About Me

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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Sunday, December 31, 2006

Pluralism as a sign of strength

In (re-)reading Max Charlesworth's lovely little book Bioethics in a Liberal Society, I came across a paragraph in which the author discusses feminism - this is in the context of different feminist attitudes to assisted reproduction. While some of those attitudes strike me as irrational and and generally deplorable (there are plenty of feminist bio-Luddites around), Charlesworth does make a nice point about the sheer diversity of positions.

Rather than seeing the diversity as showing incoherence within the feminist movement, we can see it positively. Charlesworth suggests that it is an index of the maturity of any movement that it has moved beyond a single monolithic view, to accept and even welcome a variety of views and positions. This is, he says, a sign of diversity and strength.

Charlesworth's suggestion is worth recalling when we encounter disagreement from people who are generally our allies and share many common values with us. We should be open to different views and positions from them, as long as it does not get to the point when they disagree on so many specific issues that we can no longer think of them as allies at all. Perhaps transhumanism is reaching a point, after its development in the 1980s, where it is now something far less monolithic and a variety of views and positions can now be found within the broad movement - showing that it has matured and gained strength.

Execution of Saddam Hussein

I broach this topic with a heavy heart, because I can see no good coming out of the current situation in Iraq.

In principle, I am not opposed to all use of military force to remove tyrannical regimes - not where there is some urgent issue and it appears very likely that the operation can be carried out with a balance of good over harm. That is not meant to be an easy test: when you go to war, the potential for horrific, individually unpredictable, ramifications is endless. Without wanting to embrace any precise set of principles, such as those of traditional just war theory, I am always going to look with a sceptical eye at any proposal to go to war, and will want to see some convincing explanation of how the ramifications can be managed, as well as powerful humanitarian justification. Unlike most of my friends, I thought the war to remove the Taliban regime in Afghanistan was justified, but I am now dismayed by the way the aftermath is being managed. I have always been opposed to the invasion of Iraq - from Day One, it looked like madness - but I have no wish to crow about how badly the operation has gone since Saddam was actually removed from power. I just hope there will, against the current odds, ultimately be some reasonably satisfactory outcome.

Furthermore, my opposition to the death penalty is less than absolute. First, let me clear: I cannot imagine realistic circumstances in which I would support its re-introduction to the penal codes of countries that have abolished it. Nor can I imagine circumstances where I would support its retention in, for example, those US states that still have it. There are many good reasons not to have the death penalty as an option in ordinary domestic systems of criminal justice.

That said, the balance of considerations may be different in one-off cases like this involving murderous tyrants who have killed and tortured on a mass scale, and whose guilt in a vast range of crimes against humanity is not in serious doubt, even if particular details are uncertain. I find it hard to believe that such people have a "right" to go on living that trumps all else, so whether we retain the option of a death penalty in these special cases is much more open to argument. Or so it seems to me.

But at the end of the day, I can't see what has been gained by killing Saddam Hussein. Better to have let him eke out his old age in prison somewhere. Besides, there is too much of a sense that this was a kangaroo court ... and then there is the not-so-small matter that many of his other crimes will never be able to be investigated properly. The whole thing just looks too contrived, like something the victors wanted to get out of the way as quickly as possible. Whatever else we want to say, this does not look or feel like justice.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Beagle solution

The official answer to the beagle puzzle is "p = 1/3", which is a relief. But I see people are still arguing about it over at EvolutionBlog. I know I have some readers out there somewhere, but none of you got excited about it, it seems.

Friday, December 29, 2006


Well, the good news here is that my mum has been a lot better the last couple of days, and I'm hopeful she'll be out of hospital next week.

My own lesser health problem also seems to be resolving - looks like it was, as speculated, a dental abscess that went a bit crazy. With some heavy antibiotics, my face has just about returned to a symmetrical shape already.

At the moment, I'm working like a fiend at this second Ph.D.; whenever I run out of energy, I tackle some of my target articles at Wikipedia, where I've done a lot of work lately on the Second Life article, among others. One article that is in very good shape already, but which I'm trying to improve as much as I can in my spare moments, is the one on Richard Dawkins.

Ideally, I'd be submitting the Ph.D thesis in March, but that seems like it might be beyond me if I'm going to read/re-read and properly consider everything that is still on my list - sometimes I'm perhaps too much of a perfectionist. In any event, the thesis will definitely be submitted in 2007 - hopefully in the first half of the year.

We currently have something of a short-term strain on the household finances - Jenny and I live in a house on which the mortgage is, fortunately, all paid off, but which nonetheless has all the associated expenses of a big house for two well-paid professionals, not a place for two people scraping a living by freelance writing and editing, some part-time teaching, and a much-valued but certainly not huge Ph.D scholarship. Sooner or later, something will have to give, but I'm sure we'll survive. It's essentially a short-term cash problem - our underlying financial position is healthy, or we wouldn't be doing this - but there are sometimes pressures from being income poor, even if you're relatively wealthy in assets. I may have to take an actual full-time job again some time, but it would have to be something I really wanted to do.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Beagle puzzle

I spent a good part of yesterday puzzling over this, published on Jason Rosenhouse's EvolutionBlog (and getting involved in the surprisingly enthusiastic debate over it):

"A shopkeeper says she has two new baby beagles to show you, but she doesn't know whether they're both male, both female, or one of each. You tell her that you want only a male, and she telephones the fellow who's giving them a bath. “Is at least one a male?” she asks him. She receives a reply. “Yes!” she informs you with a smile. What is the probability that the other one is a male?"

At the moment, I'm firmly in the "p = 1/3" camp - after initially putting an argument for "p = 1/2" - but I'm anxiously awaiting Rosenhouse's analysis. So far, he's just let us debate it back and forth.

I find these sorts of probability puzzles fascinating, but they often make me feel as if my head is spinning. It took me a full day to convince myself that the solution to the famous Monty Hall problem is correct, after my pal Chris Lawson introduced the problem and the solution to me some years ago. There was a similar problem (wish I could remember the details) doing the rounds at the AAP conference earlier this year, and I never did manage to bring myself to agree with the most popular solution - although I'm willing to concede I was probably overlooking, or not getting, something ... and that the popular solution was sponsored by better logicians than me.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Merry Yuletide to all

It's that time of the year to wish everyone, regardless of belief or background, a happy solstice festival. I've had a particularly quiet time this year, partly because I visited my folks interstate a couple of weeks ago, partly because, after being incredibly healthy through the last several months or so, I've suddenly been struck with what seems to be a tooth abscess or something that has led to one side of my face being swollen and sore - and initially to a throbbing toothache that then receded, thankfully - making me not a happy camper these last couple of days. I'll get to the doctor tomorrow and try to find out what is wrong.

I'm also worried that my mother has come down very sick (a helluva lot sicker than I am) in the last week, though there's little I can do at the moment beyond keeping in touch with my dad and my sister about the situation, as they're all 600-odd miles away from me.

Friday, December 22, 2006

More on moral relativism

Moral relativism is an unpopular philosophical position, at least within academic philosophy departments, and there are a couple of obvious reasons for this.

One is its association with a truly crazy idea, espistemic relativism (or truth relativism) - the idea that truth about the universe is not objective, but exists only relative to cultures or perhaps even individuals. This is a self-defeating idea, because someone who propounds it need not be listened to, even according to her own advice. The obvious rejoinder is, "Well, truth is objective in my (or my culture's) worldview. Go away!" If the idea is modified to something like, "All truths are relative except this one," it raises the question of what is so special about this particular truth. May there not be other truths that have whatever mysterious property grants objectivity in some cases? Furthermore, espistemic relativism, taken literally, denies the objective truth of seemingly undeniable facts about ordinary experience ("There is a computer in this room, but no hippopotamus."). And it flies in the face of science's success in understanding the world. An epistemic relativist will typically say (and is logically committed to) such nutty claims as that there is no objective truth to the heliocentric model - rather than a geocentric model - of our solar system. The craziness goes beyond science, narrowly defined: for example, we are left with the conclusion that there is no objective answer to whether or not atrocities such as the Holocaust actually took place.

Another reason for the unpopularity of moral relativism with philosophers, apart from its association with the crazy idea of espistemic relativism, is that it is typically advanced in a very naive form which includes a crude argument about how moral relativism entails a requirement for tolerance of other cultures. This crude argument can easily be demolished, but that then destroys the psychological attractiveness of the theory for many people.

I suppose a third reason may be this: taken seriously, moral relativism is a challenging doctrine. It requires us to say that there is a sense in which seemingly incontrovertible moral claims are false. No one wants to be stuck with denying the objective truth of a claim such as, "Hitler's actions in attempting to exterminate the Jews were morally wrong." That makes the doctrine psychologically unattractive, to say the least, just as its supposed connection to cultural tolerance may make it attractive to many.

In fact, moral relativism does have something going for it in terms of delivering a more tolerant, less fanatical, morality than do traditional, commonsense, moral ideas. It is just that the effect is somewhat more subtle, and the arguments somewhat more complex, than those which are usually offered and which I have seen demolished repeatedly by philosophers as diverse as Bernard Williams and Peter Singer. David Wong and Neil Levy have explored the issue in much more depth than can be seen in the sort of vulgar relativism that is commonly picked up by undergraduates before philosophy teachers go to work on them.

There is, indeed, something unsettling about the claim that moral propositions, including those that condemn evil actions such as those adding up to the Holocaust, are not objectively true. It is far more comfortable to be able to condemn such actions without complex explanations or secret caveats. However, comfort does not equate to truth. It is actually quite easy to make me feel uncomfortable about positions that I am convinced are true but go against my socialisation (for which reason, I am a good philosopher but would make a lousy politician).

I'm convinced that a rational being (perhaps from some distant planet) that refuses to condemn the Holocaust is not necessarily making an intellectual error, provided that the normative judgment it makes is consistent with its own most fundamental values and it makes no mistakes of empirical fact or of reasoning. While it is objectively true when I say that, "The Holocaust is condemned within my own system of norms, which I consider justified," it is not true that I can necessarily find an error in the reasoning or the knowledge base of any rational being that refuses to make such a claim. If such a being proceeds to act towards us in much the same way that Hitler acted towards the Jews, we may consider it to be evil, but that does not entail that it is making an intellectual mistake.

My claims in the last paragraph are a crude, perhaps distorted, summary of the views of Gilbert Harman; whether or not Harman would accept the way I have formulated them, they seem to me to be correct. At the same time, they are remote from the usual kinds of vulgar relativism. They are still slightly uncomfortable ideas to try on for size, because they are not consistent with widespread and commonsense metaethical beliefs or with the wish to be able to condemn Hitler unequivocally. In so far as they claim that widespread and commonsense metaethical beliefs are false, these ideas amount to an error theory of morality, though Harman himself has attempted to develop them in a way that avoids this implication (my provisional view is that he does not succeed, but I don't think much depends on this).

There is a limited sense in which we cannot condemn Hitler unequivocally: i.e., we can imagine him taking the same actions even if he had not made many intellectual mistakes, e.g. about human biology. However, in the end, I'm not too worried about not being able to condemn Hitler in that sense. The worst thing about Hitler was not his actual intellectual errors, but other features of the man - his malevolence, cruelty, fanaticism, and so on. For most human beings, fortunately, these are qualities to which we are fiercely opposed. Our opposition is based on very deep values that are widely shared among us. We have very powerful reasons to join together in expressing our horror at Hitler's actions and in resolute opposition to the Hitlers of the world. In such extreme cases, the fact that Hitler can be imagined to have acted as he did without making intellectual errors does not water down the vehemence of our response.

However, in cases where less is at stake, theories (such as moral relativism) that deny the objective truth of moral claims may lead to our watering down some moral responses. Where the values involved are not so deep and widely held, we may come to see some moral norms as more like the norms of social convention, to which we may be attached, but not whole-heartedly. This sort of watering down of at least our less deeply and widely held moral beliefs is very unwelcome to moral conservatives, but I actually think it is something that should be welcomed.

Sophisticated non-objectivist theories, such as those of Gilbert Harman and John Mackie are not as immediately attractive as vulgar moral relativism, but they have the great virtue that something like them is actually true (and this is an objective statement about the universe!). Furthermore, by a more subtle route they can deliver what is (for many of us) admirable about the more vulgar kinds of moral relativism, without the extreme of preventing us from condemning Hitler (or even more everyday murderers and rapists, and the commonplace cruel or callous people with which the world is well-stocked). While these theories require careful explanation, and are not straightforward to grasp, they should resonate with philosophy undergraduates and other educated people who are currently working with relativist ideas of a less sophisticated kind. They are onto something, even if they cannot articulate it in the careful manner of somebody like Harman.

This suggests to me that philosophy teachers should be less trigger-happy about simply shooting down vulgar moral relativism, and more willing to explore the implications of non-objectivist accounts of morality, to see where they lead when refined. I also think that moral philosophers should be more prepared, in their own work, to explore the normative implications of such ideas; like some of the other thinkers I've mentioned, particularly Wong, I think that rational and sophisticated non-objectivist metaethical theories do have normative implications. In particular, they can preserve our full horror at grossly violent or cruel acts, while leading us to a less rigid morality when it comes to actions more at the periphery of our moral thinking. Overall, I think this is beneficial (though that is itself a value judgment that can be disagreed with by somebody who is not necessarily making an intellectual error).

In short, I'm calling for an approach to moral philosophy that may not have much resonance for most current moral philosophers (though I see a few signs that non-objectivist theories are making a comeback), but may have a lot of quite justifiable resonance for our students and within the larger culture. This resonance will give its prescriptions a degree of political realism, even if they are not popular with philosophers. The approach I am calling for fits well with a naturalistic account of the universe and ourselves, and, most importantly, has truth on its side.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Poor Thomas Nagel

Well, I can't feel too sorry for Nagel, since he is one of the most successful and celebrated philosophers in the world today. But I'm currently re-reading his lovely book Equality and Partiality, and wondering why it is has never gained the same sort of fame as, say, John Rawls's A Theory of Justice. Admittedly, it is much shorter and less comprehensive, but for my money it is superior in lucidity and insight.

I say this even though I disagree with Nagel's starting point - the foundation for the whole argument - that we are required by reason to value the interests of all people equally. The argument for this is only sketched, but Nagel has developed related arguments elsewhere. He is prone to argue along Kantian lines, and I believe that all such arguments must fail. Thus, he bases a pressure towards egalitarianism in attempts at Kantian reasoning, without relying on such (more Humean) bases as natural human sympathy for the repressed or the destitute. For reasons that I won't go into here, this is a hopeless quest.

That said, Nagel then spends the book worrying at the obvious facts that we are beings with personal interests and that political systems somehow have to take this into account along with any moral pressures toward a comprehensive egalitarianism. He struggles with this in such detail, and with such sensitivity, that I find myself enlightened by almost every paragraph. I can't stop annotating the pages.

His ultimate political recommendation is to move towards a much stronger form of social democracy - this is something that I actually agree with, but on other grounds. In a sense, he could have saved himself all the heartburn and doubt if he began without a system that wants to find objective values in the universe, but the result isn't something to be regretted at all, since he ends up producing a brilliant, in-depth explanation of why creatures like us cannot adopt an entirely impartial, egalitarian stance that goes beyond the institutions of social democracy.

For Nagel this is not a welcome conclusion, but to me it is both sensible and reassuring: there is something that we are capable of achieving without feeling some sort of guilt at our inability to move further to a much more utopian system. Although the book has a flaw in its assumptions throughout, it's like the bit of grit in an oyster that leads to the production of a pearl. Nagel's Equality and Partiality is a small masterpiece of political philosophy that deserves more attention.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Rational relativism

I've been reading Neil Levy's Moral Relativism: A Short Introduction, which, despite its sub-title, is a sophisticated and thorough study of the philosophical issues surrounding moral relativism. This is actually the third time I've read this book, and probably not the last: I find something new in it each time, and each time I am led way out of my intellectual comfort zone by powerful arguments that highlight the difficulty in criticising the substantive moral ideas of people with whom you are in a fundamental disagreement about values.

In my view, Levy succeeds in establishing that moral relativism can be developed as a coherent and plausible theory - which is not to deny that there are naive versions of it around, versions that philosophers delight in debunking. I've been known to do a bit of demolition work myself when lecturing to philosophy undergraduates, many of whom come along with rather half-baked relativist notions picked up somewhere during their high school years, or perhaps from other disciplines where relativism tends to rule.

In the end, Levy defends a watered-down cultural relativism that he prefers to call "pluralism" (note that he considers both subjectivist theories and theories that make morality relative to culture to be varieties of "moral relativism", but the book is almost entirely about the latter, i.e. "cultural relativism" in Levy's terminology). I have a lot of sympathy for this position of moral pluralism, although the arguments actually seem to me to support a slightly more robust endorsement of moral relativism. Levy's ultimate claim, as I understand it, seems to be that there are objective values - such as those of individual liberty and those of social harmony - but these are plural, conflicting, and not entirely commensurable. Different culturally-based moral systems will emphasise different values - and may conflict with each other - without any system necessarily being "wrong".

A better conclusion, in my view, would be that there are no objective values: there are, indeed, things that tend to be valued widely by beings like us - with our biological needs and evolved psychology - under a wide range of environmental conditions. However, someone who does not value all of these things is not making an intellectual mistake. In that sense, none of these things can be said to be objectively valuable. I need to explain this.

Different rational beings, with different needs and psychological propensities, might not value all the same things that we do, and might not (I suppose) value any of them. At any rate, we seem to be able to imagine some pretty bizarre alien intelligences that might have very different value sets from ours. The same might apply to a human being with a sufficiently unusual fundamental psychology (a psychopath, say); such a person might have a radically different value set from the rest of us, without making any mistake about what objectively exists. Likewise for a whole group of human beings who have established a society in unusual environmental circumstances. These people might not be failing to identify something that exists "out there" in objective reality.

Nonetheless, most human beings are sufficiently similar that, in practice, we can obtain a great deal of intersubjective and intercultural agreement on what we really do value.

Perhaps Levy would accept the above formulation, though it is not his. Although it is neater, in a way, to propose that there are plural objective values in the world, it looks to me like metaphysical overreaching. We do better simply to emphasise what we have in common, rather than claiming objectivity for it. It's a matter of psychology, not metaphysics.

Or maybe Levy would count this kind of intersubjective agreement among most humans as a sort of objectivity. For myself, I would rather save talk of "objectivity" for theories that assert, or assume, some kind of independent, transcendentally guaranteed, realm of value that lies beyond human need and desire. Commonsense morality appears to involve an assumption something like that (at least to some extent), and I think we should be prepared to bite the bullet and say that commonsense morality is (to that extent) in error. It's for this reason that I follow J.L. Mackie and call myself an error theorist, or a moral sceptic, rather than a relativist.

Be that as it may, Levy has offered us a rational relativism, and his ultimate position is one that I could accept with just a bit of structural, or perhaps merely linguistic, tweaking. He has also shown how it is, nonetheless, possible to engage in rational arguments and judgments about other moralities - sometimes they are based on empirical falsehoods, and sometimes they refuse to provide deeper argument in circumstances where the rock-bottom values relied upon seem to cry out for further support (perhaps because they are values that lack the right kind of widespread intersubjective and intercultural endorsement, creating a pressure for more to be said). We are not left bereft of tools with which to condemn irrationalists and fanatics, though sometimes the full argument against their positions would need to be developed very carefully.

The book is so good, that it has actually taken me the aforementioned three readings before I have been able to find much in the way of cracks in the argument, and even then I am not always sure. When they do appear, they don't seem to affect the final position that is adopted, though I feel that occasionally Levy is slightly too quick in his dismissal of arguments that can be put against relativism.

Consider his critical treatment of claims that some values and moral beliefs are acquired more autonomously than others (and so deserve more deference).

At the end of the day, he may be correct in his criticisms - and he certainly sends out a powerful challenge to theorists who make much of the need for autonomous reflection on our own deepest values and beliefs, something that may not be possible. However, I question his claim that parents always socialise their children into one or another total worldview, and that no rational distinction can be made between someone who is indoctrinated as a child into a particular set of religious (or anti-irreligious) dogmas and someone who is taught to think critically without being indoctrinated into a particular position. Without invoking a spooky kind of free will that takes human reason out of the causal order of things, I think we can say that the latter child is in a much better position - later in life - to draw her own rational, evidentially-supported conclusions. This may not be true of fundamental values, but it does seem to be true about purported matters of fact, such as claims about the existence of supernatural beings. We do seem to have good mental tools for finding evidence, and engaging in reasoning, about matters of fact.

That said, I think very highly of this book, particularly as an antidote for those many philosophers who have come to believe that moral relativism is an obviously crazy idea (like epistemic relativism, which is another story). Folks, it ain't that simple.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Two million before Christmas!

I see that Second Life has now made it to two million registered users. Excellent going. (Now if only its latest upgrades while I was away were not beyond the capacity of my computer system to handle well; for better or worse, my poor avatar is currently having to get by with little clothing.)

Home again, home again

Thank you to those people whom I love who looked after us in Newcastle.

Now, I'll have to get to some serious blogging when I've caught up with things.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Compulsory blog break

Jenny and I will hit the road tomorrow to drive interstate to visit loved ones back in Newcastle. It won't be practical for me to try to blog while away - it'll be difficult enough keeping up with e-mails - so I'm declaring a break until mid-December.

A bigger victory for reason - Australia liberalises cloning laws

According to news reports tonight, the House of Representatives has voted in favour of legislation to overturn the ban on therapeutic cloning in Australia. The legislation has already passed the Senate and will now be enacted as law.

While this legislation goes nowhere near far enough - and has actually gone backwards in certain respects - overall, it will produce some liberalisation of Australia's harsh and unnecessary cloning laws. This is a major step forward in the struggle against various kinds of irrationalists and anti-liberals who want to ban practices that do no harm ... but may aid medical scientists in conducting research that will lead to treatments for disease.

One disturbing aspect of the debate was that Australia's new Leader of the Opposition, Kevin Rudd, joined with the socially conservative Prime Minister, John Howard, in opposing the reform. Howard's stance was predictable, but Rudd's less so - and it is sad to see the leaders of both major parties in Australian politics hitching a ride on the shaky-wheeled wagon of irrationalism. Quickly, someone find us a political leader with an ounce of sense when it comes to issues of biomedical policy. Fortunately, the majority of members of the house disagreed with their leaders, and this issue was the subject of a conscience vote with no party discipline applied. So there it is.

When all is said and done, it's a day for rejoicing after the bitterness we've watched over the past few weeks, as the irrationalists have fought tooth and nail against reform. I can still scarcely believe that this process has led to a result in which reason has (more or less) prevailed. I wasn't going to believe it could happen until the final numbers were in.

But it's finally over. Crack open the Champagne.

Horrible, horrible news reporting

Two young high school students were expelled from a Muslim school in Melbourne for desecration of the Bible, apparently in expression of some sort of anti-Christian feeling. Evidently they urinated on it and set fire to some pages. Not very nice of course.

But why have the media seized upon this relatively trivial incident? I've just been watching 9 News, where a female journalist speaks, with a distraught throb in her voice, of "this horrible, horrible act." Oh, give me a break! There are young teenage schoolboys doing far worse things every day, including acts of violence against each other, but these are not reported in the mainstream news media. In this case, no one seems to have been hurt in any way.

These were kids who can't be expected to show much maturity, the act was rather trivial, and it did no great harm beyond the reporting of it. Besides, I'd defend adults' liberty to burn holy books, effigies, flags, or any other symbols of things they dislike. Merely symbolic destructive acts such as this fall well within freedom of speech, as the US Supreme Court has found with burning of the American flag. School students doubtless need more discipline than adults - their characters are still being formed and perhaps they don't have the same civil liberties - but setting that aside, the act was legitimate expression. The underlying problem is that the kids may have been brought up to feel this way (however, exactly, it is that they feel) by their parents or other adults. Then again, kids get ideas from all over the place.

Meanwhile, the media beat-up of the story is sickening. It is far more likely to cause social division than the original incident. And I don't see this as the same as something I defended recently: reporting on the views of a senior cleric, Sheik Hilali, which have great influence and are a matter of public interest.

Here's the bottom line: 1. These kids should not even have been expelled - something obviously needed to be done to find out what was bugging them and to see if they could be put straight about the school's attitude to religious toleration, but some frank counselling would have been quite enough. 2. The news media are not there to report the day-to-day antics and wrongdoings of school students. Talk about cracking a peanut with a sledgehammer.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Bring Hicks home

I'm not normally one to give any support to somebody who has, apparently, trained with fundamentalist terrorist organisations, but the situation with David Hicks has become absurd. The man has now been held for five years in what are, by all accounts, appalling conditions, without being tried on any charges. There is no serious suggestion that he has committed any heinous war crime or crime against humanity that should attract universal juridiction. He committed no crime in the territory of the United States of America, the country that is holding him prisoner. None of his actions were in breach of the laws of Australia, the country of which he is a citizen.

It strikes me as simply extraordinary that the Australian government excuses its refusal to lobby on Hicks's behalf on the basis that he cannot be tried and punished here because he broke no Australian laws in effect at the time. Well ... let me get this straight, the fact that he broke none of our laws is a reason why we want him to remain in prison. Yeah, right.

Maybe we mean he did something we wish we'd thought to ban at the time - so leaving him now to rot in the hellhole of Guantanamo Bay is a pragmatic substitute for retrospective criminal legislation. If that's the sub-text, we should all be afraid of where current government approaches are taking us.

I don't like seeing Hicks portrayed - as he sometimes is by the media - almost as if he's some sort of hero. He is nothing of the sort. On the other hand, I doubt that he is all that dangerous. If it could be established that he is, then perhaps he needs to be kept under close police surveillance once he is returned to Australia and freed. That's fine, as long as strict process is followed. But Australians should not be acquiescing in the continued imprisonment of a fellow citizen for supposed crimes that he committed outside the territory of the imprisoning power and in breach of no Australian law. Surely we can give this man a little sympathy by now, but more importantly there is a principle here. Bring him home, and be done with it.

On cyborg citzenship - where I have a problem

My friend James Hughes has a great narrative to tell about the expanding circle of recognition of rights to all persons, irrespective of sex, race, culture, and even species and physical substrate. According to this narrative, we will ultimately accord citizenship - and the legal rights that go with it - to non-human persons and then to non-biological persons such as advanced, fully-conscious artificial intelligences. We will realise that it is Lockean personhood, rather than species membership, that accords full moral considerability.

I wish I could go along with this without qualification, because it's a wonderful story to tell, and much simpler than the complex, ambiguous, difficult reality that I see. But I do have a problem here.

I think James's account is roughly correct, and if we need a simple moral story to tell I'm going to tell this one, rather than spout nonsense about "human dignity" - the idea that there is some mysterious factor or set of factors that accords infinite moral worth to human beings, making us exceptional within the universe. As I've often said, there is no such X factor that amounts to human dignity. From my naturalistic point of view, "dignity talk" involves a bizarre kind of human exceptionalism, and I applaud the efforts of anyone who wants to combat it. If we do create fully conscious artificial intelligences, I think we'll need to find ways to integrate them into human societies and to grant them citizenship. A good start towards this way of thinking is to get behind Peter Singer's Great Ape Project, and argue for at least some special legal protections for chimpanzees and the rest of our near-brethren in the animal world. Let's get used to the idea that personhood is what counts.

And yet, and yet...

All that said, this is still the area where I always feel the need to part company somewhat with a number of my friends and intellectual allies. Despite all the above, I continue to question whether it is a good idea to create fully-conscious, self-aware, non-human beings with high intelligence, etc. Even if the personhood theory of ethics is correct, that does not mean it is intuitively correct. Until it has been internalised by most people, it is unlikely to be applied by them, in practice, from moment to moment and day to day. I'd like to see a lot of change in the way people think before we create beings who need the new kind of thinking to prevail in reality, if their interests are going to be protected. Accordingly, despite the solidarity that I feel with transhumanists and technoprogressives in many current bio-political struggles, I worry about the creation of these "new humans" (or whatever shorthand we use), and I don't think that we should accept their inevitability, at least in the short or medium term, when we argue for therapeutic cloning, for the in-principle acceptability of safe reproductive cloning, and for a raft of technologies that will assist us to retain (and even enhance) our capacities, helping us to lead better and longer lives.

James, of course, is aware that there would be practical problems. In Citizen Cyborg, he suggests that we may come to the conclusion that it's best to hold off on uplifting any non-human animals to higher levels of intelligence if this will only make then miserable, while we might have prudential reasons for preventing machine minds from obtaining self-awareness, or for making sure they feel solidarity with us. All this makes sense, but I am as worried about how we would treat a cute little baby Skynet as about how it would treat us. (As a sidenote, the original Skynet only initiated Judgment Day when human beings panicked and tried to shut it down - at least that's how the story is told in Terminator 2.)

Actually, I think the situation is even more complex. Although personhood theory is superior to the spooky doctrine of human dignity, it is still only an approximation to the truth. The truth of the matter is that there are no objective values in the disenchanted universe in which we find ourselves - there are merely things that we value. Human species-membership is not of objective value, but neither is personhood.

Out of our shared values, we have created moral systems that suit our interests, but these are institutions invented by human beings to serve human beings. Moral systems are our servants, not our masters; they have no deeper justification than that. They are responses to our values, fears, and sympathies, including the sympathetic responses that we have to non-human beings whose sufferings we recognise. There is no higher court of appeal to some objectively "correct" set of values, etc., although there is also no reason why we cannot attempt to alter and shape our own values if we wish (but the decision to do so will always be based on our deeper or stronger values; stepping entirely out of our initial value set is not possible, or even something that can be imagined coherently).

On this picture, we don't have a spooky "objective moral worth" that a fully-conscious AI would lack. On the other hand, if someone is simply more emotionally responsive to fellow human beings than to fully-conscious AIs, she is not making an intellectual mistake. It is a contingent empirical fact about us that we are not especially more responsive to people of different racial background (for example) once we overcome our tribalism and fears of the Other, but that fact is probably rooted in the additional fact that we are genetically programmed to respond to human facial expressions, tones of voice, basic morphology, and typical movements ... and not to such things as skin colour. If we were beings who really cared about skin colour at the deepest level of our genetic programming, morality as we now understand it would be impossible for us. Fortunately - as seen from inside our moral institutions and our actual values - Homo sapiens are not like that. Racism is cultural, not biologically programmed; it is skin deep.

However, we'll have to think very long and hard before we screw around with the most basic kinds of emotional responsiveness built into our genetic programming, even if it proves to be possible. Perhaps we'll eventually decide to make some changes to bring all our values into a better alignment, but it's not happening any time soon.

Meanwhile, if we start creating beings that possess the attributes of personhood, but do not possess the down-to-earth empirical characteristics that we are actually programmed to respond to, it is going to be much more difficult for us to extend our sympathies to them than has been the case with ongoing efforts to overcome racism. Perhaps we - or at least some of us - have reached a point where we would most value the happiness and fulfilment of persons, whatever appearance they took, and perhaps we could treat the "new humans" with the same concern as we treat other Homo sapiens. We are, perhaps, ready to put a higher value on the happiness of all Lockean persons than on the happiness of human beings in particular. We can abandon human-racism.

I suspect that in practice, however, even the most enlightened of us would be much more conflicted if push came to shove, and that there would be plenty of resistance from the less enlightened.

In the end, I agree, more or less, with the great importance attaching to personhood, and hope that I'll be able to act with kindness towards any fully-conscious artificial intelligences that I happen to meet over the next few decades. But I also think that we have good, non-spooky reasons to be very cautious about actually creating such beings. While there is no rational argument available against, say, therapeutic cloning, there is plenty of room for rational discussion about what is, and what is not, wise when we begin to contemplate issues that lie far on the other side of current bio-political controversies.

If only we could reach the point where society could have that discussion.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Wikipedia concludes science case

Over at Wikipedia, the complex arbitration on science and pseudoscience editing has come to an end. Without commenting on any of the parties involved, I just want to say that the outcome - with various people being cautioned, put on probation of diferent sorts, or being banned from writing about themselves and their own work - looks pretty fair and measured overall. Importantly, it has shown an admirable concern to maintain the integrity of Wikipedia's science articles, protecting them from the disproportionate incorporation of points of view from fringe science.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Polar bears

I'm just back from dinner with Jenny, Alison Goodman, and Ron Gallagher. Hmmm, at one point we were playing "Who reminds you of what animal?". Alison said she thinks of me as a polar bear: in her words, "A mixture of ferocity and shyness."

I'll have to think about that one, but I believe it was meant to be a compliment. Actually, she's probably about right. :)

Friday, December 01, 2006

You've got to love those irrationalists

They're at it again. As legislation to liberalise Australia's draconian laws on cloning and other reproductive technologies goes to the the lower house for debate (after narrowly passing in the Senate), we are seeing yet more hysterical, irrational opposition. One of the latest claims is that there will be a loophole because nothing will stop the creation of a zygote using the sperm of an adult man and an egg from an aborted fetus.

A letter in The Australian this morning from members of the Lockhart committee shows how misleading this is. The insemination of an egg cell to create a zygote outside a woman's body for any purpose other than reproduction is a crime that will have a 15-year jail term attached to it. The effect of this is to force the use of "spare" IVF embryos for research purposes, except where specifically provided for in the legislation. As for using IVF to create an embryo, using an egg from an aborted fetus, for reproductive purposes, there is a plethora of regulation in Australia that would rule this out. Once again we are seeing irrationalists dreaming up bizarre situations to try to oppose legislative reform through appeal to people's emotions.

That is the first point.

More fundamentally, though, if it assisted scientific research to create embryos using eggs from aborted fetuses what would actually be wrong with it? The idea stirs up emotions because of the connection with abortion, anathema for many people (though usually for irrational reasons). However, let's think about this. Who would actually be harmed by such a procedure?

The aborted fetus is already dead. Moreover, it is not as if something is happening to it after its death against its wishes while it was alive, as when someone fails to honour the terms of my will. A fetus is not the sort of entity that can have wishes about what happens after its death. I can see no other candidate for a "victim" of the conduct. In other words, we have a situation where Australia will continue to impose a penalty of fifteen years' imprisonment for a so-called "crime" that actually harms nobody and could be of use in scientific research that will ultimately yield health benefits. That is simply ridiculous.

It's about time we stopped listening to irrationalists when we formulate public policy. If reason prevails, we will see some minor liberalisation of the law in the short term, but there will still be draconian penalties against a whole range of procedures that cause no harms and should not be crimes at all. It's time to put the irrationalists who got us into this situation back in their box.

Just stop listening to them.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

The Humean argument against objectivism

In Sentimental Rules (2004), Shaun Nichols does a good job of explicating the central Humean argument against moral objectivism.

As he summarises it, the argument broadly involves two steps:

1. Rational creatures who lack certain emotions would not make the moral judgments that we do.

2. There is no externally principled basis for maintaining that all rational creatures should have the emotions on which our moral judgments depend. (page 185)

We can imagine intelligent, rational, well-informed Martians who do not believe (for example) that it is wrong to torture puppies. They fail to condemn the practice of puppy-torture because they don't share the human emotional repertoire that leads us to revile it. At the same time, there is no independent basis for saying that our emotional repertoire is the "right" one and the Martian one is "wrong". Thus, our condemnation is not justified except relative to creatures with an emotional repertoire like ours. pp. 185-86) It cannot truly be said that the Martians are making an intellectual mistake, however much we may be appalled by them.

Nichols supports the first premise by referring to the range of empirical work that shows a link between affect and normative judgment (and, in his view, the cultural viability of moral norms). This makes it plausible that rational Martians with a different emotional repertoire would not have the same moral norms. The empirical evidence also tends to show that psychopaths, who do not have the normal emotional repertoire, make different moral judgments: for example, they do not distinguish between authority-contingent conventional norms and universal moral norms, and they give different explanations as to why harmful acts are wrong (for them, it as a matter of violating convention rather than of the welfare of the person harmed). (p. 186) As a further point, norms that are backed by emotions of disgust are more likely to be treated as akin to moral norms, which are backed by emotions of reactive distress and concern, than are norms that have no strong emotional backing, such as norms of etiquette on emotionally neutral matters such as table settings. (pp. 186-87)

The second premise can be filled out by saying that there is no principled, external reason why all rational creatures should have emotional responses such as the human responses of reactive distress and concern. It is not even clear how anyone could argue for such a claim (it is no use arguing in a circular fashion that Martians are morally obliged to have such responses, as determined by our moral norms and intuitions; this assumes what we set out to prove, that our moral judgments are objectively supported). It won't do to say that creatures without our emotional repertoire are in some way defective from an evolutionary viewpoint, since it is not necessarily the case that having such a repertoire would have been to their ancestors' evolutionary advantage. Even in the case of human beings, it is not clear that there is only one kind of emotional functioning that was evolutionarily adaptive. (pp. 187-88) It might be added that even if there were, this would not seem to settle the matter: why is it now objectively better to have an emotional repertoire that happened to confer a reproductive advantage in the environment of evolutionary adaptedness? Some further explanation seems needed.

Despite the long history of debate around this and similar arguments, I can see no way to avoid Nichols' conclusion - indeed, he has formulated a position very like the one that I find intuitively compelling. Nor can I see any way to avoid accepting the claim that this leads irresistibly to a conclusion that contradicts most commonsense and philosophical views of the nature of morality ("most", not necessarily "all").

None of this detracts from another set of facts - that most human beings do have similar emotional repertoires; that we readily end up embracing similar moral norms on a wide range of issues; and that we have reason to be glad of this, assuming everything else about our nature and situation is held fairly constant, and that we have certain widespread values such as preferring to live in a civilised society rather than a Hobbesian state of nature or something approaching it. There is a pragmatic viewpoint from which we can (almost) all consider our core moral norms justified, in that we want them to be retained even after we know all the facts, though we might question how far this extends beyond the core of morality to areas over which there is deep disagreement.

That last caveat raises important questions about how far a liberal society should enforce non-core moral norms that are often disputed, such as norms relating to sexual morality or reproductive practices. In one sense, these are no more non-objective than the core norms prohibiting cruelty and violence: i.e., none of them are objective in a hardline sense. However, those norms that plug strongly into the human emotional repertoire, and which forbid acts that cause pain or harm, are surely the most important to the survival of human societies and the least likely to cause resentment, opposition, and the infliction of suffering when they are imposed on the unwilling. To that extent, not all of our moral norms are equal. Legislators, please take note.

This could almost be true

Funny piece in The Onion.

Cosmos cleans up

Cosmos magazine, the popular science magazine for which Jenny and I both do freelance work, pretty much cleaned up in the annual Bell Awards, presented in Sydney last week. These awards are for the publishers of business-to-business, specialist, and niche consumer magazines. Cosmos won the award for magazine of the year, plus seven other awards - including the editor of the year award to Wilson de Silva, not to mention the award for best website.

Wrong for real?

In his book Sentimental Rules, Shaun Nichols reports some fascinating research that suggests young children are hardline moral objectivists, who think that if something is morally wrong it is "wrong for real", and that this is a kind of "default setting" in the metaethics of common sense. If that suggestion is accepted, even some moderate theories of moral realism should actually be held as error theories, or as containing an element of moral scepticism, in so far as they maintain that moral truths are grounded in human nature and would not be true for alien beings with a different psychological makeup. This moderate kind of moral realism, for which I have a degree of sympathy, must hold hardline moral objectivism to be an error: if commonsense morality endorses hardline moral objectivism, then the moderately realist theories must hold commonsense morality to be mistaken.

This suggests to me that any moral theory that remains plausible on considered reflection is going to be, to some extent, an error theory. But why should that be surprising? The whole history of the advance of human knowledge shows common sense gradually being revealed as a poor indicator of the way the universe really works. It provides models that are pragmatically useful in the evolutionary and historical circumstances that shaped it - someone following these models in the past would have kept out of trouble. However, there is no reason to believe that commonsense models accurately track the larger reality of which our lives are a very small part. In fact, we have pretty good reason by now to assume that common sense is likely to be wrong whenever it strays beyond giving us the most pragmatic, everyday advice.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Welcome to G magazine

I've just had an initial glance at the first issue of G, an environmentally friendly - hence green, hence "G" - lifestyle magazine published by the same combination of people who do Cosmos. The first issue looks good, and it includes a whole batch of reviews by Jenny. Welcome to G, and may it have a long and successful run.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Libertarian free will

I've had some interesting correspondence about the concept of libertarian free will since I discussed this in the context of Lee M. Silver's Challenging Nature. I maintain that the idea has never been developed in a form that is intellectually coherent, and that there is no real prospect that it ever will be.

That raises two related groups of issues. First, if I am correct is it a tragedy? Putting it another way, how deeply are we committed to this idea as part of our ordinary concept of ourselves as agents? What have we lost if the idea needs to be jettisoned? In my view, it is not a tragedy at all, since compatibilist free will is the only kind of free will worth having, but I expect a lot of people will disagree with me. Since I was a child, I've never found the idea of libertarian free will even slightly plausible, but I am probably in the minority on that. Second, have we fully thought through the implications, not only for theology and philosophy of religion but also for many of our social practices, such as those of reward and punishment? It is at least possible that some of our important practices make metaphysical assumptions that cannot be supported by reason. If so, what then?

Saturday, November 25, 2006

East, West, Christian, post-Christian - what's the buzz?

A simplistic way of looking at Lee M. Silver's Challenging Nature: The Clash of Science and Spirituality at the New Frontiers of Life is to see it as an exploration of contrasting Eastern and Western attitudes toward biotechnology, and contrasting (yet strangely similar) attitudes toward it within the West, where a further distinction can be made between the largely Christian US and the largely post-Christian nations of Europe.

There is more to the book than this, but the critical point seems to be that Western culture is haunted by monotheism, even in nations where few people believe in the orthodoxly conceived God of the Abrahamic tradition. For many who have been influenced by New Age or environmentalist beliefs, Nature is now seen as a kind of god with a will that we must not defy - a sort of matriarchal successor to the traditional deity. As Silver perceives the situation, even individuals who claim to be entirely secular in their approach are frequently influenced by pervasive forms of Western spirituality.

By contrast, Silver argues, Eastern belief systems and forms of spirituality do not emphasise the will of any single god, and they have no concept that nature in its current form must not be violated.

This thesis is intended to explain why European nations have been especially hostile to the genetic engineering of food, which is seen as contrary to a certain conception of the natural order, while the US has been relatively relaxed about allowing GM crops, despite widespread and fiercely expressed opposition to anything that could be seen as tinkering with human souls. On the other hand, industrialised nations in Asia, such as Japan, Singapore, and Korea, show little inclination to reject biotechnology.

I am, of course, simplifying the argument and the book's broader scope. However, even this simplified version of Silver's thinking is worth discussion. There is some evidence that gives it support, since biotechnology has encountered a much lower level of emotional resistance in Eastern countries, raising the possibility that those countries may (continue to) be less willing to prohibit or regulate research of kinds that are considered morally problematic in the West. If that is the case, they are likely to take the lead in the development of many aspects of twenty-first-century biotech.

Silver's new book

I've been in a reading frenzy over the past few weeks, partly to make up for lost time - for a combination of reasons, I've been getting little reading done this year, at least by my standards.

Currently, I'm reading Lee M. Silver's new book, Challenging Nature, a defence of biomedical science, and biotechnology more generally, against more or less irrational attacks from both the right and left of politics. It's a goldmine of information, and Silver's thinking is sometimes more sophisticated than that of many philosophers and bioethicists who have considered the same issues. But he does sometimes overreach.

For example, early in the book, he attacks the belief in free will, as if such a belief must be unscientific. He doesn't seem to realise that most philosophers (though, to be fair, perhaps not most philosophers who have been publishing about the problem of free will in recent years) are compatibilists. I.e., we see free will and physical determinism as compatible.

[Note: since writing the above, I see that Silver does briefly describe compatibilism in an endnote, which shows the peril of commenting on a book halfway through reading it and the peril of not always checking the endnotes straightaway. That said, the popularity of compatibilism still provides one reason why it is unwise to criticise people for believing in free will unless their actual beliefs have been probed very carefully.]

On the compatibilist conception, free will is not the freedom to act in a way that somehow transcends physical nature, of which our brains and bodies are part. It simply means the freedom to act without being subject to certain kinds of coercion, manipulation, inner compulsion, etc.

I doubt that there is such a thing as free will in any absolute sense, i.e. we may sometimes know all the facts, with no additional fact of the matter in borderline cases that "this person is acting with free will" and "this person is not". It is just that there are various things we fear, which we see as impediments to acting as we would really like to: we fear people putting guns at our heads; we fear being overtaken by some psychiatric condition that drives us to act in ways that strike us as alien and would cause us trouble; we fear addiction to drugs, which could compel us to act in ways that, again, are against our current values; we fear being tricked into acting against our better judgment; we fear (not very seriously) the science-fictional prospect of a mad scientist taking over control of our personalities by wiring us to his damnable machine. On this conception of free will, I act freely whenever I act in accordance with my own values and beliefs, without being compelled by any of these feared things. It may be a matter of degree, as when economic circumstances may greatly limit my range of options - still, although we do fear poverty we don't usually interpret economic circumstances as taking away free will, exactly. This may be because they (usually) still leave a range of possible actions, rather than compelling one in particular. We can consider ourselves to be acting freely within the boundaries of having limited resources.

It seems to me that this is the only kind of free will worth having (as Daniel Dennett has argued, though Dennett might not agree with all my exposition above). The spooky contra-causal free will that metaphysical libertarians claim we possess does not even make sense to me, and Silver evidently feels the same way. However, I do think that we have free will in the worthwhile and meaningful sense ... at least most of the time, and at least to a large degree.

In short, people who - when asked - say that we possess free will are not necessarily claiming anything incoherent or mystical. If we want to find out how many have the spooky libertarian belief that Silver is deriding, we need to ask a different question. It is not enough just to ask people something like "Do you believe in free will?" I expect most people would answer yes, but would probably not have a metaphysically libertarian theory in mind, or even necessarily some version of compatibilism. They might mean little more than that they are not fatalists, who believe that human decisions are futile, or something of the sort.

Of course, if it turns out that the popular concept of free will is the spooky libertarian one, I am quite happy to be an error theorist about that concept. Unless things are different in the US - and, in fairness to Silver, maybe they are - I doubt that anything like this is meant by most of us when we use the expression in our ordinary lives. In fact, it looks to me like something dreamed up by theologians wanting to explain how there can be evil in the world when an all-powerful, perfect being is supposedly in charge - how could that being somehow not be responsible for evil? Answer: we act in ways that simply have no physical causes and cannot be traced back to the creative acts of God. Belief in free will does not entail commitment to anything as difficult and metaphysical (possibly even irrational) as that.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Gould on science and religion

With all the current controversy about Richard Dawkins' new book, The God Delusion, and the relationship between science and religion, I went back to my article on Stephen Jay Gould's book on the subject, Rocks of Ages, to remind myself what I said in the past.

Entitled "Stephen Jay Gould on Science and Religion", the article was first published in Quadrant magazine in 2000, and a copy of it now sits happily on my website (it has also been anthologised, and it can probably be found on Quadrant's site as well). I can't really improve on what I wrote then. I still think that Gould was wrong in his claim that science and religion are "non-overlapping magisteria" that can never properly contradict each other; I'm still convinced that the problem was that he wanted to impose a narrow view of the proper scope of religion, confining it to a sphere of values (though allowing it to eat up the entire field of ethics). This is not tenable. Religions have always made claims that are open to rational investigation by science. This is their prerogative - they are encyclopedic explanations of the world and the human situation - but also a potential weakness if they make claims that later seem untenable when empirical evidence is gathered.

Some religious thinkers may, indeed, retreat to making only claims that seem immune to any sort of empirical investigation, but this is not religion's essence. Such a retreat is a very recent and culturally confined phenomenon, and it leaves religious worldviews eviscerated.

Spider-Man 3

For something a bit lighter, I've just read in Jason Rosenhouse's Evolutionblog that Spider-Man 3 will feature Sandman as its supervillain.

As a kid, I rated this character (who is not to be confused with the totally different character created by Neil Gaiman) among my favourite villains. He can turn his body to sand, or to solid rock, or a mixture, can take any shape, packs a helluva punch in his rocky form, and cannot be hurt by any amount of force (enough force can break rock, but he can just turn to sand and reform). There's scope here for some great special effects if it's done right.

I'm not such a huge fan of the Spider-Man movies - can pretty much take them or leave them - but this one might be a lot of fun.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

What we eat

I'm currently reading The Ethics of What We Eat (published under a different title in the US) by Peter Singer and Jim Mason. I'll be reviewing this elsewhere, so I won't comment at length here.

The book brings home why I admire Singer so much - enormous effort must have gone into the research, and the whole thing is written in a way that is very understanding to people who don't meet the authors' view of what, morally speaking, might be the best food choices in all the circumstances. Ethical omnivores need not feel shrilly lectured to by the vegan authors, who are not going to demand total change in anybody's life, and less-ethical-than-we'd-like-to-be omnivores are allowed to ... well, simply wriggle in our seats, while also worrying about the cumulative picture building up to suggest we need to make some changes. And build up it does. This is advocacy of a very powerful kind, partly because of its relative gentleness.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Fukuyama on human dignity

As I re-read and ponder Fukuyama's Our Posthuman Future, I'm struck once more at how the workings of a powerful intellect end up producing lame conclusions on matters of policy.

Fukuyama's quest is to defend the idea that we all possess human dignity: some unique property that entitles each of us, equally, to a special moral respect that does not apply to the rest of creation. What, however, could such a mysterious property actually be? It could come from God, perhaps, if we share in some supernatural divine spark with our Creator, but that answer will not cut much ice in secular societies like Australia, or among secular people in a largely religious, but still pluralist, society like the US. No, Fukuyama needs a secular foundation for human dignity, but this is hard to find.

Indeed, the quest seems to be hopeless; I claim that there simply is no such thing as human dignity.

However, let's see what Fukuyama does with the problem. He thinks that what gives us our special moral worth is the fact that we are complex wholes with a range of capacities that exceed anything found among non-human animals - capacities relating to rationality, moral choice, sociability, sentience, consciousness, language, and so on. This is a richer range of elements than we see in the notion of Lockean personhood, with its emphasis on reason and self-consciousness, including a consciousness of ourselves as existing in time.

For myself, I want to argue that Lockean personhood is important, not because it grounds some mysterious quality of human dignity but because it is a necessary condition for anything to be vulnerable to certain kinds of harms to their interests. That vulnerability provides one basis for giving moral consideration to beings that possess it. Accordingly, if some non-human animals possess Lockean personhood they are at least good candidates for greater consideration than other animals that are sentient but not persons. What sort of consideration we feel we should give something will not depend merely on whether or not it gets over the threshold of Lockean personhood - it will depend on many other things, including the full range of its actual properties and vulnerabilities. But Lockean personhood is going to be a very important concept within any plausible moral system.

I'm not opposed to Fukuyama providing a richer range of elements - some of these may be important, though not for the reasons that he appears to think. One good reason is that they may create new vulnerabilities. For example, a person with a moral sense may be vulnerable to being torn apart psychologically in ways that may not apply to all Lockean persons. That may influence how we should treat such a person - for example, we can think of horribly cruel choices that people can be confronted with in which they are coerced or manipulated to act against their deepest moral beliefs. That is a vulnerability that a human being might have but which might not apply (though I don't totally rule it out) to any non-human animals that we know of, even if they are Lockean persons.

As far as I can see, Fukuyama does not make this point - or anything like it. Instead, he seems to see some objective moral value in the complex range of human capacities, without needing to invoke the vulnerabilities that these capabilities lead to. In particular, he places a great deal of emphasis on the value of the full range of human emotions - he will be suspicious of any technology that reduces that emotional range.

This way of looking at things creates all sorts of problems. The most obvious, as Fukuyama realises, is that it is not a theory of equal human dignity, since these capacities are present in human beings to varying degrees and of course some of them are deficient (or altogether missing) in some human beings - e.g. very young children and people suffering intellectual disability or dementia. It is no good saying, as Fukuyama wants to do, that it is impractical to make discriminations because it is actually all too easy to make them with some degree of accuracy, at least in respect of such things as reasoning ability, linguistic skills, and moral virtue. We doubtless do value all these things that Fukuyama refers to, but they don't confer a mysterious human dignity (indeed, we would value them in some new species that might turn up) and they certainly cannot underwrite equal human dignity.

It gets worse. Such criteria are no more able than criteria to do with sentience, or to do with Lockean personhood, to explain why any moral worth should attach to an early embryo, or why, as Fukuyama argues, we should heavily regulate embryo research. Fukuyama realises this, of course, and he has to fall back on notions of potentiality to develop into a being with the necessary attributes for human dignity. But this immediately raises all the same problems that accompany the claim that an embyro is a (merely) potential Lockean person. Potential to be morally considerable at some later time does not give any basis for moral considerability now.

Furthermore, the theory has no bite if it is meant to be used to oppose human reproductive cloning, as no one proposes that we use cloning to create children with less than the normal human capacities and complexity. The theory might be helpful in ruling out some kinds of genetic engineering, but again no one much wants to engineer children who are less capable and complex than normal children. The aim is more likely to be to produce greater than normal complexity and capacities of the kinds that Fukuyama values so much.

In short, the theory has shortcomings as a theory of (equal) human dignity. Worse, even if it could otherwise be made to work it would not take Fukuyama to the sorts of policy positions that he finds attractive.

There is much to admire in Fukuyama's writings. He is often clear-headed, and he certainly writes with considerable surface lucidity (any confusion and unclarity is largely hidden below the easily-readable prose). But he appears to be committed to moral beliefs and policy prescriptions that simply don't follow from his philosophical arguments, with the result that Our Posthuman Future often seems to be one giant non sequitur. It is worth reading for its clear-headed discussion of why it makes sense to believe in something like "human nature", and why it is difficult to move from there to belief in "human dignity". The conclusions, however, are a squib. Fukuyama should have concluded that there is no property of human dignity, whatever has been thought in the past, and that our moral and legal norms must be justified (to the extent that they can be at all) on some radically different basis.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Human enhancement and the religious worldview

Though he does not take the stance of a religious believer, Francis Fukuyama is deferential to religion and its interests. In Our Posthuman Future, surely one of the most influential of the many post-Dolly bioconservative tracts, Fukuyama discusses why religious believers in the Abrahamic tradition might oppose a whole raft of technologies, including but not limited to postulated forms of genetic enhancement. Broadly, the use of these technologies is inconsistent with a certain worldview in which God acts through nature to produce human beings with certain characteristics such as morality, free will, and faith. Within this picture, "natural norms" such as sexual reproduction and the family (as understood in some traditional way) are products of God's will.

I'm not convinced that religious believers of any kind must reach such a strong conclusion and thus reject the technologies in question as contrary to their concepts of God's will and human dignity. Certainly Fukuyama does not present a tight argument to that effect, and it may well be possible to reinterpret the religious tradition in ways that are much more sympathetic to supposedly "unnatural" technologies ranging from birth control to genetic enhancement. Indeed, the widespread discomfort with these technologies - among religious believers and others - may result more from a discomfort with changing what seem to be essential "givens" in the background of our lives, e.g. the connection between sex and reproduction. This is, in a nutshell, the theory of background conditions, which I have referred to frequently in this blog.

Still, it may be that there is a religious worldview, or at least a religious sensibility, according to which human enhancement and so on are almost inevitably objects for moral repugnance. Someone with this worldview or sensibility may reject many practices in contemporary society, including contraception (for example), even if it places her and those who depend upon her at a disadvantage in many ways. I'll refer in this entry to "the religious worldview", but with the warning that there may well be other religious worldviews available and that, in any event, religious doctrine is always open to reinterpretation.

Fukuyama does not necessarily share the religious worldview, although he seems keen to defend a secular equivalent. But even if the religious worldview is incorrect and no secular justification can be given for anything similar, he provides the materials for a policy argument something like the following:

1. If we allow human enhancement, it will be widely practised. (This seems to be assumed and to be plausible.)
2. If human enhancement is widely practised, those who do not practise it will place their children at a relative disadvantage. (Again, this seems to be assumed and to be plausible.)
3. If human enhancement is widely practised, people who have the religious worldview will (nonetheless) not practise it. (This follows from Fukuyama's discussion of the religious worldview.)
4. If human enhancement is widely practised, people who have the religious worldview will place their children at a disadvantage. (From 2. and 3.)
5. If we allow human enhancement, people who have the religious worldview will place their children at a disadvantage. (From 1. and 4.)
6. If people who have the religious worldview place their children at a disadvantage they will come under social pressure to act in ways that are contrary to their worldview. (Assumed. I think this is plausible.)
7. We should not act so as to create a situation where people who have the religious worldview come under social pressure to act in ways that are contrary to their worldview. (Assumed.)
8. (Therefore) We should not allow human enhancement.

I think that this argument is valid. Accordingly, it is a sound argument if its assumptions are true. It does seem to me that all the assumptions made are near enough to being true that we should accept them - I don't think that any quibbling will undermine the argument, as opposed to requiring it to be phrased more carefully. The one important exception is line 7.

It is one thing to be opposed to the persecution of people with religious beliefs, or even to wish that people with certain religious beliefs be exempted from some laws that would intrude oppressively on their practices - practices that may be of overwhelming subjective importance to them and may do no great harm. But how far must we go to prohibit and "nip in the bud" new practices that may end up putting people with the religious worldview under social pressure to act in ways that are contrary to their worldview?

This strikes me as an enormously important question, in a world where more and more practices are likely to be rejected by people with the religious worldview - often to the detriment of those people themselves, or those close to them such as their children. People with the religious worldview may have cause to fear, but can the rest of us allow ourselves to let them have a kind of veto over our practices and technologies? I suggest not - being required to relinquish practices and technologies that we find valuable, based on this sort of solicitude to people with the religious worldview, is something that we have every reason to fear, even if we have some other reason for disliking a particular practice. Freedom of religion does not extend to ensuring that adherence to the religious worldview will never have a downside in new social circumstances or that its adherents will never come under pressure to act against it or reinterpret it.

The kind of argument that I have analysed above should not make us feel inclined to defer to the wishes of religious believers, and it should have no influence on the formulation of public policy.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Two million before Christmas?

As I write, Second Life is reaching 1.5 million registered accounts - 50 per cent growth from just over a month a go. SL has its problems, but in a few years we may reach a point where almost everyone in the more privileged social strata of the more privileged countries has an account with SL or whatever competitors come along, whether or not they use it much, just as we all have e-mail and chat accounts.

I see this technology becoming more and more convenient and immersive, whatever the current performance problems for SL itself. I can't imagine it not becoming an increasing part of our lives in future years.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

SFS roundtable on science fiction criticism

The current issue of Science Fiction Studies has an interesting "roundtable" on the current state and possible future of science fiction criticism, with contributions by many of the journal's editorial consultants.

My own contribution slips in a complaint that some science fiction criticism makes the mistake of treating science fiction as just another field of popular culture, more or less interchangeable with others.

However, that is not the main thrust of my argument. I argue that science fiction has been made possible by the widespread (though by no means universal) acceptance of two theses:

First, we inhabit an incomprehensibly vast universe whose origins lie deep in time. Our beginnings as a species are temporally remote and our final destiny unknown.

Second, all known social and cultural forms, including those we have experienced in our own lifetimes, are mutable.

Not all science fiction fully embraces these theses - some sf displays a degree of resistance to them, whether intentional or merely incidental and perhaps unconscious, as when people in future societies seem to show concerns and psychological characteristics that resemble those of current Westerners. Still, the genre could not exist without the development of these great ideas over the last few centuries - especially with the nineteenth century's double-whammy encounter with Darwinian evolutionary theory plus the process of rapid industrialisation and accompanying social change.

Another contributor, Nicholas Ruddick, makes a similar point: "I understand sf as an unprecedented literature emerging from the Darwinian revolution, and expect the good stuff to grapple with the predicament of the human species in a scientifically conceived universe." He suggests that the best science fiction of the Golden Age (the late 1930s to late 1940s when science fiction developed as a self-conscious genre under the editorial guidance of John W. Campbell) showed this kind of awareness.

Finally, I identify a third thesis about the human situation that is addressed (but sometimes resisted, rather than embraced) in much current science fiction:

Third, we, as individuals or a species, are technologically alterable, and may even be superseded by our posthuman mind-children.

I suggest that science fiction critics need to grapple seriously with this last claim on something like its own terms. Critics need not, of course, have personal opinions one way or another about the truth of the third thesis - which is highly controversial. In that sense, it is not like first two theses, which I think any educated person must now accept. However, scholarly critics of the genre should be aware of it, and be able to explicate how it appears, is endorsed, resisted, qualified, or complexified (or some or all the above) in science fiction texts.

Engagement with the three theses I've identified would give science fiction criticism a heart of its own, rather than being just the application of critical practice to one more area. Without this kind of focus, there is a risk that, as still another contributor (Brooks Landon) puts it, we may lose sight of the possibility that "science fiction might truly be a different way of constructing and interrogating our lives."

Friday, November 17, 2006

Website update.

My website has been pretty stable for a long time now, partly because nothing much has changed in my life of late to the extent of requiring much change to the way it is represented on the site.

It's been nice to have enough news this month to justify some small tweaks, which I made recently, though there's still no need for any major overhaul.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Why do bad ideas persist?

In my current article in JME, some of which has previously appeared on the Betterhumans website, I examine the theory of background conditions - the idea that all human cultures assume the existence of basic conditions in the background of human life that are beyond our choice, though they form the context for our choices.

According to the theory, these background conditions to choice are perceived to be timeless truths. Some of them, in fact, are clearly not true (such as the assumption of male superiority), while some others are true only to a limited extent (the relationship between sex and repoduction), or may not be true in the future if it sees the emergence of a radically different technological context (for example, it may no longer be true that human beings are mortal in the same sense as we always have been, or that work is necessary in the same sense as we've experienced historically). When the background conditions, as understood in a culture, are threatened, whether by practices such as gay sex or by new technologies such as IVF or human cloning, at least some people will feel that what is happening is "unnatural", and will themselves feel threatened.

I'm about 90 per cent convinced that this theory is onto something, though it would be nice to devise some ways that it could be empirically tested. Ordinary social observation certainly provides a lot of data that it can make sense of, but it would be good to have more precise data.

If the theory is true, it might show why there is so much essentially irrational resistance to harmless, or even beneficial, practices and technologies that are stigmatised as somehow "against nature". I certainly don't think it provides a basis for legislatures to ban those practices and technologies, or for rational people to give their support to feelings of disapproval. If we come to the conclusion that the theory of background conditions is true, it can (in part?) explain the "yuck factor", and perhaps the persistence of bad ideas about sex and reproduction, but it should not be interpreted as a justification for what it explains.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Bring back the Enlightenment

In the process of reading The God Delusion, I became aware of Richard Dawkins' new initiative, The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Science and Reason. I went to the Foundation's site and was suitably impressed by both the Foundation's mission and the quality of the site itself.

Dawkins says on the site, "The enlightenment is under threat. So is reason. So is truth. So is science, especially in the schools of America." This is absolutely correct. Indeed, one of the things that concerns me about the field of political philosophy - where I claim a degree of expertise - is its retreat from the values of the Enlightenment. Communitarians seek to preserve traditional mores and beliefs that surely deserve corrosive sceptical scrutiny. Even philosophical liberals, such as the late John Rawls, go out of their way to assure us that they do not espouse Enlightenment liberalism.

Well, why not? The world needs more Enlightenment liberalism.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Gutsy performance from Dawkins

I've just finished reading The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins - a much more robust critique of religious faith than Daniel Dennett's mild-mannered Breaking the Spell, though both are must-read books and I'm glad I took some time out from other things this week to wolf them down.

I'll be reviewing the Dawkins book for Cosmos magazine, so I'll say nothing more about it here, except that it is one helluva gutsy performance. Dawkins says all the things that most critics of religion dare not say.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Therapeutic cloning legislation - Hansard to the rescue

The Hansard transcript of last Tuesday's debate in the Australian Senate makes fascinating reading. The Senate ended up passing a bill to liberalise Australian law on therapeutic cloning, making research involving therapeutic cloning legally possible within strict limits. To be enacted as law, the legislation must now be passed by the House of Representatives, but most observers expect this to be easier.

What concerns me most is that the Senate passed amendments that were unnecessary (except for the practical political purpose of sweetening the package and getting votes). The amendment that I blogged about on the following morning does, indeed, as I guessed, prohibit research that involves the insertion of human nuclear DNA into animal eggs. Senator Bartlett, who moved this amendment, himself noted that it was not necessary in order to prevent part-cow/part-human, or part-rabbit/part-human creatures bouncing around the neighbourhood streets. The argument was that the amendment clarifies this and should alleviate fears, but in fact it only seems to muddy the waters. Since that outcome was not possible anyway, why amend the legislation in a manner that suggests it might have been?

To be honest, I might have voted to support this amendment if I had actually been a Senator, since people in such positions must sometimes make pragmatic judgments about what is politically realistic. Accordingly, my point is not so much to condemn the individuals involved as to bemoan the situation where public policy is being driven by irrational fears.

There is no prospect that the legislation in its unamended form would have allowed the gestation and birth of centaurs, minotaurs, or man-rabbits; no scientist in Australia is interested in creating such beings; no such research would attract funding even if it were legal; the scientific problems involved are insuperable, at least for the foreseeable future (think of the polygenic nature of most interesting phenotypical traits and the pleiotropic effects of individual genes ... then multiply this far beyond anything involving only human DNA); and even the strongest proponents of scientific freedom do not believe that the creation of such beings should be pursued in current circumstances or in any realistically foreseeable circumstances. Well, some of my transhumanist friends might actually disagree with the last point, but even they would have to concede the immense difficulties that would confront curvaceous Cow-Girl or the mighty-thewed Man-Rabbit if they came into existence here and now, with no accompanying drastic changes in social attitudes.

In all, the amendment was unnecessary except from the most pragmatic viewpoint of getting the legislation through parliament. Furthermore, it might do some actual harm in cutting off useful areas for scientific investigation.

The other development that is surely a matter for at least some concern is that the penalties under the Prohibition of Human Cloning Act have been made even more draconian - they are now all penalties of up to 15 years' imprisonment.

In a sense, this makes the legislation more logical: it was never clear why such a massive prison sentence should apply to human cloning while lesser sentences, such as "only" 10 years behind bars, applied to other acts involving genetic engineering that would arguably have a greater potential downside for society. However, the idea has been reinforced that all these dubious kinds of offences should be treated as on a par with very serious crimes that cause actual harm to real victims. It also tends to reinforce the mad scientist mytheme, the idea that scientists in their laboratories are Dr Frankensteins whom society should be viewing with fear and suspicion.

No principled argument was put by any Senator for this action of upping penalties. Clearly, the idea was simply to create an impression that the liberalising of Australia's legislation in one area (therapeutic cloning) would be balanced by getting even tougher on those actions still considered to be beyond the pale of political acceptance.

Once again, I don't especially blame individual Senators for acting as they did on the basis of sheer political realism; it is easy for me to be critical when the responsibility is on their shoulders, not mine. But I do regret the situation where such actions appear to be the necessary price for obtaining critical reforms to Australia's regulation of medical research.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Article in The Literary Encyclopedia

The Literary Encyclopedia has now published my article on science fiction, which I have just been proofreading to make sure that it's perfect as far as I can see.

I've tried to write something that won't be too controversial, but of course there is notorious - and seemingly intractable - controversy about the meaning of the term "science fiction" (how do we define the genre?), science fiction's relationship to fantasy and to the mainstream, the genre's origins and history, and its typical attitudes to science and technology. While my views on these issues are far from being "out there", they are not so conservative as to be beyond contestation. Indeed, there simply is no view on any of these issues that is totally anodyne or beyond contestation; the most that anyone can do is try to synthesise whatever is convincing in the various views on offer and try to show what the facts are that have given the different theoretical views their attraction. And - of course - trying to find a way to do that also involves taking some stances that won't be acceptable to everyone.

Still, it's as mainstream and solid an account as I could write, given that I doubtless have biases like everybody else. At nearly 4000 words, it is able to develop the main ideas - e.g. definitional, historical, and so on - at some length. I wasn't able to delve far beyond English-language SF, or deeply into SF in forms other than prose and film. I wouldn't be surprised if there are some small errors in an essay on such a broad topic with references to numerous texts, but I've done my very best to eliminate them and produce something that people can rely on. Overall, I think I've done a pretty good job with this gig. I'm feeling pleased with my work.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Breaking the Spell

My current reading is Daniel Dennett's new book, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. It is pleasantly (and a little surprisingly) easy to read: clear, methodically structured, and elegantly argued.

Dennett's main point is to call for rigorous - and fearless - scientific research on all aspects of religious faith and experience, which does seem like a good place to start in assessing the role played by religion in today's world and what it's place may be in the future. There are few, if any, more important topics, and this is a book I recommend to everyone, whatever their particular beliefs.

Fringe cosmology

Over at Wikipedia there's an arbitration going on involving the editing of articles relating to cosmology and astrophysics, where some editors have seemingly sought to use the encyclopedia to promote minority or fringe theories (not necessarily pseudoscientific theories akin to creation science, but certainly views that are currently marginal within the scientific maintream).

Given Wikipedia's aspiration to be a trustworthy reference work, and given that it actually is the first port of call for many people seeking information, it is important that it strike the right balance here. These fringe theories should be treated fairly, but even more importantly the widely-accepted and well-tested findings of mainstream science should not be presented as more controversial than they actually are. The "neutral point of view" doctrine should not extend to giving marginal viewpoints in science a prominence and credibility that they lack in the real world.

Except for some dealings with the parties from the standpoint of a neutral administrator, I've had very little involvement in the dispute that led to this point. However, I think that a good outcome to this case is critical to Wikipedia's ongoing efforts to be credible: is it going to evolve into a reputable encyclopedia or not? Accordingly, I've been commenting on the issues in some detail, for whatever my comments may be worth to the arbitrators.

In this situation, a good outcome will have some balance; the fringe theories should be described in a factual, objective way in the articles devoted to them, without the need for a debunking tone. However, the encyclopedia's overall balance must lean towards presenting scientific orthodoxy wherever such a thing exists. In some cases, there may be genuine division of opinion within the scientific mainstream, but that is not the problem here.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

A small victory for reason

Last night the Australian Senate passed a bill that will allow therapeutic cloning under strictly regulated conditions, and it is likely that the same bill will now pass through the House of Representatives and be enacted as law. The vote was very close, 34-32, and it required a last-minute compromise to amend the proposed legislation, but it does now look as if Australia will be joining the UK as a nation that allows the use of the somatic cell nuclear transfer technique to create stem cells for scientific research.

I am still trying to understand exactly what the effect of the last-minute amendment is. According to The Australian this morning, it seems to involve the mixing of "human cells" with animal eggs. This seems rather oddly worded, but perhaps the point is to prevent the insertion of human nuclear DNA into enucleated animal eggs. However the amendment is actually worded, media reports suggest that it was aimed at preventing the creation of human-animal hybrids, such as furry rabbit men or human beings with horns. A specific ban on this is quite unnecessary, since the legislation is not about allowing scientists to arrange for the gestation and birth of cloned humans - this whole reprise of the cloning debate in Australia has never been about reproductive cloning. We are talking, rather, about the creation of embyros that can be used for the separation of stem cells within the first 14 days - prior to gastrulation. Those cells can then be used for research that may one day lead to better medical therapies involving the use of stem cells to provide tissues or organs for the sick. There is no scope for the creation of rabbit-like monsters out of this - and anyway, no one is seriously looking to bring into the world miniature Donnie Darkos or infants with budding horns (shades of Rosemary's Baby).

Actually, it's difficult to see what would be so wrong with creating human beings with some non-human features and abilities, if it were ever possible to do so safely, and if they were born into a more tolerant society in which they would be welcomed and treated well. As I see it, the major problems are threefold. (1) We are at an impasse with any research that could possibly lead to such attempts, since it is difficult to see how any experiments could be done safely. (2) Because genes are typically pleiotropic, there is no guarantee that we could ever create such beings without scrambling important human capacities as a by-product. Even if the creatures we created were not deformed or diseased in some obvious way, as a result of the disruption of gene expression, they might be poorly equipped to bond into human society. (3) And even if neither of these were the case, we could not guarantee that such strange-seeming beings would be welcomed - in which event, creating them would be a terrible error. But all that is beside the point of the current debate.

If, in the real world, there are gains in scientific knowledge to be made from experiments that, in some sense, mix human cells and animal eggs - or whatever exactly it is that the Senate has tried to rule out - then let the research take place. We have nothing to fear. We really must stop getting so far ahead of ourselves; it is not good public policy to ban research simply on the basis that, speculatively, it may one day lead to some practice that we currently find uncomfortable and bizarre (and would be wise to abjure in contemporary circumstances). Speculation about the hypothetical motives of any Dr Frankensteins or Dr Moreaus out there is always a poor form of contribution to serious political debate.

Be all that as it may, the situation in Australia now looks far more hopeful. Despite the closeness of the margin, the Senate has rebuffed those irrationalists who have been lobbying rabidly for the past few weeks. We are still confronted with a whole smorgasbord of bio-Luddites to choose from - coming in all political and religious colours - who value insentient "human life" above the goal of finding therapies for actual human children and adults who are burdened with disease. Irrational though it is, these people want to protect tiny blobs of biological material that are incapable of hopes, ambitions, fear, grief or any kind of suffering. Just for once, though, the rest of us have a chance to celebrate a political outcome.

There's been a small victory for reason!

Now we must await the deliberations of the House of Representatives to see whether Australia will take the next vital step to a reasonably enlightened set of laws on embyro research.