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.