Monday, November 29, 2004

Mathew Shepard

Andrew Sullivan directs us to this interesting article on the Mathew Shepard murder. The reader may remember that Shepard was a homosexual who was brutally murdered after leaving a nightspot with two other men. The crime became a cause celebre among those pushing for hate crime legislation as well as those who wished to portray America as a hot-bed of homophobia.

It turns out that the sordid facts of the case don't lend themselves to either of these purposes.

Modern Marvel

This story tells of a woman who had been paralyzed for twenty years who is now able to walk at least a little as a result of stem cell therapy. This is wonderful news and a partial vindication of President Bush's stance on stem cell research. The cells which were used were taken from umbilical cord blood, not human embryos.

Perhaps one of the most astonishing things about the report is that this woman was able to get up out of her wheel chair despite the fact that John Kerry and John Edwards were not elected on November 2nd.

Academics v. Intellectuals

The Philosophers' Magazine features an article from The Australian which discusses the thoughts of philosopher A.C. Grayling on the difference between academics and intellectuals:

[T]he great Renaissance humanists worked outside the universities, as do today's intellectuals. This makes me much more optimistic about the intellectual tenor of public life than critics of dumbing-down such as Furedi, Wheen and the rest. Grayling argues that surprisingly few university academics in the English-speaking world are intellectuals "in the sense of having wide interests of the mind and deep commitments in moral and political terms, often together with a vocation for deploying these in debate about matters of public concern". A university academic is a specialist in a narrow field who publishes, usually in jargon, technical research in journals of interest only to other specialists.

"Modern academia, on the non-science side, thus reprises the condition of Renaissance universities uncomfortably closely. Contemporary intellectuals inhabit journalism, the media, publishing, non-government organisations; they are writers or artists, commentators or independent entrepreneurs in forms of business related to the media and arts. While many of these intellectuals contribute substantially to the shaping of cultural life, their academic contemporaries pass their time obscurely multiplying footnotes to unreadable, unread and soon forgotten papers."

Ouch! In other words, modern academics, or at least a substantial portion of them, have devoted their lives to a completely pointless pursuit of the trivial and insignificant. One wonders how a haughty author of numerous papers and books that no one has read or cares about reacts to the charge that his life's work is a meaningless waste of time. Not equably, we suspect.

Peter Singer and Might Makes Right

Marvin Olasky does an interview with Peter Singer, the Australian born ethicist now teaching at Princeton, and offers some interesting commentary on Singer's radical views.

Don't expect Peter Singer to be quoted heavily on the issue that roiled the Nov. 2 election, same-sex marriage. That for him is intellectual child's play, already logically decided, and it's time to move on to polyamory. While politicians debate the definition of marriage between two people, Mr. Singer argues that any kind of "fully consensual" sexual behavior involving two people or 200 is ethically fine.

For example, when I asked him last month about necrophilia (what if two people make an agreement that whoever lives longest can have sexual relations with the corpse of the person who dies first?), he said, "There's no moral problem with that." Concerning bestiality (should people have sex with animals, seen as willing participants?), he responded, "I would ask, 'What's holding you back from a more fulfilling relationship?' [but] it's not wrong inherently in a moral sense."

If the 21st century becomes a Singer century, we will also see legal infanticide of born children who are ill or who have ill older siblings in need of their body parts. Question: What about parents conceiving and giving birth to a child specifically to kill him, take his organs, and transplant them into their ill older children? Mr. Singer: "It's difficult to warm to parents who can take such a detached view, [but] they're not doing something really wrong in itself." Is there anything wrong with a society in which children are bred for spare parts on a massive scale? "No."

When we had lunch a month after our initial interview and I read back his answers to him, he said he would be "concerned about a society where the role of some women was to breed children for that purpose," but he stood by his statements. He also reaffirmed that it would be ethically OK to kill 1-year-olds with physical or mental disabilities, although ideally the question of infanticide would be "raised as soon as possible after birth."

He has consistently tossed aside the Declaration of Independence concept that all of us are created equal. Instead, the worth of a life varies according to its rationality and self-consciousness, with no essential divide between animals and humans. For example, given a choice between keeping alive an adult chimpanzee and a human infant, the chimp should beat out the child. He has also thrown out the historical distinction between liberty and license (as in, licentious behavior): Any activity is ethical as long as it is consensual.

Professor Singer's views are shocking but they shouldn't be. He is simply living out, more consistently than most, the implications of an atheistic worldview. Olasky quotes Whittaker Chambers who wrote a half-century ago that, "Man without God is a beast, and never more beastly than when he is most intelligent about his beastliness."

Professor Singer, we say, is more consistent than most atheists but that is not to say that he is totally consistent. He does seem to think that some things are wrong, for example abusing animals, but here he fails to follow the logic of his assumptions. If he's correct about there being no moral authority outside of our own autonomous selves then moral categories like right and wrong are meaningless and empty of content. There are only things that we desire to do and to say that to impose upon those acts some moral value is arbitrary and gratuitous.

Naturalism offers man no moral anchor to keep him from drifting toward whatever behavior his feelings and impulses incline him. Whatever we can do is "right" to do. If Singer were totally consistent, he would simply say that the only ethical system which makes any sense, given his worldview, is the one which says that might makes "right."