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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

New article in The Monist

The somewhat overdue October 2006 issue of The Monist, a prestigious refereed journal in the field of academic philosophy, has just appeared in print. This issue is devoted to genetics and ethics, and contains my article "Dr. Frankenstein Meets Lord Devlin: Genetic Engineering and the Principle of Intangible Harm".

In this article, I consider what might be reasonable circumstances for the state to prohibit, or otherwise impose a regulatory burden on, genetic enhancement technologies. While I offer some comment on when and how the state should act, I also conclude that the approach proposed, if applied rigorously, would put significant hurdles in the way of banning any particular technology. The idea is to find a principled basis for protecting social harmony while also gaining the potential benefits of genetic engineering.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Defending designer babies

I'm just back from talking to another forum - a much smaller one this time, the Ethics Cafe, organised by Ralph Blunden at Readings Bookshop in Hawthorn. This was a round-the-table chat with about eight or ten people, on the topic of designer babies, which I interpreted as referring to the genetic engineering of human embryos.

I had three points to make:

1. The very idea of "designer babies" provokes fear and repugnance, even anger, in many people.

2. The actual arguments against it leave some residue of concern, even after they are examined stringently. But, whatever worries are not fully answered often turn out to be speculative and uncertain, and they must be weighed against the possible benefits. In all, the arguments against "designer babies" may have some force, but they are relatively weak. (I considered Kantian arguments, utilitarian arguments, and arguments relating to the autonomy of the child, all of which have significant problems. In each case, not much is left of the argument if we state it, then scrutinise it, carefully.)

3. Therefore, we have a disconnect between people's strong emotional responses and the rather weak arguments that are meant to provide their rational justification.

This raises the question as to why we find such a disconnect, or lack of proportion, between the arguments and the emotional responses. Is there a psychological explanation? I explored the possibility that it is not just an unaccountable yuck factor but (also?) a sense of background conditions being challenged. The theory of background conditions postulates that any society, including our own, assumes some constants "in the background" that are not themselves open to human choice, and against which choices are made. If these are seen as under under threat, some people may have a sense of "nature" being violated. Perhaps there is also a sense of vertigo, as if the stable ground is being taken away from under us.

I asked a further question. If, as individuals, we identify the surplus repugnance that we feel as being caused by a sense of threat to background conditions, is this really a reason for continuing to oppose an innovation? Or should this recognition tend to undermine our opposition, once we recognise it? After all, the sorts of innovations that are (arguably) opposed for these sorts of reasons are often socially accepted by opponents at a later stage and prove not to be as problematic as was feared, even if they do have a downside as well as an upside. Examples include the contraceptive pill and IVF.

We had a good discussion of what aspects of genetic engineering it might be rational to fear, and where the fear might come from other than just a sense of violation of nature or a threat to background conditions. The group rose to the occasion to find some rational bases for concern, which is fair enough - there do seem to be some things that we might worry about, though still speculative and uncertain. One might be extra responsibility expected of parents who are already under too much pressure.

It's also true that the more scary uses of such a technology are the ones that will be more difficult to develop in the foreseeable future. E.g., it will be easier to snip out the potential for certain disease traits that have a strong genetic link, or to select pre-implantation embryos without the genetic potential for these traits, than to enhance such things as intelligence. I must quickly add that the latter, if it proves to be possible, may be also be defensible; after all, if parents used environmental means, such as reading and education, to improve their children's cognitive abilities, we'd praise them for it.

Though it was a small group, I found the discussion stimulating and informative. I hope the other partipants felt the same way and that Ralph and his people will invite me back another time.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Dreaming Again

Jenny and I have both just signed contracts with Jack Dann for separate stories to appear in his forthcoming anthology of fantasy and science fiction, Dreaming Again - a sort of sequel to the huge and hugely-successful Dreaming Down-Under anthology that Jack edited with Janeen Webb almost a decade ago now (how time flies!). My psi-and-cyberpunk story, "The Soldier in the Machine", first found a good home in Dreaming Down-Under, and I'm thrilled to be back in the new anthology with “Manannan's Children", a kind of transhumanist fantasy, or a science fiction story masquerading as fantasy, or ... well, you'll see. Jenny joins me with her clever, funny, knowing "Trolls' Night Out".

It's incredibly cool that, for the first time, we will both have short stories published in the same book. I haven't seen a full list of contributors yet, but I'm sure we're going to be in very good company and that this will be another landmark anthology.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Happy birthday to me

It was my birthday yesterday - 18 August - shared with Alison Goodman, Brian Aldiss, and Robert Redford. It wasn't a milestone birthday this time, so it was very quiet, but we cracked open a bottle of French Champagne at lunch time, and we went out for a lash-up meal at Vlados last night. Today, we'll have a few people over for celebratory drinks. Looking forward to it later on, folks.

Friday, August 17, 2007

The unbelievers strike back

On Wednesday night, I addressed the Rationalist Society, here in Melbourne, on "The 'New Atheism'" - the publishing phenomenon that we've seen recently, with a flood of books by such writers as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Michel Onfray. I gave a defence of these writers: although I have no great problem with deists, pantheists, and genuinely moderate religious believers, I do have a serious problem with people who want to impose their religious views on others. In current circumstances, I think the new atheism is both necessary and desirable. If the authority and credibility of religion are coming under sceptical scrutiny, that is a positive social development.

Although I was kind of preaching to the choir, I had a reasonable audience (20-25 people, quite a few of whom are prominent in various secularist circles), and the talk elicited some good discussion about what needs to be done to counter current attacks on the separation of church and state.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Defending free speech

Here I am speaking in the Unitarian Church Hall last night, addressing the Atheist Society (now there's an interesting combination!).

My topic was Freedom of Speech and Religious Vilification. The message was one of dissent from the policy of enacting religious vilification laws in places like the State of Victoria. Although the recent experience, notably the Catch the Fire Ministries case, does not give us reason to panic, it does give us reason for concern and vigilance. There's a danger that such laws will chill socially-valuable speech criticising religious ideas.

I had a good audience, with 50+ interested people, and have since received good feedback. Hopefully, this has raised awareness about laws that create problems for freedom of speech.

(A copy of my speaking notes can be found here, for anyone who is interested.)

Monday, August 13, 2007

Try this on your own blog or website or myspace profile or whatever

If you try it, I'll be interested in the outcome. I see that the much more dangerous Pharyngula blog got a "G" rating.

Addendum: And I've just tested my own website, which is also rated "G" you'll be pleased to know.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Helluva band

We went out last night to the Rod Laver Arena to see the reformed Dio-era Black Sabbath (also known as Heaven and Hell) in concert. The band rocked - what more needs to be said?

Ronnie James Dio must be about 65 these days - he's coy about his date of birth, but the best theory seems to be July 1942, and he's been around seemingly forever. He looked to be in terrific shape, sang with all the extraordinary power and range that he's famous for, and worked the stage (and the audience) with consummate ease and confidence. Surely Dio can't go on doing this for many more years, so I'm glad to have had this chance to see him fronting a version of Black Sabbath. But except that his mane of hair looked a bit thinner, he appeared not to have slowed down at all since I last saw him live on stage back in 1985. Maybe he really has made a pact with the devil.

Like Ian McKellen, whose body looked muscular and rock hard in his brief nude scene in King Lear, Dio is a good role model for those of us confronting the prospect of ageing. I wish I was in that sort of shape. Actually, plenty of teenagers could wish as much. Oh well, something for me to work on over the next decade or two.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Naturalistic moral pluralism rant

I've had occasion to rant about this in a private forum, so it's worth putting a slightly edited version onto the public record. It encapsulates a lot of my basic thinking about moral philosophy.

The first thing is, I don't think there is such a thing as objective value. I can't even imagine what such a thing would be like. There are things that we value, and some kind of explanation can doubtless be given for how it is that we came to do so. That explanation may be partly Darwinian, partly historical and cultural, and searching for it makes a good research program, though not one where it will be easy to obtain a convergence of results (the relevant data is too gappy and too open to interpretation). But such values are contingent features of our psychology. Because we value security, for example, we have Hobbesian reasons to construct morality. Because we are responsive to each other, we have Humean reasons to construct morality. We have reasons that relate to what kind of life most of us find satisfying and see as "flourishing", giving us the kinds of reasons that virtue ethicists emphasise. And so on. But if we start off by thinking that there has to be some "objective value" in, say, the continuation of the human species we'll get things backwards. There is no such objective value. A psychopath or an intelligent alien or even a deep green environmentalist may fail to value it in the slightest and yet make no intellectual mistake whatsoever. Fortunately, from my viewpoint, not many of us fall into those categories.

Morality is made for us, given the things we actually do value. We are not made for morality or to serve any spooky "objective" values. There is, however, plenty of room to explore how much intersubjective and intercultural agreement is possible on what form morality should take. Given that we can all become better informed and more rational in our thinking, there's scope for increasing moral convergence, though no reason to think that the convergence will ever be total. Still, that leaves plenty of room for useful work to be done.

Given that we don't all value exactly the same things and don't all order our values in exactly the same way, morality is always underdetermined and contestable. Given that we value (disvalue, fear, etc.) a lot of the same things, morality and social life are possible.

The published views on all this that come closest to my own are in J.L. Mackie's Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong. However, purely naturalistic accounts of morality, such as I've sketched, are becoming more popular. Similar ideas to Mackie's (and mine) are elaborated by, for example, Richard Joyce, Joshua Greene in his forthcoming book, Richard Garner in his superb Beyond Morality, and Richard Carrier in his underrated Sense and Goodness without God: A Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism. I have no idea why so many of these people are called "Richard". :)

Because I see no reason to reduce our values to one ubervalue, or to expect that we will ever have a fully agreed and determinate morality, I call my worked-out version of this idea "naturalistic moral pluralism" ... or just "naturalistic pluralism" for short.

I should add to the above that traditional belief systems can be barriers to rational convergence on morality (to the considerable extent that it is possible). They fossilise moral norms that are outdated and may have been pathological overreactions in the first place. Think of the extraordinary hostility that many forms of Christianity and Islam show towards sex and sexual display. Sexual desire and jealousy may be dangerous forces, but surely not that dangerous.

One I got right

I'm giving a talk next week about the subject of religious vilification. I haven't thought much about the legal issues - as opposed to the broader social and philosophical ones - concerning racial and religious vilification law for some considerable time, so I've been doing some research to get back into it.

In early 2001, I had an article entitled "Free Speech and Hate Speech" published in Quadrant magazine. There, I expressed concern about some aspects of racial vilification laws, which have the potential to encroach unnecessarily on freedom of speech (I think that this is an even greater concern if we are talking about religious vilification). Among other things, I criticised the outcome and reasoning in a 2000 case in New South Wales, Kazak v. John Fairfax Publications Ltd. There I left it as I concentrated on other issues over the next few years (I left legal practice in September 2001; I now hold myself out as a philosopher of law, among other things, but I don't keep up all that much with the detail of current cases unless I have a good reason).

However, I now see that an appeal in that case subsequently overturned the decision that I criticised, partly (though not entirely) on some of the same grounds that I discussed in the Quadrant article. The appeal decision was handed down back in October 2002, eighteen-odd months after my article appeared, and can be found over here. While I don't especially miss the cut and thrust of advocacy and litigation, there is a certain small pleasure in being right about what looks like a bad legal decision.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Jenny's website

I've just added Jenny's new website to my links. Go and have a look.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

On free will and moral responsibility

I'm currently reading Derk Pereboom's Living Without Free Will, which defends what Pereboom calls "hard incompatibilism" and then explores its implications.

Hard incompatibilism is similar to hard determinism, but allows for an element of randomness in nature. It consists of two theses: First, all of our actions and choices are either (1) ultimately determined by causal forces that are beyond our control or (2) partially random. Second, this is incompatible with free will. For the second thesis, Pereboom relies upon a Causal History Principle to the effect that we do not have free will if our choices are ultimately determined by certain kinds of events, basically events that are not themselves in our power to control.

I agree with the first thesis, but disagree with the second.

As I understand Pereboom, he thinks that free will of the kind he discusses is a coherent concept, but he also thinks that we don't actually possess it. Though the argument is complex, I'm not convinced: I find it very difficult to believe that the concept is even coherent. When agent causation theorists attempt to state it, they can make it sound as if they are talking about something that makes sense, but in the end this concept of libertarian free will always demands that I actually cause not only my own actions but also the self that caused them ... and whatever events shaped my decisions when I did that. Etcetera. Or else, it requires that my choices be free, yet not flow from, and be attributable, my prior nature. The second these possibilities is surely not consistent with our idea of free will, while the first is clearly not a possibility at all. I conclude that libertarian free will of the kind that agent causation theorists attempt to describe is not even a coherent concept.

That is not to deny that our naive, pre-theoretical idea of free will may resemble the libertarian concept and incline us to adopt it. The naive idea of free will may simply be that choices by a rational agent are ultimate causes, requiring no more explanation. Perhaps we have evolved to have a tendency to think in that way and treat each other accordingly.

However, the slightest intellectual pressure on this idea shows how problematic it is, even without any reliance on scientific accounts of nature. In many circumstances, it may be socially useful to act as if the choices of rational agents are not caused by anything else, not even by the agent's own makeup, but we can also ask whether it's really like that. Once we ask that question, we realise that we must at least say that the agent's choices reflect something about the agent's own makeup, or else we seem to be dealing with agents who act at random, and who cannot be unproblematically criticised for their choices. Moreover, we know that there are, in fact, further causes for how human agents choose and act (brain processes for example, plus the events that, in turn, led to them, such as genetic potentials, environmental influences and so on).

The question is whether it is useful to talk about free will at all (and about moral responsibility, etc.) while rejecting the naive idea and seeing ourselves as part of the causal unfolding of nature.

Nothing said by Pereboom has shaken me from my view that such language is, indeed, still useful. In other words, I remain a compatibilist. It is possible to live with concepts of free will, moral responsibility, etc., that are appropriate to the circumstances of creatures like us, and are distinguishable from the naive view of free will. What we can't find is an ultimate responsibility for our actions sufficiently powerful to break any chain of causation between them and the prior creative acts of an all-powerful diety, thus absolving the deity of any blame for our deeds. The naive idea of free will (or a rationalisation of it) is required for the purpose of theodicy. However, we can get by for ordinary social purposes without the naive idea.

Nonetheless, there may be consequences to abandoning the naive idea of free will, apart from the obvious theological ones, and perhaps that is all Pereboom needs for his book to be useful.

Abandoning the naive idea of free will entails abandoning naive ideas of the related concepts of agency and autonomy, and that does have implications in, for example, debates about designer babies (though that is not the kind of issue that Pereboom is interested in).

We need to think through how to live without the naive idea of free will, but I don't believe that it is a concept that we really need. We should get used to living with a more sophisticated kind of free will that is grounded in educated common sense, which will be a compatibilist version of the idea.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

A bit of high culture - King Lear and The Seagull

A big week here for getting a bit of high culture - Jenny and I are just back from watching the Royal Shakespeare Company's touring production of The Seagull, having gone along to see King Lear, with Sir Ian McKellen in the title role, last night. These are magnificent, adventurous theatrical productions that will be talked about around the world, wherever they are shown, for a long time to come. If anything, I enjoyed The Seagull even more than Lear ... to my surprise, since I'd never been such a huge fan of Chekhov. Perhaps I was too young to appreciate his work when I studied it, back in the day. Or perhaps it's just the way that a truly first-rate cast - not least, McKellen in the role of Sorin - brought the characters to vivid life.