to Michael Sandel that an MIT/Harvard-affiliated company proposed that the department pilot Sandel's "blended online" course, Justice.  I'm intrigued, since I used his book, Justice, to teach Contemporary Moral Problems this semester.  I had to miss several classes, so I also had my class watch one of his online lectures (and I watched others).

The subtext to the letter is a cogent thought: "This kind of thing is a threat to our jobs and to students taking real world, interactive courses."  Fair enough.  Professors need jobs, and students are usually better off taking courses with real world instructors.   On the other hand (let's admit), there's got to be a cash-strapped school somewhere that would serve its students well by showing them the Justice lecture series.  And the quality concerns expressed in the letter are really quite groundless.

Let's see, there's the worry that the series isn't current.  That could become true some day, but for the moment, the series/book is very current.  Sandel talks about all of the issues that are typical in a Contemporary Moral Problems course, and then some. He also talks about "markets and morals" (the topic of his latest book)--which involves all sorts of very topical and colorful questions.  He talks about all of these issues using far more ethical and political theory than is typical in a course like this, and with a single, unifying voice (as opposed to the multitude of voices and styles you get in a typical anthology).  Certainly Harvard students are lucky to be able to take Sandel's course.

Another worry is that a lecture series "does not provide anything over and above assigning a book to read."  What a strange thing to say, just a paragraph after the authors note Sandel's excellent skill at lecturing and his lively interactions with students. No, watching a lively lecture and debate is not just like reading a book.  More specifically, Justice the book is much more dense than Justice the lecture series. One is not at all equivalent to the other.

Then there's the point that Sandel and his students at Harvard are a bunch of white people--there isn't the diversity you could find in a real, live classroom.  But wait--I thought the idea was to show this in a real, live classroom. If there were teaching assistants facilitating discussion, I think students would hear diverse points of view.  And besides, the Harvard classroom isn't that uniform. In the lecture my students watched, students actually drew on their rather different life experiences.

I can imagine situations in which this course would be a good purchase for a college or school district.  So why protest (to Sandel) the mere selling of it?  Should a department not only decline the series for itself, but work to make it unavailable to others? Strange!

Postscript. Not to be too zealous.  I do have one complaint about Justice (the book): Sandel blurs together questions about ethics (what should I do?) and questions about justice (what is fair in this society?). All moral questions, for him, come under the murky term "justice", leaving students without tools to think clearly about distinct topics and questions.  That's a fairly serious negative, but still... I find it hard to complain too much about a book so well written and so stuffed with interesting, colorful examples. 

Update: article on the issue in today's NYT.

Interrupting and Depriving

A murderer who can foresee the future concocts two nefarious plans.

Plan A:  he will murder Natasha in 2025, just as she's about to embark on a trip to Alaska that she's been planning and looking forward to since 2020. 

Plan B: he will interfere with events in 2020, so Natasha doesn't develop her hankering to go to Alaska.  This will actually be very simple, because it all started when she bought a book about Alaska.  All the murderer's got to do is misshelve the bookstore's only copy.  In 2025, he goes through with the killing.

Plan A and Plan B are both evil, but in different ways.  Plan A interrupts more, but Plan B deprives Natasha of the meaningful activity that Plan A would have interrupted.

Hypothesis:  when the harms of two killings are balanced in this way, the killings are morally equivalent. If interrupting activities through killing is bad, depriving someone of those activities, to reduce the interruption, is equally bad.

This strikes me as clearly correct, but I'll submit it to the court of public opinion.  Thoughts?