Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Super Commercials

The Super Bowl is right around the corner and that means fantastic commercials.Or maybe some really controversial ones? 

Apparently, the ad will feature Tim Tebow's mother who will relate her experience of being advised to have an abortion, refusing, and giving birth to Tim Tebow, football player extraordinaire (I really don't know much about football so I'm taking this at face value). 

So firstly, the commercial's position itself is a pretty bad one.  Just because Tim Tebow's mother gave birth to Tim Tebow, doesn't mean that a person should or should not have an abotion, because it is just as likely that Tim Tebow's mother could have given birth to the next Osama Bin Laden or Adolf Hitler.  Sure I can be happy, as Tim is, that I was not aborted, but if I were aborted, would I be unhappy that I was aborted?  Or another way to put it, would I be any unhappier than the billions of possible other children that didn't get conceived and gestated to term?  (I recognize that there is a difference here between an actual conceived being and potentially conceived beings here.)

Secondly, I find it rather troubling that anyone thinks that a complicated issue such as abortion can easily be summed up in a 30-60 seconds.  But unfortunately that what this ad and the inevitable rebuttal commercials will be trying to do.  Discourse through commercials is like discourse through bumper stickers, it can be done only at the most superficial of levels, making people think less about he very hefty issues that they are considering.

Finally, I don't want to come off sounding like I'm against people's freedom of expression here.  I'm fully behind their right to speak their mind and share their arguments.  I'm actually looking forward to the commercial, even though I'm fully pro-choice.  But is the Super Bowl really the platform that people should be using to communicate such touchy issues such as abortion?  Not too long ago, there was a huge hubub over Janet Jackson and a certain performance that she exhibited during half-time.  Now although, I don't think seeing Janet Jackson's nipple harmed anyone in any way, I don't think it was terribly appropriate either, since, as many people pointed out, the Super Bowl is a family event.  I know my neighbors' children will be watching it.  Should we be putting conversation starters like this in the Super Bowl? 

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Sorry for the lack of posts

My father is still in the hospital and they still don't know whats causing his pneumonia...  So its been preoccupying my time.  More philosophical ponderings will follow soon.

Thursday, January 14, 2010


So my dad was admitted to the hospital a couple of days ago for pneumonia.  It looks like he's going to be okay, but he's still pretty weak.  They'll probably release him today or tomorrow.

But here's what struck me.  When he was admitted around 8:30pm to the emergency room, he didn't really get a chance to eat anything from the hospital for almost 12 hours.  They don't serve dinners in the emergency room, and when they transferred him to an isolation room (they thought he might have H1N1), it was past dinner time, and then they somehow missed out on him for breakfast.  (Apparently every single room in the hospital was taken...  they had patients overflowing into the delivery rooms of the hospital.  Jokes about unintentional c-sections ensue.)

So when they finally served him some food, it just came.  There wasn't anything like a menu or him giving a preference.  A nurse came in and plopped a plate of mashed potatoes, roast beef, and veggies on his table.

So I thought... What if I was my dad?  Its inevitable(!) that I'll have a hospital stay in the future and I'm a vegetarian.  The last time I had an animal product in my mouth, I almost threw up.  I don't think I'd have an obligation to be a vegetarian in a hospital, since I don't have the option to do otherwise (be a vegetarian) since it is, in this scenario, necessary for my health. 

What if I were overseas, and the hospital menu was dog?  Humpback whale?  Panda bear?  Aborted fetus?

At what point does necessity overtake our moral sensibilities?  People draw lines at survival and health quite often when it comes to eating, but for other values they would simply say they'd rather die than do X.  Its this internal ranking of our values that this illustrated for me.  Animal suffering is important to me, but not so important that I'd risk damage to my health.  Peter Singer argues that we should give to the poor to the extent that we are not sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance (which he leaves vaguely defined so the individual can determine what is actually of comparable moral significance).  My health is something of comparable moral significance to animal welfare. 

But the aborted fetus question that I posed above isn't just about comparable moral significance.  Its about our personal sensitivities.  I might be willing to die before I eat an aborted fetus, not because I find abortion or cannibalism morally objectionable, but because I find it gross.  Place a bowl of maggots in front of me and I just might rather sacrifice my health and starve.

All of this got me to think: "How important IS ethics to me?"  Because apparently my personal sensitivities could outrank my ethical beliefs (I'm willing to eat meat for my health, but not willing to eat maggots for my health).  How important are they for you?

Monday, January 11, 2010

Everyday Ethics: Bread at the Restaurant

So there's been a lot of discussion  recently about Oreo cookies in the blogosphere.  I don't really want to repeat much of that, but if you read Jean's blog, and read my comments there, you'll see how it inspired me with this entry. 

I was in Europe last summer.  Being a vegetarian in Paris is hard.  Being a vegetarian in London is amazingly easy.  But oddly, there was one time, in London, when Tiffany and I ran into a restaurant and couldn't find a vegetarian option that sounded appealing to us (you can only eat so much pasta).  We sat down, looked over the menu, made our selections, and the waitress replied that they were out of what we wanted (it was late).  So we decided to leave the restaurant, and picked up a veggie burger at Burger King (which was significantly different than the veggie burgers in the states). 

But the ethical dilemma here is that when we were seated, they served us some bread.  Like I pointed out in Jean's blog, we all end up paying for the bread, eaten or uneaten through what we buy at the restaurant.  We can't simply say, I'll skip the bread, and demand a 20 cent discount on our meal.  But Tiffany and I didn't buy a meal at the restaurant.  So the bread was left uneaten and since it was served it was probably thrown away (assuming the health codes are the same in the UK as in the US).  Did we steal bread?  Did we have an obligation to pay for it?

Now I'm sure there are studies that show that the bread is a hook to keep customers from leaving the restaurant after being seated without ordering something.  If not studies, then perhaps that is the true motivation for the bread.  Whatever the case, in this particular circumstance, I think we were justified in leaving without paying, since the restaurant was advertising a particular meal (on their menu outside) and didn't have it. 

So change the scenario slightly...  We sit down,  I open up the menu and have a sudden realization.  I'm not hungry.  I share the thought with my wife and she realizes she's not hungry either.  The bread is at our table and the waiter patiently waits.  Do we have to order to pay for the bread?  I could order a soda or something small.  Or is the bread truly complimentary?  Could I go from restaurant to restaurant sitting down, mulling over the menu as I snack on the bread, and retire at the end of my night not ordering anything, yet fully satisfied?  If the bread is truly complimentary, I could do that.

The bread isn't truly complimentary, as my latter scenario suggests.  I think most people would find it a little questionable, just like going to the ice cream store, sampling all the flavors and leaving without purchasing anything.  The intent to cheat the system is wrong here.  But in the more difficult scenario, I had no intention of cheating the system, I just thought I was hungry and realized I was mistaken. 

At first glance  I want to be consistent with what I said about the Oreo's (I should pay for them) then I should pay for the bread.  The service was provided for me....  But in the case of the bread, I didn't ask for it, in the case of the Oreos, I did (by taking them out of the minibar).  Had I sat down and asked for bread and not ordered anything, I think I would be doing something wrong.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Avatar and philosophy

So I got a CFP for Avatar and philosophy a few days ago, but I hadn't seen the movie yet.  So I didn't read through the proposal, since I was afraid of having the movie spoiled for me.  But I saw the movie today, and it was great!

I just cranked out a proposal for an Avatar chapter on the Na'vi's relationship with animals in the movie, and what we can learn about our own relationship to animals.  I'm hoping it'll get accepted, but I'm not holding my breath.

For those of you who are not in the know, and want to submit a proposal here's the CFP:

Call for Abstracts

Avatar and Philosophy

Edited by George A. Dunn

The Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture Series

Please circulate and post widely.

Apologies for Cross-posting.

To propose ideas for future volumes in the Blackwell series please contact the Series Editor, William Irwin, at

Abstracts and subsequent essays should be philosophically substantial but accessible, written to engage the intelligent lay reader. Contributors of accepted essays will receive an honorarium.

Possible themes and topics might include, but are not limited to, the following:

Eywa and the Gaia Hypothesis; Avatar and the Heideggerian Critique of Technology; Descartes versus Pandora: the Modern Project to Master Nature; Locke on Nature, Labor, and Property: Who Owns Pandora?; The Na’vi Way of Life: Hobbes Versus Rousseau on the State of Nature; Na’vi Spirituality and the Philosophy of Spinoza; Avatar and Aristotle on the Souls of Plants and Animals; Avatar and Our Responsibilities to Nonhuman Species; “More Neural Connections Than The Human Brain”: Can a Planet or a Forest Be Intelligent?; Avatar and Hinduism: What Exactly is an Avatar?; Chinese Philosophy: Is Qi the Same as Avatar’s “Energy that Flows Through All Things”?; American Indian Philosophy and Na’vi Shamanism; Avatar’s Environmentalism and Deep Ecology; Colonialism, the Na’vi, and the Rights of Indigenous People; The Problem of Evil: Why Is Goodness So Fragile on Pandora?; “Eywa Doesn’t Take Sides”: Good and Evil in Nature; Questioning Avatar: Does Natural Always Mean Better?; Going Native: The Responsibilities of Anthropologists and Social Scientists to Their Subjects; Wittgenstein and Trying to Understand an Alien Form of Life; “I See You”: Levinas, the Face, and Responsibility to the Other; Business Ethics and the RDA Corporation; "Our Only Security is in a Preemptive Strike": Avatar and Just War Theory; Is Jake a Traitor?: Avatar and Royce’s Philosophy of Loyalty; Grace and the Colonel: Are Scientists Responsible for the Uses Others Make of Their Discoveries?; Jake and the Colonel: The Ethics of Following and Disobeying Orders; Avatar and the Virtues of the Warrior; Neytiri, Grace, Mo’at, and the Feminine Care Ethic; Learning of the Ways of the Na’vi: Avatar and John Dewey’s Philosophy of Education; Neytiri and Jake: The Philosophy of Love; What’s In a Name?: Grace Augustine and the Path of Moral Transformation; Avatar and the Philosophy of Religion: Theism, Pantheism, and Panentheism; Avatar and the Possibility of Finding Scientific Explanations of Religious Phenomena; Avatar, Dualism, and the Philosophy of Mind; Personal Identity: Is Jake Still Jake When in His Avatar?; Merleau-Ponty, Avatars, and the Phenomenology of the Body; Avatar and Issues Related to Disability; Ignorance, Pride, and Greed: What Can Avatar Teach Us About Why People Do Bad Things?; Avatar Aesthetics: Engaging the Imagination Through 3D and CGI; Avatar and the Philosophy of (Creating a New) Language; Identity and Community: What’s It Like to Be Sometimes Human, Sometimes Na’vi?; Communitarianism versus Individualism in Avatar; Happiness and the Good Life: Have the Na’vi Achieved It?

Submission Guidelines:

1. Submission deadline for abstracts (100-500 words) and CV’s: March 2, 2010

2. Submission deadline for accepted papers: August 3, 2010

Kindly submit abstract (with or without Word attachment) and CV by email to: George Dunn at

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Animals' desires

So there has been a small drama concerning a sea lion in my part of the world.  The short of it, it has a fishing line wrapped around its neck, cutting into its flesh and it doesn't want to be caught.  It was first spotted in San Francisco, then 70 miles south.  Three attempts to capture it have failed, but nobody is talking about giving up on it.

So, clearly, the sea lion doesn't want to be helped by humans. (It may want help, but at the very least not from humans.)  We want to help it.  Does it matter that it doesn't want to be helped by us?  My instincts say no it doesn't really matter if it wants to be helped or not, it would maximize utility for us to help it.

But then again, something nags at me that there is something wrong happening here.  I'm not just a plain maximize pleasure utilitarian, but rather a preference utilitarian like Peter Singer.  I want to satisfy things' preferences.  So if I want to say the right thing is happening by helping the sea lion, I have to say either that it really does prefer for us to help it, (which I think is clearly not true) or that it would prefer to live more than the cost of its aversion for our help.

But I'm not sure that the sea lion has a preference to live in the future anymore than a fly.  It simply doesn't have the intellectual capacities for it.  So to argue the second option, would require me to say that the sea lion can envision its future existence in some way.

Now normally, when I talk about animal suffering, I can easily skirt this problem, by simply saying that they prefer not to be suffering.  We can raise animals without making them suffer.  But this isn't a domesticated animal. Under factory farming conditions, we are inflicting suffering on animals.  The animal can clearly have a preference for not experiencing the pain we are inflicting on it, and it could have a preference for the domesticated life.  So I could be satisfying all of its preferences by raising it humanely.

In the case of the sea lion, I can't argue that it wants a domestic life.  I can't argue that it want our assistance.  I could argue that it wants to avoid suffering and currently it is suffering.  But just because it is suffering, is that enough justification for me to intervene against its wishes?

There is a third possibility, but I find it a little distasteful.  We could simply wait.  Eventually, the sea lion will weaken and then perhaps it won't run.  Then we could assist since its preference is more ambiguous, sort of like the presumed consent that doctors utilize when assisting unconscious people.  But this strikes me as allowing the animal to suffer simply "in service to our ideologies," much like what Jean has been discussing on her blog in regards to the abolitionist stance on animal farming.

Lets change the scenario slightly.  We find  a sea lion with shark wounds.  We could help it, but it doesn't want our help.  Should we chase it around the state until we can catch it?  I think it is arguable that we ought to just leave it alone and "let nature take its course."  There is a significant difference though: its injuries are due to human actions, or more specifically human negligence.  We bare responsibility for the sea lion's injuries.  We're the shark.  So even if it doesn't want the help, we still need to help it.  But if it were the victim of a shark attack, then perhaps we should just leave it be?  I don't like that conclusion.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The conjoined twins dilemma

So after some serious thought about the conjoined twins dilemma, I think I have a solution.  We punish the twin, seperate if its feasible, and if its not feasible, we still punish the twin, knowingly punishing the innocent twin as well.

Now that seems pretty hard-hearted, but here's my reasoning.  Punishment is rarely ever without "splash damage", affecting those around the punished.  Family, friends, co-workers, etc will be affected by this person's punishment to varying degrees.  Family may feel as if they are being punished because of the person's removal from their lives.  Sure we give them visitation rights, but its not quite the same as going out to a movie with them. 

Similarly, if we must punish an innocent person (which we do in the normal course of punishment via family relations) to punish a guilty person, then it seems fairly consistent to punish the innocent twin along with the guilty twin.  If we can seperate the twins, then we should do that, so that we reduce the punishment on the innocent twin.  The surgical seperation amounts to the social seperation that the families experience.  I'll admit that there is an additional layer of complexity between surgical seperation and social seperation.  And to reduce the problem we can even make the surgical seperation optional.  The innocent twin can choose to be surgically seperated or not. 

In cases where seperation is not possible... Seperation might still be considered if the crime is a capital crime.  The only reason why seperation is usually not possible is because it would result in the death of one or more of the twins.  In the case of a capital offense, if the guilty twin can be surgicially removed from the innocent twin, resulting in his or her death, then essentially the death penalty has been carried out.  If the innocent twin is the one that must be killed, or both twins would stand a good chance of dying in seperation, then a life in prison sentence seems more fair, again dependent upon the choice of the innocent twin (maybe s/he would prefer risking a deadly operation to life in prison).

Surely most of what I'm proposing isn't legal.... but I think it might be morally permissible.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Transparency in food

I've said before that transparency in our food is important for us to be responsible omnivores.  Since that isn't possible, I don't think we should be omnivores.  But for those who believe that there is enough transparency in our food, you might want to look at this link.  Two high school students, sequenced the DNA from a variety of food sources and found that they were not as advertised.  High quality caviar was in fact from a very common "low grade" source of caviar, the Mississippi Paddlefish.  Goat's milk cheese turned out to be made from a cow. 

It makes me worry as a vegetarian since if even the listed ingredients aren't accurate, then how can we as vegetarians be sure that our tofurkey is really just tofu?