Two Gauges

Posted by Anti Citizen One on August 17th, 2010

Based on my recent brush with the medical establishment, I am reminded of the excellent “A Scanner Darkly” by Philip K Dick.

“It’s as if you have two fuel gauges on your car,” the other man said, “and one says your tank is full and the other registers empty. They can’t both be right. […] Both gauges study exactly the same amount of fuel: the same fuel, the same tank. Actually they test the same thing. You as the driver have only an indirect relationship to the fuel tank, via the gauge or, in your case, gauges. In fact, the tank could fall off entirely and you wouldn’t know until some dashboard indicator told you or finally the engine stopped. […]”


PS Also see Segal’s law.

Stuff I’ve Been Doing

Posted by Anti Citizen One on March 26th, 2010

I was going to review Darwin’s Origin of Species, but there is little I can add to the popular perception of it. He does address most of the modern objections, so anyone who talks of “gaps in the fossil record” without bothering to read him are just lazy in not reading his actual point of view or are wilfully ignorant. Refreshingly, he does not pull punches against his own theory and states very clearly the types of evidence that would disprove his point of view – for example, fossils not in the appropriate geological order or a single species originating simultaneously in two distinct areas. Many science writings don’t put the case against their view at all, or at least not as strongly, and properly, as Darwin. He the man.

I was invited to a bible study group, which was interesting as an outsider. They were much less “chapter and verse” than I expected. We discussed “love thy neighbour as thyself” and I made the point that what is meant by “love” is sightly ambiguous – in an interesting way. If it is taken in the “love unconditionally” sense, then it also is a commandment to love thyself unconditionally (and that is a rather big “if”). This might have been a pre-emptive strike against the idea of “total depravity”, but that particular issue did not come up. I decided against expressing Nietzsche’s “be not considerate of thy neighbour! Man is something that must be surpassed” view – that would not have been well received!

I attended the Big Libel Gig, which was a awareness raising, comedy event. It featured a few science writers and several comedians who were critics of alternative medicines and superstition, including Simon Singh who is being sued because he criticised chiropractors. The issue is it costs a vast amount to defend a libel case, even if vindicated and is therefore a way of large organisations to silence their critics. I also saw Brian Cox (for the second time) and Ben Goldacre. The whole event was very “yay for empiricism, science and naturalism” and “boo for alternative medicine”. I was strongly reminded of that world view in a rap song by Baba Brinkman (and is based on a Jay Z song). The video editing is very slick. I don’t normally listen to rap but its a good summary of the main themes.

I have two books by Karl Popper on order. I am looking forward to that. I am bogged down in Capote’s short stories at the moment. I have also been trying to explain the is-ought problem to people but most people just don’t get it. What did I miss? 🙂

Anti Citizen One

PS Since we are on the topic of ultra-naturalism, and if you prefer folk to rap, you might like this: Creation Science 101

PPS The philosophical issues around evolution are more than adequately covered on talk origins.

Review: Bad Science by Ben Goldacre

Posted by Anti Citizen One on May 30th, 2009

Bad Science is a joyful debunking of medical myths and unsound methods. It covers “alternative medicine”, abuses in mainstream research and the media’s reporting of science. It is interesting to have an outsider comment on the medical research but still from a knowledgeable point of view. His style is irreverent and amusing which is a welcome change from researchers who may take their own community too seriously. The book reminds me of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds in its treatment of quacks within alternative medicine. He also restates what is meant by causality and the human tendencies in biased reason – in a very Hume-like, Nietzschian way. His argument is eye opening to many problems with the medical systems. He avoids blaming individuals when he can see systematic failures – most quacks are almost carried by a local mass delusion.

The section on the media’s handling of MMR is particularly damning. The current position is the media has turned on the original source, Andrew Wakefield, saying he was responsible for leading the media into mass panic for years. Ben points out that Wakefield’s evidence, even before it was debunked, was flimsy and the media is to blame for perpetuating a myth. In this case a myth that caused people to die from complications from mumps and rubella and was far from harmless. The debunking of Wakefield did not change the evidence which was weighted towards MMR’s safety the entire time! Ben blames the editorial system of newspapers, which has generalist journalists handle the big science stories rather than science journalists. He also points a finger at readers who buy newspapers that cover health scares for creating a demand for such stories. I am included to agree with his analysis. Although grossly self indulgent, I will quote from V for Vendetta:

How did this happen? Who’s to blame? Well certainly there are those more responsible than others, and they will be held accountable, but again truth be told, if you’re looking for the guilty, you need only look into a mirror. I know why you did it. I know you were afraid. Who wouldn’t be?

One striking thing compared to most debunking books is the rather pessimistic conclusion. Most people who reveal the awful truth – for example Michael Moore or Nietzsche tend to expect things will get better once the truth is known. For example:

…so that one is as constantly reminded of the proximity of winter as of the victory over it: the victory which is coming, which must come, which has perhaps already come…. FN

On the other hand, Goldacre states:

To anyone who feels their ideas have been challenged by this book, or who has been made angry by it – to the people who feature in it, I suppose – I would say this: You win. You really do.

He might be right if medicine is for the majority, the majority can’t be made to think in ways that medical experts think. Anyway, a good read. The book also reminded me of Asch’s experiment in social conformity, which is truly mind blowing. (I’m looking accusingly at you, scientific research and religion…)

Anti Citizen One

Nocebo Effect

Posted by Anti Citizen One on May 15th, 2009

Interesting piece in the New Scientist about Voodoo. For people who find it hard taking such a belief seriously, an interest comparison to modern medicine is made:

Despite the growing evidence that the nocebo effect is all too real, it is hard in this rational age to accept that people’s beliefs can kill them. After all, most of us would laugh if a strangely attired man leapt about waving a bone and told us we were going to die. But imagine how you would feel if you were told the same thing by a smartly dressed doctor with a wallful of medical degrees and a computerful of your scans and test results. The social and cultural background is crucial, says Enck. New Scientist


Thoughts on Recent News

Posted by on February 4th, 2009

I have been lacking in posts recently as I have been both lazy, mentally drained and suffering from sporadic cut-offs thanks to a shoddy modem/router.It is with pleasure then I announce “I’m back!”

I was interested to see AC1 comment on recent news as I was planning on doing so myself – and at the same time air some of my more unusual views.

There are really three main news items that are capturing my attention at the moment:

1) The lifting of the excommunication on a holocaust denying Bishop.

2) The Edinburgh “Gay adoption” row, and

3) The Christian Nurse.

Holocaust Denial

The first story is troubling for me as a nominal Catholic, although I should celebrate the hoped for “return to the fold” of schismatic Catholics to the church – a precursor for a greater ecumenical push between world religions – I am dissappointed that the Holocaust Deniar Bishop Williamson has not been publicly disciplined.

There is an interesting tension here that revolves around freedom of speech – a matter much discussed on this blog. We needn’t repeat the arguments over and again – suffice to say though that I feel extraordinary pain that in the name of freedom of conscience Bishop Williamson’s evidentially wrong and misinformed beliefs concerning the scale and nature of the holocaust should be permitted the oxygen of publicity that his office and his rehabilitation to the Church has afforded him.

A very interesting article concerning this tension between censorship and freedom of conscience can be found on the hermeneutic of continuity blog. Where a traditionalist priest struggles with the notion of freedom of conscience and the spreading of error. His resolution interpreted in the Church’s conciliar teachings are that freedom of conscience is a responsibility rather than a right and that we have the responsibility to pursue that which is true – therefore in the context of Holocaust denial the overwhelming weight of evidence and testimony to the horrors of the “Shoah” should suffice to encourage mass censure of this mans false beliefs.

Gay Adoption

In principle I have no objection to Gay adoption. I am unconvinced by those arguments (usually motivated by a pre-existing heterosexually dominant bias) that the classic mother/father unit is always the best environment to bring up a child. There is no reason why a Gay couple (whatever their status in law i.e. married, cohabiting etc.) or indeed any couple (whether their relationship be sexual or not) cannot provide a safe, caring, loving and nurturing environment for the upbringing of children.

The role of sexuality and sexual orientation has minimal impact on the upbringing of children (indeed I may be understimating how positive such an upbringing may be in terms of encouraging a pluralistic attitude with regards human nature).

It is to put it bluntly “wrong” to suggest that a Gay couple could distort the emotional and sexual development of any children in their care. Homosexuality is a) not infectious, and b) not acquired. The sexual orientation of any children who have been placed in the care of homosexual couples is wholly incidental.

However. I am troubled by the Edinburgh case that has been in the news recently. Namely two young children have been placed in the adoptive care of a Gay couple, despite the protestations of their maternal grandparents who insist they are capable and willing to care for them themselves.

Generally where family is available – and they are deemed to be fit to bring up children – then priority should be given to the family – not because it is in the family’s interests but because it is in the childrens interests. Living with your grandparents (in theory) should be far less of a major upheaval than living with total strangers.

Edinburgh Social Services have deemed that the grandparents are unable to adopt the children because firstly they are too old (grandfather 61, grandmother 49), and secondly because they are too ill (grandfather has angina, grandmother type 2 diabetes). Having informed the grandparents of their decision they then told them that the children would be adopted by a gay couple. The grandparents claim they did not object to gay adoption (though they did not favour it) but they did object to their being disqualified. The reaction of social services was very blunt – the objection must clearly be homophobic and unless they changed their attitudes and became more open minded they would never be allowed to see their grandchildren again.

My opinions very briefly are that despite news reportage I may give some benefit of the doubt to social services – age and health should be taken into consideration regards suitability for adoption. However I would like to know if the judgement that disqualified them was made by a doctor or by a social worker. Are they medically unfit to adopt – or is this just an opinion formed by a non-medical professional?

I am also worried about the increasing power that the state is taking over society. To threaten the grandparents with permanent loss of contact unless they conform to an opinion that social services approves is potentially dangerous. Are we in thought police territory yet?

(I’m aware that in the previous section I was concerned with limitations to freedom of conscience yet here I am arguing total liberty – I’m not being inconsistent so much as highlighting the extraordinary tension between the two positions.)

My final concern is that the press have manufactured this into a homophobic issue.

Christian Nurse

This story fascinates me. The nurse asks a patient if she would like a prayer said for her, patient declines, takes no offence (though considers it weird), mentions it to the nurses colleague the following day, nurse gets suspended.

What is a nurse/nursing? My definition (which I consider fairly accurate) is that a nurse is a medical health practitioner who offers a more “holistic” service than that which can be provided by a physician.

Thus the nurse not only carries out the physicians instructions re: medication, dressing of wounds, general health care provision etc, but also provides support, basic counselling skills, caring observation of the patients welfare status and so on.

Part of this “holistic” approach focuses on the “spiritual” well being of the patient. I will post more on the beneficial uses of religion and spirtuality in health care soon (this story broke shortly after I started gathering materials for it).

The definition of “spiritual” well being in a multi-denominational and plural society necessarily needs be very broadly defined. Indeed one could describe the terms “spiritual” and “well being” as identical (i.e. not referencing any transcendent factor).

In this context then one would be hard pressed to suggest that asking a patient if they wished to be prayed for was a bad/wrong thing to do. One could argue that this approach (though overtly religious) was part and parcel of a holistic caring approach to the patient that a nurse ought provide.

Now for some problems and analysis.

1) The nurse had previously been warned about her behaviour (having been caught handing out prayer cards to another patient).

2) Though the nurse offered to pray and freely accepted the refusal such an overt statement may seem evangelical (forcing of ones beliefs).

3) Such an offer may be liable to offend.

The first issue is interesting – she has “previous” and has seemingly gone against the wishes of her local primary care trust. It is therefore (whether the policy is correct or not) an internal disciplinary matter. It is not a global persecution of expressions of the Christian faith (though one may argue it is a more localised persecution). What is more interesting though is that neither the prayer card, or prayer request patient made a complaint. Offence was neither intended nor taken – yet offence has been registered by a third non-interested party. Again (a common theme in this post) there seems to be a tension between freedom of conscience and institutional censure.

The second issue is a strange one. I dislike being evangelised (and yet I am a person of faith). Clearly a person who does not share the same faith or who is a non-believer altogether may feel irritated at being evangelised and preached to. This is a problem again with freedom of conscience and living in a plural society. Should a person of faith assume the “worst” and keep their beliefs private? Or should they be allowed the freedom to express themselves – partically when its expression has benign intent.

As I noted on a previous comment – a famous atheist once remarked (in suprisingly conciliatory tones) that if ones worldview was such that you believed in good/evil, life after death, eternal bliss etc., then you would have to really hate someone not to want to share the “good news” with them.

In this case I think offering to pray for someone – an expression of good will here – another way of saying “I hope you get better soon” – is not evangelising.

The late Irish comedian Dave Allen (no friend of organised religion) used to close his shows with the phrase “and may your God go with you.”

I think it is inevitable that in a plural society there will be a diversity of beliefs regarding God, the spiritual etc. Many of religion and many of no religion – it is therefore important that we recognise benign sincerity wherever we see it and understand though we may not share the same “language game” that good wishes may be expressed in a variety of idiomatic ways.

The third issue is curious and follows on from the other two. Offence may not be intended but may be taken – such is the fragile nature of intepretation and translation between language games. The patient in the story said she thought it unusual – insofar as though she wasnt offended she could see how some people might interpret the question “shall I pray for you?” as meaning “God you look awful – beyond medical help – you’re best chance is a miracle!”

My only comment on this is – (and again this reflects the overriding theme of this post the tension between freedom of conscience and censorship) – if were constantly vigilant to the fact that what we say may be interpreted in ways we never intended and that the seemingly benign may transform before our very eyes into something heinous – then most likely we would be struck mute for ever!

Personal Concluding Thoughts

I had the misfortune of being seriously ill a couple of years ago and of being thoroughly dependent upon the care provided by visiting nurses. None of them to my knowledge openly prayed for me or asked about my spiritual wellbeing. And yet in their actions a broadly spiritual concern was expressed – and I am perpetually grateful to them for it.

I did in my sick bed recieve from concerned individuals good wishes (of a secular variety) and also expressions of religious sentiment.

There is some research that suggests that praying for someone (and informing them of it) may be cathartic to their recovery. There is also conflicting research that suggests the effects to be negligible.

Personally I found it a) satisfying – it is nice to know people care, but also b) irritating.

I found it irritating for three reasons philosophical and theologically formed.

i) I am quite fatalistic – it is not so much that something happens for a reason, but that things happen and one must make do with ones circumstances – Although I was in pain, and distress I quickly came to be at ease with my situation – it was out of my control, therefore I let go of my attachment to suffering. Consequently my suffering became redemptive, enlightening even, and I learnt more about myself in a short space of time than I had ever known in all my previous years.

ii) I am quite cynical and humble – God (if you happen to believe in Him) surely has far more pressing concerns than to worry about little old me and my ailments. Don’t pray for me, beg him to stop earthquakes, floods, famines, war, pestilence, and so on.

iii) I am a philosophical and theological disciple of the Rhineland School of Mysticism – exemplified by the teachings of Meister Eckhart. Prayer is a human institution – a psychological reaction to circumstance – it is not bad of itself but it can become an object of fetishistic attachment. It can be an obstacle to letting go of attachments, a vehicle of selfishness and a barrier to simply “being.”

In the New Testament Jesus is reported as praying on only a handful of occasions. Usually they are private affairs. Throughout them though is one common theme – that of the resignation of the self-will –  not mine but “thy will be done.”

This is the crux of ‘Christian’ prayer as Jesus is supposed to have taught it.

Eckhart summed up the selfishness of our attachments and our abuse of prayer when he said:

but if they should fall sick they would wish it were God’s will that they should be better. These people, then, would rather that God willed according to their will than that they should will according to His. This may be condoned, but it is not right. The just have no will at all: whatever God wills, it is all one to them, however great the hardship.

Eckhart coined the phrase Abegescheidenheit which loosely translated can mean living without a why. The lucky man is attchment free and is content with whatever befalls him, sickness, health, weal or woe.

Therefore this nurse’s case is in my humble opinion – no great offence to society or to the healthcare profession. In fact I would propose that her goodwill is such that it overflows and she is a fine model of what the nursing profession can be. Her suspension is therefore heavyhanded and sad reflection of the ease of misinterpretation. I wouldnt mind betting that the patient who mentioned it in passing, now wishes she had remained silent.

What this does represent though is perhaps an immature approach to her faith and to prayer. We all wish the sick to get better, we all wish to live long and happy lives. But life is not like that – the evidence is all around us to see. For some people this is a damning condemnation of the supposed goodness of God and perhaps demonstrative of His non-existence. For others it is simply demonstrative of the selfishness of the human ego that we should seek to define God’s will as compatible with ours. Some people find the approach of the via negativa uncomfortable, is a God that allows suffering or who shows no inclination of goodness worthy of our attention and worship?

The nurse didn’t do a bad thing, and is being wrongly persecuted. But the nurse most likely should have persisted in her caring capacity without the need for a public expression of her faith. By her actions alone – and indeed by the actions of the entire medical proffession – we may judge for ourselves what manner of persons they are. And if a patient requests some form of explicit expression of benign goodwill such as a prayer then regardless of ones personal beliefs one should be willing to offer it knowing that it is part of a holistic approach to wellbeing.

Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill

Posted by Anti Citizen One on May 23rd, 2008

I have been trying to find an interesting angle on the recent law passed by the UK government. I am afraid I have not found anything particularly insightful! Both sides seem to be talking past each other. If I may paraphrase each side:

Religion: we respect human life and we should therefore not experiment on embryos.

Scientists: we should experiment on embryos to advance medicine because we respect human life.

This indicates a difference in their conceptions of “respect”. Without specifying this, saying we have respect from human life is ambiguous. It annoys me that most of the media coverage does not scratch the surface of this issue.

My own opinion has been expressed in my blog post – the Paragon of Animals. To base objects based on divisions between species is, almost by definition, arbitrary and transient (all life forms are our distant cousins and all species have a finite duration of existence).

Anti Citizen One

Public Debate on Genetic Modification

Posted by Anti Citizen One on March 12th, 2008

I just attended a public debate on genetic modification. It went into more technical depth than I was expecting – this was a pleasant surprise. Since the panel were mainly medical professionals or scientific journalists, there was no instant rejection of genetic modification. This allowed what I consider a rational discussion of current and future possibilities. Of course, I am aware that some hold the view that genetic modification is not rational or moral. Various terms in the debate are emotionally charged and usually impairs rational discussion.

A few interesting points:

When asked, most of the audience would not allow direct genetic modification to screen for eye colour of children – but we do this passively anyway because we (usually) have free selection of our mate. This allows crude selection of genes that give certain aesthetic characteristics e.g. eye colour, height, beauty. (Sexual selection theory)

What is the difference between genetic modification and eugenics? Current medical practice is based on informed decisions by individuals rather than state compulsion.

One opinion: as long as it is safe, it should be allowed. Government interference should be minimized.

One observation: medical ethics are mostly concerned with the good of an individual. Most questions about the long term effect on society were not discussed in depth. One valid point was genetic modification was no different to medicine generally. Medicine has radically extended life spans and changed society. To rule out genetic manipulation would be inconsistent with precedent.

My view: people should have maximal personal responsibility. But I suspect most or all (including me) would be greatly burdened to take responsibility for this freedom. “…[S]uch a destiny of a task compels one to run into the sunlight at every opportunity to shake off a heavy, all-too-heavy seriousness.” (Nietzsche.) For example, some cultures would select male children because they are considered “more useful”. (An untimely thought: could a very patient terrorist insert harmful genes into a target population? You heard it here first.) If we had wide free choice, would children all look like celebrites (and out of date ones at that)? I don’t want some special interest group to mess up the gene pool, thank you very much.

Anti Citizen One

More ramblings on bioethics and the state

Posted by on February 2nd, 2008

I’m guessing the previous post to be in part a response to my thoughts on the current bioethics debates. And alas I feel myself being drawn into a debate that normally I would prefer to keep at the office or within the academic environment. Anyway I will try to respond to some of your points.

You describe the Pope’s writings as betraying “Arbitrary Reasoning” – well besides the obvious arbitrariness of the accusation you are entitled to your opinion. Certainly if one were to read his works in isolation or out of order then his reasoning probably could seem arbitrary. On the other hand if you read his works from the 60’s onwards (a gargantuan task) you would probably get a feeling for the reasoned consistency of his arguments (though by no means should this deter you from your disagreements).

You criticise his view for being speciesist and this topic has been written on at some length, so I will move over that one. Other than to say that he could be regarded as necessarily speciesist – consistent with the anthropic thrust of Christian philosophy – as opposed to being arbitrarily so.

You dislike the appeal to tradition and again there is little more I can say on this matter other than it is a self-justifying position for the office he holds as the successor to Peter. Appeals to tradition are tautologically a traditional way of building arguments in philosophy. It can become a logical fallacy if the tradition that is being appealed to is given unquestionable authority. But a simple overview of pontifical literature shows that unbending adherence to tradition is not the modus operandi, for example in the days of St Thomas Aquinas “life” was assumed to begin some days after conception and at variable times for boys and girls. Now, informed by medical science this view has been rejected and a life begins at conception theory has been adopted. Before I explain this a little further, just one cautionary note your opposition to the appeal to tradition (without qualification) has a similarity to the fallacy of the appeal to novelty.

It seems that you also oppose the assumption to a universal right to life. Now we have discussed the idea of natural rights before and satisfactorily concluded that the notion is ridiculous. But is this what he is arguing for? In the snippet of text you quoted he talks about unconditional respect this is appeal to cultivating a respectful attitude not an appeal to natural rights.

Biomedical ethics has engaged in an important debate concerning “life” and its “beginnings”. Personally I adhere to a theory that is called “longitudinal form.”

From conception through conceptus, blastocyst, embryo, fetus all the way to birth there are no singular definable and isolatable boundaries of transition. One could take pictures of the developmental stages and label them as seperate stages of being – but this is an artificial seperation for these stages in action or process are inseperable and belong to a single continuity of cell division and growth. One could talk about the first beat of the heart, the first signs of mental life, the development of the nervous system or even birth as “the beginning of life” but these are parts of an organic continuum.

This longitudinal view of life is generally adopted post-natal by all of us. Although we differentiate between tot, child, teen, young adult, middle-age and the elderly there are no objective or singularly definable moments that one can point to and declare with any certainty that there was a particular moment of transition.

Similarly so then by extension even birth is a process rather than a straightforward before/after event. The child in the womb in the days preceding birth is virtually indistinguishable from the child immediately post-birth – generally we talk about viability at this stage. But as medical care for premature babies improves yet more boundaries in viability are smashed and it is not uncommon to hear of 26 week old survivors. But being “born” and taking one’s first breath of air by ones self (or being capable of doing so) is not the deciding factor (usually) in discerning whether the child is “alive”, “vital” or “viable”. It is important, but not singularly so.

We can understand various moments of embryonic development by taking them in isolation and comparing them with other stages – but these stages are not independent of each other and only become totally meaningful when considered as part of an organic process. Thus it is possible to talk about life or the process of growing-life beginning at conception without having recourse to notions of the soul or the direct action of a divinity.

Now than having rejected ‘natural rights’ we still acknowledge artifical or assumed rights. The difference in view is that natural rights are somehow inherent whereas the other type of right is in the gift of human discourse. This latter is a fairly democratic way of operating. By consensus most of us wish to avoid being murdered thus a social taboo has arisen around the act of murder. Similarly the vast majority of us engage in a primitive form of social contract by choosing not to murder each other – quite often on the selfish context that if I dont kill you hopefully you will extend the same courtesy to me!

But what qualifications does one require in order to be eligible for certain rights? Obviously I cannot extend the right to life to a dead body, nor the right to vote in free elections to an embryo. Clearly there are circumstances where we consider one or other of our species invalid to certain rights.

What then about the right to life? Well generally we extend the gift of this right to all living people, exceptions are made in some societies for capital crimes where the right to life is supposed to have been negated by criminal action. Similarly some cultures have begun to diminish the primary status this right usually enjoys by defining it as in competition with the right to die, or more pertinantly the right to choose the means and time of ones death. But even in this case the right hasn’t been completely abrogated, rather a realism has descended upon certain ethical views, a realism that rights are in the gift of society and are not endowed by a supernatural power or inherent in our natures. And of course even the right to die is qualified on the grounds of voluntary decision making, such a right is gifted to those who are autonomous and capable of making an informed and consensual decision. Unique cases exist such as permanent coma’s and brain death (or persistant vegitative states) but thats a seperate issue.

So what about the unborn child, are they qualified to recieve the gift of rights? This is the crux of the debate. There are those who use the language and imagery of parasitical life to negate the qualification of the unborn child to recieve rights so long as they are dependent upon the host (mother). But what about the child who has just been born? Although breathing and living independently, they are still vulnerable and incapable of sustaining their own fragile lives, in other words they depend on the kindness of others. Consequently infanticide has become an extraodinary social taboo, particularly if the motivation for murder is selfish and not the result of some unfortunate psychological illness. What difference in moral ‘status’ then is there between the child who has just been born and who is dependent on their mother/carer, and the child in the womb who is viable? And as longitudinal form asks, what difference then in moral status is there between a full-term but as yet unborn child and one that is yet to have become fully developed?

The argument then proceeds that rather like the artificial nature of viewing the stages of developmental growth independent of the whole process from conception (to death), so too certain divisions in moral status and eligibility to the right of life are artificial too.

If we understand that the right to life is a gift, and we choose to remove that right from the unborn child, then if we are to be consistent and not ageist or hypocrital then we must concede that the same right to life may be removed from any one uf us at any time if society (in whose gift the right belongs) defines us as somehow ineligble.

And if society can define the unborn child, the elderly or disabled as being ineligble candidates for the right to life, then what is to prevent society from deciding arbitrarily that our eligibility to that right can be questioned on the grounds of race, gender, sexuality, religion, profession, political opinion etc.

And this is not just the apocalyptic ravings of a hypothetical slippery slope argument – one need only look to recent history to observe governments assuming the power to gift rights and to take them away. We all know (hopefully) of the Holocaust, but let us remember also the Killing Fields of the Khmer Rouge who decided that amongst others those who wore spectacles were enemies of the state and ineligible to posess the same rights as anyone else simply because eye spectacles were considered a sign of education.

You also ask about the “natural time” of death when nowadays that time may be elongated or shortened by medical intervention. This is an important question, but surely the concept is analytical and self-defining, the natural time of death is that which occurs without direct medical intervention. Although you dont say as much your begging of the question seems to imply that because medical science can elongate our lives we ought to make use of their services. Why should this be so? It is known in medicine and medical ethics as “vitalism” the attitude that one must avoid death at all costs. The individual is not compelled to take advantage of the medical services available to them, indeed it is one of the fundamental tenets of medicine that they should seek to help those who come to them for assistance.

One could also define the “natural time” of death as being that which occurs without “extraordinary” medical intervention (and this is indeed the position of the Catholic Church). The question one should ask then is what is “extraordinary” and what reasons does an individual have to want to sustain their life artifically beyond its self-sufficient viability?

You’re second major objection is concerning the “annoyance” of religious groups imposing their view on society with regards ethics (for example abortion). I hate to say it but this just seems to confirm your abhorrence to all things religious and highlights the fragile relationship many people have to the idea of ‘free-speech’.

If there was a situation where roving bands of Catholic militiamen were arresting pregnant women and imprisoning them until they went full-term in order to prevent an abortion, then I may accept that they were imposing their views on society. But this isn’t happening and nobody is suggesting that it should. Those instances (more prevalent in America) where acts of violence are perpetrated against those who facilitate abortion are not acting in religious interests, no matter how badly they protest that they are or how much those who hate religion may try to smear them. It is a sad reality that there are those who allow their personal prejudice to cloud their judgement and who voicably use religious belief as a justification for wholly non-religious means. These people are hypocrites and should be judged as such. In much the same way that we would judge and condemn all forms of hypocrisy in all walks of life.

Now you may argue that anti-abortion lobby groups who would desire a change in the law whether it be greater restrictions or complete illegalization are, albeit through non-violent means, trying to impose their morality upon society as a whole. While this is true to an extent if you genuinely are arguing that this “annoyance” is wrong, anti-social or somehow contrary to your libertarian ethic, then you are painfully naive and certainly not a libertarian in any sense of the word.

How else was abortion legalized in the first place, without the lobbying of a pro-abortion interest group, to legalise the practise on the grounds of free-choice and medical safety? Was this not the imposition of one viewpoint onto the rest of society? Is this not what all human laws are? Is this not what democratic governance is about?

You ask “Isn’t it enough for them to live virtuously (by their own standard) and well away from politics?”

I assume by this you are suggesting that a religious point of view has no place being involved in political debate. If so I can think of no greater assault on the libertarian ideals of free-speech and freedom of conscience that John Stuart-Mill wrote about in chapter 2 of his work On Liberty on the liberty of thought and discussion.

Surely your request that the “annoying” religiously minded people who oppose abortion for example (although I know plenty of atheist pro-lifers also which further highlights the tyranny of your proposition) could be inversely applied to yourself and the ‘non-believers’? Isn’t it enough for you to live virtously by your own standard and stay well away from politics?

If we maintain a system of democratic governance that permits the participation of the people within the organon of power – a system that has the authority to rule over everybody – what ‘right’ have you to deny the freedom to voice an opposing view on any given matter of legislation?

Lets forget abortion, religious belief and non-belief for a moment and apply your maxims to another issue altogether. I oppose the hunting of foxes with hounds, I consider it abominably cruel and unfair and an activity more about sport than pest control. I detest those who support hunting and who consider it to be making a sport out of a “necessary” pest-control activity. But they are entitled to their different point of view and they are entitled – no matter how “annoying” they are and no matter how unlikely it is that I will ever change my mind on the issue – to voice their opinions and to seek a change in legislation.

And so to the final point, in a participatory democracy, that it is alleged we belong to, we can never have any justification in attempting to silence the views of others no matter how objectionable they may seem, when the desired outcome of our participatory democracy is to enact laws that govern us all.

If the law applies to us all – then the oppurtunity to oppose that law must apply to us all. Therefore in the case of abortion, if one group opposes it, on the grounds that it is a violation of the unborn childs right to life (a right that they consider to be either inherent or in the gift of society) then this view may be validly expressed as equally as those who believe that the right to choice overrides the rights claims of an unborn child.

To oppose a law (any law) and to hope that someday it may be changed whilst admitting equally that it may not – depending on the vicissitudes of prevailing opinion is the fundamental axiom upon which liberty is built. To demand that anyone cease from voicing their opposition or from trying to enact change is nothing less than tyranny.

Uncoherant Rambling on Bio-Ethics and the State

Posted by Anti Citizen One on February 1st, 2008

The Pope recently voiced concerns on certain areas of biotechnological research.

As people grapple with the moral questions that arise from the advances in the bio-medical field, the Holy Father offered two “fundamental criteria for moral discernment.” The criteria are: “unconditional respect for the human being as a person, from conception to natural death; and respect for the origin of the transmission of human life through the acts of the spouses”. Pope Benedict XVI

I find it hard to dissect many of the Popes statements due to their arbitrary reasoning. However, I find them speciesist, an appeal to tradition and assuming universal natural right to life is workable.

Also I find the idea of a “natural” time of death curious when we often artificially extend and sometimes shorten lives using medicine. Who can say when is the natural time of death?

Another annoyance are religious groups that want to impose their views, for example on abortion on non-believers. Isn’t it enough for them to live virtuously (by their own standard) and well away from politics?

Perhaps they should listen to this observation made back in the 1830s:

‘In France’, he [Alexis de Tocqueville] said, ‘I had almost always seen the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom marching in opposite directions’, but in America they walked hand in hand.

[… American] religious leaders were careful never to get involved with party politics. They knew that politics is of its essence divisive. And if religion got too involved with politics, it too would become divisive. Dr Jonathan Sacks

For “big” governments, we still need to make value judgments so religion and the state cannot easily be separated. Who should have the final say in contentious issues? Another option is to have “small” government, for example libertarianism.

Back to bio-ethics, we may want to debate the possibility of artificial human same-sex reproduction. The New Scientist has an interesting article on that possibility (subscription required – sorry).

Science seems to broaden human possibilities. Perhaps the larger issue is if someone gave us near infinite power, what is morality? “But pray tell me, my brethren, if the goal of humanity be still lacking, is there not also still lacking–humanity itself?”

Anti Citizen One

Parents who want God to save girl lose case

Posted by Anti Citizen One on July 19th, 2007

“A family judge at the High Court yesterday gave the go-ahead for a seven-month-old girl, who has only one year to live, to receive a bone marrow transplant that has a 50 per cent chance of giving her a normal life, but a 10 per cent chance of killing her.

He authorised the treatment even though it is opposed by the girl’s deeply religious parents, who believe God will provide a miracle cure.” The Telegraph

(This vaguely reminds me of that Babylon 5 TV episode Believers… which reminds me I should complete writing that series of posts. AC1)