January 02, 2008

Fillin' 'Er Up With Other People's Food Development  Energy  Environment  Ethics  Future  Peak Oil

$100 oil prices poor folks out of the market for energy. But worse than that, it prices them out of the market for food. It's already happening. IHT:

In an "unforeseen and unprecedented" shift, the world food supply is dwindling rapidly and food prices are soaring to historic levels, the top food and agriculture official of the United Nations warned [December 17].

The changes created "a very serious risk that fewer people will be able to get food," particularly in the developing world, said Jacques Diouf, head of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.

The agency's food price index rose by more than 40 percent this year, compared with 9 percent the year before - a rate that was already unacceptable, he said. New figures show that the total cost of foodstuffs imported by the neediest countries rose 25 percent, to $107 million, in the last year.

At the same time, reserves of cereals are severely depleted, FAO records show. World wheat stores declined 11 percent this year, to the lowest level since 1980. That corresponds to 12 weeks of the world's total consumption - much less than the average of 18 weeks consumption in storage during the period 2000-2005. There are only 8 weeks of corn left, down from 11 weeks in the earlier period.

Prices of wheat and oilseeds are at record highs, Diouf said Monday. Wheat prices have risen by $130 per ton, or 52 percent, since a year ago. U.S. wheat futures broke $10 a bushel for the first time [December 17], the agricultural equivalent of $100 a barrel oil.

Diouf blamed a confluence of recent supply and demand factors for the crisis, and he predicted that those factors were here to stay. On the supply side, these include the early effects of global warming, which has decreased crop yields in some crucial places, and a shift away from farming for human consumption toward crops for biofuels and cattle feed. Demand for grain is increasing with the world population, and more is diverted to feed cattle as the population of upwardly mobile meat-eaters grows.

"We're concerned that we are facing the perfect storm for the world's hungry," said Josette Sheeran, executive director of the World Food Program, in a telephone interview. She said that her agency's food procurement costs had gone up 50 percent in the past 5 years and that some poor people are being "priced out of the food market."

To make matters worse, high oil prices have doubled shipping costs in the past year, putting enormous stress on poor nations that need to import food as well as the humanitarian agencies that provide it.

"You can debate why this is all happening, but what's most important to us is that it's a long-term trend, reversing decades of decreasing food prices," Sheeran said.

Climate specialists say that the vulnerability will only increase as further effects of climate change are felt. "If there's a significant change in climate in one of our high production areas, if there is a disease that effects a major crop, we are in a very risky situation," said Mark Howden of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization in Canberra.

Already "unusual weather events," linked to climate change - such as droughts, floods and storms - have decreased production in important exporting countries like Australia and Ukraine, Diouf said. [...]

Sheeran said, that on a recent trip to Mali, she was told that food stocks were at an all time low. [...]

[R]ecent scientific papers concluded that farmers could adjust to 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) to 3 degrees Celsius (5.4 degrees) of warming by switching to more resilient species, changing planting times, or storing water for irrigation, for example.

But that after that, "all bets are off," said Francesco Tubiello, of Columbia University Earth Institute. "Many people assume that we will never have a problem with food production on a global scale, but there is a strong potential for negative surprises." [...]

Part of the current problem is an outgrowth of prosperity. More people in the world now eat meat, diverting grain from humans to livestock. A more complicated issue is the use of crops to make biofuels, which are often heavily subsidized. A major factor in rising corn prices globally is that many farmers in the United States are now selling their corn to make subsidized ethanol.

The world's food stocks are rapidly shrinking. Could anything be more fundamental? And yet there is almost no awareness of this situation in the world's wealthier nations.

By being energy hogs, we make other people go hungry. It's really that simple. Picture it next time you fill your tank: some of what's going in there is other people's food. Either directly, in the form of ethanol from corn, or indirectly, because our profligate energy use drives prices up and fuels global warming. This is a central moral issue of our time: will we in the world's wealthier nations continue to use our wealth to maintain a way of life that is increasingly deadly to everyone else on the planet? In other words, will we make other people starve so we can drive our SUV to the mall?

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October 22, 2007

Amen To That Ethics

It was obvious to Aristotle, 2300 years ago.

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October 08, 2007

The Secret History Of The War On Cancer Corporations, Globalization  Ethics  Science/Technology

Over the weekend, I picked up a new book called The Secret History of the War on Cancer by Devra Davis, an epidemiologist who heads the Center for Environmental Oncology at the University of Pittsburgh. It looked like something I'd want to write about on the blog, but who knows how soon I'll get to it. So many books, so little time. But today, Salon comes to the rescue with a review and interview. This is a long excerpt, but it's important:

Davis, who is a professor of epidemiology at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health and formerly served in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, argues that the United States' $40 billion "war on cancer" has focused far too much on treatment, and not nearly enough on prevention....For instance, in the late '60s, three years after the surgeon general declared that smoking causes cancer, the United States spent $30 million of taxpayer money to create a safer cigarette, essentially doing the tobacco companies' research and development for them. Needless to say, this effort failed, but it succeeded in giving the tobacco companies cover, assuring smokers that a safer cigarette was just around the corner.

Davis argues that again and again, from tobacco to benzene to asbestos, the profit motive has trumped concerns about public health, delaying, sometimes for decades, the containment of avoidable hazards. And, as in the current scientific "debate" about global warming, the legitimate need for ongoing scientific research about many possible carcinogens has been exploited by industry to promote the idea that there's really no need to worry.

In "The Secret History of the War on Cancer," we meet one of the foremost epidemiologists of the 20th century, who is revealed after his death to have been on the take from Monsanto to the tune of $1,500 a day, and we visit the site of former towns that have literally disappeared, like Times Beach, Mo., which since being declared a toxic waste site, has been incinerated, reduced to some grass, geraniums and tulips -- the only signs that anyone ever once lived there. [...]

Salon: In the U.S., one out of every two men and one out of every three women will develop cancer in their lifetimes....Testicular cancer in men under age 40 has risen 50 percent in a decade. What are the theories about why there might be such a radical increase?

Davis: In the United States and Japan, there has been a significant decline in the birth of baby boys. What does this have to do with testicular cancer? Well, there's a theory of testicular dysgenesis, which means that there is something on the Y chromosome that is transmitted to boys that is affecting their overall health, and it may affect whether or not a boy sperm works to fertilize an egg...And these things are likely to be related to early life exposures to hormone-mimicking chemicals....There's recently been a report from the Arctic Assessment of many more girls than boys being born. If something is affecting such an exquisitely sensitive part of human biology, then what else is it doing to us?

Salon: When we read about a study that says XYZ substance causes cancer in rats, how should we interpret it?

Davis: We differ from rodents by about 300 genes. That's it. The differences aren't nearly as big as some people would like you to think.

We use animal research to develop drugs. But when it comes to evidence that something causes cancer in an animal, something that might be used in our schools and homes, we say: "Well, wait. We better get proof of human harm." How can we say that we'll rely on animal studies when we're trying to invent drugs, and then deny their relevance to us when we're trying to predict, and prevent, human harms?

Salon: What's the alternative?

Davis: The alternative is to do experiments on people, or worse, which is what we are doing -- a vast uncontrolled experiment. We will never be able to answer many of these questions, because there is no control group. Who isn't exposed to cellphones? Who isn't exposed to aspartame? Who's not exposed to solar radiation? And that makes it very difficult to do studies of human health consequences. It really does. [...]

Salon: Why do you have concerns about aspartame, the artificial sweetener in many soft drinks and other low-calorie foods? [...]

Davis: In 1977, Richard Merrill, who later became dean of the University of Virginia Law School, was the chief counsel of the Food and Drug Administration, and he formally asked the U.S. attorney to convene a grand jury to decide whether or not to indict the producer of aspartame, G.D. Searle, for misrepresenting "findings, concealing material facts and making false statements" in aspartame safety tests.

This is not some left-wing group. This is the actual chief counsel of the FDA asking the U.S. attorney's office to convene a grand jury. It never happened, because by the time the grand jury was ready to be convened we had a new president. That president was Reagan, and within a month of Reagan taking office, he had a proposal from a guy you might have heard of named Donald Rumsfeld [who was then chief operating officer of Searle].

And Jan. 22, 1981, one day after Reagan's inauguration -- one day -- Searle reapplied for FDA approval. Prior to that, every single request for approval was turned down by all the scientists ever looking at the data. That's a fact. There's no dispute about that fact. And then, it gets approved May 19, 1981.

Remember what happened with the Reagan revolution? It was: "We need to get the government off our backs." One of the backs it got off of was suppressing the aspartame industry. Later, many of the people who worked at the FDA to evaluate aspartame ended up going to work for the company producing it. [...]

The thing that I'm most concerned about is the latest study from Italy. A typical rat study runs two years; that would be getting your rat to about my age: 60. People live now to their 90s. This study started their exposure when they were babies, like what we do now in the United States with aspartame, and let the rats live out their natural lifetimes until they were 3 years old.

And when they did that they found a significant increase in tumors that occurred only in that third year of life. Of course, the European Food Safety Authority, which sounds very independent, says the study is worthless. But I looked up the background on the people involved with the European Food Safety Authority, and many of them work directly for the food industry.

The Ramazzini Foundation, a toxicology institute, which did the study, is not known to be radical. Unlike most other sources of information in toxicology, it's truly independent. It is not funded by Monsanto. And what they found is that there is significant increase in lymphomas and leukemia, and that the increase comes not from consuming 800 cans of soda a day, but from consuming fairly moderate amounts of aspartame in these animals' lifetimes. They had 1,800 animals, and some of them were just consuming the equivalent of two cans of soda a day, two yogurts, 10 pieces of chewing gum. And at that level of consumption, there was a significant increase in cancer, and it only showed up in older rats.

Salon: How have recent court rulings made it harder to try to prevent cancer?

Davis: We have gone backward since the '70s. In the '70s, in the decision on lead in gasoline, the court said we could use experimental evidence that something was a threat to human health in order to prevent harm. The court repeatedly ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency could use theories, models and estimates to prevent harm.

Now, we have to prove that harm has already happened before taking action to prevent additional harm. In the area of cancer this is a travesty, since most cancer in adults takes five, 10, 20 or 30 years [to develop]. It means that we have no opportunity to prevent cancer, because we must prove through human evidence that it's already happened....Ninety percent of all claims now for toxic torts are denied. [...]

I'm very, very concerned about the overuse of diagnostic radiation, especially in children. For example, CT scans [CAT scans] of the head and the abdomen. Now, obviously if you have a child with a potentially fatal head injury or a stomach bleed, you can use a CT scan.

Most people don't realize that a CT scan to the head of a baby can give you between 200 and 4,000 chest X-rays at once. And therefore they should be used in a much more limited way. And guess who agrees with me? The American College of Radiology has called for reducing the use of diagnostic radiation in children. [...]

[P]olar bears in the Arctic are showing up as hermaphrodites with toxic waste in their bodies that would qualify them for burial in a hazardous waste site. How do you think that they're getting exposed to these pollutants? They don't work at factories. But they are at the top of the polar food chain, and pollutants go up through the food chain stored in fat from the little fish to the big fish to the walrus to the polar bear. Ultimately, they're making it very clear that pollutants don't need passports, and that you can't ban toxic materials in one nation. It has to be a global policy. [...]

I've developed a theory of Xeno estrogen, named for the Greek word for "foreign." Basically, all of the risk factors that have been identified for breast cancer, except radiation, are related to the total lifetime exposure to hormones. So, the earlier in life you get your period and the later in life you go through menopause, the more hormones you're exposed to in your lifetime, and the greater your risk of breast cancer. The more alcohol you drink in your lifetime -- alcohol is highly estrogenic -- the greater your risk of breast cancer. The less exercise you get -- exercise lowers the amount of circulating estrogen -- the more estrogen in your life. The more fat in your body, the more estrogen, because fat is estrogenic. [...]

Why are more young girls going into puberty at an earlier age? Why are more young girls developing breasts? There are several reasons to think that hormones in personal care products may be playing a role, particularly for breast cancer in young black women.

Some black baby girls were found to have breasts between ages 1 and 3, and when Dr. Chandra Tiwary, who was a pediatric endocrinologist with the Air Force at Brooks Air Force Base, interviewed the mothers he found out the mothers were all putting a cream on the girls' scalps. And we don't know what the hell for sure was in all those creams then, but Dr. Tiwary found when the mother stopped using the cream, the breasts went away.

If something is making the breasts grow in a baby, what is it doing to others in terms of promoting growth at the wrong time, or promoting an improper or excessive amount of breast growth that could lead to cancer?

Salon: Why are you concerned about cellphones?

Davis: I can't tell you that cellphones are safe, and I can't tell you that they are harmful. That's the problem. The reason I can't is that there isn't really independent information, and the cellphone industry has been so quick to spin information.

Studies that you hear about that don't find a risk are often extremely limited, like the Danish Cancer Study. That's a ridiculous study. Anybody who used a cellphone for work was kicked out of the study, which is crazy, because those are the highest users. And they put all of these people together who were not using it for business -- the high users, the low users -- and they didn't find anything.

A study just released from France showed that people who used a cellphone for 10 or more years have double the risk of brain cancer. And people who owned two or more cellphones had more than double the risk of brain cancer. The level of this increase wasn't what we call statistically significant, but that doesn't mean that it wasn't important. [Emphasis added]

Something I've been thinking about a lot lately is the way we all hear things that ought to fundamentally adjust our way of thinking about the world, but with all the other input that's flooding our attention, most of it utterly trivial, the important thing soon fades from awareness. It's not forgotten exactly, but it's no longer in the foreground, and it's certainly not acted on.

For example. We all know that cigarette companies worked for decades to suppress information linking smoking and cancer. But we don't fully take on board the implications. These actions were taken by ordinary human beings in a corporate setting. The group-think and peer pressure of the workplace, the desire to get ahead or even just to put food on the table, the boundless human capacity for denial and rationalization, these things were enough to cause ordinary people to conspire in activities that killed many thousands of their company's customers. But here's the thing: there was nothing special about tobacco companies. Any number of modern corporations have similar internal dynamics, with similar results. So we shouldn't be surprised to learn that any number of other corporations have knowingly downplayed or falsified information about the harmful effects of their products. This is what happens when you have powerful institutions whose sole guiding principle is to maximize profit. The tobacco company story is repeated over and over again. Connect the dots.

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September 27, 2007

Masculinity As Conquest Culture  Ethics  War and Peace

Making the connections:

From Stan Goff and Audrey Mantey. Goff is a veteran of the US Army Rangers, Airborne, Delta Force, and Special Forces. He served in Vietnam, El Salvador, Grenada, Panama, Honduras, Venezuela, Colombia, Peru, Somalia, and Haiti. Which is to say, he knows a whole lot more about combat than you or I.

Here's his advice for people considering joining the military. Excellent:

(Via Feral Scholar)

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May 06, 2007

Premise Four 9/11, "War On Terror"  Activism  Ethics  Rights, Law

Footage of the LAPD attack on the peaceful May Day immigration rights rally in LA. I recommend you watch it. The LAPD decided it was time for the people to leave and go home — "the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances" apparently having expired. They waded in with batons (i.e., clubs) and shotguns firing rubber bullets.

Bradblog (via Feral Scholar) has some amateur video, too, via the participatory panopticon. An LAPD helicopter flies over for a few minutes telling people to go home, then the black-uniformed lines of police march into the park and begin clubbing everyone within reach and firing rubber bullets at the almost universally peaceful crowd that included many families, women, children. You've probably read about it. But watch the videos.

It's food for thought on a number of levels.

For one thing, it's a stark reminder of the ongoing militarization of the nation's police forces. The police put on their black SWAT gear and inevitably their mindset is transformed. "To protect and to serve" becomes "to intimidate and to coerce." See also this — SWAT team deployments were once the last resort but are now happening more than 100 times a day, on average. Police forces everywhere want to play "war on terror."

For another thing, the usual rationale for the deployment of non-lethal weapons — that they will decrease the level of violence — clearly has it backwards. If the choice were between rubber bullets and real bullets, rubber bullets are better. Of course. But when it comes to domestic crowd control, that's almost never the choice. Instead, it's a choice between asking people to move along or opening fire with rubber bullets to force them to. Give a militarized police force non-lethal weapons and their use soon becomes the default. But "non-lethal" is light years away from appropriate, let alone harmless.

But the point I most want to make is this. In his masterful two-volume critique of civilization, Endgame, Derrick Jensen lists the twenty premises that inform his work. Here's the premise Jensen calls his favorite:

Premise Four: Civilization is based on a clearly defined and widely accepted yet often unarticulated hierarchy. Violence done by those higher on the hierarchy to those lower is nearly always invisible, that is, unnoticed. When it is noticed, it is fully rationalized. Violence done by those lower on the hierarchy is unthinkable, and when it does occur is regarded with shock, horror, and the fetishization of the victims.

One group of Americans puts on black uniforms and attacks another group of Americans who have done nothing to provoke the attack. But because the first group is directing its violence down the hierarchy, the violence is, at worst, regarded as a bit excessive. But imagine if the people in the park had attacked the police with clubs and shotguns firing rubber bullets. The response would have been apocalyptic.

Premise Four is such a fact of life that we scarcely notice it. But once it's pointed out to you, things never look the same again.

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March 24, 2007

Global Warming: WWJD? Environment  Ethics  Religion

Is denial of global warming a Christian thing to do?

Here's what Al Gore told the Senate in reference to Senator Inhofe, who often cites the Bible as the source for his political views:

I say to Senator Inhofe, I don't prostelytize my own beliefs, but all religious traditions hold to the same teachings: That the Earth is the Lord's, and the fullness thereof. That the purpose of life is to glorify God, and you cannot do it while heaping contempt on God's creation.

Not to mention the enormous suffering, especially among the world's poor, that global warming will cause. As Jesus himself said:

What you did to the least of these, you did to Me, and...whatever you neglected to do for the least of these, you neglected to do it for Me.

Jesus wept.

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November 25, 2006

Addicts Environment  Ethics

More and more, I think we're fucked — we in the industrialized world, especially. The fundamental problem is that we're never going to voluntarily change course to the radical degree needed to stave off disaster. All of the trends that point to disaster — greenhouse gas emissions, depletion of nonrenewable resources, worldwide ecosystem destruction, species extinctions, etc. — are accelerating. In fact, the rate at which they're accelerating is accelerating. We see where it's all heading, and still we can't stop ourselves. We're addicts, addicted to comfort, power, artificial stimulation of all kinds, and like most addicts we’ll never recover without first hitting bottom — that's if we manage to recover at all. We'll take the path of least resistance until it ends in disaster and stops being the path of least resistance.

Here's a story that strikes me as the perfect epitome of what I'm talking about. BBC:

Marine scientists say the case for a moratorium on the use of heavy trawling gear in deep waters is now overwhelming and should be put in place immediately.

A new report prepared for the UN indicates the equipment is doing immense damage to the ecosystems around seamounts, or underwater mountains.

Its analysis shows bottom-trawling is being used in regions which harbour particularly sensitive corals. [...]

Bottom-trawling uses huge nets armed with steel weights or heavy rollers.

Boats drag them across the seafloor to catch species such as orange roughy, oreos, alfonsino and roundnose grenadier.

The technique is very effective but smashes everything in its path, ripping corals and sponges from the sea-floor — removing the habitats on which the fish and other diverse organisms depend.

It is practised by relatively few vessels — perhaps no more than 200 worldwide — and accounts for about 0.2% of the total world catch.

This meant the scale of the destruction was out of all proportion to the gain in terms of the value of the fishery, said Dr Alex Rogers, a senior research fellow at the Zoological Society of London, UK.

"It's the equivalent of clearing old-growth forest to collect squirrels. It's a practice on land that just wouldn't be acceptable," he added. [...]

Scientists think there may be 100,000 or more of the underwater mountains distributed around the world's oceans.

They attract aggregations of the planktonic organisms that form the food base of marine ecosystems. "We call it trophic focusing," Dr Rogers told BBC News.

Prominent in these deep — 1,000-2,000m down — ecosystems are vast "forests" of slow-growing corals and the very high densities of fish that are now the target of industrial trawlers.

"But if there are species which you really shouldn't fish, these are the ones," said Dr Rogers. "The orange roughy lives for up to 150 years or more; they don't mature until they are 30 or 40 years old; their reproduction is very sporadic; they are very vulnerable to overfishing."

At these depths, life processes are long and slow.

The team has compared the distributions of commercially trawled fish, fishing effort and coral habitat on seamounts.

This shows a broad band of the southern Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans between 20-degrees and 60-degrees-south where bottom-trawling activities are likely to have a particularly deleterious impact.
Campaigners are concerned because vast swathes of this band are beyond the authority of national or regional fisheries' regulation. They want proper management of these gaps established as soon as possible.

Most bottom-trawling is conducted by northern fleets from developed nations. The European Union bloc undertakes the largest effort, with Spain operating the majority of its boats. [Emphasis added]

We have no trouble seeing that the trawlers are acting insanely: destroying ecosystems that will take decades, centuries, or millenia to recover, for a one-time profit. If their activities were visible to us all, instead of buried under the sea — out of sight, out of mind — perhaps there would be more outrage. Clear-cutting old-growth forests to harvest squirrels.

But here's what's really crazy. The trawlers are acting "rationally" according to the tenets of mainstream economic theory. The deep-sea ecosystems replenish themselves only very slowly. A sustainable harvest would take only a very few fish per year, using methods that preserve the surrounding ecosystem. But that would yield an extremely low — or perhaps even negative — rate of return. You can get a much higher rate of return by "clear-cutting" and taking the proceeds and investing them. Especially since the profits are private while the costs, in the form of destroyed or degraded ecosystems, are public, borne by us all — so-called externalities. Besides, if you don't "clear-cut", somebody else will — the tragedy of the commons. Economic theory says the "rational" thing to do is to seek to maximize profits. So it's not just the trawlers who are insane.

This example is so egregious — so few ships wreaking so much damage — that it seems hard to deny that the moral thing to do, if one had the opportunity, would be to sabotage or sink as many of these ships as possible. But this example is only a microcosm of what's happening everywhere, in all spheres of activity, all over the world. (So it's an example worth remembering, since it exemplifies the issues so starkly.) Does the same moral argument apply more broadly? Is it time to start throwing wrenches into the gears of industrial civilization? Is it time for an intervention?

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October 28, 2006

Thinking About Stem Cells Ethics

[Still on vacation, but here's a re-post of something I wrote a couple of years ago. With Rush and the right whining about Michael J. Fox campaigning for embryonic stem cell research, it may be worth revisiting.]

Last night, I heard part of a radio interview with Dr. Steven Clark, an immunologist and medical ethicist on the University of Wisconsin faculty of Human Oncology. The topic was embryonic stem cell research. Clark’s in favor of it, including the cloning of human embryos that enables the process.

What made the interview especially interesting was the fact that Clark is a political conservative and evangelical Christian. Yet he had that wonderfully refreshing attitude shared by all good scientists: you don’t fudge the data, and you think things through for yourself — logically, not dogmatically.

On the question of whether human life begins at conception, he had this to say: Ultimately, the question isn’t when does life begin. The question is when does one have a moral obligation toward that life. Embryonic stem cell research involves taking cells from a five-day-old embryo, which, as he said, is smaller than the period at the end of this sentence and has no brain, no life history, no identity.

But, opponents of stem cell research would say, that five-day-old embryo has the potential to become a fully-developed human being. Don’t we then have a responsibility to accord it the same moral status as a fully-developed human being?

Clark offered a down-to-earth thought experiment that cuts right through the dogma. Imagine, he said, you are walking by a stem cell laboratory and you see that a fire is raging inside. You see a person lying unconscious on the floor inside and, nearby, a tank containing some number of five-day-old embryos. Which do you save, the person or the embryos?

Let’s make the scenario even more clear-cut. Suppose what you see are a dozen trapped children and a petri dish containing 13 five-day-old embryos. There are more embryos than children. Which do you save, the children or the embryos? Faced with this choice, not even the staunchest fertilized-egg-equals-human-being dogmatist would hesitate to save the children.

This thought experiment illustrates exactly the choice that faces us. I.e., there are living human beings with a variety of maladies who could be saved by research and therapy utilizing stem cells. Do we save them, or do we save the five-day-old embryos?

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September 13, 2006

Taking The Long View Activism  Environment  Ethics

Somehow or other, we need to foster the mental and moral habit of taking the long view. We need to visualize humanity and the Earth as here to stay, not just for 7 generations, but for 7 hundred, 7 thousand, or 7 million. Consider this (from WorldChanging):

The KEO project aims to launch a satellite into an orbit which will decay over 50,000 years, eventually returning the capsule and its contents to Earth intact.

The capsule will contain what the folks putting together the project imagine will be an archeological treasure-trove for future generations: an astronomical clock; a diamond-encased set of samples (of sea water, fertile soil and human blood [before any genetic engineering], a library (with instructions for decoding), portraits of people from all the major contemporary ethnic groups (since the ethnic make-up of humanity will undoubtedly be completely transformed in 50Ks) and a bunch of messages contributed by supporters.

Like Stewart's Clock of the Long Now, Jaron Lanier's library written in cockroach DNA, or Jamais' Retrospect Project, the real value here is in getting us to think of responsibilities and continuities that extend 50,000 years. After all, when we think of building a future, we ought to be imagining a future that goes on a very, very long time, for simply conjuring the idea of our decendents living here on this planet fifty millennia hence changes the meaning of our lives and actions today. [Emphasis added]

A time capsule, yes, but more than that. It will be up there, overhead, not buried somewhere out of sight. I like the symbolism of it, and the implied optimism. When was the last time any of us seriously contemplated humanity 50 millenia hence? Consider the responsibility such a time horizon entails, the reverberations down the millenia of the choices we make today.

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July 19, 2006

With A Stroke Of His Pen Ethics  Politics

What's scarier than a country ruled by know-nothing fundamentalist fanatics who inhabit a pre-scientific mental world, fanatics who place a greater value on rigid extremist dogma than they do on the rights and well-being of their fellow humans? WaPo:

President Bush today used the first veto of his presidency to stop legislation that would have lifted restrictions on federally funded human embryonic stem cell research.

"This bill would support the taking of innocent human life in the hope of finding medical benefits for others," Bush said at the White House, following through on his promise to veto the bill. "It crosses a moral boundary that our decent society needs to respect. So I vetoed it." [Emphasis added]

But, but, but — "acceptable losses" due to "collateral damage" in an elective, pre-emptive war of aggression founded on a deliberate campaign of lies — no moral boundary there. And so, to make political hay with his base, Bush condemns countless people with Parkinson's, diabetes, spinal cord injuries, etc., etc., to continued suffering and death. Has the guy ever been right — about anything?

For a discussion of the morality of stem cell research, please see this.

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June 06, 2006

Blastocysts Are Not People Ethics  Religion

I happened to catch The Daily Show the other night when the guest was one Ramesh Ponnuru (video), author of a nasty little tome called The Party of Death. The party in question, in case you were wondering, is the Democratic Party. "Of Death" because of abortion, on which this Ponnuru takes an absolutist all-abortion-is-murder-from-the-moment-of-conception position. Ditto for using 5-day-old embryos for stem cell research.

The American Prospect, however, points out that even The Wall Street Journal's reviewer finds Ponnuru's position extreme. Quoting the WSJ review:

It doesn't matter to Mr. Ponnuru that this argument flies in the face of a complex intuition that seems to underlie the American ambivalence: Invisible to the naked eye, lacking body or brain, feeling neither pleasure nor pain, radically dependent for life support, the early embryo, though surely part of the human family, is distant and different enough from a flesh-and-blood newborn that when the early embryo's life comes into conflict with other precious human goods or claims, the embryo's life may need to give way. [Emphasis added]

Wow. I never thought I'd say it, but good for the Wall Street Journal.

As I watched Jon Stewart's interview with Ponnuru, here's the question I was dying for him to ask:

Imagine you are walking by a stem cell laboratory and you see that a fire is raging inside. You see a person lying unconscious on the floor inside and, nearby, a tank containing some number of five-day-old embryos (blastocysts). Which do you save, the person or the embryos?

Or, to make the scenario even more clear-cut. Suppose what you see are a dozen trapped children and a petri dish containing 13 five-day-old embryos. There are more embryos than children. Which do you save, the children or the embryos?

I would have loved to watch Ponnuru stammer his way through that one. People who haven't surrendered their basic common sense understand that a fully developed human being and a nearly microscopic flyspeck are simply not equivalent. What could be more obvious?

And, as I pointed out in an earlier post, when it comes to stem cell research the which-do-you-save question is more than just hypothetical, since it "illustrates exactly the choice that faces us. I.e., there are living human beings with a variety of maladies who could be saved by research and therapy utilizing stem cells. Do we save them, or do we save the five-day-old embryos?"

Posted by Jonathan at 05:27 PM | Comments (1) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

May 23, 2006

Justice As Fairness Essays  Ethics  Musings

At the time of the first Gulf War, I called into a local left-wing radio show to voice my oppostion to the impending war, and I was taken by surprise when the host asked me if war is ever morally justified. I didn't have a satisfactory answer at the time, but it's a question that has stayed with me ever since.

The standard I've come to is the following. It is (barely) possible to imagine a war fought to advance a cause so overwhelmingly important, so critically urgent, that I would support it even knowing that one of my own daughters might be killed — indeed, that I would still support it even if I knew one of my own daughters would be killed. Then, and only then, I think, could I say the war is justified. After all, every war means the death of someone's children. If I am not willing to accept that the child might be my own, I don't see any possible moral basis for supporting a war.

That's what makes the following story so distasteful (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette of last August):

Staff Sgt. Jason Rivera, 26, a Marine recruiter in Pittsburgh, went to the home of a high school student who had expressed interest in joining the Marine Reserve to talk to his parents.

It was a large home in a well-to-do suburb north of the city. Two American flags adorned the yard. The prospect's mom greeted him wearing an American flag T-shirt.

"I want you to know we support you," she gushed.

Rivera soon reached the limits of her support.

"Military service isn't for our son. It isn't for our kind of people," she told him. [Emphasis added]

We recoil instinctively at the hypocrisy of the mother in the story. It is all too clear that the mother is able to "support" the war because she knows up front that no child of hers is at risk. It is that knowledge that makes her stance an empty one. Put her son at risk and watch how quickly her "support" will evaporate.

Some time after arriving at my standard for a just war, I happened across the work of American philosopher John Rawls, who worked out a beautiful generalization of what is at bottom the same idea, except that Rawls extended it to cover issues of justice generally, not only the issue of just war.

Rawls asks the question, what constitutes a just set of relationships in society? To answer, he suggests the following thought experiment. Imagine a hypothetical situation in which no one knows where he/she fits in the overall pecking order in terms of class or social status. No one knows whether he/she is more or less intelligent, talented, attractive, or capable than anyone else. No one knows if he/she is better educated or better connected than anyone else. No one even knows his/her conceptions of what is good and fair. Everyone is, as Rawls puts it, situated behind a "veil of ignorance". Under those (hypothetical) conditions, the relationships and rules that one would accept as fair are those that are truly fair.

For if there is anything human beings are good at, it's rationalizing their own self-interest. Wealthy people support tax cuts for the rich. Poor people favor welfare. Smart, well-educated people say let's abolish the social safety net and have a straight meritocracy. Healthy people see no reason why they should have to contribute to universal health care. Well-off people have no problem supporting a war poor people are going to have to fight.

Ah, but suppose for all you knew you were one of the poor, one of the infirm, one of the untalented. Surely, then, you would insist on a conception of justice as fairness, where society cares for all its members, rich or poor, healthy or sick, talented or not, equitably balancing their interests.

Rawls' standard is a hypothetical one, but I think it's an excellent yardstick to use when mentally evaluating the morality of a social arrangement: is it an arrangement you'd agree to even if you didn't know up front whether you were one of the lucky ones. Which is another way of asking, is it fair.

Posted by Jonathan at 08:41 PM | Comments (3) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

March 07, 2006

Molly Saves The Day Saves The Day Ethics  Rights, Law  Science/Technology

South Dakota can ban abortions, but they can't ban knowledge. In response to the South Dakota law, Molly Saves the Day has stepped up with the first installment of a manual for performing safe abortions. Excerpt:

In the 1960s and early 1970s, when abortions were illegal in many places and expensive to get, an organization called Jane stepped up to the plate in the Chicago area. Jane initially hired an abortion doctor, but later they did the abortions themselves. They lost only one patient in 13,000 — a lower death rate than that of giving live birth. The biggest obstacle they had, though, was the fact that until years into the operation, they thought of abortion as something only a doctor could do, something only the most trained specialist could perform without endangering the life of the woman.

They were deceived — much like you have probably been deceived. An abortion, especially for an early pregnancy, is a relatively easy procedure to perform. And while I know, women of South Dakota, that you never asked for this, now is the time to learn how it is done. There is no reason you should be beholden to doctors — especially in a state where doctors have been refusing to perform them, forcing the state's only abortion clinic to fly doctors in from elsewhere.

No textbooks or guides existed at that time to help them, and the equipment was hard to find. This is no longer true. For under $2000, any person with the inclination to learn could create a fully functioning abortion setup allowing for both vacuum aspiration and dilation/curettage abortions. If you are careful and diligent, and have a good grasp of a woman's anatomy you will not put anyone's health or life in danger, even if you have not seen one of these procedures performed.

For the detailed how-to, see Molly's post. Further installments are in the works. Hopefully, this will be just the start. The colloborative possibilities of the Internet could enable the "open-source" development of a truly first-rate how-to manual.

It's obviously a controversial move by Molly, and probably some of you reading this think Molly's wrong to do it and I'm wrong to help publicize it. But the thing is, women will continue to have abortions no matter what the law says. That has been true for centuries, if not millenia, and it's true now. Surely it's better that it be done safely. And those of you who believe a fertilized egg is the moral equivalent of an adult human being, I invite you to reflect on this.

Update: [11:02PM] As long as we're talking about abortion, this is an intriguing video (via The Talent Show). Someone's not thinking too clearly.

Posted by Jonathan at 06:10 PM | Comments (9) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

December 13, 2005

Drug Companies Ghostwrite Journal Articles Ethics  Science/Technology

The Wall Street Journal reports today on what it calls "an open secret in medicine":

Many of the articles that appear in scientific journals under the bylines of prominent academics are actually written by ghostwriters in the pay of drug companies. These seemingly objective articles, which doctors around the world use to guide their care of patients, are often part of a marketing campaign by companies to promote a product or play up the condition it treats. [...]

Increasingly, though, editors and some academics are stepping forward to criticize the practice, saying it could hurt patients by giving doctors biased information. "Scientific research is not public relations," says Robert Califf, vice chancellor of clinical research at Duke University Medical Center. "If you're a firm hired by a company trying to sell a product, it's an entirely different thing than having an open mind for scientific inquiry. ... What would happen to a PR firm that wrote a paper that said this product stinks? Do you think their contract would be renewed?"

Drug companies say they're providing a service to busy academic researchers, some of whom may not be skilled writers. The companies say they don't intend for their ghostwriters to bias the tone of articles that appear under the researchers' names. [...]

Some health insurers have stopped taking what they read in the journals on faith and are employing analysts to scrutinize articles for negative data that are buried. [Emphasis added]

And it doesn't stop with journal articles. Three years ago, the New York Times reported that major advertising firms are buying companies that perform clinical trials on drugs they advertise:

Dentists leafing through The Journal of the American Dental Association last May found a study concluding that a new drug called Bextra offered relief from one of their patients' worst nightmares - the acute pain that follows dental surgery.

Federal regulators had rejected that conclusion only six months before, leaving Bextra's marketers, Pharmacia and Pfizer, hard pressed to sell it as an advance over Celebrex, their earlier entry in a crowded market for pain drugs.

The new study helped light a fire under Bextra. Its sales soared 60 percent over the three months that followed, according to industry data. But the research was not conducted by academics. Instead, the lead investigators were from Scirex, a little-known research firm owned partly by Omnicom, one of the world's biggest advertising companies.

Madison Avenue — whose television ads have helped turn prescription medicines like Viagra, Allegra and Vioxx into billion-dollar products — is expanding its role in the drug business, wading into the science of drug development.

The three largest advertising companies — Omnicom, Interpublic and WPP — have spent tens of millions of dollars to buy or invest in companies like Scirex that perform clinical trials of experimental drugs. One advertising executive calls it "getting closer to the test tube." [Emphasis added]

Sickening. It's hard not to feel like you're drowning in a rising tide of corruption and lies everywhere you turn: a person can only tread water for so long.

Posted by Jonathan at 05:19 PM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

Death Penalty III Ethics

A comment on the previous post prompted me to go look for more statistics on death penalty errors. What I found is, to put it mildly, stunning.

The Justice Project website contains a report undertaken at the behest of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary. The study looked at 4,578 of state capital cases between 1973 and 1995. The following is excerpted from the report's executive summary. Prepare to be outraged:

Our central findings are as follows:

  • Nationally, during the 23-year study period, the overall rate of prejudicial error in the American capital punishment system was 68%. In other words, courts found serious, reversible error in nearly 7 of every 10 of the thousands of capital sentences that were fully reviewed during the period.

  • Capital trials produce so many mistakes that it takes three judicial inspections to catch them — leaving grave doubt whether we do catch them all. After state courts threw out 47% of death sentences due to serious flaws, a later federal review found "serious error" — error undermining the reliability of the outcome — in 40% of the remaining sentences.

  • Because state courts come first and see all the cases, they do most the work of correcting erroneous death sentences. Of the 2,370 death sentences thrown out due to serious error, 90% were overturned by state judges — many of whom were the very judges who imposed the death sentence in the first place; nearly all of whom were directly beholden to the electorate; and none of whom, consequently, were disposed to overturn death sentences except for very good reason. This does not mean that federal review is unnecessary. Precisely because of the huge amounts of serious capital error that state appellate judges are called upon to catch, it is not surprising that a substantial number of the capital judgments they let through to the federal stage are still seriously flawed.

  • To lead to reversal, error must be serious, indeed. The most common errors — prompting a majority of reversals at the state post-conviction stage — are (1) egregiously incompetent defense lawyers who didn't even look for — and demonstrably missed — important evidence that the defendant was innocent or did not deserve to die; and (2) police or prosecutors who did discover that kind of evidence but suppressed it, again keeping it from the jury. [Hundreds of examples of these and other serious errors are collected in Appendix C and D to this Report.]

  • High error rates put many individuals at risk of wrongful execution: 82% of the people whose capital judgments were overturned by state post-conviction courts due to serious error were found to deserve a sentence less than death when the errors were cured on retrial; 7% were found to be innocent of the capital crime. [...]

  • High error rates exist across the country. Over 90% of American death-sentencing states have overall error rates of 52% or higher. 85% have error rates of 60% or higher. Three-fifths have error rates of 70% or higher.

  • Illinois (whose governor recently declared a moratorium on executions after a spate of deathrow exonerations) does not produce atypically faulty death sentences. The overall rate of serious error found in Illinois capital sentences (66%) is very close to — and slightly lower than — the national average (68%).

  • Catching so much error takes time — a national average of 9 years from death sentence to the last inspection and execution. By the end of the study period, that average had risen to 10.6 years. In most cases, death row inmates wait for years for the lengthy review procedures needed to uncover all this error. Then, their death sentences are reversed. [Emphasis in the original]
  • Truly staggering.

    Posted by Jonathan at 01:57 PM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    Death Penalty II Ethics

    James Wolcott on the execution of Stanley Tookie Williams:

    The death penalty must be abolished. No former movie action hero — or Yale cheerleader with enough psychological baggage to sink the African Queen — should be entrusted with the power of life and death over his fellow citizens. These are essentially frivolous, uninformed men playacting blue-suited roles of grave responsibility. And, no, I don't think Bill Clinton should have executed Ricky Ray Rector either. Capital punishment must be de-politicized, and as long as politicians make the final decision, depoliticization is impossible. So abolish it.

    Here is a list of 122 Americans who were sentenced to death and later exonerated, before they could be executed. No one knows how many other innocent people weren't so lucky. See, for example, this.

    There was a time when people thought slavery was ok. Now they don't. There was a time when people thought public torture was ok. Now they don't. Someday, people will realize the death penalty is barbaric and they'll ban it once and for all. It's inevitable. So what are we waiting for?

    Posted by Jonathan at 11:35 AM | Comments (3) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    December 12, 2005

    Death Penalty Ethics

    Digby: the only nations in North America, Central America, South America, or Europe that still have the death penalty are Belarus, Belize, Guatemala, Guyana, some Caribbean islands and — the United States of America.

    What century is this?

    Posted by Jonathan at 07:07 PM | Comments (1) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    November 30, 2005

    Seven Deadly Sins Ethics

    The seven deadly sins, according to Mahatma Gandhi:

  • Wealth Without Work
  • Pleasure Without Conscience
  • Knowledge Without Character
  • Commerce Without Morality
  • Science Without Humanity
  • Religion Without Sacrifice
  • Politics Without Principle
  • Superb.

    Posted by Jonathan at 12:28 PM | Comments (1) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    November 08, 2005

    The Gift Ethics  Palestine/Middle East  War and Peace

    This is a wonderful story. Haaretz (via European Tribune):

    The vital organs of a Palestinian boy mistakenly killed by the Israel Defense Forces last week have been transplanted into the bodies of six Israelis, after the boy's family donated his organs "for the sake of peace between peoples," Israel Radio reported.

    Ahmed al-Khatib, 12, was fatally shot during clashes in Jenin last week, when IDF troops mistook the toy gun he carried for a real rifle.

    Three Israeli girls, two Jewish and one Druze, underwent surgery Sunday to receive Al-Khatib's lungs, heart and liver. Twelve-year-old Samah Gadban had been waiting for a heart for five years when doctors called her family late Saturday and told them of the Al-Khatib donation. By Sunday afternoon, the Druze girl had a new heart and was recovering at Schneider Children's Medical Center in Petah Tikvah.

    "This morning, I did not know anything about the boy. I only knew that the doctors said they had a heart," said Samah's father, Riad. "I don't know what to say. It is such a gesture of love...I would like for [the family] to think that my daughter is their daughter." [Emphasis added]


    Posted by Jonathan at 11:10 AM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    September 28, 2005

    Religiosity And Societal Health Culture  Ethics  Religion

    It's axiomatic among American conservatives — and many other Americans, too — that religion (in the conventional sense of the word) is a force for social good. The less religious a society, the greater will be the incidence of crime, abortion, sexual promiscuity, sexually transmitted diseases, suicide, and so on.

    Sounds plausible. But if you actually look at the data, it turns out to be the opposite of the truth. Excerpts from a new study published in the Journal of Religion and Society:

    In general, higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy, and abortion in the prosperous democracies...The most theistic prosperous democracy, the U.S.,...is almost always the most dysfunctional of the developing democracies, sometimes spectacularly so, and almost always scores poorly. The view of the U.S. as a "shining city on the hill" to the rest of the world is falsified when it comes to basic measures of societal health...No democracy is known to have combined strong religiosity and popular denial of evolution with high rates of societal health. Higher rates of non-theism and acceptance of human evolution usually correlate with lower rates of dysfunction, and the least theistic nations are usually the least dysfunctional. None of the strongly secularized, pro-evolution democracies is experiencing high levels of measurable dysfunction. [...]

    Indeed, the data examined in this study demonstrates that only the more secular, pro-evolution democracies have, for the first time in history, come closest to achieving practical "cultures of life" that feature low rates of lethal crime, juvenile-adult mortality, sex related dysfunction, and even abortion. The least theistic secular developing democracies such as Japan, France, and Scandinavia have been most successful in these regards. The non-religious, pro-evolution democracies contradict the dictum that a society cannot enjoy good conditions unless most citizens ardently believe in a moral creator. The widely held fear that a Godless citizenry must experience societal disaster is therefore refuted. [My emphasis]

    The exceptional nature of US society is seen most dramatically in the graphs that accompany the paper, some of which are reproduced below. It is shocking, in fact, what an extreme outlier the US turns out to be, the mark of a society in real trouble. Look for the U's:

    (Legend: A = Australia, C = Canada, D = Denmark, E = Great Britain, F = France, G = Germany, H = Holland, I = Ireland, J = Japan, L = Switzerland, N = Norway, P = Portugal, R = Austria, S = Spain, T = Italy, U = United States, W = Sweden, Z = New Zealand)

    Americans are so clueless, by and large, about the rest of the world that they will continue to believe that the US is Number One in all things good, even as we fall further and further behind other First World democracies. When an individual person's self-image is wildly divergent from his/her behavior, we recognize it as being symptomatic of psychological and/or moral pathology. What this study shows is an analogous situation on a national scale.

    Small wonder, then, that our national political leaders are a bunch of self-styled Fundamentalist Christians who conduct their affairs like gangsters and thieves.

    Posted by Jonathan at 09:18 PM | Comments (1) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    August 26, 2005

    Regaining Our National Soul Ethics  Iraq  Politics

    Ex-Senator Gary Hart has an extraordinary op-ed in Wednesday's WaPo in which he calls on Democrats who supported the war to step forward and forthrightly admit they were wrong. Exerpt:

    In their leaders, the American people look for strength, determination and self-confidence, but they also look for courage, wisdom, judgment and, in times of moral crisis, the willingness to say: "I was wrong."

    To stay silent during such a crisis, and particularly to harbor the thought that the administration's misfortune is the Democrats' fortune, is cowardly. In 2008 I want a leader who is willing now to say: "I made a mistake, and for my mistake I am going to Iraq and accompanying the next planeload of flag-draped coffins back to Dover Air Force Base. And I am going to ask forgiveness for my mistake from every parent who will talk to me."

    Further, this leader should say: "I am now going to give a series of speeches across the country documenting how the administration did not tell the American people the truth, why this war is making our country more vulnerable and less secure, how we can drive a wedge between Iraqi insurgents and outside jihadists and leave Iraq for the Iraqis to govern, how we can repair the damage done to our military, what we and our allies can do to dry up the jihadists' swamp, and what dramatic steps we must take to become energy-secure and prevent Gulf Wars III, IV and so on." [My emphasis]

    "I made a mistake, and for my mistake I am going to Iraq and accompanying the next planeload of flag-draped coffins back to Dover Air Force Base. And I am going to ask forgiveness for my mistake from every parent who will talk to me."

    My God, what an extraordinary vision. Can you imagine it? It makes me want to weep just to think of it. How cleansing, how profoundly moving, how revelatory that would be. We could regain our national soul.

    Posted by Jonathan at 01:59 PM | Comments (3) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    January 26, 2005

    Gonzales: "Cruel, Inhuman Or Degrading" OK Ethics  Iraq  Politics

    According to Attorney-General designate Alberto Gonzales, US laws and treaties do not prohibit "cruel, inhuman or degrading" treatment of foreign prisoners. Knight-Ridder [via Kos]:

    Alberto Gonzales has asserted to the Senate committee weighing his nomination to be attorney general that there's a legal rationale for harsh treatment of foreign prisoners by U.S. forces.

    In more than 200 pages of written responses to members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, who plan to vote Wednesday on his nomination, Gonzales told senators that laws and treaties prohibit torture by any U.S. agent without exception.

    But he said the Convention Against Torture treaty, as ratified by the Senate, doesn't prohibit the use of "cruel, inhuman or degrading" tactics on non-U.S. citizens who are captured abroad, in Iraq or elsewhere. [My emphasis]

    "Inhuman" tactics.


    Posted by Jonathan at 12:37 AM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    January 25, 2005

    Torture Allegations Just Keep Piling Up Ethics  Iraq  Politics

    By US media standards, torture of Iraqi prisoners is old news. Unfortunately, the Abu Ghraib revelations appear only to have scratched the surface. The LA Times today:

    Pentagon documents released Monday disclosed that Iraqi prisoners had lodged dozens of abuse complaints against U.S. and Iraqi personnel who guarded them at a little-known palace in Baghdad converted to a U.S. prison. Among the allegations was that guards had sodomized a disabled man and killed his brother, whose dying body was tossed into a cell, atop his sister.

    The documents, obtained in a lawsuit against the federal government by the American Civil Liberties Union, suggest for the first time that numerous detainees were abused at Adhamiya Palace, one of Saddam Hussein's villas in eastern Baghdad that was used by his son Uday. Previous cases of abuse of Iraqi prisoners have focused mainly on Abu Ghraib prison.

    A government contractor who was interviewed by U.S. investigators said that as many as 90 incidents of possible abuse took place at the palace, but only a few were detailed in the hundreds of pages of documents released Monday.

    The documents also touch on alleged abuses in other U.S.-run lockups in Iraq. The papers include investigative reports linking some abuses to ultrasecret Pentagon counter-terrorism units.

    The latest allegations add to a pattern that human rights activists said suggested systematic abuse of prisoners at U.S. military detention facilities across the globe. ACLU officials, who have obtained and released thousands of documents in recent months, on Monday accused the Pentagon of a "woefully inadequate" response to hundreds of incidents of alleged abuse. [My emphasis]

    Yes, US media have an abbreviated attention span and give short shrift to stories that do not come with pictures, but still...

    If we let our sense of moral outrage be eroded away to a point where torture no longer seems worthy of comment or protest, then we have crossed into dangerous territory indeed. One of society's sturdiest bulwarks against a descent into brutality is a shared sense of public morality and simple common decency. Torture is worthy of protest for many reasons, but among them is the damage that not protesting inflicts on our collective morality and our sense of ourselves. Arguments about whether torture is pragmatically justified in the midst of a war completely miss the point. If we torture, we lose our national soul. It's that simple. It makes us capable of ever greater evils, which in turn brutalize us further. Where will it end?

    Posted by Jonathan at 06:39 PM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    January 20, 2005

    Doonesbury On CIA Torture Training Ethics  Humor & Fun  Iraq

    In today's Doonesbury, an instructor leads a class on interrogation techniques for a group of CIA trainees.

    Instructor — Okay, so here are the key interrogation protocols we'll be covering...

    Instructor: Stress positions, sleep and sensory deprivation, temperature control, dog handling, cigarette burns, hooding and beating.

    Instructor: But remember, there is one thing that leadership — from the President on down — will NEVER again tolerate at our detention centers...

    This sounds hopeful. What could it be?

    Instructor: ...digital cameras.

    Student: What about cell phone cams?

    Welcome to four more years of moral squalor.

    Posted by Jonathan at 01:42 PM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    January 18, 2005

    A True Revolution Of Values Activism  Ethics

    Republican electoral success supposedly was based on their being the party of values. But here's what Martin Luther King had to say about values in his landmark speech at New York's Riverside Church, one year to the day before he was assassinated:

    A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies... True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.

    A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say: "This is not just." It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of Latin America and say: "This is not just."

    The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just. A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war: "This way of settling differences is not just." This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation's homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into veins of people normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.

    America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values. There is nothing, except a tragic death wish, to prevent us from reordering our priorities, so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war.

    A true revolution of values. Read the rest of King's speech, one of his greatest and most important, here.

    Posted by Jonathan at 02:36 PM | Comments (1) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    January 17, 2005

    On This MLK Day Ethics

    Bob Herbert in the NYT (via Kos):

    Never since his assassination in 1968 have I felt the absence of Martin Luther King more acutely. Where are today's voices of moral outrage? Where is the leadership willing to stand up and say: Enough! We've sullied ourselves enough.

    Amen. What I wouldn't give to hear once more his voice, his extraordinary moral force and eloquence. Now more than ever. In pace requeiscat.

    In his honor, this quote from Gandhi [thanks, Kent]:

    Whether humanity will consciously follow the law of love, I do not know. But that need not disturb me. The law will work just as the law of gravitation works, whether we accept it or not.

    Let us hope so.

    Posted by Jonathan at 07:38 AM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    January 16, 2005

    Satyagraha Activism  Ethics

    [In honor of Martin Luther King's birthday, a re-post of an essay originally posted in July.]

    Reading, in Jonathan Schell's The Unconquerable World, a wonderful chapter on Gandhi's militant nonviolence — satygraha, often translated as "soul force", but meaning also "being steadfast in the truth" — I've learned some surprising and inspiring new truths about Gandhi's principles.

    Gandhi chose nonviolence as a tactic and as a way of life not out of any passivity or meekness. He was as fierce an activist as any who who has ever lived. "Non-cooperation is not a passive state," Gandhi said, "it is an intensely active state — more active than physical resistance or violence." As Schell says, "Satyagraha was soul force, equally it was soul force."

    In fact, says Schell:

    Asked to choose between violence and passivity, Gandhi always chose violence. "It is better to be violent, if there is violence in our breasts," he said, "than to put on the cloak of nonviolence to cover impotence. Violence is any day prefereable to impotence. There is hope for a violent man to become nonviolent. There is no such hope for the impotent." "Activist" is a word that fits Gandhi through and through. "I am not built for academic writings," he said. "Action is my domain." Indeed, if he was a genius in any field, that field was action. "Never has anything been done on this earth without direct action."

    He chose nonviolence not just because it's a morally superior path, but because it works, because is the most powerful — albeit the most difficult — way of effecting real change — and it is the most powerful because it is morally superior. Gandhi said, "Nonviolence is without exception superior to violence, i.e., the power at the disposal of a nonviolent person is always greater than he would have if he was violent." And, "The practice of ahimsa [doing no harm] calls forth the greatest courage. It is the most soldierly of a soldier's virtues.... He is the true soldier who knows how to die and stand his ground in the midst of a hail of bullets."

    Gandhi knew that the people of India were no match for modern British armaments in a violent revolution. But he also knew, with absolute, steadfast certainty, that British rule would end if Indians withheld their cooperation.

    His understanding of this principle — that rulers can rule only so long as the people consent to be ruled — went very deep indeed. To Gandhi, because rulers rule by the consent of the people, the people are responsible for the rulers they get.

    "The English have not taken India," he wrote, "we have given it to them."

    Later, he said this:

    It is because the rulers, if they are bad, are so not necessarily or wholly by reason of birth, but largely because of their environment, that I have hopes of their altering their course. It is perfectly true...that the rulers cannot alter their course themselves. If they are dominated by their environment, they do not surely deserve to be killed, but should be changed by a change of environment. But the environment are we — the people who make the rulers what they are. They are thus an exaggerated edition of what we are in the aggregate. If my argument is sound, any violence done to the rulers would be violence done to ourselves. It would be suicide. And since I do not want to commit suicide, nor encourage my neighbors to do so, I become nonviolent myself and invite my neighbors to do likewise.

    Schell continues as follows:

    Liberal-minded people have often held that society's victims are corrupted by a bad "environment" created by their privileged masters. Gandhi was surely the first to suggest that the victims were creating a bad moral environment for their masters — and to preach reform to the victims. Even allowing for a certain raillery and sardonicism in these passaqes, there can be no doubt that Gandhi is in earnest. Here we touch bedrock in Gandhi's political thinking. All government, he steadily believed, depends for its existence on the cooperation of the governed. If that cooperation is withdrawn, the government will be helpless.

    Reading this, it struck me for the first time that "The Emperor's New Clothes" is a profoundly subversive political fable.

    Even more, it struck me what a powerfully and profoundly mature person Gandhi was. How extraordinary — and how challenging — to take responsibility for one's leaders. To take responsibility for one's oppressors. To take onto oneself so profoundly the truth that one must begin with changing oneself, and that by changing oneself one finds the true path of change. Not in some vague, mystical way — Gandhi was nothing if not concrete, specific, and fiercely activist. Gandhi would have us take responsibility for ourselves first — but never to stop there. He would have us go forth and help others — by example, word, or deed — find that there is another way. And going forth is part of what changes us. Not acting is another form of consent, and that consent must be withdrawn.

    Posted by Jonathan at 12:52 PM | Comments (2) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    January 15, 2005

    Words Of Wisdom And Hope From MLK Activism  Ethics

    Martin Luther King, from his book Strength to Love:

    [E]vil carries the seed of its own destruction. In the long run right defeated is stronger than evil triumphant. Historian Charles A. Beard, when asked what major lessons he had learned from history, answered:

    First, whom the gods would destroy they must first make mad with power. Second, the mills of God grind slowly, yet they grind exceedingly small. Third, the bee fertilizes the flower it robs. Fourth, when it is dark enough you can see the stars.

    These are the words, not of a preacher, but of a hardheaded historian, whose long and painstaking study of history revealed to him that evil has a self-defeating quality. There is something in this universe that Greek mythology referred to as the goddess Nemesis.

    It is true, all tyrants fall in the end. King went on to caution, though, that we must not let the inevitably of evil's overthrow make us complacent. We have our part to play in seeing to it that evil is, in fact, overthrown. And, in the end, we act not just to change them, but to keep them from changing us.

    [Thanks, Kent]

    Posted by Jonathan at 02:11 PM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    December 28, 2004

    Big Pharma Whistle-Blower Corporations, Globalization  Ethics  Politics

    Peter Rost, marketing VP at Pfizer, has an op-ed in the LA Times today that should make some waves. Excerpts:

    The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that average prices for patented drugs in 25 other top industrialized nations were 35% to 55% lower than in the United States. [...]

    Americans spend about twice as much per person for healthcare as do Canadians, Japanese or Europeans, according to the World Health Organization. [...]

    The U.S. has shorter life expectancies and higher infant and child mortality rates than Canada, Japan and all of Western Europe except Portugal, according to the WHO.

    I'm a drug company executive who has spent 20 years marketing pharmaceuticals. And I'm troubled. I'm most troubled by the fact that we stick it to the people who can afford it the least.

    For instance, elderly people who use a Medicare discount card and have to pay $1,299 annually for a drug that the Department of Veterans Affairs purchases for $322, according to a comparison by Families USA. Or middle-class families that lose health insurance and have to pay $29,500 for an overnight hospital stay, when Medicaid would have paid only $6,000, according to the Wall Street Journal. [...]

    Our dirty little secret is that the drug industry already sells its products, right here in the U.S., at the same low prices charged in Canada and Europe. It's done through rebates. These are given to those with enough power to negotiate drug prices, such as the VA.

    A 2001 study by the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen found that drug companies' favorite customers paid just a little over half the retail price. This leaves the 67 million Americans without insurance to pay cash, with no rebates, at double the prices paid by the most-favored customers.

    The fight against re-importation of drugs is a fight to continue to charge our uninsureds full price while giving everyone else a rebate. [...]

    15% of uninsured children and 28% of uninsured adults [went] without prescription medication in 2000 because of cost, and 87% of uninsured individuals with serious health problems reported trouble obtaining medication. [...]

    In the next five years, branded drugs with annual sales of $72.9 billion are expected to lose patent protection. So we in the drug industry are fighting re-importation because we're worried about the bottom line. [...]

    I joined this industry to save lives, not to take them. And that's the reason I've chosen to speak out.

    Presumably, most people who work for drug companies are like Rost in wanting to save lives and help other people, even if they don't all have the courage to put their careers on the line by speaking out. This is one instance of a general phenomenon: corporations tend to produce outcomes antithetical to the ethical standards of the human beings who work for them.

    Corporations are machines designed to follow one rule only — maximize profits — so it is in some ways unsurprising that they trample on other human values, but still it is astonishing that people accept that this is the way things should be, as if it's somehow ordained. Corporations were invented to serve humans, not the other way around. The root problem is the nature and legal status of corporations, which we'll return to in future posts.

    Posted by Jonathan at 12:03 PM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    December 21, 2004

    Don't Tread On Me Ethics  Politics

    This is really good. Digby:

    I am against the death penalty and also pro-choice, pro stem cell research and pro right to die. And that view is...perfectly consistent and moral because I simply don't believe that a tribunal or a judge or, least of all, a politician, is capable of making these complicated moral decisions about life and death. If I had my way, I'm sure that some guilty people who deserve to die would live to be 90 (imprisoned, I trust) because of this stand. And I assume that some women would have abortions for selfish and shallow reasons. But until human perfection can be achieved, which is never, these extremely complicated moral issues cannot be dealt with through law without often being immoral themselves. It is not capable of sorting out the morality involved when a desperate 36 year old woman with three kids finds herself pregnant after her drunken ex-husband begged for forgiveness for his philandering and she gave in. You can't say that the death penalty is consistent when the legal system cannot account for lawyers and judges who just aren't very good or witnessess who truly believe they saw something they didn't see. It doesn't make sense to say that nobody should be allowed the right to die when you look at an old man who is dying in terrible pain and just wants to be set free.

    Elsewhere in that post, Digby quotes William Saletan:

    [S]ome conservative evangelicals and progressive Catholics are proposing to broaden the debate [on capital punishment]. While we're rethinking capital punishment, they say, we ought to rethink another kind of killing as well: abortion. But their analogy is upside-down. The reason we're rethinking the death penalty today is the same reason we liberalized abortion laws 30 years ago: We're learning that the state is too clumsy to handle it.

    So, for my conservative friends, a question. Given that you believe government to be ham-handed, inefficient, a blunt instrument whose actions inevitably produce unintended, pernicious consequences — so it cannot be trusted to decide even relatively trifling matters like how your taxes should be spent — why do you consent to give it the power to decide the most difficult moral questions of life and death via one-size-fits-all legislation? If government can't be trusted to spend your money, how can it be trusted to sentence you to death? To control your womb? To stand between you and stem cell therapies that may save your life? To stand between you and a merciful end?

    Isn't it clear that these are precisely and emphatically the very decisions that governments should never make?

    Posted by Jonathan at 01:19 AM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    December 15, 2004

    When Push Comes To Shove Ethics

    People tend to be purists about things like stem cell research right up until the moment when it affects them personally. From the Guardian [via Atrios], the story of Chinese Dr. Huang Hongyun, who treats spinal cord injuries using stem cells from aborted fetuses. Who are his patients?

    Among them is Van Golden, a Christian, anti-abortion Texan who has sold his house so that he can travel to communist, atheist China and have Huang inject a million cells from the nasal area of a fetus into his spine. According to Golden's doctors, his spine was damaged beyond repair in a car crash last Christmas. The damage to his nervous system was so bad that he has been in a wheelchair and racked by spasms ever since. But Golden refused to give up, even if it meant having to compromise his values. "This is the only place that offered us any hope," he says. "Everyone else offered only to help make me sufficient in that chair. But the chair is not my destiny. It is not ordained." [...]

    It cannot be easy for a man of his beliefs to be in China, where the government's one-child policy is partly responsible for millions of abortions each year. But instead of shunning the system, Golden believes his only hope is to embrace it. There is nowhere else he could get fetal cells. "I wish there was another way they could do it. There are 4,000 abortions a day in the US. [...] That's a waste. Something good should come out of something bad. The people who don't believe that aren't in a wheelchair." [My emphasis]

    What the purists (extremists) need to understand is that even if stem cell restrictions don't affect them personally, there are plenty of other suffering people whom they do affect. It's a question of compassion.

    For more on the ethics of stem cell research/therapy, see this post.

    Posted by Jonathan at 05:54 PM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    December 02, 2004

    Violence Against One Is Violence Against All Environment  Ethics  Gumpagraphs  War and Peace

    Text by Wendell Berry, photos by Gumpa:

    By dividing body and soul, we divide both from all else. We thus condemn ourselves to a loneliness for which the only compensation is violence — against other creatures, against the earth, against ourselves. For no matter the distinctions we draw between body and soul, body and earth, ourselves and others — the connections, the dependences, the identities remain. And so we fail to contain or control our violence. It gets loose.
    © Kent Tenney 

    Though there are categories of violence, or so we think, there are no categories of victims. Violence against one is ultimately violence against all. The willingness to abuse other bodies is the willingness to abuse one's own. To damage the earth is to damage your children. To despise the ground is to despise its fruit; to despise the fruit is to despise its eaters. The wholeness of health is broken by despite.

    © Kent Tenney 

    If competition is the correct relation of creatures to one another and to the earth, then we must ask why exploitation is not more successful than it is. Why, having lived so long at the expense of other creatures and the earth, are we not healthier and happier than we are?

    © Kent Tenney 

    Why does modern society exist under threat of the same suffering, deprivation, spite, contempt, and obliteration that it has imposed on other people and other creatures? Why do the health of the body and the health of the earth decline together? And why, in consideration of this decline of our worldly flesh and household, our "sinful earth," are we not healthier in spirit?

    — From "The Body and the Earth," in The Art of the Commonplace.

    The antidote: connectedness, community, caring, love.

    © Kent Tenney 

    And something devalued in our monetary world: Good work. Vocation. Service. The dominant view, in Berry's words, has it that "an economy is a machine, of which people are merely the interchangeable parts." Somehow, human-created institutions take on a life of their own. Before you know it, they are chewing us up and spitting us out.

    But humanity has rights. So does the earth. Let us create the world we want to live in. To paraphrase Bruce Springsteen, "The world we hold in our hearts is waiting."

    Posted by Jonathan at 01:08 PM | Comments (1) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    November 27, 2004

    Tool Man Environment  Essays  Ethics

    One often hears it said that the tools of technology are ethically neutral. They can be used for good or ill, and it’s up to us to use them for good. If a given tool is harmful, people say, we should not blame the tool. This strikes me as a pretty superficial assessment.

    For one thing, we don’t just use tools. Tools also use us, often in unforeseen ways. Think, for example, of how profoundly the automobile shapes our lives. We have adapted to it and become dependent on it. Cities and suburbs are designed around it. Pedestrian life has been largely lost as a result, and with it age-old forms of community. Foreign policy and military industry are centered on the control of petroleum sources: wars are fought to feed our cars. And so on. We serve the automobile as much as it serves us, and at great cost to ourselves.

    Tools also change the way we think and how we see the world. Consider, for example, the mental impact of the use of money technology. As Richard Heinberg points out in his book The Party’s Over, money technology has pushed people to emphasize numerical quantification, calculation, and written language, and it encourages us to perceive objects, living organisms, and other people in terms of numbers, as abstractions rather than individuals. Or, consider how our mental models have been shaped by machines in general and computers in particular. We're led to see living things as machines and DNA as software, there to be tinkered with, and we de-emphasize or ignore altogether the historical, holistic, and ecological/systemic dimensions of life.

    The point is that tools (technologies) and their users are deeply intertwined. It's inescapable. As Heinberg notes, a human with a tool is effectively a different organism from a human without it.

    I think it’s ethically useful, therefore, to actually visualize tools (technologies) as artificial extensions of our bodies. Then we can ask ourselves, as we contemplate the use of a given tool or technology, if the result is a form of human that we really want to be.

    Do I want, for example, to have an assault rifle as prosthetic hand? Do I want to excrete waste products that poison the earth far into the future? Do I want my body to have an insatiable appetite for oil?

    Posted by Jonathan at 05:31 PM | Comments (1) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    September 25, 2004

    Thinking About Stem Cells Ethics  Musings  Science/Technology

    Last night, I heard part of a radio interview with Dr. Steven Clark, an immunologist and medical ethicist on the University of Wisconsin faculty of Human Oncology. The topic was embryonic stem cell research. Clark’s in favor of it, including the cloning of human embryos that enables the process.

    What made the interview especially interesting was the fact that Clark is a political conservative and evangelical Christian. Yet he had that wonderfully refreshing attitude shared by all good scientists: you don’t fudge the data, and you think things through for yourself — logically, not dogmatically.

    On the question of whether human life begins at conception, he had this to say: Ultimately, the question isn’t when does life begin. The question is when does one have a moral obligation toward that life. Embryonic stem cell research involves taking cells from a five-day-old embryo, which, as he said, is smaller than the period at the end of this sentence and has no brain, no life history, no identity.

    But, opponents of stem cell research would say, that five-day-old embryo has the potential to become a fully-developed human being. Don’t we then have a responsibility to accord it the same moral status as a fully-developed human being?

    Clark offered a down-to-earth thought experiment that cuts right through the dogma. Imagine, he said, you are walking by a stem cell laboratory and you see that a fire is raging inside. You see a person lying unconscious on the floor inside and, nearby, a tank containing some number of five-day-old embryos. Which do you save, the person or the embryos?

    Let’s make the scenario even more clear-cut. Suppose what you see are a dozen trapped children and a petri dish containing 13 five-day-old embryos. There are more embryos than children. Which do you save, the children or the embryos? Faced with this choice, not even the staunchest fertilized-egg-equals-human-being dogmatist would hesitate to save the children.

    This thought experiment illustrates exactly the choice that faces us. I.e., there are living human beings with a variety of maladies who could be saved by research and therapy utilizing stem cells. Do we save them, or do we save the five-day-old embryos?

    Posted by Jonathan at 10:40 AM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

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