8/30/16

The Minority Body

About 10 years ago I took a trip to Hawaii with my husband and kids and stepped on a sea urchin as I clambered out of a kayak onto a rock. The pain was excruciating and I spent the next several days not enjoying the gorgeous sights of the Big Island, but soaking my foot in salt and vinegar and googling "sea urchin."  The strange thing is that pretty soon afterwards, I didn't regret what had happened, but accepted it as part of what made this trip especially intense, vivid, and memorable.

When bad things happen, why don't we regret them?  I heard an interesting talk on this question at the Rocky Mountain Ethics Congress a few weeks ago--the speaker was Camil Golub, a philosophy PhD candidate at NYU. He skillfully canvassed a multitude of possible explanations, and settled on the idea that these kinds of bad-but-not-regretted events become a part of our biographical identity.  This isn't supposed to be a metaphysical concept--the idea isn't that I became a whole new person when I stepped on the sea urchin. Rather, in some looser sense, bad things can alter who we are, so that we can't distance ourselves from them without distancing ourselves from ourselves.  So we say we're glad these things happened, or at least don't regret that they happened.  This doesn't stop them from being bad things.  I highly advise all people to avoid stepping on sea urchins--it's excruciating and the resulting problems will absorb your attention for weeks to come.  However, if you do step on one, it's quite possible you won't regret it. That's a strange combination of assertions, but the biographical identity account makes pretty good sense of why a reasonable person might have that set of attitudes.

I found myself thinking about the sea urchin story and unregretted bad things while reading Elizabeth Barnes's new book about disabilities, The Minority Body. Barnes claims that disabilities (physical ones--she doesn't talk about mental disabilities) are mere differences, as opposed to being bad differences or good differences.  According to her, being blind, deaf, paraplegic, and so on, are akin to being gay or being male. It's value-neutral whether you're gay or straight, value-neutral whether you're male or female, she says, and it's likewise value-neutral whether you're blind or sighted, deaf or hearing, paraplegic or walking.  Golub said nothing about disabilities in his talk, but I'm inclined to think perhaps he gives us the tools to think about this more coherently.  Being blind is a bad thing some people might not regret, like my vastly more minor encounter with the sea urchin.  Reason: bad things sometimes become woven into our biographical identity. You can't wish they had been otherwise without wishing yourself away.

Barnes says no to that assessment.  Being blind is a mere difference on her view, not a bad difference. One of the main arguments she makes is that the mere difference view accords with the testimony of disabled people themselves.  She thinks we'd be doing these people a "testimonial injustice" if we insisted disabilities really are bad, even when they say otherwise.  Take, for example, this recent letter to the editor of The New York Times. 



Erin Hawley says she wouldn't want her disability taken away, despite "the pain, the anxiety and breathing problems."  Barnes calls these "local bads" and doesn't think they go to the heart of the matter.  She wants to respect testimony like Hawley's and classify disability itself as a mere difference.  But what is Hawley saying?  Her testimony is compatible with construing her disability as an unregretted bad. In fact, even her language is quite reminiscent of "biographical identity" talk.  "What I've experienced in life is a story worth telling, and road worth following, despite how society tries to tell us otherwise."

This business of respecting testimony is tricky.  Whose testimony counts?  Almost all of the testimony Barnes cites comes from disability activists, and surely that would be the group most likely to see their disability in a positive light. I also wonder about the point in time when testimony is most revealing, as testimony can change. In the initial stages of going blind or becoming paraplegic, a person can find the changes excruciating (as Barnes certainly admits, calling these "transition costs"). A few years ago I met a very young person who had suddenly and permanently became paraplegic--clearly a very, very hard thing for them to face.  I'm pretty sure they weren't just distressed by the transition, but by the prospect of no longer walking, ever, and having other health problems.  This person would have testified, at that time, that their disability was an extremely bad difference. It could be that later on they developed a more positive attitude, but I see no reason to regard the later positivity as superseding the earlier profound disappointment. I don't see that only one of these attitudes reveals The Truth about disabilities.

In fact, I think Barnes herself doesn't even entirely respect the testimony that she focusses on, and this is an odd flaw she never addresses. The testimony she focusses on doesn't just support the mere difference view, it supports the good difference view. And in fact she paraphrases it that way, again and again, yet never acknowledges this particular gap between testimonial evidence and theory.  This is particularly apparent in sections of the book where Barnes is trying to explain why disabilities are mere differences, while cancer (or my sea urchin accident) is a bad difference, even though there are people who are glad they had cancer (e.g. Lance Armstrong says this in It's Not About the Bike). Disabilities aren't like cancer because, she says, people value disabilities.  She notes this over and over again--
[Joe (some imaginary cancer survivor)] doesn't value having cancer, even if he values some of cancer's long-term effects on his life. Linton and Dostoevsky, in contrast, ostensibly value being disabled. (p. 111)
LaSpina strongly rejects the idea of a 'cure' for her disability. She is proud of her disability, and describes it as a positive experience. (p. 116)
Disabled people aren't simply claiming to value 'who they are' as people. They are claiming to value disability. Valuing disability is the crux of the entire disability pride movement--with all its parades and its festivals. (p. 122)
Disabled people don't merely say that they value disability. They go on disability pride marches. They create disability-centric art, dance, and literature. They actively celebrate disability in myriad ways. (p. 141)
Barnes complains that this testimony is ignored by people who regard disabilities as bad differences--she urges "taking their word for it" (a chapter title). But taking this testimony at face value, you wouldn't just elevate disabilities from being bad differences to being mere differences, you'd elevate them to being good differences.  That's what people are saying here--they value disabilities, as opposed to seeing them as neutral.  Barnes seems to think she needs to go along with this, to solve the cancer puzzle, but in fact doesn't go along with it.  She thinks it's not positively good to be paraplegic or blind or deaf, it's value-neutral.

A philosophical theory about disabilities can't just take what people say and repeat it. If that was a sound methodology, what we'd surely have to say is that for some people disabilities are bad, for some neutral, and for some good.  A theory is inevitably going to sift and interpret and take into account considerations that go beyond what's on the minds of disabled people themselves. But that being the case, I think the bad differences view is just as much in the running as the mere differences view; both are at odds with what some people say to express disability pride.

In fact, I do think the bad differences view is the right view, but also think the concept of biographical identity supplements it helpfully.  Disabilities often become a part of "who we are" and are not later regretted, but they are still bad, and to be avoided.  Why are they bad? That's a big question I can't deal with in this blog post (I discuss it in chapter 6 of my book The Weight of Things).  But here's one thought about the issue.  Barnes points out that people with disabilities don't seem to self-report lower levels of well-being, in studies of happiness and life-satisfaction.  She also complains about entrenched ableism, prejudice, and failure to accommodate disabled people.  But this is odd--why such high well-being, if there's so much prejudice and failure to accommodate?

One possibility is that all the prejudice and failure to accommodate must harm people, so that the studies of well-being are unreliable.  But then perhaps they also don't tell us whether or not disabilities lower well-being.

A second possibility is that people with disabilities really do have high levels of well-being, and prejudice and failure to accommodate are still bad for some reason unrelated to the impact on well-being.  But then it's possible to say the same thing about disabilities. They could be bad, despite not lowering well-being. (But why?  Of course that's a difficult but good question.)

A third possibility is that people with disabilities have high levels of well-being, and this shows prejudice and failure to accommodate are value-neutral.  Surely that's absurd. We wouldn't be forced to say disabilities are value-neutral, even if it were true that they don't reduce well-being.


 
 

7/22/16

Killer Immigrants

Damon Winter/The New York Times
There was so much about Donald Trump's speech last night that was dangerous and disturbing, but a little piece of it was also philosophically interesting.  I hasten to add: not in a good way!

Trump's case against illegal immigration partly turns on the fact that sometimes illegal immigrants commit crimes.  He furiously shouted every bit of the speech, but especially ranted about a "border-crosser" who murdered a young woman named Sara Root in Nebraska--someone who had just graduated from college with a 4.0 GPA (he said).  Of course this is very, very awful, but does it create a strong case against illegal immigration?

For some reason, it's tempting to think so, but the logic here is fraught with problems. One issue is whether illegal immigrants commit more crimes than people here legally. Apparently, they don't--in fact, they commit fewer crimes, as David Brooks has pointed out.  I suppose you could say the lower rate doesn't matter, that any crimes committed by illegal immigrants should be held against allowing them to stay or making it harder for them to enter the US.  But there's another issue here.

If the bad deeds of illegal immigrants are a reason to keep them out, then how could you avoid thinking the good deeds of illegal immigrants are a reason to let them in?  A couple of good deed stories were in the news recently--the valedictorians at two high schools turned out to be illegal immigrants.  Even more impressively, if you google "illegal immigrant saves life" you come up with plenty of examples.

A curious inconsistency is that when conservatives talk about abortion, they sometimes have just the opposite focus.  Abortion might have eliminated the best among us.  I hear this sort of thing from students sometimes.  What if an abortion had eliminated Martin Luther King or Steve Jobs or even that genius, Donald Trump?  Tougher immigration laws, on the other hand, would eliminate the worst among us!

No. If you're going think about the crimes committed by illegal immigrants, you really do have to think about their good deeds as well.  You might not think the bad deeds are exactly cancelled out by the good deeds (does one saving-of-a-life cancel out one murder?) but it makes no sense at all to only focus on the bad deeds.

7/15/16

Two Headed Boy

There are so many terrible and ludicrous things going on in the world, it's difficult to focus on anything else...but I will try. Two-Headed Boy: it's a Neutral Milk Hotel song that I'm a little bit obsessed with at the moment. I'll come back to that--or rather, I'll come back to a two-headed girl.

Lately I've been trying to think about aging, and one aspect of the topic is personal identity.  Do we remain the same individuals even as we radically change in old age?   Accounts of personal identity can find it either easy or difficult to say we do.  Sometimes a view has to "just say no" and in other cases it takes a lot of fancy foot work to be able to say yes.  In the fancy foot work category is the new account of personal identity in Marya Schechtman's book Staying Alive.

The general idea of the book is that A and B are the same person just in case A and B have the same "person life." A person life is the kind of life that we live--a life that involves things like wearing clothes, having names instead of numbers, having interests and friendships, and so on.  If Bert, at 90, is living the same person life as Bertie at 10, then they are the same person.  In fact, Bert could even be the same person as a newborn or even a fetus.  The critical concept is "same life," which is supposed to illuminate when we're looking at one person, though possibly at two times, or we're looking at two.

Living the same life is not precisely analyzed in the book, but Schechtman is clear that it does not require going on with the same body.  If my cerebrum were transplanted into a whole new body, my life could continue, she says, and I would remain in existence. It's the ongoing person life that makes me me.

Now the plot thickens.  Fetuses and newborns don't really do much to live a person life, and sometimes very old people don't do much either. This is one of the places where Schechtman's book is most provocative.  She says, in effect, that it can take a village to make a person.  A very old person with dementia and other disabilities may only continue living a person life thanks to family members and support staff.  The elements that make a life distinctively human may have no meaning to the individual--they may be provided entirely by others. That dependence doesn't make a person life stop.  Even a person in a persistent vegetative state can continue not just an organismic life, but their person life, thanks to the support of others.

Likewise, she thinks, at the other end of life.  A newborn doesn't live a person life except thanks to his parents and other helpers.  The power of others is so great, says Schechtman, that they can even give a fetus a person life--by naming the baby, thinking about his future, etc.  If you've already readied the nursery, bought clothing, and started to think of her as being at the start of a person life, then your child's life has started.

*

I find the person life view at least intriguing, with respect to old age, but manifestly problematic with respect to the beginning of life.  One thing Schechtman doesn't say much about is cultural and personal variability when it comes to fetal and newborn life.  This is dealt with in fascinating detail by David Lancy, in The Anthropology of Childhood: Cherubs, Chattel, Changelings.  As the title hints, there is amazing variability, across cultures, and even within cultures, in the way fetuses and newborns are treated.  In some cultures, they tend to be given person lives from the beginning of pregnancy, and in others the onset of a person life is delayed, so that the start of life is years after birth.  That strikes me as problematic for Schechtman, since I can't get myself to believe that persons start existing at different times depending on things so variable and extrinsic to them.

And then there are other problems. Take a person whose person life only starts some months after conception, because of the way the parents and surrounding culture think about when life begins. At four months gestation, perhaps, the parents see the child on an ultrasound and learn its sex. Perhaps because of the image, and because the risk of miscarriage is now low, and because of the sex information, they're now ready to give the child a name. They also start creating the child's nursery and talk about her to family and friends.  They even start dreaming about her future, accepting gifts like a little baseball bat or doctor kit.  Now a person life has begun, according to Schechtman.  Where there was a fetus, there is now a person, and they are non-identical. Some of Eric Olson's worries about fetuses (in his book The Human Animal) arise here.  Does the fetal pre-person just go out of existence, being replaced by the person?  Weird idea!  If, on the contrary, the fetus continues to exist, but starts "constituting" a person, there's a puzzle about whether the pivotal property--living a person life, on Schechtman's view--is possessed by both the fetus and the person or just the person. Both answers are unpalatable.

*

OK, let's get on with the two headed boy (or actually, girl).  Here's a case that seems problematic for Schechtman--a case where it seems clear that two persons exist, but on her view just one person exists, because there's just one person life.  The case comes from a This American Life Episode called "Switched at Birth."  In 1951 Mary Kay Miller gave birth to a baby under general anesthesia.  Another woman, Kay McDonald, gave birth in the same room shortly afterwards, and the babies were mistakenly switched.  When she got home, Mary Kay wondered whether she had the right baby, because the baby she brought home was two pounds heavier than at birth. However, her husband didn't want to pursue the issue, so she put it out of her mind. They raised the baby they took home and the McDonalds raised the baby they took home.  They had no idea there was any problem.

Now take the "two headed babies": MarthaSue, the baby who started off in one mother's uterus plus the baby who went home with her; and SueMartha, the baby who started off in the other mother's uterus plus the baby who went home with her. Intuitively, MarthaSue and SueMartha are are just concatenations--there is no one person made out of two organisms, in the way the names suggests.  But on the person life view, it seems to me there might be.  We can easily imagine each set of parents endowing the fetus with a life, long before birth.  Considering that at this point it's the parents doing the endowing, the person life that starts with a fetus seems to continue in the body of the baby who comes home--a different organism.  That's the upshot of putting person-creating power in the hands of parents, instead of seeing it as residing in organisms themselves.  It becomes all important what they think about their child's lifespan, and these parents thought of the life that started before birth as continuing in the body of the child they brought home.

My gut feeling:  personal identity is not as social and extrinsic as that.  On the other hand, it does seem interesting and important how "the village" helps personhood along, both at the beginning of life and at the end.  There's something to that idea.

6/29/16

Bernie and the Rich


I'm not at all convinced by Bernie Sanders' analysis in today's NYT op-ed.. "Workers in Britain, many of whom have seen a decline in their standard of living while the very rich in their country have become much richer, have turned their backs on the European Union and a globalized economy that is failing them and their children." Are these workers really preoccupied with the rich getting richer, or do they feel threatened by immigrants? Those are not at all equivalent.

In his next paragraph, we get more about the rich and the "unimaginable luxury" they enjoy--supposedly that's fueling support for both Leave and Trump. But wait--Trump is the embodiment of absurd wealth and unimaginable luxury. He's Mr. Luxury himself! There's no way his supporters are driven by resentment of the rich. Resenting poor Mexican immigrants is (duh) not the same as resenting the rich!

And then there's all the stuff about how globalization is increasing inequality and poverty. Is it really? The bottom billion used to be defined as those living on less than a dollar a day, but now they're the people living on $1.25 per day. On lots of economic parameters, things are getting better around the world, and as I understand it, this is partly due to globalization. Bernie says "the global economy is not working for the majority of people in our country and the world" but prosperity is going up around the world, and even if it's fairly stagnant in the US, it's already extremely high, comparatively speaking--in fact just about the highest in the world!

Some paragraphs of this op-ed truly just sound just like Trump. "Americans should not have to compete against workers in low-wage countries who earn pennies an hour." Should we really go back to a time when the poorest people in the world were even poorer? Setting aside the moral problems with that trajectory, how's that going to give us foreign markets for our goods? How's that going to make the world more peaceful and cooperative?

6/24/16

Old Voters, Young Voters


In the last couple of days I've read about 16 and 17 year olds in the UK who think it's unfair that they weren't allowed to vote on "Brexit."  Thus, they complain, very old people are determining a future that's mostly going to be lived by young people.  Maybe 16 and 17 year olds aren't wise and informed enough to vote, but their complaint makes me wonder: would it have been more fair if the Brexit vote had involved a multiplier, so the vote of a 20 year old counted for 1/20 and the vote of an 80 year old counted for 1/80? That certainly sounds repugnant.  What, should we count the vote of a 20 year old with a terminal illness like they were 80?  On the other hand, there's something sensible about age-based multipliers. Not that I'm recommending this approach.  Surely it's odious! I'm just intrigued by the fact that it's not obvious why it's odious.  Of course, you wouldn't need age-based multipliers if old people just restrained themselves, deferring to the young who will live for many years with the outcome of Brexit.  You'd think they would do that, to some degree--that they would ask their children and grandchildren about their preferences, before voting.  But just in case they didn't do that, you could have age-based multipliers....and then, why not for all elections?  Yeah, it's horrible and obviously undesirable, but it does seem puzzling why that's so!

The Philosophical Parent


Big news!  I'll be publishing a third book some time in the next year.  The tentative title is The Philosophical Parent: Asking the Hard Questions about Having and Raising Children.  The book is under contract with Oxford University Press (see table of contents at the tab above). Let's pretend the mother in this picture is actually reading Plato to herself, while her daughter enjoys gazing at the ducks. She could be the philosophical parent.

12/5/15

The Gun Enthusiast


https://img0.etsystatic.com/060/2/10082918/il_214x170.720007486_o6wu.jpg
The day after the San Bernardino massacre, Republicans were engaged in totally pointless business as usual--they were (believe it or not) trying to repeal Obamacare.  Democrats (and a few Republicans) tried to attach gun control amendments to a senate repeal bill, a rather desperate exercise, considering the whole bill was inevitably going to be vetoed by President Obama.  But even in that ineffectual form, gun control was rejected. The details--some nauseating, some amusing, and some mildly encouraging--are here.   

One of the amendments would have stopped people on the FBI's terrorism watch list from purchasing firearms, which opponents thought would be terribly unfair for the occasional person who winds up on the list improperly.  That's a common refrain--what about the law-abiding person whose liberty to buy and use guns gets infringed by efforts to disarm the next mass killer?  If you close loopholes, making it harder to buy guns at gun shows and online, what about the law-abiding gun enthusiast?

I suspect liberals and conservatives are as far apart as they are on gun control partly because of the way they feel about this figure--the law-abiding gun enthusiast. If you think gun possession is important, meaningful, and worthy of the highest protection, you won't want to see anyone inadvertently denied gun liberties, as a result of being mistakenly put on a terrorism watch list.  But why see it that way?  Why not see a gun owner as being like someone who wants to own a tiger or drive at 100 mph?  What makes gun ownership special?

Self-defense.  The problem with thinking gun liberties are special, based on the role of guns in self defense is...what role?  If you give a population access to guns for purposes of self-defense, a few will use them that way, but far more will wind up using the guns non-defensively--there will be accidents, suicides, domestic violence that turns deadly, and yes, murders and mass shootings.  Having a gun is crucial for sustaining a certain type of fantasy of self-defense, but not for keeping yourself and your loved ones alive.  So we really can't say gun liberties are special and deserving of the highest protection because of the role that guns play in self-defense.  (Analogy: having a tiger for self-defense. It might work occasionally, but policy-makers would be right to ask how often it works, and at what cost in tiger-caused deaths and maulings.)

The second amendment. Another allegedly special element of gun ownership, in an American context, is the second amendment to the constitution.  "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."  In a modern context, a "well regulated Militia" would have to have the armaments of a modern state--bombs and tanks and the like.  Nobody really takes the second amendment seriously as carving out specific liberties people ought to have in the 21st century.  We can limit people's access to bombs and tanks, stopping them from forming effective militias; so what relevance can the militia standard really have?

Hunting.  If you don't have a gun, you can't engage in recreational animal-killing.  This can't be taken seriously as a reason to specially protect gun liberties, more than other liberties we might like to have.  If it's valuable at all to be free to kill animals for fun, it can't be so profoundly valuable that gun-ownership is entitled to special protection.

Gun play. Finally, there's the liberty to spend leisure time hoarding the biggest guns available and acting out fantasies that are encouraged by endless video games and movies.  This is a reality for thousands--maybe millions--of Americans.  And I do buy that more liberty is preferable to less, even when it comes to activities I personally find repulsive.  The question is whether this sort of pastime is worthy of heightened protection, more protection than we would award to activities like driving fast and harboring tigers.  But no--how could it be?  Gun play may be wildly fun for some people, but fun is just fun. 

There is really just no good reason to protect the liberty to have guns more than we protect the liberty to drive fast or own a tiger. Gun liberties are not at all like liberties in the sphere of religion, speech, conscience, and political participation.  I would be worried about abridging those liberties for everyone on the FBI's terrorism watch list--worried on behalf of people who shouldn't be on the list and even on behalf of those who should.  But those are entirely different dimensions of life.

When we're discussing gun liberties and rights, we should remember that guns are just guns.  There's nothing sacrosanct about having and using guns. How could there be?  The gun crowd has won half the battle when they make us attach some special value to gun possession, as if it were particularly profound and vital to life. No--having guns is just one liberty among many others, abridegeable not without reason, but when necessary for public safety.


9/21/15

On Trigger Warnings

Everyone's talking about 'em--like Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff in The Atlantic and Kate Manne in yesterday's New York Times.  The Atlantic article is interesting and no doubt trigger warnings are overdone in some quarters, but when push comes to shove...yes, I've been issuing warnings for many years (though without using the word trendy word "trigger").  For example, when I show gruesome videos about factory farming and slaughterhouses, I let students know ahead of time they may find the images disturbing and are free to close their eyes briefly if necessary.  When I teach the topic of death, and especially suicide, in my course on the meaning of life, I go much further, based on knowing that college age students are a vulnerable population.  I advise them to seek help if the topics of the course make them feel depressed.  This is appropriate, I've found. In fact, I've had students have to drop the class because the topics do occasionally exacerbate pre-existing problems. So, content warnings? Yes.

But why, in a world full of disturbing material, should a college classroom be a more protective environment?  For this reason:  Instructors have the power to say "you're going to watch this, read this, talk about this."  Students can't walk away, once they're enrolled, without serious consequences.  Also, in a classroom, they're not just subjected to material, but asked to interact with fellow students about the material, answer questions from the instructor about the material.  So their reaction, whatever is, gets exposed.  Beyond the classroom, people can avoid material they find disturbing, and certainly don't have to reveal their reaction to the material, or enter into conversations about it with strangers, or with people who react to the material completely differently.  If we're going to demand that students wrestle with disturbing topics, it's only considerate and responsible to give them fair warning. I would even say that in extreme situations, it make sense to let students opt out--for example, a suicidal student might be given alternative readings if the death section of my syllabus is too disturbing.

So yes, I'm for warnings.  One worry about them, though, is that they get issued with liberal bias.  We care about the gay student but not about the homophobe who's genuinely very disturbed by acceptance of gay marriage--yes indeed, there are such people, especially in Dallas, Texas.  We care about the person who's disturbed by the slaughterhouse images, but not the person who's disturbed by the message that "meat is murder."  We care about the female student who's been sexually assaulted, but not about the male student who's being charged with sexual assault without due process.  I probably need to work a little harder to be equitable when it comes to protecting student mental health, but should I protect student mental health?  Yes, I should, to the greatest extent I can, without compromising course content unduly--because of the power I have to force students to be exposed to and publicly engage with highly disturbing topics.

9/17/15

The Well-Being Trap

There's a pattern of thought I keep seeing. It goes like this.  You reason that X isn't really so important to pursue, because it doesn't necessarily improve our well-being.  Or you reason that Y isn't really so important to avoid, because it doesn't necessarily reduce our well-being.

Frank Bruni's column in the New York Times this past Sunday is part of his crusade against elitism in higher education.  He wants college-age kids to know they can do quite well in all sorts of colleges, so they will stop the intense obsession with getting into the very best.  I get this, up to a point, but is there really no reason to go to the best college you can get into and afford?  That's basically what he says, based on a new report on the way different schools affect a student's later well-being.  The Purdue index...
measures success not in dollars and lofty job titles but in graduates’ professed engagement in their employment and, separately, their assessments of their own well-being, as determined by their reported satisfaction with five dimensions of life: their relationships, their physical health, their community, their economic situation and their sense of purpose.
As it turns out, among all graduates, 10% describe themselves as thriving in all five areas; among students who go to the top 50 schools (as measured by US News & World Report), only 11% describe themselves as thriving in all areas.  No big difference!  So there's no good reason to go to Harvard, Stanford, or whatever you were hoping for?  That seems to be the idea.

Bruni apparently can't imagine someone reasoning that they want to go to Harvard or Stanford for the simple reason that they can learn more and develop better skills thereThe great faculty at these schools don't have anything outstanding to offer prospective students, he seems to think, unless there's a later pay-off in terms of a student's own personal well-being.  Knowledge, skill, creativity, and the like aren't goods worthy of pursuit unless they're well-being-enhancing.

My next example is going to involve disabilities, which Elizabeth Barnes regards as "mere differences" because a disability "doesn't by itself make you worse off." Like Bruni thinks the greater knowledge offered by Harvard can't be better for prospective students unless better for well-being, Barnes seems to think blindness can't be worse simpliciter, so to speak, but if bad at all, must be bad for well-being.  And she thinks it can't be shown that disabilities by themselves make people worse off, apart from society's failure to be accommodating.  We can't regard a disability as a bad difference because absence of an ability is intrinsically bad--it must be a well-being reducer to be bad.

I think Barnes and Bruni are both over-focused on well-being.  It's not incoherent to value and pursue knowledge as an ultimate end, instead of as a means to greater well-being. It's not incoherent to disvalue and avoid having a disability, because you see ability as a better thing, regardless of how a disability may (or may not) reduce well-being.  Well-being is not the measure of all things!

8/11/15

Ain't I a Woman?

My column for the next issue of The Philosophers' Magazine is about "Tangerine"--a new movie about transgender sex workers--and the E! reality series "I am Cait." The very day I turned in the column, I became aware of a major battle over at Freethought Blogs about whether transgender women are women.  I don't think I "get" all the details of the battle, but I take it one side says "simply yes" and the other says something like "politically yes, but ontologically I'm not sure." This is regarded by the Yes-ers as a very bad answer.

I really don't see why it's a very bad answer, though I understand the attraction of "simply yes."  I'm drawn to "simply yes" when I focus on transgender memoirs like She's Not There, by Jennifer Finney Boylan (she's delightful on "I am Cait" in episodes 2 and 3!) and these compelling videos by Standford psychologist Ben Barres.

The other answer gets you to the same place, practically speaking.  "Politically yes" means something like:  people are entitled to their own gender-spectrum decisions.  It's up to me whether I'm girly or not girly, not girly or androgynous, androgynous or downright butch.  I get to cross over from one spot on the spectrum to another, if I like--even going all the way from female to male--and have my decision socially respected.  When it comes to our gender identity, we have "first person authority," as Talia Mae Bettcher puts it in "Trans Identities and First Person Authority."  By this, she doesn't mean we know a fact about ourselves, introspectively, but that it's up to each person to choose a gender presentation and everyone else's duty to respect that choice.

I would add "ontologically I'm not sure" to "politically yes" because I'm not clear that a person's choices, gender-wise, create the sort of robust facts that could make it simply true that Boylan is a woman and Barres is a man.  If it were simply true, what would the truth of the matter hang on?  One option is to say Boylan has a female brain and Barres a male brain, but to the very limited extent that brains are dimorphic, they're dimorphic with respect to a little bit of reproductive machinery (see this, by Donald Pfaff), and Boylan is presumably the one with the male brain, Barres is presumably the one with the female brain.

Apart from a little bit of reproductive machinery, brains are a mixture, with males only statistically leaning toward certain traits and females to other traits (see this, by Daphna Joel).  Even if Boylan's brain leans female (does it?) I don't believe it really makes sense to say that a brain with lots of traits that are a little more common in females is a female brain; or a brain with lots of traits that are a little more common in males is a male brain. 

Another option is to say that the truth of the matter hangs on gender identity feelings.  So a male is someone with a sense of being a male; a female is someone with a sense of being a female.  This seems like at least a possibility, but there are legitimate worries. A lot of people don't spend a whole lot of time feeling like members of their gender.  We're encouraged to do so, but some resist, and some just don't.  Or maybe we do, but gender identity recedes very far into the background?  It's quite possible that there are more vivid gender identity feelings in people who find their gender complicated and difficult.

Loose analogy.  I once sat at a table of 12 Jewish women discussing whether we believed in God.  We all went around expressing one degree of skepticism or another, and then came to the last person, who had converted to Judaism.  She believed!  Her transition to Judaism had given her a rather different experience of being Jewish than the others had. In order to ensure her inclusion in the class of Jewish people, you could say having Jewish beliefs is definitive of being Jewish, but then the other 11 of us would be excluded!  I worry that defining gender membership in terms of gender identity feelings could possibly have the same effect.

Perhaps being Jewish is actually a disjunctive property--you have it based on parentage OR based on beliefs.  Could gender be similarly disjunctive--you're female based on gender identity feelings OR simple biology?  That sounds attractive, but what's going here if we take the disjunctive route? Are we really getting at realities as to who belongs to which gender category (or religious category) or have we entered the realm of ethics and politics? Is there really a class of entities that share one property-- female--based either on having a sense of being female or female biology?  Could the femaleness instantiated in these two ways be the very same property?

Certainly the ethics and politics here is far simpler than the ontology or metaphysics. Yes, as far as social practices go, trans women are women (and trans men are men).  We're entitled to be self-determining gender-wise, and to have our self-determinations socially respected.  As to the underlying ontology or metaphysics, that's more puzzling, and sure it isn't a bad thing to be puzzled about what's truly puzzling, instead of having a settled view. 

More links:  on the metaphysics of gender, I've found this anthology useful.  There's some interesting stuff about trans identities, including the Bettcher article, in "You've Changed," edited by Laurie Shrage.  Especially interesting is the article by Christine Overall, "Sex/Gender Transitions and Life-Changing Aspirations." 


7/24/15

Accutane Ethics

My son has been taking Accutane for the last several months.  Boy it works well (for acne).  It also raises some first class ethical questions.  There's an extremely strict regimen for taking Accutane, because apparently if a woman takes it and conceives a child, the child will likely be born with significant but not super-serious abnormalities. For example, the child's external ears may be malformed.  As a result of this (and for other reasons), patients taking the drug have to see a doctor every 30 days. Women have to promise to use two forms of birth control while using the drug. Every time you break the seal on a pill, you see a warning about avoiding pregnancy.  The assumption behind all this is that it would be wrong or bad to conceive a child with malformed ears, when you could easily wait just 6 months (the usual course) and conceive a child with normal ears.  Of course it would be wrong or bad!

But maybe ... (Note: I truly love the Louis C.K. "Of course...but maybe" routine.  Do watch if you haven't seen it.  Start at 34:00.)   Enter: David Boonin's new book The Non-Identity Problem and the Ethics of Future People, reviewed here by Molly Gardner. At least in the review, the focus is on a slightly different sort of case.  Boonin contemplates Wilma, who can either conceive now and have Pebbles, who will be blind but will have a life worth living, or take a pill for two months and have Rocks, who won't be blind.  Boonin embraces the argument that concludes it wouldn't be wrong to conceive Pebbles. Here's how it goes--


According to Garnder, Boonin's book looks at all sorts of ways of rebutting this argument and finds them all wanting.  So we should just accept the conclusion. It really wouldn't be wrong to conceive Pebbles.

There's an Accutane version of the argument, and I would rather see that be the focus for two reasons. First of all, Wilma and Pebbles are just cartoon characters--literally.  These issues have a different feel when they come up in real life.  Thousands of women are right now considering whether to heed their doctors' warnings about conceiving while taking Accutane.  It's easy to give Wilma the green light to conceive Pebbles, but surely not so easy to give a real woman the green light to conceive on Accutane.  I'm not sure we're thinking seriously about these things until we're thinking about real people's decisions.

The Accutane version is more real world-ish, and also has some parameters that may make a difference to our intuitions.  In the Accutane scenario, a drug causes the undesirable features--the malformed ears. In the Wilma scenario, a drug causes the desirable features--sight, rather than blindness.  Unconsciously, what might make someone accept (C) in the Wilma argument is the intuition that nobody has to go out of their way, taking special drugs, to have a "better" child.  It might not really be that the conclusion gains whatever plausibility it has from the argument's explicit premises.

So let's look at an Accutane scenario. Mary is thinking about ignoring all the warnings and conceiving in July while taking Accutane. If she does so, she'll have a baby we'll call "July"--a baby with malformed external ears. If she waits until she's finished taking the drug, she'll have a different baby we'll call "December," one with normal ears.  Is it wrong to conceive July?  The argument parallel to the Wilma argument would go like this:

Now that we're talking about real decisions in the real world, not cartoon characters, the conclusion looks quite a bit more amazing, even thought the abnormality in question is far more minor.  Or so it seems to me.  I would be absolutely amazed if the wisdom of our best ethics gave permission to Accutane users to ignore all the warnings and conceive while using the drug.  That would be incredible.

So what's going on here?  July is not worse off for being born--P1 seems right.  So she's not harmed by being conceived--P2 seems right.  Let's ignore P3, since even if it were false, that's not the heart of the matter, surely.  If July is not harmed by being born, then she's not wronged--that's what P4 says.  OK, that seems plausible.  That leaves P5.  If an act wrongs no individual could it still be wrong?

Yes.  Mary wrongs no individual yet she causes more suffering than necessary.  The suffering of July about her ears--surely inevitable--just didn't need to be. It would have been no worse to create December, and creating December would have eliminated that suffering.  Usually what matters is harming individuals, wronging individuals and moral categories of that sort, but it doesn't seem surprising that in the special area of procreative ethics, other principles kick in.  "Cause no more suffering than necessary" is that sort of non-individual-specific principle.  Not that this is the only principle relevant to procreative decisions--the one and only master principle--but it seems relevant if you're a woman wanting to both clear up your acne and have a child.  Refusing to wait six months to conceive is wrong because you'll thereby cause more suffering than necessary.

I bet somewhere in Boonin's book this response is discussed and disparaged--I will have to read the book and find out.  Truth be told, I'm sure I'd shift to some other explanation if I could be convinced that this one was wanting, because what I'm absolutely sure about is that Mary shouldn't conceive while taking Accutane.  That's what's so extremely evident, not the reasons why.

4/7/15

Swastika Cakes and Gay Weddings

It's so rare that Jon Stewart reasons badly, but I wonder about the reasoning in his Indiana piece last night.  Start at 3:45--


Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, etc., compare the baker who refuses to "do" a gay wedding with--
  • A gay printer who refuses to print signs saying "God hates fags"
  • A black baker who refuses to bake a KKK cake
  • A Jewish baker who refuses to bake a swastika cake
Stewart than faults them for thinking a gay wedding is anything like a "God hates fags" sign, a KKK cake, or a swastika cake. Making these analogies, he says, just reveals their bigotry.

But no, I take it the idea is that all these business owners are being alleged to be alike in having reasons of conscience to turn away customers.  Nobody's saying the various things turned away are exactly alike.  Huck & Co are arguing that the freedom of conscience in question shouldn't be spurned by liberals, since there are situations in which they will want to invoke it too.

This is at least worth thinking about.  When should a business owner be able to turn away customers? We wouldn't want to restrict that freedom too much and I don't think we do.  "No shirt, no shoes, no service."  If you can turn away shoeless people presumably you can turn away all sorts of people.
The law gives businesses a lot of freedom, I take it, so long as their reasons are non-discriminatory.

Now, the gay printer, black baker, and Jewish baker wouldn't have discriminatory reasons to turn away the customers in question. It's not discriminatory to be offended by bigoted messages.  So their freedom to turn away these customers is secure. But would a baker have non-discriminatory reasons to "do" opposite sex weddings and not same sex weddings?  At least once gay marriage is legal in every state (in June, I hope), it doesn't sound as if any conservative bakers are going to be able to fuss about gay weddings.  No worries--the liberal bakers are still going to be able to take a stand against swastika cakes.

Oh my god, that's actually a thing!





3/9/15

Pet Euthanasia

Our soulful cat Snownose died on Saturday, from cancer, but with the help of euthanasia.  I've never had a cat euthanized before, though I've had many cats.  The whole month before, I had to work up the courage to do this, as did other family members.  I kept thinking about the conservative stance on euthanasia: that intentionally killing another person is always wrong.  (If this were right, I'd extend the prohibition at least to animals who are family members.) In the days leading up to calling the euthanizer--a vet who came to our house--I kept rooting for Snownose to expire on his own.  It seems like it would have been better that way.  It was unfortunate for those who love him to have to play any role in his death.

One thought that kept running through my mind, in the 24 hours just before the Dr. Westbrook came to our door, is that cancer had already taken away Snownose's future.  When he was euthanized, he had maybe a day or two left, if that. We took away only that brief time, and only to prevent suffering.  Does that even deserve to be called "killing"?  Can you really be a killer, and thus responsible for a death, when a disease is already wholly responsible for the death?  I'd be prepared to say "no" except what about this?  Evil nurse or vet sneaks in and injects the dying patient with a poison, just for kicks. Now you want to talk about "killing" again, despite the disease being wholly responsible.

And so--OK!--taking away one day of life, even out of mercy, has to be killing.  Or could a case be made that "euthanizing" is a different sort of thing from killing, because of the motives involved?  Is this one of those unusual cases in which motives matter to the kind of act performed? (And now I regret that I have not yet read Motive and Rightness, by my colleague and friend Steve Sverdlik.) In fact, the phrase "mercy killing" has gone out of fashion, and certainly vets don't use the "k" word.  They "put down" animals (at least here in Texas), or at worst euthanize them; they don't kill them.  Maybe (big maybe) the practitioners are onto something and these aren't just euphemisms.


2/5/15

The Marquette Situation

A word about Marquette's attempt to fire John McAdams.  One thing (among many) that bothers me is that Dean Holz's letter reveals a double standard.  In the second paragraph he charges McAdams with trying to "silence the less-powerful" but nowhere in the letter does he voice any concern at all about the undergraduate--who is the less powerful person in the instructor-student relationship.  Here are two excerpts from the transcript--



Being against gay marriage is having an opinion that's "not appropriate" and "harmful" Abbate says here.  The student can either keep his opinions to himself or drop the class. There are no two ways about it--she (the more powerful of the two) is silencing the student (the less powerful).  Despite the letter's concerns about McAdams allegedly silencing Abbate, the dean voices no concern at all about Abbate silencing the student.

Now you might say--some opinions are beyond the pale.  You do have to stop students from engaging in hate speech--which some will do, if given a chance (I know from experience).  But in the relevant context, can opposing gay marriage be put in that category? The student has enrolled at a Catholic University, and as we all know, the Catholic church opposes gay marriage. Furthermore, this is a time when gay marriage is being debated in the courts.  Several members of the Supreme Court are going to oppose it in hearings later this year.  It can't be right to lump opposition to gay marriage with forbidden, hateful speech.

So the student was quite right to be incensed.  But right to record the conversation? That's another matter.  And right to go to McAdams with his complaint? Again, another matter.  And was McAdams within his rights to blog about the affair?  Did he know he was going to bring an angry mob to her door? Did he continue stirring the pot even after she had come under attack?  All to be investigated carefully.  I haven't done enough homework to have a firm opinion.

But if you don't like the alleged silencing of a grad student by a more powerful faculty member, you shouldn't like to see a grad student silence an undergrad either.  I've read various defenses of Abbate's stance, and none of them really wash.  The next class period, she voiced her thoughts about gay marriage, explaining why the topic didn't fit into her lesson plan.  But what she says in that class (with the student now gone) doesn't change much.  She doesn't say that students against gay marriage would be welcome to speak out in the right context.

Holz says the student didn't actually drop the class because of the issue about his right to speak out.  But that doesn't alter the fact that Abbate did tell him to drop the class if he didn't like her policy on prohibiting homophobia--which (she implies) pertains to the student's desire to express opposition to gay marriage.

Another defense I've read is that there are provisions in Marquette's code of conduct designed to protect students from being exposed to hateful speech, and Abbate was merely abiding by those.  I can't believe anyone really thinks that was her actual motivation, and it would be scandalous if philosophers acquiesced in an interpretation of campus codes of conduct that would deligitimize considerable chunks of the standard content of ethics classes.

In all the discussion of this situation I've read, I've run into vast amounts of consternation about the silencing of powerless graduate students by tenured faculty, and no consternation about the silencing of powerless undergraduates.  I respect the fact that McAdams was concerned about the undergrad, though I realize his concern was mixed with right wing motives of various kinds.  McAdams doesn't stand up for feminists who feel silenced, or gay students who feel silenced, or animal rights advocates who feel silenced.  So he doesn't have a principled, universal concern about the speech rights of students.  But wait. Neither do the many supporters of Abbate.  I suspect they are on her side, against Adams and the undergrad, because she's the friend of gay rights in the trio.

We need consistent, content-neutral support for free speech, and not just for the speech we agree with.  It pleases me to see some liberals supporting McAdams, and pending my doing more homework on just how much he knew his blogging on behalf of the undergrad would incite an angry mob against Abbate, I'm inclined to be one of them.

12/1/14

Sexual Misconduct on College Campuses

Every week there's another appalling story about the way college campuses deal with sexual misconduct.  A Rolling Stone investigation of UVA shows that on some campuses there's not much of a response even if  a student complains of being gang raped by seven men at a frat party. Among many astonishing details in the story: there were 38 allegations of sexual assault in a recent one year period at UVA; and no student has ever been expelled for sexual misconduct there, while many have been expelled for violating UVA's revered honor code. 

On the other hand, there's this amazing story today about the other side of the sexual misconduct spectrum.  A male Swarthmore student was expelled for an allegedly non-consensual, non-penetrative sex act that occurred a day before the alleged victim initiated consensual intercourse with him (she complained about the earlier act nearly two years later).  Now Swarthmore is vacating that decision and giving the student a chance to have his case re-considered. (Understandably, he's moved on to another school.) Follow the link and read about the judicial process that led to the student's expulsion. Even if you're prepared to think an instance of sexual assault could conceivably precede consensual sex by just 24 hours, you have to agree that the accused student's case was horribly mishandled.

Anyone with college age sons and daughters (I have one of each) has to be completely appalled by both of these stories.  And everyone else with empathy and a sense of justice.

"I should but I'm not going to"

This phrase intrigues me, every time I think about the fact that I'm not a vegan. Here are some interesting and relevant reflections from someone who's neither a vegan nor a vegetarian.

11/12/14

Bedtime Stories


Harry Brighouse and Adam Swift ask an interesting question about conferring advantage on children in their new book Family ValuesWe do all sorts of things that confer advantage, from reading kids bedtime stories to sending them to private schools.  All these things get in the way of fair equality of opportunity, they say, giving children a leg up just because they happen to be born into better off, more educated families. But where should we draw the line?  Which of our advantage-conferring practices, as parents, can be justified?  Actually, they focus on a narrower question:  which of these things can be justified "by appeal to the value of the family and must be permitted if people are to realize that value in their lives"? (p. 246) 

Their answer is that advantage-conferring practices can be justified by appeal to the value of the family only if they are needed for intimate family life. Reading bedtime stories is fine, even if it does confer advantages over others, and so is attending church together.  Here's a passage that conveys the general idea--
Without substantial opportunity to share himself intimately with his child, in ways that reflect his own judgments about what is valuable, the parent is deprived of the ability to forge and maintain an intimate relationship, and the child is deprived of that relationship.  The loss is to the core of what is valuable about the relationship.  The loss is to the core of what is valuable about the relationship.  Imagine that parents are barred from engaging in these or relevantly similar activities, or, less drastically, that such activities are made very difficult: the opportunities for realizing the familiar relationship good that justify the family would be severely limited. (p. 125)
Their paradigm case of a practice not justified along these lines is sending kids to private school.  That confers an advantage that interferes with equal opportunity and isn't necessary so that parent and child can enjoy an intimate, mutually satisfying family life. 

This way of drawing the line is going to validate some of what affluent parents do, but also condemn a lot of what they do.  So let's see, what gets validated?  (Most of these examples aren't theirs.)
  • Bedtime stories, they say. I'm not so sure.  Possibly I could have as much quality, intimate time with my kids if we watched a little TV before bed.  But let's let that pass.  Bedtime stories are in.
  • Going to museums.  This confers an educational advantage, but maybe it passes muster, if my child and I love being together at museums in a way we don't love being together at, say, a bowling alley.
  • Traveling to national parks. There's definitely an educational advantage conferred, but it might be OK, since vacation time does generate family intimacy, and I just can't enjoy Disneyland in the way I can enjoy a national park.
A lot will not get validated.
  • Buying high school students laptop computers so they can easily manage schoolwork, access online assignments, etc.  The computers confer an advantage and aren't necessary for family intimacy. Yes kids appreciate the gift, but only briefly so, and laptops actually tend to make kids retreat from the family.
  • Flying around on college trips so kids can decide where to apply "early decision".  All of that confers an advantage, reducing fair equality of opportunity, and doesn't do much for family intimacy.  (Stress, arguing, etc.....)
  • Music lessons.  All advantage, not a lot of intimacy, considering the stress over the years about practicing, performing, etc.
I have felt bad over the years about conferring advantages, but haven't had the view that the authors put forward: that it's wrong for parents to confer advantages on children, except when required for intimate family life; and that the state would be entitled to prohibit parents from conferring advantages like those in the second group. There is a milder judgment one could make: that collectively we should make up for or avoid the inequalities.  Schools should give kids access to computers.  Colleges should get rid of "early decision."  There should be cheap music lessons in public schools.  I'm for all of those kinds of solutions, but should I go farther and admit to wrongdoing, to the extent that I've offered my kids advantages that aren't needed for intimate family life?

Though not a libertarian, I am drawn to what many libertarians say about the family.  My personal liberty to spend my own money includes liberty to spend on my kids, because "children themselves form part of one's substance."  They "form part of a wider identity you have" (Robert Nozick, The Examined Life, p. 28).  If I may buy myself a laptop and thereby have advantages over other workers (Brighouse and Swift don't say otherwise), I'm very tempted to think I can also buy my kids a laptop.  The worry that all kids ought to start life on an equal footing falsely presents kids as totally distinct from their parents.   But that's a huge thing to try to argue, especially in a quick blog post.

I have a more modest objection to what Brighouse and Swift are saying about when it's OK to confer advantages.  Suppose I have all sorts of money to spend on laptops, books, education, and whatnot, for myself.  I may secure those advantages for myself; presumably I'm entitled to them, on their view.  What kind of family life would I have if I bought myself a laptop and then told my kids they couldn't have one, because they needed to remain on a level playing field with other children?  Imagine this happening again, and again.  "X is fine for me, but not for you!"  Conferring advantages (without an intimacy payoff) may actually be necessary for a family life that's internally harmonious and egalitarian.  An alternative would be that I don't get to have a laptop either, but that would put an awfully heavy burden on parents. Do they really have to make themselves less competitive at work, once they have kids?

Surely there are some ways of conferring advantage on children that are illegitimate (I can think of several that amount to outright cheating). I'm just not entirely convinced that as many things are illegitimate as the authors claim.

11/3/14

Well-Being

My review of Well-Being: Happiness in a Worthwhile Life, by Neera K. Badhwar, is at Notre Dame Philosophy Reviews. 

Prague Restaurants and the Duties of Adult Children


So we were in Prague last summer and discovered this thing called a "table charge."  I'm not really sure exactly what it is, but here's one possibility--the table charge is for stuff that's standardly put on the table--bread, water, a spot of liqueur after the meal.  I thought it was pretty annoying, because I wasn't given a choice whether to order that stuff or not. The prices on the menu suggest a rule that goes "You pay for what you order" and the table charge violates that rule. I could have protested the charge, I think (note: it's not standard in Prague and wasn't stated anywhere).

Segue to the duties of adult children... A famous paper by Jane English says adult children owe nothing to their parents because they didn't ask to be born and raised.  For kids to have a duty to support their parents in old age, for example, would be like me having to pay the table charge even though I didn't ask for the bread, water, etc.  They have no such duty, she claims.

I do think adult children have duties to their parents, but how so?  Adding a second chapter to the restaurant story sheds some light.  Suppose on my second night in Prague, I deliberately go to the restaurant with the table charge because I like the food. I also now realize that, compared to restaurants without a table charge, the prices on this restaurant's menus are fairly low. Furthermore, I now anticipate the liqueur at the end of the meal, so order less wine.  On the second night, would I be entitled to protest the charge, let alone with righteous indignation?

My sense is that after the first night, I've altered my attitudes and dispositions so that, though I never ask for the bread, water, etc., I can be counted as "pro" receiving them.  I'm on board with the system, so to speak. And so I do have a duty to pay the table charge and can't protest.   Moral of the story:  asking for items is not the only way I can acquire a duty to pay for them.

Children don't ask to be born, and don't accumulate a duty to care for their aging parents starting on the first day of life.  But over the years of being cared for, they can be reluctant recipients of care they'd rather not receive, or enthusiastic recipients.  When they are past the tender years of childhood, they can take steps toward independence or deliberately continue being cared for and supported.  If you enthusiastically encourage your parents' support, it seems to me you do start to be indebted to them, like I was indebted to the Prague restaurant for the table items, despite not asking for them.

Wouldn't it be awful if adult children actually thought about how to treat their elderly parents as if they were related as restaurant owner to customer?   And yet even if they do, it's not out of the question at all that adult children do owe something to their parents, even if they never explicitly asked to be born or raised.


10/20/14

Sending affluence, receiving pestilence

Peter Singer makes a very persuasive case that we ought to spend money to alleviate extreme poverty rather than buying the latest luxuries   But what if what is needed is not sending away our affluence but letting in disease?  Allowing travel to and from west Africa might increase the number of cases of Ebola in the US and slow the epidemic there;  closing borders could both protect us here and intensify the epidemic there.  If those are the facts, must we not only send money to distant places to help people over there, but let people living in those places bring disease here?

One question is about what each of us should do, individually, but another is about the government we've elected.  Suppose they know a policy will add 100 new cases of Ebola to the US, but reduce new cases of Ebola in West Africa by 50%.  Should our leaders enact that policy?   Do they have special duties to protect the citizens of the country they lead, or should they maximize total good, without regard for who lives where?  Are borders morally important or just arbitrary lines?

Questions, questions.  Here's some good news on the Ebola front.

10/17/14

Harvard's Sexual Misconduct Policy

Harvard has a new and more victim-friendly sexual misconduct policy as of this fall, and 28 professors in the law school have complained about it (out of a total of 110).  It sounds to me as if they have some legitimate worries but I'm puzzled by one of the complaints.
The faculty members, including emeritus professor Alan Dershowitz, said the policy should be retracted because it denies the accused access to legal counsel, knowledge of the accusations against them and the right to question witnesses, potentially exposing them to “unfair and inappropriate discipline.” It also holds one party more culpable when both are impaired by alcohol or drug use.
What's the problem with holding one party more culpable when both are impaired--provided that one was the sexual aggressor?   A lot of people seem to find that unfair, but is it really?

A long time ago when I lived in Boston I was on a jury in a manslaughter trial.  The drunk defendant (along with a group of friends) had chased the victim into a subway station shouting racial epithets and threats. The victim, also drunk and evidently fearing for his life, decided to walk home along the tracks (above ground). He was killed by an oncoming train that he might have heard if he hadn't been drunk.

Though this was 30 years ago, I still vividly remember what the prosecutor said about intoxication.  About the defendant: you can't hide behind alcohol.  If you committed a criminal act, the fact that you were drunk is not exculpatory.  About the victim:  you take your victims as you find them.  The victim may have heard the train if he hadn't been drunk, but the defendant cannot use that as a defense.  These two rules made sense to me and to all the other members of the jury.  We convicted the defendant, and later realized this was a retrial: another jury had previously convicted the defendant too.  The prosecution's instructions about alcohol were persuasive to all 24 jury members.

Now transpose into a sexual scenario.  A drunk man forces himself on a woman, who doesn't resist effectively because she's drunk.  It's surely the same: the man can't hide behind alcohol; he takes his victim as he finds her.  So I have no idea why Prof. Dershowitz & Co. find any problem with holding "one party more culpable when both are impaired by alcohol or drug use."  Would they really want the defendant in the manslaughter case to be acquitted because the victim was also drunk?

Maybe to the average person (but surely not the law professors) it may appear as if there's an asymmetry here--we're holding the man to higher standards. But no, that's not true.  We're holding the man responsible for criminal acts he performed while drunk.  The woman performed no such criminal acts.  She only made it easier for the man to perform his criminal acts.  There's no inconsistency in saying his inebriation doesn't excuse him and then saying her inebriation doesn't excuse him either. 

Of course, not every case where both parties are drunk is a case of rape.  If both actively participate in sex acts, with one no more the aggressor than the other, then it wouldn't make sense to see the man as guilty of non-consensual sex and not the woman.  But in cases where women file complaints, usually there's an allegation of aggression on the man's part. That's why one party is responsible and the other isn't, even though both are drunk.

People seem to want to find fault with both parties and surely we can do that.  If drinking makes you less in control of yourself, you shouldn't do it in a setting where self-control is important.  Men are foolish to get totally drunk at college parties and so are women.  The men because they're liable to commit acts they're going to be accountable for.  The women because they become defenseless against those acts (or maybe even, in very rare case, commit them).   If you're drunk, you shouldn't drive a car, even if the person you hit may be drunk too.  If you're drunk, you shouldn't ride a bicycle, making yourself defenseless.   Being foolishly defenseless obviously doesn't mean being to blame. 

Surely it would be completely backward to revise the way we handle double-drunk cases, holding both parties somehow "accountable" even though one killed the other, raped the other, maimed the other, and so on.  If the law professors aren't for that across the board (surely not), why are they for that in campus sexual assault cases? 

p.s.  Maybe I'm not understanding the professors' point--I couldn't find more about the Harvard policy on sexual assault and alcohol, or more about the law professors' objection, despite some energetic googling. If they're not saying men can't be accountable when women are also drunk, I'd love to know what they are saying.

10/6/14

The Accidental Mixed Race Baby


It's all over the news:  a lesbian couple used a sperm bank to create their baby girl and now they're suing, because the bank used sperm vial 330 (from a black man) when they had selected sperm vial 380 (from a white man).  They love their daughter, but they're claiming they've somehow been damaged by the mix up. 

One thing's for sure, this legal wrangle should have been conducted privately, because even if the couple is right to hold the sperm bank accountable for their error (should sperm banks really be less accountable than Best Buy for flubbing up orders?), their daughter may be harmed when one day she finds out about her parents' dissatisfaction with her race.  The parents and the sperm bank should have reached a discreet settlement.  Aside from that, is there any problem here?

There are those who condemn this couple for having any racial preference at all.  But why? Race enters into people's attractions, like hair color or body type or other superficial features do.  Your attractions at the romantic level probably have some bearing on which children you find attractive.  (Hey, don't pretend you find all children equally cute and lovable! You don't.)   Picking white donor 380 sounds more racist, but is it really more racist than marrying white guy John Doe, knowing and welcoming the fact that the two of you will have white children?  People condemning the couple for caring about the race of their sperm donor ought to have to publicize a list of people they've dated and 'fess up to how racially selective they've been!  It is not entirely different.

Another unfair accusation is that the lesbian couple wanted a "bespoke" baby, as all sperm bank clients supposedly do.  Clients at sperm bank do have the option of choosing a donor who's extra smart, athletic, good-looking etc., and so this looks very designer-baby-ish.  But you have to put your feet in the shoes of the clients for a moment.  Fertile male-female couples narrow down the type of child they'll have enormously, by choosing each other.  So they can seem completely open to the unbidden, in a Michael Sandel-approved fashion.  A lesbian couple, by contrast, has vastly less control.  Should we really expect them to be, unlike the rest of us, open to having a child with absolutely any father in the universe?  It's true that sperm bank clients often gain control by choosing a smart, handsome whatever-race father, but I suspect this is  in some respects fortuitous. What they want is really just control over the way they reproduce, and the only form of control on offer is optimizing the sperm donor.

So, allegations of racism and wanting a "bespoke" baby: dismissed.  I don't think the couple's choices are objectionable. However, there is something unfortunate here. Ordinary reproduction with a partner has a tendency to make us exclaim, when a child is born, "He's perfect!" or "She's perfect!"  You have to wonder if this baby has been received with that much joy and appreciation, given the lawsuit.  Are babies more vulnerable to parental rejection and dissatisfaction when the gametes are bought at a sperm (or egg) bank?   The lawsuit (regardless of its merits) makes you think "maybe". 

10/3/14

Moral Mediocrity

Interesting post here by Eric Schwitzgebel, with a lot of relevance to the fact that very few people succeed at being perfect or even near-perfect vegans.

10/2/14

Self Preservation

I wonder about some choices made by Thomas Duncan, the Ebola patient who's being treated at a hospital in Dallas, and may have infected other people here.  The New York Times reports that on Sept. 15 Duncan helped carry a pregnant, 19 year old Ebola victim from a taxi to her home, where she died hours later (the hospital wouldn't admit her).  Four days later he few from Liberia to Brussels, from Brussels to Washington D.C., and from Washington to Dallas.  He must have known these things, each with some relevance to the decision:
  1. His contact with the dying woman gave him a significant chance of having contracted Ebola.
  2. Traveling by air would increase the chances that he would spread the disease, if he had it.
  3. If he had the disease, his chances of surviving in the US were much better than his chances of surviving in Liberia. 
  4. His extended family in Dallas would not have been at risk if it were not for his visit.
  5. The airfare was non-refundable or refundable only with a penalty.
To defend Duncan's decision to come to the US, you have to think that people have some sort of right of self-preservation, and that it "kicked in" in this situation. Obviously we can't do just anything to save ourselves--robbing others of their bodily organs if we need a transplant, for example--but we can subject others to the risks in question here, whether the others are strangers (as in #2) or family (as in #4).

I do think people have some sort of right of self-preservation.  For example, right now the medical care for Duncan is costing vast amounts of money, and I doubt he is in a position to pay the bills.  The same money could probably be used by Oxfam to save hundreds of lives.  I think it's fine for the man to opt for treatment rather than refusing and dying.  In that particular case, it's okay to prefer your own good to the greater good.

But in the case at hand?  Was it wrong of him to get on that plane and then interact with his extended family, knowing that if he were carrying Ebola, the alternative was dying in Liberia?  If you believe in any right of self-preservation (as I think we all do), it's hard to see where it ends.

9/24/14

Male and Female Brains

My trek through the literature on sex differences continues. These podcasts from NeuroGenderings III are interesting, especially the talks by Anne Fausto-Sterling and Rebecca Jordan-Young.  The Jordan-Young talk led me to version 2, which she gave at a symposium in honor of Fausto-Sterling (video here).  And from there, I was led to two papers--"Male or Female? Brains are Intersex," by Daphna Joel; and "Reframing Sexual Differentiation of the Brain," by Margaret McCarthy and Arthur Arnold (which I haven't read yet).  A nice break in the technical slog: there's also this TED talk by Daphna Joel.

The Joel paper and talk (parts of which are highlighted by Jordan-Young) makes me wonder about several things.   First, a philosophical question.  What would you need to find out about brains to say there is a male brain and a female brain?  Joel is emphatic that there is no such thing as a male brain or a female brain because there aren't two forms for brains, just differences in averages on hundreds of parameters.  Plus, a person can score "female" on one parameter but "male" on another--the scores don't line up consistently. Plus, the scores on various parameters can change over time, for one individual, due to environmental factors like stress.  But what about the reproductive machinery in the brain, which takes different forms in males and females?  Donald Pfaff writes, "The most striking sex difference is that the female hypothalamus can command the pituitary to put out pulses of hormones that will cause ovulation by the ovary, whereas the male hypothalamus cannot do that."  (Man and Woman: An Inside Story kindle loc. 586).   How is it that this difference in the hypothalmus doesn't mean that there actually is a male brain and a female brain?  I have to surmise that "male brain" means, to Joel, a brain that's male through and through.  A difference in one part won't do.  Likewise for "female brain."

But why?  There are male and female bodies, right?  And they're male and female because of differences in certain parts. Among other things, males and females have different gonads.  You wouldn't say "there are no male and female bodies" just because male and female kidneys, livers, hearts, gall bladders, and so on, don't take different forms.  So I am honestly puzzled by this insistence that there are no male and female brains.

I suppose what's going on here is that folks like Joel want to disabuse people of a popular error--the belief that the brains of men and women are different through and through.  That is not the case (if Joel is right), though certain parts are different (if Pfaff is right).  I would think that, using language carefully and literally, the difference at the level of parts means there are male and female brains.  It's just that this isn't the super big deal some people say it is--like The Female Brain author Louann Brizendine.

Now for an empirical question. Jordan-Young embraces the part of Joel's paper that says it's impossible to say how one individual will score on one sex-dependent parameter, based on how they score on another. The various parameters don't necessarily line up, making each individual's mind/brain a pink, blue (and other) mosaic.  What I wonder, though, is what kinds of covariance you find between the different parameters.  Given a person scoring high on aggression, is there a higher probability that they will score high on other "male" traits like willingness to take risks?  If a person scores high on compassion, is it more probably they will score high on sensitivity and squeamishness?  This is really an important question for understanding sex, particularly if you want to evaluate a point Jordan-Young makes many times: sex is not a mechanism.  If there's even just pretty good covariance, it makes you think sex probably is a mechanism.  Something's got to be making these traits tend to cluster together (if they do).

The covariance question is an important question for me because I'm trying to think about the way parents react to the sex of their children, on ultrasound or at birth. If the mosaic of traits for each individual shows no internal coherence--from one tile you can't predict the others at all--then we ought not think much of it when we hear "it's a boy!" or "it's a girl!".  But if there's quite a bit of internal coherence--from one tile you can predict the others pretty well--then the natal sex of your child tells you more.

Questions, questions.  In another life I will study the neuroscience of gender full time, because it's a vast subject and awfully interesting.