Artificial wombs and violinists

Artificial wombs and violinists

The most well-known argument for the permissibility of abortion is Judith Jarvis Thomson’s violinist analogy, described in ‘A defense of abortion‘. Here, she imagines someone waking up to find themselves kidnapped and a famous, unconscious violinist plugged into their body. The violinist needs the use of their body for nine months to survive, and unplugging the violinist would kill him. Thomson claims the victim would be under no obligation to keep the violinist plugged in, and likewise a pregnant woman is under no obligation to continue providing life support for her fetus. Yes, it would be nice if she did so – performing what Thomson calls a ‘Good Samaritan’ act – but she is not obliged to.

Thomson’s argument is important because it does not rely on the moral status of the fetus. She claims that even if the fetus is regarded as a person in the moral sense – possessing the same moral status as an adult human being – her argument is still valid. Of course, there are various objections to Thomson’s reasoning, and debate is ongoing. A thorough and recent evaluation can be found in Kate Greasley’s excellent Arguments about Abortion: Personhood, Morality, and Law. But for those who rely on Thomson’s violinist as support for their pro-choice position, a distant storm is slowly brewing.

That storm is the relentless advance of new technology: the artificial womb is coming, and it may eventually have a significant impact on Thomson’s violinist. It has been mooted for a long time, but in 2017 it was announced that premature lambs were kept alive for four weeks in bags of fluid. They appeared to develop as normal, and those that were brought to term were removed and bottle-fed, and were doing well. As the technology improves, it should eventually be available for premature human babies. It’s a long way off, but it’s even possible that IVF embryos could be brought to term entirely in artificial wombs, a process known as ectogenesis. No female womb required.

So what? Well, a crucial point of Thomson’s argument is that she does not think there is a right to the death of the fetus. Her argument is that there is a right to extract the fetus to end its use of the mother’s body for its life support. For Thomson, the death of the fetus is an unfortunate byproduct of ending the pregnancy. Ectogenesis alters this situation dramatically. If we assume that the technology also includes the ability to safely extract the fetus at any stage of pregnancy (yes, this is a big assumption), then Thomson’s argument (as far as she is concerned) is no longer an argument for abortion, but rather for ectogenesis. The fetus gets to survive.

This possibility is rather awkward for the pro-choice position. There aren’t any other significant arguments that grant the permissibility of abortion in the case that the fetus is regarded as morally equivalent to an adult. Thomson’s argument has allowed pro-choice advocates to sidestep arguments about moral status. Ectogenesis will bring these arguments to the forefront, and they are controversial. Moreover, even if the fetus is not regarded as having the same moral status as an adult, killing a viable human being that is not reliant on its human mother is very different to abortion. Ectogenesis might mean a seismic shift in the abortion debate.

Some philosophers have anticipated this possibility, and tried to counter it by claiming that there is, in fact, a right to the death of the fetus. We (the PA and Daniel Rodger) examine (and reject) three of the most popular arguments in our recent paper published in Bioethics.  This paper also provides a detailed look at Thomson’s violinist and ectogenesis for those who are interested. Contact the PA if you’d like a copy.

 

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What is metaethics?

What is metaethics?

The word ‘meta’ means ‘beyond’ or ‘about’, and as a prefix means a higher level of abstraction of the topic at hand, which is ethics. So metaethics is not concerned with making moral claims – that’s the realm of normative ethics. Metaethics involves making claims about the nature of moral claims.

Let’s take the claim that ‘we ought to keep our promises’. This could be expressed as a moral fact: ‘it is the case that breaking our promises is wrong’. Metaethics asks if moral facts such as these actually exist, or are they merely statements about how we feel about moral issues? If they do exist, what kind of thing are they? Moreover, can we ever know what these facts are? Of course, there is all manner of views about the answers to these questions, and the purpose of this post is to classify them in a way that is comprehensible.

Moral realism

The most important question is whether moral facts exist at all. Moral realists think they do, and so these moral facts make our moral judgments true or false. If I claim that it’s okay to break my promise, and it is a moral fact that ‘it is the case that breaking our promises is wrong’, then my claim is false. Conversely, moral anti-realists reject that there are such things as moral facts (sometime they are called irrealists).

Moral realism is a broad church – there are a wide variety of opinions about what kind of thing moral facts are, and disagreement about the facts themselves. It might even be that moral facts exist, but we have no way to determine what they are – a position known as moral skepticism.

The most important question for moral realists is whether moral facts are objective: whether they exist independently of human beings or not. Moral relativism says moral facts are true or false relative to some human standard. Relativists point to the diversity of moral values across cultures as evidence for their views, and believe that this diversity shows objective moral facts are unlikely. If moral facts aren’t objective, is moral relativism really a form of moral realism? Some philosophers believe it is, while others argue that moral relativism is actually an anti-realist position.

If moral facts are objective, a position sometimes called moral absolutism, what kind of thing are moral facts? Those who hold to naturalism – the belief that only features of our universe exist are natural ones, i.e. those amenable to study by empirical science – must believe moral facts are natural, a position called naturalistic moral realism. There’s a problem with this view though, which faces an objection known as Moore’s Open Question Argument. This argument led Moore to non-naturalistic moral realism, which concludes we must admit the existence of unique non-natural properties such as goodness. There are two options here: either these properties are supernatural, attributable to God or gods in some manner, or they are non-natural and non-supernatural, a position known as non-natural non-theistic moral realism and ably supported by Erik J. Wielenberg. I discuss Wielenberg’s ideas here.

It’s time to mention cognitivism, a term often encountered in metaethics. It’s a theory that says moral claims are expressions of beliefs that can be true or false. This sounds like moral realism, but it’s broader than this (especially if you think moral relativists are not realists). Moral relativists are cognitivists, yes, because they believe moral claims can be true or false. But you can be a cognitivist and believe all moral claims are false. In this case you are what’s called an error theorist – there are no moral facts, it’s all nonsense and you believe all talk of morals is hugely in error. J. L. Mackie is the most famous advocate of this view.

Moral anti-realism

Recall that anti-realists reject that there are things such as moral facts, and so error theorists are also anti-realists as well as being cognitivists! But most anti-realists are noncognitivists: like error theorists, they don’t believe there are such things as moral facts. But unlike error theorists, noncognitivists thinks people who accept moral claims don’t actually have real beliefs about these moral claims, but instead are expressing their attitudes or desires. One form of noncognitivism is called emotivism, where moral claims are said to express our emotions. For this reason it is sometimes known as hurrah/boo theory. and is also a form of expressivism.

I haven’t yet mentioned an important anti-realist position known as moral nihilism, which is that nothing is morally wrong. Nihilism is most often associated with Friedrich Nietzsche, who was not only a moral nihilist but a nihilist about any values at all. This doesn’t sound much different to error theorists, and indeed error theorists are often thought of as moral nihilists.

It should be apparent by now that metaethics is a deep rabbit hole to explore. One useful tool for navigating the topic is the chart shown below, which I believe is the work of David Faraci. You’ll see that there are numerous other metaethical views not mentioned in this overview.  Fortunately, there are many good introductory texts on metaethics, one being Alex Miller’s An Introduction to Contemporary Metaethics which I have seen recommended, as well as Metaethics: An Introduction by Andrew Fisher.

metaethics

 

 

What is ethics?

What is ethics?

Ethics is a field of study that attempts to answer questions of how we should live and act.  As rational creatures who make conscious choices in our actions, we use ethics to decide what is the right and wrong thing to do in particular situations. It’s a vast and important area of enquiry, and involves a wide range of questions. To understand ethics, it’s helpful to divide ethical questions into three main categories.

Metaethics examines the nature of our moral judgments. What do we mean by right and wrong? Are moral judgments statements of fact, or are they just our preferences?  If they are facts, what kind of facts are they? Can we even know what they are?

Normative ethics is the study of moral theories that tell us how we should act – they help us determine whether our actions are right or wrong. There are many moral theories, and they don’t always give the same results. Virtue ethics emphasizes the importance of our moral character, while consequentialism evaluates actions on the basis of their consequences. Deontology is based on rules that we should follow rather than considering the consequences of our actions.

Finally practical ethics, or applied ethics, is concerned with how we should act in real-life situations. This can range from bioethics, which examines the ethical issues associated with advances in medicine and biology, such as abortion, euthanasia and cloning, to environmental ethics, which ask how we should act to preserve our planet.

In my next post, I’ll be looking at metaethics. I’ll try to classify the better known metaethical theories that are out there, and explain how they differ from each other.

Why I oppose capital punishment

Why I oppose capital punishment

I oppose the use of capital punishment. I don’t live in a country that uses it: I’ve lived the majority of my life in Australia, which abolished capital punishment in all states by 1984, and last executed someone in 1967. I’ve also lived for many years in the United Kingdom, which abolished it in 1998, and last executed someone in 1964. But the death penalty is still widely used in some other countries. The United States executed 1,477 people between 1976 and 2018, and it is legal in 31 states. China executes several thousand people each year, although this is down from over 10,000 in 2002.

I don’t actually oppose capital punishment itself. It seems reasonable that some crimes might be so heinous that the death penalty is warranted, although I’m unsure what criteria should be used to decide. Certainly, the main theistic religions have historically permitted the death penalty. The Old Testament mandated it for certain crimes, provided two witnesses could testify to the accused’s guilt. There doesn’t seem to be a strong theological case against the concept as far as theists are concerned. Capital punishment seems against the precepts of Hinduism and Buddhism, but India uses it and so does Thailand.

What about pro-life beliefs and capital punishment? I am strongly pro-life with regard to abortion, but I don’t think pro-lifers who support the use of capital punishment are being inconsistent. You can, I think, oppose the killing of innocent human beings while supporting the killing of guilty ones. People can forfeit their right to life – for example, I accept that an assailant can be killed if self-defense requires it for preservation of one’s life.

So what’s my issue? It’s the use of capital punishment that worries me.  Fundamentally, I don’t trust governments with the power to take their citizens’ lives. After all, I have difficulty trusting the government to spend my taxes wisely.  I don’t trust the government to secure the data they have collected on me, much of which I didn’t even know about until Snowden alerted us to the extent of government surveillance. I don’t trust the government not to use that data against me in the future, either. And finally, I don’t trust the government to tell me the truth about matters that might put the government in a negative light. So no, I don’t think it wise to trust the government to administer the death penalty.

Americans share my distrust of government. A recent survey showed that only 18% trusted the government to do the right thing most of the time.  Curiously, though, a majority of Americans still support the death penalty, which seems strange given their low level of trust in government. Perhaps they have a greater trust in the judicial branch?

Let me break down this lack of trust a little.

Firstly, I don’t trust the government to administer the death penalty without making mistakes. And mistakes are sometimes made. Since 1973, there have been 163 exonerations from the death penalty. I suppose you could say the system is working because people are being exonerated. But sadly, numerous people have been executed who are thought to be possibly innocent. We’ll never know for sure, because once they have been executed, there isn’t a clear path to establishing their innocence – courts and defense attorneys aren’t interested in defendants who are dead. It’s worth noting that for wrongful convictions we know about (in general, not specifically for death penalty cases), the leading contributory cause (over 80%) was due to official misconduct. Another major contributory cause was perjury or false accusation. So there is significant scope for miscarriages of justice with the death penalty, and once carried out, there is of course no way to compensate the defendant.

Secondly, I don’t trust the government to administer the death penalty fairly. You’d expect it to be applied consistently for similar crimes. It doesn’t seem to be. In fact, there is evidence that whether or not a defendant receives the death penalty for a particular crime is dependent on geography, race, mental illness, and poverty – factors that should not have any influence in a just process, particularly one that results in the defendant losing their life.

The error-prone and arbitrary nature of how the death penalty is applied should concern everyone who favors its use. Of course, these characteristics aren’t unique to capital cases – they are equally applicable throughout the justice system. But the consequences are particularly grave in capital cases, and once carried out, can’t be reversed or atoned for. Eliminating these flaws seems unlikely to be achieved. Given that life in prison without parole should be equally effective at preventing re-offending, offers more opportunities for rehabilitation, and is likely to be cheaper, there doesn’t seem to be a strong case for using it.

 

 

Michael Ruse talks with John Lennox

Michael Ruse talks with John Lennox

The Unbelievable? show, an apologetics and theology discussion program on Premier Christian Radio, recently launched The Big Conversation video series. The idea is to feature friendly conversations between world-class Christian and atheist thinkers.

The most recent session was filmed live in London in front of an audience, and featured philosopher of science Professor Michael Ruse, of Florida State University, talking with Oxford mathematician, Professor John Lennox. Michael Ruse is well-known to anyone with an interest in philosophy of science, but he has also written an introduction to atheism, called Atheism: What Everyone Needs to Know. John Lennox, while a mathematician, is known for books such as God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God?. So the scene was set for a great discussion on science and religion. The PA was there, and filed this report.

A central feature of these series is a friendly exchange of views, and this one started well with Lennox shaking Ruse’s hand and plenty of cordial banter. Both men are very capable and engaging speakers, and the tone was set for an enjoyable evening, especially with Justin Brierley moderating the discussion.

Quite early in the discussion, the speakers discussed their childhood upbringings. It was illuminating to hear how Lennox’s Christian parents were such a influence on him growing up in Northern Ireland. He explained how his father considered every person as made in the image of God, and was scrupulously fair in hiring employees from both sides of the sectarian divide. The cost was having his workplace bombed!

One of the most interesting things about the evening for me was finding out about Ruse’s Quaker background. He mentioned it numerous times, and it is clear that it has had a life-long influence on him. This came out strongly when Lennox spent some time discussing the important of evidence for his Christian faith. Ruse seems to have retained the Quaker love of the mystical, and numerous times he stated that for him when it came to faith, evidence was not important. Rather, revelation was, and since he had not experienced revelation, any evidence Lennox presented was not going to sway him. In fact, Ruse seemed to think evidence was almost a negative, in that it reduced the requirement for faith. Needless to say, this was a worry for Lennox, who emphasized the importance of evidence for his Christian faith. Not proofs, of course, because the only proofs available are in mathematics, as Lennox was careful to mention!

There was an informative discussion on the influence of Christianity on the development of science. Ruse and Lennox had quite similar views on this, with Ruse stating ‘modern science owes its being to Christianity’. Lennox explained how Christianity was the source of the idea that the universe is governed by uniform laws, which was crucial to being able to do science at all. Ruse noted that over time, as this uniformity became widely accepted, God gradually became ‘a retired engineer’: he had served his purpose and was no longer needed.

Towards the close of the discussion, there was some gentle sparring on the issue of suffering. Lennox properly acknowledged the deep difficulty of the issue for everyone, atheist, agnostic or Christian, and didn’t attempt to give pat answers. Ruse addressed the free will solution, using the rather extreme example of Himmler’s evil to demonstrate why the cost of free will was too high. In the question and answer session, I tried to point out that he was using a particular edge case as the entire foundation of his argument, but his response didn’t engage with this. Lennox, however, could see the point.

Ruse made some interesting comments about the Bible during the evening that I didn’t expect. He claimed he ‘loved the Bible’, he found it ‘deeply meaningful’, and he mentioned how he found the story of Ruth ‘deeply moving’. He made it clear he was an agnostic, not an atheist: he just didn’t know. I did get the impression that at 78, he had little expectation of ever knowing.

There were some excellent audience questions after the main discussion period. Two I recall in particular were about objective morality, asking Ruse to clarify his position. He seemed to obfuscate a little on this, conceding the importance of morality, but ultimately seemed to think that it was a product of evolution. Lennox pointed out the difficulty of deriving an ought from an is, citing Hume, but Ruse was unmoved. I think his view is that as long as enough people believe and act as if morality is objective, that’s good enough for a society to function.

To summarise, this was a brilliant evening. I didn’t learn a great deal in terms of apologetic content, having read quite widely in this area, but that’s not why I was there. I did learn far more about Michael Ruse’s worldview, and that was very interesting. Most of all, I enjoyed the experience of watching a civilised and honest discussion between two public intellectuals with two very different points of view on God.

The video of this conversation will be released on 7 September, 2018, at The Big Conversation. In the meantime, check out the earlier conversations, featuring speakers such as Steven Pinker, Jordan B Peterson, Susan Blackmore and more.

 

 

 

 

Starting a PhD!

Starting a PhD!

True to form, the PA is starting a PhD to add to the long list of superfluous university qualifications gained over many years.

For the next few years I’ll be studying at the University of Birmingham. My PhD is in the ethics of abortion, an area I’ve been keen on researching for a long time, so it’s going to be rather interesting! I’ve already contributed a little in this area (see here and here), and have just had another paper (with Daniel Rodger) accepted for publication in Bioethics, so things are going well so far.

 

Making sense of God by Timothy Keller

Making sense of God by Timothy Keller

Timothy Keller’s The Reason for God, published a few years ago, was an excellent exposition of reasons to believe in God and Christianity.  Now Keller has followed up with what could be called a prequel, Making Sense of God, addressing those sceptics who see Christianity as so implausible that no rational person could even consider it. His aim is to show that Christianity is worth investigating.

Keller’s approach is to firstly compare the foundations of Christianity and secularism – the latter being the view that denies the existence of a supernatural realm and is concerned with the here-and-now. He begins by challenging the idea that religious belief is inevitably declining, citing statistics that show Christianity is thriving in the non-Western world. Many people sense that secular reason does not provide a sound basis for meaning and virtue, and fails to explain the widespread perception that there is more to life than just the material.

Keller goes on to expose the flaws in the narrative that claims the religious live by blind faith, while non-believers ground their position in evidence and reason. All reason depends on faith in our cognitive faculties, and the belief that science is the only arbiter of truth is itself not a scientific belief. No-one can “assume an objective, belief-free, pure openness to objective evidence”. Instead, we all operate based on a set of tacit assumptions about reality that we are not consciously aware of. In fact, secular humanism’s values can be traced back to its Jewish and Christian roots.

This means that instead of asking religious people to prove their beliefs, we need to compare religious and secular beliefs based on their evidence, consistency, and success in accounting for our experiences. Keller spends the majority of the remainder of the book performing this comparison.

Firstly, Keller notes the disdain postmodern culture treats having meaning in life. In an indifferent universe, the only meaning is that which we make ourselves. These created meanings can serve us well, and we must not tell secular friends their lives have no meaning. But he points out that created meanings are ultimately insignificant when the big picture is considered, and are impotent in the face of personal suffering. By contrast, Christianity claims there is objective, eternal Meaning that can be discovered, and teaches that suffering is a terrible reality that can still have purpose.

Meaning is linked to happiness and satisfaction in life, Keller’s next point of comparison. Despite the advances we’ve made in science, technology and medicine, we are not any happier. The ephemeral nature of satisfaction and our desire for something that the world cannot supply points to our being “made for another world” as C.S. Lewis famously put it. Keller draws on Augustine’s insight that dissatisfaction and discontentment is a consequence of our failure to love God first and foremost. If we love anything more than God, it will become the source of our happiness, and will eventually fail us.

People have always valued freedom, but in secular societies freedom has become the ultimate good. Freedom is now understood as the “right of the individual to choose his or her values”, and we can live as we see fit. Keller rightly notes that a focus on individual freedom has in many instances led to a fairer society, but thinks the narrative has gone awry. It has produced the “harm principle”, where we believe we should be free to live as we please as long as we don’t harm anyone else. But this is disingenuous, because the notion of harm is dependent on what a good human life consists of – and that is a matter of our subjective beliefs.

Also, an extreme focus on individual freedom and personal fulfilment actually threatens freedom itself, as self-absorbed individuals undermine communities and democratic institutions. According to Robert Belah, “the health of a society depends on voluntarily unselfish behavior” which involves infringing on our personal freedom. Paradoxically, we also find most happiness in our relationships, where we sacrifice our freedoms for the other. So absolute freedom is not an end in itself, but rather a means to an end. But what is that end? Keller has already explained the issues with deriving meaning and satisfaction from created things. If we consider that we are created by God, then God has determined our purpose and the constraints we should live by. And as in all relationships, both parties sacrifice their freedoms, God having done so by Jesus Christ becoming mortal and dying for us.

In chapter six, Keller moves on to our personal identity, noting the differences between the traditional concept of the self being “defined and shaped by both internal desires and external social roles and ties” and our modern, Western identity based on individualism and detachment. Like the focus on individual freedom, this has enabled considerable good, such as preparing American culture for the civil rights movement. But modern identity is also problematic. Our desires are constantly changing and often contradictory, and we can’t base our sense of who we are on them. We have to filter our desires based on a set of beliefs and values, and they are obtained (mostly unconsciously) from our culture and community. Unfortunately, modern society “adulates winners and despises losers, showing contempt for weakness”, and this makes our self-worth a fragile thing. Even if we eschew material success and base our identity on the love of another, if this is lost we will be devastated.

By contrast the Christian approach to identity is based on unconditional acceptance by God. Our worth is based on the value God has placed on us, not on achievements, race or relationships – or even our efforts to be moral. But this requires humility, and includes giving up our rights to our freedoms. Keller claims that a consequence of this acceptance is the ability to freely enjoy other identity factors such as race, work, family and community ties, and this is why Christianity is by far the most culturally diverse of all religions. He offers the example of African identity, the core of which is a belief that the world is full of evil and good spirits. Secularism rejects such beliefs, while Christianity accepts this understanding of the world, and offers a solution to the problem of how one can be protected from evil spirits.

Traditionally secularism has believed in the idea of progress, but optimism is beginning to crumble in the light of issues such as climate change.But humans are future-focused, and we need hope. But where can we find it? On the individual level, death is the end of all hope. If human relationships are what makes our life meaningful , death destroys them. But this is the message of Christianity – that there is hope beyond death, that love will survive. This hope is based in the reality of the resurrection of Jesus, who has defeated death for us.

Finally, Keller examines the problem of moral obligation. Secularism struggles to give an account of moral facts or even what comprises “good”, despite secularists having strong moral opinions. In what is probably his strongest chapter, Keller introduces the moral argument for God’s existence, noting that it has influenced many sceptical friends. He notes that human rights are far from self-evident, and that Christianity offers the strongest foundation for them.

Keller then goes on to ask which of secularism or religion provides the better foundation for human rights. Secularism’s best case is that they are self-evident, while Christianity claims our worth is based on our having God’s image within us, giving every human being dignity no matter what their capacity.When it comes to justice, secularism struggles without universal, objective values that religion can provide. Yes, there is the danger of becoming the oppressors when confronting oppression, and Christianity has often done so, but this has always contradicted the gospel.

In his final chapters, Keller reviews his comparison of secularism and Christianity, and concludes that Christianity offers a far superior narrative. In terms of key facets of human life, meaning, satisfaction, freedom, identity, hope and justice, Christianity makes sense. It is worth considering. But is it true? To answer that question, Keller offers a concise summary of the arguments presented in The Reason for God. He concludes with Langdon Gilkey’s powerful story of selfishness in a Second World War prison camp, where rationality proved insufficient as a basis for moral obligation when resources were scarce. Instead, people saw no reason to be unselfish, and it was the rare person who could self-sacrifice. Gilkey concluded that only faith in God, exemplified by former Olympic athlete Eric Liddell who was interred in the camp, enabled people to be truly unselfish in such circumstances.

Will Making Sense of God convince secularists to take a deeper look at the arguments for Christianity?  If they are willing to put serious effort into their reading of Keller, it certainly should. It does a thorough job of exposing the assumptions secularism makes about reality, which should make anyone demanding “evidence” for the existence of God a little more cautious in their assertions. Keller’s comparison of secularism and Christianity  is thorough and well-researched, drawing on broad range of scholarly sources. Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age is a key reference, and for readers unfamiliar with this work, it would be worth reading James K. A . Smith’s How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor.

Making Sense of God is not an easy read. Keller covers a lot of ground, and references many philosophical concepts that some readers may not be familiar with. Secularists will find it challenging to their worldview, while Christians will find it intensely rewarding.

Timothy Keller discusses Making Sense of God in a Mere Fidelity podcast here