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).

Saturday, March 31, 2007

G magazine issue 2

Received in the mail, the new issue of G magazine with a whole lot of reviewing by Jenny and one lonely review by me - of the Singer/Mason book, The Ethics of What We Eat.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

IEET poll saying: "Legalise ecstasy!"

I see that the current (admittedly not very large or at all scientific) poll over on the IEET site has more than 80 per cent of respondents wanting to legalise the popular party drug, MDMA (ecstasy). I'll report the final outcome when the poll closes.

It's cheering to see that there's some good sense in at least one corner of the internet. Legal prohibitions on a drug such as ecstasy provide just one more dreary example of the state acting to pre-empt the choices of its citizens. Isn't it about time we began to stand up and Just Say No to this offensive kind of paternalism?

Hicks coming home?

After David Hicks pleaded guilty yesterday to a charge of providing material aid to terrorism, it seems that he may soon be sentenced and packed off home to serve out his remaining term, whatever it may be, in Australia.

The responses to this in the media are far from nuanced. As usual, the debate is being dumbed down for public consumption. It seems that we must interpret Hicks as either a good, if naive, young man who deserves a hero's welcome when he returns or as a scion of evil who ought to be deprived of justice.

He is neither.

Hicks trained, worked, and fought for terrorist organisations, and does not deserve our adulation or sentimentality. He was motivated by religious fanaticism and racism, and evidently enjoyed his participation in violence. At the same time, though he fired a lot of bullets over the border into India, he apparently never killed anyone or committed any atrocities. More importantly, no case has been made out that he broke any Australian law that was in force at the time of his conduct overseas. He had no connection with the US, the country under whose law he is being tried: the events did not take place within the US, and he was not an American citizen. Furthermore, even the US law being applied to him is retrospective.

The imprisonment of Hicks is wrong in principle because it involves the assertion of extraterritorial jurisdiction and the use of retrospective criminal legislation. Those are the issues we should be focused on, not whether Hicks is a saint or a devil.

As I've said before, I'm not opposed in principle to control orders for people who are a danger to the public (provided there are safeguards in place). Control orders look to the future, not the past. If it can be demonstrated that Hicks is likely to commit acts of terrorism, then let's see the demonstration in an Australian court, and then a control order can issue with my blessing. In an age when individual acts of terror cause such massive harm, there may be good reasons to develop novel remedies, such as control orders, as long as they are issued only after a rigorous process, so that they don't just turn into modern-day bills of attainder. The law need not stand still, but must adapt to the times.

Nonetheless, we all depend on principles that effectively forbid retrospective criminal laws and the assertion of extraterritorial jurisdiction over non-nationals. Whenever those principles are abrogated, we should make a stand for them, however much we may dislike the particular individual who happens to be the victim of injustice this time.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Birthday poem for Richard Dawkins

Sometimes I can't resist an opportunity to flex my literary muscles by dashing off a sonnet.

Well, it was Richard Dawkins' 66th birthday yesterday - he shares a birthday with this little blog as it turns out. So I wrote the following to celebrate (some of the references, especially in the third quatrain, are a bit obscure, alas):


Richard, you've reached the age of 66,
The number of 9.9 per cent of a Beast.
So, celebrate! The treacheries and tricks
Of priests and critics won't disturb your Feast.

Tomorrow, yes, there's more work to be done:
Delusions to be combatted, and all.
Today, for once, forget it ... and just have fun:
It's only once a year, so have a ball.

Your plethora of parasites - your curse -
Won't go away. Like fleas upon a hound,
They know they're on a good thing. Then there's worse:
Appeasers, pleased to flee the dangerous ground.

So, take a break - there's soon another year,
Defying darkness, misery and fear.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Happy birthday, dear Metamagician and the Hellfire Club

This blog is one year old this week - in fact, today (I just checked).

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Puritans are not our allies

Ayaan Hirsi Ali's Infidel contains an illuminating vignette from Hirsi Ali's early time in Holland, living in a shared bungalow in the Zeewolde Reception Centre. On pages 194-95, she describes a conversation in her bungalow with a young Ethiopian woman, Mina.

As Hirsi Ali recounts it, Mina suggests that she (Hirsi Ali) take off her scarf and long skirt. "You're pretty," Mina says.

The conversation then proceeds as follows:

Hirsi Ali: Why should I uncover my naked skin? Don't you have any shame? What are you hoping to achieve? Don't you know how it affects men?

Mina: I wear these skirts because I like having pretty legs. They won't be pretty for long, and I want to enjoy them. If anyone else enjoys them so much the better.

Hirsi Ali: This is precisely the opposite of what I have been brought up to believe. (At this point, other young women join in on Mina's side, and Hirsi Ali adds, "But if men see women dressed like you are now, with your arms and everything naked, then they will become confused and sexually tempted. They will be blinded by desire.")

Mina: I don't think it's really like that. And you know, if they do get tempted it's not such a big deal.

As the conversation unfolds, it is apparent that, years later, Hirsi Ali, as author, is gently mocking her younger, more puritanical self.

However, you don't have to believe the kind of religious rubbish that Hirsi Ali was brought up to believe to take such puritanical attitudes to any sexual display. What is even more ridiculous than such attitudes from ignorant religious fundamentalists is the expression of similar attitudes from educated secular thinkers who imagine that they are thereby advocating a "progressive" or "feminist" viewpoint, but are using this to rationalise their underlying puritanical value systems.

These members of our local Taliban deserve nothing but our contempt and mockery. Whatever else they are, they are not our allies in the cause of freedom and reason. If anything, we should regard them as traitors.

Great minds think alike

I didn't know, when I praised Udo Schuklenk in my last entry, that I was returning a favour. I've since found out that he had nice words to say about me back in January.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Reproductive cloning again - Udo Schuklenk (and me) on slippery slope arguments

In his bioethics blog last week, Udo Schuklenk (joint editor-in-chief of the important journal Bioethics) published some of the most sensible words written by anyone so far about the human cloning debate. He begins with the uncompromising - but clearly correct - claim that, "The reproductive cloning debate was undoubtedly 'won' by Luddites."

Schuklenk examines slippery slope arguments against therapeutic cloning research and notes that the bioconservatives offer something like this: "if we permitted therapeutic cloning research we would slide down the slippery slope to the reproductive cloning of human beings."

He sees two problems with this argument: first, there is no straightforward slippery slope; second, there are no serious reasons against reproductive cloning in any event. He does make the legitimate point that reproductive cloning is not a high research priority in a world with a terrible global disease burden and many orphans needing care. Against that background, he suggests, there may even be something "obscene" about a pre-occupation with having our "own" genetically linked kids. But he is firm that that is not a reason to prohibit reproductive cloning.

These wise comments from a bioethicist of Schuklenk's stature come as a relief. I sometimes feel like a voice in the wilderness whenever I make similar points. However, the very prominent American Journal of Bioethics has recently published an article by me in which I make them in a place that is far from being the wilderness of academic bioethics - so the message is getting out at last.

In "Slippery Slopes to Slippery Slopes: Therapeutic Cloning and the Criminal Law", American Journal of Bioethics 7, 2 (February 2007), pp. 63-64, I emphasise that slippery slope arguments have to end somewhere - they need to identify some truly horrible place where we will end up if we embark on the slope and explain why we'll be unable to avoid arriving there. Opponents of therapeutic cloning, and reproductive cloning if it comes to that, have manifestly failed in their arguments.

Yes, all over the world Luddites have been tending to win the policy debates, but they have lost the intellectual debate, as shown by their inability to win over people of Schuklenk's repute. Those of us who are not enamoured of neo-Luddism must keep expressing the dissenting position with clear, sound arguments. In the short term, reasonable views may not prevail politically - if I may be permitted an understatement - but they are a resource laid up for the future. Let the record show that we did dissent from the ongoing moral panic about human cloning, and let it demonstrate that we were right when we did so.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Essjay aftermath at Wikipedia - a lot of community soul-searching

The Wikipedia community is currently going through some soul-searching in the wake of the recent train wreck involving an editor known as Essjay, who had claimed to be an academic theologian of some eminence - with a couple of doctoral degrees to his name. It turned out that he was really a much younger man with no such qualifications.

Of course, people fake identities on the internet all the time. It's not surprising if there are people doing so on Wikipedia, irritating as that is. What made things worse in this particular case was that Essjay had held positions of trust and responsibility - way beyond normal admin/sysop level. He was a checkuser (able to trace the IP addresses of other users to get evidence of double identities or "sockpuppets") and had recently been made an arbitration committee member (one of a group who sit in judgment on the conduct of other Wikipedia editors, in cases of otherwise-unresolvable on-site disputes). Worse still, from a PR viewpoint, he'd maintained the charade in an extensive telephone interview with The New Yorker last year - subsequently written up by a distinguished journalist.

The main response from Wikipedia's honcho, Jimmy Wales, has been to try to institute a process whereby editors can check each other's claimed academic credentials. That is not especially difficult for editors who are prepared to divulge their real-life identities. However, there's a question about how it can be done for editors who want to retain their anonymity - as most do for various good reasons.

In my case, I'm not anonymous in any meaningful sense, since this blog mentions the fact that I edit over on Wikipedia using the same name as in the URL for the blog. However, I'm not keen to plaster my real-life identity all over Wikipedia itself where every passing vandal or troll will see it. So, I'm more-or-less anonymous to a casual Wikipedia user, but I'm not trying to conceal my identity from anyone who really cares.

In the circumstances, I offered to give it a try. By providing details to another editor I was able to help him establish two points beyond much possibility of doubt: (1) that this guy Russell Blackford actually has a Ph.D (I'll have two of the things soon, if all goes well, but that was not relevant to the exercise) and (2) that "I" am, in fact, Russell Blackford.

We both reported back that it is quite a quick and fairly painless process to carry out such a verification. In my case, it had involved pointing to public sources that I couldn't easily fake which mention that I have a Ph.D, and likewise for sources which give my "normal" email address (as opposed to the hotmail account that I use solely for any Wikipedia business). He sent an email to that address and I wrote back from it, confirming that I edit on Wikipedia with the username he'd been dealing with. I also sent an email to Jimmy Wales with the same details - in fact, I'd sent them separately to Wales a day or so before this other person suggested we give it a try.

The result was that this person confirmed that I have a Ph.D, but did not reveal my identity any further. Almost any university academic, post-grad, or post-doc could do exactly the same thing to establish whatever quals they have - if prepared to trust their professional details to one other person.

Of course, the flaw in the process - if it is one - is that although I was able to prove both required points to the other guy's satisfaction, there's a question about why anyone should trust him. He and I might be in collusion for some bizarre reason (in fact, I'd never come across him before, although a little research shows him to be a well-established Wikipedia editor with a good record).

All of which indicates that Wikipedia is going to have to work out just how far it wants to go with any scheme of mutual verification of credentials. I'm happy to go along with it, though it doesn't really affect me that much - or wouldn't if I hadn't poked my nose into the debate - as I didn't particularly want credentials on my Wikipedia userpage in any event. The page now mentions that I have a Ph.D, but that's only as a result of cooperating with this little trial run of the mutual verification scheme.

More generally, such a scheme will never be able to rule out frauds by people who are prepared to go to sufficiently elaborate lengths. Also, I think the main moral is that Wikipedia should be very careful to vet people in authority and anyone it offers to the media as some kind of spokesperson. Wales has assured us that all checkusers are themselves vetted, and has acknowledged that anyone held out to the media must be, too. He also posted a comment emphasising in bold that he wasn't the one who put The New Yorker onto Essjay in the first place.

While the approach Wales is taking isn't exactly the one I would have taken - I'd be less interested in mutual verification of credentials and more in vetting people in authority - it may do some good and is at least worth a try. As Wales says, at least some people will be able to put their credentials on their userpages with someone else vouching that they are not fakes. I am amused (when I'm not a bit irritated) at the over-excited opposition to this from various people involved in the debate. In the case of my little trial run, one or two folks have laboured the obvious point: I and the other well-established editor could, at least in theory, be in cahoots. Well, so we could be - it takes no genius to work that out. But any system like this will have to rely on trust somewhere. Just how paranoid do we all want to become?

I'm eagerly awaiting the next episode of this saga, having had my say about it. I'll try to resist the temptation of butting in any further.

More generally, I'm still convinced that Wikipedia is an unequivocally good thing - as long as its limitations are understood - and that we should all be prepared to help it out now and then (it's become a lot more than "now and then" in my case, but that's just because of my particular circumstances at the moment). Hopefully, the Essjay controversy will turn out to be a storm in a teacup and we all can get on with our lives soon, without constantly having to worry about its shadow looming over us whenever we do a bit of work to help the project.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

In the real world - our house re-roofed

That's right, we've had workmen re-roofing our (big old) house this week - it was getting to need it, alas, and we got a pretty good deal as the people in the adjoining terrace had taken the plunge. It all went surprisingly smoothly, and scarcely so much as interrupted my thought processes, though it impacted more on Jenny who was home the whole time (whereas I was off at university doing some teaching for a couple of the days). Felix was terrified, alas, and spent most of the last few days hiding under the bed. Poor little pussycat - we'll have to make it up to him.

Monday, March 12, 2007

We have a choice

"I'm saying that we have a choice. Broadly speaking, we have the opportunity to ally ourselves with values such as reason, science, liberty, and Enlightenment thinking, or we can become so obsessed with the evil of offending all the people who don't have those values that we end up giving succour to misery, medievalism, and superstition."

So I said when I became involved in a debate about Ayaan Hirsi Ali, over on Richard Dawkins' website, after Dawkins and his people posted a defence of Hirsi Ali by Christopher Hitchens.

Hitchens is absolutely right on this one: Hirsi Ali is currently being subjected to a destructive and personal campaign in an attempt to discredit her and undermine her message. I don't like Hitchens' stance in support of the misguided war in Iraq, but he is still an insightful and usefully forthright contributor to public debate.

Like Hitchens, I am fed up with the trahison des clercs.

You can read the discussion here.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Mameli defends reproductive technologies (2) - The Open Future

Bioconservatives often argue that a child born from reproductive cloning, or after being genetically engineered to alter its potential, will not have an "open future". This has always seemed to me a ludicrous argument because it misunderstands what Joel Feinberg had in mind - and expressed clearly - when he originally employed the open future argument to criticise the US Supreme Court's decision to allow Amish families to withdraw their children early from the education system.

The argument is really about the alleged value of certain kinds of communities surviving into the future (I dispute that we should value this at all; if certain religiously deluded cultures eventually die out, with no violence against them, surely this is a good thing!), and the value of children growing to adulthood with a wide range of skills and capacities to fit them for a range of possible life plans and social roles.

Matteo Mameli is alert to this in his article "Reproductive cloning, genetic engineering and the autonomy of the child: the moral agent and the open future." He makes the point by quoting the key passage from Feinberg, in which the latter defined what he meant by an open future (Mameli, page 90).

Buchanan et. al., in From Chance to Choice, argue that we should ban genetic interventions with a similar effect to cutting short education, i.e. interventions that restrict kids' options later in life (Mameli, page 90). Mameli comments that parents already shape kids for certain plans of life, which will tend to reduce their fitness for other plans, and that this is considered morally legitimate; however, there must be some moral limit to it. Mameli is inclined to think that the threshold below which we criticise parents is (socially) set quite low, i.e. we are prepared to accept a considerable squeezing down of kids' options before we criticise parents (page 91).

While Mameli is surely right about this, and there is, indeed, some point to acknowledging that parents are not required to sacrifice everything else to equipping their children with a huge array of skills and opportunities, I sometimes wonder whether we are too lenient towards parents. I'm horrified when I think about kids being brought up to believe that they are fundamentally sinners, or that sexual pleasure is somehow "dirty" or nasty, or that the findings of science are comprehensively, massively wrong - since modern biology, geology, and just about every other scientific field, contain findings that conflict with the literal claims of the Christian Bible. Indoctrination into a miserable, medieval worldview enormously restricts children's rational understanding of their universe and themselves; I believe that secular intellectuals should be appalled by this, but it's the elephant in the living room that (it seems) we don't want to see.

Be that as it may, Mameli is correct to note that some genetic interventions might expand, rather than diminish, the options available to children. However, some might reduce options in ways similar to those that are accepted now (such as encouragement to play a lot of tennis), and some in ways similar to those not currently accepted (such as not sending a child to school). The latter should be constrained (page 91).

Mameli also discusses the possibility that someone would be constrained in her array of life plans if she knew that she had the same genes as an earlier twin or that her genes had been chosen for a purpose by her parents (pages 91-92). He argues that in the case of reproductive cloning it would be open to children to rebel against any thought that they must follow a pre-existing life pattern, and we could teach kids from an early age that having the same genes as someone else does not destine you to leading a simlar life. The same applies mutatis mutandis to genetic engineering. Moreover, children can and do rebel against (some) parental expectations, and this would continue to be the case (arguably, to much the same extent as now). Finally, we already accept situations where childrens' future lives are shaped within severely narrow boundaries, as with the children of royalty - but no one suggests that royal couples be prohibited from having children (page 92).

I broadly agree with Mameli on these points, though I am less sanguine than he seems to be about the extent to which we already shape childrens' lives, and about the possibilty that genetic technology could be used in a way that would worsen an already unsatisfactory situation. Perhaps we need to exert more moral pressure on parents to open their childrens' futures, particularly by not brainwashing them with damaging ideas about themselves or the world - children should learn how to reason and think critically, not about feeling a burden of sin and guilt. To be blunt, we should be more critical of parents who inflict traditional religious teachings on children who are too young to understand, let alone criticise, what they are being told. If genetic technology were used, in some way, to make children more credulous of the miserable views inherent in the literal teachings of traditional Christianity and Islam, we would have every reason to be appalled.

But it looks to me as if the availability of reproductive cloning and genetic engineering would not make the situation worse. Once again, my emphasis is slightly different from that of Mameli: in my view, we should encourage forms of genetic engineering that will enhance childrens' capacities in ways that are likely to broaden their understanding of the world and themselves, and/or to increase their options in life - this would be so with many interventions designed to increase cognitive capacities, health, or longevity. To some extent, it would apply to other enhancements, such as improved strength or perceptual abiliities: these might not directly increase the capacity for understanding, or the opportunities to acquire it, but they would be of benefit in a myriad of ways, pervading somebody's life.

Properly used, genetic reproductive technologies would not close kids' futures. Their net effect would be to make the future more open.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Mameli defends reproductive technologies (1)

A recent Journal of Medical Ethics article by Matteo Mameli challenges two versions of the popular argument that human reproductive cloning and genetic engineering should be prohibited because they would undermine the autonomy of children. The reference is M. Mameli, "Reproductive cloning, genetic engineering and the autonomy of the child", Journal of Medical Ethics 33 (2007): 87-93.

Mameli notes that one argument against these technologies is that they are not safe and could result in developmental abnormalities. However, as he points out, this argument will cease to have application if a point is reached when cloning and genetic engineering are as reliable as other reproductive technologies (page 87). He gives only a brief discussion of how this could be done (and it is not entirely satisfactory, in my opinion), but he is surely right that technological advances could, in principle, undermine the argument. This means that we need to look at what other arguments are on the table.

Arguments relating to the autonomy of children are, of course, popular among bioconservatives, notably Jurgen Habermas, who essentially bases his case against genetic reproductive technologies on this point.

The two versions of the argument that Mameli identifies are: first, that the autonomy of the children concerned will be undermined because knowledge of how they were conceived will render them unable to take full responsibility for their actions (he attributes this claim to Habermas); and second, that such technologies will violate the children's supposed right to an open future (he mentions a couple of references, including the revered From Chance to Choice, by Buchanan, et. al.) (page 87).

In this blog post, I'll confine myself to the first argument, that pursued by Habermas, just to save some time and space. I'll get to the second argument in a follow-up post.

As Mameli describes the argument pursued by Habermas, it is along these lines: to be a full member of a moral community, one must be able to conceive of oneself as such; for this to happen, one must be able to assume full responsibility for one's actions in the same way as others. But the children who have been created by reproductive cloning or genetic engineering would be unable to conceive of themselves in this way, perhaps because they really would not be fully responsible for their actions like the rest of us. It follows that these children could not become full members of their moral communities (page 88).

I find the argument attributed to Habermas initially implausible - partly because it connotes a spooky and unreal concept of taking full responsibility for our actions: we are all products of our heredity and environment (including upbringing) and none of us can ever be responsible for what we do all the way down below the events that shaped us. We can be responsible in lesser senses, of course, e.g. our actions can reflect our beliefs and values, and that is (I'd argue) all we require. But the same applies to people who have been born from reproductive cloning or genetic engineering.

Mameli makes a similar point - we cannot choose the psychological makeup that we find ourselves with at the time we first start reflecting on our own desires and other aspects of our psychological makeup, so our reflections are always shaped by something beyond our control (page 88). However, he says, Habermas believes that we do not need to have full responsibility for our psychological makeup, in order to be fully responsible as moral agents, but only that we need to be in a position where "our basic psychological makeup is not the desired outcome of someone else's choice." According to Habermas, I cannot be fully responsible in the required sense if my psychological makeup is partly the result of parental choice of my genes (page 88).

There is some shifting here between being fully and partly a product of parental choice, and if it is supposed to be "partly" it sounds like a very arbitrary principle. All children's personalities are shaped partly by the conscious choices of the adults around them. Surely we accept this, even approve of it.

Mameli's response is to point out that people's dispositions are typically the result, in part, of parental choices to control their childrens' environments in various ways, e.g. by teaching kids to be altruistic, so why should it matter if the means used are partly genetic? (pages 88-89)

Habermas has anticipated this point, however - he argues that children can rid themselves of the effect of their parents' environmental decisions, whereas genetic effects are irreversible - but Mameli cites research showing that the opposite is often true, that environmental effects on psychological development are often not reversible, while many genetic effects are (page 89). Indeed, the claim by Habermas is simply implausible on its face. No one can ever step entirely out of her existing values, however they were shaped, at the time she reflects on her values. This would be a spooky kind of autonomy all the way down, once again.

To some extent, Habermas seems to argue that what matters is not the truth of all this, but how it would be perceived by the children themselves (perhaps even mistakenly); to this Mameli points out that the children would be very unlikely to perceive themselves as other than fully responsible (in the qualified, non-spooky sense that is actually possible), since to do so would involve seeing themselves as outside of society. People actually want to held accountable for their actions, because of the great social advantages this brings them. Admittedly, some people do try to blame their parents for how they turned out, but that does not inspire us to prohibit parents from, for example, deciding how to educate their kids. If necessary, we can make a social decision to teach children to accept responsibility for their actions and not devalue themselves mistakenly (page 89). I add that of course some ways we educate kids might need to change in a society with genetic engineering, but why should that be surprising or alarming?

Mameli next considers whether the kind of self-devaluation postulated by Habermas would be almost ineradicable by reasoning, like some kinds of depression, but he points out that the self-devaluation would arise from a reasoning process, not from an organic cause in the functioning of brain. Of course, some kinds of depression begin with feelings of life going badly, which may then cause an organic effect. With cloning and genetic engineering cases, however, we could avoid children forming the wrong thoughts in the first place, by teaching them at an early age that they have responsibility for their own lives; we could tell them the disavantages and irrationality of the kind of self-devaluation that Habermas postulates (pages 89-90).

As Mameli states, none of this denies that some parents could make decisions that would undermine the moral agency of their children, e.g. they could choose genes to disable their children intellectually. This would be analogous to abusive environmental choices by parents, but the remote chance of parents acting in this way would not be a reason to prohibit genetic reproductive technologies (page 90).

All right, then, who has the better of this argument, out of Habermas and Mameli - who is being more realistic? I suspect that the picture painted by Mameli is slightly too rosy if we are discussing genetic choices that relate directly to the personality of the child. In those cases, perhaps, the child could end up confused and resentful, and it does, in any event, seem like a foolish kind of micro-management for psrents to try to indulge in.

But Mameli neglects, at this stage of his article, to mention two apects that would tend to strengthen his position. First, the whole argument developed by Habermas is weak in its application to reproductive cloning, which is not the focus of the case that Habermas builds. Knowing that I have received the same genes as my "father" - i.e. the random assortment that my nuclear DNA donor received from his parents - is quite different from knowing that my whole personality has been designed in advance.

Second, parental choices relating to genetic engineering might sometimes involve attempts to control personality traits, but they are perhaps more likely to involve the enhancement of intelligence, strength, coordination, perceptual powers (keen eyesight, for example), energy, health, longevity, and the physical components of beauty (such as facial and bodily symmetry). Possessing any or all of these would certainly have an influence on a child's developing personality, but that also applies if those traits are influenced by environmental interventions (e.g. by teaching a child to read, or to play sport, or by giving the child good nutrition). These look more like gifts than attempts at a kind of genetic brainwashing, and they are likely to be experienced as such rather than as attempts at personality control.

At a minimum, then, the psychological and social risks discussed by Habermas seem exaggerated, and any downside has to be weighed against the individual and social goods that might be gained. We should not use genetic technologies foolishly (e.g. before they are safe, or in an attempt to control too much detail of how our children's personalities turn out), but there is every reason to believe that the benefits would outweigh the harm if we could actually develop and use safe techniques of reproductive cloning and human genetic engineering.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Utilitarianism, "total-view" thinking, and human life extension

Classical utilitarians want to maximise the happiness in the world, conceiving of happiness as subjective feelings of pleasure. Really, they want to maximise the balance of pleasure over pain. Preference utilitarians want to maximise the sum of preference satisfaction.

These ideas, however, quickly lead us to apparent paradoxes, or at least disturbing thoughts. If we are morally required to maximimse utility (whether it is pleasure or preference satisfaction), then we'd better produce as much of it as possible. The more pleasure there is in the world, or the more satisfied preferences, the better. If this is our responsibility, we seem to be committed to what Peter Singer calls the total view, i.e. we are concerned with the overall total of utility in the world, and it does not matter how this is achieved. But here are some (not very original) thoughts about why the idea is so disturbing.

Think of the kind of case where a couple decide not to have any more children, or decide not to have children at all, even though the children would probably be happy. It seems as if this couple has done something morally wrong. I know that childless-by-choice couples are often thought of as morally suspect, though I strongly disagree, but for those who might be persuaded by this idea imagine a couple who already have four kids. They could have a fifth - perhaps this will be at some cost to their own happiness, but they are likely to raise the total sum of utility in the world. If they decide to have no more kids, should we say they have done a morally wrong thing? That seems to be a repugnant conclusion (to borrow a phrase from Derek Parfit).

The total view also seems to work badly in cases where the use of contraception is compared with infanticide. If one couple decide not to have children, so they use contraceptives, they are declining to add to the amount of happiness in the world. But even more paradoxically, the immorality of their action seems to be no greater than that of a couple who have a kid, then kill it in some painless way. Once again, they have declined to add to the sum of happiness in the world. Yet, surely there is a moral difference between the two cases!

More generally, the total view would seem to require that we have as many babies as we can afford to raise with a tolerably decent standard of living and prospect of being happy. It requires us not just to improve the lives of existing people, but to create new people. But surely this conflicts with most people's intuitions. Most of us probably think that if you do have a baby you (morally) should look after it, but we don't think you are morally obliged to have children — and certainly not to have as many as you can.

Philosophers sometimes try to avoid the problems of the total view by introducing a prior-existence restriction: leave out of your utility calculations those individuals who would come into existence only as a result of the very actions you are contemplating. Putting it another way, consider only those individuals who already exist (this can be expanded to a prior-existence + "existence anyway" restriction, enabling us to count those who will exist irrespective of your own actions, e.g. the future general public).

However, this way of rejecting the total view also has problems.

Consider this thought experiment (adapted from Parfit). Imagine a government-funded medical program which tests thousands of women before they become pregnant. If they are found to have a particular illness, they can delay pregnancy until they are cured. If they get pregnant while they have the disease, the resulting children will suffer congenital impairment (but will still lead lives with a positive sum of utility).

In this thought experiment, there are no relevant individuals - i.e. the babies we're thinking about - already in existence when the government decides whether to fund the program. Nor are we talking about individuals who will come into existence anyway, if that matters. Which children will, or will not, be born is actually contingent on whether the program goes ahead.

Also, think of a specific woman who has been diagnosed as having the disease. When she decides whether to try to get pregnant now, or to postpone it until she is cured, there are no actual, already-existing, children involved. Which of her ova will get fertilised by which sperm cell, and which child will end up coming into existence will depend on what decision she makes. Yet, we probably want her to delay her pregnancy and have a healthy child. We take a moral view on the issue, but the prior-existence restriction seems to say we can't.

The prior-existence restriction, then, operates on the fact that there is no already-existing child (or fetus or embryo) whose interests the government, or the woman who is contemplating having a kid, can take into account. But surely we want governments to sponsor such programs if the funds are available, and we want women to take opportunities to bring healthy babies into the world rather than unhealthy ones, where there is a choice. The prior-existence restriction would seem to prevent us from making moral claims that a government, or an individual woman, is doing the morally right thing in such cases. There is no relevant baby, or even an embryo, in existence when the decisions are made.

But allow me to harp on the point: all other things being equal, funding a program like this seems to be a morally good thing to do. Or if a woman has actually been diagnosed with the hypothetical disease, it seems that it would be a morally good thing for her to postpone getting pregnant until she is treated for the disease.

Such examples convince some philosophers that we cannot use the prior-existence restriction, at least not always; some kind of total-view thinking does have a role in morality. Or so they think.

In his article, "Research into Aging: Should it be Guided by the Interests of Present Individuals, Future Individuals, or the Species?", in the anthology Life Span Extension (ed. Frederick C. Ludwig), Singer ultimately relies on total-view thinking.

The way he sets up the thought experiment, the individuals in a society with life extension will have longer lives and more total utility than comparable individuals in a society without life extension. However, there will have to be less of them to avoid Malthusian type problems. The population at a point in time will be the same, but the number of people (think of each individual person as a four-dimensional space-time worm) in future space-time will be fewer. Also, their individual average utility will be less over their long lives than those of shorter-lived people (shorter space-time worms) over their shorter lives.

Thus, we needn't worry too much about the longer-lived people as individuals (they will be happy throughout their longer lives, though less happy as they get older, and they will think of their longer lives as a benefit). Yet the total amount of utility existing in space-time will be less if the future society has, rather than if it does not have, life extension technology.

If we accept something like the total view, we should (on the scenario developed by Singer) relinquish life extension technology. Singer wants us to adopt total-view thinking, so he comes out against life extension technology (at least if it has the kind of social impact he imagines it will have) (see page 144 of the book).

He offers a thought experiment of his own to support total-view thinking. Suppose we are confronted with the prospect of either all agreeing not to have children, thus ending the human species, or drastically cutting back on consumption of resources (at some cost to the utility of people who already exist). What should we do? Singer thinks it is obvious that we should cut back on consumption of resources and continue having children.

For utiltarians, it might be impossible, in the end, to avoid total-view thinking, despite its unpalatable aspects. However, that gives me no problem because I am not a utilitarian. I think that the justification for our moral norms is, roughly, that they help protect us from things that we fear and to preserve things that we value. Among the things that we value are having healthy children, laying the foundations for the continued existence of our society, reducing the misery in the world, but also having long, healthy lives for ourselves. There is no objectively right answer to what weight these things should be given - as individuals we give them different somewhat different weights, and to the extent that policy and law support these various values the weighting involves an element of social compromise. Reality leaves morality somewhat underdetermined.

Nonetheless, most of us do value the things I mentioned. We have perfectly good reasons to support moral norms that enshrine them as values, and to campaign for laws that will protect these values (among others).

This analysis accepts that there is no inescapably and categorically "right" answer to questions of morality and policy, a thought which may go against what we are socialised to believe and against much traditional common sense about morality. But is it really very surprising to us? I think that the mild kind of moral scepticism implicit in what I am saying should become the new common sense.

On that basis, we can worry about relieving suffering in the world, rather than maximising the sum total of utility. This needn't drive us to the crazy idea of killing all living things that can suffer (the reductio ad absurdum of negative utilitarianism) because the relief of suffering is not the only thing we actually value - e.g. we actually value the existence of complex, creative, flourishing human societies. We also value wilderness, health, freedom, our own continuing lives, and many other things.

When we look at what we actually value, there is no need to adopt any paradoxical theory such as the total view. Think of it like this. The future society with life extension technology, as depicted in Singer's scenario, will not contain people whom we should feel sorry for. Nor need it be a society that lacks complexity or creativity, even it is smaller in its space-time population than the alternative society without life extension technology. The people who live in this society will be glad to do so, and glad of the enhanced lives that life extension technology will enable them to have.

In short, no important value should lead us to try to avert such a society - all we need to do is abandon total-view utilitarianism, which gives a crude and unhelpful picture of what actually underlies our moral thinking.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Journalistic accuracy - an oxymoron?

I'm sometimes nasty about news reporters. Perhaps it's easy for me - whatever the pressures I've experienced writing articles, essays, reviews, works of fiction, and indeed blog entries, it must be tough reporting news stories under time pressure. It's a form of writing that I have no experience in, and I can see that it takes a special kind of skill and makes great demands on people's judgment and emotional energy.

That said, it's important to keep news reporters to high standards - their work contributes much to our picture of the world. If news articles are pervasively inaccurate - as they are in my experience - our understanding of the world is incrementally undermined.

Take the currently topical Essjay incident. Among the real facts are that Essjay made about 20,000 edits in his time at Wikipedia.

Of course the number of actual articles he edited was much lower. Blake Stacey gives a figure of about 6000 in his response to my previous post - but even this figure is much too high. As Blake points out in his follow-up post, it includes not just articles but other pages of various kinds. Without checking the figures myself, I know that the number of "entries" in the encyclopedia (which suggests actual articles on topics covered by the encyclopedia) that he worked on is much less than 20,000. Why?

First, no Wikipedia editor works by making only one edit per article. Once you start working on an article you are likely to make a number of edits - sometimes hundreds, though as it happens Essjay did not make a lot of edits per article that he worked on. But even if he'd averaged only two edits per article that alone would reduce the figure to 10,000. Second, many edits are not made to articles but to the talk pages of articles where the content of articles is discussed. Third, much else goes on at Wikipedia, such as exchanges on the talk pages of users who discuss issues one on one. Then there are discussions of policies, discussions of what articles to delete, etc. We also know that Essjay was not just any old editor but a busy Wiki-functionary, who would have been involved in a lot of background administrative tasks requiring edits to the encyclopedia to be made.

Moreover, one news report said that he worked on 20,000 "controversial" articles, but many Wikipedia articles are not really controversial, and there is no reason to think that Essjay worked mainly on the controversial ones.

In other words, from the fact that Essjay had about 20,000 edits, news reporters have basically made stuff up. They had no reason at all to conclude that he had edited anything like 20,000 "entries" or articles, let alone 20,000 "controversial" ones.

I've seen numerous other inaccuracies in news reports on this issue from reputable media organisations.

The thing is, I'm not surprised. In my own past dealings with the press, I've found that there are almost always inaccuracies in news stories, even when the material actually provided to reporters is accurate.

How does this happen? In the Essjay case, time pressure can't have been the reason - it would have been simple for reporters just to report the facts that they had, rather than making up facts - making up enough to give Joe Public an overall distorted impression of what the incident was really about.

If there are any working news journalists out there, perhaps you can respond, illuminating how and why this kind of thing happens. One guess is that the actual facts are often too dry-sounding, so journalists try to reword them in a way that will read better, but in doing so they make unwarranted assumptions, and so draw inferences that are not logically justified from the material they have in front of them. Perhaps jumping to conclusions in this way is just human nature, but it is very dangerous when news reporters do it, because the background facts may often be complex, even somewhat technical, and may not match the assumptions made by the reporter at all.

The Essjay thing is a case in point - you need a bit of semi-technical knowledge about how Wikipedia actually works to be able to see immediately that many of the claims made in news reports cannot be correct. But shouldn't reporters be aware of the risk that they are drawing unwarranted inferences in such cases?

I don't know enough about what goes on to be able to formulate a plausible theory as to how and why it happens; I just know it happens - and this has been a good case study. We'd be better off with more journalistic accuracy in news reporting - if journalistic accuracy in that context were not an oxymoron. Why are things as bad and they are, and what can be done to change it?

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Busy week - this and that

I've been slack about blogging here over the past week or so. It's been quite busy, even apart from the fact that I'm still under a bit of (largely self-imposed) pressure to finish the thesis, and I am mopping up stray things that I've identified I need to read and consider, now I've thought most of the issues through. I also put aside a bit of time this week to review Rudy Rucker's new novel, Mathematicians in Love, for The New York Review of Science Fiction.

On Monday night I joined a small group for drinks with Garry Kilworth and his wife Annette, who've been in town for some months but are just catching up with the sf people. Garry and Annette were lovely, relaxed people who seemed to be enjoying their time in Australia.

And then there's been classes to prepare and teach, with the new semester.

In my spare time, around the edges, I got caught up in the intense discussions going on over at Wikipedia in the aftermath of what now seems to be known as "the Essjay scandal" or "the Essjay controversy".

I'll save any thoughts that I have about that until another time. Suffice to say that a very good contributor to Wikipedia, known as "Essjay" had risen to hold a lot of power and responsibility within Wikipedia and related entities, perhaps helped to some extent by his fabricated identity as a highly-qualified academic with expertise in (of all things) theology. He turns out to be a much younger person with no such qualifications. This sort of identity fabrication happens all the time on the internet, of course, and people are rightly suspicious in many cases, but the thing is that Essjay actually did terrific work and never seemed to act to undermine the encyclopedia; he played the role of enthusiastic, intelligent, academic expert helping out the project ... played it so well that his work actually was of great benefit.

However, he came unstuck because he maintained the whole charade to The New Yorker in an extensive interview last year. When he recently took up a real-life job with the Wikipedia-related organisation Wikia, he came clean about his background (or at least gave a more plausible story for someone of his age). Thereafter, more and more came out about how he had gained advantages from, and otherwise misused, his made-up identity (though, again, while doing a more than competent job as a contributor to Wikipedia, as an administrator, and just about everything else). There's now been a lot of coverage of this in the mainstream press as well as all over the net.

Interesting times. I feel sorry for Essjay - who now seems to have left both Wikipedia and his job at Wikia - while wondering how people get themselves in these situations. The events do tend to cast Wikipedia into disrepute, so there is now a huge debate going on about what to do to try to minimise the possibility of anything on this scale of deception ever happening again.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Dawkins, religion, and public policy

The February-March issue of Cosmos contains my long-awaited review of Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion, a book that has been the subject of massive international controversy.

(This issue also has Jenny Blackford's excellent article on recent books about the mind, plus other reviews by one or other of us, but I'll put that to one side.)

Actually, my review of The God Delusion is not all that long-awaited: I wrote the review in early November, so the lag between writing and publication was three months. For a bimonthly magazine, Cosmos has published it quickly.

But in the three months between when the review was written and when it appeared in print there has been an extraordinary debate going on about Dawkins' book. I read and reviewed The God Delusion before any of this appeared, so I couldn't take the controversy into account - what you'll see in Cosmos when you pick up your copy is just a straight review of what I think is a very good, but certainly not perfect, book in which Dawkins argues his case that traditional, literal theism is a false and dangerous belief.

One thing that has since astonished me is how many secular or otherwise moderate thinkers appear to resent Dawkins speaking up in criticising religion. I was well aware of the unspoken pact among intellectuals to show a sort of paternalistic solicitude toward religion - something that has developed gradually since my youth back in the 1970s, when anti-religious feeling was more socially acceptable. But I hadn't realised just how strong this pact had become. If you write a book like that of Dawkins, arguing with wit and passion against religious belief, it now seems that most people who are in the position to review your work will question the propriety of what you're doing. It's as if any criticism of religion is seen, these days, as some kind of affront, or threat, to social stability.

As religious leaders and intellectuals have become bolder, in recent years, about attempting to shape public policy on explicitly religious or crypto-religious grounds, it has become important that those grounds be subjected to close sceptical scrutiny. If the exponents of religious and crypto-religious viewpoints wish to have a say in the formulation of public policy, then we need to scrutinise whether or not their arguments are based on any intellectually credible foundation.

Those of us who live in Western societies are no longer in a luxurious position where the proponents of religious and crypto-religious worldviews are prepared to keep out of policy debates, in the expectation that their beliefs, in turn, will be treated gently in the public arena. In particular, the Vatican is aggressive in demanding that public policy reflect its specifically religious morality. In the US, there has been a determined push to challenge the teaching of biological evolution in schools, while the President's Commission on Bioethics is dominated by religious and crypto-religious thinking. All of this is supported by levels of funding that most of us can only dream of gaining access to.

We can't pretend this is not happening around us, and go on blithely assuming that policy will be set on purely secular grounds, with religion agreeing to be sidelined.

I expect to see a lot more public questioning of religion in books and other media. The position has been reached where there will be more poking at the sore point, more intense probing at whether religious worldviews are even tenable - with more and stronger challenges to the role they play in the formulation of public policy. Contrary to so many critics of Dawkins, who obviously feel uncomfortable, I think that that's a necessary and healthy development.