The cameraman speaks

We’re learning a bit more about the fellow who was maced and arrested in Chicago, thanks to the efforts of the Chicago Ethical Humanist Society; members of that group are busily writing to me to let me know the Whole Truth of the incident, and why they were justified in siccing the police on Sunsara Taylor’s cameraman. It’s weird, though: they keep telling me how bad and awful and wicked this fellow is — his name is Gregory Koger, by the way — but they won’t say what he did that justified the police assault on him. And that is dismaying. The ethical society doesn’t seem to care much about ethics and logic and justice.

So I got this email:

PZ, this is the man – in his own words – whom Taylor recruited to be her cameraman.

What do you think she thought his reaction would be when told by the police to stop/leave?! She knew he would snap, fight, and would get pulverized in the process.

Are you still full of admiration for her?

I followed the link, and the answer to the question is more complicated than a yes or no.

Koger is an admitted jailbird. He committed some very serious crimes and served some very serious jail time. He probably is a little bit scary; maybe a bit frustrated, and definitely angry with the system.

Yet when you go to that link, what you also discover is that he’s ambitious and is trying to improve himself through education. He thinks, he writes, he studies. He’s active in the Communist Party, which, while I don’t care much for the revolutionary agenda, is definitely motivated by a strong sense of social justice, and I can understand why someone who is being judged by the comfortable bourgeoisie as a thug who deserves to be beat up by the police would find it appealing.

What I can’t understand is how someone who identifies themselves as an ethical humanist would decide this fellow human being was nothing but a mad dog brought to the event to provoke a violent incident. What they don’t understand is that I’m not speaking out because I idolize Bob Avakian (I don’t) or think Maoism is the answer (I don’t) or that I think Sunsara Taylor should not be criticized (not at all) — it’s because the Ethical Humanist Society of Chicago is betraying what ought to be the basic principles of such a society: tolerance, engagement, argument, discussion.

One of the things I do admire about the Communists is that they do reach out to the poor, the oppressed, the imprisoned, and they try to address the injustices our society commits. It’s a shame that ethical humanists can’t do the same, but instead treat a former criminal as a pariah who has to be put down.

The members of the EHSC should really stop writing me. Every time they do, I’m a little more appalled at their attitude.

CFI is having an essay contest

It’s for college students only, and first prize is $2000. Come on, students, you’re used to churning out term papers, and that prize is substantial.

The topic of the essay is free expression.

The Campaign for Free Expression is a CFI initiative to focus efforts and attention on one of the most crucial components of freethought: the right of individuals to express their viewpoints, opinions, and beliefs about all subjects—especially religion.  To encourage free expression and to emphasize the importance of this fundamental right, CFI and its sister organization, The Council for Secular Humanism, are sponsoring this contest.

Given recent events in Chicago, that topic is ironic and rich in potential for discussion.

Deep Rift in Chicago

The Ethical Humanist Society of Chicago has done an incredibly stupid thing. They invited Sunsara Taylor to give a talk on “Morality Without God”…and then disinvited her. The reasons weren’t clear, other than that some people in the society disliked her politics — she’s a communist — and the group caved and cancelled her speaking engagement a short two weeks before it was to happen.

Basically, the ethical society was unethical. You just don’t do that. But then they made it worse.

They’ve been stonewalling. No explanations, no apologies, nothing — they might as well admit that they’re feeling a bit guilty. This is inexcusable: one thing humanists ought to be committed to is the resolution of disputes by dialog and discussion.

Next step: they seem to be spiraling into self-destruction here. Sunsara Taylor showed up at the venue for the meeting and gave a speech to ask that the organization stand up for their principles and give her planned talk; if they didn’t, she’d be giving it at the home of another, sympathetic member of the ethical society. It’s all very civil.

Except for this: near the end of the speech, the president of the “ethical” society dispatched police officers to handcuff and arrest the videographer. WTF?


This is insane. Again, the society is silent. All we know is what we see, and it doesn’t look good.

Is this some kind of return to the McCarthy era? Taylor is openly communist, but there is nothing illegal about that, and it certainly isn’t a reason to discriminate against her. If the Ethical Humanist Society of Chicago is going to start throwing people out and arresting them for their ideological affiliation, I’m more concerned about a few other criminal organizations, like the Republican party and the Catholic church, and think there are better grounds for slamming the door shut on members of those groups than the American communists. But I’d rather see free discussion of ideas by all of those people, and think that a humanist organization ought to be particularly sensitive to the virtues of free speech.

Shame on the Ethical Humanist Society of Chicago.

Marc Hauser— where do morals come from? NOT religion.

Whoa. This was a data-rich talk, and my ability to transcribe it was over-whelmed by all the stuff Hauser was tossing out. Unfortunately, I think the talk also suffered from excess and a lack of a good overview of the material. But it was thought-provoking anyway.

One of the themes was how people resolve moral dilemmas. He began with a real world example, the story of an overweight woman in South Africa who insisted on joining a tour exploring a cave, and got stuck in the exit tunnel, trapping 22 people behind her. Do you sacrifice one to save many? One of the trapped people was a diabetic who needed to get out—should they have blown up the woman so the others could escape? This was presented as a kind of philosophical trolley problem, and the audience was asked what was best to do…but I don’t think it works, because unlike those philosophical dilemmas, in the real world we pursue different strategies, and it’s rarely a black and white situation where one has to choose between precisely two possibilities — as in this case, which was resolved by greasing her up with paraffin and pulling her out.

Hauser gave an overview of the philosophical explanations for making moral decisions.

  • Hume: morality intuitive, unconscious, emotional

  • Kant: rational, conscious, justified principles

  • Theist: divine inspiration, explicit within scripture

  • Rawls: intuitive, unconscious, grammar of action: not emotional, built on principles

He’s going to side with Rawls. The key difference between a Rawlsian morality and the others is that a moral decision is made unconsciously, and THEN emotional and rational justifications are made for it. This is testable if you have a way to remove the emotional component of decision; a Rawlsian moral agent will still make the same moral judgments. Studies of brain damaged patients with loss of emotional affect support the idea so far.

He analogized this to linguistics, in which we make abstract, content-free computations to determine, for instance, whether a particular sentence is grammatical. This computation is obligatory and impenetrable; we can’t explain the process of making the decision as we’re doing it, although we can construct rules after the fact.

For instance, he summarized three principles that seem to be general rules in moral judgments.

  • Harm intended as the means to a goal is worse than harm seen as a side-effect.

  • Harm caused by action is morally worse than harm caused by omission.

  • Harm caused by contact is morally worse than equivalent harm caused by non-contact

We don’t judge morality purely on the basis of reasonable outcomes, but also on intent. He suggested that judging only on the basis of whether an outcome is bad or good is a primitive and simplistic strategy, that as people mature they add nuance by considering intentionality — someone who poisons a person accidentally is less morally culpable than someone who does it intentionally.

One example he gave that I found a bit dubious is the use of Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation to shut down regions of brain, in particular the right temporal/parietal junction (which seems to be a locus of intent judgment). In subjects that have that region zapped (a temporary effect!) all that matters is outcome. These studies bother me a bit; I don’t know if I really trust the methodology of TMS, since it may be affecting much more in complex and undefined ways.

Does knowledge ofthe law affect moral judgments? Holland no longer makes a legal distinction betwwen active and passive euthanasia, and many Dutch people are able to articulate a belief that passive euthanasia is less human than active euthanasia. Do the Dutch no longer percieve the action/omission distinction in Hauser’s 3 rules? In a dilemma test, they still make the same distinctions on active and passive stories as others do — actively killing someone to save others is morally worse than simply allowing someone to die by inaction to have the same effect — which again suggests that the underlying mechanisms of making moral decisions are unchanged.

In these same dilemma tests, they’ve correlated outcomes with demographic data. The effects of religion, sex, etc. are negligible on how people make moral decisions.

He makes an important distinction: These are effects on judgment, not behavior. How does behavior connect with judgment?

Hauser describe Mischel’s longitudinal studies of kids given a simple test: they were given a cookie, and told they’d get more if they could hold off on eating it for some unspecified length of time. Kids varied; some had to have that cookie right away, others held off for longer periods of time. The interesting thing about this experiment is that the investigator looked at these same kids as adults 40 years later, and found that restraint in a 3 year old was correlated with greater marital stability, for instance, later in life. The idea is that these kinds of personal/moral capacities are fixed fairly early in people and don’t seem to be affected much by experience or education.

There were some interesting ideas here, and I would have liked to have seen more depth of discussion of individual points. The end of the talk, in particular, was a flurry of data and completely different experiments that weren’t tied in well with the thesis of the talk, and there weren’t opportunities for questions in these evening talks, so it was a bit difficult to sort everything out.

Dogs can be good without god

This clip is from a traffic camera in Chile — it shows a dog hit by a car, and then another dog risking the heavy traffic to pull the injured animal to the side, out of danger.

I wonder what church the heroic dog attends?

Keep this in mind when you encounter people — yeah, I’m looking at you, Francis Collins — try to argue that morality and altruism and empathy are unique markers of a divine hand in our origin.

She is “in the condition to have babies”

Italy is experiencing its own version of the Terry Schiavo case. A woman, Eluana Englaro, was in a car crash 17 years ago that caused catastrophic brain damage — she’s been in a vegetative state ever since, and the family has been engaged in a legal fight for many years to pull the plug and allow her to die with a little dignity. They finally won that battle recently, and are easing her off life support and a feeding tube.

Cue the right wing. Silvio Berlusconi, Bush-like Prime Minister of Italy, has rushed to impose an emergency decree blocking the suspension of life support, a decision made after consulting with the Vatican. Here’s a good rule: never consult the priesthood of a death cult before making a life-and-death decision. They always give stupid and evil advice.

Berlusconi’s rationalization is appalling and repugnant. He claims to be “rescuing” Englaro — not true, since she was effectively dead 17 years ago — and in what has to be the most tasteless and disgusting excuse made yet for the actions of these villains of the right, has further justified it by saying that physically she is “in the condition to have babies”. So, what is Berlusconi going to do next in his bizarro Prince Charming act? Fertilize her eggs?

It’s nice to know that the Catholic Church’s criteria for the value of a woman’s life focus on the functionality of her ovaries rather than the existence of her mind.

In which I agree with the Jehovah’s Witnesses…for different reasons

Usually, when I read one of these common stories about people denying themselves reasonable medical care for religious reasons (such as the Jehovah Witness’s proscription against blood transfusions, or the Christian Scientist’s insane denial of illness altogether), I find myself siding with the doctor trying to overcome their foolishness, rather than the deluded theists. This one is an exception.

To make it short, a Jehovah’s Witness couple are expecting twins; one of the twins has a circulation defect that prevents pulmonary circulation, meaning it would suffocate to death as soon as it was born and needed to breathe air; they refuse any surgery to correct the problem; doctor gets a court order, operates at birth against the parent’s wishes, and saves the infant.

I think the doctor was way out of line. This is a case in which the parents were fully aware of the situation and knew that the fetus would die at birth, and elected (for screwy reasons, admittedly) to not pursue extraordinary measures to save its life. They had not deluded themselves into believing medical intervention was unnecessary and that magic would heal the child, they had resigned themselves to its death. And until the child has enough self-awareness to actually want to live, I think that is a decision parents have to be allowed to make. If they want that particular baby, they should be allowed to elect to have major surgery, but if they don’t, they should be permitted to allow its condition to run its course, unless the outcome is likely to be survival with serious damage.

The cost of these medical interventions can be prohibitive, and it can be entirely reasonable to decide not to invest money and time into a fetus who has neither autonomy nor unique qualities, nor an individual personality to which the parents have attached their affection. Let them die. Let the parents decide, not a doctor.

The article cites a particularly horrendous case.

In 1990, for example, a woman named Karla Miller went into premature labor at 23 weeks of gestation in Houston. Because a child born that early has a 75 percent chance of death or severe disability, the husband chose not to sign a consent form that would allow resuscitation. But the neonatologist resuscitated the girl, who grew up severely retarded, legally blind, and quadriplegic. The parents sued the hospital for ignoring their wishes, but in 2000 the Texas Supreme Court ruled for the hospital. George Annas, a medical ethicist at Boston University, later attacked the decision in the New England Journal of Medicine, since “the court implies that life is always preferable to death for a newborn . . . no matter how unlikely their survival is without severe disabilities.”

I wonder if that neonatologist has since taken responsibility for the round-the-clock care and various expenses and stresses of that kind of affliction?