First Contact

Ultrasound of twins at 6 weeks (not mine, fyi!)
Question of the week (for me) -- when do people have first contact with their children? I may have seen mine very early on, when I was only about 6 weeks pregnant. I saw two blobs on an ultrasound image, anyway. But was that them--Becky and Sam? 

One thing seems pretty clear--it's not until 20 weeks gestation (very roughly, and at the very least) that a fetus starts to be conscious, so there are no "selves" on the scene before then.  Whatever I saw on the ultrasound at 6 weeks, it wasn't a self.

Another thing seems clear--it takes some pretty advanced properties (e.g. self-awareness) to be a full-fledged person.  It's doubtful that there's a person on the scene until some point after birth.  So whatever I saw on the ultrasound, it was neither a self, nor a person. 

That doesn't directly answer the question, though.  Granted what I saw via ultrasound wasn't a self or a person, it could still have been one of my kids -- i.e. one of my kids before they became selves or persons.

One line of thinking says that makes perfectly good sense.  Over time, we take on and lose lots of properties.  One and the same individual will be a child over part of his lifespan, but an adult over another part.   You're a non-parent for the first many years of your life, and then perhaps become a parent.  You can start off not being an American citizen, and then become a citizen. At some point you may become a lawyer or a doctor or a novelist. 

The fact that a property is profoundly important, making you in some sense who you are, once you have it, doesn't mean that it's literally an essential property--one that you can't exist without.  Not all of our important attributes are "born again" attributes--ones that make a new entity exist, once they come on the scene. So it's not out of the question that the very same individual existed as a zygote, later becoming a self, and still later becomes a person ... an adult, a parent, a citizen, a lawyer, etc. 

Another line of thinking says that once a locus of consciousness (a "self") comes on the scene, there's a new entity there that didn't exist before. Selfhood is indeed a "born again" property: when it emerges, a whole new entity emerges. Or you might say no to that, but yes to personhood being that sort of property.  You might think that whenever a person comes on the scene--a locus of self-awareness--a new entity exists. The old entity--the fetus, immature infant, whatever--is replaced by a numerically different entity, a second entity. 

On the second view, Sam only existed when his locus of consciousness existed (or his locus of self-awareness), so I didn't have first contact when I saw his heartbeat on the ultra-sound image. That wasn't Sam, and the other blob wasn't Becky.

The first view says the change from being a fetus to being a self or person is like metamorphosis.  When a caterpillar becomes a butterfly, one entity isn't replaced by a second entity. This is just change.  Butterflies might be ever so proud of being able to fly (if they could think about it), but they have to live with the fact that once they were caterpillars. Similarly, as profound as it is to be a person or self, selves and person were once upon a time zygotes.

The second views says the change from being a zygote to being a self, or from being an immature infant to being a person, is more like the moment in the fairytale when the frog become the prince.  The prince is (presumably) a whole new entity, not the same entity with new properties.  Only with human development, we have a better scientific understanding of how the dramatic changes takes place. The brain matures to the point that the "lights" are on, and then later the brain supports the power of self-awareness.

The first view is associated with the "animalist" account of personal identity--the view that says humans are essentially organisms.  The second view is associated with the Lockean psychological continuity account of personal identity, the one that most philosophers today accept.  I'm leaning toward ...

No, I won't say!  More on these things later in the week.


Are atheist accommodationists hypocritical?

Jerry Coyne finds philosophers very, very, very vexing when they try to reconcile science and religion.  He suspects it's always "political"--
In my estimation, all atheist philosophers who try to reconcile religion and science are doing so for political reasons—as are organizations like the National Academy of Sciences and the National Center for Science Education that engage in the same activity.  It takes a profound hypocrisy to try to reconcile for others things that you can’t reconcile for yourself.
Don't think so!  It's true that most philosophers (70%) are atheists, and that almost all accept science as an important source of knowledge.  But if you reject theism and accept science, it certainly doesn't follow that you reject theism because you accept science.  You might reject theism for reasons completely independent of the reasons you have for accepting science. In fact, I think that's the state of mind of many philosophers.  Many reject theism because of the argument from evil.  Or they reject theism because none of the usual arguments for God are successful, and they think the default, when it comes to a fanciful construct, is disbelief.  So although they accept no religious propositions themselves, it's genuinely an open question, for them, whether you could accept some, and yet accept all of science.

There's nothing at all unusual about philosophers wondering if A can be reconciled with B, but also rejecting A. Theist philosophers can reasonably wonder whether atheism and objective morality can be reconciled, but of course reject atheism.  That's a first class question for anyone who "does" metaethics--not a question just for those who accept the atheist starting point.  If there were a "political" aspect to the question, for theists, that wouldn't be bad either. Perhaps, though a theist, it bothers you to see your atheist friends being beaten up as morality-challenged.  So you care about and promote the idea that atheism can be reconciled with objective morality, even though the reconciliation plays no role in your own life. Hypocrisy? No, obviously not.

Is it any different when atheists try to stop their theist friends being beaten up as science-challenged?  Of course, if the effort is disingenuous, that's one thing.  Maybe you think your theist friends are science-challenged, and you're just trying to be nice.  But if not, not.  I think what some atheist philosophers believe is that a little bit of religion (certainly not all of it) can be combined with all of science, and that's what they insist upon--not more.  That's not hypocritical or disingenuous. In fact, it might even be the truth.


A Puzzle About Twins

Suppose people start existing on the first day after conception--just suppose.  Here's an argument that seems to show that identical twins must be an exception.  Take Betty and Casey, who come into existence as my diagram depicts--

Jeff McMahan makes this argument--
[Betty and Casey] ... cannot both be identical with the original zygote for, given the transitivity of identity, that would imply that they are identical with each other, which they clearly are not. We must conclude, therefore, that when monozygotic twinning occurs, the zygote that divides thereby ceases to exist and two new zygotes begin to exist at that point ....  What this means is that, even if most adult human organisms begin life at conception, monozygotic twin organisms began to exist somewhat later, when a zygote that began life at conception divided. (Jeff McMahan, The Ethics of Killing, pp. 25-26)
Maybe I'm missing something, but it seems most natural to say that there are two entities here, Betty and Casey, with an overlapping stage--Zygote (A).   A is a stage of both Betty and Casey.  Betty isn't identical to A, and Casey isn't identical to A, because A is just a stage.  Nevertheless, A is the first stage in the life of both Betty and Casey.  They start their lives when A begins. 

It seems like lots of things have overlapping stages like this, or at least you can dream up lots of things. Take for example The Two Funerals.  Two funerals take place during the same two-hour time period in a funeral home. The scheduler messed up, and the reception for each takes place in the same room.  Mourners talk to each other about their respective deceased, sign the same guest book, drink from the same wine bottles, etc. Then the two funerals split apart, with services taking place in two separate rooms.  Paralleling McMahan's view of the twins, you'd have to say three funerals took place--the reception-funeral, which ended at the end of the reception, and then the two services that took place in the separate rooms.  But no, surely, there are two funerals, which shared a first stage.

Boy, what fun I could have dreaming up more overlapping events like this.  Two parades start off separate, but merge for 10 minutes, then separate again.  Using McMahan's reasoning, we've got to think there are actually five parades here.  At the merge, the first two come to an end.  Then there's the merged parade. After the merge, another two come into existence.  Five, count 'em, five!

If you think life generally begins on the first day of gestation, it seems to me you can think so for identical twins as well.  But is that what we should think? I would like very much to think about personal identity and gestation without playing abortion-chess--i.e. looking ahead to the implications of various views for abortion ethics.  Most of the time when we're coming to terms with when life begins, we're thinking about a life that continued (our own, our children's lives) or that will continue (a wanted pregnancy). It seems like this ought to be the context for reflection at least some of the time, instead of abortion ethics always being the elephant in the room.

Progress Report

I've been working slowly on a book (well, so far a WORD file) about parenthood. I'm dealing with topics in the order in which people encounter them, so the first several chapters are about the reasons why we have children, whether there are good reasons not to have children, and how choosy we ought to be about the kind of children we have. I'm trying to delve into the most thorny puzzles about these things, while also orienting my writing to an imaginary real person, or real couple.  My intended readers are philosophical parents, or prospective parents, who reflect on their decisions every step of the way.  This is basically a conceit, as they say, but nevertheless ... that's how I'm proceeding.

This week I'm feeling pretty excited for my imaginary reader(s). Finally they've decided to go ahead and have a child and (hurray!) she's pregnant!  Hyper-reflective as always, my imaginary readers are studying up on the day-by-day growth of their baby-to-be.  They quickly start to wonder when their future baby starts to exist.  Is it on the very first day of gestation or later on, or will it only be at birth, or even later than that?  My job is to help them think about this, or possibly even tell them the answer. (Philosophy is hard work ... but somebody's got to do it!)

My goal: to think about this as a question about personal identity, and leave abortion completely out of the picture.  In fact, it would be great to pretend (if only I could) that pregnancies simply cannot be terminated, once they begin. Or it might be good to think about when a life starts in relation to gestation in other species.  We don't have pro-choice or pro-life commitments when it comes to the gestation of kittens.  Maybe it would be good to think about when Kitty starts to exist, instead of when Baby starts to exist.  Or you could think about tree reproduction, and ponder when a particular tree has its first day of life.  Or is there something special about people--so plants and animals start existing earlier, and people later?

Anyhow, that's the subject du jour. See next post for an interesting puzzle.



Michael Kelly's article about his daughter's marriage in the NYT Style section yesterday was a thing of beauty--try reading it without crying!  He starts with the horror of his daughter's rape 10 years ago and ends with this, on her abiding faith--

Ten years ago, bleeding and alone in the field where she had been left to die at 24, my daughter got up and stumbled to a house in the dead of night. She said later that she felt as if she had been “lifted up by God.” I asked somewhat bitterly where God had been 10 minutes earlier.
In the greatest testament of faith I have ever heard, she calmly replied, “He was there holding my hand.”
Now Eric has taken her hand in marriage, a union that is surely blessed by God.
There's something stupendous about being able to see things this way.  Stupendous, not stupid. To my mind, it's an expression of tenacity, determination, an abiding love of life.  You have to appreciate the psychological power of faith.  I don't have it, for philosophical reasons, but I can be glad for people who do.


Dear NRA

Words can't really express how I feel about yesterday's massacre, considering that I have teenagers I routinely drop off at movie theaters, so I'll just pass on a letter that came into my possession. It's from an NRA fan by the name of I. Amanidiot.


Dear NRA,

Consider, please, my little Swiss Army knife.

The US Government forbids me to carry it onto an airplane. This really upsets me.  Knives don't hijack airplanes, people hijack airplanes. I have the right to do what I want on an airplane.  Without my little knife, I can't engage in my favorite hobby, which is whittling dinosaurs.

I have no criminal record. I am a law-abiding citizen. How dare they take away my little knife! I'm outraged.

Some might say --"Well, too bad, we've got to get knives out of the hands of people like the 9/11 hijackers who few planes into buildings, killing thousands of people."  What? They did that, not me! My rights are guaranteed in the second amendment.  See, right there--

I belong to a militia--membership: me. "Our" mission is to carve all the dinosaurs we can, using "our" arms--which would be the knife.  And yet the TSA stops me from bringing it on board, subjecting me to a humiliating search. 

They'll tell you it's to prevent this --

But it's so unfair!  It's my right to have fun in any way I like.

Thank you for all you've done to protect the rights of gun-lovers everywhere.
No matter how many people are massacred with guns, you've stood up for the important thing.  Not this--


Jessica Ghawi, age 24
 But the fun of guys like this--

But what about me?  If you get to have assault rifles anywhere you like, you get to have Swiss Army knives on airplanes.  Think about it, it does!

And don't give me that Modus Tollens!

  1. If you get to have assault rifles anywhere you like, you get to have Swiss army knives on airplanes.
  2. You don't get to have Swiss army knives on airplanes.
  3. So you don't get to have assault rifles anywhere you like.

Because, because, because ... well, just because.


I. Amanidiot


Aristotle on Parenthood

Here are some passages from Aristotle that I've been pondering (all from Nichomachean Ethics Book VIII, Chapter 12). Maybe you'd like to ponder too--
  1. A parent is fond of his children because he regards them as something of himself; and children are fond of a parent because they regard themselves as coming from him.
  2. The parent regards his children as his own more than the product regards the maker as its own. For a person regards what comes from him as his own, as the owner regards his tooth or hair or anything; but what has come from him regards its owner as its own not at all, or to a lesser degree.
  3.  A parent, then, loves his children as he loves himself. For what has come from him is a sort of other himself; it is other because it is separate.
In these passages I see insight, as well as confusion, as well as an error.

First, the insight.  Parents do see their children as "something of themselves," as "coming from them," and as "a sort of other himself."  I think this is really fundamental psychologically, and also relevant to some ethical issues. 

Second, the confusion.  In passage 2, Aristotle makes it seem like our children are "our own" in the way our teeth or hair are.  This would give parents supreme power over their children. You could do anything you wanted to them, like you can do anything you want to your hair.  But in passage 3, he does better--"What has come from him is a sort of other himself; it is other because it is separate." The separateness has to be countenanced in any reasonable story about parent-child ethics.

Third, the error. Aristotle thinks the fact that children come from parents has the same positive meaning for parents and for children (see passage 1), but just less so for children (see passage 2 and later in this chapter)  But not really.  The fact that your child comes from you gives you, as a parent, feelings of power and pride. I did this! But as the child grows up, the fact that she comes from her parents at least sometimes has the opposite significance for her--it generates a feeling of dependence, not power. The child starts to want to be her own person, and not "come from" anyone, while parents will always enjoy the feeling that their children are "something of themselves".

Points off for the confusion and error, but I think the insight is still deep!

Circumcision Debate

Interesting debate here that touches on my post about religious circumcision at several points. Fuzzy picture quality, unfortunately. How to pronounce "Kazez"? Kuh-ZEZ.  Looks exotic, sounds pretty plain vanilla!

Graphing Ideas

This is beautiful, check it out.


What is Feminism?

For lovers of Scottish accents and feisty red-headed girls, nothing could possibly beat the movie Brave. So funny, so heart-warming, so adorable.  And a feminist movie for kids, too!  Let's just say I'm in love.  Funny thing, though-- after the movie I gently queried my two kids, 15 year old boy/girl twins, about the feminist message of the movie, and discovered, to my surprise, that they hadn't noticed any feminist message.  No, the message is about everyone controlling their own fate, whether male or female.  Only (wait, wait!), Merida spends the whole movie challenging rigid gender expectations.  Her devoted mother (voiced superbly by Emma Thomson) is trying to get her to put aside bows and arrows and rock climbing and marry one of the boys competing for the privilege. Merida is fighting against having a girl's standard destiny. Right?  Well, right.

So why the resistance to calling Brave a feminist movie?  I'm shocked, really not so happy, to find hostility toward the word "feminism" in my own house.  At my kids' age, or actually a year younger, I organized an event on feminism at my junior high! I've been a feminist forever.  What is it about the word that turns the young folk off? I can only take my interrogations so far (teenagers, who needs 'em?), so this is speculation, but I think kids today take for granted everything we were fighting for back when I was their age. Of course women can be doctors, lawyers, newscasters (remember when all the anchormen were men?), athletes, soldiers. They can do anything they want, and should get equal pay for equal work, etc. etc.  So the substance of feminism is obvious and uncontroversial.  The problem, then, is ... what?

Speculation: to young people today, "feminism" doesn't actually mean freedom, equality, self-determination, and the like. It surely means that, but also ... (what?) ... I guess making too big a fuss about the wrong things, so being (somehow) a pain in the ass.  A feminist is someone who insists on the word "women" instead of "girls", or tries to outlaw innocent fun like calling people "bitches" or "pussies".   A feminist (in the negative sense) is constantly making a mountain out of a molehill. A feminist is against sex, or something, so allying yourself with feminism is unsexy.

But no--I may have to undertake some stealth indoctrinating over the summer--really a feminist is just someone who is tuned in to the disadvantages that still hold women back, and who wants better for women.  Feminists can disagree about all sorts of stuff.  There's no party line about language or anything else, save fundamentals like equality, self-determination, and the like.

The NYT magazine had an amusing article about feminist comedian Caitlin Moran, author of the book How to Be a Woman. I may have to smuggle that into our house and leave it around. Maybe for the young folks feminism + funny = fine.  We shall see.


Religious Circumcision

picture from www.brityy.org
I am against infant circumcision. That said, I hasten to add that I don't think circumcising boys is the world's greatest crime.  Many circumcised boys have lived to tell the story.  They are not enormously deprived.  Circumcising boys is nothing like "circumcising" girls.  Still--I think the practice is wrong and should stop.

But what if you're Jewish? Don't you have to circumcise your baby boy?  This is what some Jewish groups are saying in response to a German court's recent ruling against religion-based infant circumcision.  You could respond with a general attack on religion, or an attack on religious rationales for suspicious childrearing practices (see Brian Earp for the latter). But I think it's interesting to approach this from a Jewish perspective. Does it really make sense for Jews to insist on infant circumcision?

You might say "of course," since in the bible God does demand circumcision on the 8th day.  But let's have a look at the circumcision chapter of Genesis (17) and consider the meaning of circumcision.  Liberal Jews, at least, ought to agree that it's the meaning that matters, as they are prepared to throw out hundreds and hundreds of biblical injunctions--the bits about banning lepers, stoning people for blasphemy, and the like.  What (we) liberal Jews want to retain is what really matters, not every last line and edict.

The circumcision chapter starts with God making a covenant with Abram and offering him enormous success and prosperity (I got these passages from the Gateway Bible website--they're from the New International translation).

17 When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to him and said, “I am God Almighty[a]; walk before me faithfully and be blameless. Then I will make my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers.”
Abram fell facedown, and God said to him, “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations. No longer will you be called Abram[b]; your name will be Abraham,[c] for I have made you a father of many nations. I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you. I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. The whole land of Canaan, where you now reside as a foreigner, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God. ”

God offers great things, and demands something in return--namely, a sign that Abraham and his descendants will be faithful to the covenant.
Then God said to Abraham, “As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come. 10 This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. 11 You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. 12 For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner—those who are not your offspring. 13 Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised. My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant. 14 Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant. ”

Yes, it does say "for the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised," but the very same sentence says "including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner--those who are not your offspring."  You cannot say the first half of the sentence is sacred and unchallengeable, and then say the second half is barbaric. The second half presupposes there are slaves in a household and that the head of household is entitled to perform surgery on their genitals.  This is obviously to be rejected by modern people who have a grip on the notion of individual rights and personal autonomy.

Any reasonable, modern approach to this chapter will focus on the main underlying meaning--the covenant--not the exact details as to who should circumcise whom, and when. The meaning becomes more clear a little later in the chapter.  First there is this, which stresses the extraordinary generosity of God. He will even give a child to 90 year old Sarah!

15 God also said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you are no longer to call her Sarai; her name will be Sarah. 16 I will bless her and will surely give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her.”
17 Abraham fell facedown; he laughed and said to himself, “Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?” 18 And Abraham said to God, “If only Ishmael might live under your blessing!”
19 Then God said, “Yes, but your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you will call him Isaac.[d] I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him. 20 And as for Ishmael, I have heard you: I will surely bless him; I will make him fruitful and will greatly increase his numbers. He will be the father of twelve rulers, and I will make him into a great nation. 21 But my covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah will bear to you by this time next year.” 

Now it's Abraham's turn to "give back."  

22 When he had finished speaking with Abraham, God went up from him.
23 On that very day Abraham took his son Ishmael and all those born in his household or bought with his money, every male in his household, and circumcised them, as God told him. 24 Abraham was ninety-nine years old when he was circumcised, 25 and his son Ishmael was thirteen; 26 Abraham and his son Ishmael were both circumcised on that very day. 27 And every male in Abraham’s household , including those born in his household or bought from a foreigner, was circumcised with him.

This is an amazing passage, if you think about it vividly.  Imagine the slicing (without anaesthia), the blood, the pain--all that, done to a sensitive, pleasure-giving organ.  God gave richly, and these men gave back proportionally.  That's the meaning of circumcision: thanking God and making a commitment to him through pain and sacrifice--of a body part, and the pleasure that it brings.

Now, I don't see how it's possible for circumcision to mean gratitude and commitment unless men undertake it themselves, voluntarily, and with full knowledge of how they will suffer and what they're giving up.  Think about Abraham forcing circumcision on his slaves.  That couldn't possibly have the same meaning as undergoing the procedure himself.  ("No skin off my penis..." you can just about hear him say.) Likewise if adults try to express gratitude and commitment by tying down 8-day-old babies and cutting of their foreskins, there's no meaningful sacrifice being made.  You cannot make a meaningful sacrifice by taking something away from someone else.

So I think Jews should make a modification to the circumcision ritual in just the way they've modified hundreds and hundreds of other biblical injunctions. They should become like Abraham and Ismael, and decide for themselves, at an adult age, whether or not they want to have their foreskins removed. At that point, I predict they will feel just as Abraham and Ismael must have--that a foreskin is kind of a nice thing.  If it's more painful to be circumcised as an adult, then so be it. The pain was part of the meaning of the ritual for Abraham and Ismael. Adult circumcision would be a true sacrifice,  a way to express dedication to God. 

Now of course, if circumcision is done in the style of Abraham and Ismael--to adult males--there's a question whether it will continue.  Jewish boys are happy with Bar Mitzvahs as a rite of passage, and are likely to be a lot less excited about circumcision. In fact, I think once they get to know their foreskins, many are not going to want to give them up. They're going to think "what a crazy, barbaric ritual!"  That part of the bible will then be forgotten, like the parts about banishing lepers and stoning blasphemers.  

That eventuality may make some Jews loathe to replace infant with adult circumcision.  They'll want to get 'em while their helpless, to preempt adult males making "the wrong decision" later on.  But that, clearly, is ethically suspect.  We should do to babies what we think they would want us to do, if we could consult their later adult selves.  That's why we give them vaccinations and force them to go to school, despite their protests.  To perform circumcision on a baby boy just because we think he won't perform it on himself, later on, clearly violates the baby's rights.

So: adult circumcision. That's the way to go, especially if you're circumcising for Jewish reasons.



When I taught a course on procreative ethics last year, my students were exposed to all sorts of odd thought experiments.  For example, we talked about a thought experiment devised by Gregory Kavka.  Imagine a couple that uses a sex pill to increase sexual pleasure, with the result that their offspring are born with some minor abnormality.  The intuition is that there's something wrong with this, yet it's hard to explain why. After all, if they didn't use the pill, different children would be born (Kavka attributes this to "the precariousness of existence," which is a simple function of the biology of reproduction). The children born will most likely have lives worth living, and be glad they were born.  The couple doesn't seem to harm the children they create, so what's the problem?  Great puzzle. Only my students titter about the example -- AS IF! Who would do such a crazy thing?

I'm awfully pleased that I've discovered a real-life example that will serve roughly the same purpose.  Meet Jeff (from the ABC news website, always a treasure trove of tabloid trash, mixed in with an occasional news story)--

.... for Jeff, breast-feeding seems to be the act that fulfills his sexual desire.
"I really don't care what people think," Jeff told ABCNews.com. "I grew up to try to be a people pleaser and came to the conclusion that you can't please everyone. It works for us and we are consenting adults. And it helps me be able to perform."
"I can't explain it, but when I breast-feed, it helps strengthen my erection," he says. "When Michelle was pregnant with our son and stopped producing milk and I had to drink regular milk, during that time I was unable to maintain a healthy erection. The first time I breast-fed again, it was awesome."
And that's not his only fetish. Jeff is turned on by getting his wife pregnant and has forbid her to use any kind of birth control, even though both their children were born prematurely and doctors have warned Michelle about potential dangers to her health if she risks another pregnancy.
But his wife is just as into it. "It was very erotic," said Michelle. "Breasts are a central sexual object and milk flowing does not just have to be just for the baby. If there is excess, we might as well make use of it."
Jeff puts the sweet breast milk in his coffee and in his breakfast cereal. He's also into vampires, naming their infant son Khayman from a character in Anne Rice's "Vampire Chronicles." Sometimes he bears his teeth into Michelle's areola and sucks the blood.
I admit, I quoted more of that than strictly necessary. The crucial part is in blue. 

Jeff prioritizes his sexual pleasure, so keeps getting his wife pregnant, even though the resulting children are born premature (and her health is threatened--not the key point, but certainly a strike against him). The question is why he and his wife are guilty of anything, as far as their offspring are concerned.  I do think they are, but it isn't easy to explain why. In fact there's a huge ethics literature with relevance to this question.

Kavka's article is here, and the debate about these issues is presented in a powerpoint here ("Kavka"). Next time I teach this course, we may have to talk about Jeff!


Beautiful World

I had my musical interlude, now it's time for natural beauty.  (This is what happens when you try to read an excruciatingly boring book--there have to be a lot of interludes. To protect the innocent, I won't be saying who wrote the book.)  The picture, with credits, is from Jerry Coyne's blog, and he credits it to Jens Kolk.

The Rifle's Spiral

Musical interlude.  At first I thought Port of Morrow was a tad bland, but I've come to love it. No--to be honest!--I'm obsessed with it. James Mercer's voice is perfectly warm and melodious, but with hints of edginess. Reminds me of something from the 60s--but for the life of me I can't think exactly what. 


Conservatives are Happier?

So says Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute in today's New York Times--

WHO is happier about life — liberals or conservatives? The answer might seem straightforward. After all, there is an entire academic literature in the social sciences dedicated to showing conservatives as naturally authoritarian, dogmatic, intolerant of ambiguity, fearful of threat and loss, low in self-esteem and uncomfortable with complex modes of thinking. And it was the candidate Barack Obama in 2008 who infamously labeled blue-collar voters “bitter,” as they “cling to guns or religion.” Obviously, liberals must be happier, right?
Wrong. Scholars on both the left and right have studied this question extensively, and have reached a consensus that it is conservatives who possess the happiness edge. Many data sets show this. For example, the Pew Research Center in 2006 reported that conservative Republicans were 68 percent more likely than liberal Democrats to say they were “very happy” about their lives. This pattern has persisted for decades. The question isn’t whether this is true, but why.
Many conservatives favor an explanation focusing on lifestyle differences, such as marriage and faith. They note that most conservatives are married; most liberals are not. (The percentages are 53 percent to 33 percent, according to my calculations using data from the 2004 General Social Survey, and almost none of the gap is due to the fact that liberals tend to be younger than conservatives.) Marriage and happiness go together. If two people are demographically the same but one is married and the other is not, the married person will be 18 percentage points more likely to say he or she is very happy than the unmarried person.
The story on religion is much the same. According to the Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey, conservatives who practice a faith outnumber religious liberals in America nearly four to one. And the link to happiness? You guessed it. Religious participants are nearly twice as likely to say they are very happy about their lives as are secularists (43 percent to 23 percent). The differences don’t depend on education, race, sex or age; the happiness difference exists even when you account for income.
Whether religion and marriage should make people happy is a question you have to answer for yourself. But consider this: Fifty-two percent of married, religious, politically conservative people (with kids) are very happy — versus only 14 percent of single, secular, liberal people without kids.
There's something really misleading about this. Based on the first paragraph, you'd think Brooks was reporting that being conservative makes people more happy. But no--the finding is that conservatives are more happy, and the explanation is that they're more happy because they're more married and more religious.  (The rest of the article doesn't offer any other answer.)  The obvious question, then, is whether there's a difference between married, religious liberals and married, religious conservatives. Too bad he provides no answer!  Strange story--for some reason the NYT editors thought it was good to present this as a story about politics when it's entirely a story about religion and marriage.



I've been on the road a lot in the last month, so away from a full-size computer. For rest and relaxation, I've been on Twitter quite a bit. Hey, it's fun compressing messages! Except some things are too complicated to talk about in tiny bursts. Like Bullying.  Someone started a Twitter hashtag, #FTBullies, meant to call attention to bullying at Free Thought Blogs. If you don't define your terms carefully, the accusation seems absurd.  If you do define your terms, then...well, yes, it certainly goes on at some of these blogs (not all) and of course at many other blogs as well.

So, definition time. I think bullying in this context is not aimed primarily at inflicting suffering. The point of it is not really personal, but to quickly excise certain claims that are deemed "beyond the pale." To accelerate the excision, the usual methods of persuasion--argumentation, evidence, reasoning--are set aside, and new methods are employed.  To bully a claim off the table, you do things like:  deleting comments, editing comments, mocking, straw-manning, piling on, insulting, and generally making life unpleasant for the person who made the claim.  They then withdraw, and the claim vanishes. Wonderful.

Now, it's kind of bad calling this "bullying" because bullying is always bad, by definition.  Non-rationally driving a claim off the table is occasionally just fine.  I don't think we need to spend time talking people out of just anything they might say. Sometimes speed is of the essence. Sometimes we don't want to dignify a claim, or the person making the claim, by putting a lot of time and energy into a rational refutation.  Back when I was blogging at Talking Philosophy, I once deleted the comments of some Holocaust deniers who dropped by for "rational debate." No thanks.  I've closed threads here when I thought people were saying things not worth discussing.  But it takes a lot for me to do that.  The last time I did so someone was challenging the idea that women are raped more than men. Not. Worth. My. Time.

There's a problem, though, if a blog community sets the parameters so that the permitted claims fall within a relatively narrow range, and a very wide range of claims are subject to being bullied off the table. That's my problem with some Free Thought Blogs, some of the time, but also with lots of other blogs. That's the thing about blogs--they tend to be micro-communities in which everyone agrees about the vast majority of what's up for discussion. They do tend to try to preserve ideological conformity by using bullying techniques a lot.  I've noticed that in many different blog communities--not just atheist blogs, but also blogs dealing with animal rights and also blogs about feminism.  This is observed, documented, and made much of in Cass Sunstein's book Going to Extremes: How Like Minds Unite and Divide.

The only reason it's worth observing that this sometimes goes on at some Free Thought Blogs and at other atheist blogs is that it's especially ironic, given that these blogs aspire to open, reasoned debate.  When a debate topic is within the narrow parameters of permitted disagreement people are plenty open and reasonable, but otherwise ... often not.

Will I be giving examples? No. I'm not naming names either. That's a fool's errand and a waste of time.  Please keep comments on a general level. What is blog-bullying? Is it always bad? Is it just a way of quickly excising "horrid" claims, or is there more to the psychodynamics?  That's the kind of thing I'm trying to talk about here.