Professional Ethicists Rarely Oppose Abortion

(This article has been reprinted in the magazine of the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, May 17, 2016, in Church and State and in Critical Perspectives on Abortion (Analyzing the Issues), Anne C. Cunningham, ed., Enslow Publishing 2017.)

Abortion continues to make political news, but a question rarely asked by politicians or other interlocutors is: what do professional ethicists think about abortion? If ethicists have reached a consensus about the morality or immorality of abortion, surely their conclusions should be important. And, as a professional ethicist myself, I can tell you that among ethicists it is exceedingly rare to find defenders of the view that abortion is murder. In fact, support for this anti-abortion position, to the extent it exists at all, comes almost exclusively from the small percentage of philosophers who are theists.  And even among theists, opposition to abortion is far from unanimous. Yet few seem to take notice.

To support the claim that the vast majority of ethicists reject the pro-life position, consider the disclaimer that appears in the most celebrated anti-abortion piece in the philosophical ethics literature, Don Marquis’ “Why Abortion Is Immoral.” Marquis begins:

The view that abortion is, with rare exceptions, seriously immoral has received
little support in the recent philosophical literature. No doubt most philosophers
affiliated with secular institutions of higher education believe that the anti-abortion position is either a symptom of irrational religious dogma or a conclusion generated by seriously confused philosophical argument.

Marquis concedes that abortion isn’t considered immoral according to most ethicists, but why they not, for the most part, find abortion morally problematic? Perhaps professional ethicists, who are typically non-religious philosophers, find nothing morally objectionable about abortion because they aren’t religious. In other words, if they were devout they would recognize abortion as a moral abomination. But we could easily turn this around. Perhaps religiously oriented ethicists oppose abortion because they are religious. In other words, if there were not devout, they would see that abortion isn’t morally problematic. So both religious and secular ethicists could claim that the other side prejudges the case.

However, it is definitely not the case that secular ethicists care less about life or morality than religious ethicists. Consider that virtually all moral philosophers believe that murder, theft, torture, and lying are immoral because cogent arguments underlie such prohibitions. Oftentimes there is little difference between the views of religious and secular ethicists regarding moral issues. Moreover, when there is disagreement among the two groups, perhaps the secular philosophers are ahead of the ethical curve with their general acceptance of abortion, homosexuality, and certain forms of euthanasia.

How then do we adjudicate disputes in the moral realm when ethicists, like ordinary people, start with different assumptions? The key to answering this question is to emphasize reason and argument, the hallmarks of doing philosophical ethics. Both secular and religious individuals can participate in rational discourse to resolve their disputes. In fact, natural law moral theory—the dominant ethical theory throughout the history of Christianity—claims that morality is grounded in reason, which implies that what is right is supported by the best rational arguments. Natural law theorists argue that by exercising the human reason their God has given them, they can understand what is right and wrong. Thus secular and religious philosophers work in the same arena, one where moral truths are those supported by the best reasons.

That ethicists emphasize rational discourse may be counter-intuitive in a society dominated by appeals to emotion, prejudice, faith, and group loyalty. But ethicists, secular and religious alike, try to impartially examine the arguments for and against moral propositions in order to determine where the weight of reason lies in the matter. Ethicists may not be perfect umpires, and the truth about moral matters is often difficult to determine, but ethicists are trained to be impartial and thorough when analyzing arguments. Some are better at this than others, but when a significant majority agrees, it is probably because some arguments really are stronger than others.

Now you might wonder what makes ethicists better able to adjudicate between good and bad arguments than ordinary people. The answer is that professional ethicists are schooled in logic and the critical thinking skills demanded by those who carefully and conscientiously examine arguments. They are also trained in the more abstract fields of meta-ethics, which considers the meaning of moral terms and concepts, as well as in ethical theory, which considers norms, standards, or criteria for moral conduct. Moreover, they are familiar with the best philosophical arguments that have been advanced for and against moral propositions. So they are in a good position to reject arguments that may influence those unfamiliar with favored positions.

All this education doesn’t mean that the majority of ethicists are right, so individuals who disagree with them may choose to follow their own conscience. But if the vast majority of ethicists agree about an ethics issue, we should take notice. It might be that the reasons you give for your fervently held moral beliefs don’t stand up to critical scrutiny. Perhaps they can’t be rationally defended as well as those reached after conscientious, informed, and impartial analysis. This doesn’t mean that you should ignore your conscience and accept expert opinion, but if you are serious about a moral problem you should want to know the views of those who have thoroughly studied the issue.

At this point, you might object that there are no moral experts because ethics is relative to an individual’s opinions or emotions. You might say that the experts have their opinion and you have yours, and that’s the end of it. Perhaps our view of behaviors in the moral realm are similar to how we view carrots—some people like them and some don’t. This theory is called personal moral relativism. However, not only do most ethicists reject moral relativism, so must pro-lifers. After all, pro-lifers don’t think that the moral prohibition against abortion is relative;  they think it’s absolute. They believe that there are good reasons why abortion is immoral and any rational person should accept those reasons. However, these reasons must be evaluated to see if they are really good ones; to see if they convince other knowledgeable persons. Yet so far, the pro-life arguments haven’t persuaded many ethicists.

Lacking good reasons or armed with weak ones, many will object that their moral beliefs derive from their Gods. To base your ethical views on Gods you would need to know: 1) if Gods exist; 2) if they are good; 3) if they issue good commands; 4) how to find the commands; and 5) the proper version and translation of the holy books issuing commands, or the right interpretation of a revelation of the commands, or the legitimacy of a church authority issuing commands. Needless to say, it is hard, if not impossible, to know any of this.

Consider just the interpretation problem. When does a seemingly straightforward command from a holy book like, “thou shalt not kill,” apply? In self-defense? In war? Always? And to whom does it apply? To non-human animals? Intelligent aliens? Serial killers? All living things? The unborn? The brain-dead? Religious commands such as “don’t kill,” “honor thy parents,” and “don’t commit adultery” are ambiguous. Difficulties also arise if we hear voices commanding us, or if we accept an institution’s authority. Why trust the voices in our heads, or institutional authorities?

For the sake of argument though, let’s assume: that there are Gods; that you know the true one; that your God issues good commands; that you have access to those commands because you have found the right book or church, or had the right vision, or heard the right voices; and that you interpret and understand the command correctly—even if they came from a book that has been translated from one language to another over thousands of years, or from a long-ago revelation. It is almost impossible that you are correct about all this, but for the sake of the argument let’s say that you are. However, even in this case, most philosophers would argue that you can’t base ethics on your God.

To understand why you can’t base ethics on Gods consider the question: what is the relationship between the Gods and their commands? A classic formulation of this relationship is called the divine-command theory. According to divine command theory, things are right or wrong simply because the Gods command or forbid them. There is nothing more to morality than this. It’s like a parent who says to a child: it’s right because I say so. To see how this formulation of the relationship fails, consider a famous philosophical conundrum: “Are things right because the Gods command them, or do the Gods command them because they are right?”

If things are right simply because the Gods command them, then those commands are arbitrary. In that case, the Gods could have made their commandments backward! If divine fiat is enough to make something right, then the Gods could have commanded us to kill, lie, cheat, steal and commit adultery, and those behaviors would then be moral. But the Gods can’t make something right if it’s wrong. The Gods can’t make torturing children morally acceptable simply by divine decree, and that is the main reason why most Christian theologians reject divine command theory.

On the other hand, if the Gods command things because they are right, then there are reasons for the God’s commands. On this view, the Gods, in their infinite wisdom and benevolence, command things because they see certain commands as good for us. But if this is the case, then there is some standard, norm or criteria by which good or bad are measured which is independent of the Gods. Thus all us, religious and secular alike, should be looking for the reasons that certain behaviors should be condemned or praised. Even the thoughtful believer should engage in philosophical ethics.

So either the Gods commands are without reason and therefore arbitrary, or they are rational according to some standard. This standard—say that we would all be better off—is thus the reason we should be moral and that reason, not the Gods’ authority, is what makes something right or wrong. The same is true for a supposedly authoritative book. Something isn’t wrong simply because a book says so. There must be a reason that something is right or wrong, and if there isn’t, then the book has no moral authority on the matter.

At this point, the believer might object that the Gods have reasons for their commands, but we can’t know them. Yet if the ways of the Gods are really mysterious to us, what’s the point of religion? If you can’t know anything about the Gods or their commands, then why follow those commands, why have religion at all, why listen to the priest or preacher? If it’s all a mystery, we should remain silent or become mystics.

In response, the religious may say that, even though they don’t know the reason for their God’s commands, they must oppose abortion because of the inerrancy of their sacred scriptures or church tradition. They might say that since the Bible and their church oppose abortion, that’s good enough for them, despite what moral philosophers say. But in fact, neither church authority nor Christian scripture unequivocally opposes abortion.

As for scriptures, they don’t generally offer specific moral guidance. Moreover, most ancient scriptures survived as oral traditions before being written down; they have been translated multiple times; they are open to multiple interpretations; and they don’t discuss many contemporary moral issues. Furthermore, the issue of abortion doesn’t arise in the Christian scriptures except tangentially. There are a few Biblical passages quoted by conservatives to support the anti-abortion position, the most well-known is in Jeremiah: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you.” But, as anyone who has examined this passage knows, the sanctity of fetal life isn’t being discussed here. Rather, Jeremiah is asserting his authority as a prophet. This is a classic example of seeking support in holy books for a position you already hold.

Many other Biblical passages point to the more liberal view of abortion. Three times in the Bible (Genesis 38:24; Leviticus 21:9; Deuteronomy 22:20–21) the death penalty is recommended for women who have sex out-of-wedlock, even though killing the women would kill their fetuses. In Exodus 21 God prescribes death as the penalty for murder, whereas the penalty for causing a woman to miscarry is a fine. In the Old Testament, the fetus doesn’t seem to have personhood status, and the New Testament says nothing about abortion at all. There simply isn’t a strong scriptural tradition in Christianity against abortion.

There also is no strong church tradition against abortion. It is true that the Catholic Church has held for centuries that activities like contraception and abortion are immoral. Yet, while most pro-lifers don’t consider those distributing birth control to be murderers, the Catholic Church and others do take the extreme view that abortion is murder. Where does such a strong condemnation come from? The history of the Catholic view isn’t clear on the issue, but in the 13th century, the philosopher Thomas Aquinas argued that the soul enters the body when the zygote has a human shape. Gradually, other Christian theologians argued that the soul enters the body a few days after conception, although we don’t exactly know why they believed this. But, given what we now know about fetal development today, if the Catholic Church’s position remained consistent with the views of Aquinas, they should say that the soul doesn’t enter the zygote for at least a month or two after conception. (Note also that there really is no moment of conception.)

Thus the anti-abortion position doesn’t clearly follow from either scripture or church tradition. Instead what happens is that people already have moral views, and they then look to their religion for support. In other words, moral convictions aren’t usually derived from scripture or church tradition so much as superimposed on them. (For example, American Christians used the Bible to both support and oppose slavery.) But even if the pro-life position did follow from a religious tradition, that would only be relevant for religious believers. For the rest of us, and for many religious believers too, the best way to adjudicate our disputes without resorting to violence is to conscientiously examine the arguments for and against moral propositions by shining the light of reason upon them. Having done this the vast majority of ethicists have concluded that abortion isn’t generally morally problematic.

It also clearly follows that religious believers have no right to impose their views upon the rest of us. We live in a morally pluralistic society where informed by the ethos of the Enlightenment, we should reject attempts to impose theocracy. We should allow people to follow their conscience in moral matters—you can drink alcohol—as long as others aren’t harmed—you shouldn’t drink and drive. In philosophy of law, this is known as the harm principle. Now if rational argumentation supported the view that a zygote is a full person, then we might have reason to outlaw abortion, inasmuch as abortion would harm another person. (I say might because the fact that something is a person doesn’t necessarily imply that’s it wrong to kill it, as defenders of war, self-defense, and capital punishment claim.)

But for now, the received view among ethicists is that the pro-life arguments fail, primarily because the fetus satisfies few if any of the necessary and sufficient conditions for personhood. The impartial view, backed by contemporary biology and philosophical argumentation, is that a zygote is a potential person. That doesn’t mean it has no moral significance, but it does mean that it has less significance than an actual person. An acorn may become an oak tree, but an oak tree it is not. You may believe that your God puts souls into newly fertilized eggs, thereby granting them full personhood, but that is a religious belief which isn’t grounded in science or philosophical ethics.

As for American politics and abortion, no doubt much of the anti-abortion rhetoric in American society comes from a punitive, puritanical desire to punish people for having sex. Moreover, many are hypocritical on the issue, simultaneously opposing abortion as well as the only proven ways of reducing it—good sex education and readily available birth control.

As for many (if not most) politicians, their public opposition is hypocritical and self-interested. Generally, they don’t care about the issue—they care about the power and wealth derived from politics—but they feign concern by throwing red meat to their constituencies. They use the issue as a ploy to garner support from the unsuspecting. These politicians may be pro-birth, but they aren’t generally pro-life, as evidenced by their opposition to policies that would support the things that children need most after birth like education, health-care, and economic opportunities.

But what politicians and many ordinary people clearly don’t care about is whether their fanatical anti-abortion position is based on rational argumentation. And, according to most ethicists who have carefully examined the problem, it does not.

Anti-Biography


“Ilsa, I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”
~ Humphrey Bogart as Rick Blaine in Casablanca

I have written a short biography to introduce myself to my readers. But I want to make clear that the bio was meant as informative only, and not to be taken as claiming any self-importance. I am mindful of how small both our lives and our thoughts are in the vastness of space and time. As I have written elsewhere on this blog,

Against [the] immense backdrop of speed, space, time and mystery shouldn’t we be humbled by our limitations and apparent insignificance? Who, other than the ignorant or delusional, would claim to know much of ultimate truth? I make no such claim; no one should.

Yet we live in a world were sports figures, movie stars, and the rich and famous have ghostwritten biographies asserting their importance. (By contrast, one of my intellectual heroes, David Hume, wrote a very brief biography titled “My Own Life.” It exudes humility despite the fact that he was one of the great thinkers in the history of Western civilization.)

We also live in a world where some of the worst people strongly believe in their own self-importance. I unequivocally disavow such claims. While I may be important to my wife or children, from sub specie aeternitatis I am insignificant.

Yet, I find this insight edifying rather than depressing. It helps us to care about values that transcend our frail, fleeting, fragmentary egos. In this way, we are enlarged rather than diminished. If our concerns are self-centered only, they will die with us. If our concerns transcend the bounds of our egos we attain a measure of immortality.

Moreover, by seeing ourselves not as individual atoms but as part of a process which, hopefully, progresses toward higher levels of being and consciousness, we can find real significance as links in this chain. So we are either part of a vast cosmic web—which may be meaningful—or we are essentially insignificant.

For we are (almost) nothing alone.

My Wife on Mother’s Day

Statue of mother with children at the Monumental Cemetery of Staglieno

A few days ago I remembered my own mother on the centennial of her birth.  But on this Mother’s day, I’d like to acknowledge my wife Jane, for her lifetime of loving mothering.

Jane lost her own mother to cancer when she was just a teenager and she spent countless hours caring for her ailing mother. Devastated by that loss she proceeded to chart her own independent life course—one in which she became, as Dickens said of Copperfield, the hero of her own life.

Jane’s parental style is characterized by unconditional love. To this day they are never far from her mind. She still tries to shield them from life’s pain and labors to the point of exhaustion on their behalf. Her only wish? That she had more hands and more time.

She does all this because that’s the life she chooses. That is where her joy is—in service and sacrifice. You can psychoanalyze all you want. Maybe she should take her life’s savings and travel the world. Perhaps she should pursue art or music or writing. Perhaps.

But perhaps we need more people in this world who love unconditionally. Maybe we need more saints and fewer sinners. Maybe in giving we truly do receive. All I know is that the world is a better place because of her lovely soul. If love is the answer then Jane is part of the answer.

There is so much ugliness in this world. So how lucky for me and my children that we have been surrounded by her love. She is truly “a lily among the thistles.”

Lilium candidum 1.jpg

Summary of Julian Baggini’s, The Pig That Wants to Be Eaten: Part 6 – Thought Experiments in Political Philosophy


My friend Ed Gibney has written on each and every one of the thought experiments in  Julian Baggini’s, The Pig That Wants to Be Eaten: 100 Experiments for the Armchair Philosopher. He has also summarized his own100 blog posts on Baggini’s 100 thought experiments in “What I learned from 100 Philosophy Thought Experiments.”

(Here is his summary of, and commentary on, Baggini’s thought experiments dealing with metaphysics. It follows from a previous post on thought experiments dealing with aesthetics. I have added my own brief reflections at the bottom of the page.)

From Ed Gibney’s blog, reprinted with permission.
http://www.evphil.com/blog/what-i-learned-from-100-philosophy-thought-experiments

6. Political Philosophy

First off, how are we to treat one another. #44 Till Death Us Do Part shows that love of another person is rational, or it is not love. Personal interactions are best modeled by iterated prisoner’s dilemmas, which explains how cooperation evolves. More specifically, in #82 The Freeloader, we see how cooperators pay the price for all freeloaders, which is why we have powerful urges to discover cheaters and stop them. Rather than being tempted to cheat, better strategies over the long-term have been discovered. They are: 1) be nice – cooperate, never be the first to defect; 2) be provocable – return defection for defection, cooperation for cooperation; 3) don’t be envious – focus on maximizing your own ‘score’, as opposed to ensuring your score is higher than your ‘partner’s’; and 4) don’t be too clever – tricks are eventually discovered. Cooperative groups then go on to develop cultures.

We see in #67 The Poppadom Paradox that culture is a pattern of shared basic assumptions learned by a group as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration. Multiple cultures and the scientific method provide the means for purposeful variation, rational selection, and a retention of the ideas that aid the survival of all cultures of life.

#61 Mozzarella Moon shows how Elinor Ostrom’s eight design features enable groups to manage their common-pool resources successfully. This is particularly applicable to all of humanity and the common resource we share called Earth. Ostrom’s first criterion requires “strong group identity and understanding of purpose.” Evolutionary philosophy identifies life as all of our group’s identity, and survival as its purpose. From this, our required behaviors should be clearer. But still, as in #15 Ordinary Heroism, doing good requires difficult judgments, which ought to be encouraged. Such encouragement can come from mutually understood norms among individuals, but in order to grow large anonymous societies, they must be encoded in laws through the formation of governments.

Why governments? And how might these governments be organized? We see in #82 The Freeloader that even if every individual was committed to cooperating with their fellow citizens, there would still be things that we need centralized and collective action to address. We know that the invisible hands of the market will lead to market failures if they are left to act on their own. The purpose of government is to regulate the economic system by correcting these market failures. #10 The Veil of Ignorance shows we ought to organize our political economies to promote the long-term survival of life.

But as noted in #100 The Nest Café, the most cited definition for the purpose of government comes from the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution, which goes like this (with some numbering added for ease of analysis): “We the People of the United States, in Order to (1) form a more perfect Union, (2) establish Justice, (3) insure domestic Tranquility, (4) provide for the common defense, (5) promote the general Welfare, and (6) secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” The framers of the U.S. Constitution gave no guidance on how to prioritize among these six interests though, which often compete directly with one another. How do we choose between more liberty and more justice, other than by the democratic squabbling of the loudest groups or wealthiest interests? This vacuum of ambiguity has been filled by the Cold War Philosophy and the Washington Consensus to promote the liberty of individuals as the highest end goal, but that is entirely amoral. A much better way to prioritize among the six interests in the Preamble would be according to the way we ought to prioritize all moral decision-making: we ought to act for the long-term survival of life in general. If that means slower economic growth, so be it.

Clearly, the fastest economic growth is blowing up in our face, and it does not meet the wider needs of life on Earth. It’s only when our absolute highest priorities are concerned with the evolution of life in general that we can find ways for all of life to flourish together and ensure its long-term survival. This can even be proven mathematically, as seen in #55 Sustainable Development where any supply of “widgets” becomes vanishingly small whenever those things are deemed irreplaceable and individual. The cost of replacing irreplaceable things in this world essentially runs to infinity, and these infinite values cause a breakdown in the use of classical economics. In the case of businessmen calculating the return on their investment while trying to use up natural resources, we might, therefore, speak “their language” and still hope to persuade them to set some things aside, to hold some things as sacred.

Wealthy oligarchs howl against such restraints on their personal liberties, but in #87 Fair Inequality we see that societies are most productive where everyone works hard, has purpose, and cooperates fully. Although people are no worse off materially if their neighbors get rich at no financial cost to themselves, they can be harmed psychologically by their increased awareness of the wealth gap between them. Seeing equality and inequality solely in material terms could thus be a terrible mistake. Perfect equality is not possible, but extreme inequality is not sustainable. Extreme wealth is generated by the economic system and the rules that society has evolved over the course of its history. A large portion of extreme wealth is therefore owed to society. As a final warning against any all-too-certain authoritarianism, however, #92 Autogovernment shows we may get better at modeling complexity and acting towards agreed-upon goals, but we must never mistake such contingent knowledge for complete clairvoyance.

In the effort to create and enforce such a fair and well-aimed political economy, there will, of course, be some individuals who will give in to the temptation to gain rewards illegally. First, we ought to endeavor to show such people, as in #14 Bank Error in Your Favour, that crime doesn’t pay because we may always be caught. This will not always be successful though, so as in #34 Don’t Blame Me, despite the fact that there is always external causality for our actions, we must be held responsible for those actions. We cannot change the past, however, so any punishment and blame must be forward-looking.

To expand upon that, we see in #97 Moral Luck that moral factors are not always in our control. We can’t know the future. Our wider environments are out of our control. Who we are (nature x nurture) is substantially out of our control. Free will determinists would say everything is out of our control. Given all this uncertainty in the world, there really ought to be much less moralizing judgment.

Of the four types of punishments used for doling out justice — restoration, rehabilitation, incapacitation, and retribution — only retribution is aggravated when we ignore the role that moral luck plays, but retribution should be ignored anyway since it is not forward-looking. Retribution is also pointless, as we see in #17 The Torture Option because torture does not work in the short-term since humans can obey internal motivations and deceive one another. Cooperation over the long-term is best gained by refraining from torture altogether. #36 Pre-emptive Justice shows that improving social conditions as a means of crime prevention works better than heavy-handed law enforcement, which often backfires.

We see why in #77 The Scapegoat because inhumane acts of justice can never be fully private. Such means will therefore always undermine the ends. The state is supposed to be that entity which possesses a monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force. When justice systems are corrupted by individuals who think they can wield force outside of the rule of law, that is a necessary and sufficient ingredient for the failure of an entire state because the government will then no longer have a legitimate monopoly on the use of force.

It is far better, as in #79 A Clockwork Orange, to see that we are neither inherently good nor inherently evil—we are capable of both, a flexibility we must have in order to have the power to choose between alternate paths that are right some of the time and wrong some of the time. Understanding this leads to holistic approaches to social and criminal justice, which have been proven to work in other countries.

In addition to these economic and criminological elements of just societies,  #33 The Free-Speech Booth shows that free speech is necessary for society to explore ideas, but it can be curtailed by harm principles (not offense) and public nuisance laws. #29 Life Dependency explores why abortion is a difficult issue to deal with because of the fuzziness that exists around the definitions of life and individuals. Therefore, we currently compromise socially. What we should not compromise on is seen in #35 Last Resort where suicide attacks are infinite ends to finite lives, which demand 100% certainty to justify them. But since this is unobtainable, suicide attacks are never justified.

At the end of our lives, #53 Double Trouble shows that voluntary euthanasia could be good for the long-term survival of life by giving us control over our own death and helping us avoid personal pain and suffering. Voluntary euthanasia can also take away worry from loved ones, and it can free resources for better use. It allows us to lose some of the fear of death, which means death becomes less a topic we need to repress, and more one that can be looked at plainly in order to motivate better living.

Finally, what can we say about how to deal with those who are outside of the social contract of government, which can only be entered into through conscious consensual cooperation? For non-human animals, #5 The Pig That Wants to Be Eaten shows that animals can have higher purposes than being eaten. But in #57 Eating Tiddles, we don’t necessarily need to pull ourselves entirely out of the food chain to morally cooperate with the project of life. Harm to any individual stakeholders, however, ought to be eliminated or minimized when weighed against the benefits. It may be correct that in #72 Free Percy, the independent existence of rights is “nonsense on stilts,” but we as members of a society agree to grant them to one another. We can also agree to grant rights to non-human animals and plants even though these forms of life cannot now recognize or reciprocate such agreements. Respecting the billion-year-bonds we share with other forms of life is precisely what we need to help us recognize that the selfishness of human tribes is inane.

What about non-living things? #32 Free Simone shows that artificial intelligence can be accepted where it is forced to cooperate with life, just like the rest of us. But #4 A Byte on the Side cautions that computers cannot currently meet our psychological needs for love. (Even though I just spent a LOT of time gazing into mine…)

Phew! Let’s pause for a break and think about the many details of this broad view.

My brief reflections – I’m glad that Mr. Gibney discussed the prisoner’s dilemma at length as it is the key to understanding moral and political philosophy and many other things as well. (For more see “American Authoritarianism: Coming 2017.”) The desire to defect—to follow one’s own short-term interest at the expense of the group—may be the major problem of humankind today and it will (quite likely) lead to the destruction of the entire ecosystem on which life depends.

The question then arises as to how to deter egoistic behavior and encourage cooperative behavior. I advocate disablement strategies, that is making the selfish move impossible. Today this would involve enhancing human cognitive and moral functioning. We must re-engineer human beings or we will not survive. Radical as this may seem, I see no other option that is likely to be successful.

I also agree with Mr. Gibney about 1) limits to free speech, especially given the speed at which lies now spread quickly around the world; 2) the moral value of voluntary euthanasia; and 3) the need to include animals and AIs into the moral sphere.

Next up – Conclusion contrasting religious and evolutionary philosophy worldviews.

Centennial of My Mother’s Birth

Nana

My mother was born 100 years ago today. In her memory, I reprint this letter which
I sent to her 19 years ago.

April 29, 2000,
A SPECIAL 81ST BIRTHDAY WISH FOR MY MOTHER

This letter should arrive on your 81st birthday—a time of rejoicing for a life well-lived. Emerging
from the stable background of loving parents, a young woman with girlish charm, an ear and
talent for music, a fluent reader of Latin, and pursued by a plethora of west St. Louis beaus, in
1935 you met a bicycle delivery boy, in whom, despite his relatively low economic status, you
saw something good. His honesty and gentleness shone through beneath the rough exterior;
you would marry him when you were just nineteen. A hard-working man who would be a
devoted father—somehow you knew.

You courageously endured through an economic depression and a world war in which your
husband was absent for two long years, forcing you to raise your first son alone. Your parents
lived with you through the war and, as they prepared to leave at its conclusion, you and Ben
told them they could stay with you for the rest of their lives. They had helped you during the
war, and now you would care for them—they both lived with you for the rest of their lives and
died in your home. In the post-war era, you gave birth to three more children, all of whom
you showered with the deep love and affection. With them you shared warmth and comfort—
you were mother to them all. Like a chameleon you changed to meet their differing needs,
always putting others before yourself. 

Your firstborn was typical of firstborns, independent and forceful like his father. He left home
at an early age for college and went on to travel the world and settle far from home, where he
became the head of his own household. Your daughter was more like you—gentle, nurturing
and cautious—an only daughter must have a special place in a mother’s heart. For your sickly
third child, you shed more tears than you deserved. You nursed him back from the edge of
death, and even now you play an indispensable role in his life. And the baby was inspired by
his father’s mandate to be inquisitive. This intellectual wanderlust caused much unintended
heartache, but he’s still the same young man who talked of life’s search so long ago.

With your children raised, your husband’s love for you deepened, as did your love for him. The
young boy on the bicycle—in whom you saw so much more than fifty years ago—had aged. No
longer did he participate in the virile games of youth. The arms that once hit golf balls long
distances, the coordination that nestled many a wedge shot close to the hole, and the shoulders
that carried large sides of beef—did so no longer. As Thorton Wilder said, he was being
“weaned away” from life. But his love for you was deeper than any that emanates from
youthful vigor alone.

As his own physical vitality faded, his main concern was Mary Jane Hurley, the beautiful
young woman on whose door he had knock so long ago. In his eyes, that is who you still
were. After fifty years of sleeping in the same bed, separated by war, struggling to make
your payments, and watching children to whom you had cared for leave your loving home,
after all that … you still had each other. A love so strong that all the cynics could not or
would not ever understand. Yet, tragically, it ended after just fifty years.  But be assured
that when Ben’s very last breath was taken, it was your name on his lips, your face in his
eyes, your presence in his heart. The wind still murmurs outside your window, and its
sound is his sound calling you. Now … wait.

For living this well-lived life, one of joys and sorrows, triumphs and tragedies, you are to be
praised. In the times since your husband left you—not of his own choice—you have endured
and survived and re-created yourself. While the body deteriorates, your heart is still strong.
You are the hero of your own life—my dearest mother.

With my deepest love and affection,
With my most gracious appreciation,
With yours and my father’s spirit always within me,
I remain, your devoted son, John Gerard

(Postscript – Mary Jane Hurley Messerly died in of a stroke on Sunday, September 18, 2005.
She was 86 years old and had taken her usual walk the day before.)