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).

Friday, December 31, 2010

And so ends 2010

It's been a relatively quiet year for me. I moved back to Newcastle just before Christmas last year, and have spent a fair bit of time just settling back in, doing stuff for the new house (lots of new infrastructure), catching up with folks, and re-adapting to this city's more casual lifestyle (than Melbourne's).

Highlights included the Global Atheist Convention, back in March, and the World Science Fiction Convention, in September, both of which gave me excuses to visit Melbourne and keep in touch with some of my favourite people.

Actually, much of the year has consisted, for me, of holing up in my study researching and writing a new book. Hopefully, y'all will see the results of this effort some time in 2011. Beyond that, I have some other projects at very early stages - too early for me to talk about in public or to know whether they'll come to fruition. If all goes well, 2011 will be focused on these.

Tonight, Jenny and I will be watching the fireworks - and drinking some bubbly - with a couple of our close friends. In not very many hours, it will be a new year with a whole lot of extra adventures to happen ... and doubtless, for me, a lot more time reading and writing here in the study. May 2011 be good to us all. May it be safe and peaceful, but with that element of adventure I just mentioned. And as always, may you astound the world with the quality of your thoughts and your work.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Eric MacDonald's new blog

This new blog, Choice in Dying, owned by Eric MacDonald, is something worth waiting for. Please do check it out ... and spread the meme if you like it.

H/T Jerry Coyne.

Currently reading: well, it's still Mason & Dixon by Thomas Pynchon

At least our protagonists are now safely in America and working on their famous line. This is a huge bugcrusher of a book, so it will occupy me for a few days yet. The period flavour and some of the rococo narrative aspects remind me of one of my very favourite books of all time, John Barth's The Sot-Weed Factor (which I must take the time to read again soon). I'm sure Pynchon would also have been aware of the resemblance, FWIW.

As always with Pynchon, it's the set pieces that make it so delightful. I loved the talking dog early in the book. More recently, I was just reading the stuff with the nefarious mechanical duck. Hilarious.

I've never been a fan of Pynchon's musical interludes, though. I like some of them individually (especially some of the ones in The Crying of Lot 49 and Gravity's Rainbow), but as a recurring device it leads me cold. I'm probably just not getting something.

Has anyone read this book? Ain't Nobody's Business If You Do

It's from 1998, so not like it's the hottest thing off the press. Funny that I hadn't heard of it. But it sounds like I'd agree with the main message.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Ireland urged to join the 19th century

A little something from The Daily Mash.

More cruelty from the Catholic Church

I've left this issue alone so far, as Ophelia Benson is covering it well at Butterflies and Wheels, but I must add just a few observations.

The story concerns a Roman Catholic hospital in Phoenix, Arizona, which has now been stripped of its Catholic status by the local bishop. Since the hospital is not actually funded by the church, this seems like a case of "good riddance". Funding apparently comes from the state, and perhaps other sources, but not, so we are told, from the Diocese of Phoenix. Presumably it will now simply be a public hospital like any other.

Why was the hospital stripped of its religious status? Mainly because an emergency abortion was performed on a woman who was 11 weeks pregnant, in order to save her life. That was required by law, which is at it should be: we expect hospitals to take whatever steps are necessary to save our lives, and the state has perfectly good secular reasons to demand that they do so. These days, Catholic hospitals act as parts of local health networks, and anyone can find herself needing treatment in the local Catholic hospital, depending on which healthcare institution has the expertise and resources, and is nearby. There is no good reason for exemption of Catholic hospitals from the general law that we all have to rely on.

Now, I'm not stupid enough to think it realistic or desirable to force the Catholic Church to maintain its affiliation with organisations that act contrary to its "morality". No, let it strip hospitals of being "Catholic" if they obey the law. It can do this to as many as it likes. If that means that none of them are ultimately "Catholic", so be it. Many of these are fine institutions that have no need for any ongoing blessing from the cult that originally have founded them.

Meanwhile, we get to see just how cruel Catholic "morality" really is. In this case, the Church would prefer to force an adult woman, with real hopes, fears, and suffering - someone in urgent need and possibly feeling terrified - to die, rather than destroy a biological entity that is not even wired up neurologically to feel pain, and is certainly nowhere near capable of experiencing fear or psychological suffering, or of holding hopes for its future. Which is the appropriate subject for our compassion and solicitude?

The day when the Roman Catholic Church finally withers and dies cannot come too soon as far as I'm concerned. The good thing about stories like this, which show the organisation's true colours, is that they are likely to hasten that day.

Better Age of X photo

Click and look at the big version.

Can you identify everyone? I originally thought the guy crouching at the front was the supervillain Avalanche, who can cause earthquakes and stuff, and wears a similar costume in the main Marvel continuity. But I'm now thinking it's probably Wolverine in an armoured costume. I hope not: it would be fun to have a relatively obscure character like Avalanche on the team, whereas Wolverine is horribly over-exposed.

Most of the other characters are obvious, even when redesigned, but a few I'm not sure about. Some will have new names in this alternative continuity - e.g. the Cyclops character near the right is apparently going to be called "Basilisk", while this world's Rogue,who is very recognisable with a green costume and her trademark skunk-stripe hair, is apparently going to be known as "Reaper".

I love the redesign of Dazzler, over on the far right; she looks like she could kick serious butt. The punkier look suits Namor. And as discussed on the other thread, the costume given to Storm will be highly popular with some demographics. ;)

Edit (a week later): it seems that the Rogue character is actually going to be called "Legacy". I much prefer "Reaper". Well, we'll soon see how it all fits together.

New at The Journal of Evolution and Technology

"The Transhuman Security Dilemma", by Ian McIntosh.


A review of Nicholas Agar's Humanity's End, by Jamie Bronstein.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Age of X

Here's some stuff about this forthcoming X-Men storyline by Mike Carey set in a desolate alternative reality where, for reasons yet to be explained, the X-Men (and the Brotherhood) never came into existence and the situation of mutants has become even more dire than we see it in the main Marvel diegesis.

Most of the characters and costumes have been redesigned for this alternative version of the Marvel Universe, many in ways that are much grittier - more punk, hardore, or, y'know, industrial - than what we're used to. I wouldn't be sorry if some of the new look infiltrated the mainstream books. We're also promised that this is not just an alternative reality: there will be some kind of effect on the regular continuity of X-Men (hopefully more so than the massive 1990s Age of Apocalypse event, where the only pay-off for the main Marvel continuity was that a few characters managed to cross into it from the AoA timeline).

There's a prologue book, Age of X: Alpha, in January, followed by six main instalments over February-April, when Age of X will take over the X-Men Legacy and New Mutants titles, and a couple of other supplementary volumes. Nine in all. That's a fairly small-scale event, as these things go, but enough room to develop an alternative version of things in some detail. I'm looking forward to the event and the ultimate pay-off.

And by the time it's all over, the new X-Men movie will be getting close to its release date - some time in about June, I gather. But that's a topic for another year.

The supposed rights of the fetus

Since we're talking about abortion and similar issues, here's my take, in an article that I had published in Quadrant, on what I considered at the time to be the most sophisticated arguments against abortion. I followed up with an argument more about stem-cell research (and hence about early embryos) a few years later in The Journal of Medical Ethics - but this is behind a wall.

I still think that what I wrote in Quadrant was pretty good, but of course the debate keeps moving on. My only caveat about the article is that there could be new arguments Out There that I don't consider, in a piece written the best part of a decade ago now.

For those who are not aware of it, my website includes a good sample of the writing I did for Quadrant when it was under the editorship of the late Paddy McGuinness. It also contains other interesting (I hope) stuff, including some fairly comprehensive and nearly-up-to-date bibliographies of my work, so you might want to have a poke around while you're there.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Currently reading: Mason & Dixon (1997) by Thomas Pynchon

I'm now reading this huge novel ... for the first time, to my shame (my copy has been sitting on my shelves for years now, calling out to me to set aside some time for it).

It's a hoot so far, just 100 pages in. Please don't give away too much (no serious spoilers), but any opinions on this one?

"Stop the boats!" - or not ...

This piece by Ben Eltham, entitled "Stop the fear, not the boats", contains a great deal of wisdom about the manufactured crisis that we've had in Australia for many years now, over the arrival of boatloads of would-be refugees. I don't claim to have the perfect policy, but, like Eltham, I'm not so sure that there is really such a big problem here, at least not the one that is commonly imagined.

I endorse Eltham's view that: "What Australia needs most is a new policy to change the attitudes of Australians, not the practices of people smugglers. We need a national effort to stop the fear, not the boats. A sustained campaign by government, the media and informed citizens to demystify the issues around refugees and to allay the fears of ordinary Australians might help change the debate. Rather than mounting a hysterical reaction as boat after boat reaches our shores, we might instead reflect on the opportunities we are offering desperate people to start a new life."

What I'd like to focus on for the moment, however, is something a bit different. I haven't ploughed through the 400+ comments, BUT I've looked at enough to be appalled. Perhaps if you read further than I did you'll conclude I'm overstating things. But from what I see, here's how it looks to me. Eltham has put a very careful and rationally persuasive argument, in which, among other things, he sets out what seems like strong evidence that the number of boat arrivals is driven by events in hell-holes countries that people are fleeing, not by policies in Australia and other countries that people try to flee to.

But few commenters really want to deal with that at all. Those who disagree don't even try to follow the argument or examine it, or engage with it, fairly - they simply express widely-aired, but superficial, talking points that could have come from one of the many populist journalists, commentators, shock jocks, and politicians with which Australia is well stocked. It's depressing if you think about it too hard, as, I suppose, I am hereby encouraging you to do.

Sorry about that.

Sunday, December 26, 2010


As I've mentioned, Applicant C actually won her case, though the relatively low compensation she was awarded probably did not even pay her legal expenses. Then again, it looks as if this may have been due to poor documentation of expenses by the lawyers rather than anything else; see para 282.

As you'll recall, C travelled to England, believing she could not establish her right to an abortion in Ireland. She was in her first trimester of pregnancy at the time. Prior to that, she had been treated for 3 years with chemotherapy for a rare form of cancer. She had asked her doctor before the treatment about the implications of her illness as regards her desire to have children and was advised that it was not possible to predict the effect of pregnancy on her cancer and that, if she did become pregnant, it would be dangerous for the fetus if she were to have chemotherapy during the first trimester. The cancer went into remission and C unintentionally became pregnant. She was unaware of this fact when she underwent a series of tests for cancer, contraindicated during pregnancy. When she discovered she was pregnant, she consulted her GP and several medical consultants. She alleged that, as a result of the chilling effect of the Irish legal famework, she received insufficient information as to the impact of the pregnancy on her health and life and of her prior tests for cancer on the fetus. She therefore researched the risks on the internet.

Given her uncertainty about the risks involved, she travelled to England for an abortion. She wanted a medical abortion (drugs to induce a miscarriage) as her pregnancy was at an early stage but that she could not find a clinic which would provide this treatment as she was a non-resident and because of the need for followup. She therefore alleged she had to wait a further 8 weeks until a surgical abortion was possible. On returning to Ireland after the abortion, she suffered complications of an incomplete abortion, including prolonged bleeding and infection.

On these facts, an abortion would actually have been legal in Ireland - the woman's life was endangered by her pregnancy. It seems, then, from one point of view, that C had the weakest case: Ireland's anti-abortion law did not prevent her having an abortion in Ireland, as it did with A and B, whose abortions on Irish territory would have been illegal. So why was she the one who succeeded? Why didn't the court see it this way?

Partly, because, as we've seen, the anti-abortion law was not struck down. Putting it bluntly, A and B were stuffed, because the gist of their claims was really that abortions in their circumstances should not have been illegal in Ireland. Once they failed on that, they really had nothing more in their amouries.

But C was able to argue that the Irish authorities had pursued a course of conduct that hindered her in obtaining an abortion that would actually have been legal. She argued that the state had a positive responsibility (or she had a positive right), under Article 8, to measures to protect her enjoyment of her private life - or some such thing. I'm quite sceptical about the use of Article 8 or anything similar to give positive rights to citizens. Such provisions should mainly protect the citizens from state action. If the state is going to be under a positive obligation to make certain resources or information, etc., available, this should be expressed clearly and separately, and my general view is that the detail of what positive benefits the state should provide is best left to the political process.

However, it is well established in the European jurisprudence that Article 8 provides some level of positive rights against the state, and it makes sense in this particular context. If the state enacts a sweeping law that interferes with sexual and reproductive privacy, the least it can do is provide a transparent regime so that people who are adversely affected (in this case to the extent of a woman's life being in danger) can know exactly where they stand. Ireland had not been done, or so the court concluded. E.g., it had enacted no statutory provision setting out when a woman could legally obtain an abortion.

The court decided the following question in C's favour: "whether there is a positive obligation on the State to provide an effective and accessible procedure allowing the third applicant to establish her entitlement to a lawful abortion in Ireland and thereby affording due respect to her interests safeguarded by Article 8 of the Convention."

No framework was established in Ireland for a woman to be able to determine and prove that her intended abortion was legal - short of initiating a constitutional action in the courts, or, I suppose, of allowing herself to be arrested and then defending herself at the trial on the basis that there was a real and substantial risk to her life - not "merely" health - which could only be avoided by terminating the pregnancy. In the end, C was awarded an after-tax sum of 15,000 Euros, and Ireland will now have to put some better provisions and procedures in place for women who want certainty about whether their contemplated abortions are legal.

I suppose this aspect of the case is a good outcome, though one might ask why, once everything else is determined against the woman, she shouldn't be required to raise the relevant defence if arrested and brought to trial. How is this different from other crimes where there is a statutory, common law, or constitutional defence? Be that that as it may, C succeeded in getting some money for what she'd suffered from the lack of a ready means of vindicating her right to an abortion in Ireland, and Ireland will now have to establish a more transparent and user-friendly regime for women who want abortions to be able to ascertain their legal rights and obligations.

But that's very much a consolation prize. Ireland gets to retain its sweeping prohibition of abortions - at all stages of gestation, and even if the woman's health (but not life) is endangered - backed up by a life sentence. That's highly illiberal, and Ireland is a lousy excuse for a liberal democracy. Finally, you're naive if you don't draw a connection with the power, within Irish politics and society, of the Roman Catholic Church. As always, that organisation is an enemy of individual liberty; it will seek to impose its moral views through state coercion wherever it can.

Saturday, December 25, 2010


As I mentioned yesterday, we are now approaching the climax of the case. The first important finding by the European Court of Human Rights was that the notion of "private life" used in Article 8 of the European Convention was a broad concept, encompassing such things as the right to personal autonomy and personal development generally; gender identification, sexuality, and sexual life; a person’s physical and psychological integrity; and decisions both to have or not have children, or as to whether to become genetic parents.

None of that should be especially controversial and it should be enough to show that a law against abortion is interfering in private life, as understood in European human rights law. But that does not mean that Ireland's barbaric, theocratically-tinged anti-abortion law was simply struck down (as it would be under a truly robust human rights regime). Rather, the court reiterated its earlier view that the woman’s right to respect for her private life must be weighed against other competing "rights and freedoms", including those of the unborn child.

This is, of course, nonsense. An "unborn child", by which the court means an embryo or a fetus, is not the kind of thing that can have rights and freedoms. Until far later in pregnacy than we are talking about here, it does not even possess the capacity for pleasurable and painful experiences! It is not a sentient thing at all. Even when it attains sentience, it is not a person - it has no ability to make plans and decisions, to imagine itself as having a future, or to choose between options. Thus, it has no "rights" that it can either exercise or choose to waive and it has no "freedoms" that could be interfered with by the state or anyone else. Talk of the "rights" and "freedoms" of something like an embryo or a fetus is exactly the sort of facile, shallow rhetoric that we should be trying to keep out of these legal and policy matters.

Might the state nonetheless have some compelling interest in ensuring that all embryos and fetuses are brought to term - an interest so powerful as to justify a legal prohibition backed up by a life sentence? If so, it's difficult to imagine what this interest could be. Perhaps, I suppose, in a Battlestar Galactica situation, with the human species near extinction, it might be absolutely essential that as many babies be born as possible, in the interest of survival of the species itself. That, however, is hardly the situation in today's overpopulated world, and it's hardly surprising that no argument along those lines was put to the court!

Instead, the arguments were about enforcing the popular morality. But that's exactly one of the things that human rights should be protecting us from: from governments that attempt to enforce a popular morality against people, perhaps a minority, who don't accept it, and in the absence of some better reason relating to the secular welfare of its citizens, or perhaps of other sentient creatures, or to social survival, or some such thing. Something should be identified that could be accepted by people with a wide range of worldviews - religious, anti-religious, etc. - as being of compelling interest to the state and its officials. But of course, nothing like that was ever identified.

In the event, the court found against applicants A and B on the basis that the degree of interference with their private lives was provided for by law and was based on the Irish majority's, ahem, "profound moral values concerning the nature of life". But this is, again, nonsense. No government should simply be imposing the moral values of the majority, whether "profound" or shallow and superficial (as was obviously the case here). Governments in Western democracies should, on the contrary, be ensuring that both the majority and the minorities are able to live in accordance with their respective moral values. The government is not there to decide the correct moral values, all things considered, and impose them on those who disagree. It has more narrowly worldly, more mundane, tasks such as trying to maintain internal peace; defending against external aggressors; establishing a system of property, ownership, and commerce; providing an adequate economic safety net; and taking over such other secular functions as are entrusted to it democratically (for which it will need to raise taxes).

I must pay my taxes and comply with other elements of the secular law such as described in the previous paragraph, but that's all. The state should not be interfering with such private moral decisions as whether or not I, or my spouse or lover, will have an abortion. That is not the state's business. The most it should do is regulate abortion providers, much like other operations, to ensure that adequate standards of safety and competence are met.

Obviously this is not how it's seen in Ireland, where the government and the electorate apparently think it's okay to impose the majority's supposedly "profound" moral viewpoint, even to the extent of imposing a life sentence behind bars on those with the temerity to disagree. That is tyranny of the majority, not liberal democracy in action. Ireland is, to an extent atypical of countries that purport to be liberal democracies, heavily biased towards a theocratic approach that obviously has much popular backing.

Moreover, there's not much that European human rights law can do about it. To a large extent - not totally, but to a large extent - European human rights law is a toothless tiger, and this case demonstrates the point.

The one thing that can be said in favour of the European Convention and the European Court is that the latter gave an indication that it might not have been prepared to accept the Irish law if not for the safety valve that Ireland allows women to travel to other countries to obtain abortions. Ireland does not attempt to prohibit its citizens from having abortions in foreign jurisdictions where they are otherwise legal.

But in any event, applicants A and B failed. As the court put it:

Accordingly, having regard to the right to lawfully travel abroad for an abortion with access to appropriate information and medical care in Ireland, the Court does not consider that the prohibition in Ireland of abortion for health and well-being reasons, based as it is on the profound moral views of the Irish people as to the nature of life (paragraphs 222-227 above) and as to the consequent protection to be accorded to the right to life of the unborn, exceeds the margin of appreciation accorded in that respect to the Irish State. In such circumstances, the Court finds that the impugned prohibition in Ireland struck a fair balance between the right of the first and second applicants to respect for their private lives and the rights invoked on behalf of the unborn. (para 241)

On the other hand, applicant C succeeded in her case against Ireland. We'll get to that next time.

Friday, December 24, 2010


Let's return to this case for a bit. In previous posts, we've considered Irish law and we've considered the respective facts relating to the three applicants.

Much of the long judgment relates to procedural issues such as whether the applicants could be considered, as a matter of practicality, to have exhausted their remedies under Irish law before seeking the assistance of European human rights law. After consideration of this and under points, the applicants were allowed to go ahead with aspects of what they were claiming in the European Court of Human Rights. All this is of interest to lawyers in the jurisdiction, but not of much interest from a public policy perspective, or a philosophical one.

The main basis for the applications was alleged breach by Ireland of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. This provides as follows:

Article 8 – Right to respect for private and family life

1. Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence.

2. There shall be no interference by a public authority with the exercise of this right except such as is in accordance with the law and is necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security, public safety or the economic well-being of the country, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.

As you'd expect, arguments were put to the effect that Irish abortion law and/or its interpretation and application by the government breached this right of privacy. But before we go any further, it would be good to take note of what a toothless tiger Article 8 is!

It allows the government to breach the kind of privacy that it describes by enacting laws that are "reasonably necessary in a democratic society ... for the protection of ... morals." But that is almost no protection to the individual at all. If the government can enact such laws as are reasonably necessary for the purpose of enforcing "morals" then the convention simply does not protect Europeans from moralistic legislation, which is exactly what you'd think such a convention was for. Obviously, this sentence tends to get read a bit more narrowly so that it does give a certain amount of protection, but on its face Article 8 of the convention is useless. It should be amended to take out the reference to protection of morals, and similar amendments need to be made throughout the convention. No Western democracy should be enacting laws that invade sexual and reproductive privacy merely for the protection of morals, as opposed to protecting people from harm to their secular interests.

This is, incidentally, a problem that runs right through international human rights law, including UN conventions. It countenances a great amount of illiberalism. I often feel like I'm a voice crying in the wilderness when I make this point, but it became important in the case that we're discussing. It left the applicants hamstrung in what they could actually submit to the court. Instead of being able to put a clear, clean submission that Ireland's abortion laws interfered with sexual and reproductive privacy for no compelling reason (or any compelling interest that the state might have in ensuring that all fetuses are brought to term), the applicants were forced to put complicated and, let's face it, contrived-sounding submissions.

We need to create the momentum for a movement to critique this illiberal aspect of international human rights law.

The Irish government, of course, submitted that "The protection accorded under Irish law to the right to life of the unborn was based on profound moral values deeply embedded in the fabric of society in Ireland and the legal position was defined through equally intense debate."

Frankly, I doubt it. I suspect it is based on the shallow moral values of people who are not prepared to interrogate the morality they have been taught to see how far down it can actually be justified. I get sick of the word "profound" whenever religion, or some kind of morality that is intertwined with religion, is under discussion. I suggest that every time the word "profound" is used in such a context we simply replace it with the word "shallow" ... and we'll invariably get a more accurate statement.

Okay, we're moving towards the climax of this series of posts, but that's enough for one day. Back soon with more on this fascinating case. We're now up to about page 45 of 75, at paragraph 180, for anyone who is trying to follow all the detail.

Article in The Drum (ABC)

The state, religion and the need for rational scrutiny ... by Russell Blackford.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Stangroom gets something right

Here and here.

More on whether the folk are objectivists

My previous post was prompted by an article in the new edition of The Philosophers' Magazine. In this piece by Joshua Knobe, entitled "Is morality relative? Depends on your personality", the author cites empirical research that casts doubt on whether the folk are simply objectivists, as many philosophers tend to assume (hey, even I tend to assume this).

The research relied upon by Knobe suggests that some people are more inclined to objectivism than others. It also finds that we tend to start out as objectivists but to shift away from it towards some more relativist understanding as we mature - though we tend to shift back towards objectivism in middle age. Interestingly, relativism tends to correlate with the psychological trait of openness to experience. You can, predictably enough, also get different intuitions from people depending on what questions you ask them, with radical scenarios involving space aliens proving more effective in eliciting relativist intutions than scenarios involving differences in opinion among people of the same society or different human societies.

The article is only a summary of an interesting line of research that is going on in experimental philosophy, but I'd be interested to see more of the results and to watch how this area develops.

If the research continues to paint a picture of mixed and rather volatile perceptions on the part of the folk, it will not invalidate sophisticated relativisms and sophisticated versions of error theory, to the extent that they agree with each other. In other words, it won't invalidate any reasonably sophisticated anti-realism. But it will seem to indicate that neither error theory of the usual kind nor the kind of sophisticated relativism that has been influenced by Gilbert Harman is quite right. Both kinds of theory would need some revision to their moral semantics, and would need to head in each other's direction.

I think the result would still, arguably, be an error theory, but not as radical in that respect as some of what is said in the name of error theory. I don't think it should necessarily bother J.L. Mackie - if he were still alive - because Mackie was pretty alert to the messiness of moral semantics.

Are the folk objectivists about ethics?

We usually assume that the folk are objectivists about ethics, i.e. that they think that a question such as "Is incest (of a certain kind) morally wrong?" has a determinate and more-or-less factual answer ... in much the same way as a question like "Does 2 + 2 sum to 4?" or "How high is the Empire State Building?" The latter question might be ambiguous in certain ways, of course, but assuming we can specify more precisely what is meant, such as the height from street level on a particular side to the top of the tower, or whatever else we need to avoid any ambiguity, there is an answer that is independent of our tastes, desires, or anything else about us that we tend to think might legitimately vary. (I'll set aside any possible ambiguities in the arithmetical question.)

Conversely, answers to questions such as "Was Cleopatra beautiful?" or "Which taste nicer, cashews or maccadamias?" or "What is the best way to understand Hamlet?" seem rather different. Even if all human beings could agree that Cleopatra was beautiful (if we could reconstruct an accurate and precise image of what we looked like), there could be plenty of other intelligent beings in the universe that quite legitimately don't agree, even if they have similar senses to ours. And the likelihood is that even human beings could disagree about it quite reasonably. There is not an answer that is governed by facts that are independent of our standards of beauty, and there is nothing about reality that compels all rational beings to adopt the same standards on pain of being simply wrong.

Clearly, many questions do not have objectively correct answers. There are facts in the vicinity, but these facts will include the fact that someone with such and such standards of beauty will see Cleopatra as beautiful and someone with different standards will not. Even if human standards of beauty are genetically encoded to some extent, that does not make them objective in the sense under discussion, as there could be other rational beings that do not have the same genetic coding.

If the folk believe that there are objective answers to moral questions - moral facts that are somehow Out There to be discovered, and inescapably binding on all rational beings - then they are very likely wrong. It is difficult to see what these answers could be.

One can, of course, attempt to make morality objective by definition, such as by defining "is morally wrong" to mean "fails to maximise overall happiness". But that is hopeless. If that is all "is morally wrong" means, then there is a further question as to whether I should refrain from performing acts that are "morally wrong". Perhaps, for example, there are acts that fail to maximise overall happiness but are effective in saving my loved ones from danger; surely it makes perfectly good sense sense to ask whether I should perform the latter acts or not.

Similarly, someone can,in a moment of desperation, define "A should do X" to mean "of the acts available to A, X is the one that will produce most overall happiness." But if we start defining "should" in that way we are now stuck with someone being able to say "I should, by your definition of 'should', do X, but is it really what I ought to do?"

We can then redefine "ought"! But this still won't solve the problem. Our interlocutor will need to use new terminology, but it still remains open to her to convey that she is not going to do X, even though she "ought" to do so by a stipulated definition of "ought" and she can feel comfortable that she is not breaching any standard that binds her inescapably.

The lesson is that we can go on redefining "good", "should", "ought", or any other words we like, and it accomplishes nothing. These words have something extra that won't be captured by such definitions, the something extra being this component of a standard that is binding on the agent concerned. The person who wants to try to solve the problem can go on forever defining more and more words and expressions, but she will never be able to show that some standard of conduct is binding on me in a way similar to the way an empirical fact is binding on me (the Empire State Building just is a certain number of feet high, and there's nothing I can do to change it short of physically altering the building).

(Of course, a standard of conduct might be applied to me by others, such as the police. There are social facts about what standards of conduct people actually do apply to each other. I might not be able to escape the fact that the police apply a standard of a certain kind to my conduct. But what if I am in a position to escape detection by them? Am I still somehow inescapably bound to act in accordance with the standard on pain of being just mistaken, as if I think the Empire State Building is 2100 feet tall? Surely not!)

In the past, I've defended moral error theory: the idea that (1) moral judgments such as "Incest (of a certain kind) is morally wrong" are understood in our ordinary language to make objective claims, essentially because that's how the folk use words in their thought and speech ... but (2) there are no objective truths here. Taken literally, "Incest (of a certain kind) is morally wrong" might mean something like "Incest (of a certain kind) is forbidden by a standard that is inescapably binding on all rational creatures." In that case, such a claim will always end up being literally false. There are no such standards.

It's as if someone said: "Cashews are tastier than maccadamias by a standard that all rational creatures must accept" and hence that anyone who prefers maccadamias is objectively mistaken about the world.

In more recent times, though, I've come to think that error theory needs some extra work. In its usual formulations it may not be the whole story.

In particular, I've come to think that there is at least some merit in sophisticated relativist theories. Sophisticated relativists agree with error theorists that there are no objective moral truths in the sense that I've been attempting to describe, but they say that this does not render first-order thin moral claims simply false. These theories vary, but one way a sophsticated relativist theory might work is if it takes a claim such as "Incest (of a certain kind) is morally wrong" to mean "Incest (of a certain kind) is forbidden by a standard of conduct that is shared, or in question, in the context of our conversation." Other sophisticated relativists might try different tacks, but the overall approach is to offer a translation that could well be true. Spoken in a particular context, "Incest (of a certain kind) is morally wrong" might well be a true, if it conveys that incest of the kind in question is forbidden by a standard that the speaker and listener(s) share.

It seems that error theorists, at least as I'm characterising them, might disagree with sophisticated relativists, at least as I'm characterising them, only on an empirical matter: what do the folk actually have in mind when they make first-order thin moral judgments? What do the folk mean? Sounds simple enough, doesn't it? The problem, I think, is that the folk may be quite confused and inconsistent when it comes to points like this. Perhaps they don't really know what they mean, if asked to choose between the meaning given to moral language by an error theorist or by various kinds of sophisticated relativists.

Time for some empirical research, don't you think? We can maybe survey the folk about what they think they're saying. Maybe that will nail down which metaethical position is best, yes?

Alas, it might not be so simple. But that's a subject for another post.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Monday, December 20, 2010


Yesterday's post looked at the factual circumstances of the three women - applicants A, B, and C - in this case. Let's follow up today with a look at the legal situation that confronted them in Ireland.

First, the Irish Constitution contains this bizarre provision, which has taken the form it has from constitutional amendments.

Article 40.3

1 The State guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate the personal rights of the citizen.

2 The State shall, in particular, by its laws protect as best it may from unjust attack and, in the case of injustice done, vindicate the life, person, good name, and property rights of every citizen.

3 The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.

This subsection shall not limit freedom to travel between the State and another state.

This subsection shall not limit freedom to obtain or make available, in the State, subject to such
conditions as may be laid down by law, information relating to services lawfully available in
another state.

Thus, the constitution itself requires that "the unborn" be treated as having the same "right to life" as actual people: adults and children. Apart from that being ridiculous in itself, it is extraordinary that such a provision have constitutional status. Normally we'd hope that a constitution would define and restrict government power to protect us from overreaching laws, but here it actually requires that the government enact laws that give protection to "the unborn" and thus restrict the liberty of actual women with actual feelings, fears, problems, and life plans. It does the opposite of protecting women from state interference in such a personal matter.

I submit that this is not the constitution of a liberal society; it is the constitution of a country that is deeply influenced in legal matters by specifically religious morality, and to that extent shows theocratic tendencies.

Notice, however, the compromise, by which I mean the provisos in sub-section 3. Constitutional amendments have got around the problem to some extent by ensuring that the constitution does not act to restrict the ability of Irish citizens to travel to countries where abortion is legal. Nor does it limit the freedom of women to obtain information about legal abortions in other countries - though it does allow the state to enact legislation that restricts it, by imposing conditions on what can be said.

What of the legislation itself? There is an old Act of Parliament, dating from the nineteenth century, which remains in force under Ireland's constitutional arrangements. This contains sweeping anti-abortion provisions, most notably the following:

Offences Against the Person Act 1861, section 58

Every woman, being with child, who, with intent to procure her own miscarriage, shall unlawfully administer to herself any poison or other noxious thing or shall unlawfully use any instrument or other means whatsoever with the like intent, and whosoever, with intent to procure the miscarriage of any woman, whether she be or not be with child, shall unlawfully administer to her or cause to be taken by her any poison or other noxious thing, or shall unlawfully use any instrument or other means whatsoever with the like intent, shall be guilty of a felony, and being convicted thereof shall be liable to be kept in penal servitude for life.

Thus, if you have an abortion in Ireland you have committed a crime that attracts a life sentence (presumably this would be treated as a maximum sentence rather than a mandatory sentence). Again, I submit that this is not the law of a liberal society. Notice that even very early abortions are treated as if they are among the most serious criminal acts in the statute books.

However, note also the important word "unlawfully". In some other jurisdictions where the law uses similar language, this word has been interpreted by the courts so as provide a powerful let-out. As the word must be given some meaning, so the argument goes, it can be held that an "unlawful" abortion is one that has no medical purpose behind it. Once you go down that path, you can render such a law almost nugatory, since almost any abortion can have some purpose relating to the mother's physical or especially mental health. That, however, is not how the courts have construed the legislation in Ireland, and they probably can't be blamed for this given the social climate, the original purpose of the Act, and the wording of the Irish constitution.

Irish case law holds that an abortion is "unlawful" unless if "it is established as a matter of probability that there is a real and substantial risk to the life, as distinct from the health, of the mother, which can only be avoided by the termination of her pregnancy". I don't like this outcome, but I think it's an honest, legally defensible interpretation of the legislative intention, given Irish (social, historical, and constitutional) circumstances.

Accordingly, applicant C (discussed yesterday) would have had a good defence against an abortion charge if she'd had an abortion in Ireland, but applicants A and B would have been stuck.

One other oddity is that the defence can be relied on if the mother is suicidal. That is especially important to doctors and others who provide abortions (who are covered by a separate section of the Act with closely analogous wording). If your patient makes suicide threats - "If I have to have the baby I'll kill myself!" - you probably have a defence if you carry out an abortion. Presumably the woman also has a defence, at least if she can prove on the balance of probabilities that the threats were sincere (I'm no expert on Irish law, but that's how I think it should operate on general legal principles).

But lawfulness is not established if an abortion is required for some medical reason where the mother's life is not a stake. Nothing less than that will provide a defence in Ireland.

Finally, I should mention that Ireland has actually enacted legislation to control what can be said to pregnant women about the possibility of getting an abortion overseas. The Regulation of Information (Services outside the State for Termination of Pregnancies) Act 1995 provides a code of what you can and can't say to a pregnant woman if, for example, you're her counsellor or a doctor. The main thing is that you can provide factual information, but you can't in any way advocate or promote an abortion or provide any assistance in arranging an abortion. As far as I can see, that is the case even if your patient or client would gain a medical benefit from getting an abortion.

From one viewpoint, it's rather shocking to see this theocratic legal scheme operating in what is supposed to be a Western liberal democracy, but there it is. From another viewpoint, it's probably not surprising at all, given the social and political authority wielded in Ireland by the Roman Catholic Church.

This, then, is what applicants A, B, and C were confronted with when they chose to have abortions in England, which is the common practice for women in Ireland who want abortions.

More to come.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Malik on Assange and Wikileaks

This piece by Kenan Malik is so good that I think I can just rely on it and not say anything more, at least until we have further developments.


As promised, I'm going to discuss this case at greater length, but I won't be able to do so in one hit, simply because it's complicated. Here's a first instalment.

The case involved three women, known as A, B, and C (their identities have been withheld by the courts) who had all travelled from Ireland to the UK in order to have abortions. Only one woman, C, was ultimately successful, so it's worthwhile examining their different circumstances. It's also useful getting an idea of some of the circumstances of women who are unable to obtain abortions in Ireland because of its draconian anti-abortion laws (which carry a life sentence for a woman who has an abortion), and choose to travel to the UK. With these facts in front of us we can get to the messy legal (and the strange-seeming way it had to be resolved) in later posts.

One thing that should be made clear at this stage, however, is that the case was not really about the legality, under European human rights law, of Ireland's anti-abortion law. We'll get to the detail of that in a later post, but keep in mind that this case was about the treatment of the respective applicants rather than about any serious prospect of Ireland's prohibition of abortion being struck down. Note that C was ultimately successful because Ireland's practices frustrated her in obtaining what would actually have been a legal abortion, given that her life was in danger from the pregnancy. That is the only circumstance in Ireland in which abortion is legal.

The following are the facts of relating to the applicants, taken largely verbatim, but with some editing, from relevant paragraphs of the judgment.

Applicant A travelled to England for an abortion in 2005 at a point when she was 9½ weeks pregnant. She had become pregnant unintentionally, believing her partner to be infertile. At the time she was unmarried, unemployed and living in poverty. She had four young children. The youngest was disabled and all children were in foster care as a result of problems A had experienced as an alcoholic. She had a history of depression during her first four pregnancies, and was battling depression at the time of her fifth pregnancy. During the year preceding her fifth pregnancy, she had remained sober and had been in constant contact with social workers with a view to regaining custody of her children. She considered that a further child at that moment of her life would jeopardise her health and the successful reunification of her family.

Delaying the abortion for three weeks, she borrowed the minimum amount of money for treatment in a private clinic and travel from a money lender at a high interest rate. For someone in her position, travel to England created a significant financial burden. She felt she had to travel to England alone and in secrecy, without alerting the social workers and without missing a contact visit with her children. She travelled back to Ireland by plane the day after the abortion for her contact visit with her youngest child. While she had initially submitted that she was afraid to seek medical advice on return to Ireland, she subsequently clarified that, on the train returning from Dublin she began to bleed profusely, and an ambulance met the train. At a nearby hospital she underwent a dilation and curettage. She claimed she experienced pain, nausea and bleeding for weeks thereafter but did not seek further medical advice.

Applicant B travelled to England for an abortion in early 2005, at a time when she was 7 weeks pregnant. She had become pregnant unintentionally. She had taken the “morning-after pill” and been advised by two different doctors that there was a substantial risk of an ectopic pregnancy (a condition which cannot be diagnosed until 6-10 weeks of pregnancy). She decided to England for an abortion since she could not care for a child on her own at that time of her life. She waited for some weeks until the counselling centre in Dublin opened after Christmas. She had difficulty meeting the costs of the travel and, not having a credit card, used a friend’s credit card to book the flights. By the time she travelled to England, it had been confirmed that it was not an ectopic pregnancy. Once in England she did not list anyone as her next of kin or give an Irish address so as to be sure her family would not learn of the abortion.

She travelled alone and stayed in London the night before the procedure to avoid missing her appointment as well as the night of the procedure, as she would have arrived back in Dublin too late for public transport and the medication rendered her unfit to drive home from Dublin airport. The clinic advised her to inform Irish doctors that she had had a miscarriage. On her return to Ireland she started passing blood clots and two weeks later, being unsure of the legality of having travelled for an abortion, sought follow-up care in a clinic in Dublin affiliated to the English clinic.

Applicant C travelled to England to have an abortion in March 2005, believing she could not establish her right to an abortion in Ireland. She was in her first trimester of pregnancy at the time.  Prior to that, she had been treated for 3 years with chemotherapy for a rare form of cancer. She had asked her doctor before the treatment about the implications of her illness as regards her desire to have children and was advised that it was not possible to predict the effect of pregnancy on her cancer and that, if she did become pregnant, it would be dangerous for the foetus if she were to have chemotherapy during the first trimester. The cancer went into remission and the applicant unintentionally became pregnant. She was unaware of this fact when she underwent a series of tests for cancer, contraindicated during pregnancy. When she discovered she was pregnant, she consulted her GP and several medical consultants. She alleged that, as a result of the chilling effect of the Irish legal famework, she received insufficient information as to the impact of the pregnancy on her health and life and of her prior tests for cancer on the foetus. She therefore researched the risks on the internet.

Given the uncertainty about the risks involved, she travelled to England for an abortion. She wanted a medical abortion (drugs to induce a miscarriage) as her pregnancy was at an early stage but that she could not find a clinic which would provide this treatment as she was a non-resident and because of the need for followup. She therefore alleged she had to wait a further 8 weeks until a surgical abortion was possible. On returning to Ireland after the abortion, she suffered complications of an incomplete abortion, including prolonged bleeding and infection. She alleged that doctors provided inadequate medical care, but this was not accepted by the court.

The court observed that A travelled for an abortion for reasons of health and well-being, B for "well-being reasons"; and C as she mainly feared her pregnancy constituted a risk to her life. The court concluded that each applicant felt the weight of a considerable stigma prior to, during and after their abortions: they travelled abroad to do something which (supposedly) "went against the profound moral values of the majority of the Irish people" and which was, or (in the case C) could have been, a serious criminal offence. In C's case, she could have obtained a lawful abortion in Ireland, but alleged that Irish law and regulatory practice created a chilling effect and pressured her to travel abroad. Obtaining an abortion abroad constituted a significant source of added anxiety. In general, travelling abroad for an abortion constituted a significant psychological burden on each applicant.

The court found that an abortion would have been physically a less arduous process without the need to travel, notably after the procedure. However, it did not accept various claims made by the applicants that they lacked access to necessary medical treatment in Ireland before or after their abortions.

The next post in this series will get to how Irish law and European human rights law was applied to these facts.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Who needs enemies with friends like George Galloway?

Galloway defends Assange as offensively and stupidly as possible.

H/T Johann Hari.

An atheist on Christmas - Chrys Stevenson's take

I'll send you straight to Chrys Stevenson's essay over at On Line Opinion. I can get behind this one. The response to a rather mild-mannered essay is pretty heated - you need to go here. Maybe you'd like to add a comment.

Or feel free to discuss what Christmas means to you right here. As it happens, I do celebrate it as a secular festival in much the way that Chrys does, and in much the way that Richard Dawkins has described in the past. But there's a huge spectrum of attitudes to Christmas. Some people hate the commercialisation, some very religious folk despise it as a travesty, some atheists discourage celebrating it, and on and on.

For me, it's a secular occasion, as I said, but more specifically it's largely about family and loved ones. The other thing is that I live in a country where Christmas is the height of summer, so a lot of it is about sunshine, the beach, summer sports (especially cricket and sailing), outdoor barbecues, and a general celebration of summer life. In the northern hemisphere, of course, it's the dead of winter, but still a celebration of the rebirth of the sun. All hail Sol Invictus.

Anyway, what about you?

Friday, December 17, 2010

Kenan Malik on the Stockholm bombing

Great essay by Kenan Malik, and I can get behind most of it.

I only object to the term "moral nihilist" being applied to al-Abdaly. I realise that it's not meant in the technical sense, but it's still misleading. More likely, the guy was the very opposite of a moral nihilist; he was a fanatical moral absolutist, and this is something well worth emphasising. Fanatical moral absolutism is a far greater danger to us than any sort of nihilism that deserves the name.

Genuine moral nihilists tend to pretty nice people, and morally good ones by any standard of morality that is likely to attract approval from me and my readers. In fact, the world might well be a kinder, gentler place if most of us were moral nihilists. Someone needs to write a book on the virtues of moral nihilism.

What a legal mess! The Irish abortion case

I've spent much of the day ploughing through this 75-page judgment of the European Court of Human Rights relating to abortion laws in Ireland. H/T Ophelia Benson for bringing it to my attention over here.

The Irish law and the history behind it are fiendishly complicated. The way Irish law interacts with European human rights law is even more so. Oh, and the factual situations of the three cases before the court were not especially simple either. Suffice for the moment to say that all three cases involved women who'd had abortions in the UK as a result of the draconian Irish law which imposes a frakking life sentence on a woman who has an abortion!

In the upshot, only one of the three women before the court obtained any relief, and she probably didn't even get enough money to cover her legal costs.

I'm getting ahead of myself, though. The case is complicated enough that this will have to be mainly a place-holder post. I'll have a bit more to say over the weekend. But I do have to throw up my hands in horror at the mess that Irish law has made of this simple issue of abortion, and the mess that has been made of it in European and international human rights regimes. The law on abortion should be straightforward: it should be completely legal, but there should be regulation of training, safety, etc., standards of clinics and other providers.

Ireland has created a terrible mess by creating laws, including constitutional provisions, that are influenced by religion. Human rights law has compounded the problem across the board, not just in Ireland, by allowing exceptions to human rights based restrictions on governments for the mere enforcement of positive morality. It's a mess all round, and enough of a mess to make a good Millian liberal angry.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Coming back to the piece by Jack of Kent

I said I'd have a bit more to say about Jack of Kent's piece. One thing that I want to emphasise is that I agree with him that the criminal allegations against Assange - the Swedish sex charges - need to be dealt with on their merits. I see no evidence at this stage that that's not happening, and I agree that it's wrong to be calling for the charges to be dropped as if it's, like, transparently obvious that the charges are trumped up, or, in effect, politically-motivated. We don't know anything like enough to draw that conclusion, and I can see no reason at this stage to take to the streets or the press or the blogosphere calling for the charges to be dropped.

In particular, I put very little weight on public statements by lawyers for the various parties involved. Those statements are hardly objective - lawyers are paid to represent the interests of their clients, to put their clients' side of the story, whatever it is, and generally to act (quite properly) as advocates. Within certain boundaries imposed by professional ethics (yes, there is such a thing) they are supposed to be one-eyed about issues where they act as their clients' representatives.

Furthermore, the approach of trial by press releases and press interviews can only produce the most simplified and distorted picture of any legal case. It may be inevitable in such a high-profile case that the lawyers start acting as, in effect, PR representatives, but that doesn't mean that the dueling public comments give anything like the same picture that will come out in court.

We can still comment on the case, of course, but we need to do so carefully, showing a bit of humility about how much we really know the facts. If the full charges, once they are known to us, are ridiculous on their face .. sure, we can say so. But I think that a lot of Assange supporters are simply assuming that they will be in a way that betrays ... if not exactly an element of misogynism at least an element of something approaching it, a certain failure to take the interests of women with adequate seriousness.

That said, Jack of Kent makes some silly comments such as the one about placing the word "crime" in what are ambiguously ordinary quotes or scare quotes. Yes, doing that shows scepticism about whether Assange has really committed a crime, but in itself that kind of scepticism is not necessarily a bad thing in all the circumstances. If the word were used without quotes around it, it really would be prejudging things. Perhaps it's best to say something like "alleged crime", but I think that JoK is actually showing signs of losing objectivity in making a fuss about this point.

Worse is the bit where he quotes Pilger saying: "Catlin describes the Swedish justice system as 'a laughing stock'. For three months, Assange and his lawyers have pleaded with the Swedish authorities to let them see the prosecution case."

Jack of Kent's reply to this is pretty lame: "It would appear that they should perhaps have asked Mr Pilger."

That is not a good reply to a serious issue. Yes, perhaps Pilger has overreached in implying that he knows more than he really does. That point has been made already, earlier in the post. It's not very impressive to make the point again in response to a claim that Assange and his lawyers are not getting timely access to information about the prosecution's case.

Perhaps they are, perhaps they aren't. Perhaps they shouldn't get that kind of detail at this stage of the procedure. There will be statutory rules of some kind governing how the police in Sweden are supposed to act in such circumstances as these - what documentation they are supposed to provide when - and they have either followed the rules or they haven't. There's also a question as to whether Sweden's rules in criminal cases are sufficiently protective of an accused person's interests, compared to those in other jurisdictions or by some more objective standard.

But JoK doesn't deal with any of that at the appropriate point in his post - though it's exactly the sort of thing that we need him for. Instead, he just deflects the point by making a sarcastic comment about Pilger.

Overall, it's useful to have views on this case expressed by Jack of Kent, but he seems to be more invested than I'd really like. He's swinging too far for my comfort in the opposite direction to the mindless cries for Assange simply to go free without due process. I'd like to see a bit more rigour from the blogosphere's most astute observer (that I know about) of the British legal system.

New piece on Assange by Jack of Kent

I'll come back to this. For the moment, this post is something of a place-holder. Still, I do want to follow what Jack of Kent has to say about Assange, since I think he (the former) has pretty good judgment on legal issues. Unfortunately, he makes a few snarky debating points aimed at John Pilger, but there are also legitimate points about the legal situation.

More later - meanwhile, feel free to discuss.

Currently reading: Humanity's End by Nicholas Agar

I'll be reviewing this book formally elsewhere, but it's worth also drawing attention to it here. Agar is an unlikely recruit to the bioconservative ranks, having previously written a book that offers a cautious defence of human enhancement technologies. On this occasion, however, he's produced a lucid critique of what he calls "radical enhancement". As I'll be pointing out in my review, he may not have changed position, exactly, as he's defined radical enhancement fairly narrowly, as involving "improving significant human attributes and abilities to levels that greatly exceed what is currently possible for human beings."

We've also published a lengthy review of this book, by Jamie Bronstein, over at The Journal of Evolution and Technology.

The arguments that seem dearest to Agar's heart, and will, I think, merit most discussion, involve the claim that a posthuman life would be impoverished by human standards (not by the standards of the posthumans themselves, who may be perfectly happy with their lives, or by some kind of objective standard that is inescapably binding on all rational beings). This raises issues about whether such human standards exist and, if so, whether they are the ones we should apply.

Agar wants us to adopt a "species-relativism" about values, which does not necessarily mean that we should be speciesist. Our species-relative values may turn out to involve concern for the interests of non-human animals. However, they may also involve a desire to preserve various kinds of relationships, approaches to life, social institutions, and so on, that would (arguably) have no appeal to posthumans, with their indefinitely long lives and/or vastly augmented, ever-developing intellects. To preserve these things and lead lives that we ourselves see as valuable, we will need to stay human.

I don't necessarily agree with all, or any, of this approach, and will saying more about why in my review, but Humanity's End is certainly an important contribution to current debates about enhancement, emerging technologies, and transhumanist philosophies.

Felix Noel

Felix sends everyone good wishes for the festive season.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Santa Claus myth

How harmful is it to lie to our kids, if we have them, about the existence of Santa Claus? I'm now in two minds. On balance, I think it's probably harmless enough, but the Christmas book that I've been reading has two essays on the subject examining the morality of the practice. One, by David Kyle Johnson, argues strongly against it; the other, by Era Gavrielides, is in favour.

I think that Johnson overreaches at points, and, again, I'm leaning towards being okay with the practice. I'm not convinced that it does any real harm, and I don't go around with some kind of absolute standard of opposing lies in all circumstances.

Still, there's something at least tacky about the giving children misinformation, and I certainly resent little half-recalled examples of this from my own childhood. I most definitely dislike the idea that it's "cute" for children to be deceived and to act on the basis of their misapprehensions. But for all that, I don't resent being told stories about Santa Claus in particular. I just don't feel that it harmed me.

I don't very clearly remember the circumstances in which my parents came clean about the non-existence of Santa Claus. I do recall that it was when I discovered a children's book that I knew I was supposed to be getting for Christmas ... in a wardrobe at home. It was obviously waiting to be wrapped for me and left as a present on Christmas Eve - and this kind of proved that the gift was coming my way from my mum and dad, not from Santa. When I challenged them on it, they came clean that of course it was all make believe; and the way I remember this, I wasn't at all surprised because I'd already worked out for myself that the whole story didn't add up. I can't, however, recall more than that, and I'm not at all sure how old I was at the time: I've got no other recalled events from my very young life at the time to match it against.

Johnson, who is writing a book on the subject, says that many people tell him stories about their experiences of learning that Santa Claus was a fake - and many of these stories express memories of childhood disillusion and distress, and feelings of ongoing bitterness. What about you? Can you recall when you worked out that the Santa story was made up, and/or when your parents came clean about the Santa Claus myth? Was the experience hurtful to you in any way, do you think? Do you feel that your period of believing in Santa was even beneficial?

If you have kids, did you/will you tell them the Santa story? Do you think it's the right thing to do? Does it worry you in any way?

Monday, December 13, 2010

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Putting the Yule in Yuletide

Todd Preston's essay in Sott C. Lowe's Christmas anthology is entitled "Putting the 'Yule' Back in 'Yuletide'." This, of course, makes fun of the injunction to "Put Christ Back in Christmas." Preston replies, bit caustically, "First, given the sheer number of plastic nativity scenes, religious Christmas carols, and rebroadcasts of Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ over the past three months, Christ seems to be very much in evidence this time of year. More to the point, if this directive signals a desire to return to a more 'authentic celebration of Christmas, the key should not be in promoting the Christian aspect, but on balancing the Christian and non-Christian elements of the holiday."

Preston then does a fine job of explicating the history of Christmas as a feast day and holiday celebration, especially in the English-speaking world.

Kitteh contest winners

Jerry Coyne has announced the winner and the joint runners up in the kitteh contest, judged by Miranda Hale, Ophelia Benson, et moi. Go and check 'em out.

You might also like to check out Ori's Glob, the blog of grand winner Lucy's owner, Oriana Varas.

On the Virgin Birth

Christmas: Better then a Lump of Coal begins, after preliminaries (a foreword and an introduction), with two essays on the alleged Virgin Birth of Jesus.

Both of these are well worth reading. I expect that most of my readers will, like me, find the second rather irritating, but it still merits careful consideration - not because it will convince you of the Virgin Birth, but because it at least provides a clear summary of what can be said in favour of the doctrine, and because it gives an idea of where you'd have to start from to give the doctrine any credence.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

The first essay in the book is entitled "Jesus, Mary, and Hume: On the Possibility of the Virgin Birth", written by Zachary Jurgensen and Jason Southworth (both are graduate philosophy students at the University of Oklahoma). I don't think you could do better than this essay if you're looking for a relatively brief and very cogent account of why we should not believe the proposition that Jesus was born of a virgin. The authors delve into the biblical sources, discuss epistemological issues relating to miracles, examine the evidence with sceptical eyes, and conclude that it is very weak - non-existent by our usual standards if we're not already committed to accepting the authority of a church or a holy book. As the essay's title implies, a fair bit of time is spent on Hume's famous discussion of miracles and just what it would take before we believe such stories.

I won't steal all the essay's thunder, as some of y'all will (I hope) want to track it down and read it for yourselves, and besides I would end up with a very long blog post if I tried to do the argument justice. But we are confronted with a situation where the oldest "evidence" we have is the the appearance of two rather different accounts, in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke respectively, which are not even found in the earliest of the extant gospels: the Gospel of Mark. Matthew and Luke were written long after the events that they depict, and in any event the stories can only be based on hearsay (how could anyone know that such events happened other than by a chain of communications from the original Mary and Joseph, if they even existed?). Okay, I've already said too much, and I've started to put my own spin on the essay and the evidence. The essay deserves reading for itself.

The second essay, entitled "The Virgin Birth: Authentic Christmas Magic", couldn't be more different. It is by Victor Lyons, a conservative theologian based at a Christian college in North Carolina. Lyons sets out to defend the doctrine of the Virgin Birth, though he does not reply directly to Jurgensen and Southworth (note that there's absolutely no reason why he should have; presumably the two essays were written simultaneously and independently).

Lyons defends the doctrine, but I doubt that what he says will cut much ice with anyone who is not already a committed Christian (or perhaps a Muslim, since Islam also holds that Jesus was born of the virginal Mary). The difficulty that he faces is that the evidence really is pretty much non-existent, judged by our usual standards of what we'd count as evidence for such extraordinary claims. His essay is a more an exercise in why the faithful should not abandon this particular doctrine or see it as a stumbling block. He wants his readers to embrace and celebrate what he regards as "authentic Christmas magic".

Seen that way, as essentially a pep talk for the faithful, Lyons' piece does a good job, and once again it's interesting to see what its author has to say. He scores some good points, such as showing in detail that the doctrine is well-entrenched in Christian orthodoxy and is very old (he's probably right to say that it pre-dates either Matthew or Luke, though this doesn't entail that it goes back to a time close to Jesus' death, supposedly about 30 CE). Some of the essay seems to be trying to show that the stories in Matthew and Luke are reconcilable and psychologically plausible. That is open to argument, but even if it were true - which I rather doubt - it would go nowhere near showing that the event actually happened.

In the end, you might have reason not to throw out the doctrine if you already (for whatever reason) have an epistemological position that is soft on accepting miracles and allows you to give credence to church traditions and holy books. Otherwise, however, the evidence that the Virgin Birth actually happened is so thin as to be, in effect, non-existent. If someone tries to convince you, through historical evidence, that the Virgin Birth took place ... and then tries to convince you that that event, in turn, provides evidence for the existence of God and the truth of the Christian myth system  ... well, it will fail. Even Lyons doesn't take that tack, and a reading of the Jurgensen and Southworth essay shows why it's not really open to Christians to argue that way.

Even if you're a hard-nosed atheist who will find the Lyons essay irritating, it's worthwhile seeing just what he is able to say in defence of the Virgin Birth, and to compare these two very different essays. Both are clear and well-structured, and I'm glad to have had the chance to take a look at them.

Friday, December 10, 2010

A report on Peter Thiel's fundraising dinner

Over here, by Aaron Saenz.

I haven't yet looked at the short videos of the presentations, but expect they might be interesting - not just for their content but as possible models or otherwise.

Jack of Kent on WikiLeaks

David Allen Green (better known to most of my readers as "Jack of Kent") posts on WikiLeaks. This is about a week old, but I've only just caught up with it. Hopefully he'll have more to say now that things have moved on, especially with Assange under arrest and facing the possibility of extradition. Green is one of the best legal bloggers around.

There's also a good long thread discussion, though some commenters are very quick to ascribe sinister intentions to Green, who has been one of the fiercest and most consistent advocates of free speech on the internet (and elsewhere). Free speech is important, but the public policy issues here are not only about free speech.

A different view of Assange

This is worth reading to consider the other side of the story.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Currently reading Christmas: Better than a Lump of Coal, ed. Scott C. Lowe

I've been sent a review copy of this book, so I've decided to broach it and offer some comments on the various essays during the lead-up to Christmas. The book is from my publisher (i.e. of 50 Voices of Disbelief), Wiley-Blackwell, so you can discount for bias if you like. It's in W-B's Philosophy for Everyone series of anthologies, which look at popular topics from a philosophical perspective - with good, clear, accessible writing. The idea is, as implied by the name, to bring philosophy to a broad audience.

I'm not far into the Christmas volume, so this post won't stand as a review. I'm far enough in to be confident that the writing will be enjoyable, though I've already read one piece that I found pretty irritating (predictably, given its subject matter). On the other hand, the first essay in the book is excellent.

More on that tomorrow. I'll talk about the opening essays then and will be counting down essays as Christmas approaches. I'll also still be blogging about whatever other topics come my way, never fear.

GetUp's statement on Assange

From here:

Dear President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder:

We, as Australians, condemn calls for violence, including assassination, against Australian citizen and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, or for him to be labeled a terrorist, enemy combatant or be treated outside the ordinary course of justice in any way.

As Thomas Jefferson said, "information is the currency of democracy." Publishing leaked information in collaboration with major news outlets, as Wikileaks and Mr. Assange have done, is not a terrorist act.

Australia and the United States are the strongest of allies. Our soldiers serve side by side and we’ve experienced, and condemned, the consequences of terrorism together. To label Wikileaks a terrorist organisation is an insult to those Australians and Americans who have lost their lives to acts of terrorism and to terrorist forces.

If Wikileaks or their staff have broken international or national laws, let that case be heard in a just and fair court of law. At the moment, no such charges have been brought.

We are writing as Australians to say what our Government should have: all Australian citizens deserve to be free from persecution, threats of violence and detention without charge, especially from our friend and ally, the United States.

We call upon you to stand up for our shared democratic principles of the presumption of innocence and freedom of information.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

"Silicon Valley billionaire backs futuristic philanthropy" - by Brandon Bailey

Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel worries that people aren't thinking big enough about the future.

So he's convening an unusual philanthropic summit tonight at which he will introduce other wealthy tech figures to nonprofit groups exploring such futuristic -- some might say "far out" -- ideas as artificial intelligence, the use of "rejuvenation biotechnologies" to extend human life, and the creation of free-floating communities on the high seas.

"We're living in a world where people are incredibly biased toward the incremental," said Thiel, explaining that he wants to challenge his peers to pursue more "radical breakthroughs" in their philanthropy by supporting nonprofit exploration of technological innovations that carry at least the promise of major advances for the human condition.

"Obviously there are a lot of questions about the impact of these things," he added. "If you have radical life extension, that could obviously lead to repercussions for society. But I think that's a problem we want to have."

The 43-year-old financier and philanthropist, who made a fortune as co-founder of PayPal and an early backer of Facebook, will make his pitch to more than 200 well-heeled entrepreneurs and techies during an invitation-only dinner at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco.

Read on in the Mercury News (I wonder what came out of this)

"Is the future bisexual" - by Veronica Pamoukaghlian

Last week, I heard a girl on the radio, who was talking about how she would have no problem doing a threesome with another girl, if her boyfriend desired it. The girl’s carefree attitude, revealing to hundreds of thousands of strangers that she was open to a bisexual experience reminded me of a certain 2005 study from the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics I had recently come across, which showed an increased percentage of girls who had had a homosexual experience compared to a similar study from 10 years earlier.

The implication would be that bisexuality might be losing the stigma that still pervades homosexuality and especially male homosexuality. If we look at popular media, there are clearly many more bisexual characters being portrayed in mainstream media today than a few decades ago. Groundbreaking films in that sense have included Basic Instinct, with its portrayal of a powerful bisexual female played by Sharon Stone, and Henry & June, which presented the complex relationships between writer Henry Miller, his wife and that icon of female sexual liberation — French writer Anais Nin. Popular TV series of the 21st century have also started commonly incorporating bisexual characters; with House as a prime example.

Full by article Veronica Pamoukaghlian here.

Clay Shirky on Wikileaks and Assange

This expresses a lot of my thoughts and feelings, so just go and have a look and see what you think.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

New round of debate on Mooney, "Tom Johnson", etc.

For those who haven't seen it ... over at Phil Plait's place.

H/T Ophelia Benson.

Kitteh contest

Jerry Coyne has announced, so I'll follow suit, that the results of the kitteh contest have been decided. Your celebrity judges - Ophelia Benson, Miranda Celeste Hale, et moi - have reported, and the results will be announced this coming weekend over at Why Evolution Is True.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Currently reading: Atheism: A Guide for the Perplexed by Kerry Walters

This isn't a bad little book, but it's annoying the way it goes on so much with the false moral equivalence between religious fundamentalists and New Atheists. This is lazy, unfair, and (by now) boring.

There are also other occasional oddities among what is mainly solid discussion. One is this claim (bear in mind that we're talking here about a new book, with a 2010 publication date): "In fact, it's become a convention among the New Atheists to refer to unbelievers as 'brights,' with the accompanying implication that believers are dim(-)witted."

This is simply false. There is no such convention. Admittedly, a couple of folks tried on this idea of "brights" as a positive-sounding name for non-believers, though those people were not Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett. The idea never really took off and it is just false to say that it's a convention adopted in New Atheist circles. I can assure Walters that you can hang round in Gnu circles as much as you like without encountering any such "convention". In fact, you'll be very unlikely to encounter the usage at all.

This sort of outright misinformation, doubtless unintended, gives the impression of an author whose finger is just not on the pulse.

Some cold water on life extension for mice

Kyle Munkittrick says: "Mice engineered to lack telomerase aged prematurely. When given telomerase treatments, the mice rejuvenated to age-appropriate health without adverse side-effects. That’s it. That’s the extend of the discovery."

Rogue boots

This picture is for especially for Jerry Coyne - I thought of him immediately when I came across it. Never mind the dialogue or Hank McCoy in the background; check out the boots that Rogue is wearing.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

On saying no to the burqa

According to The Sydney Morning Herald, Sergio Redagalli, the artist who created the image to the left, is currently under attack for alleged breach of anti-discrimination law.

Again and again, we see these sorts of attacks on freedom of speech and expression where it involves criticism or just plain rejection of religious or cultural practices. It's way past time to push back and defend the important freedom to speak out against these things if we disapprove of them.

As far as I'm concerned, the important issue is whether or not the burqa should be banned, not whether or not people should be legally entitled to express their opposition to it. For essentially Millian reasons, I don't favour a sweeping ban on wearing of burqas in public places (I'll be saying a fair bit more about the pros and cons in The Book). However, this garment is something unpleasant that we should tolerate, not something that we should approve of or welcome. It's certainly not something so precious that it must never be criticised or exposed to expressions of hostility.

And once again we see "Islamophobia" used as a stick to try to deny people freedom of speech. It's appalling, though not unexpected.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Quick catch-up on what's going on

Lots of debate on the free will thread two posts down, so I've been making comments there rather than creating new posts on related topics.

Meanwhile, I'm currently reading Thomas Pynchon's newest book, Inherent Vice (2009) and judging Jerry Coyne's kitteh contest (with Ophelia Benson and Miranda Hale).

Oh, and working on proofreading of a book manuscript. Hmmm, a fair bit happening, actually.

Friday, December 03, 2010


Well ... a stage is finished. As of yesterday morning, I finished a respectable version of the last chapter of the new book - and I've since been sweeping back through the entire manuscript, tweaking here, pruning there, clarifying somewhere else, and generally doing a copyedit/proofread as I go. And I'm now declaring the first draft finished.

In a moment, I'll start printing it out, as there's no substitute for someone checking through a hard copy. I'll hand it over to long-suffering Jenny to do a layer of proofreading, and she's bound to catch some stuff that I missed.

This is, as mentioned, only the first draft, though I think it's a pretty good one. You'll be getting updates as things move along. For now, at least a tiny celebration is order while I think of the next task.