Guns are not like other objects. They aren’t even like each other.
If you don’t occasionally check out THE STONE, you should. Who would’ve thought that a major newspaper would have a philosophy column online. At any rate, since the shooting at Newtown, Connecticut they have been posting lots of super interesting posts about the gun debate. Here is an awesome one which helps to clarify the rights versus goods argument I made in my previous post, and this by a real philosopher.
We get overwhelmed. Rightfully so. If we had only to focus on one international travesty, the rest of the world united behind us, solutions would be simple. Bad guys would be identified. Good guys would mete out punishment. Our emotions would be backed by concise opinions and it comes easy to imagine that the backlash for war crimes would be swift and justified. Unfortunately we live in a diffuse world, and the multitude (sometimes magnitude) of crimes against humanity can be demoralizing. Fraught with dissolution, we turn a blind eye to the mess. The far-off problems of other countries and cultures are not of our particular interest. Besides we have our own problems here, right? We are not morally obligated to help. We are not even morally obligated to care. Shit, all I do is write about it and I express a markedly higher level of concern than most people. So to what do we owe the millions of citizens across the world? How do we determine what the right reaction is? And forget about helping. That seems a far cry from what the majority of people are willing to do. But I do think we are obligated to know and open discussion about the affairs of other nations. During the uproar of the Kony2012 campaign, there was a tug-of-war between the compassionate and the skeptical. Neither side maintains an accurate account of virtue, but the fruits of that argument are what make the campaign worth while. It forces us to defend our opinions with knowledge. It follows from that knowledge that we take on the responsibility of correcting those who are false, or in turn reexamine our own platitudes. This is our moral obligation. We, as a populace without censorship, without oppression (in comparison), should take up the responsibility of the moral high ground. We should judge other nations and cultures for their indiscretions and we should be able to defend our opinions in doing so. When an authority violates the basic rights most of the world agrees that its citizens have, and they are unable to defend themselves, we become compelled to (at the very least!) chronicle the disaster. Let us argue over the worth of other lives.
For many of the lay people here in the States, of all generations, the Arab countries are the paradigm of turmoil, violence, sectarianism, and more recently terrorism and religious fanaticism. Between the rogue American Soldier murdering Afghan civilians, Koran burnings with subsequent riots, and the girl in Morocco that committed suicide to not suffer the indignity of marrying her rapist, it is easy to dismiss the prospects of a thriving, civilized Arab world—one, in which America takes place in the civilizing process. Let us not debate the accuracy of those descriptions and grant for now that it is a troubled chunk of the globe. Within the last year we have seen a turn for the better though! And with the advent of the “Arab Spring” we have seen major change in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya. Protests against a culture of oppression have accumulated in Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, and Oman in relative peace (particularly in comparison with our own revolutionary war). While the results of these protests and revolutions remain to be seen, there is still hope that over the horizon there is an era of peace, prosperity, and justice—even if it is only marginally so. What is important is that these movements, similar to the Occupy or Tea Party crowds here, is that they are movements of the people. The powers that be are being challenged by the general consensus of citizens, not political factions (that comes later on). This is very important because it says something about the youth movement against traditional regimes, and about the power of quiet rumblings of dissatisfied civilians.
Speaking of regimes, the ruling faction in Syria is fighting the dream of liberalism to the best of its ability. While Egypt and Tunisia were stealing the spotlight for much of 2010 and ’11 Syria was quietly boiling over. What started as school-age mischief has turned into mass extermination. A quick and (overly)simplified introduction to how the Syrian rebellion began:
1) The unrest started in the southern city of Deraa in March when locals gathered to demand the release of 14 school children who were arrested and reportedly tortured after writing on a wall the well-known slogan of the popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt: “The people want the downfall of the regime.” The protesters also called for democracy and greater freedom, though not President Assad’s resignation. – As BBC reports.
2) When the people marched for their release which was a minor protest, the government’s security forces opened fire on the crowds, which included suppressive sniper fire.
3) The following day, mourners of those killed in the protests were fired upon during funeral processions by the police forces under orders from the government. It is an act of protest to mourn the loss of loved ones that were considered traitors, and apparently this act is punishable by death.
From there the rebellion spiraled out of control, as I’m sure you could imagine. Uprisings against local police forces in isolated cities prompted a military response using heavy artillery, including tanks. The cities of Deraa, Baniyas, Homs, Hama, Aleppo, and the capital of Damascus have been targets for leverage used by rebels and the government. Homs in particular has been the most heavily shelled city.
The death toll in the conflict is nearing 10,000 by some reports, though the exact number is hard to calculate because no one is offering a clear representation of the conflict.
Of course sympathizers to Syria’s ruling regime are the wealthy minority—minorities, both economically and religiously. This illuminates the driving force of the identities within the conflict though it doesn’t appear anyone has lit the fires of sectarianism. It remains just a near-civil war between the poorer youth and the reigning power of al-Assad. The battle for the government has been to paint the rebels as unsavory terrorists, the type of people no one wants to associate with. If the government is able to cut off popularity amongst the people, it will crush the uprising and come out looking like heroes.
Recently, a series of bombs targeting government buildings have sparked outrage in the capital city of Damascus. The people there, some ways off from the battles of other cities, thought they were safe from the uprising. As one of the most thriving areas in the nation of Syria, it’s easy to imagine where most of the sympathies lie within the Damascans. Local media sources there have tried to cite foreign forces as being responsible for the bombs which killed 27 and injured nearly a 100 more, though interestingly enough it is not being attributed to the Syrian National Council (SNC, the united group officially representing the rebels) or the Free Syrian Army (FSA, a group of defected military persons). This seems like it is obviously a move to sway national opinions in their favor, and preemptively cutting off the possibility of sympathetic countries like the U.S. and Turkey interfering. Aljazeera’s video here shows the complexities of the bombings in Damascus, and the reaction from the people:
The United Nations in their inception was not designed to meddle in the affairs of sovereign nations. Though, as Hillary Clinton has argued, when it comes to crimes against humanity, where better to mediate and interfere? Al-Assad is making all the noises of a war criminal, in which the U.N. would be able to interfere, but in order to facilitate a peaceful transition to a post-Assad government it becomes important to not label him as such, as it will also dissuade other despots from relinquishing power peacefully. China and Russia have voted against motions that were near unanimous in declaring Bashir al-Assad as a war criminal, therefore putting him in the scope of possible military action. As major players on the world stage this is a critical blow the suffrage of the oppressed people of Syria.
Kofi Annan, a major member of the U.N.’s security council has been trying to open talks with the Syrian government to reach a diplomatic solution to the war. However, his role has not been without controversy as he was voted against by Russia and China as the choice for the position. Many fear that the attitude towards Syria has been one that is already predetermined by western and Gulf forces as being similar to those of the Libyan example. Strong arming the ruling party could incite further violence and further destroy and already tarnished image of western foreign policies.
It has been tough for Obama to make a public stance on the matter because it is election season. He runs the risk of losing blocs of voters no matter how he responds. In a speech he had said that all options are still on the table for Syria, though military action is still premature. The declarations of war from the conservative campaign have shown the irrationality of shoot-first foreign policy, not to mention the irrationality of the party itself. It’s unfortunate, though perhaps circumstantial, that an international crisis becomes a risky topic to address to the public. It appears that the diplomatic actions taken by President Obama and Hillary Clinton within the parameters of the U.N. supports the willingness to coalesce an ideal world government. This is by and large a laudable course of action, though the crack downs by the Syrian government has made it hard to not intervene. At what point will it become completely necessary for military action either sanctions or unsanctioned by the U.N.? How many deaths? What kind of tactics? 25,000? 100,000?
What now for us? Well it seems that for the time being we are forced to maintain the discussion about countries like Syria in the same way the virility of the Kony2012 sparked discussion about the accuracy and intentions of the Invisible Children group and their goals. The yaw and pitch of opinions gives a direction that is ultimately desirable for all groups. While it seems that the social fervor for Joseph Kony and the nay-sayers that haughtily criticized the supporters of the campaign were taking pot shots on social media, they were really participating in a learning process! The lull in the post-viral stage of the campaign I think is due to the better understanding of who Invisible Children really are, and how successful, emergent countries like Uganda have dealt with issues like Joseph Kony. We can apply the same argument here with Syria. Let us argue the finer points of diplomacy and military action. Let us delve into how the Syrian people feel. We can debate the legitimacy of government crackdowns or social uprisings, as we did with Egypt. Raising the bar of social conscience is how we take part in the realm of things like foreign affairs and moral dilemmas. The more we argue the more refined and defensible our opinions become. By becoming responsible for our personal opinions we defend our own moral ground, which in turn advocates for the moral grounds of others. This is where our moral obligations lie. Everything else is compassion.
Thanks for participating in the poll. Please do so before reading the rest of the post! I will reveal results by next week, and for the follow up post, ask another related question.
Before we begin the arguments for and against the moral permissibility of abortion, I’d like to talk a little bit about why it’s important to discuss this philosophically. At the social level, when we have arguments about things as controversial as abortion, we rely on intuitions. Some things just feel intuitively wrong, and to let others do those things, feel just as wrong. It feels wrong to murder, and it feels wrong that other people commit murder. These intuitive mores stem from our traditional values taught to us by our guardians and communities. Allowing room for abortion in our society has opened a can of worms for a few decades, and I’d like to peer a little further into what we call intuitions so that we can actually defend our arguments beyond, “It’s just wrong!” or “Well, why not?” Recently, the political debate has shifted back to the culture wars of years past. Legislative action has been taken fore and against rights to birth control access, gay marriage, and abortion. In some states now, it is mandatory for a woman to see a sonogram before they choose abortion. This is purposefully done to elicit an emotional response. What we are going to talk about is the nature of that emotional response and whether or not it’s founded in reason; whether or not it’s rational for this deliberately provocative law to be enforced. However, this debate will take place pre-politics. In other words, things are not morally right or wrong based on what the law says, or what politicians or theologians say. For example, it is morally wrong to cheat on your spouse, but not illegal. It is also considered amoral to take drugs recreationally, but it is highly illegal. Legislation is based on the communal knowledge of moral topics, not the other way around, and so the more we understand about what it is we feel is right and wrong, the more accurate the legislation will be to our liking (let’s hope). The point is to motivate a deeper understanding of why we hold our own beliefs and moral standards. Why is abortion morally wrong? Why is murder wrong? Are they the same thing? What about in the cases of rape, incest, or mother’s at risk of dying due to the pregnancy?
Still a polarizing topic.
We will also be holding this discussion outside the realm of religion. While the anti-abortion position is most commonly held by religious conservatives, the actual religions themselves offer little insight into the arguments. At their core, what ever reasoning can be interpreted from the religious texts can be contained within the philosophical arguments anyway. Besides, pointing to a centuries old book which condones many things we now consider immoral (i.e. slavery, rape, polygamy, betrothal, torture. Just to name a few), and saying that it is an authority on abortion is a little asinine. It is clear to anyone who takes a moment to look that our morals do not arise from theodicy. Philosophically speaking, if there was a god that pronounced, “Abortion is immoral,” it doesn’t necessarily follow that we must agree with that particular god either. As many people in the world know, justice does not always come from the powerful. Souls too, are a dubious thing. There are too many questions we’d first have to answer about souls, which we are helpless to answer no matter what religious or new age book we’ve read (and no, they do not weigh 21 grams). Where beliefs are subject to questioning in terms of morality, religion often claims to hold the ultimate position, though its reasoning is as intellectually unsatisfactory as, “It just is,” or “Because I said so.”
There is one last thing before we get into the first of two (or more) opposing arguments I’ll present here. Most, if not all, the material presented here is as accurate as I can portray it from a textbook and class lessons in Bioethics. Many of these explanations are direct from a professor who deserves most of the credit for being informative and artfully nonpartisan. On top of sharing this topic with everyone, it will serve to be my own study guide and I only make this point to express that there are other versions of these arguments out there, and perhaps better ones to be made. These are not necessarily my own philosophical views on the moral permissibility of abortion. Again this is only an exercise in learning about how to analyze our own beliefs.
Tooley’s Argument for the Permissibility of Abortion
Most social conservatives would say that killing a human fetus (for the time being we will use the term fetus to umbrella all stages of the unborn, never mind zygote or embryo) is morally comparable to killing an adult person. It is murder. It might be possible that someone, out there in the conservative world, believes that aborting a fetus would be the same as killing a lizard and that it is still morally wrong, but I have yet to hear any one propose that argument. So for now we will assume that all anti-abortionists hold that killing a fetus is the moral equivalent to killing an adult person. Again, it is murder.
Michael Tooley, a philosopher, would describe this using the term Moral Status (or Moral Standing). Essentially anti-abortionists imbue a human fetus with the same moral status as a standard adult human being. Already some of you might be trying to figure out whether you feel this is true. Well, let us consider this: What moral status does a rock have? Presumably, none. Why not? For something to have moral status, it needs to be the type of thing toward which moral agents (you and I) have moral obligations. If we break a rock, or drop it into a lake, we do not hold a funeral or a candle light vigil for its loss. It’s just a rock, right? A rock is not something to which we have moral obligations. Well, what about a chicken? What about a chimpanzee or a dolphin? Somewhere in your mind there is a scale of things to which are ascribed with different levels of moral standing. An animal generally tends to have a higher moral status than a desk or chair, or even plants and insects. We tend to grant the highest level of moral status to standard adult human beings. When I say standard adult human beings I mean the kinds of beings that can think in terms of moral principles and regulate behavior accordingly. You may not be a standard adult human being if you are in a persistent vegetative state, like what people refer to as being brain dead or in a coma. This is not to say that a person in a persistent vegetative state has the moral status of a rock, but it does imply that generally speaking, and all other things being equal, that person does not have the same moral standing as a standard adult human being. To reinforce this concept: If you were in a burning building with the opportunity to save one person, a) someone who is in a state of brain death or b) the attractive model down the hall, you’d probably choose the latter.
What gives a standard adult human being moral status? Is it fingers and toes? or hair? and two eyes, a spine? Not really. These are mere physical attributes. Remember, when I said, “standard adult human beings [are] the kinds of beings that can think in terms of moral principles and regulate behavior accordingly.” This means that we must have a few mental properties in order to do these things. Properties of standard adult human beings insofar that they are moral agents are things like sentience, self awareness, the ability to suffer, etc. It also follows that because we are self aware; we understand what the self is. Some animals show signs of being able to understand themselves. Certain types of monkeys can recognize themselves in a mirror, and not try to grab the monkey behind it or throw shit at the copy-cat reflection. This is a sign of self awareness. Other animals express the desire to not die. This is crucial. While we do not think a lizard has a concept of self, we do notice when we threaten its life, it will resist death. This means it has some kind of concept of self, to which it wishes (to some degree) to continue being in existence. This grants it, at least a smidgen of moral status, beyond something like a blade of grass, which we mercilessly mow down and slice at.
Ok, so now that we have a cursory understanding about what moral status means, we can move onto what Tooley means when beings have a serious right to life. A human being can be many things. In a genetic sense, it is anything with the code we classify as Homo sapien. If we remove the brain from a person, but keep the body alive with machines, is it still living? Well, yes, perhaps in the same way a car with the engine on would be. Is it a human being? Only genetically. Is it a person? Tooley would say no. He would explain that if X is a person, then X has a serious moral right to life. A serious moral right to life is equivalent to having full moral standing. A serious right to life takes full moral standing a little further by saying, “if X is a subject of experiences and other mental states and X is capable of desiring continued existence, and if X desires to continue to exist as such an entity, then others (us) are under a prima facie obligation not to prevent it from doing so.” Sounds complicated, I know. Essentially what it means is that if something doesn’t want to die, and it is fully aware of itself and that it wants to keep it that way, we are generally obligated to not fuck with them. All else being equal, we are in a sort of moral contract to not kill X. In order to want to continue to exist, a being must have a sense of self, the capability to desire, and the understanding to some degree of existence and non-existence.
Tooley argues that a human fetus is not yet a person, though it is a human and a member of the Homo Sapien race. It does not have a serious moral right to life in the same way adults do because it is not self aware amongst other traits that determine high moral standing. One might think that this is up for debate, but it is generally accepted that humans do no attain self awareness even after birth. Fetuses are also incapable of desire in the way a standard adult human being is capable of desire. So to desire to continue to exist is completely out of the realm of what a fetus can do. This ultimately means that a fetus does not have full moral standing. Aborting a fetus, to Tooley in this way, is not the same as killing an adult human being.
Anyone well versed in the arts of argumentation will also be able anticipate the counter arguments used against them. Michael Tooley defends against 6 alternative points and we will do it in the form I copied from the blackboard.
“It is seriously wrong to kill and organism…”
1) …that belongs to the species Homo sapiens.
Tooley already defended this point regarding special cases in which certain Homo sapiens are not granted full moral status. But, what if being a member of the classification Homo sapiens means something special? Tooley would call this speciesism. In the same way that saying to be White is more virtuous than being Chinese is racist; to say that being human is more virtuous than being a whale is arbitrary and unfounded.
2) …that belongs to the species Homo sapiens and has achieved human form.
Again, permanently comatose humans or humans where the brain is removed completely, still is a human but does not have a serious right to live in the same way a standard adult person would.
3) …that belongs to the species Homo sapiens and is capable of spontaneous movement.
Well what about sufferers from ALS (Lou Gherig’s disease), or other forms of paralyzation? Their mental faculties are unperturbed. They are still capable of full moral status.
4) …that belongs to the species Homo sapiens and is capable of existence outside the womb.
What about conjoined twins, where one is completely dependent on the other to live? Or in more extreme cases, where one is parasitic to the other, and one life must be sacrificed to save the other. Gruesome perhaps, though still a necessary side of the argument.
5) …that belongs to the species Homo sapiens and is no longer in the womb.
Uh, we’re talking about abortion still right?
6) …that has the potential to become one of us.
This is the most potent counter argument to Tooley. It is the argument from potentiality, of which we will discuss when we move onto the next philosopher. A common argument used by anti-abortionists is that you’re robbing the potential life of something that will eventually become a person. That is not to say that you’re killing the next Leonardo Da Vinci or as some anti-abortion bill boards claimed over a year ago, the next President, because it could also be said that you’re killing the next Adolf Hitler or Pol Pot or Charles Manson. This is called conjecture, and using slippery slope arguments are not permitted. Never the less, to deprive a potential person of personhood strikes many people as intuitively wrong. I think this lies at the core of many mainstream beliefs for anti-abortion position holders. Tooley responds to the people who argue for potentiality, which I’m going to hold off for now.
Up to this point we have read about a seemingly reasonable argument for the moral permissibility of abortion as supported by a one Michael Tooley. The response comes from another philosopher whose entire argument addresses the 6th objection listed above. Before I continue onward with the second part of this topic, I’d like to hear from you readers. Abortion is a polarizing topic. If you’re against the argument, sound off! If you think this sounds reasonable, explain why. Are fetuses people? If you think they are and have something not addressed by the above argument, then please contribute! If this philosopher changed the way you thought about abortion, be sure to include everything you can about that. If I get enough comments I’ll continue with this topic.
We have recently defended metaphysical ground. An attack was made on the internet; our internet! This was received by an international outcry that didn’t just come from political activists, but was voiced by the visceral fingertips of meta-citizens. The encroachment of margins on our only free range, and freely accessible space by the SOPA and PIPA bills, became akin to molestation. We claimed the World Wide Web as autonomous and I think this expressed more than what Bill Maher snarked as our desire for “free shit.” While this might be true, what does such a wide spread reaction say about our feelings towards an inherent right to information? What will this mean for artists, musicians, writers, et al.? Why are we compelled to defend this space, a frontier unique to our generation, and grant it esteem greater than that of the physical world?
It’s no secret that many other countries live under the giant black rectangle of censorship. This seems both distant and foreign, but never the less abhorrent and a shame. The notion that there are legislated punishments for expressing oneself is worthy of rebellion, at least from the perspective of most westerners. Aside from the mysticism we attribute to the word freedom in the states, it’s the fruit that is borne from the truly free market exchange of ideas that serve as one of our most valuable resources. Most importantly, we value this exchange so much we sought to facilitate it in the most efficient way possible. This is why the internet is our crowning achievement.
Typically, the exchanging of resources result in a mean zero-sum game; you give me something, I give you something and we stand to gain from our trade, but we’re still giving something up, which balances our the trade. The free trade of information however, is a positive-sum game. Ideas can be replicated and spread without the loss of resources (an evolutionary context that I’ll get to in a minute). Historically speaking, ideas were only brought from one culture to another by warring civilizations. Things like mathematics, astronomy, navigation, and the portent of gun powder are just some of the examples of technologies that spread through the vein of violence. This meant that in order to gain more knowledge about this world, it was common for an individual in a society to undergo a significant amount, if not a lifetime, of hardship. The price of intercultural knowledge was sometimes death. It wasn’t until more civilized (term loosely used) means of trade began to develop that we became more aware of the ideas of other cultures. The printing press, a 15th century invention, allowed for the Enlightenment of the 18th and 19th centuries to widely spread emotional knowledge. With the popularity of the novel, came the understanding of hardships by people other than oneself. From Robinson Crusoe to Gulliver’s Travels, fear and love and the stresses of life became a universality amongst all people that was hitherto unknown.
The word meme often pops up in internet lingo to refer to trends that spread quickly throughout the online community. In its original scientific usage, meme was meant to describe an idea that is subject to evolutionary processes in terms of self replication, competition, adaptation, and natural selection. Some are large ideas, like Democracy, Religion, and Humanism. Other smaller memes might be like fishing is better with a net than a single line, or that based on evidence it is more prudent to believe the Earth is not the center of the universe. Our attitudes toward human rights have undergone major changes over time. We now have this idea that access to information is an inherent liberty. Whether or not we’re conscious of this feeling is insignificant, but the fact that there was such uproar against the infringement on our intellectual freedom to information made it apparent that we maintain this right as inherent.
The proponents of bills like SOPA and PIPA were made to defend the intellectual property rights of the people who create new ideas. For example: If I put up a billboard to market a new product, but I use a symbol or a phrase copyrighted by someone else, it is a sue-worthy offense. However, if I were to use a movie clip to sell a product on a private website, it seems to fall somewhere in the gray area of free usage of available resources. Once intellectual property, let’s say song lyrics, hit the internet, they’re apart of global consciousness that many people feel is available for personal use. How much of your ideas are your own? How much of your ideas are your own if you have access to the internet? Should we defend online property the same way we would if it were physical? Does a picture of a famous painting amount to the same as a physical copy of one? Who should be allowed to manage these transactions of intellectual property? Can we enforce it?
I’d like to think that the outrage against SOPA and PIPA derive from how close we are to a truly infinite space like the internet. While the rest of the world seems to be caving in on us, access to information could mean life or death in some countries, and in ours in particular it means constant free information. Artists, in the broad sense, now have to combat this metaphysical free market. Legislation has done little, from Napster to the more recent takedown of Megaupload, to protect the intellectual property of artists. Will artists have to adapt to a new paradigm for their work?
My prediction is based on things I already see happening. Artists have taken to an aspect of sociability to their body of work. Not only must artists create art, but they must be constantly in touch with their fan base to give updates on their intentionality. In other words, gone are the days where a stranger is introduced to art (be it visual, or written, or whatever) and an interpretation is made. The interaction cannot end there, because it can be made anywhere and completely anonymously. Now people follow their favorite artists and writers and movie makers and actors on sites like Twitter. It’s common to look behind the curtain of creation and inspiration and instead the artist has become the thing to marvel at. The artwork itself is just a unique byproduct for which we appreciate, but is not the source of our intrigue. We are more concerned by how and why the art is expressed, not just the expression itself. It’s now expected to receive some kind of exposure by the artist. Look up interview transcripts, videos on Youtube, or blogs and Tweets from your favorite personality and that is where the obsession lies. We are worshiping the insight of a different mind and its usage, instead of just the products.
The Internet has nearly reached the point of omnipresence. Damn near omniscience too. Wherever and however we might need to call upon its power, it is often there to do our bidding – providing that we could just get a good enough connection. Our slouched posture of servitude has very nearly mimicked the clasped hands of some other folksy traditions, especially when we clutch our handheld devices with bowed heads and frenetic thumbs. It is only natural that we should want to defend this space that has offered so much by the way of information as well as inspiration and empathy. I do not know what corner the internet will be legislated into, but it’s important that we defend this space with the vehemence I’ve seen so far. The internet is the great equalizer, turning everyone into an expert and eliminating much of the ignorant prejudices humanity has faced for thousands of years.