One bonobo's view of the world...and stuff.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Death to Thomas Szasz

A brief interlude before I get back to animal rights. I'm much more interested in our particular type of animal.

I was talking with some people the other night about a legal case that one of them had heard being discussed on Radio 2. A woman had swallowed a load of pills to kill herself and then phoned up a friend and asked him to sit with her while she died. He did so, and has been charged with being an accessory to murder.

The talk turned to whether one is duty bound in such circumstances to intervene by calling for medical help. It somewhat surprised me, given that all people in the room had recovered from episodes of serious depression, that there was some doubt. The argument given was that while they had survived - in large part through the support of friends and family, another person's situation might be so lonely and desperate that they might never get better. And psychiatric services are notoriously hit and miss. Some get an excellent service. Many more fall through the cracks. In such circumstances, since the pain of depression is so severe, it might be cruel to force them to live on.

My counter to this is that we simply don't have the information to make an informed judgement from case to case. We might assume that they won't get better. We might assume that they will never get social or medical support...but we simply don't know. Nevertheless, we have to decide one way or another. My own position is that I would want to be saved. So if someone tells us they're planning on suicide, we call a doctor as a reflex action.

Some notes:

  • I don't blame the guy. He was trying to do the right thing. He was wrong.
  • Suicide is not a cry for help. It's an expression of pain. Suicides want to kill themselves.
  • It's futile to try to identify a cause: "What made him do it?". The answer's "Everything" or "Nothing" or "Bad chemicals on the brain." It's an illness. Call an ambulance!
  • Assisted suicide in the case of nasty, terminal, untreatable and humanity-sapping illness is a different matter. In the case of something like Motor Neurone Disease or Huntington's Chorea, we do have enough information to go on. Individuals should be allowed to choose their fate.
  • Who's Thomas Szasz? The most dangerous psychiatrist wever - with the possible exception of Radovan Karadžić.
  • In all discussions such as this, I am duty bound to post contact details for The Samaritans. If you have come across this post, are feeling depressed and are thinking of harming yourself, Contact them right away. They're there for you.. If you know somebody else in this position, please do your best to get them medical help.

Sorry to, like, totally bum everyone.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

We do (doodley-do) what we must (muddily-must).

"It's Just God's way of punishing them for being dumb?", Pt 2

Yesterday I took a swipe at Animal Rights. Today I'll try and say something about what I think constitutes a suitable foundation for ethics, based on a rationalist, human-centred viewpoint. Next time I'll be saying a bit more about what this means for the poor defenceless bunnie-wunnies.

I'll try and be as coherent as I can here...but note point 13.

  1. It's a cold, impersonal universe out there. God, Mother Nature or whatever don't give a flying fuck whether we live or die. Our survival, as individuals or as a species, is not guaranteed. In the grand schemelssness of things, our pain or suffering does not matter. It follows that 'good' or 'evil' are not transcendental or absolute concepts. There's no natural order to the way we must behave. We can't deduce it by looking beyond ourselves.
  2. Ethics relate only to how we behave as humans. A tsunami killing thousands or a dingo running off with a baby may be 'bad', but they're not unethical. As far as we know, non-human animals are incapable of making ethical choices about one another, but that's their business anyway. We can't change it. The only sphere we have any control over is our own behaviour.
  3. There are many different types of human, with vast intra-species variation and differences in physical function (young/old; sick/healthy). There is no basis for differentiation in the rights of any group. Further...there is no basis on which to judge the superior worth of any human, be it on grounds of ability to do sums, a good singing voice, height, girth, wealth or attractive breasts. The same ethical status should be applied to anyone with human DNA in their cells.
  4. Humanity is a biochemical phenomenon; we're bundles of DNA that got lucky. It is inherent in our nature that we will seek certain things (call these 'pleasure' or 'bad') and avoid others (call these 'pain' or 'suffering' or 'bad'). These are broadly related to gene tranmission since we tend to survive if we seek gthe things which are good for survival and tend to perish if we fail to avoid things that are likely to kill us. Pathology apart, this is how always behave. This isn't the same as saying that pleasure always equates to things related to breeding (although it often does!), simply that we have a pleasure seeking/ pain avoiding mechanism built in to us. All animals are the same, at least as far as avoiding injury or death. As any typesetter will tell you, Cicero put it well:

    Neque porro quisquam est qui dolorem ipsum quia dolor sit amet, consectetur, adipisci velit. (There is no one who loves pain itself, who seeks after it and wants to have it, simply because it is pain)

    So I think it's reasonable to say that 'Good' = the things we like and 'Bad' = the things we don't.
  5. A significant human quality which affects our happiness is our ability to empathise. Certainly, while some can kill and feel no emotional trauma, a reliable source of pleasure is the company of loved ones (or, for some but not all people, animals, especially cute, fluffy ones that invoke nurturing responses). On the whole, a lack of empathy is 'A Bad Thing', so it is reasonable that we should be guided by our nature.
  6. As individuals we have a degree of choice (within environmental constraints) as to what we want to do. Granted it's a bit more complicated than this and sometimes involves long and short term tradeoffs (I want that chocolate vs I want to get slim; I don't want my husband to hit me again vs I'm afraid I won't be able to support myself without him; etc) . So it's reasonable to say that ethics should be based on a right to avoid pain and pursue pleasure as best we are able. (Although in a complex world we're not always able to make straightforward, reliable choices).
  7. So far, so Ayn Rand. But we are interdependent herd animals. In a community, it would defeat the pleasure/pain principle if we were all allowed to do whatever we wanted at any given time, regardless of the consequences for others. Imagine you were one of the weaker members of the community...or a strong member taken by surprise. So "Do as thou willt" shall not be the whole of the law. It needs to be qualified by accepting that just as the individual has the right to avoid pain and pursue pleasure, so has every other individual. Ethics requires this recipricocity.
  8. So, a judgement as to 'What is right' has to be based on some form of community consensus. At various times in history, such consensus has been imposed top down, democratically debated...or just simply is - but it's not important to talk about that here. In any case, Ethics is based on what we mutually agree is, by and large, on the whole, good for society at large.
  9. We can't always trust our own judgement, as individuals or as communities. Some problems need to be thought through rather than leaping to simplistic conclusions. It is useful to have specialists appointed - judges, ethicists - who have the intellectual equipment to do so.
  10. The consensus will always evolve. Leaving newborn infants on rubbish heaps? That was fine for the Romans. Imprisoning homosexuals? That was what we did in the UK until the 1960's. We might deplore the behaviour of those in times past, but there's not a damned thing we can do about it...other than behave differently in our own time and try to convince others to do the same.
  11. Ethics are situationally dependent. On the whole, it's probably not nice to cast the elderly adrift on an ice floe...but if there's not enough blubber to feed everyone...
  12. Sometimes we won't have a bloody clue what's the right thing to do. And sometimes we'll get it wrong. (See my previous comment on The Law of Unintended Consequences.) This should come as no surprise because a) It's a complex world and b) There are no set standards to guide us. So we just have to do our best. This does not necessarily mean that we can just follow our gut instincts or we can be lazy about thinking through alternatives. But sometimes we're going to just have to do what we do and not know whether we've done the right thing.
  13. At any given time there will be disagreement as to what is right and what is wrong, and on how to behave and structure society to deliver good. There's no way around that. One way out of it is to let the rules be defined by an arbitrary autocrat. It seems more sensible, though, to evolve towards a consensual, democratic system with a safety net of tolerated dissent. That's what gets my vote, anyway...even if the outcome isn't always what I'd want. There still remains a problem with those who might flout the consensus and behave badly. The best we can do is to grant democratic institutions the powers to deal with them.
  14. It will always be a bit of a fudge. Individual needs and opinions will differ. And we can't always be certain that we're doing the right thing...after all, there are no absolutes to guide us, and the universe doesn't give a fuck anyway (see point 1). We just have to do the best we can with our puny brains.

That's enough rambling for now. Some applied examples:

  • Allowing homeowners to shoot people for trespassing on their lawn leads to a dangerous, fearful and unhappy society. It shouldn't be allowed.
  • Killing the infirm shouldn't be allowed. You or I might get sick too. Plus by routine killing we reduce our empathy.
  • Abortion is troubling for some but not for others. Those who wish their fetuses to mature into viable humans should be helped to keep them. Others are perfectly capable of disposing of an unwanted fetus without becoming hardened by it.
  • In my subjective judgement, some perfectly tolerable, decent, humane people eat steak. No matter how they're reared, moo cows don't like being slaughtered

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

The right to arm bears

“It’s just god’s way of punishing them for being dumb.” Part 1.

This post is a tirade against the very idea of animal rights – which I think is based on some sloppy sentimental thinking. In particular, It’s about the Ideas of the philosopher Peter Singer, who is regarded by some as the founding father of the Animal Liberation Movement. …Although perhaps he’d be less in favour if the guys actually listened to him or read his books. He regards suffering caused against animals as morally equivalent to suffering in human, so on that basis he doesn’t believe we are justified in eating them. Fair enough. However, as a Utilitarian (he calls himself a Consequentialist) he maintains that the benefit of many can justify the suffering of the few, so he’s not, in principle, against animal experimentation. But he would regard a newborn baby as ethically inferior to an adult primate and so would advocate experimenting on the baby rather than the monkey - with the obvious benefit that a human subject would provide a better medical model.

Here are some reasons why I think he’s wrong:

  • The whole notion of Utilitarianism is rendered bankrupt by the Law of Unintended Consequences. We can’t reliably tell whether our actions will lead to good or ill (what if we kill a baby Mandela to save a baby Hitler…etc. etc.). Thus we must only make such utilitarian decisions in extremis – such as shooting down the airliner just before it hits the building – and even then only if we can be sure it’s not going to plummet into the crowded city. (There’s a flipside to this in medical research: We can never be certain that by inserting the probe in the monkey’s skull we’ll cure Parkinson’s disease – but I think there’s an answer to that - more in a future post.). And then there’s the paradox of how we measure’ good’ across populations: Maximum? Mean? Mode?
  • Singer has spoken of ‘speciesism’ as being equivalent to racism, sexism or any moral distinction between humans. This is a key quote for Animal Rights advocates - it gives them a spurious high ground. His argument for the equivalence of humans and animals is based on the idea that we are indistinguishable from animals – we are simply a type of Great Ape. This is true. We share our DNA, in varying degrees, with bonobos, dogs, snakes, slugs, fruit flies, bananas, slime moulds. But from this reduction ad absurdum it’s pretty clear that a line has to be drawn. Singer draws it at the capacity for suffering and/or enjoyment or happiness. So humans and gerbils have rights, bananas and boulders don’t. Oddly (to my way of thinking), he’s not an absolutist about this. He allows a continuum based on the extent to which organisms have unmet goals. So a newborn baby, who hasn’t yet developed goals, or an infirm elder who’s met all the goals they’re going is less ethically important than, say, a bonobo or (I’m not clear on this) a mouse. And, perhaps quite reasonably, there’s a continuum from grown-up humans down to jellyfish. Hmm. I wonder how you measure an organism’s capacity for pleasure/pain . I’m not convinced by people who tell us authoritatively that fish/lobsters/shrimp don’t feel pain; I just don’t think we know. And I’m damn sure we can’t quantify it. But even if we could…how many lobsters would be equivalent to a human? What’s the exchange rate between lobsters and mice? I’m thinking it’s an all or nothing thing.
  • Singer is selective about the rights that he grants to animals. He focuses on their suffering but does not think, for example, that armadillos should be given the vote. So let’s focus on life, freedom from suffering and self determination (which, I guess, would translate in practical terms as the right to roam free). To take the last one first – all animals compete for resources. If there’s not enough nuts in a wood, grey squirrels will survive at the expense of red. Do mice and rats have a right to nibble at our soybeans or birds to eat all our cherries from the tree? Maybe – but I think it’s quite in order to deny them that right and keep the food for our own species. Then…life and freedom from suffering. Well, animals don’t afford us those rights, do they? Presumably, though, given a continuum it’s in order for us to shoot a leopard who’s about to pounce on a human. (But what about a baboon who’s about to fatally injure a baby?). However…they don’t even grant each these rights. But are we in order to shoot a leopard who’s about to pounce on a zebra? Or a human who’s about to shoot a zebra? Or a leopard? Or a bonobo? It seems to me that human moral capacity must fit into the equation somewhere and that humans have a different ethical status to animals.
  • Ethics fundamentally deals with issues concerning how we deal with one another, and Singer would extend this to animals. I think that all but selfish ‘Objectivists’ of the Ayn Rand school (I object to her use of the word ‘objective’ - and thanks to healinmagichands for pointin out an error in my original post) would accept that we have a duty of care towards one another. So, for example, it is morally good to feed the hungry and tend the sick – not that we do enough of these. Should we be expected to extend this to animals? Need we scour the jungles in search of sloths in need of medical attention? Should we have lifeguards on beaches to throw back beached jellyfish?*

In short, it seems to be that Singer's ethical framework is somewhat irrational. Taken to the extreme, it would have thoroughly objectionable consequence for humans judged to be less sentient.

For the record - I don't eat animals.

Eventually in Part 2 I'll expand on (my version of) human-centred ethics.

* A man is walking by the beach. He comes across another man who is walking along the high tide line, picking up jellyfish, placing them in the sea and wishing them luck with a cheery wave. He approaches him. ”What are you doing?” he asks. ”Im rescuing jellyfish”, the man replies. ”But there are thousands of them. How can you possibly make a difference? The man places another jellyfish in the sea and bids it farewell. “Made a difference to that one, didn’t I?”

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Fancy a quick marriage, hen*?

Sometimes you come across something that makes you realise that public perceptions are not the whole truth.

In this vein...I've been reading up on Sharia Law. This, as I'm sure you'll know, is the various systems of judisprudence followed by Muslims. There are various in different countries and/or followed by various sects, each depending on the weight they give to the aHadith, sayings, customs and practices of the prophet (peace be upon him), as reported by whichever scholars they pay attention to.

Anyway - I was struck in particular by concept in Shia sharia (the Sunnis don't buy it at all) of Nikahu’l-Mut‘ah - Temporary Marriage. Unlike in full-blown marriage, here the marriage contract includes an expiry date. Because of various other provisions, it allows for a good deal of pragmatism:

  • It is a matter between individuals (although Iranian law requires requires registration of temporary marriages).
  • Women are not bound to their husband's wishes, but may go out and work, if they wish.
  • Property rights aren't included - so women can inherit.
  • It is mustahab (recommended, but not compulsory) that the marriage contract is extended on expiry. Isn't that a great legal concept, 'it would be best if...'?
  • It can be used as a trial period, prior to marriage - much as we do, but with obvious benefits for arranged mariages.
  • Many couples choose 99 year contracts in preference for full marriage, because it gives more freedom to the woman.
  • It allows marriage between a Muslim and a Christian or Jew (but not with kaffirs - people who are not 'Peoples of the Book' ( Ahl al-Kitab)
  • It can be contracted when men and women are going to live under the same roof but not as a couple, when it would be convenient to relax the rules relating to hijab.
  • Get this...It is allowed even if it's solely for the purpose of sex! I've read that in Iran, mullahs hang around popular meeting places with printed contracts ready to go...and that they also sell condoms.

Of course, I of all people** am the last to defend any religion. I think that law should be based on secular principles...and I don't see why it has any business interfering in consensual relationships between men and women, other than to ensure that women aren't exploited. But it does show that the picture we receive of Islam as an inflexible monoculture is somewhat far from the truth. The Middle East is, in certain repects, as pragmatic and pluralistic as any region, in a "I didn't know the dog was a Catholic" *** way. And Sharia Law isn't just about chopping thieves' hands off, any more than Western secular law is about banging people up in Belmarsh on a pretext or ASBOs whereby police officers can invent the law as they go along.

* For non-Scots readers, hen = darlin'. But men are rarely refered to as cock.

**Militant Atheist Fundamentalist, leaning towards calling myself a Bright.

***Auld Mrs Murphy's dog dies, so she goes along to Father O'Toole and asks him to arrange a nice wee funeral. "Now, Bridie," says the priest, "You know that funerals are only for people. Animals don't even have immortal souls. I can't go saying a funeral mass for an animal!" "But," says Mrs Murphy, "I'd be prepared to make a sizeable donation to the parish - in cash, too." "Ah, now," says Fr. O'Toole, "You never mentioned that the dog was a Catholic.."

The Grauniad on the ENO/ADF Ghadaffi yapera (See Skinheads, apostrophes and choonz post) Or, from al-Jazeera, here.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

String 'em...along!

The attempted suicide in prison by Ian Huntley and the previous successful suicide by Harold Shipman raise some interesting ethical/penal posers, including-but-not-limited-to:

  1. I presume there will be many who will shout 'Let the bastard die!' I admit I haven't done the full research, but I imagine there will be a high correspondence between these and those who would have wished him to have been hanged rather than imprisoned. Interesting. Presumably capital punishment is favoured because it is the worst imaginable punishment. And yet Huntley seems to have preferred death to imprisonment. Would the pro-hangers be happy for him to be slipped a couple of pills and allowed to choose the time of his death?
  2. Some in the anti-psychiatry movement, such as Thomas Szasz (imagine the triple word score!) argue for 'the right to death' - i.e., even in cases of mental illness (whose existence they deny), individuals have the right to suicide. (Contrast this with Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights). Obviously we already deny some rights to prisoners - but is it acceptable to deny this right? (If, indeed, it is a right)
  3. Still on psychiatry/anti-psychiatry. Obviously there are cases where an individual chooses suicide, arguable as a rational alternative to imprisonment. See this case. Or think of Butch and Sundance. But how can we distinguish this from a suicidal urge brought about from clinical depression which results from life in prison? Is it right to err on the side of caution and assume that prisoners will change their mind, given proper treatment? Of course - treatment is unlikely to be reliable and, given the circumstances, be palliative at best. But then the same applies to many depressed people living in desparate life situations. Should we just hand them the pills?
  4. Is life imprisonment fundamentally a cruel and inhumane punishment? In the case of US Supermax prisons, I'd say 'Yes'. They seem designed to induce suicidal depression*. Of course, the US has notoriously grim prisons by worldwide standards. I read a quote a while back to the effect that, to all appearances, male rape is an officially sanctioned part of the American penal system. Surely people are sent to prison as punishment, not for punishment? a civilised society (there's a massive assumption!), what level of comfort are we happy with for convicted criminals?

Tricky blighters, ethics. I'm not sure there are ever any clear-cut answers.

*But of course attempted suicides at Guantanamo are sneaky attacks.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Skinheads, apostrophes and choonz


I finally got around to watching American History X at the weekend. I’d heard great things about it, and especially about Ed Norton’s performance. I have to say, I was…underwhelmed. It seemed to me to have ‘Made For TV’ production values – right down to its thick layer of cosy schmaltz. What particularly disappointed me was the lack of any nuance in the character arcs. So the basic plot seemed to be ‘Guy becomes a skinhead because he’s a bit mixed up after his father’s death…goes to jail…gets friendly with a black guy and changes his mind…but just too late to save his brother (who’s also had a change of heart, thanks to a kindly black teacher). And the Norton character…he simply appeared to be pleasant enough, articulate guy – albeit one who trashed grocery stores and shot people. The only development he went through was that his hair grew back. And where did the plot line about the teacher's seminars disapear to...other than the brother's unexplained take on his essay.

I’m sure there’s a great film to be made about American extremists, but this ain’t it. SE Hinton does this kind of stuff much better.

(Shame. I really rate Norton. For a much better performance, see him in the criminally overlooked 25th Hour)

Mind Yer Langwidge

This in yesterday’s Observer: Author takes on the queen of commas – about counterblast by linguist David Crystal to the self-appointed Language Police. What really got my goat was a quote from that reactionary humbug, John Humphrys.

'I think David Crystal is making a fundamental mistake when he says rules don't matter that much. I say they matter enormously. Take the example we always use on both sides of the debate: the apostrophe. It is either right or wrong. We wouldn't accept something being wrong in any other walk of life, would we?'

This is certainly true when we are dealing with something important - say, how to build a nuclear power plant or which side of the road to drive on (sic). When, however, the breaking of a rule has no other consequence than to upset the pompous (eg, which knife to use for fish; how to address a bishop; where to put an apostrophe), it is mere convention.

Seriously, though...can anyone think of a set of circumstances in which a misplaced apostrophe might lead to harm?

Giving ‘Poddage To…

The new Dylan
Asian Dub Foundation
Polly Harvey

…and in the ‘a bit silly’ corner:
Mieskuoro Huutajat. Shouting men from Finland. Check out their ‘Star Spangled Banner’ under Audio.
The Thurston Lava Tube. Named after a Hawaiian geological feature. For those who like their Beatles with extra cheez.
Apocalyptica. A Finnish string quartet who play stunningly excellent Metallica covers (sample available via the link).