Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Win Sharon's Money #7

Here is a challenge for defenders of the modern notion of a priority as a (philosophically interesting) property which is distinct from necessity and analyticity....and for people who want to eat a really lavish Felipe's burrito for free.

I will describe creatures (the doctoroids) who know contingent medical facts a priori if they know them at all. If we allow that the doctoroids do know then the example can easily be generalized to show that for any true proposition there could be creatures with faculty which delivers knowledge of this proposition a priori, and hence that all true propositions are a priori. Thus the challenge for someone who holds the modern conception will be to say *why* the doctoroids don't count as knowing in a way that a) doesn't equate a priority with necessity or analyticity and b) seems remotely principled.

Imagine that in order to save people people 6 years of medschool we engineer 'doctoroids', people who are genetically and physically altered so that they find certain true propositions of organic chemistry and medicine brutely obvious, the way that we find the claim 2+2=4 obvious. That is: they don't ask for justification of these claims, and their acceptance of what has been hardwired into them is fairly causally independent of whatever they see after they are born (e.g. they all come to believe that smoking causes cancer at an early age regardless of how they are raised and continue to believe it in the face of strong evidence to the contrary). Also these creatures don't wind up doing anything that looks like empirically checking the accuracy of their medical intuitions - they find it perfectly obvious in advance that smoking causes cancer, and if they were to encounter cases where smoking seems not to cause cancer they would treat this the way that we treat cases where there seem to be 2 apples and 2 oranges which jointly constitute 3 fruit i.e. as evidence that their observations had somewhere gone wrong.

(and here is a link to my current draft of a paper on the subject, should you *really* want to procrastinate)
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Win Sharon's Money 6

I know nothing about bioethics so maybe this is an easy one. As usual, $5 (to be delivered after thanksgiving break) to the first person with a satisfactory answer. The question is, how is the violinist case morally different from the yaht case described below? Or why is it morally permissible to let the person on your yaht starve?

In a famous article on abortion, Judith Jarvis Thompson presents the following thought experiment:

"You wake up in the morning and find yourself back to back in bed with an unconscious violinist. A famous unconscious violinist. He has been found to have a fatal kidney ailment, and the Society of Music Lovers has canvassed all the available medical records and found that you alone have the right blood type to help. They have therefore kidnapped you, and last night the violinist's circulatory system was plugged into yours, so that your kidneys can be used to extract poisons from his blood as well as your own. The director of the hospital now tells you, "Look, we're sorry the Society of Music Lovers did this to you--we would never have permitted it if we had known. But still, they did it, and the violinist is now plugged into you. To unplug you would be to kill him. But never mind, it's only for nine months. By then he will have recovered from his ailment, and can safely be unplugged from you." Is it morally incumbent on you to accede to this situation? No doubt it would be very nice of you if you did, a great kindness. But do you have to accede to it?"

She takes it that one would not be morally obliged to keep the violinist plugged in for nine months, and then uses comparison to this case to argue that - even if a fetus had the full moral status of an adult human - certain kinds of abortion would still be permissible. But is it permissible to unplug the violinist? I will argue that it is not.

Consider the following case:
You are making a solo trip across the Atlantic in your yaht, and halfway there you hear the muffled sounds of a person coming out of a coma. It turns out that this person was conked on the head and tossed into your boat by gangsters, the day you left port. Now your engine breaks so it will take 9 months for you to get back. You have enough food stored to feed yourself in comfort for 9 moths or to barely keep both you and the involuntary-stow-away alive for 9 moths if you choose to share it. Are you morally obliged to share your food with the involuntary stow away?

Intuitively (and perhaps legally) I think you are. It would not be morally permissible to let the person accidentally trapped on your yaht starve to death rather than share your food with them. But how does this case differ from the violinist example? The amount of sacrifice required, the fact that you are blameless in creating the situation of dependence, the fact that the space and resources which the person requires belong to you (you bought the food, and the yaht) are all the same.

If there is no morally relevant difference we must conclude that Thompson is wrong, and it is not permissible to unplug the violinist. This is not, of course, to say that abortion is impermissible. But it does suggest that if abortion is permissible the reasons why it's permissible have something to do with the way that fetuses are different from adult human beings.

OH and here's a link to the article:,Fall02/thomson.htm Read more!

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Win Sharon’s Money 5: Bioethics, Sandel

So does anyone have an interpretation of this argument of Michel Sandel’s against genetic engineering *even when it’s feasible for adults to genetically modify themselves and if these opportunities are subsidized and equally available to all* which makes any sense? As usual, $5 to the first convincing answer.

“Why, after all, do the successful owe anything to the least-advantaged members of society? The best answer to this question leans heavily on the notion of giftedness. The natural talents that enable the successful to flourish are not their own doing but, rather, their good fortune—a result of the genetic lottery. If our genetic endowments are gifts, rather than achievements for which we can claim credit, it is a mistake and a conceit to assume that we are entitled to the full measure of the bounty they reap in a market economy. We therefore have an obligation to share this bounty with those who, through no fault of their own, lack comparable gifts.

A lively sense of the contingency of our gifts—a consciousness that none of us is wholly responsible for his or her success—saves a meritocratic society from sliding into the smug assumption that the rich are rich because they are more deserving than the poor. Without this, the successful would become even more likely than they are now to view themselves as self-made and self-sufficient, and hence wholly responsible for their success. Those at the bottom of society would be viewed not as disadvantaged, and thus worthy of a measure of compensation, but as simply unfit, and thus worthy of eugenic repair. The meritocracy, less chastened by chance, would become harder, less forgiving. As perfect genetic knowledge would end the simulacrum of solidarity in insurance markets, so perfect genetic control would erode the actual solidarity that arises when men and women reflect on the contingency of their talents and fortunes.”

-- from The Case Against Perfection

So far as I can tell he is intentionally ‘splitting the difference’ between two bad arguments. One argument says that the best and indeed only sufficient moral arguments for social services for the worst off depend on the fact that our talents are merely gifts. In this case if subsidized voluntary genetic engineering in facts stops peoples’ talents from being gifts of fortune then allowing it will indeed stop people from supporting social services but (by hypothesis) it will also bring an end to the moral need for social services! It is no argument against a policy that adopting that policy will prevent people from doing something they are now obligated to do, *by creating a situation in which they accurately realize that they are not longer obligated to do that thing*.

Maybe Sandel could try to work some magic with saying that having social services are always morally good, but would not be morally obligatory post genetic engineering and we want to create societies where people are morally obliged to do as many as possible of the things which would be good, but I can’t see this working. I mean, would it even be good for people to be taxed to support someone who refuses to undergo the (subsidized, freely available!) gene therapies they would need to make a living?

The other argument is that people *erroneously* feel that our moral obligations to provide social services come from the fact that talents are gifts of fortune so preventing genetic enhancement is a good propaganda move in that keeping talents a gift of chance makes people keep voting the right way for the wrong reasons. This is at least *some* argument against genetic engineering, but it’s a very poor one. It reminds me of the bioethics argument against human cloning, that if you choose to raise the clone of your dead husband as your child you might then be sexually attracted to them and find this awkward. Surely this isn’t an argument against cloning, but an argument for cloning with some kind of advisory/legal mechanism to say ‘hey, cloning your dead husband might make things awkward so don’t do it!’ Surely given the potential benefits of genetic engineering (to lifespan, human dignity in the face of senility and professional obsolescence not to mention all the environmental, medical etc advances that could come from improving human abilities) we can find another less costly way to make sure we act on our genuine, independently existing, obligations to the poor.

So, given that Sandel teachers here and whatnot (and of course given my ignorance about bioethics) I feel there must be something more going on here that I am missing. I am offering $5 to find out.

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