23 April 2008

Against Equality

The Objectivist
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
April 22, 2008

No value is more central to current moral and legal thought than that of equality. It explains why schoolchildren should have the same opportunities in school, even if this costs a lot more for some. For example, special-education students cost far more than other students and money spent on them could otherwise be spent on average or gifted students. The importance of equality is also used to explain the prohibition of workplace discrimination, government redistribution of wealth, and how we distribute human organs to those who desperately need them. However, equality is a false god.

When discovering how valuable persons are, we need to look at two types of value. First, there is intrinsic value. A person is intrinsically valuable when he (or his life) is valuable by itself. For example, as the late philosopher Ramon Lemos points out, a boy enjoying an ice cream cone makes the world a better place even if he were the only thing in the universe. Second, there is extrinsic value. A person is extrinsically valuable when he (or his life) makes the world a better place for others. A nurse who cares for her patients makes the world a better place for others and hence has extrinsic value.

People differ in their intrinsic value. It is controversial what makes some individuals more intrinsically valuable than others. Everyone who thinks that it is okay to eat chickens or pigs but not adult human beings must have some explanation of why animals are less valuable. This is often explained on the basis that human beings are rational, virtuous, or have some other feature that makes them more important than animals. Yet human beings differ in the degree to which they have these features. Some human beings are more rational than others, some are more virtuous than others, etc. This is particularly true when we compare normal adults with those who suffer from mental illness or Down syndrome. Hence, some persons are more intrinsically important than others.

People also differ in their extrinsic value. Some people do more to make the world a better place. Scientists who invented cures to horrible diseases like polio and smallpox did far more to make the world a better place than unskilled and semi-employed workers. Similarly, women who have many happy children usually do far more in making the world a happier place than women who have none. Some people who lack family or friends and make others’ lives miserable might even have negative value.

Because people differ in their intrinsic and extrinsic value and because the differences don’t always cancel each other out, some people are more important than others.

One objection to this argument is that pleasure and pain are equally valuable regardless of who experiences it. If correct, however, this would suggest that the pleasure and pain of animals is as valuable as that of human beings and if so, then growing them in cruel factory-like farms is wrong. On this account, such practices would be as wrong as if it were done to severely retarded human beings or infants. In any case, persons differ in the amount of pleasure and pain in their lives and hence, on this account, differ in their value.

A second objection is that all human beings are equally valuable and they are all more important than non-human animals. There are a couple of problems with this. Whatever explains why most human beings are more valuable than non-human animals (for example, rationality) comes in degrees. As a result, some human beings will still turn out to be more important than others. In addition, focusing on whether an individual is human (for example, a severely retarded human being) as opposed to some other equally intelligent creature (for example, a chimpanzee) focuses on a morally irrelevant feature. Being human is like being white, it is irrelevant to one’s importance or rights. For example, if alien beings in the movies (consider, for example, ET and the Coneheads) were to exist, they would be as important as we are despite the fact that they are not human.

A third objection to this argument is that this thinking is dangerous. The objector might claim that the notion that some people are more important than others is the sort of thought that led to the horrors of slavery and Nazism. One problem with this objection is that even it confuses the issue of whether an idea is true (all persons are equally valuable) with whether it is dangerous. There are many ideas, such as those that went into the atomic bomb, that are true but dangerous. A second problem with it is that the objection is unconvincing. It’s not the denial of equality that led to Nazism, but the contempt for liberty, especially that of Jews and other minorities. Liberty and equality are distinct notions and one can and should value the first without valuing the second.

A fourth objection is that even if people are not equal as adults, they were all created equal. This is the view set out in the Declaration of Independence. However, if an individual’s value as a newly created fetus rests on its potential to develop into something that is rational, virtuous, etc., then fetuses with greater potential are more valuable. This is analogous to the way in which fetuses differ in their potential to be tall or smart.

A fifth objection is that God made human beings more valuable than non-human animals and made the former equally valuable. This might explain why most religions accept the Golden Rule (do onto others as you would have them do onto you). However, it is still a fair question to ask the theist what about human beings makes God view them as more valuable. To the extent that the feature that answers this question comes in degrees, it follows that some humans have more of it than others.

Acknowledging that some people are more important than others might lead us to shift money from average children to gifted ones. It might also lead us to favor among those who need organs, those who are more rational, virtuous, or who make the world a better place. The notion that some people are count more than others makes many people uncomfortable. It’s true nonetheless.

15 April 2008

Congratulations, 15,000th Visitor!

Just wanted to mark this milestone by thanking our visitor from LA who was looking for a definition of recreational sex. I'll leave it to my co-authors to come up with your prize!

09 April 2008

Religion: Evolution versus Theism

The Objectivist
The Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
March 30, 2008

It is not uncommon to see prominent scientists who also proclaim their Christianity or Judaism. This past semester, Brown University biologist Ken Miller gave an excellent talk at Fredonia State in which he laid out the overwhelming case for evolution over intelligent design. Miller was the lead expert witness against intelligent design in the landmark case, Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, 400 F. Supp. 2d 707 (M.D. Pa. 2005). In this case, parents of students challenged the school board's mandate to incorporate intelligent design into the school curriculum. The federal district court found that the mandate violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment (government “shall make no law resecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”). After laying out his case, Miller proclaimed that the truth of evolution is consistent with Catholicism. Miller asserted that there might be evidence for the virgin birth of Mary, the trinity (there is a father, son, and holy ghost), and transubstantiation (Jesus’s body exists wholly and completely in each and every wafer), but that the evidence is a different from that which shows evolution to be true.

Geneticist Francis Collins who led the Human Genome Project, which pioneered the first map of the human genome, and who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2007 for his work on genetics, is also a Christian. He became a Christian after reading C.S. Lewis’s book, Mere Christianity (1943) and observing the faith of patients who were critically ill. At many colleges and universities, hard scientists (for example, physicists, chemists, and geologists) and life scientists (for example, biologists and geneticists) regularly attend church.

Despite this overlap, evolution and religion are inconsistent and the scientists who go to church inhabit contradictory worlds. Contradiction, like sin, might be tolerable in small amounts, but this degree of contradiction is as great as Elliot Spitzer’s hypocrisy. It’s breathtaking.

The argument for the inconsistency of evolution and theism rests on three ideas. First, evolution supports the notion that persons are brains. The idea here is that evolution favors certain types of minds, namely, those with thoughts and emotions that lead to increased reproductive fitness. This occurs because some types of thoughts and emotions give individuals an advantage in reproducing and this advantage leads to the increased frequency of genes that encode for them. Because genes control the formation of bodily structures, they likely affect a person’s thoughts by shaping the structure and function of his brain.

Second, if persons are brains then they are not souls. This is because brains are physical objects and, by definition, souls are not.

Third, mainstream Christianity asserts that persons are souls. This explains why human beings can survive their earthly death even as their brain rots away. This also explains how human beings can have free will despite the impersonal forces that govern physical objects like their brains. Free will is central to the explanation of why a perfect being created a world with evil in it and why God is not vicious in allowing some persons to be annihilated or go to hell when they refuse to believe in him or do good works.

Some religious folk might try to escape this argument by claiming that even if persons are their brains they might still have free will. There are two problems with this. First, this doesn’t explain the afterlife. If persons are their brains, then when their brains cease to exist they must also. Second, this claim is mistaken. The brain just is a collection of particles. If impersonal (mechanistic or quantum) forces control the nature of particles and how they interact, then so are the physical objects that they compose. Brains are just physical objects.

Other religious folk might argue that persons are souls but assert that souls and brains causally interact with one another. At issue, however, is whether a significant share of a person’s thoughts and decisions result from what goes on in the brain. If they do, then it is hard to see how a human being can be responsible for his thoughts and actions if they largely result from brain firing-patterns over which he has little control. Also, on this account, less of a person survives into the afterlife than we might expect. For example, memories, loves, and emotions are likely lost along with the brain. On this account, then, persons who persist in the afterlife lose much of what they treasure, namely their memories, loves, and emotions.

If a significant share of a person’s thoughts and decisions do not result from what goes on in the brain, then evolution has little effect on our minds. This appears to be the view of Francis Collins who believes that humans are different from other animals in ways that defy evolutionary explanation and depend on human beings’ spiritual nature. He thinks this nature includes knowledge of right and wrong and the search for God. On this account, evolution would not have had much effect on our thought patterns.

On this view, the vast overlap in behavior and emotions between human beings and other apes would be a mystery. So would the fact that chemical changes in the brain (for example, the effects of alcohol or Prozac) affect our thoughts and moods. Also, mysterious would be why brain-degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s degrade humans’ ability to think. This is unappealing to anyone who thinks that evolution has had a major role in shaping how we think, a common view among evolutionary theorists.

Desperate theists might blurt out that science and religion occupy different realms. The late Harvard biologist Stephen J. Gould was a proponent of this idea. The idea is that science tells us what’s true and religion tells us why it’s true. However, in explaining the nature of a person the two theories give contradictory explanations. Theorists who adopt this view are not taking religion seriously.

Even more desperate theists might argue that God designed evolution so both are true. However, this still doesn’t address whether persons are brains and, if not, how this fits with evolution. If evolution and Christianity are inconsistent, then the Christian God could no more bring about both than he could create square circles.

The inconsistency between evolution and Christianity explains why many Christians fight against the teaching of evolution in public schools. Evolutionary ideas are like atheistic tanks threatening to crush the Christian worldview. The fact that many prominent scientists and well-meaning parents don’t see it that way does nothing to undercut the ugly conflict between science and religion.