Thursday, April 28, 2005

The Blue Cross

Quoth Marco: One of my longest held beliefs has been that there isn't an absolute good. I am hoping that this won't necessarily mean I can't argue (with you) about what ought to be done, but this does explain to me why I have fallen short of saying what ought to be done, especially in regards to abortion law. I do believe in a sense of "relative" good with regards to humanity as a whole. I am not sure how you cope with things that look bad, but actually work towards the greater good. I think that "morally bad" things, that have the consequence of a net "moral good" should be taken into account.

It should be abundantly clear that I am willing that evil should be done in order that a greater good may result: viz. my support for the war in Iraq, my suggestion that the Pope encourage believers to shoot abortionists, and my concession that if the eternal damnation of non-Muslims (for instance) was positively proved, a reasonable moral response would be to destroy our species. If these instances of Menachem Begin’s dictum ‘some ends justify some means’ fall short of the hypothetical you are envisaging, I am a little nervous to think of what you might be contemplating...

In a technical sense, it is true that I would reject ‘the end justifies the means’, if ‘justify’ is meant in the ‘justified by faith’ sense of ‘made perfectly okay’. I think participation in a just war is not without sin. I think it is intrinsically bad to shoot abortionists rather than appeal to their reason. I think wiping out our species would be bad. We can quite easily find ourselves in options where all the options available to us are quite, quite, evil, and picking the best of a bad lot does not make us ‘good’.

I am curious about your belief that there is a relative morality ‘for humanity.’ This would seem to fall short of the strong relativist thesis that good and evil are social constructs. If you reject a morality that is intrinsically ‘true’, like mathematics, are you making the assertion that morality is a biological rather than social construct? That we have, as a species, evolved to consider some things good and some things evil, regardless of our cultural background? This is not implausible. However, I regret that if I believed morality was biologically constructed- and this is only me- I would also believe it was absolutely non-binding and irrelevant to me personally. If we had evolved to consider some things good and some things evil- and this consideration does not correspond to any objective reality- I would consider morality just another irritating fact of human biology to be overcome, like our human addiction to sugar, dependence on eating dead animals, or urge to have sex with lots of people.

But, Allahu akbar, I do not believe any such thing! I will close with the words of Chesterton’s Father Brown:

‘Reason and justice grip the remotest and loneliest star. Look at those stars. Don’t they look as if they were single diamonds and sapphires? Well, you can imagine any mad botany or geology you please. Think of forests of adamant with leaves of brilliants. Think the moon is a blue moon, a single elephantine sapphire. But don’t fancy that all that frantic astronomy would make the smallest difference to the reason and justice of conduct. On plains of opal, under cliffs cut of pearl, you would still find a notice-board, “Thou shalt not steal.”’

Sunday, April 24, 2005


I have been intending for some time to make a more rigorous exposition of my probabilistic position on the value of life. As Marco has pointed out, what we need is acost-benefit analysis of abortion, and for this we require a mechanism to quantify the value of human life as a function of age.

What I need to do first is outline the assumptions on which my argument will be based.

1. There is such a thing as absolute truth.
There are properties of the universe that are there, there are statements that are true, whether or not we believe them or not, whether or not anyone exists to believe them at all. Discussions of this kind are not intended for us to display our party colours, but should be attempts to approach closer to this thing called truth.

1a. We have no mechanism to know what truth is with certainty.
However, we can examine the evidence of our senses and make reasonable judgments about the probability of some statements being truer than others.

1b. A truer statement about the universe is one that involves us in fewer difficulties when we take action based on it.
To take one example, the breathairian statement: ‘It is possible for humans to exist without eating or drinking,’ involves us in serious difficulties almost immediately. The creationist statement: ‘The universe was created on October 23rd, 4004 BCE’ may not immediately involve us in difficulties in our everyday lives, but we will find it of much less utility than alternate statements if we are engaged in the practical business of looking for oil.

1c. To turn statement 1b around, the more our actions are based on a knowledge of the true state of the universe, the more likely they are to turn out the way we intended.
If we want our actions to be successful, however we chose to define success, we should:
1c.i. Strive for the most true understanding of the universe as we can, and
1c ii. Strive to make our actions as consistent with that understanding as possible.

If you have any problems with assumption 1, gentle reader - not that I expect you do, but God in heaven, there are enough people out there who would deny it! - then you may be a very fine person, but there is absolutely no use in trying to argue with you. You do not share the fundamental assumption that gives arguing whatever value it may have. One may as well argue with an eggplant.

2. There is such a thing as absolute good.
I don’t mean that there is a big box of white hats and another big box of black hats, and that all people and things and actions have to wear one or another. 'Good' is a direction in idea-space, like ‘up’ is a direction in near-Earth-space. I believe that all the possible actions one of us can take at any one time can be objectively ranked from best to worst. I believe this would be true whether or not I, or anyone, believed it. Even if there were no moral agents in the universe, this ranking would hold true for a hypothetical entity faced with the hypothetical situation.

2a. We cannot know what is good with certainty, but we can make reasonable statements about what actions are better than others based on the evidence of our senses.

2c. The word ‘ought’ has a real meeting. Thus, in addition to the criteria for assessing our actions above, we should also:
2c.i. Strive to know what is good.
2c.ii. Strive to make our actions as consistent with that understanding as possible.

I know that this second assumption is less likely to meet with agreement, and I can offer no argument in support of it. Like the first assumption, it is simply a pre-condition for being able to argue at all about certain matters. If you do not believe in absolute good, then you cannot logically argue with anyone about what ‘ought’ to be done. You can argue about will be most economical, or what will fulfill your goals, or the goals of your party, or planet, but you have no philosophical grounding for convincing others who do not share those goals. All you can really say is, ‘if you do not do what I say, you will fail,’ – which is not an argument about morality, or ‘if you do not do what I say, you will be punished,’ – which is tyranny.

I haven’t put a 2b, as a counterpart to 1b, because I do not have any simple operational statement to define what good is. We cannot do experiments to determine what is good. But I believe- and here is the most tenuous part of my assumptions- that there is such a thing as a moral sense which enables us to recognize good. I believe that in most of us it is vestigial, underdeveloped, like the eye of some sea creature sensitive only the gross variations in light and dark; but that some of us have a more developed moral sense than others, and by paying attention to their statements about what is good we cannot go too wrong. I am not claiming to be one of those people; my hubris is not quite as vast as that. I am only claiming that if we can discern a self-consistent core of moral ideas in the thought of all the sages of East and West, we would be unwise to set up a morality which does not incorporate this core.

I am sure that this all sounds either trivially self-evident or pathetically na├»ve. I will begin the argument proper soon…

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Episode Four

This was written almost exactly a year ago, one of my last pre-blog rantings, and I never put it up since I felt it had too many identifying details in it. I did re-use the bit about John Kerry a while ago. It seemed appropriate to post it this week.

I have not been to church since September 2001 while living at home, only once in Armidale during the conference here in February 2002, and several times over Christmas 2002, when we were in Townsville. In both Armidale and Townsville I resolved to go to church regularly when I returned to Sydney, but I did not. I have not communicated for a longer time- I am not sure when. I know where, at the Chapel of the Resurrection at the University of Sydney, in 2000 or 2001.

I have written elsewhere of the one problem I have, the snag I am caught on. There are many things that I should write, but tonight I want to write about this coincidence of dates, if it is a coincidence. I went to St. Patricks, Guildford, where I had not been before, about ten days after September 11th 2001, and that was the last time I left my home and went to church. The homily did not mention what had happened in the United States- and why should it? Why should 3000 Americans be of more importance than 100,000 Algerians, or 600,000 Rwandans? They are not, of course. I know this, and I do not believe there was any singular horror or awfulness in the events of that day. Worse things have been done with machetes, with debt, with surgical instruments. They are being done now, to people who are much less legitimate targets for politically-motivated murder, in vastly greater numbers. But I have not been back to church since.

I have a sense of the impotence of the church that I did not have before. I do not want Catholics to blow themselves up in nightclubs, or hijack planes into buildings. But it seems we are incapable of doing anything. We raise money (mostly for schools and church buildings, which are futile) and we make pale and watery condemnations of the evils of the world. The children of the culture of death can ignore us, and mock us with impunity. We are a whited sepulchre, an empty shell.

There seems to be a qualitative difference between the motivating power of Catholicism and Islam. The senile religion of fatalism- as Chesterton called it- breeds men with an insane audacity; but we are cowards. There are no more Catholic knights-errant, and our Pontiff condemns just wars. I wish we were Crusaders, as Osama bin Laden calls us. When he calls us Crusaders and Zionists he gives us better names than we deserve. Crusaders and Zionists are cognates with Mujahideen. They sacrifice their own comfort and give their own lives in the service of a noble ideal. The Catholic church is inward-looking, impotent to change the pagan world, incompetent to bring Catholics (such as I) to church, impotent even to make orthodox those who do go to church. Humanae vitae could have been based on universal moral principles, on the Judaeo-Christian-Islamic bedrock of the Noachian commandments; it could have been proclaimed fearlessly to the nations. Instead, it is based entirely on a peculiarly catholic philosophy of marriage, defined by celibates. Is it any wonder it has failed?

John Kerry, the Democrat candidate for president of the United States, is a ‘pro choice’ Catholic. Can there be a more loathsome thing? Either he is a moral idiot, who has never understood one jot or tittle of the meaning behind the ritual, or he is a moral pygmy who would stifle any qualm that opposed his pursuit of power, or he is a moral coward, so paralysed by polls that he does not dare to vote his conscience, or he is a pure blackguard and devil worshipper, a perverted maniac prostrate before the altar of Moloch.

Pius XII opposed fascism and nazism, to the extent that it was practicable. The dictators detested him for it. He saved 100,000, 200,000 lives, perhaps, in Italy and Bulgaria. But he did not go down as a martyr; he did not condemn evil as the Vicar of Christ on earth should condemn evil. He did not denounce as a true prophet should denounce, beyond the extent that is practicable- and now he is a scandal, a stumbling block to the Jews and to the pagans.

Our Popes now oppose the culture of death, to the extent that it is practicable. The worshippers of Moloch hate them…

I want to see a Papacy that is impractical in its denunciations of evil. I want excommunications more numerous than autumn leaves upon the pseudo-Catholics of the decadent west. I want a refusal to meet with leaders of nations where abortion is legal. I want a general absolution for all those who take up arms in the just war against the murderers of the unborn. But this is not likely to happen. I suppose I am describing a Caliph, rather than a Pope. I suppose the impotence of the Popes will be a stumbling block to the non-Catholics of the 22nd century. And where am I to go?

Habemus Califam?

Thursday, April 14, 2005

A Liberal Education

Charles Sanders Peirce, 1903:

"If I were asked to give a young gentleman a liberal education in 100 lessons, I should devote 50 lessons to teaching some branch, no matter which, thoroughly- say perhaps to boiling an egg- or at any rate so nearly thoroughly that the young man should begin to know what thoroughness really means, and should never thereafter be guilty of the ridiculous conceit of fancying that he knew English, for example. The other fifty I would distribute as follows: three lessons should teach the science of mathematics, one esthetics, two ethics, one metaphysics, one psychology, one the living and dead languages, one history, geography, and statistics ancient and modern, one dynamics and physics, one chemistry, one biology, one astronomy, geology, and physical geography, one law, divinity, medicine and the other applied sciences, and the remaining 36 should be devoted to logic. Thereupon I would give him a certificate to the effect that he was a more truly educated man than two-thirds of the doctors of philosophy the world over, and this certificate would have the singularity of being strictly true."

Sunday, April 10, 2005

A Sunday with Philip K. Dick

Young Dave over in Lexifab is reading Philip K. Dick novels as part of his preparations for a bout of the flu, populating his subconscious with appropriate scenarios for some world-class fever dreams. It didn’t seem right to let this blog bleed into that one, so I didn’t make the comment I first thought of, which is that Dick wrote the most overtly propagandist anti-abortion short story I have ever read, ‘The Pre-Persons.’ Unfortunately, like Aleister Crowley and William Burroughs, the two literary figures I have previously cited as abortion opponents, Philip K. Dick was apparently also wildly misogynistic. I shall have to find some better exemplars.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is Sheri S. Tepper- who in real life was a big wheel in the abortion industry. Curiously enough, her pseudo-science fictiony fantasy novels are the other things that immediately leap to mind when I think of good stuff for inducing horrible dreams in the bedridden.

Who should I find quoted in the Jerusalem Post today but Philip K. Dick? Something like: ‘Reality is that thing that if you stop believing in it, it is still there.’ We need a word for that subset of ‘reality’ that would continue to exist if you or I or any particular person ceased to believe in it, and would only stop existing once nobody believed in it.

Also in the Jerusalem Post, Amir Taheri makes something like my cro-magnon metaphysics point with reference to the celebrated land war in Asia. There seems to be this idea among the ‘anti-war’ community that because there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in April 2003 the Ba’athist regime was no more dangerous than Belgium or Costa Rica, and Bush and Blair et al. owe us some sort of apology in sackcloth and ashes. But Iraq had had weapons of mass destruction; it had the capabilities to make them again; it had deliberately muddied the waters to make it impossible to tell whether it had them or not. It is not rational to make judgments merely on the properties an entity has at the present time: the probable future properties of the entity, projected forward from the recorded past properties of the entity, must also be taken into account.

Does it matter when a winning lottery ticket turns into a million dollars?
Does it matter when an irreplaceable handwritten manuscript turns into a Booker-Prize-winning novel?
Does it matter when a patent turns into a multimillion dollar product?
You wouldn’t steal any of those things, because, as Buffy the Vampire Slayer says: ‘You can’t do that. It’s wrong.’

And I ought to say something about the Pope being dead. I will not enter the arena of ‘What is the greatest evil, suffering or failing to realise your potential by, e.g., sitting around playing World of Warcraft all day?’ but instead will talk very briefly about something else. Everyone has mentioned Pope John Paul II’s greatest triumph, in the fall of communism, but I haven’t yet read one word about what I think he must have seen as his biggest failure. It is the same thing Bill Clinton thought was his greatest failure. I don’t think there has been a time and place since Croatia in the Second World War when so many Catholic clergy were personally involved in genocide. The whole country was nominally Catholic. Then one day half of them wake up and start killing the other half with machetes. I know I asked myself: What the hell is the good of this religion? Is it achieving anything at all? Is it just a paper-thin veneer of empty words? It would have really really bugged me, if I had been Pope. Most of those people in the eastern Congo who are still killing each other are nominally Catholic, too. I shouldn’t forget them.

Across the border from those two places is Uganda, with its abstinence and fidelity program, which they are currently arguing about in the medical journals, as to whether it has been better or worse than the anti-AIDS programs in neighbouring countries. Dave thinks I going too far in my Cephalopd Masters analogy by saying pregnancy is a ‘well-known and easily avoidable’ hazard, because human sexual behaviour is, like, I don’t know, basically the behaviour of idiots. Controlling this problem is easy. There are lots of good libido-destroying drugs that we could put in the water. I don’t think this is inconsistent with Humanae Vitae or an affront to the dignity of mankind. Freedom from unwanted sexual desire should be an inalienable human right, like freedom from unwanted fear, unwanted want, and unwanted having to hear John Laws on the radio. If you want to be afraid, you can move to one of those countries that still has a secret police; if you want to be hungry, don’t eat; if you decide that you really want to suffer sexual desire, buy the blocking medication- heavily taxed in order to cover the social costs of sexuality, naturally. I’ll vote for the first politician who suggests something like this. Secure in the knowledge that my household is totally dependent on rainwater, of course...

Thursday, April 07, 2005

The Panglossian Imperative

It was claimed a while back in our discussion of global warming that it is better to be pessimistic and wrong than optimistic and wrong. This seems incontrevertible. By the same token, it is self-evidently better to be optimistic and right than to be pessimistic and right. This leads us to the tautological conclusion that if we expect to be wrong, we should be pessimists, and if we expect to be right, we should be optimists.

These useful guidelines, however, are only strictly applicable to situations that are completely beyond our control. Surely it is a bad thing to be pessimistic about Cephalopod United's chances in the Cup Final if we are their goalkeeper? Once we consider any situation in which we are a factor, to however small an extent, our atttitude becomes one of the factors that will determine the outcome. In such cases I believe we have a moral duty to be optmistic. By 'optimistic' I don't mean that we should deny that a problem exists, or that a potential problem will never come to pass, but that we should assume that the problem is soluble, and that it will be solved. We should not be 'realistic' and make our goal anything less than a solution of the problem- settling for the goal of containing communism rather than defeating it, for instance, or for limiting terminations to less than 18 weeks gestation. Once we assume that our true goal is unattainable, we have already lost.

But I am really advancing this not as a general theory- I have already argued in a few places that there are problems that we cannot solve, and must be endured in the hope that future generations will solve them- but as a prelude to answering Marco's 'home abortion kit' scenario with spurious meta-logic.

I, personally, must be inordinately optimistic in the ultimate victory of my cause, because doing so enables me to lead a normal life.

I could be pessimistic, and assume abortion will be with us forever. In that case I would have no choice but to retreat into a fantasy world, and spend all my time playing 'World of Warcraft'. (Hang on...)

Or, I could be somewhat pessimistic (or somewhat optimistic) and assume that the matter hung in the balance, so that my actions would play a part, however small, in swinging the matter one way or another. I could then either:
Live my life in an agony of guilt, because I am standing by and seeing genocide done; OR,
Seek to employ the formidable powers of Dr. Clam in the battle agaisnt evil, imperiling my comfortable existence as an employed non-fugitive.

Hence my refusal to seriously consider Marco's (perfectly plausible and logical) vision of the future.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Back to the Bathtub Curve

Now I am having fun! When I should be working and all, I know, I know...

Quoth Dave: How do you figure that demographics fits it? Are you just arguing from the perspective of the current neutral-to-slightly negative Western birth rate (i.e. poor population replacement rates leading to economic ruination etcetera)?

I think this is the first generation where people from what for want of a better term we could call the 'progressive' side of politics are not reproducing themselves.
I guess I am hoping that the Middle Eastern and Latin American populations that are making up the demographic shortfall in the West will remain true to their principles, and not become acculturated in the Culture of Death. I emoted about this back in the early days of the accidental blog, 'Now we are Thirty'.

Quoth Jenny: My point is, what happens when we get incubators? At that time, how far do we take medical intervention?

I think that inevitably, we will have to 'play God'. I think our modelling of the in vivo situation will be such that we will able to say, 'this embryo would have had a 60% chance of spontaneous abortion' in vivo; and I would think killing that person would be very much less than a full murder. Unavoidably there will be a cost-benefit analysis that will lead to certain foetuses with severe defects beings killed. I also think will probably be best not to incubate prior to about three months anyway, which would avoid some of these problems. There are a couple of previous posts over in Marco's blog that are kind of relevant to this question, this one and this one...

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Our Octopoid Brethren

Dave said...
The foetus is not part of the mother? Then you go along with the 'parasitic infection' school of argument, used famously - and I presume with some degree of irony - by radical feminists to argue in favour of abortion?

The parasite analogy is purely emotive. It is just an elaborate way of saying: ‘You wouldn’t like it if you were in that position!’

If there were a race of blameless parasites with such a high probability of achieving free-living sentience, contracted so frequently in such a well-known and easily avoidable way, my position would be exactly the same. It would be a great evil to kill them. I do not have any irrational reverence for human life in particular: our slimy tentacular co-sentients are equally deserving of our consideration.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

O Frabjous Day!

Quoth Dave: That is absolutely the first cogent argument I've ever heard against abortion.

On the other hand, as I have said before, I find the pro-abortion arguments perfectly reasonable. I just consider that they are based on fundamentally dumb premises. (This gives me no reason to hope they will stop being argued anytime soon, given the number of homeopaths, creationists, and astrologers in the world...) The idea that a foetus is somehow part of the mother is Pre-Copernican science, and the idea that only the properties of an entity at this particular instant should be considered when making moral judgments about it is Cro-magnon metaphysics.