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Sunday, December 11, 2011

Animal rights and human exceptionalism: The divine dimension

Yesterday's post was kept to a strictly natural level, without regard to the dimension of man's relationship with God and the fact that the natural world and all it contains were created by God.

If animals have rights, it would only be because God endowed them with rights. The deer or cow or whatever, as such, does not appear to be a subject of rights. If God has conferred rights upon them, those rights would not be natural rights, but conferred. In contrast, man has been created to be a subject of natural rights. While I cannot necessarily point to any biological structure where rights reside, man's natural and normal ability to ponder and discuss rights, duties, ethics, justice, and so on, proves that to be human is to be a subject of rights.

A brief aside: It is not this ability that causes humans to have rights, no more than the light that fire emits causes it to be bright, because one could say it is because fire is by nature bright that causes it to emit light. Emitted light and brightness are simply different ways of looking at the same thing. The brightness of the fire proves that it emits light, just as our ability to discuss and act regarding rights proves we have rights. Therefore, if individual human beings lack this ability due to immaturity, disease, sleep, or some such thing, the disability is unnatural. In comparison, if animals lack of this ability because of the kind of thing they are, the inability is natural. It is not an unnatural "dis-ability" but a natural "in-ability." Earthworms are not blind (which implies the lack of a normal power); they simply cannot see. Given time to grow up or an effective medical treatment, a disabled human would (re)gain the natural human ability being discussed. Therefore, it is a fallacy to say that since some individual humans lack cognitive ability and yet are subjects of rights, other animals that lack that ability also have rights.

Now, if God has conferred rights upon animals, this would be an important thing for humans to consider and act on. However, there is no way for humans to know if God has done this or not through simple observation of the animals. There is no evidence in the behavior of animals that they are subjects of rights. They see, they smell, they feel, but rights are totally beyond their experience. The only way for us humans to know God has endowed animals with rights is if He reveals this fact to us. Such revelation is lacking, however.

It cannot be that animals have rights because God made animals. God also made rocks and the hydrogen that thinly permeates the far reaches of space. If all things have rights by virtue of having been made by God, then it cannot be that all things have equal rights. If a stone had equal rights to the rain, the rain would commit an injustice by wearing it down over time, or by penetrating its cracks and freezing in the winter to split it. Animals would commit an injustice to plants by eating them. Therefore, those things that are superior kinds of beings have greater rights than the inferior. So, living things have superior rights to non-living things, animals to plants, higher animals to lower (such as reptiles to insects, mammals to reptiles, dogs to rabbits). It stands to reason if we rank all created things in such a hierarchy, that one kind of thing rather than a group of different things would have superior rights over all. Since rights in this scheme come from having been made by God, it would stand to reason that the thing with the greatest rights would be the thing that God has made to be most like Himself. Since only humans have the capacity to even ponder this idea and to create, God being omniscient and omnipotent, humans clearly are the most God-like of known life forms. The rights of humans therefore supersede any rights animals might have by virtue of being made by God.

However, the fact that they are made by God does indicate that they belong to God in some way. As such, all of creation right down to the grains of sand on the seashore, should be respected by humans, and looked upon with awe and wonder. Two things need to be said about this. One is this: If we speak informally to say that rocks and trees and animals "deserve" respect, we speak only analogously. It is God Who deserves the respect we should extend to creation, and creation "deserves" it only by virtue of creation belonging to God, and our use of the word more indicates our duty, something in us, than something in creation. The other thing is this: Respect does not mean everything is sacrosanct and untouchable and unusable. If you borrow a book from me and respect the book the way it "deserves" (=the way you ought) because it is mine, that does not mean you do not read it. It means that when you do read it, you handle it carefully.

So, I do advocate the humane treatment of animals but do not advocate the notion that all human use of animals is inherently inhumane. Animals can be kept as pets, or raised to give eggs, milk, fur, leather, and meat, or hunted for food or to protect crops and livestock and people with no injustice done. It is not these things that are intrinsically unjust or disrespectful. It is how humans go about doing those sorts of things that determines whether or not it is disrespectful. Stewardship of God's creation precludes both abuse and neglect. Stewardship means using what God has made, but with respect for the fact that God made it.

And again, if animals have any rights at all, this notion of "rights" is only analogous. It speaks to our duty and points beyond the animals to God as the object of our duty and respect, rather than speaking to something in deer and rats as such that demands justice. It is an informal and colloquial way of speaking and not scientific or expository in a formal sense.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Animal rights and human exceptionalism

Over at Secondhand Smoke, a little discussion is going onconcerning animal rights and human exceptionalism. One of my first posts on my own blog was about human exceptionalism. I wish to God those who deny human exceptionalism would explain how it is that we’re not exceptional. But that's beside the point.

The question I wish to focus on now is animal rights, beginning with the nature of rights as inherent in the one who has rights as opposed to conferred by an outside agent. If all rights are conferred, then none are natural and all are subject to the power of the one conferring. If animals have rights by conferral, then it can only be we humans who confer them, and then there is no argument: If we don’t give them rights, they don’t have any.

We might want to consider here the difference between civil and natural rights. We have the natural right to self-defense, for instance, which is prior to and above every civil law and constitution. Any law or government that denies this right is unjust. We have the civil right to vote, which is conferred. We can argue by natural rights the granting of civil rights, as happened for voting rights for non-whites and for women, as a matter of justice, a justice prior to and above the law that demands the law be changed. The restriction of voting to white males denies the intrinsic equality of natural rights of all human beings and is not based on any legitimate qualification such as age, and so is unjust. The equality of civil rights is based on a higher equality of natural rights.

Now either animals have natural rights or they don’t. But if they don’t maybe we should grant them some civil rights. But if we do, it’s because of who and what WE are: We would (in this line of reasoning) be more and more perfectly human—and therefore all the more exceptional, by the way—if we did grant rights to animals. Failure to do so makes us less human. I’m not taking sides on this issue, but the reason for animal rights would be it is something WE should do, and not because animals deserve it.

But animal rights advocates say that animals have rights that our actions toward them violate. This means they believe animals have natural rights. Our laws and practices are unjust because they deny the rights of sentient beings, it is said. If this line of argumentation is valid, then animals have natural rights that inhere in them by virtue of what they are, sentient beings.

I believe, though, that the idea that animals are subjects of rights, such that justice demands humans to respect, leads to logical inconsistencies—contradictions and absurdities—that suggest the idea to be false.

First of all, if it is true that rights inhere in animals, then those rights can be recognized only by beings with the cognitive ability to understand what a right is, what kind of things have them, and what their own duty is to those with rights. That is, their rights depend upon the existence of human beings in order for them to be of any practical value. Rights cannot inhere in a thing if the value of that right depends on the existence of some other thing. In other words, we have the right to self-defense, even when we are alone. But animals would have rights only in the presence of a thing that understands the meaning rights. In the wild, with no such being around, these rights are meaningless. If a thing naturally cannot understand itself or anything else as having rights, if it naturally cannot exercise its rights responsibly while respecting the rights of others, it would suggest that it does not have rights to begin with. When animals begin asking for their rights, then I would say it’s high time to recognize them.

But let's ignore that, and consider the right to live, the very basic right that demands that humans ought not eat, wear, or hunt other animals. We’ll use hunting to stand for all of the sorts of “injustice” humans tend to do to animals. A human in theory violates a deer's rights by hunting it. A wolf does, too, because if deer have a right not to be hunted and killed, then it is universal and extends to all things that might hunt it. Humans, for instance, have the universal right to self-defense, not just the right to defend oneself against attacks by tall people, or by people of a certain race, or by humans and not animals.

So deer have a right not to be hunted by wolves. On the other hand, a wolf also cannot know what a right is or the things that have rights. Plus, the wolf’s own right to live as a carnivorous predator endows it with the right to hunt deer and other things. It nonetheless violates its prey’s right to live by killing it, even if it does not understand its acts as such. If a deer has a right not to be hunted, then the wolf commits an injustice by hunting it. But it would be unjust to deprive the wolf of its right to hunt. Since rights cannot be opposed like that—no one can have the right to self defense if someone else has the right to kill anyone he pleases—either the deer or the wolf or both of them do not have the natural right to act according to its ways. It is impossible that all animals have rights.

But let’s ignore that. Humans, unlike the wolf and the deer, and despite not being exceptional, see that the deer has inherent rights, and have the power to respect and protect those rights. Humans could and ostensibly should safeguard the deer and uphold its rights by protecting it from the wolf, just as some humans would do with respect to their fellow humans by outlawing hunting. Otherwise, we let the deer’s rights be violated by the wolf. But if we stop the wolf, we would violate the wolf's right to hunt. Since the notion of animal rights puts us into an irreconcilable conundrum, it would seem that those rights do not exist. Otherwise, if it is not unjust to the deer to permit wolves to hunt them, why is it unjust to the deer for humans to hunt them?

But let’s ignore that. Let’s just stay out of the natural food chain and let it be. But if we do that, the wolf appears to have superior rights than humans, since it can kill a deer by right but a human cannot. Yet, all animals should have equal rights, and humans, if anything, should not have inferior rights. Therefore, the wolf does not have a right to hunt although it is in its nature to be predator, nor does the deer have the right not to be hunted since we have no duty or even the right to protect it from the wolf.

But let’s ignore that. The wolf and deer both have rights, but the wolf has greater rights than the deer, since its right to hunt deer trumps the deer's right not to be hunted. This is clear from the fact that the wolf commits no crime or injustice against the deer by hunting it. Therefore, if the deer and the human have rights at all, those rights are inferior to the wolf’s. The basis of superiority of the wolf’s rights over the deer’s is the distinction between predator and prey. But humans evolved (if you ascribe to that sort of thing) as omnivorous predators, just as chimps and baboons also hunt. Therefore, humans ought to have a predator’s rights like those of the wolf. The notion of equal rights would demand it. Therefore, deer cannot have a natural right not to be hunted since it would apply only to non-predators, which is absurd.

But let’s ignore that. If humans, as evolved moral beings, ought not to eat meat, how can this be based on the right of a prey animal not to be hunted? To be a predator is non-moral for the wolf; therefore, it cannot be argued that it is immoral for a human, and if it is, then it is by virtue of what a human is and not by virtue of some imagined right of prey animals not to be prey only for humans. “Hunting is unbecoming a civilized, moral being” is a very different argument than “Animals have a right not to be hunted by humans.” Therefore, animals do not have rights.

If that is so, then using animals is not intrinsically wrong as the argument from rights suggests. Therefore, using animals becomes wrong only under certain conditions. Therefore, if using animals is always wrong, it is only because those conditions happen to be always present. The only conditions that could possibly render using animals wrong are two: The universal availability of equally good alternatives, and the impossibility that using animals be humane. But those conditions are not universal. Indeed many non-animal alternatives, as good as some may be, are not equally good by any rational assessment that considers all the factors. (Eating, for instance, is not only about nutrition: Two equally nutritious meals may be unequal in myriad respects. Tofu. Beef. You decide.) It has been suggested that all use of animals is intrinsically inhumane. That cannot be true.  If we care for our livestock well, they will have better (even if shorter) lives than left on their own. They will be better fed, protected from predators and diseases—safer, healthier, happier—while they live. I admit, the profit motive makes it tempting to treat animals badly, and that is wrong. But it’s the ill treatment only and not the ultimate use of the animals that is wrong.

But let’s ignore that. If animals have rights, then we have rights like they do. A bear is territorial. So are humans. If a bear comes into my territory, it violates my rights, just as I do if I enter its territory. Just as the bear has rights to defend its territory, often violently, and it has a right not to listen to reason and apologies, so do I have a right to defend my territory from the bear. Why should a bear have the right to free run of my property if I do not have the right to free run of its territory? Aren’t humans mere animals?

But let’s ignore that. Because of animal rights, humans have a duty to overcome their enjoyment of meat, appreciation of leather and fur, defense of themselves and their property and their families, their so-called right to clear land and grow crops and have them pollinated, their so-called right to have families and build homes. We rightly get upset when a human shoots a bear for coming into his yard and threatening his children. That family shouldn’t live in bear country and if they do then the children shouldn’t play outside. Nor can we keep the rabbits and deer and squirrels out of our vegetable gardens and farms, which we’ll depend all the more on if we don’t eat meat. Since our right to self-defense does not extend to predators preying on our very selves, how on earth can it extend to herbivores eating our mere plants? It cannot. We cannot even keep a dog to scare other animals away, unless the dog can thrive on soy burgers since we cannot provide it with meat. The funny thing is, the dog would not violate anything’s rights in itself, even if it killed a trespassing rabbit. But acting on a human’s behalf, it would. We would not be able to sic even a vegan dog on a deer or a bear if the dog was our weapon.

So, if the animal rights folks are right, that means, ultimately, that humans have to wipe themselves out. Here’s how it will happen. At first, our farms that grow our vegetables will have to be increased for two reasons. One is, more people will be eating only vegetables, so we’ll need bigger farms. The other is that since we cannot control animals that feast on our crops, we’ll need farms big enough to support them and us. But that will cause such animals to proliferate and to not seek food in the wild. We will not survive. Ultimately, we need to disappear. It’s the only way.

Either that, or animals don’t have rights.

But let’s ignore that.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

On Power Outages and Bioethics

It's been almost a month since we lost power for nearly a week after that intense October snowstorm. My wife pointed out that nature is awesome and man's amazing technological prowess is so fragile in comparison. She really kept her chin up.

I wish I had her outlook on things. I was annoyed at several things. I actually was coming home with one of my kids that afternoon and couldn't get closer than a mile or two from home before I had to give up and park the car on a side street. My wife came in the other car, which has all wheel drive, to pick us up. We got a ticket for leaving the car parked on a street during a snowfall. (We're going to fight it.) I was also annoyed at the power company for its fragile system, so easily and so massively taken down. I was annoyed on that Monday, Halloween, because the trains weren't running and I lost out on a whole day of work. I'm working freelance now, so I didn't get paid.

The power company said it would be several days before power was restored, so I went out and bought a modest generator. So not only did I not get paid, I spent like $700 to keep my house and my family from freezing. The darn generator could not be hooked up to our furnace, though, so we bought a couple of space heaters that use so much wattage that the generator couldn't run more than two (and then not at their full power), along with the refrigerator. Our water is also on a well, which has an electric pump, which also could not be connected to the generator. (We'll get an electrician when the budget allows to set up a circuit to run the furnace and the water for the next time.) Luckily, I had the kids fill the bathtub ahead of the storm and I filled a half dozen empty milk jugs so we could at least flush the toilets. Cooking was interesting.

I was annoyed at all of that. But we made do. After a few days, it was beginning to get old. I replenished the tub with snow (and leaves and grass mixed in) and we refilled the jugs at my in-laws' house. Several times.

Well. It finally dawned on me. As much as we need electricity -- we humans are probably too dependent upon it, actually -- it's not by "power" that we live. Not that kind of power. We live by divine power.

And there's the bioethical connection. At least sort of. This blog, and my approach to bioethics is founded on the fact (disputed by some, but a fact nonetheless) that man is God's image. Bioethics, in order to be authentically ordered to man's true good, has to account for this fact. And the fact that man's true good is not bodily, but spiritual. As my kids began picking up on my annoyance and got annoyed themselves, I realized I couldn't persist like that. And so, finally, I was annoyed at being annoyed and losing sight.

We live by God's power. Not by electricity. Not by electro-dependent technology. We do not define ourselves. We make electricity, and nature can take it away in a heartbeat. There is a movement called trans- and post-humanism that envisions man remaking himself technologically, things like man-machine hybrids (sort of like Darth Vader and the Borg). Geesh. What would happen to such creatures when the power goes out? You want power? You want to live for ever? Then draw close to Power Itself, Life Itself. No technology of man's, now or ever in the future, will enable a person to do that.

The funny thing is, despite not having electricity for nearly a week, our electric bill for the month including that week was higher than last month. How is that possible, when we were off the grid for so long? That's a question for the power company to answer.

Well, things are back to normal for a few weeks now.

Back to forgetting, some of us, where the real power comes from.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Lesbian Parents Prove That Boys Need Fathers?

The conventional wisdom is that homosexual parents are able to parent as well as a married heterosexual couple. Yes, it's possible, I suppose.

Then take this case of two lesbians raising a boy. The kid turns out to be diagnosed with sexual identity disorder. Could be a coincidence. Could be that the boy would have ended up the same even if he were placed in a home with a mother and a father. It's something to think about and discuss. This is not a question about the women's lifestyle or their rights or anything like that. It's about what is in the best interest of the child.

I did write a lot about it and posted it. But I think I can take a more charitable approach to the topic than that post achieved. I have therefore taken it down and will revise it. In the meantime, if you have any thoughts on the matter, please let me know.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Stem Cell Awareness Day - Feast of St. Faustina

Today is apparently National Stem Cell Awareness Day. It is also the feast day of one of our newer saints, St. Maria Faustina, who promoted the devotion to the Divine Mercy.

If one is to be aware of stem cells, the single most important thing to be aware of is the difference between adult and embryonic stem cells. If you look at the website of the Stem Cell Awareness Day organizers, you would be hard pressed to find this distinction. They talk a lot about the value of stem cell research and all the wonder potential treatments that stem cells may one day offer. If you want to find out about this all important distinction, you have to go to the parent site of the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine.

Embryonic stem cells are the early cells of human development, those that are formed in the first few days after fertilization. They have the power to become all of the kinds of cells in the body. We are not told however that obtaining the cells means destroying the embryo. We are not told that no proven treatments using embryonic cells have been developed. We are just left to believe that embryos are simply one source of stem cells.

Another thing we are not told is that when embryonic stem cells are used for treatments of particular diseases -- say, embryonic stem cells are implanted into the brain to treat a degenerative disease such as Parkinson's -- that many do go on to become brain cells, but that many more tend to develop into the 200 or so types of cells in the body: bone, hair, teeth, skin, muscle, you name it. That is called a teratoma, and is the result of the embryonic stem cells' inclination to develop into a whole body.

That information is also hard to find on the CIRM website, at least not in a context friendly to lay users.

Adult stem cells, on the other hand, have been used to treat dozens of diseases already. Bone marrow transplants are a commonly used procedure. Adult stem cells can be modified to act like embryonic stem cells. And their use does not result in teratomas.

So, it also happens to be the feast of St. Faustina. From St. Faustina we have the devotion known as the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, and an extensive diary delineating in some detail her personal encounters with Jesus and his desire that people cultivate a devotion to the mercy of God that is evident in his Passion.

The use of embryonic stem cells is always portrayed as necessary if we are to be merciful to the people who suffer from diseases that such cells may one day perhaps possibly maybe be able to treat. Yet evidence of their potential is only in theory with little actual data suggesting any value whatsoever or even that it is possible to go from theory to practice. Meanwhile, amazing leaps and bounds and proven therapies have already been accomplished with adult stem cells.

And we have to ask, how merciful is embryonic stem cell research to the embryos?

The best supporters of embryonic stem cell research can do is say that they doubt the embryo is a human person. All the data suggest otherwise, even if they are right in saying it does not add up to proof. You try to reason with them, and they just say, "I reject your reasoning." Should a hunter shoot at something moving in the bushes if his friend says it might be a person? No. Should a demolition expert about to blow up a building carry out his task if someone says, Wait, I think a person is in there? No. Yet, supporters of embryonic stem cell research simply say that these analogies do not apply, and that ends the discussion. "I disagree -- and that gives me the right to conduct embryo destructive research."

I really do not believe it is about mercy to suffering sick people. There is something else. Perhaps research grants. The bit about finding treatments for diseases is mere lip service to the reset of us.

St. Faustina, pray for us.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Euthanasia and Suicide Now an Amusement Attraction

This sort of proves we're not on a slippery slope at all, but a well-defined and well-charted route toward barbarism masquerading as civility.

This guy got a PhD is amusement park technology ("gravitational aesthetics") and then went on to develop a suicide roller coaster. Yep. A roller coaster so intense, the g-forces deprive the rider's brain of oxygen and kill him. So, instead of hustling ol' granny to Oregon or Switzerland, you just load her in the seat. At the top of the first hill -- 1600 feet high -- she must press the Fall (and die) button. If not, one presumes that she can back slowly down the hill. If the precarious height of the hill doesn't scare her to death, that is.

He obviously thinks that he's doing the world a service. Inventing new and fun ways of killing people. Frankly, one could seriously call his invention a torture device. It's all over in less than a minute after the fall starts, about 3 minutes altogether. Still, to sit there and get pleasure out of dreaming up new and exciting ways of killing people is just plain bizarre.

Really, what separates him from a homicidal maniac? I'll tell you: The selection of victims. He has picked a group of people that ostensibly wants to die, and has gotten his jollies figuring out ways to kill them. He makes it socially acceptable by giving them a safeguard, but that's just lip service to keep people like me from calling him what he is.

Actually, he's onto something that could also solve the moral issues around the death penalty. We should pair up other homicidal maniacs with the suicidal and/or terminally ill. That way, the killer could get his thrills while doing a great service for someone suffering, and his inclination to criminal activity could be channeled into something legal, in high demand, but not very attractive to most people. That way, there would be no need for the death penalty, because all the "victims" would be willing and so not really victims of murder.

The suicide/euthanasia/murder coaster is not built, and I pray to God that it never sees any light beyond this fellow's warped mind.

(Hat-tip to my daughter who pointed this out to me!)

Friday, September 30, 2011

Oh the Irony: "Father" of the Pill

The BBC has a rather strange interview with Carl Djerassi, one of the researchers who developed the first oral contraceptive that quickly became known as the Pill.

The odd reasoning he employes to tout the superiority of IVF aside, I think it's funny that the BBC called him the "father" of the Pill. The Father of Fatherhood Prevention. Man. Gotta love that tongue-in-cheek British cheek.

(The terminology actually appears not in the page with the article and the video of the interview, but on a banner ad elsewhere on their website promoting the interview.)

As to the interview itself, he supports IVF over natural conceptions because every child conceived by IVF is "wanted" compared with only about 75% of those conceived naturally.

He is not thinking about all those children slated for "selective reduction" - which is to say abortion - in the case of twins, triplets, or more developing as a consequence of IVF.

Nor is he thinking about all those surplus embryos stuck in a frozen limbo because no one wants them.

And "IVF" properly refers to the fertilization in the lab, the union of sperm and ovum in the petri dish; we use it to include implantation of embryos and the whole thing soup to nuts. But such in vitro fertilization is also used to create embryos for research. I suppose they're wanted in some way... but still, it is not that they are wanted as children.

And all you pro-choicers out there: Djerassi talks about "children" and not about anything pre-human.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Our Lady of Sorrows and Bioethics

Our Lady of Sorrows, for those who do not know, is the Blessed Virgin Mary considered as experiencing sorrows regarding the events of her Son's life (and death). Now, we like to think that knowing Jesus in that way - being his Mother, watching him grow up, and all that - as being nothing but filled with joy. But Jesus was a "man of sorrows" (Isaiah 53:3 and following), and it is through His sorrows that He saved sinners. Surely a man's mother would share the sorrows her son experiences, and so it is with the Mother of Jesus.

The devotion to Our Lady of Sorrows, also called the Seven Sorrows of Mary, consists in meditating on seven key sorrowful events in the life and death of Jesus at which Mary was present. These are:
  • The prophecy of Simeon, where it is foretold that Jesus - God's great gift of mercy and salvation - would be opposed by the very people he came to save.
  • The flight of the Holy Family into Egypt because of the diabolical hostility of some sinners to God's plan of salvation, even to the extermination of baby boys in the hope of killing Jesus.
  • The loss of the boy Jesus in the temple, the separation from God that we all experience because of sin
  • Meeting Jesus on the way of the Cross - where the effects of sin are most evident in Jesus' sufferings
  • The death of Jesus on the Cross
  • Taking down the body of Jesus, where tradition holds that Mary held his body prior to burial (depicted in many works of art as the Pietá)
  • The burial of Jesus
One would meditate on each event while reciting the Angelic Salutation (better known as the Hail Mary).

The purpose of the meditation and the devotion in general is to form oneself spiritually, as understanding our own individual role in causing, in some sense, each of these sorrows by sinning. We all sin. We should stop. This is not about "oh, how awful I am, I am such a wretch," but rather coming to grips with the fact that we do, by sinning in little and big ways, demonstrate the monstrous ingratitude and even hostility of sinful man that underlie the sorrows. Now, we may not "feel" like we have ingratitude or hostility, but if we sin - and we all do - then in those moments we are acting contrary to genuine gratitude and allegiance to God and His work of mercy and salvation. This is not to downplay the value of meditating on joys and so forth, but we deceive ourselves in contemplating the joys if we do not work to overcome our role in the sorrows because without addressing the latter we will not experience the former in the best way.

So, what does all this have to do with bioethics?

The first principle of ethics is "do good and avoid evil." Bioethics is the subset of ethics that deals with man's life and health, so this principle applies also but must be applied to what constitutes man's true and highest good and its opposite pertaining to health and life.

"What man is" determines "what man ought to do." Secular bioethics is basically atheistic and has a concept of man as merely biological, a sophisticated body with bodily processes. Dislodged from any authority higher than man himself, indeed denying any moral authority higher than the individual who is contemplating what he should and should not do, ethics in general and bioethics in particular degenerates into a free-for-all, an ethical anarchy. Any semblance of respect for law and order comes only from the power of the forces of the law to punish lawbreakers, or from a personal decision that the laws make sense (as opposed to submission to universal principles of justice to which laws ought to conform). The rationales employed by secular bioethics appear to be largely lip service to existing laws. In the end, secular bioethics can justify anything. It indeed justifies the complete destruction of the human race and its replacement by something that some few human beings deem in their idiosyncratic judgment to be a better life form. It's called posthumanism.

In secular bioethics there can be no agreement as to what constitutes man's highest good, because every individual will have his own idea of it. There can be no consensus except regarding the most general of platitudes, like the elimination of disease and aging (which some believe can be dealt with ultimately only by eliminating the human body altogether... but if man is only his body....) And, individuals find it difficult to separate their own personal highest goods (whatever they individually might decide them to be) from their goals for the human race. In the end, it is about the right of some few to impose their concept of the good and of morality on the whole human race, and to eradicate those who oppose them.

It is more complicated than that. I oversimplify. But that's the gist.

In contrast, an authentic bioethics has to consider an authentic anthropology, which is necessarily theological. Man is God's image. If so, then man's highest good is not determined by consensus or opinion dislodged from universal principles and from God but by the nature of man as image of God. And that highest good is God himself. The first principle of an authentic bioethics, then, is "refine and do not damage the image of God." Authentic bioethics must regard man's physical life and health as ordered to his spiritual life and health. People reveal and form themselves by their choices. They need to choose well, particularly in bioethics, if they are to reveal and form themselves as images of God. Otherwise, they reveal and form themselves in other ways, and field of bioethics will go astray in the ways noted above.

As an image of God, man is constituted as a union of body and soul, and not just a body, and not as a soul that happens to be locked in a body. The second principle of authentic bioethics relates to this fact: "perfect and do not damage the union of soul and body." Union of the soul and the body constitutes bodily life, the primary concern of bioethics. Separation of the body and soul constitutes death. Sin disrupts the union between the body and soul and is the cause of some degree of separation. Sin is the beginning of death in man. Because of this, sin is a legitimate concern of bioethics.

The devotion to Our Lady of Sorrows pertains to combating sin. It pertains to our individual battle against sin. It pertains to the general battle of God against sin and His gift of mercy and salvation to sinners. It is about our attitude to suffering and death and how it has spiritual value.

So, Our Lady of Sorrows is a devotion for bioethicists who subscribe to an authentic anthropology and thus to an authentic bioethics. You can find information about this devotion here and here.

IVF and Birth Defects

One of the promises of IVF is that it should avoid birth defects by using sperm washing to identify the "best" ones and pre-implantation screening to hand-pick which embryos will go on to a fully human life. The opposite is the case and it has been known for some time.

This article from nearly three years ago in the NY Times shows an interesting statistic from a study published in November 2008 that IVF increases the risk of birth defects. Specifically, of the nearly 4800 babies in the study born without birth defects, 1.1% were conceived by IVF, whereas of the nearly 9600 babies in the study born with birth defects, 2.4% were conceived by IVF. It's a strange statistic as described by the Times because what we really want to know is the flip side: Of those babies conceived by IVF, what percentage end up with birth defects compared with those conceived naturally? We cannot figure it out from the data because the number of birth defects is hugely disproportionate to the incidence of birth defects in the general populate. Also, we do not know the rate of IVF among the general population from the study.

But the data do suggest that artificial reproductive techniques using IVF in some way increase the risk of birth defects.

This other story relates the travails of a fertility physician in Canada who is being sued because of the birth defects associated with IVF. The problem in this physician's view stems from how IVF practitioners routinely transfer 2 or more embryos into the womb to maximize the chance that at least one thrives--often more than one will, and multiple births are associated with birth defects and other difficulties. He and many other IVF practitioners have taken to transferring only one embryo at a time instead of multiple ones to minimize the risks.

And possibly increase the profits. If singleton transfers do not always take, then multiple singleton transfers will be necessary to achieve one live birth. And that means more procedures. And more money.

Now, if only the number of embryos created by IVF could be reduced precisely to the number that will be implanted at any one time, as is the case in Germany and Italy, there would not be surplus embryos destined for destruction, experimentation, or a ghoulish, indefinite frozen limbo.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Can the Death Penalty Be Pro-Life?

Richard Land in an article at the Washington Post thinks so. I'm not quite as convinced as he is.

I sympathize with his reasoning. People who are undoubtedly guilty of heinous crimes sure do seem to deserve death. I do not know how I would react as the father or husband of a victim of a serious crime. I would certainly be grieved beyond my imagination of grief, and angrier than I have ever been. I do not know what that could feel like, because it exceeds my experience.

Yet the Catholic Church has said more than once that a civilized society ought not resort to the death penalty if the protection of society from that same criminal can be attained in other ways. As a Catholic, I must take what the Church says seriously -- and since the arguments the Church presents do not rely strictly upon Catholic doctrine, everyone else ought to give these arguments serious consideration too. So there are two things to look at: What the criminal deserves, and what society needs.

If justice is tempered by mercy, and the needs of society can be achieved while being merciful, then mercy should prevail. Easy for me to say, considering my loved ones are at the moment safe. Maybe I would see things differently if my circumstances were different.

But ethical principles are universal and apply also to the grieving as much as to the clear-headed. While it may be permissible for civil authorities to use the death penalty, that does not bind civil authorities into actually using it. If a criminal has thrown away his right to live in a free society by his crimes, the penalty can be achieved by removing him from society or by killing him. If a secure way to removing him exists without killing him, then civil authorities should choose that as the means to achieving their goal of protecting society.

Killing someone is always serious business. The Catholic Church recognizes the rights of civil authorities to use lethal force in the protection of the innocent whether it be in a just war or by the death penalty, just as it recognizes the use of lethal force by individuals when it is necessary. But, taking the latter -- what are the ethics that govern the use of lethal force as self defense? First, the use of force should be proportionate to the risk, so there has be a legitimate and real fear of being killed or seriously injured to use potentially lethal force. Second, the use of potentially lethal force should also be the only available means, so if non-lethal force could stop the aggressor, it should be used instead.

I use the word "potentially" by intent. If I am being attacked and I have a gun and the use of that gun is the only way to protect myself in that moment, and disabling the aggressor would accomplish my protection, I should aim for disabling him. If mere disablement would not do it, I should aim for his body, hoping I do not actually kill him. The death of the aggressor is acceptable under the principle of double effect. The secondary effect of his death is foreseen and accepted, but not primarily intended. I should not want to kill him. I should want to stop him. I should accept the possibility of his death only as an unfortunate consequence of the circumstances.

As a Catholic, I must be concerned not only for my own eternal welfare, but also that of the assailant. Yes. Getting the assailant into heaven should be a concern of the victim, believe it or not. It hardly conduces to my own eternal welfare, not to mention his, to wish him dead and to kill him in the midst of his committing a mortal sin and under circumstances in which I might also be meeting God.

With the death penalty, the death of the criminal is expressly desired and accomplished cooly, after a long deliberation, and not in the heat of an immediate and serious conflict. This at least affords the criminal a chance to repent and reconcile to God before he dies. But that same time also demonstrates to civil authorities that the criminal can be removed from civilized society without killing him.

Also, I wonder where the virtues of forgiveness and mercy come into play with the death penalty. Can a grieving father forgive the loss of his beloved child through a brutal and heinous murder? I do not know. Is the death penalty consistent with such forgiveness? Can a society forgive? I do not know these things. But it seems to me that forgiveness is a trait of civilized people more than is vengeance. Mercy is higher and a greater act of power than is justice without mercy.

Jesus said of mercy, The measure with which you measure shall be measured out to you. Forgive, so that  you may be forgiven. I hope if I ever am unfortunate enough to sit face to face with my daughter's killer, I would be to him like I would want God to be with me. All of our sins are guilty of the death of Jesus. It is Jesus's suffering by which those same sins are forgiven. What a mystery. If my pious daughter is with God, and I suffer on earth, could not the sins against her and me somehow turn into the salvation of her killer? What harm and what good would come of trying? Of course, being merciful and forgiving does not necessarily mean not using the death penalty. But it leans in that direction.

All this is easy to say.

And I am convinced that civil authorities need to have the death penalty available to them. It's a matter of use.

But "pro-life" reflects an attitude toward its use that I think is rather different than Richard Land's take on the matter.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Obesity Cause and Effect

Here we go again, using brain research to suggest people act according to how the brain functions and not the other way around. The data -- or at least a presentation of the data in an article at FoxNews.com -- is suggesting that obese people are obese, and thin people aren't, because of the way their brain works. I would look at these data and say that obese people (absent organic causes of obesity such as a thyroid disorder) are in the habit of not balancing their activity and intake of foods, or they are in the habit of eating foods that incline to obesity, and thin people in another habit -- and their brain activity reflects their habits.

In other words, it is not as though people are hard-wired from birth to be either slim or obese. Obese people are not predestined or even at a disadvantage because of their brains to obesity. Their habits might be causing their difficulties and also causing the associated brain activity. Change the habits and the brain activity changes along with it.

The study in question is not the best. It is tiny and therefore the results are subject to scrutiny until a larger study with better statistical power comes along to verify it. Also, it would be nice to see the same kind of study to include people who have lost a significant amount of weight and have succeeded in keeping it off. In fact, it would be really cool to track a cohort of obese subjects through weight loss, say, monthly, for a year or two. I would love to see how the initial brain activity patterns change over time and if there is any pattern among those who keep the weight off and those who gain it back.

It seems to me that there are foods -- foods with sugars and especially high fructose corn syrup -- that make it hard to lose weight and keep it off. The offending stuff lurks in so-called healthy foods such as Gatorade energy/fitness drinks, health/energy bars, and that sort of thing. It's all over the place. If you are of a good weight and highly active, such things might be fine for you, when you are in the midst of a vigorous, extended activity. But for people to be sitting in their offices at work quaffing an energy drink to have energy for their computer work I believe is physically destructive.

At any rate, weight loss is difficult and the reasons for the difficulty are complex. It's not an easy task. If you are struggling with weight, you have my admiration in your struggle. Keep at it. You can do it.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Margaret Sanger Gets Her Wish With Abortion

Lifesite news has a story about an engaging project by Chiaroscuro showing the abortion rate in New York City by zip code. In some neighborhoods, 70% of pregnancies are ending in abortion. Sad.

But what will make Margaret Sanger happy is that the highest rates of abortion are in predominately black neighborhoods. Sanger was a racist and a eugenicist who didn't like poor black people and other minorities. She founded Planned Parenthood, not to defend the right of women to get abortions, but to defend the right of physicians to perform them on "undesirables."

Planned Parenthood is not about serving the poor, it is about eliminating them and making money along the way. I hope leaders among the African-American community take note. They are being exploited. Sixty percent of black babies are being aborted. That is the future of your community. Annihilation.

Hispanics have the next highest rate of abortion at over 40%. Sanger is happy about that because most of the Hispanics are Catholic, so she gets to kill two birds with one stone. Hispanics out there -- seriously, rediscover your Catholicity and get back on track with marriage and your strong sense of family, and stop letting Planned Parenthood make you pay to have them ruin your future.

You think the men are the problem? They quite possibly are. But let me tell you something: If the women band together, and they live by traditional moral values (such as "waiting until marriage" and "marriage is forever" and "children are a blessing") the men will fall in line. Believe me. It may take a while, but if you band together and take the high road, the men will follow. I know, it's no excuse for the men to behave the way they do. They should find it in themselves to be honorable and decent and caring and committed. It's true. Wake up men! But is so easy to be otherwise when the women let them get away with having their fun and running from responsibility.

Maybe the women like it this way too, I don't know. They don't get tied down to a guy who might turn out to be a loser. They can shop around. Have some fun. But what does it get them? The pleasure of forking over hard-earned money to Margaret Sanger's buddies?

Anyway, the data were interesting, if depressing.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Neuroscience and Free Will

Here's an interesting article on neuroscience trying to prove that human beings do not have free will. These researchers asked people to choose between clicking a button with their left forefinger and clicking another button with their right forefinger. Test subjects shown a rapid, random sequence of letters, with the choice of whether to click up to them. They were asked to note when and what letter was showing when they clicked, that is, when they were aware of having made a choice. They were also placed in an MRI to monitor brain activity during the process.

Results show, they claim, that the decision was predictably preceded by a particular pattern of brain activity, in some cases as much as seven full seconds ahead of the choice. Based on the brain activity, researchers could predict the subsequent choice with 60% accuracy--better than chance, but not very accurate.

Now, this particular article leaves me asking some questions. For instance, what exactly is the working definition of being aware of having made a choice? Is it the moment of actually pressing a button? Can't someone make a choice before externalizing it?

Also, the researchers seem to believe that the choice is between two alternatives, clicking the right or left buttons. But I see a total of at least 5 options at work, maybe more. The two the researchers proposed, plus the option to not click either button, and to hold off clicking the right, and to hold off clicking the left.

I personally believe the choice is far more complex even than 5. What about the "next-I'll-choose-left-but-wait-awhile-and-then-CLICK-oh-I-meant-to-click-my-other-left" choice? Or the "change-my-mind-in-the-middle-of-deciding" choice? I could imagine myself as a test subject thinking, "OK, next I'll click the right button.... Now!--NO WAIT--OK, NOW!... alright next let's see... I'll click left NOW, ok, that's done.... what shall I click next? I know, I'll click the left button every time I see an M, and the right one when I see an A.... now I'll play air guitar for a while and be sort of random...." I suppose some people might be more straightforward, but even the straightforward and diligent persons will be thinking about what they're doing.

But at any rate, the choice to click would likely be made well ahead of actually clicking. In many cases, the act of clicking may not even be a real choice, but a kind of reflex response to the pre-made choice, so the test may not be testing free will at all. Free will isn't really about choosing which unimportant button to click. Because the choice doesn't really matter, neither does it matter if it's free or reflex.

St. Thomas Aquinas locates free will in the deliberation in selecting a means to a particular end, since we are always inclined to some good in the end we seek. Also, all ends are means to further ends, except the Final End, which ought to be God. Therefore, a proximate end, insofar as it is also a means to a more remote end, is also an object of deliberation.

Because all ends are also means, they become ethical or moral by virtue of the more remote ends to which they are ordered, and of course whether or not they are ordered to a suitable final end. If "I" am my own final end (or riches or fame or power or pleasure, which conduce to "me" being the final end anyway), that would cast a shadow over the morality of all of my choices.

At any rate, free will is in the choice of a means. "When" to click a button is only part of the deliberation. "Which" and "whether" and "if so, under what circumstances" are also part of the reasoning process going into the actual decision to click.

This neuroscience study does not seem properly designed to test all that. And even if it were, it would only show brain function, not freedom or lack thereof. That brain function could still be an instrumental rather than pure efficient cause, and thus evidence of the intellectual soul using the brain to deliberate ahead of the act of clicking a button.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Myth of the Slippery Slope

This is an idea I intend to elaborate upon in time. People concerned for the authentic human good (and I believe myself to be one of them) see things as being on a slippery slope. First, abortion becomes legal at a time when most people considered it an abhorrent crime. Then, people begin accepting it. Then, it becomes a right. Then, we start killing off our old and infirm. And then what? Where does it end? We're going down a slippery slope.

There is a certain validity to that notion. But it is ultimately a matter of perspective.

If you want society to head toward a eugenic weeding out of the poor, sick, and useless, and have had a hard time in the last century or so garnering public support, you start slow. You get people used to an idea. You push it a little farther. Then a little more. Soon, you'll have everyone clamoring for what you want to achieve.

But, I think the whole eugenic thing is also only part of the puzzle, and although its proponents think about improving the human race in some way, I think there's an ancient mastermind behind it who just want us to get used to killing "the unfit," and the definition of "unfit" will eventually refer to the class of naysayers who stand in the way of Progress. Ultimately, it's about killing off the human race altogether, or warping it beyond recognition and replacing it with something else, something not essentially ordered to God but to some other thing. In the lore of Middle Earth, the Orcs began as Elves, and were twisted and manipulated into evil creatures.

So I think the slippery slope is a myth. For those who support things like euthanasia and abortion and all manner of death technologies, it is not a slippery slope at all, but a well mapped expedition. The so-called "safeguards" to prevent things slipping further are just lip service to lull naysayers into complacency. We call it a slippery slope, but they sit back and say, "Everything's going according to plan."

More on this when I can.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Information Superhighway Is Officialy Bumper-to-Bumper with Rusty Old Heaps

I am trying to find out some of the back-story to the encyclical Arcanum, published in 1880 by Leo XIII, responding to ongoing usurpation of the rights of the Church by secular powers regarding marriage. There are some things I know. For instance, Victor Emmanuel had recently unified Italy, conquering all the papal states on the peninsula except for the Vatican, which was pretty much defenseless when he stopped. Darwin, Marx, and Nietzsche were all in vogue, and Freud was waiting in the wings. Divorce laws were being liberalized.

But what was Pope Leo actually responding to? What specific events, what particular changes in civil law in what years, what exactly was the secular state doing? So I did what anyone living 130 years after Arcanum was issued, I googled it.

The results fall into just a few categories:
  • The actual text of the encyclical, either on the website itself, or linked to it residence on newadvent.org or the Vatican website (speaks only generally)
  • The text of the Catholic Encyclopedia (1917 edition) entry on the encyclical (not helpful to me)
  • Line-items on "this day in history"
  • Various other posts, entries, etc., linking to one or more of the above
  • References to some video game or something by the same name
If what I'm looking for is out there, then that information is stuck hours from its destination (namely, me) in traffic. Useless, relentless traffic. Anyone who's been on the Garden State Parkway northbound on a Sunday evening knows what I mean. Or what I'm looking for doesn't actually exist on the web. I cannot believe that no one on Planet Earth has written and posted an academically reasonable few paragraphs about what was going on to inspire Pope Leo to issue Arcanum. Even the Wikipedia entries on divorce (which includes a terribly thin section on its history) and Arcanum offer nothing of utility.

So, I gotta search another way. I'll try "19th-century secularism" or something. But then I'll have weed through the junk of that google search instead.

Or I'll just have to fake it in the project I'm working on for which I need this information. I just hope my dissertation director lets it slide.

Update:  The refined search led me to a large book on Scribd that fits the bill!

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Obsoleter and Obsoleter: Embryonic Stem Cell Research

Researchers are getting the idea that if they want to make marketable and thus profitable medical therapies based on stem cells, then they ought to focus on sources other than embryos.

This article profiles several biotech companies using a person's own fat cells as a source for adult stem cells. These cells are then coaxed (in the lab) into differentiating into other kinds of cells, as needed, for whatever regenerative medicine the person needs. Researchers who really want to get results rather than just suck up to the government for grant money are flocking away from embryonic cells not only as being ethically bankrupt, but therapeutically bankrupt, too. Eventually, that line of research will become economically bankrupt.

I'm unemployed right now, so I'm not investing any money any time soon. I wish I could, because I'd put a little money into these companies. And I wish I could get a commission for recommending them. And these companies are in addition to NeoStem, which the Vatican has invested with, as I noted in another post.

Embryonic stem cell research has no ethical foundation whatsoever. None. If you disagree, let's talk about it.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

More evidence that IVF makes things weird

A recent court case involves a young girl who was conceived by IVF two years after her father died. The mother wants the child to collect survivor's benefits from her father's Social Security. On the one hand, we all have sympathy for the mother and the child, and this is not about that. I am willing to bet that the family has basically sound ethical principles and is acting according to what they believe to be right. On the other hand, it smells an awful lot like -- in the hands of the unscrupulous -- a way someone can abuse the system.

Normally, survivor benefits are for people who survive the death of a parent or spouse. So, normally, one has to be alive before one can be a survivor. The benefits are to help reduce the financial burden that the survivors are experiencing due to the loss of the wage-earning family member. Many states have laws permitting survivor benefits only if the child was conceived while the deceased was still alive. This child, however, experienced no loss of anything she had, because she was conceived and born in a particular and known economic situation, two years after the man's death.

Some states permit widows to conceive by their late husbands through artificial means up to two years after the man's death, for the children to qualify for survivor's benefits. So, the law has a cut-off, but how long will that last? Seriously, what is the difference between a child born within 24 months and one born within 25 months? The cut-off seems arbitrary and in principle cannot stand. Every child that is recognized as the deceased's offspring should qualify for benefits, regardless of when he was conceived. That would include children conceived by the widow, as well as any other woman, because illegitimate children also get survivor's benefits.

I have to admit that I do not know enough about how Social Security benefits work. Is there a certain amount that gets divided among surviving children? Or does each survivor get a certain amount, and more survivors that get conceived later (see how weird that is?) will get the same amount? It's probably the latter up until a certain maximum is reached, after which they split the maximum evenly. Well, then, there's an incentive to have as many posthumous kids for your husband, up to the maximum benefit. If there is no maximum, you can see how this could become a way of working the system.

And how does this apply for widowers, using their late wives' frozen ova for IVF? Just a question.

At any rate, IVF makes things weird. Like the 4-1/2-year-old kid who survived hurricane Katrina 6 years ago. They named him Noah. I'm glad he survived and that he's in the world, but you have to admit that it's just plain strange to be a survivor of something that happened two years before you were born.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Yet ANOTHER Reason Embryonic Stem Cell Research Is Obsolete

The reason ESCR is obsolete is that we do not need embryonic cells to obtain the therapeutic goals that are so desired.

First, there are adult stem cells in your body right now that could be used for therapies. Those adult stem cells can be induced to the pluripotent stage, such that they could become any cell necessary for a medical treatment. Work still needs to be done, but the obsolescence of ESCR is clear from adult stem cell research alone.

Now researchers have found that amniotic fluid is a rich source of stem cells that exhibit properties of both embryonic and adult stem cells. These cells are already demonstrating therapeutic promise in early animal studies. Plus, they are an abundant source of cells for banking for use later on in life by the person who was in the amniotic fluid prior to birth.

So, why are people still pursuing ESCR? Because of MONEY. Don't believe the rhetoric about therapies. Other sources of stem cells are ALREADY being used for a multitude of therapies, and any therapeutic potential of ESC can be satisfied by these other sources.

It's scam, and it's all about the money. Human beings are being created and destroyed for research grants to study a therapeutic dead-end. If anyone knows of another reason, please tell me about it.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Thoughts on male contraception

I like the Second Hand Smoke blog on the First things website, and there's an interesting discussion going on over there about the prospects of new kinds of hormonal male contraception. These products (I refrain from calling them medicines) will use hormones to prevent sperm production or at least result in damaged sperm that cannot cause fertilization or result in a viable embryo.

Wesley Smith rightly points out that male contraception will not suffer from the same pitfalls as female non-barrier methods. I quote Smith:
  • There would be no arguments about whether the technique was an abortifacient, since the medication prevents sperm from forming or maturing sufficiently to fertilize an egg.
  • There would be no argument about whether the contraception prevented ovulation or implantation, as with the female birth control pill.
  • There would be no arguments, as often now rage about female birth control that prevent implantation, as to whether creating an inhospitable uterine environment takes the life of an early embryo.
  • There would be no arguments about whether a woman carrying an embryo in her fallopian tube is yet actually pregnant.
  • Finally, I think a male contraceptive would promote greater societal comity since fewer pharmacists would presumably object to dispensing the male contraception, than female forms such as the “morning after pill,” since by doing so they would not possibly be complicit in the taking of a nascent human life.
These things being true, will male contraception therefore be ethical? Saying so presumes that the reason other forms of contraception are unethical are because of the outcomes affecting fertilized ova. Four of Smith's points above pertain directly to such outcomes.

Smith wonders if male contraception might be acceptable to the Catholic Church. The position of the Catholic Church is that contraception is immoral because of what contraception is within the sexual act, and not what it does downstream after the act. Barrier methods also avoid the pitfalls that Smith lists above, but they are still contraception.

Contraception alters the sexual act by depriving it of its intrinsic power to result in new life. The act itself still means procreation; it is the reproductive act -- the act by which humans reproduce -- and remains so even with contraception. But contraception robs it of one of its intrinsic purposes, and the purpose that actually defines its nature. It reduces it to a source of pleasure only. It is like turning a blind eye to the full truth of a political candidate and focusing only on the qualities one likes. One can do that, but it would be at least dishonest and it makes the candidate not to be who he (or she) really is, but who one wants him to be. Contraception does that to sex. And, sex is a special case because new human life hangs in the balance, so it is not like other human pastimes or actions.

That does not rely on any religious opinions on beliefs. So it applies to everyone, not just Catholics.

Contraception also impedes God's providence through the sex act, and sets up one's own desires pertinent to having contracepted sex as the rule that judges whether or not it is a good thing. Now, sin requires the knowledge that a particular act is a sin, so it may be that some people truly do not sin in using contraception. But for a believer, contraception has at the very least a subconscious determination that "I" know best what is a good outcome of the sex act. Knowing a thing to be a sin includes whether we rationalize and convince ourselves that what we want to do is okay by God.

So it is not likely that male contraception will be "approved" by the Catholic Church. Because it is not a pronouncement by the Church that "contraception is wrong" that makes contraception wrong. Rather, it is the intrinsic nature of contraception that is wrong and upon which the Church has made its pronouncement.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Hell is a place of mercy

Hell is not really a bioethical issue, at least not directly. Hell is the negative reinforcement, the deterrent factor, in having a workable ethics. We naturally want to do what is good and right – but why do we want to avoid what is evil and wrong? If there is no hell, there is no reason to “do good and avoid evil,” the very first principle of anything that can be called “ethics.” Hell is life opposed to good. If there is no hell, then there is nothing opposed to good.

There is a new book out about hell, written by Protestant pastor, Rob Bell. Bell basically thinks hell is on earth, and that everyone will be saved and go to heaven. He has a hard time accepting that a loving God would “send” anyone, anyone at all, to a place of eternal torment.

Unfortunately, justice is a part of love. If everyone gets to heaven, regardless of the evil perpetrated in earthly life, then there is no justice and no love. If there is no recompense for evil actions, there is no reward for good.

Without hell, there is no need to do good and avoid evil, because the outcome is the same. Self-sacrifice is meaningless. Suffering is meaningless. Not indulging oneself regardless of who it hurts or what the outcomes are is meaningless. Murder, genocide, global warming, Ponzi schemes, exploitation, dishonesty – it’s all meaningless because you go to heaven anyway.

Likewise, even if there is neither heaven nor hell as atheists believe, then there is also no reason to do good and avoid evil. You die, and that’s it. You no longer exist. So why bother about what your reputation will be when you’re gone? Why not live entirely for yourself, even if it hurts others along the way? It seems unconscionable, but think about it. Once you die, neither you nor the people you use and hurt matter any longer. You cannot be harmed by other people's hate and their hatred has no object. Whether or not they are harmed is irrelevant, because you're dead and they'll eventually die, too.

Now, I don’t know many atheists who would agree with that, as many do try to lead good lives. But I’m talking about the ethical principles at work. Why do they try to lead good lives? Without hell and heaven, there is no ethical principle higher than “what I want for myself.” And that might include being kind to people and accepting a loss of a personal good for the sake of something greater. However, it would be a totally personal choice. It would be “good” because it is what you want. If God doesn't exist, there is no universal and objective good or principle of behavior that demands assent. And some people could quite ethically choose to please themselves and hurt others. We might disagree with it, but we can't say it's “wrong” or “evil.”

Atheists and relativists I think have a hard time accepting the notion of hell because they feel entitled to define things like “love” and “good” for themselves. “If God is 'love' (the way 'I' define it), then there is no hell.” Well, who can argue against that? If you define love to exclude the possibility of hell, then you have to be right—if “love” is actually something you can define for yourself.

What if love is an objective reality, not subject to idiosyncratic definitions? What if it has its own attributes and properties, that we must recognize and accept if we call ourselves reasonable and open-minded?

Justice has to be a part of love, because it means given each one his due, be it reward or punishment. It is out of love for persons that we strive to give each his due. 

But, if justice is a part of love, then some people go to hell. God loves himself after all, and he loves human beings. God is love, and he is what he does. Can he love himself –can he be love – if he rewards hate, and in particular hatred of himself? Can people who hate him be in a mutual relationship of love with him, which is what heaven is? Can a square be a circle?

If everyone goes to heaven, then the people who hate God must at some point come to love him. If that does not happen before the end of their earthly life, then it has to happen after death. I suppose it is possible. But there are only two ways it can happen. One is, God reveals himself to those about to die, and the true, loving nature of God melts the cold, hateful heart of those who hate him, and they come to love him. And this happens without fail in every case. The other is, God more or less forces the hateful person to love him. Some people do not distinguish the two.

The second at any rate does not happen, because we are free and we cannot be both free and subject to that kind of force. Besides, a loving God would not use that kind of force. And, it is not love if it is forced out of us, it has to be freely given. Being free makes the first unlikely, too. In seeing the true nature of God, there will surely be those who hate him all the more, because in creating them as finite and frail humans, he deprived them of being gods and caused all the hardships in their earthly lives. Seeing his majesty and goodness, such persons would resent him. They would hate him for not sharing his divinity with them.

Ironically, heaven is a participation in the divine nature. Those who hate God could have had it, if they only loved God instead. But they hated him. If such hatred persists after death as it seems it must, there is a hell. It is what such people want and deserve after all. 

However, hell is eternal. Is that really just? Is that loving? I say it is. I say hell actually is a place of mercy. 

Whoever hates God as described has achieved an evil that is in some respect infinite. It is infinite insofar as the hated object is infinite, and it is infinite because the person has refused to change. Therefore, the punishment, which the person freely prefers over being with God, has to have a dimension of infinity as well.

A punishment has two dimensions. One is duration. The other is severity. Since the punishment lasts forever, we know that the duration is infinite. However, the severity need not be. In fact, it cannot be infinite, or else it would annihilate the person. Perhaps the sufferings of hell are not even as intense as the person deserves them to be, because God in his mercy can make them less intense. There is no need for them to be overly severe, because there is no escape from them.

And in that sense, hell is a place of mercy.

It is like the criminal court judge sentencing a serial killer who deserves the death penalty. Would it not be an act of mercy to give him life in prison instead? Either way, his life in society with good people is over forever. Yet it is a mercy to let him live.

The question some might have is the purpose of the sufferings of hell. Punishment is usually ordered to correction of behavior, which would be out of love of the guilty party in some way. Sometimes it is for retribution, which in some respect reflects love of the injured party. Neither applies to hell, because the person cannot change his ways after death, and because God needs no retribution nor do the human victims once they are in heaven. In some respects, the sufferings simply are – suffering is the way things are apart from God.

The sufferings of those in hell might serve other purposes for those not in hell as well, so that some good might come from it. The sufferings inspire the good to be good and to repent of their evil while they can. That is the deterrent factor. 

The sufferings can also be looked at like this. Most people who hate God love themselves more. They have chosen themselves (or some other creature) as their own gods, and in death they realize that they are not and can never be gods. And so the horrors of hell are: The realization of how pathetic their gods are, being doomed to serve the pathetic gods they chose in life, and seeing the infinite good that they have forsaken forever in favor of the infinitesimal good they preferred.

These things will surely torment someone forever.

God cannot change the fact that hell has torments. God is Truth, and it is against the nature of truth to make that which is true to become untrue. Rejecting and hating God means accepting and preferring torment to heaven. God can mitigate those torments and order those torments to the good of those not in hell, which are acts of mercy. So hell does serve God’s mercy, even for those in it.

To deny the existence of an eternal hell is to deny the attributes of justice and mercy to God. Justice, because evil earns the same eternal reward as good. Mercy, because if there is no possibility of punishment, than there can be no mitigation of punishment. 

It also, in a way, denies God’s power. For if there is no eternal, inescapable hell, then no one needs to be saved from it. God lets everyone into heaven because he has no power to keep them out.
Hell therefore affirms God’s existence, complete with his perfect power, justice, and mercy.

Friday, March 18, 2011

GPS for bioethics

When we go on a trip, we put our destination into the GPS, click Go, and it we have our route laid out. Once in a while after we start going, we realize that we put in the wrong destination, so we pick the right destination and turn aside from the first one.

A recent post at Secondhand Smoke talks about how permitting assisted suicide quickly evolves into promoting it. I certainly agree. It's time to take a look at the destination keyed into the bioethics GPS and pick a new one.

Wesley Smith makes a great observation that I will not soon forget: How heartbreaking it must be for a terminally sick or injured person to say to his loved ones that he's thinking of ending it all, and they agree it's a good idea.

Chilling. Creepy. But it happens.

Surely, the sick person wants to hear, "NO! NEVER!! C'mon, Dad/Mom/Sis/Granny, we LOVE you, we want you around as long as possible! I know you're suffering, but we NEED you!! The kids need you!!! I'll talk to the doctor about pain medication for you, we'll do everything we can to make you comfortable. BUT DON'T LEAVE US!!!"  Even if the sick person is adamant about ending his life, surely it must be a huge slap in the face to have no resistance.

It must equally hurt to have only token resistance, fake but polite, like a friend resisting when we offer to pick up the tab at lunch. We appreciate a sincere, "No, let me pay my share," but more often than not it's just his way to say Thank You, and our guest would feel slighted if we agreed to let him pay for his food. We're duty-bound to follow through on our offer.

But when we offer to kill ourselves? "Well, Dad/Mom/Sis/Granny, we want you around, but if that's your decision..." Surely if our loved ones -- our reasons for living -- indicate that they endorse our decision, we really have no reason left to live except selfishness. We would feel duty-bound to die as soon as possible.

So our loved ones' attempt at neutrality fails. Their lack of resistance is tacit endorsement.

Neutrality is simply illusory in these sorts of issues. Not stopping someone from killing himself is endorsement of the deed. We can be neutral about buying a car: "It matters not to me if you buy this one or that one." But neutrality fails when a life is at stake: "It matters not to me if you kill yourself." That is clearly a statement of the lack of worth of the life in question. The same applies to law. A law that permits a thing endorses it. It is seen as a Good Thing To Do.

The article at Secondhand Smoke references a news story about the possibility of Vermont joining Oregon and Washington in permitting assisted suicide. The news article is far from neutral.

It seems that apparent neutrality is really endorsement. And endorsement becomes pressure to those not considering it. Smith argues in part that our society, our culture, must always and actively discourage suicide and voluntary euthanasia, or else we start down the path of duty-bound suicide and involuntary euthanasia.

If we start down a road that leads to a particular destination, we are not obliged to arrive at that destination if we stop or turn off along the way. But if we do not stop, we cannot claim to be surprised if arrive at the destination.

We are on the road to enforced euthanasia according to the bioethics GPS. Faux neutrality is the on-ramp. We've already missed the exit before Assisted Suicide. We really should turn back.

Monday, March 14, 2011

How to Defeat Death Panels

Government death panels are not all-powerful.  The one in Canada that has been holding Baby Joseph’s life in its hands has been defeated. Fr. Pavone from Priests for Life has arranged for Baby Joseph to be transferred to a Catholic, charitable children’s hospital in St. Louis.

St. Louis, the city, is named after King Louis IX of France, who had 11 children. He became king at age 9 under a regent, and reigned from the age of 19 until his death at 55 in 1270.

As for the death panel, the Priests for Life website notes, "The medical board overseeing his case is apparently convinced that giving proper care to 'Baby Joseph' is futile. They don’t mean that the medical care won’t help him. They mean his life in its current condition isn’t worth the trouble."

Baby Joseph is not likely ever to recover from his neurological disease. His life will be short. According to the Canadian death panel, the kid’s life is a waste of time and resources. That is what happens when health care is rationed artificially. 

What Priests for Life has done is to ensure he will be given humane care until the end.