2/29/12

Whole World Goodness

Some people are using their February 29th to do something exotic--maybe hot air ballooning in the desert or visiting sea turtles on the black sand beaches of Hawaii or ... well, dream on. I'm spending it scratching my head about population puzzles. 

Suppose the world had a small, happy population--10,000 people perhaps. Generation after generation, they replace themselves. Their way of life is sustainable into the far future.  All's well, right?  But suppose they could have been much more numerous, and equally happy.  Another 10,000 could have existed, just as happy as the first.  That would have been better ... maybe. 

Derek Parfit's famous "repugnant conclusion" envisions something even more perplexing.  If these people had been twice as numerous, but a little less happy, that would have been better ... surely. 20,000 of the slightly less happy would contain more good than 10,000 of the very happy.  But then, 40,000 of the still less happy would contain even more good.  A gigantic number of the just slightly happy would contain more good than the initial 10,000. Is a world stuffed with tons of slightly happy people really a better world?

Better world, worse world.   It occurs to me to wonder if the world as a whole is even up for evaluation.  Somebody or other once said "the world is all that is the case."  Actually, someone specific--Wittgenstein. If the world is simply all that is the case, it's not the kind of thing that can be good or bad.

Then again, maybe it can be good or bad, but the goodness or badness is in the eye of the beholder. Although it's intrinsic to a headache to be bad, it's not really intrinsic to an awful world to be bad.  In any event, it does seem a tad strange to get into the world-evaluating business.

If you do, things get strange pretty fast.  The world is a bit like a collection of books, as opposed to the books themselves, or an art collection, as opposed to the paintings.  If you add another Picasso to an art collection, the amount of aesthetic good has to go up, but the collection doesn't necessarily get any better. It might just get Picasso-heavy.  If you add another happy person to the world, the amount of good goes up, but the world--the "collection"--doesn't necessarily get any better.  Likewise, the repugnant conclusion might be seen as presenting us with a bigger pile of good, but a no better world.  The reason being that worlds are evaluated in a more diffuse, pluralistic way than piles of people.

But then, what are we thinking about, when we have these reactions to different worlds? I have the feeling our reactions to worlds straddle ethics and aesthetics and sheer personal preference in a problematic way.

2/25/12

All Dead Mormons are Now Gay

You have to admit, this is a brilliant project.  I converted someone by the name of Donna Thomson this morning.

It's touching how it says "no converting Holocaust victims" at the bottom. Of course, that's how all this got started. Apparently Mormons have been converting dead Holocaust victims for years--to Mormonism, of course.

Funniest thing ever--Steven Colbert converting dead Mormons to Judaism, courtesy of a guillotine and a hotdog (um).  (Off point entirely, but he's hilarious on the subject of Wheat Thins too.)

What I wonder is--what about that giant bathtub on a pedestal of oxen?  Do these things actually exist in Mormon temples?  Is that really what they use for proxy conversions?  Or is this the product of Steven Colbert's fevered imagination?


The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Posthumous Mormon Baptism
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2/23/12

The Antlers

 Beautiful. Excruciating. Beautiful and excruciating.

Don't miss ...

... this funny business in the land of philosophy. I s'pose I shouldn't be laughing quite so hard, what with the specter of total public humiliation. But. Really.  Or would anyone like to step up to the plate and defend the studly logician?

Freedom to Coerce

"Victims of rape?  Who cares?  Religion is under assault in this country!  Wahhhhh!" (loose paraphrase of both Romney and Santorum last night.)
I've always been puzzled by my university's instructions to students in the event of rape--they are to go to the emergency rooms of specific hospitals.  Why not just any hospital--perhaps the closest one, or one they've been to before?

Last night's Republican presidential debate shed some light. You see, at most Catholic-run hospitals, they won't offer rape victims a morning-after pill.  If you you want to avoid bearing your rapist's child, you're going to have to make a second trip, to another emergency room.  And it turns out (this was in The New York Times the other day), there are a lot of Catholic hospitals, and a lot of other hospitals with Catholic rules, because they are affiliated with Catholic hospitals. One in six people in the US will visit a Catholic hospital this year.

Now, why were the Republican gentlemen talking about this?  Because, according to Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney did not sufficiently protect the freedoms of Catholics when he was governor of Massachusetts.  He signed a bill that required Catholic hospitals to give rape victims the option of the morning after pill. Santorum, and then Romney, made a huge show of compassion.  For the rape victims?  Ha!  No, for those poor, tormented bishops who didn't get their way in Massachusetts hospitals.  Imagine the torture--of being forced to allow emergency room doctors to dispense morning after pills to rape victims!

I waited, and waited ... for some sign of compassion for, you know, the woman who is completely traumatized by rape, and then winds up in a hospital where she's essentially told "Tough luck, have the baby, because that's what 'the church' believes you should do."  What about her emotional and physical health? What about her right to follow her own conscience? But no, the gentlemen did not say a word about her predicament. It was all about the poor compromised bishop.

Whatever you think about whether freedom of religion covers how medical care is dispensed in hospital emergency rooms (I think it doesn't), it says a lot when the main concern is for distant male clergy, not rape victims.  Not one word of sympathy. Nothing about the fact that women have a conscience too. Nothing about who's conscience should prevail, in a matter as personal as continuing or ending a pregnancy. Nothing about the rape itself.  Not one word from any of them.  That's... revolting.

2/18/12

Love, Death, and Powerpoint

A couple of nights ago I gave a talk about love and death at SMU's secular humanist club, with many in attendance from the Dallas Fellowship of Freethought. I'm posting the powerpoint here (HERE), but first, a quick rant. It ought to be possible to convert this to a You Tube video, retaining all the embedded video, sound, and animations, but you can't do that on a Mac.  You can do it if you have Powerpoint for Windows (2010), according to the Powerpoint for Windows website.  So. That's. Annoying.

My presentation starts with the song "Everlasting Everything," by Wilco, which succinctly captures a worry about death and impermanence you find in many philosophers -- over the centuries and today.  Jeff Tweedy "solves" the problem with "everlasting love." I talk about other possible solutions--the God solution (Tolstoy) and the anti-Love solution (the Stoics), and about how the love solution is found not only in a Wilco song, but in philosophers, like Richard Taylor and Harry Frankfurt.  How satisfying is it? How much does it console? I like the way the song hints at only partial consolation--the tone of it is tragic, brave, and beautiful, not cheerful or tranquil. At the talk I enjoyed the discussion afterwards about levels of consolation--what works, what doesn't, for whom and when, for what purposes, etc.

Just possibly on Monday I'll be able to convert the Powerpoint to the full glory of a You Tube video, with functioning embedded videos and sound. If so, it will be here.

2/16/12

Universal Veganism?

A student in my Animal Rights class asked me several years ago whether I thought humanity would ever be 100% vegan.  Over the years, I've found myself thinking about this, but thinking about it in evolving ways.  One of the reasons my thoughts are in flux is that I've added a course on Environmental Ethics to my repertory.  This makes me focus less on the micro-level, and more on the macro-level.

On the micro-level, you focus on one person deciding between an all-plant diet and a part-animal diet.  The all-plant diet will nourish them, but they find the part-animal diet tastier.  Can they justify the harm they impose on animals in terms of the taste-delta, so to speak?  No, it seems clear they cannot.  Next issue: will all humans ever recognize this fact and switch over to an all-plant diet?  The issue seems entirely about self-involvement vs. altruism.  Are we good enough to all become vegans?  The more optimistic among us say Yes.  The less optimistic say No.

But now start on the macro-level, and think about oceans.  71% of earth is covered with ocean, and seafood provides 20% of animal protein, world wide -- 50% in some countries.  In a vegan world, the ocean simply stops being used as source of nutrition.  Land gets wasted too. Only 10% of the earth's land surface is arable--used to grow for crops.  26% of the land surface is used as grazing land.  Most of that grazing land is not convertible to cropland, so if animals weren't being raised on it, it would simply be lost to food production.  The total lost to food production: about 79% of the planet's surface.

Now, a vegan earth is also a planet where the cropland is used more efficiently. As it is, a third of cropland is used to feed confined animals (the ones not on grazing land).  So the cropland will feed far more people, in a vegan world.  Maybe -- I'm not sure -- everyone will still get fed. But by not consuming animals raised on grazing land or living in oceans, a vegan world leaves a great deal of the earth's surface unused for food--the oceans plus all the grazing land that couldn't be used to grow crops.  To make up for this, there has to be lots of importing-exporting, and lots of local people stop being self-sufficient food producers.

It seems to me there's got to be some law of biology or economics (er ... what is it?) that says no to this.  It just can't be that a species decides that a vast amount of its habitat is off limits, as far as obtaining food is concerned. Now, we don't want to make the mistake of thinking "natural, therefore good," or anything so crude, but there are some aspects to nature that just aren't going to be transcended, no matter what. For example, people will keep having sex and reproducing.  And more to the point, they will keep spreading out all over the globe, using every acre of it for food production.

I know what someone's going to say. If we're inevitably going to use every acre for food production, would it be OK to use every acre of Manhattan for food production? May we round up New Yorkers, and turn them into hamburgers?  Well, no. And we're not going to eat chunks of the Grand Canyon either.  But -- perhaps you still see the point.  Manhattan is tiny.  We can pass up Manhattan Burgers, but can we really let 79% of the earth be non-food territory?

Things look very different when you switch from the micro-level to the macro-level.  On the micro-level, the person who eats meat seems to prioritize their taste-delta over the well-being of animals. Selfish jerk!  But now think about humanity collectively, on the macro-level.  We use the whole earth for food production, which must mean we eat other animals. It's not a matter of selfish pursuit of pleasure, but of the basic laws of biology and economics.  The pleasure people get from eating meat isn't an ultimate end, looking at in the grand scheme of things, but actually nature's way of getting them to obey those basic laws.

A vegan world violates the very most basic laws of biology and economics, whereas an omnivorous world does not.  So--to hell with worrying about the treatment of "food" animals? No, no, no.  It's just a starting point to recognize that we're not heading for a vegan world. There's a lot that's wrong with our omnivorous world.  We use every bit of the earth for food (fine) but over-use it (not fine).  We use resources inefficiently.  That's particularly so with respect to the confined animal sector.  Confined animals are fed through the inefficient use of valuable cropland.  That makes no economic sense. These operations also pollute air, water, and land.  There are also issues about the over-use of grazing land--too many animals means too much methane--a greenhouse gas. Finally, and very importantly, there are issues about the horrifying cruelty of these operations.

If you think we're heading for a vegan world, you'll think it's trivial, and even retrograde, to bring about small reforms, like two on the horizon right now:

Federal legislation introduced - bigger cages for laying hens
McDonalds ending use of gestational crates

But we're not.  So we should be for these reforms and support the organizations working for them.  I keep hearing Wayne Pacelle of HSUS on the radio, and think he's the cat's pajamas. If you're abolitionist Gary Francione, you hate the guy, because he's making life incrementally better for animals, while leading everyone a little further away from a vegan world. But I think we're not heading to a vegan world, period. It's not a question of human selfishness, but a simple matter of biology and economics. We just can't let that much of the earth's surface be labelled "not for food."

2/13/12

Grammy Highlights (says me)

Best thing, this Chipotle commercial. If a big restaurant chain wants to run commercials decrying factory farming, I'm all for it.  What a great commercial, on every level.




Nick Minaj's diabolical exorcism thing. C'mon, Catholic pundits, where's the outrage? I'm hoping to hear some today.



Bon Iver winning best new artist. I love the music, and this was a big win for the nerdy disheveled guy -- often overlooked in the glitzy music business.


Bon Iver Wins Best New Artist

Last but not least, Adele's final acceptance speech--the one where she moans a lot and talks about snot.  Hey, she's great (though the music doesn't speak to me personally), and I love seeing a win for the unskinny, "real" girl.   

2/9/12

It's Contraception for God's Sake!


So--the Obama administration is struggling to explain why it's reasonable to require Catholic hospitals and schools to cover contraception in insurance policies for their employees.  Why should Catholics  have to spend their money in ways that run counter to their religious beliefs?  Isn't that a violation of their religious freedom? Romney and Santorum want to think so.

Background fact:  we have a strange healthcare system in this country, where we get insurance coverage through employment.  So private businesses have to function partly like public entities, covering whatever types of health care are currently considered standard and mainstream.  Health coverage comes to be somewhat government managed, though not government run. 

This crazy public/private system can lead to problems for religious institutions that decide to go into business.  Consider the poor Schmatholics.  Their religous belief is that the body is a sacred vessel.  It is an abomination for a surgeon to cut into it, they think.  So they're fine with various kinds of medical care, but surgery, no.  Thou shalt not perform surgery!

The Schmatholics happen to like to run businesses. They have bookstores, bowling alleys, golf courses, lots of businesses.  Given the way health care works in this country, can they really be permitted to provide their employees with their weird, surgery-free insurance policies?  Why no, they can't.  The health care system we have makes it impossible to grant total religious freedom to Schmatholics who run businesses.

Is that ... awful? Is it an infringement on freedom of religion? No, not really. Schmatholics don't have to run businesses. Surely that's not intrinsic to their religion.  They can practice their religion with complete freedom, but when they enter the sphere of business, they have to comply with the rules.  In fact, there are lots of rules.  If their religion requires swindling people, well too bad, the rules of the business world apply.

Oh but wait, surgery is obviously moral, those Schmatholics are simply insane.  Contraception, on the other hand, is debatable.

But no, it isn't.  Not even Catholics disagree about it ... not really. Or you wouldn't have the lowest birthrates in the world in mostly Catholic countries like Italy. Surveys show that almost all Catholics disagree with the official position of the church on contraception. If the Catholic church weren't so hierarchical, we'd have to say that Catholics believe in contraception.  Because they do. When you go and ask them, they say they believe in it and use it.

What if a procedure really were debatable? Like sex change surgery, for example, or abortion?  I can see that it would be overreaching for the government to insist that every insurance policy in the land must cover these procedures.  But just like every policy must cover surgery, whatever the Schmatholics think about it, it seems equally straightforward that every policy must cover contraception, whatever Catholic priests think about it.  It is simply standard medical care--not controversial at all, except for within a certain (frankly) lunatic fringe.

Nobody seems to be saying that, but it needs to be said. 


2/7/12

Is this Opposites Day?

I hope democrats aren't going to let Mitt Romney get away with this.  It seems he finds it a terrible assault on freedom of conscience that the Obama administration will be requiring religious hospitals to include contraception coverage in insurance for their employees.  What, is this opposites day?  If there were no one trying to purchase contraceptives, there would be no issue here.  Employees at these hospitals disagree with Catholic doctrine, and wish to use contraceptives.  (Duh-the doctrine is sheer lunacy.) The church wants to get in their way--or at least slow them down.  People siding with these institutions shouldn't be allowed to pose as defenders of conscience when they actually don't want to empower individual employees to think for themselves and make their own decisions.  They're not defenders of conscience, their defenders of church power over private decision making!

2/4/12

Atheism in America

Julian Baggini traveled around the US interviewing atheists for this article in the Financial Times.  The general picture: not pleasant.  If you live in small town America, you'll most likely want to keep your non-belief to yourself.  Being unreligious will make it hard for you to be part of the community, since so much socializing and volunteer work is organized around religion.

Academic city dwellers, particularly if they're philosophers, will find it hard to relate to all of this.  70% of philosophers are atheists, so (seriously) I think it's harder to be a Christian in philosophy than to be an atheist.  On the other hand, as an inhabitant of a north Dallas suburb (we're just a few blocks from Plano, the hideously conservative suburb mentioned in the article), I do have just a little experience with anti-atheist prejudice--enough to know it's a reality.

The article ought to make anyone empathize with maligned American atheists, but it should probably also make maligned American atheists ponder their own agenda a bit.  Consider what many of Julian's informants told him--being gay or even a crack addict creates less of a problem than being an atheist.  Why is that?  Probably part of the difference lies in the thought that you can't be good without God.  Atheists really need to overcome that belief.  But there's another element to this.  If you're gay, you're not attacking heterosexuality, and you're not trying to make others gay.  In the public mind, an "atheist" isn't simply someone who believes there is no God.  An atheist is a promoter of godlessness.

At least, that's the impression I've gotten in many conversations. People will confess disbelief and then turn around and say "But I'm not an atheist, or anything like that."  What is an atheist, or anything like that?  An opponent of religion, I think, not merely someone who believes there is no god. So--part of the problem with atheists winning acceptance is that many don't position themselves like members of other religions.  Christians can accept Jews because Jews aren't anti-Christian, and vice versa. It could work the same way between theists and atheists, but it calls for overt "live-and-let-live" attitudes on both sides.

Of course, some atheists really are anti-religious, and don't plan on giving that up, even if it would help atheists gain more acceptance.  They think the goal of defeating religion is so important that it's worth the temporary marginalization of atheists out there in middle America.  OK, fine, but let's be honest about how atheists present themselves to others, and what role that self-presentation plays in the stigma associated with the word.