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Posted: 19 February 2007 06:17 AM   [ Ignore ]  
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On p.177 of The End of Faith Harris says that "Many of us consider human fetuses in the first trimester to be more or less like rabbits: having imputed to them a range of happiness and suffering that does not grant them full status in our moral community.  At present, this seems rather reasonable."  I realize this is its own topic which couldn't possibly be covered without its own full book, but isn't it maybe one of the most important aspects of Harris' underlying theory—that we can prove there is a morality independent of a theology and thereby free ourselves of the irrational dominion of the religious, regardless of their stripe?  I'd like to see Harris do more with it.  It doesn't stand well alone.  What about people with misery-inducing mental illnesses?  If they have no capacity for happiness should we kill them?  And can a 7 month-fetus really be happy?  Or anticipate their future happiness?  Or fear their death?  Yet most of us think it wrong to abort them.  To free ourselves of religion's tyrrany, we must establish an alternative moral authority.  Harris seems like one of the people capable of that.  Can he take up that mantel?  And what does he say to this particular bar of "a range of happiness and suffering" as a way to confer moral standing?  Please elaborate.

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Posted: 19 February 2007 06:27 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]  
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[quote author=“Amy C”]I realize this is its own topic which couldn’t possibly be covered without its own full book, but isn’t it maybe one of the most important aspects of Harris’ underlying theory—that we can prove there is a morality independent of a theology and thereby free ourselves of the irrational dominion of the religious, regardless of their stripe?

One of the things that Harris and a couple of other authors do fairly well is make a case that the morality represented via what you call “theology” (at least the Biblical OT and NT version and the Koran) is at best a hodge-podge of conflicting messages, and at worst a draconian morass of violent intolerance. Many of us think it should be easy to come up with morality which improves on the dyspeptic ruminations of a bunch of sheepherders and weed eaters barely out of the Stone Age.

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Posted: 19 February 2007 07:28 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]  
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SaltCreek,

Many of us think it should be easy to come up with morality which improves on the dyspeptic ruminations of a bunch of sheepherders and weed eaters barely out of the Stone Age.

What are your suggestions for a viable morality, in a nutshell?

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Posted: 19 February 2007 07:41 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]  
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What are your suggestions for a viable morality, in a nutshell?

Parable, if your stone-age morality is all that’s keeping you from murdering my grandchildren, by all means keep it!  I would never suggest an alternative for you.

However, if you would like to consider a “nutshell,” how about “Do not do unto others what you would not have others do unto you.”

Sound familiar?  It looks similar, but is really much better than that other one, and predates it by about 500 years.

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Posted: 19 February 2007 07:57 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]  
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Amy C,

You quoted Sam…

“Many of us consider human fetuses in the first trimester to be more or less like rabbits: having imputed to them a range of happiness and suffering that does not grant them full status in our moral community. At present, this seems rather reasonable.”

And then you said…

To free ourselves of religion’s tyrrany, we must establish an alternative moral authority.

In an attempt to provide a context in which this moral authority may be established, here’s my take on abortion:

Abortion centers on what constitutes personhood. Any dividing line between non-person and person is arbitrary. If we disagree on where that line is, what one person sees as a routine medical procedure another persons sees as murder.

Abortion is legal because fetuses, although recognized as being human in nature and living, are not recognized as persons and hence do not possess rights that must be protected. This leads to questions of personhood, and, more importantly, of humanity.

Unprecedented advances in biotechnology demand that we re-examine not just what it means to be a person, but what it means to be human. For example, it’s not clear why a human clone, successfully delivered, would or would not be a person; is it simply by virtue of having a full complement of human DNA or is something else involved? Or, what if all the DNA is not human, as in a chimera, i.e. a genetic blend between species? What fraction of human DNA is necessary to legally qualify for personhood? Is DNA really the issue? The answers will be determined by what we choose, as will the fate of many yet-to-be-created organisms, or persons, as the case may be.

In like manner, any point in fetal development selected to define personhood is, at best, arbitrary. Some hold that personhood begins at conception and others at implantation, while the law holds it is established at birth, whatever that means. With the advent of the modern c-section, our notions of what constitutes “birth” had to be revised. Note that in so called “partial birth” abortions, most of the fetus is actually outside the mother at the time the fetus is destroyed, although at 5 or 6 months, the fetus is not viable. But what if modern medicine learns how to keep a 3- or 4- month preemie alive until it is viable, what then?

Abortion is controversial because notions of personhood are either relative or absolute, and these are almost always mutually exclusive and deeply held moral convictions. Yet, history repeatedly shows that relativism regarding personhood can lead to dehumanization, which by definition, distinguishes an “us” from a “them”. This distinction has always preceded killing on grand scales.  (Indeed, in religiously motivated atrocities, there is always an “us” and a “them”.)  Hence the argument that abortion is genocide. Ironically, it is the perpetrators of genocide who are dehumanized, not their victims, by the self-induced alienation from humanity needed to perpetuate the psychological distinction between themselves and their victims.

In the case of abortion, the fetus, person or not, has been distinguished from humanity to the extent that each year there are 1.25 million abortions in the US and 50 million worldwide. The question here is not what a fetus is or is not, but rather, what “we” have become in order to kill so many of “them”.

The decision about personhood goes beyond abortion or choice. Our understanding of personhood determines not only who we are, but also what we will become. I hope that given a choice about what it means to be a person, those who currently qualify will choose wisely.

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Posted: 19 February 2007 08:07 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]  
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hampsteadpete,

...if you would like to consider a "nutshell," how about "Do not do unto others what you would not have others do unto you." 

And living by this example, you say:

...if your stone-age morality is all that’s keeping you from murdering my grandchildren, by all means keep it! I would never suggest an alternative for you.

Such restraint toward others is clearly superior to actually doing anything FOR another person out of kindness or respect.

Sound familiar? It looks similar, but is really much better than that other one, and predates it by about 500 years.

Exactly how is it “better” and do you have any references on the 500 year claim?

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Posted: 19 February 2007 09:08 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]  
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While in theory your concerns about the dehuminization of fetuses seems quite reasonable, pregnancy is also a unique situation.  Shouldn’t every child born be wanted?  And if they aren’t wanted, should there be no escape hatch at all for a woman?  What about rape?  Incest?  Severe fetal deformities?  If you have children, you know that once one is born, your life is forever radically transformed.  You shouldn’t kill other people, but you can also walk away from EVERYONE else in your life who you do not want in it.  You are not bound to support, caretake, sacrifice hourly for anyone but your child.  You can’t (or many people with a heart won’t) walk away from this obligation.  Terminating that child’s existence when it is still a matter of a few thousand cells may be the most merciful thing to do at times.

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Posted: 19 February 2007 09:49 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]  
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parable:

I don’t want to spend too much time on this, but I will point out two things from your post:

Firstly, a human clone would, in essence, be an identical twin of his/her clone that was simply born later. If we grant rights and humanity to identical twins (and we do - I am one, after all!) then there’s absolutely no reason why we souldn’t grant rights to a human clone.

Also, regarding chimera, I had always thought that they were a blend of two different people, resulting from a rare event in the womb where twins fuse very early on in development. A human/other animal hybrid might be called a chimera as well, but believe that the decision on whether or not a chimera like this would have rights would be based on how ‘sentient’ it is. I mean, chimpanzees are extremely intelligent and can apparently feel every emotion we do, but we don’t grant them any special rights. I think the creation of any sort of hybrid would force us to think long and hard about how we treat other animals at the moment (for example, I think most animals should have far more rights than they do now).

EDIT: Yeah, here’s the wikipedia article on chimera -   . Apparenty it happens more often in in vitro fertilization than in ordinary conception. It’s not limited to humans, either. A pretty interesting phenomenom, by all accounts…It can also occure when two fraternal twins fuse in the blastocyst stage, creating a ‘tetragametic chimera’ (four gametes - two sperm, two eggs). I’m wondering, how would this work out with regards to ‘souls’?

It also seems as if someone as made a rabbit/human chimera (intraspecies chimera) that can’t develop past a few days. Wow, this is interesting stuff!

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Posted: 19 February 2007 12:12 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]  
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[quote author=“Parable”]Exactly how is it “better” and do you have any references on the 500 year claim?

I don’t understand the arguments of theists, especially “people of the book”, and I suppose I never shall. Even your questions come out sounding like arguments, sanctimonious and smug as ever. And this skepticism about the 500 year claim is something you could easily satisfy on your own with a few minutes of research. Like it or not, it popped up number one with a bullet in my search based on combining terms “500 years” and “do not do unto others”. You are displaying more of your querulous, tedious faux naiveté here.

Is it your contention that the sad state of the world is a result of people not adopting the morality presented in your “book”? Or just picking and choosing cafeteria style? Since the Christian Bible is, as I point out, at best a hodgepodge of conflicting instructions and ambiguous scope (w.r.t., say, covenants), it is going to be very hard to accept your particular diagnosis as to what is, in the end, responsible for the currently sad state of the world, should it be founded in any sort of theology.

It appears that most of the crap in the world is, in fact, due to people doing unto other people precisely what they hope to avoid having done unto them. Yet you are here, persistently and vigorously implying that the Confucian alternative is a “failed policy”. Simply declining to inflict your smug sanctimony upon those who have not invited it would be a great start for you down the road to understanding this one.

Smug sanctimony, Exhibit A:

[quote author=“Parable”]Such restraint toward others is clearly superior to actually doing anything FOR another person out of kindness or respect.

If withholding your kindness is not something you would like to see returned to you in kind, by all means, don’t withhold. It may come to naught, but it won’t be because you didn’t try. Placing obligations on other people by behaving toward them as if you are obliged is tricky. They may not care to suck up to you just because you are so good at sucking up, yourself. Kindness is not scrimshaw. We are simply not, with respect to one another, shopkeepers and customers in each other’s spiritual gift shops.

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Posted: 19 February 2007 01:51 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]  
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Parable wrote:

In like manner, any point in fetal development selected to define personhood is, at best, arbitrary.

Personhood begins when it has it’s own body instead of camping out in someone else’s body.

Unless you want to turn our system of property laws upside down and give ownership of property to temporary residents.

In more than 20 years of arguing with Pro-Lifers, not one has ever addressed that issue.

The Christian argument is pretty clear. The Potential is more valuable than the actual. A potentially Christian fetus is far more valuable than its mother, who may not be a Christian. It stems from Christianity’s basic premise that the potential of an afterlife is far more valuable than actual life.

A Pro-Lifer who would force a woman to give residence to a fetus would be outraged if he was forced to give residence to a homeless person.

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Posted: 19 February 2007 06:30 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]  
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Joad,

Personhood begins when it has it’s own body instead of camping out in someone else’s body.

Unless you want to turn our system of property laws upside down and give ownership of property to temporary residents.

In the context of the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, it has been asked, “If killing an unborn baby by accident is manslaughter, what is killing it on purpose?”  The idea here is that intent should not be relevant and abortion should be manslaughter, and that the present arrangements are hypocritical with respect to the status of the fetus being dependent upon the intent of the agent responsible for its demise.

But, this Act is not predicated on the notion that the fetus is somehow a person, it is predicated on the notion that the mother alone has the right to determine the fate of the fetus.  Under the law, a fetus has no rights because a fetus is not recognized as a person.  To underscore the rights of the mother, specific provisions of the Act prevent prosecution of the mother in any case, even if the mother survives a suicide attempt, but the fetus does not. 

What some call “hypocrisy” with respect to intent, is more properly called “arbitrary” with respect to personhood.  In order to resolve the controversy surrounding abortion, it will be necessary for us to reach consensus about what it means to be a person, not where they live.  In your analogy of property rights and residency, there are two problems, squatters rights and the idea you have the right to kill someone for living on your property.  Your argument is not persuasive because pregnancy and abortion are not relevantly similar to squatters living on your property and your killing them.  For one thing, it presumes that your body is your property, to do with as you please, yet there are limits, i.e. suicide is against the law, just as there are limits to what you may do with your property, i.e. arson of an occupied structure or when it might otherwise jeopardize others or their property.

The Christian argument is pretty clear. The Potential is more valuable than the actual.

My understanding of the Christian view is that what you call “the potential” is “the actual”.

A potentially Christian fetus is far more valuable than its mother, who may not be a Christian.

Not at all.  According to the Christian view, both are of equal value. 

It stems from Christianity’s basic premise that the potential of an afterlife is far more valuable than actual life.

The basic premise of Christianity is that life is more valuable than death.

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Posted: 19 February 2007 06:49 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]  
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Salt Creek,

And this skepticism about the 500 year claim is something you could easily satisfy on your own with a few minutes of research. Like it or not, it popped up number one with a bullet in my search based on combining terms “500 years” and “do not do unto others”.

It wasn’t skepticism, I was merely asking hampsteadpete to support his claim by providing a reference, as is standard practice in scholarly debate.  This is not just a courtesy to everyone, but also a quality assurance measure.  The burden is on the author, not the reader to make the case.  I seem to recall that you once said it was easy to find a reference to support something you said in another post, “readily available”, is how you put it, if memory serves.  And didn’t you later admit that you could not find even one reference to support your claim?

My question remains unanswered and the 500-year claim by hamsteadpete remains unsubstantiated. 

As for your

Smug sanctimony, Exhibit A:

my point, which you seemed to have missed, is that it is incongruous for hampsteadpete to say

...if your stone-age morality is all that’s keeping you from murdering my grandchildren, by all means keep it! I would never suggest an alternative for you.

then in the same breath advocate

“Do not do unto others what you would not have others do unto you.”

Get it?

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Posted: 19 February 2007 08:10 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]  
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Parable,

I apppreciate your comments. But they contain the same ‘doublespeak’ of the Pro-Life movement.

Killing an unborn baby is 1st degree MURDER everywhere in the US.

No doctor would perform such a procedure. The fact is that regardless of the law, the Hippocratic Oath prevents killing persons.

If abortion is manslaughter, then when a woman dies as a result of pregnancy, then wouldn’t the fetus also be guilty of manslaughter?

I think the more appropriate term is ‘self-defense’.

One of the major issues that neither side seems willing to address is that an unwanted pregnancy is not a consensual act. Consent to sex is not consent to impregnation.

I also consider laws against suicide to be fascist in the extreme.

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Posted: 19 February 2007 10:30 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]  
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I’ve always been a bit uncomfortable with the issue of abortion. Personally I’m against it, but I don’t think I’d block a law permitting others to do it. While I think there is something seriously wrong with considering a very early stage foetus a ‘person’, I also think that a lot of pro-choice people go to the other extreme and completely ignore the fact that the foetus is eventually going to grow into a full human being.  For example:

Personhood begins when it has it’s own body instead of camping out in someone else’s body.

Unless you want to turn our system of property laws upside down and give ownership of property to temporary residents.

I don’t see that as a compelling argument at all. Giving property rights to temporary residents is not a matter of life and death. Yes, it’s important to keep some perspective on this issue, but don’t trivialize the life of the fetus completely.

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Posted: 20 February 2007 01:09 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]  
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[quote author=“Parable”]it is incongruous for hampsteadpete to say

...if your stone-age morality is all that’s keeping you from murdering my grandchildren, by all means keep it! I would never suggest an alternative for you.

then in the same breath advocate

“Do not do unto others what you would not have others do unto you.”

Get it?

No, I don’t. You effortlessly invent incongruities in the reasoning of others where none exist, and tirelessly seek congruities to your ideology where none are possible. But then, you believe in an invisible force that rules the Universe, so this is certainly no surprise to me.

For some reason, the rhetorical games you play with people remind me of that old adage about the way people seek mates: Most people prefer beauty to brains, because most people can see better than they can think. :D

Let me go through Pete’s logic step by step, nice and slow, so you can follow it:

If ALL that is keeping you from murdering his grandchildren is some stone-age morality you found in that mish-mash book of yours, then it is ALL you have, and you should use it. Because Pete would rather you keep your silly Bible and not murder his grandchildren, which seems the likely alternative should you drop the only principle which is preventing you from doing so.

Pete then urges you to consider an alternative, which implies that you should not murder people because you wouldn’t want to be murdered yourself. Get it?

But a thought occurs to me: Perhaps you would like someone to murder you, the better to follow in the symbolic footsteps left behind by that imaginary guru you call “Jesus”. In that case, you ARE nuts.

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Posted: 20 February 2007 01:37 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]  
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Joad,

I apppreciate your comments.

Thank you.

But they contain the same ‘doublespeak’ of the Pro-Life movement.

On this forum, my motives for posting have been repeatedly impugned via “guilt by association”, my standards for rational discourse have been dismissed as self-serving rhetoric and my positions have been ridiculed as irrational mindless conformity.  Talk about doublespeak….

the Hippocratic Oath prevents killing persons.

If the original oath is invoked to defend the practice of abortion on the basis it precludes the killing of a person, but a fetus is not a person, then I submit the following text from the classic version of the oath for your consideration, available at:

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/doctors/oath_classical.html

“Similarly I will not give to a woman an abortive remedy.”

(Translation from the Greek by Ludwig Edelstein. From The Hippocratic Oath: Text, Translation, and Interpretation, by Ludwig Edelstein. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1943.)

I also note the relevant passage in the modern version, available at

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/doctors/oath_modern.html

“If it is given me to save a life, all thanks. But it may also be within my power to take a life; this awesome responsibility must be faced with great humbleness and awareness of my own frailty. Above all, I must not play at God.”

Maybe its just me, but 50 million abortions a year on this rock seems inconsistent with “humbleness and awareness of my frailty”.

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