Sunday, April 29, 2012

Abortion and killing living things

I'm in the midst of grading papers and final exams.  A number of essays I've read over the last few days have had to do with abortion.  A surprising number of my students advanced something like the following argument:

(1) A fetus is a living thing.
(2) It is wrong to kill a living thing.
(3) If one has an abortion, then one has killed a living thing.
(4) Therefore, it's wrong to have an abortion.

In class, we discussed a number of reasons for thinking that this kind of argument is unsound.  I thought we had reached a consensus that this challenge to abortion is unsound.  Alas...

I think (2) is obviously false  Bacteria, mice, oregano, and the fungus that causes athlete's foot are all alive, but it's easy to come up with reasons why it can be moral to kill such things.  Further, there are some cases of killing human beings that are deemed morally permissible (e.g., in self-defense).  My point is that one cannot simply rely on the premise that a thing is alive to conclude that it's wrong to kill it.  We do not afford all living things a right to life.  But if this is such an obvious flaw in the argument, why is it that so many people put it forward as if it's a stellar piece of reasoning?  Why do fairly smart people advance it?  Why do some of my students rely on it in their exams/papers even after we've discussed various objections to it?  I'm befuddled.

I think that there are some fascinating arguments against abortion and I admire some of the philosophers that have spent countless hours developing them. It's a shame that the above kind of argument passes as powerful/convincing in many circles.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Comic Relief

Many of you Bradfordians have probably already seen this.  I've been reading a bit about mixed emotions and feeling conflicted.  This is a good example of finding something hilarious and depressing at the same time. (Favorite line:  "Olean NY greedily sucked literally tens of dollars away each week.")             

Friday, April 20, 2012

West and Smiley on Colbert

This is an interesting interview on a new book having to do with wealth distribution.

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Tavis Smiley & Cornel West
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Note the line of argument Colbert pursues having to do with class warfare.

Philosophers get death threats for considering arguments for infanticide

The latest issue of Philosophers Magazine has a disturbing article in it. Here it is:

THE PHILOSOPHERS Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva have been subject to racist abuse and death threats, following the electronic publication of a paper about abortion and newborns in the online version of The Journal of Medical Ethics. Their paper, “After-birth abortion: why should the baby live?” discusses arguments in favour of infanticide. In the abstract, they say, “By showing that (1) both fetuses and newborns do not have the same moral status as actual persons, (2) the fact that both are potential persons is morally irrelevant and (3) adoption is not always in the best interest of actual people, the authors argue that what we call ‘after-birth abortion’ (killing a newborn) should be permissible in all the cases where abortion is, including cases where the newborn is not disabled.”

The editor of the journal, Julian Savulescu, defended publication of the article. In a blog post, he said, “The Journal does not specifically support substantive moral views, ideologies, theories, dogmas or moral outlooks, over others. It supports sound rational argument. Moreover, it supports freedom of ethical expression.” Savulescu concluded: “what is disturbing is not the arguments in this paper nor its publication in an ethics journal. It is the hostile, abusive, threatening responses that it has elicited. More than ever, proper academic discussion and freedom are under threat from fanatics opposed to the very values of a liberal society.”

Philosophical puzzles in ten minutes

The Northern Institute of Philosophy has a great series of discussions of philosophical puzzles. Each "episode" is fewer than ten minutes and involves a clear presentation of the puzzle and a discussion of some of the more popular attempts at solving it.

Those of you in my Metaphysics and Epistemology course should check out the one on skepticism (toward the bottom of the page). Below each episode are a few links to research related to the topic. A friend of mine from graduate school, Dylan Dodd, has some of his work linked under the skepticism episode. He's a careful philosopher and you might enjoy reading some of his work.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

God and Neuroscience

This is from the blog Think: Just Do It! It's fascinating issue...

"Research shows that people can be made to have a "religious experience"--or "God experience"--by stimulating their brain using transcranial magnetic stimulation.

One might think that this research goes against arguments for the existence of God that appeal to religious experience. In other words, one could argue as follows:
  1. Religious experience counts as strong evidence for the existence of God only if the sensed-presence experience cannot be produced on demand.
  2. The sensed-presence experience can be produced on demand.
  3. Therefore, religious experience is not strong evidence for the existence of God.
What do you make of this argument? Is it sound?"

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

New Book Chapter

Michael Stuckart (an anthropoligist at Pitt-Bradford) and I wrote a chapter for this new book. Our chapter is on happiness, what Aristotle had to say about living the "good life," and how sailing is an activity that exemplifies many of the things that make one truly happy. If you're interested in philosophy and/or sailing, you might find this a fascinating summer read.

Identity and Songs

I've been wondering about what makes a song the song that it is. That is, what are the necessary and sufficient conditions for being a particular song. Here's a clip from Ray Charles in 1968. He's performing a song called "Going Down Slow" (it's a pretty famous Blues standard).

And here's a clip from Eric Clapton singing "Going Down Slow." Notice that the titles of the songs are the same. The lyrics are very similar (though not identical) and there's clearly quite a bit in common between the two performances. But, at the same time, they're extremely different.

We might wonder whether Ray and Eric are playing the same song.

A natural answer is that they are playing different versions of the same song. They have their own interpretations of it, but it's just one song--"Going Down Slow." But this suggests that a number of things can be different between two performances and yet the two can be performances of the same song. For example, the chord progression between them can be different, the lyrics can be different, the tempo can be different, the instrumentation can be different, etc. Of course, they can't be too different--because then they wouldn't be performances of the same song. But where does one draw the line? In other words, what makes something a version of "Going Down Slow" as opposed to some other song? Interestingly, I've heard instrumental versions of "Going Down Slow," where there are no lyrics since no one is singing. It still seems right to say that the song performed was "Going Down Slow." So what do you think about these issues? What makes a song the song that it is?

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Small Business Tax Cut Act

The House of Representatives will consider a new set of tax cuts to small businesses. Those opposed say that the bill will only make those with a great deal of money even richer. There's an editorial piece in today's NY Times here echoing these sentiments. The upshot of this article is:

"...a bill to let most business owners deduct up to 20 percent of their business income in 2012 — a $46 billion tax cut. Despite the Mom-and-Pop label, it is designed so that nearly half of the tax cut would go to people with annual income over $1 million, and more than four-fifths would go to those making over $200,000, according to the Tax Policy Center."

Of course, a common rejoinder is that such cuts will create jobs. But many experts have serious doubts about whether such a cut will actually create jobs (see, for example, this article and this report from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis). Of course, such criticisms are not definitive. What would be nice is if we had some evidence that such a cut would create jobs, but I wasn't able to find anything after a brief search. There are the intuitive sorts of arguments. Here in Bradford we have companies like American Refining Group and Zippo. They employ a large number of residents and greatly contribute to the local economy. But what would a tax cut to such corporations actually do for the economy? Would they hire more workers? Would they reinvest that money in the community? One might have the intuition that tax cuts encourage growth, but it's a difficult thing to predict and measure. And the evidence (at least what I could find) certainly doesn't show that the bill will do what its authors claim.

I wonder what readers of this blog think about the bill and about the strategy of our policy-makers to cut taxes to small businesses.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Is polygamy morally permissible?

A student in my Philosophy and Public Issues class is writing her research paper on the moral status of polygamy. She and I were chatting yesterday about arguments for the conclusion that it's immoral, but these tend to be utilitarian sorts of reasons about the parties involved experiencing psychological or financial distress. Of course, we can't expect these sorts of consequences in all cases of polygamy. So there are limits to this kind of line against polygamy. There are other less plausible reasons against polygamy like that it undermines "family values."

Interestingly, many of the arguments for same-sex marriage can be applied to debates over polygamy. If one accepts that each of us should be able to marry whomever we see fit, then it's an easy extension to include marrying more than one person whom we see fit. Of course, one can stipulate that marriage is between only two individuals. But this is akin to insisting that marriage is between a man and a woman. And many people  find this sort of "argument" outright ridiculous.

I'm beginning to think that the sorts of arguments that you might have for thinking same-sex marriage is morally permissible can be straightforwardly extended to support polygamy. In addition, the arguments you might have against same-sex marriage can be rephrased in an attempt to undermine polygamy. But, as we discussed in class, the philosophical arguments against same-sex marriage seem to be uniformly unconvincing.

Should we conclude that polygamy is morally permissible?

* If you're interested in reading more on things related to this discussion, the SEP has a nice entry on marriage and domestic partnership.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Euthanasia and the distinction between killing and letting die

Some time ago we discussed the moral status of euthanasia in my Philosophy and Public Issues class. We talked about it a bit again today. As some of you might now, James Rachels has argued that there are two main reasons for accepting the moral permissibility of euthanasia: respect for autonomy and reduction of pain/suffering. He also argues that cases of passive euthanasia (where a patient is allowed to die due to "natural causes" by, for example, allowing him/her to stop eating or unplugging his/her respirator) are at least morally on par with cases of active euthanasia (where a patient is killed by, for example, a doctor that injects him/her with a lethal dose of a drug). In addition, many follow Rachels in thinking that active euthanasia is morally preferable to passive euthanasia. This is because the two aforementioned reasons for accepting euthanasia can be applied to both passive and active. Also, if a patient wants to die and is "better off dead," it seems to many that she should have the option to die as painlessly as possible. Since dying from a morphine overdose is less painful than dying due to starvation or asphyxiation, there's an argument to be made for thinking that active euthanasia is morally preferable to passive euthanasia.

Some challenge this reasoning by suggesting that there is a moral difference between killing and letting die. The idea is that if killing is worse than letting someone die, then passive euthanasia ought to be considered morally preferable to active euthanasia. But is this true? Consider the following two cases:

Killing: I decide that Larry Bird must perish. I go to his house and shoot him with a gun. He dies as a result.

Letting Die: I happen to be sitting next to Larry Bird on an airplane. I notice that he is chocking on a peanut. I consider trying to save his life, but decide not to help him. He dies.

How do these cases compare morally? Rachels argues that there isn't necessarily a moral difference between killing and letting die and that they may sometimes be morally on par. But what do you think?

* You might be tempted to say that, in the first case, I am guilty of first-degree murder but that, in the second case, I am not guilty of any crime. This, of course, is a legal point. I'm not concerned with that. I'm worried about the moral status of these cases.

* It might help to imagine that I've got the same ill-will toward Larry Bird in both cases. Suppose that I despise him with every cell of my body and that I relish his demise. Does this change your assessment of the cases?

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Why is it moral to eat meat?

A contest from the NY Times has just been announced. The task is simply to write an essay of no more than 600 words on the topic of why it's ethical to eat meat. More details can be found here.

This is a very specific contest. Don’t tell us why you like meat, why organic trumps local or why your food is yours to choose. Just tell us why it’s ethical to eat meat.

Send written entries of no more than 600 words to Entries are due by April 8; no late submissions will be considered.

The Prize:
The best essay or essays will be published in an upcoming issue of The New York Times.

(Thanks to Brian Leiter's blog for the pointer.)

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Protesting Students Get Pepper-Sprayed

I used to live in Los Angeles not too far from Santa Monica City College. As you might have heard, they're going to have a two-tiered tuition system/course structure and this is making many students irate. The cost to enroll in some courses (which happen to be the more desirable ones) offered at SMCC will be about $180. This is much more expensive than classes have been: $35 per unit for in-state tuition. On the one hand, I can understand that taking a college course for less than $200 doesn't sound like that bad of a deal. On the other hand, if you think about the increase in terms of a percentage, this is quite a hike! One might add that many of the people attending SMCC are from low-income families, first-generation college students, etc. Such an increase will prove to be prohibitive to many students.

Protestors gathered during a recent SMCC Board of Trustees meeting--about thirty of them were pepper-sprayed by campus police. This is disturbing and not the first time that protestors have been hurt recently. I wonder what readers think about students gathering at such meetings and what (especially my students in Philosophy and Public Issues) think about the act of protesting and how authorities should handle protestors.

This issue aside..... I want to mention that the administration at Pitt has encouraged students, faculty, and staff to write letters to politicians, attend events in Harrisburg, etc. in response to recent proposed cuts in the state appropriations to the Pitt system. If these cuts get passed, we will have over 100 million dollars in cuts over the last two years! I hope you impress upon your friends and families how important it is to participate in these efforts. And, of course, I hope you write letters and do what you can to counteract this assault on higher education.

How (not) to reply to the skeptic II

Michael Huemer argues (in many places--see especially page 129) that an agent that is having a vivid hallucination of a table has the "same kind and same degree of justification for believing in the table as we normally do when we see tables." This is because, "when we have perceptual experiences, external objects seem to us to be present, and there is no evidence in general against this" and, of course, the agent having the hallucination has the same experience as us. So Huemer thinks the agent having the hallucination is in the same justificatory position as we are.

The skeptic will surely insist that the person suffering from a hallucination does not know that there is a table before her. This is partly due to the fact that there is no table--it is a hallucination. And one cannot know something that is false. But it seems, at least to the skeptic, that this is also due to the fact that the sort of justification that she has in not good enough for knowledge. To show this, the skeptic will point out the same sort of justification is had by an agent that perceives a table and yet this agent does not know that there is a table before her because she cannot rule out various possible skeptical scenarios. In this case, the agent has a true belief that there is a table before her, but the skeptic argues that the justification she has for this belief is not enough for this to amount to a case of knowledge. So it's not clear to me how Huemer's point that the agent having the hallucination is in the same justificatory position as real-table-perceivers helps in responding to the skeptic.

Interestingly, Huemer brings all this up (at least on page 129) as a way defending direct realism - which is only part of his response to skepticism. But how does this support direct realism? It seems to me that being in the same "justificatory boat" as a person that is suffering from a vivid hallucination does nothing to show that I am directly aware of the table before me. How does this fact (if it is one) show that my beliefs about external objects are noninferentially justified?

Suggestions, thoughts, etc. are most welcome.