Pro-Life Position Entails Organ Donation

If someone holds that a woman is morally obligated to see a pregnancy through in spite of the imposition on her body, the inconvenience, pain, risk, and loss of autonomy, then they apparently hold the following principles: The autonomy of a person to choose what to do with his or her own body does not contravene the obligation to act to save another. Your body is not your own when another’s life is at stake.

So at the very least, someone holding the pro-life position should donate blood regularly. They should sign up to be available to give bone marrow. They should volunteer to  be a living kidney donor, and to be a living liver donor (that is, to donate these organs while still alive, as opposed to agreeing to donate organs after death.) While these procedures involve some risk, pain and inconvenience, that cannot, on the pro-life principles, be grounds for not accepting them.

Again, this is mere consistency with their basic position: that my body is not my own when it can support another life. That I am obligated to undergo a certain amount of paint, inconvenience, and loss of bodily autonomy if doing so will allow another to live.

It’s been claimed that some strong vegetarian positions entail an anti-abortion position (“On the consistent application of moral consideration,” Justin Caouette and David Boutland, presented at Society for Applied Philosophy annual conference 2014). I question whether vegetarian dedication to preserving animal life and abortion are really analogous, since the vegetarian can consistently hold that bodily autonomy contravenes duty to preserve life: they might hold that one does not have to preserve a life if it is inside of one’s own body, or if it severely limits one’s autonomy. But Caouette and Boutland do have a strong point about maintaining consistency of moral principles, and it may not be possible to spell out a strong pro-life/anti-abortion position that doesn’t entail giving up bodily autonomy to save another’s life. Since that would include live organ donation, the pro-lifer should feel obliged to go to organ donor and bone marrow donor registries. Some information can be found here:

Information on living kidney donation

The bone marrow registry

Donating blood

Living donors on-line: information on living donation of livers, kidneys, and other biological materials

Capitalist Test Case

Suppose I buy up tracts of land around the globe, and set up oxygen extraction machines on this land. Any air that passes over the land, I remove the oxygen and store it. I’m not polluting, I’m merely harvesting resources that are on my land. Let’s say I have enough of these machines, and enough locations, that I can deplete the oxygen content of the earth’s atmosphere. If, as a strict libertarian capitalist, I hold that there are no commons, and that, while I am forbidden from extruding into the atmosphere things that can drift into other people’s property and harm them (i.e. some pollutants), I am fully permitted to suck all the oil out of the ground under my property, or pump out the water for my wells and reservoirs, why can’t I suck up the oxygen like this? Again, I’m asking this of the kind of libertarian who holds that private ownership of water should be a basic right and that, while it might be morally wrong for me to acquire all the water rights in some given area and then refuse to share the water, or choose to sell it only at a rate that few can afford, it should not be illegal for me to do so. Is there any argument against my sucking the oxygen out of the air that passes over my property? We can’t appeal to the fact that the air will then drift elsewhere, because if I hold to the privatization of water rights, it seems I’ll probably allow that I can build dams and reservoirs that limit how much water flows downstream, and so in these cases, too, the remaining, depleted water drifts elsewhere.

It seems, on these accounts, that I’m legally justified in trying to monopolize the oxygen, and then perhaps selling it back to people at a huge mark-up. And yet, this seems intuitively problematic. Is there an argument against it that doesn’t appeal to principles outside of libertarian capitalism?

Descartes and Epistemic Justice

I think a strong claim could be made that Descartes proffers an argument for epistemic justice. In short: if Descartes is correct, and the authority for knowledge claims comes from each individual making the claim for him or herself, then political and religious authorities are not to be taken, without further qualification, as sources for knowledge. Thus, the social forces pushing for a particular view of what is true and known are not to be taken as authoritative: rather, the individual is authoritative with regard to his or her own knowledge claims.

At a time when the church claimed special access to knowledge, and the Bible was accorded privileged place as a source of knowledge, Descartes held that this sort of testimonial knowledge from authority had no greater claim to truth, and indeed a much lesser claim to truth, than those claims that an individual derived from his or her own properly conducted investigations. Anything that the individual knew “clearly and distinctly,” then, had greater authority than any contrary claim coming from political or religious power.

It has been argued that Descartes’ thinking subject was inherently gendered, and gendered male (see for example Bordo’s “Cartesian Masculinization of Thought” 1986, Signs; Bordo’s Flight To Objectivity: Essays on Cartesianism and Culture, 1987, SUNY; Lloyd’s “Maleness, Metaphor and the Crisis of ‘Reason'” in Antony and Witt A Mind of One’s Own: Feminist Essays on Reason and Objectivity, Westview Press, 1993) but this is certainly not inescapably clear from the text. In fact, Descartes explicitly claims that the method is available to anyone.

Further, in an age when the church not only exacted terrible penalties for heterodoxy, using violence to assert its epistemic authority and priority, it also explicitly denied access to knowledge production and acquisition to women, insofar as the priesthood and thus the church hierarchy were closed to them. Descartes, operating outside this structure (though still, of necessity, appealing to it, as in his prefatory letter in the Meditations) offers a source of epistemic authority for anyone, male or female, willing to introspect.

Notably, among Descartes’ best known correspondences are those with Elizabeth of Bohemia. It’s clear in reading them that, unlike, say, Kant in his correspondence with Maria Von Herbert, Descartes never claims that Elizabeth is in any way deficient in reason due to her sex, nor considers her sex as part of her thinking substance. Where Kant refuses to engage philosophically with Von Herbert, offering her advice but not taking in her criticisms, Descartes is extremely mindful of the effectiveness of Elizabeth’s criticisms of his dualism. While he doesn’t give it up, and he engages in some hand-waving at the end, it doesn’t seem that he does so because she’s a woman.

If he was consistent with his own thought, of course, he would have to take her positions as subject only to a critique of reason, and not as coming from a biological determined source.

If we think of Descartes along these lines, as de-legitimizing  an alleged epistemic authority that had, to use Miranda Fricker’s terms, “mere credibility” and “excess credibility,” and affording a kind of universal legitimacy to any person with regard to their own methodologically sound convictions, regardless of what anyone else says to them, we can see him striking an interesting blow for epistemic justice, one that is perhaps evinced in his (for the time) rather feminist tendency to take seriously the writings and philosophical thought of the women who corresponded with him.

In a sense, Descartes’ subject-centered epistemology sets the grounds for later developments that allow oppressed people to continue to assert the value of their subjective experience in the face of the negation of that experience by oppressive authority. They are sanctioned, by cartesianism, as the only true knowers of themselves, and needn’t pay attention to those who attempt to deny their claims from without.

Murder Mystery (from an idea by Michael Cooper)

Suppose every night while you slept someone came into your room and replaced your body parts, one cell at a time. At the end of ten years, she has replaced every cell in your body with an exact duplicate (so you’d have no loss of memory, strength, etc. as a direct result of her work) and destroyed the cells she’d removed.

Luckily, you have a security camera in your bedroom, and at the end of ten years you review the tapes and see that you have been completely replaced, or you are a complete replacement (the wording is inessential here, except perhaps to how you feel about yourself.) You have the culprit arrested.

She is charged with breaking and entering and assault, and probably some other crimes. But can this person be charged with murder? After all, she did completely destroy your body.

Could we charge her with murder if it took her 40 years to replace your cells? One year? One evening? One hour? If there is a cutoff point for when this is murder, how is it arrived at? If it’s murder if done in an hour, but not if done over 40 years, how do we make the distinction?

Further, suppose that before the replacements began, you had committed a murder. Are you, or whatever entity that exists at the end of the replacement procedure, guilty of that murder? Again, does it matter if the procedure took 40 years or one night?

Handout for Undergraduate Epistemology Classes

Linked below is a handout I give on the first day of my undergraduate epistemology class. It lists basic terms and concepts, including entries for:

  1. Knowledge
  2. justified
  3. true
  4. belief
  5. coherentism
  6. foundationalism
  7. infinitism
  8. virtue epistemology
  9. internalism
  10. externalism
  11. know-how
  12. know-that
  13. a priori
  14. a posteriori
  15. introspection
  16. perception
  17. intuition
  18. the given
  19. testimony
  20. skepticism
  21. standpoint
  22. infinite regress
  23. contextualism
  24. knowable, knowables

I’ll be adding more items later in the semester and will update the handout.

Epistemology Basic Terms and Concepts

If my undergrads were sports reporters:

“Football is a game that is enjoyed by many people around the world, especially in America. Two such noted football teams are the New England Patriots and the New Orleans Saints who both play in the National Football League, the largest football league that is currently existing. The two teams played football against each other on Sunday and the New England Patriots were found to be the winner.…”

Responsibility for discontinuous entities

The Looping Machine

Torrance is constructed in the looping machine. Every 3 microseconds he is completely destroyed and replaced with an exact duplicate. The replacement process takes just .0005 picoseconds. The matter is teleported in, old matter teleported out. This is so efficient that no one around him could possibly notice it. Torrance seems to live like anyone else, as the changes in his thoughts and physical position and constitution that occur during the three microseconds are passed on to the next entity. So as far as Torrance knows, he’s like anyone else, slowly gaining and losing mass through ingestion and excretion.

Torrance commits a crime. During the trial, it comes out that Torrance is remade every 3 ms. His defense attorney argues that he cannot ever be guilty of any crime, because the criminal will necessarily be dead by the time any trial commences.

Further, it is impossible for the person who commits the crime to be the person who intends the crime, or, surely, the person who premeditatively intends the crime.

Could an entity like Torrance ever commit a crime? Could an entity like John ever be guilty of a crime?

What if, unlike Torrance, you’re a reasonably normal organism. A crime is committed in the past, and you can show that enough time has passed that you share no matter with the entity that committed a crime, even though that entity is organically continuous with you? How would that bear upon guilt? Should it bear upon guilt? How is this essentially different from the Torrance case, or is it just a difference of custom?

Wrongful Life

Suppose that in the future, people lose the ability to reproduce naturally. Instead they create new humans  using machines construct zygotes from raw materials.  There are, not infrequently, though not the majority of the time, errors in the genetic code of these zygotes, so people generally do a scan to check the zygote’s DNA. If a zygote is found that had an error in gene encoding, the zygote is generally discarded and a new one produced. Such errors would lead either to the zygote self-terminating, or, if it were to survive, to the production of a human being who has serious and painful disabilities.

Is it wrong to terminate these zygotes?

Suppose it were the general practice to discard such zygotes, but someone, through negligence, failed to test a series of zygotes and several were produced that had a disorder that would cause severe, untreatable spinal curvature, resulting in extreme pain and disability. The disorder would not be obvious during the first few years of life, but would become increasingly severe after age 10, resulting in complete disability and extraordinary pain by age 25. Would a person resulting from this be right in suing the negligent party for wrongful life? That is, since the alternative to being born with the disability was to not be born at all, what standing should a person have to sue over this? (Notably, such “wrongful life” suits are allowed in some, but not most, jurisdictions, so there’s no universally accepted legal standard here.)

Teletransporter or Mail?

Given a choice between teletransporting to Mars via Derek Parfit’s case-one teletransporter (your body is destroyed on earth and then a perfect replica with all your memories, beliefs, thoughts, intentions, desires, etc. is created on Mars from fresh matter) or being Express Mailed to Mars, which takes only a couple days, but, since it’s the postal service, they lose something, in this case all your experience-memories, personality, etc., which they dutifully replace with a really nice set of experience memories, personality traits, etc., would you choose the teletransporter or the mail service?

Probably need to flesh out the Express Mail version a bit. Some variants:

1. You’re unconscious for the trip, and then your body wakes up on Mars but with the memories of a really happy, healthy, well-adjusted person who’s an all-around good human being and who is not easily perturbed.

2. You’re awake for the trip and the memory and personality replacement takes place gradually over the two- to three-day trip, though it is just as total as in case 1.

This can be seen as thought experiment to see whether someone holds the physical or psychological criterion, and also as a critique of the postal service.

Limited-scope Veils of Ignorance

I’ve been working with a colleague on a paper proposing a new way to include adjunct faculty in faculty governance, and we thought about using a limited-scope version of the Rawlsian veil of ignorance. In short: given that there are adjuncts and tenure track faculty, how would you set up faculty governance if you knew you were going to be faculty, but didn’t know if you’d be adjunct or tenure track? Part of Rawls’ justification for the veil of ignorance is that so much of our social standing (maybe all of it, at least in some readings) is due to luck. We didn’t choose to be born poor or rich, to have exceptional or minimal intelligence, etc. This is even more obviously the case in faculty placement. The background needed to get in to an elite school, the luck of having advisers who helped you apply to appropriate programs, the luck of being liked by grad school faculty so that they would focus on your work and promote your career, having a thesis topic that was trending at the time the job search began, being attractive so that hiring committees are more likely to be positively disposed towards you, etc. The difference between adjunct and tenure track is often a matter of luck.

One thing about this method, though, is that it doesn’t ask: from behind the veil of ignorance, would we create a university/college system that had two types of faculty? Would we allow the tremendous disparity in pay between the two tracks? Etc.? What we’re asking deals with that area over which faculty might have some immediate control: should adjuncts be given more say in faculty governance? We think they should be, not least because so many curriculum and educational policy decisions are made in departmental meetings and faculty senates, and the adjuncts are often the ones doing the lions’ share of the teaching. They not only have to execute these policies, they’re more able to see the immediate effects they have on students in the classroom.

But we also think it is simply fair to have proportional adjuncts representation on faculty senates, and we think the veil of ignorance exercise might help make that obvious.

We also believe that such limited scope veil of ignorance exercises might be useful in other areas where some group has the ability to decide on some given structure, even though they cannot alter a larger structure of which it is a part. So, granted that some injustices exist, of the ones we can alter, which would we tolerate if we were blind to our place in a situation where we do in fact have the power to make a change.