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The Art of Kraft • Family Fallacies • Enhancing Tallis • Spuriously Anti-Kanty • It’s Obvious? • What’s The Evidence?
The Art of Kraft
DEAR EDITOR: Sometimes the search for simplicity and consistency can mislead us. Robert Kraft says that “giving cannot be an ethical imperative; otherwise poor people who cannot give will be unethical. Ethical behaviour must be a possibility for everyone regardless of circumstances.” Mr Kraft uses this argument to say that we are not ethically bound to help people in poor countries, for example.
This is a very weak argument.What we are morally bound to do does depend on our circumstances. To use a classic example, if I see a child drowning in a pond and I am the only other person nearby, then I have a duty to save her. The rest of the human race won’t help because they are too far away, not because they are unethical. Similarly, the fact that some people are too poor to help other poor people does not let richer people off the hook. In fact, it makes it all the more important that they do help, just as the fact that no-one else can help the child in the pond makes it imperative that I do.
Admittedly, there is always a difficulty in knowing where to draw the line, as Jean Kazez pointed out. How rich do I have to be before I have a duty to give? How much should I give? etc. However, these should be seen as problems to address, not reasons to give nothing.My own suggestion is that those of us who are not really struggling financially should aim to give 5%of our net income. It is more than most people currently give, but it is low enough to be psychologically acceptable and therefore sustainable. The other time to take the issue particularly seriously is when making your will. If your children are not struggling financially then they do not need you to leave them money – but third world charities and campaign groups do.
DEAR EDITOR: Robert Kraft’s nightmare world of ethics has come true (letters, 62), where ethics is only about restraint not intervention, and the law mirrors ethics.
Mothers the world over are admired for their generous benevolence – mostly. One lovelessmother neglects her children. Time after time she gives birth, but chooses not to care for her baby. Ethics and law are silent. No magic intervenes. A compassionate doctor, confirming the tenth baby dead of neglect, glowers at ethics and law, and sterilises the lovelessmother in her sleep. Ethics and law get angry.
What should the doctor have done?
DEAR EDITOR: The article by Professor Almond, ‘Gay Adoption’ in Issue 61, is shockingly flawed for an ‘Emeritus Professor of Moral and Social Philosophy.’ Her arguments, such as they are, are preceded by two informal fallacies:
Appeal to Popularity: She states that ‘most people’ would agree that a child should have both a mother and a father. Note that this fallacy is also based on a unsupported statement. Perhaps most people would say two good mothers are better than a goodmother and a bad father.
Poisoning theWell: She states that the ‘intellectuals’ who support gay parenting are trying to redefine what ‘family’ means and feel “hatred for the family”.
These sorts of thing makes up fully half the article – a half that could have benefitted greatly by more evidence and stronger logical connections. Even the substantive half would have benefitted from a closer understanding of David Hume’s work on the is-ought problem. The fact that we are animals does not in itself make acts that are in harmony with that animal nature right, nor acts contrary to it wrong.
Fallacies and logical failings aside, it is a bit difficult to get a handle on exactly what the bases of Prof Almond’s arguments are. She slides back and forth between using biology as evidence and social constructs as evidence. For example, at the end of the article she clearly comes down on the side of a biological definition of ‘family’. Earlier she points to the pathos expressed by the terms ‘motherless child’ and ‘fatherless child’ as evidence of the importance of having both a mother and a father. But surely the pathos here is born not in the biological impossibility of having a child without an egg from a mother and a sperm from a father. Rather, the pathos is born in the idea of a child who must grow up without the love and nurturing of both a mother and a father. And Prof Almond never establishes the (now necessary) link, that such love and nurturing is based in biology – although clearly she believes that to be the case.
To the biological definition of ‘family’ we can add her assertion that while a family composed of a mother, father and child is the ideal, “where that has become impossible, the best option is to find [the child] a situation as similar to that as possible.” Though unsupported by any argument or evidence, I think that that is probably a true statement. But the jump from there to the assertion that gay couples should not adopt rests on two undiscussed ambiguities.What does “where that has become impossible” mean? And what constitutes a ‘similar’ situation?
Since she has defined ‘family’ in biological terms, does impossible include couples who are unable to conceive a child using their own eggs and sperm? Should they be dissuaded or prevented from having children through egg or sperm donation? Should they not adopt? Or are these similar enough situations (as long as the couple are heterosexual), though failing to meet the ‘consanguinity’ requirement?
In the end, Prof Almond clearly states, without any scientific evidence, that the adoptive relationship and the donor relationship to a child are of a lesser nature. But here her argument must be based on science because she is using a genetic def-inition of ‘family’: she states that the “natural bonds” have a priority over any “relationships”. The reason she presents no scientific evidence is that there is none. For whatever reason, we humans have lost, or never had, the ability to identify our children by smell or any other direct means. True, the genetic relationship can now be determined absolutely by a laboratory test; but now it is Prof Almond who is redefining the nature of ‘family’. For Prof Almond, family is no longer that continuity of relationship of parent to child, it is now to be determined by the outcome of a genetic test. It is no longer the love born out of the early days of intense care, of feeding my daughter and changing her diaper. Holding her to my chest as we raced to the hospital after a serious injury no longer has anything to do with my deep love for her. No longer can I say my love is based in the continuity of care and teaching and talking and singing that has built up over the years that I have known my daughter as a living, breathing human being. No: thanks to Prof Almond, I now know that this love and my deeply-rooted knowledge that this is my daughter is all based in genetics and consanguinity.
Oh.Wait. My wife and I adopted our daughter.Well, perhaps Professor Almond will permit me to love my daughter based on a ‘consanguinity’ that dates back 1,000 generations ago.
An argument as poorly reasoned as this article presents often stems from an effort to justify pre-existing opinions that can’t quite be forced into a logical framework. In this case it is evidently based on homophobia which Professor Almond attempts to dress up in the clothing of science. She fails because neither Science nor Ethical Logic support her case.
DEAR EDITOR: In an ill-considered letter in the last issue responding to a piece by Brenda Almond on the family, Andrea Waddell lists a whole lot of non-human animals illustrating, supposedly, that “The occurrence of the nuclear family is patchy across nature.”What relevance has this for what humans ought to do? The occurrence of reading and writing is about as patchy across nature as it could be. Does that mean we ought to give this up?We are encouraged bizarrely to follow the example of meer-cats in our family arrangements – so why not in literacy?
DEAR EDITOR:Whenever a pseudo-scientist starts to draw analogies between human beings and cheetahs, leopards, meer-cats, or salmon, you can bet you’ll end up with some pretty nonsensical conclusions. AndreaWaddell’s letter in PN 62 is a fair case in point. Homo sapiens has evolved not just along lines of reproductive biology, as she seems to think, but also in neurobiological ways that affect the brain, the mind, behaviour, custom and social belonging. It is no disparagement to same-sex couples to point out that though Andrea’s notions might be the hot ticket for 2007, several tens of thousands of years have been lived through with a totally different set-up for what we call family and child-rearing. One of the elements of this has been the proximity for most children, to adults of both sexes. As far as we know (and we have no right to conduct experiments on children’s futures), this closeness from birth onwards to a member of both sexes may (I only say may) be useful in navigating adult life where both sexes interact.
Anyone who says that any social system is as good as any other “so let’s try it” is tampering with human futures without having a clue of what the outcomes might be. I am, as it happens, a fervent supporter of civic partnerships, and someone who has argued for and championed equal rights for many years. But I refuse to subscribe to the foolishness which tries to pretend that homosexual relationships are interchangeable with heterosexual ones – an insult of superficial thinking to both parties.
Homo sapiens 2.0
DEAR EDITOR: Eric Dietrich’s article in Issue 61 makes the provocative proposal that the most moral action humanity could undertake would be to replace ourselves with perfectly moral machines. These machines, unlike us, would not be burdened with our evolutionary history, which yields imperfection and temptation. They would be programmed to follow our best moral codes to the letter.
I find this proposal scary, not so much because it calls for humanity’s replacement (which is something of a distant possibility), but that the same arguments can apply to programmable human beings. The science of mind, of hypnosis and of psychoactive drugs, even genetics, is progressing, and the prospect of programming human beings seems near.We may soon have the power to programme ourselves to feel ill at the sight of fried food, impotent at the thought of adultery or paralysed on picking up a weapon. In fact we could make ourselves incapable of any immoral action. Should we do this even if we knew we were programming ourselves with the perfect moral system?
I think not, because this would not lead to good moral action. Just as courage is not demonstrated by those who do not feel fear, morality is the product of temptation. It is not a moral action that I do not rob Fort Knox: I have no reasonable opportunity to do so. However, if I fill in my expenses honestly, knowing I could have gotten a few extra pounds here or there, or if I leave my address on a car that I scrape in a car park when I could just drive away, this is a moral act. In other words, without the very real possibility of immorality there can be no true morality, under any moral system. A programmed person or machine therefore cannot be a moral agent, because it cannot be an immoral agent either.
DEAR EDITOR: Eric Dietrich’s ‘After The Humans Are Gone’ argues on grounds of morality that humans should build a race of machines which incorporate only what is good about humanity, and then die off. Unfortunately, Dietrich does not state the moral argument clearly; he only alludes to it. That makes it hard to refute. But from what I can gather, it doesn’t add up.
His argument is this: Humans are bad because they are devastating to the planet, bad for living things and bad for each other. But they have created art and science, which are good and worth preserving. Nevertheless, invidious distinctions lie at the heart of our thinking,making us immoral.
So far the argument has do to with consequences. Art and science aside, humans do things that have harmful effects on other beings and themselves, and the harm outweighs the good. But then Dietrich says that our successors will recognize that humans finally ‘did the right thing’ by exterminating them-selves. The term ‘right’ implies adherence to moral rules and is part of dutyor act-based moral reasoning, whereas goodness and badness have to do with consequences. Dietrich appears confused here. In fact, he tacitly admits his confusion by acknowledging that the machines, like humans, won’t know the answer to the question ‘Is the moral a function of ends, or is it inherent in actions, in deeds?’ But if this is an unanswerable question, how can he argue on moral grounds that humans should die off? Without evidence to the contrary, I conclude that Dietrich’s use of moral discourse is meaningless, and amounts only to an expression of his personal preferences. Hence the rest of us need not feel compelled to assist in creating intelligent machines, nor in killing ourselves off.
DEAR EDITOR: I agree with Ray Tallis’s conclusion (‘Enhancing Humanity’, Philosophy Now 61), but his argument seems to be a typical sorites argument [‘How many grains of sandmake a heap?’]: ‘Because the pace of technological change is slow humanity will persevere: human nature will remain essentially unchanged through any gradual change.The essence of humanity lies in our ability to redefine ourselves.’
I will talk in terms of body weight. We think that a small change in body composition would not alter our definition of ourselves as human. Suppose 1% of my body weight was replaced by some piece of technology, say false teeth. This is not enough of a difference to stop me defining myself as human. Then another 1% is replaced, say by a wig; then another 1% by plastic surgery. I would still consider myself human. Suppose then that silicon is developed to replace human tissue, including the brain. Also suppose that as I get older I regularly replace 1% of my body weight with this silicon. Finally, after a hundred small changes, I would be 100% silicon and artificial. But because each step of the way involved only a 1% change, after each change I considered myself still human. Small changes in my structure did not affectmy self-concept. This fits in with Tallis’s claim that small changes in technology would not result in our redefining ourselves as not human. This is the sorites problem: changes small enough to be unnoticeable result in problematic conclusions. A silicon being is not the same as a human being, but Tallis’ argument leads to the conclusion that I would still see myself as human after becoming a completely silicon being.
Tallis’ argument is a typical sorites argument. It does not mean it’s wrong, just that we need to take this into account.
DEAR EDITOR: In Issue 60, March/April 2007, p.27, Ramsey McNabb’s example dismissing Kant’s categorical imperative is entirely spurious. The imperative does not specifically imply anything until you apply it to a situation – ‘no lies’ is something McNabb has imposed upon it. Terra the Kantian does not have a ‘do not lie’ principle: she has a ‘be unselfish in your moral decisions’ principle. The Kant quotation holds up just fine if you derive from it ‘protect innocent girls from notoriousmurderers’ instead of ‘do not lie’.
Why did Dr McNabb use such an easily refuted example? Because he could not find a solid one. And he could not find a solid one because the imperative is not a principle of the type he is attacking – Kant was on his side! The imperative is more of a ‘do-unto-others’ yardstick by which to measure the honesty of our case-by-case particularist judgement calls!
DEAR EDITOR: In his letter in Issue 60, Doderick Rees claims that logic is incompetent to explain God. It follows that one must be illogical (ie irrational) to believe in the supernatural. I guess he has a point.
He also says that no description of how a rose smells will match the actual experience of smelling one. This might be true. However, the fact is that almost anyone can find a rose, see it with their own eyes or enjoy its scent. Billions of people have experienced a rose directly with their senses in one way or another.
On the other hand, when it comes to the supernatural, there is not a single verifiable instance known to humanity of anyone seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting or touching the Lord (all the anecdotes have remain unconfirmed for centuries now).
When we consider how religion began, with the worship of animals, and then evolved to the monolithic traditions of today, it becomes obvious that man invented gods, not the other way round. When we consider the impossibility of Genesis (eg astronomers know for certain that the Earth was not formed before the Sun), it also becomes obvious that the Bible is based on myth. Finally, when we realize omnipotence can not possibly encompass infinity (it is impossible to know everything, for no matter how much is known, the infinite is ever more in-depth), it becomes clear that a fanciful lack of logic and reason is indeed necessary to believe in Almighty entities.
p.s.: I was ecstatic about your focus on Don Quixote. It’s my all-time favorite novel, with my favorite character. How does the man of La Mancha lose his mind? By taking fantastic stories too seriously, as reality. Is this not the exact flaw of the faithful?
What’s The Evidence?
DEAR EDITOR: The critics (Letters, Issues 60 and 61) of Stafford Betty’s ‘Near Death Experience’ article in Issue 59 seem to be unfamiliar with the extensive literature on the experience. Their chief criticisms are that experiencers may be reconstructing their experiences as NDEs in order to make sense of them (Jeffrey Thurston, in Issue 60), and that the people claiming to have these experiences were very ill and could not therefore be trusted to report their experiences accurately (Les Reid, Issue 61).
Among the problems that NDE researchers address are the fact that these experiences are very similar and consistent with each other; that they contain features that subjects did not anticipate experiencing (especially true for children); and that references are made to events that were unknown and unknowable to subjects who were under heavy medication throughout the experience. Further reading is available on this subject by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, Michael Sabom, Sam Parnia, Kenneth Ring, and Melvin Morse. Incidentally, the blind NDErs mentioned by Betty and Thurston were born blind, and had no vision of images before or after their NDEs. (Cf: Kenneth Ring, PhD, Lessons From The Light (2006) pp.73-95.)