Monthly Archives: September 2009

Augustine of Hippocampus?

Here’s news that the brain region responsible for concept formation has been found (Concepts are Born in the Hippocampus).

If you’re in the right mood, this sort of discovery can give you a weird, ontological shiver.  Everybody knows that our view of the world is our view of the world, i.e. a grainy, human view, but I’m not sure we really follow that thought through.  It is unnerving to notice that your weltanschauung is nothing more than an accident of evolutionary history, another odd feature of our biology, like hairy knuckles and rounded ears.  Our way of making sense of things, of doing philosophy, might be thought of as just another aspect of our evolutionary heritage.  The concepts we deploy in this endeavour are what they are partly because we ended up with a certain sort of hippocampus.  One thing is true in the middle of all this:  our evolved capacities deliver evolutionary advantage, not necessarily philosophical truth.  Maybe if your hippocampus evolved a little differently, if your mental store of concepts were differently stocked, you would understand the good, the true and the beautiful without even trying.

It’s true that we see the world through a glass, darkly.  If anything, philosophy tells us more about the glass than the world behind it.  Should this conclusion worry philosophers?  Or can we take comfort that we won’t be going out of business any time soon?

On Suicide

dignitasDorothy Shaeffer wants to kill herself. This is not a view that she has come to lightly. She has been thinking about suicide fairly systematically for the last five years – ever since she turned forty in fact. She can think of reasons to live – her sister, for example, will miss her if she’s gone – but she can think of many more reasons not to live. She would say that she is not depressed exactly. It is more that she is profoundly bored: she is suffering from seemingly terminal ennui.

Dorothy has thought hard about the morality of suicide. She knows that there are religious objections to the taking of one’s own life. She is aware, for instance, that the Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church states that suicide  is ‘seriously contrary to justice, hope, and charity’. But Dorothy isn’t religious, and doesn’t believe in the afterlife, so she isn’t much impressed by such pronouncements. She has taken into account that some people, such as her sister, will mourn her death. But she does not believe that their suffering will be very great, and certainly not great enough to outweigh what she sees as her right to do as she wishes with her own life – including ending it. She is also aware that she might feel differently about things at some point in the future. However, she thinks that this is unlikely, and, in any case, she is not convinced of the relevance of this point: certainly, she does not think that she has any responsibility towards a purely hypothetical future version of herself.

She has canvassed other people’s opinions about suicide, but so far she has heard nothing to persuade her that killing herself would be wrong. She is frequently told that she ‘shouldn’t give up’, that ‘things will get better’, and that she ‘should just hang on in there’, but nobody has been entirely clear about why she should do these things. For her part, she can’t really see that she stands to lose much of anything by ending her life now. She does not value it, and in any case, if she’s dead, she’s hardly going to regret missing out on whatever it is that might have happened to her had she lived.

Would it be wrong for Dorothy to commit suicide? If so, why?

The Wrong Embryos

Like most people, I saw the story of the couple who had the wrong embryos implanted by their fertility clinic. Obviously, that was one heck of mistake and indicates that the clinic needs to reassess how it labels and tracks embryos. This does provide a rather extreme example of the sorts of easy to fix errors that can cause so much trouble.

What struck me the most about this story was the fact that the couple decided that the embryo would be brought to term and then given to his/her biological parents. When asked about this, the couple made it clear that their decision was based on their values.

Since I teach ethics, I find this very interesting indeed. Naturally, I also find it interesting as a person. It is, to say the least, morally commendable for the woman to go through this experience knowing that she will be giving up the child. As far as I know, she is not receiving any compensation from the other couple for this. Of course, the fertility clinic certainly owes her for the mistake they made.

Switching back to philosopher mode, I cannot help but compare this to the famous violinist analogy that has been used in the moral debate over abortion. While the cases are different, here is a case in which a woman has been implanted with a “non-related” embryo and is faced with the choice of keeping it or having an abortion. As noted above, she elected to act in what many would regard as a commendable way.

Of course, some might contend that she had no obligation to do this (even though it would be awfully nice to do so). After all, while she chose to be implanted, she did not chose to be implanted with another couple’s embryo. This would seem to provide adequate moral grounds for having an abortion. After all, to force her to bear the child of another would certainly seem to place an unreasonable burden on the woman. Or would it? Is anyone willing to argue that she was not just really nice to do this, but also morally obligated to do so?

Another Point About Canine Cognition

Descartes, most famous for writing “I think, therefore I am, also wrote about the minds of animals. Roughly put, his view was that animals lacked minds, at least as he saw minds (as immaterial metaphysical thinking substances). He had two main arguments for this: first, animal behavior can be explained without such minds using purely physical explanations. So, by Occam’s Razor, there is no need to accept that animals have minds. The second argument he have is that animals do not use true language and this is the surest sign that they lack minds.

Descartes was well aware that clever animals, like dogs and horses, could learn various tricks and that all animals can make noises to express feelings. However, he held that these facts did not show that animals think.

In recent years, researchers have begun to accept what dog folks have known since humans started having dogs as pets: dogs are smart. For example, research has revealed that dogs can recognize the use of a pointed finger. While recognizing what a pointed finger means (“that”) seems simple enough, it actually requires fairly advanced cognition. The intent of the action must be understood and the object of the action (what is pointed at) must also be recognized.  This sort of sign seems to be more abstract than a direct physical gesture, such as a display of anger or joy. As such, this sort of interpretation requires fairly impressive communication skills.

Dogs, as all dog folks know, are very good at conveying their feelings and desires. They are also quite good at understanding words and can have rather complex vocabularies. For example, my husky can distinguish between numerous words and phrases and react accordingly. She also has various vocalizations and behavior that make it clear what she wants or seems to be thinking at the time. While this might be dismissed as mere habituation, even habituation that complicated would require some significant mental horsepower.

While dogs do not use true language, they certainly seem to have a rather good grasp of our use of language as well as our gestures. Because of this, I am inclined to regard dogs as having minds, albeit less complex than those of most humans (of course, I believe that my husky is smarter than some humans). Unlike Descartes, my view is that having a mind is not a “you do or you don’t” sort of thing in all cases. Rather, minds seem to come in varying degrees. Of course, what the mind actually might be is something that is still under considerable debate.

Happiness and the Good Life

Happiness and the Good Life

What is the relation between living a good life and being happy? To many, the good life is a financially prosperous life, and happiness lies in the possession of wealth. Worldly success is what counts, and anyone who is not ‘successful’ in the usual sense is counted a ‘failure.’ Others strive for a life based on honor and public recognition. A good life is made up of hobnobbing with the right people in the right settings, and happiness is a matter of gaining respect. Along with these, there are lives that show by their living a desire for glory or power that inspires great efforts. Others, who are not drawn to wealth, power or glory because of the difficulties involved in attaining them, may choose the pursuit of pleasure. A good and happy life is one in which pleasures outweigh the pains overall. Many questions have been asked about the good life and happiness. People constantly answer those questions with their lives, and we see many different ideas of the good life and happiness playing out in the strivings of human beings to live well and be happy.

The ancient Greeks wished their friends to ‘do well’ and ‘fare well’ in this life. These two, they thought, held the keys to human felicity. Doing well concerns ourselves, our own actions and feelings. We have some control over these aspects of our lives. So when we wish someone to ‘do well’ in life, we express the hope that the person will be moral and fair in his or her dealings with others. Beyond securing basic physical survival, someone who does well in life can sleep with a clear conscience, whether blessed with material success or not. From many a philosophical point of view, the good life has an intrinsically moral core that involves compassion for the suffering of others and acting justly in the world.

‘Faring well’ concerns events and occurrences over which we do not have so much control. “Faring well” means succeeding in life, coming into a prosperous condition, with all the benefits that come with money and social acceptance. Someone who is faring well in life has had a bit of good luck. It is possible to do everything right in order to succeed, but still fail to do so. For example, you can study hard for your degree, get your professional qualifications, work diligently, become competent, but still not succeed. The cards may not fall your way. As Sartre says, “You are free to try, but not to succeed.” This seems right to me, and so I will come down with Aristotle against Plato on this point, that doing well is not all that is involved in attaining happiness in life.

Plato’s Socrates famously says that the good person cannot be harmed, that virtue is knowledge, and that happiness consists entirely of doing well and being just. Aristotle argues that a degree of luck plays into our happiness. He insists that most of our happiness is in our own hands, but that it can be affected by outside circumstances. So while being happy is mostly a matter of ‘doing well’ (and ‘thinking well’), great misfortunes can damage our happiness. It may be that such a person, by ‘doing well,’ will attain a degree of dignity in suffering, but he will not be happy; or, as Aristotle has it, ‘blessed.’

In light of this result, I hazard an intuitive philosophical account of the relation between the good life and happiness. Living a good life is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for happiness. In other words, it is possible to live a good life without being happy, but not happy without living a good life. This a ‘philosophical’ account of the relation because many philosophers have a particular idea of happiness and the good life that is not shared by everyone, with their emphasis on clarity of thought and sound reasoning. In addition, though philosophers recommend the philosophical life as both the happiest and the best, they are not in a position to legislate for everyone what happiness must be. Nevertheless, the traditional philosophical view is not without support. All we have to do is look at the results of many lives that strive for wealth, power, fame, glory or pleasure. So many disasters befall those who pursue a good life with no moral core, or reflective turn of mind, that it makes some sense, as philosophers argue, to pursue the wisdom to recognize the good life, and, within that life, such happiness human beings can attain.

Turn for the Wurst

I had a moral dilemma for lunch.  There were two queues in the refectory:  one for a sinister-looking vegetarian moussaka and another for a chicken curry which looked very much like something other than a chicken curry.  To paraphrase a popular vegetarian line of thought, if there are readily available dietary alternatives, then one ought to choose the ones that do not involve unnecessary animal suffering.  Each time any of us eats an animal product, we probalby could just as easily have had a vegetarian dish — maybe it would take a little effort, but that’s small moral change.  We’re talking about avoiding unnecessary suffering, and we should be willing to do a lot in exchange.   I’ve tried to find statistics for vegetarians by country, but the numbers are all over the place.   Suffice to say that a very large number of people in the West eat a very large amount of meat.

I’ve heard many arguments for vegetarianism, but I only know carnivorism in terms of replies to those arguments.  If you eat meat, do you have an argument for this practice?  Prima facie, don’t you need one?  The debate seems to go (1) vegetarian argues for vegetariansim, (2) carnivore blasts argument.  Isn’t the burden of proof on the meat-eating party?  Why do you think it is right (or anyway morally acceptable) to eat meat?

The Case for Death Panels

Rembrandt turns an autopsy into a masterpiece:...
Image via Wikipedia

In the United States, Obama’s call for national health care reform has ignited a firestorm of controversy. One rather interesting result of the furor has been the accusation that Obama plans to create death panels. While the accounts vary, the general idea is that these alleged panels are intended to review cases and decide whether care (and the patient) should be terminated or not. Not surprisingly, this accusation is not true-there is nothing in the actual proposals about such death panels.

As I do every semester, I am teaching an ethics class in which the students have to write an essay on a moral issue. When the students ask what position they should take, I generally suggest that the argue for what they believe (rather than vainly trying to guess my view in the hopes of getting a better grade). But, I also suggest that they consider writing an argument against what they actually believe. Since I am against death panels, I thought I’d try my hand at my own suggestion and make a case for them. When reading, please keep in mind that what follows is not my actual view. Hence, there is no cause to accuse me of Nazi (or even socialist) leanings.

From an intuitive moral standpoint, private citizens are rather restricted in regards to when they can ethically end the life of another person. In general, such killing is restricted to clear cases of self defense. For example, if someone pulls a gun on me while I am out for a run and demands my fancy GPS watch, it would be morally acceptable for me to kill him on the spot. After all, he presents a clear and present threat to my survival (as Locke would say, I have no reason to think that someone who would rob me of my property would not take the next step and try to rob me of my life).

In the case of the death panel matter, it does not seem that this sort of individual right can be used as a justification. After all, a patient who is in need of critical and expensive care is not likely to be a clear and present threat to my survival.

Of course, it could be argued that such a person would be a threat because he is using resources that could save my life. However, killing an innocent person because they happen to have resources that could save my life does not seem to be morally defensible. For example, if am in a ship wreck and at risk of drowning, I have no right to kill another passenger and strip her of her life vest. As such, there seems to be little support for death panels here.

Perhaps, however, the matter changes when the focus is expanded to include society as a whole. After all, actions that would be blatantly immoral for an individual can often be transformed, by the “magic” of the collective, into acceptable actions. For example, what would be murder on the individual level becomes transformed to acceptable killing in the context of war (although, obviously, not everyone buys this).

In many cases, the moral transformation is brought about by an appeal to the general good (essentially an appeal to utilitarian considerations). For example, killing folks in war can be morally justified by appealing to the advantages of the war to “national security” or “national interest.” Not surprisingly, more cynical folks might point out that “national interest” is often the interest of a select few and it might be contended that such actions are no better than those of any organized gang of criminals.

Now, if such things as war can be morally justified, then justifying death panels should be easy enough on the same sort of grounds.

In the case of war, killing folks is most often justified on utilitarian grounds. For example, some folks must be killed (including the inevitable innocent bystanders) in order for the collective good (national security, for example) to be served. Now, let us turn to applying this sort of approach to the death panels.

While the United States and other Western countries have significant medical resources (enough so that certain folks, such as Michael Jackson, can have their own personal doctors) these resources are not unlimited. In fact, it can be contended that the resources are not sufficient to provide adequate health care to everyone.

Now, it is obvious that people who are in need of critical care use far more resources than other folks. It is also obvious that the elderly have more health issues than younger folks. Now, looking at the matter by the numbers, it seems likely that the resources used to maintain a critically ill person or an elderly person could be used to provide health care to a significant number of folks with less serious conditions. Typically, these would often be younger folks as well-folks who also still have years to contribute to the good of the state.

Looked at in terms of the general utility, it would seem to make practical and moral sense to allocate medical resources so that they do the most good for the general populace. As such, it would seem to be acceptable to terminate the care of the critical ill in favor of the less ill. It could also, on similar grounds, be argued that the focus of health care should be on the younger folks rather than the harder to maintain elderly folks. To use a car analogy, it makes more sense to spend less on maintaining a new car than to pour large sums of money in order to keep an old clunker going.

Since the United States is supposed to have a free market economy, the critical ill and the elderly who have the funds to purchase the medical care they need should be allowed to do so. After all, they are paying for the resources they are consuming and hence are not creating an undue burden on the health care system. Naturally, folks who are lacking in such funds would be imposing burdens on the system by consuming beyond what they can afford to pay for. As such, they would be robbing society of valuable resources.

Naturally, it might be pointed out that some critically ill people or elderly folks might have made valuable contributions that justify their being treated at the public expense. There might also be such folks who are making ongoing contributions or who can be expected to make such contributions in the future. For example, a medical student who is badly hurt in a accident may be expensive to treat, but it is likely that she will be able to contribute more than he treatment would cost.

This is, of course, where the death panels come in. These panels would serve to assess the relative worth of each patient and decide who will receive the medical resources and who will not. For those who balk at such an approach, the obvious reply is that this sort of thing is done in the case of triage. In this case, it is a triage of a different sort but would still seem to be justifiable on similar grounds. In this case, the person’s place in the medical queue is based not on her likelihood of survival but based on the value of her survival to the national good.

Of course, some folks might contend that the idea of having folks decide who lives and who dies is a horrific idea. It might also be wondered where people could be found with the adequate experience to make such calls. Fortunately, the United States has plenty of people who have experience in such things. For example, Governors in states that have the death penalty already serve on death panels. As another example, the folks who make decisions about going to war already are on a death panel as well. After all, they have an active role in deciding who will live and who will die. As a final example, folks in insurance companies sometimes make decisions that deny care to people. Since such decisions about life and death are fairly routine, there should be little problem finding people to serve on such panels.

So, death panels seem like a great idea and the United States should hope that Obama makes the rumors a reality. Obviously, philosophers and runners should get an automatic exemption from being reviewed by death panels. This is so obvious that there is no need to even argue.

New book, new video

If you’re after a little amusement in your 2-minute coffee break, this short film I’ve made about my new book should do the trick. As I’ve become fond of saying, you’ll probably laugh, but I don’t know whether it will be with me or at me…

Dementia and identity

Iris Murdoch

Iris Murdoch

This Friday I’m taking part in a 24-hour “squashathon” to raise money for The Alzheimer’s Society. The cause is of particular interest to me because the subject of my PhD (and a book I’m writing) is personal identity, and many writers on this subject – such as Locke, Hume and Parfit – claim memory plays a critical role in this. So, without the links of memory connecting JB in 1999 to JB in 2009, JB99 and JB09 just can’t be the same person.

When I wrote my PhD, it was very narrow and very armchair. For my book, I’m trying as far as possible to bring in some actual lived experience to this issue. It seems to me that Alzheimer’s is an interesting case in point. On the one hand, people do often describe what has happened to sufferers as a dissolution of the self. “By the end, he had long gone,” they say. But at the same time, they seem to care for and love the sufferers to that bitter end. It seems in some sense they believe the self goes, and in others it does not.

I haven’t yet read John Bayley’s biography of his wife Iris Murdoch but it seems that it challenges what one research paper calls “the predominant narrative of dementia” namely “that of a tragic loss of self”. As The New York Times review of the book put it, “The greatest anguish for someone who loves an Alzheimer’s patient is the sense that the beloved is no longer there, but Bayley uses his luminous and supple mind to prevent that anguish; he insists upon the continuity between their past and their present.”

So I’m interested to hear from anyone who has had any experience of a friend or relative who has suffered from dementia. How did the “problem of identity” seem to you in this concrete case? If you know anyone in this position who might share their experience, please ask them to come to TP and make a comment. I may use some in my book, and so I can credit people, could you put your real name, Anon, or NFB (not for book) at the end of your post?

If you’d like to sponsor me and help raise money for this worthwhile cause, please follow this link. I’m not personally playing squash for 24 hours of course, but then again, I don’t think your motivation to sponsor would or should be to make me suffer!

Update: I’ve had one private response to this, and if you are willing to share thoughts with me but don’t want them posted on the blog, please follow suit. My email is editor, followed by the squiggle that, amazingly, is still nameless for most people, philosophers dot co dot uk.

Bertrand Russell, Superhero

Well, here it is.  The Bertrand Russell Graphic Novel you’ve been waiting for:  Logicomix:  An Epic Search for Truth.  Would anyone care to offer a definite description?