There Is Also a Secular Argument For Infanticide

1522095_10152076191576077_222205893_n (1)American Atheists president David Silverman recently attended this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) with the intention of reaching out to non-religious conservatives. CPAC, if you aren’t familiar with it, has featured such illustrious moments as:

All of that, by the way, happened within the past week alone. So, how did Silverman go about sharing the word of atheism at this most respectable of political conferences? Roy Edroso of Raw Story reports on his strategy:

“I came with the message that Christianity and conservatism are not inextricably linked,” he told me, “and that social conservatives are holding down the real conservatives — social conservatism isn’t real conservatism, it’s actually big government, it’s theocracy. I’m talking about gay rights, right to die, abortion rights –”

A simple enough idea: conservatives can continue to uphold (some of) their political values without any need for religious faith. Silverman, understandably, didn’t seem very interested in legitimizing homophobia or the deprivation of terminal patients’ medical autonomy. Anyway, where was he going with that last part?

Hold on, I said, I think the Right to Life guys who have a booth here, and have had every year since CPAC started, would disagree that they’re not real conservatives.

“I will admit there is a secular argument against abortion,” said Silverman. “You can’t deny that it’s there, and it’s maybe not as clean cut as school prayer, right to die, and gay marriage.”

Oh. Okay.

Taken literally, the statement that secular arguments against abortion do exist isn’t a very controversial one. Yes, there are anti-abortion arguments that do not rely on supernatural or theological claims. These arguments can instead rely on concepts like “rights”, “human life”, “personhood”, and so on, without introducing any explicitly religious elements.

Of course, the mere existence of such arguments says nothing about their soundness. Silverman himself stated that he was simply recognizing these arguments even as he disagrees with them:

and please understand this is not support. I’m vehemently pro choice. Just acknowledging they exist. They do.

But whether such arguments exist, and whether they have any merit, is beside the point. What really stands out as notable here is Silverman’s more open-minded approach to this particular issue, even as he dismisses other issues outright.

Silverman is not interested in reaching out to conservative CPAC attendees who oppose marriage equality, oppose end-of-life decisionmaking, or support prayer in schools. However, when it comes to conservatives who oppose the right to abortion, he takes a rather more tolerant stance. While he sees homophobic conservatives as having no place in organized atheism, he’s more willing to recruit anti-abortion conservatives to the secularist cause.

Whether he would actually agree with this or not, that’s how his special exception for abortion opposition comes across. To him, homophobes don’t have a place in our movement – but abortion opponents do?

Is this necessarily a demographic worth reaching out to? JT Eberhard argues:

We must be willing to work with people with whom we disagree on some subjects. …So if you acknowledge that someone need not be right on all subjects for them to be right on the one you’re working on together, this can’t be a reason for you to be upset with Dave Silverman.

But this does nothing to explain why abortion rights should be a subject on which disagreement is acceptable, while LGBT rights, for example, should not. Drawing a line at that particular point seems arbitrary. JT continues:

I don’t think it’s fair to expect someone to avoid telling the truth (that a secular argument exists for being anti-choice, lousy though it is) in order to not give a hat tip to the people Silverman has said multiple times he opposes on that subject. That seems a bit like getting exacerbated at scientists whenever they acknowledge the existence of complexity in the universe because they’ve given a “tip of the hat” to creationists. … If you acknowledge as atheists we shouldn’t shy away from stating facts even though we know there are people out there who will twist them toward an inaccurate or unethical position, then you can’t really be upset with Dave Silverman.

Here is another truth that we, as atheists, need not shy away from stating: there is a secular argument for the elective infanticide of healthy newborn humans. It is not even a very complicated argument, and it is one that is perhaps especially well-suited to atheistic naturalism, scientific empiricism, and the rejection of mainstream Christianity.

Suppose that we abandon the idea that the human species occupies a uniquely privileged or “sacred” place among all organisms. Our ethical considerations in how we treat human life – from blastocyst to infant to elder – should not lean on an assumption that humans are special simply for the mere fact that they are humans. Ethical questions should take into account actual substance rather than just a name: the features that actually constitute an individual human. These features can include the extent to which they can experience pain and pleasure, their level of awareness of the world around them, their ability to possess distinct desires and goals, and their level of awareness of themselves as a sentient being.

When we recognize that questions of ethical treatment should consider such features, two conclusions emerge: First, humans are not the only organisms that merit our ethical concern – various animals are also capable of suffering pain, having desires, and possessing different degrees of awareness and self-awareness. And second, not all humans are identical by these metrics; depending on their degree of development, some may be more or less aware, more or less capable of experiencing pain, and so on.

Therefore, instead of a model wherein all humans occupy a special ethical category meriting unique concern, we can conceive of a spectrum of ethical concern along which all organisms fall – humans and other animals alike. One potentially uncomfortable fact is that some animals may be more well-developed than some humans in their capacity for self-awareness, desires, and so on. As Kate Wong notes in Scientific American:

Human babies enter the world utterly dependent on caregivers to tend to their every need. Although newborns of other primate species rely on caregivers, too, human infants are especially helpless because their brains are comparatively underdeveloped. Indeed, by one estimation a human fetus would have to undergo a gestation period of 18 to 21 months instead of the usual nine to be born at a neurological and cognitive development stage comparable to that of a chimpanzee newborn.

Similarly, MRI scans of dogs suggest that they are capable of experiencing emotions on a level similar to human children:

Do these findings prove that dogs love us? Not quite. But many of the same things that activate the human caudate, which are associated with positive emotions, also activate the dog caudate. Neuroscientists call this a functional homology, and it may be an indication of canine emotions.

The ability to experience positive emotions, like love and attachment, would mean that dogs have a level of sentience comparable to that of a human child.

Dogs may also possess mental capabilities on par with those of 2-year-old humans:

According to several behavioral measures, Coren says dogs’ mental abilities are close to a human child age 2 to 2.5 years. … As for language, the average dog can learn 165 words, including signals, and the “super dogs” (those in the top 20 percent of dog intelligence) can learn 250 words, Coren says. “The upper limit of dogs’ ability to learn language is partly based on a study of a border collie named Rico who showed knowledge of 200 spoken words and demonstrated ‘fast-track learning,’ which scientists believed to be found only in humans and language learning apes,” Coren said. … Dogs can also count up to four or five, said Coren. And they have a basic understanding of arithmetic and will notice errors in simple computations, such as 1+1=1 or 1+1=3. …

Through observation, Coren said, dogs can learn the location of valued items (treats), better routes in the environment (the fastest way to a favorite chair), how to operate mechanisms (such as latches and simple machines) and the meaning of words and symbolic concepts (sometimes by simply listening to people speak and watching their actions). … During play, dogs are capable of deliberately trying to deceive other dogs and people in order to get rewards, said Coren.

So: Humans are not the only organisms capable of emotion or developing accurate mental models of the world, and we’re certainly not the only organisms capable of experiencing pain or a desire to continue to live. Indeed, some animals possess these capabilities to a greater degree than newborn humans.

And yet, despite their possession of these capabilities, there exists a widespread disinterest in recognizing a “right to life” of animals. Instead, people commonly consider it acceptable to kill animals if we simply decide it is necessary. Cows “exhibit behavioral expressions of excitement when they solve a problem”, but all that’s needed to justify killing a cow is our mere preference that it should become several delicious steaks rather than continue existing as a feeling, thinking organism. Dogs exhibit intelligence and emotions similar to toddlers, but people leave healthy dogs to be euthanized at shelters every day.

In a society that accepts such treatment of animals as a norm – and accepts even the most trivial of human desires as a justification for such treatment – it should be similarly acceptable for the custodians of any newborn human to have that infant killed, for no reason other than their simple desire that this baby no longer be alive. Newborns have lesser abilities of thinking, modeling, perceiving, feeling and wanting than animals, and probably an equal capacity to experience pain. Yet the presence of even greater capacities in many of these areas has largely failed to convince us to recognize a “right to life” of animals. So why should the life of a human embryo, fetus, or infant be seen as always worth preserving and protecting?

Scientific findings support the facts underlying this argument for infanticide rights. This argument also has strengths which other common pro-choice arguments lack. For instance, one such argument contends that whatever right to life an unborn fetus may have, it is always outweighed by a person’s right to bodily autonomy – their right not to be compelled to provide sustenance, in the form of their own bodily resources, to another organism.

However, this “competing rights” argument opens the door to debate over just how important these respective rights are, and whether a fetus’s right to life really is small enough to be overridden. It implicitly agrees with abortion opponents in recognizing that a fetus actually does have, to some degree, a right to exist. And it requires proponents of a pro-choice position to maintain that a person’s right to bodily autonomy is, in all circumstances, the more important right in this situation. Abortion opponents, like Kristine Kruszelnicki of Pro-Life Humanists, may in turn contend that the fetus’s rights carry overriding weight.

In contrast, the pro-infanticide argument presented here does not have this vulnerability. It does not recognize an embryo, fetus, or even a newborn human as possessing a “right to life” to any degree whatsoever. And so it is not even necessary to argue that a person has a right to bodily autonomy which overrides a fetus’s supposed rights.

Clearly, there is a secular argument for infanticide. One does not have to support it or agree with it, and one may feel that it is far from decisive or clear-cut, but it does indeed exist. Others might twist this argument to make atheists look bad, but that doesn’t mean we should avoid recognizing this truth.

I’ve met David Silverman before, and he was a really nice guy – I hope we get to meet again. I don’t have any problem with believing that he certainly meant well with his outreach efforts at CPAC, as idiosyncratic as his views on acceptable political differences may be. And a few isolated quotes expressing a nuanced position – albeit a potentially disagreeable one – aren’t necessarily cause to dismiss and ignore a person entirely.

What I would ask is this: What is American Atheists doing to reach out to pro-infanticide atheists and bring them into the cause of organized secularism? Is our conception of the parameters of a “right to life” any less worthy of being courted than that of abortion opponents? If we’re really seeking to expand the tent of atheist activism, why extend it only in their direction, and not ours? I’d contend that if anything, those of us who are pro-infanticide can bring much more of value to the atheist movement than anti-choice conservatives would, such as our evidence-based approach to secular ethics. And if you think it would be distasteful to reach out to us, ask yourself: is it really more distasteful than inviting people who would legally force a person to give birth against their will?

Animal dildos: An ethical analysis

Note: This post contains frank discussion of sexual topics. Some content may be of a graphic nature.

Certain sex toy vendors manufacture toys that are based on the penises of animals. While many of these toys are hand-sculpted, some horse-based and dog-based toys are marketed as “life-cast”, meaning they are directly cast from a mold taken of a live animal’s erect penis. Is this process ethical, and is it ethical for consumers to buy from these vendors?

1. The justification, and the objection

One vendor of “lifecast toys” describes the production process as follows:

The casting process takes approximately five minutes, and the animals are always happy to help! No animals are harmed in any way, physically or otherwise.

Their position is that, in the absence of any apparent harm to the animals or visible resistance from these animals, this process should be considered acceptable.

Others disagree, with one blogger writing:

For starters there is the whole thing of *how* they got the animals penis erect, most certainly they probably did not just wait around for it to happen you have to figure there may have been stimulation involving someone sexually touching them which is full stop animal sexual abuse. Secondly they have to put the cast on which may discomfort or confuse the animals.

In response to the supposed compliance or enjoyment by the animals, they add:

An animal may not fight against those things or may even enjoy it but that doesn’t mean they are not being sexually exploited for human gain. In the same way a child cannot consent to sexual acts even if they go along with it an animal cannot.

I’ve spoken with others who likewise contend that, because an animal is not capable of providing informed consent to sex, this sexual stimulation of an animal is therefore sexual abuse. As they see it, just as an underage person’s apparent enjoyment of sex does not mean they are capable of offering meaningful consent, the compliance of these animals with sexual stimulation likewise does not change the fact that they cannot consent to such an act.

The casting process would thus constitute a non-consensual sexual act, making it unethical.

2. Variables in the ethical equation

I do not find it necessary to address the premises, reasoning or conclusion of the argument that this is sexual abuse of an animal. As I see it, that syllogism is a valid (and important) one. So I will not be attempting to dispute any of the following points:

  • Whether these animals suffer harm
  • Whether pleasure translates to consent even when an entity lacks the capacity to provide consent
  • Whether sexual abuse can be ethical

It is also not my intention to derive some concrete, absolute, airtight answer of whether the sex toy production process in question must be considered right or wrong. Instead, I’d prefer to examine situations similar to this process in order to provide a broader picture of how these issues are treated in society. There are a great many more questions that lend an important background to how we understand concepts like “harm”, “consent”, and “sexual abuse”. These words are not merely empty symbols – they have substance, and represent complex ideas. Questions pertaining to this complexity might include:

  • In what situations, other than the production of molds for sex toys, do sexual interactions occur between humans and animals?
  • How commonplace are these situations? Are they largely regarded as acceptable or unacceptable?
  • Why do these sexual interactions occur – what motivates this? Are these motivations seen as justifying such acts?
  • To what extent are people willing to accept the suffering of animals, and violations of animals’ consent, in exchange for their own pleasure and enjoyment?

In this way, I intend to offer a descriptive exploration of existing attitudes toward these questions, rather than a prescriptive and binding moral conclusion of whether it’s okay to stimulate animals sexually in order to sell or use replicas of their genitals as sex toys. I believe this may be more useful than a short, simple and inarguable syllogism. By equipping people with a wider array of information relevant to this question, we can provide them with a somewhat more expansive ethical equation into which they can input their own personal values. They can derive, not a singular right answer for everyone, but an individual answer which is more solidly rooted in a better understanding of the related issues.

3. Disregard for the consent of animals in non-sexual contexts

Livestock farms are businesses: they are motivated to maximize their production while minimizing the expenses they incur. Because this business involves using live animals as a source of meat, milk, eggs, or other products, and providing the resources necessary to ensure humane treatment may come at additional expense, optimizing for profitability can lead to compromising the welfare of these animals. Such compromises occur as a part of routine, widely accepted industrial farming practices. The commonplace treatment of animals by large-scale farming operations includes:

The lack of adequate space for broiler chickens. Broiler chickens – birds raised for their meat – are densely packed into production houses, with around 20,000 animals occupying a space roughly the size of a football field. Each bird therefore has only about as much space as a single sheet of paper. The birds unavoidably walk around in their own accumulated excrement, and the breakdown of this waste produces unsafe air levels of ammonia. The presence of these contaminants leads to irritation, lesions and ulcers on the birds’ legs and feet. Specialists within the industry have written:

[L]imiting the floor space gives poorer results on a bird basis, yet the question has always been and continues to be: What is the least amount of floor space necessary per bird to produce the greatest return on investment?

The close confinement of egg-laying hens. In the United States, 95% of egg-laying hens are kept in small cages for most of their lives. Five to ten birds are placed in a cage about the size of a large file drawer, without room to extend their wings fully or engage in normal behaviors such as nest-building, perching at night, or foraging for food. Due to the enclosed space, the hens have no room to exercise, resulting in bone weakness.

Battery hens in a cage.

Battery hens in a cage.

The close quarters can also lead to cannibalism, something which farms attempt to mitigate by “de-beaking” the hens. Up to two-thirds of a bird’s beak is removed without anesthesia, often using a hot blade that causes painful damage to this nerve-rich area.

A de-beaked chicken.

A de-beaked chicken.

The long-term caging of pregnant pigs. Breeding sows are commonly isolated during their pregnancy to prevent fighting between sows, which could cause injury or death. 60-70% of breeding sows in the United States are kept in individual gestation crates that are about two feet wide and seven feet long. These cages are only slightly larger than the pig, leaving sows unable to turn around, lie on their sides, or walk more than a step forward or backward. Slats in the floor allow waste to fall through, and living above a pit of urine and excrement results in respiratory disease from exposure to high levels of ammonia.

Sows in gestation crates.

Sows in gestation crates.

Sows are confined to these cages for the duration of their pregnancy – about 4 months. They typically birth at least two litters per year, and are immediately re-impregnated after their piglets are weaned. Most of a sow’s life will be spent nearly immobilized in a crate. Pig gestation crates are now banned in the European Union, and nine US states have enacted similar bans. In defense of this practice, National Pork Producers Council spokesperson Dave Warner stated:

So our animals can’t turn around for the 2.5 years that they are in the stalls producing piglets. I don’t know who asked the sow if she wanted to turn around. … The only real measure of their well-being we have is the number of piglets per birth, and that’s at an all-time high.

Suppose we grant that a horse or dog cannot consent to being sexually stimulated or having a mold taken of their genitals. In comparison, it also seems unlikely that a pig or chicken could consent to being locked in a small crate for months, having a part of their beak cut off without anesthesia, or suffering foot ulcers from constantly walking around in their own waste.

Yet these practices are nevertheless carried out as cost-saving measures. Treating animals this way is seen as less expensive than providing larger facilities and allowing for the possible loss of some sows, piglets and hens that would come with giving them greater space to move around. Farmers benefit from these practices because they can manufacture a greater quantity of their product at a reduced cost. Consumers benefit from being able to purchase pork, chicken or eggs at a lower price.

Many people give little thought to this inhumane treatment of the animals that produce their food, or if they do, they ultimately find this to be an acceptable tradeoff. And they reaffirm this acceptance in their everyday food choices, far more frequently than anyone purchases specialty animal dildos.

4. Violations of the sexual consent of animals for breeding purposes

Domesticated animals are the subject of selective breeding to optimize for whichever traits may be desired. People decide to retain and emphasize certain traits of these animals, while getting rid of unwanted ones. This is done by choosing animals that express a given pattern of traits, and forcing them to reproduce. The practices surrounding such breeding efforts can involve close contact with the animals’ reproductive organs. Specifically:

Breeding soundness exams, semen collection and artificial insemination of cattle. Cattle may be bred with the aim of producing higher quality beef or greater quantities of milk. As one rancher described a particularly valuable bull named Revelation:

… Revelation’s progeny were showing beef marbling scores that were off the charts, along with breathtaking rib-eye areas. Producing a bull whose offspring have even one of these super stats is like hitting the lottery. But two? A near miracle.

A breeding soundness exam is often conducted to ensure that a bull will be a worthwhile purchase and that it will be able to produce offspring:

Bulls that do not settle their share of cows early in the breeding season contribute to reproductive inefficiency. … Bulls are selected for their genetic potential to improve the cow herd. It is economically important that all bulls are fertile.

Such exams include close study of the bull’s genitals and other organs:

The internal organs can be examined by rectal palpation while the bull is restrained. The vesicular glands, ampullae, and prostate should also be examined for evidence of inflammation, adhesions, or fibrosis. Furthermore, the spermatic cord, scrotum, testicles, and epididymides need to be examined for evidence of abscesses, injury, frost bite damage, or tumors. …

The penis and sheath should be examined for any sores, lacerations, abscesses, scar tissue, hair rings, warts, or adhesions.

A central component of the exam is acquiring a semen sample from the bull in order to evaluate its fertility. This requires that the bull be stimulated to arousal and ejaculation. Semen can be collected by way of an artificial vagina, “a hard tubular casing with a rubber inner liner filled with warm water to stimulate the bull’s penis via temperature and pressure”. However, a sample is “most often collected via electroejaculation”. Electroejaculation is conducted as follows:

The electroejaculator consists of a rectal probe that has a series of linear banded electrodes connected to a variable current and voltage source. The bull is restrained in a chute, the rectum is emptied, and the entire lubricated probe is inserted rectally with the electrodes oriented ventrally. A hand-operated rheostat permits intermittent pulses of current to be given as the voltage is gradually increased. The response varies considerably, but it is common to use 2- to 4-sec pulses repeated at 5- to 7-sec intervals. After a variable number of such stimulations, erection and protrusion of the penis may be seen, followed by a flow of seminal fluid, or the bull may ejaculate into the sheath without protruding the penis.

Electroejaculation is known to be uncomfortable or painful for bulls:

…electroejaculation is associated with an increase in the stress hormone cortisol, and the strength of the muscular contractions induced by electroejaculation suggests that the bull experiences pain and distress. Compared to controls, bulls subjected to this procedure vocalize more frequently, which is considered an indicator of stress and pain.

However, the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association maintains that electroejaculation of bulls is an acceptable practice.

Electroejaculator devices.

Electroejaculator devices for bulls.

The process of using bull semen to inseminate cows is similarly invasive. One rancher was praised for his skill in this area:

“He has a gift with his hands to know how to feel into a cow that most people don’t have,” Donnell says. George will feel the reproductive tract with one arm, then with the other hand, guide the syringe through the cervical rings (the tricky part) and deposit the semen at the opening of the cervix. It takes maybe 60 seconds per cow, and every cow on the ranch, 1,300 in all, is bred that way, as many as 400 in a single day.

Breeding soundness exams and semen collection of stallions. As with cattle, horses have been domesticated into various specialized breeds which serve different purposes. Desired traits can include their endurance, strength, speed, skill at working with livestock, or performance at racing and show jumping.

Stallions are prized for their ability to produce a high number of quality offspring, offering a better value to horse breeders. A very fertile and healthy stallion can be a good investment, while a stallion with poor fertility may be of little use. For this reason, they are subject to comprehensive breeding soundness exams similar to those of bulls:

Veterinarians should also evaluate the stallion’s reproductive anatomy during a breeding soundness examination. Threlfall explained that the penis must be able to retract fully, and there should be no abnormal swellings or enlargements of the genitalia. All aspects of the reproductive tract–including the penis, scrotum, and testicles–should be palpated for abnormalities, he added.

Stallions may exhibit resistance to such examinations:

…especially during this portion of the exam, it’s important to stay safe as some stallions will bite, kick, or strike when their reproductive tract is palpated. Twitch or tranquilize the horse if necessary to maintain safety.

Semen collection from stallions can also involve the use of an artificial vagina. Workers apply the artificial vagina (AV) in this manner:

The stallion’s penis should be deflected into the AV, not grasped, because some stallions take offense to being grasped. The AV should be held firmly for the stallion to thrust against and should be at the same angle as the mare’s vagina. As the stallion ejaculates, the AV should be lowered to allow the semen to run into the collection bottle.

Applying an artificial vagina can be a complicated task involving multiple workers to ensure (their own) safety:

All the handlers should be on left side and everyone is advised to pull to the left if there is a problem. The entire collection has to be a choreographed effort by everyone involved in order to get a sample and keep everyone safe. Approach the mare at an angle and allow the stallion to mount the mare. Let the stallion thrust and guide or allow the stallion to insert his penis into the AV. Gently touch the ventral penis and feel the urethra for the ejaculatory pulses. Others can watch for the flagging of the tail that indicates ejaculation.

An artificial vagina for stallions.

An artificial vagina for stallions.

However, collection can also be accomplished by “manual stimulation”, and the training of stallions to accept this stimulation:

You can attempt manual massage of the erect penis with moist towels while the stallion is standing or while he is mounting. Experimentally it took about 1 1/2 training sessions to train stallions to do this.

Semen collection and artificial insemination of dogs. Over 150 distinct breeds of domesticated dogs are recognized by the American Kennel Club. While some of these breeds serve working roles – such as assisting disabled people, herding livestock, retrieving prey for hunters, tracking scents, or subduing criminals – many dogs are no more than companions for most people.

To ensure conformance to a given breed standard, people select which individual dogs are bred together. As with cattle and horses, semen collection is part of a typical breeding soundness exam, and artificial insemination using collected semen can allow for vastly more instances of impregnation than a single male dog would be capable of without assistance. The collection process is similar to that of bulls and stallions:

Canine semen is collected using digital pressure and massage. … Collecting semen from dogs is not difficult, but like many things, is much easier after you’ve done it a time or two. The basic process is conducted in the following series of steps:

  • Grasp the prepuce and pull/push it back to expose the tip of the penis.
  • Slide the collection cone over the protruding penis and slide it over the penis, pushing the prepuce back over of the bulbis glandis …
  • Lock your fingers in a ring around the penis, essentially holding the bulbis glandis inside your fist.
  • Apply pressure with forward and backward movement; in most cases, the male will begin to thrust back and forth.
  • Watch for semen to flow in the collection tube. Most dogs stop thrusting as they begin to ejaculate.

Transcervical insemination is one of the less invasive methods of artificially inseminating dogs:

The transcervical insemination (TCI) is performed with the bitch in a standing position. No sedation nor anesthesia is required. A fiber optic cystourethoscope is used vaginally to visualize the opening to the cervix. A flexible catheter is maneuvered through the cervix into the uterus. …The semen is gently pushed through the catheter from a syringe.

A more invasive method involves surgery:

A surgical insemination is a minor surgical procedure that allows the surgeon to inject the semen directly into the uterus. … A bitch’s greatest chance of conception is by having a surgical semen implant. …

A 2-3 inch incision is made on the abdomen through the skin and underlying muscle. The uterus is isolated and evaluated. The semen, whether fresh collected, fresh chilled or frozen, is inseminated though a small hypodermic needle into the uterus. The veterinary surgeon can see and feel the uterus fill as the semen is deposited.

The procedures involved in the breeding of these animals are, at times, essentially identical to the stimulation of horses and dogs performed in the course of producing a mold of their genitals. In many cases, the breeding-related practices go far beyond that and are substantially more invasive. Yet these practices are well-established and accepted among breeders, simply for the purpose of avoiding any expenses or inefficiencies that would come with having less-than-optimal animals among their breeding population.

The general attitude appears to be one of regarding animals as little more than objects, from which semen can be extracted and into which it can be deposited at will, by whatever means people find to be most effective. So it should come as no surprise that, in the drive to obtain desired traits with great efficiency, the consent of these animals is treated as broadly irrelevant.

5. Human needs: Animal exploitation as a norm

This widespread inhumane treatment and disregard for the consent of animals is done in the service of certain human needs. People may need animal products for food, draft animals for working purposes, or dogs for detecting explosives or other roles. But the extent to which these needs justify certain treatment of animals is, of course, debatable. Ardent advocates of animal rights might contend that nothing justifies forcing animals into any working roles. Vegetarians or vegans may feel it’s not acceptable to use animals as a food source at all. Even people who do consume animal products may choose to avoid food sourced from crated pigs or chickens.

One way or another, that ethical line is drawn in a certain place depending on a person’s values. And when it comes to the needs these animals serve, it can be unclear just how necessary some of these roles are. Sure, people require food, but does that mean people need to eat prime rather than choice cuts of beef? Horses may be the best method of transportation for certain purposes – but does anyone actually need a horse for dressage, a sport described as “horse ballet”? Sled dogs may be needed in some areas, but does a person ever really need a Chihuahua? What needs are some of these animals serving that are so crucial, it justifies disregarding their consent? And what makes the desire to own a replica of a dog’s erection for use as a sex toy any less legitimate than the desire to own a pug as a companion animal?

Many of the practices involved in keeping and breeding these animals would also fail the “child test”, badly. As others have argued, an underage person’s apparent enjoyment of a sexual act does not mean they are therefore capable of meaningful consent to this act. Suppose someone were to argue that a child is completely okay with being kept in a crate too small for them to turn around, or that a child actually enjoys having a device called an “artificial vagina” applied to them, and that therefore the child consents to this treatment. Such claims would be considered monstrous and appalling.

Yet most people who eat pork, drink milk, and own dogs do not seem to apply the “child test” as a standard of ethical acceptability. They are largely content to tolerate at least some of these practices in the course of the breeding and raising of animals. And if they do tolerate this, it seems unavoidably inconsistent and arbitrary to accept practices such as:

  • Providing an individual chicken with no more living space than a sheet of paper
  • Forcing chickens to walk around in piles of excrement and breathe ammonia-rich air
  • Keeping a chicken in a cage so small that it cannot extend its wings
  • Removing a portion of a chicken’s beak using a hot blade, without painkillers
  • Keeping a pregnant pig in a cage so small that it cannot walk or turn around, for several months
  • Restraining a bull to examine its reproductive organs by rectal palpation
  • Inserting a rectal probe into a bull and repeatedly applying a painful electrical current until ejaculation occurs
  • Inserting one’s entire arm into a cow in order to deposit semen onto its cervix
  • Tranquilizing a stallion to prevent it from biting or kicking during a genital examination
  • Guiding a stallion’s penis into an artificial vagina and holding the device in place until the stallion ejaculates
  • Stimulating a stallion by massaging its penis with moist towels
  • Placing a “collection cone” onto a dog’s penis
  • Manually stimulating a dog’s penis to obtain its semen
  • Introducing semen via a catheter inserted through a dog’s cervix and into its uterus, without sedation
  • Partially removing a dog’s uterus from its body via surgery, and injecting semen into it

While rejecting practices such as:

  • Stimulating a horse or dog to arousal in order to take a mold of its genitals

What sort of ethical standard would allow for the former practices while soundly rejecting the latter? In terms of potential harm to animals or violations of their consent, how would one go about isolating the act of creating animal-based sex toy molds as any more harmful or violative than the rest of these commonplace practices? What marks this case as unique?

I believe such a standard is best explained as the product of a sexual taboo. Harm and violation of animals is often uncritically accepted when it is in furtherance of:

  • The fiscal enjoyment of farmers and breeders who reduce expenses and increase output by neglecting to provide humane facilities for their livestock and avoiding the purchase and upkeep of infertile animals
  • The competitive enjoyment of farmers and breeders who are able to produce higher quality animal products
  • The culinary enjoyment of consumers who now have access to “off the charts” marbled beef and “breathtaking” rib-eyes
  • The sporting enjoyment of athletes (and spectators) who use horses for racing, show jumping, or dressage events
  • The personal enjoyment of people who keep dogs for companionship

Yet this harm and violation is seen to reach a wholly unacceptable level when it occurs in the pursuit of:

  • The sexual enjoyment of people who would like to use sex toys cast from a mold of a horse or dog penis

It seems that this sexual motive is seen as being more trivial, more frivolous, and less justifiable than these non-sexual motives. But an identical act, the stimulation of an animal’s genitals to arousal, takes place in both the sexual case and the breeding case. The harm to the animal, and disregard for its consent, is neither exacerbated nor diminished simply by the intentions of the person performing the act. If someone does not consider the argument from harm and lack of consent to be sufficient to condemn these selective breeding practices, then the argument also does not succeed in condemning the sex toy production process.

It may be the case that nobody truly needs such a dog toy. But if so, they do not need a toy dog, either.

Not “him”, just me: Gendering the past

Pill bottlesI’ve been on HRT for about a month now, and so far it’s been awesome enough that I’ll probably continue for the foreseeable future. While some people have claimed that its effects shouldn’t be noticeable for quite some time, the physical changes alone are already obvious, which leads me to believe that the mental effects could be just as real. Even if some part of it is only placebo, I can honestly say I haven’t felt this calm, happy, confident, in control and well-integrated in years – if ever. And though I’m not sure what physiological or neurological basis there might be for the common trans metaphor of “running on the right fuel” (and I’d be interested to learn more about this), it seems accurate enough in my case.

Before I started, I wondered whether it might cause some kind of mind-blowing shift in my consciousness, sense of self and subjective experience of the world. While it definitely feels great for me and I have a strong preference against discontinuing it, I can’t say it’s been like any kind of bright line between before and after – alcohol has more of an immediate and significant effect, all things considered. I’m just the same person as before, but it does seem like whatever elements factor into my overall personality and mood have been tweaked just enough to improve things without outright destroying who I was. I mean, who I am.

What interests me is that some trans people do seem to draw a harder distinction between their lives before they came to terms with their gender identity, and after. At times, I’ve even seen women refer to their past selves in the third person, as entirely different people – such as “him”. This shouldn’t be surprising, since many people experience a massive gulf between where they are in terms of their gender, and where they want to be. It makes sense that they wouldn’t see much in common between the person they once were, and the person they sought to become. Likewise, I’ve heard from people for whom realizing they were trans was a relatively sudden epiphany, and something that simply hadn’t occurred to them before, which would make it a pretty convenient place to draw a line dividing their life into that of two separate people.

Personally, I can’t say my experience has been very similar to this. As Heather often reminds me, if I had started off as a bodybuilder with a beard and back hair, I’d likely feel much different. But I didn’t. And I was never struck by that abrupt epiphany, because the possibility of being trans has been on my radar for the past several years. For most of that time, I just didn’t think it was where I was headed, but it turns out that it was – and I was always comfortable with that possibility. I was also fortunate enough to start off in a place where I didn’t have to close very much distance to get my body to reflect my identity. Yet because the process has been so blurry, shuffled and gradual for me, to the point that the final step consisted of no more than choosing to say “I’m trans” rather than “I’m not”, I find it almost impossible to identify any sort of boundary between one life and another, one gender and another.

A collage of photos spanning 10 yearsAlthough I’ve had to work extensively on training myself to think of my new name as the true one, it never took nearly as much effort to think of my new gender as the true one. I suppose that on some level, I was already open to it even before I knew what “it” was. I found it similarly easy to accept myself as queer when I was 14: if that was reality, then that was reality, end of story. Acknowledging that I’m trans was essentially the same, to the point that my earlier experience seems to foreshadow it neatly. For some people, recognizing their genuine sexual orientation or gender identity seems to require demolishing a large part of the foundation of their identity, leaving them with the burden of having to fill in that newfound empty space. I’m just not one of those people.

Even when I assumed I was straight or a guy, for simple lack of personal development or critical self-examination, it wasn’t a central part of who I was. Obviously, straight guys are rarely required by society to think about their gender or sexuality as something that stands out, or consider themselves as anything other than the archetypal “default” human. But having never identified strongly, or even weakly, as a man or as heterosexual, losing those presumed features meant losing very little of my core self. Since I hadn’t become attached to what these identities implied for me, it was only a slight course adjustment in the direction my life would take, and the destination was just as valid. Nothing about it demanded tearing apart my old self, marking them as obsolete, and constructing a new person in their place.

Yet this still seems to raise an unavoidable question: if I was once “him”, then when did I stop being “him” and start being “her”? Of course, when it comes to talking to other people about my past, I see no need to say anything to tip them off about me if they haven’t already been brought into the circle. It’s just a matter of consistency, because there’s no sense in referring to a woman as “him” when discussing her childhood. But if they already know, it isn’t personally significant to me whether they see my younger self as having been a “him” or a “her”, and in some cases there’s no way around this. For instance, if we were looking at any of my childhood photos, it would be pointless to try and avoid the obvious. And all my mom’s friends would likely find it hard to believe that the son they’ve always known never actually existed, and that she’s suddenly acquired a very familiar-looking daughter.

A photo timeline of the past 4 yearsBut at what stage should I regard “him” as over, and “her” as having begun? There’s just no easy way to pinpoint a particular moment. Was it when I started caring about my appearance for the first time in 19 years? Or when I switched to buying women’s shirts because I found I looked better in them? Maybe it was when I first decided to try on makeup? Or when I went out in public like this for the first time? When I told people either gender pronoun is fine with me? When I started calling myself Zinnia on a whim? When I first identified as genderqueer? When I put together the first timeline of my transformation? When I started dating a lesbian, and we both knew that I was undeniably her girlfriend and couldn’t possibly be considered a boyfriend – even while still saying, paradoxically, that I didn’t think of myself as trans? When I first attended a family function, her brother’s wedding, as a woman? When I found I was going “full-time” simply out of habit? When I finally did admit that I was trans? When I made the decision to pursue treatment for it? When I picked a whole new name for myself, for real this time? When I worked up the nerve to “make it official” and come out to my parents – as if they couldn’t tell? When I started wearing a bra, no matter whether it contained anything? When I actually got around to finding a therapist and a doctor? When I took HRT for the first time? When I ordered business cards to replace the ones that said “Z.J. OldName”?

All of that has been spread out over the past four years – and not one of those changes feels like an appropriate place to divide myself in two. So is it just a matter of when you finally do feel like a different person, if ever? That, too, seems like a standard I may never be able to meet. I’m certain I’ve changed more just by aging throughout my life than by transitioning, and yet I still don’t think of myself at any age as a distinctly different person, no matter how little we would have in common. Some part of me was always there, and some part of them is still with me. I would see no point in referring even to 4-year-old me as being a separate person, different as I was.

Of course, gender is typically regarded as much more fundamental to identity than age, and that idea likely helps to fuel the inclination – or perceived need – to conceptualize yourself as a different person just because you were (presumably) a different gender. And for all I know, maybe there will come a day when I feel I’ve changed so much that I have nothing in common with “him”, and I’ll be more comfortable with classifying a part of my life as belonging to someone else. But for now, I’ve always just been me, even as a “boy” who rarely thought of “himself” as a boy. The unvarnished and fuzzy reality of things like identity, time, change, and people don’t always fit the concepts of “boundary”, “box”, “before”, “after”, “them”, or “me”, and it would be a mistake to try and map them onto the world when in some cases they’re just inapplicable. Transitioning wasn’t a soul-ripping, spacetime-rending event that cleaved my past and future apart. Like every other change in my life, big and small, it wove them together. What do I call my pre-transition self? The same thing I call myself now, because that’s who we are: I.

Definitional Nonsense

In many societies, gender has historically been understood as a neat, orderly, and intuitive model. The concept of “man” referred to people who had the same kind of male body, presented in a way that was regarded as male, and took male-designated roles. The concept of “woman” was defined in the same way. These two categories were considered to be permanent, inescapable, and complete: everyone was placed into one of them, and migration between them was unthinkable.

Under this model, explicit definitions of gender involving anatomy, genetics, and sex assigned at birth were associated with whatever clusters of traits were typically exhibited by men and women. And just as it was assumed that someone who was assigned male or female would present themselves in a certain way according to their gender, it was also assumed that everyone who presented as a man or woman had the same anatomical and genetic makeup.

The recognition of transgender people as a discrete phenomenon has changed all this. We’ve come to realize that it simply isn’t accurate to view assigned sex, physical anatomy, sex chromosomes, gender identity, gender roles, and gender presentation as always being in alignment and falling into only one category. Because of this, the traditional definitions of gender have ceased to connect to the reality of the identities, expressions and roles of men and women. Not everyone who was assigned male lives as a man, and not everyone who was assigned female lives as a woman.

As body-based definitions have fallen out of step with people’s identities and lives, our intuitions about what makes a man or a woman have failed us. Just as the previous model provided an apparently easy way of classifying men and women for physical, legal, and sexual purposes, the breakdown of that model has implications for all of these areas. When the beliefs of the past collide with the reality of the present, we find ourselves faced with unexpected and confusing results, many of which turn out to be sheer nonsense.

Ashlyn ParramRecently, 16-year-old Ashlyn Parram was told that she could not take her GCSE exams unless she changed into a boy’s school uniform. When she provided the headmaster with a copy of the UK’s Equality Act, which prohibits such discrimination against transgender people, she was made to sit 40 feet away from the rest of the students. Were it not for her personal medical history, which presumably was not scrutinized in the case of any other students, there would have been no clear reason to see this girl as anything other than a girl. There would be no obvious cause to single out this one girl and demand that she must wear a boy’s uniform or sit apart from everyone else.

Here, the adherence to definitions of gender based on bodily history and birth-assigned sex has led to the plain absurdity of treating a girl who identifies, presents, and lives as a girl as if she were something other than female. And in their haste to stop someone they saw as a boy from wearing clothes designated for girls, they very nearly ended up putting a girl in clothes designated for boys. Their insistence on rigid definitions disconnected from the reality of gender would have led to a situation much like the one they initially sought to prevent. Confronted with the dilemma of either recognizing that anatomy and medical history aren’t the final word on gender, or actively mandating cross-dressing, they seemingly preferred cross-dressing.

Similar problems arise from the opposition to laws which prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity in public accommodations. Such ordinances have commonly been derided as “bathroom bills”, and campaigns against them unfailingly rely on the alleged threat of “men in women’s restrooms”. The “men” they seek to keep out of women’s restrooms are typically transgender women, as viewed through the model of gender which regards assigned sex as definitive. In one of the most notable examples of such campaigns, the Massachusetts hate group MassResistance covertly filmed several trans women entering the women’s restroom at a convention, which they described as “the insanity that will descend on all of America… unless this sexual radical movement is stopped”.

Trans menBut let’s suppose that the people fighting against these bills did get their way on this, and everyone was required to use the restroom matching their sex as assigned at birth. What would happen? Not only would trans women have to use the men’s room, but trans men would have to use the women’s room. MassResistance would have a field day: they’d get to see actual men going into the women’s restroom. Is that really the result they’re looking for – male-identified, male-presenting men walking into the women’s room? If they didn’t know these men were trans, it would be “sexual radical insanity” all over again.

Certainly they might profess to believe that gender is fixed at birth and forever unalterable, but when faced with the real-life outcome of their desired policy, they could very well reconsider whether this is a good idea. In seeking to prevent men from using the women’s room under their narrow model of gender, they would actually be forcing men into the women’s room in reality. Again, when given the choice between updating their understanding of gender, or imposing an outdated model upon a world it no longer fits, they’d rather create the same issue they thought they were trying to prevent: there would be both men and women in the men’s room and the women’s room.

Many jurisdictions have placed themselves in a similar situation by both banning same-sex marriage and either refusing to recognize changes of gender legally, or first requiring people to undergo major surgery. As a result, a trans woman who’s still legally considered male is actually banned from marrying men, and can only marry women. For trans people whose genders are unrecognized, same-sex marriage isn’t prohibited at all – in fact, it’s their only option. This probably isn’t what was intended by people who oppose both marriage equality and legal changes of gender, but there’s really no way around it: for the intent of a ban on same-sex marriage to be applied to trans people, you first have to recognize their actual gender.

How we define gender is obviously relevant to our understanding of sexual orientation as well. For instance, people have often wondered how a cisgender woman could have a relationship with a trans woman who has male genitals, and identify as a lesbian nonetheless. The question itself assumes a definition of gender that relies exclusively on anatomy and assigned sex: lesbians are women who prefer women, but someone with male genitals can’t be a woman, therefore a woman partnered with someone who has male genitals can’t be a lesbian.

Under a model of sexual orientation centered on assigned sex, this logic is certainly valid. But how well does it reflect the reality of people’s sexual identities, preferences and behaviors? This assigned sex model defines straight men and gay women as being attracted to cis women and trans men because of their anatomical similarities, and defines gay men and straight women as being attracted to cis men and trans women. While it may be internally consistent, it doesn’t account for the actual patterns we observe in sexual orientation.

If the identities of gay and straight were used to refer to the definitions of this proposed model, we would expect gay men whose partners are trans men to prefer cis women and have an ongoing pattern of relationships with them as well, simply due to their anatomy. Likewise, we would expect that lesbian women whose partners are trans women would also consistently enjoy relationships with cis men, and straight men whose partners are trans women would commonly have relationships with cis men as well.

But this is generally not something we see happening in reality. Straight men and lesbians do not have relationships with men, but with women, and their inclusion of trans women as partners is consistent with that, not contrary to it. The use of “straight” and “gay” in a purely anatomical sense does not help us to understand the true sexual proclivities of the people who identify as such, because that just isn’t what they’re talking about. A woman who primarily prefers women is a lesbian, regardless of the details of her partner’s genitals, because trans women are women. Here, the flaws in traditional definitions of gender can compromise our understanding of sexual orientation as well – but updating our concept of gender provides clarity.

Ultimately, the strict adherence to archaic models of gender often seems to be self-defeating. By insisting that men will always be men and women will always be women no matter what, its proponents have made their own categories of “man” and “woman” increasingly meaningless for practical purposes. When so many women would be considered “men”, what does saying that someone is a “man” by this definition even tell us? Their terms for people’s genders no longer describe people’s genders.

While their use of that word may have once been exclusively attached to certain traditionally “manly” roles and expressions, they’re now using it to mean almost any kind of identity and presentation of someone who was assigned male at birth. There’s nothing wrong with decoupling our destinies in life from our genders, of course – but if that was their intention, I doubt they would be so strenuously insisting that I’m “really a man”. And while many regard such accusations as deeply offensive, I’m more inclined to see them as simply being wrong. They’re just victims of their own conceptual confusion.

Revising the self: The names we use

From the parts of Douglas Hofstadter’s books that I’ve read so far – and correct me if I’ve misunderstood – our minds can be conceived of as a network of “symbols” representing every distinct concept we have, with the meaning of each symbol being derived from its connections to various other symbols. On page 376 of Gödel, Escher, Bach, Hofstadter illustrates a small portion of his wider ensemble of concepts and their linkages. One section:

He later states that “I”, our self, can be represented as a symbol as well – “probably the most complex of all the symbols in the brain.” This is unsurprising, as any useful concept of our self needs to provide us with a model of the overall set of symbols in our brain and how they’re connected. If all of our symbols comprise “things we know”, then our self-symbol represents the Rumsfeldian “things we know that we know”. Or, as Greg Egan described a self-aware alien species in Diaspora:

He led Paolo into another scape, a representation of the data structures in the “brain” of one of the squid. It was – mercifully – three-dimensional, and highly stylized, with translucent colored blocks to represent mental symbols, linked by broad lines indicating the major connections between them. Paolo had seen similar diagrams of citizens’ minds; this was far less elaborate, but eerily familiar nonetheless.

Karpal said, “Here’s the sensory map of its surroundings. Full of other squids’ bodies, and vague data on the last known positions of a few smaller creatures. But you’ll see that the symbols activated by the physical presence of the other squid are linked to these” – he traced the connection with one finger – “representations. Which are crude miniatures of this whole structure here.

“This whole structure” was an assembly labeled with gestalt tags for memory retrieval, simple tropisms, short-term goals. The general business of being and doing.

“The squid has maps, not just of other squid’s bodies, but their minds as well. Right or wrong, it certainly tries to know what the others are thinking about. And” – he pointed out another set of links, leading to another, less crude, miniature squid mind – “it thinks about its own thoughts as well. I’d call that consciousness, wouldn’t you?”

Considering how large the self-symbol must be, and the important role it plays, it’s easy to see why substantial alterations to that symbol are afforded such significance. Changing something we see as a part of ourselves, like our political, religious, moral or sexual views and identities, can be such a difficult process that it’s often described as a “crisis of faith”. This is why Paul Graham recommends to “keep your identity small” – if you regard a certain concept as being a piece of “you”, you’re liable to see it as something that needs to be preserved and defended regardless of accuracy or intellectual integrity. It’s become more important to you than some other belief that isn’t part of your personal identity and can be honestly evaluated and appropriately revised.

So, revising your understanding of who you are can be a challenge. It’s more difficult than recognizing that you were wrong on a certain point of fact, correcting yourself, and moving on. It takes some getting used to.

What would be one of the most prominent elements of your self-symbol? Your name.

Zinnia hasn’t appeared in the top 1,000 American names for the past century. This makes it an excellent and recognizable “brand”, but for me, transitioning involved finding a name that blended in, didn’t draw the wrong kind of attention, and was appropriate for my age. This had the added benefit of my partner now having an easier time casually mentioning me in conversations with co-workers without the risk of drawing odd questions (not that this ever stopped her before).

But just deciding you have a new name isn’t that easy. It’s not a switch that flips and immediately updates everything tied to how you’re known, while erasing every trace of the old name. You’re trying to change the label for who you are, and that’s a big thing. It’s linked to every official document and record with your name on it, other people’s concepts of you (and how they might unconsciously relate you to others who share your name), how you’re addressed in your day-to-day life, how you’re mentioned in conversation, how people remember any events involving you, and all of your own memories of the occasions when you’ve used your name throughout your life. It would almost be easier to ask what it isn’t connected to.

This makes it a somewhat awkward and slow-going process for everyone. Other people have to get used to using your new name. You have to get used to hearing your own name, responding to it, and internalizing the fact that this name refers to you, and you are that name. All of this can feel like chipping away at a mountainside – or trying to re-color it with a single paintbrush, one stroke at a time. It’s not as easy as you, or others, learning your name the first time around and simply acquiring the appropriate label for a person. We’re working against an established history here. Even after moving from the Central timezone to Eastern almost a year ago, I still occasionally catch myself looking first at the “7” of “8 / 7 Central” when TV shows are announced, rather than the “8”. My name is much more deeply entrenched than this.

So how do you start to think of yourself as Rachel? (Not my actual name.)

Practice is a big part of it. Every time I wake up, the first thing I do is remind myself: “I am Rachel. I am Rachel. I am Rachel.” But I often feel like this is just an attempt to rush the process along, skipping a few steps ahead in what seems like a lengthier sequence of adjustment:

1. “My name is Zinnia, but it’s been changed to Rachel.”

2. “My name is Rachel.”

3. “I am Rachel.”

4. Rachel supplants Zinnia as the background wallpaper for my self, and I naturally think of myself as Rachel without it needing to be explicitly affirmed.

But even this addresses only part of the whole edifice of my old name that’s been built up over my life. “I am Rachel” is directed to the present and the future. What about the past? People might just think of me as Rachel-who-used-to-be-Zinnia, or Zinnia-but-now-Rachel, instead of simply Rachel. And I might, too, if I don’t make a concerted effort not to. How can I come to internalize “I have always been Rachel”?

I decided to start at the very beginning.

My first memories are about being at my grandparents’ house. When I was 3, they got a PC. They didn’t actually use it for anything – it was there for me to play with. This was my first computer: MS-DOS, no mouse, and educational games. My absolute favorite was Treasure MathStorm, a game about ascending a mountain by solving basic counting and arithmetic problems, and collecting treasures along the way, before going back to the beginning and doing it all over again. I spent hours on this almost every time I went to Grandma’s house, doing problem after problem and somehow never getting bored, carving those equations deeper and deeper into my mind, and gathering ever more treasures under my name.

I only had one opportunity to play it again some years after that, when my grandparents dug out that old computer while preparing to move. I couldn’t resist booting it up again, and it still worked just the same, with everything saved to my name. Of course, by now I wasn’t spending so much time at their house, so they soon decided to ship the computer to some of their friends in Maryland who had small children. Just like that, Treasure MathStorm was passed on. I assumed I would never get the chance to play it again. Sure, there were new releases of it with updated graphics, but it would never be the same as running it on a 25 MHz PC with nothing but a keyboard.

As it turns out, I was wrong. Some people had managed to get their hands on that first 1992 version, which could be run in a DOS emulator. I have never downloaded anything so quickly in my life.

Everything I had forgotten about it came rushing back: the elves, the time igloo, the cave of counting, the angry snowballs, rewards like a boot with a white mouse in it, it was all there. Sure, some of it seemed dated and repetitive (and I now recognized how unbalanced its economy is, as using one net to catch one elf gave you enough money to buy four nets to catch four elves…), but even all the grinding was still fun. And after completing each level, the game counted up all the treasures I’d collected:

Rachel. That’s me.

It sounds absolutely ridiculous, but it really does help. I ended up doing the same thing with old ROMs of Pokemon Gold and Silver, which I wasted an incredible amount of time on in my preteen years before the Pokemon trend waned in my neighborhood. And every time I see my name, it’s reinforced just a little bit more: “Rachel – me.”

Heather’s been helping me with my more recent history as well. One advantage of keeping digital versions of the notes we sent to each other is that they can be edited. We can almost literally rewrite history, so everything that was to and from Zinnia is now to and from Rachel. And when we look over them again, we see that Rachel is just as real as Zinnia was. Indeed, Rachel was there the whole time. We’ve spent hours reminiscing about everything we’ve done together, the highlights as well as the simple everyday moments,  and reminding ourselves: “I was there. That was Rachel. That was me – us. Heather and Rachel.”

And it’s starting to sink in. Sure, I still have to make an effort to think and talk about myself as Rachel, and so do my family, Heather, her family and our kids. This doesn’t happen overnight. It doesn’t happen in a week, or a month. But it’s happening nonetheless.

In terms of continuity, I’m still the same person I was before. All of those other features that make me myself don’t change with my name. But my identity is becoming something different, and this has an effect, big or small, on everything connected to it. After all, if this wasn’t going to change anything, then what would be the point?

Those with No Allegiance to Reality

Some time ago, religious activist Be Scofield published an article criticizing atheists who say that religion is harmful, because they haven’t shown that concrete harms have resulted from the beliefs and practices of each of over 4,000 distinct religious groups. According to Scofield, organized religions often provide social services that aren’t available elsewhere, and religious belief has assisted marginalized groups in building community, developing personal identity, and resisting oppression. At the time, I sensed that he was somehow missing the point about the harms of religious belief, but I couldn’t quite pin down where exactly this argument went wrong.

More recently, Mother Jones writer Kevin Drum claimed it was largely irrelevant that 46% of Americans believe human beings were created by God within the past 10,000 years, because not believing in evolution has very little impact on people’s everyday lives. Instead, Drum noted that such a profession of belief is just a “cultural signifier” that they use to identify themselves as Christians. Again, it seemed that he had failed to grasp something essential about people’s beliefs, but I was still at a loss to describe the precise nature of the error.

And then I found a post from a Tumblr user who was looking for a religion that could account for what they perceived as a spiritual dimension and “sacred” nature of transgender people. When others questioned whether subscribing to a religion was necessarily a good idea, they responded:

There are reasons to hold a belief other than epistemological. If you’re better off for believing something, and you aren’t hurting others with that belief, that is sufficient reason to believe it.

That was when the mistake common to these examples became clear: These people have misunderstood the concept of belief itself, and in doing so, they encourage misuse of the very action of believing. They don’t seem to comprehend what a belief actually is, or what beliefs are for, and so they’ve mistakenly labeled a number of distinct concepts as “beliefs”. This can generate significant confusion in any discussion about belief, so it’s important to distinguish the different meanings that people intend when they refer to “belief”.

Belief is typically understood to denote a person’s idea that something is true – that is, they regard a certain state of affairs as actually being the case in the real world. If they believe “snow is white”, this is meant to correspond to the fact that snow is indeed white in reality. This should be pretty basic stuff, but it soon becomes vastly more complicated due to the many roles that people have repurposed “belief” to serve.

Beliefs are part of the larger category of functional ideas. They specifically function to represent reality and create an internal model of the world, offering people the ability to understand how things relate to one another, identify why things happen, and predict what may happen in the future. Obviously, a person’s belief does not cease to be a belief if it’s inaccurate or outright wrong. It’s still a belief as long as they consider it a genuine map of reality, even if this is actually incorrect.

All beliefs are functional ideas, but not all functional ideas are beliefs. Ideas can serve purposes other than generating a model of the real world. They might instead provide personal emotional comfort, encourage social cohesion, promote charity activities, be appreciated aesthetically for their perceived elegance, make someone seem interesting for how obscure and esoteric their ideas are, indicate membership in a certain group and aid a person in fitting in with them, or be seen as virtuous to profess a belief in or attempt to believe in even if you don’t actually believe it.

All of these purposes are completely unrelated to belief itself – the matter of whether the ideas in question are true or not. An idea which serves these purposes may also be a belief, if someone genuinely holds it to be reflective of reality. But if it isn’t meant as a statement about what they consider to be true in reality, it’s not a belief. It’s just a functional idea.

When people treat all ideas which serve these purposes as also being beliefs, the resulting confusion knows no limit. Collapsing these distinct categories into one group labeled “beliefs” suggests that these other functions have some bearing on whether a belief is actually true. They don’t, but treating them as if they do can badly compromise the goal of beliefs: accurately representing the real world. That’s what makes this conflation so insidious, and that’s why such cavalier and careless approaches to belief are so frustrating.

Certainly people still regard beliefs as being about what’s true, even when using them in a way that doesn’t reflect this at all, and this requires redefining truth as well. Instead of defining their beliefs solely by what they regard the state of reality to be, what they see as true about the world is now defined by whatever they “believe” in this new sense of the word, which is determined by any number of purposes other than modeling reality. When representing the state of the world is just one purpose of belief among many, this can become secondary to other considerations.

What Scofield, Drum, and the seeker of transgender spirituality are telling us is that they are completely okay with the obsolescence of belief as a map of reality. To them, belief need not be tied to reality at all. Scofield is quite confident that religious belief can be good for people and societies, and this apparently outweighs any potential impact of holding beliefs that are actually false or basing one’s beliefs on how useful they are to individuals and groups. Drum protests that disbelief of evolution isn’t a cause of any harm, while failing to consider what it might be a symptom of. And our spiritual seeker cuts right to the heart of it: “There are reasons to hold a belief other than epistemological”, and one of those reasons is how good it makes you feel.

For all of their focus on whether beliefs are good or bad, harmful or harmless, they’ve paid little attention to the consequences of decoupling beliefs that are putatively about reality from reality itself. If you can believe whatever you like because of how you feel about it, and truth is just one aspect of belief among many (if it’s present at all), facts about the world can be helpless to alter your beliefs. Reality is now only a single factor that holds no privileged status here.

And if a belief comes to serve a deep emotional need, the cost of finding a replacement for this role may be unbearable, so anything that contradicts this belief must be denied and disregarded in order to preserve it. Just one strongly valued belief that must be protected at any cost is all it takes to distort someone’s entire world view. Any other belief or fact that might be connected to this will be filtered through the lens of the security blanket belief that cannot be denied.

Maybe you’re a transhumanist who takes great pleasure in the thought that a technological Singularity will inevitably occur in the near future, solving every problem and ending all suffering, so you might mentally downplay anything that suggests this might not happen instead of adjusting your beliefs accordingly. Or you could be a recently converted Catholic who’s so excited about your newfound religion that you’ll overlook your disagreement with the church’s official views on homosexuality and chalk it up to mere “confusion” on your part, rather than admitting that the church might just be wrong.

Perhaps you’re enthusiastic about the idea that cryonic preservation of your brain for future revival will allow you to live indefinitely, and so you don’t take any evidence of the shortcomings of current cryopreservation techniques quite as seriously as you should. Or you might be so attached to the supposed inerrancy of the Bible that you find yourself defending American slavery, because you can’t bring yourself to say that the Bible could be mistaken about the practice.

This is what can happen when your beliefs are determined by emotional need, social benefits, group identification, a perceived virtue in the act of belief itself, or anything other than reality. The possibilities for denial and distortion are as limitless as human emotional attachments. And when holding a certain belief becomes that important in people’s lives, it may become necessary for them to act in a way consistent with that belief on an individual or collective level, in order to keep up the internal charade that this belief is about reality.

Allowing your needs and social concerns to influence your beliefs – your mental model of reality – is not just a harmless personal indulgence, even if it may seem that way due to how universal confirmation bias and wishful thinking are. But defenders of faith like Be Scofield are unashamedly suggesting that the truth does not matter, and ensuring that our beliefs mirror reality is unnecessary. In doing so, they grant people an explicit license to believe anything they feel is good or necessary for them. And they don’t seem to have any grasp of the boundless epistemic chaos that they’re leaving everyone to languish in. They’re prepared to cultivate an approach to reality that revolves around believing whatever you find most comfortable and enjoyable, and they’re really trying to say that there is no harm in this.

But at the end of the day, the truth is not determined by what makes you feel warm and safe. It is not determined by what gets you the most friends. It is not determined by what makes people be nice to each other. It is not determined by a cost-benefit analysis of holding a certain belief. It is determined by reality. And those who willingly compromise their understanding of reality still have to live in it. They just might find themselves without a decent map.