Bill Nye Fails at Bioethics

Or, “Bill Nye Ignores Most Pro-Life Scholarship, ‘Science, Bitch’ Crowd Roars in Approval”

So Bill Nye’s new video is making the rounds on Facebook and the internet, in which he DEVASTATES the anti-abortion movement’s unscientific, backward, intolerant, and malicious move to force women to carry every child ever to term, especially if it’s against her will.  Yeah, not so much

With science!   Continue reading

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On what people want Christians to hear

The scene: some church, some Sunday morning

*Ray slips in the back door, picks a seat towards the middle*

Pastor: Now, according to a few passages in the the Bible, homosexuality is a sin.

Couple of older males in the audience: Amen!

Pastor: Now, wait, I’m not finished.  You know what else the Bible defines as a sin?  Divorce.

*uncomfortable silence*Try this in my church, see what happens

Pastor: There are countless passages that talk about how divorce is wrong, and that there are consequences to getting a divorce, such as the wife should be stoned.  Yet, I witnessed a divorce just this morning.  And I gotta tell you, it was heartbreaking, but I definitely didn’t attempt to throw rocks at the wife, even though she was the one who filed for divorce.

*Ray raises his hand*  Pastor Redbum?

Pastor: What the—who was that?  Who called me Pastor ‘Redbum?’ Continue reading

PBS, After Tiller, and unpleasant conclusions

No small ruckus has been raised among the pro-life community over PBS’ decision to air the documentary After Tiller on Labor Day.  They have already faced resistance to their decision and have stood by it.

Others, such as Matt Walsh, have argued against the wisdom of airing a deeply controversial film on a network that accepts grants from the federal government that uses taxpayer money.  There is some wisdom in this critique, since an awful lot of Americans might have misgivings about their tax dollars funding the airing of something they deeply disagree with.  Personally, I am inclined to say that PBS’ TV schedule is their own prerogative.  But since they felt resistance to airing After Tiller, they thoughtfully put out a twenty-nine-page guide and discussion booklet about the film for use by groups that choose to air the film themselves.

Except the reasons they give for allowing third-trimester abortions put them on a collision course with some profoundly controversial conclusions espoused by some abortion-choice proponents.

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The President’s reckless rhetoric

 […] This is a country where everyone deserves the same freedom and opportunities to fulfill their dreams.

–From the Statement by the President on Roe v. Wade Anniversary, January 22, 2014

So end President Obama’s remarks about Roe v. Wade and his administration’s official stance on abortion, released on the 41st anniversary of the decision.  Unfortunately, the President’s remarks are deeply problematic, for reasons he probably didn’t intend.

The problem lies with the rhetoric: it is broad.  Too broad.  Much too broad.  So broad that an aircraft carrier can be parallel parked in the gap it leaves.  The logic of the statement is quite simple: abortion is a good thing because it helps women maintain equal footing and allows them to pursue their goals.  What could possibly be wrong with such a statement?

In his article for the Christian Research Journal, bioethicist Scott Klusendorf quotes several ethicists who defend the position that newborns and infants may be terminated on the basis of disability or a simple lack of development, or simply because they are not considered persons who have human rights until a given point after birth.  Klusendorf quotes Singer:

“Human babies are not born self-aware, or capable of grasping that they exist over time. They are not persons”; therefore, “the life of a newborn is of less value than the life of a pig, a dog, or a chimpanzee.”

Consider also, from his textbook Practical Ethics:

When the death of a disabled infant will lead to the birth of another infant with better prospects of a happy life, the total amount of happiness will be greater if the disabled infant is killed. The loss of the happy life for the first infant is outweighed by the gain of a happier life for the second. Therefore, if killing the hemophiliac infant has no adverse effect on others, it would, according to the total view, be right to kill him.

To be fair, Singer says that in most cases infanticide may be morally wrong–but that claim seems dubious in light of his much earlier claim about the moral worth of the lives of newborns.  But Singer is not alone.  Other ethicists have echoed Singer and have gone farther than him.  Klusendorf quotes Michael Tooley from 1972, the year before Roe, and draws the logical conclusion:

“[A human being] possess[es] a serious right to life only if it possesses the concept of a self as a continuing subject of experiences and other mental states, and believes that it is itself such a continuing entity.”  Infants do not qualify.

Klusendorf’s discussion of another ethicist’s comments deserve attention as well.

More recently, American University philosophy professor Jeffrey Reiman has asserted that unlike mature human beings, infants do not “possess in their own right a property that makes it wrong to kill them.” He explicitly holds that infants are not persons with a right to life and that “there will be permissible exceptions to the rule against killing infants that will not apply to the rule against killing adults and children.”

So with these philosophers in mind, let’s revisit the President’s remarks.  The logic is unambiguous: if abortion can allow a woman to achieve her goals, it should be permissible.  But the President’s rhetoric is careless: these ethicists have given reasons why they think infanticide should be permissible, and all of them are grounded in the same defense of abortion that Obama has appealed to.

Which raises some uncomfortable questions for President Obama.  What reasons can he give for his stated defense of abortion that do not equally apply to Singers,’ Tooley’s, and Reiman’s defenses of infanticide?  If abortion–the act of ending a human life–is acceptable at one stage based upon the physical attributes of the unborn, as far as the ambitions of women or families are concerned, then Singer’s point that the newly born are developmentally similar to the unborn means that Singer and company can (and has)  use that very same rhetoric in the defense of infanticide on the basis that it will allow for the very same goals and opportunities to be pursued.

Which is surely not what the President meant to say, but the logic of his statement is unavoidable.  Why not follow Singer, Tooley, and others in their arguments about abortion and infanticide?  Would not more goals and ambitions be pursued by allowing infanticide?  Surely the good would outweigh the bad in such a scenario.  If size, location, or degrees of dependency or development can be appealed to to terminate a human being so that another can achieve a particular objective, why not grant more achievement?

But Singer is right in pointing out that newborns are developmentally similar to their unborn counterparts, and there is something of a circular firing squad within pro-choice philosophy.  To quote Christopher Kaczor, “Arguments against infanticide often apply equally well to abortion while arguments in favor of abortion often apply equally well to infanticide (The Ethics of Abortion, p. 41).”

And it is into this disturbing philosophical tempest that the President deploys his remarks.  Surely President Obama does not mean to allow such an application of his statement, but his sentiments are not used by defenders of abortion alone.  When his rhetoric can be used–and is used–by those defending infanticide, that rhetoric needs to be critically examined.

Thoughts on Connecticut (and the gun control debate)

Yesterday on Facebook I posted a question in response to the shooting: What chain of events transpires in a person’s mind that concludes with “And then I will execute an entire classroom of kindergartners?”  Let’s take a look at just a few things that someone would have to believe in order to come to that conclusion (and I trust the reader to forgive me for leaving any out):

  • Life is of no worth.  Specifically, certain individual lives that are within reach.
  • My life is of no more worth than theirs.
  • The world is such that it does not matter whether or not these lives continue or not.
  • Life is not fair.  If life will not be fair to me, I will not be fair to it.
  • There must not be anything after death–if there is such a thing as cosmic-scale justice, and such an act were to violate it, and that death would not erase that injustice, it is not worth risking such an injustice.
  • Heaven and hell cannot be real (and thus no God to govern the present or the future).

It seems to me that at least all of these things must be believed before such an act can happen.  At each and every step, certain beliefs about the world and humanity have to be denied and suppressed.

So to my fellow Christians, I would simply ask: live and talk and think in ways that show that life matters, that all specific lives matter, that material life–the substance of our being–matters, and that there is a Judge who will ‘set the world to rights’ one day.   Are we as Christians walking and talking the walk and talk that conveys that the above list is actually false?  Do everyday people we pass on the street come to that conclusion after meeting us?  I’d say most of us do, but it’s worth thinking about more.

But there’s another debate in all of this, that inevitably follows: shouldn’t we do something about the guns?

At the very outset, it appears to me that there is one key principle that an awful lot of people seem to ignore: that regardless of stance, both sides of the debate seek the same moral good: that no shootings like this ever occur again.    That’s the high moral good that should be the guiding principle in these discussions, but it seems to be left out an awful lot.

I don’t think it’s necessary or helpful to complain about people immediately making their case for or against gun control right after events like this happen.  First, it’s a very natural response, almost a reflex, of people on the outside who are observing the whole thing from a distance.  Second, people naturally can’t stand a problem they can’t fix, and, well, this is a big problem that can’t be easily fixed (and so it drives us nuts).  Third, everyone on the argument spectrum naturally sees events like this through their worldview ‘filter,’ so it easily fits into a given spot in a particular overall argument.  So I don’t begrudge anyone what they believe about much of anything, even if it does seem overly soon–because of reason #1, that it is really hard to avoid doing.  And we’ll eventually draw worldview-level conclusions about the event anyway, whether or not we say them right off the bat.  It seems to be just looking for offense to be offended at an argument when we’re all distant observers (unless, of course, it happens close to home, then we really do have bigger things to worry about).  It’s still people seeking a particular good, and I have little reason to be upset with that.

That said, I do have a few thoughts about the gun control debate.

The presence and absence of guns doesn’t really seem to matter much.  Countries like Japan are touted for having extremely few guns and hardly any gun crime, and countries like Switzerland are touted for having tons and tons of guns and no gun crime.  This tells me that it’s not the guns, it’s possibly culture, or more probably worldview-related.

Gun-free zones are probably a bad idea.  It sounds good, to have zones where guns ought not be, but that is premised on the idea that every single person will obey that law at all times regardless of mental state.  Thus far, we have had an abundance of mass shootings in gun-free zones: schools, a church, a movie theater, and a mall.  Hospitals are about the only places that don’t need guns, and even then just about every guard carries one.

In each of these recent (and past) shootings, the question arises: Could one more gun have limited or stopped this tragedy?  And that answer is almost always yes.  And that should tell us something about both guns and people who use guns.

Thomas Sowell makes a great point in his books about the difference between solutions and trade-offs.  Solutions rarely ever turn out to be solutions, but trade-offs recognize and mitigate risk.  Banning guns is not the solution it is promised to be; the trade-off of more citizens legally owning guns and having the training to wield them is a more optimal solution in a world of uncertainty.

The media has a hand in this.  They’ve already been criticized for how they handled this shooting and others (Jared Loughner of non-tea-party fame), and the Aurora shooting, also of non-tea-party fame, and this time they identified the wrong person, and have generally been invading the privacy and solace of a grieving town for news consumption.  But gun crimes are big, dramatic events that get lots and lots of airtime and hand-wringing and kvetching of all kinds.  Yet guns kill relatively few people every year compared to things with very high death rates like cars, but nobody makes that big a deal about it, which tells me that the publicity generated by a shooting may be a significant motivator in these shootings: the world will see me, and see the mark I made on the world.  I reckon if gun crime were treated no differently than any other cause of death, or other causes of death with greater rates were treated like gun crime, it would be a vastly different picture.  But there’s a narrative to uphold, so gun crime gets lots of attention.  And yet another inconsistency: Ten people were shot last night in Chicago alone, four of them teenagers, yet did that make the news?  No.  Chicago is notorious for its absurdly high levels of gun crime and murders.  So not all gun crime is even regarded as worthy of equal attention by the media.  Why is this so?

Each and every event makes me consider getting a conceal/carry permit.

On that note: at heart in the gun control debate is a view of humanity itself: an optimistic view, that says that with enough influence and education, events like this won’t occur; and a tragic view, that says that mankind is flawed to some extent and that events like this, however rare, are inevitable, and therefore individuals must be on guard to use force, even deadly force, to protect lives.

It is not simply enough to say to those who argue for proliferation of conceal/carry licenses or abolition of most gun-free zones that “it’s absurd” or “it’s irrational” or whatever else you might well think it is.  Show how it is so.  I trust you’ll understand if I can’t just take your word for it.  But be warned: you will have to show that there is no meaningful difference between lawful gun ownership and use and unlawful gun ownership and use.  And that may be a bridge too far.

Conversely, those who argue for conceal/carry expansion, take the time to recognize that those you disagree with seek the same moral good as you, and be willing and able to show that an argument, no matter how well-meaning, cannot account for the extent of the evil that all people are capable of (as well as arguing that that difference is also critical to the debate) and that it is a higher moral good for individuals to be able to defend others lawfully and forcefully, in equal measure.

As I write this, I’m seeing reports on Twitter of a mall shooting in California.  Which brings me back to my previous statement: there might come a time when we cannot wait ‘until another day’ to have this debate.  So…regardless of what side you’re on, you’d better be on your game when this debate breaks out big time.  Because one of these days we won’t have another day to wait.  May the best argument and worldview win.

How not to argue ethics

Every now and then, but more frequently than I’d like, something like this pops up on the internet or on Facebook:

If you don’t believe in things like smoking pot or gay marriage (or abortion, or other activist campaign), just remember that you don’t have to engage in those activities if you don’t want to.

As though that were the entirety of the argument.

It’s not.  Here’s why.

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Answering the Missouri Cures Ethics Trainwreck

Or, why the Missouri Cures Initiative needs to be repealed

(Note: I’ve had this on the back burner for a very long time.  Now that I have a blog, I suppose it’ll work, so I dusted it up, added a few notes, and here it is.  And I’m also really thinking about renaming this blog to Dave’s Ethics Emporium.)

So the Missouri Coalition for Lifesaving Cures has a page entitled “Myths and Facts” (http://mclc.convio.net/site/PageNavigator/Learn/learn_mythsandfacts) about stem cell research.  I decided to go through and answer the little questionnaire to see what would happen.  I was rather surprised to see the responses to those who oppose embryonic stem cell research–hereafter ESCR.

Let’s see if their defenses hold water, shall we?  For that matter, let’s see if they can even ask or answer the right questions.

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