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.