Wednesday, March 29, 2006


A Christian group has put up a set of large boards on campus with a topic written in big letters at the top, and room for passersby to write their comments on the topic below. Among the topics is "How Sex Can Hurt People." I feel that groups trying to make a somewhat controversial point are generally unwise to allow this sort of open space for uncontrolled audience participation.

Scrawled in large black crayon at the bottom of the board is one response: "a girl getting fucked by a horse." Insofar as the Christians want to carry an anti-bestiality message to the masses, I suppose this helps their cause. But occasioning the thought of horse bestiality in others is probably contrary to their intention.

Update: Amanda has a picture! (No, not of horses having sex with girls. It's a picture of the board.) And on Aidan's point about the factivity of knowledge, look here.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

For Moral Status, You've Gotta Have a Mind

[I just posted this at the Ezra blog, but since it's pretty heavily philosophical I wanted to put it here too. There's a couple links there that I haven't bothered to copy here. In any case, I'm wondering whether the cloning part has any potential as the core of an applied ethics paper. I'm fairly proud of it...]

I've been arguing about abortion with some conservatives today, and it's time to do a little philosophy. (Finally! A chance to use my professional competence for the greater good!) I'll argue against two conservative views about what gives fetal life its value: (1) that the fetus is an instance of human life, and (2) that the fetus has the potential to be a unique intelligent being. These views would make the fetus worthy of protection from the moment of conception.

I'm one of those liberals who thinks that mental capacities of some sort are necessary before the fetus is a legitimate object of moral concern. There's plenty of disagreement about exactly what these mental capacities are, but I'd say that a capacity for pain is really what makes fetal life merit our moral concern. Since a first-trimester fetus is incapable of feeling pain -- the capacity for pain only kicks in somewhere around the end of the second trimester -- I don't see any moral problem with first-trimester abortion. It's not even a moral issue worth worrying about. I won't argue for my specific pain-oriented version of the view here (that's going to be a whole book someday) but I will defend the general view about the importance of a mind.

First, let's look at the view that the fetus is worth protecting because it's an instance of human life. If "human life" just means "something alive that has human DNA", there's tons of human life out there that we rightly don't have concern for. The life forms I'm talking about are our individual cells. Nobody crusades to ban liposuction because it slaughters millions of human cells in a weight-loss genocide. As all of us understand, being alive and human-DNA-containing isn't enough.

Furthermore, it seems to me that the fact that something is human doesn't really play any essential role in how we morally regard it. Think of Yoda or ET or Spock or Athena or Frodo. Killing any of them would be just as evil as killing a human being. Their moral status doesn't arise out of their being members of the human species, since they're not -- it arises out of something else. It seems pretty clear to me that we detect their moral status by seeing that they can think and reason and love and feel happy and care about others. (They're also benevolent creatures, on top of that, so we like them a lot.) All these things are aspects of their minds, and that's where our obligations towards them are grounded.

Don't be thrown off by the fact that all the examples I've cited are fictional. There probably are actual examples of friendly non-humans with minds somewhere in the far reaches of the universe, and if we ever meet them, I hope we don't do something stupid and kill them all. If you share this hope, you probably understand that being an object of moral concern isn't really about being human. Instead, it has something to do with having a mind. I'm guessing that your friendly attitudes towards fictional non-humans come out of the same deep understanding.

Now let's look at the claim that the fetus' moral status comes out of its having the potential to become a unique intelligent being. This is one of those claims that can seem fairly hard to argue either for or against, since it's hard to find other test cases for whether the potential to become a unique intelligent being makes something morally valuable. But as it turns out, such test cases have become available.

With the new technologies we're developing these days, most of the cellular nuclei in the world can be grown into unique intelligent beings. Just scoop out the nucleus of a fertilized egg, and plug a nucleus from some body cell in its place. Put the fertilized egg into the right part of a woman, and nine months later a child will be born. The child's genetic material will be derived entirely from the body cell nucleus that you stuck in. So we've basically got the potential for a unique intelligent being in every single body cell. If moral status comes out of potential to make a unique intelligent being, liposuction is a horrific evil, because it destroys millions of potential intelligent beings.

I've been describing the science behind reproductive cloning. If you think cloning is immoral, that doesn't make any difference to the argument -- the argument depends only the possibility of cloning, not its morality. And the fact that you have to put the nucleus into the right environment to develop its potential doesn't block the argument either -- fetuses themselves have to be put into the right environment for their potential to develop.

The objection that the resulting person (a clone) isn't sufficiently unique doesn't really work either. Plenty of our body cells have mutations in them that will result in slight genetic variation from the parent. So you'll get a slight bit of genetic variation. And that's before environmental differences do all their mighty work in making the clone into a truly unique person (really, this is probably the thing to look at the most). Another problem is that if you impose a strong requirement of genetic uniqueness before potential intelligent beings attain moral status, you end up having to say that identical twins can be aborted. At that point, the position just starts looking really weird.

What seems like the simple and obvious right answer to me is that we only have moral obligations to creatures with minds. This isn't to rule out the possibility that we have obligations to the higher animals -- for example, obligations not to beat up dogs and cats. After all, they have minds of some sort, with the capacity for pleasure, pain, beliefs, and desires. (Some philosophers deny the belief/desire stuff for animals because they think beliefs and desires are necessarily tied to language, but that has always seemed wrong to me.) So we have some obligations to them too. It's plausible that certain complex moral features of creatures -- perhaps a self-conception or a capacity for reason -- cause us to have more complex obligations towards them.

In any case, I think it's fairly obvious that when it comes to moral status, minds are what it's all about.

backbiting and abortion

Two short posts so far at Ezra's blog -- one gloating over the intra-right-wing backbiting after the Ben Domenech affair, and another on how abortion restrictions against doctors punish women.

By the way, where does the term "backbiting" come from? Biting someone else's back seems like an odd thing to do in any situation. Though if the unusual event of kicking someone's ass can become idiomatic, I suppose that meaning of backbiting would work as well.

Also, should I keep posting links to my weekend posts at Ezra's? Or do you guys know that that's where I'll be on the weekends, and go over there anyway?

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Feingold, and something else

I've got a post up at Ezra's attacking Feingold for basically going Leeroy Jenkins on his party and damaging our strategy on warrantless wiretapping.

Comments fly fast and furious when I claim that the censure resolution works -- but not the way its most passionate backers want it to.

Defense Budget Disasters is the one post from the weekend that I think maybe people can agree on.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

The Sarkar-Nelson ID debate -- some notes

I see from Amanda that Pharyngula wanted some more info about the Sahotra Sarkar-Paul Nelson debate on Intelligent Design here at Texas. Amanda gives good general coverage in the opening of her post. Just a few points I wanted to add / emphasize. (We left after the first hour, so we missed Q&A.)

- Paul Nelson was willing to concede that ID wasn't sufficiently developed to be taught in high school textbooks. He seemed to be reaching out to any young biologists who were sympathetic to ID, asking them to someday build his theory for him, and half-acknowledging that he didn't really have a theory yet.

- I was really happy with the way Sahotra started the debate. He spent ~2 of his first 15 minutes emphasizing that the reason we're here talking about ID isn't that it's actually a scientific viewpoint anyone seriously respects. He likened IDers to flat-earthers and Raelians, saying the only reason we were debating ID was that more political power had gotten behind that view than the other crazy views. He specifically mentioned the ID movement's funding from Howard Ahmanson, who apparently wants to turn America into a theocracy.

- Sahotra was willing to grant Nelson the philosophically controversial claim that (I may not have this precisely right here) non-natural explanations shouldn't be ruled out a priori. (Similarly, we don't rule out a priori that the earth is flat. We rule it out a posteriori.) I don't have a well-developed view on this issue, but this seems right to me. The challenge for the IDer is to show that his theory can provide better explanations than evolution can. That's where I think the battle is properly fought. The evolution side gets to bring out their truckload of anti-ID evidence -- problem of evil, anybody? -- and show what a disastrously bad explanatory theory ID would be.

- At one point, Sahotra listed a whole bunch of technical stuff (not being a biologist I don't remember it very well) that evolutionary theory explains, and challenged Nelson to provide explanations of all of it. Nelson basically did his "no, we don't really have a theory" thing at that point, and begged the ID biologists of the future to someday make explanations for him.

- I managed to find Sahotra a picture of a whale with hip bones, and he used it! I was so proud!

Monday, March 13, 2006

Minimum Wage!

The Edwards folks have commissioned two posts from me on the minimum wage. The first one deals with economics, and marshals lots of economic evidence to say that raising the minimum wage won't cost us jobs.

The second one, due to go up on Wednesday, will go into why the minimum wage is an especially good issue for Democrats.


Everyone (well, actually, too few people) knows mild-mannered Laura Turner who reads The New Republic. I didn't know that she could do this too.

Double True

Google has maps of Mars.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

It's hard to title these weekend link posts so they're both interesting and descriptive

I take on Krempasky from Redstate for his mad view of campaign finance reform, and he responds in the comments.

When you try to attack Bush on warrantless wiretapping, the media will be stupid and not present your case accurately.

Here is a post on the John Edwards / James Q. Wilson saga.

I met Roxanne this weekend -- she was down for South by Southwest. She was funny and cool, as you would expect. (This isn't a link to a post -- it's a link to her blog.)

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Corruption as an ideal

Redstate sold a BlogAd to a group pushing for public financing of elections. Krempasky, one of the founders of the site, mocked the group.

For the record - this policy idea is one of the dumbest ever. It will never pass. It should never pass. It's potentially the worst thing I can imagine happening to our election system - the complete removal of any market or jury forces from the selection of appropriate and viable political ideas
These guys actually think that our political system ought to be sold to the highest bidder. The worst thing they can imagine is that the influence of big money is curtailed.

I mean, damn.

On requirements in philosophy departments

My blog has lately become a series of posts directing you to my other posts about politics. Just to change things up a little, I'm going to post an email that I wrote to the philosophy department tonight. Lots of grad students here are trying to convince faculty to eliminate the language requirement, which now requires fourth-semester competence in a foreign language. Some graduate students oppose it. This is the majority of an email that I sent to my fellow students today:

There are lots of ways to be a good philosopher, and contribute to philosophy. You can develop a deep knowledge of Greek, read many ancient philosophers, and become an Aristotle scholar. You can study lots of philosophy of mind, take several classes in the psychology department, and become a philosopher of perception. You can read in all areas of philosophy, and do work that connects different areas. I wouldn't want the world of philosophy to lack any of these types of people.

There is, however, no way to be a perfect philosopher. Life is short, and grad school (we hope!) is shorter. Making people take three more classes extends their time in grad school by a semester, or displaces three other classes that they would've taken. So how should we set up our requirement structure to produce the best philosophers possible? And how should we set it up so that students can do the other things that will be required of them, like teaching undergrads and evaluating job talks in other areas?

Here's my proposal: only require everyone to take those things that everyone will find more valuable than what they would've taken otherwise. Since we'll be required to evaluate job talks in other areas, it's sensible to have a system of distributional requirements between core analytic philosophy, ethics, and history. (I take Brian Weatherson's choice of this tripartite categorization system as the natural one by which to divide job postings in the JFP as defeasible evidence of its value.) Since basic logic is a common teaching requirement and occasionally useful in all areas, we require competence with basic logic. Maybe there are other things that almost every successful philosopher, from metaethicists to Hegel scholars, will need. If so, we should argue for them on this basis.

Guidance in our course of study need not come from a requirement system. In fact, it should come from personal interests that drive hard work, promising lines of thought that require more study for fuller development, and conversations with faculty and other students. There are many wonderful faculty members and graduate students in our department with whom we can have these conversations. They're eager to help us design the course of study that is best for each of us.

Our department is capable of producing excellent philosophers of many different kinds. This doesn't mean that we should have many requirements -- in fact, it means that we shouldn't. To impose many different requirements isn't to promote all different specialties -- it's to promote generalism at the expense of all else. A system with few requirements permits the generalist and all kinds of specialists to flourish. This is the system that I fought for two years ago, and I'm willing to fight for it now.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Iraq posting at the Edwards blog

I'm fairly proud of this one -- I've written before on how the real problem in Iraq is about making peace between all these ethnic/religious groups, and how that should be part of a Democratic message for withdrawal. Now I've got a post on it at the Edwards blog, and the community seems to like it! Edwards' communications staff, who have to approve anything that occupies prime position on the blog, apparently had a very high opinion of it too.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Four poster

Four posts at the Ezra blog this weekend.

The best one is No Truce with the Insurance Lobby. I show why we have to attack the insurance lobby vigorously. Only in the last paragraph do I go all John Edwards Crazy.

Then there's Bush at the Gandhi Shrine, the Ignoreland-referencing Wrecking All Things Virtuous and True, and a Koufax open thread.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

First post at the Edwards blog

I'm proud to announce my first post up at the One America Committee's blog! It's on Duke Cunningham, his bribe menu, and Republican corruption. I'll be posting there more often in the future.