Thursday, April 22, 2010


Believe it or not, I've never smoked pot.  Not that I'm against pot, or anything, but I'm just not the kind of person who likes to have fun by ingesting chemicals.  I don't drink very much, if ever at all either. 

I have my sympathies with people who want to legalize pot for medical purposes, and my suspicions about people who want to legalize pot for recreational purposes....  I'm not sure I'd vote for legalization for recreational purposes, but if it passed, I wouldn't be terribly upset over it.  Heck, I wouldn't be upset at all, I just might go and buy a legal joint and join in the party that would inevitably follow.

But, I think people who advocate legalization for recreational purposes have a steep up-hill climb to face.  One of the biggest hurdles is an appearance of legitimacy.  Some may have some very good legitimate arguments for recreational legalization, (I'm not convinced though...) but the movement's face isn't a very good one.

Take a look at these pictures.    These aren't exactly representative of the movement, but this is what many people think of when people think of legalization.  In particular, look at pictures 3 and 7. 

Picture 3 shows a clearly underage kid using a bong.  Not exactly a responsible face to present, although I'm sure nobody was objecting to this around them.  Encouraging children to smoke pot, or to do any kind of recreational drug, I think is rather irresponsible.  And before supporters ask, Yes, I would say that to caffeine as well.  Utilizing a drug for recreational purposes needs to have a stronger justification than its fun, in the same way as driving a Hummer is fun.  Sure, there isn't likely going to be catastrophic effects from one person driving a hummer around for fun, but it begins to foster a kind of character that I'm not sure many, if anyone would call intrinsically valuable.  What kind of character does it foster exactly?  Look at Picture 7.

Picture 7 shows a pregnant woman at a 4/20 event.  Now, it doesn't show her smoking, but second hand smoke can have adverse effects on the health of a fetus, be it tobacco or pot.  I think it shows a kind of reckless disregard of consequences, in favor of the momentary pleasure.  Basically, a hedonistic lifestyle. 

Again, I'm not strongly against legalization for recreational use, but I think at the very least it needs a better face.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Free Speech vs. Animal Cruelty

The Supreme Court today voted 8-1 to overturn a previous ban on animal cruelty videos because it unconstitutionally restricts free speech.

I'm not sure what to think about this.  On one hand, I deeply respect the freedom of speech.  On the other hand, I think that anything that supports animal cruelty should be stopped, including videos of dog fighting, cockfighting, etc. 

Video depictions of cockfighting and dog fighting, encourage more of the same because if the videos sell well, then it is another source of revenue for dog fighting organizers.  Much like child pornography, the more of it that is consumed, the more individuals are exploited.  I would roll Bumfights  into the same category.  Similar to bumfights, when a particular dog becomes well known, or a successful fighter, that may create a stronger demand for videos of the dog. 

But on the other hand, I'm also weary about carving out swathes of untouchable areas of the world that we do not have freedom of speech over.  But, like child pornography, I think there are areas in the world that demand just that. 

I like what Justice Alito says in the dissenting opinion, "The Court strikes down in its entirety a valuable statue, that was enacted not to suppress speech, but to prevent horrific acts of animal cruelty."

Saturday, April 17, 2010

The social costs of being vegetarian

Here's a pretty interesting interview with Melissa McEwen on Let them Eat Meat.  I've posted my main objection with Melissa's position, but I also want to say, that I might be splitting hairs here, since her diet isn't one that I would particularly disagree with (it sounds like she is what Singer would call a conscientious omnivore).

Over here Pamela JSW writes that we ought not be vegetarians because of the harm it does to us!  In the interview above, Melissa suggests one of the wrongs of a vegetarian diet is that it affects the family dynamic.  No longer can a single dish feed the entire family, but people must bend around the individual's eating preferences.  Pamela makes the same argument in her first argument. 

These are the social costs of being a vegetarian.  Are these enough reasons not the be a vegetarian?  (I'm not suggesting here that Melissa is saying that it is.  Pamela says this problem is surmountable)  I think that these should be taken seriously as concerns, since they do affect lots of people (everyone you know and would like to eat with you essentially), and they affect particularly the people you care about (family and friends). 

Being vegetarian is more than just choosing for yourself.  Its also being accommodating of others.  I'd never dream to invite myself over to a friend's house and demand a meat free meal.  If I'm invited, I might expect that they would take my eating choices into consideration.  But when I invite friends over, I also take their eating choices into consideration as well.  That's simple politeness.  Does this mean I sometimes buy meat?  Yes.  Not much, and not very often, but I do.  Does this go counter to my personal beliefs?  Yes.

But if I were a christian, and I invited someone over to my house, I wouldn't necessarily expect them to come to church with me.  There is a line somewhere in the hazy sands that we must draw, but where that line is, I don't expect to have an easy answer.    If my friend were Muslim and asked if she could pray while she was at my home, I wouldn't object. 

Pamela's third argument however, is a little more interesting.  She says that being a vegetarian may cause me to look down on others, in a moral way.  Seeing most of my friends are not vegetarians makes me look at them as morally inferior, or with a defected character, which would harm the relationships that I hold with them.

Now, I don't think is an absolute.  If you're a veg, or vegan that you will look down on others.  I think I do it every day.  Rather, instead, I think it might be indicative of a flaw in your own character, a kind of moral judgmental-ness.  Instead of evaluating a person as a whole in their moral character, one fixates on simply a particular aspect of their character.  Now no doubt, people can be bad people because of an aspect of their character, and ignore that aspect, they're a great person.  But a wise person (since we're talking virtue theory) would be able to distinguish between acts that tarnish the whole of a person's character, versus ones that do not.  I'm not sure diet is one that is, so I don't judge people based on their eating habits.  

Friday, April 16, 2010

Understanding animals, Understanding pain.

Is it really possible for us to understand an animal's experience?  I'm not sure that it is.  Clearly, there are classic arguments like Nagel's What is it like to be a bat, that shows that we will never know the subjective experience of having sonar from just looking at their brains.  I will never know the subjective experience of giving birth.  But this doesn't prevent me from understanding the pain that a woman is feeling when she is giving birth.

How do I understand this?  There are two ways.  1.  I can talk to her and ask her to describe what she's feeling.  This is the most obvious route, but its the less used route, strangely.  (Ma'am, you're currently screaming and there is a child coming out of your uterus, please rate on a scale from 1 to 10, 10 being the worst pain you've ever felt in your life, and 1 being in no pain at all, how you're feeling.  Is it a sharp pain?  Is it an ache?)  2.  The argument by analogy.  She is generally analagous to me.  She has two arms, two legs, a head, etc.  She yelps in pain like I do when I stub my toe.  She's screaming in pain, like I would if I were experiencing something quite painful and traumatic.  So she must be experiencing something quite painful and traumatic.

Both of these investigations into pain however a fundamentally flawed.  The argument by analogy doesn't give us a guarantee, or even a reasonable assurance that the experiences will be similar.  I've been thinking about this a lot lately, because of what my doctor told me recently.  Before my MRI, my doctor said that if he suspects that I have what he thinks I have, that he would be very surprised that I'm not in more pain.  Indeed, I did have what he thought I had, a herniated disc.  And I was in some considerable pain, but I guess I have a rather high tolerance for pain.  And so long as it isn't in my head (I use to get frequent headaches/migranes), I could deal with it.  So whereas my doctor would have been exhibiting much more pain responses (moaning groaning, complaining about the pain, or whatnot), I did not.  Did that mean I was experiencing less pain than he was thinking?  Not necessarily.

The direct route, also is flawed.  After my surgery, the nurse asked me to describe the pain that I was in, and what kind of pain I was willing to tolerate (to help gauge how much medication to give me).  I said I was probably at a 6, and could tolerate an 8.  She looked back at me, and said, "Remember, 10 is the worst pain you've ever experienced in your life."  I said, "Yeah.  This is definately not the worse pain I've experienced in life, but it definately hurts.  But I could definately tolerate it."  This was put to the test later, when I had physical therapy for the first time.  The PT made me stand up and walk around.  Its amazing how much your head weighs.  My neck is in excruciating pain (even with a pre-hit of morphine).  But I walked about 3x farther than the PT expected me to walk.  Ask me to rate that walk on a scale of 1-10, I'd say it was about an 8.  I definately didn't tolerate the walk very well, and even called my PT the "Bad Man" when he came back the next day for another round of torture (the second time included a walk all the way down the hall and back, some exercises with a fake step, and then I pushed him to let me walk up a flight of stairs). 

So what did this all mean in terms of communicating my pain?  Was I experiencing less pain than others?  Was I more tolerant of the pain that I experienced compared to others?  Both?  Neither? I haven't a clue.

So if I can't understand pain of others in any meaningful way, how can I make an argument by analogy with something that doesn't share a body deisgn like mine?  Does it hurt a cow when I poke him with a stick?  I certainly can't ask her.   

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

eww gross

So if you want to see what I look like after the operation walking around without gauze.... click here.  You don't actually see my sutures or anything, because its behind a some plastic tape and under that is blood and benzene and stuff they used to keep it from getting infected.  In a couple of days I should have a better picture for you.

The picture is pretty high resolution, so you should be able to zoom into it pretty good. 

Monday, April 12, 2010

surgery went well

recovery is estimated to be 6-8 weeks.  you use you neck for a lot more than you think you do.  sitting is very tiring.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

I'll be out for a few....

I've been having arm pain since last Feburary, I got an MRI Tuesday and met with my doctor today.  On top of a herniated disc in my neck which is pressing on my nerve to my arm (hence the pain) I have a congenital defect in my spine.  Essentially, where my spine should be floating in spinal fluid, there is a severe narrowing that is putting pressure on my spinal cord.  They need to cut a door of sorts in my vertebrae to relieve the pressure.  Its really lucky I herniated my disc, otherwise if went untreated, I could be paralyzed from the neck down in a car accident quite easily.  Also if untreated, I'll slowly become paralyzed. 

I'm going into the hospital tonight, and getting surgery tomorrow.  

Wish me luck!

An aside to my students:
I'm not exactly sure when I'll be back to work.  Please show up to class as normal, instructions will be given to you.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

What (if Anything) Is Wrong with Bestiality

Ever since Peter Singer suggested that bestiality was morally permissible not too long ago, I've been puzzled by why its not completely obvious to most people that bestiality isn't wrong.  Sometimes it just takes someone pointing out the obvious to stir the pot. 

Neil Levy defends Singer's point that bestiality is not wrong.  He writes:
Thus, though there is nothing immoral about bestiality, it might nevertheless be irrational for us to cross this boundary.  It would be difficult to do so while yet retaining a strong grip on our identity.
So here's some context.  Levy spends most of his paper responding to possible moral objections to bestiality:  it is a perversion, there is no consent, animals have a lower cognitive ability, it wrongfully utilizes animals as a means to an end, it inculcates vices in our character.  He rejects all of these arguments.

But then, he switches gear and talks about our identity as a species.  We determine who and what we are by the limits of our abilities, upper and lower.  He writes:
In fact, both sets of limits, upper and lower, are in part definitive of humanity. My suggestion is this: The set of limits definitive of human life contains elements from many different sources. Some of them, like the limit represented by human mortality and by our physical bodies in general, are given by nature.... Others, however, are cultural limits. They are the products of the collective imagining of a people. They are, however no less identity constituting for all that. These two sets of limits are nively captured by the word "humanity."
So as a people, we can define ourselves by the natural limits on our bodies and socio-cultural limits that we impose on ourselves.  Good so far.
But our lower limits, which are largely culturally defined, are also identity constituting.... if we cross our upperbounds, we will cease to be human, becoming something different and not necessarily better.  If we cross our lower limits, a similar fate threatens.  To transgress this boundary might be to move to another form of life, in which characteristic human activities have no place or are transformed in ways unimaginable from here.  This might be a limit we cannot cross while yet retaining our sense of who we are.
This seems pretty flimsy.  If our lower boundaries, in this case, bestiality, is culturally defined, then why must this definition be the "correct" definition?  Levy says we have no real reason to think that it is.  These boundaries are flexible, like he states above.
...To the extent that someone engages in bestiality, she will find it harder to retain a grip on her identity as a full member of our community, and we will find it harder to admit her to full membership.
So if we take this position seriously, we might be able to say something like, homosexuality is outside the identity of humanity, and so we should avoid homosexuality because we might not retain our sense of "humanity."  Levy has a reply:
...We needn't be scared of the prospect of  a new communitarian homophobia.  Arguing against homosexuality that it represents a crossing of a signifcant limit places any prohibition against it precisely where it ought to be: in the open, in the realm of public and democratic discourse.  When we realize that the taboo is socially defined, we can begin to assess its costs and its benefits; Given that a taboo against homosexuality would seem to impose a major cost upon a significant minority of the population, I suspect that it would not long stand such public scrutiny.
So because social taboos against homosexuality impose a major cost (sexual and social freedomsI would imagine) on homosexuals, it wouldn't stand public scrutiny.  Wouldn't a taboo on bestiality do the same for those who wish to engage in it?  After all, Levy just finished saying that we would find it hard to admit these people full membership in what we call "humanity."  And for what?  A socially defined lower bottom floor of what makes a person part of humanity.  This sure sounds an awful lot like: "Most people really don't like it."

But wait:
This is not to say that we must retain the taboo against bestiality.  The limits which define our humanity, in the sense here at stake, are, by nature, contingent and shifting....  If this i the case for our upper limits, which are importantly natural in origin, then how much more is it true with regard to the culturally defined lower limits?
Clearly, they would have to be MORE true right?  Surely its much harder to make someone live 110 years than it is to say that homosexuals should be respected. 
Levy finishes with:
Nevertheless, if these considerations are correct, this is not a decision to be made lightly.  To redraw the map of our limits, at the bottom as well as at the top, is to set for ourselves new boundaries within which human life will take on a new shape.  Perhaps Kant ws, at least in part, right about bestiality: nothing less than the meaning of our humanity is here at stake.
I don't think this is terribly ambiguous, although it is.  He could be saying, that there is no moral prohibition against bestiality and that because humanity is, in important ways, socio-culturally defined that we can simply decide to say that people who engage in bestiality should not be ousted from membership in humanity, in full or in part.  But I'm pretty sure what he is saying is that we shouldn't change our definitions of humanity because changing the meaning of humanity is well.... wrong?  That can't be right, since there is nothing immoral about bestiality.  Imprudent?  Just something we should think long and hard about? 

What Levy is doing here is manipulating our attachments to "humanity."  To change these definitions suggests that we are inhuman.  And metaphorically these are the lower levels of humanity.  Why aren't these taboos the upper limits of humanity?  Or off to the side somewhere?  It could be that we are busting through a ceiling rather falling through the floor.  Morally acceptable bestial sex may show an elevated concern for the suffering of animals (being careful not to harm animals while we have sex with them) and trying to share with them an intimate aspect of one our highest expressions of love, care, and devotion.

If we change our conception of humanity who knows what we'll become.  Maybe we'll just become more human, just as we did when we stopped owning slaves, made great strides in equality with women and other races, and became concerned about how we treat animals. 

Sunday, April 4, 2010

induced pluripotent stem cells

iPSC are stem cells that are produced from adult stem cells.  The adult stem cell is not as plastic as embryonic stem cells, but they can be reverted back to a state of pluripotentcy, where they can act as embryonic stem cells.  This is ethically significant since there is a great amount of controversy over using embryonic stem cells since they involve the destruction of some embryo or fetus to obtain them.

In this month's (april) Scientific American, Steve Mirsky writes: "So what I don't get is why aren't people who are against using embryonic stem cells in research just as against using iPSCs?" He gets to this question by pointing out that iPSCs have the theoretical possibility of being implanted in a womb and grown as a clone.  Most who are against stem cell research are also against cloning and so consequently should be against the use of iPSCs.

Mirsky is bringing up what seems like an inconsistency in the anti-stem cell research camp.  But I don't think he's entirely right.  First, I'm totally for stem cell research, but I'm in more favor of iPSC research, although in practical terms, iPSC research will be slower research.  But back to me in a second.  What are the anti-stem cell camp against exactly?  Its isn't stem cell research strangely enough.  Very few opponents of stem cell research would actually say that the research itself is morally wrong, rather the source of the research material is questionable.  Destroying embryos are wrong and if this research promotes embryos being destroyed, then it is wrong because of that, not because of its aims or the research itself.

So since iPSC doesn't destroy embryos, then it is morally acceptable research.  But what about the possibility of cloning?  For someone to be upset by iPSC because of concerns over cloning, one would have to make a slippery slope argument.  iPSC research will lead to human cloning.  Clearly this isn't any more true than legalizing gay marriage leading to inter-species marriages. 

So why worry about iPSC when embryonic stem cells will in all likelihood produce results quicker?  Simply put, it would make more people happy.  If we could grow meat in a petri dish that is identical to real meat, without the animal cruelty, we should do it because it would make more people happy.  Wouldn't it be cheaper to just raise a cow?  Sure it would.  But if we could avoid the problematic aspects of eating meat, then we should. 

Now some might say there are no problematic aspects of embryonic stem cell research, whereas there are problematic aspects with animal husbandry.  But we could still easily imagine a world where all animals are not factory farmed, where they have pleasant lives and a Temple Grandin approved death.  People would still be unhappy to see animals dying, and whether that is reasonable or not isn't the issue, for me anyways.  I don't think we can really control how things make us feel.  If seeing cats on fire pleases the people of France, then it does, no matter how unsavory it is.  I love Survivor (Go Russell!) and I know that its terrible television.  But I love it anyways.  I can't help it!  This isn't to say that we should indulge in things that are morally bad so long as they make us happy, but rather if we can avoid making people unhappy and not do anything morally bad, then we should do so.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The cat litter project

So a little while back I posted that I was making a digester for my cat litter.  Here are the results so far.  My first batch that I put into the hole in the ground never really disappeared.  But within a few days of dropping them in, I knew why.  The water in my digester was being absorbed into the ground far too quickly for the enzymes to work on what was already a very dry lump of feces.  Since the poop dried out in the cat litter, it would need time to rehydrate then liquefy.  It simply wasn't getting that time in the digester.

So I thought about trying to flow the rate of water absorption in the digester by putting something in the ground like clay cat litter or something like it to retain the water longer.  But I didn't like that idea, since it might be possible that it wouldn't actually slow the water absorption, and that would leave me scooping out the litter from the hole in the ground, mixed with all sorts of yuckiness.  I then thought of just putting a plastic bag under the entire thing, and maybe a pipe sticking out of it to aid in water absorption.... essentially turning the digester into a miniature, but simplified, septic tank.

But then I returned to the problem at hand.  I wasn't giving enough time for the water and enzymes to break down the poop.  So a simple solution presented itself while wandering the halls of Home Depot.  The Kingsford Charcoal dispenser.  It was a simple and elegant solution.  Fill the bucket with some water and add the enzymes.  There's a handy easy to remove lid and flip top hatch to make adding water, used litter, enzymes etc, or complete removal for dumping.  The one I got was black, so I don't have to see the waste, and it heats up from the daylight sun, helping the enzymes work a bit more efficiently (I might have to worry about it getting too hot in the summer though).

So I put another bag of waste into the dispenser and a couple of days later, mostly liquified poop, with quite a bit of litter.  The litter I'm using is a mix of pine based litter that clumps, and wheat clumping litter. I'm betting what I saw was mostly the pine. 

Last thoughts:  My digester has basically turned into a hole in the ground for me to pour some really nasty water out.  But I still needed it and it'll be interesting to see what happens in there as things continue to degrade (like the biodegradeable bags that I used to transport the litter to the digester).   I feel like I'm using more water in eliminating the waste this way.  You win some you lose some.  But for all intents and purposes, I'm getting free water from my rain barrel, which will offset all the water use during the rainy season.  I only need about 5 gallons of water in the charcoal dispenser a week.  Once I get this down to a more efficient system, I might need less.  Its not all that much more work for me.  The only work was an initial investment of digging a hole in the ground.  Everything else is pretty much the same.  Scoop the boxes, bring it to a can, and drop it in.  I just have one extra step of dumping out the can maybe every week, after the enzymes get a chance to break down the litter.