The Walking Dead

The Walking Dead #3Last year, I wrote:

I’d like to see what a surviving-a-day-at-a-time hero looks like. Whatever collection of writers can come up with that story and characterization will make a lot of money breaking with the current anti-hero conventions. More to the point, it might be good for us. Though we may [not] have had too many actual-or-metaphorical vampires of late, perhaps we do still need to see complicated characters dealing with the morally ambiguous world, and for that I think there’s nothing better than a survivor’s tale, where ordinary folks face the ravages of an apocalypse without losing their humanity. Post-apocalyptic stories capture the sense of morally ambiguous survival without pretense of authenticity or excellence.

Well, it’s finally happened. AMC has begun production of Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead. Kirkman’s zombie story is exactly what I was thinking of as I wrote those words: no climax, just life subsisting after the apocalypse, “it’s like a zombie movie that never ends.”

I think this is just what we need… unless it turns out to be true that zombies are popular when Republicans win elections.

Cloning isn’t about Genetic Identity: More on Procreation

Ever since I wrote negatively about the justice of procreation, I’ve been hoping that someone would come along and take the positive position. It’s the kind of argument about which one doesn’t quite want to be right. Sadly, there’ve been no takers.

However, there’s recently been a spate of discussions on a more narrow topic that have raised the pro-natal issue again, and I think helpfully. It all started when Bryan Caplan solicited advice on the following paragraph in his book:

I confess that I take anti-cloning arguments personally.  Not only do they insult the identical twin sons I already have; they insult a son I hope I live to meet.  Yes, I wish to clone myself and raise the baby as my son.  Seriously.  I want to experience the sublime bond I’m sure we’d share.  I’m confident that he’d be delighted, too, because I would love to be raised by me.  I’m not pushing others to clone themselves.  I’m not asking anyone else to pay for my dream.  I just want government to leave me and the cloning business alone.  Is that too much to ask?

I think this is a great paragraph because the controversy it generates is mostly misplaced. So yes, keep it! Of course our general objections to cloning are rooted in unreflective moral intuitions, and of course they ought to be rooted out. Genetic identity is a stupid thing to object to, rooted in all our worst doppelganger fears. There’s nothing a priori immoral about cloning, and certainly there’s nothing a priori immoral about twins.

But yet there’s something odd here. Caplan seems to want to provoke the purity intuitions (Don’t meddle with nature!) rather than subduing them, and so he says something that squicks us out. Perhaps he wants to provoke objections because provocation and controversy sells books. But an alternative possibility is that he is provoking a misplaced objection so that other objections receive less attention. For instance, there may be something immoral about spending vast resources to have oneself cloned. The concern being covered is the radical pro-natalism of cloning, and that’s the discussion that really needs to be had. Tyler Cowen recently raised this question in demanding to know why Caplan’s selfish claims about having children wouldn’t actually work equally well for adoption:

So here is my challenge to Bryan: write down the ten most important selfish reasons to have kids and then ask how many of them apply to adopted children.  Most of them will.  Which isn’t to say those are the only reasons to adopt (or have) kids, but they are real nonetheless.  So why do the adopting parents seemingly get described as selfless martyrs?

To paraphrase Robin Hanson, “Cloning isn’t about Genetic Identity.” “Always room for one more” is obviously a problematic position, especially when that “one more” is immensely expensive. What we ought to do is tamp down our disgust and have a discussion about the best distribution of GDP, but our disgust distracts us.

Of course, that’s the argument at the heart of Caplan’s new book, which seems to be a defense of the endowment effect. That’s why it’s called Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids. If our unique commitment to actually existing persons allows us to live free from regret, then there’s a pretty good retroactive justification for just about anything.

“All partial evil, universal good…. One truth is clear, whatever was, was right.”

That’s the gist of this argument, that by biting the bullet of the Non-Identity Problem, we can justify historical injustices:

if you offered me a “do-over” on any aspect of my life prior to my children’s conception, I would refuse, for it would mean that these specific children would never have been born.

Having children produces interested persons who have retroactive rights to exist, and if that existence depends on an injustice or regrettable action, that injustice is justified. But of course this is a lot to pin on the admittedly problematic bias encapsulated by the parental endowment affect, which is just a version of the status quo bias. Aren’t we supposed to be overcoming our biases rather than writing elaborate defenses of them?

Cowen to the rescue, again:

I put a big stress on how children help you see that a lot of your immediate concerns aren’t nearly as important as you might think, and how spending time with children brings you closer to — apologies, super-corny phrases on the way — The Great Circle of Being and The Elemental Life Force.  In some (not all) ways, adopted children may be teaching you those lessons more effectively than do biological children.  It’s an oversimplification to say that “children make you a better person,” but they do, or should, improve your ability to psychologically and emotionally integrate that a) you want lots of stuff, b) what you end up getting remains, no matter what, ridiculously small and inconsequential, and c) you can’t control your life nearly as much as you think.

None of those are benefits more realizable through genetic identity than through biological paternity or adoption, and even the the claimed justification effect of procreation is lost in genetic identity because you’ve displaced the lottery of spermatozoa selection. Thus the justice considerations remain paramount in evaluating cloning, just as they ought to do when deciding to procreate.

That leaves the mistaken claim that there’s a real benefit to raising someone who is genetically identical to oneself. As Caplan put it originally, “I want to experience the sublime bond I’m sure we’d share.  I’m confident that he’d be delighted, too, because I would love to be raised by me.” But this assumes that genetic identity will actually produce a similar preference structure, and here Caplan is playing fast and loose with nature and nurture. Caplan’s response demonstrates as much.

Moral Malapropism: Particularism on Craig Ferguson

Late night television takes on moral particularism:

via Peter Levine

I’m still trying to get my head around Dancy’s view, so perhaps this post will be more confusing than it ought to be. Here’s the gist from the Stanford Encyclopedia:

Moral Particularism, at its most trenchant, is the claim that there are no defensible moral principles, that moral thought does not consist in the application of moral principles to cases, and that the morally perfect person should not be conceived as the person of principle. There are more cautious versions, however. The strongest defensible version, perhaps, holds that though there may be some moral principles, still the rationality of moral thought and judgement in no way depends on a suitable provision of such things; and the perfectly moral judge would need far more than a grasp on an appropriate range of principles and the ability to apply them. Moral principles are at best crutches that a morally sensitive person would not require, and indeed the use of such crutches might even lead us into moral error. (emphasis mine)

In this, moral particularlism sounds like a defense of casuistry. To be a resolute casuist is to reject meta-ethical concerns and general principles in favor of hands-on pragmatism, working with cases to acclimate our moral senses. Casuistry is sometimes associated with the “hard cases make bad law” school of thought, though a good casuist can as easily derive the correct answer from a hard case as an easy case, and should be able to avoid the danger that such hard cases will make any “law” at all, since that would simply be a “crutch” likely to “lead us into moral error” when we return to easier cases.

Of course, I’m sympathetic to a rejection of a priori moral theorizing that purports to derive and then apply a principle like utility maximization or autonomy, but that’s because I favor a steady movement between principles and cases. In this, I feel like I split the difference between particularism and generalism, but I worry, however, that a moderate position might not be possible here. Dancy’s particularism seems to reject the possibility of reflective equilibrium. The movement to principles would only be “definitional” in his sense, i.e. purely analytic, not inferential.

Put another way: what could cause us to revise a moral judgment? On my view, either additional facts or conflict with a previously-developed principle could force such a revision, but for Dancy only facts can do the job. For this reason, Dancy suggest that philosophers shouldn’t give advice (since they’re not likely to have access to the relevant facts) and Peter Levine (with reservations) agrees:

Why shouldn’t philosophers dispense advice? Because what one needs to advise people well is not only correct general views (which, in any case, many laypeople hold), but also good motivations, reliability and attention, fine interpretative skills, knowledge of the topic, judgment born of experience, and communication ability (meaning not only clarity but also tact). There is no reason to think that members of your local philosophy department are above average on all these dimensions.

Levine suggests that philosophers are likely average in the specific traits associated with good advice, and very good at an irrelevant part of moral theorizing, because:

the best moral philosophy is methodologically innovative and challenging and also addresses real issues. [However, y]ou wouldn’t ask John Rawls to run a governmental program or even to advise on specific policies, but your thinking about policies may be better because you have read Rawls. It so happens that he held some interesting ideas about meta-ethics, but those were merely complementary to his core views, which were substantive.

Thus, philosophers-qua-philosophers shouldn’t give advice, because their job is methodological innovation and challenges that “enrich other people’s moral thinking.” There’s something reminiscent of Jason Stanley’s recent lament that philosophers get ignored at cocktail parties here, a kind of argument from definition for being-boring. If a moral philosopher offers useful advice, she’s no longer doing good moral philosophy, but rather getting bogged down in facts and good judgment? (But then isn’t this an odd No-True-Scotsman?) Why shouldn’t we be able to persuade ourselves of the need to develop the traits he suggests are the real prerequisites for advice?

It helps to look at the original holism from which particularism takes its bearings. Hermeneutic holism tries to square our capacity to deal with, for instance, malapropisms without faltering at the inapplicability of general syntactic and semantic rules of interpretation. Donald Davidson’s “A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs” is an example of this kind of effort, arguing that conventions can never completely suffice for understanding. One response is to adopt a dialogic account of interpretation that resolves the indeterminacy of translation and meaning through the elimination of private language and the embrace of theory-laden-but-revisable meanings that can only be determined in situ. Thus, there’s a reasonable analogy to be made between semantic holism and moral holism.

By claiming that only a “whole situation” can be judged, the particularist refuses to break moral problems into constituent concepts or parts with which we might calculate. There’s something tempting about that holistic approach, but it also has risks. Here’s Levine again:

As a moderate particularist, I reply: love is an extremely important moral concept. It is morally ambiguous, in the precise sense that it only has a moral valence in context–sometimes it makes things better pro tanto, and sometimes it makes things worse, but it is almost always morally significant. Although it may be good more often than it is bad, it is not prima facie good (because it’s highly unpredictable).

Furthermore, we cannot make live morally without the concept “love,” nor can we split it into two categories. Love is not just the union of two concepts: good-love and bad-love. Part of the definition of “love” is that it can be either good or bad, or can easily change from good to bad (or vice-versa), or can be good and bad at the same time in various complex ways.

Though we’d like there to be a difference between embracing ambiguity or indeterminacy, as Levine does with love, and embracing skepticism, which no particularist actually wants to do, I suspect the entailment between moral holism and moral skepticism may be unavoidable.

The risk here isn’t that we’d simply judge each instance of love as we find it, but that we’d find ourselves in a moral analogue of the “gavagai-means-rabbit” situation, unable to ever determine even for ourselves which of the features of a situation was morally relevant. Since we can imagine a perspective from which even a happy marriage is the instantiation of heteronormative privilege, as when we look at it through the lens of Andrea Dworkin’s complicated concerns describing the background of violence and domination that makes such relationships possible, we can’t know which context is the right context for judgment. (I’m reminded of critical readings of Jane Austen that emphasize the colonial practices that make the novels central bourgeois conflicts possible.) If moral holism is true, then we can never be sure that out judgment of a case has properly incorporated all relevant facts, until we had a “picture of the moral universe” in our heads large enough to avoid all errors and exclusions. Thus, holism seems to entail skepticism. Yet Dancy and others claim that we can properly judge a case.

This is the problem Levine notes in the question of how big a “whole” is:

Note: there is a problem here about what constitutes a “component” or a “whole.” Can one make moral judgments about people, about policies and institutions, about whole societies? Is a law a component of a society, or a whole object in itself? The same problem sometimes arises in aesthetics, because it may be valuable to assess a whole suite of paintings, or a small detail of a picture, rather than a single and complete work.

Is a moral question like love or family ever simply self-contained? I think not: for instance, I’ve recently argued against having children on the basis of non-local costs associated with bringing additional human beings into an overcrowded world. A response would have to take the form of a response to the global objections I raise, not simply claim that I can safely ignore the larger “whole.”

This brings us back to the steady movement between cases and principles. Reflective equilibrium was originally used in set theory to address exactly this kind of whole/part uncertainty, and was only imported into moral philosophy by Goodman and Rawls. So perhaps there is room for moderation like Peter Levine’s. In contrast with his moderate particularism, a “moderate generalist” might be someone who rejects the purported universality of moral principles in favor of a careful accounting of the scope or jurisdiction of a moral judgment, and carefully applied reflective equilibrium to broaden that scope through inquiry.

To the vocabulary of pro tanto and prima facie concepts, we’d add defeasible duties, relevance criteria, and a theory of justification. So we could say that not-procreating is a duty easily defeasible by ignorance or strong desire, or that the colonial slavery that makes a bourgeois life possible simply isn’t relevant to an evaluation of that life. And then we could dispute the justificatory framework that applies such limiting arguments. But if that’s the case, then Dancy’s position would ultimately only be a stepping stone to such an adjudication of cases and principles. It’s a nice reminder not to get lost in principles, but it can’t possibly give us the whole picture.

Thinking about Procreative Rights and Duties

We are commonly understood to have a right to procreate. For instance, it is a clear violation of that right to coercively sterilize those judged unfit. However, there is some question whether this right includes the right to assistive reproductive technologies, and whether it is defeasible in any circumstances, i.e. whether we have a corresponding duty not to reproduce under certain conditions.

Fertility treatments like in vitro fertilization come under fire because of larger health care access issues regarding which treatments should be covered by insurance or under a single-payer style medical system. Given how expensive they sometimes are, should these treatments be covered in the face of unmet medical needs of existing children? Is infertility a disability that requires reasonable remediation? What counts as reasonable, especially since the success rates of these technologies are quite low?

Moreover, the issues with assisted reproduction technologies are still there for couples who can conceive normally, they’re just not usually subjected to public debate. That doesn’t mean there are no public concerns. For instance, some countries incentivize procreation with a tax credit, including the United States. Environmentalists warn that childbearing is by far the largest “carbon footprint” decision an American can make. And we must also note that in the absence of population-replacing reproduction, first world countries must import labor, which enriches immigrants and their home countries through remittances. Continue reading Thinking about Procreative Rights and Duties