Friday, September 16, 2011

The Facebook Thread

Zeta Beta Tau, Delta Omega Chapter (R.I.P) Oh, how we miss it so... I've gone on record before saying I'm not a huge Facebook fan. I'm not especially enamored of the format, the concept, or the knowledge that I am their product rather than their customer. I don't really appreciate the fact that they are voraciously trying to find out as much about us as they possibly can in order to build marketing profiles on us. If I didn't need to keep an eye on my teenagers' accounts, it's doubtful that I would even have an account of my own at all. Generally speaking, I try to keep a pretty low profile over there, but I admit it's also kind of nice to be back in touch with some old friends again, and every once in a while I'll put a little something up, or comment on something I find interesting.

The other day, I put up a post signifying that I was excited about Elizabeth Warren's entry into the 2012 Massachusetts Senate Race (challenging Scott Brown), and it led to a short political discussion between me and a few of my college fraternity brothers. When I pointed out that they all seemed to share libertarian leanings with different points of emphasis, I was challenged on that by brother Bob, who denied having libertarian inclinations. In doing so, he also voiced some strong views, as is his wont, and in doing so he touched on the topic of abortion.

Now, I don't even really like to talk about the "A" bomb here, let alone on Facebook. It's such an emotional topic, I figure most people I'm friends with really wouldn't appreciate having it in their morning feeds. What do I know about the private lives of some of my FB friends? What do I know about what kinds of pain or losses they've gone through?

At any rate, I suggested taking it up over here. It's not an evasion or a dodge. As many of the people who correspond with me here (if they are still reading, that is) are likely to disagree as agree with me on this, so here goes... Here is how it went on FB:

Bob: Libertarian? Me? Jeff, you are WAY off. I look over my right shoulder with binoculars to see Karl Marx. I exaggerate. A little. I'm a social ultra-liberal and a fiscal conservative. I'm in favor of social safety nets for people that NEED them (as opposed to the leeches that milk them for all they're worth.) I'm in favor of enacting legislation to abolish for-profit health insurance, because the ability of a citizen to get health insurance shouldn't be determined by an HMO accountant. I'm against having military bases all over the planet and being the world's police force. I'm VEHEMENTLY against allowing religion to have ANY say whatsoever in the operation of government, and think churches should pay taxes. I'm in favor of equal rights for all citizens, all the time. I'm in favor of same-sex marriage and transgender non-discrimination bills. I'm in favor of women having the 100% iron-clad right to decide what they do with their bodies - including if and when they will carry a fetus to term. I know (not "believe," but KNOW,) that a collection of undifferentiated cells or an embryo that has yet to develop a central nervous system or a functioning brain is NOT a human being and should not be accorded the rights of one. I'm in favor of erasing all laws that would be enforced by a "vice squad," and vigorously prosecuting the white-collar Wall Street thieves that brought us our current financial crisis. I don't know what all that makes me, but i do know it ain't a Libertarian.
Wednesday at 10:51pm · LikeUnlike

Jeff: Bob, I admit that when I read “I'm a social ultra-liberal and a fiscal conservative,” that translates as “libertarian” to me, and probably to most other people as well, but I suppose it’s not a precise match with the actual philosophical definition.I believe that we should have a social safety net, as every human being has dignity just by virtue of the fact that he or she is a human being, and does not have to earn that basic level of dignity by their utility. At the same time, we should discourage, by non-legislative means as much as possible, the behaviors that cause people to fall into safety nets.

Facebook is not a blog, and I think it’s a horribly inappropriate venue to discuss such an emotionally hot-button topic like abortion, but when you say…

"I know (not "believe," but KNOW,) that a collection of undifferentiated cells or an embryo that has yet to develop a central nervous system or a functioning brain is NOT a human being and should not be accorded the rights of one.”
… I have absolutely no idea how you can come to such a conclusion, or why anyone else should feel compelled to agree with such a subjective value judgement stated with such vehement authority, especially when you reject omnipotent authorities, but I’m not getting drawn into an abortion discussion on Facebook.

I do have a blog, however, where I discuss religious, political, and cultural issues. I’d be glad to discuss such things over there. If anyone is at all interested, you can message me to find out what it is.
Yesterday at 7:25am · LikeUnlike

Bob : It's simple Jeff, if something doesn't have a brain or a nervous system, it's not a human being. A human being has a brain for thinking and a central nervous system for feeling. The idea that "life begins at conception" is a religious belief, not a medical fact. The fetus i described can't think and can't feel, and therefore has no means of experiencing physical distress and no self-awareness to "kill."

18 hours ago · LikeUnlike

Jeff: Is that a fertilized egg? The acorn already has every single solitary genetic attribute designating what it will ever be as a tree... The caterpillar is not a dress, but it is the same exact creature that will be recognizable later as a butterfly.... By what scientific reasoning does a central nervous system and a brain constitute what a human being is? That's as subjective a value judgement on what "personhood" is as any religious dogma I've ever heard. What gives you the right to say that "thinking and feeling" defines what a human being is, and that it represents a consensus on what the rest of us should believe? The notion that sentience is the defining factor over anything else is philosophy, not science.
7 hours ago · LikeUnlike

Allen: Bob: How do you know that?
7 hours ago · LikeUnlike

Craig: Though we'll likely never resolve the "when does a?" question, we should all recognize the loss we all suffer when the government takes an interest in and insists upon awareness of the gestational status of every female private citizen.
7 hours ago · LikeUnlike

Jeff : Oh well... I asked - politely - to be messaged on this, but my request was ignored... To Craig's point, yes, it is always best to propose rather than to impose... I find it interesting that at the same time the acceptance of gay marriage and full civil rights for gay people is growing, the support for the pro-life postion is ALSO growing. I haven't led an innocent, risk-free and sheltered life, and I do get the nature of the back-alley problem. I get it. Having said all that, I'd like to add that even if we did entertain the notion that 'thinking and feeling" had something do with defining personhood, you need to say * precisely when * that begins, and if you can't do that, you need to err on the side of caution and go back to the begining. If people of a scientific bent want to plant an arbitrary yardstick on this, why not set it at the point when our entire genetic makeup is defined?
6 hours ago · LikeUnlike

Craig: Give us the link! Just caught up with this one late last night, and figured I'd toss in a moderating two cents...
6 hours ago · LikeUnlike
Craig, please feel free to moderate away, if you like...


kad barma said...

Moderate? Yikes! It's been awhile since anyone has suggested I'm to be the voice of moderation and reason in any debate. (But thanks for the vote of confidence).

I'm absolutely of the Libertarian point of view when it comes to most issues of personal liberty and the proper place of government relative to them. To me, the emotional/religious/philosophical argument about abortion needs never arise in the discussion of our laws, since, as I put it in the post referenced here, "we all suffer when the government takes an interest in and insists upon awareness of the gestational status of every female private citizen". Wrestling over someone's potential fetus must most certainly be the most personal and extreme of all unreasonable searches and seizures, and if this isn't the most necessary opportunity to apply our Fourth Amendment, I couldn't name a more important one. Yes, society has an interest in protecting life. But the means to do so here require trampling personal liberty in a way that I simply cannot reconcile with our Constitution, or abide.

Activist liberals and conservatives so often want to use government as a cudgel to advance their social agendae, from abortion to same sex unions. Since there is never to be any agreement between them which extreme we should enforce, I feel quite confident that the Libertarian way is the only one on which reasonable people can ultimately agree. Otherwise, someone or other is always up-in-arms that the "other" side has made an abomination of our laws.

How's that for moderation, Jeff?

Jeff said...

Well done, O Mullah!

I can see your points, and I do concede that an anti-abortion position is "big government," or at least intrusive government. That's one of the reasons why I've always considered it a bit strange that the Pro-Life movement has been associated with the GOP instead of the Dems... although... who am I kidding? The borrow-and-spend Republicans have been just as guilty of growing government as the Democrats. That strange dichotomy clearly has more to do with the flocking of the religious to the right and the secular to the left... The things is, I'm not sure that Roe v. Wade was very good law under the penumbra of the 4th amendment. I think it was a bit of a reach, but worse than that, I think it marked the real beginning of the age of judicial activism and of legislation from the bench. Some of that was necessary during the Civil Rights struggle - the Southern states were never going to do the right thing unless they were forced to - but then the Supremes started looking for other dragons to slay.

In the aftermath, it distorted and disfigured our politics. Ever since then, just about every presidential election and every Supreme Court nomination process has been focused around this issue and colored by it. That was especially true in the 25 years immediately following Roe v. Wade.

Furthermore, it means we never came to a consensus on it as a nation, and the rulings in Roe v. Wade have never come under review in light of scientific advances (the stages of viability, etc...). A state by state fight might have been messy and chaotic, but it's being done for gay marriage now. Part of the reason why this has been such a contentious issue is that we were never able to hammer out a consensus as a people. I'm not playing to your background, but I often like to bring up Germany as an example, because in the post-war period they've had a good record of getting stuff right. They seemed to have put together a sensible set of legislation that addresses the concerns of both sides, and has not split their society apart. It doesn't seem to constitute an undue burden on them there.

I'd like to see greater consideration being given to the unborn, but I am not insensitive to your valid concerns, and I fear theocracy too. When I heard the speech Rick Perry gave at The Response, it sent a chill down my spine, and I'm a Christian. Well... in his Rushdoony-inspired brand of Dominionism, he probably wouldn't consider me a Christian anyway.

As for my brand, I'm coming to embrace a more humble attitude. Christianity thrives when it is out of power. It seems to suffer and become corrupt when it is in positions of power. I guess I'm saying I'd rather see Christians laboring to convince rather than conquer.

Thanks for posting. BTW, I like the Kad Barma handle and the blog.

Arjaizen said...

Really? It's actually a debatable point that something literally incapable of thinking or feeling because it has not a single synapse or neuron for thought, not even one cell capable of producing a physical sensation might not be a person? Amazing.

As to when that "line in the sand" might be drawn, i have a humble proposal: Why don't we leave that to those most qualified to determine it... like, oh, i don't know... doctors and biologists? They might be just a little bit more up to the task than your typical cleric who's education is primarily found within the pages of a book counseling on all the various imaginary crimes for which people should be stoned to death.

Prove there is such a thing as a soul. If you are able to do that, then you will have grounds for postulating that a blastocyst might have one. However, keep in mind: It is estimated that half of all fertilized eggs spontaneously abort, and 15-20% of all pregnancies result in miscarriages. If all those fertilized eggs have souls, and the method by which we procreate is by the design of God, it seems to me that he isn't all that concerned about abortion.

Jeff said...

A zygote is undeniably a human BEING. ANY doctor or biologist (many of whom are people of faith) will tell you that. It isn't a fish, a frog, a duck-billed platypus or anything else. What it becomes later is strictly a matter of DEVELOPMENT, not category.

Now, whether or not it is a human PERSON is a PHILOSOPHICAL question. No scientist, doctor, or biologist can state an opinion on this that carries any more weight than a clergyman's or anyone else's. To say otherwise would be a greater piece of sophistry than anything that ever came out of the mouth of a medieval churchman.

I dunno... I'm flummoxed in a sense by atheists. They keep telling everyone how important it is for us to learn about evolution (which I happen to believe in fully and without reservation), but really can't tell us why. Presumably, it would have something to do with how we are going to save ourselves as a species from certain destruction with better self-knowledge, but that explanation is never forthcoming.

A few years ago the atheist hero Richard Dawkins wrote a book called "The Selfish Gene." The main thesis of the book is that our bodies are principally vehicles that exist for the purpose of passing our genes into the next generation, and that basically every aspect of our behavior has evolved for that purpose. Even actions that seem to us to be generous or altruistic are actually self-serving at bedrock, adapted to maximize the chances for our selfish genes to win the competition to be passed along into the next generation.

Now, when I suggest that a human being, or person, should be defined upon the criteria of when a completely new human genome has been created, this is rejected, and I'm told that it has something to do with thinking, or feeling pain, or being self-aware of the fact that we can be killed. Unreal. If atheists wish to be intellectually consistent, why don't they base the definition of a human person upon the moment when a completely new set of human genes has been created? After all, genes are what they keep telling us about.

Arjaizen said...

I can't comment on "The Selfish Gene," as i've not yet read it, though i do intend to. I did, however, read "The God Delusion," in which Dawkins states that he regrets giving his prior book the title he did, because it was twisted by its critics into a meaning he never intended.

Learning about Evolution is important because if a person intends to be a doctor, a geneticist, biologist, veterinarian, anthropologist, or a professional in any related field, it will be the foundation upon which your knowledge will be built. If you're not going to work in those fields, you might not NEED to know it, but generally speaking, i think it's better to know the facts of how something happens rather than believe a fantasy.

I can't tell you how "atheists" think, i can only tell you how this one does. A ball of a few hundred cells that can't even be identified as belonging to hair, skin, blood, muscle, brain, heart, liver, or any other specific cell type does not constitute a human being. It might contain the DNA of one, but so does the clump of hair partially blocking the drain of my shower.

I'm not in favor of abortions, but since i don't happen to be the owner of a functioning uterus, my opinion on the matter is pointless.

Every living, breathing, thinking, feeling human being has the right to determine what they do with their own bodies. No one else has the right to compel them to use those bodies for any purpose to which they do not consent. When you do, you effectively make that person a slave.

Craig touched upon something that i'd like to kick my two cents in on: "...government as a Cudgel to advance their social agendae." Specifically, i'd like to talk about same-sex marriage.

The Christian Right like to yammer on about the "homosexual agenda," and how gays and lesbians are trying to force their lifestyle choices on the rest of society. What utter bullshit. In the United States, only Christians have the unmitigated gall to complain about being discriminated against when they are prevented from discriminating.

When two men or two women get married, it doesn't affect the marriages or indeed the lives of anyone else. They aren't "forcing their lifestyle" on anyone, they are living their lives the way that makes them happy.

When the Mormon church went to California to get Prop 8 passed to ban same-sex marriage, they WERE "forcing their lifestyle" on people; they were making a group of people that they were not part of live according to the rules of a religion to which they did not necessarily belong.

The LGBT community doesn't have an agenda... unless you think wanting to work where they're qualified, marry who they love, and live where they want is an "agenda."

The people trying to prevent that? THEY have an agenda.

I saw a t-shirt not long ago. It's a bit crass, but the analogy is apt.

Religion is like a penis.
It's okay if you have one.
It's okay to be proud of it.
But don't whip it out and wave it around in public,
and PLEASE don't shove it down my throat.

Jeff said...

Religion is like a penis.
It's okay if you have one.
It's okay to be proud of it.
But don't whip it out and wave it around in public,
and PLEASE don't shove it down my throat.

Haha. Who do you think I am, Dominique Strauss-Kahn? :-) Trying to shove that piece of equipment anyplace where it's sharp and not wanted is an extremely dicey proposition!

Arjaizen, are you Bob, or someone else? I'm assuming for the sake of this discussion that it's you, Bob.

First of all, regarding gay marriage and civil rights for gay and transgendered people... I've been blogging here since 2006, and bashing gay people or denying them full and equal rights has never been on my agenda. You can look around yourself if you don't believe me. Most of the people who've corresponded with me here over the years are quite progressive and wouldn't tolerate it from me if I had.

Personally, just within my own sensibilities, I think the idea of two dudes getting married is a strange and rather absurd concept, but I'm also humble enough to know that it's none of my business and how I happen to feel about it isn't important. I think it's a mistake a a waste of their scant and dubious moral capital for the Catholic hierarchy to oppose gay civil marriage and I've said so publicly. So much for that.

But... as for the broader issue of whether or not religious people should keep their mouths shut completely and not make their views known in the public square - I do disagree with you on this point. Human beings, even those who consider themselves paragons of pure reason, can and do act irrationally. We do it all the time. We are imperfect human beings, living in a democratic republic in which we are all allowed to participate, and while the constitution guarantees you freedom from religion, it also explicitly guarantees others religious freedom. If our ideas seem irrationally based to you, sorry, but that doesn't mean we need to sit on our hands while other people get to set all the agendas and shape our culture any way they see fit. People do all sorts of stupid things. They drink, they smoke, they use drugs, they have extramarital affairs, they engage in foolish and risky behaviors, but under universal suffrage, they all have the right to vote, even if they vote for things that I consider idiotic. You'll just have to put up with us, just like I have to put up with the Tea Party.

Jeff said...

Assuming it's you, Bob...

I've never tried to convince you to believe in God.

I've never asked you to respect my belief in God.

In our encounters here and on FB, I've tried to engage you on your own terms - evolutionary science.

I'm surprised you haven't read more Dawkins than you have. I think it's vitally important that all people learn about evolution, because what we have been doing so far culturally isn't working, and with peak oil, climate-change, growing populations and a shortage of potable water and food looming, we are looking at some big changes in the very real future. We need to understand better what makes us tick.

I urge you to read Frans de Waal, and even more so, Robert Wright, who writes about reciprocity and what life could be like in a zero-sum world.

Atheism has given you freedom. Great. Freedom to do what? You're a married family man in your 50s. Think beyond that. What I've been trying to get you to think about and address is what a world without religion would and should be like. Christianity is collapsing, and the void will be filled by something else. Sorry to disappoint you, but I sincerely doubt that it will be humanistic reason that replaces it. So I repeat in paraphrase what I've asked you earlier:

On what basis can we structure our societies, especially in an age of globalization? Personalized, subjective norms for morality will lead to chaos and endless culture wars.

On what basis can we come to a fairly objective form of morality? Nature is cruel and pitiless. Make the case for why people shouldn't be. Plenty of people think life should imitate nature. Why are they wrong?

1) Should society mirror nature, red in tooth and claw, where might makes right?

2) Should society NOT mirror nature, red in tooth and claw, where might makes right?

3) If it is a combination of the two, how do we determine how much red in tooth and claw to allow?

Mike McG... said...

Arjaizen dismisses conception as a line in the sand, ceding the task of marking the line to 'doctors and biologists.' Doctor Peter Singer agrees with Arjaizen that conception is an inappropriate marker...and reasons that birth makes no better sense.

Opines Fordham Theology prof Charles Camosy: "Peter Singer has argued that the acceptance of abortion rights was the beginning of a ‘Copernican Revolution’ in ethics where an indefensible sanctity of life ethic, in which human life is considered the center of the ethical universe, started to slowly wane in influence. Acceptance of infanticide will eventually come, he says, as the influence of the Judeo-Christian tradition wanes even further."

Behold the collapse of a shared moral imagination in an individualistic polity that values autonomy above all else.

Jeff said...

Hi Mike,

Well, that's my biggest fear. As James Nuechterlein wrote in response to Singer and the like-minded Stephen Pinker: doubt future moral explorers will venture where Pinker, for now, fears to tread. That's the sort of thing that happens when you start “thinking the unthinkable.” Which is a good reason for people possessed of moral common sense politely to refuse invitations to such thought experiments.

Abortion on demand, neonaticide, filicide. Next thing you know—to echo Everett Dirksen in a different context—you're talking real people.

Cheryl Jones said...

I don't like to use Facebook either...too much personal information, too intrusive. I avoid it if I can, but some folks want to be contacted that way.

Julia said...

Jeff, thanks for inviting and publishing this very interesting exchange. Thanks for articulating your own ideas, which I agree with. Thanks for succinctly describing the difference between a human BEING and a PERSON. I too worry about the slippery slope that would follow unquestioned acceptance of abortion. And please don't stop blogging!

Jeff said...

Hello Cheryl. Remember, on FB we are the products, not the customers. :-)

Julia, thanks for those words of encouragement. I'll keep them in mind. My time is much more limited these days, but I'll see if I can find a way to put up a post now and then. Thanks.