Archive for April, 2013

A person in full

April 30, 2013

Two of my least favorite (because least conclusive, least agreeable, most acrimonious) topics dominated Bioethics yesterday: euthanasia and abortion.

As usual, more heat than light resulted. Reasonable statements were ignored or dismissed, the “science” of life was invoked by those whose real commitments seem rooted in religion, discussions derailed. Gonna have to start screening topics more assiduously.

Euthanasia means “good death.” Who could be against that, oxymoronic though it sounds? But Vincent may be just a little too eager to slap that label around, on my view. Our focus should be on a good death as the capstone of a good life, not simply the convenient termination of a bad one.

On the perennially-stalemated abortion issue, Austin denies the distinction between (human) life and personhood. What is a person, he challenges, if distinct from its biological vehicle?

Well, I like Robert Solomon’s answer.

To become a person is an achievement. Birth and death do not mark a person’s beginning and end. A newborn baby is not yet a person, while a deceased person who lives in the memory of his or her descendents is a person still, despite physical death. Initiation rites are crucial to achieving full membership in most tribal communities and thus to becoming a full person. A Passion for Wisdom

A person is, or was, a full participant in the complex life of a community. A person has a history and a shared communal identity. A person has a developed personality. Persons do things like take courses in Bioethics. Blastocysts don’t.

In short, as Sandel says, “the distinction between actual persons and potential ones is not without ethical significance.” Personhood grows like an oak, persons grow up. Or don’t.


Postscript. Those of us with strong opinions on abortion and personhood (and that seems to be most of us in the Bioethics class) should give a listen to this recent Radiolab podcast, 23 Weeks 6 Days… and read the articles it was based on. Beautiful story, happy ending.

Generous to the end, and still smiling

April 29, 2013

We finish with Michael Sandel and Richard Powers today in Bioethics, and get on with final reports. Have they made a good case against the pursuit of biogenetic perfection? I think so. But definitely not against improvement. We can do better. Will we ever be better enough? Will we know which “enhancements” to decline?

We began with Sandel’s discussion of deafness. (He loves to canvass the audience.)

His main parting contention: life is one thing and personhood another, but it’s best not so to obsess over the ethical boundary between them that we relinquish our one living opportunity to improve the human estate.

Genetic engineering to create designer babies is the ultimate expression of the hubris that marks the loss of reverence for life as a gift. But stem cell research to cure debilitating disease, using unim- planted blastocysts, is a noble exercise of our human ingenuity to promote healing and to play our part in repairing the given world.

We end with Generosity, and the character nicknamed “Generosity.” Thassa constantly channels Richard Dawkins sans hubris (one reason why Powers and I love her): “we are the lucky ones,” he said.

And she says

Everyone alive should feel richly content, ridiculously ahead of the game, a million times luckier than the unborn


No one should be anything but dead.


Everything that is, is ours.

She’s right, of course; but of course like the rest of us she finally has a hard time holding those thoughts and holding off intermittent existential despair. Maybe none of us has alleles long enough to sustain our most elevated moments of transcendent insight. Alas. But maybe, too, their very transience and instability is what makes those moments so special.

Older Daughter amazed me by participating in NaNoWriMo, ”national novel-writing month,” a public writing project in which participants pounded out 50,000 words in thirty days. I was so impressed with her determination and stamina. I’d have felt more like Russell Stone, or a weak-willed Sisyphus, if you’d made me do that: “I have to go take my own life.”

All writing is re-rewriting. In the past that’s always slowed us down. If we’re re-writing not just words but genetic code, it may speed us up. Hang on.

As a pragmatist I feel somewhat dissed by Powers’ characterization of the ”witty pragmatism” of the positive psychologist who tells “Oona’s” audience– much like Oprah’s– about happiness. He might be right, though, to advise keeping your options open (“stay loose and keep revising the plan”). Is Powers right to predict that pop media culture will be the largest stage upon which our collective future is to be written? Scary thought. But “all the world’s a stage”  is scary, too.

Kurton prefers collaborative fiction to singly-authored texts. He’s with techno-utopian Kevin Kelly, in the Updike-Kelly dispute. I’m still in Updike’s (not Kurton’s or Kelly’s) corner.

More Dawkins-esque rhapsodizing about our evolutionary epic:

Six hundred generations ago, we were scratching on the walls of caves. Now we’re sequencing genomes… If that doesn’t inspire us, we don’t deserve to survive ourselves.

That’s a bit harsh, but I’m inspired. I’m also partial to my old-fashioned founts of happiness. Can’t we have both?

Finally, in this oddly self-referential tale that ends in narrative dissolution, Powers asks “What kind of story would ever end with us?”  For now our story simply continues with us. Where it all ends remains our most vital question. Unlike some reviewers [JWoodJMcInerney] (but like others), I love the postmodern ambiguous ending of Powers’ story.  “She’s still alive, my invented friend, just as I conceived her, still uncrushed by the collective need for happier endings.” Thassa survives, battered by life but still generous and smiling at fate. We may still imagine her happy.

May we all borrow her generosity and cheer, give all we’ve got right now, and meet the future in due course. The Atlas goes dark every night, but so far it’s always turned back again to the light. Cue the symphony.

A universe not made for us

April 27, 2013

Raining, but it won’t rain us out today. They moved Older Daughter’s final regular-season game up to Friday afternoon, anticipating today’s deluge, and she celebrated Senior Day with a couple of key hits in a decisive 12-2 win. (I know the score, they made me scorekeeper.)

Following Younger Daughter’s big game-tying  hit and game-winning run on Thursday, after her Tigers rallied from a huge deficit against arch-rival Ensworth, it made for a very satisfying conclusion to the Spring softball season.

A happy ending, for sure. Meaningful too?

Well, it meant a lot to those of us who were there, who cared. Could there be any deeper or more cosmic meaning to our happiness?

It may be too big a question for a rainy Saturday morning. We’ll take it up next Fall in The Philosophy of Happiness, with questions like:

 What do we really want from philosophy and religion? Palliatives? Therapy? Comfort? Do we want reassuring fables or an understanding of our actual circumstances? Dismay that the Universe does not conform to our preferences seems childish.

Meanwhile, Carl Sagan says “if we crave some cosmic purpose, then let us find ourselves a worthy goal.”

Beating St. Cecelia and Ensworth were worthy goals. But, what do we really want?


All kinds

April 26, 2013

Nice mix of conventional and quirky, in yesterday’s CoPhi reports. Jessica on Rawls, Andrew on Sandel, Jake on Buddhism, Regan on Meditation, and Logan on a crazy, humble “goofball” climber who “knows” he can’t fail or fall (though most of his mentors have).

Alex is an atheist, Logan told us, a YOLO guy who says live. 

That’s one of my mottos too, but in my case it keeps me literally off the wall.

One of my others: it takes all kinds.

Everyone’s a little bit speciesist

April 25, 2013

We had our first Bioethics final report presentation yesterday, from Komron, on The Efficacy of Live Tissue Trauma Training for Combat Life Support Applications. He warned the images would be graphic, of live (sedated) pigs and goats in surgical demonstrations. The guy in the 100K “cut suit” was hard to watch too.

Maybe Komron can provide a postscript, updating us on the disposition of this February Congressional order:

…the Pentagon must present lawmakers with a written plan to phase out “live tissue training,” military speak for slaying animals to teach combat medics how to treat severed limbs and gunshot wounds.

Andrew also put up a post on Italian animal rights activists who released animal subjects and allegedly set autism and schizophrenia research “decades” back.

The hard question, perhaps not so hard for confirmed utilitarians: is the prospect of saving even a single human life worth the sacrifice of a goat?

And for those not quite so confirmed: is there a humane and ethically-superior way of going about the sacrifice?

What would Peter Singer say?

“All the arguments to prove man’s superiority cannot shatter this hard fact: in suffering the animals are our equals.”

“The notion that human life is sacred just because it is human life is medieval.”

“If possessing a higher degree of intelligence does not entitle one human to use another for his or her own ends, how can it entitle humans to exploit non-humans?”

“To give preference to the life of a being simply because that being is a member of our species would put us in the same position as racists who give preference to those who are members of their race.”

I suppose I am a little bit speciesist, along with just about every non-self-loathing human. Forced to choose, I’ll almost always choose the human over the goat.

“If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it.”

Most of us rightly place a great deal more “moral importance” on saving humans than on leaving goats alone. (Notice I’ve stopped talking about pigs. I’ve read Charlotte’s Web. “Some pig.”)

But if we revere life, we must also insist on preventing gratuitous animal suffering. Further, we must insist on giving those sacrificial animals as much life, of quality, as possible.

Singer has also said, of researchers deliberately inducing Parkinsonism in monkeys:

“I do not think you should reproach yourself for doing it, provided there was no other way of discovering this knowledge. I could see this as justifiable research.”

Me too. Still wondering, though, about genetic screening for happiness.

Chance becomes choice

April 24, 2013

We continue tracking the quest for bio-perfection in our “real” and Richard Powers’ alternative “mutant”-fictional universe.

In the “Mastery and Gift” chapter of his Case Against Perfection, Michael Sandel says

A Gattaca-like world, in which parents became accustomed to specifying the sex and genetic traits of their children, would be a world inhospitable to the unbidden, a gated community writ large.


The awareness that our talents and abilities are not wholly our own doing restrains our tendency toward hubris. If bio-engineering made the myth of the “self-made man” come true, it would be difficult to view our talents as gifts for which we are indebted rather than as achievements for which we are responsible.

When “choice, not chance” becomes our way, we’ll slip into an attitude of contempt for others and excessive regard for ourselves. Prometheus Ascendant will harden our hearts, and shrink them to grinch-size. We’ll be left with “nothing to affirm or behold outside our own will.”

That’s the story in Generosity too. Perfection in an enhanced future is a page-turning dream, at least until the alarm sounds . 

…on the insides of her eyelids, hopes rise, taboos fade, miracles get marked down, the impossible goes ordinary, chance becomes choice, and Scheherazade keeps whispering, “What is this tale, compared to the one I will tell you tomorrow night, if you but spare me and let me live?”

In that story, the storyteller saved herself. But who’s writing our story, the tale of our glorious “inevitable” tomorrowland?  And have we figured out that it might just be nonfiction?

Is “Oona” right? Does our “fortune lie not in our stars but in our changing selves,” can we “escape any fate by a daily application of near-religious will”? Tune in…

Cottingham, Law, Ward, Grayling

April 23, 2013

We finish Philosophy Bites today in CoPhi with John Cottingham on the meaning of life, Stephen Law on the problem of suffering, Keith Ward on eastern idealism, and A.C. Grayling on atheism.

There’s a sequel, Philosophy Bites BackI’ve already put in the order for next year. (And for Carlin Romano’s America the Philosophical, to complement the Little History.)

“What is the meaning of life? Does it, perhaps, have no meaning at all?” It may have no fixed, final, universal, or intrinsic meaning, but for an emergent and pluralistic species that’s no barrier to emergent meanings, in the plural. Why settle for just one, or even forty-two?  [MoL @dawn] But that’s not to say we can entirely “create our own values,” a la Friedrich Nietzsche. “We have to find value within a given cosmos, a world that is not of our making.” Humility is called for, not arrogant “will to power.”

Cottingham on “Happiness, God, and the Meaning of Life”:

I do continue to think the Pythons pretty well nailed the answer to the meaning of life, if we take the question as asking how practically we should live:

Try and be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in and try and live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations.

I can confirm Cottingham’s statement about “meaning” in the largest sense being an embarrassing or illicit question amongst many professional academic philosophers. When I found the MoL course in Vandy’s catalog a few years ago it was dusty and moldering. I dusted it off and had a great semester with it.

Last thing we read, as I recall, was Viktor Frankl on Man’s Search for Meaning. He rediscovered the wisdom of the Stoics, in the death camps. “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” Is there a more profoundly human philosophical problem than how to live well, when life itself is tough and tenuous? And when is it not?

Evil or suffering is an existential problem for us all, but it’s a philosophical problem (or a logical one) for those who wish to assert the reconciliation of an omni-propertied God with the facts on the ground. [PoE/suffering@dawn]

But let’s not get carried away in the opposite direction. “There’s just too much good stuff in the world”– like rainbows, laughter, sunshine, ice cream, Groucho Marx, Willie Mays, the Jupiter Symphony, Louis Armstrong– “for this to be plausibly the creation of a supremely powerful, supremely evil being.” Flipped too far either way, towards good OR evil, the idea of a Supreme Being becomes a joke. So “we should probably do without any gods at all.”

Speaking of “flip,” Bertrand Russell often was. But his rhetorical question about intelligent design is still devastating nonetheless, for the problem of evil and suffering: “Do you think that, if you were granted omnipotence and omniscience and millions of years in which to perfect your world, you could produce nothing better than the Ku Klux Klan or the Fascists?” An unanswerable question.

And Simon Blackburn’s dorm analogy still hits close to home, even though they’ve leveled this one to make room for our new Science Building.

Law’s “evil god challenge,” and on Believing Bullshit: How Not to Get Sucked Into an Intellectual Black Hole:

“Is the ultimate nature of reality non-physical?” If kicking a stone won’t settle that question, it’s not clear why it should matter (pun partially intended) to most of us any more than it did to Dr. Johnson. But we might be more interested, today, in Keith Ward’s comments on atheists and why he’s not one anymore:

“Is belief in the existence of a God or gods the equivalent of believing that there are fairies at the bottom of the garden? Or can it be defended on the basis of reason or evidence?” Anthony Grayling says “the best and deepest thinking about ethics has come from non-religious traditions” that value reason and evidence over faith and fairies.

[atheism/Grayling @dawn… Meditations for the Humanist: Ethics for a Secular Age… The Good Book: A Humanist BibleGrayling’s Latest God Argument… Grayling & Hitch at the Goethe Institute in ’06 on the morality of Allied air attacks on civilians during WWII]

Can’t resist adding a plug for the course I teach every other Spring, coming again next year: Atheism & Philosophy, or (stenographically) just A&P.

PHIL 3310 – Atheism and PhilosophyThis course examines various perspectives on atheism, understood as the belief that no transcendent creator deity exists, and that there are no supernatural causes of natural events. The course compares this belief with familiar alternatives (including theism, agnosticism, and humanism), considers the spiritual significance of atheism, and explores implications for ethics and religion.

There’s always a nice mix of belief of various kinds, running the spectrum from atheism to Atheism Plus to pluralism, naturalism, humanism, agnosticism, skepticism, non-theistic ‘isms, alt-religious ‘isms & non-‘isms, paganism, Islamism, Sufism, Buddhism, and (yes, of course) Judeo-Christian theism. The conversations are always civil, often enlightening, and we almost always demonstrate the pedagogical value (not to mention sheer pleasure) of actually listening to one another and having our horizons expanded.  Nobody proselytizes, nobody gets mad, nobody impugns anybody’s character or integrity. No name-calling or soul-damning, just lots of good mind-bending discussion. I’m getting excited just thinking about it. You should register as soon as you can, January 2014 will be here sooner than you think.

First, though, Happiness in the Fall. And before that, starting almost immediately (maybe even today?):  final report presentations in CoPhi. It’s the most wonderful time of the year… (Sorry, Spring makes me hyperthymic.)


April 22, 2013

My temporary hot-spot’s shaky (cable guy’s coming later), so to cut promptly to the chase: the Bioethics topic today is eugenics.

It means simply “well born,” and while that sounds aspirationally modest and reasonable we know it’s had a chilling history. “Three generations of imbeciles are enough,” said Justice Holmes in one of the more shocking expressions of judicial imperialism on record. Hitler hadn’t yet given it a bad name in 1935 LA, coerced sterilization was still going on in some U.S. states in the ’70s, incentivized “voluntary” eugenics is going on in places like Singapore today, and “free market” eugenicists call for its revival. James Watson thinks it might cure the “disease” of stupidity, though the market does seem to bear quite a lot of that. (What will cure the arrogant chauvinism of aging Nobelists?)

Michael Sandel brings us back to the central issue as I see it: unconditional parental love, and reciprocal filial gratitude, will both be at severe risk if we turn childbirth into a bazaar. By all means, let’s continue to improve our “stock” if we can. The way to do that is by encouraging our kids to seek their own bliss, not validate ours.

Selling and buying eggs for 50K is not the way.

Happy Earth Day!


April 20, 2013

Still no web or wifi in the house, but it’s not the end of the world. I feel fine. Awoke humming “Sweet Caroline” (not chanting “U-S-A”… morons!) & looking forward to having a catch w/girls (YD’s back from DC) to break in my 1st new glove in decades. Life is sweet this a.m. But I still hate thumbing. Pen & paper most reliable word-proc’ing tech’y.


April 19, 2013

All thumbs, this a.m.– our internet service is out, so I’m posting this via the wordpress mobile app while monitoring the latest alarming reports from Boston. Strange days. I hear they’ve found hospitable worlds just 1200 lt yrs away. Where can I book a flight?