Archive for September, 2011

A justification for abortion

Sat Sep 24, 2011 3:45 am by Aught3

The most common justification for abortion that I hear is to explain the differences between a foetus and a normal person. If a foetus lacks the important and distinguishing features that make killing a person wrong, the moral issue surrounding abortion is rendered null. While I so think personhood arguments provide valuable support for the legalisation of abortion, I also struggle when it comes to setting the actual legal limit for acceptable abortion implied by this argument. The limit could be wet at eight weeks when the foetus become recognisably human, or around 20 weeks when most of the personhood criteria are met, or some time after birth when full personhood is obtained. The first option is hardly different from a total abortion ban, the second leaves a period of pregnancy when abortion is outlawed, and the third justifies some types of infanticide. Because of these difficulties I prefer the dependence justification for abortion.

Basically, I would argue that while the foetus is absolutely dependent on the mother for nutrients, oxygen, and a safe environment she should be allowed to withdraw that support. The resulting death of the foetus, while predictable, is not murder because it results from the withdrawal of sustenance. I also add an extra requirement of exploring reasonable options that could avoid the need for an abortion but since current technology does not allow aborted embryos to survive and develop independently from the mother, abortion should remain legal.

However, over on M and M (New Zealand’s most popular Christian blog) I found a few counter-examples to my favoured arguments which gave me pause. While some are easy to answer others are a little trickier.

Example 1: “A hiker who breaks her leg a week’s walk from a road will die if her companions do not bring help.’

In New Zealand and other common law jurisdictions there is no duty to rescue. While we might look down on people who leave people to die rather than rescue them, it is not prosecuted as a criminal homicide or any other felony. See this example of mountain climbers being left to die on Everest. I would prefer the general principle that people attempt to rescue others if they are able to do so safely but I also don’t want to force someone into a potentially dangerous action if they are unwilling. This is consistent with my position on abortion. I would prefer if the potential mother to explore all options but if she is unwilling to go through the pregnancy, I would not force it upon her.

Example 2: “An elderly woman may be totally dependant on her children looking after her.’

This is similar to the problem above, there is no legal duty placed upon children to take of their parents in old age. It may be the respectful thing to do, but I do not want the law changed to force children to be responsible for their elderly parents.

Example 3: “A newborn is totally dependent on its mother if it happens to be born in an isolated area where there are no other lactating women and there are no means of bottle-feeding.’

This example I find harder to answer. One point to make is while the above two scenarios are realistic this one is fantastical and unlikely to occur in everyday life. There are always plenty of people around who could look after a new baby if required. Never-the-less, I think this scenario requires an answer: would it be acceptable for a mother to refuse life-sustaining support for her own child? There is a duty to rescue in a parent-child relationship and to refuse aid would be negligence at the least. The expectant mother and the foetus do share an approximation of the parent-child relationship so perhaps the pregnant women does have some duty to provide a life-sustaining environment for her offspring.

I throw it open to you. Is there a relevant difference between the two cases that doesn’t rely on a personhood argument?

The Fabric of the Cosmos

Thu Sep 08, 2011 12:36 am by LibraryJuice

The Fabric of The Cosmos – Brian Greene

This book is a must read for anyone who is slightly apprehensive about reading books on complex physics due to it’s mathematical nature. Greene steers clear of any complex jargon, and explains ideas clearly an concisely, though you might find his use of characters from the Simpsons, and the X-files to explain relativity and quantum physics etc. somewhat patronizing (I certainly cringed a little bit at first, but I got used to it).

For example, he employs Lisa and Bart Simpson to explain Einstein’s theory of special relativity. He asks us to imagine Lisa shooting a laser off into the distance, and Bart chasing it on his high powered skateboard. The skateboard can travel 500 million miles per hour, whilst the laser travels at 670 million miles an hour. From Lisa’s stand point she would say that the beam of light was speeding away from Bart at 170 million miles an hour, however when Bart returns he states that the speed of the light was racing away from him at 670 million miles per hour. “If Lisa had been able to see Bart’s watch as he sped along at 500 million miles per hour, she would have seen that it was ticking about two-thirds as fast as her own,’ he writes. The conclusion is stunning: the faster you move through space, the slower you move through time – an amazing truth, but I think it could have been explained without having to invoke Bart and Lisa Simpson!

Greene takes you through classical Newtonian physics, to the strange and counter intuitive realms of relativity and quantum physics (subjects I’d previously found daunting, but was surprised to find that I could actually grasp the basics of it and even explain it to people after reading), before asking questions about the nature of time at the level of both the Einsteinian and the quantum, moving on the origin of the universe, string theory and M-theory, and finally the prospects of teleportation and time travel.

Though the chapters themselves are quite long, each chapter is divided up into several parts under subheadings, so it’s an easy book to pick up and put down again, without feeling too lost. There’s plenty of illustrations, to aid your understanding of some of the concepts that he explains (this is particularly helpful when it comes to the quantum physics).

All in all, I would highly recommend this book to someone who, like me who initially feels challenged by physics and cosmology. It’s a really clear and easy to understand book, and you will find yourself being thrilled by many of the strange and wonderful concepts that it takes you through. If you’re already well versed in physics and cosmology, you will probably find the explanations and analogies in this book too patronizing and laboured, but for someone who feels daunted by the subjects covered, it is a perfect book to give you a basic grasp of the laws that govern the universe we live in. The Fabric of The Cosmos is an inspiring and enlightening read.

Rating: 9/10

Review by: Laurens

Mistakes Were Made

Wed Sep 07, 2011 10:25 pm by Aught3

“But not by me” reads the subtitle to this staple non-pology. Mistakes Were Made by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson is a fascinating look into the psychology of being wrong. Examples range from psychiatrists, scientists, politicians, TV hosts, all the way to regular people on the street. The focus of this book is not that people are wrong, but that they refuse to admit they are wrong even to themselves and thus confound the error. As I read this book there was a disconcerting transition from recognising the mistakes other people make to recognising those same mistakes in myself. It turns out that everybody errs and nobody admits to it.

The major driver behind our inability to admit mistakes is the need to reduce cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is the uncomfortable feeling of simultaneously holding two contradictory beliefs. In this case the belief that ‘I am a good person’ conflicts with the belief ‘I made a mistake’ and rationalisation kicks in to try and eliminate one of these two beliefs. The easiest one to avoid is ‘I made a mistake’ and that is often the one to go. The authors talk about the numerous ways in which we all try and reduce dissonance. We blame other people, we come up with justifications for our actions, and we ignore evidence that shows we are wrong. Interestingly, we also rewrite our very memories of events to make them seem more favourable to our point of view. This chapter really made me question how accurate anyone (including myself) could be when trying to recall past events.

The most illuminating example(s) in Mistakes Were Made were those that dealt with recovered memories. Recovering memories used to be a legitimate psychiatric practice and helped thousands of people ‘remember’ child abuse, sexual assaults, satanic rituals, and even alien abductions. You’d think by the time aliens came up, the accuracy of the technique might be called into question but the authors do a great job of explaining how accepting small steps can lead to ending at ludicrous (even criminal) outcomes that would not have been accepted in the beginning. The allegations of parental sexual abuse had devastating impacts of real families and some of those involved still can’t admit they were wrong.

Mistakes Were Made contains numerous lessons that anyone could apply to their own lives. I learned a lot from this book and it changed the way I think about how other think and act. The central message from this book is that we all would be better off admitting to each other (and ourselves) when we are wrong.

Overall: 9/10 fantastic read.

A plea to theists: well I guess it is too late for you

Sat Sep 03, 2011 2:48 am by Aught3

One of the greatest ironies in life is watching theists try to reason about moral philosophy. The mess of contradictions produced makes for some laugh-out-loud reading and can be terrific fun to unpack. Working through this kind of fractal wrongness can also help us to clarify our own moral reasoning and shows us why secular morality is superior to that of the religious.Exhibit A is Rabbi Moshe Averick’s A Plea to Atheists: Pedophilia Is Next On the Slippery Slope; Let Us Turn Back Before It Is Too Late. I’ve picked out a few of the major problems and given my response to them.


Averick’s main beef with atheistic morality is that is subjective:

“For the atheist, morality is simply a word that is used to describe the type of system that an individual or society subjectively prefers. Each society establishes, maintains, and modifies its values to suit its own needs.’

While some atheists do see morality as subjective there are also moral philosophies based on facts and a shared understanding of reality (i.e., objective). Rabbi Averick also thinks it is a problem that moral philosophy can update itself as new arguments are made and accepted. As someone who works in the sciences I am comfortable with knowledge improving as new facts are discovered and new ideas developed. There will be setbacks, aberrant paths that are found to be wrong, but on the long view a gradual improvement is continuously made. In modern social democracies can we really doubt that we are better off today than in the past? We have more freedoms and more rights than ever before. This is not the result of mere subjective whims that happened to go the right way, but a recognition that some actions of the past (e.g., slavery) were wrong and should no longer be permitted in our society. Dogmas, on the other hand, do not update and are stuck in our less enlightened past.


Peter Singer
Averick spends a significant chunk of the article attacking Peter Singer for his views on consequentialist utilitarianism. Which is an objective moral system. The Rabbi doesn’t seem to recognise that his criticism of moral subjectivism doesn’t apply to Singer but he continues regardless:

“Singer went on to explain that he is a “consequentialist.’ For the benefit of the philosophically challenged let me explain “consequentialism’ in a nutshell: If you like the consequences it’s ethical, if you don’t like the consequences it’s unethical. Thus, if you enjoy child pornography and having sex with children it’s ethical, if you dislike child pornography and having sex with children it’s unethical.‘

What Singer’s philosophy actually entails is the evaluation of harm that results from an action. Utilitarianism considers happiness to be desirable and harm to be deleterious. This means that when assessing an action for its morality you should look at the consequences in terms of the people harmed and the people helped. So if enjoying child pornography and having sex with children harms someone then it is unethical. Since paedophilia often has traumatic effects on the child involved, their parents, and the wider community Singer would most likely find most cases of paedophilia morally wrong. So much for the slippery slope argument.


Averick claims that since we resulted from slime (or from dust if you are Jewish, I guess that’s better?) that means we are morally bereft. The fact that we evolved from primates does not degrade humanity. It is thrilling to think that all species on this planet are interrelated though the process of evolution. What makes humans different, more significant than our jungle dwelling relatives, is our ability to reason. When we exercise our unique intelligence we get to make our own decisions about meaning, value, and morality. Atheists aren’t handed their morality from on high, we have to think about it, and thanks to evolution we have that ability. After spending most of the article decrying the ability of secular philosophers to reason about ethics, Averick engages in the most dishonest part of the article. He simply throws out a bunch of ethical rules without giving any justification for his claims.

  • All men are created in the image of God and are therefore inherently and intrinsically precious.
  • All men have been endowed by God with unalienable rights and among these are the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
  • Thou shalt not murder.
  • Thou shalt not steal.
  • Thou shalt not bear false witness.
  • Thou shalt not commit adultery, incest, or bestiality.
  • Thou shalt not have sex with children, and if you do you will be looked upon as a disgusting and contemptible criminal and will be treated as such.
  • Thou shall teach these laws to your children.

Fortunately, we can recognise the source for some of these claims, and they don’t come from a god. The ones about unalienable rights are from the American Declaration of Independence and the rules about murder, stealing, perjury, and adultery are from the Torah. These moral rules aren’t from God but from the men who wrote the documents. But where do the other bits and pieces come from? Since Averick hasn’t demonstrated God is the moral author, we have to conclude they come from Averick himself. The Rabbi simply prefers it to be the case that paedophilia is immoral and so claims that it is a divine command. This is merely Self-Projection As God. After spending an entire article railing against subjective morality we find that the only justification Averick has is that he just feels paedophilia is wrong (and God agrees with me!) Unfortunately for Averick the main point of his article is that atheism leads to paedophilia. It is rather easily countered by the mention to two religions: Catholicism and Islam. Both of these theistic beliefs have managed to rationalise and accept (respectively) the sexual molestation of children. If theistic societies are also capable of accepting paedophilia then Averick’s point is moot and it seems that God does not totally agree with our hapless Rabbi on the immorality of pedophilia.

Irony, it’s everywhere.

Free GE

Thu Sep 01, 2011 9:34 am by Aught3

Forgive the indulgence, I read a rather infuriating story in the newspaper and I felt like a rant.

A recent story in the Dominion Post (Commercial benefits lacking in GE trials) reveals the genetic engineering trials being carried out by Crown Research institutions have lead to very few commercial gains. Plant and Food and AgResearch have paid over half a million dollars in application fees to ERMA and only one of the trials has resulted in royalty generating IP. To those familiar with New Zealand’s restrictive requirements for GE research, this outcome is hardly a surprise.

Despite decades of safe use around the world, GE and GMOs remain contentious issues in New Zealand. The regulatory environment alone makes it difficult to carry out even basic research, let alone the commercial research which scientists are now being criticised for not producing. Anti-GE spokeswoman Claire Bleakley decries that the benefit of GE research being completed in New Zealand is lost to the overseas companies. But if private companies are the only ones paying for the research to be carried out then it makes sense they are the ones who reap the economic benefit. Basic funding for GE research is simply not available in New Zealand, the funding bodies know there is little chance any innovation made will be allowed to be used.

If New Zealand wants its scientific organisations to produce applied science using GE technology then it must:
1) relax the regulatory environment so that research time and money is not being consumed navigating expensive legislation
2) fund GE projects so the IP is not captured by overseas companies
3) open the New Zealand market to GMOs so that the benefits of this technology can be accrued here

There is very little risk and huge benefits to allowing GE research to be conducted more freely. The longer New Zealand clings to the anti-GE label, the more we miss out on the exciting commercial opportunities. Rather than be GE-free, let’s free GE!

Cross-posted from

Facebook Auto Publish Powered By :