Sunday, July 31, 2011

Republican Asymmetrical Warfare

I recently sent someone a link to Paul Krugman's July 28 column The Centrist Copout. My friend replied, disagreeing with Krugman. This is my reply to him:

You say, Michael, that Krugman is just calling the Republicans "hostage-takers, extortionists, blackmailers and extremists" in order to "besmirch the reputation of the people he disagrees with." To you these are just "loaded terms," examples of normal if deplorable political rhetoric. But Krugman didn't literally call anyone a hostage-taker or an extortionist (though he did refer to "Republican extremists.") The point of referring to extortion and blackmail was not to attack reputations but to characterize a tactic. You say this tactic is business as usual, just the normal application of political power. Krugman and I disagree.

If someone filibusters an appointment, it is because they don't want the appointment to go through. If the filibuster succeeds, they have achieved their goal. If the President threatens a veto unless legislation is altered to reflect his demands, it is because he doesn't approve of the law as drafted, so a veto would achieve his aim of preventing a bad law from being passed.

No one (except extremists like Ron Paul) thinks failing to raise the debt ceiling would be a good thing. The Republicans are threatening to do something that nobody wants done unless they get their way. They are using their power to inflict serious harm on the country in order to achieve a political goal they could achieve in no other way. This is not business as usual. On the contrary, I suspect it is unprecedented. (It certainly is with regard to the debt ceiling.) Can you think of another example in which one party openly threatened to harm the country unless its demands were met? 

I don't think even the Gingrich/Clinton government shutdown compares. The Republicans passed a budget they wanted. Clinton vetoed a budget he didn't want. Neither side used as a bludgeon the threat to do something nobody wanted, and no one could remedy once done, merely as a means to force the other side to concede.

It seems to me, a liberal, that applying this kind of leverage is not proper behavior in a civil society. Even though it is legal and may be effective, it is not a legitimate way of wielding power. Krugman could have justly used another loaded term: terrorism. It seems to me that there is a great deal in common between the absolutist mind-set of current American conservatives, especially Tea Partyers, and that of religiously-inspired terrorists who feel that their point of view is so right, and its opponents so wrong, that any means is justified to achieve their goals. The conservative point of view has been increasingly to view politics as warfare, and their political opponents as enemies. Isn't what we are witnessing now asymmetrical warfare inside the U.S. government? Which raises the question: Should the President give in to terrorist demands? Unfortunately, he seems determined to do so. I think this bodes ill for the country.

You might ask: if they be denied their most ruthless but effective tactic, how are conservatives to achieve their goals? I would say: if you want to make a radical change in government policy, you need to win the majority in more than one house of the legislature. Until you do that, the normal processes of democracy dictate compromise. The alternative of extortionist threats is like attempting a coup, in which one house grabs the levers of power for itself. That's not the way this republic was meant to operate.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Republican Madness

Today I sent the following email to members of the U.S. House Republican leadership regarding the current Republican-manufactured crisis over the debt ceiling:

I am not a constituent of yours, but your actions impact all Americans. So please heed my plea. 
I know you and your Republican allies were elected to represent their constituents, but so were the President and the Democratic majority in the Senate. The idea that you would try to govern by ultimatum, threatening to throw the U.S. economy into chaos unless Republican demands are met, is so appalling to me that I find it difficult to express how heinous I believe Republican behavior to be. The Republic can't function when its elected representatives behave just like terrorists, threatening all our well-being unless they get their demands enacted into law. 
Please, consult your conscience, and stop this madness! Lift the debt ceiling without preconditions.
Gerald Lame
San Diego, CA

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Reply to Megan on Bumper Sticker Philosophy

My goal is eventually to write a book on the philosophical and factual mistakes underlying the prolife movement, but I seem to be much more at home writing short pieces (though long for blog comments) in conversation with prolifers, usually in the form of replies to specific statements. The following is a comment I posted (but who knows when it will be published) to a blog entry by Megan on the Life Training Institute's blog. It was titled "Bumper Sticker Philosophy" and can be found here:
Megan was commenting on what she believed to be the contradictory philosophical presuppositions of a fellow college student based on the bumper stickers on her car. The three bumper stickers she mentions are a Darwin fish, "Fight Racism" and "Pro-Choice."
I deal with her comments about evolution, naturalism and the value of the embryo first. Then I go into a long account of how the rise of the prolife movement among evangelicals in the South may have been linked to changing attitudes about race. I have never heard anyone put these ideas together in this way before. I thought up this way of looking at things some time ago, building on a very narrow historical knowledge base. I am not confident in it. There are definitely facts consistent with it -- like the support for apartheid by conservative prolife senators with a history of racism -- but I elaborate beyond what I know. For instance the statement that "A kind of moral hysteria swept through evangelical congregations" is pure filling-in on my part. I don't know much about just what happened in churches or in the prolife movement as it took off in the late 70s. If people want to correct me, I'd be glad to learn from them.


I realize this blog is more or less intended for LTI insiders, not for pro-choice secularists like me. But speaking just to those who agree with you can lead to complacency and even to sloppy thinking, and I know you consider yourself to be a careful thinker. So look on this as an attempt to keep you from sinking into a too-easy complacency. Besides, you attacked the woman who expressed those bumper-sticker opinions without giving her a chance to defend herself. Let me be her stand-in.

Regarding the “Darwin fish” bumper sticker, you’re right that it pokes fun at Christians, but not all Christians, just those who deny the reality of evolution. You are mistaken if you believe the theory of evolution is based on a naturalistic worldview. If anything, it is the other way around: evolution by natural selection made belief in naturalism possible. Darwin was a Bible-believing Christian when he began his voyage on the Beagle. If he had found evidence supporting the story of Noah’s Ark instead of contradicting it, no doubt he would have remained one. Darwin’s theory arose from his struggles to understand a vast range of facts, many of which he discovered or became vivid to him on his voyage around the world or through his later painstaking investigations. The theory managed to convince the scientific community and the science-literate public not because it flattered their presuppositions – it didn’t – but because it succeeded wonderfully at explaining intelligibly so much of the living world. In the century and a half since the publication of The Origin of Species, supporting evidence has continued to build and build, while not a single solid fact that contradicts the theory has turned up. A flood of genetic information is now pouring out of laboratories, shedding light on the evolutionary history of life on earth in undreamed-of detail. If evolution were false, there would be no reason for all this data to be consistent with it. But the data supports the theory in spades. Without evolution, it would make no sense. Many Christians have accommodated their religious beliefs to the incontrovertible reality of the evolution of species, including our own. Those who continue to deny something so well-substantiated deserve to be poked fun at. If you believe that the theory of evolution by natural selection is scientifically controversial, you have been lied to. Evolutionary theory is normal, established science. Species evolved from other species as surely as the sun is a star and the moon is made of rock and the world is older than last Tuesday. Whatever your metaphysics, if you must deny the solid fact of evolution, you need to revise your assumptions.

Just as your assumption that Darwinism is in error shows an ignorance of biology, so does your claim that naturalism cannot account for goodness. I remember being puzzled by this claim in C.S. Lewis. Like you, he goes from a universe of “bombarding particles” to an absence of value. Inexplicably, he omits the realm of organized matter we know as life. Things are good and bad for organisms. If they don’t behave accordingly, they don’t survive. As products of evolution, it is not surprising that we perceive the world as infused with values. You say, “according to her worldview, ideas are just the inevitable result of bombarding particles. So ideas can be different, but none can be better than others.” On the contrary, ideas can be more or less accurate, and having accurate ideas of the world around us has survival value. For instance, we are liable to harm our descendants if we fail to adopt accurate ideas about climate change.

When it comes to morality, you say that someone with a naturalistic worldview cannot say why her view is better. I admit that arriving at an account of the foundations of morality compatible with naturalism is a difficult challenge, but it seems to me that the theistic alternative is no better than a parent’s answer to the umpteenth ‘why’ question: “because!” Except that the theist elaborates: “because God said so.” You tell us, “Human beings are intrinsically valuable – valuable just in light of being human.” Why is that? Because God said so (never mind where, or to whom, or how you know it), or what amounts to the same thing (namely no explanation at all): because we are “made in the image of God.” But God is invisible. He has no body. He is incomparable to anything. So what is His image? The basic tenet of your morality is an oxymoron! Is that a license to make it mean whatever you want it to mean? If not, let me try to understand it.

Are human embryos valuable – made in the image of God – because they have human DNA? But God does not have DNA. Is it because they are human animals? But God is not an animal. Is it because they have human life? God doesn’t. Then because they are alive? Is God biologically alive? No – He has no body. But if He is ‘living’ in some abstract sense, then aren’t all living things made in His image? According to Christian theology, God is a person (actually three). So perhaps, insofar as we are persons, we are made in His image. But what is a person? ‘Person’ cannot mean ‘human animal’, since God is a person but not an animal. Those on the pro-choice side tend to believe that an essential characteristic of persons is that they have minds. We tend to think of God as having a mind. So this is also consistent with being made in His image. But for humans, having a mind requires having a functioning brain. Therefore embryos are not yet persons, and have not yet been made in God’s image. The idea that it could take time to be made in His image is consistent with the Bible. After all, we are told that He knitted us together, not that we popped into existence when He snapped His fingers. If God molds us like clay, then perhaps he molds a human organism into a person during the final months of pregnancy. On what basis did pro-lifers become so certain – contrary to the beliefs of many other Christians, both now and historically – that this ‘making’ occurs instantaneously at the moment of conception? This used to be thought of in terms of the question of when the soul entered the body; perhaps it was the invisible, immaterial soul or spirit that was supposed to be made in the image of the invisible, immaterial God. That would make sense. But, curiously, evangelical Protestant pro-lifers no longer speak of the soul, at least not in this context. Once they accused Darwin of trying to reduce man to the level of the beasts, but now they are ready to fight for the proposition that man’s most essential identity is his animal nature. How did that happen?

I have an idea, and it is related to the third bumper sticker: “Fight Racism.” Conservative evangelicals did not become fired up over the issue of abortion until the late 1970s. Up until the late 60s southern white conservative evangelicals were much more concerned about defending their right to deny their black neighbors equality, dignity and the vote. They hated liberals and the Supreme Court for pushing integration on them, and they left the Democratic Party in rebellion over civil rights legislation. This is what occupied their passions, while opinions favoring liberalization of abortion laws were widespread, even among evangelicals in the South. For instance, in 1971 both the Southern Baptist Convention and the National Convention of Evangelicals passed moderate statements on abortion. The Baptist resolution stated, “we call upon Southern Baptists to work for legislation that will allow the possibility of abortion under such conditions as rape, incest, clear evidence of severe fetal deformity, and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother.” What happened after 1971? Did a new book of the Bible turn up? Not quite. The Roe v Wade decision came down in 1973, but that wasn’t enough in itself to spark evangelicals’ passions. There was something else that lit the tinder box, and I think it was race – but in a peculiar, indirect kind of way.

Something important was happening during the 1970s, maybe beginning with the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968: racism was losing respectability in the South. This was a reversal of centuries of tradition, and it must have been wrenching, especially for preachers who had defended Jim Crow with fervor and scripture from the pulpit.  Southern Baptists, after all, had split from their northern coreligionists over their support for slavery, and conservative white southern evangelicals had continued to defend the right of white Christians to deny their black neighbors equality, dignity, and the vote in self-righteous tones of defiance or misunderstood and put-upon victimhood ever since. But all that was coming to an end. What was a proud, formerly openly racist preacher to do?

The decent, Christian thing would have been to call on his congregation to join him in repenting for centuries of oppression, to admit they had been wrong, and to invite their black neighbors into their churches, offer to wash their feet, and beg their forgiveness. On the other hand, Catholics were making quite a noise about abortion, especially after Roe, and while the Catholic Church had formerly been reviled, maybe they had a point. If abortion was murder, that made liberals and the hated Supreme Court baby killers. And if conservative southern evangelicals could accuse their enemies, the civil-rights-defending integration-forcing school prayer-preventing godless commie liberals, of killing innocent babies, how sweet was that?

Conservatives, who had fought tooth and nail to preserve white supremacy in this country, and who were still defending it in South Africa, by opposing abortion could become authorities on equality and human rights. People who had dedicated their lives to preserving their God-given right to humiliate their black neighbors could preach to liberals, in tones of moral outrage, about human dignity. It was a godsend, if you believe in that kind of God. Preachers and their congregations could climb back on their high horse, defending Christian goodness against godless evil. They just had to change horses. Why repent or atone, if you can change the subject? 

A kind of moral hysteria swept through evangelical congregations. Formerly moderate positions and statements on abortion were forgotten. The “defender of human rights” had become a new, or newly current, kind of moral hero. It was a much-coveted role, and by affirming as God’s truth certain non-obvious things about the beginning and end of life, it could be yours. People who had been shamed for their racist culture became the righteous defenders of human rights that as Christians they felt they deserved to be recognized as.

At least, that’s one possible explanation for the virulent, extremist anti-abortion movement in this country, which is peculiar to the USA, like its racial history.

I’m not saying that all prolifers were racists, or that many are racist now. Times have changed. In 1995 the Southern Baptist Convention finally apologized for Jim Crow. Now prolife conservative white southerners claim the mantle of the civil rights movement, likening their pro-choice liberal opponents to racists, as Megan did, without a hint of irony. It is now unquestioned among them that a central tenet of Christianity is the right to life from the moment of conception. But this was not always so. It could be that this controversial proposition became gospel for a certain group at a particular moment in history not on its intrinsic merits, but because it served to restore the self-esteem and express the anger and self-righteousness of people whose goodness and way of life had been called into question. That was intolerable and didn’t bear thinking about. So they changed the subject by inventing a new self-evident truth, and rallied around it like a battle flag, which they marched off under, to the culture wars. And we have been fighting ever since.

What might seem surprising in all this is the lack of a sense of humility, or maybe just fallibility. Considering how wrong southern white conservative evangelicals got the race question, over decades and centuries, not just personally but institutionally and doctrinally, you might think they would consider the possibility that, even when they believe now that they know the mind of God, they could be wrong, again.  And that, especially when the issue is equality and human rights, maybe they might have something to learn from liberals.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Pro-life Arguments and the Sorites Paradox

The following was written as a reply to a blog entry by Jay Whip on his blog Pro-Life Apologetics at  

Jay says, “If you add one hundred zeroes together, your sum will still be zero. In the same way if sentience, brain waves, and conscious desires by themselves do not have any bearing on personhood, putting them together does not help.”

It’s true that a hundred zeroes still sum to zero. But what about a hundred ones?

It strikes me that what may be going on here resembles what philosophers call the “sorites paradox”. (Pronounced suh-righties, derived from the Greek for 'heap'.) The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes it this way:

“The sorites paradox is the name given to a class of paradoxical arguments, also known as little-by-little arguments, which arise as a result of the indeterminacy surrounding limits of application of the predicates involved. For example, the concept of a heap appears to lack sharp boundaries and, as a consequence of the subsequent indeterminacy surrounding the extension of the predicate ‘is a heap’, no one grain of wheat can be identified as making the difference between being a heap and not being a heap. Given then that one grain of wheat does not make a heap, it would seem to follow that two do not, thus three do not, and so on. In the end it would appear that no amount of wheat can make a heap. We are faced with paradox since from apparently true premises by seemingly uncontroversial reasoning we arrive at an apparently false conclusion.”
Of course the sorites paradox can be run in the other direction too. If you start with a heap, and take away a grain at a time, you can end up proving that any amount of wheat, even a single grain, is a heap. 

Here’s an excellent strategy for exploiting the sorites paradox: argue, along with Kaczor, that “each standard ... is an ‘independent operator’ that stands or falls alone and is in competition with the other proposed standards. As such, they must each be considered in turn.”

If the transition from a single-celled organism (the fertilized egg, which is prima facie not a person) to a toddler involves a myriad of changes, both small and large, any one of which is not sufficient to qualify something as a person, then it would not be surprising if people were stumped when challenged to name the essential difference. In the ‘heap’ argument, if someone offers a dividing line, say one hundred grains, and Jay scoffs at the difference between 100 and 101, and ridicules his opponents for offering such flimsy arguments, it does not follow that, as Jay says, “adding it to others does not help.”

The difference between an infant and a human zygote is as great, and as multifarious, as the difference between the members of any two species. Take a dog and an ant. I think we all agree that it is wrong, at least without extenuating circumstances, to crush or poison a dog. It is much less clear when, if ever, it is wrong to crush or poison an ant. I challenge you to name the one essential criterion that differentiates the two and is responsible for this moral difference. If you ask a hundred people you might get a hundred different answers. It might be the case that none of these would hold up to probing analysis. Does it follow that we must not step on ants? Or does it prove, by process of elimination, the existence of an arbitrary, authority-based rule that accords the species ‘dog’ special moral status? Would this really explain anything?

Imagine we discovered a species whose members, early in development, were exactly like ants, but which matured into creatures exactly like dogs. Would we think it morally incumbent on us to treat dog-becoming ants as if they were dogs, while we continued to disregard the interests of ant-ants? I suppose that your philosophy would force you to do this. Would your moral intuitions agree? Both my philosophy and my intuitions tell me that currently ant-like things are different from currently dog-like things, and their current natures would demand different treatment even if it were impossible, during development, to draw a clear boundary between ants and dogs, and even if I could not articulate exactly which properties justified dogs’ special moral status. The natures of creatures (unlike their species) can and do change. The current natures of fertilized eggs, regardless of species, resemble each other far more than they do those of the mature organisms they may develop into.

Jay accuses pro-choice advocates of invariably producing only “an arbitrary rule with the justification of abortion in mind.” If the question is one of boundary lines in a sorites kind of situation, with two clear poles and a continuum of complex changes intervening, arbitrary rules may be all that's available. Besides, isn’t the criterion of membership in the human species without regard for stage of development or mental status an equally or even-more arbitrary rule, invented to justify the moral intuitions of pro-lifers? And is this rule really true to their honest intuitions in concrete circumstances? Is one grain really a heap?

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Responding to a Pro-Lifer -- summing up

The following was written in response to Jay Whip's comments (dated May 25) on my last blog entry.

Dear Jay,

Thank you for putting so much effort into reading what I’ve written and responding to it. Your challenges have spurred me to formulate more explicitly what it is I believe, and to see that I have a lot more work to do. I’m sorry if you found my last response mind-numbing and jargon-filled. Its length was not a tactic, and my vocabulary just is what it is. You had asked me challenging questions. I wanted both to think about them (my ideas on none of these topics could be called worked out or settled) and to show you how I thought about them. Since we seem to have radically different worldviews, this was not just a matter of answering yes/no questions, but of framing the questions in a way that allowed me to approach the issues from my own perspective. Despite my efforts, you have stubbornly adhered to your preconceptions, which prevent you, I think, from fully understanding me. Nevertheless, you made some good points.


This is the state of play, as I see it. With respect to abortion, you have been all offense and no defense:

You presented the substance-based rationale, that essence is constant and unchanging, using Koukl’s triangle analogy, and disputed my house analogy by distinguishing natural from constructed things. I demolished the substance-based approach, by situating it in ancient proto-science, by explaining the modern scientific understanding of open systems, and by presenting three analogies of development: the computer/plotter, the Mandelbrot set (did you ever take a look at that amazing video?), and a detailed model of the formation of cerebral cortex, all of which resemble early human development far more than does Klusendorf’s latent Polaroid image analogy without relying on any notion of unchanging substance, and which contradict the natural/constructed dichotomy. You made no answer.

You said “I see no rational defense of the idea that self-awareness separates human persons from human non-persons. It is merely something that authority figures have come up with because it is in their self-interest to disqualify the human fetus.” And you cited, as authority for the principle of equality that was supposed to justify the banning of abortion, the Declaration of Independence. I put the famous sentence, “We hold these truths...,” in historical context. The discovery of equality seems to have depended, in part, on a new way of taking seriously the sympathy we naturally feel for our fellow human beings. Sympathy means imagining yourself in another’s place, experiencing what they experience. So, from the beginning, recognition of equality was based on self-awareness. Secondly, being “created equal” referred to an original position in “the state of nature”, before the institution of government had been formed, not to being created in the womb. It expressed a historical understanding that distinctions of rank and privilege were man-made, not natural. Understood in this way, as the people of the time did, the sentence has no bearing on the issue of abortion. You made no answer.

As I see it, for all your talk about authority grounding absolute values, this left you without any authority for, or any rationale for explaining, the claim that embryos and fetuses deserve to be treated with the same respect we accord children and adults.

Instead of defending your previous claims, you produced a new attack, which could be called an argument by elimination. You claimed that, if the species criterion were rejected (“that all human beings are valuable because they are human”), the only logical alternative must allow all kinds of moral horrors. I answered, in my last response, that this was a false dichotomy. There are many possible alternative positions other than the nightmare scenario you outlined. I listed the kinds of issues open for consideration, different choices on which would result in different positions. You didn’t seem to get my point (it’s probably my fault), so you repeated the argument more explicitly in your last response, quoting Robert P. George. I will try here again to explain why this argument, until it is filled out, lacks force.

You list three alternatives, roughly these: no human beings, all human beings, or some human beings are more valuable than animals.

It’s a good start. That’s an exhaustive list. If you can eliminate two, the remaining one must be true.

Then you quote George. He eliminates “no human beings”, and continues: “Anyone who accepts the third position will, in fairly short order, find himself driven by the force of logical argumentation into the [infanticide] positions infamously defended by Peter Singer. (We can go through this exercise, if you like.) Assuming one doesn't want to embrace Singerism, that leaves the second position."

That’s really wonderful, pure Robert P. George. Let me offer another example of this form of argument:

There’s a large jar filled with marbles. We have to guess how many marbles it contains. There are three alternatives: the jar contains zero marbles, one marble, or more than one marble. Now clearly, since we see marbles, the jar can’t be empty, so we can eliminate “zero”. Singer has infamously proposed the jar contains ten million marbles. If we choose “more than one”, we will find ourselves being driven by force of logical argumentation into accepting Singer’s estimate. (We can go through this exercise, if you like.) Assuming one doesn't want to embrace Singerism, that leaves the second position.

Until the maker of such an argument troubles himself to “go through the exercise” of eliminating ALL the alternatives, he has proved nothing. The simple-sounding claim that “some human beings” are more valuable than animals covers a very large range of possible positions, corresponding to an even larger range of arguments for and against them, many of which, no doubt, have not even been thought of yet. You kept challenging me to argue against Singer. But if you are making an argument by elimination, it is up to you to eliminate every position besides the one you have otherwise failed to support.

Nevertheless, you have set the bar so low that it is easy to offer an alternative to the “all humans” criterion. As far as I can tell, you have offered and defended NO reasons to include human embryos and pre-sentient fetuses in the circle of moral concern (other than the very great concern that willing expectant parents very understandably have). It is not even clear to me that you do care about them. It seems to be more that you fear that dire consequences to other human beings would follow if we do not protect them. Given this weak position, to equal it, any other arbitrary criterion which is not logically self-contradictory and does not entail general mayhem should do. Very well, here is one:

Basic principle 1: only sentient beings are moral subjects (where by sentient I mean beings who have been conscious and either are conscious now or will be in the future.) Basic principle 2: only moral subjects have rights. Basic principle 3: Subject to principle 2, all humans have special, human rights. Conclusion: all sentient human beings and no non-sentient ones have human rights. 

I can’t justify this criterion as uniquely true with an argument by elimination, but neither can you yours. I haven’t tried to argue that this position is superior to Singer’s, but you haven’t made such an argument for the pro-life criterion either. That just leaves us with the task of doing the best we can at coming up with principles which seem to do justice to our moral intuitions while at the same time paying due respect to the facts of the objective world as we diligently try to understand them. There is no reason I know of that the answers should be simple, let alone summarizable in a simple slogan.

I am not claiming that the above criterion would be my final answer. I have not even read Singer yet. I don’t know the issues or arguments surrounding all the difficult bioethical situations that may arise. The main point I have wanted to make is that it is my strong intuition, and consistent with my other beliefs, that an organism which has never been conscious does not merit our moral concern. It makes sense to me that the much greater concern due a human being must be conditioned on this prior, more basic criterion of sentience. You have claimed that, if I accept this, I must also accept all kinds of propositions I may not be comfortable with. But unless you “go through the exercise” of demonstrating this, I have no reason to believe you. If you cannot, you have no reason to believe it either.

Reasoning by a process of elimination, when done right, is perfectly valid. It has been said (by
Bruce Thompson) that “the fallacy of Black and White Thinking mimics reasoning by process of elimination, but it eliminates too much too quickly, i.e. it places options out of consideration before they have truly been eliminated.” Perhaps it’s time you abandoned it.

Basis for Morality

Let’s begin with your very odd discussion of the Ring of Gyges. This may be at the heart of our disagreement over morality, and it may come down to a disagreement over human nature.

You say:
In his work, THE RING OF GYGES, Plato recognized that each person generally takes pleasure in harming others but displeasure in being harmed themselves. Thus, when we put ourselves in another man's shoes we decide that it would be better to agree not to harm others, such that we can guarantee that we will not be harmed. 
Contrary to what you are saying, though, it is not concern for another person's well being that compels us to do this, but concern for our own well being. Plato then pointed out that if it was possible to obtain the power to do whatever you wanted without fear of adjudication, no man would continue to adhere to this standard. If this is true, then morality is nothing more than an extension of the will of those with authority. Morality becomes meaningless if there is no one to enforce it.

Two puzzles about this passage struck me: how did you come to believe this, and what is your attitude toward this view of morality?

Obviously, you did not come by this bit of lore first-hand. There is no work by Plato called “The Ring of Gyges.” The story of the ring is told by a character in a Platonic dialogue, namely by Glaucon in Book II of the Republic. Socrates (who is usually closest to Plato’s point of view) had been defending the view that justice is good for its own sake, and that a just man will live well, and an unjust one badly, against Thrasymachus, who held that justice is just “the advantage of the stronger” (which sounds close to your view, that it is “the extension of the will of those in authority”). He also held that completely unjust men (like tyrants) are clever and good, and that justice is “just very high-minded simplicity.” But Thrasymachus got thrashed by Socrates, and threw in the towel. So Glaucon (Plato’s brother) stepped in to play the devil’s advocate, representing not his own view, but “most people’s opinion”, that “all who practice justice do so unwillingly, as something necessary, not as something good,” and that “the life of an unjust person is much better than that of a just one.” To press this case as strongly as he can, he tells the story of the ring, which makes its wearer invisible, and thus allows him to act unjustly while avoiding the consequences, so that Socrates will be forced to defend justice as a good in itself even when unrewarded and even when injustice is rewarded. As often happens in Platonic dialogues, it’s not clear this goal is ever accomplished, though Socrates clearly believes justice is a good.

How, I wonder, did you come to believe that Plato held a view he in fact strenuously opposed? And do you believe it yourself? You seem to. But this is a completely cynical and relativistic position, that justice is whatever benefits those in power. But you have spoken with the greatest disdain of “those in positions of authority” who invent ideas about what’s right and wrong merely to promote their own interests.

The best I can figure out, it goes like this for you: human nature is evil. Humans act only for selfish reasons, and they take pleasure in harming others. Wise pagans like Plato recognized this. So does your brand of Christianity, I would guess. If “morality is nothing more than an extension of the will of those with authority,” which you apparently believe (!?), then the only choice is what authority to recognize. If there is one Absolute, Divine Authority, then His arbitrary Will defines the one true universal morality. Without Him, we only have men who happen to be in positions of authority, who just define morality to be whatever is in their own self-interest. In other words, it’s another black-or-white choice between just two alternatives: God-dictated absolute values or interest-group-dictated relativism. Did I get that about right?

In the course of this debate, I’d always found strange your reference to people “in authority” as the culprits responsible for the moral ideas you oppose, because I view the morality of a society as arising much more widely, from the temper of the times, people’s ways of life, their ideas, their economic activity, their art forms, their religious beliefs, etc. No one clique, no matter how powerful, can determine what seems right or wrong to large groups of people. (Though, come to think of it, Fox does a pretty good job.) But you apparently believe it’s a war between God and, what? Liberal intellectuals?

Maybe it is. Except naturally I’d put “God” in quotes.

On second thought, no. There are Christians on both sides of this. Probably the more important divide is between those who believe, as you seem to hold, that humans only act selfishly and delight in harming each other, and those who take a more benign view of human nature. I urge you to read some of Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments. It begins: “How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.” (This, remember, is by the original theorist of free market capitalism, not some namby-pamby liberal.)

Current psychology supports this view. Even evolutionary psychologists now recognize that cooperation, not just competition, plays a central role in human evolution and behavior. The child psychologist Paul Bloom, for instance, in a May 2010 article for the New York Times Magazine,
The Moral Life of Babies, recounts many behaviors of babies which reveal an innate foundation for morality. Not only are they empathetic, crying in sympathy with others’ pain, and soothing others in distress. Toddlers spontaneously help others, without encouragement or reward. After witnessing puppet shows in which characters either helped or hindered others, five-, six- and ten-month olds preferred the helpers and showed aversion to the hinderers. 18-month olds identified the helpers as nice and good, the hinderers as mean and bad. 21-month olds rewarded the positive characters and punished the negative. Most remarkable, an experiment with 8-month olds had them choose between two puppets, one who had rewarded a good guy in the puppet show, and one who had punished a good guy; in another case they chose between a puppet who had rewarded a bad guy versus one who had punished a bad guy. The babies chose the puppet who was nice to the good guy (the helper), and the one who punished the bad guy (the hinderer). At eight months old they were demonstrating something like a sense of justice!

Bloom describes these responses as “gut level”, as probably “cognitively empty but emotionally intense, replete with strong feelings and strong desires.” He distinguishes these early stages from a mature morality which is based on a notion of impartiality, the idea that actions are justified not by the mere “because I want to” of selfish desire, but by appeals to principles like fairness that “imply that anyone else in the same situation could have done the same.” It is this kind of justification which can be “convincing to a neutral observer and is at the foundation of standards of justice and law.” But Bloom notes: “moral principles are different from other types of rules or laws: they cannot, for instance, be overruled solely by virtue of authority. Even a 4-year-old knows not only that unprovoked hitting is wrong but also that it would continue to be wrong even if a teacher said that it was O.K.” But, because youngsters are also inclined to favor members of their own group to outsiders, Bloom believes that generality and ultimately universality of moral judgements are not innate, but are insights that emerge historically. He cites recent social science research that shows that “people’s propensities to behave kindly to strangers and to punish unfairness are strongest in large-scale communities with market economies, where such norms are essential to the smooth functioning of trade.”  Bloom concludes that these properties of “enlightened morality” are “the product of culture, not biology... of the accumulation of rational insight and hard earned innovations.... Morality, then, is a synthesis of the biological and the cultural, of the unlearned, the discovered and the invented. Babies possess certain moral foundations – the capacity and willingness to judge the actions of others, some sense of justice, gut responses to altruism and nastiness. Regardless of how smart we are, if we didn’t start with this basic apparatus, we would be nothing more than amoral agents, ruthlessly driven to pursue our self-interest. But our capacities as babies are sharply limited. It is the insights of rational individuals that make a truly universal and unselfish morality something that our species can aspire to.”

I don’t know if Paul Bloom makes this rather complex interaction of universal human nature and culture any clearer to you than I was able to with my clumsy music analogy and my account of a historical change in attitudes toward sympathy. For you to make heads or tails of it, you would probably have to begin by jettisoning the notion that “each person generally takes pleasure in harming others” and that we are only concerned with our own well being. If you really believed this, I doubt you would be so unselfishly active in the pro-life cause. The only people this description describes accurately are psychopaths, those who lack the capacity for empathy, and probably for moral sentiments of any kind.

Some claim that psychopaths are less rare than once thought (perhaps 1% of the population), and more prominent in positions of power. Jon Ronson’s new book The Psychopath Test deals with this humorously. Even if it turned out that psychopaths play important roles in society, it would still make no sense to try to understand morality as a system a psychopath would find compelling. For the vast majority of people, I believe, sympathy plays at least as important a role in their lives as raw self-interest. For them, it would not be true that “Morality becomes meaningless if there is no one to enforce it.”

Incidentally, the portrait of infancy Paul Bloom sketches reveals the simplistic nature of glib talk about rationality and moral agency as conditions of personhood which only appear late in childhood. These infants are exhibiting uniquely human non-rational capabilities which are at the core of our moral natures.

There are some points you made that I thought were well taken, or at least challenging. You wrote:

Is Classical Music right while Heavy Metal Rock is wrong? No. It's just a matter of likes and dislikes. In the same way, your beliefs about morality are reduced to nothing more than cultural norms and the will of those in the position of authority. 
As I recall, you originally said that it is dangerous to rely on cultural norms for determining morality, alluding to the holocaust as an example. But by your analogy, can you say the Nazis were wrong? I don't think so. They were just listening to music (morality) that they liked. 
Now, you do attempt to clear this up with reflective thought. Putting yourself in another person's shoes and then deciding whether or not an action is permissible. However, I think that without realizing it, you have assumed an objective moral. That moral being that we ought to care how others feel.

It might be useful to consider first how Adam Smith might have responded to the Nazis. Consider this passage:
When we read in history concerning the perfidy and cruelty of a Borgia or a Nero, our heart rises up against the detestable sentiments which influenced their conduct, and renounces with horror and abomination all fellow-feeling with such execrable motives. So far our sentiments are founded upon the direct antipathy to the affections of the agent: and the indirect sympathy with the resentment of the sufferers is still more sensibly felt. When we bring home to ourselves the situation of the persons whom those scourges of mankind insulted, murdered, or betrayed, what indignation do we not feel against such insolent and inhuman oppressors of the earth? Our sympathy with the unavoidable distress of the innocent sufferers is not more real nor more lively, than our fellow-feeling with their just and natural resentment. The former sentiment only heightens the latter, and the idea of their distress serves only to inflame and blow up our animosity against those who occasioned it. When we think of the anguish of the sufferers, we take part with them more earnestly against their oppressors; we enter with more eagerness into all their schemes of vengeance, and feel ourselves every moment wreaking, in imagination, upon such violators of the laws of society, that punishment which our sympathetic indignation tells us is due to their crimes. Our sense of the horror and dreadful atrocity of such conduct, the delight which we take in hearing that it was properly punished, the indignation which we feel when it escapes this due retaliation, our whole sense and feeling, in short, of its ill desert, of the propriety and fitness of inflicting evil upon the person who is guilty of it, and of making him grieve in his turn, arises from the sympathetic indignation which naturally boils up in the breast of the spectator, whenever he thoroughly brings home to himself the case of the sufferer. 
Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments II.i.5.6              
I think this well-describes the feelings all of us have had toward the Nazis and other such modern Neros. Contrast this reaction with your claim that my “beliefs about morality are reduced to nothing more than cultural norms and the will of those in the position of authority,” and your surmise that I would not be able to tell the Nazis that they were wrong. Paul Bloom tells of an experiment in which toddlers were shown a puppet show in which one puppet was helpful and cooperative and another selfish and uncooperative. After the show, when given a choice of which puppet to take a treat away from, a one-year-old was not satisfied to take it from the “naughty” one. “He leaned over and smacked the puppet in the head.” Punishment of wrong-doers is not a cultural norm. It is human nature.

So can I say the Nazis were wrong? Of course I can, and do.

It seems to me that you want to stand in the place of God and look down on the Nazis and say, “I know, because I am in possession of the absolute truth, that you are wrong. And as proof, you will be punished in the next life. And I thank God I know you will be punished, because if you weren’t, I couldn’t say you were wrong.”

This is what I would say: “I have seen the pictures. I have heard the stories. I know what you put innocent people through and what you took from them. In every morally relevant way, they were like you. They were like me. They had the same loves, desires and fears. Look now. See what you’ve done. You know as well as I do that what you did was wrong. If you don’t, you are either in denial about what was done, or you are mentally deficient, or still under the delusion that the Jews were subhuman, or evil and a threat. All the lies you let yourselves believe! That too was wrong. Shame on you! And remember, so you don’t do anything like that again!” I can say all that without pretending I know the mind of God, or anyone’s fate in the afterlife. I can say it as a human being, as this human being to those human beings, by calling on our common humanity. It is not hard to do.

It is not a question of whether “we ought to care how others feel”. We do. We’re just good at ignoring it sometimes. We fail to exercise our moral imaginations. But they are there and can be appealed to. Reason doesn’t have to start from scratch. It starts from this common ground, and then adds considerations of impartiality and generality and an unbiased weighing of the facts.

Germans have understood and admitted their crimes. They don’t simply regret their defeat. As a part of this willing admission, they have built monuments memorializing the Holocaust. Where, in the Vatican, is there a monument to the victims of the Inquisition or the Crusades? This is impossible, because the Catholic Church pretends to stand in the place of God, looking down on humans, and to speak in the voice of absolute truth. It cannot admit culpability and retain its authority. So instead of execrating ‘Hitler’s Pope’, Pius XII, who signed a treaty with Hitler instead of using his place of prominence and authority to witness for the good and stand with the victims, the church now seeks to canonize him! This should revolt everyone on earth. Anyone who speaks for the Catholic Church, far from being recognized as a moral authority on that account, should be considered morally suspect. They are posers and self-deceivers. I think it’s clear from this example that the mere belief in absolutes gets you absolutely nowhere.

But there is still your objection to be considered that “it’s just a matter of likes and dislikes”. Even if those likes and dislikes are largely instinctual, and can be traced back to infancy, have I assumed not only that we have these moral sentiments by nature, but that we ought to, that they are morally correct? If so, where is my authority for that?

As it happens, Adam Smith was aware of this problem, which, surprisingly, he addressed in a footnote to the above passage. Smith knew that its full-throated expression of resentment and vengeful anger, even toward a villain like Nero, was so shocking that it needed some justification. In a long footnote he defends the appropriateness of these sentiments, even bringing in the Biblical “wrath and anger of God” to show that such passions were not necessarily vicious or evil. But then he continues:

Let it be considered too, that the present inquiry is not concerning a matter of right, if I may say so, but concerning a matter of fact. We are not at present examining upon what principles a perfect being would approve of the punishment of bad actions; but upon what principles so weak and imperfect a creature as man actually and in fact approves of it. The principles which I have just now mentioned, it is evident, have a very great effect upon his sentiments; and it seems wisely ordered that it should be so. The very existence of society requires that unmerited and unprovoked malice should be restrained by proper punishments; and consequently, that to inflict those punishments should be regarded as a proper and laudable action. Though man, therefore, be naturally endowed with a desire of the welfare and preservation of society, yet the Author of nature has not entrusted it to his reason to find out that a certain application of punishments is the proper means of attaining this end; but has endowed him with an immediate and instinctive approbation of that very application which is most proper to attain it. The oeconomy of nature is in this respect exactly of a piece with what it is upon many other occasions. With regard to all those ends which, upon account of their peculiar importance, may be regarded, if such an expression is allowable, as the favourite ends of nature, she has constantly in this manner not only endowed mankind with an appetite for the end which she proposes, but likewise with an appetite for the means by which alone this end can be brought about, for their own sakes, and independent of their tendency to produce it. Thus self-preservation, and the propagation of the species, are the great ends which Nature seems to have proposed in the formation of all animals. Mankind are endowed with a desire of those ends, and an aversion to the contrary; with a love of life, and a dread of dissolution; with a desire of the continuation and perpetuity of the species, and with an aversion to the thoughts of its intire extinction. But though we are in this manner endowed with a very strong desire of those ends, it has not been intrusted to the slow and uncertain determinations of our reason, to find out the proper means of bringing them about. Nature has directed us to the greater part of these by original and immediate instincts. Hunger, thirst, the passion which unites the two sexes, the love of pleasure, and the dread of pain, prompt us to apply those means for their own sakes, and without any consideration of their tendency to those beneficent ends which the great Director of nature intended to produce by them.                                                                                       
Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments II.i.5.10

In case this wasn’t altogether clear, Smith is saying that, just as we desire sex for its own sake, due to an instinct implanted in us by Nature to preserve the species, we desire punishment of wrongdoing for its own sake, due to an instinct implanted in us to preserve society from “unmerited and unprovoked malice.” Nature chooses that we should instinctually desire the means (sex itself, retribution itself), independent of the end, because it does not trust our reason to find out what the appropriate means are, even though we do desire the end as well.

I think this must sound very different to the two of us.

I can’t be sure how you would take it. One way would be to accept at face value that our moral instincts were put in us by God, and therefore have His authority. I have not heard from you, given that morals are supposed to be based on an absolute authority, how we are supposed to know what that authority says. Is conscience what you had in mind? Or the Bible? Or some church? I really don’t have a clue. According to Koukl, good and bad are supposed to be in the outside world as objective facts. How is that supposed to work, and what does authority have to do with that? Is the toddler who smacks the bad puppet doing so because he perceives objective badness? If so, why didn’t the Nazis perceive the wrongness of their acts? And if they don’t, on what authority can you tell them that they’re wrong? If you were to accept Adam Smith’s point of view, our moral sentiments would be our admittedly imperfect channels to God’s decrees for us.

For me, Smith’s account sounds very close to modern evolutionary psychology. We have these innate propensities because they led to the survival of our ancestors. If they hadn’t been adaptive, we wouldn’t have them, or we wouldn’t be here. But, regardless of how or why we got them, compassion and the thirst for justice are not just means to survival for us. They express what we value for its own sake.

So for you, if you accept conscience as God’s creation, its goodness is not in doubt. For me, there is the potential for irony. If I step away from humanity, and see us as evolved animals, then, paradoxically, the cold logic of survival seems to have determined that victimization of the innocent will cause my blood to boil with sympathetic indignation. (You may doubt that it does boil, because I am pro-choice. But “the innocent” for me means feeling human beings. Nonsentient bodies don’t ignite my passions.) Does this fact – that the Nature that endowed me with these feelings and perceptions was ... nonsentient itself – does this mean I should take my moral judgements less seriously? Are they just “likes and dislikes”, just evolutionary accidents, as opposed to objective moral truths?

Assuming you have gotten this far, you will probably hate it if I say I am not clear about this issue, but I’m not. But this is the way I have tended to think about it, in my own vague, fumbling way:

According to my beliefs, we are finite beings. We live a short time, and that is it. The best we can do is live a meaningful life as meaning presents itself to us. If we live according to someone else’s meaning, we have missed our chance for a life meaningful to us.

We are not privy to the mind of God. Or, as Adam Smith might say, we are ignorant of “what principles a perfect being would approve.” Our own minds are all we have to work with. If something is beautiful to us, it doesn’t matter how we came by this perception, or why we have this aesthetic faculty. Beauty is a good. We value it. If we care about someone being harmed, we care about it. It doesn’t matter if God cares or not. It doesn’t matter if we come by care for no moral reason, but because those who cared had their genes passed on. We are incensed at the victimizers, and we try to convince them to stop, or to stop them, because that is what makes sense to us. As far as I know, that is the kind of thing morality is (suitably abstracted to apply to all like cases. When it comes to abortion, what the ‘like cases’ are seems to be where you and I differ.)  Justice is a good to us. It is more than a personal like or dislike. It is a human like or dislike. If that does not amount to “a question of right” but only “a question of fact”, then so be it. At this point, it’s the best I know how to do.

I know that answer is incomplete. There are all kinds of things I haven’t considered – for instance conflicts between sentiments, their balance and the importance of fitting their degree to the circumstances. How do we come to value the just application of our sentiments? What is the role of reason? Is there some way in which objective truth might arise from the application of reason in this field which would not depend on anything innately human, as it does in mathematics for instance? I don’t see it, but I’m woefully ignorant, and perhaps I’ve missed something important. I’ve just tried to explain, as a person, not a philosopher (which I’m not), how things seem to me.

You are welcome to answer if you like. If you don’t I will not continue this, except for one last installment. It is a piece I wrote in answer to your May 4 comment on the Russian spy story at I submitted my answer – not a very long one – weeks ago, but LTI never published it. Since they never bothered to inform me why, I think it is fair to assume it was cowardice. I will publish a version of that response here shortly. I think it is quite tricky and clever (unlike most of what I write.)

Thanks again, Jay, for all the effort you put into this. I’ve enjoyed it.

Best regards,

Jerry  Lame

Thursday, May 19, 2011

More Responses to a Pro-lifer’s questions – of stones, notes, cows, and the Enlightenment

This was written in response to Jay Whip’s comments to my last blog entry, which were dated May 6, 2011. He has since posted a version of them on his blog at


Thanks for giving me a much better sense of where you’re coming from. You probably won’t agree, but this is my impression from what you’ve told me: You are not able to (what I would call) make moral sense of the world. You cannot explain why the cows your family raised, which recognized and trusted you, and seemed even to have personalities, and could form relationships with your family (as shown by the pet Amos), could be sold to be butchered, while severely mentally handicapped children, with much more impoverished mental lives and relationships, should be cared for as if they were normal children. You are convinced no rational sense can be made of this, so there must simply be an arbitrary rule, backed up by an authority, which ordains this to be the moral order. The rule is (roughly speaking): human beings count for everything, animals for nothing. If I asked you what sets humans apart in this way (although they too are animals), and on what basis you claim that this holds for human beings at every stage of development and regardless of mental status, it seems you would answer something like this: “I claim it on the authority of God, as attested to by the Declaration of Independence and self-evidence.” You might call on metaphysics too, but in this experience-based account, you refrained. Instead you closed with what I gather was an unstated argument that there are only two tenable positions: yours and a savagely embellished version of Singer’s in which babies, the mentally handicapped and sleepers can be murdered at will and equal rights are abandoned. Only by accepting the species line as the absolute criterion for full human rights, you seem to claim, can all the morally troubling contradictions in how humans and animals are treated be justified, and humans’ special place in the world be preserved.

Two metaphors – stones and notes

Your metaphor for explaining morality, the mysterious found message written in stones, saying “Turn around and go home,” makes your points precisely because it is completely arbitrary. It is not based on any facts or reasons. It is not the moral of any story. It doesn’t try to make sense. It’s just a command: “Do this, no questions asked – or answered.” But this is very different from the way ethical problems and the judgements we make about them normally present themselves to us, so it is a very poor and misleading metaphor. Let me suggest a different one:

When you are listening to a piece of music, if someone sings a wrong note, or plays a wrong chord, if you have any musical sense at all, you wince. Even if it’s a piece of music you’ve never heard before, as long as it’s in a musical tradition you’re familiar with, you know the note is wrong; you sense it. If you’re not a musician, you can’t even give any reasons for your judgement. It’s just wrong. It sounds awful.

Did a musical authority make this wrong? Does it help to think so? If somebody were punished for the wrong note, would that make it any more objectively wrong? Did somebody have to create and ordain the rule the note is breaking, and then plant the rule in your head by divine fiat, so you would know when it was violated? Does the fact that a note can sound awful prove that such a God of music exists? All this is absurd.

So what’s going on here? First, the note is heard in a context. It’s not just an isolated thing that must be judged arbitrarily as right or wrong. That context involves rules. There are right notes and wrong notes. There are also meaningless and meaningful notes. Were the rules for right and wrong, meaningful and meaningless, laid down by a law giver or designed by a designer? No they weren’t, any more than the English language was designed (though curiously you seem to believe that it was). Like English grammar, the rules of Western music evolved, over time, as people made music and listened to the music others made, and improvised, and composed, and repeated, modified and elaborated. Almost all this was done free of musical theory. Experience and intuition guided it. Was the result a completely arbitrary set of rules? Could any old pattern of notes be made right or wrong by this process? No. The rules were shaped by human nature, specifically by the human mind as constrained by human brain structure – by the human musical faculty if you like – but also by historical contingency, including the works of the great composers. That’s why there are different musical traditions, as there are different languages, and why those traditions change over time.

Is it an objective or just a subjective statement to say “that was a wrong note”? If the person making it is musically competent, it’s a completely objective statement. Does that mean that it can be derived from physical science alone? Hardlly. Acoustics does play some role (the Greeks were impressed by the simple ratios of harmonic intervals) but the rightness or wrongness of a note can’t be found in its acoustics. Goodness isn’t in the note itself, if the objective note is something out there, isolated, independent of all observers, just vibrations in air. But that isn’t the musical note, because music takes place in its own rule-governed realm of harmony and melody and rhythm accessible only by the human mind. What a strange thing! It is transmitted and embodied by physical sounds, but it is essentially mental. There is no music without minds to make it and to hear it. Yet we can agree on whether that was a wrong note or a right note, without knowing why. So what kind of objectivity is this? It’s reliable intersubjective agreement about a reality that evolved and exists in an intersubjective, mental realm. That reality wasn’t chosen consciously. It is not arbitrary. It doesn’t just depend on how we feel, or even on our opinions. It seems like something outside us; it transcends the individual. It is an expression of human nature and culture at a particular place and time. I’m not saying this is a perfect analogy, but I think it raises some questions for an authority-based approach.

I listened to the Greg Koukl video you recommended, titled “Grounding Morality”. At the end, he counters Michael Shermer’s question, “Would you still be good if God didn’t exist?” with his own: “Would you still be faithful to your wife if you were never married?” I think an unstated implication of the question is that being good is being faithful to God; if there were no God, goodness would be impossible because there would be no one to be faithful to. Koukl uses rape as an example of a moral wrong. Objectivism, he says, is the claim that the wrongness is in the rape, “no matter who’s viewing it.” (He doesn’t actually say, “independent of all observers,” but he implies it.) So evidently rape is only wrong, according to objectivism, because God deemed it so, and we refrain from rape because we are obligated to obey Him, and we are faithful to Him, not because of anything to do with us or with our fellow humans. But rape is an act involving two subjects. Rape is an intersubjective reality. We judge it wrong, I hold, when we consider that reality, including the two subjects, and their relationship as mediated by the act of rape. It is sufficient for that judgement if we are faithful to the victim. (And the victim may well ask, who is God faithful to?) If someone needs to know that rape is punished to know it’s wrong, there’s something missing in him. No doubt there are many Christian husbands, faithful to their Lord, who believe that God’s arbitrary rule is that a man cannot, by definition, rape his wife, so such an act is not punishable, and who therefore feel justified in ignoring the call of conscience that tells them, despite their beliefs, that there is something wrong with this note.  

I believe moral judgements arise out of the way we perceive and respond to interactions between subjects (agents and experiencers). These judgements resemble in many ways musical and grammatical judgements, except that the participants in the judged objects are not words or notes, but often fellow moral judges and agents, who together with us constitute our moral world. We don’t fully understand the basis for these judgments, although we may think we do. Their verdicts just seem to inhere, as qualities, in situations perceived as stories. They often come charged with emotion. Our moral judgements are, as a matter of fact, deeply affected by our native place in history and culture. They are not voluntary. They seem to call out from the world itself, as we understand it, but they express everything that we are.

While I have been elaborating this metaphor, I could almost hear you thinking: “Aha! Relativism! But human equality is universally true. That requires a universal authority to make it so.”

That brings up an interesting story I’ve been meaning to mention.

Our Enlightenment Heritage

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

When I first encountered the surprising use of this sentence from the Declaration of Independence to support the pro-life cause, two things struck me. First, the idea that the founders could have meant, by “created”, the conception of an individual in the womb, seemed ludicrous. (The 1948 U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights, echoing the 1789 French Declaration of the Rights of Man, reads “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” It means pretty much what “all men are created equal” was intended to mean.) Second, emphasis on reference to a Creator in the Declaration is part of a case the Christian Right seeks to make that our government is founded on belief in God, so separation of church and state is a mistake, and Christian morality (as known with certainty by conservative evangelicals) must be respected and reflected in our laws. I regarded this use as a pathetic and desperate ploy forced on the enemies of secular government by the fact that the founders studiously avoided all mention of God in the true legal foundation of our nation, the Constitution. (There is one exception: the document is dated “in the Year of our Lord” 1787. Even this has been grasped by theocrats as confirmation of their cause.)

But you have helped me to see, Jay, that the pro-life use of this sentence is not just a ploy, but plays a pivotal role for you. You believe that morality is founded on God, as revealed by Christianity. And you believe, both as a good American and a pro-life advocate, in universal human equality as a moral imperative. But there are no Christian texts supporting human equality here on earth. The history of the Christian West up until the Enlightenment is a history of inequality: of hierarchy, serfdom, slavery and racism; of monarchs crowned by popes, the divine right of kings, and aristocracies whose privileges attested to their innate superiority and divine favor. This was not because an original, strong Christian recognition of equality had been ignored or corrupted. Early Christians did not free even their Christian slaves. Throughout most of history the ideas of human equality and equal human rights were simply unknown, and would have been rejected as shocking and absurd. This one sentence from the Declaration of Independence, linking God with equality, is the best you’ve got.

The historian Lynn Hunt, in her book Inventing Human Rights: A History, takes up what she calls “the paradox of self-evidence”: “if equality of rights is so self-evident, then why did this assertion have to be made and why was it only made in specific times and places?” Specifically, in the mid-eighteenth century, at the height of the Enlightenment, when equality of rights became self-evident, “how did these men, living in societies built on slavery, subordination, and seemingly natural subservience, ever come to imagine men not at all like them and, in some cases, women too, as equals?”

Revolutions in morals and world-views, like all momentous historical events, are profound and mysterious things with many causes. I will mention two here: a new historical creation myth, and the expansion of empathy.

Lynn Hunt explores the latter. In the eighteenth century there was a change in, and a new kind of attention paid to “sensibility” and the exercise of sympathy. Hunt emphasizes the role in this change of rise of the “epistolary novel” like Richardson’s Clarissa, in which the mind and feelings of characters are expressed in letters, the protagonists often being women of noble character but inferior social class. Even prominent men avowed being deeply affected by reading such novels. There was a debate about their effect on morals. Hunt writes:

“Ultimately at stake in this conflict of views about the novel was nothing less than the valorization of ordinary secular life as the foundation for morality. In the eyes of the critics of novel reading, sympathy with a novelistic heroine encouraged the worst in the individual (illicit desires and excessive self-regard) and demonstrated the irrevocable degeneration of the secular world. For the adherents of the new view of empathetic moralization, in contrast, such identification showed that the arousal of passion could help transform the inner nature of the individual and produce a moral society. They believed that the inner nature of humans provided a grounding for social and political authority.

“The magical spell cast by the novel thus turned out to be far-reaching in its effects. Although the adherents of the novel did not say so explicitly, they understood that writers such as Richardson and Rousseau were effectively drawing their readers into daily life as a kind of substitute religious experience. Readers learned to appreciate the emotional intensity of the ordinary and the capacity of people like themselves to create on their own a moral world. Human rights grew out of the seedbed sowed by these feelings. Human rights could only flourish when people learned to think of others as their equals, as like them in some fundamental fashion. They learned this equality, at least in part, by experiencing identification with ordinary characters who seemed dramatically present and familiar, even if ultimately fictional.” (Inventing Human Rights, pp.57-58)

Later, abolitionists fostered expansion of the circle of empathy still further by promoting first-person accounts by freed slaves, which Hunt calls “novelistic autobiographies.” Probably the main mode of abolitionist argument was to point out that African slaves were men like us, with feelings like ours. Put yourself in the slave’s place, and perceive the injustice done him, they would say.

Hunt also cites Adam Smith, founder of economics and conservative icon, who, before The Wealth of Nations, penned The Theory of Moral Sentiments, in which the ability to imagine ourselves in the situation of others, feeling what they feel (which Smith called ‘sympathy’), is portrayed as the source of moral judgements. He would say that we disapprove of rape because we identify with the victim and share her suffering and her resentment at the perpetrator. You may wonder, Jay, having quizzed me on the objectivity or subjectivity of my opinions, how moral judgement can transcend the merely personal given such a philosophy. Smith writes, “We endeavour to examine our own conduct as we imagine any other fair and impartial spectator would examine it. If, upon placing ourselves in his situation, we thoroughly enter into all the passions and motives which influenced it, we approve of it, by sympathy with the approbation of this supposed equitable judge. If otherwise, we enter into his disapprobation, and condemn it.”  Thus, by combining sympathy and the imagination of an impartial spectator, a kind of objectivity is achieved, which is not based on explicit laws, but the richness of natural emotions. Smith believed that, like our sense of beauty, the moral sentiments could be affected to some degree by “fashion and custom”, but “the sentiments of moral approbation and disapprobation, are founded on the strongest and most vigorous passions of human nature; and though they may be somewhat warpt, cannot be entirely perverted.” Smith promised to treat “the general principles of law and government” in a later treatise that never appeared. Rights play no part in his account. But the year of publication, 1759, coincides closely with that brief period in history when equal, universal human rights began to seem self-evident.

The second cause I’ll mention for the revolution in outlook that led to the declaration that “all men are created equal” can be found in a little book called Common Sense by Tom Paine. One of the most effective pieces of propaganda of all time, it was on everybody’s mind when independence was deliberated.  Paine’s parable begins:

In order to gain a clear and just idea of the design and end of government, let us suppose a small number of persons settled in some sequestered part of the earth, unconnected with the rest, they will then represent the first peopling of any country, or of the world. In this state of natural liberty, society will be their first thought. 

Paine then narrates how and why they would set up their first government. Nothing could seem more simple, more like just plain common sense. But this was literally revolutionary. Paine was expressing, in a way immigrants to a new continent would easily grasp, notions that had come to be known, in the philosophies of Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau, as “the state of nature” and the “social contract”. In the state of nature, at the beginning, before institutions had been set up, all men started out equal. Governments and laws were their own creations, which they had established for their own benefit – not at the command or for the benefit of any deity, not to serve a king anointed by a priest who spoke for God. The Hebrew Bible’s creation story for the Hebrew nation began with God choosing a man and giving him and his descendants a land and laws to obey, and priests to remind them when they were straying from His wishes. Paine’s was a different kind of story altogether, in which men came to a land and set up a state of their own free will. Christians who love reading that we are endowed by our Creator with rights seem to forget that the Declaration also says that government derives its “just powers from the consent of the governed,” not from God, and that “it is the Right of the People ... to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness,” not on principles declared by God, or to please Him, but to secure our own well-being, by means determined by our own reason. That’s the voice of the Enlightenment.

By declaring all men equal, the signers of the Declaration were denying the divine right of kings and the special rights and feigned superiority of aristocrats.  All such distinctions of rank were man-made, artificial, not ordained, or in the blood, or from the beginning. That’s what “created equal” meant. People figured that out, without being told by an authority, by studying history and thinking for themselves.

I have discussed the now common-sense “creation myth” in terms of liberty and equality in “the state of nature” and the “social contract”. I probably should also have mentioned another innovation: “happiness.” The idea that the purpose of governments is to ensure this-worldly happiness must also have been new. To make miserable sinners happy could hardly have been a goal during much of Christian history. That societies could be improved in order to do this better was the idea of progress, another child of the Enlightenment.

Theologies and political theories often echo each other. Christian theology imagines God a king and lawgiver; Christian monarchs had ruled for centuries by divine right; laws were pronounced in their names. Jefferson, like many of the founders, was a Deist; he worshipped “Nature’s God”. As the creator of nature, He created us equal (without distinctions of rank or privilege), gave us reason to conduct our affairs as we saw fit, with moral sentiments to guide us, and then He let the universe loose, with His best wishes. He did not wish to reign as King. Deists often spoke of Divine Providence. (Martin Luther King Jr.’s "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice" would be at home in this tradition.) But as for laws to govern the affairs of men – those were up to us.  

Christians often claim that atheists unwittingly rely, parasitically, on their religious heritage for their moral values. As you and Koukl claim, only an absolute authority can ground values. But ironically, when it comes to the modern democratic values of self-government, equality and human rights, the situation is just the reverse. Conservative evangelical Christian Americans owe their American values to the Age of Reason, and so to a worldview almost diametrically opposed to their own.

It is true that the founders and abolitionists called on God as an authority in their struggle. But He was invoked to endorse a set of beliefs that the Christian religion had almost nothing to do with. If Christianity were their source, it would not have taken seventeen centuries for them to appear. It was only after centuries of senseless bloody European religious wars had encouraged men to begin to free their minds from the thrall of religion that a new way of looking at things could arise and manage to express itself without being suppressed by ecclesiastical authorities. What Christianity was good for was organization and sustained moral fervor. Once the new moral vision arose, some dedicated Christians concluded that, since God is good, he must have been the Author of the equality and liberty that Christendom had until then so widely suppressed, and it must be their Christian duty to change society to bring it in line with God’s intentions. Bless them.

A good example of this is Thomas Clarkson, a colleague of William Wilberforce. In 1785 he wrote a prize-winning Latin essay about slavery, based on classical knowledge of early history and social contract theory. For instance it said, (I’m condensing here): “It appears first, that liberty is a natural, and government an adventitious right, because all men were originally free.... It appears secondly, that government is a contract.... It appears thirdly, that the grand object of the contract, is the happiness of the people... [Therefore] as the right to empire is adventitious; as all were originally free; as nature made every man's body and mind his own; it is evident that no just man can be consigned to slavery, without his own consent.” (An Essay on the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species, Part II, Chapters III and IV.) Notice it was not necessary to mention God or Christ in this proof. According to Wikipedia, “After winning the prize, Clarkson had what he called a spiritual revelation from God as he travelled on horseback between Cambridge and London... 'A thought came into my mind', he later wrote, 'that if the contents of the Essay were true, it was time some person should see these calamities to their end' (Clarkson, History, vol. 1). It was this experience and sense of calling that ultimately led him to devote his life to abolishing the slave trade.”

You have several times challenged me to account for how my point of view could deal with a society that has gone morally wrong. Without transcendent authority, how resist society’s norms? Two points: 1) People always believe that their moral judgements are shared by God. Southern slaveholders believed themselves good Christians. German Protestant clergy under the Nazis, with very few dissenters, supported the regime and devoted themselves to de-Judaizing their religion. 2) But the Enlightenment, with its this-worldly values, its attention to expanded sympathies, new philosophies, historical perspective, and optimistic pursuit of happiness, set in motion changes that overthrew long-established institutions, and gave us self-government, the end of slavery, and the ideal of universal human rights.

Given this history of the changes in thought and feeling which gave us equal human rights, who do you think more justly claims the mantle of the American revolutionaries and abolitionists, you or I? You claim to defend the arbitrary law of an absolute ruler, whose decrees defy our ability to understand or justify. The suffering and the rational pursuit of happiness by women in difficult circumstances you hold of no account. You sneer at appeals for respect by government of liberty of conscience and a sphere of privacy. When I argue that concern for the unborn is misplaced because they lack minds, and therefore, if we are honest and attentive to the facts, we recognize that we cannot identify with them, because they have no thoughts or feelings, you answer, “What do thoughts and feelings have to do with human rights? What absolute authority told you we have to be concerned with those? It sounds ad hoc to me.”

I ask you to read your account of the cows, but substitute slaves for cows, and “sold down the river” for sold for slaughter. I’m not saying that cows should be accorded human rights. I’m saying, compare your arguments to those of a slaveholder who believed, as some argued, that Africans were descendants of the Biblically cursed Ham, fated by God to serve their betters. Notice that your arguments from sympathy and fellow-feeling fall on one side; from social consensus, long-approved way of life, and God’s will on the other. When you compare your cows with severely handicapped children, I think you would agree that you are able to identify more with the cows. Our Enlightenment forbears did not ignore such sentiments. They reasoned about them; they moralized about them. And they overthrew religiously-sanctioned institutions in part for their sake.

Incidentally, when you say, “Anyone in my family would find it unthinkable to make Amos into a cheeseburger,” but then add that it would be “morally acceptable” for them to do so, doesn’t this reveal a troubling contradiction? You call your family’s sense of how Amos should be treated merely ‘subjective feelings’. I think there is a better word for it: ‘conscience’. Such subjective feelings are what made Huck aid a runaway slave even though he believed he’d be sent to Hell for it. Abolitionists appealed to them when they pointed out that an African slave has the same feelings as a white man. They are not infallible; perhaps they are only one piece in the puzzle; but they are not irrelevant to moral judgements and they should not be denigrated as merely “subjective.”

Paradoxical sympathies

There is one difficult point I noticed while I was finally getting around to reading some Adam Smith on the moral sentiments in preparation for writing this. Smith noted (in his very first chapter, on sympathy) the seeming paradox that sometimes our sentiments are based on a contradiction, an impossibility. We are embarrassed for the boorish person who is insensitive to his own boorishness, by putting ourselves in his position, imagining we had acted as he did, but with the addition that we are sensitive to our errors where he is not. Or we are sensible of the tragedy of the insane, who are unaware of what they have lost. “The anguish which humanity feels... at the sight of such an object, cannot be the reflection of any sentiment of the sufferer. The compassion of the spectator must arise altogether from the consideration of what he himself would feel if he was reduced to the same unhappy situation, and, what perhaps is impossible, was at the same time able to regard it with his present reason and judgement.” Smith also considers the mother who fears for her infant who cannot fear, and our fear of death, in which we imagine ourselves lowered into the grave. “The idea of that dreary and endless melancholy, which the fancy naturally ascribes to their condition, arises altogether from our joining to the change which has been produced upon them, our own consciousness of that change, from our putting ourselves in their situation, and from our lodging, if I may be allowed to say so, our own living souls in their inanimated bodies, and thence conceiving what would be our emotions in this case. It is from this very illusion of the imagination, that the foresight of our own dissolution is so terrible to us...,” although “the happiness of the dead ... is affected by none of these circumstances.”

It struck me that the comment by Christina Dunigan I wrote about, which totally baffled me, might be expressing such a paradoxical act of sympathy. It was even worse to kill a baby, Dunigan said, before she achieves consciousness, because it deprives her of the chance to experience anything at all. In order to make this judgement, Christina seems to be putting herself in the place of the fetus and imagining her loss (though I would say ‘loss’ is not the right word for the fetus, since you first need to have something in order to lose it, though it would be right for Christina, who imagines herself in its place). But what is being ‘lost’ is the ability to experience anything at all, including loss.

My argument has essentially been that this carries sympathy too far, because the only one who could actually have experienced the loss was a person in the future, who never came to be; and possible people who never come to exist are not of equal status with people who do or have existed. We cannot accord rights or afford sympathy to the first class (it is infinitely large); we do to the second, both the living and, in some respects, the dead. But, unfortunately, then we’re back to metaphysics and what it means for a person to exist. I have argued against the substance-based approach, and for one involving open systems and the centrality of the mental, which appears to be an emergent property of the brain.  

The use by pro-lifers of gruesome photos strikes me as another case of paradoxical sympathy. When we see a little human body dismembered, we are horrified. We cannot help but imagine if that were us, how we would have felt being torn apart. But we are imagining something impossible, if the body we see didn’t have a central nervous system that enabled it to sense anything at all about what was happening to it. How appropriate, then, is our horror? How morally relevant?

Moral reasoning – some methodology

Before I proceed, at long last, to your questions, I have a few observations on moral reasoning.You say:

I’m not saying that moral intuitions are useless when trying to determine the truth, but I think Singer rightly points out that if there is not a rational argument behind them, we must follow the logic wherever it takes us, regardless of how appalling the conclusions we reach are.

As I’ve said, I haven’t studied Singer, so I don’t know if this is his position. But, as you’ve stated it, I disagree. For me, what the philosopher John Rawls calls “reflective equilibrium” better describes moral reflection. I may be wrong, but it seems to me Rawls’ concept is very close to what people do in the field of linguistics when they study syntax. You start with intuitions: here moral intuitions, in linguistics grammatical intuitions. Something seems right or wrong, or grammatical or ungrammatical, or possibly something in between, or just strange. Then you come up with principles that would explain the intuitions if the principles produced them. If you try other examples, and the principles hold, then you have a pretty good grasp of the ethics, or the grammar, of these situations. On the other hand, if the intuitions don’t fit the rules you’ve invented to explain them, then typically you change the rules. But it’s a back and forth process. Sometimes, if the rules seem to be very good, and cover a lot of ground, then in a specific instance you may decide your intuitions were mistaken, and the morality or grammar you have devised does give the correct answer, although your first impression was otherwise. Rawls says you go back and forth like this until you reach equilibrium.

As I’ve already indicated, I think morality, like language, is a very complicated thing which we use without deeply understanding it. So I think it’s very dangerous to accept some principle as the true and certain basis of morality, and on that basis to ignore one’s own moral intuitions. That way lie crimes like the Inquisition and Stalinism. We don’t know, a priori, what the basis of morality is. All our moral knowledge is based on our intuitions. Even Bible-believers pick and choose which injunctions to heed and which to ignore according to what seems right to them. So when principles violently clash with intuitions, it is more likely that the principles are wrong than the intuitions. However, there are many ways to misread and ignore and deceive ourselves about our intuitions too. So it is not out of the question that a violent clash could result from one of these.

It’s also possible to mislead someone into substituting their genuine intuitions about one situation for their response to another quite different situation which they haven’t paid sufficient attention to. For instance, it might seem right to sweep Jews out of your neighborhood if you’re led to think of them as dirty rats. (Evoking disgust helps, since it can easily be confused with moral judgement.) Likewise, killing an embryo might seem horrendous because you’ve been led to think of it as a baby. So to get trustworthy intuitions you need to be careful to perceive the situation that you’re judging accurately, for what it is, not for what somebody has called it.

Science can often aid us in doing this. For instance, judging someone guilty of murder is a moral judgement. But it requires evidence, which is why we have trials. If science can reveal that, despite appearances, no murder took place, the verdict will be not guilty. In the case of abortion it’s not so clear cut, since there’s a question of what constitutes murder which science cannot answer. But science does have a lot to say about what is there and what isn’t, what changes and what doesn’t, and when. All this, it seems to me, ought to be relevant. At the very least, while examining our intuitions about abortion, we should pay attention to these facts. You might answer that pro-life forces do emphasize images of the unborn. My impression is that these images tend to be selective; they lack scale information; often they’re designed to evoke disgust; and, as I’ve mentioned before, comparative images of brains are never presented, and the importance of the brain is not considered. Without deep understanding of what they represent, images can be misleading. Something can remind you of a baby when it is actually something very different.

Your Questions

Finally I will try to answer the questions you posed to me on the Life Training Institute Blog on April 26 at

1. How did you reach your conclusions about consciousness and personhood, and to whose authority do you attribute them? Is it merely the consensus of society?

It’s hard to say just how I reached them, because this was something I worked out when I was young, between maybe 10 and 14. I think it started with my learning about physics, about the nature of light, and I realized colors weren’t in the world, they were in the mind. I was concerned with qualia without knowing the name for them. I tried to discuss consciousness with friends and family, but no one seemed to have an inkling of what I was talking about. That’s often still the case. I tried to figure out what made me me. I did thought experiments. If a finger was cut off, I would still be me, my finger wouldn’t. I decided I could lose any part of my body except my brain and still be me. But what was it about my brain that constituted my self? I didn’t know much about the brain, but I imagined there must be electrical currents, electrons moving around. Those were my thoughts maybe. But that’s where I stopped, stumped. I imagined myself very small inside my brain watching electrons moving around, and I couldn’t imagine how these could be related to my consciousness, yet somehow they were. To tell you the truth, I haven’t made much progress since.

A while back I sat in on a graduate philosophy seminar on John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding. I had never read it before. I loved it. Others in the seminar tended to be very critical, but to me a great deal of it just seemed obvious, and I agreed with it. David Richards was probably right to call me a Lockian, but that isn’t because I take Locke as my authority. We just have similar points of view about certain things. Locke distinguished the ‘person’ from the ‘man’. We would call Locke’s ‘man’ the organism and his ‘person’ the mind or consciousness. (I think. I’m a little rusty on this. That’s probably an oversimplification.) They aren’t the same. I agree.  

However, probably taking that class caused me eventually to take my last step away from the idea of personal identity as something that is preserved over time as the owner of experiences. So, in your thought experiment, if my mother were destroyed one night in her sleep, and an exact replica replaced her and woke up the next morning with the same thoughts and experiences that she would have had, I don’t believe there is any point in saying that is not her, or that anybody has lost anything. Nothing carries over but the structure and content of our minds. Although, in the real, non-thought-experiment world, the same biological open system called our body is the cause of our mind's continuing to appear in time. But being the cause of something is not the same as being that thing.

Incidentally, Locke’s Second Treatise on Government was probably the greatest influence on the American founders’ ideas on liberty, equality, and the social contract. But I haven’t read it. He also wrote “A Letter Concerning Toleration” that was probably influential in promoting religious liberty, although he denied it to atheists.

I have studied aspects of cognitive psychology, neurology and neuroscience. They haven’t forced me to revise my beliefs about consciousness, they’ve only informed them. What I wrote about the fact that owning a body depends on a functioning brain, and that without a functioning brain, the body is no one’s, is related to the work of the neurologist V.S. Ramachandran reported in Phantoms in the Brain. Ramachandran treated people with pain in phantom limbs – limbs they feel even after they’ve been amputated. He discovered that the pain was produced by neural signals from other parts of the body stimulating the area of the brain that represented the lost limb. The pain was felt in the missing limb because the brain representation of it continued to function. Other patients, who had had strokes destroying the brain representation of a limb, thus paralyzing and numbing it, might deny it is theirs and try to throw it out of the bed. Still other patients have a weird syndrome where they want to amputate a part of a limb. It doesn’t feel like it belongs to them. It is somehow foreign, and they want to get rid of it. Ramachandran discovered (I believe) that these patients were missing a brain representation of the offending part of the limb. These neural representations which allow us to own our own bodies reside in the cerebral cortex. So when I say that a fetus, before its cortex has developed, isn’t anybody’s body, I think I have good scientific evidence to back that up. How a body that isn’t owned by anyone in the way that we own our bodies (by mentally representing them to ourselves as ours) could be a person with rights is hard to fathom.

2. What makes your definitions about when abortion ought to be allowed more valid than other abortion supporters? Specifically, why can you tell Peter Singer and his followers that their definition of what makes humans valuable is wrong? Why shouldn’t they be allowed to practice infanticide if that is what they see fit?

3. What is the moral status of the mentally handicapped and those that will never achieve personhood? May these humans be killed since they will never be able to function as moral persons?

I have intended to make one strong, clear claim: if we have not become conscious, we have not begun to exist. Consciousness, I said, was a necessary but not a sufficient condition for personhood. But it even goes further than that. Consciousness distinguishes sentient from nonsentient beings, which means, for me, it distinguishes moral subjects from things. This has one important implication, which is really the only point I care about: the killing of an embryo or fetus before it develops to the point when it can support consciousness is not wrong, not even a little bit, because a nonsentient being is not the kind of thing that can be wronged. I expect Singer would agree.

You have pressed me to give my opinion about the treatment of infants and the mentally handicapped. These are not issues I’ve thought hard about. I like babies. I think they’re cute, and I’m not for killing them. I also realize there are difficult situations. I don’t believe I’ve read Singer on this subject. He can be very convincing. I once read a single paragraph by him, and consequently changed my diet. So he might convince me. But it has seemed to me that the thorny issues surrounding the criteria for personhood, and how personhood relates to rights, are completely independent of my main point, that whatever other criteria you may wish to argue about, there is one that must come first: a person is a sentient being. It’s a bit like my saying, “Whatever else a candidate for president is, he must be an American citizen,” and your answering “Yes, but why do you think he needs to be 35, or does he?” I don’t care how old he needs to be. That’s not what I was talking about. And by the way, I haven’t proposed any criteria for personhood or for allowing abortion other than this minimal one: sentient being.  

From the start you have been trying to get me into an argument with Singer. This puzzled me. Now I think I understand. You think you have a good argument against Singer: criteria for personhood will get things wrong. They will rank cows higher than infants and some mentally handicapped, and we all know how we treat cows. We eat them. So that gets you to Harold burgers. This is absurd and revolting, so the only alternative is the prolife stance. As you put it: “Humans must have value simply because they are human, not because of any acquired property or even if you don’t believe that a “person” currently inhabits their body. If you deny this, it is difficult if not impossible to account for equality among men. Any way you define personhood would render some humans more personal than others. If this is true we might as well burn the Declaration of Independence and just admit that such a system does not permit for an absolute right not to be killed.”

I understand this is what you believe, but it’s not that simple. This is black-and-white thinking. “If we don’t choose white, all hell breaks loose!” But not only are there grays in this world, there is a large assortment of other colors. (I’ll explain that comment shortly.) I will agree with you that, if we reject the species boundary as the qualification for equal human rights, then we must think deeply about what goes in its place, and that’s not easy or comfortable. But reliance on reason and moral intuitions is what got us this far. At least we should make an effort to come up with something that makes sense before accepting a one-sentence rule that doesn’t even make the pretense of being rational and which also seems to get it wrong in important ways. If we follow Rawls’ method of reflective equilibrium, we don’t have to fear that the answer we come up with will revolt us. Legal abortion doesn’t lead to unrestricted infanticide or cannibalism any more than gay marriage leads to cross-species weddings.

Essentially, what you have attempted to present is a reductio ad absurdam argument based on a forced choice between two alternatives, one of which (an exaggeration of Singer’s position) has horrible consequences, and the other is yours. But there are many other positions possible, and the issues are much more complex than you assume. Without personally choosing one of these positions, I’ll try to lay out some of the issues that make your forced-choice fail.

First, let’s clear up a confusion. You claim that a system that is not based on your species criterion “does not permit for an absolute right not to be killed.” But if we were to accord equal human rights to one class of humans and deny them to another, all members of the first class would still have “an absolute right not to be killed.” As it happens, brain-dead humans, which are biologically alive, do not now have a right not to be killed (their biological lives terminated). This does not endanger your life, except if you were to have the misfortune to suffer devastating brain damage. And if you did, there would be no good reason for you not to be killed, if this allowed your organs to save another’s life. There would be nothing more of value you could lose. Does this mean you didn’t have “an absolute right not to be killed”? Well, you did, except in certain circumstances. Or, if you adopt the brain-death criterion (which is a personhood criterion) that a living person no longer exists once brain function has been permanently lost, then there would not even be an exception.

Now I’ll just list some of the complicating factors and possibilities that make this not simply a forced choice between two alternatives:

Policy versus morality. Given vast differences in individuals, how shall we treat them? If we choose to treat them equally in some respect (say before the law), this need not imply that they are intrinsically equal in any sense. It may simply be that, for policy reasons, it is best to treat them equally. For instance, by treating all people as innocent until proven guilty, we minimize the chance for injustice toward the innocent. This doesn’t imply that all the accused are equally innocent. Conversely, treating two classes of beings unequally doesn’t necessarily imply that they are intrinsically unequal; consider citizenship. (Could taboos like those against incest and cannibalism and even infanticide resemble citizenship rules, policy decisions relating to membership in certain classes which have moral implications but are not moral laws per se? Could the eating of animals also be a policy decision rather than a judgement of value on some scale of being? Some traditional hunters thanked their prey, even worshipped it. Eating something need not preclude respect.) Finally, just because we might decide that a certain class of humans lacked personhood and rights doesn’t automatically dictate what policy to take toward them. Policies affect not only those who are subject to them, but those who carry them out, often under conditions of uncertainty, and those who witness and know about them. We might opt for a policy of equal rights because making life-or-death choices about fellow human beings is too difficult or painful or scary.

Gray areas. Instead of just persons or non-persons, there may be gray areas. These could consist of possibilities that fall neatly into neither class, or ones for which we cannot decide the classification with confidence. In these cases, a different set of rights might be appropriate.

Threshold models. Instead of a gray area between black and white, consider a gradual change followed by a new, discrete state. For instance, imagine a leaky faucet that produces droplets that are all exactly equal in size. Each droplet begins to grow from nothing, gradually developing until it reaches the threshold, upon which it drops from the faucet. So on one side of the threshold all are equal, on the other there may be infinite gradations.

Multidimensional personhood. (Not just grays, but other colors.) I think I regret accepting the language of “value” in the first place. ‘Value’ implies that beings can be ordered on a single dimension. Morality doesn’t necessarily imply such a scale. People who want to define what sets humanity apart have picked a few simple-sounding properties like rationality or moral agency, and then we try to grade creatures on this scale. This leads to seeming paradoxes like the ordering problem you pointed out between infants and cows. But humans are incredibly complex and multifaceted. Just think of the different kinds of fragments of humanity which are preserved by brain damage or malformation. The savants who can’t tie their shoes or navigate their own homes, but who can draw masterfully or can play anything they hear. Social skills, emotions, intellect, memory, perception, language, music, humor, and on and on. Each of these big terms involves many smaller facets. There are beings who excel in some of these and are destitute of others. Someone could have abilities in some areas inferior to cows, while preserving uniquely human abilities in other areas. Your idea that I must allow the killing of all the mentally handicapped, when this involves a vast range, from the practically decorticate to high-functioning individuals, and all kinds of variations in all kinds of dimensions, is a symptom of your black-and-white approach to complex problems. But I do agree that, under my approach, the question is open. We can’t rule out options without thinking about them.

Sentience in addition to personhood. I have in mind two Venn diagrams. Instead of drawing them, I’ll just describe them. (1) In my view, we have: two large non-overlapping circles representing the sentient and the nonsentient. (By sentient I mean either currently conscious or undergoing a temporary gap in consciousness. The nonsentient comprise all other entities.) Within the set of sentient beings lies a smaller circle of persons. All sentient beings are moral subjects (which means they demand some amount of concern.) No nonsentient beings are moral subjects. (We need not be concerned for them for their own sake.) Additional moral concerns apply to the subset of persons, and perhaps there are other special groups. (2) Your view: two large non-overlapping circles for the sentient and the nonsentient. A smaller circle representing human beings overlaps both the sentient and nonsentient. Now the nice, intelligible generalization that morality applies to all and only the sentient has one exception: human nonsentient beings. Why we should be concerned for them is unexplained. I suggest that we can eliminate this exception and still have a great deal of latitude in defining and privileging the class of persons and any other special classes of sentient beings.

I will not make a case for one possibility among this plethora of choices. Even if I did, for your argument to go through, you would have to eliminate them all.

4. Why is it my moral imperative to support the right to an abortion? Or should I say, why should I not fight against this right? All evidence aside, what if I simply don’t like abortion and therefore think it should be illegal? It seems you think abortion-choicers can fight for legislation based on their metaphysical views, but pro-lifers can’t.

I would not say, Jay, that you must respect the right to abortion regardless of your personal convictions. If your convictions tell you it’s wrong, then you must oppose it, though not necessarily by means of legislation. My goal has been to convince you to change your convictions. I had thought that the core of the pro-life movement was mistaken beliefs about the nature of life. If I could explain the modern, scientific view of life and show that it conflicts with and has replaced the ancient, Aristotelian one, I thought that this might lead pro-lifers to change their minds.  

Christian apologists often speak of metaphysics as if it’s indisputable and therefore safe ground on which to take a stand. They say: “I have my metaphysics and you have yours. We are both equally taking a stand on faith, because metaphysics is a set of a priori assumptions. So the materialistic scientific world view is just another religion, like Christianity, and scientists are just another priesthood.” I don’t agree. Of course, anyone can insulate himself against all argument and experience by adopting some tenets as supreme and certain, and dismissing anything that contradicts them. But science doesn’t do this, nor do most reasonable people except in matters of faith. Metaphysics is not insulated from science, which is to say, it is not insulated from the attempt to learn from experience. For instance, one aspect of metaphysics is ontology. It lists the basic kinds of things that exist. If you live in a universe where there are five elements, earth, water, air, fire, and the incorruptible quintessence of which the heavenly bodies are made, you have a different ontology from that of modern science. Ontologies can be treated like scientific hypotheses. Just as a physicist could posit the existence of some unobservable subatomic particle like a quark, and then support that hypothesis with improved ability to explain phenomena based on that assumption, we can dismiss the five-element hypothesis for lack of explanatory power in comparison with its modern rivals. Aristotle’s soul-based theory of life falls for the same kinds of reasons. It lacks explanatory power compared to modern biology. (Which is not to say that no soul exists, just that life is not a soul, nor is life proof of the presence of one.)

A while back there was an ad campaign by Dow that spoke glowingly of “the human element” while showing a periodic table, thus linking chemistry with something more touchy-feely in a catchy way. Traditional worldviews regard “the human element” as almost literally true. Man, according to this view, is part of the basic furniture of the universe, like earth, air, fire and water – present, so to speak, from the creation, an ontological primitive. The modern view is completely different. The human race is more like the United States than it is like a chemical element. Man is not a universal category, but an historical occurrence, his nature conditioned by the circumstances of his birth and recorded in three billion nucleotide pairs, each an independent fact about him. To the extent that morality is universal (we don’t know to what extent it is), man should not appear in it as a basic element.

The upshot is that I think the two sides can argue about metaphysics as a part of public discourse, even when legislation is involved. But calling on supernatural authority as an endorsement of one system of metaphysics over another, and using this to justify legislation, is not kosher. I made an argument to this effect in a set of responses on your blog at

5. Where does the right to an abortion come from and furthermore where do rights of any kind come from? If from the State, why shouldn’t the state revoke those rights? If you do not assume a transcendent grounding point, I don’t see how you can give me an objective reason for why rights of any kind exist.

This is a question for political theory. I’ve already spoken at length about the historical circumstances surrounding the recognition of human rights. They were motivated by sympathy and involved appeal to social contract theory. God, it seems to me, was only called in afterwards for His endorsement. But He’d endorsed absolute monarchies and the Inquisition before that, so His stamp of approval was not that persuasive or important in practical terms. It’s a serious question you ask – what is an objective reason for why rights of any kind exist – but perhaps it is not a fair one. All you have to do is say that God gave them, but you adduce no evidence for that but historical documents produced by people you wouldn’t see eye to eye with, and who knew as little about what God decrees as you or I do. I, on the other hand, would have to produce a book like John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice. It is beyond me, and besides, I’ve gone on far too long already.