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Jerry Coyne’s ethical theory unravels

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Professor Jerry Coyne cares deeply about people and sentient animals. But when he attempts to explain why we should care about others, his whole theory of ethics comes apart at the seams. Curiously, Professor Coyne does not seem to notice. In today’s post (which will be short), I’d like to explain what’s wrong with Coyne’s ethical theory. In a nutshell, it fails to address the following three very simple questions:

1. What matters, ethically speaking?

2. What ultimately matters: the individual or society?

3. How can we know whether an animal has feelings or not?

What matters, ethically speaking?

The first question is fatal to Professor Coyne’s ethical theory because he doesn’t believe in a self, but at the same time, he still wants to say that people matter. A recent post by Coyne, titled, Two bloggers argue that the only morality that makes sense is based on the Christian God (January 11, 2014), contains the following passage, which lays bare the inadequacies in his ethical theory:

Even if our notion of a self-directing homunculus in our skull is an illusion, we certainly feel pain, misery, and happiness, and many of those emotions are the result of evolution (pain, for example, alerts us that something is wrong with our bodies, and happiness, like orgasms, can tell us that we are doing something that furthers our reproductive output). But regardless, so long as those qualia exist, it is good behavior for us to promote them, in both ourselves and others. If you ask me why, my answer is because well being is better than ill being. (Emphases mine – VJT.)

From the foregoing passage, we can see that Coyne believes in the existence of subjective feelings (or qualia, as he calls them) and of course, he believes that these feelings occur in certain kinds of organisms (namely, sentient organisms). What he appears not to realize is that a sharp twinge of pain is no-one’s problem if there is no-one (i.e. no “self”) at home. As Professor James D. Rose et al. aptly put it in their article, Can fish really feel pain? (Fish and Fisheries, published online 20 December 2012, doi: 10.1111/faf.12010):

…[O]ne of the most critical determinants of suffering from pain is the personal awareness and ownership of the pain (Price 1999). This is why dissociation techniques, in which a person can use mental imagery to separate themselves from pain, are effective for reducing suffering (Price 1999). In contrast, without awareness of self, the pain is no one’s problem. It is simply there, something to be reduced or avoided if possible, but not a ‘personal’ problem. The known importance of self-awareness for pain contradicts, Sneddon’s (2011) claim that an absence of self-awareness in fishes would make their ‘pain’ worse. (p. 27) (Emphases mine – VJT.)

Professor Coyne writes: “Even if our notion of a self-directing homunculus in our skull is an illusion, we certainly feel pain.” But who is “we”? If the term “we” refers to someone (i.e. to myself and other selves), then Coyne is contradicting himself: he’s saying that we don’t exist and then turning around and saying that we do. But if “we” refers to something (e.g. bodies, or sentient organisms), then Coyne owes it to his readers to explain why this “something” matters, ethically.

Coyne goes on to say that “qualia exist… in both ourselves and others.” But this does not help matters: why is the fact that pain occurs in an organism any more significant, ethically speaking, than the fact that pain occurs in a piece of matter, or the fact that pain occurs in some corner of the universe? If Coyne were a biocentrist, attempting to argue that all organisms matter because there’s something special about being alive (namely, having a built-in “good of one’s own,” or telos), then he would have a defensible position from which to argue.

To sum up: it makes no sense to say that free-floating feelings should matter, ethically speaking, unless there is someone who experiences them. The fact that feelings occur in some biological organism is neither here nor there, unless organisms matter in their own right.

What ultimately matters: the individual or society?

In his recent post, Professor Coyne writes: “my argument largely coincides with that of Sam Harris: our moral feelings, by and large (but perhaps not invariably) coincide with what promotes the ‘well being’ of individuals and societies.

This is a fence-sitting ethical position, for it side-steps the question: whose interests are more fundamental: those of the individual, or those of society? For instance, is the relation of an individual to society like that of a cell to the body? (This is the “ant-hive” conception of morality promoted by utilitarians.) Or do individuals matter in their own right, independently of the society they belong to? This is a fundamental question, of vital ethical importance, to which Coyne gives a frustratingly vague answer. With regard to “trade-offs among individuals and societies,” Coyne writes that questions such as “Is it ‘moral’ to torture individuals to save a large number of people, or, even if that worked, does it create a bad precedent for society, yielding less well being down the line?” are “not easy problems to resolve, and often come down to judgment calls.” But on what basis is one to form a judgment? If one views the overall flourishing of society as the ultimate ethical yardstick, then the act of torturing individuals to save a large number of people will be judged right, if it results in a better society. And if such an act is judged wrong, it will primarily be wrong because in the long run, the interests of society are not served by performing such an act – and not because it violates the rights of an intrinsically valuable individual.

This, I have to say, is an inhuman conception of morality – and I call it “inhuman” because it elevates an abstraction (“society”) above the human beings that create it. The late Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was, after all, right: there is no such “thing” as society, and talk of the good of society derives its intelligibility from the fact that certain things (e.g. health and education) are good for the individual people who compose it. (This, by the way, is why the “cell in the body” analogy is so badly flawed: the good of a cell is not prior to, but posterior to, that of the body it belongs to, whereas with the individual and society, it’s the other way round.) People suffer; but when 100 people die, there is no entity which undergoes the pain of 100 deaths, and utters a scream of collective agony.

Professor Coyne writes that his argument “largely coincides with that of Sam Harris.” Sam Harris is an avowed utilitarian: for instance, he would solve Judith Jarvis Thompson’s fat man problem (“Imagine that you see a trolley which is about to hit and kill five people. The only way to stop it is to push the fat man in front of you to block the trolley”) by pushing the fat man onto the track, and he openly mocks the irrationality of people who wouldn’t do so, but who would at the same time be prepared to divert the trolley by pulling a switch, even though doing so will unfortunately result in the trolley’s running over a person who was lying on the other track (the trolley problem). (Coyne, to his credit, doesn’t commit himself on this question, but elsewhere he approvingly writes that “Sam’s book [The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values] is very good, and you should definitely read it, but it doesn’t solve all our moral problems”, even though he criticizes what he regards as Harris’ failed attempt to derive an “ought” from an “is” within the book.)

In a critical article titled, Sam Harris and the Moral Failure of Science, atheist blogger Robephiles astutely identifies the fatal flaw in Harris’ ethical thinking: Harris doesn’t regard human beings as “ends in themselves”:

In the case of the man being pushed in front of the trolley we are using another human being as a means to an end and that is unacceptable to most of us…

He [Sam Harris] doesn’t see what else is important other than the maximizing of human welfare, so your religious rights don’t matter, your civil rights don’t matter, due process doesn’t matter. Kant claimed that every human being had intrinsic value and an inherent right to be free. Kant thought that it was better to let humans be free to make bad choices than to enslave them in the interest of their well-being. For the last few hundred years civilizations that have lived by these principles have done pretty well. (Emphases mine – VJT.)

For Harris, in the end, overall “human well-being” is the supreme good, and human lives can be sacrificed to protect this greater good. The words of the British philosopher G.E.M. Anscombe in 1958, quoted by Joseph Bingham in a critical review of Harris’ book, The Moral Landscape, are particular apposite here: “[I]f someone really thinks, in advance, that it is open to question whether such an action as procuring the judicial execution of the innocent should be quite excluded from consideration—I do not want to argue with him; he shows a corrupt mind.”

Finally, I would put it to Harris and to Coyne that treating people as cogs in the “greater wheel” of society is profoundly demotivating, and that it makes people care less about the society they belong to, thereby reducing the greatest good of the greatest number. (I know I certainly wouldn’t feel any sense of loyalty to a society which regarded me as expendable.) Paradoxically, the societies that flourish best are precisely those which treat individuals as sacrosanct, and which are constructed on the ethical principle that there are certain things (such as rape and torture, or desecration of people’s corpses) that you simply may not do to other people, no matter how bad they are. Why do such societies flourish? Because people will willingly give their lives to protect a society that values them in their own right.

I happen to know that Professor Coyne is a big fan of secular democracies such as Sweden and Denmark: “those countries, with their liberal social views and extensive aid for the sick, old and disadvantaged, are even more moral than America,” he writes. I wonder whether he has ever had a look at the Swedish Constitution, which expressly upholds “the freedom and dignity of the individual” (Chapter 1, Article 2), guarantees its citizens freedom of expression, information, assembly, political demonstration, association and worship (Chapter 2, Article 1) and universally prohibits capital punishment, corporal punishment and torture (Chapter 2, Articles 4 and 5). That’s not utilitarian thinking, Professor Coyne. It’s much more Kantian.

How can we know whether an animal has feelings or not?

For Professor Coyne, the only animals that matter are sentient animals, or animals which experience subjective feelings. But how are we to identify these animals? The question is a vital one for Coyne, as he is an outspoken defender of the view known as scientism, which states that all genuine knowledge comes from the sciences, and that there is no “extra-scientific” knowledge. In a post entitled, The trouble with “The trouble with scientism”, Coyne defends this claim, defining science as “the use of reason, empirical observation, doubt, and testing as a way of acquiring knowledge.” In response to the claim by a critic that the humanities (including history) have yielded valuable knowledge, Coyne replies:

Who among scientists denigrates these achievements? Not I! But all of these achievements rest on observation, questioning, reason, and testing—the methods of science. There is in fact no strict demarcation between “science” and “non-science” when it comes to the methods for ascertaining what is real. One commenter on this site even noted that the classic chestnut of “another way of knowing” —does my partner love me? — is also amenable to empirical scrutiny.

Coyne is also a great cat-lover. In a post entitled, William Lane Craig argues that animals can’t feel pain (4 October 2012), (which, incidentally, misrepresents Craig’s actual position), Professor Jerry Coyne argued that it was “well established” that some non-human animals do indeed feel pain, and regard it as unpleasant:

It’s pretty well established now that many species do experience pain as an unpleasant sensation…

Really, if you step on a cat’s tail, you don’t think it feels pain?

Although I believe that mammals and birds are sentient (which is one reason why I don’t eat meat) and I am also prepared to grant that these creatures may have a very rudimentary sense of “self” (but see here for why this is doubtful), I should point out that Coyne’s argument for feline sentience is a biologically faulty one, as decorticate cats (whose cortices have been removed) also exhibit the reaction of biting and hissing when their tails are pinched, and as Professor James D. Rose has convincingly shown in his articles, The Neurobehavioral Nature of Fishes and the Question of Awareness and Pain (Reviews in Fisheries Science, 10(1): 1–38, 2002) and Can fish really feel pain? (Fish and Fisheries, published online 20 December 2012, doi: 10.1111/faf.12010), there are very powerful reasons for believing that a neocortex – or in birds’ case, an avian homologue – is essential for sentience.

Surprisingly, however, there is no conclusive scientific evidence showing that any non-human animals are conscious – even cats. Indeed, there aren’t even any arguments showing that they probably feel pain (say, with an 80% probability). At the present time, the assumption that some non-human animals are sentient remains scientifically unverifiable. (I’ve written more about this here.)

This point is explicitly acknowledged by Marian Stamp Dawkins, Professor of Animal Behavior and Mary Snow Fellow in Biological Sciences, Somerville College, Oxford University, in her recently published book, Why Animals Matter (Oxford University Press, 2012). Dawkins is herself highly sympathetic to the view that a large number of animals may be conscious. However, in her book, Dawkins forthrightly accuses animal researcher Marc Bekoff of going in for “full-blooded, genuine anthropomorphism” (p. 21) in his ascription of conscious emotions to animals, and she takes particular issue with the following statement made by Bekoff: “To live with a dog is to know first hand that animals have feelings. It’s a no brainer.” In her response, Dawkins describes the detrimental effect that this anthropomorphic way of thinking has had on science: “It began to look as though no further thought or investigation were going to be necessary. Even worse, this new wave of anthropomorphism threatened the very scientific basis of the study of animal behaviour itself, particularly that branch of it known as cognitive ethology.” (p. 26)

Dawkins then goes on to discuss the different areas of animal consciousness. Throughout the discussion, she maintains a skeptical outlook, because the scientific evidence is “indirect” (p. 111) and that “there is no proof either way about animal consciousness and that it does not serve animals well to claim that there is.” (p. 112). Summarizing the data surveyed, she writes:

The mystery of consciousness remains. The explanatory gap is as wide as ever and all the wanting in the world will not take us across it. Animals and plants can ‘want’ very effectively with never a hint of consciousness, as we can see with a tree wanting to grow in a particular direction. Preference tests, particularly those that provide evidence that animals are prepared to pay ‘costs’ to get what they want, are perhaps the closest we can get to what animals are feeling, but they are not a magic entry into consciousness. They do not solve the hard problem for us because everything that animals do when they make choices or show preferences or even ‘work’ to get what they want could be done without conscious experience at all. We have seen (Chapters 4 and 5) just how much we humans do unconsciously and how powerful our unconscious minds are in making decisions and even in having emotions. What is good enough for us may well be good enough for other species.

In the case of other humans, we use words to ask them what they are feeling, and use what they say as a reasonable working substitute for direct knowledge of what they are experiencing. Preference tests and their variations could be seen as the animal equivalents of asking people in words and it is tempting to say that they are as good as words, if not better. So if we are happy enough to use words as a rickety bridge across the chasm, why not use preference tests, choice, and operant conditioning to do the same for animals? This argument seems particularly compelling when we look at the evidence that animals will choose to give themselves the same drugs that we know have pain-relieving or anxiety-relieving properties in ourselves. Isn’t this direct evidence for conscious experience of pain in animals? Doesn’t this show that their experience of pain is like ours, not just in the external symptoms that they show but also in what they feel?

… The similarity between the behavioral responses of animals and humans to such drugs make it tempting to assume that because the behavior is similar, the conscious experiences must be similar too. Of course they may be, but there is no more ‘must’ about it than in the claim that animals ‘must’ consciously experience thirst before they drink or ‘must’ consciously experience hunger while they are searching for food. They may well do so, as we saw in Chapter 8. But there is no must about it. Animal bodies have evolved by natural selection to restore imbalances of food and water and to repair wounds and other kinds of damage. Neither food deprivation nor water deprivation, nor the symptoms of inflamed joints, are necessarily accompanied by any conscious experiences at all, although they may be. Just as our wounds heal up without any conscious intention on our part and we like certain foods without knowing why, so other animals, too, have a variety of mechanisms, for repairing and restoring their bodies to proper working order. Preference and choice and ‘what animals want’ are part of those mechanisms. They may well be accompanied by conscious experiences. But then again, they may not be. Once again, our path to finding out the answer is blocked by the implacable, infuriating obstacle known as the hard problem.” (pp. 171-174)

Finally, Marian Dawkins argues that since at the present time, scientists don’t know which (if any) animals are conscious, it is better for animal welfare advocates to refuse to commit themselves on the question of which animals are conscious: ” … it is much, much better for animals if we remain skeptical and agnostic [about consciousness] … Militantly agnostic if necessary, because this keeps alive the possibility that a large number of species have some sort of conscious experiences … For all we know, many animals, not just the clever ones and not just the overtly emotional ones, also have conscious experiences.” (p. 177)

Marian Dawkins’ militant agnosticism reminds me of a similar situation in the field of mathematics. Some mathematicians accept the continuum hypothesis, that there is no infinite set with a cardinal number between that of the relatively “small” infinite set of integers, aleph_0, and the much larger infinite set of real numbers, while other mathematicians reject it. The hypothesis is currently undecidable (if we assume the truth of the Zermelo-Fraenkel axioms together with the axiom of choice). Likewise, the question of animal sentience is (at the present time) scientifically undecidable: an animal researcher can do perfectly good science in the laboratory, regardless of whether she believes that animals are sentient or not.

The verdict of science, then, is that it is currently impossible to
establish, even with a high degree of probability, which animals have subjective feelings, and which don’t. And yet Professor Coyne claims to be quite sure that his cat feels pain. I don’t wish to undermine his feeling of certainty; all I will say is that it does not come from science but from somewhere outside science, which means that Coyne’s claim that scientism is true, as a theory of knowledge, is simply wrong.


To sum up: Professor Coyne cannot tell us which creatures are sentient, which means that (on his own account) he cannot tell us which creatures matter, ethically speaking; nor can he even tell us how to find out which creatures matter, since the only road to knowledge which he recognizes (the scientific method) comes up empty-handed, in its attempt to answer this question. Nor can Coyne tell us why we should value sentient creatures, as their aches and pains, their joys and sufferings, have no “owner”; there is, he says, no “self” that experiences them. There are just feelings, and then there are organisms in which these feelings occur. Coyne has failed to explain why raw feelings (or qualia) should matter, if no-one feels them, and why organisms should matter, if they are objects rather than subjects. Finally, Coyne fails to address the question of whether a sentient being’s welfare is important in its own right, or only important insofar as it affects the well-being of the society in which that being lives.

I conclude that whatever the merits of Coyne’s criticisms of other ethical views (and I have already explained why I think these criticisms fail, in my August 2011 post, Why morality cannot be 100% natural: A Response to Professor Coyne), his own theory of ethics is sadly lacking.

What do readers think?

Well, William, such products may loom large in our modern world, but I believe they are actually peripheral in relation to the larger economy. Also, we are said to have reached Peak Oil, and these tar sands and shale oil workings are said to have a short life. Have you ever reflected on how much we rely on oil, how virtually the whole of industry and transport run on it? There's plenty of oil left, but it's increasingly uneconomic to mine. Current 'green power' alternatives won't hack it, and now nuclear power looks doomed. Indeed, on the face of it, this very discussion, seems pie-in-the-sky, in the light of the doomsday scenario indicated by Fukushima - another triumph of unfettered capitalism. Precious metals, used in industry, medicine, etc, have become increasingly scarce, with China and India, too, I believe, trying to corner as much of the market as possible. Ernst Shumacher's book, Small is Beautiful, seems, indeed, to have been prophetic, in terms of the larger economy. Fraudulent banking, perpetrated on a planet-wide scale, by the cabal who actually rule the world, however, may have stymied everything, in any case. Money's value depends significantly on trust... Axel
I couldn't bear listening for more than the first few minutes, but I must try again: Keiser Report: UK's Economic Extinction http://www.democraticunderground.com/1017169128 Axel
It's OK, Vincent. I was mistaken, myself, about having done my dash, but it doesn't mean you have to respond, does it. I think you're right in believing that neither of us is going to shift in terms of such a significant element of our world-view. It seemed clear before 'setting pen to paper'. Re animals' sense of self, I wonder if the apostle, Paul, didn't advert to the matter in his assertion in Romans 8, below: '21that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now. 23And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body.… I mean, as subsidiary fruits of the spirit, following the 'first fruits'. The mystery of an absence of a sense of self would surely remain with regard to vegetation, but perhaps mammals, even lesser 'bods', might prove to have had some kind of sense of self. I can't imagine 'felt pain' without an entity to feel it. What form of time an animal inhabits, what reflective memory it possesses within it, may not be as straightforward as might appear. Animals remember pain and pleasure, after all. When I gave our cat a couple of prawns (you're not supposed to, but he loved them and hadn't long to live, anyway), and wanted to hold back with some for later, I remember he looked at me half-asking me to give him the rest, and half asking why I was holding them back! And he saw him watching some wee insects crawling along the skirting board, and he was both intrigued and highly amused - as he more or less said so, when he looked up at me: 'Will you look at these little tykes?! Pathetic fallacy? I don't think so. I'm sure he was part-Siamese, and he became more and more human. He certainly wanted to be a human being. Now, the depressing subject of Thatcher and neoliberal economics. I'm sure you realise that Denis' MBE for his conduct during the war in no wise mitigates her ladyship's dereliction in the country's supreme hour of need. I didn't expect a facile contention like that from such a towering intellect, Vincent, but it's the nature of the subject, which concerns the heart and fundamental assumptions underpinning our world-view, more than the head. 'Margaret Thatcher also Thatcher sent handwritten letters every night during the Falklands conflict to families of fallen soldiers.' Cry me a river. There are now more ex-Falklands servicemen who have committed suicide, than actually died in the war, itself. Did you know a disfigured serviceman was not permitted to take part in the victory parade? Who needs Saatchi and Saatchi? Indeed, the Falklands war should never have taken place. Against the best professional advice, she withdrew warships that had been patrolling the ocean around the Falklands specifically to warn the Argentines that we hadn't lost interest in them and would defend them. What, therefore, do you think the withdrawal of those vessels would have suggested to the Argentines? It is widely held, not just by the left, that she would have lost the next election, had it not been for that war (and, it goes without saying, that post-imperial touch of the 'master-race' mentality our people have found so hard to shake off). The weirdest thing is that, after her forced retirement - not to put too fine a point on it, she was given 'the bum's rush' The Tories don't mess about. Night of the Long Knives - which baffled her, at no time did it appear to have occurred to her that she'd been used as a stooge. Just that it was 'a funny old world' You could almost hear her saying: 'But I'm still the same person I was last week, yesterday even, when you were all telling everyone I was so wonderful .... like Winston Churchill.' Were the right(wrong) not so nationalistic, it would have been Churchill and Joan of Arc, rolled into one. And no encomium, no comparison, no tribute to herself, was too outrageous and surreal for her to believe. 'The Christian obligation to help the poor doesn’t necessarily entail supporting big government as the vehicle of distribution of surplus wealth. Bureaucrats have agendas of their own, and power tends to corrupt.' Yes, Vincent, it's an imperfect world. Nevertheless, the thirty years after WWII, called by the French, 'Les Trente Glorieuses', after the right wing's pre-war adoration of fascism throughout Europe had so thoroughly discredited them, was brought about by almost certainly as big a bunch of rogues and vagabonds on the left as ever been in government before or since. And why? Because the right had been temporarily neutralised, and Attlee's Government was constrained by the very ideals enshrined in what is now obscenely dismissed as Old Labour. We had a genuine welfare-state, in which "those who had gathered a lot didn't have too much (definitely arguable), and those who gathered a little didn't have too little." 2 Corinthinans 8:15. Or as the atheist left, as ever, plagiarised the scriptures: '... From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.' After WWII, the top-rate tax-band was 19 shillings and 6 pence in the pound (95p in the £). It wasn't on their whole income. Indeed, you had to be rich beyond the dreams of avarice, at least of the poor, to even reach that tax band. As always, the left picked up the pieces, before the return of the right, and the cycle of pillage and disaster, then recovery began again. The country was in ruins, but it was a low cost, low income economy, where now we have a high cost, low income economy. Would I continue to generate wealth for the country, if the government took four fifths of the money I (with the help of a host of other people) made? Absolutely, if I had sufficient, and I was giving the rest back to God, via his children in need. That's the sad thing in this life: worldlings actually need more money than the poor. But, today, and throughout most of history, the poor are not even allowed a sufficiency, never mind an ample sufficiency, while no amount of money will satisfy the rich. Finally, I must thank you for the 'pleasant exchange', Vincent; for your patience with my hectoring. Axel
Hi Axel, Thank you for your posts. I'll begin by addressing your remarks on animal consciousness:
There has to be a subject to feel pain, but I see no need for the ‘sense of self’ of human beings for the pain, to be manifestly felt by creatures.
I agree that there has to be a subject to feel pain, but I can make no sense of the notion of a subject who is not a self. It is probably true that newborn babies lack a "sense of self" (although I wouldn't be too dogmatic about that), but they quickly acquire it. The notion of a creature feeling pain but never acquiring even a rudimentary sense of self is something I find mystifying. Regarding cats, I agree that they can feel a sense of companionship with us, and I'm personally inclined to believe that they do indeed possess a sort of self. I note that the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church, speaking about animals, says forthrightly that "Men owe them kindness." I was pleased that that sentence made it into the Catechism. St. Thomas Aquinas thought we didn't owe animals anything, as such, although he also said cruelty of animals was wrong, because of its hardening effect on the human heart. Re Margaret Thatcher: I was puzzled by your remarks on her lack of involvement in WWI. She was born in 1925. I think you meant WWII. Although she didn't volunteer, he future husband Denis was awarded an MBE for his conduct in the war. Margaret Thatcher also Thatcher sent handwritten letters every night during the Falklands conflict to families of fallen soldiers. Those who knew her best recalled her as a kind individual: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/margaret-thatcher/9985745/Margaret-Thatcher-Lords-recall-a-kind-woman-with-sense-of-humour.html . The Christian obligation to help the poor doesn't necessarily entail supporting big government as the vehicle of distribution of surplus wealth. Bureaucrats have agendas of their own, and power tends to corrupt. When she came to power, taxation rates for the rich were as high as 80%; she brought them down to 40%. That sounds eminently sensible to me. Would you continue generating wealth for the country if the government took four-fifths of the money you made? I have to go now, but it's been a pleasant exchange. Cheers. vjtorley
No, I'm talking about virtual goods, not money manipulations. Downloadable music, apps, streaming movies, programs, video games, virtual world properties & items, electronic services, art, photography, design, internet advertising & websites, licensing of intellectual properties, etc. That section of the economy is not limited to any physical constraints (in any practical sense) - it's not zero sum. There is literally room for unlimited economic growth in the virtual economic sectors. William J Murray
'‘There is living tapestry of men and women and people and the beauty of that tapestry and the quality of our lives will depend upon how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility for ourselves and each of us prepared to turn round and help by our own efforts those who are unfortunate.’ If the Fall had not occurred I could feel sanguine about the prospects for the survival of the poor in this beautiful tapestry, but alas, it did. And Thatcher, of all kites and crows, would surely have been one of the people whose philanthropic instinct could least be relied upon to share her pelf. She was nothing if not consistent in her Randian selfishness. While young men and women of all classes broke off their tertiary studies to play a part in the war effort during WWI, in the fond belief that they would be fighting for a society to which they belonged, Thatcher knew better than to fall for that guff about 'society', 'country' and what have you, and continued with her university studies, as an 'individualist' Of course, when the war was won, I feel sure, as is the way of the fink, that she would not have felt in the least bit guilty about enjoying the fruits of the subsequent peace. I wonder how our troop would have felt during that war, if they had known that generations of their descendants would be denied gainful employment on a living wage, and been blamed for it! A characteristic of the monied class, going back to Old Testament times. Axel
That's what's been going on in the banking sector, all right, William. It reads like satire, though, in the general context. Was it meant to? Axel
Growth is simply not necessary and cannot be sustained indefinitely on a finite planet, anyway.
Love ya, Axel, but if you mean economic growth, this is where you are mistaken. In the pre-virtual economy, I can see where someone might buy into zero-sum economics, where there is only so much "pie" and every larger slice necessarily translates into a smaller slice somewhere else because of the necessarily finite physical resources available to serve as "goods". Growth has no limitations in the virtual sector (well, it depends on how much computer memory can exist, but for all practical intents and purposes, there is no physical limit), and it has almost no environmental impact. For instance, online I can sell a small digital file for a modest sum and it can be downloaded millions of times - again, with virtually no ecological impact whatsoever. There is, essentially, no physical limit to how much anyone can make when money these days is also pretty much a virtual commodity - a secure bank of numbers transferred from one location to another. I can make a fortune creating something that never has any more of a physical presence in the world than information stored on a hard drive, and enjoy that wealth without ever laying eyes on or handling a physical dollar bill or coin. William J Murray
Hi Vincent I am astonished that you find the blandishments concerning Thatcher's self-help 'ethic' in the least bit plausible. As I said, her rejection of the notion of society as a reality (there is no such thing as society) of people vulnerable to suffering en masse, as well as individually was a direct quote from Rand. If anything, the multiplicty of those suffering makes the crimes all the more heinous. Why did Christ speak of the poor in his Sermon on the Mount and Beatitudes? He seemed to think there is such a thing as society - and subdivisions of it. I may be mistaken, but I took you to be a Christian (I'm not being 'funny', here), so I'm puzzled why you impugn the lack of self-help on the part of those least able to help themselves, precisely because our society is moulded by the worldy-wise to their own parasitic benefit (it's the normal order, to which Christ conceded validity, provided that the parasitism is kept to a more or less modest degree). What makes it more detestable is that the same poorer folk, the parasitic host, are the more naturally/supernaturally spiritual (not necessarily formally, of course, largely due to the scandal of the compromised Church, compromised precisely in this way). 'There is living tapestry of men and women and people and the beauty of that tapestry and the quality of our lives will depend upon how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility for ourselves and each of us prepared to turn round and help by our own efforts those who are unfortunate.’ Do you really think the quality of her life was something to admire? When in conversation with Dennis, someone mentioned compassion, he remarked, Margaret doesn't use that word. By their fruit, you shall know them. With all those material advantages, her son was a convicted racketeer in the US and a gun-runner and coup-plotter in Africa, with SAS who consider he betrayed them, intent on 'taking him out'. Unsurprisingly, in view of the lawlessness at that level of right-wing politics, he seems to have eluded imprisonment through predictable back-channels. Thatcher's daughter, a very personable young woman with perhaps a few odd prejudices of her class, did not spend Christmas with her, perhaps didn't visit, remarking to the effect that being an absentee mother, while her children were growing up and then wanting to be the doting grandmother didn't quite equate. Is that your idea of quality of life, compounded by Alzheimer's? From national hero to family zero. Or was not the latter simultaneous? If you can't look after your own family, you should not be in charge of a whelk stall, never mind a nation. I've always thought that Dame Edna Everedge was properly based on her. The Tory backwoodsmen couldn't believe their luck in having found a female demagogue (no male would have dared utter her nonsense, nor would they have been able to get away with it) of such outrageous degeneracy. A 5-star mediocrity, created by the real rulers of the country, the louche and powerful, with the indispensable help of their 'bought and paid for' media. A continually degenerating atheist, left-wing opposition was helpful, too. Taxation helps the Haves to avoid letting their left hand know what their right is doing. Many rich people give in addition to what they pay by way of taxes. But obviously my links concerning who really owns the wealth of the rich didn't impress you. The fact is, Christian scripture, in both Old and New Testaments, refer to the 'rich man' in apposition to the 'wicked man', the 'oppressor', the 'deceitful man'; while referring to the 'poor man' in apposition to the 'virtuous man', the 'true Israel'. Our Lady's Magnificat takes some explaining away. Also, in his epistle, St James states that God chose the poor to be rich in faith. 'Where your treasure is, there your heart is.' The apostle, Paul, evidently from a monied, middle-class background was perhaps the least in tune in this thinking in such worldly matters with Jesus. He counseled not to borrow, but to owe only a debt of love to one another. Jesus, from a poor Anawim background seems more working-class even than his other disciples. He counseled that we should not only lend, but 'go the extra mile', and not expect it to be paid back. Thatcher, you and doubtless Gerry would presumably criticize the widow who put her last mite in the synagogue treasury, as imprudent, and highly likely to have to ask help for herself. I don't recall Jesus complaining about the poor not pulling themselves up by their boot-straps in his Sermon on the Mount. I do recall he said that we should be content to live from day to day, and not worry about tomorrow and its needs. 'Regard the lilies of the field. They labour not, neither do they spin, and yet I tell you that Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed as one of these.' Sure, it's a tall order, but it is also a billion light years away from fretting about growth of the GDP and what have you, while men, women and children from their teens to their advanced old age, slept in shop doorways. Growth is simply not necessary and cannot be sustained indefinitely on a finite planet, anyway. No word from you either concerning the very detrimental and potentially catastrophic polarisation of the country's wealth, precisely due to the need of the insatiably greedy 'rentier' sector to squeeze more money out of the public, now impoverished by deliberately-contrived, mass unemployment and the endless attrition of workers' incomes. Hence their 'need' to lend money to the public (usuriously, of course) - which they did in the full knowledge that most could not be repaid. To revert to the thread topic, Vincent: 'simply because there are pains, and regardless of whether there is anyone feeling them.' That doesn't make sense to me. There has to be a subject to feel pain, but I see no need for the 'sense of self' of human beings for the pain, to be manifestly felt by creatures. When our cat had cancer, and before we had him put down, he would lose his footing, when he slid off the armchair, but he always wanted to be 'macho', (maybe even a boot-strap type...) and get down himself, unassisted. Nothing to do with soreness or tenderness due to the cancer. That is not the attitude of an automaton. Do they have attitudes? Empathy is love and, as we know, animals have it in abundance, often cross-species. It's a mysterious area, as far as we know, of largely, perhaps entirely, infused intelligence. But what of elephants mourning their dead loved ones, whether an elephant or a human? They seem to have been put on this earth to teach us human beings about noble behaviour. What a shame that Dives didn't learn from the street-dogs - doubtless worrying about placing Lazarus in jeopardy to so-called 'moral hazard'!!! You may want to respond, Vincent, but I've pretty much said my piece. Thanks for responding to my post, anyway. Axel
VJ: If I am just a bundle of perceptions with no perceiver or subject, then why should I matter at all?
Mark Frank: The pain at that moment is part of my identity. It is part of me.
Mark Frank, you have missed the point: materialism doesn't accommodate for your "identity" - there is no "me". There is just particles in motion. Jerry Coyne understands at least that part so he wrote: "Even if our notion of a self-directing homunculus in our skull is an illusion, (...)" and then went on to get even more incoherent. Box
If I am just a bundle of perceptions with no perceiver or subject, then why should I matter at all? To me, that doesn’t make sense. I’m willing to listen to someone explain how it might make sense, but I’ve yet to encounter an explanation of that particular point matters, ethically.
I will try. Trying to separate the suffering from the thing or person that is suffering is a philosopher’s trick.  If I am in pain, the pain is not a separate thing which happens to apply to me as opposed to someone else. What would “apply” mean in this context? The pain at that moment is part of my identity. It is part of me. I cannot, for example, be wrong in thinking that is me that is in pain and that actually it was someone else!  It is easy to confuse this with the cause of the pain which is separate and could happen to someone else. I might think I was burning when I wasn’t but I could never think that I was in pain when I wasn’t. But that doesn’t mean there is no “me” for it to be part of. Mark Frank
Coyne's definition of science, “the use of reason, empirical observation, doubt, and testing as a way of acquiring knowledge” is excellent! It is by following this definition that I have arrived at the ID position. Coyne's general view of equating the feeling of pain with sentience, and by extension moral obligation to avoid pain has some weird side-effects. If pain avoidance is the target, then killing someone in their sleep, or rendering them painlessly unconscious before killing them should make the death totally moral. If pain avoidance is the target, then many medical procedures should be simply outlawed. Many life-extending procedures induce horrendous pain -- far more pain than the patient would feel if just allowed to die of their ailment. As far as what animals experience, let me say that “the use of reason, empirical observation, doubt, and testing as a way of acquiring knowledge” produces huge buckets of evidence that animals feel pain, joy, excitement, loss and mourning, loneliness and a whole lot more. Anthropomorphism is cried every time animals are viewed as having feelings. I cry that any reasonable observer watching their pet for days, weeks months and years who cries the anthropomorphism cry suffers from a bad case of anti-anthropomorphism. Moose Dr
Hi Axel, I'd just like to respond to your comment on animals: "I don’t care if philosophy tells us that without a sense of self, we needn’t worry about their feeling any pain." Two points. First, as I made clear in my post, biocentrism, or the view that things matte simply by virtue of being alive (never mind whether they feel pain or not) is a defensible philosophical position, and one for which I have a considerable degree of sympathy, although I would hasten to add that plants (about which I blogged recently) wouldn't matter anywhere near as much as animals with a sense of self. What I do think is odd is the view that animal suffering matters, simply because there are pains, and regardless of whether there is anyone feeling them. Second, I find Buddhism (in its classic form) incoherent for the same reason. If I am just a bundle of perceptions with no perceiver or subject, then why should I matter at all? To me, that doesn't make sense. I'm willing to listen to someone explain how it might make sense, but I've yet to encounter an explanation of that particular point. vjtorley
Coyne: "If you ask me why, my answer is because well being is better than ill being.” If there is no "being" outside particles in motion - if there is no "I" - then what does "well being" and "ill being" mean? Box
VJT quoting Coyne: "But regardless, so long as those qualia exist, it is good behavior for us to promote them, in both ourselves and others. If you ask me why, my answer is because well being is better than ill being." Actually, the most Coyne can say, given his atheism, is that, in his opinion, his well-being is better than his ill-being. He has no grounds for saying that anyone should care about the well-being of others nor does he have any grounds for saying that it would be "wrong" not to. The natural consequence of atheism is egoism (and nihilism). All the talk among the "New Atheists" of striving for human flourishing and so on is mere emoting. It tells us something about the speaker's own tastes and preferences, but it tells us nothing about what's objectively right or wrong. Dick
It seems that Coyne would have us base our morality on empathy with those who we hold to be capable of subjective qualia; my question is simple: why should I? Why should I not drown out my empathy instead of letting it get in the way of doing whatever I want? William J Murray
Hi Axel, Thank you for your comment. I only have time for a very quick response. It appears that you did not follow my hyperlink to the Daily Beast, attached to Margaret Thatcher's phrase, "There is no such thing as society." If you had, this is what you would have found:
Critics often quote Thatcher as saying, "There is no such thing as society." This quote is supposed to confirm Thatcher as an anti-social radical individualist of the Ayn Rand distemper. She was no such thing, as the full quote in all its context amply corroborates. Thanks to the Spectator of London for the text & link.
I think we have gone through a period when too many children and people have been given to understand “I have a problem, it is the Government’s job to cope with it!” or “I have a problem, I will go and get a grant to cope with it!” “I am homeless, the Government must house me!” and so they are casting their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first… There is no such thing as society. There is living tapestry of men and women and people and the beauty of that tapestry and the quality of our lives will depend upon how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility for ourselves and each of us prepared to turn round and help by our own efforts those who are unfortunate.
Selfish Randian? I don't think so. By the way, did you ever watch Shelley? That really captured the mood of Britain, the sick man of Europe, in the late 1970s. vjtorley
It angers me to see otherwise probably noble people, such as yourself, Vincent, unwilling to be spurred by the manifest empathy, particularly of many mammals, to adopt a full-blooded empathy with them, and to hell with scientific experiments on pain in animals, etc. If it isn't an expression of overweening philosophy and scientism, it can only be worse imo. Isiah speaks in the most beautiful terms of no harm being done in all the land, citing the leopard lying down with the kid, etc. I don't care if philosophy tells us that without a sense of self, we needn't worry about their feeling any pain. Indeed, the Mosaic injunction not to seethe a kid in its mothers milk, goes a step further than my antipathy for viewing animals as no more than machines, in that Yahweh's concern seems to have been that if we allow ourselves to become insensitive to considerations of moral beauty and ugliness - bear in mind the expression we use: 'the milk of human kindness' - of a slaughtered kid being boiled in its own mother's milk, it can only lead to negative consequences for our own development. Nor is the conflict between society and the individual an 'either or' problem. Thatcher, who was almost single-handedly responsible for the current, mass unemployment and homelessness of men and women of all ages, borrowed that expression, 'There's no such thing as society', from Ayn Rand, a campaigning atheist psychopath, whose Mammon and Moloch-worshipping peers in the US seem to view her conviction that 'the law of the jungle' is the way forward, is some kind of sophisticated philosophy! Well, she did herself. The notion that economic growth is the ultimate desideratum is sheer folly, and a folly only aggravated by immiserating the bulk of the population, in favour of the endless enrichment of the 'Haves'. Capitalism, neoconservative-style, to which it will always regresses, is nothing but remorselessly-systematised greed. The Second Commandment is not negotiable, nor straining at a gnat, to merely swallow a camel, by settling for voluntary donations over taxation (Cameron's Big Society), levied as closely as possible in proportion the income received - according to no less an authority than Adam Smith, who saw the merchants of his day as effectively criminals, who could never be trusted, but needed to be very closely monitored and controlled, to prevent their conspiring against the common good. http://www.internetmonk.com/archive/quotes-from-the-fathers-on-mercy-that-might-enlighten-or-offend-you Not only that, but it looks as if - Fukushima aside - the very polarization of the wealth, to which her neoliberal economics has led, seems to have brought us to the verge of an unparalleled economic catastrophe. Axel
Several years back, there were reports from a "family living" or some such class being taught at Virginia public schools in which the instructor suggested to the students that they might "feel bad" if they beat up or killed another person. And so the reason they should play nice with others was that it might make them feel happier. The logical suggestion, however, was that as long as it made YOU feel happy, then it was perfectly OK to beat other citizens up, steal their stuff, and kill them if they gave you any back talk. As soon as the contents became public, the school board and everyone connected with approving the course attempted to distance themselves from it. And the lecturer was not invited back to "teach" other classes. The standard Neo-Darwinian position is that of course humans are self-aware. And the reason we should treat other members of our tribe nicely is because the competition between humans is between groups, with individuals sacrificing their personal self-interest for the good of the pack. Why do you think we give soldiers medals? See Pichot's "The Pure Society: from Darwin to Hitler". mahuna
Jerry Coyne: Even if our notion of a self-directing homunculus in our skull is an illusion, we certainly feel pain, (...)
Translation: "Even if my notion of an "I" is an illusion, I certainly feel pain." Two questions for Jerry: 1. If it is indeed the case that my "I" is an illusion. Who or what is having this illusion? 2. If there is no "I" - because it is an illusion - how can I still feel pain? Box
If I chop an oak tree down I have killed it, but I will not be charged with murder. If I shoot my neighbor dead, I will be charged with murder. Why the difference? Under Coyne’s theory, the tree and my neighbor are the same kind of “stuff,” mere particles in motion. Charging with murder in one case and not the other is based on an arbitrary distinction under Coyne’s theory. Surely it is not the case that charging with murder in one instance and not the other is based on an arbitrary distinction. Therefore, Coyne’s theory is false. Barry Arrington

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