February 29, 2012

Rape Baby Morality

Rick Santorum is quite the news maker and I love and hate the guy. It would be hard for me to find anyone I disagreed with more than Rick, but he talks honestly, forgoing the usual political speech that clouds what someones true view are. He even backs up what he believes with why he believes it rather than say something vague. I think he at least deserves credit for that. 

Yet, pretty much everything he says makes me shake my head, and if I had the chance to talk to him I don't think we could really have a conversation. There is a fundamental disconnect about such basic beliefs that we would end up talking past each other. This can be shown in two stances we take on what should happen in the awful situation when a woman is raped and becomes pregnant. 

Rick's view is that even a mother who is raped should have to carry their birth to term because every baby is a gift from God, or as he says himself, "The right approach is to accept this horribly created - in the sense of rape - but nevertheless a gift in a very broken way, the gift of human life, and accept what God has given to you." I think it would also be fair to attach the co-belief that God is infallible

There is really a blend of two arguments being put forth. The first one has the logic that (main argument) every birth is a gift from god, (unstated support) god doesn't make mistakes, so (conclusion) a person must accept what god gives them.

The second argument only makes a brief appearance when he talks about the gift being a human life. It first states that at the moment of inception a human life is created and it goes unstated that a human life should be kept alive. 

From one short quote two arguments are presented, although they are both only presented in a semi-complete fashion 

Now I'd argue that birth is a biological process with no special meaning, that natural processes are separate from moral ones, so a persons decision to continue with a pregnancy is their moral choice and independent of any consideration of nature/god. 

Looking at the two views you can see how even two reasonable people could come to talk with the best intentions of working something out and just run into road blocks. Santorum's belief that each birth has a divine hand is incommensurable with the understanding of birth as only a biological process.  

I think Ricks second view does leave some room for talking thought because the question remains whether all murder is wrong, so perhaps if the unborn fetus itself raped it's mother than it could be capitally punished.  There may be no clear solution, but there is room to talking and maybe even having some progress. 

The point is to recognize what people are really saying in their arguments and not all the time are even reasonable people going to get anywhere when they talk. It also shows how one belief can affect numerous other beliefs you hold, but maybe I'll post about that later.

Thanks for reading,
-the moral skeptic

February 24, 2012

What Does the Earth Want?

This seems to be the fundamental question of environmentalism and it's often ignored, assumed, or not even asked. I feel like Camus, who first really put the emphasis on whether life was worth living, and put forth a fundamental question that should have been answered or at least defined before people went to work on solving problems. The cart is years ahead of the horse, and people trying to upgrade the cart to see if they can make it work better.

Now it may be argued, correctly even, that any answer given to this question will be anthropomorphizing the earth, but that doesn't diminish the value in asking the question in the first place. How the question is answered is still important because it defines your starting place and the bias's that were applied when asking the question.

Bias isn't a bad thing, its a natural omnipresent condition that affects any judgement and it is best to be aware to keep it in check. Physicists are biased with preconceptions that make it easier to believe that light is the cosmic speed limit, but that doesn't make the fact any less true. 

I've came up with 4 answers to the question of what the Earth wants and will describe them and what they show.

1. The Diversity Argument - Perhaps the best thing for the earth is to be as diverse biologically as possible.  A world built this way would provide for the greatest range of niches being filled and quite possibly the greatest range of the 'enjoyment' of the earth. This is to say that a mole enjoys the earth in a different way than a bat does, but doesn't say anything more than that. 

If that is the goal then all species should be attempted to be saved and the importance of the preservation  of different animals would go up exponentially as the number of the members of a species went down. This again wouldn't have to be limited to animal life and seems readily applicable to plant life as well.

Yet, if the greatest diversity is the core goal than people should also be trying to create new species through genetic modification and separating breeding populations to obtain quick changes in animals so that new species are created. Sure, some of these new species might expand their bounds and compete with the existing species, but than people can manage populations in an attempt to keep the greatest amount of different species alive.

This idea may sound far fetched, but at the heart of the idea that genetic diversity is important and that animals should be saved, even as their habitat disappears or in some cases becomes non-existent.

2. The Most Life - Sheer number of animals and plants could be the most important factor, as it wouldn't matter what species exist, so long as the Earth is supporting the greatest amount of life it could. A maximal mother earth wouldn't be a monoculture that is often criticized,as many more plants are able to live in a untouched forest than one where a single species has been planted, but it wouldn't be against the idea of a monoculture in principle either. 

One life would be just as important as another and there would be no favorites. This would probably mean a vastly more integrated human life where nature would be intertwined with life, and where pests, would be as valuable in principle as pets and it would also be highly unrealistic and unpopular.

3. The Human First - Egoism as expressed by the bible and more recently by Rick Santorum. As the bible said the world was created for man and he got to name all the animals. Than in Genesis 1:26 "Then God said, 'Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.'”   

This is the most popular view of nature, that humans matter and everything else matters as compared to what human value it has, but it's probably popular because of human exceptionalism and ignorance. 

Animals can be seen as stupid or unfeeling and thus can be morally written off to have no consideration, or people can just not think of the problem and act in their own self interest. Either way results in an exclusively human perspective.

4. Earth as an ecosystem - The common solution for environmentalists is that the earth wants to be an ecosystem. The earth only provides life by the inter-dependance of the earth, water, weather system, plants and animals working together to form a cohesive self replenishing system. 

Everything has value because everything functions in an integrated way.

Whats the answer to what the Earth wants? Just to restate is depends totally on what your view is and the question is only a canvas for what you believe. That's about the only thing conservatives get right about the environment, the earth may not have been put here under our dominion, but it surely doesn't care if we use up all the oil, kill all the polar bears (apology's the the bear pictured above), or turn it into a planet like Mercury.

Yet, animals, plants and people all must live here in some sort of balance and what that balance is important. The key is not to think that what exists now is perfect,  that what naturally happens is the best balance or that there is any one solution to the question.

Sam Harris points out that there can be many peaks and valleys in the ethical treatment of people, and this holds for the environment as well. That's why I enjoyed the Skeptical Environmentalist so much, because Bjorn thinks things are good now, but is willing to ask the question, will things be better in the future if we say the course we are on? Whether you agree with him about whether he got the right information or draws the right conclusions isn't as important as starting the conversation and being willing to ask the question. He is a man looking for many peaks.

The point is that there are many environments that work, and the answer isn't the steady state that we need to keep everything as it was found when people first entered the area, or that we need to terraform everything to make this world any particular way.

All the points of view have some value, and although I think it isn't usually the case that everyone see's a different piece of the truth, this time all the views have something important to say.

1. The value of diversity of life and captures the understanding and wonder when we find something new and the shame and feeling of loss when something goes extinct.

2. The amount of life is also important as it lets species overcome tragedies that may happen to any number of the individuals, but this seems like a lesser core value than the other three.

3. The egoist view has ever present importance of humans in ethical considerations. Any environmental philosophy that doesn't take that into account is going to be impossible to follow, as even the people who want to preserve nature for it's own benefit don't want to preserve nature as it was during any of the numerous ice ages the earth has had. Anything calling for mass human death, or your mother to have the value of a tree just is unsupportable.

4. Shows how the earth works as a system and how nothing exists on its own.Yet, this view does have a bias to what exists now against what could exist in the future, which is the topic of another post.

What does the Earth Want? A ecosystem that functions well, values life's diversity/volume, and still keeps a prominent place for human beings. I know that's not really an answer, but what it is a rubric for what the answer should look like.

Thanks for reading,
- the moral skeptic 

February 18, 2012

Is There a Social Need for Violence?

I have a weekend class, and a group was presenting about the problem of concussions in sports...a much better/more interesting topic than I got to present on, but three times during their presentation they insinuated that there was a social need for violence.  It wasn't the type of presentation where the audience felt welcome to talk during so I wasn't sure the question would be addressed, but as they ended they had discussion questions, and they had a question framed as it is titled in this post, "Is There a Social Need for Violence?"

I addressed the under-current that ran through their presentation, and  said to the same effect what I'm going to recite with better statistics in the rest of this post.

I don't think that if sports became less violent and people lost what were described as their, 'outlets for violence' that they would take to the streets looking for someone body checking someone else or start to beat up other people because their was a build up in their internal violence meter.

This isn't a caricature of the position being presented, and what may be a more common belief than expected, yet it is a belief not only wrong it's completely backward from reality. Violence tends to only beget more violence as was well stated by some oft quoted royal doctor.

I know no better way to show this than the experiments with anger and stress management, but if you know of other ways feel free to add them to the comments. The common expression is 'blowing off some steam' and I guess that is what the people in class thought, that the body naturally builds up a violent steam that can be released by watching or participating in violence, to the point that if there were no other outlets underground fight clubs would pop up to satisfy base human urges.

That doesn't seem to be the case though, acting out aggression or taking part in aggressive acts tends to only make the person more vengeful; acting out aggression doesn't vent anger it amplifies it. The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology showed that affect in 1999 when it published a paper entitled, "Catharsis, Aggression, and Persuasive Influence: Self-Fulfilling or Self-Defeating Prophecies?" A number of experiments were documented in this paper and their results were counter intuitive and largely ignored by pop culture in the same way the discovery of there being no link between sugar and hyper-activity was ignored, but that's a different post.

In the first study it was found that,

"Participants who read a procatharsis message (claiming that aggressive action is a good way to relax and reduce anger) subsequently expressed a greater desire to hit a punching bag than did participants who read an anticatharsis message. In Study 2, participants read the same messages and then actually did hit a punching bag. This exercise was followed by an opportunity to engage in laboratory aggression. Contrary to the catharsis hypothesis and to the self-fulfilling prophecy prediction, people who read the procatharsis message and then hit the punching bag were subsequently more aggressive than were people who read the anticatharsis message."

People who hit the punching bag didn't blow off steam, they built it up.

While another study in the paper that was similar, went further. It compared people doing nothing to people hitting a punching bag. To get these people 'riled up' they were given a writing assignment and received comments about what they wrote telling them that it was the worst thing that the grader has ever read. Half the individuals were left alone and half the subjects were taken to use a punching bag, individually, of course.

After using the punching bag or just sitting for a period of time they were given a second test where, if they won they could blast another person with an air horn. The people were given the options of both how strong a blast they could use and the length of time they could blast the horn. The results were generally that people, "Who did hit the punching bag were significantly more aggressive than those who did not hit the punching bag." That aggression meant that people who used a punching bag to 'blow off steam' ended up blowing the air horns at a much higher volume and for a longer duration.

This by far not the only study done on this topic as good episode of Bullshit! showed as they re-created a number of studies that were done. People who used punching bags are also more likely to give people more hot sauce as a punishment and also fill in blanks with much more violent words. For instance the blank RA_E was more likely to be filled in as RAKE for someone who just sat to themselves and RAPE to someone who used a violent outlet for their aggression. 

All this doesn't necessarily prove that there isn't some violent clock within people that needs to find an outlet, as it might have been the case that the calm people just so happened to watch a Steven Seagal movie the night before, while people who used the punching bag had a anger meter that went unchecked the night before by Exit Wounds, so there was a previous build up which is why the people wanted to also use a punching bag in the first place (two people refused to use the punching bag altogether, so they must have watched Under Siege and Under Siege 2 and had there violent meter at extra low).  

Yet, it seems pretty far fetched that all the people who had a build up would be selected to one group and also that getting to outlet their violence on a punching bag wouldn't be enough to came them down to a level of that of an average person. For that reason the belief that people have a need for a social outlet of violence seems to be far fetched. People don't need to outlet violence to calm down, or to take part in something violent to assure that they won't do something violent in the future.

As a side note I ran across another interesting study that shows violence in video games may not be linked to future acts of aggression at all, as personal competitiveness was a much more accurate predictor of future aggression. It didn't matter whether a person played a violent fighting game or a racing game, the people gave out the same amount of hot sauce afterwords, but the people who were more competitive, were the ones who loaded on the Franks. Who knew you could learn so much from hot sauce?

I'll end with a quote because so many Stephen J. Gould essays end that way,  

Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars... Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.  - That same royal doctor 

Thanks for reading, 
-the moral skeptic 

February 9, 2012

The Biological Spandrel

In 1979, Stephen J. Gould and Richard C. Lewontin saw a growing problem in the field of biology. To combat and point out the problem they saw they co-authored the paper entitled, "The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm: A Critique of the Adaptationist Programme" which is now a classic and somewhat controversial paper in the field of biology.  Gould say's in I Have Landed that it's his second most referenced paper behind only his paper with Eldredge on punctuated equilibrium.

The problem was that every part of an animal's anatomy was being broken up and explained as having an evolutionary purpose. The tyrannosaur's small arms were to help it get up from sleeping,  or the female hyena's masculinized genitalia created aggressive and larger than would be expected hyena, are the types of explanation's being put forward. Each piece or feature of an animal was broken up and weighed; if something existed it existed for a Darwinian reason and the animal as a collective whole was never thought about.  Noses were created to hold glasses and ears to fit earplugs.

Yet, no matter how ideal the reconstruction of the purpose is, it is just a narrative created to explain something that doesn't always have such a simple, fitting, or purposeful explanation. There are numerous reasons why a feature of an animal might be the way it currently is and being a positive adaptation for better fitness is only one of those reasons.

Lewontin and Gould point this out by way of the dome in St. Marks Cathedral in Venice and by picking out this non-biological example they have created a platonic form for what  a  prefect spandrel is, much more perfect and clean than any biological example could be.  It is prefect because the dome was created, as many other domes were, with the four arches holding it up and the spandrels existing between the two. Only years later did the spandrels get put to use.

The architectural spandrel, in this instance, is a space created only because it was necessary as part of the gap between the arch and the dome. More generally they refer to an architectural constraint that is not part of the design, but instead a by-product of what is necessary from the design. Gould and Lewontin give the example also of a set of stairs with the bi-product or spandrel being space between the steps.

The example works beautifully with the biological idea, because something that can start out as a bi-product of something else can still later develop an important function as happened in San Marco. Making is clear that an adaptive narrative isn't the only way to explain how something came to be, even something that now has an important function. 

A good example of this happening is the famous domestication of the Silver Fox in Russia. The only feature that was selected for was tameness. This made tameness the adaptive feature being selected for and all other traits that changed with it would be spandrels, or features that just happened to be by-products of the result of one thing being selected for. These changes included the fox's becoming spotted, coming into heat every 6 months and becoming more 'dog-like.'

This seems to show the existence of spandrels as pretty clear cut, but the most interesting part of what they bring up is hidden in an article written later by Gould, "The Exaptive Excellence of Spandrels as a Term and Prototype." Near the end of the article he makes the open ended statement that,

"The human brain may have reached its current size by ordinary adaptive processes keyed to specific benefits of more complex mentalities for our hunter-gatherer ancestors on the African savannahs. But the implicit spandrels in an organ of such complexity must exceed the overt functional reasons for its origin. (Just consider the obvious analogy to much less powerful computers. I may buy my home computer only for word processing and keeping the family spread sheet, but the machine, by virtue of its requisite internal complexity, can also perform computational tasks exceeding by orders of magnitude the items of my original intentions—the primary adaptations, if you will—in purchasing the device)."                

It seems that as a brain becomes more powerful, it does a lot more than just what is required for evolutionary fitness. The examples of this these types of spandrels have been argued to include everything from music to even language itself. I think an interesting area to apply the idea of a spandrel to ethics; the things people feel passionately are right and wrong, but for what reason? It could also fill in a lot of gaps in what is ethical, but can't be evolutionarily accounted for and that is what my thesis is on, so you can look forward to quite a few more posts on this topic in the future.

Thanks for reading,