More thought on Utilitarian Bioethics

Below in my post titled What the “Utilitarians” offer, commenter Shane reasonably rebukes me for speaking too broadly, implying that all atheists agree with Peter Singer and his ilk. Shane was absolutely right that I didn’t properly caveat my statements so it was stated far to broadly. For that, I apologize. From what I’ve seen significant portions of atheists and the vast majority of agnostics do not hold the extreme views of the utilitarian bioethicists like Peter Singer and I apologize for sounding as if I believed that.

However, there is a relationship between atheism and the utilitarian bioethicists that I feel compelled to elaborate on. You will not find religious people advocating for the hyper-darwinian, suffering paranoid ethical positions that people like Singer advance. At the same time, the arguments that Singer and company use are the same arguments that atheists, particularly scientifically oriented ones in general use. While Singer may take them to much further logical extremes than the average atheist, the fact that they’re grounded in the same principles should scare just about everyone, including the atheist who isn’t willing to advance what Singer is.

To be absolutely clear about Singer, while there was a small amount of caricature of Singer in my post (something Shane pointed out as well), I wouldn’t consider it over the top. Who would be willing to deny the following?:

  • Singer advances that elderly and disabled have a moral obligation to kill themselves when they become a burden.
  • Singer thinks both physically and mentally disabled fetuses should be aborted and parents who don’t are doing an injustice to society.
  • Singer thinks infanticide can be justified when pre-natal disabilities are not discovered before birth and the infant can be killed at that point just as they could be aborted before hand.
  • Going further with infants, Singer doesn’t think infants have the rights of “personhood” any more than a cow does.
  • Singer thinks physically and mentally disabled people, even those who are not terminally ill, should have the right to kill themselves.
  • Whether he would encourage them to kill themselves is perhaps stretching it, but Singer dances awful close to that line, crossing it for sure when they become a burden.

These are Singer’s repeatedly stated positions. In the article linked in the post below, he added to it the idea that there’s nothing wrong with the purposeful extinction of the human race through non-reproduction. Just like with encouraging disabled people to kill themselves, while he won’t explicitly state that he things this is a good idea, he dances enough on line without crossing it to know where he’s coming from.

OK, so Singer may be an extreme example, and I concede that many atheists won’t endorse Singer’s extreme positions, but it’s both more common that many would be willing to admit amongst atheists and, and this is the more important point, the philosophical underpinnings are the usually the same.

I purposely chose the cow in my bullet point about infant “personhood” because it’s the animal Dawkins reference to the ethical nature of abortion based on the comparison of the nervous system of a cow and a fetus in TGD. So while Dawkins may not be for infanticide, the reality is that Singer is using the same concepts, the equivalency of animals to our fetuses or our disabled people, to determine whether those human beings have “personhood”, to argue for infanticide.

The underlying concept at play in all of this is human exceptionalism. Human exceptionalism is the idea that a human race is a unique and special species that is set apart from all other species. Only our species is a moral species. This gives every human being special worth, worth beyond that of any other animal.

The alternative is to believe that we are not unique, that being human does not give us particular rights. Instead our worth is determined by our capabilities, both physical and mental. “Personhood” becomes the threshold. “Personhood” is the utilitarian bioethicist’s word to replace “human rights” because they deny that merely being human gives one particular rights. While different groups put the “personhood line” at very different places, some including all sorts of animals as having “personhood” and others thinking only certain humans have “personhood”, they universally believe that certain humans do NOT have “personhood”, even though it may be an extremely small group of humans who miss the cut.

It’s not technically necessary to be religious to believe in human exceptionalism (one could just be observant and see how different we all from all other animals and embrace the idea). At the same time, it IS necessary for religious people, particularly those from western religions, to by definition believe that humanity is special, created by God in a special way and with special worth. Simply stated, just about all religious people believe in human exceptionalism.

Where then does that leave us? Religious, by the very nature of their beliefs will never endorse what Singer does. Atheists, may not be willing to either, but their atheism leaves them open to the possibility. I think it’s important for the average atheist to concede that while they won’t go to the same extremes that Singer does, these utilitarian bioethicists are only able to advance what they do because they deny the existence of God and the exceptional nature of the human race, something that the vast majority of atheists agree on despite being unwilling to take the implications of that statement to its logical extreme.

This is what I was pointing to in my previous post and I believe it to be defensible. Thoughts or rebuttals?

8 Responses to “More thought on Utilitarian Bioethics”

  1. Shane Says:

    Thanks, Ken, for noticing my comment and for taking the time to post a thoughtful reply.

    Question: Does it shake your confidence in your own beliefs to realize that the same sorts of ideas that you hold dear have also motivated suicide bombers, the 9/11 hijackers, witch hunts, hate crimes, The Inquisition, the crusades, etc.? When you think about religious extremists, and the logical extremes to which they take religious beliefs, does it make you reexamine the implications and the validity of your own views?

    I’ve had enough conversations with religious people to know that your answer to these questions will probably be a firm, “No.”

    Similarly, fixating on the most extreme implications of religious disbelief does nothing to convince me that my own beliefs are in any way inherently dangerous. I’m not that familiar with Singer’s ideas, and to be honest, it’s not really a topic that I’m all that interested in researching. I still suspect, however, that you’re missing out on some of the nuances of Singer’s ideas. For instance, if one acknowledges that there are emotional and neurological similarities between humans and animals, it doesn’t necessarily follow that doing so means you’ll have to advocate for infanticide, etc. Singer himself takes the viewpoint that humans aren’t completely exceptional in some positive directions. For example, he argues for the fair and compassionate treatment of animals, and for vegetarianism, as in this interview:

    But again, Peter Singer’s just one individual, and one who is controversial even within non-religious circles. And there’s a great diversity of opinions among the non-religious. But I’ve never personally met someone who advocates the kind of utilitarianism that you describe here. So, please don’t make the mistake of thinking that there’s a significant portion of atheists who agree with such extreme statements, or that such views are the inevitable outcome of disbelief.

    Unfortunately, though, that’s how group psychology often works. It’s inherently in our self-interest to identify negative characteristics in groups that are at odds with our own group. So when we find a particularly infuriating example of an out-group member, it’s all too easy to fixate on them, and generalize their infuriating qualities to other members of their group. But such generalizations are often unfair. I’ll be honest — I’m guilty of this, too. Whenever I read about a Fred Phelps, a Becky Fischer, another instance of clergy sex abuse, etc., it just reinforces my negative impressions about religion. But it’s probably in my own best interest (if I want to be able to remain civil when discussing religion with religious people) to remind myself that such people are the exceptions rather than the rule.

  2. Ken Crawford Says:

    Shane, thanks for your reply. I enjoy a rational discussion amongst those who disagree as opposed to people just shouting at each other (for which I am an occasional violator of the peace, unfortunately).

    I completely agree both about the tendency to find the worst examples in other groups and force them on the whole group inappropriately and that Singer is a more extreme example of utilitarian bioethics.

    However, I do take it very seriously and it does force me to question my beliefs when someone who appears to have similar beliefs to mine does or advocates something unacceptable and I think scientific atheists need to look at what Singer advocates and do the same analysis.

    For me, what I find when I examine things like the list you’ve provided is that the underpinnings for their actions have absolutely nothing to do with what I believe. The only thing that holds that group of examples together is the dogmatic belief in something. But dogmatic belief is not isolated to religious belief. As I’ve shown with TGD, there is much that Dawkins holds dogmatically as true and just about every non-religious society has had strong dogmatic beliefs that define them.

    In fact, I would go further to suggest that it is human nature to hold dogmatic beliefs. There’s just too much information out there that is unknown to us for us to truly remain on the sidelines about that which we don’t have 100% confidence. It would be paralyzing, therefore we refuse to believe in nothing and dogmatism becomes a universal truth.

    That leaves us with two choices: to consciously pick a dogmatic set of beliefs and to cling to those that have shown over time to be wise or to refuse to participate in such an effort and end up with a chaotic and much more destructive (through it’s lack of cohesiveness) set of unthoughtful dogmatism.

    One thing I’m glad for atheists (as opposed to agnostics) is that they do want to actively engage in that process, even though they refuse to admit that it is a dogmatic belief process on their end. If I could convince atheists that this is what they’re engaging in, I would have considered myself successful beyond my wildest dreams, even if I didn’t end up bringing them to the Catholic faith. At least then the discussion would happen on the appropriate terms.

    But going back to my questioning my faith, when I find out about the latest pedophilia case or read about various atrocities, I do ask myself, “what is it that motivates them and am I at risk to that?” In some cases I find that there are things I must reject as a result, but in the vast majority of cases I find that what I believe in does not result in what has been done.

    I’d give you a case by case analysis, but this comment has already gone too long. Perhaps if there are one or two examples that you’d be interested in having me walk through, let me know via a comment and I’ll write a full post on it.

    But in the mean time, let me be so bold as to suggest that the extremes of utilitarian bioethics is something that every atheist who rejects human exceptionalism should be similarly concerned with.

  3. Shane Says:

    Hmmm. You’re starting to sound a bit like Doug:

    I’m not sure which definition of “dogmatic” you’re using when you say you think atheists are dogmatic, so I’ll address them both.

    If you’re referring to this definition: “of or relating to dogma,” then that’s a claim that can be easily disproven. We don’t have any rigid doctrines or holy books. There’s no atheist council handing down mandates from on high. That’s the entire point of atheism — we’re skeptical when it comes to any book, any individual, or any organization that claims to be infallible. And we’ll evaluate anyone’s claims based on evidence and reason (the best tools for discerning the truth). Nothing is beyond reproach. Even the most respected atheist authors are still fallible human beings, and each of us is free to pick and choose which of their views we agree with.

    I suppose I can understand why you might think this definition applies to atheists if you’re basing your opinion on the one atheist book you’ve read. Or, perhaps you’ve read more. Still, that’s not enough of a basis to really get an accurate perception of what we’re actually like, or how we really think.

    Most of us are very independent thinkers, which leads to a lot of diversity within the atheist community. Go to an atheist meeting sometime, then tell me whether or not you think we’re dogmatic. We don’t sit around singing atheist hymns, reading passages from The God Delusion, and holding hands. No — most every atheist meeting I’ve been to has involved a healthy amount of debate, disagreement, and discussion. If you’re not up to attending an atheist meeting, I’d recommend reading through some of the user comments on atheist blogs. Here’s an example:

    If you actually care to find out more of what we’re *really* like, I could recommend some other good blogs, too.

    Now, if you’re referring to this definition of dogmatic: “characterized by or given to the expression of opinions very strongly or positively as if they were facts,” then that also does not apply to the realities of atheists’ beliefs.

    But I’ll let it slide, since it’s a common misconception. It’s important here to define atheism. There are two definitions of the term, which seem similar but are actually quite different. As most outsiders define atheism, it means, “one who believes with absolute certainty that no god(s) exist.” But this definition applies to a very slim minority of people who self-identify as atheists. The primary definition of atheism — and the one that is overwhelmingly more accurate in describing what atheism means to actual atheists — is, “one who doesn’t actively believe in any god or gods.”

    This distinction is the difference between simply lacking belief in god(s) and actively denying the existence of god(s). It’s the difference between saying, “I’m very confident about this conclusion based on all of the evidence, but I’d believe in god(s) if I were ever shown incontrovertible evidence,” and, “I’m 100% certain, and nothing can ever change my mind.”

    Or, you could say it’s the difference between stating, “this is my opinion, which I hold very strongly based on all available evidence” (which describes nearly all atheists, and is not dogmatic), and saying, “this is fact” (which is dogmatic, but describes few, if any, actual atheists).

    I get what you’re saying about dogmatism being inevitable. But I strongly disagree. Yes, it’s impossible for everyone under the sun to get a doctorate in every possible discipline, and to really become fully-informed experts. Yes, we all base many of our opinions on incomplete information. But that doesn’t mean that all competing points of view are equally valid, and that all individuals involved in the debate will necessarily become rigid and close-minded about their opinions.

    And, more importantly, even with incomplete information, it’s fully possible to evaluate claims’ validity based on universal standards. Some pieces of evidence are more reliable, some arguments are more valid, and there are objective standards by which one can evaluate competing evidence and arguments.

    So, even with incomplete information, one can form solid, confident opinions about what is objectively true. And that’s the only thing I’ll admit that I do cling to, rigidly and dogmatically:

    I believe in the truth.

  4. Ken Crawford Says:

    Shane, I think the distinction you’re trying to make is psychologically inconsequential. While it is true there’s a subtle difference between believing something so firmly that no amount of evidence could change your mind and believing that the existing evidence supports your theory, in practice that subtle difference is hard to evaluate. I’d go further to say that to the average individual, they couldn’t know with confidence which group they’re in. It’s very hard for a person to know when they’re stuck in confirmation bias or when they’ve closed their mind to new evidence (we can’t spend our whole lives re-evaluating every question).

    Putting it another way, I’d put myself in the latter category. If someone truly showed me evidence God doesn’t exist, I’d have to reject God. Honest question (and don’t feel that you’d be offending me with an ungenerous answer): Do you believe that about me?

    Assuming you do, that you don’t find the evidence I’d show you for God’s existence convincing and I don’t find the evidence you’d show me for God’s non-existence only shows that two rationally minded people can disagree and from where I sit, further proves my overall point that dogma, defined by me as the confident belief in something for which the evidence isn’t sufficiently inconclusive that two rational people of good will could disagree as to the conclusions to make, is inevitable.

    Said a 3rd way, if you consider my belief in God dogmatic and I define my belief as based on the evidence, you’d have to concede one of two things:

    1. I’m incapable of determining the difference between the subtly different nature of belief (100% confident/evidence based)
    2. Your beliefs are just as dogmatic.

    I think you’re splitting hairs with the 2nd definition of (and the one I intended) of dogma and suggesting that atheists don’t hold it. That you think all the evidence supports your ideas but without the 100% confidence level, doesn’t change the reality that in your life and how you act, you treat it as a fact, to the degree that you go to complete strangers blogs to advance the idea (did I say: welcome! :) ).

    On to another point, I no doubt agree that there’s disagreement amongst atheists, but have you SEEN the disagreements that exist amongst Christians? Heck, there are major divides in opinion amongst Catholics. And I’m not even getting into the vast differences between entirely separate religions. The point being, within every religion there is a search for truth and often times people come to different conclusions.

    Finally, remember that I’m a former atheist, so I’m well versed in what goes on there, particularly the diversity of opinion and have the personal experience of how it works out. I can say with much confidence that when I switched to become Catholic I did not abandon the search for truth or reject the notions of objective standards or quality and reliability of evidence. All that happened was those rigorous evaulations led me a different way.

    Somewhere in the back of my mind I have the idea to write a book to write an evidence based, from the ground up, justification for Catholicism. It would have to be absolutely HUGE (much longer than TGD) and would likely not be very reader friendly because of how much I’d have to get bogged down in lots of little details building up my evidence. I don’t think it would sell very well… I mean, would you read a 500-1000 page book aimed at atheists to show them the evidence for God and Catholicism?

  5. Shane Says:

    Do tell … what’s this 1000-pages worth of evidence you speak of? If you’ve got that much, then surely you can offer one or more of the most compelling examples.

    But it’s got to be real evidence … evidence for which there aren’t any possible natural explanations, evidence which is open to scrutiny, and evidence which doesn’t exist for other religions (such as personal revelations or holy books whose only proof of divinity is their own claim that they’re divine).

  6. Ken Crawford Says:

    Well, let’s start with Fatima. It’s an extensively well documented miracle and most definitely open to scrutiny. Thousands of skeptics were there and reported the same thing. Do you have any evidence to suggest it was not a miracle?

    Now, here’s where the book gets complicated…

    OK, so that’s only one miracle and there’s little about it which can be the foundation for all of Catholicism, yes? Which is quite true.

    But the existence of even one miracle, one miracle that can be shown to be real beyond any reasonable doubt, opens up the possibility of others. It gives credibility to the idea that reports of previous miracles, miracles back further in time for which any rational discussion of their merits are lost in time, might just be real.

    So, to build up this book, I’d first need to take modern day miracles and share them in a way that would be compelling. The next step would be to step back in time and the evidence provided in the bible and through other sources (the historian Eusebius is one such example of non-biblical records that help build the case). True, much of what’s claimed can no longer be reproduced, but a credible, rational argument can be made that the evidence provided is worth considering.

    From there one has to build up the concept of divine revelation and how it works and how it can be proven (and the miraculous is a portion of that).

    From there one builds up the concept of the Church and the resulting Bible, which is no more and no less than the testimony of the Church.

    To do all of that building takes a lot of text and I can’t do it justice here, but at least I can show very high level outline.

  7. Shane Says:

  8. Ken Crawford Says:

    Did you actually read that link? Do you notice that EVERY. SINGLE. ONE. of the excuses offered are hypotheses with no proof provided? They’re just postulating ideas and from my vantage point, they’re not very good ones at that.

    Do they really think people are too stupid to know the difference between sun spotting from looking at the sun too long and a genuine miraculous event? The same applies for the other theories of a sundog or cloud refraction or dust illumination, etc.. I’ve seen odd meteorological events and my thought was “huh, that’s odd, I wonder what (natural) event is causing that?” The couple times I’ve had a true religious experience (none of which were visual) I’ve known the difference between it and a normal emotion or experience.

    At a minimum the likelihood that such a weird event happened simultaneously with this religious gathering is statistically very low, not to mention the shear lack of credit these people are being given.

    And then there’s the shear illogical statements about it not having being seen at observatories or outside of a 40 mile radius. That’s the whole point! It was a miracle in the sense it can’t be explained by simple astronomy or meteorology. If you could, it wouldn’t be a miracle.

    Let me put it to you a different way, if a reverse situation was proposed, where you (or Dawkins) were defending an event and I provided a link with that sort of half-cocked speculation and poor thinking, I’d be roundly rebuked.

    All of this comes back to my thoughts on everyone being dogmatic. You read that and it sounds compelling because you are looking for it not to be true. You’ve come in with a bias that there are no miracles, and so most even minimally plausible suggestions carry some weight with you. To be fair, I look at that same evidence and say “what garbage thinking” and that is biased by my beliefs. I find the evidence less compelling because the totality of my experience is different from yours, just as the opposite is true for you.

    Could you at least admit that the evidence provided for why it was a natural event are not conclusive but speculative?