The New Yorker once again slams New Atheism

November 16, 2018 • 10:45 am

About two weeks ago I dissected an interview at Vox in which Sean Illing talked to John Gray about Gray’s new book, Fifty Shades Seven Types of Atheism, and both interviewer and interviewee embraced each other in their hatred of New Atheism. Their mutual beefs (both are atheists but are “atheist-butters”) include these four:

1.) Religion is not mainly about factual assertions but about other things, and ignorant New Atheists fail to recognize that.
2.) Atheism is just an attempt to replace conventional religion with other forms of “religion”, and contains its own mythology.
3.) Religion answers the questions that science can’t, and tells us about meaning and purpose.
4.) Science is seen by New Atheists as a substitute for religion, and a bad substitute, because science can cause harm.

You can see my response to these canards (an insult to ducks) at the link above.

The New Yorker, which like Vox is a left-wing website that dislikes New Atheism, recently published an article that is a combination of a review of Gray’s book (along with some history taken from Laurence Moore and Isaac Kramnick’s new book Godless Citizens in a Godly Republic: Atheists in American Public Life) along with the New Yorker‘s usual overwritten bloviating on the topic of atheism. You can read the article by clicking on the screenshot below:

The potted history of atheism won’t tell you much you don’t know (e.g., “In God we Trust” was added to currency only in the 1950s), but may interest those not involved with atheism. But much of the article is an uncritical presentation of Gray’s ideas, which include a critique of New Atheism and a denial of progressivism. One gets the strong idea that author Casey Cep, identified as “a writer from the Eastern Shore of Maryland”, is a big booster of Gray’s ideas. (Cep also appears to have no expertise in religiosity and its denial.) Her long and uncritical exposition of Gray’s ideas begins, of course, with a shot over the bow of New Atheism, demonstrating where Cep’s allegiance lies:

[Gray’s book] is also a refreshing look beyond the so-called “new atheists” who have lately dominated the conversation surrounding unbelief. Gray does not brook what he describes as their “tedious re-run of a Victorian squabble between science and religion,” and, in contrast to Moore and Kramnick, who believe that new atheists like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins have generated an “Atheist Awakening,” Gray dismisses them in a single chapter. “New atheists have directed their campaign against a narrow segment of religion while failing to understand even that small part,” he writes. By Gray’s account, they ignore polytheism and animism almost entirely, while insisting on reading verses of Genesis or lines of the Nicene Creed as if they were primitive scientific theories. Not all monotheists are literalists, and, for many of us, both now and throughout history, the Garden of Eden is not a faulty hypothesis about evolution but a rich symbolic story about good and evil.

Here again we have a Sophisticated Believer asserting that he is representative of most believers in not being a literalist and in not accepting that Abrahamic religions are based on factual assertions. Try telling a Catholic that Jesus wasn’t divine or can’t forgive your sins; try telling a Southern Baptist that Adam and Eve are lovely symbols of good and evil; try telling a Muslim that Muhammad’s “night flight” from Mecca to Jerusalem and back on the steed Buraq is just a lovely but a false story, or that the Qur’an wasn’t really dictated to Muhammad by an angel in a cave. I’d love for Gray to go to, say, Tehran and give a lecture about how the Qu’ran is a “rich symbolic story about good and evil.” Well, actually, I wouldn’t, because he’d be dead within a day or so.

As I’ve shown repeatedly on this site, and in my book Faith Versus Fact, a huge fraction of believers in both the UK and US take things like the existence of an afterlife, Heaven and Hell, angels, Jesus’s resurrection, and so on as literal truths. Granted, not all religionists take the whole Bible or Qur’an literally (though a higher proportion of Muslims than of Christians are literalists) but, as I’ve said in one of my few bon mots, “Some believers are literalists about everything, but every believer is a literalist about something.”

You can hardly call yourself a Christian if you don’t believe that Jesus existed, was divine, and was crucified and resurrected. And so on and so on and so on. As the Bible says, in fact, “And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain” (1 Corinthians 15:14). In claiming that religion has very little to do with literal (i.e., “scientific”) truth, Gray and Cep are simply ignoring how religion works, and how, at bottom, it depends on literal adherence to at least a few supernatural assertions. It is not a “small segment” of religionists who have some literal beliefs in the supernatural!

Another claim of both Gray—and by extension, Cep—is that atheism doesn’t offer a solid ground for morality. Here’s Cep osculating Gray:

Gray’s larger complaint is that the new atheists fail to offer a more coherent moral vision than the one they want to replace. The strategy they champion, scientific ethics, has been tried before, with a notable lack of success. Auguste Comte and his fellow nineteenth-century positivists envisioned a Grand Pontiff of Humanity who would preside alongside scientist-priests; unfortunately, scientists at the time were practicing phrenology. Later on, evolutionary humanists and monists replaced God’s order with “scientific” anthropologies, then constructed racial hierarchies and put white Europeans on top. Today, the voguish version of science as religion is transhumanism, which claims that technology will overcome human limitations both physical and mental, perhaps through bioengineering or artificial intelligence or cyborgs that can carry around the contents of our brains. Gray is not sanguine about such developments, should they ever occur, because we already have a model of the mayhem that takes place when some mortals are granted godlike powers: “Anyone who wants a glimpse of what a post-human future might be like should read Homer.”

Umm. . . . the only New Atheist who champions scientific ethics, as far as I know, is Sam Harris, who claims there are empirically determinable “right” and “wrong” statements. I disagree with him, though I think most versions of morality do rely on a consequentialist view of what constitutes greater or lesser “well being.” But defining “well being” is slippery, and in some cases the currency of morality might not be “well being.” In the end, I maintain, as do other New Atheists, that morality is grounded on what kind of world you prefer, which is a subjective judgment. As for transhumanism, that’s irrelevant.

True, consequentialists know that empirical data does play a role in secular ethics (as oppose to the divine fiat of religious ethics). But really, isn’t it better to base your morals on how they affect people’s lives rather than on propitiating the dictates of a God who, to even Gray, doesn’t exist? In the end, why does having a God in your sights give you a better morality than relying on reason and preference? After all Plato showed with the Euthyphro argument that even religious morality has an extrabiblical (i.e., nonreligious) philosophy behind it.

Cep goes on:

On the whole, Gray is a glass-half-empty kind of guy, and what others regard as novel or promising he often sees as derivative or just plain dumb. He argues, for instance, that secular humanism is really monotheism in disguise, where humankind is God and salvation can be achieved through our own efforts rather than through divine intervention. Unlike the linguist—and new atheist—Steven Pinker, Gray regards the idea that the world is getting better as self-evidently silly. “The cumulative increase of knowledge in science has no parallel in ethics or politics,” he points out. Religions are still thriving, as are wars between them, and secular regimes have wrought as much, if not more, havoc under the auspices of Jacobinism, Bolshevism, Nazism, and Maoism.

Secular humanism is the philosophy that humans can find moral and material fulfillment without the need for gods. In what respect is that “monotheism” in disguise? Does it put humanity as a sacred and numinous object, like God? No way! There’s a big difference between saying we have to help ourselves on one hand, and saying on the other that we need the intervention of a being for which there’s no evidence. Gray should know this, and Cep, as a supposedly savvy New Yorker writer, should know that difference even better. But she falls for Gray’s “sophistication”, offering not a word of critique.

As for the statement that it’s “self-evidently silly”, to say the world is getting better, that statement itself is arrant nonsense. Clearly we’re materially better than we were a few centuries ago (would Gray like to live as a medieval peasant with infected teeth?), and you can see the evidence for that in Pinker’s last two books. And we’ve improved not just materially (here I count “health and well-being” as material goods), but also morally. Attitudes towards gays, women, minorities, children, and other once-oppressed groups have changed much for the better. Slavery is no longer tenable, and we have much more concern about the welfare of animals.

Finally, I needn’t address the canard (a word that’s an offense to ducks) that “secular regimes” are fraught with “havoc.” From Nazism to Bolshevism, the state simply replaced God with Dear Leaders, and Nazism wasn’t even atheistic. Perhaps Gray and Cep should be pointed toward Scandinavia to see that “secular regimes” in the modern world, so long as they’re democratic, need not be bastions of immorality or oppression.

Cep goes on to note that Gray’s version of “good” atheists include those atheists who (like him) have no faith in humanity, as well as “apophatic atheists” who simply shut up about their unbelief and, indeed, accept some kind of numinous philosophy like pantheism.

At the end, Cep alludes to the specious claim that all of us, atheists and nonbelievers alike, are similar in having faith. We’re all brothers and sisters under the skin!

Still, as Gray might have predicted, it is difficult, in this particular political moment, to believe that the circle of rights is expanding for atheists or for anyone else. Moore and Kramnick, who have written a thorough and useful history of the legal and political status of atheists in America, unsurprisingly believe that such work is salvific—that understanding the bias against atheists in the past can help end it in the future. Gray holds no such hope, and yet his book offers a way forward. In it, he helps us understand how those who do not believe in God, or, for that matter, those who do, have oriented themselves in the universe. Faith, after all, drove the Puritans to Plymouth Rock but then led them to execute three of their Quaker neighbors; it inspired American slavers but also American abolitionists; and, whatever else atheism is accused of doing in this country, it sustained the scientific curiosity and profound pacifism of the two-time Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling, the philanthropy of Andrew Carnegie, and the art and activism of Lorraine Hansberry. All of us, nihilists included, believe something—many things, in fact, about ourselves, the cosmos, and one another. In the end, the most interesting thing about a conscience is how it answers, not whom it answers to. ♦

This conflates “faith” as “a belief in a proposition not well supported by evidence”, with “optimism” (the Puritans) and “confidence based on data and reason” (i.e. Linus Pauling, the abolitionists). Saying that Jesus was resurrected does not lie on the same playing field as the statement that “Slaves are better off not being slaves.” “Belief” can be based on wish-thinking, as it is in religion, or on data and experience, as it is in science and many other areas. Those simply aren’t equivalent ways of determining what’s true, or equally valid supports for what you believe.

And the last sentence is classic New Yorker nonsense: a nice-sounding Deepity that, if taken seriously, dismisses religion as of no importance whatsoever—after Cep and Gray have just told us why religion remains important.


Free will and moral responsibility: Gregg Caruso vs. Dan Dennett

October 4, 2018 • 10:30 am

The Aeon website has a good discussion between Dan Dennett, a free-will compatibilist, and Gregg Caruso, who calls himself a “hard incompatibilist”. (Caruso doesn’t call himself a “hard determinist” because he admits that some behaviors might be influenced by fundamental indeterminism, presumably of the quantum-mechanical sort.)

The piece, called “Just deserts: Can we be held morally responsible for our actions. Yes, says Daniel Dennett. No says Gregg Caruso. Reader, you decide” can be accessed by clicking on the screenshot below:

The discussion is good because it clearly delineates the difference between the two men’s views. It’s also clear and mutually respectful.

I, of course, am on Caruso’s side, believing that we have no “free will” in the classical sense—the libertarian, could-have-chosen-otherwise sense which most people think of as “free will”). Note, too, that most people think that in Caruso’s deterministic/naturalistic universe, people are not morally responsible for their actions.

The difference between the two men here turns on three issues, which I’ll try to summarize briefly.

a.) What is free will? Caruso accepts the libertarian definition, but rejects that we have that kind of free will. Dennett thinks of free will as the behavioral actions of someone who is competent, reasonable, and subject to rational persuasion. His quote:

 In fact, if your past is roughly normal, it contains the causal chains that turned you into an autonomous, self-controlling agent. Lucky you. You weren’t responsible for becoming an autonomous agent, but since you are one, it is entirely appropriate for the rest of us to hold you responsible for your deeds under all but the most dire circumstances. As [the American country singer] Ricky Skaggs once put it: ‘I can’t control the wind, but I can adjust the sails.’ To suppose that some further condition should be met in order for you or anyone else to be ‘truly deserving’ is to ignore or deny the manifest difference in abilities for self-control that we can observe and measure readily. In other words, the rationale or justification for excusing someone, holding them not deserving of criticism or punishment, is their deficit in this competence. We don’t try to reason with bears or babies or lunatics because they aren’t able to respond appropriately. Why do we reason with people? Why do we try to convince them of conclusions about free will or science or causation or anything else? Because we think – for good reason – that in general people are reasonable, are moved by reasons, can adjust their behaviour and goals in the light of reasons presented to them. There is something indirectly self-refuting in arguing that people are not moved by reasons! And that is the key to the kind of self-control which we are justified in treating as our threshold for true desert.

I agree with Dan that some people are subject to rational persuasion and others aren’t, although the distinction isn’t as clear as he’d like. Some people are subject to rational persuasion about some issues but not others. Do they have free will in those areas where they’re subject to rational argument, but not in the other areas? If they agree to abide by some of society’s rules but not others, do they have free will? Clearly someone who’s irremediably insane isn’t subject to rational persuasion in most cases, but whether someone is insane or rational depends, of course, on the laws of physics. Both the persuadable and unpersuadable are made so because of their genes and environments, and can’t have turned out otherwise.

That said, yes, these non-persuadable people need to be treated differently if they commit crimes. This is an empirical matter: you don’t deter people, or promote rehabilitation, by putting someone who’s insane in prison. Yet both people need rehabilitation, just of different sorts.

The main issue for me is that nobody makes a decision to be responsive to rational persuasion and thus their choice to, say, commit a crime is no freer than someone who commits a crime as a psychopath.  Every human who does something bad had no choice about whether to do it, and therefore the factors behind that choice need to be examined and treated.

It is the issue of determinism that one must consider when constructing an enlightened judicial system; this is something that Dennett doesn’t dwell on but Caruso does. Dennett does, however, say that his view of “free will” mandates changes in judicial punishment, including the lack of retributive punishment. I applaud him for that, but given that Dennett thinks people deserve to be punished in the “just deserts” sense (see below), it’s hard to see why he’s opposed to retributive punishment. For it is the idea of “deserts” that is behind retributive punishment. Caruso calls him out on this (see below).

b.) Is one morally responsible for behaving badly? This is one issue that isn’t explicitly discussed by Dennett and Caruso. The word “responsible” is tossed around a lot, but it means different things to the two men. To Dan, it means “morally responsible” if the miscreant falls into the class of “someone who is rational and has agreed to play by society’s rules.” To Caruso it means, as it does to me, simply “you’re the person who did the crime and must undergo punishment for that”. Caruso:

. . . . let me reiterate that the kind of moral responsibility I reject is basic-desert moral responsibility. Of course, there are other conceptions of moral responsibility that are perfectly consistent with free-will skepticism – such as Waller’s notion of take-charge responsibility, the attributability responsibility I referenced in the Einstein example, and Pereboom’s forward-looking notion of responsibility that focuses on three nondesert-invoking desiderata: future protection, future reconciliation, and future moral formation.

Dan seems to accept “basic-desert moral responsibility.” I reject it because the very notion of “moral responsibility”—one promulgated, of course, by religion—implies that one could have chosen to do otherwise. A murderer, for instance, could have chosen not to pull the trigger.

And this is what most people in four surveyed countries think, too: the majority feel that in a society in which there is no libertarian free will, one cannot be morally responsible. I agree, although of course I think that lawbreakers and wrongdoers are still responsible for their actions. It’s the words “morally responsible” that I abhor, and Caruso says why:

The system of desert keeps alive the belief that if you end up in poverty or prison, this is ‘just’ because you deserve it. Likewise, if you end up succeeding in life, you and you alone are responsible for that success. This way of thinking keeps us locked in the system of blame and shame, and prevents us from addressing the systemic causes of poverty, wealth-inequality, racism, sexism, educational inequity and the like. My suggestion is that we move beyond this, and acknowledge that the lottery of life is not always fair, that luck does not average out in the long run, and that who we are and what we do is ultimately the result of factors beyond our control.

I do of course use the word “moral”, but in the sense of “adhering to society’s code of conduct.” Thus I might occasionally used the words “immoral act” or “moral system”, but I mean those as “conforming or not conforming to what society considers right behavior.” But I try to avoid saying that someone is “morally responsible” for the reasons above.

Whether someone “deserves” punishment is ambiguous here. “Deserve” can be construed, as Dennett does, as “receiving one’s deserts”, while I and Caruso conceive it as “requires praise or blame for one’s good and the good of society”. This may seem a semantic issue, but remember that the illiberal “Just World” view of politics, in which poor people are seen as deserving to be poor because they don’t make the effort to acquire money or escape their circumstances, hinges on a notion that one can make a free choice.

c.) Will society fall apart if people don’t adhere to some notion of free will? Dan says yes, Caruso (and I as well) say no. Dan has argued this several times in various speeches and talks, and I don’t think it’s true. In fact, saying that we need to embrace some version of free will as a necessary social glue comes perilously close to theologians’ and accommodationists’ claims that one needs to embrace some version of God to have a moral society. Here are two earlier quotes from Dennett:

. . . we [Dennett and Erasmus] share the doctrine that free will is an illusion is likely to have profoundly unfortunate social consequences if not rebutted forcefully.”

And below Dan is talking about the kind of responsibility that comes from accepting his compatibilist form of free will:

If nobody is responsible, not really, then not only should the prisons be emptied, but no contract is valid, mortgages should be abolished, and we can never hold anybody to account for anything they do.  Preserving “law and order” without a concept of real responsibility is a daunting task.

I don’t know any hard determinist, though, who thinks that their views will make society fall apart if adopted widely. We’ll always feel as if we can make free choices, but we can rationally accept that we can’t, and take actions upon that rational belief. Further, under my and Caruso’s non-compatibilist definition of “responsibility”, society will be fine with that non-libertarian definition. I cannot see people becoming wild and crazy criminals if they accept determinism.

Caruso has also picked up on Dennett’s quasi-theological use of free will, and on Dan’s charge that one can have no stable society without an appeal to moral responsibility. He calls for Caruso to specify how this could be, and here is Caruso’s answer (note that it starts with a further quote by Dan about the dire consequences of abjuring the idea of “moral responsibility”):

Finally, I do not agree that rejecting free will and basic-desert moral responsibility will ‘return humanity to Hobbes’s state of nature where life is nasty, brutish and short’. You write: ‘If you have some other vision of how a stable, secure and just state can thrive without appeal to moral responsibility, you owe us the details.’

First, let me reiterate that the kind of moral responsibility I reject is basic-desert moral responsibility. Of course, there are other conceptions of moral responsibility that are perfectly consistent with free-will skepticism – such as Waller’s notion of take-charge responsibility, the attributability responsibility I referenced in the Einstein example, and Pereboom’s forward-looking notion of responsibility that focuses on three nondesert-invoking desiderata: future protection, future reconciliation, and future moral formation. Second, I agree that I owe you and others an account of how to maintain a stable, secure and just society without basic-desert moral responsibility. Fortunately, my good friend Derk Pereboom has already provided most of the details for such an account in his two books Living Without Free Will (2001) and Free Will, Agency, and Meaning in Life (2014). And I have further developed a detailed account of how to address criminal behaviour without basic-desert moral responsibility – it’s called the public health-quarantine model. While I wish we could debate the merits of it here, it unfortunately looks like we have run out of time. The details of my account, however, are readily available for anyone who is interested (see herehere, and here).

I’ve said many times that the discussion over how to construe “free will” is likely to be unproductive given that most people on the street define the phrase one way and Sophisticated Philosophers™ another. What we should be doing is working out the consequences of behavioral determinism, a determinism on which Dennett, Caruso, and I all agree.

That is a valuable and worthwhile task; redefining free will to be compatible with determinism—not so much.

Pinker’s latest TED talk: Is the world getting better?

May 25, 2018 • 12:45 pm

In case you don’t have the moxie to read Steve Pinker’s two latest books—The Better Angels of Our Nature and Enlightenment Now—you can see a summary of both in Steve’s new 18.5-minute TED talk. Posted three days ago, it concisely summarizes his theses that the world is getting better in almost every measurable way, that many liberals hate this progress as well as the general notion of progressivism, and that pessimism about the future is dangerous. He also analyzes what’s responsible for the progress he documents with endless data, and discusses why people simply don’t recognize that progress. It’s a good talk, dotted with humor, and also shows some defensiveness that’s come from Steve’s books being attacked by anti-progressives like the dolorous John Gray.

It’s hard to imagine that there are those who, in the face of data like these, think that the world’s getting worse. Yes, we face new challenges like global warming (these are discussed in Steve’s latest book), but would you choose, say, to have lived 200 years ago rather than now? You’d be a fool to make that choice.

h/t: Bryan

Does religion promote morality?

November 28, 2017 • 12:15 pm

Today’s New York Times op-ed features a piece with a provocative title (click on screenshot to read the article):

The author, Mustafa Akyol, is described as “a contributing opinion writer. . . the author of “The Islamic Jesus” and a visiting fellow at the Freedom Project at Wellesley College.” Unfortunately, while Akyol properly calls out Turkey’s new, Islamist rulers as immoral, he’s wishy-washy about the title question. In fact, it’s answered simply and wishy-washidly in the subtitle, and that is all ye need to know.

On Turkey:

This political revolution has had an inadvertent outcome. It has tested the ostensible virtues of these religious conservatives — and they have failed. They have failed this test so terribly that it raises the question of whether religiosity and morality really go hand in hand, as so many religious people like to claim.

The religious conservatives have morally failed because they ended up doing everything that they once condemned as unjust and cruel. For decades, they criticized the secular elite for nepotism and corruption, for weaponizing the judiciary and for using the news media to demonize and intimidate their opponents. Yet after their initial years in power, they began repeating all of the same behavior they used to condemn, often even more blatantly than their predecessors.

This is a familiar story: The religious conservatives have become corrupted by power. But power corrupts more easily when you have neither principles nor integrity.

Well, we all know that no religion, including Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, the like, is completely populated by moral believers. We also know that religion becomes dangerous when wedded with political power. But I suppose it’s useful for a Turk to point this out, though he’ll never be able to go back to Turkey after this.

But here’s what Akyol says about morality and religion in general:

On religion and morality:

Does religion really make people more moral human beings? Or does the gap between morality and the moralists — a gap evident in Turkey today and in many other societies around the world — reveal an ugly hypocrisy behind all religion?

My humble answer is: It depends. Religion can work in two fundamentally different ways: It can be a source of self-education, or it can be a source of self-glorification. Self-education can make people more moral, while self-glorification can make them considerably less moral.

Religion can be a source of self-education, because religious texts often have moral teachings with which people can question and instruct themselves. The Quran, just like the Bible, has such pearls of wisdom. It tells believers to “uphold justice” “even against yourselves or your parents and relatives.”

. . . But trying to nurture moral virtues is one thing; assuming that you are already moral and virtuous simply because you identify with a particular religion is another. The latter turns religion into a tool for self-glorification. A religion’s adherents assume themselves to be moral by default, and so they never bother to question themselves. At the same time, they look down on other people as misguided souls, if not wicked infidels.

For such people, religion works not as cure for the soul, but as drug for the ego. It makes them not humble, but arrogant.

But this is all bloody obvious—at least to us nonbelievers. What Akyol does here is conflate the source of morality with the promotion of morality. Certainly religion can promote morality, though it often doesn’t. But, as Plato pointed out nearly 2500 years ago, God cannot be a source of morality. That’s because most people don’t automatically take God’s dictums as being intrinsically moral just because they come from God, but because God is conceived of as good. That is, there’s some preexisting source of morality to which God conforms, and that’s why what He’s supposed to have said constitutes “morality”. My view is that the real source of human morals is a combination of evolved sentiments and the lesson’s we’ve learned to keep a thin veneer of civilization over the plywood of our ancestry.

There are a few exceptions, of course. One is the slick William Lane Craig, who believes in the “Divine command theory” holding that whatever God says is moral because it comes from God. But few people, on reflection, would agree with that. The realization that God is not the source of morality is, I think, one of the great contributions of philosophy to clarifying human thought.

Now saying this would have immensely improved Akyol’s piece, and believe me, it needs saying.  Yes, it’s meet and proper for him to point out the immoral self-aggrandizement and corruption of Turkey’s rulers. But does that need saying more urgently than that America’s Christian rulers aren’t exactly promoting a Jesus-like morality?  For that’s been said by the Left over and over again. (That’s the same Left that recoils from noting the perfidy of Islamism.)

Instead of saying the obvious, we, at least, can talk to people about where morality comes from, and point out the relentless logic of the Euthyphro argument. It’s worked for me with several Christians and ex-Christians.

Is religion good even if it’s not true?: A deceptive piece in the Daily Beast

September 4, 2017 • 12:30 pm

Reader Saul called my attention to a Daily Beast article called “Can you be good without God?” (subtitle: “New research raises questions about whether people can be truly good or truly bad without religion”) by Brandon Withrow, who teaches religious studies at the University of Findlay.

I call the article “deceptive” in the sense that both the tile and subtitle, designed to draw attention to the piece, imply that it will try to actually answer the two questions posed. But it doesn’t even deal with those; rather, it describes work on (and gives comments about) worldwide attitudes towards atheists and their ability to be moral.

The article is actually about the findings reported in a new paper on worldwide attitudes towards atheists in Nature Human Behavior (itself a new journal) by Will M. Gervais and others. (Reference below; free access.) Here’s the study’s abstract, which pretty much tells you what you need to know:

Mounting evidence supports long-standing claims that religions can extend cooperative networks. However, religious prosociality may have a strongly parochial component . Moreover, aspects of religion may promote or exacerbate conflict with those outside a given religious group, promoting regional violence, intergroup conflict and tacit prejudice against non-believers . Anti-atheist prejudice—a growing concern in increasingly secular societies—affects employment, elections, family life and broader social inclusion. Preliminary work in the United States suggests that anti-atheist prejudice stems, in part, from deeply rooted intuitions about religion’s putatively necessary role in morality. However, the cross-cultural prevalence and magnitude—as well as intracultural demographic stability—of such intuitions, as manifested in intuitive associations of immorality with atheists, remain unclear. Here, we quantify moral distrust of atheists by applying well-tested measures in a large global sample (N = 3,256; 13 diverse countries). Consistent with cultural evolutionary theories of religion and morality, people in most—but not all— of these countries viewed extreme moral violations as representative of atheists. Notably, anti-atheist prejudice was even evident among atheist participants around the world. The results contrast with recent polls that do not find self-reported moral prejudice against atheists in highly secular countries, and imply that the recent rise in secularism in Western countries has not overwritten intuitive anti-atheist prejudice. Entrenched moral suspicion of atheists suggests that religion’s powerful influence on moral judgements persists, even among non-believers in secular societies.

They assessed the degree of prejudice by asking people this question:

. . . participants read a description of a man who tortures animals as a child then as an adult exhibits escalating violence culminating with the murder and mutilation of five homeless people. Then, participants are judged whether it is more probable that the villain is (A) a teacher or (B) a teacher who either (manipulated between subjects) is a religious believer or does not believe in god(s).

Since the correct answer must be “A” (there are more “A”s than “B”s, no matter whether Bs are believers are atheists), the relative frequency of the two “B” answers give an idea of the degree of moral prejudice against either believers or atheists. (The idea that “B”s are more probable than “A”s despite their relative paucity is known as “the conjunction fallacy.”) As you might expect, the authors found universal prejudice against atheists. As they note, ” . . . people overall are roughly twice as likely to view extreme immorality as representative of atheists, relative to believers. Importantly, the effects hold even after adjusting for country variability in the strength of intuitive moral prejudice and individual-level variability in demographics.” And this holds whether the countries are mostly Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, or even secular! People just don’t like the godless. But that’s old news.

So the Gervais et al. study tells us something we already know: people are prejudiced against atheists. But that doesn’t answer the question posed, which is “how likely is it that atheists are immoral compared to believers?” That question requires empirical study, and not just college psychology experiments that show how much people cheat on a test after reading either religious or secular passages.

What we need are studies of the per capita rate of criminal behavior by believers versus nonbelievers, somehow controlled for the fact that believers may, for instance, come from milieus that, for different reasons, inculcate them with religiosity and promote moral behavior—a correlation without causation. (It would be much harder to measure general immorality, which is want we really want, versus criminal behavior unless you used answers on psychology tests, a dubious procedure at best.) I’ve heard of studies showing a much lower percentage of atheists in prison than in the general populace, but that is contaminated by both prison “conversions” to faith as well as any correlative factors promoting both religion and immorality.

And we just don’t have those data. We know that whole societies that are nonreligious, like those of northern Europe, can certainly be “good”, so the title question is answered in general. You can be good without God. The empirical question of whether on average you’re less good without God remains unanswered, though as a heathen I’m biased to think that we’re just as good as the faithful, if not better, and certainly have better motives for being moral. (I won’t mention the Euthyphro argument here as it’s not relevant: even if people are wrong in thinking they get their morality from God’s dictates, they could still become more moral simply as a consequence of religiosity.)

The authors recognize that their work isn’t relevant to what the Daily Beast asks:

Our results highlight a stark divergence between lay and scientific perceptions of the relationship between religion and morality. Although religion probably influences many moral outcomes and judgements, core moral instincts appear to emerge largely independent of religion. Additionally, highly secular societies are among the most stable and cooperative on Earth. Nonetheless, our findings reveal widespread suspicion that morality requires belief in a god. For many people, including many atheists, the answer to Dostoevsky’s question “Without God … It means everything is permitted now, one can do anything?” is “Yes”, inasmuch as ‘everything’ refers to acts of extreme immorality.

But a “widespread suspicion” isn’t the same thing as answering the Beast’s title question, and secular humanist James Croft worries that the last sentence could be used to smear atheists as immoral.  Read that sentence on its own, and see if you don’t think it makes a conclusion about real morality rather than perceptions of morality.

The Nature paper’s authors are aware of this issue; as the Beast reports,

When asked about Croft’s concerns, Gervais reiterates that the study is only descriptive of individual intuitions.

“It’s really important to note that our paper focuses on people’s perceptions of a religion-morality link,” he says. “Perhaps most people on Earth intuitively feel that morality requires belief in a god or gods. But at the end of the day, morality is a really complicated beast, built upon various prosocial intuitions and cultural processes, including—perhaps, in some cases—religions.”

. . . “Morality is 100% possible without religious belief,” Gervais clarifies. “Just look at Scandinavia, where you see some of the least religious, most peaceful, most cooperative societies in the history of humankind.” “And yet,” he adds, there is still a paradox. “The intuition that moral evildoers must be atheists seems to persist, even among atheists in largely secular countries.”

But even the last sentence of the second paragraph (“But at the end of the day. . . “) sort of implies that religion has a positive effect on morality. But never mind: the lesson is that a liberal magazine has misled its readers (after all, one decides to read based largely on a title, and readers may not read carefully) by giving this article a title and subtitle that are completely deceptive.

To be fair, the Beast does quote some atheists trying to answer the title question (the question that the Nature study didn’t ask!). Maggie Ardiente, for instance, says this:

“Even though we shouldn’t have to prove ourselves to anyone, it’s important to demonstrate that atheists can be good, just like religious people can be good. And atheists can be bad, just like religious people can be bad. It’s as simple as that, and we should call out prejudice against atheists wherever we see it.”

Monette Richards of  Secular Woman adds:

“People are, in general, good,” insists Richards, who sees the motivation as something shared by all humans regardless of where they stand on religion.

“It’s how we have managed to have civilizations. Most people don’t want to hurt others, regardless of their religious faith. I have worked with non-religious, religious, converts and de-converts, all of them wanting to make the world a better place, not because it will get them into heaven, but because it is, simply put, the right thing to do.”

Clearly, you needn’t be religious to be good, and atheists have and can articulate their reasons for doing good. But that still doesn’t answer the question whether, on average, atheists are as “good”, or moral, as believers.  That question remains unanswered. But even if the answer is “no, believers are better”, the fact that there’s no evidence for the truth of religious claims promotes the patronizing attitude that we should promote a falsehood if it makes people behave better.

And if it does, should we?

Gervais, W. M. et al. 2017. Global evidence of extreme intuitive moral prejudice against atheists. Nature Human Behavior 1, Article number: 0151 (2017); doi:10.1038/s41562-017-0151

Now I am become Professor Death, the destroyer of infants

August 1, 2017 • 9:10 am

You should be able to recognize the source of my title; if not, go here.

At any rate, the emission of outrage about my discussion of considering euthanasia for suffering and hopelessly ill or doomed infants continues, and one thing that marks that outrage is a complete failure to understand my point. (By the way, although I appreciate those who have sympathized with the misguided attacks on me, those attacks don’t bother me, for that’s the consequence of having strong and controversial opinions on a public forum—especially opinions that go against religious dogma. My concern is just to put the idea out there for consideration, and counter the criticisms when they’re illogical or inacurate.)

Now I hope I made my thoughts clear, and I’ll do it again briefly. If an infant is born that is so ill or malformed that it will die soon, or there is no possibility of a worthwhile existence (as with a child in a persistent vegetative state), we should consider putting the newborn out of its suffering or permanent unconsciousness by euthanizing it. I did not say that every sick or deformed infant should be euthanized. Neither did I say that the state should do the killing, for that would have to be a legal act, regulated by strict guidelines and approved by the parents of the child and the attending physicians.

The purpose of that euthanasia is to minimize suffering in infants who are doomed to a short life of pain or will be permanently unconscious with no hope of revival (in the latter case, as in permanent coma with brain death, there may be no pain, but there will be suffering on the part of the parents as well as a laborious and futile attempt to keep alive a body lacking a functioning brain).

This does not mean that infants with Down Syndrome, for instance, should be euthanized at birth. That condition, due to three copies of chromosome 21 (geneticists call it “trisomy 21”), can and usually is detected before birth, at least in countries that do prenatal testing. Parents of a fetus with Down Syndrome can then decide whether or not to get an abortion (over 90% of such diagnoses in Europe result in a choice to abort).  If the condition is detected soon after birth, and the parents don’t want to care for the child, it can be put up for adoption. Further, although Down Syndrome children often have problems with vision and hearing as well as congenital heart disease, most don’t seem to be undergoing unbearable suffering. Many such children live long lives and are loved by their parents: the average lifespan has increased dramatically with better medical care, and was up to 50 years in 2002 (I think it’s now approaching 60). Euthanizing such a newborn should be considered only in the most extreme medical cases, when the child is suffering greatly, if the parents have no desire to care for it, and there is nobody who wants to care for it.  In such cases I would leave the legal guidelines to the experts, but a Down Syndrome child is not what I had in mind when discussing newborns who are candidates for euthanasia.

Nevertheless, this article at the New Americana, a conservative website (yes, I’m “Professor Death”), is a long “rebuke” of my stand by a woman who has a Down Syndrome child and loves him. (Click on screenshot to go to link.)

A few excerpts:

At least one medical professional, Lisa Dennis – a long-time nurse (RN, CCP, LP) and the mother of a disabled child (now a young adult) – isn’t buying into Professor Coyne’s murderous premise. I [author Paige Rogers] shared Coyne’s blog post with Lisa. Her rebuke of the spiritually near-sighted and morally bankrupt professor is both poignant and compelling.

My son with Down Syndrome, though non-verbal, is the most sociable young man at his school. Jeffrey gives all he meets the gifts of kindness, enthusiasm, and warmth. He exudes all the best of humanity. While pursuing confirmation at church, he spiritually inspired all who witnessed his journey. He personifies the quote attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, Spread the Gospel; use words if necessary,” she said.

“The professor states, that when religion vanishes, as it will, so will much of the opposition to both adult and newborn euthanasia. My response is that when religion vanishes, so will mankind. Future generations will judge today’s society, not for the respect for new life (even flawed and brief), but for the brutality of ending so many pre-term lives in the brutal practice of abortion. Cursed be he that taketh reward to slay an innocent person.- Deuteronomy 27:25.”

It goes on like this, extolling Jeffrey’s virtues and the happiness he brought to his parents, and I’m delighted to hear it. It’s a win/win situation, and Ms. Dennis sounds like a great parent.  But she and the authors don’t realize that it’s not someone like Jeffrey whom I see as a candidate for euthanasia. His parents presumably knew through prenatal testing that he had trisomy 21, or knew shortly after birth, and, despite that, chose to raise him. (She should ask herself, though, what if neither the parents nor anyone else wanted to raise him or adopt him?)

Rogers ends her piece like this:

“God gives us many gifts.; one must only open one’s eyes to see them,” said Lisa. I wish Professor Coyne could meet Jeffrey. Perhaps then he could understand the real value, the real worth of a human life, regardless of how “doomed” or how “unhappy” that life may have first appeared to the benevolent professor. 

In fact, I’ve met several children with Down Syndrome, all raised by parents who were caring, even though they may have preferred to have a more normal child. And yes those children have worthwhile lives—worthwhile to both their parents and themselves. But I wish Lisa could see, as she can by going to the pediatric wing of her hospital, the children living with anencephaly—no brain at all—or with the conscious part of their brain destroyed, or in a persistent and irreversible vegetative state. I wish she could see the children with more severe genetic defects who are in pain, kept alive only with feeding tubes and respirators. Are those lives worthwhile? If so, to whom? If the parents find it “worthwhile” to keep those infants alive at all costs, does that outweigh the fact that the infants are either suffering or will never become conscious human beings, tied forever to mechanical devices that breathe for them?

Lisa cites the the Bible to defend her choice, but you don’t need the Bible for that: simple morality based on well being will suffice. But that morality doesn’t hold for suffering and terminally ill infants, and do you really want to cite Deuteronomy to keep a suffering and terminal newborn alive?

My thinking on this issue is evolving, for euthanizing infants is not by any means an easy issue. But I am sure of one thing:  in some cases it is the right thing to do.


From the mailbag (attempted comments on this site). These refer to my original post of July 13, and I’ve left spelling and grammar untouched:

From reader “Mozalbete”:

I’m glad to see people like (((Jerry Coyne))) squirm at the presence of morality, telling others about their feverish nihilistic dreams.

Nothing you say is new. Nothing is revolutionary. The things you say have already existed for millenia. And for those millenia they have been laughed at, because they are a joke. A symptom of lack of meaning in life and theological illiteracy.

It’s nice that these people exist, since this complete lack of decency has been aanounced for many, many centuries. I can add this and other statements to my folder, then show it to atheists and say “we told you so”.

Mozalbete added this in a subsequent response to reader Kevin’s comment that euthanasia should be a critical component of a moral and progressive society:

You should at least try to hide your mental issues

Well, there’s no response here to the moral argument; just ad hominems. The person has nothing.

And from reader BK Lawson:

When all of you people who support murdering babies end up in Hell, let me know how that worked out for you. Playing God is up to God – not you.
Murder is murder, plain and simple.
This is just sick.
Now, let me ask you this – how long will it be until you’re all lobbying to murder sick or injured children that it simply costs too much to heal? Where do you draw the line?
What’s next? Return to the eugenics laws of the early 20th century?
Go ahead and flame me all you want.
Wicked people like you will be ignored.

Again, nothing substantive but Bible-waving. Lawson doesn’t answer the questions of “What is the right thing to do with a suffering and doomed infant that can be kept alive only by extreme measures like respirators, or will die shortly, but in agony? Do you want it to suffer continuously until it dies? Why would putting such a child out of its misery be wrong?”

I’ve still not seen an answer to these questions from any of the critics. But we have seen that many of these views are motivated by religion, which, as it has so many times in the past, tried to block moral progress to satisfy the imagined demands of a nonexistent deity.


More outrage from the Right and the religious about infant euthanasia

July 30, 2017 • 10:00 am

UPDATE: Reader Pyers called my attention to a thoughtful piece by Melanie Phillips that analyzes the Gard case. She argues that the parents’ hopes may have been kept alive by the vociferous, bullying, and life-at-all-costs American Right:

But here’s the really wicked thing about all this. The parents were reinforced in their refusal to accept this tragic situation, and the whole court process pointlessly prolonged, because of the pressure largely emanating from activists and media on the American political right (along with right-to-life campaigners) screaming that a baby was about to be killed by a socialised health care “death panel” enforced by the British government. This campaign led the parents to believe that such pressure could change the court’s mind. And so the parents were reinforced in their refusal to face reality.

. . . I write a great deal about the ideological bullying of the left, the lies published by left-wing media and the inhumanity and irrationality of so much allegedly progressive thinking. But I have never witnessed such concentrated ignorance, arrogance, stupidity and unthinking cruelty as has been displayed by the American political right over the tragic case of Charlie Gard.



The public outrage continues about my post on whether we might consider euthanizing newborn babies with terminal conditions who are suffering horribly. All the articles about it, most of them expressing shock and horror at the notion, have appeared on either right-wing or religious websites, which tells you something. I’ve also received pretty nasty emails and phone calls from people who can’t even bear to consider the idea of putting a suffering, soon-to-be-dead infant out of its misery (see here, and here).

Predictably, my evolutionary biology background is sometimes held responsible, as if my views come from a Darwinian idea that we should help natural selection along, because doing that is good. That criticism, based on the naturalistic fallacy, holds no water, as my views have nothing to do with evolution and everything to do with compassion and philosophy. After all, if I really believed that what evolution does is good and should be promoted, I should have had a passel of children. But I am childless, with the only “Jerry Coynes” being cats.

It’s also clear that the opposition to infant euthanasia is underlain by human exceptionalism: the view that while it’s okay to euthanize terminally ill and suffering adult cats and dogs, who can’t give consent, we can’t do that for suffering and terminally sick infants who also can’t give consent. Much of that exceptionalism comes from religion, but I will grant that some does not. But in what respects are humans qualitatively different from dogs, cats, and other primates? Well, we alone know that we’re going to die, and we also have an idea of futurity, so we look forward to the rest of our lives (well, most of us do). But those aren’t characteristics of newborns, so to me they don’t count as reasons why we need to keep a dying child alive but can euthanize a dying dog. And many human infants share with both adult and infant animals the ability to suffer, but adult animals often exceed newborns in their degree of rationality and sentience. So what makes humans different from other animals are not qualities present in newborns; these “exceptional” qualities appear later in development.

I’ll also grant that not all opposition to euthanasia of infants comes from religion: some comes from the disabled who put themselves in the place of an infant about to be euthanized. The other day I got an outraged call, for instance, from a woman with spina bifida, who accused me of wanting to have her “snuffed out.” But there are degrees of that impairment, and it’s not at all clear that such infants would always be put to death by parents, or that rational guidelines for euthanasia wouldn’t deem such infants as candidates for adoption. Further, one has to consider that those severely disabled people who are now grown up and can consider their situation wouldn’t even be in that position had they been given euthanasia as newborns. This is not an argument for euthanizing every sick or deformed infant, of course, but one has to take the parent’s willingness and ability to give care—often lifelong—to children with severe illness.

At any rate, all I’m proposing is that we should think about this issue, and suggest that it would be merciful in some cases to put terminally ill or severely deformed infants to death rather than allowing them to suffer. I see no point in allowing such suffering to continue when there is no point to it, and when the child is certain or almost certain to die soon.

The case of Charlie Gard in England, which Heather Hastie just discussed on her website, is one example. The infant, born in England about a year ago, began showing signs of illness, and it was discovered that he had a severe form of “encephalomyopathy mitochondrial DNA depletion syndrome” (MDDS), a genetic disease which causes progressive muscle weakness and brain damage.  It’s nearly always terminal, and in Charlie’s case it was certainly terminal. The infant was soon on both a respirator and feeding tube, and had brain damage exacerbated by seizures. His medical team, and then the courts, decided that Charlie should have only palliative care and that there was no hope for his survival.

An American doctor said he had an experimental treatment that might improve Charlie’s condition (see Heather’s post for more information), but it turned out that he didn’t, and the British courts didn’t permit the infant to be moved to the U.S. for this treatment. They further ruled that Charlie, who was by now deaf and had failing kidneys as well as an inability to breathe on his own, should be moved to a hospice-like facility and the ventilator withdrawn. That happened on July 27, and the next day Charlie died.

Note here that British courts ruled that a suffering and terminally ill child should be put out of his suffering by withdrawing breathing assistance. That is a decision to take action that has a predictable consequence: Charlie’s death. What is the moral difference between doing that and putting Charlie to death earlier with an injection? That’s illegal in Britain, but should it be?

Of course, Charlie’s parents wanted to keep him alive, and those wishes should be heavily weighed in such cases, but in the end the courts and medical team overruled the parents’ initial wishes, something I don’t think is legal in America. At any rate, had the parents wished Charlie to be euthanized once his terminal condition was known, I can’t see a rational objection to that which at the same time allows withdrawing respiratory aid.

As Heather points out, Charlie’s parents eventually agreed that withdrawing life support was the right thing to do, but they were opposed by many Christians, including the Vatican. There were even death threats and abusive letters sent to the Great Ormond Street Hospital where Charlie was being treated.

This shows the degree of emotion that such cases arouse, and the resistance to withdrawing life support in even terminal cases. The resistance is even greater if one considers the possibility of euthanasia for a child like Charlie. I think it would have been more merciful for Charlie’s parents to at least have had that possibility. Suppose he had lingered for a day or two after respiration was withdrawn, gasping and fighting for breath before he died? How is that preferable to an injection that peacefully ends his life?

Well, the stories continue to accumulate explicitly or implicitly attacking my suggestion that euthanasia might be the most merciful choice in such cases. Here are a few articles, with excerpts below them (click on screenshots to go to article):

“Does Coyne really believe that we should treat humans like dogs and cats?” Dr. Richard Weikart, a professor at California State University and author of “Hitler’s Religion: The Twisted Beliefs That Drove the Third Reich,” wrote in a column for Evolution News.

“Ultimately, Coyne doesn’t think humans are any different from other animals, and this justifies euthanasia,” National Review columnist Jeff Cimmino wrote.

“Unfortunately, Coyne has a platform to teach students at a respectable university. One can only hope that his students see through and reject his misguided, poorly constructed arguments.”

I don’t even have a platform to teach students: I’m retired and am not allowed to teach any longer. You’d think Newsmax would at least check on this. And of course I’ve never even broached this topic in my introductory evolution course or any graduate or undergraduate course I’ve taught.

Comparison to Hitler’s program are rife, but there is not a chance in the world that any Western country would permit the kind of euthanasia that happened even at the beginning of the Reich’s extermination program. (No relatives, for example, were even asked, and were often lied to about what happened.)

Surprisingly, the Daily Caller‘s piece is straightforward reporting with no implicit editorializing:

Coyne cites Princeton University philosopher Peter Singer and argues that such newborns’ lives should be terminated not only with the withdrawal of care, but also via injection, provided the doctors and parents’ consent.

“After all, we euthanize our dogs and cats when to prolong their lives would be torture, so why not extend that to humans?” reasons the professor. “Dogs and cats, like newborns, can’t make such a decision, and so their caregivers take the responsibility.”

Coyne believes that religion distinguishes between humans, cats and dogs, deeming the former group “special.” He believes that “when religion vanishes, as it will, so will much of the opposition to both adult and newborn euthanasia.”

The Daily Caller News Foundation reached out to Coyne and the University of Chicago for comment, but received none in time for publication.

In contrast, the Right-wing National Review was outraged:

The evolutionary biologist, Jerry Coyne, writes a blog entitled, “Why Evolution is True.” One would think that by choosing that title, Coyne should restrict his discussions to questions of science that touch on questions and explanations about how and why life changes over time.  But Coyne — as many Darwinists do — takes the question beyond science, and extrapolates evolutionary theory into questions of morality, philosophy, and ethics. And now, he is promoting the propriety of infanticide. [JAC: I said NOTHING about evolution, and my views don’t derive from evolution at all.]

. . . Coyne’s odious advocacy is the logical outcome of accepting the following premises: That human life does not have unique value simply and merely because it is human, and; That eliminating suffering is the overriding purpose of society — allowing the elimination of the sufferer. Many scientists bemoan the fact that so many people refuse to accept evolution as a fact. Without getting into that controversy, perhaps they would be better off ruing the fact that ever since Darwin published The Origin of Species, so many of the promoters of that view also couple it with anti-humanism and a moral philosophy that was judged a crime against humanity at Nuremberg.

There’s the Nazi comparison again, as well as a gross distortion of my views. And note that this magazine, which I thought was respectable, avers that whether evolution is true is a “controversy.” Note to National Review: are you really going to argue that there’s some doubt about whether evolution happened? I wouldn’t dig my trench there were I you!

More excoriation came from the site of Milo Yiannopoulos, a man whose right to speak I’ve defended several times. And I defend his right to criticize me, even using a misguided and kneejerk rejection of euthanasia. The piece doesn’t say much, but does include some feedback from Twitter. I’ve included a few tweets.

Assisted suicide? That can’t even happen in infants!!!!  Here are some tweets:

I want to ask these people again: if you had an infant who was suffering with a terminal condition, and might live with that suffering for days or even months, and that death after suffering was almost certainly the outcome, why would you prefer it to suffer instead of ending its life swiftly and painlessly? What is the point?

And, of course, many of these sites, as well as their readers, didn’t even consider the nuances and qualifications I discussed about the idea of infant euthanasia. Their attitude was this:

A neurosurgeon on medicine, euthanasia, and God

July 20, 2017 • 11:00 am

I’m off to my GP as I injured my shoulder, most likely acquiring bursitis, and will probably get a cortisone shot, which a friend just informed me “really hurts!” Now what was the point of telling me that? It adds no value to my day except a soupçon of fear (I’m not afraid of needles, but I don’t like pain).

As we age, our bodies gradually accumulate infirmities and scars: now I have two crooked fingers and a ruined toenail. (The day I moved into my office, the building manager and I had to move my huge and heavy oak desk out of the elevator, since the movers would only take it to the building entrance. It dropped onto my foot, completely severing the bone of the left big toe, causing me to faint, and then to visit the hospital where they pulled off the toenail with pliers, causing me to faint again. The doctor said the nailbed was screwed, and the toenail would always be deformed. True!)

But enough of these infirmities: this is by way of saying that this is the last post for today unless Grania is kind enough to start an open discussion thread.  I simply call your attention, via reader Paul, to an interview in the Guardian with neurosurgeon and author Henry Marsh, who wrote a highly acclaimed memoir called Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery . Has anyone read it?

It’s a nice interview and I’ll just excerpt two bits:

There has been a slew of books about that old-fashioned idea of what makes “a good death” recently. Do you welcome them?
I think Atul Gawande is a very good writer, but I didn’t get on with his book Being Mortal that much. He only very grudgingly says that maybe doctor-assisted suicide is a good idea. I am a great proponent, to the extent I feel I would take it up myself – though you never know, when push comes to shove, what you will decide. But it does seem to me increasingly that the two markers of a civilised society are bicycles and doctor-assisted suicide. It is not about licensing doctors to kill people. It is about allowing everyone with mental capacity to make a choice about how they would like to end.

I guess religion still partly gets in the way of that idea
It seems to me that the only rational case for theism is that God is a complete bastard. I have seen a lot of children die with inoperable brain tumours, particularly one horrible one called a diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma, for which there is no treatment. When I go out to Ukraine their parents are lining up to see me in the hope of a miracle. It just seems the proof for God is so very thin. “There’s a friend for little children above the bright blue sky.” I mean, really?

. . . You clearly left the NHS [National Health Service] dispirited. Can you see grounds for optimism?
I am afraid I don’t. Politicians seem unable to stand up to the public and say: if you want better health care you are going to have to pay for it. Instead they still say it is all about management and reorganisation. The evidence is clearly out there in the other wealthy European countries, though: we spend far less on healthcare in both absolute and per capita terms than they do, and almost across the board you see that in the relative outcomes.

Marsh has a newish book, Admissions: A Life in Brain Surgery. 

What are your moral foundations? Take the test!

July 13, 2017 • 12:30 pm

If you go to this site, you can take what I’m told is Jon Haidt’s “Moral Foundations” test: a series of 36 questions telling you how people behaved in “moral dilemma” situations and then asking you to decide whether that behavior was good or bad (there are three degrees of goodness and of badness). Some of the questions you’ll be familiar with if you’ve read Haidt’s work, e.g: someone cleans her toilet with an American flag. Is that good or bad, and to what degree?

I took the test, and here are my results:

I haven’t the slightest idea what it means, as I’m not that familiar with Haidt’s work, but I guess I like the fact that I have a high “care” and “fairness” rating, a low “authority” rating, and that my morality is that of “left liberal”. I’m not very loyal, though!

The site explains what each of these six axes tells you, but I couldn’t be arsed to look in detail.

Your turn!


h/t: Charleen

Should one be allowed to euthanize severely deformed or doomed newborns?

July 13, 2017 • 9:00 am

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 light 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.

This is one area in which philosophy has a big contribution to make (and science can play an ancillary role, telling us the likelihood that a child will survive such conditions). Peter Singer’s utilitarian views on the issue can be seen in a 2005 op-ed at the Los Angeles Times, “Pulling back the curtain on the mercy killing of newborns“.  This is apparently already allowed in the Netherlands. As Singer wrote:

In Thursday’s New England Journal of Medicine, two doctors from the University Medical Center Groningen in the Netherlands outline the circumstances in which doctors in their hospital have, in 22 cases over seven years, carried out euthanasia on newborn infants. All of these cases were reported to a district attorney’s office in the Netherlands. None of the doctors were prosecuted.

Eduard Verhagen and Pieter Sauer divide into three groups the newborns for whom decisions about ending life might be made.

The first consists of infants who would die soon after birth even if all existing medical resources were employed to prolong their lives.

In the second group are infants who require intensive care, such as a respirator, to keep them alive, and for whom the expectations regarding their future are “very grim.” These are infants with severe brain damage. If they can survive beyond intensive care, they will still have a very poor quality of life.

The third group includes infants with a “hopeless prognosis” and who also are victims of “unbearable suffering.” For example, in the third group was “a child with the most serious form of spina bifida,” the failure of the spinal cord to form and close properly. Yet infants in group three may no longer be dependent on intensive care.

It is this third group that creates the controversy because their lives cannot be ended simply by withdrawing intensive care. Instead, at the University Medical Center Groningen, if suffering cannot be relieved and no improvement can be expected, the physicians will discuss with the parents whether this is a case in which death “would be more humane than continued life.” If the parents agree that this is the case, and the team of physicians also agrees — as well as an independent physician not otherwise associated with the patient — the infant’s life may be ended.

. . . One thing is undisputed: Infants with severe problems are allowed to die in the U.S. These are infants in the first two of the three groups identified by Verhagen and Sauer. Some of them — those in the second group — can live for many years if intensive care is continued. Nevertheless, U.S. doctors, usually in consultation with parents, make decisions to withdraw intensive care. This happens openly, in Catholic as well as non-Catholic hospitals.

. . .I believe the Groningen protocol to be based on the sound ethical perception that the means by which death occurs is less significant, ethically, than the decision that it is better that an infant’s life should end. If it is sometimes acceptable to end the lives of infants in group two — and virtually no one denies this — then it is also sometimes acceptable to end the lives of infants in group three.

For these views Singer has been demonized by disability rights advocates, who have called for his firing and disrupted his talks (see my post about that here). All for just raising a reasonable ethical question that should be considered and discussed! After all, fifty years ago the same kind of opprobrium would have been leveled at those calling for voluntary euthanasia (assisted suicide) of terminally ill adults, but now that’s legal in several places in the world; as Wikipedia notes, “As of June 2016, human euthanasia is legal in the Netherlands, Belgium, Colombia, and Luxembourg. Assisted suicide is legal in Switzerland, Germany, Japan, Canada, and in the US states of Washington, Oregon, Colorado, Vermont, Montana, Washington DC, and California.”  (I’ve heard from several doctors that humane euthanasia of adults is in fact practiced in the US: doctors will give patients an overdose of morphine to ease their suffering, knowing it will kill them.)

This change in views about euthanasia and assisted suicide are the result of a tide of increasing morality in our world, a tide described and explained by Steve Pinker in his superb book The Better Angels of Our Nature (yes, it’s long, but you really must read it!). It’s time to add to the discussion the euthanasia of newborns, who have no ability or faculties to decide whether to end their lives. Although discussing the topic seems verboten now, I believe some day the practice will be widespread, and it will be for the better. After all, we euthanize our dogs and cats when to prolong their lives would be torture, so why not extend that to humans? Dogs and cats, like newborns, can’t make such a decision, and so their caregivers take the responsibility. (I have done this myself to a pet, as have many of you, and firmly believe it’s the right thing to do. Our pain at making such a decision is lessened knowing that dogs and cats, like newborns, don’t know about death and thus don’t fear it.)

The reason we don’t allow euthanasia of newborns is because humans are seen as special, and I think this comes from religion—in particular, the view that humans, unlike animals, are endowed with a soul. It’s the same mindset that, in many places, won’t allow abortion of fetuses that have severe deformities. When religion vanishes, as it will, so will much of the opposition to both adult and newborn euthanasia.

My view, then, aligns with Singer’s: a child falling in any of the classes above should be considered as a subject for euthanasia, and it should be legal if the doctors and parents concur. As for the “slippery slope” argument—that this will lead to Nazi-like eugenics—well, this hasn’t come to pass in places where assisted suicide or euthanasia of adults is legal. Since the newborn can’t decide, it’s up to the parents, with advice (and maybe consent) of the doctors.

The pain of these newborns, and of making these decisions, is evident in a piece in yesterday’s New York Times’ “The Stone” section (a philosophy column), provocatively called “You should not have let your baby die.” (What the author means is that “you should have killed your baby.”) It describes the situation of parents whose baby was born with “trisomy 18”: three rather than the normal two copies of chromosome 18. Trisomy 21, three copies of the smaller 21st chromosome, is what produces Down Syndrome. But unlike the Down case, trisomy 18, involving imbalance of a larger chromosome, produces a severe condition, with most children dying horrible deaths soon after birth. A few, though, can live into their 20s and 30s.

Therein lies the dilemma. Should you take that chance? The child described by author Gary Comstock, a philosophy professor at North Carolina State University, was in dire shape, forced to breathe on a respirator and unable to survive without one. The odds that that child could live in a decent state were nil. After agonizing over what to do, the parents decided to take the legal course of withdrawing care: removing the respirator. The child slowly suffocates. I want to put up the end of the column, as it shows the case for euthanasia of a newborn like this:

The nurse comes in, mute. You look at him, sleeping. He seems at peace. You nod your head. She gently pulls the tube. It slides out quickly, as though he were helping to expel it. Without his lifeline, he does not move. A minute later, his eyes open. It is the first time you have seen them. His head jerks slightly forward. He does not cry. He gasps silently for breath. His eyes close. You almost yell for the nurse, to beg her to put it back in. To keep from doing so, you pray, arguing with God that letting him die is best for him. After five minutes, his face pales, then turns a sickly purple. His tiny chest convulses irregularly in an unsuccessful attempt to draw air into the lungs. After 20 minutes, he lies still. His fingers turn gray.

Thirty minutes. There are no visible signs of life. You rock his limp body as tears fall on the blue blanket. You wonder what sort of beast you are. Forty-five minutes. Grandma looks in, ashen faced, seeing in a glance that it is over. Shortly your wife appears. She immediately takes her son’s body in her arms and coddles him. She sits there with him for three hours.

You should not have let your baby die. You should have killed him.

This thought occurs to you years later, thinking about the gruesome struggle of his last 20 minutes. You are not sure whether it makes sense to talk about his life, because he never seemed to have the things that make a life: thoughts, wants, desires, interests, memories, a future. But supposing that he had thoughts, his strongest thought during those last minutes certainly appeared to be: “This hurts. Can’t someone help it stop?” He didn’t know your name, but if he had, he would have said: “Daddy? Please. Now.”

It seems the medical community has few options to offer parents of newborns likely to die. We can leave our babies on respirators and hope for the best. Or remove the hose and watch the child die a tortured death. Shouldn’t we have another choice? Shouldn’t we be allowed the swift humane option afforded the owners of dogs, a lethal dose of a painkiller?

For years you repress the thought. Then, early one morning, remembering again those last minutes, you realize that the repugnant has become reasonable. The unthinkable has become the right, the good. Painlessly. Quickly. With the assistance of a trained physician.

You should have killed your baby.