Saturday, November 7, 2009

Just some shit I made up

Rights. I love rights. Civil rights, human rights, animal rights. Gay rights, women's rights, patients' rights, consumers' rights. Rights are useful tools. But let's be honest: rights are just some shit we made up. Rights are an easy, deliberation-free way to trump potentially disastrous decisions, like, say, enslaving people. We made them up because they're useful to achieve something good.

But a lot of us think rights are real. People (and sometimes animals) have natural dignity, or inherent value, or some other shit we make up, just by being people (or animals) and we have to respect that magical feature of their existence. But the Universe doesn't care. Absent sentient beings to value themselves and other sentient beings there is no value, and absent people to take offense there is no dignity. Saying a person has inherent value just means we really don't like to hurt people. It isn't a metaphysical fact, a biological fact, another statistic like mass or density. The only measure of value is how valuable it is for someone.

Rights aren't the only shit we made up. Just about any exceptionless rule is a good candidate for made-up magical shit. "Lying is wrong." Sure, I can get behind that. You shouldn't usually lie. But why? Did we make that shit up? Either lying is just plain wrong and you'd better be honest when the Nazi asks you where the Jews are, or lying is only wrong for some reason. A reason like: because it usually hurts people. And if that's the case, it is the hurting people part that's bad — the lying is just how it happens sometimes. Which means that if lying, in a given case, actually helps people (like, say, those being targeted for genocide) it isn't, in fact, bad.

In the end, just about any moral rule boils down to if you do this, people usually get hurt. And that's great, we don't like to hurt people, so we should avoid it. But dogmatic adherence to these rules, this shit we make up to remind ourselves not to do the hurting thing that's actually bad, sometimes causes more bad stuff to happen. Personally, I think it is more important not to hurt people (or animals) than to let them get hurt because we thought the rules were more important than their reason.

But maybe I just made that shit up, too.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Reasonable disagreement

One of the hard parts about holding strong opinions is dodging dogma. You have to admit that there is room in any value-based viewpoint for reasonable disagreement. That doesn't mean anything goes, and it certainly doesn't mean that every opinion is equally justifiable. But there can be people who believe in broadly the same things but come to different conclusions.

For example, I think that a democratic socialist economy is the best way to secure my values of liberty, equality, and solidarity and to give everyone the best chance at a good life. More moderate social democrats and liberals have the same values, but they disagree on what those values need to look like in practice. It is a reasonable disagreement. We're on the same team, even if I think some things they advocate are misguided or even harmful.

Conservatives and libertarians, however, either have different values entirely or mean different things when they use the same words. From the point of view of a socialist, conservatives and libertarians are unreasonable. Their goals are different, their beliefs are different. I don't feel compelled to compromise with them; I want them to change their minds!

Of course this only applies in situations where the outcome of these issues affects all involved. Sports fans are as alien to my way of thinking as conservatives are, but their enjoyment of watching other people running around for hours doesn't affect me, so who am I to complain?

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Beyond right and wrong

There is a serious problem that moral philosophy faces, and until it is properly confronted the work of ethicists, no matter how interesting and illuminating, is doomed to ultimate failure. This problem goes by the unassuming name of moral realism.

Moral realism is the idea, which most of us hold by default, that there are moral facts that are true in the same way that, say, 2 + 2 = 5 is true. It means that saying "murder is wrong" is capable of being literally true or false (and obviously, it is usually said to be true). Most, though by no means all, moral philosophers are moral realists. They believe that while individuals may be mistaken about moral truths, these truths do exist waiting to be discovered through the philosophical endeavor and are glimpsed through our intuitions.

Even though I know it is the default, I am frankly astounded this is still considered to be a reasonable position by the bulk of active philosophers, whose collective intellect is admittedly vast. It only takes a moment's thought for anyone who understands evolution to see that moral realism must be an illusion — though disproving it using the methods of philosophy is a challenge.

If we evolved our moral intuitions over time from prosocial instincts that proved useful to our primate ancestors, how and when, exactly, did moral facts become real? It seems there are three possibilities.

1. God did it. Any serious philosopher has already rejected this joke of an answer.

2. Moral facts are features of the universe and always existed. Really? Before there were humans thinking about these things and acting morally, before moral choices were even an option, there were already concepts of right and wrong floating in the ether, waiting for humans to evolve and find them? This is as absurd as god's decree.

3. At some point, humans evolved morality and then these facts became real. This at least admits that humans are the genesis of morality. But it still seems rather silly that, if human minds create morality, it could be anything other than whatever human minds create — which means that moral truths can't be "out there" waiting to be discovered, because they can't exist until they are invented.

As it turns out, neuroscience shows where "moral truths" come from. When people are placed in an MRI machine and asked moral questions, they give two kinds of answers. First are intuitive answers about things that are "just plain wrong." These are quick emotional responses or gut feelings, and they are remarkably consistent among various people and light up emotional regions of the brain. Second, for complicated or unfamiliar situations, there are cognitive responses based on thinking through the problem that light up the general thinking parts of the brain. What's interesting, however, is that when people's answers to questions go against the typical moral intuition, they do so by cognitive reasoning, not by having different intuitions.

Through what is no doubt an astounding coincidence, the emotional gut feeling responses magically map onto the rules, rights, and duties that the various systems of deontological (that is, duty-based) ethics require, regardless of the convoluted logical reasons those systems contain. It's almost as if these moral philosophers just decided that their gut reactions are moral facts and invented a justification for them. My tongue is firmly in cheek, of course: it is obvious that this is precisely what they did. Some plainly admit it, others genuinely believe they derived these facts independently.

Equally unsurprising is that when people use their cognitive reasoning to find answers to moral dilemmas, they tend to be consequentialist answers. They override the "rules" and look at the consequences of the acts in question, then choose the act with the best outcome. Nearly everyone agrees with consequentialism to an extent, or in certain cases. We all want to do what's best for people, we just restrain that impulse when our intuition tells us otherwise.

Deontologists have to account for the fact that our intuitions are inconsistent. They evolved as convenient mental shortcuts to problems faced by our ancestors over millions of years, and they aren't necessarily suited to the situations we find ourselves in today. As a result, deontologists find themselves invented ever more complicated addenda to their rules, so we get things like "Do not kill, unless a greater good would result from the killing, you do not intend the death of the victim even if it is a foreseeable consequence, and the killing is the result of merely redirecting an already existing threat onto a person previously unthreatened." All this because our ancestors had no indirect ways of killing each other, so we have a evolutionarily useful intuition against "personal" killing, even for a good reason like saving more lives, but not against "impersonal" killing for the same reason. Our mind knows five deaths are worse than one death, but the rightness or wrongness of that depends on how the deaths happen. An arbitrary accident of evolution is promoted to a moral fact by deontological philosophers.

Saying something is "wrong" is not saying that there is a fact that this something is wrong, no matter how much we feel like it is the case. Our feeling, even our overwhelming "it just plain is" kind of feeling, is nothing more than an instinct, and that it applies to some situations in the modern world and not to others is arbitrary, except for in the sense that we can pretty well see the non-arbitrary reason it arose in the first place.

Following Joshua Greene, I think in recognizing this we should do away with "right" and "wrong" in their moral senses. I also agree that we should do away with being for and against things without having reasons beyond gut feelings and prehistoric intuitions. Instead of saying "torture is wrong," we should say "I am opposed to torture because..." and give our reasons. Different people will find different reasons compelling, but only by airing them can we hope for at least some consensus. Saying various things are just plain wrong, when we disagree about those things, gets us nowhere.

It's obvious why philosophers are hesitant to do away with moral realism. Aside from the air of authority moral truths bring, they fear that without real moral truths we would descend into nihilism or moral relativism.

I don't think this is the case. I think that morality is both subjective (as opposed to objective as the realists have it) and universal (as opposed to relative). That is, while it is true that making a moral judgment is in a sense just giving my opinion, it doesn't follow that I should then accept other people's opinions as valid and shrug my shoulders when we disagree. It is my opinion that everyone should agree with me, after all. What antirealist morality leads to is not relativism but a world in which moral disputes are settled through argument and evidence rather than claiming to have all the answers.

And now comes another part that a great number of moral realists also fear: I tend to further agree with Greene that when you strip away prehistoric gut feelings and start basing your moral judgments on evidence, you are naturally led to utilitarianism, or at least some form of consequentialism. I have fairly recently stated opposition to consequentialism because this is a conclusion that I've tried to fight intellectually for some time (literally years, at this point). After all, consequentialism occasionally leads to counterintuitively wrong outcomes. Nobody wants to be thought a monster. But if we accept as we must that there is no real "right" and "wrong," if we accept that intuitively correct outcomes are often arbitrary, all without rejecting our empathy with beings living lives that fare well or ill for them, we find ourselves simply wanting to make those lives go as well as we can.

That doesn't mean consequentialism is right (because, objectively, nothing is), but it does mean that consequentialism is almost certainly the inevitable remainder of morality once we are freed from our evolutionary baggage. Consequentialism should be seen then as a goal, but we needn't beat ourselves up if we fail to adhere to bringing about the best consequences in absolutely all cases. It isn't "right." It isn't our "duty." We are animals and will often find our instincts guiding our choices. But consequentialism is making everyone as well as they can be, and that's surely something we can strive for.

Monday, October 12, 2009

A minimum utopia

1. Election reform. All single-seat elections should be held by instant-runoff vote. All multi-seat elections should be held by single-transferrable vote. Consider multi-seat elections for the House and Senate.

2. Referendum, initiative, and recall. Any legislative body should be able to put proposed legislation to the people for direct vote. The people should be able to propose legislation directly. Any elected official should be able to be removed from office. Each of these must, obviously, have some procedural system in place as far as quotas needed to achieve them.

3. Modify the Senate. Reorganize the Senate proportionally by state populations. Rather than have Senators serve indefinitely in six-year terms, have them serve only a single twelve-year term. The Senate can remain the "upper" house where more experienced legislators are able to temper the relative madness of the House, but it should not be a place where a few dozen men rule for life. The Senate should be thought of as a politician's final duty, where they go when they are ready for serious service without worry of reelection.

4. Depersonalize the presidency. Celebrity presidents are exciting but polarizing. The presidency should not be a glamorous job, it should be an administrative job. Replace the single president with a seven-person Executive Council, such that there may be divergent views held and voiced in the executive branch, but with the ability to settle them easily by vote.

5. Single-payer health care. This is so obvious that anyone who disagrees is plainly insane. And stupid. And an asshole.

6. Workplace democracy. End the concept of working for another person, and replace it with the mandate that we work with each other. All non-family businesses must be run democratically, one person, one vote. This doesn't need to apply to day to day management, but it certainly applies to hiring and firing the people who will do that management. Replace boards of directors chosen by stockholders with those elected by employees. Make all decisions regarding the fate of profit (which rightfully belongs to the people who earned it) democratically decided, such that if there is inequality in income among different employees it exists for reasons acceptable to a majority of those people, whatever they might be.

7. Social control of investment. This one is by far the one least likely to ever come to pass, even above reorganizing the Senate and presidency. Abolish Wall Street. Use David Schweickart's model of Economic Democracy instead: public banks give firms grants rather than loans, and the firms' capital assets are taxed to replenish the supply of investment money which is distributed back to the banks on a regional per capita basis. The public banks can have criteria for giving grants other than mere profitability, such as job-creation and environmental security. While private investment may (or may not) still exist, require that privately-held companies can only be sold to the government, who then convert them into democratic firms with public funding.

8. Government as employer of last resort. Establish a right to a job, and if the private sector can't find one for you, the public sector will. There are roads that need maintaining, parks that need cleaning, and a never-ending stream of other projects that could certainly use a few million presently-unemployed people.

9. Strong climate protection. Short term losses are worth it. The GDP won't matter when you're underwater or in famine. Commit to 350 ppm of atmospheric carbon dioxide. Forget cap-and-trade, levy a straight-up carbon tax and redistribute the proceeds to everyone.



Look, I know I don't have a billion readers, so apologizing for not posting in a month and a half is almost unnecessary. But there are people who like to hear what I have to say, and if some small fraction of you have missed me, I'm sorry.

Monday, August 24, 2009

American mercy

While I know he and I share a relatively similar viewpoint, I don't generally turn to Charlie Stross's blog for political insight. He's a science fiction writer — and one of the best, if you ask me. I had the pleasure of sitting at the far end of a table of more than twenty for lunch with him when he was in Austin in 2005. So by "lunch with him" I mean essentially that I was in the same room.

In any case, he has written one of the finest blog posts on both the release of Abdelbaset Al Megrahi and, believe it or not, American health care reform I've read. Seriously, read it.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Abolitionists against health care reform

Pretend I am still an abolitionist …


All people should have a right to adequate health care.

Respecting this right, morally or legally, demands that we abolish the commodity status of health care. Health care is not something that should be bought and sold on the market, but a right afforded all people, free at the point of delivery, simply out of respect for their dignity as people.

Because health care should be a right, I cannot support any measure that doesn't treat it as such. Supporting any mere health care reform is to reinforce the commodity status of health care so long as that reform continues to allow health care services to be sold on even the most highly regulated market. We can't focus on how people are treated by the health care industry. It's not how people are treated that is wrong, but that their right isn't being respected.

I am totally against the so-called "public option" in health care reform. I know that it will allow a lot of people to gain access to health insurance, but it does not respect people's right to health care. I would be reinforcing the commodity status of health care by supporting a measure that doesn't respect that right. Furthermore, instituting a public insurance option would allow those who have health insurance to feel better about denying a right to health care because it will give the illusion of consideration for the uninsured by allowing some of them to purchase relatively inexpensive government insurance. This will just prolong the struggle to achieve the right to health care. I'm not against individuals helping to pay for uninsured folks' health services if they wish, but I can't support any institutionalized aid to these people. Because that's different.

I am also entirely against "single-payer" health insurance provided by the government. Even though this would provide universal coverage to all American citizens, it still wouldn't recognize a fundamental right to heath care. Providers of health services would still be selling those services on a market. We must only focus on the commodity status of care, not merely how people are treated while their rights are denied. I oppose any kind of "happy insurance."

As painful as it may be, it would be better for those without insurance to continue to suffer exorbitant health care expenses and to lack access to certain services because this will force those who have insurance to see the horrific cost of not respecting the right to health care. I oppose all consequentialist appeals to the suffering of those people, because a true commitment to rights demands that I not support anything that doesn't respect those rights. Call it "being divisive" if you want, but anybody supporting the so-called "public option" is not an ally but an opponent of the real health care movement in which demanding a right to health care is the moral baseline. The only acceptable solution is to build a movement that can grow to a majority demanding the right to health care.

Nevertheless, there may be some incremental reforms that I could support. Perhaps we could start by nationalizing dentistry.


For the uninitiated, abolitionists are a faction of the animal liberation movement that believes that the abolition of the property status of animals is the only goal that should be sought by that movement. Abolitionists oppose all reforms aimed at improving the welfare of animals, because they won't lead to abolition, they will reinforce the property status of animals, and they will encourage expanded exploitation because they clear people's consciences.

I suspect there are abolitionists who can agree with my satirical argument as if it were straight. If so, they live in a world where personal moral purity takes priority over doing the best you can with what you've got. That's not my world.

Friday, August 14, 2009


Forget all the other deather nonsense for a second. It's hard, I know. But do it.

Withholding health care from old people is not euthanasia. Nazis killing Jews in concentration camps is not euthanasia. For that matter, killing unwanted but healthy dogs and cats is not euthanasia.

Euthanasia is killing in the deceased's actual best interests. A dog that has been hit by a car, suffers unimaginable pain, and faces a few days of agony before dying can be euthanized if she is killed to relieve her suffering. The soldier on the battlefield, shot in the liver and bleeding out, can be euthanized with an extra shot of morphine. And yes, terminal patients who ask for it can be euthanized through so-called "assisted suicide."

Grandma dying from not getting dialysis because it isn't economical isn't euthanasia, it's just plain murder.

So if Republicans and other various assholes want to accuse Democrats of wanting to straight-up murder people, go for it. Good luck with that. But don't call it euthanasia. Next time real euthanasia is called for to legitimately relieve suffering, the concept will be tainted beyond recognition.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Obama and the socialists

Let's ignore for a moment that, for his entire presidential run, opponents of Barack Obama called him a socialist and now they call him a Nazi, two ideological positions that are literally on opposite ends of the political spectrum. Since such people are still also claiming "Obamacare" will turn the United States into "Russia" or "a socialized state," I think we ought to take a moment and think about the relationship between Obama (and other Democrats) and socialism.

I will here refute the claim that any Democrats are socialists. I also make the claim that Democrats (and indeed, everyone else) should become socialists, because socialism is good.

First, it's important to be clear: socialism does not mean "state run." The police are entirely state run, but nobody is complaining about "socialized police." The military is totally state run; no sane conservatives want to privatize the Marine Corps. Socialism is an economic concept that doesn't necessarily have anything to do with government at all.

Socialism has been many things over the years, but in all of its modern forms it stems from the basic observation that under capitalism, workers do not get the product of their labor. The product is owned by someone else, who then pays some fraction of the money made off of it back to the people who actually made (or did, in the case of services) it.

The one thing all serious forms of socialism have in common is the idea that people ought not to work "for" someone else, but may work "with" them. An absolute minimal socialist position would require worker, community, or state ownership of productive enterprises. In modern democratic countries, that is typically expressed as nationalizing the major industries and monopolies for the benefit of all, and switching smaller companies to worker-owned co-ops for the benefit of the workers. Again, this is pretty much a minimal requirement for socialism. It has nothing to do directly with universal health care or social welfare programs, or anything but workers controlling the product of their work rather than absent owners or stockholders who contribute nothing but permission to use their property. Socialist businesses may operate in a market, but the profit goes to the workers or to the public (depending on the system). It does not go to private investors or CEOs.

So we can see that no Democrat has ever proposed anything resembling a socialist proposal in Congress, on the topic of health care or anything else. There are no bills calling for the abolition of private capital investment banks, no opposition to the stock market. I have never heard the words "surplus value" uttered on the Senate floor. There are actually Democrats who are members of the Democratic Socialists of America, but they've never proposed anything exclusively socialist so it matters little.

"Socialist" health care would be more than a public option. "Socialist" health care would be more even than a single-payer system. "Socialist" health care would require that all hospitals, pharmacies, pharmaceutical companies, and other medical enterprises be owned by the state, the community they reside in, or even the very doctors, nurses, and other staff who work at them. Such enterprises would distribute all "profits" to the people who earned them, rather than to stockholders and executives. It would be a fully public system provided to all residents free at the point of delivery, not public insurance, and certainly not optional public insurance.

Even in a "best case" outcome of the current health care debate we are left with a system in which private insurance corporations inject themselves as parasites. Think about it for a second: private insurance doesn't actually do anything to earn its profit. Just as investors in corporations don't do anything to earn interest, nor do landlords do anything to earn their rents. Capitalism allows a class of people to earn money simply by making money available — it gives people money for nothing more than the privilege of already having enough money to spare. We don't need insurance. We need medical care, and there is no reason we can't collectively provide it for ourselves without middlemen. That's socialism.

Monday, August 3, 2009

The burden of proof

It is uncontroversial that nonhuman animals can suffer. Anyone who has ever stepped on a pet's tail knows that animals can be hurt. It should be equally uncontroversial that we ought not cause unnecessary suffering to any animal, human or otherwise.

We can all admit this, carnivore and herbivore alike, without specifying what constitutes necessary suffering. Even many committed vegans will say that there are necessary forms of suffering, such as that caused through self-defense. But the default position must obviously be not to cause suffering unless it is necessary.

The burden of proof clearly falls on those who are causing suffering. If you eat eggs, the burden of proof falls on you to justify the necessity of eating eggs that outweighs the suffering inflicted on egg-laying chickens. If you enjoy horse racing, the burden of proof falls on you to justify the necessity of horse racing that outweighs the suffering inflicted on racing horses.

Note that this argument is utterly independent of any claims for animal rights, though it is certainly compatible with them. This is merely a basic consequence of the commonsense notion that animals have a welfare that ought not be ignored for any but the most necessary reasons. Those reasons may exist, but they certainly do not in the case of any customary use of animals for food, clothing, or entertainment.

Sunday, August 2, 2009


I am an atheist. Atheist, from a- "without" and theos "a god." Without a god. I am godless.

I am not merely agnostic. I think the nonexistence of gods can be known to the same degree of certainty as the nonexistence of centaurs or fairies or any other creatures of fable and myth. In each case, no matter the fervent desire of believers, the evidence is nil. We needn't honor the belief in things without (and against) evidence by labelling it with the comforting word faith; the more accurate word is gullibility.

I am not merely nonreligious. It is true I think religion strips the rich meaning people can give to their lives and replaces it with hours of wasted praise and prayer and devotion to injustice. It is certainly true I think immersion in religion ruins young minds and leads to embrace of the irrational, from creationism to global warming denial to the belief that people who believe differently deserve damnation. But my opposition to religion is the result, not the cause, of my godlessness.

I am not merely spiritual. I reject all supernatural explanations of reality and all beliefs in magic. I have no soul, and neither do you. There is no life-force. There is no qi. The universe is not god. There are no spiritual beings, no out-of-body-experiences, and the bright tunnel of light is what the misfiring of an oxygen-starved brain feels like. Nobody can read minds. Nobody can see the future. Nobody can bend spoons with thought. Nobody can heal with their hands. Nobody can cast spells.

There are no such things as ghosts.

This is it. Look around you. Clench your fists. There is matter and energy embedded in the quantum foam of spacetime, there is blood pumping through your veins, a sloppy biological primate brain shooting electrochemical signals through synapses flooded with neurotransmitters.

This is it.

A world without god is not hypothetical: we're in it now. Only we can make it a good one.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

I love this

Barack Obama says that police "acted stupidly" and gets raked over the coals for calling the Boston police department stupid. Boston police officer Justin Barrett says Henry Gates acted like a "banana-eating jungle monkey" and that in acting like a banana-eating jungle monkey he should have been pepper-sprayed. His lawyer's defense? Barrett didn't say Gates was a banana-eating jungle monkey, only that he acted like a banana-eating jungle monkey.

Look, everyone, if you say someone acted in some way, unless you append that with a disclaimer, people are going to assume you mean that's how they are. If what is probably an otherwise smart person acted stupidly, throw in an "I'm not saying the Boston police are stupid, but in this case they seem to have acted that way."

Of course, that doesn't really work for Barrett. Saying "While I know he is fact a well-respected professor, in this single instance Gates acted like a banana-eating jungle monkey" doesn't make it any less racist.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Two insanities

First, in "post-racial America," a doctor thought a picture of Barack Obama as a bone-through-the-nose witch doctor would be an amusing and uncontroversial satire because, see, he had worked with black Boy Scouts this one time:

Then a proud Medicare recipient writes a letter to the editor vehemently opposing public health care:

I really don't have anything to add to these. Enjoy.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Peephole tapes and tribal society

Erin Andrews, a reporter for ESPN, was filmed without her permission through some sort of hotel room peephole and the footage inevitably appeared on the Web. The peephole tape obviously raises all sorts of issues about privacy and sex, and most of the attention has been focused on the widespread objectification of Andrews among sports fans and others.

I wonder if part of the problem with these sorts of sexual privacy breeches is not our over-sexed media culture, but our prudishness? I'm not speaking individually here — without question individuals have a right to privacy that extends to their bodies. But as a culture, we can barely accept the likes of breastfeeding in public because female nipples are so secreted away that the mere thought of them is sexualized by enough people to make it an issue.

At this point, it is fairly incontrovertible among the sane that prohibition fails. When you make something illegal (or inaccessible) you increase the desire to get it, and increase the thrill of trying. If nudity were just a part of public life — not in the service of advertising or for porn, just something one sees regularly — wouldn't the reward for "catching" someone naked diminish? Put another way: do you think that members of tribal society who wear little clothing find the mere sight of a naked person shocking and arousing? Are they constantly in a state of sexual frustration because of all the bodies on display? I suspect not. But the example of these mostly-nude societies demonstrates that attitudes towards the display of the body are malleable.

Unfortunately, I can't think of any feasible way to demystify nudity. It's something that just has to happen naturally, I suppose. But if it did, not only would it reduce the demand for privacy invasion, it would reduce the damage done by whatever tom-peepery still occurred.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Public system, private option

When I have CNN on for background noise, as I've been known to do, I always find myself catching those anti-public option health care commercials. You know the ones I'm talking about. They are usually paid for by Conservatives for Patients Rights and talk about "government bureaucrats" coming between you and your doctor. Yet, strangely, they don't mention the health insurance companies coming between you and your doctor. It's almost like these conservatives are a proxy for those companies or something. I would have never guessed such a thing was poss — bwahaha! OK, I couldn't keep a straight face anymore.

I still find myself in shock when conservative pundits talk about how a public option for health care is going to hurt people because these beneficent health insurance companies (operating in the magical free market that is supposed to optimize prices) won't be able to compete with the federal government. These are the same conservatives who say the government can't even find a cheap way out of a wet paper bag, but somehow, for health care, they will be lean and efficient.

I am against a public option. What I want is a public system with a private option. I want everyone (even them darned illegals) to have free health care automatically, with the option to get super-duper insurance if you want it — but since "health care" includes everything required for health, there wouldn't be anything left to super-duper insure.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Practical ethics

I read philosophy and political philosophy for at least an hour a day. I'm not kidding. In addition to books and the invaluable Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, I often run Google searches for terms or people of interest with "filetype:pdf" so I can read all of the papers, articles, and dissertations available online. One day it'll be "responsibility-catering prioritarianism." The next it'll be "Philippa Foot." I read a lot.

The biggest lesson I've learned is that most ethical models make a lot of sense, while simultaneously being subject to compromising flaws. Utilitarianism and other forms of consequentialism capture something that almost everyone intuitively agrees with: you should do what's best. Kant and other deontological theorists capture another something almost everyone agrees with: we have duties to one another beyond the "greatest good." Contractualism, be it Rawlsian or Scanlonian, is built on the insight that we are social beings and must justify our actions to one another. The various species of virtue ethics confront the question that we've all asked ourselves: how do I be a good person? Even so-called "ethical" egoism arises from an innocuous premise that we seek our own well-being.

But none of these theories is compatible with each other absent tremendous mental acrobatics. For that matter, various varieties within each theory aren't compatible with each other. Peter Singer and Brad Hooker are both consequentialists, but their accounts of what we ought to do are incredibly different.

On top of all that, biologists and psychologists are uncovering the evolutionary history of morality. There really seems to be a moral instinct, derived from the psychological needs of social great apes such as humans. We have instinctive urges to, say, not harm each other under normal circumstances, to reciprocate when someone helps us, to help others, and so on.

It seems to me that the major moral theories are constructed by instinctively feeling one of these urges and running with it to the exclusion of all the others. Utilitarians feel the instinct to promote the general welfare and declare the general welfare is the supreme good — all the other instincts either service this good or are mistaken. Contractualists feel the instinct to reciprocate and declare mutual agreement the basis for morality — the general welfare is merely a side effect.

The reason most people don't give philosophy much thought is precisely because most people just go with their gut. We all have a commonsense morality already, and while it can be led astray by experience and culture (see also: the evil of religion), it's good enough most of the time without resorting the lexical rules and utilitarian calculus and so on. Obviously, I wouldn't spend so much of my free time reading about this stuff if I didn't find it both interesting and important, but it must be put into perspective.

As it turns out, there is already a moral theory that does a fairly credible job of capturing all of our instincts and even our decision-making process. Unfortunately, it is general enough that, while influential, it is largely rejected by professionals in ethics. This is the pluralistic intuitionism of WD Ross.

Ross holds that there are prima facie duties that we have towards others. If there is only one duty in a situation, it is our duty proper and we ought to do it. If there are more than one duty in a situation, the more stringent becomes our duty proper that we ought to do. What makes Ross's duties different from, say, Kantian duties, is that Ross makes no claim to an overarching principle from which duties can be derived and identified. Ross says that prima facie duties are just self-evident, and deciding between them is done simply through the application of moral judgment. Duties are reasons that inform our actions; they are the justifications we might use to explain why we think what we did was right. To Ross, a moral theory should fit the facts as they are, even if it isn't a tidy little package. He compares ignoring our (fully-considered, reflective) intuitions because they conflict with a specific moral theory to refusing to enjoy something beautiful because it conflicts with some theory of aesthetics.

You can see why philosophers aren't happy to embrace this idea.

But one has to see the parallel between prima facie duties and moral instincts. Ross's canonical list of duties (he says there may be more) includes: fidelity, reparation, gratitude, non-maleficence, justice, beneficence, and self-improvement. These are, remarkably, pretty much the sorts of things one would expect to evolve as aids to group cohesion among a young species of big-headed apes.

I think that Ross, ultimately, is right. I disagree with him that morality is part of the "fundamental nature of the universe" in the way that geometry is, but in terms of what morality is on the ground, I think that the idea of potentially conflicting prima facie duties that are resolved by making a judgment call is correct.

That doesn't mean I think utilitarians and deontologists and the rest are wasting their time. To the contrary! I think what they do is crucial in unpacking our moral judgments, and I think studying them is part of the duty to self-improvement — the instinct the virtue ethicists latched onto and ran with. It is only by understanding how and why we make choices that we can make them well.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Scientists and animals

The Pew Research Center has a report on the public's view of science, which includes comparisons between the public's and scientists' views on various issues such as politics, religion, climate change, and evolution. It's fascinating reading, and it's interesting to me that when asked which groups contribute "a lot" to society's well-being, scientists are rated above doctors, engineers, and clergy, below only teachers and members of the military.

Examining my own beliefs, I find myself, in cases where opinion differs significantly between the public and scientists, agreeing with the scientists in every single case but one: nonhuman animal experimentation. While only 52% of the public supports the use of animals in scientific research, a whopping 93% of scientists support this use. Why?

I've got a few ideas.

First, some proportion of scientists are obviously the ones doing the research, so it would be rather unlikely they oppose it. But even among those who aren't, I've noticed a certain camaraderie among scientists, and a general sense that each discipline tends to trust the other disciplines to know what they're doing. So while not every scientist experiments on animals by a long shot, they assume that those biologists and others who do are doing so for a good reason.

Second, and this is pure guesswork, I would imagine scientists tend towards a vague utilitarianism as a moral philosophy to a greater extent than the general public. This makes sense, as utilitarianism is a very logical and attractive stance on the surface. Scientists tend to avoid the religion-based morality that a large portion of the public follows. In seeking to maximize the aggregate good, utilitarianism removes hard rules that might seem arbitrary or even based in religious-thinking. If scientists are convinced of the import of animal research, then it makes a certain utilitarian sense to sacrifice these animals for the greater good.

Ironically, it is science that leads me to oppose the use of animals in scientific research. Science has consistently demonstrated the capacity of many animals to suffer. That animals are similar to us is in fact the essential basis of most biomedical research. The only question is: can causing suffering be justified?

Without applying my own moral reasoning to the question, I want to point out that there is good reason to reject the use of animals in research following from two simple axioms that I would think most people share:

We ought not to cause preventable suffering.
We ought to treat like cases alike.

Animal researchers claim that animal experimentation is necessary because it allows important, often lifesaving medical progress. I am not the sort of animal rightist who is going to deny that animal research achieves these goals. Scientists know better than I do the implications and results of their research. But I will deny that this fact alone makes the research justifiable.

Suppose that, for some reason, animals were unavailable for research. Would any animal researcher then support using orphaned, severely mentally-disabled children for necessary medical research? I am not trying to be ridiculous here, my example is very specific — the children are orphaned, so there is nobody else affected by any decision; they are mentally-disabled and so will not ever be autonomous and capable of consent in the sense that adult humans are. Given that humans are animals, these children are similar to animals used in research in every way that could be morally significant.

I think using these children in research would still be wrong, because they are still due respectful treatment which, at the very least, entails not causing them suffering and not killing them. I am certain that most scientists would agree that we should not use these children, no matter how necessary the research in question. So how do they justify using animals? If we treat like cases alike, and there is no morally significant sense in which these children and animals are not alike, then we must treat them equally.

The only difference between animals and humans of comparable mental development is species membership. And drawing moral lines based on a classification scheme, rather than on the actual characteristics of the things being compared, is arbitrary and irrational. Parsimony suggests that if two animals are similar in mental capacity and ability to suffer, we ought to treat them similarly, and the fact that one is a member of Homo sapiens is irrelevant. The good that might come from harming any of these animals cannot be used to justify their suffering.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

One more bit on libertarianism

An often overlooked feature of libtertarianism, stemming from the principles of self-ownership, absolute property rights, and a free-market, is that people in Libertopia can legally sell themselves into slavery. Robert Nozick, super-libertarian philosopher, thinks this is as it should be. One of my favorite illustrations of the idiocy of libertarianism comes from Thomas Pogge:
The following trialogue is then a realistic scenario within Nozick's libertarian society. A police officer comes upon a couple struggling with each other, the man [a doctor] evidently trying to rape the woman.

Woman: Please, sir, please help me.

Officer (to Man): Hey, you, let her go at once!

Man: Don't get involved.

Officer: I must. You are violating this woman's right not to be assaulted.

Man: No, I'm not. She is my slave. Here are the papers, signed by herself.

Woman: But I was coerced into signing. He said he would not treat my father [for a deadly medical condition] if I refused to sign.

Officer: That's not coercion but at most duress. He was at liberty not to treat your father or to ask compensation for treating him.

Woman: But my father is dead!

Man: The contract says only that I would try to save him, and I did.

Officer (to Woman): I'm sorry, ma'am, but I cannot help you.

Man: But you could help me in forcing her to fulfill her contractual obligations. She has already scratched me. See if you can tie her hands.

(Officer ties Woman's hands, she screams for help as she is being raped. ...)

Man (to Officer): I'm glad the police are protecting citizens' rights. Isn't she great? My sons will have lots of fun with her when I bring her home.
I'm not saying this would happen in a libertarian society, of course. Maybe people would be more reluctant to sell themselves into slavery, even if they were destitute and desperate. Maybe slaveowners wouldn't be particularly cruel to their human property. All I'm saying is, from the point of view of libertarianism, this is the fair and deserved result of self-ownership and free-market transactions. This is libertarian justice.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Calling bullshit on Bullshit!

I was watching some Penn & Teller: Bullshit! yesterday. I like Penn and Teller. I liked their show in Las Vegas. I enjoy Bullshit! But there's always that point in nearly every episode (and in some cases, for whole episodes) where Penn starts blathering on about some insane libertarian nonsense. So I'm calling bullshit on Bullshit! — at least the libertarian parts.

The problem with libertarianism is in its impoverished and wholly inconsistent definition of liberty. Liberty is one of my personal key values. I understand liberty as substantive freedom to do what one wants to do. Liberty is, in other words, the ability to live the kind of life one wants to live.

But libertarians have a much narrower definition of liberty: freedom from coercion. This manifests itself most commonly in their frothy-mouthed hatred of laws, taxes, and government. But only sometimes.

Libertarians absolutely love for the government to coerce people with laws and force them into not touching their property. And that brings us to the first great heap of libertarian bullshit: property itself is the greatest infringement upon liberty in the world. If a book is my property, I am restricting the liberty of a full 6.7 billion people to read it. Even if I'm not reading it myself. Even if it's just sitting in a closet. No other person has any liberty to read my book, period.

I don't think property is bad or wrong, but I also don't fetishize it. Property is a social norm, something we invented and that only exists because we collectively continue to agree to recognize it. But libertarians can't admit that, because that opens up the possibility that we could invent and collectively agree to recognize all sort of other ideas they hate, like egalitarian access to wealth or (shudder) socialized medicine! So libertarians have invented their own property mythology, involving a magical empty planet where rugged individualists carve up everything among themselves which magically gives them the right to whatever they grabbed and all redistributions that follow happen through the magic of fair and mutually beneficial exchanges. So if you're poor, it's because you're weak and/or stupid — and that's OK. It's a whole lot of magic, even for magicians.

This brings us to the second great heap of libertarian bullshit: they only recognize increasing or decreasing liberty when it's their own. This was evident in Penn and Teller's episode on the Americans with Disabilities Act, which horribly, horribly coerces commercial property owners to give access to disabled people. This mandate leaves no room for compassion, they say.

Libertarians pretend to want to maximize liberty, but they don't. They are willing to accept the idea that governments coercing the recognition of property rights (and therefore reducing liberty) increases liberty, but unable to accept that governments coercing things like accessibility also increases liberty — the liberty of disabled people to live the lives they want to live. "Waaah, wahhh," whines Penn, "it'll cost a bunch of taxpayers' money!" But he also says the state should stick to courts, police, defense, and corruption. These are things that cost the taxpayers, so he isn't opposed to taxation (that is, coercion) for things he believes in. He's just opposed to taxation for things he doesn't believe in.

Penn also breaks out the tired old chestnut that if a store, say, doesn't provide disabled access it will lose customers to those that do. Which brings us to great libertarian bullshit-heap number three: they think free markets just work on their own. Note that he talks about this market correction shortly after mentioning that the number of people who really need disabled access is around 5 million out of the 300 million people in the country. The idea that any reasonable proportion of store owners is going to voluntarily retrofit their property at any expense to attract the 1.6% of potential customers who might need it is absurd.

And indeed, if the market truly catered to disabled people, we wouldn't have needed the Americans with Disabilities Act in the first place. We had centuries to let market forces work their invisible hand magic. But libertarians don't care about that. It is more important for a libertarian to not infringe upon property rights than to allow everyone fair access (or liberty) to the basic privileges of life, such as mobility and community. It doesn't matter than the government and society as a whole establishes the rules for the marketplace and therefore is perfectly justified in making requirements for participating in it. Property is sacred and markets always work.

Penn and Teller's dumbfuck market fundamentalism also came into full effect in their episode on Wal-Mart. They had plenty of valid criticisms of the anti-Wal-Mart movement, most notably when they pointed out the disgusting elitism and classism of some supporters. But then they pulled the wool over our eyes.

They discussed Penn's home town, which fought off a Wal-Mart but found itself sucked dry as people commuted to nearby towns to patronize their Wal-Marts. The Penn and Teller solution: build the Wal-Mart, since people obviously want it. My solution: don't let Wal-Mart artificially lower prices so that any competition is fair. They interview a Wal-Mart employee who is thankful for the store and her wage. And of course she is. As she revealingly says, she needed the money and it was the only job she could find. Libertarians love to pretend that employment is free and fair. Nobody is coerced into taking any given job and everyone involved benefits.

But coercion doesn't only come from people or laws. Necessity coerces countless people into doing all sorts of things they wouldn't otherwise. The idea that an employer like Wal-Mart (2009 revenue: $404 billion) and an unemployed person facing the potential for homelessness and starvation come to the bargaining table on fair terms is bullshit. Yes, the employee will accept very low wages. That doesn't mean they weren't coerced. They lacked the liberty to choose their employment and even to negotiate their wage. Fucking idiot libertarians complain when the government takes 25% of their paycheck, but didn't complain when their company's owner took 60% of the money they made the company before even writing the check — because markets always work, the company is the owner's property, and they made a fair contract.

Libertarians just don't seem to get why society exists: mutual advantage. People are better off working together, in both the evolutionary sense and in the modern world. To a libertarian, the mutual part of mutual advantage is utterly lost. By privileging a narrow and wildly inconsistent form of liberty and property above all other values, they skew the idea of society into something that doesn't operate for mutual advantage, but for the wealth of the strong, smart, or lucky. And wealth is just a token for liberty to do the things it buys, so the result of libertarianism is the reduction of liberty for the masses and the ability for the few to do virtually anything they want. Wealth inequality is liberty inequality — a true libertarian would be, wait for it, a socialist.

So libertarianism is bullshit. Penn and Teller should stick to Jesus and colonics. I'll be watching, anyway.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Reclaiming "vegetarian"

Why did vegans need to invent a new word when we already had vegetarian?

Elise Shrigley and Donald Watson coined the word vegan in 1944 as "the beginning and end of vegetarian." They had grown frustrated with the fact that vegetarians consumed milk, and founded the Vegan Society to promote "true" vegetarianism, or veganism. A much-loved vegan t-shirt has the word veg(etari)an with the center letters blocked off and a pair of scissors. It reads: cut the crap.

But a funny thing has happened since that time. It is now commonplace to see consumers of milk and eggs to refer to themselves as lacto-, ovo-, or lacto-ovo vegetarians. Implicit in this labeling is the idea that milk and eggs are additions to vegetarianism, which should by default exclude them.

Now it is true that most vegetarians are equally comfortable leaving off such modifiers, confident that the general public knows that vegetarians consume milk and eggs. I do not wish to imply that in contemporary usage vegetarian and vegan are synonyms. My point is the fact these modifiers exist suggests something about the intuition we have concerning the word vegetarian — it ought to mean one who consumes, if not only vegetables, than vegetation broadly construed.

This intuition is why, I suspect, lacto-ovo vegetarians and vegans tend to see each other as being broadly "on the same side" opposed to meat-eaters, sometimes even applying the all-inclusive veg*n label to themselves. But why should this be the case? Lacto-ovo vegetarians are allied with meat-eaters in a way that vegans aren't. Vegans, in rejecting all consumption of animal products, are fundamentally rejecting the use of animals, not merely their suffering (or if done on grounds of eliminating suffering, vegans are at least suggesting there is no practical way to use an animal without causing some level of avoidable suffering). Lacto-ovo vegetarians and meat-eaters, by using animals for food, are in full agreement that animals are resources that can be exploited. Where they differ is in which exploitations are acceptable.

Milk and egg production is often the most cruel use of animals. Meat animals, at least, are generally put out of their misery fairly early in their lives. Milk and egg animals are confined to a much greater extent for extraction, repeatedly impregnated, have their offspring taken away, and ultimately most end up being killed prematurely when they are spent. This is on top of their male offspring being killed as useless to the milk and egg production line.

It is ironic that, if one accepts using animals for food but merely wants to choose the least suffering-inducing use, it might make more sense to eat the meat and cut out the milk and eggs. I dare say "ethical" lacto-ovo vegetarians have it backward.

But of course no use of animals is actually without suffering, and there is fundamentally no moral right to exploit animals for our purposes anyway, given their own basic interests in pursing lives of their own. At least we can say lacto-ovo vegetarians are thinking about these issues and doing what they believe is sufficient, even if they are mistaken.

The title of this post refers to the idea that veganism was meant to be a sort of "back to basics" vegetarianism, and ultimately the "lacto-ovo" phenomenon proves that people unconsciously recognize the contradiction in a vegetarian using animals for food, whether meat or not. So I was wondering what sort of traction a veg*n movement might get in actually trying to promote vegetarianism as veganism, and suggesting that lacto-ovo vegetarians are more like so-called "pesco-vegetarians:" a contradiction in terms.

After I thought about these things, I happened to spot one of PETA's Vegetarian Starter Kits at Spiral Diner. Having never actually looked at one, I picked one up and checked it out. One of my most persistent problems with PETA has been their use of "go vegetarian" or "go veg" as slogans when a group that calls itself the animal rights organization ought to be saying "go vegan." "Go vegetarian" tells people it is acceptable to consume milk and eggs, which entails violating animal rights. I attributed this to a pathological aversion to the word vegan as being too extreme for their target audience, which I argued makes little sense given most of PETA's positions are considered wildly extreme in the first place.

After looking at the Vegetarian Starter Kit, I think I might have to revise my assessment of their use of "go vegetarian" and "go veg" as slogans. Here's why: they're not actually telling people to go vegetarian, they're telling people to go vegan while calling it vegetarian, and they're doing it pretty blatantly. While I already knew that PETA materials only promote vegan foods, however labeled, I did not know that they make it a point to use vegetarian and vegan as synonyms, sometimes in the same paragraph or even sentence. For example, "If you're stuck at a behind-the-times restaurant without much vegan variety, ask if the chef can whip up a vegetarian entree."

While I can see how that might instinctively frustrate vegans, who already have to deal with people not understanding that no animal products actually means no animal products, I think once you think of PETA's target audience with these kits you must admit they're doing something clever. This is not the same as just using the word vegetarian to attract people who are afraid of scary vegans, as I originally thought. PETA knows (to the chagrin of vegans everywhere) it is one of the first stops a great many people make on the road to animal rights and veganism. Whether we agree it ought to be or not, PETA is considered by non-animal rightists an authoritative source on animal rights issues, and it is using that institutional power to redefine the word vegetarian in the minds of visitors to their website and interested parties who obtain Vegetarian Starter Kits. Anyone who wants to try vegetarianism and turns to PETA as an authoritative resource turns vegan without knowing it.

I have to think that combined with the fact that vegetarian is a much more widespread word than vegan (and, yes, much less extreme-sounding), by reclaiming the word PETA just might produce more vegans-in-practice than they would by promoting veganism as veganism. That's not to say that specifically vegan outreach groups would automatically have the same success, or that they should necessarily try. Someone who has an interest in going vegan can just plain go vegan via these groups. But the great mass of people, for good or ill, are afraid of seeming too radical. They might be willing to go vegan in ethical and dietary terms, but not in associational terms. And maybe that's OK. Vegetarianism is mainstream now and, frankly, people not consuming animal products is far more important to me than whether or not they do it while calling themselves vegans.

Vegans have a lot of pride in our veganism, and what we want is to make our movement grow. We like our word. We want vegan to not be the scary and mysterious word that it is to a lot of people. We want veganism to be the new vegetarianism, and ultimately the new way of life. But ultimately veganism is also the old vegetarianism, and as a movement that has only existed for six decades, it remains to be seen what form it takes in the future.

In any case, I think there is little harm that could come from successfully reclaiming vegetarian, and using vegan as a popular shorthand for it. The already-common modifiers lacto- and ovo- make it potentially easy to do so. Real vegetarians don't consume milk and eggs. Real vegetarians are vegans. Remember that.

Saturday, June 27, 2009


This is my new blog. I know what you're thinking: "If this is a new blog, why are there posts dating back to 2005?" Well, not too long ago Blogger added the ability to export and import blog posts; you can see posts from two previous blogs integrated seamlessly below.

For those who aren't following me from elsewhere, the gist: I will blog, if my schedule manages to permit me, about radical democratic liberal socialist politics, veganism and animal rights, atheism, science, gadgets, and pop culture. So, not that different from a quarter-billion other blogs, except this one is me.

For the record, the new blog is called "Zombie Jesus" just because I like the name. I doubt Jesus even existed, much less as an awesome zombie.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Anti-Abortion and Animal Rights Terrorists

The tragic murder of Dr. George Tiller by an anti-abortion zealot raises a comparison between the anti-abortion movement and the animal rights movement. It's perhaps no surprise that, despite the fact that anti-abortion activists have murdered several doctors and animal rights activists have yet to murder anyone, animal rights activists are considered the greatest domestic terrorist threat in the United States by the FBI. Animal industry is big business, after all, and abortion not so much. But the question remains: are we animal rightists just as batshit zealous as the anti-abortion nutjobs?

I think a case can be made that we are not, even from the standpoint of the animal-using public. The most obvious difference between anti-abortion and animal rights advocacy is that the former is almost entirely based on religion while the latter is not. The idea that animals feel pain, and that we ought to minimize their suffering, is one that virtually everyone agrees with -- the animal rights position merely draws a more strict line at what suffering is justifiable. In contrast, there is no particularly coherent argument as to why the life of a fetus always takes precedence over the right of a woman not to have her body used without her consent; it's just "God says so." Which is particularly funny since the Christian god kills plenty of pregnant women, fetuses, and babies himself and never actually addresses abortion in the bible. In other words, even if one disagrees with the conclusions drawn, there is something fundamentally rational about the animal rights position that the anti-abortion position lacks in all but its weakest variants.

There is also the fact that the animal rights position, in defense of animals, does not call for violating the rights of humans. The anti-abortion position, however, does call for violating the bodily-autonomy rights of women. People may have a right to earn a living, and to eat, but they don't have a right to any particular occupation or specific choice of food. There are already many moral, legal, and economic restrictions that force people to avoid certain careers and cuisine, and the acceptance of animal rights merely adds to those restrictions. But there is no anti-abortion position that allows women autonomous control of their bodies.

Finally, the mere fact that both the anti-abortion and animal rights movements have elements that believe in the use of violence to achieve their aims doesn't particularly unify them. All movements have elements that believe in the use of violence, and the existence of such elements doesn't validate or invalidate the larger movement. Violence is not a particularly unique characteristic of anti-abortion or animal rights advocacy.

So why are anti-abortion and animal rights activists often described as being similar in terms of both zealotry and dangerousness? I think the comparison is intentional. In my experience, most animal rightists are pro-choice and not particularly religious. Furthermore, most animal rightists are, if not pacifists, prone to nonviolence as a part of their political philosophy. Animal rights violence is exceedingly rare and generally not harmful to people, though property damage is more common. So for supporters of animal industries, the best way to discredit animal rightists is to portray them as equivalent to a movement they share virtually nothing with. This not only paints a certain image in the minds of observers, but it is sure to put animal rightists on the defensive and leave them angry -- which the supporters of animal exploitation can then point to as evidence of their zealotry and instability.

Monday, March 16, 2009

My Moral Philosophy

I was asked if my veganism comes out of my overall philosophy. It does, and this is that philosophy. Obviously, when I say "my" philosophy, I mean only that I ascribe to it -- few, if any, of the ideas are original to me.


Humans are animals. Several million years ago our cognitive abilities expanded rapidly in response to changing conditions. Along the way what were simple, effective rules for group dynamics in ape societies such as tit-for-tat reciprocal altruism took on new forms and were fraught with new significance to handle the more complex forms of interpersonal relationships that our oversized brains made possible. Humans are animals, and we have moral instincts.

But instincts cannot tell us what is right. It is a fallacy to derive ought from is. Our moral instincts -- expressed in myriad different ways through the lenses of different cultures -- only give us brute urges toward ideas like desert and purity. They can be misapplied to circumstances beyond their native purview. They can be magnified and distorted, consciously and unconsciously. More importantly, they conflict. Murder for revenge is a perfectly natural impulse, but so is the belief that one ought not kill.

It is the job of moral philosophy to use reason to analyze, clarify, and make consistent our disparate and conflicting instincts, more often here called intuitions. But this is not my goal here. Fully deriving and explaining schemes of moral philosophy takes book length to do properly so this post is more like the concluding chapter of such a work that has been written and rewritten in my mind over the last decade; this post is the part where I share the result, not where I find it. Reading Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill, Tom Regan, Alan Gewirth, Peter Singer, Amartya Sen, and John Rawls will give you most of the raw material my philosophy is molded from. Animal rightists will note a particular affinity with Regan's respect principle, though I do not derive my similar version from any postulate of inherent value.

The Golden Rule

Virtually every moral system has found some way to systemize the moral outgrowth of our instinct to reciprocal altruism known as the Golden Rule, most commonly expressed as "do unto others what you would have others do unto you." Indeed, most moral philosophy could be seen as determining who counts as an other and just what we ought to want them to do unto us. The major exception is ethical egoism, which, frankly, doesn't strike me as being properly ethics at all.

So the place to start is with what we want others to do unto us. An easy first reaction is to say "leave us alone," but few of us really want this. What if we are in need of aid? What we want is for others to treat us fairly and with respect. We want them to recognize us as individuals, not automatons and not just one part of a mass. We want them not to use us, and not to do things to us, but with us and for us. At the core of this inescapable demand for fair treatment is the fact that we have interests of our own that we wish to fulfill, alone or in concert with others.

And this demand for respect is indeed a demand, even if it is never uttered. We see attempts to restrict our capability to fulfill our interests as an affront to our dignity. When we are imprisoned, we try to escape. When we feel we are wronged, we seek revenge -- even if only in our minds before squelching the notion. Respectful treatment from others is vital to our own self-respect. We cannot fulfill our interests, and therefore find contentment, without it.

But if we demand respect from others, we must recognize that others are making exactly the same demand of us. More importantly, their demands are just as valid as we believe ours to be. Everyone with interests is making a valid claim against every person who can respond: recognize my interests; indeed, aid me in fulfilling them if doing so will not prevent you from fulfilling your own. This is the basis of respectful treatment.

Disability, the Unborn, and Animals

While the details may vary among readers, I do not think the above will be a controversial position as it relates to typical adult humans. Most people, when asked, can simply tell you they want to be treated with respect. If you try to use them merely as means to your ends, they will resist. But what of non-typical and non-adult humans?

Remember that the valid claim, which we can properly call a right, to respectful treatment does not have to be spoken. It doesn't even have to be consciously made. It stems directly from the existence of interests. But what qualifies as an interest, and who has them? If I lose important parts of my brain, and am no longer capable of typical adult functioning but I still feel pain, I can be rightfully said to have an interest in avoiding pain. If I do not even have the ability to feel pain or anything else, I cannot be said to have interests at all. Interests require the ability to feel in the experiential sense. Interests require sentience.

There are always marginal cases, but drawing the line for respectful consideration of interests at sentience is fairly easy to do in the majority of cases, even those that many people find controversial. People with severe mental disabilities are entitled to the right to respectful treatment. People with no cognitive function at all -- such as those in a persistent vegetative state -- have no interests and have no rights. Very late term fetuses with functioning brains are entitled to the right to respectful treatment, though it doesn't follow that they cannot be aborted in self-defense if the mother is endangered. Second- and first-trimester fetuses with no cognitive function at all have no interests and no rights.

And in the case of animals, the argument is equally clear. Those animals who are obviously sentient, such as mammals, have a right to respectful treatment -- which means they cannot be used merely as means to our ends. This has logical but dramatic consequences: animals ought not be used for food, clothing, entertainment, experimentation, or any other purpose. Given the complex and ill-understood nature of ecosystems, the best way to treat most animals with respect is to leave them to their natural lives, free from our interference. In the case of domesticated animals that we have spent millennia adapting to live with us, respectful treatment entails taking care of them to the best of our ability.

There is evidence that many other types of animals beyond mammals are sentient, quite probably including all vertebrates. For invertebrates, the line begins to blur in direct proportion to the simplicity of their nervous systems. Unfortunately, experience is not something that can be easily ascertained without experiencing. So, morally, I only suggest we give those who may be suffering the benefit of the doubt; at the very least, doing so will ensure we are in the habit with those for whom there is no doubt.


All sentient beings share an interest in avoiding suffering. All humans share other, more complex interests, but there are also a wide variety of interests that individuals pursue which may not be of any concern to anyone else. Politics (and by extension, economics) ought to be seen as the means for allowing people to pursue their interests, and for resolving conflicts between those interests.

Recall that we all demand respectful treatment. By this we meant that we all demand that others act in our interests where their choices affect us. Since there are many interests that all people share -- food, water, health, education, security, political participation, economic participation, etc. -- any society ought to protect all people's access to these basic goods and the capabilities they enable as unalienable rights.

But what of those interests not shared by all? We must not act to frustrate the pursuit of those interests except where they would prevent others from their own pursuits. Intelligence, ambition, strength, and all other factors that determine the occupation one is suited for are the result of variables almost entirely outside our control at the time we are pursuing work -- genetics, early childhood, quality of education, and others. It is therefore unfair, and disrespectful, to reward or punish us materially on the basis of the work that we do or which work we are capable of doing. There may be need for inequalities in material reward for incentives, but these should be as small as possible and only obtain if not offering them would make everyone worse off.

Moreover, because we ought not use others merely as means to our ends, democracy must extend beyond politics into economics. The economy is a machine for the benefit of all, and we must all have a say in how it is used. At a minimum, this requires public control of investment and regulation, and more significantly it requires the end of wage labor -- no person ought to work for another, only with another. Employees must become partners.


I have not by any means exhausted the depths of my moral philosophy but only provided an overview. This post should lay out the basis for and make clear the reasoning behind all of my other opinions.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Why Gary Francione Is Right

Since my last post is getting some modest traction from people who tend to agree with Gary Francione, I wanted to clarify two significant places where we agree.

First, and most importantly, nonhuman animals have an unequivocal right not to be property -- that is, not to be used merely as a means to human ends. Abolition and veganism are the only moral positions consistent with that right. Anyone who favors even the most so-called "humane" use of animals, be it for experimentation or for food, is not acting in accordance with animal rights.

Second, and perhaps more surprisingly, to the extent that they exist I actually think Francione is correct in his critique of what he calls "new welfarists." However, it is important to distinguish those that meet the criteria of Francione's "new welfarists" from the broader category that, borrowing from David Sztybel, I am calling animal rights pragmatists. Francione lists five distinguishing features of "new welfarists," which he uses to contrast with classical welfarists but work equally well in comparison with pragmatists.
  1. They generally support abolitionism, or at least oppose speciesism
  2. They think animal rights theory doesn't provide any practical gradual path to abolition
  3. They pursue welfare campaigns identical to those of classical welfarists, and consider them "rights"
  4. They see welfare reforms as necessary as steps to abolition
  5. They believe there is nothing inconsistent about animal advocates reinforcing the use of animals
I should hope it would be clear from reading my previous post that I do not meet the last four of these criteria, with the arguable exception of number 3, and I come out on the right side of number 1. I may be, in Francione's estimation, some form of welfarist since I support some "welfare" reforms, but I would seem to fail the "new welfarist" test. I do think animal rights theory (and by extension, vegan activism and the incremental quasi-rights Francione endorses) is enough to achieve abolition; in fact, I think it is the only way to do it. I do not support all "welfare" campaigns a classical welfarist might, but I might support some. I do not see "welfare" reforms as necessary steps to abolition -- I think "welfare" reforms and abolition are essentially unrelated, except in that they both deal with the treatment of animals. Finally, I absolutely think there is something inconsistent about animal advocates reinforcing the use of animals; where I disagree with Francione here is that all "welfare" reforms do so.

But there are people who do meet these criteria. You especially find a lot of PETA supporters who think every "welfare" reform is a "victory" on the road to liberation, as if there is some sort of causal link between exploiting gently and not exploiting at all. So I think that Francione's critique of "new welfarists" is accurate -- but I don't think everyone who supports some form of "welfare" campaign is a "new welfarist" according to these criteria by a long shot.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Why Gary Francione Is Wrong

Some time ago I wrote a post explaining why I felt that animal rights advocates ought to support some animal "welfare" reforms, despite the fact that these reforms won't bring us any closer to animal rights. This isn't a particularly controversial position in the movement as a whole; in fact, it is the default position of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals as well as most smaller or regional animal rights groups.

However, among a vocal but growing segment of the animal rights movement, any concession to animal "welfare" is seen as complicity with violating animal rights, or even as collaboration. In fact, this segment considers those who do not agree with the specific plan of action they endorse to be opponents in the struggle for animal rights. They call themselves abolitionists, and the rest of the movement new welfarists, two terms that are fraught with problems that will be examined later.

The most prominent proponent of this brand of abolitionism is Gary Francione. It was Francione's book Rain Without Thunder that essentially launched the so-called "abolitionist movement" upon its publication in 1996. In the book, Francione describes the many failures of the animal rights movement, which he attributes primarily to a willingness on the part of many advocates to compromise their position by seeking short-term "welfare" reforms.

The problem is that Francione is wrong.

I was once a Francione acolyte myself. You can find posts to my various blogs, comments on others, and messages on forums defending that position. But times change, opinions grow. I posted a rather basic reason to support some "welfare" reforms in my post referenced above, and David Sztybel essentially demolishes the so-called "abolitionist approach" in a paper called "Animal Rights Law: Fundamentalism versus Pragmatism" (PDF link). I don't necessarily agree with the specific moral formulation of animal rights that Sztybel works from, called "best caring ethics," but I agree with most of his conclusions.

First a note on terminology: Francione and his supporters have self-styled themselves as the abolitionists, the implication being that all other animal rights advocates do not support abolition. This is, of course, patently false. Virtually everyone who supports animal rights supports abolition, they merely disagree on the efficacy of certain tactics in bringing abolition about. Because most animal rights advocates support at least some "welfare" reforms, Francione pejoratively labels them new welfarists. I am going to follow Sztybel in referring to the majority as animal rights pragmatists and those who agree with Francione as animal rights fundamentalists. This is not meant to be insulting, but clarifying -- they believe that the right not to be property is so fundamental as to outweigh all other advocacy concerns.

The problem, to me, seems to be that Francione treats the right not to be property as the end to seek, rather than seeking the actual welfare (in the broadest sense) of actual animals. But rights are abstractions. As Francione correctly states, rights are protections of interests. A right is a tool to protect an interest of an actual sentient being. That is, rights only exist to promote the welfare of rights holders. Promoting the right not to be property is absolutely in the interests of beings currently held as property. But it is not the only thing in their interests, and it is not necessary to ignore all of these other interests in the single-minded pursuit of that one.

In addition to the interest in not being property, animals have an interest in not suffering. And animals continue to suffer now. Francione accuses pragmatists of sacrificing animal rights for short-term "welfare" gains. But there is no sacrifice if the thing allegedly sacrificed is impossible at the time in question. One can actively and loudly promote a full suite of animal rights while always striving for the best of what is actually possible now. If what is actually possible is less than full animal rights it is the fault of those who oppose them, not those who support them.

Let me reiterate: seeking to reduce suffering in exploitation is not the same as exploiting, no matter how many times you say it. If exploitation continues, that is the fault of the exploiters.

Of course, Francione's argument is also that "welfare" reforms do not actually help animals, and that they increase animal exploitation. The former is fairly easy to determine on a case by case basis, and I would certainly never support a welfare reform that was purely cosmetic. The second, however, is really difficult to determine. I have never seen Francione or any other fundamentalist provide any statistical data to support that conclusion (though perhaps I haven't looked hard enough), except for the general observation that despite three decades of animal "welfare" and pragmatist animal rights advocacy, meat eating has increased in that period.

There are two problems with using this as evidence. First, and most obviously, there is no way of knowing if the increase would have been lesser or greater in the absence of that advocacy, or had fundamentalist-style activism been in full swing. Second, the use of that trend as evidence seems to operates under the faulty assumption that "welfare" reform should be sought as a means of reducing the number of animals exploited, rather than as a means of reducing the suffering of them. Pragmatists agree with the fundamentalists that vegan outreach is the way to reduce the numbers of animals suffering, and if meat eating has increased, it is a demonstration of the failure of vegan outreach thus far, not of "welfare" reforms.

Fundamentalists say that by negotiating improvements in animal welfare without abolishing animal exploitation, pragmatists are complicit in that exploitation and even endorsing it. But if improving welfare by 20% is being complicit in exploitation by "accepting" the 80% of suffering still remaining, how complicit is improving welfare by 0% and therefore "accepting" 100% suffering, as the fundamentalists advocate? The word for not seeking improvements that are actually possible is complacency. Pragmatists at their best are actively engaged in doing what is best for actual animals now and in the future, while fundamentalists are the ones truly sacrificing animal interests today in the hope of one day satisfying those of other, luckier animals.

The best example of this thinking in action is Francione's one-time support of the Great Ape Project. The Great Ape Project would recognize the right of great apes to be free from exploitation, but Francione has since rejected it because it is based on these apes' cognitive similarities to humans rather than their ability to suffer as he founds his rights theory upon. In other words, it is more important to Francione that a specific human concept (basing rights on sentience) be realized than actually granting substantive benefits to a whole class of largely endangered animals. Francione would sacrifice all living great apes for a specific language of rights that may or may not be ever realized.

This becomes simple to understand when viewed through the lens I described above: fundamentalists see rights (or even a single right) as the end itself, and therefore anything other than those rights is an obstacle. In their hopefully subconscious refusal to consider the animals themselves as the end to be promoted, they overlook ways of doing the best thing actually possible for actually existing animals. They want only to do the best thing possible for an abstraction that may or may not ever become a reality, and the actually possible is nothing more than a distraction from that presently impossible goal. There are valid ends other than a right not to be property, but Francione and fundamentalists ignore them.

Animal rights fundamentalists fall into the same trap as the radical core of most social and political movements: they mistake the present impossibility of their full program as license to opt-out of achieving the achievable. They would rather remain "pure," and purity is a compelling siren in activism. In the case of animal rights, they mistake grabbing the low-hanging fruit first for refusing to climb the tree.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Justice and Sustainability

I just mentioned Kim Stanley Robinson a few weeks ago, and now Bruce Sterling points us to a Robinson post up at What Matters about climate chance and social justice. Here's his simple list of suggestions for a better future:
Believe in science.

Believe in government, remembering always that it is of the people, by the people, and for the people, and crucial in the current situation.

Support a really strong follow-up to the Kyoto Protocol.

Institute carbon cap-and-trade systems.

Impose a carbon tax designed to charge for the real costs of burning carbon.

Follow the full “Green New Deal” program now coming together in discussions by the Obama administration.

Structure global economic policy to reward rapid transitions from carbon-burning to carbon-neutral technologies.

Support the full slate of human rights everywhere, even in countries that claim such justice is not part of their tradition.

Support global universal education as part of human-rights advocacy.

Dispense with all magical, talismanic phrases such as “free markets” and promote a larger systems analysis that is more empirical, without fundamentalist biases.

Encourage all business schools to include foundational classes in ecology, environmental economics, biology, and history.

Start programs at these same schools in postcapitalist studies.
Read the whole thing, it's short and nice.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Has Anything Changed?

Who would have thought that Rush Limbaugh would still be the biggest name in conservative politics after all these years? Among the choice gems from his "first national address" at the sagging heap of batshittery known as the Conservative Political Action Conference:
He wants people in fear, angst and crisis, fearing the worst each and every day, because that clears the decks for President Obama and his pals to come in with the answers, which are abject failures, historically shown and demonstrated.
That a conservative could possibly imply that their opponents are the ones that want people instilled with fear, after the previous administration's reign of—I'm sorry, war on terror is mind-numbingly vacuous. And then to ignore the utter demolition of our economy through the last thirty years of conservative policies and imply that the meager assistance that the Obama administration might provide to those suffering from Republican success will be an abject failure makes one's already-rotted brain seep out one's ears. If the Democratic recovery plans fail, it will be for being too meek.

Rush continued:
They see these inequalities, these inequities that capitalism produces. How do they try to fix it? Do they try to elevate those at the bottom? No, they try to tear down the people at the top.
Let me see if I understand this logic. Capitalism produces inequalities that need to be fixed... so naturally conservatives are all about the invisible hand of the free market magically making everything right. Those at the bottom need to be elevated... so naturally conservatives want to keep magnifying these inequalities and let the rich get richer while pretending to elevate those at the bottom without spending any money through, I don't know, moral support.

Rush, let me fill you in on a little secret: those at the top are at the top because those at the bottom did all of the real, actual work that put them there, but those at the top took the profit. It takes more than gumption and moxie to "elevate" those at the bottom. It also takes their, you know, continued survival and health. Those at the bottom will never be elevated as long as we rely on the magic market fairies to give everyone a fair and livable wage (because it never, ever has), and to provide access to affordable health care (because it never, ever has).

I will only oppose the welfare state if we are no longer relying on capitalism to do our economic work for us. In a sane and liberal socialist society, there would be no need for all of the Democratic proposals that Rush and his simple, sad, backward-looking, race-baiting, money-grubbing, gay-bashing, woman-hating, war-mongering, jeebus-loving, jingoistic, gun-toting, downward-spiraling ilk so vociferously oppose. But we do not live in a sane and liberal socialist society, we live in a deeply flawed capitalist one, and capitalism skews the rules of the game to favor incumbent interests. Until such time that we address those flaws directly and restructure our systems, there will be a need for the only force powerful enough to check capitalism—government—to compensate for its insufficiencies.

And so naturally I am more than pleased to have Rush Limbaugh spout off as the public face of conservatism and the Republican Party at this precise moment when their credibility plummets. Maybe he can put the last nail in the coffin for them.