Category Archives: Philosophy

Ten Rather Strong Suggestions

I think it’s good to live by a code, so I decided to formalize one I’ve been trying to adhere to for many years now. Ten seemed like a good number of tenets for a code. However, to make sure my code would not be confused with another famous — and more authoritarian — set of 10 dicta, I tried to make clear right in the title that my code is comprised of “rather strong suggestions” rather than of commandments.

1. Generally try to do what will result in the greatest, longest net well-being.

For example, you could eat chocolate cake for every meal and get blackout drunk every day for the next year. That might be great for this year, but your health will suffer enormously in the long run.

Likewise, a group of revolutionaries in a given society might feel that their political leadership is totally out of touch. The revolutionaries decide to overthrow that oppressive government. This causes a serious conflict with great loss of life. The revolutionaries finally win, but, because of the conflict, no one was paying sufficient attention to agriculture. There is no food, and, without adequate food, the society collapses from famine. The revolutionaries were so focused on the short-term that they neglected the future.


2. Favor what is most likely true over what you wish were true.

An owner of a fossil fuel company might not want to believe that emissions created from the burning of fossil fuels poses a risk to human health. The exec might not want to believe that those emissions contribute to the recent rapid warming of earth’s atmosphere and to ocean acidification. However, not wanting to believe those things does not make them go away.


3. Apply the scientific method whenever possible.

We all know that making abortion illegal reduces the rate and number of abortions, right? Well, that is a reasonable hypothesis, but when we experiment by passing laws restricting abortion in some countries but not others, we find that fertility rate doesn’t change on a country level* and changes only slightly on a state level.* While legal abortions may go down where abortions are more restricted, women instead have unsafe abortions, increasing their likelihood of dying while attaining an unsafe abortion.*

Here’s a handy mnemonic for the scientific method:
On quest (for) hippos, exercise caution.

On – Observe
quest – Question
hippos – Hypothesize
exercise – Experiment
caution. – Conclude


4. Reduce your environmental impact to the greatest degree possible.

To quote the country band Alabama:

Let’s leave some blue up above us
Let’s leave some green on the ground
Let’s save some for tomorrow
Leave it and pass it on down


5. Support effective charities / Vote with your wallet.

  • An organization called GiveWell measures charities on their efficacy.
  • Organizations like your local legislative district are the unsung volunteers that help make our communities more like we want them to be.

6. Don’t hurt or kill any animal, directly or indirectly, unless in self defense.

Exceptions are medical research that passes the requirements of a given institutional review board, independent ethics committee ethical review board, or research ethics board.

I typically think of the work of Pasteur with vaccines and Banting and Best with insulin. In both cases, dogs were used as test subjects. That is not a pleasant thought to me, but I think the research can be justified in the lives of humans and dogs saved.

More on Pasteur
This anecdote comes from a 1902 biography of Pasteur regarding Pasteur’s collaboration with Dr. Pierre Paul Émile Roux. The two worked on avian cholera and anthrax together.

The trephining of that dog had much disturbed Pasteur. He, who was described in certain anti-vivisectionist quarters as a laboratory executioner, had a great horror of inflicting suffering on any animal.

“He could assist without too much effort,” writes M. Roux, “at a simple operation such as a subcutaneous inoculation, and even then, if the animal screamed at all, Pasteur was immediately filled with compassion, and tried to comfort and encourage the victim, in a way which would have seemed ludicrous if it had not been touching.

“The thought of having a dog’s cranium perforated was very disagreeable to him; he very much wished that the experiment should take place, and yet he feared to see it begun. I performed it one day when he was out. The next day, as I was telling him that the intercranial inoculation had presented no difficulty, he began pitying the dog. ‘Poor thing! His brain is no doubt injured, he must be paralysed!’ I did not answer, but went to fetch the dog, whom I brought into the laboratory.

“Pasteur was not fond of dogs, but when he saw this one, full of life, curiously investigating every part of the laboratory, he showed the keenest pleasure, and spoke to the dog in the most affectionate manner. Pasteur was infinitely grateful to this dog for having borne trephining so well, thus lessening his scruples for future trephining.”

 


7. Never steal or lie unless it’s a life or death situation.

You should lie to Nazis about whether you are hiding Anne Frank and her family if you are reasonably certain that you can keep them and your own family alive.

Mostly, though, there’s very seldom a good reason to lie.


8. Learn and contribute to new knowledge constantly.

If you are trying your best to adhere to number three, you could also make your findings public whenever possible.


9. Be conversant in the basics of logic and statistics.

A politician might say, “The 2015 murder of Kate Steinle by an undocumented immigrant is evidence of how dangerous undocumented immigrants are.”

If a politician were to say this, the person would be committing the logical fallacy of hasty generalization. A single example of a crime does not imply epidemic.

Going further, the underlying claim is a statistical one: are undocumented immigrants more likely to commit crimes than the native-born population? The best available evidence suggests that the answer is “no.”


10. Be excellent to each other.

I stole this from the 1989 movie Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. I like that it goes a step further than “do unto others….” Do not just be good to each other; be excellent to each other.

Save a Life; Take a Life?

I always like these stories from The Dodo about sickly animals being nursed back to health by kindly people. As I watch this video, though, I wonder how much meat this person is feeding the dog. My thinking is that it doesn’t make much sense to save one animal if it means that other animals have to die in order to feed it.

How much meat do dogs and cats in the US consume?

If the ~163 million dogs and cats in the US comprised their own country, that country would rank fifth in global meat consumption, behind only Russia, Brazil, the US, and China. Dogs and cats consume 1/4 of the total calories derived from animals in the US.*

But, won’t dogs and cats get very sick if they don’t eat meat regularly?

There have been a handful of studies conducted over the past ~15 years regarding the health of companion dogs and cats fed vegan or vegetarian diets. Although you can find plenty of information from reliable sources around the web about cats being obligate carnivores, every study surveyed has found actual and reported health of dogs and cats fed a wide range of vegan or vegetarian diets to be comparable to the health of pets fed traditional diets. Like humans, dogs and cats probably do not need to eat meat to survive and thrive. (However, cat owners who choose to feed their cats vegan/vegetarian diets may want to monitor the pH of their cats’ urine as some cats may develop health issues on meatless diets.)*

I let my cat go outside freely to exercise its feline extincts. What about me?

While this may be good for the cat in some ways, it’s very harmful to birds and small mammals. Owned cats in the US kill ~765 million birds a year and ~1.38 billion mammals per year.*

Crystal Cordell on Authoritarian Populism

On November 9th, 2016, I woke up to see a mostly red US electoral college map. With a 9-hour time difference between France, where I live, and the West Coast of the US, polls had been closed for nearly 2 hours.

At that moment, my thoughts turned to what I would say to you today. You see, I had originally intended to question the way we think about the clash of civilizations. “Individual rights and aspirations for democracy,” I had intended to say, “must not be thought of as belonging exclusively to certain civilizations, not least because that would mean undermining the validity of universal principles, if ever those civilizations happened to falter.”

I would have preferred that events in my home country not impress upon me so sharply the importance of what I had to say to you today, but they have, and they urge me to make my argument with even greater conviction. The problem that confronts us today is not Oriental or Occidental, Northern or Southern; it concerns all of us what is happening politically in states across the globe today.

Many people in power or hoping to get there are selling citizens on a package deal: “We will protect you from the dangers of the world,” they say, “if you give us power.” What are those dangers according to populist leaders? “Economic competition due to globalization; political parties and governments disconnected from the people; and corrupt values that weaken families and societies,” they say.

Now, to protect people from such great dangers, authority is needed, so the sales pitch goes, the authority of strong leaders, the authority of the state. Only authority can protect. That is the hallmark of populist discourses that seek both to reassure and instill fear, promise justice, and pledge retribution, liberate some and censor others. Now, some analysts say that these discourses emanate from a demand from below. The people are dissatisfied, alienated from political processes. Populist leaders step up and fill the gap left by other political elites.  Continue reading Crystal Cordell on Authoritarian Populism

The Restless Wave

“The world is a fine place and worth the fighting for and I hate very much to leave it,” spoke my hero, Robert Jordan, in For Whom the Bell Tolls. And I do, too. I hate to leave it. But I don’t have a complaint. Not one. It’s been quite a ride. I’ve known great passions, seen amazing wonders, fought in a war, and helped make a peace. I’ve lived very well and I’ve been deprived of all comforts. I’ve been as lonely as a person can be and I’ve enjoyed the company of heroes. I’ve suffered the deepest despair and experienced the highest exultation. I made a small place for myself in the story of America and the history of my times.

I hope those who mourn my passing, and even those who don’t, will celebrate as I celebrate a happy life lived in imperfect service to a country made of ideals, whose continued service is the hope of the world. And I wish all of you great adventures, good company, and lives as lucky as mine.

John McCain, The Restless Wave, 2018

Quotation Quiz

The folks at goodreads love to pollute the Internet with dubiously-sourced quotes from various people. I looked into 21 of their top quotes to see if the person the quote is ascribed to actually said it or was the first to say it. Click below to see if you know who said what and when.

Lincoln

Continue reading Quotation Quiz

“Everything’s gay, gay, gay now.”

More fun this evening chatting with Chandler voters.

The first person I talk to comes out guns blazing. I don’t even knock on his door. He just pops out with a “Hey there!”

“Hey, I’m Clif. I’m with the Democrats. I’m collecting signatures for some local candidates.”

“I used to be a Democrat,” he says, “back when they were conservative. Now they’re for the homosexuals and abortion, and they’re against God.”

I say, “Well, you know, I’m not a big fan of abortion, but I think the Democrats have it right. Number one, strangely enough, making more restrictive abortion laws doesn’t actually reduce the rate of abortion.* It’s like Barry Goldwater said: ‘It’s always been around, and it always will be.’* Things we know that help reduce the rate of abortion, though, like increased access to birth control and sex ed are things Democrats are generally for.”*

“Well, that’s true,” he says, “and that’s why I’m not strictly for one side or the other. But, I don’t know why everything has to be gay, gay, gay now. You can’t turn on the TV these days without homosexuals in everything. You know, I believe in the Bible, and the Bible makes it totally clear that homosexuality is wrong. Take Sodom and Gomorrah: God sends angels down to Lot, and the wicked men of the city try to have sex with them. Lot offers them his daughters — now that part’s terrible — but the men want the angels.”

I say, “Yeah, but I would point out that there are different ways to interpret these things. There are people out there who believe — I’m sure — just as strongly in God and the Bible who don’t think homosexuality is bad. In that verse you mentioned, for instance, they might say that God’s problem with the wicked men was not that they were homosexuals but that they wanted to rape strangers. Maybe God is just against people who want to rape other people.”*

He says, “Yeah, there are a lot of people out there who want to distort the truth. They try to call people like me an extremist just because I’ve been married to my wife for 52 years.”

I say, “Well, I wouldn’t call you that. I would just say that I have gay friends myself who I care for a lot. They’re people who I think suffered because they grew up around people who told them that they were bad. They couldn’t change this ‘bad’ thing about themselves, so it made them deeply unhappy. I think that’s terrible.”

He then tells me a bizarre story about a handsome nephew who he says was turned gay by his mom and sisters who would dress him up like a girl, in dresses and makeup. I let that one go. I liked that the guy called his nephew “a real head-turner,” though.

This was like a 20-minute conversation that I won’t recount all of here. It turns out that the guy doesn’t like Jeff Flake because Flake’s nephew apparently … neglected some dogs? The guy doesn’t like McCain because McCain is responsible for the shoddy condition of the VA apparently.

He talks about how you can’t have the Bible in schools anymore, but you can have the “yin yang.” I kinda regret not finding out what the “yin yang” is ….

Trump, though. There’s somethin’ about that Trump guy. He says, “Trump’s a guy who can’t be bought ’cause he’s already a billionaire.”

As I almost always do when I hear Trump’s name, I begin to vomit uncontrollably. No, I’m kidding. I just vomit in my mind. The mind vomit helps to cloud the mental image of Trump.

This ex-Democrat then says, “And the Mueller investigation — the Democrats are just dragging it out. It’s just a waste of taxpayer money.”

I start to say, “Well, the Republicans spent a lot of taxpayer money to investigate Hillary….”

He jumps in: “Well, it’s been good talking to you.”

Then, he kinda cocks an eye and says, “Good night and … God bless.”

“Thanks for talking to me!” I say. “Have a good one!”

One convert at a time.

The Door

A representative from the The Door (Christian Center) came to my apartment earlier. I usually don’t answer My Door for people who aren’t delivering packages to me, but she was very insistent. She knocked and clacked the clapper several times as if to say, “You must answer — your very soul is at stake!”

I answered the door, and she handed me this bookmark-sized ad for something called XTREME VENUE. I’d never have guessed that it was for a church group if she hadn’t told me.

She asks if I’m religious. I tell her that I consider myself a humanist now, though I did grow up with a Pentecostalist mom and went to a Seventh-Day Adventist church school for several years.

She tells me how much Jesus still loves me and how Jesus saved her, made her whole, and made her a better person.

Eventually, I ask her what I ask the LDS missionaries that I periodically speak to when they come to my door: “If you passed by someone on the street who is hungry, would you try to help them?”

“Yes, of course,” she says. Everybody says this.

I say, “We both know that God is all-powerful, all-knowing, all-present. So, we know that God could help that person but doesn’t. So, why worship something that is less moral than you are?”

“But God gives us free will, so it’s our own decisions that get us to that point of being hungry,” she says.

I say, “Well, I think we have some free will but not much. After our genetic makeup and environment are accounted for, that doesn’t leave much room for our personal choices. Our lives are highly determined by the circumstances we’re born into. We can predict, with high certainty, how a person’s life will play out just by where they were born geographically and their parents’ circumstances. I believe, like most humanists, that, by focusing on making the afterlife better for everyone, we too often fail to do as much as we can to help people now who will suffer and die if they only receive spiritual nourishment.”

She says, “I believe that we do need to help those people, and it is my personal choice to help those people. At the same time, though, if you die, you will never have filled that hole that only Christ can fill. That’s why I urge you to read the Bible.”

“What do you think about abortion?” I blurt out.

“Well, I oppose it,” she says.

I say, “Where in the Bible does it mention abortion?”

“God said, ‘Before you were formed, I knew you,'” she says.

I say, “That is Jeremiah talking about a vision he had of God. Jeremiah says that God told him in this vision that Jeremiah would be a prophet to the nations. In Exodus, there’s a verse that says, ‘If two men are fighting and one of them bumps into a pregnant woman, causing her to miscarry, the man who bumped into her has to pay a fine determined by her husband and some judges. But, if the woman dies along with her fetus, the man who bumped into her must be killed, life for life.’ To me, that means that God thinks differently of the born and unborn.”

“What do you think about abortion?” she says.

I say, “Well, I don’t think it should be illegal. I think of myself as scientifically-minded, so I always try to look at the evidence. We know that making it illegal doesn’t actually reduce the rate of abortion; it just makes it more dangerous for the mother. While I don’t think we can stop abortion completely, I would prefer to reduce the rate of abortion overall. The best way the research says to do that is to make birth control as available as we can.”

She says, “We can talk all day about different theories. Scientists have a lot of theories, but they’re not proven. You know, Darwin had his theory of evolution and, even though it’s not proven because it’s just a theory, they still teach it in schools like it’s a fact.”

I say, “Well, that’s an issue with how non-scientists casually use the word ‘theory’ and how scientists use the word. When scientists use the word, it means that there’s a huge amount of evidence in favor of it. It’s as close to truth as we can get. Evolution is ‘just a theory’ in the same way that gravity is ‘just a theory.'”

She says, “It’s fun to talk about the scientific, but I think you still have to think about the spiritual. That is so important to me. My spirituality is informed by reading the Bible and praying. Just reading the Bible and thinking about all these things that people say about it isn’t enough. That’s why you need to pray while reading the Bible.”

I say, “Yeah, but there’s something I can’t get over about prayer: How do I know who’s answering?”

“Well, it’s Jesus. You would be praying to Jesus,” she says.

“Yeah, but how do you know that it’s Jesus answering? I mean, if you connect to wifi, hackers can intercept that signal and reroute you to what they want you to see.”

“Oh, I know it’s Jesus.”

“OK, but let’s say that it’s Satan that intercepts that prayer. And, Satan wants you to think that it’s OK to bomb an abortion clinic, because Satan wants you to believe that people who provide abortions are baby murderers.”

“But, I know that it’s not Satan. I absolutely know that it’s Jesus answering,” she says.

“You are certain that something is answering,” I say. “We both know that Satan is deceptive, though. Satan could disguise itself as Jesus to make us do its bidding. That’s exactly the type of thing we’d expect Satan to do.”

She says that you can protect yourself from that by saying, “My blood is pure, Satan!” or something like that.

By that time, either because we’d been talking awhile and her fellow proselytizers had moved on, or because she had increasingly become convinced that I’m the Devil, she had backed out of the fenced area outside my entryway and closed the gate.

“Read the Bible and pray!” she said, looking back while walking away.

“I’m afraid to pray! Don’t want to let in the Devil!” I said. “Have a nice day!”

Then I closed The Door.


The Door’s Pastor Joe Campbell “Healing”

When You’re Right, You’re Right

Sometimes I like to surf out onto the ol’ worldwide web and look for people with whom I unexpectedly concur on this or that. I know that may sound a bit weird as the whole point of the ‘Net is to argue with people, but I do it nevertheless. In this case, I have found a bunch of Republicans, conservatives, or other figures on “the right” who I think said something downright agreeable. Enjoy! (Also, please let me know if you know of other examples!)



Abortion

“I don’t think we should ever tamper with abortion. You’ll never stamp it out. It’s been in existence since the world began, and it’s going to be here when the world ends.”

Barry Goldwater

Source

Barry Goldwater on Abortion


 


Animal Welfare

“Factory farming amounts to a complete subordination of animal life to human convenience, the reduction of thinking, feeling beings to commodities only and of their fate, no matter how horrific, to a calculation of pure self-interest.”

John Conner Cleveland, speechwriter for George W. Bush, Dan Quayle, Dick Cheney, and Sarah Palin


Climate Change

“I have been to the Antarctic; I’ve been to Alaska. I’m not a scientist, and I’ve got the grades to prove it. But I’ve talked to the climatologists of the world, and 90% of them are telling me that greenhouse gas effect is real, that we’re heating up the planet. I just want a solution that would be good for the economy that doesn’t destroy it.”

Lindsey Graham

Source


 

* * *

“Absolute certainty is unattainable. We are certain beyond a reasonable doubt, however, that the problem of human-caused climate change is real, serious, and immediate, and that this problem poses significant risks: to our ability to thrive and build a better future, to national security, to human health and food production, and to the interconnected web of living systems.”

Kerry Emanuel, long-time Republican and atmospheric scientist at MIT

* * *

“I’m a registered Republican, play soccer on Saturdays, and go to church on Sundays. I’m a parent and a professor. I worry about jobs for my students and my daughter’s future. I’ve been a proud member of the UN panel on climate change, and I know the risks. And I’ve worked for an oil company and know how much we all need energy. The best science shows we’ll be better off if we address the twin stories of climate change and energy and that the sooner we move forward, the better.”

Richard B. Alley, Professor of Geosciences at Pennsylvania State

Source


 


Gun Control

“As you know, my position is we should ban all handguns, get rid of them, no manufacture, no sale, no importation, no transportation, no possession of a handgun.”

John Chafee

Source

* * *

“If I were writing the Bill of Rights now, there wouldn’t be any such thing as the Second Amendment. […] This has been the subject of one of the greatest pieces of fraud — I repeat the word ‘fraud’ — on the American public by special interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime. […] ‘A well-regulated militia….’ If the militia, which was going to be the state army, was going to be well-regulated, why shouldn’t 16 and 17 and 18 or any other age persons be regulated in the use of arms?”

Warren Burger

Source


 


“Illegals”

“I believe in the idea of amnesty for those who have put down roots and have lived here even though sometime back they may have entered illegally.”

Ronald Reagan

Source


 


Religion

“I’m an atheist. An agnostic is someone who is not sure; I’m pretty sure. I see no evidence of God.”

George Will

* * *

“It was old Tom Jefferson that had us separate the church and state and, while I have nothing against a minister being a member of Congress, he should leave the Bible at the front door. Just carry it around in his head, and don’t try to preach and practice religion in the halls of Congress.”

Barry Goldwater

Source


 


Science

“[N]owhere do our hopes take more visible form than in the quest of science…. The remarkable thing is that, although basic research does not begin with a particular practical goal, when you look at the results over the years, it ends up being one of the most practical things government does…. [O]ne thing is certain: If we don’t explore, others will, and we’ll fall behind. This is why I’ve urged Congress to devote more money to research. After taking out inflation, today’s government research expenditures are 58% greater than the expenditures of a decade ago. It is an indispensable investment in America’s future.”

Ronald Reagan

Source

Paul Bloom and Sam Harris on Eating Animals

Harris: Well, all of this segues rather nicely into our own moral horror of continuing to eat meat despite the fact that we are convinced ethically by the arguments against it. I mean, we have failures of impulse control, we have a long-running commitment to dietary practices that we find indefensible. In fact, we may be indistinguishable from this doctor in terms of the clarity with which we have ambled into evil.

Bloom: I think future generations will view us as analogous to slave owners.

I think future generations will view us as analogous to slave owners.

Harris: Well, that’s — you sounded like you said that somewhat tongue-in-cheek–

Bloom: No.

Harris: …but I think I know you might actually fear that prospect. Were you joking or you were…?

Bloom: No, no. It’s an easy exercise to imagine what a hundred years from now, what we do now will be seen as monstrous. The treatment of non-human animals is obvious. I think our indifference to the suffering of the very poor is another example. I could think of some other more controversial cases.

Harris: Yeah.

[I]f you look at the numbers, we may be causing more suffering to nonhumans than ever before because we’re breeding for their meat.

Bloom: And, I do think, you know, it’s such — so many people eat meat everyone, just about everybody I know that it’s easy to make light of. But we’re complicit in the horrific suffering of many, many creatures. This may be — you know, our mutual friend Steve Pinker wrote a book on human moral progress and I think 99% of the book is correct, but I think that, if you look at the numbers, we may be causing more suffering to nonhumans than ever before because we’re breeding for their meat.

Harris: Yeah, let’s take the ethics of meat-eating more or less from the top. So you and I both agree that we are participating in a system that is on some basic level ethically indefensible. Factory farming is just a horror show. We both know that if we had to work in an abattoir, we would never stomach it. We would never do it. I know that I’m not going to go out and kill a cow to get my next hamburger, and I certainly wouldn’t immiserate one for every moment of its life on the way to the killing floor to get my next hamburger. And yet the fact that I participate in a system that does this knowingly more or less condemns me as a total hypocrite. That’s kind of the basic situation. Are there any other moving parts there you want to add?

Factory farming is just a horror show. And yet the fact that I participate in a system that does this knowingly more or less condemns me as a total hypocrite.

Bloom: I think ethically this isn’t a very hard case I’ve heard defenses of meat-eating, and they’re some of the worst arguments I’ve ever heard in my life: “Animals don’t feel pain.” “Humans have a right to do whatever they want.” “It’s natural.” You know, the arguments which wouldn’t be taken seriously in any other domain, arguments that are just born out of guilt and bad faith. So I think it’s clear enough that what we do to animals is wrong. You know, to some extent, we could ask ourselves, talking about the doctor and other cases, “What’s it like to knowingly do evil?” And I think this is what it feels like. We know what it’s like to knowingly do evil. All I’ll sort of nibble at around the edges is it’s not really hypocrisy. I think a nicer term for it is this word “akrasia” — it’s weakness of will. We know the right thing to do. We’re not shy about saying what the right thing to do is. We just can’t do it.

We know what it’s like to knowingly do evil.

Harris: Well, the question is — so let’s just expand the picture a little bit. One question is what would be the best way to change this. You know I’m someone who’s supportive of natural, grass fed, more ethically sustainable ways of raising animals insofar as it’s easy to do that. I don’t make crazy sacrifices so as to only get meat or chicken or eggs or milk that has come by the most ethical sources. Which is to say, I’ll go to a restaurant and I will eat like a non-vegetarian and not interrogate them about where they get all their meat.

But it seems pretty clear that the system could be improved significantly and make it far less horrible. These animals could have much better lives than they do and that would be a good thing and that demand for that kind of meat would probably be more effective than some percentage of people defecting as vegans or vegetarians. Obviously this is a totally tendentious and self-serving meat-eater sort of argument except it might also have the virtue of being true. Well, before we totally close the door to it, just take a peek across that threshold: Is there any merit in saying that one could more effectively help farm animals by being a conscientious consumer of meat?

I guess this is almost like the trophy hunters saying that they are in fact conservationists by going to Africa and killing some number of lions and paying for the privilege, they are in fact the best conservationists. There may be some merit to that argument too. Kindly either support or disabuse me of all that.

Bloom: I’m actually on the same page on this. Peter Singer, who’s of course very powerfully supported vegetarian movements, very much protested against the suffering of animals, has at different times has been sort of thoughtful on the issue of humanely-raised animals. His point, and my point, is that the badness of the act isn’t necessarily killing animals to eat them. It’s not clear whether that’s a bad thing, particularly if the animals didn’t exist prior to your intervention.

Harris: The thing is that, before we blow past that: I agree, though, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t do it. In fact, I know I wouldn’t like myself if I became so callous as to be happy to do it. You know, if I just got into the hang of it. You know, “Killing cows horrified me initially, but once I killed a hundred of them, you know, I just didn’t really care because damn I love a good hamburger.” I don’t want to be that person.

“Killing cows horrified me initially, but once I killed a hundred of them, you know, I just didn’t really care because damn I love a good hamburger.” I don’t want to be that person.

Bloom: That’s interesting. That’s sort of a Kantian view. So Kant, at one point — this is probably a misinterpretation — but said, “Look — you know, animals don’t matter in their own right, but you don’t want to make them suffer because it will corrode your feelings towards humans. It’ll make you into a worse person.” And it’s interesting — I also would find it hard to kill animals just because I would have a natural repugnance towards doing it.

Harris: But I certainly don’t take the Kantian view that they don’t matter in their own right; I think they they certainly matter in their own right to the degree that they can suffer or be deprived of happiness or due to the degree that their conscious. So, for instance if we could raise anencephalic animals, so brainless cows who have by definition no experience but they’re just basically — synthetic biology is the ultimate case of this, or synthetic meat is the ultimate case of this —

Bloom: Growing meat in a test tube.

Harris Yeah growing meat in a test tube. There’s obviously no ethical problem with that.

[G]rowing meat in a test tube. There’s obviously no ethical problem with that.

Bloom: So I’ll plant my flag in a couple of things. First thing, you know there may be problems with killing humanely-raised animals, but that’s a hard case, and I think it would be such a step up to move up to humanely-raised animals from what we have now. It would cost more and there’s issues — there’s sort of a classist issue about encouraging people to do this. But I think that’d be such a moral step because I think what goes wrong in what we’re doing now isn’t killing the animals, it’s causing the suffering, causing the pain.

Harris: But don’t you think — so I don’t want to let us off the hook too quickly there because each one of these stations you blow past makes it that much more likely that you’re going to get your Thanksgiving dinner with a full spread and a turkey harvested one way or the other. My first ethical concern is, I mean, forget about the details of how horrible it is for the animals and what changes we might make there. If you know that you would find it ethically repugnant to kill an animal and to kill animals day after day so as to secure your protein, you wouldn’t want to live this way. You’d much rather pet a cow than kill it with a stun gun or by any other method. If you know you’re that kind of person and you wouldn’t want to be any other kind of person, doesn’t it seem just transparently unethical to be willing to delegate that process to others and just keep it you know out of sight out of mind and go on eating meat however raised?

You’d much rather pet a cow than kill it with a stun gun or by any other method.

Bloom: If you find it morally repellent to kill animals, yes. If you find it morally repellent to kill animals if you were the killer, then you shouldn’t be demanding other people do it for your sake. On the other hand if you just find it repellent or unpleasant, that’s kind of different. I might be pro-choice but not have the stomach to do abortions. I may not have the temperament to be a prison guard, but that doesn’t mean that to be consistent I have to be against prisons.

Harris. Right.

Bloom: On the other hand, if I said to be a prison guard would be morally repellent, then I should be against prisons. If it’s morally repellent that implies there’s a better alternative and I should be…. So, it depends. If you believe that killing the cows — those humane cows — is wrong for you to do it yourself, then that really does raise an issue with your belief about eating meat in general. On the other hand, if you just didn’t have the stomach for it, that’s kind of a different case. I don’t think that should stop you from eating meat.

If you find it morally repellent to kill animals if you were the killer, then you shouldn’t be demanding other people do it for your sake.

Harris. Right. Well, I think I come down on the side of it being wrong — what complicates it for me is there’s the pleasure to which I’m marginally attached. Yeah, I like eating meat certainly some of the time. I’m a little squeamish about it at other times. But I also just have this feeling that we don’t understand human health and nutrition enough. The fact that there’s any controversy at all about what human beings should eat so as to be healthy, I find to be an incredible scientific embarrassment, the fact that you can have debates about carbs and protein and fat consummated in good faith by experts and there’s still some uncertainty here is an amazing state of our current situation in science.

The fact that there’s any controversy at all about what human beings should eat so as to be healthy, I find to be an incredible scientific embarrassment.

But my concern is that there is enough uncertainty and my brief experience of 6 years as a vegetarian convinced me that it’s hard enough to be sure you’re getting everything you need — or at least it was then — that I’m leery of doing it for health reasons and, when I think about raising kids as vegetarians, and especially as vegans, then it begins to look like a poorly-controlled science experiment. I see people who are raising vegan kids and now I’m going to hear from them. You know, they’re going to be outraged that I have any doubt whatsoever that you could raise healthy vegan kids but–

Bloom: You’re going to get an email from my sister.

Harris: But I have significant doubts on that score, and there’s certainly no biological or evolutionary guarantee that this is an easy or straightforward thing to do. And when you know you have to supplement B12 and who knows what else, you really should be supplementing so as to get things right. And so part of this is just laziness, not wanting to have what I eat and what I feed my kids become such a life-consuming project as a vegetarian or vegan where I have to be absolutely sure that I have all the dials tweaked appropriately. It’s just easier to eat meat sometimes and fish sometimes and be reasonably sure that I’m getting everything that a human needs to get.

[T]hat laziness, given the magnitude of the suffering we’re imposing on non-human animals, that laziness is a horrible thing about me.

But that laziness given the magnitude of the suffering we’re imposing on non-human animals, that laziness is a horrible thing about me. That laziness is not justifiable if you actually look closely at the details.

Bloom: There’s also a middle ground. I mean we don’t want to be in a position of saying, “Well, I couldn’t live if I gave 80% of my money to charity; therefore, I’ll give nothing.”* And to some extent — I share your concerns about living a vegan or even a vegetarian lifestyle, but I think then plainly if you restrict yourself to ethically-raised animals, plainly that’s much, much better and there there’s no health concerns. People could live just fine off of chickens who didn’t suffer as opposed to those who did.
The question then is to how to sort of mandate such shifts, either a radical shift to making everybody vegetarian or vegan or a more moderate shift of you know making people eat animals that didn’t suffer as much. And I think there is an interesting difference between first-order and second-order prohibitions. And there’s actually speaks to some broader political issues.

So it occurs to me talking about this with you that I would be very reluctant to try to commit to only eating ethically-raised animals. It would be very hard and inconvenient. I’d have to embarrass myself at restaurants — I’d have to be that guy, and I don’t want to be that guy questioning the waiter and having other people roll their eyes. And you know I accept that that’s an awful excuse for participating in the suffering of animals, but there it is.

I’d have to be that guy, and I don’t want to be that guy questioning the waiter and having other people roll their eyes. And you know I accept that that’s an awful excuse for participating in the suffering of animals, but there it is.

However, I would be in favor of legislation….

Harris: Yes.

Bloom: …that restricted — said you have to have all your animals ethically raised.

Harris: Absolutely. Yeah.

Bloom: By analogy, I don’t think I have it in me to donate a huge amount of my money to help the suffering poor, but I’d be in favor of taxes that took my money and redistributed in such a way. And so the first order versus the second order contrast is very different. I think we’re in favor of policies because it takes it out of our hands because we know we’re not unique, we know we’re not the one sort of sucker opting out while everyone else gets to eat the meat or keep the money. And some of this speaks to the limit of individual free choice and why sometimes we’d want to choose to be constrained in certain ways.

Harris: Yeah, I think that’s a great point it’s a point that has arisen on other topics for me just the utility and just the fundamental difference of a systemic change as opposed to having to wake up every morning and rely on your own heroism and commitment to some sort of internal discipline. I think the biggest changes for us morally just across the board as a species and as a civilization will come at the second-order level. It can’t be that we just get every person to fully optimize his or her ethical code so as to be impeccable. We need legal and institutional changes which enshrine our better judgment there. So I think that’s true but we can obviously we can’t keep killing and immiserating animals with a clear conscience until some benevolent despot passes that law for us. We can’t abdicate personal responsibility here.

[W]e can’t keep killing and immiserating animals with a clear conscience until some benevolent despot passes that law for us.

Bloom: No, we can’t. I think every person — this isn’t what I want to say it’s not meant as an excuse — but every person living, every person listening to this now probably from the affluent West has to live a significant burden of guilt for all the things that they’re doing and all the things they’re not doing and all the things — and if you don’t live with that burden of guilt, you’re either a saint or you’re a moral ignoramus. You’re either a saint because you’re doing all the right things or you’re somebody who is morally blind to the harms you’re causing and the good things that you should be doing and you’re not.

Harris: This is a dangerous conversation to have had because we’re going to hear from some deeply unsatisfied people, unsatisfied about our ignorance of just how easy it is to live a happy healthy life as a parent feeding nothing but vegetables and a few well targeted pharmaceuticals to your kids and just the flabbiness of our commitment to our own ethical insights.

[I]f you don’t live with that burden of guilt, you’re either a saint or you’re a moral ignoramus.

Bloom: Then again, maybe people didn’t start off thinking we’re really good people anyway.

Harris: Maybe I’m burdening us with too much self-flattery here. So just to make something truly constructive of this, I want to keep the conversation open, I’m inviting the vegetarians and vegans among our listeners to send me the best resources they have. So understand that I am convinced of the moral case. And the question is how to idiot-proof vegetarianism and/or veganism. This is another wrinkle we’re walking into here because vegans I think will say some vegans will say that merely being a vegetarian, which is to say being willing to eat eggs and dairy products, that is not an ethical place to stop on this slippery slope, that, in fact, hen-laying chickens and milk producing cows suffer as much as any animal. Is that something that you understand to be true or do you think that vegetarianism is a fully defensible ethical position?

Bloom: It’s a case-by-case thing. I think that the vegans are right about eggs and milk and all the problems revolving around that. I think some forms some certain types of shellfish, there isn’t a moral issue because they don’t have — they’re probably not sentient. All I would say is that right now we’ve confessed to living terrible lives. If people could persuade us with somewhat less terrible lives that would be a sensible progress.

I think that the vegans are right about eggs and milk and all the problems revolving around that.

Harris: I’m not satisfied with the mirror confession because I think it’s — just step back from being ourselves for a moment and just look over our shoulders at what we’ve just confessed: We are two people who have admitted to participating in a system that is not only — and sometimes objectively — bad but perhaps so bad as to be the kind of thing that will be on the short list of embarrassments to our descendants, so that you look back at the excesses of the Middle Ages and you think how on earth could those people have behaved that way — they’re burning witches alive — witches didn’t even exist — but you know they’re burning their neighbors alive for imaginary crimes. What the hell was going on? And we’re both conceding that the way we raise and treat and consume animals year after year is probably that order or analogous to slavery. And yet we’re to some degree blithely participating in it and not really signaling much of a willingness to change.

So, let me perhaps throw you to the wolves here. I’m going to signal my own willingness to change and so get ready, you know, now your reputation is destroyed. (laughing) You know, “I don’t know why I had this guy one my podcast.” Moral monsters like you just don’t belong on my podcast, Paul. But I’m appealing to my listeners vegan / vegetarian to send me some streamlined information on how to idiot-proof this process and the clearest argument that you can do this without obvious deficits in your health, and I’m signaling my willingness to explore this, whether this is going to be my posting my pre- and post-blood work to my blog, I don’t know, but I’m going to investigate further.

But, the parenting responsibility does change it for me a little. Experimenting on myself on the order of a decade seems different than you know having a 19-month old who I have to figure out whether or not she should eat chicken. In any case, to make something constructive out of this rather than just reap the whirlwind, I want the conversation to continue. Send me good information and I will post it to my blog.

Bloom: Well fine, Sam. You seem to be out-moral-signaling me here. I’d also like to add that I would be highly receptive to any instructions that people have about living a more moral life with regard to eating of animals. Please send them to Sam. And Sam will keep me appraised on what he hears. And I will tell you for total certainty I am not going to post my fucking blood work on any blog.

Harris: Why not? What? You’re sheepish about your cholesterol?

Bloom: My blood work is my blood work. In the age of social media and Internet, some things are sacred.

Harris: Right. No, I think it would be an interesting experiment to run. I’m sure you know many people have done this but to see just how things change over the course of, I don’t know, three months or so. I’m just, you know — I certainly did become anemic last time around and no doubt 20 people tell me how I was an idiot and how I could have easily supplemented my way out of that problem. In any case, I’m willing to experiment with this and — do you know if Singer or anyone has spent time on how to engineer the second-order changes that would really be helpful if not creating a vegan earth, creating one that won’t be an embarrassment to our descendants?

Bloom: It’s not a literature I’ve studied. I know singers weighed in on the benefits of a laboratory-raised meat and other alternatives like that. You know he’s — there are some vegans — I think there’s an irrational school of vegans — who would object even to laboratory-raised meat. But I can’t capture that the moral arguments for that and I won’t try.

Harris: But strangely they seem to want their tofu to be shaped like meat and look like meat and taste like meat and be called…

Bloom: Tofurkey. I think that the best progress will be made by using the tools we’ve had with some success for other cultural and social changes, like you know people quitting smoking are putting their money into retirement savings and so on. I think some of the techniques that the Nudge people are on about Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler and others might have some success in this domain. And I think in the end, legislation would do a world of good. Sometimes we need a Leviathan to help us be better people. But having said that — I know it’s a cop-out for me to say, you know, “Stop me before I kill again.”

I think in the end, legislation would do a world of good. Sometimes we need a Leviathan to help us be better people.

Harris: Yes.

Bloom: So, you know, I won’t necessarily wait myself for legislation before becoming a morally better person.

Harris: “Pass a law before I kill again.” That’s even worse.

Bloom: That’s right.

In my experience, people simply don’t know what a wretched life the average cow, pig, or chicken lives. This is probably partly by design and partly due to the fact that we simply don’t want to know.
This is actually not so far-fetched. A major argument against eating meat is that animal agriculture is generally much more environmentally detrimental than plant agriculture. Test tube meat might become perfectly palatable but still be environmentally unsustainable. Also keep in mind, if you will, that the best argument Bloom could produce for why this dilemma should exist is that he doesn’t want to be embarrassed when he goes out to dinner.
Do vegans and vegetarians themselves really want this or is this an attempt to make the meat substitutes more palatable to omnivores?

Abortion: Efficacy of Criminalization, Biblical Position on the Fetus

There are a few good studies that may help us figure out what to do about abortion. In a recent study, researchers at the Guttmacher Institute and the World Health Organization found that making abortion legal neither increases nor decreases abortion rates.

In another study, researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine found that making birth control widely available did reduce the abortion rate by 62–78%.

The aforementioned Guttmacher/WHO study echoed those findings.

In a 2006 study, WHO researchers estimated the number of maternal deaths worldwide from women obtaining illegal abortions to be 68,000. Millions more women, they say, have complications, many for the rest of their lives.

To me, these studies are sufficient to direct us in forming reproduction-related policy. However, I recognize that a lot of people are uncomfortable with abortion based on religious beliefs. The contention of people basing their opinion of abortion on the Bible seems generally to be that a fertilized egg has the same status as a person. If a zygote is a person, then the commandment to not kill must surely apply.

The closest thing in the Bible that I can find related to abortion is a passage from Exodus 21, verses 22-25. Here is the direct quote from Jehovah from the New Jerusalem Bible used on Catholic.org:

If people, when brawling, hurt a pregnant woman and she suffers a miscarriage but no further harm is done, the person responsible will pay compensation as fixed by the woman’s master, paying as much as the judges decide. If further harm is done, however, you will award life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stroke for stroke.

No indication here is given of the stage of development. The fetus could have been 8 weeks along or 8 months along. To reiterate: if the fetus is killed, Jehovah demands a fine; if the mother is killed, Jehovah demands “life for life” or “wound for wound.” Jehovah clearly does not view a fetus at any stage of development as equal to a person.

The Exodus passage will probably seem familiar if you’ve ever looked at the Code of Hammurabi (the oldest known code of laws after the Code of Ur-Nammu): “If a man strike a free-born woman so that she lose her unborn child, he shall pay ten shekels for her loss. If the woman die, his daughter shall be put to death.”