Wednesday, February 24, 2010

What you can do with my body after I'm dead.

In my ethics class, and in general when  the topic of death comes up, I usually tell people that they can do anything that they want with my body after I'm dead.  Kick it to the curb, feed it to cultures, mummify it, have it stuffed.  Whatever, so long as it doesn't upset the living, in particular my friends and family (since they would be the ones most upset by the treatment of my body, I would imagine).

But there is a possibility that it would not be in my interest for my body to be fed to the vultures....  Cryonics.    Should I take seriously the possibility, however remote, that in the future, my body could be dethawed and revived with more advanced medicine?  The argument is a simple appropriation of Pascal's Wager.  If I freeze my body and I can't be revised, I lose nothing.  If I freeze my body and I can be revived, I gain an extended life.  If I don't freeze my body, I'll never beneft.  So no matter how small the odds, I should freeze my body.

Now there are externalities here that we must take into consideration, specifically cost.  I would have to deprive myself a significant sum of money while I'm alive for the possibility of a future life.  And who knows what the quality of my future life will be.  I may simply be a decapitated head in a jar a la Futurama.

I also think it would be important to take other ethical obligations into consideration.  For example, if I were to be frozen, my body would continue to generate a significant carbon footprint for the duration of my freeze because of the energy it would require to maintain my low temperature.  I may not benefit if I don't freeze myself, but the environment may be harmed if I do. 

In the end though, I don't think I'd like to be frozen.  I think waking up in the future would be rather disorientating and I'd spend way too much on future Blu-Ray TV series compilations.  ;)

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Dogs are worse than SUVs part II

My very first blog post here was about Dogs being worse than SUVs for the environment.

One of the arguments for vegetarianism is that it lightens our carbon footprint, and since dogs (and cats) are carnivores, they have a heavier carbon footprint than a vegetarian pet like a parrot.

So it stands to reason that there are really three options that we have with our carnivorous pets:
1.  Continue keeping them, and ignore or try to rationalize the environmental impact of our pets.
2.  Don't keep carnivorous pets.
3.  Continue to keep carnivorous pets, and change their diet to a vegetarian one.

There might be a few more options I'm missing, but I think these are the most obvious choices for most people.  So what should we do?  In my original post, I suggested that I might have to move towards 2, out of concern for the environment.  But rarely are things so cut and dry.  Many pets would exist regardless of people taking them in or not, and in my case, both of my cats were kidnapped from litters that were given birth to by stray cats.  However, my taking them in has guaranteed a particular impact on the environment, whereas, if I left them, they may have died to a car accident or starvation, or animal control.

So now we're balancing animal welfare against carbon emission.  To say that one is more important than the other is odd, since one of the reasons for concern about carbon emission is the welfare of the animals that would be affected by global warming. 

I don't think option 1 is a terribly rational position, so I'm not going to defend it much, or give it much analysis.  But I do want to point out that when I first posted the original entry, this is what most people seemed to opt.  Either the carbon footprint is negligible or there are other benefits that we get from keeping animals that outweigh the harm done to the environment.  But arguably, I could make the same arguments about SUVs.

Now the third option is a questionable one as well, because if we turn our carnivorous pets vegetarians, they may not be very happy.  So we'd be trading a portion of their happiness for a large portion of carbon emissions (I say a portion because I'm assuming that the vegetarian pet food out there undergoes significant processing which would make it less carbon friendly).  And lets not forget that some pets have special dietary restrictions/formulas that they need.

None of the obvious options seem like a very good solution, and well probably be getting another cat when one of my two die eventually.   So in actuality, I'm in camp 1, but I don't like being there.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Are Neanderthals Human?

So I was reading this article today about cloning neanderthals.  I'm not terribly sure its a good idea to clone neanderthals mostly because of the harm it would inflict on the undoubtedly hundreds of failed clones.  But thats another blog post for another time.  What got my interest piqued was this:

"I think there would be no question that if you cloned a Neanderthal, that individual would be recognized as having human rights under the Constitution and international treaties," says Lori Andrews, a professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law. The law does not define what a human being is, but legal scholars are debating questions of human rights in cases involving genetic engineering. "This is a species-altering event," says Andrews, "it changes the way we are creating a new generation." How much does a human genome need to be changed before the individual created from it is no longer considered human?

Neanderthals are not human (scientifically).  So why would they have human rights?  Well the answer is easy, because the set of rights that we call human rights are not exclusively humans, but rather apply to all persons.  Assumedly if Spock from Star Trek were to beam down on earth right now, we would not deny him rights and protections that we grant to other human beings.

Thats simple enough.  But what makes something a human being?  Genome?  As we tinker and through natural evolution, our genome changes.  And if we change it enough, would we lose our rights?  Again, probably not.

But I want to put forth a bolder claim.  I want to say that either "human" is so hopelessly vague as to be a meaningless term, or that it applies to the things that we may create through genetic engineering, including a cloned neanderthal.  So I'm going against science here.  Neanderthals are human, in the same way that I'm Hawaiian (I'm not Hawaiian in the usual sense).  Being Chinese, my ancestors helped colonize polynesia, and eventually Hawaii.  Hawaii thus, are really just asians with some modifications. (This goes back to the race debate we were having with the census).

Now whereas race is almost a meaningless set of vague descriptions of a category, species identification is a little more exact.   It usually involves inter-breeding possibilities and such.  But presumedly we could interbreed with a very different species, so long as we modified the genetic recombination in a way to produce fertile offspring (this is what they supposedly do in Star Trek for interspecies children unless they were by sheer coincidence genetically compatible).

*edit*  Hmmm... apparently its not terribly controversial that neanderthals are human....  I take it all back.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Who is PNS for?

PreNatal Screening is the process in which many genetic abnormalities and birth defects can be detected before birth.  But when someone screens a fetus, who are they doing it for?

It seems like there are two obvious possible answers.  The first one is the baby, the other is for the mother or parents.  But neither are terribly satisfying answers.

Lets say for the sake of argument that Milly gets a prenatal screening on her fetus.  The test returns a positive hit for Down's syndrome, and for the sake of argument, its not a false positive.  If this is for the sake of the fetus, then the parents should now be either marshalling resources to take the best care they can for their baby, or terminate the preganacy to spare it suffering.

But how can an abortion be in the interest of the baby?  Its not like Down's syndrome is so debilitating that the baby cannot have a happy life. 

If the screening is for the parent's interest, then the preganacy should be terminated, and the parents can try again, which would save them a huge amount of money and medical resources that could be spent on other people.

If its for the interest of the baby, then shouldn't we mandate that all women have prenatal screenings, to ensure that the parents can marshal the resources needed for the disabled baby if it is disabled?

If its in the interest of the parents, then how could we possibly mandate such an invasive test?

Lingering Doubts of a Vegetarian

Veganism is not my cup of tea.  I simply can't do it.  But does that mean I'm promoting animal cruelty?  This has been discussed at length elsewhere, so I'm not going to go into it.  I think that being a vegetarian is definately doing a lot of good for the environment, since it reduces animal suffering by reducing demand of factory farmed animals.

But what about incidental animal products?  By incidental I mean things that are made from animals that they're not directly farmed for.  Arguably there are no incidental products, everything that animals give us are part of why we raise them.  I'm thinking of things like leather and such.  On my person I could probably count at least 10 animal products that would rule me out of being vegan (shoes, belt, wallet, backpack, dental floss, tylenol, coat, watch (its a waterproof one), lip balm).  Not to mention things like packaging that these things come in, preservatives that my food has, and the drugs that I take, even the stitches or sutures that would be put on me if I needed them.

Being a vegetarian allows me to utilize animal products, but that doesn't guarantee that the animal products I utilize are from humanely treated animals....  In fact there really is in no way to tell since many incidental animal products are not regulated by the FDA since they're not going to be eaten.

Perfection is the enemy of progress though.  I'm not morally perfect, but I'm moving towards doing a lot of good.  Maybe some day I will eliminate leather from my person, or wax products, but until then, I can sleep at night knowing that I'm still doing a lot of good.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

The gettier Problem

So I promised I'd put up a blog post about the Gettier Problem in my Ancient philosophy class.  So here it is.

The gist of the problem, is that Justified True Belief does seem necessary for knowledge (you need all three), but it isn't sufficient for knowledge (you can still not know something even if you have all three). 

I think the easiest example of the Gettier problem to wrap people's mind around it, is the one I used in class.  You walk into a room, and you see someone who looks like your friend Bob.  You form the belief, "Bob is in the room."  Its true.  You believe it, and you're justified in believing it because you see someone who resembles Bob in the room.  But who you see is not Bob, but Steve, Bob's twin brother.  Bob is hiding under the bed.

Now the common objection is that my justification is based on something untrue....  But everything I've said is true...  I've seen someone who looked like Bob.

In class I replaced Steve with a mirrored reflection of Bob.  I see someone who looks like Bob, (but I'm not actually seeing Bob) etc. etc.  In that circumstance lots of people want to say I have knowledge.  But if thats the case, how is that meaningfully any different than the Steve case?  In both cases I'm looking at something that resembles Bob, but is not actually Bob.

The wikipedia entry on the Gettier problem is pretty good, and covers most of the other common objections, and some of the less common attempts to solve the problem.    Here you can read is actual paper.  Again, I can only wish I could write such a short paper, and change philosophy so significantly.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010


Do we have an obligation to ensure that life continues after life on Earth can no longer be sustained?  Its inevitable that life on this planet will end.  Eventually the sun will gobble up the earth and incenerate everything on it.  So should we start preparing a panspermia project to send life from Earth to other places in the universe?

Michael Mautner thinks so.  So lets take a look at his argument.  The article summarizes his argument as follows: 
As members of this planet’s menagerie, and a consequence of nearly 4 billion years of evolution, humans have a purpose to propagate life. After all, whatever else life is, it necessarily possesses an incessant drive for self-perpetuation.
So first, it says that evolution has produced ust to have a purpose.... to propogate life.   Life intrinsically has an incessant drive for self-perpetuation, therefore we have an obligation to continue the perpetuation of life elsewhere in the universe. 

I think this argument has all kinds of problems with it.  First, its not clear that evolution gives purposes to anything.  To say that implies that evolution is some kind of reasoning force to begin with, trying to accomplish something.  Evolution is nothing of the sort.  Evolution is simply the name we put on the a feature of biological development through reproduction.  Evolution doesn't want, desire, or even aim to make better things.  Evolution is RANDOM.  Through random chance, animals, plants, etc, are given new traits, which either aid in survival, reproduction, or do absolutely nothing, or hinder survival or reproduction.  It is perfectly plausible that evolution would produce animals that are poorly suited for their environment, and yet they continue to exist because of luck (however unlikely it is).

So evolution has randomly given human beings a purpose.... to propogate life.  How does purpose get transmitted or developed through evolution?  Conceivably it could be hard-wired into our genes and consequently our brains to make us behave in this particualr way (nevermind that this trait may not in fact be present in all human beings).  I don't find this terribly plausible, but I'm feeling generous and concede the point. 

So we have a evolutionary purpose.  Does this translate to a moral purpose?  Do I have moral obligation because my biology compels me to?  This is dubious at best.  I may have an evolutionary drive to fight or flight, but that doesn't make it morally acceptable for me to fight or flight.  I may have a moral obligation to do one and not the other.  Genetic or psychological predispositions do not give us moral justification for acting in any way at all.  Someone who is predisposed to rage doesn't suddenly have an obligation to attack people any more than a woman who is ovulating has an obligation to seek out a partner.

Increasingly its becoming more common for people to believe the opposite, that we have an obligation NOT to reproduce, in order for future generations to live a more comfortable life.  Overpopulation concerns are essentially concerns about the future generation's comfort and living standard.  But overpopulation concerns, and panspermia plans are ultimately dependent upon an idea that we have an obligation to future generations.  I've already argued that this isn't as obvious as most people think it is in end of the world scenatios, which this is

Another puzzle is that Mautner suggests that we send bacteria to seed other planets.  If he is serious in the idea that we have an obligation to propogate ANY life, not just human life, because of evolution (how that happened might be an example of my point about the randomness of evolution), then we currently have an obligation to breed bacteria and not kill off bacteria.  Arguably, we could justify killing some bacteria in self-defense, but we should be actively trying to raise the number of living things on this planet, not just human.  Since we could more easily increase the number of life by increasing bacteria more so than any other life form, we should start cranking out agar mats and seeding it with whatever it is that we can. 

Am I being too hard on him?  I feel like I am, but I just think his argument is as absurd as I'm making it sound.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The census

I've been thinking a lot about race and discrimination lately, mostly because of the upcoming census.  First I want to address a few concerns I have about the census in general....

It treats race as if they are clearly differentiated, even real categories that people belong to.  Barack Obama is black, even though he is half caucasian.  But what do these categories even mean in the first place?  Michael Jackson is Black, but Eminem is not.  There is very little evidence of a biological basis for the racial deliniations that people make. 

Second, the increased number of categories in the census is an interesting response to the perceived discriminatory agenda of the census.  People self-identify their race in many different ways.  You may be a Latino, but others would call you Hispanic.  You might consider yourself Mexican, and not Hispanic or Latino, but what you don't realize is that you fall in the exact same category as Native American.  The upcomming census tries to offer a wide variety of categories for people to self-identify with, to reduce the number of people selecting Other.  There are some people who self-identify as Negro, not Black or African American, thus Negro is now on the list of races to select from, but others find the term derogatory. 

What's so important about people not selecting Other?  Social services, outreach, minority benefits are all dependent upon what the census says.  Political campaigns are built around census information.  When people select other, they are reducing the possibility of themselves receiving benefits.  They are not making it less likely they will be discriminated against, they're making it more likely that they will simply invisible to the government.

So on one hand, we have what I would call the Truth:  There is no race.  44% of Native Americans die Caucasian.  How does that happen?  People self-identify their race.  On the other hand we have what I would call the practical:  Identifying your race will help prevent racial discrimination.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Goth Kitties

Okay...  First read this article.

So did Holly Crawford do anything wrong?

The defense's argument is an interesting one.  We allow parents to pierce their children's ears and such, why not allow us to pierce our pets?  Why have a higher standard for the animal and a lower standard for the human?

I think there are two things wrong with this line of reasoning.  First, the piercings of a human's ears won't necessarily affect coordination and mobility, but they may affect them on a kitten (espescially on the tail).  But I don't think this is a heavy consideration.  Assumedly the kitten could learn to adapt to the piercings.... Afterall they have to learn to adapt to their four legs too (kittens are sooooo wobbly!). 

The second problem, and I think the more pressing flaw is that there is a higher standard for animals and a lower standard for humans line of thought.  There should be higher standards for the treatment of animals in some cases I think, precisely because we don't know what they are experiencing.  Erring on the side of caution is reasonable.  For children, we can simply ask them how they feel about being pierced (assuming they are old enough to be communicative).  We raise standards of treatment for less abled people, it stands to reason that we raise the standards to a similar height for animals.  Not because they're more important, but because they need the protection from exploitation.  We treat adults and children differently for the same reasons.

But these are just the flaws in the defense's argument.  Presumedly they can be wrong, and Crawford still hasn't done anything wrong. 

Ultimately the piercings are for aesthetic purposes.  The difference between the child and a pet, is that the child can appreciate the piercings.  They can make the the choice to remove the piercings in the future if they do not like them.  Pets can't do that, or worse, they will try to do that and tear out the piercing.  So the wrongness here isn't the harm thats been done to the cats (I'm not sure if the harm of the actual piercing is negligible, but I'm willing to concede the point).  But rather that it endagers them to future harm.  A piercing gets caught on a fence or on a pillow, and the cat will expeirence a great deal of unnecessary pain, so that we could amuse ourselves with having a pierced cat.  The tradeoffs of benefits here doesn't hold up. 

Wednesday, February 3, 2010


I can't help but write something about Lost.  The show is great!  The season premier was great!  Whats not to say about this show?  I'll try to avoid spoilers of the premier, in case you haven't seen it yet.

Clearly, there are philosophical themes abundant in Lost.  Characters named John Locke, Desmond David Hume, Rousseau, etc., can't be ignored.  But even some of the smaller details reveal great things to think about.

In last night's premier, eagle eyed viewers (and who isn't watching Lost with eagle eyes now?) might have spotted a copy Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling in the entrance to the temple, which really matches the the overarching thematic struggle of faith and reason that the show has been dancing around for 6 seasons now.

And I'm intrigued by the "Flash-Sideways."  Is the entire season going to be like this?  So many questions.... and hopefully they will be answered soon!

Monday, February 1, 2010

Meta-philosophy: What is philosophy?

So the semester is begining and in most of my classes I start off with the standard question of "What is philosophy?"  My standard answer is "The discipline that studies and examines assumptions."  This is a pretty wide net, but it has to be, since philosophy is a very wide discpline.  It does the job of including everything that is philosophy, and excludes everything that isn't.

But inevitably people still mistake philosophy with other things.  Religion is philosophy.  Poetry is philosophy.  Novels are philosophy.  So why aren't these things philosophy?

The most accurate answer would be that some of these things are philosophy, sometimes.  Religion, poetry, novels, etc are philosophy when they question the fundamental assumptions that we make.  But questioning is only the first step in philosophy, otherwise everyone would be a philosopher.  If everyone is a philosopher, then that means everyone does philosophy.  But I'm pretty sure everyone doesn't do philosophy, or at the very least, everyone doesn't do good philosophy.

Science begins with a hypothesis, but making up hypotheses doesn't make someone a scientist.  So what comes after questioning?  An attempt to answer the questions that we've raised using good reasoning.  This is the philosophical equivalent of experimentation. 

Now I get friends telling me all the time that my definition of philosophy is too narrow, or elitist.  Only good reasoning = philosophy.  But I think its reasonable to make a distinction between good reasoning and correct conclusions.  People can have good reasoning and be lead to incorrect conclusions.... I think.  And even if not, I think we can make a distinction of the quality of reasoning that philosophers engage in, versus non-philosophers.  Non-philosophers usually crutch on relativism or subjectivism to attack arguments.  Philosophers will usually look past such strategies. 

But I'm open to finding a better definition of philosophy....  I have a nagging feeling that my definition of philosophy casts its net too wide, including things that shouldn't be philosophy.