Friday, 30 November 2012

Victor Hugo on the Guillotine and the Agency of Things

Much has been written on the "agency of things". Yet the notion always used to puzzle me. Currently, however, I am reading Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, and in this utterly enthralling novel I came across a passage that provides a most vivid illustration of what my colleague Andy Pickering might call the "dance of agency". It is a comment on the death penalty, public executions and the role of the guillotine. Here it is:

"A scaffold, when it is erected and prepared, has indeed a profoundly disturbing effect. We may remain more or less open-minded on the subject of the death-penalty, indisposed to commit ourselves, so long as we have not seen a guillotine with our own eyes. But to do so is to be so shaken that we are obliged to take our stand for or against. (...) The guillotine is the ultimate expression of Law, and its name is vengeance; it is not neutral, nor does it allow us to remain neutral. He who sees it shudders in the most confounding dismay. All social questions achieve their finality around that blade. The scaffold is an image. It is not merely a framework, a machine, a lifeless mechanism of wood, iron, and rope. It is as though it were a being having its own dark purpose, as though the framework saw, the machine listened, the mechanism understood; as though that arrangement of wood and iron and rope expressed a will. In the hideous picture which its presence evokes it seems to be most terribly a part of what it does. It is the executioner's accomplice; it consumes, devouring flesh and drinking blood. It is a kind of monster created by the judge and the craftsman; a spectre seeming to live an awful life born of the death it deals." (p. 32 in the Penguin edition).

The law assumes a concrete, material form in the blade that cuts off heads. Once created, it demands that it be used and imposes its logic on us. It uses us just as much as we use it. We create things, but we are also created by them. And sometimes the things that we create are so powerful and terrible that, in creating us, they may eventually destroy us.

Friday, 23 November 2012

Israel's Moral Choice

Israel has stopped bombing Gaza. For now. Yet the agreed truce is not likely to last very long. There is too much hatred on both sides. In just a week of bombing more than 150 Palestinians were killed. The bombing was meant to be a response to the more than a thousand rocket attacks that Hamas launched on Israel. During those attacks five Israelis were killed. Five too many certainly, but it still doesn't seem to justify the killing of 150 Palestinians, the majority of which were civilians, including many women and children. It all seems, to the say the very least, disproportionate, and not exactly in accordance with the lex talionis, which both demands and permits taking an eye for an eye, but no more than an eye. Instead, Israel thought it was okay to take 30 eyes for one eye. This is a bit as if I took revenge on my neighbour for kicking my dog by killing him, his family and all his relatives and friends. So how can anyone think that this is justified?

When I listen to Israeli officials (as for instance the Israeli ambassador to the UK), the impression I get is that there are two (localised) moral principles that they assume to be true. The first is that the life of an Israeli is worth much more (given the numbers, at least thirty times as much) than the life of a Palestinian. So if we were discussing a trolley problem in an Israelian school to test the students' moral intuitions we might have to specify whether those about to be killed are Palestinians or Israelis. Would you push the fat man over the bridge to save 30 people on the track from the oncoming train? Not if the fat man were an Israeli and the 30 on the track Palestinian. So how many Palestians would there have to be on the track in order to justify the sacrifice of that one Israeli? 100? 500? Or would no number be high enough? Discuss.

The second moral principle that allegedly justifies the disproportionate mass killing of Palestinian children is that if you are provoked to an action, you carry no responsibility whatsoever for the consequences. If Hamas leaders choose to hide themselves in populated areas, then it is their fault, and their fault alone, if a lot of civilians die during Israelian counter attacks. It is thus not Israel that kills those people, but Hamas. In a way they are killing themselves. It is like pushing a button that causes an explosion: it would be ridiculous to hold the button responsible for the resulting deaths, especially if you are the one who pushed it. So the Palestians pushed the button that started the Israelian bombardment. In other words, Israel, in their own perception, had no agency in the matter. They didn't act, they reacted. This strikes me as a very curious and - I might as well say it - cowardly attitude. It is as if I, after killing my neighbour and his family for kicking my dog, justified my action by saying "He started it!" implying that I had no choice, that I wasn't free to do otherwise, that I was merely a means to his death, which ultimately he brought on himself.

But even though it may be true that the other is partly to blame for what happened insofar as his actions are part of the causal chain that eventually led to his death, I certainly am responsible for how I chose to respond. It is I and nobody else who decided what to do. I did have a choice. And so did Israel.

Friday, 16 November 2012

Is Casual Sex Morally Wrong?

A while ago I was invited by the Exeter Debating Society to argue against the claim that casual sex is morally wrong. Although I thought that was a strange question to ask, I had never been to a debating society event and was curious to see how it was. So I accepted. Somewhat naively, I thought that it would be very easy to defeat the claim, not the least because I imagined that most students would not feel that there was anything wrong with it. However, I was in for a surprise. As it turned out, the majority of the house voted with yes: casual sex was indeed morally wrong. I was a bit taken aback, but then did my best to argue persuasively that even though having lots of casual sex might not be as desirable as it may seem, it is certainly not morally wrong.

Meanwhile my opponents, one of which was a colleague of mine, said a lot about the good life, true intimacy, and commitment, and how casual sex destroyed all that, none of which, I thought, was in any way relevant to the question. Yes to my shock and dismay, when the debate was over and the house was asked once again to cast their vote, nothing had changed: the majority still thought that casual sex was morally wrong. For me that was an almost traumatic experience. It certainly ruined my day (and night). Not that I'm a big fan of casual sex; it's just that I didn't expect British students to be so morally conservative and so immune to reason.

 Casual sex is when two people decide to have sex with each other without having any intention to enter into a long-lasting relationship with their sexual partner. They just want to have sex with the other person, nothing more and nothing less. Now how can that be morally wrong? Of course we can imagine situations in which it is. When you're in a relationship, then having sex with someone else might be a breach of trust, or a breach of the implicit promise to share a certain degree of intimacy only with your partner. But then it is these circumstances that make the act morally wrong, or at least morally dubious, and not the casualness of it. Casual sex may certainly be unwise (though it doesn't have to be), or it may turn out that for one of the participants it was less casual than for the other. If there are different expectations, then this may well result in tears and hurt. But that still doesn't make it morally wrong, unless one is deliberately misleading the other. The fact that someone is hurt by something I do, is not sufficient to declare my action morally wrong. There are all sorts of things that we do that hurt other people without being morally wrong. I might, for instance, hurt a student by giving them a bad mark. Yet as long as the mark is fair and reflects their actual achievement, they may hurt all they want and I still haven't done anything that would qualify as morally wrong. Conversely, however, it seems to me that if nobody is hurt by something we do, then it cannot possibly be morally wrong. So clearly, if two people give each other pleasure, sexual or otherwise, and then part and each go their own way, there is nothing whatsoever morally wrong with that.

Friday, 9 November 2012

The Extent of a Sperm Donor's Responsibility

A couple of weeks ago (27 October 2012), the British newspaper "The Guardian" reported that a gay man who several years ago had donated his sperm to a lesbian couple was now held accountable and told to pay up for the two children that he helped to be conceived. Apparently, if he did the same today, he would not be liable. What happened is that the lesbian couple separated. The children now live with one of them, presumably the biological mother, and the other visits them from time to time, but does not support them financially. In that situation, the mother sued the sperm donor, and he was sentenced to pay. Now, the question is of course whether that is morally justied. Never mind what the law says, can we really believe that he is morally responsible for the children, in the sense that he has a moral duty to contribute to their subsistence?

At first glance, this seems to be case of gross ingratitude. The donor was friends with the two women. They wanted to have children and asked the man for help. That's what he did. He did them a favour. As a friend. It was never intended that he have any part in bringing up the children or contributing financially. It was never part of the deal. The only thing that was expected of him, as a gift to his friends, was to hand over some of his sperm. Hence, if anyone should pay it is the former partner of the mother.

However, not everyone sees it this way, as the letters of Guardian readers prove that were published a week after the original article (3 November 2012). One reader wrote: "They are his biological children. He helped bring them into the world. He has a duty to cover their costs. He should have been less cavalier with his sperm." Another commented: "This isn't a question of gay rights, it's a question of responsibility for another human being - is a donor really any different to a man who has a one-night stand, which ends in pregnancy (wanted or not)? To reduce the conception of a child to 'doing someone a favour' is an appallingly cavalier attitude. Of course he should pay for the upkeep of this children. If he wasn't prepared to, he should have done us all a favour and kept his sperm to himself." Not much sympathy coming from these readers.

So the question is whether biological fatherhood really is morally so important that it makes the biological father responsible for any children that may result from the use of his sperm, independent of the circumstances. In this particular case, of course, the donor was aware that his sperm was to be used to conceive a child, but he also had an agreement with the mother that he would have no further obligations, that his only contribution would be the donation of his sperm. Does this agreement count for nothing because biological fatherhood overrides all other considerations? But why should biology be seen as having such paramount importance? Underlying the comments by those Guardian readers also seems to be the intuition that sperm is not the kind of thing that we should be allowed to sell or give away. It is not a commodity. But again, why exactly is it not? Is it because, as Monty Python put it, "every sperm is sacred"? But what exactly does that mean?

Saturday, 3 November 2012

Murakami on Death and Evolution

I'm currently reading Haruki Murakami's magnificent The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, which I hadn't read before. As usual, Murakami's protagonists are busy trying to figure out, mostly in vain, what is actually going on in a world that is both banal and familiar, and at the same time utterly mysterious and incomprehensible. Very much like the real world actually, the world that we all inhabit and that we're all trying to make sense of in one way or another, without being very good at it.

Chapter 10 of the Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is titled "May Kasahara on Death and Evolution". In this chapter, a 16-year old girl, which the main protagonist has befriended, reflects on the benefits of death, or more precisely the knowledge of one's own mortality. Here is what she says:

"If people lived for ever - if they never got any older - if they could just go on living in this world, never dying, always healthy - do you think they'd bother to think hard about things, the way we're doing now? I mean, we think about just about everything, more or less - philosophy, psychology, logic. Religion. Literature. I think, if there were no such thing as death, that complicated thoughts and ideas like that would never come into the world. (...) people have to think seriously about what it means for them to be alive here and now because they know they're going to die sometime. Right? Who would think about what it means to be alive if they were just going to go on living for ever? Why would they bother? Or even if they should bother, they'd probably just reckon, 'Oh, well, I've got plenty of time for that. I'll think about it later.' But we can't wait till later. We've got to think about it right this second. I might get run over by a truck tomorrow afternoon. (...) Nobody knows what's going to happen. So we need death to make us evolve. That's what I think. Death is this huge, bright thing, and the bigger and brighter it is, the more we have to drive ourselves crazy thinking about things."

There seem to be two arguments here, both directed against the desirability of a deathless existence and eternal youth. The one has to do with meaning. It is suggested that the unexamined life is not worth living and that we would have no reason to examine our lives if we didn't know that our lives will end sooner or later, and quite likely sooner than later. Without the certainty of death, our lives would be meaningless because there cannot be any meaningful life without a thorough reflection on its meaning. The second argument is about human development and progress. Without death we wouldn't bother to think about ourselves and our place in the world and if we didn't do that we would never have developed the rich intellectual culture that we are currently enjoying.

If that is correct, then the concerted efforts to find a way to halt and reverse the human ageing process and thus to conquer death (or at least the necessity of dying) - that insatiable, all-devouring evil dragon of the transhumanists - will, if successful, paradoxically lead to the end of all science and philosophy, and with it, of all human progress.