Under pressure from the benighted, Rhodes College refuses to disinvite Peter Singer but issues a “free speech but. . . ” statement

December 1, 2021 • 9:15 am

There are two main parties to this story (besides Rhodes College itself): Peter Singer, the famous ethical philosopher at Princeton, and Rebecca Tuvel, associate professor and Chair of Philosophy at Rhodes College. We’ve encountered them both before as parties to attempted cancellations.

Backstory: Singer got into big trouble when he proposed that under extreme circumstances it might be not only permissible but morally justifiable to euthanize newborns. Here’s what I wrote in July of 2017:

The question of whether one should be able to euthanize newborns who have horrible conditions or deformities, or are doomed to a life that cannot by any reasonable standards afford happiness, has sparked heated debate.  Philosopher Peter Singer has argued that euthanasia is the merciful action in such cases, and I agree with him. If you are allowed to abort a fetus that has a severe genetic defect, microcephaly, spina bifida, or so on, then why aren’t you able to euthanize that same fetus just after it’s born?  I see no substantive difference that would make the former act moral and the latter immoral. After all, newborn babies aren’t aware of death, aren’t nearly as sentient as an older child or adult, and have no rational faculties to make judgments (and if there’s severe mental disability, would never develop such faculties). It makes little sense to keep alive a suffering child who is doomed to die or suffer life in a vegetative or horribly painful state. After all, doctors and parents face no legal penalty for simply withdrawing care from such newborns, like turning off a respirator, but Singer suggests that we should be allowed, with the parents’ and doctors’ consent, to painlessly end their life with an injection. I agree.

Note that both Singer and I restrict this action to newborns who are doomed to die soon, probably painfully, or will live without any prospect of a meaningful or sentient existence. It was not meant to apply to disabled people who could live reasonably or happily (e.g. children with Down Syndrome or cerebral palsy), but only for extreme cases. But it didn’t matter. Disabled people demonized Singer, saying that his views cancelled or dehumanized all disabled people, and would put us on a slippery slope to euthanizing any unwanted child. This was not the case we were making, and of course we’d both put strictures in place: parents as well as several doctors would have to consent, and so on.

I wrote this in 2020, when Singer had been deplatformed in New Zealand, Germany, and Canada for his “inhumane” stand on euthanizing doomed infants:

It seems to me that an enlightened philosophy would allow people to be able to end their lives in a humane way if they’ve undergone proper medical and psychiatric vetting. Some form of this “assisted suicide” is already legal in Canada, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Colombia, Switzerland, Victoria in Australia, and and in some states of the U.S. (California, Colorado, Washington state, Oregon, and—by court order—in Montana).

I further believe—and I’ve gotten into trouble for this—that we should also allow newborns afflicted with incurable conditions—conditions from which they will suffer and die young—to be euthanized humanely. The conditions under which I think this is not only allowable, but ethical, were first laid out in this post of mine.  I was aware at the time that philosopher Peter Singer had agreed with and defended this view, but I can’t remember whether I arrived at it independently or read it in some of his writings. No matter, for it’s a view that people need to consider, and of course Singer has defended this view far more extensively and ably than I.

For his views, Singer has undergone considerable pushback, and has been not only deplatformed, but subject to calls for his resignation from Princeton (he splits his time between Princeton and the University of Melbourne). I, too, was subject to a surprising amount of publicity, nearly all negative, for my one website post about this. On her own website Heather’s Homilies, Heather Hastie defended my views, summarizing and answering some of the pushback I got (thanks, Heather!),  I also wrote about the surprising opposition to my views here and here.

See also Russell Blackford’s defense of Singer here.  I have to say that this topic elicited a fair number of very nasty emails and comments, with people accusing me of wanting to kill babies of all kinds. Since a newborn cannot make a decision for itself, someone has to step in—especially in the case of impending death—and I think Singer, a deeply humane and moral man—made the right call.

Now for Rebecca Tuvel. She’s a woman of extraordinary courage, which she demonstrated in the Hypatia transracialism controversy, in which she published a paper in that journal questioning whether there was a meaningful difference in seeing yourself as a member of another sex or seeing yourself as a member of a different race (Caitlan Jenner exemplifies the former; Rachel Dolezal the latter). For reasons that defy me, this was regarded as a taboo question (I see it as very meaningful), and Tuvel was attacked. There were calls for her to be fired, for the journal to retract the article, and Hypatia even apologized. But Tuvel didn’t back down, and the article still stands (you might want to read Tuvel’s piece, “In defense of transracialism“).

These two academics intersected in September when a group of philosophers, including Tuvel, invited Singer to be part of a panel at Rhodes College. The topic was “Pandemic Ethics”. Note that this had nothing to do with euthanizing infants. (That reminds me of Dorian Abbot’s cancellation at MIT not because he was talking about a verboten area, but because he had criticized DEI initiatives on his own, and privately, before his scheduled talk.)

But that didn’t stop the faculty and students at Rhodes College from calling for Singer’s disinvitation, and indeed, Rhodes College itself issued a “free speech but. . . ” statement defending Singer’s right to speak but deploring much of what he said previously.

The fracas is described in two pieces, which you can see in the screenshots below.

From The Daily Nous, a philosophy site:

From Inside Higher Ed:

Three incidents are of special interest.

The faculty objects and urges Singer to be disinvited (from Inside Higher Ed):

Faculty in the Department of Anthropology and Sociology and the Africana Studies Program sent out an email to the college community that said, in part:

We, the faculty in the Department of Anthropology and Sociology and the Africana Studies Program, wish to express our deepest dismay at the invitation of Professor Peter Singer to our campus. We believe that proceeding with this event as currently structured could further alienate students, faculty, and staff, particularly after the unresolved racist “incident” [story here] against African Americans that occurred in early September. 

Professor Singer’s longstanding advancement of philosophical arguments that presume the inferiority of many disabled lives is dehumanizing and dangerous. The creation of a hierarchy of lives as a justification for the allocation or denial of limited resources (whether “pleasure,” medical care, insurance, etc.) is a logic that has a long and violent history. It is a logic that underlies eugenicist arguments marking various marginalized populations as unfit to be a part of the advancement of the human race…

Disability scholars have critiqued Singer’s body of work across a range of themes, and we encourage anyone who reads Singer to also read this rich scholarship. Salient among these themes for the purposes of a panel on pandemic ethics is the denial of some disabled people’s full humanity and the premise that certain disabled people have lives that are less worth living than “normal” people (with whom they might be competing for medical resources). Given that COVID is one of the most profound disability rights issues of our lifetimes, it would seem that any panel on pandemic ethics would include disability scholars (especially given their significant challenges to Singer’s credibility in this area). 

Rather than suggesting an alternative structure to the event such as the inclusion of one of the aforementioned disability scholars, though, the faculty instead says:

[W]e affirm our dedication to disability justice and urge the college to withdraw the invitation. We stand next to our students who are working hard to fight for their ideals of equality, fairness, and diversity, not as lip service, but as the basis of reflection and action. We cherish and advocate for freedom of speech and expression as long as it does not deny others their humanity. 

Note the erroneous characterization of Singer’s views as “denying some disabled people’s full humanity.”  That is simply hyperbole claiming that newborns doomed to suffer and die soon are “denied their humanity.” No, they are denied needless suffering. If your baby was born without a brain and would die within days, and was in great distress, would you be showing “full humanity” to let it suffer until it passes away?

These people either haven’t read Singer’s work or are signaling their virtue with or without understanding what Singer has to say.  I have had doctors and nurses write me privately by email saying that they’ve encountered situations like the one Singer envisions and absolutely agree that putting the infants out of their suffering is the right thing to do. I have had no medical professionals write me and say that they disagree with me. The letters I get are from people who are disabled but have meaningful lives, and accuse me, wrongly, of denying their humanity, or saying that I would have killed them had I had the say.

Some history faculty at Rhodes also sent out an email objecting to the event:

As historians, we the undersigned condemn Prof. Peter Singers’ abhorrent views that some humans have less value than others. We object to inviting him to Rhodes College to speak as part of a “Pandemics Ethics” panel. Positioning him as an expert on ethics only legitimizes his reprehensible beliefs that deny the very humanity of people with disabilities. Hypothetical philosophies on morality cause real violence. We historians are all too familiar with ideas that justify labeling marginalized, vulnerable, and minority populations as “life unworthy of life,” and the murderous consequences for those deemed “unfit” to live. Adhering to the College’s own IDEAS Framework that seeks to foster “a sense of belonging” and embrace “the full range of psychological, physical, and social difference,” we historians assert that Prof. Peter Singers’ blatant inhumanity has no place in serious academic exchange here at Rhodes.  

“Positioning him as an expert on ethics?” Give me a break—he’s the world’s expert on practical ethics. Note as well that they play the race card, mentioning “marginalized, vulnerable, and minority populations.” That is what’s really reprehensible, as race plays no role in Singer’s views on this issue.

The university gives hedged support for Singer.  Rhodes College issued this statement (my bolding):

Yesterday a member of our faculty informed us of his profound disturbance caused by the invitation of Princeton University Prof. Peter Singer to speak on a Rhodes “Pandemic Ethics” virtual panel next week.

We are writing to acknowledge that our institution’s spirit of supporting expressive speech does not prohibit Professor Singer’s participation in this virtual panel. At the same time, our community’s values compel us to denounce some of the views he has expressed repeatedly over years through various addresses, writings, and media interviews.

Fundamentally, Rhodes College is deeply committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion. These values extend to every member of our community, including individuals with disabilities. While we view the invitation to Peter Singer in light of our commitment to free and open dialogue at a liberal arts college, his views on disability are unequivocally antithetical to our institutional values of diversity, equity and inclusion. We reject and condemn in the most forceful manner possible any views that call into question the value and worth of all human life. It is within this context that we make the following affirmations:

    • We affirm our strong belief in an inclusive, diverse, equitable, and accessible community – as outlined in the College’s IDEAS framework – one in which the worth and dignity of all persons is championed and supported.
    • We affirm particular support for disabled members of our community who, justifiably, have expressed anger, outrage, and offense at some of Prof. Singer’s writings. Not only does Rhodes not tolerate discrimination on the basis of disability, the College also strongly believes that disabled people enrich our community by their presence on our campus. We affirm this while recognizing that we still have much work to do as an institution to support individuals with disabilities.

As an academic institution, we re-affirm our Statement on Diversity, which expresses our commitment to providing an “open learning environment,” where “freedom of thought, a healthy exchange of ideas, and an appreciation of diverse perspectives” are fundamental. It is this commitment to freedom of expression that allows academic departments to invite a variety of speakers to campus to enrich the educational experience of our students. Nevertheless, they should do so with responsibility, as well as with careful attention to our values as a diverse, equitable, and inclusive institution.

Note how weaselly this statement is. they should have just issued the first sentence in the second paragraph: “We are writing to acknowledge that our institution’s spirit of supporting expressive speech does not prohibit Professor Singer’s participation in this virtual panel.”  Period.  To affirm “institutional values” that many people doubtlessly disagree with is a view that chills speech.  First, they don’t understand what Singer has said, or willfully misconstrue it to get virtue points with disabled students. Second, people like me (and perhaps Tuvel) disagree with the “institutional values” that call for a doomed infant to suffer needlessly. But with that official position, which student or untenured faculty member would dare stand up to the Rhodes administration? If Rhodes adhered to Chicago’s Kalven Principles, it would not be making official statements on contestable and debatable moral issues.

Finally, although Rhodes pretends to favor free speech, they are giving succor to those people who don’t want free speech—who don’t want this fraught but ethically important subject to even be discussed.

The Rhodes Philosophy Department holds their ground. After that single faculty member (Charles Hughes, Director of the Lynne and Henry Turley Memphis Center at Rhodes College) objected to Singer’s appearance, the philosphers who organized the event this email to the College:

We write in response to one of our colleagues, who has publicly expressed concern about the Philosophy department’s invitation to Peter Singer—and he has every right to do so. The objection raised is apparently not to the topic, but to the speaker. We are of course aware that Professor Singer has advanced philosophical arguments on bioethical issues that many find not only disturbing but deeply offensive, a reaction by no means confined to members of the disabled community. Indeed, the organizers also take issue with some of Dr. Singer’s views.

Serious intellectual exchange about matters of significance cannot avoid sometimes causing anger, offense, and pain and no one should be cavalier about that fact. It is not clear to us, however, what follows from our colleague’s understandable expression of disturbance at some of Professor Singer’s views. Do those views disqualify Singer from participating in the exchange of ideas that ought to occur at a liberal arts college? If that is the conclusion, we respectfully disagree, for its premise is that ideas that cause anger and dismay ought not, for that reason, be part of the exchange and that premise, we think, is incompatible with our mission to teach students how to engage in productive dialogue even, and indeed especially, with thinkers with whom they vehemently disagree. 

That is an excellent letter—civil but firm. Tuvel then offered to run a reading group on the issue:

I realize that now is not the time to get into the weeds of Singer’s utilitarian ethics. Should there be interest at some point down the line, I would be more than happy to organize a reading group and/or zoom event where myself and other members of the Philosophy department can clarify Singer’s views on these incredibly sensitive topics. At some point, I think our community would also benefit greatly from an event devoted to discussing these delicate matters. On pains of intellectual and moral failure, such an event would absolutely need to include experts in disability rights (such as Professor Charles Hughes), parents of children with disabilities, and relevant others…

The Daily Nous also has a letter from philosophy postdoc Eric Sampson clarifying Singer’s misunderstood views.

Here’s a video of the whole Singer event—a Zoom panel. In Turvel’s first question (3:03), Singer responds to the controversy, and does a great job.

Rhodes College needs to get with the program and stop truckling to the mob. Disinviting someone of the stature of Singer, who is talking about a subject unrelated to the other controversy, is a cowardly thing to do. The administrators of Rhodes are simply invertebrates.

New NPR ethics policy raises questions about what journalists are permitted to say privately

July 30, 2021 • 9:15 am

National Public Radio (NPR) has announced a new ethics policy, a revision of the policy last revised a decade ago. It’s described in a new article on NPR. According to author Kelly McBride (the public editor of NPR with expertise in journalistic ethics), the change was spurred by the murder of George Floyd that, in turn, caused younger journalists to begin agitating for the right to both do journalism and to express their political and ideological opinions on public media, in writing, or by going to demonstrations.

This contravened previous standards (widespread in journalism) prohibiting reporting journalists or commentators (not op-ed writers, of course), from expressing their views in public on political or ideological issues. There was a reason for that, which of course is that if you know a journalist has strong views on an issue, you might judge their reporting or commentary on that issue to be biased. Because the younger NPR reporters wanted to be able to express their views publicly, the organization tried to forge a compromise.

Click on the screenshot to read, and if you want to see the entire set of NPR ethical standards, go here.

Here is the big change that was made:

The new NPR policy reads, “NPR editorial staff may express support for democratic, civic values that are core to NPR’s work, such as, but not limited to: the freedom and dignity of human beings, the rights of a free and independent press, the right to thrive in society without facing discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual identity, disability, or religion.”

As I’ll note below, it may not be so clear exactly what constitutes the “democratic civic values that are core to NPR’s work”.

Here’s what McBride characterizes as the most important changes in the ethics policy:

The new policy, which was shared with member stations by email on July 7, offers three revised sections: a rewrite of “NPR’s Guiding Principles,” a section titled, “Guideline: On Attending Marches, Rallies And Other Public Events,” and an update of the section on social media.

When comparing the new policy to the old, here are the other major developments:

    • The opening section lists core values of “honesty, integrity, independence, accuracy, contextual truth, transparency, respect and fairness” and adds a specific reference to the “democratic role as watchdogs.”
    • NPR names diversity as a key guiding principle, with a specific obligation to include voices that are routinely left out of the news.
    • The policy refines and narrows the list of staff who are expected to comport with the most restrictive elements of the policy. It’s a long list, but it boils down to whether you shape content in any way or hold an executive title. Other job titles, including those who work in research, archives and data, and those who write promotional copy for the programming division, are exempt from restrictions on their public behavior.
    • The new standards reinforce the difference between straight reporting and commentary. “NPR journalists with a role in covering the news should stick to reporting and analysis,” the policy reads.  “Commentators have more leeway to express opinions and may do so as long as they are respectful and grounded in facts.” A new addition to this section allows anyone who works in news or programming to publish a first-person story when appropriate.
    • In the sub-section of the Impartiality chapter on attending marches and rallies, NPR adds another list of universal values including human rights, a free press, anti-discrimination and anti-bigotry.

This seems pretty fair to me, especially coupled with the stipulation that journalists have to vet their wishes to express political views in advance to their bosses, and that the NPR newsroom now has a standing committee to review individual cases. And there’s still a wall between straight reportage and commentary or opinion. McBride gives examples of things that can be allowed:

Is it OK to march in a demonstration and say, ‘Black lives matter’? What about a Pride parade? In theory, the answer today is, “Yes.” But in practice, NPR journalists will have to discuss specific decisions with their bosses, who in turn will have to ask a lot of questions.

The carve-out is somewhat narrow. Protests organized with the purpose of demanding equal and fair treatment of people are now permitted, as long as the journalist asking is not covering the event. However, rallies organized to support a specific piece of legislation would be off-limits. Other events featuring a slate of political candidates from one party are also out of bounds.

And again, that seems fine. Although NPR is clearly on the Left given its editorial content and choice of subjects to cover, that doesn’t bother me. either.

But there’s one bit in the piece that does worry me. It’s the idea that there are some areas of human thought where no dissent can be permitted, because what is “right” is palpably clear. And, indeed, nearly everyone agrees that it’s wrong to have slavery, to kill someone just for the thrill of it, or to steal someone else’s property because you covet it. But, as philosophers like to point out, these “rules” are often not so clear cut.  What bothered me is something said by Keith Woods, the chief diversity officer of NPR and co-chair of the committee that drafted the new policy (emphasis is mine):

Woods said that he and others argued that it was important for journalists to keep many of their personal views private, in order not to distract from the primary focus of reporting facts. But he added that it was a mistake in the past to allow that balancing act to overshadow all expression.

“There are things in the world where we are not torn about where we stand,” said Woods (who is also former dean of faculty and my former boss at The Poynter Institute). “We are against bigotry, we are against discrimination and unfairness.”

That sounds good, and I agree about bigotry being a universal no-no, but what about “discrimination and unfairness”? Here are some areas where there are active questions about justifications for discrimination and unfairness:

  • Is it okay to discriminate against Asian students seeking admission to Ivy League schools in order to maintain equity for other groups? (This is a form of affirmative action.)
  • Is it okay to rectify past discrimination by applying present discrimination? (This is a tenet of Ibram Kendi’s anti-racism platform.)
  • Is it okay to assume that if we see inequities in organizations, schools, or firms, those imbalances are prima facie evidence of bigotry operating at present?
  • Is it unfair to allow medically untreated biological men who present as transgender women to compete in women’s sports or be incarcerated in women’s prisons?

I’m sure you can think of other problematic issues like these.

The problem is that the ideas of “fairness” and “discrimination” are slippery ones. Indeed, in all the cases above, fairness is said to require some discrimination.

I’m sure NPR will strike the right balance between journalistic practices and personal expression, but what we see above is an attitude that’s inimical to rationality and free speech. It is the basis of Wokeness as well. It is the attitude that there are some stands that are so right that they are not only unworthy of discussion, but should be taboo to discuss.

And this statement, given above, appears in the Ethics section on “impartiality”:

NPR editorial staff may express support for democratic, civic values that are core to NPR’s work, such as, but not limited to: the freedom and dignity of human beings, the rights of a free and independent press, the right to thrive in society without facing discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual identity, disability, or religion.

The same questions apply. Affirmative action, for example requires discrimination on the basis of some of the traits listed. Are NPR editorial staff not allowed, in their private postings, to express opposition to affirmative action? Or to oppose the participation of transgender women in women’s sports?

FFRF interview with Anthony Grayling

January 17, 2021 • 1:00 pm

Here’s a new 25-minute interview of philosopher Anthony Grayling by Dan Barker, co-President of the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF). Anthony and Dan cover a surprisingly large area of ground in this short time (there’s the famous Ron Reagan’s “not afraid of burning in hell” commercial in the middle, which is still great), and rather than summarize what Anthony says, I’ll just write down the questions he fields:

What is your background? Why did you take up the study of philosophy? I did not know that Anthony grew up in what was then Rhodesia. His entrée into philosophy—and his explanation for why he never believed in God— are worth hearing.

How can we be moral without a god? Here Anthony espouses the humanistic philosophy and ethics that so many of us are familiar with. I’m not sure this bit will persuade those who require a god to be moral without one, but it’s nice to hear it expounded by someone who not only believes in humanistic ethics, but also has thought about this for decades.

How do we make it through hard times without a god? I didn’t know this, but Anthony’s sister was murdered just after she was married. How did he cope with it? And how, in general, do we deal with any tragedy without the consolation of religion? Anthony’s answer involves compensating: doing something good to mend the world, which at the same time may mend you as well. I have found this useful, and did my most ardent volunteer work during the darkest times of my life. It really helps; it’s hard to think about your troubles when you’re helping people who are as bad off or worse off.

How does one find meaning in life without God? We had a long discussion about this five years ago on this website.  Anthony gives a good answer, one that involves both buttressing your relationships (“good relationships are at the very heart of good lives”) and either immersing ourselves in our rich human culture or helping others to do so. I found this one of the best parts of the interview.

The one bit that I found somewhat wonky in Anthony’s musings was his idea that the universe is justified by its having produced a species—us—that has created on balance more good than bad. (But what about all those other species that are the results of evolution as well?). He concludes that it’s our duty to add good to the world “for the sake of the universe.” This resembles religious Jews doing mitzvahs (deeds commanded by G*d) in the world to hasten the coming of the Messiah.

What can philosophy teach us about dealing with the pandemic? Here Grayling evokes Stoicism, which seems to be popular these days (Massimo Pigliucci is another advocate) and almost sounds like a form of Western Zen Buddhism; but here I’m out of my depth. Grayling also calls out the British government for its stupidity in dealing with the pandemic.

Why are we in this predicament?I refer to the pandemic here, and Grayling’s answer leads to his next topic:

Why is there so much science denialism throughout the world? Again, another good answer.

What is Grayling’s next book? He’s got one coming out this spring, and it’s relevant to the question just above. His book The History of Philosophy also comes out February 2, and I’m going to read that one for sure.

Voilà: the interview:

 

Principles of ethical investing

December 29, 2020 • 9:15 am

by Greg Mayer

Investment policies–that is, where and for what reasons individuals and organizations place their money–have been at times invoked as a way to either encourage good behavior or sanction bad behavior. The most prominent example I know of is the campaign for divestment of assets from companies that did business in South Africa, which took place during the late apartheid era. Apartheid of course did end; I don’t know what role the divestment campaign had in this outcome. I imagine it is something historians have studied, but I don’t know the conclusions reached. The most prominent such campaign now is directed against Israel.

For individuals, picking stocks, market timing, and day trading are generally bad investment strategies. (“Bad” in the sense that you can’t reliably make money that way.) But large institutional investors have enough money, time, and expertise to vet investments for the behavior of the companies and assets involved. CalPERS, the California state employee retirement and benefit system, which manages a portfolio worth more than $400 billion, for example, has a fairly detailed set of Governance & Sustainability Principles.

Last month, on November 13, I received the following message from the Society for the Study of Evolution (SSE), indicating that the Society wanted to develop its own set of principles. (I’ve removed links to SSE’s internal web pages and information about individuals.)

Dear Gregory,

Earlier this year, at the request of SSE Council and the Finance Committee, SSE formed a committee to develop a set of ethical principles to guide the Society’s investments, which have a current value of ~$4.3M (learn more on the Financial Reports page). The committee’s proposed ethical principles can be found in this document.

To develop this set of principles, the committee surveyed the principles of other societies and considered different elements of a policy that are consistent with the mission of the Society and the values of our community. The goal of the committee was to develop a set of principles, not to specify exactly how to invest, which will be determined based on these principles in consultation with our investment advisors. We also note that using ethical principles to guide investing does not necessarily reduce financial returns and may even increase them.

We value our members’ feedback on these proposed ethical investing principles. Your input will help Council decide how to manage SSE’s investments and overall financial plan moving forward. Would you be willing to review the 1-page principles document and provide feedback in a short survey?

Or click here to view the document:

Or click here to view the comments form:  We will be collecting comments until November 30th, 2020. Thank you for your participation!

The draft principles were as follows.

Ethical Investing principles

The Society for the Study of Evolution is committed to investing in ways that support companies whose business practices promote environmental sustainability and social justice and whose governance promotes transparency. The SSE will use these values to guide investment decisions.

Environmental values

The Society for the Study of Evolution favors investment in companies that

  • Foster the protection of biodiversity.
  • Contribute to preservation of a safe, liveable, and stable climate.
  • Avoid increasing the risks associated with climate change.
  • Limit the use and discharge of toxic chemicals and pollutants into the environment.
  • Encourage practices that avoid overexploitation of terrestrial, aquatic, and natural resources.

Social values

The Society for the Study of Evolution favors investment in companies that

  • Respect and promote human rights, dignity, and well-being.
  • Protect personal data and respect customer privacy.
  • Foster an inclusive environment for all workers regardless of background or personal characteristics.
  • Improve and adopt anti-racist policies.
  • Follow practices that respect the dignity and rights of workers, including the ability for collective action by workers.
  • Strive to reduce disparities in economic and educational opportunities.
  • Respect the autonomy and voices of local communities and indigenous people.

Governance values

The Society for the Study of Evolution favors investment in companies that

  • Have a Board of Directors reflecting the diversity of communities they serve.
  • Ensure that financial reports are regularly reviewed by external auditors overseen by Board members who are not employed by the company.
  • Follow international standards to guard against fraud and corruption.
  • Commit to fair wages and equitable sharing of profits.

I wrote back to the Society on December 23:

When I received your invitation to participate in a survey concerning proposed investment principles for SSE, I began filling out the survey, with my initial response being that it was OK, but with minor changes. But as I attempted to compose a response, my “but” overwhelmed my “OK”, to the point that it became hard for me to see how the entire notion of a set of principles could survive.

Some of the principles are straightforward accounting principles– using external auditors, for example. The “Environmental values” do touch on some areas in which SSE could be said to have expertise– evolutionary biology is, after all, the study of the temporal and spatial patterns of biodiversity and the processes that generate them. But I note that these values are expressed without any endorsement of specific policies. “Foster the protection of biodiversity” is sufficiently broad that it might be a worthy principle to endorse. Ariel Lugo, who maintains that introduced species foster biodiversity, and Peter Marra, who argues that introduced species are a great threat to biodiversity, could both agree. I happen to think Marra is nearer to right on this, but I wouldn’t want the SSE to proclaim one or the other. On biodiversity, evolutionary biology does have disciplinary expertise, and intellectual standards for the evaluation of evidential support for propositions, so I could see some reason for the SSE to have something to say in this area.

But many of the proposed principles lie far afield from the values of science in general and evolutionary biology’s particular expertise. And it’s in those areas where evolutionary biology has the least to say that the principles try to say the most. Three examples.
“Improve and adopt anti-racist policies.” Anti-racism, sadly, is not opposition to racism, but a particular racialist ideology espousing an essentialist view of “races”, according to the ideology’s own notions of what “race” means. Anti-racism, which is fundamentally racialist, is sometimes even overtly racist. SSE should have no position on “anti-racism” whatsoever.
“Follow practices that respect the dignity and rights of workers, including the ability for collective action by workers.” ​I personally believe that the decline of unions has been a major factor in the growing concentration of wealth in the hands of a very few in the United States, and that this lack of equitable distribution of the fruits of economic progress is the greatest problem facing the United States. Its solution is of the utmost consequence for the future of the country as a democratic republic. But why would SSE have a position on this? If an evolutionary biologist in the United States supports his state’s anti-union “right to work” law, this has no necessary relation to his work as an evolutionary biologist. Why should such a person have his political views on an issue unrelated to evolutionary biology be repudiated by SSE? I don’t expect or want SSE to endorse my views on “right to work” laws, and I equally don’t want it to condemn the opposite view.
“Respect the autonomy and voices of local communities and indigenous people.” ​This is perhaps the most bizarre of all. Why should SSE have a view about the proper relations between levels of government? Are local communities always, or even usually, right about political, social, and moral issues? South Carolina wanted local autonomy over slavery in 1860. During the civil rights era, it was Federal override of the autonomy of local communities that brought about social progress. And what about today? We’ve seen wealthy local communities put up gates and threaten protesters with weapons– is that what SSE respects? And what about the wider world? Does SSE have an opinion on the fate of Nagorno-Karabakh, many of whose local residents want to be annexed to Armenia? The indigenous people of Hungary seem eager to keep out refugees– it’s their blood and their soil– does SSE respect this, too? Whether local autonomy or higher-level intervention has done more to bend the moral arc of the universe towards justice has varied from time to time and place to place. SSE need not engage with the question of under what circumstances local autonomy promotes justice, because it should have no opinion or policy on the matter at all.
There is, of course, a sort of reductio ad Hitlerum– “You wouldn’t want to invest in Krupp gun works or the makers of Zyklon-B during World War II,”– and, of course, you wouldn’t. But extreme cases make bad law, and do not provide a basis for the proposed principles.
A scientific society may legitimately advocate for science and for scientific values, especially as they pertain to the disciplinary expertise and intellectual standards of the society. But it is no part of the remit of such societies to take up positions on general social, political, and moral issues. Indeed, one of the values of science is to not allow popular passions, fashions, and prejudices to color what should be epistemic considerations.
I realize that this comes after the deadline of November 30, and thus will not influence the form of whatever policy you adopt; the response timeline, coming as my campus prepared to move to all virtual instruction over Thanksgiving, did not leave time for a considered response given my other commitments at that time. With the semester now over and with time to address the issues, I share my views with you in the hope that they might add to your understanding of them; feel free to share this with your colleagues among SSE’s officers and committees.

I received a cordial reply saying that all feedback will be considered.

Some sort of policy, such as following accounting principles, is desirable, but that sort of policy almost goes without saying. (I belong to several scientific societies; I don’t know what, if any, formal policies the other societies have.) But such a policy should address universally accepted accounting and governance principles, and perhaps concerns for which the Society possesses special disciplinary expertise and intellectual standards.

Have any readers encountered similar quandaries with organizations and institutions with which they are involved?

Did the CDC favor social-justice optics over American lives?

December 24, 2020 • 1:45 pm

When I heard that Illinois was giving covid-vaccine priority to all “essential workers” over the aged, I was puzzled. Not because “essential” workers should all queue up behind older people, but because some “essential workers” weren’t really essential in a sense that should give them priority over older people whose chance of dying from the infection was much higher. “Essential workers” include, according to Yascha Mounk, bankers, liquor-store employees, hardware-store employees, and movie crews. On what grounds, especially considering the differential risk of death or serious illness, should these “essential workers” be given vaccination priority over adults with high-risk medical conditions or older folks (over 65, 70, or 75, depending on the state and the ordering)?

Yet that is what the CDC decided not long ago, realizing, even by their own accounting, that such a decision would cause more people to die than if the order was reversed. The decision to let people die was apparently based on social-justice considerations, as older people were deemed to be more white than were essential workers.

In this article from Persuasion, Yascha Mounk, Associate Professor of Practice at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, argues that such a decision is unethical. Click to read:

Mounk begins with some premises that he thinks people will agree on about what what is just and unjust:

. . . there are also some bedrock principles on which virtually all moral philosophers have long agreed.

The first is that we should avoid “leveling down” everyone’s quality of life for the purpose of achieving equality. It is unjust when some people have plenty of food while others are starving. But alleviating that inequality by making sure that an even greater number of people starve is clearly wrong. The second is that we should not use ascriptive characteristics like race or ethnicity to allocate medical resources. To save one patient rather than another based on the color of their skin rightly strikes most philosophers—and most Americans—as barbaric. The Centers for Disease Control have just thrown both of these principles overboard in the name of social justice.

In one of the most shocking moral misjudgments by a public body I have ever seen, the CDC invoked considerations of “social justice” to recommend providing vaccinations to essential workers before older Americans even though this would, according to its own models, lead to a much greater death toll. After a massive public outcry, the agency has adopted revised recommendations. But though these are a clear improvement, they still violate the two bedrock principles of allocative justice—and are likely to cause unnecessary suffering on a significant scale.

He then recounts a talk that Kathleen Dooling, a public-health official, gave at the CDC, a talk that wound up undergirding the initial order of non-healthcare-essential workers > older adults that the organization mandated for vaccination. The decision was based on “feasibility [ease of implementing vaccination in an identified population], science, and ethics.” Dooling presented a chart, below, purporting to show that implementation was easier in a group based solely on age (true: it’s substantially harder to identify “essential non-healthcare workers” as well as define whether someone has a “high-risk medical condition”), and the science itself, she said, showed no difference in outcomes based on priority.  (The “+” signs are indices of priority, and are somehow combined to create the order of vaccination.)

The “science” bit is especially wonky. Although older adults without comorbidities are given the same science rating as essential non-healthcare workers (column 1 versus 3), Mounk says this:

According to the CDC’s model, prioritizing essential workers over the elderly would therefore increase the overall number of deaths by between 0.5% and 6.5%. In other words, it would likely result in the preventable deaths of thousands of Americans.

Remember, that is a model that supposedly takes into account all scenarios for mortality, including deaths produced by non-vaccinated “essential non-healthcare workers” who spread the virus to others:

Thus, deciding to prioritize non-healthcare essential workers over adults over 65 rested on grounds of “ethics” is deciding to prioritize “ethical considerations” over life (as if differential death was not an ethical matter!) Mounk says the “ethics” came down to race:

And yet, the presentation concluded that science does not provide a reason to prioritize the elderly. For, as Kathleen Dooling wrote in one of the most jaw-dropping sentences I have ever seen in a document written by a public official, differences in expected consequences that could amount to thousands of additional deaths are “minimal.”

This allowed Dooling to focus on “ethical” principles in selecting the best course of action. Highlighting the most important consideration in red, Dooling emphasized that “racial and ethnic minority groups are underrepresented among adults > 65.” In other words, America’s elderly are too white to be considered a top priority for the distribution of the vaccine against Covid. It is on this basis that ACIP awarded three times as many points to prioritizing the more racially diverse group of essential workers, making the crucial difference in the overall determination. Astonishingly, the higher overall death toll that would have resulted from this course of action does not feature as an ethical reason to prioritize older Americans.

As far as I know, Mounck is correct is stating that this is the basis of the decision.  It is based on social-justice optics. Now nobody would want to take a path in which one could foresee a worse outcome—in terms of death or anything else—for members of different races. If one could predict that the death rate among such groups would differ as a result of such a policy decision, that would violate the ethical principles above. But that’s not the outcome here. In fact, as Mounck notes, the proportion of people of color among essential non-healthcare workers isn’t much different from their proportion among the elderly, and it’s in fact conceivable that prioritizing column 1 over column 3 could lead to the deaths of more people of color than the other way around!

The difference in the percentage of white people across age groups is comparatively small. The difference in the percentage of infected people who succumb to Covid across all age groups is massive. Giving the vaccine to African-American essential workers before elderly African-Americans would likely raise the overall death toll of African-Americans even if a somewhat greater number of African-Americans were to receive the vaccine as a result.

Indeed, a few people noticed and objected to this order:

In the days after ACIP published its preliminary recommendations, barely any epidemiologists or health officials publicly criticized its findings or its reasoning. But thankfully, prominent journalists like Zeynep TufeckiMatt Yglesias and Nate Silver publicly made the case against them. (So did I.)

You might look at the data in Silver’s tweet, since many people seem to trust him.

Finally, as the controversy grew, the CDC changed its recommendations, putting (after medical workers) Americans over 74 AND essential frontline workers in the second phase.  Mounk sees this as an improvement, but one that could still lead to higher deaths (for example, prioritizing frontline workers over those 65-74 could still lead to overall higher mortality).

Although I’m over 65, I don’t really have a dog in this fight. I will patiently wait my turn to be vaccinated whatever and whenever the state of Illinois decides. But what the CDC was trying to do originally—and may be doing to a lesser extent now—smacks of prioritizing the appearance of equity above the lives of Americans—and that includes black lives. I see no other explanation once you realize that the CDC is supposed to have done the math about overall deaths caused by their different strategies—and then opted for a ranking that would increase the number of dead. We all know the importance of optics (Glenn Loury calls it “ass covering”) over substantive and meaningful progress these days, especially when it comes to alleviating inequalities among groups. To use one example, optics rather than achievement is the basis of land acknowledgments.

In the end, Mounk uses this ranking as an example of why we shouldn’t even trust government institutions like the CDC, which is supposed to be using science to make its decisions. Although ethics has to figure in somewhere, if you can’t trust the CDC’s science, what can you trust? And I agree that there was a misstep in the CDC which only public scrutiny prevented. Mounk is especially exercised by the failure of the press to notice and call out the CDC’s priorities, unlike Nate Silver:

Until a few years ago, it was obvious to me that I can trust what is written in the newspaper or what I am told by public health authorities.

Now, I am losing that trust. I still believe that most people, including the journalists who write for established newspapers and the civil servants who staff federal agencies, are the heroes in their own stories. They genuinely mean well. And yet, I no longer trust any institution in American life to such an extent that I am willing to rely on its account of the world without looking into important matters on my own.

The reasons for this mistrust are perfectly encapsulated in the reports that mainstream newspapers published about the CDC’s recommendation. The write-up in the New York Times, for example, barely mentions the committee’s last-minute change of heart. A faithful reader of the newspaper of record would not even know that an important public body was, until it received massive criticism from the public, about to sacrifice thousands of American lives on the altar of a dangerous and deeply illiberal ideology.

Weigh in below; is Mounk’s take right or wrong?

Baptist leader tells us that God doesn’t want us to sacrifice the old

March 26, 2020 • 12:30 pm

Here we have the New York Times once again pandering to religion, publishing an article that says we should help save lives, including the lives of the elderly, not because of humanistic values, but because God says so.  The author, Russell Moore, is described as “the president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.”

Read and scowl:

 

Moore’s point, which many people have discussed without invoking religion or God, is whether we’re going to let people go back to work prematurely because the preservation of the economy (and other social values) is more important than the lives that would be lost by an early ending of the quarantine. Well, that’s basically true, but surely we’ll have to resume normal life before the world is entirely cleansed of Covid-19, so that itself is a form of tradeoff. A more important issue at the moment is how do we give care to young versus old people, or people who are immunologically compromised, when care is limited?

We have only a certain number of ventilators, and if there are two people competing for one, one 25 and the other 80, who do you choose? Reason would suggest that you’ll create the most well being, on average, by saving the greatest number of years to come. And that would favor the younger over the older, those likely to survive over those likely to die. That is the only humane decision, and you don’t need religion to make it (simple utilitarianism will do). Already, Italy is prioritizing Covid-19 care for those under 60, giving older people palliative care. When there are limited resources, priority must be given.

Of course Moore is correct that we shouldn’t—as Trump appears to want—blithely allow older people to die in the service of the Dow Jones Industrial Average, but such advice doesn’t require invoking God. So why does Moore stick the divine in?

For example:

A pandemic is no time to turn our eyes away from the sanctity of human life.

As opposed to other kinds of life?

We already are hearing talk about weighing the value of human life against the health of the nation’s economy and the strength of the stock market. It’s true that a depression would cause untold suffering for people around the world, hitting the poor the hardest. Still, each human life is more significant than a trillion-dollar gross national product. Stocks and bonds are important, yes, but human beings are created in the image of God.

There Moore is using the Bible as his source of ethics. Because humans (but not gorillas or ducks) are created in the eyes of God, we cannot automatically prioritize the economy and the fabric of society over people’s lives. But you don’t need the Bible for that. Try John Rawls, or Peter Singer (both atheists). And don’t forget that giving human life the highest priority over everything, including suffering, leads to spending millions of dollars to keep those in vegetative states alive, or to disallowing assisted suicide.

It goes on:

We must also reject suggestions that it makes sense to prioritize the care of those who are young and healthy over those who are elderly or have disabilities. Such considerations turn human lives into checkmarks on a page rather than the sacred mystery they are. When we entertain these ideas, something of our very humanity is lost.

Nope. Who gets the ventilator? The 25 year old or the 80 year old? Do we lose our humanity when we have to make such a choice? I don’t think so: we exercise our humanity.

But wait! There’s more!

. . .Vulnerability is not a diminishment of the human experience, but is part of that experience. Those of us in the Christian tradition believe that God molded us from dust and breathed into us the breath of life. Moreover, we bear witness that every human life is fragile. We are, all of us, creatures and not gods. We are in need of air and water and one another.

A generation ago, the essayist and novelist Wendell Berry told us that the great challenge of our time would be whether we would see life as a machine or as a miracle. The same is true now. The value of a human life is not determined on a balance sheet. We cannot coldly make decisions as to how many people we are willing to lose since “we are all going to die of something.”

You don’t need to see life as a miracle to come to ethical decisions about triage or ending pandemics.  You need consider only well being versus other things we value. After all, there are thousands of deaths every year due to car accidents, falls in the bathtub, accidental discharge of firearms, and so on. In 2000, 17,000 people committed suicide with a firearm.  Many people (though not I!) would say that the value of firearms outweighs those of the lives lost using them, and that the value of cars outweighs the 15,000 or so people killed in vehicular accidents every year. We make these decisions all the time, weighing known loss of life versus social goods. I don’t happen to think that we need guns, but I do think we need vehicles, despite Moore’s claim that every life is a sacred miracle.  And during this pandemic, as we’ve seen from Italy, you simply can’t treat everyone the same way. Does Moore think so? (He doesn’t say, but that’s the implication).

It angers me that Moore claims God and the Bible as his arbiter of moral behavior when humanistic values lead to exactly the same conclusions he reaches:

That means we must listen to medical experts, and do everything possible to avoid the catastrophe we see right now in Italy and elsewhere. We must get back to work, get the economy back on its feet, but we can only do that when doing so will not kill the vulnerable and overwhelm our hospitals, our doctors, our nurses, and our communities.

Duhhh! (But I note that the Italian form of triage is in effect “killing the vulnerable”, but through inaction rather than direct action. The result is the same).

Truly, I can see nothing in his article that a humanistic atheist like Peter Singer couldn’t write, and without invoking the false idea that we’re made in the image of God. (How does that matter, anyway? God, who made us in His image, saw fit to commit repeated genocides in the Old Testament, and that selfsame God allowed coronavirus to spread over the globe and kill tens of thousands.) The “image of god” idea grates on anyone who thinks we evolved, and on those who believe we can derive our ethics (better, ethics, actually) without consulting a nonexistent being in the sky.  So I could have written this last paragraph—except for the final seven words:

And along the way we must guard our consciences. We cannot pass by on the side of the road when the elderly, the disabled, the poor, and the vulnerable are in peril before our eyes. We want to hear the sound of cash registers again, but we cannot afford to hear them over the cries of those made in the image of God.

Why was this published?

Peter Singer deplatformed in New Zealand for his stand on euthanasia of newborns

February 19, 2020 • 9:30 am

It seems to me that an enlightened philosophy would allow people to be able to end their lives in a humane way if they’ve undergone proper medical and psychiatric vetting. Some form of this “assisted suicide” is already legal in Canada, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Colombia, Switzerland, Victoria in Australia, and and in some states of the U.S. (California, Colorado, Washington state, Oregon, and—by court order—in Montana).

I further believe—and I’ve gotten into trouble for this—that we should also allow newborns afflicted with incurable conditions—conditions from which they will suffer and die young—to be euthanized humanely. The conditions under which I think this is not only allowable, but ethical, were first laid out in this post of mine.  I was aware at the time that philosopher Peter Singer had agreed with and defended this view, but I can’t remember whether I arrived at it independently or read it in some of his writings. No matter, for it’s a view that people need to consider, and of course Singer has defended this view far more extensively and ably than I.

For his views, Singer has undergone considerable pushback, and has been not only deplatformed, but subject to calls for his resignation from Princeton (he splits his time between Princeton and the University of Melbourne). I, too, was subject to a surprising amount of publicity, nearly all negative, for my one website post about this. On her own website Heather’s Homilies, Heather Hastie defended my views, summarizing and answering some of the pushback I got (thanks, Heather!),  I also wrote about the surprising opposition to my views here and here.

The opposition, of course, comes largely from believers, who see euthanasia of any sort as “playing God.” I swear that some of these people are Mother-Teresa-like in preferring horrible suffering to a merciful end. After all, Jesus suffered! (That was Mother Teresa’s excuse.)

But others object because they see the euthanasia argument as a slippery slope, leading to scenarios in which we can do away with Grandma in the nursing home simply by signing a paper. It doesn’t work like that, of course, as the states and countries who allow adult euthanasia have strict regulations. And euthanizing newborns with horrible and fatal conditions, like anencephaly, is even more unacceptable. Even though such infants are doomed, there’s something about them having been born that makes the prospect of euthanasia especially appalling to people. Of course I agree that strict procedures, including the agreement of doctors and parents, are essential here, but since these infants will die I see no credible objection to letting them have a peaceful death.

Against the strong negative publicity and many emails I got saying I’m a latter-day Satan (I also got emails from some handicapped people accusing me of wanting to deprive them of life), I received several letters from nurses and doctors who, having seen infants suffer and die, agreed with me. But these people, understandably, don’t want their views made public. I stand by what I said, and Singer stands by what he said. The man is clearly no monster, as his books and papers on ethics are extremely humane. And he walks the walk, giving away lots of his own income to the poor. (I should add that Singer is a recipient of the honor of Companion of the Order of Australia, that country’s highest civilian honor.)

Singer has been deplatformed for his views on infant euthanasia (see here, for instance). And, according to the Newshub article below (click on screenshot, and see a similar piece in Think, Inc.), now a country that’s supposed to be extremely liberal and enlightened, New Zealand, has deplatformed him as well. Singer had a contract to speak at SkyCity in Auckland in June, but the venue canceled his contract.  And this was also due to his views on euthanasia.

Although Think, Inc. says that the Auckand incident shows that Singer “has been de-platformed for the first time in his 50-year career”, that’s not really true. Singer was disinvited from a philosophy meeting in Germany and also effectively deplatformed at the University of Victoria in British Columbia when shouting students made his talk inaudible. Those disruptions were also for his views on euthanasia of newborns, although Singer’s talk in Canada was about effective altruism, not euthanasia.

Anyway, the New Zealand story is here:

 

A quote from the piece above:

Singer, a philosopher who has been recognised both as the Australian Humanist of the Year and the most dangerous person in the world, was scheduled to appear at the Auckland central venue on June 14 for ‘An Evening with Peter Singer’.

However, the figure now says the event had been cancelled by SkyCity after a “news article attacking” his view that it may be ethical for parents to choose euthanasia for severely disabled newborn infants.

“We decided that yes it was a reasonable decision for parents and doctors to make that it was better that infants with this condition should not live,” he has said.

On Saturday, Newshub reported that the New Zealand disabled community was frustrated by his appearance. Dr Huhana Hickey, who has used a wheelchair since 1996 and was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2010, said he wasn’t an expert in disability.

Do you have to be an expert in disability to know when a childhood condition or deformity is invariably fatal and causes suffering

Even Singer says it was the first time he was deplatformed, which mystifies me. But never mind. His contract was canceled because of a “free speech but. . ” argument (my emphasis below):

A statement from Singer on Wednesday said that this was the first time he had been “de-platformed” in his 50-year career.

“It’s extraordinary that Skycity should cancel my speaking engagement on the basis of a newspaper article without contacting either me or the organiser of my speaking tour to check the facts on which it appears to be basing the cancellation,” Singer said.

“I have been welcomed as a speaker in New Zealand on many occasions and spent an enjoyable month as an Erskine Fellow at the University of Canterbury more than 20 years ago. If New Zealand has become less tolerant of controversial views since then, that’s a matter for deep regret.”

A SkyCity spokesperson told Newshub: “Following concerns raised by the public and local media, SkyCity has cancelled the venue hire agreement for ‘An Evening with Peter Singer’.

“Whilst SkyCity supports the right of free speech, some of the themes promoted by this speaker do not reflect our values of diversity and inclusivity.”

Is it “inclusive” to allow children born with only part of a brain, or a brain outside the skull—children doomed to die within days or weeks—to suffer before their deaths? For that is what this is all about. In fact, in September Kiwi citizens will have a referendum on the legalization of voluntary euthanasia for adults with less than six months to live.  At a time when they’re debating this, it is not only proper but essential to discuss the euthanasia of doomed newborns, who suffer but cannot give consent. As Wikipedia notes, “A poll in July 2019 found that 72% of the [New Zealand] public supported some kind of assisted dying for the terminally ill. Support over the past 20 years has averaged around 68%.” Why must the “terminally ill” include only adults?

In such a climate, it’s unconscionable to deplatform somebody for his views, especially when it’s not even clear that his “evening with Peter Singer” was going to touch on this subject. As the report notes above, nobody checked with Singer before canceling his contect.

Promoters of the talk are looking for a new venue, and I’ll report back if they find one.

Finally, here’s cartoon from Heather’s post, underscoring the futility of religion when it comes to helping the afflicted:

h/t: Paul

Misplaced priorities: Trump administration cuts back on medical research using fetal tissue to please anti-abortionists

June 7, 2019 • 9:15 am

So much for Republicans and conservatives valuing the sanctity of life! They’d would prefer to have fetal tissue—derived from abortions—destroyed than to be used for medical research that could save lives. Use of tissue: possible saving of lives. Destruction of tissue: no saving of lives. Trump administration decision: Destroy the tissue. Such is the cockeyed logic of religiously-influenced zealots.

According to several sources, including the New York Times and Science articles below (click on screenshots), the Trump administration announced two days ago that they were going to sharply cut back on federal spending on medical research using fetal tissue, i.e. tissue from aborted fetuses that would otherwise be discarded.

 

The new plan, adopted after a nine-month federal review, includes the following:

  • No scientists working directly for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) will be able to conduct studies using fetal tissue. There are now only three such projects out of 3,065 projects; they will have to shut down after they use up their current store of fetal tissue.
  • A $2 million/year NIH contract with the University of California at San Francisco, looking for cures for HIV using fetal tissue, will be terminated immediately. That contract has been in place for six years.
  • While no other ongoing studies in universities and other institutes funded by the NIH will be terminated, henceforth anyone applying for NIH money to do research using fetal tissue will have to undergo a special panel review.  (At present, of its $37 billion annual budget, the NIH spends about $115 million on such extramural research for about 200 funded studies.)
  • A specially constituted “ethics advisory board” will review every grant application, with the public invited to nominate the board members for each grant. The secretary of Health and Human Services can still overrule the committee’s recommendation. Each board must consist of 14-10 people, at least a third of them scientists, and at least one ethicist, one physician, one attorney, and—get this—one theologian.

Why use fetal tissue? The tissues used in research come from elective or spontaneous abortion, and are used to establish cell lines to work on diseases like Alzheimer’s, cancer, Parkinson’s disease, and HIV.  Much of this work aims at transplanting fetal tissue into adults or children (see below). Fetal tissue cell lines were, in fact, critical to developing polio vaccine in 1982. This paper from a book put out by the National Academies Press explains why fetal tissue is used for such work:

Cell lines are established by culturing fetal cells in such a way that they continue growing and multiplying in laboratory dishes. Such cells can be used to test a drug’s ability to damage genetic material or to test the effects of specific viral (or other types) of infection. Because the cells multiply, a small number of cells harvested from a dead fetus can be greatly expanded and used either as a source of more cell lines or for transplants.

Fetal tissue has been used for transplantation for two reasons. First, certain fetal tissues lack cell-surface markers found in mature tissue that induce immune system reactions in transplant recipients and lead to tissue rejection and transplant failure. Thus, fetal tissue eludes these body defenses. In addition, groups of different kinds of fetal cells can be separated from one another in the laboratory to remove those cells that may trigger a recipient’s immune system. Second, certain areas of the body do not regenerate after birth or after a few years of life, so the use of mature tissue for transplantation is not possible. Adult brain cells, for example, regenerate slowly if at all, but when fetal brain cells are transplanted they will grow readily.

According to medical researchers, there is no substitute at present for using fetal tissue, though the NIH, in view of this decision, is starting to look for substitutes. But remember, the tissue, if not used for medical research, would simply be destroyed through incineration.

You already know the reason the Trump administration made this decision: it’s a sop to its pro-life constituency that somehow regards using fetal tissue as destroying the dignity of what they see as a human being. The argument that this crucial research would somehow promote abortions won’t wash, for no woman would have an abortion simply to provide material for medical research. Can you imagine a woman saying, “I’m not going to have this baby, for I think its tissues may help cure cancer”?

To get an idea of the nature of the objections, which surely must be derived primarily from religion, here are a few statements from the articles.  From the NYT:

Anti-abortion groups were quick to applaud the decision and played down any effect on medical research.

“Most Americans do not want their tax dollars creating a marketplace for aborted baby body parts, which are then implanted into mice and used for experimentation,” said Jeanne Mancini, the president of March for Life. “This type of research involves the gross violation of basic human rights and certainly the government has no business funding it.”

Representative Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the No. 2 House Republican, declared, “The government has no business subsidizing researchers that traffic the body parts of aborted babies.”

. . . “There are ample ethically derived sources and alternatives,” said David Prentice, vice president and research director for the Charlotte Lozier Institute, the research arm of the Susan B. Anthony List, an anti-abortion group. He called the move by the Health and Human Services Department “a good step, but a preliminary step,” adding that he hoped the administration would end federal funding to all universities for research involving fetal tissue from abortions.

From the Science article:

Groups that oppose fetal tissue research and had encouraged the Trump administration to undertake the review are applauding the moves. “This is a major pro-life victory and we thank President Trump for taking decisive action. It is outrageous and disgusting that we have been complicit, through our taxpayer dollars, in the experimentation using baby body parts,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, a Washington, D.C., lobbying group that opposes abortion.

David Prentice, vice president and research director of the Charlotte Lozier Institute in Arlington, Virginia, the research arm of the Susan B. Anthony list, added: “Our government will now invest in effective research methods that do not rely on the destruction of human life.”

Let us be clear again: these research projects do not cause the destruction of human life, even if you see an abortion as “the destruction of human life”. Nor does it violate “basic human rights”: the Supreme Court has ruled that these abortions are legal, and I suspect that any women who doesn’t want her aborted fetus used for research has the right to do that.  There are two alternatives for an aborted fetus: destroy it through incineration or use it for research that may help save lives. Given these choices, only one makes sense.

h/t: Grania

Can Islamic theology and philosophy inform the ethical debate about CRISPR?

March 1, 2019 • 8:00 am

I was appalled to see a letter to the editor in Nature written by three authors, from, respectively the Jordan University of Science and Technology (Irbid, Jordan), Hashemite University (Zarqa, Jordan), and the University of California at San Diego. You can click the link above or the screenshots below to see the title, authors, and content.

As you may recall, CRISPR is a new gene-editing technique that has great promise for selectively changing DNA sequences in ways that scientists want. You may also recall that a Chinese scientist, He Jiankui, used this method  to alter the DNA sequences in embryos of twin girls (born last fall) in a way that would supposedly make them resistant to infection with HIV.

In most countries such an experiment would be unethical and illegal, flouting many government regulations on genetic engineering, and it’s not clear why he would alter embryos not in any obvious danger of getting HIV as adults in such a way. In fact, Jiankui’s research was also banned in China, and he flouted the regulations.

After a big outcry by scientists throughout the world, the Chinese shut down Jiankui’s lab and have started a police investigation of the researcher. He may well go to jail. (Now there’s word that a second gene-edited pregnancy is on the way.)

Some day we may have the ability to do this kind of experiment safely, but this kind of rogue science, which carries possible dangers to people developing from gene-edited embryos, is off limits for now—and should be.

But below, three Muslims—at least I think they are, for who else would write such a letter—tell us that our debates on this issue can be informed by Islamic theology. Read and weep (the article by Benjamin Hurlbut mentioned in the first line is here):

 

Whatever this theology did to buttress science in medieval Islam—and I’m not sure it did—it has nothing to say to us today. Every single consideration purporting to derive from Islamic thought can be derived in less tortuous ways from secular ethics. Does it have a positive social benefit? Is CRISPR safe? Did the parents have informed consent? Are there safer ways to protect people from HIV? You don’t need religion to ask those questions.

In fact, sans Islam, these questions were already part of the debate about Jiankui’s experiment, and had nothing to do with Islamic philosophy or theology. What the authors are doing here are twisting and squeezing certain aspects of that tradition to make it seem as if Islam has something meaningful to say about CRISPR experiments. Make no mistake: their intent is to make Islam look good, and prescient as well.

It doesn’t, and we’d best stay far away from theologians of any stripe when debating these issues. The debate should be in the hands of biologists, physicians and secular philosophers, where it remains now. If we start dragging in Islam post facto, it doesn’t serve to advance the debate, but only to give a false authority to a religion. Does it matter if one quarter of the world’s population is Muslim? After all, there are 2.1 billion Christians compared to 1.3 billion Muslims. Does this mean we should give Christian religious ethics precedence?  We can certainly ignore the voices of rabbis, though: there are only 14 million Jews on the planet.

The same goes for Christianity; we can also ignore what priests and ministers have to say. Why are they experts in bioethics? Talk of “souls” has nothing to add to this debate. Contra Hurlbut and these three authors, there’s no need to add theologians to the debate about a scientific technique, for all they have to add is opinion based on unscientific and delusional beliefs.

Nature, like the BBC, has often been soft on faith, but it mystifies me why the journal published this letter. Any guesses? Is the journal trying to show that it welcomes religious input into science and technology?

h/r: Vampyricon

Kristel Clayville, who refuses to donate her organs out of Social Justice, responds to criticism

April 15, 2018 • 10:00 am

Kristel Clayville is a visiting assistant professor of religion at Eureka College, a fellow at the MacLean Center for Clinical Medical Ethics at the University of Chicago, as well as as an ordained minister in the Disciples of Christ branch of the Christian Church.  Yet with all of those credentials (most especially her status as an Christian pastor), she surprised me—and a lot of other people—with her article in Religion Dispatches, “Why I’m not an organ donor.

Her argument, mean-spirited for anyone, much less for a medical ethicist and a minister, was that she wasn’t going to donate any of her organs because she didn’t like the criteria used to rank people on organ-donation lists. Her claim was that, it helps to be rich and white to get an organ; so that those having “minority status” and lacking  “financial means” aren’t treated equitably, and social justice isn’t satisfied. Therefore she is taking her liver and going home. That is, she refuses to donate her organs because the system is broken.

In fact, I doubt the system is nearly as broken as she asserts. While it may be the case that rich people may be able to get on different state lists more easily, increasing their chances of getting an organ, or having a “home caregiver” (that criterion is not meant to help the wealthy, but to make recovery more likely), plenty of poor people get organs. (A surgeon from Michigan just told me that Clayville is dead wrong in her overall claim.) I see this on the news all the time, especially because I live on the south side of Chicago which is largely poor and black. (But Clayville works here, too!) But the pie chart below tells the tale.

Saying you’re not going to donate your organs because the system isn’t run according to your own liking is pure madness, for it means that people become more likely to die so you can maintain your own sense of “purity”. That is “social justice warriorism” taken to its logical but horrendous extreme. As I wrote in my critique of Clayville’s piece:

What kind of Christian is she? When she meets Jesus, will she explain, “Lord, I thought it was better to let someone die than to tolerate the injustices of organ donation”?

I wasn’t the only one to take Clayville to the woodshed for her unbelievable selfishness and narcissism. She’s now written a new response, also in Religion Dispatches, called “You gotta have heart: A response to critics of ‘Why I’m not an organ donor’.”  None of her responses to the critics are satisfactory.

First, she has to go after her prime critic, which turns out to be me. Although my criticism didn’t call her names, she claims my argument was “ad hominem”. Apparently she doesn’t know that that term means, which is that one says that an argument is wrong because of the character of its proponent,not the argument’s claims itself.

But my argument was not ad hominem. No, I criticized her contention that if the organ-donation system has inequities that she doesn’t like, she’s not going to donate her organs. That means she’s made a choice that people could die to satisfy her own notions of how the system should work. It may not work perfectly, but by no means are white people and those with means invariably put atop the list, and so such a decision is a very bad one, possibly leading to people dying because of her ideology, which will die with her. That is an argument based on the irrationality of putting one’s moral purity above the lives of other people. My counter-argument is based on the decrease in well-being that would occur if people followed Clayville’s logic.

As far as ad hominems are concerned, get a look at this quote from her new piece. Her argument against what I said above is that I am simply not qualified to judge what she said because I am religiously ignorant. And yet her original argument had nothing to do with religion!:

Recently, I made a lot of people angry with my piece, “Why I’m not an Organ Donor,” with comments generally falling into two broad categories: ad hominem attacks and sincere questions about my position. Of the former, biologist/blogger Jerry Coyne’s stand out, both because of his platform and because they were so over the top. I’m not sure why any religion scholar would take JC  [“JC”? Don’t I even get the dignity of being called “Coyne”?] seriously. He knows nothing theoretical or practical about religion, yet he continues to write about it, masking his lack of knowledge with unprofessional and unproductive ad hominem attacks.

In fact, I preferred the classic “slut” comment to JC’s shallow engagement with my piece. At least that comment made the point that any woman on the internet is vulnerable to sex shaming even when she’s saying that she doesn’t want to share her body with others. There’s no masking there, just a gut reaction, which is at least more honest than JC’s pretense at engagement.

Note how she juxtaposes my criticism with someone else’s “you’re-a-slut argument”, which I deplore. That’s just a cheap way of dismissing me by saying I’m worse than a “slut shamer.”

As for my “knowing nothing theoretical or practical about religion”, she clearly knows little of what I know. I would claim that I know more about theological argument, and the contents of the Bible, than the vast majority educated Americans, including believers. No, Dr. Clayville, you’re not getting off that easily, especially because your original argument said nothing about religion save that many pastors favor organ donation.

The remainder of the arguments in her rebuttal—if they can be called arguments—hold no water. She considers her refusal to donate organs as being like a “conscientious objector” (CO): one who refuses to join the military or fight in a war. But the simile is weak: a CO (I was one) is somebody who doesn’t want to kill people, while Clayville is making a decision that might result in somebody dying.

Clayville also claims that being a critic of the system, albeit a privileged one, entitles her to take her organs to the grave with her:

Additionally, once I’ve done the work of describing the organ economy, I feel like I have some choices about how to interact with it. If it’s an economy, then I can choose whether or not to be a customer or a product in it. That’s more privilege than a lot of people have.

True, anyone can choose to opt out of organ donation, though I don’t see how “privilege” enters into people’s desire to neither donate nor receive organs. That is of course their right. But refusing to do so because the system is less equitable than you want is a bad reason to make a decision that could lead to to someone else’s death.

And is the system really so inequitable? Here’s a chart from Organdonor.gov showing that at least 42% of transplant recipients are of minority status. Note, for instance, that African Americans constitute about 13% of the U.S. population but made up 21% of organ recipients.

In light of this, Clayville has some ‘splaining to do!

Finally, I simply don’t believe her response below; read her first article if you think she’s not concerned about moral purity:

Aren’t you just worried about your own moral purity?

No. I worry a lot about moral purity and the role it plays in our society. I think of moral purity as funding black and white thinking about ethics and making sure that you are always on the good side of that divide. I’ve presented organ transplantation and donation as entirely gray. The microscopic and telescopic stories can both be true, even at the same time. The question is which one is most compelling to you as a story that directs ethical action. For me the telescopic story is the most compelling and leads me to the ethical conclusion that I need to work to make the system better, so I do. The microscopic story has never been compelling to me, and in fact, with patients who have received transplants, that story can be a source of psychological trauma. They often feel like they’ve received a gift they can’t repay, that they were unworthy, or that the life-for-life exchange becomes overwhelming for them.

Entirely gray”? If anyone, rich, poor, black or white, is enabled to live when they could have died, that seems to me pretty black and white. Yes, the system might not be perfect, but plenty of people have expressed huge gratitude to those who donated organs that saved their lives. You see this on the news all the time. Often someone will befriend the family of someone whose death gave them a life-saving organ, or will bond with a stranger who unselfishly gave them a kidney or part of a liver. The “psychological trauma” that, says Clayville, is one reason not to participate in the system, is largely a fiction. After all, those people put themselves on a transplant list, and didn’t have to. Presumably they didn’t want to die!

Finally, although I don’t like to engage in argument in the comment section of other people’s articles, I couldn’t resist in this case. Here’s one of Clayville’s critics and her response, which I found amazingly ignorant. I had to respond to her claim about “all religious people being stupid” and my books being “good on science and lacking in religion” (I’m convinced she hasn’t read at least two of the three I’ve written.)

And my response in this thread (there is a missing “know” in the first sentence:

I’m frankly baffled that someone can actually feel as Clayville does, and clearly the organ-donation people—or the many government organizations that urge you to add to your driver’s license or will a statement that you will donate your organs if it’s appropriate—feel otherwise. The chutzpah and self-regard that would lead one to refuse donating their organs on social justice grounds is a mind-set I can’t fathom. Maybe it has something to do with Clayville’s religious views (I can’t say, as she doesn’t make a religious argument), but she’s also at odds, I suspect, with nearly every religious leader in America.

In the end, I think that Clayville’s view really does come from her faith, and is also a slap at what she calls her “progressive, liberal, overeducated, friends (PLOFs).”  That, by the way, is an ad hominem characterization, and I wonder what her friends think of that. What does her friends being “overeducated” and “progressive” have to do with her opposing their views?

And if her argument is based on religion, and I failed to grasp it because I’m religiously ignorant, then she needs to explain the role of religion, as opposed to secular ethics based on simple equity, in her stand.

Here’s a photo of the author from her Twitter feed.  All I’ll add is that I don’t think she belongs on any medical ethics team because she appears to think more about propping up her own moral purity than about saving the lives of people who could receive organ transplants.

h/t: Diane G.