Tuesday, November 29, 2011

On 'Embryo: A Defense of Human Life' (Pt. 3)

[...continued from here]

If what I wrote in Part 2 is correct, certain pro-life arguments are flawed to the extent they rely on living beings having one definite "substance kind." I agreed that I am a human organism – just as human embryos are — but it's also true that I am a mammal and that I am a heterogametic being. The first category applies to whales and the second fails to apply to about half of all human embryos.

Still, these are all categories for organisms. The authors of Embryo spend considerable time arguing that 'I' statements refer to the organisms we are (however we might characterize such organisms). "I composed a haiku" must be saying that a particular organism composed a haiku. And since this particular organism began to exist as a single cell zygote, any use of 'I' is mistaken if it does not refer to an entity which began to exist at that time.

Even if adults and embryos don't all share one (and only one) substance kind, perhaps every adult shares one (and only one) identity with a past embryo.

This is the point made in the opening of Embryo, which describes an infant born in 1997 as a survivor of the 1995 hurricane Katrina; he was a frozen embryo at the time, you see. I won't dispute that Noah — as he was named — shares an identity with that embryo rescued from a flooded hospital. It's true that Noah was rescued as an embryo. However, it's also true that he was not.

Oh. I must be one of those crazed relativists, right? In some areas I am a relativist, but I suggest reserving 'crazed' for the ones who endorse contradictory propositions. I'm only claiming that the two boldface statements above which appear contradictory aren't necessarily in conflict because we can and often do mean different things by 'I' language (and 'he' language in this case). Furthermore, such variations may interfere with clear communication, but aren't otherwise a mistake, since personal identity is a conceptual chimera rather than a reality.

Consider this snag:
It is necessary to add the qualification "the vast majority of us," because there are exceptions to this claim about the beginning point of human beings. For identical twins do not come into existence at fertilization. At least one twin comes to be at a later point when the embryo divides—probably because of some extrinsically caused disruption—into two genetically identical human beings. What has happened to the early embryo? Some think that the early embryo is identical to one of the subsequent twins; it is as if a new embryo has "budded" off from the first. Others think that the first embryo ceases to be, and two new embryos take its place.1
Well, which is it? Are the authors waiting on a biological fact that embryologists just aren't sure about yet? They can't be reserving judgment on account of not knowing whether the first embryo's soul (if it had one) is attached to one, both, or neither twin; they've already sworn off dualism! Might I suggest it's up to us to arbitrarily decide to count the original embryo as identical to one, both, or neither of the twins?

Same goes for science fiction scenarios about teleportation copies and personality reprogramming.

Or, better, perhaps we should realize that such odd cases reveal seams in the patchwork of personal identity. There's no simple, objective fact of the matter whether an original embryo survives twinning. Why, then, would the situation be different if no twinning occurs?

Without a strongly realist view of personal identity, 'I' language is set free to apply to the different ways we think of identity. Would I survive a personality reprogramming? A permanent removal of conscious awareness? A teleportation? A bodily resurrection? A religious conversion? A mental state upload to a computer? A piecemeal physical replacement? A brain (or body) transplant? A millennium in cryostasis?

We can get different answers depending on which aspect of personal identity we're asking about.

Back to Noah. How can I say it's (also) true that he wasn't rescued as an embryo? Because here I'm using a 'he' which indicates Noah's conscious lifetime, so to speak. This isn't some other substance I'm claiming Noah "really is" rather than a human organism (or vertebrate organism, or male organism).2 I am merely using an aspect of personal identity focused on first-person experience, not biological life.

This view might be called linguistic dualism in contrast to metaphysical dualism, but 'I' language pluralism would be more accurate. It accommodates 'I' language which focuses on bodily action, language which combines body and mind, and also allows for language limited to a concern for mental attributes. Metaphysical dualism may turn out to be an illusion, but even then we may want to retain a way of speaking about ourselves that doesn't begin and end with our organism.

[concluded here...]

1. George, R.P., Tollefsen, C. (2008). Embryo: A defense of human life. New York: Doubleday. p 55.
2. As metaphysical dualism is described on p. 61.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

On 'Embryo: A Defense of Human Life' (Pt. 2)

[...continued from here]

Last time, I gave an overview of the pro-life argument in Embryo. I'm not going to critically discuss most of what's in the book. Instead, I only want to explain a couple of major places where Embryo zigs and I zag.

To shorten things a bit, I'm just going to agree with the first step of George and Tollefsen's (G&T's) argument. Embryos are distinct human organisms. Done.

I can also almost agree with G&T's second step. I am a human organism, just as embryos are. Where I start to diverge is this notion that I have a definite "substance kind" independent of how the inquiry is framed.
When we speak of substance or nature or essence, we are drawing attention to the kind of thing an entity is and the various properties or characteristics that an entity might possess accidentally, contingently, or temporarily.1
G&T then ask readers to consider an oak tree to understand that being an oak tree is its "substance or essence or nature." But what if they had asked readers to consider a tree to understand that being a tree is its essence? Now, if I point at something which is both a tree and an oak, is its substance kind tree or is it oak tree?

Tree. Then why not plant or living being?
Oak tree. Then why not quercus dumosa (one of many species of oak)?
Both. Then "the kind of thing an entity is" admits of multiple, compatible answers.

Perhaps the authors use "oak tree" for familiarity, but would have preferred a species name like quercus dumosa; they are trying to make a point about the species homo sapiens after all. Here's the catch: modern evolutionary theory undermines the idea of species as natural kinds. The concept of a species (like the concept of a language) is a convenient label for a cluster of organisms (or idiolects) that are significantly more similar to each other than another cluster of interest. I see no in-principle reason to stop at species when asking what "kind of thing an entity is," even if we're limiting our inquiry to genetics. My substance kind may as well be heterogametic human organism if we're having a discussion at that level.

What I'm saying here is that essence vs. accident is a matter of focus, not ontological fact. How does this affect the pro-life argumentation in Embryo? Let's look at two excerpts. The first is an explanation of why the essence vs. accident distinction must not be overlooked (let alone denied!):
Among the areas in which the gravity of this mistake is most clearly seen is in the area of embryo ethics. For embryos clearly cannot think, choose and speak; nor are they (yet) self-conscious or even sentient. Were this to mean that embryos were not the same kind of beings as the readers and authors of this book, that they were not persons, then it would be difficult to see why they should be accorded the same moral respect that we, authors and readers, believe we are entitled to.2
The argument here needs a little more context before it becomes clear. We get a strong hint later in the chapter:
Body-self dualists look only at the properties essential to human life, such as mental functioning and self-consciousness, as they exist at the height of their development. But where could such properties come from if they were not already rooted in the nature of the being that possessed them?3
So, roughly, the idea is that we adults can only derive our mental properties from our nature/substance kind. We only have one substance kind: human organism. Any moral respect due by virtue of possessing a property is due by virtue of membership in a substance kind with that property. Therefore, any moral respect due by virtue of our mental properties is due by virtue of being a human organism (which embryos also are).

But if substance kind is interest-relative, then the way the inquiry is framed can give the result of me having the same substance kind as an oak tree (both eukaryotic organisms), or a different substance kind from my mother (heterogametic organism vs. homogametic organism). We could even count "organism" as a substance kind if we are contrasting organisms against entities which aren't organisms.

Talking about kinds is useful in everyday speech, but I don't think such categories are as real as George and Tollefsen make them out to be.

[continued here...]

1. George, R.P., Tollefsen, C. (2008). Embryo: A defense of human life. New York: Doubleday. p. 58
2. Ibid. p. 60
3. Ibid. p. 81

Sunday, November 20, 2011

On 'Embryo: A Defense of Human Life' (Pt. 1)

Embryo: A Defense of Human Life is an important pro-life book which attempts to build its case without any reliance on religion. One crucial step even works better under a physicalist view, which I certainly didn't expect.

In this post, I will sketch the overall shape of Robert P. George and Christopher Tollefsen's argument.

Three Steps

Embryo begins with a biological argument that human embryos are distinct, whole human organisms. This is followed by a metaphysical argument that we adult humans are essentially (only) human organisms. Finally, a moral argument that human rights can only be held by adults by virtue of being human organisms...which applies equally to human embryos.

The Biological Argument

This section of the book hinges on the difference between organisms and mere parts of organisms. How can we count embryos as distinct organisms, while denying this status to eggs, sperm, and skin cells?

George and Tollefsen (G&T) don't provide a detailed general definition of "organism," but they do list features of embryos which set them apart.

An embryo...

...is a single biological system (p. 39)1
...is typically genetically distinct from its parents (p. 40)
...contains all the genetic information needed to develop into an adult human (p. 41)
...internally directs its own growth and development (p. 41)
...is actively developing toward maturity (p. 39)

Eggs and sperm each only contain part of the genetic information needed to develop into a mature human; nor are they actively developing themselves in that direction. Skin cells may contain full genetic information, but they aren't actively developing themselves in the direction of a mature human either.

Against arguments that embryos don't count as organisms on their own because they need to remain in a womb to survive, G&T write: "All human beings are dependent on their environment for their ability to grow, survive, and flourish, and human beings early in their development are no exception."2

The biological argument is successful when readers agree human embryos are whole human organisms at an early stage of development.

The Metaphysical Argument

This is the step that works better under a physicalist worldview because G&T argue against various forms of self-body dualism. In other words, they argue that you and I are identical to our bodies. We began to exist when our bodies began to exist; we will die when our bodies die. Since our bodies are essentially just human organisms, you and I are essentially just human organisms.
What is our substance kind, our nature, our essence? What sort of beings are we, substantially, rather than accidentally? We will argue in this chapter that we are, in fact, living organisms of the human species, that is, we are human beings.3
What's the alternative? Plato and much of Christian tradition claimed that we are souls inhabiting a body, until our bodies die and our souls continue on. Descartes considered himself essentially a thinking being, and only accidentally an embodied being.4 Other forms of self–body dualism are mentioned, but you probably get the point by now.

G&T give three reasons to doubt dualism. First, they appeal to the way we naturally think of ourselves as walking, touching, eating, etc. Second, they bring up the problem of how "minds and bodies can have causal impacts upon one another" and suggest that skepticism about knowledge is only such a perennial nuisance because philosophers have accepted Descartes' dualist assumptions. Third, they accuse dualists of incoherence for attempting to explain one entity by introducing two entities, neither of which can be identified as the dualist.5

Still, some may object to G&T's animalist view that we are fundamentally human organisms (human animals), because our creative, intellectual, and moral abilities seem left out; these qualities seem objectionably omitted from what it means to be human persons.

The authors answer by pointing out that almost no one insists these abilities must be immediately exercisable in adult humans to count as a person (otherwise patients under general anesthesia would cease to be people for the duration). On the other hand, if capacity for characteristically human mental abilities is key, then human embryos possess such capacity in root form even as they develop themselves toward the point of exercising these abilities.

This metaphysical argument is successful when readers accept that they are identical to their bodies, when they agree they are persons by virtue of being human animals.

The Moral Argument

Once it has been established that both adult humans and embryos are essentially human organisms, it might seem the pro-life argument is complete. Not so fast. There are still pro-choicers who engage in what the authors call moral dualism, in which some human beings are accorded human rights but other human beings are not.
When it is a matter of race or ethnicity, color or gender, origin or outlook, our culture resolutely and rightly holds that what matters is the fact of humanity, and not any other property shared by some but not others. But, by the same token, in considering the status of embryonic humans, what should matter is the fact of their humanity. They should not be regarded as inferior to other members of the human family based on age, size, location, stage of development, or condition of dependency.6
If we take human rights seriously as intrinsic moral dignities held by virtue of being human, then — considering the biological and metaphysical conclusions above — we cannot exclude human embryos. Moral dualists must undermine the concept of human rights, which would be a slippery slope to start down.

As you might have guessed, Utilitarianism and other consequentialist moral theories are rejected by George and Tollefsen. Such views don't take rights seriously as basic moral concepts. Is this an ad hoc move? No; plenty of other philosophers reject consequentialism for similar reasons without having the moral status of embryos in mind.

An Inconvenient Truth?

Embryo wraps up with a discussion of how public policy should change if the biological, metaphysical, and moral arguments are sound. The objection that pro-life policy is necessarily based on religious belief is defeated by this book's non-reliance on religion. And the objection that the treatment of embryos is a private matter can be answered by the appeal to human rights.

G&T call for the United States to continue the federal policy of not funding "embryo-destructive research" and for states to do the same. They also encourage increased funding for "research into adult, amniotic, and placental stem cells." Finally, they call for laws to ensure in vitro fertilization procedures only create embryos in the numbers that will be brought to term; adoption agencies should then push to rescue the current multitude of frozen embryos.7

I agree these would be appropriate public policy steps if the overall pro-life argument presented in this book were sound. However, I do have reservations, which I'll explain in a followup post (or posts, if needed).

[continued here...]

1. These are semi-quotes.
2. George, R.P., Tollefsen, C. (2008). Embryo: A defense of human life. New York: Doubleday. p. 51.
3. ibid. p. 59.
4. ibid. p. 62-63.
5. ibid. p. 70-77.
6. ibid. p. 114.
7. ibid. p. 210-217.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Notes On Civics Education

Yesterday I attended the annual meeting of the Academic Freedom Coalition of Nebraska (AFCON). This year's topic was “Reviving Civics Education in Nebraska,” with a particular emphasis on transforming civics education from passive lessons on how government works to an active habit of becoming personally informed and involved.

A panel of speakers from the Civics Nebraska Partnership Advisory Committee (CNPAC) explained how they had been appointed by the Nebraska State Board of Education to research and make recommendations on improving civics education. This task came with some restrictions. Additional funding was off the table. Nor did the committee think yet another standardized test would be effective, which would mean they had to do without that motivating influence on school administrators.

Civics Portfolios

Instead of standardized testing, the committee promotes the concept of civics portfolios for students. Think of it as an art portfolio except with an ongoing record of various kinds of civic engagement. (Art is another subject focused on doing, not merely knowing.) The key element here is student choice. It's one thing to be assigned a particular task, quite another to be given the freedom to choose and take ownership of a kind of task within wide boundaries. This also allows students to choose partisan projects the school itself could not specifically assign.

I recommend taking a look at these guidelines for a pilot program in civics portfolios going on right now. Some of this is happening in higher education as well.

Legislative Action

Earlier this year, State Sen. Rich Pahls introduced a bill to put this change of perspective on civics education into state law. LB544 passed and was signed by the Governor on April 26. What did this bill accomplish, exactly? There was already a requirement for every Nebraska high school to teach civics in at least two grades, with a variety of specific topics to be covered. One such topic was, “The duties of citizenship.” This bill expanded that language to:
The duties of citizenship, including active participation in the improvement of a citizen's community, state, country, and world and the value and practice of civil discourse between opposing interests.
Civics portfolios are not mentioned, but they are an effective means to the newly prescribed end.

I find it interesting that this newly expanded requirement immediately follows a requirement to teach: "The benefits and advantages of our form of government and the dangers and fallacies of Nazism, Communism, and similar ideologies," which is less about critical thinking and more about assigning the 'proper' conclusions. You can read the entire statute here.

What About Me?

I found this panel discussion highly relevant to my budding career as a librarian. Students working on their civics portfolios will need to research such areas as local demographics, local conflicts of interest, entrenched societal debates, means–ends solutions, laws, and cultural differences. They may need assistance working with creative media and with writing papers. Think what will happen if this whole “civics engagement” thing actually sticks with students and carries through beyond school requirements! Our reference desks could see a dramatic increase in activity, particularly if we take the opportunity to market libraries in this area. Count me in.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Religious Freedom

[I wrote this as a sample essay for the city newspaper, but it didn't land me a spot on the panel of community columnists this year.]

Conversations about government and religion too often get stuck on conflicting interpretations of the First Amendment. We can do better by uniting around the goal of religious freedom.

What is religious freedom? According to the Nebraska State Constitution, "All persons have a natural and indefeasible right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own consciences." Such statements reflect important past progress compared to Europe's history of religious wars and the oppression of Jews and "heretics," which the Plymouth Pilgrims and so many others came to America to escape.

Today, religion in America is much more than a question of which sort of Christian or Jew a person may be. The Pew Forum's 2008 "U.S. Religious Landscape Survey" revealed that about one in five Americans identity as neither Christian nor Jewish, a considerably larger minority than Black Americans. The right to worship "Almighty God" of Jewish scripture is necessary for religious freedom, but insufficient.

Why should the religious majority support freedom of conscience to worship other Gods or not worship any God? First: simple fairness. If you appreciate the government not telling you that Catholic or Baptist is the way to be, you can appreciate the government not telling your neighbors that Christian or Jewish is the way to be. Second: your current freedom deepens when it includes the freedom to believe otherwise. Third: governments have a tendency to bend religious doctrine to the benefit of the state, not the other way around.

Assuming we're all on board with this notion of religious freedom for all, the next step is practical application. I recommend a simple thought experiment:

Imagine if the population of the United States were majority Muslim instead of majority Christian. Assuming you are not a Muslim, how would you want the government to handle matters of religious freedom? If you have children, how would you want schools to handle religion? If you are patriotic, how would you respond to your fellow Americans who think patriotism and Islam are a package deal? Re-run the hypothetical with a majority Hindu or majority Non-religious America.

By roleplaying the perspective of a religious minority, what seemed fair from a privileged position may not look so fair after all. For example, many American Christians see nothing wrong with public school teachers leading students in Christian-style prayer, so long as children can choose to leave the room or quietly refrain. But what if the roles were reversed? If public school teachers in a majority Muslim America led their captive audiences in Muslim-style prayer, would this sit well with Christian parents so long as their children could choose to refrain from joining the class on prayer rugs?

When it comes to religious belief, none of us needs the government on our side. Nor would I want it. I'm much more concerned that you and I both have freedom of conscience as fellow citizens. It won't always be easy to figure out the best way to implement religious freedom, but if we commit to this common goal we can argue the details as friends and neighbors who want to do right by each other.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Unprotected Speech

Depictions of animal cruelty are not, as a class, categorically unprotected by the First Amendment. [...] Since its enactment, the First Amendment has permitted restrictions on a few historic categories of speech—including obscenity, defamation, fraud, incitement, and speech integral to criminal conduct—that “have never been thought to raise any Constitutional problem,” Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, 315 U. S. 568, 572. Depictions of animal cruelty should not be added to that list. While the prohibition of animal cruelty has a long history in American law, there is no evidence of a similar tradition prohibiting depictions of such cruelty.1 [boldface added]
The First Amendment itself does not even hint at "permitted restrictions.” However, legal tradition has allowed restrictions in the categories listed above. The unfortunate effect of this situation is that citizens can't take the Constitution at face value.

Categories of unprotected speech aren't automatically made illegal. It's just that states can pass laws restricting speech in these categories without the Supreme Court raising a fuss. Or it would work like that if the categories were more clear. Obscenity, for example, has been defined by different tests which are themselves unclear.

The Hicklin Test

From ~1870 to 1957, the definition of obscenity in the United States was often based on a British formulation:
[A]nd I think the test of obscenity is this, whether the tendency of the matter charged as obscenity is to deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences, and into whose hands a publication of this sort may fall. Now, with regard to this work, it is quite certain that it would suggest to the minds of the young of either sex, or even to persons of more advanced years, thoughts of a most impure and libidinous character.2
The Roth Test

In 1957, the Supreme Court declared the Hicklin test unconstitutional:
The Hicklin test, judging obscenity by the effect of isolated passages upon the most susceptible persons, might well encompass material legitimately treating with sex, and so it must be rejected as unconstitutionally restrictive of the freedoms of speech and press.3
...and recognized a new standard which some courts had already been applying:
whether to the average person, applying contemporary community standards, the dominant theme of the material taken as a whole appeals to prurient interest.4
One major difference here is that the average person rather than “the most susceptible persons” is considered. It also matters whether the offending material occurs throughout a work or just in some parts. And the standard is allowed to change to fit “contemporary community standards” regarding speech about sex.

All of this makes the Roth Test problematic. Who is this theoretical “average person”? How large is the community under consideration? And do we count the community of the writer/speaker, the reader/listener, or anywhere the work is advertised or sold? At what point do elements in a work count as “the dominant theme"?

The Miller Test

In an attempt to “formulate standards more concrete than those in the past,” the 1973 Supreme Court established the test which is currently in use.
We acknowledge, however, the inherent dangers of undertaking to regulate any form of expression. State statutes designed to regulate obscene materials must be carefully limited. [...] As a result, we now confine the permissible scope of such regulation to works which depict or describe sexual conduct. That conduct must be specifically defined by the applicable state law, as written or authoritatively construed. A state offense must also be limited to works which, taken as a whole, appeal to the prurient interest in sex, which portray sexual conduct in a patently offensive way, and which, taken as a whole, do not have serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.5
On the plus side, the requirement of specific definition in state law – depending on how state laws are written – might actually provide citizens with some idea of what is legal, without waiting to find out how some judge feels about it.

The problem of vague standards persist, however, because the question of whether a work appeals to “the prurient interest in sex” is still dependent on what a hypothetical “average person, applying contemporary community standards" would decide (see context of the quote above). What counts as a "patently offensive" portrayal? And what does it mean for a work to have “serious” value in one of the areas mentioned?


If you couldn't tell already, I'm not a fan of subjective laws. A citizen should be able to read the laws to find out ahead of time whether a given action or expression can be legally condemned. As Justice Douglas wrote in his dissent:
Obscenity - which even we cannot define with precision - is a hodge-podge. To send men to jail for violating standards they cannot understand, construe, and apply is a monstrous thing to do in a Nation dedicated to fair trials and due process.6

1. United States v. Stevens, 559 U.S. ___ (2010).
2. Regina v. Hicklin (1868). [full text]
3. Roth v. United States, 354 U.S. 476 (1957). [full text]
4. ibid.
5. Miller v. California, 413 U.S. 15 (1973). [full text]
6. ibid.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Monthly Picks

On the first day of each month, I will be posting about new papers I've found interesting in Philosophy or Library & Information Science. I'll try to make sure at least one is accessible to everyone.

Dahan, Y. (2011). Privatization, school choice and educational equality. Law and Ethics of Human Rights, 5(2), 307-334.
[link] freely accessible, for those willing and able to fill in personal and institutional information

Parkinson, C., Sinnott-Armstrong, W., Koralus, P.E., Mendelovici, A., McGreer, V., Wheatley, T. (2011). Is morality unified? Evidence that distinct neural systems underlie moral judgments of harm, dishonesty, and disgust. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 23(10), 3162-3180.
[link] freely accessible

Nolan, D. (2011). Why historians (and everyone else) should care about counterfactuals. Philosophical Studies, forthcoming.

Winget, M. A. (2011). Videogame preservation and massively multiplayer online role-playing games: A review of the literature. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 62(10), 1869–1883

Papers I especially wanted to read but couldn't access

Bourne, K. (2011). Commanding and controlling protest crowds. Critical Horizons, 12(2), 189-210.

Ginn, S., Price, A., Rayner, L., Owen, G.S., Hayes, R.D., Hotopf, M., Lee, W. (2011) Senior doctors' opinions of rational suicide. Journal of Medical Ethics, forthcoming.