Sunday, May 31, 2009

Anti-abortion violence

Abortion provider George Tiller shot to death at church:
A search is ongoing for the suspect in this morning's fatal shooting of George Tiller, the Wichita doctor who became a national lightning rod in the debate over abortion.

Tiller, 67, was shot just after 10 a.m. in the lobby of Reformation Lutheran Church at 7601 E. 13th, where he was a member of the congregation. Witnesses, a city official and a police source confirmed Tiller was the victim.
No arrests have yet been made; the perpetrator remains at large. Presumably Both Dr. Tiller and his killer were operating according to their "certain consciences".

[h/t to Pharyngula]

Quotation of the Day

Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such [interracial] marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.

— judge Leon Bazile, ruling in Loving v. Virginia

[h/t to vjack]

Atheism behind the iron curtain

Atheism behind the iron curtain:
I was born in the former USSR where religious institutions were corralled by the government to ensure that a powerful church wouldn’t start grooming political figures to compete with the nation’s leaders. By the time of the Soviet Union, the Orthodox Church had been a major institution for almost a thousand years. If the priests tried to organize any kind of mass resistance to the regime, they would’ve had no shortage of faithful followers less concerned about the material goods offered by the Communist Party than their spiritual fiber. Knowing that it would never be possible to eliminate religious organizations and was actually likely to backfire, the Soviet leaders started to downplay the role of religion in peoples’ lives.

Interestingly enough, the campaign to de-emphasize religion was relatively subtle. Churches were open and there was a law declaring that all religions which weren’t considered to be dangerous cults (read: advocated resistance to the government or its policies), were free to practice as they wish. Seminaries were open to any would be priest or rabbi. However, being deeply religious carried with it a veiled social stigma. It might hurt a budding career because you weren’t considered to have your feet firmly enough on the ground. You would get some resistance in politics because you devotion should have been to your work in the party rather than your church. And all college students attended a class called Scientific Atheism which outlined a case for disbelief.

Communism 101: Labor, Cost and Value

Chapter 1: Overview
Chapter 2: Labor, Cost and Value


The study of economics is the study of the optimal allocation of labor, i.e. human effort over time to create value. Economics is both normative and descriptive: normative regarding the definition of "optimal", and descriptive in terms of how people behave economically, and how they ought to behave to achieve some definition of optimality. Economics consists 99% of of how labor is directly allocated; the rest consists of how to allocate physical resources (especially land) in order to optimally allocate labor.

This definition of economics simply restates Adam Smith's observation that all value is actually created, i.e. physically instantiated, by human effort over time. (There are other conditions, of course, that apply to value: one must, for example, create something that someone (one's self or another) actually wants.) Even when something is "intrinsically" valuable, such as an apply hanging on a tree, there must be some human labor, i.e. picking the apple, chewing and swallowing it, for the value to be actually realized or instantiated. By definition, such "intrinsic" value is beyond our control — it is not subject to any sort of choice — and is therefore irrelevant to the optimal allocation of labor, and therefore consists of noneconomic value.

There's no basis to assume, presuppose or hypothesize that any individual's labor is inherently more valuable than another's: there are only more or less valuable uses to which one's labor can be put. Furthermore, to simplify matters, we will assume that the amount of effort any individual uses over time to create value is relatively constant. (It's not really, but we can take varying amounts of effort into account "on top of" a theory that assumes constant effort.)

Considering the above, it makes sense from a scientific perspective only to discuss economics in terms of time, i.e. the person-hour. Discussing economics in terms of money, especially in a modern economy when money has become almost entirely divorced from actual effort, conceptually if not actually, just obscures (probably intentionally) the basis of economics in human effort over time, i.e. labor.

Cost and Use Value

There are three fundamental things we are interested in measuring: cost, use-value, and exchange value. I'll discuss the first two now; I'll discuss exchange value in the chapter on commodity relations.

The cost of some "item of value"* is simply the total number of person-hours necessary to create the item. We can measure the specific cost of some specific item, i.e. the number of hours Alice actually uses to create a hat. We must, of course, count the number of hours necessary to create the tools Alice uses to create hats, as well as the training and education necessary to create hats, and amortize that time over the number of hats Alice produces.

*I mean "item of value" in a vague, generic sense for which ordinary intuition will presently suffice. I'll go into more detail in the chapter on commodity relations.

We can also create statistical measures of the cost of hats in general. If Alice, Bob, Carol, ... Zane all create hats, we can compute the mean and median cost of hats, the distribution of actual costs, and other fancy statistical mumbo-jumbo. Based on these statistics, we can talk reasonably about the context-dependent socially necessary labor time required to produce hats in general.

Costs depend overwhelmingly on objective reality (tools, materials, energy expended) and our understanding of objective reality (science, knowledge, and skill). Because costs are reality-dependent, they are relatively constant, and variations in costs are most uncorrelated.

If it takes an hour — all things considered — for Alice to make a hat today, it'll take about an hour to make one tomorrow, and took about an hour to make one yesterday. Furthermore, if Alice can make a hat in an hour, it'll take about an hour for Bob, Carol, etc. to make a hat. What variations can be easily, meaningfully and precisely averaged out or consolidated with more sophisticated statistical measures. (I will henceforth use the average to denote whatever specific statistical measures we use to consolidate and generalize various quantities.)

Because costs are mostly objective and constant (with uncorrelated variability), it is meaningful and useful to talk about the cost "inherent in" an item of value. If it takes an hour for Alice to create a specific hat, we can say that there's one person-hour of labor time inherent in that specific hat. If it takes on average an hour to create a hat, we can say that there's one hour of socially necessary labor time inherent in a generic hat.

The use value of an item of value is the user's subjective "enjoyment" (in a general sense) of the item. A hat's use value consists of the enjoyment the wearer receives at having a dry head in a rainstorm, a cool, non-sunburned head when it's sunny, a warm head in the winter, the aesthetic enjoyment of the appearance of the hat, and/or the social status conferred by owning and wearing the hat, etc.

Unlike cost, use value is extremely variable, both among people and over time in the same person. If I'm hungry, a hamburger has some use value; If I've just eaten lunch, a hamburger has no use value (not even potential use value: it will be soggy, cold and unappetizing by the time I'm hungry again). A sewing machine has use value, but if I already have one sewing machine, a second, identical sewing machine has no use value at all: I can use only one sewing machine at a time.

In contrast to costs, the subjectivity and correlated variations in use value entail that use value cannot be precisely, meaningfully or usefully averaged to form a concept such as "socially-constructed general use-value"; at least not easily, and to the extent that such measures can be computed, they are at best of limited utility. Our inability to usefully average use value notwithstanding, use value is still a critical concept in understanding economic behavior.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Cracked on memes

Memes are a brave attempt to end discrimination based on wit, humor or creativity: instead of going to all the trouble of humor, everyone just agrees on what's funny and repeats it. It's like a vast inside joke, except everyone knows it so it's not "inside", and it's not funny so it's not a "joke." It's like the zen of anti-comedy.

Quotation of the Day

Religion does not deserve any grant of authority in the moral sphere - it has no such authority, and that should be the end of it. Nor does it have any plausible claim to reveal supernatural truths about such entities as gods and spooks.

Russell Blackford

Taibbi on Gitmo

Matt Taibbi condemns Obama's equivocation on Gitmo:
Snatching people up by force and dumping them in rocks on [sic] the middle of the ocean without due process is the kind of thing that was last done by “civilized” cultures back in the days of the Roman Empire; since then it’s been the exclusive province of sociopathic third-world dictators like Stalin and Mobutu Sese Seko. It was absolutely imperative, from a public relations standpoint if nothing else, that Obama immediately epudiate these practices, design some kind of due process to deal with the already incarcerated prisoners, and show the world that what happened during the Bush years was an insane aberration, a result of our having accidentally elected an emotionally retarded sadist to the White House.
The blindingly obvious interpretation is not that the joining the Democratic party causes some sort of cognitive defect ("every time [Democrats] come to a fork in the road, they try to take it"), but rather that the ruling capitalist class considers "snatching people up by force and dumping them on rocks in the middle of the ocean" to be structurally and deeply desirable to protect their own interests.

Obama is no less than George W. Bush the representative and instrument not of the people, but of a faction of the bourgeoisie. Either Obama's faction itself requires indefinite detention, or it does not consider itself strong enough — despite Bush's catastrophically unpopular presidency and enormous public support for Obama the man — to oppose even these blatantly unpopular actions, actions counter to long-established foundational moral principles.

Reformism doesn't work. The interests of the capitalist class are ineluctably hostile to the interests of the masses of people. The capitalist class will implement "reforms" only when its very survival is at stake, only when some faction of the capitalist class clearly sees that its survival is at stake, only when that faction has sufficient political power to implement the reforms, and they will implement only those reforms minimally necessary to ensure their own survival.

Conscience, reason and action

Reader Bob Hunt comments [reproduced in full]:

Mr. Hamelin,

Then we will have to disagree.

As a function of the intellect, conscience is the capacity to discern how I ought to act in any particular circumstance: if my conscience is certain that an action is good, I can perform that action; if my conscience is certain that an action is evil, I must not perform that action. This demands the use of one's reason.

What it doesn't mean is that my conscience is always correct. One could have an ill-formed conscience for any number of reasons, including wilful ignorance, laziness, being exposed to a pervasive culture of death, etc... An ill-formed conscience often leads to erroneous conclusions, the idea that it is legitimate to kill human life in the womb being just one example. One's conscience can be deformed by insanity, or other mental illness. The person who is convinced that his duty is to murder his mother, for instance. Certainly it is the community's responsibility to stop such a person from acting. Error has rights; evil has none. Given that, it is certainly possible for a person to act according to a certain conscience, even if that conscience has come to an erroneous conclusion. Even entire cultures have been led astray by charismatic leaders committed to a culture of death and moral relativism. Truth is objective, but one's conscience is not infallible. It is, however, inviolable. Again, I'm not philosopher, and I'm sure that there are others who could put it far better than I. That's the best I can do in my limited time.

Applying the above practically on the matter of conscience clauses for health care professionals: if a doctor or nurse possesses a certain conscience that performing a particular procedure is evil, he or she must not perform it, for it would be, for him or her, an evil act -- even if he or she is wrong as a result of an ill-formed conscience. Neither the state nor a patient can ethically require a person to perform an act if that person possesses a certain conscience that that act is evil.

I understand we disagree. We obviously approach the matter from two very different worldviews. As I understand it, then, it is your position that the doctor would be required, ethically, to participate in the act of assisting Mrs. Coumbias in killing herself. Perhaps you would let him off if he gave reasons you found convincing. But what reasons could there possibly be, given your definition of the patient's best interest being defined by his or her own terms? How would you punish the doctor or the nurse for refusing to participate? How would you recommend that the state of Montana punish its doctors for refusing to assist Mr. Baxter in killing himself? And how do you think this might impact health care in Montana?

These aren't rhetorical questions. I would really like to know.

Bob Hunt, RN

My response

Mr. Hunt asserts that conscience is a function of reason, and that feelings of conscience can be correct or incorrect. These assertions require some sort of an ontological correspondence: a correct feeling of conscience must correspond to some aspect of existence (i.e. reality); an incorrect feeling of conscience must fail in some substantive way to correspond to existence. These assertions also require some sort of epistemic method: there has to be some way to know whether some feeling of conscience is correct or incorrect.

But Mr. Hunt gives us absolutely no ontological or epistemological account to support his assertions. He asserts that "the idea that it is legitimate to kill human life in the womb," is an example of an erroneous conclusion (or feeling) of conscience. But this is precisely the matter of controversy: many people, myself included, hold that killing a non-sentient blastocyst or fetus is not morally relevant and we object strongly to interfering with a pregnant woman's bodily autonomy.

If Mr. Hunt wishes his assertions to stick, if he wishes us to consider his objection to abortion as anything other than a personal subjective preference, he will need to tell us precisely how his particular preference corresponds to reality (and the opposite preference fails to correspond with reality), and furthermore how we can know he's correct and dissenters are incorrect. We must ask: what sort of existence do correct feelings of conscience correspond to? How do we know whether some feeling of conscience is correct or incorrect?

It's also worth mentioning that Mr. Hunt's view is deeply inconsistent with demanding individual exemptions by reason of conscience. Demanding individual exceptions implicitly condones the practice of those who do not want the exemption; Mr. Hunt is thus condoning behavior he believes to be in some sense objectively wrong. But to condone behavior entails that one believes it to be at least permissible: how can it possibly be permissible to do that which is objectively wrong?

It's worth mentioning that meta-ethical subjectivism is based on psychological egoism: the descriptive (non-normative) scientific theory that people do what they most want to do, all things considered. We have competing desires, reality places strictures on the available actions and their outcomes, we have limited knowledge of how reality works, and there are those pesky six billion other people also trying to do what they want, but at the end of the day, each individual does her best to work out all these complicated factors and does what she decides she most wants to do. A corollary to this foundational principle, also descriptive, is we do in fact experience the consequences of our actions.

Under this view, it's perfectly reasonable for an obstetrician to refuse to perform abortions if, all things considered, he cannot do so in good conscience. It's also perfectly reasonable that the obstetrician will experience the socially constructed consequences of refusing to perform an abortion, which may include loss of professional privileges, including the privilege of practicing medicine. In just the same sense, it might be perfectly reasonable for me to break any law I consider unconscionable, but I would therefore expect to experience the consequences of breaking that law, including going to jail. It's sometimes a very tough choice, but life is full of tough choices. C'est la vie.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. broke the law and faced the consequences: he believed that the imposition of consequences would shock the consequences of the nation more than his breaking the law. His belief was indeed accurate, and he made gains in civil rights for black people. If people such as Mr. Hunt truly believe that it is somehow incorrect or even deeply objectionable for anyone to perform abortions, let them show the sort of moral courage as Dr. King, and let the nation judge whether the act or the consequences are more shocking.

Mr. Hunt asserts it is evil to ever demand a person (assuming doctors and nurses are merely exemplars, and not morally privileged as a class) act contrary to his conscience, even if that conscience is somehow "ill-formed."
[I]f a doctor or nurse possesses a certain conscience that performing a particular procedure is evil, he or she must not perform it, for it would be, for him or her, an evil act -- even if he or she is wrong as a result of an ill-formed conscience. Neither the state nor a patient can ethically require a person to perform an act if that person possesses a certain conscience that that act is evil.
This is a very odd view: It would entail that the "state" (presumably including those who set professional medical standards) should not require a physician (or an institution) to provide care to black people or gay people if his conscience forbade him. If a physician believe in good conscience that antibiotics were evil, or that bacteria had moral standing, even if such a position were obviously "ill-formed" (or subjectively reprehensible), the state should not require him to treat infection with antibiotics; Neither may the state subject him to any sanctions whatsoever, including the loss of the privilege to practice medicine, for a failure to do so.

It is difficult to see Mr. Hunt as arguing for anything but pure moral anarchy, the idea that all socially-constructed norms are universally reprehensible. A norm is no norm at all unless dissenters are somehow coerced, and we coerce only those whose consciences — perhaps "ill-formed" — dissent from a norm.

As I understand it, then, it is your position that the doctor would be required, ethically, to participate in the act of assisting Mrs. Coumbias in killing herself. Perhaps you would let him off if he gave reasons you found convincing. But what reasons could there possibly be, given your definition of the patient's best interest being defined by his or her own terms? How would you punish the doctor or the nurse for refusing to participate?

Mr. Hunt is presumably talking about Betty Coumbias, "an elderly [but otherwise healthy] Vancouver resident [who] has indicated she wants to die alongside her husband, George, who suffers from heart disease."

It is unobjectionable and uncontroversial that we must do more than simply query a patient to ascertain her s best interests when we have good reason to suspect serious mental illness. (This qualification is notably absent when discussing abortion.) The desire of an otherwise healthy person to die is scientifically known to be a symptom of a number of serious mental illnesses, including schizophrenia and depression. Since scientific knowledge is presently ambiguous regarding the patient's best interests in this type of case, a physician has a legitimate basis for refusing treatment. If we were to determine as a matter of scientific truth that Ms. Coumbias were sane, and it was thus indeed in her best interest to die, then yes, a physician would have an obligation to assist her.

How would you recommend that the state of Montana punish its doctors for refusing to assist Mr. Baxter in killing himself? And how do you think this might impact health care in Montana?

Mr. Hunt is presumably talking about Baxter v. Montana, where the state of Montana has made it permissible for a physician to assist with the suicide of mentally competent terminally ill patients. Since the science here is well-defined, I do indeed believe that a physician with a relevant domain of practice does indeed have an obligation to assist suicide in these cases. It may take the law and professional medical standards a while to catch up, though.

In general, every mentally competent person — and mental competence, mental illness and sanity are well-defined, or defined well enough for most cases — should have autonomy over his or her own life and body, including the autonomy to end it at will, and it requires medical training and competence to end it with a minimum of suffering. Physicians, therefore, if the best interests of their patients does indeed drive their conduct, and they are not seeking to use their privilege, power and expertise to impose their own beliefs on the consciences and preferences of their patients, do indeed have an obligation to assist suicides as well as perform abortions.

Note that euthanasia is substantively different from abortion on a number of grounds: a person who desires euthanasia is a sapient, sentient being, with self-awareness and the capacity to suffer; a fetus has neither characteristic. Furthermore, live or die a person desiring euthanasia infringes on no one else's interests in a controversial way; a fetus does indeed infringe on the pregnant woman's interests, posing a nontrivial risk of illness and death, and substantially restricting the scope of her ordinarily free conduct. I address Mr. Hunt's questions regarding euthanasia here because they are interesting in their own right and they do indeed shed light on the fundamental ethical question we're considering: the rights, obligations and liberties of physicians in caring for their patients.

There are two fundamental questions here: how much control should we as a society give individual conscience? And second: which is more important when they conflict: an individual's life or her own liberty? Should we restrict a person's liberty to preserve her life?

Friday, May 29, 2009

Cardinal fucktard

Cardinal Antonio "Fucktard" Canizares says, "What happened in some [Irish] schools cannot be compared with the millions of lives that have been destroyed by abortion. It [abortion] has legally destroyed 40 million human lives."

[h/t to Butterflies and Wheels]

Plantinga's critique of naturalism

PZ Myers and I certainly agree that Alvin Plantinga gives philosophy a bad name. Unfortunately, like lawyers, 99% of philosophers give the other 1% a bad name, and Plantinga doesn't really stand out in the crowd.

Myers, like Stephen Law, misses the crux of Plantinga's argument: On Plantinga's account the truth or falsity of a belief has nothing to do with its adaptive functionality. Truth and falsity are essentially uncorrelated with adaptation, selection, learning or any other "reality-based" cognition.

Plantinga cannot take the sole blame for this view of truth and falsity: he relies on an underdetermination argument that more staid philosophers, including the venerable Quine, have advanced. Plantinga's argument essentially follows Carnap's critique of Popper's probabilism, with Carnap's conformance to experiment mapping directly to Plantinga's adaptation.

Essentially, Plantinga argues that while the truth might be necessarily adaptive, many false beliefs and belief-producing mechanism can also be adaptive. (The arguments for beliefs can be applied directly to belief-formation mechanisms and vice-versa without loss of generality.) There are infinitely many beliefs that might be adaptive, but ex hypothesi exactly one is actually true. The probability is infinitesimal that any given belief could be actually true even if it were adaptive. Plantinga is being charitable, perhaps unreasonably so, by giving any given belief a numerical, non-infinitesimal probability, much less an enormously large numerical probability of 0.5. Furthermore, under Plantinga's critique, the probability of any belief actually being true is indeed independent of other beliefs being true.

If there really are infinitely many false beliefs that will produce adaptive behavior, we have said nothing specific about the probability of some specific false belief being adaptive; we could say empirically that there is a finite measure relating the infinite number of false adaptive beliefs to the infinite number of all false beliefs. Even a very small finite measure permits evolution of a large number of adaptive beliefs over time.

It is not enough, as Myers and Law note, to say that beliefs under evolution are dependent: They are only adaptively dependent. If false beliefs could be adaptive, adaptive dependency does not entail truth dependency.

Plantinga goes wrong (as does Law in his critique) in assuming on some unspecified intuitive basis that our beliefs really are truth-reliable. We simply don't know that: we know only that our beliefs are adaptive-reliable, an unsurprising conclusion from evolution. We cannot, therefore, conclude that a god exists to make our beliefs truth-reliable. Likewise Law's critique fails on the same grounds: we don't know that conventional logic is actually true or truth-preserving; we know only that logic is adaptive.

Plantinga — and indeed philosophers in general — also go wrong in assuming a priori that there is exactly one and only one statement set that can be true, and all deviations from that statement set are equally and absolutely false. But why should we take that view? Carnap's critique of probabilism and Plantinga's critique of evolution must still assume that we can make some distinction between "good" and "bad" beliefs: i.e. those do or do not correspond to experiment or are or are not adaptive. Furthermore, the distinction between true and false beliefs cannot be made on this basis; we cannot make the distinction between true and false beliefs at all! Even if we were to stumble by the purest chance on the one true belief among all the infinite and equally explanatory or adaptive false beliefs, we would have no way of knowing that we had stumbled upon the truth.

An alternative view is simply to define truth and falsity in terms of the distinction we can make: explanatory accuracy and adaptation: A true belief is an explanatorily accurate or adaptive belief. Truth thus becomes at least a scalar property: a belief is more or less true based on how much and how precisely it predicts experimental results, or on how widely and how effective it is at producing adaptive behavior.

Capitalism and regional airlines

Sam of Blogging at FL250 offers a deep and perspicacious analysis of the structural issues and properties of regional airlines that contributed to the recent crash of Colgan Air Flight 3407.

Sam is unequivocal about the airline's structural contributions. Although
This crew did undoubtedly make a number of serious mistakes, some commonplace and others nearly inexplicable, which compounded on each other and resulted in tragedy. Yet these mistakes did not take place in a vacuum; there were a number of circumstances that may have contributed.
and Sam has previously cited training errors and crew distractions as contributing factors, Sam identifies deeper structural issues underlying the proximate causes.

Sam cites a series of practices at Colgan Airlines (and many regional airlines) aimed at reducing costs, including:
  1. Hiring inexperienced pilots (although Colgan is not nearly the worst)
  2. Extremely low "poverty-level" crew pay
  3. Outsourced and minimized crew training
  4. Operating relatively few pilots per airplane
  5. Aggressively limiting absenteeism
  6. Aggressively maximizing crew flight time

On the one hand, human beings have some... nonlinearities... in their perception of risk. Air travel is still relatively safe; by passenger-kilometer roughly two orders of magnitude safer than cars*. Regardless, human beings have notions of acceptable risk, and the Colgan crash is clearly unacceptable.

*By passenger-hour cars are about three times more dangerous than airplanes, and by passenger-journey airplanes are about twice as dangerous as cars. We make many more, shorter and slower journeys by car than by airplane. But even by the most dangerous metric, an individual would have to make about 50,000,000 (fifty million) aircraft journeys to have a 50% chance of dying during one. Also note that these statistics were collected in 2000; air travel has been considerably safer since, with only one major loss-of-life accident (Colgan 3407) since 2001.

Even if Colgan were to make a conscientious and well-informed person such as Sam their CEO, there would be little he could do as an individual to improve safety:
It's easy to vilify regional airline management for this behavior, but the reality is that it is generally borne of financial necessity rather than a perverse hatred of pilots or the pursuit of personal enrichment. Regional airlines live and die by their cost structures because the major airlines they contract with have made it this way. Virtually all regional airline management is cheap; the main difference between them is the degree of their aggressiveness in cutting costs and how vile they're willing to be to their employees. The most foul - i.e., the most cheap - have reaped the most growth in recent years as they lap up contracts with major airlines. In the case of Colgan, this came in the form of 15 Q400's to be flown as Continental Connection.

We not only face safety issues, but Sam also paints a compelling picture of the misery and indignity pilots face at many of the lower-end regional airlines: long hours, low pay, bullying by their superiors. The first officer on Colgan 3407 was supplementing her income as a barista. Keep in mind that pilots require more training — and on general principles* seem to have as much or more potential for causing premature death** — than physicians.

*I have not actually computed the statistics; let me know if I'm mistaken.

**In expected years of life lost. Pilots are typically responsible for healthy people with many expected years of life; physicians are typically responsible for sick people with few years of expected life, especially if untreated.

Sam correctly notes that both the degradation of the pilots and the compromise of safety result from the structural characteristics of capitalism. There are only two ways of generating surplus value: increasing labor output and decreasing labor costs and pay, and the survival of any individual capitalist enterprise depends on generating more surplus value relative to one's direct competitors and in the short term. Colgan President Buddy Casey could afford to evaluate the risk of a crash only in the next quarter; if quarterly profits (or revenue) had fallen relative to his competitors (causing a movement of financial capital to his competitors) he would certainly have been out on his ass.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Transcendent fucktardery

According to fucktard Mark Shea, Every atheist is a thief:
...who steals from theism in order to give his personal moral system the weight of transcendence that his philosophy denies can be there.
Oh good grief. There's nothing at all transcendent about humanist morality. The only people who need transcendence are religious fucktards to morally justify raping and abusing thousands of children.

He then invokes the always-irritating argument from ignorance, saying atheists "are constantly haunted by commanding Oughts that are inexplicable apart from a Transcendent God and a human race made in his image and likeness."

Really, how fucking stupid to you have to be to consider the well-being of other people to be inexplicable?

Shea's present motto is "So That No Thought of Mine, No Matter How Stupid, Should Ever Go Unpublished Again!" Shea definitely lives up to the spirit of this motto.

Unconscionable interference with conscience

Reader Bob Hunt makes two bold assertions:

"Conscience is a function of the intellect that guides us in choosing to act for good or for evil."

"It is unconscionable to demand that a person act contrary to his or her certain conscience."

Both of these assertions are incorrect on a number of grounds.

First, Hunt asserts that Conscience is a function of the intellect; the obvious interpretation is that that matters of conscience are rational and supportable by reason. This is not the case; worse yet, if it were true, it would invalidate his second assertion. If matters of conscience were indeed rational, then merely asserting one's "certain conscience" would be unnecessary. One should invoke the actual underlying reasons, not the fact of the conclusion. It is well-understood that people's conclusions are not perfectly reliable: they do not always reason correctly, they may they may be ignorant of relevant facts, or they may have false-to-fact beliefs.

Normative principles are fundamentally subjective, i.e. they are preferences. We cannot establish an objective normative principle syllogistically, because the fundamental premises of a syllogism are subject to the Universal Philosophical Refutation: they can always be rationally denied or contradicted. (Fundamental premises are by definition not themselves syllogistically established.) We cannot establish objective normative principles evidentially, because they are categorically unfalsifiable.

Normative preferences are rational only in the sense that they have a causal history: why and how someone forms a normative preference is a matter of scientific truth (albeit difficult or intractable to actually determine); the content of that preference, however, is not truth-apt: it just is.

Let's unpack Mr. Hunt's second assertion: "It is unconscionable to demand that a person act contrary to his or her certain conscience."

Since he says, "It is unconscionable..." he is stating a matter of conscience, and therefore a subjective normative preference. He states a normative preference regarding "demands", which implies some sort of social context; demands are meaningful (except for trivial cases) only among at least two people, and a demand (as opposed to a request) in this context implies some sort of coercion. He explicitly references compulsion, rather than prohibition. Finally, the preference is unqualified, even in the original context: he's stating a preference with universal application.

Mr. Hunt has to make the distinction between compulsion and prohibition; it would be wildly counter-intuitive to demand an exception from socially established prohibitive norms on the basis of one's certain conscience. I might (hypothetically, of course!) believe that it is ethically compulsory to murder my neighbor, but very few, I suspect, would exempt me from laws against murder by virtue of the fact of my "certain conscience."

All (coherent, reasonable) normative principles objectively specify some set of actions (in objectively specified circumstances) and a set of alternative actions; the preference privileges one set as "good" and deprecates the alternative as "bad". The only substantive difference between a compulsion and a prohibition is which of these sets are well-defined. For example, a prohibition against murder defines and prohibits the actions that constitute murder, but does not define the actions that do not constitute murder. Contrawise, the compulsion that I pay my income taxes defines and compels the set of actions that constitutes paying my taxes, but does not define the actions that constitute not paying my taxes.

The problem arises when both the preferred and deprecated actions are well-defined. I am, for instance, compelled to stop my car at a red light, but I am equally prohibited from driving my vehicle into the intersection. When all the relevant actions — preferred and deprecated — are well-defined the distinction between compulsion and prohibition becomes meaningless.

And we see in medical ethics in general that the preferred and deprecated actions are well-defined: either the physician (or other medical professional) denies the treatment or he performs the treatment; if Mr. Hunt objects to compulsion, we can simply prohibit physicians from denying treatment. So Mr. Hunt's objection to compulsion in medical ethics is therefore meaningless; Mr. Hunt is obviously not arguing that medicine should be subject to no social norms whatsoever.

Furthermore, even in situations where the distinction on the basis of good definition is relevant, the objection to compulsion is also wildly counter-intuitive. We are compelled in a meaningful sense to pay our taxes, to serve on juries, to testify when subpoenaed. We are compelled to fulfill our contractual obligations. And, most importantly, most of us are compelled to do our jobs, to comply with the reasonable orders of our superiors, to fulfill the standards of our professions. And it is precisely against those who might have some personal conscientious objection to an obligation that the compulsion is directed: A compulsion that allows exceptions based on individual characteristics is no compulsion at all.

I must admit to some sympathy for Mr. Hunt's second assertion: I do in fact find compulsion objectionable to a degree, and I admire (at least in theory) the radical anarcho-libertarian society depicted in And Then There Were None. But Russell is writing a fantasy; in the real world it's at best confused to object in principle to compulsion.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Certainly a fucktard

Fucktard Ian Welsh writes:
So let me respond to fire with fire, atheism is, ultimately, intellectually disreputable.

You cannot know with certainty that there is no god, in the sense of a creator of the universe, for example.
Atheists do not claim certainty.
If Biblical literacy is your target, it’s just about shooting fish in a barrel, isn’t it?
Actually asserting that religious scripture means what it says? How disreputable!
I don’t know.

And neither do you.
Well, I do know Welsh is a fucktard.

A.N. Wilson on atheism

A.N. Wilson, who "converted" to atheism and back to Christianity, writes,
By nature a doubting Thomas, I should have distrusted the symptoms when I underwent a “conversion experience” 20 years ago. Something was happening which was out of character – the inner glow of complete certainty, the heady sense of being at one with the great tide of fellow non-believers.
We don't need to read any further. His self-characterization as a "doubting Thomas" is immediately revealed as nothing but irrational vanity: a doubting Thomas would not merely distrust but never have the "inner glow of certainty" or the "heady sense of being at one" with any group... at least not long enough to matter. Wilson reveals himself nothing more as an outer-directed crowd-pleaser and dogmatist, not as someone who came to atheism by honest skepticism or intellectual inquiry. His reconversion to Christianity, comprising a much larger crowd with an actual dogma, is entirely unsurprising and completely uninteresting.

There are no small few atheists who have simply transferred their credulity and outer-direction to the atheist community. We'll take 'em — we'll take anyone — but we ought to remind them that just "being an atheist" isn't enough. You can't just change what you think, you have to change how you think.

No matter how much you feel "at one" with the atheist community, you're not: such a feeling is an illusion, because the atheist community isn't something anyone can be "at one" with. Indeed the skeptical atheist community is by definition a "community" of people who insist on the intellectual authority of each individual and fundamentally reject not just specific dogmatic beliefs but the idea itself of any sort of collective dogma. The only "strictures" of the skeptical atheists is: think for yourself, pay attention to the arguments of others (even if you're not persuaded, you'll usually learn something), and, most importantly, cowboy up and argue for what you believe to be true: if you can't argue it, you have no epistemic right to the belief.

If you're not a skeptical atheist, you are — like the unfortunate Mr. Wilsome — just some dumb schmuck with one fewer stupid idea than a theist.

Best interests

Reader Bob Hunt, commenting on Abortion and execution clarifies his position regarding a physician's interaction with a patient:
You defined the matter in terms of the patient's best interest "in the patient's own terms," not the physician's. That's a big wrench to throw into the equation. ... Obviously, a physician would judge a treatment as contrary to his or her conscience because he or she believes that it would not be in the patient's best interest, even if that means disagreeing with the patient on what is in the patient's best interest.
Mr. Hunt's position brings up a critical question for all utilitarian ethical accounts, including subjective accounts: on what basis do we determine any individual's best interests in a fundamental way? Determining an individual's best interests is an issue for all ethical situations, not just specifically medical situations, but an examination of medical situations can, I think, provide important insights.

(Whether a fetus has its own "best interests," interests that a physician is obliged to consider, is an interesting and profound question (albeit a question with one good answer), but it is a completely different question than the issue under discussion in this post. We are, per Mr. Hunt's explicitly stated position, discussing the methodology a physician uses to determine the patient's best interests, not which patients the physician must determine the best interests of.)

On an objectivist utilitarian account, we can, at least in principle, determine an individual's best interests without taking into account her specific subjective mental characteristics, indeed we can determine best interests without taking into account any person's or group of person's subjective accounts. I'm aware of no serious objectivist account that takes into account any external non-mental contingencies (e.g. the phase of the moon or the price of tea in China); we may confidently conclude that an objectivist account of "best interests" is therefore a universal account: all people in the same objective, physical circumstances would therefore have the same best interests.

On a subjectivist account, an individual's best interests does substantively depends on her specific subjective mental states, or the mental states of some person or group of persons. In other words, the truth of any statement of best interests is, on a subjectivist account, relative to the subjective state of some person or persons. Since we cannot directly observe anyone's mental states, we must somehow infer those states.

Ordinarily, we infer a person's mental states by asking her or listening to her speak. If someone says, "I want a hamburger," we infer that she presently has the mental state of "wanting a hamburger." Such an inference is the simplest explanation to account for the facts, in this case the fact of the utterance.

Sometimes determining all the mental states relevant to a particular circumstance is non-trivial. People sometimes have conflicting desires and preferences: a person might desire a tasty hamburger, but not desire the consequences of the fat and cholesterol. Most desires must be fulfilled through the objective, material world: if (all things considered) a person wants to eat a hamburger, there are definite, bounded ways she must interact with the material world to actually eat a hamburger. People sometimes have false beliefs about reality; they might believe that if they want a hamburger, the best way to satisfy that desire is to go to Taco Bell.

A subjectivist account of best interests, then, entails that we ask the individual to speak, make the best scientific inference as to the corresponding mental states, and determine the best interests that correspond to those mental states.

In medicine specifically, it's clear that there is a strong subjectivist component to account for the best outcome, and an strong objectivist account for the best treatment to achieve that outcome. For example, if some treatment is especially risky or entails significant side effects, it is the patient's choice whether to face those risks or endure the side effects, or leave the underlying condition untreated. Affording this choice is determining the patient's best interests as corresponding to her subjective mental states. Indeed even if a physician believes the patient has an exaggerated subjective evaluation of undesirability of the risk or the side effects, the physician cannot simply override the patient's subjective evaluation; she must persuade the patient to accept the risk: she must attempt change the patient's subjective state and thereby change the patient's subjectively defined best interests.

On the other hand, if a patient desires a particular outcome (e.g. having her cancer cured), it is a matter of objective truth that there is a well-defined bounded set of actions scientifically known to achieve that outcome, and a well-defined bounded set of actions scientifically known to not achieve that outcome. A patient's subjective desires regarding treatment are indeed irrelevant precisely because efficacy and risk are matters of objective truth.

A pregnant woman comes to a physician seeking an abortion. It's uncontroversial on any account that the physician must, of course, ensure that the woman really does want to be not pregnant: He* must determine that not being pregnant really is in the patient's subjectively defined best interests. Once he has determined that she really does want to be not pregnant, it is a matter of uncontroversial scientific truth that there is a specific set of procedures one of which must be performed to achieve that end, that are known to achieve that end, and have known risks and side-effects comparable to other routinely condoned and performed medical procedures.

*I'll use the male pronoun only to easily disambiguate the physician from the patient; the latter being in this context always female.

What, however, are we to make of a physician whose domain of practice includes abortion, but seeks an exemption from ever performing that procedure? We must ask: on what basis does he seek the exemption? What are the overall effects of privileging the principle of allowing individual physicians to make medical decisions on that basis?

The physician must be referencing the ends (not being pregnant), since the relevant characteristics of the means (the various procedures for performing an abortion) are matters of uncontroversial, settled scientific truth. The physician therefore must have either an objective or subjective basis for objecting to the ends.

If a physician has an objectivist objection to the ends, he is saying in effect it is objectively true that it is never in a pregnant woman's best interests to not be pregnant. But if this is his position, basing this position on conscience is inept: Matters of objective truth — at least in medicine — must be settled by scientific inquiry, not individual opinion. Furthermore an objectivist position implies a universal position: any other physician who disagrees with him must be mistaken, since there is by definition exactly right answer to yes-or-no questions about objective truth. If this were truly his belief, then he has a moral obligation not just to personally abstain, but to do everything in his power to correct the mistake of his colleagues. Seeking only a personal exemption should be seen as nothing but moral cowardice.

Lacking an objectivist objection, the physician therefore must have a subjectivist objection. There are only three general subjectivist bases to object: the patient's own subjective state, the physicians own subjective state, or statistical, collective properties of the subjective states of the members of the community, culture, society or state.

We can eliminate the latter: the Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade determined that — all things considered — the state (and therefore the community, culture and society) does not have a collective opinion relevant to the desirability of having an abortion in the first trimester; abortion may neither be compelled nor prohibited on this basis.

An objection based on the patient's subjective state poses the same problem. The process of inferring an individual's subjective state is a scientific process. A physician must state that we never infer a woman's relevant subjective state to be those that correspond to the best interests of being not pregnant. To make this statement, however, the physician must propose and defend a definite scientific, evidentiary methodology to support such a statement; an appeal to conscience is not a scientific methodology. Alternatively, a physician could propose that there are no subjective states at all that correspond to the best interests of being not pregnant. Again, he must put forth some sort of logical or philosophical argument for such a determination; personal conscience is no more a philosophical argument than it is a scientific methodology.

(The physician could also assert that every pregnant woman who desires to be not pregnant is ipso facto insane, in the same sense that we determine that everyone who wants to die (and who is not terminally ill) is insane. I don't think anyone serious advocates this position, so I will waste no more ink rebutting it.)

There is simply no basis for relying on a physician's "expert judgment" in determining a patient's subjective states in a general, when the actual determination is substantively different from the ordinary method that most everyone is competent in employing: querying a person and taking their answers (more or less) at face value. If we use the ordinary methodology for determining subjective states and determining the corresponding best interests, is is uncontroversially the case that millions of pregnant women's subjective states and the corresponding best interests are to be not pregnant. Not only must a physician offer a better reason than "conscience" to make a different determination, but also there are no better reasons a physician can rationally offer.

So we're left with the physician's own subjective state. But if the previous constructions are merely unreasonable, the idea that the best interests of the patient are dependent on and relative to the subjective state of the physician is so wildly counter-intuitive as to verge on the ridiculous.

When the scientific truth of the efficacy or safety of some procedure is equivocal, ambiguous or not well-established, I would certainly trust a physician's more-or-less subjective judgment on the desirability of some specific procedure to achieve the typically desired end of good health. If one physician considers an experimental procedure to be worth trying, but another considers it too risky relative to its efficacy, and the current state of scientific knowledge is objectively ambiguous, there's no objection to permitting one physician to perform the procedure and another to refuse it.

There is no basis, however, other than insufferable arrogance or blatant irrationality on which a physician could determine, when a patient is in possession of all relevant scientific knowledge and is demonstrably sane, that the patient is incompetent to determine and articulate her own fundamental best interests. Such a physician should not only be drummed out of the medical profession, but earns our contempt as a human being.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Sophisticated theology

For an example of modern "sophisticated" theology, see this example of mind-numbing philoso-babble. I have to grant the author one point: he cleverly escapes the New Atheist critique of religion by offering no actual content whatsoever.

Abortion and execution

Commenter Alphonsus asks, "Given that capital punishment is legal, would it be possible for the government to force a given doctor to perform an execution if no other doctor was willing?"

This question is confused on a number of points. Superficially, the law is at best an imperfect mirror of ethics (and at worst and usually simply a codification of class oppression). It's physically possible for the government to force most anyone to do most anything; the question is: is it ethical to do so?

More deeply, though, in discussing abortion specifically, we're asking about the best interests of the patient. There are two general ethical questions relating to abortion. First: is the fetus a patient whose best interests a physician is ethically obligated to act? It's notable that Bob Hunt does not address this particular question in his opinion. He asks instead: if a physician (or other medical professional) believes that some treatment is indeed in the best interest of the patient, but the treatment violates the physician's own personal moral beliefs, is the physician is entitled to deny that treatment? He answers in the affirmative.

(Another question is: to what degree does a woman forfeit any of her ethical rights by getting pregnant? It's entirely contemptible to answer this question in any way except, "Not at all.")

A condemned prisoner is in an objective sense a sapient human being. Regardless of legal, social and ethical considerations, it's objectively true that a prisoner has interests, and it is never in his interest to be executed (assuming he does not wish to commit suicide). Therefore a physician cannot act in the prisoner's best interests by participating in an execution, and therefore the physician should not be compelled to do so. Indeed, medical ethics — if constructed in terms of the patient's best interests — would forbid participation in an execution. In Mr. Hunt's own terminology, a physician would indeed become a "tool of the state", acting in the state's interests instead of the patient's.

Thus Alphonsus asks a substantively different ethical question: answering one (on any basis) does not in any way suggest any particular answer to the other.

Communism 101: Overview

Communism 101 - or - A summary of what I've learned about economics and politics during a year of directed reading and thinking, and half a lifetime of moving around in the world.

Chapter 1: Overview

The Importance of Labor

We can usefully study how human beings relate to each other overall by recognizing the fundamental role played by economics, the use of human time and effort — i.e. labor — to produce "value". We have to work to live; the Randians and Libertarians are correct at least that if we don't stay alive, as a species, as cultures and nations, and as individuals, there is no one around to have any values at all. Historically, the vast majority of individuals' time has been used to produce the material necessities for individual survival and reproduction; this observation is true not only of humans, but of all life forms: modern scientific ecology shares many substantial features with economics.

Labor and Social Relations

A unique feature of human beings is that we can think about economics, and, more importantly, use that thinking directly to change our economic behavior much more quickly — by many orders of magnitude — than the slow accretion of instinctive behavior afforded by genetic, biological evolution. Furthermore by evolutionary heritage we focus on cooperative economic strategies. (It makes little difference whether this focus is a deep result of biological evolution — i.e. if only a cooperative species can evolve sapience — or an accident of evolutionary history — the fundamental economic strategies would probably be very different had an historically solitary species like tigers, or an historically "subordinationist" species like ants or bees, evolved sapience. Regardless of the causal reasons, we are where are.)

So, as a species, we create social relations that directly affect our cooperative economic activity. We also create social relations that do not directly affect our economic activity.

Given the above, we can separate our analysis of human social relations into three broad domains: the means of production, the economic relations, and the political superstructure.

The means of production consists of the physical tools we use to create the material necessities of life, the physical environment, e.g. soil, water, and air, the plants and animals we use, our own physical bodies; and most importantly our objective knowledge about the world: the knowledge of how to make tools, when to plant, what to weed, when to reap, how to convert plants into food, etc.

The economic relations consists of social constructs that groups of people follow in order to cooperate economically in the production of "value", including ideas about ownership, inheritance, the "work ethic", and division of labor by sex and caste.

The political superstructure consists of the social constructs that do not directly affect economic behavior (although they usually indirectly affect economic behavior) including manners, some political/legal ideals, principles, structures and practices, etc.

Dialectical Materialism

These domains interact according to the principles of dialectical materialism. I do not fully understand dialectical materialism, and I am not yet convinced that any canonical communist writers fully understand dialectical materialism. However, some broad, basic principles seem comprehensible.

The materialist paradigm rejects the idea that there is some sort of transcendent ideal to which our economic and political social relations hew closer and closer to over time, by some sort of direct interaction between those ideals and human thought (Platonic dualism) or by some properties of the ideas themselves somehow independent of the material world of rocks and trees (Hegelian dialectical idealism*). Therefore everything that happens in the world of politics and economics must somehow happen because of inherent properties of physical, material reality.

*As best I understand Hegel, i.e. poorly

There are two views within materialism: mechanical materialism and "progressive" materialism. Mechanical materialism holds that nothing substantively changes: everything that happens has always happened and always will happen; only the superficial and irrelevant appearances change. "Progressive" materialism holds that things really do change and evolve in a substantive way. Dialectical materialism is — as best I understand it — a specific paradigm about how and why things change.

As applied to economics and politics, dialectical materialism — as best I understand it — holds that the most fundamental change comes from "contradictions" — i.e. conflicts and tensions that are not superficially reconcilable — between the fundamental domains of social behavior, most especially contradictions between the means of production and economic relations.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

A long, greasy fucktard

Fucktard Timothy Birdnow thinks atheists are ruining society.
Radical Atheists hate it when their belief system is categorized as religious, but it is ... [with] a system of beliefs about the nature of the Universe, of Man, and of the Hereafter. It generally has a moral code. It has a creation story, and often a prophecy of the end of the world.
Even so:
That is why our society is sliding down the long, greasy pole; too many [atheists?] believe in nothing.
The good doctor Myers handily delivers the smackdown:
As we all know, sliding down a long, greasy pole is the homophobe's worst nightmare, which is why they dwell on it so much.

Abortion and medical ethics: my rebuttal

Commenter Bob Hunt offers his viewpoint regarding Abortion and medical ethics.

It's long been the case that the reduction in the number of abortions in the U. S., as well as the lack of access to abortions for so many women, has less to do with laws restricting abortion rights and more to do with the difficulty of abortion clinics to find doctors and nurses willing to perform abortions.
I grant that Mr. Hunt, a medical professional, has anecdotal evidence (better than no evidence at all) for his position, but such an assertion requires more and better evidence.

Mr. Hunt offers, but dismisses, an alternative hypothesis:
This is partly, no doubt, because of pressures placed on clinics and their staff by pro-life activists. But, more than that, it is because more and more doctors and nurses have moral reservations about abortion.
It's well-documented that these "pressures" include not only peaceful protests and non-violent direct action, but also personal harassment, death threats, vandalism, bombings, and actual murder, both attempted and achieved. A considerable amount of evidence must be offered for any thoughtful person to exclude these "pressures" as the primary cause of lack of access to abortion.

Mr. Hunt also conflates a reduction in the number of abortions (a generally good thing: abortions are logistically complicated, emotionally disturbing to some women, and pose some medical risk) with a reduction in access to abortion services. As far as the former goes, the most obvious, provably efficacious and scientifically uncontroversial way to limit the overall number of abortions is to provide universal access to contraception and good sex education, a position which seemingly ought to be socially and politically uncontroversial, but sadly is not.

This is why many medical schools, under pressure from abortion rights activists, started requiring that students learn how to perform abortions, because so few were voluntarily learning to do so.
Again, I must challenge the evidence for the truth of Mr. Hunt's assertion here. Furthermore, it seems odd to argue that medical students should a priori have much of a choice about their curriculum: they are there to learn; if they want to express themselves, they can go to art school.

If conscience rights are rescinded [note: "conscience rights" have not yet been granted, so they cannot be rescinded] even more doctors and nurses will take your advice and move to fields where abortion is not an issue, and the dirth of health care workers in the field of obstetrics will only get worse.
At best, even granting arguendo that Mr. Hunt's factual assertions are accurate, he makes nothing better here than an argument from expedience. Such an argument is not necessarily bad, but it is limited a priori: an argument from expedience is never a good argument for a general principle.

I don't think any of my colleagues at my hospital would deny any patient care that is in their [presumably the patient's] best interest. But that is the crux: what, exactly, is in the best interest of the patient[?]
I agree that it's not always trivial to determine the patient's best interest, but Hunt places an invalid condition on this determination: "how far the doctor or nurse is willing to go, or what they are willing to do is one of those variables" affecting the determination of the patient's best interest. This is nonsense: There might be other dimensions in which a medical professional's personal characteristics would be relevant, but they cannot be relevant to or have any bearing whatsoever on a determination of the patient's best interests.

I doubt that any doctor or nurse would agree that the best interest of the patient means providing care "most efficacious to achieve the well-being of the patient in the patient's own terms." There are simply too many variables to make such a vague policy practical or meaningful in any way.
Why not? My construction might be broad, but I don't see how it's vague, i.e. containing ambiguous or undefined terms. Patients typically want to live as long as is practically possible, they want to be free of physical pain and psychological suffering, they want to have maximum physical function and a minimum of inconvenience. In terms of abortion, the patient considers her well-being to consist of not being pregnant. While this construction might not handle every possible case (especially psychological or psychiatric issues), it seems clear and unambiguous in the vast majority of medical situations.

Troublesome and/or horrific consequences of such a policy are legion.
They are not so legion that they have intruded on my attention; I'm unable to think of a single case outside of organic mental illness or profound neurosis of any troublesome — much less horrific — consequence of acting in any patient's self-interest. It seems to me, however, that many troublesome and horrifying consequences spring immediately to mind when physicians arrogate their own personal interests over the patient's: forced sterilization, unethical experimentation, the decades-long psychiatric pathologizing of homosexuality. I invite Mr. Hunt to offer examples (outside of psychiatry) of the "legion" of troublesome or horrific consequences of adhering strictly to the patient's best interest.

No health care worker in his or her right mind is going to adopt a personal standard of practice that requires them to leave their conscience outside the hospital door.
Why not? When I see a physician or any medical practitioner, I want to be able to assume they will act in my best interests, regardless of their conscience. If their conscience is aligned with acting in my best interest, so much the better, but if not, either the conscience or the person needs to be outside the door. I don't want to know if they approve or disapprove of atheism, communism, mixed marriages, and I want to be sure that even if they do disapprove, their disapproval will not affect the quality of my care.

No health care worker regards him or herself as nothing more than a tool of the state, doing the bidding of the state...
There is a substantive difference between being a "tool of the state", i.e. acting in the interests of the members of the government, and being subject to external ethical and legal standards.

No health care worker regards him or herself as nothing more than a tool of ... or any particular patient no questions asked
Why not? If you're in the health care field, you're there to make me better when I'm sick; you damned well better not be there to use your power over my health to enact your own personal agenda. No questions asked? Ask me all the questions you need to to discover my best interests, but in the intended metaphorical sense, no: your "questions" — especially your ethical questions — are simply irrelevant.

Do you care at all about having health care that even approaches professional standards when you need to go to the ER for that broken arm that won't kill you (though, in fact, it might)?
Yes, I care about having health care that complies with professional standards. Hence I don't want any deviations from those standards, especially deviations justified only by purely subjective considerations such as individual conscience.

Abortion and medical ethics: an opposing viewpoint

[I sometimes offer to post thoughtful and well-written arguments from viewpoints other than my own. My readers all-too-infrequently take me up on this offer. Commenter Bob Hunt, however, has provided such an argument, opposing my viewpoint on Abortion and medical ethics. The comment is provided here in full. - Ed.]

Mr. Hamelin,

Some thoughts for your readers:

Your insistence that health care workers get jobs in areas of health care not likely to encroach on their moral consciences, rather than insist on the right to refuse to perform or participate in procedures based on personal morals, is already being taken to heart. It's long been the case that the reduction in the number of abortions in the U. S., as well as the lack of access to abortions for so many women, has less to do with laws restricting abortion rights and more to do with the difficulty of abortion clinics to find doctors and nurses willing to perform abortions. This is partly, no doubt, because of pressures placed on clinics and their staff by pro-life activists. But, more than that, it is because more and more doctors and nurses have moral reservations about abortion. This is why many medical schools, under pressure from abortion rights activists, started requiring that students learn how to perform abortions, because so few were voluntarily learning to do so. If conscience rights are rescinded, even more doctors and nurses will take your advice and move to fields where abortion is not an issue, and the dirth of health care workers in the field of obstetrics will only get worse.

But it will hardly end there. Obstetrics is not the only field where health care workers face moral dilemmas: neonatology, critical care, psychology, oncology, hospice, etc... Even, to a certain extent, med/surg. I don't think any of my colleagues at my hospital would deny any patient care that is in their best interest. But that is the crux: what, exactly, is in the best interest of the patient. It isn't always black and white, and I doubt that any doctor or nurse would agree that the best interest of the patient means providing care "most efficacious to achieve the well-being of the patient in the patient's own terms." There are simply too many variables to make such a vague policy practical or meaningful in any way and, yes, how far the doctor or nurse is willing to go, or what they are willing to do is one of those variables. Troublesome and/or horrific consequences of such a policy are legion.

No health care worker in his or her right mind is going to adopt a personal standard of practice that requires them to leave their conscience outside the hospital door. No health care worker regards him or herself as nothing more than a tool of the state, doing the bidding of the state, or any particular patient, no questions asked and, if you don't like it, be a plumber. You think the shortage of nurses is serious now? Do you care at all about having health care that even approaches professional standards when you need to go to the ER for that broken arm that won't kill you (though, in fact, it might)?

Bob Hunt, RN
Knoxville, TN

Saturday, May 23, 2009

A conspiracy of fucktards*

Lawrence Auster (and his commenters) think the atheists have already taken over the world! Mwahahahahaha!
Why does the atheist-Darwinian movement, having become unprecedentedly dominant in the West, demonize Darwin doubters and in particular the bogeymen "fundamentalists," as though the latter--who are not exactly in charge of America, and who seem practically non-existent in Britain and Europe--posed a threat to the left-liberal order in general and the ascendant materialism in particular? Why is it that the stronger the materialist-atheists become, the more threatened, paranoid, and totalitarian they behave? (We've often discussed an analogous phenomenon in the homosexual rights movement, in which the more powerful the homosexualists become, the more paranoid and aggressive they become and act as though the slightest remnant of criticism of them anywhere is an intolerable threat.)
The kitten barbecue is every other Thursday, and don't forget those always helpful hints.

*Apologies to John Kennedy Toole

Economist jokes

Economist jokes — or — a humorous look at the Crash of 2008

An experienced economist and a novice economist are walking down the road. They come across some dog shit lying on the pavement.

The experienced economist says, "If you eat that dog shit, I'll give you $20,000!"

The novice economist runs his optimization program and figures out he's better off eating it, so he does and collects the money.

Continuing along the same road they almost step into another pile of dog shit. The novice economist says, "Now, if you eat this shit I'll give you $20,000."

After evaluating the proposal, the experienced economist eats the shit and collects the money.

They go on. The novice economist wonders, "Listen, we both have the same amount of money we had before, but we both ate shit. I don't see us being better off."

The experienced economist retorts, "Not so! We've created $40,000 of trade!"

Finance Capitalism: You have two cows. You sell three of them to your publicly listed company, using letters of credit opened by your brother-in-law at the bank, then execute a debt/equity swap with associated general offer so that you get all four cows back, with a tax deduction for keeping five cows. The milk rights of six cows are transferred via a Panamanian intermediary to a Cayman Islands company secretly owned by the majority shareholder, who sells the rights to all seven cows' milk back to the listed company. The annual report says that the company owns eight cows, with an option on one more. Meanwhile, you kill the two cows to break the Dairy Union.

The current depression and banking crisis could not have been achieved by normal civil servants and politicians. It required the involvement of economists.

Paul Krugman's rules of maximally inefficient markets [i.e. Capitalism]:
  1. Think short term
  2. Be greedy
  3. Believe in the greater fool
  4. Run with the herd
  5. Overgeneralize
  6. Be trendy
  7. Play with other people's money

There are three sorts of economists. Those who can count, and those who can't.

According to John Nellis, Muscovites say, "Everything the Communists told us about communism was a complete and utter lie. Unfortunately, everything the Communists told us about capitalism turned out to be true."

Franco Modigliani has "come to appreciate how Monetarists view the holiness of this principle [Milton Friedman's x% rule] by watching Friedman advising on the appropriate monetary policy in diverse complex situations and each time coming up, unfailingly, with the same practical answer: 3 percent."

Copied/adapted from JokeEc

Insults, criticism and intolerance

One of the chief complaints against the "New Atheists" is that we're strident, shrill, militant, insulting and intolerant. But what do these criticisms really mean?

We can dismiss "strident" and "shrill"; the perceived tone of anyone's remarks is purely subjective. To me, the idea of calling someone such as Richard Dawkins "strident" or "shrill" is completely incomprehensible; having read his work and heard him speak in person, I find him soft-spoken, reasonable, moderate and calm. But if you hear him as shrill, well, that's your business.

"Militant" is a fair cop, if we interpret "militant" in the sense of "showing a fighting disposition: 'highly competitive sales representative'; 'militant in fighting for better wages for workers'; 'his self-assertive and ubiquitous energy.'" There really is a competition — intellectual, ideological, moral, social and political — between atheism and theism, and we "New Atheists" are definitely ready, willing and able to stand up for ourselves with "self-assertive and ubiquitous energy."

As for insulting, well, there's no help for that. As Alonzo Fyfe correctly notes, moral claims are insults.
There is no neutral way to accuse somebody of a moral crime. If you say that he performed a moral crime then you are saying he has a bad person – he has a character flaw – he deserves to be ridiculed, condemned, laughed at, or even intentionally harmed.

There is no nice way to say that somebody is immoral.

The statement, "What you did was wrong but you are still a really great guy – a saint, in fact, who nobody can say anything against," is a flat-out contradiction. If a person is guilty is doing something wrong, this necessarily implies that statements as to his virtue need at least some qualification.
It really doesn't matter if you take a calm, reasoned tone or use crude and emotional language: an insult is an insult. Alonzo Fyfe prefers the "prosecutorial" approach. I prefer crude and emotional language; I'd rather be hung for a sheep as a lamb. Neither of us are nice; neither of us intend to be nice.

The moral dimension to the theism/atheism conflict is undeniable. I'm often asked why I bother. I bother because a lot of activities shock my conscience and cause me emotional distress. It's irrelevant whether these activities "ought to" shock my conscience: I am who I am, and I had no control over the causal factors — genetic, evolutionary, environmental, developmental and social — that made me into the particular person I happen to be, with "dimensions, senses, affections, passions."

But just as I'm not a passionless, will-less, emotionless computer, neither am I an unreasoning animal. I can and do think about how and why things happen that shock my conscience. I see as an atheist much evil coming from religion, from uncritically projecting one's prejudices, fears and hatreds on a deity and calling them absolute, unassailable moral truths. What little good comes from religion — community, emotional support, ritual — can be obtained without the bullshit superstition. Likewise, as a communist, I see much evil coming from capitalism, and what good comes of it can be achieved without the exploitation and oppression.

As to intolerance... well... in one sense I am indeed intolerant: I do not approve of or remain silent about that which shocks my conscience. In another sense, "intolerance" is a vague pejorative that can and has meant simple criticism or just disagreement. (The religious didn't originate this construction; pejoratively labeling criticism or disagreement "intolerance" seems to have started with a faction of the more-or-less secular academic humanities.)

Of course, just as my tolerance has its limits, so does my intolerance. I do not — nor do the vast majority of atheists — shoot people who shock my conscience, nor do I urge others to do so. I don't bomb buildings, fly airplanes into buildings, threaten or harass people I disagree with. I support everyone's right to speak as they please, and I don't demand that anyone I disagree with — Christian, Muslim, capitalist, Randian or Libertarian — shut up or be censored. (Naturally I affirm my own right to speak as I please to criticize or condemn others.) I oppose making religion illegal and I oppose legalizing religious discrimination. I believe all coercion must be privileged through democratic, social processes.

The very worst I've ever done in my life is call people fucktards.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Taibbi scratches the surface

Matt Taibbi correctly recognizes that AIG executive Joe Cassano did not by himself cause the global recession.
The problem isn’t a few technical glitches in the system that allowed the Cassanos of the world to drive Mack Trucks of leverage through a loophole or two. The problem is, at its roots, a profound collapse of morals on Wall Street that would have found its way to financial destruction using any available set of instruments and laws.
But to blame a crisis on a "collapse of morals" is to betray a superstitious philosophical idealism, especially as Taibbi explicitly places compliance to these morals beyond the bounds of "any available set of instruments and laws."

Where did these morals come from? Where did they go? Taibbi is engaging in purely magical thinking.
These Wall Street players are enormously compensated, which supposedly means that society highly values their work and is willing to pay them a premium to do it. Having been given that kind of responsibility and trust, these assholes should not then force us to police them as tightly as we police those who we expect to steal from us, like third-rate car salesmen, telemarketers, hookers and three-card monty dealers [Taibbi inexplicably neglects to mention journalists]. [boldface added]
Taibbi has apparently not learned the fundamental lesson of bourgeois democracy: The more responsibility and power one has, the less he is to be trusted, and the more he is to be policed. It is pure Republican-level batshit craziness to expect anyone in a position of power to selflessly act in the best interests of others, to his own detriment, purely out of the goodness of his heart. Not just mistaken, not just stupid, but actually insane.

People — especially the executives of large financial corporations — aren't stupid: they act rationally to maximize their personal gain under the prevailing economic, political and social circumstances. Which is precisely what Cassano actually did.

For almost forty years, the capitalist class has been actively undermining precisely those "instruments and laws," such as the Glass-Steagal act, that prevented this sort of crisis. Key to the undermining of these instruments and laws has been the corruption of journalism... actually one of the easiest tactics in the overall strategy.

Taibbi is a little bit correct: the problem goes beyond mere instruments and laws, at least under bourgeois democracy. The problem is in the deep structure of capitalist economic relations, economic relations that not just encourage but compel individuals to do whatever it takes to achieve unlimited wealth. No matter how wealthy you are, there's another capitalist just as wealthy, looking for the smallest opportunity to eat your lunch. Under such a structure, how could a Cassano not have arisen?

The Catholic Church responds

vjack of Atheist Revolution summarizes the Catholic Church's response to the Irish child abuse scandal.

Just for the record, Ratzo, there is exactly one correct response to this scandal:
We will cooperate fully with the civil authorities to find and surrender to criminal prosecution everyone who perpetrated abuse and everyone who knowingly covered it up. We will investigate the entire hierarchy and determine and publish how and why the church as an institution allowed this abuse to happen. We will make every change necessary to ensure such such abuse does not and cannot happen again. Furthermore, while it is quite literally the least we can do, we will generously compensate the victims of the abuse.
Anything else is complete fucking bullshit.


General J. C. Christian, Patriot, declares the opinion that denying a woman sovereignty over her own body is a moral and ethical principle has died of complications due to internal hemorrhaging.

Abortion and historical misogyny

Maybe, perhaps, in some possible world, it might be possible to consider abortion as an isolated ethical situation. But not in this actual world.

Throughout recorded history, women have been the most oppressed, the most savagely and brutally oppressed, the most exploited, the most abused and the most enslaved class, bar none. We can talk about the economic, social, political and psychological roots of this oppression 'til the sun goes dark, but the fact of this oppression is undeniable to any honest observer. This oppression applies to women as a whole: even ruling-class women until very recently experienced oppression and deprivation of basic human rights and liberties intolerable to even the lowest, most oppressed exploited economic class of today; and in part: take any arbitrarily defined sex-neutral group of people of any age or society, and the women in that group will far and away be the most oppressed.

We cannot consider any ethical discussion about the rights of women outside the context of this millennial, unequaled oppression of a brutality that exceeds the worst excesses of the most savage fascist regime. We must see anyone who opposes any restriction on any right of self-determination of any woman as in league with and on the side of the rapists, honor killers, acid throwers, and the billions of men who have stood throughout history on the necks of women without the slightest degree of pity or remorse.

Maybe in a thousand years, when the oppression of women has finally faded into the mists of history, we can consider abortion and women's reproductive rights in a neutral, independent sense (although I see no reason why we wouldn't come to the same conclusion as we would today). But today, the question cannot even be considered neutrally. There is no choice but to either unconditionally support every women's absolute right to reproductive freedom, or to ally oneself, however covertly, with the forces of brutality and oppression.

Quotation of the Day

"Faith is never a solitary activity nor can it be simply private."

— Archbishop of Westminster Vincent Nichols

Indeed. There are no private truths: if one takes one's faith seriously, as real honest-to-Murgatroid truth, then its imposition on others is a matter of moral obligation.

[h/t to Ian]

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Catholic Church in Ireland

Child abuse victims seek justice
Irish church knew abuse 'endemic'
Children exposed to 'daily terror' in institutions
Sins of the fathers still haunting Catholic Church
Children suffered abuse of many types, both physical and emotional

[h/t to Butterflies and Wheels]

Update: Thousands beaten, raped in Irish reform schools [h/t to James F. Elliott]

Update 2: The full five-volume report of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse [h/t to The Freethinker]

Quotation of the Day

I do not absolve you mealy-mouthed moderates, I do not regard your beliefs as harmless. If Colleen Hauser or Leilani Neumann were in your church, you'd tell them to get medical care, but you'd also validate their belief in prayers. You would provide the soothing background muzak that says prayer is good, prayer is virtuous, prayer will connect you to the great lord who can do anything, prayer will give you solace in your time of worry. You would not raise your voice to say that prayer is useless, prayer is self-defeating, that while prayer might make you feel better while your child is suffering, that is no virtue. You pray yourselves. You think it is a noble and generous act for your representatives to prowl the corridors of hospitals, preying on the desperation of the sick. You abase yourselves before false hopes, and sacrifice human dignity on an altar built from the bones of the dead. You would spread the poison, piously excusing yourselves because you only want to administer sub-lethal doses.

PZ Myers

No common ground

Sunsara Taylor on abortion rights: On Abortion, Obama and Notre Dame: No “Common Ground” With Fascists and Women-Haters! Abortion on Demand and Without Apology!
When it comes to abortion, there is ONLY ONE moral question: Will women be fully emancipated human beings in control of their lives and reproduction OR will we be forced to submit to patriarchal male authority and to breed against our will?

A woman who cannot decide for herself, without any shame, judgment or restrictions, when and whether she chooses to have a child, has no more freedom than a slave.

The movement to forcibly deny women the right to abortion and to birth control is a movement to enslave women. With its aims, its methods, and its morality, there can be no compromise. ...

Despite the claim of the anti-abortion fanatics, Obama’s leading edge has never been to insist on full reproductive freedom for women.

Instead, Obama has repeatedly expressed his desire to move society beyond what he deems an unnecessary and polarizing debate. While maintaining the view that abortion should be legal, he has repeatedly conceded the moral high ground and political initiative to those who oppose abortion, stating himself that, “abortions are never a good thing.” He has increasingly accepted the terms that sever the question of abortion from the question of women’s freedom. For instance, recently, he made the point of distinguishing himself from those “who suggest that this [abortion] is simply an issue about women’s freedom and that there’s no other considerations.” And he has called abortion “a political wedge issue, the subject of a back-and-forth debate that has served only to divide us.”
Read, as they say, the rest.