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Over at the NY Time's "Opinionator," Seyla Benhabib took on Obama's decision not to deport a certaion groups of undocumented immigrants. It's really quite interesting.

http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/07/29/stone-immigration/

To lay my cards on the table, I happen to believe that most of our laws on immigration are unjust laws. While a country certainly has a right to keep accurate tabs on who comes into a country and even to limit who comes in, either individually or as groups if there's a legitimate reason to do that, I think our laws often go too far. ("This man is a known narcotics trafficker" would be one such reason, as would "This group is too large or too poor for our society to reasonably support them." I'd even say many countries could give a third type of reason, "We cannot absorb them into our culture without losing our own identity," though I wouldn't put a melting-pot-based society like America in that group.)

My real beef with American immigration policy is that we depend on the illegal immigrants out of one side of the mouth and label them as criminals in who they are, not what they do out of the other. As this article points out, California agriculture depends on cheap labor. So do any other number of other businesses. These jobs are typically sub-minimum wage and paid under the table (so no taxes paid by the business). I'd argue we all rely on cheap labor that's denied legal recourse for whatever bad things are done to them. It basically sets up two classes of citizens (and I do consider immigrants – people who permanently join a society, legally or otherwise – to be citizens in the philosophical sense if not the legal one), and I'm not crazy about living in a society built on that. Not that any other society is really any better here, and not that there's a whole lot I can do about it, but it does make me feel complicit in something I don't like.

So I'm predisposed to be in favor of this argument. My main qualm with Obama's DREAM-like action is that it affects so few immigrants, and siphons off the most sympathetic immigrants from the larger community. But still, I find Dr. Benhabib's argument confused. She seems to be drawing on two different philosophical traditions and acting like they're compatible. Since I'm going to be teaching these two approaches to justice with my students in just a few hours, I thought it might be interesting and useful to lay them out here, and apply them to this particular argument.

(By the way, this discussion of communitarianism vs. voluntarism is taken more or less from Ch. 9 of Michael Sandel's book Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do; I highly recommend it.)

Dr. Benhabib appeals to Kant's "duty of hospitality." She writes:

If conditions in a person's native country so endanger his life and well-being and he becomes willing to risk illegality in order to survive, his right to survival, from a moral point of view, carries as much weight as does the new country's claim to control borders against migrants Immanuel Kant, therefore, called the moral claim to seek refuge or respite in the lands of another, a "universal right of hospitality," provided that the intentions of the foreigner upon arriving on foreign lands were peaceful. Such a right, he argued, belonged to each human being placed on this planet who had to share the earth with others.

I've never heard of this particular bit of Kant's philosophy, but it does sound like him. I've proved over the last several weeks how hard it is for me to speak authoritatively about Kant's moral philosophy, so here I'll rely on Sandel's summary of the relationship between Kant's account of freedom and communal obligations:

To be free is to be autonomous, and to be autonomous, is to be governed by a law I give myself. Kantian autonomy is more demanding than consent. When I will the moral law, I don't simply choose according to my contingent desires or allegiances. Instead, I step back from my particular interests and attachments, and will as a participant in pure practical reason. […] Kant's idea of an autonomous will and Rawls's idea of a hypothetical agreement behind a veil of ignorance have this in common: both conceive the moral agent as independent of his or her particular aims and attachments. When we will the moral law (Kant) or choose the principles of justice (Rawls), we do so without reference to the roles and identities that situate us in the world and make us the particular people we are. (Sandel pp. 213-214)

What Sandel's getting at here is that we are only Americans or Britons or whatever, by virtue of a historical accident. There's no reason I had to be born in the American South, with all that carries with it as far as the way I view the world and my moral obligations. So while I may think I have a duty to put other Americans first – "buy American," monitor the border, care more about the lives of American deaths than Afghani deaths or however you want to put it – I don't really have any obligation here. And it may make sense to have communities and develop them, at a practical level. But I think Kant would be hard-pressed to explain why those communities are morally relevant, certainly to the point that they outweigh someone's right to preserve their life. (Someone who's a better Kant scholar than I am, could perhaps offer an explanation of why communal obligations are morally relevant and not just based on a hypothetical imperative, perhaps, but I can't see it based on what I understand of him.)

Anyway, so far Dr. Benhabib's on solid footing as far as I can tell. The trouble is she then makes a very un-Kantian move. She writes:

We do have special obligations to our neighbors, as opposed to moral obligations to humanity at large, if, for example, our economy has devastated theirs; if our industrial output has led to environmental harm or if our drug dependency had encouraged the formation of transnational drug cartels.

These claims of interdependence require a third moral principle – in addition to the right of universal hospitality and the right to self-government – to be brought into consideration: associative obligations among peoples arising through historical factors.

This sounds very much to me like the communitarian approach to ethics that Sandel outlines. Kant (according to Sandel) basically thought we only have two kinds of obligations: natural duties, that we owe to everyone just because they're human, and voluntary obligations, things we agreed to ourselves. So there's really no sense in talking about making up for what your ancestors had done, or feeling proud of it. As Sandel explains:

If, in thinking about justice, we just abstract from our particular duties, it is hard to make the case that present-day Germans bear a special responsibility to make recompense for the Holocaust, or that Americans of this generation have a special responsibility to remedy the injustice of slavery and segregation. Why? Because once I set aside my identity as a german or an American and conceive myself as a free and independent self, there is no basis for saying my obligation to remedy these historic injustices is greater than anyone else's. (Sandel p. 214).

The thing is, the way I understand these points, they can't both be true – at least not for the reasons pointed to. If I have a Kantian duty to hospitality because it's a Kantian duty, can I also have special obligations to those living near me? Particularly since I wasn't alive when America enacted the drug policies that encouraged the cartel (so any special obligation I have to help these peoples because I'm an American is distinctly non-Kantian). Unless I'm missing something about Kant?

I've really enjoyed teaching Kant's and Aristotle's accounts of freedom and justice, and I find the whole contemporary debate utterly fascinating. But the way I read things, the two sides aren't really compatible; if you're a communitarian, you seem to be rejecting some pretty crucial claims made by Kant, and vice versa. That Dr. Benhabib tries to draw from both sides is a bit frustrating, because I think a lot of what she's saying individually works pretty well but put together it just undercuts itself. It's actually a problem I see a lot in student papers, where they will just take bits from different theories, without worrying about whether the foundations for those ideas make sense together. Given that this is a full professor writing this, and given that I'm really and truly not a Kant expert, I'm hoping I'm missing something in Kant's thoughts that makes this move possible.

Regardless, it's good to see professional philosophers working on this issue. Personally, I tend to think if an immigrant is willing to throw his lot in with a society, said society needs a damned good reason to exclude him – particularly in a society built on immigration, as is the case with America (and really, if you go back far enough, is the case anywhere). But that's probably coming more out of my own Christian tradition more than anything you'll find in philosophy. You know, Abraham keeping his tent open on all four sides and all that.

(P.S., I started this before class this morning and only finished it now, nearly twelve hours later. So any odd wording, seeming obsession with certain books, etc. may be explained by that.)

(Originally posted at LJ.)

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Wishing to be friends is quick work, but friendship is a slow-ripening fruit. (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 8.3


My FaceBook feed has been hopping quite a bit discussing political issues. I guess it always is, but for some reason I'm more aware of it than I usually am. Between the Chick-Fil-A blow-up and the Colorado shootings (and really, the only thing these things have in common is that they've been talked about a lot lately!), my more liberal friends have been passing around a lot of pictures with pithy quotes or sarcastic one-liners. Some of it is clever (the thought of one I saw a few days saying that Kermit and Miss Piggy had been supporting non-traditional marriage since 1974 or whenever still cracks me up).

But much of it isn't nearly so light-hearted. It makes it seem like "the other guys" (whoever they are) are completely unreasonable, either by taking a thoroughly reasonable point and making it seem like no atheist/Christian/liberal/conservative/whatever could ever agree with it... or by simply creating a straw man of what the other side actually says. And here's the thing. Sharing these things just takes a click of the mouse, and I know a lot of people share what they think is "neat" without necessarily thinking about how it will come across to others. It can create a world-class echo chamber - often from both sides at once!

Sometimes these memes start good conversations. If it's a friend who seems genuinely interesting in discussing these issues, I'll a lot of times comment and explain how and why I reacted. But with some people I get the impression that they're sharing this stuff to create a sense that *everyone* agrees with them (certainly every reasonable person). And it goes beyond that. Just in the last week I've seen three separate "friends" (the label works pretty much the same way on FB and LJ) say that if "you don't agree with me on _______, maybe we shouldn't be friends any more. Where _______ is usually a cause of some kind or a cherished belief, like the idea that gun control was important or that homophobia shouldn't be tolerated.

I've always been bothered by the way FB and LJ use the word friends to mean someone following my blog or updates. I love interacting with people on that level but that isn't what friendship is about. I mean no disrespect to people who choose to end an acquaintance because the person disagrees with you on some issue. That's certainly your right and I don't have any particular bone to pick with people who choose to do that. But when you call people in this relationship friends, I think that just muddles things up in the worst kind of way.

Lots of philosophers discussed friendship, but I think one of my favorite depictions has to be Aristotle's. For the non-philosophers in the house, Harald Thorsrud provides a decent introduction to Aristotle on friendship using Harry Potter examples. The gist is that Aristotle recognizes three kinds of friendships, from friends of convenience up through true friendships built around virtue. The true friendship is one that lasts, but more than that it's one that's built on improvement. I love you and want to become more like you so those virtues that you have and I lack, I try to develop. And vice versa.

When you say a friendship can and should be ended over an "issue," what I hear is that you think I can be dismissed over an issue. That's a pretty pale version of friendship, to my mind. And I realize that on the internet "friend" doesn't mean what it does off the internet, but that's sad to me. I've known lots of people online longer than I have hear in New York. We've probably seen each other through more situations and spent more time chatting, too. Fandom does that, but I think the internet in general does it, too. These are true friendships in the Aristotelian sense, or at least as close as us moderns ever get. I know I can count on them not to run for cover when the going gets rough.

All of which makes me sad to see such an awesome concept and reality used in such a casual way. Because I am much, much more than my stance on gun control, and if our friendship is anywhere close to the authentic ideal Aristotle requires, I need my friends to see that about me. Is this just semantics, a convenient name? Maybe. But even that seems wrong somehow. Because I think that when many people think of and use that word "friends" they really do just mean people whose blogs they follow. I try not to say that, because the word is worth holding on to. Doubly so for the truth behind the word.

Btw, this whole thing reminded me of an old Seinfeld clip; hilarious, but also a nice take on just what's bothering me so much about this use of friendship.  

(Originally posted at LJ.)
fidesquaerens: (religion)

This week, Peter Singer made me do something that I won't soon forgive him for: he caused me to defend the Roman Catholic Church. On more than one occasion, actually.

I wrote several months back about the RCC's response to the contraception mandate. (Quick recap for non-Americans: Obamacare requires that all insurance plans cover "preventive care" like contraception, and only makes exceptions for clergy and other people employed by houses of worship – but not for people at religion-affiliated groups like Catholic hospitals and universities. The RCC hierarchy and several other religious institutions have resisted this aspect of the law because they think it interferes with religious liberty, since it would force religious groups other than churches to pay for things they considered deeply immoral.) I haven't really changed my mind on that whole issue, and I still think employers shouldn't be allowed to impose their morality on their employers through things like health care policies. It's perfectly legitimate to say that I am only allowed to be reimbursed up to a certain cap, or that procedures need to be proven effective at accomplishing their goal; but it's not up to the employer to decide whether that goal is a good one or not. I still think that whether the employer is religious or not is irrelevant here.

But I'm not going to press that issue any more just now. There are bigger fish to fry. Last week the ethicist Peter Singer published an editorial talking about religious liberty. If you aren't familiar with his work, he actually has a good FAQ available at his website outlining his views. Basically, Singer is a utilitarian (meaning actions are judged based on their consequences, how much pleasure and pain they create – for us and for anything else including non-human animals). Because of this, Singer's become a favorite son of the animal rights movement. In particular, he's very much against slaughter-houses where animals suffer greatly to provide meat, milk, and eggs more cheaply to us humans. As you can imagine, he's all for doing anything that will keep those animals from suffering, up to and including becoming a vegetarian (he is one) if the joy of eating meat is outweighed by the slaughtered animal's suffering.

Hence, the editorial: The Use and Abuse of Religious Freedom

See, some countries around the world have banned certain kinds of animal slaughter. Religious groups often have a problem here because unlike modern slaughtering practices where the animal is often stunned so it's unconscious when it's actually killed, kosher and halal laws require the animal to be conscious when it's killed. Those same laws also require that the butcher use a smooth blade so the animal wouldn't feel pain, and they restrict the situations under which meat can be eaten at all. In my opinion this gives the animal a dignity and a moral status you don't see in the slaughterhouses (frankly, I struggle to imagine anything less ethical than knocking anyone unconscious, human or no, and then hacking them up while they're unable to defend themselves), but I guess if we're looking just at the avoidance of pain, the stunning method is probably best.

Singer argued that these laws don't really violate religious liberty because there's nothing requiring Jews and Muslims to eat meat slaughtered in the wrong way. They could simply become vegetarians. According to Singer, we don't need to worry about religious liberty unless a law actually contradicts a religious requirement. They can just go vegetarian if they don't want to break their religion's requirements.

Singer also applies this definition of religious liberty to the contraception mandate, and here's where I really start disagreeing with him. I'm no expert on vegetarianism and the arguments for and against it, so this question of whether Jews and Muslims should have to go vegetarianism only affects me in a vague sort of way. I simply don't feel all that strongly about it either way, although it does strike me as basically unjust. On the other hand, I study and teach at a Catholic school. Catholic higher education is something I do know and care about, so when Singer took aim at that, I couldn't help but take notice.

Here's Singer's take on the contraception mandate:

Likewise, the Obama administration's requirement to provide health insurance that covers contraception does not prevent Catholics from practicing their religion. Catholicism does not oblige its adherents to run hospitals and universities. […]

Of course, the Catholic Church would be understandably reluctant to give up its extensive networks of hospitals and universities. My guess is that, before doing so, they would come to see the provision of health-insurance coverage for contraception as compatible with their religious teachings. But, if the Church made the opposite decision, and handed over its hospitals and universities to bodies that were willing to provide the coverage, Catholics would still be free to worship and follow their religion's teachings.

So again we have this idea that nothing is forcing Catholics to open hospitals and universities and other institutions whose employees are entitled to contraception coverage under the health care law. I don't actually agree with him there. Whatever we might say about vegetarianism (and I'll leave that question to those better informed than me), Christianity does command that we heal the sick and teach people both about Christianity's specific revelation and about the world more generally. In the modern world, the best way to do this is to set up hospitals and schools, including universities. Are we really prepared to say there are no religious liberty issues when you tell Catholics they can't heal the sick, when the Bible probably gives us more explicit commands to do that than it does to worship God? That just seems perverse to me.

Of course, the contraception mandate doesn't keep Catholics from healing the sick. You don't actually have to set up a hospital to treat the sick (individual Catholics could work at non-Catholic hospitals, for instance). And if you had a hospital where everyone was a completely faithful Catholic, the issue just wouldn't come up; I have a hard time imagining most of the Catholics upset about religious liberty violations being so against the mandate if Catholic hospitals and universities weren't actually paying for contraception because no one working there was putting claims in for it. Also, Catholics aren't necessarily faced with a choice between paying for contraception and closing down their hospitals and universities; they could just pay the fines for noncompliance, for example. Still, there are religious liberty issues here. The reason these workarounds are necessary is Catholic does condemn contraception use (even the non-abortifacient kind). Catholicism requires more than just a certain kind of worship.

The tricky part here is that Catholic institutions regularly hire non-Catholics. I'm deeply uncomfortable with the idea that my employer gets to impose his morality on areas of my life having nothing to do with my job. (To be fair, I'm also deeply uncomfortable with the idea that our currently society forces this decision on the RCC and other religious groups; in my ideal world health insurance wouldn't be tied to the employers at all.) Catholic hospitals just about have to hire non-Catholics because there simply aren't always enough Catholic cardiologists and medical billing specialists available in a certain geographical area to completely staff a hospital with people willing to accept the Church's teaching on contraception. This is doubly difficult for universities, where you probably are looking for a person with a very specific expertise. If a Catholic university could only hire Catholic professors that would seriously undermine its ability to attract the best people. I'm not saying Catholics don't make good academics (far from it!), but in academia you usually want someone with a very narrow specialty. That means you really want the widest applicant pool you can get.

In our society, we typically provide health insurance through companies. To my mind, it's part of the compensation you get for working there. It's also the price companies and institutions pay because we don't subsidize health care (or health insurance) through our taxes. That means less of a tax burden for companies and individuals, but it also means more responsibilities fall to those companies and individuals (and non-profit institutions like the RCC) to provide the care society needs. A government without tax $$$ sure can't do it. If I could afford health care without my employer's help (either independently or through government programs) I wouldn't need its approval to get the health care I needed. And so it strikes me as seriously unfair that my employer should be able to decide what health care is available to me, simply because I'm not poor enough to qualify for government assistance or rich enough to afford it all on my own.

I know lots of people will disagree with me on this. I can just see Brendan Palla shaking his head, because this is precisely the argument we've had in the past. My point isn't so much that I'm right and those who think the contraception mandate is an assault on religious liberty are wrong. What I am trying to say is, this is an issue where religious liberty comes into play. It may not win the argument, either because the RCC gave up its claim to religious liberty here by hiring non-Catholics or because religious liberty is somehow outweighed by other concerns. But even I don't buy the argument that there's no religious liberty concern here. It's just that that's not the end of the story.

The thing is, I'd actually feel this way even if Christianity didn't explicitly command us to care for the sick and educate people. Dr. Singer's definition of religious liberty is pretty restrictive, and I'd actually like to impose another one. Religious liberty means not being forced by the law to choose between what your religion requires and the kinds of thing most people in your society consider naturally good – things like eating meat and using public transportation, for example. Religious liberty shouldn't force people to choose between their religion and being a full member of society. (That includes taking full advantage of the kind of thing people in your society naturally value.) You can freely give up those things, but if the law forces you to give that up or otherwise violate your religion, there are religious liberty issues involved.

That doesn't mean those religious freedom concerns win out every time, of course. But just discounting them full-stop isn't the way to go about figuring out where justice lies. Religious liberty means more than just the freedom to worship.



(Originally posted at LJ; please comment there.)
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A few days ago Dan Fincke and I sat down for a debate as part of his blogathon to support the Secular Student Alliance. It was the first time I'd done anything of the kind, and I'm trying to look at it in terms of what I can do better, both in terms of setting up the interview (I'm not nearly the night-owl I thought I was, for one thing) and of explaining my thoughts better on the fly. All of which are good, even if I wish I had been better able to explain myself in the actual debate.

You can read the debate here. Basically, we talked about four things: why I support the SSA; why I think Christianity shouldn't condemn homosexuality; what as a Christian I made of the Biblical story where my supposedly all-good, all-knowing God ordered the Israelites to wipe out the Canaanites; and what it would take for me to give up what Dan called the "God Hypothesis."


deep philosophical thoughts behind the cut )

It was an interesting debate, even though as I said I hope I'll do better next time. (Among other things, it's made me realize that I'm really more interested in constructive dialogue rather than debates between rivals.) Still, I was glad to do my part for the SSA. Do read Dan and my debate, and the many other interviews he did – there's some really thought-provoking stuff here.



(Originally posted at LJ; please comment there.)
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Apparently, in France even the kitties are existentialists.

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(Originally posted at LJ; please comment there.)
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  I had two experiences. First, I went shopping and finished off my teaching wardrobe - several pairs of black linenslacks, white blouses, and a light-weight blazer jacket. All from women's stores, but the style is always a bit tom-boyish. As am I; my voice has always been low-pitched and I've always favored short hair, jeans + tees, and no make-up. 

Item the second: While on the train, I read a really interesting article from the New York Magazine about transgendered children: "S/he." It's well worth the read but longish, so here's the gist. Many transgendered people realize their cis-gender (the one assigned at birth by their parents and society; usually the biological gender). This being New York, you had some reasonably progressive parents trying to make sense of this and support the kids. It's a nice glimpse into transphobia even at that level (one parent's response I found particularly interesting was from a dad who didn't want to suggest to the child there was anything wrong with being a girl, and so he was at first hesitant to get on board with his cis-female son's identifying as male.)

But there's more to it than that. Say your kid tells you at the tender age of five that "she" wants to be treated as a he - that he really believes he is a boy, despite being anatomically female. That may be more-or-less feasible at five (setting aside transphobia the kid may have to deal with), but what about at thirteen? Because while Marcia may answer to Mark and dress and act and play as a boy, but there's still estrogen flowing through his body - meaning that puberty will come quickly, and with it the breasts and the menstruation. It would be traumatic. The problem is, doctors suggest the transgendered not start taking artificial hormones until they're at least sixteen. That's years of being trapped in a body that feels less and less like yours, with all that carries with it regarding social interaction and expectations. And we thought gay bullying was bad. I mean, it is, but this? :-S

So to address the situation, some parents have turned to what's called puberty-blockers - drugs that keep a body from going through puberty, until the child is old enough to start hormone treatment and go through puberty as their chosen gender. (The kid can also go through puberty as his or her cis-gender, simply by stopping the puberty blockers.) But it's a tough call. Several of the parents refer to it as "playing God" or think it marks transgenderism off as a disease (which most LGBT allies, myself included, wholeheartedly deny). 

Reading all this, I felt an immense sympathy for anyone going through this. Even with supportive parents, it strikes me as an enormously tough needle for a seven-year-old to thread. And given that most parents probably aren't supportive - either through their own beliefs or simply being a bit mystified by it all - I can only imagine what that's like. By the experience of transgender children as it's explained here resonated deep within me. I'm not transgender, but I'm enough of a tomboy that I never felt drawn to many of the traditional teenage things - dating, dances, and the like. I liked being one of the boys and was most comfortable where gender simply didn't matter. More to the point, I'm all too familiar with the no man's land between different groups. With religion/atheism in particular but other issues as well, where it sometimes felt like I could never be my whole self with anyone - like I always had to fashion my identity. This isn't a criticism of the people I grew up around, or the people at my church who I always seem to be too liberal or too traditionalist to truly fit in with (depending on the group), or my secular humanist friends who try to make sense of why an intelligent person would continue to claim a religious label. But sometimes it feels like, on an issue of great importance to me, I can't fully "be myself" - either because I don't know who I am or because I'm not brave enough to put myself out there, but in either case it's a true mind-warp at times.

None of this makes me transgendered. But I think it makes me particularly sympathetic to people who have a hard time getting who they really are "seen" by others. And maybe in my case the blindness of other folks is all in my head. But whatever the reason, my heart just breaks for these kids having to navigate this world and maybe feeling like even their own parents don't really see them for who they really are. That's hard.  

(Originally posted on LJ; please comment there.)
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Recently I read an article about Miley Cyrus and how she wasn't acting like she was twelve anymore. Miley says some really interesting things about what it means to find yourself when you're a child-star, and also talks about sex and the double-standard women face in Hollywood. Now, say I posted a link to that article here with a comment along the lines of how nice it would be if she turned out to be a Christian.

Something like that happened recently on a friend's FB page, only there my friend posted a link and a third party commented saying he hoped Miley was an atheist. That comment really got me thinking, because if I had said something similar coming at it from a Christian perspective, I'd expect some raised eyebrows around here. At a minimum. Such a comment would imply one of two things: either I thought Miley's comments couldn't be good unless they came from a Christian, or else I wanted all good things to be associated with Christianity. Either way, I can see how you guys might get a bit offended, or at least be confused why I should be concerned. A claim like that, if I heard someone else make it, would strike me as oddly provincial. And also selfish; whatever's good, I'd want to make it available to the most people possible. And since people tend to listen to their own groups more than they do "outsiders," that means I'd want wise people and thought-provoking comments coming from all corners of society – not just mine.


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(Originally posted at LJ; please comment there.)
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My last exam is graded (well, except for the one student who has to make up the exam next week), and while I still have some research due for my advisor, I can breathe a bit at last. So I want to go back to a point I just mentioned at the end of my last post. Namely: if you vote against gay marriage, does that mean you're just a homophobe? The story-line is pretty standard: Gay marriage won't destroy straight marriage since straight men aren't going to suddenly leave their wives or anything; the only impact it has is letting homosexuals marry; so if you're against gay marriage you must be homophobic. Is it really that simple?

I don't think so. Now, I'm actually in favor of the state having one status (civil unions, marriage, whatever – I'm not picky about the label) open to both homosexuals and heterosexuals. As a Christian, I actually think Christian churches should open up the marriage sacrament to gay couples as well, but that's a totally different topic. But I also get why some people think of marriage is for straight couples only. And it has next to nothing to do with homosexuality, let alone homophobia.


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Tonight North Carolina voted to make it not only illegal but also unconstitutional for two adults to build a legally-recognized family unit, simply because those adults are the same gender. It's a bit odd - I haven't lived in NC since 2006, but I still feel like a Tarheel at heart, and NC news tends to hit me harder than NY news does. For me, this amendment isn't academic, it isn't general - it is a slap in the face to all affected, no matter the remove.

I have my own history with a good friend from my undergrad days who happened to be gay. And I remember the way he was impacted by homophobia he experienced. It breaks my heart to think of the gay, lesbian, whatever kid who's sitting in his college dorm room hearing that his state doesn't think whatever love he might find should be protected by law. The one consolation I have is that this kid, if he's been following the news all along, might have seen that many people in his state didn't feel this way. But I know how news media works. All those clergymen who signed the petition saying they opposed the amendment are dwarfed by that shameful Billy Graham ad )

This amendment process is offensive and insensitive to a minority group. It's also harmful to families with heterosexual parents but that aren't bound by parents. As has been pointed out many times, it makes it harder to deal with domestic violence, child welfare and any other range of things that affect stable but unmarried couples. But things like this are really and truly discouraging because they point to how little value we place on rational argument in this society. The bottom line is, in an amendment ratification process like this the best argument doesn't become law. Direct democracy like this doesn't give any weight to how well-considered your reasoning is. Are you voting because you have thought things through and one way or the other decided on a position, or are you voting out of fear or on a whim? The votes add up the same.

Also, it should not need to be said, but in case it does: not everything is up for a vote. I can't speak to legal rights - I heard somewhere that some Supreme Court marriage is a right, but I don't recall the details - but philosophically, the ability to form a family unit and receive legal protection of the same is a right. Sometimes the state has a good reason to keep two people from marrying, like with incest or pedophilia where consent is iffy, but there's just not a reason here. (As a side note, it actually amused me to no end that if we're looking for a biblical definition of marriage, polygamy probably comes closer to the mark than the one man, one woman formula. But that's neither here nor there.)

I know I've quoted this passage here before, but on nights like this, I have to go back to Dr. King. He wrote in the Birmingham letter:

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Laws like this are a kind of segregation. And they make me sick.

One other thing: I know a lot of people will say that this is an instance of religion needing to stay out of politics. One thing I have seen over these last few weeks, though, is that religious people have been among the most active in challenging stereotypes and unchallenged beliefs some people have. The backward pastors encouraging parents to beat their limp-wristed children get all the attention, of course, but then you also have pastors like this guy:

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I'm not convinced that this had much to do with religion, and to the extent it did, I'd suspect it was more religion used as a crutch for hatred and us-vs-them mentality.

Enough of that, though. And enough of these high-brow words. Tonight, I just wanted anyone hurt by this amendment (in any way) to know how sorry I am. It's not right, it's not just, and you don't deserve that pain.

(Originally posted at LJ; please comment there.)
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I'm on the bus back from Baltimore to NYC.

It was a good weekend in the Charm City. The conference didn't go quite as well as I would have liked, mostly because it was a little outside my expertise and also because it was only a single day - felt like just once I was getting into the swing of things the event was over. I think I was spoiled a bit by my last conference being spread over three days. At a minimum I got exposed to some interesting ideas that I hadn't been exposed to before. It focused on the intersection of race and gender, and asked whether there were distinctly different concepts of being male or female (or black/white/whatever shade of brown/etc.) mattered).

For the interested, I started out with a basic line of thought that has really bothered me in the healthcare debate: the idea that being forced to buy insurance was an infringement on your liberty. Now, we can disagree over whether forcing everyone to buy a service from a private company is the best way of organizing health care. And we can ask whether we need to tie it in to having a job or not; and whether choices like smoking, exercise level, fat intake, etc. should impact premiums. All of these are legitimate debates. But just because you don't like having to buy health insurance doesn't mean you're the only one impacted by not buying health insurance. Specifically, when you can't pay for care (one way or another) you force a ahrd choice on me: either pay for your care or allow you ot suffer. That second option makes me go against a relationship we have (as neighbors, fellow citizens, fellow humans, whatever). And relationships matter, particularly to women. They seem significant, and forcing me to violate my relationships seems immoral somehow. That issue just hasn't entered into the debate.

I started by talking about someone named Carol Gilligan. She basically said that men typically think in terms of mrules and women tend to think in terms of relationships. The problem is, if you want to move beyond talking about what people actually do to what they should do, you run into a problem. Either you have to say men are better than women or women are better than men - a problem for obvious reasons! - or you have to say there's some way we can explain how they're equal, even though they aim after different traits. One approach stems from gender essentialism, and it's basically the idea that character traits (say, being nurturing) make you a good woman but a bad man. There's some pretty obvious sexism there and it also makes women into a separate group from men, rather than two halves of the same whole. Which is, you know, not particularly cool.

The third way that I wanted to look at (surprise, surprise) came from Anselm. He said that good humans love well. We recognize the things we ought to love and then love it. But it's a two-way street; particularly with God but also with other things, our love helps us know something's worth. It directs our attention, it inspires awe and hope and other things that help motivate us to really think about something. There's a single activity that good humans ought to do, but you need both the rule approach we associate with love and the caring/relational approach we associate with women. As the old line goes, God took Eve not from the head of Adam to rule over him, nor from his feet so she might be trampled by him, but God took Eve from Adam's side to stand beside him. Or something like that. The basic idea is you have an ethics for humans but it respects all the human psyche, male and female and everything in between. Which, frankly, traditional ethics hasn't done such a great job of!

Anyway. Enough deep thought, and enough focusing on this paper. Back to God-talk and the ontological argument for me. For now, I'm happy to watch the world pass by.

Speaking of, this meme from FB completely cracked me up:

Read more... )
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Many atheist friends of mine (I’m thinking of Dan Fincke in particular, but I’m sure I’ve heard the point other places as well) describe “faith” as being more sure of something than is warranted by the available evidence. It’s not a complement. The thought, as I understand it, is that we should only believe things we have good reason to think are true, and that there’s no good reason to believe God exists. So people who do believe God exists are either making a factual mistake (they think there’s evidence but there isn’t), or otherwise they’re wrong to think we don’t need that evidence. Either way, all theists are being irrational.

Obviously I don’t agree with this in every situation or I wouldn’t be a theist. on theology being 'true' )
on heaven, hell, and a rather messed-up kind of justice )
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Because friends don't let friends do philosophy.

Read more... )

(Originally posted at LJ; please comment there.)
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I wrote a few weeks back about the by-now infamous bioethics journal article comparing late-term abortions to infanticide. (My initial thoughts and a later reaction.) Now Andrew Brown over at The Guardian is weighing in:

Infanticide is repellent. Feeling that way doesn't make you Glenn Beck.


According to Mr. Brown:

In any case, the piece was picked up by the website of the immensely popular rightwing American Mormon, Glenn Beck. The commentators there – who probably already believe that there is no difference between abortion and infanticide, or believe that they believe this – erupted in predictable fury.

Savulescu [the journal editor] claims that he and the authors have received death threats. In his blogpost he wrote:

"What is disturbing is not the arguments in this paper nor its publication in an ethics journal. It is the hostile, abusive, threatening responses that it has elicited. More than ever, proper academic discussion and freedom are under threat from fanatics opposed to the very values of a liberal society."


Mr. Brown goes on to argue that this is ridiculous, concluding, "If "the very values of a liberal society" include killing inconvenient babies, or discussing their killing as if this was something reasonable and morally competent human beings might choose to do, then liberalism really would be the monster that American conservatives pretend it is."

Now, Mr. Brown is a well-respected journalist, the section editor of a major paper, and I have no reason to doubt his intelligence. But here's the thing: that's such a simplistic reaction to the issues at play here, that I'm struggling a bit to see how to reply. Whatever I think of the article (and I still haven't had time to read it, so can't comment on it directly - I know, shame on me), I would still find it deeply upsetting to think that a professional philosopher should get freaking death threats for anything he wrote in an academic journal. I found it astounding when a legislator got a brick through his campaign headquarter's window after he signed Obama's healthcare legislation, and politicians have in a certain sense signed on to be in the limelight.

Not so with academics. If we've gotten to the point where private citizens can't testify before a Congressional committee and be called "slut" for their efforts, where a university professor publishing in an academic journal could have his life threatened - well as someone whose academic interests touch on that powderkeg that is religious practice, I do have a dog in that particular fight. And yes, that is a key value of liberalism: that people are free to express ideas. And yes, you are free to disagree with my ideas. But you don't get to intimidate me from having or expressing them.

Mr. Brown also takes aim at the article itself. He seems to think it's advocating infanticide, and asks what we would think about sex-selective infanticide. And as I said, I've not read the original article, but I have read several different summaries of it by people both friendly and not-so. I've also read the other articles the journal editor cites as originating the arguments these bioethicists are building on, and I'd be very surprised if they were actually advocating infanticide. (If they are, I'd say that's a big mistake on their parts, but that their basic point can survive without that claim.)

More likely, I'd expect Giubilini and Minerva to argue for something more subtle. If a fetus one day before birth and a child one day after are as similar in their features as (say) a one-day and three-day old child, then you'd expect there to be similar standards for how we treat them. Namely, if it's wrong to kill a newly-born child in certain circumstances, then it should also be wrong to kill an about-to-be-born fetus in those same circumstances. And vice versa; if abortion is permissible in circumstance X one day before birth, then infanticide should also be morally permissible in circumstance X one day after birth.

That's actually a perfectly reasonable position, at least when we're talking about morality. (The law doesn't always have to coincide with morality precisely, though it should try to minimize the effects of bad behavior on other people so ethics is obviously a part of what makes a good or bad law.) But nothing about this means infanticide will always be okay. Mr. Brown gets this precisely when he says:

The equation of abortion with infanticide is central to the rhetoric of many anti-abortionists. It is something that most pro-choicers emphatically reject. For them, the moral justification of abortion lies in the fact that an embryo is not a human being, whereas a newborn baby is. The moral status of a foetus changes over time in the womb, and while there will always be arguments about when the change should be recognised, there is wide agreement that a time limit on abortion is morally significant.


Yes, precisely. So if an abortion is immoral one day before birth - as almost all of them would be - it's just as immoral a day later. From the snatches of the article I've read, it seems like Giubilini and Minerva go too far in this category, proposing that neo-infanticide is morally permissible if the family's financial circumstance changes. I think it's really reprehensible to kill a one-day old child because you can't afford to raise it. But that's not because it's a born human, but because it's much further along its path toward acquiring personhood than a fetus a few weeks after conception is. It would be equally horrendous to abort a fetus in the last day of pregnancy, and even if the law didn't call that murder, and even if I don't consider it morally murder (since the fetus/infant isn't fully human yet), it's still a seriously wrong act. In either case.

This answers Mr. Brown's concern about sex-selective infanticide. Of course it's immoral to kill a newly-born baby because you'd like a son rather than a daughter. But that has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that said daughter is now born. In fact, I'd go so far to say this kind of abortion is never permissible unless we're talking about a cultural situation where a daughter's life really will be miserable. In that case, maybe you could make a lesser of two evils argument. But even then, at the time the fetus/child distinction becomes an issue you've known (or could have known) the fetus was a girl for months. I can't think of a reason in the world why this claim, that gender-driven abortions should be permissible even in the latter stages of pregnancy.

My basic approach is that personhood doesn't fully attach until some time after birth, when the child can start making its own choices. But that it's also not an either/or situation, and the child and late-term fetus has some degree of personhood all along, always increasing, so the longer the pregnancy has gone on, the better a reason you need for an abortion to be moral. There are other factors involved, too, like whether the fetus has to take over someone else's body to continue living and whether other people will think of the fetus as a person even if it isn't one. (Killing a born child that others can see looks like a mini-person has to effect whether we think it's okay to kill other full persons, so there's a higher bar to meet there.)

It's a complicated issue, to be sure. But that's precisely why we need experts to think and talk about this issue. Just like we need Georgetown law students to be able to testify about sex and how our policies re: contraceptives impact their lives is necessary, if we're going to work out whether a certain law is just or not. Calling for a philosopher's death because they wrote a challenging article does make you like Glenn Beck, and not in a good way. With all respect to Mr. Brown, it just does. That's a line you just don't cross.

(Originally posted at LJ; please comment there.)
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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.)


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 My friend Dan Fincke has an interesting post up about "covert" atheists and theists. He starts by describing two types of atheists:

There are at least two broad kinds of avowed atheists who take two distinct kinds of stances on the status of their belief. One is the atheist in the widest possible sense-one who claims to passively lack any belief in any gods by simply refraining from believing in them rather than outright making a metaphysical claim that "gods do not exist." The other broad kind of avowed atheist also lacks belief in all gods but is willing to say she either disbelieves in gods or believes (or even knows) based on the preponderance of evidence that there are no gods.

Dan then goes on to develop what you might call a functional test for these kinds of atheism. Essentially, if you act like these groups, so that there is no practical difference between you and them, it may make sense to call you an atheist. Or conversely, if an atheist acts like a theist even while claiming not to believe in a god, that person can perhaps be classified as an atheist. This is the heart of Dan's post, actually, and he leaves it open-ended: should we classify someone as X if their actions make them indistinguishable from other X-ers, even if the person swears up and down that she's a not-X?

Dan gives two examples to help us think about this. First, there's the problem of grief. Dan asks, "To what extent do [the theists'] normal fears of death and deep mourning of lost ones they ostensibly believe in heaven betray functional disbelief in heaven?" Basically, as I understand him, Dan's saying that if you believe in an afterlife of some kind you shouldn't be sorry that a loved one has gone on to it, or be afraid of dying yourself. The fact that the theist does feel these things proves that she isn't really convinced there's an afterlife after all, Dan suggests. (He also offers a similar analysis of covert theists, that is, people who claim to be atheists but when in distress wonder whether they should pray.

Now, I have some problems with this account. First of all, I don't agree with Dan's point that it's inconsistent to believe in an afterlife and still grieve the death of a loved one or fear your own death. Essentially I think that bodily life is a good thing cut short by an early death, and that you don't gain anything by going on to any kind of an afterlife sooner rather than later. So whether or not it's wrong to believe in heaven and hell or their various analogs in any other religion, there's not really anything inconsistent in those two beliefs. I also have my doubts about functional definitions because you can get the same result with two very different beliefs (for example, someone who thinks she should turn in a found wallet to the police and acts on that belief, versus someone who thinks she should keep the wallet but lacks the strength of character to act on that belief).

But those points aside, there's a really interesting issue in the distinction Dan draws between these two types of atheists. As I understand it - and keep in mind, this is the pre-coffee Marta, which shall be purchased and consumed on my way to campus in a bit - Dan is talking about people in both cases who have a specific concept of a god and we don't think anyone meets that definition. One type ­rejects the idea that any of the usual (or unusual, for that matter) candidate is in fact a god; the other makes the positive claim that "no gods exist." But in both cases, you have an idea of what would constitute a god, and you're taking a position that nothing actually meets that definition.

The trouble is, as soon as you have an idea in mind, I'd say you're already letting God exist in a sense. This is Anselm's basic point: to even talk about something (including God) meaningfully, you have to know what it is you're talking about, but to do that you have to have an object of thought. At a minimum a god "exists" inside your mind even if it doesn't exist anywhere else. The thought is that it's wrong at that point to say "There is no God" unless you're very careful to talk about the concepts as what other people mean by them rather than ideas you've internalized.

Anselm explains the distinction here through the painter analogy:

For, it is one thing for an object to be in the understanding, and another to understand that the object exists. When a painter first conceives of what he will afterwards perform, he has it in his understanding, but he does not yet understand it to be, because he has not yet performed it. But after he has made the painting, he both has it in his understanding, and he understands that it exists, because he has made it.

Anselm has just said that whenever we hear or say a word – if proper communication is occurring – we must know what we're talking about, implying that we have the idea in mind. We can disagree about whether there's anything in the world beyond our mind, sure, just like the painter can wonder whether the idea he has in his mind actually corresponds with an idea he has in mind or whether it's just an object of thought at that point; but it's an object of thought, whatever else it might be.

The way around this is that if you're going to say the concept of God is ill-formed. Basically, if you think it's a concept that involves a contradiction, so it's theoretically impossible that anything meets the definition (as opposed to it being possible but as it works out no one actually meets the definition), then you aren't communicating in the normal way. When you say "God" it doesn't describe a concept you have in your mind. Rather, you're using it in a way my adviser calls parasitically: you're taking on someone else's concept and using it on their terms, but you're not really saying it makes sense to you. So if you think (e.g.) God can't create a rock so big He couldn't lift it so nothing could be omnipotent, you're likely to say that any conception of a god who has the characteristic of omnipotence isn't even possible. Meaning you can't have Him as an object of thought, though you could still talk about other people's (faulty) conceptions of Him.

I personally think this distinction is helpful toward making sense of language. Consider the statements (a) "Legolas is the Prince of Ithilien" and (b) "William is the prince of England." (b) is objectively true since there's an individual named William and, yes, he does hold that title. (a) turns out to be false but for entirely different reasons. There is a fictional character called Legolas, and he is a prince, but he's not the prince of Ithilien. However, none of this depends on the objective reality; it's just a set of fictions developed by an author and known by fans of the book. The statement is false because if you denied any of the claims I listed above you wouldn't be describing the situation depicted in the book. But it's not like we can consult the official records of Ithilien and fail to find Legolas listed among them. There's a different standard of truth; indeed, a different concept of what it means to be true is at work. Similarly, a statement that works with a contradictory concept wouldn't be true or false in the same way either of these are; if in fact you could say true or false apply at all.

None of this is intended as a criticism of Dan's position, btw. As I said this is Marta pre-coffee (soon to be rectified), and it's possible I've misunderstood what Dan was getting at with his post. But even if I am misreading him, I do think it's useful to distinguish between the atheist who simply doesn't believe anything in the world satisfies the definition of God, versus someone who says the concept itself is nonsense. The kind of evidence we'd expect in the two cases would be completely different.

Now off to get my java-fix. Feel free to tell me what you think of all this in the comments.

(Originally posted at LJ; please comment there.)
fidesquaerens: (Default)

I've been following the controversy over birth control coverage for some time. It touches on an experience I had several months back, when I discovered that my student health insurance (I'm a graduate student at a private Catholic university). I was either misinformed or else the policy changed, because I recently learned that I could get birth control if I saw a private doctor and the insurance would pay for it. But I remember how upset I was when I thought I was being forced to live by someone else's morality – and do bear in mind I don't actually need or use birth control! – so I have a lot of empathy for the women whose health care choices are being forced into the public square.


Read more... )



(Originally posted at LJ; please comment there.)
fidesquaerens: (Default)
It's a lovely, unseasonably warm afternoon. The faculty dining room had good food I could stomach (the quality is always good; but I'm an exceptionally picky eater with shrooms and veggies). Week's grading is done and I think I've finally settled on books for summer school In short, I'm having a good afternoon by any of the normal metrics. I haven't been sleeping well (basically since I've seen "The Grey" two days ago), but for once relaxed and at peace rather than exhausted beyond all measure.

All of which sets up your standard Marta epiphany. Read more... )

(Originally posted in LJ; please comment there.)
fidesquaerens: (Default)

*rushes in with noise-makers and cake*

Yesterday I had planned to write about pandemonium_213's birthday. I had every intention of writing her a nice birthday post, full of meaty science-and-faith thoughts. I'd even planned out a witty opening line about yesterday (now two days ago) being Charles Dawin's birthday, but even more importantly it was the day before our own pandë's. :-) But I got a bit obsessed with the unhappy juxtaposition of (1) Chris Brown making a "come-back" by performing at the Oscars and (2) the upcoming Valentine's Day focus on love. I couldn't quite get my thoughts to go other places, including what I'd wanted to write about.

So, first things first. Pandë, I really hope you had a first-class day. Our corner of the interwebs is better for your being part of it.

I also wanted to say a few words about the topic of atheism, religion, faith and science. I can't hope that both Pandë and Darwin would approve. Annual posts thinking about the kinds of questions I imagine Pandë asking me are becoming a bit of a tradition, actually! The rest of this post is dedicated to her, though of course the thoughts don't represent her position. But I do hope the labor of love inherent in pondering deep questions will be a fitting tribute to her. (And as always, Pandë, do feel free to respond honestly, if you want to.)

Read more... )

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