Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Rethinking Abortion in Light of Advancing Technology

Advances in technology will eventually change how one prioritizes which ethical "rights" get invoked for or against having an abortion.

{ Audio .mp3 (7 min.)  of this essay } For my Ethics class I regularly re-read Mary Ann Warren's 1973 article, "On the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion."[1] Although it is well argued, I can't agree with every sub-conclusion she draws which would be required to justify her overall position -- hardly a surprise, of course, given my pious commitments.

In a postscript to the article, she attempts to show that her argument for the moral permissibility of abortion does not commit her to infanticide. Why not? Because after the infant is born, "it does mark the end of its mother's right to determine its fate." I have two points of disagreement with her on this matter of infanticide -- one minor, the other more substantial, but which is somewhat related to the minor issue.

First, I have never been clear on where alleged moral "rights" come from, at least if there is no all-knowing issuer and (eventually) absolute enforcer of those rights (otherwise known as God). In contrast, political rights are far more easy to understand and apply: Find the king, or the Constitution, or some other governmental authority, and then draw some sort of reference and subsequent enforcement from there. So my minor disagreement with Warren is that talk of moral rights only introduces further confusion into the abortion debate.

Second, even if one were to acknowledge some sort of discernible rights being affirmed or violated, I was curious about how the following aside from Warren would interplay with such rights:

"Indeed if abortion could be performed without killing the fetus, [the mother] would never possess the right to have the fetus destroyed, for the same reasons that she has no right to have an infant destroyed."

What might it mean to perform an abortion without destroying a fetus?

At first glance we might worry that just as murdering someone without killing them is impossible, so committing an abortion without destroying the fetus is likewise, for semantic reasons, impossible. But this is not quite a correct understanding of the term, because the very word "abortion" just means the deliberate termination of a human pregnancy, and does not, in addition, also mean the deliberate termination of a fetus's life. As we currently practice it, the act of abortion indeed causes the termination of a fetus's life, but that is merely an association due to our poor technology, not due to the prior logically entailing letter. Compare our use of the word "surgery" today as compared to times past. In the past, surgery always caused pain, but today we are fortunate to know that the association of these two terms is not one of logical entailment, as every anesthesiologist can attest.

With this semantic confusion behind us, we are now in a position to think about abortions, but without fetal termination. Perhaps we can imagine a specialized vat whereby we place a fetus within so as to grow it to viability. Advances in robotic surgery would allow doctors to remove the whole placenta quickly enough to
support the oxygen and nutrient environment which keeps the fetus viable, and then to reattach it to the artificial vat support system. In this case the woman would have terminated her pregnancy (accurately called an "abortion") but the fetus would still remain viable. Or again, perhaps the vat technology is too difficult a feat, but advances in biology allow a transplantation of just a small portion of the placenta, along with its accompanying fetus. Likewise, per as earlier, we would have terminated the pregnancy, but with the advantage of the fetus remaining viable.

In her postscript, Warren supplies two arguments on why infanticide is wrong (1) for reasons analogous to those which make it wrong to want to destroy natural resources or great works of art; or (2) for reasons whereby people value infants -- such as when foster parents who would want the infant would be deprived, or when greater society, valuing infants and willing to step up and support them, finance orphanages through the tax base. However, under advanced technology circumstances, these same issues would apply to the woman losing her "right" to commit an abortion, were the growth vat or the transplant biology advanced enough to remove the infant from the woman. Using Warrens own reasoning, just as the woman does not control the right to commit infanticide after the birth, neither would the woman control the right of feticide in utero.

Warren wants to say that the rights of actual people trump the rights of potential people, but I am unclear which rights are being mentioned. My suspicion is that there are conditions where the right of the woman's quality of life could very well be subordinate to the rights of a fetus to have life at all. Suppose that the surgery were no more troublesome than having a mole removed, or taking a few hours out of one's day for an anesthetic nap (for surgery), similar to colonoscopy procedure. Under these conditions there would be minimal quality of life degradation. Even if one acknowledges the presence of moral rights, there must be a hierarchy to these rights to make them workable, as both scholars and jurisprudence practitioners of legal rights have recognized.

Earlier in her article Warren wants to suggest that an actual person's rights (in this case the mother) always trump a potential person's rights (the fetus). I don't see why this should be accepted a priori. Indeed, the mother should not be presumed as the only actual person with rights in place. Instead, I suggest that it is the empirical circumstances and consequences which allow us to formulate the hierarchy of already-acknowledged rights. If one grants this suggestion, the consequences of the mother's degradation of quality of life could eventually be so low in the advanced technology cases mentioned that one should assess the fetus's right to life as super-ordinate over the mother's right to quality of life. If so, then I conclude that we shall soon be rethinking abortion in light of advancing fetal support technology.



Images: Header image taken from article, Soraya Chemaly "What Do Artificial Wombs Mean for Women?" 2/23/2012 RH Reality Check Blogsite (Accessed 4/8/2014).  Inset image taken from Green Diary - Green Living Blogsite. (Accessed 4/8/2014)

[1] Ann Warren "On the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion" [.pdf] The Monist: An International Quarterly Journal of General Philosophical (Peru, IL, 1973).

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Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Churches, Science, and "Truth" Claims

'True information' from religious prophets about the present and future affairs of human civilization hasn't been very forthcoming as of late.

While at a theology conference, I heard a well-received bible scholar claim that the mission of the church is "truth telling." Alas, if only it were true. The problems with such an optimistic view of what information churches (or religious groups in general) supposedly dispense are many.

First, as is well attested in history, churches have made empirically false claims about the present state of affairs, and these being supposedly based on some exclusive channel of information (something called, "special revelation") For example, the Roman Catholic Church during the Medieval times is well known for clashing with Galileo on the structure of the solar system. Their theologians had apparently gotten it right (via special revelation to a Pope) that the Earth, not the Sun, was at the center. But that didn't turn out to be so accurate. As a more recent example, the Seventh Day Adventists and conservative baptist churches worry themselves (unnecessarily, of course) about the earth being 6,000 years old and about why Evolution must be false, though these are (bad) deductions from certain woodenly literal ways of reading the bible. Thus, their mistake is to draw deductions from (allegedly) special revelatory information encoded into biblical manuscripts, information imparted by God to the original authors on scientific topics. Those geology and biology claims are not turning out well, either, for conservative churches.

Second, even if some churches have a set of specially revealed truths, their members do not have a trustworthy method for verifying such truths in the public arena. Unlike Science, there are no reproducible methods, nor ways to quantify evidence for the various churches' claims for truth. In fact, when empirical claims are made, such as for the efficacy of prayer for healing diseases, every well-structured study has shown no cause-effect links between these claims and disease healing rates. (The most famous and well-designed one even showed a lower than expected link for heart patients.) To be accurate, however, some prayers can have benevolent effects on people's health, since they are likely (from what we can tell) particular (and benevolent) occurrences of placebo effects, which is not necessarily a bad thing.

Third, leaders of churches seem especially worried about ethical truths (even more so when these concern what people do when naked.) But ethical truths are most acutely the kinds which are controversial and nebulous everywhere; for, they are not open, or at least not obviously open, to resolution on scientific grounds. (There are no Geiger counters for goodness or wickedness, for example. This is most fortunate for politicians.) But that leaders of churches would camp on ethical issues is understandable, since churches have been embarrassed by making what turned out to be false claims about empirical truths in the past, as was noted earlier.  Happily for preachers and spiritual advisers everywhere, it's far more difficult to show that certain ethical principles are outright false (as compared to empirical claims), if such can even be shown for ethical claims at all.

Finally, in terms of actionable future information, note how in the present time that no revelation-filled prophets have arisen among various religious leaders to offer solutions to pressing contemporary problems (i.e., as regards cheap engineering techniques for world energy needs; safe methods for genetically modifying plants for plentiful food supply, etc.)  Surely a great alleviation of suffering could have already been accomplished if key aspects of (almost-here-anyway) technologies would have been revealed from a few prophets reporting information communicated from the On High.  Furthermore believers claim that in biblical times prophets often foretold dire political and economic events.   Contrast this with foretelling today -- although two or three economists were (after the fact) found on record to have been clanging a warning cymbal about the possibility of the current Great Recession, every Christian and Islamic group that I'm aware of was caught flat-footed and suffered great financial loss, as did virtually everyone else. Thus, the very religious organizations which hold the possibility and precedent of prophets appearing always seem to be fresh out of them when the need is greatest!

Therefore, as an overall assessment, it is hardly surprising that people competent in assessing evidence find such pious announcements concerning "truth telling" (whether of the present or future variety) by religious leaders unconvincing.  Granted, sometimes truths are uttered by the pious.  But holding positions, even correct positions, for non sequitur or just plain bad reasons is either an indication of 1) luck, 2) ignorance, or social or political maneuverings--and that's a truth worth noting!


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Sunday, February 16, 2014

Soon it'll be the default for everyone, and for free

Four, standard women of typical physical charisma were given a professional model shoot and then Photoshopped using industry standard techniques. The results were (not surprisingly) beautiful idealizations from what they originally looked like. (video link).

I had a couple of thoughts strike me on the process. 1) One woman asked, "Why would anyone want to do this?" -- i.e., want to present women in this idealized way. The answer is pretty straightforward: because it makes companies money -- lots of it.  As just a short summary of the fashion biz:
The global fashion industry is estimated to be worth over 1 Trillion Euro, or about 2% of the value of the world economy. To put it in context, the global pharmaceutical industry, which supplies all the medicines in the world, is valued at about €600 Billion, making it just over half the size of the fashion industry![1]

 2) What if, in the (near) future, anyone could easily download a Google glasses app that automatically and instantaneously performs this task, virtually, to everyone within the visual field of the observer?  What would be the effects on how we view beauty?  Should one actually use such an app?




[1] "Fashion and Beauty" CarreersPortal (Accessed 2/16/14)

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Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Uncle Philly on Indexicality




[*] Louis Doulas, "Where is Here, When is Now, Who is I: On Indexicality" Philosopher.io

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Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Uncle Philly on A.I.

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Saturday, November 30, 2013

Uncle Philly on Cyborgs

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Friday, November 22, 2013

Uncle Philly

On the down side, Uncle Philly's crotchety; but, on the up side, he's worth knowing.

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Saturday, August 17, 2013

31 reasons why institutions exist to do what they do

Just why institutions exist to do what they do isn't so easy to discern. 

I had an undergraduate Philosophy professor who, earlier in his career, had pastored a large church in the northwestern U.S. in the midst of some of the most turbulent times of the 1960s.  (I believe it was in Oregon.) It grew from virtually nothing to around 500 members, and he confessed he never quite knew just why.  To the consternation of many, he regularly turned-down speaking engagements and book offers from people wanting him to come and reveal his "secret" for church growth.  He was as understated a man as he was insightful.  He also studied some under a well-known philosopher with the enviable career name of John Wisdom. As is often the case with undergraduate studies, one remembers the style and methods of instruction almost to the complete exclusion of content. But from those studies, I do remember a remark he made about institutions, and it has been rattling around in my mind for many years. Lately, I went casting [1] about trying to interpret what his quote meant, which I note at the end of this list.

01. Institutions exist to serve man.
02. Institutions exist to classify us.
03. Institutions exist to impart stability.
04. Institutions exist to tell us how we can help.
05. Institutions exist to reduce transaction costs.
06. Social institutions exist to satisfy social needs.
07. Institutions exist to further the ends of individuals.
08. Institutions exist to reduce uncertainty in the world.
09. Institutions exist to solve the problems peoples face.
10. Institutions exist to check dangerous human appetites.
11. Institutions exist to organize people toward a purpose.
12. Institutions exist to actually provide responsive services.
13. Institutions exist to support and condone the "status quo".
14. Institutions exist to help solve collective action problems.
15. Institutions exist to reduce uncertainty in human interaction.
16. Institutions exist to constrain state power vis-`a-vis their citizens.
17. Institutions exist to govern the inter-dependencies among smaller units.
18. Institutions exist to reduce uncertainties involved in human interaction.
19. Institutions exist to provide order, which makes self-determination possible.
20. Institutions exist to serve and strengthen the society of which they are part.
21. Institutions exist to make binding decisions when competing interests are at odds.
22. Institutions exist to mediate tensions and maintain equilibrium between competing interests.
23. Institutions exist to keep themselves alive, make some people rich, and control the rest of us.
24. Institutions exist to pass on current knowledge and to add to the knowledge we humans already have.
25. Institutions exist to perpetuate themselves just as they are. The goal is that they will never change.
26. Institutions exist to serve the delivery of programs and services that move the people toward the vision.
27. Institutions emerge and persist because they resolve some problem of survival and adaptation faced by a population.
28. Institutions exist to help us out of situations that are too painful for people and entire communities to contemplate.
29. Social, political and economic institutions exist to serve a small class of elite much to the detriment of human progress.
30. Institutions exist to ensure a Pareto optimal outcome-—that is, outcomes where no one can be made better off without making someone worse off.
31. Institutions exist to perpetuate their existence and promote their agenda, to funnel power in specific directions, with the assumption that their existence is valuable and necessary.

And, of course, to the credit of my old Philosophy teacher, the best one:

00. The only real rule is that "institutions exist to perpetuate themselves."

Okay, maybe it's 32 reasons, but 00 seems awfully close to "bachelors exist to marry no one."  I wonder if he was pulling my leg?



[1] I don't claim to have come-up with any of these, but merely did a Google search and spent way too much time plucking and pasting them into a text file, much like a boy might put a beetle in a box, only to forget what it looks like once it's in there.

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Saturday, August 10, 2013

Can Philosophers job strike?

Philosophers can hold signs and chant but, ironically, it's not clear they can actually stop working.

This picture makes me wonder about Philosophy as a job as compared to philosophy as a mode or style of thinking. If one has a job they can go on strike, but how can one go on strike from thinking? Suppose you were a philosopher. Maybe you'd think about different things, or maybe you would chose as often as possible to think differently, or even irrationally, about various subjects. But you can't exactly stop thinking, akin to how one might stop baking, or butchering, or candlestick making.

Generally, people strike because they feel their labor does not net them some appropriate level of material good or consumer services.  But philosophers do philosophy like vocal musicians do music.  Even when they're not getting paid, they tend to operate in the mode -- as vocal musicians tend to constantly hum or even outright sing to themselves, sometimes not even knowing it.  Philosophers likewise find it unnatural to "turn off the beam" as it were, constantly mulling over chains of evidence or counterarguments to various positions of interest. (This can often make sleeping a challenge.)

For some disciplines, people say those disciplines define who they are in some psychologically essential sense.  "I'm a writer.  That's what I am, and nothing else.  To write is to live!" and other such writing quotes abound. Many philosophers and musicians make equally strong claims about themselves in relation to their discipline.  They are not "working" the are "being". [1]  But imagine a sewer cleaner or dishwasher making the same level of claim on what they do.  It would seem very odd that a person would define the core of their being by such trivial activities.  Society seems to affirm my intuition here, since we don't have statues, schools, or bridges named after people in occupations.  However, we must be careful here, as works like this show we might indeed have statues which honor the role an occupation plays in society, but not the singular person him- or her-self whose essence is defined by that role, since such a role is not one that can adequately define a person's character.  More generally, being a hard worker, say, is a laudable fact about a person's character; but being a sewer worker is a trivial fact about their character (if it's a character fact at all).  Imagine being a hard worker, but being a state-sponsored torturer. Should that person get a statue?  I think not! [2]

Perhaps a strike would actually be about the contract for conditions of the activity, where the conditions were no longer being met by the employer.  The musician contracts to be at a certain place, time, etc and to make greater efforts to maximize their talent than s/he otherwise would if s/he hadn't contracted for a payment, yet the payment side of the contract isn't met or has suddenly become unfair on other grounds. [3] The parallel would then be true for the philosopher.  On their side of the contract, for both the musician and the philosopher the payment is for attentiveness and focus, not just for the simple activity itself.  But that addresses the level of the work, not the simply the doing (or not) of the work itself.   Overall, then, I still argue the philosopher (and similar character-essence disciplines) cannot really stop working; though, they can certainly stop working well.


[1] This reminds me of the paradoxical capitalist proverb, "If you find a job you love, you'll never work again" as uttered by Winston Churchill. The saying also might have the utility of explaining why some philosophers often appear not to be working: it's an unfortunate side-effect of loving their job so much.

[2] My analysis on the torturer here is drawn from a point that the philosopher Immanuel Kant made about virtues -- namely, that in the wrong context of willing something, virtues function as vices.  For example, consider Pat, a cool-headed, intelligent person.  At first glance, it seems Pat has at least two virtues, but now also note that Pat is a robber.  Suddenly those virtues take on a new place in the morally despicable character of the person.

[3] Imagine that owner Carol contracts with banjoist Jeb to play bluegrass music at a local Okie honkytonk in 1933 for the minimum wage of 50 cents an hour, six hours a nite.  But in 2013 the same (now geezer) owner waves the original signed document and says "a deal's a deal,  Jeb!"  Here the extenuating grounds for unfairness are easy to identify, and should have consequences.


Monday, May 13, 2013

An Accidental Hearing

I found myself sitting in my study, with my college grading now completed, when to my surprise I heard the call of a mourning dove. I used to hear these calls all the time as a boy -- I lived near several woods -- but generally I'm just too busy with whatever projects to notice such a things.  The sound is still extraordinarily pleasing.  It's an apt reminder that I'm just too d@%* busy most of the time to hear what's worth listening to.