Thursday, December 31, 2009

How can we punish conjoined twins?

I just read this article I found via neatorama, about the possibility of punishing one half of a conjoined twin.  The set up is fairly simple, imagine a set of conjoined twins, one of them commits a crime, the other one objects and cannot stop the other twin from committing the crime.  So we have one innocent person and one guilty person.  But how can we punish one without punishing the other?

The essay takes it from a legal perspective, and it comes to the conclusion that we really can't punish the guilty party legally, and I think he might be right.  Even morally speaking, it would be hard to justify punishing an innocent person to ensure a guilty one is punished.  We built it into our laws that we'd rather have guilty people go free than innocent people go to jail.  The alternative, requiring some kind of separation of the two, would be an odd kind of punishment as well.  We usually don't force surgery onto convicted criminals, much less innocent people. 

But this suggests that conjoined twins are legally and ethically impervious to punishment.  Imagine you were the parent of a set of conjoined twins.  How would you punish them if one snuck out, to the objections of the other?  Put a bag over the head of the guilty party?  I'm really at a loss as to how to think about this particular puzzle.  

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Everyday Ethics: The Flu

So I'm still sick.... So what better to do than to philosophize?  Aristotle really gets it right when he says that philosophy is self-sufficient, you don't really need anything to do it, health included.

So I went to the pharmacy to pick up some more meds to dope myself up with in a losing battle to make my self feel normal.  I got to the register dropped it all on the little conveyor belt, and the nice checkstand lady started ringing me up.

Thats when it hit me.... She's putting her hands all over my medicine and food!  Now this isn't the usual concern of where has her hands been, but rather, my hands have been all over them!  Should I speak up and say something like, I have the flu, so you might want to sanitize after you get done with my purchase?
I'm very much actively avoiding other people, specifically friends and family so I don't get them sick, but what about strangers?  I can't avoid this particular stranger.  I need my food at the very least.  Shouldn't I at least extend the courtesy of a warning to her?

If I warn her, there are two possible scenarios that I envision, and both are really not about her particular reaction strangely enough.  The first is the best case scenario.  She sanitizes her hands and her station, and everyone around me (the other people in line) just go about their day like normal.  The second is that everyone freaks out, panicked in a media fueled hysteria about swine flu, as I plead vegetarianism and a complete lack of pork.  Okay so there might be some in-between there too.

If my warning will cause more harm than good, then why should I make the warning?

I find this scenario to be an awful lot like the white lie or the  "Does this make me look fat?" scenario.  A truthful answer may do a lot of harm, but there is no withholding of the truth.  In the flu case, I'm trying to prevent harm by telling the truth, but may inadvertently cause more harm then good by trying.

So like, many other cases, the white lie comes down to circumstances.  If my wife were to ask me this question while getting ready for an important meeting, I'd tell her the truth, to save her embarrassment.  But if she was just getting ready for work, where only 20-plus 3rd graders will be judging her significantly, I would tell her the lie. 

So is there a high degree of possibility that significant harm will be dealt here?  Sure.  Lots of people go to the pharmacy for all sorts of things, including the elderly, who are more susceptible to the flu than young'ins like me.  Sure there are people who might overreact, but better to overreact than to expose oneself to the flu.

So... Stay away everyone!  H1N1 death will visit you if you do not heed my warnings!  (I don't know if I have H1N1).

Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas

And happy holidays.  Hope you're all feeling better than I, since I have a pretty bad cold.  But that doesn't stop me from reaping presents!  Yay presents!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009


Wow, this trailer looks great for Jude Law's new movie Repo Men!

Whats great about Sci-fi is that it can make such a powerful commentary on today's issues, in this case the cost of health care.  When life, death, and technology collide, why does life seem to get the short end of the stick?  Either its because people fear the technology, or its too expensive.  In the movie's case it seems like its too expensive.  Capitalism becomes a tough-sell when people's lives are at stake and others are trying to make a buck.  Not that I'm not sympathetic to health care, I'm actually quite sympathetic.  But at what point does the health care industry's treating people as a means to an end, become unworkable?  I don't pretend to have any answers here, I just wanted to share a really cool movie trailer.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Guilty pleasures and the market

I have quite a few guilty pleasures that I indulge in....  Probably the guiltiest of them all is that I love Survivor.  I can't help it.... I find the show terribly intriguing in terms of the game itself.  I would love to play it someday, but I doubt I ever will get the chance to. 

Tonight is the finale for this fall season's Samoa show, and its definitely been one of the most entertaining series, with Russell stealing the show from episode 1.  For those of you not watching, Russell is owns an oil business and is a self-proclaimed millionaire.  In the first episode, he burned his teammates socks and emptied out their water canteens to make their life at camp as miserable as possible, so that they would become easier to manipulate.....  And its worked.  Entering the tribal merge (where the two opposing teams combine and the game becomes an individual game)  Russell's team was down in numbers but through some wiley manipulation and hardwork, his team overcame an incredible numbers deficit to come out on top.

Russell was labeled the most evil player in Survivor history as a selling point for the season.  In the past there have been some pretty incredible lies and broken promises, from a player literally giving another player a car and subsequently having that player voted off (the car giver), to a faked death in the family to garner sympathy favor from the tribe.  I'm not sure if Russell has done anything particularly nasty to really earn the moniker of the most evil player...  And to top it off, I'm not sure if evil really applies in the game of Survivor.

Gaming ethics is when participants in a "game" (widely defined... some will call business a game) can do anything they want within the rules of the game.  So as long as big bankers on Wall Street don't do anything illegal, they can do anything to make money.  Now in a game like Survivor, it's easy to apply gaming ethics.  Do anything within the rules to win the million dollars.  Lying, promise breaking, and sock burning is all fair game.  Of course this only works, so long as all the participants of the game know what they are getting into.  (There are rules in Survivor beyond basic rules of immunity and voting players out... Players can't physically attack each other, unless its in a defined challenge, players can't collude to win the million and then split the winnings after the game, etc.)

However, when it comes to Wall Street, there are people who will be affected by the game that don't know that they are playing.  401Ks and people's retirement funds are at stake.  Now, one can argue that these people are in fact part the game players, and if they don't know the rules, tough cookie.  But, there are very clear examples of people who do not participate in any way in the stock market game, but still get affected by it, and the current economy is a prime example of it. 

So how do we stop the exploitation of the "game" of Wall Street at the risk of harm to those who don't want to play the game?  Regulations.  We build it in to the rules of the game, that one can't do this.  Of course this is met with massive resistance, since the free market is what, in many ways, made America so incredibly successful. 

But in reality, our markets today have not been free for a long time.  In fact, many economists point to the relaxation of regulations on the market that led to the real estate crisis which led to the credit crisis.  President Obama's call for Wall Street to be more responsible (and I'm not talking about bonuses here), is a hopeless call into the void, like asking the players of Survivor not to lie.  If we really want to avoid another financial crisis with the same root causes of this one's, we must regulate the market more heavily. 

Friday, December 18, 2009

What is art?

Amanda Palmer, siren extrodinaire, put this up on her blog today. 

Here's my response:
Great song!

But I think you're wrong. Well... maybe not entirely. We can't say that everything is art, otherwise the term becomes meaningless. Words get their meaning from the fact that they differentiate things. I don't think you're saying anything can be music here... the issue is pop music. Is it art? Sure, since its not just a random assortment of sounds.

But typically when people say something is art, more is conveyed. We elevate something to a higher level of admiration when we say something is art. For example some people might say that Michael Jordan play basketball is art. That says something beyond that he's just good at playing basketball.

So when we say things like Lady GaGa is creating art, which I think is true, some people think that we're saying its good, because its art.

You're an artist Amanda... So lets try this out.... If you write a song, and you think it sucks, would you say that you created art? Are all products of creativity art? I'm hesitant to say that EVERYTHING you produce is art, (although I'm a big fan).

So lets make a distinction... "art" for all the products of creativity, and Art for particularly meritable products of creativity (this doesn't mean that all works of Art will make us feel happy or are beautiful).

***I should really point out that I'm not sure if AP is really saying that everything is art, but its a common enough statement that I felt like it should have been addressed first.  I said she wasn't in my comment, but I just want to re-emphasize for clairty's sake.

Thursday, December 17, 2009


So yesterday was the last of my final exams.  I'll be grading most of today, and hopefully be done with that by the end of the day.  But I thought I'd share my first final of the morning story.

The first final of the day was my intro to philosophy course, and I grabbed my stack of exams, looked it over, it looked right just glancing at it.  I went to class, passed out the exam, and then a student comes up and says that he thinks its the wrong exam.  I look at it again, and sure enough, its my modern philosophy exam.  So I run back to my office....  no luck.  I must have printed up two copies of my modern final! 

So I had to project the exam on the screen from my USB drive.  But I hadn't updated my USB drive in a while, so the exam on the USB drive, was a bit out of date, and included stuff on the exam that wasn't supposed to be on the exam.  Psh....

But they made it through the final, and I gave everyone some free points as a mea culpa.  It's the first time that anything like that has ever happened to me.  Hopefully it'll be the last.  But for a moment, my class was incredibly excited about not having a final.  :)

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Drops in the ocean

To those who believe that drops in the ocean acts, (acts that have a relatively small effect in the grand scheme of things) are pointless.

Sure in the grand scheme of things, only one person really got their dinner for free still...  but the effects of one couple's actions truly can have huge reverberations, especially in this internet age.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

A peek in to the future

So I've been rolling a few ideas around in my head for a while now, because I need to write a chapter for a book I'm co-editing (For those of you who are curious).

I've got a few ideas, but I'm not sure which idea I'm going to run with, or if I'm going to need to mash a few of these together.  But one I've been thinking about is why bad things are so bad, and good things not nearly as good as bad things are bad. 

It might be easier to think of this in terms of money, assuming that money is a good thing.  The more money that we have, the less useful it becomes.  If I have a million dollars, I can satisfy all my needs, and desires...  Getting another million then won't make me nearly as happy as the first million, because the second million would only be going to satisfy more whims and fancies, not necessities or basic comforts.  This is known as the declining marginal utility of money, but I think this can be applied to happiness in general.  At some point, we reach a pleateau of happiness.  Any happiness beyond that is just excessive happiness.... not that we don't want it, but we're already happy.  I think this is what Epicurus was trying to aim for in his aim for satisfaction, and in some ways, what the buddhists aim for in relieving suffering.

On the other hand, bad things, don't diminish in badness as you get more of it.  Quite the opposite really, they become more tragic and induce more suffering as we pile on the misfortunes.  So lets call this the Syngeristic Compounding of Suffering (can anyone come up with a better name for this?).  It's synergistic in that it creates more suffering than the sum of its parts, it only happens when "bads" are compounded upon each other (this can be taken in many different ways... they don't have to be compounded next to each other in time necessarily).

This explains why we might want to pass laws that protect minority rights, since minorities in our society are already suffering harms in terms of discrimination.  To compound that harm with being victimized in a crime, just makes the crime worse.  Maybe a good analogy would be being punched.  If I punch you in the same spot twice, its worse than if I punch you twice in different spots.  If I had the choice between victimizing two people, it would be worse to victimize the person who was already beaten up, than the one who was not. 

I think this would explain why sometimes we believe that it would have been better for X never to have had happened in our lives, even though it leads to a better state of affairs in our lives.  Take Cindy Sheehan for example.  I'm pretty confident in saying that she would be happier had her son not died than died, even though because he died, she has had doors and opportunities open up to her that she could have never imagined before (and lets simply stipulate that these are good things).  Although this is one instance of harm to Sheehan, it is compounded with all of the harms that we experience in life overall and perhaps compounded with the injustice of the war that he was fighting.

So why would Sheehan trade a better life for a less good life?  The question forces us to compare the declining marginal utility of happiness and the synergistic compounding of suffering together.  This comparison, by its very nature is always going to favor eliminating the SCS, rather than in favor of the DMUH.  When people chase after happiness, attempting to maximize their happiness, they inevitably compound their suffering.  Thus we get the paradox of hedonism.

I think this is telling of how we should go about living happy lives.  Epicurus and the Buddhists are right.

Monday, December 14, 2009


Okay first watch this movie:

EMBED-Wife Cries Over Return of the Jedi - Watch more free videos

Isn't she adorable?  (no she's not my wife and no thats not me).

This just got me thinking about emotions, how little control we have over them, and how much they influence our actions and behavior. 

I'm sure the lady in the movie wouldn't want to be feeling so emotional over every movie that she sees (I'd hate to see her after watching Titanic).  She can't help it.  Emotions simply happen to us, whether we'd like to or not.  Now, normally this isn't too much of a problem, except when they begin to cross moral lines.  I'm happy at a funeral, I'm sad at a birthday, or I fall in love with someone who isn't my significant other (I'm thinking about you Tiger). 

But if we can't control these emotions, then why do we get blamed for them?  I usually say that it doesn't make sense to hold people responsible for acts that they have no control over, but that doesn't mean there isn't any kind of room for moral evaluation here.  Typically, morality comes in three categories of things that we evaluate:  Actions, Consequences, and Agents.  Kantianism evaluates actions, Utilitarianism evaluates consequences, and virtue theory evaluates agents.  Now, not being a product of free will, emotional actions shouldn't play much of a role in Actions or Consequences (unless the act is simply motivated by the emotion rather than the emotion itself... slight distinction.  Cheating is motivated by an emotion, falling in love with someone else is just the emotion itself). 

So what can we say about people's character who have the incorrect emotional response?  Are they insensitive or hypersensitive?  Is that really a character flaw?  I think it is, depending on what the kind of sensitivity that we're talking about. 

Ultimately, I think at the root of ethics, there requires a kind of moral sensitivity that people can have to varying degrees.  Its what makes people care about doing what is right, interested in discovering the reasoning behind moral judgments, and makes morality intrinsically valuable...  Its a kind of "taking pleasure in."  Typically, people call it conscience, righteousness, moral superiority, etc.  But this is something that should be fostered...  Less we be too insensitive that we don't care about ewoks dying, or Anakin never being with his son.

Christmas is a time of giving

Its that time of year when people start giving each other gifts, then start thinking about the needy around the world as well.  This is something that we should all truly think about more often than just around the holiday season, but since people are thinking about it now, may I point you towards one way that we can help the impoverished around the world:  Giving Poo.

One of the ways that we indirectly impact the impoverishment of others around the world is through our consumption of petroleum.  Petroleum, although most americans think of it as a source for gasoline, is made into fertilizers for farmers around the world.  In fact, most of the famine in the world is not caused by inclement weather or pests, but rather economics.  When oil prices spike, farmers are unable to puchase fertilizers, reducing crop yields, and consequently causing famine. 

Now petroleum based fertilizers aren't the best way to farm, but it is practical because its cheap.  We can help reduce poverty and essentially subsidize more ecologically responsible farming by purchasing manure for third world farmers.  Two birds one stone!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Will the real Nietzsche please stand up?

If you've been following the comments, in my last vegetarian post, my friend Gary brought up Nietzsche.  And no offense to Gary, but I think he has Nietzsche a bit wrong.  So here's my interpretation of Nietzsche, tempered a lot by Robert Solomon's What Nietzsche Really Said.

Nietzsche is a virtue theorist.  He's telling us that there is a particular kind of character that we should be developing, and he calls it the Ubermensch.  Now this is not within reach of everyone, only a few people have what it takes to become this.  So how does one try to achieve this character? 

Unlike Aristotle, Nietzsche doesn't know what the Ubermensch is like, because the Ubermensch is beyond human.  We must transcend our human natures to become more than what we are.  He says that at best we can contrast it with the Last Man and say what he is not.  He is not a follower, he is not a sheep, he is not a person who disappears into the comfort of conformity.  Essentially, the Ubermensch must be authentic, in the existentialist sense.  Someone who will be genuinely themselves, not renting their lives out to a kind-of-life.

But this is not enough to become the Ubermensch.  The Ubermensch is a creator as much as he is a destroyer of old values.  Overcoming the traditional christian, and Aristotelian ethic, the Ubermensch must then forge a new system of virtues.  This system of virtues and values will be a life affirming one, instead of a life denying one.  Life-affirming for Nietzsche is to embrace the Will to Power.  Power, not being literally strength, but an intensification of life. 

Probably the best analog to the Will to Power is art.  Art is an intensification of beauty or expression, and even better, it is the result of a creative re-invention of the world.  Nietzsche wants us to all to become works of art.  But like all works of art, not all of them are going to be great.  There will be lots of mediocre works of art, and none of those will be the Ubermensch.  But the fact that people are trying to be works of art, is better than those who are purely satisfied with what they are. 

Works of art force us to re-evaluate ourselves, and the world that we live in, through the artist's lens.  This is how the Ubermensch is to be viewed, in terms of generating new values.  His is a work of art so masterful, that it creates a new movement in the artworld entirely.  It necessarily means that the Ubermensch is inspirational in character, but not purposefully, otherwise he just becomes another preacher.  But through the strength of his character, people will want to imitate. 

So what would Nietzsche say about eating animals?  Absolutely nothing, just like Aristotle says nothing on the subject.  His ethic is one of character development, not of evaluation of actions.  And even if there was something to be said by Nietzsche about animals, he would tell us to disregard it, because he is not the Ubermensch, and merely following in Nietzsche's footsteps would necessarily mean that you're a sheep, never striving for authenticity.  Perhaps the only thing we can say about Nietzsche and vegetarianism would be this:  If it is a creative re-interpretation of the world for you to eat or not eat meat, then it is good. 

Here's where I'll interject and say that I think its far more sheep like to simply continue eating meat, than to be a vegetarian.  But, only be a vegetarian because of authentic reasons.  Likewise, be a meat-eater for authentic reasons.  If you can authentically say that it doesn't matter how you get your taste buds to tingle with pleasure, then by all means, eat meat (according to Nietzsche).  I can't authentically do that because I care about others' suffering. 

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

TED talks: Mike Rowe of Dirty Jobs

I love T.V.   I probably watch way more than I should.  One of my favorites is Dirty Jobs, and I remember watching the episode that he's talking about here, and thinking, "There has to be a more humane way of doing this."  Maybe there isn't...

What to Tell Vegetarians: A response

A friend of mine pointed me to this blog post today, a response to people who advocate vegetarianism.  So I thought I'd post a friendly response to the points made in the post.  I'm not sure if the post reflects the blogger's views, or Harvey Ussery's position... I think it's Ussery's though, so I'll direct them at him.

The first part of the blog post is about the subject experience of killing animals.  I rarely bring this up, only because, well... its subjective.  Some people might be thrilled and invigorated by killing animals, others not so much.  But ultimately, this point is moot.  If something is immoral, its not because people enjoy it or do not enjoy it.  Clearly, people enjoy lots of immoral things, and don't enjoy things that are perfectly morally permissible (like going to the dentist, or cleaning the toilet).

So it's not whether or not someone has killed the food that they eat, but whether or not they can choose not to eat the food that they eat.  This is something we can all clearly do.  I don't take the "moral high ground" because I don't kill animals.  I take the "moral high ground" because I don't participate in activities that lead to the unnecessary suffering of animals (raising them in factory farmed conditions).

The next point is where Ussery is right on the money.  He writes:
Where you and I probably disagree most is this: While no one would claim that the wolf is being immoral when he catches and eats the rabbit, you probably assume that for me, a human being, eating meat is merely an option which I (selfishly) choose by preference—and I could just as easily satisfy my dietary needs with a strictly plant-based diet. Well, I do not see my eating of animals as merely optional. Based on extensive research on the matter, I believe that animal proteins, and especially high quality fats (and the fat-soluble vitamins they either contain or enhance), are essential for optimal health. Thus “kill and eat” is as imperative for me as for the wolf.

I think Ussery is making two points here.  First, that its okay for animals to eat other animals, so consequently I can eat animals as well.  Second, that eating animals are essential for optimal health. 

First:  Yes, animals do eat other animals, but this isn't a moral act because animals can't reason morally.  And even if they can reason morally, carnivorous animals MUST eat meat in order to survive, since they cannot derive all of their nutrients from plant sources by themselves.  Being held morally responsible for our actions implies that we can do otherwise.  In the case of animals, they can't do otherwise because their biology prevents them, and because they can't reason to the alternatives if they can do otherwise.

But probably more importantly, I don't think that we should determine our morality based on animals' actions.  Animals sometimes eat their young, rape, males of many species kill babies to encourage females to reproduce again with them, etc.. 

Second:  Animals are not required for optimal health of the human body.  There are 8 essential ammino acids that the body needs to survive (12 non-essential).  All of them can be found from plant sources.  But Ussery's argument isn't about survival...  Its about optimal health.  If vegetarians can't reach optimal health because of their diets, then we might have reasons to be omnivorous. 

Unfortunately, Ussery's argument fails on that level as well.  Brendan Brazier was featured not too long ago on Oprah.  He is a Triathlete, holds a couple of course records, and is a vegan.  I wouldn't go so far as to say that it is easy to be in optimal health, espescially as a vegetarian, but it is possible.  Besides, reaching optimal health is difficult for most people, even on a diet with meat included.

In fact, there is plenty of evidence that suggests eating meat prevents us from reaching optimal health.  Heart disease is the most common killer of Americans, and it is largely attributable to an excess intake of cholesterol which is not found in plants, only animal sources.  The American Society for Clinical Nutrition published an article in 2003, that indicated that vegetarians live significantly longer lives than non-vegetarians.
Ussery points out that as a backyard farmer, he treats his animals much more humanely than the factory farmers.  This I can agree with.  But since backyard farming is impractical for most people because of the time commitment, or because of laws or space availability, those that cannot raise their animals themselves must rely on mass producers to get their meat, which means that the lives of the animals, the point that Ussery wants to focus on, is probably a dismal one. 

Finally, Ussery turns the question back to the vegetarian:
...let me return your personal question with one for you: What is the percentage of the food on your table, year round, that you produce yourself, or that you buy face to face from producers you know personally, so you also know how that food was produced, and at what cost to living beings? My estimate is 85% for my own table. If you have not a clue where your vegetarian fare was produced, by whom, at what cost to other players in the local ecology, including economically oppressed humans—then do not dare presume a moral superiority based on the fact that I do indeed kill animals in my backyard, in the context of a way of food production which is most of all about regeneration, about healing, about ensuring an agricultural base “unto the seventh generation.
I confess, I don't know where most of my vegetables come from.  But where my food comes from doesn't make that much of a difference, ultimately speaking.  Sure there might be ecological costs with industrialized farming, but the fact is, its is almost infinitely easier to get environmentally responsible raised crops than humanely treated meat at the local grocery store. 

The heart of Ussery's question here is this:  Am I a perfectly moral person?  If I'm not then I can't proclaim that Ussery is a engaging in questionably moral behavior.  I'll admit, that I'm not a perfectly moral person.  But that doesn't mean that I can't point out other people's moral flaws.  And I would hope others would do the courtesy to me to point out my own moral short comings, so that I can attempt to correct them.

When it comes to food, we really only have two present choices, an omnivorous diet, or a vegetarian diet.  I think there are plenty of reasons for saying the vegetarian diet is the more ethically responsible, healthy diet than the omnivorous one.  Does that make a person a morally bad person for eating meat?  I don't think so, but I think we can be better people by not eating meat. 

Layout Change

Man its been awhile since I've edited HTML....  so much so that it seems like eveything in the Blogger template is greek to me.    I never really learned anything beyond basic HTML, but sometimes, thats enough.  So what I did, was changed the width of the main column so my posts are now wider, and shorter rather than skinnier and longer.  This might make the blog look funny to some people, but really it would only look funny to those at a 640x420 resolution.  If you're running at that resolution, then might I make a friendly suggestion to change it to 800x600, at the very least.  It'll give you more desktop space, and things will look nicer!

Let me know if anyone is having problems viewing the blog.

Monday, December 7, 2009

The End of the World

There are some thought experiments that are so common, that it rarely is thought of as a thought experiment, but rather an argument in itself.  Its the end of the world, and you and someone else are the last people on the planet.

Usually, the someone else is terribly unattractive, or there are other circumstances that affect your desire to procreate with the other person.  But the scenario itself suggests that there is some kind of obligation to continue the human species, since in normal circumstances you would never want to engage in activities that would lead to reproduction with this other person.

So do we have an obligation to continue the human species?

I'm not sure that we do.  Typically, when we speak of future generations, we're speaking about an abstract population that will very likely come into being.  But, in end of the world scenarios, the future generation will come into being only based on our present actions.  Just as I, an individual, have no particular responsibility to have children (arguably, I have some kind of responsibility not to have children because of the state of the environment, and the fact that I live in an industrialized nation...  but thats for another time.). 

Now I'm a firm believer in context, and in the situation of being the last members of my species, I may have a particular duty to continue the existence of the species.  But to say that, implies I have an obligation to the human species as a whole.  What kind of obligation is that, and why doesn't it appear on an individual basis in normal circumstances? 

The hypothetical position that I am in, is quite akin to the position of God before creation.  Before creation, God has really no obligations except to himself and to his species (assuming he has a species).  Now to place God into our scenario, he would have to be the last of his species.  Does he have an obligation to bring into existence creation?  To say that he would have an obligation to himself, is odd.  Obligations to oneself are essentially promises to oneself.  In any promisory relationship, the person the promise is made to, can release the promiser from the promise.  E.g.  I promise my wife to take her to the movies, and she's not feeling up to it.  So she releases me from the promise.  But, if I'm making promises to myself, then I can release myself from the promise.  I promise myself that I will exercise today.  But I'm not feeling it, so I release myself from the promise.  Have I broken the promise?  Only if I didn't release myself from the promise and broke it, but why would anyone do that?

So back to the end of the world.  I don't have an obligation to myself to continue the existence of the world, and I don't think I have obligations to non-existent people, otherwise I might have an obligation to procreate my children (which I don't believe I have, and I don't think most people believe that they have as well).  Its not an obligation to myself (those are meaningless), but it could be one to the species.... but the species consists of myself and the other person.  So I have an obligation to myself and the other to procreate.  If the other has a similar mindset as myself, then we can release ourselves from the obligation, and not reproduce.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

This isn't about Tiger

This is entry isn't about Tiger Woods, or whether his infidelity is our buisness or not....  I think thats a purely a subjective matter.  Some people are interested financially, emotionally, or whatnot in Tiger's life and so they in a sense care.  Clearly some people care, and some people don't...  And whether or not he has a right to privacy on this particular issue is also not easily answered, since he is a public figure and public figures naturally give up some of their privacy rights by the fact that they are public figures (not to say that they have no privacy rights at all.... just some.... what those are exactly, I'm not terribly sure.)

What I want to talk about is infidelity in general.  Clearly, there is something wrong with it.  I think at the very least we can say it is a broken promise, assuming that there was a promise of fidelity, which is pretty common between most monogomous couples.

However, I think most people enter into the promise without a full understanding of the difficulties of monogomy.  Whether humans, or more specifically men, are evolved to be monogomous or to play the field is really rather irrelevant.  People have to make a decision, and this decision is not a genetically determined one (lest there be a gene forcing people to pick up phones and call mistresses or a gene that compells people to engage in a tryst... And some would argue that it is the case, but I'm pretty sure they would be on weak scientific grounds.  And if they are correct, then we might need simply concede everything to genetic determinism.)

So if we acknowledge the difficulty of monogamy, what then?  I think when we recognize the difficulty of what most people are commiting themselves to, then we must be more lenient when they fail.  Few would question the character of an individual who fails to climb Mt. Everest.  But many are quick to pass judgment on people, public figures especially, when they fail in monogamy. 

No doubt, Tiger is morally blameworthy for his actions.  But the real question is how much does this really tarnish his moral character?   The easier it is for us to resist a particular temptation, the more we can rightly judge the person to have a tarnished or vicious character.  It is easy for us to resist killing people, typically, so when one fails to resist, s/he has a particularly tarnished character.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

A quick ethical puzzle

I've been pretty busy lately with grading and such, so here's a quick ethical puzzle for you to chew over. 

Sharon Duchesneau and Candy McCullough aren't you're average couple, both are deaf, and obviously they are gay.  But they wanted a child anyways, so they actively sought out a sperm donor to help them conceive a child.  However, they also wanted their child to be deaf, so that their child would be able to experience the rich culture that deaf culture provides them. 

There is lots of anecdotal evidence that suggests that hearing children of deaf couples tend not to be able to relate as well to their parents as deaf children to deaf parents, since they can experience the world in a way that their parents can't, and consequently don't share the same unifying experiences of the deaf community. 

On the other hand, these women are actively bringing about a child with a disability (is deafness a disability?  Some argue that it isn't).  Is this any more responsible than actively drinking during a pregnancy to get a baby with Fetal alcohol syndrome, because they really like children with FAS?

I'd love to hear what you guys think, so please comment!!

Monday, November 30, 2009

Everyday ethics: The bathroom

So I was thinking about the things that we do everyday, that arn't exactly earth-shattering moral dilemmas, but have a significant moral component to them.  What do we do in these circumstances?  And there are a plethera of them.  So I'm going to try to work them out here on my blog, under the label everyday ethics.  I'm not the first person to think about these by a long shot, but I doubt that there are tons of scholarly articles on them (but in all honesty, I haven't checked).

So my first entry...  I work at a community college and I know I'm not alone in finding public bathrooms kinda gross.  But when you're on campus all day, you really don't have other options, and when you have to go you have to go.  But to the point, usually one has choices on where one goes... and there is inevitably the handicapped stall. A wide open stall, about the size of my home bathroom.  There's something nice about not being enclosed in metal all around, inches from yourself.

But the handicapped stall is for handicapped people, and I'm not handicapped.  Should I use it?  I think there is a pretty good analogy with handicapped parking spaces.  They're the closest and thus most desirable parking spaces.  Many people kind of fume about the fact that the spaces arn't utilized very much sometimes, and so whats the harm in utilizing them when in all likelihood nobody will be inconvenienced by it? 

However, the problem is the occassion when someone will be inconvenienced by it.  The fact that the other stalls are so narrow make it difficult for handicapped people to use them.  Its difficult to turn myself around in them, let alone a wheelchair.  Occupying the stall may be nice for myself, but it would be akin to putting a locked belt on a handicapped person.  We all know the sensation of NEEDING to relieve ourselves, and anything that gets in the way is just that much more painful.  Add to the discomfort the fact that one is disabled, and the stall that they would be able to utilize with more ease than the stall that they would have difficulty using is occupied, it seems like an unfair burden to place on handicapped people.

Most people are fairly good about not using the handicapped parking spots (mostly because there are fines involved, but also because most people are good people).  But I wonder how many people use the handicapped stall when given the option.  I know I used to do it.  Then, one day a handicapped person came in while I was occupying the stall...  I felt like a pretty big ass, for a skinny vegetarian. 

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

A farce?

Its been making headlines and blog posts everywhere.... a Belgian man has been fully conscious and paralyzed for 23 years, and treated as if he was in a vegetative state....

But then, in comes James Randi, saying its a farce, nothing more than facilitated communication, using a kind of high tech ouiji board. 

I had my doubts when I first heard the story... How could a completely paralyzed man communicate with us?  Apparently its as simple as holding his hand and guiding it along a keyboard. 

But if this part is a farce, and I would be inclined to agree with James Randi here, how do we explain the brain scans that say that he is in fact conscious and responsive to stimuli....

I'm terribly confused about this particular case.  But one thing is for sure, if we keep scanning vegetative people's brains, we would eventually find more seemingly vegetative people with active brains.  So what do we do about these cases?  How do we care for those who are conscious and fully "locked-in" (assuming such a condition exists)? 

In my ethics course, when we discuss euthanasia and quality of life, it quickly becomes apparent that its a highly subjective thing.  Some might think that a quadrapalegic life is not worth living... I think that if I had a helping spider monkey and was able to watch Lost, then life would still be worth living.

But the problem with "locked-in" people is that they cannot voice their desires, except with perhaps a brain scan.  But brain states aren't exactly equivalent to yes and no answers.  So even if they are fully conscious, I think it might boil down to an excrutiatingly cold-hearted utilitarian calculation.  Does the locked in patient provide friends and family more joy than not?


I was listening to Science Friday on my ipod, (I'm pretty behind on listening to it so its a couple weeks old) today and was struck by what Sylvia Earle had to say about eating fish.  She said something to the affect of the fish that we eat would not be eaten if they lived on land.  For example, Tuna can live up to 20-30 years, and are a top predator in the oceans.  We would not imagine raising for food lions, tigers or bears, for example, but we will eat tuna. 

Her point was that its ultimately unsustainable for us to eat tuna and many other fish (orange roughy she says can live to 200 years old) that we eat on a regular basis.  The kinds of foods that we do eat, cattle, chickens, and such take very little time to mature and are low on the food chain (they only eat plants).  We should seriously consider eating lower on the ocean's food chain as well...  if not stop eating from the oceans all together. 

I think there is something to be said about what she's advocating here.  This is significantly different from how we eat terrestial animals.  We usually  farm them and only hunt them occasionally.  Ocean animals are almost exclusively hunted, and in mass quantities, and only farmed occasionally.  When I was a demi-veg I would advocate hunting, since factory farming is much worse than hunting.  But when it comes to the oceans, perhaps aquaculture is the way to go?  (It probably isn't the way to go because of the pollution that they create, not to mention the possible suffering that is inflicted on the animals.)

Either way, I think I've found my winter break read.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Why I am not a Demi-vegetarian

A demi-vegetarian is a person who eats little meat and is conscious about where they get it, trying to minimize the suffering of animals.  Peter Singer calls it Compassionate Omnivorism.  I think thats a mouthful, so I like to call it demi-vegetarianism like R.M. Hare.  I was a demi-vegetarian for about 4 years before I converted to being a full vegetarian (with the exception of gelatin.... man you just can't get away from that stuff).

Michael Pollan really turned me into a vegetarian, contrary to his own thesis. In the Omnivore's Dilemma he goes out of his way to show us that there are humanely treated animals. I don't disagree. However, he points out that the industrial organic machine of Whole Foods isn't much better in terms of animal treatment. I agree.

So our alternative is to find the humanely treated meat.... But how exactly do we do that? Its rather impractical (at least for me) to research all of our food options to discover the treatment of the animals.  The farm that Pollan features in his book, he also points out will not ship any of their meat.  So if I want the idyllic farm setting that Pollan describes in his book, I think I have to go to Pensylvania to get it, which is impractical for me, considering I'm in California.  The alternative was of course humanely treated meat.  Whole Foods might be a place where the typical demi-vegetarian would shop.  But Pollan's description of the industrial organic machine wasn't much better than the standard factory farm.  Sure things would be organic, but organic doesn't equate to humane, and when producing food at the scale that Whole Foods demands, its difficult to imagine that the food would indeed be truly humane.

It forced me from considering my self a compassionate omnivore, to what I really was, a-hope-and-faith-in-the-compassion-of-people-who-are-saying-they-are-compassionate-to-their-animals-and then-trying-to-turn-a-profit omnivore.

Consider the analogy of clothing. If you were vehemently against sweatshop labor, and you found a label that said that it was not made in a sweatshop, and bought it on faith that it was not from a sweatshop, even though it was in fact from a sweatshop. Would you be any better than the person who was not conscious of buying their clothes from a sweatshop? Maybe in terms of character you would be... But good characters want to ACTUALLY do good things, not seemingly good things.
Peter Singer spoke at Stanford last year about compassionate omnivorism, advocating it.  I asked him how it we could actually get that kind of meat, and he replied that it was simply readily available*.  I don't buy it.  It strikes me as being naively trusting in a network of suppliers that have never earned my trust, and have been shown time and time again that they don't deserve our trust.
There can't be a middle ground on this until the meat industry is willing to make food production transparent.  Only then can we really be assured that the animals we're eating are humanely treated, and a middle ground, demi-vegetarianism, becomes reasonable.  Until then, the argument for demi-vegetarianism is a good one, but not one that is practicable by the majority of people.

*I'm simplifying my question and his response for the sake of brevity here.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Sex worker revealed to be a scientist

Belle de Jour, one of the UK's first blogs to reach celebrity status, has revealed herself to be a scientist working in cancer epidimeology.  The intresting part is that Belle, was the  pseudonym for her blog about her time as a prostitute. 

One of the typical objections against legalizing prostitution, is that women who turn to prostitution are usually turning to it out of financial hardships.  This is the case of Brooke Magnati,  turned to prostitution when she was working on her Ph.D.  She got paid £300 an hour and was able to make ends meet with that.  However, the fact that she was in financial hardship, makes it more difficult for people to argue that she was fully consenting party.  Rather, she was coerced by her circumstances.  Had she been able to land a better job, she would have not turned to prostitution.  So it sounds like prostitution is simply a kind of exploitation on the poor. 

I'd be pretty confident in saying that not all prostitutes turn to their profession because of financial hardships, although the vast majority do.  But even if that is the case, is this really a kind of exploitation of the poor?  Exploitation, it seems to me, would require two things, someone in a time of need, and in this case Magnati would qualify, then taking advantage of that circumstance in an unfair way.  Price gouging after a hurricane would be an example of exploitation of disaster victims.  But in Magnati's case she was a very well paid call girl.  At current exchange rates (which I know are significantly different from when she was a call girl) £300 equates to about $500 US. 

Some prostitutes are clearly exploited, being paid only a fraction of that for their services.  Part of her ability to charge such a high price is no doubt due to her attractiveness, and I'm assuming that she doesn't have any particularly specialized skills (she mentions that she wanted to something that wouldn't require a lot of training) beyond what an attractive person's typical experiences would net her.

I think what I'm suggesting here is that prostitution should have a sort of minimum wage.  All prostitutes need to be paid X, in order for clients not to be exploiting them.  From there, the market can determine whether particular prostitutes get paid more for features, skills, and services that they have or are willing to offer.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Geo-engineering 2

So what are the biggest problems with Geo-engineering?  The biggest objection is the unforeseen effects that may occur from our tinkering with the environment.  If we put up lots of dust in the atmosphere to block out the suns rays, what might that do to various ecosystems around the world?  Humans have a notoriously horrific track record on being able to predict the consequences of their actions on the environment. 

Ideally, we would be able to conduct experiments to help determine the effects of some of our actions.  The Mt. Pinotubo eruption in 1991 has provided some pretty concrete data on the effects of large sulfur dioxide injections into the upper atmosphere.  Some of the results were a 1 degree cooling of global temepratures for a year afterwards, rainfall changes around the world, and a weakening of the ozone layer.    Of course its the first effect that most people are now currently interested in, but the second effect, of affecting rainfall amounts could have enormous effects to certain parts of the world as well, essentially causing droughts in one part of the world, and flooding in others. 

But if we look at the trade-offs that we are dealing with, global warming will also cause similar changes to microclimates around the world.  Arn't we really trading one kind of flooding and drought for another?  Both are man-made problems.  Currently, the first world nations do little to assist others for the negative impacts of global warming on other nations, and legally challenges have mostly failed.  However, with active geo-engineering, it would be much more plausible that legal actions would succeed. 

On top of that, assuming that we become rather good at geo-engineering, or that we decide to engage in different kinds of geo-engineering, we might have impacts on local microclimates, rather than around the world, or we might become very good at manipulating the weather at other places.  Recent CIA reports released indicate that the US military tried and was relatively successful at increasing rainfall during the Vietnam war, which slowed down supply lines to the Viet-cong by muddying up roads.  If we begin manipulating weather in a global manner, one could possibly foresee that we happen to cause droughts in the middle east, and increase rainfall in perhaps the breadbasket, or in central California.  We're probably far away from being able to manipulate weather on that level, however. 

The philosophical problem is that these arguments rest on the precautionary principle.  We ought not do X because of the possible outcomes of X.  If we don't really know the outcomes of X and we have reasons to believe that ABC might be the consequences of X, then as a matter of prudence we shouldn't do X (assuming ABC is undesirable).  It sounds like a pretty reasonable principle, but ultimately it rests on an appeal to ignorance.  If I don't do X, the potential consequences are DEF, in this case global warming and all the potential consequences of it.  The precautionary principle cuts both ways, and gives us no reason to act one way or the other.  But if I don't do X, then I must do not X.  Anything I place as alternative options for X, say reduce carbon emissions and let things work out naturally, also suffer from the precautionary principle problem.

So if the precautionary principle doesn't give us a solid reason not to engage in geo-engineering, and from the reasons in my last post we should consider engaging in geo-engineering, the arguments seem to favor engaging in geo-engineering.  First world nations would simply have to accept the (legal) responsibility of the fall out of geo-engineering, whereas they have been able to escape the (legal) responsibility of global warming for the most part.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009


You may or may not have heard of geo-engineering, but its increasingly becoming the buzzword around environmentally concerned people.  Some are radically against it, and others are all for it.

The concept is simple enough.  The environment is in trouble because of human activities, and so we should do something about it....  Now most environmentalists agree on that point, but most people have only suggested "negative" actions, that is we should reduce our pollution that we are putting into the environment.  If we can cease adding additional carbon into the atmosphere, then problem solved.

However, others contend that its a little too little too late for that.  Instead, we need to engage in geo-engineering, actively make the environment cooler or actively remove carbon from the environment, or both.  Carbon collectors have been proposed that would remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, but most agree that its probably not enough.  Other geo-engineering ideas include putting reflective mylar on glacial sheets to reflect light and consequently cool them off, launch millions of tiny mirrors into space to reflect some of the sun's rays, or even possibly launching missles into the atmosphere to release chemicals or dust that would obscure the sun's rays.

I don't think all of these ideas are very good, and some may in fact cause more harm than good.  But it strikes me as the correct approach to global warming.  Negatively reducing our carbon emissions would rely on "natural" processes of the environment to remove the excess carbon from the atmosphere.  I think of this rather analagously to relieving a tension headache by simply removing what is causing the tension.  Sure it will work, but it will take plenty of time and things may get worse before they get better.  On the other hand, we can take a pain reliever, that would actively help make the pain go away, and in situations where we can't instantly remove the stressors triggering the tension headache, it may be the only solution.

Similarly, we can't instantly eliminate our carbon emissions.  There simply isn't the political will or the social organization to make that happen.  But a dual approach can buy us more time in combating the global warming problem. 

Now this isn't the only issue that is raised by geo-engineering.  There are some serious consequences and risks we have to consider if or when we decide to engage in geo-engineering.  I'll address some of those tomorrow.

Monday, November 9, 2009

More identity puzzles

I don't know why I've been thinking about identity a lot lately....  But here's another puzzle:

I think what makes a person a mother at the very least is making a long-term commitment to caring for a child.  This allows us to cover all kinds of motherhood that doesn't involve biological reproduction.  Some people want to call pregnant women mothers, others, mothers to be.  Depending upon the commitment level, my definition would classify the ones who want to deliver mothers, and those that don't not mothers. 

It would also classify certain people as non-mothers that many would want to call mothers, like people who give up their babies for adoption.  I'm willing to live with this.

So whats the point of defining motherhood?  It strikes me as a puzzling kind of social identity.  E.g. I think my mom is still a mother, even though she doesn't directly care for me still (in the child rearing sense).  But what if I and my brother were to die today?  Would she still be a mother?  I'd like to say yes, since I would have called her a mother even though she's not directly caring for me still.

But the harder problems are cases where the mother has a stillborn baby.  Is she a mother?  Under my definition yes.  I suppose, others might want to take issue with that. 

Motherhood doesn't seem to go away easily once it is assigned.  Contrast that with other social identities like being a student, or an adolescent.  Even fatherhood I think is significantly different from motherhood (although I haven't quite formulated a definition for that yet). 

I'm not sure if my concept of motherhood is really robust enough either....  ambivolent mothers still seem like mothers to me, and I could imagine a mother who never makes long term commitments and simply reaffirms a short-term commitment over and over until her child turns 18, then kicks them out, deciding not to renew the commitment.

Ultimately, I find this case intresting because its another one of those cases in which we utilize a label or word without really understanding what it means in the fullest sense.  I think Socrates would be proud of my questioning.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Mereological Identity

I love XKCD!  And today's comic strikes that perfect balance between sentimentality and philosophy.

Clearly father is a spatio-temporal continuity theorist of identity.  If the aggregate breaks up, then its GONE.  But daughter is something like a mereological theorist of identity, if you're made up of the same parts, you're the same, or in this case.

I have to give it to father here, since daughter's notion is almost incoherent.  If she is an organ donor, and she continues to exist after her death, then she could exist in multiple places after she is dead, since she has multiple organs that could be donated.  Even worse, her organs are made up of things like tofu chicken nuggets and vegetarian tikka masala (I imagine she's a vegetarian).  So SHE really is just donating some soy protein to others.

If she would exist after death, then the same can be applied to what makes up her organs.  She could continue to exist just as easily as checking the cannibalize box on her driver's license.

What your state doesn't have a cannibalize box?

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Dogs are worse than SUVs

According to this article here, dogs have a larger carbon footprint than an SUV, largely due to their diet. Now, one of the many arguments that people use to argue for vegetarianism, is that it is less taxing to the environment. Michael Pollen says that a vegetarian in a Hummer has a smaller carbon footprint than a meat eater in a Prius. I think the research is pretty conclusive about the heaviness of meat in a diet.

However, since dogs and cats are obligate carnivores, they will consequently have a larger carbon footprint on the earth, than say myself, a vegetarian. Should I get rid of my two cats?

There's some scoffing in the article where Williams-Derry says that a dog would have to eat twice as much as a human does.... But I'm not sure if the math works out, since most people don't eat mostly meat, whereas most dogs do eat mostly meat. Compare a person on atkins to a dog, sure the person will have the bigger footprint. But the average american with all of the carbs included, I think would be equal to a dog's carbon footprint solely in food consumption (assuming a relatively large dog not those things that people try to pass as dogs that resemble more like rodents).

Whats keeping me from getting rid of my cats, besides that they're abnoxiously cute and lovable, is that the carbon argument is only one piece of a larger argument against meat. I'm primarily concerned with the cruelty that is involved in factory farming. I'm also concerned about the carbon cost of meat, as well as my vegetables, but I think in the grand scheme of things, the carbon cost is secondary to many other important concerns (only begrudgingly secondary).

Dogs also help people appreciate the environment more, I think. When people have fun with their dogs, its often at a park, in nature, etc, and at the very least helps us feel empathetic with other animals, which is lacking in the other spheres of animal interaction.

But it does give me serious pause. Maybe I shouldn't get a replacement cat when my cats inevitably die.