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Sustainability, Happiness, and a Science of Morality: Part I

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Human beings seem to share the fundamental goal of wanting to live a satisfying and fulfilling life. We all want to be happy, and the humanist movement is an excellent demonstration of the kinds of strategies that have been most effective at achieving this admirable goal – such as the push for democracy, equality, basic human rights, and the elimination of poverty. Clearly we have a long way to go before human happiness is anywhere near universal, let alone maximized – if these are in fact possible futures within our grasp. We’re certainly not going to get there very easily (if at all) unless we address a number of serious societal problems.

One of the most pressing issues facing us today, because of it’s negative impact on just about every other societal problem, is the problem of overpopulation. The reasons for this are obvious and include the decreasing number of available resources per capita, thus forcing people to stretch their resources thinner and thinner over an ever growing population, and/or inclining some societies to go to war with others in order to obtain more resources. Then there’s also the problematic increase in environmental degradation and waste production as the population grows. Beyond the typical resources we’re depleting such as energy/power, food, clean air and water, and raw materials for making various products, there’s also other limited resources that are often overlooked such as the amount of available (let alone habitable) space where people can live, grow food, store waste, etc. There’s also a relatively small percentage of people employed in professions that not only require very special training but that also form the backbone of our society (such as teachers, doctors, scientists, etc.). As these latter resources get stretched thinner and thinner (i.e. education, healthcare, and scientific expertise and research), we’re effectively diluting the backbone of our society which can eventually cascade into societal collapse.

To be sure, there are several ways to combat many of these problems that are caused or exacerbated by overpopulation, for example, by shifting from a goods-based economy to a service-flow economy that recycles product materials that would otherwise be wasted (in part by leasing many of the products that are currently bought and later thrown into a landfill), by increasing the percentage of less-pollutive or non-pollutive renewable energy sources, and finding other ways of decreasing the demand for and increasing the efficiency and distribution of all the resources we rely on. The problem with these approaches however is that although these technologies and admirable efforts are slowly improving, the population is also increasing at the same time. So even if we are in fact increasing efficiency and decreasing consumption and waste per capita, we are simultaneously increasing that very capita, and so it is difficult to tell if technological progress has been (or will eventually be) fast enough to produce a true increase in overall sustainability per capita. It would be fallacious and unjustified to simply assume that to be the case – that technology will always be able to fix every problem. If anything, to error on the side of caution, we should assume that this isn’t the case until we have enough data and knowledge to prove otherwise.

Population Reduction is the Name of the Game

An obvious solution to this problem is to decrease the population growth rate such that our technological capabilities are more than sufficient enough to deliver a sustainable future for us. This goal may even require a negative growth rate, and at some point we’re going to have to start talking about what kinds of societal changes are necessary in order to achieve that goal. We may need some new incentives and/or some other kind of population control measures and policies, however, I’m hopeful that solving this problem is pragmatically achievable if we can manage to seriously educate the populace about how their reproductive choices affect the lives of everyone else in the world and how it is likely to impact future generations (though I don’t think this will be an easy task by any means). If people knew that certain reproductive choices would likely lead to either themselves, their children, or their children’s children, living in a future society filled with unprecedented amounts of poverty and war, environmental and economic collapse, and numerous other sources of suffering – any rational person would heed that knowledge and try their best to combat that possible future.

So a large part of the solution is simply educating everybody about the facts and probabilities of these undesirable outcomes. There are already many individuals and groups of people working on these types of endeavors, trying to push for renewable energy, pro-environmental advocacy and other sustainable living practices and policies, spreading education about family planning and trying to increase the access to and adoption of birth control methods, etc. Unfortunately, these practices haven’t yet been adopted by anywhere near a national nor global majority – far from it. However, if the movement becomes more globalized and builds up to a critical mass and momentum, eventually we’re likely to see the average person’s physical and psychological well being improve, which will further reinforce the incentives to improve and perpetuate the movement, because people will start to realize the tangible benefits they are gaining as a result.

Systematic & Ideological Barriers to Sustainability & Happiness

Unfortunately there are some serious systematic and ideological barriers that are preventing the sustainability movement from gaining traction and they’re ultimately inhibiting what would otherwise be fairly reasonable rates of progress. I think that the primary systematic barrier against achieving sustainability has been corporate-capitalism and the free-market economic models currently in place. While it may be true that there are certain forms of capitalism along with certain regulated market models that could work in principle if not also in practice, unfortunately these aren’t the brands of capitalism and market models that are currently employed by most industrialized nations (though some nations have more sustainable models than others).

What we currently have now are globalized economic systems and models that are fundamentally based on maximizing profit and consolidating privately owned production means at the expense of not only exploiting and depleting our natural resources and environment but also by exploiting unethical sources of human labor. Furthermore, these models have in turn led to unprecedented levels of socioeconomic inequality and environmental degradation. Then again, what else should we expect to happen when we employ corporate-capitalist free-market models which inherently lack adequate and universal economic, labor and environmental regulations? Despite the fact that the wealthy corporate elite, and the many politicians and citizens that have bought into their propaganda, have actually been touting this model as “the best in the world” or “the best model possible”, we can see that this isn’t true at all both by the fallacious fundamental principles that the models are based on and the actual results they’ve been delivering thus far. If we’re going to have a sustainable future, let alone one that provides us more satisfaction and happiness throughout our lives, we’re going to have to jump off of this sinking ship, and adopt an entirely new societal model.

We also need to consider the ideological barriers that have been hindering the sustainability movement as well as the humanism movement in general. For example, there are many prominent religions such as Christianity and Islam (which are highly influential as they make up over half the population of the world) that believe that one of the primary goals for human beings (according to their “divinely inspired” scripture) is to “be fruitful and multiply” while also claiming a general dominion over all the plants and animals of the earth. While the latter “dominion” over the earth has been interpreted by some as “responsible stewardship” (which is compatible with sustainability), it has often been interpreted as “ownership” over the environment and as justification to exploit it strictly for the benefit of human beings (not realizing our intimate dependence on all other ecosystems). Worse yet, the former “be fruitful and multiply” adage can only be reasonably interpreted one way, and unfortunately this “advice” is the antithesis of a sustainable model for society (though it has been an incredibly effective meme for the expansion of these religions and their cultural influence and power). Indeed, it is the exact opposite of what we should be doing at this point in human history, and perhaps the greatest irony here is that the current overpopulation problem was largely a result of this adage, and the subsequent viral spread of these Abrahamic religions over the past fifteen hundred years especially.

Two other religious beliefs worth mentioning here, which have also been highly popularized by the Abrahamic religions (notably Christianity), are the beliefs that “the end is near” and that “no matter what happens, everything is in God’s hands”, as these beliefs and the overall mentality they reinforce do nothing to support the long-term responsible planning that is fundamental to a sustainable societal model. The latter belief plays on an unfortunate human cognitive bias known as risk compensation, where we tend to behave less responsibly when we feel that we are adequately protected from any harm. In the case of a fanatical belief in divine protection, their level of risk compensation is biased to the theoretical maximum, thus making them the most likely to behave the most irresponsibly. The former belief (“the end is near”) unavoidably shifts the believer’s priorities to the short term (and in proportion to the strength of the belief), and with the specific intention of preparing for this “end that is to come”, rather than basing their beliefs on reality and evidence and responsibly preparing for a brighter future for all of humanity and the rest of the planet that we depend on.

Certainly, these religious beliefs aren’t the only ideological barriers to sustainability, as there are a number of other irrational political ideologies that are largely though not exclusively based on the rejection of scientific evidence and consensus, and have served to heavily reinforce the fossil-fuel and other natural resource driven corporate-capitalist model. This unsustainable model has been reinforced by denying facts about climate change and many other facts pertaining to human impacts on the environment in general. In some cases, I find it difficult to tell if the people that make these absurd claims actually believe them to be true (e.g. that 99+% of scientists are somehow conspiring or lying to everybody else in the world), or if they are just implicitly pleading ignorance and rationalizing so that they can maintain their profit-driven models for outright insatiable greed. I find it most plausible that politicians are collaborating with certain corporations to deny scientific facts because they want to continue to make billions off of this resource exploitation (at least for as long as they can get away with it), and are doing so in large part by brainwashing the constituent base that elected them into office with mounds of corporate-funded misinformation, fear mongering, and empty political rhetoric.

It should also come as no surprise that the people that believe and/or perpetuate these political ideological barriers to sustainability are most often the very same people that believe and/or perpetuate the aforementioned religious ideological barriers, and it seems quite evident that politicians have taken advantage of this fact. Many of them surely know quite well that if they can persuade religious voters to vote for them by convincing those voters that they share a common ground on some moral issue, then those voters become distracted from critically thinking about the primary political agendas that those politicians are really pushing for behind the curtain. The very agendas that are in fact hindering a sustainable future from ever coming into fruition.

We’ve all seen it – certain politicians claiming that they oppose stem cell research or abortion, or that advocate for abolishing the separation between church and state (though generally not admittedly), and use this tactic to suck in these (often) single issue religious voters, while ironically promoting a number of policies that often violate the morals of those very same voters (unbeknownst to the voters). They enact policies that perpetuate war, capital punishment, poverty, and the military-industrial complex. They enact policies that worsen socioeconomic inequality and the accumulation of wealth and power in the hands of a few at the expense of the many. They enact policies that are destroying the finite supply of natural capital we have left on this planet. They enact policies that ultimately hinder democracy, equality, and universal human rights.

So in the end, most religious voters (and some non-religious voters that are similarly misled), while admirably trying to do what they believe is the most moral thing to do, end up vastly increasing the amount of immoral behavior and suffering in the world, due in large part to the politicians that manipulated them into doing so. Which is why it is crucial that people make their decisions based on reason and evidence and also critically think about the consequences of their decisions and actions as they are sometimes more complicated than we are often led to believe. We need to think more critically of all the policies and legislation that we are choosing based on who we vote for, and we also need to be wary of policies that may initially seem to align with our morals and desires, and yet will actually result in more suffering or other unforeseen problems in the long run.

In the next part of this post, I will elaborate more on the broader human goals we all seem to share, and how a science of morality can help us use those broader goals to alleviate these societal problems and simultaneously help us to achieve a future where we are all collectively happier than we ever thought we could be, with far more fulfilling lives.  Here’s the link to part two.

Why I Became a Pro-Choice Advocate

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There have been a number of arguments raised over the years concerning whether or not a woman should have the right to choose to have an abortion or not.  I’d like to briefly discuss the primary arguments that I’ve personally found to be the most compelling.  Personally, I hold the view that a woman should indeed have the right to choose whether or not to terminate a pregnancy, and thus I am a pro-choice advocate, though this wasn’t always the case (as a former pro-life/anti-choice atheist, and before that a pro-life/anti-choice Christian).  The primary arguments I’m going to discuss will hopefully illustrate why in fact I hold the pro-choice view that I do, and why I believe it is both rational and reasonable for others to share this view as well.

First, when it comes to determining what individual rights we should or shouldn’t have, we must ask if we want to live in a world where we theoretically begin with no rights at all and then add any desirable rights as needed over time, or where we theoretically begin with every possible right and then remove/restrict rights as desired over time.  It seems obvious to me that the first scenario would be simply absurd and wholly impractical to implement.  Among many other reasons to reject this first scenario, we need only realize that if we began with no rights at all, we wouldn’t even have the right to determine or vote on what rights we should be given at some future point in time.  Furthermore, nobody would have the right to enforce any kind of “no-rights” system put into place.  At the very least, to avoid these absurdities and impracticalities, it is easy to see that the second scenario best describes what any rational person would want.  That is, people want to have as many personal liberties and freedoms as possible with the intention of only excluding certain liberties when they contradict other liberties that are more fundamental.  When it comes to determining which rights should be restricted or excluded in a society (and/or which are most fundamental), people also tend to want to accomplish that decision-making through well-informed democratic processes rather than some particular individual or group making the decision and forcing everyone else to abide by such laws.

Why Have Individual Rights in the First Place?

So what exactly is the primary goal of having and protecting any rights for an individual?  I believe the primary goal that most people (if not all) would agree with is the ultimate intention of creating, maintaining, and living in a society that is conducive to the greatest levels of overall satisfaction and well-being of the lives of every member of that society.  From a libertarian perspective, we could also say that this amounts to a goal of minimizing the magnitude and number of situations in which people are forced into doing something that they don’t want to do.  When we consider the topic of abortion, the primary arguments on either side of the issue tend to pertain to determining and defining which specific individual rights exist (or that arguably should exist) and then we apply these definitions and determinations to the scenario of abortion to see if any rights have in fact been violated.  With regard to this topic, we must also examine the consistency and efficacy of a person’s position on the issue in terms of how well it achieves the aforementioned goal or purpose of having and protecting rights and freedoms in the first place.  It goes without saying that if a person’s position on the issue is such that it’s implementation through any proposed legislation would effectively increase suffering in the world and/or increase the magnitude of people being forced to do things that they don’t want to do, then that person’s position is self-refuting in that it directly contradicts their ultimate reason for wanting to protect individual rights – unless their goal for protecting individual rights substantially differs from the one I’ve stated above, in which case, we would have to evaluate how rational any other stated goal would be in comparison. 

We must also examine the consequences of taking someone’s position on the matter to its logical conclusion, seeing how it would be applied in definitively similar situations, whether or not there would be special exceptions to the rules proposed, and once again whether all of those conceptual elements are consistent with one another.  Ultimately, how we choose to define terms (and their specificity) within this topic of discussion is important for determining the tenability of anybody’s position on the matter.  Let’s take a look at some of the primary arguments that have developed over time while trying to clarify some terminology and definitions along the way.

The Argument for Bodily Autonomy

Perhaps the most primary and fundamental argument in favor of protecting a woman’s right to choose to terminate a pregnancy is the argument for bodily autonomy.  In it’s basic form, it simply asserts that an individual has the right to choose who or what uses their body, for what purpose, and for how long.  The most common (and uncontroversial) examples of applying this very basic principle would be preventing a person from being forced to donate blood, tissue, or organs to another person, even if in doing so, it would potentially save that other person’s life.  If anyone abides by this principle and doesn’t believe that a person should be forced to donate blood, tissue, or organs to another person (to use these common examples) then the same principle would also forbid forcing a woman to donate blood, tissue, or organs to an embryo or fetus, even if in doing so, it would potentially save that embryo or fetus’ life.  During pregnancy, starting from conception, the embryo and later fetus indeed use the woman’s uterus, her blood, her tissue (including for the placenta that eventually forms) and even the woman’s food and oxygen resources. This is arguably the most extreme example of one person using another person’s body. If in fact the embryo or fetus’ use of the woman’s body is against the woman’s consent, then a right to bodily autonomy protects that woman’s right to abort that pregnancy, regardless of whether or not that fetus has no chance of surviving as a result.

Some might object and say, what about the embryo or fetus’ rights? Shouldn’t they have the same rights as every other human being? Well, if we treat all human beings equally and give them all the same rights (which is hardly controversial), then this amounts to giving the embryo or fetus the same rights to bodily autonomy as is afforded to the woman. However, the embryo or fetus doesn’t have any other person who is trying to use their body against the consent of that fetus (nor does that fetus have any consent on the matter one way or the other, although this is irrelevant in any case). Thus, one would have to afford the fetus special rights (a right to use another person’s body against their will), and this is a right that isn’t even granted to children that are already born, since a child’s mother isn’t forced to donate an organ, blood, or tissue to that child, even if it can potentially save that child’s life. Thus, arguments against a woman’s right to choose to terminate a pregnancy are only tenable if one also denies the right of bodily autonomy. Furthermore, if this right was only denied to a woman with respect to a fetus inside her (and not denied to anyone else), and thus is not consistently applied in all other cases, then we have a special right for fetuses that is being argued for, thus arguing against equal rights for all human beings. The only way to reconcile this and make the individual rights equal for all human beings (while attempting to preserve the life of the fetus) would be to completely abandon the right to bodily autonomy which seems like a position that almost nobody would choose to adopt.

On top of this, if one were to grant these same special rights to a less developed human being residing in a pregnant woman, such as a fertilized egg (the first stage of pregnancy), then women would also lose the right to take certain birth control medications. For example, while common birth control medications such as “the pill”, Norplant, or any other chemical birth control medications primarily function by preventing ovulation and impeding sperm, this isn’t 100% effective and so if the chemicals fail to prevent ovulation or fertilization, then they end up preventing implantation of the fertilized egg in the uterine wall, thus aborting the pregnancy. So it must also be kept in mind that if these special rights were granted to any developing human life residing in a woman’s body (whether a fertilized egg, embryo, or fetus), in order to remain consistent with this reasoning, one would also be taking away a woman’s right to use the most common forms of birth control in existence (i.e. chemical/hormonal and IUD methods) since it is well known that they often lead to abortions when they are used.

Defining “Personhood”

Another prominent argument in favor of a woman’s right to choose whether or not to terminate a pregnancy, involves the definition of personhood. In the case of the aforementioned argument for bodily autonomy, it was mentioned that the fetus could indeed be granted the same rights as the woman carrying that fetus, and it still wouldn’t deny the woman the right to abort that pregnancy since it is the woman’s right to bodily autonomy that is being violated in that case. However, it is also worth asking on exactly what grounds are people arguing that the fertilized egg, embryo, or fetus should in fact be granted the same rights as the woman carrying it, or any rights at all for that matter? This comes down to defining what exactly we are granting individual rights to. For example, are we granting rights to a fetus because it is human or has human DNA? A skin cell is also human and has human DNA, but we don’t grant rights to skin cells or the like so there is something else more specific under consideration here. It seems that the primary factor here pertains to defining personhood, for it seems undeniable that it is people that should have these shared individual rights. So what exactly is a person or individual and how do we define that concept?

One might argue that a person is simply a human body, but this can’t be correct, because we don’t grant rights to deceased human bodies. We could further clarify the definition of a person to be a human body that isn’t dead, but what about a brain-dead human body? If my mother became brain-dead but remained on life support (with a beating heart and functional organs), and I was given the option to “pull the plug”, if I chose to do so, would I be killing my mother? One way to determine the answer to this question would be to ask another, namely, who or what is my mother exactly? Would my mother be the brain-dead (though otherwise living) human body that lies before me? It may look like my mother, but I would argue that this body isn’t my mother at all, for my mother is a personality, an identity, a collection of memories, or at the very least a conscious and self-aware being that experiences perceptions and emotions.

Who my mother is exactly is ultimately contingent on the configuration and state of her brain, for it is our brain that manifests our personal identities and any particular self. To prove this, one need only consider the fact that if your brain were swapped with that of another person, you would cease to be you even if the rest of your body was kept original and intact. “You” would now have the personality, memories, thoughts, values, interests, likes and dislikes of that other person. On the other hand, you could swap your arms or legs or various other body parts with another person (or simply get them amputated), and you would still be you (so long as your brain was kept intact).

So to return to my hypothetical scenario involving pulling the plug on a brain-dead mother, because my mother is no longer alive in that case, but rather it is only her body that is alive, my pulling the plug would not in fact be an act of killing my mother. In fact, it wouldn’t even be an act of killing “a person”, because as was just illustrated, a person is contingent on a living brain, and more specifically a living brain with a particular configuration and minimal set of features (such that it has conscious experiences at least some of the time). This just goes to show what we value in a person and why we want people to have protected individual rights in the first place. It isn’t because they are living human bodies, but because we know that “people” are conscious, thinking beings and we value this fact and empathize with them and their experiences. We don’t want people to suffer because we know what it feels like to suffer (to varying degrees), and to consider the contra-positive, we also want to maximize the satisfaction and well being of people. So if a particular human being is not able to experience anything at all (that is, there are no perceptions, and thus no consciousness), then what we value in how we define a person is missing in this case, and thus the ultimate purpose for giving that human being rights is no longer applicable, for that human being is unable to suffer, let alone experience anything at all.

Now if we return to the concept of a fertilized egg, embryo, or fetus, we can apply the same reasoning and ask the same questions. When exactly does the fetus have the requisite brain structures developed such that it can be conscious and experience anything at all (much like my hypothetical mother was before she was brain-dead)? Well, a fetus doesn’t actually become neurologically active until approximately the fifth month of gestation (an event that the medical community refers to as “quickening”). It is at this point that some of the physical hardware (a complex form of the cerebral cortex) is in place for some future capability of consciousness, however the thalamo-cortical complex is integral for consciousness as well and doesn’t begin to materialize until sometime between the 24th and 28th week of gestation. It isn’t until about two months after that (32nd to 36th week), when a synchronous electroencephalographic (EEG) rhythm starts to signal that there is in fact a global neuronal integration taking place – a process that is a fundamental element of consciousness, working memory, etc.

Thus, before the fifth month of pregnancy (the 20th week), the fetus’ brain hasn’t nearly developed enough of the requisite hardware to be conscious (let alone to be self-aware), and thus it is unable to form an individualized personality, and therefore it is not yet a person based on the definition and reasoning given earlier. It doesn’t yet have this personhood status, the very status that we value and thus the very fundamental status that motivates us to ascribe individual rights to a person in the first place. It should also be noted at this time that the majority of elective abortions on record occur before the fourth month of pregnancy, which is several weeks before the fetus is even capable of being conscious, let alone well before it is even capable of beginning to develop any kind of personality or identity, which are necessary attributes in order to be considered a person as defined above.

Are Pro-Life/Anti-Choice Arguments Tenable?

So there are indeed very strong arguments for protecting a woman’s right to choose to terminate a pregnancy including the argument for bodily autonomy and the argument for defining personhood, using reasonable metrics that are based on what we fundamentally value in “people”, and thus why we want people to have protected individual rights in the first place. Arguments against a woman’s right to choose to terminate a pregnancy are likely to be ideologically untenable in that they deny a right to bodily autonomy that I think most people aren’t willing to universally (and thus consistently) argue against. These arguments also tend to rely on defining personhood using criteria or attributes that are either arbitrary, not universally applicable or that are unreasonable because of a fundamental misunderstanding of what we actually value in a person. Furthermore, these arguments are also pragmatically untenable since they also deny women the right to use the most common forms of birth control in order to remain consistent with the basic principles that constitute a pro-life/anti-choice position. For these reasons and more, my position on the issue has changed markedly over time, and after careful consideration of the arguments both for and against a woman’s right to choose, I am happy to say that I finally adopted what I found to be the most reasonable, rational, consistent, and ultimately tenable position on the issue.  Indeed, I support a woman’s right to choose, and I believe that the facts demonstrate this to be the most moral position to have on the matter.