Category Archives: Philosophy

The Sin of Inaction

There is an interesting argument going on here about my article on Orion. I am cc’ing you the following:

I always thought the active-passive distinction in philosphy and law was a cop out. We are just as responsible for the millions who die from our inaction as we are for murder. If you are consciously not donating to a hunger fund with the understanding that the inevitable consequence is that an additional person will die of hunger, it is tantamount to first degree murder.

There is an active choice to be part of coal deaths. Every time we turn on a light switch, we actively increase the coal output that kills tens of thousands per year or more. So each flick is increasing the likelihood of death. It is therefore self-deception to suggest that moving in the direction of safety is a sinless course. It is just murder too common to prosecute.

So if we can all agree that we are a civilization of murderers, then we can get on to real questions like is it better to kill people with atmospheric nuclear explosions to colonize the solar system or kill each other through inaction.

Sticking with spending $15 billion/year on chemical rockets instead of half on nuclear rockets and half on defibrillators is killing hundreds of thousands.

I would give my life to colonize the planets. Our focus on saving every life is penny wise and pound foolish.

Do people avoid having children so that all their cells can die a natural death? Envision all humanity as cells of a greater organism, the global species. Envision that it is time to have a child species on another planet. Isn’t that worth the death of millions or hundreds of millions if new billions will spring into existence? I am asking for dozens possibly killed offset by savings thousands of others that would otherwise be killed.

I don’t expect to fundamentally change dinosaur thinking. “I will not kill anyone to save the species from the asteroid that has our species’ name on it.” But be aware of the systematic cost of the capricous risk aversion we impose in the name of morality.

The Abolition Of Nature?

Some of my recent reading material has caused me to return to the question (upon which I’ve pondered off and on for decades) of what it means to be human. Along those lines, I have to confess to being a little perplexed by a post at Powerline today, in which Scott Johnson writes:

One of the great projects of the Progressive movement is the abolition of nature as supplying the standard of human conduct — the kind of standard to which the Founders appealed in adverting to “the Laws of Nature” in the Declaration of Independence.

Now, certainly progressives are opposed to the very notion of human nature–no dispute about that–but whence comes the notion that nature per se should “supply the standard of human conduct”? I assume that Mr. Johnson considers himself a conservative, and so I wonder if he’s actually thought through the import of this statement.

If he really believes this, he’s indulging in the naturalistic fallacy. I’m not sure what he has in mind here, but if we were to use nature, even human nature, as a guide to conduct, then rape would be perfectly acceptable, since this is a natural human behavior. As would homosexuality, since there’s nothing particularly unnatural about that, either. It may not be useful in reproduction, but there’s little doubt that there are people born to be attracted exclusively to members of the same sex, and like it or not, such behavior has been observed in other species as well (some very closely related to us).

I wouldn’t claim to be a conservative, but I had thought that conservativism was about operating from higher principles (e.g., divine, or otherwise), and rising above our animal tendencies. I’d like to see a little expansion on this topic from him, because as barely stated, it doesn’t make much sense to me.

Extending Dictators’ Lives

Ed Morrissey says that the Iraqi government may be working out a deal to spare Saddam’s life in exchange for an end to the “insurgency.”

That’s fine by me. I think that it’s a much worse punishment for Saddam to live for many years and watch the nation that he thought of as his personal fiefdom go on (much more) happily without him and his sadism. Well, actually, like Eugene Volokh, I’d like to see him go through all of the torture and death that he dealt to so many, but one can only do that once, and he wouldn’t be able to sample all the variety that he was so eager to dispense. Which raises two questions.

First, as Ed points out:

As long as Saddam never sees the light of day again, he can die like Rudolf Hess — crazy, broken, and of old age.

Just so. But what does Saddam’s future hold, assuming that he survives his current medical woes? One of the most powerful objections to effective immortality that may result from advanced medical technology is that, as long as men (and women) are mortal, then so are tyrannies. Even if it’s impossible to overthrow a dictator, there is always the knowledge that he won’t live forever. Once life-extension treatments become available, it’s a given that the first to have them will be dictators, thus cutting off hope of ending their reigns of terror via natural causes.

In this case, now that the dictator is in prison, what are the ethics of medical care for him? He is receiving treatment for his chronic prostate infection. But suppose that our medical capabilities were more advanced, and affordable to all? Suppose that in fact we could restore him to full health, and indefinite youth, and that contra Ed’s desires, he didn’t die broken, of old age?

Should we? And if not, in a world in which no one else any longer had to suffer such infirmities, and the eventual death from them, how would withholding such treatment differ, ethically speaking, from a prolonged and painful (in the context of a new era of eternal youth) execution?

Moreover, suppose that we were in fact able to restore a human body to full health from the most major physical trauma? For instance, we could feed him into a shredder feet first, perhaps up to his very viscera, and then pull him out still alive and regrow the body. Or electrocute him with electrodes attached to various parts of his body (use your imagination here), and then resuscitate him to do it again. Or lop off ears, gouge out eyes, cut off tongue, gas him, rape him with various interesting objects–all the things that he cheerfully, joyfully did or had done to others, and then fix him up for indefinite repeat performances?

At some point, it takes on the flavor of the revenge of Greek mythology, like the fate of Prometheus, doomed to have his liver eaten every day to be regrown by night, or Sisyphus, condemned to forever roll the stone almost to the top of the hill only to have it fall down again.

In a world of potentially infinite good health, the problems of dictators, and of crime and punishment, will surely take on a whole new cast. It may be, in fact, that the future holds means of punishment and agony that the Spanish Inquisition couldn’t dream of.

Extending Dictators’ Lives

Ed Morrissey says that the Iraqi government may be working out a deal to spare Saddam’s life in exchange for an end to the “insurgency.”

That’s fine by me. I think that it’s a much worse punishment for Saddam to live for many years and watch the nation that he thought of as his personal fiefdom go on (much more) happily without him and his sadism. Well, actually, like Eugene Volokh, I’d like to see him go through all of the torture and death that he dealt to so many, but one can only do that once, and he wouldn’t be able to sample all the variety that he was so eager to dispense. Which raises two questions.

First, as Ed points out:

As long as Saddam never sees the light of day again, he can die like Rudolf Hess — crazy, broken, and of old age.

Just so. But what does Saddam’s future hold, assuming that he survives his current medical woes? One of the most powerful objections to effective immortality that may result from advanced medical technology is that, as long as men (and women) are mortal, then so are tyrannies. Even if it’s impossible to overthrow a dictator, there is always the knowledge that he won’t live forever. Once life-extension treatments become available, it’s a given that the first to have them will be dictators, thus cutting off hope of ending their reigns of terror via natural causes.

In this case, now that the dictator is in prison, what are the ethics of medical care for him? He is receiving treatment for his chronic prostate infection. But suppose that our medical capabilities were more advanced, and affordable to all? Suppose that in fact we could restore him to full health, and indefinite youth, and that contra Ed’s desires, he didn’t die broken, of old age?

Should we? And if not, in a world in which no one else any longer had to suffer such infirmities, and the eventual death from them, how would withholding such treatment differ, ethically speaking, from a prolonged and painful (in the context of a new era of eternal youth) execution?

Moreover, suppose that we were in fact able to restore a human body to full health from the most major physical trauma? For instance, we could feed him into a shredder feet first, perhaps up to his very viscera, and then pull him out still alive and regrow the body. Or electrocute him with electrodes attached to various parts of his body (use your imagination here), and then resuscitate him to do it again. Or lop off ears, gouge out eyes, cut off tongue, gas him, rape him with various interesting objects–all the things that he cheerfully, joyfully did or had done to others, and then fix him up for indefinite repeat performances?

At some point, it takes on the flavor of the revenge of Greek mythology, like the fate of Prometheus, doomed to have his liver eaten every day to be regrown by night, or Sisyphus, condemned to forever roll the stone almost to the top of the hill only to have it fall down again.

In a world of potentially infinite good health, the problems of dictators, and of crime and punishment, will surely take on a whole new cast. It may be, in fact, that the future holds means of punishment and agony that the Spanish Inquisition couldn’t dream of.

Extending Dictators’ Lives

Ed Morrissey says that the Iraqi government may be working out a deal to spare Saddam’s life in exchange for an end to the “insurgency.”

That’s fine by me. I think that it’s a much worse punishment for Saddam to live for many years and watch the nation that he thought of as his personal fiefdom go on (much more) happily without him and his sadism. Well, actually, like Eugene Volokh, I’d like to see him go through all of the torture and death that he dealt to so many, but one can only do that once, and he wouldn’t be able to sample all the variety that he was so eager to dispense. Which raises two questions.

First, as Ed points out:

As long as Saddam never sees the light of day again, he can die like Rudolf Hess — crazy, broken, and of old age.

Just so. But what does Saddam’s future hold, assuming that he survives his current medical woes? One of the most powerful objections to effective immortality that may result from advanced medical technology is that, as long as men (and women) are mortal, then so are tyrannies. Even if it’s impossible to overthrow a dictator, there is always the knowledge that he won’t live forever. Once life-extension treatments become available, it’s a given that the first to have them will be dictators, thus cutting off hope of ending their reigns of terror via natural causes.

In this case, now that the dictator is in prison, what are the ethics of medical care for him? He is receiving treatment for his chronic prostate infection. But suppose that our medical capabilities were more advanced, and affordable to all? Suppose that in fact we could restore him to full health, and indefinite youth, and that contra Ed’s desires, he didn’t die broken, of old age?

Should we? And if not, in a world in which no one else any longer had to suffer such infirmities, and the eventual death from them, how would withholding such treatment differ, ethically speaking, from a prolonged and painful (in the context of a new era of eternal youth) execution?

Moreover, suppose that we were in fact able to restore a human body to full health from the most major physical trauma? For instance, we could feed him into a shredder feet first, perhaps up to his very viscera, and then pull him out still alive and regrow the body. Or electrocute him with electrodes attached to various parts of his body (use your imagination here), and then resuscitate him to do it again. Or lop off ears, gouge out eyes, cut off tongue, gas him, rape him with various interesting objects–all the things that he cheerfully, joyfully did or had done to others, and then fix him up for indefinite repeat performances?

At some point, it takes on the flavor of the revenge of Greek mythology, like the fate of Prometheus, doomed to have his liver eaten every day to be regrown by night, or Sisyphus, condemned to forever roll the stone almost to the top of the hill only to have it fall down again.

In a world of potentially infinite good health, the problems of dictators, and of crime and punishment, will surely take on a whole new cast. It may be, in fact, that the future holds means of punishment and agony that the Spanish Inquisition couldn’t dream of.

A New Thought Experiment

Along the lines of my previous post, I’m still trying to get my head around when Terri Schiavo’s soul departed her body, and am still trying to understand the thoughts of those who believe in souls.

Hans Moravec has postulated a thought experiment in which his brain is gradually replaced by a mechanical de-vice, one subunit at a time. After each component replacement, he’s asked if he still feels like himself. Presumably, if the answer is yes (and an assumption is made that he’s being truthful), then the next component is replaced, ad semi-infinitum, until there is no longer any meat left in his head, and he’s thinking entirely with hardware. At the end of the process, by definition, he still feels and thinks like Hans Moravec. So is he? Or is he a robot?

Now, this ignores the (perhaps large) degree to which thought processes and feelings are mediated by hormones–it simply assumes that there are some kind of sensors at the interface between the body and the mechanical mind that sense them and get the mind to respond the way the gray matter would have. Of course, one gets the sense that Moravec would prefer to have done with those unmanageable emotions anyway. Which is why he’d probably have replaced his body first, and gotten rid of all those yucky glands, before doing the brain upgrade.

But leaving that aside, the question is, does mechanical Hans still have a soul? Is he still made in God’s image? If not, and assuming that he did prior to the initiation of the procedure, at what point did it leave?

These are not just ethereal philosophical questions. They’re going to become theologically important to some people as technology continues to advance, and we become more cybernetic in the future. We’ve heard about gaining kingdoms at the price of one’s soul. Will there be some unwilling to undergo life-saving medical procedures, fearing such a stiff bill?

OK, now, let’s forget about the gradual replacement scenario. Suppose the functions are simply removed, and not replaced. This is in fact what happened, to some degree that remains in dispute, to Mrs. Schiavo. Getting back to my earlier question, suppose that her cortex was damaged to the point that she no longer had any awareness, of herself or others?

Well, remove it completely, but keep her breathing and her blood circulating. Keep her body healthy.

Now remove other parts of her brain, one by one, but all other organs remain functioning and healthy. Leave in the eyes, and provide nerve impulses to them so that they follow moving objects observed by external cameras, and cause her to emit random sounds with her mouth and lungs of seeming recognition at faces that would have been familiar to her prior to her tragedy. That is, remove the brain entirely, but have her behavior seem exactly the same as it appeared to be in reality.

Is that Terri Schiavo nee Schindler? Does that body still have her soul, or anyone’s? If not, during which excision did it depart for new premises? If so, if it’s a function of physiological functions of respiration and blood circulation, then what does that really mean in terms of today’s technology, that will soon be capable of keeping a brainless body alive, if it isn’t already?

To the degree that I understand the concept of the soul, I can’t believe that it is associated simply with a body, living or breathing. To the degree that I believe in souls, I think of it as a different word for “mind.”

That’s why I think that if I were someone who loved Terri, and I believed in souls, I’d comfort myself with the thought that hers perhaps departed long ago, and was observing in anguish from above throughout the whole circus, and that while effort to hold on to something of her was noble, her ultimate end was foreordained fifteen years ago. And at some level, I’d have to feel relief that the long nightmare was over for everybody.

The Point Is Moot Now

The people who thought it would be about two weeks seemed to have it right. The body of the person who was Terri Schiavo has finally stopped metabolizing. How many more weeks will it be before we stop talking about it?

There are lots of comments over at Free Republic about “bless her soul,” and “she’s with God now,” and the like.

While my heart goes out to the long-suffering family, whose hearts are surely now fully (if only figuratively) broken, at the risk of being (more than) a little iconoclastic, as long-time readers know, I’m not fully down with this soul thing. Perhaps those who are can enlighten me.

At what precise instant did the soul pass from her body, and was transported to God’s sitting room?

Was it when she stopped breathing? When her heart stopped beating? When the phosphor trace on her EEG (assuming that she was on one) stopped wiggling? Even now (or at least a few minutes after the end of these activities) she could have been resuscitated with CPR and defibrillator, and resumed these activities, at least briefly, particularly if rehydrated. Had someone done so, would the soul have had to rush back from heaven, to take up residence in the body again, in case there was still one more legal appeal to play out? Or was the body a lost cause, and the soul would know it? But if the latter then why wait for the conventional functional shutdowns that we arbitrarily use to declare legal death? Why not vamoose once it was clear that all the appeals were exhausted, and the organs were failing, regardless of the respiratory and cardiac state?

The relatives said that Terri has been communicating with them, and they with her, but was that wishful thinking? Did they see a spark in her eyes that they imagined was her, words in her vocalizations that they, in their grief, fantasized as expressions of love and human desires? If so, and those who said that she was truly in a “persistent vegetative state,” uncomprehending of self or anything else, are right, then is it possible that her soul actually left when her cortex collapsed, years ago, and that since then they’ve only been feeding an empty shell in the form of a human being?

I ask these questions for two reasons. First, because I’m genuinely curious, not about souls per se, because I don’t believe in them, but about how those who do justify their beliefs, and how they think about them. Second, because I do think that this bears on a more practical issue to those of us who do want to live as long as possible–at what point should someone be allowed to go into cryonic suspension? While the issues of soul dispositions and locations shouldn’t enter into legal discussions, it’s inevitable that they will, and I’d like to know how the arguments in court might go.