“Should X Be Legal?” Doesn’t Sound Bloody Enough

“Should X be legal?” misses a lot of the options in any discussion, and it hides the brutality of some of the options.
For instance, “Should pot be legal?” sounds like the sort of questions with sane answers on both sides. Maybe it doesn’t, but it seems like it could. “Should we send armed agents of the state to violently remove people from their homes to put them in cages for years if the people possess leaves that make you feel funny when smoked?” has an obvious answer. But “Should we fine people for circumventing the tax structure by acquiring goods from untaxed sources?” goes right back to the realm of reasonable questions. Between these cases, we see that adding this precision lets us see whether there’s even a sane debate to be had.
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On the Two Parts of Empirical Knowledge

There’s two parts to looking at the world. The looking and the world. Most fields of inquiry fix their way of looking and go out in search of the world. Philosophy (at least some of it) instead turns to the way we’re looking at it.
Take for example the role of acetylcholine in the brain. If you ask “Why is that ACh there?” the organic chemist will answer with some sort of mechanical explanation. There’s some mechanism that created an ACh molecule and put it where it is. On the other hand, if you asked a molecular biologist, she would give some sort of purposive explanation. There’s ACh doing the stuff it does being the beings with the ACh doing what it does were able to reproduce. Here we see two scientists answering the same question with two different but compatible answers. Both look to the world, gather their evidence, and draw conclusions about the world. And both keep their ways of looking at the world more or less fixed throughout.
This isn’t meant as an insult to the scientists! Fixing a method of investigation is just how we get a science going. Until we have a concrete system of generating questions (or problems) and an established method of answering (or solving) them, we just don’t have a science. Once we do, though, we apparently get quite a bit of use out of it. The tricky part is figuring out which systems of generating questions and which methods of answering them are the good ones. This is where I see philosophy fitting in.
I take my work on consciousness in particular to be serving this role to neuroscience and psychology, for example. The two fields have very effective ways of investigating nervous systems and mental/behavioral structures. I think that they don’t yet have a great way of investigating subjective conscious experience itself yet (which isn’t a super unpopular view). Don’t get me wrong: I don’t deny the current best empirical data people have collected. My point is not that we have no information from our current perspective, but rather that with a fundamental reconfiguration of our understanding of what consciousness is, and with this reconfiguration a new vocabulary, calculus, etc., we can see it much more clearly.
It takes all kinds. Some people are excellent at taking the blueprints and paving the roads. Some people are great at taking the beaten paths and continuing to build. And some of us see some value in taking yet-undiscovered approaches to the same material. Thus there is in fact not a conflict here but rather two parts of the same larger enterprise.

Freedom of speech does not end at the First Amendment

Someone said or did something controversial. Then, private companies decided not to let the person use their platforms anymore. (Or they deleted a few posts or whatever.) Not too long after, the person (or their followers) make an appeal to freedom of speech. Something like “[Company] is violating [person]’s free speech!” with “and that’s bad” implicit at the end. In response, people who don’t like what was said come around with the revelation that the First Amendment to the US Constitution only applies to the US government. Private companies (and other countries) have the legal right to silence people or disallow them from using their platform.

Yes, that is true. The First Amendment, for example, does not say anything about the legal status of me deleting your comments on my blog, for example. Or WordPress deleting my blog posts on their website. Yet, in either case, freedom of speech is being violated. This is possible because free speech (or “speech that is neither restricted nor silenced”) is something we can understanding independently of the First Amendment. That the First Amendment makes reference to freedom of speech should make this rather apparent.

There are of course several positions one could hold regarding free speech:

  1. Free speech is good without exception: This is often the value touted by people trying to defend the right to say anything, anytime, anywhere. An equivalent phrasing is “All restrictions on speech are bad.” If we want to be less extreme, there are two ways to make exceptions:
  2. Everyone’s having access to free speech is good without exception: This makes room for private entities and such to restrict speech so long as the option to speak freely exists somewhere. Often this value is working in the background when people who are silenced or restricted are told they can go speak freely in their own space, or in a publicly owned space.
  3. Free speech is good with some content exception: That is, it’s bad to restrict speech based on location, time, speaker, etc., but there are some things that ought not be said, and silencing speech of that kind is fine or even good. Of course, with this value we get the further question of what speech is bad enough to restrict.

Unfortunately often, people talk past each other because they don’t agree on this initial question. Or, someone will disingenuously take up one of these for the sake of not having to defend her side in a later question.

I take it most people, at least in the US, have a position that is a combination of 2 and 3. But, if you endorse position 3, then you have to make material distinctions. You cannot just say “Well, everyone has the right (in the sense of “should be allowed”—not necessarily legal right) to say anything,” but rather “In general, everyone has the right to say anything, and this instance is not exception because….” But if the instance is particularly appalling, then what comes after “because” can be rather unpleasant. For instance, to defend someone spouting white supremacist nonsense, you have to defend that nonsense in particular against the reasons why it ought to be silenced. That’s usually going to look like you think the nonsense is not egregious and harmful falsehoods. So, appealing to position 1 instead is very tempting.

One caveat worth noting is that a good does not have to be completely overriding. For example, someone might actually hold position 1  but also believe that the good of free speech can be easily overcome. Maybe it is good to let anyone say anything, but keeping the peace is a greater good, so when the two clash, keeping the peace wins. Thus, positions 2 and 3 are not just position 1 plus recognizing sometimes there are greater goods. Rather, someone who holds position 2 actually does not think it’s particularly good to have setting-unrestricted speech. And someone who holds position 3 thinks that there are some things that are not at all good to allow people to say. (Again, the allowing can be done by a government or someone else. And if allowing it is bad, one might believe that everyone has a duty to silence it.)

I, for instance, hold position 3. In general, people being able to speak without restriction is good. But, there are some things that are bad enough that they aren’t worth allowing their expression. Perhaps it’s not the role of the state to make the restrictions, but the speech should somehow be disallowed. Yet, I also think there are some goods that can outweigh unrestricted speech. Sometimes privacy, for example, demands some speech restrictions. I shouldn’t be allowed to barge into your personal space to speak, and I shouldn’t be allowed to reveal all of your personal information to the world.

The other caveat worth mentioning is that these three positions are not exhaustive. The most obvious omissions are positions that don’t hold freedom of speech as a value at all. To address these positions requires stepping further back to investigate whether freedom of speech, in general, is good. But, in the original context I described, both sides agree that freedom of speech has some positive value.

We can pose a series of questions, then, to isolate disagreement and allow for more fruitful conversation:

  1. Is freedom of speech, at least in general, good? (If yes, go to 2)
  2. Are there exceptions to its goodness that include the situation at hand? (If no, go to 3)
  3. Is there some other good that outweighs the goodness of freedom of speech in te situation at hand?

 

Another attempt to bring out the two most critical points in the abortion debate

A month or two ago Ireland made a stride towards legal abortion, and the US made a stride in the opposite direction. Abortion is always on the political table though. I imagine a perfect pregnancy-prevention mechanism would cool the flames quite a bit, but even then, people can change their minds, and the question will emerge of whether that should be allowed. But as usual, this most recent flare-up of abortion debates involved a lot of people talking past each other other. I think, though, there is ultimately one argument for the prohibition of abortion that is good if it works. There are plenty of reasons one might want to prohibit abortion, such as controlling women, liking the appearance of pregnancy, and any other number of bad reasons, but they’re all pretty bad. So, here’s the one possibly good argument:

  1. Killing people ought to be illegal.
  2. Unborn humans are people.
  3. So, killing unborn humans ought to be illegal.

This seems to be the most intuitive and defensible argument for making abortion illegal. A lot of people seem to endorse it, sometimes implicitly. There’s a need in the popular discourse, though, to be more explicit about the two premises in play, because oftentimes people will defend 2 against an attack on 1, or vice-versa.

Getting a little more clear on the premises

Neither premise is super clear, as is the cost of making them short. The first, the killing people ought to be illegal, has plenty of exceptions. Asking why killing people ought to be illegal seems a little strange. Being wrong to kill seems like it might just be a feature of being a person rather than some other kind of thing. So wrong, in fact, that any code of law that doesn’t forbid killing people seems fundamentally broken. So, to spare us a lengthy dive into a theory of moral personhood, I will assume that there’s an agreement that in general people’s lives should be protected by law.

The generality rather than universality of the statement is important, though. There are exceptional cases in which we defend the legal killing of persons. Self-defense is the most obvious. If someone is threatening your life, you’re allowed to kill the person threatening your life. There are perhaps other crimes that might make killing someone defensible. If someone is threatening the lives of others, if someone is severely assaulting you, and so on. War and law enforcement create further situations. Sometimes there is no choice but to kill some set of people, and the choice is merely which set. Accidents that aren’t the result of negligence also usually land on the legal side. My point here is just that we ought to have many legal exceptions for killing people. This is of course an opening that someone defending the legality of abortion against this argument can and often does use.

In the phrasing of the second premise I use “people” in a possibly technical way. While we might have been able to dodge questions of moral personhood for the first premise, they are the heart of the second premise. By “person” (and derivatively, “people”), I just mean a being with moral personhood. That still sounds a bit circular, but getting a technical definition down is a whole subsubfield of philosophy on its own. Examples can give us a good enough idea, though! Normal adult humans are the archetype of people. If a theory of personhood excludes them, it’s probably defective. Inanimate objects are not people. You can violate the autonomy of a rock all you want, and nothing wrong is being done. Then there are edge cases. Is C-3PO from Star Wars a person? Maybe. Are higher apes, or maybe dolphins people? Again, maybe. Within the realm of humanity, we can ask the same of fetuses and maybe infants, too. Once we pin down what gives adult humans their moral worth as people, we can turn to the unborn and ask if they are people.

Arguments pointing to the human DNA and beating heart of the unborn are usually along these lines. They are implicitly placing the bar for personhood at humanity. Nobody defending abortion thinks that the unborn humans are not living beings, and nobody denies that they are human beings. They very obviously are. What one might deny is whether they are persons. Often someone backing this sort of argument against abortion takes for free that all humans are morally relevant persons and then goes in to prove the much easier point that unborn humans are human. But this is just the root of much misunderstanding.

The common arguments against each premise and setting up the right questions

With the first premise, that killing people ought to be illegal, usually the premise is not denied outright so much as the line pushed. Almost nobody thinks every case of killing a person ought to be illegal, so the argument here is on where to draw the line. So, let us take up the case of whether the line ought to be before or after abortion. For the sake of argument, let’s assume that personhood begins at conception. Given this, can someone kill a person inside them?

A well-treaded argument asks us to consider waking up in the hospital attached to a famous violinist. He brings a lot of happiness to the world with his playing, but is sick in such a way that he requires using your body for life support for awhile. Let’s say he’ll be hindering you for about nine months. If you pull the plug, he dies. The defender of abortion here draws on the intuition that you ought to have the legal right to pull the plug anyway.

The argument can be strengthened or weakened. Someone not yet convinced might think that the state should totally use someone as life support if they aren’t doing much with their lives but the person in need of support is. This person might also think mandatory blood donations are a good idea. In that case, we can reduce the status of the violinist until he contributes as much to society as the unborn do: nothing.

On the other hand, someone arguing against abortion might not be satisfied yet. Usually the first next objection is that the aborter usually has something to do with the creation of the unborn person, so while normally you have a right to not let someone use you as life support, you do if you willingly engaged in an act with the potential to create that situation. (We might note that this makes the argument against the legality of abortion no longer work against cases of rape.) So let’s alter the example to fit this. How far we want to push it is another question. Perhaps the right analog is someone who you accidentally hit with your car. You weren’t trying to, but a danger of getting behind the wheel is hitting someone. If they require the surrender of your bodily autonomy, ought the law demand it? (Ideally, this case uses you as life support for nine months. If you don’t have enough imagination, maybe ask what the law should demand if they need blood. Or a kidney.) Alternatively, perhaps the right analog is someone who you aimed your car at and hit. You knew the likely consequences of your actions. But the fun of smashing someone with your car seemed worth it. Are you bound to use your body to aid the person you hit?

I’m not sure yet where to move from there, but those seem to be the two questions at hand, in addition to the question of which one pregnancy is more like. For the argument presented for the prohibition of abortion to work, whichever one abortion turns out to be like has to also be answered that, yes, the government should step in and force you to surrender your bodily autonomy. You cannot pull the plug on/deny an organ donation to someone you hit with your car.

Onto the second premise, then. Are unborn humans people? If they’re not, then the door is open to killing them. They might still have some rights. Dogs aren’t people, but you can’t torture them. Nonetheless, their being people is pretty significant to this argument.

Now, we don’t need perfectly refined necessary and sufficient conditions of personhood to answer this question. All we need is something sufficient that unborn humans have or something necessary that they do not. So, someone making the argument against abortion will try to put forward a condition that anything that fulfills the conditions is a person. And someone defending abortion will put forward a condition that is required to qualify as a person.

On the arguing against the legality of abortion side, being alive tends to come up far more than it should. Lots of things are alive. The fly I just swatted was alive, but it was not a person. Next up is human. From here we see all sorts of conditions thrown around, like a beating heart or looking like a human in ultrasounds, or just being alive while having human DNA. Being alive while having human DNA isn’t enough since removed limbs are not people. Okay, so being alive, having human DNA, and either being able to survive independently or on a path of development toward independent survival. That seems to be the stable position, but then the question emerges: Why is that the line for moral personhood? What about having human DNA and either being biologically independent or on the path to such makes someone morally relevant as a person? This is what the person arguing against abortion needs to be more clear about.

Cue the defender of legal abortion. There are some conditions thrown out that turn out to be rather silly. “It’s just a clump of cells” is common, but it doesn’t work. As noted in the previous paragraph, the clump of cells is special in that it can develop. Given the right resources, it will develop into a human. Now if you want to push for the absurdity of allowing speculation into the future with some resources just assumed, you might argue that an egg or sperm will develop into a person given the right resources. But clearly eggs and sperm are not people, so that line cannot work. There’s room to go back and forth on this, but I think looking for a biological answer to personhood is a mistake.

Remember when giving examples of possible persons, beings like C-3PO came up. When we ask why someone is morally relevant as a person, the features that really matter are not a certain biology, but certain capacities or abilities. The ability to enter into interpersonal relationships, intelligence, language or concept use, moral understanding. These are all possible criteria. Unborn humans seem to fail all of them. Of course, each of these also has some dangers. If an adult human is incapable of being in an interpersonal relationship, is she not a person? Is sufficiently low intelligence grounds for denying personhood? Is someone completely amoral not a person? Perhaps. Is any of these things are the things that really matter to personhood and some humans fail to meet the condition(s), then maybe some exceptional humans are not persons.

The other side to this is the developmental disjunct. Maybe an unborn human is unable to enter a relationship, well below whatever an intelligence criterion might be, and amoral. But, the likelihood of developing into such a being is high, given adequate resources. And we can assume some level of resources because if you starve anyone, they will degrade and likely lose these conditions. There might be something question-begging about saying only the present individual counts, unless some further reason is given. One might look to people who are comatose or asleep. They fail the conditions, except maybe being in relationships. Yet going to sleep doesn’t make you not a person. But the defender of abortion can appeal to someone sleeping having a personal history. Though maybe going into a permanent coma does deprive one of personhood. Or dying. Are dead people still people? If they are, then being alive isn’t even a requirement. It doesn’t seem entirely absurd, though, to say that dead people are people. In which case maybe the personal history requirement is just the crucial requirement for personhood that captures all the cases we would otherwise want but excludes the unborn.

The problem here is just that now we’re stuck asking what a personal history is. My working hypothesis for a condition for personhood is something like personal history, and I take the lines to be drawn not by strict logical requirements, but rather by a general understanding of what a story of someone’s life looks like. Now, maybe “I know it when I see it” isn’t all that helpful in figuring out whether unborn humans are people. It may just leave us right where we started. But, as I said, just finding a necessary condition for personhood is enough, even if it’s not the most restrictive true necessary condition. That is, maybe the real bar is higher, but if we find a bar that’s not too high but the unborn still cannot meet, then the case against the second premise is made. So maybe a condition like this: someone is a person only if she is able to engage in interpersonal relationships or can use language or can use concepts or is intelligent or has moral understanding. Surely that’s too low a bar for personhood, but it doesn’t seem too high in any important regard, and unborn humans don’t clear it.

To summarize:

  • The best argument to make abortion illegal has two premises, each of which must be argued separately.
  • The first question  is whether, even if unborn humans are people, abortion is one of the exceptions in which we think killing people ought to be legal. The argument against the legality of abortion demands that abortion is not justifiable.
  • The second question  is whether unborn humans are people. While a complete definition of personhood is not needed, the argument against the legality of abortion demands that unborn humans do fall within the boundaries of personhood.

Dragging people down instead of trying to make things better

Perhaps I’ve blogged about this before. The tendency has existed long before social media, but social media makes it even easier to broadcast one’s ressentiment. Today this one popped up in my newsfeed, edited because Facebook and Twitter will use it as the image for this post:

Epipen Ressentiment

See what I did there? The original post suggests that because children’s parents are being charged nefarious costs, drug users should also be charged nefarious costs. That’s, of course, either idiotic (in most cases) or evil (if you’re selling epipens). By crossing out the second sentence, I changed the message. That people are being gouged of their limited resources because they or their children need epinephrine to not die is screwed up.

One might object that they think children are blameless and that drug users deserve worse. Even thinking that, to try to drag the conditions of drug users down instead of to raise the conditions of children up is at best an expression of bitter ressentiment.

And this is, of course, just one form. This shoddy rhetoric also comes up with the minimum wage. Some people will say that, for example, nurses only make $13 an hour, so clearly people working cash registers should make less than $13 an hour. Thinking and speaking that way only drags everyone down. If you want to hold onto that nurses should make more than cashiers, then instead reason that since everyone working should make at least, say, $15 an hour, nurses should make at least $20 an hour. And instead of saying we should make drug users pay up or die, instead say nobody should be forced into such a bad situation.

The “actually women make 96 cents on the dollar” response to the wage gap misses the point

Sometimes someone will bring up the wage gap, that women on average make only 75% of what men make. Then some crusaders of truth charge in to inform them that in fact if you hold all factors constant, then you end up with something closer to 96%.

Do some people think that, when holding everything else equal, the pay gap between men and women is 75%? Sure, but to focus on them is to miss the important point people who are aware of both numbers but still stress the first are making.

Part of the problem is that men’s work is valued more highly than women’s work. For which the solution is not for women to all abandon whatever it is they were doing and become engineers, but for our society to better compensate about caring positions. That jobs with more men doing them make more than jobs with more women doing them is itself a problem. The problem can exist at two levels. The first is possible discrimination in getting certain jobs. There’s currently plenty of work being done to bring women into STEM-related fields. There’s also known hesitation in the corporate world to promote women, usually out of a fear of future pregnancy/child-raising. The second is, as mentioned, the jobs themselves having a bad compensation structure. Some jobs are woefully underpaid.

Today’s a Christian holiday; time for social media to smugly reveal that there’s some connection between Easter and Ishtar

There’s plenty of images to this effect, so I’ll just put one here for reference:

Image may contain: text

A fun fact. Well, it would be a fun fact if it were true. But it’s not. “Ishtar” sounds like it looks like it would sound like. Those aren’t her symbols, either, nor is she the goddess of fertility. The name “Easter” more likely comes from “Eostre” which is Germanic. I mention this because it’s relevant to the next point. Regardless of the inaccuracies here, the point does remain that the holiday celebration has some connection with another holiday celebration that isn’t Christian.

Even if we fix the factual matters, the smugness just reveals a lack of awareness. When Christianity was spreading, the Church was pretty upfront about this. The Bible doesn’t really specify holidays. Jesus explicitly says you can have some holidays or no holidays or all holidays or whatever. Just make sure you direct the focus of the celebration in God’s direction.

So in order to ease people’s transition into Christianity, the Church took the liberty of keeping the existing celebrations, while just changing the intended purpose. It’s a pretty good strategy, I think. Most people are just happy to have the celebration. If they have to switch from celebrating the rebirth of the plants (springtime) to the rebirth of the Christ, so be it. They get some wine, either way.

This gets to the last line, which often is posted as, “Gotcha, Christians! You thought you were celebrating your god, but actually you were celebrating sex!” I’m not clear how at all this is supposed to work. Because the celebratory activities were/are used by some people for one thing, that thing is the only possible purpose? If that’s the case, I want to know what having a big meal celebrates. It’s used for a bunch of holidays, so seeing the one true thing that is celebrated by large meals would be interesting. Perhaps that’s not it, since it appears to be crazy.

Maybe the date is the thing. Easter borrows activities from the celebrations of the vernal equinox, which is celebrated for the bringing of fertility, sex, etc. But, if we’re going by dates, Easter is directly connected to Passover. Which makes a lot more sense since Jesus’s death was timed as to be parallel with the celebration of Passover. So if you want to say what Easter is really about on the basis of date, then Easter is really about God sparing the Jewish nation from the final plague in Egypt. But that would mean that something is fixing dates to aboutnesses of celebrations. And once all 366 days are taken (or can we also do n-th weekday of the month? You could come up with a few more, but we’re still pretty limited) then we cannot have any new reasons to celebrate. If a country is founded on December 25th, anything it does to celebrate on that day will be about Saturnalia.

So activities and dates are individually out, but perhaps a more holistic picture can save the smug social media user. If we take all of the things mentioned into consideration, Easter is really about both Ostara and Passover. In some creative sense, this isn’t far off. It’s about rebirth and God sparing his people. But that creative sense only works if we allow for creativity (i.e. creating, not just imaginativeness). A far more plausible explanation of holidays than there being something that fixes their meaning is that there are people, people do things, sometimes people pick specific things for specific days, and any meaning to that is made by the people. If I want to celebrate a close friendship by video chatting and each of us chugging a soda on the 15th of April every year, so be it. If I want to celebrate my love of absurdity by throwing a dart at a calendar and then on that day throwing a calendar off a highway overpass, I might run into legal trouble, but if the celebration is about anything, it’s about what I decided it’s about. The meaning comes from the people celebrating.

If celebrations are about whatever the people celebrating decide to celebrate, then for most Christians, Easter is in fact really about the resurrection of Christ. Sure, the use of eggs and bunnies has historical roots in some other traditions, but when we’re looking for what a celebration is about, the roots we seek are found in the intentions of the people celebrating.