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Category: Philosophy

The philosophy of science, empiricism, a priori reasoning, epistemology, and so on.

January 31, 2010 | 37 Comments

Tim Tebow’s Super Bowl Ad and the Washington Post Editorial

Very delicate ground, here.

I want to be as precise as I know how in discussing the language used in today’s Washington Post editorial about the upcoming Tim Tebow ad, while trying to avoid the extreme emotions that usually accompany this topic.

The ad is said to feature Tebow and his mother. Tebow’s mother was being treated for amoebic dysentery during her pregnancy and it was feared that the drugs used to treat her illness would cause grave harm to Tebow. She was advised to have an abortion. Obviously, she did not.

This is not just an anti-abortion ad, it is also a reminder that doctors can be wrong. Tebow’s mother makes a statement that having her baby was the correct choice. The implication is that this decision would be correct for some or all other women.

I do not want to discuss the politics of the abortion debate. So it is immaterial to our central topic whether it is right or wrong for CBS to run this ad.

Clarity must be paramount: let us carefully define our terms. The most common euphemism abortion supporters use is “pro-choice.” They mean by this that all women should be allowed to choose to kill their fetuses or not to kill them.

The emphasis is on choice, but it is the act which is at contention. The pro-abortion euphemism is meant to, and does, distract attention away from the act. For our case, this is important because of the way the Post uses this euphemism, about which more in a moment.

Anti-abortion supporters come closer to acknowledging the act of abortion with their slogan of “pro-life.” They mean by this that no woman should be allowed to choose to kill her fetus. The proper word is “kill” because the fetus is alive.

There are, as we all know, gradations and subtleties of both positions. Some anti-abortion people would make an exception and allow abortion if certain conditions held. And some pro-abortion people would disallow abortions if other conditions held. These subtleties are immaterial to our central point.

Which is this: We can take it that all agree that to murder is wrong and is a punishable act. But one can only murder another human. Anti-abortion supporters hold that a fetus becomes human at the moment of conception. Pro-abortion supporters hold that a fetus does not become human until it is delivered from its mother.

This is the point to argue. All other matters fade to insignificance or are political distractions. For example, the Post reports that “Erin Matson, the National Organization for Women’s new vice president, called the Tebow spot ‘hate masquerading as love.'” This is unintelligible philosophically, however revealing it may be politically. Thus, we will ignore it.

Now, if a fetus does become human at conception, then no woman may legally “choose” to kill it, for if she does, it is plainly murder. If a fetus does not become human until birth, then a woman may choose to kill it and cannot be punished for doing so.

It is, of course, possible and coherent to define the point at which a fetus becomes human at times intermediate of conception and birth, but these definitions are presently irrelevant to our discussion.

The Post editorial—which supports the “right” for Tebow to air his ad—is a typical example of muddled thinking that follows this debate. They say, “abortion is as tough and courageous a decision as is the decision to continue a pregnancy.” This is false. If a fetus is not human, it is no act of courage to undergo a medical procedure from which there is little risk of harm. But if a fetus is human, then the act of abortion is not courageous but villainous.

The writers (Frances Kissling and Kate Michelman) then descend into, what must be, an unspoken desire on their part. They say, “Pam Tebow was indeed courageous and had the legal right to choose…” Courageous she may have been, but the implication is that she might not have had the “legal right to choose.”

Since she was determined to have her child, and if she did not have the right to choose, then the choice whether to abort or not would have been made by others. Evidently, the Post is imagining that doctors should have that right, or that they would be in the best condition to judge, what defines a human.

In the same vein, while showing that support for abortion has decreased, the Post, repeats a common non-sequitur, “We read about successful fetal surgery; we don’t read about women dying in pools of blood on their bathroom floors after botched abortions, as we did when the procedure was illegal.”

If a fetus is human, then the harm caused a woman from a self-induced or botched abortion is not mitigating. She has still committed, or has been complicit to, a murder and does not have our sympathy. And if a fetus is not human, then the question shifts to one of stupidity (on the woman’s part) or possibly medical malpractice (on the part of whomever botched the abortion).

Doctors are in no better moral position than any of us to say what is or is not a human. But medical technology has evidently been partly responsible for the decrease in abortion support. Many, after seeing a colorful, three-dimensional picture of a young fetus, have concluded that the fetus is human. It is rational to suppose that these sorts of images and anecdotes will become more vivid and that support for abortion will continue to wane as more people conclude that fetuses are human.

The Post‘s writers tacitly admit this, and suggest some pro-abortion group produce a competing ad.

We’d go with a 30-second spot, too. The camera focuses on one woman after another, posed in the situations of daily life: rushing out the door in the morning for work, flipping through a magazine, washing dishes, teaching a class of sixth-graders, wheeling a baby stroller. Each woman looks calmly into the camera and describes her different and successful choice: having a baby and giving it up for adoption, having an abortion, having a baby and raising it lovingly. Each one being clear that making choices isn’t easy, but that life without tough choices doesn’t exist.

This brings us to probability and counterfactuals, which are unfortunately confusing subjects. Suppose a woman has an abortion. We cannot know, but can only guess, what her life would have been like had she not had the abortion. As the time from the abortion increases, the guesses become vaguer and more improbable. At best, then, any personal story it is weak evidence for the benefits of abortion.

However, we can generously suppose that the consequences of abortion are positive and as rich as you like. If a fetus (at whatever point in its development) is not human, then showing a post-abortion woman living a glamorous life would only serve to increase the number of abortions (try arguing the opposite), something few claim they support.

But if a fetus (from conception) is human, then showing a woman benefiting from her crime, and encouraging others to do the same, is evil.

January 18, 2010 | 14 Comments

Professions To Become Less Elitist In England

More from our Equality series: Just a sketch today; a longer article on this topic is (I hope to God) forthcoming.

England is about to—it hurts to type this—Unleash Aspiration!

According to the Daily Mail:

Labour will declare war on the benefits of a middle class childhood today as Gordon Brown spells out the latest steps in the government’s equality crusade.

Top lawyers, accountants, bankers and doctors will be ordered to draw up plans to make sure that their professions become less elitist – so they employ fewer middle class children.

Professionals will be told that poor children must be helped into the top jobs, at the expense of those who have benefited from their personal connections or education.

Universities will also be told to give the benefit of the doubt to poorer pupils when they are offering places and gloss over poorer marks if the applicant attended less illustrious schools.

The official report shows that the overwhelming majority of senior judges, doctors, CEOs, and such forth folk have gone to good schools. But only about 1 in 15 of “ordinary” Englanders have.

This represents an intolerable inequality. A wrong which must be lefted!

Giving an edge to poor people, who suffer undeservedly says the Brit Prime Minister, will “unleash a wave of social mobility.” He didn’t say if this “mobility” was the lemmings over the cliff kind.

You will be an ass if you claim that I and other detractors of the “unleashing” plan desire that the poor remain poor or that membership in a lower class should bar entry into a higher class.

You will also err if you forget that causality is a double-headed arrow.

It is true—nobody disputes this—that some poor people if, given a (monetary) chance, will prosper and become non-poor. They too can join the guilty class who look upon the poor as if they needed benevolent guidance. It is not even close to being proven that more poor people will become non-poor because of government, and not personal, intervention.

It is also true that some people are poor because, for whatever reason, they are incapable. Further, this incapability is be a permanent feature of some humans. Not some class of humans: I mean individuals.

James Fitzjames Stephen:

To establish by law rights and duties which assume that people are equal when they are not is like trying to make clumsy feet look handsome by the help of tight boots.

A mistaken assumption in the “Unleasing” report is that membership in the lower or upper classes is permanent. To emphasize: this is false. Membership is generational to some extent, but it is anything but fixed. Your author started with the clothes on his back, an (earned) monthly paycheck in the mid three digits, a wife (who didn’t work or drive), a pair of tongs and a used iron (given as wedding gifts). He is now, via hard work and because he was lucky with his genes, able to drink the finest beers.

The Left Honourable Alan Milburn, MP, ex-owner of a “radical” bookstore, authored “Unleashing.” He wants to “ensure everyone has the chance to fulfil their potential”. But this is not a desirable goal, in general. The world would have been better off had Lenin, Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao, etc., had not fulfilled their potentials. Best would have been if they died poor, uneducated, miserable, and obscure and unheeded.

Milburn also wants everybody to have a job which “rewarding and fulfilling.” By which he means a “professional” job—the kind which are populated by those who are waited on, in the finest restaurants, by the “unprofessional.”

What always comes as a shock to Milburnites is that not everybody has the same idea of what a “rewarding and fulfilling” life is. Some people find bliss in hanging drywall, or in driving a truck, or being the assistant manager of a local grocery. Still more find happiness in their family.

And not every judge, CEO, doctor, and other “professional” is feeling fine. Many will die unfulfilled, unrewarded, and unloved.

It isn’t at all clear who is doing better off, especially in countries like England (and the USA) where being “poor” means having only two large screen TVs and eating too much (all obesity “education” programs I’ve seen are aimed at the poor and lower class; so are all the free food efforts).

Nobody is claiming money isn’t nice, but it sure as hell isn’t everything. The paradox is that the guilty rich are certain it is everything. They think everybody judges life by the same standards they do. The “availability bias”, I think it’s called.

What really knocks these characters is that many of us would be happiest if we were just left alone by every group that says it “cares” for us.

This wasn’t entirely coherent. Did I accidentally buy decaffeinated? So, more on this coming…

January 13, 2010 | 9 Comments

Conservatives Are Dumber Than Leftists

In the Controversies From The Past Department, we recall this story. (I was reminded of it after reading an article at

Six years ago, a list was published that showed the political affiliation of the Duke “All Men Are Potentially Rapists” University faculty. Some departments, like History, had no Republicans; the others had large majorities of Democrats.

The list caused such a stink that professors were compelled to respond publicly. They held a public forum to discuss “How Could This Happen?”

At that forum, the chairman of the Philosophy department, Robert Brandon, and therefore a man who would be expected to have at least a passing familiarity with logic said this:

If, as John Stuart Mill said, stupid people are generally conservative, then there are lots of conservatives we will never hire. Mill’s analysis may go some way towards explaining the power of the Republican party in our society and the relative scarcity of Republicans in academia. Players in the NBA tend to be taller than average. There is a good reason for this. Members of academia tend to be a bit smarter than average. There is a good reason for this too.

He later claimed that he was joking.

In response in the Duke Chronicle, Mary Bejan, a Duke parent, pwned Brandon so badly that the man still has trouble sitting:

Any student of Elementary Logic knows that J.S. Mill’s observation that “Stupid people are generally conservative” does not imply that “People who are conservative are generally stupid.” Such an inference would be a formal fallacy. Even if this were not the case, the meanings of the terms “conservative” and “liberal” have changed since the time of Mr. Mill, as I am sure Professor Brandon knows, however entertaining he may find Mill’s observation to be in the present context. Many of today’s so-called “conservatives” would not be conservative in Mill’s sense, but “liberal” in the classical sense of the term…

There could be a “benign” explanation for the homogeneous nature of the political affiliations of Duke liberal arts faculty (e.g. one might choose to register Democrat or Independent regardless of political philosophy in order to vote in the more meaningful primary races in North Carolina).

However, rather than simply resting with the observation that he did not “know” and did not “care” about the politics of his colleagues, Professor Brandon seems to imply that they could not be conservative as they are not stupid. They are, in fact, “smarter than average.” It is not difficult to draw the conclusion that he would assume an individual to be stupid if he knew him or her to be conservative and therefore would not consider hiring that person, perhaps without even considering the value of their scholarly output.

Other, non-benign, explanations are: conservatives do not bother applying for jobs at Duke; they do apply but are rejected by current faculty on ideological grounds; they apply and are hired but skedaddle once they discover the outrageous zealotry of their colleagues; they apply and are hired but leave depressed after realizing too many kids don’t belong at university; they apply and are hired and then lie about their affiliation to get along.

And there is another point of error in Brandon misfired jocularity: he assumes he and his colleagues are intelligent. The only proof he offered for that assumption is his elementary mistake in reasoning. Then we recall that Duke, in its “diversity” efforts, hired Houston Baker, one of the eighty-eight professors who signed a letter condemning the Duke lacrosse team (regular readers will recall that I emailed Baker asking about this: he has not yet responded).

(Though, in Duke’s favor, they have a lot of Bayesian statisticians, who are all highly intelligent by definition.)

Note: Brandon is still at the Philosophy Department at Duke, where he announces, humorously, that he is teaching the Symbolic Logic course. His department is suspending graduate admissions for next year. The Duke lacrosse team press-lynching took place two years after the diversity forum.