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  (Written for the March 2012 synchroblog; links TBA.)

I have a secret: for years now, I've wished I was eligible for the selective service.

In my country, at the age of eighteen all the guys have to register for the military draft. They don't actually have to serve, and chances are negligible that they'll be called up, since (for all our wars) America has been an all-volunteer army since I believe Vietnam. But ever since I've figured out how committed of a pacifist I am, I've wanted the ability to declare to God, country, and the world at large that there wasn't anyone representin me in this war, either.

I want to be clear about something: I respect what our veterans are trying to do. I nod at them out of respect when I see them on campus, and I've gotten in the habit of picking up pastries every week or two for my veteran neighbor, as a small token of gratitude. I also would gladly pay any tax asked of me to improve their safety while in service and their recovery once they leave. It's the generals and the contractors I have a beef with. I don't think our current wars are just, and given our track record of judicial process for people accused of war crimes and quasi-legal neverending wars, I think it will be a long time before I'd find an actual war I could support. And that's my point. I want the right to register as a conscientious objector to document this fact. Because I am not expected to fight, someone else "covers" me by default, so I get no say in the matter.

It's not just that theoretical point that bothers me, though. At the tender age of seventeen, I was a registered Republican and generally supported the idea of bringing democracy to the world, but I also wasn't sure now I felt about killing someone for that cause or any other, and so I asked my history teacher what were my options if I was morally opposed to war. He told me that I wasn't required to register for the draft, and when I asked why he explained that "Uncle Sam" didn't want to take mothers away from their children, or put children in homes with a mum suffering from PTSD. I'm now a few months shy of thirty years old, still happily single and happily child-free, in a doctoral program that I hope will lead to a professorship. In the meantime I am happy with my hobbies, my volunteer work, my church, and my friends both online and offline. I am living the life of the mind in a truly vibrant city, and it's a good life - just not the one my high school teacher thought I was destined for.

I thought about all this when I heard someone use the phrase "war on women" for the umpteenth time in a newspaper editorial this morning. Again, let me be clear: I think preventive birth control is a good thing, and I think subsidized or insurance-covered birth control is an even bett thing because it vies lower-class women the same liberties I have to manage their sexuality and its consequences. But every time I hear that phrase I bristle just a little bit (and sometimes quite a lot), because it carries with it the suggestion that as a woman I am defined by the bits of anatomy between my legs. It also suggests that if I personally didn't think of fertility like a disease, I would not be included in the collective of womanhood that was under attack. I've been on the receiving end of people telling me what it means to be a real woman, to feel comfortable with that. 

Given that this is a SynchroBlog post, I feel a strong pull to somehow tie this back to my religion. I could cite the many different roles women serve throughout the Bible, from Miriam to Esther to Mary Magdalene, and those stories are relevant. The problem is, they're part of a fabric that stretches beyond any one religious or literary tradition. I could just as easily point to Eowyn and B'Elanna Torres and Brenda Leigh Johnson and all the other strong women of literature. They weren't all shieldmaidens, either. Often as not, womanhood is as varied as human nature (as well it should be!). Our battle-cries need to reflect that.

(Originally posted to LJ; please comment there.)
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 I actually saw this one coming a mile away:

What the 'After-Birth Abortion' and 'Personhood' Debates Have in Common

A few weeks back I wrote about a journal article proposing that infanticides just after birth should have the same legal status as abortions just before. Meaning that they should be legal if the mother's welfare was at risk, and not even called infanticides. I find this claim preposterous, and I tried my best to explain why. Basically, I think there's a big distinction between legal status and moral status.

ChristianityToday, a major online and print magazine in the evangelical (not necessarily conservative, not necessarily fundamentalist, but just evangelical) publishing world made the above post in one of their associated blogs. Basically, the argument goes, this whole debate over infanticide comes from the recognition that there's no recognizable distinction between a fetus and an infant, meaning we should give  all the rights of an infant to a fetus. Think the personhood bills you've seen put out in U.S. states like Mississippi and Colorado.

The problem here is that the concepts of "fetus" and "born human" (to say nothing of human and person generally) are really not so simple, and we're using them like they are. I tend to think the whole abortion debate would be much, much easier if we thought about what we meant by a fetus. I'll grant that a fetus a minute before birth has more in common with an infant one minute after birth, than it does with a fetus one minute after conception. I'll even grant that some of the ways these three things are similar and different are morally relevant. All that proves, though, is that a fetus is a distinction where the members in it don't all have the same moral status.

There are a lot of big philosophical words floating around in there, so let me try to make this simpler. I'll give you that it's morally wrong to kill a fetus one minute before it's born. (Allowing the usual exceptions for self-defense, etc.) That doesn't mean it should be morally wrong to kill any fetus. And, just for the record, it doesn't actually mean it should be illegal to kill a fetus one minute before birth. The law's a blunt instrument and may not be up to the task of splitting that moral hair. It just means that not all fetuses are in the same position, morally speaking.

While we're on the concept of distinctions, it's worth looking at one more: human vs. person. On one definition, it's quite obvious that a newly-fertilized zygote is human. So is an amputated leg or fingernail clippings. Human here just means "has human DNA" or "has human cellular structure." But a doctor who amputates a leg to save the patient doesn't have to go through a hospital board inquiry, and I didn't have to explain to the police why I cut my nails last night. There's another definition of "human," which philosophers both prefer to call "person" to avoid speciesism and to avoid the confusion of using human in more than two ways. Persons are members of the moral community, things that have rights and responsibilities. Some philosophers use  the ability to feel pain; more common is the sentience idea, or the ability to act on something other than just instinct. But when a scientist or a bioethicist talks about a fetus being human, they don't usually mean it in the personhood case.

So to sum up:

  1. Yes, fetuses are (genetically) human.
  2. No, not all fetuses are humans/persons in the moral sense.
  3. The solution is not to call a zygote a person – it is to recognize that fetuses exist along a continuum, and while some may reasonably be called a person, not all can.
  4. So: drop this drive to call a zygote a person. It's not helping.


I am actually as dismayed by this journal article's claim as anyone else. The solution, though, isn't to double down and insist all fetuses are people. It's to recognize the very real difference between a zygote smaller than the period at the end of this sentence, and an eight-month old human baby that could survive on its own outside the womb.

It also wouldn't hurt to distinguish between a late-term fetus's right to life, and the mother of a late-term fetus's obligation to preserve that life. She may have such an obligation based on her past actions of not terminating the pregnancy, not using appropriate birth control, etc. (depending on the situation – this is a big if), but it's not all about a "right to life." There are other concerns that play out here, and the dueling claims in this situation are complicated. You don't do anyone any good by pretending this is a simple issue.

(Originally posted at LJ; please comment there.)
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 When I read something that takes what I believe and carries it to its natural conclusion (or what seems like that), I find it very upsetting – almost violent. That happened today, when I saw a moderate-conservative friend on FB commenting on an article:

Ethicists Argue in Favor of 'After-Birth Abortions' as Newborns 'Are Not Persons'

Now, there are lots of things that made me skeptical about the post. When I loaded the article it had an ad for Goldline and Glenn Beck TV. An issue that seemed mostly secular ethics was listed under "Faith." The first two columnists listed on their contributors page are Glenn Beck and Rick Santorum. And so on. But the article certainly isn't raving. If anything, it seemed remarkably matter-of-fact given the subject matter. Apparently some university-affiliated ethicists down in Australia are advocating for a legal right to what they call "after-abortion," and what the rest of us (including me) call infanticide or just plain old murder.

The thing is, there's a lot in that basic argument that's similar to some things I've argued in the past. I don't believe a zygote produced from a human sperm and a human egg is a full-fledged person. And I don't think the fetus magically acquires the traits that make us human in one fell swoop when its head passes out of the mother's womb. Its moral status the moment before it is born is more or less its status just after it's birth. But I stop way before we get to the point suggested this article suggests those Aussie ethicists take it to, so I thought I'd try to work through why. This may only end up being interesting to me. :-)

First, the false start: that a law outlawing infanticide doesn't actually say you should kill your children, but just that it should be an individual choice. I know pro-choice people (myself included) tend to talk about giving people the right to choose an abortion even when we believe it's the wrong choice. I think there's something to be said for letting people make their own choice – and making everything illegal takes away possibilities of doing the right thing for the right reason. But as Michael Sandel put it in his very well-done book Justice, this in itself is a moral position and rests on the assumption that people can reasonably disagree over whether the fetus is a person. I would never say e.g. that people should have the right to decide whether to kill their eight-year-old child. Or even their one-minute-old child.

But I do think there's a legitimate difference the Blaze author is skipping past. There are real moral differences between a newly-fertilized ovum and a fetus about to be born. I can't necessarily point to a specific day when it is a person and before it wasn't. This is one of the things that drive me crazy about the abortion debate: as if just because I can't point to a hard dividing point, that means there's no difference between the extremes. (Evolution tells us there are all kinds of intermediate states between a chimpanzee and homo sapiens, so perhaps in some case you would struggle to know whether one of the linking individuals between the two groups, but no one would mistake one for the other.)

I am willing to accept the very real possibility that a fetus is sentient or even rational at some point in its development, and so would be a person. This was actually portrayed very well in the last Twilight movie, where Edward senses Renesme's thoughts before she is born and suddenly she seems real to him and worthy of moral consideration. As it happens, I think the law is ill-equipped to handle that distinction, but I'm thinking about the issue more from a morality standpoint anyway. Even before then, there can be reasons – good reasons – why it's wrong to kill a non-human animal. It's just not murder.

There's also another distinction that the Aussie ethicists totally overlooked if they're being fairly reported. I have no hard evidence that the Blaze is taking them out of context, but do consider the source. Also, this is so basic that if they're university-affiliated philosophers I'd be very surprised, since this is a rather significant and well-known distinction. It's that simply because you have a moral right to an abortion, it doesn't mean you have a moral right to kill the fetus. You have a right to keep it from using your body, and it may be a scientific fact that without those nutrients it will die, but that doesn't give you the right to cut its throat or shoot it if somehow it survived being separated from your body. So the mother could maybe say she didn't want to care for the child after giving birth to it, and she could surrender it to the state or someone else.

I find that a bit iffy, actually, given that the mother's had nine months to decide whether she wants the child, but I can see a few exceptions – like if she had carried it to term with the express intent of giving the child up for adoption, or if there were some new circumstances she hadn't planned on (like a birth defect where she wasn't prepared to raise the child). But this idea that it might be cruel to the mother for her to know her child is out there somewhere doesn't hold up for me. Lots of things are cruel, and we usually accept that as long as they aren't intentionally cruel. Life just stinks sometimes, whether as a consequence of our own choice or something done to us. Society can do what it can to mitigate the suffering (perhaps keeping the mother's identity a secret from the child if that's what she wants, or placing the child with parents in a different part of the country to minimize the chances mother and child will meet up.

But only up to a point. Certainly not up to the point of killing another person. I don't know enough about obstetrics or early pediatrics to say for sure this child is rational or for sure this child is sentient from the very second it leaves the womb. But it's well on its way, and it at least has the potential for those traits – a nervous system, for instance. The mother never had the right to kill the fetus, but even if she did, I'd say she had less and less of a claim to that right as the fetus/child approached personhood.

By the way, National Catholic Register, when you wrote:

The second we allow ourselves to become the arbiters of who is human and who isn't, this is the calamitous yet inevitable end. Once you say all human life is not sacred, the rest is just drawing random lines in the sand.

You're breaking your own standard in the space of two sentences. If you're saying anything with human genetic material is a human, that is a definition of human. And when you're excluding acts like biopsying (living, genetically human) cancerous cells from your definition of murder, you're also excluding some genetically-human, living organisms from the classification of humanity. We all do philosophy; some of us are just more explicit about this fact than others.

All said, I think those ethicists are either misreported or went too far (and how). That doesn't make my position that life doesn't begin at conception wrong, though.

(Originally posted at LJ; please Comment there.)


fidesquaerens: (Default)
Leonard Pitts, columnist for the Miami Herald, has some interesting thoughts about Lin-sanity and the way the African-American community is reacting to it. I rarely if ever agree completely with anything I read, but this one had me nodding my head far more than most. While Mr. Pitts is writing specifically to African-Americans, I think this is a point well taken for all races.

http://www.miamiherald.com/2012/02/21/2653567/lin-sanity-offers-lessons-for.html

Well worth the read.

(Originally posted at LJ; please comment there.)
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A few days ago, I posted about the topic of God and goodness. Dan Fincke replied with lots of good points that need to be addressed (and I hope to get around to a few of them as time permits – unfortunately it's tight these days), but one in particular jumped out. Dan said he didn't see much about what I thought re: God's moral goodness. So I want to address that first.

I don't believe in a God that is morally good. In my previous post I drew a distinction between what I called moral goodness and ontological goodness, and I do think God is ontologically good but not morally good. So perhaps some definitions are in order. I defined moral goodness as the kind of thing we should praise. Having thought about it some more, I think I prefer a formulation more along the lines of Jaime in Dan's dialogue: effectiveness relationships in the natural world, with the proviso that they are effective toward achieving the kind of things humans ought to do (that lead us to become good humans, that complement and enable our human nature, etc.) Ontological goodness, on the other hand has to do with perfection and completeness. A car with a dent in the bumper is less ontologically good than a car without a dented bumper, for example.

I'm sure this will be controversial. So maybe I should explain more carefully what I mean. In my original post I said that I hadn't thought a lot about the story of the massacre of the Canaanites, which Dan had described as "intellectually responsible." I'd put it more in terms of being psychologically realistic. I have thought a great deal about the problem of pain (or theodicy) but not about the problem of how God could have done bad things in the past. There are issues there, technical philosophical issues that I don't think I can really address, and so I was trying to acknowledge that.

But the reason I haven't thought them through is simply because I don't think we have to turn to the past to find situations that everyone should agree were morally repugnant if they were done by a human. Once you see a dying child who has a cancer not because of something he's done to contract it but just because, you don't need to go much further for evidence that God can't be morally good. And then there's the larger scale. Droughts that take out entire regions. A human psyche that allows for things like "corrective rape" and extreme "disciplining" that leads to children's deaths. These things shock me, so much that I cannot think of anyone who would allow them as morally good.

But I have philosophical reasons as well. Probably the biggest one comes from the definition of "good" Dan proposed in his dialogue. Dan had Jaime define goodness as effectiveness relationships in the natural world. It is good to give to charity because this is a good way of eliminating suffering, something that is essential not just for our comfort but also if we're to become the best humans we can. (As the Jewish proverb goes, where there is no bread, there is no Torah.) I understand those effectiveness-relationships to be important because we need them. If we were entirely self-sufficient and perfectly good there would be no need to be in any kind of relationship with anything else that was an effective way to reach any goal.

It's also worth pointing out that even if there was some goal that God needed an effective way to reach, it wouldn't be the kind of good that a human needs to reach. I take this to mean that the ends that are good for humans would not be good for God, and so God would not be any less good for not acting in a way that would be good for humans to do. (I don't think this boils down to a kind of relativism or subjectivism, by the way. It is still an objective feature of the world that human flourishing is best-served through community and the social obligations that carries along with it (including the obligation to give to charity). Our brains are hard-wired to do well under those circumstances. But it is an objective fact about the world that is not actually effective to helping God be the best God He can be. First of all, because that implies some kind of change is necessary (or even possible); and second, because if such a need did exist, it would be a very different kind of need than our own needs as humans.

There's also the fact that I'm all too aware of the problem of language when describing God. Think of what we mean when we say, for example, "blue." The two most common accounts are that language is innate (in which case it's something we grasp in our minds even before we see the first blue thing), or else it's something we learn through the process of abstraction. Basically, you see several blue things, hear people make that sound of blue, and you look for a similarity between the objects to connect that sound to. Then in the future when you see an object with that same trait you can label it as blue. The problem is that most people who believe in God would say He isn't made of components the things we used to get our concepts from are made from, so any quality our words pick out aren't the kind of thing you'd expect to find in God. Now, God's not blue because He doesn't have a material body. But He's also not powerful, in the same way an A-Bomb or an earthquake is. Because the concept we derive from those experiences simply isn't the kind of thing that applies to God. It's a category mistake to ask whether God is good or evil.

That does leave some pretty big questions, I know. For one, it doesn't really match up with the claims the Gospel presents of a loving God, no need to fear for tomorrow, etc. And even if God has no obligation to be good, we certainly are entitled to say "this action You did is wrong," meaning it gets in the way rather than promoting those effectiveness relationships Jaime was talking about. The only way this is a problem, though, is if you suggest God has a special duty to promote human well-being as opposed to astral well-being or oak tree well-being or whatever. Expecting that seems to put some serious limitations on what God can and cannot do, which conflicts the standard picture of God. All of which makes me think that a world where God directly obeyed human standards of morality wouldn't be a God at all.

It's a grim picture, I'll admit, but it's honestly the only way I can see for the kind of God Christians claim they believe in to exist. I actually do think there's room for a healthy kind of love on this picture, the kind that doesn't ask me to destrioy who I am for your sake or for the sake of the relationship. If it is truly impossible for God to follow human morality without ceasing to be God, then I don't see a problem in saying a loving God would not change reality for our point but would support us as we have to live through it.

This is a topic that can't be answered fully in a blog post, I don't think. (It's a topic we've been struggling with since Epicurus.) I'll keep pegging at it as time allows since it is important, and I may well change my position as I continue to think about things. But, as for right now, those are my thoughts on God and moral goodness.

****************************
As an aside, the title comes from Epicurus's famous statement of the problem of evil (as laid out by Hume): Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?



(Originally posted at LJ; please comment there.)
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I've been following the debate over health care mandates, freedom of conscience, and religious exemptions pretty closely. It's really very interesting and (for me at least) very personal.

For those of you who aren't American or, you know, have lives to live that don't involve watching the news, the new health care bill basically requires everyone to carry insurance. If you can't afford it, you get a tax-paid subsidy to help out; if you refuse, you pay a penalty to cover the cost of health care if you get sick. The problem is that many companies only offer very minimal coverage – either really high deductibles (the amount you have to pay before insurance kicks in) or low caps (after which you're responsible for the bills). So to help with that problem, Congress said that each eligible plan – meaning, the plans that will let you avoid the penalty – have to provide a certain level of coverage in several defined areas.

And one of those areas was reproductive health for women. Anyone familiar with American politics and the *erm* heightened interest anything to do with sex seems to draw.

Even before the law passed, it was on record that no taxpayer money could go to fund abortions. I wasn't crazy about that decision, but at the time I accepted as the price of doing business. Personally the thought of people with money deciding what medically-necessary health procedures I should have access to (yes, even if they're footing the bill) really bothers me. This is basically because I recognize that yes, capitalism is great at encouraging innovation and hard work and all that, but it really and truly sucks at distributing resources in a fair way. I think that middle- and upper-class people are generally overpaid, meaning that we should give up our money to fill the actual needs of the poor. I see this as a moral duty, and I don't think I should get to say how that money is actually used. So I don't think I should be able to tell a poor woman she can't have an abortion or buy a soda out of their food stamp money (another personal bugabear, brought to you courtesy of Mayor Bloomberg) or whatever, any more than I should be able to tell a rich or middle-class person. But whatever. As I said, with the abortion provision, I do think the ends justified the means there, even if I wasn't totally comfortable with it.

Now the government is trying to work out just what insurances should have to cover. One of those areas, as I mentioned above, is reproductive health. Basically, the government wants to force all health insurance plans to cover health insurance – including plans paid for in part by employers who have traditionally opposed birth control, like the Roman Catholic Church. There are conscience clause exceptions, which basically let people whose jobs are suitably religious in nature (think pastors and priests) buy insurance plans that don't cover birth control. Sometimes the groups oppose birth control on principle, like the Catholics whose natural law ethics condemn any ejaculation that doesn't have the goal of procreation. Other times there's a concern that the some of the birth controls can act as abortifacients, opening up a back door to taxpayer-funded abortions. Still others, usually conservative Protestants, point to the connection between birth control and extramarital sex and don't want to subsidize promiscuity.

But whatever the reason, these groups don't want to limit the conscience clause to clergy and church employees. The conscience exception wouldn't apply to people whose work wasn't devoted to religious ends. Like social workers and nurses employed by Catholic charities, for instance. And plans for students at religious universities would have to cover birth control.

This is where it gets personal for me, because I am a graduate student on stipend at attend a Jesuit (Catholic) university, and I was very much surprised to discover that my health insurance (purchased through my school) doesn't cover birth control or really anything reproduction-related besides OB-GYN exams. I'm not a member of the Roman Catholic Church, nor do I think I accepted a "Catholic" ethic because I decided to study and teach here. Jesuits just happen to produce the best scholars in my corner of philosophy. As it happens, I don't need birth control because I'm not sexually active, and I actually think most premarital sex is immoral for various reason. But that's my decision, based on my moral choice. And for the majority of the culture that disagrees with me, that's there moral choice, too. To be perfectly honest, I really resent the idea that some group I never joined up with should decide what kind of health choices I'm able to access.

(To be clear: this "joined up" idea can be hard to nail down. If you were born into a church and your whole family belonged, staying on the church rosters could just be inertia at work. Or maybe you joined because you agreed with most of the beliefs but not this one. Or maybe you took a job at a Catholic hospital or teaching Spanish at an evangelical high school because it was the only or best opening in your area. None of these should take away your access to medical procedures. But this is doubly so for college students, given how little emphasis students put on the school's ideology when choosing to go there.)

This, right here, is why the whole idea of relying on charity for basic needs doesn't work. The Catholic Church (and the other groups taking similar stances) are saying it's an affront to their freedom of conscience if they have to pay for my birth control (if I decided I wanted it). I would maybe be okay with that (maybe) if not for the refrain I keep hearing in politics. We're told that government is inefficient, that it's wrong to make people give up their money to support people who didn't earn it. That Americans are the most generous nation and to just let people hold on to their money so they can donate it willingly. But many, many charities have religious ideologies. Those that don't tend to have their own ideologies, and many attach requirements to people using their money. That doesn't sit right with me.

Think about an analogy. Say someone proposes we slash the budget for Section 8 housing. [for Non-Americans: government $$$ paid to private landlords, to provide lower-income housing for the poor] This is in exchange for a taxcut, with the assumption people will turn around and donate that money to private charities working in their local area. Only those charities have their own ideology, as most do. Say a certain charity has a strong ideological position against smoking. (Perhaps it's Mormon-backed, whose church considers tobacco use a sin; perhaps the group's founder just lost a favorite uncle to emphysema and hates smoking.) I can't help thinking low-income people would be less free under this system than the current one.

I guess it all comes down to this for me: you can only use those rights you have the power to exercise. I'm all for personal responsibility and saying that if you have enough money to meet your needs if you were smart about it and you squander it, that you're responsible for. Maybe those people need to suffer, or maybe there's room for honest-to-goodness charity there. But if someone isn't making enough to have a basic standard of living, if they're trying to find a job and can't or if the jobs available pay too little, that's not what charity's for. They need public funds – yes, taken from my tax $$$ – and it's really not up to me how they spend it. That's justice.

Your thoughts?



Originally posted at LJ; please comment there.

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