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the greatest country on Earth?

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let's call bullshit

let’s call bullshit

Canto: So Michelle Obama thinks America is the greatest country on Earth…

Jacinta: Not just thinks, but tearfully feels, in every cell of her body, but you know, even she must realise it’s all rhetorical baloney.

Canto: I prefer to call it balderdash – less American.

Jacinta: But you can’t blame pollies for getting all jingoistic come election time, can you?

Canto: I do. I can’t stand it at any time. But I want us to reflect for a while on the meaning of ‘the greatest country on Earth’. Is greatness measurable? Is there currently a fifteenth greatest country on Earth? What are the measuring criteria?

Jacinta: I think you’re taking it all too seriously, but it’s interesting – we’ve observed this before – that every nation in history that has had economic and military superiority over others has assumed this entailed moral superiority. Whereas in the world of realpolitik it just means they’re an apex predator.

Canto: I’m sure Donald Frump would agree, though I think he’s wrong to claim that the USA is no longer an apex predator. There can be room for more than one at the top, though it wouldn’t do to let that space get too crowded.

Jacinta: Yes, so ‘greatest’ can only mean ‘most powerful’, it’s not the kind of term you use to measure a nation’s quality for its own citizens.

Canto: But why are Americans so keen to trumpet their nation’s superiority? I mean methinks they do protest too much.

Jacinta: Well a couple of centuries ago, when the Brits had the strongest economy, weren’t they the same?

Canto: Well, not really… I mean, that wouldn’t be British, would it? I mean they thought they were morally superior of course, but they weren’t so utterly boorish as to proclaim it while banging their tits.

Jacinta: Well you’re making a good point. When imperialist nations or superpowers or whatever start believing they’re better than others in some moral way, they may act accordingly, pushing their weight around, hectoring, lecturing, even taking it upon themselves to punish other nations for not being like them.

Canto: Or invading other nations to show them how ‘being great’ is done. So that’s why we need correctives. We need more objective measures, not for measuring national greatness, which is just a term of power, or just rhetoric, but for measuring success in terms of the well-being, happiness, freedom or whatever of the members of that nation.

Jacinta: I think that people like Obama, and so many Americans, really believe in this rhetoric though. They take a term like ‘great’, and they really think it refers to all those other things – opportunity, well-being, smarts, etc.

Canto: Which is why reality checks are in order. Take the ‘land of opportunity’ rhetoric. What this refers to is social mobility. Anyone has the chance to be anything. But there are surely ways to measure social mobility, which are more or less objective.

Jacinta: Certainly more objective than just making the claim. And it’s interesting, we’ve looked at a few national surveys, based on various criteria, and I can’t recall the USA ever coming in the top ten in any of them. Usually it’s well down the list.

Canto: So it’s time to revisit those surveys. First the OECD survey that was posted on in the past, its better life index. The Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)…

Jacinta: Such a positive, feel-good internationalist title.

Canto: Isn’t it? It was founded in 1948, another of those positives to come out of the negativity of warfare. It’s headquartered in Paris, it has 35 member countries and its purpose is pretty well self-explanatory.

Jacinta: Yes, but while its focus is obviously on economics, primarily, the better life index is a kind of side project, which is almost saying ‘money ain’t everything’, there are all these other factors as well as the economic, to consider when striving for a better life, and a better country.

Canto: Yes they consider 11 factors in all: housing, income, jobs, community, education, environment, civic engagement, health, life satisfaction, safety, and work-life balance. People can give different weightings to these factors, and on their website they allow you to change the weightings so that you’ll come up with a different top ten or twenty of the 35 participating countries.

Jacinta: But according to the weightings they favour, the USA comes a fairly creditable ninth behind Norway, Australia, Denmark, Switzerland, Canada, Sweden, New Zealand and Finland, in that order. But since we’re in Australia we can surely permit ourselves some eye-rolling at your standard Yank jingoism.

Canto: Surely but of course many will say that these ‘objective’ assessment criteria are highly suspect, and possibly anti-American.

Jacinta: Naturally, and we haven’t the resources or the time to evaluate them, so instead we’ll look at a number of these surveys with the assumption that they’re not all anti-American, to see how our chauvinistic allies fare. But it’s interesting that the OECD survey doesn’t highly rate any of the non-Scandinavian European counties. A Scandinavian bias perhaps?

Canto: Well here’s another rather different international survey, which looks instead at cities.

Jacinta: Very relevant considering the world’s rapid urbanisation shift.

Canto: The Mercer Quality of Living rankings looks at living conditions in hundreds of cities ‘according to 39 factors, grouped in 10 categories’: Political and social environment, Economic environment, Medical and health considerations, Schools and education, Public services and transportation, Recreation, Consumer goods, Housing, and Natural environment. And again, you may want to believe its findings are biased and you may be right, but its highest ranking American city is Honolulu at number 31.

Jacinta: Honolulu? Hardly the heart of America.

Canto: Compare neighbouring Canada, which has 5 cities in front of Honolulu. Vancouver (4), Ottawa (14), Toronto (16), Montreal (21) and Calgary (28). Australia and New Zealand also rate far better than the USA with Aukland ranked at 4 (tied with Vancouver), Sydney ranked 10, Wellington 12, Melbourne 18, Perth 21 and Canberra 26. Some 16 European cities are in the top 25, with Vienna being ranked the number one city for the past 6 years in a row. There are no Asian, African or South American cities in the top rankings.

Viennese market, in front of some Euro-impressive pile. I was there a few months back, shivering in the rain, blissfully unaware that I was in the world's best city, according to some

Viennese market, in front of some Euro-impressive pile. I was there a few months back, shivering in the rain, blissfully unaware that I was in the world’s best city, according to some

Jacinta: Mercer, by the way, is a human resources consulting firm headquartered in New York, and it’s really hard to get full data from it because it restricts full access to ‘professionals’, presumably behind a paywall. Nosy impoverished amateurs like us are unwelcome. So most of the data we’re using is from back in 2010 (and that’s only from press releases, with little detail) but I doubt that the USA has become any ‘greater’ since then. So it’s clear that the USA is no great shakes, city-wise – in fact it would be classed as probably the lowest-ranked western country in the world, according to this survey…

Canto: Conducted by a New York based firm…

Jacinta: Insofar as the liveability of it’s cities are concerned. And that’s where most people live, after all.

Canto: So it’s not looking good for the bad old USA. Any more surveys?

Jacinta: And in case people quibble about the term ‘western’, let’s be a little more precise. The USA, in terms of the quality of its cities for their own residents, lags behind Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

Canto: That way greatness tells lies.

Jacinta:  There’s a website called numbeo which claims to provide ‘the world’s largest database of user contributed data about cities and countries worldwide. Numbeo provides current and timely information on world living conditions including cost of living, housing indicators, health care, traffic, crime and pollution.‘ Its ‘quality of life index’, based on countries,  looks somewhat similar to that of the OECD, with the USA ranked tenth, well below Australia and New Zealand, ranked third and fourth respectively. However it differs from the OECD in that it ranks a number of non-Scandinavian European countries above the USA, namely Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Spain. And it ranks Canada below the USA, which is unusual. And again the top rankings are dominated by western countries, with Japan being the top Asian country at 16.

Canto: I’ve never heard of numbeo, what are their bonafides and how do they gather data?

Jacinta: It’s a crowd-sourcing site, founded in 2009 by one Mladan Adamovic, a former Google software engineer. It’s evolving, and its findings suggest it’s not particularly an outlier, though at this stage not perhaps as reliable as the OECD.

Canto: Well, with crowd-sourcing, there would be some nation-participants where information would be scarce, or virtually non-existent.

Jacinta: That’s right, but all of these survey organisations and websites face the same problems, and it’s pretty likely that the places from which info is scarce wouldn’t be in the top rankings in any case. If you know your country’s doing well, you’d want to share it.

Canto: Okay, so we’ve looked at three sources. One more?

Jacinta: Yeah well a few more, which I’ll summarise. Monocle magazine, a British lifestyle magazine, has been doing an annual quality of life index based on cities since 2006. Its criteria are ‘safety/crime, international connectivity, climate/sunshine, quality of architecture, public transport, tolerance, environmental issues and access to nature, urban design, business conditions, pro-active policy developments and medical care’, and it ranks Tokyo at number one, whereas Mercer ranked it 44th! It did rank Vienna at number two, however. And it ranked Melbourne at 4 and Sydney at 5, so it must be very objective.

Canto: And the US?

Jacinta: Its highest ranking city was Portland Oregon at 25. So there’s definitely a pattern emerging.

Canto: Where’s Adelaide?

Jacinta: They’ve never heard of it. Another survey based on cities comes from the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), from the London-based group that publishes The Economist. They go into a lot of detail about their criteria on their website, so I won’t go into it here. I only had access to their current top 10. It shows Hong Kong at number one, and Sydney at 5. No US cities make the ten, and Vienna isn’t there either. Tokyo comes in at 10. It should be added that they seem to have drastically amended their criteria recently – before that, Vienna regularly came in at number 3, with Melbourne and Vancouver also in the top 5 regularly. Melbourne ranked number 1 in 2011.

Docklands in the Great City of Melbourne

Docklands in the Great City of Melbourne

Canto: That’s interesting about Hong Kong, because I read elsewhere that life expectancy of its residents is about the highest in the world. So the city must be doing something right.

Jacinta: Well I’m sure the Chinese government will put a stop to that.

Canto: Okay I think we’ve done enough survey of surveys – let’s summarise. We started with Michele Obama, in typical US pollie style, proclaiming the greatness of her country.

Jacinta: I.e. not just great but ‘the greatest on Earth’. So we had a look at a handful of the most well-known global surveys of nations and cities, based essentially on liveability criteria. Though it’s impossible to be entirely objective in these surveys, they collectively present a pattern. In none of them did the USA distinguish itself, and in terms of its cities it really did quite badly, as a western nation. As to why that might be the case, we leave that for the reader’s speculations, for now. The gap between US perceptions and reality, I would contend, is largely caused by the assumption that if you’re globally dominant in economic terms, you’re in a ‘great’ country in any or every other way.

Canto: Roman economic hegemony, in the old days, was largely based on a substantial slave population, wasn’t it?

Jacinta: Well, that and being able to dictate terms of trade with others, as every dominant nation or empire has been able to do. But you’re right, a lot of economic success in the past has involved the exploitation of a populous underclass. The USA is by far the most populous of the traditional western countries, and it effectively has no minimum wage. That’s very handy for the McDonald Frumps of that great nation.

Homless Vacant Homes

Written by stewart henderson

August 7, 2016 at 1:37 pm

was the invasion of Iraq justified?

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iraq-war-not-worth-cost.si

“What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or in the holy name of liberty or democracy?”
― Mahatma Gandhi

 

In 2003 I protested against the impending attack on Iraq, along with so many others, though I don’t like being involved in mass protests, because they tend to over-simplify the response. A lot of the protesters were saying things I didn’t agree with, as is often the case. For example, some were using the national sovereignty argument, which I have little time for. Others were saying that war is always wrong, but I think war can be justified if it results in less harm than non-intervention, though this isn’t always easy to determine. As a humanist, I don’t think national or cultural boundaries should interfere with what we owe, ethically, to others, though I recognise as a pragmatic fact that they often do.

To me, the Iraq invasion has always been a clear-cut case of a criminal act, resulting in a loss of life – hardly unforeseeable – far greater than that suffered by the USA on September 11 2001. Furthermore, the September 11 atrocities, without which the invasion clearly would never have occurred, were in no way connected to the Iraqi regime. In the lead-up to the invasion, at the time of the protests, I was incensed, like others, at the Bush regime’s bullying treatment of the weapons inspectors in Iraq, and Hans Blix in particular, because their findings didn’t fit with the story Washington was trying to sell. This bullying proliferated, of course, to the leaders of major European nations such as France and Germany. The response of the French government to the possibility of war still seemed to me the most sensible and prescient one. In January of 2003, their foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin said ‘We think that military intervention would be the worst possible solution’, even though the French government felt at the time that Iraq wasn’t being truthful about WMD. In an impassioned speech to the Security Council only a few weeks later, Villepin spoke of the “incalculable consequences for the stability of this scarred and fragile region”, whose overwhelmingly Moslem inhabitants had sound historical reasons for suspecting and wanting to resist western interventions. He said that “the option of war might seem a priori to be the swiftest, but let us not forget that having won the war, one has to build peace”. He also reported on the intelligence of France and its allies, which failed comprehensively to support links between al-Qaeda and Hussein’s regime. Of course, Villepin’s speech was roundly rejected and disparaged by the US and UK leadership, and the rest is the history we’re making and trying to make sense of today.

I’m returning to the subject for two reasons – a philosophical summary of pacifism and just war theory in a recent issue of Philosophy Now magazine (issue 102), and the views of British leftist but pro-Iraq war writers such as Nick Cohen.

In 2006, a document called the Euston Manifesto was produced in Britain. A leftist document, it was designed to draw the line against what its authors and signatories claimed to be an overly-indulgent, cultural relativist tendency in a large sector of the leftist commentariat. The document focused largely on the positives – upholding human rights, freedom of expression, pluralism, liberalism, historical truth, the heritage of democracy, internationalism and equality. It expressed opposition to tyranny and terrorism, racism, misogyny and censorship. In more specific terms, it supported a two-state solution to the Palestinian conflict and opposed anti-Americanism – though in a somewhat backhanded way:

That US foreign policy has often opposed progressive movements and governments and supported regressive and authoritarian ones does not justify generalized prejudice against either the country or its people.

This is all outlined in the manifesto’s ‘statement of principles’ (section B), none of which I have any issue with. Section C, ‘elaborations’, addresses the Iraq war, inter alia, and is a little more problematic. Just before the Iraq campaign is dealt with there’s a paragraph on the September 11 attacks, which is uncompromisingly hostile to the view that it could be in any way justified as payback for US policy in the Middle East. Again I completely agree.

The paragraph that follows is interesting, and I will quote it in full, always remembering that it was written in 2006, before the execution of Saddam Hussein, and not long after the first parliamentary elections. Much has changed since then, with Iraqi governments becoming less democratic, and the contours of instability constantly changing.

The founding supporters of this statement took different views on the military intervention in Iraq, both for and against. We recognize that it was possible reasonably to disagree about the justification for the intervention, the manner in which it was carried through, the planning (or lack of it) for the aftermath, and the prospects for the successful implementation of democratic change. We are, however, united in our view about the reactionary, semi-fascist and murderous character of the Baathist regime in Iraq, and we recognize its overthrow as a liberation of the Iraqi people. We are also united in the view that, since the day on which this occurred, the proper concern of genuine liberals and members of the Left should have been the battle to put in place in Iraq a democratic political order and to rebuild the country’s infrastructure, to create after decades of the most brutal oppression a life for Iraqis which those living in democratic countries take for granted — rather than picking through the rubble of the arguments over intervention.

Since this post is precisely about the arguments over intervention, I should say something in justification of my writing it. While we can’t predict precisely the outcome of an intervention or invasion or liberation (words are so important here), there are often broad and quite obvious signs to indicate whether such an event will advantage or disadvantage the targeted population. In analysing these signs we utilise history (or we should do) – that’s to say, we pick through the rubble of previous experiences of intervention. The question of whether the invasion (or whatever you choose to call it) of Iraq was justified is therefore a question about the future as well as the past. How, in the future, and in the present, should we, as humanists, deal with oppressive, reactionary, murderous regimes, such as exist today in North Korea, in Myanmar, and in the wannabe state of ‘the caliphate’? Not to mention so many other dictatorial regimes whose likely ‘murderousness’ is hard to get data on, such as China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and other Asian and African tyrannies large and small.

I also have a quibble with the view that all good liberal leftists, regardless of their position before the war, should jump on board with the invaders to ‘remake’ Iraq into a democracy. The obvious problem with this view is that many of the anti-war protesters were concerned, and deeply so, that the reason for the invasion wasn’t democracy-building. The stated reason for the invasion, after all, was a defensive one; getting rid of WMDs to make the world a safer place. Other reasons were suspected, including simple restoration of US pride, and economic exploitation. The bullishness of the invasion rhetoric didn’t sound much like an attempt at democracy-building.

But I think the overwhelming reason for this deep concern  –  it was certainly my concern – was the suffering and harm that the invasion and aftermath would inflict on the people of Iraq. Nations invaded by foreigners tend to fight back, regardless of how much of a basket case the invaders think the nation is. This is even more the case when the ‘liberators’ are seen as having values antithetical to the target nation. Think of the consternation caused by the threatened invasion of England by the Spanish in the 1580s, or the French in the early 1800s, surely mild compared to that felt by the overwhelmingly Moslem Iraqis, fed for decades on tales of western decadence and double-dealing. An invasion would be fought bitterly, Hussein or no Hussein, and democracy isn’t the sort of thing to be imposed from above. So it’s understandable that those opposed to the invasion, and crushed by their failure to stop it, didn’t rush to join hands with those whose motives they so distrusted in an enthusiastic experiment in nation-restructuring.

I’m no pacifist,  and I’m concerned and demoralised by brutal dictatorships everywhere – many of which we know little about. I would like to see interventions wherever murder and oppression are the weapons of state control, but that’s a big ask, and where do we start, and how do we do it? Warfare is one of the most problematic options, but will a siege of sanctions be effective? A united, internationalist front which will offer credible threats – desist and democratise or else? And should we start with the tinpot dictatorships and work our way up to the giants? Which leads back to the question, why Iraq in the first place?

Muddled motives and intentions lead inevitably to muddled and contradictory outcomes. Indeed the stated motive for the intervention, dismantling WMDs and making the rest of the world a safer place, didn’t consider the Iraqi people directly at all. On that basis alone, the war could hardly be justified, because it was clear that even if Hussein’s weapons existed, they were not an imminent threat, with the dictator doing everything in his power to placate the west. Hussein was brutal and nasty, but his instinct for self-preservation was paramount, and it was clear in the last days of his regime that he was saving his sabre-rattling for his domestic audience while bending over backwards to comply with international demands.

One argument being put at the time was that anything was better than Saddam. But is this really the case? Consider two polar scenarios; a failed state in which there are no government regulations, and no police or legal institutions, an anarchic free-for-all; or a rigid dictatorship in which freedom is highly circumscribed and much that we value in life is sacrificed just for survival. Which is better? Well, with that very slight sketch it’s impossible to judge, but neither is very palatable. In the case of Iraq it would be comparing a ‘known’ with an ‘unknown’. The result of deposing Saddam was unknown and poorly planned for, but clearly it would unleash violent forces, and we knew from organisations such as Human Rights Watch that the day-to-day dictatorship, though repressive, wasn’t murderous at the time of the invasion.

My concern then, was saving lives, or more broadly, minimising harm. One thing I’ve always loathed is the ‘big picture’ politics of certain world leaders who like to redraw maps and bring down regimes with grand strategies, with very little thought to the ordinary struggles for survival, the lives and loves of people who suffer the consequences of those grand plans – including death and destruction. Of course, harm minimisation is fiendishly difficult to quantify when you’re talking about such variables as freedom and opportunity, but at least we can try. Just war theory might help us with some guidelines.

Duane Cady, Professor of Philosophy, Emeritus at Hamline University, Minnesota, provides a two-part outline of just war theory as currently understood. I’ll focus only on the first part, which seeks to answer the question – When is it justified to go to war?

Going to war justly requires meeting 6 conditions:

1. The war must be made on behalf of a just cause

2. The decision to go to war must be made by proper authorities

3. Participants must have a good intention rather than revenge or greed as their goal

4. It must be likely that peace will emerge after the war

5. Going to war must be a last resort

6.  The total amount of evil resulting from making war must be outweighed by the good likely to come of it.

I hardly need to go into detail to show that a number of these conditions were not met in the case of the Iraq venture, but I’ll briefly discuss each one.

For condition 1, if WMDs were the cause, then it wasn’t just, as there weren’t any, and the best intelligence showed this. Other causes, such as getting rid of a despot, bringing about democracy, lead to the question – why Iraq? Why not Syria, or Saudi Arabia? Why pick on any Middle Eastern country where western interference would be fiercely combatted?

For condition 2, there are supposed to be strict rules regarding such decisions, though of course they’re unenforceable. In September 2004, the then UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan declared the Iraq invasion illegal from the point of view of the UN’s charter, presumably because of insufficient numbers in the Security Council agreeing to it. If you consider the UN the proper authority to make such final decisions – and if not what would be? – then condition 2 hasn’t been met.

Condition 3 goes to intentions, which might be muddled or concealed. My view is that revenge, or wounded pride, had much to do with it on the US side. People may disagree, but nobody can seriously argue that the Bush administrations’s intentions were clear and humane.

Condition 4 gives no timeline. ‘After’ is a long time, and peace might achieved at the cost of maximal loss of life. The condition is a little too vague to be useful. Certainly, a quick peace looked highly unlikely, and I think that was a major concern of protesters worldwide.

Condition 5 clearly wasn’t met. The term ‘last resort’ infers something else – a last resort before x occurs, that x being something catastrophic and to be avoided at all costs. Whether there was an x in Iraq’s case is highly questionable.

In the long view, I think, or fervently hope, condition 6 will be met, but that’s only because I’m a ‘better angels of our nature’ advocate, and anyway the lack of a time-frame attached to the condition renders it essentially meaningless. Is Europe now more humane and peaceful as a result of the Thirty Years’ War? To what degree is our greater tolerance of diversity a direct result of the Nazis’ homogenising race policies? There’s no doubt that the most horrible wars can result in massive lessons learnt, leading to accelerated positive outcomes, but that in no way justifies them.

 

So, okay, the Iraq war was a disaster. However, I thoroughly agree with Alex Garland, the writer and film-maker, who referred briefly to the war in   a recent Point of Inquiry interview. It’s too late to wonder about whether the invasion of Iraq was a good idea, and it was essentially too late even when the protests began in 2003, as it had a horrible inevitability about it. Trying to work out the consequences, to minimise the negatives and maximise the positives, and to take responsibility for those consequences, is much more important. Particular nations, including Australia, imposed this invasion on the Iraqi people. Those nations, above all, should take most of the responsibility for the consequences. I don’t think that’s really happening at the moment.

Written by stewart henderson

May 30, 2015 at 10:53 am

on vaccines and type 1 diabetes, part 3 – causes

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imrs.php

 

As mentioned earlier, it’s not precisely known what causes diabetes type 1, more commonly known as childhood diabetes. There’s a genetic component, but it’s clearly environmental factors that are leading to the recent apparently rapid rise in this type.

I use the word ‘apparent’ because it’s actually hard to put figures on this rise, due to a paucity of historical records. This very thorough and informative article, already 12 years old, from the ADA (American Diabetes Association – an excellent website for everything to do with the evidence and the science on diabetes), tries to gather together the patchy worldwide data to cover the changing demography and the evolving disease process. At the beginning of the 2oth century childhood diabetes was rare but commonly fatal (before insulin), and even by mid-century no clear rise in childhood incidence had been recorded. To quote the article, ‘even by 1980 only a handful of studies were available, the “hot spots” in Finland and Sardinia were unrecognized, and no adequate estimates were available for 90% of the world’s population’. Blood glucose testing in the early 20th century was far from being as simple a matter as it is today, and the extent of undiagnosed cases is hard to determine.

There’s no doubt, however, that in those countries keeping reliable data, such as Norway and Denmark, a marked upturn in incidence occurred from the mid 20th century, followed by a levelling out from the 1980s. Studies from Sardinia and the Netherlands have found a similar pattern, but in Finland the increase from mid-century has been quite linear, with no levelling out. Data from other northern European countries and the USA, though less comprehensive, show a similar mid-century upturn. Canada now (or as of 12 years ago) has the third highest rate of childhood diabetes in the world. The trend seems to have been that many of the more developed countries first showed a sharp increase, followed by something of a slow-down, and then other countries, such as those of central and eastern Europe and the Middle East, ‘played catch-up’. Kuwait, for example, had reached seventh in the world at the time of the article, confounding many beliefs about the extent of the disease’s genetic component.

The article is admirably careful not to rush to conclusions about causes. It may be that a number of environmental factors have converged to bring about the rise in incidence. For example, it’s known that rapid growth in early childhood increases the risk, and children do in fact grow faster on average than they did a century ago. Obesity may also be a factor. Baffled researchers naturally look for something new that has entered the childhood environment, either in terms of nutrition (e.g. increased exposure to cow’s milk) or infection (enteroviruses). Neither of these possibilities fit the pattern of incidence in any obvious way, though there may be subtle changes in antigenicity or exposure at different stages of development, but there’s scant evidence of these.

Another line of inquiry is the possible loss of protective factors, as part of the somewhat vague but popular ‘hygiene hypothesis’, which argues that lack of early immune system stimulation creates greater susceptibility, particularly to allergies and asthma, but perhaps also to childhood diabetes and other conditions. The ADA article has this comment:

Epidemiological evidence for the hygiene hypothesis is inconsistent for childhood type 1 diabetes, but it is notorious that the NOD mouse is less likely to develop diabetes in the presence of pinworms and other infections. Pinworm infestation was common in the childhood populations of Europe and North America around the mid-century, and this potentially protective exposure has largely been lost since that time.

The NOD (non-obese diabetic) strain of mice was developed in Japan as an animal model for type 1 diabetes.

The bottom line from all this is that more research and monitoring of the disease needs to be done. Type 1 diabetes is a complex challenge to our understanding of the human immune system, and of the infinitely varied feedback loops between genetics and environment, requiring perhaps a broader questioning and analysis than has been applied thus far. Again I’ll quote, finally, from the ADA article:

In conclusion, the quest to understand type 1 diabetes has largely been driven by the mechanistic approach, which has striven to characterize the disease in terms of defining molecular abnormalities. This goal has proved elusive. Given the complexity and diversity of biological systems, it seems increasingly likely that the mechanistic approach will need to be supplemented by a more ecological concept of balanced competition between complex biological processes, a dynamic interaction with more than one possible outcome. The traditional antithesis between genes and environment assumed that genes were hardwired into the phenotype, whereas growth and early adaptation to the environment are now viewed as an interactive process in which early experience of the outside world is fed back to determine lasting patterns of gene expression. The biological signature of each individual thus derives from a dynamic process of adaptation, a process with a history.

However, none of this appears to provide any backing for those who claim that a vaccine is responsible for the increased prevalence of the condition. So let’s wade into this specific claim.

It seems the principle claim of the anti-vaxxers is that vaccines suppress our natural immune system. This is the basic claim, for example, of Dr Josef Mercola, a prominent and heavily self-advertising anti-vaxxer whose various sites happen to come up first when you combine and google key terms such as ‘vaccination’ and ‘natural immunity’. Mercola’s railings against vaccination, microwaves, sunscreens and HIV (it’s harmless) have garnered him quite a following among the non compos mentis, but you should be chary of leaping in horror from his grasp into the waiting arms of the next site on the list, that of the Vaccination Awareness Network (VAN), another Yank site chock-full of of BS about the uselessness of and the harm caused by every vaccine ever developed, some of it impressively technical-sounding, but accompanied by ‘research links’ that either go nowhere or to tabloid news reports. Watch out too for the National Vaccination Information Centre (NVIC), another anti-vax front, full of heart-rending anecdotes which omit everything required to make an informed assessment. The best may seem to lack conviction, being skeptics and all, but it’s surely true that the worst are full of passionate intensity.

There is no evidence that the small volumes of targeted antigens introduced into our bodies by vaccines have any negative impact on our highly complex immune system. This would be well-nigh impossible to test for, and the best we might do is look for a correlation between vaccination and increased (or decreased) levels of disease incidence. No such correlation has been found between the MMR vaccine and diabetes, though this Italian paper did find a statistically significant association between the incidence of mumps and rubella viral infections and the onset of type 1 diabetes. Another paper from Finland found that the incidence of type 1 diabetes levelled out after the introduction of the MMR vaccine there, and that the presence of mumps antibodies was reduced in diabetic children after vaccination. This is a mixed result, but as yet there haven’t been any follow-up studies.

To conclude, there is just no substantive evidence of any kind to justify all the hyperventilating.

But to return to the conversation with colleagues that set off this bit of exploration, it concluded rather blandly with the claim that, ‘yes of course vaccinations have done more good than harm, but maybe the MMR vaccine isn’t so necessary’. One colleague took a ‘neutral’ stance. ‘I know kids that haven’t been vaccinated, and they’ve come to no harm, and I know kids that have, and they’ve come to no harm either. And measles and mumps, they’re everyday diseases, and relatively harmless, it’s probably not such a bad thing to contract them…’

But this is a false neutrality. Firstly, when large numbers of parents choose not to immunise their kids, it puts other kids at risk, as the graph at the top shows. And secondly, these are not harmless diseases. Take measles. While writing this, I had a memory of someone I worked with over twenty years ago. He had great thick lenses in his glasses. I wear glasses too, and we talked about our eye defects. ‘I had pretty well perfect vision as a kid,’ he told me, ‘and I always sat at the back of the class. Then I got measles and was off school for a fortnight. When I went back, sat at the back, couldn’t see a thing. Got my eyes tested and found out they were shot to buggery.’

Anecdotal evidence! Well, it’s well known that blindness and serious eye defects are a major complication of measles, which remains a killer disease in many of the poorest countries in the world. In fact, measles blindness is the single leading cause of blindness in those countries, with an estimated 15,000 to 60,000 cases a year. So pat yourself on the back for living in a rich country.

In 2013, some 145,700 people died from measles – mostly young children. In 1980, before vaccination was widely implemented, an estimated 2.6 million died annually from measles, according to the WHO.

Faced with such knowledge, claims to ‘neutrality’ are hardly forgivable.

Written by stewart henderson

January 30, 2015 at 6:02 pm

disassembling Kevin Vandergriff’s gish gallop, part 2

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Morals-Without-Belief-in-God

Feeling almost apologetic for dwelling on this for too long, with so many more important themes to tackle. Of course some out there, especially in those most heatedly devout parts of the USA, might consider that no more essential topic exists than giving proper due to the supernatural creator of the universe, but I would disagree, and I suppose here’s where I get to say why.

I was discussing Vandergriff’s third contention, that ‘Christian theism has significantly more explanatory power and scope than specified naturalism’. Here is his second argument for this:

God is the best explanation for why space-time and all its contents exist, rather than nothing.

Of course space-time has only existed as a familiar concept for about a century. It may well be replaced, or amended, by another concept, and I’m sure Christian theists will find their god to be the best explanation for that too. He’s amazingly flexible that way. Vandergriff here talks of a proof of supernatural causation under the presupposition that the universe is eternal but necessarily caused. It’s rather an unsurprising one drawn from a famous conundrum of quantum mechanics, that quantum indeterminacy can only be resolved through observation. The observation ‘collapses the wave function’. Vandergriff, or the person who posits this ‘proof’, then leaps from quantum states to the state of the universe. ‘What, or who, collapses its wave function?’ Vandergriff asks. This doesn’t strike me as a particularly valid leap. It seems more a desperate grab for an analogy. I’m not that boned up on my fallacies, but this might be the fallacy of the excluded middle, inter alia. I mean, ‘quantum/universal indeterminacy, therefore god’ does seem to take for granted an awful lot of in-between stuff. The supposed essential recourse to the disembodied mind again suggested here fails as Vandergriff has not presented any argument to show that this ‘disembodied mind’ is anything more than an abstract object. The play of such words as ‘necessary’ and ‘contingent’ really get us nowhere in providing answers to the very interesting questions around the beginnings of our universe and the well-established weirdness of quantum mechanics, regardless of whether the two are related.

The third argument is taken directly from William Lane Craig:

God is the best explanation of the applicability of mathematics to the physical world.

I’ve answered this claim from Craig here, though I’m amused at Vandergriff’s gloss, in that we’re still not sure that the Higgs boson has been discovered, as the data could well fit other scenarios. In any case, the main point about mathematics is clear. Mathematics seems highly abstract nowadays because over time and through painstaking human effort it has moved a long way from its beginnings. Mathematics developed as a tool to describe particular objects in general terms, that could be manipulated and developed, for example number, leading to multiplication, division, functions and the various forms of calculus. All of these, and further, developments make use of regularities, or explore regularities (some of which have as yet no known applicability). It’s hard to conceive of a physical world that has no regularity. All elements are describable, mathematically, in terms of their properties, which are regular, i.e. describable. Try to describe something that has no regularity at all. It would have no shape, no boundary between it and not-it. If this convinces you that a creator god exists, it’s likely that you were already convinced. As to a super-rational creator, which Vandergriff tries to point to, that would hardly be the brutal monster of the Old Testament who slaughters children and babies in a flood and supports the massacres of whole populations in favour of his ‘chosen people’.

Argument 4: God is the best explanation of the discoverability of the universe.

This is really just a repetition of the previous argument. The universe, to be physical (and therefore discoverable in terms of its properties) has to be regular. However, human development ‘at just the right time’ to discover the universe’s properties and origins  supposedly supports a fine-tuning argument, as developed by Hugh Ross, a Christian astrophysicist who put forward this argument in the early nineties. The late Victor Stenger, among many others, has put these arguments to the sword. There’s also a problem with this and with other ‘best explanation’ arguments in that they are essentially self-refuting ‘first cause’ arguments. David Hume was one of the first to point out the deficiencies of such arguments centuries ago. Attempts to improve on them are well summarised and dealt with by the philosopher Theodore Schick here. To me, one of the best-arguments against fine-tuning relating we humans to the supernatural creator is its grotesquely overwhelming wastefulness. Why create a universe so enormously inhospitable to intelligent life throughout almost the entirety of its vast expanse in order to permit we humans to finally thrive on our small planet through a history of great suffering? A super-rational being could surely do better, and chance seems a much more coherent explanation.

Argument 5: God is the best explanation of why there are embodied morally responsible agents.

I presume Vandergriff is talking here about cetaceans. Or maybe not. In any case, the existence of such agents, he claims, is more probable under theism. Presumably his claim is based here on the idea that it would be more fun to create a universe with moral agents in it than, say, living beings who are little more than scuttling stomachs. Yet considering how enormously complex and diverse these scuttling stomachs are, it seems clear that, if Vandergriff’s god created them, he seems to have found them great fun. You can hardly argue with J B S Haldane’s remark that the guy has an inordinate fondness for beetles.

Vandergriff talks about the unique human ability for self-control and control over our environment because ‘our brains are the most complex things in the universe’. How does he know this? Well, he doesn’t. This line has often been used, by Richard Dawkins amongst many other scientists, but always, as far as I’m aware, with the cautionary addendum ‘according to our current knowledge’. And our current knowledge of the universe, I and many others would argue, is minuscule, in spite of the great strides we’ve made. Vandergriff is concerned here to emphasise human specialness. He describes, without providing any names, how various physical scientists have been ‘stunned’ to discover that the universe must have been fine-tuned to extraordinary precision to provide for this embodied moral agency. Yet this moral agency appears to exist, to varying degrees, in a number of social species on our planet (which Vandergriff doesn’t acknowledge). In any case, I’m sure plenty of other prominent physical scientists could be found who are considerably less ‘stunned’.

Argument 6: God is the best explanation of moral agents who apprehend necessary moral truths.

I don’t believe there are ‘necessary moral truths’, and I don’t find this a particularly interesting philosophical theme, though it obviously strongly exercises some philosophers.

In giving his example taken from Darwin and the behaviour of hive bees, however, Vandergriff completely misrepresents natural selection, comparing what natural selection ‘happens upon’ with the rational choices of human beings. I would strongly argue that there is more to natural selection than just ‘happening upon’ or ‘chance’ as theists like to describe it. Most theists like to think we’re rational moral agents guided by, or able to be guided by, their god; though how the god does the guiding can never be properly answered. Vandergriff cites the prohibition against rape as a necessary moral truth, but Christians have raped women throughout history, in times of warfare, just as readily as have members of other religions. Rape statistics are notoriously difficult to compare from nation to nation, because states have different laws, definitions, reporting methods and resources. It’s clear from even the most casual examination that cultural attitudes to rape vary widely. We don’t find a consistent or clear-cut prohibition against rape in the Bible. However in modern western countries, especially with the advent of feminism, rape has been raised to a higher level of seriousness as a crime. This hasn’t been driven by organised religion, so it just seems absurd to assert, or even to intimate, that the prohibition against rape is a necessary truth derived from a supernatural being.

Vandergriff talks about natural selection or evolution as being only conducive to our survival, and seems to find it unlikely that our ‘necessary moral truths’ or our aesthetic tastes or even such traits as benevolence or kindness could have been selected for, claiming that these qualities are unlikely under naturalism but highly likely under theism. Yet it’s abundantly clear that reducing the incidence of rape, developing better medicines, resolving conflicts by peaceful means, promoting sympathy for others, including those of other species, and exercising restraint and thoughtfulness in our personal lives is conducive, not only to our survival, but to our success and our enrichment. We’ve learned this, not through communication with spirits, but through honest examination of our own past behaviour as a species. It seems to me that it’s through these painstaking examinations that we’re learning to reduce our common misery and to promote our well-being. We’re learning from our mistakes, even if it’s a ‘two steps forward, one step back’ process. A thorough-going education system is essential in disseminating what we’ve learned from the past and carrying those gleanings into the future. It’s precisely because there are no necessary truths, because we could always go back to achieving our ends through brutality, dishonesty and blinkered self-promotion, that we need to maintain awareness of past errors, and of the complex needs of those around us and to whom we’re attached, including humans and non-humans.

Vandergriff has more ‘arguments’, which I’ll deal with next time, though I’m looking for ways to cut this short!

movie review – shadowless sword

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Pour qu’une chose soit interessante, il suffit de la regarder longtemps.

Gustave Flaubert

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The altogether too irreproachable So-Ha

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve done a couple of movie reviews in the past, and I think I might do them more regularly in the future, just to give some play to my more creative writing side.

The Korean film Shadowless Sword (filmed in China) begins with warfare and a fighting heroine Mae Young-Ok, who unlike La Pucelle in Shakespeare’s Henry VI, doesn’t need voices from heaven or magical powers to help her. This is a modern (2005) movie, though set in the tenth century (presumably the Christian dating is for we westerners’ benefit), and so the heroines are tough, highly skilled sword-fighters with flawless grace, spotless costumes and peerless beauty, which of course I’m all in favour of. Korean women can do anything!

At the outset, we’re told that the old Korean land of Balhae fell to the Georan, a northern tribe, in 926. The Georans renamed the area, but the vanquished people regrouped and fought to recover their homeland. Again, not unlike the situation in La Pucelle’s France in the fifteenth century… And a quick check of Korean history tells me this isn’t MiddleEarth make-beliieve. Balhae, which indeed came to an end in 926, was an empire that covered northern Korea and southern Manchuria for some 300 years. Not that this film’s director, Young-jun Kim, intends to be any more historically accurate than Shakespeare. Billed on SBS as a martial arts film (but it isn’t really, it’s a historical fantasy), Shadowless Sword takes as many liberties with the basic laws of physics, not to mention credibility, as it does with history. Swashbucklers fly through the air with the greatest of ease, disappear in a puff of chemicals, and swat enemy combatants like flies in battle scenes that would leave poor old Richard III scratching his hump in wild surmise. All of which I happily forgive in view of the film’s real heroine, the inscrutable Yeon So-Ha….

In the opening scene, Balhae’s capital Sanggyeong is raided by the Eastern Georan ‘Killer Blade Army’ under their leaders Gun Hwa-Pyung and Mae Young-Ok, and the crown prince is killed. The Balhaens, if that’s what they call themselves, are in crisis, and need to find a new leader, preferably of royal blood, to carry on the fight. This is a problem, as the Killer Blade Army seem intent on murdering every last member of the royal family, but there’s one possibly promising candidate, an exiled prince named Jeong-hyun. Balhae’s PM (probably not elected) sends the nation’s premier swordswoman, the aforementioned So-Ha, to seek out the prince and offer him the kingdom. So-Ha is of course totally stunning as well as prodigiously disciplined and effortlessly talented – probably better suited to recapture the greatness of the dynasty than any male… but her role is to serve.

She finds the quondam prince in a far-flung backwater, trading in the black market under the name of Sosam. When she makes enquiries about his real name, he tries to bump her off via his gang of thugs, which sets up the next scene of choreographed mayhem, this time played half for laughs. So-Ha then confronts Jeonghyun with the situation, that he must take up the role of king. The somewhat embittered Jeonghyun is unimpressed – considering that his motto now is ‘survive no matter what’, why would he take up the apparently lost cause of the Balhaeans? With that answer, he disappears in a burst of fire and smoke, as you do. But he’s not out of trouble, as his beaten-up gang has discovered his identity, and, at the same time, the Killer Blade Army have arrived in the region to dispose of the last remaining royal. Of course So-Ha arrives in time to rescue the prince, whereupon Mae Young-Ok arrives to kill him off. Appropriately, as the bad guy, she’s just slightly less beautiful than So-Ha. They exchange pleasantries – ‘great to meet you at last, I’ve heard so much about you..’ Then there are some attempted negotiations – ‘hand over the prince and nobody else’ll get killed’. The gang leader, a comic character, tries to team up with Mae Young-Ok and the KBA, in the hope of profit, but is slaughtered for his pains, to impress upon us the ruthlessness of the bad guys. In the ensuing violence So-Ha urges Jeonghyun to make a getaway, thus further binding him to her. There follows a lengthy chase over rooftops in the dark with the usual flying and acrobatics and swordplay, but of course they escape, and their relationship, still shaky and suspicious, starts to develop. They retire to a tavern, where the worldly Jeonghyun tempts our squeaky-clean heroine with alcohol and food, to no avail of course, she’s has no such material needs. In fact, this is one of the more interesting scenes, which takes it beyond a mere ‘martial arts’ movie (in fact it is described as belonging to the broad genre of wuxia, which literally means ‘martial arts hero’, a category that So-Ha fits squarely into, a category that includes popular literature, opera, TV and video games).

A group of uniformly clad individuals enter the tavern – their slightly outlandish outfits broadly represent the Georan style in the movie. Jeonghuyn recognises them as another of the ‘gangs’, who are are out for trouble because their leader has been killed. So-Ha, not much interested, suggests they move on, as they’re in constant danger. Our princeling, feeling trapped by this stranger who’s trying to force him into kingship, stands on his dignity, saying that nobody can tell him when to stay or go, and in an access of frustration, he hurls his cup at the gang sitting nearby. They react in the usual low-key but totally ominous fashion of martial-arts types, standing up and asking what might be the matter. Jeonghuyn, apparently improvising, says that his boss, indicating So-Ha, wants to ask if their leader died due to sexual over-indulgence. This of course leads to a confrontation, but before things escalate, a female figure, the former leader’s daughter, floats down from the ceiling, demanding to know what’s going on (I like how these female figures are given such prominence in what is clearly a patriarchal ancient society, a modern twist designed to appeal to both sexes). One of the gang members tells her what So-Ha is alleged to have said, whereupon she shoots the (male) messenger, a reminder of the arbitrariness of ‘justice’ in this world. The daughter, or spirit, than asks So-Ha to repeat what she ‘said’, whereupon the two women retire to the forest, not in the ‘let’s step outside and settle this man-to-man’ fashion of your Rambo type, but to sort things out rationally and truthfully. The spirit-daughter is made aware that it’s Jeonghuyn who’s causing trouble, but that he’s to be forgiven as he’s potentially the saviour of the kingdom. Alternatively, So-Ha may have told her a cock-and-bull tale… In any case the scene reverses old values: the male is infantile, the women are wise, and their cool heads must prevail.

Meanwhile, the KBA leader, Gun, is being castigated by the Georan leadership for not having captured Jeonghuyn or dealt with So-Ha. They’re also annoyed with Gun for his nasty habit of killing off the royal princes, when they want to bring them onside, to bring peace to the country. Gun, though, is driven by family and tribal revenge, as we see through a flashback of his father being tortured and killed before his eyes, and through his regular remarks about family honour counting for everything – the usual primitivist prescription. ‘If you want to achieve something big, you need to control your vengeful spirit,’ the royal courtier tells Gun, in one of the film’s most resonant lines.

Mae Young-Ok is in hot pursuit of our heroes, who are moving from resting place to resting place, all the while talking and arguing about evil spirits and the role of the sword in everyday life, with Jeonghuyn sometimes lashing out at the demands being made on him. While passing through a market town he makes a break for it, but is caught by one of the KBA leaders, at the same time that Mae Young-Ok catches up with So-Ha. There follows the obligatory martial arts scenes, with swordplay and magic and comedy. So-Ha bests Mae Young-Ok, who lives to fight another day, while Jeonghuyn comprehensively slaughters his adversary – another milestone on the road to kingship. The pair reunite and flee, chased by the KBA. Just before they’re caught, they jump in the lake, which leads to underwater swordfighting, which starts to make me wonder if this is all based on real events. At one point Jeonghuyn looks like drowning, but trusty magical So-Han gives him the kiss of life. They eventually escape through the sewers or something, where they have another heart-to-heart about kingship, duty and destiny, rudely interrupted by the magical arrival of Gun. More unbelievable swordplay ensues, with no conclusion – the good guys make their escape, with Jeonghuyn wounded in the back, and Gun is left looking murderous and steadfast.

In the next scene, the two bad guys contemplate their failure, and Mae Young-Ok is given one last chance to kill So-Ha. Meanwhile, So-Ha tends Jeonghuyn’s wound, the second serious wound in the back he’s suffered. Jeonghuyn makes light of it, but So-Ha reminds him of his youth, before his exile, when he fought bravely for the dynasty. Then we have flashback of the battle in which he received his first wound, and where, as So-Ha reminds him, he received the title of ‘General Splendour’ and the acclaim of the people. Clearly So-Ha knows more than one might expect, and all the while she’s trying to push towards acceptance of his destiny. Her faith in him, of course, comes with a degree of sexual tension.

Once Jeonghuyn has sufficiently recovered they travel on through the countryside disguised as Georans. They witness the suffering of the people and the brutality of the Georan overlords, all intended to sway Jeonghuyn to the side of righteousness. At the next resting-place, he starts practising his swordsmanship; he’s falling under the spell of the shadowless sword, apparently. Shortly after this, at a stream where Jeonghuyn catches fish, they’re ambushed by Mae Young Ok and her band. In spite of being sitting ducks, Mae Young-Ok’s gang misses them with their arrows – incredibly incompetent for a super-warrior. So we have another chase, with magical flights through the trees, and another inconclusive clash of the two woman-warriors. Somehow the good guys fight off the bad guys, but So-Ha has been struck by an envenomed dart, and she begins to weaken. This is the occasion for another piece of moralising, as So-Ha insists that she be left behind, for Jeonghuyn must continue onto his destiny. Jeonghuyn though, argues that if it is a kingly duty to leave his man behind to die, while preserving himself, then he wants nothing to do with kingly duties. So-Ha relents and allows herself to assisted.

They arrive at the home of a man So-Ha calls her uncle, who greets Jeonghuyn as a royal prince. So-Ha collapses, the venom is discovered, and she’s given no chance of recovery.

In the next scene we’re at Georan HQ, where they’re concerned that So-Ha’s uncle is raising an army against them. Gun’s men, the Killer Blade Army, having failed in their task, are to be replaced by the Golden Bow Army. Gun and Mae Young-Ok are pretty unhappy about this, but the Georan PM is adamant. However, he forces Mae Young-Ok to sleep with him, making vague promises to give her another chance. Gun, seeing this, remembers the promise that he made to his faithful warrior-servant, that once all the royal children were killed, they would create their own dynasty together. He’s not a happy chappie.

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women warriors

 

So now it is Jeonghuyn’s turn to watch over So-Ha, who miraculously recovers. Gun kills the Georan PM, while Jeonghuyn recognises So-Ha’s uncle as the commander from the battle of his youth, who tended his wound. So-Ha rises from her sick-bed, recognising that Jeonghuyn is in danger, but Gun arrives to confront her. Her uncle, though, intervenes, and begins a fight with Gun which you know he’s going to lose. Meanwhile the KBA, or is it the GBA, attacks Jeonghuyn while he’s visiting his mother’s grave, but S0-Ha rescues him. Returning to camp, they’re attacked again, this time by Mae Young-Ok, who assures So-Ha that if she overuses her energy now, her arteries will become twisted and she will die. So much for ancient Chinese medicine. Anyway, after more inconclusive balletic battling, along comes Gun to save the day. It’s the moment of truth, at long fucking last. Gun squares off against So-Ha, informing her that he’s disposed of her uncle. He promises to do the same with Jeonghuyn, telling her that she can win only with a decisive killing blow. Can your sword kill? he taunts her. She responds with one of the film’s tropes – the sword is not for killing but for protecting valuable things. With that they commence their final whirligig battle, which ends when Mae Young-Ok tries to intervene and is run through by So-Ha. So-Ha stops, stunned, and Gun takes the opportunity to run Mae Young-Ok through in the opposite direction, in the process delivering what will be the mortal blow to So-Ha. This of course further emphasises Gun’s black nature, and Mae Young-Ok gives a ‘ya shouldna oughta done that, boss’ look to Gun before dropping dead.

Meanwhile Jeonghuyn comes to the party. He’s been on the periphery of things, but rushes up to tend to So-Ha. ‘Nothing can stand in my way,’ says Gun, ‘now watch me slice up this little princeling’. Jeonghuyn notices Gun’s sword, which he took from the crown prince when he killed him. Gun conveniently tells him that two identical swords were given to two princes. This brings on a flashback. He remembers when, as a youth, he taught an orphan girl (yes, the young So-Han) to fight with this sword, telling her it wasn’t for fighting but for protecting valuable things. So he takes up So-Ha’s sword and prepares to fight Gun to the death. Needless to say, he wins, being able to control the ‘internal injury’ (you’d have to see it, and you still wouldn’t believe it).

Returning to So-Ha, who’s still on her feet, brave warrior that she is, Jeonghuyn becomes emotional – ‘if it weren’t for you…’, and So-Ha responds ‘you have been the meaning of my life for the past 14 years’, and suddenly legions of armed men emerge from the bushes, not to fight but to pledge allegiance to their new king. Then suddenly they come under attack – signifying that there will be bloodshed in the kingdom for some time to come. Yet somehow, through the magic of film, our two good guys find themselves alone, which allows for a truly touching death scene, with tears dribbling down. So So-Ha will not become the power behind the throne, except in spirit. Jeonghuyn is now alone. We next see him leading his troops into battle, no longer resembling a Chinese Mick Jagger, and giving a stirring speech à la Elizabeth I or Churchill (sorry about the western references)….

So that’s Shadowless Sword, a marginally superior wuxia movie, I suspect, though I’m no expert – with an impossibly virtuous heroine, which does have a romantic appeal even to an old cynic like me. In some ways it takes me back to my own dreamy childhood, when, bedridden with the mumps, I spent my time reading a prose version of Edmund Spenser’s Tales from the Faerie Queane, and fell in love with the fair Britomartis, who donned armour to rescue her father from the wicked clutches of some black knight or other, in a world of dungeons, dragons and ugly old witches disguised as fair young maidens. Funny how vivid those childhood memories can be. Though no doubt distorted and inaccurate. What I liked too about the movie was the suppressed, or unexpressed sexuality of it all. So-Ha’s competence and unflappability made her sexy, not her dress, her walk, or anything ‘feminine’ about her. That again, took me back to Britomartis and Shakespeare’s Rosalind and other insouciant androgynes. There are certain types, it seems to me, that transcend culture, and I really love that.

Written by stewart henderson

December 14, 2014 at 12:59 pm

Some thoughts on morality and its origins

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I remember, quite a few Christmases ago now, a slightly acrimonious discussion breaking out about religion and morality. I simply observed – it wasn’t my family. It never is.

A born-again religious woman asked her sister – ‘where do you get your morality from if not from religion?’ She responded tartly, ‘From my mum’. This response pleased one of those present, at least! But as to the implicit claim that we get our morality from religion, my silent response was ‘how does that happen?’

Religion, at least in its monotheistic versions, implies a supernatural being, from whom all morality flows. But if you ask believers whether their cherished supernatural entity talks to them and advises them regularly about the moral decisions they face in their daily lives, you would get, well, a variety of responses, from ‘yes, he does actually’, to something like ‘you miss the point completely’. The second response might lead on to – well, theology. We were given free will, the deity’s ways are mysterious but Good, he communicates with us indirectly, you need to read the signs etc etc. But you’ll be relieved I hope to hear that this won’t be an essay on religion, which you should realise by now I find interminably boring when it tries to connect itself with morality – which is most of the time.

I’m more interested here in trying, inter alia, to define human morality, to determine whether it’s objective, or universal, and if those two terms are synonymous. And as I generally do, I’ll start with a rough and ready, semi-ignorant or uninformed definition, and then try to smarten it up – possibly overturning the original definition in the process.

So, roughly, I consider human morality to be an emergent property of our socially wired brains, something which is, therefore, evolving. I don’t consider it to be objective, because that suggests something outside ourselves, like objective reality. We can talk about it being ‘universal’, as in ‘universal human rights’, which may be agreed upon by consensus, but that’s a convenient fiction, as there’s no true consensus, as, for example, the Cairo Declaration (on human rights in Islam) reveals. Not that we shouldn’t strive for consensus, based on our current understanding of human interests and human thriving. I’m a strong believer in human rights. I suppose what I’m saying here is that my ‘universality’, far from being a metaphysical construction, is a pragmatic term about what we can generally agree on as being what we need in terms of basic liberties, and limitations to those liberties, in order to best thrive, as a thoroughly social species (deeply connected with other species).

So with this rough and ready definition, I want to look at some controversial contributions to the debate, and to add my reflections on them. I read The Moral Landscape, by Sam Harris, a while back, and found it generally agreeable, and was surprised at the apparent backlash against it, though I didn’t try to follow the controversy. However, when philosophers like Patricia Churchland and Simon Blackburn get up and respectfully disagree, finding Harris ‘naive’ and misguided and so forth, I feel it’s probably long overdue for me to get my own views clear.

The difficulty that many see with Harris’s view is encapsulated in the subtitle of his book, ‘How science can determine human values’. I recognised that this claim was asking for trouble, being ‘scientistic’ and all, but I felt sympathetic in that it seemed to me that our increasing knowledge of the world has deeply informed our values. We don’t call Australian Aboriginals or Tierra del Fuegans or Native Americans savages anymore, and we don’t describe women as infantile or prone to hysteria, or homosexuals as insane or unnatural, or children as spoilt by the sparing of the rod, because our knowledge of the human species has greatly advanced, to the point where we feel embarrassed by quite recent history in terms of its ethics. But there’s a big difference between science informing human values, and enriching them, and science being the determinant of human values. Or is there?

What Harris is saying is, forget consensus, forget agreements, morality is about facts, arrived at by reason. He brings this up early on in The Moral Landscape:

… truth has nothing, in principle, to do with consensus: one person can be right, and everyone else can be wrong. Consensus is a guide to discovering what is going on in the world, but that is all that it is. Its presence or absence in no way constrains what may or may not be true.

Clearly one of Harris’s targets, in taking such an uncompromising stance on morality being about truth or facts rather than values, is moral relativism, which he regularly attacks.  Yet the most cogent critics of his views aren’t moral relativists, they’re people, like Blackburn, who question whether the moral realm can ever be seen as a branch of science, however broadly defined (and Harris defines it very broadly for his purposes).  One of the points of dispute  – but there are many others – is the claim that you can’t derive values from facts. For example, no amount of information about genetic variation within human groups can actually determine what you ought to do in terms of discrimination based on perceived racial differences. Such information can and should inform decisions, but they can’t determine them, because they are facts, while values – what you should do with those facts – are categorically different.

It seems to me that Harris often chooses clear-cut issues to highlight morality-as-fact, such as that a secure, healthful, well-educated life is better than one in which you get beaten up on a daily basis. Presumably he imagines that all the gradations in between can be measured precisely as to their truth-value in contributing to well-being. But surely it’s in these difficult areas that questions of value seem to be most ‘subjective’. Can we make an objective moral claim, say, about vegetarianism, true for all people everywhere? What about veganism? I very much doubt it. Yet we also need to look skeptically at those values he sees as clear-cut. Take this example from The Moral Landscape:

In his wonderful book The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker includes  a quotation from the anthropologist Donald Symons that captures the problem of multiculturalism very well:

If only one person in the world held down a terrified, struggling screaming little girl, cut off her genitals with a septic blade, and sewed her back up, leaving only a tiny hole for urine and menstrual flow, the only question would be how severely that person should be punished, and whether the death penalty would be a sufficiently severe sanction. But when millions of people do this, instead of the enormity being magnified millions-fold, suddenly it becomes ”culture”, and thereby magically becomes less, rather than more, horrible, and is even defended by some Western “moral thinkers”, including feminists.

Now, as a card-carrying humanist, and someone generally quite comfortable with the values that, over time, have emerged in my part of the western world, namely Australia, I’m implacably opposed to the practice described here by Symons. But even so, I see a number of problems with this description. And ‘description’ is an important term to think about here, because the way we describe things is an essential indicator of our understanding of the world. The description here is of a ‘procedure’, and it is brief and clinical, leaving aside the depiction of the ‘terrified struggling screaming little girl’. It isn’t a description likely to have much resonance for those who subject their daughters and nieces to this practice. After all, this is a traditional cultural practice, however horrific. It is still practiced regularly in many African countries, and in proximate countries such as Yemen. Clearly the practice aligns with rigid attitudes about the role and place of women in those cultures, attitudes that go back a long way – the first reference to female circumcision, on an Egyptian sarcophagus, dates back almost 4000 years, but it’s likely that it goes back a lot further than that. As Wikipedia puts it, ‘Practitioners see the circumcision rituals as joyful occasions that reinforce community values and ethnic boundaries, and the procedure as an essential element in raising a girl.’

Now, Symons (and presumably Pinker, and Harris) take the view that this is clearly a criminal practice, and that culture should not be used as an excuse. It’s a view backed up by most of the nations in which it occurs, who have instituted laws against it, and in 2012 the UN General Assembly unanimously voted to take all necessary steps to end it, but these national and international good intentions face a long, uphill battle. However, if you look at some of the first descriptions of this practice, by outsiders such as Strabo or Philo of Alexandria, both writing in the time of Christ, you won’t find any censoriousness, nor would you expect to. It was well accepted in the Graeco-Roman world that customs varied widely, and that many foreign customs were weird, wild and wonderful. It’s likely that observers from the dominant culture felt morally superior, as is always the case, but there was no attempt to suppress other cultural practices – any more than there was only 200 hundred years ago, in Australia, with respect to the native inhabitants. The ‘mother country’ sent out clear and regular messages at the time about treating the natives with respect, and non-interference with their cultural practices (though it would no doubt have considered them barbaric and savage as a matter of course). It’s really only in recent times that, as a result of our growing confidence in a universal approach to morality or ‘well-being’, we (the dominant culture) have spoken out against what we now unabashedly call female genital mutilation, as well as other practices such as purdah and witch-hunting.

From all this, you might guess that I’m ambivalent about Harris’s confident approach to moral value. Well, yes and no, he said ambivalently. I can’t tell you how mightily glad I am that I live in a part of the world in which purdah and infibulation aren’t prevalent. However, I can’t step outside of my space and time, and I don’t know what it would be like to live in a world where these practices were standard. And living in such a world doesn’t mean being being transported to it ‘suddenly’, it means being steeped in its values. After all, my own Anglo-Australian culture was one that, less than 200 years ago, transported homeless boys, in danger of ‘going to the bad’, to Australia where they often ended up being worked to death on chain gangs, and this was considered perfectly normal. I would have considered it perfectly normal, for I’m not so arrogant as to imagine I could transcend the moral values of my culture as it was in the 1830s.

So, to return to the passage from The Moral Landscape quoted above. It isn’t a factual passage, it’s a description, with interpretive and speculative features. It describes, first the actions of ‘one person’, engaged in what seems to us an insane surgical procedure, then we’re asked to multiply this act by millions, and ‘suddenly’ consider it culture. But this strikes me as a deliberately manipulative putting of the cart before the horse. The real motive seems to be to ask us to dismiss culture altogether. After all, any human product that can be called into being ‘suddenly’, and which ‘magically’ blights our moral understanding of the world cannot surely be taken seriously.  Harris, as I recall, used similar arguments against religion, perhaps in The End of Faith (which I haven’t read), but certainly in some of his talks on the subject. A practice or belief which we might lock someone up for, ‘suddenly’ becomes acceptable when engaged in by millions and called ‘religion’.

This strikes me as a glib and naive argument, which could only appeal to historically uninformed (or indifferent) ‘rationalists’. Cultural and religious beliefs and practices, weird, wild, wonderful and occasionally horrifying though they might be, are far too widespread, and too deeply woven into the identity of individuals and social groups, to be set aside in this way.

This is a very very complex issue, one that, dare I say, middle-class intellectuals like Harris and Pinker tend to skate over, even with a degree of contempt.  For myself, I deal with these cultural issues with a mixture of fear –  ‘don’t provoke the culturally wounded, they’ll just get angry and dangerous’ – and concern  – ‘if you take away these people’s cultural/religious identity, how will they cope?’. Perhaps I’m being arrogant about the power of western secular values, but it seems to me that much of the world’s turmoil comes from resentment at old cultural and religious certainties being undermined.

So I believe in cultural sensitivity, for strategic purposes but also because we are all culturally embedded, no matter how scientifically enlightened we claim to be. However, I don’t think all cultures are, or all culture is, equally valuable or equally healthy. How I measure that, though, is a big question since I can’t step outside of my own culture. Perhaps therein lies the difficulty about getting all ‘scientific’ about morality. Science itself is hardly culture-free – a dangerous point to make in some circles.

So I don’t think I’ve gotten much further as to where morality comes from. To say that it comes from culture requires a thorough definition and understanding of that concept, otherwise we’re just deferring any real explanation, but clearly that is the way to go.  But I prefer to look at this connection with culture, and with other more fundamental aspects of our social nature, from a  humanist perspective. Western secular humanism tends to wear its culture lightly, and to value skepticism, reflection and analysis as – possibly cultural – tools for dismantling or at least loosening the overly heavy and oppressive armour that cultural beliefs and practices can become.

Written by stewart henderson

January 4, 2014 at 12:09 am

how has our Christian society changed in the last millenium?

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some Lollards hanging about

some Lollards hanging about

I happen to be reading an enjoyable little book in the ‘brief history’ series, A brief history of life in the middle ages by Martyn Whittock. His focus is England, and he covers a period from around the ninth century through to the fifteenth, but he provides enough interesting data from approximately a millennium ago and onwards to make the above question worth pursuing – with a bit more research too of course.

Australia is generally regarded as a Christian country, but Christianity sure ain’t what it used to be. Generally when talking about the decline of Christianity, pundits refer to the past few decades, but it’s worth taking a much longer view to see just how Christianity is faring compared to what it once was. It’s also convenient that Christianity is around 2000 years old – so going back a thousand years takes us to half its life-span up to now. We don’t know how much longer it will live, but I’m more interested in its ‘quality of life’ compared to what it once was. Is it in a near-vegetative state, or is it still thriving?

Obviously we can’t look at Christianity in Australia 1000 years ago, so England seems the obvious choice as the nation that brought Christianity to this country, so very recently.

Eleventh century England was thoroughly Christian, chockful of powerful bishops and clerics. The Norman conquest had little effect on Christianity generally except that the sees of bishops tended to be relocated to the commercial centres along continental lines, and the continental style of church architecture replaced the Anglo-Saxon, resulting in the loss of virtually all the great Anglo-Saxon churches. Edward the Confessor had already signalled this change before the Norman invasion with his reconstruction of Westminster, but of course after William I’s accession this rebuilding process was a deliberate sign of the new order – an erasing of Anglo-Saxon taste, style, and political influence rather than its version of Christianity.

The Church, undivided as it was then, played a vastly greater role in eleventh century society than it does today. The Church hierarchy, with its higher levels of literacy, played a significant, indeed dominant, role in civil administration, and of course the Church was a major landowner, charged with all the minutiae of running large estates, so that you could be a senior Church official without being in any way engaged in what we see as the domain of Christian workers today – sermons, spirituality and charitable works. The Church was in fact an international administrative network dominated by Rome, and administering estates for two masters in a sense – the ‘local’ royalty or nobility, and the pope. Chancery was run more or less entirely by Church officials until major changes occurred in the early fifteenth century.

It’s probably fair to say that atheism wasn’t even a concept in eleventh century England or Europe. Godlessness might’ve been a term of abuse for those who weren’t sufficiently orthodox, but essentially everyone was Christian, to a degree unthinkable today. One quite small but economically successful religious minority existed, namely the Jews, expelled from England in 1290, and increasingly harassed and oppressed from the mid-twelfth century onwards. The whole nation was divided into parishes, each overseen by a diocesan bishop, over-ruled by two archdioceses, Canterbury, which had seniority, and York. It was expected that everyone in the parish attend mass on Sundays, and on various festival days. A yearly procession called Rogationtide served to remind everyone of the boundaries of their particular parish.

All parishioners paid a tithe of their income to the church. A tithe is literally a tenth, though the amount no doubt varied. The practice originated with Judaism, and has been followed in a variety of ways by Christianity and Islam, as well as in secular terms, though this was caught up in the confusion of medieval views of Church and State, with the monarchy being seen as a quasi-religious inheritance.

In the wealthiest parishes tithes were held in tithe barns, for all to see, but of course there was always tension about this form of taxation, especially if the churches or monasteries and their abbots were displaying conspicuous wealth, as a good part of the tithes were expected to support the needy of the parish.

Of course, as among the religious today, the Church presided over all the Main Events – baptism (for babies), confirmation (for toddlers) and penance (for all the rest), as well as the Eucharist (regularly), marriage, ordination (for many, but only performed by bishops) and extreme unction (for everyone in the end). However it would be wrong to assume that religious belief was uniform, either in thought or practice. It was always changing, over time, and according to many and varied regional influences. Early medieval Christianity interacted with local folk practices, and various trends and fashions had a general impact, such as the rise of the mendicant friar movement, as a response to the perceived or actual corruption of the fixed monastic orders. This movement, largely intended as a return to the simple peripatetic teachings of Jesus, in turn suffered from its own popularity, and eventually became associated with a new form of parasitism. Another major impact on religious thinking in the later medieval period was plague, and the devastation it brought, which led to a darker and more personal relation to the deity among many. Chantry chapels for the burial of the dead were built, with special clergy to deal with the overload, since priests were only allowed by law to say one mass a day.

The concept of the ‘clergy’ in medieval Britain was necessarily vague – to the advantage of offenders against the law. In the 13th and 14th centuries any schoolboy (only boys of course) who achieved some literacy could be given the tonsure, the clerical cut, and wrong-doers could claim ‘benefit of clergy’ if they were literate, the test for which was to recite psalm 51:1 in Latin – ‘ Have mercy on me, Oh God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions.’  The verse became known as ‘the neck verse’ presumably because it saved your neck, canon law penalties being much lighter than secular ones. A reaction against this avoidance of proper justice led to the benefit of clergy provision being restricted to minor crimes by the end of the 16th century (when England had broken with Rome). Of course, this controversial relationship between canon and secular law is still a problem today, with the Catholic Church still unable to accept the paramountcy of secular law.

Orthodoxy and its maintenance was a problem, as ever, what with Dominicans (blackfriars), Franciscans (friars minor, or greyfriars), Cistercians, Carmelites (whitefriars), and other assorted monks, nuns, canons, priors, churchwardens etc roaming the land or administering estates and distributing finances (at least 20% of all land was owned by the Church in the late middle ages), not to mention anchorites and mystical eccentrics such as Margery Kempe keeping the pot stirred. The Peasants Revolt of 1381 and the Lollard movement, both led by religious figures and both savagely repressed, gave an indication of the tenuous hold of religious authority in times of stress, but again these movements never threatened Christianity and were aimed at reinforcing it through renovation.

And then came the great church schism that fueled the genocidal treatment of the Catholic Irish, not to mention the Thirty Years War in middle-Europe and the English civil war…

As a lover of history I could go on and on, but the essential point is clear. We’ve never lived in a more secular age, nowhere near it. We can easily live our lives without interference from Christianity, to a degree that was impossible even 200 years ago let alone 1000. A situation which certainly gives added perspective to such recent apologist texts as The Twilight of Atheism.

Here in Australia, voted the happiest country in the world for the 3rd year in a row by the Paris-based OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), the rise of the nones is as spectacularly speedy as it is anywhere else. And it seems to me there are great historical reasons for embracing secularism. The current approach of the Catholic Church with respect to canon law and the behaviour of its clergy is an example, but one just has to look at those states where the churches, mosques, synagogues etc have political power, and compare them to those where religion plays little or no political role. Compare also the Europe and England of today with the pre-Enlightenment versions, when the official language was God-saturated but when the kind of justice we now take for granted was in very short supply. It’s taken a long time, and the situation continues patchy, but Aristotelian empiricism, so far as ethics is concerned, is winning out.

There’s no turning back. It seems to me that, as far as Christianity is concerned, it’s the long, long fade-out.

Written by stewart henderson

December 2, 2013 at 5:02 pm